Secular Right | Reality & Reason

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Feb/19

4

More than a crisis

Paris Breakfast, Arc de Triomphe (Photograph by Maurice Sapiro, 1956)

Variations on the general theme that things ain’t what they used to be are often heard but rarely taken seriously. And, as a general rule, the older the speaker is, the less seriously the claims are taken. Of course he would say that, the old codger. Life was so much better for him back then.

A couple of years ago the German-born fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld admitted to feeling that the world he had once lived in had ceased to exist. Paris, where he has lived and worked since the 1950s (when “it looked like an old French movie”) had never been as gloomy, dangerous or depressing as it was now.

Another notable old complainer is Paul Volcker. Late last year, past 90 and in very poor health, he spoke to the New York Times. Volcker saw “a hell of a mess in every direction,” including a lack of basic respect for government institutions:

“Respect for government, respect for the Supreme Court, respect for the president, it’s all gone. Even respect for the Federal Reserve… And it’s really bad. At least the military still has all the respect. But … how can you run a democracy when nobody believes in the leadership of the country?”

Quite. There are preconditions for democracy.

Human communities and societies have always been bound together and defined by sets of implicit rules and customs and, as societies become larger and more complex, political systems develop to deal with an inevitable proliferation of beliefs and practices. The best systems try to accommodate differences rather than trying to stamp them out.

On the whole, the modern, liberal, Western tradition struck a good balance between privacy and individual freedom on the one hand and the need to maintain a broad social and moral consensus on the other. The evolution of modern forms of government in Europe was not always a smooth or peaceful process but the trend (inexorable perhaps only in retrospect) towards the creation of liberal, secular states and associated institutions coincided with a flowering of creative energies such as has rarely been seen in human history.

Given recent developments in Western countries, however – spiralling debt, failing economies, loss of confidence in government and professional elites, the intrusions of fundamentalist Islam and rise of fundamentalist forms of Christianity and Judaism, increasing social divisions and apparently increasing social conflict and violence – we seem to be in the midst, not just of a crisis period (crises pass), but of a period of epochal change.

Comparisons are often made with the 1930s but the resurgence of religious fundamentalism suggests that liberal democracy is facing a different kind of challenge from that once posed by various forms of fascism and radical socialism. Our situation is also complicated by the yet-to-be-understood impact of digital technologies. In fact, in social and cultural terms, so much has changed – and changed so radically – over the last fifty or sixty years that it is tempting simply to see the tradition of Western thought which led to the creation of modern liberal democracy as having finally played itself out.

This is not quite true, of course. It was a rich and varied tradition comprising many elements, some of which continue to find expression in current institutional arrangements. But political ideas and institutions do not develop or exist in a cultural vacuum. They are necessarily dependent on – and only work well in the context of – particular social and cultural conditions. To a large extent, the preconditions for liberal democracy no longer prevail.

What these preconditions are (or were) is impossible to specify precisely but they would, I think, include relatively stable regional and national cultures (essential as a basis for trust), a sense of continuity with the past, and an enlightened and science-friendly perspective. A science-friendly – or at least technology-hungry – perspective still prevails, but the humanizing elements which once went hand-in-hand with science are failing.

In Western societies the erosion of traditional culture is already well-advanced and is evident not only in regard to the loss of shared narratives and traditions at local, regional and national levels but also in respect of stories and traditions which transcend national boundaries (the Western classical heritage, for example).  The loss of these cultural frameworks weakens and isolates communities, cutting them adrift from the past and leaving them more vulnerable to demagoguery, dogmatism and social fragmentation.

Part of the problem, in fact, can be seen to lie with classical liberalism itself – at least in so far as it constitutes a philosophy or ideology. Its fatal flaw relates to the rationalism from which it derives and manifests itself in a tendency to see societies and individuals in abstract, timeless and universal terms and to underplay the significance of social context and history.

Though we can reason, we are not the “rational beings” philosophers once imagined us to be. A self or a person is not some kind of metaphysical entity but rather the tenuous product of a particular set of social and cultural experiences and the constellation of social connections which this history makes possible.

