The value judgments of scientific acceptance rules

From “A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities”, Roy Sorensen:

When I joined the philosophy department at Washington University in St Louis, I was pleased to see a room with the plaque:
Rudner Memorial Lounge:
In memory of RICHARD RUDNER distinguished philosopher, colleague, and friend.

However, when I asked about Rudner, no one could remember him.

In the ‘The Scientist Qua Scientist Makes Value Judgments’ Rudner noted that scientists have acceptance rules: believe the hypothesis if and only if it has a probability above a threshold, say 0.95 or perhaps 0.99. The threshold for belief varies in accordance with how bad an error would be. That is a value judgement.

The stakes are sometimes of existential proportion. When developing nuclear energy, some physicists worried that there was a slight chance of a runaway chain reaction. Each split atom splits a neighbour atom until no atoms remain to be split. The physicists calculated that the scenario had a probability of less than four in a billion. They felt that was low enough to dismiss the possibility. Maybe they were right. But that is a value judgement.

How probable must Rudner’s thesis be for scientists to accept it? Well, how bad would it be to be mistaken about whether value judgements are a core responsibility of scientists? Or to forget Richard Rudner and his thesis?



Poetry is Beauty’s Voice

I had a copy of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever You Go, There You Are” for a long time… before mindfulness was as trendy as it is now. Recently I opened it again and was struck the meditation highlighted here. Watts and Hillman are not familiar to me. This post resonated with me with its discussion of the non-correspondence of language with absolute reality, and the poetry of living:

“I think we’ve spent so much of history arguing over the critique of good written poetic form, high art that carries us on the lofty tailwinds of meaning, that we’ve lost our ability to see poetry in its seed form and the many ways we live it daily. We’ve in some ways deeroticized it, made it too narrow, made people think it doesn’t apply to them. If we could recover this sense of poetries of living, it might help more people appreciate the high poetic craft again, as but one expression of the seed poem’s transfigurative power”

Signs of Life

“Words and measures do not give life; they merely symbolize it” (Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity 48).

For any kind of beauty there is, there is a form of poetry to give it voice.  We think of poetry often as involving meter, verse, stanza, rhyme, prosody–pricking the senses through artfully arranged language. However, I’ve experienced, and I know others have too, poetry that transcends or seems to happen prior to language, and, while the purist poets may object, that’s the topic of this blog.

Jon Kabat-Zinn gives a great example in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are of such language-less poetry when he writes of geese flying overhead:

“As I pull into the parking lot of the hospital, several hundred geese pass overhead…. Hundreds are in V’s, but many are in more complex arrangements. Everything is in motion.  Their lines dip and ascend with grace and harmony…

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Ireland’s science Nobel Prize winners and Faith

Ireland has only two Nobel Laureates in Science – Ernest Walton and William C Campbell. I am working on a longer post on my perception that there was much more coverage of Walton than Campbell in the Irish media. That is leading me down various interesting byways on Irish science journalism and (as I will post shortly) a rather sad discovery.

For the moment back to Ireland’s science Nobel winners. Both are linked by Trinity College Dublin, and – in different ways – religious faith.

From the Wikipedia bio of Walton:

Raised as a Methodist, Walton has been described as someone who was strongly committed to the Christian faith.[7] He even gave lectures about the relationship of science and religion in several countries after he won the Nobel Prize,[8] and he encouraged the progress of science as a way to know more about God:

“One way to learn the mind of the Creator is to study His creation. We must pay God the compliment of studying His work of art and this should apply to all realms of human thought. A refusal to use our intelligence honestly is an act of contempt for Him who gave us that intelligence”

— V. J. McBrierty (2003): Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, The Irish Scientist, 1903-1995, Trinity College Dublin Press.)[9]

from an Irish Times interview with Campbell:

“I believe in God. I pray every single night of my life, but I have a very complicated sense of religion, and I am pretty fuzzy in that segment of my life.

