Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Quantification Fallacy: Britain instituting "happiness" index

The sophisters and calculators have apparently taken over in Britain. We go now to Aljazeera:

The British government is set to measure the country's "happiness" in an effort to give a fuller picture of how the nation is performing.

David Cameron, the prime minister, who had previously called for "general well-being" to be assessed alongside traditional economic indicators, outlined some of the plans on Thursday, sparking criticism from some quarters.

I don't know if there is such a thing as the Quantificational Fallacy, but if not, we are unveiling it right here: it is the fallacy of quantifying things that are inherently qualitative. It is the fallacy committed every time someone says, "On a scale of one to ten..."

The Quantificational Fallacy is the fallacy that involves the scientizing of things, and it betrays the modern post-Enlightenment tendency to think that a thing's qualitative aspects can be assigned a number. Neil Postman points out somewhere that it was only some time in the late 1800s that anyone thought to assign a number grade to a school paper.

Now this is not to say that it is bad to have a more comprehensive economic measure than, say, the Gross National Product and that such a measure might be useful. But to pretend that any measure can adequately measure what goes into "happiness" or what goes into "well-being" is to simply mischaracterize reality.

I am assuming that Prime Minister David Cameron is attempting, through the tools of econometric analysis, to capture in some way what Wendell Berry calls the "Great Economy." Berry (in a definition he got from his friend Wes Jackson) defines the "Great Economy" as, simply, the "Kingdom of God."

The Kingdom of God, he says, "includes everything; in it, the fall of a sparrow is a significant event." It is the order of the world, and it is an order "both greater and more intricate than we can know." To be precise, this definition talks the qualitative aspects of life as the "Great Economy," for which, he says, "there is no accounting." One wonders how such at thing could be done anyway. What exactly goes into happiness?

You see it, for example, when movies are give, say, three stars out of five. But at least that uses stars, instead of numbers. This is why I prefer giving my students a letter grade rather than a number.

This is also an issue in the Olympics, where a gymnast gets a 9.7268 out of ten for a score.

All this is, of course preposterous. It makes me very unhappy. In fact, my happiness index on this is about a 2.45 out 10.

Monday, November 29, 2010

What's wrong with the New International Version of the Bible

Lutheran thinker Gene Edward Veith makes a point in a new post about Bible translations that I have made repeatedly over the last few years. Here is Veith on the problem:

In my earlier post about the even newer New International Version of the Bible, I complained about how that line of translations is indifferent to metaphor, poetry, and beauty of language. I cited as an example how the new NIV renders “the valley of the shadow of death” as “the dark valley.”

I would argue that sensitivity to literary qualities is necessary in an accurate translation. Metaphors are not just ornaments. They express meaning and are essential in expressing complex, multi-leveled, rich meanings that go beyond simple prosaic statements.

Anglican theologian N. T. Wright has called the NIV "appalling" for its simple inaccuracy in translating the Greek. But it seems to me that it is equally appalling, knowing what the correct rendering of the Greek is, to simply change the English after you have it correctly translated.

I had a pastor once who preached out of the NIV. When giving a sermon on I Peter 1:13, he took a ten minute detour, going back to the King James to get the full meaning of the passage. Here's how the King James Version accurately translates the Greek:

KJV: I Peter 1:13: "Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind..."

Here's the text with which the NIV replaces (not translates) the Greek:

NIV: I Peter 1:13: "Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober..."

This is an absolutely wretched way of rendering this passage. It simply does not pick up all of the meaning of the original metaphor. It can't. If the NIV was so great, I asked him, then why did he have to go back to the King James Version to get the full meaning of the passage?

The problem is that modern translators simply do not understand poetic expression, and since much of the Bible--even in what is otherwise prose--is given in poetic expression, they are ill-suited to translate it. If they did understand poetic expression, they would not assume that non-metaphorical language is somehow more "accurate" than metaphorical expression, which is the reason often given for taking out the metaphors of the original translation.

The NIV is a work of linguistic taxidermy. It claims that it can deliver to readers a Bible they can understand, and assumes that readers can only understand dead language (which is what purely prosaic language is).

Imagine a friend telling you that he has a real tiger. But when you arrive at his house to see it, he shows you a stuffed one. You say, "but it's dead." He says, "Yeah, but it's real." "Well, it may be real, but it's dead," you respond. "What's the difference?" he asks.

Maybe the NIV is a real translation. I rather think it's a paraphrase. But if it is a real translation, then it's a real dead one--stuffed and mounted for your hermeneutical convenience by scholars who don't know the difference between a living and a dead language.

By the way, notice that I just used a metaphor to explain what I meant that no purely prose explanation could say in any clearer way.

Veith is absolutely dead-on right here: metaphor is not ornamental. To say that the "real meaning" of a poetic, analogical expression can only be rendered in non-poetic univocal language is to simply betray an ignorance, not only of poetry, but of language itself.

To remove the metaphorical expression of the original language is to mistranslate the Bible. It's that simple. I'm saying it stronger than Veith says it, but I think I'm saying the same thing.

