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

Friday, December 29, 2006

Speaking of Counterfeiting

In honor of my counterfeit $10 bill, a story by Giovanni Guareschi:

The Thousand Lire Story

I went down to the center of town to make some pur­chases, and in the end found myself without cigarettes and with a single thousand lire note in my wallet.

I went into a tobacconist's, asked for a package of Swiss cigarettes, and laid the thousand lire note on the counter.

The tobacconist looked at it with interest. "What is it?" he asked.

"A thousand lire note," I replied.

The tobacconist called to his wife, who was reading a newspaper at the other end of the counter.

"Maria, look at this!"

The woman turned her head and without bothering to come nearer glanced at the note.

"Ah," she said, "it's back in the center of town again."

The tobacconist asked if I lived at Porta Volta.

"Lambrate," I said.

"Then it's moved around," he remarked. "It hasn't been here in about a month. We all know it."

I looked at the note again and caught my breath. It was the falsest thousand lire note in the world, so shamelessly counterfeit as to inspire the liveliest disgust.

There ought to be a certain amount of care, profes­sional pride, taken in the production even of counterfeit thousand lire notes. But the note I had in front of me was no more than a free and arbitrary interpretation of a real thousand-lire note.

I handed back the cigarettes and picked up the offending note.

"Too bad!" cried the tobacconist. "But in this life you've got to learn to take the knocks philosophically."

I started off for the parking lot but of course had to give up the idea of reclaiming my car-or of taking a taxi, or even a bus. I arrived home on foot, in an unenviable state of mind.

"Everything go all right?" Margherita asked me.

"Fine," I replied, ashamed to admit I'd accepted the counterfeit thousand-lire note.

"Oh, good!" Margherita cried. "You were able to get rid of that awful counterfeit note I put in your wallet."

I am not speaking here to children, I'm speaking to grown men, to old hands at matrimony. They'll understand: they know that the ladies play these little tricks.

Read the rest.

We're baa-ack!

Unique experiences from our California trip:

The Southwestern desert, most of which now resides in our van, having been tracked in from rest areas.

The tiny bit of Route 66 we crossed at an intersection.

A counterfeit $10 bill, with which I tried to buy baby wipes at a truck stop in the high desert. I was floored when the clerk announced it fake, but she marked it with one of those special pens and sure enough... Good thing I had a credit card. I wonder if the bank will change it for me?

A Starbucks, in Tucson -- about the only Starbucks between Austin and Los Angeles.

Snow, in Lordsburg, New Mexico. The girls were ecstatic.

Did you know that if you're driving across the country on Dec. 27 and you want to get a hotel room, you'd better make a reservation? We do now.

Thanks to the marvel of Stow-Away seating, we were able to transport a cedar chest home from L.A. and still fit everything (including the children) in the van.

Trying to outsmart the girls by wearing them out at a McDonald's with a playground so that Mom and Dad could have a more leisurely dinner somewhere else. This backfired badly, just so you know.

Hope you all had a blessed Christmas! We'll resume substantive posting soon.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Your Baby Has a Tail

The Darwin family is something of a sight when enjoying the free hot breakfast at our motel of a morning. At least one major spill may be expected. The older two scuffle occasionally, stealing food from one another, and the baby slowly shreds food into her lap and shrieks when she runs out of food that's not yet on the floor or in her tummy.

Darwin was over at the waffle maker waiting on his waffle and sipping coffee when the middle-aged, preppy-looking couple (last seen the night before wrestling a german shepard in from their SUV in a 6ft x 6ft cage) came in set themselves down at a table behind him with an air of disapproval and (before settling down to provide loud, socially conscious commentary on the morning news on TV) observed, "I shouldn't have felt bad bringing a dog into the hotel."

Let me know, folks, when that dog starts paying your social security... It may be a little crazy around here, but our offspring are of the same species, and someone's got to do the work of rearing the next generation.

To go or not to go

How're people doing with switching to the new Blogger? It seems like the recommendations that we switch that appear when we log in get increasingly urgent, and I can't help wondering if they'll simply stop supporting the old version at some point. Still, migration is always such a pain...

Painless or nightmare?

