December 2009 Archives
December 2, 2009
Rosenberg on naturalism
A reader writes to inform me of Alex Rosenberg’s very interesting essay “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality.” Rosenberg’s thesis? That naturalism entails nihilism; in particular, that it entails denying the existence of objective moral value, of beliefs and desires, of the self, of linguistic meaning, and indeed of meaning or purpose of any sort. All attempts to evade this conclusion, to reconcile naturalism with our common sense understanding of human life, inevitably fail. Naturalism, when consistently worked out, leads to a radical eliminativism. Says my informant: “Why, it sounds shockingly similar to some things you once wrote in a book that was all about sperm, does it not?” Indeed, except that when I said it I was a “religiously inspired bigot,” whereas when Rosenberg says it he gets a respectful link, complete with a fanboyish exclamation point. Odd, no?
Not really. Because in The Last Superstition I argue that the implications in question constitute a reductio ad absurdum of naturalism, whereas Rosenberg (who is himself a naturalist) regards them instead as a set of depressing truths we must learn to live with. As you’ll see from Rosenberg’s combox, not all naturalists agree with him. But naturalist religionists are an ecumenical bunch. They’ll allow you to draw any absurd conclusion you wish from naturalist premises, as long as (naturally enough) you never under any circumstances question the premises themselves.
December 3, 2009
Looking for a chart--Updated
I'm working on an article on the present state of the pro-life movement. It will be hosted at another site and, of course, I'll provide a link when it's done and available. It will be based in part on this post and this post.
Now: In neither of these posts did I say this, but I'm saying it now, because I want to know if any of my readers can help me find a piece of documentation.
I was still receiving physical copies of National Right to Life News in early 2008. As I recall, in one of those issues--by my recollection, it was April or May of 2008--I saw a candidate comparison chart between John McCain and Barack Obama that did include embryonic stem-cell research and that made it clear that their positions were nearly identical on that issue. By campaign time (I linked this in one of the above posts), the issue no longer appeared at all in the issues comparison chart.
Problem: I threw the 2008 issue away, after making a mental note of it. I'm now a victim of my own hatred for paper clutter, because that earlier chart never made it into the on-line archives of NRL News. I'm not saying at all that this is any sort of cover-up. The on-line archives contain articles, not charts, and that's doubtless why it's not there. Unfortunately, I don't know of any library that keeps paper back issues of NRL News to be browsed through by old-fashioned researchers. I have (with some chutzpah) e-mailed NRLC to ask if I can get a copy of that chart from early 2008, but I don't know yet if this will work.
So--any readers out there who don't mind paper clutter and kept around their early 2008 copies of NRL News? Wanna look up that chart for me and send me a scan?
Update: Got it! May, 2008, p. 11. Chart comparing John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, called "Where Do the Candidates Stand on Life?" Includes ESCR and has "supports" for all three candidates. By November, the chart was solely about abortion, conveniently, and hence the ESCR issue where the candidates are the same had disappeared. Thanks to Esteemed Husband for finding it at the library. I should have more faith in large university libraries to carry unexpected publications.
Spectaclism versus naturalism
Let’s define spectaclism as the theory that what exists is what my spectacles “tell me” exists, i.e. what I am able to see using spectacles. Naturalism is the theory that what exists is what the natural sciences “tell us” exists, i.e. what we are able to learn via their methods.
In support of their theory, naturalists point to the many predictive and technological successes of the natural sciences. In favor of their own theory, spectaclists could also point to the great predictive and technological accomplishments of spectacle-wearers.
December 5, 2009
Localists, agrarians, and other dissidents, critics all of the American politico-economic ethic of biggerbetterfastercheapermore, occasionally celebrate a rhetorical liturgy of execration, in order to damn Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon and Ford, and advocate of the "get big or get out" philosophy of agriculture. Butz's philosophy was sufficiently loathsome to warrant the condemnation, though he was more a symptom and symbol of the system than its cause. The system, in all probability, may be traced, in its lineaments, to the early nineteenth century, when Hamiltonians throughout the nation won the debates over 'internal improvements', and public moneys were committed to the construction of highways and canals; the foreseen and desired results of these 'improvements' were an increase in commerce and the development of integrated regional - and in some cases, international - markets. Such markets developed, gradually wearing away many less expansive, less lucrative local markets. In time, the development of the railroad networks, another benefaction bestowed by the State, in both its national and state forms, upon the commercial (and speculative) classes, would accelerate this trend. Also contributing to the consolidation of American agriculture was the typical Great Barbecue era combination of usurious rates of interest on loans to farmers and unsupported, free pricing in commodities; this latter factor, in combination with the monetary constraints of the gold standard, as well as the vast increases in cultivated lands made possible by the opening of the West, resulted in great volatility in prices, amidst a general trend of decline. When the smaller, unluckier farmers couldn't earn enough to retire, or even roll over, usurious debts, there were always luckier, larger, more connected farmers waiting to expand.
It's easy to be mislead into thinking that the plight of the small farmer is something that burst into national awareness in the 1980s, but consciousness of this plight antedates even the first Roosevelt presidency, and was in fact more or less concurrent with the Gilded Age. Without going into the details, this concern was eventually translated into policies of price support and production management. It would be charming to think that these policies responded directly to the original concern, which they might have, had they been implemented in the 1880s or thereabouts; in reality, they arrived around the time that the balance had shifted decisively in favour of larger farms, and the mass-marketing of standardized commodities and packaged foodstuffs. Many small farms would continue in operation for another generation or two, but the die had been cast, and the policies ended up supporting the dominant agricultural interests, both because they had attained critical mass in the marketplace, and because they could command political leverage.
The consequences of this development are predictable, if perhaps unexpected by some: the profits of American agriculture are roughly equal to the subsidies provided through the Department of Agriculture.
December 6, 2009
This is good stuff.
I've always thought it was pernicious nonsense that disapproving of sinful and dangerous acts somehow encourages the spread of STDs. In any event, my favorite quote in the article is,
Messer's "secondly" shows he's lost the thread of his argument. He's meant to be telling us how churches discourage prevention of AIDS. But the Church's moral disapproval of sodomy, whoring, and drug abuse has the secondary but salutary effect of bolstering disease prevention.
