Students Cannot Mention Evolution Because it Violates Religious Neutrality

Story via Why Evolution Is True via ERV:


I get asked sometimes why I’m concerned about the anti-science movement in the US.  Many people seem to be of the opinion that there really is not any cause for worry over creationists, moon-hoaxers, anti-vaccers, or any of the other nutty positions people hold.  I am of the opinion that those who feel that way are just not paying attention.  So, just to serve as a reminder that this stuff warrants concern, I want to point out this story in the Sedalia Democrat.  It is titled “Band shirts hit wrong note with parents,” and it is about the high school band making shirts to promote their fall program.  This is something they do every year without issue.  However, this year was different.  The design they used was this one:


If you’re wondering what all the hubbub about such a shirt is, let me quote from the article:  “[Assistant Superintendent Brad] Pollitt said the district is required by law to remain neutral where religion is concerned.”  That’s right, the shirt violated the school dress code because it was not neutral with regard to religion.  What about it was not neutral?  From the article: 

Band parent Sherry Melby, who is a teacher in the district, stands behind Pollitt’s decision. Melby said she associated the image on the T-shirt with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

“I was disappointed with the image on the shirt.” Melby said. “I don’t think evolution should be associated with our school.”

The lack of neutrality in regards to religion has to do with the perception that this shirt promotes evolution, which parents think “should not be associated with [the] school.”  Now, exactly how a reference to the underlying theory of biology outside of which nothing in the field makes sense is supposed to have anything to do with a religious stance is unstated, but it isn’t hard to imagine.  There are numerous Christian leaders proclaiming that evolutionary theory is nothing more than a conspiracy by atheists to get rid of God.  This, of course, is patently absurd, but that does not change the fact that the claim is made often and with vigor.  And, for those who insist that there is no cause for alarm at the fact that such misinformation is being spread, I give you this example. 

There is every reason in the world to be worried.  If you cannot wear a shirt referencing something, you certainly cannot teach it in the classroom.  That means our children are not being taught the basic fundamentals of science.  This is why scientific illiteracy is so high here, and it will not change until those of us who know better take off the kid gloves and stop bending over backwards to accommodate those who would keep our kids ignorant and uneducated.

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H.E. Baber’s Object of Ultimate Impotence

H.E. Baber recently wrote an article for the Guardian entitled “Unverifiable God is still good.”  In this article she makes a number of claims that I find incredibly problematic, such as a strange conflation of the notion of philosophical zombies and the distinction between a world in which God exists and one where He does not, the implication that Hume was a verificationinst, and the suggestion that that verificationism is the “bogey” of the religious believer.  I will not address the first two questions here, and on this last question I will be brief so as to get to a couple of important points raised in the rest of the article.  Talking about the concern over verificationism, Baber asks the (supposedly) difficult question, “What is the difference between an invisible, intangible, hidden God who makes no difference to the way the world works and no God at all?”  She does not explicitly answer this question.  Rather, she attempts to make the argument that such the question of God’s existence is intelligible by comparing it to the question of philosophical zombies.  For those reading this who are unfamiliar with either verificationism or the notion of philosophical zombies, do not worry.  I don’t think it matters here.  Put simply, the answer to Baber’s question, assuming one has some clearly defined concept of God that allows for Him to be invisible, intangible, hidden, and make no difference to the way the world works (admittedly a criterion tough, and perhaps impossible, to fill), the answer is simple.  The difference is that in one case you have something, namely God, and in the other you do not.  Whether or not that thing is detectable is irrelevant to the fact that it either exists or does not.

That out of the way, there are other issues about this article that need to be addressed.  The first one is this assertion by Baber:

I never expected religion to provide any practical benefits, so I have never been disappointed. And, like most educated Christians, I do not believe most of the empirical claims associated with Christianity. I do not believe that the universe came into being just a few thousand years ago. I do not believe that humans or other animals were created their current form or even that God had some hand in "guiding" evolution. I do not believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of Middle Eastern history, or that any of the miracles it reports actually occurred, or that the wisdom literature it includes is a suitable guide to life. I do not believe that the existence of God makes any difference to the way the world operates or that religious belief should make any difference to the way we live.

I do not think this in any way this represents the views of most “educated Christians.”  In fact, I have never personally met a single Christian who holds anything like this view.  The empirical claims of the the Bible are false?  The existence of God makes no difference to the way the world operates?  Belief in God should make no difference to the way we live?  Not only have I never met anyone who holds this view, I do not think even Baber holds it.  That last point on the list is pretty broad:  “…religious belief should [not] make any difference to the way we live.”  I am not at all sure I even know how she means this.  Certainly, she would not have written this article if she did not believe in God, and that writing seems to be some aspect of her life.  I mean, it looks like Baber has put forth quite a bit of effort into defending this particular belief in her life, and that is directly the result of her belief.  In fact, there is no way to enumerate all the things that Baber has done in her life because of her belief that would have been different had she not held such a belief.  That’s the nature of belief in general, as has been pointed out before on this blog.  Beliefs inform our actions in that each action we take is based upon a particular set of beliefs, however mundane.  When someone puts a key in a door to unlock it, it is because they hold a certain set of beliefs which may or may not be justified or true.  That person has to believe that their senses are getting the world right, that keys unlock doors, that the door is locked, that this key is the one that will unlock this door, that the lock on the door is not broken, and on and on.  So, of course, all of our beliefs do and should make a difference in the way we live.  I really have no idea what it means for Baber to say otherwise.

