Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween: the Health Police's favorite holiday

Halloween is the Health Police's favorite night out--the Safety Nazis' National Holiday. Here's Lenore Skinazy, writing in today's Wall Street Journal:

Halloween is the day when America market-tests parental paranoia. If a new fear flies on Halloween, it's probably going to catch on the rest of the year, too.

Take "stranger danger," the classic Halloween horror. Even when I was a kid, back in the "Bewitched" and "Brady Bunch" costume era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.

That was a wacky idea, but we bought it. We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger's Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)

Imagine that. No one killed. Ever. Read the rest here.

Why a Republican victory on Tuesday won't solve our problems: An introduction to Red Toryism

As soon as we get this Tea Party thing out of our system this Tuesday--which is simply the attempt to replace one form of political individualism with another--let's talk about Philip Blond and Red Toryism.

Blond, a British cultural critic who runs Res Publica, is an influential British thinker who is closely associated with Prime Minister David Cameron. His economic views, which incorporate Catholic social teaching and the economic thought of Hillaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, are the basis of "Red Toryism."

Red Toryism rejects both the valueless, plutocratic capitalism that infects much of conservative thought as well as the quasi-moralist socialism articulated by the left. The right, he says, is controlled by monopoly capitalism that concentrates capital in the hands of a small economic elite, while welfare state socialism plays its part in the system of monopoly capitalism by trying to redistribute some of the capital of the economic elite back down to the poor and lower middle classes through a huge government bureaucracy. They are the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of the capitalist system, each with its captive constituency that returns it to office again and again--and gives each a turn in power from time to time, as is about to happen in America.

There's got to be something more than a Republican Party that takes money from the middle class and gives it to the rich in the form of corporate welfare to assuage it's big corporation constituency and a Democratic Party that takes money from the rich and gives it to the poor in the form of socialist welfare to get re-elected.

Blond is leading a movement in Britain which advocates steering a course between capitalist conservatism, which serves the interests of big business, and welfare state socialism, which serves the interests of big government.

The original proponents of this "middle way" between monopoly capitalism and state socialism were Chesterton and Belloc, who called it "Distributism." They advocated this view from the offices of the periodical the New Witness (later, the Eye Witness). The principles of Distributism were set forth most notably in two books: Chesterton's The Outline of Sanity and Belloc's Servile State. It stressed the important of individual ownership of property as the central economic principle and the institution of marriage and the family as the central social unit.

Many of the ideas underlying Distributism can be seen in the various agrarian movements of the 20th century and is central to the writings of the Kentucky writer Wendell Berry.

A third political way like Red Toryism is simply absent in America, but the possibility of something like it arising is latent in the social conservative movement. Social conservatives play the same role in the national Republican Party as minorities play in the national Democratic Party: they are in thrall to their respective parties, who use them for their own political purposes but in large part don't really have any serious intention of advancing their agendas.

The social policy of Red Toryism, being a fundamentally Christian movement (Blond is a trained academic theologian whose mentor was John Milbank of Radical Orthodoxy fame), is understandably conservative (in the true sense of that word). Blond explains his pilgrimage from the left:
My leftish affiliation ended. Many of my left-wing friends suddenly seemed to me to be right-wing….Despite all their rhetoric, all they really believed in was unlimited choice and unrestricted personal freedom. They seemed in important ways to have been stripped of integral values and to have embraced a rootless cultural relativism…They seemed to delight in abortion, for example, and made a fetish to choose, as if this were a real exercise of human freedom and unimpeded will, but they hated fox hunting because they thought it was cruel.
In America, Distributism is currently being propounded at the Distributist Review, which has recently reviewed Blond's book.

If we're going to have a real revolution, it's going to have to be into something better, not just one of two versions of same political individualism.

The World According to San Francisco

HT: Newmark's Door.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Yale sex letter to students

Looks like refugees from Woodstock are running Yale University now. Students wanting to attend an institution of higher learning run by responsible adults should be looking elsewhere.

More WWJD Constitutional Misinterpretation Sightings

The WWJD (What Would Jefferson Do?) School of Constitutional Interpretation has reared its ugly head again in the 2010 campaign. Preachy proponents of the preposterous view that Thomas Jefferson's sentiments expressed in a letter to Baptists written years after the writing of the Constitution are somehow binding on Constitution interpretation are reported to be lecturing another candidate on how he should ignore the plain language and the clear intent of the First Amendment in favor of the secularist view that the First Amendment means exactly the opposite of what it says.

This time, it's happening in Denver, Colorado.

If you are worried about being accosted by one of these people (careful of being wrestled to the ground and having your head stomped on), just be sure to carry with you an actual copy of the Bill of Rights as well as a list of the states that had established religions at the time of the Constitution's signing.

Once they begin their sermon, just begin reciting it and chanting the names of the states. After they hear it several times, they will begin sputtering about "separation of church and state" as if it was part of the language of the Amendment even though its not.

After a few more minutes, they will begin babbling something about the 14th Amendment and how it somehow applied to the states the promise that established state religions would not be disestablished by Congress, resulting in exactly the opposite effect.

Keep reciting the Amendment and chanting the state names until they have become fully logically incoherent. As soon as they are laying there, panting on the ground, exhausted from their attempts to justify their position in the face of the rational, linguistic, and historical facts, just fold up your copy of the Bill of Rights and stick it in their pocket on the distant chance that they will actually read it and realize how bone-headed their position is.

It's all you can do.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

New research on being gay

People born gay do not have an innate tendency to overstate the evidence that people are born gay, according to studies conducted by people who are born gay who deny that they have this innate tendency.

Not really, but we expect there will be such a study out sometime soon. In the meantime, you can read a book showing that gays are born that way by someone who is gay and thinks he was born that way.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The secular salvation offered by Political Correctness

James Kalb, the author of the The Tyranny of Liberalism, posts the transcript of a recent speech at the H. L. Mencken Club on Political Correctness. As Kalb points out, Political Correctness operates as a secular religion, offering its adherents a sort of worldly salvation:

What it relates to, in fact, is a sort of new religion: the gospel of inclusiveness. It's a religion of salvation, and what PC stands for is the salvation of the world. It's going to destroy the demons of the past--hatred, bigotry, division--and open up a new age of freedom, equality, unity, world peace, and unbounded horizons.

It's heaven on the one side, hell on the other. With that in mind, it's not surprising people are willing to do and say strange things for the sake of political correctness. Nothing could possibly be more important than doing whatever it tells us to do.

The new gospel, we are told, is the same as the old, only better. It completes and corrects the previous version, and cuts out a lot of stuff that's not really to the point. I went to a wedding recently in a rather beautiful Episcopalian church in an old Pennsylvania town. Instead of the Stations of the Cross on the wall, they had the stations of the UN Millennium Development Goals--gender equality, fighting HIV, global partnership, and the rest.

Amen, Hallelujah!

And what is Political Correctness and how does it work? Here is where you start hearing the sound of goose stepping:

Political correctness is the gospel of radical inclusion. It's treating all identities and ways of being as equal. As such, it follows quite naturally from the present-day liberal principle of equality, that everyone's as good as everyone else.

That principle is comprehensive, and it's invincibly strong. It's not just a claim that all human beings are equal on basic points, so they all have souls, or they all have the right not to be murdered, beaten, robbed, or swindled. It's a claim that everyone, or at least every kind of person, has equal, or at least equally valuable, capacities and ways of acting. Every way of living is as good as every other way of living, and if there are distinctions they can't be distinctions of value. We're all equally special, each in our own way.

If you don't agree you're a heretic. You've separated yourself not only from respectable society but probably the human race. It's people like you who are responsible for Auschwitz. That's why possible racism trumps actual murder. If you might be a racist, you can be murdered and maybe that's not such a bad thing.

The principle of comprehensive equality has to be as strong as it is because it's so evidently false. People and groups are obviously different in all sorts of ways, some of which matter a great deal. So to exist at all the principle has to be a super-principle that crushes all obstacles. Otherwise the normal competition of ideas would wipe it out.

That's why you're suspect if you moderate the principle in any way. If you believe that individuals differ with regard to characteristics like intelligence, even though groups don't, or if you believe that groups differ in some ways, but the differing qualities are equal in value, you're under suspicion. Anything short of simple-minded adhesion means you aren't going to be reliable.

The only "Diversity" these people are interested in is in the different flavors of Kool-Aid available for you to drink in order to believe it.

Read the rest here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Where are the Thought Police when you need them?

What do evolutionary scientists do when they find a kind of amber that is supposed to be about 140 million years old in 320 year old rock? They deny the chemical evidence, says Jay Wile:

So what does an evolutionist do when a fossil find contradicts his treasured hypothesis? He just waves the magic wand of “convergent evolution.” Remember, similarities between species are strong evidence for evolution, except when the hypothesis of evolution cannot accommodate them. When that happens, the similarities are a result of “convergent evolution,” a process by which species have similarities based on sheer coincidence alone.

So in this case, the fact that the amber has all the chemical features of being made by an angiosperm must be ignored. Instead, because the amber appears “too soon” in the fossil record for angiosperms, we must assume that it was made by something other than an angiosperm. Furthermore, we must assume that the similarities between its chemistry and the chemistry of resin made by angiosperms is the result of sheer coincidence.

That’s the kind of mental gymnastics it takes to be an evolutionist today.

I didn't know anyone could say these things anymore. Isn't it illegal or something? Where are the thought police? Are they on coffee break?

I don't know what this country is coming to.

What did the Courier-Journal know and when did they know it?

"Don't worry about it. Everything's okay."

Those are the words that an attorney representing Jack Conway's brother in a drug investigation used in a conversation with one of the investigators, assuring him after the detective told the attorney he was scared of losing his job because he had tipped off Matthew Conway, hopelessly compromising the investigation.

But the words could just as easily have been spoken by the Louisville Courier-Journal to U. S. Senate candidate Conway himself after the paper apparently did everything it could to downplay the issue at a crucial time in a close campaign that the whole nation is watching.

Did Jack Conway illegally interfere in the investigation of his brother? It's hard to tell until more information comes out, but what is equally disturbing is the question of whether the state's largest newspaper was trying to minimize the public's attention to the issue.

Just go read at the story, printed on the worst news day of the week (Saturday) when the least number of people would notice it. It is one of the most confused and contorted news stories I have ever read. You have to read it several times even to figure out what is going on, and mentions Jack Conway's involvement mostly at the end and even then it appears to do it reluctantly.

Here are the facts as I have gleaned them from having suffered through about fifteen readings of what has to be one of the worst-written news stories of the year:

According to the story, Matthew Conway (hereinafter, "Conway"), an assistant Commonwealth's attorney, became the target, while serving as a Jefferson County prosecutor, of an investigation on drug use or trafficking. Conway is the brother of the state's chief law enforcement official, Attorney General Jack Conway. Conway was not only tipped off about the investigation, he was allowed by one investigator to read the complain filed against him. He also received a two day heads up that his house would be investigated, and lied, as did one of the detectives, to police about the investigation.

Conway has never been charged.

And what was brother Jack's involvement? Jack found out about it when a supporter was tipped off by one of the detectives in a restaurant. Conway called his brother and said they needed to meet. The next day, there was a meeting in Jack's home with his brother and an attorney. The attorney then called the Louisville Police Chief to "report" the detective.

"Report" him? For what? For tipping them off? That's rather strange. Or was he "reporting" him for investigating Jack's brother?

At some point between the meeting in Jack's home and March 10, brother Matthew's attorney called one of the detectives who had breached secrecy in the case and asked him if he was investigating Jack's brother. According to the detective, Conway's attorney called him back two or three times, at which point the attorney assured the detective, now scared for his job, "Don't worry about it. Everything's okay."

What does that mean? And by what authority could an attorney for the subject of an investigation tell one of the detectives investigating him that "Everything's okay"? Who was the attorney representing in his calls to the detective? Matthew? Or Jack?

In detective novel parlance, the whole thing smells to high heaven. And that's not the only thing that smells.

What is the Courier-Journal's response, given that it now has this information in its possession? To run the story on a Saturday, and to bury the details involving the Democratic candidate for U. S. Senate that it has editorially supported at the tail end of a long and convoluted news story.

I've written plenty of news stories in my time and I know how to write my lead--that's the sentence you start your news story with that includes as many of the most important and interesting facts of your story. The lead on this story was clear: you have a potential scandal involving a Senate candidate in a nationally covered race. And your headline is pretty clear too.

But what did the Courier use as its headline? "LMPD probes detectives who tipped off prosecutor under investigation." Huh? And here's the lead:
A Jefferson County prosecutor was tipped off by Louisville narcotics detectives twice in the past two years that he was under investigation for possible drug use or trafficking, according to police records obtained by The Courier-Journal.
That's the story? The detectives? Really? You've got people associated with a candidate of one of the nation's most closely watched political races calling detectives investigating his brother on drug charges and telling them "Everything's okay" and the story is about a couple of detectives?

You have to wait until the fourth paragraph to find out that there's any relation between the attorney being investigated and the candidate. And you have to read to the end of the story to find out that the candidate is actually involved in some way.

Ask yourself this question: If Rand Paul's name had been associated in some way with activities that appeared to be interfering with a criminal investigation of a sibling and it appeared that his connections had had an influence on the case, how fast do you think it would have taken the Courier-Journal to jump on the story? And how do you think the headline would have looked? Would the lead in the story have mentioned his name? Would you have had to read to the end of the story to find out the nature of Paul's involvement?

Not only is there a story here, but it not only involves Jack Conway. Thanks to its handling of it, the Courier-Journal has now made itself a part of the story. There a few questions they should be asked too:
  • Was the news story intentionally hard to read?
  • How long have they known about this story?
  • Why did they run it on a Saturday?
  • Why did they not include mention of Conway in the headline when it was obviously the most explosive aspect of the story?
  • Why did they bury the comments about Conway late in the story?
  • How would they have handled this story if it had involved Rand Paul instead of Jack Conway?
When you stop just reporting on events and get involved in them, you need to answer questions too.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

The WWJD School of Constitutional Interpretation

I have little use for Christine O'Donnell, the Republican Senate candidate in Delaware, partly because she sued one of the finest conservative organizations on the planet, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, for $6.9 million for "mental anguish" caused by alleged "gender-based discrimination." That and her record of public comment is not exactly impressive. And just by invoking tea party affiliation doesn't get you immunity from legitimate criticism.

All that being said, she's right in saying that the First Amendment does not contain the words (or the principle) "separation of church and state"--and she's right in thinking that it matters. And Rush Limbaugh was correct earlier this week in defending her.

But Ed Brayton, who fashions himself a voice of reason on church/state issues, is having none of it. Brayton loves to criticize David Barton for oversimplifying and misrepresenting the role of religion in America's founding. I agree with much of what Barton says, but Brayton is correct in criticizing some of Barton's overstatements and oversimplifications. He was also correct this week in criticizing the argument, often used by Barton and many evangelicals, purporting to demonstrate a connection between the taking of prayer out of public schools and the later decline in SAT scores. You couldn't invent a more egregious example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy--that the mere fact of something following another thing implies that the former is caused by the latter.

But secularists like Brayton don't usually just react to religionists like Barton and O'Donnell, they more commonly overreact, as Brayton does to O'Donnell's remarks:
Only an ignoramus, a moron or a demagogue would make such an argument. The fact that it doesn't use this exact phrase is irrelevant. Nowhere in the constitution will you find the phrases "separation of powers," "checks and balances" or "limited government." But no one in their right mind would claim that those concepts are not accurate descriptions of the purpose of various provisions in the Constitution.
Ed is right is saying that from the fact that something is not explicit it does not follow that it is not implicit. But if it is not explicit, you better have a good argument for saying that it is implicit. Brayton and his ilk argue that within the first, establishment clause is some latent church/state separatism. In other words the reason for preventing Congress from establishing an official national religion was because of the larger concern that government and religion be kept apart. Is this true? Was it really because they had a philosophical problem with mixing religion and government? What is the evidence for that?
How do we know this? Because the men who wrote the Constitution used those phrases to describe those provisions, just as Jefferson and Madison used the phrase "separation of church and state" to describe the purpose of the First Amendment. We can disagree about what exactly that phrase means or entails, of course; the founders themselves disagreed on it. But to pretend that it just isn't there at all is either idiotic or dishonest -- take your pick.
Somehow you just knew that Jefferson's name would come up in this regard, since he is the man who coined the phrase "separation between church and state" in a letter to Baptists. This is the most common argument for this position--just as the argument that the expression doesn't actually appear in the First Amendment is the most common argument on the other side.

Can we just map every belief Jefferson had onto the Constitution? Wouldn't that make everyone's life easier? This way, the courts could save themselves a lot of trouble trying to interpret it: they could just look at what Jefferson said, and presto, you've got your answer.

WWJD: What Would Jefferson Do?

It all sounds so simple. But while it is common to see the WWJD School of Constitutional Interpretation in operation, it's hard to find people who will actually man up and expressly admit to their assumption that we can simply take the views of a few of the Founders and simply map them onto the Constitutional language, as if the plain language of the Constitution itself didn't matter.

In fact, isn't this exactly the kind of reasoning that Brayton and his ilk criticize when they see it in the arguments of those who argue that America is a Christian nation? Can we just take some statements from the orthodox Christians involved in the Constitutional Convention and do the same thing?

So why did the writers of the Constitution try to prevent the establishment of a national church? If it was because of some commonly held belief among the delegates of the signatory states that government and religion should not be officially (or unofficially) connected, then why was it that, at the time of the signing of the Constitution, five of the thirteen colonies had established state churches? And two or three of them only disestablished during the course of the Constitutional deliberations. Only Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Delaware never had established churches.

This fact is not even in dispute. No one denies it. But people like Brayton do the next best thing: they ignore it.

Now ask yourself a question: If the First Amendment was a general declaration of the principle of the "separation between church and state," then how could the delegates from these five states have approved it? If that was the understanding, how could they, being the representatives of states with established churches, have committed their states to it? The answer, of course, is they couldn't--and wouldn't--have. It is fairly clear that those who deliberated on the First Amendment did not have anything like the view of it that the WWJD School has.

In fact, isn't it more likely, given the historical context, that at least one of the reasons Congress was prohibited from establishing a national church was that it would have conflicted with the state churches then in existence--and with state and church entanglement that existed in the colonies? That view would make far more sense than the strict separationist view that now rules in the courts and on secularist blogs.

But one thing is perfectly clear--not only from the express language, but from the likely principle that the framers were working from: the First Amendment says nothing about what states themselves (as opposed to the federal government) should or can do. Nothing. It applies only to the federal government ("Congress shall make no law..."). Brayton can bellow all he wants about "ignoramuses, morons, and demagogues," but at least the ignoramuses, morons, and demagogues can read plain language.

Let's do something that most of the people who make these kinds of arguments hardly ever do. Let's review the actual language of the First Amendment as it pertains to religion:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...
In other words, the Congress (that's right, the Congress alone) can neither establish a national religion or prohibit people from doing religious things.

That's it.

If anything is clear from this amendment, it is that its chief purpose seems to be to restrict the federal government from being involved in the issue at all--one way or the other. After all, there are only two ways the federal government could conceivably be involved: through a) having an official religion itself and b) restricting some other religion(s). So the import of the text is pretty clear: "Federal government, don't have anything to do with religion. Don't have one of your own and don't do anything to hamper anyone else's." And yet from this language has been spawned all kinds of mutant legal progeny.

The First Amendment is a limitation on the federal government explicitly, and, far from imposing a limit on the states as to what they can or cant' do about religion, part of the reason for the amendment was to protect what the states could do in promoting and entangling themselives with religion from federal government limitation.

How do we know this? Why, because Jefferson said so:
In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the power of the federal government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction of state or church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies. (Second Inaugural Address)
Furthermore, Jefferson himself, as a state legislator, voted in favor of bills that entangled church and state.

WWJD. You gotta love it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Gloria in Profundis

Carl Olsen, over at Ignatius Insight, the blog of Ignatius Press, the premier Catholic publishing house in the United States, re-ran Chesterton's great poem "Gloria in Profundis" the other day. Ignatius is the publisher of G. K. Chesterton's Complete Works. They're not finished with it, and I expect that it will take quite some time still to complete the set. I don't know, but I am guessing that they consider the project an act of publishing charity, since they can't be making much much money off of it and may even by losing money on the project. I hope they continue to plug along. It is a great work, and the publication of what is now the third book of Chesterton's poetry is not the least important part of it.

The poem itself is simply astounding. There are some lines here that you can just roll over in your mind and simply marvel at how someone could have put it that way. That's the way poetry is: it is a mode of expression, mostly foreign to we modern English who value our scientific abstractions so much, that allows us access to a whole other side of truth that prose can only inadequately negotiate.

Prose is restrictive in that it attempts to stuff all the content of a truth into its own limited mode of expression, lopping some of it off, like the Greek robber Procrustes, when it is too big in order to fit within the constraints of the words by which we may attempt to articulate it. It is prescriptive and reductionist. Poetry, on the other hand, does not require the truth to restrict itself to our own pitiful ability to tell it. It is descriptive and open-ended. It allows us to see, not by shrinking reality to a size that fits our field of vision, but by calling us to an acknowledgment of how great is the world, and how small is our ability to either comprehend or articulate it. The greater the poet, the more inadequate he knows he is before the magnitude of the thing he attempts to express. Through prose we ask truth to bow the knee to our own limitations. Through poetry, we bow the knee before the greatness of all that we know we cannot know.
The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
The poem expresses a theme Chesterton returns to over and over again: the unlikely and startling truth of the Incarnation. Read it and marvel:
Gloria in Profundis
G.K. Chesterton

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.

Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all—
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?

For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.

Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.
Read Carl's post here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Using positive thinking to save the Crystal Cathedral

The "Crystal Cathedral," the Rev. Robert Schuller's conduit for his message the positive thinking can solve all problems, is going bankrupt. Apparently, they haven't been thinking positively enough about their finances.

I remember the controversy when the Crystal Cathedral was built. After weeks of derision about the amount of money spent on the place, Schuller responded, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Several days later, the Los Angeles Times ran Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Paul Conrad's cartoon showing a cloud over the Crystal Cathedral, out of which a big boulder had been hurled.

You had to laugh.

Historical Doubts Concerning P. Z. Myers

Atheist P. Z. Myers has recently articulated the position that there is no way he could ever even conceivably be convinced that God exists. His position is disputed by another atheistic biologist, Jerry Coyne. Myers position is that there is, by definition, no evidence that does or could count for God's existence; Coyne's position is that there is evidence that could count for God's existence, but that, in fact, there isn't any.

Here is Myers summarizing his case:

The nature of this god is always vague and undefined and most annoyingly, plastic — suggest a test and it is always redefined safely away from the risk. Furthermore, any evidence of a deity will be natural, repeatable, measurable, and even observable…properties which god is exempted from by the believers' own definitions, so there can be no evidence for it. And any being who did suddenly manifest in some way — a 900 foot tall Jesus, for instance — would not fit any existing theology, so such a creature would not fit the claims of any religion, but the existence of any phenomenon that science cannot explain would not discomfit science at all, since we know there is much we don't understand already, and adding one more mystery to the multitude will not faze us in the slightest.

So yes, I agree. There is no valid god hypothesis, so there can be no god evidence, so let's stop pretending the believers have a shot at persuading us.
Okay, so his first point is that religious beliefs are stated in such a way as to be non-falsifiable. I dealt yesterday with the similar position of Jerry Coyne, who claims that even the Resurrection is not falsifiable for the strange reason that believers (he asserts) do not defend this claim with reason or evidence. My response was that a) it wouldn't matter to the claim's actual falsifiability how its defenders defended it; and b) that his assertion is false, since there are plenty of defenses of the Resurrection based on reason and evidence. The Resurrection is a falsifiable claim, and waving one's hand and casually dismissing it does not count as a legitimate refutation.

Secondly, Myers says that any evidence for God would have to be "natural, repeatable, measurable, and even observable." The problem with setting the bar so high should be evident. Indeed, under these criteria, something like the Resurrection could not count as evidence for God. The problem is that the Resurrection would not be the only thing that could not be proven under these criteria.

In fact, along with the Resurrection, one would have to reject every other historical fact, even the ones everyone accepts. The assassination of Julius Ceasar is natural, but it is not repeatable, measurable, or even, given that it happened in the past, observable. The Norman Conquest of England is likewise not repeatable, measurable, nor observable. Nor is the existence of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The case of Napoleon has particular historical interest in this regard. When David Hume articulated his influential argument against miracles in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Bishop Richard Whately responded in a book entitled Doubts Concerning the Existence of Napoleon Bonaparte by taking all of the criteria Hume said a miracle would have to meet and applied them to the existence of Napoleon and concluded, tongue firmly planted in cheek, that Napoleon did not exist. Problem was, Napoleon was actually living on the island of Elba, in exile, when Whately wrote the book.

One could perform an equally damning reductio ad absurdum on Myer's criteria. In fact, if we took Myer's criteria and applied them to what he had for breakfast this morning, we would have to say the event never happened. In fact, under Myer's criteria, no event ever happened. The only events that can be accepted are events that are happening, since they are the only ones that are actually observable. Anything that happened in the past must be rejected under this view.

Finally, Myers responds to Coyne by admitting that Coyne's imaginary case of a 900 foot tall Jesus appearing now for all to see would fit the criteria but that no religion actually makes such a claim. He's right, of course. He could have added that it would be hard to say what such an event would actually prove. It doesn't address the central problem of human existence: death. Nor does it prove that there is life after death as does the claim that Christianity does, in fact, make.

And, actually, even that event wouldn't meet Myer's criteria, since it wouldn't be repeatable, and after it had happened and wasn't happening any more it wouldn't be observable either.

If Myers actually had any philosophical sophistication in him, he would make an argument more similar to Gottlieb Lessing, who argued that the contingent truths of history cannot imply anything about the necessary truths of religion. Known as "Lessing's ditch," the argument, fallacious as it was, at least had prima facie plausibility. Myer's ditch on the other hand, is embarrassingly shallow in comparison.

Someone get the man a good shovel.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why the political impetus is always to the left

I have not had much to say on the current election, mostly because, much as I love politics as a spectator sport, other things have interested me more. But I had a thought today about the current election situation that exemplifies the different way liberals and conservatives operate.

The accepted wisdom is that Democrats are more clannish and practice more party loyalty and that Republicans are more issues-oriented, sometimes resulting in long-running ideological feuds that damage the party. To a certain extent this is true. But there's an interesting wrinkle to this general thesis.

George F. Will has talked about the liberal "ratchet effect"--the idea that our culture moves left by increments, but never right, the long-term result being a significant leftward movement over time.

Why is this? I think I know.

The success of Democrats over the long term is illustrated by the current election. Democrats are getting hammered over the health care issue. Now you have to ask the question: did they know they were in for it when they voted for it? I think the congressmen who voted for it had to know that they were going to pay a price for their votes. But they voted for it anyway. And their leadership knew, as they bribed and cajoled their way to victory in the vote that the chances of their party being put out power was increased by doing so. They may not have known that it would be as bad as it has turned out (the continued economic crisis being the aggravating factor), but they had to know it was going to hurt.

But they also knew that, even if they were defeated at the polls, the legislation would never be fully reversed. A good part of it would be here to stay.

This is the difference between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans: liberal Democrats are willing to stick their necks out for their ideological agenda, knowing it will hurt them in the short run. Republicans are simply not willing to do this. Heck, their not even willing to do much on issues like same-sex marriage or abortion, where the public is on their side!

I can think of several times when liberal Democrats have forced through big, sweeping pieces of legislation they knew would hurt them in the next election cycle. In Kentucky, this happened in 1990 with education reform--a big, sweeping, unpopular measure with a huge tax increase that cost them lots of seats in the next election. They did it anyway.

When was the last time conservative Republicans stuck out their necks for a big, bold piece of legislation that pushed things in a conservative direction in the teeth of public opinion and for which they would have to take hits? I can't think of a single one. Even when conservative Republicans have opinion polls on their side, they have a bunker mentality. Liberal Democrats never have a bunker mentality, even when their agenda is unpopular.

A lot of Democrats will lose seats this election, but the health care legislation will never be repealed. It may be curtailed, but never repealed. Some of it will stay, and ratchet will move leftward just a little bit more. But there is never any ratcheting to the right because there is so little willingness to sacrifice for conservative ideas.

This is why the left will win in the end. It's all a matter of dedication and willingness to sacrifice for your ideas. Some have it, and some don't.

Jerry Coyne blows it on the Resurrection

Biologist Jerry Coyne, in his recent USA Today editorial, claims that there is what he elsewhere terms a "fundamental distinction" between the truth claims of science and the truth claims of religion. The problem with religious truth claims, he says, is that, unlike scientific truth claims, there is no way to know whether they are true. The claims of science, he argues, are testable--more particularly, falsifiable--while the claims of religion are not. The "biggest problem with religious 'truth,'" he says, is that "[t]here's no way of knowing whether it's true."

But then, unaccountably, he turns around and acknowledges the opposite:
Note that almost all religions make specific claims about the world involving matters such as the existence of miracles, answered prayers wonder-working saints and divine cures, virgin births, annunciations and resurrections. These factual claims, whose truth is a bedrock of belief, bring religion within the realm of scientific study.
How can these two things--that religious belief us unfalsifiable and that is "within the realm of scientific study" both be true? Coyne continues:
But rather than relying on reason and evidence to support them, faith relies on revelation, dogma and authority.
Now the first thing to say about this is that is shouldn't matter what "faith relies" on. The claims are either falsifiable or they are not--and whether those who claim them think they are within some special realm of "faith" is simply irrelevant. They are in the realm of history (something he himself admits) and can be analyzed according to its principles.

But the second thing to say about it is that it is completely false. It is simply not true to say that Christians do not rely on reason and evidence to support the Resurrection. All Coyne need have done was to conduct a Google search. He could simply have typed the words "evidence for the resurrection" and come up with what Google says is "about 300,000 results."

So whatever we want to say about whether the Resurrection is true or false, we know one thing: Coyne's claim that those who believe in it do not offer reason and evidence for it is demonstrably false. In fact, this is a staple of Christian apologetics (the reasoned defense of the Faith) and has been since the first century. The early Christian writers appealed directly to evidence, talking about how many people had seen the risen Christ. There's no better evidence than a witness.

And Coyne digs himself in deeper by making another claim:
I've never met a Christian, for instance, who has been able to tell me what observations about the universe would make him abandon his beliefs in God and Jesus.
Coyne must not get out much. Any Christian believer who knew anything about his faith would readily say that, if the Resurrection was conclusively proven wrong, they would have to abandon their faith. They would have to, since that is the central claim upon which their faith is based. If there are some who don't do this, then they are fideists who do not understand the central claim of their religion. In fact, if Coyne is going to make statements like this, he needs to actually do a little research. Not any kind of complicated historical research, just some basic reading. If he had done this, he would have discovered the following statement:
Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.
This doesn't come from just any Christian: it's the words of the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. He says that if the Resurrection didn't happen, then it's all over. We can all go home. Did Coyne just miss this? He could have found this by the simple expedient of actually knowing what he was talking about. But he clearly doesn't.

Now I can just hear the peanut gallery on this blog turning out in force and demanding what the evidence for the Resurrection is. "C'mon, Martin, tell us what it is." I'm glad to have that conversation, but let's not confuse it with this point: Coyne is wrong when he says that reason and evidence have not been offered for this claim. It's just false. And whether or not the Resurrection is a historically legitimate claim (it is) is irrelevant to that point.

Coyne blew it.

You can say the claim for the Resurrection is or is not falsifiable, but Coyne's claim is definitely falsifiable. In fact, it's false.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Myers' new dogma: Atheism as religion

P. Z. Myers, one of the more prominent atheists on the web, has recently announced his position that there is no evidence he could accept that would make him believe in God. This is a curious position for someone who fashions himself a scientist and who takes science to be the only method by which truth can be ascertained. Scientific positions, according to Myers and his fellow atheists, are only scientific if they are falsifiable. So Myers' position, since he will accept no evidence against it, is unfalsifiable--and therefore unscientific.

If this is true, then what status does his atheist position hold? It is not scientific, so what is it? And since I'm assuming he agrees with other atheists like Jerry Coyne that fields like history are broadly scientific (or that they are characterized by "secular rationality," in Coyne's terminology), I can think of only one kind of belief it could be.

Atheism (at least for Myers) is now formally indistinguishable from religious dogma. Only religious dogma has this one advantage--it admits to being dogmatic.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Jerry Coyne's Scientific Faith: Is science more rational than religion? Part III

In the New Atheist mythology, rationality is the sole possession of science. Religion, on the other hand, is devoid of it. Rather than relying on "reason and evidence," says biologist Jerry Coyne, in his recent USA Today article, "faith relies on revelation, dogma and authority." Elsewhere, he has referred to the "anti-rational habits of religion."

But we have already seen two problems with thesis. The first is that, if reason has anything to do with logic, the claim that religion is not rational simply doesn't hold up. The Christian Middle Ages were not only rational, they were, as Alfred North Whitehead, "an orgy of rationality." It was, in a way that no other age was, the Age of Logic. Commentaries on Aristotle, treatises on logical topics, and summas on theology that are filled to the brim with syllogisms. If we ignored the explicit Christianity of the age, we would have to say that deduction was the religion of the Middle Ages.

The second is that, despite its pretensions to rationality, science itself is based on a faith that the future will be like the past. The rational process of induction, the method of logic upon which all scientific generalization is based, involves the premise that the observations scientists make about the past can be extrapolated into the future. But this assumption, as David Hume famously pointed out in the 18th century, is based not on reason, since it can be established neither by induction nor deduction, but on custom and tradition--things that atheists like Coyne claim characterize religion, not science.

So in what respect can atheists say that science is rational in a way that religion is not? The only way they can do this is by redefining rationality. And, indeed, when we look at what atheists say, this is exactly what we find them doing. Our object lesson in atheist pretensions this week has been Jerry Coyne, so let's see what Coyne does with the term "rationality" that allows him to use it in the way he does.

Here is Coyne, in a New Republic article last year:
So the most important conflict ... is not between religion and science. It is between religion and secular reason. Secular reason includes science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science--every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe.
That's right: "secular rationality." What does this mean? It's not exactly a term you will find in, say, the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, let alone a scientific manual. It's nice that he included logic in his list, but in what sense are these fields rational in a way that the religion that produced thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas are not? One quickly gets the impression that there is no particular reason he includes these disciplines in the category of "rational" other than the fact that he happens to agree with them. Do they really employ arguments in these fields in these fields, but don't employ them in theology? Has Coyne ever actually read an academic paper in theology? In fact, looking through Coyne's list of rational disciplines, the reader will note that philosophy, the discipline of which logic is a branch, does not even appear.

It's hard not to conclude that Coyne has simply botched this whole point. In fact, it starts to become apparent pretty quickly that Coyne himself is hardly a paragon of rationality (as the rest of us define that term. His reasoning, in fact, reaches laughable proportions when he tries to articulate a hierarchy of religions according to their friendliness to science:
Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason--only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations. Pantheism and some forms of Buddhism seem to pass the test. But the vast majority of the faithful--those 90 percent of Americans who believe in a personal God, most Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, and adherents to hundreds of other faiths--fall into the "incompatible" category.
Coyne apparently failed to notice that the religions he points to as the least contradictory to science--Pantheism and Buddhism--are the ones that produced the least scientific progress. And the religions he cites as least friendly to it--including Christianity and Judaism--are the ones that most informed the cultures that brought about the scientific revolution.


When you hear atheistic scientists making arguments like these, just ask them to produce a list for you of the great scientists produced by pantheist and Buddhist cultures. If they can uncover some names, hand them the list of Jewish and Christian scientists--and make sure to draw their special attention to Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. Then do it again, just for fun.

The irony is that if the average theologian wrote a paper with as little awareness of the distinction between assertions and actual argumentation as Coyne displays in his discourses on these subjects, he would be considered an embarrassment.

But, apparently, the standards of rationality among scientific rationalists is high as they seem to think.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

New Atheist Follies: More discussion of the claim that science is rational but religion is not

In my Wednesday post on biologist Jerry Coyne's pretentious claim that science is rational and religion is not, I pointed out that science bases its entire procedure on the logical method of induction, the foundation of which is itself based on a non-rational assumption. The response of a member in good standing of this blog's peanut gallery--a person who uses the pseudonym "Singring"--is typical of the kind of response you get from those in the scientific community who like to wear the mantle of reason without actually being very good at engaging in it.

Well, I should qualify that. The most typical response is to simply ignore the point. But among those who do actually try to come to terms with it, the almost universal response is to begin to twitch, then start uttering blatant fallacies, and then, in the final stages, to repeat themselves over and over until finally they have rendered themselves completely absurd.

In the case of our own Singring (and we speak of him with affection, since he has do so much to help us illustrate our point here), we have someone who perfectly encapsulates all that can be said of those who have tried to come to terms with what has come to be known in philosophy as the "problem of induction," articulated by the 18th century philosopher David Hume.

Let's review the problem for just a moment, just to get it clear in our minds. Here's what can be considered rational--and this was Hume's point in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the book which articulates the problem with induction:

Something is rational if it is characterized either by inductive or a deductive inference.

A deductive argument runs something like this:
All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore, Socrates is mortal
It begins with a universal statement ("All men are mortal") and ends in a more particular statement ("Socrates is mortal"). Induction goes the other direction. It begins in particular observations and ends in a universal statement:
On every past day, the sun has risen in the morning
The future will always be like the past
Therefore, in every future day, the sun will rise in the morning
The issue of induction arises because of the second premise, which is the same in every inductive argument: "The future will alwasy be like the past." Hume asks, how can we justify that premise, since it does not intuitively follow from the first?
As to past Experience, it can be allowed to give direct and certain information of those precise objects only, and that precise period of time, which fell under its cognizance: but why this experience should be extended to future times, and to other objects, which for aught we know, may be only in appearance similar; this is the main question on which I would insist. The bread, which I formerly eat, nourished me; that is, a body of such sensible qualities was, at that time, endued with such secret powers: but does it follow, that other bread must also nourish me at another time, and that like sensible qualities must always be attended with like secret powers? The consequence seems nowise necessary. At least, it must be acknowledged that there is here a consequence drawn by the mind; that there is a certain step taken; a process of thought, and an inference, which wants to be explained. These two propositions are far from being the same: I have found that such an object has always been attended with such an effect, and I foresee, that other objects, which are, in appearance, similar, will be attended with similar effects. I shall allow, if you please, that the one proposition may justly be inferred from the other: I know, in fact, that it always is inferred. But if you insist that the inference is made by a chain of reasoning, I desire you to produce that reasoning. The connexion between these propositions is not intuitive. There is required a medium, which may enable the mind to draw such an inference, if indeed it be drawn by reasoning and argument. What that medium is, I must confess, passes my comprehension; and it is incumbent on those to produce it, who assert that it really exists, and is the origin of all our conclusions concerning matter of fact. (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section IV, Part II)
How do you get from one to the other, or justify the second premise at all? These are the only two kinds of rational procedures that exist. But if you are arguing for the rationality of induction, then you can't use induction to do it, since that would be circular. Of course that hasn't stopped Singring from doing it repeatedly, and just repeating a circular argument over and over doesn't make it any less circular. That procedure is circular and therefore irrational. You can't appeal to induction to justify induction. As Hume says:
It is impossible, therefore, that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future; since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance. (Enquiry, Section IV, Part II)
So the only thing left is deduction, but you can't justify induction through deduction either, since contracting the conclusion of an inductive argument does not lead to the contradiction of either of the premises (which must happen if the argument is deductively valid).

