Thursday, November 29, 2012

What is science for?

It will undoubtedly prove controversial to say that our approach to science ought to take account of what nature is.

Unfortunately, we live in a time in which the nature of nature has become a topic of dispute, and much of the scientific establishment seems to think that nature can be considered and taught in a way that takes no account of its fundamental ..., well, nature.

In fact, one of the chief problems in discussing science is the equivocal use of the word "nature." To modern thinkers, the word "nature" is merely a reference the cosmos as a whole. It is the sum total or aggregate of all physical objects. But to classical thinkers, the primary meaning of the word "nature" had to to do with the intrinsic order and purpose of things.

The poet Alexander Pope once wrote:
Nature and nature's laws lay hid by night;
God said, "Let Newton be," and all was light.
Here, the word "nature" is used very much on its modern sense. The classical use of the word, however, can be illustrated from a nursery rhyme:
Dogs delight to bark and bite ...
For 'tis their nature to.
Here the word "nature" is used in the classical sense, to mean the inner essence of a thing.

To modern thinkers, the world is like a machine. We live in the wake of the so-called "scientific revolution," which introduced the view that nature was a giant mechanism ultimately reducible to lifeless atoms. In this view, the things of nature have no real essence or purpose, since what they fundamentally are is a collection of dead particles. Natural objects are the particles they can be reduced to, and that is all they are.

To classical thinkers—whether Christian or non-Christian—this was not so. Nature was not a machine; it was an organism. The universe was, in a sense, alive.

In the old view, science was a study of the causes of things, and they believed there were four causes: formal, material, efficient, and final. A formal cause was the metaphysical pattern of a thing. A material cause was what it was composed of. An efficient cause was what brought the thing about or kept it in existence. And the final cause was what it was for, its telos.

In the classical Christian view, man was a creature made in the image of God (formal cause) out of flesh and bone (material cause) who was created by his Maker (efficient cause) in order to enjoy and glorify Him forever (final cause).

But beginning in the 17th century, formal and final causes were jettisoned: There was no metaphysical pattern upon which things were designed, or any intrinsic purpose for which they existed—no pattern nor any telos. There was no longer any why or wherefore. Nature was shrunk down to the dimensions of the instruments by which it could be measured. Now there was only the what and the wherewith.

And with the advent of Darwin, the what itself was eliminated. Nothing was what it was, since everything was always in the process of becoming. All that was left was efficient cause.

The object of the old "natural philosophy" was to apprehend nature. Aristotle, for example, practiced science by naming, defining, and classifying. The purpose of what we now call "science" was to behold nature in its fullness. But in the modern view, the whole point of science is to deconstruct nature—to reduce it to its ultimate meaningless components.

In the classical view, the point of science was to apprehend the mystery of the nature; in the modern view, the point of science is eliminate the mystery of nature.

Science begins and ends in wonder, and wonder cannot be had in an approach whose whole purpose is to eliminate it. It can only be accomplished by viewing nature as a mystery we can never resolve, but only marvel at.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Neville Chamberlain School of Republican Strategy

First Things' R. R. Reno, in response to former chairperson of the Republican National Committee Ken Mehlman, on whether the Republican Party should surrender on same-sex marriage:
Same-sex marriage will encourage fidelity and commitment, and foster family values? We can’t predict the future of culture, and I suppose Mehlman is entitled to his dreams. But a sober-minded observer sees that same-sex marriage puts an exclamation mark on the transformation of marriage and parenting from the basic norm for adult life into one life-style choice among many, one that we can enter and exit as our choices change. There’s nothing about same-sex marriage other than the now redefined word “marriage” that remotely suggests “family values.”
Even more ridiculous is the notion that redefining marriage makes government less intrusive. The notion of civil rights that fuels the push for “marriage equality” requires pumping up the power of the state to bulldoze older traditions and attitudes that stand in the way of the full acceptance and affirmation of homosexuality. It’s going to lead to litigation, regulation, mandated school programs and “inclusivity” seminars, and lots of other legislation. For good and for ill, the civil rights revolution of the 1960s created entire government bureaucracies, which in turn led to corporate diversity consultants and many other positions, all keyed to compliance.
Read the rest here.

Coyne betrays his ignorance of theology. Again.

The biologically intrepid but theologically illiterate Jerry Coyne has a few things to say about Pope Benedict's reaffirmation, in his new book, about the Virgin Birth. Not very intelligent things, mind you, but when has that ever stopped him?

