Saturday, March 31, 2012

Hague v. CIO

In my last post about free speech on public property, we saw how the 1897 Supreme Court decided that state legislatures had absolute control over public speaking:
"For the legislature absolutely or conditionally to forbid public speaking in a highway or public park is no more an infringement of the rights of a member of the public than for the owner of a private house to forbid it in his house." — Davis v. Massachusetts
Furthermore, the legislature could delegate this authority. Under the right circumstances, a mayor could have the power to grant or deny permits to speak in public according to his individual whim. This was the policy until 1939 when another Supreme Court case radically changed the situation in favor of free speech rights.

The Boss of Jersey City

Frank Hague, a very unscrupulous character, used his power as mayor of Jersey City to deny a certain organization any access to public meeting spaces or permission to hand out literature in public. This group was the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). Why silence the CIO? As you might have guessed by their name, the CIO was a labor organization. They were trying to inform workers of their new rights under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. I suspect Mayor Hague saw any political competition as a threat to his regime.

Lower courts found the city's actions unconstitutional. The case was brought before the Supreme Court which, surprisingly, agreed. We wouldn't consider this surprising now-days, but remember the precedent set by Davis which I quoted above.

Dodging Davis

Even stranger: Davis v. Massachusetts itself was not questioned; the Court decided that it didn't apply!
"The ordinance there in question apparently had a different purpose from that of the one here challenged, for it was not directed solely at the exercise of the right of speech and assembly, but was addressed as well to other activities, not in the nature of civil rights, which doubtless might be regulated or prohibited as respects their enjoyment in parks. In the instant case the ordinance deals only with the exercise of the right of assembly for the purpose of communicating views entertained by speakers, and is not a general measure to promote the public convenience in the use of the streets or parks.

We have no occasion to determine whether, on the facts disclosed, the Davis Case was rightly decided, but we cannot agree that it rules the instant case." — Hague v. CIO
I find this extremely disingenuous. While it's true that the ordinance in Davis was broader than speech issues— it banned firing canons in the city, for example — the focus of Davis was preaching in a public park without a permit. The lesson, apparently, is that any law which mixes constitutional and unconstitutional elements is...constitutional?

Justice Butler was also bewildered. He wrote in his dissent to Hague:
"I am of opinion that the challenged ordinance is not void on its face; that in principle it does not differ from the Boston ordinance, as applied and upheld by this Court, speaking through Mr. Justice White, in Davis v. Massachusetts[....]"
Much as I like the outcome to Hague, I agree with Justice Butler that it makes no sense in light of Davis.

The New Old Way

If a person doesn't like the way things are going, it's easier to justify a change by dressing it up in talk of "tradition." And if recent tradition goes the opposite way, ancient tradition is preferable. Vague ancient tradition is best of all!
"Wherever the title of streets and parks may rest, they have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions. Such use of the streets and public places has, from ancient times, been a part of the privileges, immunities, rights, and liberties of citizens. The privilege of a citizen of the United States to use the streets and parks for communication of views on national questions may be regulated in the interest of all; it is not absolute, but relative, and must be exercised in subordination to the general comfort and convenience, and in consonance with peace and good order; but it must not, in the guise of regulation, be abridged or denied." — Hague v. CIO
In other words, the Court wanted to allow authorities to keep order in the streets, but not to suppress unwanted ideas on the false pretext of keeping order. This is the beginning of what has come to be called public forum doctrine. At this point, only public streets and parks are covered, and the only permissible restrictions have to do with maintaining general convenience and order. Things will become more complex from here, as I'll detail in future posts.


Friday, March 30, 2012

Affirmative Action

Several chapters in Stanley Fish's book There's No Such Thing As Free Speech: And It's a Good Thing, Too are devoted to a debate on affirmative action he and Dinesh D'Souza had back in the nineties. I'm not going to go into any detail, particularly because I didn't hear D'Souza's side of that conversation. Instead, thanks to reading these chapters, I think I can offer a diagnosis of why this issue has seemed so intractable.

Two Goals

Typically, those opposed to affirmative action prioritize Non-discriminatory Rules. Those in favor of affirmative action prioritize Equitable Situation. In an ideal society, it would be true that the rules are colorblind and there is little difference in the actual situation of historically dominant vs. historically oppressed races. But we don't live in that society.

What I'm hearing from affirmative action advocates is that colorblind rules don't — or don't quickly — result in equal opportunity when the pre-existing situation was askew. A much faster way to improve the situation is to allow the use of discriminatory rules in favor of the historically oppressed race.

What I'm hearing from opponents of affirmative action is that racial discrimination itself — not its effects — is the primary evil. If it's going to take a few more generations for, say, American blacks and whites to be similarly situated in society, so be it.

