Notes From Babel

Archive for April 2009

Beneath What Is Seen Is That Which Is Unseen

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Tim Sandefur was not happy with me when, in May 2007, the Chapman Law Review, of which I was editor-in-chief at the time, published an article by Steven W. Trask entitled Evolution, Science, and Ideology: Why the Establishment Clause Requires Neutrality in Science Classes. So upset was Sandefur that he not only wrote a scathing attack on it at Positive Liberty (in which he admonished me and several other named individuals to feel “deeply ashamed” of ourselves for our association with the work), but even submitted a rebuttal to the Chapman Law Review, which was published in its next issue. 11 Chap. L. Rev 129, 135 (2008).

Francis Beckwith has now joined the fray by submitting his own letter to the editors of the Chapman Law Review, which letter was recently published in the Fall 2008 issue. Sandefur’s blog response promptly followed.

In this particular debate, Sandefur continues to fail to come toe to toe with the nature of the problem. That is to say, while Sandefur trumpets the utility of science, he ignores the metaphysical objections at issue, most famously expressed by David Hume when he demonstrated that science’s most essential tools—induction and causation—could not be proven by empirical observation. Metaphysics thus underlies all science, and is precedent thereto. Accordingly, any honest practitioner of science must necessarily admit to certain metaphysical precommitments.

As an example of the superficiality of Sandefur’s arguments, in his response to Trask’s article referenced above, Sandefur cites an anecdote by pop-atheist Richard Dawkins that “there are no postmodernists at 30,000 feet.” Again, usefulness is not the same thing as knowledge. The question is not how we test whether things are useful, but how we can justify our claims to knowledge in them. I explained this further in a response to a post by Ed Brayton who also joined in blasting Trask’s article, also without coming toe to toe with the metaphysical crux of the problem.

I have no dog in the fight between Sandefur and Beckwith, or between Sandefur and Trask. Indeed, I am interested less (or not at all) with advancing Intelligent Design theory than I am with the fact that so many folks, even highly intelligent ones like Sandefur, appear entirely unable to grasp the limits of science. But Sandefur’s excessive use of strawmen and misdirection in these discussions has been troubling. Sandefur says that anyone who does not subscribe to science qua epistemology (as Sandefur states, “[s]cience is certainly an epistemology”) “[t]hey want equal time for unscientific appeals to supernaturalism.” I don’t know who is talking about “equal time.” As I suggested in a previous post, the competing metaphysical views underlying natural selection theory ought to be presented “in a confined discussion about metaphysics, or, if that makes the scienceniks too nervous, forget the whole thing.” But I don’t hear anyone advocating the teaching of miracles or otherwise subverting the scientific method. If there are, I will gladly join in the arguments against them. As to “unscientific appeals,” science itself is “unscientific,” in that its parameters are defined by metaphysics, not observable demonstration.

Sandefur also states that “they want their acceptance of magic to receive the same respect that rigorous scientific discourse receives.” Again, I don’t know who wants this. Scientific truth is different than metaphysical truth. Once we accept scientific principles, the truths that are derived by that process systematically follow. But the acceptance of “science” in the first place is not and cannot be justified by scientific method. Metaphysics precedes science. The objections are not to the truths that are yielded by scientific process, but to the suggestion that there is nothing, but nothing, that falls outside the scrutiny of science, all the while subscribing to unstated and invisible metaphysical precommitments. Sandefur’s use of the word “magic” is obviously pejorative and designed to dissuade objectors lest they appear foolish and ignorant.

Intelligent Design (at least in the limited sense in which I would support it at all) deals with the systematic limitations of science. It is a metaphysics that purports to address the necessary network of precommitments needed to engage in scientific inquiry. To attack such a metaphysics on the erroneous assumption that it intrudes on science’s territory is not to think too little of the metaphysics, but to think too much of science.

Objectivists such as George Smith have attempted to explain away science’s metaphysical gaps by suggesting that the job is done by self-verifying truths, such as the law of identity. As Rand and her followers like to express it, “A is A.” But this charitably terse expression makes it quite easy to identify where the unjustified and arbitrary leap occurs: the word “is.” At the risk of sounding like Bill Clinton, let’s ask what is meant by that word. If A is A, then the present A is identical to the present A. But that cannot be all that is meant, else the expression would be quite useless. What is also meant is that A has always been A, and that A will always continue to be A. That is, the simple statement makes profound assumptions about the reliability of memory of the past, the predictability of the future, and the orderly perpetuation of the present state of affairs throughout time. Is all of that self-authenticating? Certainly we need to believe all of that to do science. But is something true simply because it is convenient?