Another favorite is,
Is there, by the bye, any solid evidence for preachers' using "obey your husbands" to exhort wives to submit sexually to a lethally diseased spouse? If so, what they're preaching is residual paganism, not St. Paul.
Can you beat that? Christians were so distracted preparing for their redemption by Christ that they neglected to wave their pom-poms (in front of the news cams) for AIDS victims! Messer doesn't mention victims of cholera, typhus, malaria, yellow fever, sickle-cell anemia, etc., but I'm sure that was just an oversight.
Well-done piece. And I'm not even Catholic!
Nagel on ID
In my recent posts on Paley, and elsewhere, I’ve been pretty critical of ID theory. But I’ve always acknowledged that the ID folks have been treated disgracefully by most naturalists and Darwinians. Most, but not all. If you haven’t yet heard, Thomas Nagel has recommended Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design as one of the “best books of the year” in the Times Literary Supplement. Some of Nagel’s fellow naturalists are very very upset about it. Just wait ‘til they read Jerry Fodor’s next book. As I’ve noted before, non-fundamentalist naturalists like Nagel and Fodor are the ones theists need to take the most seriously, precisely because (as I emphasized in the posts on Paley) they realize that a challenge to Darwinism is not a challenge to naturalism per se. Still fun to watch the fundamentalist naturalists squirm, though…
December 8, 2009
How does Huckabee sleep at night?
We've sometimes heard, at least I have, that people who are uneasy about Mike Huckabee as a presidential candidate must just be too enamoured of big business, too much inclined to believe anything Rush Limbaugh says, not really committed to the pro-life issues, sold out to the neocons, and so forth.
Well, not me. As a matter of fact, I was uneasy about Huckabee because, yes, it sounded like he was green, and I'm anti-green, and it sounded like he was fomenting anti-business hatred, which I think is dangerous and dumb. But he sounded to me more or less like George W. Bush 2.0. Compassionate conservatism ratcheted up a notch. And if his pro-life credentials had held up to examination, I was willing to consider voting for him under some conceivable and not entirely unforeseeable circumstances, though not with any great happiness. (We conservatives are often accused of being unwilling to compromise. Balderdash. It's the fiscal and related issues on which we do often compromise, though reluctantly, because we consider the life issues more important.)
Let's just say my stance toward Huckabee has changed.
By now everyone who reads blogs knows that Maurice Clemmons, the cop murderer recently killed in Seattle, had his sentence commuted in Arkansas by Gov. Mike Huckabee some ten years ago. If you've read up on the case further, you also know that Clemmons was exceedingly dangerous and that prosecutors were very much against Huckabee's commuting his sentence. Clemmons went on, predictably, to commit a whole string of crimes, and he was just out on bail on a charge of raping a child when he went on his most recent shooting spree.
You may also know that Huckabee has a track record of defiantly, repeatedly, and obsessively releasing dangerous criminals over the pleas of prosecutors and victims' relatives. This second article tells about one horrific murderer named Green whom Huckabee tried to release but eventually backed off on.
What you may not know is that this is also not the first time that one of these evil, dangerous criminals has gone on and killed again. Read here the story of Wayne Dumond, in whose case Huckabee persistently (and probably illegally) intervened so as to make it appear that the parole board had released him. Huckabee said that this particular rapist (yes, he had been convicted of rape) had gotten a "raw deal." After his release, Dumond went on to Missouri, where he raped and murdered two other women.
So why, after the Clemmons case, isn't Huckabee crying out, "Not again! Not again! What have I done?" But not at all. On the contrary, he is still defiant. He has shamelessly played the race card on the Clemmons case and has, once again, tried to pass the buck to other people for Clemmons's ability to roam freely and murder people. What is the matter with this man? How does he sleep at night?
And can we assume (as I rather hope we can) that he's toast now, as far as political ambitions are concerned?
If Huckabee turns out to be The Un-dead in the Republican primaries in 2012, and if some of us are less than enthused, I don't wanna hear it. There were, yes, already legitimate reasons for a conservative to have hesitations about Huckabee. But this is disgusting. And Rush didn't tell me to say so.
December 9, 2009
Zip code correction for Rifqa Bary cards
This is intensely frustrating to me, but it appears that in several places the address Pamela Geller has for the Rifqa Bary Christmas card drive has an incorrect zip code. I know that a number of readers have already sent cards, as have I. I have no reason to believe that anything else is wrong with the address. It just appears that two digits have been switched in the zip code. An alert reader pointed this out and e-mailed us about it. I have done some googling, and he appears to be correct that the zip code as given is wrong. I have e-mailed Pamela Geller using her contact e-mail but haven't gotten a response yet. I hope she gets on it and posts a correction at Atlas Shrugs.
My hope is that postal workers are used to dealing with such errors at this time of year anyway and will have delivered the cards. But for future reference, the address is
c/o Angela Lloyd
255C Drinko Hall
55 West 12th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210
Political economy and human motives.
It is a distinct temptation to concentrate one’s attention, and therefore one’s censure, on the intrigues of Wall Street. And often mere intrigues are what they are. I am have been perusing a handful of books by business and finance journalists, which among other virtues provide the reader with some picture of the human personalities behind the boom and busts of high-finance engineering. For instance, there seems to have been a very clear personal rivalry, an archetypal clash of masculine ambition, concomitant with the rise of the mortgage-backed bond market. The very invention and early development of this new trade in debt securities confected out of hundreds of mortgages, tracked rather neatly for some years, starting in the early 1980s, with the competitive enmity between Laurence Fink and Lewis Ranieri, of First Boston and Salomon Brothers, respectively.
The portrait that emerges from stories like this is that ritual denunciations of “greed” can easily blind us to the deeper motivations of the men who built up the infrastructure of usurious finance. Simple avarice, the desire for material gain or possession, is only one aspect of the libido dominandi.
