Thursday, December 29, 2011

Notes on "Contending for the Truth" (Pt. 3)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Postmodernism and Christianity

a talk by R.C. Sproul Jr.

Postmodernism again? Thankfully, no. Despite the name of this talk, it's really about adding modernism to the list of anti-Christian philosophies.

This would make sense because Christians don't typically believe science and technology will automatically bring about a golden age for the human condition. Unfortunately, Sproul goes one step farther by treating science itself as part of modernism, and discarding them both.

I will hold my responses for a bit.

Satan's R&D

In Screwtape Letters style, Sproul pictures Satan as an infernal bureaucrat sitting in his office when two labcoat-wearing demons from research and development arrive and pitch their new idea.
"We've been working in our lab now for centuries and we have come up with an alternate explanation of how people came about." 
The Serpent says, "You mean without God?"
The scientist said, "Yes, without God."
He said, "Let's hear it."

He said, "Well, we've come up with this theory where there was time and there was space and there was energy and they crashed together and out popped an amoeba."
The Serpent said, "Go on."

"Well, the amoeba went to school and studied really really hard and it grew and it progressed and it evolved and eventually it became a fish."
The Serpent said, "Uh huh and then what?"

"Well the fish, it took its little fins and crawled and clawed its way out of the water onto the dry ground and it turned into a bird. And then it changed into this and changed into that. And then this happened and then that happened. And then billions of years later...there stood man."

[...] "You interrupted my paper shuffling to give me that?! What kind of an idiot do you think would fall for that ridiculous story, that something came out of nothing and grew itself into people?"
Of course, Satan was only feigning annoyance. He knew plenty of idiots would fall for it.

The Great Distraction

Sproul goes on to claim that Satan's real goal is not to convince unbelievers to accept "Darwinism," but to distract Christians who are reading Genesis into thinking it's only a source of ammunition against Darwinism. That crafty Serpent!

And it's not just evolution. Sproul condemns general scientific method as "flip-flopping" and modernist optimism as foolish because we die.

The Idol of Education

What is the newest, grandest, cleanest building in a small city? According to Sproul, it's usually either the one belonging to the Board of Education or the teachers union.
"For the Modernist, the greatest sacrament, the greatest technology, the greatest tool, the greatest engine of education."
You see, Modernists believe that the way to earthly paradise is to get everyone else to be Postmodernists, which is why academic postmodernism is really a modernist plot.

The Gay Factor

At this point, Sproul seems to realize that his audience may think education and rational argument have some evangelical value. Time to fix that!

It's a misconception that "the lost" are lost because they don't have some vital information or because they haven't understood a sound theological argument. Actually, Christians know from Romans 1 that people like Michel Foucault first fall into homosexual sin, and then invent a worldview to excuse their behavior.

Nor is intellectual growth important within Christianity. Sproul points out that "smart" is not a fruit of the Spirit.1

Science, Destroyer of Beauty
"Ask a modernist how they understand a rose. You take a rose and if you slice it and you dice it and you stick it in your electron microscope, are you going to understand the rose? We lose a lot when we reduce reality down to the periodic table."
Where to Begin?

Perhaps with a confession. I had quite similar views from childhood right up through my first four years of college. I know how hard it is to give scientific evidence a fair shake when you are already certain of a very different answer. Reasoning backwards from science arriving at the "wrong" answers, it makes sense to believe science must have started out wrong. I still sympathize with Christians like Sproul because I do think taking the Bible seriously as revelation entails some form of Young Earth Creationism.

On the other hand, I understand that many Christians have come to terms with modern science. Plus, I'm more interested in seeing greater scientific literacy than I am in seeing fewer Christians. Why? Because even though it's false, modern Christianity seems to be beneficial to a lot of people. Scientific illiteracy has less, if any, redeeming value (excuse the pun).

The Nature of Science

Science isn't like divine revelation or a "big story" metanarrative. Science is a method of inquiry, not a conclusion.

Science starts close at hand. Working together, what can we figure out about the part of reality that we can all — regardless of worldview differences — see or touch or measure? In this way, we build up a common store of understanding.

In a sense, the very abundance of hard-won scientific knowledge is a problem. There is simply too much for any single person to absorb. It can also be difficult to trace a product of scientific method all the way back to the original level of human hands and eyes. But we must be able to do this, or science will seem disconnected from everyday experience. For this reason, I believe science popularizers are just as vital in the long term as cutting edge researchers.

Science and the Rose

The Feynman Series — Beauty


I was taught that evolution was invented as an atheistic alternative which, in turn, required the invention of a timescale measured in millions and billions of years. So it was a surprise to discover that there are very good reasons to accept the older timescale; reasons which are entirely independent of evolutionary theory. 

Tree rings, along with yearly ice and sediment layers convinced me that the Earth has been around at least twice as long as the six thousand years implied by a literal reading of Genesis. But why go from tens of thousands to billions of years? The single best explanation I've found is given by G. Brent Dalrymple in his appropriately named book The Age of The Earth. Can't recommend that highly enough. Also, he's put out a more recent and less technical version which I haven't read yet: Ancient Earth, Ancient Skies.

There are plenty of other books on evolution, geology, astronomy, physics, etc. which would be relevant here, but I'm just focusing on what positively convinced me. The important thing is having the simple desire to find out what's really true, by digging into the reasons in support of whatever you already believe and doing the same for opposing positions.

Creationism and Postmodernism

Though Sproul avoids doing this, it's helpful to know that postmodernism is — oddly enough — widespread in the Intelligent Design movement, at least as a political tactic.2 I talked to one non-academic Christian who told me, "Science just is a religion too." He was willing to kamikaze the validity of his own religious beliefs so long as he could take down science in the bargain. I hope we can all agree it's a bad idea to jettison the idea of truth, even if we disagree about what is true.

1. See Galatians 5:22-23. 
2. See Pennock's paper "The Postmodern Sin of Intelligent Design Creationism," freely available here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Notes on "Contending for the Truth" (Pt. 2)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Postmodernism and Society

a talk by Albert Mohler

It's as if Mohler read the way I questioned the strength of postmodernism's influence outside of certain academic circles, and decided to give his own version of Zacharias' talk to emphasize the pervasiveness and danger of postmodernism. That, or the conference committee assigned them both the same topic.

So here we go again!

After an ice breaker story, Mohler starts by trying to explain what postmodernism is. He points to the sense of scientific and human progress felt from the enlightenment to the early twentieth century, until society lost its level of "unrealistic optimism" and became disillusioned. This was the end of modernism and the beginning of postmodernism as the spirit of the age.

A pretty good sketch of a difficult subject. Mohler moves on to listing some features of postmodernism.

First: the deconstruction of truth. He says that postmodernism is not concerned with the nature of truth or what propositions are true, but on "whether truth can be known." By contrast, Christians understand that "[t]ruth is established by God and revealed through the self-revelation of God in scripture. Truth is eternal, fixed, and universal. Our responsibility as Christians, we understand, is to align our minds with the truth revealed by a self-existent God."

Sure, if Christian scripture is true in the first place. If not, then that's not what truth is at all.

Remember when I complained about Zacharias giving two alternatives: an outrageous answer and his answer? Mohler is giving us the alternative of denying truth (or denying we can know any truth) vs. truth as what the Christian God has established. Don't let the implausibility of the former make the latter seem unquestionable. I'm starting to wonder if apologists play up the extreme parts of postmodernism because it makes such a flattering contrast for anything else held next to it.

He then quotes Richard Rorty as saying, "Truth is made rather than found." The social construction of truth, Mohler observes, "is at the very heart of postmodernism." Truth claims are seen as "disguised claims to power" with the purpose of suppressing others. If this is the nature of constructing truth claims, then deconstructing truth claims would be a way to remove the disguise and be freed from oppression.

