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Quotations

  • Simon Blackburn: An Unbeautiful Mind
    Polkinghorne holds the belief that unless some things last forever, everything is futile, a "meaningless empire of accident." This would wipe the smile off the face of many scientists. For science is not good about "forever." It paints a different picture of the world in which we find ourselves. Science teaches that the cosmos is some fifteen billion years old, almost unimaginably huge, and governed by natural laws that will compel its extinction in some billions more years, although long before that the Earth and the solar system will have been destroyed by the heat death of the sun. Human beings occupy an infinitesimally small fraction of space and time, on the edge of one galaxy among a hundred thousand million or so galaxies. We evolved only because of a number of cosmic accidents, including the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago. Nature shows us no particular favors: we get parasites and diseases and we die, and we are not all that nice to each other. True, we are moderately clever, but our efforts to use our intelligence to make things better for ourselves quite often backfire, and they may do so spectacularly in the near future, from some combination of manmade military, environmental, or genetic disasters.
  • Roger Scruton: The West and the Rest
    "It is thanks to Western prosperity, Western legal systems, Western forms of banking, and Western communications that human initiatives now reach so easily across frontiers to affect the lives and aspirations of people all over the globe. However, Western civilization depends on an idea of citizenship that is not global at all, but rooted in territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty. By contrast, Islam, which has been until recently remote from the Western world and without the ability to project its message, is founded on an ideal of godliness which is entirely global in its significance, and which regards territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty as compromises with no intrinsic legitimacy of their own. Although there have been attempts to manufacture nationalisms both appropriate to the Islamic temperament and conducive to a legitimate political order, they have fragmented under the impact of sectarian or tribal allegiances, usually giving way to military dictatorship or one-man, one-family, or one-party tyranny. Islam itself remains, in the hearts of those who live under these tyrannies, a permanent call to a higher life, and a reminder that power and corruption will rule in this world until the reign established by the Prophet is restored."
  • Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations 1776
    The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were perhaps very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. But without the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, every man must have procured to himself every necessary and conveniency of life which he wanted. All must have had the same duties to perform, and the same work to do, and there could have been no such difference of employment as could alone give occasion to any great difference of talents.
  • Kishore Mahbubani: Freedom
    But freedom does not only solve problems; it can also cause them. The United States has undertaken a massive social experiment, tearing down social institution after social institution that restrained the individual. The results have been disastrous. Since 1960 the U.S. population has increased 41 percent while violent crime has risen by 560 percent, single-mother births by 419 percent, divorce rates by 300 percent and the percentage of children living in single-parent homes by 300 percent. This is massive social decay. Many a society shudders at the prospects of this happening on its shores. But instead of traveling overseas with humility, Americans confidently preach the virtues of unfettered individual freedom, blithely ignoring the visible social consequences.
  • Harold Pinter: Nobel Lecture
    There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.
  • Charles Darwin: The Descent of Man
    As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.
  • Earnest Becker: The Denial of Death
    We have to go the way of the grasshopper even though it takes longer.
  • Johnson, Samuel: Rambler # 121 May 14, 1751
    "To learn is the proper business of youth; and whether we increase our knowledge by books or by conversation, we are equally indebted to foreign assistance."
  • Murray Rothbard: Education Free and Compulsory
    It is evident that the common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity. Since abilities and interests are naturally diverse, a drive toward making people equal in all or most respects is necessarily a leveling downward. It is a drive against development of talent, genius, variety, and reasoning power. Since it negates the very principles of human life and human growth, the creed of equality and uniformity is a creed of death and destruction.
  • J. M. Cameron: Review of Becker's Denial of Death
