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God's iPod - Uncommon Descent - Intelligent Design
[...] “Richard Dawkins’s Delicacy” (The Best Schools, October 21, 2011), James Barham comments on Dawkins’ refusal to debate William Lane Craig, and what it may portend: Now, it is [...]
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You made some good points there. I looked on the internet for the issue and found most people will go along with with your site….
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When "Our Best Science" Is Not Good Enough
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[...] From James Barham’s “When our best science is not good enough” ( The Best Schools, November 6, 2011), First, the new trend in science toward enlisting the political and judicial system to help one side to prevail in a scientific dispute is highly injurious to the health of science itself, to say nothing of the polity, and it must be stopped. If a scientific consensus is so insecure that it has to have its claims imposed on the public by court order—as happened in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover decision in Pennsylvania with respect to the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution—it can scarcely expect to command the respect of that public, and it forfeits whatever intellectual authority it might otherwise be entitled to. Similar efforts are now afoot to impose an artificial consensus on the subject of climate change. They are equally to be deplored. The first requirement for ascertaining the reliability of a consensus scientific claim, then, is a climate of frank and open debate, free from political intimidation. [...]
Caroline Crocker Interview
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Uncommon Descent | Dear Darwin lobby: The Dover trial is WHY people don’t believe you …
[...] From James Barham’s “When our best science is not good enough” ( The Best Schools, November 6, 2011), First, the new trend in science toward enlisting the political and judicial system to help one side to prevail in a scientific dispute is highly injurious to the health of science itself, to say nothing of the polity, and it must be stopped. If a scientific consensus is so insecure that it has to have its claims imposed on the public by court order—as happened in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover decision in Pennsylvania with respect to the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution—it can scarcely expect to command the respect of that public, and it forfeits whatever intellectual authority it might otherwise be entitled to. Similar efforts are now afoot to impose an artificial consensus on the subject of climate change. They are equally to be deplored. The first requirement for ascertaining the reliability of a consensus scientific claim, then, is a climate of frank and open debate, free from political intimidation. [...]
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I am especially taken by the query attributed to associates of David Sarnoff. “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
Excellent post, James!
I’m no expert on Kant, but I think one has to be a bit careful using him. His philosophy absolutizes autonomy to an unrealistic degree. Nevertheless he’s certainly captured (albeit coarsely) an essential requirement of personal relations.
Another way to state our responsibility toward persons is to say that the only appropriate response to a person is love. (Not eros, but agape and even philia and storge.)
We have to recognize that feminists and homosexual activists, to a great extent, have become what they are because they haven’t been loved appropriately. They are wounded, and these wounds can also be transmitted culturally. This is not to say that we should give them everything they want: every parent should know that love doesn’t mean automatically saying yes all the time. Nor does it mean they bear no blame: we humans have a morbid tendency to pick at our wounds and magnify our hurt.
But what it means is that these people have a special need to be recognized as persons and to receive genuine, unselfish love–love that seeks their true good.
[BLOCKED BY STBV] “Is it still wrong if another culture says it is right? A teacher’s surprising discovery” - Thinking Christian - Thinking Christian
[...] Is it still wrong if another culture says it is right? A teacher’s surprising discovery] Print FriendlyShareGreetings, and welcome to you! If you find Thinking Christian interesting, I [...]
Check out this piece written by a cultural anthropologist:
It seems to me your argument identifies a person too closely with the body he or she happens to inhabit. This explains both your claim that homosexuality is wrong because the «plumbing is wrong», and the in my view exaggerated weight you ascribe to the spiritual side of sexuality. Now, I’m not saying we are not spiritual beings. However, there are many needs associated with the body, and the fulfilment of these needs is not necessarily always and every time a highly spiritual experience. Our bodies have the need for food, water, sleep, going to the toilet, sneezing, breathing – as well as sexual needs. Sometimes, sex is a very spiritual experience. Sometimes, it is a quick release of tensions. Sometimes it is just a fun way to spend an evening. Sometimes it is not even that, sometimes it is boring. I understand you are not overly fond of the food metaphor for sex, so I realize this might be straining your patience, but here goes: Sometimes, I go to a gourmet restaurant, the ambience is perfect, the food is exquisite, the wine is perfectly matched with the food. At such occasions, eating truly is a spiritual thing. But sometimes I just need to get some energy before a workout or after a long day at work, and I just grab a sandwich. At such occasions, eating is not particularly spiritual at all. It’s just fulfilling a need my body has. I believe most bodily functions are like that: Sometimes we can enjoy a sensory experience in a spiritual way, and sometimes the body functions more independently. Now, I’m not claiming that we always should succumb to the cravings of our bodies. Sometimes withdrawal can be just as spiritual as fulfilment, as is indeed the case with for instance fast and (I assume) celibacy. Except for breathing and bowel movement, this exercise could possibly be carried out under controlled circumstances with all the bodily functions. (Some people experiment with the breathing-part as well, but I do not think that is recommendable.)
But the body and the soul, although a unit, still functions quite independently of each other. Indeed, it is quite possible to have spiritual experiences that are not induced by any bodily activity, be it fulfilment or abstinence. You understand where I am going with this: Thus the sexual activity of a person needs not always be a spiritual activity as well. I realize you will object that the body is of a lower kind and should be directed by the superior mind. Now, that might very well be so, but this still does not mean that it is always wrong to fulfil a bodily need or craving, even if it is not accompanied by a highly spiritual affection. So just because «recreational sex» is not a spiritual experience, I do not concede that it must be wrong.
As for myself, I am very happily married and I cannot see that I would ever feel like going to anything like the «art happening» you describe. Still, I cannot see that it would be wrong for others to do so, as long as all actions undertaken are consentient and they practice safe sex.
The main difference, as I see it, between sexual and other bodily needs is that the sexuality is more dependent (but not exclusively!) on other persons. And this is of course why morality is important. But a meal can also be shared by other persons, in which case we have guidelines as to how to behave, so that the experience can be positive for everyone involved. And the fact that other persons are present heightens the possibility of this being an occasion when eating is indeed a spiritual experience. The fact that another person (or persons?!) is involved is of course why sexual experiences have a higher frequency of spirituality than other sensory exposures. And we do have a great responsibility towards the people we encounter, be it at meal time or in any other way. And so there should be rules of conduct, I just don’t see why these rules should limit actions that are undertaken by free, consenting adults as long as no one is harmed or injured.
A meal shared with other people still is no guarantee of it being a spiritual experience. And it does not need to be. Sometimes a hamburger is just a hamburger.
These students should start thinking about dropping Philosophy.
Looks like they think multicultural means having a black artist video after a white when they watch MTV.
Maybe this is the result of a society where politically correct is becoming more important than just correct!…
Or… maybe it’s just the result of too much burgers and fries! lol
Just a quick note: The story of Bibi Aisha is not told correctly in this article. Even if this is not very relevant:
Her family did not cut her nose off. Her father returned her to his in-laws. The in-laws where the ones who mutilated her. (based upon Wikipedia)
Unfortunately, periclespinto, that is just what multiculturalism DOES mean: “having a black artist video after a white when they watch MTV.” In that particular case, it is trivial, because the artists probably espouse the same or similar views.
Multiculturalism does real harm when it bypasses the question of whether systems based on differing understandings about the value of human beings can mutually assist each other or coexist under the same government. Usually, they can’t.
Americans learned that in the Civil War.
Hi Holly. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
You make two really good points: sex is only one among many bodily needs, and all of them have a social or what I call spiritual dimension for human beings. So what makes sex so special? Am I summarizing your remarks more or less accurately?
In my view, the reason sex is more important than enjoying meals together (though that is very important for humans, too—and losing it is another way we are dehumanizing ourselves) is of course that the function of sex is reproduction.
Our sex organs are designed—whether by God or by Mother Nature makes no difference—for a purpose. The pleasure we experience in sex is therefore properly subordinate to that purpose. We like sex because our nature wants us to make babies, in the same way that we like the taste of candy because our nature wants us to get plenty of calories. This is at least one point on which the Darwinists and the theologians may agree.
Look at it this way. Of course, we can and do enjoy casual sex the way we can and do enjoy junk food. But the mere fact we enjoy something does not show it is good for us.
My question for secular humanists and liberals is this: You all are getting the message that junk food is bad for us as human beings, and you’re even getting all worked up about it.
Why can’t you see that promiscuous sex is much worse for us—precisely because we are human beings and not just animals? Sex, for us, has a spiritual dimension directly linked to raising families that it does not have for them. Of course, some of them raise families, too, but they do not experience their lives in the same way that we do.
Animals live in their bodies alone. We human beings live in both our bodies and our minds (spirits, souls) like amphibians live in both water and air.
It is an undeniable fact that we are creatures of a higher order—however you prefer to spell that out—and when we do anything that tends to disconnect our bodily being from our spiritual being, we are frustrating our natural design and demeaning ourselves.
That is the fundamental reason why sexual promiscuity is wrong. But there is also a pragmatic reason that flows from the fact that it is dehumanizing: Even if it is pleasurable in the short run, it leads to psychological (if not bodily) ruin in the long run.
We are stuck being human beings, whether we like it or not. If we try to ignore that fact and behave like mere animals, we will pay the price eventually, because it is just not good for us.
The core of your view doesn’t have much to do with the relationship between 1). nonbelief in God and 2). religion. It deals with the relationship between 1). science and 2). felt human experience. You seem to think that Type 1 atheism affirms science and denies the reality of felt human experience, whereas Type 2 atheism embraces human experience and denies current science. The relationship of this distinction with religion seems to be as follows: Type 1 atheism entails that God does not exist, whereas, on Type 2 ‘atheism’, nonbelief in God is an aside (one could believe most of what you said and still be a theist).
What your distinction between these two kinds of atheism has in common with (some) religion is that it assumes the conflict model between science and human experience. It is a question of what has default legitimacy – empirical evidence or phenomenal experience – and an attitude about the relationship between them. Of course, not all religions, or atheisms, take that attitude.
I don’t see conflict as necessary nor the proper view, but that’s besides the point. I do find it interesting that you think science will have to change to accomodate your felt experience, yet don’t consider that we might have to give a little too as science progresses, as we already have (we already know that perception doesn’t perfectly represent reality in various respects, and we can expect more of the same). The copernican revolution was one thing, the darwinian another, but the revolution of how we think about thinking is the newest and hardest of all, and its anyone’s guess how it will shake out.
