Wednesday, December 14, 2005

More on Evolution as Atheistic Ideology

I wrote about this a week ago- but here's a particularly vivid account of the hypocrisy at work among some evolutionary scientists:

The philosopher Daniel Dennett visited us at the University of Delaware a few weeks ago and gave a public lecture entitled “Darwin, Meaning, Truth, and Morality.” I missed the talk—I was visiting my sons at Notre Dame and taking in the Notre Dame-Navy football game. Friends told me what I missed, however. Dennett claimed that Darwin had shredded the credibility of religion and was, indeed, the very “destroyer” of God. In the question session, philosophy professor Jeff Jordan made the following observation to Dennett, “If Darwinism is inherently atheistic, as you say, then obviously it can’t be taught in public schools.” “And why is that?” inquired Dennett, incredulous. “Because,” said Jordan, “the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution guarantees government neutrality between religion and irreligion.” Dennett, looking as if he’d been sucker-punched, leaned back against the wall, and said, after a few moments of silence, “clever.” After another silence, he came up with a reply: He had not meant to say that evolution logically entails atheism, merely that it undercuts religion.

Monday, December 12, 2005

More on Torture & Jonah

Jonah Goldberg has been kind enough to link to me, and so I shall try to do his later comments justice. He writes:
I think torture is a very bad thing among a whole host of very bad things. Some -- Sullivan, Young, et al-- claim that it is uniquely evil and terrible. I claim that their arguments against torture in fact demonstrate that torture is not uniquely evil. Their arguments would apply in significant ways to many other things, including killing and imprisonment. Indeed, in some circumstances I'd pick imprisonment over torture (which was my only point about taking fifty lashes over life in prison). Which is to say, in my own scheme of things torture doesn't strike me as so transcendantly horrible that I wouldn't choose it over a range of other terrible options in the right circumstances.

...for the terrorist who knows that innocent men, women and children are about to be murdered and chooses to stay silent, I simply haven't read a principled argument that makes the moral case against coercing this accomplice to murder that I personally find convincing. Contrary to what a lot of people think, that alone doesn't make me "pro-torture." It makes me unpersuaded by some of the more high-minded arguments of the anti-torture crowd.
I should say that, taking Jonah at his word, I shouldn't have implied that Mr. Goldberg favours torture, but rather that he is skeptical of the arguments against it. Jonah clarifies himself- rather than arguing (as he appeared to do) that there is some sort of consent, he argues that torture is not "transcendently horrible". Establishing that a given action is intrinsically evil is not easy- we lean heavily on our intuition and (oftentimes) religious guidance. I should note that the circumstances in which we consider torture are a moral solvent- faced with the hypothetical of having innocent people die, we are led towards a creeping utilitarianism. Does adultery (think James Bond) appear any easier to uphold as an intrinsic evil under such circumstances?

A common benchmark for ethics is that we are to treat people as ends rather than means. Under this understanding, I find it easy to think of penal measures (imprisonment, even the lash) as giving merited punishment. I find it a great deal more difficult to think of torture (waterboarding, fingernail extraction, the rack) as being merited. The connection of merited punishment to the person appears to me self-evident; the connection of torture appears to me to be purely to the information thereby gleaned.

Jonah writes that he sees no problem with coercion of information- well, neither do I. No one disputes the ethics of plea bargain agreements, which are essentially exchanges of punishment for information (information which the criminal would rather not divulge). I've even argued that the use of corporal punishment in interrogations may be justified under such a rule. The question is by what means a criminal may be coerced, not whether coercion is forbidden entirely.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Jonah Goldberg's Defence of Torture

Over at The Corner, Jonah attempts to defend torture, writing that:

I would take fifty lashes and some waterboarding over the death penalty any day of the week. Indeed, I'd take fifty lashes and waterboarding over fifty years in jail... Ask the folks on death row if they'd take a day of waterboarding in exchange for freedom.

And don't tell me the analogy doesn't work because the criminals are choosing torture of their free will. The terrorists in these hypotheticals choose torture too -- when they decide not to divulge inforrmation. Everyone agrees that torture or even coercion for reason not directly tied to pressing need should never be tolerated.

Now, I usually like and agree with Goldberg- unfortunately, there is an awful lot wrong with this argument- firstly, it cleverly attempts to argue consent on the part of those tortured, by analogy with prisoners who might prefer torture to lengthy prison terms or death. The analogy, however, is flawed- the terrorists Goldberg is speaking of are not being asked to exchange one form of punishment for another. Indeed, the terrorist who refuses to divulge is more akin to the criminal who refuses to plea bargain- but we do not thereby consider that such criminals consent to their punishment. Secondly, even in the case where a criminal might prefer torture to their sentence, it does not follow that they have consented to torture. The nature of penal justice is coercive, not consensual. Criminals do not consent to their sentences, except in extraordinary cases, and a preference for another punishment does not mean they consent to such a punishment. The substitution of one form of punishment for another does not magically create consent.