Consequentialism vs. Deontology
Consequentialism, Cato Institute/GMU/Liberaltarian style:
...let economic "efficiency" & the cosmopolitan pleasures thrive, come what may for the ties that have traditionally bound men to their families, their communities, their nations...in short, their tribes.
Consequentialism, Communitarian/Agrarian/Maximos style:
...let the ties that have traditionally bound men to their families, their communities, their nations...in short, their tribes thrive, come what may for economic "efficiency" & the cosmopolitan pleasures.
Deontology, Steve Burton/Conservative-Libertarian style:
All else being equal, economic "efficiency" & the cosmopolitan pleasures are wonderful things.
And so are the ties that have traditionally bound men to their families, their communities, their nations...in short, their tribes.
But there are certain moral constraints on what it is permissible to do in pursuit of these wonderful things. And the first & most fundamental of these moral constraints is that one must never, ever, try to get one's way by initiating physical force against those with whom one disagrees.
So, where, in practical terms, does that leave me? Do I have any real friends in either camp?
I tend to think not.
December 10, 2009
Personal plug for our own photographic genius
I want to add here that you should really check out Todd's studio page and especially his gallery. Here is his storefront. His flower and landscape pictures are available for purchase. There are so many beautiful ones that it's hard to pick out favorites, though the editors at TCR have made a good start. Here, here, here, and here are just four of the ones I like best.
I find this photography stunning. If you are interested in owning a photographic print, you should consider getting one of Todd's. If you are not interested, or think you aren't, at least enjoy the images.
Population control chic II
Following up on this post...
China is all the rage these days. Green, green, eco-friendly, graying, girl-poor, Communist China.
A planetary law, such as China's one-child policy, is the only way to reverse the disastrous global birthrate currently, which is one million births every four days.
The world's other species, vegetation, resources, oceans, arable land, water supplies and atmosphere are being destroyed and pushed out of existence as a result of humanity's soaring reproduction rate.
The treacly useful idiocy (after the iron-fist-in-the-glove rhetoric) only gets better. Sounds just like mid-20th-century commie sympathizers cooing over Mao and Castro:
China has proven that birth restriction is smart policy. Its middle class grows, all its citizens have housing, health care, education and food, and the one out of five human beings who live there are not overpopulating the planet.
Gosh, why doesn't she go live there?
Oh, and when I put up my last post, there were a few charitable readers (too charitable, in my opinion) who refused to believe that the article author was really promoting coercive population control. Well, don't tell me there's any ambiguity this time:
For those who balk at the notion that governments should control family sizes, just wait until the growing human population turns twice as much pastureland into desert as is now the case, or when the Amazon is gone, the elephants disappear for good and wars erupt over water, scarce resources and spatial needs.
I wonder how old Diane Francis was when Paul Ehrlich predicted those same kinds of things...and they didn't happen. Oh, well, if at first you don't succeed [in using pseudo-science to institute world-wide totalitarianism], try, try again.
December 11, 2009
Rosenberg responds to his critics
Well, sort of (scroll to the bottom). It seems to me that he mainly just repeats what he already said in his original piece, this time with a little testiness. I certainly don’t think he grapples seriously with the main difficulties facing his position (some of which I outlined in my earlier post).
Eliminative materialists like to complain that they are always being falsely accused of incoherently “believing that there are no beliefs” – “as if I had never heard of the ploy and would be stopped dead in my tracks by it,” says Rosenberg, making this complaint his own. “Actually,” he continues, “you won’t find the locution ‘I believe that….’ any where in my précis… just to avoid such puerile objections.” But does Rosenberg really think we anti-eliminativists have never heard that dodge before? Yes, fine, we realize that advocates of eliminative materialism (EM) studiously avoid the word “belief,” lest they be refuted in ten seconds rather than ten minutes. The trouble is that they inevitably help themselves to some other concept which leads them into exactly the same sort of incoherence, even if in a more subtle way.
Latest development--Rifqa Bary's parents' attorney trying to get her Christmas cards seized
You heard that right. Mypetjawa has a source inside CAIR. (I hope this mole has asserted his 2nd-amendment rights for the time when he is caught.) This source has provided to The Jawa Report a copy of a motion from Rifqa Bary's parents' attorney to seize all Christmas cards sent to Rifqa, including those that have already been delivered to her.
As Robert Spencer says at Jihad Watch, you're a mean one, Mr. Grinch.
These are nasty people. Really. God forbid Rifqa should be returned to their power. According to The Jawa Report, the motion will be heard at the hearing on December 22. Let's hope she gets to read a lot of cards before then.
As I previously reported (now with correct zip code), the address to send Rifqa a card before the Grinch arrives is
c/o Angela Lloyd
255C Drinko Hall
55 West 12th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210
There is an old song by a guy named Ben Harper, a successful, engaging and occasionally electrifying singer-songwriter from California’s Inland Valley, called “Walk Away.” It could provide the supremely perfect soundtrack for this report from the Wall Street Journal.
sometimes, sooooometimes, you just have to walkaway, walk away
Anyway I wonder what reaction commenters would have if I said, they are only emulating the principle and sentiment of the banks and securities firms.
December 12, 2009
In response to my most recent post on Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher emails the following comment:
Rosenberg has to know that, in the technical sense, there is no such thing as "misinformation." The metal bar dipped in a saline solution that proceeds to rust can't be "misinformed" about its environs because information just is causal covariation among physical states. His use of that term is a blatant attempt to smuggle intentionality in through the back door while pretending not to; why, why, oh why! won't anyone of note call him out on this transparent attempt to bulls**t his way out of the corner he's painted himself into?
This is an extremely important point that I should have emphasized in my post. What my correspondent is referring to here is sometimes called the “misrepresentation problem” for naturalistic theories of meaning. Suppose the naturalist claims that for A to represent or contain information about B is just for A to have been caused by B in such-and-such a way. In that case, how is it possible for us ever to misrepresent anything? Suppose Fred thinks he sees a dog in the distance when in fact what he is looking at is a cat. How can his perceptual experience (mis)represent what he is seeing as a dog since it was not a dog that caused it?