If you are looking for better terms for these views, I’d suggest “reductionistic naturalism” for #1 and “emergent humanism” for #2. These terms have some traction in the philosophical literature on these issues that you might profit from reading.
How about (1) “anti-religious atheist,” and (2) “non-religious atheist”? Terms whose meaning is not immediately obvious, but that become apparent with a brief explanation of the contrast.
macclellan: I think I basically agree with everything you say. Of course, my starting point was my atheism, and I did not try to defend that here. I was just trying to spell out why I feel myself, though an atheist, closer to most religious believers than I do to most atheists. Your labels—reductionist naturalism and emergent humanism—sum up my position perfectly, though they might be more appropriate to a philosophy seminar than to a blog. But you really hit the nail on the head with your question about how far common sense must give way to the findings of science. My view, as a strong emergentist, is: not very far. Reality consists of levels or layers, all equally real, and the fact that solid matter is mostly empty space at the length scale of atoms in no way implies, in my view, that the desk I am typing this on does not really exist at the length scale human beings inhabit, pace Eddington. Otherwise, why would we even need a separate sub-science for the study of condensed matter?
LG: Thanks for the suggestion. However, I fear that “nonreligious atheist” is not descriptive enough, too close to sounding tautological (though I see what you mean).
Here’s the problem with this distinction: I’m a Nichiren Buddhist, and, definitionally, a pantheist. But I still believe that man is nothing but an organism; that emotions and spiritual experiences are physical/chemical processes; that humans, other organisms, and objects are all simply phenomena emerging from a dynamic molecular stew; that there is no soul, no objective moral standard, “just a bunch of pitiless particles vibrating pointlessly in the primal quantum field.” Most pantheistic systems indeed hold precisely thus. So he dismisses not just some portion of all atheists with this statement, but a good number of the observant religious, as well.
Now, because I describe this view in metaphysical terms, and I hew to metaphysical concepts like Ichinen Sanzen in order to wrest a mandate for compassion from a universe that clearly has no compunction about devouring its young, I’m certainly not inclined to disavow the theist of his or her theistic notions; as a religious man, I am not opposed to religion. But I DO reject the insistence that the dignity of our species (whatever that is; I enjoy a certain amount of human dignity, but am not convinced that lichens, viruses, and even rocks don’t each experience something equally edifying) relies on a an assumption of dualism, a belief that the self and its preferences, interests, and convictions are something more than a play of cells.
thelyamhound: I am not arguing for dualism, though I can see how you might think so from my post. In a future post I will investigate the arguments in favor of strong emergentism, and against the sort of reductionism you espouse. I realize most folks view strong emergentism as a form of dualism, but I believe I can show they are mistaken. So, that part of our disagreement is due to a simple misunderstanding that is mostly my fault. However, I am not sure I understand your position. I don’t know enough about Nichiren to know whether or not it counts as a form of theism, but I am under the impression that most forms of Buddhism would technically count as atheism (they deny the existence of a personal God). If I am correct about that, and you do deny the existence of a personal God, then your reductionism is consistent. But in that case, why are you sympathetic towards theists, who basically deny everything you stand for as a reductionist?
To all: Several people have pointed out to me that in my post I should not have conflated “religion” with “theism.” I did so for ease of exposition, but I see now it was a mistake and that I lost in precision and clarity what I thought I was gaining in conciseness. I ought to have made clear that theism—belief in a personal God who created the world and cares about us—was what I was contrasting with the two kinds of atheism. The term “religion” has a wider connotation, and can properly be taken to encompass any comprehensive worldview or system of belief by means of which we make sense of the universe and our place in it. In this sense, atheists too may well be religious. I apologize for the confusion.
I inferred that you were arguing for dualism because you use the word several times in your post as a label for what differentiates the “acceptable” atheist from the “unacceptable” one.
In a sense, I would suggest that I do believe in something like emergentism, though I wouldn’t impose such Western notions as “spirit” or “soul” onto them outside of a poetic or theatrical context, because I think they are philosophically and theologically misleading, part of the Platonic heritage that has been both a gift and a curse to Western civilization. That is, I believe that what we refer to as spirit or soul has emerged, but on an evolutionary basis, as a function of the organism. I’d say it was our unique adaptation, but I don’t really know that lichens don’t have art or philosophy, since I don’t speak lichen.
As such, I would caution you against suggesting that I espouse reductionism, except in the sense that I see value in simplifying premises and making them as responsive as possible to empirical observation.
Buddhism indeed acknowledges no personal deity, nor necessarily a soul separate from the body (though that can vary not only from sect to sect, but from Buddhist to Buddhist, and will likely center on how literally the individual takes the doctrine of reincarnation). It is pantheistic, which is not really the same thing as either theism or atheism; it centers around the idea that the physical universe and the fundamental unity (or appearance of fundamental unity) between the various phenomena contained therein can be collectively referred to in deistic terms, but that such a reference is symbolic; the overarching force of the universe may contain morality as an emergent phenomenon of organisms and their intersubjective needs, as defined by evolution, but the force is, in and of itself, amoral. Forms of pantheism can be wildly diverse, from the monistic panpsychism of Giordano Bruno to Taoism to Spinoza’s naturalistic pantheism.
As to why I’m sympathetic toward theists, I’m not sure I understand the question. I’m called as a Buddhist to show compassion for all living things. Now, I cannot honor the virus so deeply that I fail to alleviate human illness; by that same token, I cannot honor the Christian so deeply that I will allow them to legally regulate the behavior of my brethren according to principles with which I disagree. But as much as I believe my understanding of the universe is correct, I don’t possess a level of certainty that allows me to look askance upon other views. Moreover, as someone who chants gongyo twice a day (and daimoku considerably more than that), with the conviction that it elevates my life condition, I empathize with the finding of comfort, purpose, and understanding through faith constructs, through hunches and feelings and wild inductive reasoning. Which is to say that I am less a reductionist than you seem eager to insist. I may believe that man is not greater than the turnip . . . but I also believe that both man and turnip possess Buddha nature.
There’s no use arguing too much over terminology, but let me just point out that (1) I never uttered the word “dualist” in my post, much less claimed to be one; and (2) I went out of my way to give examples of what I meant by the word “spirit.” As for your being less reductivist than I took you to be from your earlier post, I am of course relieved to hear it.
Here was a turn of phrase where you mention dualism/duality specifically:
>>What, exactly, do I mean by “duality” and “spirit” and the other turns of phrase I have been using to express what religion and fellow-traveling atheism have in common?<>Human nature is intrinsically dual—a “tangle of matter and ghost,” to quote the singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen. And this duality gives our system of values an intrinsic structure: Some values are lower, because involved more purely with the body, and other values are higher, because involved more fully with the spirit.<<
Also, when you presume that these qualities you attribute to man are separate from the body, or even that they are distinct to man and not possessed elsewhere in the animal kingdom, are you not asserting duality–a notion that "self," as understood in anthropic terms, is separate from matter?
Sorry, my post printed differently than I wrote it; I’m not particularly html savvy.
This was a quote from another post to which this one referred, and it should, in all fairness, be isolated as such:
>>>Human nature is intrinsically dual—a “tangle of matter and ghost,” to quote the singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen. And this duality gives our system of values an intrinsic structure: Some values are lower, because involved more purely with the body, and other values are higher, because involved more fully with the spirit.<<
Thank you for your thorough answers. You pose some very interesting questions and I hope I will be able to make a relevant response.
I can see that we both agree that we as humans are superior in our capacities. Although perhaps not unique, the human potential for rationality and compassion are both superior in all of nature. And I do think you and I both agree that humans have a responsibility to develop these potentials as much as we can. What intrigues me is that somehow, we manage to arrive at very differing conclusions from this common starting point.
What puzzles me is this:
The way I read your assertions, you seem to think that we would be wrong in following our nature when this nature leads us to enjoy sex just because it is pleasurable. But at the same time you elevate the natural raison d’etre of our sexual organs, that of reproduction, to a sanctified status of no questions asked.
So homosexuality is wrong because the sexual organs are used to something other than producing babies. Recreational sex is wrong because the sex in that setting is not a means to reproduction. In fact, it seems you think that any enjoyment of sex that is not directly related to getting pregnant is wrong.
Why this tremendous precedence ascribed to the reproductive potential of our nature?
Did we not agree that we are rational beings, capable of seeing beyond the mere here-and-now of our existence? Why should we let this capacity we have of reproduction domineer us to such a degree? Why not rejoice in the fact that we are able to have sex and enjoy it without producing a child every time? I do not agree that just because the sexual pleasure is associated with the body it is something dirty or guilty or sinful.
Some additional points to back this up:
If sex was only for reproductive purposes, why would it be enjoyable for us outside of the few fertile days of a woman’s cycle? Sex takes a lot of energy and can distort the focus of a person quite considerably. This would not be worth it if the sole purpose of sex was reproduction. If we were only meant to have sex in the fertile days, sex would not be pleasurable to us outside of this time frame. You said so yourself, sex is enjoyable because when we have sex we make babies. But that is not the case, is it? We do not make babies every time we have sex, and this was a fact even before the modern contraceptives of the 20th century. If we have intercourse a few days too early or a few days after the ovulation, nothing happens. The egg can only live for 48 hours. Since the sperm can live for a little longer, about 5 days, there are perhaps 7 days out of a regular 28-days cycle when pregnancy can happen. Why is sex pleasurable for the other 21 days too?
In fact, some couples never get pregnant, due to an infertility problem. Is it sinful for them to have sex just for the enjoyment of it, after they learn they can not produce a child that way?
From an evolutionary point of view, one reason for sex being pleasurable even when it does not produce a child is that sex is an excellent way of creating a strong bond between persons. Sociologists and biologists alike will be able to testify to this. The intimacy and positive emotions associated with sex are part of the foundation that supports a relationship. This relationship usually is between one man and one woman, but there is nothing in the way of this bonding effect taking place also between two persons of the same sex, or between several persons in a larger group. These relationships are in turn essential in the stability of the society in which the babies, once born, are raised, and thus serves evolutionary purposes in the long run. But there is nothing the matter with explaining this effect by intelligent design instead of evolution – or evolution as the vehicle of intelligent design (my personal favourite).
I think you make a really good point about junk food. Many people find it pleasurable, but that does not mean it is good for them. So everything we find enjoyable is not necessarily good for us. But we know for a fact that junk food is unhealthy: It is associated with overweight, diabetes and other lifestyle related diseases. If these were not the consequences of eating junk food, I do not think we would object to it. Now that we know it is not healthy, we serve ourself best by avoiding it. This is the rational thing to do.
