Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, September 29, 2006


One reason to reject free will is that one believes in a materialist universe governed by deterministic physical laws, which leaves no room for an entity with the power of choice (in the unreconstructed sense: choice is a form/source of non-predetermined causation such that the future cannot be predicted, even in principle, on the basis of the past). The "compatibilist" position attempts to make free will seem compatible with a deterministic universe by exploiting a certain sloppiness in language: sometimes we will use the phrase "of my own free will" in an especially emphatic sense, to signify not merely an act of choice, but an absence of any unusual constraining factors. For example, if I rob a bank because someone has threatened to kill my family if I don't, I might say "I didn't do it of my own free will, I was compelled," to distinguish it from the usual situation where someone robs a bank in the absence of this dire and very specific threat. This is a different situation, though, than if someone drugs me into a coma, dresses me in a robotic suit that can force pre-programmed movements of my limbs, records and splices my voice to state the necessary words, so that the suit marches me into a bank, reproduces my voice saying "Give me all the money or I'll kill you," grabs the cash, and marches me back out, with me being little more than a spectator to the whole episode. The latter is not a case of choice; the former still is.

But even those without a pre-commitment to materialism might be confused by the way that free will interacts with the fact that people typically have "reasons" for their actions.

If you ask me "Why did you do that?" I will not typically answer "Because I chose to," full stop. I'll say, "I bought that car because I needed to commute to work and it was the cheapest I could find." "I took that job because it was more interesting than my previous one." "I went home from the party early because I was feeling ill."

It's true that sometimes people appear to have no reason for their actions. "I don't know why I did it; there was no reason for it..." But this is certainly not the paradigmatic case of choice, and actually if someone seems to be completely unable to account for their reasons, this unusual circumstance might lead us to doubt whether the person was really acting entirely voluntarily, or whether they were perhaps somehow compelled by psychic forces they did not understand-- "Perhaps," we might ask, "you were recently hypnotized?"

Yet if someone has reasons for their actions, doesn't that mean their choice was predetermined? Given circumstance (a) that I needed to commute to work, and (b) that I wanted to save money, my choice to buy that particular car was predetermined. Given that I was feeling ill, my choice to go home from the party was predetermined, no? No exercise of free will here at all.

A somewhat superficial way of explaining how free will is compatible with having reasons for actions is to say that reasons are not sufficient. Given circumstances (a) and (b), I might still not have bought that car. I might have bought another that was slightly more expensive. I might have decided to get a new job closer to home. I might have decided to use a bike and/or public transit to commute. I might have done nothing, failed to go to work, and been fired.

Of course, if we specified more reasons (c), (d), and (e), my choice might narrow further. One might surmise that this is asymptotic: we might never, in practice, be able to list enough situational elements to make my choice completely determined, but if a truly complete description of the situation were made, it would become clear that I could have done nothing else. (We are speaking of mental reasons here by the way, not physical causes, so this has nothing to do with materialist determinist argument.) But this claim confesses itself to be unproven and unprovable. There is really no reason to think that the range of choices narrows asymptotically to one as the situation is more completely specified.

More profoundly, we have choice with respect to what constitutes "reasons." To a businessman, "it was an opportunity to make money" is the best of reasons for an action. To a monk, this is no reason for an action at all, indeed, if he has taken a vow of poverty, it is a reason to avoid that action. This points towards a level of choice that is deeper and more mysterious than the everyday choices we make: our choice of our own telos, our ultimate purposes. There is something inexpressible, or at any rate incompletely expressible, about these ultimate purposes, and the normal accounting of our actions that we offer when asked "why did you do that?" has a certain arbitrary and incomplete character. We are often aware that we could have answered the question in many different ways; we select the explanation, perhaps, that the specific listener will understand or find appropriate, and we are telling the truth, but not the whole truth. For every one of our actions springs ultimately from these deep purposes that people may know us for years without truly understanding; and those few who have the fullest understanding of these purposes are those whom we call (in a sense a bit stronger than the casual one) friends.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Nato asks:

I have a question - how do theistic moral systems make ethics objective (or at least non-arbitrary) in a way materialists can't?

To me, it's not that theistic moral systems have a magic formula for making ethics objective; rather materialism in particular creates problems for ethical realism. Right and wrong is part of the content of our experience. I witness rape, or cruelty, or ingratitude, and I am indignant; I see kindness, or mercy, or love, and my soul rejoices. This does not mean-- not in the least!-- that judgments about right and wrong, in the abstract or in particular cases, are unproblematic or obvious. But it is a starting-place of sorts: a reason to believe that right and wrong are real, and a source of evidence, the interpretation and systematization of which of course is a great challenge, about their content.

The materialist approaches the question with a special handicap: he has a pre-commitment to reduce everything to particles and forces, or else to reject its reality. His trust in introspection, too, is affected; a non-materialist can regard introspection as the most fundamental of all forms of evidence, but a materialist trusts science more than introspection, so to begin the study of ethics with introspection is not satisfying for him. Instead, he has to come up with an account of ethics in materialist terms, a very difficult and, I think, impossible task which is imposed upon him by his materialist pre-commitments.

Some theists will establish objective morality by saying that right/wrong simply IS whatever God commands/forbids. I find this view repugnant. Belief in God is relevant to ethics (if at all) in a different way: first, ethics points the way to a possibility of Ultimate Goodness, however dimly conceived by sinful mortals; second, since ethics often demands self-sacrifice, God-- perhaps his promise of personal salvation, perhaps his mere existence, I'm not sure which-- is the Source of Hope without which ethics would seem futile.


I've been reading the book "Jesus in Beijing" lately, about the spread of Christianity in China. House Church leaders in China-- the Chinese house churches are semi-underground churches, as opposed to the officially sanctioned Christian "Three Self Patriotic Movement"-- estimate that there are 80 million house church Christians in China. The spread of Christianity in China seems to be driven in part by things like miraculous healings, which makes me slightly uncomfortable; I'm not sure to what extent I believe in miraculous healings. It's also partly because China is a sort of credal vacuum: the old Confucian traditions were swept away by communism and anyway are more cultural/philosophical than religious (I don't think most Christians would see anything incompatible about being a Christian and a disciple of Confucius in a qualified way) and Marxism-Leninism-Maoism has been discredited by history, though this is perhaps less clear to those within China, still partly in the grip of state propaganda, than to those outside it.

Christianity in China today is a bit like Christianity in the late Roman Empire. A powerful empire, lacking something to believe in, represses Christianity intermittently, just enough to give it a supply of martyrs, to test Christians faith and solder their solidarity, but not enough to wipe the movement out. So it keeps growing. If the house churches keep growing at their present pace, China will be a majority-Christian country in another generation or two.

A fascinating possibility.

Robert Samuelson writes:

[L]iberals and others who support lax immigration policies across our Southern border should understand that these policies deepen U.S. inequality.

Yet he also writes:

From 1995 to 2005, the rise in the number of Hispanics in poverty -- by 794,000 -- more than accounted for the entire increase in the U.S. poverty population. Poverty among blacks, though still high, declined. Among non-Hispanic whites, it held roughly steady. Health-insurance coverage has also been affected. Since 1995, Hispanics account for about 78 percent of the increase in the uninsured.

It's not clear from this that Hispanic immigration is contributing to inequality among the native-born. Samuelson seems to assume that for an individual Mexican to be poorer than most Americans on American soil is a social problem, but for him to be poorer than most Americans in Mexico is not.

It is wrong to believe that U.S. inequality matters more than global inequality.

Nato comments:

If all normative content is automatically religious in nature then we are a bit stuck, aren't we? However, I don't feel we're doomed to automatic conflict in that way, since I think that we humans generally share plenty of common values that allow us to get along, whatever their provenance... with so many sources of normative agreement it seems highly tendentious to describe all normative content as religious content.

Whether it's tendentious, from a semantic point of view, to equate the word "normative" with the word "religious" is beside the point here, in fact it's a sort of evasion. Like many Christians and other religious people, I regard "normative" and "religious" as essentially inter-dependent, perhaps at some deep level even synonymous, though of course the range of practical applications of the words are very different. I question whether ethics has a foundation if certain basically religious tenets are discarded. I think ethical nihilist John Mackie (see Chapter 1 of the book linked to) is right when it comes to the justifiable content of ethics in a materialist philosophical framework. In effect, there are many normative frameworks, some of which have been labeled "religions" by historical accident, while others have not. "Religious neutrality in schools" is merely discrimination against those normative frameworks that have the misfortune of being on the enumerated list of belief systems recognized as religions. In such a situation, it's appropriate to redefine the word "religion" to include some entities which are relevantly similar.

In a way, Nato and I seem to be coming to a sort of agreement: the best schools can do is to find whatever common ground there seems to be in a particular community. Of course this should be done by some combination of democratic and market processes and not by judicial fiat, and this is the basic reason that our current, secularist-monopoly public school system is the wrong approach.

