Monday, November 27, 2006

Pagan* in a Christian Land, Christian in a Pagan Land

Two stories from my summer in Buriatia and Mongolia

One of the Buriat professors who hosted me was on an exchange trip to Vermont. She was by the way, the only Buriat professor I know whose business card is in Buriat and not in Russian -- I thought that was very cool.

Anyway, in Vermont, she wondered why all these beautiful places don’t have shrines to the local spirits. Certainly any place like that in Buriatia would. She suddenly realized, it’s just like the Buriats in Inner Mongolia, who don’t have local shrines either — Americans would like to have those shrines but they just don’t know who the local spirits are.

So she thought maybe she could start the ball rolling by leaving coins, and maybe a bottle of vodka, in particular fine places in Vermont for the spirits, so we’d know what to do too. But the rangers at the park where she was told her that that’s not allowed, you see, we call it litter.

In Ulaanbaatar, I met a fellow student of my mentor, from an East European country. She is a Christian as well, and had married a Mongolian man and was living in Ulaanbaatar, working as a journalist. One time, she was driving through the Mongolian countryside with some visitors, including ordinary Mongols and a Korean missionary.

When they crossed a mountain pass, they stopped at the top. The ordinary Mongols, of course, began the expected three clockwise circumambulations of the cairn, or oboo -- a pile of rocks marking an offering site for the local deities in the Buddhist cult -- at every high place in Mongolia. Her husband, although a Christian, began to make the same circumambulation by habit. As a good wife, she didn't want to show up her husband in front of other Mongols. She walked around the oboo with her children. Only the Korean missionary ostentatiously refrained.

Her children asked her, "Mom, why did we do that?" She replied, "It's like when you go to some new place, you acknowledge the people who are there. Walking around in a circle, were simply saying hello to the local spirits here -- not worshipping them, not putting ourself under them."

Now that the children are confirmed and have had first communion, she confessed, she's not sure she would handle it that way again, but that's what she thought was right then.

*Pagan is used here not in any derogatory sense, but simply as the commonly used word for believers in "earth-based religions" -- among which Buddhism (in an ambiguous sense) is one.

UPDATE: I forgot to put up a picture of an oboo in Mongolia (go ahead, click on it, it's nice and big). This is one in Uws province. The sign is one asking people not to put empty bottles or other trash on the oboo, because the oboo, as a place for worshiping the local spirits, should be associated with a clean environment. So here you see an example of the assimilation of pagan categories to environmentalist ones.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Predictions for '07-08

Recently a friend wrote me a letter asking what I thought the Democrats would do -- he's a conservative Republican, so he asked if things would go down the tubes or stay the same. I answered back, and thought I'd post my answers here (a little expanded).

Well, at heart I'm an optimist and my head tells me that the partisan differences in America are a lot smaller than meets the eye, so I'd go with "stay the same" mostly.

On big expansion of government issues I think of two big facts: 1) that when the Democrats had the presidency and a Democratic Congress, President Clinton's "nationalize health care" bill was never even brought to a vote; and 2) when the Republicans had the presidency and a Republican Congress, President Bush's "privatize Social Security" bill was never even brought to a vote. The public isn't interested in massive expansion or contraction of the government, and being the sovereign, they are going to make sure they don't get either.

Secondly, the Democrats know that a big terrorist attack will really hurt them. If I was an al Qaeda operative with information on a ticking nuclear bomb I would much rather be in the hands of the White House than Nancy Pelosi, because Nancy Pelosi has even more interest in torturing me until I confess than the White House does. For the White House it's just the country that's at stake, but for Nancy Pelosi, it's not just her country, but her party, and her career. As a result, I really doubt that libertarians and internationalists will get anything of what they want on the Patriot Act or military commissions. (In fact it will be a good time for Republican libertarians to engage in a little cost-free posturing and propose stuff like eliminating eliminating the Homeland Security Department and fighting terror by arming the citizenry with M16's, knowing that the Democrats will squash it.)

The big drawback I see is that we have lost one of the great chances to appoint Supreme Court judges who would get rid of Roe v. Wade, put US jurisprudence back on a real constitutional direction, and open the way for some real pro-life legislation from the states. This is the part that makes me most frustrated. I remember during the whole 2000 election brouhaha one commentator saying "Wacking the states over the head with the 14th amendment is what the Supreme Court does for a living" and it's so true. But more specifically, let's say that the kind of bills for which the SCOTUS wacks the states are almost always conservative bills (limits on pornography, limits on abortion, limits on flag-burning, and so on), so we could refine this and say, "wacking conservative state legislators and governors over the head with the 14th amendment is what the Supreme Court does for a living". It would be nice to change that. The irony is that if you read the Federalist papers it is clear that original design was states and localities can legislate morals freely, but they can't legislate regulation of the economy, and what we have now is essentially the opposite: states can regulate the local economy freely, but they can't regulate local morals.

An unintended but pretty likely side effect is that the President might actually find the veto pen he seems to have lost for the last six years and veto extravagant spending bills passed by the other party. From the point of view of budgets, I think experience shows divided government is good for the tax-payers' pocketbook.

In foreign policy, certaintly there aren't going to be any more preemptive wars, which I think is a good thing. (Actually I think they wouldn't have happened anyway, but it's nice to be sure.) But the increased binding of US operations in Iraq will probably result in an early withdrawal. I'm not sure however that the US-Iraqi alliance was working out anyway, and withdrawal might not be a bad idea. Unlike most people, I think civil war in Iraq might not be a bad idea, but it is not soemthing American soldiers should be dying in. In any case the al-Qaeda supporters there are already toast -- they just don't know it yet. The real question is whether the Iraqi regime that digs their grave is a 1) US ally or 2) an Iranian ally or 3) something in between. The Democratic election makes option 1 which was already pretty problematic much less likely. With luck we can salvage option 3 -- maybe.

Afghanistan is the big ticking time bomb, I've heard -- Michael Yon is saying next year the Taliban will probably be big enough to wipe out a NATO garrison or two at which point we'll have to decide whether to fish (increase troops) or cut bait. This will put the Democrats in a pickle -- the moderates have used Afghanistan to say "we're not just doves, we really are against al Qaeda". But all the differences in the origins of the Afghanistan war don't make it much different in its current character -- if we've abandoned our friends in Iraq at considerable savings to ourselves (measured in dollars and soldiers' lives), it will be harder to resist the same possibility, with the same savings, in Afghanistan.

Iran and N. Korea will continue to be nuclear powers and will continue to regard selling them to the highest bidder as unacceptably risky. Eventually we will get used to it, and stop being frightened of it, and all their investment in it will be seen as the paper tiger it is.

Anyway that's my prognostications on the issues that matter to me.

Any other bloggers want to take up the challenge?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Of course, if you're a regular reader here you knew that already . . .

David P. Barash, professor of psychology, reflects here on some of the problems with the Darwinian explanation of social behavior (HT: Corner). Just to remind you of my posts on the topic, here and here. Some choice bits:

Although the study of evolution is, in my opinion, one of the most exciting and illuminating of all intellectual enterprises, there is at the same time, and not just in my opinion, something dark about the implications of natural selection for our own behavior.

. . . the individual- and gene-centered view of life offers, in a sense, a perspective that is profoundly selfish; hence Richard Dawkins's immensely influential book,
The Selfish Gene. The basic idea has been so productive that it has rapidly become dogma: Living things compete with each other (more precisely, their constituent genes struggle with alternative copies) in a never-ending process of differential reproduction, using their bodies as vehicles, or tools, for achieving success. The result has been to validate a view of human motivations that seems to approve of personal selfishness while casting doubt on any self-abnegating actions, seeing a self-serving component behind any act, no matter how altruistic it might appear.

Enter sociobiology. With its increasingly clear demonstration that Hume, Freud, Brecht, and Nietzsche (also Machiavelli and Hobbes) are basically onto something, and that selfishness resides in our very genes, it would seem not only that evolution is a dispiriting guide to human behavior, but also that the teaching of sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology) should be undertaken only with great caution. The renowned primatologist Sarah Hrdy accordingly questioned "whether sociobiology should be taught at the high-school level ... because it can be very threatening to students still in the process of shaping their own priorities," adding: "The whole message of sociobiology is oriented toward the success of the individual. ... Unless a student has a moral framework already in place, we could be producing social monsters by teaching this."

Which seems open to all the objections C.S. Lewis discussed in The Abolition of Man: to Drs. Barash and Hrdy, as for the writers C.S. Lewis discussed (long before the concept of the selfish gene, by the way) moral training is in some sense conditioning, and to that degree deceptive.

He tries to conclude with some good news, like that altruitic actions at least are part of our basically selfish purposes.

For one thing, a deeper grasp of the evolutionary biology of altruism reveals that even though selfishness may well underlie much of our behavior, it is often achieved, paradoxically, via acts of altruism, as when individuals behave in a manner that enhances the ultimate success of genetic relatives. Here, selfishness at the level of genes produces altruism at the level of bodies. Ditto for "reciprocity," which, as Robert Trivers elegantly demonstrated more than three decades ago, can produce seemingly altruistic exchanges and moral obligations even between nonrelatives. Yet genetic selfishness underlies it all.

He also tries to get out of this by completely detaching our ethics from any concept of nature:

the real test of our humanity might be whether we are willing, at least on occasion, to say no to our "natural" inclinations, thereby refusing go along with our selfish genes. To my knowledge, no other animal species is capable of doing that.

This doesn't seem very convincing. A morality that can't answer "why," is morality based on irrationality. Some concept of the Fall, that we are not as we were created to be and that hence morality is both difficult and natural at the same time, is essential for making any sense of our own moral condition.* And what Dr. Barash is trying to say is that he can't see any way in which "modern biology" can agree with that idea.

*You can find this even in some form even in non-theistic religions such as Buddhism. You can rephrase it thusly: somehow we are out of tune with the way things at a deep level are, but that through moral training we begin to become in tune with the way things are. Of course Buddhism resembles Christianity in finding the relation of morality to liberation/salvation as being paradoxical, rather than straight forward.

UPDATE: Mario Loyola at the Corner finds that Dr. Barash is off base. On the other hand, the basic issue revolves around sincerity , and when the issue is sincerity of belief, a guy who wrote this is not a very reliable authority.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Metrics for Libertarians

In my first book on Inner Mongolia, I used a wonderful table from Richard Bensel's Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877. You can see my general viewpoint in the review I did (click on the book link and scroll down).

The part I wanted to introduce here is his table in which he analyses what constitutes "central state authority." Bensel had to code votes in the Union and Confederate legislatures on the basis of promoting or retarding central state authority, and to do so, he produced what seems to me the most comprehensive list of political measures that strengthen the central state. In other words, if you are a liberatarian, this is what you don't want to do. He has seven (not six, not eight, but seven, a proper number) areas (see his table 3.1 on p. 114).

Centralization of authority: Measures involving the transfer of decision-making authority from subordinate governments and citizenry to the central state. This sphere includes both the federal government's allocation of influence and control over individual citizens, and the review of state actions by federal insitutions.

Administrative capacity: Measures involving a broadening or narrowing of bureaucratic discretion and long-term planning capacity within the central state. Bensel than adds a very handy ordering of federal gov't institutions, in terms of their administrative capacity and insulation from the voters (the more insulated, the more administrative capacity), from highest to lowest: the state [i.e. federal] bureaucracy, national courts, presidency [i.e. the White House], and lastly, the legislature [i.e. Congress].

