Thursday, April 28, 2005

Brain Reading

There was a troubling BBC news story recently: " Brain scan 'sees hidden thoughts'." The subtitle reads "Scientists say they can read a person's unconscious thoughts using a simple brain scan."

The actual results are a bit less sensational, but the scientists' reactions deserve a headline in themselves.

The news story is based on two studies in Nature Neuroscience, one by Dr. Frank Tong and Dr. Yukiyasu Kamitani, the other by Dr Geraint Rees and Dr John-Dylan Haynes. Both studies used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which finds the brain's active regions as shown by blood flow. Tong & Kamitani were able to discriminate the orientation of a visual image (a series of parallel bars) a research subject was thinking about. Rees & Haynes were able to tell the orientation of a visual image whose duration was too short to register in the consciousness of the subject (that is, a subliminal image).

The responses of scientists the news story records reflect problems with our society's view of the world. Dr. Burgess's comments are downright alarming:

"It could potentially be used to find out people's latent attitudes and beliefs that they are not aware of.

"You could use it to detect people's prejudices, intuition and things that are hidden and influence our behaviour."

He said it might be possible to dip into people's repressed memories or even see people's hidden fears and phobias.

"That's a long way off, but it is exciting."

(Sure: exciting like being tied to a railroad tie with a train rapidly approaching!)

So, you could use a machine to detect what Orwell called "thoughtcrime"? That's frightening enough (assuming it's even possible), but this oblivious scientist tops himself by gushing enthusiastically about achieving such menacing power over nature. As C.S. Lewis wrote: "what we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument." And then scientists wonder why people don't trust them about embryonic stem-cell research and vaccines!

Dr Rees said: "This is the first basic step to reading somebody's mind. If our approach could be expanded upon, it might be possible to predict what someone was thinking or seeing from their brain activity alone."

It could be that Rees's statement is taken out of context, but at face value it equates "thinking" and "seeing." There is a big difference between the two. Seeing is a primarily sensory, as is recalling a sensory image (or phantasm), so it would make sense that the brain would be deeply involved, and so there should be detectable indications of what is being seen. In contrast, thinking involves universals, which cannot be corporeal; thus it would seem that thinking is largely a "private" happening, i.e., one that cannot be "read" empirically. Seeing primarily involves the brain, but thinking primarily involves the incorporeal mind. Thus these researchers are engaged not in mind reading, but rather in "brain reading."

As might be expected, the "peer-written summary (by Geoffrey Boynton) of the two results is more measured in its appraisal of the implications of the research:

These two studies have interesting implications about the role of V1 [the visual cortex] in consciousness. Being just two synapses away from the eye, V1 is usually considered an early visual area. Early visual areas tend to represent properties of the physical stimulus, whereas visual areas later in the processing stream seem to hold our conscious percept, or our brain's interpretation of the stimulus. The finding by Haynes and Rees is consistent with this idea, and supports the theory that we are not consciously aware of all of the processing going on in V1.

Even the New York Times's article is more measured than the Beeb's article. Perhaps the BBC is not content to leave Tony Blair alone to "sex up" the news.

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, ch 3.

John-Dylan Haynes and Geraint Rees, "Predicting the orientation of invisible stimuli from activity in human primary visual cortex," Nature Neuroscience 8, 686–691 (2005).

Yukiyasu Kamitani and Frank Tong, "Decoding the visual and subjective contents of the human brain," Nature Neuroscience 8, 679–685 (2005).

Geoffrey M. Boynton, "Imaging orientation selectivity: decoding conscious perception in V1," Nature Neuroscience 8, 541-542 (2005).

Anthony Rizzi, The Science Before Science (Baton Rouge, LA: IAP Press, 2004).

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Does Abortion Cut Crime?

Steve Sailer slams another homerun in his latest, in which he refutes economist Steven D. Levitt's theory that abortion cuts crime. Sailer finds exactly the opposite. Here's a pertinent paragraph from his write-up in the The American Conservative.

But the acid test of Levitt’s theory is this: did the first New, Improved Generation culled by legalized abortion actually grow up to be more lawful teenagers than the last generation born before legalization? Hardly. Instead, the first cohort to survive legalized abortion went on the worst youth murder spree in American history.

