Archive for February, 2008
Make for thyself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to thee, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is, in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete entirety, and tell thyself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved.Â For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object which is presented to thee in life, and always to look at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole, and what with reference to man, who is a citizen of the highest city, of which all other cities are like families; what each thing is, of what it is composed, and how long it is the nature of this thing to endure.
–Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Ram Manikkalingam offers his recollections over at Three Quarks Daily of sitting in Roberto Unger‘s class with Barack Obama.Â Manikkalingam nicely summarizes Unger’s voluminous writings in political theory and “critical legal studies” by telling us that Unger argues for
a world of economic and political experimentation, where the stateâ€™s function is to first provide the social and political tools (including insurance for individual and collective failures) to encourage innovation, and then to get out of the way. Innovate and experiment, till things get stuck, either because the strategy has failed, or you have come to a fork in the political road. Then let the people decide how to get unstuck through a plebiscite.Â The heroic class of his theory are the petty bourgeoisie, dismissed by marxists, and disregarded by liberals.Â He believes they are the wellspring of innovation as the classic boundary crossing group â€“ finding new ways of surviving in an institutional and ideological environment that is inhospitable to them.
I am intrigued by the idea of the petite bourgeoisie as a “boundary crossing group,”Â and I’ll have to consider whether transdisciplinary work (an eminently boundary crossing endeavor) is nothing but petite bourgeoisie thinking (and whether that is necessarily bad…).
Jack Caputo responds to some readers of his his latest book,Â What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, at the Church and Postmodern Culture blog.Â You can read an except of Caputo’s bookÂ along with other reviews and comments at the Global Spiral.Â And Bruce Ellis Benson reviews the book for Christianity Today.
Negri reviews Agamben [.pdf] at the Journal for Culture and Religious Theory (nice score for my friends over there!).
Robert Bellah has a new piece posted at the Immanent Frame entitled, “Religious Reasons and Secular Revelations.”Â Here’s some wisdom:
Since the religious life is no more lacking in rational argument than any other sphere of human life, whenever religious views are expressed that bear on issues in the public sphere, it is legitimate to argue with them not only in terms of their implications for the common life, but also as to the adequacy of their expression of religious truth. If in my view a commitment to radical individualism not linked to an equally radical commitment to the common good undermines the very existence of a democratic society, then I can make that argument on purely secular grounds. But if that position is put forward on biblical grounds, I am equally entitled to argue that the Bible, taken as a whole, does not support such a view. In short, argument is argument, and once something is in the public sphere it can claim no privilege of revelation. No one, secular or religious, has to prove the validity of his or her transforming encounters. But as soon as one draws publicly relevant conclusions from those encounters, then one must defend them in public discourse.
Now, you don’t have to enter your name or email address to comment.Â Just comment.Â Politely.
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The authors of this statement constitute a group set up for the purpose by the Executive Committee of the International Society for Science and Religion. Through a process involving consultation with all members of the Society, the statement has now been accepted by the Executive Committee for publication as a statement made on behalf of the Society.
The Society retains the copyright of the statement, but gives general permission to reproduce it, in whole or in part, provided that the statement in the paragraph immediately preceding this is reproduced.
The International Society for Science and Religion is a scholarly society devoted to ongoing dialogue between the sciences and the community of world faiths (see www.issr.org.uk). It was established in 2002 for the purpose of promoting education through the support of interdisciplinary learning and research in the fields of science and religion, conducted where possible in an international and multi-faith context.
The society greatly values modern science, while deploring efforts to drive a wedge between science and religion. Science operates with a common set of methodological approaches that gives freedom to scientists from a range of religious backgrounds to unite in a common endeavor. This approach does not deny the existence of a metaphysical realm but rather opens up the natural world to a range of explorations that have been incredibly productive, especially over the last 400 years or so.
The intelligent-design (ID) movement began in the late 1980s as a challenge to the perceived secularization of the scientific community, which leaders of the movement maintained had been coloured with the philosophy of atheistic naturalism. ID theorists have focused their critique primarily on biological evolution and the neo-Darwinian paradigm. They claim that because certain biological features appear to be “irreducibly complex” and thus incapable of evolving incrementally by natural selection, they must have been created by the intervention of an intelligent designer. Despite this focus on evolution, intelligent design should not be confused with biblical or “scientific” creationism, which relies on a particular interpretation of the Genesis account of creation.
We believe that intelligent design is neither sound science nor good theology. Although the boundaries of science are open to change, allowing supernatural explanations to count as science undercuts the very purpose of science, which is to explain the workings of nature without recourse to religious language.Â Attributing complexity to the interruption of natural law by a divine designer is, as some critics have claimed, a science stopper. Besides, ID has not yet opened up a new research program. In the opinion of the overwhelming majority of research biologists, it has not provided examples of “irreducible complexity” in biological evolution that could not be explained as well by normal scientifically understood processes. Students of nature once considered the vertebrate eye to be too complex to explain naturally, but subsequent research has led to the conclusion that this remarkable structure can be readily understood as a product of natural selection. This shows that what may appear to be “irreducibly complex” today may be explained naturalistically tomorrow.
