Thursday, March 31, 2011
Monday, March 28, 2011
Sunday, March 27, 2011
(This article is published in the April issue of WASHline, and it is reprinted with a few additional links.)
Dr. Francis Collins is Director of NIH and was in charge of the Human Genome Project to sequence the human DNA. He wrote a book, Language of God (Free Press, 2006), about his belief in Christianity. The book jacket calls him "one of the world's leading scientists." The cover says, "A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief."
I'll spoil the book's ending by saying that no evidence is presented. Collins argues that science is not inconsistent with his belief in God. But his argument assumes, as all such argument have, that God is hiding from us and doesn't want to show any objective evidence of his supernatural activity. He does that because it's part of his Plan. Any questions? No? Good.
After reading the book, I can only be astonished at the amount of cognitive dissonance that Collins must have. One would expect that a good scientist would take efforts to examine his beliefs, especially before writing a book about them. Collins doesn't seem to notice the remarkable contradictions in his book.
His reputation is as a scientist requires that his ideas shouldn't stand unchallenged. I will address three particular problems in his book:
1) "Evolutionary Culling" and CF patients: On p. 131, Dr. Collins gives a sincere defense of evolution, saying that harmful mutations are "rapidly culled out of the population because they reduce reproductive fitness." That is a reasonable but cold-blooded description. But only a few pages earlier on pp. 112-116, he talks about his work on cystic fibrosis. This disease causes a painful death to children before they reach the age of 10 unless they have treatment. Dr. Collins and his students and collaborators found that CF is caused by an error of a single amino acid in one protein.
These children with CF are being "culled" by evolution for a genetic defect. The question is, then, why would a benevolent god fail to prevent a painful death for young children? Could the god not know that the disease could be prevented by fixing one amino acid? Couldn't the god actually fix it? Or didn't the god care enough to bother?
Dr. Collins should be complemented for his work to understand CF. He is not at fault for not knowing how to solve the inconsistency between evolution and a benevolent god. The problem is that Dr. Collins as a scientist doesn't point out this obvious, important, and problematic inconsistency. His discussion of his approach for reconciling this problem could have been one of the valuable contributions of the book, but it isn't mentioned.
2) Praying over whether to be head of the Human Genome Project: On p. 119, Collins discusses his meditation on whether to become director of the Human Genome Project. He writes, "I spent a long afternoon praying in a little chapel, seeking guidance about this decision. I did not 'hear' God speak--in fact, I have never had that experience. But during those hours, ending in an evensong service that I had not expected, a peace settled over me. A few days later, I accepted the offer."
Does anything about this experience indicate supernatural guidance? It looks like he just made a decision based on his understanding of the importance of the project, the high visibility, and his confidence in his ability to accomplish it. It was a decision that required serious thought, but why did he think God was involved?
3) The Moral Sense and the eye: Collins repeatedly says that "The Moral Sense," the human understanding of right and wrong, is evidence of divine intervention in human development or the difference between humans and chimps. But he observes that it doesn't depend on having the right kind of religious belief. It is also imperfect in many people.
On p. 190-191, he says that the development of the human eye is not evidence of Intelligent Design, since the eye is imperfect and could develop in a stepwise process. So can't the Moral Sense be compared to the human eye? The human moral behavior could have developed in a stepwise process from our primate ancestors, following the same process that produced the eye. Imperfect human morality isn't a corruption of a divinely perfect system, but rather a product of a process that gradually improves it.
Dr. Collins is a good scientist and administrator in his specialty. But only someone who is already a believer would find his book convincing. I hope he continues his job at NIH. As far as his theology goes, god bless him, and good luck with that. But I hope that he keeps a watch on his reputation as a scientist, since some people may use his endorsement of religion in ways that he doesn't anticipate or endorse.
A longer rebuttal of the book is given in a book by George Cunningham, Decoding the Languarge of God. Here's the Amazon link on Cunningham's book, with lots of favorable comments and a few remarks from offended Christians:
If you think that Francis Collins's attitudes don't matter, here is a link to a talk that was recently given at the AAAS. The speaker, Elaine Ecklund, gave Collins as an example of a Christian believer who was a scientist.
Bill Creasy is secretary of WASH and coordinator of the Baltimore chapter.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
But hold your horses, pardner! That study isn't the only place this idea is coming from. This has been around for at least ten years.
An actual religious site, www.theamericanchurch.org, has a remarkable series of web pages, organized like powerpoint slides, that illustrate their alarm regarding a long term decline in church attendance. The url for that series is:
It is entitled "Twelve Surprising Facts About the American Church". Here are the titles of those slides:
1. The percentage of people that attend a Christian church each weekend is far below what pollsters report.
2. The percentage of people attending a Christian church each weekend decreased significantly from 1990-2000.
3. Christian church attendance is between 1 ½ and 2 times higher in the South and the Midwest than it is in the West and the Northeast.
4. Only one state [Hawaii] saw an increase in the percentage attending church from 1990-2000. [California, Connecticut, Georgia, and Washington were close to keeping up with population growth.]
5. The percentage that attends church on any given weekend is declining in over two thirds of the counties in the United States. [Among the states with the highest percentages of declining counties were Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Carolina.]
6. Evangelicals, mainliners, and Catholics are strongest in very different regions of the country.
7. Churches with 50–299 people in attendance are shrinking, while the smallest churches and larger churches are growing.
8. Established churches, from 40–180 years old, on average decline in attendance.
9. The increase in the number of churches is about one eighth of what is needed to keep up with population growth.
10. The church-planting rate has been declining throughout the history of our country.
11. Existing churches are plateauing and new church growth provides less than half of the growth necessary to keep up with population growth.
12. If the present trends continue, the percentage of the population that attends church in 2050 will be almost half of what it is today.
In addition, another web site, www.religioustolerance.org, which is a wonderful site with tons and tons of fascinating information about all different religions. Their "About Us" page says the following:
"We are a multi-faith group. As of 2010-DEC, we consist of one Atheist, Agnostic, Christian, Wiccan and Zen Buddhist. Thus, the OCRT staff lack agreement on almost all theological matters, such as belief in a supreme being, the nature of God, interpretation of the Bible and other holy texts, whether life after death exists, what form the afterlife may take, etc."
They go on to state their beliefs in list form, a remarkable statement by itself.
My point here is to show that their purpose is informational, with no religious agenda. Under the heading of "Religious information and Practices", they have a page entitled, "How many North Americans attend religious
services (and how many lie about going)?" The url is:
Their page reports an interesting phenomenon, that the "reported" numbers of religious folks attending services is vastly over-reported, by as much as 100%. The page is definitely worth a look and taking some time to understand their points, which are several. As a matter of fact, I recommend the entire site for information regarding just about any religion, as their reporting has no overt agenda of either support or attack, and seems fairly, well, fair.
The upshot of this is to say that while Don and others are certainly right to be skeptical over the conclusions of a study of questionable methodology, that doesn't mean that their conclusions are wrong, but just may simply be wrong from the standpoint of the length of time until the end, or at lest the end of a major religious influence on society, culture and politics. (which, of course, may be different in different countries and areas of the world.)
Robert W. Ahrens
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Friday, March 18, 2011
Saturday, March 12, 2011
I think of myself as an optimistic sort. But it's hard to be upbeat and optimistic just now, while laying claim to realism. The post-earthquake tsunami off the coast of Japan smashed lives, towns and much more. It is remarkably inspiring to see how focused the Japanese people and institutions have been in response with orderly queues and patience. But it also suggests how vulnerable we are and how insecurely we live in a natural world that is not specifically designed for perpetual human flourishing. We have to adapt and respond responsibly to the world and its dangers as we come to know them. Some dangers we have a hand in manufacturing for ourselves. We like to live on the coast, and so developers have made it attractive to do so. But in some places it is dangerous. With little long-term perspective we gamble big time with lives and investment. Perhaps there is an evolutionary reason for this - it has been adaptive in the past.
Evolution has given us an adaptability to many environmental dynamics. But not on the scale of geologic events and not of the scale that we may now be able to precipitate ourselves. In crises like earthquakes and tsunamis we are faced with difficult immediate choices – Do we flee the building, do we run to a car and head for higher ground by a main road, which may be jammed, or do we walk there immediately? On foot, we can't travel very far, but what if a tsunami hits before we made it to our vehicle? We might get far enough by foot while the extra time to get to a car may be critical. We just don't know what is reality in the face of some crises. It is easy to feel helpless.
So human decision making is not always up to the challenges of immediate crises, but there is another type of crises to consider. We may not be up to the challenge of slowly developing crises that we ourselves are causing. We seem to have lots of gambles going now as much goes wrong in the natural, political,financial and international spheres. Lurking in the back of consciousness is the idea that we have these long-term gambles going along with a mega gamble on climate change.