    Life, for Becker, is a desperate business, in which a steady heroism before the terrors of existence is in general the only thing to be commended.
  • Mark Lilla: The Politics of God
    In the end, though, what happens on the opposite shore will not be up to us. We have little reason to expect societies in the grip of a powerful political theology to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique crisis within Christian civilization. This does not mean that those societies necessarily lack the wherewithal to create a decent and workable political order; it does mean that they will have to find the theological resources within their own traditions to make it happen. "Our challenge is different. We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder: we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men. NYTimes Magaziine, 8/19/2007
  • Richard Fields: The Land of Opportunity
    Immigration to the United States is not a problem. It is a phenomenon. The only way the United States can stop this phenomenon is by destroying the capitalist economy that draws immigrants here. We need to move in the direction of more open immigration, not in the direction of militarized borders fit only for a police state. Though it's been obscured by layers of cynical campaign rhetoric, the issue of immigration comes down to whether we want to restrict individual liberty to native-born Americans or offer it to everyone. If freedom works for us — and it does — what possible moral reason do we have to offer it to those born in San Diego, and deny it to those born inches away in Tijuana?
  • Edward O. Wilson: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998
    On the surface it would seem, and was so reported by the media, that the Rwandan catastrophe was ethnic rivalry run amok. That is true only in part. There was a deeper cause, rooted in environment and demography. Between 1950 and 1994 the population of Rwanda, favored by better health care and temporarily improved food supply, more than tripled, from 2.5 million to 8.5 million. In 1992 the country had the highest growth rate in the world, an average of 8 children per woman. Parturition began early, and generation times were short. But although total food production increased dramatically during this period, it was soon overbalanced by population growth. The average farm size dwindled as plots were divided from one generation to the next. Per capita grain production fell by half from 1960 to the early 1990s. Water was so overdrawn that hydrologists declared Rwanda one of the world's twenty-seven water-scarce countries. The teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi then set out to solve the population problem in the most direct possible way. Rwanda is a microcosm of the world. War and civil strife have many causes, most not related directly to environmental stress. But in general, overpopulation and the consequent dwindling of available resources are tinder that people pile up around themselves. The mounting anxiety and hardship are translated into enmity, and enmity into moral aggression. Scapegoats are identified, sometimes other political or ethic groups, sometimes neighboring tribes. The tinder continues to grow, awaiting the odd assassination, territorial incursion, atrocity, or other provocative incident to set it off. Rwanda is the most populated country in Africa. Burundi, its war torn neighbor, is second. Haiti and El Salvador, two of the chronically most troubled nations of the Western Hemisphere, are also among the most densely populated, exceeded only by five tiny island countries of the Caribbean. They are also arguable the most environmentally degraded.
  • Murray Rothbard: Rights of Animals
    There is, in fact, rough justice in the common quip that "we will recognize the rights of animals whenever they petition for them." The fact that animals can obviously not petition for their "rights" is part of their nature, and part of the reason why they are clearly not equivalent to, and do not possess the rights of, human beings. And if it be protested that babies can't petition either, the reply of course is that babies are future human adults, whereas animals obviously are not.
  • Dr. Kenneth R. Miller:
    When asked, “What do you say as a scientist about the soul?” Dr. Miller's answer is always the same: “As a scientist, I have nothing to say about the soul. It’s not a scientific idea.” Dr. Mller, a Roman Catholic and biologist at Brown University is the author of, “Finding Darwin’s God” (Harper, 1999)
  • Richard Rorty:
    "...if we can work together, we can make ourselves into whatever we are clever and courageous enough to imagine ourselves becoming.”
  • Richard J. Herrnstein:
    "It is easy to lie with statistics, but it's a lot easier to lie without them."
  • Michael Slackman: Quiet Revolution in Algeria
    In Algiers there is a whole class of young men referred to as hittistes — the word is a combination of French and Arabic for people who hold up walls.
  • Albert Einstein:
    Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach age 18.
  • Neil Postman:
    "Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see."

