Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Bush Steamroller

You may not have noticed it, but the man whose nomination to head the CIA we were told was going to catalyze a tough examination of the NSA eavesdropping program, the man whose nomination would lead to a public outing of the truth about Bush's perfidious spying program, Air Force general Michael Hayden was quietly approved by the Senate yesterday 78-15. So much for Democrat outrage over "domestic spying."

Meanwhile, another conservative judge was successfully ushered through the confirmation process. White House aide Brett Kavanaugh only had to wait for three years until the Democrats finally wearied of resisting the inevitable and went along with approving him as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

And George Bush, with approval numbers down around those of Harry Truman, continues to pile up the congressional victories. The only time he seems to lose is when he angers conservatives. The liberal Democrats are at present a political irrelevancy, which fact simply fuels their anger and frustration. It's fun to watch.

Sadly Typical

Andrew Sullivan and at least some of his readers are so anxious to discredit any Christian who opposes them on the matter of gay marriage that they're willing to say the vilest things to accomplish their mission.

James Dobson, who opposes gay marriage, has evidently been encouraging people to go to the Focus on the Family web-site to get a prefabricated letter to send to their congressman to express support for a Marriage Protection Amendment.

We think using a form letter is not the best way to influence one's representatives, but Sullivan and some of his readers have called it plagiarism, which Dobson denies. Because he denies that he is encouraging plagiarism Mr. Dobson is sent a letter like this one which Sullivan approvingly posts on his blog:

Why do "Christians" reserve the right to lie, cheat and steal when it suits their purposes, while turning around and decrying situational ethics and denial of truth?

I am referring to you and your organization's organized plagiarism campaign. Focus on the Family, under your direction, is encouraging people to copy material from its website, assemble it into letters and submit the letters to the editors of various newspapers under their signature.

Webster's Dictionary defines plagiarism as to "present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source." This is exactly what someone who copies material from your website, fashions it into a letter and submits it as their own work does.

When you tell people that what they're doing isn't plagiarism, you are lying. But then you're a "Christian," and as such you believe that the rules apply to everyone but yourselves. How sadly typical.

What's sadly typical is the puerile willingness of so many people to use invective as a substitute for lucid argument. Webster's College Dictionary defines plagiarism not as the mere use of someone else's material but rather as the unauthorized use of that material. Focus on the Family, as I understand it, is authorizing others to use their material. What they're doing may be counterproductive, it may be dumb, but it's not plagiarism.

This seems like such an obvious distinction that even a junior high student could understand it, but apparently it is complicated enough to have exceeded the cognitive powers of some of those, like Sullivan's reader, for whom insult is the polemical weapon of choice.

Another Indonesian Earthquake

Another disaster has struck Muslim Indonesia, killing almost 3000 people, and, as they did in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, the non-Muslim world is mobilizing to assist. We're sure that the absence of any mention of assistance from the Arab Muslim world is just an oversight.

Letter to First Things

A month ago I sent a letter to the journal First Things in response to an opinion piece by Robert T. Miller on why Intelligent Design should not be taught in public schools. Unfortunately, access to First Things is by subscription and his column is too lengthy to copy here. In any event, the recent issue has a very truncated version of my letter along with the submissions of others, including Michael Behe, to which Mr. Miller responds. My letter, slightly shortened, follows. The portions run by FT are italicized. I will post Mr. Miller's response tomorrow:

Robert T. Miller asserts in his article Darwin in Dover, PA (April 2006) that ID "is not science but neither is it religion." He explains that it's not science, at least in the strong sense, because a designer does not operate by law-like necessity. ID, he concludes, is metaphysics, a branch of philosophy, and thus does not belong in a science classroom.

Even if we grant Professor Miller's premise that intelligent design is philosophy and not real science, a point about which philosophers of science are certainly in dispute, it's not clear that his conclusion that ID should be kept out of science classes follows. There is much philosophy of science that science teachers, at least the good ones, discuss with their students everyday. For example, anyone sitting in on a high school honors science class might hear mention, overt or tacit, of any of the following:

1. Many universes: The idea that ours is just one of a nearly infinite number of universes all of which are closed off from each other thus defying detection.

2. Oscillating universes: The theory that our universe has expanded and collapsed an infinite number of times.

3. String theory: The idea that the fundamental units of material substance are unimaginably tiny vibrating filaments of energy.

