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Kennedy’s Moral Rhetoric August 31, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, politics.
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Since Senator Edward Kennedy’s death, much has been said about his skill as a negotiator, his legislative triumphs, and personal qualities (as well as faults).

But Jonathan Cohn, writing in The New Republic, identifies the key component of Kennedy’s reputation as the liberal lion.

But Ted Kennedy was something else, too. He was a crusader. He was–again, to quote his fraternal eulogy–somebody “who saw wrong and tried to right it.” He possessed not just a clarity of purpose, but a certainty that his purpose had moral grounding. And that made Kennedy somewhat unusual, or at least quaint, in the part of the ideological universe he inhabited.

We live in a strange political moment, one in which conservatives talk freely–and instinctively–of their causes in moral terms, whether it’s a matter of life or death, or a matter simply of death taxes. To regulate the practices of business or to cede a woman’s control over pregnancy; to erect walls between church and state or to raise taxes on capital gains. All of these things, in the conservative mind, are evil. And they are not afraid to say so. Liberals are not so quick to invoke morality. We call up statistics and, if we’re feeling indignant, we’ll take a stand on integrity and honesty. But we seem strangely uncomfortable making naked appeals to the public’s sense of right and wrong–whether out of a confidence that our policy analysis will prevail or a fear that the public will not see things the way we do. […]

Kennedy rarely made that mistake. When he looked at America, he saw a country full of people made vulnerable–by circumstance of birth, economic misfortune, illness, or injury. Some were middle-class; some were poor. In either case, he believed, we had an obligation, as a nation, to protect them–if not to render them whole, then at least to make them safe. And so he spoke out– for universal health care, for civil rights, for aid to people with disabilities, for more generous assistance to the poor. And when opponents criticized those moves, because they meant bigger government or bigger taxes, Kennedy didn’t deny the charge. He justified it, in a way few Democrats would dare do today. It was, he said, the way Americans fulfill their duty to one another.

I think this is exactly right. As I argued in Reviving the Left, liberals made crucial errors in not casting their arguments in moral terms in the period from the mid 1970’s-2000, allowing the right to occupy the moral ground without a challenge.

But Kennedy never lost that moral focus. Despite the many compromises he had to make on legislation he seldom was guilty of making the “conservative-light” arguments that characterized Democratic campaigns for many years.

It is not yet clear whether liberals have learned that lesson. Obama occasionally uses moral rhetoric but typically allows that focus to fall from sight.

As Cohn writes:

In the fight for health care–and, perhaps, the broader liberal agenda–this sense of moral purpose has waned. It’s inefficient to spend 16 percent of gross domestic product on health care. But it’s an affront to our basic sense of decency that almost any American can lose his savings, his home, or even his life because he doesn’t have the right insurance policy–or perhaps because he doesn’t have any policy at all.

Democrats tend to get lost in the policy details without bringing the discussion back to the fundamental moral claims that move people.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Good News August 30, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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It is Monday and we could all use a little happy talk.

Remember all the controversy about the bank bailout and how the taxpayers were required to foot the bill to the tune of $700 Billion for a bunch of irresponsible bankers.

Slate is reporting that

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Panic of 2008, it’s clear that the actual cost of the TARP will be a fraction of the original $700 billion estimate and that taxpayers are even turning a profit from the central component of the package. […] The bottom line: Taxpayers put $204.4 billion into the banks through CPP and have received $70.2 billion in principal, plus about $10 billion in dividends and warrant payments. […]

Given the returns thus far, Herb Allison, the former CEO of TIAA-CREF who was tapped by Timothy Geithner to run the TARP, notes that “it’s quite possible we’ll have a positive return on the CPP program as a whole.”

As the article points out, profits are not guaranteed yet, but the bailouts are not as expensive as many critics thought they would be.

Today, the conventional wisdom has a different worry—the exploding budget deficit projected to be $9 Trillion over the next 10 years. Many economists are concerned that China may not want to finance that much debt, the interest will be burdensome, and the U.S. may face insolvency or have to raise taxes so high that growth cannot be sustained.