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June 2007

June 27, 2007

The New Confederacy

You would think, wouldn’t you, I would, that these four U.S. Senators, three Republicans and one Democrat, all from the South, and all from the (former) Confederacy, that they would not be leading the charge against the 11 million illegal immigrants, that we are told are currently in the country. (One wonders how they were counted? Do you know? Send me an email and let me know.)

Perhaps putting people down is something these Senators have inherited from their slave owning ancestors? The number of illegals happens to be three times that of the slaves in the South at the start of the War Between the States. Perhaps the illegals represent for these Senators a serious threat, as the freed slaves in earlier times, to their (our) way of life?

In any case these Southern Senators are leading the charge against the illegals, in particular, as I read in today’s N Y Times, by their diabolical anti-immigrant amendments to the Immigration Bill currently being debated in the Senate.

Republican Senator from Missouri Christopher Bond’s amendment would have barred illegal immigrants from eventual citizenship. Not too different from their predecessor’s efforts to bar freed Blacks (and women) from voting.  People you’re afraid of, people you don’t understand, you keep them out.

Republican Senator from Texas Kay Bailey Hutchison’s amendment would have required that illegal immigrants return to their home countries before they could obtain even temporary legal status. Diabolical is the right word for that one.

A bit more palatable is the amendment of Senator Jim Webb, Democrat from Virginia. This would permit only those immigrants who have been in the country at least four years to be eligible for eventual legal status. What does that mean? Four years of illegality is better than just one year or two?

Delaying tactics were the weapon of choice of yet another of the Southern critics of the Immigration Bill. Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina insisted on a full reading on the Senate floor of all 27 amendments. After about one hour of this the Senators who were present revolted and brought the reading to an end, promising hard copies of the amendments to all for homework that night.

I don’t know whether Republican Senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions, was also the author of an anti-immigrant amendment, but this man from the Deep South announced that he “continued to be “flabbergasted and amazed” that people think the bill (which would put the illegals on a track to citizenship) would work. Instead, he said, it would bring a new flood of illegal immigrants.

There are those among us who would like nothing better than a new flood (illegal because that’s the only way they can get here) of immigrants. It would mean that our country is still the destination of choice for millions of the dispossessed throughout the world.

And that’s good, especially when there are so many who speak bad of our country. It’s a good thing, both for those who want to come here, and for us who are already here and have so much to gain from those coming.

The illegality of the eleven million is not what is most important. What is important is that these people have come here at great risk to themselves, and for the most part by doing so have shown admirable qualities, strength and courage among others. Can our country ever have too many of these kinds of people?

What is important is that the “illegals” have come here to work and thereby help themselves, their families, and the country, America, that, unlike the government, does need them and does have a place for them.

I’ve rarely had a good word to say about our President. His conduct of the Iraq War ought to lay him open to impeachment proceedings. But immigration is one thing he got right. Why is that so?

Well we learn why from an article in the NYTimes of last week: We learn that, “the roots of Mr. Bush’s passion [to help the illegals obtain citizenship] lie in Midland, Texas, now heavily Hispanic, the city where Mr. Bush spent much of his childhood and to which he returned as a young adult after spending his high school and college years [at Andover and Yale].”

Mr. Bust, the reporter says, "developed a particular empathy for the new Mexican immigrants who worked hard on farms, in oil fields and in people’s homes and went on to raise children who built businesses and raised families of their own, without the advantages he had as the scion of a wealthy New England family.”

This is the sort of wisdom that one acquires from living and working closely with all kinds of people, with people clearly unlike oneself. We used to learn this in the public schools when the economic, ethnic, and racial separations were not so pronounced; perhaps there was a period like this just after WWII. Perhaps we learned it best of all when we had the military draft, and the average patrol represented all of America.

George Bush learned it by living and working among a poor, Latino population in Midland, Texas, both as a boy and as an oilman. Unfortunately that now seems to be all that he learned. Would that fellow Texan Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and fellow Southerners, Christopher Bond, Jim Webb, Jim DeMint and Jeff Sessions had also learned it. If so the U. S. Senate might now be doing the right thing.

Embryo Questions

Fiveembryos
    Do you want to try your hand at this? Which one's the chicken? the rabbit? the salamander, the fish, the human? 

    (The picture was taken from the Scientific American of February, 1994, from an article by William McGinnis and Michael Kuziora: The Molecular Architects of Body Design)

    The Evo-Devo (evolution-development) biologists tell us that all forms of life have pretty much the same beginnings. And in many, as above, pretty much the same look, at least in the early stages of development. Also we're told that pretty much the same groups of HOX genes in the five examples above, and in all other animal forms, determine exactly what changes will occur throughout the development process, leading to the great diversity of life that we see about us.

    Given that the embryos of the fish, salamander, chicken, rabbit and human (in that order above) are almost identical in the early stages of their development why is it that we humans continue to set ourselves apart from all other life forms as if somehow we were special, and that all other life was there for our benefit?

    Why also is it that humans, developing from identical embryos and who are mostly alike, why do they go on killing each other? And why is it that those who are most alike, as the peoples of the Middle East, kill one another with a particular vengeance and savagery?