However, from a philosophical point of view, to say that "we humans generally share plenty of common values" is not convincing. There's room for doubt empirically, but in any case the fact that a lot of people believe something is no proof that it's true. And this is relevant to curriculum policy. If you teach kids, "Don't tell lies because... well, because a lot of people think you shouldn't," the kids have no good reason to believe you. There are two serious problems with this approach. First of all, you are encouraging them to be swayed by prevailing opinion rather than engaging in critical thinking. Second, by telling them a true principle and then offering inadequate reasons, you will encourage them to think that all who hold the principle do so with similarly bad reasons. I would actually rather have a system of education that attempted to rigorously exclude comment on normative issues than one which teaches "generally shared common values" merely as such; the latter, I think, is likely to be subversive both of the specific values that it is teaching and of philosophical honesty generally.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Tom and I had a debate at the bottom of my last post in which we debate the issue of religion in schools. Tom defends the idea of secularist education because it is based on "evidence." I make an abbreviated philosophical argument against the idea that secularism-materialism is based on evidence more than other worldviews are. Philosophers Hillary Putnam and Thomas Nagel make much more sophisticated and thorough versions of an argument with a similar conclusion.

But both Tom and I seem to sort of assume that the curriculum schools teach is evidence-based in the sense that modern science is. Actually I think this is very far from the case. Schools teach history, always taking certain attitudinal stances that are quite value-laden and not merely evidence-based. Indeed, even science classes tend to be penetrated by the weird mythology of environmentalism; it is commonplace for schoolkids to be shown videos of obscure life-forms threatened with extinction and then to be told something along the lines of: the world is an ecosystem, and everything is dependent on everything else, and if Obscure Species X has no future, then human beings don't either. There is no mysterious scientific reason why this counter-intuitive claim is true. In fact many species have gone extinct without threatening our survival. The claim is a religious statement, a tenet, believed quite irrationally (probably more irrationally than any beliefs held by mainstream Christians), by adherents of the postmodern religion of environmentalism.

In the abstract, one might argue for an education system that restricts itself to teaching certain evidence-based truths; only the "fact" side of the fact-value distinction, so to speak. But our education system is nothing like this, and probably no education system could be: it would be too dry, too austere, would not engage pupils' full minds, would not satisfy parents' educational expectations, etc. School curricula certainly contain considerable moral, ideological, etc. content-- religious content, in essence, although the word is not politically acceptable as a description. That is why the claim that schools are "religiously neutral" is so offensive. A religiously neutral curriculum is unattainable in principle, a philosophical impossibility; but one could still imagine something much closer to an evidence-based education than what we have.

Monday, September 25, 2006


The evolution debate on this blog is a bit unusual in that it is not driven by the notion of Biblical inerrancy. According to polls:

In 1996, 58% of American adults said they believed that the Bible was "accurate in all its teachings."

In 2001, 41% of American adults said they believed that the Bible was "accurate in all its teachings."

It's hard to believe that belief in Biblical inerrancy actually dropped by 17% between 1996 and 2001-- probably this is sampling error. Also, if one-half of Americans will casually tell a pollster that they believe the Bible is "accurate in all its teachings," that may not mean that they would assent to a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy if laid out in full dogmatic detail.

It's safe to say that most Americans who say the Bible is inerrant have not read all of it. (I haven't.) In practice, the sticking point is probably the creation story. According to this poll, 51% of Americans believe that "God created humans in their present form," as opposed to either guided or non-guided evolution. That's about the same as the percentage who believe in Biblical inerrancy. (Polls are always subject to an ask-a-stupid-question-get-a-stupid-answer problem. I wonder: were there "Don't know" and "None of the above" options. If not, I can't decide which answer I would have picked.)

The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy is untenable and deeply damaging to religious faith.

First of all, it rests on a dishonest epistemology. In normal life, in order to make a claim, we require a certain sufficiency of evidence. If we make a claim when there is an obvious insufficiency of evidence, we are considered to be lying. If (a) you ask me for directions to the store, (b) I tell you turn right on 18th Street and walk nine blocks, (c) you follow my directions and find nothing, (d) you return and ask me for an explanation of why I thought the store was there, and (e) I say, "oh, I just felt like saying that," then you will rightly be angry with me. To claim that the Bible-- a text thousands of pages long-- is wholly without errors is an extremely ambitious claim. To justify making it, one would at a very minimum have to have read the book from cover to cover, and have conducted considerable investigation into the meaning and veracity of its claims. To claim that the Bible is inerrant without having done so is fundamentally dishonest, although when ordinary people do this they are often more often confused and unreflective. (Some, though, are reflective, are thinking clearly, and are wilfully deceiving themselves and others).

The irony is that when religious people, whether out of confusion or bad conscience, teach Biblical inerrancy, they are actually violating the teachings of the Bible, which commands us not to bear false witness. Some who are taught this fallacy will reject Christianity for the most Biblical of reasons: honesty forbids them to assent to the propositions which they are being taught!

Yet there's an even deeper problem with the Biblical inerrancy idea: it's meaningless. Natural language is characteristically ambiguous and indeterminate, in varying degrees. A reader must entertain various possible meanings, reject some, settle on the one most likely to be the author's intent. Assenting and dissenting is part of the reading process: I read statement X, and then think (perhaps so quickly and automatically that I barely notice it): "That could mean X1, X2, X3, or X4, and X3 and X1 are pretty dumb, the author would hardly have meant that, while X2 is some other views that I know this author holds, so I think the author means X4." Inerrancy is not a characteristic that texts in natural language can have. Inerrancy is a property of statistical tables, technical documents, and other specialized texts that are artificially isolated from the usual ambiguity and indeterminacy of natural language.

When people are told the Bible is inerrant, this is destructive of their critical reading faculties, because-- to the extent that they actually apply the doctrine-- they have to read the Bible as a sort of technical manual; the text is thus murdered and falsified.

Religious professionals know better. Large majorities of the clergy from every denomination questioned (95% of Episcopalians, 87% of Methodists, 82% of Presbyterians, 77% of Lutherans, 67% of Baptists) rejected the proposition that "the Scriptures are the inspired and inerrant Word of God in faith, history, and secular matters." The reason for this is obvious enough: these people have read and pondered the Bible and its meaning. To do this is likely to prompt the realization that the inerrancy idea misses the point.

What is remarkable is the gap between religious professionals and ordinary lay Americans, particularly since half of all American adults, with nonreligious included in the sample so that among the religious the share must be higher, seem to believe in Biblical inerrancy (unless the stupid-question-stupid-answer problem is distorting the results). This represents a serious failing on the part of religious professionals, who really should have educated their congregations better. On the other hand, one can't entirely blame them: a government-run secularist school system largely marginalizes the teaching of religion to Sundays.

UPDATE: Tom Reasoner comments:

The main problem with teaching religion in schools is that if you're going to teach about one, you have to teach about them all (to be fair and just).

Um, no, not if you have a voucher system. Then schools can mix religion into the curriculum any way they want, and parents can choose which type of school they want their children to attend. Of course, if you're a religious minority, there might not be enough of your kind to support a school that teaches your faith, and you would have to send your child to a school that teaches another religion, and do religious instruction on the side. In that case, you'd be in the same position as Christians and others are today, sending their children to secularist schools and teaching religion on the side. There's nothing "fair and just" about secularists getting to educate their children in their own beliefs at the taxpayer's expense, while other groups don't. Tom goes on to recite the secularist catechism:

And here's the best part about being secular: if my beliefs are wrong, and evidence is found indicating that, I won't stubbornly continue to hold those beliefs, I'll change them to something that the new evidence supports, thereby strengthening my "faith". You could say I temper my beliefs in the flame of evidence. Belief in secularism, when it comes right down to it, is simply belief in evidence.

The secularist-materialist worldview implies a certain determinism in the physical world that is incompatible with the existence of free will. It also effectively denies the existence of the ethical-- unless right and wrong can somehow be reduced to a material basis, which they can't. Our everyday experiences of right and wrong and free will are evidence-- sufficient evidence-- against the secularist-materialist worldview. There must be something more than what the secularist-materialist view has to offer. People intuit this, which is why religion remains strong despite an onslaught from the intelligentsia that has lasted for centuries. Tom has learned to blind himself to this basic introspective evidence. He doesn't realize he's doing it anymore, which is why he can get on his just-the-evidence high horse.


From the New York Times:

While Republicans prefer to blame Democrats for the backlog, intramural fights and sharp differences between House and Senate Republicans have been chief impediments to major legislation. The recent fissures over terrorism detainees and how far to go in changing immigration law are just the latest and most public examples of serious policy differences among Republicans...

Circumstances have changed in Washington from the days when Republicans were famous for party discipline. President Bush, weakened by his sliding popularity, has been unable to hold sway over Congress. The Republican leadership in the House and the Senate is in transition and lacks the muscle of Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader. Republican lawmakers, many facing their most serious electoral opposition in years, are fending for themselves.

“We have no central core of political authority driving things in Washington,” said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “Individuals and expressions of individual will by committees, and also by strong people like John McCain, have dominated, and the result is internal fighting.”

The irony is that a lot of conservatives and libertarians voted for Kerry in hopes of getting "gridlock." Now they're advocating for the Democrats in 2006 for the same reason.