Someone might suggest here that what Baber intended was how one should view morality, but that does not seem to be true either.  If I believe God prefers my behavior to be one way rather than another, that seems to be a religious belief that affects what I think I am morally obligated to do.  I do not know how much of the Bible Baber wants to throw out, but, as she calls herself a Christian, it seems that at least she would want to keep Christ’s moral teachings.  In that case, as someone who holds that Christ’s teachings were in some way better than others, and as Christ is related to God in some significant fashion, then one should live their life differently on the basis of that set of beliefs.  So, no matter what you take Baber to mean, this idea that religious beliefs should make no difference to the way we live is just wrong.

Then there’s this whole business of educated Christians not believing the empirical claims of the Bible in general.  I think this is just a false statement as survey after survey shows that Christians of all levels of education take things like the virgin birth, Christ rising from the dead, and any number of miracles to be true.  I do not know how Baber wants to cash out “educated Christian” here, but it looks like the only way she could do this is to play the “No True Scotsman” game and declare that anyone who held those beliefs was not really an “educated Christian.”  Otherwise, there is just no way to say this statement is true as, empirically, Christians with educations do hold the beliefs Baber declares they do not.

Next I want to address a point that I just find strange.  After making the case that the version of God in which Baber believes has absolutely no effect on anything, she poses the question:

…what is the point of believing in such a God? Why would anyone even want to believe in a God who makes no difference: a God who does not answer prayers, give our lives "meaning," or imbue the universe with purpose, reveal moral truths, strengthen us to fight the good fight or, in some sense, ground values.

I would take it that, assuming the belief was true, the reason one would want to believe it is because, in general, one wants to believe true things.  But I do not know that “want” has much of anything to do with that.  What I mean is, someone might prefer to believe in a god who saved babies from fires, healed amputees, and would provide us with a pleasant after-life.  That might be the thing in which someone wants to believe.  However, if there is no reason to do that, if, for example, they think that God does none of those things yet does, in fact, exist, then their wants would be irrelevant.  They would believe in what they thought was true, regardless of whether or not it was preferable, in the same way one “believes in” hurricanes and nuclear bombs even if it was preferable that those things did not exist.  With that in mind, I just find this whole line of thinking strange, and I just cannot see what Baber is getting at when she asks why anyone would want to believe in a god that makes no difference.

In the end Baber says she believes because:

God is the ultimate aesthetic object, ultimate beauty, glory and power, and that the vision of God embodies the quintessence of every aesthetic experience and every sensual pleasure. Religion is an escape from the world–not because the world is bad but because it isn’t good enough. Pleasures are fleeting and no matter how intense any aesthetic experience is, it could always be more intense. The vision of God is the asymptote they approach.

I confess that I do not follow this at all.  Baber has already declared that God, her version of God, at least, “does not answer prayers, give our lives ‘meaning’, or imbue the universe with purpose, reveal moral truths, strengthen us to fight the good fight or, in some sense, ground values.”  So how is this the “ultimate aesthetic object”?  How is it beautiful, this thing that does nothing and cannot be experienced?  How does it have glory or, more importantly, power?  What does it even mean to talk about ultimate power having no influence on anything?  What sensual pleasure is there in a thing that is in no way able to be sensed?  And what does it matter if the world “isn’t good enough”?  In what way does that serve as evidence for God’s existence?  And how is the world better, how is it good enough, with a god in it that is wholly impotent? 

To me, it appears the the vision of God Baber spelled out as the object of her belief earlier has none of the attributes that she claims serve as her reasons for belief in God.  As such, I find that her conclusion follows in no way from the rest of her argument, the result being that nothing of any substance is said in the entire article.

I don’t know what Baber had in mind when she wrote this article.  What I do know is that this argument is the kind that I hear from time to time from the intellectual elite who do believe in God.  They claim to have such belief, but their god in no way reflects anything like the God in which other believers put their faith.  Even worse, when they begin to spell out what their god is and why they believe in any such thing, all you end up with is a group of words with little to no real meaning.  In the end, it looks like they are not saying anything at all.