You can think of this as fair process vs. fair results in the context of unfair history. Which goal ought to be prioritized? The only way to answer that question would be to pick a third goal with something to say about the first two...and prioritize that. So instead of offering an answer to the affirmative action debate, I'm offering a way to understand it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 12)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter 10

Deep Conflict

This final chapter of Where the Conflict Really Lies is devoted to the "real conflict" between science and naturalism implied by the book's title. What sort of conflict? Not a logical conflict, but that a person who accepts evolution can't sensibly accept naturalism.
"By way of analogy: I can’t sensibly believe that there aren’t any beliefs, or that no one has true beliefs, or that my beliefs are all false. These things are all possible, but I can’t sensibly believe them. In the same way, I mean to argue that one can’t sensibly believe both naturalism and the scientific theory of evolution."1
Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism is one of his signature ideas. It's well known among philosophers and, because of this book, increasingly familiar to the general public. Plantinga eases readers into the argument, but I'd rather shove everyone into the pool. Here's how it goes:
(1) The probability of [our cognitive faculties are reliable] given [naturalism]and[our cognitive faculties evolved] is low.

(2) Anyone who accepts [naturalism]and[our cognitive faculties evolved] and sees that [(1) is true] has a defeater for [our cognitive faculties are reliable].

(3) Anyone who has a defeater for [our cognitive faculties are reliable] has a defeater for any other belief she has, including [naturalism]and[our cognitive faculties evolved].

(4) If one who accepts [naturalism]and[our cognitive faculties evolved] thereby acquires a defeater for [naturalism]and[our cognitive faculties evolved], then [naturalism]and[our cognitive faculties evolved] is self-defeating and can’t rationally be accepted.

Oh, you wanted that in English? The upshot is that a person who believes her cognitive faculties arose by unguided evolution might be fine...until she realizes that unguided evolution is more likely to have produced people with mostly false beliefs than people with mostly true beliefs. This means her own beliefs are more likely to be false than true. Which means she's probably wrong in thinking that her cognitive faculties arose by unguided evolution.

This makes "my cognitive faculties arose by unguided evolution" a self-defeating belief in roughly the same category as "all my beliefs are false."

As you might imagine, there's a lot of detail to unpack in Plantinga's premises and a variety of ways his argument can be criticized. If you find it intriguing, I would encourage you to pick up Plantinga's book for this last chapter if nothing else. The best place to explore criticisms is James Beilby's collection Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism.

My own criticism of Plantinga's argument is that he relies on a strong form of dualism between brain states and beliefs-as-propositions. I reject this dualism.

Parting Thoughts

On the whole, I would recommend this book as a decent introduction to a whole spectrum of pro-theism and anti-naturalism arguments. It's not a balanced introduction by any means. Plantinga is often unfair to naturalism (and Young Earth Creationists!), but he's not obscenely unfair like William Lane Craig or R.C. Sproul's crew. This book could be significantly improved in the second edition by sticking to defense in the chapters supposedly (but not really) set aside for defense. I am usually on Plantinga's side when it comes to defending religion against de jure objections, i.e. attempts to marginalize religious faith as irrational without addressing the question of whether it is true.

That's it for this series! I would love to hear what others think of this book if you have (or once you have) read it.

1. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 310

Monday, March 26, 2012

Davis v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts

To understand contemporary United States law, it's necessary to look back at its development. Since I want a better handle on free speech rights on public property, I've decided to start with a Supreme Court case which denied that citizens have any rights to free speech on public property.
"No person shall, in or upon any of the public grounds, make any public address, discharge any cannon or firearm, expose for sale any goods, wares or merchandise, erect or maintain any booth, stand, tent or apparatus for the purposes of public amusement or show, except in accordance with a permit from the mayor." — Revised Ordinances of the City of Boston, Sec. 66. (in 1893, as cited by Davis v. Massachusetts)
William F. Davis preached in a public park without getting permission from the mayor. I'm seeing some hints that he was preaching against government officials, so he may not have gotten a permit if he had asked.

Davis was charged by the city court and found guilty at the county level. The Massachusetts Supreme Court reviewed the case in the county court's favor. Finally, the Supreme Court of the United states reviewed the case in Massachusetts' favor, with no dissent.

There were two main issues in Davis v. Massachusetts:
1. Whether the state could restrict speech in public.
2. Whether such restrictions could be left to a mayor's decision.
The second issue was handled by pointing out that state law did grant such powers to local government. If the state government could restrict speech on public property, then it could delegate this authority to local governments. "[T]he greater power contains the lesser." The local government, in turn, had delegated permit responsibility to the mayor. If Massachusetts could restrict speech, then so could the mayor of Boston.

