Monday, August 31, 2009

Fear and Loathing on September 11

In keeping with grand internet tradition of making fun of crazy and dangerous people, I wished to comment on this "Special Report" by Matthew Vadum. I had thought to give this a thorough whipping, but Sadly, No has already beaten me to it. I'll pick up a bit where they left off.

Obama's Plan to Desecrate 9/11
By Matthew Vadum on 8.24.09 @ 6:08AM
The Obama White House is behind a cynical, coldly calculated political effort to erase the meaning of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks from the American psyche and convert Sept. 11 into a day of leftist celebration and statist idolatry.

It's always good to make your point in as clear, unemotional and unbiased language as possible.

This effort to reshape the American psyche has nothing to do with healing the nation and everything to do with easing the nation along in the ongoing radical transformation of America that President Obama promised during last year's election campaign. The president signed into law a measure in April that designated Sept. 11 as a National Day of Service, but it's not likely many lawmakers thought this meant that day was going to be turned into a celebration of ethanol, carbon emission controls, and radical community organizing.
. . .
On the Aug. 11 call, Yearwood and other leaders kept saying repeatedly that they wanted 9/11 to be used for something "positive," "forward-leaning," and "productive," said a source with knowledge of the teleconference.

Explore with us now the world of the Wing-Nut. Having left reality far behind, they swim in the effluvia of their own imaginations, conjuring up demons from deep in their subconscious. Here we see the Wing-Nut imagining a generic attempt to improve people's lives--complete with meaningless corporate buzzwords--as a threat to all he holds most holy, the fear of brown people and the desire induced by it to bomb the hell out of them. I cannot imagine the dark designs Vadum sees in the corporate cheerleading sessions of his local McDonald's. (Wait, he doesn't work at McDonald's? His bio says he is a "senior editor at Capital Research Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank that studies the politics of philanthropy." Given his general level of rationality, perhaps McDonald's wouldn't hire him.)

Is this all National Day of Service [and Remembrance] is intended for? And is the community organizing radical? The website says,

Our mission is to honor the victims of 9/11 and those who rose to service in response to the attacks by encouraging all Americans and others throughout the world to pledge to voluntarily perform at least one good deed, or another service activity on 9/11 each year. In this way we hope to create a lasting and forward-looking legacy -- annually rekindling the spirit of service, tolerance, and compassion that unified America and the world in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Service, tolerance, compassion. The horror, the horror.

Volunteer on the 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance says,
The National Day of Service and Remembrance is an excellent way to get involved in service on 9/11. Join us and help strengthen our community by:

* Preparing burn kits for the DC Firefighters Burn Foundation
* Organizing your local community center or library
* Assembling a healthy brunch at a public housing complex
* Landscaping and cleaning up a local park
* And more!

Apparently Vadum hates our burnt firefighters. He also hates libraries and people in public housing.

Vadum just threw in the "radical" because he figures you can put that in anywhere when you're talking about Obama. For example, Obama took his children to their radical school this morning. Obama believes in the radical change in our healthcare system. Obama had a radical haircut yesterday. "Radical" is an invisible word to Vadum whenever "Obama" is used. He has no reason to think providing brunch to people without food is radical, but he doesn't care. It's Obama so it must be radical.

The plan is to turn a "day of fear" that helps Republicans into a day of activism called the National Day of Service [and Remembrance] that helps the left. In other words, nihilistic liberals are planning to drain 9/11 of all meaning.

This confession is, as Sadly, No, notes, a moment of inadvertent honesty. But I'm more concerned about the idea that without a motivating terror of the other, the day has no meaning at all. Admittedly, corporate buzzwords are fairly meaningless, but a day devoted to helping others, to improving our environment and society, would appear to be anything but meaningless and nihilistic. Again, I think we have discovered something hidden from the light of day by the less crazy of the Wing-Nuts, but which is still there beneath the surface. The conclusion we must draw from Vadum's assertion is: The only thing with meaning for Mr. Vadum (since, I understand, he likes to append the honorific "Mr." to his name) is fear. Perhaps this is an exaggeration; perhaps hatred, anger or spite also have meaning for Vadum. I cannot draw conclusions about the Wing-Nut in general from one instance, but we can hypothesize that the Wing-Nut only recognizes certain fearful and violent emotions and not the more "positive" emotions that lead to healthy inter-group dynamics.

Color of Change is the extremist racial grievance group that isn't happy that TV's Glenn Beck did several news packages on Van Jones, the self-described "communist" and "rowdy black nationalist" who became the president's green jobs czar after jumping on the environmentalist bandwagon. The White House may be behind a push to destroy Beck by convincing advertisers to stop buying time on his show. Jones was also on the board of the Apollo Alliance, a hard-left environmentalist group that is now running large chunks of the Obama administration. The group has acknowledged that it dictated parts of the February stimulus bill to Congress.

Every part of this that is not a blatant lie is baseless, vicious insinuation. Color of Change has pressured Fox and its advertisers because Beck claimed that Obama has a "deep-seated hatred of white people" and "is a racist". That's a bit different from running news stories on a nominee. He has no evidence that the Obama White House is behind these protests, but he says they "may be". There's no way to disprove this, so he's free to speculate maliciously. After all, it's almost impossible to be sued for libel by a public figure. And, heavens, a lobbying group helping write legislation! I guess that's only ok when corporate lobbyists do it.

Honestly, would you believe anything this guy says? Here's a link to the Apollo Alliance webpage on the legislation. Apollo Alliance is taking credit for some very general measures that they wanted passed and which the government then passed although not in the specific amounts they wanted. If every group that took credit for some ideas that the government then implemented were running the government... Actually, I won't complete that thought. You know I had this great idea for a government: an elected group of people who represent larger groups of the population and who receive their moral justification from the consent of the governed. Look at me, I just dictated the government of the United States! Someone make me Secret-President!

By the way, notice any particular direction Vadum's animosity runs? Apollo Alliance? Have any of the objects of his hatred been white? Every person's name falling from Vadum's spittle-flecked pen belongs to an African-American. I'm sure it's a coincidence.

"The organizing term is to 'go dark.' You don't tell the press, don't tell people you think will tell the press," said the source.

. . .
On Aug. 4, the White House offered a glimpse into its plans to desecrate 9/11 for political advantage. Jones appeared in a largely ignored 33-minute video posted on the official blog of the White House to discuss the administration's plan to flush 9/11 down the memory hole just as it has tried to do by rechristening the Global War on Terror the "Overseas Contingency Operations."

Of this National Day of Service, Jones says little except that it will be a great opportunity "for people to connect, to find other people in your peer group who are also passionate about repowering America but also greening up America and cleaning up America."

On the same day, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, and Department of Energy Under Secretary Kristina Johnson and activists held a low-key press conference. At it, Yearwood said the National Day of Service will be "the first milestone" of a larger effort called Green the Block that is attempting to convince Americans that the utopian fantasy of a so-called green economy is possible without turning the U.S. into a Third World country.