December 13, 2009
Trust the experts
PhilPapers recently conducted a survey of opinion among academic philosophers, the results of which have been posted here. Here’s how all respondents from the survey’s “target faculty” answered when asked where they stand on the question of God’s existence:
Accept or lean toward atheism 72.8%
Accept or lean toward theism 14.6%
And here’s how the results came out for respondents in two key subdisciplines:
RESPONDENTS SPECIALIZING IN PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION:
Accept or lean toward theism 72.3%
Accept or lean toward atheism 19.1%
RESPONDENTS SPECIALIZING IN MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE PHILOSOPHY:
Accept or lean toward atheism 41.1%
Accept or lean toward theism 29.4%
Quite a difference. And regarding the last (Medieval/Renaissance) set of responses, it is worth pointing out that the fine-grained results show that “Other” includes a lot of agnostics, and that when the “lean towards” are excluded, atheism and theism are tied at 23.5% each, so that there are far fewer convinced atheists within this group than it might at first seem. It would also be nice to know what the results would have looked like if we separated out the medieval and renaissance specialists. (I would speculate that most Renaissance specialists approach their field out of interest in its relevance for understanding early modern philosophy rather than out of interest in medieval philosophy; and if so this is likely to reflect, on the part of Renaissance specialists, more familiarity with early modern philosophy than with medieval philosophy.) It seems very likely that the results for specialists in medieval philosophy specifically would have been more like those for specialists in philosophy of religion, especially for medieval specialists whose interest is in philosophy of religion related topics rather than in general metaphysics/epistemology, history of logic, etc.
Now, what do these results mean? You can be sure that some atheists will read the latter two sets of results as evidence only that many people who believe in God for non-philosophical reasons have flooded into philosophy of religion and medieval studies. And they will read the former results as evidence that philosophers who don’t enter the field with a religious ax to grind are more likely to be atheists.
But of course there is another obvious way to interpret the results in question – as clear evidence that those philosophers who have actually studied the arguments for theism in depth, and thus understand them the best – as philosophers of religion and medieval specialists naturally would – are far more likely to conclude that theism is true, or at least to be less certain that atheism is true, than other philosophers are. And if that’s what the experts on the subject think, then what the “all respondents” data shows is that most academic philosophers have a degree of confidence in atheism that is rationally unwarranted.
This dovetails with the judgment once made by the atheist philosopher Quentin Smith (in his paper “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism”) to the effect that “the great majority of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and an unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false.” And it also dovetails with the evidence we have examined in several earlier posts (e.g. here, here, and here) indicating that the more confident an atheist philosopher is that there are no good arguments for God’s existence, the more likely it is that he demonstrably does not know what the hell he is talking about.
In any event, it turns out that the people who are most likely to know what they are talking about on this subject tend overwhelmingly to believe in God, or at least (as in the combined medieval/renaissance results) to reject atheism. And as certain atheist philosophers like to insist, we should trust the experts, right?
December 15, 2009
Liberaltarianism's child problem--with examples
Liberals and libertarians tend to agree in opposing political conservatives on matters of vice law and sexual ethics. I have often said that I would like some time to meet a libertarian who got at least as het up about the fact that a contractor with only a plumber's license cannot make a free contract to hook up a new dishwasher as he is about the fact that some conservatives would like to pass effective laws against strip joints. It seems that the sexual freedom "thing" is a much bigger deal to most libertarians than other forms of freedom of contract and free exchange.
It's not original with me to notice that liberalism in its libertarian and libertine aspects has a problem with children. But the fact was brought home to me some time back by this story, and I'm just now getting around to blogging about it.
In Providence, RI, police have been upset to learn that teenagers can legally work as strippers. There is no state or local law to stop it. Worse, this isn't actually new. The city solicitor researched this issue twelve years ago and decided that under then-current law, nothing could be done about it. And nothing has changed.
December 16, 2009
Liberalism's (And Liberaltarianism's) Consent Problem
What follows is a slightly edited version of an essay originally posted to the old EM during the summer of 2006, an essay I've found to be relevant to the subjects broached in Lydia's most recent post. The burden of the argument is that liberalism lacks a principled, as opposed to circumstantial, basis for opposing the sexualization of children. If memory serves me, I was mocked on a number of left-leaning blogs at the original time of posting, this claim having been deemed absurd and offensive, or something. As always, however, one should observe what liberals actually do, and assign less credence to their incoherent protestations.
Don’t necessarily trust the experts
My goodness some people are literal-minded. Judging from some of the commentary (here and elsewhere) on my post about the PhilPapers survey, some people really think I was making a blanket assertion to the effect that one should always trust the experts. Well, no, of course I wasn’t saying that. I thought it was obvious that what I was really saying is that if a certain kind of atheist is going to play the stupid “A says this, but THE EXPERTS say otherwise!” game, he ought to do so consistently.
Does expertise count for something? Of course it does. The argument from authority is, when the authority in question is a genuine authority, a serious argument. But it is hardly conclusive. Experts can be wrong. The conventional wisdom in an entire field of study can be wrong. I’m with Aquinas: The argument from (genuine) authority is a serious argument, but when the authority in question is a human being or group of human beings it is nevertheless the weakest of all arguments (ST I.1.8).
December 17, 2009
Page Peter Singer. Or Steven Pinker. They ought to live in Virginia.
And I like Virginia. But this is horrible.
I just learned from this story that under Virginia law a mother may commit active, violent infanticide against her newborn child and not be charged with a single thing. To quote a police investigator,
In the state of Virginia as long as the umbilical cord is attached and the placenta is still in the mother, if the baby comes out alive the mother can do whatever she wants to with that baby to kill it...She could shoot the baby, stab the baby. As long as it’s still attached to her in some form by umbilical cord or something it’s no crime in the state of Virginia.
Nor is this just a "loophole," as the article calls it. How do I know? Well, for one thing, if someone else does one of those things to the child, he can be prosecuted. That sure looks like the exception for maternal infanticide had to have been crafted deliberately. But there's more to it than that. The prosecutors have had a previous case like this and approached state lawmakers to try to close the so-called loophole, without success. Why? You guessed it: It was "too close to the abortion issue."