Abortion became legal in 1970 in California, New York, and three smaller states. Let’s compare the murder rate of 14- to 17-year-olds in 1983 (who were born in the last pre-legalization years of 1965-1969) with that of 14- to 17-year-olds a decade later in 1993 (who were born in the high-abortion years of 1975-1979). Was this post-Roe cohort better behaved than their pre-legalization elders? Not exactly. Their murder rate was 3.1 times worse.

This result might surprise you:

Why did the abortion rate and the illegitimacy rate both skyrocket during the ‘70s? Isn’t abortion supposed to cut illegitimacy? Roe largely finished off the traditional shotgun wedding by persuading the impregnating boyfriend that he had no moral duty to make an honest woman of his girlfriend since she could get an abortion. The CDC noted, “Among women aged 15–29 years conceiving a first birth before marriage during 1970–74, nearly half (49 percent) married before the child was born. By 1975–79 the proportion marrying before the birth of the child fell to 32 percent, and it has declined to 23 percent in 1990–94.”

In fact, a wise man in 1968 predicted this would happen with the legalization of contraception (and a fortiori for abortion):

...first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection. (17)

The presumption here is that there is an unchanging nature underlying our humanity. By "unchanging nature," I don't mean whether or not one takes a car to work instead of a horse, or that one pierces unusual body parts, but that the basic interactions (which flow directly from our human nature) remain changed: every human being throughout history has required air, food, water, shelter, and parents. It is from needs such as these that basic principles of right and wrong flow. The arrogance of our age is to thoughtlessly throw off the difficultly acquired moral insights of previous generations. By moral insights, I mean answers to Aristotle's question: what can I do to have a fulfilling life?


That being said, I've just been checking one of Steve's plots, the one drawn from this Bureau of Justice page.

Steve sees an upward trend in the data for the first Roe cohort. I'd really like to agree with his conclusion, but unfortunately he makes the common mistake of omitting uncertainty, which I take to be the number with unknown ages. Here's my plot:

As you can see, the uncertainties are rather large and wash out most trends. The red line is another possible fit to the data with error bars.

I must say that I like it when a write is generous enough to laud the worthy aspects of an adversary's work. Here Steve praises Levitt.

Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), 1968 July 25, n. 17.

Steve Sailer, The American Conservative (May 9, 2005).

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Real Thomas Malthus

Yesterday I connected social Darwinism with conservatism, but didn't make the link as explicit as I had wished. True enough, Darwin himself struggled with religious belief but landed on the atheist side.

Darwinism has a distinctly "conservative" conceptual origin. Darwin's idea of natural selection came from Thomas Malthus's Essay on Population. As David Stove summarizes,

There was a cruel irony in this affair. For Malthus was, along with Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, one of the bitterest enemies, and wisest critics, of the Enlightenment; while evolutionism (as I have said) was a regular element of the Enlightenment's intellectual armoury. Yet in the 1830s and '40s when evolutionists had got hopelessly stalled by the problem of explaining evolution, it was Malthus, and he alone, who provided them with the explanation which they themselves had been seeking in vain. (20)
Schemes for community of property or for the equalisation of wealth had been pouring out of France for 50 years when Malthus first published his Essay. They came from the pens of Mably, Rousseau, and Morelly, among others. In the 1790s such schemes had been powerfully advocated in France by Condorcet and Baboeuf, and in England by William Godwin in Political Justice (1793), and Thomas Paine in The Rights of Man (1792). But Malthus was convinced that [what was effectively] communism would replace the existing comparative poverty by most by the absolute poverty of all, and that it would, in the process, destroy everything which distinguishes the civilised from the savage state.... (39)

Malthus' Essay on Population of 1798....claimed to point out a fatal flaw in all proposals for abolishing private property, or for equalising wealth. (20)

Despite Malthus's failure on biological reasoning, his economic arguments stand on their own:

His economic argument against communism was, that where no one could hope to improve their own or their children's economic position, and no one need fear to worsen it, no one would have a sufficient motive to work or save or limit the number of their children. His main argument against 'creeping socialism', such as the Poor Law system was that it created the poverty it was intended to relieve: both by economically rewarding those who depend upon the system, and by economically penalising those who do not. (50)

Sound familiar?

