Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Bush Uncertainty Principle

Watching all the discussion about the TSA, I think it's time to suggest a new natural law for political discussions: The Bush Uncertainty Principle.

The principle states that whether or not a proposed law or act of government is just or unjust, extreme or reasonable, cannot be known if the political party or political identity of whoever is proposing it is also not known.

So, if you don't know whether the decision to mandate body scans and full-body searches in airports was proposed by a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican, you also can't know whether it's a just or unjust decision. However, if you know it was proposed by someone from the opposite political part of you then you know it's unjust. And if they're of your political party, you know it's just.

On the flipside, if you know it's just, you also know it's a decision by someone from your political party. And if unjust, from the opposite party.

So there you have it. The Bush Uncertainty Principle. Later, I'll teach about how you can tell if underage groping or sex was a horrible crime or merely amusing. It involves a complex calculation that factors in whether the underage person was a boy or a girl, whether the molester was a man or a woman, and whether the molester was a priest, teacher, filmmaker or unknown.

This is also called the Bush Uncertainty Principle, but for unrelated reasons.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Species Extinction - Evil to Who?

A few years ago, I heard John Lennox on a radio program, talking with what I assume was an agnostic about his religious beliefs. At one point the interviewer asked, basically, why are only humans saved? What about fish? Trout for instance? Lennox's reply was that trout don't really seem to care about salvation. The host quickly shot back, "If I were a trout I'd want to be saved!"

All I could think is, well, if you had thoughts like that you damn well wouldn't be a trout, now would you?

Now, I'm actually not too decided on the question of animal salvation. For all I know, every blessed thing in the universe is going to be somehow saved and redeemed, living or non. Man's salvation seems clear by Christian teaching, but everything else - aside from God calling it "good" in Genesis - is up in the air. And between Job and the task of us trying to save ourselves even individually, I think we have our hands full. If you believe God exists, it seems entirely proper to at least sometimes say "That's not for me to worry about."

I bring this up because recently I've seen this claim resurface: The idea that the extinction of past species on earth indicates that God doesn't exist, or is evil. What I find odd about this is that it's not a complaint about the individual deaths of the animals, but the collective death - as if the individual death would be A-OK, but the species death is somehow intolerable. But if you accept that the deaths of individual animals is okay, what exactly is the complaint about the deaths of species?

Do the animals (to say nothing of the plants!) themselves care if they go extinct? Contra Lennox's interviewer the answer seems to be no, they really don't. In fact, they seem unable to comprehend the idea of species, much less extinction. Death, perhaps in some cases (and even there, arguable), but again - individual death isn't the issue here.

So who is species extinction a wrong against, if not the constituent members of the species? Some objective moral standard? Possible, but the only ones who could conceivably be making such a claim that ultimately stands, other than the theists themselves, would be the platonists. And I more and more have trouble seeing how platonism, particularly platonism about morality, doesn't land you right back in the theistic court anyway.

Oddly enough, the one answer I've gotten is that species extinction is an evil against humanity. These species no longer exist for us to see and enjoy, therefore an evil has been committed.

First, I wonder how such people would react to the idea that God intends to resurrect animals as well, ultimately. In which case the species are all coming back. Second, I wonder how they'd react to such species evolving again in the future (perhaps evolution is even more convergent than we think), or for humanity to bring them back via DNA cloning or outright design based on their study and remains.

But third, and most importantly, I have to wonder - why is the assumption that every damn species that ever existed somehow was made not only for our sake, but our sake alone? In Genesis, God doesn't wait until humanity is on the scene before saying that what He created is good - it's all good then and there. We're given stewardship over the earth, but it's hard to see everything as being made for man and man alone even biblically. Nor do I see why any species would have to last forever, without temporal interruption, to avoid being 'evil' - much less to positively be 'good'.

In the end all I can ask is, what kind of crazy-ass God are these people imagining when they come up with this stuff? Some kind of strange cross between Willy Wonka and Hitler is all I can come up with.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

But Is It Atheism?

I just read another one of John C. Wright's stories about his atheism days. Splendid reading as ever, and I find a tremendous amount to agree with. Except for the core of his story.

I have trouble accepting that John was an atheist.

Now, I don't mean that John was actually Catholic and never realized it. Nor do I think he secretly believed in God-as-commonly-presented. But the atheism of John C. Wright was an atheism that denied materialism, believed in objective (and seemingly platonic) moral values, duties, formal and final causes, and so on. He was - and I think even he must realize this - miles apart from what is, especially in the past 10-20 years, typically meant by atheism. Maybe he was a pagan of sorts. A pantheist or a panentheist.