Now, this is a straightforward case of active infanticide. We are not talking about making "medical treatment decisions." We are not even talking about labor-induction abortion followed by refusal to render aid. This child was actively suffocated by his mother.
Pro-lifers have been saying for many years that according to the pro-abortion mindset, whether a child is legally a person with a right to life depends entirely on his mother's subjective desires. As this article eloquently explains, the Virginia legal set-up makes this claim a reality with a vengeance.
Virginia lawmakers should be shamed into moving quickly to change the law. I think the prosecutors should name the lawmakers who said this was "too close to the abortion issue" and refused to act. And I think pro-lifers should tell the world: This is what being "pro-choice" does to your mind, to your soul, to your moral sense. This is the world of infanticide, courtesy of the culture of death. Choose your side.
HT: Mike Liccione
December 19, 2009
The financiers of Harvard Square.
This Bloomberg report on the financial crisis at Harvard University last year is worth reading, even if you just breeze through all the technical talk about interest rate swaps.
There is, first, the almost epic poetry of this fact: that a big player on seemingly every side of this web of contract and abstraction and folly… is a Harvard man!
In the midst of the crisis that triggered this Great Recession, Harvard University suddenly faced a crisis of its own. The University owed a Harvard man’s company (a fragment of the old Morgan empire), along with other banks, huge sums in collateral calls. It had sought to trim its capital costs with purchases of interest-rate and forward swaps. The degraded swaps went precipitously illiquid last fall, and far from lowering the school’s capital costs, instead opened a gaping hole in its available capital. “Harvard was so strapped for cash,” according to the Bloomberg report, “that it asked Massachusetts for fast-track approval to borrow $2.5 billion.”
The University survived, but its endowment fund lost close to $10 billion. A big chunk of the cash collateral went to JPMorgan Chase & Co., a firm whose history intertwines with the august Cambridge institution. (J. P. Morgan, Sr., himself had bequeathed to Harvard Medical School $1 million in 1901.)
And one of the men from the Government hired to clean up the crisis that wounded Harvard and most of American high finance — well he used to be the President of Harvard when the school purchased the toxic swaps, and indeed, he answers to a President who graduated from Harvard Law School. Many of the deputy financiers in this story also have Harvard ties.
December 20, 2009
Notes on Nostalgia
Approximately one month ago, Fr. Jonathan Tobias, who maintains a blog entitled Second Terrace, authored three meditations on the subject of locality, memory, nostalgia, modernity, and the Church. Those posts may be read here, here, and here, and together constitute a gentle interrogation of certain intellectual and spiritual tendencies on what might be referred to as the 'alternative right'. Critical to this interrogation is the distinction between nostalgia and memory, between sentimentality and a rooted, lived tradition - preferably Tradition. In the comments following the third post, I wrote what follows, not in order to engage in a fruitless disputation, but in an attempt to clarify, to excavate, the genesis of nostalgia as a cultural and psychological phenomenon; for nostalgia, that sentimental gaze fixed upon an idealized past, at once warm and wistful, is not a primary phenomenon, but a secondary, symptomatic one - symptomatic of the unhomelikeness experienced in times of relentless, remorseless change.
Brief Notes on Nostalgia
While agreeing with virtually all of the analyses given in the post, I cannot be so quick to dismiss the phenomenon of nostalgia, inasmuch as it is a symptom, and fairly begs to be diagnosed as such. Christopher Lasch, in his The True and Only Heaven - a near-magisterial treatment of these themes, in my estimation - is at pains to distinguish nostalgia and memory, as well as optimism and hope. Obviously, the former terms in these binaries are disordered, but what is important is that the phenomenon of nostalgia is the mirror image of progress, the relentless, churning, ceaselessly-revolutionizing, creatively-destroying Gadarene plunge into a fervently-desired future of BiggerBetterFasterMore, which, so far from increasing human satisfaction, seems to increase discontent with every achievement. Progress is typically portrayed, especially among certain 'conservative' temporizers, who wish to combine the incongruous elements of modernity in economics and material culture with traditionalism in morality, as a merely neutral relieving of man's estate that leaves us 'stuck with virtue' - although they also want to have it the other way, with the wellsprings of modernity, on their constructions, arising from the deepest aquifers of Christianity - but it is obvious that progress is merely a transposition, to the societal level, of the dialectic of the passions. It is driven, not by an impulse or judgment that human desires and aspirations should be conformed to natural limits, either those of our common nature or those of the nature that remains a common inheritance, however much we feign otherwise, but by the impulse to fulfill an ever-increasing wish-list of desires, typically, as is modernity's wont, by means of greater quantities of desire's objects. Progress is the attempt to satiate the infinite appetite of desire, to fill its fathomless abyss, with sheer quantity; as such, it is both born of a certain spiritual restlessness and productive of that restlessness, as each evanescent satisfaction generates a greater longing.
December 21, 2009
There is no such thing as not guilty by reason of ideology
Within the last couple of months I have twice, in very different contexts, been presented with something like the following idea:
Suppose that someone accepts an ideology or religion that teaches or implies that some wrong act is not really wrong. Perhaps it even teaches or implies that this act is obligatory. Then he cannot be judged to have done wrong for committing the act itself but only (or even "merely") for having adopted the ideology. Since adopting an incorrect ideology is an intellectual fault and may be significantly mitigated by honest intellectual confusion, lack of information, or mistake, a person who commits a wrong--even something that would otherwise be a very grave wrong--under the influence of an ideology that teaches that it is not a wrong is significantly less culpable than a person who commits the wrong without such an ideology. We can charge him only with an intellectual error rather than with the moral wrong of the act itself.
I think this reasoning is, at least for a very significant group of cases, completely incorrect. Let's be clear: Both times that this reasoning came up, the act in question was deliberately killing an innocent person.