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The Trouble with Critical Theory

If you are not a Marxist and you get into an argument with a Marxist about justice, you will become annoyed.  You might make a very reasonable-sounding argument such as "Of course some wars are just, and it is right for a state to compel its citizens into fighting them!  Just look at the United States’ involvement in World War II.  We had to stop the Nazis."  And, of course, the Marxist will reply with some very reasonable-sounding comments that will seem to miss your point.  He might, for example, tell you that the people who were fighting on both sides of the Atlantic were mostly workers who were fighting and dying so that the owning class of their respective states could compete for economic dominance, that the Holocaust was willfully ignored by the United States until it was politically advantageous to declare war and then used as a justification for military invasion ex post facto, and that the definition of Fascism is the conglomeration of military and corporate interests.   If you are stubborn or if you have no background in Marxism, you may try another example (or even several of them) to make your point, and become increasingly shocked and frustrated as the Marxist responds to each apparent knock-down example with a list of reasons for why each supposed act of justice was either a political spin or an inconsequential afterthought in a reality of exploitation and persistent battles for class dominance.  It’s not your fault, and it’s not really the Marxist’s fault either.  You are just going to talk past each other.  The reason for this is simple, but it is evasive to many people:  You want to show that justice is a real and achievable goal, and the Marxist has been trained to interpret the use of the term as play for political power.

Now, despite the way I have started out, I do not intend to continue picking on Marxism or Marxists in this post.  As far as the philosophy that came out of Continental Europe after Kant goes, I think Marx is among the best, and arguably the most influential.  And, even if you reject the labor theory of value, and doubt the historical inevitability of the coming communist revolution, it is likely that some of the things (maybe most of the things) that Marx said about the relationship between property and power make a lot of sense to you.  If you think that that money buys power and worry about the honesty and legitimacy of any politician who denies the influence that finance has had upon his campaign, then you owe a debt for your skepticism to Karl Marx.

It is this skepticism which I would like to examine further.

First, I would like to begin with (what I hope are) a few uncontroversial generalizations.  Marxism is one of many critical theories taught in humanities and social science classes in contemporary university classrooms in the Western world.  Specifically, some version of Marxism (and probably also Feminism, and Post-Colonialism, Queer Theory, and any number of other critical theories) will be introduced to the student of literature, history, sociology, and/or anthropology (and possibly psychology) in the context of a broader discussion about the relationships between power, language, and moral norms (e.g. how a group defines ‘justice’) within a society.  In this context, it seems absolutely appropriate for the student asking questions about the nature of justice to seriously consider the skeptical objections raised by critical theory.   Unfortunately, though this is the implicit context in which critical theory is introduced, that context- the question of how power influences our conceptual understanding of justice- is often not made explicit to students.  The consequence of not framing that question explicitly is that many students of the liberal arts graduate from universities with confused and contradictory ideas about the very topics in which they sought an education.

Instead of having a general theory of justice or morality, to which they can apply skeptical criticisms, many students of the liberal arts exit the university as naïve nihilists, certain of very little besides the power dynamic implicit in claims of moral value.  This is especially troubling in light of the fact that many of these students simultaneously participate in campaigns for social justice (e.g. rallying to protest the IMF or World Bank, to protest genocide, to protest the political oppression of women and minorities, etc.).  Ironically, these students are often inspired to participate in various forms of political activism by the same professors who have instilled in them this naïve brand of nihilism.  And it is this background in critical theory that leaves these students in the perverse position of reactionaries, unable to articulate, let alone defend, a positive justification for political action.  If they are self-aware enough to reflect upon their positions, they may realize the paradox of their situation, which is (in loose paraphrase of Jacques Derrida) that they must do justice, but that they do not know what justice is.

Now, it is beyond the scope of this post to answer the critical theorists and other Continental skeptics with a robust account and defense of justice, but, fortunately, I don’t think that kind of response is needed here.  The paradox of moral obligation without moral knowledge is at least as old as Socrates, and it’s something that every serious philosophy student must confront, but it not the starting point of practical philosophy, or of any academic discipline.  Indeed, the assumption that knowledge is impossible is a literal non-starter for any field of inquiry that purports to bring us some understanding of the truth.  So, what we must do instead is bracket this possibility, so that we can make sense of the best arguments and information that we have available to us.   In practical terms, my not-so-novel recommendation is that every liberal arts college student needs at least one introductory course in Classical and Enlightenment philosophy which will serve as a basic foundation for debate and defense of ethical principles.

From this foundation in ethics, the student will be able to make a convincing positive argument for why political equality is more just than exploitation and slavery.  But, inevitably, at some point he will still run into a skeptical Marxist who will point out to him that his own perception of political equality may simply be the result of manipulation of the term by an economic oppressor.  With a solid background in the history of philosophy, this student will not become annoyed with the Marxist, nor will they talk past each other.  Instead, the student can appropriately respond by asking the Marxist to explain his own meta-ethical commitment which is implicit in his use of terms such as “oppression” and “exploitation.”  Then the critical dialogue can begin.

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Wright Is Wrong

“Compatibility” is something for which there’s always a market but which never produces a good product.  It’s the “can’t we all just get along” position for which would-be peacemakers constantly yearn.  And it’s almost always put forward by people who get neither of the sides they are attempting to reconcile correct.  Doing the math, you should notice that that means they get both sides wrong.  Thus, there is little chance of of the compatibilist getting anything right at all.  If there is some sort of substance to disagreements, and if you attempt to solve that problem by ignoring the substantial claims on both sides of the disagreement, then it is very hard for you to say anything of substance about the issue in question.  For that reason, I do not know of a single compatibilist argument that has ever worked.  Unsurprisingly, then, when Robert Wright decided to write his piece suggesting a compatibility in “[t]he ‘war’ between science and religion,” “A Grand Bargain Over Evolution,” (which is just a more concise version of his book, The Evolution of God) he got everything wrong.

