Thursday, August 25, 2005

Say Whaaaat?

Under what conditions would it be morally acceptable for the United States to assassinate a foreign leader? As questions about morality go, it seems kind of like a no-brainer: never. At least that's the answer that any good Catholic would have to give. But you'd never know it to read Jim Tucker's blog where we're told that (emphasis mine):
he's [Chavez] certainly not committed any acts of war against us. And until he does so, it's not right for us to talk about assassinations or war.
Frankly, talk about assassinations would not be right even if he had committed an act of war against us. That's simple, straightforward moral theory there, folks. But Jimbo has a tendency to shoot from the hip, as I've pointed out a couple of times. It's too bad--these days one looks for a little sanity, or at least moral clarity, especially from one's clergy.

Ruling From the Heart

Last week there was an interesting story at CNS about a statement from Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh regarding the admission to Communion of Catholic politicians who support abortion (or, who take the mindless "I'm personally opposed but..." attitude towards abortion legislation). Yet on today's "front page" of CNS there is a photograph of Pope Benedict XVI, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, administering Communion to Brother Roger Schutz, the founder of the Taize Community who was murdered. According to CNS, the admission of Brother Roger to Holy Communion was "not foreseen", but took place because he just happened to be seated in a group that was to receive Holy Communion from Cardinal Ratzinger.

Is there a conflict here? Well, it should be noted first of all that, whatever his ecclesial status, Brother Roger was not a big promoter of abortion rights. The fact that there are self-styled "christians" out there who think that abortion should be available to those who wish it is a far greater scandal than the fact that there are Christians out there who are orthodox in most ways but are not card-carrying members of the Roman Catholic Church. These latter folks are simply misguided; the former are a scandal and a disgrace. Brother Roger is on record as saying that the Pope is the Universal Shepherd of the Church, an a belief that appears, sometimes, not to be shared by all who call themselves Roman Catholic. Personally, I would rather stand behind Brother Roger in the Communion line than, say, Richard McBrien, but that's just me.

That is not to say, however, that I think that those who are not in communion with Rome ought to be admitted to Holy Communion. I don't think that they should be. Some remarks are intentionally hyperbolic in order to make a point. The admission of Brother Roger was simply a mistake, and to avoid giving scandal Cardinal Ratzinger administered Communion to him. One hopes that if it had been, say, Osama Bin Laden standing in the line, he would have been turned away. But "catholic" politicians who either do nothing to limit access to abortion or who, like John Kerry, actively work to promote it, ought to be turned away every time, because they are far more like Osama Bin Laden than they are like Brother Roger.

Come now, you must be thinking--that's just ridiculous, or else it is simply too hyperbolic: one ought not to try to make points that way! Surely there is a huge difference between Osama Bin Laden and John Kerry. Well, sure, there is this difference: Osama Bin Laden does what he does because he thinks he's doing the right thing, what is in the best interests of the movement that he supports. John Kerry supports abortion because he thinks he's doing the right thing, what is in the best interest of the movement--hmm...wait a minute....

OK, how about this: Osama Bin Laden is different because he's either stupid or evil. If he really believes that what he's doing is justified, then he's stupid; if he doesn't believe that it's justified but does it simply out of some perverse enjoyment, then he's evil. But John Kerry does not want to kill innocent civilians, he wants to make it easier for other people to kill innocent--oops...wait a minute...OK, he doesn't want innocent babies to be killed, he thinks that letting folks have access to the means to kill innocent babies is...um...hang on a sec....

Well, he's not stupid!

No, I meant to say he's not evil!

No, wait, I meant to say...

Oh, never mind. Let's just not give him Holy Communion until he repents.

God's Design

Yet another article in the NYT about the evolution / intelligent design debate. There's not much new in the article--the story continues with the same old characters saying the same old lines. What's different--though not new--is the story's attempt to give a little more detail from the arguments of the two sides, trying to explain random mutations, on the one hand, and the concept of irreducible complexity on the other.

