Thursday, December 4, 2008

For Want of a Birth Certificate...

There's an item that's been simmering on the back-burner of our politics for a while and which every now and then boils up so that the public catches a glimpse. I don't know what to make of it, but I think we'll be hearing more about it as time goes on, and despite the fact that it sounds a bit crack-pottish it could turn out to be very significant.

This is the matter of Barack Obama's birth certificate. There have been a number of attempts to get the President-elect to produce his birth certificate to prove that he was really born in the U.S. as the constitution requires of all serving presidents. The allegation is that Obama was actually born in Kenya and that his claim to have been born in Hawaii is false. His campaign has produced a certificate on the internet they claim to be legitimate, but a number of lawsuits have been initiated claiming that it's not.

The Philadelphia Bulletin notes that problems with this certificate are too many to ignore:

The short list is first that the document is not signed. Secondly, it has no seal. Third, is that the security border doesn't match similar documents from the same time period. Other objections are that the race of Mr. Obama's father is listed as African. In the early '60s the State of Hawaii listed African- Americans as Negroes.

What is missing from the document is the doctor's signature and physical characteristics at birth that every original birth certificate reveals.

Some interested parties have submitted the internet document to the scrutiny of Adobe and graphic experts who all agree the document is highly questionable or a complete fraud. Is it? Who knows at this point? What is far more intriguing is the resistance being thrown at uncovering the true vault document. This is what is spawning suspicion and doubt.

Now one of the lawsuits that has been filed to force him to present a paper copy is going to the Supreme Court on Friday. Despite the fact that this sounds nutty, there are several reasons it's significant.

First, if it turns out that Mr. Obama was not born in the U.S. then he's disqualified from serving as president according to Article 2, section 1 of the constitution. He'll soon (December 15th) be certified as the president-elect by the members of the electoral college, and there's no enforcement mechanism for removing a president who has been duly certified except the impeachment process. Since impeachment certainly won't happen with a Democratic congress the constitutional provision requiring the president to be a natural-born citizen will have been effectively ignored.

This means that in 2012 there would be very little standing in the way of, say, an Arnold Schwarzenegger throwing his hat into the ring. And if the provision against non-native born presidents is to be disregarded why not dispense with the provision that requires a president to be 35 years of age and/or to have been a resident for fourteen years?

Secondly, there are questions whether anything Obama signs as president - legislation, treaties, directives - would have any legitimacy since he, himself, would be serving illegitimately. Everything would be open to challenge, and the courts would be working through the mess for years.

In other words, President-elect Obama's birth certificate could trigger a constitutional crisis of unprecedented proportions. As the Bulletin points out, he could end the controversy today and spare everyone a lot of trouble and expense by simply producing the original or by requesting that Hawaii do so. Why doesn't he?

CORRECTION: This post originally stated incorrectly that the electoral college has already officially elected Barack Obama to be our next president. It has been corrected to show that this will not occur until December 15th.


Public Education and ID (Pt. IV)

This post will conclude our examination (see previous posts in this series) of philosopher Thomas Nagel's arguement that the objections to ID are religious/theological rather than scientific and that to exclude it from public school classrooms on religious grounds is indefensible. Nagel is an atheist and a Darwinian, as we have previously pointed out, so his paper in Philosophy and Public Affairs is all the more noteworthy. He writes that:

The consequence of all this for public education is that both the inclusion of some mention of ID in a biology class and its exclusion would seem to depend on religious assumptions. Either divine intervention is ruled out in advance or it is not. If it is, ID can be disregarded. If it is not, evidence for ID can be considered. Yet both are clearly assumptions of a religious nature. Public schools in the United States may not teach atheism or deism any more than they may teach Christianity, so how can it be all right to teach scientific theories whose empirical confirmation depends on the assumption of one range of these views while it is impermissible to discuss the implications of alternative views on the same question?

The question is even more difficult for the ID critic if we keep in mind that IDers take no formal position on who the designer is. Nagel assumes it's God, but ID is officially agnostic on the point. For all anyone knows the designer might be the result of a science project conducted by a precocious student inhabiting one of the universes posited by multiverse theorists. The point of ID is not to prove that God exists but to show that this world shows evidence of having been intelligently planned and engineered and any metaphysics or science which rules out intention and purpose as an explanation is inadequate.

Nagel goes on to ask:

What would a biology course teach if it wanted to remain neutral on the question whether divine intervention in the process of life's development was a possibility, while acknowledging that people disagree about whether it should be regarded as a possibility at all, or what probability should be assigned to it, and that there is at present no way to settle that disagreement scientifically? So far as I can see, the only way to make no assumptions of a religious nature would be to admit that the empirical evidence may suggest different conclusions depending on what religious belief one starts with, and that the evidence does not by itself settle which of those beliefs is correct...

This is precisely how all controversial issues would be addressed in a healthy educational system, but the Darwinians are repelled by Nagel's sensible suggestion. They act as if they're terrified by the prospect that students exposed to the possibility that the biosphere reveals intention would quickly believe it and then a century of indoctrination in materialism would be undone.

Nagel again:

Judge Jones (in the Dover ID trial) cited as a decisive reason for denying ID the status of science that Michael Behe, the chief scientific witness for the defense, acknowledged that the theory would be more plausible to someone who believed in God than to someone who did not. This is just common sense, however, and the opposite is just as true: evolutionary theory as a complete explanation of the development of life is more plausible to someone who does not believe in God than to someone who does.

Many who followed the Dover trial were mystified by the fact that the plaintiffs and Judge Jones made such a big deal about Behe's statement because, as Nagel points out, it's simply common sense. Theists are going to be less resistant to the notion that the world was intentionally designed than would non-theists. This is hardly the gaffe it was portrayed as, but Judge Jones was so shocked by Behe's remark that he thought it all the proof he needed to rule that ID didn't qualify as science.

Either both of them are science or neither of them is. If both of them are scientific hypotheses, the ground for exclusion must be that ID is hopelessly bad science, or dead science, in Kitcher's phrase. That would be true if ID, like young earth creationism, can be refuted by the empirical evidence even if one starts by assuming that the possibility of a god who could intervene cannot be ruled out in advance.

So far as I can tell, however, no such refutation has even been offered, let alone established. What have been offered instead are necessarily speculative proposals about how the problems posed by Behe might be handled by evolutionary theory, declarations that no hypothesis involving divine intervention counts as science, and assurances that evolutionary theory is not inconsistent with the existence of God. It is also emphasized that even if evolutionary theory were false, that would not mean that ID was true. That is so, but it is still not a sufficient reason to exclude it from discussion.

If reasons to doubt the adequacy of evolutionary theory can be legitimately admitted to the curriculum, it is hard to see why they cannot legitimately be described as reasons in support of design, for those who believe in God, and reasons to believe that some as yet undiscovered, purely naturalistic theory must account for the evidence, for those who do not. That, after all, is the real epistemological situation.

Nagel's paper is altogether reasonable and fair-minded, which probably insures that it will receive little attention from those in whose hands these virtues rest awkwardly.