I am at least open to the argument that when we are talking about something on which it is understandable that the natural law should not be obvious to a person, a parallel to the above reasoning has some point to it. Suppose, for example, that we are talking about something like in vitro fertilization. I believe that in vitro fertilization is intrinsically wrong, that it is contrary to the proper valuation of a child to generate the child in a laboratory. But I understand how a person could believe that, at most, it is wrong for prudential reasons--for example, that the widespread acceptance of in vitro in society has led to many other evils, such as embryonic stem-cell research. The wrongness of conceiving a child by in vitro is, in my opinion, not glaringly obvious until you think about it for a while and have first come to see the way that natural conception is related to the meaning of the child. Hence, a married mother raised in America who undergoes in vitro fertilization--assuming that she intends to have all the embryos implanted rather than allowing any to be destroyed--and who was never taught the wrongness of the act has diminished culpability as compared to a person who, we might way, "knows better."
But it seems to me that this way of thinking becomes less and less applicable the more glaringly horrific the act in question is, until we reach a point where it is just plain wrong. When we get to exposing infants on hillsides, killing one's daughter for apostasy from Islam to Christianity, or taking one's elderly spouse off to a euthanasia clinic, I think we have crossed a line.
Suppose you don't like my examples. Then I invite you to think up examples of your own. Do you really believe that worshipers of Baal who sacrificed their infants by fire were guilty of a merely intellectual error--the error of happening (oops) to believe in the wrong god?
Imagine an ideology that taught that gang rape is permissible as a form of subjugation of the Other or as vengeance for past harm done by the woman's family group. Would that significantly alter the nature of the act and its wrongness for the men who participated in the gang rape?
December 22, 2009
Rifqa Bary--Another hearing, another month closer to 18
Good news for now for Rifqa Bary. (See also here.) She can celebrate Christmas without, for now, being returned to her parents, or to Sri Lanka. The Ohio Children's Services continues to manage her case, and there will be another hearing on January 19. This case is a marathon, folks, and it isn't going to be over until the proverbial fat lady sings--that is, until Rifqa turns eighteen on August 10, 2010. Then, if she is still in the United States and safe, she can begin thinking about what to do with her life, how to stay safe from the Muslim community, and how to deal with her immigration situation.
The magistrate ruled that she does not have to have mediation meetings with her parents. Her parents were trying to have her ordered to forced meetings with them. It's a good sign, as far as as it goes, that the magistrate (I gather, a kind of assistant judge) would not order this, as that (hopefully) bodes well for her not being forced to go back and live with them.
The Grinch--aka Tarazi, the CAIR-affiliated lawyer, evidently realized the lead-balloon qualities of his motion to have all her Christmas cards seized and withdrew it. Negative publicity does help.
Evidently some sort of counselor is trying to determine whether Rifqa has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is the first I've heard of this. If she were so diagnosed, that would look pretty bad for her parents (normal teenagers should not have PTSD from living with their families). On the other hand, it might be used as an excuse for not listening to her or for ordering her medicated against her wishes, so all in all, I think it would be better if it were dropped.
Issues that remain unresolved or that I have not been able to hear of any resolution on:
--Her status as a "wayward" (incorrigible) child, which her parents had attempted to have declared. Evidently, that remains hanging.
--Her ability to communicate with the outside world. The last update from Jamal Jivanjee (go here and click on "Rifqa Bary Update" on the sidebar) indicated that someone (I couldn't tell who) was telling him a lot of baloney to the effect that no minors in foster care in Ohio or anywhere else in the country can ever have visitors--a manifest falsehood, since Jamal and others freely visited Rifqa in Florida. This seemed to mean that no move would be made to change her status of being held without visitors in foster care, and I have heard nothing to the contrary. Nor have I heard any good news in the area of her being able to use the Internet or telephone freely. These were privileges withdrawn immediately upon her being returned to Ohio. It appears that she is allowed to receive physical letters (see the Christmas cards) and possibly to write physical letters, though the latter is an inference on my part.
--Her status as a "dependent child." Pastor Jamal Jivanjee clearly considers that it is to her benefit, legally, to be declared a dependent child by the court. Evidently (though I don't fully understand the legalities of this) that declaration would make it somewhat less likely that she would be returned to her parents, though it would still lie with the discretion of the court. (Such is my perception.) That matter was not decided at this hearing, rather surprisingly. That is apparently the reason for the hearing on January 19th. Atlas reports that the parents are now fighting a dependency declaration, so this confirms that a dependency declaration would be a good thing for Rifqa from the perspective of keeping her from her family.
--The issue of forced counseling from a Muslim. The Jawa Report (which claims to have a source funneling information from inside CAIR) discovered that someone or other has picked out a Muslim counselor for Rifqa and that her parents' lawyer wanted to have her held in contempt of court for refusing to meet with this counselor. What a coincidence, huh, that the chosen counselor should be a Muslim? I haven't been able to hear anything about whether this issue even came up at the hearing today.
I'm beginning to take cautious hope in this case. Every month that passes makes it marginally less likely that the courts will forcibly return her to her family. While it would in principle be possible for them to do so immediately before her 18th birthday, it would, shall we say, look bad. She has eight months to go. I take it as a good sign that the court did not order forced meetings with the parents. I ask that those who are praying for Rifqa not grow weary in well-doing, as she still has months of uncertainty before her and a life to work out after that, while still very young and in a tenuous legal position in this country. (Rifqa's parents let their visas expire, so both she, who was brought in on her mother's visa, and they, are now here illegally.)
Here's wishing a merry Christmas to Rifqa, even though she can't read it.
December 23, 2009
Evolution & Morality: Explanation vs. Justification
Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory tries to explain everything that it tries to explain about the behavior of organisms in terms of "inclusive fitness": if a gene influences the behavior of its host organism in such a way as to increase the number of copies of itself in future generations of related organisms, then it, and the behaviors it encourages, will tend to spread.
Among the behaviors that neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory tries to explain in these terms are various human moral prescriptions & proscriptions.
For example, the aversion to and prohibition of incest between close family members - especially between parents and children, and between brothers and sisters: since the offspring of such unions suffer from elevated levels of genetic diseases, a gene that influenced its host to feel averse to sexual relations with parents, &/or children, &/or siblings would tend to spread.