Me, I think a "do-nothing Congress" is not such a bad idea. Social Security reform would be nice, but in general, legislation is at least as likely to be harmful as beneficial, so gridlock is good news. I'm particularly happy that the latest nastiness on immigration is getting stalled:

“I’ve seen some of that lately,” Mr. Frist said recently as he pondered whether Republican opposition would block a proposal for a 700-mile border fence — the chief piece of immigration-related legislation still standing after a broader measure fell victim to Republican disputes. Because of reservations from Democrats and Republicans who favor the broader bill, Mr. Frist is having trouble rounding up enough votes for a showdown over the fence this week.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Having defended Christianity against the charge of being spread by the sword, I might as well defend Islam too. Charles Krauthammer writes:

Islam, of course, spread with great speed from Arabia across the Mediterranean and into Europe. It was not all benign persuasion. After all, what were Islamic armies doing at Poitiers in 732 and the gates of Vienna in 1683? Tourism?

But while Islam's political rule was spread by the sword, the Islamic religion was not. For the most part, Christians and Jews could live peaceably under Muslim rule. As in contemporary America, other religions were taxed to uphold the dominant one (then Islam, today secularism). But unlike in contemporary America, Muslims had legal privileges vis-a-vis other religions. Also, Christians and Jews were not permitted to proselytize, nor were Muslims allowed to convert to these other faiths, on pain of death. (The same was true, with a religious role-reversal, in early modern Spain.) Even today converts away from Islam are subject to death threats.

Another interesting tidbit from Nato:

A major difference between the Catholic Church and other Abahamic faiths is the division of spiritual and temporal authority - a difference to which many attribute the rise of constitutional liberalism and the ancestor to our modern separation of church and state. Because there was a constant tension between the power of the Church and that of the various nobles, third parties could survive in the cracks.

I've heard this theory but I don't find it very convincing. Of course separation of church and state is a product of Christian history, since "church" is a Christian concept. But I question the link between church and state and constitutional liberalism. Logically, the separation of church and state is actually hard to reconcile with liberal democracy: if the people want to have prayer in schools, or erect a cross on public land, who should have the right to tell them they can't? A clear distinction between separation of church and state and religious tolerance is needed. You can have either one without the other. In practice, "separation of church and state" as practiced in contemporary America was invented after WWII and is certainly not a precondition for constitutional liberalism.

It seems like any environment in which there are distinct powers could engender the "tension" that would allow "third parties to survive." Surely that could arise in many cultures? The link between Christianity and the rise of constitutional liberalism is correct, I think, but a different story is needed.

Nato comments:

Christianity, like many other faiths, grew throughout the fairly tolerant Roman Empire until it (unlike the others) supplanted the original Roman pantheon by fiat. Declared, of course, by temporal authority.

At the risk of splitting hairs, this is a bit misleading.

It is true that the Roman Empire was fairly tolerant towards faiths other than Christianity (and to some extent Judaism), but its habit of feeding Christians to the lions makes seriously mars its record of "tolerance."

To say that Christianity supplanted the Roman pantheon "by fiat" is also a bit strange. First, it sounds like it was the "fiat" of the Christians that brought about the change, whereas actually the "fiat" came from Constantine, who was probably sincere (there's a touching conversion story, anyway) but in part probably wanted to instrumentalize this powerful institution, the Christian Church, in order to shore up a waning Roman Empire.

Second, ancient Greco-Roman paganism had been in decline for centuries; reading the Dialogues of Plato one can easily see that even in the fifth century B.C. its hold on people's convictions was rather tenuous. One emperor-- Constantine-- converted to Christianity, and Roman paganism thereby ceased to be the state religion. But pagans (and Jews) were not forced to convert to Christianity. To suggest that government fiat, rather than various kinds of persuasion, explains the rise of Christianity vis-a-vis paganism, is not really accurate. (Bear in mind that at that time Christianity's competitors were less convincing than its competitors today. Does any modern feel the need to consider the question: Were the pagans right?)

One might think, reading Nato's comment, that the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity resulted in a diminution of religious tolerance. In fact, the opposite is probably the case. The privileges which Christianity acquired did not include forced conversion of non-Christians. A bit later, there was some violent suppression of a Christian heresy called Donatism in North Africa. One would have to compare the scale of this to the scale of the persecutions against Christians before Constantine, but I think a careful study would show that the conversion of Constantine led to an increase in religious tolerance in the Roman Empire.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Discussing the Pope's condemnation of religious violence, Christopher Hitchens writes:

[Y]ou do not have to be a Muslim to think that for the bishop of Rome to cite this is the most perfect hypocrisy. There would have been no established Byzantine or Roman Christianity if the faith had not been spread and maintained and enforced by every kind of violence and cruelty and coercion.

Some readers of Christopher Hitchens' article might make the mistake of regarding this as a controversial opinion about the history of Christianity. In fact there is no matter of opinion here: this is a sheer falsehood, a statement which would no reading, no matter how charitable, could reconcile with the relevant centuries of Christian history. (It is perhaps not a lie, simply because Hitchens suffers from a weird anti-religious derangement and really believes what he is saying. This attitude was more common two or three generations ago than it is now, when it has become somewhat exotic.) Hitchens' utterances are to the history of religion as the idea of a flat earth is to geography.

For three centuries in early Christian history, Christianity was oppressed by the Roman Empire, and Christians were subject to intermittent persecutions-- thrown to the lions etc.-- yet the religion nonetheless spread, eventually constituting probably about 10% of the Roman Empire's population. In 313 the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, and afterwards there was a succession of Christian emperors and Christianity became a favored religion in the Roman Empire, but paganism and other faiths were still tolerated. "Established Roman and Byzantine Christianity" already existed at this time-- there were bishops and deacons and councils and all the rest of it-- before Christianity had ever had the state's authority on its side. Early Christianity spread by voluntary conversion, not by coercion, as it continues to spread in modern times; today there may be 80 million Christians in China, for example.

Much later, in certain places, the faith was "maintained and enforced by... violence and coercion and cruelty." There are a few historical instances of forced conversions to Christianity, e.g. Spanish Jews. Persecution of heretics is much more common. This was often the act of secular rulers rather than church authorities per se, but the Catholic Church was complicit. The Spanish Inquisition devastated Spanish intellectual life for centuries, yet did so-- this underlines the horror of it-- with remarkably little bloodshed: those killed by the Inquisition may have numbered 5,000 in the Inquisition's entire operation, far fewer than were killed at the command of Leon Trotsky during his brief spell in power.

In Hitchens we see a continuation of a black legend about the Catholic Middle Ages which has an interesting history of its own. Certainly by the late Middle Ages the practices of the Catholic Church were very much at odds with the ethos that shines through in the Bible. When the printing press appeared and empowered the common people to read books, including the Bible, the cognitive dissonance was heightened and exploded in religious revolution. Protestant nations faced a military threat from the Catholic powers which left a deep and enduring impression on their cultural psyche. The Enlightenment gave a secular spin to the Protestant animus against Catholicism. Later this anti-Catholicism was adopted and sharpened by Marxism.

The crimes of the Christian churches have been so utterly dwarfed by the crimes of the secular churches of modernity-- liberalism (which in its 19th-century heyday was part of a worldview that also fueled European imperialism in Africa); communism; and fascism-- that to decry the Catholic Church for "every kind of violence and cruelty and coercion" sounds quaint, eccentric, antiquarian. But to be amused by Hitchens' anachronistic notions is not a luxury we can afford. Anti-religious zeal has characterized too many of history's mass killers for us to assume that it has now become harmless. When anti-religious ranters like Hitchens are caught red-handed peddling hoary old falsehoods, people of good will must set the record straight.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that there is one reading under which Hitchens' statement might be regarded as correct. He says that "the faith [was] spread and maintained and enforced by every kind of violence and cruelty and coercion," but he does not say that the violence and cruelty and coercion were practiced by Christians. In fact the savage (though somewhat intermittent) persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire may have been instrumental in spreading the faith. As Tertullian remarked, "blood is the seed of the church," meaning that Christian martyrdoms inspired conversions. I don't think this is what Hitchens meant, of course.

UPDATE: Nato comments that "almost all wars, pogroms and other 'state' actions are usually one step removed from ecclesiastic authority." Actually the Church tended to oppose pogroms, if perhaps only because landowning bishops liked to receive Jews' taxes, and they also tended to oppose wars between orthodox Christian rulers (though the popes did instigate the Crusades): the "peace of God" movement in the 10th century helped to establish peace among the European proto-nobility (though they were more like thugs before the ethos of chivalry partly civilized them) and thus to lay the foundations for a millennium of European economic growth. But Nato's claim is more reconcilable with the historical record than Hitchens', partly because of its vagueness.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Bush's approval rating, and Republicans' generic Congressional vote position vis-a-vis Democrats, are both making a recovery. This poll, which is especially favorable to Republicans (44% approval for Bush, 48-48% generic Congressional vote), may be an outlier, but many polls have sent a similar message.