In the blogosphere you need to move pretty quick if you do not want to be late to the ball.  Though Wright’s piece came out Saturday, there have already been substantial replies to it, the best, in my opinion, being from Jerry Coyne.  I strongly urge you read it.  Even so, since opinions are like…well, you know, I’ll go ahead and say something about just how wrong Wright is, especially since there are a couple of things not noted in other posts.

Only eight sentences into the op-ed piece, Wright, sounding eerily like the angel in Luke 2:10, claims “I bring good news!”  It turns out, according to Wright, that “militant” atheists and the “intensely” religious are both wrong when it comes to their lack of consensus.  Even more, “they’re wrong for the same reason.”  What is that reason?  “[A]n underestimation of natural selection’s creative power…”  It might strike someone as odd that Wright would suggest that those problematic “New Atheists,” again epitomized by Richard Dawkins, would so radically misunderstand the power of the primary mechanism of biological evolution.  This is especially odd since Dawkins, who is referenced specifically in Wright’s article, is well-known for talking at length about that very thing.  But the oddness does not stop there.

The core of Wright’s article revolves around his assertion that our moral sense is the result of evolutionary processes.  He takes it as a given that science has come up with some pretty good explanations for how the intuitions we all tend to share can be accounted.  In that case we have a purely materialistic explanation for the values we generally share.  This is unproblematic for those on the side of science in Wright’s “war,” though it certainly is an issue for the true believer in one of the big monotheistic religions.  The kicker, though, is that he moves an extra step and asks:

If evolution does tend to eventually “converge” on certain moral intuitions, does that mean there were moral rules “out there” from the beginning, before humans became aware of them — that natural selection didn’t “invent” human moral intuitions so much as “discover” them?

He suggests that the answer here is in the affirmative.  The idea that our moral intuitions reflect something external to us, indeed, external to all life itself, that natural selection “discovered,” has no basis in evolutionary theory, moral theory, or even in any commonly held theology.  And, here, Wright simply goes off the rails.  It is at this point that Wright wants to suggest that it is not contrary to science to suppose that there is some possibility that God set up either natural selection itself or the laws of physics themselves to produce moral animals like humans.  He writes, “But the point is just that these speculations are compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation.”

There are a number of problems with this, and I want to highlight a few.  First, such a view is not “compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation.”  In point of fact, there is no standard scientific theory of human “creation.”  In science, humans were not created.  There is a connotation to the word “create” that has no place in the standard scientific account of how our species came to be.  That connotation has to do with some notion of a creator.  For example, in general, we don’t talk about rocks being “created.”  That’s because, even though we think we understand the process by which rocks came into existence, no force maneuvered or managed things in such a way that the stones underfoot were the result of such guidance (presuming we mean stones that are not explicitly the result of human artifice).  Evolutionary theory does not have room for such guidance, either.  As such, “created” is not a word that has any place in the “standard scientific theory” of how humans came to be.

Next, the idea that there is some end toward which natural selection is pointed, that it has some goal in mind, is antithetical to the actual idea of natural selection as presented in evolutionary theory.  There is no “thing” out there to even have such a goal.  It just turns out that some things are better at sticking around than others, and those are the things that stick around.  That’s it.  If some environment exists in such a way that being taller would result in a greater likelihood of survival, and if the random events involved in mutation produce some individual that is taller than others, and if being taller does not have some sort of negative effect on other traits also good for survival, and if that individual does not die by some other means, then that individual will survive and pass on the genes responsible for its taller height to its offspring.  That’s it.  There’s no direction or purpose in there.  In fact, it is explicitly purposeless.  To attempt to place purpose in the process is to misunderstand what the mechanism actually is.

At this time something needs to be said about the problem of the naturalistic fallacy in this schema of reconciliation between science and religion.  Even if it turned out that there was some set of behaviors that worked best (“best” being remarkably loaded here), and that given enough time some intelligent species would inevitably adopt those behaviors, that would not make such behaviors moral.  As has been pointed out several times on this blog, you cannot deduce and ought from an is.  The move is simply illegitimate.  It will never be the case that just because some behaviors work well that those behaviors are moral “shoulds.”  For example, it might turn out that rape is a fantastic evolutionary strategy.  Indeed, there are species where forced sexual congress is the rule and not the exception.  But, even if some segment of the population took to rape as a means of ensuring that their genes were spread far and wide, and even if this worked out such that those individuals with those genes began to thrive and dominate within the population, that would not make rape a moral action.  And that’s the point! No action is moral merely because it helped some individual or population to survive.  Were that that case, all actions taken by all successful species, and that means all species that currently exist, would be moral actions as morality would just be that kind of activity that worked to ensure that population’s survival.  And, of course, that is just wrong.

The idea that we can discover morality by looking at what behaviors are common to our species, even by looking at what behaviors are considered moral across groups, is fundamentally flawed.  That just is not what morality is.  Now, this might have some uncomfortable consequences for those hoping to discover what is moral, or those with a variety of meta-ethical concerns, but none of that changes the issue.  This is where we are, and no amount of hand-waving or wishing is going to change it.

