Thursday, July 30, 2009

Philosopher Tricks--Demand for Theory

As usual, we assume we have a theory that is highly suspect or otherwise obviously inadequate, and we want to avoid conclusive refutation. Suppose our theory is that moral claims are true if and only if Tim Tebow asserts them (the Gator Command theory).

One reasonable way to evaluate a claim about which you are in doubt is to define the claim and then try to argue against it (no kidding!). There are innumerable ways to argue for or against a claim, but one method stands out for how cheap and easy it is, and thus is to be preferred over all others. And that is to demand a theory of the objection to our position and then counterexample (or otherwise refute) that definition.

The correctness of a theory of X is only weakly relevant to the truth of X. If you can develop a good theory of X you can help dispel doubts that X might be an illusion or that the reasons for belief in X are an error of some kind. But a failure to have a theory of X does not mean that X is not real. Indeed, theorizing about the nature of X must come after recognition of the existence or reality of X. Moreover, it is virtually impossible to give a coherent, complete theory of any philosophically interesting item X (or even many uninteresting ones).

Wittgenstein, as we know, made this point, and it doesn't apply just to the Socratic questions about piety, virtue, etc. It applies in even mundane contexts. There is no set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be a game, but it does not follow that there is no such thing as a game. Play the game game yourself. Try to think of anything that all and only games have in common. There are lots of necessary conditions (e.g. being an activity), and lots of sufficient conditions (e.g. being scrabble), but no set of conditions that are jointly sufficient but individually necessary. If you play this game, and find it frustrating, you may realize that even being fun is not necessary for something to be a game.

Or, consider sports. Is there anything that all and only sports have in common? Here's a definition of "sport" from "Physical activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively." (

This is too broad. Construction work is a physical activity, and it is governed by rules. Note the open-ended part of the definition "often engaged in competitively". Just about any physical activity can be engaged in competitively. There are competitive eating contests (hence, physical activities), but eating isn't a sport.

In retrospect, it is obvious that demands for a theory will often fail to be met, not because the item in question does not exist, but because either we cannot figure out what set of conditions make it what it is, or because there is no set of such conditions. This error is obvious, yet it is often overlooked.

My first example is from Russ Shafer-Landau in his introductory article on Ethical Subjectivism in Reason and Responsibility. Shafer-Landau makes exactly this demand-for-a-theory argument against moral realism, saying that one reason against it is that there is no adequate theory of objective moral facts. But the fact that we cannot completely define and explain the existence of objective moral facts does not mean there aren't any; in fact, it's not even much evidence that there aren't any. This inability to give a theory of moral facts could simply reflect our well-known inability to give a complete and correct theory of much of anything.

Here's a case in which a philosopher defends a problematic theory. Brian McLaughlin, writing in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, on the topic of Epiphenomenalism, the view that the mind or mental properties (or types) are causally irrelevant, notes that many critics of epiphenomenalism claim that it creates insuperable problems of reference to and knowledge of the mental. But, McLaughlin claims, such a criticism would require that a causal theory of reference or knowledge be correct, and there are problems with causal theories of reference and knowledge.

The problem with McLaughlin's claim is obvious. To say that it is necessary that some particular (concrete, abstract, whatever) be causally relevant to one's belief/utterance in order for that belief to count as knowledge/for that utterance to refer is not to claim that a causal theory of knowledge or reference is correct. I may think that theories of any such thing are impossible to attain, but I may also think that causation is necessary but not sufficient for knowledge or reference (to concrete particulars). So the lack of causation would undermine the possibility of knowledge/reference even though there would not be a causal theory of either.

I don't have a causal theory of sitting, but I'm fairly sure that a necessary condition for one to be sitting on something is that the thing you are sitting on be causally related to you. I don't have a "height" theory of basketball prowess, but I'll wager that being over 3 feet tall is a necessary condition for making it in the NBA (damn you, NBA!).

My final example comes from an article, "Teleology and the Nature of Mental States," in the American Philosophical Quarterly by Scott Sehon.

Sehon argues for a teleological view of action-explanation and, based on that theory, argues against functionalism. The discussion relevant to my point is Sehon's response to the obvious Davidsonian point that nothing can constitute an explanation of behavior unless it is causally responsible for that behavior. Only causation can turn the and of "Jamie was jealous and broke up with his girlfriend" to the because of "Jamie broke up with his girlfriend because he was jealous."

Sehon claims that in order to support the claim that causation is necessary for a correct teleological explanation for behavior, one must believe that a causal analysis of teleological explanations is at least possible. But, he claims, one cannot give such an analysis, primarily because causation is not sufficient for teleology. In other words, one’s mental state can cause a behavior in a deviant way so that we would not say that the behavior was done intentionally but the mental state nonetheless caused it.

There are two glaring problems with this argument. First, no one need claim that there is a causal analysis of intentional action in order to think that causation is necessary for that action. The second problem, related to the first, is that to say that X is necessary for Y (while not implying that there is a theory of Y in terms of X) does not mean that X is also sufficient for Y. So, showing that X is not in fact sufficient for Y has literally no bearing on the claim about X’s necessity for Y.

So, why would anyone make these arguments? Why demand a theory of whatever-it-is that is thought to render your theory inadequate? Because it’s easier than addressing the real issue. Sehon could very easily show that causation is not necessary for an explanation of action if he could give an example in which the supposed intention is not actually a cause but does nonetheless provide a correct intentional explanation. Obviously, there is no such example.

