Monday, June 29, 2015

A Rejoinder to Issues Etc.’s Same-Sex Marriage Ruling Coverage from a Friendly Atheist Gadfly:

In my opinion Robert P. George did "Issues, Etc." listeners a grave disservice. When asked what arguments were made in favor of the Supreme Court ruling he said there were no arguments, there was no reasoning; in place of rationality there was just feeling. This was untrue, and deprived you and your listeners of the opportunity to gain a basic understanding of how the other side conceives the issues. If you want to understand how and why others disagree with you, I urge you to read the Supreme Court decision for yourself at , and to listen to the oral arguments made before the Supreme Court at . In the latter you will find, for instance, that R. P. George’s claim that the purpose of marriage is procreation was trounced in oral argument. It could not make sense of marriages performed between non-child-bearing couples.

Something that struck me, listening to Issues Etc.’s guests on this issue, was ... not exactly their hypocrisy so much as their utter failure to apply their principles impartially, their lack of effort to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. Lutherans of your persuasion are anxious to defend not only your freedom of conscience, and the right to believe as your religion dictates, but to live by its precepts. Very well. But you don’t then turn around and recognize that those who, in good conscience, disagree with you about the nature of marriage and about whom it is right and proper for them to love and marry, have the same right to live by their own consciences and beliefs. Instead you want the state to enforce your beliefs over their lives.

I get that you are certain that your beliefs are true. But you also recognize that others don’t share your religion, and (perhaps only for that reason) you are anxious to defend your religious freedom against state coercion by denying to government any such power. Yet you are outraged that you are not able to bend the state to your purposes, enforcing your interpretation of the Bible. I take it back; that is hypocrisy. You want freedom for yourselves while denying it to others.... But to be fair, your certainty blinds you to your hypocrisy, so it isn't a form of dishonesty but merely unawareness of self-contradiction. You are unable to see others as equals, since you cannot see other religions and worldviews as the equals of yours under the law. But that equality is what your claim to freedom of religion assumes. It implies that others have the same claim to freedom as your own.

Matt Harrison claimed that this ruling establishes liberal religion. But just because conservative religion’s position on marriage has been disestablished in this case doesn’t mean that it establishes liberal religion. If no religion is to be established, what you have to do is imagine someone who doesn’t know which religion, if any, is true, and determine how that person would adjudicate, recognizing citizens’ equal rights under law. Arguably, that is what the Court has done here.

If asked, “Whose right is more important to protect, the right of a person to prevent others from living lives he disapproves of, or the right of a person to live his own life according to his own lights?”, I think most people would choose the latter. That is because we value freedom, even the freedom to be wrong (within limits). That, I believe, is one reason why you are losing, and why you are destined to lose on this issue.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Letter to Conservative Lutherans on Science & Christian Theology

Dear Pastor Wilken and Dr. Menuge,

I just listened to the Issues Etc podcast from 6/9/2015, the interview with Dr. Angus Menuge on science and Christian theology, and I have a few comments. (Well, the comments have now expanded to about 4000 words.)

I wrote to Issues Etc once before, regarding an interview with Craig Parton on “Faith vs. Facts” and climate change. I’m what must be a very rare thing in your audience, an atheist. I am also, what may be almost as rare, someone with an active and lifelong interest in science and its history. Although I disagree with nearly all your beliefs, I respect that you defend them rationally with arguments. Perhaps you will be interested in a few factual corrections and some counter-arguments, offered in a spirit of mutual respect.

Dr. Menuge was correct in saying that the term “scientist” is of relatively recent (19th century) vintage. However, “the old name for science” was never “natural theology”. The study of nature was known as “natural philosophy” or “natural history”.  Those who pursued it were “natural philosophers” or “naturalists”, not theologians (though some theologians were also naturalists).  Astronomers, including Galileo, were considered mathematicians, not even deserving the title “philosopher”. Natural philosophy and natural history as systematic fields of study go back to Aristotle. Astronomy is much older. Of course, our understanding (or misunderstandings) of the natural world have always had implications for what we believe about the gods or God. Natural theology explores these. But using nature to prove the existence of God – the main business of Christian natural theology – never advanced our knowledge of nature, the main business of science.

As for the doctrine of “the two books”, if it goes back to Augustine, as Dr. Menuge says, then how could it be the “foundation of modern science”? After all, many dark ages separate Augustine from Galileo. The metaphor of nature as a book written by God from which we are presumably to read could not tell us what to read or how to read it. The crucial question is, what kind of book is it? If it is a book intended to teach us about Christ and how to be saved, then we will read it allegorically. We will seek signs of God’s love, for instance, or symbols of sin and salvation. Or perhaps He will providentially teach us by similarities. What Christian theologian would guess that it was a book of mathematics? How much math is in the Bible? How much concern for understanding the natural world, as opposed to concern for leaving this world behind? Christianity, complete with its “two books” analogy, was a formula for centuries of darkness and ignorance, during which the scientific attainments of the Greeks were neglected and forgotten.

In contrast, a signal event inaugurating the modern age was the rediscovery of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, a quasi-atheistic work which recounted, in Latin verse, Epicurus’s atomist theory of the world, and which taught a thoroughly naturalistic approach to nature. (Epicurus didn’t deny the gods’ existence, but they were completely superfluous to the natural order.) Revival of interest in and knowledge of classical antiquity surely played a far greater role in the advent of modern science than did Biblical Christianity. (The Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt, recounts the discovery, in a monastery in 1417, of Lucretius’s lost work. It’s a good read. So is On the Nature of Things.)

It’s true that many early modern scientists were Christians who believed that their discoveries deepened their knowledge and appreciation of God, but this was a matter of appreciation of what they perceived to be the religious implications of their work. The work itself was not theology, and theological conclusions drawn from it were not science. Science did not look to scripture, or rely on religious authority of any kind.