Friday, December 22, 2006

Road Trippin'

For all three people wondering where we've been for the past few days, the answer is: in the middle of nowhere.

We squeezed everyone and everything into the van for the long haul from Austin to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with Darwin's family. For the past two days we've been surveying the grandeur of the great southwestern desert, romping at rest stops with signs that warned us to avoid poisonous insects and snakes, and watching tumbleweed blow across the road (literally). I've been busy formulating Mrs. Darwin's first law of travel: if the baby sleeps or sits quietly in the car all day, she will scream all night in the hotel.

Other than nocturnal screaming, the drive went very smoothly indeed. We have arrived safely in L.A. and the girls are having a delightful time playing with Grandma and her toys, which include a large box of plastic dinosaurs. The young paleontologists are in seventh heaven.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Top Ten Myths About Evolution

Razib of Gene Expression links to an interesting-looking book out from Promethius Books, The Top Ten Myths About Evolution.

I am often (no pun intended) skeptical of the stuff that Promethius puts out. Their aim of providing critical thinking works for the general public is laudable, but their tendency towards a Skeptics Society point of view as to what critical thinking is often leads them down wrong or overly narrow paths.

However, the selections that are on the site all seem solid and measured. And there's a cute (though distant) relative of ours on the cover. It looks like it's certainly worth a look. I'll have to see about laying my hands on a copy.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Where Is He?

On the post below on Evidence, Will and Belief, a thread of comments got going which it seemed to make sense to move up to a new post.

Anon. (fresh from his smashing success writing Greensleeves) says:
We now know that the world works in a mechanistic fashion. Plagues, droughts, floods, etc. that were formerly thought to be the work of God are now recognized as the mindless workings of nature. But the question of how it all began remains unanswered. That's about the only turf left for theists to make their stand.

There is a story that when scientists concluded that there must be intelligent life on other planets Enrico Fermi asked, "But where are they?" It's that kind of reality check which separates science from philosophy.

My point is that after all the philosophical arguments are made for the existence of God we are still faced with that reality check, "But where is He?"

I hope this doesn't fall into the rude habbit of picking at rhetorical trifles, but I'm struck by the phrase "when scientists concluded that there must be intelligent life on other planets". Don't get me wrong, I find it highly likely that there's life on other planets out there. No reason for there not to be, and the probabilities seem (from what we know) to be in its favor. But where exactly could any scientist get off "concluding that there must be"? There's no "must" about any such thing until you have some evidence of it, as Fermi points out in the anecdote.

There's a deeper sense, however, in which I think the anecdote provides a useful metaphor for the discussion here. Let's say these scientists lay out some compelling reasoning for why they believe it highly probably that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Fermi responds: "But where are they?" Now the question is, has he devastated their argument?

I think not. Fermi is right to point out that there's no evidence (other than probability given certain assumptions) that intelligent life does exist elsewhere. However, unless his opponents are suggesting a situation where intelligent life would be so common as to be positively crawling out of the woodwork, his "where are they" rejoiner is only disproves the other scientist's claim to the extent that their claim suggests that the other intelligent life would be near enough (in both space and time) and similar enough to actually provide us with any evidence of its existence. If the theory is that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, but it's relatively few and far between, and that highly technological civilizations are even rarer and don't last for terribly long, than a lack of obvious evidence doesn't necessarily do much to disprove the theory. (It's also a fairly speculative theory at that point, since the key prediction, intelligent life, cannot be easily proved or disproved, though the requirements for it -- frequency of the right kind of planets, etc. -- could be successfully attacked or confirmed.)

So, to address Anon's question, for all the philosophical evidence that one may muster to support God's existence, where is he?

One of the things that I often notice in these kinds of situations is that there's a tendency on the part of many agnostics and atheists who have a strongly skeptical bent to adopt a very primitive, almost shamanistic idea of what a supernatural being (if one existed) would be like. Thus, one gets statements such as: "We now know that the world works in a mechanistic fashion. Plagues, droughts, floods, etc. that were formerly thought to be the work of God are now recognized as the mindless workings of nature."