I have mixed feelings about this. Probably it's partly irrational, like rooting for a team, but there are plenty of substantive reasons to like the Republicans. I didn't support the tax cuts in 2001, but now I'm more sympathetic, partly because I've become more libertarian, partly because strong productivity growth makes them seem more affordable. Heavy federal spending, of course, makes tax cuts seem less affordable, but it also makes it seem more urgent to "starve the beast." Of course, federal spending is a reason not to approve of Republicans, but since Democrats never are by no means trying to get to the right of Republicans on the spending issue-- there are all sorts of "liberal programs" for which they haven't dropped their notional support-- that's no reason whatsoever to support Democrats.

Nothing that's happened since 2004 has made me respect the Democrats more. On the contrary. Democrats should have learned from the 2004 election that the country is not with them; that their message, their ideology, does not resonate. They shouldn't even have needed an election to realize that the man 51% of American voters supported in 2004 should be treated with respect by his political opponents, not smeared and demonized. First of all, that's just good manners. Second of all, by attacking Bush, they're insulting the people whose votes they need in order to win. When Arnold Schwarzenegger's referendums got clobbered in California, he told the voters: I've heard you, and I'll change. Democrats insist that voters change their minds, saying, in effect: "We're sorry, we were wrong to vote for Bush and the Republicans in 2004, we'll give you power now." That kind of arrogance is not fitting in a public servant.

But worse than the Bush-hatred is the Democrats' lack of ideas or coherence. Democrats do probably have some idea what beliefs they have in common, they just won't deign to tell us lowly voters those are.

But then there's the immigration issue. Mickey Kaus writes:

Ponnuru (who argued that Republicans should lose) must be willfully ignoring one conspicuous policy initiative that has already passed the Senate, been embraced by the President, and awaits only approval from a Democrat-led House to be signed into law. It wouldn't matter so much if this law, by establishing the principle of a "path to citizenship" for anyone who sneaks into the country to work, wouldn't run the risk of irrevocably changing the nature of the Republic, including the composition of future electorates that would decide whether to repeal it. But it would. ...

What would really "change the nature of the Republic" would be HR 4437, which would turn 5% of the US resident population into felons, legally, even though, morally, they haven't done anything wrong. This would be a huge step backwards in the long American movement-upwards towards social equality, equivalent to the passage of Jim Crow laws in the 1880s. At best. At worst, it would end in some kind of pogroms or ethnic cleanisng. Had this bill become law it would have been the duty of every American patriot to defy it through civil disobedience; in doing so, they would be defending America in just the same way as soldiers who fight against fascist thugs and ethnic cleansing overseas. Indeed, they would be fighting the same enemies. Since it didn't become law, maybe it doesn't matter, but still there's a certain sacrilege to having men who voted for that act walking the floors of Congress every day and representing the world's greatest democracy.

So as much as I dislike the Democrats, I have to hope they win the House this fall. Sadly, the coat-tails of a rebounding President Bush may save the hides of many an undeserving congressional demagogue.

Monday, September 18, 2006

An excellent Sebastian Mallaby op-ed about immigration. Excerpt:

[A] development-friendly migration debate would sound different from the current one. Immigration advocates in the rich world feel most comfortable making the case for allowing in skilled workers. Skilled migrants, however, trigger the biggest brain-drain concerns; allowing in unskilled workers does more to reduce global poverty. Equally, immigration advocates tend to want arriving workers to assimilate. But the best way to promote development is to allow a rolling cohort of poor workers to amass savings and experience -- and then return to their own countries.

If the United States offered Mexico a million temporary work visas, it could attach conditions. It could stipulate that these workers be recruited by agencies in Mexico, which would screen candidates for criminal records, require minimal English skills -- and ensure repatriation. The agencies could do that, for example, by withholding some of the migrants' pay until they returned home. An agency that failed to bring people back could be ejected from the program.

Enforcing repatriation would still require tough government action. The United States would have to decide what to do about migrants who marry Americans, which is one obvious way in which temporary guests turn permanent. Singapore deals with this problem by denying guest workers the right to marry citizens. That is beyond the pale, you say? But if desperately poor migrants accept the no-marriage condition in exchange for a visa, who are we to second-guess them?

You don't have to be that harsh. Just "Don't Restrict Immigration, Tax It," as I argued back in June.

Mallaby's article was inspired by a recent book by my old prof Lant Pritchett. It's called "Let Their People Come."

Thursday, September 14, 2006


There are two accounts in the Book of Genesis (in the Bible) of the origin of mankind. They are not entirely compatible with each other, though they could be reconciled fairly easily. The first describes how God made the world in seven days, and what he made in each one, with man being made on the 7th. Man is given stewardship over the world. The second is the story of Adam and Eve. In this one language is invented: looking for a mate for man, God brings all the animals, and man names them, but none are suitable; then God makes woman. In the beginning, Adam and Eve are naked, but they feel no shame. There is a tree there called "the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil." Adam and Eve (tempted by a serpent) eat of it against God's orders, "and their eyes were opened, and they saw that they were naked." Then God expels them with various curses.

Now, very few people today accept the historicity of this account. And yet as etiology, there are profound insights here.

The first Genesis story I will describe as a homo sapiens account of the origin of man. It is parallel to the Darwinian creation-myth (I used the word "myth" in a truth-neutral way here) in its sense of progression from sparsity to abundance, from simplicity to complexity. Indeed, if you assume that the "days" do not imply days in the normal chronological sense, but simply periods of time, the first Genesis account can actually be mapped onto modern natural history to some extent. In the first Genesis account, the uniqueness of man rests in his reason and his rulership of the earth: quite similar to the Darwinian conclusion.

The second Genesis story I will describe as a homo vestitus story, because it emphasizes a different unique aspect of man: man wears clothes. This is really an astonishing thing, isn't it? As Thomas Carlyle writes (in Sartor Resartus):

The Horse I ride has his own whole fell: strip him of the girths and flaps and extraneous tags I have fastened round him, and the noble creature is his own sempster and weaver and spinner: nay his own bootmaker, jeweller, and man-milliner; he bounds free through the valleys, with a perennial rainproof court-suit on his body; wherein warmth and easiness of fit have reached perfection; nay, the graces also have been considered, and frills and fringes, with gay variety of colour, featly appended, and ever in the right place, are not wanting. While I-- Good Heaven!-- have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms, the hides of oxen or seals, the felt of furred beasts; and walk abroad like a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature, where they would have rotted, to rot on me more slowly! Day after day, I must thatch myself anew; day after day, this despicable thatch must lose some film of its thickness; off into the Ashpit, into the Laystall; till by degrees the whole has been brushed thither; and I, the dust-making, patent Rag-grinder, get new material to grind down...

I daresay that a satirist can find no theme more timeless than clothes, for we wear clothes from age to age, incessantly, and yet it is quite mysterious why. And in this respect evolutionists have made some incredibly stupid mistakes. Ebenezer Scrooge remarks that: "Garments, Mr. Cratchit, were invented by mankind for protection against the cold. Once purchased, they can be used indefinitely for the purpose for which they were made." What nonsense! Is Scrooge not aware that people in warmer climes also wear clothes? Perhaps he should travel to Africa or India and see for himself! But then, why should he do that, when he can learn the same lesson by observing his fellow man's behavior-- or his own!-- on a hot day in London? For no matter how miserable they are in their shirts and pants and waistcoats and socks, it is a fair bet that in all of London not a single person will do the logical thing and take off his grimy, sweaty rags and cool off in the open air.

Evolutionists have not become any less stupid on the subject of clothes in the past 150 years, if this tidbit from an article in Think magazine is any indication:

Once upon a time, clothing was like food: necessary and free. Almost as soon as we left the jungle, our ancestral naked apes began forming groups which provided the elements of survival for its members.

The clothing was basic and utilitarian at first - designed merely to protect our abnormally large free hanging genitalia - but later evolved into something we moderns might recognize as fashion.

"To protect our naked, free-hanging genitalia?!" Guys, let me asked: when you walk around the house with no clothes on, how worried are you for the safety of your "abnormally large free-hanging genitalia?" Personally, I think mine would be all right. I think I could walk to the store with my abnormally large genitalia hanging freely and be quite confident that, upon my return, they would still be hanging. Honestly, what would happen to them? Now, if I'm going to barge through bushes, maybe some genitalia-protection would be useful (though even then I think I'd do all right). But even if we accept that the genitalia-protecting argument has some force in the case of men (though certainly not enough to explain the universality of the practice) what about women? The author's name is Jonah Weiss, a male name, so I presume he has large free-hanging genitalia. But perhaps Jonah Weiss should be informed that there is a large group of humans which are quite differently configured, who in fact do not have large, free-hanging genitalia. And yet, nonetheless, they too wear clothes, if anything even more universally than men do!

The reason we wear clothes is not heat nor the form of our genitalia, but shame. Alone among all animals, including even our nearest genetic relatives such as chimps, human beings feel an intense sense of shame when our genitalia are exposed to view. Now, the Book of Genesis provides at least an account, albeit one that hardly qualifies as an explanation from the contemporary point of view, of this mysterious human trait. What is the evolutionist explanation of homo vestitus? Why do people wear clothes?

UPDATE: Nato thinks my challenge is easy. He's mistaken.