But Nobel Prize winner,  Paul Krugman thinks otherwise:

…in 1950, federal debt in the hands of the public was 80 percent of GDP, which is in the ballpark of what we’re looking at for 2019. By 1960 it was down to 46 percent — and I haven’t heard that anyone considered America a debt-crippled nation when JFK took office. […]

How, then, did America pay down its debt? Actually, it didn’t: federal debt rose from $219 billion in 1950 to $237 billion in 1960. But the economy grew, so the ratio of debt to GDP fell, and everything worked out fiscally.

Which brings me to a question a number of people have raised: maybe we can pay the interest, but what about repaying the principal? Jim gets scary numbers about the debt burden by assuming that we’ll have to pay off the debt in 10 years. But why would we have to do that? Again, the lesson of the 1950s — or, if you like, the lesson of Belgium and Italy, which brought their debt-GDP ratios down from early 90s levels — is that you need to stabilize debt, not pay it off; economic growth will do the rest.

Can we grow our way out of the deficit? I’m not sure. I don’t see a growth sector in the U.S. economy at the moment primed to take off when the recession ends. But Krugman has a Nobel Prize and I don’t. Who am I to argue with him.

Finally, one of the stupidest ideas of the Bush Administration (I know, the competition is stiff) was to propose a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic that is supposed to protect Europe from an attack from Iran. As Robert Farley points out

No one could ever conclusively argue why these bases were a good idea; they were supposed to deter Russia, but at the same time weren’t aimed at Russia, and couldn’t possibly have stopped a Russian attack. They were supposed to defend from Iranian missiles, even though no one could ever figure out a plausible reason why Iran would fire ballistic missiles at Europe. Eastern European missile defense was, in short, insane; it was conceived by missile defense fanatics in the United States, and abetted by policymakers in Poland and the Czech Republic who wanted a clear signal of US commitment to their defense. The latter motivation was defensible; the former not so much.

All the proposal succeeded in doing was pissing off the Russians. Now it looks like the Obama Administration has other ideas.

According to Defense News, reporting claims in a Polish newspaper:

Washington will scrap plans to put anti-missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic and is looking at alternatives including Israel and Turkey, a Polish newspaper reported Aug. 27, citing U.S. officials.

Don’t worry. I will have some bad news to think about tomorrow.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Friday Food Blogging August 28, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink.
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Professor of Journalism and Food writer Michael Pollan’s recent article and review of the film Julia & Julia (which is in part about Julia Child who brought French cooking to millions on the TV in the 1960″s) raises an interesting question about contemporary life.

The Food Network can now be seen in nearly 100 million American homes and on most nights commands more viewers than any of the cable news channels. Millions of Americans, including my 16-year-old son, can tell you months after the finale which contestant emerged victorious in Season 5 of “Top Chef” (Hosea Rosenberg, followed by Stefan Richter, his favorite, and Carla Hall). […]

But here’s what I don’t get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.

Many of these shows are more like sports entertainment. (Top Chef, Iron Chef, etc.) They are  more about consuming and learning about contemporary taste than they are about cooking. (True confessions: These are the only shows I watch regularly on TV) And as Pollen points out, the ones that are about cooking don’t really teach you how to cook.

These shows stress quick results, shortcuts and superconvenience but never the sort of pleasure — physical and mental — that Julia Child took in the work of cooking: the tomahawking of a fish skeleton or the chopping of an onion, the Rolfing of butter into the breast of a raw chicken or the vigorous whisking of heavy cream. […]Child was less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles. You didn’t do it to please a husband or impress guests; you did it to please yourself.

And what we call cooking today, according to market researcher Harry Balzer,

means to prepare a main dish that requires some degree of “assembly of elements.” So microwaving a pizza doesn’t count as cooking, though washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it does. Under this dispensation, you’re also cooking when you spread mayonnaise on a slice of bread and pile on some cold cuts or a hamburger patty.

Buying, not making, is what cooking shows are mostly now about — that and, increasingly, cooking shows themselves: the whole self-perpetuating spectacle of competition, success and celebrity that, with “The Next Food Network Star,” appears to have entered its baroque phase. The Food Network has figured out that we care much less about what’s cooking than who’s cooking.

I think it is clear why we watch these shows. As Pollen points out:

Yet even the most ordinary dish follows a similar arc of transformation, magically becoming something greater than the sum of its parts. Every dish contains not just culinary ingredients but also the ingredients of narrative: a beginning, a middle and an end.

