Sunday, December 25, 2011

Believing the Christmas Story (From the Archives)

What follows is a repost of a seasonally appropriate essay from last year. Parts of it resonate with a different kind of significance this year, in the wake of my father's recent passing.

What does it mean to believe in the Christmas story? In terms of substance and significance, what does it mean?

I’m not asking about facts. I’m not asking for a recitation of one or more of the Christmas narratives with the concluding remark, “To believe in the Christmas story is to believe that these events really took place.” If there is one thing that bothers me more than anything about biblical literalists, it’s that their religion is, far too often, so shallow. Their faith becomes about affirming that this or that happened, that this or that factual claim is true. There is no effort to really dwell on what it means to live as if this is true, to let one’s attitudes and choices, one’s patterns of engaging with the world, be informed and transformed by a narrative vision. When I ask what it means to believe in the Christmas story, that’s what I’m asking for.

I ask for it in the midst of my own finitude. I live with a constant awareness of my limitations, limits which I feel in so many different ways. My wife is a triathlete. She’s run marathons, swum unfathomable (to me) distances. Recently, my 7-year-old son has taken up running—and I’ve found myself called upon to keep up with him in the fun run or the 5K at an area event while my wife runs a longer distance. And so I’ve been trying to run, to build my stamina. I’ve been feeling and pushing the limits of my aging body.

One can extend one’s limits, but they remain. I might find myself huffing less intensely after a mile on the treadmill. I might stretch the distance I can cover without a walk break, until I can run around Boomer Lake in Stillwater twice without a rest. But the limits will remain. And starting to run in my forties means that I do so with a clear awareness that whatever limits I stretch will soon close back in on me, as countless little signs of age have their inevitable cumulative effect.

My father was recently diagnosed with cancer. He will be having surgery in a little over a week. This fall, a fellow violinist and retired music professor in my congregation passed away, and I sat at his funeral listening to the testimonies of his violin students and remembering Bernie, my own wonderful violin teacher, who’d passed away decades ago. This summer my wife’s grandfather died, and so I found myself thinking about the deaths of my grandparents—one dying in indignity and anguish, the other with unexpected swiftness. A few months back, Dame Joan Sutherland—La Stupenda—breathed her last. Only recordings of her exquisite breath control remain (many of them in my music collection). All of us confront this ultimate limit, the outer boundary of our mortal life. The generations take turns pushing at it.

Our consciousness moves inexorably forward through time. Even if Einstein is right and we live in a “block universe,” one in which time is just another dimension of reality—even if my experience of “now” is a kind of illusion of consciousness, and that past (and future) are every bit as real, every bit as much there, as the present—even so, it remains the case that my experience of time is sequential, that I am caught in a current I cannot turn against or step out of.

That current not only points me towards the limit we call death, but constrains me at every moment—constrains me in every moment. I’m visiting my parents, who live in the same house I grew up in. Earlier this week I drove past the home of my childhood friend Doug. I’ve reconnected with him recently on Facebook, so I know he was in Buffalo this summer, emptying out his childhood home. I saw the “Sold” sign out in front of Doug’s house, and I saw the bronze eagle that his family had installed over the garage decades ago. I wondered how long that ornament would last once the new tenants moved in.

And I remembered playing in Doug’s basement. I remembered his mother coming downstairs with toast slathered with raspberry jam. I remembered the taste of it, the crunch of toasted Wonder Bread and the burst of sweetness. And for one anguished moment I want to visit then. I wanted more than just the memory, the ghost that haunts the present. I wanted to be that child playing with that friend, tasting the flavors of that moment. And it seemed a terrible injustice that one can travel to old familiar places but not to old familiar times.

The other experiences of limitation are more personal, having to do with my incapacities, my inability to find the right words or gestures to help or comfort those I love. Presented with their needs, I come face to face with my faults. Too often, because I don’t know the right thing to do, I do nothing when something is urgently required.

My “pleasure” reading these days is Stephen R. Donaldson’s fantasy novel, Against All Things Ending. If anything—like all his novels—it’s a narrative meditation on finitude, on the flaws and limits that not only constrain us but define us. His characters’ flaws are always extravagant, their brokenness almost unendurable. And he casts these broken people into a mythic universe which reflects and magnifies that brokenness as well as their beauty, an environment whose threatened virtues demand their self transcendence.

In this novel, Thomas Covenant—who in earlier novels sacrificed his humanity to become an integral part of the mythic Arch of Time—is thrown back into mortal life due to the extremity and reckless urgency of his former lover’s (Linden’s) efforts. Towards the end of the novel he finds himself wrestling with what it means to be a finite mortal creature again, and he has these thoughts:
Now he was human again: he could no longer see past his limitations. Like every creature that died when its time was done, he could only live in his circumscribed present.

This was the truth of being mortal, this imprisonment in the strictures of sequence. It felt like a kind of tomb.

In his earlier state, he had recognized that this prison was also the only utile form of freedom. Another contradiction: strictures enabled as much as they denied. The Elohim (mythic beings of pure “Earthpower”) were ineffectual precisely because they had so few constraints. Linden was capable of so much because her inadequacies walled her on all sides.