“My faith, and that of millions of others, has evolved, if that is the right word, as civilisation has evolved. Evolved but not been abandoned. Religion and science can coexist. At least, that had better be true. There are certain intangibles.

“I know about these militant atheists, and I think they make very good arguments, but there is a certain level at which argumentation doesn’t come into it. Believing in something that you know exists isn’t a matter of faith; it doesn’t require faith.

“Gabriel Rossetti, the English poet, felt sorry for atheists because they didn’t have anybody to feel grateful to. That always stuck with me, because we have so much to be grateful for. I believe, and I believe in prayer.

One shouldn’t make too much of this, perhaps, but it is interesting. On the sister

“Biography is a thoroughly reprehensible genre”

Only a few days after I made a rather grumpy comment on the quality of the Spectator now, comes this piece by Roger Lewis on the dodginess of biography.

Lewis captures an awful lot of things I dislike about biographies – the all-too-easy judgments, the reductionist explanations, the pseudo God’s-eye-view, the air of the laziest aspects of “quality” journalism being dominant. The Spectator has a limit of free articles per week so here are some highlights:

Indeed, it is a reprehensible and misguided genre. Privacy is violated, creative achievements are explained away, and great men and women are unmasked as sneaky, predatory, cruel and ordinary. Humphrey Carpenter wrote all his biographies — of Auden, Britten and Ezra Pound — in this way.

The exhaustive and exhausting biographies of Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Anthony Powell nearly killed those authors stone dead for me, as each and every girlfriend and sexual conquest was connected to an incident in a novel or a line in a poem. Ever since learning that V.S. Naipaul was a bully I’ve not ventured near his books.

More than the deluge of personal detail, however, the chief problem with biography is that the fundamental precepts are wrong, the principles too rigid. For the idea always seems to be that by gathering and establishing facts, cataloguing testimonies and anecdotes, each life can be made a perfect whole — that the objective biographer will see to it that there has been a plan or pattern, and dignity is conferred.

This is a futile quest, but one biographers insist on anyway:

Few biographers have had the ability or wit to perceive and describe the Cubist jaggedness of a life. Accident, chance, reversals of fortune, betrayals, sudden eruptions, dreams and areas of darkness; the shifting layers of identity, the friction between public and private selves (which character will a person choose to play?): little of this rough texture is ever evoked. Biographers conduct the background research, but few write it up with any verve.

Another insight of Lewis’ is the sheer futility of much biographical labour. An awful lot of the seemingly important figures of today will be in intellectual oblivion in due course:


tlas himself once laboured at a book about Delmore Schwartz, who’d inspired Bellow’s character Von Humboldt Fleisher. ‘No one outside the literary world had ever heard of him,’ says Atlas ruefully, save Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, who paid for the upkeep of Schwartz’s grave, having once been his pupil at Syracuse.

When Atlas says, ‘I learned that biography is about death,’ he doesn’t only mean that Schwartz died of drink in 1966, aged only 52, or that Bellow croaked in 2005, aged nearly 90. He means that the world his subjects inhabited has vanished. The figures Atlas interviewed, the ‘fierce, irascible, antagonistic’ intellectuals of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s — Philip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, Maurice Zolotov, Dwight Macdonald, R.P. Blackmur, Glenway Wescott — the self-important and humourless fellows who once adorned fuggy Greenwich Village parties, whose book reviews mattered so much and who were in charge of dispensing grants and prizes, have quite entered oblivion, leaving not even footnotes behind

Of that catalogue of “fierce, irascible, antagonistic” intellectuals, I have definitely heard of Dwight Macdonald (not that I could tell you much about him), I have dimly heard of Philip Rahv (I could tell you nothing of him apart from the name), and the others are blanks for me. But what wonderful mid-twentieth century names – Glenway Wescott! R P Blakmur! Maurice Zolotov!

“The silent are never at home in our culture again”

“The silent are never at home in our culture again”


Adam DeVille has a fascinating pair of posts (one here, one here) on Maggie RossSilence: A User’s Guide. Both posts are worth reading in full (and I must now read Ross’ book itself!)