In a Christian society, the ‘two books’ metaphor could be used as a source of legitimacy and justification for the pursuit of natural science. But modern science was never the “servant” of theology. Dr. Menuge implies that the autonomy of science was a kind of perversion that arose later, due to pride in science’s success. But on the contrary, autonomy of scientific judgment was a prerequisite to success. The motto of the Royal Society, one of the first and most important scientific societies, was “Nullius in verba” – on the word of no one – meaning that no authority, but only facts and experiments, counted in their scientific endeavors. This strong sense of intellectual autonomy is what allowed early modern natural philosophers to throw off old authorities, look at the world with their own eyes and form their own conclusions based on evidence. No doubt the Reformation contributed to this iconoclastic, skeptical, authority-challenging spirit of the age, as did many other developments, like global exploration and Copernicanism. In contrast, the concept of reason as subservient to either theology or faith was not, I think, a big player in the scientific revolution, except as its enemy.

As a matter of fact, the “beautifully modest” interpretation of Copernicus you praised – “saving the appearances” and supposedly getting all the benefits of mathematical elegance without drawing conclusions as to the theory’s truth – was the position held by Cardinal Bellarmine and imposed on Galileo by the Catholic Inquisition, the violation of which ultimately led to Galileo’s condemnation and imprisonment. It was also the position expressed by the theologian Osiander in the unsigned preface he inserted into Copernicus’s book without the author’s knowledge or approval, “suggesting that the model described in the book was not necessarily true, or even probable, but was useful for computational purposes,” which led its readers to believe, erroneously, “that Copernicus himself had not believed that his hypothesis was actually true.” (Quotes from Wikipedia on Osiander.) But belief in the truth of theories, or at least their possible truth, not merely their usefulness, is what sparks the imagination, leads to further research and in this case led to the scientific revolution.

A listener called in (Millie at 18:30 in the podcast) asking about the uniqueness of planet earth. A relevant fact that was not mentioned in your response is the recent discovery of just how common planets are in the universe. 1852 exoplanets have been confirmed so far. On the basis of these observations, the number of planets per star is now thought to be greater than one. There are on the order of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, and perhaps 40 billion earth-sized planets by one estimate. There are about as many galaxies in the observable universe as there are stars in the Milky Way, embedded in a universe which may be infinitely large. Any consideration of our planet’s supposed uniqueness must be viewed against this background of the extremely large, perhaps infinite number of planets that exist.

Dr. Menuge, in his response, mentioned The Privileged Planet by astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, both associated with The Discovery Institute, an Intelligent Design think tank. William Jefferys has written a devastating critique of this book for The National Center for Science Education.

But arguments both for and against the “privileged planet” hypothesis should be mute for Issues Etc, which promotes young earth creationism. If the universe was created in six 24-hour days and biblical genealogies are accurate, then the universe is not old enough for us even to see the stars in our own galaxy, let alone any other galaxies. Astronomers believe the Milky Way is about 100,000 light years across, and the earth to be around 25,000 light years from the center of the galaxy. But if the entire universe is less than 10,000 years old, as young earth creationists believe, then there would not have been enough time since creation for light to reach us from most of the stars in the Milky Way, let alone from even the nearest galaxies, like Andromeda, which is over 2 million light years distant.

I don’t know how young-earth creationists account for this conundrum. Do they question the physics, the very same physics which allows us to fly missions to neighboring planets with pinpoint accuracy? The physics which has allowed astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology to unfold in an orderly way, constantly building on observations and confirming or disconfirming theories based on facts?

Do they claim, perhaps, that light once travelled much faster than it does now? But the speed of light is a fundamental physical constant. Physical reality would be entirely different (remember all those “fine tuning” claims?) if the speed of light changed drastically.

Or do they say God created the light we see in mid-flight when He created the universe? But in that case we aren’t really seeing the stars, because the light that enters our eyes never came from them. And why would He bother to create stars millions or billions of light years distant at all, since the world is expected by Christians to end far sooner than any actual light from them could reach us? So is He just putting on a light show, deceiving us into believing in an immense universe we could never have the power to see? This is just the opposite of the thesis of The Privileged Planet that we are in an especially good situation to observe the universe.

This is a good example with which to take up NOMA and methodological naturalism (MN). I get the impression that neither of you really appreciates the danger that rejecting NOMA and MN puts you in. If empirical science can support a theistic hypothesis, uncovering evidence of God in the world, as you claim, it can also undermine that hypothesis. To hold that your claims are empirical means that they are in principle falsifiable by evidence. But in your discussion you never once considered that possibility. Dr. Menuge said that “we ought to allow the evidence to point wherever it leads,” but you both also claimed certainty and divine authority for your Christian beliefs. This is a bit like running for office but stating beforehand that you won’t abide by the results of the election if it goes against you. And it has gone against you, in so many ways.

Dr. Menuge seemed to me to be somewhat confused about the meaning of methodological naturalism. He spoke of scientism using methodological naturalism to exclude the supernatural from contention and then concluding, on that basis, that the supernatural isn’t real. I agree with him that this would be a fallacy. But the whole point of distinguishing methodological from metaphysical naturalism is to say that it is only methodological, and therefore cannot be used to draw metaphysical conclusions. This is why NOMA and MN go together. They are both saying that there are no facts which science and religion can disagree about, so they cannot endanger each other.

I agree with you in rejecting NOMA and MN. It is a very attenuated religion which makes no empirical claims, it seems to me. I respect your determination not to water down your religion’s supernaturalism as liberal Christians have done. However, I believe they did so for a very good reason: in a conflict over physical facts, Christian literalist supernaturalism loses for the simple reason that it is false. The only way you can avoid acknowledging this is by cultivating a studied (or not so studied) ignorance.

Take Pastor Wilken’s claim that science has abandoned the search for causes, in practice if not in principle: “Evolution’s still looking for a cause, but not real hard,” he said (at 26:30 in the podcast). Nothing could be further from the truth. Darwin’s theory of inheritance with variation under natural selection explains evolution, and now we understand the physical basis of inheritance and its variation in overwhelming detail. We can look into the history of species and catalog the genetic changes responsible for changes in traits, and we understand physically how such genetic changes are caused, because the very same processes are happening all the time. Random DNA mutations and chromosomal abnormalities – the sources of genetic variation —also cause birth defects and cancer and acquired resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. One might think that the tricks viruses and cancers learn to avoid the body’s defenses required “intelligent design”, but this would require a malicious designer. Fortunately, we don’t have to resort to such an improbable and unsavory agent because random variation under selection is sufficient to explain the phenomena.