The reason given for "translations" like the NIV is that it uses "dynamic equivalance," which is supposed to be a method for rendering the text in a more understandable way. I'm not well-versed in the technical controversies over Bible translations, but I do know that removing metaphors, far from making something more understandable, does the exact opposite. This is why good writers (I'm thinking of C. S. Lewis here) use frequent metaphors. People who write with clarity use more, not fewer metaphors.

I read the King James Bible as an act of poetic rebellion against the evil forces of univocalism. If I want a Bible for study purposes which is easier to comprehend in English, I now use the Revised Standard Version which manages to be exceptionally clear without removing metaphorical language (imagine that!).

Those using the NIV ought to consider doing the same.

What the Pope really said

George Weigel quotes Janet Smith, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, who has an interesting analogy to further explain what the Pope was explaining when he was talking about how the use of a condom by a male prostitute might be a sign that the man was taking some kind of basic responsibility for his actions--in contrast to what the theological illiterates in the media said he was saying:
If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would be better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it [for that] would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets. Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.
Read the rest here.

HT: Francis Beckwith

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Gore flips on ethanol subsidies

“It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for [U.S.] first-generation ethanol,” the former vice president declared at a green energy business conference in Athens sponsored by Marfin Popular Bank. “First-generation ethanol, I think, was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small,” he said. “It’s hard once such a program is put in place to deal with the lobbies that keep it going.”

Took him a while.

The End is Near for Redwoods. No, wait, ... Nevermind

And just when I was convinced that The End was really Near, I find out that The End is not really Here, although It may be Here tomorrow--and, if you think about it, tomorrow is fairly Near anyway. So I am planning on remaining in a perpetual state of temporary panic.

The California redwoods, we were told, just last February, were in dire need of being worried about. Why? Because "climate change may be reducing this crucial fog cover." The Nearness of the End, upon hearing such news, seemed Near indeed.

Now, however, we are told that, far from fog disappearing and putting Redwoods into ... spasms of foglessness (and incidentally the red underline on that word generated by my blog software is now telling me that it has never heard of this word before--get a grip Blogspot!) that there is plenty of fog. In fact:

The Bay Area just had its foggiest May in 50 years. And thanks to global warming, it's about to get even foggier.

That's the conclusion of several state researchers, whose soon-to-be-published study predicts that even with average temperatures on the rise, the mercury won't be soaring everywhere.

So does that mean that the Redwoods will benefit? If the lack of fog was going to kill then, then would an abundance of it perk them up? No word for the Warmers on this one.

But one never knows what we will be told next. As for me and my house we will continue to dig the bunker and store essential provisions for the next published report showing that the End is, if not Near, Particularly Close.

HT: Watts Up With That?

Facebook readers can access "Vital Remnants," Martin Cothran's weblog on politics and culture here.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Napalitano School of Drug Enforcement

What, is Janet Napalitano taking over drug enforcement in Kentucky? She must be, since the same Draconian approach to safety is about to be attempted here to prevent meth production.

Kentucky is thinking of following Oregon in making the decongestant pseudoephedrine a prescription-only drug because some people are using it to make illegal methamphetamine. The next thing they'll think of is banning 2-liter bottles, since they use those in meth production as well.

Just like the TSA's method of preventing terrorism by inconveniencing everyone equally in order to catch a handful of terrorists, banning decongestant drugs is an attempting to inconvenience everyone equally in order to catch a meth producers.

It reminds me of G. K. Chesterton's tongue-in-cheek solution to pick-pocketing: ban pockets.

Well can just pry my decongestant pills out of my cold, dead hands.

The anatomy of a bad atheist argument

There is one argument against religious belief that New Atheist types love to employ, that is not only a bad argument, but one in which I can't imagine even the philosophically naive bunch that make up the New Atheist would see any rational force.

I am reading Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, a book which expends a great amount of effort doing everything but what the title promises. And one of the many things he mentions that have nothing to do with the central claim he makes in the book is this argument:
There are many revealed religious available ... the idea that each of these mutually contradictory doctrines is inerrant remains a logical impossibility.
Harris uses the term "inerrant" here, but it makes no real difference to simply use the term "true," as many versions of this argument do. But pay careful attention to the term "each" in this statement. Does it mean "any particular one"? Or does it mean "all"?

If it means "all," then it is sound argument: All of the religions that make truth claims that are mutually exclusive cannot be true at the same time in the same world. But if it means "any particular one," then the argument is not sound, since it is not logically contradictory to say that one is true and the others are not, which is what each individual one (with the exception of something like Bahai, which makes the former claim) asserts.

Harris and other New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins rely on an equivocation of this term "each" to make their argument. They think that to say that "all religions cannot be true at the same time in the same world" means the same thing as "no one of them could be true at the same time in the same world." But these are two entirely different statements. And they nowhere state how you get from one to the other.

Can't we think of numerous questions on which there is a plurality of opinion as to what is true and what is false? In fact, one wonders how Harris would react to the same argument aimed at his own cherished science. There are numerous scientific controversies that have attracted mutually exclusive explanations. Is each of them false simply by virtue of the fact, that there are others that logically contradict it?