Now, the fact is that humans (including religious ones) have known for thousands of years that plagues, droughts and floods were primarily the result of natural processes. Certainly, those who believe the divine to be active in the world attribute may some natural events to God's direct agency, but few serious religious thinkers in the last 2500 years or so have attempted to attribute all natural events to God's active will. In the Christian tradition, theologians from Aquinas to Augustine and before all agreed that while God clearly allowed the natural processes which caused disasters, disasters should not necessarily be considered the active will of God. This notion even makes an appearance in scripture, where in Luke 13 Jesus comments that those killed in the collapse of the tower of Siloam were no more or less deserving of death than those who were spared.

Nor is this strictly a Christian phenomena. Reading Herodotus and Thucydides one heres of many great disasters, but even in the pagan world of ancient Greece, the cause of the disasters was generally not directly attributed to divine agency, except in the metaphorical sense.

The fact that life changing events are often the result of purely natural causes is thus hardly new. (If I were ever to post one of the lists of laws which so many bloggers compile, at the top of the list would be: Any argument which is based on the claim that basic things about life and the world we live in were not known until "the modern age" is probably flawed.)

So where then is God, if he is not in the mighty wind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire? Does he lurk in what Douglas Adams mocked as the realm of philosophy: rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty?

I'd say that in immediate everyday experience there are two things that strongly suggest to me a more-than-physical level of existence. First, consciousness. For all the work that's been done in neuroscience (some of it very, very good), I can't see we're any closer to providing a satisfactory reduction of human thought to nothing more than neurons firing. There is without question a physical element to what goes on "in our heads", but it seems to me also pretty clear that we are mentally more than the sum of our physical parts. That suggests to me something along the lines of what is generally called a "mind" or "soul".

Secondly, it seems to me that there are certain qualities that have objective existence such as "justice", "goodness", etc. (Justifying why I believe this would take a while, so I'll leave that aside for now.) Given that, these qualities must exist in some way that is both non-physical and unchanging.

Again, neither of these will get you directly to the God found in any of the major monotheistic religions, however it is certainly enough, I think, to point on in the direction of looking for something that exists in an eternal and unchanging fashion, beyond the confines of the physical world.

Friday, December 15, 2006

We're Decrying Quietly

Somehow or other I ended up on the New Republic's email list. This just wandered into my email box as part of the advert for the newest issue:
Dick Cheney's daughter is an open lesbian-and now she is pregnant. Her presence would seem to pose a problem for conservatives. How can they decry gay unions and then fail to decry Mary Cheney's lifestyle? In this week's cover story Andrew Sullivan explores the conundrum represented by Mary Cheney and then dissects the conservative reaction to her pregnancy. He asks, is the conservative position on homosexuality sustainable?
Now, I guess if you work for the New Republic you're not expected to actually know or hang out with any conservatives, but this paragraph (what, you ask, can I expect when it's advertising and Andrew Sullivan piece) seems particularly foolish.
  • Who says that conservatives (or at least, the moral conservatives who are the ones who have issues with homosexual behavior anyway) don't decry this. I know I've read several do so. Perhaps this got missed because many social conservatives are actually pretty quiet and polite about the things we disapprove of. Don't assume that just because you equate us with people who bring down airplanes and saw off heads that we'll actually comport ourselves that way in the real world.
  • How exactly is it that the New Republic folks manage to oscillate between wishing the Republicans would 'go back' to their non-conservative roots (as they see them) and then the next minute act as if Republican = Conservative. The fact is, Dick Cheney is not particularly socially conservative, and certainly no one has ever suggested that his daughter is. Nor, I suspect, is it mainly socially conservative concerns that hire her as a lobbyist
  • In what sense exactly does Mary Cheyne having a baby change anything that would make social conservatives beliefs about the morality of homosexual activity untenable? Is it imagined that we've never heard of lesbians going off and finding a way to get pregnant? Is it imagined that we've never heard of Republican politicians having children who go off and do very un-conservative things?

Come on, guys. This is weak...