Now, however, he had to take that perception on faith.

In the Christmas story, Christians affirm something like what Covenant strives, in the midst of his limited perception, to hold onto on faith: the idea that limits can encompass redemptive possibilities.

One of the most extraordinary images to come from the Hubble Space Telescope emerged when the telescope was pointed towards an area of seemingly empty space. What would the telescope reveal? The answer was galaxies. Galaxies upon galaxies. Multitudes of galaxies filling that tiny sliver of darkness. The vastness of the universe, the immensity of creation, came to light in a stunning way.

To believe in the Christmas story is, first, to believe that behind that immensity is an infinite creator whose vastness dwarfs His creation. The creation itself is one that we cannot even begin to fathom, and which demands our stunned silence—but that stunning immensity is only a symbol of the magnitude of what lies behind.

Second, to believe in the Christmas story is to believe that this infinite creator descended into His creation to take on the boundaries of matter and time and vulnerable flesh. All that immensity, all that unfathomable vastness, became paradoxically defined by mortal limitations: the strictures of sequence, the inevitability of death, helplessness, susceptibility to despair.

Our anguished consciousness of our limits, our fallibility and fragility, finds no purer symbol than the wailing infant, the baby whose only power is to scream out its need. And in the Christmas story, that symbol of frail finitude is juxtaposed against the heavens: the blazing star over Bethlehem, the heavenly host that comes with terrifying splendor to the shepherds—or, in the language of our own age, the vastness of the universe, galaxies upon galaxies that fill up one sliver of darkness in the sky.

But part of the message is that what the child represents is something far greater that the teeming enormity of the physical universe, despite the strictures of sequence, despite mortality and frail flesh. The eternal Logos, the Word that from the beginning was with God, one with God, fully present in a child stripped of any trappings of grandeur. A stall. Hay. Outcast shepherds. Peasant parents. It isn’t the emperor who is exalted, who can claim the mantle of the infinite. The infinite presses itself into mortal strictures at that point where its meaning cannot be warped by artificial hierarchies, the imagined constructs we fashion to tame the vastness of what lies beyond us.

We exalt a man in a big room, on a big chair, wearing glittering clothes—and if such a man is the definition of greatness, then greatness is a miniscule thing. It won’t dwarf us. Such a parochial vision of greatness can help us not to think of the galaxies upon galaxies filling up one tiny corner of the heavens. If God came to Earth in such a man, we’d make God as small as an emperor.

But in the Christmas story we are asked, not to tame our vision of God, but to expand our vision of frail humanity. In the Christmas story, we are invited not to hide from the immeasurable vastness of the universe and its creator, but to confront it in the knowledge that we will not be lost or crushed or driven to despair by its enormity. Rather than taming God, rather than putting God in a manageable box, the Christmas story buttresses us in all our frailty so that we needn’t hide from what transcends us. It does so not by making us equal to God; not by erasing our limits. It does so by making the infinite God one with us, by bringing God down into those limits. To believe in that, to believe in the Christmas story, is to be capable of enduring and accepting our limits, our finitude, the strictures of physical existence and the one-way flow of time—capable of accepting them even when we honestly see them for what they are.

And this capacity in turn enables us to do what inevitably exposes every frailty and imperfection in a blazing light. It enables us to look to the infinite, to open ourselves to it, to face the mysterium tremendum with the joy of relationship rather than in despair over our own inadequacy.

And to believe in the Christmas story is to set aside the fear of inadequacy and all the ugly things that go with it: the jealousies of others’ accomplishments; the envy of others’ talents; the shame of being merely human; the other-directed judgments and condemnations that are really about misdirection, about getting those around us to look somewhere else so that they don’t see our own glaring sins; the self-directed loathing and despair that comes when we cannot hide from our own sense of insufficiency; and all the superficiality, the consumerism, the empty entertainments that we throw ourselves into in the hope of distracting ourselves, of keeping ourselves from noticing our staggering limitations.

To believe in the Christmas story is to look at all this friable life, in ourselves and others—this life constrained by mortality and sequence, impotence and ignorance, sin and fallibility—and to treasure the precious reality that dwells within those limits, rather than the vast nothing which lies beyond them.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Bit More on Hitchens

Glenn Peoples, over at Say Hello to my Little Friend, has posted a rather scathing "tribute" to Hitchens almost worthy of Hitchens himself. He begins by noticing (for the sake of bucking) the supposed trend of "Christians coming out of the woodwork to say nice things about him" now that Hitchens is dead. One can almost hear the scorn in his voice.

I would certainly qualify as one of those Christians who, on hearing about Hitchens's death, felt moved to say something nice. To be honest, had he died immediately after I'd first read god is not Great, I wouldn't have had much nice to say and so probably would've remained silent. But the more I followed Hitchens' career in the wake of finishing Is God a Delusion?, the more...fond...I became of him.

And so I wrote the following response to Peoples' roasting:

I generally agree about the quality of Hitchens’ arguments, which were routinely more pugilistically clever than sound. But when it comes to the motivations at the root of those arguments, and their ultimate effect, I think there is much more room for debate.

