Sunday, July 24, 2005

A Flawed Analysis of a Flawed Debate

Frederick Turner takes both sides of the evolution debate to task in Darwin and Design: The Evolution of a Flawed Debate:

Does the theory of evolution make God unnecessary to the very existence of the world? If there is no God, what authority, if any, guarantees the moral law of humankind? These questions are crucial in the current controversies that are dividing the nation. For just as our laws must be not for religious believers alone, they must also be not for unbelievers alone either. Here, though, I would like to deal not with the answers, which would require a much larger work than a brief essay, but with some aspects of the controversy over evolution itself.

The battle between the evolutionists and the creationists is a peculiarly tragic one, because it is amplifying the worst tendencies of both sides, and making it more and more difficult for most people to find a resolution.

On the polemical creationist side, the sin is intellectual dishonesty. It begins innocently as a wise recognition that faith must precede reason, even if the faith is only in reason itself (as Gödel showed, reason cannot prove its own validity). But under pressure from a contemptuous academic elite the appeal to faith rapidly becomes anti-intellectualism and what Socrates identified as a great sin, "misologic" or treason against the Logos, against reason itself -- in religious terms, a sin against the Holy Spirit. Under further pressure it resorts to rhetorical dishonesty and hypocrisy, to an attempt to appropriate the garments of science and reason, and so we get "creation science", the misuse of the term "intelligent design", the whole grotesque solemn sham of pseudoscientific periodicals and conferences on creation science, and a lame parade of scientific titles and degrees. A lie repeated often enough convinces the liar, and many creationists may now have forgotten that they are lying at all.

So far I am in agreement. It is when Turner takes on the sins of the evolutionists that he shows the flaws of his own analysis:

The polemical evolutionists are right about the truth of evolution. But the rightness of their cause has been deeply compromised by their own version of the creationists' sin. The evolutionists' sin, as I see it, is even greater, because it is three sins rolled into one.

The first is a profound failure of the imagination, which comes from a certain laziness and complacency. Somehow people, who should, because of their studies in biology, have been brought to a state of profound wonder and awe at the astonishing beauty and intricacy and generosity of nature, can think of nothing better to say than to gloomily pronounce it all meaningless and valueless. Even if one is an atheist, nature surely has a meaning, that is, an abstract and volitional and mental implication: the human world and its ideas and arts and loves, including our appreciation for the beauty of nature itself.

Here I believe that Turner commits the sin of presumption. Is he saying that since evolution requires no purposeful intent or direction, no teleology, that evolutionists themselves are incapable of assigning their own values to nature and existence? As he states in the last sentence of the paragraph, values and meaning as attached to nature are volitional and mentally ascribed. It would be nice if Turner gave an example of an evolutionist who makes such gloomy pronouncements, but given that there is a biologist who has stated that evolution evinces no intrinsic meaning or direction, such is not a statement by him that he or other people cannot find their own extrinsic meaning or sense of wonder in the workings of nature.

The second sin is a profound moral failure -- the failure of gratitude. If one found out that one had a billion dollars free and clear in one's bank account, whose source was unknown, one should want to find out who put it there, or if the donor were not a person but a thing or a system, what it was that has so benefited us. And one would want to thank whoever or whatever put it in our account. Our lives and experiences are surely worth more than a billion dollars to us, and yet we did not earn them and we owe it to someone or something to give thanks. And to despise and ridicule those who rightly or wrongly do want to give thanks and identify their benefactor as "God" is to compound the sin.

This is presumption in overdrive. Does Turner have some form of x-ray vision that allows him to peer into the minds and hearts of evolutionists and see this sense of ingratitude at work? On what does he base this judgement? Again, it would be nice if Turner could point to an example of some evolutionist who has made such a statement of ingratitude, but apparently Turner feels no need to prove his case, as he sees it as an implicit quality of evolutionists who see no need to make a public display of gratitude in the same breath as they make their scientific pronouncements. Or is he making a blanket judgement of atheism here? Is it not possible for someone to feel gratitude for existence without knowing if there is a being to which one should direct that gratitude? As Turner states, the benefactor that made the deposit of money may not be a person, but an inamimate, thoughtless, purposeless, random computer program, but the sense of gratitude, or at least a feeling of being lucky and undeserving, is still possible. So who are these ungrateful evolutionists?

I think what gets Turner so ticked off is that some evolutionists commit the sin of separating their private spiritual feelings from their professional scientific pronouncements. Most scientists would consider that a good, prudent intellectual practice. Apparently Turner sees such unstated feelings as proof of their absence.

The third sin is again dishonesty. In many cases it is clear that the beautiful and hard-won theory of evolution, now proved beyond reasonable doubt, is being cynically used by some -- who do not much care about it as such -- to support an ulterior purpose: a program of atheist indoctrination, and an assault on the moral and spiritual goals of religion. A truth used for unworthy purposes is quite as bad as a lie used for ends believed to be worthy. If religion can be undermined in the hearts and minds of the people, then the only authority left will be the state, and, not coincidentally, the state's well-paid academic, legal, therapeutic and caring professions. If creationists cannot be trusted to give a fair hearing to evidence and logic because of their prior commitment to religious doctrine, some evolutionary partisans cannot be trusted because they would use a general social acceptance of the truth of evolution as a way to set in place a system of helpless moral license in the population and an intellectual elite to take care of them.