Can Massachusetts restrict speech? According to the Supreme Court in 1897: yes it can!
"As representative of the public, [the state legislature] may and does exercise control over the use which the public may make of such places, and it may and does delegate more of less of such control to the city or town immediately concerned. For the legislature absolutely or conditionally to forbid public speaking in a highway or public park is no more an infringement of the rights of a member of the public than for the owner of a private house to forbid it in his house." — Davis v. Massachusetts (emphasis added)
Think about the implications here. A political party currently in control of the legislature could ban all opposing political speech from public spaces while allowing friendly political speech. Davis himself was prosecuted for preaching in public. It's hard to think of a more anti-democratic policy without directly suppressing votes.

In the next post of this informal series, I'll look at a ruling that gave Davis v. Massachusetts a spin sufficient to start granting free speech rights to citizens, whether their state legislatures like it or not.


Instrumental Free Speech

Do we value free speech as a good in itself, or do we value free speech because it is a means to some further good? The latter is what we might call an instrumental (or consequentialist) view of the importance of free speech. Stanley Fish writes:
"Any such view will require that you specify the 'good' whose protection or emergence will be promoted by a regime of free speech; but once such a good has been specified—be it the discovery of truth, or the realization of individual cognitive potential, or the facilitation of democratic process (the three most popular candidates put forward in the literature)—it becomes possible to argue that a particular form of speech, rather than contributing to the realization, will undermine and subvert it. This is so because in a consequentialist argument freedom of speech is not identical with the good but is in the service of the good; it is not a prime but a subordinate value, and when its claims conflict with those of its superior, it must give way. What this means is that insofar as you hold to a consequentialist view of free speech—insofar as you have an answer to the question 'What is free speech for?'—you are already committed to finding in a particular situation that speech with certain undesirable effects should not be tolerated; and what that means in turn is that there is no such thing as free speech[....]"1
What about the first option of valuing free speech for its own sake? Fish acknowledges this as a logical possibility, but claims free speech defenders in practice always end up appealing to the instrumental view. If so, then there wasn't much reason for John Durham Peters to write a whole book criticizing modern liberals for valuing free speech for its own sake. 

Fish's point is that "free speech" is a lofty and pure-sounding concept, but implementations of free speech always exclude categories of speech. We see this in the way the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mentions no exceptions, yet legal practice involves a complicated mess of exceptions. Free speech is a label that political victors get to apply to the mix of free and non-free speech they prefer. Fish isn't offering his own "pure" theory of free speech. Rather, he wants readers to realize that every free speech brand is a mongrel.

1. Fish, S. (1994). There's no such thing as free speech: and it's a good thing too. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 13

Sunday, March 25, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 11)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter 9

Deep Concord
"Modern Western empirical science originated and flourished in the bosom of Christian theism and originated nowhere else."1
According to Plantinga, this is no accident. Theism — and Christianity in particular — provides the deep ideas necessary for science to flourish. And here I thought science started with Greeks, was fostered by Arabs, and finally awoke in Christian Europe after a millennium of slumber. What was holding science back all those years, if the soil was more fertile than ever? No answers from Plantinga here. Let's see what he does have to say.

The Supreme Knower

According to the Bible, humanity is made in the image of God. God is maximally great at knowing things. So to be like God, our nature must include a faculty for knowing things about the world.
"Notice that it is blind luck if the human science-forming capacity, a particular component of the human biological endowment, happens to yield a result that conforms more or less to the truth about the world. From the point of view of theistic religion, this is not blind luck. It is only to be expected."2
This strikes me as rather roundabout.

Thought 1: I can know things about the world.
Thought 2: There is a God who knows everything, and that I'm modeled after God, so I can know things about the world!

Did everyone sit around worried that they couldn't know anything until Christians spread around that second thought? Later in this book, Plantinga will argue that naturalists should be terribly worried that we can't know anything if God isn't around ensuring that we can.

Faith in Nature's Order
"Furthermore, science requires more than regularity: it also requires our implicitly believing or assuming that the world is regular in this way."3
Why is the world orderly instead of "unpredictable, chancy, or random"? Because God made it that way. Why did God make it that way? Here Plantinga presents a medieval debate over whether God's will or God's intellect is primary. Ockham was on team will; Aquinas on team intellect. Plantinga backs Aquinas by saying that God's intellect has to be primary for the world to be orderly. A God whose will is greater than his intellect would be capricious. So...

Thought 3: The world is orderly.
Thought 4: A God whose intellect takes precedence over his will created the world, therefore the world is orderly.

Are you starting to see the pattern here?