Cooking produces a fascinating transformation of plants and animals into something fully human, attractive, and pleasurable—the transformation of nature into culture as Levi-Strauss said.

So why don’t we cook instead of watch?

Pollen mentions the obvious. We don’t have much time. However, food preparation among women who don’t work is still dropping. And marketing by the food industry has convinced us that the sugary, salty “stuff” they produce really tastes good. Supply drives demand.

So perhaps our interest in the Food Network is nostalgia for a lost world:

If cooking is as central to human identity and culture as Wrangham believes, it stands to reason that the decline of cooking in our time would have a profound effect on modern life. At the very least, you would expect that its rapid disappearance from everyday life might leave us feeling nostalgic for the sights and smells and the sociality of the cook-fire. Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray may be pushing precisely that emotional button.

So we might prefer to watch rather than do simply because the food industry makes it available to us and we are just lazy.

But I think there is a mistake in judgment that explains the decline of cooking as well. I think we often are mistaken about the sources of value in modern life. In our consumer society, we think that value resides in things. And it does. But things are instruments that enable activities. And we ought to value our activities more than things. It is our activities that reflect who we are, not the objects we buy.

The experience of using your skills to make the world different in a palpable way that you can touch, smell, and taste is an experience you cannot get from opening a can or package (or eating in a restaurant) regardless of its taste. The time you spend cooking (or the time spent practicing a musical instrument, gardening, making jewelry, etc.) is not just a cost that you subtract from the pleasure of enjoying the final product. The activity itself is an intrinsic good.

My wife cannot understand how I can spend 3 hours in the kitchen making something that I will consume in 10 minutes. Truth be told, the finished product is an afterthought. I hope it is good for the sake of the people who eat it. But the satisfaction has already been acquired.

If people find modern life boring, without challenge, an endless flow of information that never quite satisfies, they might try getting back to cooking.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Slippery Slopes and the Health Care Debate August 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Most of the objections to the various Democratic plans for health care reform that have received media attention are quite frankly lies. Claims that the government is planning to take over health care, that it will cost the taxpayer $1 trillion per year, that undocumented immigrants will get free care, that bureaucrats instead of doctors will decide treatment options, and that “death panels” will pull the plug on grandma are cynical attempts to scare misinformed voters into opposing any health care reform.

None of the plans under consideration propose any of this.

But there are versions of these arguments that are not merely paranoid rants. For instance, one could argue that a government-run insurance plan will have incentives to save money by providing sub-standard care or will set payment rates too low to encourage medical innovation. Or the government might prevent people who can afford it from buying better private insurance plans that would make up for what the government plan doesn’t cover.

It might be the case that a government-run insurance plan would be so efficient that it would drive private insurance companies from the market.

Or one could argue that panels of medical experts charged with deciding what treatments are most effective will have some sort of systematic bias that would prevent legitimate procedures from being performed.

The government could decide to give free medical care to undocumented immigrants or to place severe constraints on end-of-life care.

All these outcomes are conceivable. But these are all slippery-slope arguments. They have the form if we do X, then Y will inevitably follow, and Y is really bad. But slippery-slope arguments are notoriously, well, slippery.

The problem is that if you are going to claim that if we do X then Y will follow, you have to provide some plausible mechanism by which X will lead to Y. It is not sufficient to say that if we do X, Y could happen. Of course it “could”; but if this kind of argument is to be persuasive we need to know why “Y” is a plausible outcome.

If a government-run health insurance plan is sub-standard, why would people opt for it in lieu of their private insurance? Why would the government give free health care to illegals or cut-off end-of-life-care? And why would the government prevent people from buying better health insurance if the government plans are minimal?

Furthermore, even if a plausible mechanism for “Y” is discovered, opponents would still have to show that “Y” has negative outcomes that would outweigh the positive outcomes of health care reform.

But this kind of reasoning about how to create a plan with appropriate incentives and the right benefits is lacking in much of the health care debate. I’m sure there are conservative economists who can supply plausible slippery slope arguments. But instead all we get are lunatic rants or vague, unsupported allusions to government incompetence.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Problem of Impartiality August 26, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Message in a Bottle.
I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.
Emo Phillips, Neuropsychology: Clinical and Experimental Foundations
US comedian

Mercy and the Lockerbie Bombing August 25, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Philosophy, Political Philosophy.
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Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill unleashed a firestorm of criticism when he released Abdel Baset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds last week. Al-Megrahi, who was serving a life sentence for the death of 270 people on Pan Am Flight 103 that blew up over Scotland in 1988, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a few months to live.