Stove faults the many who have never read Malthus for misrepresentating his ideas. (As one who has only read Stove and not Malthus, I could well belong to this category.) The conventional wisdom on Malthus errs on other counts as well:

  1. "Malthus's Essay, say advocates, neither openly or covertly, the practice of contraception. Nothing could be further from the from than this belief. Malthus was fiercely opposed to contraception, and made this fact sufficiently clear in his book." (He classes contraception as "vice.")
  2. "an even more grotesque misconception about the Essay is.... the belief that Malthus, with wonderful prescience, had written his book in order to warn humanity of the catastrophic 'over-population' which was even then impending over us, and which is now—because we have failed to heed his warning—about to descend upon us." (40; theory would produce a stable state.)

The pithiest rejoiner to Malthus (and similarly to eugenicists and evolutionists) was penned by William Godwin in his 1820 essay Of Population. If Malthus's proposition that food scarcity is the primary restraint on population growth, he says, "then the English would have long ago become a people of nobles."

David Stove, Darwinian Fairytales (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1995).

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Social Darwinists All?

It has been said, with some merit perhaps, that the peculiar paradox of American politics is this: that one party embraces Darwinism but (ostensibly) eschews social Darwinism, while the other party rejects Darwinism proper, but effectively advocates social Darwinism.

This statement is an exaggeration, but cariacatures can help us to see more clearly. On the one hand, we have the Democrats. This once proud party has devolved into a loose band of sexual perverts and various groups who feel entitled to public money. For Will Rogers, the being a Democrat meant championing the "little guy." But the party that once advocated to make the weaker man stronger (at base a noble Christian impulse) has become the party that tries to make the weaker argument the stronger. Since freedom for them means independence, anything that is intrinsically attractive, wholesome, or good that would make a claim on 'freedom' must be destroyed.1 As long as a human institution strengthens human society and human life, they are against it. Any weak or unnatural institution should be protected and possibly funded by an omnipotent state, in their view.

The central issue for the Dems, the one sacred plank of their platform, is the so-called right of a mother to free her unborn child from the 'burden' of existence; and this issue above all shows how they have very literally abandoned the 'little guy.' The Dems' long slide into doublespeak seems to have begun when FDR, a rich guy who pretended to understand the poor, brought Marxists into government. Rejecting the good, Marxists and increasingly Democrats reject God, so that an atheistic, militantly anti-religious tone pervades the the Democratic party. In 1968 the Dems ejected religious believers who have slowly, ineluctibly migrated to the GOP. The members seem to find no intrinsic meaning in human life, and many parents should be denied the right to decide whether their children should be taught the shortcomings of Darwinism. (So Dems believe a mother should be able to decide to terminate her child, but not whether schools may teach him any religion but Darwinism.)

On the other hand are the Republicans, who traditionally have consisted of moneyed interests. Since religious believers can no longer find a home with the Democrats, they flee to the GOP. The Grand Old Party now consists of an uneasy alliance between business interests and social conservatives. It is predominantly the rich who advocate social Darwinism, as they resent the claims of the lower classes. The efforts of the GOP largely center around culling government regulation so that stronger businesses (and people), who 'naturally' thrive2, will triumph over weaker. On the other hand religious/social conservatives dislike Darwinism proper, but as Protestant individualism creates (in even non-Protestants) a strong affinity for libertarian economics, which, untempered by civil society, can easily slide into social Darwinism. Taken to its logical extreme, justice becomes the advantage of the strong, ala Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic.

Health care is one issue that may reveal the tension in the GOP. On the one hand, the Christian understanding of the intrinsic dignity of every human being demands equal protection for all. On the other hand, a strict capitalistism would demand a utilitarian valuation of lives, so that those who contribute less to society (reduced to its economic dimension) should receive less of its resources. This issue will certainly be the subject of serious discernment among thoughtful Republicans.

The Democrats, despite their pious protests, pay even more allegiance to social Darwinism than do the Republicans. In advocating "[abortion] rights," the Democrats wage a covert war of genocide: aborted children are disproportionately African-American. The practice is merely a continuation of Margaret Sanger's eugenics movement and its goal to "create a race of thoroughbreds." Recall that Sanger spawned Planned Parenthood; her ideas most fully flowered in Hilter's camps.

Inconsistency (or hypocrisy) is typical of social Darwinists. Even if Darwinism were true for all non-human creatures (a giant "if"), social Darwinism is intrinsically self-contradictory.