Dr. Menuge spoke vaguely of the “staggering”, “incredible” amount of information necessary to explain the existence of living creatures, “which in our experience only comes from intelligent creative agents.” Even aside from the facts that we don’t experience change over geological time periods and that vague words like “staggering” and “incredible” aren’t sufficient to make a quantitative argument, I believe he is mistaken. We observe vast amounts of information being produced by impersonal natural processes daily. Patterns embody information, and natural patterns are constantly being randomly produced and destroyed. Just think of the shapes of clouds, ripples on water, the intricate unique patterns of snowflakes. All these express information, which is constantly being produced in vast quantities. The trick about life is not that new information is created, but that some of it is preserved and then accumulates in stable patterns across generations.

We understand the main mechanisms of this variation and transmission thoroughly in a causal, structural way. True, we don’t yet know how life itself – cells with their genetic and metabolic machinery – got started. Perhaps we never will, though we may discover possible avenues. (This is an active area of research.) But to argue that such a gap in our knowledge proves divine intervention is to argue from ignorance, a fallacy, as Dr. Menuge pointed out.

I once heard TV evangelist Robert Schuller dumbfound his audience with images of the supposedly mind-numbingly large odds against life’s getting started by chance. His metaphor, I recall, was amusing, but we don’t know the odds. It’s a bit like saying “These mountains are so fantastically tall and steep that, barring a miracle, they are impassible.” But unbeknownst to you, there may be a pass through the mountains, as yet undiscovered, which would make crossing them, given the right circumstances, unremarkable. At this point we just don’t know.

I have argued that science has produced a detailed, evidence-based, physical, historical, naturalistic, ever-deepening understanding of the processes responsible for biological diversity, including the existence of our own species (but not including the origin of life). The ultimate source of this diversity is random genetic mutation. We know it is random in the same way we know that a roll of the dice is random, because we’ve examined the dice and have observed and understand the causal process. I can imagine no reason that this theory should continue to meet with empirical confirmation from all directions other than the fact that it is true. That a false theory should meet with such overwhelming support from such diverse and unforeseen sources of evidence is beyond my imagination (barring resort to an all-powerful evil demon intent on deception, à la Descartes’ meditations.)

Does this prove that a supernatural being had no part in our creation? No. The entire course of the universe, including every event we regard as the result of blind chance, could have been preordained with divine purpose (in which case every roll of the dice and genetic mutation is random AND intended). But does it mean that the Biblical creation story is not literally true? Absolutely.

I don’t believe this verdict is based on any materialistic or naturalistic presuppositions. It is not “scientistic”; it is scientific, because things could have turned out differently. Instead of evidence for evolution from the slow, orderly accumulation of layers of fossil-bearing rock over millions of years, we could have read the jumbled, chaotic evidence of the fabled flood. But it didn’t turn out that way because it didn’t happen that way.

Frankly, I don’t see how anyone with common sense and familiar with the facts could believe that the tremendously detailed, ordered geological record of thousands of millennia – preserving as it does histories of landscapes and climates and progressions of life forms that lived in those habitats, their ages imprinted in isotope ratios and synchronized by traces of eruptions and periodic changes in the earth’s magnetic field – could be the result of a single watery cataclysm. Ironically, my point here is a bit like the creationists’ argument likening biological evolution to a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and assembling a 747. In this case, Noah’s flood is like the tornado, the geological record is like the 747. (Evolution itself is nothing like a tornado. It is a process which slowly accumulates small random changes that contribute to survival while discarding ones that don’t.)

If, as Dr. Menuge advocates, we allow naturalistic explanations to compete with ones that appeal to the intelligent agency of God, then I find, and modern science has found, that naturalistic explanations are successful, informative, and feed fruitful lines of ongoing research, while those that appeal to the intelligent agency of God are either grossly and demonstrably false, or are so uninformative and unhelpful in guiding research that they can be described, for scientific purposes, as empty.

This, I submit, is why naturalism prevails in science – not because of any “scientistic” assumptions that rule out beforehand a role for supernatural agents, but because when we investigate, using public, reproducible methods and relying on no one’s word alone (Nullius in verba), we find no sign of them, but find instead that, again and again, naturalistic, mathematical, and what we might loosely call mechanical explanations succeed in explaining the observed phenomena.

If we did live in a supernaturally saturated world, there would be no reason for naturalistic explanations to be so successful (unless God wished to deceive us), so they would not be.

If Biblical creation were true, there would be no reason for the theory of evolution to be so incredibly explanatory.

If prayer healed, our medical schools would teach it, and our hospitals would be centers for it. NIH would fund prayer research. It is not because of any naturalistic presuppositions or scientistic prejudices that Christian Scientists aren’t in charge of the medical establishment. It’s because they are wrong.

If we were immaterial souls animating material bodies, molecular biology could not explain life, and neuroscience could not find pieces of brain tissue which, when injured, alter or destroy our faculties of memory, reason, emotion, our personalities, or our very sense of self. Instead it might be something like this: inside the head would be found an empty place, like the Holy of Holies in the Temple. (The brain’s ventricles were once actually thought to contain ‘animal spirits’ responsible for mental functions). To this empty space sensory messages would arrive, and from it orders to our body would issue. The soul itself would not be observable, but its effects would be. Descartes imagined a kind of portal, in the pineal gland, where the material met the immaterial. For him, it was the immaterial soul alone which reasoned. But the head contains nothing of this kind. There is no mental faculty immune to physical insult, which it would be if it were lodged in a supernatural, immaterial entity. Instead, this fragile lump of pudding between our ears turns out to be a fantastically complex organ – an astronomically numerous network of active, communicating elements, obeying physical laws –  whose functions we are gradually coming to understand by analogy to our computing machines, which can perceive, learn and reason to an extent, and which increasingly mimic our nervous systems. Does this prove there is no soul? Not exactly. But it is a pretty strong indication that the concept of the soul as a supernatural entity is unlikely to contribute to our understanding of ourselves or the world. This is not a presupposition. It is a tentative result, based on facts.