I want to point out that this kind of morality, the kind that is the result of natural selection, would be the kind that would apply to all species and not just our own.  If it is the case that there is some over-arching direction to make things moral built into the process of natural selection, then all organism on the planet have a share in that morality.  If that is where we are, then what actions are moral?  Certainly, any action that I could dub as “immoral” can be found to be the rule for some existing species.  But that suggests that there is no “moral law” whatsoever.  Now, it might be the case that Wright would want to engage in more hand-waving here and attempt to make some argument about the specialness of our species.  But there is nothing in evolutionary theory that suggests any such thing.  Certainly, we are special to us, but not in the grand scheme of things.  We are no more special than any other species that exists right now.  And if we want to make our behavior out to be something that is unique, something that is truly moral whereas the forced sex, killing of live, healthy young, and whatever other actions in other species that we would abhor in our own, then it is difficult to make the case that morality is something that is discovered by the process of natural selection, something toward which there is a definite and unalterable tendency.  Regardless of which way you cut it, Wright is just wrong in his suggestion that evolution can give us genuine morality.

It is only fair to point out here that, even if one could get morality in the manner envisioned by Wright, it would be nothing like what is wanted by most theists, especially Christians.  Christians believe in an interventionist god by definition.  They believe in a god that created the world for humans, and this is evidenced by Jesus Christ being sacrificed for the sins of humanity so that a genuine communion between God and human could be achieved.  What Wright is suggesting is, at best, some kind of deism, and that is nothing like what Christians say God is.  Indeed, it largely misses the point.  And the reason deism has lost popularity is not due to a failing in a belief in some god.  It is largely due to the recognition that a belief in a deistic god is just superfluous to what is needed to explain the facts of the world.  “Prime mover” arguments are simply unnecessary in contemporary physics.  The main people left to whom Wright can be speaking are believers in an interventionist god, and those people are not interested in hearing that morality might be salvaged if they give up the intervention part.  So, the question here is this:  whose religion is being salvaged here by supporting this supposed compatibility?  Almost no one’s that I can see.

In the end, it is just weird that anyone would think that this kind of compatibilism will be satisfactory for anyone interested in the substance of this debate.  The scientists are going to point out that Wright has screwed up the science, and the theists are going to point out that he has screwed up theology.  Like most of the compatibilisms before it, this one attempts to find a “common ground” on which both sides agree, and, in the process, comes up with that very thing:  they both agree that Wright is just wrong.

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A Very Brief Review of the History of Philosophy

Some of the comments on Jim’s last post have me thinking a lot about 20th-Century Continental philosophy and the way that has informed the moral reasoning of almost anyone who has received a liberal arts education in the last 50 years. I wanted to do a post on that, and on the values of the Enlightenment, but it occurred to me that many readers of this blog don’t have a background in the history of philosophy and so would find my argument boring/hard-to-follow. So, I’m going to save that post for another day and instead present a highly biased and abridged 4-paragraph history of philosophy to set myself up for later posting. Anyone who wants to add additional comments to this sad little review is welcome to do so.

Ancient Philosophy
The word philosophy originated about 2,500 years ago in Greece, when a temperate climate and slave economy gave way to a small leisure class of citizens who had the time and interest to begin asking questions about the meaning of life and the how’s and why’s of the universe. Though there were a number of prominent thinkers talking about ideas in Athens, the philosophical method that we use today began with Socrates, who never actually wrote any philosophy but was a prolific debater and educator in Athens before the Athenian democracy voted to execute him for corrupting the youth. Plato was a student of Socrates who brought his method of “Socratic debate” to life in 35 or so dialogues which depict Socrates and other notable figures from Athens engaged in debate about the nature of such entities such as love, beauty, justice and virtue. Aristotle was a student of Plato. His contribution to philosophy is inestimable mainly because he took a rigorous, taxonomical approach different fields of inquiry and created many of the distinct branches of philosophy (ethics, metaphysics, epistemology) and science (biology, physics) that we know today.

Medieval Philosophy
After Aristotle’s death, lots of important things happened in Europe (the rise of Rome, the rise of Christianity, lots of wars, and diseases, and the Dark Ages), but if there were philosophers of the caliber of Plato and Aristotle, their work didn’t survive. Actually, Plato’s work was largely forgotten as well, but Aristotle caught on, mostly because the prominent Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas worked to align Aristotle’s reasoning about natural law with Biblical Scripture. Actually, for most of the First Millenium (C.E.) and about half of the Second, the bulk of Western thought was preserved, and transcribed by religious clerics. The climate of papal decree, feudal poverty, and lots of disease and wars wasn’t particularly conducive to the flourishing of intellectual projects, the arts, or technology. So, it’s not surprising that we refer to those days the Dark Ages and the period afterward as the Renaissance (rebirth). But, in the middle of the Second Millenium (C.E.) lots of important things happened (e.g. the end of the Crusades and the rediscovery of Classical texts that had been preserved by scholars in the Middle East, the invention of the printing press, the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent decline in the power of the Catholic Church) that set the stage for a new era of philosophical inquiry, the Enlightenment.