There is now a debate over Global Warming and whether it is caused by humans are not. There are two mutually exclusive sides--one saying it is, and one saying it isn't. Under the argument of Harris and the New Atheists, neither of these positions can be true.

There is a controversy going on about whether Intelligent Design can be proven scientifically. There are two mutually exclusive sides--one saying it can, and one saying it can't. Under the atheist argument, neither one can be true.

There is a controversy over whether same-sex marriage is constitutional. There are two mutually exclusive sides in the debate: one argues it is, one that it isn't. Under this argument, both must be rejected.

I could go on. But the point is, this argument makes absolutely no sense, and it's a measure of the philosophical sophistication of the New Atheists that they think it does.

Facebook readers can access "Vital Remnants," Martin Cothran's weblog on politics and culture here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Defending ourselves by defeating ourselves, thanks to the TSA

If we had been told several years ago, that, in the future, checkpoints would be set up at our airports where uniformed government officials would be checking our baggage, X-raying our bodies, and manually searching us to the point of groping our genitals--but that government officials would be exempt from such procedures and soldiers would still be able to take their weapons on board planes--we would take this as a prophecy that we would be taken over by some despotic foreign power.

Who else would do this to us?

In other words, we are doing things to ourselves that we always feared our enemies would do to us. And our enemies are laughing about it.

In an NPR report on Monday, the group responsible for the last two significant terrorist plots said that they considered that they had already won, since they didn't need to get explosives onto planes to succeed: all they had to do was to make us spend billions of dollars doing things to our own people that they could never succeed in doing themselves.

We should be trying to defeat these people, not helping them win.

Facebook readers can access Vital Remnants, Martin Cothran's weblog on politics and culture here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Practicing unsafe journalism on Catholic Church

The Pope says something to someone about condoms, and the secular media completely gets what he says wrong. I am shocked, so shocked. The press has completely bungled, time after time, the issue of whether Benedict has some personal culpability in the sex abuse problem involving some priests (he doesn't), and now they have reported that the Pope has changed the Church's position on condoms, getting it wrong again.

In fact, you can almost count on the press getting just about everything wrong when reporting on the Catholic Church. They seem congenitally incapable of getting it right.

Here's what the Pope said:
[T]he sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which , after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.
So the press sits there with an earhorn, saying, "Eh? What's that you say? Your for okay with condoms?"

Here is Cardinal Raymond Burke trying to talk some sense into the press:
I don’t see any change in the Church’s teaching. What he’s commenting on — in fact, he makes the statement very clearly that the Church does not regard the use of condoms as a real or a moral solution — but what he’s talking about in the point he makes about the male prostitute is about a certain conversion process taking place in an individual’s life. He’s simply making the comment that a person who is given to prostitution, at least considers using a condom to prevent giving the disease to another person — even though the effectiveness of this is very questionable — this could be a sign of someone who is having a certain moral awakening. But in no way does it mean that prostitution is morally acceptable, nor does it mean that the use of condoms is morally acceptable.
The silly idea that you're going to solve thing like the AIDS crisis through pushing condoms apparently isn't going to get any support from the Catholic Church.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Napolitano's Reign of Terror

Airline passengers in the U. S. continue to be victimized by the ever more absurd Transportation Security Administration, whose politically correct absurdity is nicely delineated (once again) by
Anne Coulter:

After the 9/11 attacks, when 19 Muslim terrorists -- 15 from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates and one each from Egypt and Lebanon, 14 with "al" in their names -- took over commercial aircraft with box-cutters, the government banned sharp objects from planes.

Airport security began confiscating little old ladies' knitting needles and breaking the mouse-sized nail files off of passengers' nail clippers. Surprisingly, no decrease in the number of hijacking attempts by little old ladies and manicurists was noted.

TSA simply cannot bring itself to single out anyone--that would be racial profiling--and insists on doing random searches putting the little old lady with a walker under the same level of scrutiny as an arab male dressed in a burkha who happens to be ticking.

So what does TSA do when another threat comes along--from the same type of passenger that has been responsible for all the other attempts?

Two weeks ago, Napolitano ordered TSA agents to start groping women's breasts and all passengers' genitalia -- children, nuns and rape victims, everyone except government officials and members of Congress. (Which is weird because Dennis Kucinich would like it.)

"Please have your genitalia out and ready to be fondled when you approach the security checkpoint."

This is the punishment for refusing the nude body scan for passengers who don't want to appear nude on live video or are worried about the skin cancer risk of the machines -- risks acknowledged by the very Johns Hopkins study touted by the government.

While American airline passengers wait in long lines and are now going to be subject to TSA's ridiculous full body scans, at Israel's Ben Gurion airport, where they've been dealing with terrorism for years and actually think it's more important than political correctness, about all they do is profiling. They identify those kinds of passengers who are low security threats and they go through a lower level of security check.

They won't do that here not for security reasons, but for purely ideological reasons. Everyone is inconvenienced so that certain small groups of airline passengers might not be offended.

