Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Before the end of the day I may try and put up some stuff to read while I'm gone, but no guarantees.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Over the course of the last couple centuries, the subject of the existence of God has periodically emerged as a popular discussion topic in the public marketplace of ideas. Recent books by Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens1 seem to indicate that now is just such a time – atheism is making another go at popularity and perhaps even some cultural acceptance in the generally born-again United States.
While the “Four Horsemen” (as the authors above have been dubbed) have participated in numerous debates during their respective book tours, the topic is also being taken up in the emerging online community, and battle lines have certainly been drawn. YouTube, once a place useful only for finding hilarious videos of chimpanzees riding Segways, now is the medium of choice for a growing number of video-bloggers, who record videos of themselves speaking into a webcams and taking on whatever topic they feel passionate about (or, often, simply rambling incoherently). YouTube allows not only text commenting on uploaded videos, but it also allows users to “respond” to videos with videos of their own, which seems, in some cases, to create a “discussion” not unlike a formal debate.
Young people (mostly in their early 20s, apparently) aren't just watching debates, they're joining in. This may be a counterbalance to the more stupefying general effects of “social networking” sites, even if it still represents only a tiny minority of Internet usage among 16- to 30-year-olds.
That's a question that can be left for social researchers for the moment. My interest at the moment is in the nature of the debate itself. In many cases, whether the topic is on the existence of God or the soundness of the theory of evolution by natural selection, believers will attempt to appeal – at least temporarily – to logic or science (or, at least what sounds like science). While this makes a certain amount of sense (there has to be at least some agreement on terminology), it remains confusing to me why believers would agree to join the debate to begin with – at least in many cases.
The exercise of proving the existence of God stretches back through the history of philosophy (which in itself may indicate a rather long history of nascent atheism, even in the time of Thomas Aquinas, whose “five proofs” in the Summa Theologica seem to be in answer to some skeptical objections to the existence of God). But why engage the debate? Why construct proofs? Holy books extol the use of faith, not reason, as a means to know God and his will. Having proof positive of either of those would tend to decrease the amount of faith – that is, belief without the support of evidence – required.
It's worth pointing out the distinctions between different understandings of the word “atheism,” of which there are at least two. The first is the strict etymology of the word, a-theist, or “not theist.” Problematically, the “ism” at the end creates the perception that is the second understanding of the word, that “atheism” is a dogmatic and religious set of beliefs. While this dogmatic version of atheism may indeed exist, it isn't the variety being championed by the likes of Harris or Dawkins, and it may be dismissed out of hand as childish religious anarchism or rebellion. Rather, the “new atheism” (and the old David Hume variety as well) is a rejection of the idea of dogma, by which I mean “rules for which there is no explanation given and which must be accepted on faith.” Thus, “dogmatic” atheism is just as repugnant to the first type of atheist as any religion.2
Douglas Adams, in his usual hilarious style, makes an interesting point in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, during a brief side discussion on the marvel of the Babel fish - a small fish that a person can place in his ear in order to understand any alien language:
Now it is such a bizarrely impossible coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful [as the Babel fish] could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the nonexistence of God. The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.” “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn't thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
What Adams was really illustrating here was the characteristic ridiculousness of logical debates over the existence of God, but the point about faith is important, too. Ultimately, religious belief is, by definition, unprovable. It's belief without evidence – that's why it's called faith.
This is one reason it's so strange to see fundamentalist Christians attempting to assume the auspices of science in proving their “Young Earth” creationism, which holds that the Earth (and universe) are about 6,000 years old and were created in six 24-hour days, as per a literal reading of the book of Genesis. I recently watched an interview of a Dr. Georgia Purdom, who apparently holds a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Ohio State University and now works as a “researcher” at the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. During the interview, Purdom said she was looking into the way that bacteria went from benign to “pathogenic,” since this “must have happened after the fall of Adam.”3
Could there be a more farcical parody of real scientific research? Since Dr. Purdom is willing to accept the literal truth of Genesis, what's there to puzzle out? Clearly, if bacteria had to be benign in Eden and now are “bad” because of Adam's sin, then God made it happen, right? Nobody needs a Ph.D. to make that assertion – it's a statement of faith! For some reason, though, the so-called “Young Earth” creationists feel the need to dress up their religious beliefs with the trappings of rational inquiry. But since their starting point is a statement of faith, their attempts at “science” are merely so much pretension – and not very convincing pretension at that. So why the insistence on a “Christian” science?
