Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bible literacy unconstitutional? So says Jake

Not that we really want to attribute meaning and substance to the things that Jake says, but this is rather amusing:
It’s clearly unconstitutional to teach a Jesus Bible-only class in a public school.
Well, we don't know what "Jesus Bible-only" means. He certainly plays the major role in the thing, but why is it "clearly unconstitutional"? Jake doesn't say--probably 'cuz it really isn't.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tiger Woods and the Modern Ideology of Irresponsibility

I have said little on this blog about the Tiger Woods situation, largely because I thought there really wasn't much to say. The guy cheated on his wife and she threw him out. There's nothing much to say in terms of what he should do about it other than to stop doing it, say you're sorry, and try to do better.

This process was based on the traditional Christian idea--to put it in technical theological terms--of admitting that you're a dirtbag, asking for forgiveness for being a dirtbag, and changing your cheatin' dirtbag ways.

Now there are other ways, of course, of dealing with shame. In Japan, for example, the Samurai ideal has often been pursued: the person ritually disembowels himself. Tiger obviously calculated that this method had little to commend it in terms of the possibility of long-term rehabilitation.

There are, however, newer means of dealing with shame. I have mentioned one of these several times on this blog, which consists of announcing, at the height of the controversy over your behavior, that you are gay. This method I have labeled "The Gay Pass." This was employed in the case of former Congressman Tom Foley. It was also attempted by former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey. Tiger could simply have come out and said, "I am a gay man." But this would have been difficult to establish, since all of the parties who directly participated in Tiger's infidelity were female. What might have happened if he had run out of females--and reports suggest he may have almost exhausted the available population--is uncertain.

Among the newer ways of dealing with shame is the Therapeutic Method. This is the one more and more Americans seem to choose when faced with public shame, and it was the one utilized by Woods. Under the Therapeutic Method, you wait until you have no choice but to admit your guilt, admit it, and then announce you are going into rehab.

Why has this view become so popular? One reason is probably that we simply view all personal problems therapeutically. We have, in our society, largely abandoned spiritual explanations for things and so, in search of something to replace religion with as an explanation for the way things are, we have resorted to psychology. We dispense with one religion and replace it with another.

But there is another reason we find therapeutic explanations so attractive: they allow us to blame our actions on something other than our own rottenness.

The philosopher Aristotle once pointed out that there are seven reasons people do things: Nature, chance, compulsion, habit, rational impulse, anger, and appetite. The first three of these--nature, chance, and compulsion--are involuntary. The latter four--habit, rational impulse, anger, and appetite--are voluntary to one degree or another. The whole flow of modern explanations of human behavior has, as its, goal, to move as many things from the category of voluntary reasons for behavior to the involuntary.

Let me give just three examples.

The first has to do with the insanity defense in the law. The insanity defense is an attempt by a defense attorney to re-categorize his client's behavior from the column of voluntary actions to the involuntary. If his actions couldn't be helped--if he either couldn't appreciate the criminality of his act or could not conform his behavior to the law--then they are involuntary, and cannot be blamed for them. Nor should he be punished.

If you look around the culture, you see this kind of reasoning everywhere: a persons actions are result of his upbringing, and no more. Movies, television, and books. They attest to the predominance of the view that how we were raised unalterably determines how we will act as an adult. This is one of the reasons, incidentally, that corporal discipline is considered by many today as "child abuse": it can have no other result than the child growing up and beating his own children--or his spouse.

I was beaten as a child, therefore...

In the case of alcoholism, where once an abuser of alcohol was considered a "drunkard," someone with a moral problem, he is now an "alcoholic," someone with a medical problem. Moral problems can be helped; they are voluntary. Medical problems cannot be helped; they are involuntary. To the extent that a person's drinking problem is "alcoholism," it cannot be held against him morally, since, being a diseased person--diseases being involuntary--he cannot be blamed for his actions.

Then there is the case of homosexuality. In order to get out from moral opprobrium for having given oneself over to homosexuality, which is traditionally considered a moral perversion, it had to be re-categorized as involuntary. Homosexuality must now be considered inborn, only then can it be claimed that there are no moral implications to homosexual behavior. "They can't help it," has become the refrain.

What is ironic about the re-categorization of homosexuality as involuntary is that it goes against the almost universal trend in the social sciences to reclassify everything under the voluntary. Everything--gender, masculinity and femininity, even the self--is considered to be socially constructed. To be "male" isn't a function of your chromosomes, but a function of what society has told you you are, an identity you can simply change by rebelling against the social construction that has placed this label on you. Many people don't realize it, but there is a large and vocal faction within the gay scholarly community (a subset of the larger community of postmodern "scholars") that totally rejects the idea that being gay is "inborn." That, they say, is "essentialism," which is anathema to the social constructivism that dominates the postmodernist mindset that, in turn, dominates the social sciences in our universities.

The ideology in the "Women's Studies" department, where social constructivism serves the political agenda, is totally at odds with that over in "Gay Studies," where it doesn't. But they keep the disagreements conveniently behind closed doors in order not to damage the political progress they have made.

But the attraction of blamelessness is strong. The tide of social constructivism has swept everything else away, but the political benefits to be derived from considering homosexuality as involuntary are just too great. This is why Mark Foley and James McGreevey made public statements about being "gay men." Being a gay man is something they couldn't help, and therefore couldn't be blamed for. The behavior they engaged in that prompted them to do it, they implied, was just an aspect of this.

To "go into rehab" is a way of claiming you have a disease that can be "cured." Diseases being things that assail us irresistibly from without, having them is a way of implicitly pointing the finger at someone or something else as the cause of our indiscretions.

How you deal with a problem depends largely on what you think the problem is. And judging from the comments on this story, it seems like the problem the therapists have identified--I'm thinking mostly of the public therapists here: those who have affixed labels to Tiger's problem in the media--is something called "sex addiction."

This term--"sex addiction"--is the perfect therapeutic term. "Infidelity" is an old term fraught with moral implications, useful perhaps in a society in which people are expected to take full moral responsibility for their actions, but which ill serves the modern intent to evade them. Addictions, of course, are diseases, and diseases are involuntary

But didn't Tiger Woods stand up and take responsibility for his actions? What more do we want from him than to stand before the television cameras and say, "I'm sorry," which he did? Isn't that an indication that he is taking responsibility?

The answer to that question is probably, "yes." There's no particular reason to think that Woods didn't really try to take responsibility for his behavior. He didn't create the culture he is in. He didn't invent the idea of "sex addiction." There are others who have done that for him.

Tiger's just a modern guy with modern problems. And he's gone in for a modern cure. Are we blaming him for this? He is, after all, just doing what everyone else does in these circumstances--bowing to the modern therapeutic mindset.

How can it be his fault?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

One last time

The National Center for Science Education's Josh Rosenau has a bad habit of stepping into it whenever he tries to score a logical point, and he has not disappointed us once again in his latest attempt. After I had mocked the propensity of Global Warming alarmists to take every warm weather event as evidence for Global Warming (as well as predicting lower rates of snowfall as a result of Global Warming) by taking note of record snowfalls, he characterized my argument as an example of the tu quoque ("you too'') fallacy.