Republicans, here's the issue of your dreams.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Another higher education institution lowers itself: SUNY's Faustian bargain

The State University of New York (SUNY) recently joined the growing list of universities that are eliminating humanities and fine arts departments for budgetary reasons. It decided to dispense with French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater arts programs. These departments are vulnerable when the Hollow Men who largely make up university administrations are unwisely given a budget-cutting knife because they want to excise programs with low enrollments, and many of these departments are having this problem.

Why do these disciplines often suffer from low enrollment in our colleges and universities? Part of it is just cyclical: they go in and out of fashion. In the 1960s for example, philosophy departments had relatively high enrollments. But when I arrived on campus in the late seventies, my philosophy department was not as popular as it once was. I am told that it has enjoyed a resurgence or two since I graduated.

Another reason for low enrollment in humanities and fine arts has to do with the fact that many universities have eliminated their academic core programs. Universities once at least gave lip service to the importance of giving students a broad education, and many of them placed specific emphasis--or, we should probably say, a general emphasis--on a basic grounding in Western civilization. But the concern with giving students a generally education is being abandoned in favor of other priorities.

The dominant priority of the soulless bureaucrats who run these institutions is "Diversity," by which they mean exactly the opposite. What they really mean is ideological uniformity. Every time I receive a piece of correspondence--any correspondence--from the University of Kentucky having to do with my son, who graduated and is now in law school there, the letterhead indicates it is from the "Multicultural Department." The University apparently is the Multicultural Department, and the Multicultural Department is the University. That's part of Diversity, you see: making everything the same.

Notice that "women's studies," or "gender studies," or what used to be called "black studies never seem to have to go under the budgetary knife. These places are hives of special interest politics that enjoy favorable treatment in all things. I'm willing to bet cash money that these programs don't have any higher enrollment at SUNY than Italian, French, classics, and theater arts.

Can you imagine the outrage from the political left if a women's studies department were cut for budgetary reasons? Never happen. Why? Because these programs run university administrations, not vice-versa.

Anyway if you want to read the ultimate takedown of SUNY and its ilk, check out Brandeis University's Gregory Petsko's open letter to George M. Phillip, President of SUNY. Here's the very end, but don't miss the rest. There are stingers throughout:

No, I think you were simply trying to balance your budget at the expense of what you believe to be weak, outdated and powerless departments. I think you will find, in time, that you made a Faustian bargain. Faust is the title character in a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was written around 1800 but still attracts the largest audiences of any play in Germany whenever it's performed. Faust is the story of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil. The devil promises him anything he wants as long as he lives. In return, the devil will get - well, I'm sure you can guess how these sorts of deals usually go. If only you had a Theater department, which now, of course, you don't, you could ask them to perform the play so you could see what happens. It's awfully relevant to your situation. You see, Goethe believed that it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world. That's the whole world, President Philip, not just a balanced budget. Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven't given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.

Disrespectfully yours,

Gregory A Petsko

HT: Why Evolution is True

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How I know the Catholic bishops elected the right guy

The expression "dissident Catholic" has never made sense to me. If you don't believe what the Magisterium of the Catholic Church says, then why are you a Catholic? I can understand how someone can be a "dissident Protestant": With over 30,000 Protestant denominations, if you disagree with the one you're in, you can always find another one ready at hand more to your liking.

But a "dissident Catholic"? Where do you go? There's only one place to go: out the door.

Not being too familiar with the panoply of bishops--arch and otherwise--I wasn't sure at first what to think when I saw news reports that Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York had been elected to head the U. S. Catholic Conference of Bishops.

But I took great comfort when I saw that "dissident Catholic" groups were upset about it. One of the redeeming things about groups you disagree with is that in many cases, all you have to do to know what to do about something is to look to see where the groups you disgree with stand, and then do the opposite.

For example, if the NEA comes out against some piece of federal education legislation, then you know it's a good bill. If one of our states two major newspapers endorses a candidate, you know not to vote for him. If the a gay rights group announces that it is pushing some policy intiative, you know to oppose it. It's almost all you have to know.

Well, now that I know that "dissident Catholic" groups, among which are numbered "DignityUSA" and the secular gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign are upset that Dolan was elected to head up the Conference of U. S. Bishops, I can rest easy knowing that it mus be in good hands.

Are reproductive organs for reproduction?

It is interesting to me that when the question comes up of whether the purpose of sex is reproduction, there are some people who suddenly abandon all the language and logic they apply in every other situation where something's purpose is in question.

In the comments section of a previous post, one of the commenters got into this issue, and I remarked that it seemed strange to me that when we talk about general anatomy, or DNA, or animal behavior, we use blatantly teleological language to do it. But if we use that same language about human sexuality, all of a sudden the Tolerance Police show up and ask you for your identification papers.

We talk about the purpose of bodily organs all the time. The purpose of the heart is to pump blood to the rest of the body; the purpose of a kidney is to filter the blood; the purpose of the intestines is to digest food. Say these things and everyone nods earnestly in agreement.