He first takes note of a reference by the Pope to the Holy Spirit being one part of the Trinity, to which he responds:
Note that the Trinity is not an explicit claim of the New Testament, but a doctrine (now ironclad) made up by Church fathers from some questionable references in the New Testament. And it’s not accepted by many Christians (e.g. “Unitarians”, Christian Scientists, and Mormons). Once again, theology has just made something up. But I digress ...
No, the Trinity is not explicit, but nature doesn't exactly announce in explicit terms that operates on evolutionary principles, but Coyne believes that. In the case of the Trinity, the assertions are clear and the inference is straightforward: The person of the Father is God; the person of the Spirit is God; the person of the Son is God; there is only one God; therefore, there are three persons in the one God. You can disagree with it, but you can't coherently quibble with the claims or casually dismiss the inference.

And someone please inform Jerry that the Unitarian, Christian Scientist, and Mormon churches are not exactly your paradigm Christian institutions. They reject every central tenet of the Christian faith. So on what grounds can anyone call them "Christian"? Because they claim to be? Historically, a Christian is someone who can affirm the Nicene Creed. These institutions reject it. This is not theological rocket science.

Does Jerry accept Scientology as science? It claims to be.

Coyne goes bumbling along, asking (on the basis of a report--yahoo being a well-known repository of theological scholarship) why the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection are "cornerstones of faith" while the Flood, Adam and Eve, and the parting of the Red Sea are not (answer: for the same reason that systematic circulation of the blood or that photosynthesis converts light into chemical energy or that tides are caused by the Moon are "cornerstones of science"--because, although they are scientific conclusions, they are not determinative of what is science and what isn't); why he accepts creation but does not reject evolution (answer: because not all evolutionary belief is Darwinian); and why he accepts some Biblical truths as literal and some as metaphorical (answer: because some Biblical truths are intended as literal and some are intended as metaphorical).

But I don’t see the Virgin Birth as such an unequivocal truth. Nothing really depends on that tale except the notion that Jesus was an extraordinary (i.e., divine) being. And by holding fast to such a ludicrous doctrine, the Pope is making things tough for his Church, and harder for adherents to accept its doctrine in an age of science.
Naw. Nothing depends on it. Except the central claim of Christianity. That's all.

And as for making things "tough on the Church" because we are in the "age of science," Coyne can't name one discovery of science that makes belief in the Virgin Birth "tough." The Virgin Birth is a miracle, and, as I've pointed out, science, as science, can have exactly nothing to say about it.

Coyne says the Pope has "embarrassed himself." And he didn't even blush when he said it.

Did I mention that the Pope has more knowledge of history and theology (as well as the philosophy of science) in his little fingernail than Coyne has in his whole body?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Cutting Edge Culture: Swedes eliminating sex specific pronouns

Every once in a while, I feel a Thoughtcrime coming on. I try to resist it, but it never seems to work. One of the incorrect thoughts that accost me from time to time is thinking that males and females are different. It us just one more piece of evidence that my re-education is still not complete.

It is at times like these that I appreciate reading stories like this one, in the New York Times, about Sweden, where some people are trying to eliminate male and female pronouns. All in the interest, of course, of dealing with the Thoughtcrimes that we are all tempted to commit about, um, our "friends":
STOCKHOLM — At an ocher-color preschool along a lane in Stockholm’s Old Town, the teachers avoid the pronouns “him” and “her,” instead calling their 115 toddlers simply “friends.” Masculine and feminine references are taboo, often replaced by the pronoun “hen,” an artificial and genderless word that most Swedes avoid but is popular in some gay and feminist circles. 
In the little library, with its throw pillows where children sit to be read to, there are few classic fairy tales, like “Cinderella” or “Snow White,” with their heavy male and female stereotypes, but there are many stories that deal with single parents, adopted children or same-sex couples.
Girls are not urged to play with toy kitchens, and wooden or Lego blocks are not considered toys for boys. And when boys hurt themselves, teachers are taught to give them every bit as much comforting as they would girls. Everyone gets to play with dolls; most are anatomically correct, and some are also black.
Yes, it is unfortunate that we must forsake stories like Snow White and the ... Seven Longitudinally Challenged Persons. And one does wonder who Cinderella is now supposed to dance with at the ball. Perhaps we can add a black transvestite drag queen to the story to spice things up a bit.
It is stories like this that hold out for me the hope that someday I too can successfully deny the manifold biological and psychological evidence and not be internally conflicted about it.

I am a little concerned, however, about the "anatomically correct" dolls they are using in these schools. Doesn't this underscore differences between the sexes? In fact, weren't the old Barbies and Kens, which were gender neutral, more "anatomically correct" than anatomically correct dolls? Isn't it the old gender neutral dolls we saw when we were young that provide us with the very image of how people really are? Isn't this one of the psychological props we resort to when these politically incorrect thoughts come upon us?