Where I think postmodernism goes wrong is not in the basic ideas, but in their extent. I would say some truth is socially constructed and some truth claims are disguised claims to power. "This is called a fork" is true, because we made it true. "Pink is a girl color" is true, in a socially constructed way. "Homosexuality is unnatural" is a disguised claim to power, which serves to marginalize minorities. Much of Mohler's critique is aimed at the way prominent postmodernist philosophers took these ideas to ridiculous extremes, like saying all truth is socially constructed. But what's harmful in extremes may be beneficial in moderation.

Second: the death of the metanarrative. A meta-narrative is an "explanatory theory of virtually everything." A big story. A worldview. Mohler quotes Jean-François Lyotard defining postmodernism as "incredulity toward metanarratives."

For some reason, he focuses on how this would exclude a Christian metanarrative, instead of emphasizing that most metanarratives should be disbelieved because they are incompatible! Wouldn't an effective approach to postmodernists be something like this: "I can understand your wariness. You're right to see that many 'big stories' people tell about the world are fabricated. But here's why this 'big story' is worth believing."

Third: the demise of the text. This is what Zacharias spent so much time on, i.e. the notion that texts don't contain any limits to their meaning...all meaning is imposed or at least alterable by readers. Props to Mohler for pointing out how Bible studies often proceed in a "What does it mean to you?" style.

Fourth: the dominion of therapy. Something about how we're all sick according to postmodernists. I didn't find this very interesting, to be frank. Guess it does explain The Sopranos.

Fifth: the decline of authority. Pretty much follows from the above. Without some non-constructed truth, absolutely everything would become a struggle among fraudulent authorities. Mohler accuses postmodernists of hypocrisy for preferring liberation-oriented authorities in practice.

Sixth: the displacement of morality. I feel silly for only now realizing these features all start with a 'd'. Anyway, the idea here is that morality is a matter of authority, so without authority all morality gets tossed except liberation-based morality.

Here, Mohler goes off on a long tangent about postmodern art breakin' the art rules! I have a hard time being concerned about this, since I use a simple 'like' / 'don't like' approach to art criticism. Mixing historical styles is not itself something I find offensive or genius. He ends up saying that someone might be ok with a postmodern architect, but "no one wants a postmodern engineer." Funny, and it makes a good point against postmodern extremes, but it's very much in line with my point about postmodernism erring in its extent. Mohler's own story illustrates that it doesn't much matter if the decorations are postmodern so long as the physical structure is stable.

The Sokal hoax is mentioned next, which was so much better than anything Ashton Kutcher ever pulled off. (Or do you prefer comic format?)

Then off to sex in universities, critical legal theory, political disillusionment, and commercial advertising. Overall, the claim is that schools are injecting culture with postmodernist ideas, and this is leading to just about every bad thing from a Christian, traditional, common sense perspective.

I remain dubious about attributing so much to postmodernism.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Notes on "Contending for the Truth" (Pt. 1)

What do you get a bookish former Christian for Christmas? Apologetics material, of course! I hear this often happens to apostates, and it's usually well-meant from caring people. I take things in the spirit they are given.

Anyway, this year I received a CD set of Ligonier Ministries’ 2007 conference "Contending for the Truth" [freely watchable here]. It's billed as a way to "equip believers to answer the false claims of postmodernism, naturalism, and our culture’s other atheistic theories." It's heavy on philosophy, so I feel this blog is an appropriate place to analyze the talks. We can pretend I'm one of Hemant Mehta's conference spies reporters.


1. Index; Postmodernism and Philosophy
2. Postmodernism and Society
3. Postmodernism and Christianity
4. Questions and Answers #1; The Task of Apologetics
5. Faith and Reason
6. The Challenge of Science
7. The Challenge of Science (continued)
8. The Challenge of Relativism
9. The Problem of Evil
10. The Existence of God
11. The Authority of Scripture
12. The Holy Spirit and Apologetics; Questions and Answers #2
13. The Resurrection of Christ

Postmodernism and Philosophy

a talk by Ravi Zacharias

Zacharias is a personable speaker, but his introduction to the already-fuzzy concept of postmodernism just makes it fuzzier. He starts by characterizing it as "We don't know where we are. We don't know who we are." Then, he contrasts the belief that words have no meaning with the belief that word meaning is an ontological matter. Since he only finds fault with the first theory, I presume he holds to the second one. I find both absurd. He's leaving out the standard view:
All natural languages are both arbitrary and conventional. [...] To take a simple example, English conventionally categorizes eating utensils as forks, knives, and spoons. A single English speaker cannot whimsically decide to call a fork, a spoon, and a knife, a kiuma, a volochka, or a krof. On the other hand, there is no particular reason why a prolonged eating implement should have been called a fork in the first place; the French do nicely calling it a fourchette, and German speakers find Gabel quite satisfactory.1
So it's true that 'fork' means a certain kind of utensil, but this is a truth-by-convention rather than an objective fact about the world. I suppose this would qualify as some kind of anti-Christian relativism? (Kidding, sort of.) To be fair, Zacharias is mostly targeting individual word meaning-making as Lewis Carroll did with Humpty Dumpty, but I want to point out that it's easy to make one's own views seem unquestionable by only mentioning implausible alternatives.

He goes on to present the option of absolute morality vs. individual morality. See the pattern?

Zacharias paints the picture of a succession of popular intellectual movements: Rationalism -> Empiricism -> Naturalism -> Existentialism -> Postmodernism. He seems to consider all but the last to be part of Modernism. I just want to note that this progression has some rough historical basis, but it sure wasn't a clear-cut evolution of one thing to another. In fact, I think apologists are prone to exaggerate the intellectual influence of postmodernism today by associating Every Bad Thing with the term. Modern science is still an empiricist affair, though some non-scientist academics (e.g. Kuhn and Feyerabend) have tried to infect the process with postmodernism. Rationalists are still kicking in philosophy departments. Really, outside the circles of literary criticism, postmodernism has weak influence. I don't understand why it's given so much attention here.

Earning himself some irony points, Zacharias reads postmodernism into the story of Eve and the serpent. He claims that the serpent was encouraging her to eat the fruit so she could "redefine good and evil" and redefine reality. But the text clearly implies the serpent was right and that eating the fruit resulted in greater understanding of the truth, not a redefinition. It's a story about setting aside the moral ignorance of animals and becoming a morally responsible human being. This is why eating is followed by the realization of nakedness ("the eyes of both of them were opened") and why the human distinctive of farming was established as part of the follow-up curse. But I suppose Every Bad Thing must go back to original sin, right?

The remainder of the talk is mostly about the laws of logic and how reality catches up to you if you take dangerous drugs and have promiscuous sex. Plus a very funny rendition of The Good Samaritan.

1. Millward, C.M., Hayes, M. (2011). A biography of the English language (Third Edition). Boston, MA: Wadsworth Publishing. p. 6-7.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (Pt. 2)

[...continued from here.]

Last time, I introduced Alvin Plantinga's argument that believing in both evolution and naturalism results in a general belief-reliability crisis. Since I do hold both of these beliefs, I'm motivated to reflect on his argument and figure out whether I need to make an adjustment.

Bold vs. Cautious

I would characterize Plantinga's argument as bold because he reaches for the conclusion that actual, human believers in both evolution and naturalism have a general defeater for their beliefs. At least, they do after grasping his argument.

He is suggesting that I, Garren, have better reason to believe my beliefs are mostly false than to believe my beliefs are mostly true. I can't take this seriously. It's like telling Philosophy freshmen about Descartes' demon that systematically deceives one's senses, and expecting the students to really doubt everything.
But to have a defeater for [the belief that my cognitive faculties are reliable] it isn't necessary that I believe that in fact I have been created by a Cartesian demon or been captured by those Alpha-Centaurian superscientists. It suffices for me to have such a defeater if I have considered those scenarios, and the probability that one of those scenarios is true, is inscrutable for me. It suffices if I have considered those scenarios, and for all I know or believe one of them is true. In these cases too I have a reason for doubting, a reason for withholding my natural belief that my cognitive faculties are in fact reliable.1
Plantinga's alternative is to accept another story that an external Agent wanted me to mostly believe true things, so He tinkered with evolution to give me reliable belief-forming mechanisms...except when it comes to the stunningly important belief that He exists.