But then you say, "and the reproductive organs are for..." (and you pause at this point to put up your deflector shields) "...reproduction."

As Mr. Bill was wont to say, "Nooooooooooooooooooo!"

No, indeed. Sex has become the great idol of our time. Malcolm Muggeridge once quipped that our culture has sex on the brain--which, he added, is a very uncomfortable place to have it. And if you add to that the fact that reproduction has become unfashionable among the denizens of our cultural elite, you get the the current aversion to saying that reproductive organs are for what they are clearly for.

So then we get into the debate about whether things have intrinsic purposes. Not a few people are willing to abandon the whole idea of things having purposes solely because they want to deny that sex has a purpose. Of course, the next day after they do this, you will find them once again using teleological language to talk about everything else.

The chief problem, of course, is that there is a whole contingent of otherwise rational beings who want to separate sex from reproduction and pretend the two aren't tied together in any natural way. If we saw this going on in the animal kingdom, we would hunt down the animal we saw engaging in this aberrant behavior, tranquilize it, and haul it into the laboratory to see what was wrong with it.

And then, after denying that sex has any intrinsic purpose, the same people will turn around and argue that the purpose of sex is pleasure. Well, that is the motive for doing it, but not the reason. Why do these people think that to say that the final cause of sex is reproduction is to somehow deny the role of pleasure in sex? As philosopher Edward Feser has pointed out, there is no more reason to think that the role of pleasure in sex is inconsistent with its reproductive purpose than to think that the role of pleasure in eating is inconsistent with its digestive purpose.

But the people who have a conniption fit every time someone mentions that reproductive organs are for reproduction are reductionists. They have cut themselves off from a whole view of the world by rejecting Aristotle's formal and final causation--the idea that things have natures and purposes--and so they must view things in very simplistic and one-dimensional way.

And they have to argue that reproductive organs are not for reproduction, which is a very strange thing to say.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Americans may be he best, but they ain't the brightest in math

According to Chester Finn, not only do American students compare poorly to students in other countries on math proficiency, but even students from the highest performing American states still get beat out by a bevy of nations.

Read the report here.

Mass. school committee votes to hand out condoms to elementary school students

A school committee in Provincetown, MA has voted to hand out condoms to elementary school students. Maybe someday, one of these school committees will vote to hand out an education.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Even the foxes are chickens now: Hal Rogers still vying for Appropriation post

The fox is still scheduled to take over the hen house, arguing that he has truly sworn off chickens.

Earmark King Hal Rogers seems to be looking like the favorite to take over the House Appropriations Committee now that anti-Earmark Republicans have taken control of Congress. Rogers claims to have gotten religion on federal earmarks after years of bringing home millions in federal money to the fifth district of Kentucky.

According to Politico, Rogers is "promising reform and to keep in place the earmark moratorium." In a word, no more chickens for this fox.

The fox's conversion to a poultry-free diet came immediately following the election of a chicken majority. In fact, Rogers conversion to the Earmark cause came as soon as he realized that the Republicans were headed for the majority and his seniority put him in line to head the very committee that doles out the federal dough.

In fact, he beat the ever crafty McConnell in joining the anti-earmark cause. We're all chickens now.

Politico is saying that the infighting to get the House's most lucrative post is getting ugly. Seems that despite all the pledges to swear off chickens, there is something in the Congressional coop that they all want.

But it's not chickens. Honest.

HT: Bluegrass Bulletin

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sam Harris on Morality: More pronouncements from the Englishmen.

I have said before that there is a hierarchy of positions on the issue of how (and whether) moral beliefs can be justified. On the top of the scale is classical religious thought, a scheme of belief in which morality makes complete sense. On the next level down is existentialism, which rightly concludes that if you reject God, then you must also reject morality. And since they reject God, they realize they must reject morality too. It is a mistaken position, but it's at least intellectually consistent.

On the bottom of this hierarchy is the New Atheism, which simply plays pretend and clings, despite no rational justification of its position, that, despite there being no God, there is still morality. The existentialists, being philosophically sophisticated, basically laugh at this position. Nietzsche calls the people who hold it "Englishmen" because he saw the Victorian culture of 19th century Britain doing exactly this.

And how ironic is that? That the New Atheists are essentially recapitulating the Victorian view on morality?

This latter position has now been taken up by people like Sam Harris, the author of Letter to a Christian Nation. I have not read Harris' new book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, and I hope to review it soon. However, his comments describing his argument in the book don't look terribly promising.

Harris first tries to recast the concept of morality in what he calls "flourishing,"and flourishing, he says, "depends on the way the universe is." Therefore (apparently), morality depends on the way the universe is. He argues that because questions of right and wrong are about human and animal well-being, and that human and animal well being depend on certain things in the world that we can study scientifically, that therefore morality can be studied scientifically.
In my book I argue that we can view all possible experience on a kind of landscape, where peaks correspond to the heights of well-being and the valleys correspond to the lowest depths of suffering. The first thing to notice is that there may be many equivalent peaks on this landscape - there may be many different ways for people to thrive. But there will be many more ways not to thrive.
In fact, what he seems to be doing is simply redefining morality, which cannot be scientifically studied, by repackaging it in something called "flourishing," which he defines in such a way that it can be scientifically studied. He then concludes that morality can be scientifically studied. It's sort of a shell game where the pea somehow gets removed from the shell it was originally under.