"From policy creation to community implementation, the Green the Block campaign wants to see access and opportunity created for all Americans, to build prosperity and a healthier planet for future generations," Yearwood said.

Strange how they can "go dark"--no racial double-meaning here!--and still post videos and hold press conferences. Just the sort of thing you would do if you didn't want anyone to know about your plans! I believe that was Richard Nixon's strategy. He saying things like, "Those goddamned Jews in the press; let's give 'em a press conference." Or, "We have to keep this secret, let's put in on youtube." (Not actual quotes.)

On the bright side none of Donovan, Jackson, or Johnson is African-American. So, gee, maybe he's not a racist after all. Really, some of the people I hate the most are non-black.

At no time does anyone explain why this National Day of Service has to be held -- of all the 365 days in a year -- on Sept. 11.

Finally, we note more with sadness than anger that Vadum really does not understand how remembrance of a terrible tragedy should lead all of us to come together to make the world a better place. No normal human being would require such an explanation. He can only see the attacks on 9/11 as representing hatred and fear of an other bent on our destruction, and the only response he can see to hatred is more hatred. The Wing-Nut revealed, its veneer of respectability and civilization removed, is purely an id, a seething mass of hostile, violent emotions always looking for excuses for its hatred and rationalizations for any violence that it can get away with (whenever it is not too frightened to act). And, failing to act on its own, receives vicarious thrills as the US military acts out the Wing-Nut's violent fantasies. Such a contemptible shell of a human requires constant reassurance from its cronies and its government to know that it is not alone in the darkness and that someone will take away all the scary, brown people and make it safe.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Robert Nozick's Wilt Chamberlain Example

Robert Nozick has a famous and highly influential example intended to undermine the case for redistributive taxation based on a thought experiment in which people freely choose to give their money to someone, assuming that they had it justly in the first place, and, given that free, informed choices about distributing one's own money is a right one has, then the resulting distribution of money/goods is also just.

The thought experiment is to imagine that Wilt Chamberlain, at the time of Nozick's writing clearly the NBA's greatest basketball player, strikes a deal with the other NBA teams to add a $.25 surcharge to every game in which he plays. His presence increases attendance at the games; everyone is happy with the arrangement; and Chamberlain receives an additional $100,000 over the salaries of all the players. Imagine that the original state was just (following whatever distributive theory you prefer). And since the transfer principle, that everyone receives something they value as much or more than the amount they pay, the resulting situation must also be just. If Chamberlain has a right to this money, if the resultant situation is just, then it is unjust to take his money.

None of this argument counts against taxation per se. It is perfectly reasonable to tax Chamberlain for benefits he receives by being a member of society, and it is even reasonable to tax progressively if he acquires more benefits than others--since his larger amount of wealth requires more resources to protect adequately, his bigger car requires more space on the roads, etc. However, according to this argument, it is not just to tax Chamberlain to give his money to someone else, to redistribute his wealth. He cannot be required to benefit others if his ownership is justified although he could be required to pay for his own benefit. (At least, this is consistent with the Wilt Chamberlain argument; Nozick may have other arguments with which I am unfamiliar.)

It does appear that the resultant situation must be just if the original situation is just. People should be free to pay what they wish to for goods and services they desire; they have a right to spend the money as they choose. However, from the fact that people have a right to spend their money as they choose, it does not follow that the recipient has a right to that money. For example, Bernie Madoff's investors had the right to invest their money with him, but it does not follow that Madoff had a right to that money since he acquired it by means of fraud and deception. So one person having a right to give money to someone else, it does not follow that the second person has a right to the goods that the first person has a right to give.

This undermines the basic assumption of Nozick's argument. If Chamberlain does not have the right to the money he receives, even though the basketball fans have a right to give it to him, then we cannot conclude that redistributive taxation is unjust. Still, why think that Chamberlain does not have a right to that money? He did not acquire it by obviously unjust means: the public were fully informed; they knew exactly what they were receiving for their money and were happy to pay it. The reason, I think, has to do with the original situation. Chamberlain's basic genetic abilities and environment are not under his control. Other basketball players work as hard as he does but do not have his genetic predispositions or environment. So, if Chamberlain's work for his pay is what justifies him in receiving it, other basketball players equally deserve that pay yet do not receive it. Chamberlain's abilities, relative to other players who work as hard as he does, are a matter of luck. He is no more entitled to those abilities than Paris Hilton is entitled to her inheritance.

So, in short, while people have a right to spend their money as they choose, not everyone that choose to give it to has an equal right to receive it. If we consider fraud sufficient for undermining that person's right, then other broader considerations of justice in society may also undermine especially if the person who receives the good only receives it because of luck or matters beyond his control.

One last point. This point does not depend on determinism. All it requires is that some matters that influence one's abilities are not in the person's control. This is compatible with libertarianism as much as determinism or compatibilism.

Update: It is possible that I am committing a strawman. Could it be that Nozick means that people can justly distribute their own money however they choose provided they are fully informed about what they are receiving in return for that money? Probably, so. I'm not sure that people are just whenever they spend money as they choose when that choice is informed, but I'll get back to this later.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Levin on Homosexuality Again

Having ridiculed Michael Levin for same-sex marriage fallacies, I was surprised to discover an article (Why Homosexuality is Abnormal) of his in the anthology I'm using for my applied ethics class. Unsurprisingly, however, the piece is just as fallacious and absurd as his internet follies. I have two theories for the existence of this piece. First, the case against the moral acceptability of homosexuality is so bad that one cannot in fact make a better case for it than this. Second, the editors felt that making a convincing case against homosexuality would work against the moral good of acceptance of homosexuality. So, on this second view, the choice of Levin was intended to make those arguing against homosexuality more ridiculous by associating them with this work.

The essay begins, "This essay defends the view that homosexuality is abnormal and hence undesirable -- not because it is immoral or sinful, or because it weakens society or hampers evolutionary development, but for a purely mechanical reason." For homosexuals, the dick goes in the wrong hole. Period.

First, if you're not arguing for the immorality of homosexuality, what are you doing in an applied ethics text? Instead, he claims only to be making a prudential argument against homosexuality. In actuality, while the article does not argue for the immorality of homosexuality, it does frequently insinuate it. It is almost impossible to read "defective", "abnormal", "improper", "unnatural", "maladaptive" without thinking this has some implications for morality. Moreover, he opposes anti-discrimination legislation because "If society reverses itself (on laws outlawing homosexuality), it will in effect be deciding that homosexuality is not as bad as it once thought." This argument requires simple bad faith. "Bad" here cannot mean "prudentially inadvisable" because we don't make laws requiring that people act only prudentially. Basically, that's just none of the government's damn business, and if Levin thinks the government can and should allow for discrimination against homosexuals, then that government would not and could not justifiably do it on the basis of the behavior's inadvisability. Whether we, or the government, thought something was less bad or not just does not enter the picture. We do not pass laws requiring that people exercise despite the fact that not exercising is bad for us. If Levin were arguing only on the basis of prudence, his conclusion would be a massive nonsequitur. He is arguing against homosexuality but only by insinuation.