I answered that remark in a previous post, but not apparently in terms that prevented him from saying that I was "admitting ... using a tu quoque." That I did the exact opposite apparently had some role in confusing him. I'll just have to conclude that he has apparently never encountered a reductio ad absurdum in his reading, and just didn't know what to do with it. He may want to add that to his list of things he needs to study up on.

He apparently tried to study up on another logical process, without much success:
[H]e deepens his obvious lack of training in logic by offering as the first line of a syllogism: "If individual warm weather events are confirming evidence for Global Warming, then individual cool weather events are disconfirming evidence for Global Warming."

This, to those who've studied logic, is known as the formal logical fallacy of denying the antecedent.

It is fortunate that I am experienced in correcting the logical errors of first-time logic students because it allows me to quickly spot and point out the fundamental error made in this argument; namely, that statements cannot be fallacious. Only arguments can be fallacious, not statements. In fact this is covered in the very first chapter of my Traditional Logic, Book I, and is probably missing in the Wikipedia articles from which Rosenau seems to have derived his knowledge of logic.

To say that the conditional statement above is an example of a fallacy is the kind of error that is literally covered in the first week of a typical course in logic, where students are told that statements can be true and false, but not valid or invalid. If Rosenau wants to argue that the statement is false, that's fine. But it cannot possibly be an example of the Fallacy of Denying the Antecedent. In fact, he took the statement from an argument which I not only laid out clearly, but highlighted, in bullet points, in which it serves as the major premise in an argument which denies the consequent, making it a legitimate Modus Tollens.

Maybe this is why Rosenau doesn't even provide a link in the entire post back to my post where that would have been evident.

And while we're talking about logical fallacies, Rosenau might want to revisit his argument that a group I have worked for, The Family Foundation of Kentucky is "affiliated with Focus on the Family," a charge which, if true, really wouldn't matter, but which, even after I have pointed out was false, he continues to repeat. He defends himself by saying that other groups in other states similar to The Family Foundation sometimes work in conjunction with Focus on the Family--and by providing links to various policy groups in other states, none of which is a link to The
Family Foundation itself.

Has Rosenau ever written a post in response to one of mine which he doesn't assert guilt by association? Josh, just admit your charge is false and you can't justify it for crying out loud.

I actually enjoy the give and take of debate, but in order to enjoy it, the person you are debating can't be constantly intent on name-calling, imparting false motive, and trying to score cheap debating points (and wreaking logical havoc in the process). Nobody is immune to these things (including myself), but when it becomes the rule rather than the exception, you just have to throw up your hands and ignore it--which, unless I have a compelling reason, I think is what I am going to do from here on out.

This stuff is just a function, I think, of intellectual maturity. Maybe, when Josh grows up, we can have a civil conversation. In the meantime, if I were the National Center for Science Education, I'd be more discriminating in who I let put my name on their blog.

Monday, February 22, 2010

James Ramsey's U of L refuses to budge on explicit photos of young girls

University of Louisville president James Ramsey's chief lieutenant, Provost Shirley Willinganz, tells the Chronicle of Higher Education that U of L refuses to take down an exhibit that includes explicit photographs of young girls because the First Amendment protects their right, you know, to exploit children and all:

Today at the University of Louisville, an unusual art exhibit called The Century Project will open as part of a week of activities designed to promote healthy body image.

Because the project features photographs of nude women and girls, the university is facing pressure to call off or adjust the exhibit, as the University of North Carolina at Wilmington did last year, when it removed the images of girls as a condition of allowing the program to proceed. But Louisville has declined to demand changes and is standing behind the exhibit, saying that its message has been distorted by critics and that principles of free speech and academic freedom are at stake.

Shirley Willihnganz, provost at Louisville, said in an interview that she has been approached by people in the local community and by state legislators angry about the exhibit. And she said that while she is happy to explain the context of the exhibit, she is not willing to cancel it or to order its modification ...

Read the rest of the sorry saga here.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Child porn at U of L: It ain't your fathers university

Pictures of naked children that would get you put in jail if police found them on your computer--or fired if found by your employer--are being exhibited next week at James Ramsay's University of Louisville. It's "educational," don't you know.

Remember, this is the same university that spends Bucks for Brains money on studying how "the black male-bodied Drag Queen's presence within queer 'subcultures' disrupts mainstream notions of what is considered natural and fixed signifiers of black femininity and/or womanhood."

The new exhibit, which starts Monday, is all part of "Body Appreciation/Body Awareness Week." There are apparently a lot of U of L students walking around campus unaware that they have bodies or, if they are, are not appreciating them enough. The exhibit, called the "Century Project," features graphic pictures of women in the buff from the very young (yes, the very young) to a woman 100 years old "to effect change in societal attitudes towards women’s bodies."

And if you can't figure out what that means, then you must be some stick-in-the-mud old prude or something.

The exhibit includes pictures of girls aged 2 1/2, 12, and 16, and possibly others (these are just the ones listed in the "samples") with the idea that looking at them is going to raise someone's self-esteem. The exact process by which the photos of pre- and post-pubescent girls raise a woman's self-esteem is not terribly clear, and that's why we have U of L Provost Shirley Willinganz here to explain it for us.

Shirley, thanks for joining us. Tell us, how does looking at what in any other circumstances would be considered kiddie porn helps someone's own body image?
"For us, this is a whole developmental gamut that, rather than objectifying women, makes women very human."
Okay, well that's fine and all, and of course it does beg the question of how publicly showing pictures of naked women contributes to not objectifying them, but what is it about looking at pictures of naked little girls that will make a woman feel better about herself?
Because each of these pictures is also accompanied by a story that the women in the picture is telling, it helps them see that other women often deal with the same body image issues they have.
Yes, we know what U of L's stated reason for the displaying photographs of underage children without any clothes on is, but could you explain what it is about these photographs that actually accomplishes the goal of making another person feel better about themselves?
I do understand, however, that people may be uncomfortable with this, and that's why it's not obligatory.
Okay, well, yes Shirley, thank you for your thoughtfulness. But, oh, by the way, does the University of Louisville have plans for a display that includes pictures of naked little boys so that the men viewing them will feel better about themselves?
Shirley? Shirley? Are you there?

Well, sorry folks, we're having some technical problems with our satellite link-up here. But maybe we can try to contact James Ramsey himself to see what he has to say about the pictures of naked children he is showing at his university.

No promises though.

More coverage like this of the Global Warming debate couldn't hurt.

A very sober analysis from Newsweek of the Global Warming debate as it currently stands:

The battle between "alarmists" and "deniers" has taken a huge toll, not just on the reputations of Jones and the other "climategate" scientists. It has also damaged the credibility of climate science itself, and threatened more than a decade of diplomatic efforts to engineer a global reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. The effort, which has kept a forward momentum since the Kyoto meeting in 1997, came to a cold stop in Copenhagen in December. The conference was originally intended to bring the U.S. and China into a global agreement, but produced nothing of substance. Indeed, the climate project bears a striking resemblance to health-care reform in the United States—stalled by a combination of political resistance and hubris.

What went wrong? Part of the blame lies, of course, with those who obstructed the efforts of the IPCC and the individual scientists, including bloggers who tried to sandbag scientists with spurious FOIA requests, and the perpetrators (as yet unknown) of the hack at the Climatic Research Unit. Part of the blame also falls on the climate scientists themselves. Many of them—including perhaps Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC head—may have stepped too far over the line from science to advocacy, undermining their own credibility. Some scientists, as a result, are now calling for a change in tone from antagonism to reconciliation. Climate science, they say, needs to open its books and be more tolerant of scrutiny from the outside. Its institutions—notably the IPCC—need to go about their business with greater transparency. "The circle-the-wagons mentality has backfired," says Judith Curry, head of Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Like most mainstream analyses of the issue, too much blame is placed on those who pointed out the problems, but otherwise it's the kind of reasonable treatment of the issue you see way too little of in the mainstream media.

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Are ice ages caused by Global Warming? According to the Warmers they are.

Anthony Watts notes that not only is there more snow, but the snowline seems to be moving south. But this too--despite previous statements that a more southerly snowline is consistent with ice ages--is now being attributed to Global Warming:

Some people have been claiming that the anomalous snow this winter is due to warming temperatures. The New York Times reports on the record snow :

Most climate scientists respond that the ferocious storms are consistent with forecasts that a heating planet will produce more frequent and more intense weather events.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense that warming temperatures would cause the snow line to move south. Lower latitudes normally receive rain rather than snow, because the air is already too warm for snow. Further warming would be expected to move the snow line north – not south – and that is exactly what the climate models predict. Indeed, Time Magazine claims that this has already happened: “large-scale cold-weather storm systems have gradually tracked to the north in the U.S. over the past 50 years.”

As far as snow depth goes, Washington D.C. recently broke their 1899 snow record of 54.4 inches and now has a new record of 54.9 inches. We are told that the new record is due to “extreme weather” caused by “global warming.” If so, what caused the nearly identical “extreme weather” over a century ago? Alarmists tell us that heavy snow used to be caused by cold, but now is caused by warmth. The 1899 record was set long before the hockey stick brought temperatures to “unprecedented levels.”

Now lets take their poor logic one step further. Ice ages occur when the snow line moves very far south. If “most climate scientists” are claiming that global warming is causing the snow line to move south, then the logical corollary is that ice ages are caused by further warming temperatures. Clearly that is not true.


Keeping track of Brayton's discontents

The endlessly irritated Ed Brayton, proprietor over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars "Aggravation at Everyone Who Disagrees With Me" Department, seems to have missed the point of my mockery of those who think ouija boards and Magic 8 balls are tolerable party games while more mainstream religious activities are to be ridiculed. He writes:
The endlessly irritating Martin Cothran, contributor over at the Discovery Institute's Media Complaints Division, seems to have missed the point of my mockery of those who think ouija boards are going to bring people under the control of demons.
Actually, I fully understood his point. I was making an observation about something he said in making his point, which was that people shouldn't get upset at people who use ouija boards because they are just like Magic 8 balls--and, by implication, dowsing and astrology, since these are commonly played at too.
Obviously Brayton thinks these are harmless party games--unlike activities that might appeal to more benevolent spirits, which, if you read Brayton on a regular basis, are to be roundly ridiculed and driven from the public consciousness.
The point, of course, was that, serious religious activities and the social beliefs that stem from them get less respect on the blog than playing with Ouija boards and Magic 8 balls.

The second paragraph, however, I'll retract, since it implies that Brayton believes in the efficacy of these things, which he clearly doesn't--and which doesn't support my main point anyway and should have been deleted before posting.

Brayton also writes in his new post that he would happily ridicule these things when used playfully as well--something he didn't say in his first post--which brings into some confusion the relative scorn with which he holds things.

It's so hard to keep track.

Logic envy

It is fortunate that Josh Rosenau's blog is titled "Thoughts from Kansas," otherwise it would be hard to identify the exact nature of the verbal effusions emanating from it. But he assures us that the utterances he makes there are indeed "thoughts," and so we are bound to weigh them using the criteria one would normally apply to rational speech, although Rosenau's posts would probably fare better if we applied some other, much less demanding standard.

His most recent post is similar in almost every respect to his other frequent posts that target this blog for verbal abuse. In fact, we are fairly certain that he has a template post from which he just cuts the malignant text from some original boilerplate and pastes it into a new post every time he sees something on this blog he does not like, which occurs approximately once a week. In fact, we question whether his purpose really is, as he says on his blog, "battling creationists." There is no question he doesn't like creationists. In fact he seems to hate them as much as he hates the proprietor of this blog. And no doubt, in expressing his hateful "thoughts" toward creationists, he gives them, like he always gives us, a simultaneous lecture on the evils of hate.

Rosenau is nothing if not ironic.

But his real purpose in life seems to be to closely monitor this blog in hopes of finding something he can twist into a shape which he can then use to induce in himself the appropriate indignation, which he them proceeds to express with all the subtlety of a rabid wolverine. No doubt it's hard, when you're foaming at the mouth, to notice that you have committed the very transgressions you are accusing someone else of.

His most recent post begins in much the same way as all his posts about this blog begin: by calling me a Holocaust denier (despite the fact that I don't deny it), that I'm a bigot (because I think marriage means, well, marriage--among other things), that I write for the "Disco' Institute (they occasionally run pieces from this blog with my permission), and work for the "Kentucky affiliate of Focus on the Family (which is false, not that that seems to matter much to him).

The hurling of epithets--although they have gotten not only hackneyed, but rather dull--will undoubtedly subside as maturity sets in, although this process seems to be proceeding rather slowly for Rosenau. In has last post, immediately after the schoolboy name-calling, he turns around and accuses me of ad hominem attacks. It's one thing for your enemy to bend the barrel of your pistol back toward you, but it takes some ingenuity to do it to yourself.

Fire away, Josh.

Rosenau's most recent case of dyspepsia was the result of my post remarking about record snowfalls in an age of global warming. It got him pretty fired up. You would have thought I had exaggerated and concealed data, or corrupted the peer review process or something. This was an example of tu quoque argumentation, according to Rosenau. Now tu quoque is a Latin expression meaning "you too." Rosenau is not familiar with Latin, of course, but that is not really his problem. His problem is that he doesn't seem to understand English too well.

The tu quoque fallacy involves making some blunder and then, in your own defense, accusing your opponent of making it too. Good examples can be found on Rosenau's own blog where, every time I point out a logical blunder, he accuses me of the same blunder, the only difference being that he actually committed it and I didn't. I had pointed out the record level of snowfalls (something Global Warming advocates said there would be less of because of Global Warming--when they're not saying the complete opposite) and I pointed it out as a subtle way of mocking their own process only using opposite evidence. And when the Warmers began lecturing me about weather not being the same thing as climate, I simply pointed out that if it wasn't for me, then it shouldn't be for them.