But what is it, then, that Hard Men [social Darwinists] in their extensive writings do say? Why, this. Instead of saying, what according to their own theory, they should say, that unemployment relief (for example) is impossible, they say it is deplorable. (Because it actually increases poverty both by rewarding economic dependence and by penalising independence.) Instead of saying, what their own theory implies, that a hospital among humans is inconceivable,like a hospital among flies, they say that hospitals are injurious to our species. (Because they enable unfit persons to survive and reproduce.) Instead of saying, what Darwinism really implies, that govemments and priesthoods are hallucinalions, they say that they are harmful. (Because they interfere with or negate the salutary processes of competition and natural selection.)

In this way a very curious historical fact has come about. Namely, that the writings of the Darwinian Hard Men make up, not at all what you would have expected, a literature of the biology and natural history of our species, but a literature of moral and political exhortation instead. Hard Men say that competition for survival and the natural selection which results from it, are processes just as inevitable among humans as they are among pines or flies. Yet every page they write is written in order to prevent those processes being interfered with or negated: that is, to prevent the inevitable being led astray!3

Social Darwinists have created an "ought" in a worldview that tolerates no obligation.

Beneath the Darwinian contradiction, the political system is itself built on a destabilizing anthropology. Our system of government and our civil society are founded on a conception of the human person inherited from the Enlightenment. Philosophers of that era, like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and J-J Rouseau, positted a "state of nature" in which free men with no allegiances come together to form a state by surrendering some part of their 'freedom.' The problem with this vision is that human beings never start their existence as fully functioning adults, but are born into a community of love—the Family. The Family makes no sense in Enlightenment terms.

What, for example, is a Hobbesian savage, presumably an adult male, doing with a family at all, however 'limited and temporary'? In a 'continual free fight', any man who had on his mind, not only his own survival, but that of wife and child, would be no match for a man not so encumbered. Huxley's man, if he wanted to maximize his own chances of survival, and had even half a brain, would simply eat his wife and child before some other man did. They are first class protein, after all, and intraspecific Darwinian competition is principally competition for the means of subsistence, isn't it? Besides, wives and children are 'easy meat', compared with most of the protein that goes around even at the best of times.4

As the family is the basis of all other societies, natural bonds like community and government are artifacts according the conception of the human person implicit in our political system. It should then be no surprise that prevailing political forces act to break up the family and destroy communities.

My friend Dave Sloan was in town this weekend. He has a different scheme for delineating the tensions (what he calls "inconsistencies") within the parties' philosophies.

1. D.C. Schindler, "Freedom Beyond Our Choosing," Communio XXIX: 4 (Winter 2002), 623.

2. Since government is assumed 'unnatural.'

3, 4. David Stove, Darwinian Fairytales (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1995), 6, 3.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

They Don't Know "Bleep"

A friend of mine asked me to review a film that's recently been released on DVD. It's called What the "Bleep" Do We Know?, and my friend was hoping for a review that would explain the popularity of the film and debunk the physics.

Unfortunately, I have next to zero understanding of the popularity of this film, which is a new-age infomercial for self-help thinly disguised as science.

The film is basically a documentary that features a number of talking heads ("experts"). This by itself would be rather boring, so the filmmakers have interspersed a narrative that stars Marlee Matlin as Amanda, a photographer who is (surprise) deaf and carries a train-load of emotional baggage from her break-up with her filandering husband. There are also a lot of computer graphics thrown to illustrate the "scientific" points and personify biochemical concepts ("emotional neuropeptides") used to explain "addictions."

The style of the film alone I found extremely annoying. The use of computer graphics was heavy-handed and annoying: far too jerky and the transitions between shots were jarring. The main character was unsympathetic, and I didn't believe the resolution in which she sheds her baggage by achieving the Enlightenment of "The Greatest Love of All" as Whitney Houston sang of "learning to love yourself."

Ramtha, Demon-ladyOn the philosophical plane, it was very evident to me that the "experts" talk of addictions was more about themselves than anyone else; most of them act like compulsive weirdos. About half-way through the film, I had the distinct impression that the large blonde woman identified as "Ramtha" must be possessed. The speakers' credentials were only revealed at the end, and she was labelled as "Ramtha, Master Teacher- Ramtha School of Enlightenment, channeled by J.Z. Knight". I don't understand what that means, but the Wikipedia article on the film explains:

Knight was born Judith Darlene Hampton in Roswell, N.M. The spirit, Ramtha, who she claims to channel, is "a 35,000 year-old warrior spirit from the lost continent of Atlantis and one of the Ascended Masters." (Knight speaks with an accent because English is not Ramtha's first language.)
Weird, or what? Significantly, the article also notes that the three filmmakers are students of her School of Enlightenment, a fact conveniently omitted from the film. (The IMDB review mentions some unsavory history of expert "Miceal Ledwith" too; perhaps it suffices to note that he is a former priest.)

