Friday, January 27, 2012

Insufferable Ignorance

It's mildly surprising how eager some people are to try to sound like experts on matters they manifestly know little about. Chris Matthews, host of the MSNBC program Hardball, insouciantly ignores the aphorism about fools rushing in where wise men fear to tread by humiliating a guest, calling him names, even, for being a skeptic both about anthropogenic global warming as well as for holding the view that man is the work of a Creator.

Matthews evidently thinks he knows so much about both of these matters that he can insult the intelligence of another man whose noetic structure is less exalted than his own:
Here's part of the transcript:

MATTHEWS: How are you standing on evolution these days?
CHRISTIE: I’m feeling pretty good about evolution these days.
MATTHEWS: Do you believe in it?
CHRISTIE: I believe that God is our creator, and I think that we all fall from the good Lord.
MATTHEWS: So you don’t believe in evolution?
CHRISTIE: I believe that God is our creator and we all from the good Lord.
MATTHEWS: What is [with] the troglodyte? The Luddites? What is the party that used to believe in things?
CHRISTIE: Troglodytes? Chris, it’s true. One of the things you’re missing here is faith. You’re missing faith in this country.
MATTHEWS: Excuse me — I don’t want to just plumb the depths, the position the party is taking that is so far right these days. Let’s go back to life on this planet here.

Forget about the global warming issue for now. To the extent that this exchange is coherent, Matthews parades an insufferable ignorance about evolution, at least it's insufferable in someone who seeks to use the topic to embarrass and insult someone who never professed to be either a scientist or a philosopher.

Matthews seems to assume that Mr. Christie's belief in God is incompatible with a belief in evolution, but as Alvin Plantinga explains in his recent book, Where The Conflict Really Lies, there is no such incompatibility. Indeed, the assumption that there is is such an elementary confusion that Matthews unwittingly embarrasses himself by making it.

It's too bad Christie didn't think to ask Matthews exactly what he means by the term "evolution" because the discomfiture that question would've elicited would've been entertaining to watch. Matthews seems to have no clear idea what is meant by the term. If he did he certainly wouldn't have framed the question the way he did.

Evolution simply means change. If he wanted to ask Mr. Christie whether he "believed in" biological evolution he would have to specify the extent of the change he had in mind. Is he simply referring to variation around a phenotypical mean or is he referring to "molecules to man" macroevolution? No matter which it is, before Mr. Matthews starts calling people "troglodytes" he needs to specify exactly how a belief in evolution is incompatible with Mr. Christie's belief that life was created by God. This seems to be beyond the scope of his powers, however.

There are only two ways that belief in even the most comprehensive type of evolution, the "molecules to man" type, could be made incompatible with the belief that God is the Creator. One would be to tack on to the scientific theory of macroevolution a metaphysical assumption that the whole process happened naturalistically without any input from a non-physical agent. Of course, no one, not even someone as eminent in the field of philosophy of science as Mr. Matthews regards himself to be, can know that this is the case.

The other way to make macroevolution incompatible with belief in a divine Creator is to tack on to one's belief in God a belief in young-earth creationism - the belief that God created everything in six days some 10,000 years ago. This view is clearly incompatible with "molecules to man" evolution, but it's not an essential element of theism nor is it clear that it's Mr. Christie's position. Even if it were, it's not clear that Matthews would have the faintest idea how to rebut it other than to just insult anyone who holds it.

But then insulting one's opponents is a time-honored tactic among those who have no compelling argument and who moreover haven't the foggiest idea what they're talking about. Perhaps someone might send Mr. Matthews a copy of Plantinga's book, but I doubt he'd be interested in reading it. Bullies aren't usually interested in deepening their understanding of the world.

Reaganite Or Opportunist?

Newt Gingrich has rode to prominence by wrapping himself in the mantle of Ronald Reagan and promoting himself as the most viable conservative alternative in the Republican field to squishy moderate Mitt Romney.

Elliot Abrams, a former Assistant Secretary of State under Reagan and colleague of Newt's in the House of Representatives, remembers things considerably differently, however:
In the increasingly rough Republican campaign, no candidate has wrapped himself in the mantle of Ronald Reagan more often than Newt Gingrich. “I worked with President Reagan to change things in Washington,” “we helped defeat the Soviet empire,” and “I helped lead the effort to defeat Communism in the Congress” are typical claims by the former speaker of the House.

The claims are misleading at best. As a new member of Congress in the Reagan years — and I was an assistant secretary of state — Mr. Gingrich voted with the president regularly, but equally often spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat Communism. Gingrich was voluble and certain in predicting that Reagan’s policies would fail, and in all of this he was dead wrong.

The fights over Reagan’s efforts to stop Soviet expansionism in the Third World were exceptionally bitter .... But the most bitter battleground was often in Congress.

Here at home, we faced vicious criticism from leading Democrats — Ted Kennedy, Christopher Dodd, Jim Wright, Tip O’Neill, and many more — who used every trick in the book to stop Reagan by denying authorities and funds to these efforts. On whom did we rely up on Capitol Hill? There were many stalwarts: Henry Hyde, elected in 1974; Dick Cheney, elected in 1978, the same year as Gingrich; Dan Burton and Connie Mack, elected in 1982; and Tom DeLay, elected in 1984, were among the leaders.

But not Newt Gingrich. He voted with the caucus, but his words should be remembered, for at the height of the bitter struggle with the Democratic leadership Gingrich chose to attack . . . Reagan.
Abrams goes on to explain how Gingrich attacked Reagan.

It's really quite remarkable that a man who said the sort of things about Reagan that Abrams imputes to Newt, a president of his own party under relentless assault by the Left, would now claim to be the modern incarnation of the man himself. The more one reads about the Newtster the more one understands why so many conservatives not only don't support him, but actively oppose him.