But atheist? It just doesn't seem right.

I now and then run into this problem, and here's one way to express it. The thomists argue that God is simple. No ontological parts to speak of. God does not have goodness, God IS goodness, and so on. So if someone believes in goodness* - say, the platonic form of 'The Good' - do they believe in God? It seems to me they do, as far as the Thomists say. They may be confused about some details, but so what? So are baptists, from the Thomists' viewpoint. And classical theists may have a lot of criticisms of theistic personalists, but they never mistake them for atheists. (Do they?)

As I've said before, I think the number of actual 'atheists' out there are thinner on the ground than expected. Sure, some are (or at least present themselves as) atheists in the materialist sense. In fact, I think a most promising apologetic for evangelizing the secular world would be "Why you are not an atheist" style approaches.

(*Naturally, I'm excluding 'bullshit goodness' for lack of a better term. 'Goodness' which melts into 'Stuff we do because blind meaningless evolution' and so on.)

Rorschach Contra Manhattan!



Normally I keep my commenting light on deeper, more philosophical issues - there's a reason for that which I hope to blog about one day - but Edward Feser's recent posts on natural law got me thinking.

See, Ed Feser reminds me of Rorschach on this topic. And I don't consider that an insult. In fact, Ed is doing a marvelous job of convincing me that his is the correct position to hold - and he's making consequentialism seem much harder to justify. So much so that I feel like offering up my own perspective on an aspect of the subject.

But I don't feel like I have the abundance of philosophical resources and the linguistic finesse to come at this question like Codgitator or Bill Valicella or the other more heavy duty philosophical thinkers. And certainly not of the philosophical caliber of Ed himself. So, I have to work within my limits.

That's right. I'm going to conduct an imaginary dialogue between Rorschach and Doctor Manhattan in the aftermath of Veidt's scheme. And I'm going to do it in philosophical imaginary dialogue style!

Introduction: For those of you who don't know, the scene is set this way. Adrian Veidt, self-made billionaire and super-genius, sees that the cold-war era world he inhabits is on the course for an inevitable nuclear war between superpowers. In order to avert this, he's unleashed mass death upon a major population, killing millions of innocents, and laying the blame on an extraterrestrial threat. He reasons - correctly - that this threat will shock the world into getting past their differences to work together, and in the process avert an even worse nuclear war. This already happened (35 minutes ago!), and while the heroes who discover Veidt's plan are horrified, they realize it's too late to stop his plan - and if they reveal it now, they'll have millions dead AND they'll undo the world unity, putting the world back on track for the nuclear war. All but one hero - Rorschach - agrees to take this secret to their grave.

Rorschach's moral code - "never compromise even in the face of armageddon" - compels him to leave and tell the world of Veidt's crime. Doctor Manhattan is sent after Rorschach to kill him, lest the millions died in vain.

And so we begin.

Manhattan: Rorschach, I can't let you do this.
Rorschach: Veidt murdered millions, Manhattan. He's a criminal, and he needs to be exposed.
Manhattan: Yes, Rorschach - murderED. He's a monster, but those millions are already dead. This won't bring them back.
Rorschach: Turning in a murderer has never brought back a victim.
Manhattan: This is different! If we keep this secret...
Rorschach: If we cover up Veidt's crime.
Manhattan: Fine, call it what you want. But if we do that, we save billions of lives! If you expose Veidt, you're dooming them!
Rorschach: And if we don't expose Veidt, we're covering up for a murderer.
Manhattan: One murderer we would have stopped if we could! But YOU will be murdering billions if you expose him!
Rorschach: I won't be causing any nuclear wars.
Manhattan: Others will!
Rorschach: That's their crime. Not mine. The only crime I can commit here is covering up for a mass-murderer.
Manhattan: Your crimes will be theirs if you expose Veidt! You KNOW what the consequences will be!
Rorschach: ...Assume that I do, Manhattan. I'm not as smart as you or Veidt, but assume that I do. That changes nothing. I would stop the coming war if I could...
Manhattan: Then don't DO this!
Rorschach: ...Without committing an evil. But covering up for Veidt is an evil.
Manhattan: Sentencing billions to die is an evil!
Rorschach: It sure is. I'm not a fan of our idiot leaders either.
Manhattan: You really don't think you'd hold any blame for their deaths?
Rorschach: I know I wouldn't. I'd do everything I could to save them, short of anything immoral.
Manhattan: What if you're wrong? What if doing what you're doing is as immoral as Veidt's actions? Worse?
Rorschach: I could ask the same of you, Manhattan.
Manhattan: Argh, this is getting us nowhere.
Rorschach: ...You're right. Why are you trying to stop me, Manhattan?
Manhattan: Because what you're going to do will lead to the deaths of billions!
Rorschach: What I'm going to do will lead to a mass-murderer being exposed.
Manhattan: And the result of that will be billions dead.
Rorschach: And what will the result of you covering up for Veidt be?
Manhattan: What..? I'll save those billions!
Rorschach: And then?
Manhattan: ...And then what?
Rorschach: Exactly. What happens after they're saved?
Manhattan: They live!
Rorschach: And then?
Manhattan: They work together!
Rorschach: And then?
Manhattan: (frustrated) They live happily ever after Rorschach. I don't know what you want!
Rorschach: Happily ever after. Do you really believe that?
Manhattan: I know too much about human nature to do so. But I don't get what you're aiming at.
Rorschach: Aiming at? I'm aiming at nothing, Manhattan. I don't even know for sure that the war you and Veidt claim will happen, really will.
Manhattan: It will, Rorschach.
Rorschach: So you say. But you don't know what will happen after some period of peace. You're many things, but omniscient isn't one - even you know that.
Manhattan: So what?
Rorschach: So, you don't know what the ultimate consequences of your actions will be.
Manhattan: Ultimate, no. But I know some of their consequences.
Rorschach: But for all you know, those consequences will be even worse in time.
Manhattan: For all I know, they won't be. And I know that in the short-term, some of the consequences are better with one choice than another.
Rorschach: But you don't know about the long-term consequences.
Manhattan: So?
Rorschach: If you did know, would they matter?
Manhattan: I suppose they would.
Rorschach: And for all you know, any choice you make actually has worse consequences than the choice you forsake.
Manhattan: In an ultimate or very long-term sense, sure.
Rorschach: So, the consequences are all that matter, yet you never know the consequences of your acts.
Manhattan: Totally untrue. I know some of the consequences.
Rorschach: But *some* of the consequences don't matter. What matters is *all* of the consequences. Even you have to admit that my exposing Veidt would have at least some good consequences.
Manhattan: Not enough.
Rorschach: But you don't know that, remember? Your ability to deduce the future has a limit. For all you know, the ultimate consequences of letting me expose Veidt are better in total than the consequences of you hiding his crime.
Manhattan: There are limits. If you wipe out all of humanity with your act, how could good consequences accrue afterwards?
Rorschach: By avoiding excessive bad consequences that could potentially come from humanity's continued existence, for one. Maybe Veidt's future will yield many in unending torment. For another, even assuming humanity couldn't recover from a nuclear holocaust, how do you know some species would not fill our void?
Manhattan: Or maybe they won't. Or maybe the consequences will be even worse in your scenario.
Rorschach: Maybe indeed. But you can't know. By your own admission, the totality of consequences is what matters. But you never know the totality. You only know a tiny sliver of the consequences from a vastly - perhaps infinitely - greater list. You may as well know none of the consequences at all. You're deciding blindly.
Manhattan: Let's say I accept that for the sake of argument. Then how should I decide what to do?
Rorschach: Exactly the way I do, Manhattan. There is good and there is evil. Do only what is good. Even in the face of armageddon, do not compromise in this.

...And there we have it for now. Naturally, I can imagine some additional replies Manhattan could give, some replies Rorschach can give to those, and more points Rorschach could raise. (In fact, the setup itself is a bit tricky since it takes place after Veidt's act, not before.) But the issue I want to stress here is that consequentialism is, of course, focused on the consequences of acts... but the entirety of consequences is never known to anyone but God. If "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", but I can't be sure if I'm siding with the many or the few, I'm in trouble. How can I live according to the 'rules' of consequentialism if I never fully grok the consequences?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Was George Carlin an atheist?

This is a question that came to me while reading a recent entry over at the Cogitator's blog. I admit, Carlin had deep dislike for Catholicism and Christians generally. He mocked the usual image of a 'bearded man in the sky'. But I finally had to ask myself... did Carlin ever call himself an atheist?

Oddly enough, the two obscure references I found to Carlin on his own beliefs said otherwise. One had Carlin quoted as saying he was neither an atheist nor an agnostic on the subject of God's existence, but an acrostic: That the very question puzzled him. Another source was a second-hand report of Carlin denying he was an atheist, specifically because it struck him as a worldview.

Either way, now I'm intrigued. See, I've been a fan of Carlin since I was a little kid. (Sam Kinison and Eddie Murphy too, for what it's worth.) I'd like to know where he stood... and I have a suspicion that where he stood is closer to Bill Maher than anyone else.

So, any of you guys got a lead for me?