Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

You know it's going to be one of those days...

...When you find the baby shoving CDs into the VCR. And it's not even 9:30 yet.

Explaining it to the Children

I hope that the substantive posts don't seem to be coming too few and far between lately. Things have been a bit busy at work this week, and I've also been trying to get some solid writing done on the Elementary Humanities Program. (shameless google plug)

One of the challenges in writing up versions of pagan myths for children is that every so often they include elements which aren't exactly what we would consider child-friendly in modern Christian society. For instance, I'd remembered that Helen of Troy was a daughter of Zeus, but I'd forgotten that the way that Zeus got to her mother might explain why she seemed a little flighty, if not feather-brained.

Oh well, one does the best that one can...

Secularism, Religiosity, Empiricism and Worldviews

Reihan has an interesting post on The American Scene which in turn comments on an interesting post by Razib on the question of whether religiosity in particular and supernaturalism in general is indeed waining under the influence of the modern world. Which in turn is pointed to by John Farrell.

Short version: For all of the current sound and fury about the secularization of Europe and the angry middle-aged men of the New Atheism, the tendency to see the supernatural as real is not going anywhere, and is probably a fairly basic artifact of the way the human mind works. Thus, when "religiosity" declines, it usually does so only to be replaced by more vague forms of mysticism.

The real question, to my mind, is of course whether our inclination towards belief in the supernatural points to the very real existence of the supernatural, or is simply a side-effect of our ability to look for patterns and intentionality in nature. (The answer to that question being where I would part company with Razib and Reihan.)

Since I'm wandering... The question of why people tend to remain open to supernaturalism, regardless of their affiliation with an organized religion, reminds me of a thread of comment I read the other day in which John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts laid out his explanation of why one should be agnostic (rather than atheistic) on supernatural questions.

He sets forth five steps:
1. Each claim is independently assessed. You make a Thor or a YHWH claim, and I will take each one separately.

2. For each claim my first question is: is there a factual claim here that is empirically decideable?

3. If so, has that claim been empirically disconfirmed? [Does that god require belief in something false?]

4. If so, be atheist about that claim.

5. If not, be agnostic about that claim.
Maybe I'm unduly narrow in what I tend to consider "empirical" (indeed, it seems to me essential to science to be pretty restrictive with the term) but I can certainly see why (for all of Wilkins' rigor as a thinking) this is not an appealing worldview to most people. Indeed, I can't help wondering if it's even a livable worldview for life as a whole (as opposed for one's specifically scientific activities).

I mean, taken strictly, if someone comes to you and says "It's wrong to squash your aged and ailing mother with a steam roller," I'm not clear that this would actually be an empirically falsifiable claim. Indeed, the whole idea of "wrong" is not an empirically falsifiable one so far as I can tell. One could reason to the conclusion, but one could not discover it empirically.

And it's because of that fairly restricted realm of empirical information that those who abandon religion, for whatever reason, generally do not become strict empiricists. Invariably they end up believing in something. And (to allow Chesterton to get the last word in -- as he is so wont to do) on many occasions they simply end up believing in everything.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Wanted for LTR: SPF

To the person who found our site while searching Google for "where to meet philosophical girls": We're philosophical about having lots of girls, sure.

However, if any of our readers are philosophical girls waiting to be met, speak up now. Someone out there is searching for you. Just don't let his accidents blind you to his essence.

Voting early and often

Cindy Sheehan has given up her anti-war crusade and tells us that her son Casey "died for a country which cares more about who will be the next American Idol than how many people will be killed in the next few months while Democrats and Republicans play politics with human lives."

Could be she's right. The May 23 finale of American Idol attracted 30.7 million viewers. The 2006 mid-term elections? 76,228,938 voters, a turn-out of 36.8%. Of course, many of those watching American Idol are under 18. In a 2003 survey of 526 "tweens" (used here to mean kids 8-14), about half of them had watched American Idol. Variety reports that although American Idol's ratings are down 20% since last year, it's still the top show in the 18-24 age demographic.
The lengthy finale of Fox's "American Idol" dominated the final night of the television season despite coming in down about 20% vs. a year ago, while ABC's season-ender of "Lost" was also down vs. its close of a year ago but was a strong No. 2 for the night.According to preliminary nationals from Nielsen, "American Idol" is expected to average roughly an 11.5 rating/31 share in adults 18-49 and 30.4 million viewers overall for its finale from 8 to 10:09 p.m., down from the 14.2/35 in the demo and 36.4 million viewers overall when the finale was contained to 124 minutes.
Of course, what's telling is that with a viewership of 30.7 million viewers, the number of votes for this year's finale of AI was 74 million. That's a high turnout even by Chicago standards.

Thomists vs. Intelligent Design

The folks at Ignatius Press have put up a page called which serves as a sort of portal to a fair amount of high quality writing on the questions surrounding Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Catholic Theology. Obviously, a certain amount of this is motivated by the links to various Ignatius Press offerings on the topic. They are, after all, n the business of selling books.

The site is useful in that it links to a number of articles by good Catholic writers dealing with the topic from all sides. I was impressed by the degree to which (in such a contentious topic) whoever is editing the site has generally done a very good job of avoiding bomb-throwing articles and linking to some very interesting thought.