Now, I wonder how this matches up with the consequences of casual sex. There are of course some very obvious negative effects associated with UNSAFE casual sex, such as unwanted pregnancies or the spreading of diseases, but as you know, this was never on my list of what should be deemed acceptable.
As for safe sex, there is of course the danger of hurting somebody’s feelings, be it your own or somebody else’s. But this danger is not unique to the topic of sexuality. In all of people’s relations and interactions, we run the risk of hurting each other. This is why we should be careful and considerate in all our dealings with other people, be it on the tennis field, at meal time, at work or in our sexual life. Morality indeed does have a major role to play in regulating our behaviour towards other people, giving us guidelines to go by in order to ensure that we are fair, respectful and considerate in our treatment of our fellow human beings. This definitely is true also for the field of sexuality, no matter what kind of relationship exists between the participants.
What other negative effects could there be? There is of course the “what other people think”-issue, but this is not a strong point in my book. What people think varies from time to time and from culture to culture. People thought at some point in history that it was a good idea to keep slaves. That didn’t make them right.
Then there is the condemnation by God. That of course presupposes that there is one. And that we have indeed figured out what He really thinks about it all. And then I should still like to have some explanation as to WHY God thinks that this is wrong. And saying that it is degrading to us as humans does not add any information, that is just saying the same thing in another way.
So given that the moral guidelines are complied with (so as to avoid hurting anybody’s feelings – both participants and outsiders – or otherwise doing harm to somebody), and given that it is safe sex, and all participants are free, consentient adults (repeating myself now), I still cannot see why casual sex has to be wrong. I don’t see what negative effects such actions would have, that are akin to (or much worse than, if I am to believe what you say) the negative effects of junk food.
I think our superior rationality is a wonderful tool to steer us clear of superstitions and aid us in the development of such moral guidelines as I refer to. Because of this rationality we are able to discern what is real and what is not, and discover more and more about the nature around us and within us. A nature led by rationality and compassion to the best of our abilities is what we must aim for.
Excellent post, Denyse! So many good points. I completely agree that technology can not solve this problem. What are you referring to when you say there are those who think it can?
Interesting post, James! I completely agree with you that the sciences are still in their – if not infancy so at least childhood, and that we may have great hopes to account for more aspects of our nature in the future.
I also find your description of us as spiritual beings compelling. This is indeed what sets us apart from the rest of nature.
Now, what I do not agree on is that the existence of objective standards for right and wrong follows from the introspective discovery of a sense of justice. What then when people of different cultures discover completely different views through this introspection? Our sense of what is right and wrong and good and just is in on little way dependent upon our upbringing and social conditions. I do not believe there exists a universal standard for justice that all people upon introspection are willing to accept.
This is not the same as saying an objective standard does not exist. It is merely saying that some cultures are closer to this standard than others, and that education and dialogue are necessary for us all in order to figure out what this objective standard really amounts to.
“on little way” should read “no little way”, i.e. in a big way!
Hollly, I mean the people who think that ipods and ipads will change the world. They just make it easier for everyone to do what they want to do. They don’t change what they want to do.
People who could not remotely design/build an airplane can use it as a lethal weapon.
We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and then bid the geldings to be fruitful.”
— C.S. Lewis
Thelyamhound: Oh, I see you’re right, I did use the term “dual,” but only in the context of the claim that our nature consists of two main aspects—we are animals with bodies that also, in addition, have something I am calling “spirit”—and not just one aspect. But that claim leaves open the question of the relation between the two things. I meant to bracket the metaphysics in this post, and take it up in a future post. This post was intended to be purely “phenomenological.” So, in short, I never intended to imply I favor “dualism” as a metaphysical doctrine. But I can see how my choice of words misled you. Sorry about that! I was perhaps unwise to use the term “dual,” but given that I do believe we have two natures, perhaps you can understand why I did so. I also used the analogy of amphibians (taken from Sir Thomas Browne in the Religio Medici), that we live in matter and spirit in the same way that axolotls, say, are capable of living in both air and water. So, frogs too have a “dual” nature in that sense. Do you see what I was driving at?
Holly: I’m not sure how to respond, except to say that the real issue between us seems to be that for you, the mere existence of a culturally shaped behavior is all that matters—if it is, it is, and the question of whether it is right or wrong does not arise—whereas for me, there is a fundamental and inescapable normative component to all human behavior. I have not really justified my view yet, except by pointing to our “duality” mentioned above, and appealing to the reader’s intuition that our spirit is higher and more valuable than our body. But I guess I can’t postpone the tough metaphysical issues much longer. Look for my take on them in a future post soon.
I think it’s fair to say, though, that phenomenological dualism and metaphysical dualism are, at least in a cultural context, difficult–if not impossible–to extricate. If you posit that “our spirit is higher and more valuable than our body,” you suggest that the spirit is somehow separate from the body, that it’s a property or quality that other organisms do not possess, and so on.
My thesis is that not only do many of us who are in fact religious, who are not philosophical naturalists, and who are not atheists (though we do not believe in a personal deity) have no such intuition. Indeed, many of us intuit that it is our contracts that keep us from living on a strict diet of the blood of our enemies. Nonetheless, we take these contracts (and the ritual enshrinements thereof) seriously, often for metaphysical reasons.
My objection, then, is to the posit that someone cannot begin from “reductionistic”–heck, even nihilistic–premises and still have a seat at the table when it comes to molding the civic and moral character of man.
Well, obviously, I don’t propose to exclude anybody from a “seat at the table” of public discussion, whatever his views are. But I do think our metaphysical views are important, and I also think that to the extent a moral nihilist is a good person, it is in spite of his metaphysical views. But let’s put what are essentially political issues aside, and concentrate on the metaphysics. You raise one very important issue that I wish to respond to now (as opposed to in this much-promised future metaphysical post). That is the question of the relationship between the human spirit and the mentality of other animals, which I have characterized as lacking spirit in the human sense.
One the main reasons I prefer the word “spirit,” as opposed to say “mind,” is precisely to make this distinction clear and inuitively plausible. Now, as a non-reducitonist, I have no particular desire to denigrate the higher cognitive abilities of other animals. I fully recognize that there is both continuity and discontinuity between us and them. And the reason “spirit” is a better word than “mind” as a means of referring to our unique human properties is precisely because the other animals certainly give every appearance of having “minds.” But I don’t suppose you really want to pretend that a dog or a cat is capable of the sort of reflection, or is responsive to the sort of ideals, that I discuss in my three examples, do you?
If you agree human beings are different from animals in this respect, then I believe the differences between us are largely terminological. However, if you truly believe that cats and dogs are capable of responsiveness to values and ideals in the same way that Schubert, Dostoyevsky, and Stifter describe, then I really don’t know what to say to that. I guess our approaches to reality are so different at that point, that there’s not a lot left to say.
I think our metaphysical views are important, but having grown up Catholic, having had the Jewish faith enter my extended family by marriage, having lived most of my youth in Montana and Utah (where some form or other of Christianity is given), while living most of my adult life in Seattle (where atheism is more the norm, as it also tends to be in my profession), being not just tolerant, but accepting and understanding of other metaphysical viewpoints has been a bit more of a necessary skill for myself than for most. I’m tempted to reply to your posit regarding the moral nihilist to suggest that the moral Christian is almost certainly “good” despite his or her adherence to or belief in anthropomorphic-monotheistic preferences. But that would not only not be cricket; it wouldn’t even really be what I think.
To a large degree, I don’t think we decide what we believe; we simply discern truth from untruth (or likely truth from likely untruth) according to epistemic capacities and understandings, and according to experiences both material and intuitive. While I can hold one responsible for any actions, I can’t hold one responsible for his premises and conclusions; I can only offer better information and hope he has the capacity to understand it.
The very reasons you prefer the word spirit are the very reasons I reject it. Not only do I have no reason to assume that the dog or the lichen or the virus cannot experience awe, or envision a “perfect” world, but, in fact, recent discoveries in cognitive science seem to indicate that they do so. I have no doubt that there are differences in degree; I may thus hold human art or philosophy in greater esteem than whatever endeavors in the animal kingdom may be comparable. I would also assume that animal awe or morality would differ considerably from ours, since they would have arisen from the traits they evolved for their own survival. As such, they may not be responsible to “those sorts of ideals” because the ideals to which they are responsive evolved specifically to suit their needs.
So I don’t really see the difference that you do between humans and animals (and, indeed, I’m not even convinced that animal life “transcends the stasis of stones”). What I find interesting is that this somehow makes me (for instance) a Type I atheist . . . without my even being an atheist. So if I have always seen myself as a fellow traveler, while you describe me as . . . well, let’s just say “otherwise,” simply for holding premises that you offer no factual basis for rejecting, then whose doing is it, really, if we find we are not traveling together?
In any case, I still maintain that one should be able to live according to one’s premises to whatever degree that doing so does not run afoul of the liberty of others to do the same.
thelyamhound: Well, I certainly no longer believe you are a reductionist in the sense I meant. You are, if anything, even more willing than I am to find objectively existing purpose, value, and meaning in the world. So, I was certainly misconstruing your position from your initial post. I also plead guilty to shaping my original article too narrowly within the framework of the conventional American debate, which presupposes a dichotomy between a certain kind of reductionist atheism and a certain kind of theism (mainly, Christianity). I was trying to argue for a third way of seeing things against that backdrop, and did not really have a position like yours in mind, which is my fault.
I am willing to extend quite a bit of mentality to animals, because I believe both common sense and scientific evidence demand that we do so. But I would be very interested indeed in seeing the studies you allude to which you say support your more radical position that not only do all animals (perhaps all living things) have awareness, feelings, beliefs, etc. (the details will presumably vary according to the type of organism), but they also have the capacity to reason and act according to internally generated rules and ideal conceptions.
It is true that the higher animals are responsive to rules that we impose on them, but I think that is another matter. All I am saying is that between my dog—who hangs his head and acts guilty when he gets caught stealing food from the table—and human beings—who are guided by their conscience and have codified the moral law in such forms as the Golden Rule and the Categorical Imperative—there is a vast gulf. Dogs, presumably, do not know the difference between right and wrong, much less understand that stealing is wrong because it violates Kant’s Maxim of Nature. They just know we don’t like it when they do it. In this way, dogs are similar to young human children. But adult human beings stand in a very different relationship to the moral law.