As far as motivations go, the more I studied Hitchens the more I came away with the sense that underneath the bluster and sneering bravado was outrage at what he saw to be the range of foolishness and inhumanity in the world–and hence, at an even deeper level, a devotion to the true and the good. This is not to say that his response was the best one, or even an especially good one. It is to say that a devotion to the good and the true was the deep source of the passion with which he delivered even his most hostile verbal diatribes.

Of course I could be wrong about this–we cannot readily plumb the hearts of human beings. I certainly did not have this sense when I first started reading Hitchens on religion. In my book, Is God a Delusion?, I rarely had anything positive to say about him–and the general weakness of his arguments on a philosophical level meant I actually gave him less attention in that book than the other so-called new atheists. But as I continued following his career I just had this growing sense about his driving motivations–a sense that I still don’t have with respect to, say, Dawkins or Sam Harris. This sense led me to respond to him with almost a sort of affection (an affection that would, I’m sure, crumble if he ever turned his vitreol directly on me; so not an especially durable affection, but an odd kind of affection nonetheless).

But even if my intuitions here are wrong, there is something I am prepared to say with considerable confidence. Hitchens was a human being, and human beings have an inherent worth and dignity that warrants our respect–even in the cases of those who were not themselves prone to displaying such respect in their own rhetoric. It is quite possible that a roasting of Hitchens at his death–of the sort that Hitchens himself was wont to offer towards those he took to be particularly egregious fonts of foolishness and inhumanity–is a kind of sideways show of respect for him (Kant’s arguments about retributivism point in that direction). But my own inclination is to show my respect by reaching beyond the layers of crud towards what I take to be the mark of his creator at his core–and to live in the hope that this will be preserved long after his pugilistic screeds are forgotten.

I didn't, in that comment on Peoples' post, take up the issue of the effects of Hitchens' attacks on religion. Peoples claims that Hitchens "contributed nothing of value to public discussions around religion," and that his writings and public debates and talks ("circus antics") "only served to egg on the very worst intellectual element of atheism".

I'm not at all convinced that Hitchens' legacy can be reduced to this. One of the things Hitchens liked to do was attack our sacred cows with all the eloquent disdain of which he was capable. He was one of the few, for example, who was prepared to question the near-universal esteem in which Mother Teresa is held--calling her "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud" (among other things). His attack on her was certainly over the top. Unbalanced, unfair, unfitting, disrespectful--all of these are terms I'd be inclined to apply.

But sacred cows often operate as an impediment to intellectual honesty. And while Hitchens' attacks on sacred cows weren't themselves models of intellectual fairness, I suspect that, at least sometimes, his willigness to attack them created a public conversation that hadn't been there before. In place of nothing but pious repetition of Mother Teresa's virtues, Hitchens' attacks forced at least some people to actually come to her defense. And some of those defenses carried with them explicit concessions that wouldn't otherwise have been voiced, or at least wouldn't have been voiced in a way that made it into the broader public conversation. Perhaps there was something problematic--or at least worth critical discussion--about a nun devoted to giving love to dying orphans in an overpopulated city (in an overpopulated country, in an overpopulated world) while continuing to unquestioningly endorse the Roman Catholic opposition to birth control.

When it comes to religion, Hitchens was of course attacking sacred cows that were already being attacked in lively style by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and others. Arguably, then, he didn't spark a public conversation that wasn't already well underway.  But it is surely the case that the New Atheists taken as a whole sparked a public conversation that had been largely sequestered up until that point in philosophy of religion classrooms and in the occasional (mostly ignored) blog. Prior to the New Atheist onslaught, my qualified and conditioned defense of religion--one which takes sharp issue with fanatical, fundamentalist, and science-hating expressions of faith--would have received far less attention than it did (and would likely not have been read at all by conservative religious believers). This is a point I've made in the past in relation to Richard Dawkins.

So, taken as a whole, the New Atheists did in fact provide a public-conversation-starting function. And Hitchens was a defining voice in that movement.

Let me be clear that this is not an unqualified defense of Hitchens' brand of rhetoric or of the New Atheist movement. One of the great dangers of the approach exemplified by the New Atheists is that the public conversation may become polarized to the point of ideological entrenchment. Going from a world in which the merits of religion go largely undiscussed except in rarified intellectual circles, to a world in which the discussion has the character of a shouting match across metaphorical picket lines, may not qualify as progress. And I'm not yet sure that this isn't the nature of the transition we've undergone.

In other words, there is something to Peoples' claim that Hitchens egged on some of the less intellectually respectable voices in the atheist community. My point is that Hitchen's legacy is more complex that this single effect. That complexity needs to be acknowledged and thought about.

