Saturday, February 01, 2003

Under the stars

A few years ago I did an article about the Mars Society, a group lobbying for a future mission to Mars. I talked to some of their members who worked for NASA, and a grad student in aeronautical engineering (I loved his T-shirt -- "Yes, actually, I AM a rocket scientist!") He and some other youngsters in the group nurtured the dream that they would one day be on such a mission. Even the older guys who figured their chance was past harbored a wistful yearning for space, like the old sailors' songs yearned for the open sea. They knew how dangerous space missions are, but death did not seem as powerful as the call of other worlds.

If there's some comfort for the loss of seven astronauts today, it's that they probably died happy. I'm sure they longed for space the way the Mars buffs I talked to did. Few people get to where they did, though many wish to. May they rest in peace in the heavens.

Friday, January 31, 2003

Ever since Darwin

Mark Kleiman makes some excellent points about the Dini affair:
I think lots of people who say they don't believe in evolution don't actually have any fixed opinion about the origin of species; rather, they're denying an apparent implication of that belief: that, in reality, human beings are merely animals. Those people are holding out for the idea that humans have something of the divine nature. That view can be taken as a metaphysical proposition about human beings, but it can also be the expression of a moral stance: that it's wrong to treat human beings the way animals are treated. Neither the metaphysical proposition nor the moral stance is obviously false. (And if we take the the "divine nature" statement as an image rather than a propostion, a simple evaluation of truth or falsity isn't even appropriate.)

Linking those beliefs to a particular view about paleontology seems to me a mistake, but, given the intellectual history of the matter, not a silly mistake. Poorly understood Darwinian views can be, and have been, given very wicked practical applications. So if someone wants to make a principle of refusing to say that humans descended from animals by natural selection, nothing compels me to think the worse of him for doing so.

Right. I've been fussing in several recent blog posts over the question of what Darwinism does to our concepts of the human being and of original sin. That's the real conflict that the arguments over whether the earth was created in six days tend to distract us from. And Darwinism is so commonly misunderstood even by its defenders, and so closely identified with materialism and savagery, that it's not surprising many people object to it out of pure ethical distaste.

The problem is, a biology teacher has a good opportunity to cut through those misconceptions. But by stating upfront that he won't recommend creationists, Dini drives any creationist-leaning students out of his class. This is a cause he isn't helping.

Mark's "sermon" is also worth a read.

Thursday, January 30, 2003

All over creation

Eugene Volokh has an interesting series of post on a religious-discrimination suit. (Start here and scroll up for more comments.) I don't know about the legal issues, but as an amateur science enthusiast I can't get behind Professor Dini's supposed defense of science.

For one thing, this is a medical student we're talking about. Dini's explanation of why beliefs about evolution matter to a doctor is pretty flimsy:
Whereas medicine is historically rooted first in the practice of magic and later in religion, modern medicine is an endeavor that springs from the sciences, biology first among these. The central, unifying principle of biology is the theory of evolution, which includes both micro- and macro-evolution, and which extends to ALL species. How can someone who does not accept the most important theory in biology expect to properly practice in a field that is so heavily based on biology? It is hard to imagine how this can be so, but it is easy to imagine how physicians who ignore or neglect the Darwinian aspects of medicine or the evolutionary origin of humans can make bad clinical decisions. The current crisis in antibiotic resistance is the result of such decisions.

First of all, Dini is ignoring the fact that many creationists accept micro-evolution, in the development of disease-resistant bacteria and such things. What they don't accept is the idea that evolution accounts for the appearance of all species on earth, including us. (That's Intelligent Design theory in a nutshell.) Second, as Clayton Cramer points out, the appearance of such bacteria is hardly the result of rampant creationism.

It gets worse:
Good medicine, like good biology, is based on the collection and evaluation of physical evidence. So much physical evidence supports the evolution of humans from non-human ancestors that one can validly refer to the "fact" of human evolution, even if all of the details are not yet known. One can deny this evidence only at the risk of calling into question one’s understanding of science and of the method of science. Such an individual has committed malpractice regarding the method of science, for good scientists would never throw out data that do not conform to their expectations or beliefs. This is the situation of those who deny the evolution of humans; such a one is throwing out information because it seems to contradict his/her cherished beliefs. Can a physician ignore data that s/he does not like and remain a physician for long? No. If modern medicine is based on the method of science, then how can someone who denies the theory of evolution -- the very pinnacle of modern biological science -- ask to be recommended into a scientific profession by a professional scientist?