Tsunamis arrive within minutes and but climate change could put us in hot water that is just as deadly and much longer lasting. I heard a vivid image of such a hot world described by Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation's magazine's environmental correspondent. The ideas were from his new book "Hot: Living Through the Next 50 Years on Earth" by (see http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/2011/01/29/hot-living-through-the-next-50-year/ for a review). Using a variety of experts Hertsgaard envisions how day-to-day life might change, for what he calls Generation Hot, in the next 5, 10, and 50 years. For Generation Hot, the brutal summer of 2010 was part of the new normal for their future.
In Hot he describes a Chicago with the climate like Houston's. There is crop damage to prairie and California due to drought and snow pack melt off. Such things as extraordinary heat, rains, drought and flooding that occurred in the summer of 2010 are projections from the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization and they fit the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s projections of “more frequent and more intense extreme weather events due to global warming.” We face a series of crises and the tsunami floods we see today in Japan may be emulated by stronger tropical storms of the next 50 years.
But listening to Hertsgaard the situation is not yet like the helplessness caused by the tsunami. His "pictures" of what to expect, includes creative precautions and that's what we need in the face of a challenging reality. We may be able to understand the situation enough to meet what he calls the“double imperative” of the climate fight. “We have to live through global warming,” he writes, “even as we halt and reverse it.” One part are initial priorities that experts call “mitigations” like deep emissions cuts . The other is to do everything we can to prepare for the inevitable effects of the climate change currently "baked in". Hertsgaard leverages the thinking of people like King County executive Ron Sims (who now is the deputy administrator at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). Sims has worked on the redesign needed to adapt to climate change in urban areas like Seattle, Washington. In the light of recent catastrophes there are cautions to consider. In Hertsgaard we hear a motivating message mixing concern with cautious hope. Something to consider as we face the immediate crises.
As a youth I read quite a bit of science fiction which is often upbeat about human possibilities. But one hard SF writer Larry Niven added notes of caution for our future. Taking an alien perspective (Trinocs) of human psychology, Niven's fictional character comments that "humans are insufficiently suspicious" of possible threats. From an alien perspective we seem much to anxious and ready to gamble with our survival in situations where we have no idea of the odds. The Trinoc wonders how we "have survived up till now(from A Hole in Space). Maybe by luck, but now we have to be doubly wise.
See also http://www.thenation.com/video/158886/climate-change-deniers-arent-skeptics-theyre-cranks for his critique of climate deniers).
Thursday, March 10, 2011
One says that an asteroid has just been detected that will hit the earth in 2015. Another says that taking vitamin B3 daily can improve your cholesterol levels. A third says that increasing defense spending will help balance the budget. Another says that evidence of extraterrestrial life has been found in an Antarctic meteorite. A fifth one says that the Gospel of Mark has been dated as having been written between 40 and 50 CE. And finally, a story that people who prayed to a statue of Krishna have been cured of cancer and blindness.
How do you, as a lay person with a full-time day job, determine which ones to believe, and which ones to disregard?
I don't have a good answer, by the way. I'm hoping you can suggest something in the comments.
All such articles are trying to "sell" you an idea, in a broad, general sense. Sometimes the selling is literal, as when a company tries to convince you that you're a pathetic malodorous loser who'll never be accepted by the in-crowd or find true love unless you buy their product. Other times, it's metaphorical: "I want you to know this, because..." well, that's the question, isn't it? "Because we'll all benefit if people who will implement these ideas get elected." "Because I'll make a ton of money if you help elect people who'll implement these ideas." "Because I care about you and your health." "Because this will help save your soul from eternal damnation." "Because this idea, while bland, is true, and I think it's better if we know the truth."
It would be great if there were a single source to which one could turn to to get the truth, or if news articles came with a little checkmark, the way Twitter shows that "neilhimself" is the famous Neil Gaiman, while "NeilGaiman" is someone else. Unfortunately, that's not the case. The problem is that true ideas and false ideas can look an awful lot like each other.
But it occurs to me that nature has come up with a solution to this problem. In sexual species, males often try to communicate that "you should mate with me; I'll provide our offspring with plenty of food, and they'll be resistant to parasites and predation." In such cases, it's often advantageous to lie: a male who convinces a female he's in it for the long haul can impregnate her, then ditch her to impregnate someone else. Preferably while some other male sucker gets stuck caring for the liar's offspring.