(Not) Breaking the Law

The laws of nature are unlike civil laws because we can't violate the laws of nature, try as we might. Why not? They don't seem to be logically necessary. Plantinga suggests they are "propositions God has established or decreed, and no creature—no finite power, we might say—has the power to act against these propositions, that is, to bring it about that they are false."4

God serves as the explanation for why some things are impossible in our world, even though they aren't logically impossible. Naturalists once again have to assume the world just is a certain way. Theists can assume God is a certain way and does certain things to produce the world we see.


Why is the natural world so amenable to mathematical analysis? Because "sets, numbers and the like [...] are best conceived as divine thoughts."5 God's creations would, therefore, conform to mathematics.

Irony...I mean: Simplicity!
"Complicated, gerrymandered theories are rejected. Complex Rube Goldberg contraptions are ridiculed. When confronted with a set of data plotted on a graph, we draw the simplest curve that will accommodate all the data."6
Like mathematics, the concept of simplicity (or parsimony or beauty) works surprisingly well as a way of comprehending our world. Why is this? Because God likes simplicity. He created a world which conforms to his ideals. Since we're made in God's image, we have the same preference for simplicity. "This fit is only to be expected on theism, but is a piece of enormous cosmic serendipity on naturalism."7

The Formula

Find something unexplained. Posit a creator God with the right kind of attribute to explain why his creation would display the otherwise-unexplained feature. Deny naturalists the same opportunity to posit a world with the right kind of attribute to directly explain the feature in question.

1. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 266
2. ibid. p. 269
3. ibid. p. 271
4. ibid. p. 281
5. ibid. p. 291
6. ibid. p. 298
7. ibid. p. 299

Friday, March 23, 2012

Moral Anti-realism and Apathy

Philosophers have some weird stock phrases. If you're in a coffee shop and hear "Scott is the author of Waverley" or "torturing infants for fun is wrong," you can be confident someone has been reading philosophy. Walk up and ask if they believe "existence precedes essence" and you'll have new coffee shop pals!

What's with the phrase about torturing infants for fun? A tad morbid, don't you think? Well, it's supposed to be an indisputable moral truth. If a system of morality doesn't condemn torturing infants for fun, we can safely discard it. Of course it's hard to find someone who claims infant torture is a morally good or even a morally permissible pastime. So why bring it up? Because it can be modified slightly for use in real-world disputes:
Torturing infants for fun is objectively wrong.


"[M]oral truths are objective, in the sense that they are in a certain way independent of human beliefs and desires. It is wrong to torture people for the fun of it, and would remain wrong even if most or all of the world's population came to believe that this behavior is perfectly acceptable, and indeed came to desire that it be much more widely practiced."1
The problem with this thought experiment is that we read it with our own "human beliefs and desires" intact. Maybe no one in the imaginary world has a problem with torture-for-fun, but we do. It's like taking our own microbes into a sterile environment, running a microbe detector, and *surprise* there are microbes present!

When arguing that moral truths exist independently of human emotions — as Plantinga tries to do in the quote above — it's important not to use emotionally-charged examples. Suppose some form of moral anti-realism is true, i.e. moral truths are at least partly dependent on our "human beliefs and desires." We would expect emotionally-charged scenarios to produce especially strong moral judgments, not apathy! This is why I roll my eyes at claims that people can't "live out" skepticism of moral realism because we still care about things.

We can even turn this around on moral realism. Truths which hold completely independently of how we feel about things are not necessarily going to excite our emotions. Why would moral certainty and strong emotions tend to show up together? Anti-realism has a simple answer: morality is (at least partly) based on emotions. Realism needs a more elaborate story.

1. Plantinga, A. (2010). Naturalism, theism, obligation and supervenience. Faith and Philosophy, 27(3).

Sunday, March 18, 2012

American Libraries and Young Patrons

[A paper for my Intellectual Freedom class.]

American Libraries and Young Patrons

According to the American Library Association's (the ALA's) Library Bill of Rights, "A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views [emphasis added]" (1996). This policy of age non-discrimination has several controversial consequences: minors may view any materials adults may access, parents must take full responsibility for restricting their own children, and librarians may not hesitate to select materials they personally consider inappropriate for minors or adults.

Full Access for Minors
"Constitutionally protected speech cannot be suppressed solely to protect children or young adults from ideas or images a legislative body believes to be unsuitable for them. Librarians and library governing bodies should not resort to age restrictions in an effort to avoid actual or anticipated objections, because only a court of law can determine whether material is not constitutionally protected." (ALA, 2008)
Before examining what counts and what doesn't count as "constitutionally protected speech," it's important to notice the uniqueness of the ALA's position: libraries may not restrict materials for minors unless that material is constitutionally unprotected. Movie theaters routinely deny unaccompanied minors admission to R-rated films even though these films are constitutionally protected speech. Same goes for selling M-rated video games to minors. These industries voluntarily restrict direct access by minors to keep the public from demanding that all films and video games be "content appropriate" for minors (Scales, 2009). The American library industry — so to speak — has deliberately decided not to apply such a policy.

