Monday, December 19, 2005

Symposium on Torture

A number of Christian thinkers have been invited to participate at Evangelical Outpost in a symposium on the question of the use of torture:

"Torture is not always impermissible," argues Charles Krauthammer in "The Truth About Torture", his provocative essay in The Weekly Standard. "However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you've established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that's left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when--i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb."

The "truth" about torture is an issue being widely addressed throughout the country, yet our sense is that the Christian intellectual community has been relatively silent on this important issue. We believe a symposium of this nature could significantly aid and inform the Church and the wider culture and help provide clarification on the principles involved in judging this practice. In order to open the dialogue we have asked several leading Christian ethicists and opinion journalists to respond to Dr. Krauthammer's article and to address the questions: "What is the truth about torture from a Christian worldview? Is torture ever allowed? And if so, under what conditions and circumstances?"

The symposiasts include: Darrell Cole, John Jefferson Davis, Daniel Heimbach, Mark Liederbach, Kenneth Magnuson, Albert Mohler, Richard John Neuhaus, and Robert Vischer and their essays can be found here.

Kinsley's Anti-Torture Argument

It looks as if the McCain amendment on torture has unstoppable momentum. Evidently, our intrepid Congressmen and women are scared to death of being seen as even remotely in favor of being mean to terrorists. But as I've written on several occasions recently it's a mistake to embrace a prohibition on cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment without clarifying exactly what cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment are. Without guidance on this matter American interrogators are going to be very reluctant to aggressively question detainees, and consequently innocent people are going to die.

There should indeed be laws governing the treatment of prisoners, but to ban absolutely anything that could be construed by a sufficiently clever or creative lawyer as cruel or degrading is to needlessly jeopardize peoples' lives. Even so, Michael Kinsley disagrees and asks some thoughtful questions of those who believe, as I do, that laws against torture should not be absolutized. For starters, he poses this scenario:

What if you knew for sure that the cute little baby burbling and smiling at you from his stroller in the park was going to grow up to be another Hitler, responsible for a global cataclysm and millions of deaths? Would you be justified in picking up a rock and bashing his adorable head in? Wouldn't you be morally depraved if you didn't?

Tough question, of course, but ethical conundrums which rely upon situations that can't possibly occur in the real world are singularly unhelpful in clarifying important issues. In the real world there simply is no possible way anyone could know what Kinsley posits, so he's proposing an impossible state of affairs and then asking what one would do. There's no way to answer the question.

Or what if a mad scientist developed a poison so strong that two drops in the water supply would kill everyone in Chicago? And you could destroy the poison, but only by killing the scientist and 10 innocent family members? Should you do it?

This scenario, or one like it, is much more plausible than the first and indeed has occured frequently since 9/11. We have a chance to kill a high-value terrorist murderer but certain of his innocent family members may be killed as well. Would it be wrong to do it? Not necessarily. If this is the only practical way to get the terrorist and as long as the deaths of his family are incidental to the attack on the terrorist then, although it would be tragic, it would not be immoral. It would be to a pacifist, of course, but I don't believe Kinsley to be a pacifist.

Or what if an international terrorist planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in Manhattan, set to go off in an hour and kill a million people. You've got him in custody, but he won't say where the bomb is. Is it moral to torture him until he gives up the information?

Yes, of course, provided that no more pain is applied than what is necessary to elicit the information. Even John McCain agrees with this. He just wants to make it illegal and say it'd be acceptable, in an instance such as Kinsley proposes, to break the law.

Indeed, it's a strange aspect of McCain's proposal that almost everyone who has talked about it, including John McCain himself, and most recently Colin Powell, have said that, although there should be no exceptions to the ban on torture, there are circumstances which would make violating the law against it the right thing to do, and that the person who breaks the law in those circumstances should expect that the law will take them into account. In other words, they're saying, torture is not always wrong, but we should pretend that it is. This is a rather unsatisfactory way of looking at the matter. Kinsley himself admits the inadequacy of this position:

But what about [the ticking time bomb] conundrum? Will you eschew torture even when a few minutes of it, applied to a very bad person, would save a million lives? One answer is that the law wouldn't really be enforced in such an extreme situation....Surely [though] every law should at least aspire to be enforced. Or-an even more modest standard-a law should not depend on unenforceability for its very justification. Furthermore, a law expresses a social norm even apart from its enforcement. If the hypothetical situation ever arises, something will happen. What do we want that something to be?