So what's a female to do? How does she figure out who's serious about helping to feed the kids, and who's just trying to get inside her cloaca? One solution is known as costly signaling. "Signaling" refers to the "I've got great genes" message, above. The "costly" part means that the signal should be sent in a way that's difficult or expensive (in time, effort, ability, etc.) to fake. The usual example is that of the peacock, who demonstrates his worth by the fact that he's managed to survive despite having a huge, flashy tail that prevents him from flying, and hinders escape from predators. If he's managed to overcome such a handicap, he must have superior genes indeed.
The idea of costly signaling is more general than that: it basically means that the signaler has to invest enough effort or resources into the communication to be taken seriously, that cheating isn't worth it.
(As an aside, I can think of a few possible instances in human society: an engagement ring sends the message that "I'm willing to spend a pile of money on a small rock; so I'm in this for the long haul, not just for a quick fling". Taking a prospective client to dinner or to a ball game says "We don't do this for just anyone; but we're willing to do what it takes to get your business." And an Italian sports car and designer clothes say "I have so much money that I can afford to waste it on an expensive logo. Of course I'll be able to feed our family and send our kids to college.")
So getting back to my original point, it might be possible to identify costly signals to distinguish trustworth news sources from untrustworthy ones.
For instance, was the article published by a major news outlet, or by some local paper you've never heard of? In principle, the greater the reputation of the publication, the more editors and fact-checkers it has had to pass through to get published. Unfortunately, given the state of American journalism, this may not be as safe an assumption as one might hope.
A related criterion might be: do they have a fancy web site, or does it look like it was slapped together by someone's kid in the 1990s? Unfortunately, this doesn't work at all, since organizations like Americans for Prosperity, BP, and Answers in Genesis can easily afford good web designers.
Do the authors have letters after their name? An article on medicine written by an MD, or an article on science written by a Ph.D. is probably more trustworthy than one written by a beat reporter. The time and effort required to go through grad school or med school to obtain those letters should weed out the fakers.
Of course, the competence has to be in a relevant field: I tend to trust what Paul Krugman writes about the economy, because he has a degree and a Nobel prize in economics, but not if he writes about, say, medicine or geology.
And, of course, it's very easy to just say that one has a Ph.D., or to buy a degree from a diploma mill, without putting in the effort to learn a subject well enough to speak authoritatively about it. To combat this, there accreditation institutes that investigate schools and give their stamp of approval to the ones that require students to learn something before graduating. Of course, now that a lot of people have learned to ask "is your degree from an accredited school?", there are accreditation mills, which will accredit any diploma mill for a fee.
Has the author published any peer-reviewed research? Peer review is intended as a filter to make sure that research journals don't publish any old garbage. This criterion is probably pretty good, though not flawless. For one thing, it usually requires effort on the reader's part to seek out the author's publication record. For another, various creationist organizations publish cargo-cult "peer-reviewed" journals where articles are reviewed by a panel of fellow creationist before publication.
Trusted endorsements: this might be called the poor man's peer review. When Phil Plait, an astromer, writes a blog post that links to a post on astronomy, that's a good sign. It means that the article on the other end of the link hasn't raised Phil's baloney-meter. That tends to make me trust the article more, because Phil would notice errors that I wouldn't.
Does the site link to contrary views? In its heyday in the 1990s, one notable difference between the pro-evolution site talkorigins.org and anti-evolution sites was that talkorigins.org usually linked to the creationist sources they were discussing, and to creationist rebuttals of their articles. To me, this said "we're going to make it easy for you to read the other side's rebuttal, because we're confident that the facts are on our side, and even if you read both sides, you'll agree with us."
Any others? Ideally, the sort of costly signal should be something hard for the writer to produce, and easy for the reader to verify, without requiring too much effort (because we want to dismiss bogus claims quickly) and without requiring special knowledge. And if the criterion fits on a bumper sticker, so much the better.
Wednesday, March 09, 2011
Sounds kinda similar to Hillary Clinton's "Vast Right Wing Conspiracy", doesn't it? You remember, the one everybody laughed about till she shut up in embarrassment?
Well, laugh no more. That very conspiratorial scenario is being played out, right now, in living color - in Michigan, in Wisconsin, Ohio and almost thirteen other States! Madam Secretary, I apologize for my skepticism - please take a bow!