June 25, 2007

Truths the presidential candidates are not telling. Part One

1)    It’s very costly to provide adequately and properly for a child’s upbringing. And so far, aside from affluent families for the benefit of their own children, no one is willing to foot the bill. The public schools continue to try to do it on the cheap, and of course many, if not most of them do not succeed, the extent of their failure varying directly with the child’s unmet needs, the greater those needs the greater their failure.

2)    The United States is not yet a Democracy. Whether it’s closer to being one today than at the time of George Washington’s inauguration in 1789 is very much an open question. Today, powerful politicians and probably even more powerful corporate CEOs are the de facto Heads of government.
Democracy probably has little to do with how our decisions are made, let alone with how many people vote. Even more important our democracy has almost nothing to do with rule by consensus, stemming in turn from the deliberations of an informed people.

3)    People want mostly strength and warmth in their political candidates. Well actually Drew Western made this point in a Huffington Post piece of June 25. Losing democratic presidential candidates since the end of WWII, including Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry, all lacked either strength or warmth, or both, although all were better supplied with knowledge and intelligence than their winning Republican opponents.

4)    Medical doctors are no longer within easy reach, sometimes any reach at all, of those in need of help. And that’s probably an understatement. House calls as well as unscheduled visits to the doctor are things of the past. The family physician is no more. What happened that lawyers, even garage mechanics, although less so, and grounds keepers and baby sitters are everywhere, whereas doctors, and now nurses, are nowhere?  Here it’s a question of supply and demand and unlike earlier periods in our country’s history today’s heavy imposition of government regulations keep the availability if not the supply of doctors and nurses at a minimum.

5)    Governments, not immigrants, have made the altogether natural and healthy movement of men and women across national boundaries illegal. This was not always the case. There were no significant barriers to immigration during the period of our country’s founding, nor during the great territorial and industrial expansion of the country in the 19th century. In fact, waves of immigrants have always been the main source of this country’s growth, and wealth. And we would bring this most beneficial process to a halt! People come here to do things, not to take things, and by working and doing thereby grow our  national wealth. We would stop them?

6)    In a world where the enormous disparity between the haves and the have-nots is more and more apparent the terrorists will find an almost endless supply of  people willing to blow themselves up thereby lessening the poverty and powerlessness of their lives. We refuse, however, to address the present distribution of wealth in the world as being the principal culprit behind the threats and ravages of terrorism.
Terrorists, we’re told, come from the upper echelons of society, not from the world’s poor and excluded classes. That’s true. And it’s also true that terrorism has always been with us, if by that word we mean that that some people love death more than they love life. And we can’t root this out.
But we can do something about the large numbers of people who now seem ready to answer the terrorist’s call to single destructive action. Not terrorism, but diminishing the supply of terrorists should be the principal goal of the war. We need to become like Hamas and Herzbollah, close to the have-nots, but replacing their religious extremism with a moderate, secular and compassionate humanism. Although it's an open question whether we are still in possession of the latter.

June 18, 2007

Stanley Fish and the Three Atheists

Stanley Fish has recently written two op-ed pieces for the NYTimes, the “Three Atheists,” and “Atheism and Religion,” commenting on the books of Sam Harris. “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason” (2004, 2005), Richard Dawkins. “The God Delusion” (2006) and Christopher Hitchens, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (2007).

Here I’m posting the second of these pieces, Atheists and Religion, interspersed with my comments, in red italic type face, on what Fish is saying. Go to this link in order to read the first of his two pieces, The Three Atheists.

Here is Fish:

“Atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens believe (in Dawkins’s words) that “there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world” and that “if there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural.”

In reply, believers, like the scientist Francis S. Collins (”The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”), argue that physical processes cannot account for the universal presence of moral impulses like altruism, “the truly selfless giving of oneself to others” with no expectation of a reward. How can there be a naturalistic explanation of that?

And my commentary:

But why does Fish zero in on the lack of a satisfactory explanation for morality? This is not the main thrust of the three books. In any case, why can’t the universal presence of moral impulses be simply a given part of the nature of homo sapiens, why does its presence have to lead to hypothesizing a God?

I see impulses within myself that one might call moral, love of a partner, willingness to sacrifice for my children, a strongly felt friendship, and of course all the virtuous acts as they may or not appear in my life, illustrating  courage, loyalty, compassion, tolerance etc.

There are even aspects of my dog’s behavior that I might call virtuous, but again why does this behavior need a God explanation? The “three atheists” in as much as they tried to explain moral behavior by Darwinian science did go beyond the theory’s present adequacy to the task.

But again, Fish makes too much of this, neglecting to comment on the much more important and well documented account of the terrible actions and multiple errors of religion that the authors present in these books and instead dwells on science’s up until now inability to satisfactorily explain moral behavior.

The weight of these writers’ criticism of religion falls not on the weakness of the believers’ arguments for the existence of God. It falls rather on the long series of atrocities committed by men on men in the name of religion. That is the main subject of these works, what seem to be the terrible failings of religion. Hypothesizing a rational or scientific explanation for morality is not what these books are mostly about.

In any case there is so far no completely rational, or naturalistic explanation for our so called moral, or ethical behavior, nor for our love of truth, beauty, and goodness. Why can’t we simply accept this fact about ourselves? Why can’t we simply believe that this is what we are, without feeling that we are required to come up with an explanation as to how it came about that we are this way? Isn't it enough just to be?

Fish is too much taken up with this issue, and pays little or not attention to the evil that religions have and still do inflict on man, the main subject of these books. The most interesting question of all, what it is that keeps man from doing evil, is not the subject of these books, nor of Fish's commentary.

For me God seems a much less satisfactory answer to this question than simply my own sense of right and wrong, wherever that may have sprung from. In my case I don’t think my sense of right and wrong came from my parents, from my church, and here I would agree with Fish that it certainly doesn’t come from current Darwinian theory.

Why can’t, just as between the Left and the Right, there be a middle ground where we are most comfortable, one that we might very well call humanism? And why need there be a link from this middle ground to God, unless by God we mean absolutes such as truth and beauty and justice and the like?

Fish’s biggest mistake is to overemphasize the opposition between believers and non-believers, in order to belabor the obvious point that in important respects the non-believers have no more “reason” on their side than do the believers. He doesn’t mention the middle ground, the ground where most of us are, and probably should be.

The rightness of Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens's books stems from the fact that in man’s history up until now religion has probably accounted for more of man’s cruelty to man than non-religion, although in the 20th. century the secular “isms” may have overtaken religion in this regard. Today the Islamists may be returning us to the more usual situation in history when religious fundamentalists are the main obstacle in the way of efforts to further social justice, bolster human rights, and strengthen mankind's natural penchant to live and let live.

Easy, say Dawkins and Harris. (Hitchens doesn’t seem to have a dog in this hunt.) It’s just a matter of time before so-called moral phenomena will be brought within the scientific ambit: “There will probably come a time,” Harris declares, “when we achieve a detailed understanding of human happiness, and of ethical judgments themselves, at the level of the brain.” And a bit later, “There is every reason to believe that sustained inquiry in the moral sphere will force convergence of our various belief systems in the way that it has in every other science.”

Too much of Fish’s commentary addresses the atheists’ predictions of the future. This is an easy target to hit. For example, he cites Harris who says probably without justification that, “There is every reason to believe that sustained inquiry in the moral sphere will force convergence of our various belief systems in the way that it has in every other science.”

Much more important, however, to the arguments of these books, are the real accomplishments of Darwinian science and the real failures of religion to enable us to understand the way we are and thereby improve the quality of our lives together. It should be added, however, that neither science nor religion is yet a fully satisfactory explanation in these respects.

Fish confuses the “truths” of literature, such as those that we find in the poem by George Herbert, in Milton’s epic and Bunyon’s morality tale, those of with religion. These great works of literature are achievements of man, and should not be attributed to God or religion.

What gives Harris his confidence? Why does he have “every reason to believe” (a nice turn of phrase)? What are his reasons? What is his evidence? Not, as it turns out, a record of progress. He acknowledges that, to date “little convergence has been achieved in ethics,” not only because “so few of the facts are in” but because “we have yet to agree about the most basic criteria for deeming an ethical fact, a fact.”

But we will , if we are patient. The field of “the cognitive neuroscience of moral cognition” (a real mouthful) is young, and “it is clearly too early to draw any strong conclusions from this research.”

Of course one conclusion that could be drawn is that the research will not pan out because moral intuitions will not be reducible to physical processes. That may be why so few of the facts are in. No, says Harris, the reason for our small knowledge in this area is the undue influence of – you guessed it – religion: “Most of our religions have been no more supportive of genuine moral inquiry than of scientific inquiry generally.”

Fish is too much interested in pointing to the unsubstantiated claims of Harris in regard to the promise of natural science of one day reducing morality to physical processes.  It's too easy to point out that Harris was probably wrong to make too much of this “promise.”

But again, Fish avoids taking up the really important issues raised by these three books. He doesn't confront the reasonableness of the Darwinian explanation, nor does he address the unreasonableness of the various stories of the origin of man that stem from religion. There is such a thing as “evidence” in science, which is qualitatively different from “evidence” in belief systems or religion. Fish ignores this.

Thiese are the sorts of things Fish ought to have been writing about. It seems, however, that it was just too easy to take pot shots at the atheist’s “beliefs” about the future, although it's probably true that both Harris and Dawkins would have been better served to have rested with what we are and what we know, here in the present. I agree with Fish that when they speak of what natural science might accomplish in the future they are on very shaky ground.

It's right here and now in the present that the moral underpinings of our lives, which we recognize and are there, ought to receive our attention, regardless of whether the ultimate explanation for our moral being is to be found in God or natural science. As of yet there is no ultimate explanation (for anything, let alone morality) and we ought not to live as if there were.

In this regard one might be justifiably critical of Dawkins and Harris, less so of Hitchens who is mostly taken up by the harm that true believers inflict on the rest of us, and not by Dawkins and Harris's conceit that natural science will provide an explanation for it all.

This is a remarkable sequence. A very strong assertion is made – we will “undoubtedly discover lawful connections between our states of consciousness [and] our modes of conduct” – but no evidence is offered in support of it; and indeed the absence of evidence becomes a reason for confidence in its eventual emergence. This sounds an awfully lot like faith of the kind Harris and his colleagues deride – expectations based only on a first premise (itself asserted rather than proven), which, if true, demands them, and which, if false, makes nonsense of them.

Dawkins exhibits the same pattern of reasoning. He believes, like Harris, that ethical facts can be explained by the scientific method in general and by the thesis of natural selection in particular. If that thesis is assumed as a baseline one can then generate Darwinian reasons, reasons that are reasons within the Darwinian system, for the emergence of the behavior we call ethical. One can speculate, as Dawkins does, that members of a species are generous to one another out of a desire (not consciously held) to preserve the gene pool, or that unconditioned giving is an advertisement of dominance and superiority. These, he says, are “good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.”

Exactly! They are good Darwinian reasons; remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities. I “believe in evolution,” Dawkins declares, “because the evidence supports it”; but the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it.

Too often Fish simply goes too far in his criticism of Richard Dawkins. For example, he cites Dawkins who declares, “I believe in evolution because the evidence supports it.” In response to this Fish says (incredibly, I think) that “the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it.”

Here Fish is clearly mistaken. The situation he describes is no different from my saying that I believe that the earth goes around the sun because the evidence supports it, and his then replying that my evidence is only evidence because I’m seeing with Copernican-directed eyes.

This is not the situation. The evidence of Darwin’s theory, as well as that for a sun centered solar system, no longer needs Darwinian or Copernican directed eyes. The evidence is now there for us all to see. Darwin may have been the first one to point to it, but he didn’t make it up. It’s out there and Darwin is not longer necessary for us to see it.

Dawkins voices distress at an imagined opponent who “can’t see” the evidence or “refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book,” but he has his own holy book of whose truth he has been persuaded, and it is within its light that he proceeds and looks forward in hope (his word) to a future stage of enlightenment he does not now experience but of which he is fully confident. Both in the vocabulary they share – “hope,” “belief,” “undoubtedly,” “there will come a time” – and the reasoning they engage in, Harris and Dawkins perfectly exemplify the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Again further on in his op-ed piece Fish, says that Dawkins is not less dependent on his faith in the promise of science than are the true Christian and probably other believers whose definition of faith is that of Hebrews 11, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

That may be so (I’ve always liked that definition from Hebrews), but to say that Dawkins is guilty of the same mistaken logic as those who believe in the Biblical explanations for things is not to say that the evidence for Darwinian evolution is no more substantial than the evidence for the existence of God.

Fish doesn’t address at all, and this is the major weakness in everything he has to say about these three books, the overwhelming evidence for evolution. Rather he goes on taking the easy pot shots, especially at Dawkins’ and Harris’ penchants for telling the future, where, of course, they stand on the shaky ground.