Now we can protect our theory from refutation by always demanding a theory of our objector for whatever theory we propose. So, now, when someone objects that our Gator Command theory of morality implies that Tebow would have no reason for his commands, we can say: To conclude that the Gator's commands are not based on reason is to assume that there could be an objective theory of reasons in morality against which the Gator's commands are to be judged. But given that there is no such theory, this objection provides no basis to undermine our view. Now, declare victory and go home.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

William Kristol, the Bullshitter

William Kristol, in Harry Frankfurt's technical terms, is a bullshitter or bullshit artist. This means that Kristol has no interest in the truth; he is not even lying when he makes claims or arguments since to lie one has to care what the truth is and attempt to make someone believe its negation. Kristol has no interest in the truth at all; he will, quite simply, say anything at all if he believes it will benefit himself and his "side" of any particular issue. It is for this reason that Kristol should never be invited on any television program or to write any opinion article. It's not that he's wrong, disastrously wrong, a lying weasel, or complicit in the deaths of thousands of American troops or tens, or hundreds, of thousands of Iraqis. These are terrible and crimes against humanity. But the reason he should never be invited to speak in public is that there is no connection between things he says and any reason or fact at all. In order to be a positive contributor to the public discourse, and, therefore, in order for it to be reasonable for any television program, newspaper, magazine, blog or random-crazy-person-ranting-in-the-street, to rely on Kristol for anything--including not just expertise on issues but even opinion or contrarianism, it must be that such a person makes an effort to connect his/her assertions with some evidence, fact or reason. One need not believe everything one says in order to be taken seriously, but if there is no expectation that one's claims will have anything to do with reality, then we would all be better off generating statements from random word lists. At least those might have comedic value. The only value of seeing or reading Kristol is as an emetic. I am, of course, not advocating taking away Kristol's right to free speech. He is just as free as I am to blog or rant incoherently on the streets. I do object to anyone providing him a platform for his bullshit. And our entire media establishment seems hell-bent on providing him that platform despite his already having control of an influential conservative magazine.

The impetus for my writing comes from his recent appearance on the Daily Show ("a mouthpiece for the right") in which he claims an analogy between Sarah Palin resigning as governor of Alaska and Barack Obama resigning his senate seat in order to be President (and others taking other offices in the Obama administration--strangely I have never noticed Kristol taking Republicans to task for this offense). In other words, Kristol claims that accepting a promotion is the same thing as quitting your job.

This is obviously a false analogy, and no one with even a moment's thought or an ounce of integrity would make such a preposterous claim. This example alone ought to explain my attitude toward Kristol. There are, of course, an indefinitely large supply of similar examples even during that one interview. However, I should say precisely what is wrong with the analogy.

There is an implied contractual agreement among politicians when they run for office and the public who votes for (or against) them. Among the implicit agreements is the agreement that the public official will serve his/her designated time in office. And this explains the general disdain people have for Palin resigning. She had no adequate justification for stepping down; there simply was no reason for her to break this implicit contract. It is not enough that one want to earn more money or that one wants to avoid public criticism or that one wants to go on speaking tours or one wants to work less or avoid a place of work that one finds uncongenial. If Palin did seriously believe based upon good evidence, that she was simply incapable of functioning effectively as governor, for example due to ineradicable stupidity, then resigning would be justified. However, she did not appear to believe that, and, although the residents of Alaska will probably benefit by her leaving, they still should feel betrayed by her breaking of an implicit promise.

The implicit promise to serve out one's term in office, however, is not the sole responsibility one has as a public figure. One also has a responsibility to serve one's country and one's constituents as effectively as possible. It is as obvious as anything could be that Obama can serve the people of Illinois more effectively as President than he could as Senator. So, Obama's responsibility to his constituents outweighs his responsibilities as Senator. To belabor the point: if I agree to take my wife out to dinner, but, while I am on the way to the KFC, she goes into labor, I should not continue to act on my original promise but to drive to the hospital instead. So, Obama's taking a new job as President is acceptable.

It is a bit less obvious that, say, Kathleen Sebelius taking the job as Secretary of Health and Human Services fits this model of obligation. But I think a reasonable case can be made that this is a legitimate promotion in which position she could benefit her constituents and as well as other Americans. We have responsibilities to others besides the one we made our promise to, and those responsibilities can take precedence as well. So, if Sebelius had good reason to think that she could benefit others significantly in the new post, then she could have a responsibility to take a new job.

In short, accepting a promotion is not the same thing as quitting. Obama's and Palin's resignations are not the same; this meme ought to die painfully. And Kristol should stop bullshitting about it.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Obama's Insensitive Remarks

Barack Obama's remarks about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, noted African American scholar and Harvard university professor, have quite rightly received criticism for impugning the good men and women serving in police forces not just in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but around the United States. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI) has authored a resolution demanding Obama apologize for his intemperate remarks. And Steve Killian, president of the Cambridge Police Patrol Officer's Association demanded an apology to all police personnel, "The president should make an apology to all law enforcement personnel throughout the entire country who took offense to this."

Indeed, what could be more intemperate than saying that the police acted "stupidly" in arresting someone for being in his own home without proper police authorization. It's a good thing that members of the Republican party are never given to criticism or hyperbole in their public statements. But the legitimacy of these criticisms notwithstanding, this criticism of Obama is too narrow. Demands that Obama apologize to all police officers in America is far too narrow. After all, if one must apologize to all police officers for criticizing a single police officer, it must also be true that Obama should apologize not only to all carbon-based lifeforms, since Officer Crowley was clearly carbon-based, but to all physical objects in the entire universe since Crowley is also a physical object that occupies part of the universe.

One might think that this response is extreme, that Obama clearly has no need to apologize personally to the occupants of Deneb 7 (should there be such a place), but the logic is inexorable. Whenever you criticize one member of a class of individuals, you have, by extension, criticized every member of that class.