Mr al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them,” he said.

“But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.”

Mr MacAskill continued: “Our justice system demands that judgement be imposed, but compassion be available.

This case raises interesting philosophical questions about mercy and when it is appropriate.

Since al-Magrahi’s release, many have accused the Scottish government of releasing him for diplomatic or financial reasons. To the extent these allegations are true, that would make the release a cynical political move rather than an act of compassion or mercy. And the sight of a mass-murderer getting a hero’s welcome in Libya was deeply disturbing for anyone but especially for the families who grieve the loss of their loved ones.

But I want to ignore these complications and ask whether the release was justified on the basis of mercy.

Many of the objections to al-Magrahi’s release miss the mark. For instance, some people have said that it should have been up to the families of the victims, not the Scottish government, to decide when to grant mercy. But that response confuses forgiveness with mercy.

Forgiveness is personal and involves overcoming feelings of resentment about a wrong. It is something that only victims (or those closely related to victims) can grant. Mercy, by contrast, involves someone with power over a vulnerable person treating them less harshly than they deserve. It often involves institutional power since institutions often have power over vulnerable persons. It is not about overcoming personal feelings. One can grant forgiveness without offering mercy and one can extend mercy without granting forgiveness.

Because the Scottish government had power over al-Megrahi and the authority to punish him, they uniquely had the right to grant mercy, although not forgiveness. The question is whether they were correct to do so.

Others argue that the release was justified because of the lack of substantial evidence against al-Megrahi. But that is a matter of whether justice was served by the conviction and sentencing. It calls for further investigation and appeals to the legal system,  not mercy.

Similarly, those who argue that the release was a travesty of justice miss the point. Of course, it was. Mercy inherently involves suspending a just outcome in favor of some moral consideration beyond the realm of justice.

Other commentators suggest the release was a form of appeasement which demonstrates the United Kingdom’s inability to stand up to people who have attacked us. But I think that is implausible. As Nietzche points out, mercy is a virtue of pride, not of weakness. It indicates an (often illusory) condition of invulnerability to injury through which the powerful demonstrate their nobility.

No. The issue is whether there were grounds for mercy or not. Although mercy involves suspending justice, it can’t be utterly capricious. There are conditions under which it is appropriate and conditions under which it is not.

The reason for mercy asserted by the Justice Minister was the fact that al-Megrahi will die soon, and compassion requires that we allow him to spend his last days with his family. But all prisoners with life sentences will eventually die in prison. Should we extend mercy to all of them? If the answer is no, then there must be something peculiar about al-Megrahi’s case that qualifies him for mercy.

Mercy involves  a judgment based on understanding the individuating features of a case that warrants a person being treated with leniency. It avoids rule-guided judgment in favor of discretion and moral perception. The mercy-giver focuses on the plight of a vulnerable person, his difficult situation, his vulnerability because he is in the power of someone else and therefore subject to an extraordinary burden or threat.

But the mere fact that al-Megrahi is dying doesn’t seem sufficient to warrant mercy. He is vulnerable and subject to the burden of dying in prison, but that doesn’t distinguish his case from thousands of others similarly situated. There is nothing peculiar about his situation. Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to have suffered from a deprived upbringing, faced obstacles to avoiding the harm he caused, and neither has he apologized for his act. Nothing about his circumstances appear to be mitigating factors that warrant mercy.

In general, I think in order for mercy to be warranted, there must be some loose, imprecise balance struck between the burden suffered by the recipient of mercy and the degree of malicious harm displayed in the original crime. In other words, I think justice considerations are relevant to mercy but not over-riding. Mercy involves departing from some existing framework of justice but not necessarily a departure from all considerations of justice. In al-Megrahi’s case, there is no such balance. He maliciously killed 270 people. Had he murdered someone in a fit of rage in a dispute over gambling debts, for example, the case for mercy might have been stronger.