One article which particularly interested me (I haven't had the chance to read all of them by any stretch) was this one by Michael W. Tkacz on why, in most cases, Thomistic philosophers have been highly reluctant to jump on the Intelligent Design bandwagon -- much to the chagrin of some on the ID side of things.

Life is but a comic strip

How is it that I only just discovered that the iMac has comics software? Here's my first attempt, with randomly selected photos from our library.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Doing Atonement

You may recall that a while back I did some wondering about great modern novels. Commenter A Philosopher kindly provided quite a list of authors, which landed me at the library poking around around the all-too-oddly assorted fiction section, and coming home with Atonement by Ian McEwan, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino and a collection of Nabokov novels which I never actually got around to cracking open (though MrsDarwin in typical fashion slipped in and read a couple novels while I was doing something else.)

My ambition is always greater than my ability when it comes to finding time to read, so out of all this I read half of the If on a Winter's Night a Traveler and (by several renewals) finally managed to find the time to read Atonement over the vacation.

I actually enjoyed the Calvino novel quite a bit, in an odd sort of way, despite not managing to finish it. (I checked it out again on my return from vacation, so perhaps this time...) Structurally, it is a very easy novel to put down, since its central conceit is that you, the reader, (as a character in the novel) have picked up the latest Calvino novel title on a If on a Winter's Night a Traveler only to find that through some publishing mistake the copy you received only has the first chapter, repeated endlessly.

You attempt to get this rectified at the bookshop, only to be told that it's not even the right first chapter, and you're given another copy -- which you are told is correct. In the process, you meet a pretty girl who is trying to read the same book and suffering the same difficulties, and you get her phone number. Once again the book is defective, however, and the reader and the girl embark on an increasingly odd quest to actually complete a novel, getting entangled in the publishing industry and Eastern European politics, all the while reading multiple first chapters, each of which gets truly involving just as it breaks off and leaves you following the reader narrative rather than the novel-within-a-novel narrative.

All of which is well done, and thus delightful in its way, but is at root too clever by half. It's a well done gimmick novel, and a somewhat infuriating gimmick at that. The only salvation (and given Calvino's skill it's a good bit of a salvation) is that both the multiple first chapters and the reader narrative are involving enough that (given a suitably elitist temperament) you find yourself enjoying the joke of it all rather than simply throwing the book against the wall as it no doubt deserves.

McEwan's Atonement is, at least to initial appearances, a much more conventional narrative. The novel begins in 1935, in the last moments of summer before the shadows of war spread across Europe. 13-year-old Briony, an imaginative aspiring writer, sees an event between Cecilia (her older sister who has just graduated Cambridge and is trying to figure out what to do with herself) and Robbie Turner, the charlady's brilliant son who has just been put through Cambridge on the family's money. The event marks the realization between Cecilia and Robbie that they are in love, but to Briony's young and imaginative mind it receives a different interpretation -- one which becomes suddenly important to everyone when a terrible crime occurs and Briony (based on her interpretation of what she saw) is convinced that Robbie must be the culprit.

Briony's testimony lands Robbie in jail and splinters the family as Cecilia refuses to ever see them again, and the narrative resumes during the British disaster at Dunkirk. Robbie is among the retreating forces and Briony has followed in Cecilia's footsteps by leaving home and becoming a nurse -- in part in an attempt to make up for the fact that she now accepts that her testimony was false, and destructively so at that.

However as the narrative of Robbie and Cecilia's travails seems to be coming to its end, the reader discovers that Briony went on to become a famous novelist, and this this novel which he is now reading is the aged Briony's attempt to do atonement for her wrongs by revealing the truth through fiction. Yet the reader is also told that the author Briony has changed key events in the resolution of the story of Robbie and Cecilia in order to set things right, make them as she now feels they should have been in order to allow her to make up for her sins.

And indeed, some of these keys scenes near the end of the story have an oddly neat, almost false ring to them. Despite the accolades the novelist Briony has supposedly received, you realize that she can't resolve her own life story neatly in a way that rings true. Then as you think more about the parts of the story that Briony could realistically know about, given what you are told was the actual resolution of events, you realize that a number of the other key moments and character themes must also have been the creation of the adult Briony's imagination -- trying to make a sensical story of the lives she unknowingly overturned in her youth. Which in turn leads you to question other key events in the narrative as presented -- and causes you to realize that you can simply not know from the novel what is supposed to have happened. More areas of overly neat plotting appear, and you realize there is simply no knowing what actually happened.

The epilogue scene in which the 80-year-old Briony basks in the glow of her extended family at a reunion, trying to assure herself that she has done justice by putting things right in the fictional narrative to make up for her wrong in real life, becomes infuriating, since she now seems not only to have ruined other people's lives, but also to have made it impossible for the reader to know what actually happened in those other lives in the first place. Having first wrecked other's lives, she has now taken them over, owned them, and made them an extension of her dramatic imagination rather than creatures of independent existence.

It's a fundamentally unsatisfactory ending -- and I assume intentionally so. One of McEwan's themes is the impossibility of truly doing atonement for one's sins against others, and part of this, I think, is an attempt to make the reader find it impossible to forgive Briony, just as her sister and would-be-brother-in-law find it impossible to forgive her. And yet in the end it has much the same too-clever-by-half feeling that Calvino's novel did, but without the fun of being in on the joke until the end. While Calvino explores the question of what a reader's relation to the narrative is in company with the reader, McEwan springs the question on you at the end -- a literary case of laughing at rather than laughing with.