And since I have more questions than answers when it comes to the ultimate impact of Hitchens' brand of anti-religious public rhetoric, let me open it up at this point to the thoughts of others: What do you think is the long-term legacy of Hitchens' brand of hyperbolic anti-religious campaigning?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Reflection on Hitchens' Death At Religion Dispatches

I have a brief reflection on Christopher Hitchens' death at the Religion Dispatches blog. Check it out here if you're interested.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Intelligent Design/Justin Bieber Connection

Okay, so this blog title is a bit misleading. My aim here, really, is to critically assess a proposal offered by Randal Rauser on his blog. Randal’s blog is one I like to check in on occasionally, since Randal is a philosophically-trained theologian who is consistently thoughtful, clear, and witty. While he self-identifies as an apologist in a way that I do not, his brand of apologetics is far more appealing to me than, say, William Lane Craig’s.

That’s not to say I always agree with him. About a month ago he put up a post, "In Search of an Arsonist," that I would likely have commented on—in critical terms—if I hadn’t been grieving my father’s death. The post had to do with the method by which we determine whether something is the product of intelligent design. Randal’s thesis is that we decide that something is the product of intelligent design by ruling out other causes until intelligent agency is all we’re left with.

Sometimes, of course, this is exactly how we proceed. Randal offers the example of forensic investigators who conclude that a fire was arson (and hence the result of intelligent agency) by ruling out other causes. But can we generalize from such cases? Is it always or even usually true that we infer intelligent agency by a kind of process of elimination? More significantly, can we or should we rely on such a process in the effort to infer an intelligent designer behind natural phenomena?

Before tackling these questions, I want to take a slight digression. Specifically, Randal’s arson investigation case is precisely the kind of case commonly invoked by members of the so-called “ID movement” to support their claim that what they are doing is science—that it is methodologically in line with established scientific procedures and so should qualify as science. Is this right?

I’m not sure Randal wants to draw this conclusion. After all, if intelligent agency is best inferred by ruling out other kinds of explanations, then the quest to decide whether phenomena in the natural world are the product of intelligent design might best be pursued by dedicating a discipline to the task of uncovering and testing these other kinds of explanations. In short, we might use Randal’s point as a basis for arguing that science should be “methodologically naturalistic” in something like the way that opponents of ID movement insist it should be.

But let’s set this concern aside for now. To determine whether the ID movement is pursuing an approach that qualifies as scientific, we need to know how ID theorists actually defend their views. As I understand it, the modern ID movement (as opposed to believers in design or defenders of philosophical arguments from design) grew out of "creation science," and it shares with its predecessor the political aim of getting the God hypothesis into the public school science classroom. But ID's approach is much more sophisticated than what one finds in creation science, setting aside pseudo-scientific arguments for the literal inerrancy of Genesis in favor of modern updates of William Paley’s version of the argument from design. Where the modern updates differ from Paley is not in the basic logical structure of the argument, but rather in their choice of examples of things-that-are-best-explained-by-positing-a-God.

Contemporary ID theorists typically rely on examples taken from two sources: molecular biology and physics. The first version of the modern argument, which might be called the Argument from Irreducible Complexity, relies primarily on the views of biologist Michael Behe. Put simply, the argument runs as follows: Certain complex biological systems on which organisms rely are said to possess the property of “irreducible complexity”—that is, they are such that, were they to be rendered any simpler by having any of their components removed, they would cease to function altogether and so would confer no adaptive advantage on organisms possessing them. Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, it is argued, cannot account for the emergence of such irreducibly complex systems, since evolution explains complex systems in terms of incremental increases in complexity, where each such increase is preserved by the adaptive advantage it supposedly confers. Intelligent design, by contrast, can account for such systems. There is, supposedly, no credible third alternative. Therefore, these systems are best explained by positing an intelligent designer.

Second, we have what’s sometimes called the Fine-Tuning Argument. A set of physical constants are said to possess the property of being “fine-tuned” for the emergence of organized complexity (and hence life). No purely physical theory, it is argued, can adequately account for such fortuitous fine-tuning. Intelligent design can. There is no credible third alternative. Therefore, the fine-tuning of the universe is best explained by positing an intelligent designer.

In each of these cases, what the ID movement offers is an argument, some of whose premises are susceptible to assessment in the light of established scientific methods. But notice what it doesn’t offer: a strategy for positively testing the “intelligent design hypothesis” itself. Instead, what we have is a disjunctive argument in which ID theory is endorsed based on a process of elimination—which is, of course, precisely the mechanism that Randal endorses as the proper one for inferring intelligent agency.

One question we can ask is whether reliance on such a disjunctive argument alone can ever justify one in saying that the conclusion reached was arrived at scientifically. Clearly, scientists can and do make use of this sort of disjunctive reasoning—ruling out known causes for a phenomenon as a way of concluding that some unknown cause is at work. But this is typically a kind of prelude to further scientific work, involving speculation about what the unknown causes might be, and then conducting experimental tests (in some sense repeatable) to determine whether one’s guesses have any merit.

But maybe invocations of intelligent design just can’t work like that, because intelligent design brings things about through agency, and agency is subject to will rather than uniform laws. The argument might go as follows: When a hypothesized cause is mechanistic (to use Hermann Lotze’s language), we can test it—by, paradigmatically, making predictions and seeking to falsify them. But freedom isn’t law-like and so doesn’t allow for that kind of testing. And intelligent design inevitably involves an exercise of freedom. Thus, intelligent design can’t be tested for scientifically, and so can only be rationally embraced in some other way. Perhaps this “other way” is the process-of-elimination approach Randal endorses: If nothing else can explain it, we are left with intelligent agency by default.