Fa-la-la-la-lots of fun

Need a carolling fix? Over at The Minor Premise, DMinor has concocted a tale of tuneful tale of Christmas cards.
It was a silent night. We were in our favorite bar, poker was the game, and the hand was down to we three. Kings was peering over his cards, contemplating the deck. The Halls, both of them, had folded from the first. Noel tried to keep his poker face, but he eyed the pot like one who hadn't eaten in twelve days. Of Christmas, everyone in the room thought, since it was no more than a week away. In a Maine jury room I had met most of the players, and we had remained friends. With some people, I could be cold, but frosty these? No, man! I looked at my cards again, lacking one card for an unbeatable hand. I thought of how my fortunes could change just this once. In David's, royal city would win the day. "Ah, good king, when she's lost, look out!" I thought to myself.

I asked, "was the last time we played in the day or evening?" Kings responded, "oh, wholly night." The big Hawaiian rolled his eyes. "The masters in this hall were the houli, and the I.V was necessary to get the rest of the sleepers awake."

I recalled the brawl which had followed the card game. "I heard the bells!" On Christmas day I was allowed to leave the hospital. The girl I was dating at the time, brought me home. I commanded, "Pronto, little town of Bethly!

"Hehm!" she pretended to clear her throat in disgust. Turning to her girlfriend, she said " I should smack the boor's head, Carol!"
Read the rest, and keep the groaning to a minimum, please.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Grandpa, RIP

Thank you all for your prayers -- Grandpa passed away peacefully this afternoon, and I'm sure that he in the company of the angels and the saints.

In honor of a wise and gentle soul, here are two stories of his college days at MIT in the 50s (courtesy of my dad):
Two stories I recall about Grandpa's college days. I heard these from his
own mouth, but all the juicy details escape me. One has to remember that MIT is an engineering school of the most brilliant caliber. Bright and inquisitive minds. Only the elite get into MIT.

1) The bug. One of the guys on the hall of Dad's dorm went home for the weekend, but not by car (maybe by train?). Dad's hallmates were looking for some practical joke to play on him. They decided to disassemble the guy's VW bug and carry it piece by piece from the street into his dorm room. When the guy returned, he opened his dorm door only to find his car sitting in the middle of his floor! The rest of the story I can't recall. (I imagine the jokesters helped him get his car back outside in the same manner.

2) The sink. Dad and some buddies were experimenting with a certain chemical reaction which produced a mild explosion. I think they learned about the reaction in chemistry class and wanted to experiment on a stronger scale then they were allowed to in chemistry lab. So they mixed their chemicals in a lavatory sink. Unfortunately, they mixed their chemicals too potently. The explosion was powerful enough to shatter the sink. They turned off the valves to the sink and started sweeping up the mess. However, the building superintendent heard the explosion, ran to the lavatory, opened the door and caught them red-handed. He was furious and told them he was going to get a high ranking university official, bring him back to the lavatory, and try to get the boys kicked out of school. The superintendent left to get the big boss. Dad and his buddies then went to the supply room, got another sink, installed it, cleaned up the mess, and left. Thereupon the building superintendent returned in a huff with the big boss, opened the lavatory door with a flourish, and showed his boss....a
perfectly clean and functional lavatory!!! When Dad told this, he had us in hysterics. I don't remember the remaining details, except that Dad said he never mixed chemicals in a sink again. I seem to recall that he was careful to stay out of the superintendent's way after this incident.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Evidence, Belief and Will

I had the chance to catch up on John Farrell's blog yesterday, and from there came across an interesting post by Ed of Dispatches From The Culture Wars which dealt with whether a theist could be a positive influence on science:
I reject the notion that belief in God, in and of itself, takes anything away from science education. Ken Miller is a theistic evolutionist. His scientific work is impeccable, as are his efforts in science education. Can Moran point to anything at all in Miller's scientific work that is "sloppy"? I doubt it. Can he point to anything at all in his work on science education, the multiple textbooks that he has authored on evolutionary biology, that is affected in any way whatsoever by his Christian faith? Again, I doubt it.

So what he's really arguing here is that despite Miller's successful work in the laboratory explaining molecular evolution and his astonishingly tireless work on behalf of sound science education all over the country, the mere fact that he believes in God somehow undermines the principles of science. Further, that I should be ashamed for not declaring Miller my enemy as he has. And if your bullshit detector isn't in overdrive right now, it must be broken.

