Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Rights vs. contracts

At TCS, Edward Fesser's essay on natural right has been followed up by Max Borders. Borders takes the view that rights do not exist as real, metaphysical entities, but are the result of agreements or "contracts." Now, Fesser has penned a response to Borders' arguments. I linked to the first Fesser essay here. I will give Fesser the floor once again tonight because I think this is an immensely important topic. We live in a world of "enlightenment" positivism run amok, where there are no shortage of highly educated, intelligent people whose main beef with realist metaphysics seems to be that it is inconvenient and therefore unnecessary (note the order of those propositions). We also live in a world in which new technologies are making the real world implications of our metaphysical propositions - of which positivism is surely one - are more and more far reaching. So I think it is increasingly important that schemes like the one Borders' outlines be given a very long, hard look. Our educational specialization works against us here and I think we need to, as modern democrats, give the subject more attention than we do. Slogans hurled every four years will not do. In mulling over Fesser's work, here are some real word examples to keep in mind, in addition to those he lists. Today, the largest murder trial in Canadian history started in our courts. Willie Pickton stands charged with twenty seven counts of first degree murder. If he is found guilty, what is his social standing under a contractarian ethics? What about those being held long term in Guantanamo Bay? Our efforts to have all the benefits of a sophisticated ethics without a complex metaphysics are probably also behind Canada's recent supreme court ruling on the legality of swinger's clubs. Can one consent to anything or do we have a duty to one another to avoid really big mistakes? These issues strike clear across traditional lines of right and left and force us to ask ourselves what we are. What we owe one another - if anything - flows from that. The traditional Catholic position has been that since man is "made in the image of God", that we simply cannot do whatever we want to do to others (or ourselves), no matter how much we dislike them or feel threatened by them. As inconvenient as that metaphysics might be, I think the implications of overturning it are much worse. "The implication that there are human beings whose lack of participation in the social contract puts them outside the boundaries of morality is what is really troubling about contractarianism," writes Fesser, "for it entails that there are no moral constraints whatsoever on what we might do to such people."
Borders insists that the fact that there might be an occasional "defector" from the social contract "doesn't mean we ever have a positive duty to 'boil people alive.'" But that is a red herring, because the question isn't whether we must harm those who are outside the social contract, but whether we may in theory do so if we want to, and the contractarian has no basis whatsoever for denying that we may. He must acknowledge that, at least in principle, if you knew for certain that a person is utterly unwilling sincerely to enter into the social contract, then even if he hasn't in fact harmed you or anyone else, there would be no moral reason not to kill, torture, mutilate, rape, or otherwise to abuse him just for kicks, if you had a hankering to do so. Contractarians try to dance around this disturbing consequence by insisting that the scenario is purely hypothetical, and that in real-life circumstances we have prudential reasons to abide by conventions forbidding people from taking it upon themselves to decide whether someone is outside the contract. But that the theory allows for this sort of possibility even in the abstract should be enough to give us pause. Moreover, there are, of course, many people who have in fact hurt others, and thereby shown themselves either to have broken the social contract or never to have been a sincere party to it at all. So may we punish them just any way we like? If someone is guilty of stealing a radio, can we execute him, or cut his ears off and force-feed them to him? Again, the contractarian will no doubt say that we have good pragmatic grounds for not allowing such excessive punishments, but this misses the point. The problem is that the contractarian has no way of showing that such excessive punishments are flatly unjust in principle. Here we see plainly that contractarianism isn’t really a defense of morality or justice as we know them in everyday life, but rather an attempt to replace morality and justice with something loosely resembling them for most practical purposes. We see this even more starkly when we consider another common objection to contractarianism, namely that it seems to entail that we have no moral duties to those who cannot plausibly be participants in a social contract between rationally self-interested persons seeking their mutual advantage -- such as the mentally ill, the handicapped, the unborn, infants, and others who either do not know what is in their rational self-interest, or cannot either benefit or threaten other rationally self-interested persons and so have nothing to offer them in return for being left alone. Some contractarians deal with this problem by suggesting that we can have duties not to harm these sorts of people because they matter to other people: your baby or your grandmother with Alzheimer's, for example, matter to you, and since you are a sane and healthy adult who can be a party to the social contract, other people should respect your wishes by leaving them alone. Then there are pragmatic grounds for not allowing infanticide and the like, which might have untoward social costs. And so forth. Again, though, the contractarian has to say that it could at least in principle be morally innocuous to strangle an infant or a homeless schizophrenic just because you felt like it, as long as there was no one else to whom these people mattered. These human beings can have no value or standing unless others decide to give them value or standing, whether for sentimental reasons or pragmatic ones. Now these implications are disturbing enough that most contractarians acknowledge them only tersely and obliquely, cheerfully emphasizing instead the many wonderful opportunities for "mutual benefit" there are for the sane, able-bodied, and adult consumers who constitute most of their readership.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Great philospohy

The Maverick Philosopher has revisited the question of theism / atheism and its relationship to the ability to do philosophical work of the higest caliber. When I first took a look at his list of the "top twenty philosophers" I immediately wanted to strike Sartre from the list for being more of a imfamous celebrity than a serious thinker, but then Bill wrote:
On the score of truth, Fritz Nietzsche really falls short. For not only is there little if any philosophical truth in his writings, the poor soul denies the very existence of truth. When one studies the first seven on the list, one actually learns something about the world. But when one reads Nietzsche and (later) Wittgenstein, one learns highly original and fascinating opinions that have little or no chance of being true. One learns from them, and from some others on the list, how NOT to do philosophy. But that too is something worth knowing!
I saw that about Nietschze right away, as I think one can use his criticisms provided one has enough faith to keep from following him into nihilism. I still think Sartre is the poor boy on this list, even conceeding Bill his point. Otherwise, I generally like his list and his conclusion.

Job number one?

Rosie DiManno at the Toronto Star disagrees with me:
the objective for Stephen Harper is not to govern with panache now, within the admittedly straitening parameters of minority rule, but to position himself such that he can secure a majority in the next election, which is apparently Job 1. Thus, to make the Tories more palatable to all those millions who preferred the Liberals and the NDP, Harper should break the presumed covenant he made with those Canadians who provided his party with its current mandate, and did so with a tapestry of support from coast to coast, leaving only Prince Edward Island unrepresented in caucus. Plus the country's three biggest cities, of course — Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver — where voters turned up their noses and rejected all Tory supplicants. This, the tall foreheads tell us, is the subtext of the election outcome — illusory power, checked by Canadian caution, translated as a warning not to boldly implement the very policies that Harper campaigned on, already modified toward a more centrist sensibility, or at least not unless he tempers them further to appease voters (and parliamentary opposition) who instinctively recoil from Harper's vision of a different Canada. We are a nation of compromise, which is all fine and well. But endless compromise can also amount to stagnation and timidity, an absence of purpose, so that you end up standing for nothing except bland platitudes. The view from here is that Harper ought not imitate the prime minister he's replacing — condemned to mere footnote status in history now — by governing defensively and diluting political principles, terrified of provoking a vote of non-confidence and prepared to whore himself for the sake of holding onto power. Either the platform, as thoroughly outlined on the campaign trail, will find sufficient favour with Canadians in application or it won't. Better to be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.
Of course I never said that style, guts and panache are un-Canadian. All I said was don't do a clutzy Rambo; do think long term. Very long term.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Practical Tories are long lived Tories

In this excellent post, Liberty Corner shares his definition of what liberty is, and why liberty is not aligned with the atomizing society or with groupthink:
The core of libertarianism is liberty: briefly, the negative right to be left alone - in one's person, pursuits, and property - as long as one leaves others alone. The problem with all such formulations, however, is that they gloss over two important questions: 1. What is harm and who defines it? 2. How does one ensure that one is "left alone" in a world where there are predators and parasites who will not subscribe voluntarily to a pact of mutual restraint? ... In summary: Liberty rests on an agreed definition of harm, and on an accompanying agreement to act with mutual restraint and in mutual defense. Given the variety of human wants and preferences, the price of mutual restraint and mutual defense is necessarily some loss of liberty. That is, each person must accept, and abide by, a definition of harm that is not the definition by which he would abide were he able to do so. But, in return for mutual restraint and mutual defense, he must abide by that compromise definition.
This is a more sophisticated look at the question than Canada's Supreme Court managed not too long ago. Harm is not an objective thing, but a negotiated idea. Positing one's own definition as "objective" - as the court did - is insulting to the group dynamics of a healthy culture. In a healthy political culture, individuals meet in mind boggling number of forms to endlessly negotiate questions like these, and others. What does it mean to be human? What rights and obligations do we have to one another? How do we balance the claims of groups vs. individuals? etc. These are social and relational questions and should be answered as such, both in the law, and also in how the law is derived. The most powerful groups in these negotiations are our courts and legislatures. Unilaterally saying that "the debate is over and we won" is despotic, not liberal, and it is despotic on both fronts. As J.S. Mill wrote, as I quoted before:
Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty.
It is telling in the extreme, I believe, that of the three major Federal parties in English Canada ONLY the Tory party believes in the merits of free votes. The NDP believes in voting as a whipped block, and the Liberals, shrewd operators that they are, choose to whip only their cabinet - which is nothing less than a whip by proxy. If you are a politico with any ambition (and are there any other kinds?), you will know what to do. Now, faced with a new government whose supporters are almost unified in their opposition to black robed declarations about what a free society can debate in it's highest chambers, how do we respond? The clumsy and wrong answer is to pass a law that the court has indicated that it will likely strike down, and to simply dare it to do so. The merits of the proposed law are only one fact to consider. We also want to pass it in a manner that is conducive to the open society that is our aim. As I said in my post on Toryism the other day, I will be looking to see that our Tory government acts with this kind of prudence in its' laws and in its' appointments. We can look to the example of the Liberal party over the last thirty years, who have adroitly managed to normalize parts of their agenda that seemed unlikely back then. The Liberals have had some luck in the form of technological advances like the Internet that have demystified things like SS attractions. We might get help in the future in the form of younger generations resenting the price that recent reforms are asking them to bear. The fruits of endless family experimentation might just be solid factual evidence that traditional families have a lot to recommend them. Wait for it, and in the meantime exert quiet, negotiated, acceptable changes when and where you can. Another example of this approach can be seen in our neighbors to the south:
One conclusion is that the confirmation of both Chief Justice John Roberts and Judge Alito marks the most important domestic success for President Bush since his 2003 tax cuts. These look like legacy picks. Despite the Harriet Miers misstep, Mr. Bush has now fulfilled one of his campaign promises. And with two distinguished conservative jurists joining Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the Court is closer than it's been in 50 years to having a majority that can restore Constitutional interpretation to its founding principles. In this sense, the Alito-Roberts ascendancy also marks a victory for the generation of legal conservatives who earned their stripes in the Reagan Administration. The two new Justices are both stars of that generation - many others are scattered throughout the lower courts - and they are now poised to influence the law and culture for 20 years or more.
There are no guarantees here but mature and sober people know that there never are. We have to be prepared to accept that in the sort of society Liberty Corner espouses, no one gets exactly what they want. Reconciling one's self to that is an act of love we should be prepared to make. Finally, I want to make the point that I am not compromising my beliefs in arguing as I am. I am in fact arguing from them, but have resisted going into it because I'm well aware that any mention of religion alarms and turns off some people, perhaps due to a bad experience or ignorance. Pope Ratzinger released his first encyclical yesterday, Deus Caritas Est,which Fr. Raymond DeSouza summarizes in today's National Post. Even if you only read this little snippet from DeSouza, you can see that respect for others - including those who dissent from our views - is well regarded in this tradition:
The central point is that love - which the Greeks called eros - has a possessive nature that requires the possession of the beloved by the lover. This erotic love, if not purified, can seek to dominate the other and ends up reducing the other to a mere object of desire. The answer is not to eliminate eros, which is good in itself, but to complement and complete it with another type of love, for which the Greek New Testament uses the word agape. Agape is self-sacrificing love, in which the lover offers himself for the good of the beloved. The deepest revelation of God's love is precisely this agape, in which Jesus on the cross lays down his life for those he loves.

iTunes U

The future continues to look promising. As someone who can't attend expensive classes, having access to cheap, portable audio materials would be great. Se also here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


I'm heartened to see that yesterday's post on Toryism has been getting a good response. Rod Dreher, who writes for the Dallas Morning News and who's former job was being editor of National Review Online, dropped in to say something nice about it. Now Mark Shea has linked it. See also here and here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Election reflection

Rebuilding Toryism Toryism at it's best, is in my estimation the best and least threatening school of democratic political thought. What? you say! What about those crazy fundamentalists? What about those heartless Libertarians? What about those oil mad Albertans? What about....? What about...? Toryism is a broad based idea, just like Liberalism, and as such it recognizes the necessity of coalition building. It needs to be a BIG tent, one that any Canadian could proudly and comfortably park themselves under. Reconciling those groups is no small feat but Toryism has the advantage of being at heart a very pragmatic idea. It might be summed up by the old saying that "old boots and old friends are best." Meaning, in other words, that in the absence of compelling evidence of a need for change, the best course is one of stewardship, consultation and incremental change of the two steps forward, one step back sort. This is hardly threatening stuff. There is a long (and dishonorable) tradition in debating of taking the weakest or most extreme part of your opponents' plan or argument, and using it to represent the whole of what is being argued against. When political parties begin to fail they begin to do this to themselves. If the Tories allow one of their core constituencies to define who they are - as has happened in the recent past - then the charges above will begin to have some merit. I do not think this can be said of Stephen Harper, who has broadened and expanded the Tory tent tremendously in a very short time. He united Canada's right when the pundits said it could not be done. He has made real inroads in reaching out to Quebec, and I believe he will continue to do so. His victory speech last night gave every indication that that is the course he intends to pursue. If I could give Stephen Harper two books to consider as he goes forward, they would be Roger Scruton's The Meaning of Conservatism, and Crunchy Cons, by Rod Dreher. A taste of the later can be found in this famous NRO article:
Boston College professor Peter Kreeft discovered this phenomenon a few years ago. Kreeft said he and three friends fit John Courtney Murray's four American political types: radical, liberal, traditionalist, and conservative. One day, Kreeft, a traditional Catholic, discovered a close affinity with the Marxist atheist in the group. What did it was driving around Cambridge and judging everyone's reaction to a new housing development the conservative Republican had moved into. It was clean, well lighted, green, and spacious, with attractive amenities. Kreeft and his friend Dick, the radical, thought it was an abomination, because it was ugly and therefore inhuman. The conservative said the fact that they cared about how the place looked marked them as "artsy-fartsy," but the traditionalist and the radical argued that beauty was one of the most important things there is. Soon, Kreeft and his radical friend found out that despite the gulf that separated them on politics, they shared a number of areas of agreement (suburbs bad; nature good; big business and big government bad; small business and small government good). Kreeft determined from this that "beneath the current political left-right alignments there are fault lines embedded in the crust of human nature that will inevitably open up some day and produce earthquakes that will change the current map of the political landscape."
The weirdest thing about this quote is that the so called Marxist thought aesthetics mattered. I mean, the Russian communists aren't exactly renowned for their architecture. Didn't they say that beauty was just bourgeois hangover? In any case, if our Marxist friend is alienated from consumer society and grasping for a means to articulate it, he should be courted by Tories. We ought to be a party that embraces people first and that regards ideology as a smorgasbord from which we pick and choose, and balance and counterbalance, in an effort to create healthy communities in which alienation, and not mere criticism, is minimal. The two things are very different. Alienation is the fruit of poisoned relations, while criticism springs from ongoing healthy negotiation. The Dreher outlook is not well represented in the Tory party as it stands today if we are to look for a majority government in the future we will need to reach out to it. If we do that, I'm certain we can gain substantial support in Canada's cities, where we had a tough time last night. Opening up the tent to this group could garner support from Liberals and, even more encouragingly, from the NDP. Whatever I think of some NDP policies, I certainly recognize the NDP as being (in it's own fashion) an ethically charged party. We can and should appeal to that. None of this is to say that Toryism has no principles at all. Toryism's principles are not synonymous with free market economics or with full blown Christianity. It's principles are healthy people and communities. It is built on nurturing harmonious human relations. A Tory government ought to be viewed as a safe steward and servant of those things, offering a mature and even hand to all. If we draw on economics or religion from time to time, it is because think they offer something useful, and not because we are zealots.
I said earlier that when political parties fail draw from a large base of support, it is because they allow one or more interest groups to dominate them in such a way that what had been a disreputable straw man characterization begins to become credible. They begin to become are parody of themselves. This clearly happened to the Liberals under Paul Martin. Long time readers will be well aware of the great antipathy that I have for his leadership skills. He may be the nice man that those close to him say he is, but he is no leader. He split his party against itself and lost capable supporters as a result. Even worse, he gave free reign to that wing of the party that currently goes by the name of 'progressivism' . In other words, he and the Liberal party as it stands today were the ones guilty of everything they were accusing Stephen Harper of - of being small tent extremists, unable and unwilling to reach out, to listen, and to accommodate real and respectable differences that exist in this country. Whatever the merits of 'progressivism' might be, they do not absolve Martin from blame that he stupidly narrowed the base of support in his party to the point that no longer represented people who once parked themselves there, but who had a somewhat different agenda. I am, frankly, surprised that the Liberals did as well as they did last night. I had been hoping they might be reduced to near historic lows (perhaps 40 - 50 seats, mostly in the east) and that the Tories and the NDP would pick up the pieces. There are many reasons for this, not just the fact that I think Martin's lack of principle deserved more of an ass kicking than it got. Writing in the National Post today, Fr. Raymond DeSouza wrote:
If it meant embarrassing himself with petty outbursts against the Americans, even after promising to improve Canada - US relations, he [Martin] would do it. If it meant allowing his chief of staff to negotiate tawdry deals to induce opposition MPs to cross the floor, he would do it. If it meant trafficking cabinet seats to win a non confidence vote, he would do it... And finally, if it meant conducting a near maniacal election campaign - disgorging smears, proposing constitutional amendments on the fly, playing fast and loose with national unity, and descending into a caricature of the man who will say anything to win vote - then he would do it in spades, and have the chutzpah to declare that this was an election about his values.
That people voted for this man's party after all of that (and more!) speaks to our failure as Tories to provide them with a safe shelter from storms like this. Could you imagine Martin faced with a unity referendum? We must not allow ourselves to become a parody of our own selves, such that voters feel they have no choice, they have to hold their nose and vote for the only party that might listen to them. We must remain broad and not become so beholden to one group or idea that we begin to apologize for being what we are. We must banish the 'small c' apology forever; it is a blatant admission that we think the party as a whole is beholden to something we are not. Tories must not take anything for granted now. Proceed slowly and confidently; I hope Mr. Harper will choose his cabinet and his appointments with care. The more broadly placed and articulate they are, the more that mainstream Canada will have a chance to become aquainted with what Toryism has to offer. We must play good defense and recognize that simply keeping the Liberals from forming the government will go a long way towards marginalizing their left wing and thereby shifting the debate on grounds favourable to us. I remain a social conservative but one who knows that strong, tall trees grow from the ground up, and that government is not always the proper place to put all of our hopes and aspirations. Reshaping Canada's political debates such that those two points alone are prominent and credible would be a big improvement on the statism that has been so prominent in post war Canada. That's do-able. That would have a lasting positive impact.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Go your own way

Althouse sticks up for us men folk. I do like having the smart women on my side, and willing to put up with some of our more bearable eccentricities. So... she won't mind if we enjoy these clips then: I saved the best one for last, of course. Seedlings has his list here, which was inspirational.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Blog on

Here are two really interesting blogs. If you like NWW, I'm sure you'll enjoy these:
  • One Cosmos, home to a very good writer with a book to flog.
  • Analyzer, yet another philosophy Ph.D. with a great blog.
Here are some philosphy jokes taken from one of the Analyzer's posts:
Don't put Descartes before the horse. One day Descartes walked into a pub and ordered a coffee. The server asked him, "Do you want that with cream and sugar?" Descartes answered, "I think not", and abruptly ceased to exist. What did the pantheist say to the hot dog vendor? ... Make me one with everything. Have you heard about the dyslexic insomniac agnostic? ... He lies awake at night wondering if there is a dog. Who's the most egotistal type of person conceivable? ... A pantheistic solipsist.
If you liked those you're probably a philosphy nerd just like me.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

I'm a Tory

Thanks to Andrew at BBG (note the new address) for the tip to this Globe and Mail quiz designed to help you figure out what party you should support. I scored 6 for the Conservatives and 1 for the Greens. I suspect the Green tally came on the education question. The zeros on the Liberal and NDP are a little distressing. Don't you guys even want me to consider you? For any issue? Do we really need to "nationalize" everything? How do you square that with supporting diversity and dissent? And even if you did have a policy that I really liked you have zero chance with me until you at least allow MP's to vote their conscience on issues like marriage and abortion. Frankly, those two parties are a huge disappointment. Again. Btw, since every party now receives money for every vote they get, voters frustrated with their choices now have a new method of getting the parties' attention. If you're willing to spoil your ballot, you can simply write down "no candidate supports X", where X is the issue you want to draw attention to. Party scrutineers will get the message if you can convince others to do the same. Each spoiled ballot represents not only a lost vote, but also money lost for the next campaign. It's food for thought if you have no candidate you can support. Even if you're frustrated, you have a chance to be heard on Monday.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Tagged! By Carlton at Upper Canada Catholic. The 'Quartet Meme" Four jobs I have had in my life:
  • Driving instructor
  • Book store clerk
  • Video store clerk
  • Paper boy
Four movies I could watch over and over, and have:
  • Master and Commander
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Mission
  • Braveheart
Four places I have lived:
  • In my parents' house
  • In an apartment
  • In a larger apartment
  • In my own house
Four TV shows I love to watch:
  • Law and Order
  • Lost
  • Numbers
  • ... Um, really don't like TV very much!
Four places I have been on vacation:
  • Germany
  • Death Valley
  • Las Vegas
  • Tofino (Vancouver Island)
Four websites I visit daily (sorry, Canada) Four favourite foods:
  • steak and beer
  • coffee and chocolate
  • french toast
  • hamburger and mashed potatoes (it's German)
Four places I would rather be right now:
  • There's no place like home.

Are you a heretic?

Great quiz. Well, I thought it was great, but then I think theology is not only interesting, but important.
You scored as Chalcedon compliant. You are Chalcedon compliant. Congratulations, you're not a heretic. You believe that Jesus is truly God and truly man and like us in every respect, apart from sin. Officially approved in 451.

Chalcedon compliant



























Are you a heretic? created with QuizFarm.com

Monday, January 16, 2006

What is evangelicalism?

My question to readers about Mark Noll has drawn only one response thus far, but what helpful response! I've finally gotten around to reading the link Ian provided. I find the term 'Evangelical' to be frustratingly vague. It tells me very little about the beliefs of the person I am dealing with. The Wikkipeida entry wasn't much help either. This is taken from a review of Mark Noll's Is the Reformation Over? The author, Carl Trueman, a Reform churchman, is not as optimistic as Noll about the prospects for a post Reformation Church:
To cut to the chase: what is evangelicalism? It is a title I myself identify with on occasion, especially when marking myself off from liberalism, another ill-defined, amorphous, transdenominational concept. But in a world where there are "evangelicals" who deny justification by faith as understood by the Protestant Reformers, who deny God's comprehensive knowledge of the future, who deny penal substitutionary atonement, who deny the Messianic self-consciousness of Christ, who have problems with the Nicene Creed, who deny the Chalcedonian definition of Christ's person, who cannot be trusted to make clear statements on homosexuality, and who advocate epistemologies and other philosophical viewpoints which are entirely unprecedented in the history of the orthodox Christian church, it is clear that the term "evangelical" and its cognates, without any qualifying adjective, such as "confessional" or "open" or "post-conservative", is in danger of becoming next to meaningless. And, even when one qualifies the noun in these ways, it is not immediately clear that one is then talking about subsets or modifications of a single, overarching, coherent movement. Indeed, there are many ways in which I, as a confessional, Reformed Christian, have far more in common with many Roman Catholic theologians than others who routinely claim the title of evangelical. After all, there are evangelicals who repudiate almost all the cardinal points of faith which Protestants and Catholics at the Reformation held in common and which were never disputed. Mark Noll is obviously not such, and his own vision of evangelicalism is clearly a gracious, thoughtful, orthodox and in many ways attractive one; but I am not convinced that the definition of evangelicalism which underlies this book is strong enough to enable the realization of that vision or to allay my fears about the movement as a whole, if indeed it is meaningful to speak of it as a single movement. The key to understanding evangelicalism in relation to Catholicism seems to me to lie in part in understanding the crucial difference between the Catholic Church as an institution with clearly defined doctrinal commitments, and evangelicalism as a broad, trans-institutional movement with a vested interest in framing its doctrinal commitments at the level of complexity which the coalition can sustain. The result is that evangelicalism as a movement will always tend towards an ideal of mere Christianity. And that is fine, providing it is understood that this will in turn always tend to attenuate evangelicalism's connection to the past and thus limit its capacity to draw coherently upon that past. In this context, one might add that the current predilection in some evangelical quarters for using the language of postmodernism for revisioning or reconceptualising theology seems less a radical revolution in evangelical thinking and more the appropriation of the latest academic idiom for playing the well-established traditional evangelical game of non-dogmatic, lowest-common denominator, mere Christianity.
This answers why I can find myself in agreement with some who use the term, while being puzzled by others. What do the groups have in common? Well, dissent - but grasping the degree and form of dissent helps understanding tremendously. Both reject the historical church for various reasons, but for some the historical church is an eccesiastical structure, some of whose teaching can be redeemed. For others, it's more like the whole things needs to be reinvented from top to bottom: structure, teachings, all based on present ideas about the past more than real history. It's rather pessimistic view, IMHO. Admissable evidence is defined too narrowly, and faith and reason are simplistically opposed. I haven't read Noll's book but I wonder if he had in mind the former group, while Trueman has the later. Myself, I share Noll's optimism about the first group and Trueman's pessimism about the later group. I also see the radical dissenters as inherently fractious and unlikely allies of anyone, even each other.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Dawkins vs. Scruton

Roger Scruton, one of my favourite British writers / philosophers, takes on Richard Dawkins' theory that 'religion is a nasty meme':
I am not entirely persuaded by this extension by analogy of genetics. The theory that ideas have a disposition to propagate themselves by appropriating energy from the brains that harbour them recalls Molière's medical expert (Le Malade imaginaire) who explained the fact that opium induces sleep by referring to its virtus dormitiva (the ability to cause sleep). It only begins to look like an explanation when we read back into the alleged cause the distinguishing features of the effect, by imagining ideas as entities whose existence depends, as genes and species do, on reproduction. Nevertheless, let us grant Dawkins his stab at a theory. We should still remember that not every dependent organism destroys its host. In addition to parasites there are symbionts and mutualists — invaders that either do not impede or positively amplify their host's reproductive chances. And which is religion? Why has religion survived, if it has conferred no benefit on its adepts? And what happens to societies that have been vaccinated against the infection — Soviet society, for instance, or Nazi Germany — do they experience a gain in reproductive potential? Clearly, a lot more research is needed if we are to come down firmly on the side of mass vaccination rather than (my preferred option) lending support to the religion that seems most suited to temper our belligerent instincts, and which, in doing so, asks us to forgive those who trespass against us and humbly atone for our faults. So there are bad memes and good memes. Consider mathematics. This propagates itself through human brains because it is true; people entirely without maths — who cannot count, subtract or multiply — don't have children, for the simple reason that they make fatal mistakes before they get there. Maths is a real mutualist. Of course the same is not true of bad maths; but bad maths doesn't survive, precisely because it destroys the brains in which it takes up residence. Maybe religion is to this extent like maths: that its survival has something to do with its truth. Of course it is not the literal truth, nor the whole truth. Indeed, the truth of a religion lies less in what is revealed in its doctrines than in what is concealed in its mysteries. Religions do not reveal their meaning directly because they cannot do so; their meaning has to be earned by worship and prayer, and by a life of quiet obedience. Nevertheless truths that are hidden are still truths; and maybe we can be guided by them only if they are hidden, just as we are guided by the sun only if we do not look at it. The direct encounter with religious truth would be like Semele's encounter with Zeus, a sudden conflagration. ... Religions survive and flourish because they are a call to membership - they provide customs, beliefs and rituals that unite the generations in a shared way of life, and implant the seeds of mutual respect. Like every form of social life, they are inflamed at the edges, where they compete for territory with other faiths. To blame religion for the wars conducted in its name, however, is like blaming love for the Trojan war.
Bonus points for recognizing which of the three metaphysical philosophies Edward Fesser wrote about (yesterday's post) each of these writers represents. Tip: Neither of them is a universal realist. Scruton only sounds like it from time to time.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Universal trouble

The real, the unreal, and the disillusioned Have a look at TCS Daily, where Edward Fesser examines the metaphysical roots of today's political philosophies. Here's the introduction:
Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, published in 1948, was among the founding documents of contemporary conservatism. The title phrase has become something of a cliché, and overuse has stripped it of the interesting meaning it once had. Nowadays most people assume that what Weaver was saying was that how we think is bound to affect how we act, and that the intellectual trends that prevail in a society will determine its moral and political character. To be sure, that was part of his meaning, but if that were all he had in mind his message would have been a pretty banal one, since no one denies that in this sense “ideas have consequences.” What is largely forgotten is that Weaver was making a play on words, and that his primary reference was to Plato’s famous Theory of Ideas, a metaphysical thesis that has cast a long shadow over the history of Western civilization. Indeed, Weaver’s view was that this metaphysical vision is what made Western civilization possible, that its abandonment was the primary source of the pathologies of the modern world so decried by conservatives, and that its recovery is essential if those pathologies are to be overcome. It hardly needs saying that not all conservatives today would express their creed in precisely these terms. Many religious conservatives, or at least those of an evangelical bent, would find them excessively high-falutin’. Many secular conservatives, fancying themselves too hard-headed and worldly-wise even for philosophy, let alone religion, would eschew Weaver’s formulation in favor of economics, or perhaps to take up the current fad for evolutionary psychology. Nevertheless, a consideration of metaphysical issues of the sort Weaver addressed would, I maintain, do much to clarify the nature of conservatism, and of the disputes that constantly break out among conservatives of different stripes. For there is no one as dogmatically beholden to a metaphysic as the man who denies that he has one... ... As the medieval world gave way to the modern one, and medieval to modern philosophy, nominalism won the day, and modern thinkers like Descartes and Locke abandoned the old conceptual apparatus of hylomorphism, with its appeal to forms and natural ends or purposes as fundamental to the understanding of things, and to the idea of the soul as the form of the living human body. “Mechanism” -- the view that physical things operate on purely mechanical principles, without natural ends or purposes and without instantiating anything like Plato’s or Aristotle’s Forms -- entailed a redefinition of the human body as nothing more than a complex machine, and “human nature” as nothing more than a specification of the principles by which the machine operates, like clockwork. Now if a living human body does not have a form -- any more than anything else does on the modern view -- then it does not have a soul either, at least as classically defined. Descartes thus re-defined the soul as a kind of non-physical object which is only contingently or accidentally attached to its body, rather than as a form which the body necessarily has to have in order to be a living body at all. One result of this is that the soul came to seem to modern Western thinkers an ever more elusive and mysterious entity, and therefore a dispensable one. Another is that it became harder to see what made a living human body the body of a person, since there is nothing about its being alive that entails (on the modern view anyway) that it has a soul. This problem was only exacerbated by Locke’s own re-definition of a person as a stream of connected conscious experiences, rather than a union of soul (form) and body (matter). Thus were sown the seeds -- inadvertently, to be sure -- that would eventually develop into the view that neither a fetus nor a Terri Schiavo counts as a person having a right to life. And in the other trends alluded to -- nominalism and mechanism -- we see the origins of the idea that “human nature” is either a purely human construct, or something that exists objectively only as a collection of behavioral tendencies, of no more inherent moral significance than the workings of a clock. We might, as a matter of prudence, want to keep them in mind as a possible barrier to the realization of our desires, but if we could find a way to alter them there would be no objective reason not to do so. Certainly these behavioral tendencies -- being ultimately nothing more than mechanical regularities -- do not, on the modern view, reflect anything like Aristotle’s natural ends or purposes or Plato’s Form of a human being, defining what is objectively good for us. And thus there is no absolute moral barrier to the radical revision of institutions that have traditionally been understood to reflect human nature -- hence socialism, the sexual revolution, and a thousand other things.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Seeds of division

This article at Alvin Kimmel's Pontifications ties in nicely with the Peter Kreeft seminar my wife and I attended on the weekend, the one about Catholics and Evangelicals together. The text is by John L. Gresham, and the subject is historian Mark Noll's take on the Reformation today. Writes Gresham:
Noll characterizes the extent of this changed relationship quite well in his closing comments where he says Evangelicals and Catholics were like Elves and Orcs to one another, but now they are more like Ents and Hobbits, not quite speaking the same language or sharing the same culture but seeing themselves more on the same side. (I find it interesting that Noll pulls these analogies, without explanation or reference, from a mythical world created by a Catholic philologist, rightly confident that both his Evangelical and Catholic readers will get his point). The Middle Earth analogy is preceded by a Lindebeckian synopsis of historic Christian divisions as various cultural linguistic adaptations of Christian faith to new environmental challenges: Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism, and Pentecostalism represent the four broad cultural linguistic expressions of Christian faith (each of which Noll affirms are rooted in a shared "mere Christianity")... Of course, to answer the question in the title of the book, Noll must move beyond historical description and consider the theological issues. He begins with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which he describes, despite areas of doctrinal difference, in glowing terms. Evangelicals who read the Catechism "are in for a treat" he says. Noll makes note of the depth of scholarship, abundant scriptural and historical references, and the pastoral, prayerful and worshipful tone of the Catechism. (I only wish some dissenting Catholics could be so generous toward this great compendium of doctrine!) He describes vast areas in which evangelicals will find themselves in agreement with the Catechism, extending from its teaching on God, Trinity, Christ, Salvation and judgment to most of its devotional and moral teaching. In fact, he says Evangelical Protestants should find themselves in agreement with at least 2/3 of the content. (There is an important apologetic strategy suggested here: first to argue that the Church which is right on 2/3 of the issues, including such fundamental areas as Trinity and Christology just might be right on other issues as well; secondly, to show the interconnections between the 2/3 of doctrines Evangelicals already believe and the remaining 1/3 they still question.) What of the remaining 1/3 differences? First, as Noll points out again and again, many of the areas of difference are also areas of wide divergence among Evangelicals themselves. For, example, some Evangelicals will agree with much of the section on Baptism, others will find themselves in greater disagreement, depending upon their views on paedobaptism. Second, the most striking point made in this book is that justification is NOT one of those issues. Noll explicitly says if justification is the article on which the church stands or falls, the reformation is over! Based on the Catechism, the Joint Declaration and other ecumenical documents Noll finds the current Catholic teaching on justification closer to the teachings of the sixteenth century reformers than the beliefs of many Protestants, including many evangelicals. He notes the wide range of evangelical views from Luther and Calvin to Wesleyan Arminianism and places the Catholic view within that range. The Catholic view is closer to Luther and Calvin in its emphasis on divine grace Noll argues than are some extreme forms of Arminian Evangelicalism which overemphasize human agency. So, if justification no longer divides us, what does? Noll lists some of the usual topics: Mary, magisterium, sacraments, etc., but the heart of our division, he says, is ecclesial. On this he repeats a joke Evangelicals tell upon themselves in this regard, "The main difference between us (Evangelicals) and the Catholics is ecclesiology-they have one and we don't."
Th subject of ecclesiology is relatively new to me and I'm not prepared to say much about it. I am curious to know about the reaction of my non Catholic Christian readers to Noll's thesis. Noll is a respected Evangelical scholar, so how about it? Is it offensive or reasonable?

"Stephen Harper has a dog. You know who else had a dog? Hitler."

The Liberals' attack ads have resulted in several very funny parodies. This Canoe story contains several of them. Like, I'm totally not making this up. Choose your Canada, people.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Notwithstanding fear

The power of interpretation The donnybrook that Paul Martin wants to open up on changing the charter - and wasn't he supposed to be it's best defender, using it protect religious minorities? - seems like as good a place as any to discuss textual interpretation. Wait! This won't be boring, I promise. The way Martin and his defenders paint it, removing the notwithstanding clause removes a Damocles' sword from the rights that are in the Charter. The crude insinuation is that this will remove, once and for all, the ability of those nasty conservatives to bash minorities. This is based on the idea that a text, in this case the Charter, means exactly what it says it means and nothing else. No respectable scholar would argue that, and Martin knows it. The Charter, like any other law, has to be interpreted before it can be acted on. It's easy to overlook how important that is. You cannot safeguard the nation through a magical combination or words on a page. A sharp mind can do amazing things with any text. When the Liberals passed their SSM bill in the last session of the house, they did so in response to the Supreme Court, which had ruled that the existing definition of marriage was discriminatory under the Charter. The court didn't change a word of the Charter in reaching it's conclusion. The subject of gender orientation was 'read in'. The existing phraseology was kept, but it's meaning was altered. So you can see that altering the effect of the Charter does not require the use of the notwithstanding clause. That is a blunt weapon that most governments would rather not use, and why use it when you can get results with so much more finesse? In this case a court stacked with Liberal appointees (eight of ten) "found" a right. In a different case, the court could remove or impair a right in such a way that it still exists on paper but is of little consequence. In the Chaoulli case, for example, the Court ruled that overly long delays in accessing the services of the public health system were a violation of the Charter's guarantee of the right to personal security. It was a contentious decision but it was the right one, I think. To rule the other way would have been to impair the right to personal security tremendously. The point is that Chaoulli could have gone the other way, eroded a Charter right, and it would have done it without altering a dot of the Charter or using the notwithstanding clause. Martin's characterization of the notwithstanding clause as a threat to the Charter is baseless because the Charter is always subject to the interpretation of the court. No adult thinking person should be of the opinion that the court will always arrive at the "right" decision, held from excess by a mere document. These ten people are charged with a tremendous burden in a society undergoing as much rapid change as ours. Even with the best of intent, they could produce a Dredd Scott type of decision in some unkown future event. With no notwithstanding clause, the government will not be able to say, "thanks, but no, we will respectfully decline to accept that." It's hard to say what such a move of no confidence in the court would have on the court but it could be the less of two evils. In any case, any government that undertakes to use the notwithstanding clause would have to face the public at some point. It will be held accountable, which cannot be said of a court that botches a decision.
Martin's suggestion that he has to alter the Charter to save it is based on ignoring how much room there is to alter the document through interpretation. Now, I'm sure that Martin does in fact know this and is just praying on the fears of the ignorant voter. Unless his change is written into the Constitution it could simply be undone by a future government. Martin likely knows this also. During the whole SSM debate the ability of the Court to read the document with a wide degree of latitude was loudly trumpeted by those in favour and I argued that while it is helping you now, it might return to bite you in the ass in the future. The Martin Liberals are scared to death that future might be near at hand and are now claiming constructionism is the way to go. My originalist argument was that while the laws certainly need to be respectful of changes going on in the culture, the way to do this is through the process of revision and amendment in the house of commons. That is what we elect these people to do. The house is filled with three hundred and eight members elected from all across the country, who must respond to their local riding in order to keep their seats. The judges of the supreme court are, in contrast, ten people appointed (no real judicial review in Canada) by the PM. They answer to no one and were elected by no one. Martin's proposed course of action - increasing the autonomy of the court - is a step in the direction of a star chamber. The Liberal party has a preference for a loosey goosey manner of legal interpretation. It helps grease the wheels of government in their efforts to get the trains to run on time. This makes their claim to stand or fall on the text of the Charter somewhat ridiculous, and it means that voting Liberal means you can't be really sure about what you're getting. More specifically, in this case what they want to save is not so much the Charter, but their interpretation of it. No one who is not pure can be allowed near it, or Martin will turn red and wave his arms.
Martin and the Liberals are over the line and think that their vision of the country is the only "true" one. Non Liberal Francophones and westerners can't allowed to touch the levers of power because we would only dilute the glorious truth of their stealth revolution. As a democrat and a Trinitarian, I think there is a lot to recommend interaction of differing parties. Here's a quote that gets at the same idea. As J.S. Mill wrote (surprised?):
He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. ... Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty.
The deliberations of the Court would be enriched with the addition of new points of view that fall in the wide range of Canadian tradition. The Martin government is doing its utmost to permanently exclude them and in so doing, it would alter the nature of the Charter and the court that gives it life. This fear ridden attempt, done as a campaign afterthought, is the height of irresponsibility. Just go, Mr. Martin. Please, just GO.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Postmodern outreach

I get mistaken for a rad trad Catholic at times, and even - this is really funny to me - as a fundamentalist. Sorry, no can do sir, as the following will attest.
Rebecca and I went to see Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft speak on Sunday night. I like Kreeft, but with reservations. He is a convert (from Presbyterianism, I think) and he is at times too literal in his reading of the Bible for my liking. And all of this stuff about demons and whatnot leaves me with a shrug. Professor Kreeft also really dislikes postmodernism. As for the examples he raises - Sartre, Nietzsche - I have not much use for them either. It's a mistake, however, to think that they are all that there is to postmodernism. Pope Benedict has said that he feels postmodernism is a more fertile ground for the faith than modernism, and it's not too hard to see why. Postmodernism is a leveling of the intellectual field, a recognition that science - for all it's wonders - can't account for itself. Modernism regards theses which can neither be proved nor disproved as non entities, or - at best - as private matter. What the Pope was getting at, I think, is that some forms of postmodernism (the less extreme kind) allow something like an free market of ideas in which he feels the Church can speak and be heard. I think what Benedict is getting at is echoed by another convert here:
Either Christianity is true and can handle every sort of criticism, attack, and harsh light cast upon it - or it is weak and flawed and not worth my time.
Postmodernism can help to lay the first plank that educated people need today, by providing an effective critique of scientism, such that the simple but stark and ubiquitous nature of faith (and Faith) can be more clearly seen, and seen to be something of value. It doesn't matter that Nietzsche was a critic of Christianity, as this interesting essay points out:
Nietzsche is especially instructive here, because he cannot be accused of any revanchist Christian bias in his diatribes against liberal democracies. His most prominent English biographer, R. J. Holingdale, makes a striking point when he observes: "Nineteenth-century rationalism was characterized by insight into the difficulty in accepting revealed religion, and obtuseness regarding the consequences of rejecting it." Above all, I would argue, Nietzsche warned against that peculiar obtuseness of secularized Europe that had managed to persuade itself that ethical striving alone could bring about an eschatological kingdom on earth. That to me is Nietzsche's great lesson for Christians.
Kreeft was attempting to reach out to mixed Catholic and Evangelical audience, and that's a good thing. In doing so, however, I felt he was misrepresenting at least a little, and what he was misrepresenting was a bit of my own past. Those explorations lead me here, and they can do so for others as well.
I got this in the mail the today (I've shortened it a lot):
Then how is it possible that two - or three - or five Vicars of Christ - Vicars of Christ, in Heaven's name! - can have been such bad Shepherds of the Universal Church? "It cannot be", cry out the 'sedevacantists', "they cannot have been true Popes." Let us note firstly that this often indignant reaction proceeds from the Faith. If someone did not believe in the Church, in the Papacy in particular, obviously he would have no difficulty in granting that Popes could be grave-diggers of the Church. But let us also note that it is exactly the same argument that pushes liberal Catholics to be liberal, and 'sedevacantist' Catholics to become 'sedevacantist': (Major premise) The Pope is infallible. (Minor premise) The recent Popes are liberals. :: (Liberal conclusion) Therefore we must become liberal. ('Sedevacantist' conclusion) Therefore these "popes" are not true Popes. ... A Catholic being tempted by 'sedevacantism' cannot think too hard on this apparently surprising relationship between 'sedevacantism' and liberalism - they may be like heads and tails of the same coin. Now in the argument condensed above, the logic is good, the Minor is good, so the problem must be in the Major. It lies in fact in the exaggeration of papal infallibility. And here we come to my double reason: - to make the Truth and the Church of God so dependent on human beings is a too human way of considering the things of God.
The writer is a Bishop unknown to me but I sympathize with what he's saying, although I do not think Faith is at the root of it. The rad trads are doubters and what they seem to doubt is Providence, ie. they prefer their ideas about Providence to what Providence has provided.

"We did not make this up."

I came home from work today and saw this ad being discussed on a CTV news program. Wow, it's not as colossally dumb as the Charter amendment proposal written on a Tim's napkin, but it's close.

Monday, January 09, 2006

"This is insanity"

From The Globe and Mail's "live blog" of the debate:
Brian Milner, 8:20 p.m.Finally something substantive. Mary Janigan, 8:20 p.m. Oh no. Oh no. This is insanity. He would get rid of the clause that made the whole constitutional deal possible. The notwithstanding clause was the key. Brian Milner, 8:20 p.m. Here we go. Notwithstanding. Marcus Gee, 8:21 p.m. Hang on: Is Martin saying he'd try to scrap the notwithstanding clause? That's news. Marcus Gee, 8:21 p.m. What a weird time to raise it, out of the blue during a debate. It's a Hail Mary pass. Brian Milner, 8:23 p.m. Alas, back to scandal. Marcus Gee, 8:24 p.m. Excellent off the cuff reply from Harper on the constitution. If it ain't borke, why fix it? Mary Janigan, 8:24 p.m. And harper wants to put back property rights. Which was another part of the deal made in late fall of 1981. We could spend the next five years talking constitution while the world passes us by. Marcus Gee, 8:25 p.m.Just what we need: Another constitutional debate! Canadians would rather eat glass.
There you have it. PM Martin is insane, and playing with fire on many files here...