In part 1 of these posts, deVille discusses his own dislike of the term “spirituality”:

This builds on a longstanding dislike I have had of the whole notion of “spirituality.” I remember very clearly in the early 1990s, as I moved from studying psychology to theology, taking my first undergraduate course in “spirituality” taught by a man who was bouncing across the stage with excitement that, at long last, “spirituality” was emerging as its own academic discipline, with new journals being founded every other week to prove its bona fides. The eagerness with which he raced to embrace all the trappings of middle-class North American academic respectability were then distasteful to me and have become all the more so over the passing years. I rapidly became deeply suspicious–before I had the language to express it–that “spirituality” was yet another triumph of the process of commodification that Western capitalism does with such seductive ease.


In part 2, deVille draws further on Ross’ bracing approach to many oft-abused concepts:

One of the biggest misunderstandings–as I have long thought myself–comes down to the primacy people give to the notion of “experience,” which Ross says is “perhaps the most significant of the frequently misused words in this list.” Experience, Ross says, is solipsistic in today’s usage, running totally contrary to “ancient, patristic, and medieval” wariness of the term; it invites narcissism and notions of control.

Faith is another misused word–and here Ross agrees very much with Fr. Paul Tarazi, as his interview on here last week showed–because it refers, wrongly, to a set of abstract doctrines rather than the practice of trust.

: All these terms “have become useless and misleading” and function to justify “weirdness,” “exoticism,” “voyeurism (a kind of spiritual pornography” (90). See below for more on the problems with “mysticism.”

Spiritual Direction: I was moving from studying psychology to theology in the late 1990s when all of a sudden it seemed (as I noted in part I) that the study of something called “spirituality” exploded in revolting fashion, and along with it, very predictably, came the attempts to make money off that by people setting themselves up as “spiritual directors” everywhere, offering expensive courses in how you, too, could become a director, or at least benefit from on-going direction. A couple of these people to whom I spoke, including one woman in charge of just such a brand-new centre for spiritual direction and formation, were so dim and tedious, so incurious and uninformed about everything, that I felt myself falling rapidly into a coma after about two sentences.

But what these newly minted “spiritual directors” lacked in intellectual substance was more than made up for by the aggressively preening self-importance of their tone. All this is to say I greatly cheered Ross’s denunciation of “spiritual direction, so-called” as having “little to no relationship to the desert practice of manifestation of thoughts. It evolved as a form of mind control.” As she continues, “modern so-called spiritual direction is counter-productive and a distraction: it tends to make the ‘directee’ become increasingly preoccupied with his or her self-construct and imagined ‘spiritual life’ instead of moving towards self-forgetfulness in beholding the divine other.”


There is a wider cultural context to this:

One of the points Ross makes clear here, and elsewhere in the book, is that most of us have lost the capacity for observing how our minds work. Indeed, as Christopher Bollas (inter alia) has also recently noted, we live in a time that scorns the idea of thinking about our minds and the unconscious influences on them. But this loss, this refusal, this scorn, makes us incapable of enduring silence and so living in the wellsprings of the deep mind. Without this, we are bereft of what we need for any serious transfiguration in our life. (In this regard I would say that Ross’s critique echoes those who suggest our reliance on overly hasty “cures” approved by modern “therapists” and pharmaceutical companies, and especially the insurance companies who pay the bills of both, are, as I suggested here, far less effective than the slower work of often silently lying on the couch of unknowing.)

It is that lack of control over “unknowing” that makes silence so suspect. Much of this and later chapters in her book are spent by Ross discussing problems with the many translations of the famous work The Cloud of Unknowing, almost all versions of which use the word “experience and other anachronisms” the effect of which is to “have obscured behold, so that it rarely appears.” Beholding something, as she is at pains to show at length, is different from thinking we “experience” (and thus presumably, at least partially, control) it. It is the Gallacher edition of the Cloud (linked above and at left) that she says almost alone avoids this problem.


