Friday, February 27, 2009

Brief Update on ID in Florida

A Tampa radio station has taken up a line on State Senator Stephen Wise's bill on Intelligent Design, which he hopes to raise when the Florida Senate meets in March. Scientists have stood up against them, and good on them! Wise is highly influenced by Ben Stein's Expelled. Listen to the last half of the radio segment on the bill. Senator Wise has exposed himself as having literally no understanding of evolution whatsoever. "I've always liked the story the, the person says 'we came from monkeys...we came from apes.' Well, why do we still have apes if we came from them?"

FAIL, Senator Wise. FAIL.


Monday, February 23, 2009

I hate Oprah

Here's why.

P.S. Sorry I've been MIA lately. I am figuring out where I am going to live next year. I am also working on a couple of papers/projects. One is on the notion of the "burdens of judgment" in Rawls's political theory. (Actually, that might generate some fruitful content for this blog.) The other is my M.A. thesis on Kant's ethics.

P.P.S. God still does not exist.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

Florida Intelligent Design Bill

A State Senator from Florida, Stephen Wise, has introduced a bill that will require the teaching of intelligent design in biology classes. Note, thus far, the language of the bill seems to be not allowing the teaching of ID, or suggesting it, but actually requiring it. Now, I and others have argued before that this is essentially the same as requiring the teaching of astrology in astronomy classes, or teaching tarot card or I Ching readings in a psychology or economics class. It just doesn't make any sense and there's no evidence for it, but still we have people who want to use the court systems to get their ideological views enforced. Much like various religious groups and the passage of Proposition 8 in California - not content to wrestle with their ideas in the public arena, they want to see enforcement of their views from the legal arena. It's sneaky, underhanded, and manipulative.

Let me offer you this question - are high school students competent to decide whether evolution or intelligent design is "true?" I would argue no. This is not to denigrate the intelligence of high school students, I've known some of them to be quite bright. The problem is that they do not have the experience and education to intelligently decide on these. Do we teach the various schools of interpretation of quantum mechanics to high school students and "let them decide?" (Do we even teach quantum mechanics in high school?) Do we teach high school students about every religion out there and "let them decide?" Do we teach them various economic views and let them decide, and set our policies to their decisions? Do we teach them ethical theories and let their decisions on which seem right guide our laws? Would we be in a better place if we did? I'm not entirely sure on those, but, I would still argue that in all these situations, these kids simply don't have the background or experience to make informed decisions on these matters. It is not up to high school students, or state senators, for that matter, to determine the "truth" of any of these theories, it is up to the evidence at hand. And thus far, the evidence is fully in support of evolutionary theory and on modern astronomy, not intelligent design and astrology. On interpretations of quantum mechanics and ethical theories, I will fully say I am not qualified, and I do not think there is enough evidence yet, to really say which one has won out. The other problem is that the ID argument is actually an attempt to completely tear down the very basis of scientific inquiry itself. It is an attack against the fundamentals of a system or method of inquiry which has given us the modern world which we take for granted today, including the ability for me and my ID opponents to post their opinions on web pages that anyone in the world can view and criticize. Are things perfect? No. No they are not, but we're doing the best we can. This is my earth, my country, my home, my body, and my brain...they aren't perfect, but they're fine, and I'm doing the best I can to improve them. Is that horribly oversimplified and cliched? Oh, definitely.

Lastly, this story reminds me a thought experience Carl Sagan used - the Dragon in My Garage. I'll reproduce it here, just to give you the flavor of it:

"'A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage'

Suppose (I'm following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

'Show me,' you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle -- but no dragon.

'Where's the dragon?' you ask.

'Oh, she's right here,' I reply, waving vaguely. 'I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon.'

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.

'Good idea,' I say, 'but this dragon floats in the air.'

Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

'Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.'

You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

'Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick.' And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.

Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so. The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human fallibility. Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don't outright reject the notion that there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you're prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative -- merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of "not proved."

Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons -- to say nothing about invisible ones -- you must now acknowledge that there's something here, and that in a preliminary way it's consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

Now another scenario: Suppose it's not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you're pretty sure don't know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages -- but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we're disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I'd rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren't myths at all.

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they're never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself. On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon's fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such "evidence" -- no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it -- is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion."

I want to consider one more scenario - what if everyone believes in their Dragons in their garages, and instead of allowing others to argue that "No, there probably aren't dragons in these garages," or "No, I don't believe in them. When you have evidence, I will change my mind," or "No, the evidence actually argues against that's a more likely hypothesis," the dragon-believers enforce their views through the court systems. No market-place of ideas or debates in which their views would fail, no careful engaging of their non-existent evidence...just, push it through the court system piggy-backing on the general respect and tolerance of dragon-belief that pervades the country. It's a simple strategy. Under-handed and dishonest, but simple.