I don't question that McEwan is a rather good writer -- though he has an odd habit of wallowing in great swaths of description that nonetheless take a great deal of time and verbiage to actually bring a character into focus, almost as if he is trying to simulate the difficulty of going from observation to hypothesis -- but I found the last minute, retroactive switch from traditional narrative to study of the impossibility of ever really knowing what happens in life deeply annoying.

Which is in part why I found myself wanting to go back and finish If on a Winter's Night a Traveler instead.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Who's Attacking Reason?

Al Gore is back in the news lately with his latest book, The Assault on Reason. It is not, apparently, an autobiography, but rather an impassioned complaint that American politics are too often ruled by sound bytes and emotion rather than reasoned discourse. Welcome to the party, Mr. Gore, you're only about fifty years late...

Authors on the intellectually conservative side of the spectrum have been decrying this phenomenon for quite some time now -- as, to be fair, have a certain number of harder to place authors (one hesitates to call someone like Neil Postman a conservative, though in many ways he seemed to get more attention in conservative and religious circles than among liberal humanists). However, mainstream liberal political culture only seemed to become interested in the degradation of political debate when they started to see their vice grip on the political and media culture start to slip.

Perhaps it is always easier for a group that sees itself as out of power to appreciate the deficiencies of the national political climate. After all, it's clearly not working for them. And though progressives currently imagine themselves (and perhaps with good reason) to be on the fast train to taking over all branches of the government, they are still enjoying the righteous feeling of intellectual martyrdom from their brief period of not controlling the congress, and losing two presidential elections to someone they assure themselves is the dumbest person on the planet.

And yet, for all that it's easy to blame the level of discourse when you can't win at the ballot box, there's something that makes this latest round of blaming the level of discourse sound a bit off. It's all very well to yearn for reasoned debate -- but there seems a certain reluctance to actually go back to the cultural bedrock from which reasoned debate springs in Western Culture.

I was particularly amused by a positive review which proclaimed "he backs up these assertions with a 90-minute Powerpoint presentation worth of clear-headed, reasoned and well-documented argument". I sit through 90-minute Powerpoint presentations pretty routinely, and it seems to me that this should by no means be a compliment. If one wanted to point to one of the things that has driven American discourse down to its current levels, it's the idea that a three bullet point slide can someone make a reasoned argument better than a few paragraphs of well-crafted prose.

There are politicians out there I could take seriously if they wrote a book calling for more intellectual political discourse, but Al Gore is not one of them.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Reason, Evil & Possession

Scott Carson of An Examined Life had a post up while we were travelling in which he commented on Christians (specifically a post by Fr. Thomas Euteneuer) suggesting that the gunman in the Virginia Tech killings did what he did because he was possessed by a demon. Dr. Carson doesn't exactly mince words in describing his reaction to this idea:
In my view, this is utter nonsense. Indeed, it is not merely utter nonsense, it is literally nonsense, and it is not something that I think any intelligent person can reasonably endorse.

I find myself generally in agreement with him, and I'll admit that I'm surprised that a some fairly well informed Catholics seem to consider the idea of such crimes being the result of possession to be worth considering.

While I certainly have rationalistic tendencies, my skepticism here has nothing to do with a denial that demons in general and Satan in particular do exist and can perform actions which directly affect people. (Perhaps I'm overly influenced by folk literature, but I also don't necessarily have a problem with the idea of there being more ambiguous angelic-in-origin creatures banished to the world for refusing to pick sides.)

However, I do have serious moral issues with the idea of someone committing some crime because he is "possessed". Unless the term is used to suggest some sort of persuasive power or influence (which almost seems to rob the term of any meaning -- making it equivalent to "tempted"), it seems to me that the term "possessed" refers to a situation in which some other being than the person who owns a given body is directly responsible through the exercise of his will for some action or set of actions that that body takes. Thus, to say that the gunman was possessed when he committed his crimes would suggest that it was not the gunman's will which chose to pull the trigger again and again but rather the demon's.

Now only does this seem disturbingly problematic from a moral point of view, it also does not seem in keeping with the instances of people being "possessed by a demon" in the scriptures. In those instances, the possessing demon does strange or disturbing things (such as crying out, exhibiting unnatural strength, engaging in wild behavior, etc.) which seem designed to cause fear and despair in the person possessed and those around him, but does not go around simply committing crimes using the possession victim's body.

To the extent that one chooses to see demonic action at work among humans, I think it must be seen (if one is to remain reasonable) in terms of tempting, warping perception, and instilling fear. All of these have the capacity to corrupt the will and turn it from God's will, while simply taking control of a body to commit crimes achives no such thing.

Also, I see something of a moral danger in the tendency of people to think "No person could ever willingly do such a thing" in regards to some notable crime. Assuming that no one would do such a terrible thing makes it all to easy to assure oneself of the inverse, "Anything someone willingly does cannot really be so very bad."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Another Book Meme

Jay Anderson tagged us for a book meme a while back as well, and since the same book that MrsDarwin gabbed is still the closest to the computer, I figured I'd do that one instead:
Three non-fiction books everyone should read:

1. Confessions by St. Augustine - (I thought of putting the Bible, but that seemed too smart-ass somehow.)
2. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff - A book calculated to bring mist (if not a tear) to the eyes of any book lover.
3. Euthyphro by Plato - There are deeper and longer dialogues, but that's the one that really made things "click" for me and was something of a watershed work.