I've discussed this debate in several installments of An Examined Life, and I've nothing new to add to the kerfuffle either. One thing that puzzles me about the whole thing is the attitude, usually discernable on both sides of the debate, that the two ways of looking at the origin of life are orthogonal. This attitude has existed since Darwin first proposed his theory: some folks assume that, if life arose as a consequence of random forces interacting with adaptable genetic structures, that fact alone is sufficient to show either that there is no God or that, if there is a God, God is not responsible for the origins of life on earth. Other folks assume that, if the major monotheistic religions are to be preserved, then it is a necessary condition that one reject scientific hypotheses about the origins of life that involve random mutations interacting with naturalistic forces (such as natural selection).

One side makes a mistake about a sufficient condition, the other a mistake about a necessary condition, in my view. (I pass over in silence the literalist argument that holds that the text of Genesis must be interpreted as history that is literally true in a non-metaphorical way, since that view is not supported by any evidence, either theological or scientific; it has been explicitly rejected by theologians as early as St. Agustine and has been rejected by the Pontifical Biblical Commission.) Part of the problem lies in the fact that many non-scientists find mechanistic (top-down) explanations in science easier to understand, and any theory involving genuine randomness is already on the road to misunderstanding. But more important than this is the fact that virtually nobody, either scientists or non-scientists, adopt a teleological view of the world these days. Evolution by natural selection, for example, is desribed as "directionless" in the sense that adaptations are merely interactions between a genotype and its environment: the genome is not "looking for" some final phenotype to express, if it can, but is rather responding to whatever selection pressures are applied to it within its environment. For the evolutionary biologist, talk of teleology is dangerous precisely because it appears to introduce the notion of purposefulness into a process that is, for them, essentially purposeless. This view is found both among scientists, for whom all of physical reality is governed either by deterministic scientific laws or irreducibly stochastic forces at the quantum level, and among ID theorists, who assume that if a scientific theory says that this is the mechanism by which something occured then that precludes the possibility of some other ultimate cause (we have also lost the distinction between proximate and ultimate causation).

But there is an equivocation here on the term purpose. The biologist does not want to think of the genome as having a "purpose" in the sense that it is slowly evolving things towards some end-state, whether a perfected one or some other kind, and the ID theorist does not want to think that the world is just a random place in which "life happens", since complexity, it is argued, must be interpreted as signs of designedness. But both of these views miss the mark because they make unwarranted assumptions about what it means to say that the universe is teleological.

To see how this is so, consider the recent development in the debate whereby those on the ID side have begun to distance themselves from what used to be called "creationism". Intelligent Design, it is argued, is not a specifically religious interpretation of the cosmos, it is, rather, nothing more than the argument that the universe exhibits evidence of having been designed by an intelligent designer. If this is so, however, ID is fully consistent with evolutionary theory--there is literally no conflict whatsoever, since an intelligent designer could very well have "designed" the cosmos in such a way that life originates and evolves through a process of natural selection. It is only if one interprets one theory or the other as contradicting the other that there is a real conflict. If the evolutionist wants to suggest that random drift, or fully natural processes like selection pressure and adaptation, exclude the possibility that these processes were put into place by an intelligent designer, he is simply mistaken. If the ID theorist wants to argue that evidence for design excludes the possibility that differential reproductive success can lead to changes in the genome and, ultimately, speciation events, he, too, is simply mistaken.

In short, there is no important difference at all between ID and evolution other than an a priori assumption about who's running the show. No a priori assumption will ever be settled by empirical science alone, but neither can it be proved from other a priori principles without violating the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

Back when the debate was between "creationists" and evolution theorists (well, let's call it like it is: between biblical literalists and biologists) things were a lot simpler, at least for me: creationism can be rejected because it represents a heretical approach to biblical interpretation. Things aren't a lot different now: there are still ID theorists who subscribe to the theory primarily because they are, deep down, biblical literalists. But of course the reasons why someone subscribes to a theory have nothing to do with whether the theroy is actually true or not. Some evolution theorists, after all, may very well subscribe to it precisely because they think it proves religion wrong, and they are just as mistaken as the biblical literalists. But those who subscribe to ID because they are teleologists are not, in fact, at odds with evolutionary theory at all, even if they think they are.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You

I've often thought that, if we force schools to teach ID alongside evolutionary theory, we will eventually have to teach Aristotelian physics alongside quantum mechanics. After all, the theory of universal gravitation is just a theory, and we ought not to prevent our students from being exposed to rival theories.

