What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

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April 2009 Archives

April 1, 2009

Stove Award winner announced!

The late Australian philosopher David Stove once ran a competition to find the Worst Argument in the World. Stove’s competition has now been revived – by me, just now – and the winner will be announced in the very next sentence. It’s Thomas E. Ricks, noted Washington Post military correspondent and author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq and The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008.

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April 3, 2009

Kalb on TLS

James Kalb, author of The Tyranny of Liberalism, kindly reviews The Last Superstition over at his blog. I thank him for his comments, but would want to clarify a couple of points. First, it’s not Christianity per se the truth of which I argue for in the book, but rather the truth of certain praeambula fidei or “preambles” of the Christian faith, namely the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the reality of the natural moral law. (To be sure, I do think that there are compelling arguments for the truth of Christianity specifically, but making that case would take another book.) And while I do hold that faith often involves (in Kalb’s words) “the habit of standing by views that are demonstrably correct in the face of nonrational temptations to abandon them” – this is, as I argue in TLS, what we do when we continue to trust in the goodness of God in the face of evil – I would not say that that is all there is to faith. In the strict theological sense, faith is an assent to truths known to be divinely revealed, and which could not be known other than through divine revelation (e.g. the Trinitarian nature of God). Part of what I wanted to emphasize in the book is that (contrary to the usual caricature) faith does not involve an ungrounded will to believe; though it involves trusting in what divine authority has revealed, the claim that such-and-such really has been revealed is nevertheless something for which rational arguments should (and, in the case of the central claims of Christianity, can) be given. But precisely because that which is “taken on faith” in this way cannot be known directly through philosophical arguments, it is bound to be more mysterious to us than that which can be directly known in that way. So, I agree with Kalb that we should avoid too rationalistic an account of the object of faith – my point was rather that the act of faith is still perfectly rational.


April 4, 2009

Give me that old time atheism

I explain why here (in another post that may be of more interest to philosophy of mind buffs than to others).

April 5, 2009

Free and Equal Superman brings down Catholic religious orders

This interview came out in 1994, but I heard of it first just yesterday, on Facebook, of all places, thanks to one of my FB contacts who posted it. Some of you probably know all about it: It's the story of how the "non-directive therapy" of psychologist Carl Rogers brought down religious orders with frightening speed in California in the 1960's. The story is told by a former associate of Rogers, now-repentant Dr. William Coulson.

Coulson's tale and his way of telling it are absolutely believable. He talks about the jargon of psychology and its follies with the familiarity of one who knows them from the inside. Speaking as a Protestant, I found the story shocking and yet all-too-predictable. I could not hope to reproduce it, and I encourage you to find time to read it. Let's hope that if we know history we can have a hope of not repeating it. At a minimum, the moral of the story is, "Never let people come and do psychology seminars, or for that matter, any seminars, for your well-functioning religious community, with the goal of bringing you 'up to date.' Chances are, by the time it's all over, you won't have a religious community at all anymore, much less a well-functioning one."

I have only a few comments that won't, I hope, simply be wasting time you could be spending reading the interview.

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April 6, 2009

My First YouTube Video Response! (Ed Feser, take note!)


Continue reading "My First YouTube Video Response! (Ed Feser, take note!)" »

April 7, 2009

Morbid optimism, from banks to the streets.

Out amongst the usual street theater that follows a meeting of world economic powers like that held last week in London, the observer will behold a good sample of debased political idiom. The banners read like cant on stilts: "Abolish money" and "One currency, one government, one world" and "The government lies" and "Democracy is an illusion" and -- my favorite -- "No borders anywhere." It is a peculiar amalgam of cynicism and Utopia, this idiom. The great reaction against a failed aspect of modern Capitalism shows at once a sneering mistrust, often bolstered by dreary conspiracism, and an almost innocent hope in drastic remedies. Somehow modern politics has managed to bring into alliance despair and idealism.