If we, as human persons, are just one of the complex patterns that matter, following the mathematical laws of physics, twists itself into, then it seems oddly backwards to look for personhood at the root of this prolific tree, when all the persons we have ever known, all the planners and all the lovers, have been fruits hanging from its branches.

If I am correct, and the evidence for naturalism is so strong, how do we come to such different conclusions?

According to Dr. Menuge, all knowledge is based on authority, and since the Bible speaks with God’s authority, than which there is no greater, in any contest it must prevail.

I agree that God’s authority would deserve our trust, and perhaps confer certainty. However, the Bible was written down by men, on the authority of other men, and its contents were selected by still other men who rejected rival contents. And men have been known to be liars, fools, spinners of tales, madmen, dupes and charlatans. If there is one true God and He speaks to us, we must listen and believe. But as to which, if any, human writing constitutes such a message, this cannot be known with certainty by fallible human minds.

Besides, the story that Christian knowledge is certain because it relies directly on divine authority is not consistent with the other story you tell, that Christianity is based on historical facts, and that, if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then all your faith is futile. But your knowledge of the crucial historical facts, such as it is, is also based on fallible human testimony and its fallible transmission through word of mouth before being set down in writing decades after the fact by often unknown people, some of whom wrote under the names of others. This is a form of transmission that seems to me far less trustworthy than today’s internet, which is a constant source of hoaxes that fool many.  How, I ask you, can such testimony prevail over established, reproducible scientific results, especially when it contradicts these results as drastically as the literally-interpreted creation story does? I fail to see how this can be rationally justified.

The reason that there is only one worldwide science but innumerable, mutually contradictory religions is that science incorporates an agreed-upon method for correcting its errors, so over time it becomes more and more accurate and comprehensive and, over the long term, retains its unity, while revelations and interpretations of revelations all claim divine authority and are untestable, especially when they insulate themselves from the facts by branding the science that contradicts them “scientism”. There are few sources of information more prone to error.

Dr. Menuge mentioned Musolino’s book The Soul Fallacy, complaining that such authors fail to appreciate that Christianity is a faith “founded on fact.” But what Musolino did was (rejecting MONA and MN) treat the soul as a serious scientific hypothesis, consider the facts and arguments for and against, and then render a verdict, as one would do with any scientific theory. Christians may take the so-called facts as related in their bible stories seriously, but if that is where they stop, ignoring new evidence if it conflicts with their faith, the very evidence that science must heed as it tests theories, doesn’t that make Christians the enemies of science, whatever their relationship to science was once, centuries ago?

I believe the rift between science and religion has opened up not because of any fault in science like pride or biased presuppositions and not because Christianity was anti-science or irrational (although I do believe it has a seriously flawed, even a corrupt epistemology. Faith is not a form of knowledge. And it is corrupting to try to induce belief with fear or hope or shame instead of evidence and argument. Telling someone they must believe in order to be saved is like threatening or bribing a judge to influence a verdict. But putting all that aside...) Christians, including Christian scientists, fully expected the Christian worldview to be confirmed, or at least not contradicted, by science.  But it turned out those expectations were mistaken. Naturalism, to the surprise and chagrin of many, produced the most empirically successful explanations, which were in direct conflict with the Christian worldview, especially with the fundamentalist account of creation. There are no comparably explanatory rivals to naturalist theories. Creationists can wave their hands and pretend to offer rival theories, but they have nothing. They are only mimicking science. That’s just the way it turned out. It could have been otherwise, but it wasn’t.


Gerald D. Lame
San Diego, CA

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Letter to Conservative Lutherans on Global Warming --

Dear Pastor Wilken and Mr. Parton,

This is a response to the April 20 “Issues Etc.” interview by Todd Wilken of Craig Parton on the topic of anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann’s NY Times op-ed titled “Faith vs. Facts”

I understand that “Issues Etc.” is intended for an audience which is in basic agreement with its conservative Lutheran standpoint. It’s not meant for the ears of liberal atheists like me. But I like to try to understand opposing viewpoints, so I do occasionally listen, if the topic sounds interesting. This one did, since I had read Luhrmann’s op-ed, and disagreed with much of it. I thought the central idea, that religious beliefs are not factual beliefs – that, in her words “religious belief and factual belief are ... different kinds of mental creatures” – was misguided, and I wanted to hear what you guys had to say.

You agreed with me. But at the same time, you demonstrated the problem that her analysis was trying to solve.

Her article began:

“MOST of us find it mind-boggling that some people seem willing to ignore the facts — on climate change, on vaccines, on health care — if the facts conflict with their sense of what someone like them believes. ‘But those are the facts,’ you want to say. ‘It seems weird to deny them.’”

Craig Parton DID deny the facts on climate change on your broadcast. It IS weird to deny them, but perhaps not that weird. After all, it’s clear, from what Mr. Parton had to say, that he is totally uninformed on the topic. People are often mistaken on topics they know little about. On the other hand, he confidently expressed, on the public air waves, strong beliefs on a subject of which he knows next to nothing. That is a bit weird, even allowing for the fact that he could expect the vast majority of his listeners to share his opinion because it is current conservative orthodoxy. But why is he so confident? How can he dismiss the warnings of the world’s scientists without a second thought? Or is he so oblivious that he is unaware that the world’s most respected scientific organizations have been issuing warning reports like this one by the U.S. National Academy of Science and the Royal Society: Mr. Parton did bring in politics and religion in his attempt to explain why people disagree with him about climate change. So was Luhrmann on the right track? Was Craig, despite his protestations, utilizing some non-fact-based, religious or perhaps political way of thinking?

Here is a transcript I’ve made of the conversation:

 Starting at about 17:40 minutes into the podcast:

Todd: “One of the things that I found interesting in the op-ed piece, Craig, is that it kind of starts out by saying, “Well, this explains why Christians (I think the meta-narrative here is Christians, not all religious types) but this explains why religious types are so wrong on stuff like global warming. (They even throw in health care reform in there for some reason.) That’s why they’re resistant to the facts.” What are your thoughts there?