What is and is not seen will vary with the faith within which observers look. Bunyan glosses the scene in which the townspeople mock Christian as he flees toward a light he can barely discern and they do not discern at all: “They that fly from the wrath to come are a gazing stock to the world.” Paul comments in 1 Corinthians 2 that to the man “without the Spirit” the things of the Spirit are “foolishness”; he simply “cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Those who have not found the arguments of natural selection persuasive will not see what Dawkins and his colleagues see, not because they are blind and obstinate, but because as members of a different faith community – and remember, science requires faith too before it can have reasons – the evidence that seems so conclusive to the rational naturalists will point elsewhere.

Here Fish declares that “science requires faith too before it can have reasons.” In this he is just wrong. What was the faith that Charles Darwin had to have had before he could offer his explanation for the different beaks of the Galapados finches? The relation between faith and reason is just the opposite of this. Darwin’s belief in the origin of species came from the evidence of the finches, from his powers of reasoning about that evidence. His belief follows satisfactory explanation. He didn’t begin with that belief. In fact he even resisted “believing” in his theory for some thirty or more years, before the overwhelming accumulation of evidence gave him no choice but to “believe.”

But what about reasons? Isn’t that what separates scientific faith from religious faith; one is supported by reasons, the other is irrational and supported by nothing but superstition? Not really. One of the basic homiletic practices in both the Jewish and Christian traditions is the catechism or examination of one’s faith. An early 19th century Jewish catechism is clear on the place of reason in the exercise: “By thinking for himself , let [the pupil] learn the sunny nearness of reason.” Christian catechists regularly cite 1 Peter 3:15: “Be always ready to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.” In short, and it is often put this way, at every opportunity you must give reasons for your faith.

The reasons you must give, however, do not come from outside your faith, but follow from it and flesh it out. They are not independent of your faith – if they were they would supplant it as a source of authority – but are simultaneously causes of it and products of it; just as Harris’s and Dawkins’s reasons for believing that morality can be naturalized flow from their faith in physical science and loop back to that faith, thereby giving it an enhanced substance.

The reasoning is circular, but not viciously so. The process is entirely familiar and entirely ordinary; a conviction (of the existence of God or the existence of natural selection or the greatness of a piece of literature) generates speculation and questions, and the resulting answers act as confirmation of the conviction that has generated them. Whatever you are doing – preaching, teaching , performing an experiment, playing baseball – you must always give a reason (if only to yourself) for your faith and the reason will always be a reason only because your faith is in place.

Some respondents raised the issue of falsification. Is there something that would falsify a religious faith in the same way that some physical discoveries would falsify natural selection for Dawkins and Harris? As it is usually posed, the question imagines disconfirming evidence coming from outside the faith, be it science or religion. But a system of assumptions and protocols (and that is what a faith is) will recognize only evidence internal to its basic presuppositions. Asking that religious faith consider itself falsified by empirical evidence is as foolish as asking that natural selection tremble before the assertion of deity and design. Falsification, if it occurs, always occurs from the inside.

It follows then that the distinction informing so many of the atheists’ arguments, the distinction between a discourse supported by reason and a discourse supported by faith, will not hold up because any form of thought is an inextricable mix of both; faith and reasons come together in an indissoluble package. There are still distinctions to be made, but they will be distinctions between different structure of faith, or, if you prefer, between different structures of reasons. The differences between different structures of faith are real and significant, for each will speak to different needs and different purposes.

Most of all Fish betrays clearly that he is not a scientist, and probably has had no scientific training. Otherwise, for example, he could never have said this: “It follows then that the distinction informing so many of the atheists’ arguments, the distinction between a discourse supported by reason and a discourse supported by faith, will not hold up because any form of thought is an inextricable mix of both; faith and reasons come together in an indissoluble package.”

The “faith” of the scientist is not the “faith” of the believer. Fish speaks as if the two “faiths” were the same. Mostly this shows an ignorance on his part, or a failure, an unwillingness to engage the position of the scientist on his own ground.

Fish thereby oversimplifies, reducing science to just another belief system. Although it may be in some senses a belief system, it’s not “just another belief system,” and  it’s not a religion. And Fish never seems to acknowledge this.