Three books of fiction everyone should read
1. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh - The best Catholic novel, and one of my favorite novels of any sort.
2. The Divine Comedy by Dante - Though I do feel a little odd putting it under "fiction".
3. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome - There is no funnier book.

Three authors everyone should read
1. Fyodor Dostoevsky (perhaps the world's most brilliant novelist)
2. Anthony Trollope (because what is life without charm -- that "great English blight")
3. J.R.R.Tolkien (who somehow answered the 20th century's questions by never writing about the 20th century)

Three books no one should read
I'm always hesitant to saying that no one should read something (I have a feeling it's good for my soul that The Index doesn't exist any more, as I'd be more inclined to read things because they were on it it.)
1.Fascinating Womanhood by Helen Andelin - Having known some people who thought it was a wonderful book...
2. Anything by Danielle Steele (because if you want to kill brain cells there are better ways to do it)
3. Anything by L. Ron Hubbard (need one say more?)

And adding my own section because I didn't want to have to decide between them and prose authors:

Three Poets Everyone Should Read:
1. Homer
2. Milton
3. Shakespeare
(Okay, so my poetry reading is very conventional -- but at least it's good.)

The Nearest Book Meme

We've both been tagged by Literacy-Chic for this meme.

Grab the nearest book.

Open it to page 161.
Find the fifth full sentence.
Post the text of the sentence along with these instructions.
Don't search around looking for the coolest book you can find. Do what's actually next to you

"This is Miss Pym, Albert."

from Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey. I read her The Daughter of Time while at my family's house and was hooked.

Anyone who wants can put up their own answers in the comments box.

Philip Jenkins Buries Eurabia

Razib has a fascinating (part 1 of 2) book review of Philip Jenkins' newest book, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis

Jenkins has for some time been making waves with his books about the demographics of Christianity in the third world, such as The Next Christendom and also attracted some attention Catholic circles with The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice.

In his latest book, he tackles the shifting demographics of European Christianity, both the question of the "death of European Christianity" and the alleged coming of Eurabia. Razib's own comments (as an atheist from a Muslim background, with a libertarian set of political leanings) are also fascinating and incisive.

Judging a book by its cover

We found ourselves making a sudden deviation from our vacation plans to deliver my mother to the beside of my grandmother in Baton Rouge. Several years ago, Grandma moved from a rambling antebellum house to a small retirement apartment, the which is elegantly appointed in High Southern Gothic style with antique armoires and massive wooden bedsteads and marble topped side tables and a life-sized, gilt-framed painting of my great-grandfather. All her possessions there have been culled from a lifetime's worth of collecting and inheriting and aquiring, and Grandma has the taste and restraint of a certain school of southern womanhood.

And so it was with mild surprise that I spotted a fat and lurid mass-market paperback nestled on a desk. The cover depicted a sinister manse silhouetted against a purplish orange sky. Perhaps there was a terrified blonde cowering buxomly. The back blurb raved of a curse and madness and dysfunction. And the book itself? It turned out to be a Wal-Mart 2 for $1 edition of The House of the Seven Gables. Nathaniel Hawthorne, call your marketing department.

Now, I'm all for making the classics accessible to the general reading populace, and I have a great pity for those who have only fifty cents to spend on building their book collection. We've all been there. Goodness knows my paperback of Name of the Rose is vividly ridiculous. But. Does it actually happen that someone who wants a cheap thriller will stumble across The House of the Seven Gables and read the whole thing? Or is it that the purchaser recognizes the title and buys it despite the shame of the cover?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Home again, Home again...

Well, after somewhat extended wandering over several states in the last stage of the Darwin family vacation, we all arrived back home late Sunday night.

It'll take a little while till everyone is all the way back into their schedules, especially as I've plunged back into a very busy week at work right off.

In the mean time, congrats to Jay at Pro Ecclesia whose youngest daughter came into the world a few days ago while we were on the road.

Also, those who were saddened to hear that Scott Carson of An Examined Life had stopped blogging will be glad to see he is back with a flurry of new posts. We had the good fortune to get to meet Scott and his wife while passing through Athens, OH last week and had an enjoyable time all around.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Losing Sight of Morality

JenniferF of Et Tu Jen sent me a link the other day to a WSJ article (not avail. online so far as I can tell, but it was "Scientists Draw Link Between Morality And Brain's Wiring" on May 11th) about some neuroscientists who have identified what they're calling the moral part of the brain.
Using neurology patients to probe moral reasoning, the researchers for the first time drew a direct link between the neuroanatomy of emotion and moral judgment.

Knock out certain brain cells with an aneurysm or a tumor, they discovered, and while everything else may appear normal, the ability to think straight about some issues of right and wrong has been permanently skewed. "It tells us there is some neurobiological basis for morality," said Harvard philosophy student Liane Young, who helped to conceive the experiment.

In particular, these people had injured an area that links emotion to cognition, located in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex several inches behind the brow. The experiment underscores the pivotal part played by unconscious empathy and emotion in guiding decisions. "When that influence is missing," said USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, "pure reason is set free."...