If so, we might well ask whether this process-of-elimination approach qualifies as science (i) always, (ii) sometimes (and if so, when and why?), or (iii) never. If it isn’t science, then this just goes to show that intellectual inquiry can and does proceed beyond the boundaries of scientific inquiry, invoking a palette of resources that are still available when science has hit the limits of what it can do with its methods. At stake here is not just the credibility of other methods of inquiry, but the political agenda of the ID movement. If this sort of thing isn’t science, then it shouldn’t be in a science classroom—although it arguably should be part of high school education even so, as part of the philosophy curriculum that high schools shamefully lack.

But the question of whether the process-of-elimination approach to inferring intelligent agency is science needs to be assessed in the light of a deeper question: Is it generally true that we can and do infer intelligent design by elimination of other causes?

I think that, in fact, the situation is much more complex. Consider again the case of the forensic scientists investigating a fire. In this case, we have a certain kind of event (a fire) about which we have considerable experience. On the basis of this experience we have derived a list of “known culprits”—that is, kinds of causes (lightning strike, untended campfire, discarded cigarette, deliberate arson, etc.) which are typically responsible for an event of this kind.

In a situation of this sort, we can systematically rule out the various kinds of causes until we are left with only one—and thus, by process of elimination, arrive at the conclusion that, most probably, the cause was of the remaining kind. I say “most probably” because, even though a rich body of experience tells us that events of this kind are ordinarily produced by causes within this list, there might be unusual kinds of causes that don’t appear on the list. The list is fairly exhaustive, but not completely so.

Some contexts aren’t like this, however. Suppose I’m a space explorer who has recently landed on Planet X. The terrain is uniformly flat in most places, but on my third day I come across a big mound of dirt. After investigating the mound, the ground beneath, and other bits of evidence, I’m able to ascertain that what I’m witnessing is the result of a kind of “dirt-geyser” phenomenon produced when trapped gas pushed up through a silt-filled fissure.

Now I come across another mound of dirt. Upon investigating, I conclude that it is not the effect of a dirt-geyser. But, being new to the planet, I have very little experience with such mounds, and hence very little experience with what might cause them. My list of “known culprits” has one member, and I’ve eliminated it. Presumably, in this case, we can’t reasonably infer intelligent agency on the basis of eliminating all the other known culprits.

What we might say is that the explorer is in the process of creating a known-culprits list for dirt mounds. At that stage of the game, the negative method of determining causes through a process of elimination is unavailable, or in any event untenable. There is just too little that is known about how things work on the planet, and hence no reason to suppose that the list of “known culprits” for dirt mounds even approaches being exhaustive.

Furthermore, there is no reason as of yet for the explorer to suppose that intelligent agency should be included in the list of causes for dirt-mounds on Planet X. The explorer has seen no intelligent denizens on the planet, let alone any who were busy making dirt mounds. This distinguishes our explorer from forensic scientists on Earth who are exploring an unexplained fire, insofar as these scientists know there to be intelligent agents running around and also know that these agents have the means to start fires and sometimes do so.

Of course, this may not be quite right. Suppose our explorer is exploring the planet with a colleague, who is a known practical joker. In that case, the explorer would be well advised to investigate the theory that his colleague created the dirt mound as a joke.

But there’s a difference between appealing to a known sort of intelligent agent—an intelligent agent of a kind known to exist and known to be capable of producing the effect observed—and using observed phenomena as the basis for concluding that a new kind of intelligent agent, one not otherwise observed to exist, in fact does exist. If, after years of study, the Planet X explorer has produced a fairly exhaustive list of causes for dirt mounds—but has never observed any intelligent denizens of the planet—can this explorer really deduce that there must be such denizens if he encounters a dirt mound that cannot be explained by any of the known culprits on his list?

It doesn’t seem so. In fact, it seems that were the explorer to reason in this way, he’d be guilty of a kind of question-begging. What running out of known culprits warrants is the conclusion that there is a heretofore unknown culprit. To assume that the new culprit is an intelligent agent is, in effect, to operate as if the “gap” in one’s list is in fact not a gap at all but is filled by precisely the new kind of intelligent agent one is seeking to establish. The explorer has, in effect, treated the hypothesized new sort of intelligent agent as a member of the known culprits list in order to reach the conclusion that a new sort of intelligent agent should be included in the know culprits list.

But now suppose I’m exploring Planet X and come across an enormous rock in the shape of Justin Bieber’s head. I mean the resemblance is perfect. Of course, I scream in utter terror. Not only are there intelligent beings here, but they clearly wish me ill.

In this case, unlike the dirt-mound case, I immediately infer intelligent agency. I don’t infer this because I have eliminated all non-agent causes from my list of things-that-can produce-perfect-stone-replicas-of-Justin-Bieber’s-head. Rather, I infer it immediately from the nature of the phenomenon that stands in need of explanation. And I infer it (rightly, I would say) without having ever observed any intelligent agents at work on this planet, without having any idea of what those intelligent agents are like, how they produced the stone head, etc.