Leader's debate

I thought the funniest part of the debate tonight was PM Paul Martin saying something like "being aboriginal causes poverty." Ok, so he mis-spoke, it was still funny coming from a guy as self righteous as Paul Martin. Martin was self righteous enough to tell BQ leader Gilles Duceppe that Quebec is not a nation but a people, "just like the Acadians." Yeah boy, that'll do wonders on the national unity file! Come to think of it, so will suggesting that we remove parliament's right to use the notwithstanding clause. Naw, that doesn't sound like an ill conceived idea hatched in desperation, the product of short term thinking. Naw, not at all. We'll spin it like this, see? We'll sell it like we're giving the people power by doing that. They'll never figure out that it actually involves ditching the sovereignty of the parliament in an effort to cling to power now. Sell the sizzle, not the steak, which happens to be swapping democracy for oligarchy, ie. create a wing of the Federal government (the supreme court) that is accountable to neither the house or the Senate, or to the people. They'll love it! Get me Bono! Tory leader Stephen Harper put in what I thought was, in all honesty, his best performance to date. He was conciliatory and statesman like. If Harper flubbed, I missed it. The closest he came was the missed opportunity that arose when Martin told him "the Americans are our neighbors and not our country." That should have seen a rejoinder on Martin's America bashing, which is unworthy of a national leader. Tackle the file, yes, but don't let it get personal - as Martin can't seem to help doing. Gilles Duceppe was also very good - informed and even witty. Socialist Jack Layton sounded scripted, and like an also ran. That's a shame because despite some very sharp differences that I have with his party and his vision of Canada, I would prefer to see the NDP get elected in a seat that the Tories can't win. Why? I've been saying for a long time now, to anyone who will listen to me, that we need to kick the Liberal Party in the ass, and I mean hard. Discredit the Matinites and send the party to the backwoods to get its' head on straight. If Jack could get away from the script that says his party is the only one that cares about social issues, he might be able to raise his credibility enough to get over 18% or whatever the NDP highwater mark is. A more statesman and reasonable claim would be that "we do it better." But that would alienate the base, so I guess Jack's screwed then.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Science, religion and ER

The Washington Post is carrying a good piece on science and religion this morning:
the case for this "warfare thesis," as historians call it, was discredited decades ago. It had already largely crumbled when I was reading my childhood science books. "I do not know one historian who believes that there is a history of warfare between science and Christianity," says William Ashworth, historian of science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The thesis was popularized in the 19th century by writers such as the first president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White, whose 1896 History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom is still in print and still accepted as gospel in some quarters. But many of the clashes reported by White have turned out to be fiction. Those that did occur, such as the Galileo affair, were as much (if not more) about personalities and politics as they were about beliefs. "Most people learn about Galileo, and his problem with the Church, and don't learn about many other scientists," says Ashworth, "and so they assume that this is a typical case, and there have been lots of Galileo affairs. The truth is, there haven't." Attempts to salvage the warfare thesis by narrowing it to authoritarian Catholics (vs. dissident Protestants) or, alternatively, Protestant biblical literalism (vs. the more allegorical Catholic tradition) have also fallen apart under scholarly scrutiny. Similarly, religious alarmists are crying wolf when they blame science (usually in the form of "Darwinism") for the increasing secularization of society over the past century. Historians and sociologists have found that divisions within the Church have been typically more important than any conflict with science in estranging people from orthodoxy. As a case in point, Darwin's loss of faith was an emotional reaction to the cruelty of Church doctrine (especially regarding damnation), not an intellectual conclusion drawn from his scientific studies. For most of history, the border between science and religion was fuzzy, to say the least. Scientist and priest were often the same person. Few outside the Church had the education or the inclination to pursue research. Those not in the clergy, such as Galileo and Newton, were nonetheless devoutly religious. Even in our current secular age, some 40 percent of scientists say they believe in a God who answers prayers, according to a poll published in the journal Nature. This is significantly lower than the public at large, but it hardly qualifies as an army of atheists. And despite its reputation for astronomer-bashing in the age of Galileo, the Catholic Church was for centuries by far the biggest source of funding for scientific research and education. This is not to say that there haven't been power struggles. There have been plenty. It's just that the combatants - even in the iconic ones surrounding the likes of Copernicus and Darwin - typically don't sort neatly into science and religious camps. ... What about that most contentious of issues - Genesis? Biblical scholars such as the 17th-century Anglican archbishop James Ussher had deduced from Scripture that the world was about 6,000 years old. Some observers at the time were indeed nervous that the earth's layers might reveal a much longer history. Young Earth creationists today refuse to countenance any deviation from Ussher's figure. But for mainstream 17th-century Christians, it was a non-issue. Allegorical interpretations of Genesis had been relatively uncontroversial at least since the time of Saint Augustine. What was controversial was not the numerical date of creation, but whether there had been creation at all - or if the earth and its inhabitants were eternal, as some radical philosophers asserted. For orthodox Christians, the eternalist heresy was scary indeed: No creation, no Creator; no Creator, no religion.

We are seekers after the truth, mixing and matching methods in an effort to advance in knowledge. The National Catholic Reporter writes of the Pope that:
The emerging heart of Benedict's papacy is about truth - his belief that modern men and women must find their way back to objective truths about human life, imprinted in nature by the Creator. Even if the fallen human mind needs the "purification" of faith to perceive this truth, Benedict believes that it nonetheless responds to something deep in the human heart.
How else to explain this? I read once that one of the important but less discussed differences in our scholarly squabbles is the motive to study. Do we seek knowledge in order to increase our power over matter or to grow our souls?
Did anyone else happen to catch ER this week? Amy Wellborn has a synopsis here, as well as a lengthy comment thread. It is a well done program but the Catholic side is not well represented by Dr. Luka Kovac. This guy is the "faithful" one yet he has relations with another doctor and does not mention marriage or speak up about his reluctance to see the unplanned baby aborted. Thankfully his other is able to choose well - even without his support. More controversially (!), he advises a teen pregnant by rape that he can administer something that will allow God to "reconsider." Now he may be obliged to discuss all options, despite her family's support for her baby, given the nature of his workplace (why work in such a hellhole?). Kovacs' little theological discussion with her was thoroughly silly. 1) One of the texts he quotes is Genesis, where God "breathes" life into Adam after his body was made. Why is this silly? This is a literal reading by a man who cannot be said to be in any way a Biblical literalist. Can you see the irony of this intelligent, sophisticated man turning into a Bible thumper in order to teach this doe eyed girl that God's "infallible" Word shows that the child is not yet human life? How does one reconcile this with doing this procedure in order to "allow" God to fix his "mistake"? Tip to Dr. Kovacs: God is THE criterion of truth, so that if you are judging him your conception of God is not big enough. 2) The second objection is that Adam, if we must be literal about it, is a form of special creation, not biological creation after the fall. The cases are not similar. 3) He also suggests to her that neither he or she is culpable in the event that the treatment does result in a miscarriage. By this logic the people who fired into the boxing day crowds and killed a teenage girl in Toronto are also not culpable, which is nonsense. We are culpable for things that can reasonably be expected to result from our actions. 4) Let's say that the "treatment" fails. Now our young mother is faced with either trying again, using more "direct" methods, or carrying child she knows she tried to kill. She might even find herself trying to raise it. How will the health of the baby be affected by surviving this effort to destroy it? 5) Kovacs also counsels her to deceive her parents on what she has chosen to do, telling her that they don't need to know the miscarriage was not natural. Does this not contradict 3 above?

Friday, January 06, 2006

The weird monkey

I've been tagged by this meme three times in two days, so I suppose I really must do something about it. You know who you are. Five weird things about me:
  • I'm reasonably proficient with technology and like playing about with computers but I hate phones. I really, really hate cell phones. Why? Another wit said it well: "It rings, you jump." I don't jump for nobody. Leastways not if I can help it.
  • I have a crazy hair on my eyebrow that grows to simply stupid lengths if I don't cut it.
  • I dislike heights and therefore have no plans to fly. This is not open to discussion.
  • When I was a kid my Dad used to listen to country music, and I liked this little eccentricity in him. When I was a teen I began to scorn the genre. This lasted until about two years ago (mid thirties now) and I now play it all the time when I'm driving. The old stuff makes me really nostalgic and I just like the new stuff.
  • I look really odd when I walk the dogs. It's not me per se, but the fact that one dog is of decent size and the other is tiny. I have a german pointer and a mini daschund. They get on splendidly.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The friendly atheist

