Archived Posts November 2005 - Page 4 of 8 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jballor
Friday, November 18, 2005
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To expand the “scientist” as “priest” metaphor a bit, you may find it interesting to read what Herman Bavinck has to say on the fundamental place of “faith” with respect to all kinds of knowledge, including not only religious but also scientific:

Believing in general is a very common way in which people gain knowledge and certainty. In all areas of life we start by believing. Our natural inclination is to believe. It is only acquired knowledge and experience that teach us skepticism. Faith is the foundation of society and the basis of science. Ultimately all certainty is rooted in faith.

A little later he writes:

Clement of Alexandria in many places uses πιστις to denote all immediate knowledge and certainty and then says that there is no science without belief, that the first principles, including, for example, the existence of God, are believed, not proven. Especially Augustine highlighted the significance of belief for society and science. Those who do not believe, he says, never arrive at knowledge: “Unless you have believed you will not understand.” Belief is the foundation and bond uniting the whole of human society.

The point essentially is that all of us, scientist, pastor, gardener, or surfer, have presuppositions, first principles or principia that are by definition that “on which all proofs ultimately rest, [and] are not themselves susceptible of being proven: they are certain only by and to faith. Proofs, therefore, are compelling only to those who agree with us in accepting those principles. ‘There is no point in arguing against a person who rejects the first principles’ (Contra principia negantem non est disputandum).”

This final Latin phrase that Bavinck quotes, incidentally, is often traced back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, but also appears in a form in the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas: quod inferiores scientiae nec probant sua principia, nec contra negantem principia disputant, or “the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them” (ST 1.1.8).

As a brief aside, there is no relationship between the Greek word for faith (πιστις, or pistis) and epistemology as a “theory of knowledge,” which instead comes from Greek words meaning “to stand over.”

Blog author: jballor
Friday, November 18, 2005
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Let me quickly respond to this week’s Acton Commentary:

While I agree in broad strokes with Dr. Larrivee’s analysis of the questionable assumptions of the fair trade movement, with respect to coffee in particular, I don’t agree that the problem is “low productivity in the countries in which farmers live.” I have previously argued that the source of the issue is in fact too much coffee, so that the market is saturated and cannot sustain high prices given the declining worldwide demand.

Dr. Larrivee later rightly observes that the fair trade system contributes to a situation which “would expand the supply until the price farmers receive dropped back to the subsistence level.” I think, in fact, this has already happened in the case of coffee, and the fair trade movement simply exacerbates the problem.

You can read more about my take on the situation here.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, November 18, 2005
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Among the ways the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) is going about attempting to raise public awareness of hunger issues is the use of “celebrity” athelete spokesmen. Paul Tergat, who won this year’s New York City Marathon, was a recipient of WFP aid when he was growing up in Kenya. Listen to a Morning Edition story on Tergat and the WFP here. Tergat is specifially the pitchman for the WFP’s Race Against Hunger project, targeted at about 300 million schoolchildren globally.

This, of course, is just one of the various WFP publicity efforts, which also include the production of a free downloadable video game, “Food Force.” A review of WFP’s “Food Force” is available here.

Of course, the UN isn’t the only game in town. Feed The Children is an international, nonprofit, Christian aid group “that delivers food, medicine, clothing and other necessities to individuals, children and families who lack these essentials due to famine, war, poverty or natural disaster.” A key part of Feed The Children’s effort is the push for sustainability: “A key goal is to help needy families move past needing help and into becoming self-sufficient members of their community. Through long-term, self-help development programs funded by grants and by our Child Sponsorship partners, tens of thousands of families in countries around the world have increased their ability to be self-sufficient by learning and applying new, marketable skills.”

Blog author: jspalink
Thursday, November 17, 2005
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Dante seems upset about being reduced to a text message.

A British mobile phone company has hired a professor of literature to write up short quotations from various masterpieces. The goal is to help make “great literature more accessible” by offering short, truncated, text messages to students via cell phones. A Reuters story quoted the company:

“We are confident that our version of ‘text’ books will genuinely help thousands of students remember key plots and quotes, and raise up educational standards rather than decrease levels of literacy,” the company, Dot Mobile, said in a press release.

