Thursday, August 23, 2012

Richard Dawkins: Biblical Scholar

In a recent interview with Playboy, the world's most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, answered a few questions. Couched among the dross of the merely banal or lame was this gem of absurdity:

DAWKINS: The evidence [Jesus] existed is surprisingly shaky. The earliest books in the New Testament to be written were the Epistles, not the Gospels. It’s almost as though Saint Paul and others who wrote the Epistles weren’t that interested in whether Jesus was real. Even if he’s fictional, whoever wrote his lines was ahead of his time in terms of moral philosophy.
PLAYBOY: You’ve read the Bible.
DAWKINS: I haven’t read it all, but my knowledge of the Bible is a lot better than most fundamentalist Christians.

Let's pass over the breathtaking hubris of declaring one's self sufficiently knowledgeable of a book that one hasn't even read in its entirety in withering silence. Well, not in silence.

On one level, it's flatly absurd to suggest that Paul "wasn't interested" in whether Jesus existed -- as somehow evidenced by the Epistles being written before the Gospels -- since Paul's entire ministry is founded on the reality of Christ's life, death, and resurrection, as anyone who has read Paul attentively knows. Everything Paul teaches hinges on this. Over at Uncommon Descent they have an effective little riposte to Dawkins on this count.

On another level, Dawkins is intuiting something true, but not what he thinks. Namely that Paul isn't greatly concerned about proving Jesus' existence because it wasn't in question. Neither in his own mind nor in that of the churches he was writing to. Paul didn't know he was writing something that would come to be called "the New Testament", which would be a document modern inquirers, millenia in the future, would use to examine the "truth" of Jesus' existence -- a truth he took for granted, as did all of his hearers. He was preaching and expounding on who Jesus was, the true nature of the Faith, calling out the errors of misguided followers of Jesus, spreading the Gospel, pastoring Christ's flock etc. Contrary to what Dawkins seems to think, it's not at all surprising that this would be the first order of apostolic business, rather than documenting the narrative of Christ's life which was everywhere around in oral form or in first-hand experiences.

These are exactly the conditions we would expect to be present if there was no question about Jesus' existence because it was taken as a given. How would it come to be taken as a given so widely, so assuredly, and so quickly unless -- at the very least -- Jesus existed?  Of course, even to this day in virtually all serious first-century historical and Biblical scholarship -- even that of a strongly secular bent -- Jesus' existence still isn't questioned -- as it wasn't in the first century -- precisely because such a theory doesn't comport with reason and the evidence at all. You know, reason and evidence, those things that Dawkins follows unwaveringly, wherever they may lead.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

On Todd Akin, 'Facts', and Demagoguery

Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for Senate in the state of Missouri, recently made some controversial statements. When asked about his stance on opposing abortion, even in cases of rape, he responded with the following:

“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

As you might imagine, Akin has caught serious heat over the comments. It's predictable that he would catch flack from the media and Democratic politicians, but in the wake of the comments Akin has faced almost as much criticism from the Right, many of whom -- from Michelle Malkin to Jonah Goldberg to Ann Coulter to Mitt Romney -- are calling for him to step down. It's an open question what portion of the reaction from the Right is motivated by a genuine concern over Akin's fitness for office, and what amount is naked political calculation, though I suspect the vast majority of it is the latter.

I have a couple motivations for weighing in here: 1) The event is causing significant inter-conservative turmoil and friction in a way I haven't seen in quite a while, which I would like to attempt to soothe somewhat. 2) The large amount of unscientific pedantry and demagoguery being thrown Akin's way needs a riposte, and I don't see anyone else offering it.

There seem to be three elements of the issue worth discussing, and since they are being flagrantly conflated and confused by many, let me make some clear demarcations. There's the policy dimension i.e. Akin's proposal for no legal exceptions for rape in hypothetical anti-abortion legislation. There's the substance of his defense of his policy position. And lastly, there's the way he has gone about phrasing and framing his defense, and the tone that he's done it in. Of course, these all overlap and intersect to some degree (which I will also discuss), but too often one is addressing one aspect or the other, while another person is thinking about it on a different level, causing confusion.


While Akin's policy prescription is obviously scandalous to anyone on the Left, we can effectively bracket out their concerns because they don't merely object to the absence of an exception for abortion in cases of rape, they object to not having on-demand abortion for anyone, anywhere, any time and for any reason. Their objections are thus moot.

However, on this matter, even within the pro-life movement there is a diversity of opinion. Some support exceptions for rape and incest, others do not, and both have defensible, respectable cases for their position. And because we support a federalist solution to the problem, after Roe is hypothetically overturned, returning the issue to the states, we can accommodate a diversity of views on this side issue. Some states could draft anti-abortion legislation without exceptions for rape, and others could include exceptions. Therefore, Republicans and conservatives generally tolerate honest dissent on this secondary matter, while still remaining united on the primary issue of the 99% of abortions that aren't due to rape.

On Akin's policy stance, whatever division exists is easily accommodated in the conservative, Republican framework, and of course those on the Left hate it the same way they hate any restrictions on abortion. So the policy angle can't really be the fundamental issue here.

The Substance of Akin's Defense

This is where the dispute really lies. First, it's worth noting that Akin's most controversial remarks were prefatory, not his actual response to the question about his policy. His actual response to the question is that rapists should be punished for their heinous crime, not children. But since his prefatory remarks are the primary source of controversy, let's look at his claims (we'll get to the wording of his claims in the next section):

  • Rape is sometimes falsely accused (hence "legitimate rape" as opposed to false accusations of rape), or is defined in a way that most would not recognize it as rape (say a 20 year-old and 17 year-old couple having consensual intercourse in a state with an age of consent at 18).
  • Rape pregnancies are rare. This can mean various things, but he probably means both that it's rare absolutely i.e. a tiny fraction of all pregnancies are due to rape, and that pregnancy results from rape less often than it would from ordinary, unprotected, consensual intercourse.
  • There is a biological reaction to rape which affects female physiology and decreases the likelihood of impregnation.

These are his fundamental claims. The first is uncontroversial; it's a fact that rape is sometimes falsely accused, and that some statutory rape laws are written so as to define certain sex acts as 'rape' that many would not consider it to be.

Half of the 2nd bullet point is also uncontroversial. It's a fact that rape takes place much less often than consensual sex, and that pregnancy from rape is itself rare, absolutely. However, if he meant that the frequency of pregnancy-cum-rape is rare compared to the frequency it occurs in consensual sex, per sex act, then the claim becomes controversial.

A much-cited 1996 study suggests that it isn't significantly more rare, in the latter sense. Though there are questions about the legitimacy of the conclusions of that study, as well as other factors that need to be considered, such as the fact that consensual sex has the feature of allowing for partners to practice pregnancy-prevention; rape has no such feature. Or that only 11.7% of the victims sought immediate medical attention, which leaves open a significant possibility of false allegations (or diagnoses) of rape. In any case, his use of 'rare' is certainly defensible and in no sense demonstrably false. Even on the study's chosen terms of per-sex-act rape-pregnancy of those raped who are age 12-47, 5% is still compatible with the descriptor 'rare'.

The amorphous character of these numbers -- and thus their meaninglessness -- is illustrated in contradictions between studies. Another article at Scientific American is being cited by some, purporting to be a corrective to Akin. In that article they cite DOJ statistics stating that "in 2004-2005, 64,080 women were raped." In the aforementioned 1996 survey, they put the number of rape pregnancies at 32,000 a year. Some quick math seems to suggest that in 2004-2005, 100% of women who got raped got pregnant from it. Given the manifold complications in studying the topic, such contradictions are not entirely inexplicable -- aforementioned ones, reported versus unreported rapes, forcible rape versus statutory rape, false allegations of rape etc. -- but then don't run around waving the sheets of statistics in your hand, claiming to have disproved Akin. You haven't.

The third bullet point is the real sticking point. If there is such a biological mechanism, it hasn't yet been identified clearly (although there are at least viable candidates). However, a biological mechanism has been identified that links increases in stress to a decrease in fertility. One need only make an inference to rape increasing stress and anxiety in order to link rape to a decrease female fertility. And given research on that topic, that seems a very reasonable inference. Not that this means that Akin is clearly, unquestionably correct in this aspect of his remarks, but he isn't obviously wrong either, contra the seething mass of demagogues. 

The Framing of His Defense

No one questions this aspect of the critique of Akin. By just about everyone's reckoning, he screwed up badly here and on multiple levels. There are times to point out that certain charges of rape are illegitimate, but not here, not now, and not in this way. His use of "legitimate rape" wording was a big mistake. Further, his claim that the female body has something to "shut the whole thing down" is misleading and poorly worded, even if he is right. If there's any truth to the claim, it's that the stress and anxiety produced from a rape causes certain hormones that hinder reproduction to start producing excessively, and decrease the rate of conception by some factor. If you're going to get into that issue -- which is itself a bad political decision -- then at least be able to phrase your position in a more accurate, intelligent manner.