Craig: “Yeah. That to me is one of those red herrings where I don’t surface(?) but to say that reasonable minds can disagree on certain topics. And they don’t call it global warming. That’s changed. Now it’s climate change. Um, excuse me, I hate to be blunt about it, but what moron doesn’t believe in climate change? My climate changed today, it changed this morning, it changed yesterday. It’s been changing for a long time. But the debate now has shifted to, from global warming – which couldn’t be sustainable – to climate change. Um, I think it shows a real weakness, um in the analysis in the article to equate controversial political positions with the claims of Christianity as the center(?) that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. I think it shows, you know, you’ve got to have some ultimate, um, things that you hold to, whether you’re an anthropologist and an atheist, uh, or whoever you are. And if you don’t make ultimately justifiable assertions about your claims, you’ll believe... you’ll absolutize anything, including political stances. And so when you’re left with nothing to believe in but this world, you absolutize your politics in this world and make it your religion.” 19:37

Here is my response to the above:

I hate to be blunt about it too, but what moron doesn’t know the difference between weather and climate? If it snowed yesterday but warmed up today, that’s weather. But if it snowed so much last winter that snow stayed on the ground through the summer and into the next winter, and the same thing has been happening for thousands upon thousands of years, snow layering upon snow to create a glacier that has been there longer than humans have been there to witness it, then that is climate. And when the glacier melts away, its edge receding for miles from where it once loomed – as glaciers are doing all around the world – or when it disappears altogether (as most of the glaciers in Glacier National Park have done) then that is climate change. No one who has bothered to try to educate himself about this topic could make such an elementary error.

As for the terms “global warming” and “climate change”, both have long been in use. (See People don’t use the term “climate change” because they have given up on global warming. Far from it!  After all, 2014 was the warmest year on record.  “Global warming” and “climate change” refer to different but related phenomena. An increase in greenhouse gases (chiefly from the burning of fossil fuels) warms the planet. (What is so hard to believe about that? Have you seen pictures of the earth at night from space, lit up with electricity? Seven billion of us are changing the face of the planet.) “Global warming” refers to this long-term trend of increasing temperature averaged over the whole surface of the globe, which is due to the fact that the planet is absorbing more energy from the sun than it is radiating back into space (the greenhouse effect).  Global warming CAUSES climate change, which encompasses many different kinds of change, from melting glaciers and sea ice and permafrost to rising sea levels to changes in the frequency and severity of storms and the distribution of precipitation. The jet stream can be affected, bringing severe cold to regions unaccustomed to such weather. Changes in ocean temperature and currents can affect fish stocks and the animals and humans that depend on them. Productive farming regions could turn to desert and vice versa. Highly populated regions, which have been dry for tens of thousands of years, could be lost to the sea. Water sources from mountain snow melt on which millions of people depend could dry up. These are just some examples of climate changes. Because our societies have grown up relying on fairly stable climate conditions, and because, if our production of greenhouse gases is not curtailed, the speed, severity and ultimate nature of induced climate changes cannot be known with certainty, it seems prudent to limit these changes. The current goal is to limit global warming to 2⁰C (3.6°F).

(Another effect, in addition to global warming, of the well-documented human-caused continuing increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is ocean acidification. CO2 dissolves in water (as in carbonated water) making it more acidic. This in turn makes it more difficult for sea creatures to build their skeletons and shells from calcium carbonate. Coral reefs, for instance, which support so much sea life, are stressed both by increasing ocean temperatures and by ocean acidification.)

The reality of global warming and the resulting climate change is based on decades of serious scientific research carried out by thousands of dedicated scientists and reported in established scientific journals according to the strict standards of the science community. Recognizing this is not a “political stance”, it is realism. What is global warming denial based on? Why do you two believe what you do? Why are you so dismissive of the scientific evidence? Has your denial of evolution perhaps so alienated you from the scientific community that you don’t take even physical science seriously? Why do you believe this is a matter of politics, and of “absolutizing” a political stance into a religion? Does that mean that you regard this question as a religious one, perhaps as a battle in a religious war? Is it against your religion to believe what scientists are telling you about climate change? You believe in man’s sinful nature; is it so hard to believe that man may be carelessly and ignorantly wrecking the dwelling that God created for him? Or is “this world” of so little importance to Christians like you that whether or not we harm the environment that sustains us is unworthy of concern?

I do not believe that belief in climate change is a religion. At least for me, care for the environment is not a matter of worshipping or sacralizing nature. But it is a moral question. In fact, I believe it is probably the most serious moral question of our time, fully as serious as the Holocaust. Because not only is our responsibility to future generations to pass on the birthright of a rich and thriving environment at stake. So are millions of lives and the well-being of many generations of our posterity. In Nazi Germany, Germans watched their Jewish neighbors disappear and didn’t ask questions. They ignored what was happening and hoped for the best. German Protestant and Catholic clergy, with very few exceptions, either did not oppose or actively supported the Third Reich. The full horror of what they had done, and what they hadn’t done, only became undeniable later. How will we be remembered if we do nothing to stop global warming and, as a result, calamities ensue? How will conservative Lutherans be remembered?

Best regards,

Gerald D. Lame

San Diego, CA.

P.S. There is a new documentary movie out about the fine art of denialism called “Merchants of Doubt”. It is based on the book of the same name by the historian of science Naomi Oreskes. It might help. Of course there are many books on global warming, the science, the history of the science, the politics, the economics, etc. For an in-person approach to facts on the ground and the scientists investigating them, I found Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe very readable. (I don’t recommend her more recent book, The Sixth Extinction, even though it won a Pulitzer Prize. It piles other challenges on top of global warming, and is just too daunting, I found, plus it’s a much thicker book.) – G. L.