Since neither deduction nor induction can be used to justify induction, and since no other rational procedure exists, induction is not rationally justifiable. Now this doesn't mean that it shouldn't be used or that we shouldn't accept its conclusions. Our Singring jumped to the conclusion that I was saying that, but I did not say that. Although induction cannot be justified rationally, it is justified intuitively: by custom and tradition--the very things the scientistically-minded claim to spurn.

The problem of induction posed by Hume has never been resolved, and the only attempt that even makes any sense is that by Karl Popper. But Popper doesn't really resolve the dilemma, he tries to do an end run and say that science doesn't really use induction in the first place. Not a lot of people have been convinced.

I was arguing that the fundamental assumptions of science--induction and causation--were not themselves rationally justifiable in order to point up one of the absurdities of the rationalist pretensions of people like Jerry Coyne: the claim that science is "rational" and religion (and, apparently philosophy) is not.

And, as if to prove my point, people like Singring come along and try to claim that we know the future will always be like the past because the future has always been like the past in the past. In other words, trying to prove induction by appealing to induction. Induction makes sense, but atheists like Singring think it's because it's based on reason, when, in fact, it's not.

I can see why Singring has tied himself up in such complex knots to avoid the obvious conclusion. He and his fellow scientific atheists are in a pickle: either they have to admit that the method science uses is based on a rationally unjustifiable premise and reject it because it's based on faith, or they have to accept it but admit that it is based on custom and tradition, those hoary old concepts championed by the feeble-minded.

Why is it that we religious people, who aren't rational, can figure this out, but scientific atheists, the rational ones, are completely clueless (or simply fudging)?

Just keep repeating to yourselves: "Science is rational but religion is not. Science is rational but religion is not. Science is rational but religion is not ..." It's bound to be true if you repeat it enough times.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Conway's war on a Christian health ministry

I was quoted today in the Associated Press on Jack Conway's prosecution of a Christian ministry that provides cost sharing for health care expenses for Christian families:

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- A pro-family advocacy group called Wednesday for U.S. Senate candidate Jack Conway to halt a legal battle against a Christian-only health care plan that provides coverage to churchgoers.

Martin Cothran, a policy analyst for the Kentucky Family Foundation, said Conway, as Kentucky's attorney general, should abandon a legal challenge against the Medi-Share program that has dragged through state courts for years and now appears to be spilling over into the U.S. Senate race.

What was particularly amusing was Conway's spokesperson's characterization of the situation:
"The Attorney General is sworn to protect the consumers of Kentucky," said Conway spokeswoman Allison Martin. "Medi-Share is offering insurance to consumers, and thus it should be regulated by the Kentucky Department of Insurance to protect purchasers and to make sure they get what they pay for. Those are the facts and the Kentucky Supreme Court agreed."
Martin apparently forgot that the Kentucky Department of Insurance, which doesn't like things it can't control, told consumers on its website that they should beware of programs like medi-share because they were not insurance.

Read more here.

Jerry Coyne's Scientific Faith: Is science more rational than religion? Part II

In his USA Today article on Monday, biologist Jerry Coyne declared that science is rational, while religion is not. And, remarkably he did it largely without employing the rationality he professes to champion. He makes neither a historical nor a philosophical case--possibly because he is neither a historian nor a philosopher, a contingency that quite possibly accounts for his uninformed statements about the issue.

Alfred North Whitehead once compared the Christian Middle Ages--which, according to Coyne's thesis ought to be the high tide if irrationality--with the so-called "Age of Reason": "The earlier period," said Whitehead, "was the age of faith based upon reason. In the later period, they let sleeping dogs lie: it was the age of reason based upon faith."
Science has never shaken off the impress of its origin in the historical revolt of the later Renaissance. It has remained predominantly an anti-rationalistic movement, based upon a naive faith.
Whitehead, one of the 20th century's great philosophers and mathematicians, wondered why it was that scientists had ignored the 18th century criticisms of its foundations by philosopher David Hume. Hume showed that (once you rejected the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis that reigned up until the Renaissance) there were some things you had to give up. Among them was the pretension that the basic assumptions behind science were rational. And so he goes on to show that the process of induction and the concept of cause and effect are entirely non-rational in their origins. There is simply no way to justify them on the basis of reason.

Induction relies on the basic assumption that the future will always be like the past. But this is an entirely non-rational assumption and can never be proved. Causation too is an entirely metaphysical concept with no empirical backing. All you can prove is that you have seen physical correlations. But, as scientist are always reminding us (but never heeding themselves) that correlation is not causation. You can never produce a cause, all you can produced are the two events that happen to always occur in a sequence.

"Our holy religion," said the empiricist Hume, "is founded on faith."

In fact, what very few people seem to have noticed is that Coyne and his fellow New Athiests have, within their own position, an inherent incompatibility. On the one hand they hold to a naive materialism in the name of "empiricism"; on the other hand they house a physicist contingent that has redefined the very idea of matter in such a way as to make materialism meaningless.

In fact, far from being rationalists, the practitioners of the natural sciences are anti-rationalists. There has long been an uneasy alliance between the mathematical sciences and the empirical sciences, with the mathematical rationalism of disciplines like physics often attracting the derision of their colleagues in the natural sciences. The physicists, on the other hand look down on the natural scientists as being philosophically and mathematically naive.

Far from enjoying a happy marriage of rationality and empiricism, science (in the abstract and dogmatic sense in which people like Coyne use the term) houses an intrinsically estranged pair of squabbling disciplines. The more mathematical and rationalist science gets, the less empirical it becomes, and the more empirical it becomes, the less rational and mathematical it is forced to be.

"Insofar as the propositions of mathematics give an account of reality they are not certain," said Einstein, "and insofar as they are certain they do not describe reality."

The only thing incompatible with science is science itself.

To be continued...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Jerry Coyne's Scientific Faith: Is science more rational than religion? Part I

One of the recurrent themes in the rhetorical arsenal of the New Atheism is that science is rational and religion is not. This dogma is repeated by New Atheist writers as if it were a part of their creed, which, of course, it is.

The dogma is articulated once again by one of its loudest advocates on the Internet, biologist Jerry Coyne in yesterday's article in USA Today. I say "articulated rather than "argued" because, like most dogmas, it is never never actually argued for, but only asserted. If you keep up with the proclamations of atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Jason Rosenhouse, P. Z. Myers, and Sean Carroll, you will see this canard invoked repeatedly in their assertions that religion and science are mutually exclusive. It is utilized almost as if it were an incantation.

If scientific rationalists had prayer wheels, this is the mantra they would chant.
Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth.
This is just another form of the scientistic creed: Credo in scientiam omnipotentem.

Part of Coyne's problem is that he is haunted by the ghost of scientist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was the godfather of what he and his fellow atheists derisively call "Accommodationism," the view that science and religion are two "non-overlapping magisteria"--two realms of thought and practice that simply have nothing to do with each other. It is the modern rendition of Sigar of Brabant's medieval doctrine of Two Truths: that the truths of faith and the truths of religion operate in complete independence of one another.

But in a panicked response to this Gouldish apparition, Coyne and other New Atheists take refuge at the other extreme--in the idea that religion and science not only overlap, but are mutually exclusive. Like many such arguments against religion as a legitimate mode of thought, Coyne's tangles himself up in his own reasoning--an ironic eventuality given the fact that it is on the ground of rationality itself that Coyne claims to set up his headquarters.

Coyne prosecutes his case on this point (in the USA Today piece and elsewhere) in two ways: the first is to simply confound scientific methodology with reason; the second is to simply assert that religion is illogical and non-evidential. Regarding the first of these, Coyne never really articulates what definition of reason he is employing in his critique--and, indeed, his confusion may be less a confusion between two terms than it is a general confusion about what reason is.