Mine is not a leveling argument; it does not say that everything is the same (that is the atheists’ claim); it says only that whatever differences there are between religious and scientific thinking, one difference that will not mark the boundary setting one off from the other is the difference between faith and reason.

This does not mean either that the case for God and religion has been confirmed or that the case against God and religion has been discredited. (Despite what some commentators assumed, I am not taking a position on the issues raised by the three books; readers of this and the previous column have learned nothing about my own religious views, or even if I have any.) My point is only that some of the arguments against faith and religion – the arguments Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens most rely on – are just not good arguments. The three atheists needn’t give up the ghost, but they might think about going back to the drawing board.

His is a leveling argument. And finally, and disingenuously, he says: “I am not taking a position on the issues raised by the three books; readers of this and the previous column have learned nothing about my own religious views, or even if I have any.”

Well of course he is taking a position. To have written what he has written he has to be a believer, although probably more in the camp of Herbert, Milton, and John Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress, than that of any established religion. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But again science is not a belief system like religion. It’s something else. And it has since its modern beginnings in the 17th century transformed our lives in ways totally different from the ways of religion in the past. Science is something else again and it ought to be looked at differently from the way we look at religion.

Perhaps Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens should not have published their attacks on religion in the way they did, speaking as if they knew more about man’s future than those who were not scientists. Perhaps they ought to have confined their critical commentary to the truly horrible things that religion has inflicted on mankind, with a view to putting a stop to this same sort of thing happening in the future. For these atrocities do seem to be happening right now in the present as Islam confronts within itself an extreme fundamentalist, Jihadist current that if left to its own devices would take us all back with it into a cruel and thoroughly inhuman past.

June 11, 2007

Arming the Enemy

Today in the New York Times we read that, “Americans officers acknowledge that providing weapons to breakaway rebel groups is not new in counterinsurgency warfare, and that in places where it has been tried before, including the French colonial war in Algeria, the British-led fight against insurgents in Malaya in the early 1950s, and in Vietnam, the effort often backfired, with weapons given to the rebels being turned against the forces providing them. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Third Infantry Division and leader of an American task force fighting in a wide area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers immediately south of Baghdad, said at a briefing for reporters on Sunday that no American support would be given to any Sunni group that had attacked Americans. If the Americans negotiating with Sunni groups in his area had ‘specific information’ that the group or any of its members had killed Americans, he said, ‘The negotiation is going to go like this: You’re under arrest, and you’re going with me. I’m not going to go out and negotiate with folks who have American blood on their hands.’”

Incredible? Yes! With all we know about the Iraq war, even we who live far from the war zone, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, we would call it the height of folly to arm the Sunni insurgents. Aren’t these insurgents the very same Baathist followers of Saddam who, when allied with the Al Qaeda jihadists, have been killing, maiming and kidnapping Americans during the four years since the President’s announcement of “Mission Accomplished” while on the deck of the Battleship, the USS Abraham Lincoln?

Incredible? Yes! But now we learn that there are American officers, Generals, who are not in Marblehead but are over there on the ground in Iraq, and who therefore certainly know what we know plus a lot more about the war, and about the Sunni insurgents; there are American generals who are ready to arm the Baathists in support of our battle with Al Qaeda.

Such a strategy can only spring from the desperation of our Armed Forces in Iraq, and from the Generals’ great career need to make the “Surge” work. For how else could they believe themselves capable of judging between the good insurgents and the bad, between those who have killed Americans and those who haven’t?

General Lynch assures us that he's "not going to go out and negotiate with folks who have American blood on their hands.” How can the American officer ever be sure that the “folks,” as he calls them, don’t have American blood on their hands?

If someone had ever told me that this was going to happen, that we would finish by arming the Sunni insurgents, the remnants of Saddam's armed forces, I would never have believed it. And now it’s happening.

We’ve known for a long time that we have lost our way in Iraq. This latest action on our part is just more confirmation of that fact. Our deluded President goes on talking about bringing freedom and democracy to people who don’t want it enough to fight for it themselves, in fact to people who leave the fighting almost entirely to us. What country was ever rebuilt from without?

And no less incredible our Congress goes along with the President, funding the President's war without time restraints. Our soldiers continue to die on a battlefield when the presence of the enemy is only recognized after a bomb explodes, never before when the enemy might have been stopped and the explosive device defused.