I'm guessing here, but it probably has to do with the fact that Christianity's explanatory power has necessarily diminished as humanity has gained a better natural understanding of the world and its workings. Science as an enterprise necessarily involves a threat to anyone who believes strongly that scriptures must contain the final answers to any questions that can be posed about the world. Since imprisoning and torturing troublesome scientists has gone out of vogue, a new strategy is required for fundamentalists – and today, that strategy seems to be writing off evolution by natural selection as merely another pseudo-religious belief system (hence the insistence on the term “Darwinism”) and restating their own beliefs in the language of science. This is what has led to trials like Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District, or the Texas Board of Education's vote to allow teachers to raise doubts about the validity of the theory of evolution in biology classrooms.
What's sad about this is that efforts to dress religious belief in the language and trappings of scientific inquiry always make the believers come off looking ridiculous – which in this case they certainly are. But they will presumably continue to quixotically use scientific language and engage in “debate,” perhaps only to validate their beliefs to themselves. To do this is to misunderstand the difference between the claims made by religion and those made by science. It's not bringing a knife to a gun fight – it's bringing a carrot to a gun fight so as to make a salad.
Interestingly enough, Christian thinkers as far back as St. Augustine have recommended against a dogmatic and literal reading of Genesis. Here is an oft-cited example, which Augustine penned in A.D. 408:
It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.4
I've found that intellectually honest Christians (who tend not to be fundamentalist) are much more comfortable with the idea of evolution, and instead are interested in discussing the nature of the beginning of the universe, which is a much more appropriate conversation to have. They realize that Darwin's evolutionary theory makes no claims about the beginnings or nature of the universe itself, and that answers to what Adams might have called the “ultimate questions” are to be sought elsewhere. This, however, is not a topic of biology, but of metaphysics and ontology. The existence of God may be controversial, but Darwin's On the Origin of Species is not.
1 Breaking the Spell, The End of Faith, The God Delusion, and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, respectively. Witness also the innumerable rebuttals to these works published in their wake, and my point is more or less made.
2 Indeed, some among the “new atheists” have sought to draw that distinction by discouraging the use of the word “atheist” and in some cases making their own suggestions. I count myself alongside Hitchens, who says he “cringes” at the label bright that Dennett and Dawkins have adopted (as in, “We are brights”). I think “rationalism” is probably a better term.
4 The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, 1:19–20 [A.D. 408]. Later in the same text, Augustine goes on to say, “Seven days by our reckoning, after the model of the days of creation, make up a week. By the passage of such weeks time rolls on, and in these weeks one day is constituted by the course of the sun from its rising to its setting; but we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being really similar to them.” Writing more than a thousand years before Martin Luther was born, Augustine would be viewed by today's creationists as “too liberal.”
Monday, April 6, 2009
One of the basic principles of a free-market or capitalist (or call it whatever you like) stance is that freedom from big-government or a socialist state gives the human person the ability to flourish autonomously. And autonomy is key because we like to think that we are all self-possessed, that we own our own self and identity. One of the pragmatic effects of this principle of freedom is the ability to own private property.
I share this intuition in practice because my family rents a small apartment (one bedroom for my two sons, my wife, and I) and look forward to the day that we can buy a modest home of our own.
And this critique is something that socialists of all types are keenly aware of. Marx mentions it in his (and Engels') Manifesto and, overall, it seems to follow that if socialism removes private property and personal autonomy, then, there is something bankrupt about it.
Now, leaving socialist apologies behind, I think it is important to ask the question, "How?" How is it that capitalism can provide private property to a person? In other words, under what conditions can this private ownership take place?
I would submit that, in order to for the capitalist principle of freedom to actually happen in the form of the ownership of private property (which is a subset of the idea of self-belonging, I think), at least these two things need to happen from the get-go, pragmatically speaking:
1. There needs to be property to be owned in the first place.
2. The person needs to be able to own that property in some reasonable way.
Now, if we accept those conditions, then, we must ask the question of, "Can?" Can capitalism provide those conditions to begin with? Or, we might ask the more cynical and leading question, "If not, then, what?" If capitalism cannot meet those conditions, then, what are we to think about it and do?
It might be possible for a capitalist utopia, that we create out of our heads, to meet those conditions with certain ideas about human nature and so on. But, in the present moment that is relevant to us, I find it very hard for capitalism to meet such conditions unless some kind of redistribution was to happen.
The reason I say this is that very few people actually own their stuff these days, much less their property--their home. For most, the reality of life is that a few people own lots of property that they may let us borrow for our houses, business, and so on.