The battle for reason and evidence as the basis for education, especially science education, is far from over.


Classical Theories of Religion: Ludwig Feuerbach

The first philosopher I'm going to consider as a part of this series is Ludwig Feuerbach. I'll be posting about his book, The Essence of Christianity, first published in 1841.

Parmenodes set a trajectory of thought in motion that ends in German Idealism. The essence of this trajectory was a distinction between a way of being (actuality, deep essence, beyond the senses, infinite, eternal, absolute) and a way of seeing/seeming (sensory perception, historical experience, variety, chaos, diversity, etc.). Plato, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel all lie in this trajectory, though Hegel attempts to reach some resolution of these two with his System (thesis - antithesis -> synthesis).

Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit signals that knowledge comes through the senses, but that which one seeks knowledge of is Spirit - essentially beyond the senses. This invokes an interaction between the absolute and the temporal, such that Spirit works itself out through history in ways that are largely logical, rational, etc. Thus, non-random phenomenon are manifestations of Spirit gradually manifesting itself in a progressive way.

There is a strong political valence to this theory - Spirit aspires toward freedom, and thus history progressively moves toward freedom. Between 1807 and 1821, on the eve of the Napoleonic victory and later, Hegel became a well-known and conservative philosopher. He wanted a state with a wise central monarch and a powerful Parliament. Likewise, there is a strong influence from Christianity. In the Christian Incarnation, the Word becoming Flesh, Hegel saw and expounded on the interaction of Spirit and Humanity.

More below the fold.

Feuerbach was a student of Hegel, a Left Hegelian. The students of Hegel were split into two camps - the Right and the Left. The Right Hegelians favored Hegel's later writings and saw that the "rational is real and the real is rational," and that this is the best of all possible worlds. The Left Hegelians were completely scandalized by this and viewed the present moment as one that would be overcome in the continuing progress of history.

As I said, Feuerbach was a Left (Young) Hegelian, along with Marx and Engels. Interestingly, all of them focused on religion in their early writings. Here's a brief biography of Feuerbach to give you a sense of context for his writings:

(b. 1804, d. 1872): Feuerbach was initially a student of conservative theology, but hated it and went to Berlin to study under Schleiermacher. However, he then shifted to philosophy and studied with Hegel. He published a book, Thoughts on Death and Immortality, anonymously in 1830, arguing that humans are essentially mortal, and that all religious hopes that were built on the afterlife were mere illusions.

When the authorship of the book was discovered, Feuerbach was fired and never hired to another university. He began publishing works on Spinoza, Leibniz, and Bayle. He retired into the backwaters of Germany and worked on The Essence of Christianity, which was published in 1841.

Friedrich Wilhelm III had been a fairly tolerant monarch during this time, and advocated for some personal freedoms. However, he died in 1840, and his reactionary son, Friedrich Wilhelm IV (who ruled from 1840-1861) ascended to the throne and established censorship laws aimed at people like Feuerbach (the story is actually much more complicated than this. Both monarchs were reactionary in some ways and liberal in others. This is an entirely bare-bones account, however, so I'm only going to reference how this touches on Feuerbach). In 1848, revolutionaries in Frankfurt briefly overthrew the monarch and hailed Feuerbach as an inspiration, and elevated him to a high chair on their Council. He gave regular lectures which were generally seen as quite boring.

The Essence of Christianity was a systematic attempt to recode propositions about the divine in references to humans, basically an anthropological reduction. He rejected the primacy of Spirit, that ideal and absolute things are the actual motivating forces of reality, and tried to reconcile religion and modern philosophy. The book was received as a thunderbolt, and profoundly influenced Marx and Engels in their writings.

The argument of the book really begins with a contrast of humans and animals, and it is noted that definitions always draw at least implicit contrasts. Feuerbach largely ignores any distinction between man or animals and the divine or inanimate, which is interesting in itself, and instead sees the essential difference between man and beast as consciousness (by which he means, in part, self-consciousness and consciousness of the infinite). He concludes that consciousness naturally leads to the contemplation of the infinite, that perfect is not simply a subject and an object, but a subject and object and the subject's awareness of subjectivity.

Feuerbach poses the question of whether all conscious experience involve objects perceived by the senses, and he develops one important exception - God/Spirit. What is it that one knows when one thinks they know God? Is knowledge properly constituted? Or are we mistaken in our supposed perception of God?