Apparently this has already happened without my even noticing it. According to a story in The Onion schools in Kansas are teaching a theory of "Intelligent Falling" to replace the theory of gravitation. Personally, I still prefer Aristotle's theory, but that's just me.

Yes, I know the Onion is satire. Please. What do you take me for? An Aristotelian? An ID theorist?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Do You Have Something in an Übermensch?

The Times of London reports that a technique is now available to screen embryos for an eye tumor gene, thus giving "hope to families with the disease." It gives somewhat less hope to the embryos that have the gene, however, because any technique for screening for such things is invariably used to weed out the unwanted embryos in favor of the, er, more desireable ones--you know, the ones who grow up to be spokesmodels. This particular cancer is not particularly dangerous, with a treatment success rate in excess of 95%, so the culling that will take place as a result of this test is largely to save time, expense, and hassle.

I've got two kids, and I could certainly save a lot of time, expense and hassle if I were to, er, cull them now before they reach college age, but I suspect my neighbors wouldn't look too kindly on it. In fact, one of them is a big enough jerk that I think he might even report me to children's services if my kids were to suddenly stop traipsing through his garden. If only they were smaller--a lot smaller, say, the size of an embryo--then nobody would notice if they were to disappear. It's not that I don't want children, mind you, but I don't really know much about their genetic structures, and who knows what terrible things might go wrong with them at some point down the road. If I could just trade them in for kids with perfectly engineered genes I swear I would be perfectly happy.

And while I'm waiting for perfect happiness in the form of perfectly engineered children, I'll keep checking my comments section for arguments showing that human embryos are not, in fact, human beings, or that they do not have any of the rights that all the other human beings have simply by virtue of being human. I'm sure there are a lot of really clever people out there who have figured this one out and will be only too happy to enlighten me. I won't hold my breath, though, because in many years of listening to such arguments, I have yet to come across a sound one.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Requiescat in Pace

Brother Roger Schutz, founder of the Taize community, was murdered yesterday in eastern France. CNS has a story here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Take Up Your Cross Daily

An article from Catholic News Service yesterday reports on the Pope's call for public and private displays of the Crucifix. The Cross, he said, is an external symbol of God's presence among us and of humanity's shared God-given dignity. We are imagines Dei, images of God, and external signs of what is inwardly true have always been a part of our Christian experience, from the Incarnation itself, to the Sacraments, to the sacramentals.

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about what it means to be an imago Dei, and this report brings into high relief some of the issues that have been on my mind. In particular, it prompts me to think again about the Synoptic passage telling the Christian disciple to take up his cross and follow Jesus. In Matthew the text is:
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
When I first encountered this verse, before my conversion to Christianity, I was perplexed, wondering whether an expression about taking up one's cross would have meant anything to those listening. Crucifixions, prior to that of Jesus of Nazareth, were viewed rather differently in antiquity--it was a degrading, humiliating form of punishment used on criminals who were themselves viewed, very often, as the dregs of society. A more sympathetic reading would put the expression into the context of the martyrdoms of the 1st century Church. But Luke (9.23) adds the word "daily" to the expression, giving it a more metaphysical meaning: it refers to our daily struggle to be Christlike in a world where doing what Christ did, in the spirit in which he did it, can be something of a challenge.

For me, the key to the passage, and the connection to the call to be imagines Dei, lies in the phrase "let him deny himself". This, I take it, is not merely advice to give up meat on Fridays or put aside some other favorite treat in order to make almsgiving easier or even as a form of mortification, but rather it is the bold directive to deny your very selfhood, your own essence, as it were, emptying yourself of your own will so as to allow yourself to be more perfectly conformed to the will of God. There is a text used at Vespers on Sundays from Philippians 2.7 that reads, in Latin, semetipsum exinanivit, formam servi accipiens (he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant). I quote the Latin because the word exinanivit seems to me to capture perfectly what this calling to denial of self is all about. The latin word does not exactly reflect the Greek text, which reads heauton ekenôsen. The Greek could reasonably be translated as "emptied", as the Revised Standard Version that I quoted has it. But the Latin word exinanivit has in it the prefix ex, meaning "out", "out of", the preposition in, meaning "in", and the root ani-, from anima, "soul". The Latin word thus means something along the lines of "he cast out from himself the very soul that was in him". That's a good deal more than is in the Greek original, but surely it captures the essence of what Jesus did: he cast off his own essence, his own selfhood, in order to be something else, namely, an image of his Father (imago Patris). He remains fully a man, of course, fully Jesus of Nazareth--he did not cast off his essence in a literal way. But he was also fully God, fully the Christ, insofar as his essence became one with the Second Person of the Trinity. He was no longer merely Jesus of Nazareth, but was two natures in one person, two natures that were in perfect accord.