There are two fallacies that people like Harris commit over and over when they discuss morality, as if committing them enough times somehow made them go away. The first is that think they can cross back and forth over the "is/ought" divide as if it didn't exist, and they never explain how they get from an is to an ought. As David Hume pointed out in the 18th century, you simply can't do it. To conclude anything about what should be on the basis of what is is to commit what other philosophers have since called a "category mistake." It's like saying that 2 + 2 = 4 is purple, or that my appreciation of a song I heard today is three feet tall.

This, by the way, is not a problem for classical morality (i.e., Aristotelian Thomism), since classical morality presupposes formal and final causes. If you believe that things (such as human beings) have a definitive nature and purpose, and that acting in accordance with that nature is what is good, and acting in defiance of that nature is bad, then everything makes sense. But the New Atheists, adopting the modern view deriving from the Englightenment that there are no formal or final causes, have left themselves at the mercy of what has been called "Hume's Guillotine."

The second fallacy Harris and his fellow New Atheists repeatedly commit is the Naturalistic Fallacy, which consists of asserting that you can explain ethics by simply describing the conditions that accompany the quality of goodness. If, for example, pleasure always accompanies virtuous acts, then virtue and pleasure must be the same thing. G. E. Moore articulated the problem with this fallacy in his Principia Ethica in the early 20th century.

It is important to note that Hume and Moore are not Christians or even traditional thinkers: Hume was a British empircist Philosopher (and religious skeptic) and Moore was a modern analytic philosopher.

The more fundamental problem, however, is that the New Atheists are mostly philosophically ignorant and don't even seem to be familiar with the fact that these are problems in the first place. I have yet to hear one of them actually address the is/ought problem or explain how their position on morality avoids the Naturalistic Fallacy. You would think they had never heard of Hume or Moore.

I'm sure Harris is more specific in his book, but it will be interesting to find out whether he tackles these problems head on--or whether he simply ignores them as he has done in all the public statements from him I've seen so far.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rand Paul vs. Eliot Spitzer

Rand Paul vs. Eliot Spitzer on CNN. My favorite part is when Spitzer, who is tries to play gotcha journalist throughout the whole episode, asks Paul about his salary when he was a doctor. Paul asks Spitzer how he would feel about Paul going into has past. Ouch!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Justice Scalia Is No Sir Thomas More

The St. Thomas More Society of Maryland awarded Supreme Court Justice with its "Man for All Seasons Award", which is "given to members of the legal profession who embody the ideals of St. Thomas More." I can think of few members of the legal profession whose legal philosophy is more opposed to the principles for which More stood.

St. Thomas More resigned when it became clear that his position as Chancellor under King Henry would require him to affirm the jurisdictional authority of the state without the limitation of the Church's own authority. Justice Scalia, on the other hand, said in an interview with the Catholic Reporter, "
I don’t think there’s any such thing as a Catholic judge.... If I genuinely thought the Constitution guaranteed a woman’s right to abortion, I would be on the other way. It would do nothing with my religion. It has to do with my being a lawyer."

When faced with his own career aspirations, St. Thomas More refused to relegate his faith to the private sphere of his life, rejecting the idea that he could be anything but a Catholic chancellor. Justice Scalia, on the other hand, separates his faith from his role as a judge to the point that he would be willing to perpetuate what his faith regards as a manifest injustice (a moral issue that makes King Henry's divorce look small by comparison). Whether or not Justice Scalia's view is correct, he certainly is no Thomas More.

Your child left behind: The sorry state of education in the U. S.

Here is the Atlantic magazine, in a new article, "Your Child Left Behind," on the sorry state of education in the United States:

Stanford economist Eric Hanushek and two colleagues recently conducted an experiment to answer just such questions, ranking American states and foreign countries side by side. Like our recruiter, they looked specifically at the best and brightest in each place—the kids most likely to get good jobs in the future—using scores on standardized math tests as a proxy for educational achievement.

We’ve known for some time how this story ends nationwide: only 6 percent of U.S. students perform at the advanced-proficiency level in math, a share that lags behind kids in some 30 other countries, from the United Kingdom to Taiwan. But what happens when we break down the results? Do any individual U.S. states wind up near the top?

Incredibly, no. Even if we treat each state as its own country, not a single one makes it into the top dozen contenders on the list. The best performer is Massachusetts, ringing in at No. 17. Minnesota also makes it into the upper-middle tier, followed by Vermont, New Jersey, and Washington. And down it goes from there, all the way to Mississippi, whose students—by this measure at least—might as well be attending school in Thailand or Serbia.

Read more here.