At the University of Iowa Hospital, the researchers singled out six middle-age men and women who had injured the same neural network in the prefrontal cortex. On neuropsychological tests, they seemed normal. They were healthy, intelligent, talkative, yet also unkempt, not so easily embarrassed or so likely to feel guilty, explained lead study scientist Michael Koenigs at the National Institutes of Health. They had lived with the brain damage for years but seemed unaware that anything about them had changed.

To analyze their moral abilities, Dr. Koenigs and his colleagues used a diagnostic probe as old as Socrates -- leading questions: To save yourself and others, would you throw someone out of a lifeboat? Would you push someone off a bridge, smother a crying baby, or kill a hostage?

All told, they considered 50 hypothetical moral dilemmas. Their responses were essentially identical to those of neurology patients who had different brain injuries and to healthy volunteers, except when a situation demanded they take one life to save others. For most, the thought of killing an innocent prompts a visceral revulsion, no matter how many other lives weigh in the balance. But if your prefrontal cortex has been impaired in the same small way by stroke or surgery, you would feel no such compunction in sacrificing one life for the good of all. The six patients certainly felt none. Any moral inhibition, whether learned or hereditary, had lost its influence.
This is really interesting stuff, but I think where some caution needs to be kept is in announcing that this is the "source of" morality. After all, I imagine that neuroscientists have or soon will have identified that part of the brain that registers color. If that part of the brain were injured or removed, someone might be reduced to seeing the world in shades of grey rather than in color, but this would not in turn mean that color is a creation of that part of the brain. Color would still exist, the person in question would simply be unable to discern color without outside aid.

Similarly, the part of the brain being discussed here sounds like it produces an instinctual revulsion against the idea of killing another human. This might in many cases help someone avoid an immoral action -- though in other cases it might make them reluctant to perform a moral but difficult action. (It is notoriously difficult to train soldiers to kill enemy combatants, even in a necessary, just war situation.)

However, because color can be defined in strictly physical terms (a wavelength between X and Y is "green") we are less prone to assume that discovering how it is detected is the same as finding its source.

Perhaps I am a deeply uncharitable person...

...but when I saw the WSJ news alert in my inbox that Jerry Falwell had died, my first thought was: "Well, life just got less embarrassing for American Christians."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Victorian Houses Are Really Cute

But they are more likely to let a bat into your room at 3am than your anonymous suburban brick box.

And then allow the bat to disconcertingly vanish again without being apprehended despite an hour of intermittent skirmishes.

Holding These Truths

I had a chance to read over the third installment of the Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson debate over the question "Is Christianity good for the world." The intellectual car wreck atmosphere continues -- with Hitchens giving the impression that he's only half reading Wilson's much longer pieces and then dashing off a reply in 30 minutes based on whatever happens to come into his head first.

One thing that struck me, and which I've seen before in "atheism is just as ethical as theism" type arguments, is the absolute faith that basic modern Western/Judeo-Christian ethical and political standards can be effortlessly derived from "common experience" such that there is no need to seek divine law in order to reach objective moral standards.

I seem to recall in some online debate a while back putting forward the statement "all men were created equal" as an ethical and political standard which can be derived from Christianity ("there is no male or female, no Jew or Gentile in Christ") but cannot be "empirically" established -- since if one goes about things by means of empirical evidence it very quickly becomes obvious that all people are not created equal. It is no mere accident of the times, I think, that despite the fact that Plato and Aristotle had arrived at the idea that all humanity were the same in substance, it never occurred to them that they should be treated as political equals.

"Oh, that's easy," I was told. "You don't need to empirically prove that all humans are equal, because history quickly proves that society functions best if all human are treated as if they were equal. A society can't be sufficiently optimized if the best minds aren't given freedom, and the societal costs of successfully identifying the best minds is higher than simply giving everyone equal opportunity."

Which is all very cute and pat, unless one stops to consider whether history does indeed prove this. Example: When I was at the argumentative but unformed age of thirteen, I once got myself into a debate over politics and asserted: "An absolute autocracy such as Tsarist Russia, the Persian Empire or Ancient Egypt forces intelligent people outside the ruling class into rebellion, thus creating instability, while a democracy such as ancient Athens harnessed the energies of all the best mines and allowed an unprecedented flowering of culture."

Well, it did allow a great flowering of culture, but as my intellectual opponent immediately pointed out to me, Athens heyday (from Solon to the end of the Peloponnesian War) lasted only around 200 years, while Egypt lasted (in comparative stability) for over 2500 years from the unification of the upper and lower kingdoms until the conquest by Alexander.

If one really does want to get "empirical" and talk about what history "proves", it proves that a stable society is best achieved by a society with low but reliable technology and an absolute belief in a god-king.

Monday, May 14, 2007

And Happy Mother's Day to you as well

You know what the great thing about sisters is? When your daughter throws up at 3:30 am because she's been eating a lot of strange party food, your sisters are there to help clean up. (Of course, Darwin wonders if they'd even been in bed, but that's beside the point.)

And when the baby throws up the next day for the same reason, you can count on your siblings to run and find the cleaner and towels and help wash the baby, who wails and pees in the shower.

But you can't count on your siblings to make sure the nieces don't eat junk. "The baby ate a pickle!" "She had some horseradish cheddar!" "I gave her some raspberry iced tea!" No, some things you have to do yourself.

Friday, May 11, 2007

It helps to read the opposition...

Thanks to John Farrell also for pointing me towards an ongoing online debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson over the question "Is Christianity good for the world?" (Part two is here.)

