Friday, December 30, 2011

Rich White Kentucky Liberals Saved: Beshear vetoes hospital merger

Rich white liberals concerned that population control programs for the poor in Louisville might be cut as a result of University of Louisville Hospital merger with two Catholic hospitals will be popping their champagne corks and dancing all night after Gov. Steve Beshear announced today that he has pulled the plug on the plan.

UofL Hospital and Louisville's Jewish Hospital were slated to come under the control of a Catholic Health Care management group through a merger with Lexington's St. Joseph Hospital and St. Mary's Healthcare, a move that critics worried could mean the end of programs aimed at reducing pregnancies among poor women.

The threatened services to restrict the reproduction of the poor are called "reproductive services."

The opposition to UofL's merger with Catholic hospitals was led by State Reps. Tom Burch and Mary Lou Marzian, both of whom are Catholics. These two Catholics who oppose Catholic teaching on reproduction services that restrict reproduction were undoubtedly delighted by the Governor's action.

Now the critics can munch their caviar in the knowledge that they won't have to look out their limousine windows and see so many poor people running around.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Scientism? What Scientism? We haven't seen any scientism...

The New Atheists are currently in the throes of denial that their beliefs about religion and philosophy smack of "scientism." And if you can't answer a charge, what better thing to do than to confuse the issue?

The term "scientism" has been around since the late 19th century, but was known as a concept even in ancient times, and it has been applied frequently to the reductive mode of thought that sees all problems as reducible to strictly scientific problems. It's the "when all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" problem many atheists have who are blind to their own scientifically unverifiable assumptions as well as the whole range of legitimate beliefs that are immune to scientific testability.

The two main responses of New Atheists like Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse, two scientific bulls who frequently wander into the philosophical china shop, are that a) their beliefs do not meet the criteria of scientism, and b) there are no such things as criteria for scientism anyway. It's kind of hard to hold both these mutually exclusive positions simultaneously, but it is a feat Jerry and Jason attempt in almost every post they write on the subject.

The fact that you can't just take the methodologies and conventions of one body of knowledge and indiscriminately apply them in other intellectual disciplines was understood as early as the 4th century B.C. In Book I, ch. 3 of his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle asserts that it is the "mark of an educated man" that not every discipline admits of the same level of precision and that "precision ought not to be sought in the same way in all kinds of discourse."

In other words, you can't verify that, say, Caesar crossed the Rubicon with the same level of precision as you can determine the paternity of a child (at least today)--and you can't use the same methods to determine the former as the latter--and vice-versa.

To use a technical term: Duh.

It's a simple concept, really, but Coyne and Rosenhouse just doesn't seem to get it. So, first, they feign ignorance. Says Rosenhouse:
But I've never entirely understood what scientism actually is. The usual definition is that scientism is the blinkered belief that science is the only reliable “way of knowing,” but this is vague until we have sharp definitions of “science” and “way of knowing.”
And then there are those pesky terms "the" and "only". What do they mean? Are New Atheist scientists really so philosophically challenged that they can't understand a term that has been around in fairly common discourse in the scholarly community for at least 60 years?

Just pulling down a few random books from my office library shelves, I find very quickly this definition given by John Wellmuth, S.J., in the 1944 Aquinas Lecture at Marquette University. "The Nature and Origin of Scientism":
The word "scientism," as used in this lecture, is to be understood as meaning the belief that science, in the modern sense of that term, and the scientific method as described by modern scientists, afford the only reliable natural means of acquiring such knowledge as may be available about whatever is real. (pp. 1-2)
He not only defines it, he describes it and lists its three chief characteristics:
  1. "the fields of the various sciences ... are taken to be coextensive, at least in principle, with the entire field of available knowledge"
  2. "the scientific method ... is the only reliable method of widening and deepening our knowledge and of making that knowledge more accurate"
  3. "either that philosophy should be made scientific by conforming to the methods and ideas of some particular science, or that the function of philosophy is to correlate and if possible unify the findings of the other sciences by means of generalizing on a basis of these findings, after ridding itself of outworn metaphysical notions."
I find basically the same definition in F. A. Hayek's The Counter-Revolution of Science, where he describes it as:
the mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed ... a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what it he most appropriate way of investigating it. (p. 24)
"Such an attitude," Hayek quotes physicist P. W. Bridgman as saying, "bespeaks an unimaginativeness, a mental obtuseness and obstinacy, which might be expected to have exhausted their pragmatic justification at a lower plane of mental activity." (The Logic of Modern Physics, 1928, p. 46).

Then I grab for a third book: Life is a Miracle, by Wendell Berry, who discusses how "this legitimate faith in scientific methodology seems to veer off into a kind of religious faith in the power of science to know all things and solve all problems, whereupon the scientist may become an evangelist and go forth to save the world." (p. 19)

There you have it: a philosopher, an economics, a scientist, and a novelist, poet, and essayist, over a 60 year period, all of whom have no trouble negotiating the term "scientism." But Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse just don't get it.

Maybe it's that narrow scientific training they got. Doesn't seem to transfer over too well into all those other disciplines that are supposed to bend the knee to science, does it?

If there is a problem with this definition, then what is it? There are four basic criteria for a good definition:
  1. that it have both a generic and differentiating element
  2. that the definition and the thing defined be coextensive
  3. that the definition be clearer than what is defined
  4. that the definition be universal (and not individual: you can't define 'Obama', but you can define 'president')
You can find these in ch. 10 of my Material Logic. Wellmuth's definition (and the others) meet all four criteria. So what's the problem? The problem is that the question of what the limits of science are is not a scientific question, but you are arguing with people who think every question is a scientific question, including the question "What is a scientific question?"

The definition of "scientism" is essentially a philosophical endeavor, a kind of question in which Coyne and Rosenhouse have no formal expertise, much less any demonstrated informal facility, and what makes it worse is that they don't seem have a clue that they're insufficient to the task. It's somewhat analogous to a literature professor trying his hand at physics and wondering what all this stuff about time and space really means after all.

To Coyne and Rosenhouse it's all just a religionist plot concocted to cover their own intellectual illegitimacy: "The relevant distinction between scientific knowledge claims and religious knowledge claims is that the former are based on reliable methods while the latter are not." Reliable meaning "scientific." By definition, of course.

The answer? "We should reject totally," says Rosenhouse, "the idea that there are two kinds of knowledge, scientific on the one hand and religious on the other." I would pass this off as merely an attempt by someone trained only in the use of a hammer to redefine everything as a nail, but it is even more strange than that.

Instead of erasing the line between science and religion such that science engulfs religion, instead Coyne and Rosenhouse, in erasing the line between the two, end up only with ... religion. Their religion. It is the religion of science--or, as we said before, scientism. It is, said Berry, "the religification ... of science." The scientist is no longer the dull gray figure putzing around the lab. No. He must be seen in a more heroic role. The scientist now, says Berry, occupies the "place once occupied by the prophets and priests of religion."

But the argument that Coyne and Rosenhouse think is the most telling argument proving that they are not, in fact, guilty of scientism is the very clever procedure of engaging in it in the very process of denying it.

After arguing that this whole "scientism" thing is just a religionist plot (he would say "creationist" plot except the BioLogos people have been using the term), Rosenhouse waxes scientistic in the very process of denying the existence of scientism:
So I don't think it is unreasonable, in the context of these sorts of discussions, to define science very broadly. It just seems silly to me to say that scientific knowledge is one kind of thing, historical knowledge is something else, philosophical knowledge is a third and mathematical knowledge is a fourth. Mathematicians primarily use deductive reasoning in their work, but deductive reasoning is not some special, mathematical approach to knowledge that is separate from what scientists do. The primary tool of philosophy is dialectical argumentation, but this, too, is not something that is foreign to scientific practice.
In other words, how can there be such a thing as scientism (which is the belief that science is the only legitimate mode of intellectual inquiry) when, in fact, we know that science is the only legitimate mode of intellectual inquiry?

We know that everything is, in fact, a nail because, as you can plainly see, all we've got here hammer. QEP (Quod est procusum. Rough translation: "That which was to be proven hammered").

It's nonsense like this that contributes to people like Massimo Pigliucci, an atheist scientist who is at least capable of making a competent rational case for his beliefs, charging people like Coyne with "hero worship and a selective dearth of critical thinking."