Facebook readers can access the full Vital Remnants blog here.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Lexington didn't elect a gay mayor; it elected a mayor

I was quoted in the Lexington Herald-Leader Sunday on the fact that Jim Gray, the newly elected major of Lexington, Kentucky, is gay. The quotations were entirely fair, but one thing that didn't make it in from the interview was, "Lexington didn't elect a gay mayor; they elected a mayor." Gay issues played absolutely no role in the election. People voted on economic issues. Period.

As I mentioned in the article, if Gray had invoked gay issues in the campaign it could very well have been a different outcome. I told the reporter that, in regard to gay issues, you can conclude exactly nothing from the mayoral election, since the issue never came up.

You can read the article here.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

People who want to teach kids the "facts" about sex get the facts wrong on new study

It is time for all of us to avert our eyes once again from the fact that gay rights groups and their friends in the media are misrepresenting scientific evidence. Oh, wait. Did I say that? Maybe I should not have said "they're lying to us" in such a negative way. I'm trying to think of other ways I could say "they're lying to us" that would sound a little better.

But I'll tell you what. While I'm trying find a way of saying "they're lying to us" that sounds better than simply saying "they're lying to us," take a look at the headlines of these stories available on the Internet about a recent study released by the journal Pediatrics:
One in ten teens has same-sex partners: Study (Reuters)
One in ten teens has same sex partners: Study (Yahoo News)
1 in 10 teens has same-sex partners (Mother Nature Network)
1 in 10 teens has same-sex partners (Asiaone)
One in ten teens has same-sex partners: Study (Leader Post)
One in 10 NYC teens has had same-sex partner: study (CTV News)
1 in 10 NYC teens has had same-sex partner: study (UPI)
One in ten teens have same-sex partners: report - Need to know (Macleans)
Study shows one in 10 teens has same-sex partners (Calgary Herald)
Nearly 1 in 10 N.Y. Teens Have Same-Sex Partners (The Advocate)
1 in 10 Teenagers Have Had a Same Sex Partner (Greenwala)
These are just the articles on the first two pages of a Google search. There are many, many more.

Now there is a teeny tiny problem with these headlines that makes them slightly deceptive. The problem, in short, with saying that one in ten teens are having sex with same sex "partners" is that one in ten teens are NOT having sex with same-sex "partners."

A slight problem, you'll have to admit.

You see, according to the abstract for the study cited by these stories, "Of sexually active adolescents, 9.3% reported a same-sex partner, a higher estimate than other published rates." Read it again: 9.3% "of sexually active adolescents," not of all teens.


Not only that, but the study's results were based on teens in New York City who filled out public health surveys. Surely, you're thinking, we have some reason for believing that teens in New York City who fill out public health surveys are somehow representative of teens nationally. I mean, shouldn't we expect a study of teens living in, say, rural Utah would yield similar results?

In fact, the reports that the new results are higher than in other studies appear to be referring to studies with different population groups--a 2001 Minnesota student survey (9.4%), a 2008 British Columbia survey (8%).

Furthermore, about a third of these teens reporting "bisexual" experience reported having sex forced on them. Did they have sex with a same-sex partner willingly?

But, again, we should be willing to live with these problems and inconsistencies since we don't want to question the Approved Opinions on these issues that now dictate the evidence instead of vice-versa. It would also ruin some of the inferences some people are drawing from these results.

The study's abstract discusses the rate of "risky sexual behaviors" engaged in by these teens, and one of their findings is that the teens who also have sex with others of the same sex are more likely to engage in "risky sexual behavior." We don't, of course, ever want to assume that engaging in sex with same-sex partners is itself risky behavior. According to Elizabeth Saewyc, a "researcher at the University of British Columbia," teens "may engage in riskier behavior because sex education programs don't always acknowledge gay, lesbian, and bisexual relationships."

Now just try for a moment and get past these scientific inhibitions you might have about things like scholarly integrity and actual scientific causation and try to see if you can just sort of get in the politically correct zone on this issue and think this through.

These teens having sex with other teens of the same sex are more wreckless than than the ones that don't. Now I know there are some naive traditionalist rubes out there thinking that maybe these findings (higher rates of risky sex and higher rates of forced sex with people who decide not to cross the gender boundary when they do have sex--not to mention all the gay teens now apparently killing themselves) indicate that sex with others of the same sex is not a good idea.

They're thinking that if some other, less politically correct behavior was found to be more dangerous to engage in, the so-called experts would be out in force lecturing us all about how we should cease and desist from the behavior in question. When smoking, for example, is found to have bad health consequences, we deploy an army of health experts all of whom tell us that we should stop doing it. They don't tell us that we should be more tolerant of smokers or how we should portray smoking more positively in health programs or that we should teach students how to smoke more safely. They just tell us to stop.

So why, they will ask, are we doing this with teens having sex with other teens of the same sex?

If you are asked this question simply cover your ears and start talking about tolerance and diversity. Just say it and keep repeating it, over and over and over again.

Oh, and did we mention that these are the same people who want to teach our kids the "facts" about sex?

Facebook readers can access Vital Remnants here.

HT: Cranach

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Ten animals Ed Brayton would like to ignore

The only thing sillier than some of Christine O'Donnell's statements during her campaign for U. S. Senate in Delaware is some of the responses to her.