Continue reading "Morbid optimism, from banks to the streets." »

April 8, 2009

TLS on radio

Arizona readers and podcast listeners everywhere might be interested to know that I will be on The James Allen Show this Saturday (April 11th) to discuss The Last Superstition, from roughly 9-10pm PST. (See here for a previous radio interview about TLS.)

April 10, 2009

Good Friday--He Trusted in God that He Would deliver Him

For good Friday, a little Handel. Scripture from Psalm 22, of course, which we read last night at the stripping of the altar:

Related note: I have been told recently of a well-known New Testament scholar who attempts in a recent book to make a "conflict" between the gospels by saying that in one of the gospels Jesus suffered without knowing the reason for it. This astonishing statement supported by, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Reference to Psalm 22 is, apparently, missing in this shallow exposition of the Gospels.

April 11, 2009

J.R.R. Tolkien on Douglas Kmiec

"And listen, Gandalf, my old friend and helper!" he said, coming near and speaking now in a softer voice. "I said we, for we it may be, if you will join with me. A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all.There is no hope left in Elves or dying Numenor. This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose. Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means."

He is risen!


Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” -- Matt. 28: 1 - 10, 16-20

April 12, 2009

Alleluia! He is Risen!


I hope no one minds a little duplication on Easter posts, but I thought I'd break my usual rule of posting music only at my personal blog and give you all at W4 a chance to hear the a capella group Glad singing "Christus Dominus Hodie Resurrexit," aka "Christ the Lord is Risen Today."

Christ The Lord Is Risen Today - Glad

Image credit: Frank Ordaz

April 13, 2009

Communism on trial

A UN-backed court in Cambodia has begun trial of the most notorious of the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, the Communist party which in accordance with archetypal Communist doctrine visited unspeakable torments upon that small nation in the late 1970s. Though wholly unequal in scale to the calamity of Communism in southeast Asia once America retreated, this trial represents an attempt to grant some approximation of justice, some mere shadow of retribution, for a nation subjected to the worst of human depravity.

The name Khmer Rouge is half-French in derivation, and indeed the doctrinal content of this particular Communism, this particular effort to apply the theory of Karl Marx, is an immediate derivative of the French Communist Party. Pol Pot and other Communists learned their revolutionary politics in Paris, imbibing of them deeply enough to effect “the most radical social transformation” in all the long and bloody history of politics as social transformation. What these revolutionaries undertook, in the words of the French scholar Jean-Louis Margolin, was "to implement total Communism in one fell swoop, without the long transitional period that seemed to be one of the tenets of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy.” (The Black Book of Communism, p. 577.)

At least one in seven, and probably as much as one in five Cambodians perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in what may be the most concentrated massacre in all of history. By comparison, it would be as if the Commonwealth of Virginia alone were to witness 1.5 million of her citizens murdered in under four years.

Kaing Guek Eav -- who will go down in infamy as one Comrade Duch, and whose trial began last month -- ran a camp which admitted 15,000 people, 99 percent of whom were tortured to death.

As the calamity of Communism approached in Cambodia, surging into the vacuum of power left behind by the retreat of American forces from neighboring Vietnam, Western Liberal intellectuals were curiously nonchalant. Some were even pleased. It didn't matter to them how many times this armed doctrine ended in blood and treachery; they were always prepared to give it another try.

Continue reading "Communism on trial" »

April 14, 2009

Descartes’ “clear and distinct perception” argument

Yet another entry in my series of posts on philosophy of mind, for those who might be interested.

Stanley Fish--Still one of the bad guys, big-time

Several readers have written me e-mail asking me to blog on the Obama administration's apparent plan to revoke the Bush federal conscience protection rule, put into place late in the Bush administration, which protects health-care professionals against discrimination if they refuse to act against their consciences. (The rule says that federal funds can be withheld from entities that do so discriminate.)

I have struggled literally for weeks with the rhetorical problem of how to write such a post. The two biggest causes of this brain-freeze/blog-freeze have been a) the fact that Wesley J. Smith had some worries about the Bush rule and some recommendations for its revision, yet clearly (and Smith knows this) the Obama administration isn't concerned with those issues and b) the fact that the revocation of the Bush rule would merely return us to the status quo ante, which is where we had been living for umpety years past. In other words, its revocation doesn't amount to the imposition of requirements that doctors engage in abortions (for example); it merely removes an extra, brand-new, federal obstacle to such requirements as might be put in place by states (see here) or by employers.

Okay, well, let's take all that as read. I am galvanized to put up a post now that refers to this issue because I believe that W4 readers need to be informed of the following fact, especially if they happen to read W4 more religiously than they read the New York Times blog: Contra the implication of one of our commentators here less than three months ago, and with all due respect to that commentator, Stanley Fish is not some sort of deep-respect-deserving "pilgrim" gradually moving in a pro-life direction. About as far from it as possible. On the contrary, Stanley Fish is so pro-abortion that he doesn't like the Bush rule because, heaven forbid, it provides some measure of protection to doctors who refuse to be involved in the taking of human life, and Fish thinks they should be forced to be thus involved as a matter of "professionalism." In other words, Fish is a pro-death ideologue for whom "choice" means only the choice to kill.

Continue reading "Stanley Fish--Still one of the bad guys, big-time" »

April 16, 2009

TLS radio podcast

My recent interview on The James Allen Show is now available for your listening pleasure. Go here and follow the relevant link.

April 17, 2009

The Left vs. Free Speech

In Canada:

"Ezra Levant's...Shakedown: How Our Government is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights...is a chronicle of injustice, with outrage on every page.

"Levant - formerly the publisher of the Canadian conservative magazine The Western Standard - was...hauled before the Alberta Human Rights Commission for having the temerity to publish something a radical imam didn't approve of [i.e., the Danish Cartoons]...

"...Canada no longer has freedom of speech. The 'human rights' commissions (HRCs) all over Canada, staffed by bureaucrats and not following normal legal procedures [have] morphed into star chambers weighing in on what the press could print, what pastors could say from the pulpit, whether certain Bible verses could be displayed publicly, and so on...

"...These commissions have the power to impose financial and legal penalties, and yet they don't adhere to the most basic protections of due process found in a real court of law...

"And it was worse, even, than that: the state paid for the prosecution, while the defendant incurred any and all legal fees...Even if you were eventually declared innocent of the charges against you, you would not be reimbursed - the process itself is in effect a penalty..."

"...Levant does his level best not to revel in his own indignation, but to chronicle the myriad injustices suffered by those who have not had the means to fight back...We learn how a restaurant was punished for firing a cook with Hepatitis C; how an HRC held a trial over the complaint filed by a male hairstylist that some womet at his salon school called him a loser; how a rape-crisis center was sued for not wanting a burly male-to-female transsexual as a rape-victim couselor...

"...the chief investigator of the national HRC...is notorious for launching a 15-month-long taxpayer-funded investigation into a small Toronto publication called Catholic Insight on the basis of its stated opposition to gay marriage..."


In the U.K.:

Continue reading "The Left vs. Free Speech" »

April 18, 2009

"Nobody is Pro-Abortion"

Ever hear that one? You know, no one is for abortion. No, no. It should be safe, legal, and rare. It's a sad thing, a tragedy. All the lefties are merely pro-choice. Don't you understand?

Well, the next time someone tells you that, point him to this link. This is a "sermon"--in the Church of Moloch, one presumes--by one "Reverend" Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, the new lesbian dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass.

Ms. Ragsdale is having none of this "tragedy" stuff. According to her, abortion is a blessing. In fact, abortion is always a blessing. It's a blessing whether a woman has been raped, has a child with major birth defects, or is in poverty and doesn't have good daycare. In those cases, the only tragedy is the poverty, the rape, the birth defects. The abortion is a blessing. And when a woman is in a loving, committed relationship, gets pregnant (oops!) and doesn't want the baby, then Ms. Ragsdale says, "[T]here is not a tragedy in sight--only blessing. The ability to enjoy God’s good gift of sexuality without compromising one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts and call is simply blessing."

When Eros is made a god, he becomes a demon.

But there's more.

Continue reading ""Nobody is Pro-Abortion"" »

Whoah! "Spengler"...

...turns out to be an associate editor of First Things, a Bear Stearns & Bank of America alum...

...and (though he forbears to mention this) one-time co-author of a book with Lyndon Larouche!

If you can believe it.

Steve Sailer nailed him, dead on target, a couple of years ago, and here adds a few more choice words on the occasion of his self-outing.

Too funny.

April 19, 2009

On patriotism and democracy.

Over of the years one of my fascinations has been the nature of patriotism. I have maintained a running debate on the subject at several websites including this one, as well as in hundreds of threads on email. Here is a wandering dilation I posted at Redstate some years ago: these posts.

The old Redstate archive site does not lend itself to facile searching, so I fear that much of what follows will be both repetitive and inadequate; but this was always (for me at least) a fruitful conversation, despite its many difficulties and frustrations, and I see no reason why it should not continue.

The parties to this debate are many, their individual nuances and complexities abundant, but the main lines of argument cluster around a series of questions. (1) How much of the content of patriotism is ideological, that is, how much does the love of one's patria depend upon the political ideas associated with the patria? (2) What is the role of pre-rational passion or affection or veneration in the formation and maintenance of patriotism? (3) How do the reasoning and feeling aspects of man bear upon his love for his native land?

Each of these questions presents us with some presuppositions and some implications. Question (3), for instance, presupposes that man is a dualistic creature; that reasoning and feeling mean different things, but are each part of what it means to be man. Question (1), meanwhile, implies a disputation not merely over what political ideas should be included in patriotism, but even over whether political ideas, of any kind, should be included at all.

Let us briefly consider a single political idea, or at least a single category of political idea, in its relation to patriotism: democracy. The word means rule by the many, which in practice translates to some kind of majoritarian, plebiscitary, or representative rule. Democracy also strongly implies political equality as a driving principle. This brings it into some tension with another common political idea, namely freedom, because freedom, in order to have any meaning, must allow for possibility of unequal outcomes. Democracy, especially when it is preached as a universal ideal, also comes into tension with particular loyalties. Strictly speaking, the natural family is an offense against equality: its internal arrangements are hierarchical and particular, especially with respect to those outside it. And from the universal perspective, favoring one's own nation or people is certainly an offensive against equality.

So already, after only a paragraph of exposition, obvious difficulties arise with any attempt to conceive of an ideological patriotism that embraces a vision of universal democracy. Democracy looks askance on any notion of a favoritism or hierarchy. It cannot really allow the possibility that my love of country will issue in my prejudice in favor of my countrymen. Such things are disreputable according to the principle of equality.

Consider some possibilities under democratic forms:

What if, let us say, the democracy, the majority opinion, the general will, decides that dispossession of the property-owning classes would be a good policy? What if, that is, a sovereign democracy settles upon a policy of full-on socialism? To me the answer to that is obvious enough: the democracy is dead wrong, no matter what degree of majoritarian opinion it commands, and ought to be opposed by all patriotic men. Patriotic men do not stand idly as their neighbors are dispossessed. My answer, in other words, is that patriotism and democracy may stand in a posture of polar opposition.

Or what if the democracy tries something even more subtle. Let us say that instead of looting the property-owners to fund itself, the democracy connives at enslaving a certain class? Let the democracy conspire to rob men of their labor instead of their property. If the slavery is concealed and denied, it is not hard to see how the democracy may even come to forget that slavery exists. In any case, again I say the greater patriotism is to resist, hamper, delay, and frustrate the advance of the servile regime, at all points, with an eye toward throwing it off completely.

Okay, I hope what I have kept so far unspoken may now be presented more baldly, but with comprehension:

Any theory which infuses into the content of American patriotism the idea of democracy as the highest state of human politics is a dubious theory indeed.