A while ago I blogged about the question of whether science is a religion, and pointed out that the basic difference between the two is that science puts its faith in a method of knowing, not it in a particular set of beliefs. Dini seems to have missed this point completely: if you believe in science, he says, you must believe in the Darwinian theory of evolution. This is a deeply unscientific attitude.

Consider the effect on scientific innovation if this were broadly applied. I am sure that before Einstein it seemed that no rational scientists could disagree with Newtonian physics. I am glad nobody excluded Einstein from the club. I don't think "creation science" is going anywhere, but that doesn't mean Darwinian theory is unassailable.

Intelligent, conscientious Christians are often embarrassed about the raving fundies who speak in their name, and that's how I feel about this guy. Why is he even asking students this before he'll write a letter of recommendation, and ranting on and on about it on his website? How can he say that not accepting Darwinism means you're incapable of rational thought about anything? We're all irrational about something. In Dini's case, apparently, it's about creationists.
Hey hey Boo Boo

Minute Particulars points to a post by a woman who calls her baby "Boo Boo" because he was an accident. "Our teenaged kids are convinced that this will someday land him on a psychiatrist's couch, explaining, 'My parents didn't plan to have me, and then they called me "the Boo Boo" for my first two years,'" she writes.

This reminds me of a few weeks ago when my mother was here, and we visited briefly with Telford and his brood. My mother was cooing over the baby when she remarked upon the obvious: he sure has a heck of a lot of kids.

"This one's the last," he said. "Well, the last one was supposed to be the last, but this one's the last last."

I suppose if you want to send your kid to the shrink by calling him a redundant nickname, you could do even better than Boo Boo by calling him Last Last. But I wouldn't want to give anyone ideas...

My reason for reasons

Tom from Disputations says in the comments to the previous post:
When Louder Fenn writes, "it is sin that corrupts the world," I take him to mean "world" in the sense of human life and society, rather than the purely natural world of earthquakes and hurricanes. The nature sin corrupted is human nature.

One of the primary absences in fallen human nature is that our reason has been clouded and no longer rules our emotions. Emotions, including anger, are themselves neither sins nor sinful, but since we aren't very good at properly reasoning about our emotions, they often do lead to sin.

Hermaphroditism isn't sinful either, of course, although my impression is that a hermaphrodite lacks the good of being either fully male or fully female.

So what the first sin removed from human nature is, among other things, the proper harmony between reason and passion.

In this formulation, by the way, sin is a kind of evil. Evil in general is the lack of something that a thing ought to have, so blindness can be said to be evil in a human but not in a rock. Sin is the type of evil caused by a person's free choice to be less than they are supposed to be.

I hauled this out of comments to answer here because my response is going to be long. (Is anyone surprised?) First of all, what is "reason" in this scheme, and what does it have to do with goodness? In the context of this particular discussion, what rational causes are there for saying that homosexuals and hermaphrodites can't have sex? Lots of rational people think otherwise.

Reason can, of course, be helpful in ethics -- making them more consistent, for instance. But ultimate judgments about good and evil aren't based on it. Consider St. Paul's concise summary of ethics in Romans 13:9:
The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

I don't see what reason has to do with that. (This line also, to my mind, goes against Louder Fenn's insistence that "what's right" can be abstractly detached from human suffering. But that's another subject.)

There also seems to me to be a fundamental conflict between what Tom is saying and what Louder Fenn said. LF says: "Yes, you are asking them to fight their nature ... Morality is all about fighting your nature -- your fallen nature, that is; your nature which is imperfect due to the imperfection of the world." He goes on to blame the imperfection of the world on human sin. Tom, meanwhile, seems to be saying there isn't anything sinful about, say, having certain feelings or being a hermaphrodite, you just can't act on it. Sin, apparently, comes from a lack of restraint on these things. Now, technically LF said "fallen" and "imperfect" rather than "sinful," but this seems like a distinction without a difference. LF seems to be saying that the need to control and suppress our feelings is an effect of our fallenness, while Tom seems to be saying that was in the original plan, we're just not doing it right. One version says being moral is fighting our nature, the other says it's harmonizing with it.