All of this just reinforces my suspicions that we simply are not on the same team and are not working the same goal. My goal is to protect science education. Moran's goal is to protect his atheism against any and all religious impulse, even if held by people who are excellent scientists and defenders of science education. And as his team pursues their goal they seek nothing less than a purge of the most valuable members of my team as we work to achieve ours.

This in and of itself is an important point to be made, but the comments quickly veered off in the more basic direction of an argument of whether religious belief is so irrational that all other views held by a believer were thus suspect. From one commenter:
The belief in a god doesn't necessarily mean that one can't do good science, but it does make all that person's ideas less credible. To believe in something for which not only is there no evidence (like leprechauns and gods) but for which every attempt to find evidence has turned up nothing is to raise doubts about how rational one can be about anything.
Now, anyone how reads much stuff written by skeptics will already be tired of this line of thinking, but this particular statement struck me as so bald in its assumptions that it's actually useful in unpacking some of what's going on in the materialist vs. religious debate.

One basic assumption that those on the "religion is totally irrational" side is that there is no other form of evidence than physical evidence and that there is no other form of inquiry than scientific inquiry. Thus, when one commenter said it was not irrational to accept the existence of non-physical reality, one of the materialist partisans snapped back, "non-physical reality, is that where all the married bachelors live?"

What this person is clearly doing is unconsciously making an assumption about what 'reality' consists of. Many things that we think of as very real in our human experience do not exist in a pure physical form. Some of these are mathematical concepts. For instance, there is no such thing in physical reality as a perfect circle. Does this mean that circles do not exist? We can define a circle mathematically, but all of the circular things that we in fact find in the world are (however minutely) imperfectly circular.

Another set of non physical things which we often believe that we experience (though perhaps imperfectly) constists of qualities such as "goodness", "justice", "love", etc. We experience things that seem to contain these qualities to a greater or lesser degree, but we cannot actually find physical evidence of the qualities themselves. In a given circumstance, a husband giving his wife a dozen roses might be evidence of love. In another circumstance, he might do it so that she won't suspect that he's sleeping with his secretary. Even assuming an infinitely wide frame of reference such that all external circumstances (such as the secretary) were known, no degree of strictly physical evidence can prove the existence of the non-physical quality: love. One could, of course, dispense with the idea of love entirely, and insist that it is simply biologically advantageous in the long term for each mateto believe that the other one has "love" for the other since this creates greater family stability and thus more successful rearing of offspring. This explanation can be seen as responsible for all our experiences of "love" but it is not necessarily satisfying from a human point of view.

This brings us to the other thing that I think often goes un-acknowleged in these kind of conversations: In any given situation, there is often more than one conclusion which explains all of one's experiences with logical consistence, and at such a point, one must make a decision what to believe. This decision is not merely arbitrary. Usually you will make it because you are convinced by one of the experiences or observations which make up the "evidence" that you are weighing.

In a classic example, it is logically consistent with one's observations of the world to conclude either that there is an outside world populated by other thinking, acting entities or to conclude that one's entire experience of the world is the result of a demented imagination, and there is in fact one reality but one's self. Both explain all of one's experiences and are logically consistent. However, since solipsism if profoundly un-useful, few people choose to believe it.

Similarly, long before monotheism became dominant in the West, pagan philosophers had worked around to the idea that since no thing exists without a cause, and since an infinite regression of causes doesn't make any sense, that there must be a single, eternal, uncreated thing which existed by its nature and was in turn the cause of all other things. The "unmoved mover" proof of God's existence thus goes back further than Christianity does. However, modern non-believers generally laugh it off with a "If you can believe God exists without a creator, why not believe the universe exists without a creator?"

The answer is, of course, that one can. The force in the "unmoved mover" argument is that our experience generally tells us that normal physical things always have causes, and thus the universe as a whole must have a cause while is wholly different from all those things which we normally experience. However, if one is ready to instead believe that just this one time the physical universe behaved in a way wholly different from how we've ever experienced it to behave, that belief is also fully self consistent. One must, in the end, make a decision which metaphysics to believe. The evidence cannot make that decision for you. There is no one conclusion which is so overwhelmingly clear as to be unavoidable. Rather, if one is willing to accept the implications of either, one may then adopt that belief with full logical rigor.