The fact is, science cannot account for the metaphysical ideas that justify and sustain it, as well as those contained in natural selection, i.e., the idea that we were directed not by God but instead by nothing. When scienceists insist that they and they alone should be permitted to fill in the gaps of this metaphysical construct with the ideas that they deem appropriate, they run smack into the very problem they started with: the positing of “truth” by arbitrary fiat. And when a critical mass of such folks, particularly when organized around a set of metaphysical principles handed down by a leader given special reverence (viz., Ayn Rand), get together in an effort to proselytize their views, there is a word for that: religion.

The Secular Right contributor going by the pseudonym “David Hume” suggests that the fact that science has metaphysical underpinnings is “true but trivial.” I cannot believe that he truly thinks that. For the non-philosopher, such a statement may be true—talk among pointy-headed intellectuals usually yields no obvious benefit to things that matter to everyday life. But metaphysical truth—including things like rights and law and political theory—is profoundly important to human flourishing. To suggest that the only kind of truth worth knowing is the kind that can be used to build a better coffee maker is incredibly offensive to those who genuinely care about the human pursuit of knowledge.

Does any of this mean that science itself is a religion? No. Not anymore than language is a religion. But like language, science requires its practitioners to bring a metaphysics to the table. That is because science does not provide its own justification for concepts necessary to make it work, like induction, causation, and order.

The pursuit of truth and knowledge is thwarted, not advanced, by lobotomizing entire areas of thought. Despite Tim Sandefur’s call, no one should feel ashamed for refusing to disavow the possibility of truth that casts no shadow.

Update: Jason Kuznicki has this post at Positive Liberty that offers an example of how closely metaphysical questions relating to epistemology, theology, teleology, and ethics are bound up with Darwinian thought.


Written by Tim Kowal

April 30, 2009 at 6:51 am

Derb’s Secular Defense Of Traditional Marriage

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Leave it to John Derbyshire to make the case for traditional marriage go over like Bob’s your uncle. Most notably:

(3) There really is a slippery slope here. Once marriage has been redefined to include homosexual pairings, what grounds will there be to oppose futher redefinition — to encompass people who want to marry their ponies, their sisters, or their soccer team? Are all private contractual relations for cohabitation to be rendered equal, or are some to be privileged over others, as has been customary in all times and places? If the latter, what is wrong with heterosexual pairing as the privileged status, sanctified as it is by custom and popular feeling?
. . . .
(6) There is a thinness in the arguments for gay marriage that leaves one thinking the proponents are not so much for something as against something. How many times have you heard that gay marriage is necessary so that gay people will not be hindered in visiting a hospitalized partner? But if hospitals have such rules — a thing I find hard to believe in this PC-whipped age — the rules can be changed, by legislation if necessary. What need to overturn a millennial institution for such trivial ends?

Though I frequently defend religion (I’ve been a Johnny-one-note lately, for some reason), religious justifications for laws are of the lowest order, and only hold up when there is no animus or are not otherwise demonstrably stupid. Derbyshire’s are the kinds of arguments that conservatives ought to be making.

Written by Tim Kowal

April 30, 2009 at 1:32 am

"Mexican Flu" for me…I don’t eat pork

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The Religion Clause blog reports that Israeli Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman “is suggesting that the disease be called ‘Mexican flu’ because of Jewish and Muslim sensitivities over pork products.” The suggestion seems to be that Mexicans won’t mind, as they are quite used to connotations with disease and pestilence; better to associate the deadly virus with them than discomfort folks who’d rather not hear about icky pigs.

Written by Tim Kowal

April 29, 2009 at 2:24 pm

Church Victory Against Hostile Local Political Activists

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The Religion Clause Blog has this news on the Grace Church case I worked on. And here’s another piece on it. As a student working with Claremont’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence at Chapman Law School, I explained to the San Diego Planning Commission what RLUIPA (the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) was, and why denying Grace Church a use permit because “we have enough churches” was an impermissible burden on religious exercise. Local politicians generally don’t like being told they can’t do whatever they want.

Written by Tim Kowal

April 29, 2009 at 3:06 am

If The President Doesn’t Make Decisions On Prosecutions, Who Does?

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Robert Gibbs made this curious statement on Meet the Press, according to Fox News:

“The president doesn’t open or close the door on criminal prosecutions of anybody in this country, because the legal determination of who knowingly breaks the law in any instance is one not made by the president of the United States,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

What could this statement mean? Taken at face value, it is true that “the legal determination of who knowingly breaks the law” is made by the trier of fact–either a judge or jury. But this is true of any prosecution. It would be nonsensical to say that a district attorney does not make decision on who to prosecute, since he or she does not make the ultimate determination of guilt.

Instead, it seems like Gibbs is doing some buck-passing on behalf of his boss. That is, whatever happens, it’s going to be either because Congress, or Holder, or the slimy custard man made the call. But the Constitution does not vest the authority to execute the law in a congressional sub-committee or an appointed executive official. It vests in the president.