Thus, I think there was a mistake in reasoning by the Scottish Justice Minister. Compassion could have been expressed more appropriately through palliative care and family visits in prison.

However, a good utilitarian argument for mercy in this case can be made.

The message of respect for life and the recognition that prisoners are human and vulnerable is an important one, to which we pay too little attention in the U.S. Mercy requires self-control by people who possess power over others. And that self-control is a good thing to encourage. Retribution is important in encouraging social cooperation but it can easily get out of control and lead to a kind of perverse pleasure in seeking revenge. Mercy has a civilizing effect that breaks the cycle of revenge and helps avoid abuses of power.

The U.S. justice system has a systematic bias toward excessive punishment, given the human propensity for revenge, the political advantages to being tough on crime, and the presence of social conditions that foster crime. Thus, our prisons are overflowing.

One of the remarkable features of this episode is the differing responses in the U.S. compared to the U.K. According to the Globe and Mail,

The move to release him was accepted with a measure of equanimity by families of victims in Britain, but met with bitter fury by their counterparts in the United States.

I wish we had a greater capacity for mercy of the sort displayed by Scotland, despite the faulty reasoning. We would be better for it.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is the author of  Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Social Brain and Liberalism’s Revival August 24, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy, Science.
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Journalist Madeleine Bunting claims that contemporary science is demonstrating that our notions of free will and autonomy are “fairytales about as fanciful and as implausible as goblins.”

That is a bit hyperbolic but the general thrust of her article is right. Instead of claiming that free will and autonomy are illusions, it is more accurate to say that our definitions of these concepts in our tradition are fundamentally misleading. As Bunting reports:

There are two other areas of this new brain research which are arguably more important. First, we have much underestimated the social nature of the brain: how primed it is to recognise, interpret and respond all the time to the input of others and how that lays down patterns which govern our behaviour. We are herd-like animals who show a strong tendency to conform with group norms; what makes our brains so much bigger than other primates is this remarkable capacity for social skills such as empathy, co-operation and fairness. Instead of the old metaphor of individuals as discrete entities like billiard balls, we need to think instead of them as nodes in a relationship network.

This research doesn’t show that we lack autonomy. It does demonstrate that our capacity for self-governance is dependent on others. Autonomy is relational. We direct our lives through out capacity to respond to what we care about.

The second area of astonishing discoveries is in the plasticity of the brain. We talk of “hardwiring” (computers have generated many misleading metaphors for the brain) but in fact, the brain can be changed. Parts of the brain can learn entirely new tricks. Neural pathways are not fixed, and even much of the damage done by deprivation in childhood can be repaired with the right circumstances of example, support and determination. We can shape our own brains to create new habits that we might have thought we were not capable of – it’s a long, hard process but it is possible.

Notice that this doesn’t imply that we lack free will. It means that we have to define free will in terms of our capacity to learn. Learning modifies the brain in ways that enable new patterns of behavior to emerge. Unlike older notions of free will that require that free actions interrupt the causal influences of the past and the environment (which to my mind is an incoherent idea), newer versions of free will view our flexible responses to changing environmental circumstances as a product of our sensitivity to causal influence. We are not robots because of our sensitivity to causal influence, not in spite of it.

But this idea is not really new. Aristotle entertained a version of it; so did Hume. But until recently, it was not highly regarded—that is changing in part because of what we are learning about the brain.

And Bunting is exactly right about the political implications of this research.

This all may seem remote from politics, but it’s not. Jon Cruddas has a habit of startling audiences by arguing that the regeneration of the left requires a convincing new account of what it is to be human. Are human beings self-interested creatures or are they collaborative? The right’s argument for market capitalism is rooted in the former but the research on the social brain supports the latter. Put crudely, we are social creatures with an inbuilt tendency to co-operate and seek out each other’s approval and that is probably more important in determining day-to-day behaviours than narrowly conceived self-interest.

The rightwing emphasis on the individual’s capacity to triumph over their environment through willpower is undermined by the research which shows how childhood deprivation leaves such scarring on the brain. While the challenge to the left is to recognise that the myopic tendencies of the brain to privilege the short term has been held in check by institutions and traditions which can safeguard longer-term interests. Perhaps that requires greater understanding on the left of how such institutions operate and a revision of assumptions about why they restrict individual autonomy.