But back to Kinsley's main argument:

If you would torture to save a million lives, would you do it for half a million? A thousand? Two dozen? What if there's only a two-out-of-three chance that person you're torturing has the crucial information? A 50-50 chance? One chance in 10? At what point does your moral calculus change, and why?

Good question, but I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be done to save even a single life. Nevertheless, his question about uncertainty is more difficult. It's not without analogs, however. We face the same problem with capital punishment. Just as in legal cases in which a man may be sentenced to death, we have to be as sure as we can be that the person being interrogated actually possesses the information needed to save lives. Sometimes we may be wrong, but we must do everything practical, given the circumstances, to insure that we're not.

Kinsley continues with his cross-examination:

What about someone wholly innocent? It's hard to imagine a situation where someone who refuses to supply life-saving information could be considered "innocent." But it's not impossible [i.e. suppose the terrorist is unbreakable under pressures applied to his person, but he has a child he dearly loves...] In this cold, hard world, allegedly facing a challenge greater than any the civilized world has faced before, would you torture an innocent individual for five minutes [if it would make the terrorist talk] in order to spare a million innocents from death?

No. The position taken here at Viewpoint is not utilitarian. The utilitarian would argue that the pain sufferered by a single individual is outweighed by the good of saving the lives of the many and therefore the infliction of the pain is the right thing to do. This is unacceptable. The Biblical command to do justice is a morally binding absolute, and if justice means anything, it means that you don't willfully and intentionally harm innocent people, even if it's to accomplish some great good.

If you say yes, [it's okay to] go ahead and torture an innocent person, you have pretty much abandoned the various exquisite moral distinctions that eased your previous abandonment of an absolute ban on torture. But if you say no, [because] my own moral hygiene, or my country's, forbids the torture of an innocent individual, even if the indirect but predictable consequence is a million human deaths, you are more or less back in the camp of the anti-torture absolutists whose simple-minded moral vanity you find so irritating.

Kinsley errs here in confusing the absolutes in question. Just as there is a vast moral gap between murdering an innocent child and executing the thug who murdered her, so, too, is there a vast moral gap between absolutizing torture and absolutizing justice. The presumptive reason for banning torture is that in the usual case it is either uncompassionate or unjust, but in the instance of using pain or degrading treatment on someone who plans to cause the deaths of others, in order to prevent those deaths, it would be uncompassionate or unjust to fail to do so.

Having said that, I should add that I see no objection to deceiving a terrorist into mistakenly believing that his loved one is being tortured if this were the only way to elicit life-saving information from him. Such a tactic, however, would probably be prohibited as "inhuman" under McCain.

Finally, it should be noted that liberals, who scoff at the slippery slope argument when it comes to gay marriage, who fondle nuances like Midas fondled gold, who disparaged Ronald Reagan twenty years ago for having a too simplistic view of the world, and who otherwise abhor absolutes, are now, when it comes to torture, embracing the slippery slope argument, disdaining nuance, and reveling in simplistic absolutes. If the subject matter weren't so somber it'd be funny.

The Only Alternatives: ID or the Multiverse

Physicist Leonard Susskind has written a book titled, Cosmic Landscape: String theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design in which he seeks to explain away the fine-tuning of the universe by offering the hope that there are something like ten to the 500th power universes out there all with different laws and constants so that one of them just has to be like ours. He suggests that there really are only two options: The existence of zillions of universes, so many that we cannot comprehend the number (To get an idea of the size of the number there are only ten to the 80th atoms in the whole of our universe), or there is only one universe and it was intentionally designed by a cosmic intelligence.

New Scientist runs an interview with Susskind by Amanda Gefter. She asks him:

Gefter: So even if you accept the multiverse and the idea that certain local physical laws are anthropically determined, you still need a unique mega-theory to describe the whole multiverse? Surely it just pushes the question back?

Susskind: Yes, absolutely. The bottom line is that we need to describe the whole thing, the whole universe or multiverse. It's a scientific question: is the universe on the largest scales big and diverse or is it homogeneous? [i.e. Is it many universes or just one, Viewpoint] We can hope to get an answer from string theory and we can hope to get some information from cosmology.

