Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Friday, January 14, 2005

Knowledge, ethics, and the White House

I know these form an oxymoron in a single heading, but I found this item by David Corn at Capital Games to raise some interesting philosophical issues.

Despite failing to find WMDs, the White House refuses to apologise, back down, or, indeed, say anything meaningful about the matter. Given the amount of money spent on the Iraq war, let alone the British and American casualties.

But I don't usually take a political stance on blogs or newsgroups. So what is the philosophical interest here?

I am interested in the way the White House Spokesman, Scott McClelland is able to use language: Saddam Hussein, he says, was "a very unique threat." Despite no WMDs, or indications he was involved in anything untoward against the US or other nations not in his immediate region, Hussein remained a very unique threat.

That must mean that posing no threat at all is very unique. Verily. Which we all know means "truly". And ethics tells us we have to tell the truth, right? Hence the philosophy...

Monday, January 10, 2005

Are we fascists yet?

Saw this on the talk.origins newsgroup:

From the NY Times (registration req.)
Warning From a Student of Democracy's Collapse


Published: January 6, 2005

FRITZ STERN, a refugee from Hitler's Germany and a leading scholar of
European history, startled several of his listeners when he warned in a
speech about the danger posed in this country by the rise of the
Christian right. In his address in November, just after he received a
prize presented by the German foreign minister, he told his audience
that Hitler saw himself as "the instrument of providence" and fused his
"racial dogma with a Germanic Christianity."

"Some people recognized the moral perils of mixing religion and
politics," he said of prewar Germany, "but many more were seduced by
it. It was the pseudo-religious transfiguration of politics that
largely ensured his success, notably in Protestant areas."

Dr. Stern's speech, given during a ceremony at which he got the prize
from the Leo Baeck Institute, a center focused on German Jewish
history, was certainly provocative. The fascism of Nazi Germany belongs
to a world so horrendous it often seems to defy the possibility of
repetition or analogy. But Dr. Stern, 78, the author of books like "The
Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic
Ideology" and university professor emeritus at Columbia University, has
devoted a lifetime to analyzing how the Nazi barbarity became possible.
He stops short of calling the Christian right fascist but his decision
to draw parallels, especially in the uses of propaganda, was

"When I saw the speech my eyes lit up," said John R. MacArthur, whose
book "Second Front" examines wartime propaganda. "The comparison
between the propagandistic manipulation and uses of Christianity, then
and now, is hidden in plain sight. No one will talk about it. No one
wants to look at it."

"Many of my classmates found the organized party experience, which
included a heavy dose of flag waving and talk of national strength,
very exhilarating," said Dr. Stern, who lost an aunt and an uncle in
the Holocaust. "It was something I never forgot."

"There was a longing in Europe for fascism before the name was ever
invented," he said. "There was a longing for a new authoritarianism
with some kind of religious orientation and above all a greater
communal belongingness. There are some similarities in the mood then
and the mood now, although also significant differences."

He warns of the danger in an open society of "mass manipulation of
public opinion, often mixed with mendacity and forms of intimidation."
He is a passionate defender of liberalism as "manifested in the spirit
of the Enlightenment and the early years of the American republic."

"The radical right and the radical left see liberalism's appeal to
reason and tolerance as the denial of their uniform ideology," he said.
"Every democracy needs a liberal fundament, a Bill of Rights enshrined
in law and spirit, for this alone gives democracy the chance for
self-correction and reform. Without it, the survival of democracy is at
risk. Every genuine conservative knows this."


"The Jews in Central Europe welcomed the Russian Revolution," he said,
"but it ended badly for them. The tacit alliance between the neo-cons
and the Christian right is less easily understood. I can imagine a
similarly disillusioning outcome."

Hey, the Professor is doing the Godwinning, not me.
It's fashionable in some circles to call anything one doesn't like fascism, to the point where even mentioning fascism or comparing anyone to Nazis is regarded as having ended the discussion on Usenet, a rule known as Godwin's Law.

However, there are legitimate cases of this, despite it being cheapened as a tactic by abuse of the left. One is when the world is indeed doing something similar to what happened in Europe in the 1930s. Did you think it was a one-off aberration? This is something humans do, again, and again.

George Santayana, an American philosopher recalled largely only for this comment, although he did a lot more besides, once said,
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
We seem to be so condemned, if only because we fail to generalise. We think that the danger comes from the trappings and appurtenances of Nazism, as found in Neo-Nazi movements or Christian Reconstructionism. But the danger is wider than that - it lies in the closing of society to variation. In the dangers of jingoistic patriotism that finds freedom itself dangerous. It lies in looking for a decisive leader, rather than a thoughtful one.