Citizenship: Measures involving the religious practices, political beliefs, ethnic identity, and rights and duties of citizens in their relations with the state. (In other words, is the state defining and favoring or disfavoring religious, political, or ethnic groups.) This category . . . includes all measures concerning the physical movement and labor of citizens (such as conscription).

Control of property. Measures involving the control or use of property by individuals other than the central state itself, including expropriation, regulation of the marketplace, and labor contracts between private parties.

Creation of client groups: Measure that increase the dependence of groups within society upon the continued existence and viability of the central state: includes . . . measure that provide income or income substitutes to individuals (pensions, employment by central state institutions, welfare and price-control programs for specific groups in society), that establish future-oriented obligations that depend on state viability (the issuance of long-term debt), and that control the value of currency (the gold standard [i.e. replacing it makes the state stronger] and the redemption of paper money).

Extraction: The coercive diversion of material resources from society into the central state apparatus
. Since Bensel excludes from this sphere the more extreme measures included in control of property (confiscatory taxation, induced hyper-inflation, etc.), creation of client groups and world-system spheres, so it means for him primarily forms of light taxation or manipulations of the financial system such as gradual inflation of the currency.

The central state in the world system: Measures concerning the relationship of the central state and nation with other states and the world economy, these include access to foreign markets (licensing, import quotas, export subsidies, and tarrifs), diplomatic relations (membership in international organizations, treaties, and military conflict
-- it is worth noting that for Bensel, both membership in international organizations and military conflict promote central state authority), immigration restrictions, and broadly conceived policies of internal development (the contruction of a railroad to the Pacific Ocean, the Homestead Act, and administration of territorial possessions).

Together these form a convenient scorecard of whether the a given measure increases or decreases the central state's authority. I have two comments:

First, administrative capacity measure is one that too few libertarians pay attention to. According to Bensel, when something is a right, enforced by the Supreme Court, it increases central state authority, because it allows for more long-term planning. (There is probably also a sociological point here about the nexus between the elite law school graduates who make federal court policy and the other ones in government and business -- central state authority is increased when decision is put in the hands of the credentialed meritocracy.) This offers insight into a problem with libertarianism: focused so relentlessly on the concept of rights, the libertarian urge is always to turn substantive issues, which are decided by Congress and/or the White House, into rights issues, which are decided by the courts, which perversely results in an increase in the central state's administrative capacity. And if the right involved is then imposed on state courts, there is an increase in centralization of authority as well.

Secondly, the big insight which libertarians have to offer the political system is that, at least within the realistic constraints of the American system, big government necessitates at least medium-sized business, and big business necessitates at least medium-sized government. In other words, both the claim of (American) leftists to be really against business, and the claim of rightists to be really against government are to a large degree bogus. The left (Kennedy, Pelosi, etc.) is not really against big business but wants bigger government, while the right (Reagan, Gingrich, etc.) is not really against big government but wants bigger business. Bensel's book illustrates how the Hamiltonian agenda of the Republican party first built America's first "big government" in the Civil War, and then cut it down to "medium government" afterwards, only when the business men began to be worried about incompetent federal interference in the financial system. Genuinely "small government," for better or for worse, has never been part of the American business agenda. A history of 1900-1941 would show too that genuinely "small business" has never been part of the progressive agenda, either.

Some people, like Rick, might wonder why I am offering advice to libertarians, when I am rather decidedly not one myself. The reason is that while I don't care to adopt the programmatic libertarian rights language on most issues, in practice, libertarians are absolutely essential to the health of the American system, and I want them to do their job well (even if I reserve the option to disagree with them!). The strength of the central state is not something I feel is entirely or even mostly in decision-makers' hands. When the world environment changes, the state has to change. Bensel himself shows how the once-upon-a-time states-righters in the Confederacy by 1864 were building Dixie Leviathan at a tremendous clip, because the war against the Union was so popular and so desperate. But it is also useful to have libertarians out there pointing out the losses of liberties involved.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Maliki Didn't Need a Weatherman

Looking at the election results yesterday, the oddest thing was how I suddenly felt the whole situation in Iraq finally clear up. Not clear up, as in get great, but as in become clear (to me at least). In the last half-year or so, the tensions between the US and Iraqi PM Maliki have gotten worse and culminated with his demand for US troops to stop the roadblocks they'd set around Sadr City to try and find the AWOL/kidnapped (the situation is unclear) US Army interpreter. Why this sudden turn to open conflict? And suddenly yesterday I realized, because Maliki could read the polls as well as anyone else and realized that it's time to plan for a post-US future.

The funny thing is, for someone who supported the war, that it doesn't really bother me all that much. Like everyone else, I think the evidence has been in for quite a while that there was a fundamental problem with the US mission in Iraq. But I don't agree with the consensus that its that: the Iraqis aren't taking responsibility for their own country, or that Maliki isn't reining in the partisan militias, or even that Arab countries aren't ready for democracy.

No, the fundamental problem is that the US-Iraqi Shi'ite alliance has proven to be a non-starter, something that doesn't help, but rather prevents the Shi'ites from winning the civil war the only way they can. What the US did in Iraq was jump-start a revolution, the Shi'ite revolution in the eastern Arab world, and revolutions (including our own dear one) as a rule involve civil war, ethnic or political cleansing, and a period of party dictatorship. But we're standing in the way of this revolution's ironsides, Jacobins, and Bolsheviks as they prepare to "settle accounts" (a nice Maoist phrase) with their past and present enemies.

Why can't Americans do anything productive in Iraq? Three reasons

I) Because we think in terms of abstract principles, rules of the game, and revolutions (including our own dear one) always have only one question: "who-whom?": Who will do what to whom? Whose side are you on, people in a revolutionary civil war want to know, and "we're on the side of democracy and human rights" is not an answer; people just think you must have some plan up your sleeve and you don't want to tell them.