So, the ball is in Obama's court. Will he personally apologize to every physical object in the universe? Or is he a pusillanimous cad who will not take responsibility for his statements? I look forward to increased funding for manned space flight.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

God Is Good, Like, Really Is Good

Reading the introductory anthology that I'm teaching from, I noticed an article by Philip Quinn in which Quinn argues for the divine command theory, that morality depends on God and specifically God's commands. On this theory an action is right if and only if God commands that we do it, wrong if and only if God forbids us from doing it, and neutral if and only if God neither commands nor forbids it. The classic problem with this is presented as the Euthyphro dilemma. Does God command the good because it is good, or is it good because God commands it? Most people would think that God chooses those commands because they are the morally right commands; they do not become morally right in virtue of God commanding them. Leibniz argued that if the divine command theory were true, then God's commands would be essentially arbitrary, that God could have no reason for the commands he gives, and there would be no sense in which God is praiseworthy for the commands he gives since any commands would be as good as any others.

Quinn responds to this argument by claiming that if God is goodness itself (as in, this is the "is" of identity), then his actions cannot arbitrary, or non-praiseworthy, while morality would still depend on God (since everything depends on itself). I'm not sure this solves the problem, but even if it did, it seems to be a cure that's worse than the disease. What would it mean to say that God is identical to goodness itself? Goodness is an abstract entity, but God is a concrete particular. Goodness cannot causally interact with anything, but God does (if God created the universe). According to Christianity, one is supposed to worship God, and God is supposed to do things for his followers--reward their devotion by giving them eternal bliss in heaven--how is it possible for the abstraction of goodness itself to do any of these things? And what sense would it make to worship goodness itself? No matter how perfect the number 1 is, it wouldn't make any sense to worship it.

Now, does this assertion solve the problem? If God is identical to morality, then it's impossible for God to be anything other than morality, but it doesn't follow that the moral commands God gives would necessarily be the ones God has given. This is a case of scope ambiguity. God necessarily is morality, but it's not necessarily the case that the particular moral rules would necessarily be as they actually are if they depend on God. Given the dependence of morality on God, God's commands are still arbitrary because there would be no moral facts for God to consult by means of which to evaluate his own choices. God could only compare his choices to themselves or to his preferences (even though it makes no sense to say that goodness itself makes choices or has preferences). But, given the lack of an independent measure, God's choices must be based on no reason. Similarly, they must not be praiseworthy since they would still be good no matter what they were.

I think the only way to avoid these problems with the divine command theory is, literally, to label moral goodness "God". But in reality this is a kind of atheism. If I claim that God exists because I have named by dog "God", I have not established the existence of God. And if I say that there is no other God besides my dog, then I am an atheist. I would be denying the existence of the being with all the characteristics relevant to our conception of God.

It's equally clear that this "God = goodness" claim is just an argumentative dodge that even Quinn does not really accept. Almost immediately after making the nonsensical claim that God is goodness, he discusses the problem of God's order to Abraham to kill Isaac. But if God really were goodness, he could not order Abraham to do anything. The story would qualify as one giant category mistake. The idea that God just is goodness is so transparently nonsensical that no one could actually believe it; it's an argumentative ploy used and then discarded once it has effected the all-important response to problems with the divine command theory.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Banning Human-Animal Hybrids

Media Matters has a humorous take on a recent bill introduced by Sam Brownback and Mary Landrieu to ban human-animal hybrids created in laboratories. (Brownback's description of the bill and his reasons for it are here.) The idea that these distinguished Senators would waste all our time protecting the nation from mermaids, centaurs, or whatever other science fiction or fantasy creature their imaginations might conjure, is laughable. Why not an anti-vampire bill? Shouldn't we be protected from the scourge of the undead? And if you vote against it, that just shows you want Dracula to kill America's children, doesn't it?

The problem is not that the bill is a joke, however. The problem is that the bill is not a joke. The bill does have a serious purpose and serious effect. But, as you might expect, a harmful one. The bill is intended to prevent potentially life-saving medical research based on nothing more than religious dogmatism.

Patrick J. Kiger for Discovery Blogs has a description of what this debate is really about.

As it turns out, Bush wasn’t actually envisioning a nightmarish race of what sci-fi writers refer to as parahumans. Instead, he was up in arms about the possibility of scientists combining human genetic material with animal eggs to produce hybrid embryos, which then could be harvested for stem cells — a possible way of getting around political and religious conservatives’ opposition to the harvesting of stem cells from leftover human embryos from fertility clinics. (Back in 2001, Bush essentially barred the federal government from funding such research, unless scientists relied upon a limited number of existing stem cell lines.)
So, part of this ban is supposed to support the already-existing but unwise ban federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (except for a very small number of lines whose utility and genetic diversity are very much in question).

A second, albeit polemical, take on Bush's proposed ban comes from P.Z. Myers' Pharyngula. The important part of this post is the proposal would ban legitimate medical research that has the potential to save and improve lives. So, given the potential medical efficacy of such research, what is the justification for banning it?
Bush's speech included little in the way of justification. (That's a big surprise.)

A hopeful society has institutions of science and medicine that do not cut ethical corners and that recognize the matchless value of every life.

Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms; creating or implanting embryos for experiments; creating human-animal hybrids; and buying, selling or patenting human embryos.

Human life is a gift from our creator, and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale.

First, he blatantly appeals to emotion. We obviously want to be a hopeful society and apparently that means "recogniz[ing] the matchless value of every life". And that recognition requires banning these hybrids. Let's suppose he means this matchless value only to include human life; otherwise, he would be banning meat-eating. (And let's not even get started on "human cloning in all its forms"--emphasis added.) This is a textbook fallacy in that no attempt is made to connect this appeal to any form of reason for the action. Why doesn't hope require that we fund medical research that can save or improve human lives? Bush provides no answer, so his appeal is fallacious.

Second, Bush relies on an appeal to God. The final sentence is his only real argument: "Human life is a gift from our creator, and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale." Do we value every "gift from our creator" in this way? Cancer is at least as much a gift from our creator; does this mean we should ban treatments for cancer? Of course not. He's claiming that human life has infinite (or "matchless") value, and that to create human-animal hybrids in some way devalues that life.