Hey Baby, He'll Stand His Ground: Cardinal George standing up to the Tolerance Police

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago isn't standing down from his criticism of the intolerance of gay right groups, which are engaged in their usual attempts to intimidate people who don't agree with their political agenda, an agenda which includes the institutionalized intimidation of people who don't agree with their political agenda.

Part of the trick is to misportray what Cardinal George said, which the media (including the Lexington Herald-Leader in the headline of the story which was origianal from the Chicago Tribune) have portrayed as "Cardinal defends his comparison of gay rights movement to KKK."

What he actually said was that it would not be good if they did become like the KKK, which they promptly proceeded to act like they were becoming after the Cardinal posed the question.

The question involved here is whether gay rights groups themselves, which are constantly accusing groups they disagree with with being hate groups are themselves turning into hate groups, accusing anyone who disagrees with them with being "bigots,"--a devil word in the modern world--simply because they disagree with them.

It's good there is someone who refuses to back down from the intimidation.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gambling industry already spending big bucks on lobbyists

I am quoted in the following story today from WDRB-TV in Lousville on the casino gambling industry-funded poll on casino gambling:

Chicago Cardinal under fire for defending pastor against gay rights groups

The Brown Shorts are at it again. The Chicago Tribune (via the Lexington Herald-Leader) reports that Cardinal Francis George of Chicago is "under fire" for "comparing gay movement with KKK."

The first question is "under fire" by whom? To which the answer is: gay rights groups. So why didn't the paper report that gay rights groups were under fire by the Church? To which the answer is: because the paper--like all newspapers anymore, doesn't even try to be non-partisan in its coverage of issues concerning gay rights. Any criticism of the gay rights movement, which holds itself out as the vanguard of tolerance, is not to be tolerated, a prohibition that is quickly acquiring the force of law.

This incident is only the most recent example of the growing intolerance of the gay rights movement. What the Cardinal actually said was this: "You don't want the gay liberation movement to morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism."

And he said it in defense of a pastor who complained that a gay rights march was going to cause his churches to have to cancel its mass.

"Cardinal George's offensive comments are further evidence of just how insensitive and out of touch the hierarchy is," said a spokesman for "Equally Blessed," an allegedly Catholic group that aggitates for "LGBT rights." (It's a strange thing about gay rights groups: the more Catholic they claim to be, the more anti-Catholic they become). The Cardinal's remarks, they said were "crude" and "demagogic."

He wasn't "comparing the gay movement to the KKK," he was saying it would not be good if the gay rights movement took on the anti-Catholic character of groups like the KKK.

According to the Tribune:
Truth Wins Out has launched a petition that calls for the cardinal's resignation. "It is outrageous that Cardinal George would place law-abiding, peaceful citizens in the same category as a notoriously violent hate group," Truth Wins Out Executive Director Wayne Besen said to "George's resignation is his only road to redemption, and if he has a shred of dignity and a sliver of class, he will immediately step down."
Historically, the KKK engaged in systematic misrepresentation of those it disagreed with. It also engaged in political intimidation of its detractors. So responses like this to Cardinal George are about as comforting as if they were to don pink hoods--or burn the double spear and shield on church lawns.

If gay rights groups really want to discourage any comparison to hate groups, then they should stop acting like them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The gambling industry's push poll

For Immediate Release
27, 2011
Contact: Martin Cothran

LEXINGTON, KY—A family advocacy group, which has been opposed to expanded gambling in Kentucky, raised questions today about a new survey that purports to show majority support for a constitutional amendment to legalize casino-style gambling in Kentucky. "This survey was bankrolled by the gambling industry," said Martin Cothran, spokesman for The Family Foundation. "It showed what they wanted it to show.”

"We should place about as much credence in a poll finding support for gambling funded by the gambling industry as we would place in a study on the health risks of tobacco funded by R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company."

The group also pointed out that the questions asked were ones people would answer the same way no matter what the issue was. "Any time you ask people whether they want to vote on something, they'll say 'Yes'. People always want to have their say, no matter what the issue is. But putting it this way misrepresents the constitutional amendment process in this state and misportrays it as a ballot initiative process, which it isn't. For all practical purposes, this is a push poll."

One of the questions promised increased funding for a number of popular programs if the amendment were passed, promises the group said were unrealistic. "One of the questions basically promised increased funding for education, health care, public safety, and local government, said Cothran. "These promises not only bias the survey, but they are things that will not be put in a constitutional amendment. It will be like the Lottery promises on education funding--promises that went unfilled for over ten years, but which snookered people in to voting for it anyway." Cothran wondered what the response would have been had other questions been asked. "What would the response have been had they asked questions like ‘Do you think Kentucky should write into its constitution a full or partial monopoly for casino-style gambling to horse tracks that are owned by millionaires?’"

The group called for the public release of all the questions on the survey, and the order in which they were asked, all of which are factors that bear on results.


Trailer for The Hobbit

Monday, December 26, 2011

New "Classical Teacher" magazine is here

On a newstand near you--or just click here.

The new Classical Teacher magazine, of which I am managing editor, is now out, which includes articles such as:

"Why Use the King James Bible?" by Martin Cothran
"The Top Ten Reasons for Studying Latin", by Cheryl Lowe
"The Noblest Monument of English Prose," by Cheryl Lowe and Martin Cothran
"A Whale of a Distinction," [on the logical difference between humans and animals], by Martin Cothran
FEATURE ARTICLE: "What the King James Bible Hath Wrought," by Martin Cothran
"Greek to You: Is classical education really dead?" An interview with Tracy Lee Simmons

For a free subscription, go here.

Literature and the Bible

One of the things that strike you when you delve into English literature is the extent of the influence of the Bible, a place great writers find hard not to go to when looking for ways to reach the soul. Here is Marilyn Robinson, writing primarily about William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, and secondarily about Fyodor Dostoyevski's The Idiot--two of the great portrayals of Christ figures in literature--in the New York Times:
Each of these works reflects a profound knowledge of Scripture and tradition on the part of the writer, the kind of knowledge found only among those who take them seriously enough to probe the deepest questions in their terms. These texts are not allegories, because in each case the writer has posed a problem within a universe of thought that is fully open to his questioning once its terms are granted. Here the use of biblical allusion is not symbolism or metaphor, which are both rhetorical techniques for enriching a narrative whose primary interest does not rest with the larger resonances of the Bible. In fact these great texts resemble Socratic dialogues in that each venture presupposes that meaning can indeed be addressed within the constraints of the form and in its language, while the meaning to be discovered through this argument cannot be presupposed. Like paintings, they render meaning as beauty.
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Darwinists get it wrong again: Letter from KY superintendent continues to spawn nonsense

Matt Young at Panda's Thumb, a Darwinist blog, describes my post on the correspondence between the Kentucky superintendent and State Education Commissioner in the comments section of his post on the issue. According to Young, I defend Mr. Line and demonstrate "just enough erudition to hide the anti-scientific tenor of the post. If you haven’t enough time or patience, I suggest you scroll directly down to the comment by Scott Goodman, who really hits the nail on the head."

And this:
At any rate, the author of the blog ran a post that defends Mr. Line and demonstrates just enough erudition to hide the anti-scientific tenor of the post. If you haven’t enough time or patience, I suggest you scroll directly down to the comment by Scott Goodman, who really hits the nail on the head.
Hmmm. Apparently pointing out inaccuracies, oversimplifications, and misleading statements is unscientific in the world of scientific dogmatism. That can't do a whole lot for the reputation of the science about which Young seems so concerned.

And speaking of scientific dogmatism, which is what I was targeting in my post, Young doesn't seem to want to make the basic distinction between criticisms of such dogmatism (what I do in the post) and criticisms of actual science (which I don't do in the post), which, of course, is exactly the kind of distinction scientific dogmatists don't like to make.

And to commend for his readership a comment in the comments section of my blog which itself stretches the truth is another measure of extent to which standards of intellectual integrity are regularly dispensed with when it comes to the defense of certain scientific dogmas.

The comment inaccurately refers to me as a defender of Intelligent Design, blatantly mischaracterizes my arguments, and criticizes me for statements I did not make. Not that I expect this to make any difference to Young, since these are rhetorical tactics regularly employed at places like Panda's Thumb.