Previously I posted a link to an interview with the media theorist Marie Thompson which made reference to “the conservative politics of silence”. From a rather different perspective, Ross and DeVille share this concern:

For those worried about the “political” implications of all this, Ross is clear in several places that emergence into silence does not give rise to a crabbed “me and my cell and the rest of you go to hell” Christianity. Rather, she says the ethics and politics of silence are “green” in caring for creation. Silence, she says, makes one simultaneously more liberal and more conservative: liberal in wanting to share the riches with everyone, and conservative in wanting to hang onto the experience of silence and protect it via a sort of “custody of the ears.” Those who are immersed in silence come quickly to have a pronounced intolerance for reading about violence, for going to loud parties and pointless meetings, etc.

For me, “simultaneously more liberal and more conservative” captures something not just about our encounter with silence, or with Christ, or indeed with many other phenomena (secular as well as religious), onto which we tend to try and shoehorn our own political preferences and biases.


Finally, deVille captures the tranfigurative power of silence, and its counter-cultural nature:

Finally, those who live in silence find there a refuge but not an escape. The silent are never at home in our culture again, but are able nonetheless to live because the richness of silence enables a life-sustaining transfiguration, which this book, Silence: A User’s Guide, itself goes some very considerable distance to advancing in surprising and welcome ways.

“the enemy of creativity in the world today is that so much thinking is done for you” = J G Ballard on Creativity

A while back I reposted an essay I wrote on (which is now offline) in which featured a quote from J G Ballard:

“Cyril Connolly said that the greatest enemy of creativity is the pram in the hall, but I think he was completely wrong. It was the enemy of a certain kind of dilettante life that he aspired to, the man of letters, but for the real novelist the pram in the hall is the greatest ally – it brings you up sharp and you realise what reality is all about.”

In the essay I cited as the source my paperback edition of Ballard’s Kingdom Come, but in fact Ballard’s thoughts on creativity were originally in The Observer of September 22nd 2002. Here is the essay in full:

I think the enemy of creativity in the world today is that so much thinking is done for you. The environment is so full of television, party political broadcasts and advertising campaigns, you hardly need to do anything. We’re just drowning under manufactured fiction, which satisfies our need for fiction – you scarcely need to go and read a novel.

Cyril Connolly, the 50s critic and writer, said that the greatest enemy of creativity is the pram in the hall, but I think that was completely wrong. It was the enemy of a certain kind of dilettante life that he aspired to, the man of letters, but for the real novelist the pram in the hall is the greatest ally – it brings you up sharp and you realise what reality is all about. My children were a huge inspiration for me. Watching three young minds creating their separate worlds was a very enriching experience.

For most of my working life as a professional, which began over 40 years ago, what kick-started the day was a large scotch and soda. After my wife died, I was bringing up my children on my own much of the time: getting them up and to school and finding their satchels, all that sort of thing, and I needed a sort of change of climate. I used to find that a couple of large scotches did the trick – it created a different microclimate inside my head.

I find the imaginative pressure has always been strong, thank god. I’ve always felt that I had this message I had to bring the reader – a deluded notion, I’m sure, but it’s kept me going. I’ve also always been a very disciplined writer, because that’s the only way you ever get anything done. Usually when I’m writing a novel I set myself 1,000 words a day, and I stick to it religiously. I sometimes stop in the middle of a sentence, which isn’t a bad idea, as the next day it’s very easy to get back into it.

As for learning to be creative, I think there’s a lot of basic-level storytelling skills that you need to be born with. I wrote from a pretty early age, eight or nine, and I’ve always had a very vivid imagination. If you’ve got a strong imagination it’s there all the time, it’s working away. You’re kind of remaking the world as you walk down a street, sort of reinventing it. I have a walk every day and a good think about things. I sometimes think maybe this town is a complete conspiracy, or maybe it’s a very advanced kind of psychological experiment – all these ideas occur to me and every now and again I think: ‘Hey, that’s not bad. That’s worth pursuing.’