Old Reliable

Monday, 09-16-2019


Reliably supporting a cause is not the same thing as being consistent.  Case in point:  Old reliable Richard Dawkins, who has been writing for years about how meaningless everything is, but who can’t keep his own claims straight.

Dawkins writes, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

Yet he expresses another of his characteristic themes when he writes, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose,” and when, to the same effect, he declares, “The illusion of purpose is so powerful that biologists themselves use the assumption of good design as a working tool.”

So one of the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, is the appearance of design.  Yes, of course.  Now that this has been explained, it all makes perfect sense.


Quotations taken from Dawkins’ books River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life and The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design.

I’m With Stupid

Monday, 09-09-2019


I am not one of those (actually there are very few) who believe that natural selection does not explain anything.  Yet this godlike properties attributed to this mechanism are more than a little bit difficult to credit.

Geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."  Did you get that?  Nothing.

Yet after urging that “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved,” molecular biologist and Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick remarked, “It might be thought, therefore, that evolutionary arguments would play a large role in guiding biological research, but that is far from the case.  It is difficult enough to study what is happening now.”

The contradiction between these two scientists is rather odd.  If it is enough to study living things without paying attention to natural selection, as Crick thought, then why did Dobzhansky say that natural selection is the one and only key to the study of living things?

I wonder whether part of the explanation might lie in the fact that Dobzhansky was writing not in a journal for biologists, but in a journal for K through 12 biology instructors, American Biology Teacher.

What difference would that make?  Wouldn’t the same views and arguments be expressed to teachers as to practitioners?  Not if one of the objects of preparing teachers is to propagandize them.

Philip Kitcher, a philosopher of biology and a supporter of natural selection, chastises Darwin for “appeasing his critics,” writing that “If the presence of particular goals can interfere with the epistemic evaluation of a novel proposal, then it is epistemically desirable for the proposer to respond to those goals, even if it requires deception.”

In other words, you may have to lie to the stupid people to get them to take Darwinism as seriously as we smart people do.

A more elaborate argument in favor of deception is offered by philosopher Phillip L. Quinn, who says that sometimes, in public debate over Darwinism, the only arguments that have a chance of convincing policymakers are bad ones.  He argues that presenting arguments one knows to be faulty is morally permissible, but only “provided we continue to have qualms of conscience about getting our hands soiled.”  He does worry that after presenting effective but bad arguments has become easy and second nature, one's hands “become dirty beyond all cleansing and one suffers from a thoroughgoing corruption of mind.”  But perhaps scholars could “divide up the labor so that no one among us has to resort to the bad effective argument too frequently.”  That way, “we can succeed in resisting effectively without paying too high a price in terms of moral corruption."

In others words, if you feel bad about lying to the stupid people, that makes it okay, so long as you take turns with other liars so that the habit doesn’t become so well-entrenched that it spills over into the rest of your life.  (Why, you might then begin lying to us smart people too.)

I know some very truthful people who believe in the magical power of natural selection to explain everything.  I certainly don’t think everyone who believes in this magic is a liar, or even that most of them are.  Francis Crick believed in it, as we have seen, and he was trying very hard to tell the truth.

But I do think that if everyone laid his best arguments on the table, the results would be different than what most of the smart people expect.  For not one in a thousand of them takes the trouble to find out what evidence and arguments the stupid people really offer.

Since we already know that they’re stupid, you see, it isn’t necessary.


Quotations are taken from Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution,” American Biology Teacher 35:3 (March 1973), pp. 125-129; Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 138-139, emphasis added; Philip Kitcher, "Persuasion" in Marcello Pera and William R. Shea, eds., Persuading Science: The Art of Scientific Rhetoric (Canton, Massachusetts: Science History Publications, 1991), p. 20, emphasis added; and Phillip L. Quinn, "Creationism, Methodology, and Politics", in Michael Ruse, ed., But is it Science?:  The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1988, 1996), pp. 397-398.


Where Do Rights Come From?

Monday, 09-02-2019



What exactly would you say are our rights, and where would you say they come from?