P.P.S.  By the way, you two seemed to assume that T.M. Luhrmann was ignorant of Christianity, and Craig was pleased but surprised that what she had to say about faith and facts seemed to ring true when applied to the attitudes of many evangelicals. You may be interested to learn that Luhrmann is the author of the 2012 book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, in which she used her anthropologists’ tools to try to fathom the practices of a community of American evangelicals.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Republican Asymmetrical Warfare

I recently sent someone a link to Paul Krugman's July 28 column The Centrist Copout. My friend replied, disagreeing with Krugman. This is my reply to him:

You say, Michael, that Krugman is just calling the Republicans "hostage-takers, extortionists, blackmailers and extremists" in order to "besmirch the reputation of the people he disagrees with." To you these are just "loaded terms," examples of normal if deplorable political rhetoric. But Krugman didn't literally call anyone a hostage-taker or an extortionist (though he did refer to "Republican extremists.") The point of referring to extortion and blackmail was not to attack reputations but to characterize a tactic. You say this tactic is business as usual, just the normal application of political power. Krugman and I disagree.

If someone filibusters an appointment, it is because they don't want the appointment to go through. If the filibuster succeeds, they have achieved their goal. If the President threatens a veto unless legislation is altered to reflect his demands, it is because he doesn't approve of the law as drafted, so a veto would achieve his aim of preventing a bad law from being passed.

No one (except extremists like Ron Paul) thinks failing to raise the debt ceiling would be a good thing. The Republicans are threatening to do something that nobody wants done unless they get their way. They are using their power to inflict serious harm on the country in order to achieve a political goal they could achieve in no other way. This is not business as usual. On the contrary, I suspect it is unprecedented. (It certainly is with regard to the debt ceiling.) Can you think of another example in which one party openly threatened to harm the country unless its demands were met? 

I don't think even the Gingrich/Clinton government shutdown compares. The Republicans passed a budget they wanted. Clinton vetoed a budget he didn't want. Neither side used as a bludgeon the threat to do something nobody wanted, and no one could remedy once done, merely as a means to force the other side to concede.

It seems to me, a liberal, that applying this kind of leverage is not proper behavior in a civil society. Even though it is legal and may be effective, it is not a legitimate way of wielding power. Krugman could have justly used another loaded term: terrorism. It seems to me that there is a great deal in common between the absolutist mind-set of current American conservatives, especially Tea Partyers, and that of religiously-inspired terrorists who feel that their point of view is so right, and its opponents so wrong, that any means is justified to achieve their goals. The conservative point of view has been increasingly to view politics as warfare, and their political opponents as enemies. Isn't what we are witnessing now asymmetrical warfare inside the U.S. government? Which raises the question: Should the President give in to terrorist demands? Unfortunately, he seems determined to do so. I think this bodes ill for the country.

You might ask: if they be denied their most ruthless but effective tactic, how are conservatives to achieve their goals? I would say: if you want to make a radical change in government policy, you need to win the majority in more than one house of the legislature. Until you do that, the normal processes of democracy dictate compromise. The alternative of extortionist threats is like attempting a coup, in which one house grabs the levers of power for itself. That's not the way this republic was meant to operate.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Republican Madness

Today I sent the following email to members of the U.S. House Republican leadership regarding the current Republican-manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling:

I am not a constituent of yours, but your actions impact all Americans. So please heed my plea. 
I know you and your Republican allies were elected to represent their constituents, but so were the President and the Democratic majority in the Senate. The idea that you would try to govern by ultimatum, threatening to throw the U.S. economy into chaos unless Republican demands are met, is so appalling to me that I find it difficult to express how heinous I believe Republican behavior to be. The Republic can't function when its elected representatives behave just like terrorists, threatening all our well-being unless they get their demands enacted into law. 
Please, consult your conscience, and stop this madness! Lift the debt ceiling without preconditions.
Gerald Lame
San Diego, CA

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reply to Megan on Bumper Sticker Philosophy

My goal is eventually to write a book on the philosophical and factual mistakes underlying the prolife movement, but I seem to be much more at home writing short pieces (though long for blog comments) in conversation with prolifers, usually in the form of replies to specific statements. The following is a comment I posted (but who knows when it will be published) to a blog entry by Megan on the Life Training Institute's blog. It was titled "Bumper Sticker Philosophy" and can be found here:
Megan was commenting on what she believed to be the contradictory philosophical presuppositions of a fellow college student based on the bumper stickers on her car. The three bumper stickers she mentions are a Darwin fish, "Fight Racism" and "Pro-Choice."
I deal with her comments about evolution, naturalism and the value of the embryo first. Then I go into a long account of how the rise of the prolife movement among evangelicals in the South may have been linked to changing attitudes about race. I have never heard anyone put these ideas together in this way before. I thought up this way of looking at things some time ago, building on a very narrow historical knowledge base. I am not confident in it. There are definitely facts consistent with it -- like the support for apartheid by conservative prolife senators with a history of racism -- but I elaborate beyond what I know. For instance the statement that "A kind of moral hysteria swept through evangelical congregations" is pure filling-in on my part. I don't know much about just what happened in churches or in the prolife movement as it took off in the late 70s. If people want to correct me, I'd be glad to learn from them.


I realize this blog is more or less intended for LTI insiders, not for pro-choice secularists like me. But speaking just to those who agree with you can lead to complacency and even to sloppy thinking, and I know you consider yourself to be a careful thinker. So look on this as an attempt to keep you from sinking into a too-easy complacency. Besides, you attacked the woman who expressed those bumper-sticker opinions without giving her a chance to defend herself. Let me be her stand-in.