The moral of the story seems to be that real love (of another) is unfulfilling and happiness requires worshipping yourself as god.

My theory is that the appeal comes from people's desire to have their self-indulgence justified by something that has the appearance of intellectual sanction; if it's a "scientific seal of approval," even better.

The science itself was pretty thread-bare. It's hard to know where to begin. It doesn't exactly take a Ph.D. to realize that a phrase like "water is the most receptive of the four elements" is not very scientific. A more main-stream fallacy the film voices is that "the universe is mostly empty," which is to claim that subatomic particles, like electrons and protons, are minuscule next to the vast "empty spaces" between them. It's sad, but scientists make stupid metaphysical claims (i.e., about being) like this all the time. They naively disregard the electrical force fields binding the particles as legitimate constituents of matter. Supposedly even subatomic particles will eventually be described as force fields, so by this reasoning even speaking about the particles as "something" is stupid.

Another scientistic assertion in the film is that "quantum mechanics allows for the intangible phenomenon of freedom to be woven into reality." This claim is so common that even otherwise very level-headed physicists fall into it. I hope to write on this more in future, but in a nutshell, the basic mistake is to equate the randomness of quantum mechanics with freedom of will.

Chance is the intersection of two otherwise unrelated lines of causality, as Aristotle says. To invoke chance is not to explain this intersection, and not to say it is uncaused, but merely to say that we don't know the cause.

Free will, on the other hand, means that the agent moves himself and is not determined by anything external. Free will is undeniable: to assert that human will is unfree is to undermine the truth value of that very statement.

Consider receiving a message that a terrorist has attached a bomb to your car's ignition. Consider what difference it would make if you were to discover the source of the message to be one of these:

  1. a random number generator,
  2. a trustworthy person forced at gunpoint to send you that message, or
  3. a dependable person under no compulsion

Which would you trust?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Technology at the Conclave

Debugging and jamming the Sistine Chapel (credit to Endgadget)

Live webcam on Sistine Chapel chimney (thanks to MC for the tip):

I've a number of posts in the works, but have been rather pre-occupied with my actual 9-5 job, as well as some events that tie into the subject of this blog. I'm hoping to post something substantive later this week.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Tradition: Senseless or Sensible?

Back in 1998, some friends of mine forwarded me this story1 that underscores the mindlessness of tradition (a fellow who claims to be the author has posted it here):

US Standard Railroad Gauge or
How MilSpecs Live Forever

The US Standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English expatriates. Why did the English people build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.

Why did "they" use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing. Okay! Why did the wagons use that odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagons would break on some of the old, long distance roads, because that's the spacing of the old wheel ruts.

So who built these old rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The roads have been used ever since. And the ruts? The initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagons, were first made by Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for or by Imperial Rome they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

Thus, we have the answer to the original questions. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification (Military Spec) for an Imperial Roman army war chariot.

MilSpecs and Bureaucracies live forever.

So, the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse's ass came up with it, you may be exactly right. Because the Imperial Roman chariots were made to be just wide enough to accommodate the rear-ends of two war horses.

My very clever friend Sean T. Brady composed this reply2 showing that apparently mindless traditions often draw on wisdom beyond our awareness:

Everything the author writes is correct (except for the bit about the rear-ends of the horses). But he misses the whole experiment with narrow-gauge railroads at the end of the 19th century, when railroad builders in the US realized that they could save a fortune by building narrower gauge railroads, and trains to match. Problem was that the new trains could carry far less weight than even their reduced proportions would suggest. At the end of a long and expensive period of trial and error, the railroad builders reverted to the standard gauge, which engineers later discovered provides the optimal load carrying capacity, i.e. for the same strength axle, the highest number of pounds per inch of width.

The lesson to take home from this exchange is that we who live in this sliver of history called the present are not necessarily wiser than those of previous slivers, and that we unthinkingly discard their accumulated wisdom only at our loss. As I quoted Chesterton last week, only when we understand a tradition are we qualified to judge its merit.