He writes:

If you want an evolutionary account of clothes, I'm sure it wouldn't be hard to offer a few, but it's fairly difficult to summon conclusive evidence on these topics unless one has a truly encyclopedic knowledge of human populations, their specific histories and traditions. FOr me, it's a matter of embarrassment of riches - there's so many different reasons to wear clothes coming from so many different directions (status markers, tool holders, sexual selection modulators, climate controllers, soft-spot protectors...) that this layman would be astonished to find a culture that hadn't found many uses for acoutrements such that they became part of tradition.

Yes, clothes have many functions, but it doesn't take an "encyclopedic knowledge of human populations" to realize that those functions are secondary; introspection or everyday observations can quickly show it. Status markers? That's a reason to wear a suit and tie, not (typically) a reason to wear a T-shirt and jeans. Tool holders? Yes, I carry keys, a cell phone, my wallet, and my work ID in my pants pockets, but sometimes I don't need any of those things when I go out, and I don't even think about not wearing pants. Sexual selection modulators? Sure, sometimes people dress sexy, but no one says "Ah, screw it, I'm not expecting to pick up any chicks today, I'll just let it all hang out!" Climate controllers? Yes, but it's quite often uncomfortable to wear clothes, even in cold climates (in summer) let alone hot ones, yet we never go without. Also, when we walk into a warm room on a cold day we shed our jackets and overcoats, but not our shirts and pants. Soft-spot protectors? And how often, realistically, are our soft spots in danger? Always? Come on.

I sense the beginning of a different spurious line of argument in the last phrase: "... such that they became part of tradition." But why would tradition require people to wear clothes all the time? A utilitarian approach to clothing would be to wear it usually, but not always. And when traditions become counter-utilitarian, they generally fade away or are overthrown, at least by some people. There's a certain ad hoc Freudianism in this explanation, I think: clothes were useful for utilitarian reasons, but we evolved, either genetically or culturally, an instinct to treat them as imperative in all circumstances, and now this has become a law embedded in our sub-conscious. But seriously. Human beings are great experimenters. Their behavior is fantastically changeable and diverse. And yet in this respect we are one: we are all homo vestitus.

Let me rephrase the challenge: Why does a guy put on pants to go fetch the newspaper on a summer morning. It's really irritating for him: he wants to read the news, but he doesn't want to get dressed yet. The odds are 100 to 1 against anyone seeing him, and if they do it's likely to be a stranger driving by. None of the secondary reasons for wearing clothes apply: he has no tools to carry, no potential sexual partners to impress, it is absurd to imagine that his private parts are seriously threatened, there is no need for climate control, and he certainly is not concerned with displaying his status to anyone. And yet all of us will sigh, waste a valuable minute putting a chafing pair of jeans on our wonderfully sleep-relaxed skin, and go get the paper... What could possibly explain this?

UPDATE: Tom gives his pro-nudist, utilitarian take on clothes. He thinks nakedness/shame is a result of socialization. I don't think so. Of course we are socialized to wear clothes, just as we are socialized not to eat spoiled meat, but since we're free to change our habits, we'll keep them only if some other reason compels us to do so. Read Tom's comment, and ask yourself: Why aren't more people like Tom? Even in post-Christian Europe the clothing-habit is tenacious.


Nato writes:

I see no special tension between Darwinian thinking and non-physicalisms such as dualism. It is Darwinian thinking and essentialism that are ineluctably antagonistic... I new realize that through evolutionary processes, real souls can develop from less real souls, going all the way back to things that are clearly not souls*. Whether the "soul" in question is composed of non-physical stuff or is a category of logical relations examples of which matter sometimes instantiates, one can (frequently) use Darwinian processes to get there from here.

Why does Nato have to be so gratuitously mysterious about souls? "Non-physical stuff?" That seems like, at worst, a contradiction in terms ("stuff" is physical), at best, a metaphor that is probably bad and misleading (why should souls resemble matter sufficient to justify calling them "stuff"? They don't seem to.) A "category of logical relations examples which matter sometimes instantiates?" Except that logic is far from the only capacity of a human mind, and indeed the word "soul" seems to connote a different element: the emotional, aesthetic, ethical, etc. To describe the soul as "logical relations" is a starting-place at best, and not a very promising one.

One point: I'm certainly not a physicalist, but I also don't particularly consider myself a dualist, either. It seems to me that there are lots of things: matter, yes (probably-- that's "conjectural," again); minds/souls certainly ("I think therefore I am"); but also ideas. Also beauty, a property that might be considered to have an independent existence even if it is supervenient upon matter, but there's no reason to think it is supervenient upon matter. Also God.

There's a virtue in being reductionist in the natural sciences, at least when the things you're reducing really are reducible to what you think they are, which sometimes happens. But I think one must remain open-minded in one's metaphysics.

Nato "clarifies":

I should clarify: certain kinds of things - and I regard these things as real in their own right - exist in a non-material way. They are things whose existence is defined by logical relationships of parts. A book that one might cite, for example, is not its pages, but rather a set of characters or semantic contents that always assume the same relationship with one another, whether this is instantiated as bits in a computer, ink on a page, or whatever. Souls, in my view, are the same way. On the other hand, if souls have some essence beyond this, some non-physical soulstuff that accompanies this logical relation, then they require that one be at least a dualist.

Where my "logical relations" concept stands in relation to your conception of "ideas" isn't perfectly clear to me.

And why, one may ask, does Nato believe in specifically this kind of non-material entity? Why accept the existence of non-material entities at all? Or, if you do, why accept precisely this kind of non-material entity?

By far the most interesting aspect of Dennett's philosophy is the notion that he weaves called "Design Space." He uses a literary device: imagine a library which contains every possible book of 1 million characters or less (in the Latin alphabet). It is, in fact, a finite, yet incredibly vast. The device of a Borgesian library Dennett applies to the biological world: imagine all possible DNA sequences and the creatures that would arise from them! Thanks to Design Space, Dennett reverses the myth gap with Providential accounts of creation; Darwinism because fascinating, intoxicating even. And yet here's the irony: one can't help begin to wonder, What is this Design Space? Is it real? What is its ontological status? Certainly many things exist in Design Space that do not exist in physical space. Do they exist then (exist, full stop) or not? If so, what are they? If not, how is it that we're able to think about them? Thus Dennett achieves his Pyrrhic victory: having peddled the "universal solvent" of Darwinism and momentarily driven all foes before the reductionist cause, he finds metaphysics and mystery sneaking in again, behind his back. Only he never seems to notice: he is one of those people who has a paradigm and perceives what his paradigm permits him to see. But a perceptive reader can't help but notice that the joke's on Dennett.

Nato seems to be falling into a similar trap. It is "not clear," he says, what I mean by "ideas"? But we talk about ideas all the time, this is common sense, there's no problem with that. Nato seems to think that all ideas need to be reducible to "logical relations," which, in turn, have some sort of non-material existence-- yet he denies other non-material essences. Why should we embrace, or even entertain, this idiosyncratic ontology, I wonder? At least pure physicalism has a certain brutal simplicity about it. What is the appeal of this newfangled neo-dualism?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

So I'm half-convinced...

Half-convinced, that is, that evolution passes the test for being a genuine scientific theory, in Popperian terms. Not that evolution is true. One problem for evolution's truth is that it seems to be connected to physicalism. I believe for reasons that are the topic for another post that physicalism is a false ontology. The falsity of physicalism and the truth of evolution are perhaps not mutually exclusive, but a fusion of the two of them tends to be odd. For example, I think the Catholics now hold that man evolved, but that there was an "ontological discontinuity" sometime in the past 100,000 years or so, when the soul appeared. I won't say that's absurd, and I don't think anyone has anything better to offer. But its oddity seems to count against it.

(If you're just joining us, this is a continuation of a discussion that has gone on for several recent posts-- scroll down, and be sure to check the comments. The most recent development is that I challenged my readers to offer a potential disconfirmation of the Darwinian theory of evolution. The existence of a conceivable, well-defined refuting counter-example to a theory-- or infinitely many of them-- is the criterion that characterizes all genuine scientific theories, according to philosopher Karl Popper. Eventually, reader/commenter Nato came up with one: anachronistic fossils. I'm impressed, since people have failed this challenge before...)

I'm only half-convinced that evolution is a scientific theory for reasons related to the "possible worlds" theme that I mentioned in the last post, and about which Nato requested elucidation. Unfortunately, it's quite difficult to elucidate, and it's very late at night right now... *yawn*...

But I might give a further hint of my meaning by using the coin-flip analogy again.

A Popperian scientist is one who is willing to say: "Heads I lose, tails we flip again." One refuting counter-example and he abandons his theory. Aside from the slight falsification that is involved in any abstraction I think that's actually an accurate description of most scientists, particularly in the fields of physics, chemistry, and non-evolutionary biology.

For many purposes, evolutionists are in the habit of saying, as it were, the opposite, i.e. "Heads I win, tails we flip again." For example, if a mutation occurs which increases a specimen's useful complexity, that's evidence in favor of Darwinism. But if no mutations occur, or if damaging mutations occur, that's not taken as evidence against Darwinism.