At this point, I must admit that naturalistic evolution does have a major disadvantage: there is less room to simply make up convenient stories about it.

I propose a toned down, cautious version of the argument which doesn't deal with skeptical scenarios. There's no need to claim actual, human believers in evolution and naturalism are involved in a belief-destroying vortex. Instead, Plantinga could argue that theistic evolution provides a better explanation than naturalistic evolution when it comes to the unquestioned premise that we do have (more or less) reliable belief-forming mechanisms, i.e:
If true, theistic evolution would neatly explain why we have reliable belief-forming mechanisms.

If true, naturalistic evolution would provide a very poor explanation of why we have reliable belief-forming mechanisms.
By inference to the better explanation, theism beats out naturalism.

Can Naturalistic Evolution Offer A Decent Explanation?

Suppose evolution is true and naturalism provably can't ever provide a decent explanation for our (more or less) reliable beliefs. Naturalists might still resist the notion of divine intervention because of other considerations that count against theism or for naturalism, but I grant that the consideration we're considering would be a strong point against naturalism.

Now, the important question is whether Plantinga is offering a reason to think naturalism can't ever provide an explanation, or is he merely pointing out the current lack of such an explanation? It would be easy to dismiss him, if his argument were another "How could evolution design an eye?" or some similar structural mystery. These questions keep turning up reasonable answers.2 But it's clear that the kind of "beliefs" he is concerned about are not just a matter of physical structure.

To paraphrase:
Naturalists these days all seem to be materialists. What sorts of things are beliefs under materialism? Neural events or states hooked into the overall operation of the brain. "So considered, beliefs will of course be able to enter the causal process that leads to behavior."3

But, any properly-so-called belief must also have the property of being associated with a proposition, e.g: that Frank Herbert wrote Dune. Otherwise, the neurophysiological event wouldn't really be about anything. "How does a neural event somehow get assigned a certain proposition as its content? It is hard to think of any scenarios that are as much as decently plausible."3 And, once assigned, the propositional content itself would be an irrelevant bystander to the physical operation of the brain.
So you see, the core of Plantinga's argument has to do with the nature of propositions. The naturalistic evolution of neurophysiological states (or events) which are generated in response to sensory input and which inform behavioral output goes completely unchallenged.

This makes the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism a fairly niche philosophical concern, perhaps one that is only conceivable for those who take proposition or property talk too seriously. Consider a maze-learning robot that adds information to its internal state, engages in some reasoning to infer when it has probably been dropped into a different point of a past maze, and makes goal-oriented choices based on its internal map. If the robot has reasoned that the goal is probably three feet forward, ninety degrees to the right and six inches forward again, then I would say the robot believes the goal is located there.

We could say the relevant bits of computer memory are "associated" with the propositional content that the goal is three feet forward and six inches to the right. Then we could worry how this separate content-bearing property can reach back into the robot's cybernetic brain and causally influence the bits and volts. Or, just maybe, we could question the philosopher's analysis that took the propositional content out of the realm of causally informed (and informing) bits and volts in the first place.

I admit unfamiliarity with the philosophy of propositions, but it seems plausible that they are just linguistic descriptions of possible world states. A belief may be associated with a world state without involving a linguistic description of that state (though some Postmodernists may disagree). The robot internally represents a possible state of the maze, then we use language to describe that state, and feel the description is both integral and external to the robot's electronic belief. I suspect something like this underlies Plantinga's dualistic intuition.

At any rate, his argument doesn't cause me a lot of concern about the rationality of believing in both evolution and naturalism. I'm much more inclined to think analytic philosophers sometimes generate their own problems, and this is one of those times.

1. Plantinga, A. (2002). Introduction. In Beilby, J. (Ed.), Naturalism defeated? (1-12). Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press. p 11.
2. Dawkins did a fun visual demonstration of eye evolution in Growing Up in the Universe.
3. Plantinga, A. (2002). Reply to Beilby's Cohorts. In Beilby, J. (Ed.), Naturalism defeated? (204-275). Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 212-213.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (Pt. 1)

Since Alvin Plantinga has been in the news lately promoting his book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, I thought it would be a good time to review his famous argument against naturalism from the early 90s.1

(Note: For his more recent moral argument against naturalism, see this post.)

Taking Evolution Away From Atheists and Beating Them With It

...that's the plan, anyway! Plantinga argues that — contrary to expectations — evolutionary theory is friendly to the belief that humanity was intentionally created by God in His image, and fatally undermines the belief that humanity evolved without divine assistance.

  • Natural selection only cares (so to speak) about survival.
  • Survival is not significantly affected by the truth of beliefs.
  • It's unlikely, therefore, that purely natural design would produce minds adept at forming true beliefs.
Our ability to form mostly true beliefs makes sense if God intervened in our development; but if anyone believes evolution occurred without such intervention, she is left with a story of how she probably does not have a mind adept at forming true beliefs. Evolution + Naturalism = Self Defeating Belief.

Natural selection only cares (so to speak) about survival.

Pretty much, yeah.

Survival is not significantly affected by the truth of beliefs.

Here's where things get interesting. You might think it's better — in terms of survival — to have mostly true beliefs than mostly false beliefs. Plantinga questions this assumption by examining five possibilities of how beliefs and behavior relate to each other.

(Note: Early on, he focused on Possibility #5; over time, his focus has shifted to Possibility #1 as the core challenge to naturalistic evolution.)

Possibility #1 — Epiphenomenal Beliefs

He starts by drawing a distinction between beliefs as the neural structures that combine with desires to produce behavior and beliefs as carriers-of-propositional-content. The latter definition of belief is the sort that is true or false and it "can't be a matter of definition that there are neural structures or processes displaying both propositional content and causal efficacy with respect to behavior".2
Neural structures which guide behavior.
Mental stances which are true or false.
Natural selection could have designed neural structures to work in ways that produce survival-enhancing behavior, but mental stances are just extra. "[Mental stances] are not causally connected with behavior, then they would be, so to speak, invisible to evolution; and then the fact that they arose during the evolutionary history of these beings would confer no probability on the idea that they are mostly true, or mostly nearly true, rather than wildly false."2

To put it simply: true/false mental stances run free from the neural structures which affect behavior.

Possibility #2 — Same Thing

...except here Plantinga highlights the possibility that mental stances are caused by behavior or that both mental-stances and behavior are caused by a third thing. So there is a connection, but it's still invisible to natural selection.

Possibility #3 — The Form (Not Content) Affects Behavior
I read a poem very loudly, so loudly as to break a glass; the sounds I utter have meaning, but their meaning is causally irrelevant to the breaking of the glass. In the same way it might be that these creatures' beliefs have causal efficacy, but not by way of the content of those beliefs.3
Is this a real party trick he does?

Possibility #4 — Belief Content Affects Behavior, Negatively

Behavior-affecting belief content might be like sickle-cell anemia: not helpful, but genetically attached to other traits which are helpful.

Possibility #5 — Belief Content Positively Affects Behavior

The true/false mental stances we take actually do help us survive. But...true beliefs don't necessarily help more than false beliefs!

You see, beliefs have to be combined with desires to produce behavior. As Plantinga points out, "there will be any number of different patterns of belief and desire that would issue in the same action; and among those there will be many in which the beliefs are wildly false."4

True Belief + Desire A -> The Helpful Action
False Belief 1 + Desire B -> The Helpful Action
False Belief 2 + Desire C -> The Helpful Action
False Belief 3 + Desire D -> The Helpful Action
[...and so on]

Since natural selection only cares about the helpful action, it's more likely that one of the many possible false beliefs will be paired up with a matching desire, than that the single true belief will be paired up with its matching desire. Plantinga gives the example of a pre-historic man, Paul, who has the adaptive behavior of running away from tigers, but not because of the belief you might expect:
Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but whenever he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely that the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief.
[...] Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it."4
He goes on to give other possibilities of false beliefs being matched up with desires that result in Paul running away from tigers. The point is: natural selection has no reason (so to speak) to favor one scenario over another, so long as Paul's body survives to reproduce.