Tell me who these indoctrinaires are, and I will denounce them. Richard Dawkins fits this bill, and I have denounced him on other occasions for his bigoted anti-religious ravings. The TOE can neither confirm nor deny the existence of God, and any attempt to enlist it in either endeavor is intellectually dishonest.

Of course, Turner has no problem slandering athiests in the same breath that he accuses them of assaulting religion. In the last sentence he equates atheism with "a system of helpless moral license in the population and an intellectual elite to take care of them". This is not only a bigoted slur, it betrays Turner's stated objective to eliminate the extremist and intellectually dishonest elements from the evolution debate. It becomes clear that Turner's true agenda is to tip the evolution debate in favor of a religious agenda while defending its factual basis.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Libertarian Name Games

Arnold Kling attempts to coin a new word that he hopes will scare impressionable youngsters into Libertarianism. In Fight Socienics, he attempts to equate government actions that promote public benefits at the expense of individual benefits with a diabolical amalgam of Socialism and Eugenics:

We have a healthy inclination to reject government-imposed eugenics. We need to develop an equivalent inclination to reject government regulation and spending of all kinds.

In its recent Kelo decision (see Professor Bainbridge's essay), the U.S. Supreme Court gave its approval to what might be called "Socienics," in that it put the social benefit before individual rights. When the government of the city of New London claimed that it had a higher social purpose for Mrs. Kelo's property, the majority believed that the opinion of the government officials was beyond question. In effect, the Court ruled that "there is no definition of right beyond that."

Popularity of Eugenics

The idea that reproductive decisions are an individual right, rather than something that ought to be regulated by the state for the "social good," seems well entrenched in the West today. But it was not always thus.

The science writer Matt Ridley reminds us that eugenics was a popular intellectual fad a hundred years ago. It appealed very strongly to socialists, because it put the interest of the state ahead of the individual. In the United States, eugenics appealed to conservatives, who were concerned about demographic changes due to immigrants from the "wrong" countries. It appealed to liberals, because it promised to help achieve their goal of improving well-being in the society.

Ridley recounts that England very nearly passed a pro-eugenics law in 1913. Only principled libertarian opposition served to defeat it. Decades letter, the adoption of eugenics by the Nazis served to solidify its bad reputation, although as late as 1934 eugenicists in England were holding up Nazi sterilization policies as a positive role model.

Practicing Socienics

In a sense, government taking of land from Mrs. Kelo is little different from most other forms of government policy. Elected officials and/or bureaucrats decide that they know better than individuals what is good for them. Whether they take your property by levying taxes or limit your property rights by telling you that you cannot grow marijuana for medicinal purposes, the officials are doing the same thing. They are claiming to know the social good. And they are claiming that their interpretation of the social good is more important than your individual rights. They are practicing socienics.

We've become used to reprehensible moral equivalence comparisons from liberals such as Senator Dick Durbin with his comparison of the Gitmo detention camp with Nazi death camps, but this new scare tactic from Kling is a totally unwelcome and troubling outbreak of slander-mongering from an unexpected direction. Kling is not presenting an argument but an argument-killer by comparing "government regulation and spending of all kinds" with eugenics, a despicable form of madness that equated a person's worth with their genetic "fitness". This kind of blanket condemnation without distinction, the affixing of a one word epithet to any and all policies that don't pass libertarian muster recalls such outrageous political slander words as "homophobia", "xenophobia", the once meaningful but overused "racism" and "sexism", and of course the promiscuous overuse of "fascism" and "naziism".

Certainly the Kelo case is debatable as to whether it represents government overreach or a valid application of eminent domain, but even if you hold the former opinion it stretches any boundary of reason and decency to equate the latter with either socialism or eugenics. Everyone who enjoys the benefits of our interstate highway system has eminent domain to thank for the appropriation of thoroughfares by the condemnation of city neighborhoods. However you feel about the drug laws as they pertain to the use of medical marijuana, can you really compare restrictions on its growth or use by individuals with the execution or forced sterilization of racial underclasses?

And, in probably his most egregious lapse in ethical judgement, Kling would equate the pro-life movement with eugenics. Whether you think that a fetus is a person or not, you have to credit the pro-life movement with setting the most stringent standards for justifying the intentional destruction of individual human life, which is diametrically opposite to the spirit of eugenics.

I think more highly of libertarianism and my friends and aquaintances who are libertarian to give Kling much credibility as a libertarian thinker. Kling, by inventing a new slander word to paint all those who would differ from him on questions of community versus individual values as the equivalent of eugenicists, has invoked the "nuclear option" which makes all debate with him impossible. In the marketplace of ideas, it also spells an ultimately losing option.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Elevator music of the Gods

With the retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor from the Supreme Court, the Culture War will flash hotter once again as competing views of what constitutes the true meaning of Constitutional provisions such as the Establishment clause and the Free Exercise clause to the 1st Amendment, among others, will take center stage in the national conversation. Partisan lines will be drawn, and straw-man ad-hominems will be fired across the no-mans-land that divides us. Supporters of the status quo, those who favor a strong separation of Church and State, will be portrayed as atheists and relativists who are hostile to religion. Those who favor the repeal of certain rulings from the last 50 years that have restricted school prayer, the display of religious symbols on government property, and the explicit recognition of Christian or theistic themes by government officials will be portrayed as rabid theocrats bend on the establishment of a Taliban style totalitarian state.

As an atheist who supports a firm, though not absolute, separation of Church and State, but who is not hostile to religion but believes that the existing separation is a boon to religious freedom and religion overall, it was refreshing for me to read this article by William J. Stuntz that makes the case for separation from an explicitly religious point of view.

The Supreme Court has spoken, and then some: ten separate opinions in a pair of Ten Commandments cases, which seems nicely symmetrical. What all those opinions add up to, predictably, is a muddle. The Ten Commandments can stay on the Texas State Capitol grounds -- but not in Kentucky's courthouses. Moses hangs in the balance. So does baby Jesus: Come December, you can bet on a raft of manger scenes on courthouse lawns across the South and Midwest, in all the places Michael Moore likes to call "Jesusland" -- and a raft of lawsuits seeking to take them down.

I'm rooting for the lawsuits.

That's a little odd, since I'm part of the target audience, the constituency that is supposed to like these things. I live in Massachusetts (which Michael Moore likes to call "Canada"), but my natural sympathies belong to Jesusland. I'm a Christian. I believe the Bible is a true account of who God is and who we are. I believe the Ten Commandments lie at the core of wisdom. I believe the Incarnation, the event all those manger scenes celebrate is incomparably the best and most important event in human history. If it matters, I even voted for George W. Bush, twice. So if anyone should want the Ten Commandments in state capitols and "in God we trust" on the coins and manger scenes on courthouse lawns, I should.

But I don't want any of those things. I'd much rather give them back.

Here's a thought experiment. Test the decision to put that monument on the Texas capitol grounds against another Biblical principle: the Golden Rule, the idea C.S. Lewis liked to call "do as you would be done by." Take the people who want symbols of their faith on government property, and put them in a society where passionate atheism is the majority view. Suppose all those passionate atheists want to put up monuments in every courthouse and state capitol saying that there is no God, that all good law consists of human wisdom and nothing more. Would my fellow believers like that state of affairs? I don't think so. I know I wouldn't like it. It would make me feel, just a little, like a stranger in my own home, someone who doesn't belong. It would be a tiny reminder that other people with beliefs hostile to mine own this country, and that I'm here at their sufferance. I wouldn't like that at all.

If that's right, then turning around and doing the same thing to people who don't believe what I do when my crowd is in the majority is wrong. Not wrong by the measure of the First Amendment or some legal theory or secular philosophy, but wrong by the measure of "do as you would be done by."

That might be tolerable if the monuments and manger scenes satisfied some religious duty. If anything, though, duty cuts the other way. There is a passage in the book of Revelations that bears on this point. The risen Jesus is speaking of, and to, the church in Laodicea. He tells them: "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm -- neither hot nor cold -- I am about to spit you out of my mouth." Symbolic acknowledgments like the Texas monument and the Kentucky plaques, like religious mottoes on money or public manger scenes (usually accompanied by Santa and his reindeer), are quintessentially lukewarm. They do not so much honor God as try to buy him off, cheap. This was precisely the problem with most mandatory school prayers in the days when such things were allowed. The prayers were so vapid as to insult believers, yet still managed to offend non-believers. Just like baby Jesus with a stable full of reindeer.

Seeing the Ten Commandments in public spaces is a little like hearing the Miranda warnings on "Law and Order," which doesn't make anyone think about the real meaning of Miranda (whatever that is) because it doesn't make anyone think at all. It's the social equivalent of elevator music. Religious people shouldn't want their faith to be elevator music.

Stuntz is dead on the mark. America is a religiously diverse nation, and no expression of faith can reflect the sentiments of all without being watered down to the equivalent of spiritual baby food.

Opponents of separation will argue that America is not that diverse, that the overwhelming majority are Christian and that the nation was founded on this common religious faith and can only survive if this faith is continually tied to the philosophical underpinnings of our governing institutions. They are saying, in effect, that if you ignore the religious component of our constitutional government, it will all come crashing down.

I guess that to this way of thinking, the elevator music analogy works in their favor. Elevator music does serve a purpose. Though most people see little of merit in this bland injection of musical pablum, it is designed to act on a subliminal level to ease the anxiety of people who are not comfortable being enclosed in a steel box suspended from cables with total strangers. Likewise, it is believed by some, the display of the Ten Commandments in public places will act on the common psyche, reminding us all of the watchful eye of God. Young, disaffected high school boys will be dissuaded from shooting their classmates if only they see the Commandments every day that they come to school, so the argument goes.

This argument certainly won't be settled by the upcoming Supreme Court battles. Hopefully we can learn to see past the straw-men and have an honest conversation over this issue.