I was starting to lean towards the view that Darwinists always play this game. Now Nato has convinced me that they don't. But they may be playing the following game: "Heads I win, tails we flip again, unless you flip 1,600 tails in a row, in that case, you win." There are possibilities that could prove Darwinism false (anachronistic fossils) but they are an infinitesimal share of all possible worlds, whereas with other theories it is the confirmations which are an infinitesimal share of all possible worlds.

But once you start talking about possible worlds the mind begins to boggle, and I realize that this post falls far short of demonstrating point, and probably fails even to clarify it; it's only an intuition, in any case, and I'm unsure of my ground.

One thing that this debate has made clearer to me, though, is that the move I suggested of proposing a "Darwinian theory of imperfect ecosystemic homeostasis," with the Darwinian theory of the origin of all life as an extension of this theory, to some extent marginal/optional. Why separate the theories like this? Because the part of the Darwinian theory that can be isolated as a Darwinian theory of imperfect ecosystemic homeostasis is far more epistemologically robust than the theory-of-the-origins-of-life extension. Moreover, I think this truncated Darwinism could do most or all of the actual practical work that Darwinism does in the biological sciences, while being much less controversial. It will be hard to arrange this shift because Darwinian evolution is such a riveting story, and so many people believe in it for that reason alone without really understanding it, or the problems with it.

Finally, I must make this point pre-emptively: Accepting Darwinism as a genuine scientific theory, if I make that concession, and even if I were to concede (which I'm not at all sure I would) that there is extensive confirmation for it, that would not be a ground for accepting physicalism. The philosophical debate about physicalism is more fundamental than the scientific debate about evolution, and really can't be affected by it. Again, Karl Popper's description of science is useful: scientific knowledge is conjectural only, capable of a certain kind of asymptotic confirmation but always in a sense fragile. Knowledge of the thought-realm is not conjectural, it is introspective/experiential, and thus far stronger. To reject the reality of basic subjective experiences like free will, right and wrong, or ideas on the basis of any kind of induction-from-sensation type evidence would be a bit like a detective who, after hearing 20 witnesses report the same rock-solid alibi for Smith at the time that Jones was killed, hears a rumor that Smith had a grudge against Jones, and immediately decides that Smith was the murderer.


Tom engages my line of argument but makes an elementary mistake:

I'd just like to point out a sort of post-modernist corner that you've painted yourself into that undergirds your entire argument.

The "post-modernist" corner Tom is talking about simply IS the Popperian criterion that was the basis for the discussion:

You wrote: "If I mix carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen in a totally sterile test tube, leave it in the sun for a while, and lo, we find living things in there a few months later, that surely shows that "living organisms can occur naturally." But if there are not living things there, does that show that living organisms can't occur naturally? Of course not."

Using your gravity example, if I drop a rock and it does obey our current understanding of gravity, does that mean that it can't ever *not* obey our understanding of gravity?

Now, what Tom is noticing is that there's a "heads I win, tails we flip again" aspect to both arguments, evolution and gravity. BUT...

In the case of gravity, it's the gravity-skeptic who gets to say "heads I win, tails we flip again." I drop the rock. If it floats, gravity is disproven. If it falls, the theory of gravity is not proven, it merely fails to be disproven for the time being. The gravity-skeptic can say: "Okay, so that data point is consistent with the theory, but what about next time?" I drop the rock again; he can say that again. Ad infinitum.

That was Karl Popper's whole point. That's why he talks about "the conjectural nature of human knowledge." Karl Popper accepts Hume's claim that induction is not valid, and he actually argues that we don't use induction, that it's a kind of "optical illusion." What we are doing, rather, is framing hypotheses which can then be proven or disproven by experience. Whether or not that's true as a description of cognitive psychology, I don't know, but it does seem to describe the "hypothetico-deductive" methods of science. A scientist concedes, as it were, the right of the skeptic to play the "heads I win, tails we flip again" game. Go ahead, repeat the experiment as often as you like he says, in effect. If ever my theory does not hold, even once, it stands disproven. Yet no matter how many times it does hold, it will still not be, strictly speaking, it will remain conjectural, though our degree of confidence in it will, of course, increase.

Now, the evolutionist who claims that life can occur "naturally" is in exactly the opposite position from the gravity-theorist. He does not permit the evolution-skeptic to play "heads I win, tails we flip again." He insists on his right to play "heads I win, tails we flip again." If life doesn't occur naturally, it proves nothing. If life does occur naturally, it proves the theory correct.

Tom sums up:

By being skeptical of inductive reasoning, you call into question any and all scientific claims, because they inherently rely on induction. In fact, I might go so far as to say that science is tautologically induction. So, you're right: if we can't use induction, then Darwinism isn't falsifiable; it wouldn't be confirmable or disconfirmable either way in this case.

But I'm bracketing my skepticism about inductive reasoning for purposes of this argument, or at any rate adopting a Popperian version that permits hypothetico-deductive reasoning as a means to conjectural knowledge. Under those criteria, many scientific theories, most scientific theories, stand up perfectly well, making clearly falsifiable predictions, and evolution, I have been saying until now, does not.

However, Nato beats the challenge. Here's the winning comment:

If we found a fossil (or better yet, a set of fossils, to avoid the anomaly issue) that was laid down in an age incontrovertably too early for its lineage. Here I'm thinking of something like cetacean fossils in rock dated solidly prior to the evolution of vertibrates. That would either disprove evolutionary history or prove time travel (anomaly?), anyway.

That's the best answer I've heard anyone give to this challenge so far. It actually succeeds in being comparable to the floating rock for gravity: a single radically anachronistic fossil could notionally disprove the whole theory, although, as with the floating rock, we'd look at a few other explanations first.

I'm not necessarily convinced still that evolution qualifies as science, because it seems to me that this (set of) disconfirmation(s) is too special, as it were, far narrower relative to all conceivable events than the set of disconfirmations of gravity. It seems to me that the set of possible worlds with anachronistic fossils is Vanishingly small (as Dennett would say) compared to the Vast set of possible worlds without anachronistic fossils, whereas the set of possible worlds with floating rocks and other gravity-disconfirmations is Vast compared to the Vanishingly small world of gravity-confirming falling rocks...

Nonetheless, I accept that Nato has beaten the challenge of coming up with a possible disconfirmation of Darwinism. Well done!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


The comments of my recent post "A Challenge" have taken on a life of their own. (What provoked the debate was my "challenge" to Darwinists to show how the theory of evolution meets the Popperian test of falsifiability, i.e. there is some conceivably observable fact which, if true, would disprove the theory; I gave a floating rock as an example of a falsifying counter-example to the theory of gravity.) The leading contributor is Nato, who blogs (occasionally) here. I'll just bring out one excerpt here, since I responded in the comment thread:

The hypothesis that all life on earth was generated by such design is not al all a priori, though, so it needs to be disconfirmable empirically. If we find one example of a creature that's designed by an intelligence, then we've disconfirmed that hypothesis, but not in an interesting way. What one would really need is an understanding of what algorithmic design can do and what it can't, then look for the latter.

Now, as far as I'm concerned, Nato has just conceded the point. "What one would need is an understanding of what algorithmic design can do and what it can't..." Exactly. That's what we would need in order to make the theory of evolution falsifiable. We don't have it yet, or at any rate it's controversial whether we do or not. (The Intelligent Design people, as far as I understand, think that they have understood what algorithmic design can do and what it can't, thus rendering Darwinism falsifiable, and they have, in fact falsified it, by showing that things we observed can't be accounted for by algorithmic design. I haven't read their case and have no opinion on whether they're right, though my priors are to be skeptical.)

Anyway, as long as we don't know what algorithmic design can and can't do, then we can't look for the latter (what it can't do) because we don't know what to look for, hence evolution is not falsifiable, and in Karl Popper's sense is not a scientific theory. I'm sure Nato doesn't agree. But I'm not sure how he can avoid agreeing. His arguments in the comment thread seem to be of two types: (a) even gravity is not really falsifiable, and (b) if we keep working at it, we might understand what a falsifying counter-example to evolution would be, someday. If true-- as long as we're accepting Popperian "demarcation" of science from non-science-- then (a) implies that gravity is not a scientific theory either, and (b) implies that evolution is not a scientific theory yet, but has the potential to become one. Either way, evolution doesn't pass the Popperian test now.

But I'll focus on Tom Reasoner's comments, since I didn't engage them in the earlier comment thread. Tom begins:

To falsify anything requires experimental evidence. So, to falsify "Darwinism" of the sort that claims that we're descended from lower life-forms would require a controlled and repeatable experiment that shows (or does not show) that 1) living organisms can occur "naturally" at all (ie without divine intervention), and that 2) living organisms can produce things/patterns with reproductive capabilities themselves that are more complex and complicated.

Tom seems to set the bar pretty high here. How can we show, by experiment, that living organisms can occur "naturally?" Of course, we could cruise around the solar system to a lot of young planets and watch to see if life emerges. But it would take millions of years and millions of light-years of travel to catch just the right moment, and the whole matter would be very hit-and-miss, particularly given the challenges of defining "life" (there might be different possible chemical bases for "life" in the sense of self-replicating structure) and the fact that at the time of its genesis it would likely be very small. So this isn't really experiment. Part (2) is hard for a different reason: how do you define "more complex and complicated?" We have an intuitive sense for what complex means, but can we define it in a rigorous way? There are, it would seem, insuperable obstacles to implementing the kind of "controlled and repeatable experiment" that Tom is describing.