Back to the argument:
First, he draws a fallacious analogy between someone who misuses his teeth, by making them into a necklace, and a homosexual, who puts his penis places it is not meant to go. Clearly, the analogy is fallacious because (1) once you've removed your teeth, you cannot put them back, so the decision is irreversible in a way that homosexuality (even though it is probably genetic) is not, and (2) removing one's teeth causes demonstrable harm in any normal situation. You might imagine someone surviving just fine with no teeth, but our intuition is that it is wrong based on the problems anyone without teeth would face in ordinary life.

Second, Levin argues that even if homosexuality is genetic, or not a choice or under the control of the person, it could still be wrong. I agree with him on this; the key issue is not whether homosexuality is a choice but whether it is morally acceptable or not. We might still do everything we can to prevent Downs syndrome even though people with it do not have any choice about it. Moreover, we accept people holding different religious beliefs even though that is, near enough, a choice. His argument falls down on establishing the harm of homosexuality.

Finally, the main argument: homosexuality causes unhappiness. He expects a correlation between homosexuality and unhappiness based on his claim that homosexuality is abnormal. Given the evolutionary maladaptiveness of homosexuality, homosexuals will not be able (or be less able) to access the pleasure that evolution will have built into "normal" sexual acts. Ejaculation just feels better when it's in a vagina than when it's in an anus, mouth, hand, ear, or horse. Ok, maybe he's right about the last one. Moreover, he thinks people will feel a secret longing to have "normal" sexual relations that will be inaccessible just as people born without legs would have a yearning to be able to walk.

Let's point out, before we continue, that lots of neutral traits are connected to other traits that are adaptive. Panda's have an elongated "toe" even though this does not aid their survival because it is genetically linked to the gene that gives them a "thumb". Some traits are not adaptive for the person who has them but the genes are adaptive overall. Genes for altruism may not benefit the altruistic individual, but the gene may spread more effectively through kin selection. And what's adaptive in one context may not be adaptive in others. Genes for sickle-cell anemia are adaptive in a climate with lots of mosquitos but maladaptive elsewhere. So, there is simply no way at present to know whether homosexuality fits one of these categories. If so, then we would think that homosexuality is a necessary part of the fitness of humans overall, and so would not be maladaptive in the way Levin suggests. Is it maladaptive for an individual to save his/her children? For that individual it is, but for the genes it is not. And saving one's genes is what determines the functionality (and hence the normativity on Levin's understanding of normativity) of a trait.

He concludes, "Whatever drives a man away from women, to be fellated by as many different men as possible, seems independent of what society thinks of such behavior. It is this behavior that occasions misery, and we may expect the misery of homosexuals to continue." Oh, the horror, the horror! This constant fellating is making me miserable! Please, please, no! Oh, oh, no! Stop the constant fellating, you're making me miserable!

His confirmation for the "Homosexuality causes unhappiness" hypothesis is a single study (he says by Weinberg and Williams in 1974 but that's all the data provided) that found that homosexuals in more accepting countries (i.e. Denmark and the Netherlands) are just as unhappy as homosexuals in the US (considered a less-accepting country). One wonders if Levin actually researched this topic or just glommed onto something that fit his preconceptions. Here's a summary of the Weinberg and Williams point:
"Following this [the mildly counterintuitive discovery of the W&W work that Levin cites], Ross (1978) suggested that the critical variable was not the actual societal reaction, but the way homosexuals perceived it. It subsequently turned out that the perceived societal reaction did predict a significantly lowered state of psychological well-being while actual societal reaction, did not." (Homosexuality and Family Relations, Frederick Bozett and Marvin Sussman, editors. I can't track down the Ross reference. The point here is it doesn't take much looking to see that the overall evidence is not strongly in Levin's favor on this, and that there are lots of easy, and apparently supported, alternative explanations for the bit of data he takes to be decisive.)

(Levin also does not provide base rate data on heterosexuals' self-reported happiness, but we'll imagine for the sake of argument that heterosexuals are happier than homosexuals.)

He writes, "Weinberg and Williams themselves cleave to the hypothesis that homosexual unhappiness is entirely a reaction to society's attitudes, and suggest that a condition of homosexual happiness is positive endorsement by the surrounding society. it is hard to imagine a more flagrantly ad hoc hypothesis. Neither a Catholic living among Protestants nor a copywriter working on the great American novel in his off hours asks more of a society than tolerance in order to be happy in his pursuits." Yes, homosexuality is just like writing a novel, and no novelist ever wants anyone to approve his/her work or recognize its greatness. That's why they call it the great American novel: because no one gives a shit whether anyone likes it. That's exactly why people write: for the tolerance.

Seriously, people's lives and choices are endorsed by society in all sorts of ways, large and small, and one whose most fundamental choices, about whom to love and spend one's life with, require societal approval for people in general to be happy. Legal, and even social, tolerance of an activity is not enough to make us happy; we need some approval, especially when everyone else receives approval of their choices. If I were writing the great American novel, and everyone else I knew had already written such a novel and received glowing reviews in the New York Review of Books, I would feel pretty fucking miserable that my attempts failed. And that's the situation the homosexual in a merely tolerant country is in. Their choices are not endorsed while those of everyone else are. We measure happiness in large part by contrast, and the contrast of the heterosexual's life with the homosexual's life is constantly relatively negative. Even in our more enlightened age, how many characters in TV and movies are happy, healthy, normal homosexuals in good, loving relationships? Aren't homosexuals more likely to be abnormal, ridiculous or unhappy in such depictions? But heterosexuals receive positive messages constantly; they receive constant reinforcement of their sexuality in television, movies, advertisements, novels, and the rest of popular culture. The hypothesis seems perfectly reasonable to me and anything but ad hoc.

Surely the hypothesis is testable as well. All we need is for America to become a culture that accepts homosexuality as perfectly normal, and treats homosexual relations in exactly the same largely positive ways as it does heterosexual relations. Admittedly, depictions of heterosexuality are often exploitive or comical, but only against a backdrop of "normal" heterosexuality.

Most important, reasonable philosophers point out the naturalist fallacy here. To say that something is natural, normal, or common has nothing to do with its moral legitimacy. That's clearly why Levin tries to dodge with the prudential argument. Even so, he must swallow hard, grab the counterargument with both hands, and jerk it off until it ejaculates all over him . . . I mean, respond directly to the argument. If homosexuality is abnormal, then all sorts of other activities are abnormal. For example: Typing, driving a car, masturbation, foreplay without sex, abstinence--especially celibacy, heterosexual anal or oral sex, use of condoms or birth control, and sex when one partner is infertile are all without evolutionary benefit; studying philosophy is worst of all given the low rate of reproduction in most philosophy departments. In fact, everything besides eating, drinking and fucking is abnormal unless it directly supports one's ability to eat, drink or fuck (reproductively, of course).