Hitchens is, when his absolute hatred for all things religious doesn't totally cloud his mind, a very smart guy. However, that particular ailment is well in evidence in this case. Take this particular piece of reading comprehension work:
To these obvious points, I add that the "Golden Rule" is much older than any monotheism, and that no human society would have been possible or even thinkable without elementary solidarity (which also allows for self-interest) between its members. Though it is not strictly relevant to the ethical dimension, I would further say that neither the fable of Moses nor the wildly discrepant Gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth may claim the virtue of being historically true. I am aware that many Christians also doubt the literal truth of the tales but this seems to me to be a problem for them rather than a difficulty for me. Even if I accepted that Jesus—like almost every other prophet on record—was born of a virgin, I cannot think that this proves the divinity of his father or the truth of his teachings. The same would be true if I accepted that he had been resurrected. There are too many resurrections in the New Testament for me to put my trust in any one of them, let alone to employ them as a basis for something as integral to me as my morality.
One is tempted to echo the two word review of Spinal Tap's "Shark Sandwich" album, but instead allow me to indulge in the "write in haste, be fisked at leisure" trope.

I would further say that neither the fable of Moses nor the wildly discrepant Gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth may claim the virtue of being historically true
And he establishes that the Gospels are on an equal historical footing with Exodus... how? Standard scholarship puts the authorship of Exodus several hundred years after its events, which clearly is not the case with the Gospels -- and that's just for starters.

Even if I accepted that Jesus—like almost every other prophet on record—was born of a virgin, I cannot think that this proves the divinity of his father or the truth of his teachings.
Care to name three such "prophets on record" out of the Judeo-Christian tradition Hitch? After that attempt, name three generally. Compare and contract the proximity of the accounts of their lives to that of the Gospels and the life of Christ.

The same would be true if I accepted that he had been resurrected. There are too many resurrections in the New Testament for me to put my trust in any one of them, let alone to employ them as a basis for something as integral to me as my morality.
How many of those resurrections in the New Testament occurred without the explicit involvement of Christ? How many of those raised from the dead were referred to as the "Son of God" or were claimed to have "triumphed over death"? Discuss several ways in which these differences in treatment of the events within the narrative might suggest that both authors and audience believed there was a significant difference between these two sets of events.

One might hope that Hitchens' thought processes tighted up later in the piece, but they don't. Nor does he do any better in dealing with listening to his debate opponent. After Wilson delivers a thorough take-down of Hitchens' arguments in the second half of the first exchange, Hitchens incongruously declares victory at the beginning of the second exchange.

I knew I wouldn't find myself agreeing with Hitchens, but honestly, this was downright embarrassing.

PZ Myers smacks Ben Bova over Breeders

I'm not generally a fan of PZ Myers, one of the of more abrasively strident voices of atheism in the ScienceBlogs circle, but he's dead on in an article in which he smacks around Ben Bova for writing an editorial claiming that the world is in danger of being swamped by a mob of genetically idiotic, fast breeding non-science fiction readers. (HT: John Farrell)

Ironically (or, if one wanted to push the issue, typically), Bova manages to get his science wrong, despite patting himself on the back with this:

"Me, I write science fiction, stories that attempt to show how we can change the world — for the better or for the worse. Most people don’t read science fiction because (I suspect) they’re afraid they’d have to do some thinking."

Uh, yeah...

Which reminds me: Despite having read a fairly large amount of SF in my time (and being enough in the in-crowd to call it "SF" rather than "sci-fi") I don't recall Ben Bova ever writing anything good. Indeed, I'd always assumed him to be a member of the oft mentioned 90%.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

What Is It About Bathing Anyway?

Reading a fair amount of history lately, I've been struck by the extent to which bathing is often equated with civilization by modern authors. It's not that I object to bathing myself. Indeed, I participate in the ritual daily, and force the kids to do so more often than they would like.

But after a while one gets awfully tired of it being pointed out over and over again that in the middle ages the great Roman bath houses stood empty and in ruins, while people sometimes went for months without bathing and complicated Roman sewer systems were abandoned for open sewers running down the streets.

Now, I'm not in favor of open sewers and bi-annual bathing, but pointing out that the Romans had sewer systems and public bath houses, and that the Turks did as well, but the builders of Chartres did not does not necessary mean that the Turks and Romans were civilized while the medievals were knuckle dragging savages. It just means that they hadn't put the work into sanitation that some other civilizations had.

Actually, the thing that makes it an even odder thing to throw stones about is that bathing didn't become a daily ritual in America and Western Europe until pretty close to the beginning of the 20th century. So if the medievals are to be considered barbarians in regards to bathing, the founding fathers did little better. (Though that doesn't make it into the books as much.)

A Long Expected Party

The Darwins spent an enjoyable 5+ hours last night inhabbiting the back corner of an Irish pub in north Columbus with Jay Anderson and Father Martin Fox, with conversation ranging from constitutional law to use of Latin in the liturgy to studying Old English.

Hanging out with other Catholic bloggers could only be more fun if happy hour drink prices lasted till closing...

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Darwins Take Ohio, Books, The Dark Ages

20+ hours (counting stops) in the car yesterday starting at 4am, but Darwins are now safely in Ohio and even more or less awake. (As of 1pm.)