What counts as constitutionally protected speech? That's a complicated issue. The First Amendment itself does not mention exceptions, but there is a long history of Supreme Court cases deciding what counts as speech (more than verbal expression!) and what counts as protected speech: most things except obscenity, libel, fighting words, and incitement to immediate crime (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 1942). Unprotected speech isn't necessarily illegal speech; it's just that the Constitution isn't interpreted as stopping legislatures from passing laws against unprotected speech, so legislatures usually do.

There is one more major complication: the same materials can be classified as protected, non-obscene speech for adults but unprotected, obscene speech for minors. In a late 60's Supreme Court case, it was decided that pornographic magazines could be denied by law to minors while allowed by law to adults (Ginsberg v. New York, 1968). However, as seen in the long quote above, the ALA insists on waiting for a court of law to classify materials as "obscene" — for everyone — before libraries may deny access to minors.

Criticism of Full Access for Minors

Do libraries have a legal obligation to offer minors access to all materials which are constitutionally protected for adults? Despite the ALA's age-agnostic presentation of the issue, the answer appears to be: no, libraries are not legally obligated to provide full access to minors:
"The interest in protecting young library users from material inappropriate for minors is legitimate, and even compelling, as all Members of the Court appear to agree. Given this interest, and the failure to show that adult library users' access to the material is burdened in any significant degree, the statute is not unconstitutional on its face." (United States v. American Library Association, 2003)
This does leave open the question of whether libraries may restrict materials more narrowly than local legislative limits, but the simplistic principle of equal access does not stand up to scrutiny.

All Responsibility on Parents
"Librarians and library governing bodies cannot assume the role of parents or the functions of parental authority in the private relationship between parent and child.  Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that only parents and guardians have the right and the responsibility to determine their children's—and only their children’s—access to library resources." (ALA, 2008)
To use a film example again, it's common for video rental stores to deny R-rated rentals to minors by default, unless a parent adds an authorization to the family account to permit a particular child to rent R movies on his or her own. Librarians following the ALA's code will allow minors to check out any materials from the library by default. Can parents ask the library to not allow their own children to check out R-rated movies? The ALA says "no." Or put more positively, "Visit the library with your children. If that’s not possible, ask to see the materials your children bring home. Set aside a special shelf for library materials. If there are materials on it you don’t approve of, talk with your children about why you would rather they not read or view them" (ALA, 1999).

Criticism of All Responsibility on Parents

Some parents consider the ALA's stance too "retroactive" to give parents informed control over their own children's library access. Relying on children to hand over all materials to their parents for approval is, well, unrealistic. Parents Against Bad Books in Schools (PABBIS) proposes a system of "Upfront-Informed Parental Consent" for assigned readings as well as school library collections. In this system, parents would be given a write-up describing the content and justification for using each book, along with possible alternatives. Parents would need to sign off on the book or pick an alternative for their own children (PABBIS, n.d.).

While this may work for assigned classroom readings, it's unclear how such a system would work for a library as a whole. Perhaps parents could give blanket pre-approval for their children to read materials with certain ratings, but require specific consent on anything beyond those ratings. It would be interesting to know the degree to which librarian opposition to such a scheme is a matter of convenience versus a matter of principle.

Unrestricted Selection
"Libraries should not limit the selection and development of library resources simply because minors will have access to them. Institutional self-censorship diminishes the credibility of the library in the community, and restricts access for all library users." (ALA, 2008)
Given the policy of full access to library resources for minors, it might be tempting to limit minors by limiting the entire library. It would be like allowing minors to rent any movie at a video store without parental permission, while simply not carrying anything rated higher than PG-13. Some parents would no doubt appreciate the existence of such a video store, but our society would be poorer if every video store were of this kind.

Internet access really brings the question of restrictions to the forefront. While it's possible to subtly limit local resources out of a consideration for minors, the full diversity of the Internet comes as a single package unless librarians take the additional step of applying a filter. The ALA opposes such filtering:
"So, just as librarians do not monitor the books or periodicals people bring into or check out of the library, allowing people to decide for themselves what they wish to read and study, the Internet empowers users to choose for themselves the information they wish to view. Librarians can—and do—help guide searches, but they do not advocate limiting access to legal speech, because blocking access to constitutionally protected speech is unconstitutional." (ALA, 2003)
The ALA's position has been that public libraries, as public organizations, are bound by the First Amendment in ways that private organizations — like video stores — are not.