Regarding the “Darwin fish” bumper sticker, you’re right that it pokes fun at Christians, but not all Christians, just those who deny the reality of evolution. You are mistaken if you believe the theory of evolution is based on a naturalistic worldview. If anything, it is the other way around: evolution by natural selection made belief in naturalism possible. Darwin was a Bible-believing Christian when he began his voyage on the Beagle. If he had found evidence supporting the story of Noah’s Ark instead of contradicting it, no doubt he would have remained one. Darwin’s theory arose from his struggles to understand a vast range of facts, many of which he discovered or became vivid to him on his voyage around the world or through his later painstaking investigations. The theory managed to convince the scientific community and the science-literate public not because it flattered their presuppositions – it didn’t – but because it succeeded wonderfully at explaining intelligibly so much of the living world. In the century and a half since the publication of The Origin of Species, supporting evidence has continued to build and build, while not a single solid fact that contradicts the theory has turned up. A flood of genetic information is now pouring out of laboratories, shedding light on the evolutionary history of life on earth in undreamed-of detail. If evolution were false, there would be no reason for all this data to be consistent with it. But the data supports the theory in spades. Without evolution, it would make no sense. Many Christians have accommodated their religious beliefs to the incontrovertible reality of the evolution of species, including our own. Those who continue to deny something so well-substantiated deserve to be poked fun at. If you believe that the theory of evolution by natural selection is scientifically controversial, you have been lied to. Evolutionary theory is normal, established science. Species evolved from other species as surely as the sun is a star and the moon is made of rock and the world is older than last Tuesday. Whatever your metaphysics, if you must deny the solid fact of evolution, you need to revise your assumptions.

Just as your assumption that Darwinism is in error shows an ignorance of biology, so does your claim that naturalism cannot account for goodness. I remember being puzzled by this claim in C.S. Lewis. Like you, he goes from a universe of “bombarding particles” to an absence of value. Inexplicably, he omits the realm of organized matter we know as life. Things are good and bad for organisms. If they don’t behave accordingly, they don’t survive. As products of evolution, it is not surprising that we perceive the world as infused with values. You say, “according to her worldview, ideas are just the inevitable result of bombarding particles. So ideas can be different, but none can be better than others.” On the contrary, ideas can be more or less accurate, and having accurate ideas of the world around us has survival value. For instance, we are liable to harm our descendants if we fail to adopt accurate ideas about climate change.

When it comes to morality, you say that someone with a naturalistic worldview cannot say why her view is better. I admit that arriving at an account of the foundations of morality compatible with naturalism is a difficult challenge, but it seems to me that the theistic alternative is no better than a parent’s answer to the umpteenth ‘why’ question: “because!” Except that the theist elaborates: “because God said so.” You tell us, “Human beings are intrinsically valuable – valuable just in light of being human.” Why is that? Because God said so (never mind where, or to whom, or how you know it), or what amounts to the same thing (namely no explanation at all): because we are “made in the image of God.” But God is invisible. He has no body. He is incomparable to anything. So what is His image? The basic tenet of your morality is an oxymoron! Is that a license to make it mean whatever you want it to mean? If not, let me try to understand it.

Are human embryos valuable – made in the image of God – because they have human DNA? But God does not have DNA. Is it because they are human animals? But God is not an animal. Is it because they have human life? God doesn’t. Then because they are alive? Is God biologically alive? No – He has no body. But if He is ‘living’ in some abstract sense, then aren’t all living things made in His image? According to Christian theology, God is a person (actually three). So perhaps, insofar as we are persons, we are made in His image. But what is a person? ‘Person’ cannot mean ‘human animal’, since God is a person but not an animal. Those on the pro-choice side tend to believe that an essential characteristic of persons is that they have minds. We tend to think of God as having a mind. So this is also consistent with being made in His image. But for humans, having a mind requires having a functioning brain. Therefore embryos are not yet persons, and have not yet been made in God’s image. The idea that it could take time to be made in His image is consistent with the Bible. After all, we are told that He knitted us together, not that we popped into existence when He snapped His fingers. If God molds us like clay, then perhaps he molds a human organism into a person during the final months of pregnancy. On what basis did pro-lifers become so certain – contrary to the beliefs of many other Christians, both now and historically – that this ‘making’ occurs instantaneously at the moment of conception? This used to be thought of in terms of the question of when the soul entered the body; perhaps it was the invisible, immaterial soul or spirit that was supposed to be made in the image of the invisible, immaterial God. That would make sense. But, curiously, evangelical Protestant pro-lifers no longer speak of the soul, at least not in this context. Once they accused Darwin of trying to reduce man to the level of the beasts, but now they are ready to fight for the proposition that man’s most essential identity is his animal nature. How did that happen?

I have an idea, and it is related to the third bumper sticker: “Fight Racism.” Conservative evangelicals did not become fired up over the issue of abortion until the late 1970s. Up until the late 60s southern white conservative evangelicals were much more concerned about defending their right to deny their black neighbors equality, dignity and the vote. They hated liberals and the Supreme Court for pushing integration on them, and they left the Democratic Party in rebellion over civil rights legislation. This is what occupied their passions, while opinions favoring liberalization of abortion laws were widespread, even among evangelicals in the South. For instance, in 1971 both the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Convention of Evangelicals passed moderate statements on abortion. The Baptist resolution stated, “we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” What happened after 1971? Did a new book of the Bible turn up? Not quite. The Roe v Wade decision came down in 1973, but that wasn’t enough in itself to spark evangelicals’ passions. There was something else that lit the tinder box, and I think it was race – but in a peculiar, indirect kind of way.

Something important was happening during the 1970s, maybe beginning with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968: racism was losing respectability in the South. This was a reversal of centuries of tradition, and it must have been wrenching, especially for preachers who had defended Jim Crow with fervor and scripture from the pulpit.  Southern Baptists, after all, had split from their northern coreligionists over their support for slavery, and conservative white southern evangelicals had continued to defend the right of white Christians to deny their black neighbors equality, dignity, and the vote in self-righteous tones of defiance or misunderstood and put-upon victimhood ever since. But all that was coming to an end. What was a proud, formerly openly racist preacher to do?

The decent, Christian thing would have been to call on his congregation to join him in repenting for centuries of oppression, to admit they had been wrong, and to invite their black neighbors into their churches, offer to wash their feet, and beg their forgiveness. On the other hand, Catholics were making quite a noise about abortion, especially after Roe, and while the Catholic Church had formerly been reviled, maybe they had a point. If abortion was murder, that made liberals and the hated Supreme Court baby killers. And if conservative southern evangelicals could accuse their enemies, the civil-rights-defending integration-forcing school prayer-preventing godless commie liberals, of killing innocent babies, how sweet was that?