It's unlikely, therefore, that purely natural design would produce minds adept at forming true beliefs.

If this conclusion is successful, then a person who believes in naturalism + evolution has a defeater for the belief that her belief-forming faculties are reliable. This, in turn, constitutes a defeater for all of her beliefs...including the belief that naturalism is true.

Meanwhile, a person who believes in a creator God + evolution isn't stuck with an across-the-board defeater for his beliefs. In other words, evolution mixed with this kind of theism is stable, but evolution mixed with naturalism catastrophically destructs.

[continued here...]

1. See Chapter 12 of his book Warrant and Proper Function. For a shorter and more recent restatement, see the Introduction of Naturalism Defeated? which is a collection of essays on this very topic, edited by James Beilby.
2. Plantinga, P. (1993). Warrant and proper function. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 223. 
3. Ibid. p. 224. 
4. Ibid. p. 225.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lingo: Poisoning the Well

I am at war with him; but there is such a thing as legitimate warfare: war has its laws; there are things which may fairly be done, and things which may not be done. I say it with shame and with stern sorrow;—he has attempted a great transgression; he has attempted (as I may call it) to poison the wells.1
To poison the well (or wells) is to use some preliminary tactic which has the effect of greatly impeding any fair and reasonable discussion. As you can see above, the term comes from an analogy to poisoning a city before attempting to take it by force. Poison may succeed where force of argument would otherwise fail.

In Federalist No. 83, Alexander Hamilton argued against making trial by jury a Constitutional requirement in civil cases. In addition to his actual arguments, he wrote: "It is conceded by all reasonable men, that it ought not to obtain in all cases." This is poisoning the well since anyone who tries to argue for trial by jury for all civil cases has already been labeled "unreasonable."

I was inspired to write this post because I ran into a rather extreme case of well poisoning in Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl's book Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air which reminded me of William Lane Craig's approach in Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Early on, both books tell horror stories about what life would be like if the positions they defend were rejected. This strongly influences readers to accept the authors' arguments uncritically and reject opposing arguments offhandedly.

Craig on the Horrors of Non-Christianity

Before examining "the question of God's existence," Craig explores "the disastrous consequences for human existence, society, and culture if Christianity should be false."2 He spends page after depressing page claiming that our lives are totally without significance unless we will live forever and there is a God. Then Craig tells a story of Nazi doctors performing vivisection on pregnant women, saying this is consistent with atheism and a story about a man giving his life to save others is inconsistent with atheism.3

The choice is clear: cruel, pointless existence if there is no God vs. fulfilling, meaningful life if "biblical Christianity" is true.

(Yes, I did happen to notice that he left out many alternatives besides atheism and his brand of Christianity.)

Beckwith and Koukl on the Horrors of Moral Relativism

Chapter Two of their book is titled "What Is Moral Relativism?" But before trying to define the position they're attacking, the authors explain in Chapter One that moral relativism is about living for personal pleasure without any concern for how others are affected. To make their point, they tell a story about a group of nurses lounging in their break room, "smoking and drinking coffee," while coldly choosing to let a premature child die on the metal counter rather than try to save it or comfort it. When one nurse arrived and tried to hold it, another snatched it away and put it live into a jar of formaldehyde.4

This, they claim, is what moral relativism looks like. In fact, it's hardly necessary to argue against it at all!


I try not to use such tactics even if it would help me win rhetorically. But sometimes I wonder if choosing not to poison wells in debates is as quaint and self-restricting as many might view the choice to not poison the wells of a city before sending soldiers out to die on its walls. Am I more willing to loose respectably than win underhandedly? Maybe so.

1. From John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua.
2. Craig, W.L. (2008). Reasonable faith: Christian truth and apologetics (3rd ed.). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. p. 65
3. Ibid. p. 80-82
4. Beckwith, F.J. and Koukl, G. (1998). Relativism: Feet firmly planted in mid-air. Grand rapids, MI: Baker Books. p. 21

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Rick Perry's War on the First Amendment

As of this writing, the YouTube version of Rick Perry's campaign ad titled "Strong" has 124 thousand 'dislikes' and 3 thousand 'likes.' I have to admit, the ad made me a little angry. Not so much because someone would say the things he does, but because it's inexcusable for a current Governor and a Presidential hopeful with a team of expert advisers to spread misinformation like this.

What's wrong with "Strong"? Let's take it line by line...

I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian, but you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know...

Why would he be ashamed? About 3/4 of Americans identify as Christian. Claiming generic Christianity is the easy road for American politicians. Try running as a Mormon, a homosexual, or an atheist if you want to encounter a large percent of prejudice today.

He can't exactly claim to be referring to a smaller core of "real" Christians with that pew warming comment.

...there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military...

Thankfully, most of us have figured out that soldiers deserve respect, not forced secrecy or discharges for something irrelevant to their duties.

...but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. 

They can. This is a shameless lie.

Now, children in public schools can't be led in prayer or other religious activities because this is coercion. No parents would want their kids led in a ceremony for another religion. Perry is pretending to be defending religious liberty, when he is actually opposing it.

...and he's opposing these Supreme Court rulings in favor of religious freedom for students:

Engel v. Vitale
Abington School District v. Schempp
Lee v. Weisman

As President, I'll end Obama's war on religion.

What war on religion? Wolf Blitzer asked Perry about this yesterday [video][transcript]. Perry mentioned the government not supporting religious organizations with federal dollars. What?! Remember, this is from the guy complaining about federal spending and "Obama's socialist policies."

And I'll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. 

Our American heritage is the freedom to believe and worship according to one's conscience, without government imposition.
The President of the United States would be an officer elected by the people for four years; the king of Great Britain is a perpetual and hereditary prince. [...] The one has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction; the other is the supreme head and governor of the national church! What answer shall we give to those who would persuade us that things so unlike resemble each other? — from Federalist No. 69, by Alexander Hamilton
Is Perry aware of this part of the job description?

Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again. 

I'm nearly finished listening a free recording of The Federalist Papers, which were glorified letters to the editor explaining and justifying the design of the Constitution. (Highly recommended!) And do you know what I've learned? It's not faith but wisdom that has made America strong. Our Constitution was brilliantly framed to deal with the practical realities of this world:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.  — from Federalist No. 51, by James Madison

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Reading the ACLU Policy Guide (Pt. 8)

Series explanation and overview here.

Note: These are my summaries of the 1995 version of the guide, not the policies themselves.

Loyalty and Security

Policy 103 — Clear and Present Danger Test

Personal opinions are constitutionally protected unless they qualify as creating a “clear and present danger” by either being “an integral part of conduct violating a valid law” or “a direct incitement to specific and immediate violation of law” or they “threaten a danger of unlawful acts so great and so immediate that time is lacking for answer, or if need be, for other protective measures against the threats and acts.”

Protected speech includes speech against democracy, so long as it does not constitute a clear and present danger. I take this to mean that speech against free speech rights is still protected by free speech rights.

Policy 104 — ACLU and Totalitarianism

The ACLU is opposed to “any governmental or economic system which denies fundamental civil liberties and human rights.” (This is consistent with the ACLU supporting the right of other groups and individuals to express support for totalitarian systems.)

Policy 105 — Smith Act and Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950

This policy actually concerns three federal acts:
Besides requiring legal, adult aliens to register with the government, the Smith Act made it a crime to advocate for the violent overthrow of the US government. At first glance, this might not sound like such a bad thing to criminalize, but citizens who don't have the slightest chance of putting such ideas into action could have been imprisoned for twenty years for expressing the opinion. Furthermore, entire organizations could have been deemed in violation and all members and tangential supporters would be made criminals, without even expressing the condemned opinion personally.