But then we have already established that Rosenau does not get subtlety, haven't we?

In fact, Rosenau not only didn't get the subtlety, he completely missed my point. So let me put the implicit argument of my post in the form of a logical syllogism (And I should probably issue a warning, in doing so, about the possibility that Rosenau might once again try to imitate this exercise himself on his own blog with the usual amusing results):
  • If individual warm weather events are confirming evidence for Global Warming, then individual cool weather events are disconfirming evidence for Global Warming
  • But cool weather events are not disconfirming evidence for Global Warming
  • Therefore, individual warm weather events are not confirming evidence for Global Warming.
Now this is not tu quoque argumentation, it is the logical process called modus tollens. But then we are speaking Latin again, aren't we? To someone who doesn't know Latin--or logic. Rosenau's logical vocabulary extends only to a few informal fallacies which doesn't really understand.

Oh, and that clicking you hear is Rosenau looking up Wikipedia article on modus tollens. It's worked for him before.

Or has it?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Against Bitzer: Why Peter Ditzel doesn't know what a thing is

Peter Ditzel of has responded to an article of mine printed in the Classical Teacher magazine entitled, "Is Fiction False?" the point of which is that imaginative literature is often (not always) more effective in conveying truth than nonfiction prose writing. Ditzel responds to my point here as well as that of Douglas Jones at Canon Press:
In the Summer 2007 Memoria Press catalog, called The Classical Teacher, appears an article, “Is Fiction False?” by Martin Cothran. This author likens “modern people” to Thomas Gradgrind, “the schoolmaster in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, who, when he is introduced in chapter two of that book, asks his class to define a horse. He first asks Sissy Jupe, whom he calls ‘Girl number twenty,’ to define a horse. Her father is a horsebreaker, and she has lived around them her whole life; but when Gradgrind asks her to define what a horse is, she is perplexed and speechless.” Gradgrind then asks a boy named Bitzer, who pleases Gradgrind with his definition: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”

Cothran then observes, “Of course, Sissy Jupe knew what a horse was better than anyone else in the class, including the knowledgeable Bitzer. She had seen a horse with her eyes, looked upon it, and her hands had handled it. She certainly knew the truth of the horse better than Bitzer, who had simply memorized sterile facts about it.” Yes, no doubt Sissy Jupe knew horses better than Bitzer. But I challenge Cothran to explain how Sissy knew horses apart from facts. Cothran, Jones, and others of their ilk disparage “arid intellectual descriptions,” “bare literal sentences,” and “sterile facts.” (They also sneer at “modern people” and seem to be intent on injecting medievalism—remember the good old Dark Ages when Latin was king and people were brainwashed by the Roman Catholic Church?—into the homeschooling movement.) But again, if Sissy had expressed her knowledge of horses, how would she have done so apart from facts?

So I have officially been challenged, and I accept. It is a duel I hope that both of us survive and which the only casualty will be someone's ignorance--mine or his.

Ditzel and I don't necessary disagree on our conclusions about the importance of fiction (and by 'fiction' I mean the 'poetic' in its broad sense): Both of us, I think, would agree that both the poetic an the non-poetic can convey truth and do it well. So where do we disagree? I think we disagree in a matter of some importance: namely, what is.

I will ignore Ditzel's simplistic view of the Middle Ages and address the horse issue: How did Sissy know a horse? By direct apprehension. Of the horse, that is. And it had nothing to do with any discursive explanation she had heard of the type that Ditzel seems to value so highly. She knew a horse not on the basis of arguments or assertions or even "facts". She knew a horse on the basis of an actual horse.

Ditzel seems to be confused about what things are, which is a great handicap under which to labor when discussing them. I claim that a thing is a thing. Ditzel can contest me all he wants, but I really don't see how the assertion is even debatable--despite the fact that Ditzel seems to want to debate it. Ditzel does not seem to think a thing is a thing. He thinks that a thing is a fact--or a collection of facts. But a fact is a piece of information and a thing is not a piece of information, as Ditzel seems to imply.

I suppose it is possible that Ditzel takes the term 'fact' to mean a thing--or as one dictionary has it, "any unit of being which is capable of bearing meaning"--but, if he does, then he shouldn't make it sound so much like he doesn't. In any case that certainly isn't the meaning Gradgrind--or Dicken's--is using in the passage which I quoted. To Gradgrind, facts mean bits of discrete and disconnected information. But a horse is not a bit of discrete information nor is it a collection bits of disconnected information, therefore a horse is not a fact.

Ditzel clearly does not understand the difference between a thing and the abstract idea of a thing, both of which exist and are useful in their place. But once confounded they lose their proper function and can only confuse.

Cothran has fallen for the notion that knowing something and knowing about it are two different things. What these people fail to do is satisfactorily explain how one can know something apart from knowing about it, and how we can know about something, perhaps know a lot about it, but not know it. We often hear this in regard to Jesus. A preacher might ask, “You might know a lot about Jesus, but do you know Jesus?” What is he talking about? It’s a good question.

Ditzel goes on with a fanciful story about a friend (Bill) whom he knows by spending some interesting time with him, and then concludes:

The real distinction between your knowledge of Bill and mine is degree. It lies in the number of facts and how well I understand the relationship between those facts. By spending so much time with Bill, in so many different circumstances, I have accumulated, both consciously and subconsciously, more facts about Bill than you have. I can put those facts together into a better understanding of Bill than you can. But knowing Bill is the same as knowing about Bill. There is no difference. You know a little about Bill: I know a lot about Bill.
Really? It's hard to answer Ditzel's assertion here other than to say it is so obviously and blatantly false that it's hard to imagine how anyone could believe it. On the other hand, it might help prove his case anyway, since his argument consisted of a fictional story which clearly did not support his position.

And why did he feel the need to resort to a fictional story in his case that fictional stories are not superior to abstract reasoning anyway?

Under Ditzel's view, the following two propositions mean the same thing:

I know about the President of the United States

I know the President of the United States

It's hard to believe that he really thinks so, but that is clearly what he is saying. He even goes so far as to say that knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus is the same thing, and that the only difference between an unbeliever and a believer is that the unbeliever doesn't know enough facts:

Preachers who know what they are talking about know that knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus are not what is at issue. What is important is that some people know many facts about Jesus, but they miss those that are essential, those that must be revealed by the Father in heaven. The unsaved person does not know Jesus as His Lord and Savior. Cothran’s distinction between knowing and knowing about is false because there is no way to know something other than knowing about it. It is a collection of facts and a synthesis of the relationship between the facts.
Gee, and I thought it had something to do with being born again. He truly seems to believe that faith is merely a matter of intellectual assent, a position that is not only not the protestant position--or the reformed position, but is totally outside the scope of Christian thought.

It is ironic that Ditzel has such a low view of the Middle Ages. It is, in fact, where he gets his philosophy. The early 14th century, to be precise. From William of Ockham.

Ditzel is a nominalist, a malady that afflicts many protestants. Nominalism is the belief that things do not possess natures, and that words therefore do not refer to their natures or essences. Words are simply labels we affix to groups of things that happen to have similar characteristics.