Voting and revolutions have an ambiguous relationship (when they aren't, as in the Russian simply bluntly antagonistic): voting establishes majority rule, but it can't cow the minority into peacefully accepting a regime that they still see, understandably, as a result of violence. So the majority votes and the minority fights.* Naturally, the majority fights backs and since revolutionary regimes are by definition not very competent and professional, they have to fight in a way that maximizes their strength (numbers, fear, and hysteria) and minimizes their weaknesses (lack of skills). So instead of a good, clean counter-insurgency (and the cleanest aren't very clean), they adopt the terroristic vigilante, drain the pond approach. After all, if there aren't any Sunnis left in Baghdad, for example, there won't be any environment for Sunni death-squadders to operate in.

This is the civil war and the Americans have made it increasingly clear that not only can't they do it themselves, but that they won't let the Shi'ite regime do it either.

II) Another big problem, of course, is that the forces who are the most anti-Sunni (and hence the best equipped emotionally to wage the counter-insurgency) are also the most anti-American. I'm referring to Moqtada al-Sadr's faction. They are also the ones in it to win the big pot, which in a revolutionary situation is a vital advantage. It is curious how little reported it is, but recall the difference of the al-Hakim faction and the al-Sadr faction on Shi'ite autonomy: Hakim is for it and Sadr is against it. That sounds (and Sadr will certainly spin it that way), like al-Sadr is reasonable and al-Hakim is Shi'ite-sectarian. But of course the opposite is true: what it means is al-Sadr wants Shi'ite power all over the country, and al-Hakim only wants Shi'ite power in part of it. Which is why al-Sadr's Mahdi Army is killing a lot more Sunnis than al-Hakim's Badr Brigade.

The result of this is, that even if we were to win against the Sunni death squads, we'd be just as likely putting in power people who hate us, which is not a good thing. Speaking of hate . . .

III) The general Arab hatred of America proved an unsurmountable problem too. I remember in the run-up to the Iraq war, that the thing that gave me most pause was the existence of a significant anti-American party (something like 15%) in the Kuwait legislature, one willing to conduct, or at least excuse, terrorist attacks on us. They weren't the majority, by any means, but even the existence of such a party, in a country whose bacon had been saved by the US, gave pause. Perhaps the US simply cannot have a positive relationship with any mass-based Arab country. My guess/hope was that the Sunni/Shi'ite divide and the isolation of Iraq under the Ba'athist government would allow mutual self-interest to lay the basis for an alliance with the Shi'ites, but it obviously hasn't worked out.**

So the result was, the last year has made it clear to the Shi'ites that they do not have an ally in the United States, that the US cares about abstractions like democracy and rule of law, not about those pesky who-whom questions. And we have also made it clear that we in the US do not really have what it takes (in money, troops, will, determination) to defeat the Sunnis ourselves. Oh, we can and have prevented them from winning, but we can't restore peace, and stop the terror. So the Shi'ites look up and see, those Americans won't defeat the death-squadders themselves, and they won't let us defeat the death-squadders -- well, time to get a new patron who will let us fight this war the way we know how. And that patron is of course Iran.

It probably didn't help that both the Democrats, and frustrated hawks, have made it clear that they view Maliki and the whole Shi'ite regime with contempt as our puppets, to be pushed around or replaced at will. Well like Chiang Kai-shek in 1927, whom Soviet advisers viewed the same way, Third-World "puppets" have a way of getting the next-to-last last laugh on their puppet-masters. (Of course Mao got the last laugh on both Chiang and the Russians).

So my prediction will be that in the next half-year or so the whole US-Iraqi Shi'ite alliance will unravel. The US will put more and more pressure on the Shi'ite regime to do this and do that, backed up by gormless Democrats who can't believe that some Bush puppet will actually say "no" to them when they just defeated Bush in an election. (They made their opinion clear when Maliki visited Washington.) The Shi'ite regime will push back and eventually there will be a break -- whether the Shi'ite regime will publicly kick the US out and invite Iran in, or whether we will withdraw on our own first is not really too important, but I hope we manage to do it in a way that is not too humiliating for us. The result will be a final solution, with Iranian help, to the Sunni problem along the lines of how the Tsarist "statesmen" hope to solve the Jewish question: one third will die, one third will emigrate, and the remaining third will give up and convert. OK, probably not exactly those percentages, but you get the idea.***

In the long run, I'm actually not too pessimistic about results. Al-Qaeda not only won't win, they'll lose much harder than they will if we were doing the fighting. That it's at the hands of fellow America-hating Arabs will make it especially painful -- which is all to the good. Of course it's tough on the Sunnis, but having done their best to bring this on themselves, I have very little sympathy for their tears.

Iran will be riding high for a while, but Iran will three problems:
1) they are the only regime in all the Middle East (except Israel and Turkey) that is actually vulnerable to peacefully expressed political opinion of its citizens – not very, but in increasing measure;
2) the Iranians are a "proud and sensitive" people, which translated means when they go abroad, they are arrogant, didactic, and bullying (an interesting look at how Iranians are pushing their influence in Syria is here.)
3) what they are selling -- the Islamic Republic model -- is, like Communism, great for winning civil wars in conditions of almost utter destitution and savage cruelty (think Dr. Zhivago, only in the desert, not Siberia), but gets less and less satisfactory as society gets more and more normal.

I think the Iraqis will soon be put in mind of Ho Chi Minh's old saying "Better to eat French s***t for fifteen years, than Chinese s***t for a thousand years." As the Canadians will tell us, neighbors make the worst possible allies.

The Kurds and the secular Iraqis are the ones I really feel bad about; like anyone between Israel and South Korea who has ever trusted the Americans, they will suffer big time. (This statement here is, to my great grief and sorrow, probably right on the money.) The Kurds maybe not, but they will have to do some very fancy footwork to maintain their lives and position in the new Iraq -- not impossible, as long as they are at least half as contemptuous of their given word as Americans are.

But in the end, I think, following out the China analogy here, that the Americans, like the Russians did in China, will find that supporting a genuine majority-rule revolution will pay long-term strategic dividends. Chiang Kai-shek turned against the Soviet Union, but when Japan invaded China, Chiang fought the Japanese, accepted Soviet help, and tied down the Japanese at great cost to China. Then Mao came to power and for ten crucial years kept US soldiers far away from the Russian border. The Sino-Soviet split was bad, but a China with US troops in it would have been worse for Russia; and today, China and Russia are once again finding each other's support convenient.

By jump-starting the Shi'ite revolution, the US has permanently detached Iraq from the pan-Arab coalition, and from the kind of crazy pan-Arab adventures endemic to Sunni Iraq. For a while they will turn to Iranian help. But I think the Iranians have far too long a tradition of dominating Iraq for them to be comfortable allies for any Iraqi Arab. The result will be that just as Russian aid to the Chinese revolution created not a satellite, but a genuine new actor in international affairs, so the Iraqi Shi'ite revolution in the end will create not a US model democracy or an Iranian puppet, but a real country with a real separate identity, for the first time. (Revolutions -- if they're successful -- always do that, too.)

*The fact that in this case the world as a whole, and the Arab world in particular, was explicitly on the side of the ci-devant minority regime's cause of course didn't help.

**Had the Sunnis, like white South Africans, accepted the revolution peacefully, things might have been very different. Well, the Sunnis will pay a much higher price in blood for their mistaken indulgence in spite than the Americans will, so that is a crime that will carry its own punishment. (One could say that the only thing more dangerous than trusting Americans is trusting "the international human rights community".)

***This will be the much-feared "full-blown civil war," but as long as US troops are not in Iraq, I can't see how or why it could ever get past page A17 of the Washington Post or the New York Times, and why any American will blame the Democrats for it. That’s another reason of course, why Iran is a better ally for a country in a civil war than the US.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Reformation Was a Rediscovery of the Gospel

Here's my slightly belated Reformation Day post.

From Luther's 1535 Lectures on Galatians, under 3:19

Contrariwise, the gospel is a light which lighteneth, quickeneth, comforteth, and raiseth up fearful consciences. For it showeth that God, for Christ's sake, is merciful to sinners, yea, and to such as are most unworthy, if they believe that by His death they are delivered from the curse, that is to say, from sin and everlasting death; and that through His victory, the blessing is freely given unto them, that is to say, grace, forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and everlasting life. Thus, putting a difference between the law and the gospel, we give to them both their own proper use and office. Of this difference between the law and the gospel, there is nothing to be found in the books of the monks, canonists, schoolmen; no, nor in the books of the ancient fathers. Augustine did somewhat understand this difference, and showed it. Jerome and others knew it not. There was wonderful silence many years touching this difference, in all schools and churches: and this brought men's consciences into great danger. For unless the gospel be plainly discerned from the law, the true Christian doctrine cannot be kept sound and uncorrupt. But if this difference be well known, then is the true manner of justification also known, and then it is an easy matter to discern faith from works, Christ from Moses, and all politic works. For all things without Christ are ministers of death, for the punishing of the wicked (p. 193).

So if the law and gospel were not well distinguished in the church's teaching, were all the fathers and saints condemned? Not necessarily, at all. On Galatians 4:30, he uses the example of Bernard of Clairvaux:

He being once grievously sick and having no hope of life, put not his trust in his single life, nor in his good works, and deeds of charity, whereof he had done many; but removed them far out of his sight, and receiving the benefit of Christ by faith, he said:
"I have lived wickedly, but Thou, Lord Jesus Christ, by double right dost possess the Kingdom of heaven: first, because Thou art the Son of God: second because Thou hast purchased it by Thy death. The first Thou keepest for Thyself, by Thy birthright; the second Thou givest to me, not by right of my works, but by the right of grace."

He set not against the wrath of God his monkery, nor his angelical life: but he took hold of that one thing needful, and so was saved. I think that Jerome, Gregory, and many other of the fathers were saved after the same sort. And it is not to be doubted but that in the Old Testament, many kings and other idolaters were saved in like manner, who, at their hour of death, casting away their trust in vain idols, took hold of the promise of God, which was made unto the seed of Abraham, that is to say, Christ, in whom all nations should be blessed (p. 296)

Samuel Johnson was saved in just this way, as I've noted before.

In other words, "evangelical catholics" of all varieties have a problem. They have to assert either that the pre-Reformation tradition, going all the way back to the "ancient fathers" of the fourth-fifth century, had some serious problems. Or else that the Reformation did not understand itself properly.
By the way, if you sent me an email recently (Rick? Bill?), and I haven't replied, it might well have gotten eaten by an out-of-control spam filter at one of my email addresses. I've changed the email on my profile and you can resend it to me there.

Friday, November 03, 2006

More on Darwin and Apostasy

I made three long responses to the good feedback I've gotten in the comment box, but I think it would be simpler to pull them all out and make a single post.

The most important thought the comments remind me is how many issues are involved in the "Bible vs. Darwin" debate, and how necessary it is that they be treated separately.

Among the issues are:
1) Biblical authority vs. any account that doesn't look very similar
2) Total common ancestry vs. special creation of each species
3) Darwinism vs. the other possible evolutionary "motors" that have been proposed.

What I'm talking about is 3), and I am talking about it because (to go back to how this started) John Derbyshire's apostasy was not caused by learning that the Biblical account read literally was not true, nor was it caused by learning that we are related to apes, but by learning that natural selection working through genes explains such vast swathes of our behavior that we can no longer conceive of ourselves as being creatures made in the image of God.

Rick's comment, for example, about how to read Scripture is important but basically about 1)

In responding to JS Bangs' comment, I think it is very important to separate TCA (total common ancestry of all living things) from the idea of natural selection/inclusive fitness etc.

All Darwinian systems, indeed any conceivable modern biological system, is going to involve TCA, simply because, as I said, TCA gives unity to the biological world and science demands unity. But, not all TCA systems involve Darwinism. Lamarck, for example, was a non-Darwinian TCA-er. Lynn Margulis is a major evolutionary thinker whose idea of symbiosis is at least partly non-Darwinian (see here.) If I was a biologist, I would find engaging with the thought of people like Lynn Margulis to be very important.

What JS is saying, I would contend, is the TCA is completely compatible with an attitude of gratitude and reverence. I agree. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I find TCA is in fact desirable theologically, for precisely the reasons Rick touched on -- the redemption of Jesus then involves not just the redemption of all human flesh, but of all flesh, all life, even all matter. (Whether it is true or not, however, is a question to be decided by scripture.)

I do think there is a real difference of viewpoint. Lynn Margulis and Edmund O. Wilson both agree that TCA is the "story line" of modern biology, if you will. They differ not because one is a scientist and one not, but because they differ on who the main character is (the gene vs. community), and what the protagonist's motivation is (purely selfish or partly selfish and partly communitarian). Or to use a different metaphor, they agree on the road, but differ on the nature of the "motor."

Jeremy's objection relates to the whole question of what attitude we are to adopt to all this.

Maybe I have a hard time explaining this because it's more intuitive than well thought out. I would strongly suggest a read of "The Abolition of Man." But here goes . . .

The presupposition of Jeremy's question is that fact and sentiment are by nature separate (the famous fact-value distinction). What we have between me and God is a chain of morally neutral causes. Only by adding God's intent, at the top of the chain, does one then have a basis for objectively correct moral feeling. The chain goes like this: God's love >> mechanics >> me.

Now let me add, that if that's the case, then no matter how important the "mechanics" are, they do not provoke any moral sentiments. Even if parents are "incredibly important" to how God makes us us, that importance doesn't provoke moral sentiments unless we somehow get our parents out of the category of mechanics.

Let's examine closer the attitude one should have towards one's parents. Are they just "mechanics"? I don't think so and I know Jeremy doesn't either. Why not? Because we all accept the (prima facie) idea that parents gave birth and raised us because they loved us and wanted us. Reproduction was due to intent. In other words, the chain goes: parental love >> mechanics >> me. Fold this into the previous one and you get: God's love >> mechanics >> parental love >> mechanics >> me.

What I see as problematic with Darwinian explanation is the splitting off of the causal nexus of love from creation. A Darwinian explains both the actions of creation (and I'll use that term because I don't just mean egg and sperm, I mean the whole deal, mothers and fathers sacrificing their life for their children, etc.) and the sentiments associated with those acts are both themselves caused by the process of natural selection which mechanically resulted in the replication of genes.

Let's use a sci-fi nightmare. What if, one day, you discovered that your mother was actually a robot? That for reasons unknown, but certainly having nothing to do with you personally, she had been programmed to take care of you. Would that change your attitude towards her? My argument is that the "Darwinian attitude" (not the evolutionary attitude, not the TCA attitude, but the Darwinian attitude) is one that says, we do not have an adequate scientific explanation of human/animal/whatever child-rearing attitudes until we have done the mental equivalent of turning parents and children into robots created by the necessity to replicate genes. Incredibly important robots, quite possibly. But still robots.

This last point raises the issue: To what extent can Darwinism make good its claim to be able to actually explain behavior? If some Darwinists believe parental influence is incredibly important, and some believe it is of little importance, and both can create natural selection "just so" stories to back it up, then is there actually any cognitive content to Darwinism, or is it just "attitude" in the negative sense?

Now, I'd be the first to admit that when it comes to explaining human behavior, "attitude" (in this negative sense) is most of what it is. How important human parents are for children, for example, is an empirical question, and adding fantasy stories about "cave men" (one way or the other) is to try to explain the brightly lit by the almost completely obscure. (You have to always keep in mind how immense, profound, and far-reaching is the ignorance of even the best anthropologists on, say, the Neolithic Middle East, let alone Paleolithic Europe or Africa.)

But the fact that people tell such stories should lead us to ask why? Why tell such "just so" stories? (I mean apart from the idea of trying to get around brightly-lit facts today by appealing to obscure suppositions about a virtually unknown stone age.)

One reason is the desire to turn human beings into "robots" -- this is the emotional derangement that wants the Darwinian picture to be true.

But I don't think that's the only reason. Another reason is that inclusive fitness, the whole deal, etc. has done some very solid work in explaining animal behavior. One big breakthrough, for example, was when observation showed that worker ants feed larvae in exact proportion to how many genes they might be expected to share with the larvae. (In ants, larval workers, drones, and queens from the same hive all look different and share different percentages of genes). You can read all about it in Edmund Wilson's "Sociobiology." Only if you do, don't do what every journalist did and skip to the human behavior part. Stick with the ants and Cape hunting dogs -- because if you don't you won't get any sense of the intellectual power of inclusive fitness and so on to explain some examples of animal behavior.

So if we can explain ant behavior by inclusive fitness, a "unified field theory" of biological behavior would push us to believe, as a hope, even if not a fact, that inclusive fitness can explain chimpanzee behavior, and even H. sapiens behavior. Even scientists without the emotional derangement that leads to liking Darwinian explanation, will be sympathetic because it gives unity to the study of animal behavior.

Yes, I'd agree, but at a very high cost.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Darwin and Design

1) I read a lot of Kant in high school, when I was an atheist. I'm not sure what I think about his thought generally now, but one thing in it can be certainly accepted: that the understanding which animates science seeks unity above all. Kant had his little table of the different ways in which unity is sought, but the big daddy of them all is cause and effect: the aim of science is to link all the events of the world in a branching and expanding cause and effect chain. (In Kant this has all kinds of implications about the status of cause and effect, the first cause, and so on, but let that slide.) In the long run, a theory that brings lots of isolated facts together exemplifies the scientific understanding more than one that leaves them isolated. Total common ancestry is one such a theory for biology, and like the unified theory in physics it will stand as either proven or else be seen as the single great desideratum of the field.

2) In one sense any guidance in evolution makes phylogeny (the science of constructing family trees of living and fossil creatures) impossible to do. Look at it this way: fossils don't come with little labels saying (for example): "Mesohippus, ancestor of Equus, and descendant of Eohippus." In theory, any fossil type could be the ancestor of any later one, and the descendant of any previous one. Unless you want all the thousands upon thousands of (for example) more or less horse-like skulls to just sit in their cabinets as unconnected species, you have to conjecture relationship, and to make the conjecture workable, you have to find some parsimonious way of excluding the alternatives. Natural selection, Darwinism, whatever, does that, but only as long as it is unguided. Natural selection tells you not only that all changes must be relatively small (relative here is the word, and people often talk past each other in terms of scales on this point), but also that every change must be plausibly explainable in terms of some immediate advantage. That immediately constrains the possibilities. This is the condition of any hope of sorting the thousands upon millions of fossils into anything like orderly family trees (phylogeny).

An analogy: let's say I showed you a bumpy slope, and gave you the complete topography. Let's say I then showed you three points and said water had been flowing past that point, and then told you that all three points were part of one stream. Could you reconstruct the course of the stream? Maybe, but only if you are assured that water can't flow uphill. The second you admit water can flow uphill, the course of the stream becomes unreconstructable. Ditto. for phylogeny. For a phylogenist, admitting that anything other immediate survival advantage causes changes from one species/type to another is the same as giving up.



Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Some Thoughts on Darwinism and Apostasy

Why is Darwinism (which I'll use as a short hand for the point of view advocated by John Derbyshire here and discussed here) so contrary to Christianity? The two usual answers are that 1) it involves facts which contradict the facts taught by the Scriptures; and 2) it presumes there is no God -- maybe at first as just an aspect of your method, but then increasingly as a way of thinking, and finally a conviction.

There is a lot of truth to both of these points, particularly the first, but I think there is more to it. I think Darwinism is considerably more poisonous than most other naturalistic, non-Scriptural natural philosophies out there. Here's why.

Let's compare Darwinism to, say, the naturalistic philosophy of creation found in Neo-Confucianism. As found in this book, this goes like this:

The Ultimate of Non-being (wuji 無極 also called the Great Ultimate, or taiji 太極)* produces yin and yang 陰陽; yin and yang produce the five phases (or agents): water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. The five phases (or agents) coalesce into material forces (qi 氣, also called chi): a masculine Heaven,tian 天, and a feminine Earth, di 地 (represented by the trigrams qian 乾 and kun 坤, respectively). The interaction of these two material forces, then produces the 10,000 material things in the world in unending transformation. As the result of being born in this way, human affairs can be understood, and even by the especially subtle predicted to some degree, through the transformations of yin and yang, the five phases, Heaven and Earth, and the trigrams.

Note that a personal God nowhere appears here. Everything can be understood by the human intellect. Nor does any fall, or the specific narratives of Genesis. But it is my feeling (which I suppose could be wrong) that this narrative is far less objectionable than the "Darwinist" narrative on the "Human Biodiversity" mailing group. What I am trying to do here is just to define and explore that gut feeling.

Let's start with something we can all agree on: parents and children. Neo-Confucianism, Christians, and Darwinists all believe that parents exist. We all believe that we exist through a long stream of conception and nurture that brought us into existence without any effort or merit on our part. As a matter of fact, most people will continue that chain, more or less, by having children, giving life and nurture to them without any payback up front. One could say that acknowledging and making sense of these facts is pretty important to all of these systems, and central, at least to Neo-Confucianism and Darwinism.

Let's ask, what is the attitude that each system generates towards this bundle of facts?

In Neo-Confucianism, the primary attitude is one of gratitude. The child has received infinite kindness (en 恩, which could also be translated as grace in the good Protestant sense of "unmerited favor") from his parents, and must return (bao 報)that kindness by taking care of his parents in old age and also by procreating in turn, so that the spirits of his parents will be taken care of after his death by his own children. This gratitude extends to all the conditions that have allowed one to be so nurtured, particularly the ruler of one's state. It extends beyond ruler and parents to everything that has gone before, but in a degree diminishing with distance. One is vaguely grateful to Heaven and Earth, but one does not pay them concrete hommage (worshiping Heaven is a prerogative of the emperor). Similarly, the degree of personhood diminishes as one goes up the scale: mother and father are persons, as is the ruler, but Heaven and Earth are only ambiguously persons, and the Great Ultimate certainly not.

In Christianity (and here of course I will base my discussion on Luther's small catechism, which I assume all fair-minded observers will agree is the best post-Scriptural exposition of the religion), again gratitude is the primary note. One must be grateful to parents (see the exposition of the fourth commandment and commentary in the Large Catechism -- scroll down), but also to all the other things that assist in life (see the exposition of the fourth petition; my own crude commentary here). But there is one great difference. Here, one must ascend immediately to the highest creator and see one's parents, rulers, heaven, and earth as signs of God's love and care for us. We must have children, not just because we wish to continue the gift we have received from our forefathers, but because God, the prime cause, has commanded us to be fruitful and multiply. God must be the object of a direct cult by all persons, and is absolutely and overwhelmingly personal.