Having said that, we might also reflect on the reality that nations (like the USA) also exist on credit these days. Both scenarios seem to deeply erode at the principle of freedom that enables the human person to own, and therefore have autonomy over, their property and, ultimately, their self.
By this analysis, one might argue that the freedom of the free market has produced much of the same, problematic ownership issues that a fascist communists states have (for more about that comparison, see my ongoing series on fascism and liberal society)
Here is the conundrum, as I see it: Capitalism in its principled form cannot exist in any relevant manner without some way to make it happen in pragmatic, daily affairs. Therefore, one might be well advised to keep the principle of freedom provided that we reject the notion of freedom to amass wealth and favor the notion of freedom to control one's desire for things--the kind of freedom a person who stays fit and healthy displays and a glutton does not--and from that begin to see the role of the government as the authority to make sure that people control themselves.
This means that when someone wants to come back for thirds and fourths (or eighteenths) at the buffet of capital, there would be a principled reason to restrict that. In doing so, we might find that people would live under conditions that would actually allow them to own property in real, practical affairs and, most importantly, to regain a sense of what means to exist as a human person, not a human resource.
In short, it seems to me that without the socialist principle of redistribution we cannot, in the present age, achieve the capitalist principle of freedom.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?Here is another, shorter, argument: Namely, that since it does not really matter what name oppression takes, we might as well know about it. Now, this is all very unqualified when speaking in general. But, when we frame it in terms of the actual victims, I think we have a rather clear view of the matter. Now the hard part is distinguishing between victims. But, as Gandhi puts it, there are those who do not make it so complex to understand.
Friday, April 3, 2009
Let me be as clear as I can about my project and this question: It is a cowardly and rather self-indulgent thing, to be sure. I mean, I have no intentions or courage to actually "desire" for an end of liberalism. Instead, I am, in one sense, just testing the limits of possibility for myself thinking this way about things.
At the same time, I think there is something else going on here. Pretending that it is the only thing going on will fuel my own self-righteousness on the matter. You see, the actual point of the matter is simply a question of meaning. In other words, I am not theorizing, hypothesizing, or, much less, making empirical claims about the world. All this question should do is to ask what it means to imagine that things are not as they seem.
Now, that is all a bit trite and makes this sound very esoteric, but, at least for me, it is not. All this question should do is the very same thing we tend to do when we encounter genuine novelty. There is nothing so novel to me as a new idea. When I come across one (usually in a book) I can't ask much else other than, "What does that mean?" or "What could that possibly be like?"
But, ideas are never really that new, they are merely new-to-me or new-to-us. So, we can glean intelligibility out of the meaning of a novel thing and toy around with whatever meaning we have, or think we have, and that's what it all about. One big game of hokey poky.
So, we need to know what is really grinding the axe of this question and this general notion of defending fascism and cautioning against liberalism. Here it is, as I see it. It is a myth that when given the opportunity people will live with less instead of more. "Plenty" seems to be a rather normative human desire elevated to the level of virtue. We desire to be full, not hungry. Yet, hunger (metaphorically speaking) keeps us, well... hungry. Restless. In love.
What I mean to say is that the political question at hand is more fundamentally a question of how to deal with what seems to be a reoccurring thing in human experience: cycles of oppression, revolution, and oppression. The second oppressor is usually dressed in the garments of a liberator, a populist, a democracy, ourselves or people like us, and so on. And, for that very reason, she is very hard to distinguish from the Gandhi's of the world. The first oppressor, however, is clearly who she really is and, while we may have good reason to fear her, at least we know when she is around.
Here is the virtue of fascism: honesty. That is not to say that fascists do not lie, indeed they do. But their lies are lies. In a liberal society it is hard work--and counterintutive work--to spot lies because they come on silver spoon covered with honey.
But, as I said in my first post: You get more bees... To continue my reliance on "as the saying goes" to make my argument, I am asking what it means to say: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." Even if it means that we are required to take up Zarathustra's advice to love our enemies and hate our friends.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Yes, he has said some things that really ring my ears like, "Ten years after NAFTA, Mexico's leading export to America is still--Mexicans. America is becoming Mexamerica," in his popular books like, Where the Right Went Wrong, but he also writes--in the very same book--things like, "The Bush Doctrine is a prescription for permanent war for permanent peace, though wars are the death of republics."
My point is this: We need more of his ilk in public discourse, not less. If you don't want to read his books, and since I would never recommend that you watch television, you may want to read him here, at his active blog and website.