In due course, feelings of aversion to such relations would become prevalent. The prevalence of such feelings would in turn lead to the adoption of moral rules prohibiting such conduct.
Personally, I find this, in outline, a fairly persuasive explanation for the ubiquity of traditional moral rules forbidding incest between close family members.
But is it - could it ever be - a justification for such rules?
Imagine a father and daughter (of the age of consent), in lust with one another, who argued as follows:
The prohibition of father-daughter incest is a product of primitive conditions that no longer obtain. We have no intention of producing any offspring. I've had a vasectomy, and she's on the pill. Moreover, in the unlikely event that she still managed to conceive a child, we could always have it checked before birth for genetic defects, and abort if necessary. So what's the problem?
Could a neo-Darwinian evolutionary theorist, qua neo-Darwinian evolutionary theorist, make any effective rebuttal to such an argument?
I don't think so.
More generally: while I think that neo-Darwinian evolutionary theorists can offer all sorts of interesting explanations for traditional moral judgments, I do not think that they can justify any moral judgments whatsoever.
December 24, 2009
Merry Christmas--quotation miscellany
We, the contributors of What's Wrong with the World, wish a joyous Feast of the Nativity to all our readers. Having decided that we could not better the words of the men of Christendom's past on this great festival, we have decided to give you a series of quotations for enjoyment and meditation. Merry Christmas!
Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.
Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.
He has become our justice, our sanctification, our redemption, so that, as it is written: Let him who glories glory in the Lord.
Truth, then, has arisen from the earth: Christ who said, I am the Truth, was born of the Virgin. And justice looked down from heaven: because believing in this new-born child, man is justified not by himself but by God.
St. Augustine, Sermon on the Incarnation
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
T.S. Eliot, "Ash Wednesday"
Verbum infans, the Word without a word; the eternal Word not able to speak a word; ... a wonder sure....And... swaddled; and that a wonder too. He, that (as in the thirty-eighth of Job he saith) taketh the vast body of the main sea, turns it to and fro, as a little child, and rolls it about with the swaddling bands of darkness; He to come thus into clouts, Himself! ... But yet, all this is well; all children are so. But [in a manger] that is it, there is the wonder. Children lie not there; He doth. There lieth He, the Lord of glory without glory. Instead of a palace, a poor stable, of a cradle of state, a beast's cratch; no pillow but a lock of hay; no hangings but dust and cobwebs; no attendants, but in medio animalium ...For if the inn were full, the stable was not empty we may be sure. A sign this, nay three in one, able to amaze any.
Lancelot Andrewes, Sermon preached on Christmas Day, 1618
Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of the unknown strength that sustains the stars. His instincts and imagination can still connect them, when his reason can no longer see the need of the connection; for him there will always be some savour of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God.
G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
Thou dost bear the form of Adam, yet Thou art all-perfect, being in the form of God. Of Thine own will, Thou art held in human hands, who in Thy might upholdest all things with Thine hand. To Thee the pure and undefiled Virgin spake aloud: 'How shall I wrap Thee in swaddling clothes like a child, how shall I give thee suck who givest nourishment to all the world? How shall I not wonder in amazement at Thy poverty beyond understanding! How shall I, who am Thy handmaiden, call Thee my Son? I sing Thy praises and I bless Thee, who does grant the world great mercy.'
Vespers for the Forefeast of the Nativity
Before Thy birth, O Lord, the angelic hosts looked with trembling on this mystery and were struck with wonder: for Thou who hast adorned the vault of heaven with stars hast been well pleased to be born as a babe; and Thou who holdest all the ends of the earth in the hollow of Thy hand art laid in a manger of dumb beasts. For by such a dispensation has Thy compassion been made known, O Christ, and Thy great mercy: glory to Thee
Hours of the Nativity of Christ
Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord as we tell of this present mystery. The middle wall of partition has been destroyed; the flaming sword turns back, the cherubim withdraw from the tree of life, and I partake of the delight of Paradise from which I was cast out through disobedience. For the express Image of the Father, the Imprint of His eternity, takes the form of a servant, and without undergoing change He comes forth from a Mother who knew not wedlock. For what He was, He has remained, true God: and what He was not, He has taken upon Himself, becoming man through love for mankind. Unto Him let us cry aloud: God born of a Virgin, have mercy upon us.
Vespers of the Nativity of Christ
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, hath given rise to the light of knowledge in the world, for they who did worship the stars, did learn from a star to worship Thee, O Sun of Justice, and to know that Thou didst come from the East of the Highest. Glory to Thee, O Lord.
Troparion of the Feast of the Nativity
December 26, 2009
Dona nobis pacem
Better late than never, they say. With Christmas over, and all visiting relatives out of the way, I've at last found time to finish my 2009 Christmas video:
December 27, 2009
Brilliant satire from the Lutheran side
A friend sent me this link to a brilliant satire by a Lutheran (the Lutheran interest in writing such a piece is explained in the linked post) "recommending" temple prostitution as a solution to various problems in the church. The reference to the little drummer boy is my only excuse for posting the link during the twelve days of Christmas, but I have deliberately waited a couple of days after Christmas Day itself.
Despite the "mature readers" warning at the top of the First Things post, the piece contains no offensive language or description. You obviously don't want your child or young person who is unaware of controversies surrounding homosexuality and Christianity or who does not know what prostitution is to be reading the post, but that's the only restriction I would recommend. My favorite quotation from it is probably
Sure, there are a handful of Bible verses that might seem to condemn the practice. But all the condemnation of temple prostitution involves pagan practices or worship of false gods. The objectionable thing is the idolatry, not the physical act itself. Sanctified, faithful prostitution in service of the true God is a new thing. The Biblical writers never foresaw or contemplated sanctified, faithful, God-pleasing prostitution in the churches and thus never wrote about it. Attempts to find a Biblical injunction against the practice therefore fall short.
It also made me laugh to see the classically liberal repetition throughout the article of the entire list of ridiculous adjectives--"sanctified, faithful, God-pleasing" followed by "prostitution."