In fact, isn't the whole "biological" thing kind of dangerous to our political health? I mean, if you think about it, biology itself is one of the most culturally dangerous things we have to deal with, since it is always underscoring gender stereotypes, like things being male and female.

Sweden might want to think about eliminating biology entirely.

I suspect the Swedes will realize their mistake here eventually. The problem is that you will have all those dolls out there who will have to have their anatomy "corrected." I'm having visions of male dolls having their "anatomically correct" genitals lopped off. Maybe they could open up centers where children could take their dolls in to have this done. I mean, as long as they don't circumcise them or anything drastic like that.

I love Sweden.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

My article, which the paper titled "For GOP, Wooing Moderates a Self-Destructive Strategy," is in today's Lexington Herald-Leader. Of course, it's not about wooing moderates, its about listening to those in their own party. Oh well.
When one political party wins a national election and the other loses, the best thing for the losing party to do is take a lesson from what the winning party did. But moderates in the Republican Party seem to think it's a great idea to do exactly the opposite.
As soon as the election was over, moderates put the Republican Party on the political couch and began psychoanalyzing it to determine the problem. The advice they are now in the process of giving it is the same advice they have given the Party repeatedly over the last 40 years: Drop the social issues and nominate a moderate.
This, they say, is the key to realizing their electoral potential.
There must be something in the childhood of moderates' that prevents them from learning from their past mistakes--even those in the very recent past. What they should have noticed, but apparently haven't, is that this is exactly what the Republicans did this year and it didn't work.
Read the rest here.

"Bad Advice for Republicans" in Louisville Courier-Journal

My article, "Bad Advice for Republicans," was in yesterday's Louisville Courier-Journal:
As if the loss of the presidential election was not enough, Republicans must now suffer the indignity of being given bad advice.
As soon as the results of the election were in, moderates within the party announced that the problem lay in the party’s conservative position on social issues. The reason the Republicans lost was because of their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
The people who argue this must not have been watching the same election as the rest of us. They talk as if Mitt Romney ran for president as some sort of crazed socially-conservative radical who wanted gays locked up and women forced to give birth at gunpoint. In fact, the Republicans this year did everything moderates in the party always say they should do: They nominated the least socially conservative legitimate candidate, and they almost completely ignored social issues.
You would think that if the advice of moderates in the party was good, it would actually work. But it clearly didn’t ...
Read the rest here.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Mitt Romney's disastrous get-out-the-vote failure

Some people will make too much of this (I'm thinking Fox News here), but one of the interesting aspects of last Tuesday's election was the crashing of Mitt Romney's "ORCA," his get-out-the-vote machinery, on election day:
Starting in the early afternoon, reports were coming in from across swing states that ORCA had crashed. That morning, when Shoshanna was on the phone with Boston, she was told the system was crashing, unable to withstand thousands of simultaneous log-ins. The system had never been stress tested and couldn’t handle the crush of traffic all at once. Thousands of man-hours went into designing and implementing a program that was useful on one day and one day only, and on that day, it crashed. My source familiar with the campaign described it this way, “It was a giant [mess] because a political operative sold a broken product with no support or backup plan. Just another arrogant piece of the arrogant Romney campaign.”
It's a fascinating piece. Read the rest here.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Fiscal cliff": A linguistic complaint

If I hear the term "fiscal cliff" on more time, I'm gonna, ... I'm gonna jump off a steep non-financial precipice.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Why Republicans should drop free market economics


TO: Republican Moderates

FROM: The Special Committee to Protect You from Yourselves

SUBJECT: Positions we should abandon in light of last Tuesday's election

In the wake of last Tuesday's loss by Mitt Romney in the presidential election, Republicans need to reassess their core beliefs. They need to take a look at where the nation is going. They need to modernize. Clearly, Obama's win in this week's presidential election tells us that there are certain issues which simply don't play with the American electorate, and the Republican Party needs to listen.

It is time for Republicans to abandon free market economics.

That's right. Romney ran on one thing and one thing only: on free market solutions to the nation's economic problems. He ran on these things and lost. So it is clear that what was repudiated in this election was economic libertarianism.

Okay. Now that you are all riled up by what I  just said, calm down for just a moment. Have you peeled yourself off the ceiling? Good. Alright.

Once your heart rate has returned to normal, I want you to sit back a moment and ponder the argument I just made. Doesn't make any sense at all, does it? In fact it's kind of stupid. Whoever really believes such a thing should have his head examined. No one should abandon his core beliefs on the basis of one election. In fact, if it really is a core belief, a person should keep it no matter what.