That is what we are called to, I think. We cannot cease to be human, of course, but we can put off our human desires and give our very selves up to God's will so as to be imagines Dei. And that will involve taking up a cross, because of course we will continue to be weak, we will continue to have human desires and human wills, and we will continue to be tempted by the lower things that are attractive to our human nature. But we must bear those temptations as Christ bore the cross. In fact, we should be grateful, I would say, that we have such crosses to bear, because in bearing them we deny ourselves the temptations that those crosses stand for. Perhaps I am an alcoholic, and every day I ask myself, How will I get through this day without a drink? When I give up the actual drink in the face of the desire for the drink, and intentionally offer up my suffering as an attempt to carry that cross, to atone for my sins and the sins of others, I do what Christ did. Perhaps I am tempted sexually; I should not scorn my own physical nature, or curse the pleasures that tempt me--pleasure is inherently a good thing. But I can bear the temptation to pleasure as Christ bore his cross, refusing to give in to the temptation to put my cross down by giving in to the desire for pleasure, and confining myself to only those pleasures that are rightly realized within God's law. In living life in this way, we live life as Christ called us to live it; we live it as he lived it, and thus we are images of him--in this way we are the Body of Christ.

Surely the Pope is correct that the public display of Christ's Cross will remind us of our own. That is what we share in our common human dignity: an ability to carry the cross that is ours to bear, if we trust in God's grace.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

When Dinosaurs Roamed the Halls of Academia

Poor old Anthony Grafton! In fact, he's not really all that old (he's 55), and yet he's already a dinosaur. It can't be easy to live in a world where your ideas, your commitments, indeed your whole Weltanschauung, is nearly extinct. In part I must sympathize with him, because like him I study the past. He is a far greater scholar than I, so please don't imagine that I compare myself to him in that sense--but it is difficult, these days, to be a classicist, or a medievalist, or indeed even a historian, in the face of mounting pressures within the universities to divert funding away from the humanities into the applied sciences, or into medical research, or into sports. We must teach ever larger service courses even as our students are being brainwashed by other departments into believing that the subject matter of our disciplines is virtually irrelevant to the life of an educated person these days. Grafton himself laments this situation in an entertaining interview from 2002.

But it is not the subject matter of his scholarship that makes him irrelevant, I'm afraid, even though things were already looking rather grim in the mid 1990s when he published a 241-page book on the history of the footnote. He specializes in intellectual history, and of course that subject, in and of itself, will never really be irrelevant. What happens, though, when an intellectual historian becomes so enraged by the course of intellectual history that he cannot help but infuse his analysis with mistaken inferences? And what configuration of events can be the cause of such rage in the first place?

For Grafton, the cause of the rage appears to be the existence of an intellect that, on the one hand, rivals his own but that, on the other hand, sees the world in a completely different way than he. What intellect could that possibly be, you ask? Why, none other than His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI. In an intriguing article in The New Yorker (link to the online magazine only--the article itself is not online), Grafton explores, in his typically witty and erudite way, the foundations of Pope Benedict's thoughts about the nature and structure of the Catholic Church and her teachings. The article, called "Reading Ratzinger: Benedict XVI, the Theologian", adopts a quasi-scholarly tone (wouldn't want that New Yorker audience to lose interest) and employs the methods of Grafton's profession: a close reading of Ratzinger's own writings integrated with an analysis of the historical conditions in which the writings were produced. Grafton does not pretend to be a theologian himself, mind you--why pretend to have expertise in some field when all one is doing is writing intellectual history about that field, after all? Besides, theology isn't rocket science--any well-read amateur can find something intelligent to say about it.