Morality is only one example of the immense chasm between us and the other animals, though a very important one. Beyond morality, there are the vast realms of art, science, philosophy, and, yes, religion. All of this is so obvious as to be banal. But the question of why this chasm exists is more interesting. And the answer surely has to do with language, and the way it helps us to construct a virtual world of the imagination within which we conduct so much of our lives. Through it, we are no longer so anchored to the material world, the here and the now. We can roam freely in our imaginations over all of space and time.
How do we know animals don’t do this? Well, the evidence sure suggests that they don’t. According to Jane Goodall, if her baby dies, a chimpanzee mother will carry the body around with her for two or three days. Then, she just throws it away and forgets all about it. A human mother may carry that baby with her in her memory and in her heart for another 60 years or more. That’s the difference between us and the other animals that I had in mind when I used the word “spirit” to describe the mental world that only we human beings inhabit.
I don’t think sex is “dirty or guilty or sinful” per se, but I do think that promiscuous sex is dehumanizing, in the specific sense that it disconnects our bodies from our higher natures. I might add that it also treats the other person as a means to one’s own pleasure, rather than an end in themselves, so it also contravenes Kant’s categorical imperative. Until very recently, everyone in most all cultures understood these things instinctively. Now that moral relativism has set in, it is necessary to rethink everything from the ground up, to try to show just why sexual promiscuity is wrong. That is what I tried to do in the post, and in the follow-up on “Two Kinds of Atheism.” Of course, a lot more still needs to be said.
Let me just say for now that there are many degrees of right and wrong behavior. Obviously, people in a stable loving relationship of whatever sort are acting in accord with their full humanity in a way that people cruising and picking up rough trade in bars, or parks, or what have you are not. The picture I am painting is not just black and white, but many shades of gray. But the crucial first step is to see that there is a higher and a lower involved in human sexual behavior at all.
I will be looking forward to that metaphysical post, then! I just have to point out that you really have been reading my posts rather hastily if you are under the impression that I don’t believe human behaviour should be guided by normative considerations. I could quote several lines to the contrary. As I just said, I DO think there exists an objective standard for right and wrong, I just don’t think all people would agree what that standard is – because they have been raised in different cultures. This really is nothing more than saying that different cultures have different standards for what is normal and what is right. That does not mean that I think that all these cultures are right. I do indeed believe some cultures have quite horrific views on this and most definitely fail to adhere to that objective standard that I just referred to. Do you see the difference here?
The danger of treating other people as means is indeed a strong point, and is why it is so crucial that our behaviour towards others is guided by moral guidelines and standards, as I have been saying all along. This is the case in all of human interactions. I still think it is possible to have casual sex in a way that does not interfere with this principle.
Having to rethink all the moral standards from scratch is really rather exciting as an intellectual and emotional exercise, and quite healthy for a society, I think.
Holly: To be honest, I am not really sure where you are coming down here. Maybe I am just dense.
Sure, “different cultures have different standards” (i.e., customs), as you say, but if there is such a thing as objective, universal standards of right and wrong at all, then they are the normative standards—for everyone—and not the various local customs. I don’t see how you can both say that objective normative standards exist and say that there is nothing more than the fact that “different cultures have different standards.”
To say that every culture has its own standards and that’s it, is just to relativize the normative dimension of the relevant behaviors to specific cultures—that is, to deny the objectivity and universality of that normative dimension.
Conversely, to say that there are objective standards of right and wrong means being prepared to say that some cultural practices may be wrong, even though the practitioners themselves would of course disagree with you. Moral realism is akin to epistemological realism. It is the claim that there is an actual fact of the matter whether, say, burning widows is wrong, whatever anyone may think about it, just as there is a fact of the matter whether the earth revolves around the sun, whatever anyone may think about it.
Of course, I realize all of this gets very complicated very quickly. For one thing, not all behaviors are equally morally significant. We must distingusih the deep moral problems from something like mere “etiquette.” And that may not always be so easy to do in a given case. In our time, sex has slipped from being a matter of moral concern to being a matter of etiquette, you might say. Or at least that is one way that someone like me might characterize the problem.
I know these are difficult issues and if I have misinterpreted your position from too-hasty reading, I apologize.
You will get no argument from me on that last point!
You are quite right, this is exactly the point I’m trying to make:
You said: “Conversely, to say that there are objective standards of right and wrong means being prepared to say that some cultural practices may be wrong, even though the practitioners themselves would of course disagree with you.”
This is what I was trying to say in my first reply to this topic. I will try to be very clear, both for my own sake and for anyone who reads it:
1) There is an objective standard for right and wrong. Objective, not in the sense of inter-subjective, but in the sense of universal, ever lasting, valid for all times and places.
2) There usually is a standard for right and wrong within any given culture. These may change quite considerably through time.
3) The standards of #2 may be more or less similar to that of #1. This means, they may be judged according to how wrong or right they are. This supposes that the judge knows what the standards of #1 really are.
4) Humans main source of reference when passing judgements on individual behaviour are the standards of the #2-type, the one they have grown up with or otherwise come to feel most at home with.
5) Any persons action may be judged to be in accordance with the principles of #1 or #2. Only actions that adhere to the principles of #1 are objectively right.
6) When a person through introspection finds a sense of justice, what he or she finds are the principles of the #2 type.
7) From this follows that many people through introspection will find differing views of what is right and what is just. THIS DOES NOT MAKE THEM RIGHT, objectively, as it may not be in accordance with the type #1 standards.
Now, it was point #7 that I was trying to make in my first reply to this post, when I did not accept that the introspection will lead us to a justice that is objective.
So, what we can only hope for is that our type #2 standards are as much in accordance with the #1 standard as possible. I believe that education, research and dialogue are among the best tools we have to make sure this is really so. I do not, however, believe that the true and full substance of the #1 standards are known to us. We can strive towards them, but probably never know them to the full extent. (In this life, at least. What happens later on might be a whole other story.)
This makes me a transcendentalist as well as a universalist.
Well, at the risk of putting myself back in the reductionist camp, I should say that I don’t believe purpose, value, and meaning are ever “objective.” We can categorize individual or collective desires as fulfilling or stifling the abstraction we call “purpose”; we can observe quantities as they exist in nature or are generated by organisms and individually or collectively “value” them; we can observe phenomena and assign them “meaning.”
But since so many of these notions are subjective, what we can achieve is a contractual agreement on purposes, values, and meanings that satisfy ever larger numbers of subjective interests. Generally, I see it as ideal that these hierarchies of interest be more specific at the micro level, more general at the macro level; that is, that religious groups, families, or geographically bound communities have greater recourse to specific value systems, while states/nation-states are limited to those values, purposes, and meanings that allow these disparate, smaller groups to peacefully co-exist, or–and this is very important, especially in light of clear violations of civic principle done in the name of, say, Sharia Law–the right of the individual within any of these groups to remain physically intact and maintain basic right of egress.
But that’s getting into political view; what I believe as a Buddhist goes in different directions. Nonetheless, Buddhism takes as its central tenet cause & effect, as well as the posit that all being(s) possesses Buddha nature; the aspiration to Buddha nature is defined not by objective standards of right & wrong, but by attaching causes to likely or inevitable effects and pointing out the individual or collective desirability of those effects.
I disagree that dogs do not know the difference between right and wrong; I would suggest, rather, that they do not conceive of right and wrong in the same way we do because right and wrong, for them as for us, emerges from understanding of cause & effect; what effects they find desirable, individually and collectively, will differ from what effects we find desirable both as a function of their particular adaptation to their environments and their own limitations (which are, in turn, again, adaptations in their own rights). Dogs to not understand Kant’s Maxim of Nature because dogs have no use for Kant. Whether they have their own Kant, or even a canimorphic (okay, I just made that word up, but I kinda like it) conception of deity, I cannot say. But I have no certain basis on which to doubt it.
Likewise, the way a chimpanzee mother carries the body of her infant around with her, finally discarding it, doesn’t suggest that chimps have no moral framework; it only suggests that their moral framework is different from ours, because it serves a different purpose.
As an actor and playwright, I value art; I’m not sure, however, that quantities like art and philosophy represent anything other than evolutionary adaptations, vestiges of higher cognitive functions that allowed us to eliminate or isolate ourselves from our natural predators (and other hostile effects of natural cycles).
When I study the words of Jesus I see the man Diogenes was looking for. Heaven’s culture triumphs over that of earth. “Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven” is a most practical prayer. But only those who trust God to do His will in them and through them will accomplish the peace of heaven in their hearts, families and communities. The god of this world whose name may be allah will never understand God’s will.
Holly: So we are in fact in almost total agreement! Sorry if I contributed to confusion by misreading any of your previous posts.
thelyamhound: Maybe we can save the deeper metaphysical aspects of this discussion for the future. Let me just finish by saying that I agree that other animals have their own mental lives, and that ours derives from theirs. My only contention is that our mental life (which I call “spirit”) is so much richer than theirs in so many ways that there is a qualitative difference that it is crucially important to acknowledge in order to have a proper understanding of our own place in the scheme of things.
It seems to me that today we are in much greater danger of ignoring the discontinuity between us and the other animals than we are of overlooking the very real continuity.
I think our mental life is “richer” because it is more complex, and it is so because our social structures needed to me more complex to make up for our rather astonishing physical shortcomings (if we compare our strength, endurance, agility, physical adaptability, and so on to that of other species). I grant that our place in the scheme of things is “different,” but that difference doesn’t strike me as hierarchically significant. We are different from the dog in the way the dog is different from the naked mole rat–function is specialized according to mode of adaptation.
I think it is just as dangerous to ignore or mischaracterize the continuity between ourselves and other species; what’s more, I believe that the particular mischaracterization borne of Judeo-Christian morality and its stepchildren (Locke’s “Natural Law,” for instance, or quasi-religious constructs like Objectivism) has run its course (which is emphatically NOT a comment on Judeo-Christianity itself) as the guiding principle of our understanding. That said, I concur that there are dangers in ignoring the discontinuity.
In the end, what I object to is the notion that we are “higher” than animals, who, after all, possess Buddha nature just as we do, are just as responsive to the 300 Realms, and so on.
In fairness, in many Muslim countries, the perpetrators of this crime would go to jail. Just not enough of them.
The change he’s urging sounds like the transition from the Articles of Confederation to the (present) United States Constitution. Since 1789, the U.S. has seen a slow erosion of local governance and massive growth in Leviathan. As Toqueville notes, power tends toward centralization.
Clearly, Habermas is right that Europe’s elites need to be held accountable by the people. But at least in the crisis countries like Italy and Greece, less consolidation with Europe would have contained economic irresponsibility through the short feedback loop of local democratic accountability.