At the end of the day, belief in God, or belief in a spouse's love, or belief that all men are created equal, or what have you may be supported by an incredible amount of evidence, but the belief itself is a choice. The evidence will take you so far. Belief does not have to be some sort of "blind leap". But it is a crossroads, and one must decide which way to go.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Resting easier

My dad tells me that Grandpa seems much more peaceful since his tubes were removed and his defibrillator deactivated last night. As it turns out, he never actually felt any pain, since the pain centers above the brain stem were all dead, but there's no more involuntary jerking and thrashing and bleeding. The family is much more relaxed now that Grandpa is in God's hands, and I thank you for all your prayers and kind words.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Now and at the hour of death...

Between 7:15 and 7:30 EST (essentially, right now) Grandpa will be taken off life support. He's not expected to live much longer after the tubes are removed -- a week is an extremely generous estimate, but less than a day is much more probable, given his physical condition.

Please keep him in your prayers tonight.

Why No Species Solidarity?

When visiting the grocery store this weekend, I found myself parked next to a mid-size SUV with a back end nearly covered with bumperstickers. This is usually a bad sign in regards to the moderation of the driver's opinions, and indeed this person had chosen to display on their back-end (sometimes repeated several times) thoughts such as "Bush is a Chump-Ass Punk", "I [heart] my [dog]", "I'm Pro-Choice and I Vote" and "Keep Austin Planned".

Why is it that advocating that fewer humans be born so often seems to come with a great devotion to the care of other species, whether endangered ones or domestic? Where's the species loyalty?

I wonder if in part this trends stems from a tendency to think of the person as a free floating individual defined by mind and memory rather than a member of a family, state, species, etc. which constitutes a revolving population in which our place is to grow up, care for others, reproduce, rear the next generation, and eventually die. This "circle of life thing" seems to have been clearly (though perhaps not consciously) understood and accepted in pre-industrial societies, but as it has become easier to think of ourselves as little eternal being in the abstract, primarily an individual rather than part of a great chain on beings, I think people lose track of it.

Thus, animals assume greater importance to the extent to which they form cherished parts of memory and everyday experience. And having offspring is often seen as an obstacle to fulfillment rather than one of the primary purposes of one's life.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Your prayers requested

A week ago, my grandfather had a heart attack and was rushed to the emergency room. It seemed very likely that he would die that night, but he was revived and has spent the last week in a vegetative state. The family had been waiting for reports on whether Grandpa was likely to regain brain function (since he spent more than five minutes without oxygen), but his afternoon they learned that Grandpa has been essentially brain dead since the heart attack and has no hope of recovery. After much consultation with doctors and priests, the decision has been made to take him off life support (in accordance with his wishes, expressed as recently as Thanksgiving weekend), retaining only an IV for nutrition and pain medication.

If you would be so kind, please pray for a peaceful and blessed death for Grandpa, and for my grandmother and all my father's family during this difficult time.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Hide Your Children

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the nursery...


This is surprisingly disturbing....

H/T to commenter TJR.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

I'll tell you who does more chores...

The Wall Street Journal has an article today telling us that gender equality has NOT seeped into the home yet. According to "a nationwide study by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research", boys (ages 10-18) are more likely to be paid for doing chores, even though girls the same age spend 30% more time doing work around the house.

Aw, nuts. I'll tell you who does more chores. I'm the oldest of six. Darwin is the oldest of three. I realize, of course, that the plural of anecdote is not data, but we both know from experience that the oldest child does more work around the house than his or her lazy siblings. There's a big chore that requires the attention of someone trustworthy? The oldest. Putting away dishes and need someone who can reach the top shelf? The oldest.

C'mon, Wall Street Journal. Let's see a study about the correlation of birth order with chore expectation. And you pampered younger siblings out there -- take out the garbage this minute.