Criticism of Unrestricted Selection

Once again there is an absolutist legal question to clear up before discussing matters of degree. Can libraries self-impose content restrictions on constitutionally protected materials for adults? A judgment by Washington state's Supreme Court touched on this in the context of Internet filtering for adults:
"The principle that a library has no obligation to provide universal coverage of all constitutionally protected speech applies to Internet access just as it does to the printed word in books, periodicals, and other material physically collected and made available to patrons." (Bradburn et al v. North Central Regional Library District, 2010)
It remains to be seen whether a higher court will affirm or overturn this decision. A strong answer either way would be helpful because the ALA insists that restrictions on protected speech are unconstitutional, while the ALA's critics want local communities to have a say in where to draw the line for public libraries.


Extremes are easy. Conservative patrons worry about a policy of "anything goes." The ALA worries about a policy of "anything someone doesn't like goes away." It can seem like the only way to avoid one extreme is to embrace the other. This makes the status quo unstable and contentious. Sacrificing the principle of absolute age equality may be a necessary step toward keeping libraries free for adults and as open for children as their parents want them to be.


American Library Association. (1996). Library bill of rights. Retrieved from

American Library Association. (1999). Strategies and tips for dealing with challenges to library materials. Retrieved from

American Library Association. (2003). Libraries and the Internet toolkit. Retrieved from

American Library Association. (2008). Free access to libraries for minors. Retrieved from

Bradburn et al v. North Central Regional Library District, No. 82200-0 D. Washington. (2010). Retrieved from

Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942).

Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629 (1968).

Parents Against Bad Books in Schools. (n.d.) Upfront-informed parental consent. Retrieved from:

Scales, P.R. (2009). Protecting intellectual freedom in your school library: Scenarios from the front lines. Chicago, IL: ALA Publishing.

United States v. American Library Association, 539 U.S. 194 (2003).

Friday, March 16, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 10)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter 7

"I’ve argued that science doesn’t conflict with Christian belief: can we go further, and say science offers positive support for it?"1
This chapter goes over fine-tuning arguments for theism. In contemporary physics, there are some numbers which need to be close to what they are, otherwise our universe would not support stars, heavier elements, and life. It's a mystery why these numbers are the way they are, and for every mystery there's an argument for theism waiting to be made.
"The basic idea is that such fine-tuning is not at all surprising or improbable on theism: God presumably would want there to be life, and indeed intelligent life with which (whom) to communicate and share love."2
And a basic objection is that God wouldn't need to create a universe which requires fine-tuning (and is fine-tuned) to have a universe which supports life. I suppose one could argue that God chose to make a universe that requires fine-tuning so that 20th and early 21st century humans would be puzzled by it and some would consider it evidence of theism. That's a lot of trouble to set up a weak argument available to relatively few people. Physicists might even solve the fine-tuning puzzle this century.

Chapter 8

Intelligent Design

Speaking of solved puzzles, the amazing diversity and complexity of life once posed a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to naturalism. Since Darwin, Mendel, and lots of 20th century work on biochemistry, that obstacle is pretty much history.

Yet Plantinga again drags out Michael Behe's book Darwin's Black Box as if it's a legitimate challenge to contemporary biology. The sort of derision Behe gets (like the kind I'm giving here) is taken as evidence that scientists don't have serious answers for Behe and they're just culturally opposed to intelligent design.

Design as a Basic Belief

For the sake of argument, Plantinga considers the possibility that design arguments like Behe's all fail to make their point. Is there still a place for talking about biological design? Yes, he says, because we still have a tendency to simply look at things and form a belief that they are designed without needing an argument to that effect.

Even if evolutionary theory provides a way for, say, the human eye to evolve naturally, it could still be the case that God had a hand in its evolution and God designed our cognitive faculties to perceive design in the human eye. Design discourse, as Plantinga calls it, could be warranted even if design arguments aren't sound.

Chapter 8 is supposed to be about the positive support science offers theism, but it relies on fringe criticism and then a shift back to the defensive stance of earlier chapters. On the other hand, this chapter looks fantastic next to a talk I previously covered.

1. Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism [Kindle Edition]. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 193.
2. Ibid. p. 199.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

On "Where the Conflict Really Lies" (Pt. 9)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Chapter Six


Supposing some results of scientific method really do conflict with a person's religious beliefs, is that person required to resolve the conflict by giving up those religious beliefs? Plantinga's short answer is: no. His longer answer requires an introduction to the concept of defeaters.

A defeater is a belief that has a detrimental effect on another belief. There are two types of defeaters: rebutting defeaters and undercutting defeaters. A rebutting defeater directly conflicts with another belief (and wins the conflict). If I believe my dog is outside, then I see her dash across the living room, my belief that she's outside is defeated by the belief that she's inside. An undercutting defeater doesn't conflict so much as it takes away the reasons for holding a belief. Suppose I believe my dog is outside because I hear scratching at the door. If I open the door and see that a stray dog was doing the scratching, I no longer have a reason to believe my own dog is outside.