Both these views are problematic in terms of original sin. It occurs to me, now that I write this out, that Louder Fenn's argument is essentially circular. We sin because we give in to our fallen nature. Why is our nature fallen? Because we sin. Original sin is a chicken without an egg.

On Tom's side, we have the problem of what this "harmony" means in practical terms. In fact, homosexuality is an especially good example of this. This is an emotion that, in Catholic thinking, should never be acted upon. It serves no conceivable good purpose to feel it. So as a sin, it's an absence of...what? In a theoretical pre-fallen Eden, what happens to it?

It is the nature of feelings to impel action. They have no other reason to exist. In fact, in a sense feelings are actions. The physiologic changes that they bring to your body are preparing you to take a particular course of action -- fight, flee, have sex, etc. We can stop ourselves before it goes farther than that, of course, but in doing so we're already passing a value judgment over the feeling. So the logical wiggle that God didn't make us bad just because he gave us feelings that would be bad if acted upon seems nonsensical to me.

OK, gotta get back to work. Interview in 45 minutes...

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Worms a-wriggling

Louder Fenn responds to my response to his post. Turns out he wasn't really responding to me originally, just to UnSpace, so I was getting a little excited over nothing. Now that I'm in, though, he has a few words:
Third, what I was trying to say regarding the categories of male and female is that they are the only categories. But I didn't say that very well. So let me try this: Male and female are not "archetypes" that are "real and meaningful" for the "vast majority of people" -- they are objective realities. Yes, there are those people who diverge; but such divergences do not constitute categories of being. They are -- to put it bluntly -- defects. Blindness is not a variant of sightedness. It is a defect. Being a hermaphrodite is not a variant of gender. It is a defect.

OK, so they're objective realities. I don't see how that's different from what I said, but I'm not gonna sweat the semantics. Although one thing I'm wondering here is, why does something have to belong to a category in order to be good?
Yes, you are asking them to fight their nature. We ask drunks to fight their nature. We ask rapists to fight their nature. We ask a child to fight his nature and not lie or punch his sister. We ask ourselves to fight our natures all day long. Morality is all about fighting your nature -- your fallen nature, that is; your nature which is imperfect due to the imperfection of the world.

I'm not saying God messed up in making anyone. He made the world and, yes, the world sucks a lot. Did God mess up? Or did we? Remember, it is sin that corrupts the world; our sin. You might ask why God would have made everything in the first place, if He knew we would sin, ruin everything, and essentially cause such pain and harship; but, as I said, that's a matter of theodicy, quite larger than the matter only of gay sex and gay marriage.

This is what drives me crazy about Christian arguments from nature. We can infer God's intent from nature by looking at it, such as the fact that male and female are objective realities. Except the bits of nature we don't like -- that nature was corrupted by our sin. Basically, you can argue anything you darn well please that way, because you get to rule out conflicting evidence. I realize this is not completely arbitrary -- it's ultimately based on moral law in the Bible -- but one wonders why Christians bother arguing from nature to begin with.

Also, I have discussed on this blog before, but it bears repeating, why I have trouble buying the argument that it was human sin that corrupted nature. Basically, it boils down to two reasons:

1) Unless you're a six-day creationist -- I don't know if Louder Fenn is, but I don't think any of my usual correspondents are -- you know that nature predated humanity by quite a bit, and evidence indicates it was always pretty much like it is now. I explicated that problem in this post. (Click here for Telford Work's response and here for my response to the response.)

2) It gives humans an inordinate amount of power. If humans basically created sin, and God did not, humans made it ex nihilo, and theoretically only God can make things ex nihilo. And if you buy into the notion that sin corrupted nature in this way, this is more than just "the choice to disobey God," as some have defined sin. It makes sin into a kind of creative entity itself, giving birth to defective children and weird desires and natural disasters and whatnot. As I complained in the November post I linked above, this seems to amount to a de facto dualism by Christians, as "sin" takes on godlike power.

Louder Fenn is right that this is a bigger topic then just sexual rules. It's the topic I've been worrying for months now, to no satisfactory conclusion.