Levin only addresses two of these obvious counterexamples. (1) Foreplay, he thinks, can have the reproductive advantage of preparing the male and female for reproduction. We can be sure that his wife, at least, is grateful for this acknowledgment. So, foreplay does have some evolutionary benefit. (2) Celibacy--as in priestly celibacy--turns out to be ok after all. I would think, "[N]o behavior is more likely to get selected out than rewarding [celibacy]." Oops, Levin wrote that about homosexuality! However, in fact, celibacy is not a problem. You see, "Priests do not simply give up sexual activity without ill-effect, they give it up for a reason. Homosexuals have hardly given up the use of their sexual organs, for a higher calling or anything else. Homosexuals continue to use them, but, unlike priests, they use them for what they are not for. . ." (Ellipsis in the anthology.)

With special pleading for priests, the goalposts move again. You see, as long as one does something for a reason, then one's happiness cannot be compromised by that behavior's evolutionary maladaptiveness. Whew! For a second, I thought I'd have to stop typing or lose any hope of joy. If you are celibate, you better be celibate for a reason; otherwise, your unhappiness might lead to serial buggery, and that's only good if you're doing it to girls old enough to reproduce. (Remember, I only mean "good" in a prudential way--how could you think otherwise?)

Enjoying the sexual congress of people of the same sex is not a reason, of course. Contra Stephen Colbert, who says, "Men know what men like," homosexuality is not based on reason, but arises purely from our genes. If enjoyment cannot count as a reason for a homosexual, it cannot count as a reason for the priests either. One must suppose that if a monk enjoyed the serenity of a cloistered existence, that would not count as a reason. Instead it must be based on some non-emotional, purely moral, evaluation. Perhaps we are to be Kantian deontic machines, always doing our duty based on reason and not using our potential happiness as a reason, if we are to be happy.

My point is that the basic argument of this essay is totally bogus. One does not argue against the morality of something based on its "naturalness" or "normality", and if one is not making an argument against its morality (as Levin claims he is not), then you cannot make an argument for public policy decisions to prevent it. His only remaining leg is to say that we might prevent homosexuals from existing if we had some way to prevent it (say, a miracle drug to be given their mothers before birth). It is hard to imagine a public policy that mandated something like that (Would we mandate abortions for the poor if they were found to be, on average, less happy than the rich?), but it might provide an incentive for the parents' choice if (and this is a big if) there were any reason to think that homosexuals were necessarily less happy than heterosexuals when, in fact, it appears that their unhappiness is more likely a result of our intolerant culture, a culture propped up and "justified" by crap such as Levin's article.

Update: By the way, why do these people never talk about lesbians? They're always talking about men's behavior. Is it because lesbianism is fine--at least as long as it's in a movie with a title such as "Lusty Lesbians"? Does Levin know or care whether lesbians are happier than non-lesbians? His one piece of evidence, the aforementioned study, was for gay men, not lesbians. Maybe we should all have sex changes and be lesbians in order to be truly happy. We should definitely look into it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Worst Correction Ever

Marc Ambinder, last seen abusing science and philosophy in defense of the false equivalence between those who base their conclusions on reasons and those who believe anything that makes them angry, has taken another shot at liberals in his semi-mea-culpa on the Terror Alert system. He writes,

Journalists, including myself, were very skeptical when anti-Bush liberals insisted that what Ridge now says is true, was true. We were wrong. Our skepticism about the activists' conclusions was warranted because these folks based their assumption on gut hatred for President Bush, and not on any evaluation of the raw intelligence. [Addition: That's a hasty generalization. Many of the loudest voices were reflexively anti-Bush, but I can't accurately describe the motivations of everyone, much less a majority, of those who were skeptical. There were plenty of non-liberals who believed that the terror threats were exaggerated.]

I don't know the function to make this work, but Ambinder struck through the words: "these folks based their assumption on gut hatred for".

Ambinder is claiming that those on the left who were skeptical that the color-coded alert systems were based on public safety rather than partisan political ends were irrational even though they happened to be correct in this case. Obviously that's possible, but it didn't take a genius, or one with intimate knowledge of the so-called "raw intelligence", to notice that the increased alerts were suspiciously coincident with President Bush's dropping poll numbers, or Kerry's rising ones, that the Bush administration had lied and placed partisan political ends before national security time and again. I'd cite something in support of this last, but I'd have to cite virtually every action the Bush administration took. Thus, Ambinder can rest comfortably knowing that his own ignorance and enabling of the Bush administration really was the wise and proper course after all even if it turned out to be incorrect in this instance.

The reason this is the worst correction ever, as you can see by the text removed with a strike-through, is, of course, that he makes an unsubstantiated claim, marks out the supposed evidence for the unsubstantiated claim while acknowledging his lack of evidence for it, but does not remove the now-undermined claim. It's as though he had simply written, "We're still right no matter what. Neener-neener!" Somehow his default position is that he and his cohort were right even when they were wrong, and the liberals were wrong even when they were right, no matter what the evidence is. It's a form of belief perseveration. This exemplifies a sense of self-importance and belief in one's own infallibility that is, in many ways, worse than the original uncorrected passage. At least then he pretended to have a reason for his conclusion. Now he keeps the conclusion without the pretense. And this illustrates yet again that the Washington journalist class has learned nothing from its manifest errors in coverage beginning, at least, with Clinton and continuing through Bush. How can the press corps function when it refuses to acknowledge its manifest errors?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Republicans and Impunity

Listening to National Public Radio this morning, I heard that the Republicans in Congress are pushing a bill to prevent any investigation of CIA operatives who violated the Bush administration's torture policies (by torturing too much, not by torturing too little). They say that we should not investigate good, patriotic Americans who were just trying to do their jobs to protect Americans.

There are two things you can say here, and I'm not sure which is worse. First, it's just typical bullshit (technically) in which they just wave a patriotism flag and accuse anyone who wants to investigate these crimes (and by extension the administration) of being unpatriotic. They don't really believe you should never investigate anyone whose job it is to protect Americans; they're just pumping the story for a little fake outrage.

The second possibility is that they really believe this, that people with the job of protecting people should never be investigated. (I say "Never" because here there is overwhelming evidence of torture and abuse so that it is hard to imagine what more could be required for sufficient evidence to begin an investigation.) If this is so, we could never investigate the police, customs, border patrol, military, CIA, FBI, Secret Service, etc. Anyone with military or police powers would be immune to oversight--we would have, in essence, a police state, a state in which the police (generally, see the truncated list above) could operate with complete impunity. I can scarcely imagine a worse situation for a democracy.