And, as a politician, he should have gone out of his way to cushion his remarks with disclaiming statements of care. Such as noting that some pregnancies do occur from rape (however rarely), and that such victims need care, and how he supports groups which offer victimized women alternatives and counseling. Or at least something along these lines. He spoke about rape and abortion and only really spoke about the rapist and the conceived child! Mostly treating the woman dismissively as a nonentity or an intermediary. This is quite careless and offensive, and definitely deserves criticism. He must make the point that, though there are competing interests, especially those of the victim, he still concludes that the life of the child supersede those interests.

He could have made substantially the same point in a different manner without giving anyone a legitimate reason to rebuke him, but on this level he failed utterly.

The Response

But enough about Akin. The response to his remark is much more interesting to me. On the Left, there has been predictable reaction: straw-manning Akin's argument (claiming Akin claimed rape can't cause pregnancy, which he never did); boiler-plate vitriolic hysteria; confused or disingenuous outrage; 'scientific' demagoguery. You know the drill.

On the Right, as I've noted above, there exists division. While many movement conservatives are pragmatically concerned about the gravity of this election cycle and thus want him to step down, others think that defending him -- to the extent possible -- is a matter of principle, either on the substance of the matter itself or in solidarity with our brothers in arms. While I'm obviously defending him, my sympathies are torn by these two completely legitimate concerns. What we absolutely should not do -- which a disturbing number of conservatives are doing -- is pile on, in one voice with the Left, denouncing Akin as ignorant or 'wrong'. Sure, criticize him for his carelessness, his callousness, or his failure as a politician. And if that carelessness seems likely to cost us a Senate seat, then advocate for him to step down, but don't pretend it was anything more than a gaffe.

The most obnoxious of all the responses have to be the pedants looking to 'fact-check' or 'refute' Akin's claims (such as The Atlantic and i09 pieces linked above). The only empirical or quasi-empirical claims he made are that A) rape pregnancies are rare (true) and B) that female biology makes conception less likely in rape victims by some degree (not demonstrably true, but not demonstrably false). If you read his statements in a manner that best suits your argument -- such as reading 'rare' to mean 'comparatively rare per sex act', rather than 'absolutely rare' -- then don't complain when I point out that there is nothing necessary about reading his comments in such a manner or that, even if you do, he still isn't necessarily wrong.

Generally, the response has been disappointingly emotional and reactionary across a wide swath of responders. What is there to get so upset about? It was already known that Republicans are Pro-life, so no novel developments on that count. It was similarly known that many Republicans oppose rape exceptions in theoretical abortion law, on coherent, morally serious grounds. Again, not news. The fact that a politician bungled a question, made dubious (but not false) empirical claims, and his indelicate and flippant response came off as calloused toward women? Fair game, but it's a back-page story at best. A politician's error is costing one party a likely Senate seat in a vitally important election year, and the other party is using it, not only to possibly win that particular Senate race, but as a tool to paint Republicans in general as anti-scientific, anti-woman, etc. and leverage this caricature for broad political advantage? Aha, now this is worth getting worked-up over, for those on all sides. And as long as we see it clearly for what it is, it's not a problem. Let's just be sure to harshly condemn those elements diabolically pretending it's about something else.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

On Godwin's Law

If you frequent online message boards or social media, you may have encountered something known as Godwin's Law. The 'Law' officially states that 'As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.' This aspect of the 'Law' is pretty uncontroversial, but in practice the 'Law' is invoked in some circles any time a comparison to Hitler or Nazi Germany is made -- many of which are legitimate -- with the invoker of the Law claiming that the invoker of Hitler has lost simply by making the comparison. Godwin himself says that this is not the intent of the law, and admits that such a move is often fallacious. Rather his intent in formulating such a 'Law' is to get "folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust." In other words, he wants to discourage lightly making such serious comparisons when they often are not appropriate and to foster an environment where such analogies are made much less regularly.

The problem -- with both over-eager Godwin's-Law-invokers and Godwin's goal itself -- is that the seeming surfeit of Hitler and Nazi analogies in the marketplace of ideas are not purely a product of a general lack of circumspection about the gravity of the Holocaust (though some of that exists), but are very often an appropriate, necessary feature of rational thought. And not only within the narrow band of exceptions explicitly carved out by Godwin for comparing similarly genocidal or totalitarian actions to the Nazis.

The Most Extreme X, for any given category or subject, is always a useful referent for the logician. Any time someone makes categorical or absolute claims about any subject, appealing to The Most Extreme X within that field can often immediately refute their claim. For example, if someone says "It is never morally permissible to lie", the most popular refutation by way of anecdote appeals to the Most Extreme Circumstance in the field of morally permissible lying, and it's almost always the case of hiding Jews in your house with Nazi SS at the door interrogating you. This is a completely legitimate and logical move, and its intent isn't to tar anyone with guilt by association. So the fact that this example is invoked over and over again is a good thing, contrary to Godwin's desire to see the use of such analogies decrease.