Monday, January 27, 2003


Michael Fumento attacks the idea in some conservative circles that attention-deficit disorder is a big hoax.

One of my psych professors in college remarked that except for schizophrenia, which just about everybody recognizes as "crazy," most mental illnesses are an extreme form of something that's in everybody's experience. We have all had times that we tend toward depression, mania, phobia, compulsiveness and so on. This leads to an unfortunate tendency among a lot of people to think that the illness is essentially no different from what everybody goes through, so it's not a "disease." Everybody who has a mental disorder is going to meet somebody who says, "Why, that's no different from how I was when..." Except that it is different.

Fumento doesn't go into why conservatives, in particular, tend to think like this. But I expect it has to do with a couple subjects I've picked over on this blog before, free will and mind-body dualism. Religious conservatives in particular don't like to think that a lot of people's behavior comes from their brain chemistry. They want the solutions to behavior problems to be spiritual: parental discipline, self-mastery, and so on. Psychiatric explanations seem to undermine that. As Fumento says in his conclusion, the one doesn't necessarily negate the other. But they are two views of human nature that come in conflict, and there is no avoiding it.
Dare to be stupid

CalPundit theorizes about why European firms haven't seen technology-based productivity growth like the U.S. has:
I puzzled over all this for quite a while, and in the end my armchair theorizing added up to this: Europeans on average are actually more rational about technology than we are. They demanded rigorous ROI analysis before they would buy. They recognized that the technology didn't work as well as the hype. And they had a more realistic view of future growth prospects than Americans did.

But here's the weird part: it didn't matter. I think they were actually right more often than American business people were, but the Americans did better anyway. They drank the Kool-Aid, they invested heavily, they reorganized with gay abandon, and then a whole bunch of them went bankrupt. But the ones that stayed around ended up — by hook or by crook — with better businesses.

A week or two ago, I interviewed the CEO of a software company that does business in both Europe in the U.S., and he said something similar. Europeans, he said, are "smarter" about buying software than Americans. They stick with the tried-and-true and rely on established contacts and word-of-mouth rather than ad campaigns, while Americans tend to go for whatever the latest, hottest thing is.

Since this CEO ran an old-school firm, Europe had been taking up a greater and greater percentage of its revenue as the Americans went on to hipper products. But post-dot-com-crash, he said, Americans are starting to buy more like Europeans -- that is, more conservatively. That might have been wishful thinking on his part, but the firm is coming back financially, so maybe he's right. It would follow that Americans would be more cautious about tech buying than they were in the 1990s. If CalPundit is right, though, this may mean settling into European levels of productivity growth. Until the next craze comes along, of course, and then we'll be off and running again...

Sunday, January 26, 2003

Let's talk about sex, bay-bee

Louder Fenn comments on the posts by UnSpace and myself about hermaphrodites and Christian sexual morality. His basic point is that he does not believe "compassion trumps moral law." Suffering is part of Christianity, and so we shouldn't change our morals around just to prevent people from suffering.

Rob reponded to this from a Christian theological perspective. Being merely a seeker, I can't speak with authority on these things. But I wanted to respond to a couple of things Louder Fenn said that I think mischaracterized my views.

First, he makes it sounds as if sympathy were the only reason to doubt the rules here -- as he puts it, "you can't let your feelings determine the answer." Actually, though it's true that my emotions are more on the side of the deviants here, I also have an intellectual problem that I tried to spell out in my post. Many Christians, including my pastor, argue that our sexuality was meant to be a certain way because God made us in a certain way. They tend to use Adam and Eve as a paradigm. But that story is, at best, a metaphor, while the evidence from people like hermaphrodites suggests that God did not make everybody according to a single paradigm.

This leads to another objection. Louder Fenn counters Rob's line, "Nature is not confined to simple categories of man and woman," with "That a person may be hermaphroditic does not mean male and female do not really exist -- or, more to the point, that male and female are not insistent categories with moral implications." I don't think anyone implied male and female don't exist. I think for the vast majority of people, the archetypes of maleness and femaleness are real and meaningful. I also said in my post that I can believe that heterosexual monogamy is the healthiest and most moral state for most people. But there are some people out there who don't fit the archetypes, and yet they are imbued with sexual desire just like everyone else. Why did God make them that way? I don't know. I don't know why God made blind people blind either. But we don't generally make a moral issue out of blindness.