Perhaps more fundamentally, Goldberg confuses degree with kind- he implicitly argues that we can authorize any kind of punishment because we can justify, for some crimes, the punishment of death. Since death is the highest degree of punishment, all lesser punishments may be imposed. But the argument against torture is not that it is necessarily too much punishment, or out of proportion to the circumstances, but that it is, by its very nature, wrong. Telling us that there are justifiable punishments that are greater in degree does not address the argument, but rather assumes away the challenge torture critics make. It is also hard to see how the implications of this argument allow Goldberg to agree that "torture or even coercion for reason [sic] not directly tied to pressing need should never be tolerated." If indeed, torture can be a lesser and justifiable punishment, why should it not be substituted for prison sentences? I'd imagine a week of waterboarding would cost the government a great deal less than imprisoning someone for a decade- and if, as Goldberg suggests, the prisoners would prefer such a solution, what reason does he give to reject torture under such circumstances?

Update: Thanks for the link, Jonah! And welcome, NROniks! Feel free to take a look around. For those who just can't get enough on torture, I earlier tried to sort out torture vs. inhumane treatment, and made an attempt to find a basis for physical methods of interrogation that are not torture. I've also responded to Jonah in a new post on the subject.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

As a convert to the Faith, the Immaculate Conception was one of Catholic doctrines I was most puzzled by. While I accepted the Church's authority, it was a great relief to finally understand the reason that God so particularly favoured Mary with this blessing. Firstly, since Christ derives his human nature from His mother, it seems only logical that she be without stain of original sin. Secondly, St. Paul tells us that Christ is a second Adam- that in Adam all men died, but through Christ all men might live; the parallel to this is that it was Eve's disobedience which led to Adam's fall- while Mary's obedience, her fiat makes the Incarnation of Christ, and our salvation possible. In this she is a second Eve, as Christ is a second Adam, and just as Christ is a man without sin, so too is Mary a women without sin.

O God, Who by the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin didst make her a worthy habitation for Thy Son and didst by His foreseen death preserve her from all stain of sin, grant, we beseech Thee, that through her intercession we may be cleansed from sin and come with pure hearts before Thee. Through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Whither Intelligent Design?

Intelligent Design (ID) hasn't had a good month: George Will and Charles Krauthammer have strongly criticized the movement, and the New York Times has published a piece which is essentially, a speculation on whether an obituary ought to be prepared.

For my part, I have no strong opinion on the Intelligent Design debate. On the central question, whether evolutionary theory provides a complete explanation for the development of life from its beginnings to its present state, I am decidedly agnostic. I certainly have no metaphysical commitments that make me lean towards evolution, but I am sufficiently impressed by the explanatory power of the evolutionary synthesis that I regard it as a very strong hypothesis that no divine intervention was necessary or occurred.

Having hopefully established my neutrality, I hope these observations will not be seen as partisan by either side. George Will observes that the Kansas School Board, in approving the teaching of ID alongside Evolution "deleted from the definition of science these words: 'a search for natural explanations of observable phenomena.'" Charles Krauthammer describes ID as "a theory that violates the most basic requirement of anything pretending to be science -- that it be empirically disprovable." Both commentators point towards the most troubling aspect of Intelligent Design- its representation as science. ID, at least in its most common representations, is a variation on the "God of the gaps" argument. There is nothing logically wrong with such an arguement- but it is manifestly not a scientific arguement, and it ought not to be represented as such. It imports a metaphysical claim into science, corrupting, as Will notes, the proper understanding of science.

But the Intelligent Design folks are hardly the only ones busily corrupting the proper understanding of science- all too many defenders of evolution are busily doing the same by assuming a materialist philosophy- assuming, in other words, that miracles don't happen. This is the greatest irony in the whole debate- that neither side reliably does justice to science. Perhaps the most troubling example of this is the Columbia Journalism Review, whose purpose is to promote responsible journalism. They recently published a cover article arguing that journalists need not present both sides of the arguement when discussing ID-related news. Troubling as this alone would be, the authors characterize evolution as "mindless and directionless" which is the kind of atheistic terminology which even, as sterilizing points out, the National Association of Biology Teachers has rejected as being untestable. This an attitude that is all too common among evolutionary biologists themselves, Richard Dawkins foremost among them. In an unwise, but telling admission, Havard geneticist Richard Lewontin wrote in 1997 in the New York Review of Books that:
We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated 'Just So' stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
So while it is necessary to correct the wrongful claim of science for the central argument of Intelligent Design, it is no less necessary for Evolutionary Scientists to denounce the metaphysicians in their own midst who also smuggle metaphysical commitments into the precincts of science.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Blogging Catch-Up

There's a few things I've failed to get around to noting over the last couple weeks-

Firstly, I've added the charming Dilexit Prior to my links- she's a fellow Vancouver-area Catholic blogger, studying at Redeemer Pacific.