Conservatives, who had fought tooth and nail to preserve white supremacy in this country, and who were still defending it in South Africa, by opposing abortion could become authorities on equality and human rights. People who had dedicated their lives to preserving their God-given right to humiliate their black neighbors could preach to liberals, in tones of moral outrage, about human dignity. It was a godsend, if you believe in that kind of God. Preachers and their congregations could climb back on their high horse, defending Christian goodness against godless evil. They just had to change horses. Why repent or atone, if you can change the subject? 

A kind of moral hysteria swept through evangelical congregations. Formerly moderate positions and statements on abortion were forgotten. The “defender of human rights” had become a new, or newly current, kind of moral hero. It was a much-coveted role, and by affirming as God’s truth certain non-obvious things about the beginning and end of life, it could be yours. People who had been shamed for their racist culture became the righteous defenders of human rights that as Christians they felt they deserved to be recognized as.

At least, that’s one possible explanation for the virulent, extremist anti-abortion movement in this country, which is peculiar to the USA, like its racial history.

I’m not saying that all prolifers were racists, or that many are racist now. Times have changed. In 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention finally apologized for Jim Crow. Now prolife conservative white southerners claim the mantle of the civil rights movement, likening their pro-choice liberal opponents to racists, as Megan did, without a hint of irony. It is now unquestioned among them that a central tenet of Christianity is the right to life from the moment of conception. But this was not always so. It could be that this controversial proposition became gospel for a certain group at a particular moment in history not on its intrinsic merits, but because it served to restore the self-esteem and express the anger and self-righteousness of people whose goodness and way of life had been called into question. That was intolerable and didn’t bear thinking about. So they changed the subject by inventing a new self-evident truth, and rallied around it like a battle flag, which they marched off under, to the culture wars. And we have been fighting ever since.

What might seem surprising in all this is the lack of a sense of humility, or maybe just fallibility. Considering how wrong southern white conservative evangelicals got the race question, over decades and centuries, not just personally but institutionally and doctrinally, you might think they would consider the possibility that, even when they believe now that they know the mind of God, they could be wrong, again.  And that, especially when the issue is equality and human rights, maybe they might have something to learn from liberals.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Pro-life Arguments and the Sorites Paradox

The following was written as a reply to a blog entry by Jay Whip on his blog Pro-Life Apologetics at  

Jay says, “If you add one hundred zeroes together, your sum will still be zero. In the same way if sentience, brain waves, and conscious desires by themselves do not have any bearing on personhood, putting them together does not help.”

It’s true that a hundred zeroes still sum to zero. But what about a hundred ones?

It strikes me that what may be going on here resembles what philosophers call the “sorites paradox”. (Pronounced suh-righties, derived from the Greek for 'heap'.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes it this way:

“The sorites paradox is the name given to a class of paradoxical arguments, also known as little-by-little arguments, which arise as a result of the indeterminacy surrounding limits of application of the predicates involved. For example, the concept of a heap appears to lack sharp boundaries and, as a consequence of the subsequent indeterminacy surrounding the extension of the predicate ‘is a heap’, no one grain of wheat can be identified as making the difference between being a heap and not being a heap. Given then that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it would seem to follow that two do not, thus three do not, and so on. In the end it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap. We are faced with paradox since from apparently true premises by seemingly uncontroversial reasoning we arrive at an apparently false conclusion.”
Of course the sorites paradox can be run in the other direction too. If you start with a heap, and take away a grain at a time, you can end up proving that any amount of wheat, even a single grain, is a heap. 

Here’s an excellent strategy for exploiting the sorites paradox: argue, along with Kaczor, that “each standard ... is an ‘independent operator’ that stands or falls alone and is in competition with the other proposed standards. As such, they must each be considered in turn.”

If the transition from a single-celled organism (the fertilized egg, which is prima facie not a person) to a toddler involves a myriad of changes, both small and large, any one of which is not sufficient to qualify something as a person, then it would not be surprising if people were stumped when challenged to name the essential difference. In the ‘heap’ argument, if someone offers a dividing line, say one hundred grains, and Jay scoffs at the difference between 100 and 101, and ridicules his opponents for offering such flimsy arguments, it does not follow that, as Jay says, “adding it to others does not help.”

The difference between an infant and a human zygote is as great, and as multifarious, as the difference between the members of any two species. Take a dog and an ant. I think we all agree that it is wrong, at least without extenuating circumstances, to crush or poison a dog. It is much less clear when, if ever, it is wrong to crush or poison an ant. I challenge you to name the one essential criterion that differentiates the two and is responsible for this moral difference. If you ask a hundred people you might get a hundred different answers. It might be the case that none of these would hold up to probing analysis. Does it follow that we must not step on ants? Or does it prove, by process of elimination, the existence of an arbitrary, authority-based rule that accords the species ‘dog’ special moral status? Would this really explain anything?

Imagine we discovered a species whose members, early in development, were exactly like ants, but which matured into creatures exactly like dogs. Would we think it morally incumbent on us to treat dog-becoming ants as if they were dogs, while we continued to disregard the interests of ant-ants? I suppose that your philosophy would force you to do this. Would your moral intuitions agree? Both my philosophy and my intuitions tell me that currently ant-like things are different from currently dog-like things, and their current natures would demand different treatment even if it were impossible, during development, to draw a clear boundary between ants and dogs, and even if I could not articulate exactly which properties justified dogs’ special moral status. The natures of creatures (unlike their species) can and do change. The current natures of fertilized eggs, regardless of species, resemble each other far more than they do those of the mature organisms they may develop into.

Jay accuses pro-choice advocates of invariably producing only “an arbitrary rule with the justification of abortion in mind.” If the question is one of boundary lines in a sorites kind of situation, with two clear poles and a continuum of complex changes intervening, arbitrary rules may be all that's available. Besides, isn’t the criterion of membership in the human species without regard for stage of development or mental status an equally or even-more arbitrary rule, invented to justify the moral intuitions of pro-lifers? And is this rule really true to their honest intuitions in concrete circumstances? Is one grain really a heap?