Ed Brayton, for example, seems to think it a highly damning critique to lampoon O'Donnell's remarks on certain sexual practices by pointing to the animal kingdom, where those same sexual practices occur, as if the reader is supposed to conclude that this is somehow morally instructive for humans.

I have dealt with this whole line of argument before in "Gay Penguins and the Inductive Argument from Hell": that if we can find animals that do something, we must therefore conclude it's okay for humans. Start down that road and it's interesting what you end up committing yourself to.

Here are ten animals we do not want to emulate:
  • Komodo dragons, polar bears, crocodiles, etc. (eat their young)
  • Fishing spiders (eat potential mates)
  • Bachelor biting midge, female redback spider (eats opposite sex after mating)
  • Spotted hyena, seabirds (murders siblings)
  • Ichneumon wasp (tortures others insects)
  • Hippopotamus (attracts mate by urinating & defecating)
Coming soon: secular rationalists commending cannibalism, fratricide, and torture--along with some fairly exotic dating techniques.

I would also mention the female giant green anaconda, which mates with multiple males at one time, but you never can be sure what interesting inference from their own reasoning these people may already accepted. So why bother. These are people who are pretty far gone, morally speaking, so its getting harder and harder to find something that's outrageous according to their morality (and I use that term loosely)

By the way, why is it always some debased behavior we're supposed to mimic in nature? When was the last time you heard these people pigeons who mate for life, or dogs for their loyalty or bees for their industriousness and arguing that we should emulate them. Why is vice, rather than virtue, the only thing we can learn from nature?

How to tell whether the Republicans are serious about fiscal restraint

If you think that majority control by Republicans automatically means that we have entered the era of federal belt-tightening, then you'd better sit down for a moment. We've got some bad news for you.

The job of taking care of the nation's financial hen house is about to be given to ... the fox.

Very few people noticed this during the election, but, with the Democrats out of power in the U. S. House of Representatives, the congressman slated to take the helm of the House Appropriations Committee is none other than Kentucky's own Hal Rogers. Rogers, who represents the 5th district and is a longtime Republican member of the committee, has used his post to direct a pipeline of federal cash back to his district.

Rogers is the congressional poster boy for federal earmarks. He is to fiscal restraint what Godzilla was to Tokyo. Can we mix more metaphors in description of the complete and utter absurdity of putting Hal Rogers at the head of the House Appropriations Committee at a time of Tea Party ascendancy? Yes we can: putting Hal Rogers in charge of stopping earmarks is like putting Madonna in charge of abstinence education.

Let this be the first test of whether Congressional Republicans are serious about their campaign promises.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Evolving conservatism

Anthony Esolen on the election:
I fear that the battle, not always but all too often, is between a radical materialism and a softer materialism, a radical worship of Progress (to where, is never specified) and a softer worship of Progress. For instance, I saw the former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, on television with Geraldine Ferraro, the two of them commenting upon the difficulties of being a woman in national politics. One of them said, "There are still some Neanderthals out there who believe that it is impossible for a woman to have a family and raise her children properly while embarking on a political career. We hope that they will soon evolve beyond that position." Those italics are mine. Note the assumptions here. People in previous generations were bigots. What they actually believed about the relations between men and women, and their roles in private and public life, can be dismissed with a sneer. We, who divorce half of the time, when we bother to marry in the first place, we whose cities are sinkholes of sexual and familial chaos, we can safely ignore the so-called wisdom of past ages. We have evolved, don't you see. Just as, I suppose, our understanding of freedom has evolved beyond that of that fellow Jefferson -- that ascetic and patrician landowner, to use William F. Buckley's words, whom we can call upon to justify denuding the public square of all expressions of religion, but otherwise dismiss.

The person who made that comment, of course, was Governor Palin. I guess I shouldn't single women out for the collapse of our political thinking -- that we are not producing even an eloquent and somewhat addled populist like Bryan, or a stubborn constitutionalist such as Cleveland; and those fellows are rather dwarfed by the political intellects of the Adamses, or Jefferson and Madison, or Webster and Calhoun. Yet I wonder sometimes what a Palin or a Pelosi can be thinking. Are they entirely unaware of the great (and sometimes failed) statesmen of the American and British past? Are they not embarrassed by the vulgar cackling of the commentators on that show that is inevitably on the screen when I go to the doctor's or the dentist's, The View? Cackling which makes Rush Limbaugh appear like Demosthenes. Or are they aware in the slightest of the collapse of the American family, which in certain sectors of our population is evident in the disappearance of responsible men, the should-be fathers of their communities?

...Ah well. The fiscal conservatives have no idea that they lack a proper understanding of the human being and of the common good, and that they therefore play the secularist's game on the secularist's own turf. The social conservatives have either bought the idea that "government," for good or bad, means management by bureaucrats from afar, or have bought so much of the sexual revolution that their residual opposition to killing children remains utterly unmoored from any consistent vision of what a good human life or a virtuous and just human community looks like.
Read the rest here.