Monday, February 1, 2010

Talking About Justice

A former student, Anthony, links us to an interesting promo for a class on ethical issues related to the doing of justice. The class is being offered at Harvard by Michael Sandel, and interested readers can watch any or all of Professor Sandel's classes at the link:

It looks like this would be a very stimulating class for undergraduates, but I wonder whether Prof. Sandel ever asks his students the really important questions: Why, exactly, do they hold the opinion they do on any of the matters they discuss? What is the ground of their moral opinions? Do they have one or are their opinions purely arbitrary preferences that are no more rooted in anything than is their preference for pepsi over coke?

The fundamental ethical questions are these: Do ethical judgments stand on anything or are they simply matters of personal preference? Is there moral obligation or duty and, if so, what is it that obligates us? What is it that makes an act morally right or obligatory?

Until these questions are settled talking about what's right to do in a particular situation is like speculating about whether blue is prettier than green. It's not really worth debating. Moreover, these are questions for which naturalism, at bottom, must answer: Personal preference, No and Nothing, and Nothing. If we are, after all, simply the effluvium of blind, impersonal forces then it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that, as atheistic philosopher Michael Ruse puts it, ethics is just an illusion, an evolutionary ploy to suit us for survival in the stone age.

Remember Ruse the next time you hear an atheist or secularist make a moral judgment - for example, when they insist that we have a moral duty to help the poor. What they're telling you when they say that "X is right (or wrong)" is nothing more than "I like (or don't like) X." to which the appropriate rejoinder is, "So why should anyone care?" Ethics is pretty much literal nonsense unless there is a transcendent, personal, moral authority who serves as a source of objective moral obligation. The atheist who denies the existence of such an authority is only speaking gibberish when he proclaims that "we should do X" or that "X is a moral duty."

Hopefully, Professor Sandel points all this out to his students, but since he's at Harvard I suppose I shouldn't count on it.


Howard Zinn (RIP)

Howard Zinn died last week at age 87. Most readers have probably never heard of Mr. Zinn, but he was a man of some consequence in the ideological struggles of the last half century. A historian and far-left activist he had many admirers on the left and many detractors on the right. In the wake of his passing two remembrances are worth checking out. From the left there's Bob Herbert's piece in the New York Times, and from the right there's a column written by converted radical leftist David Horowitz at Front Page Mag.

Check them out and decide for yourself whether Zinn's life and work merits praise or regret.


Mischaracterizing ID

In the course of a review in First Things (subscription only) of Richard Dawkins' latest book theologian David B. Hart tarnishes an otherwise estimable critique with an unfortunate characterization of intelligent design (ID). He writes:

The best argument against ID theory, when all is said and done, is that it rests on a premise - "irreducible complexity" - that may seem compelling at the purely intuitive level but that can never be logically demonstrated. At the end of the day it is - as Francis Collins rightly remarks - an argument from personal incredulity....the mere biological complexity of this or that organism can never amount to an irrefutable proof of anything other than the incalculable complexity of that organism's phylogenetic antecedents.

It was hard for me to get past the fact that this muddled paragraph came from the same mind which penned Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, a book I deeply admire.

Let's take Hart's assertions in order:

The best argument against ID theory, when all is said and done, is that it rests on a premise - "irreducible complexity."

This is simply false. ID rests on much more than irreducible complexity. It is based upon the concept that complex specified patterns, i.e. information, fills the biosphere and yet never have we ever seen such information generated by anything other than a mind. We've certainly never seen it produced by random natural forces. ID is also based on the exquisite fine-tuning of the forces, constants, and parameters of the universe. Dozens, perhaps more, of these had to be set to values so precise that had they deviated by, in some cases, the mass of a single atom relative to the mass of the universe, the universe would not have existed much less have given rise to life. To claim that ID rests solely on irreducible complexity is to reveal a grave lack of undertstanding of the matter about which one is writing.

[ID] can never be logically demonstrated.

This is true but what of it? Science is not about logical demonstrations, it's about coming up with the most plausible explanation for the available facts. To criticize ID because it doesn't lend itself to some sort deductive proof is, by extension, to criticize virtually the entire scientific enterprise.

[T]he mere biological complexity of this or that organism can never amount to an irrefutable proof of anything other than the incalculable complexity of that organism's phylogenetic antecedents.

Hart seems to be saying that unless a scientific theory can be proven beyond any possibility of refutation it is somehow unworthy of consideration. If this were true then all of Darwinism would have to be thrown on the scrap heap. Scientists do not seek proof, they seek explanations that account for a lot of data and which can resist falsification. Proof is left to mathematicians and logicians.

I trust that since Professor Hart's article was published in FT last month a lot of people who know better have quietly informed him that in this paragraph, at least, he dabbled in matters he would have been better advised to leave alone.