And Grafton is certainly well-read, even in the writings of Pope Benedict XVI. I think this is evident in spite of Amy Welborn's suspicion that the only late writing he had bothered to look at was the 1984 interview with Ratzinger published under the title The Ratzinger Report. Ms. Welborn drew her inference, I think, from the scorn that Grafton apparently has for the thought of what he calls the "late" Ratzinger, but it seems to me that his scorn comes not from a lack of familiarity with the writings of Ratzinger, but from the opposite: a thorough familiarity. His scorn is real precisely because he has done some reading, and he does not like what he has read.

If we were to do a little intellectual history ourselves (I am not an intellectual historian myself, mind you--but hey, it's not rocket science) I think we could uncover the source of some of Grafton's animus. It is quite interesting to note how Grafton's attitude towards Ratzinger's work tends to fluctuate throughout the article. He sometimes has positive, even glowing, things to say about Ratzinger's thought--but only those aspects of his thought that show an openness to ideas outside the traditional thinking of Roman Catholic theologians of a Thomistic stripe. He explains how Ratzinger learned to have this openness by studying two central figures in the history of theology, St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure, both of whom, according to Grafton, discovered that the truth can be safeguarded more effectively if we expand it to include corrected versions of errors--Donatism, in St. Augustine's case, and the bizarre Tertia Ecclesia of Joachim of Fiore in St. Bonaventure's case.

Turning to Ratzinger, we find that in the late 1950s and early 1960s he acted in an Agustinian/Bonaventuran manner himself when dealing with the theological disputes of the time, coopting some of the ideas of such thinkers as de Chardin, de Lubac, Chenu, and Congar. For these thinkers, according to Grafton, "no doctrinal system could encompass all truths", and that is manifestly a Good Thing if you are Anthony Grafton. Only later, during the late 1960s, did Ratzinger begin to steer "a more careful, traditional course." It is at this point in Grafton's essay that the subtext begins to change its tone. Up until now Ratzinger was, in some sense, an intellectual, indeed, a daring one who was willing to experiment with the theological ideas coming out of the philosophical schools of France; now, he appears as a timid and emotional worrit for whom the preservation of the "truth" is the controlling motivation. And this is manifestly a Bad Thing if what you mean by "truth" is something that some particular doctrinal system can encompass in its entirety; for Grafton, that is exactly what the new Ratzinger did mean.

It's quite fascinating to see how Grafton plays intellect against emotion in this essay. Intellect is clearly quite important to our Intellectual Historian, and he is not afraid to use it. In fact, the only modern scholar whom Grafton actually cites in the essay is Eamon Duffy, whom he characterizes as "a brilliant historian of the Church who teaches at Cambridge." Why does Grafton cite him? Well, it turns out that Duffy, that brilliant historian, "was only one of many Catholic intellectuals" who were "infuriated" by some remarks made by Ratzinger in The Ratzinger Report. What Duffy was "infuriated" by, apparently, was Ratzinger's invocation of the notion of value when he claimed that the Church had already incorporated whatever was of value in liberal culture. Grafton's analysis:
For Ratzinger, it seems, liberalism is another alien creed, like Judaism but far less profound, and consists of "values" that can easily be identified, summed up, and extracted for Christian use.
For Grafton, it seems, liberalism is the only creed, because it consists of "values" rather than "facts". How could there be moral or theological "facts", after all, when intellectual history shows that the beliefs and values of various times and places change and are malleable? Those who would insist on "doctrinal purity" are living in the past: Grafton appears to take some delight in outlining the quaint liturgical practices of Ratzinger's youth in order to show how the man is now a slave to sentimentality in matters having to do with Church practice and teaching. When Ratzinger is intellectual, he is Good Ratzinger; when he is emotinal, or sentimental, he is Bad Ratzinger. But really it boils down to this: when Ratzinger is a liberal relativist, he is Grafton's Ratzinger; when he is a moral realist, he is just a doofus.

Grafton's project could not be clearer than in the following passage:
Ratzinger's descriptions of the Church's ancient ritual life and dogmas, meanwhile, are as "thick" as his analyses of foreign ideologies are "thin." When Ratzinger traces the complex interplay of Church architecture, priestly speech and gesture, music, and congregational response present in a single Mass, or patiently explains those doctrines, liek the Immaculate Conception, which seem most alien to a rationalist turn of mind, his discourse glows with local color and detail. His deep love for the Catholic past is manifest whenever he engages in the priestly acts that clearly mean the most to him.