So far, neither Young nor the commenters on my blog even bothered to address the actual arguments I made in the post (with one exception, and this one got it wrong--as he usually does). I fact, no one as yet come to terms with the arguments I made in my original analysis of the Kitzmiller decision's reasoning in uncritically employing a faulty demarcation criterion between science and non-science and in a blatant inconsistency at the center of that part of the decision.

Instead, we get cheap ad hominem attacks like the comment from Young that I am "the Discovery Institute’s point man in Kentucky." Huh?

How does he know this? He heard it from "his informant." Never mind actually checking it out or verifying whether it was true. Mere random Internet rumor will suffice. One hopes he takes more care in the books he writes about evolution.

My only connection with Discovery is that they have co-posted some of my blog posts that have to do with criticisms of scientific dogmatism. I do not take a position on whether Intelligent Design is a legitimate scientific theory, as the commenter he refers to alleges. Never have. Nor have I ever done or been asked to do anything for Discovery in Kentucky.

But no misrepresentation is so far out that it cannot be justified by the fact that it is done in the defense of Darwinism.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Louisville metro government action threatens medical service to poor

This is several days old, but it hasn't gotten any less ridiculous after seven days:
Louisville Metro Government is delaying an $803,000 payment to University Hospital to fund medical care for poor people this month because of some council members’ concerns over the hospital’s proposed merger.

Hospital spokesman David McArthur said he could not say Monday night if care for the poor would be affected without the money.
The chief concern expressed about the merger is that some poor people won't get "reproductive services" (a term which, we have pointed out, means "anti-reproductive services"). So now Metro government, in order to try to ensure that some poor people are not denied services, are, by withholding their money, threatening to deny poor people services.

You gotta hand it to these people. They are creative.

KY school official's letter to superintendent only partially evolved

Just when the public education establishment thought it had stamped out all dissent in its ranks on the issue of evolution, low and behold it now finds a rogue male that has somehow separated from the herd.

Here's the Lexington Herald-Leader, reporting on this crisis:
A Western Kentucky school superintendent is arguing that a new test which Kentucky high school students will take for the first time next spring will treat evolution as fact, not theory, and will require schools to teach that way.
The letter, written by Hart County School Superintendent Ricky D. Line, has sparked an animated demonstration among the chattering classes here in the state--and has caused a number of skeptic and atheist bloggers to leave off grooming themselves long enough to cast the usual aspersions in the general direction of anybody who strays away from the tribe.

The letter prompted a response by officials on the highest branch of the education tree: State Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday and the Kentucky School Board. At first blush, the letter sounds pretty impressive. But after running it through our usual battery of observational procedures here at Vital Remnants, it becomes clear that a number of things don't add up.

The letter is signed by the Commissioner but, by his own admission, he relies on research provided by the Department of Education's "legal and curriculum staffs." Now I can't say too much bad about the lawyers at KDE: They, at least, got real actual academic degrees. But "curriculum staff"? Are these people with "education degrees"? As we have pointed out here before, you can get better academic credentials by mailing in a coupon from a cereal box.

The letter gives the superintendent a lecture on the use of the word "theory." Line had asserted that evolution was "just a theory." Holliday says that, in science, the word "theory" does not mean, as it does in common usage, "little more than a guess." Holliday takes him to task for using the term in its everyday use rather than its use among the higher species of hominids known as "scientists."

Apparently Holliday and the Board didn't notice that Line was not making a scientific statement, but speaking in common English, in which the common usage of the word was exactly as Line was using it. Line was not engaging in science when he wrote the letter: He was speaking in common everyday English to the State Commissioner of Education. But, of course, educrats have trouble with common English and strongly prefer jargon to plain speech.

"Theory" as Holliday defines it, is a scientific jargon word, with a different meaning inside the discipline, one which is surely quite useful there. But which, outside it, only offers education bureaucrats an opportunity to make pedantic points that have no real relevance to the discussion.

Lectures like this (which you hear every time you use the word "theory" in its vernacular sense in the presence of a Darwinist ideologue) are turned into an opportunity to enforce a dominance hierarchy in which those who dissent from the Approved opinions are kept in their proper place in the cultural pecking order by implying that those who disagree with the dominant paradigm are just not very smart. Either that or they just can't make a basic distinction between common vernacular speech and the technical vocabulary of an academic discipline, which, in itself is not very smart.

Secondly, in the process of giving this lecture, Holliday says:
In science, facts never become theories. Rather, theories explain facts. [emphasis in original]
That is, at best, an oversimplification. All you've got to do is to and talk to a quantum physicist, who (if he adheres to the Copenhagen interpretation, the original and still standard interpretation of the theory) will tell you that science is not in the business of explanation, but of prediction. Quantum theory, the most successful predictive paradigm in science, has, for all practical purposes, handed explanation back to the philosophers. Niels Bohr. Check it out.

Then there's this gem:
Additionally, science is not a system of belief. To ask if a scientist ‘believes’ in the theory of evolution is an improper question because the term ‘belief’ implies a position or opinion based on faith. A biologist would properly say he/she understands and acknowledges the evidence supporting the theory of evolution. Belief is an act of faith and is not necessarily concerned with the availability of supporting evidence. For this reason, beliefs are not considered to be within the realm of science.
Just go ask a real scientist if he "believes" in the theory of evolution. You know what will happen? In all likelihood, he'll say, "Yes." He won't give you some geekish lecture on the proper way to phrase the question in a scientific environment.

Fortunately the ignorance that prevails in the higher branches of the public education tree has not yet infected lexicography. Here are a few definitions of "belief" culled from standard dictionaries:
  • American Heritage: "Something believed or accepted as true, especially a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons"
  • Merriam-Webster: " conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence."
  • Webster's New World Dictionary: "A belief is an opinion or something that a person holds to be true."
Not only does this not comport with what you will find in almost any standard dictionary, it doesn't comport with the terminology commonly used in academics disciplines like philosophy, a discipline that does things like, you know, define.

And even if it were true that the term "belief" only referred to opinions based on faith, scientists don't talk like this. They commonly talk about "believing" that the theory of evolution (or replace this with any other scientific theory). So if scientists themselves talk this way, why are we giving pedantic lectures to school superintendents?

This is all nonsense. Under the most universal use of these terms science is belief based on reason and evidence and faith is belief based on divine revelation or authority. These terms are used this way all the time by people in and outside the discipline of science.

The irony here is that most people believe in evolution on the same basis they believe in religious faith positions: on the basis of authority. They don't have the least conception of what the scientific evidence for it is; they simply believe it on the grounds that the scientists they've heard about say it's true. The further irony is that many scientists, who claim to be all about reason and evidence, not only think there is nothing wrong with all the people who believe in Darwinism on the basis of scientific authority, but think it would be unscientific not to!

Besides, science proceeds as much by scientists' faith in their own hunches and intuitions as by reason and evidence, as anyone familiar with Einstein--or for that  matter Galileo (whose heliocentrism was not supported by the evidence of the time, as the Church rightly pointed out)--would know.

Finally, Holliday tries his hand at the law, with the help, apparently, of his legal department:
Moreover, the federal courts have ruled that creation science, a religious concept or belief, is not science at all. [See Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F.Supp.2d 707, 764 (E.D.Pa. 2005); McLean v. Ark. Bd. of Educ., 529 F.Supp. 1255, 1259 (E.D.Ark.1982) (dismissing “creation science” as “simply not a science”).]
It may be true or false that creation science is not science. But to appeal to a court decision--and a problematic one at that, is slightly strange. Courts may have the power to dictate what schools can and can't teach, but to appeal to them as the final arbiters of the definition of science is highly problematic to say the least. Philosophers of science can't even agree on where to draw the line between science and non-science. So how is a judge supposed to competently do it?

In fact, the reasoning in the Kitzmiller decision, at some points, inconsistent, and, at others, simply laughable. I wrote a response to the section on the ruling in which the scientific status of ID is discussed here.

Judge John Jones first simply assumes Karl Popper's demarcation criterion--that a necessary condition for something to be science is that it be potentially falsifiable. But Popper's demarcation criterion has long been considered problematic in the philosophy of science, since it excludes activities commonly acknowledge to be science. Anyone blindly applying it as Jones does has no business making authoritative pronouncements about what makes science different from non-science.

Jones argues that Intelligent Design does not meet this criterion because it is not falsifiable. He then turns right around and argues that it is false. If it's not false, then it is falsifiable, and if it is not falsifiable, then it cannot be false. But he just goes on hoping that no one will notice the blatant contradiction in his argument.