Here is Ditzel mouthing the nominalist credo:

Thomas Gradgrind may have been mistaken to think that a handful of scattered facts could sufficiently sum up what a horse is to his students. But the problem was not in the fact that they were facts; the problem lay in not having enough facts!

A thing is what it is only by virtue of the information that can be said about it, nothing more. This is, at bottom, the reason that people like Ditzel side with Bitzer against Sissy Jupe: they don't believe that you know things by direct apprehension--because there is nothing to be apprehended. Sissy cannot know a horse by direct apprehension because there is no horse to know--there is only a set of "facts"--bits of information--which, when culled together, are all that a horse really is. In fact, I think that's why Dickens named him "Bitzer": because all he knew was bits of information. He didn't really know the wholes that make up the world, and that are known not solely by the intellect, but by the whole person.

And what is a person to Ditzel? Humanoid. Omnivorous. 32 teeth: namely, 20 molars, 4 canines, and 8 incisive. Sheds coat (or parka or sweater) in the spring; in coastal places sheds shoes too. Soft feet, but requiring to be shod by Nikes. Age known by ability to use technology and by number of Facebook friends (the more they have, the younger they are).

This is Gradgrind's belief, and Bitzer's--and Ditzel's. Facts, nothing but facts. That's all Ditzel will have. Can we just call him "Ditzer"?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Global Warming's Procrustean Bed: Snow caused by Global Warming

Procrustes was a legendary Greek robber who, after robbing is victims, took them to his lair, and placed them in a bed. If they were too short for it, he would stretch them to fit it. If they were too tall, he would hack of their limbs.

Last week I blamed the fact that 49 states have snow on the ground on Global Warming. When I did it, I had tongue firmly implanted in cheek. And of course I got the customary lecture on how "weather is not climate," a lecture which is given only to those who cite cold weather as possible evidence against Global Warming and not to those who use warm weather events as evidence for it.

In other words, Warmers already have the advantage that they can consider all warm weather events as evidence for their theory and can dismiss all cold weather events as irrelevant to it. But it gets better (or worse, depending on whether you share their ideology): Warmers not only have the debate set up so that the only evidence admitted can be confirming evidence, they have it set up so that disconfirming evidence can be considered confirming evidence.

Check this out, from NPR today:

For scientists who study the climate, it's all a bit much. They're trying to dig out.

Most don't see a contradiction between a warming world and lots of snow. That includes Kevin Trenberth, a prominent climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado.

"The fact that the oceans are warmer now than they were, say, 30 years ago means there's about on average 4 percent more water vapor lurking around over the oceans than there was, say, in the 1970s," he says.

Warmer water means more water vapor rises up into the air, and what goes up must come down.

"So one of the consequences of a warming ocean near a coastline like the East Coast and Washington, D.C., for instance, is that you can get dumped on with more snow partly as a consequence of global warming," he says.

So in other words, not only are cold weather events not evidence against Global Warming, but they are actually evidence for it! The evidence must be forced into the Procrustean bed of the theory, whether it actually fits or not.

You gotta hand it to these people: they know how to frame a debate.

Is weather the same as climate? It depends on whether it confirms the theory

Several people have expressed their severe disapproval of 49 states having snow--or, more precisely, my mentioning it. A commenter on one of my posts writes:
Tell us Martin, are weather and climate the same thing.
Here is my answer: Weather and climate are not the same thing in the case of reports of unusually cold weather, where we go into finger-wagging mode and give people who take note of it lectures about how just because we are freezing our booties off and considering the virtues of muktuk and Caribou jerky that this does not mean anything significant about the temperature of the planet; but weather and climate are the same thing when a newspaper reports that someone in Greenland notices a glacier starting to drip or someone in Alaska hasn't seen a polar bear in over a week, in which case we clam up and contract a bad case of amnesia about the relation of weather and climate.

I wonder how many blogs this commenter has posted on making this same point in the case of the countless reports that have reported some warm weather event somewhere that is the direct result of global warming.

In other words, no particular cold weather event can be taken as evidence against global warming, and all particular warm weather events can be taken as evidence for it.

Then there is Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education, who responded by quoting Roger Peilke:
What happens in the weather this week or next tells us absolutely nothing about the role of humans in influencing the climate system. It is unjustifiable to claim that a cold snap or heavy snow disproves or even casts doubts [on] predictions of long-term climate change. It is equally unjustifiable to say that a cold snap or heavy snow in any way offers empirical support for predictions of long-term climate change. This goes for all weather events.
I wonder how many posts Josh has made cautioning those who equate weather and climate when discussing warm weather events.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

An Economics Lesson for Taner Edis: Why the Vatican would have an economist

Taner Edis at the Secular Outpost expresses his shock and dismay that the Vatican has an economist--as if the Catholics didn't have a long tradition of economic thinking:
OK, I'll admit I'm already prejudiced against economists ... But a Vatican economist? I just have to imagine an economist who combines the worst aspects of two very ugly ideologies: conservative Catholicism and free-market dogmatics. And yes, to the extent that it is possible to judge from the rest of the story, the results are just about as insane as I'd expect.
Ugly ideologies? Admittedly there is much mischief that takes place under the label of "free-market" economics, but if Edis really wants to get a good look at ugly ideology, he needs to go across to the other end of the spectrum and check out what goes on under secular socialism. And why would you be concerned about the "combination" of capitalism and Catholicism when it is precisely the Catholics, under the influence of their own social teachings, that have attempted to mitigate capitalism's excesses?

But Edis seems primarily surprised that he Vatican has an economist at all, as evidenced by his putting of "Vatican economist" in quotation marks. He is apparently unaware of the long history of Catholic involvement in economic issues, from changing the attitude toward labor in the early Church in such a way as to lead economies away from slavery to the more dignified serfdom and finally to free labor, as well as resisting usury.

There is a long list of Catholics thinkers who have been involved in economic issues:
  • St. Thomas Aquinas
  • Henry of Ghent
  • Ægidius Colonna
  • Petrarch
  • Nicholas Oresme, Bishop of Lisieux
  • St. Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence
  • St. Bernardine of Siena
  • Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot Turgot
  • Etienne Bonnot de Condillac
  • Gustave de Molinari
And surely Edis has heard of the French Catholic Frederick Bastiat, one of the most influential economists who ever lived, not to mention Heinrich Pesch, a German Jesuit who wrote Textbook of National Economics, which some have called the most comprehensive book on economics ever written.

Oh, and it might also help him get a better grip on Catholic economic influence if he read Joseph Schumpeter's History of Economic Analysis, which recounts the crucial role of scholastic thinking in the development of modern economics.