Even this argument makes no sense, however. We don't ban the creation of human life because God gave us this gift or because human life is infinitely valuable. That's completely backwards; if human life is valuable, other things being equal, there should be more of it. So, it must be that, somehow, creating a human-animal hybrid entails that we treat actual humans as having less than infinite value. As noted, this is not the case. If creating these hybrids results in life-saving treatments for disease or genetic disorder (for example), it would seem that creating them evinces great respect and value for human life.

So, we turn to Brownback's arguments. There are basically two arguments here. First,

The issue is that when you make changes in the germ-line, such changes are passed along to one’s offspring. You could make a change now that could be passed along through the gene-pool for the rest of humanity. We do not know what the full effect of this could be, and it could be disastrous.

Tampering with the human germ-line could be the equivalent to setting a time-bomb that might detonate many generations down the line; but once it is set, there is no reversing course.

This is either completely irrelevant or too general a worry to justify the ban. Nothing we know of in the current research suggests that scientists are going to infect humans with a potentially dangerous genetic modification (that won't have any effect until it's somehow spread to all humanity!). That's more like the plot to a science fiction/horror movie. Does he think we're living in a Resident Evil game/movie? In the case of treating Downs' syndrome, even if the treatment resulted in genetic modification of children with it--and finding a treatment by creating an analog syndrome in mice does not make that significantly more likely--it's not likely that the cure would be worse than the disease. And if it were, the cure for that would be to do the research and discover the potential benefits and risks of the treatment. We do not ban all treatments for arthritis because some of them caused heart problems.

That takes us to the seond worry. Perhaps Brownback just wants to warn us about the potential unintended consequences of new treatments which he presents in absurdly apocalyptic terms. If so, such a warning is always salutary, but not particularly relevant to this debate. There's always the possibility of unintended, long-term consequences to any medical treatment. But we don't ban medical treatments for that reason; we require that they be accompanied by long-term studies to determine such potential side effects. We should be especially careful with genetic modifications since the potential side effects might take years or decades to occur, but that just means our long-term studies should be even longer-term. And anyway that issue is completely distinct from the human-animal hybrid issue. If we want to ban human genetic manipulation, ban that. But there's so far no reason to think human-animal hybrids will lead to that in normal humans. We're not turning people into pig-men; we're giving pigs human DNA for medical experimentation, so we don't have to do it to actual humans.

Brownback has one other reason:
Creating human-animal hybrids, which permanently alter the genetic makeup of an organism, will challenge the very definition of what it means to be human and is a violation of human dignity and a grave injustice.

He's not worried about making changes in the DNA of humans; he's worried that giving animals human DNA will make them human, or some kind of sub-human monster, and that creating humans without full-human rights undermines the rights of humans.

Brownback's right that if pigs get X amount of human DNA, then we cannot define humanity by having X amount of human DNA. But there's no reason to define humanity by parts of a human genome. And, going back to first principles, we note that the relevant issue for moral treatment, moral responsibility and rights is not humanity but personhood. So, the worry would have to be that in (for example) creating pigs with bits of human DNA, we will be making a person, or sub-person with some of the rights of persons, which we could then treat as simple property without dignity or rights. If this were the case, it would be reason to worry. But we could easily prevent that at some point if we, for example, needed to create pigs with human intelligence in order to test a treatment for Alzheimer's. But that's not what's happening here. A pig with a little human DNA is no more a person than it was without that DNA. So, again, Brownback's reasoning is totally off the mark.

The only reason he can have here is that he thinks that once something has human DNA, it's human and must have all the rights of a human person. That's obviously false. Humans do not become cold-viruses when they DNA to replicate them. Having some DNA from another species is simply not relevant to one's moral or legal status.

So, what's motivating this? Blind, religious dogmatism. There cannot be reasons behind this for the reasons are so obviously weak or irrelevant. The "reasons" given are a disguise for dogmatic belief in human uniqueness and exceptionalism. Anything that blurs that line or undermines that exceptionalism undermines his religious world-view, so reasons cannot enter the picture. If he really considered the reasons for his bill, he might have to consider reasons for the whole religious edifice. And it's clear that such an edifice would not long stand.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Lou Gehrig

Watching ESPN the other day, I saw a report on Lou Gehrig, his iconic speech, and the history leading to that speech. In short, the fact is that he did not know the severity of his condition. His doctors and friends lied to him. He thought he was getting better and that he might be able to return to a normal life.

My first reaction was that I did not want to know this. The speech, the ideal of courage in the face of unavoidable and painful deterioration followed by death, was too great to lose. Why destroy this idol when no one was served by it? Why shouldn't we be inspired by this moment of crystalline perfection, of pellucid heroism that could inspire generations to face our much lesser problems with courage and grace? And what harm could it do?

Yet, we have an allegiance to the truth that cannot be ignored. And to believe the comforting lie about Gehrig weakens our ability to pursue truth in all areas. If Gehrig is off limits because we want his courage to be perfect, how can we justify upsetting beliefs other people take to be similarly sacred?

So, reluctantly, I applaud ESPN investigating the facts about the icon and the circumstances of his speech provided the investigation is uncovering the truth. What to think about Gehrig and the speech? First, the ideal it illustrates might still be useful one to emulate even if it is not based on Gehrig's knowledge of his own imminent death. Second, we should recognize that the speech does represent considerable courage in the face of hardship. He may have been unrealistic about his prognosis, but he still dealt with a difficult and debilitating disease with grace. We should continue to admire that courage. We can still recognize courage realistically and model our lives after it without illusions.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Religion, Science and Accommodationism

It's not obvious that science and religion are necessarily incompatible. Some religious claims are incompatible with some scientific claims. For example, Biblical literalists make claims that are inconsistent with well-established astrophysical and biological claims. Perhaps religion's claims could be restricted to claims that necessarily are beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, but it's not clear that this would allow religion to remain within the scope of rational inquiry.