Further acts specifically hounded anyone with communist associations, or who supported broadly communist ideas whether those ideas were related to violent political change or not.

The ACLU's position is that "there should be no governmental restriction on advocacy of any sort, unless the adovcacy [sic] shall cause, in the existing circumstances of its utterances, a clear and present danger of illegal action." Merely increasing the probability that listeners may choose to commit a crime later is insufficient. Regarding organizational guilt: "Guilt is personal; it may not be attributed by association." The ACLU also opposed the McCarran Act because it required members of communist organizations to report themselves, a violation of the Fifth Amendment.

Policy 106 —Wartime Sedition Act

I'm a little confused about this policy. It references the "Wartime Sedition Act of 1917", but I'm finding information on the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 (a set of amendments to the first). I agree that the Sedition Act could have been "used against anyone, at virtually any time, to suppress criticism of the government in the name of national security," but I'm seeing multiple sources claiming those parts were repealed a long time ago. Recent ACLU concerns appear to be about last year's WikiLeaks fiasco, as it relates to the original espionage sections.

Policy 107 — Emergency Measures in Peacetime

The ACLU is opposed to indefinitely continuing civil rights-related measures put into play during "genuine war emergencies." This is applied to the Cold War and — I suspect — would apply to our perpetual War on Terror.

Policy 108 — House Internal Security Committee

This policy explains the ACLU's opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee (later renamed to Internal Security Committee). Instead of doing much in the way of starting legislation for the House, this Committee made a big public show of investigating citizens for expressing "un-American" ideas by a standard "so vague that a citizen cannot know whether the citizen's political activity runs afoul of the Committee's private definition of Americanism." These non-trial trials took away due process rights and chilled free speech. The Committee was dissolved by the mid 70s.

Policy 109 — State and Local Legislation

The ACLU opposes non-federal laws "dealing with advocacy of political doctrine" because there is (or was) already federal legislation in the area, and adding further restrictions just makes the civil liberties situation worse.

Policy 110 — Federal Employee Security

While the ACLU recognizes that some federal jobs directly related to national security warrant security screening, they oppose extending such screening to the many federal "non-sensitive" jobs which only require candidate fitness for the work.

The ACLU specifically opposes investigation into candidates' sexual orientation as a security matter. Apparently, it was claimed that homosexuals were a security risk because they could be blackmailed into betraying their country out of fear of expose. (Notice anything self-fulfilling here? Such investigations create or greatly increase the very motive they seek to exclude.)

Due process must be given to candidates denied positions for security concerns.

Policy 111 — Private Employment Security

The ACLU opposes the practice of any private employers investigating the national security risk of employees or requiring loyalty oaths. If a private employer is contracting with the government in a sensitive area, then the government itself should be the party to conduct security investigations of employees involved in such work.

Policy 112— Professional Associations' Membership Qualifications

Mere association with other organizations should not be grounds for removing a member from a professional association (particularly bar associations). It must be shown that a lawyer, for example, is actually not doing his or her duty as a legal professional because of "external obedience" to another organization.

However, the ACLU does recognize some latitude for not admitting a new member to a professional organization if there is thought to be a high probability he or she will not be able to conform to professional duties. This risk still needs to be evaluated on a person by person basis, not as a sweeping prejudice against the membership of other organizations.

Policy 113 — Federal Benefits and Loyalty Tests

"Loyalty oaths or disclaimers of membership in certain organizations violate the First Amendment rights of freedom of belief and association, and may never be required for participation in government-funded programs such as public housing or subsidies, welfare benefits, veteran's benefits, Social Security or Medicate."

Yes, that's the whole policy.

Policy 114 — Military Discharges

Members of the military should be treated as other federal employees, i.e. screening for security should only be done if that individual's job directly relates to national security.

Discharges must be based on job performance, not merely for exercising constitutional rights before or during service.

Policy 115 — Loyalty Oaths

Swearing non-membership in certain organizations has been required "for employment of government workers and teachers, for students seeking government aid, and for Social Security and Medicare recipients and the like." The ACLU opposes such oaths because they suppress free speech and association rights. Plus, they penalize any citizens with a conscientious objection to swearing these kind of oaths, whether they have had the associations in question or not.

Policy 116 — Governmental Surveillance

Police infiltration of organizations is contrary to the Fourth Amendment's protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures," i.e. those not carried out through the use of a targeted warrant issued on probable cause. Otherwise, "[e]verything that is said and everything that is done over an unlimited period of time comes into the hands of the government, no matter how private, how unconnected with a legitimate state interest."

Perhaps this would be less of an issue if there weren't a history of the government collecting files on individuals, and this to their detriment either by denying them government employment or by publicly condemning them without due process in Congressional hearings.

The ACLU does recognize the proper use of "informers" placed or recruited from organizations, if there is probable cause shown that the organization is involved — or is planning to be involved — in "serious criminal acts." A judge must issue a warrant specifying which part of the organization is to be surveilled and for how long. Warrants should be renewed by the original judge and a limit should be set on the number of renewals.

This policy also speaks against using the military to spy on citizens, against building files on citizens merely for protesting government actions, and against keeping attendance lists of lawful gatherings.

Policy 117 — Controlling the Intelligence Agencies

Bill of Rights violations on the excuse of "national security" need to end. The ACLU has a list of specific measures to remedy the situation. Some highlights:
  • Implement only three categories of classified information. (1) Details of defense tech which would help other nations. (2) Tactical military details during declared war. (3) Defensive contingency plans.
  • Explicitly state that any information about the US government engaging in illegal behavior is ipso facto declassified.
  • Allow Congress to "unilaterally" release Executive branch information.
  • Make intelligence agency budgets public.
  • Create detailed charters for government agencies, and prohibit any agency activity beyond these limits.
  • Rename the CIA to the FIA: Foreign Intelligence Agency. Keep it out of the domestic intelligence business entirely.
  • Prohibit all CIA operations intended to secretly manipulate (or just plain overthrow) foreign governments.
  • Prohibit the NSA from monitoring US-to-foreign communications.
  • Destroy all current files kept on citizens for exercising their First Amendment rights.
Policy 118 — Secret Government Aid to Private Agencies

I'm curious what circumstances prompted this 1967 policy. Apparently a government agency was secretly funding a citizen advocacy group...or something like that.  This endangers free discussion "by the clandestine introduction of ulterior motives of government policy into a supposedly open debate."

Policy 119 — Prior Restraint in National Security Situations

"The true test of our devotion to that principle [i.e. freedom of thought and expression] comes in times of stress or alarm, when those who would suppress the interchange of ideas can appeal for supposed justification to some imminent menace threatening the public welfare."

Citing United States v. The Progressive and the Pentagon Papers as instances when prior restraint "safeguarded nothing more than governmental overreaction, embarrassment, and the desire for secrecy," the ACLU believes prior restraint cannot be tolerated at the very times it is most critical that citizens have access to information.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

On 'Embryo: A Defense of Human Life' (Pt. 4)

[...continued from here]

To review, I readily accepted the biological claim that human embryos are distinct, whole human organisms. Then I challenged George and Tollefsen's (G&T's) metaphysical claims about substance kind and personal identity. In this final post, I will be challenging the basis of this book's ethical claims against killing embryos.

Before I do any more criticizing, however, I want pro-choice readers to feel the force of Embryo's ethical argument. It's not one to be brushed off lightly because it's an appeal to the way many people reason ethically who support legal abortion and destructive research. In other words, there's a good chance you'll have to — at least — change the way you express and argue for your ethical views.