The reason I justifiably make this inference is because a sculpture of someone’s head is the kind of thing that, in my experience (and not just mine), is only produced by intelligent agents. Once I rule out my practical-joker colleague as the cause, I might now reasonably add a new kind of intelligent agent to my list of known culprits for things observed on Planet X.

In effect, then, from the above we can identify two distinct ways of arriving at the view that intelligent agency is responsible for some phenomenon of type P: (1) A body of experience teaches us that P’s are typically caused by a range of causes, one of which is intelligent agency; the phenomenon at issue is a P; and all causes other than intelligent agency have been eliminated; (2) A body of experience teaches us that P’s are caused only by intelligent agency, and the phenomenon at issue is a P.

(1) and (2) may not be exhaustive. They wouldn’t be if, for example, we could ever immediately intuit, without a body of experience, that certain phenomena require intelligent agency. I'm inclined to suspect that, in fact, we can do exactly this. But I won't pursue that case here. Instead, I simply want to summarize what I take to be the lessons of the above analysis:

(a) Inferring intelligent agency by a process-of-elimination is an acceptable approach (arguably a scientific one) in cases where there is a known set of culprits for a given phenomenon, intelligent agency is among the known culprits, and there is reason to suppose that the set of culprits is fairly exhaustive (that is, most phenomena of the given sort are explained by one of the known culprits).

(b) In cases where we have no firm reason to suppose that our set of “known culprits” is fairly exhaustive, the process-of-elimination approach is not acceptable for inferring intelligent agency or any other cause.

(c) If we are asking whether there exists a new kind of intelligent agency that we haven’t seen before, the process-of-elimination approach is question-begging—unless the phenomenon we are seeking to explain is the sort that we justifiably believe on other grounds could only be produced by an intelligent agent. In that case the process-of-elimination approach would operate on known intelligent agents who might have caused the phenomenon, with the inference to an unknown intelligent agent reached when all known intelligent agents have been eliminated.
In place of Randal Rauser’s process-of-elimination strategy for inferring intelligent design, I would therefore offer up (a)-(c). And given (a)-(c), it would take more work than Randal has done to say that the fine-tuning case should be approached in the same way that forensic scientists investigate a possible arson.

Anyway, that a first run at articulating my thinking about this. Thoughts?

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Politician's Beatitudes, Take Two

Some time ago I composed these "Politician's Beatitudes." Since my last two posts were, for better or worse, related to the statements and arguments of a couple of politicians, I thought it might be the right time for a repost. So, here they are: The Politician's Beatutudes. Enjoy!

Blessed are those who act to preserve the privileges of the rich, for they shall receive substantial campaign contributions.

Blessed are those who swallow back tears at strategic moments only to quickly compose themselves again, for they shall be regarded as having a sensitive side but still be seen as strong, thereby being judged more trustworthy by the electorate (unless they’re women, in which case they risk being seen as dangerously emotional).

Blessed are the aggressive, since negative campaigning has proven time and again to work even though the electorate complains about it.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for prestige and influence while pretending to care primarily about serving the public, for they will gain levels of political influence that those motivated more by a spirit of public service than ambition can only dream of.

Blessed are the merciless, because they’ll ruin the political credibility of their opponent before their opponent does the same to them.

Blessed are those who can look earnestly into the camera and sound really sincere as they say things like “God bless the United States of America,” for they will win the heartland.

Blessed are the warmongers, at least if they can properly time their war-related popularity surge to an election cycle.

Blessed are those who can spin their political opponent’s attack ads as persecution for righteousness’s sake, for they can engage in an underhanded attack on their political opponent while appearing as if they are standing against negative campaigning—thereby both enjoying the benefits of a negative campaign and enjoying the benefits of pandering to the public’s theoretic opposition to negative campaigns.

Blessed are those who, in moments of moral integrity, defy this cynical list of political beatitudes and act from a sense of authentic justice, compassion, or moral purpose—for although they might not get reelected, they may actually find true fullfilment in the lives they lead after leaving public office.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Rick Perry's New Ad: A Translation

One more political post, just because it's the season for that sort of thing. It occurs to me that some people may not understand why Rick Perry's most recent ad campaign, "Strong," grates like fingernails on the chalkboard with people like me. So I thought it would be helpful to offer a translation of sorts. For those of you who haven't seen the ad, here it is:

And here is what I hear as I listen to it:

I’m not afraid to explicitly link my bigoted and hateful beliefs to Christianity in an attempt both to baptize hate and to garner votes, even though doing so gives all Christians a bad name among those who care about justice, equality, and a love that isn’t constrained to one religious community or one sexual orientation.