In a New Republic article last year, Coyne invokes something he calls "secular reason." No one is exactly sure what this "secular reason" is, since he appears to have invented it himself. But it apparently includes "science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science--every areas that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe." In other words, the criterion each of the disciplines on his list meets--and that religion does not--is the employment of reasons to justify them.

Note the lack of an actual argument. Assertion will do in a pinch.

In fact, for someone who makes such a show of being rational, Coyne displays a noticeable lack of familiarity with what reason consists of and what it entails. Indeed, he seems largely unacquainted with the basic nature of logic. Let's join Coyne in progress as he makes his closing argument in the case that science and religion are incompatible in his New Republic article:
It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.
We'll cut him some slack on his knowledge of neuroscience and assume he is speaking figuratively, but clearly Coyne has no understanding of the difference between the formal requirements of logic and their relation to the assumptions involved in reasoning. Formally speaking, what you reason about has little to do with how well you may reason--or whether you reason at all. As Chesterton once pointed out,
Logic and truth, as a matter of fact, have very little to do with each other. Logic is concerned merely with the fidelity and accuracy with which a certain process is performed, a process which can be performed with any materials, with any assumption. You can be as logical about griffins and basilisks as about sheep and pigs.
You can be as rational about astronomy as about astrophysics, and just as irrational about the Fibonacci Sequence as about fortune telling. But these distinctions mean little to Coyne, whose thinking appears to operate on the basis of some dreamy connection he imagines to exist between science and rationality that he has caught by contagion from the his atheist brethren.

If you're going to talk about whether you can be coherently religious and scientific at the same time, you ought to at least be coherent when you address the question. Coyne clearly has trouble making this fundamental distinction between the content and the process of reasoning, a distinction a mere journalist like Chesterton could employ with ease:
On the assumption that a man has two ears, it is good logic that three men have six ears, but on the assumption that a man has four ears, it is equally good logic that three men have twelve. And the power of seeing how many ears the average man, as a fact, possesses, the power of counting a gentleman's ears accurately and without mathematical confusion, is not a logical thing but a primary and direct experience, like a physical sense, like a religious vision. The power of counting ears may be limited by a blow on the head; it may be disturbed and even augmented by two bottles of champagne; but it cannot be affected by argument.

Logic has again and again been expended, and expended most brilliantly and effectively, on things that do not exist at all. There is far more logic, more sustained consistency of the mind, in the science of heraldry than in the science of biology. There is more logic in Alice in Wonderland than in the Statute Book or the Blue Books.
You can disagree with religion. You can argue with the evidence for it. You can say it's nonsense. But to say it's not rational is simply an ignorant statement. To say in the first place that religion does not employ reason is simply to disregard the whole history of religious thought. There are more syllogisms in a page of St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas than in whole scientific treatises. In fact, a freshman student at the University of Paris in the 13th century could reason circles around Coyne and his fellow atheists without breaking a sweat.

It is interesting to note that the most thoroughly Christian period of civilization, the late Middle Ages, was also the most concerned with logic. Not only was it rational, it was rational to a fault. The Christian intellectualism of the later Middle Ages was remarkable, not for its lack of rationality, but its obsession with it. The criticism often heard about debates over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin was directed, not at people who didn't use logic, but people who used it to the exclusion of almost all else--including, in a few cases, common sense.

In his magisterial Science and the Modern World, philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead goes so far as to call the Middle Ages a "rationalist orgy." Medieval thinkers such as Duns Scotus, the "Subtle Doctor," were criticized for going overboard on their application of reason, not for disregarding it.

But this, clearly, is not Coyne's problem.

To be continued...

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Great Books: The short list

Mortimer Adler's short list of great books of the Western world, from his Guidebook to Learning:
  • The Iliad & Odyssey, by Homer
  • Antigone & Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles
  • The History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides
  • The Apology & the Republic, by Plato
  • Ethics & Politics, by Aristotle
  • The Annals, by Tacitus
  • The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, by Plutarch
  • Confessions, by St. Augustine
  • The Divine Comedy, by Dante
  • Don Quixote, by Cervantes
  • Essays, by Montaigne
  • The Prince, by Machiavelli
  • Pense├ęs, by Pascal
  • Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, by William Shakespeare
  • The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith
  • The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon
  • Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift
  • Representative Government, by John Stuart Mill
  • War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
  • Moby Dick, by Hermann Melville
  • The Principles of Psychology, by William James

Saturday, October 09, 2010


One of the charges brought against classic literature by the champions of "YA" (note the jargonistic use of the acronym)--"Young Adult"--books that have been the subject of recent comments on this blog--is that the classics aren't "relevant." They don't "speak" to modern people. I thought about these remarks when I was out in California visiting my ailing father.

He was taken to the hospital because he couldn't sleep. For almost five weeks this went on--he would sit down and maybe take a short catnap and then he was up again pacing the floor, all day, and all night. He seems almost to have feared the night, knowing he would face it, sleepless, again. He would sleepwalk and even hallucinate. The doctors prescribed drugs, but to no avail: "All I want is to sleep," he would say. Because of the hallucinations, he needed someone with him at all times, and my stepmother, as a result became as miserable has he was. The whole house was brought down by it. He finally got so worn down, he could get himself up off the couch. Some kind of anxiety was preventing him from sleeping.

I just so happened to have packed a copy of Aeschylus' Orestia trilogy that I had been wanting to read. I was just finishing the Brothers Karamazov and wanted something short to try on next. So I turned to the opening lines of Agamemnon, which opens with a watchman before the palace of King Agamemnon, still away at war, alone on his post, unable to sleep for anxiety about when his king would return. He asks the Gods for "some respite from the weariness" from years of lying awake:
Now as this bed stricken with night and drenched with dew
I keep, not ever with kind dreams for company:
since fear in sleep's place stands forever at my head
against strong closure of my eyes, or any rest:
I mince such medicine against sleep failed: I sing,
only to weep again the pity of this house.
There was the lidless night. There was the fear "in sleep's place." There was the unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem with drugs. The watchman had a completely different reason for his anxiety, but it was anxiety nonetheless. And the words exactly captured my father's sleepless predicament. No one could have said it better.

Now I fully believe the claims of the YA advocates: they can't read this stuff. But it isn't because it isn't relevant.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Controversial teacher pulls her post

Okay, I'm not getting this. Risha Mullins, the teacher who sparked controversy in Montgomery County, Kentucky for championing the reading of popular teen fiction in college preparatory classes and who has become a fave among the champions of teen pop fiction in the curriculum has taken down her post recounting the depredations perpetrated upon her during a supposed "witch hunt" against her.

The only place you can find it now is as a screen capture from

Now the whole point of her post was how she ran into controversy and then ran away from it--and how she regretted running away from it. But now, after she has attracted national attention once again (the comments on her posts are running into the thousands--as are the hits on this blog which she linked to), she seems to be running away from it again.

Look, girl, just stand up for what you believe. You've obviously got an army of people out there ready to support your cause. It isn't like you aren't getting supported. I disagree with you, but if you keep pulling this stunt you're only hurting your case.


UPDATE: In fairness to Mullins, I wanted to quote her post on why she took down the original post:
I did not remove my post because I am afraid. I reflected on a dark time in my life. I told the truth, and I had the right. But I removed my blog in protest to the hostile, hate-filled rhetoric being sent to my former administration and colleagues in my name.
Fair enough. Looks like these enemies of censorship--you know, the champions of truth, justice. love, and free speech--are harassing her former colleagues. What is it that makes so many people who champion books short on deep insights and long on emotionalism do this kind of thing? It would make an interesting study.

The Risha Mullins Case: Getting a non-emotional grip on the issue of literature in schools

When I started getting comments the other day on an old post defending the teaching of classic literature in college preparatory classes that was prompted by a controversy in a Montgomery County, Kentucky school, I began to wonder: Why the renewed interest. I didn't even think to check my Sitemeter. When I did and saw that I had gotten over 2,000 hits on Tuesday, I looked to see what caused it.

It turned out to be a post on Risha Mullin's blog about the 2009 incident. She was the teacher who was virtually run off from the school as a result of the controversy over a college prep class in which she was using young adult literature which a few parents at the school found objectionable on various grounds. My post was directed at the issues involved in the controversy, making the case that young adult literature does not have a place in an advanced college preparatory course.