It's a matter of human rights:
When it is a matter of race or ethnicity, color or gender, origin or outlook, our culture resolutely and rightly holds that what matters is the fact of humanity, and not any other property shared by some but not others. But, by the same token, in considering the status of embryonic humans, what should matter is the fact of their humanity. They should not be regarded as inferior to other members of the human family based on age, size, location, stage of development, or condition of dependency.1
If being a human is really the criterion for having human rights, then the biological claim alone is sufficient for admitting that embryos have human rights. How many pro-choicers are prepared to say that human rights apply to some humans but not others? It would be convenient to classify embryos (and fetuses) as not being "distinct, whole human organisms," but then you run into the troublesome fact that human embryology textbooks routinely state otherwise. (I visited a science library after starting this blog series and skimmed every such volume written since 1990 to confirm.)

And if human rights only apply to some humans, how can we say one way of distinguishing between rights-bearing and non-rights-bearing humans is justified, but another way of drawing that distinction is unjustified? Wouldn't our choice of criteria be arbitrary? How can we tell another society which uses another set of criteria to recognize human rights that they're mistaken?

On the other hand, we might wonder why these rights only apply to humans.

The Clear, Bright Line of Substance Kind

The solution given in Embryo is that human rights apply to all beings with an essence of human organism, as opposed to only some beings with this essence or beings with a different essence. Besides a being's essence (or "substance kind"), all other qualities are accidental properties which don't change what kind of being it is. So being dark skinned, or being a sailor, or being conscious are not the sort of qualities that make an essential difference in kind, but being a dog or being a pine tree would constitute such a difference.

Setting aside the nature of rights, I don't think G&T's answer draws a uniquely justifiable line because — as I argued in part 2 of this series — there is no principled, biologically motivated way to determine that my substance kind is human rather than mammal, or human rather than male. A racist could use these ideas of substance kind and root-form attributes to argue that a zygote is essentially light or dark skinned to justify treating them differently. An animal rights activist could go the other direction and argue that cows and humans are essentially mammals and that it's unjustifiable to treat them as if they possess different rights for merely accidental differences.

Let's look at how G&T address this issue:
A racist picks out shade of skin as a more important characteristic than common humanity in deciding the worth of human beings. Now, between human beings and all other nonhuman animals, there is a radical difference in kind: human beings, unlike every other animal species, have the basic natural capacity for reason and freedom. But between any two human beings, the difference in color will always be only a difference of degree, a difference that makes no difference to the sorts of beings that each is.2
What's interesting here is that being human is not the fundamental criterion for having what we call "human rights." Instead, having the basic natural capacity for reason and freedom are the criteria...which humans happen to uniquely possess among the animals.

Reason and Freedom

To be clear, G&T are not asserting that only beings which can immediately exercise reason and freedom count as rights-bearing humans. It's that humans are the only organisms with these capacities programmed, so to speak, into their genetic plan of development. This is the difference that makes a difference between a dog embryo and human embryo.

By "reason" and "freedom," the authors mean that humans are the only animals with any capacity at all for considering and judging (reason), and then acting as an "uncaused causing" (freedom). These qualities distinguish persons from non-personal beings which think and act on sheer instinct.3

But is it true that (1) humans have these special qualities and (2) no other animals have them to any degree?

We do have the capacity for rational thought, but this is a trivial observation since we use "rational thought" to refer to a type (or maybe several types) of thinking we already know humans exercise. It's harder to determine whether any other animals exercise rational thought to some degree. Heck, I recently heard a claim that humans lacked rational thought before we developed written language; how do you disprove that without a written record? The claim that reason is 100% exclusively a human trait is at least questionable, given common descent and the early state of non-human psychology.

Freedom — by which G&T mean libertarian free will — is questionable in another way: it may be that no humans have it! In fact, I think it is conceptually impossible for humans to have libertarian free will. At any rate, it's not a popular position among philosophers.

So, in my view, we have a situation where more species than humans probably count as having some degree of "reason" and no species at all count as having "freedom."

The Myth of Rights
There are, in fact, an infinite number of degrees of the development of the basic natural capacities for self-consciousness, intelligence, or rationality. So if human beings are worthy of full moral respect (as subjects of rights) only because of such qualities, and not by virtue of the kind of being that they are, then, since such qualities come in varying degrees, no account could be given of why basic rights are not possessed by human beings in varying degrees. The proposition that all human beings are created equal would be relegated to the status of a myth—a noble (or, perhaps, not-so-noble) lie.4
To be blunt, yes. Natural rights are a noble lie. We express our deeply held values in the language of rights because it has been effective at swaying the masses and pressuring leaders, not because there's any good reason to believe rights existed before we demanded them.

Who can read the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and see anything but a modern wishlist? And what makes less extravagant lists any different? There are probably worthwhile arguments in favor of natural rights that I'm not addressing here — which readers are welcome to point out — but I'm mainly trying to explain why I personally don't find Embryo's arguments compelling from beginning to end. I was already this skeptical of natural rights before picking up the book.

What Do We Want From Rights?

I'll make a conjecture here. What the authors of Embryo (and their intellectual forerunners) wanted from rights was a way to justify treating humans as special compared to all other animals, and not merely from self-preference or from some difference in degree. The "extraordinarily puzzling biblical teaching that man is made in the very image and likeness of God"5 seemed to provide such a justification, if its meaning could be explained. Reason and freedom appeared to be what set humankind apart from other animals, but these attributes came in degrees for individuals. The solution was to focus on membership in the kind which featured these divine attributes. From here, it follows that embryos — who share in the human kind — must also qualify for special treatment; they bear the image of God.

Rhetorically, Embryo still has bite among many who don't believe in this "image of God" distinction, because belief that humanity is objectively special is still widespread. I won't say this attitude is a result of religion, because it may well be that religion was shaped by this attitude.

It seems to me that our evolutionary history undercuts the conceit of human exceptionalism. Sure, we excel in certain areas, but other animals excel in ways we do not. We rule other species by force, not by natural right. Why do we consider it a grave moral evil to kill and eat a human but not a cow? Simply because we decided to draw the distinction, then trained generations to feel a special revulsion toward cannibalism. And why did we want to discourage cannibalism? Probably because it afforded greater security against being killed by other humans when food supplies are low. Cows weren't in a position to negotiate for inclusion in this right not to be killed for food, so beef became a staple of our diet.

While other species don't vote or organize protest marches for their rights, some folks engage in activism on their behalf. This is why animal rights have been growing in the last century. I see pro-lifers as taking a similar stand for mute, young human beings. They can succeed in extending rights to embryos by convincing society to value human embryos specifically, or by making it difficult to conceive of embryos as a distinguishable category from the adults and children we already deeply value and therefore protect. This book, Embryo, is a respectable example of the latter tactic. However, I don't find its conclusion compelling because the criteria G&T use to set humanity apart are suspect, and qualities I'm more concerned about — a conscious lifetime and the ability to suffer — are shared by mature cows but not by human embryos. I would sooner call a cow a "person" than an embryo.

1. George, R.P., Tollefsen, C. (2008). Embryo: A defense of human life. New York: Doubleday. p. 114.
2. Ibid. p. 120-121. 
3. Ibid. p. 106-107. 
4. Ibid. p. 121.
5. Ibid. p. 106.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Monthly Picks

On the first day of each month, I will be posting about new papers I've found interesting in Philosophy or Library & Information Science. I'll try to make sure at least one is accessible to everyone.

Evers, D. (forthcoming). Weight for Stephen Finlay. Philosophical Studies, forthcoming.
[link] freely accessible

Kaplan, J.M. & Winther, R.G. (forthcoming). Prisoners of abstraction? Genetic diversity, differentiation, and heterozygosity, and the very concept of "race". Biological Theory, forthcoming.
[link] freely accessible

Kim, D., McCalman, D., Fisher, D. (forthcoming). The sacred/secular divide and the christian worldview. Journal of Business Ethics, forthcoming.
[link] freely accessible

Björklund, F., Björnsson, G., Eriksson, J., Francén, R., & Strandberg, C. (forthcoming). Recent work: Motivational internalism. Analysis, forthcoming.