Ratzinger, in the end, sees all traditions and historical experiences outside his own as gray, while the castle of Catholic tradition that he inhabits is suffused with the deep reds and blues of stained glass and the flame of candles.
That last sentence is either the funniest bit of unintentional irony or the cleverest piece of self-parody that I have seen in some time.

It is truly unfortunate, as Amy Welborn also remarked, that the article ends with a disdainful and condescending mention of the whole Harry Potter kerfuffle. Clearly Grafton did not employ his usual scholarly acumen to that little episode--it is apparent that he did not even bother to look at the documents involved--because if he had, he would have come up with something a little more intelligent to say about it. But when your project is to contrast the scholarly but doctrinally fuzzy Ratzinger of the past with the new, more emotional but "razor sharp" Ratzinger of the present, how useful would it be to point out that Ratzinger gave a perfectly ordinary pastoral response to a letter from a concerned believer?

Poor old Anthony. It must be infuriating to find that there is somebody out there who could have been so much more like him, if only he had exercised his intellect in the right way. Grafton's animus is no different from what one sees all the time in academia: the adolescent posturing of relativists, infuriated by the possibility that their own values and shibboleths are not everyone's values and shibboleths, and yet they can't, with consistency, complain out loud about that. So let's write the intellectual history of our enemies instead--the winners always write the histories, you know, and after all: it's not rocket science.

Monday, August 08, 2005

We Live in Debauched Times

I can't decide which is worse, the fact that a respectable teacher of classics would think that this is a good idea, or that an equallly respectable teacher of philosophy would write such a glowing review of it. I don't have anything in particular against the Potter novels in and of themselves--they strike me as not essentially unlike much else that is out there, and while I do not think they are in the same league, qualitatively, with the Chronicles of Narnia, neither do I find them any more "occult" than the Chronicles. (I continue to be perplexed by those who insist on comparing the Potter world to the Tolkien world, as though LOTR were in the category of children's literature.)

Don't get me wrong: I think it's fine and dandy to keep some semblance of classical Greek kicking, but as Brennan notes at the start of his review, nobody has really done that--that's why this book can count as "one of the most important pieces of Ancient Greek prose written in many centuries": it has no real competitors.

Classical Greek is a rather interesting phenomenon. What survives is a very tiny selection of the finest literary output of one of the greatest civilizations the world has known. The Greek that we read in the New Testament is really quite different. It is in a dialect usually referred to as koinê--that's just the Greek word for "common"--which is a kind of compromise between the vulgar Greek on the street and the more refined literary Greek used in published or publishable poetry and prose. The expression "Classical Greek", by contrast, is a modern coinage used to refer to the very high quality literary Greek of the fifth- and fourth-centuries BC. Some of the authors that one could read in "Classical Greek" are Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato, Thucydides, Pindar...well, you get the idea.

Or maybe you don't. New Testament koinê, after all, is the Greek of the first century of the Christian Era; perhaps "Classical Greek" is just the street Greek of four hundred years earlier, as different from koinê as the English we speak is from Shakespeare's. Just as Shakespeare's English was the street English of his day, who's to say that the Greek of the Classical period is all that different from what the folks on the street heard and spoke in the Agoras and Harbor Towns of Plato's day?

It's hard to say, given the limited documentary evidence from the period. But just as the English that I use when I'm speaking to my dog differs from the English that I use when I'm writing a philosophical paper, I think that it's fair to say that the Greek spoken by your average citizen on the street was somewhat different from the Greek that Plato wrote in his dialogues. Why anyone would want to speak to their dog in the same tone, using the same vocabulary, that they use in their finest prose, is beyond me, and yet here's an attempt to do just that with the Potter novel. It's not a particularly noble plot, as story-lines go; the characters are woodenly drawn; the settings are goofy and cartoonish; and yet we're supposed to find it inspiring that it is now preserved in the same language that Sophocles used to tell the story of Oedipus.