Scientific explanations are always incomplete. We grant that a comprehensive account of evolutionary natural history remains open to complementary philosophical, metaphysical, and religious dimensions. Darwinian natural history does preempt certain accounts of creation, leading, for example, to the contemporary creationist and ID controversies. However, in most instances, biology and religion operate at different and non-competing levels.Â In many religious traditions, such as some found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, the notion of intelligent design is irrelevant We recognize that natural theology may be a legitimate enterprise in its own right, but we resist the insistence of intelligent-design advocates that their enterprise be taken as genuine science – just as we oppose efforts of others to elevate science into a comprehensive world view (so-called scientism).
Those interested can find information on recommended reading and other resources at the ISSR website:Â http://www.issr.org.uk/id-statement.asp.
The “ID” issue has certainly not gone away, despite the resounding legal rebuff in the Dover caseÂ (see especially Judge Jones’ ruling, complete text here [pdf].)Â Just this week the state of Florida mandated that “evolution” be taught in the schools.Â I put the term “evolution” in quotation marks because the science standards in Florida did not even mention the word until these changes were adopted.Â No wonder Florida students posted some of the worst science test scores in the country.Â And evolution still won’t be on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test until 2012!
A key sticking point in this story is that critics tried to insert language safeguarding “academic freedom” for teachers who resist evolution–a move that failed.Â Instead, the proposed change to the language of the standards was shifted from simply “evolution” to “the scientific theory of evolution.”Â Many news outlets reported that the language was a hedge, trumpeting to the effect that “Florida mandates teaching of evolution, but only as a mere theory.”Â But “only” and “mere” have nothing to do with scientific theories–that’s just popular parlance.Â As Brandom Keim at Wired astutely put it:
Not only will Florida’s students learn about evolution; they’ll also learn that the scientific definition of a theory is different from the everyday definition, referring not to wild-eyed speculation but to a vast body of observation and testing that confirms a hypothesis so strongly that it might as well be considered fact.
Alert readers of this blog will have noticed in yesterday’s posting (“Metaphysics Matters“) some disparaging words about “evolution” by E. F. Schumacher, cited approvingly by me.Â Let’s not confuse issues, though:
- The scientific theory (nothing mere about it) of evolution should be taught in schools on pain of our students being (or continuing to be) scientific illiterates.Â Â “Intelligent Design”Â is not science (and not any kind of a scientific theory) in any recognizable sense, and should not be taught in biology classes.Â
- It cannot be ruled out in advance that there could be alternative scientific theories to account for the plain fact of evolution.Â Arguing otherwise turns the scientific method to dogmatism.Â Scientific theories can be challenged in at least two ways: for their failure to adequately account for the phenomena or on the basis of significant conceptual flaws.Â Granted that there are never hard divisions between the “disciplines,” the first type of critique derives normally from scientific research; the second (and much more rare) critique is generally launched by philosophers, especially philosophersÂ of science.Â These might be termed “meta-critiques” or “meta-scientific” critiques.Â Much more would have to be said to get all the caveats and nuances of this, but my point here is that it is legitimate to raise questions of a theory’s adequacy (in fact, it is an ongoing imperative–although good theories like evolution will survive these questions unscathed).Â One might offer philosophical criticism of the theory of evolution (which purports to account for the plain fact of evolution–the phenomena being observed), without necessarily being a “know-nothing” or religious fanatic.
- “Evolution” in the sense that Schumacher was criticizing (along with “reductionisms” of various other sorts) is not the “scientific theory of evolution.”Â I doubt very much that Schumacher wanted to change what students are taught biology class–unless the teacher strays from the biology into philosophy or political philosophy.Â Schumacher was not being anti-scientific, and neither am I.Â On the contrary.Â If science develops the hybris of over-reaching, then you can just expect that strong counter-arguments will be offered.Â Science is the cultural jewel it is because it generally knows its place.Â That demands all our support and protection, to keep ideology from corrupting science and to keep science from becoming corrupted ideology.
Although I had the title (more or less) first (well, okay, not that it’s very original…), the Feb. 16-22 issue of The Economist continues the irriation of Stanley Fish–if, that is, he read the piece, “A Declaration on Independents.” Back in January, as you will recall, Fish had nothing good to say about us political independents. But as The Economist trumpets:
Independents are back from the wilderness and ready to determine the outcome of the presidential election.
Of course, you might want to consider the case against voting all together (and here and here). The case goes beyond whether you are simply dissatisfied with the current field, which relatively speaking is not all that bad. Liberal Michael Kinsley, for instance, is miffed that the Republicans pulled the “dirty trick” of putting up a decent human being as its presumed nominee (he’d prefer Rush Limbaugh). National Review tends not to say bad things about Sen. Obama, but maybe that’s just because they love to see the race be against Sen. Clinton and “Mr. Right.” (Although as I write this the evening political news is on in the other room, and I can’t help hearing one dopey statement versus another; for instance, “The Mr.” is going on about how if you are really pro-life you’d be in favor of throwing women and doctors in jail. Maybe you could make a case against voting just on the persons….). No, the argument against voting goes much deeper than that. Example: Ask yourself, which Goldman-Sachs candidate do you prefer and why? You get the picture.
Reminds me of Wendell Berry’s “Questionnaire,” which I found online here.
- How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.
For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.
What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.
In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.
State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.
And, as we pondered earlier, your vote might not count anyway–and not just due to party rules that have affected Florida and Michigan.
So as interesting as this election season seems to be, you might think about going a little deeper in your considerations. I’m trying….