And here is the late Murray Rothbard, one of the most influential thinkers in the Austrian school economics (and a staunch Catholic), on the Catholic role in modern economic thought:
We may sum up the Case for Catholicism as follows: (1) Smith’s laissez-faire and natural law views descended from the late Scholastics, and from the Catholic Physiocrats; (2) the Catholics had developed marginal utility, subjective value economics, and the idea that the just price was the market price, while the British Protestants grafted on a dangerous and ultimately highly statist labor theory of value, influenced by Calvinism; (3) some of the most "dogmatic" laissez-faire theorists have been Catholics: from the Physiocrats to Bastiat; (4) capitalism began in the Catholic Italian cities of the 14th century; (5) Natural rights and other rationalist views descended from the Scholastics.
Then there are thinkers like G. K. Chesterton (What's Wrong With the World) and Hillaire Belloc (The Servile State) who applied the Churches social teachings more directly to the discipline.

But the most ironic thing about Edis's post is that he seems to think there something wrong with what the Vatican economist, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, said:
Bankers are not the cause of the global economic crisis, according to the president of the Institute for the Works of Religion. Rather, the cause is ordinary people who do not "believe in the future" and have few or no children.
Is Edis disagreeing with this? If so, it would be nice to see an argument. If not, then what's the problem? If Edis doesn't think the low replacement rate is a problem, wait until he tried to collect on his Social Security when he retires (Social Security just began paying out more than it is taking in)--or Medicare. Oh, and now that the baby boomers are hitting retirement age, watch what happens to the taxes of those, presumably like Edis, who are members of a generation that had fewer babies will now be responsible for paying for the big generation that's now collecting.

So what is it that's so strange about a Vatican economist again?

Highways from Hell: the 19 most dangerous roads in the world

Take a dose of Dramamine before checking out the photos on this list of the world's most harrowing roads.

Snow in 49 states

Snow in 49 states. Darn that Global Warming!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Is the Bible Literacy Bill a Bad Idea? Richard Day's case that public school teachers are incompetent

Richard Day is against a proposed state law that would allow schools to have a course in Bible literacy. His argument? That teachers are not competent to teach such a course.
[I]t's not too hard to accept the argument that, in western society, "an educated person is familiar with the Bible." Coloquial speech in America is laced with Biblical references. In fact, Matthew 22 is central to understanding the secular/religious struggles that led to bloody European wars - and eventually, a new nation built on the principles of freedom of religion, freedom from religion (freedom of thought) and freedom of the press. But turning teachers loose to teach the Bible as literature?

Get this: In high school, books do not teach themselves so much as teachers teach them.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that it is NOT the intent of Boswell, Worley or Carroll to have the Bible besmirched. Let's assume they merely wish Kentucky students to become more familiar with the Bible's literature. Let's assume they have no interest in "establishing religion" so there will be no effort to direct how the book must be taught, or what lessons should be taken from the text. Let's assume there will be no special requirements of English teachers teaching the Bible than there are for teaching Hamlet.

Just exactly how might that work in the classroom of a teacher who held no particular reverence for the good book?
Well, first of all, one wonders why it's hard to accept the role the Bible plays in our cultural history at all. But beyond that, there must be a name for the kind of argument that pretends to be concerned about the integrity of one thing, but is secretly really concerned about something else. Somehow--and I really hate to question Day's motivation here--it doesn't really seem like he's concerned about how the Bible would be taught, but rather has that little voice in the back of the brain--overactive in many civil liberties types--that keeps whispering how the First Amendment says that we should eliminate religion from the public square altogether.

Of course, if that were the case, Day would be doing the same thing he accuses the sponsors of Senate Bill 142 of doing: taking a public position for reasons other than their stated ones. I am willing to listen to Day's protestations on this, but I will have to say I remain unconvinced.

More importantly, however, if teachers are not competent enough to teach such a basic course in Bible literacy, then why are they teaching in our schools in the first place? Are public school teachers really so Biblically illiterate that they are incapable of teaching such a course?

If we admit--as the bill states and as I think any learned person would have to admit, and as Day says he is, with minimal pain, willing to admit--that Biblical literacy is necessary for a competent understanding of our "culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy," then what Day is in fact saying is that our schools are populated by people who do not have a competent understanding of our culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.

This is quite an admission on Day's part. In fact, it is a stunning vote of no confidence in our public schools.

If the army of teachers we have out there are so pedagogically challenged they they would screw up a Bible literacy class, what other subjects are they incapable of handling? Are they butchering history right now, even as I write, teaching that the Egypt was populated by mummies and that they wrote in hydraulics? that Homer's books were not really written by Homer but by another author of the same name? or that Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock?

Are teachers even now on a rampage through other subjects, creating educational havoc as they go? Are they telling their poor unfortunate charges that a semicolon is a reference to the small intestine? that H2O is hot water, and CO2 is cold water? and that Penelope was the last hardship Ulysses endured on his journey?

Where are his blog posts expressing concern over whether we should teach math, science, literature, and foreign language on the grounds that teachers might mess them up? If teachers are not cometent to teach a Bible literacy course, then why should they be considered competent enough to teach anything else? If the lack of teacher competence is an argument against having Bible literacy classes in our public schools, why isn't it an argument against having any other courses in schools?

It can't be because they may be biased in teaching the Bible: they can be biased in teaching anything. Try taking an English course at a state university. In fact, we set up whole departments in our universities for the express purpose of indoctrinating students in political ideologies--but I don't remember Day speaking out against Womens' Studies departments in the recent past.

In fact, I wonder if Sharon Oxendine, president of the state teacher's union, shares Day's view of the lack of teacher ability. Sharon, you there?

Day's argument isn't with this bill, it's with the system he claims to support.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Who's controlling Ed Brayton's keyboard

Ed Brayton, scourge of the Religious Right and supernatural chicanery in general, is taking up the defense of Ouija boards against their detractors. Magic 8 balls are apparently on his approved list as well.

Look for future defenses of dowsing and astrology, but always remember: these are the scientific people.

Obviously Brayton thinks these are harmless party games--unlike activities that might appeal to more benevolent spirits, which, if you read Brayton on a regular basis, are to be roundly ridiculed and driven from the public consciousness.

With inconsistencies like this, I see trouble in his future. In fact, Brayton is normally a fairly rational guy--rationalistic actually. Something else must be controlling his keyboard.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Proposition 8 judge gay, says San Francisco paper

The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, the federal judge presiding in Proposition 8 case, is himself gay.

Hmmm. Wonder how that decision will turn out.

A non-review of Ayn Rand's fiction

My theory about the attraction many of my generation had with Ayn Rand (I noticed this particularly in college) was that the people who became enamored of her just simply had read little else. Their estimation of her as a novelist--Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, etc.--was hampered by their lack of having read other novels--or at least their lack having read any very good ones which they could have used for comparison.

Upon reading Roger Kimball's own personal testimony about Rand--that he read never actually read her books, partly because he started one or two and simply couldn't get through them and partly because he was dissuaded by the testimonies of critics who found her literary skills to be severely lacking, I find myself in much the same position: I tried The Fountainhead, and after several chapters just put the sorry thing down, wondering what it was that had so transfixed so many of my friends.

I would have tried harder, but I had already read Whitaker Chambers famous literary take-down of her books written more than 50 years ago now in his review of Atlas Shrugged:

Since a great many of us dislike much that Miss Rand dislikes, quite as heartily as she does, many incline to take her at her word. It is the more persuasive, in some quarters, because the author deals wholly in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. In this fiction everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly. This kind of simplifying pattern, of course, gives charm to that most primitive story known as: The War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. In modern dress, it is a class war. Both sides to it are caricatures.