A belief that works as a defeater for me, might not act as a defeater for you. Scratching noises might have been my only reason for thinking my dog is outside, but you might have seen my dog through a window two minutes ago. When I open the door and see the stray dog, I have no reasons left to think my dog is outside, but you still do. Ours sets of preexisting beliefs are different.

Can you see where this is going? A religious person typically holds beliefs which aren't in the common store of beliefs from which science proceeds. Just as seeing the stray dog had different consequences for my belief and your belief, scientific discoveries may have different consequences for individuals according to their total store of beliefs.

Plantinga advises theists to admit — when appropriate — that scientific results are reasonable conclusions to draw from the limited viewpoint of scientific inquiry, but not feel compelled to accept scientific results when other conclusions are more reasonable to draw from one's total worldview.

The Reduction Test

Can a theist hold onto any religious belief no matter what scientific inquiry turns up by saying: "Science suggests not-B, but my total store of beliefs includes B. Too bad for not-B." No, because then anyone — not just theists — could do that to avoid ever giving up a belief.

Instead, Plantinga proposes a thought experiment. Take your preexisting store of beliefs and remove B, along with any other beliefs which entail B. This leaves you with a reduced store of beliefs which is as close as possible to your original store of beliefs, except B could possibly be denied. Now, add the scientific suggestion of not-B. What is the best conclusion to draw from:
(Original total beliefs) minus (B and beliefs that entail B) plus (Scientific suggestion of not-B)
Take the example of evolutionary psychology. Plantinga's original belief B is that our minds were designed by God. Science suggests our minds arose by natural processes, without an intelligent designer. Plantinga can reduce his original store of beliefs to leave open the question of whether God designed our minds and still have God creating the world, God intervening in the world, God wanting human beings to have certain mental abilities, etc. Science without these ingredients might conclude: 100% natural origin of human minds! But Plantinga can mix in these extra ingredients and come to a different conclusion without assuming (specifically) that our minds were intelligently designed.

What about a Christian who reads Old Testament poetry and so believes the Earth is rectangular? When she encounters the scientific evidence that the Earth is globe-shaped, she can set aside her belief that the Earth is rectangular and any beliefs that entail it, then see how the scientific evidence interacts with her remaining store of beliefs. Plantinga thinks the globe-shaped Earth belief will win out and replace the beliefs that led her to believe the Earth is rectangular. For example, she might have to drop the belief that poetic sections in the Bible are trustworthy descriptions of the physical world.

I think this is a decent approach. There is a lot of room to argue about how to apply the reduction test, but the exercise of putting beliefs and conclusions into these terms is at least a helpful way to organize a complex issue.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Traditional Remedies For Contemporary Liberalism

[This is a paper for my intellectual freedom class.]

Traditional Remedies For Contemporary Liberalism
"Many liberals today have a profound respect for autonomy and liberty and a shallow understanding of human nature, social order, and mass media. The intellectual tradition, however, fortunately provides strong medicine against such recent flattening of vision" (Peters, 2005, k. 149).
In his book, Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition, John Durham Peters diagnoses contemporary liberalism as having lost something of its soul. Historically, the values of free speech and expression did not bring themselves into existence, rather they were born of prior values to serve and be justified by those other values. When we forget the roots of modern liberalism, we allow the child to trample its parents. Peters wants to remind us of those roots so we can return to a richer understanding of the liberal tradition.

This paper will examine three writers Peters invokes to make his point.

St. Paul
"To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." 1 Cor 9:21-23
Paul had a definite, deep goal in his heart which drove his philosophy of accepting disagreement about the small stuff. Tolerating, and even participating in pluralism, was a means to an end. Not an end in itself. According to Peters (2005), "Paul gives us almost everything that recent civil libertarians do-respect for autonomy and appreciation for liberty-without the nihilism or moral thinness" (k. 514). I take this to mean that 'freedom!', taken in isolation, is a thin creed. Simplistic political libertarianism comes to mind, with its motto of 'freedom at any cost!' Freedom for a purpose and freedom sometimes constrained for that purpose is richer.

Situational constraint is clearly demonstrated in the case of meat at Corinth. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating meat sacrificed to false gods, but it can become wrong when it causes distress to others. "The other's conscience pollutes my meat. For Paul the limit of my liberty is the other's conscience-harder doctrine than the liberal notion that the private conscience is impregnable to regulation from without" (Peters, 2005, k. 539). Paul isn't setting aside meat for the sake of just any offense; he's concerned for the souls of new Christians from a background that associates this kind of meat with the worship of other gods. Freedom and limitation spring from the same source.