Secondly, I've also placed the Catholic Educators' Resource Centre in my links- it's based up the coast, and run by a true gentleman, Fraser Field. It is simply the single best resource on the net for Catholic commentary.

Lastly, I've missed noting a couple of wonderful posts on the liturgy over at Al Kimel's Pontifications. The rightly famed Fr. Jay Scott Newman of St. Mary's, Greenville has a wonderful post on restoring beauty and reverence to the Latin Rite. Anthony Esolen, whose translation of the Divine Comedy I've been meaning to get started makes a number of essential observations on the use of language in the liturgy. Both posts are among the best comments on their subjects I have read.
National Identity & History

I've been mulling over the role of nations in history. I believe nations are true and distinct things, and while I hold no brief for Hegelian notions of history, I do believe in Providence and the idea that nations may have a divine purpose which is bourne out in history. In that vein, I'm preparing posts on England, Poland & Russia.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A Brief Note on Islam

Following up on my omission of Islam as "intellectually respectable", I thought I ought to explain my reasoning.

Religious beliefs, in order to be attractive, ought to satisfy four conditions: firstly, that they accurately reflect what we intrinsically know about human nature, the good and the beautiful. Secondly, the source and derivation of revelation must be plausible. Thirdly, religious tenets ought to be internally consistent. Lastly, religious tenets ought to be consistent with what we know of the natural world.

When I refer to "intellectually respectable" religious beliefs, I am referring to the last three criteria. The first, while of primary importance, isn't a subject on which differences are easily parsed in the public square.

The difficulty with Islam as intellectually sustainable is primarily with the historical circumstances surrounding its founding. So, what are these problems?

1. Islam, like so many other false religions, is a "sole prophet" religion. This is precisely the form of religion that either a purposeful liar or a hallucinatory mystic will found, and it is, aside from indigenous or mythic religions, the most common means by which a religion is born.

2. Muhammed's "revelations", rather than expanding on previous revelations or providing a new interpretation, substantially revised the religious traditions he drew upon. Thus the chosen people of the Old Covenant helpfully become the Arabs rather than the Jews, and Jesus is quoted rejecting the Trinity. This appropriation with alteration is a common theme with religious sects and syncretic movements.

3. Muhammed, like many religious leaders used his position for sexual advancement. Joseph Smith took many wives (The particular number is uncertain). David Koresh fathered children with girls as young as 12 or 13. Mohammed bettered both, violating his own Koranic injunction to have no more than four wives: he had at least nine at one time. He married his favourite wife, Aisha, when she was six and consummated the marriage when she was nine.

4. Islam spread by the sword. Rather than being reliant on its own strength as a message, Islam was imposed in many areas by military force, starting in Muhammed's lifetime and typifying its spread.

In short, Islam fits the exact type of a false revelation: a single, self-identified prophet, revising previous religious traditions, who uses his leadership role to amass sexual favours and earthly power. How Islam is believable is a mystery to me.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Strange Phenomenon of the Wise Atheist

Umberto Eco points out the idiocy of the "spiritual" alternatives to the Church- though he himself is not a believer:
The "death of God", or at least the dying of the Christian God, has been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Church -- from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code.

...The so-called occult sciences do not ever reveal any genuine secret: they only promise that there is something secret that explains and justifies everything. The great advantage of this is that it allows each person to fill up the empty secret "container" with his or her own fears and hopes.

...I think I agree with Joyce's lapsed Catholic hero in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?"
The entire piece is well worth reading. The Faith, thankfully, is not an absurdity, and we are thus spared the difficulty that Eco grapples with.

There really are only a few intellectually respectable beliefs going around: Christianity, Judaism, and Agnosticism are definately there. Atheism used to be so, but is looking increasingly weak. Perhaps Buddhism ought to be in there as well.

Perhaps a topic for another time would be why Islam is not in my list.
Which Hero Would I Be?

You scored as William Wallace. The great Scottish warrior William Wallace led his people against their English oppressors in a campaign that won independence for Scotland and immortalized him in the hearts of his countrymen. With his warrior's heart, tactician's mind, and poet's soul, Wallace was a brilliant leader. He just wanted to live a simple life on his farm, but he gave it up to help his country in its time of need.

William Wallace


Neo, the "One"


Batman, the Dark Knight


The Terminator


Lara Croft


Indiana Jones




The Amazing Spider-Man


Captain Jack Sparrow


El Zorro


James Bond, Agent 007


Which Action Hero Would You Be? v. 2.0

I'm pretty pleased. Neo would have been awesome as well. I'm also tickled that Bond is the lowest on the scale.