Papers I especially wanted to read but couldn't access

Zaïane, J.R. (2011). Global information ethics in LIS. Journal of Information Ethics 20(2), p. 25-41.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On 'Embryo: A Defense of Human Life' (Pt. 3)

[...continued from here]

If what I wrote in Part 2 is correct, certain pro-life arguments are flawed to the extent they rely on living beings having one definite "substance kind." I agreed that I am a human organism – just as human embryos are — but it's also true that I am a mammal and that I am a heterogametic being. The first category applies to whales and the second fails to apply to about half of all human embryos.

Still, these are all categories for organisms. The authors of Embryo spend considerable time arguing that 'I' statements refer to the organisms we are (however we might characterize such organisms). "I composed a haiku" must be saying that a particular organism composed a haiku. And since this particular organism began to exist as a single cell zygote, any use of 'I' is mistaken if it does not refer to an entity which began to exist at that time.

Even if adults and embryos don't all share one (and only one) substance kind, perhaps every adult shares one (and only one) identity with a past embryo.

This is the point made in the opening of Embryo, which describes an infant born in 1997 as a survivor of the 1995 hurricane Katrina; he was a frozen embryo at the time, you see. I won't dispute that Noah — as he was named — shares an identity with that embryo rescued from a flooded hospital. It's true that Noah was rescued as an embryo. However, it's also true that he was not.

Oh. I must be one of those crazed relativists, right? In some areas I am a relativist, but I suggest reserving 'crazed' for the ones who endorse contradictory propositions. I'm only claiming that the two boldface statements above which appear contradictory aren't necessarily in conflict because we can and often do mean different things by 'I' language (and 'he' language in this case). Furthermore, such variations may interfere with clear communication, but aren't otherwise a mistake, since personal identity is a conceptual chimera rather than a reality.

Consider this snag:
It is necessary to add the qualification "the vast majority of us," because there are exceptions to this claim about the beginning point of human beings. For identical twins do not come into existence at fertilization. At least one twin comes to be at a later point when the embryo divides—probably because of some extrinsically caused disruption—into two genetically identical human beings. What has happened to the early embryo? Some think that the early embryo is identical to one of the subsequent twins; it is as if a new embryo has "budded" off from the first. Others think that the first embryo ceases to be, and two new embryos take its place.1
Well, which is it? Are the authors waiting on a biological fact that embryologists just aren't sure about yet? They can't be reserving judgment on account of not knowing whether the first embryo's soul (if it had one) is attached to one, both, or neither twin; they've already sworn off dualism! Might I suggest it's up to us to arbitrarily decide to count the original embryo as identical to one, both, or neither of the twins?

Same goes for science fiction scenarios about teleportation copies and personality reprogramming.

Or, better, perhaps we should realize that such odd cases reveal seams in the patchwork of personal identity. There's no simple, objective fact of the matter whether an original embryo survives twinning. Why, then, would the situation be different if no twinning occurs?

Without a strongly realist view of personal identity, 'I' language is set free to apply to the different ways we think of identity. Would I survive a personality reprogramming? A permanent removal of conscious awareness? A teleportation? A bodily resurrection? A religious conversion? A mental state upload to a computer? A piecemeal physical replacement? A brain (or body) transplant? A millennium in cryostasis?

We can get different answers depending on which aspect of personal identity we're asking about.

Back to Noah. How can I say it's (also) true that he wasn't rescued as an embryo? Because here I'm using a 'he' which indicates Noah's conscious lifetime, so to speak. This isn't some other substance I'm claiming Noah "really is" rather than a human organism (or vertebrate organism, or male organism).2 I am merely using an aspect of personal identity focused on first-person experience, not biological life.

This view might be called linguistic dualism in contrast to metaphysical dualism, but 'I' language pluralism would be more accurate. It accommodates 'I' language which focuses on bodily action, language which combines body and mind, and also allows for language limited to a concern for mental attributes. Metaphysical dualism may turn out to be an illusion, but even then we may want to retain a way of speaking about ourselves that doesn't begin and end with our organism.

[concluded here...]

1. George, R.P., Tollefsen, C. (2008). Embryo: A defense of human life. New York: Doubleday. p 55.
2. As metaphysical dualism is described on p. 61.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On 'Embryo: A Defense of Human Life' (Pt. 2)

[...continued from here]

Last time, I gave an overview of the pro-life argument in Embryo. I'm not going to critically discuss most of what's in the book. Instead, I only want to explain a couple of major places where Embryo zigs and I zag.

To shorten things a bit, I'm just going to agree with the first step of George and Tollefsen's (G&T's) argument. Embryos are distinct human organisms. Done.

I can also almost agree with G&T's second step. I am a human organism, just as embryos are. Where I start to diverge is this notion that I have a definite "substance kind" independent of how the inquiry is framed.
When we speak of substance or nature or essence, we are drawing attention to the kind of thing an entity is and the various properties or characteristics that an entity might possess accidentally, contingently, or temporarily.1
G&T then ask readers to consider an oak tree to understand that being an oak tree is its "substance or essence or nature." But what if they had asked readers to consider a tree to understand that being a tree is its essence? Now, if I point at something which is both a tree and an oak, is its substance kind tree or is it oak tree?

Tree. Then why not plant or living being?
Oak tree. Then why not quercus dumosa (one of many species of oak)?
Both. Then "the kind of thing an entity is" admits of multiple, compatible answers.

Perhaps the authors use "oak tree" for familiarity, but would have preferred a species name like quercus dumosa; they are trying to make a point about the species homo sapiens after all. Here's the catch: modern evolutionary theory undermines the idea of species as natural kinds. The concept of a species (like the concept of a language) is a convenient label for a cluster of organisms (or idiolects) that are significantly more similar to each other than another cluster of interest. I see no in-principle reason to stop at species when asking what "kind of thing an entity is," even if we're limiting our inquiry to genetics. My substance kind may as well be heterogametic human organism if we're having a discussion at that level.

What I'm saying here is that essence vs. accident is a matter of focus, not ontological fact. How does this affect the pro-life argumentation in Embryo? Let's look at two excerpts. The first is an explanation of why the essence vs. accident distinction must not be overlooked (let alone denied!):
Among the areas in which the gravity of this mistake is most clearly seen is in the area of embryo ethics. For embryos clearly cannot think, choose and speak; nor are they (yet) self-conscious or even sentient. Were this to mean that embryos were not the same kind of beings as the readers and authors of this book, that they were not persons, then it would be difficult to see why they should be accorded the same moral respect that we, authors and readers, believe we are entitled to.2
The argument here needs a little more context before it becomes clear. We get a strong hint later in the chapter:
Body-self dualists look only at the properties essential to human life, such as mental functioning and self-consciousness, as they exist at the height of their development. But where could such properties come from if they were not already rooted in the nature of the being that possessed them?3
So, roughly, the idea is that we adults can only derive our mental properties from our nature/substance kind. We only have one substance kind: human organism. Any moral respect due by virtue of possessing a property is due by virtue of membership in a substance kind with that property. Therefore, any moral respect due by virtue of our mental properties is due by virtue of being a human organism (which embryos also are).

But if substance kind is interest-relative, then the way the inquiry is framed can give the result of me having the same substance kind as an oak tree (both eukaryotic organisms), or a different substance kind from my mother (heterogametic organism vs. homogametic organism). We could even count "organism" as a substance kind if we are contrasting organisms against entities which aren't organisms.

Talking about kinds is useful in everyday speech, but I don't think such categories are as real as George and Tollefsen make them out to be.

[continued here...]

1. George, R.P., Tollefsen, C. (2008). Embryo: A defense of human life. New York: Doubleday. p. 58
2. Ibid. p. 60
3. Ibid. p. 81

Sunday, November 20, 2011

On 'Embryo: A Defense of Human Life' (Pt. 1)

Embryo: A Defense of Human Life is an important pro-life book which attempts to build its case without any reliance on religion. One crucial step even works better under a physicalist view, which I certainly didn't expect.