I believe there is something wrong with the decision in this country to end a painful and damaging discriminatory practice in the military. I think we should have continued to discriminate against some of those who have chosen to risk their lives and sacrifice their comforts in the name of promoting the security and freedoms of their fellow Americans. Because of who they happen to love, their courage and sacrifice means nothing to me.
Furthermore, I think it is terrible that we take separation of church and state seriously in this country. In the name of this principle, our public schools are prohibited from officially sanctioning one religion over others or setting aside school time to explicitly carry out a religious practice or celebrate a particular religion’s holidays. So long as this principle is in place, there will never be schools in this country that require Christian children to observe Ramadan on pain of enduring stigmatization if they refuse. But it also means that Muslim children will not be required to sit through school functions that explicitly endorse the majority religion. And since I belong to the majority and want to impose my views on those who don’t share it, this is an intolerable cost to me.

I know full well that prohibiting schools from explicitly sanctioning one religion over others  does not mean that any child is prohibited from praying in school according to their beliefs, or celebrating their religious holidays and traditions in a manner that doesn’t shove them down the throats of others who think differently. It just means that each child, regardless of faith or lack thereof, is allowed to do this in their own way when it doesn't disrupt school activities, or during times set aside without prejudice for children to pursue their individual convictions—for example, during moments of silence that are still officially observed during school assembles. Even though I know full well the distinction here, I will deliberately choose to ignore it and misrepresent reality for the sake of political gain.
And I will not only aim to increase public confusion on these issues, I will take those who are clear about them to task, labeling their respect for our soldiers regardless of their unchosen sexuality, and their allegiance to church/state separation, a “war on faith.” I will deliberately invoke us/them rhetoric, magnifying the ideological divisiveness in this country for the sake of gaining political power.

I am Rick Perry. I mask my bigotry in the cloak of Christian faith. And despite the fact that doing so plants hate and division into a faith defined essentially by a love that knows no boundaries, I approve this bigotry.
So that is what I hear, for better or worse, when I listen to this ad. And that is what many people hear. And that is why we cringe--or blink in horror at the fact that this man is a serious contender for the most powerful political position in the world.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Philosophical Public Service Announcement: Michele Bachmann's Argument Against Same-Sex Marriage is Bad

One public service that professional philosophers can (and probably should) provide is to carefully explain why certain popular arguments on matters of public interest aren't any good.

Doing this is important because some bad arguments are delivered sincerely by politicians and pundits in the public sphere; and these arguments, despite their unsoundness, play a role in shaping or solidifying people's convictions. And even though anyone who isn't already a true believer can smell something fishy, in some cases it can be hard for the ordinary person to pin down and clearly explain what's gone wrong.

Occasionally I feel the need to present such arguments to my students. A few weeks ago, when discussing same-sex marriage in one of my classes, we were looking at an argument for same sex marriage that relied on the following premise:
Restricting marriage to heterosexual couples amounts to legal discrimination, and thus stands in need of a substantive justification--a compelling state interest, beyond majority preferences or sectarian religious beliefs, that could warrant the state in waiving the presumption of equality under the law.
This premise strikes me as clearly true--and it seemed that pretty much everyone in the class agreed. Those who were opposed to same-sex marriage didn't deny that current practices are discriminatory. What they denied is that the discrimination is unjustified. They thought there were good reasons to exclude same-sex couples from the legal institution of marriage, but were prepared to concede that gays and lesbians were being legally denied something that the heterosexual majority enjoyed.

But I knew full well that there's an argument often repeated in the public sphere which challenges this--an argument which purports to show, not that the discrimination is justified, but that no discrimination is going on at all. So I threw it out there. Here's how the argument goes:
A law that restricts marriage rights to heterosexual couples is not discriminatory at all, because everyone in society has the same rights with respect to marriage that everyone else in society has, namely to marry someone of the opposite sex. No one is excluded from marriage. It's just that everyone in society faces exactly the same constraint on who they can marry. It must be someone of the opposite sex. So: no discrimination, and hence no need to justify the discrimination by appealing to some consideration that could warrant differential treatment.
So what did my students say when I laid out this argument? Very little. I saw some eyes roll. One student said, "I refuse to dignify that argument with a response." They generally sensed it was a bad argument, but they weren't quite able to spell out where the argument goes wrong.

"But if you don't think the argument is convincing," I said to the student who refused to dignify the argument with a response, "you need to be able to explain why. Because this is a major public dispute right now. And not only are there people out there who are sincerely making this argument, but there are people whose prior convictions are being strengthened by it. Put simply, the argument sounds reasonable to them."

Of course, one person who delivers just this argument is GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. Here's a video in which, among other things, she articulates precisely this argument in response to a high school student questioning her opposition to same-sex marriage:

So why is Bachmann's argument bad? (There's actually more than one bad argument in this clip, but I want to focus on the one about same-sex marriage.) The teenagers in the clip were persistent and courageous, but they didn't articulate the fatal flaw in Bachmann's argument with the kind of clarity that would expose it for what it is (maybe even to Bachmann herself).