The Children of Light are largely operatic caricatures. Insofar as any of them suggests anything known to the business community, they resemble the occasional curmudgeon millionaire, tales about whose outrageously crude and shrewd eccentricities sometimes provide the lighter moments in boardrooms. Otherwise, the Children of Light are geniuses. One of them is named (the only smile you see will be your own): Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian dAntonio. This electrifying youth is the world's biggest copper tycoon. Another, no less electrifying, is named: Ragnar Danesjold. He becomes a twentieth-century pirate. All Miss Rand's chief heroes are also breathtakingly beautiful. So is her heroine (she is rather fetchingly vice president in charge of management of a transcontinental railroad).

So much radiant energy might seem to serve a eugenic purpose. For, in this story as in Mark Twain's, "all the knights marry the princess" — though without benefit of clergy. Yet from the impromptu and surprisingly gymnastic matings of the heroine and three of the heroes, no children — it suddenly strikes you — ever result. The possibility is never entertained. And, indeed, the strenuously sterile world of Atlas Shrugged is scarcely a place for children. You speculate that, in life, children probably irk the author and may make her uneasy. How could it be otherwise when she admiringly names a banker character (by what seems to me a humorless master-stroke): Midas Mulligan? You may fool some adults; you can't fool little boys and girls with such stuff — not for long. They may not know just what is out of line, but they stir uneasily. The Children of Darkness are caricatures, too; and they are really oozy. But at least they are caricatures of something identifiable. Their archetypes are Left-Liberals, New Dealers, Welfare Statists, One Worlders, or, at any rate, such ogreish semblances of these as may stalk the nightmares of those who think little about people as people, but tend to think a great deal in labels and effigies. (And neither Right nor Left, be it noted in passing, has a monopoly of such dreamers, though the horrors in their nightmares wear radically different masks and labels.)

Those and his other comments made me think the effort unlikely to yield any greater appreciation. Why read this kind of thing when there are so many other more worthy contenders for my time?

The silly names alone reminded me of having the misfortune of seeing one of the "Left Behind" movies one night while scanning the channels when I was staying at a hotel: Rayford Steele, Nikolai Carpathia, Ivy Gold. If you ever find yourself in a room with more than one or two names like this, you may be in a bad novel.

Now a Randian could argue that I have not read the books, and that therefore I cannot judge them, to which I can only say that I am not judging them. I am only explaining why I have not read them: because I have never yet encountered anyone whose literary tastes I respected say they were worth reading--and plenty whose tastes I did respect who assured me I needn't bother.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The newest thing (not really) in gay "marriages": open marriages

We interrupt your regular propagandizing about how gay relationships are just like heterosexual ones to bring you this important revelation from the New York Times:

As the trial phase of the constitutional battle to overturn the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage concludes in federal court, gay nuptials are portrayed by opponents as an effort to rewrite the traditional rules of matrimony. Quietly, outside of the news media and courtroom spotlight, many gay couples are doing just that, according to groundbreaking new research.

A study to be released next month is offering a rare glimpse inside gay relationships and reveals that monogamy is not a central feature for many. Some gay men and lesbians argue that, as a result, they have stronger, longer-lasting and more honest relationships. And while that may sound counterintuitive, some experts say boundary-challenging gay relationships represent an evolution in marriage — one that might point the way for the survival of the institution.

New research at San Francisco State University reveals just how common open relationships are among gay men and lesbians in the Bay Area. The Gay Couples Study has followed 556 male couples for three years — about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners.

That consent is key. “With straight people, it’s called affairs or cheating,” said Colleen Hoff, the study’s principal investigator, “but with gay people it does not have such negative connotations.”

Read the rest here.

We now return you to your regular programming about how same sex marriage will not corrupt the institution of marriage.

Less taxes now going to social security than spending on benefits

Mark your calendar: Social Security is now in the red:

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Don't look now. But even as the bank bailout is winding down, another huge bailout is starting, this time for the Social Security system.

A report from the Congressional Budget Office shows that for the first time in 25 years, Social Security is taking in less in taxes than it is spending on benefits.

Read more here.

Best. Jake Quote. Ever.

Jake, over at Page One Kentucky, which has made a name for itself uncovering controversial documents, passing on unverified rumors, and other general journalistic muckrakery, is now lecturing politicians on dignified behavior:
Also, shame on Jack Ditty for being such a corrupt hack. I don’t buy for a second that he wasn’t aware of the filming in progress.
This is a reference to an incident in which a companion of Ditty, State Sen. Robin Webb's Republican challenger, filmed her during their visit to her office, an action for which Ditty expressed disapproval.

Jake has not done these things before, of course. Largely because he doesn't have a camera. But the print equivalent of it occurs at his blog all the time.

Just sayin'.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Pope stirs controversy--and evokes nonsense--in Britain

According to the BBC World News Tuesday, some in Britain are upset that Pope Benedict has spoken out against a bill that could potentially force churches to hire homosexuals. Their complaint? He is mixing religion and politics.

Well, first of all, if we're supposed to keep government and church hermetically sealed, then why is the government trying to tell the church what to do? But, more to the point, they apparently forgot that this is a country that has an established state church and which has bishops serving in the House of Lords.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Annotated Richard Dawkins: Is the Christian response to the Hatian earthquake hypocritical?

I am now officially propounding Cothran's Rule of Moralistic Proportion: The less rational justification someone has for his moral beliefs, the more moralistic he becomes. One of it's corollaries (I'm sure there a many, I just haven't thought of them yet) is that the more someone rejects the Judeo-Christian moral system, the more likely he is to apply it himself, all the while denying that he is.

Here is Richard Dawkins, writing in the Washington Post:
We know what caused the catastrophe in Haiti. It was the bumping and grinding of the Caribbean Plate rubbing up against the North American Plate: a force of nature, sin-free and indifferent to sin, un-premeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery. The Rev. Pat Robertson sees the hand of God in the earthquake, wreaking terrible retribution for a pact that the long-dead ancestors of today's Haitians made with the devil, to help rid them of their French masters.
Okay, Richard: All there is nature, and nature is ethically and ontologically blind. As Samuel Johnson said of death, it "hears not supplications, nor suffers the convenience of mortals." Since nature is all there is, then the events which take place in it can have no meaning or purpose, since meaning and purpose, if they existed, would exist outside of nature. Check.
The religious mind, however, restlessly seeks human meaning in the blind happenings of nature. As with the Indonesian tsunami, which was blamed on loose sexual morals in tourist bars; as with Hurricane Katrina, which was attributed to divine revenge on the entire city of New Orleans for harboring a lesbian comedian, and as with other disasters going back to the famous Lisbon earthquake and beyond, so Haiti's tragedy must be payback for human sin.
But some of those crazy and wild-eyed religious believers interpret the events in nature as having meaning and purpose, providing further evidence that they are crazy and wild-eyed. Got it.