Such is the state of the Commissioner of Education's arguments. But remember: it's superintendent Line who doesn't know what he's talking about.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Adultery Gap: Why Francis Beckwith should vote for Newt, Part III

In my continuing (but not necessarily successful) attempt to convince my friend Frank Beckwith that the arguments against Newt Gingrich just don't  hold up, I have discussed the arguments against Gingrich of Russ Douthat and Rod Dreher that Frank had mentioned in his original post. I now come to Frank's own arguments.

After discussing Gingrich's three marriages (and subsequent conversion) and the "significant House ethics violation" when he was House Speaker in the 1990s, Frank agrees with Rod Dreher that
Christian conservatives, in the toxic atmosphere of the culture wars, cannot afford to have as a public face a figure who for most of his adult life has shunned the virtues and ways of life that Christian conservatives want to advance in the public square.
and then adds:
This is not to diminish or call into question Gingrich’s conversion. Quite the opposite. For, as the Catholic Catechism teaches, absolution of sins does not eradicate all the effects and consequences of those sins on the shaping of one’s character. This requires ongoing conversion, including detaching oneself from those things that may provide an occasion for sin.

It seems to me that a man whose sins arose as a consequence of the pursuit of political power and the unwise use of it after he became Speaker of the House should not be seeking the most powerful office in the world.
Well let's talk about the ethics violation first. There were 75 charges brought against Gingrich by Democratic House whip David Bonior.

All but one of them was found to be without merit. The one that remained involved an allegedly partisan college class (despite the fact that the words "Democrat" and "Republican" never were used in the lectures and one entire lecture was devoted to praising FDR) he was accused of having funded through tax deductible contributions from nonprofit corporations and lying about where the contributions came from.

These were classes that one former IRS commissioner said were not in violation of IRS rules and to which a member of the ethics committee had given prior approval. And Newt was never even paid for the course. Despite all this, it was ruled an ethics violation.

In regard to the charge of lying, Gingrich had made several filings with the committee, all of which divulged that the money for the courses came from the group "Renewing American Civilization"--except for one, which stated the opposite. It was fairly clear from all the filings that he wasn't trying to hide the fact, but the committee was able to justify its charge by pointing to the one filing, which in all likelihood was made by mistake.

He was charged with an ethics violation. Fair enough. But I'm not sure it could be characterized as a "significant House ethics violation."

This was the same ethics committee that, after all, which after censuring Newt and slapping him with a $300,000 fine then gave Congressman Barney Frank a slap on the wrist for fixing 30 parking tickets and providing a misleading probation letter on behalf of his live-in gay lover who moonlighted as a drug dealer and child pornographer.

The marriage issue seems to me to be the most telling of all the charges Beckwith discusses in his article. But here too, a double standard is being applied.

To say, as Frank does, that a person's sins prior to his conversion will still have consequences afterward is true. Of course they will. But it isn't our prerogative to exact them. The Biblical examples, such as that of David, do indeed demonstrate that sin has consequences, but it nowhere indicates that these consequences are enforced by men.

In fact, the example of David is material  here for a number of reasons. Here you have a man whose sins we could certainly say were at least facilitated by the power he enjoyed. And yet God himself does not take his power away. Maybe it's because God saw his heart after his repentance--something that we, of course, have no power to see.

We could multiply examples. If we are going to say we should hold the sins which men commit before their conversion against them, then Gingrich isn't the only one we should be holding them against.

Several Watergate co-conspiritors later became Christians (thought not Catholics) and entered the ministry. These were men who committed, not ethics violations, but crimes that sent them to prison. One of them was Chuck Colson. Did we or should we have applied this standard to them? Someone could respond that these men were not contending for their old positions of political power, but new positions of religious responsibility, but why shouldn't the same standard apply? In fact, shouldn't the bar be higher in the ministry than in the secular world?

The same could be said of St. Augustine himself, who occupied the most powerful academic position in the greatest empire the world has ever known, and professed to have been quite the scamp in his earlier life. And if you consider his journeys through several systems of false belief, you might also say that his intellectual sins were as scarlet. Should he have been disqualified from the position as Bishop of Hippo?

This is not to say that Gingrich is any Augustine--or that character doesn't matter. But what I think it does say is that conversion matters and that the consequences of the sins that preceded it will and should happen with no help from the rest of us. In fact, the consequences of Newt's sins are even now being exacted in the form of the light that is being shone on them and the criticism he is taking.

Clearly, Frank's motivation is a concern for Gingrich himself. He thinks he ought not be put in a position in which the temptations he succumbed to before his conversion could accost him again. I have nothing but respect for that. But I cannot help but believe that the public scrutiny a president's life receives while he is in office makes such things, not more, but less likely.

Do we really think Gingrich would be more likely to commit adultery as president? I think that if we think about it for a moment we would probably conclude otherwise. Yes, it didn't stop Clinton, but by all accounts Clinton (who was not only not contrite about his personal moral lapses, but committed perjury to conceal them) was something of a sexual predator. No one I know has made that charge of Gingrich.

It is not that I think there is not a good case against Newt. But I think that it is his promiscuity in regard to ideas that may be a greater weakness. He flirts with them. He teases them. And sometimes he dumps them after a one night stand. It's an occupational hazard with intellectuals.

Still, there is something unconvincing about the charge that a man can't be president because he is too smart.

Gingrich is a conservative--and the arguments saying he isn't, made against a man who organized a conservative revolution that resulted in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and who had a consistently conservative voting record throughout his career, seem to me to be ludicrous.

Furthermore, we know one thing about him: He will not only win every debate he has with Obama but he would be the most aggressive and articulate person to head the ticket.

I've spent much more time refuting the charges against Newt than in stating the positive case for him, but I think I'll just leave it at that for now.

This and the two previous posts originated with Frank Beckwith's mention of our conversations years ago at a little coffee shop in Anaheim, California, when I once recommended he read a book by Gingrich. My only regret is that I cannot flag down a waitress and ask her to pour me another cup so I could continue the conversation with an old friend who I respect and admire.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Against Political Gnosticism: Why Francis Beckwith should vote for Newt Gingrich, Part II:

In yesterday’s post, I discussed, as part of my campaign to convince my friend Francis Beckwith to vote for Newt Gingrich, I discussed New York Times columnist Russ Douthat’s mistaken assumption that the Republican nominee for president doubles, by virtue of his nominee status, as the “standard bearer” for conservative Christianity—a belief, I argued, that no conservative Christian could reasonably accept.

I hold that no conservative Christian should enter the voting booth under the mistaken impression that he is voting for the “standard bearer” of his faith. His faith should inform his voting, but his voting is not an act of faith. Any act should be judged on the basis of whether it achieves its purpose. The purpose of voting is to elect a person who would best discharge the duties of the office he is running for. Now the duties of the office of president admittedly preclude dishonoring the office with moral scandal, and so the character issue is not irrelevant. But I will discuss that in my last post.

Today I deal with Rod Dreher, whose thoughts on this issue Frank also mentioned in his explanation of why he was not voting for Gingrich. Now I happen to share many beliefs with Dreher, who is famous for his championing of “crunchy conservatism”—the idea that conservatism consists not only of a belief in the efficacy of free markets and anti-communism, but that, as a matter of practical living, small is beautiful, the natural is better than the artificial, that real community is local, etc. To all that I say, "Amen." But I think Dreher has got the Gingrich thing all wrong.

Dreher begins his argument by discussing Douthat:
He points out that conservative Christianity is facing a big demographic challenge in this country. Younger American Christians are much less engaged by the same culture-war fights that have preoccupied their parents’ generation of Christians. As Robert Putnam and others have documented in social science research, many of the Millenials have turned from Christianity itself, or from conservative Christianity, out of dissent from the “Republican Party At Prayer” model of Christianity they discern there. Gingrich is a classic example the kind of thing that younger Christians (and ex-Christians) find so objectionable about the Religious Right, Ross points out, in that he is an icon of partisan piety that looks an awful lot like rank hypocrisy.
The more I consider Douthat’s arguments on these issues the more I think he is the conservative equivalent of Screwtape. There are two assertions here, the first is utilitarian through and through, and the second assumes a blatant falsehood. The first is that candidates should refrain from promoting conservative cultural ideals in order to be more electable. I can’t believe how easily this assumption is stomached by conservatives like Dreher. Does Dreher really buy into this?