As usual on long car trips, we brought a bunch of books on tape to keep the troops from getting too restless. The small fry rejected Mary Poppins after a few chapters, but we got through about 1/3 of The Hobbit with their approval -- leaving the dwarves off at a rather sticky place in Mirkwood when they fell asleep.

One of the things that was striking me on this run through of The Hobbit was that for all the hints of a 'dark age' world of migrations and shifting populations that come up in the background and off-hand bits of history. I'd been reading In Search of the Trojan War right before leaving, which deals a lot with the 'dark age' at the end of the Minoan/Mycenean bronze age, and also a bit about the collapse of Roman Britain and the mass migrations of those 'dark ages'.

The brief mentions of the distant king, whom many peoples have not even heard of (is that the steward in Gondor, I suppose -- or perhaps an unrevised anachronism from before Tolkein had fully integrated The Hobbit into the history of Middle Earth?) and of various peoples migrating (such as the woodmen whom the goblins and wargs want to raid against the night that they come upon the dwarves in their meeting glade) while much older and strange people remain as well (such as Beorn).

In LotR you meet even earlier peoples such as Gan Buri Gan and his people. There must be a good 4-5 distinct layers of migrations you could easily lay out. It does give very much the feel of a dark age type world stretched out over an even longer period of time.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Music by Machine

There was an interesting article in the weekend Wall Street Journal about computer software that is getting good enough at replacing the sound of a full symphonic orchestra to be used for performances, or more often for "realizations" of new compositions or music scores that might otherwise be difficult to put on without great cost.
Paul Henry Smith, a conductor who studied as a teen under Leonard Bernstein, hopes to pull off an ambitious performance next year: conducting three Beethoven symphonies back-to-back in a live concert. "Doing Beethoven's symphonies is how you prove your mettle," he says.

But Mr. Smith's proof comes with the help of a computerized baton. He will use it to lead an "orchestra" with no musicians -- the product of a computer program designed by a former Vienna Philharmonic cellist and comprised of over a million recorded notes played by top musicians.

Amid all the troubles facing the classical music world in recent years -- from declining attendance to budget cuts -- none has mobilized musicians more than the emergence of computers that can stand in for performers. Musicians have battled with mixed success to keep them out of orchestra pits in theaters, ballets and opera houses. Now, a new alliance of conductors, musicians and engineers is taking a counterintuitive stance: that embracing the science is actually the best hope for keeping the art form vital and relevant. They say recent technological advances mean the music now sounds good enough to be played outside the touring musicals and Cirque du Soleil shows it is typically associated with.

Among their arguments: Aspiring composers who couldn't otherwise afford to have their creations performed by an orchestra can now commission a high-quality computer-generated recording for a fraction of the price. For communities facing the loss of their orchestra, it could be a way to keep performances in town -- even if it means a computer stands in for half the players.
You can test your ear by listening four samples, three of which are real orchestra, and one of which is entirely computerized.

This has, of course, resulted in no small amount of controversy in the classical music world. It cetainly seems like it would be a shame if this became a replacement for performances by live musicians with real instruments, but as a tool for allowing a composer to show what his music sounds like without spending the 50k+ to have a full size orchestra rehearse and perform the piece, it certainly seems to make a lot of sense.

Life with Neighbors: 2007 edition

MrsDarwin: (knocks on neighbor's door, smooths bright red Tobasco apron. Door opens.) Hi! Sorry to be old-fashioned, but can I borrow some sugar?

Neighbor 1: (runs a hand through her spiky hair) Hmm. I don't think I have any granulated sugar. I have some raw sugar -- will that do?

MrsDarwin: Ooh, I don't know. It's for frosting. I'd go to the store, but I have to make it quickly.

Neighbor 1: (piercings flash as she shakes her head) I'm really sorry.

MrsDarwin: No problem. I'll ask on the other side. Thanks!

(MrsDarwin crosses her driveway to knock on the other neighbor's door. There's a rattle at the doorknob and a cry of ¡Diego, no! Babysitter opens the door.)

MrsDarwin: Hi, I'm from next door. I'm sorry to bother you -- may I borrow a cup of sugar please?

Babysitter: Let me see if she has any. (Door shuts. A string of Spanish is directed at young Diego, trying to make his escape.)

Babysitter: (peering out) It doesn't look like there's any.

MrsDarwin: Thanks anyway. I'll check next door.

(MrsDarwin looks over at the next neighbor's house. The neighbor is sitting in the car talking on her cell phone while her children clamber at the doors and try to get in.)

MrsDarwin: (sighing) Never mind. (She returns home.)

(A moment later, Darwin drives off to the store.)

Friday, May 04, 2007

It's a Miracle!

Well, maybe not in that case...