4. Other dimensions: The theory that the four dimensions of space-time are only part of physical reality.

5. Principle of uniformity: The assumption that the laws and properties of the universe are homogenous and constant throughout the universe.

6. Assumption of uniformitarianism: The idea that the same processes and forces at work in the world today have always been at work at essentially the same rates.

7. Scientific method: The idea that there is a particular methodology that defines the scientific process which ought to be followed.

8. Law of parsimony: The principle that assumes that the simplest explanation which fits all the facts is the best.

9. Assumption that human reason is trustworthy: The notion that a faculty which has evolved because it made us better fit to survive is also a dependable guide to truth, which has no necessary connection to human survival.

10. Assumption that we should value truth: The idea that truth should be esteemed more highly than competing values, like, for instance, personal comfort.

11. Preference for naturalistic explanations: A preference based upon an untestable assumption that all knowable truth is found only in the natural realm.

12. Materialistic abiogenesis: The belief that natural forces are sufficient in themselves to have produced life.

13. Assumption that if something is physically possible and mathematically elegant then given the age of the universe it probably happened.

14. Assumption that the cosmos is atelic. I.e. that it has no purpose.

15. Assumption that there's a world external to our own minds.

16. Reductionism: The conviction that all phenomena, including mental phenomena, can be ultimately explained solely in terms of physics and chemistry.

17. Assumption that the universe arose out of a "vacuum matrix" rather than out of nothing.

18. Any ethical claim regarding the environment, nuclear power, cloning, or genetic engineering.

19. Memes: According to biologist Richard Dawkins memes are the cultural analog to genes. They are ideas or customs that are believed by Dawkins and others to get passed along according to their survival value rather than their truth value. An example of this, unfortunately, is the concept of the meme itself.

20. The criteria by which we distinguish science from non-science.

None of the above precipitate the levitation of a single eyebrow when they're discussed in public school science classrooms yet every one of them is a matter of metaphysical preference, not empirical fact. Why, then, must we suddenly wax squeamish when the philosophical topic turns to the possibility of an extra-cosmic designer?

Professor Miller also mentions that the argument for ID is weaker than arguments for traditional cosmological hypotheses because it's vulnerable to being falsified whereas cosmological fine-tuning arguments are not.

This is an interesting observation since it is explicitly denied by most of ID's opponents. One of the claims anti-IDers adduce in support of their view that ID is not science is that it can't be tested, i.e. falsified. If it's true, as Professor Miller avers, that ID is vulnerable to being falsified, then it must be testable, and thus the only valid grounds for proscribing it in public school science courses would be that it is indeed false. That ID actually is false, however, has yet to be demonstrated.

Moreover, Professor Miller is drawing a questionable distinction between design in the biosphere and design in the abiotic physical universe. If there really is a cosmic designer then it is reasonable, and parsimonious, to assume that it played a role not only in engineering the physical constants, parameters, and forces that govern the universe but also those processes which led to the origin and diversification of living things. In other words, intelligent design is a comprehensive theory. It seems somewhat arbitrary to maintain that the cosmos had a designer but that life is purely serendipitous.

Judge Jones, in presiding over the Dover ID trial, may have got things partially right, as Professor Miller says, but the part that he got right is that those who were pushing ID into the Dover biology curriculum were motivated by a religious purpose. This is really the only solid legal or philosophical grounds the Judge had for deciding the way he did. Nevertheless, there is a very troubling problem inherent in his reasoning on this point.

For a Christian everything one does is ultimately "religiously" motivated. There is no distinction in the life of the Christian between sacred and secular. If religious motivation is a disqualifier under Lemon v. Kurtzman, and it is, then Christians who take their faith seriously are constitutionally unfit to serve on school boards or in the classroom because it can be truthfully asserted that a religious motivation underlies everything they do. Any attempt to introduce ID, or anything else, for that matter, into a public school curriculum by anyone who can be shown to be a devout Christian is ipso facto impermissible under Lemon. That would seem to put the Lemon test at odds with the religious protections guaranteed by the first amendment.

Of course, there is a religious motivation behind everything the non-believer does as well, since, as Roy Clouser reminds us in The Myth of Religious Neutrality, there is no such thing as religious neutrality, but Judge Jones was unfortunately never made aware of this fact of philosophical life in the course of his deliberations. It is, parenthetically, an oddity of the Judge's ruling that the materialist claim that natural processes are adequate by themselves to account for living things is considered science, but its contrary, the claim that natural processes are not adequate by themselves to account for living things, is deemed religious.