Those are good points.
I would like to hear what Habermas would say in response to Tocqueville.
Hi, I was astounded, about 6,7 years ago, when I met students with the same mindset as those you talk about. In one class, I even has all my black students against me. I held that slavery was wrong. They held this was just a matter of opinion – and though they shared my opinion, they knew it was just an opinion. Such a shock – as I grew up in a world where we tried to figure out what was right and what was wrong – and where the world was changing radically, as old thoughts about what was right were tumbling.
I’ve ended up doing loads of writing on this – and have even figured out some techniques for getting through to students. I’d love to continue this conversation – and especially to be part of the movement to burst this damaging “thinking” (non-thinking.
Here are a couple of links to articles on my site:
Are All Opinions Equal – NO!
Taking On Wrong Opinions
Magic Bullets vs “All Opinions Are Equal”
Elsa Schieder, PhD
John Abbott College
“I would suggest that helping is what we are biologically programmed to do. You have to suppress that biological tendency to not help. If we owned up to our biological inheritance a little bit more than we do, we would be better off.”
In all kinds of scientific studies rodents are questionable models of humans. But at least she seems (from the passage) to be admitting human freedom.
On the positive side, some people only pay attention to “scientific” pronouncements, no matter how far-fetched, and she’s bringing some commonsense to them. It’s another question how to communicate to people who only listen to “science” the philosophical truth that their “science” isn’t everything.
LG: I agree. The basic message from the experiment is positive. Certainly, it is a development to be applauded that scientists now see continuity between humans and the other animals with respect to our virtues, and not just our vices. And anyway, this knowledge about rodent nature is well worth having just for its own sake.
But my article was mainly directed against the assumption that biology is necessary to tell us the truth about human virtues and vices. Human nature is what it is, regardless of how it evolved. And the humanities give us a far, far richer and deeper understanding of our own nature than the natural sciences are presently able, or are ever likely, to do.
Please excuse the name, but having chosen it, to insure a certain continuity, I’m stuck with it.
My general appreciation of the body of work here, rather than this particular article, is the prime reason for my comment. Obviously the fact that I have been attempting to present similar views, with less skill and success, might indicate a certain bias.
My perspective as a “reluctant atheist” is that I have nothing against theists, and, in fact, could easily be a Christian, if it weren’t for the fact I simply can’t, at this point, honestly believe in the existence of God. That may not describe your point of view, but I would suggest that it may be a factor differentiating between “new” and “old” atheists.
The one area where we seem to disagree is on the question of the existence of “free will”. This may not be the place to fully explore our differences, but I would suggest that my view does not necessarily lead to the conclusions expressed in the article regarding the criminal justice system.
In sum, I have linked your articles on several occasions and look forward to future articles by both the present contributors.
Socrates01: Thank you for the kind words. I think there are more “old atheists” or “fellow-traveling” atheists out there than the New Atheists would like us to think. I am glad to have your input. Where may I read your work? jbarham. P.S. No need to apologize for your handle. We should all aim for greatness, even in the knowledge that we must inevitably fall short. You could not have adopted a nobler name to associate your own aspirations with.
A timely and seasonal post, James. Thanks!
Fwiw, here’s a passage that goes with the season and with hope:
Year after year, as it passes, brings us the same warnings again and again, and none perhaps more impressive than those with which it comes to us at this season. The very frost and cold, rain and gloom, which now befall us, forebode the last dreary days of the world, and in religious hearts raise the thought of them. The year is worn out: spring, summer, autumn, each in turn, have brought their gifts and done their utmost; but they are over, and the end is come. All is past and gone, all has failed, all has sated; we are tired of the past; we would not have the seasons longer; and the austere weather which succeeds, though ungrateful to the body, is in tone with our feelings, and acceptable. Such is the frame of mind which befits the end of the year; and such the frame of mind which comes alike on good and bad at the end of life. The days have come in which they have no pleasure; yet they would hardly be young again, could they be so by wishing it. Life is well enough in its way; but it does not satisfy. Thus the soul is cast forward upon the future, and in proportion as its conscience is clear and its perception keen and true, does it rejoice solemnly that “the night is far spent, the day is at hand,” that there are “new heavens and a new earth” to come, though the former are failing; nay, rather that, because they are failing, it will “soon see the King in His beauty,” and “behold the land which is very far off.” These are feelings for holy men in winter and in age, waiting, in some dejection perhaps, but with comfort on the whole, and calmly though earnestly, for the Advent of Christ.
Enjoy this season of Hope, Light and Joy!
LG: Thanks for sharing that beautiful passage. I’m afraid I don’t recognize it. Where is it from?
Thank you for your response. I’m in the midst of creating something of my own, but the time has long past for me to respond to your post.
My views, to date, have been primarily posted on Newsvine.com under the same moniker.
Unfortunately, I present my views on a variety of subjects with varying levels of quality…One of the reasons I’m thinking of becoming more focused and presenting my views under a different name.
In any event, no need to publish this comment, but you might be interested in going to my column to see some of the responses I received regarding your articles.
From one atheist to another…Merry Christmas.
Great reviews of great films, and beautifully written. What I think you miss, though, is that Malick is, ultimately, every bit the nihilist that Von Trier is; that he sees the glass as half full, rather than half empty, does not mean that he doesn’t imagine that all phenomena are on essentially equal footing, and distinctions (arguably) arbitrary. Being disinclined to dualism, each filmmaker, to me, speaks to an integral portion of the broader truth of the unity between phenomena: all is nothing, and nothing is everything. Being is eternal (because time itself is illusory), and being is ephemeral (because all perception of being is time-bound).
Thanks for directing me to Newsvine. I enjoyed many things I saw there, but I especially liked your remarks on the importance of civility in reasoned discussion.
I look forward to reading your future input.
Merry Christms to you, too!
I guess we’d have to talk to the directors themselves to find out for sure, but just judging by the films, would you at least agree that in some deep sense von Trier is a pessimist about humanity (that is, he thinks it would have been better if human beings had never existed), whereas Malick is an optimist (in spite of all the suffering, it is on the whole a good thing that humanity exists)?
Oh, definitely. But there’s a gulf between the question of pessimism/optimism and hope/despair. That is, one can be a hopeful pessimist. I would go so fair as to say that Beckett, whom you cite (correctly, I think) as an influence on Von Trier (as well as being the single greatest playwright who ever lived, in this actor’s opinion), fits that description rather well.
I think, in a sense, that both directors, if being intellectually honest, would suggest that it’s value-neutral that humanity exists. Indeed, there is no value (in my view) but that any given quantity is valued; that is, quantity and phenomena exist in nature, whereas value requires an evaluator. Whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that humanity exists depends not only on who is making the call, but when, on what basis, and so on. An artistic landscape without pessimism is an inherently dishonest and, in my view, fundamentally unenlightening one. We require both a Malick and a Von Trier if we’re to find useful views of truth in the cinema.
I’m not sure I grasp your concept of “hopeful pessimism.” To me, pessimism means saying “no” to human existence, optimism means saying “yes.” These attitudes seem to me to be close to synonymous with despair and hope.
Perhaps, one must distinguish between philosophical viewpoints and personality traits. I agree that Beckett was still infected to the end with animal hope, if I may call it that—for surely our hope is closely tied to our animal desire to live. I remember reading that he still enjoyed watching soccer matches in the old folks’ home where he ended up. Similarly, Schopenhauer could tuck into a good dinner with the best of them. But if you asked them what they would do, if they were appointed God, both would presumably say they would refuse to create mankind. I call that philosophical despair, if not the personal kind.
And what if I’m wrong? What if they would create mankind in spite of everything? Then, they would be optimists according to my way of thinking—someone for whom hope outweighs despair. Or else just inconsistent.
Perhaps you are using “pessimism” to mean “realism.” Certainly, Malick is a realistic optimist, not a Pollyanna. And certainly, any artist worth his salt must be that. But realism and pessimism are not the same thing, at least as I use those terms.
Realism acknowledges the pain and suffering of human existence; pessimism draws the conclusion that therefore it would be better for human beings not to exist, and optimism daws the opposite conclusion. Both optimists and pessimists can be equally realistic; they just attach different weights to joy and the suffering. For the optimist, the joy outweighs the suffering, and for the pessimist, the suffering outweighs the joy. It is not necessary for the optimist to be blind to any relevant facts in the pessimist’s possession. He may simply be more impressed by the fact of the existence of joy and goodness than the fact of the existence of suffering and evil.
I hope this clarifies what I meant. I don’t want to quarrel about the terminology itself, but I hope it’s helpful to have these distinctions spelled out, whatever one wishes to call the two diametrically opposed philosophical positions on the value of human existence.
It is indeed ironic that so many of the predictions of the Right come true, and yet they are the paranoid ones.
I sort of agree with everything, but have to point out that secularism does not necessarily find “socialism irreproachable, but Christianity beyond the pale.” There are plenty of secularists who are not socialists, and in fact strongly disagree with it.
I doubt that Beckett would refuse to create man, given the opportunity to make such a decision, and this is where I think our understanding of the nihilist’s mind diverges. On the one hand, I am “spiritual” (for lack of a better word, since I do not believe in pneuma as separate from the body, or life as distinct in value from non-life) and “humanistic” (again, for lack of a better word, since I don’t believe in human life as distinct in value from other forms of life) by way of my Buddhism; that is, I have strong views on any given war (though I am not, strictly speaking, a pacifist), I support various charities, I volunteer time, I have strong views on justice, and so on. On the other hand, I am a nihilist–I believe that all value is subjectively assigned and collectively agreed upon, rather than naturally occurring and universal; I believe that human morality and vision amounts to an evolutionary adaptation, and that even our highest, most numinous sensibilities have analogue in the animal kingdom. I pray for kosen rufu, and do what I can to bring it about, but while I’m hopeful that my efforts will bring an end to the suffering of some, I am pessimistic in that I am all but certain that I will not bring an end to the suffering of all, and that, indeed, the brutal and stupid will, as they always have, breed more and maintain, sometimes by force, greater social sway.
Some points worth noting: Von Trier set out to make a film about depression. As such, even the nihilistic conclusion should be looked at through the lens of understanding that he was making a film about a disorder (though, obviously, he did so by illustrating how, under some circumstances, disordered thinking can appear ordered).