Modern Philosophy

About 2,000 years after the Socrates, the Enlightenment began. Lots of important and influential philosophers began writing at this time. Renee Descartes, Benedict Spinoza, and Gottfried Liebniz are the most famous of the “Rationalists” in continental Europe, and Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Bishop George Berkely were the big names in “Empiricism” which was the primary philosophical contribution of the British Isles. The major debate between these two traditions of philosophy had to do with how reason and experience combined to give us Knowledge of the world. Generally speaking, it is thought that the Rationalists favored reason and the Empiricists favored experience, though of course any cursory reading of any of these philosophers shows this to be a piteously empty assessment of their views. At any rate, Empiricism reached its peak with the philosopher David Hume who made a very convincing argument that we have no non-circular reason to believe that the Sun will rise tomorrow. A German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, read the work of Hume, “was awoken from [his] dogmatic slumber,” and made arguably the most substantial contribution to metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics since Aristotle all because he wanted to show that we have some legitimate reason to hope for freedom, God, and immortality, and, more modestly, to believe that the Sun will rise tomorrow. Most scholars agree that Kant was the beginning of the big philosophical split between Anglo-American philosophy and the Continental philosophy, however, Kant himself defies that classification as people on both sides of the channel inspired and were inspired by him. At any rate, after Kant philosophy changed.

More Modern Philosophy: Continental and Analytic

In the late 19th-century, Continental Europe started producing a number of radical thinkers (Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx are sometimes considered the founding fathers.) who brought a new wave of skepticism to the previous philosophical treatment of concepts such as self-knowledge, morality, and justice. Continental philosophy eventually sired a number of sub-philosophies which will be familiar to the somewhat esoteric college undergraduate including Phenomenology, Existentialism, and Postmodernism. All of these philosophies owe a debt to Kant insofar as he brought about what has been called the "Copernican shift" in the way we talk about knowledge of the world, arguing that we have absolutely no access to the world in itself but only as it is to us. Kant’s thesis about the subjectivity of knowledge (or at least interpretations of it) is arguably the seed of the skeptical (and sometimes nihilistic) attitude about the objectivity of truth that is at the root of all Continental philosophy. Meanwhile, in Britain, and across the ocean in the US, the Empiricist tradition carried on and moved in the direction of so-called “Analytic” philosophy which, among other things, aspired to explain the study of knowledge and the study of being with the same kind of logical rigor with which mathematicians explain theorems. Though certain philosophical positions such as Logical Positivism are generally associated with Analytic philosophy, it is more easily understood as a method of philosophy in the Classical tradition because it focuses on clarity of arguments (sometimes in formalized logical syntax) and analysis of language. Also, the arguments made by Analytic philosophers parallel the experimental sciences as many philosophers characterize their work as "testing" the soundness of arguments with "thought experiments" just as scientists test hypotheses against empirical data. An uncharitable but not entirely untrue assessment of the difference between Analytic and Continental philosophy is that Analytic philosophers try to explain why some proposition must be (or must not be) true, while Continental philosophers want to know who has the power to define truth and how that shapes our understanding of the concept.

With all of this in mind, next week I hope to do a second post on where certain arguments in Continental philosophy go wrong and why I think questioning the power structure is not a good starting place for philosophical inquiry.

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Traitors in Your Midst

There has recently been a bit of a brouhaha in Illinois at which Hemant Mehta, "The Friendly Atheist", is the center.  Mr. Mehta is a math teacher in public school, Illinois’ District 204’s Neuqua Valley High School, to be exact, as well as a popular blogger.  The controversy started because of a conservative Christian organization, the Illinois Family Institute (italics all their own), whose writer Laurie Higgins, Director of the IFI, decided to let people know that they should avoid the "Bean" in Millennium Park in Illinois on Saturday, August 15 at 1:00 pm because the "Great Nationwide Homosexual Kiss-In" was going to be taking place there.  Lots of people responded to this, and Mr. Mehta was one of them.  On his blog he wrote, “The only thing that could make this kiss-in even better is if it took place just outside Higgins’ house.”  I want to say that, while funny, I don’t know that this was the most appropriate kind of response.  Mr. Mehta insists that the remark was sarcastic, and that “Obviously, I didn’t mean on her property (that’d be illegal). And not purposely in front of her children.”  I guess I’m much more bothered by the suggestion that people should show up on Ms. Higgins’ lawn in a sort of protest than I am that her kids might see some benign public display of affection.  My concern would be that a public school teacher could be seen as exhorting his students to break the law.  While Mr. Mehta later explicitly said that’s not what he intended, as the quote above indicates, I will say that such was not at all clear from the context of his initial post.  (As an aside, it’s weird to me that his response was phrased in such a way as to suggest that her children seeing some homosexual couple kissing would be “worse” than the couple illegally trespassing.  I mean, really?  There’s more I could say about that, but I do not want to get away from my actual point here.)