Some Thoughts on "Double Effect"

One of the trickier concepts within traditional Catholic moral theology is that of "double effect". The basic idea here is, one may perform certain actions with a morally acceptable intent, despite that the fact that certain undesirable results are known to be almost certain to result as well.

Thus, according to classic moral teaching, it is unacceptable to will to kill another person, but it acceptable to will to stop an intruder from threatening your family by pointing a .45 automatic at him and pulling the trigger. (I'll use the example of self defense throughout, since that's one of the most classic examples of double effect.) Your will is to stop him from causing harm, while his death (if it occurs) is a foreseen but undesired consequence. (Thus, one goes from self defense to murder if the intruder is writhing helplessly on the ground after the first shot and you step over and fire a second shot to finish him off: There is no sense in which such an action is necessary for self defense, and so the only possible object of your action is to kill the now wounded assailant.)

Now, the principle of double effect clearly handles some very important moral questions, and I don't for a moment want to sound like I'm saying it doesn't make sense or should be thrown out. However, it does seem to present a certain potential for tying ones self up in mental knots.

I think the trouble area tends to be the "undesired but foreseen" element of the double effect. A lot of people seem to have difficulty with the idea of foreseeing something clearly as the result of an action without actually willing it. Thus, in cases of self defense, some err on the side of saying that one cannot justify any defensive action which one can foresee with near complete certainty will result in the death of the attacker. Others err in the other direction, believing that by virtue of being an attacker, the assailant in a self defense situation essentially cedes his life, and any action against him is justified.

The right balance, I think, is to understand that the killing of an attacker is morally justifiable only to the extent that it is necessary in order to achieve the goal of defending the innocent. One the one hand, the principle of double effect does not require that a defender hold back on the force he uses, so long as the use of greater force actually achieves defense with more certainty. And yet, once the threat is averted, further use of force is not morally acceptible.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The life cycle of the common bug

The babysitter was here last night and we were just about to leave when I hear a call from the kitchen: "MrsDarwin, Babs just threw up!"

And so she had -- her entire dinner, over her entire outfit. It took about 45 minutes to get her cleaned up and medicated (if your child hates Pepto-Dismal, it's helpful to administer it while she's in the tub). We feared we should have no birthday dinner, but finallly she fell asleep and we were able to sneak out for an hour or two.

In the middle of the night Darwin woke up feeling indisposed and proved that this bug is indeed contagious. And Babs toddled in to stand beside me and tell me that she wanted to sleep with us because she'd thrown up in her bed. Sheets were changed, foreheads were felt, temperatures were taken. Darwin is still curled up in bed, ready to welcome death when it comes to bring him sweet release. Babs whimpered and moaned herself back to sleep (breathing right on me, I might add), and was generally piteous until I called to cancel her dental appointment. Now she's eating tortilla in the living room and demanding orange juice. Ah, the resilience of the young!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

I remember MrsDarwin Redux!

In honor of MrsDarwin's birthday, we revive a popular meme posted here on this day last year.
If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now, even if we don't speak often, please post a comment with a COMPLETELY MADE UP AND FICTIONAL MEMORY OF YOU AND ME.

It can be anything you want--good or bad--BUT IT HAS TO BE FAKE.

When you're finished, post this paragraph on your blog and be surprised (or mortified) about what people DON'T ACTUALLY remember about you.
Here are all the egregious falsehoods our readers concocted last year. Good times, good times...

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Embryonic Stem Cell Research info needed

A reader sends a question:
For a final project in one of my speech classes this semester (I am actually a communications major, minor in psychology) I have to give a persuasive speech. I think I might do it on Embryonic Stem Cell Research (convincing them that it is unnecessary, as well as immoral). I was looking through your previous posts (on blogspot), but wasn't able to find anything. If you have some info that you could share with me, or if you know of any good sources that I should check out, I would be very grateful.
I recommended the blog Mary meets Dolly, but if any of you have suggestions, feel free to post them.

Escaping Original Sin?