But of course, the fact is that any ideological construct -- democracy, freedom, equality, order, tradition, whatever -- can be subjected to the same sort of critical examination which I have just now applied to democracy, and be shown by that examination to be wanting. This leaves us at the broader possibility that:

Any theory which infuses ideological content (of any kind) into patriotism is dubious.

A Darwinian Fable: Chapter 1

Imagine a researcher from the Alpha Centauri system charged with writing a report on Human Beings for the Department of Alien Studies at the Interplanetary University.

Previous researchers equipped with unpleasant medical devices have already provided the department with thorough information on human physiology. So now the faculty has decided it wants to know about human behavior and values. What do humans want? What makes them tick?

Unfortunately, a turf war with the Department of Linguistics has stalled all attempts to translate Human Languages, so our researcher must base his conclusions, not on what he hears humans say, but on what he sees them do.

Fortunately, however, the Theory of Evolution, developed by the great Selrahc Niwrad, Father of Centaurian Biology, and elaborated by his many successors, provides our researcher with a helpful guide to what he should look for and what he should expect to find.

And, sure enough, he finds what he is looking for:

Continue reading "A Darwinian Fable: Chapter 1" »

April 20, 2009

Spinoza on final causes

Among the central themes of The Last Superstition is that final causality – teleology, purpose, or goal-directedness – is as objective a feature of the natural world as mass or electric charge, and that the arguments to the contrary given by various early modern philosophers are worthless. One thinker I did not discuss in TLS is Spinoza, who puts forward a critique of final causes in the Appendix to Book I of the Ethics. Spinoza’s metaphysics is notoriously idiosyncratic and has had few defenders, which is why I did not devote space to him in the book. His critique of final causality is closely tied to that metaphysics, and inherits its weaknesses. Still, Spinoza is one of the chief architects of modernity: the militantly secularist liberalism which has now displaced the milder and theologically-based Lockean brand of liberalism in the thinking of the contemporary Western intelligentsia has its roots in Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise. And his critique of final causality evinces some of the same fallacies and errors to be found in other early modern writers. So it’s worthwhile giving his critique a brief look.

Continue reading "Spinoza on final causes" »

Two rants on PC-speak

Do you hate PC-speak? Do you hate all the deceptive, cloying, mind-befogging, euphemistic mental manipulation to which the self-styled Guardians of Culture want to subject you by means of telling you how you must talk?

You will love this post by John C. Wright, of whom I'd never heard before I followed a link to the post. (If that means I live in a cave, I ask Mr. Wright and my readers to forgive me.) It's a rant. It's a self-styled rant. Warning: It uses one bad word in the course thereof, once. (He says he will hereby redefine it, since language changes and we can make words mean whatever we want them to mean.) It's hilarious. Here are just a few quotes, but you will want to read the whole thing:

Continue reading "Two rants on PC-speak" »

April 21, 2009

TLS on radio

Some more upcoming radio interviews about The Last Superstition: I will be appearing on The Bob Dutko Show this Wednesday (the 22nd) at around 2:05-2:35 pm EST. Next week, on Thursday the 30th, I’ll be on The Jim Bohannon Show from 8-9pm PST.

April 22, 2009

American Religion - The Iconography of Idolatry


"These be thy gods, O America, which brought thee up out of the land of self-government!"

Pious and fearful devotees of the god Mammon beseech his idol for a restoration of his evanescent benefactions, the sacraments of self-creation, to the end that they might slake their passions for a little while longer in the infinite interior abyss of desire, their minds assuming the forms of corporeal things, so as to avoid confronting the terrible abyss of their own freedom before God, in whom Alone they may find surcease of suffering.