Look up. Look waaay up... There's an interesting post at Anal Philosopher:
Many people are devoutly religious, and I respect them. I’m what William Rowe calls a “friendly” atheist. Qua atheist, I believe that there is no God (and that I’m justified in so believing); but qua friendly atheist, I believe that a person can be justified in believing in God. If you (the reader) believe that God exists and I believe that God does not exist, then one of us is right and the other wrong, since the propositions are contradictory. But even though we can’t both be right, we can both be justified in our beliefs. Truth is not justification. One can have a justified false belief just as one can have an unjustified true belief. How can both theism and atheism be justified? Easy. The world as we experience it is compatible both with God and without God. As philosophers of science would put it, belief is underdetermined by data (or experience). There are, of course, unfriendly atheists, just as there are unfriendly theists. I may even have been unfriendly earlier in my life, but now I’m not. Which brings me to my subject: Why are leftists hostile to religion? The hostility takes different forms, from denying that theism can be justified (epistemic hostility) to trying to drive religion out of public life (legal or social hostility) to discriminating against theists in one’s personal or professional life (personal hostility). The debate over Design Theory is just one manifestation of hostility. I cannot for the life of me see the harm in teaching high-school students that some scientists and philosophers of science believe that the best explanation of natural phenomena makes reference to a designer. The opposition to such a harmless proposal is so vociferous that it requires an extraordinary hypothesis to explain it. Something more than truth is at stake. Leftist dogma is at stake. Let me take a stab at explaining the hostility. The following remarks, like much else in this blog, are meant to be tentative. Leftists are hostile to religion because leftism competes with religion for the same cognitive and affective space...
This is my own view of the atheist-theist debate as well. Both theories have a certain coherence but I think that atheism is not compatible with truth and freedom, as I understand them. Neither is leftism.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A tea party

Mark Steyn's latest is deserves the praise it's getting, so do go on and have a look. It's a bit long and there's a lot that could be said about it, but I'm just going to hone in on this little laugh-till-the-coffee-comes-up-your-nose bit:
This [demographic threats to women] ought to be the left's issue. I'm a conservative--I'm not entirely on board with the Islamist program when it comes to beheading sodomites and so on, but I agree Britney Spears dresses like a slut: I'm with Mullah Omar on that one. Why then, if your big thing is feminism or abortion or gay marriage, are you so certain that the cult of tolerance will prevail once the biggest demographic in your society is cheerfully intolerant? Who, after all, are going to be the first victims of the West's collapsed birthrates? Even if one were to take the optimistic view that Europe will be able to resist the creeping imposition of Sharia currently engulfing Nigeria, it remains the case that the Muslim world is not notable for setting much store by "a woman's right to choose," in any sense. I watched that big abortion rally in Washington in 2004, where Ashley Judd and Gloria Steinem were cheered by women waving "Keep your Bush off my bush" placards, and I thought it was the equivalent of a White Russian tea party in 1917. By prioritizing a "woman's right to choose," Western women are delivering their societies into the hands of fellows far more patriarchal than a 1950s sitcom dad. If any of those women marching for their "reproductive rights" still have babies, they might like to ponder demographic realities: A little girl born today will be unlikely, at the age of 40, to be free to prance around demonstrations in Eurabian Paris or Amsterdam chanting "Hands off my bush!" Just before the 2004 election, that eminent political analyst Cameron Diaz appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to explain what was at stake: "Women have so much to lose. I mean, we could lose the right to our bodies. . . . If you think that rape should be legal, then don't vote. But if you think that you have a right to your body," she advised Oprah's viewers, "then you should vote." Poor Cameron. A couple of weeks later, the scary people won. She lost all rights to her body.
This is a humourous way to deal with the dark subject Steyn has raised. None of it is news to me. The fly in the ointment, if there is one, is that it presumes that present trends continue. That isn't always a safe assumption. It's too late for the boomers to do anything much about this problem first hand (as it were) but they might have a indirect influence through consultation, law, etc. I think that's not bloody likely, however. That leaves generation X, of which I am at the very tail end. Sadly, I don't think my peers even know there is a problem (most of them). So that leaves generation Y. These kids are still being formed, some as lefty as their boomer parents, others leaning south park conservative. It's unlikley that they'll hold those views well into adulthood, when life begins to pare away at opinions in a darwinain way. If those conservative kids mature in their conservativism early enough, it's possible - perhaps - that we might see the beginings of a change. When the failings of earlier generations begin to be more obvious, the ways of those earlier generations will begin to become discredited and they may root around in various older traditions in a search for a way forward. That's been my story, to some degree. So Bob's yer uncle then. Remember all those folks saying Canadian PM Paul Martin was going to walk away with the house of commons? He's turned out to be a minority leader in danger of losing even that (and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy). Motto: don't count your chicks before they hatch.

'Never seen vinyl'

Wired magazine interviews Pete Tong:
WN: What do you think of Apple's adventures in music? Tong: Apple's music stuff is so simple to use, just like the Mac. iPods have changed everyone's life. It doesn't matter whether you are 7 or 70, everyone wants one. But iTunes libraries are growing so large people are outgrowing hard drive space, and using drag-and-drop to put libraries elsewhere is so archaic. I want a button to make my PowerBook speak to my main iTunes library and consolidate the collection. I get sent tracks all the time on my notebook when I'm on the move. It's kind of scary that you can have your entire collection on one or two hard drives. My 25 years of vinyl are in storage. I played a 7-inch vinyl set recently and discovered there are 18-year-olds who have never seen vinyl. ... There is genuine concern about how to stop music being passed around for free. Once you take the money out of music, it's not fair; people (artists, producers, managers and more) can't get paid.
That bit about vinyl creeps me out; when I was a little kid I had a mickey mouse record player. The needle was held by his arm (you know the one I'm talking about). I don't miss LPs, with all their hissing, popping, skipping and breaking, however. I always thought Neil Young was crazy for claiming the sound was better. I'm also quite happy about not having to buy whole albums anymore, which brings me to Tong's comment about the need to get paid. Basically, I don't buy it. The argument is that if people don't get paid, they won't record anything. I don't think that's true. Making music is a deeply human thing to do - just like all of the arts are. And the technology for recording is getting cheaper all of the time. So, no, I think people will continue to make and record music. For fun and for fame, and, baring that, for notoriety. This has already happened with text. I like to write, so here you are - free stuff to read. You will remember me, right? And tell all your friends? I'm not worried about quality falling either because you won't tell your friends about stuff that isn't worth bothering about. At least musicians will always be able to charge fees for live concerts. We scribes are not so fortunate.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The blogging ethic

Bloggers with great aspirations (or even aspirations of greatness) might want to check this list of ten ways to better your blog by Evan Schaeffer. These are all good, sensible ideas. My own two bits: no one ever tells you that the editorial decisions are much harder than the writing. If you didn't want to write, you wouldn't blog. The question of what to post and when comes with it and we learn as we go - learning from our own mistakes and others' successes. As much as I enjoy Althouse's frequent posting and wide range of topics I know that I simply don't have the time to do that. Even if I had a laptop there's no way I could post from work. I also admire bloggers who can challenge our comfortable assumptions and make connections that are both intriguing and sensible, not sensationalistic. Check out Liberty Corner, who tips us off to an interesting book review in the NYT and goes on to offer as much to chew on as the review - if not more. The book in question is The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodnet Stark. The Times reviewer challenges Stark's thesis by asking:
What about France and Spain? As Roman Catholic realms, they fell outside [Max] Weber's paradigm, but not Mr. Stark's. Mr. Stark argues that Christianity is necessary but not sufficient for the development of capitalism, which requires political freedom to thrive. Once the capitalist city-states of Italy lost their freedom, they became economic backwaters. Fine, but if the spirit of free inquiry and human equality is inherent in Christianity, why did Spain and France become despotisms in the first place? And, while we're at it, why is it that so many non-Christians - Chinese, Jews and Indians, for example - have taken to business and technology so brilliantly?
The answer is not so difficult, I think. Firstly, there is only one truth and the Chinese, Jews and Indians, being rational and intelligent people have indeed found good bits of it, as did past civilizations like Greece. Under no circumstances can the west today (or yesterday) be understood to have a monopoly on the truth. Secondly, being Christian or even being Catholic is not to be one monolithic thing. We tend to think of Catholicism as synonymous with the great structure built by Gregory the VII. The reality, however, is that the church has had different sorts of relationships with the societies it has found itself in and it will continue to do so. Not all of these political structures will be as respectful of the truth as others - and any claims to be respectful have to be evaluated in light of actual practise and not simply proclamation.