Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Penn State Scandal

I'm reluctant to write about the Penn State mess because not everything is known yet about why people didn't go to the police with the information they had about assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's monstrous behavior. Even so, it's very hard to believe that there might be some exculpatory information still floating around out there.

It's also very hard to believe that Joe Paterno was the only member of the coaching staff who knew what was going on. Mike McQueary knew, he's the grad assistant who saw Sandusky raping the ten year old boy back in the late 90s, and he's still on the staff. I can't believe he never told anyone other than Paterno about what he saw.

Indeed, it almost has to be the case, the way such news carries, that the entire Penn State athletic department and much of the college administration was to some extent aware of this and yet no one went to the police. It really is astounding. It's likely to keep psychologists busy for the next hundred years spinning out explanations for it.

It's also unbelievable that students have rioted on the State College campus, not over the silence of their coaches and administrators in the face of the sexual abuse of young boys, but over the firing of Paterno. I don't know how the university could do otherwise. In fact, I don't know how they can not fire every coach who was on the football staff when this first happened because they all must have known about it. Indeed, the entire NCAA must have known about it because Sandusky was being touted as a future coaching star and yet when he left the PSU staff at age 55 he never got another coaching position. People must have known that he was a bad investment.

One thing about the media reaction to this, though, that I find disgusting is their willingness to condemn McQueary for not stopping it when he saw Sandusky in the shower with the boy. Unless someone has himself been in the position of seeing something so shocking, so alien, that he can't even process it, unless one has been in the position of being so completely stunned and confused by what he's seeing that he can't believe it and all he wants to do is get out of there, and those critics who were in that position nevertheless did the right thing, they should be very wary of condemning a young man who found himself in that position and didn't react the way, in retrospect, he should have.

It's a shame that JoePa is going out like this, but I see no other way around it than to acknowledge that he has no one else to blame. I don't want to second-guess him, but if he had a decent reason for not going to the police when he realized that the Athletic Director wasn't going to do anything about Sandusky's behavior I sure wish he'd tell us what it was.

See here for more on this awful episode. It looks like it may get even worse, if that were possible.

You Just Don't Understand My Religion

Julian Baggini one of the editors of The Philosopher's Magazine has initiated what promises to be an interesting and helpful series of columns at The Guardian on the conversation between the defenders and detractors of religious belief.

Baggini is himself a religious skeptic and his first installment addresses the inadequacy of the claim sometimes made by those religious folk who, in the course of defending their beliefs, say that "You just don't understand my religion." Baggini finds this somewhat less than compelling, at least in many contexts, and discusses how religious apologists have to do better than that:
Terry Eagleton's quip that reading Richard Dawkins on theology is like listening to someone "holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is The British Book of Birds" is a funny and memorable contribution to a debate that is rarely amusing and frequently forgettable. Whether you agree with the charge or not, the complaint is of a kind we have become very familiar with: disputants in the religion debate are talking past each other because they do not have a sufficiently rich understanding of the positions they stand against.
I might add here, parenthetically, that they also have an insufficiently rich understanding of the positions they stand for. Baggini continues:
I'm very much in sympathy with this view, and this series is largely an attempt to try to find more constructive points of engagement that can only emerge if we ditch lazy and tired preconceptions about those with whom we disagree. At the same time, however, I'm all too aware that "you just don't understand" is a card that is often played far too swiftly and without justification.
I agree with Baggini on this. Resorting to the dodge that the other guy is just too ignorant of one's religion to make a legitimate criticism of it is often a tacit admission of one's inability to defend his beliefs against the critic's animadversions.
It has become evident to me, however, that many people, especially the religious, suffer from a kind of conceptual claustrophobia. Their beliefs are of their essence somewhat vague and they are terrified of being pinned down.
Baggini goes on about this, instructively, I'd say, for several paragraphs, but the assumption seems to be that the fuzziness to which he alludes is an affliction of those who defend traditional religious beliefs while skeptics are lucid, precise, and logical.

Anyone who has read the recent works of the atheistic despisers of religion will have found that not only their antireligious arguments, but also the naturalistic Darwinism that they propose as an alternative, suffer from precisely the malaise that Baggini describes. Over and over we are soothingly assured by these scribes that the scientific illuminati have proven beyond doubt that science has all the answers to any question worth asking and that there's no need to resort to anything like God.

If, however, one were to impertinently ask a skeptic to explain how blind, purposeless forces and laws could have plausibly produced life from non-life and to have generated biological information, or if one were to ask them to explain how the impersonal can give rise to consciousness, or how something like butterfly metamorphosis or sexual reproduction could have evolved by purely non-teleological processes, one often hears the same vague appeals to mystery that Baggini deplores when they come from the traditionally religious. The inquirer is frequently told that his lack of scientific understanding impedes his comprehension of the Truth.

I hope that in future columns in the series Baggini brings out the fact that "You just don't understand my religion" is not just a dodge of the traditionally religious but also of those whose religion is scientific materialism.

The Illusion of Free Choice

My brother Bill, who is, I must say, a bit of a pessimist, offers the following philosophical commentary on the futility of placing one's hopes for the future in either of our political parties:
I try to assure him that it's not as bad as all that, but I must admit that I often think he has the better of the argument.