Madeline Bunting, in the Guardian, after taking some unnecessary shots at the supposed dogmatism and radicalism of contemporary atheists, reviews a conference of "thoughtful believers" at Lambeth Palace, wherever that is. It's strange how rationality always supports theism when only theists are invited to contribute. She writes,
But the Archbishop of Canterbury was brisk, and he warned, "beware of the power of nonsense". Science's triumphalist claim as a competitor to failed religion was dangerous. In contrast, he offered an accommodation in which science and religion were "different ways of knowing" and "what you come to know depends on the questions you start with". Different questions lead to "different practices of learning" – for example different academic disciplines. Rather than competitors, science and religion were both needed to pursue different questions.

This is in fact precisely the kind of nonsense the Archbishop of Canterbury ought to be warning us about. I'm not sure who has claimed that science is a triumphant competitor with religion. Perhaps it is triumphalist to think that religion might be false and belief in it irrational. I doubt anyone thinks that science supports its own version of the same type of claims that religion does. However, the accommodationist position put forth is the real nonsense. She confuses two separate issues. The first is the two different ways of "knowing". The second is the two different areas of "knowledge". These two issues are distinct. The religious way of knowing could cover the same subject matter as science but with different standards of evaluation. Or religion could cover different areas of knowledge (in Gould's terms, NOMA, "Non-Overlapping Magisteria") but in the same general way that science does. Or, of course, it could answer different questions with a different approach.

Unfortunately, under any of these criteria, religion is apt to fail to be fully rational. When religion covers the same questions as science, its answers have simply failed to be supportable. When people have held religious belief in scientific questions (e.g. origin of the earth and species), they have largely been incorrect, and shown to be incorrect, by the advance of science. Religion clearly does not meet the same standards of evidence as science, and so it cannot be that religion approaches different questions with the same methods. That leaves only the question of the rationality of religious approaches to different questions. Gould used to say that the domain of religion was morality, the existence of God and the nature of the soul. Obviously, morality has nothing to do with religion, so we can skip that, but even the other questions are in the domain of philosophy. Perhaps this is the best attitude: philosophy, not science, and religion are in competition. But philosophy is based on reason and careful evaluation of argument and evidence. Religion, I presume, is based on revelation, personal experience and faith. All of these are irrational methods of acquiring beliefs. In sum, if religion is a different way of knowing different subject matter, then it is clearly an irrational way of "knowing" that subject matter, and it should be rejected in favor of philosophical analysis.

But let's sample the rationality of these thoughtful believers:

Simon Conway Morris, professor of evolutionary palaeobiology, argued that the polemical hostile debate which dominates public debate – "the fuss" – is really about a failure of nerve of both science and religion. The response of both is to retreat into their own forms of dangerous literalism – religion into creationism and science into a fundamentalism. Challenging the current deference to Darwin in this anniversary year, he warned that aspects of Darwin's thought can be taken into very dangerous territory; he cited a diary entry of Josef Goebbels' in 1942 on the "parasitical Jews" in the struggle for survival. Science needed ethical thinking.

How science retreats into fundamentalism is never explained, but the repetition of creationist calumny against evolution and Darwin--the connection to Nazism--sounds like fundamentalism to me.

The second question from the audience – from the philosopher Mary Midgley – was what comes next? What both science and religion needed, argued Conway Morris was a more fruitful conversation. He raised the possibility that religion might be needed to help develop understanding into questions which have baffled scientists such as the nature of consciousness. The future of science is a series of imponderables, he concluded, and it may require a set of scientific skills "of which we have no inkling at the moment."

How religion, revelation, and faith could help develop an understanding of consciousness is completely mysterious. I suppose this is Roger Penrose thinking: Religion's a mystery, consciousness is another mystery. Maybe they explain each other. I can sympathize with the idea that we may not have the concepts or skills necessary to understand consciousness, but I don't see how religion has anything to offer on that score. In general the future of science is clearly not a set of imponderables; if it's imponderable, it's not science. Science, except for perhaps the problem of consciousness, is doing fine without adding mysteries to their explanation. Mysteries cannot explain anything.

Bunting continues discussing Midgeley's question:

It was a tantalising suggestion, but John Houghton, the climate scientist, took the question in an entirely different direction. It was science which had established the nature of global warming and science would play a role in inventing the innovations which could mitigate its impact, but religion also had a role as an agent of change of personal behaviour. It had a crucial role because religion essentially concerned itself with relationships to other people, to the rest of humanity and to the natural environment.

This answer appears to provide science its proper role in explaining the problem and resolving it. But religion's role is, again, mysterious. Since morality and religion are independent, Houghton could only mean that religion can provide motivation to do things that we independently, by means of science and philosophy, know to be good. But at least we have something closer to a definition of religion even though it is still couched in vague, weasel-words. The phrase, "essentially concerned itself with relationships" does not tell us precisely what religion is or does. But, given that science and philosophy are responsible for our knowledge of ourselves, morality, other people and the environment, religion can only be one among many possible motivations behind moral improvement. Perhaps this is a purpose of religion, but this is a purpose of any number of social organizations. We can understand religion as just one in a number of social organizations with no special area of knowledge or way of knowing, but presumably accommodationists have a more exalted role for religion in mind. On their view, religion ain't just a bowling league devoting to personal and moral improvement. Unfortunately, taking it to be more than that is just irrational.

There's only a bit left, and it's really more of the same, so I won't continue. The point is that these well-meaning scientists and theologians want to encourage people to behave in morally responsible ways with respect to others and to the environment, but they are hopelessly confused about religion's necessity for that moral responsibility. My general agreement with their goals cannot cause me to avert my eyes from the poor reasoning they use to advance those goals.