December 28, 2009
The evolution of liberalism (and “conservatism”)
Lydia calls attention below to this satire of theological liberalism’s approach to sexual morality. But today’s over-the-top satire is tomorrow’s Righteous Liberal Cause, and as readers of chapter 5 of The Last Superstition know, this is more or less inevitable given the metaphysical revolution that gave rise to liberalism. There is in principle no absurdity or abomination that the liberal cannot convince himself is really good and rational. The only limit is the current, temporary position of the cultural ratchet. This seems like a good time to reprint the following March 2007 post from the old Right Reason blog. (Go here for the original, complete with the combox discussion it generated.) Liberalism repeats itself, the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy. And as you marvel at the craziness engulfing the world around you, remember, kids: The horror is just beginning.
Steve Burton (citing David Frum) describes some chilling developments in the UK vis-à-vis the growing conflict between antidiscrimination laws and religious freedom. Chilling, but not at all surprising. The developments in question illustrate a pattern that is characteristic of liberalism as it slowly works out the implications of its underlying assumptions.
Art Rehabilitation vs. Jihad--place your bets, gentlemen
Okay. I haven't blogged anything about the terror attack attempt on Christmas Day, because my fellow conservatives all over the blogosphere are doing such a great job, and I couldn't think of anything to add. (Favorite line from MyPetJawa: "Baby Jesus was watching over us.")
But this tidbit, courtesy of Jihad Watch, goes into the "Let's not learn anything from this" file, because I really, really doubt the present administration will let it affect its plans regarding Gitmo detainees:
The planners behind the attack, now fighting the jihad from Yemen, were released from Guantanamo Bay in 2007 and sent to Saudi Arabia, where they were released altogether and entered a "rehabilitation program." Specifically, an art rehabilitation program. Nothing like a little bit of art to make people understand that Islam is really a religion of peace.
The ABC News article ends:
Saudi officials concede its program has had its "failures" but insist that, overall, the effort has helped return potential terrorists to a meaningful life.
Evidently they think planning terrorist attacks is a meaningful life.
It also mentions that "One program gives the former detainees paints and crayons as part of the rehabilitation regimen."
Maybe these two got Rose Art when they wanted Crayola.
December 29, 2009
Churchland on dualism
Cohen on Kristol
Writing in the latest number of National Affairs, Eric Cohen ably memorializes the “moral realism” of the late Irving Kristol, greatest of the neoconservatives. Cohen’s focus for most of the essay is Kristol’s searching examination of capitalism, which featured prominently through his entire career as a writer and editor. Never let it be said that Kristol was an uncritical promoter of the capitalist form of political economy. Cohen quotes at length from a speech in 1991, when capitalism was at its very zenith of prestige:
In a sense, it is all Adam Smith’s fault. That amiable, decent genius simply could not imagine a world in which traditional moral certainties could be effectively challenged and repudiated. Bourgeois society is his legacy, for good and ill. For good, in that it has produced through the market economy a world prosperous beyond all previous imaginings — even socialist imaginings. For ill, in that this world, with every passing decade, has become ever more spiritually impoverished. That war on poverty is the great unfinished task before us. The collapse of socialism, along with the vindication of a market economy, offers us a wonderful opportunity to think seriously about such an enterprise. Only such an enterprise can ensure a capitalist future.
Cohen recapitulates this point repeatedly, and with increasing insistence: “in the end, as Kristol argued, our destiny will depend far more on our cultural and spiritual lives than on our regulatory and tax policies.” “Building a family requires precisely the virtues and spiritual purpose that the capitalist order fails to nourish, while the future of the capitalist order — and, more significantly, the future of a morally decent, democratic, and prosperous modern civilization — requires flourishing families.” “Perhaps the most important work before us — which Kristol, a Jew in largely Christian America, could not do — is to reform and re-invigorate Christian political theology, for it is on this that the spiritual vitality and moral-political sanity of American civilization likely now depends, both for better and for worse.”
Well worth a read.
UPDATE: By the strange twists of memory, the mystic chords even, I am reminded of this fine essay by Cohen, which had a dramatic effect on me almost ten years ago.
December 30, 2009
Fragment on Capitalism and Free Enterprise
Is there a useful distinction between Capitalism and Free Enterprise? I am convinced that the answer to that is an emphatic yes; and that the distinction is vital to a proper understanding of the wreck of our political economy.
Free enterprise is characterized, above all, by a wide private field for business competition and innovation, operating under a structure of laws analogous to a good referee in a ball game. Savers, under free enterprise, extend their capital to the successful enterprisers in the community. The economy is not isolated — some of its magnates aspire to national or even world prominence — but its core is local or regional. Its health is the effective and trustworthy lending of the capital of the older folks of the community, who have savings, to the industrious and virtuous of the younger businessmen. The old generation earns a return on this lent capital; and the younger businessmen are able, when successful, to build and distribute new wealth.
There is definitely risk in the system, but it is risk faced primarily on a personal level. Risk is intimately linked to trust. The man of means wants to know the men he invests his capital in. He'll ask about their families. He'll do his homework, but often he’ll have to take his risks based on his gut sense about men.
The great seaports of New England in colonial and early Republican America are exemplars of the free enterprise system. It is manifest that remarkable risk was undertaken in the whaling trade, when ships and stores and whalers were out to sea for a year and more, or any of the other thousand seafaring enterprises the New Englanders developed to generate their wealth. It is manifest that the trade by which this wealth was generated was a global operation. But the core of the capital at back of it was anchored in the integrity and independence of the New England towns.
Just came across this year-old YouTube video which, I think, perfectly encapsulates the state of race relations in America today:
It's supposed to be funny.
I find it horrific.
December 31, 2009
AQUINAS: Best of 2009
It’s time for the annual “Best Books I Read in 2009” feature over at Ignatius Insight, and Ignatius Press’s Mark Brumley kindly cites Aquinas as one of his choices. Says Brumley: “The prolific philosophy professor gives us a very helpful intro to St. Thomas' philosophy. Underscore philosophy. This is not a theological work. (By ‘theology’ I mean sacred theology; there's plenty of natural theology.)” Run out and buy your copy today, otherwise you’ll have to wait until next year to read it.