But there's a more serious problem. The experiment, says Tom, "shows (or does not show)" the truth of his propositions. But to meet the Popperian test, for the experiment to be able to "not show" his propositions (on a given occasion) is not enough. It needs to be able to falsify them. Can it?

If I mix carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen in a totally sterile test tube, leave it in the sun for a while, and lo, we find living things in there a few months later, that surely shows that "living organisms can occur naturally." But if there are not living things there, does that show that living organisms can't occur naturally? Of course not. Everyone agrees that the chances of life emerging spontaneously are infinitesimal even in the optimal conditions. So this is just another example of the "heads, I win, tails, we flip again" reasoning that is typical of Darwinists.

Tom goes on:

[I]f we found some way to observe experimentally a transistion from an organism with X amount of genetic information to an organism with X+Y amount of genetic information, then presumeably we would have data by which we could produce a theory that would either confirm or disconfirm Darwinism.

What is "genetic information?" If an organism mutates to sprout a bit of new, useless gobbledygook at the end of its genetic code, does that count as an increase in genetic information? Surely not, which underlines the point I made earlier about the difficulty of rigorously defining, as opposed to intuiting, "complexity." Moreover, my other complaint still holds: this "experiment" can't disconfirm Darwinism, only confirm it. If an organism fails to transition to greater complexity, that doesn't prove that it wouldn't sometimes happen.

That said, in Tom's defense I don't think experiment is even needed to show that organisms can become more complex. We know mutations occur. We understand how the principle of natural selection operates by mere logic. We can infer that organisms could increase in (what we would recognize intuitively as) complexity through the interaction of mutation and natural selection-- certainly, at any rate, we could infer that this is at least possible, though the probability of it occurring is harder to appraise-- using mere logic. So I think that talk of experiments is a red herring but he's nonetheless on firm ground so far.

Tom goes on:

Now, I would say that most Darwinists believe we already have such experimental evidence through fossil records and experiments with fruit flies and hereditary analyses and so on.

One reason that the fossil record doesn't qualify as "experimental" evidence is that experiments are-- as Tom said-- "controlled and repeatable," and the fossil record is neither. Perhaps that's splitting hairs. A more substantive point is that there are many gaps in the fossil record, countless "missing links," which Steven Jay Gould has tried to explain (or excuse) through his (very plausible) idea of "punctuated equilibrium;" also there are numerous extinctions, which again are actually innocuous to the theory of evolution, but nonetheless certainly "don't support" evolution in that currently extant species did not evolve from those animals at least, and then it's interesting that the most famous fossils of all, the dinosaurs, are quite non-evolution-confirming in that they went extinct (at least that seems to be the most common account); another problem is that the fossil record provides only bones, which have to be interpreted, and the interpretation assumes the truth of Darwinian evolution and uses it as the basis for inferences about what the animals really looked like...

But the real reason that none of this qualifies as experiment is the same complaint as before: none of this could falsify the Darwinian theory. Nothing in the fossil record could, for example: an organism with no apparent extant descendants is simply assumed to have gone extinct, and "missing links" in evolutionary chains simply mean that none of the "links" happened to get fossilized.

As for "hereditary analyses," they can certainly prove (a) Mendelian genetics, and maybe (b) mutation, and (c) natural selection. But, as Tom goes on to say:

Of course, none of that evidence is *sufficient* even taken altogether to prove without a doubt evolution's veracity as a whole, but each experiment does prove, in the sense that gravity is proven, bits and pieces of evolutionary theory.

Exactly. Except that "bits and pieces" of the theory is not good enough. Nothing is more common than for a theory to have many correct pieces and yet to be as a whole, false. Or even meaningless.

Honestly, it's not that hard to envision experiments that would falsify Darwinism.

I don't think this claim is true. I'm still skeptical whether an experimental to falsify Darwinism is conceptually possible. The "heads I win, tails we flip again" reasoning seems quite pervasive.

Basically, almost every single observation we make has some implication or other for Darwinist theory.

One could say, just as truly, that "basically, almost every single observation we make has some implication or other for creationism." Clouds in the sky, with their strange and ever-changing shapes, are a sign of God's infinite creativity. The light of the sun represents God's providence. A blazing sunset fills us with a sense of glory, which is God helping us to conceive of His ineffable glory. Etcetera. "Has some implication for" is not the relationship between observation and theory which we are interested in. Once you have a theory, you look for confirmation of it everywhere.

Like, I notice that whales have these strange floating bones in their blubber that sort of resemble bones used for walking in other land mamals.

Yes, and tomorrow some biologist might discover some reason that these are useful to a whale, and suggest that they are not vestigial, but evolved specially for some aquatic purpose. And that would not be a challenge to the Darwinian theory.

Or I notice that my baby boy has eyes just like his daddy, but his nose is more like his mother's. Or the cross-polenation between my orchids and hydrangeas just produced a flower I'd never seen before.

This is not a demonstration of Darwinism, but of Mendelian genetics.

All of these little observations add up into a cohesive whole.

But the whole has a great many holes in it: "missing links" in evolutionary chains, how consciousness can be accounted for in physicalist terms (on which there is certainly no consensus even if some claim to have resolved it), why human beings have so many abilities of no apparent evolutionary utility, etc., etc. The cohesive whole is what people want to see-- it's so comforting to know, instead of not knowing, so they see it-- but it cannot (I submit) stand up to a rigorous philosophical examination.

And what's the alternative to gravity and evolution (at the moment)? Divine intervention and intelligent design, otherwise known as "I don't know, it's a mystery".

But there are cases when we don't know, and in that case, we should firmly say so, and not pretend that we do. Anyway, I object to the conflation of (a) intelligent design with (b) "I don't know, it's a mystery." Intelligent design people, if I understand them, think that they do know, that they have proof that life was intelligently designed. I, on the other hand, am a member of the "I don't know, it's a mystery" school, and I do not buy into intelligent design theory. (If I believe vaguely in intelligent design of the world-- that's not my preferred framing of the question, anyway-- it's on grounds that I would not describe as scientific.)

If that sounds like a lazy cop-out though, let me offer a bit of substance. What if the Darwinian theory-- the modern synthesis of Darwin, Mendel, Crick/DNA, etc., to be more precise-- is offered as the answer to a different question? Forget the Darwinian theory of the origin of life; try the Darwinian theory of imperfect ecosystemic homeostasis.

Homeostasis is the characteristic of life-forms that they maintain a consistent shape even though their substance is changing. In this sense life-forms are like waterfalls. A waterfall is an unusual "object" in that it is forever in motion, yet stands still; the substance-- the actual molecules-- that it is composed of are changing from second to second, yet its shape remains identifiably the same. Animals and people (to a lesser extent plants) are the same way. I breathe in, I breathe out, I eat, I excrete, the carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen atoms of which, in one sense, I consist, are constantly passing through me, coming in, going out, yet "I" remain. That's homeostasis.

Well, just as homeostasis is a property of organisms, if molecules/atoms are taken to be the underlying substance, homeostasis is a property of ecosystems, if organisms are taken to be the underlying substance. The organisms which comprise an ecosystem are themselves mortal, they are born, give birth, age, die, yet the ecosystem as a whole maintains a certain constancy despite the perpetual change that characterizes its constituent parts. This is made even more mysterious because the mechanics of reproduction in the underlying organisms do not ensure that successive generations of organisms remain the same; on the contrary, there is "descent with modification" and "natural selection," both of which have an obvious potential to cause organisms to change across generations.

How this happens is one aspect of biology, not especially Darwinian; where the Darwinian theory comes into its own is explaining why homeostasis occurs, not just in this ecosystem or that ecosystem, but in ecosystems generally. The Darwinian theory explains why species are adapted to their environments; and why, if they were not, they soon would be. It would be very improbable for us to observe a non-homeostatic ecosystem, since that ecosystem would exist only briefly and would move towards some homeostatic equilibrium.

And yet here's where the theory becomes interesting: there is no reason to think that ecosystemic homeostasis is perfect. It is difficult to say, when observing any particular ecosystem for a short period of time, whether that ecosystem is homeostatic or not, just as it is difficult to tell whether a person's character is changing by observing him for two weeks. (Probably his mood is changing, is all.) But the tensions inherent in an ecosystem may lead to a steady honing, and perhaps even occasional dramatic changes. Moreover-- here it gets really exciting-- the tensions within ecosystemic homeostasis suggest a mechanism by which, over long spans of time, dramatic changes in species and ecosystems could occur, in response to climactic changes or even without them, and this may even account for why life on Earth in past times seems to have been dramatically different than it is now.

So what's the difference between the Darwinian theory of the origin of life, and the Darwinian theory of imperfect ecosystemic homeostasis? The latter cuts loose the non-scientific claim that Darwinian is an adequate or complete account of all life on earth. The latter, that is, doesn't claim to know more than we actually know. It leaves the uncharted corners of the map blank, instead of writing "Here there be dragons."