Needless to say, milder-mannered faith-heads are falling over themselves to disown Pat Robertson, just as they disowned those other pastors, evangelists, missionaries and mullahs at the time of the earlier disasters.

Many Christian theologians and believers reject Robertson's attribution of the Haitian disaster to the anger of God for some past historical incident in which they allegedly made a pact with the Devil. Okay. Next point.

What hypocrisy.
Loathsome as Robertson's views undoubtedly are, he is the Christian who stands squarely in the Christian tradition. The agonized theodiceans who see suffering as an intractable 'mystery', or who 'see God' in the help, money and goodwill that is now flooding into Haiti , or (most nauseating of all) who claim to see God 'suffering on the cross' in the ruins of Port-au-Prince, those faux-anguished hypocrites are denying the centrepiece of their own theology. It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here.
Since, like Pat Robertson, Christian tradition sees meaning and purpose in things that are really meaningless and purposeless, Robertson is well within the Christian tradition. Well, we're not sure about this step, but we'll stipulate it for purposes of argument. Please proceed.
Where was God in Noah's flood? He was systematically drowning the entire world, animal as well as human, as punishment for 'sin'. Where was God when Sodom and Gomorrah were consumed with fire and brimstone? He was deliberately barbecuing the citizenry, lock stock and barrel, as punishment for 'sin'. Dear modern, enlightened, theologically sophisticated Christian, your entire religion is founded on an obsession with 'sin', with punishment and with atonement. Where do you find the effrontery to condemn Pat Robertson, you who have signed up to the obnoxious doctrine that the central purpose of Jesus' incarnation was to have himself tortured as a scapegoat for the 'sins' of all mankind, past, present and future, beginning with the 'sin' of Adam, who (as any modern theologian well knows) never even existed?
Okay, here's where we get a little confused. There is no doubt that Christianity and Judaism see meaning and purpose in natural events. But there is no consistent interpretation of why evil occurs, and it most definitely is not the case that all evil is ascribed to the wrath of God. Sometimes it is the expression of the wrath of God (mostly because God says so), and sometimes the rain falls on the just and unjust alike. The book of Job, for example, is very clear that the evil that befalls Job is not for the purpose of punishment.

The problem with Robertson's remarks are that he makes a statement about the cause of the disaster with absolutely no justification or evidence whatsoever. He is engaging in what Pat Robertson frequently engages in: speculation masquerading as prophecy.

But we'll let this go for now because we are on our way to proving the maxim I stated above: that the last shall be first when it comes to moral judgment:
You nice, middle-of-the-road theologians and clergymen, be-frocked and bleating in your pulpits, you disclaim Pat Robertson's suggestion that the Haitians are paying for a pact with the devil. But you worship a god-man who - as you tell your congregations even if you don't believe it yourself - 'cast out devils'. You even believe (or you don't disabuse your flock when they believe) that Jesus cured a madman by causing the 'devils' in him to fly into a herd of pigs and stampede them over a cliff. Charming story, well calculated to uplift and inspire the Sunday School and the Infant Bible Class. Pat Robertson may spout evil nonsense, but he is a mere amateur at that game. Just read your own Bible. Pat Robertson is true to it. But you?

Educated apologist, how dare you weep Christian tears, when your entire theology is one long celebration of suffering: suffering as payback for 'sin' - or suffering as 'atonement' for it? You may weep for Haiti where Pat Robertson does not, but at least, in his hick, sub-Palinesque ignorance, he holds up an honest mirror to the ugliness of Christian theology. You are nothing but a whited sepulchre.

Well, what have we here? A moral judgment about someone else's moral judgment in a world where there can be no moral judgments?

If natural events can have no meaning or purpose--and therefore cannot be the grist for moral judgments, then Pat Robertson's attribution of meaning and purpose to the Haitian earthquake is bogus. So far so good. But then Dawkins, who believes that humans are just as much a part of nature as everything else--and their actions natural events explainable by natural forces just like the rest of nature--issues a moral condemnation of the actions of Pat Robertson.

Since, according to Dawkin's own stated position, Pat Robertson's actions are natural actions not fundamentally different from the Haitian earthquake, which cannot be the object of a moral judgment, then no moral judgment can be made of Robertson's actions--or those of Christian theologians. And yet that is exactly what Dawkins does. In morally condemning Christianity, Richard Dawkin's does exactly the same thing as he accuses Robertson of doing: reading meaning and purpose into natural events which are meaningless and purposeless.

Furthermore, this action--of reading meaning and purpose into meaningless and purposeless things--is evil. Theologians do it, therefore theologians are evil.

So what should we say if Richard Dawkins does it?

Monday, February 01, 2010

Did J. D. Salinger go to Heaven?

J. D. Salinger is dead at 91. He is most famous for Catcher in the Rye, a book about teenage angst and alienation. Several commentators have said it is also about the protagonist's "loss of innocence," but that is clearly an overstatement, since there seemed little room in Holden Caulfield's personality for anything but cynicism and self-consciousness.

It's always hard to determine how much a cultural artifact influences the culture and how much it is influenced by the culture. Catcher in the Rye, like so many other things, seemed to share in both. There was obviously an audience for it, although one wonders how much of its support was confined to the intellectual elites who spend the time they occupy in our important cultural institutions undermining the authority of the institutions from which they draw their livelihood. For such people, Holden Caulfield is a hero, rather than a cautionary example.

That would at least explain why the New York Times thought so highly of it when it came out.

Whatever it is that produced the book, it obviously had some influence on the rest of us. I remember someone once pointing out--I think it was George F. Will--that the first time anyone ever appeared before the public (albeit in Caulfield's case it was in the textual mode) with a baseball cap worn backwards was Holden Caulfield. It was a fitting expression of the alienated arrogance that characterized Caulfield--and those who now gush effusively in appreciation to Salinger for creating him.

I don't think I have ever heard anyone I knew say they actually liked the book. I didn't like it when I read it in high school, and I don't remember any of my classmates who did either. But it was a work which has taken its place in the canon of literature maintained by those who don't believe in canons of literature. In fact, the very idea that Holden Caulfield, a scourge of the adult establishment, should be idolized by the very adult establishment he railed against is an irony too delicious not to take notice of.

Leave it to the Onion to capture this irony perfectly:
CORNISH, NH—In this big dramatic production that didn't do anyone any good (and was pretty embarrassing, really, if you think about it), thousands upon thousands of phonies across the country mourned the death of author J.D. Salinger, who was 91 years old for crying out loud. "He had a real impact on the literary world and on millions of readers," said hot-shot English professor David Clarke, who is just like the rest of them, and even works at one of those crumby schools that rich people send their kids to so they don't have to look at them for four years. "There will never be another voice like his." Which is exactly the lousy kind of ******** thing that people say, because really it could mean lots of things, or nothing at all even, and it's just a perfect example of why you should never tell anybody anything.
Maybe that's why Salinger became a recluse, spurning the literary establishment that lauded him. If so, maybe he made it to Heaven. Hell for him was here, having to listen to these people.