In the course of the post, I had mentioned Mullins only in passing. My post was based on the news reports of the events. Her post of Oct. 2, however, gives a detailed and emotional account of what happened to her.

I have mixed emotions reading her post, which readers of this blog ought to read.

My first reaction is sympathy for her. She was an enthusiastic teacher at a school which evidently (judging from her comments) was seriously deficient in the way of administrative leadership. The family and professional issues she has had to endure would try the best of us.

My second reaction is antipathy for the school. The school administration was clearly in panic mode. When you are an administrator of a school, you have to stand by your staff. If there is a controversy involving moral terpitude, deal with it with swift justice. If it is a policy issue, calm down and treat all parties fairly. This case was clearly the latter, and it seems as if the administration just simply lost their heads. Shame on them. But, of course, part of the problem is the whole system of public education and school governance which, quite frankly is a mess in the first place.

But I have two other reactions: one on the way Mullins views her situation, and the other on the issues involved in the cause she has chosen to champion.

Mullin's post is understandably emotional, since she has suffered in her personal and professional lives. But when you take a stand on an issue, there is a price to pay. When you do battle, expect blood. I have been involved in public controversy for 20 years (longer than that if you count my involvement as an editorials editor on my college daily paper). You take public positions and you've got to take the hits.

If Mullins finds criticism from her school and a few parents intimidating, she should try waking up in the morning to find herself the personal target of the lead editorials in the state's two largest daily papers some time. It's happened to me twice. It doesn't really bother me because I believe in what I'm doing, but it obviously isn't for everyone. Her situation obviously is unpleasant, but if she were to read a few history books in addition to the teen fiction she champions--where a boy looking at the girl askance has severe emotional consequences--she would get some perspective on what it is to truly suffer for her beliefs.

And by the way, to characterize how she was dealt with as "censorship" and calling her treatment a "witch hunt" is not only hyperbole, but it isn't even accurate. If you are going to engage in controversy, you should expect to take some hits, and you should deal with disagreement by meeting it with reason and evidence--not name-calling. Were the actions of her school administration cowardly? Probably. But censorship? I don't think so.

One of the hits she took was from me. She refers to my post (the reason all her readers ended up here on this blog) as one of the things that caused her to lose her composure, calling it "fallacious." But I have trouble taking seriously the charge of "fallacy" from someone whose arguments consist primarily of emotional appeals. Which of my arguments were fallacious? She doesn't say.

She also accuses me of deleting the comment she wrote posted in response to me. This is simply false. I never delete posts except for the reasons explicitly laid out in the disclaimer of the comments section, and even there I exercise a great deal of leeway, as anyone who frequents this blog knows. I open up this blog to anyone who wants to criticize what I write--a privilege which my detractors take liberal advantage of. If she had correctly posted a comment, it would have appeared with no interference from me.

But what are these beliefs for which Mullins thinks she is a martyr?

In her post she characterizes herself as a champion for reading. But let's put this whole issue back into the perspective of what actually happened. First of all the course that was the subject of the news stories was, and I'll emphasize this for those of her fans who keep obfuscating it: AN ACCELERATED COLLEGE PREPARATORY COURSE. The issue was not whether kids should be encouraged to read through creative approaches to teaching or whether kids should read young adult fiction on theIR own time or in some minor capacity in school. The issue was whether pop teen fiction should be the focus of reading in an ACCELERATED COLLEGE PREPARATORY COURSE.

It is interesting that nowhere in Mullins account does she mention the exact nature of the course for which she was criticized for including young adult fiction.

The argument in my original post was that advanced college preparatory courses should focus on advanced college preparatory material. Pop teen fiction is not advanced college preparatory material. Therefore it shouldn't be the focus of an advanced college preparatory course. No one ever responded to my argument: they simply went on about how they liked young adult fiction and how isn't it great how it gets kids to read and this poor teacher was persecuted and on and on and on.

Folks, get a grip on your emotions. I realize that rampant, uncontrolled emotions may constitute great teen reading, but let's focus on the issue. And the issue is whether, in the limited amount of time a school has to spend on advanced college preparation the time is best spent on popular books for young adults or whether the time could be spent better using classic literature--you know, the kind they will encounter in college.

The fact that teens can get excited about reading teen fiction is great. Now can we spend the energy getting them excited about great literature? This is the question, however it may be obfuscated by those who champion, as Mullins does, young adult literature.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Teaching great literature vs. teaching pop teen literature in schools: Another indication of what's wrong with education

Well my post late last year about a Kentucky school that required a teacher to cut the teen pop literature in a college preparatory course in favor of books that, like, actually belong in a college prep course has apparently made it on some teachers' loop and I'm getting comments on the post once again, so I thought I'd bring the discussion back out on the current main page.

Here is the comment from one teacher (Paige):
Sir, have you ever actually spoken to any of your students? Have you ever asked them what they're thinking about, what worries them at night, what makes them smile in the morning?

Maybe some of these books won't land on a 100 Best Ever list, but if kids can relate to them and learn a little more about their own world, then by all means they should read them.

I'm an English teacher and I LOVE reading "The Classics". I loved Shakespeare in high school, but I also read a lot of YA, I still do. I saw myself in them and - as cliche as it may be - felt a little more normal and less alienated.

Classics are important but not at the expense of turning kids away from books forever.
Never mind my original point--that schools should be children to the great works of Western culture, not leaving them in the debased culture they already inhabit-- but, as I noted this in the original discussion, notice the assumptions behind these remarks:

1. That teen fiction is more easy to relate to than great literature. Any English teacher worth anything knows that this is simply not true. One of the reasons great literature is great is because you can relate to it--because it speaks to the human in all of us. The only thing that prevents children from relating to it is the idea among some teachers that children can't relate to it. If students are not called upon to stretch themselves in their reading and rise above the immediately gratifying world of contemporary teen books, they will never even be able to approach the deeper, richer world of great literature. "You cannot be uplifed," said Mortimer Adler, "by something that is not above you."

2. That focusing on the classics detracts from a child's love of literature. I'm sorry, but any English teacher who thinks this needs to find another job. If you can't teach literature in a way that captures the minds and hearts of your students, then you don't belong in the profession. Go get a position as cashier at Wal-Mart or something, but stay away from the classroom. I have taught English literature for a number of years. We read great literature. My students fall in love with these books. For many of them it literally changes their lives. Ask my students about the experience of reading Flannery O'Connor, G. K. Chesterton, or Wendell Berry and they will talk your ear off. Ask them about the short stories of O'Henry, Jack London, or Saki, or the short novels of John Steinbeck, George Orwell, or F. Scott Fitzgerald. None of them would say that these works detracted from their love of literature. Not a one.

Here is another teacher (Ally):
I'd just like to point out:

On here, many times, it's been said that students should be expected to relate to the classics. Going through high school, you're absolutely right. I should much rather relate to

a) the suicide of two teenagers and the heavy violence that led to this. (Romeo & Juliet)

b) A father who holds his daughter hostage until she falls in love with the right man. (The Tempest)

c) backstabbing mothers and fathers who know nothing of their children and cause their ensuing insanity. (Hamlet)

What? Is this not what these stories are about? Am I not seeing the bigger picture? Because neither are you. Every book is imperfect. Why not go ahead and ban all of Jane Austen too because, apparently, she's also non-Christian and corrupting the youth. (Quote from a quarterly in the 1800s)
The short answer to Ally is, "No, you are not seeing the bigger picture."

Ally seems to think that my problem with teaching pop teen literature in college preparatory classes has something to do with objectionable content. If she reads the literature in her classes as well as she read my original post, then we may have identified her problem. Great literature isn't great because of the content it deals with; it is great because of how it deals with it. And to say that pop teen literature deals with these issues better than classic literature does is to simply betray a lack of familiarity with great literature.

It is a measure of the plight of our schools that we would even be having a debate like this. When the people running our schools cannot even distinguish between the great and the mediocre, then we have finally arrived at what is wrong.