A final subplot. Max Borders, the managing editor of Tech Central Station, and author of this moving article about 9/11 among many other things, as well as a person with formidable philosophical credentials, questions the Popperian premise of the discussion:

Why should the criterion of falsifiability be the test of science? Popper was taken to task on this. It's useful, but not absolute.

Popper also referred to Darwinism as a "metaphysical research program" versus a scientific theory. Why not?

Though Nato comes to Popper's defense, perhaps Max has offered a way out for evolutionists? If we reject Popper's epistemology, we can reject a rejection of Darwinism as scientific on Popperian grounds. But in that case, we need some other way to do what Popper was trying to do when he proposed his falsifiability test, namely to distinguish between science and non-science/pseudo-science.

Monday, September 11, 2006


John Derbyshire, at National Review Online:

Whether Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein in power, I don't know. To be blunt about it, I don't care, either. What are the Iraqis to me?

How long will Republicans of conscience let these heartless thugs crash the party?

Friday, September 08, 2006


Nato approves of my Popperian epistemology, i.e. Karl Popper's idea that scientific claims are distinguished from other claims in that they're falsifiable. That is to say, they make predictions such that there is an event or object or phenomenon A that would prove they are false. Thus, the statement "All swans are white" is falsified by the appearance of a black swan.

The theory of gravity is a good example of a theory that meets Popper's falsifiability criterion. If I jump up in the air, and, instead of falling back to earth, I simply hover there in the air, then voila!-- I have disproved the theory of gravity. Well, in practice, our experience is generally so consistent with the theory of gravity that we would probably look for some reason that this odd event had occurred which was consistent with the theory-- perhaps I have magnets in my shoes and happened to jump over a magnetic field that repelled them?-- but still, in principle, gravity is falsifiable by a single counter-example, and we can easily conceive exactly what that counter-example would be like.

Now let's take evolution. What's the falsifying counter-example of evolution? Doug Kern addresses the question in satirical fashion:

"Divine messages etched in cells -- what bosh!" The professor rolled his eyes and drummed his fingers on the table. "It means nothing, nothing at all."

"Professor," said the journalist, "with all due respect, I find that difficult to believe. As you know, earlier this week, researchers applied a powerful new sub-electron microscope to human tissue samples for the first time. They found hitherto-undetected sub-atomic particles on each and every examined human cell, from hundreds of donors. And on each cell, the particles seem to spell out a message in English: I, God, am the designer of this cell. Scientists across the globe have independently verified this discovery."

The scientist shrugged. "I suppose the physics community will find the discovery of the new particles mildly diverting. But I fail to see why those of us in the biological sciences should care."

"But, professor...this discovery appears to be a message from, well, God!"

"'Appears!' 'Appears!' The appearance of design is nothing more than a trick of the mind -- a mote in the eye of the beholder. Abraham Lincoln 'appeared' in my cereal this morning. Was I visited by a ghost -- or an overactive imagination that found patterns amidst random assortments of Corn Flakes? A lump of coal, held under pressure for a million years, will rearrange its molecular structure into the precise pattern of a diamond. Order, yes, but is it design? Only for those who feel compelled to find it. Rivers rush to the sea; the planet spins on its axis; the cycle of life carries on across the globe. Intricately ordered, all of it! But not designed. I assure you, young man, it would not take very many chimpanzees in front of very many typewriters to produce something like I, God, am the designer of this cell. And the chimpanzees in question have been at the typewriters a very long time. Life on this planet is tremendously old, and the mundane laws of physics coupled with mere chance could have produced any number of extraordinary phenomena."...

This essay is more than blatant Intelligent Design partisanship (though unfortunately there is an element of that). Kern gets to the heart of the matter. If "I, God, am the designer of this cell" were written on every cell, would that be taken as counter-proof of Darwinism? If not, surely we're not dealing with a falsifiable theory here, and we should not regard it as scientific. If so, well, then, what else would be a falsify Darwinism?

Hence, the challenge: Darwinists are invited to offer a potential falsifying counter-example to the Darwinian theory. What fact(s), event(s), phenomenon(a), or object(s), if observed, would prove the Darwinian theory false? Comments are open.

(By the way, I'm not necessarily a supporter of Intelligent Design theory myself. As with Darwinism, my problem is the epistemology. Only with Darwinists, I think I understand how they think and why their epistemology is inadequate; but with ID people, I don't really understand what they're saying. But that's another topic.)

UPDATE: Nato responds, sort of:

But what could count as disconfirmation? Well, Dennet has certainly suggested a something along the lines of a stream of codons that code bitwise for "Copyright 234453257 Zoltan Empire" - the xenological equivalent of the theological example quoted. That's clearly setting the bar too high, especially considering that even such a case would, if the string was stamped into DNA more than a short while ago, be too illegible through random mutation (against which nature does not select when it's in non-coding DNA) to be read by now even if we could unambiguously translate it from the Zoltan Empire's lingua franca.

"Specified complexity" might be a good measurement if anyone besides Dembski thought it was as easy to measure as he seems to think. Perhaps someone else who is a little less confused about the relationship between pure math and the impurely stochastic realities of genetics will come up with a useable analogue.

Okay. Let's think about this hear. A floating rock could falsify the theory of gravity. A person who suddenly finds himself unintentionally levitating. A rock that falls but accelerates at 2 meters per second squared. Or that falls up. Or to the side. You can easily imagine an infinite number of disproofs of gravity. In fact, if you hold a rock and then dropped it, every conceivable behavior except one would disprove gravity. Only if the rock accelerates downwards at 9.8 meters per second per second is the theory of gravity left standing. Of course, it always does that.

Now, evolution. The best that we can offer-- and apparently that Daniel Dennett, the professional evolutionist partisan, can offer, since Nato seems to know his work so well and presumably would put forward the best argument he could think of-- is an extremely narrow hypothetical, which isn't really even offered seriously since the translation of Zoltan's language would clearly offer insuperable difficulties (not to mention concepts like "copyright" etc., plus the random mutation/illegibility issue that Nato mentions). Maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe Nato isn't trying to offer a potential falsifying counter-example to Darwninism. Maybe he's still thinking. But why should it be so hard? Is it hard with other scientific theories? Let me add another challenge: Can supporters of Darwinism offer me another scientific theory-- or theory that is taken to be scientific-- which is so difficult to give a falsifying counter-example for?

I've asked this question before to evolutionists. One said: "If God appeared and told us that evolution was false..." How would you ever know that God was God? How could God prove that he had infinite power? (Another interlocutor, Max Borders, got in a debate with me which unfortunately TCS didn't publish; I made the same point, and he basically conceded that evolution was not falsifiable.)

Another-- the TCS editor, Nick Schulz-- actually gave me a pointer to some literature on falsifiability; it seems Darwin had actually thought about the issue, long before Karl Popper introduced his criterion. What was Darwin's falsifying counter-example (though he wouldn't have used that term)? I wish I still had the e-mail, but it was something like this: If it could be proven that some creature had evolved a trait solely for the purpose of benefiting another organism, said Darwin, that would disprove my theory.

Nice try. To see why this doesn't work, note that the Darwinian theory transforms the meaning of the word purpose. Purpose is traditionally associated with conscious agents, but in Darwinian theory purpose becomes linked to survival of the fittest: life-forms "want" to preserve and reproduce themselves in the sense that their ability to preserve and reproduce themselves is why they are there. Now, how could an organism have a trait which had the purpose of benefiting another organism? Of course this could occur in a symbiotic relationship: organism A has trait B which benefits organism C, which in turn has trait D which benefits organism A. But the purpose of trait B is not really to benefit organism C (except as a means) but to benefit organism A. Obviously this doesn't disprove Darwin's theory, as Darwin no doubt understood. Organism A might also have trait B which benefits organism C, because organism C evolved to take advantage of organism A's pre-existing trait B. Or, organism A might have trait B which just happens to benefit organism C, by mere chance. That wouldn't disprove Darwin's theory either. We could never observe the falsifying example Darwin suggests, because the meaning of the word "purpose" in Darwin's theory excludes it from existing.

EVOLUTION IS NOT FALSIFIABLE. This really needs to be shouted from the rooftops!

One more thing: Dennett's pseudo-falsifier is typical of his whole methodology. Dennett is forever dodging the burden of proof and foisting it on his opponents. In the final chapters, Dennett reviews a number of purported disproofs of Darwinism. The arguments are a bit arcane; I sort of understand them but don't feel qualified to judge whether Dennett actually gets Darwinism off the hook or not. But that's the most he does: gets Darwinism off the hook. He shows, at best, how Darwinism's opponents don't quite manage to disprove the theory. But the burden of proof is not on Darwinists' opponents, it is on the Darwinists. The burden is on them to tell us under what conditions Darwinism will be proven false, such that the theory can be subjected-- in practice preferably, but even if only in principle, that's an improvement-- to an infinite and ongoing array of empirical tests, any one of which would disprove the theory.

If they can't, they need to admit that this is not science in the sense that physics or chemistry or biology (observational/experimental biology) is science. It's just an unusually ingenious and fascinating line of speculation.

But if I'm wrong, the challenge is still open. Falsifying counter-example of Darwinism... Step right up... You could be the one...