I'm not sure why we shouldn't include other categories of people as well. It would be unamerican to doubt our courageous teachers, doctors, road workers, fast-food burger-flippers, who are all working as hard as they can to make life better for all of us. Wouldn't it be unpatriotic to question their great sacrifices? If we could investigate only people whose jobs were such that they did not contribute to America, then I don't think we'd have anyone left to investigate except the unemployed. Perhaps that's their plan: investigate and prosecute only the weakest and most helpless in society, and let the powerful and influential act with impunity.

Obviously my point is that we have a responsibility to investigate anyone at any time when there is sufficient evidence that they have acted criminally; whether their job is to protect America, get kitty-cats out of trees, or feed the homeless is totally irrelevant to the legality of their actions.

To think we should not investigate our police apparatus for possible abuse is to adopt the worst aspects of a police state, allowing the police to act with complete immunity from prosecution. How could we be safe if people with power know that they can do anything without punishment?

So, Republicans: idiots, bullshitters or police-state enthusiasts, you decide.

Robert Novak and Speaking Ill of the Dead

They say never to speak ill of the dead, but I am conflicted, to say the least, on following this rule in the case of Robert Novak. Most notably he was a vicious, partisan hack who used his insider status to enrich himself and to demonize ideological adversaries in a way that no responsible reporter, or human being, would. His famous outing of Valerie Plame illustrates his character here. He, as a veteran insider and reporter on the intelligence community, should have known better than anyone the dangers of such a report, the status of the person outed, and the motives of those providing him the information. He was no reportorial neophyte taken in by the crafty White House veterans using him to pump out harmful secrets and malicious innuendo. If anything, he was a willing participant in the outing. To think anything else of him is to overlook his entire life's work as expert on the intelligence community.

In his private life, he also appeared to be a reprehensible human being. He famously reacted angrily to questions and criticisms from James Carville on CNN back in aught-5 and stormed off. Another time he committed a hit and run of a pedestrian. And he might have gotten away with if a passing bicyclist had not chased him down and stopped him.

So, why not speak the truth? I have thought repeatedly, "Why not wish him dead or be thankful that he's dead? What are people hoping for, that he will show up at the last minute, bite the One Ring off Obama's hand and leap with it into the Pit of Doom thus saving all humanity (or at least health-care reform)?" But perhaps the old saw is right, and it is better to let him go without malice.

This raises the question: Can one harm the dead? If not, what justification is there for this rule? If so, should one have special responsibility of charity to those who have gone over the rainbow bridge?

I think the main harm to be avoided is a harm to ourselves. When people have harmed us, it is tempting to carry a desire for vengeance long after any such desire can helpfully be acted upon. For our own psychological well-being, it is important to let go of anger and hatred sometimes when it is no longer possible or reasonable to act on it. (However, to be clear, I am not advocated always letting go of anger. Sometimes we should be angry and should act on it.) For Novak, once he is dead, it does not appear (careful!) that we can provide the justice that he so richly deserved.

On the other hand, maybe it is possible to harm the dead. At least Aristotle thought so. And thus perhaps we could even now bring some justice by publicly vilifying Novak's memory, making it impossible to speak his name except as a curse, and rendering him execrable in the hearts and minds of all humanity. This might prevent future Novaks if we were successful, but would it harm Novak?

One might think this is impossible. After all, Novak no longer exists, and one can only harm things that exist.

But this is too quick. Can't I harm future generations by destroying the environment? If not, then we have little moral responsibility not to use up all the earth's resources in the current generation.

Moreover, it's not clear why the person must exist. It cannot be a requirement that there be knowledge of the harm or a causal connection to the person harmed in order for a harm to exist. If Joshua secretly videos the boys showering in the men's locker room, we think they have been harmed even if they never discover it and are never causally affected by his invasion of their privacy.

Moreover, some thought experiments suggest we can harm the dead. The simplest example is Thomas Nagel's in Death (reprinted in John Martin Fischer's The Metaphysics of Death.) who considers the case of a man slandered and vilified after his death. Isn't this a harm to him?

At the risk of introducing unnecessary complexity, let's consider a series of further examples (based on, although I cannot find the proper reference, either George Pitcher or Harry Silverstein, I think). I sneak into the home of Beatrice, a great philosopher, and plant child pornography on her computer. In the first case this becomes common knowledge around the world while Beatrice is on vacation in Australia's outback. So, nearly everyone in the world feels revulsion toward Beatrice despite her not deserving anything of the sort. However, suppose that, because she is such a great philosopher, who is on the verge of explaining to all of us the nature of reality, the police remove the incriminating evidence and no one says anything to her. The evidence is deleted and my attempt to harm her is accompanied by no legal sanction or difference in her treatment by others (even though everyone continues to harbor great disgust for her in their hearts). Now, even though the treatment is exactly the same and Beatrice knows nothing of the slander, it seems that Beatrice was harmed by my planting this evidence.

In the second case, she never returns from her vacation. She falls in love with the outback and decides to live out the rest of her life there. It still seems that she has been harmed even though she knows nothing about it and never interacts with anyone who knows anything about the harm.

In the third case, she is killed by a crocodile before she can return from the vacation but after I plant the evidence. So she never learns anything of the planted evidence or universal disdain.

In the fourth case, she is killed by the crocodile before I plant the evidence. If my planting the evidence is a harm when she's still alive, why should it matter if she died right before I plant it rather than right after? An automatic response: it matters in the one case she exists and in the other she does not. But that begs the question: why think that difference matters? What's the intuition behind saying it was a harm if it happened at 12:00 but not a harm at 12:01? I think we have to consider either both of them harmful or both of them not harmful.

If these thought experiments are too equivocal, we can ask: Would I want this to happen to me after I die? Would it be morally acceptable to plant this evidence? If it harms no one, then it's very hard to say what's wrong with planting evidence on someone who will die before it's discovered.

In fact, if one cannot harm someone who does not exist, it's not clear how killing someone is a harm. If I kill A, then A does not exist. Hence, I am not harming A. If I kill A painfully and slowly, then my act of killing can harm them while they exist. But if I kill them quickly and painlessly, then I have not harmed them at all since, once they are dead, they do not exist to be harmed. And before I've killed them, I haven't done anything to them at all and so cannot be harming them. Obviously, this argument is sophistical, but what's sophistical about it may be the claim that I cannot harm someone who does not exist.

Since I am not trying to write a book, I'd better stop here. The main point is, for now, that it appears possible to harm people who do not exist, that one can harm the dead. How such a thing might be possible--what philosophical theory might explain this--is an entirely different question. At any rate, if I can harm the dead, then I should laugh a long, slow, hearty belly-laugh at the death of Robert Novak in the hopes that by laughing so I am harming him just a little. And at any rate, if I cannot harm him by laughing, then no harm is done by it, while my laugh may reflect appreciation of the good done by his non-existence.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

NPR, the Crazy and the Principle of Charity

Rick Perlstein comments on the chaos occurring at congresspeople's town hall events. He writes, "The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America's flora. Only now, it's being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest." Perlstein longs for the days of Walter Cronkite who gave no credence and no voice to the crazies, but now the crazies get a loud public voice and are treated with respect.