Also, one should look at the totality of Malick’s output. The Thin Red Line certainly rang out with a nihilistic clarity (thankfully, being as it needed to distinguish itself from the facile jingoism of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan) that was only slightly “softened” (for those who wouldn’t know better) by using the Buddhist flavor thereof. And Badlands, his pastoral romance (of a sort) featuring Martin Sheen as a serial killer was … well, a pastoral romance about a serial killer.
I think that the Western tradition of dualism–philosophical, metaphysical, or phenomenological–takes comfort in binary distinctions. I think that such distinctions can be useful tools, but I think that accepting them as truths can be a great barrier to understanding.
Isn’t it possible that the baboon and the human will behave differently when someone else’s child is taken by a leopard because we are a) less concerned with maintaining numbers (because we are so very numerous), and can “afford” to lose two, rather than one, for the good of the collective and b) considerably lacking in the capacity to survive without our social structures in place (being so physically inadequate, as a species)? Not to say that the individual wouldn’t experience this as compassion; I’m only wondering if compassion itself mightn’t be born of an evolutionary necessity.
These are only ways of thinking about phenomena, after all. It just seems to me that there are religious traditions, as well as scientific and secular ones, that treat man as a natural phenomenon, and not something separate from nature. Rather than thinking about “Darwinism” (whatever that is) as challenging Christianity/anthropomorphic monotheism/”fellow traveling” atheism, we could see as confirming certain principles in Taoism, Buddhism, and Western pantheism from the Greeks to Bruno to Spinoza.
I can appreciate the role of language in helping to form this “difference,” but to me, that only confirms that it is an evolutionary, cellular adaptation–part of a broader, monistic metaphysical whole in which matter and spirit are not separate, where one is not even a reflection or corollary of the other, but that each is, in fact, the other as manifest and understood, that the difference between the eternal corporeal and the eternal incorporeal are the eyes upon the collected phenomena.
As an artist, I do happen to agree that art and poetry can show us much that science cannot, as can philosophy and religion. I just don’t hold these epistemic positions to be beacons of something separate from nature; indeed, I hold that our will-to-creation is a natural urge, a function that, for lack of a less prejudicial word, is biological, physical, chemical, cellular, molecular, etc.; what differs is only the lense through which we observe it. And until we’ve seen it through every lense at our disposal, we haven’t really seen it.
I am inclined just to let you have the last word here, thelyamhound, not to repeat myself and bore any third parties reading this. However, just two quick points:
As to Malick and von Trier, it seems to me that their most recent films are pretty much in keeping with their earlier work. Specifically, I read The Thin Red Line quite differently from the way you do, as being very much about the goodness of the creation and of humanity in spite of evil.
Finally, on the point about the oversimiplification of dichotomies, it’s hard to disagree with you there. On the other hand, all efforts at understanding inevitably entail some attempt to order, classify, analyze, simplify, etc. The justifcation for the particular categories I have been using must lie in their usefulness, and on that point, I will let others decide.
I didn’t suggest that The Thin Red Line was somehow anti-creation, or even anti-human (though it seemed pretty clear to me that we were meant to value the dying birds and waving grass as much as any human participant; in that sense, it was the ultimate in pantheistic–and therefore, necessarily, nihilistic–cinema). I think, rather, that it suggested that destruction, being the necessary flip side of creation, was not, in itself, anything to mourn. It reserved its criticism, then, for the absurdity–rather than the “evil”–of the human endeavor of warfare.
Agreed as to the usefulness of simplifications, but in order to acknowledge the usefulness of an oversimplification, one must also make note of the circumstances under which a given truism is false.
I think what gives the appearance that you’re attacking strawmen is the lack of a useful definition of “Darwinist.” Does it apply to anyone who does believe in evolution, but not in either deity or pneuma? If so, then the accusation has some basis. If, on the other hand, you’re only referring to those who believe that methodological naturalism is the only correct or useful way of observing, and that philosophical naturalism is the only rationally defensible position, then I would agree with you . . . but then, you’d only be talking about a very narrow (if vocal) portion of those individuals who believe, generally, in evolution.
This notion of performative contradiction actually illustrates the limitation of Western thinking in general, on both the atheistic and theistic (or fellow traveling) side. To Buddhists and Taoists, free will is real to precisely the same degree as the self (and, by extension, the world in which it lives) is real, which is not very far in reality, but infinitely in terms of function. In scientific terms (for science is nothing but a naturalistic method for observing natural phenomena), one could say that I’m part of a chain of physical and chemical processes that lead me to behave in a certain fashion; in poetic terms (for poetry is nothing but the subjective, linguistic method for describing phenomena in non-naturalistic terms), one could call this destiny. But if we extrapolate further along poetic lines, we could suggest that even destiny relies on my choices. If my choices are pre-determined, part of that pre-determination is that I make them, to the best of my ability and with all information and tools at my disposal. That is, if all is cause & effect (and to the Nichiren Buddhist, it is), then I can attempt, at all times, to make the causes that lead to the desired effects (and not just for me as an individual organism, since that is ephemeral and illusory, but for the whole, since it is into that whole that I will be absorbed upon extinction). Now, I’d say that I don’t have much choice as to what effects I see as desirable; we can’t decide what we want or believe so much as we can decide whether or not we will pursue what we want, and how (or if) we will live our lives according to belief.
In that sense, I look at my wife’s generosity and empathy, and see that it is a function of her choices. Even if she was physically and chemically driven to make those choices (and I cannot claim to know one way or another), and I was physically and chemically driven to find those choices appealing–indeed, even if what we do in light of these predisposition has been foreordained, or simply could not happen another way–the superficial appearance of will and individuation has functional use; it drives me toward good cause. It has managed to make me a better husband, a better son, a better artist, a better teacher, a better philanthropist, and so on. It lead me to Buddhism, through which I have done greater works than I ever managed as a Catholic (to say nothing of my years of questioning after coming to question my faith in [G/g]od[s] and exploring other metaphysical principles, including “none”).
I don’t think that “good” and “beauty” exist in nature; nature provides only quantities, on which we project value according to preferences (some individual, most arising out of, if not consensus, at least mutual agreement of some sort with other organisms who share enough with us–language certainly among the attributes–to engage in contracts). But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think they serve a natural function, or that their poetic function isn’t equally worthy. I am, after all, not a scientist; I am, indeed, an artist–an abstractionist by trade and inclination. If I thought that poetry and meditation and theater and music and philosophy were somehow inferior to mechanistic analysis and methodological naturalism, I probably picked the wrong field.
Darwin did not invent the idea of evolution, so “Darwinism” cannot mean “someone who believes in evolution.” Rather, it must mean what I said in the post: someone who believes natural selection explains (and reduces) the apparent purpose in most features of organisms.
Free will means acting for reasons, not just as the result of a chain of physical causes.
You say you don’t think “good” and “beauty” exist in nature. But you presumably agree that you exist in nature. So, if they are part of you, they are part of nature.
Almost no evolutionary theorists agree entirely with Darwin (who was, by all accounts, not even an atheist, and therefore not likely to have been the reductionist you seem anxiously certain that he was), yet nearly all are called “Darwinists” when the time comes to speak derisively of them. Whether or not some theory or other of evolution arose prior to Darwin, the notion of natural selection can be traced to him, and if one believes that natural selection is responsible, in general (not necessarily in totality), for the features of organisms . . . well, now it just feels like we’re dancing around the dictionary (and not even a legitimate one, but rather, the divisive wordplay of highly partisan and malleably socio-cultural semantic chicanery).
Your definition of free will is pretty much what I’m supposing, so I repeat: We have the appearance of free will. That appearance may or may not be deceptive. I have free will in that I act for reasons; the deception may lie in the very real possibility that my “reasons” are nothing more than part of a chain of physical causes. This is not strictly a reductionist or even atheistic view; it’s fully consistent with pantheism, panpsychism, or even panentheism of Eastern and Western varieties.
I’m not sure I DO agree that I exist in nature; the “I” is certainly ephemeral, and possibly illusory. Even granting, arguendo, that the individual self is a natural occurrence, I would say less that “good” and “beauty” exist in me than that the capacity to prefer any qualitatively, morally, or aesthetically neutral quantity in nature over another, and to label that preference by referring to that quantity as “good” or “beautiful” to distinguish it from others that I do not see in such a way, appears to be a part of my natural function.
If we want to foist more semantic chicanery upon such, we can suggest that this means, yes, that “good” and “beauty” exist in nature because a natural organism can find natural phenomena “good” and “beautiful.” What I’m getting at, though, is that they don’t exist in any objective state–that what is good and beautiful for me might well not be good or beautiful for you, though I would imagine that we would find some common ground due to cultural parameters.
(1) So, let me get this straight. Your position is that, though your “I” exists outside of nature, nevertheless your will is determined because “reasons” are just “causes” in the end? Is that correct? If I have that right, then my position is precisely the converse of yours: Everything about me is part of nature, but there is more to nature than reductionist science currently allows for.
(2) Re: the objectivity of value. I would not, of course, argue that all values are equally objective, in the sense of being equally closely linked to our fundamental nature. But many are, and that’s all I need for my purpose (which is to find a natural ground for value, as a metaphysical category). In other words, while “red means stop” and “green means go” are obviously dependent upon cultural conventions, “sweet means eat” and “bitter means spit out” are not so dependent. Rather, the latter are objective facts about the way all human beings (indeed most higher animals) are constituted. Would you agree? Or would you argue that the fact that most of us prefer to eat honey than drink bile is a mere convention, like stopping at a red light?
What I mean is less that “I” exist outside of nature than that “I” might well not exist at all; that is, there is a gathering of properties and components that are reflective of the whole, but my very assignation of a person, an individual self, to that confluence is, itself, just another property. I am a microcosm of the universe; then again, so is an amoeba or a rock . . . and indeed, the notion that I am separate from–let alone “superior” to–the amoeba or the rock amounts to a presupposition, and not, in my view, a particularly well-justified one. There are “reasons” why I function according to classification–human, individual, male, Buddhist, American, Celt, actor, husband–but those reasons probably amount to causes, at least in the sense that, in the end, that part of me which possesses will and self-awareness is more likely than not to be extinguished (hopefully in a good number of years, but potentially at any time).
I would say that “sweet means eat” and “bitter means spit out” IS reliant on convention, or, more accurately, on circumstance; after all, kale, one of the healthiest foods in nature, is fairly bitter. On the other hand, yes, the human palate will tend to avoid bile. That’s still conditional, though–not on culture, but on species. I can all but guarantee there’s something out there that eats bile. So this preference is a function of evolution, of adaptation to a certain way of being.