The Group of One

The G8 met in Laquilla, Italy after Silvio Berlusconi moved them there in order to bring some much needed money to the region devastated by the recent earthquake.

Here at the Unpublishable Philosopher, I am starting the Group of One (G1), consisting of me (the UP). And I am hoping to have a meeting in my home to bring some much needed money to it, and, if there is enough left over, I will take it to Laquilla for a much-needed vacation.

This plan has run into a couple of logical snags. First, it is not clear that something can be a group if it consists of only one thing. Second, it is not clear that the group consisting of only one member is really distinct from that one member. But, I think, we can overcome these problems. First, a one-member group is a limit case of a group. A group with no members would be the Empty Group; a group with only one member is a Unit Group. So the G1 is a unit-group consisting only of me.
What's the difference between the G1 and the UP himself? Simple, the G1 is a group and the UP is not a group. A set is not identical to its members. Members make up the set, but they are not identical to it. So, if we understand groups as sets, then we have no problem with distinguishing the group from its sole member.

So, overcoming a minor concern about grammatical infelicity, I'm well-prepared to form the G1 and begin cashing in.

Sonia Sotomayor Endorsements on NPR

National Public Radio covered Sotomayor endorsements this morning. There were endorsements from the Fraternal Order of Police and the announcement of a formal endorsement by former FBI director Louis Freeh later this week.

First, the FOP spokesman said that every policeman should and would support Sotomayor. This was obviously just hyperbole, but, seriously, how can every single policeman in America support her. Isn't it possible that one of them doesn't like her? Did she never run a stop sign? Isn't even one cop in America racist?

Second, Louis Freeh is going to endorse her before the Senate Judiciary committee next week. Is that really an endorsement anyone should want? Is that an endorsement she should accept? Should any liberals be happy about this endorsement? Here's an opinion piece that makes a good case against Freeh's basic honesty and competence. I also would have linked the This Modern World describing some of the weirder ideas in Freeh's book criticizing the Clintons but I couldn't find it (so it might be my imagination).

Third, Freeh points out that Sotomayor would be the only member of the court with experience as a trial judge, and that this experience would bring a valuable perspective to the court. I now am waiting for Mitch McConnell to say that this experience would make her unacceptably biased in favor of trial judges and that she would be an empathetic, activist judge who would legislate in their favor from the bench. (By the way, has anyone else noted that in the Ricci case that the Supreme Court recently overturned--from what I can tell in a purely empathetic, legislating from the bench kind of way--she found against an Hispanic firefighter who was to get a promotion from the system she [and the rest of the unanimous panel] ruled to be in violation of the Civil Rights Act. If she really were basing her judgments on her ethnicity, wouldn't she have found in favor of Ricci?)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Sanford calls on Sanford to resign

South Carolina Governor Marc Sanford today called on himself to resign his post because of his marital infidelity. At a recent press conference, Sanford said,

"I think it would be much better for the country and for him personally (to resign)... I come from the business side. If you had a chairman or president in the business world facing these allegations, he'd be gone."

He noted that the affair did not only harm Sanford's public relations but also his ability to govern effectively.
"The issue of lying is probably the biggest harm, if you will, to the system of Democratic government, representatives government, because it undermines trust. And if you undermine trust in our system, you undermine everything."

Sanford responded to the charges in a public statement,

I remain committed to rebuilding the trust that has been committed to me over the next 18 months, and it is my hope that I am able to follow the example set by David in the Bible - who after his fall from grace humbly refocused on the work at hand. By doing so, I will ultimately better serve in every area of my life, and I am committed to doing so.
As of this writing, there is no word on whether Sanford expects his mistress to give birth to a child who will then be killed by God as punishment for Sanford's infidelity. Nor did Sanford explain whether he had also, armed only with a sling, killed a giant in order to become governor of South Carolina.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Darrow v. Bryan--A Tie!

Patrick J. Buchanan, the old-time Holocaust-denying Hitler-apologist and owner of a mansion and a yacht, blurbs a piece of creationist brilliance in book form excreted by the delightfully-named Eugene Windchy. Buchanan writes:

The most delicious chapter is Windchy's exposure of the Scopes Monkey Trial and Hollywood's Bible-mocking movie "Inherit the Wind," starring Spencer Tracy as Clarence Darrow.

The trial was a hoked-up scam to garner publicity for Dayton, Tenn. Scopes never taught evolution and never took the stand. His students were tutored to commit perjury. And William Jennings Bryan held his own against the atheist Darrow in the transcript of the trial.

Buchanan appears to be drawing his conclusion, as all good creationists must, from what he wants and hopes to be true rather than from the evidence. But in the era of the internet, we can access this information effortlessly and draw our own conclusions. So, let's look at the transcript. I found Darrow's questioning of Bryan here and the table of contents to the whole trial transcript here.

The questioner, Q, is Darrow and the responses are from Bryan (A). After some prefatory remarks on Bryan's expertise on the Bible, Darrow asks,

Q--But when you read that Jonah swallowed the whale--or that the whale swallowed Jonah-- excuse me please--how do you literally interpret that?
A--When I read that a big fish swallowed Jonah--it does not say whale....That is my recollection of it. A big fish, and I believe it, and I
believe in a God who can make a whale and can make a man and make both what He pleases.
Q--Now, you say, the big fish swallowed Jonah, and he there
remained how long--three days-- and then he spewed him upon the land. You believe that the big fish was made to swallow Jonah?
A--I am not prepared to say that; the Bible merely says it was done.
Q--You don't know whether it was the ordinary run of fish, or made for that purpose?
A--You may guess; you evolutionists guess.....
Q--You are not prepared to say whether that fish was made especially to swallow a man or not?
A--The Bible doesn't say, so I am not prepared to say.
Q--But do you believe He made them--that He made such a fish and that
it was big enough to swallow Jonah?
A--Yes, sir. Let me add: One miracle is just as easy to believe as another

First, clearly, score one for Bryan since he corrected Darrow on the important issue of whether the Jonah-swallower was a whale or a fish. Second, he seems to have stymied Darrow's line of questioning by appealing to miracles right off the bat. And really, why not? Since the Bible requires miracles, why wait to appeal to them? Don't mess around with fakey, pseudo-explanations when one can just go straight to the miracle. Looks like a solid two points for Bryan and none for Darrow.