As soon as you have pondered the absurdity of this argument against the Party's free market position on economics, think about just how bone-headed you sound when you make arguments like the ones you are now making that the Republican Party needs to abandon its position on social issues.

Many of you are at this very moment engaged in a campaign to convince rank and file Republicans that the answer to their electoral woes is to cut and run on abortion and same-sex marriage. The extent of the absurdity of this argument is hard to fathom, since, in case you didn't notice, if there was anything Romney did not emphasize during this election, it was abortion and traditional marriage.

I don't remember him (or anyone else) saying anything about either of these issues at the Republican National Convention. Nor, with one exception, did either issue ever come up in a debate. Exit poll after exit poll confirmed that Romney got exactly what he wanted: voters going to the polls with unemployment and high food and gas prices on their minds.

This presidential election was about economics. Period.

So if you are going to argue that anything is a losing issue, it's going to have to be free market economics. But for some strange reason, I don't hear any of you arguing that. And ridiculous as that argument obviously is, it is ten times more ridiculous to argue what you actually are arguing: that the pro-life position and the championing of traditional marriage are hurting the party's electoral chances--despite the fact that these positions were not issues the Republicans emphasized in this election.

So go freshen up. Get something cool to drink. And come back tomorrow with recommendations that actually make sense.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Commitment Gap: Mitt Romney and the Republican Party's crisis of values

Republicans trying to figure out what went wrong in Tuesday's election should put down their charts and graphs and visit the graveyard of the idea that they are more politically competitive if they nominate a moderate for president. They will find there a row of gravestones, each bearing the name of a candidate who was thought more likely to win because he was a pragmatist rather than a man of ideas.

The Litany of the Moderate Republican Political Dead includes Gerald Ford (lost to Carter), George Herbert Walker Bush (lost re-election to Clinton), Bob Dole (lost to Clinton), and John McCain (lost to Obama). In each case the party took the advice of those inside and outside who said they had a much better chance of winning without an "ideologue" (read: someone who is serious about ideas) on the ticket. Romney joins this list as only the most recent casualty of the crisis of values in the Republican Party.

Mid-campaign shifts of position, as we saw in Romney's general election campaign, are just symptoms of a deeper problem. The reason Republicans nominate moderates is that they don't have enough confidence in their own most deeply held beliefs—and this is not a technical problem; it is a moral problem.

Romney lost because he did two things that all technocratic pragmatists do: 1) He triangulated on fundamental moral issues and focused exclusively on what we might call "secular" issues: issues on which there is no fundamental disagreement among voters; and 2) He cast himself as a more capable administrator than his opponent.

To a moderate, an election is not about issues, it is about competence. An election is not about what the candidate thinks; it's about what he can do. Moderate pragmatists only want to talk about means, but they do not want to talk about ends. Democrats have the moral confidence to talk about both.

Republicans try to convince Americans that Republicans do agree with Americans; Democrats try to convince Americans that Americans should agree with Democrats.

This is why many Republicans emphasize economics and are squeamish about moral issues: Everyone wants a job, a higher salary, and lower inflation. These are ends about which there is no debate: The only thing at issue is the means by which these things can be brought about. But when you start arguing about whether a fetus is a human being deserving of legal protection, or whether marriage necessarily excludes a man marrying a man or a woman a woman, then all of a sudden you have crossed a line: the line between means and ends.

There is no technocratic calculus by which a moral issue can be resolved, and so it must be minimized, if not ignored altogether.

There is one issue in which these contrasting emphases can both be seen at play. Both parties have been willing to fight openly over the health care issue. But what to the Democrats is a moral issue—an issue about social justice involving fundamental human rights—is to Republicans an economic issue—one about facts and figures and technical feasibility.

The problem with pragmatism is that it isn't very useful—at least not in the political world. With the one exception of Clinton (who stands in a separate Machiavellian category altogether), Democrats don't run pragmatists; they run ideologues—people with an explicit moral agenda. Just look at this year's party conventions: The Republicans talked about who Romney was and what he could do; the Democrats talked about abortion and same sex marriage. The Republican's hid their views on controversial moral issues and lost; the Democrats put them front and center and won.

The irony is that, if you look at polls on these issues, they still slightly favor traditional marriage and the pro-life position. There is no reason for Republicans to run from them and every reason for Democrats to fear invoking them. And yet they do it anyway.

In this year's presidential race the abortion issue raised its head again and again thanks to Republican politicians who, ill-equipped to address it when asked, tripped all over themselves and lost their elections. Two seats in the United States Senate fell into Democratic hands yesterday for one reason and one reason only: the candidates were simply incapable of articulating moral issues.