Damn. Comments lost due to trackback

Folks, I appear to have lost all comments, for which I apologise, because I inserted the Haloscan trackback and commenting system, and it lost what was already there.

Is Creationism a postmodernism?

John Wendt asks if creationism is a postmodernism. This is not an easy question to answer in part because the nature of postmodernisms is to evade definition. But creationism is definitely an anti-modernism - it fears the modern world. As such it is in the same intellectual class as the Taliban form of Islam, Luddism, and any view of the world that rejects change qua change.

However, what is "modernism"? It was, so far as I can see, never more than, an architectural or esthetic style. Sure, modernist style spilled out into the arts, urban design, and so forth, and was founded on a naive progressivism, but it was not a full philosophical statement of the modern world or of science. Postmodernism began, I suppose, on the assumption that buildings and styles need to be livable. It very quickly became, to my eyes, a sheltered workshop for intellectuals who did not want to engage science.

What is postmodernism that we must discuss it? Is it anything that quotes Derrida? Can we quote Foucault? I have a lot of time for Foucault, at least his early stuff like The Order of Things - but the problem with postmodern style is not the interminable terminology, making it so hard to see what the point is and so easy to parody as Alan Sokal did. The problem is one of validation.

Back when I was a theology student, I studied existentialism in some detail, a philosophical precursor to postmodernism. I recall thinking then that existentialism was like painting trees. Some painted austere oaks, like Nietzsche. Some painted baroque forests, like Kierkegaard. Some painted dead trees and called them noble, like Sartre. Some had birds, some had vultures and some were empty of life or leaves.

Each of them was a work of art. But I was left unable to decide, on the basis of what they painted, if I could find shade underneath these trees, or better, climb them to see where I was. In fact, I was not sure if those trees or anything remotely like them existed.

The purpose of art, I suppose, is not to paint things as they are, but as they ought to be, esthetically. But the purpose of philosophy is to show things as they are and suggest a way to deal with them. So I very early on turned to analytic philosophy, as a way to test the often outlandish claims made by that style of philosophical art.

Of course, for a long time analytic philosophy was the analysis of ordinary language and concepts, as if refining confusion and folk science would lead us anywhere. So I turned rapidly to the analysis of science, which at least had the virtue of actually testing claims about trees. Hence my shift to the philosophy of science, and in particular of biology.

And that brings us back, full circle, to creationism. They fear the modern because the modern is not what they automatically believe. It takes work to learn the modern, and effort to divest oneself of the naive epistemology of our heritage as apes. We did not evolve to apprehend reality; we evolved to apprehend our fellows and that much of reality we needed to deal with to live. So challenges to our basic human nature (yes, Virginia, there is a human nature, of sorts) elicit a savage reaction from some.

And it is not that they are savage because they are dumb, or because they are reacting to social Darwinism or whatever. They react to the difference between what we naively believe and what science has developed. Some proportion of any human population will fear that change, just as a matter of statistical distributions of traits.

This leads to an interesting conclusion - science is a way of overcoming our primate biases and limitations. How can it do this, if it is run by primate brains? Darwin wondered this about the existence of God - could a modified monkey brain draw sensible conclusions? Can it about anything?

The point is that science is more than modified monkey brains. It is more like a distributed computing system that uses a portion of the connected nodes' capacity for its own tasks, and which delivers an output far greater than any single node is capable of producing. While humans are scientists, nodes in the scientific process, the process itself is not encompassed by a single individual, nor is it irrevocably biased by the biases of its nodes. Science exceeds individuals.

Creationists, and anti-science advocates of any kind, fail to appreciate this. To them, science is some corpus of beliefs that an individual has to accept, the way one has to accept the tenets of capitalism or the religion of humanism or whatever is their bĂȘte noir. They do not see that one can be a node in the scientific enterprise even if they do not share any beliefs with their fellows, so long as they treat evidence and inference the same way. One cannot do theology unless one accepts the core beliefs of that discipline. One can do science no matter what one believes.

So the paintings of science are done with a camera obscura, which, despite its name, fairly represents the trees one is sketching and limits the biases of the painter. And moreover it can be corrected later, if mistakes are made. In postmodern and anti-modern philosophies, it is not even possible to make a mistake. There's just the painting...

Some links on postmodernism: