To one who holds to John Paul’s Christian understanding of the body, and so believes that each human being, from the very first moment of existence, emerges from and is called towards eternity, there are no negotiable or even very perplexing issues regarding our moral obligations before the mystery of life. Not only is every abortion performed an act of murder, but so is the destruction of every “superfluous” embryo created in fertility clinics or every embryo produced for the purposes of embryonic stem cell research ... Even if, say, research on embryonic stem cells could produce therapies that would heal the lame, or reverse senility, or repair a damaged brain, or prolong life, this would in no measure alter the moral calculus of the situation: human life is an infinite good, never an instrumental resource; human life is possessed of an absolute sanctity, and no benefit (real or supposed) can justify its destruction.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Saturday, February 19, 2011
It may seem like a trivial question, but I cannot help wondering whether the title of this book [All Things Shining] has been lifted from the closing lines of Terrence Malick’s 1998 film adaptation of The Thin Red Line. It would make a kind of sense, given the themes of Malick’s films, and Malick’s Heideggerean background, and the way Heidegger seems to haunt this text like a genial specter. If so, then it seems to me that Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly might have done well to learn a few lessons from Malick—and from his mesmerizingly beautiful pagan-Christian-gnostic peregrinations—about the nature of the human longing for the divine, about its terrible ambiguity and urgency, and about its openness to both nature and grace. Because, in the end, All Things Shining is an oddly empty book: It asks so many seemingly deep questions, and then provides such incandescently shallow answers.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
This is a pretty interesting exchange between Russell Blackford and Sam Harris on the topic of Harris' new book 'The Moral Landscape'--in which Harris argues that science can determine human values. Harris recognizes that he is in an extreme minority on this issue. Almost all religious people would disagree, and the vast majority of secular scientific-minded types would also disagree, he acknowledges. But he claims that morality is essentially the 'science of human flourishing' or well-being, and since science can determine certain activities are worse for human flourishing than others (via sociology, economics, neurobiology etc.), it can therefore determine human values. That is the central argument of the book.
Harris wrote a piece responding to critics in general, but focused on Blackford since he felt he was the most thorough and insightful. Harris' response is thorough in that he doesn't really evade Blackford's points, but his responses either completely miss the point, or dismiss a point as insignificant, when it isn't.
For example, in response to the central critique of the argument of the book--that Harris presupposes, rather than demonstrates, that 'human flourishing' or 'well-being' is an ultimate good while human misery is evil--Harris essentially says "well, yeah, I did that, but I'm allowed to do that, and must do that. There's nothing wrong with that presupposition." Yes you're allowed to, but the point of Blackford, and all the critics of the argument, is that it's the philosophical presupposition that is determining the value NOT science. Science can only (in theory, anyway) let us know the best way to achieve our ends, once we have determined our values. Harris seems to completely miss the point, or not understand it. He even says "The fatal flaw that Blackford claims to have found in my view of morality could just as well be located in science as a whole -- or reason generally." -- Which is of course true, and science and reason are subject to the same critique. But science and reason, as abstract entities, didn't falsely claim that they could determine moral values, Sam Harris did. Harris seems oblivious to what his own argument even is, namely that science can determine human values, and the fact that his critic just demonstrated this to be false and Harris just conceded that it was false!
Also, his analogy to health does nothing to advance his case because, similarly, the objective knowledge about how best to be healthy is not the same as saying we must value health primarily, ultimately, or at all. The knowledge of how to be healthy doesn't demand ascent as to the value of our health. Some think it's very important, some think it's pretty important, some think it's mildly important, some don't think it's important. Science can not evaluate these opinions, it can only say "health is important if you want to live a long time" for example, but that isn't 'determining a value', it's evaluating a value that is already given. If I value 5 cheeseburgers a day, video games and a short lifespan over a healthy diet, exercise and a long lifespan, science can say nothing about this health value system of mine.
Anyways, Harris' response is ultimately pretty terrible and Blackford's review is overly positive, if anything, but good. One other interesting aspect of Harris' response to critics is his complaining that many hadn't read the book (either admittedly, or seemingly). Which is kind of silly when you're out giving hour long lectures at TED about the argument of the book, and doing a huge publicity tour where you lay out your argument thoroughly. People can, in good faith, engage your argument without reading the book. Though they shouldn't label their engagement a 'review' of the book as Deepak Chopra did. But when the foundation of your argument can be gleaned from reading the book jacket, or even just the subtitle, and it's blatantly fallacious, critics shouldn't really be expected to delve much further.
Monday, February 14, 2011
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Anyone who frequents these comment sections, and compares them to everyday conversation, will immediately be struck by the fact that most discourse that takes place there is much more antagonistic, blunt, vile and coarse. This isn't a particularly puzzling phenomenon. When commenting to a group of strangers with complete anonymity many of the social filters that are present in physical interactions with others are stripped away, and our id's are free to spew at will. Without any immediate feedback, or lasting impact, our consciences are set free.
With the invention of Facebook this phenomenon largely dissolves, I have noticed. When your comments and statements can be viewed by your mother, your grandmother, your pastor, your co-worker, your wife and your friends, with your real first and last name, you not only don't have anonymity, you have the exact opposite. Of course Facebook comes equipped with privacy settings, so you could re-produce the anonymity to some degree if you wanted to, but my feeling is that most people don't. And for that reason Facebook's social environment can be sharply contrasted to much of that on the internet, and usually for the better. It reproduces many of the aspects of live physical interaction; what you say can be seen and heard by people that you know well, who know that it's you saying it, and they can have an impact similar to if you had said it aloud to someone. Which is to say it reproduces a semblance of accountability and restraint that are probably healthy things.
Reading Adam Gopnik's piece in this week's New Yorker about the internet in comparison to other revolutions in information and communication made me realize that we probably do tend to exaggerate the extent to which technology affects or defines us, when it is actually always us defining and informing it. However, the medium is also the message, and technology does affect the nature and content of our interactions, to the extent we choose to let it. It seems the people at Facebook don't want to let it do so as much as the rest of the internet does.