Something got me thinking the other day in regards to miracles. Perhaps someone out there has some insight on this.
One of the things that I admire about the way the Church deals with claims of apparitions is that it is both very careful in investigating them before declaring them "worthy of belief" and that it also only declares apparitions to be "worthy" not definately true. Thus, the Church does not teach that the apparitions at Lourdes did take place, merely that there is not reason why faithful Catholics cannot believe that they did.
Now, when the Church goes through the process of canonization, she definatively declares a saint to be in heaven. One of the inputs to this decision is looking at miracles performed through the intercession of the potential saint.
So what that leaves me wondering is, does the Church solemnly declare the miracles examined in the canonization process to be miracles, or does she use the fallible judgement that there is no reason to believe that an event was not a miracle as one input in making an infallible "binding and loosing" declaration as to whether the person in question is in heaven?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A Disappointing Summer Blockbuster

That time of year is coming when large, expensive would be blockbusters put beautiful people through their paces pretending to have improbable and uninvolving adventures, or in plainer words: the summer movie season is coming. Perhaps things haven't changed much in this respect, as Sam Peypes description of a disappointment from May of 1664 sounds oddly familiar:
There by Captain Ferrers meeting with an opportunity of my Lord’s coach, to carry us to the Parke anon, we directed it to come to the play-house door; and so we walked, my wife and I and Madamoiselle. I paid for her going in, and there saw “The Labyrinth,” the poorest play, methinks, that ever I saw, there being nothing in it but the odd accidents that fell out, by a lady’s being bred up in man’s apparel, and a man in a woman’s. Here was Mrs. Stewart, who is indeed very pretty, but not like my Lady Castlemayne, for all that.
Which for whatever reason reminds me of Chaucer's interview with a young 'lady' who is also not all that...

Make a Prediction

Jay Anderson gets out his crystal ball over on Pro Ecclesia and makes some predictions about the coming Darwin expedition to the Buckeye State.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Can You Buy Fertility?

The New Statesman has an article about how various European countries are doing in raising their fertility rates to something closer to stability than total implosion by offering more generous tax breaks, child care, maternity leave, and other benefits designed to make childbearing more attractive. France especially has apparently gone into this in a big way.

The question is, of course, will this encourage significantly more people to have two or more children, or will is the uptick in births that the French are currentlying seeing just the result of the new policies causing couples who had always meant to have a child "some day" but hadn't yet to go ahead and try it now. Only time will tell.

It seems to me that sustained higher fertility rates would require a more fundamental change than economics: people would need to start thinking about life in a different way. After all, the average French or German family may not be as well off as the average American family, but they're certain more well off than the average Mexican or Philipino family -- yet those countries are not experiencing the same heights of childlessness that much of Europe is.

It seems to me likely that it's not simply that not enough Europeans can afford to have children, but rather that many of them simply don't want any.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Homeschooling and Humanism

Thoughts on the value of "humanism" on the Humanities Program blog.

Artistic Greatness in an Unbelieving Age

When I wrote about the necessity of a belief in something beyond the physical world for the production of "great art" a few days back, commenter Bill asked:
"If you're up to it, I'd like to see a list of your favorite non-atheist, brilliant writers and artist of this 'atheist age'. It seems like this fella never picked up anything by JPII or Benedict if he thinks that there are no more mighty scholars today. I'm sure you can name many more excellent non-atheist writers, but are there any current, non-atheist composers or artists that are worth checking out?"
Well call me on it why don't you...

First, I should confess that I don't keep up with the current art and music scene a great deal. It is, frankly, a lot of work to sort through it all, and since I don't live in New York I couldn't see much in person anyway. So I'm not necessarily the best person to ask this question. I'd certainly like to hear from anyone among our readers who is more up on things than I am.

Second, I should clarify the the scope of my assertion. While I certainly think that artists, musicians and writers who are atheists have produced some good work, what I think a materialistic worldview is not good at producing is "great" art in the sense of art that has a scope beyond the confines of strictly interpersonal drama. Atheism can produce a Camus or a Picasso or a Sartre, but not a Milton or a Dante or a Michelangelo.

So, in regards to writing: Letting myself stretch back a bit to the mid 20th century, I'm pretty sure that one of the clearest "greats" from the century was T. S. Elliot. Some writers you're not sure will stand the test of time, but I'd put a fair amount of money of Elliot remaining in the canon for some time to come.

Going out rather more on a limb (and some may consider this selection low brow) I think that Tolkien's work will also stand the test of time. Aside from that, though, I'm going to leave the question of novels aside for now. I'm not as up on 20th century novels as I should be (I have suspicions that Greene and Waugh would figure in a list, but I won't go farther than that) and although there's been a tremendous output of novels over the last hundred years, I'm not sure any of it will unseat Dostoyevski in quality of writing and depth of vision. I'd lean towards the idea that he continues to hold the field in regards to the novel.

Dealing with more modern writers, someone I'd like to read more of is Polish/Lithuanian poet Czesław Miłosz , who was certainly a Catholic of sorts in regards to his artistic vision (after a youthful communist/atheist period) though how good a one in practice is a matter best discussed between him and his creator. (Interesting article about Miłosz here.)

As I said, I'm not terribly up on current composers, but one interesting one is Morten Lauridsen. I do not honestly know if he is religious at all, though he composes a fair amount of sacred music, and with (I think) more artistic sincerity than say Leonard Bernstein.

If there's someone out there who can speak to the question in regards to art, I honestly don't feel equal to it. I just don't keep up.

Though one thing does occur to me in regards to both art and music:

I think that the fragmentation of styles, breakdown of established forms, and (in the case of the visual arts) the willingness to declare literally anything to be art has actually made it rather harder to identify anyone in particular as excelling. Creativity often works best within the boundaries of a certain degree of limitation. (Even revolutionary innovation can only take place within an established order -- not chaos.) As such, I think it's probably harder to recognize who is truly brilliant in the current art scene -- because so much of what is out there is (quite frankly) intellectualized nonsense.