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Oct/18

18

Fantasies, facts and values

The Western cultural tradition, which combined various elements (religious, intellectual, scientific) into a rich and resilient and trans-national framework of thought and practice, is all but dead.

Witness, for example, the increasingly propaganda-ridden media environment, the absurdities of identity politics where whims and fantasies routinely trump objective reality and, more generally, the self-righteous and narrow dogmatism of the progressive left.

The deep causes are not just ideological, but ideas and ideology play a role.

The notion that the world of which we are a part is a certain way and that we can have objective knowledge of that world is a crucial tenet of Western thought. Closely associated with this idea is the distinction between factually-based and values-based claims.

For all sorts of reasons the fact/value distinction needs to be maintained. It is basic to a sensible, modern view of the world. Unfortunately many philosophers and other intellectuals have in recent decades sought assiduously to undermine it. In so doing they have (wittingly or unwittingly) given cover and support to those who reject the idea that the sciences and rigorous forms of scholarship (coupled with common sense and ordinary observation) reveal an objective reality which is not at the mercy of our whims and preferences and prejudices.

Philosophies like Pragmatism are very popular these days, largely because they blur the fact/value distinction. William James had a religious view of the world, and his form of Pragmatism supported it. John Dewey had strong social and political commitments to which his form of Pragmatism lent a spurious intellectual authority.

Richard Rorty was another influential (and politically motivated) Pragmatist. He incorporated elements of Romanticism into his thinking and, unlike Dewey, disparaged and tried to undermine the status of the sciences.

Rorty wrote clearly and well, by and large avoiding the jargon-dense obscurity of the Continentals. He should also be given credit for seeing as totally futile much of the self-perpetuating philosophical and metaphysical discourse which was produced by analytic philosophers in the late 20th century. But his anti-science attitude, driven by the same general forces which drove many literary men and women before him — a kind of donnish snobbery bolstered by Romantic notions — was unfortunate.

Sure, it is sometimes difficult to disentangle the potentially factual from the value-related aspects of a statement or claim. But an ability to do such disentangling is one of the most important things that a basic education should develop. Not much chance of this when educators’ heads are stuffed full of postmodern fantasies. What they seek to encourage in their students is not independent thinking or real creativity (which is always based on actual competence) but rather a witless conformity masquerading as creative self-expression and a blind adherence to a mishmash of liberal or progressive dogmas, clichés and slogans.

The silliness and emptiness of all this is evident to many, of course, and not just to old fogeys and traditionalists. ZeroHedge reports:

The “weaponized autists” at 4Chan have done it again, because they can; a new meme suggesting that liberals are soulless idiots who can’t think for themselves has gone viral. The concept compares Democrats to “nonplayable characters,” or NPCs – the recurring characters in video games with repetitive lines and limited knowledge. Lack of an “inner voice” is a dead giveaway that someone may be an NPC… The NPC meme [is] meant to ridicule the post-election perpetual outrage culture in which liberals simply parrot the latest talking points from their favorite pundits, who do their thinking for them… The 4chan version is a simple greyed out, expressionless face known as “NPC Wojak” – which has triggered the left so hard that Twitter conducted a mass-banning campaign for accounts promoting the meme, and the New York Times wrote an entire article trying to figure it out.

I acknowledge that education, especially in the early years, is largely about imparting values, practices and myths. Values are an important part of education. The question is, which values?

A rudimentary education in science and/or some form of rigorous scholarship (disciplines which are dependent on virtues such as attention and patience) is crucial, in my opinion, for giving students a sense of objective knowledge. Such disciplines are always in a healthy tension with mythmaking on the one hand and ideological conformity on the other.

We can’t escape myths and ideologies. But if a good part of our thinking is grounded in objective reality we are at least less likely to be consumed by them.