In this post, I will sketch the overall shape of Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen's argument.

Three Steps

Embryo begins with a biological argument that human embryos are distinct, whole human organisms. This is followed by a metaphysical argument that we adult humans are essentially (only) human organisms. Finally, a moral argument that human rights can only be held by adults by virtue of being human organisms...which applies equally to human embryos.

The Biological Argument

This section of the book hinges on the difference between organisms and mere parts of organisms. How can we count embryos as distinct organisms, while denying this status to eggs, sperm, and skin cells?

George and Tollefsen (G&T) don't provide a detailed general definition of "organism," but they do list features of embryos which set them apart.

An embryo... a single biological system (p. 39)1 typically genetically distinct from its parents (p. 40)
...contains all the genetic information needed to develop into an adult human (p. 41)
...internally directs its own growth and development (p. 41) actively developing toward maturity (p. 39)

Eggs and sperm each only contain part of the genetic information needed to develop into a mature human; nor are they actively developing themselves in that direction. Skin cells may contain full genetic information, but they aren't actively developing themselves in the direction of a mature human either.

Against arguments that embryos don't count as organisms on their own because they need to remain in a womb to survive, G&T write: "All human beings are dependent on their environment for their ability to grow, survive, and flourish, and human beings early in their development are no exception."2

The biological argument is successful when readers agree human embryos are whole human organisms at an early stage of development.

The Metaphysical Argument

This is the step that works better under a physicalist worldview because G&T argue against various forms of self-body dualism. In other words, they argue that you and I are identical to our bodies. We began to exist when our bodies began to exist; we will die when our bodies die. Since our bodies are essentially just human organisms, you and I are essentially just human organisms.
What is our substance kind, our nature, our essence? What sort of beings are we, substantially, rather than accidentally? We will argue in this chapter that we are, in fact, living organisms of the human species, that is, we are human beings.3
What's the alternative? Plato and much of Christian tradition claimed that we are souls inhabiting a body, until our bodies die and our souls continue on. Descartes considered himself essentially a thinking being, and only accidentally an embodied being.4 Other forms of self–body dualism are mentioned, but you probably get the point by now.

G&T give three reasons to doubt dualism. First, they appeal to the way we naturally think of ourselves as walking, touching, eating, etc. Second, they bring up the problem of how "minds and bodies can have causal impacts upon one another" and suggest that skepticism about knowledge is only such a perennial nuisance because philosophers have accepted Descartes' dualist assumptions. Third, they accuse dualists of incoherence for attempting to explain one entity by introducing two entities, neither of which can be identified as the dualist.5

Still, some may object to G&T's animalist view that we are fundamentally human organisms (human animals), because our creative, intellectual, and moral abilities seem left out; these qualities seem objectionably omitted from what it means to be human persons.

The authors answer by pointing out that almost no one insists these abilities must be immediately exercisable in adult humans to count as a person (otherwise patients under general anesthesia would cease to be people for the duration). On the other hand, if capacity for characteristically human mental abilities is key, then human embryos possess such capacity in root form even as they develop themselves toward the point of exercising these abilities.

This metaphysical argument is successful when readers accept that they are identical to their bodies, when they agree they are persons by virtue of being human animals.

The Moral Argument

Once it has been established that both adult humans and embryos are essentially human organisms, it might seem the pro-life argument is complete. Not so fast. There are still pro-choicers who engage in what the authors call moral dualism, in which some human beings are accorded human rights but other human beings are not.
When it is a matter of race or ethnicity, color or gender, origin or outlook, our culture resolutely and rightly holds that what matters is the fact of humanity, and not any other property shared by some but not others. But, by the same token, in considering the status of embryonic humans, what should matter is the fact of their humanity. They should not be regarded as inferior to other members of the human family based on age, size, location, stage of development, or condition of dependency.6
If we take human rights seriously as intrinsic moral dignities held by virtue of being human, then — considering the biological and metaphysical conclusions above — we cannot exclude human embryos. Moral dualists must undermine the concept of human rights, which would be a slippery slope to start down.

As you might have guessed, Utilitarianism and other consequentialist moral theories are rejected by George and Tollefsen. Such views don't take rights seriously as basic moral concepts. Is this an ad hoc move? No; plenty of other philosophers reject consequentialism for similar reasons without having the moral status of embryos in mind.

An Inconvenient Truth?

Embryo wraps up with a discussion of how public policy should change if the biological, metaphysical, and moral arguments are sound. The objection that pro-life policy is necessarily based on religious belief is defeated by this book's non-reliance on religion. And the objection that the treatment of embryos is a private matter can be answered by the appeal to human rights.

G&T call for the United States to continue the federal policy of not funding "embryo-destructive research" and for states to do the same. They also encourage increased funding for "research into adult, amniotic, and placental stem cells." Finally, they call for laws to ensure in vitro fertilization procedures only create embryos in the numbers that will be brought to term; adoption agencies should then push to rescue the current multitude of frozen embryos.7

I agree these would be appropriate public policy steps if the overall pro-life argument presented in this book were sound. However, I do have reservations, which I'll explain in a followup post (or posts, if needed).

[continued here...]

1. These are semi-quotes.
2. George, R.P., Tollefsen, C. (2008). Embryo: A defense of human life. New York: Doubleday. p. 51.
3. ibid. p. 59.
4. ibid. p. 62-63.
5. ibid. p. 70-77.
6. ibid. p. 114.
7. ibid. p. 210-217.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Notes On Civics Education

Yesterday I attended the annual meeting of the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska (AFCON). This year's topic was “Reviving Civics Education in Nebraska,” with a particular emphasis on transforming civics education from passive lessons on how government works to an active habit of becoming personally informed and involved.

A panel of speakers from the Civics Nebraska Partnership Advisory Committee (CNPAC) explained how they had been appointed by the Nebraska State Board of Education to research and make recommendations on improving civics education. This task came with some restrictions. Additional funding was off the table. Nor did the committee think yet another standardized test would be effective, which would mean they had to do without that motivating influence on school administrators.

Civics Portfolios

Instead of standardized testing, the committee promotes the concept of civics portfolios for students. Think of it as an art portfolio except with an ongoing record of various kinds of civic engagement. (Art is another subject focused on doing, not merely knowing.) The key element here is student choice. It's one thing to be assigned a particular task, quite another to be given the freedom to choose and take ownership of a kind of task within wide boundaries. This also allows students to choose partisan projects the school itself could not specifically assign.

I recommend taking a look at these guidelines for a pilot program in civics portfolios going on right now. Some of this is happening in higher education as well.

Legislative Action

Earlier this year, State Sen. Rich Pahls introduced a bill to put this change of perspective on civics education into state law. LB544 passed and was signed by the Governor on April 26. What did this bill accomplish, exactly? There was already a requirement for every Nebraska high school to teach civics in at least two grades, with a variety of specific topics to be covered. One such topic was, “The duties of citizenship.” This bill expanded that language to:
The duties of citizenship, including active participation in the improvement of a citizen's community, state, country, and world and the value and practice of civil discourse between opposing interests.
Civics portfolios are not mentioned, but they are an effective means to the newly prescribed end.

I find it interesting that this newly expanded requirement immediately follows a requirement to teach: "The benefits and advantages of our form of government and the dangers and fallacies of Nazism, Communism, and similar ideologies," which is less about critical thinking and more about assigning the 'proper' conclusions. You can read the entire statute here.

What About Me?

I found this panel discussion highly relevant to my budding career as a librarian. Students working on their civics portfolios will need to research such areas as local demographics, local conflicts of interest, entrenched societal debates, means–ends solutions, laws, and cultural differences. They may need assistance working with creative media and with writing papers. Think what will happen if this whole “civics engagement” thing actually sticks with students and carries through beyond school requirements! Our reference desks could see a dramatic increase in activity, particularly if we take the opportunity to market libraries in this area. Count me in.