This is essentially my argument in Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America. We need to think of autonomy as relational and institutionalize the motive of care, which requires sensitivity to one’s environment and long-term commitment to the institutions on which we depend.

Philosophical theories don’t need empirical support for their intelligibility; but it is nice to have.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

No Grand Bargain Between Evolution and Theism August 23, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Animal Intelligence, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, religion, Science.
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Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, has a useful article in the New York Times that does a good job of summarizing the contemporary debate between thoughtful theists and atheists regarding evolution.

Wright is an agnostic who thinks both sides in this debate are a bit stubborn.

Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic. If both groups were to truly accept that power, the landscape might look different. Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of “higher purpose” are compatible with scientific materialism. And the two might learn to get along.

I have read countless unsuccessful attempts to reconcile theism and atheism. So I read the rest of his article anticipating some new insight.

But I think he is spinning his wheels.

Wright points out that even religious believers who accept some version of evolutionary theory nevertheless think that evolution cannot explain our capacity for morality. But Wright correctly points out that there is considerable evidence, which he summarizes in The Moral Animal, that  fundamental aspects of human morality are a product of evolution.

So, for example, feelings of guilt over betraying a friend are with us because during evolution sustaining friendships brought benefits through the non-zero-sum logic of one hand washing the other (“reciprocal altruism”). Friendless people tend not to thrive.

Indeed, this dynamic of reciprocal altruism, as mediated by natural selection, seems to have inclined us toward belief in some fairly abstract principles, notably the idea that good deeds should be rewarded and bad deeds should be punished.

But that ought not be an obstacle to accepting some notion of divine purpose, according to Wright.

Maybe they can accept this evolutionary account, and be strict Darwinians, yet hang on to notions of divinely imparted moral purpose.

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever).

Given the evidence of moral behavior in a variety of animals, Wright argues that it is plausible to think that the logic of moral reasoning was written into the evolutionary process long before humans existed. This suggests that our moral  intuitions are picking out features of the world that were true even before we came along to express them.

If we accept the evolutionary account, however, we must admit that there are purposes, including moral purposes, within nature.

SO in a sense Paley was right not just in saying that organisms must come from a different creative process than rocks but also in saying that this creative process imparts a purpose (however mundane) to organisms.

So far so good. Nature is full of purpose as any Introductory Biology class makes clear. And evidence is mounting that morality is not something we just dreamed up but is part of the natural world.

But then he goes off the rails.

…it is indeed legitimate, and not at all unscientific, to do what Paley did: inspect a physical system for evidence that it was given some purpose by some higher-order creative process. If scientifically minded theologians want to apply that inspection to the entire system of evolution, they’re free to do so.

Well no. First of all, it doesn’t follow that because organisms in nature have purposes that nature as a whole too has a purpose. A whole needn’t have all the properties of its parts. Furthermore, scientifically-minded theologians, are not “free to do so”, i.e. posit a purpose for all of nature, without evidence. If they are accepting such hypotheses without evidence they are not scientifically minded. Wright continues:

William James said that religious belief is “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” Science has its own version of the unseen order, the laws of nature. In principle, the two kinds of order can themselves be put into harmony — and in that adjustment, too, may lie a supreme good.

But the “harmony” is strained and dissonant. There is big difference between laws of nature that have been verified through experiment and speculation about divinely-inspired order.

Wright is correct that religion and evolution are logically compatible. It is logically possible that God created the evolutionary process. But we already knew that. That has been part of some versions of Christian theology for years.  In the end, Wright doesn’t move us much beyond the views of William James, the early 20th century pragmatist.

James argued we should hold religious beliefs because they are uniquely good for us—they provide hope for immortality. Wright has something similar in mind.

Clearly, this evolutionary narrative could fit into a theology with some classic elements: a divinely imparted purpose that involves a struggle toward the good, a struggle that even leads to a kind of climax of history. Such a theology could actually abet the good, increase the chances of a happy ending. A more evolved religion could do what religion has often done in the past: use an awe-inspiring story to foster social cohesion — except this time on a global scale.

Wright imagines a new religion based on a divinely inspired natural moral order that could help alleviate conflict. Apparently, we should hold religious beliefs because they encourage hope for human flourishing.