In other words, while Christianity and Neo-Confucianism disagree on how and why grateful piety should be expressed towards who and what created us, they agree that appropriate understanding of creation/nature should lead to feelings of being a creature who owes love, honor, and obedience to what created him.

Now when we come to Darwinism, things are quite different. As far as I know, no exposition of Darwinism has used the fact of procreation to derive the value of gratitude to parents. Nor, curiously, does one see any discussion of the duty to procreate and continue the line, let alone any practice of the same.

Why not? I think it is not just because ultimately reality is unplanned, impersonal, and indifferent (after all, one could say the same of the Great Ultimate), but because Darwinism views the procreation of life as in some sense deceptive. The concept of deception is fundamental in all higher-order reflection in the Darwinist vein. The world looks designed, but really isn't, babies look cute, but really such cuteness is a way to stimulate appropriate reactions in the parents, and so on. Fundamental to this mode of explanation is the idea that what superficially seems a diverse set of qualitative relations, beauties, cruelties, and so on, are in fact all simply quantitative manifestations of one simple principle of inclusive fitness.** And in inclusive fitness, it is not even the person that is the unit, but the gene. As was expressed in the Selfish Gene, the organism is simply the gene's way of replicating more genes.

In short, to feel metaphysically grateful to one's parents is, in some sense, to fall victim to a misunderstanding (at best) and a fraud at worst. Parents are independent being themselves, like you, responding to genetic cues. Derbyshire's famous/notorious comments on the Corner on the relative unimportance of parental nurture in childhood development (first post here, last post here) is just one manifestation of the same viewpoint that fundamentally parents and children are each pursuing their own agenda. That those who believe in it are not, on average, noticeably more eager to have children than others, despite their fundamental principle of survival of the fittest, is not then surprising. On one cognitive level "survival of the fittest" is exactly equivalent to being commanded to "be fruitful and multiply" in a world where "by the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread." But on another level, accepting Darwinism offers you an explanation of why you feel that command "to be fruitful," while at the same moment releasing you from that command's hold on your mind as a command. Why? Because this command has nothing to do with me, as a person (or indeed as a giraffe or a frog or a lobster), but is only a by-product of genetics.

The problem with Darwinism, then is that its explanations of the natural world are always to some degree efforts to see through the natural world. (Readers may recall C.S. Lewis's points in the Abolition of Man; still one of my highest recommendations for reading in natural philosophy.) It is worth noticing that whenever scientists of an atheist persuasion speak of the emotions aroused in them by nature, they always speak of "awe" or "wonder," never of gratitude. This is the fundamental ethical problem with Darwinism, that it is an intellectual system which holds that the correct view of nature allows no room for gratitude towards our creation. As a result, it banishes piety and filiality, the well-spring of our moral sentiments. Again, this is not an inevitable feature of non-Christian naturalistic systems: it is a particular feature of the Darwinian mode of explanation.

To me then, the question is very simple, can there by a modern biology that encourages not "awe" and "wonder" at the "beauties of the natural world," but "gratitude" and "veneration" to one's creation for receiving life as a gift? Whether that gratitude and veneration stops at parents and ancestors to the fifth degree, or goes on to God the Creator of all, is not, for the purposes of evaluating the fundamental direction of any natural philosophy, the main issue.

Science demands unity. Just as physicists want a unified field theory, so biologists will never give up a theory that unifies all the different qualitative manifestations (social behavior in ants, biochemistry of bacteria in termite guts, fossils collected in sediments in Mongolia, the coloration of bird feathers) of biology into one theory. The current unification of biology by evolution will not be given up without an alternative theory that unifies all that is within our experience without reference to what is beyond our experience. (The echoes of Kant are deliberate here.) In the meantime, this leaves us with the question: are the anti-filial conclusions drawn from the current mode of unification simply an adventitious execrescence, to be explained by the history of science and philosophy? Or are they an inherent out-working of the basic idea that all qualitative biological features can be explained in the final analysis by the quantitative imperative to multiply copies of DNA?

I must say, I rather tend to the latter case. Let me finish by comparing Darwinism to Lamarckianism -- the idea that evolution proceeds by the inheritance of acquired characteristics. (You know, generations of okapis stretch their necks to reach ever-higher leaves and so over eons upon eons turn into giraffes). Lamarckianism could be just as naturalistic and just as contrary to a prima facie reading of Scripture as Darwinism, but I doubt that had Lamarckianism triumphed in modern biology that we would be feeling the same degree of conflict. Darwinism answers the question "why do giraffes have long necks?" by saying, "because that way giraffe genes could multiply themselves more effectively." Were a giraffe to learn of this explanation, I suppose they'd feel great consternation as giraffes realized that what they once regarded as their pride was a mere side-product of some double-helix inside them replicating. But what is Lamarck's answer? "Because over generations, in some obscure way, giraffes wanted to have long necks." Now that's an answer that gives dignity to a giraffe! And if the difference is this clear, then I have grave doubts about whether the deceptive aspects of Darwinism are not in fact built deep into the system.

Of course a Darwinist reading this will regard everything I have said as simply wishful thinking. Reality is deceptive, he will insist. No sentiments of filial piety towards parents, creation, God can be derived from a just understanding of the way nature works. As usual, when anyone demands that I must share in a knowledge that they embrace precisely because it is so inhuman, I suspect a personal motivation. But the irony is, that this very viewpoint, by revealing the fraud supposedly behind the "be fruitful and multiply" command brings about its own extinction. Even on the best showing of Darwinists, we are left with an inescapable antinomy of facts and morals: "You shall know the truth and the truth will kill you off."

*It is probably best to think of this as non-being not in the sense of being nothing, a vacuum, but as the absence of any specific, defined thing.
**The Wiki here is a bit misleading by the way. While inclusive fitness as an explanation of human behavior may be controversial or hard to detect, in the explanation of ant or ape behavior it is no more controversial than natural selection itself

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