The difference between the two parties is that there is a depth of moral commitment among Democratic leaders that is lacking among their Republican colleagues. The average Democratic activist will fight and die for nationalized health care, the "right" to abortion, and most of them now will spill blood over the "right" of gays to marry. Although Republicans will argue the economic feasibility of the nationalized health care, when asked about the right to life or traditional marriage you get qualifications a mile long.

Democrats go into battle with the intention to come back with their shield or on it. Republicans too often go into battle with their tails between their legs.

This was evidenced repeatedly throughout the campaign. While spokesmen for the Obama campaign championed the "pro-choice" position unapologetically, whenever a Romney spokesman was asked about the careless remarks of Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock—or on Romney's position on Roe v. Wade, they went into prevent defense. They dissimulated on the issue itself and gave all the reasons why Romney's stated position on abortion wouldn't make any practical difference. The "practical" result of this, of course, is that people begin to doubt your sincerity and question the depth of your convictions.

The obvious response on the abortion issue would have been to shoot right back and attack Obama's history of supporting partial birth abortion, a procedure in which a full-term baby is partially delivered and then, through an incision in the back of the head, has its brains sucked out. This is an easy and effective response for a person even moderately competent in basic moral discourse, but for the soulless Republican political operatives now deployed to defend their candidates, it is a form of articulation foreign to them.

Republicans have lost their moral voice. They have tried to occupy what they perceive to be the high ground of abstract economic competency, only to cede the much higher moral ground to their liberal adversaries. They have abandoned what Richard Weaver once called the "Office of Assertion," and have settled into the Seat of Sophistry.

Republicans either need to stand for what they claim to believe in or admit they don't believe in what they claim to stand for—things like the sanctity of life, the integrity of marriage, and larger moral well-being of Americans.

If they take the first course, they will remain a viable political party. If they take the second course, they will not only become politically irrelevant; they will have lost their political soul.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

My somewhat misanthropic endorsement of Romney

Maybe it's my age and the number of campaigns that I have seen in my lifetime, but the political cant has really gotten to me during this election. On one side you have MSNBC, where Obama can do no wrong and Romney is the child of the Devil. On the other side you have Fox News, where Romney can do no wrong and Obama is holding seances in the White House.

I say this not to try to take the fashionable moderate pose, which I find intensely tiresome. I'll admit watching Fox News more than MSNBC (which I hardly ever watch at all) because it shares a few more of my political predispositions. But I have gotten to the point where I simply cannot abide Sean Hannity, who gets more and more shrill as the election approaches. If I can't find another decent political show at that time, there is always another episode of Bonanza on the Western channel.

I have resorted, during this election season, to CNN, where I can enjoy good, honest, old-fashioned liberal bias. At least they're liberals who really think they're being objective.

I think what bothers me the most about the overreactions by conservatives is that politics for some of them has clearly become a religion. We expect this of liberals, who are largely secular, and so have need of a replacement religion. Politics, if it is suitably utopian—as modern secular liberalism is—suits this role nicely. They have "immanentized the eschaton," as Eric Vogelin once put it (in other words, grounded their essentially religious aspirations in the here and now). But real conservatism can never do this, even though people who call themselves conservatives (e.g., Hannity) do it on a daily basis.

I know that if Romney loses, I'm going to have numerous friends and acquaintances who put their heart and soul into trying to get the guy elected coming to me for counseling and advice. My counsel (and advice) to them can be stated in the following general formula:

"Get a life."

And I know with equal certainty that if Romney wins, they will be bouncing off the walls and will call me to make sure I know what they will then know about what has just happened: That what we have just seen is the arrival of the Blessed Hope Himself in all His glory. My advice to them will be similar to that I would have given them under the opposite conditions, and is best expressed in another similarly crafted expression:

"Get a life."

Conservatives should take their cues from people like Micheal Oakeshott, who saw the conservative disposition as primarily an attitude about life—one that eschews the casting of the temporal and transient as something ultimate and eternal. This is particularly true of Christian conservatives.

"To be conservative," said Oakeshott, "is to be disposed to think and behave in certain manners; it is to prefer certain kinds of conduct and certain conditions of human circumstances to others; it is to be disposed to make certain kinds of choices":
... To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. [Emphasis mine]
In the current election, I think that being a conservative requires one to prefer Romney, and to choose him as president--not because he is going to bring about the Millennial Kingdom, but because he's better (or at least not as bad) as the other guy.

I will thoroughly enjoy watching the election returns tonight. But, after the question about who will actually win, the question I am asking myself today is which I would rather see: Rachel Maddow wringing her hands over an Obama loss, or Sean Hannity having a nervous breakdown over a Romney loss.

It is hard to judge between the two.