Mr. Mehta’s response to the IFI’s “warning” about the Kiss-In led Ms. Higgins’ to write an email to the entire administrative staff of Mr. Mehta’s school as well as every area school board member.  Part of that email read as follows:  “He, of course, has a First Amendment right to write whatever he pleases on his blog ‘The Friendly Atheist’ during his free time, but it’s unfortunate that a role model for students would write some of the things he writes.”  While the entire content of the letter is not available, Ms. Higgins did not stop with that email.  She wrote this article on the IFI website further condemning Mr. Mehta.  There she has published at least one response she received to her email:

Making District 204 leaders aware of Mr. Mehta’s comment was all I intended to do regarding this issue, that is, until I received an angry email from attorney and school board member, Mark Metzger. His email contained the following not-so-veiled threat of a lawsuit:

"Have you considered the possibility that if your actions caused Mr. Mehta to suffer consequences in his employment, you’d be subjecting yourself and/or your organization to liability? That’s potentially unwise to your organization’s self-sufficiency, surviival (sic) and mission."

In addition, he suggested I was setting "a poor example for families"…

Whatever the total content of the email was, it is clear that at least one school board member recognized that such correspondence could have the result of Mr. Mehta being fired.  And this gets to the heart of the reason I’m addressing this.  In this same article Ms. Higgins writes:

Of course, teachers have a First Amendment right to blog or speak publicly about anything they want. And parents have every right not to have their children in the classroom under the tutelage of someone whose publicly articulated views they find fallacious and deeply troubling. Having a First Amendment right to speak freely does not guarantee public approval or public silence. And the public response may be that parents choose not to have their children in the class of those who espouse views that parents find foolish and destructive.
Parents have a justifiable concern that the personal views of teachers may find their way into the classroom, either through curricular choices or classroom commentary. Those parents who want nothing more than that their children will believe in God may find someone whose mission in life is to persuade young people to reject a belief in God to be a poor role model.

If you read this as a call to action, you are not alone.  Indeed, I cannot imagine who could read this as anything but a call to action for conservative, Christian parents to do something.  But what is that something?  It would appear that she wants these parents to band together to somehow get Mr. Mehta removed from his position as a public school teacher.  What other action could she be suggesting?  Giving her the benefit of the doubt that she is not wishing her readers to do actual violence to Mr. Mehta, I just cannot see what she would want the parents who “have every right not to have their children in the classroom under the tutelage of someone whose publicly articulated views they find fallacious and deeply troubling” to actually do if not that.  In Ms. Higgins’ own article she provided evidence that someone reading similar words would take that call to action to be getting Mr. Mehta fired from his job, so she is clearly aware that that is just how her words will be taken.  Since she continued to use similar words in her article to the public as she did in her letter to the school administration (“He, of course, has a First Amendment right to write whatever he pleases on his blog ‘The Friendly Atheist’ during his free time, but it’s unfortunate that a role model for students would write some of the things he writes.” vs. “Of course, teachers have a First Amendment right to blog or speak publicly about anything they want. … Those parents who want nothing more than that their children will believe in God may find someone whose mission in life is to persuade young people to reject a belief in God to be a poor role model.”), it would be absurd to suggest that she did not understand how her words would be understood.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Mehta responded to this article on his own blog.  In it he writes, “It seems I have a conservative ‘family’ group angry with me because of this website. And they’re trying to attack my character (and my teaching position) as a result.”  The following day Ms. Higgins posted this in the IFI site:

District 204 parents really should spend some time perusing Neuqua Valley math teacher, Hemant Mehta‘s website to determine whether he is the kind of man with whom they want their children to spend a school year. He absolutely has a First Amendment right to promote any feckless, destructive, offensive, and immoral ideas he wants via his blog, but, as I mentioned in my earlier article, parents have the right not to have him as a teacher and a role model for their children. I want to be very clear about what I’m suggesting: I am suggesting that parents who have serious concerns about Mr. Mehta’s potential influence on their children’s beliefs politely insist that their children be placed in another teacher’s class.

One notes the post here gives an explicit claim as to what is being suggested, and this differs from the earlier interpretation of the call to action that I claimed was reasonable.  Here Ms. Higgins says that she simply thinks that parents should “politely insist that their children be placed in another teacher’s class.”  Of course, one must ask how reasonable such a suggestion is.  If it turns out that a significant number of parents continue to insist that their child be taught by someone else, and if the school is under any obligation to respect that demand, there seems to be little way that they could continue to employ Mr. Mehta.  Further, and this needs to be addressed, is it reasonable to believe that Ms. Higgins wants any child taught by someone who promoting “feckless, destructive, offensive, and immoral ideas” in his capacity as a role model?  I would think not.  So, while it might not be the case that Ms. Higgins called for parents to phone the school board demanding Mr. Mehta’s immediate firing, it seems ridiculous to suggest that she wants anything other than that.