[1] Interesting note about the source of the story here. According to this site, the author of the story is Bill Innanen . The possible origin is telling:

I wrote the "MilSpec" story on 9 Feb 1994 as a humor posting for a private mailing list. You can see the original posting on my web site at [broken link]. I had never seen the story in writing, but I had heard a similar piece on the radio some years previous. I think it was on the CBS radio series "The Osgood Files" but I'm very uncertain of that. It'd be something that Charles Osgood would do, though. Because I deal professionally with the military R&D world, the story stuck with me through the years.

[2] Rewrite of a longer reply that Sean had sent me long before, but which we both misplaced.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Marriage Sprung from the Earth

Jane Galt's libertarian argument for marriage at Asymmetrical Information has been getting a lot of play in the blogosphere, and I am inclined to agree that it is merited. (Thanks to Justin Torres of The Thing Is.) She includes a gem of a quotation from Chesterton that I cannot resist including:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

(Lewis makes a similar argument in chapter 1 of The Abolition of Man.)

Galt's claim of ambivalence on the debate is a bit incredible, but I think she has a good reason for it. As I commented on Torres's post, it is nearly impossible to get bigots even to listen to an argument whose conclusion differs from their notions. So by refraining from an explicit conclusion, a writer allows people with preconceived notions to open their minds long enough to engage reason.

Of course, as far as preconceived notions are concerned, religious people are nearly as guilty as the sodomatrimony lobby. So-called gay marriage advocates (and liberals in general) begin their considerations with "I want" instead of what is. Defending marriage starting with its "sanctity" (holiness) may in fact be correct, but is rhetorically block-headed. One cannot pluck a starting premise from the ideological ether ("the great vector-space in the sky" as a prof of mine would say), neither can one base a convincing argument on heaven (at least in these dark days).

The always pithy Joe Sobran put it simply:

There is no need to appeal to the sanctity of marriage. Lots of societies have tolerated fornication, sodomy, pederasty, and other things Scripture condemns as sins, while seeing as a purely practical matter that they needed one special institution to make a man responsible for his offspring. That institution existed virtually everywhere long before Christianity made it a sacrament.

The practical reason for marriage is so earthy, and the theological reasons are so controversial, that Bush should have stuck to the former. Until a child is conceived by anal intercourse, it’s absurd to talk about “homosexual marriage.” Even the Greco-Roman homosexuals of antiquity saw no need for it. I’m not too clear on how centaurs were conceived, but they didn’t have marriage between men and horses either.

I apologize for the paucity of my posts recently; work and other activities have been keeping me away from the keyboard.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Quid est veritas?

Nature in the news. In today's New York Times, Thomas Cahill shamelessly hangs out his ignorance for all to see. The entire column is an incredible, histerical fantasy fueled by crumbling liberal confidence, but this paragraph particularly caught my eye:

Despite his choice of name, John Paul II shared little with his immediate predecessors. John Paul I lasted slightly more than a month, but in that time we were treated to a typical Italian of moderating tendencies, one who had even, before his election, congratulated the parents of the world's first test-tube baby—not a gesture that resonated with the church's fundamentalists, who still insist on holding the line against anything that smacks of tampering with nature, an intellectual construct far removed from what ordinary people mean by that word.

(Thanks to Craig Kelleher for bringing Cahill's piece to my attention.)

Let's pass over the historical charge that the Pope shared little with his predecessors, and skip to his charge about the Church's notion of nature being

"an intellectual construct far removed from what ordinary people mean by that word."

Let's say for the sake of argument that ordinary people have the same conception of nature as Mr. Cahill. So what? If a majority of people in a country thought that a certain race or class of people were sub-human, would that justify their eradication? If a majority of people (or an apparent majority—it's so hard to count large numbers especially when a minority is disproportionately vocal) desire the death of an innocent man, does that justify the magistrate's concession? When democacy (or demagoguery) decides right and wrong, might makes right, and truth claims will only win a dismissive, "What is truth?"

On the actual merit of Cahill's notion of nature, as I've written before, it is actually the modern version of nature that is a construct—initially an intellectual construct for the most part, but increasingly also a social-cultural construct. The modern idea models nature as a machine. Not surprisingly this conception rose with the ascent of technology and man's increasing isolation from nature's power. Nature as machine lacks any internal dynamic or meaningful purpose: nature is inherently chaotic and can only have order imposed on her by "mind," the purposive element of the world that is definitionally exclusive of nature. In this conception, any forming element or purpose can only be "unnatural"—as if an unruly child were more "natural" than a cultured adult.