Walter Cronkite's way of dealing with the crazy is one respectable method if you have the capacity to limit the voice of the crazy. If Cronkite, and the few other respected anchors at the time, did not talk about it, it didn't happen. On the other hand, now the crazy has millions of listeners on talk radio, viewers on Fox news and an untold number of internet readers/viewers. It's harder for the respectable media to sideline the crazy when it has so many outlets feeding it. At other times in US history the crazy has had a voice, but now it's voice is as loud, or louder, than the non-crazy.

That means the best response is to call out the crazy. Make it clear what these people--birthers, "death panel" believers, etc.--believe and show why their claims are false. NPR did a good job on this the other day debunking right wing claims about the British health care system (NHS) by interviewing the former chief administrator of the NHS. Specifically, the interview focused on false claims that the NHS would not pay for health care for the elderly if that care became expensive. The administrator did admit that the NHS did have some long wait times until they increased the total funding for it, and now with the additional funding there are not (he said) these problems any more. But the main point to be criticized were claims such as Iowa Senator Charles Grassley's claim that the NHS would not have treated Sen. Ted Kennedy, who is elderly and has brain cancer, because of the expense. This claim, the administrator explained, was not just false, deliberately so, but malicious and constituted fear-mongering.

Unfortunately, that's not the only way NPR treats the crazy. Most of the time, they follow the "he-said, she-said" or false equivalence paradigm in which they refuse to assert things that are demonstrably true or deny things that are demonstrably false. For example, claims which "the White House claims are misleading." The complaint is the death panel claim, that the health care bills would include bureaucratic panels which would decide who would be worthy of treatment, and essentially decide who would live or die. There are no such panels; there is no evidence that there are such panels. Such a thing would never happen; it's demonstrably and absurdly false, but hinting at the complaints and noting that one side claims they are false does not do enough to show that they are false. This gentle handling feeds the crazy.

In another case, NPR reported that Charles Grassley opposed parts of the health care bill that he said people could be misled about. This was demonstrably not what Grassley said, and not his reason for opposition. Grassley had claimed that people should be worried about the government deciding who would live or die, should be worried about the government killing your granny. So, what's wrong with this gentle treatment for Grassley? First, it is factually misleading. They did not report all the relevant matter he said, and they misreported some things he did say. Second, it makes no sense. Why would anyone oppose a bill that someone could be misled about? Does Grassley ever vote for any bills? If so, he's inconsistent because people could be misled about nearly anything. Third, it provides the imprimatur of a respected news organization to the crazy stuff he did say. If they take him seriously, it makes his opposition seem reasonable, and by not calling out the crazy, the crazy gets something resembling tacit acceptance by NPR. NPR is not actually endorsing the crazy ideas, but treating someone who's said things that are demonstrably crazy with respect makes the crazy ideas seem more respectable. Now, not all NPR listeners will know everything Grassley said, but the ones who do will see those other statements ("Obamacare will kill your granny!") as having the same tacit respectability.

You can refuse to give a voice to the crazy. You can call out the crazy. But you cannot report the crazy as something slightly less crazy because people who are crazy will take it as an endorsement of that crazier version of the idea, and people who are not crazy will have just a little less resistance to the crazier statement. And, of course, the last is what NPR was doing.

One further question: Why does NPR do this? I think it's because they want to maintain the fiction of civil and rational discourse in America, and if the sides of the debate are not civil and rational, trying to make them so will not help. This is the principle of charity run amok. You cannot take people's claims charitably (i.e. assume they are rational and based on facts as much as possible) once they have repeatedly demonstrated their irrationality. NPR should act to encourage civil and rational discourse by correcting errors, lies and irrationality, not by coddling them.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

False Equivalence on Emotion

Marc Ambinder has an amusingly convoluted false equivalence on the appeal to emotions in the debate on health care reform. Before you click on the link, you should be warned; this is professional quality false equivalence construction. Do not try this at home!

The reason it interests me is the misuse of research on cognitive neuroscience on the role of emotions in reasoning. Perhaps the prime mover on this research is Antonio Damasio. Damasio has argued that properly functioning emotions must be integrated with pragmatic reasoning in order for that reasoning to be successful. Ambinder concludes from this that "cognitive neuroscience has all but given up trying to distinguish between emotion and reason". (You can follow Ambinder's link but the most relevant article is about emotion being necessary for reasoning.) This is clearly not Damasio's conclusion. To say that X is necessary for Y is not to say that there is no distinction between X and Y.

Ambinder's point is to derive an equivalence between people on both sides of the health care debate: on the one side are opponents of reform driven by anger and fear, on the other side are proponents of reform driven by an emotional satisfaction with good reasoning and reaching rational outcomes. And Ambinder himself is driven by his own smug self-satisfaction. The lack of a distinction between reason and emotion does not prove this point. What he needs is the claim that there is no rational difference between different types of reasoning since all reasoning must be motivated by emotion.

Since both sides of the health care debate rely on emotions, then, there is no difference in the rationality of the sides. The beauty of this reasoning is its self-justification. If one is emotionally-motivated to accept an emotionally-driven conclusion, then that conclusion is justified. This is just like Stephen Colbert's claims about following his gut. How do you know your gut is right? Your gut tells you.

Unfortunately for Ambinder, his conclusion does not follow from the trivial fact that people need emotions in order to act. Nor does it follow from the neuroscientific research on the role of emotions in reasoning; in fact, this directly contradicts the assumptions of that research. The classic case Damasio discusses is that of Phineas Gage who suffered damage to his frontal lobes and who thereby suffered an inability to successfully reason practically. But Damasio's reasoning assumes that there is a difference between good and bad reasoning. If Ambinder were correct, since Gage was motivated by emotions, it would follow that Gage's reasoning was as good as anyone else's. In particular, Gage's reasoning after the accident should have been as good as his reasoning before the accident. But researchers assumed that his reasoning had become worse; there is a clear difference, recognized by the researchers, between the effectiveness of his reasoning before and after the accident.

Ambinder's reasoning is pure subjectivism. Any side is equally good if it is driven by emotions. To the contrary, some application of emotions are relevant and reasonable and others are not. And the emotional desire to reason well is about as rational an emotion as one can have. If, indeed, the emotional desire to be right is appropriately connected to actual reasons, then it is relevantly applied. Ambinder might himself be driven as much by a desire to be rational as he is by smug self-satisfaction. In his case, this desire is not appropriately connected to reasons. There is, on the other hand, nothing intrinsically irrational about fear or anger, or letting them drive your actions, but it is irrational when fear or anger do not provide any relevant motivation for action. The emotion would be irrelevant if, as they are in this case, they were motivated by fear of provisions for involuntary euthanasia that are demonstrably not part of the health care reform bill.