Written by Tim Kowal

April 27, 2009 at 7:26 pm

Posted in Politics

Meaningless Jobs Are Not Worth Saving or Creating

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I stumbled upon this February 2007 article by Thomas Sowell describing how taxpayer money was used to pay for golf courses. Not because of rich old white guys in plaid pants. If there were more of them, no subsidies would have been needed. No, it was because the lower class workers at the courses needed to keep their jobs.

If you put San Francisco’s golf courses on the open market, in a city with a serious housing shortage and sky high housing prices, chances are good that the land occupied by golf courses would quickly be bid away by those who would build some much-needed housing.

Of course, this would make the city’s municipal golf course workers unhappy. And unhappy municipal workers can be a big problem for a politician, especially if these are union workers.

How have San Francisco’s golf courses been kept going when they cost more to maintain than they are receiving in fees from the golfers who use them? Recent renovations alone cost more than $23 million.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “the city closed the gap with $16.6 million from state bond funds meant for recreation and park projects in underserved and economically disadvantaged areas.” In other words, the poor have once again been used as human shields, this time to protect golfers.

From the sounds of things, instead of moving away from this absurd model, we’ve turned directly at it and stepped on the accelerator. No one seems to care if all the jobs the government is creating or saving are worth anything to anyone beyond the folks who will get a paycheck and something to keep them occupied on the weekdays.

Written by Tim Kowal

April 25, 2009 at 9:29 pm

Posted in Economics, Politics

Richard Dawkins On Free Will

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I posted this a couple years ago on one of my past blogs. I always find the topic worth revisiting.

The following is a transcript of a question posed to and answered by preeminent scientist Richard Dawkins about determinism. (I cannot now seem to find the original source — upon a Google search, the only hit returned is a Czech site that appears no more authoritative than my copy-paste job below.) It is a delicious conundrum, and one that, in my experience, is quite impolite to bring up in friendly conversation. Quite like religion and politics. In fact this was brought up in the context of a discussion on religion, so the door of impropriety had already been flung wide open.

Richard Dawkins at Politics and Prose .. The God Delusion
Question and Answer

Questioner: Dr. Dawkins thank you for your comments. The thing I have appreciated most about your comments is your consistency in the things I’ve seen you written. One of the areas that I wanted to ask you about and the places where I think there is an inconsistency and I hoped you would clarify it is that in what I’ve read you seem to take a position of a strong determinist who says that what we see around us is the product of physical laws playing themselves out but on the other hand it would seem that you would do things like taking credit for writing this book and things like that. But it would seem, and this isn’t to be funny, that the consistent position would be that necessarily the authoring of this book from the initial condition of the big bang it was set that this would be the product of what we see today. I would take it that that would be the consistent position but I wanted to know what you thought about that.

Dawkins: The philosophical question of determinism is a very difficult question. It’s not one I discuss in this book, indeed in any other book that I’ve ever talked about. Now an extreme determinist, as the questioner says, might say that everything we do, everything we think, everything that we write, has been determined from the beginning of time in which case the very idea of taking credit for anything doesn’t seem to make any sense. Now I don’t actually know what I actually think about that, I haven’t taken up a position about that, it’s not part of my remit to talk about the philosophical issue of determinism. What I do know is that what it feels like to me, and I think to all of us, we don’t feel determined. We feel like blaming people for what they do or giving people the credit for what they do. We feel like admiring people for what they do. None of us ever actually as a matter of fact says, “Oh well he couldn’t help doing it, he was determined by his molecules.” Maybe we should.. I sometimes.. Um.. You probably remember many of you would have seen Fawlty Towers. The episode where Basil where his car won’t start and he gives it fair warning, counts up to three, and then gets out of the car and picks up a tree branch and thrashes it within an edge of his life. Maybe that’s what we all ought to… Maybe the way we laugh at Basil Fawlty, we ought to laugh in the same way at people who blame humans. I mean when we punish people for doing the most horrible murders, maybe the attitude we should take is “Oh they were just determined by their molecules.” It’s stupid to punish them. What we should do is say “This unit has a faulty motherboard which needs to be replaced.” I can’t bring myself to do that. I actually do respond in an emotional way and I blame people, I give people credit, or I might be more charitable and say this individual who has committed murders or child abuse of whatever it is was really abused in his own childhood. And so again I might take a ..

Questioner: But do you personally see that as an inconsistency in your views?

Dawkins: I sort of do. Yes. But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with otherwise life would be intolerable. But it has nothing to do with my views on religion it is an entirely separate issue.

Questioner: Thank you.

I always felt it was a surprisingly honest answer — Dawkins has faith in free-will. Now, if only we might disabuse him by recounting all the terrible deeds that free-will is responsible for, we can cure him of his Volition Delusion.

Written by Tim Kowal

April 25, 2009 at 5:10 pm

Posted in Philosophy