Are they demanding that conservatives downplay their conservatism in order to win elections? I thought that was the liberal media's job. And what kind of conservative cheers them on for doing this?

And where are Douthat and Dreher getting the idea that Gingrich comes off as some kind of fiery-eyed religious cultural warrior? If anything, Newt’s problem is that he sounds like an overly-professorial policy wonk.

Dreher also accepts hook, line, and sinker Douthat’s argument that Newt, despite his Catholic conversion--and because he is no saint, he’s not qualified:
St. Paul was a persecutor of Christians, and look what he became. Okay, but is Newt St. Paul? St. Paul’s conversion, and later life, did not serve for his worldly glorification and entree to power. In fact, it landed him in prison, put his life in jeopardy, and, according to tradition, ultimately led to his martyrdom. Newt’s conversion has not borne similar fruits.
Okay, I’m just not getting this. Newt can't be the Republican nominee because he isn't as holy as St. Paul?

I noted yesterday that the criteria Douthat employs for a candidate for public office cannot possibly be met by any but a few stray candidates who could never win anyway. Now Dreher enters the fray, proposing, not just sainthood, but martyrdom as a necessary condition for the Republican nominee for president.

Now there's a qualification that narrows the field.

I’ve said it before, folks: if you’re looking for saints, you need to go somewhere else besides politics. If you are restricted to voting only for saints and martyrs, you might as well just stay home because there wouldn't be anyone to vote for anyway. It's one thing to say that character matters; it's another to say that a candidate must have a spotless background.

Look, Newt has some major league baggage, no question. But I'm trying to figure out why, if you're trying to establish a threshold over which Newt can't jump, you would set the bar so high that no candidate can make it over.

What Dreher and Douthat are articulating is a sort of political Gnosticism whereby the Christian voter is to see his practical act of voting, an act inherently plagued by imperfection and lack of clarity, as an act akin to the selection of a pope.

To my knowledge, Douthat and Dreher have not announced their own favorites for the Republican nomination. I guess we'll know when, from their chimneys, we see white smoke, and from their mouths hear the words, "Habemus praesidem."

I'll address Frank's post itself on Thursday.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Why Francis Beckwith should vote for Newt Gingrich, Part I

My friend Frank Beckwith has explained, in a post at The Catholic Thing, why he is not going to vote for Newt Gingrich. Since I was mentioned in the piece as the one who originally familiarized him with Gringich--in a book recommendation over coffee some 27 years ago, I have claimed some standing in his decision-making process. I have said that I will attempt to convince him (as I had the power to do on other issues in a little coffee shop in Anaheim, California almost three decades ago) to vote for Gingrich--even in the face of his threat, made in an e-mail to me last Friday, to turn me "into a newt."

I have no doubt, given the prowess he has shown in his every other endeavor, that he could accomplish this. But while he's figuring out the proper spell for bringing this transformation about, I hope, in a preemptive rhetorical strike, to turn him into a Newt supporter.

Frank has expressed his admiration for the arguments against supporting Gingrich of Russ Douthat and Rod Dreher, arguments I propose to show are not only weak, but profoundly and fundamentally flawed. I propose also to show that the arguments in favor of supporting Newt for conservative Christians are compelling.

But we are dealing with three things here, which will have to be dealt with in three separate posts. The first is Douthat, the second Dreher, and the third, Beckwith.

So, first, let's analyze the arguments of Douthat that Dreher and Frank have incorporated into their posts by reference.

The case of Douthat against Gingrich is marred by a fundamentally mistaken assumption about Christians and politics, and his article completely mistates the nature of the issue of whether Christians should support Gingrich in his quest for the Republican nomination. His case is further plagued by the fact that taking his suggestions would effectively neuter any Christian influence in secular politics.

What is the relation between Christianity and politics?
Douthat begins his piece by stating that "religious conservatives have good reasons to be wary of Newt Gingrich." Well, yes. But the problem is that the statement is so general as to be meaningless. What candidate for president should we not be wary of? And the further problem is that it is all downhill from there.

Douthat states the issue thus: "The real issue for religious conservatives isn’t whether they can trust Gingrich. It’s whether they can afford to be associated with him." What he means by "being associated" with Gingrich is made clear later in the piece, where he discusses Gingrich being "anointed as the standard bearer for the very cause that he betrayed."

What cause is this? What is it that Douthat thinks Gingrich is contending for and that we should be deciding to confer on him? A standard bearer for what? Here is the key statement in Douthat's piece--the one on which his whole case hinges:
In a climate of culture war, any spokesman for conservative Christianity is destined to be a polarizing figure. (Just ask Tim Tebow.) But a religious right that rallied around Gingrich would be putting the worst possible face on its cause and at the worst possible time.
The cause Douthat thinks Gingrich is contending for is the very representation of conservative Christianity itself.

Say what? Since when did Christians conservatives consider the Republican nominee the representative of conservative Christianity (or any other kind of Christianity, for that matter)?

For Douthat to say that, in voting for a Republican nominee for president, we are in fact choosing the official representative of conservative Christianity is to fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between Christianity and politics. It is to assume that one political party is--or could be--the "standard bearer" for the Faith.

But this is a belief to which no conservative could consent. In fact, I think it would be hard to find one who actually did. In fact, I don't think Douthat would consent to it if it were presented in its literal form. This is ironic, given Douthat's argument, which is that Gingrich would embarrass Christians--those whose standard, under Douthat's thinking, he would be bearing. In articulating the argument and doing it as some sort of representative of conservative Christianity, he has not exactly done his constituents proud. But then, Douthat did not get his post as de facto spokesperson for Christians at the New York Times on the basis of anyone voting for him, now did he?

No politician should ever be seen as the "standard bearer" for Christianity, conservative or otherwise.

Once this, the lynchpin of Douthat's argument, is taken away, the wheels simply fall of the rest of his case. Once we come to a sober realization that we are not electing the standard bearer for conservative Christianity on the basis of his adherence to its principles and practices, but rather selecting a man or woman to be president of the United States on the basis of his ability to do that particular job well, the issue changes its character altogether.

In fact, the great irony of the assumption Douthat employs in his piece is that it is an assumption only a liberal could make. Liberals are defined in part on the basis of their belief that one can find his salvation in politics. It is liberals who, to use the words of Eric Voegelin, "immanentize the eschaton." That Douthat would have imported this assumption into his argument is a measure of the extent to which some evangelicals see themselves as captives to the Republican Party.

They need to divest themselves of this assumption.

Now Douthat could argue that, in fact, people will see Gingrich this way if he is nominated. Yes, they might. But that would happen not because of anything Gingrich might do, but because people like Douthat were using their own perceived positions as representatives for conservative Christianity to promote the false idea that anyone, by virtue of being supported by evangelicals for the Republican nomination, represented their cause.

Newt Gingrich is running for the Republican presidential nomination, not the "standard-bearer" for conservative Christianity.

While Douthat's assumption involves a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between politics and religion that has the effect of tying the two too closely together, the other and more practical effect of his argument is to render Christian influence on secular politics almost impossible.

If someone who claims to be a conservative Christian becomes, by virtue of being the Republican presidential nominee, the "standard bearer" of conservative Christianity, then, practically speaking, no one, under Douthat's assumption, could ever qualify. Anyone occupying such a position would embarrass the conservative Christian cause to some extent.

In fact, if one looks at the current choices available in the Republican stable of candidates, is there even a one who would not embarrass the Faith? Michelle Bachmann, who has a disturbing tendency to overstate the case for some of her beliefs? Rick Santorum, who has all the gravitas of an enthusiastic puppy? Ron Paul, who already--whether it's deserved or not--has a reputation as something of a kook? Or maybe Rick Perry--who has played the religion card to a more pronounced degree than all the others--who rhetorically implodes on a somewhat regular daily schedule?

Many of these other candidates have a much less checkered background when it comes to sexual immorality, but sexual immorality is hardly the only behavior that would induce embarrassment among the faithful. Douthat has at once placed Christianity too close to politics and yet pushed Christians themselves too far from it. It would be hard for a liberal columnist at the New York Times to achieve as much.