The classical notion conceives nature after the natural, organic world of living things. It acknowledges nature's internal dynamics and inherent purposes. She possesses inner principles that bring about development. Thus an oak tree is at least as natural as an acorn, in some sense more so; a cultured, self-controlled adult is more natural than an unruly child.

Cahill's notion of nature is decidedly modern. Thus he thinks that chemically tampering with a woman's hormonal cycle to avoid conception is no less natural than abstaining. This Baconian project casts nature not as a spouse to be cherished, a partner to dance with, but as an object of desire to be taken advantage of, used, and discarded. Is it any surprise then that our modern culture objectifies women? Is it any surpise that a woman's fertility is not something to be valued as part of who she is, but a potential obligation (plus lifetime committment!) to be avoided? Is it any surpise that women in the workplace are expected to be men?

So in truth, it is Mr. Cahill's conception of nature that is an intellectual artifice, one that abuses nature, and abandons the objective world for subjective fantasies.

It's always interesting to see the degree of delusion among the liberal elite (are the words "liberal elite" redundant?). And they are incredibly consistent about it too: whatever they observe about somebody else—when examined fairly and objectively—actually reflects more about themselves than about their ostensible subject. It's almost as if they live in a mirrored room and can only see their own reflections.

Like so many of his generation, Cahill's considerations begin not with what is but with what "I want." These pitiful people have become trapped within the cell of their own ego by abandoning the truth for a lie.

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Root of Peace

Pope John Paul II has crossed the temporal horizon to huis eternal reward. He was a man of unparalleled stature in the modern world. What made him such a giant was his unswerving drive to follow Christ in all things, even to the Chair of Peter, which for every faithful occupant, is built in the shape of the Cross. It is possible to find fault with his papacy, as it would be for that of any human, but it is critical not to take his tremendous legacy for granted. (We must make every effort to avoid fulfilling Fyodor Dostoevsky's defintion in Notes from the Underground of man as "ungrateful biped.")

One of the most brilliant stars of a vast constellation of his outstanding documents was Veritatis SplendorThe Splendor of Truth "regarding certain fundamental questions of the Church's moral teaching" (as the original English edition summarized it). The document is well worth reading (particularly nos. 84-87), but since time is limited, I'm going to focus on another, but closely related teaching of his, given in "his address to the U.N. in 1995 (emphasis added):

It is important for us to grasp what might be called the inner structure of this worldwide movement [for freedom]. It is precisely its global character which offers us its first and fundamental "key" and confirms that there are indeed universal human rights, rooted in the nature of the person, rights which reflect the objective and inviolable demands of a universal moral law. These are not abstract points; rather, these rights tell us something important about the actual life of every individual and of every social group. They also remind us that we do not live in an irrational or meaningless world. On the contrary, there is a moral logic which is built into human life and which makes possible dialogue between individuals and peoples. If we want a century of violent coercion to be succeeded by a century of persuasion, we must find a way to discuss the human future intelligibly. The universal moral law written on the human heart is precisely that kind of "grammar" which is needed if the world is to engage this discussion of its future.

In this sense, it is a matter for serious concern that some people today deny the universality of human rights, just as they deny that there is a human nature shared by everyone. To be sure, there is no single model for organizing the politics and economics of human freedom; different cultures and different historical experiences give rise to different institutional forms of public life in a free and responsible society. But it is one thing to affirm a legitimate pluralism of "forms of freedom", and another to deny any universality or intelligibility to the nature of man or to the human experience. The latter makes the international politics of persuasion extremely difficult, if not impossible

In other words, it is precisely the "essentialism" that the (elite) world flees that will allow peoples (and people) to cooperate. Meaningful dialogue can only be rooted in the objective world. Without persuasion and reason, justice can only be "the advantage of the stronger" (as Thrasymachus says in Plato's Republic).

Pope Paul II faithfully fulfilled his role as Pope to be "a scandal and a mystery," as the chapter was titled in his book with Vitorio Messori. Messori's summary of the Pope's significance is instructive:

Confronted with you—as with each of your predecessors and successors—one must wager, as Pascal said, that you are either the mysterious living proof of the Creator of the universe or the central protagonist of a millennial illusion.

It was no accident The Passion of the Christ followed three sucessive years of The Lord of the Rings. Neither is the latest visitation: worldwide coverage of the life and passing of John Paul II. A great choice presents itself to each person on the planet. How will the world decide?