That’s a great pair of questions.  I’m not sure how helpful it would be to offer just a list of our rights, partly because there would never be an end to it, and partly because it would beg too many questions.  A classification of our rights might be a little more interesting -- for example, we might distinguish between rights to do something, and rights to have or receive something -- but by itself, it would still leave a lot to be desired, because it wouldn’t tell us the source of the rights in each category.

So let’s focus on your second question instead:  Where do rights come from?  If only we can get straight on that, then the question of what rights we have almost answers itself.  However, I can’t say strongly enough that the question of where our rights come from can’t be answered in a vacuum.  For example, I don’t think it’s enough just to think about the categorical imperative.  To reach valid conclusions about our rights, we need to have a good deal of other moral knowledge – moral knowledge of many kinds. 

For example, one way to work out our rights is to consider our duties – what we are obligated to do or not do.  Because I owe my parents honor, they have a right to receive it from me; because they have a right to receive it, I owe it to them.  As you see, such inferences work in both directions.  From either side of the equation, you can work out the other.  The same is true of the other ways of working out our rights.

What other ways?  Well, we might consider not what we are obligated to do, but what we are permitted to do.  Because I am permitted to marry a woman, I have a right not to be prevented from doing so, provided that she consents and there are no impediments to our union.

Still another way is to consider what we have agreed to do.  Because I promised to be your best man, you have a right that I show up on time.

Or we might consider the exchanges into which we have entered.  Because you accepted delivery of a certain quantity of goods, I have a right to their price.

Then again, we might consider natural institutions and practices -- frameworks of conduct that are necessary for human well-being, such as the family.  For instance, children have a right to education, to nurture, and to be conceived in the loving union of their parents.

We might simply consider the respect due to us as persons made in the image of God.  One example is that I have a right to be governed not as a slave, but as a free and rational being – although there are circumstances in which I can lose that right.  If I am imprisoned for a grave crime, then certain decisions are no longer mine to make, and rightly so.  If a people habitually sells its votes, it should not have the privilege of choosing its own magistrates.

Up until now we have been considering the implications of natural moral truths – natural duties, natural institutions, and so forth.  Last, though, we might consider just laws duly enacted by human government for the well-being of all.  For example, the law establishes an army, and so if I meet the legally specified requirements, I have the right to enlist.

These seven ways are not mutually exclusive; they overlap.  Thus, a given right can often be worked out from more than one kind of moral consideration.

Not only are rights related to other kinds of moral consideration, but they are also related to each other.  Sometimes these relations are pretty simple.  Since it is intrinsically wrong to deliberately take innocent human life, there cannot be a right to commit abortion.

On the other hand, sometimes they are pretty complex.  Take the right to religious liberty.  It permits each person to seek the truth about God, because seeking it is our duty and finding it our highest good.  It protects each person in seeking the truth about God, by prohibiting others from unreasonably hindering the search.  It supports each person in seeking the truth about God, by obligating other people to give the seeker such aid as they reasonably can.  Notice two that only the first two dimensions of this natural right can be enforced by humanly enacted rights.  The third dimension can’t – for though I ought to help others find the truth, there is nothing that human law can properly do to me if I don’t.

At bottom, all genuine rights exist to safeguard the ability of all persons to do their duties and to have the freedom of action necessary to direct their lives in order to develop their human gifts, in community with others, for both the individual and common good.

This is far from the last word on the topic, but it may be enough to keep you going for a while.


How to Ruin Lives

Monday, 08-26-2019


For several months each year I live in a high-government dependency, high-drug addiction, high-family disorder region of Appalachia.

Yes, there are jobs.  At present the unemployment rate here is only a little higher than what economists call full employment.  Just like everyplace, lots of folk work hard to make a living and raise their kids, God bless them.

Lots of others don’t.  They don’t show up in the unemployment figures because they aren’t looking for jobs.

The rate of opioid abuse is sky-high.  Everyone, including the police, knows where the dealers live.  Everyone also knows that it isn’t a good idea to inform on them.  Your house may be burned down.

Observation of my neighbors suggests that many of those who do use opioids use them because they are bored and have no hope.  They are bored and have no hope because they don't work.  They don't work because getting on the dole is more attractive, or so it seems.

Getting on the dole?  How is that possible?  “Everyone knows” that in 1996, welfare was reformed by the abolition of the government program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children.  From now on only genuinely needy people would receive aid, and there would be work requirements.

In this case, what “everyone knows” is false.  The abolition of AFDC accomplished nothing but to shift monetary handouts from one government program to another.  In the name of helping the poor, multigenerational AFDC dependency has been replaced by multigenerational Social Security Disability dependency.

You genuinely disabled people, I am not writing about you.  Many of you live bravely under stupendous disadvantages.

But a great number who claim disability are not disabled.

In my Appalachian neighborhood, quite a few people go through life with no higher aspiration than to convince the government that either they or their children are disabled.  This is easier than you might think, because many of the bureaucrats want to be convinced, and their lawyers are eager to help.  One of my neighbors got her children signed up for disability payments on grounds that they all had strabismus, which means crossed eyes.  Although Medicaid would pay for corrective surgery, which is fairly simple, she didn’t want their condition corrected.  Then the checks would stop – checks, mind you, which were supposed to be used for the children but which the parents used as their source of family income.  Why work if you don’t have to?  The shame of it was that failure to correct strabismus early in life can lead to permanent vision loss.

The fraud associated with the program is spectacular.  You may have heard of the scandal associated with attorney Eric C. Conn, who was sentenced to 27 years in prison for defrauding the government of over $72 million by submitting false documentation to support clients' claims of disability.  Conn -- whose "law complex," a set of three double-wide trailers, was just down the road from us – is reported to have paid more than $600,000 in kickbacks to David B. Daugherty, an administrative law judge who for years approved over 95 percent of the applications from Conn's clients.  The national average is about 60%, but Daugherty’s rate of approval was not unusual.  What Mr. Conn, Judge Daugherty, and cooperating doctors were up to was common knowledge.  The government paid attention only when extremely persistent whistleblowers within the agency made it impossible to continue ignoring it.

I don't mind the fraud so much.  The government is always defrauding us.

I do mind the destruction of ambition, the uprooting of meaning in life, and the generation of perverse incentives that undermine families and ruin lives.

And I especially mind the lie that this is the meaning of compassion for the poor.  A better word for the attitude would be contempt.






Monday, 08-19-2019


The only excuse for broadcasting how one thinks about the upcoming election is that plenty of other people are probably having the same difficulties.  If this sort of disclosure bears no interest for you, try again next week.

The last presidential election was the first in which I did not support either of the two major candidates.  Low character is a grave disqualification for public trust.  So far as I was concerned, that wiped both of them off the slate.  Although Mrs. Clinton was beyond dreadful, I couldn’t then imagine that Mr. Trump would be better.

Of course character is not the only consideration in voting, especially when the character of both candidates is base.  The strongest reasons for voting for Mr. Trump, had I done so, would have been his promises concerning judicial appointments and regulatory reform – and those would have been very strong reasons indeed.  But he said so many contradictory things to different audiences, and he spoke in such a demagogic way, that I didn’t believe any of his promises.  I expected his style of governance to be as erratic as his campaigning, and I thought -- because of some of his own statements -- that he would try to govern by decree, as his predecessor had.

It turns out that my expectations were wrong.  He has not tried to govern by decree; on the contrary, he revoked many of his predecessor’s decrees.  He has, in fact, nominated the sorts of judges he promised to nominate, a fact which among other things translates into a lot of babies’ lives.  He has vigorously pursued regulatory reform, and it is no surprise that the economy is doing better as a result.  I hope I have not become jaded, but though his manner of speaking still leaves much to be desired, these days it is more often merely juvenile than demagogic, and on rare occasions it even rises to the dignity of his office.  Nobody would describe his way of governing as smooth, but as he has gained experience in choosing compatible advisors and subordinates, it has become a lot smoother.  Though he zig-zags a great deal in negotiations with other countries, some of this appears to be strategic, for there is much to be said for keeping one’s opponents off-balance.  For the chaos at the border with Mexico, there is plenty of blame to go around.  However, considering the reluctance of his opponents to properly fund shelters for the detainees, it seems due less to a desire on his part to keep everyone out, than to a desire on the part of his opponents to abandon even the pretense of border security and let everyone in.

Although I never expected to have sympathy for this president, that changed when his opponents set in motion plans for impeachment before he had even taken office.  Their attempt to use fraudulent evidence to frame him -- with the connivance of justice officials, intelligence officials, and even the intelligence agencies of other countries -- is a threat to self-government.  So are the more mundane aspects of how his opponents play the political game.  Today, a public figure who is not a so-called progressive can expect to face not just political criticism, but attempts to destroy the lives of his wife, his children, his associates, his supporters, and even people who merely know him.

And how have we got to the point where asking one’s lawyer what the law permits is classified as a crime, on grounds that the questioner must have been thinking of doing something wrong?

One might wish that free government had more attractive representatives, but one cannot always have what one wants.  I still do not like Mr. Trump, but unless things change radically, the next time around I will vote for him. 


What’s Up with Conscience?

Monday, 08-12-2019



I don’t get it about protection of conscience for medical workers.  Why would anyone think doctors should be allowed to refuse to give medical care to people with whose beliefs they disagree?



No one thinks doctors should be allowed to do that:  That’s not what’s being debated.  The question isn’t about medical care – that is, treating illnesses and furthering health -- but about other things doctors are sometimes asked to do.

For example, a physician who is asked to perform an abortion or kill a postnatal patient might refuse to do so because it isn’t medical care and he rightly considers it a violation of his moral and medical duty to promote life and health.

Such are the times that killing sometimes is described as medical care, just as abortions are sometimes described as reproductive services, infanticide is sometimes described as after-birth abortion, pregnancy is sometimes described as a disease, and babies in the womb are sometimes described as parasites.  This is spin.  Don’t be taken in.



Politics in the Pulpit

Monday, 08-05-2019


Query from a pastor:

When most American Christians think of politics, they think of promoting their favored candidates for office.  I think of politics in the broader, more ancient sense, as promoting the common good.  In this sense, I, as a pastor, can talk all day about politics without ever mentioning candidates. 

But I am concerned that this view is not more widely held.  We hear all the time that “Pastors should preach the gospel and stay out of politics.”  To be sure, the pulpit is not the place for advancing someone’s campaign for office – but if pastors are not to speak about the common good, then they might as well not talk about anything in life!  May I have your thoughts?



I agree with you that in the broadest sense, politics is caring for the common good, and pastors should certainly talk that kind of “politics.”  To say that a pastor must not raise his voice about such things as euthanasia, genocide, or the use of social policy to undermine the family would be as absurd as saying that he must not speak about the Ten Commandments (about which, by the way, we ought to hear more).

But let me add a few other points.  You suggested that pastors should not promote particular candidates, and this is true.  But it is merely a special case of a more general principle. As custodians of morals and doctrine, pastors are best equipped to judge principles.  By contrast, choosing which candidate to support is a prudential judgment, and for making prudential judgments -- especially in matters requiring specialized knowledge -- pastors are rarely any better equipped than the members of their flocks.  So it is entirely proper for a pastor to use the pulpit to declare the principle that abortion is wrong, but it is quite another thing for him to opine about which refrigerant gasses are best for the environment.

This I admit:  In extreme cases, there may arise exceptions to the point I have just made.  Sometimes a pastor must offer a judgment of prudence, one which is such an immediate practical corollary of a moral principle that it would be an abdication of his office not to speak.

Unfortunately, a high degree of prudence is required to judge when such an exception should be made.  Few people are sufficiently prudent about prudence to make such judgments well.  Erring on the side of caution may be just as gross an error as erring on the side of risk; not making an exception when one should may be just as dangerous as making an exception when one shouldn’t.

On the other hand, in our day more people err in the latter way than in the former.  To give but a single example, whether people should be healed is an easy question of principle, but under what arrangements they are best healed is a difficult question of prudence.  Confusing their judgments of prudence with principle, “social justice Christians” mistakenly conclude that if you don’t want the government to take over the practice of medicine (and, I suppose, everything else), you must be against Christian love.

Perhaps if conservatives ever attained the same level of cultural influence, they would be just as bad in their own way.  For the present, the point is moot.

Keep up the good fight.