Well, let's see, who else is there? Ah: Mitt Romney. By all accounts Mitt Romney is, morally and intellectually speaking, as upright and competent as they come. But he's a Mormon. But he would, in Douthat's religio-political framework, be the "standard bearer" for Mormonism. In that case, we would have, not a conservative Christian bringing shame upon conservative Christianity, but a Mormon bringing honor on Mormonism. For as by one man's disobedience many conservative Christians might be embarrassed, so by the obedience of one might many Mormons be made proud.

And then there is the more straightforward problem that if Romney wins the Republican nomination with evangelical support, we would have a Mormon being the "standard bearer" for conservative Christianity.

It is a strange irony that by the very assumption employed in Douthat's argument against voting for Gingrich for the Republican nomination, a conservative Christian would be prohibited from voting for Romney as well. Well, that certainly narrows the field of legitimate Republican contenders, doesn't it?

We'll take up Dreher tomorrow, but in the meantime, to Frank Beckwith, I say this: Let me tie you to the mast, my friend! Don't harken to the political song of this Siren!

Friday, December 09, 2011

To vote or not to vote--for Gingrich

Christian philosopher Francis Beckwith has a post today at the Catholic Thing in which he recounts one of our many evening conversations over coffee when we were in grad school. As he recounts it, in an attempt to convert him over to the conservative cause, I had recommended that he read Newt Gingrich's book Window of Opportunity: Blueprint for the Future.

This is the Francis Beckwith who rocked the theological world by converting to Catholicism while he was the president of the Evangelical Theological Society. He is now in the philosophy dept. at Baylor University.

I honestly don't remember having done this, but I'm going to trust him on it because the sands of time have worn away much of my memory of that time when Frank and I used to meet at JoJo's after class.

Unlike most people I recommend books to, Frank actually read the ones I recommended to him, which is one of the reasons that I now claim credit for all of his incredible successes in world of academic philosophy. Hey, it's a lot easier claim credit for Frank's successes than it is to have achieved them myself.

In any case, he recounts the impact the book had on his political thought. But the post has a surprise ending: he says he is not going to vote for Gingrich.

So I have decided to pay him the biggest compliment I know how to give: I am going to argue with him. Maybe, just maybe, I can call up the old magic and influence him again. I intend to post it on Monday, and to call it, "Why Francis Beckwith should vote for Newt Gingrich."

My goal is to one day be tottering around the Old Bloggers Rest Home (which I hope will be in the same complex as the Old Philosophers Home)  with a walker and to run into Frank, who, tottering around with a walker himself, will, as he recalls the old days, reminisce about the time I succeeded in convincing him to vote for Gingrich.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Newt Gingrich: The One

This is really terrible. I have just found out about another scandal involving Newt Gingrich: he has an ego. I found out about this by watching the analysis on television and places like the Huffington Post about the presidential election.

According to these reports, he thinks he's pretty big stuff. I have never heard of a politician having a big ego before. How could he possibly have gotten this far with this being noticed?

The next thing you know, they'll be calling him "The One" and acting like a political messiah and the media will fawn all over him and get so starry-eyed that they won't notice that he has an ego at all and just report good things about him on not report anything bad.

I don't know how we could have missed this.

My plan for improving Jefferson County Public Schools

The mostly lily white Jefferson County School Board, having been slapped down by courts for their forced busing plans to impose racial quotas in their schools, is now spending more valuable time and resources trying cook up a plan to put kids on buses for long periods of time so that, while it will take valuable time away from things like, you know, studying, they can feel all diverse and tolerant and socially conscious.

I don't know though, there are a lot of white faces on that board. Can't they bus in some people of color so that they could at little more diverse so that when they preach diversity to other people they could actually be diverse themselves?

In any case, I am now releasing my plane for Jefferson County Public Schools that I think might solve some of their problems--like the problem of schools that are really bad. You can see it to the right. It has the advantage of a) being cheaper than having an entire bureaucracy trying to devise a Byzantine busing plan that does nothing but waste people's time, and b) it would actually improve things by (and this will sound revolutionary and might possibly not make any sense to JCPS) actually improving learning.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Headline of the Week: "Chaplains wanted for atheists in foxholes"

Atheists now want their own chaplains in the military. But remember, atheism is not a religion. Keep repeating it. Over and over again.

Check it out here.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Is the ban on homosexuals giving blood a public health issue or a civil rights issue?

Jon Rohner is gay, according to the Sunday Louisville Courier-Journal, and he wants to give blood, but he can't because there is a ban on homosexual men giving blood because of all the diseases they contract through indiscriminate sex with each other. But it doesn't matter because it makes him cry.

Yes, homosexuals are 60 times more likely to have HIV, and they have a sometimes drastically higher rate of other diseases like Hepatitis (both A and B), MRSA, Proctitis, Shegellosis, as well as all the other convention STDs like Gonorrhea and Syphilis and a whole bunch of other diseases that we can't pronounce and a handful that they invented themselves and that's why federal health officials don't want them giving blood. But does this justify making gays like Rohner feel bad?

Isn't it wrong to prevent one group of people from giving blood just because they have all kinds of exotic diseases and will infect the blood supply?

It's bigotry. That's what it is. It's just another excuse to hate the gays.

I mean what do people think this is? A public health issue? Don't they realize that, like every other issue having to do with gays, this is a political issue?

And don't they realize that it doesn't matter whether it's science, or medicine, or education, that everything having to do with gays is a political issue and that we must, no matter what the consequences, make sure we don't do anything that upsets gays and makes them feel bad and cause them to cry?

There's so much hatred and cruelty in the world it, ... it, ... it makes me want to cry.

It makes some people cry when they think of all the diseases that would be introduced into the blood supply if the ban on homosexuals giving blood were lifted, but these are straight people, and, as everyone knows, it doesn't matter if straight people get upset. They're bigoted anyway.

What matters is when gay feeling bad. And then we have to change public policy. Otherwise they might get upset. And cry. And that's bigoted. And hateful.

Chris Hartman at the Fairness Alliance isn't crying though. He's mad because so many people see the integrity of the nation's blood supply as a public health issue when it's not.

“It is clear discrimination ... written into policy,” says Hartman of the federal ban. “It’s a continued vestige of the fear and prejudice that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community face.”

Fear? About a high risk group infecting the nation's blood supply? Get over it people!

The bigoted people who are concerned about the integrity of the blood supply are just being selfish. And hateful. They're concerned with, like, protecting people from disease. These are people who don't have indiscriminate sex with people they don't know and they think they have the right to be protected from all the diseases that the people who do have indiscriminate sex with people they don't know.


If they're getting a blood transfusion and they are concerned that a group of people with a rate of HIV infection of 60 times that of the general population giving blood, they need to do a little soul searching and realize how hateful they are being.

Sure, they get infected with HIV, but they would deserve it. It would serve these hateful bigots right.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Michael Shermer: the skeptics' David Barton

It's amazing how someone who fashions himself a skeptic can be so credulous when it comes to cultural questions involving religion. Michael Shermer, founding editor of Skeptic magazine and author of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies--How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, has constructed a skeptical belief about the role of Christianity in America and reinforced it by a wide selection of quotes on his recent blog post from skeptics who have taken exception to Charles Colson's recent remark that America is a Christian nation.

The comments catalogued on Shermer's blog are a litany of largely boneheaded statements on the issue, the unimpressive nature of which is testimony to the lax intellectual standards of professional secularists like Shermer. But Shermer unaccountably finds them impressive, or maybe he thinks that the sheer volume of sophistry demonstrated by them somehow renders the whole post more cogent.

I'm inclined to think that large quantities of bad reasoning renders someone's case weaker, not stronger. But maybe it's just me.

Evangelical writer David Barton, who has attracted attention recently because of his connections to Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, comes under frequent criticism from fundamentalist secularists like Shermer (I haven't seen any comments by Shermer himself on Barton, but they're fairly common among those of his ilk) because of his oversimplifications, occasional inaccuracies, and sometimes fallacious reasoning--as well as for the many of the correct things he says--about the Christian influences on American history and culture. So its kind of ironic that Shermer would employ such a low threshhold of tolerance when it comes to what he includes on his blog.

And it's not just the things he includes on his blog written by other people. Shermer wrote an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times last month criticizing the decision by the U. S. Congress to reaffirm the national motto "In God We Trust." No one observed the strange irony that a man who believes America is a secular nation would be upset because the most significant legislative body of that nation had just reaffirmed a blatantly religious motto by a vote of 396-9. But the irony was lost on the blissfully ignorant Shermer.