Of course, that’s just how Mr. Mehta took the article.  He then wrote, “The Illinois Family Institute’s Laurie Higgins is going after me (and my job) again.”  This would appear to be a wholly reasonable thing to say given what Ms. Higgens has actually written.  So, here comes the big issue, Ms. Higgens responded by publishing an open letter to Mr. Mehta on the IFI site.  It begins with the quote from Mr. Mehta above, and then follows with, “I have never in any context suggested that you should be fired or that you should resign. In fact, I don’t believe the school has any legal right to fire you. You should have fact-checked before you posted that inaccurate statement.”

So, for those of you still following along, here’s where the meat of my post comes.  It is patently absurd to insist that you want anything other than the removal of a teacher when you have done everything in your power to make that happen!  Did Ms. Higgins ever explicitly say she wanted him fired?  No.  But the reason for this is clear in her article.  “In fact, I don’t believe the school has any legal right to fire you.”  So, the reason she has not publically called for such a thing is because she does not believe that Mr. Mehta’s actions legally warrant that response by the school.  But, of course, that is what Ms. Higgins desires.  She has made that repeatedly clear, and the fact that she cannot legally get her desire in no way diminishes that.  It is wholly dishonest for her to pretend that anything other than that is what’s going on here.

All that leads me to my big question.  Why is she so deceitful?  How does her lying about what she’s attempting to accomplish promote her values?  And the answer is obvious.  By taking the route she does she hopes to provide an actual reason for Mr. Mehta being removed from his position.  It would not be what he’s written on his blog, because that will not cut it.  But a large movement by area parents who refuse to let their children be taught by Mr. Mehta will have a similar result.  Mr. Mehta will be unable to do his job, will face public ridicule, and, I suspect, the refusal of parents to let their children be taught by someone can be used in some way so as to provide a legal reason to fire Mr. Mehta. 

All that means that what Ms. Higgins has said is bullshit.  Flat out.  She has danced around, deceived, and outright lied about her intentions in order to get what she wants.  I have no doubt that Ms. Higgins holds “truth” to be an important value for families.  And yet, she has no problem abandoning that value when it is convenient for her.  If values can be discarded on a whim, that should suggest that those values are of little importance in the first place.  People like Ms. Higgins should be shunned and her opinions fully disregarded by all sides.  Their organizations should receive no support from anyone, especially not those who actually hold dear the values that Ms. Higgins parodies.  Those who are genuine in their adherence to conservative, Christian values should view Ms. Higgins as the worst kind of enemy, a traitor within their own camp.  And, of course, those who think her values of hatred and misrepresentation of those who differ from her are garbage should see her as nothing less than a genuine threat exemplified by all those who would plunge us into a new Dark Ages.

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What the Hell, Asshat?

*This post has been edited*

Yesterday, Ethan Siegel of Starts with a Bang fame wrote a post called “Weekend Diversion: How to Argue.”  In this post Siegel talks about there being good ways to argue and bad ways to argue.  He even put up a helpful graphic to emphasize good vs. bad arguments (not made by him).  Here it is:


I’m sympathetic to the concern that if people are going to engage in debate they act in some kind of reasonable manner, which, for me, means addressing the issues at hand rather than calling someone names.  A big reason I’m sympathetic is that, like most people reading this, sometimes I get into debates online.  Often these debates are frustrating as many of the people on message boards and the like are more than happy to sling insults rather than address relevant issues.  In light of that, I found myself nodding vigorously when I read the post by Siegel. 

What I did not expect was anything like the response from Isis the Scientist who wrote her post here.  She wrote, “I find Ethan’s post derailing and counterproductive at best, offensive and naive at worst.”  She continues to hammer away at Siegel, saying that his post is an attempt to maintain his position of privilege, and that he wants to prevent others (Others) from having a voice.  She even replaces his graphic with her own:


Maybe you are not scratching your heat at this.  Maybe you see this, and it makes all the sense in the world.  But if so, you are not me.  I am just puzzled.  Nothing in Siegel’s post said anything about sex or ethnicity.  He never even hinted at it.  He merely suggested that there are good arguments and poor ones, and that, to quote him, “on my site” (italics his own), you had to use good arguments, that you had to actually address the issues, if you wanted to participate in discussions with him.

The reason I find this so weird is that a number of people on Isis’ journal chimed in agreeing with her.  And that just leaves me wondering, again, what the hell?  Isis provides a number of points that sound great, and they would make a fine argument if anything Siegel suggested any of the things Isis perceives.  But he doesn’t.  As such, things like “Being Polite in the Discussion Does Not Make your Message Civil” and “The Fact That You Don’t Understand the Argument Doesn’t Mean the Other Person is not Being Clear,” while correct, have no relevance to Siegel’s argument at all.  Isis misses the point of Siegel’s post completely.  That makes me wonder, is she projecting?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that it’s confusing and a little frustrating when people jump all over you without actually touching on anything you said.  

For me, this is merely something to muse over.  It isn’t like someone jumping on you for no good reason on the internet really matters.  After all, it’s the internet.  If you get your feelings hurt every time some nameless and faceless individual attacking you for things you haven’t done, you need to cut your LAN cable.  But it is weird.  It makes me wonder just what is going through these people’s minds.  What do they think is going on?  Where do they go so wrong?  How do they get such a wrong idea about what you’re saying?  Seriously, what the hell?

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