This, it seems to me, is the issue. Does religious belief encourage human flourishing or not? As we look at global conflict today it isn’t obvious that it does.

At any rate, confusing ordinary functional purposes with divinely-inspired Purpose and passing off metaphysical speculation as science doesn’t help.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

On The Release of the Lockerbie Bomber August 21, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Criminal Justice, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, ethics of care.
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Via BBC:

The man convicted of killing 270 people in the 1988 bombing of a Pam Am flight over the Scottish town in Lockerbie, has been released from prison on compassionate grounds. Abdel Baset Al-Megrahi is already on his way home to Libya, where it is believed he will die of prostate cancer within three months.

This, of course, is an enormously controversial decision that has provoked outrage in the U.S., and understandably, among the families of victims of this terrible act. And, as the linked story reports, some people question the motives of the U.K. in agreeing to the release. And there are also serious questions raised about whether the original conviction was correct.

But assuming compassion was the over-riding reason, the Scottish decision raises lots of questions about when mercy is justified and what justifies it.

I need to think more about this, but it seems to me that mercy is not a part of justice but is a consideration independent of justice. So it wasn’t fair or just that Al-Megrahi was released. The aim of mercy is not to achieve justice but to bring to bear values other than justice.

Nevertheless there must be a reason to support claims to mercy, and the question here is whether the fact that Al-Megrahi is dying is a sufficient reason to support mercy.

Of course, all prisoners sentenced to life in prison will end up dying in prison if the sentence is carried out. If nearing death is a sufficient justification for mercy, that suggests that there ought to be a blanket release of all prisoners over a certain age. As far as I know that is not the policy in the U.K.

So what is special about this case that warrants mercy? Perhaps doubts about the original conviction? But that seems to be an argument for more investigation, not mercy.

I think compassion is enormously important and something our political and legal systems must encourage. So was the Scottish Minister correct in his judgment here?

I’m not sure. I will probably have more to say when I have thought about it more.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Has the Problem of Time’s Arrow Been Solved? August 19, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.
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It is commonplace in the philosophy of physics to note that time has a direction.

If you spill milk,  you can’t unspill it. We always grow older, never younger. It looks like all physical processes move in one direction—they are time-irreversible. That is the “arrow of time” pointing toward the future.

But most of the basic laws of the universe can go in either direction. That is, the theoretical statements that describe the universe remain true even if time is reversed.

There is, one exception to the time symmetric laws of the universe—entropy. Entropy is the tendency for physical systems to go from a state of higher organization to a state of lowest organization.

Entropy always increases (i.e. toward less order)  in a closed system so time running backwards doesn’t get you back to where you started, despite the fact that there are no physical laws that explain this. We observe that entropy always increases but we don’t know why.

This leads to the problem of time’s arrow – if the laws of nature permit all processes to be run backwards in time, why don’t we observe them doing so?

A new paper by physicist Lorenzo Maccone has a solution. It is helpfully explained by Chris Lee at Ars Technica:

Imagine I do something that increases entropy slightly, and my wife observes the results of my actions and records the consequent increase in entropy—we will leave the fight over who should tidy up the mess out of the story.

Now, I can choose a set of operations that can return the entropy to its previously low value. However, doing so involves not just reversing my actions, but also reversing all correlated systems. In other words, I have to wipe my wife’s memory of the event and her subsequent recording of it. If she wrote it on a piece of paper, I have to wipe the paper clean etc, etc. But at the end of it, there would be no record of the event ever having occurred.

The upshot is that entropy-decreasing events can occur, but can never be observed from within the system. You can extend this to the universe, which may well be a closed system: we are within it and, even though events that reduce the entire entropy of the universe are possible, we can never observe such things.

How does this resolve the arrow of time problem? Well, put simply, running time in one direction allows records to be kept and events to be observed. In the other direction, observation becomes impossible. Therefore, although time could be running in either direction (or, who knows, both directions simultaneously), it is only possible for any observer (not necessarily a human one) to experience time in the forward direction.

So for all we know, we are getting younger, we just can’t know it.

That is comforting.

As someone in the comments section at AT quips:

So does this mean that if a tree falls in the forest, and nobody hears it, the tree can brush itself off and get back up again?

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

philosophy of physics, time’s arrow, Lorenzo Maccone