And what's the fatal flaw? Put simply, the argument is premised on the assumption that everyone has the same sexual orientation. If everyone had a homosexual orientation, then a law restricting marriage to heterosexual couples would require that everyone marry someone they have no attraction to, cannot fall in love with, cannot sustain romantic feelings with, etc. Everyone in society would be equally denied access to a deeply valued social good, namely legal recognition and support for their intimate, romantic loving partnerships. No discrimination there--although we might wonder why the state would systematically deny everyone access to this social good. (I suppose if everyone had a homosexual orientation, the reason might have something to do with motivating reproduction in a world where no one is drawn to reproductive sex).

If everyone had a heterosexual orientation, then--once again--a law restricting marriage to heterosexual couples would be unproblematic. It would preclude everyone from doing something no one had any interest in doing in any event: namely, marrying someone they cannot be attracted to or cultivate romantic feelings for. It would be a kind of silly and pointless restriction, a bit like prohibiting people from eating unhealthy food they despise in contexts where courtesy doesn't demand it.

And, of course, if everyone had a bisexual orientation, then a law restricting marriage to heterosexual couples would put the same limitation on everyone (I've often joked that conservative Christians think everyone is bisexual--after all, they declare that "it's a choice"). We might wonder why this constraint should be imposed, but the constraint would not be discriminatory against any individuals (although it would still discriminate against couples who happened to be of the same sex, and thus would cause considerable pain when people had the bad luck of falling in love with someone of the same sex and then had to face the decision of whether to break up with someone they loved or go on with the relationship knowing they'll never have access to the social and legal goods of civil marriage).

But people don't all have the same sexual orientation. And so, legally limiting civil marriage to heterosexual couples means that heterosexuals are afforded access to a distinctive good (having their intimate romatic partnerships recognized and supported by the state) that is denied to those with a homosexual orientation. (Furthermore, the law creates a situation in which bisexuals are confronted with a potential life challenge--see above--that heterosexuals are immune from). 

Of course, Bachmann claims that a homosexual orientation is something that can be "healed" through so-called reparative therapy or ex-gay ministries. The evidence hardly supports this claim. At best, gays and lesbians can be habituated to more effectively suppress their natural attractions and, perhaps, learn strategies for functioning sexually with people they are not attracted to. But that isn't conversion to heterosexuality. They remain persons with a homosexual orientation who are, we might say, better able to outwardly mimic the sexual lives of persons with a heterosexual orientation (but who, in mimicking this, cannot experience the inner satisfaction and relational intimacy that is possible for heterosexuals).

But suppose Bachmann is right. Suppose reparative therapy actually can succeed in turning a non-heterosexual into a heterosexual. Would it then be the case that restricting marriage to heterosexual couples is not discriminatory? No. It would still be discriminatory. Why? Because, in order to enjoy the distinctive social goods offered by the legal institution of marriage, those who happen to have a homosexual orientation would be required to do something that heterosexuals would not be required to do: They'd need to successfully undergo conversion therapy.

Heterosexuals who fell in love could head straight to the appropriate municipal offices to apply for a marriage licence. If civil marriage were available to same-sex couples, then gays and lesbians could do the same thing. But as it is in most states, they can't. Instead, they're denied the benefit of legal recognition and support for their intimate relationships unless and until (assuming, as Bachmann does, that this is possible) they achieve a successful "conversion" (and spend the time and other resources needed to achieve this).

Imagine, if you will, that public funding for attending state universities were only available to people who spoke English with an American accent. And suppose that there are accent coaches out there who have a track record of success in teaching this ability to those willing to invest the time and resources. Does the latter fact make the policy non-discriminatory? Of course not. Discrimination in the conferral of social goods based on one's accent remains discrimination even if it is possible, with time and effort, for those who have the "wrong" accent to change it.

None of this implies that discrimination is unjustified (although I think it is). But it does imply that to argue that there is nothing discriminatory going on is just misguided. Bachmann's argument is bad. No one should be influenced by it one way or the other. And so its badness needs to be explained, again and again if necessary, so as to shut down any power it might have to erroneously shape public thinking. Consider this my small effort in that cause--and feel free to direct others to this post if you'd rather not explain the badness of the argument yourself.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hand Over Your Coat as Well

Jesus' radical ethic is no more vividly described than in this key passage from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-42):
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
What did Jesus really have in mind here? Let evil go unconstrained in the world?

Maybe not. Maybe what he had in mind was something more along the lines of what the social worker Julio Diaz did when he was mugged in the NYC subway. Check out the NPR story here. As Diaz demonstrates (quite literally), "handing over your coat as well" might be a bold act of unexpected--and transformative--compassion. If only more of us were like Diaz, demonstrating creative compassion so consistently that even our muggers are caught up in the web of it, blinking in wonder that such a thing is really possible.

Blog Update

It was my intention--mostly kept--to take November off from blogging so as to focus on family during this time of loss. I intend to resume regular blogging shortly, and I have some topics in the works. Among other things, a philosophical colleague at another university was apparently using my first book in class and sent me a list of questions his students had put together. I will likely use these questions as the basis for some blog posts. I also have a post on intelligent design inspired by a recent essay on Randal Rauser's blog. And I have several posts that are emerging out of the research for my new book project, God and Gays.

But all of that will need to mostly wait until I can see myself clear of the current backlog of term papers and student journals that are now cluttering my office...