I also felt LF overreached when he concluded, "And that some humans are not clearly male or female certainly does not mean males may do whatever they want with males." This is an irritating conflation that happens in these discussions -- somehow we got from gay marriage to "males may do whatever they want with males." I didn't actually discuss gay marriage before (though Rob did), but I think marriage is not "doing whatever you want." As I said in my earlier post, I do think that sex has an explosive power and needs to be handled with great care; and unlike Andrew Sullivan, apparently, I do think it belongs in moral teaching. My problem was with the concept that if you're sexually nonstandard in some way, you can't let yourself have a libido -- no marriage, no fantasizing, no whacking off, no nothing. It is not just that this makes people suffer; it is that you are asking them to fight their nature. It seems perilously close to saying God messed up in making them, so they have to make up the difference.
Why I like this town

It's been an unusually warm winter even for L.A. Today it hit 83 in my neighborhood, and we're just a couple miles from the ocean. I took a walk this evening and went by a house that was having an outdoor Superbowl party. They'd hauled the TV out to the patio, set up a bunch of deck chairs and invited about 20 friends over. People were watching, chatting, going indoors to get beer, even shooting hoops nearby. I imagine there are few other places in America where a Superbowl party looks so much like a Fourth of July fest. What a place!
Do for the other

I'd been thinking, even before I started going to church last fall, that I wanted to do some charity work. I've never been good about that, and it was bothering my conscience. I'd always felt that I didn't have money to spare, and I still don't; but I do have a lot of extra time. The question was, what should I do? How do I find who to volunteer for?

Once I became a regular at Christian Assembly it occurred to me that they must have something going on, and indeed they do. Yesterday morning I got up and went to a monthly event they do at a housing project in Watts. At the end of the month people's welfare checks are running out, and some are going hungry. So the CA volunteers go around to various local markets and pick up their surplus goods, take it to the parking lot of an associated Watts church, and give it away to whoever comes.

The food had already been picked up the day before, so I spent the morning helping prepare it for giveaway. I and a few other people were going through these huge bags of beans and rice, scooping out portions into plastic produce bags and tying them up. One of the people helping with that task I recognized as an usher I had spoken to the first time I ever went to CA, back in October. It was a Saturday night service -- the Saturday before I started this blog, in fact. (It was a week for starting things, I suppose.) I knew of the church because I'd been corresponding with Telford, and thought someday I might check it out. But that night I was lonely and depressed and felt I couldn't stand my own company anymore, so without telling him or anyone else, I went. The service actually didn't help me much -- I left feeling, if anything, even more depressed. But I remember before I left I gave that usher what was probably one of the oddest conversation starters she's ever experienced.

"I haven't been here before, but I have a friend who goes here," I said. "But I don't know what he looks like."

I had, at that point, never seen Telford; and neither had she. It was strange to think of that, and how much had changed. Here just barely more than three months later, I was shoveling rice in Watts. Who would have thought it?

It was also hard not to think of Jeanne d'Arc's post about her own childhood experience with a Christian charity involved in a similar activity. I was worried the Watts residents might look at us like that, since the CA denizens are, to a large extent, the kind of shiny-happy evangelicals that can be so irritating in that way.

Fortunately, I think the situation was a little better here. People came to us voluntarily, so there wasn't the sort of invasiveness that Jeanne described. What was also cool was that a lot of people who came to help us set up were actually there for food themselves -- they wanted to contribute something even though they had far less than I do. It could make communication a bit cumbersome because some of them didn't speak English -- despite Watts' reputation as a black neighborhood, and the fact that the church we were at was black, most of the people we gave food to were Latino. The inter-ethnic nature of the effort was one of the better things about it.

In a way, what we were doing was a small thing. I could imagine people from both left and right criticizing this -- from the left because it entailed no change in unjust social structures, from the right because we just handed stuff out without trying to sort out who was deserving. But the project is just a few years old, and you have to start somewhere. I do not know of any society that's arranged itself in such a way as to eliminate poverty. Sometimes the most you can do is say, if there are hungry people today, feed them.