April 23, 2009

Lowbrow Conservatism

What Erik Kain said. I have no grand, architectonic theory as to why conservatism, the New Criterion aside, has largely abdicated its natural role as the custodian of high culture, in all its expressions - by which I do not mean George Will's hurrumphing about denim - preferring to wallow instead in altogether too many uncouth, uncultivated, unlearned expressions of cultural contempt, invidious presentations of political and legal issues (oppose torture? - you must hate America, or want Americans to die), and generalized anti-intellectualism (such as the rote incantation of antediluvian talking points and the corresponding simplification of the complex, prudential business of analysis and policy formulation). My only suggestion would be that, at some moment - in the sense of a phase of time - in our history, the conservative opposition to a particular entrenched elite morphed into an inchoate distrust, even resentment, of elites, expertise, and competence in general; probably this transition was precipitated by the alliance of the new left and the managerial, technocratic establishment in the 70s, the cultural resentments and hostilities towards the former becoming a synecdoche for the whole, slowly bleeding over into a distrust of high culture and intellection. Bill Buckley's famous quip about the Boston phone directory doesn't have the same resonance when translated into the idiom of angry ranters contemptuous of sustained thought about our common things. Whatever one might say about the substance of left politics, it is the tendency of the left to give intellectual form to the raw matter of leftist grievances and aspirations; a structuring effect is produced. On the right, much is without form and void, as those who ought to be structuring and refining rightist aspirations instead pander to them as though the mere intensity of their expression were sufficient to constitute a politics. Whoever said that grievance politics and the entitlement mentality were exclusively left-wing? Manifestly, they are not.

April 24, 2009

A Darwinian Fable: Chapter 2

Recall that when last we met our researcher from the Department of Alien Studies at the Alpha Centauri system's Interplanetary University, he was heading back to the dreary planet Earth - but armed, now, with an implanted translator that enables him to understand every word he hears or reads.

Long story short, what our researcher finds is that, when it comes to their values, a vast gulf lies between what humans say and what they do.

They are habitual hypocrites.

Continue reading "A Darwinian Fable: Chapter 2" »

April 25, 2009

Wickedness in Ambivalence

I have called the blog Vox Nova "debate club at Auschwitz" because the contributors generally take an airy academic inclusive approach to publicly discussing abortion, in this day and age with the mass scale horror all around us, on a blog which specifically advertises itself as Catholic perspectives. One of the contributors publicly stated that subsidiarity justifies the pro-choice position, for example, and other contributors have defended him. The point to the "Debate Club at Auschwitz" label is precisely that ambivalent public airy academic discussion in the presence of an actual moral horror which should be unequivocally rejected is inappropriate, like a debate club airily and academically discussing the Jewish Question at Auschwitz.

It isn't an accusation that the Debate Club is gassing the Jews, or is in favor of gassing the Jews. Rather, it is an observation that there are times and places where it is simply wicked to engage in airy, public, ambivalent academic discussion of certain kinds of moral horror. One of those times and places is here and now; one of those subjects is abortion. Deliberate engagement in airy ambivalent inclusive public academic discussion is perfectly capable of itself - the discussion - being a form of wickedness, in certain circumstances.

The same thing applies to the Right's public airy academic ambivalence on torture in the face of the fact that we have tortured prisoners, at least one and probably more of them to death, in the GWOT.

The unwinding of the pro-life movement from the inside by strongly associating it with despicable moral wrongs that appeal to the political Right, the home of the genuine pro-life movement, is Satan's plan. We get to choose whether we will cooperate with that plan, or not.

That includes not waffling over the supposedly puzzling question of whether waterboarding is torture. Waterboarding prisoners as we have done is torture, without any question or ambiguity. You are either with the torturers, or against them.


Tortured Positivism

Strong positivism insists, from one point of view, that unless we have a theory of everything X we don't know anything relevant about X. (Another point of view is that it insists that anything not expressed in our theory of everything X is irrelevant, which amounts to the same thing). I've talked before about how the positivist-postmodern dynamic works out in practice: positivists believe (contra all evidence and reason) that we can formally express everything true (or relevant) about X. Postmoderns conclude that because positivism is irrational we don't really know anything about X. Both positivism and postmodernism, then, depend on a particular approach to knowledge: an approach which insists that completeness is required in order to have relevant knowledge at all; that incomplete knowledge is invalid. In a sense, then, they both confuse the incomplete with the indefinite.

Modernity exists in a stew of positivism and postmodernism. Because of this, arguments often proceed as though definite conclusions cannot be reached until a comprehensive definition or "Theory of Everything X" is produced.

But we don't need to have a Theory of Everything in order to know some things. For example, we don't need to have a Theory of Everything Abortion to know that when a woman has the living child suctioned out of her womb because she doesn't want to get fat, she has procured an abortion. And we don't need to have a Theory of Everything Torture in order to know that when we waterboard a prisoner to get him to talk, we have committed an act of torture. Sure, stating what was done in that manner doesn't fit a careful and formal deontological casuistry of the morality of acts, and it doesn't provide us with a Theory of Everything with respect to the moral subject matter in question. But that doesn't mean we are even slightly uncertain as to whether what was actually done in the particular case was abortion or torture.


April 27, 2009

It’s just so obvious!

Suppose you were a late nineteenth/early twentieth-century British Idealist. In particular, suppose you were Bernard Bosanquet. You’d have had a tough row to hoe, no? I mean, trying to show that the world is mental through and through, that there is no such thing as a mind-independent reality, that naturalism is false – surely a very daunting task in any age, but especially so in the era of Maxwell, Lyell, Darwin, et al.!

Not really, as it happens. Why not? Thus spake Bosanquet:

“I didn’t say anything about Naturalism. I don’t think it important; the universe is so obviously experience, and it must all be of one tissue.” (Letter to C. J. Webb, Bernard Bosanquet and His Friends, p. 243, emphasis added)

See? Idealism is just so obviously true that no argument for it is needed, and naturalism is not even important enough to waste time trying to refute. That was easy!

Seriously, though, how could Bosanquet, or any philosopher, get away with such breathtaking dogmatism? Quite easily, for idealism really did seem quite obviously to be true to generations of post-Kantian and post-Hegelian philosophers, and not without good reason. Given certain subjectivist epistemological-cum-metaphysical assumptions having their origins in Descartes and the early empiricists, the idealistic consequences drawn from them by Kant, Hegel, and succeeding generations of German and British philosophers were, if not quite inevitable, at least extremely natural. Nor did the progress of natural science provide any reason whatsoever to think naturalism more likely to be true than idealism. For (then as now) naturalism is not an empirical or scientific thesis at all, but a purely philosophical one. And as philosophy, it simply could not stand up to scrutiny given what so many philosophers thought they knew about how we know the world (and “therefore”) what we know about it. If all we ever know or can know is experience, we cannot so much as form a concept of that which is other than experience. Idealism follows straightaway, or at least is hard to avoid. Naturalism, materialism, etc. can’t even get off the ground, or at least are extremely hard to justify in light of this widespread subjectivist starting point. Even irreligious or anti-religious philosophers of the time often acknowledged this (as I have noted elsewhere), and staked their position on some non-materialistic metaphysics or other.

But we’re well beyond such dogmatic Idealism now. Because we’ve replaced it with other kinds of dogmatism. Some of my readers recently alerted me to this Bosanquet-style dismissal of theism by my old sparring partner Will Wilkinson, a noted expert in philosophy of religion. (Or at least, a noted expert in whatever Bluffer’s Guide clichés about the subject Wilkinson picked up before dropping out of grad school.) And anyone who’s waded through the comboxes of philosophy blogs covering the APA petition controversy will find not a few professional philosophers lamenting that there is still anyone who thinks the morality of homosexual acts is even worth debating. You see, it’s just “so obvious” that the classical theistic proofs are no good. It’s just “so obvious” that the essentialist-cum-teleological metaphysics undergirding classical natural law theory is indefensible today. It’s just “so obvious” that the attitudes toward sex taken for granted by your typical liberal academic or journalist are the mark of Enlightenment, rather than (to take, entirely at random, just one possible alternative explanation) extreme moral degeneracy. No need to waste time reading books claiming to show otherwise. It’s all just so obvious!

But could contemporary secularist and liberal philosophers really be as blinkered as Bosanquet? Surely not!

It couldn’t possibly be true that what they know of the traditional theistic proofs and of classical natural law theory is really nothing more than a bunch of stupid caricatures. It couldn’t possibly be true that they are simply dogmatically beholden to certain post-positivist and post-Quinean naturalistic philosophical assumptions they picked up unreflectively as grad students and have had reinforced by their utter unfamiliarity with any school of thought currently out of favor within a narrow academic philosophical culture. It couldn’t possibly be true that they don’t know what they’re talking about, and don’t know that they don’t know.

Why not?

Well, um… it’s, you know, just so obvious!


April 28, 2009

The End of a Consensus

This post is going to be full of sociological claims about which I am uncertain. It's okay if you disagree with me about them, so long as you do so nicely.

First claim: Thirty-five years ago, most conservatives were both very strongly in favor of the death penalty and strongly opposed to torture, where "torture" would have included waterboarding, if they had been asked about it.

Second claim: This is no longer true today. Now, conservatives who are strongly in favor of the death penalty tend to be the same ones who support at least some forms of torture, and conservatives who are opposed to those same forms of torture tend to be, at least, uneasy about the death penalty rather than strongly in favor of it.

Suppose these are both true. What caused the change?

Continue reading "The End of a Consensus" »

April 29, 2009

The Boy Who Cried Waterboard

The claim in November 2007:

U.S. and Pakistani authorities captured KSM on March 1, 2003 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. KSM stayed mum for months, often answering questions with Koranic chants. Interrogators eventually waterboarded him — for just 90 seconds.

KSM “didn’t resist,” one CIA veteran said in the August 13 issue of The New Yorker. “He sang right away. He cracked real quick.” Another CIA official told ABC News: “KSM lasted the longest under water-boarding, about a minute and a half, but once he broke, it never had to be used again.”

The claim in April 2009:
Today, Library Tower looms 73 stories above Los Angeles. But the Pacific Coast’s highest skyscraper might have become a smoldering pile of steel beams had CIA interrogators not waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) 183 times in March 2003, as recently released memoranda reveal.
My point is just that if we take the parameters "stayed mum for months" and "once for 90 seconds", and measure how close that came to, you know, the truth - immediately and 183 times over a period of a month - that probably gives us a good idea how to properly calibrate the claim "... might have become a smoldering pile of steel beams ...".


April 30, 2009

Pay no attention to those neural firings behind the curtain

In the service of my on-going agenda to assist the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy by getting us to put aside our differences and unite against the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, I present the following bit of pseudo-intellectual tripe from the Culture of Death for my readers to tear into tiny smidgens:

[T]here is room in this formulation for both nature and nurture to determine our moral selves. Our inherited neurologic circuitry is a template that is "finished" by institutional indoctrination which fires that circuitry repetitively throughout our development (e.g., "thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not kill," ad infinitum). It both feels right and, when fully indoctrinated, is programmed into the fully moral individual. There is a very large literature suggesting that during "critical periods" of brain development, environmental triggers (language for example) act on the neural template to potentiate development of particular skills or behaviors. Although evidence remains circumstantial (e.g., in primate studies) developing morality may follow a similar paradigm. Accordingly, my thesis here is that our repudiation of PAS and euthanasia is a moral intuition, without rational foundations.

This little bit of nonsense comes from a new article in the journal Critical Care Medicine by one Constantine A. Manthous, M.D., of the Yale School of Medicine. The article is called "Why Not Physician-Assisted Death?" The article is available, apparently, only by subscription. Here is the abstract. The quotation comes from Wesley J. Smith's post here.

Continue reading "Pay no attention to those neural firings behind the curtain" »