Perhaps Darrow wants to know what this fish was and whether there are more of them around who might be in danger of swallowing people now before coughing them up three days later. But if there was just a large fish that God caused miraculously to swallow and regurgitate only Jonah, then there's no danger of large-scale (pun intended) fish kidnapping. Clearly that's a testament to God's wisdom that he doesn't allow people-swallowing fish to roam the seas. So what if there aren't actually fish that can swallow people without digesting them? God could just miraculously inflate their bellies to hold the odd human occupant until the person should be released. Jonah could have miraculously had an easy chair and a mini-fridge, too, for all we know. It's really just God's little Guantanamo Bay.

Darrow continues:

Q--Just as hard?
A--It is hard to believe for you, but easy for me. A miracle is a thing performed beyond what man can perform. When you get within the realm of miracles; and it is just as easy to believe the miracle of Jonah as any other miracle in the Bible.
Q--Perfectly easy to believe that Jonah swallowed the whale?
A--If the Bible said so; the Bible doesn't make as extreme statements as evolutionists do....
Q--The Bible says Joshua commanded the sun to stand still for the purpose of lengthening the day, doesn't it, and you believe it?
A--I do.
Q--Do you believe at that time the entire sun went around the earth?
A--No, I believe that the earth goes around the sun.
Q--Do you believe that the men who wrote it thought that the day could be lengthened or that the sun could be stopped?
A--I don't know what they thought.
Q--You don't know?
A--I think they wrote the fact without expressing their own thoughts.

Aha! Score another one for Bryan. For one thing Darrow keeps getting confused about whether Jonah swallowed the whale or the whale--or the fish--swallowed Jonah. On the other hand, maybe Darrow was just hungry. Mmmmm. . . . giant fish. But isn't eating whales illegal? Darrow loses a point for his moral turpitude in wanting to eat whales.

The more important point is Darrow questioning Bryan about whether the "sun stopping in the sky" indicates that the sun goes around the earth or that the earth rotates. Bryan believes that the earth goes around the sun, the Bible is literally accurate, and that the authors made a statement that entails that the sun goes around the earth. This looks like an inconsistency, but to Bryan this only means that they "wrote the fact without expressing their own thoughts." Maybe these are God's thoughts they are expressing and not their own. In any case, Bryan's clever solution to this apparent inconsistency is to point out that their words need not have been inconsistent since those words need not have expressed any thoughts at all. Indeed, we have no reason to think their words meant anything at all; but at least they're all true!

After objections, the judge allows this line of questioning to continue.

Mr. Darrow--I read that years ago. Can you answer my question directly? If the day was lengthened by stopping either the earth or the sun, it must have been the earth?
A--Well, I should say so.
Q--Now, Mr. Bryan, have you ever pondered what would have happened to the earth if it had stood still?
Q--You have not?
A--No; the God I believe in could have taken care of that, Mr. Darrow.
Q-- I see. Have you ever pondered what would naturally happen to the
earth if it stood still suddenly?
A-- No.
Q--Don't you know it would have been converted into molten mass of matter?
A--You testify to that when you get on the stand, I will give you a chance.
Q--Don't you believe it?
A--I would want to hear expert testimony on that.
Q--You have never investigated that subject?
A--I don't think I have ever had the question asked.
Q--Or ever thought of it?
A--I have been too busy on thinks [things] that I thought were of more
importance than that.

Reluctantly, I cannot give this point to Bryan. After all, why does he care whether there is expert testimony on this or any other topic. If the Bible says it, it must be true and no amount of testimony can change that.

But I cannot give the point to Darrow either. Bryan is perfectly comfortable believing that an event occurred without any idea of what the physical consequences of that event would be, and no idea whether those events could even be physically possible without the destruction of all life on earth. Imagine telling your friend, "I think you could jump off a mountain." And your friend says, "Don't you know that you'd be killed?" You reply, "I'd never thought of that." This is a brilliant debating strategy. You can avoid any inconsistency in your beliefs simply by never considering any consequences of or connection to other beliefs.

Darrow turns to questions about the flood.

Q--You believe the story of the flood to be a literal interpretation?
A--Yes, sir.
Q--When was that Flood?
A--I would not attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed, as suggested this morning.
Q--About 4004 B.C.?
A--That has been the estimate of a man that is accepted today. I would not say it is accurate.
Q--That estimate is printed in the Bible?
A--Everybody knows, at least, I think most of the people know, that was the estimate given.
Q--But what do you think that the Bible, itself says? Don't you know how it was arrived at?
A--I never made a calculation.
Q--A calculation from what?
A--I could not say.
Q--From the generations of man?
A--I would not want to say that.
Q--What do you think?
A--I do not think about things I don't think about.
Q--Do you think about things you do think about?
A--Well, sometimes.

Score another point for Bryan. Bryan's stated a basic logical truth. Who can deny that he doesn't think about things he doesn't think about? And better still, he thinks about things he does think about. You cannot go wrong in a debate stating basic logical truths; if you stick to tautologies, you can never make a false claim.