On the other hand (not sure how many hands that even makes), I think we might be back to a semantic disagreement. “Your facial symmetry stimulates my oxytocin, and your grasp of language and social nuance indicates strong proclivity for the maintenance of social status” and “You’re gorgeous and charming, and it would please me to no end to spend time in your company” are not different statements; one who believes that attraction and beauty are most objectively described in the former terms is not engaged in a “performative contradiction”; he is expressing the same observation in terms that either better describe his subjective state (which is as experientially valid as the objective one) or better please the listener (which is likelier to further his goals)–more than likely both.
Again, it seems like we’re chasing another false binary, making a “but” where a more enlightened mind would perceive an “and”.
Lest my last sentence be taken in a snarkier spirit than the one in which it was intended, I want to say that there was no dig in there. I think all of us–myself included (especially?)–would do well to spend less time worrying about who’s right, who’s wrong, or who’s a “fellow traveler,” and more time firming up the understanding that serves us best in whatever sphere allows us to best serve our fellows.
I actually agree with you here. There is no basis I can see on which this policy–and, by extension, the ruling–is anything but discriminatory.
Make the middle ground more exciting by discussing how to articulate it philosophically
James, I’m with you on everything you say here, but to most Americans a sentence with excitement and philosophy in it makes no sense. Would that it were not the case!
I wish you all the best in getting Americans excited about thinking.
LG: Alas, you are probably right. However, I think we must all just do the best we can . . . and hope for the best.
As Phil Johnson said, ID will only “win” if those who support it have endurance.
I find Bill’s comments that “Ultimately, I think ID will win. A few years ago, I thought I’d be around to see its victory. Now, I’m not so sure.” similar to the comments Billy Graham made about his outlook for world evangelism. Both men may have been caught up in the excitement of the early victories, which obscured the long road ahead.
Excellent post. It got me to thinking about how we arrived at the point that we can’t teach even school children that there is truth, and brought to the surface some reflections I’ve been pondering for the past several months.
The arc of modernity, in outline:
1. In the late Renaissance and Enlightenment, we reasoned that we can’t agree on religious truth, but (modern) science is true.
2. In the 19th and even more the 20th centuries, we discovered that science doesn’t give us access to truth.
3. Therefore, we conclude, nothing is true.
The reasoning is obviously full of holes.
A parallel description:
1. Man can only know through experiment (active intervention). (Baldly asserted in a raw exercise of power by people like Francis Bacon.)
2. From this stance, man can only see that part of the world that can receive his actions, so the world must be purely passive and lack all inherent activities (and directedness).
3. The only activity man can see is his own, so man must be the source of all activity.
4. Therefore man is God, so God is dead.
Clearly the reasoning here is equally holey.
Many thanks for your kind words, for your historical analysis of our predicament, and for the link to your web site, which I was previously unaware of.
You seem to bear a strange resemblance to the late Dr. Strangelove. Was he any relation of yours?
It is a caricature to depict social conservatives as wanting the government to invade the bedroom, because that implies they want to go back to the days when much deviant sexual behavior was criminally prosecuted. I don’t know of any public figure who is proposing that we do that.
It is extremely easy to find Rick Santorum, not to mention countless lesser public figures, proposing just that. For example. Rick Perry too.
I wondered about Santorum, and looked on his campaign web site, and saw nothing there to indicate he favored recriminalizing sodomy. But the evidence you present seems pretty conclusive. As for Perry, he is just incoherent. Either way, I failed to do my due diligence. I stand corrected.
I had to answer this one.
Firstly, my librarian has a signature file on his e-mail that quotes Shelby Foote who said “a university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library”. There is a lot of truth in that, because it is not necessarily the people’s brain knowledge that defined a university, but its storage of permanent information in a library.
So let us suppose that Foote is right, what then has happened in this internet age? We all have seen and used virtual libraries–Google’s database of scanned books, Gutenberg’s database of digitized books. In fact, my librarian subscribes to a service that provides virtual journals, even access to every book published before 1750. (Take that Alexandria!)
So where do the buidings group? Where do the people group? Are they virtual buildings grouped about a virtual library and inhabited by virtual people?
Let’s go back and say to Foote–”No, you are wrong. A university is only as real as its real people, its real professors, its real classrooms, its real laboratories.”
But if this is true, then why have universities been doing “video extension” courses for decades? Why do they assign homework using web-based quizes provided by the book publishers? Why do they give their lectures with PowerPoint? Why does every classroom have a computer projector in it now? Why have they expanded their course offerings to include virtual students, virtual teachers, virtual textbooks, virtual “facebook” dialogues, even virtual laboratory experiments?
Let’s be blunt here. If it didn’t make money, they wouldn’t be doing it. If students didn’t prefer it, it wouldn’t be making money. If teachers didn’t like it, they wouldn’t be going along with the administration. (Yes, faculty have some very strong likes and dislikes, believe it or not.)
So what’s the beef? That university 2.0 doesn’t look like university 1.0? Sure, but then university 1.0 didn’t look like the apprenticeships and guilds either.
Or perhaps that university 2.0 is fragmented, teaching expertise in various high-tech subjects without teaching the meaning of life, the beauty of nature, the angst of existence? That liberal arts is getting the short end of the stick compared to AI and high tech?
Yes, there’s no doubt that liberal arts is in decline. You have only to read classicist Victor Davis Hanson’s book “Who Killed Homer?” published a decade ago, that documented this decline. But it wasn’t the Internet that killed Homer, it was classicists themselves. With their own hands they murdered him.
So yes, there are many things to note about the changes of University 2.0, but accusing it of killing the classics is not one of them.
What then do we make of this blog post? Are the beautiful gothic buildings of Oxford and Cambridge doomed? Will the University stop being the ideal of John Henry Newman “The Idea of a University”?
Yes, it will. An Newman is undoubtedly turning in his grave. But the university did it to itself. For the simple reason that the university abandonned the ideal, oh, about a century ago. Look at Oxford. Look at Cambridge. They are many colleges collected around a library–yes–but each college is also many dorms and classrooms gathered about a chapel. And what happened to those chapels? They are now being converted to dorms and classrooms.
The university has done itself in. The ideal of the German “research university” took America by storm at the beginning of the Modernist era. A century of Modernism has gutted the university of all its Newman ideals. And the internet has taken that gutted university, and removed the last remnant of its humanity.
Perhaps University 2.0 is necessary in order for Newman’s University 3.0 to form. And they are forming. But we don’t yet know what 3.0 is going to look like. I have a feeling it will look like Bonhoeffer’s seminary. But that’s just a gut feeling.
Of course, there is no going back. There never is.
As for University 1.0 having mainly itself to blame for the death of the humanities—you’re probably right about that, too.
The university does not exist in a vacuum, and has always had to adjust to changing times as best it could. But lately it seems to have capitulated to the lure of profit in a way that it might have been expected to resist. Not to mention all the intellectually shallow fads, the herd mentality, etc. So, sure, it largely has itself to blame.
I also fervently hope you’re right about University 3.0.
I just wanted to stress that we shouldn’t kid ourselves that in transitioning to University 2.0, we do not risk losing something very important—in fact, the soul of what education is all about.
That is reasoning, understood as holding each other intellectually responsible, by asking for and giving reasons for what we say.
We all know how the Internet’s anonymity undermines that sense of responsibility. It’s still an open question whether and how University 2.0 is going to be able to respond effectively to this threat.
There’s something else you can do besides buying Murray’s book (and “The Bell Curve” is another one you should buy and read.)
How about moving to Fishtown? How about raising your kids there? No, you don’t have to put them in the burnt-out school with the raving principal–homeschool them.
Show them “we can”. That’s what my friends are doing in the real Fishtown, Phila. Honest.
I appreciate what you’re saying—”put your money where your mouth is.”
I don’t ordinarily indulge in personal history on this blog, but in response, let me say this much:
I now live on the South Side of Chicago, in a neighborhood called “Pullman.” Pullman has some Belmontish qualities, but in most respects the immediately surrounding area is worse than Fishtown. For example, we had a drug-related fatal shooting in the McDonald’s about three blocks from my house last year.
If you know the Philly area (where I once lived for a while), think West Philly.
Of course, if I could afford to live on the North Side, I probably would. It’d closer to the Lyric Opera, for one thing.
But I hear you.
What did your friends in the real Fishtown think of the Murray piece?
Wow, in all my years of posting critical comments on right-wing blogs this may be the first time someone has admitted they were wrong! I am in shock and awe, and you have earned my deep respect.
Sometimes things should be criminalized even though enforcement is unthinkable. Law has a teaching function, especially in a society like ours in which there is no other central moral authority.
The Texas sodomy law is an example. That law was hardly ever enforced because it would be crazy to peep in people’s bedrooms like that–when that happens we’ll have far bigger problems on our hands, something comparable to a police state (a situation both sides of the aisle seem to favor in the name of “fighting terrorism”).
The “Lawrence” in “Lawrence v. Texas” had to make a point of arranging for the police to walk in on him with his friend. In other words, such arrests in private homes are far from an ordinary occurrence.
But the law stood as an affirmation of the rightful arrangement of sexual relations in the family, i.e., ordered to procreation. Is it any wonder that the societies whose fertility rates have plummeted so drastically are the same ones so quick to hold up sexual perversions as ideals?
Demography is destiny. So the triumph of sexual perversity will only ever be temporary. With the rise of the new Caliphate, the few homosexuals and fellow-travelers who survive will long for the days when they simply had to prudently hide their activities from the public instead of risking their lives.
The wiser among them might even wonder what madness ever got into their heads to make them think a society could be based on subversion of the one institution that has proven itself capable of propagating a nation or culture.
You summed things up at the very beginning.
I don’t mean to take away from your article, which is excellent, but should the things you advocate really need to be said?
Which is the point of your article in the first place…
There remains a point which is being missed.
You have articulated the position, in my opinion, of most Conservatives. The problem is, as you suggest, that the Left is as unwilling as the far Right to leave it in the bedroom, thus leaving most of us with choosing between the least of two evils.
The bottom line, which was also in the article, is Belmont is not doing enough to support Fishtown and I don’t meant that in the socialist sense.
Belmonters living in Fishtown might be one way, but not really necessary.
If I were in academia I’d probably already have finished my book.
Here again, the “foundationial premise” is wrong.
Problem, how can I exhibit my brilliance without giving away the store…:) (Seriously, I was going to ask you that question).