I don't mean to be a fuddy-duddy about this. It's not that I think it somehow sacriligious to use classical Greek as a medium for the Potter stories. But one thing in particular about Brennan's review struck me as rather troubling:
It will also be of great value to teachers of mid-level Greek who are casting about for texts with which to encourage and entertain their students. After the Xenophontic parasangs have lost their charm and the Euripidean trimeters are limping, students can refresh themselves with a bout of "ikarosphairikê" (Wilson's spot-on neologism for quidditch), or enjoy the bantering of Fred and George.
Why do I find this troubling? Well, just this morning, as I was giving an exam in my ethics class, I had a student come up to me with a question about something on the test. I was asking them to assess arguments for validity and soundness. In case you've forgotten, an argument is valid whenever it is impossible for the conclusion to be false when all of the premises are true. An argument is sound whenever it is both valid and all of its premises are true. So it is important to know whether a premise is true if you are looking for soundness as opposed to validity. In one of my sample arguments on the test, I used a premise that said "Since Shakespeare wrote Moby Dick...". The student had come to me to ask whether this premise is, in fact, true or false. I told him that I couldn't answer his question, as that would give the answer away. I didn't mention to him, however, that I thought it should be something that everyone in the class already knew. In short, I'm troubled by the Potter translation not because I think it is a bad idea in itself, but because I think it is a manifestation of the dumbing down of American tastes in general that folks would prefer to read Potter to reading Xenophon, Thucydides, Plato, or Euripides. Brennan spends some time in his review showing how the themes in the Potter novels are not unlike the themes that one finds in such sources as Lewis, Kipling, Plato, Mallory--well, why not read Lewis, Kipling, Plato, and Mallory? Why not translate them into Greek, if you must?

Because they're not as popular. Potter is popular. He's banal, but he's popular. Why should we ask kids to read Plato on the immortality of the soul when they'll have more fun reading about a game played on a broomstick 100 feet in the air? Education is useless if kids don't enjoy getting it. College has to be fun or it isn't relevant. This is just one step away from saying that we shouldn't teach kids about subjects that they don't like, let alone in a manner that they don't like. Hey! Moral theory is boring! Political theory is boring! Let's read about sports! Especially sports that can never be played by real people! Now that's educational!

Whited Sepulchres

Further proof, if more were needed, that even well-educated people can have their heads so far up their asses that they can kiss themselvs on the lips from the inside. Mario Cuomo, like many "Catholics" in the public eye, seems almost to think of Catholicism as a liability rather than a strength. But more problematic even than that is the very assumption that it is somehow possible to sit on the SCOTUS without having any background assumptions about moral truth.

Indeed, the view that Cuomo appears to endorse seems to be that every decision can only be reached by a kind of prudential, hypothetical moral reasoning grounded in the notions of harm and benefit, rather than in genuinely moral reasoning grounded in necessary truths. This view has characterized many well-known decisions, going all the way back to Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), where it was decided that as long as blacks were not being "harmed" then there was nothing wrong with treating them differently from whites. Although that particular decision is obviously repugnant, the same sort of reasoning characterizes other decisions with which we might be tempted to agree. For example, Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1930) struck down a Missouri law that provided for law-school education for blacks outside of the state of Missouri, where blacks were not admitted to law school. The Missouri law was a kind of "separate but equal" statute, but the Supreme Court found that it denied blacks a putative benefit, namely, a home-grown law school education. But the Court's reasoning could easily have worked against itself, if the law schools in the neighboring states had been better than the ones in Missouri. In that case one could not reasonably strike down a law on the grounds that it was denying a benefit to blacks. The only legitimate grounds for striking down such a law in the fact that it treats blacks differently from whites in spite of the fact that there can be no rational justification for doing so.

In the Plessy case the Court did not give any such categorical warrant for its decision. In fact, it argued that might makes right. When the plaintiff noted that "separate but equal" legislation might backfire against whites if blacks ever gained a majority in the state legislature, the decision of the majority noted that if blacks were to become the majority in the state legislature again, and try to put in place laws that treated whites unfairly, the white folks simply wouldn't stand for it. One can only imagine what the Court had in mind, but one need not do much imagining to see that the Court had either morons or racists in the majority. Certainly the Court was too cowardly to declare that it is a princple of morality that all human beings are created equal, and ought to be treated as such before the law.

Even the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can be accused of utilitarian, hypothetical reasoning. It argued that "separate but equal" statutes harm interstate commerce. The reasoning here is clearly hypothetical rather than categorical: If we want interstate commerce to flourish, then we ought to treat blacks equally. Well, what if we don't particularly care about interstate commerce? Are we then free from the burden of treating blacks equally?