There is a philosophical objection called Popperism that people raise against the landscape idea. Popperism [after the philosopher Karl Popper] is the assertion that a scientific hypothesis has to be falsifiable, otherwise it's just metaphysics. Other worlds, alternative universes, things we can't see because they are beyond horizons, are in principle unfalsifiable and therefore metaphysical - that's the objection. But the belief that the universe beyond our causal horizon is homogeneous is just as speculative and just as susceptible to the Popperazzi.

Gefter: If we do not accept the landscape idea are we stuck with intelligent design?

Susskind: I doubt that physicists will see it that way. If, for some unforeseen reason, the landscape turns out to be inconsistent - maybe for mathematical reasons, or because it disagrees with observation - I am pretty sure that physicists will go on searching for natural explanations of the world. But I have to say that if that happens, as things stand now we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature's fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics. One might argue that the hope that a mathematically unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as ID.

Nuclear physicist David Heddle responds:

Susskind's answer shows that his book should be subtitled String Theory and the Possible Illusion of Intelligent Design. He has done nothing whatsoever to disprove fine-tuning. Nothing. He has only countered it with a religious speculation in scientific language, a God of the Landscape. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, he tells us that we should embrace the String Theory landscape, not in spite of its ugliness, but rather because of it. Physics should change its paradigm and sing praises to inelegance. Out with Occam's razor, in with Rube Goldberg. Out with reductionism, in with lots of free parameters. Why? Because if we don't (according to Suskind) there really is no way to explain the fine-tuning, except by Intelligent Design. He even likens, in his last sentence quoted above, those physicists who search for the antithesis of his landscape, a simple, beautiful fundamental theory, to IDers.

I think he is correct. For a fundamental theory that predicted all the constants would be a "win" for ID-it would destroy the only real threat to cosmological ID: multiple universes with varying laws of physics.

The subtext (at times explicit) in Susskind's book is that fine-tuning is real, in the sense that our universe really does exist on a knife's edge, so much so that it demands attention. The only possible way that it is an illusion is if our universe is but one of many. To save materialism, Susskind argues that we must explain this fine-tuning, and his landscape [i.e. that there are zillions of universes] has the best chance of playing the role of a white knight.

Susskind's argument demonstrates the desperation of materialists who wish to escape the conclusion that there is an intelligence behind the cosmos. He is willing to jettison the criteria of testability, falsifiability and Occam's razor and accept on faith, without any evidence, that there exits a nearly infinite number of other worlds. With so much cosmological variety, he believes, one of those other worlds just has to possess the extraordinary complex of features required to support life. Thus our universe is not so extraordinary after all.

Susskind's interview makes it plain that the battle over Intelligent Design is not one between science and religion but rather between two different philosophical views of the world. Susskind says that our universe certainly appears to be intricately well-ordered and planned for living things, but that any apparent purpose and intention woven into the parameters of the universe are simply illusions. Given the fact that so many universes exist, he asserts, the existence of one as improbable as ours becomes much less astonishing.

The intelligent design theorist counters that the only evidence we have tells us that this universe is the only one that exists. It tells us that our world is singular, unique, and alone and that this is in any event the most parsimonious hypothesis. Thus we think we see purpose and intentional engineering in the fabric of the cosmos because it's really there, and the only reason one would have for failing to accept this conclusion is an a priori metaphysical commitment to atheism which is not a very scientific approach to the search for truth.

Should anyone question why everyone seems to agree that the universe at least appears to be deliberately fine-tuned we commend either or both of the following: Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen Barr and Nature's Destiny by Michael Denton.

Time's POTY

Of all the people in the world who have done magnificent things for humanity in the past year Time couldn't find any to surpass Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono for their person of the year!? They announce their award with this silly bit of nonsense:

For being shrewd about doing good, for rewiring politics and re-engineering justice, for making mercy smarter and hope strategic and then daring the rest of us to follow, Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono are TIME's Persons of the Year.

See Michelle Malkin for some worthy alternatives.

In addition to Malkin's suggestions we would have liked to have seen consideration given to our military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pope John Paul II, The Iraqi soldiers and police, George Bush, Condaleeza Rice, or the U.S. Coast Guard crews who rescued so many along the Gulf Coast after Katrina.

We don't wish to sound like we're disparaging the Gates' or Bono for the contributions they've made, but in terms of making an impact on the world in 2005, none of them, especially Melinda Gates, has done what any of the above have done. We think Time is just trivializing their award in an attempt to be politically correct and to avoid giving credit to either the Bush administration or anything remotely associated with it.