Not sure I follow, but this seems more like something we should take offline. Feel free to write me privately, if you like (see Contact).
Sounds like the IoM report is another place in which scientific expertise is assumed to confer moral-ethical expertise.
I picture Orwell shrugging his shoulders at us foolish mortals as if to say, “This is what I told you would happen, but you wouldn’t listen to me.”
Of course, this isn’t anything new or surprising. America was the default location for the despairing lower class of Europe. First the debtors prisons that populated Georgia and then the famine-starved population of Ireland, the oppressed poor of Italy, and we could go on. There’s a reason Emma Lazarus’ poem was selected to be put on the pedestal of the statue of Liberty, and I’ll give you a hint, it wasn’t because it was cheerful.
So America inherits all this detritus, all these alcoholics from broken homes, the riffraff of Europe, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and has to shape them into a responsible nation. How did it do it? Because that is precisely the problem we face today, only we can generated our own problem through misguided social engineering experiments.
The answer is in the introduction to the movie “Amazing Grace”. It was the Reformation of England’s poor that kept the French Revolution from crossing the channel. It was a reformation of work, of taxes, of prisons and slavery. It changed England then, and it could change it again. Give us a Wesley and Whitfield, a Wilberforce and a Washington and we can do it again. As Wilberforce wrote in his journal, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”
We celebrate the first, but it was the 2nd that permitted the first. And that, I submit to you, was what Washington wrote in his journals, what Whitfield and Wesley were all about. We’ve lost touch with this earthy aspect of Evangelicalism, thinking that heavenly destiny is the sole function of evangelicalism when it has always been equally about the reformation of manners.
I enjoyed your series and don’t necessarily disagree with some of your conclusions. I would like to comment on one.
You seem to give up the opportunity to rebut the “scientific and reductionist views of human nature” using their own criteria. In other words, some might suggest I fall into that category, and yet I agree with many of your other conclusions.
True, the only rebutting going on here is of the phenomenological sort—pointing to what I take to be realities accessible to everyone.
I have tried to rebut scientism in its own terms in my “What Is Life?” series (especially, Part II), and of course in more detail in my dissertation.
Oh come now. In a perfectly reasonable and convincing argument against the other sides’ blind commitment to unproven and flawed dogma we must present an absurdity such as this: “The main reason America’s homicide rate is so high is that our laws regulating gun ownership are so lax.”? Really? I’m sure the author is familiar with New Zealand, Switzerland and Israel, countries with more “lax” gun control and homicide rates comparable to Europe. Or perhaps of Taiwan and South Africa, two countries with much more restrictive gun control laws than Europe, but higher (apolitical) homicide rates than the US. Perhaps we shouldn’t consider the underlying reason for high US homicide rates “settled science” just yet.
Thank you for your comment.
You are clearly right, and I stand corrected.
Please see the note I’ve added to the body of the post.
From “The Irony of American History” (pgs 59-60):
Yet we cannot deny the indictment that we seek a solution for practically every problem of life in quantitative terms; and are not fully aware of the limits of this approach. The constant multiplication of our high school and college enrollments has not had the effect of making us the most “intelligent” nation, whether we measure intelligence in terms of social wisdom, aesthetic discrimination, spritual serenity or any other basic human achievement. It may have mad us technically the most proficient nation, thereby proving that technical efficiency is more easily achieved in purely quantitative terms than any other value of culture….No national culture has been as assiduous as our own in trying to press the wisdom of the social and political sciences, indeed of all the humanities, into the limits of the natural sciences…the result is frequently a preoccupation with the minutiae which obscures the grand and tragic outlines of contemporary history, and offers vapid solutions for profound problems.
You have taken a highly literary and film oriented critique to what is essentially a non-literary, science/ empirical error. That is, in HG Wells terms, you have a Eloi critique of a Morlock problem. Since Morlocks don’t ever want to become Eloi, the critique merely drives in the wedge that already separates the two worldviews.
So in defense of Morlocks everywhere, let me as you for a few reasons for your Eloi assumptions. Why, precisely, is moral to believe in “the sacred, and with it our belief in transgression, sin, guilt, and atonement.” Can you show me how to build a “sin meter” so that I too can determine which things I should avoid? Or just exactly how does atonement work? Can you atone for Obama’s sins? For your father’s sins? Okay, how about your own sins? And how do tell when I am half-way atoned, or three-quarters atoned for? If I get 100 people to atone for 1% of my sins, am I completely atoned? How can I tell?
In short, you don’t have an answer for any of those questions. Your Eloi assumptions are all assumed in the literati echo chambers that you write for, and you never had to give concrete answers to the Morlock engineers who fix the computers that you type your blogs on.
Have I defended Morlocks sufficiently? Any Morlocks out there who would like to add to my defense?
Because I do believe, James, that there are Morlock answers to Morlock questions, just as there are Eloi answers for Eloi assumptions. The problem is that we haven’t made our case.
Eloi really do know something about atonement, but they’re afraid they will be criticized for saying it. And Morlocks really have tried bioengineering, and it didn’t turn out well. It is my contention that these morals that Eloi take as assumptions have their roots in Morlock experiments. And these mad scientists aren’t really mad at all, but are violating certain built-in limits (dare I say Eloi regulations) to their equipment that they refuse to acknowledge.
And defending those rather than myths or literature about them, is the real McCoy.
Darn, all I was gonna’ do was suggest adding “Gattica” to the list. Now I feel like I need to say something more profound.
Okay, Dr. Liao seemed to offer a fairly plausible way to reduce people’s size. I would think the biggest drawback is how to perform all the necessary procedures on billions of people? So other than the daunting numbers, there don’t seem to be any built-in limits to this particular Morlock dream.
But more to the point, should Morlock’s be allowed to find out what are and are not the built-in limits to there dreams? Or should we insist that life is sacred and not to be experimented with?
On another note, it’s always looked to me as if Genesis took it for granted that human beings were meant to be vegetarians from the beginning, and only after the flood was meat-eating allowed. So our physical size was originally meant to be smaller (if that is the outcome of vegetarianism). If the Fall really happened, then we all became Morlocks of one type or another, which included eating animals.
So the real question is how to stop being Morlocks?
It has occurred to me that the evolutionary process favors micro-organisms. Should micro-organisms turn “bad” i.e. live by feeding off other larger organisms to the point of death of the host then the question must surely be, “Given the much higher ability of evolvability of micro-organisms compared to larger multicellular organisms, why are there any larger multi-cellular organisms at all?”
Micro-organisms can evolve much quicker than multi-cellulars to respond to any changes that the MC’s may generate to defend themselves against SC’s.
In other words there should be no MC’s in the world today as evolution is stacked against them with respect to SC’s.
I’ve been arguing that the existence of such a general power of “adaptivity” or “intelligent agency” cannot be explained by the theory of natural selection, but rather is the tacit presupposition that gives that theory its superficial plausibility.
I suspect that many evolutionary biologists would mostly agree, except that they would object to that word “superficial” near the end of that statement.
But if natural selection cannot explain this power or capacity, what can?
Perhaps my series of posts on a natural basis for purpose in nature.
The Darwinian View of Life …
The items that you list seem to come from a creationist caricature of Darwinian thinking. There’s a wide diversity of Darwinian thinking. While Jerry Coyne might argue that free will is an illusion, other Darwinians will disagree with Coyne on that.
I’m not a biologist, but I will add my two cents anyway.
Rosemary Redfield, from the University of British Columbia in Canada, published an interesting paper on re-vamping the university introduction to genetics course.
I applaud the idea of revamping. When I took biology, the genetics section was mainly about Mendel’s laws. We now know a lot more than was available to Mendel.
Facts are cheap. I do not need to seek out a geneticist to tell me the phases of mitosis or the latest research in genetics; I can just “Google-search” it. The expert is no longer needed for his or her mental database. Now the expert is needed to discern and assess ideas.
I think this was always true, though perhaps it has become more obvious in the Internet era.
Redfield suggests that it is the role of the scientist to address ethical questions.
I disagree with that, as stated. However, I’m not sure whether I am disagreeing with Redfield.
Ethical questions are not scientific questions. It is the role of the scientist to address scientific questions.
It is the role of a citizen (I’ll include “citizen of the world” there) to address ethical questions. And scientists are citizens. But it is in their role as citizens, rather than their role as scientists, that they should be addressing ethical questions.
If I am reading the post correctly, I think I am agreeing with Heather Zeiger on this.
As for Redfield’s suggestion of putting this in the curriculum – it depends on what she means. Yes, science students should be trained to think about these questions. But they should also be expected to understand that these are not scientific questions. By virtue of their specialized knowledge, scientists are perhaps in a strong position to understand the ethical questions. But they should use that knowledge to help others understand some of the consequences of ethical choices, so that non-experts can be better able to contribute to public discussions of ethical issues.
nwrickert, Thanks for your comments. It allows me to make a clarification. I agree with you that ethics and even the field of bioethics is not science. I actually think bioethics should be taught in a separate class rather than as part of the genetics curriculum. Having said that, acknowledging that there are ethical issues in genetics (or any discipline) in a genetics class is not a bad idea, because it reminds the scientist that he or she is not working in a vacuum. I do think that scientists should be part of the ethics discussion since the nuances of the technique might inform whether the technique is ethical or not.
Thanks for your points and comments!
Thanks for the very thoughtful post (I found it by way of Larry Moran’s post).
I’m not proposing that genetics instructors (not trained in ethics) should tell students answers to these partly-ethical questions. But the students will need to consider many of these questions in their daily lives, and genetics courses should teach them the scientific information they’ll need for this. For example, students need to understand what cloning of animals is, and how such animals compare to those produced by more natural means, before they can consider the ethical issues about them.
I agree with your point. I don’t think science instructors are necessarily trained to delve into the nuances of ethical theory, but sometimes the science can inform our ethics. You mention cloning, which is a great example. If a research project is based on the clone being a genetic match to the donor, then we need to consider if this is truly feasible with somatic cell nuclear transfer. In SCNT, the nuclear DNA is replaced in the cell with the donor’s DNA, however the mitochondrial DNA is not replaced. Some have argued that clones like Dolly the sheep may actually be a chimera rather than a true clone because the nuclear DNA and the mitochondrial DNA are form different sources. If the effects of mtDNA are significant, then the research questions are different. Rather than a copy, we are dealing with a chimera. If effects of the mtDNA are not significant, then the motivation behind cloning remains, as does the ethical questions. To me, my geneticist friends are the one that can help inform us on the effects of mitochondrial DNA because it is a technical question.