On the other hand, maybe that's why he doesn't mention his secularist America thesis in the op-ed, since the congressional vote is at least a prima facie rebuke of it. In any case, the article is a bizarre conglomeration of red herring arguments. He talks about the philosophical problem of evil posed by natural and not so natural  disasters (e.g. 9/11) and talks about the benefits of trust between individuals and society.

And these are arguments against the social benefits of religious belief in society ... how?

The David Barton's of the world could be excused if they assented to basically every factual and philosophical assertion in Shermer's piece and still wonder what they have to do with whether the nation having a religious motto is a good thing, since none of the reasons Shermer offers would contradict it.

"It's time to drop the God talk," says Shermer, "and face reality with a steely-eyed visage of the modern understanding of the origin of freedom on which the United States was founded and continues to be secured. God has nothing to do with it."

Secularist atheists are all about having a "steely-eyed visage." Just look at the photo that graces the inside flap of the (intellectually suspect) books of Sam Harris. There he is, looking like a character out of an Ayn Rand novel: defiant, rationalistic, ruggedly handsome, and ... and ... oh, what's the expression? ... "steely-eyed."  The problem is that, while a few secularists like Harris can pull off the "steely-eyed" thing, others, like Shermer, look like way too professorial and grandfatherly for the part. And besides, most of these kinds of secularists are of the politically leftist type that Rand would consider wimpy.

Maybe we ought to be thinking of the code heroes of the Hemingway type. But, alas, neither Shermer nor Harris have shot themselves yet. And clearly, if after arguments like the ones Shermer himself articulates in his Los Angeles Times piece and which he includes from others on his recent blog don't cause secularists to shoot themselves, I don't know what will.

On the other hand, maybe its just because these people are all opposed to the possession of firearms. In fact, we ought to be glad (those of us with a compassionate bent) that the L.A. Times copy editor did not have a pistol close by when she realized that she had approved the Shermer sentence quoted above, which perpetrates unspeakable violence on the rules of competent expression. Apparently secularism extends to disbelief in the gods of rhetoric too.

In regard to the comments that grace his blog post (or plague it, depending on your perspective and knowledge of logic), we have:

  • David Schumacher: that some of the "Christian founders" were involved in the Salem witch trials (an argument which, if "founders" is supposed to refer to anyone involved in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, ignores the fact that anyone participating in the Salem witch trials of 1692 would have been dead by that time)
  • Adam Qureshi: who asks, "What the heck did we do before Christianity came along a mere 2 thousand years ago?" (Answer: Oh, let's see: enslave, kill, oppress, have government sponsored public games in which people of a certain religion were fed to lions, engage in child sacrifice, and generally disregard human rights because the concept historically required Christianity to formulate. But come to think of it, we still do sacrifice children, don't we? It's called abortion, and most secularists support it)
  • Eric Lawton: who is under the impression that "Christianity plunged us into centuries of dark ages, superstition and theocracy." (Nevermind the fact that the Church was virtually the only civilizing and institutional presence in the West after the fall of Rome and was solely responsible for saving Western civilization by preserving the great works of antiquity without which there literally would have been no Renaissance, no scientific revolution, no "Enlightenment", and ... no modern secularists) 
It goes on.

Colson was spot on in his response to Shermer:
According to Shermer, what really makes people feel free and secure are things like “the rule of law,” “education for the masses,” the establishment of “fair and just laws” and the “equitable enforcement of those fair and just laws.”
What Shermer doesn’t tell us is that things like the rule of law, mass education and the other things he credits with making our freedom and security possible didn’t spring fully-formed out of nowhere. They are part of Christianity’s legacy to the West.
To argue that these the things didn't, as a matter of historical fact, arise from the influence of Christianity is just historical ignorance.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Hegel and Nominalism

In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel articulates a powerful argument against nominalism, the belief that universals do not exist. For Hegel, any claim that individual things really exist, while universals do not, undermines itself.

If the nominalist intends to explain his theory to another, he might point to a rose, and say that what really exists is "that thing" which we "call" a rose. We call other things roses as well. But the universal, the "roseness" by virtue of which we call a rose a rose, does not belong to that object (indicating the rose before him). There is no such thing as "rose" or "the red," there are only things in the world to which we apply these names. Put another way, universals are not real, only discrete things are real (e.g., things we call roses, rocks, atoms, etc., but which are actually pure singulars). When Aristotle talks about a human nature shared between individual human beings, the nominalist will say, he is wrongly imposing a mental idea he has upon individual things. The common nature of roses really exists only in the mind, in reality we have only singular objects.

But Hegel notices something strange about such a proof. If we deny the rose has a shared nature, we cannot say that it is really either red or green (only that we call it that) that it is of a certain length (for length too is a universal), and so on. All characteristics (green, long, etc.) are universals, for these can be predicated just as well of other things. If the universals (red, green, long, prickly) do not really exist but are only imposed by the mind upon the thing, what is indicated as really existing is an object that is "pure being." The nominalist cannot say "that rose is what really is", for in such a case he would be saying that an instantiation of a universal is what really exists. Nor can he say "that green thing is what really is, we just call it a rose." He can only say "that thing is what really is."

But in asserting that the thing is what really exists in itself, the nominalist asserts the most abstract universal of all: the Thing or the object. For all that is, is a thing or an object; thing or object is the broadest class of universal.
What we say is: 'This', i.e., the universal This; or, 'it is', i.e., Being in general. Of course, we do not envisage the universal This or Being in general, but we utter the universal; in other words, we do not strictly say what ... we mean to say. But language, as we see, is the more truthful; in it, we directly refute what we mean to say, and since the universal is the true [content] of sense-certainty and language expresses this true [content] alone, it is just not possible for us ever to say, or express in words, a [particular thing] that we mean.
The more strenuously the nominalist tries to assert that what really exists are singular beings, the more strenuously the nominalist actually asserts that what really exists is the abstract universal Thing or pure being. Even when the nominalist says "this is", the nominalist asserts the existence of a universal, for this can be predicated of a rose, a rock, or a house. Language undermines the nominalist's claim; the nominalist asserts the opposite of what he means.

One might suppose this is no problem for the nominalist, for of course language deals in universals, and so of course language imposes these universals on what really is. But in this case, the nominalist cannot provide an argument, for whatever he intends to say, he in fact expresses the opposite.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What horsemeat can do for you

Congress has lifted the ban on the butchering of horses. A bill apparently snuck through, giving inadequate opportunity for those opposed to it to vote "Neigh."

On the very same day that a few people were getting so hot under the collar about this, a story came across my Google Reader about mixed martial arts heavyweight contender Alistair Overeem (left), who has built a rather impressive physique based on a diet of horsemeat.

But there are a lot of people who think that, while it's okay to slaughter cows, there's some kind of a problem with slaughtering horses. With some people it seems to involve simply the "ick" factor: eating horse meat just doesn't sound very appetizing. But for others seem to have a more philosophical problem with it.

I'm trying to figure out by what criteria one would make this distinction. On what basis would it be humane to kill and eat cows on not humane to kill and eat horses. Maybe some of my readers could let me know what they think of this.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

ESPN: A moral obligation to report sexual abuse to the police for thee, but not for me

On CNN last night, Anderson Cooper interviewed an ESPN reporter. Turns out ESPN had contact with a man who had been sexually victimized by then Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine. The man even had an audio tape of a phone conversation he had with Fine's wife in which she talks about Fine's problem with young boys. What did ESPN do with this evidence?

They sat on it.

The reporter said that, because they couldn't find any other victims willing to speak, they felt they couldn't do anything with it. Nor did they bother to take the evidence to police, who have only just found out about the audio tape.

In the time between when ESPN found out about this and now (I think the reporter said 2002, but someone needs to check that), it appears that other boys may have been victimized by Fine.

Where is the outrage?

Remember the outcry against Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who did what he was legally obligated to do, apparently under the assumption that his superiors would do what they were legally obligated to do, but who, say his critics, while he discharged his legal obligation, did not discharge his moral obligations?

Why are the same standards of reporting child abuse to police not applied to the press? The taped phone conversation ESPN had in its possession was at least as damning as anything Paterno knew and ESPN was actually talking to the victim. Why didn't Cooper drill the ESPN reporter and ask him why he didn't discharge his moral obligation to report this to the police?