More generally, Ambinder's proposed subjectivism would undermine his own "reasoning" and the research on neuroscience. If any position is equally supported because equally motivated by emotion, then he need not read about neuroscience research, and neuroscientists need do no research. All anyone need do is feel emotion and reach conclusions based on that emotion. My disgust for Marc Ambinder makes me just as justified as any research or argument he might present for his conclusion.

I'm not sure if this next passage is supposed to notice, ironically, the fallaciousness of his own argument.

My trendy, journalistic equivocation kicks in now: the right is obviously appealing to anger and fear, and the Democrats are mostly appealing to solidary cohesion. . . .

Pointing out that both sides engage in the same tactics, and that, in this case, one set of tactics seems to be unrelated to a substantive policy outcome neither presuppose the truth of one side of the debate nor does it presuppose that one side of the debate isn't actually, ultimately, right. In the same way, it is illogical to assume that because one side distorts the debate far more than the other side, the debate itself ought to turn out in any perscribed way. When I write things like this, it drives some partisans absolutely crazy. They don't like where the I'm drawing the "truth" line, and instead of reading the judgments that I've made -- the Right is appealing to anger and fear and is distorting the debate more -- they focus on the link that I won't then make -- the link that I have no expertise to make -- the link that, if I were to make it, I would be guilty of an offense against democracy -- the link between what IS and what OUGHT to be.

Honestly, I cannot make head or tail of this argument (aside from the equivocation about appeals to emotions as the "same tactics" when those emotions are not equally related to rationality). No one would object if he did not draw a conclusion about the need for healthcare reform, how that should be effected, but I think he's worried that people might expect him to draw normative conclusions about the rationality of the two tactics. I'm not sure exactly what criticisms he has received, but pointing out that fear-mongering based on demonstrably false assertions about a bill should not also require that he note the irrationality of this approach. One would think that this would go without saying. ("So, Mrs. Lincoln did not have a good time at the theater.") The problem here only comes in when he claims that one who bases conclusions on reasoning and true assertions about a bill is equally irrational as the other method. Aside from the absurd pretention of the language, that's the very problem with his conclusion. One cannot rationally simply assume the equivalence between any two means of arriving at a conclusion. To do so would, at the least, undermine the point of journalism itself.


The rise of the internet has undermined the business model of newspapers and caused them significant economic hardship. This raises the question of what other technologies for dissemination of information have faced similar problems and overcome them. One analog is that of the town crier. Town criers still exist. Crazy people ranting in parks are the only remnant of the once-proud vocation of the town crier. Given their obvious insanity, these town criers' pronouncements are no longer taken as authoritative. The more I read, "He said, she said," news reports--false equivalencies of obviously different positions--the more I think that newspapers are attempted to adopt this model.

Newt Gingrich on Danger of Communal Standards

Newt Gingrich appeared on George Stephanopoulos' show on Sunday arguing that the house healthcare bill allows for euthanasia. When Stephanopoulos pointed out that there was nothing in the bill allowing for this and might have added that euthanasia is currently illegal in the United States. Newt did not respond to this claim but continued, despite the fact that his claim was now agreed to be false, that some people in America wanted euthanasia and that the health care bill would allow for a system that could be used by euthanasia proponents.

This argument suggests a lot about Newt's objections to government. The government minimally provides a system or structure, and if any structure should be opposed if it could be misused, even directly against the intent of the creators of the system, then all government programs should be opposed. If Social Security provides a structure or system for guaranteeing a minimal income for retirees, then it could also be misused to bankrupt retirees. The Department of Education could be misused to teach children evils such as evolution.

I expect then that Gingrich, in the interests of consistency, will advocate repealing of the Second Amendment and taking apart the American military and the American Congress. The American military could be misused into starting an illegal war of choice against a nation that never presented a threat to the US. Similarly, the Second Amendment provides a legal structure allowing people to carry weapons. Those weapons could be used to harm others. And finally the Congress was misused when idiots such as Newt Gingrich were elected to it and, for example, shut down the government.

Of course, it's obvious that Gingrich does not care about consistency. To Gingrich arguments are not to be taken seriously or used consistently; they are to be taken up when useful and put down when not useful. So it goes . . .

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Othniel C. Marsh is Satan

Warning, people, warning!

I have found the Antichrist.

At first, I thought that George Walker Bush was the Antichrist.

First of all, I thought, Bush’s middle name is "Walker." What kind of middle name is that? It’s not even a name; it’s a description. And I also remembered the book of Job and what Satan is doing in it when God questions him; he’s walking up and down in the Earth and to and fro in it. That’s good reason to be suspicious if anything is. And anyway, Satan probably likes to kick back and drink a brew after a long day of walking up and down in the Earth and causing evil in it. And the name of a crappy American beer of the sort a cheap-ass Satan might drink? Busch. That’s practically an open-and-shut case.

But then I realized, there was no genuine Biblical support, no hints or clues from the Bible that would provide important incontrovertible proof to warn us of the impending apocalypse. And there I discovered the awful truth: Satan is not George W. Bush, or even George H.W. Bush, but noted 19th century paleontologist Othniel Marsh.

How did I come to this stunning conclusion? In the simplest way possible: a careful reading of the Bible. Specifically, focusing on the book of Job, where Satan reveals his evil character most clearly, I discovered a phrase that Satan uses to describe his own actions, "Going to and fro in the world and walking up and down in it." And I thought, "What would this sound like if a dyslexic German dwarf read it aloud through a flugelhorn?" And "Could I use this as a feeble rationalization for my pre-existing hatred for Othniel Marsh and all he stood for?"

So, how did I come to my proof? First, you have to translate the Hebrew into German. And who wouldn’t be interested in what a German might have to say about the Antichrist? After all, Germans, especially dwarves, who are known to be evil, would know a lot about evil.

The Luther version of the Bible takes that phrase this way:

"Ich habe das Land umher durchzogen."

My German is rusty, but I think this means “I moved all around through the land.”

But this is not the way the Greek and English read. You have to pay attention to what’s not there even more than to what is there. This translation leaves out going to and fro and up and down in the world. "All around." Ha! I could go all around the world if I just took a round-the-world cruise. Do you think Satan was going for a cruise? I think not. I would say the Germans are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. What was in that literal translation that was so dangerous that the Germans did not want us to know about it?

Well, "up" might be "oben". And "unten" for "down." That leaves "to and fro." "To" is "zu", and there is no direct translation of "fro," but colloquially Germans might say, "here and there" or "hin und her." Since we are interested in the most ancient and illuminated German sages, we cannot use colloquial German, however, so we must make up our own word. That word must be "fru" to rhyme with "zu."