Q--Wait until you get to me. Do you know anything about how many people there were in Egypt 3,500 years ago, or how many people there were in China 5,000 years ago?
Q--Have you ever tried to find out?
A--No, sir. You are the first man I ever heard of who has been in [?] interested in it. (Laughter.)
Q--Mr. Bryan, am I the first man you ever heard of who has been interested in the age of human societies and primitive man?
A--You are the first man I ever heard speak of the number of people at those different periods.
Q--Where have you lived all your life?
A--Not near you. (Laughter and applause.)
Q--Nor near anybody of learning?
A--Oh, don't assume you know it all.
Q--Do you know there are thousands of books in our libraries on all those subjects I have been asking you about?
A--I couldn't say, but I will take your word for it....

Score another for Bryan. We've seen it's easier to keep one's beliefs consistent, or at least not notice their inconsistency, if one never considers their consequences. Similarly, one can keep one's beliefs free from contradiction by never considering evidence against them. In fact, it's best just to avoid any knowledge whatsoever in order to avoid inconsistency. But Darrow does not know when he's beaten.

Q--Have you any idea how old the earth is?
Q--The Book you have introduced in evidence tells you, doesn't it?
A--I don't think it does, Mr. Darrow.
Q--Let's see whether it does; is this the one?
A--That is the one, I think.
Q--It says B.C. 4004?
A--That is Bishop Usher's calculation.
Q--That is printed in the Bible you introduced?
A--Yes, sir....
Q--Would you say that the earth was only 4,000 years old?
A--Oh, no; I think it is much older than that.
Q--How much?
A--I couldn't say.
Q--Do you say whether the Bible itself says it is older than that?
A--I don't think it is older or not.
Q--Do you think the earth was made in six days?
A--Not six days of twenty-four hours.
Q--Doesn't it say so?
A--No, sir....

Bryan is careful not to contradict the beliefs of other creationists, but he also doesn't want to commit to a 4,000 year-old earth either. I think we can count this one against Bryan, though, since he should have agreed that the world is 6,000 years old. And if it's all a miracle anyway, why does it matter if the universe is only 6,000 years old? The histories of those other cultures Darrow mentions were probably illusions created by Satan. But we cannot give the point to Darrow because of his lack of arithmetical skills; 4004 BC to 1926 isn't 4,000 years but 5,930 years. That's a huge difference! If someone asked me, "Are you 50 years old?" and I was 75, I would think that was a big difference.

Q--Mr. Bryan, do you believe that the first woman was Eve?
Q--Do you believe she was literally made out of Adams's rib?
A--I do.
Q--Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?
A--No, sir; I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.
Q--You have never found out?
A--I have never tried to find
Q--You have never tried to find?
Q--The Bible says he got one, doesn't it? Were there other people on the earth at that time?
A--I cannot say.
Q--You cannot say. Did that ever enter your consideration?
A--Never bothered me.
Q--There were no others recorded, but Cain got a wife.
A--That is what the Bible says.
Q--Where she came from you do not know. All right.

Bryan's casual unconcern for the truths of the Bible is a perfect sign of his dedication to the absolute truth of the Bible.

Darrow, continuing directly,

Does the statement, "The morning and the evening were the first day," and "The morning and the evening were the second day," mean anything to you?
A-- I do not think it necessarily means a twenty-four-hour day.
Q--You do not?
Q--What do you consider it to be?
A--I have not attempted to explain it. If you will take the second chapter--let me have the book. (Examining Bible.) The fourth verse of the second chapter says: "These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth, when they were created in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens," the word "day" there in the very next chapter is used to describe a period. I do not see that there is any necessity for construing the words, "the evening and the morning," as meaning necessarily a twenty-four-hour day, "in the day when the Lord made the heaven and the earth."
Q--Then, when the Bible said, for instance, "and God called the firmament heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day," that does not necessarily mean twenty-four hours?
A--I do not think it necessarily does.
Q--Do you think it does or does not?
A--I know a great many think so.
Q--What do you think?
A--I do not think it does.
Q--You think those were not literal days?
A--I do not think they were twenty-four-hour days.
Q--What do you think about it?
A--That is my opinion--I do not know that my opinion is better on
that subject than those who think it does.
Q--You do not think that ?
A--No. But I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we
believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in 6,000,000 years or in 600,000,000 years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.
Q--Do you think those were literal days?
A--My impression is they were periods, but I would not attempt to argue as against anybody who wanted to believe in literal days.

This is brilliant. Bryan doesn't know what the Bible says about the time of creation, but he knows it's literally true. Why should we have to know what it means in order to know it's true?

But finally we are coming to the end of the cross-examination.

Q--I will read it to you from the Bible: "And the Lord God said unto the serpent, because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life." Do you think that is why the serpent is compelled to crawl upon its belly?
A--I believe that.
Q--Have you any idea how the snake went before that time?
A--No, sir.
Q--Do you know whether he walked on his tail or not?
A--No, sir. I have no way to know. (Laughter in audience).
Q--Now, you refer to the cloud that was put in heaven after the flood, the rainbow. Do you believe in that?
A--Read it.
Q--All right, Mr. Bryan, I will read it for you.
Bryan--Your Honor, I think I can shorten this testimony. The only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur at the Bible, but I will answer his question. I will answer it all at once, and I have no objection in the world, I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in a God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee--
Darrow--I object to that.
Bryan--(Continuing) to slur at it, and while it will require time, I am willing to take it.
Darrow--I object to your statement. I am exempting you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.

We have to score this one for Darrow. After all, who could object if he wants to read the good book? Its truth ought to shine through for everyone. But at least Bryan continues his wise policy of not thinking about things he doesn't think about. You can never end up with a false belief if you never believe anything! And Bryan helpfully points out Darrow's immorality and atheism--or at least agnosticism. That's important information we all need for evaluating the truth of the Bible.

Alas, that's the end of the transcript, and I think it's obvious to everyone that creationists, and Windchy in particular, continue to "hold their own" with evolutionists at least as well as Bryan did.