And this isn't the only situation where such a move is called for and appropriate. The examples are virtually innumerable. Consider someone making a defense of democracy as an inherent good, without qualification. Once again, the rigorous logician is immediately compelled to point out that Hitler rose to power via democratic institutions of government. And again, this sort of move is nothing like the glib, dismissive sort of analogy where someone compares one person who did something mildly bad to Hitler, who also did something bad. Yet the Godwin-Law-invokers will pipe up with their facile objections just the same.

Godwin's Law isn't an actual law, of course, and it was formulated in an at least partially frivolous and sarcastic way, so a serious response to the phenomenon on my behalf may seem disproportionate or silly. But it really does injure legitimate discourse and gives shelter to faulty, irrational dogmas, if it is taken even semi-seriously, which it often is.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Abolished Man

After watching this excellent lecture on Biblical eschatology by Father Thomas Hopko, in which he declares that The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis is the best book of the last century at least, I decided to re-read it. It's a short volume of reflections on the state of modern man and the consequences of an utterly reductionistic dismantling of everything fundamentally human, from values to reason. Lewis' musings are highly relevant in our increasingly postmodern culture, and his decrying of "innovators" and "Conditioners" brings to mind various public figures in academia and politics.

The one that most clearly sprung to mind for me is Sam Harris, and especially his book The Moral Landscape. Harris is a perfectly distilled example of the naivete and folly that Lewis describes. Harris -- as with many modern men -- wants to use reason so as to see through the foundations of reason, and to appeal to some 'value' that is more fundamental than any of those values that we sentimental humans inherit from our forebears. But, as Lewis says:

This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. Therefore never has been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) 'ideologies,' all consist of fragments of the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.
Harris does imagine himself -- or at least the scientific community writ large -- to be capable of just such a feat. But his rather large book -- whose basic premise is that it is possible to derive a system of morality from an empirical investigation of nature and application of reason -- all hinges on a single un-reasoned-for, un-empirical assumption. At the root of Harris' system, the ground basis for it, is that the maximal flourishing and well-being of conscious creatures is desirable and should be pursued, and the the worst possible misery for conscious creatures is undesirable and should be avoided. This is somewhat uncontroversial, in itself, and isn't necessarily a problem provided that one is willing to admit that one is appealing to a principle outside of the bounds of reason or empiricism, to what Lewis refers to as the Tao. But it is precisely this that Harris can never admit, given his worldview as a materialist, and given that his entire project purports to be the unsullied deliverance of disinterested reason and empirical investigation.

At any rate, a systematic debunking of the naive positivism of Harris is beyond the realm of this post and superfluous. But the manner that Lewis lays bare the conceits of such men -- effortlessly navigating and giving felicitous expression to philosophical ideas about the nature of man -- is impressive. Harris is a potent example of such a man, but he's far from unique as such men are now everywhere occupying positions of influence and power. Lewis was perspicacious on this count.

It isn't the love of reason (to the extent that it's present), or the value of skepticism that Lewis is putting on trial, as he recognizes the great value of both. But Lewis knows that the achilles heal of the rigorous, thorough, devout skeptic is all too often, ironically, his insufficient skepticism:

Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people's values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough. And this phenomenon is very usual. A great many of those who 'debunk' traditional or (as they would say) 'sentimental' values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process.
Harris and his ilk don't misstep by appealing to certain First Principles. Indeed, if they wish to reason about morality (or anything else) they can hardly do otherwise, as Lewis clearly sees. It is in denying that they are doing so that they err. But does Harris really believe that there is, or can be, such a thing as a neutral, or assumption-less ground for reason or morality? You would not think such a thing possible for an educated person, but I recently read Harris' short e-book Lying, and a passage in it seems to confirm just that:

Like many of Kant’s philosophical views, his position on lying [that it was wrong in all cases] was not so much argued for as presumed, like a religious precept.
Although this is a dubious reading of Kant, the salient point is that the very notion of First Principles appears to scandalize Harris. As if he had reasoned for his moral system at every juncture, all the way down, including at its starting point, rather than presuming that flourishing is desirable and misery is undesirable "like a religious precept." His skepticism is sufficient to question Kant and his First Principles, but apparently such skepticism is inapplicable to Sam Harris and his.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Opposing Gay Marriage is Loving

Having been inspired by Leroy Huizenga's recent piece at First Things, titled Opposing Gay Marriage is Rational, Not Religious, I want to contribute something along that same trajectory.