 

 

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Robert Tracinski, in What Atheists Have To Offer The Right‘s, kindly points to this website. He also goes on to assert:

That leads me to what atheists have to offer to this agenda. One of the problems with citing a religious foundation for freedom and Americanism is that these arguments tend not to appeal to those who don’t share your faith. People will naturally assume that, in order to agree with you, they have to believe in the same particular religious creed you have adopted. And given the vast range of religious belief, that’s a lot to ask for.

I’ve made this argument before. Modern American conservatism has become so culturally captured by the Religious Right that there’s a lot of talk about “Biblically based values” without much reflection that it might turn some people off who don’t share the basis of those values. I do think it is notable that conservatives with broad cultural influence such as George F. Will and David Brooks tend to have a secular affect (Will is personally an agnostic).

Trancinski goes on to talk about the relationship between conservatism and science at some length. I can speak here personally, as I am a scientist and a conservative. One issue is while most liberals may not be scientists, most scientists are liberals. Those who are not are invariably libertarians. I would cop to being conservative, albeit with a strong libertarian streak. And that makes me exceptional. The culture of scientists and culture of religious conservatives are so opposed to each other that a Christian evangelical friend who is an evolutionary biologist once told me he was asked literally every day how he could be a scientist and a Christian. I have been in the room several times where scientists talk about how they can outreach to the broader public, like conservatives, assuming of course that there were no conservatives in the room.

I don’t think this correlation is a logical necessity. It’s just an empirical sociological fact. And we have to deal with it in our political and policy culture. Most scientists exhibit strong domain specific in their cognitive competence, so there’s no reason to think that someone who has a strong command of molecular genetic mechanisms can therefore think cogently about global trade. But many scientists mislead themselves, assuming their powers of ratiocination are generally robust in all areas to which they put their minds. Scientists often are in fact ideally situated to be what F. A. Hayek would term Constructivists.

Sep/09

20

Eat That Apple!

Stanley Fish is not normally my favorite commentator, but his New York Times piece on curiosity today is well worth a look:

…There is another tradition in which, far from being the guarantor of a better future, curiosity is a vice and even a sin. Indeed, it has often been considered the original sin.

When God told Adam he could eat of all the fruits of the Garden of Eden, but not of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, he placed what has been called a “provoking object” in Adam’s eyes. The provocation was to go beyond the boundaries God had established and thereby set himself up a rival deity, a being with no limits on what he can conceive, a being whose intellect could, in time, comprehend anything and everything. Such a being would imagine himself, God-like, standing to the side of the universe and, armed only with the power of his mind, mastering its intricacies. Those who engage in this fantasy, says Thomas Aquinas, think “they are doing something great, if with surpassing curiosity and keenness they explore the whole mass of this body which we call the world; so great a pride is thus begotten, that one would think they dwelt in the very heavens about which they argue.”

Another churchman, Lorenzo Scupoli, put it this way in 1589: “They make an idol of their own understanding” (“Knowledge puffeth up,” I Corinthians 8:1)…

Give this indictment of men in love with their own capacities a positive twist and it becomes a description of the scientific project, which includes among its many achievements space travel, a split atom, cloning and the information revolution. It is a project that celebrates the expansion of knowledge’s boundaries as an undoubted good, and it is a project that [N.E.H.] Chairman Leach salutes when he proudly lists the joint efforts by the University of Virginia and the N.E.H. to digitalize just about everything. “The computer revolution,” he announces, “holds out the prospect that the digital library could be become an international citadel for the pursuit of curiosity.”

That’s exactly what Paul Griffiths, professor of divinity at Duke University, is afraid of. Where Leach welcomes the enlargement of curiosity’s empire, Griffiths, who is writing a book on the vice of curiosity, sees it as a sign of moral and spiritual danger.

I’d expect no less from a professor of divinity, but how sad…and what a useful reminder of what a block to progress (suspect word, but it’ll do in this context) certain types of religious faith (and their accretions and superstitions) can represent.

Speaking of which, I wonder what that Senator Brownback has been up to recently….Ah yes.

Ht/t: The Daily Dish

Over the past few days I’ve followed a slight controversy involving Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe & John McWhorter (you can see the posts at ScienceBlogs, Michael Behe speaks on bloggingheads.tv affair, John McWhorter & Michael Behe bloggingheads.tv, 2 and John McWhorter & Michael Behe bloggingheads.tv). In the course of tracking down other weblogs with reactions, I stumbled onto a most interesting individual, speaking from an anthropological perspective, the atheist who speaks in favor of Intelligent Design. Consider the matrix:

  Pro-Intelligent Design Anti-Intelligent Design
Theist William Dembski Ken Miller
Atheist ? Richard Dawkins
     

I have given examples for three of the classes crossing the variables, but none for one of them. Steve Fuller arguably falls into this rare class of atheist apologists for Intelligent Design, but I judge him to be somewhat equivocal and frankly self-interested (Fuller raised his profile by appearing as a witness for the Dover school district).

Bradley Monton, a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, fits the bill in a more straightforward manner. He’s written a book: Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design. Monton thinks Intelligent Design is false personally, but seems to believe that there is some fruit to be gained by engaging with the movement. Here is the abstract of a paper, Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision:

In the case of Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al., Judge Jones ruled that a pro-intelligent design disclaimer cannot be read to public school students. In his decision, he gave demarcation criteria for what counts as science, ruling that intelligent design fails these criteria. I argue that these criteria are flawed, with most of my focus on the criterion of methodological naturalism. The way to refute intelligent design is not by declaring it unscientific, but by showing that the empirical evidence for design is not there.

More of the same to be found at Monton’s weblog, which I offer mostly in the spirit of a guide who introduces his charges to the bizarre rites of a primitive tribe. My own attitude toward the demarcation problem is that it has an easy resolution: what scientists do is science. The opinions of lawyers and philosophers are so much window dressing. Intelligent Design theorists in the natural sciences might consider simply taking over departments at the numerous Christian universities, such as Wheaton, and generating their own original research, instead of battling it out in the public square.

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Jun/09

8

The politics of science

Bryan Caplan observes of Behaviorial Geneticists versus Policy Implications:

In most disciplines, experts oversell their ability to give useful policy advice. In behavioral genetics, however, experts strangely undersell their ability to give useful policy advice….

…The upshot: Behavioral genetics makes its politically-correct critics angry because the scientists are putting the politically correct in an awkward position: Deny the science, abandon some of their favorite policies, or sound like dogmatic ideologues. It’s no wonder that they’re angry – and no wonder that they deny the science. They’re not just making the best of a bad situation; they’re also getting a little revenge on the researchers responsible for their unpleasant predicament.

As they say, “read the whole thing!” Currently the most emailed piece in The New York Times is Rising Above I.Q. Scientists know very well the sort of research and findings intellectuals and the public find acceptable. One set of conclusions will usher a chorus of denounciations, while others will prompt laudatory praise.

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Feb/09

20

Greenhouse gasbags

More proof that greenhouse-gas environmentalism—for liberals, one of the main reasons for getting rid of the allegedly anti-science, religiously-driven Bush Administration–is just posturing.  

The California  legislature has been struggling to close a $41 billion budget deficit.  This is the same legislature that insists on imposing its own emissions standards on Detroit auto-makers—safely out of sight and out of the voting booth–because it cares so much about global warming.   Now, if ever, one would think, would be the time to increase gasoline taxes, a two-fer that would  raise revenue and discourage greenhouse gas emissions. 

So did a proposed 12-cents-a-gallon surcharge on gas make it into the crippling $12.8 billion in tax hikes which the California legislature finally passed yesterday?  Of course not.  Voters would raise bloody hell.  Better, apparently, to kill all businesses slowly with a sales tax hike than to interfere with Californians’ right to cheap gasoline.  Liberal politicians’ pious devotion to the science of global warming never translates into action, unless the costs of action can be safely transferred onto non-voters.  And environmental groups are just as cowardly.  I sure didn’t notice the Sierra Club or the NRDC protesting when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for a suspension of the federal gas tax last year.

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Feb/09

13

Theology and belatedness

Anyone who has not read evolutionary theorist Jerry Coyne’s essay on science and religion in the New Republic is missing a tour de force.  Under review are two books attacking creationism and intelligent design.  Their authors–a physicist at Eastern Nazarene College and a cell biologist at Brown University—then try to reconcile their Christian faith with evolution and physics.  This, Coyne concludes, authors Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller fail to do, however masterful their demolition of creationism:

It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.

Coyne touches on several topics already discussed on this site, such as the unwillingness of certain high-minded apologists to discuss what Coyne calls “religion as it is lived and practiced by real people.” But what struck me most while reading the review is how post hoc theological reasoning has become.  It has been reduced to forever playing catch-up to science.  Whatever new insights about the universe science establishes, religious divines will immediately conclude that that is exactly the way God would have done things and what they had meant to say about him all along.  Did it take 14 billion years before God’s intent to create a species that would worship him reached fruition, 14 billion years of laborious preliminaries before anything even remotely resembling human beings could have been glimpsed on the scene?  Well, of course!  It makes perfect sense; that’s exactly what any omnipotent God would have done.  If scientists tomorrow found powerful evidence that in fact species came into existence whenever a giant sling-shot fired a wad of  chewing gum at the earth, we would learn that the sling-shot is the divine instrument par excellence.  (more…)

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Feb/09

8

Chuck Colson and science

Chuck Colson has weighed in on the “proper role of science,” in response to President Obama’s inaugural science plug.  Colson’s column is a perfect example of theological panic, the condition that besets a certain portion of the devout when they contemplate the fact that not everyone believes in God. 

Anticipating that President Obama will lift the ban on federally-subsidized  embryonic stem cell research, Colson posits  only two reasons why anyone would back such research: either he is “driven by greed” or he is “driven by a dangerous worldview called scientism.” 

Though Colson purports to distinguish scientism from science (and makes claims regarding the former that no one has ever advanced, such as: “Scientism assumes that science is the controlling reality about life, so anything that can be validated scientifically ought to be done”), ultimately, what seems to most upset him is a worldview lacking a divine creator, or what he calls “scientific naturalism, a philosophy that the natural world is all that exists.”  Scientific naturalism denies “the reality of those things central to our humanity: a sense of right and wrong, of purpose, of beauty, of God.”

Colson may be right about the last item on his list, but it is nothing more than hysterical ignorance to claim that without belief in God, humans can have no “sense of right and wrong, of purpose, or beauty.”   I have never met a non-believer who has no sense of the difference between right and wrong.  If someone is not killing his parents only because he believes that God prohibits it, but that it would otherwise be OK, his religiously-based moral compass does not have much to recommend it.  Parents teach children to treat other human beings with respect based on humans’ innate ethical intuitions (which a parent reinforces with a strong dose of brute, unappealable authority).  These intuitions can, but need not, be given an explicitly religious cast. (more…)

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Jan/09

30

Science and public policy

New York Times Deputy Science Editor Dennis Overbye celebrated the alleged “restoration of science” under the Obama Administration this week, sounding a Chris Matthews-ian note of ecstasy about Obama’s ascension.   I agree with most of Overbye’s essay, which makes a beautiful case for the social accomplishment of science.  The scientific enterprise teaches such humane, democratic values as “honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view,”  Overbye writes.  (Our religious friends  will of course claim that these values are uniquely Christian ones, and that science is parasitic on Christianity.)

But Overbye’s column also hints at the facile conflation of science with favored liberal politics. 

Overbye appears to link the repression of scientific inquiry and democratic expression in China, where a physicist was disciplined for teaching the Big Bang theory in contravention to Marxist teleology, with the scientific and quasi-scientific culture-war battles of the Bush Administration:  “But once you can’t talk about one subject, the origin of the universe, for example, sooner or later other subjects are going to be off-limits, like global warming, birth control and abortion, or evolution, the subject of yet another dustup in Texas last week.” (more…)

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