What about "walking"? Well, that could be "gehen", to go, or "marschen", to march. I think it’s obvious what an evil being would do--especially one described in German, he/she would march.

So, ignoring all relevant grammar, we have “oben und unten, zu und fru marschen.”
It’s clear that this would sound hilarious if a dyslexic, German dwarf spoke it through a flugelhorn, so why on Earth would the dastardly Germans have rewritten the passage into their own colloquial language? There can be only one explanation. . . they were deliberately hiding the Satanic origin of Othniel C. Marsh.

Imagine this phrase, "Ich oben und unten, zu und fru marsche," being read through a flugelhorn by the aforementioned dyslexic, German dwarf. It is a well-known fact that the flugelhorn softens consonants and slurs together phrases. It would be, I submit, virtually impossible for said dwarf to enunciate the separate syllables clearly, and "oben und unten" would, with the "b" softened to a "th", sound much like Othnien. "Zu" would undoubtedly sound like "C." and "Marsche" obviously would sound like "Marsh." We can safely ignore the mysterious "fru" syllable (a hint, perhaps, of Marsh's evil plans?). And we can change the "n" in "Othnien" to "l" because of the well-known fact that one can always flip or change one letter in any coded message. And, anyway, the dwarf is dyslexic; he or she would probably have read it as an "l" instead of an "n" anyway. Thus, at God’s challenge, the phrase Satan would have uttered when spoken through a flugelhorn by a dyslexic, German dwarf would have sounded something like "I, Othniel C. Marsh." This is unambiguous, irrefutable, incontrovertible proof that Othniel C. Marsh was, in fact, Satan.

This means that I must now invent a time-machine in order to go back into the past in order to stop his plan world domination and apocalypse through dinosaur nomenclature. The fact that the world still exists gives me hope that I will succeed in having foiled his evil plot.

Note that this post was prompted by recent "proofs", such as the one discussed here, purporting to show that Barack Obama is the Antichrist. I laugh at these pathetic attempts by Satan's minions to throw me off the track of the true evil.

Monday, August 3, 2009

What the Bible Really Means: Accommodationism of Science and Religion

In the first edition of the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote that rhinoceroses are never prey, that no other animals kills any rhinoceros for food. Francis Galton pointed out to him that in fact young rhinoceroses are sometimes hounded, literally, by wild dogs.

Suppose I read Galton and directly observed the hunting of young rhinos, and so replied that Darwin really meant that older rhinos, and only older rhinos, are never prey.

Presumably you would think that I was misinterpreting Darwin, deliberately understanding him in a way that fits a preconceived bias, that is only supportable on the assumption that Darwin is always correct.

Yet people frequently interpret the Bible in a way that is equally unsupportable, interpreting its meaning to be whatever they find to be true by independent means. So, the Bible can never be wrong, not because one antecedently understands the claims it makes and then finds them to fit with observations and reason, but because one only comes to understand what the Bible really means after one already has those observations in hand. In fact, that is exactly how Francis Collins, Barack Obama's nominee to head the National Institutes of Health, understands the Bible.

I discovered this interview in Christianity Today via a discussion by Jason Rosenhouse in EvolutionBlog.

You take both the Bible and evolution seriously. Did the harmony you find between evolution and your faith just come naturally?

You know, it really did. When I became a believer at 27, the first church I went to was a pretty conservative Methodist church in a little town outside Chapel Hill. I'm sure there were a lot of people in that church who were taking Genesis literally and rejecting evolution.

But I couldn't take Genesis literally because I had come to the scientific worldview before I came to the spiritual worldview. I felt that, once I arrived at the sense that God was real and that God was the source of all truth, then, just by definition, there could not be a conflict.

One of my theologian friends once said, in great frustration over this issue, "I wish they had never put the Bible in the hands of ordinary people." It seems to me that we need to take more seriously the teaching ministry of the church. We encourage people to read the Bible on their own, but certain misunderstandings are bound to emerge with that approach. Young people are going to read Genesis and think of Adam and Eve as real biological parents of the human race.

I reread your Language of God recently with the stories of your childhood, and it didn't occur to me to think that some of those stories were just stuff you made up to give different insights into your character. I just read your stories and believed that was the way things happened. And that's the natural way many people read the Bible.

I think we should all read the Bible, and I believe in the priesthood of the believer. It's biblical to do so; it's certainly the way that Christ seems to be teaching us, but that means responsibility to read the Bible at more than the most superficial level.
Curious believers will want to go deeper, but that deeper searching has to involve more than searching through the Bible. We must also search through the other book that God gave us—the book of nature. We must not pretend that one of these books is untrustworthy if it seems on the surface to conflict with the other. It's our responsibility, as individuals and as a culture and I think, frankly, as Christians.

But this places a huge burden on the teaching ministry of the church to pass on that level of sophistication. I can't imagine evangelical churches embracing this task.
We must. Because what we're doing now is passing on a burden to the youth. And it's a burden that many of them are going to be weighed down with to the point where they will not have their faith anymore. Right now, many churches are telling their young people, "You have to adhere to this absolutely literal description of what we say Genesis means," and they put a lot of energy into conveying that in Sunday school and in home schooling curricula. It's not as if the church has not already invested in providing a perspective on this issue—but unfortunately they've invested in a view that's counter to God's book of nature. This is both unnecessary and tragic. But I have hopes that over time we can come to the realization that the current battle between the scientific and spiritual worldviews is not God's battle, but is one created by us. That means we should also be able to find a way toward peace.

The problem with this way of interpreting the Bible is that, because it renders the meaning of the Bible dependent on what we discover and believe to be the truth, it cannot mean anything at all. If the real meaning of a text can become its negation as previously understood, then it has no meaning of its own but only whatever meaning we give it. Perhaps Collins is channeling Stanley Fish, and his reader-response theory, but one would not expect to find that view of meaning in a theist.

The meaning of Genesis for example is clear: God created the world in six days, in the order described, and rested on the seventh, etc. Presumably Collins thinks all this is metaphorical as is the claim that God made humanity in his own image. But what clue is there that the passage is intended by its authors metaphorically? Is there some reason to think that ancient Hebrew culture had progressed beyond the anthropomorphism of, say, ancient Greek culture? Is there some subtle linguistic analysis or translational problem that renders all this metaphorical? These are possible explanations, of course, but they are not explanations given by Collins. Collins interprets the Bible in a way that is the direct negation of its literal meaning based entirely on its disagreement with actual facts. And that's just as absurd as my little game of reinterpreting Darwin.

Collins reaches this absurdity because of two beliefs: the apparent meaning of the Bible is inaccurate as measured by independent observations, but the real meaning of the Bible must be entirely accurate. But these together entail that the Bible's real meaning can be only what we give it after the fact. If one simply dispenses with the belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, one has no such problem.