Yet for all of its lessons, Paul's approach to freedom is one of self-limitation. It's hard to see how it could be applied straightforwardly as legal policy. "He seems to authorize a contradictory range of policies from anything-goes absolutism to protectionist decency aimed to shelter the weak" (Peters, 2005, k. 578). Doing all things "for the sake of the gospel" is not an appropriate guideline to decide when to limit others in a secular society. Perhaps we should be looking for a more universally shared purpose to underlie and sometimes limit our legal notion of liberty.

"They are not skillful considerers of human things, who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin" (Milton, 2010).
In Areopagitica, his famous essay in opposition to state licensing of books, John Milton appeals to two key Biblical passages. First, he counters the attitude that people are better off without "provoking objects," i.e. things which tempt us to do evil:
"God therefore left [Adam] free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes; herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence. Wherefore did he create passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly tempered are the very ingredients of virtue?" (Milton, 2010)
The idea here is that virtue requires more than mere lack of vice; it requires an understanding of vice, then a willful and informed choice of virtue instead. "Freedom's fruit is perversity and rebellion-and also, Milton hopes, love and obedience" (Peters, 2005, k. 1083). So while Paul's underlying justification for freedom was the advancement of the gospel, Milton's justification is the space freedom creates for human virtue.

Still, couldn't the state license only the books it deems most likely to advance virtue? No, Milton argues, as in the Parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matthew 13:24-30), "Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil [...]" (Milton, 2010). Any attempt to remove only the bad will unavoidably destroy much good. And, besides, even truly wicked books can be read and responded to in a way that serves virtue. "For Milton nothing is off limits to the imagination since it is not exposure to evil but the choice to act on it that corrupts" (Peters, 2005, k. 1148).

Milton's justification is more readily adapted to other religious views than Paul's justification, since every culture has a concern for moral development in one way or another. The difficulty in applying Milton to free speech and expression issues is that we're interested in a wider scope than the freedom of adults to write and read what their consciences will bear. What about children? What about unavoidable public offensiveness? I don't fault Milton for his narrow focus, but we will have to look elsewhere for answers to these questions.

"We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still" (Mill, 2012).
John Stuart Mill was less concerned with good and evil as he was with truth and falsity. Pressure to conform to popular opinion was both the enemy to discovering new truth and a disservice to known truth. "[H]owever true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth" (Mill, 2012). Free speech is justified by its enlightening and invigorating effects on the mind:
"A belief, once discussed, can no longer remain a 'mere' belief; it is raised from prejudice to reason and alters its place in the human soul. Discussion, like the philosopher's stone, changes our opinions from base into nobler stuff" (Peters, 2005, k. 1846).
Nor is this a one-time event. The door to opposing arguments must always be kept open because there is no assurance truth will be convincing on its first hearing. Peters (2005) compares Mill's faith in truth to a "batting average" (k. 1809); truth has a real but fragile edge over error. If the conditions are kept fair, truth will win in the long run, but it may be a very long run and conditions are not usually fair.

Peters expresses doubts about the stability of Mill's vision. If everyone were to constantly question their deepest beliefs, who would be left to play the zealot? A few with "single-minded conviction of their own rightness" are needed to play both "the engine and the enemy of the public sphere" (Peters, 2005, k. 1862). If everyone were a John Stuart Mill, no one would bring the heat needed to catalyze the process. 

It is this style of "self-suspension" Peters spend so much of his book condemning. He believes modern liberalism has taken Mill's exercise of self-critical examination as an end in itself, without Mill's justification of finding and reinforcing truth, Milton's justification of making room for virtue, or Paul's justification of winning souls.
"To say, simply, that liberalism is about openness and freedom is to risk succumbing to the vacuum of emptiness or formalism. The best theorists of liberalism always manage to identify some other principle at its heart" (Peters, 2005, k. 1901).
I think this is the right way to approach issues of free speech and censorship. What are the other principles at stake which might either limit or justify freedom? By making these principles explicit, we can reason about how they apply in different circumstances. This may lead us to revise specific policies, revise the relative weighting of our principles, or both. Peters doesn't give many answers in his book, but he does help us learn to ask better questions.


Mill, J.S. (2012, Feb 6). On liberty. Wikisource. (Original work published 1869). Retrieved from

Milton, J. (2010, Apr 17). Aeropagitica. Wikisource. (Original work published 1644). Retrieved from

Peters, J.D. (2005). Courting the abyss: Free speech and the liberal tradition (Kindle edition). Chicago, Illinois: University Of Chicago Press.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

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.

Brigandt, I. (forthcoming). Intelligent design and the nature of science: Philosophical and pedagogical points. In Kampourakis, K. (ed.), Philosophical Issues in Biology Education. Springer.
[link] freely accessible

Giubilini, A, & Minerva, F. (forthcoming). After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live? Journal of Medical Ethics.