I've been following this thread over on Et tu, Jen with a certain amount of interest, in part because it involves a fascinating mix of people. One comment from a Catholic-turned-atheist struck me as worthy of brief discussion, simply because it seemed so out of left field:
It wasn't until I finally started allowing myself to buy reality that I started to feel better. Today, I'm an atheist and proud of it. Damn, it's great to be free of the shackles of "original sin"!
Now, I have a skeptical enough turn of mind to have a certain degree of sympathy for certain brands of agnosticism, if not atheism, but this I have trouble wrapping my mind around. If there's one thing that seems clear about humanity, it's that our instinct tend towards evil awfully easily. Even if one discards the idea of 'evil' in a moral sense, humans fall to self destructive impulse (good neither for themselves nor for society) terribly easily. With the higher cognition with makes us capable of living in complex, tool using societies comes an oft-misguided willfullness. (You don't see ants or gophers indulging in self destructive and anti-social tendencies to the extent that humans do, though our primate relatives can give us a pretty good run for our money.)

So how exactly could discarding belief in God mean escaping original sin? Original sin is essentially the idea that as a human tribe we bear a (self inflicted) warped will, one easily led astray from 'the good' to the persuit of that which seems good, but is indeed far from it. If one believes in the Christian God, that means that we are born at a distance from God, wandering in our own created wilderness, tending to follow our own compass rather than God's. If one does not believe in that conception of God, it hardly changes this tendency in humanity. It just leaves it unexplained and with no where to go back to from that state of moral wandering.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Atheists Against Scientism

It seems that in the wake of Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion, something of an internal skirmish has broken out in some atheist cirles.

Razib of Gene Expression links to a post by Chris of Mixing Memory which contains the following critique of the Dawkins brand of atheism:

I've tried several times to write posts about the post-God Delusion blog clustersomethingorother, with all the reviews of Dawkins, reviews of reviews of Dawkins, and reviews of reviews of reviews of Dawkins, along with the side debates that discussion has spawned, but each time the posts came out sounding really nasty, so this is all I'll say about it. I find it hypocritcal and, as an atheist, more than a little embarrassing that these fundamentalist, Dawkinsian, scientistic, self-styled free thinking atheists, who know jack about the history of religion, or serious philosophy and theology, feel that they can criticize religious fundamentalists for saying things about science (in the evolution-creationism debate, for example) when those religious fundamentalists are clearly ignorant of the science, but have no problem making grand claims about the rationality of religion or its practical implications. I can't help but think that they feel they're justified in this because they have a distinct sense of intellectual and, perhaps, moral superiority over the religious. This sense of superiority is reflected in the make up of the "Beyond Belief" panel, which is comprised, for the most part, of scientists who study things that are completely unrelated to religious doctrine and faith (except in superficial ways, such as the fact that modern cosmology and evolutionary biology rule out a literal interpretation of Genesis). If creationists had put together a panel of theologians to talk about the science of modern cosmology and evolutionary biology, these same atheists would write post after post about how ignorant and dishonest the whole thing was.

I firmly believe that science has absolutely nothing to say about the validity most theology, and most theology has absolutely nothing to say about the validity of science. Furthermore, I recognize, unlike Dawkins' epigones, that "evidence" is not something that exists outside of an interpretive framework, and that it's possible to rationally interpret the "facts" of the world as providing evidence for the existence of God or gods. The same is true when it comes to logical and moral arguments for and against the existence of God.

In a followup post, Chris goes on to distinguish between an aethism of rational skepticisim and an atheism of "suspicion", by which (if I understand correctly) he means a healthy understanding of the inability of one's senses and reason to get at the true reality of a situation. My issue with this sort of folded-back-on-itself doubt is that it seems so fundamentally un-useful that you need to ignore it when engaging in practical reasoning. This doesn't necessarily mean that it can't be true, but it doesn't strike me as being how the world works.

Naytheless, I fully agree with Chris's assessment of the arrogance of spouting off judgements on the history and nature of theology and philosophy when one has taken precious little time to actually learn anything serious about either discipline. There's a casual conviction that many have that theology consists of nothing more than some just-so stories and rationalizations that anyone could have thrown together. Regardless of whether one believes in a theological tradition, there's clearly much more to it than that. It speaks to the intellectual seriousness of atheists like Chris and Razib that they take the time to understand what they're rejecting rather than being swept up in Dawkins' straw man show.