The reporter went on about how they felt the evidence they had did not meet up to some journalistic criterion for any action. Okay. Fine. They why doesn't that same criterion apply to Paterno?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Not So Fast: Did particles really exceed nature's speed limit?

By now everyone has read about the discovery that there are renegade particles going way too fast. Albert Einstein had said that nothing could go faster than the speed of light, but several weeks ago, scientists claimed to have discovered some particles that had not gotten that memo.

The particles, called "neutrinos," were clocked at, oh, something above 299,792,458 miles meters per second. So what gives? Were the officials who enforce the laws of nature asleep at their posts, or what? Not only that, but after the first experiment, another one was performed which found the same thing.

But now, say some scientists at an outfit called "ICARUS," this can't be because any particles that traveled faster than the speed of light would have to emit a certain kind of radiation. But these particles don't. Therefore, they couldn't have traveled faster than the speed of light.

Leave it to a group named "ICARUS" to cause this claim to flame out when it got too close to a new discovery.

Anyway, the ICARUS folks are saying that the scientific stopwatches that measured this must have been measuring incorrectly. We'll see.

I say these neutrinos should have to follow the laws of nature like the rest of us.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The police DID know about Sandusky

His critics say that Joe Paterno should have reported the accusation he heard about him to the police. Then, we are told, something would have been done.


No one seems to have taken much note of the fact that the police knew a whole lot more than we have any indication Paterno knew a lot earlier than Paterno did. In the 1998 police investigation of Jerry Sandusky, the police appeared to know plenty about Sandusky's behavior, including the fact that he liked to shower with naked little boys.

It apparently wasn't enough to prosecute, but it certainly seemed to be enough to keep an eye on him, which they apparently never did.

If Paterno is morally culpable for not going beyond his legal obligation to report what he knew up the chain of command at Penn State, and Penn State officials were legally culpable for not going to police with the charge, then what kind of culpability to the police themselves bear in this case.

It's an interesting question a lot of people don't seem to want to address.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Do Paterno's critics want to legislate morality?

I notice that there is now a movement to write into Pennsylvania law that anyone, not just those in highest positions of authority, as is now the case, is required to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement authorities.

Critics of Paterno argue, not implausibly, that, although he was not required by law to report what he heard from McQuery to the police, he was morally obligated to anyway.

The law is being changed to put this moral obligation into law. In other words, they are legislating morality.

But I thought we couldn't do that?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

I are Not Home Skooled

With critics like this, how can home schooling lose? In the comments section of a column in the NY Times about homeschooling, a publicly schooled student expressed her opinion of home schooling in terms which speak to the shape in which public school is in:
In my opinion, i would never turn to home schooling. When you are home schooled, you automaticly loose the whole social experience of school. In the real world you need to be social. Otherwise you’re going to get know where. I understand that the learning education might be to an advantage while homeschooling because its all one on one and you are the only student reciveing all the help you need whenever you need it. I would never home school my child because I would be holding them back from friends and the social life they will need in the feature. I would never even consider home schooling. — Macie P. [emphasis added]
Let's see ... We've got a problem with capitalization of the first person singular pronoun, one word split into two, multiple spelling errors, sentence fragments, awkward phrasing, and hyphenated expressions without the hyphens.

All in one short paragraph. Maybe this is why home school students kick butt at all the spelling bees.

I'm trying to think of what kind of social life it is where it is not important to communicate. But then, if you're just getting together to share your ignorance, I guess it doesn't matter.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Vanity of Human Wishes: Joe Paterno and the "Bystander Effect"

David Brooks is not averse to committing psychology. In fact, he does it frequently, a practice we normally turn our noses up at around here. But Brooks makes a good point on the Penn State controversy in a New York Times article titled, "Let's All Feel Superior," a point I have made without the pscyhological dressing, which is that we are reading back into the situation all that we know now and from a viewpoint Paterno could not have had:
First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.
Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.
This seems to me self-evident, but many of these commentators can't wrest themselves from their knowledgable future perspective to see their vanity for what it is. They see, but they don't see. They are incapable of putting themselves in someone else's shoes.

Our culture has become coarse and nothing about the depravity of men is now hidden from us.We now know what people are capable of and we are accustomed to having it paraded before us in all its squalor on a daily basis. But we're talking about a man here who is of another generation. Paterno is 84 years old. He's not only old, he's old school. When someone tells him they witnessed something going on "of a sexual nature," the rest of us have a pretty vivid image of what that might be since we have seen it dramatized for us over and over and over again.

But people of Paterno's generation have not. He probably goes home and watches "Gunsmoke" reruns, not "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit." That's what I do.

I'm loathe to quote "studies" on anything, and so it makes me feel better about the studies that Brooks quotes that it is he who is quoting them. But the next time you hear someone tell you all the heroics he would have performed had he been in Paterno's shoes, remind them of the "Bystander Effect":
Even in cases where people consciously register some offense, they still often don’t intervene. In research done at Penn State and published in 1999, students were asked if they would make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half said yes. When researchers arranged for that to happen, only 16 percent protested.

In another experiment at a different school, 68 percent of students insisted they would refuse to answer if they were asked offensive questions during a job interview. But none actually objected when asked questions like, “Do you think it is appropriate for women to wear bras to work?”

So many people do nothing while witnessing ongoing crimes, psychologists have a name for it: the Bystander Effect. 
I have had my differences with Brooks, but the piece is really good. Read the rest here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Media Mob

There is a scene in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird in which Atticus Finch has stationed himself at the door of the jail. Tom Robinson is about to face trial for rape. A lynch mob gathers in front of the jail and confronts Atticus, Robinson's attorney, has anticipated trouble. Tom Robinson is a black man accused of raping a white woman in early 20th century Mississippi. Atticus knows Tom is innocent and is trying to keep him safe.

As Atticus faces down the mob, whose members include many respectable members of the community, his daughter Scout and her brother, seeing his danger, run from behind the bushes where they have been hiding to stand at his side. Atticus, concerned for their safety, demands they leave, but they refuse.

In a scene that marks the high point of the book, Scout looks over the crowd and sees a face that she knows: Walter Cunningham, a poor but proud and hardworking man whom she remembers stopping by the house to pay his legal bill from Atticus with hickory nuts and turnip greens. The movie portrays this scene to perfection: "Hey, Mr. Cunningham," says Scout. "I said, 'Hey, Mr. Cunningham.' How's your entailment gettin' along? Don't you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I'm Jean Louise Finch."

All of a sudden Mr. Cunningham is shamed. The moment has become a human one, one in which his own inhumane attitude--and that of the men around him--has been exposed. He looks down and shuffles his feet. All the men in the mob are made human in that moment. They are embarrassed by the light that has been cast on their own darkness and they disband and go home.

The men didn’t want to wait for the courts to deal with the situation. Tom Robinson had been to the woman’s house. She had been raped. He was black. Ergo, he did it.

When Joe Paterno was fired at Penn State, CNN dropped most of its other news programming to cover the student protests that ensued. The media called them "riots."  Admittedly, there was some minor vandalism, but the worst offense occurred when students overturned a news van--an action I myself have felt like performing on a number of occasions.

CNN viewers were treated to a grim Anderson Cooper, lamenting the misguided nature of student sentiment, and expressing abhorrence with the student mob. They were engaging in senseless behavior. These students just didn't understand.

It's worth considering what it is about mobs that we profess to dislike.

What do mobs do? They presume someone is guilty until proven innocent. They jump to conclusions on insufficient evidence. They exact justice indiscriminately. They let their emotions control their judgment. They put the execution of justice before the process of justice. They want justice administered before it can be determined what its administration should consist of.

What is ironic is to watch the media, still in high dudgeon over the student riots, doing itself exactly what mobs do. They have presumed Paterno to be guilty. They have jumped to conclusions about what he knew on insufficient evidence. They have let their emotions cloud their judgment. They have rendered a verdict before any facts have been accepted into evidence. They have supported his firing without the Penn State board even saying what he was fired for.

Mob psychology is easy to get caught up in. Sandusky had been involved in the Penn State program. Paterno was coach. Sandusky sexually abused a boy in the locker room. Ergo, Paterno is guilty.

And the mob continues to gather.