Call me old-fashioned, but last time I checked, the point of studying literature was not to memorize certain key quotations, or even plot lines. That is coincidental. The point of studying literature, and especially the classics, is to learn the mastery of language, to understand linguistic intent, and to appreciate poetry and prose. To tout a product that truncates and reduces literature to a few short lines cut up and abbreviated, and to call this a method of raising “educational standards” and increasing “literacy” is quite disappointing.

Imagine studying Dante’s Inferno, and having it summarized by a few text messages. “Dante lost N wOd” => “Dante+Virgil go N heL” => “D+V paS thrU heL.” There you go students – there’s the Inferno! Basic plot (minus every line of allegory, poetry, and metaphor).

While I do see the value of short and succinct mnemonic devices to help a student remember a plot or quotation for a test, literature really does exist so that we may read it, especially the masterpieces.

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

Sir Francis Bacon
English author, courtier, & philosopher (1561 – 1626)

Blog author: abradley
Thursday, November 17, 2005
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At the the UN net summit in Tunis, MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte has showcased his hundred dollar computer. The small, durable, lime colored, rubber-encased laptop is powered by a handcrank, and is designed to make technology more accessible to poor children in countries around the world.

If I may speak of ‘trickle-down’ technology, this is the perfect example. This announcement–an announcement of a tool to help poor countries–may not be the best time to note the virtues of richer ones; and I am not trying to steal the UN’s thunder. But there will be those who, like the BBC, will hail this as a great opportunity to narrow “the technology gap between rich and poor.” Indeed it will. But I would like to note that without this gap–one created by the entrepreneurial minds that invented laptop technology to begin with–there would be no laptops for impoverished children. A necessary precurser to this act of charity (in the traditional sense of self-giving love) is the development of the product. And this development takes place best in the free society.

Here at Acton, it is commonly noted that “you have to create wealth before you can distribute it.” The same goes with the creation of our technology, a particular type of wealth. In order to develop those tools which help us all better combat poverty, disease, and other physical ills, we must have the freedom to enact our creative initiative to create those tools. This means entrepreneurship. Which often means capital. Which commonly means people in suits with briefcases that sometimes vote Republican. But by the time we get to this point, many people are crying “oppression!” as if businessman and tyrant meant the same thing.

The point it this: narrowing the technology gap does not mean bringing society back to some default position. We don’t all go back to the equality of zero. Some have the good fortune or the grace to find themselves with particular tools or means. In freedom, some of these people cultivate these gifts, creating something to make other people’s lives better. The space of time where some have this product and other do not–this is not ipso facto a time of injustice (although injustice can come about in these circumstances). It is as often a time where the good work of entrepreneurs is trickling down to touch everyone. And do not be put off by the phrase “trickle down” as if it implies the inherent superiority of the entrepreneurs; it doesn’t. What trickles down is often that which raises men up. Perhaps we can call it grace.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, November 17, 2005
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Thomas Lessl, Associate Professor in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Georgia, talks about the “priestly voice” of science. He argues that “scientific culture has responded to the pressures of patronage by trying to construct a priestly ethos — by suggesting that it is the singular mediator of knowledge, or at least of whatever knowledge has real value, and should therefore enjoy a commensurate authority. If it could get the public to believe this, its power would vastly increase.”

Lessl makes an important point about the effect of this on popular perceptions of science: “The priestly character of scientific rhetoric has to do with the need to identify science with the most essential human values by making it a world view — by creating a public culture based in scientism. The best known example of this approach to scientific communication in recent memory would be that taken by Carl Sagan. Perhaps more successfully than any other popular writer of the last century, except perhaps H. G. Wells, Sagan was able create the sense that history has a scientific destiny.”

Read the rest of the interview with Dr. Lessl here.

Blog author: jspalink
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
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Economist John Larrivee looks at the logic underlying the fair trade coffee movement and applies it to beer and baked goods. It doesn’t quite make sense. Larrivee points out that “the question is not the difference between what different parties to the production get paid, but rather who adds value, how much, and where.”

Read the full commentary here.