Feuerbach argues that we can only know the predicates of the divine, those aspects of the deity we can understand through our experience (some past education in philosophy or logic really helps get this point...). For example, when we say "God is just," Feuerbach argues that this statement is not acceptable as a knowledge statement. It is incorrect to divide God into predicates - any of these predicates are separable as nouns, not adjectives, which are separable from God. "God" is still left over, with no clear reason to attach this term to any of these predicates aside from tradition. Basically, this is an argument that things like "justice" or "merciful" or any such predicate is actually it's own separate thing, separable from God, and only tradition causes us to attach these labels to God. The real "essence" of the signifier "God" is actually empty.

He goes on to suggest that we look to human nature of sensuous experience of these qualities, and argues that all these predicates come from human experience and are then later attached, by tradition and indoctrination, to God. Thus, what can we accurately or appropriately say about love, justice, etc.? They are so highly valued by man as to be constituted as divine. Any statement one might make about God should be reversed: "God is just" is more accurately stated as "justice is divine." This turns these statements into something knowable and defensible, rooted in human nature and human experience.

Feuerbach develops an important (though poorly named) concept, Deuteroscopy, or "double-vision." He argues that when humans look at other humans, they seem them as double (basically, mind and body, with all of their usual predicates and oppositions attached - clean vs. unclean, pure vs. dirty, good vs. evil, etc.), and then also think that the phantasmic second is something more than human (the mind must be divine). This second phantom (something separated from human experience and reality) is a sort of optical illusion and gets labeled as God. It is not a pure mirror of the human - the divine doesn't have limits and is elevated with all of the positive qualities in humanity - it is the idealized half of an error of double-vision. Thus, the other half (the merely human, the body, etc), gets short shrift, which for Feuerbach is an act of theft or alienation - the human subject removes from itself its best attributes and infuses them into something else called God. For the human, this means that we denigrate and subordinate ourselves to an imagined superior, and establish a false hierarchy, in which is embedded a sense of dependency, and thus we are always inadequate and defective in comparison. We come to believe that we are guilty and flawed to begin with, and in need of help from above. The human condition is constituted as defective by an act of self-impoverishment, given away to an imaginary extra-human. Thus, we are in need of establishing a salvific experience with an alienated portion of one's own self - we must be redeemed by the portion of ourselves which we alienated and set above our selves, and this is the essential essence of Christianity and its story of salvation.

Basically, Feuerbach's argument about religion is that we have institutionalized a grave error in misrecognizing and inappropriately attributed human's highest qualities to an imagined other. We take human qualities, idealize them, and attribute them to something other than ourselves, thus constituting ourselves as lower and debased, and in need of salvation from "above," which, really is only our own idealized qualities.

The book also deals with an analysis of Creation. Creation accounts, Feuerbach argues, alongside of descriptions of the deity, are constitutive of human consciousness and how humans understand their relationship to the world/nature. He takes into consideration Greek and Hebrew creation narratives and sets them up as opposing camps.

Greek creation accounts allow for science and invention because of its polytheism. Gods are, in some measure, their domains. The deities are the natural world, and the natural world is seen as divine. A deity is assigned to each important piece. The divine does not stand outside or above creation, but is embedded and infused with the natural world. Humanity should understand itself as a piece of the world with awe and reverence and wonder at its fascinating beauty. This inspires art and science. In general, Feuerbach argues, this is a much healthier relation to nature (it is also intriguing to note that many creationists today argue for this view of the deity, that God is somehow infused in the natural world. They seem to forget that this sort of pantheism or panentheism are typically opposed to a transcendent God, and have been considered heresies to Christianity by most groups for their history. Which isn't to say that some Christian groups do not entertain these ideas, but, it is interesting to hear someone argue that God is wholly Other, transcendent and incalculable to human reason, but that God is also infused into every piece of the natural world and the universe is a reflection of him. It doesn't seem to provoke cognitive dissonance in many people, but, having some training as a philosopher, you start to analyze exactly what these people are saying and realize that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.)

In opposition to the Greek creation accounts, Feuerbach considers the Hebrew/Genesis creation account. He sees this arguing that nature is created for the disposable use and domination by humans. God is viewed as outside and above Creation, with humans are above and over everything else with a right to use it how they will. This separates humans from awe and wonder, we are constituted as subjects relating to objects, with the world as an object to us. Here Feuerbach coins a very interesting phrase, "Mann ist was er isst." - "Man is what he eats." He summarizes the Hebrew view as egoism - selfish preoccupations and disinterest in external objects which suffer the consequences of said egoism. He generalizes this from the creation account to the Hebrew Bible, to the Jewish people, to the modern German Jew, to capitalism (and parasitism). Yes, Feuerbach reflects the general sentiment of anti-Semitism that has such a long history in Europe.

Continuing in this generally racist slant, Feuerbach viewed Greek polytheism as a prototype for Aryan/proper German people, and constituted Christianity as an heir to Judaism with two troubling problems:

1) A bad relation to an imaginary divine - humans are viewed as dependent and inadequate. Feuerbach wanted us to save our dignity and realize that we had good qualities that could be put to use by us, in our own time.