Proponents of gay marriage (or, more accurately, opponents of traditional marriage) often claim that there can be no rational argument against gay "marriage". Hence, Huizenga's volley (as well as those of others such as Francis Beckwith and Robert P. George) is significant and relevant. Opponents of traditional marriage also very often lay claim to a monopoly on love and compassion on this issue. Even though they themselves may not be gay, they so deeply and intensely care for the "rights" of others that they take a stand for gay "marriage". So, not only do they have a monopoly on moral reasoning, they also have a monopoly on compassion and empathy.

But just as opponents of traditional marriage don't actually have a monopoly on reason, despite their claims, neither do they have a monopoly on loving, compassionate other-centeredness. Indeed, the group who stands to be most directly, adversely affected by gay "marriage" is gay people themselves and so it is an act of Christian charity and love to oppose gay "marriage". And, conversely, those who are adamant about their moral support of their gay brethren are actually showing flagrant disregard for their well-being.

Before I defend the claim that gays stand to lose the most in legalizing gay "marriage", and that it's an act of love toward the LGBT community to oppose it, let me first clarify that just because this is at bottom a loving act, that doesn't mean it will always be undertaken in a loving way. Sacrificially serving others is also fundamentally an act of love, but if it's done begrudgingly or with a spiteful heart then the love is lost. Similarly, if the act of opposing gay marriage is done with a haughty or selfish heart, then the loving character of the act disappears. I have no intention of defending Christians who speak the ostensible truth but fail to do so in love, because Jesus says that they are anathema (essentially). My argument is against those who say that it's not possible to speak the truth in love -- that is, those actively supporting gay marriage in the public square, while denouncing the opposition as necessarily bigoted or hateful or irrational -- because that is also an affront to God.

Those who object to my argument would undoubtedly throw anecdotes my way of un-Christian non-love that have taken place in this battle (some real and most fiction), but I'm preemptively halting any such objections because the topic at hand is the nature of the act itself, at root, which is distinct from the question of how the act is being carried out. Though I will also say that, while there are obviously many ways Christians can go about their defense of traditional marriage wrongly and unlovingly, the vast majority of wrongs that are attributed to Christians on this issue aren't actually wrongs at all. Such as standing up for their beliefs by eating at Chick Fil-A and taking pictures of it, which is a perfectly legitimate, loving action. Beckwith makes that last point most clearly and strongly, arguing that it is absolutely an act of love between brothers in Christ and completely Christ-like. But my argument (which shall now commence) goes a step further and claims that it's also an act of love toward the LGBT community itself.

It's a simple observation, but the only proper telos for human sexuality, as created by God, is within the covenant of marriage, which appears throughout the Bible as a heterosexual union at all junctures, without exception. The verses that specifically condemn homosexuality -- which many, on both sides, curiously seem to haggle over quite a bit -- are actually mostly superfluous to the debate as the positive Biblical vision of marriage -- what it is, represents, entails and means -- necessarily precludes gay "marriage" from ever being a good thing.

Of course, even among Christians -- who should all affirm the preceding paragraph without hesitation -- some will object that they only think it should be a legal right in a free society, not that they are affirming gay marriages as good. It is only the right to do whatever we want that is good! While this is a highly dubious move -- dependent as it is on a vision of The Good which Christians are under no obligation to acknowledge or recognize, and which is actually heretical -- even if we grant it for sake of argument, it still doesn't address whether the act of legalizing something which affirms someone in their sin is helpful or harmful to that person. The Christian who cleaves to this position -- who holds that gay "marriage" is an affront to God's vision of marriage, but that it should still be legal -- is in favor of society not only tolerating sin, but affirming it positively. That Christian is helping the sinner to sin, shepherding them toward death, coaxing them along the path to damnation, and claiming that it is worth the trade because, hey, at least they can affirm the secular, liberal state's understanding of "freedom" along the way. This is obviously an untenable position.

Conversely, when we use the instrument of the modern state to reflect God's Law, the law becomes a signpost to the Law, and it performs the same function as signpost. Namely: it shows us our radical fallenness and need for radical Grace. While Grace has arrived, Law is still a perpetual movement in the story of God's love, and it's our duty as expositors of that story to not leave it out in the name of some bland "tolerance". Hence, when we refuse to leave it out -- such as when we oppose gay marriage -- we are loving our neighbors to the utmost.

What about those Christians who don't believe that gay "marriage" is an affront to God's vision of marriage? They speak manifest nonsense, rubbish, and gibberish, and in so doing slander the divine. Anathematize accordingly.