Of course not. The reasoning must be categorical, not hypothetical: we ought to treat blacks in precisely the same way that we treat everyone, and as we ourselves want to be treated, simply by virtue of the fact that they do not differ from us or any other human beings in any meaningful respect--all humans beings are, necessarily and by definition, equal (that is, they are all the same kind of thing).

The idea that all human beings are equal is not necessarily a religious idea, but it is in fact a tenet of Roman Catholicism, and it is the grounds for asserting that all human beings deserve the same treatment regardless of race, nationality, gender, handicap--or stage of development. And let's not beat around the bush--it is obvioulsy the prohibition against abortion on demand that Cuomo has in mind. He wouldn't care at all if we were talking about racism. The Catholic Church is against racism, too, but presumably Cuomo would not mind if Roberts were to speak out against racism. What he cares about is abortion, and, like John Kerry, he sees nothing wrong with a political agenda that pushes for easier access to abortion.

In fact, that's the "law of the land" right now, and Cuomo, like other hypocritical pseudo-catholics, isn't happy with folks who don't toe the party line on this one. In the 1960s, of course, it was regarded as admirable to work for the abolition of Jim Crow laws that treated blacks differently from whites even though those laws were the "law of the land". But to work for the repeal of Roe v. Wade is somehow morally suspect, since it is an attempt to "legislate morality".

But of course morality is the only thing that can be legislated. Compelling everyone to treat blacks equally is to impose a certain moral view about the equality of persons. To leave Roe on the books is to legislate the permission of abortion--clearly a moral judgment that abortion ought to be permissible. To overturn Roe is to open the door to legislation that would restrict access to abortion--just as clearly a moral judgment that abortion ought not to be as accessible as it is. Both sides are trying to legislate morality--but there's nothing wrong with that in and of itself, since morality is the only thing that can be legislated. What is wrong is the idea that only one sort of morality ought to be given the opportunity to express itself in the Public Square.

There's nothing wrong with allowing one's religious beliefs to shape one's moral judgments, just as there is nothing wrong with allowing one's secular or atheistic beliefs to shape one's moral judgments. All moral judgments come from somewhere--they do not form in a value-free vacuum. It is, of course, wrong to force all persons to declare allegiance to any particular religion, but there is nothing at all wrong with putting forward a moral view that you just happen to believe is true. It doesn't matter why you believe it is true. You can convince others that it is true without converting them to your religion, and you are not necessarily promoting your religion if you do convince them that your view is true.

But all of this is lost on folks like Cuomo, who are either too cynical to grant that this is the case, or too stupid to see that it is the case. Either way, he is not exactly a poster child for integrity, even as he attempts to pose as one.

Two Sides to Every Story

A story at CNS today is largely consistent with my own humble contribution to the evolution/intelligent design debate. Design and randomness are often contrasted with each other, at least in the standard version of the debate, but they need not be. It is quite possible for randomness itself to be the byproduct of design, just as it is possible for something that appears to be designed to be the byproduct of randomness. Michael Behe, a molecular biologist at Lehigh University, for example, argues that certain biological forms are "irreducibly complex", by which he means that it is not merely highly unlikely, but rather statistically impossible that they could have arisen by chance. The example he often uses in public lectures is the flagellum of a certain bacterium--an array of proteins that, if even one protein were misplaced or missing, the whole thing would fail to function as a flagellum. The example is supposed to make us believe that this part of the bacterium could not have arisen by chance, since the usual method of adaptation by natural selection would not be presented with the possiblity of "evolving towards" the most adaptive function of the part. This assumes, of course, that there can only be one proper function for any part of an organism and that every part has some "function", and that assumption is false, bringing the whole example down with it.

My central point, however, in my earlier post, was connected to a commitment that is not directly related to the debate over intelligent design. I am interested in the philosophical and theological tradition, which goes back at least as far as St. Augustine, that sees human knowledge of the natural world as a necessary feature of our characteristic form of life. We are knowing subjects, and the quest for knowledge, as such, is a necessary part of our existence. The line of demarcation between theory and fact is not as clear-cut as some have imagined, but there is a line there nonetheless, and part of the purpose--not of "science", since the use of that term tends to suggest a monolithic, reified entity that, in fact, does not exist--but of human inquiry generally, is to do our best to understand that demarcation.