2) A bad relation to the natural world - humans are exploitative and uncaring. We now see the natural world as merely so much disposable goods and live as parasites on it. Likewise, we view the divine as above, in control of, and not subject to the natural world, and this reflects for him a general relation between matter and Spirit, which, for Feuerbach, was merely an illusion. Matter and humanity are real, Spirit is a deuteroscopic mistake of belief with highly problematic consequences - humans are compelled to destroy nature (and one another) because their illusion is supposed to (in apocalyptic scenarios), or because their illusion tells them to do so.

Philosophically, Feuerbach argues that all knowledge is sensuous - if there is no sensory information, it is not an object, but a projection/alienation/illusion. Thus, since God/Spirit is not present to our senses, we have no knowledge of it, and it is a projection/illusion. Those inside the religious circles merely recode this as "faith."

So, what is to be done? How do we erase an illusion, and what are the consequences of doing this? Feuerbach wants us to redivinize man - to empty the container of "God" and restore the proper attributes of humanity to their proper locations, in humanity.

Well, that covers it for Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity. The next installment of this series should cover Marx's "Contributions to a Critique" and "Theses on Feuerbach." Any feedback or comments are welcome, and I'll try to answer any questions to the best of my abilities. But, no, I probably won't tell you whether I actually agree with anything Feuerbach wrote about, as that's not what this series is about.


Monday, February 2, 2009

Classical Theories of Religion: A Background

I said a while ago I was going to write a series of posts on classical theories of religion. I've put it off for a while, but I'm going to try to rectify that now. This post will be a brief, general background on the classical theories of religion. So, enjoy, or just skip if you're not interested.

The general goals of a theory is that it aims at a general definition - to generate an abstraction from particular cases or distill a common ground and basis. Likewise, with more modern theories, there is a constant interrogation of general definitions and assumptions.

In terms of religion, we hit an interesting problem at the very beginning. When does "what is religion?" become an askable question? The most general answer to this is that there is a moment in which a cultural encounter allows for comparison. Basically, in the encounter with the Other, one can compare oneself and the distinct Other, and "religion" becomes a category. Now, unfortunately, in a lot of ways, there also developed assumptions about the definition of the category and its characteristics - religion was constituted as good, and established an ethno-centric hierarchy. Thus, there was also the development of the "duty," as the "good, religious people" to bring "religion" to poor, backwards, inferior, subjugated people.

More below the fold...

Interestingly, with Muslims, the category distinction became one of faith and truth, and thus, not a benighted heathen who needs education, but instead a dangerous adversary. The colonial encounters were much less charged than encounters with Muslims, mainly due to power dynamics/gulfs.

Colonial encounters led to very early definitions and categories of religion, but our modern idea of religion and all its multiple forms arose during the Protestant Reformation. For the first time, instead of having cross-cultural encounters, people within the same group divided over religion - Catholic and Protestant.

Of course, the Reformation ended in the 30 Years War, a bad time all around. For the first time in European history, a war about religion was waged among those of the same religion. Religion came to shoulder the blame for the war, regardless of how it spilled out into local political realities. In reaction to this overall disgust, a new regime of truth emerged to contest the churches and faith - The Enlightenment. Reason was made to be the highest virtue; universities, academies, salons, and secret societies were formed; and the culture came to privilege debates and polemics, real questioning, and a multiplicity of opinions and research. Also, this was the first moment in which there was a general refusal to grant the object of study the right to define itself, which has become incredibly important for modern research in all fields.

The Enlightenment was not the end, though. A new reaction appeared - Romanticism, a reaction towards emotion, sentiment, and personal feeling. Romantics took the "local perspective" to be in danger and in need of being saved. They valued the distinctive qualities of a specific people and places. They also felt that the Enlightenment was caught up with modernity and progress, and were throwing out tradition and continuity in the process.

Romantics insisted on the inspired nature of poetry, on sublime contact with something more than oneself. They established a new definition of religion that privileged individual participation. The Enlightenment ran out of steam when it granted religion a sphere of its own, even a private one; as well as when Kant argued (for better or worse) that we can never know of the immortality of the soul or the existence of a deity through reason alone.

There's your basic introduction to the time period that I will be discussing. Most of these theorists will move back and forth across the Enlightenment/Reason and Romanticism/Emotion divide. These categories have stayed with us, and we have switched between them several times. It may be impossible to fully escape these options, though I feel that it's certainly a false dichotomy. Keep all this in mind for future posts. Note, I will not comment on my personal feelings about these theories and theorists, I'm just trying to present some general information.