The Michigan Senate is considering legislation that would allow the state to declare towns or school districts in a state of fiscal emergency, appoint an emergency financial manager, and give that manager very, very free rein. This at the same time that they are considering budget measures that would eviscerate State payments and revenue sharing with local municipalities, which threatens to cause widespread fiscal panic and crisis in the State. "Those powers include the ability to nullify collective bargained agreements, imposition of new agreements for those bargaining units which will have effect for as much as five years after the EMF leaves office and the ability for the manager to dissolve local governing bodies of schools and cities," reports the Michigan Messenger. "The EMF would also have the power to eliminate any local ordinance or law he or she decides to eliminate."
This is sounding less like a simple attack on collective bargaining or even the Democratic Party, and much more like a naked attack on the very basic foundation of this country's values - democracy itself. It is solid proof that there IS a right wing conspiracy that is plotting (and has been for forty years) to overturn this country's democracy in favor of a kleptocracy.
It is a small group that has used religion, economic class warfare, culture warfare, economic and natural disasters and now, human manufactured economic crises (multiple ones in multiple States) to further their nefarious ends by dividing the middle class of this country, thus reducing opposition.
At the risk of sounding like a shrill crier of "wolf", I think it is important for all of us, not just on the left, to pay attention, close attention, to what the Republicans are doing.
Is it just my imagination, or are Republicans voting in large homogeneous blocks more than ever before, across the country? Has this kind of Party discipline EVER been seen in American politics? Maybe it has, but for it to manifest itself at this particular time, in the way it has, seems certainly suspicious, and not a little alarming. Look at Wisconsin for a minute. Over two thirds of the Wisconsin public has sent a clear, unambiguous message to that State's government that they are opposed to the Governor's attempts to force his way, and oppose his measures to kill collective bargaining. Yet, almost to a man, they have resisted this clear message, using unfair, nasty and underhanded tactics to force their will on a public that is opposed to and unwilling to support their position.
This same scenario is being played out in several other States, to similar public resistance.
I ask, is this really democracy in action? Or is there something else at work here?
I’ve seen any number of economic experts testify on TV that the recent recession was caused by the big American banks and Wall Street’s investment companies. Is it a coincidence that those are the very corporations that got bailed out using your taxes? Aren’t those the corporations whose top executives are getting huge bonuses in spite of their companies almost going out of business? Bonuses that are made possible largely by your taxes?
And what happened after that? The Democrats got one of their signature goals, health care reform, passed, and the Republicans spent almost the whole period before the election using that to smack the Democrats over the head, accusing them of failing to create jobs. Jobs that American corporations themselves failed to create, much to the puzzlement of numerous economists. (...and in spite of many corporations reporting record profits, too!)
So what do the Republicans immediately start doing once they win the election? Forget the jobs, the real problem, we are told, are things like abortion, gay marriage, and the deficit! Things that, coincidently, are perfect to excite their supporters and continue to divide the huge American middle class.
Yeah, perfect to excite the deluded masses of Americans that will fail to examine how their religious values are being exploited to bring an end to American democracy, all while they are being told by the Tea Party that the Party is devoted to its preservation against those evil big government big spenders, the Democrats.
Once again, religion is being used to bring the masses back under control.
Doug and Don have laid out their positions on whether morality is objective or subjective. There are a lot of these dichotomous views of things. Is knowledge innate or learned is one of these and perhaps a bit related to what Doug and Don where debating. Sometimes it is useful to take a different stance and see what makes sense. I wanted to add a few words on the morality issue coming from a different direction which sort of comes down in the middle of this. The perspective is ask where does (human) morality come from? Or put another way - how does it develop in us”. We might ask if we can objectively study its development. This understanding might tell us a bit about how we want to describe it based on the ingredients that make it possible.
There are some recent studies on both human infants and non-human animals that lead people to describe "morality" as predisposed and constrained (if not exactly innate). Paul Bloom (Yale) for example has studied the "Moral Life" of young (1 year old) babies who haven't had much time to be instructed in the cultures ideas so this gets at the origin of human ideas of right and wrong. In a NY Times article last year he described how researchers "watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands" (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09babies-t.html - see the 5 minute video on how infants are studied). The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head. "
There were lots more studies with lots more babies but the key point of the article was to summarize the growing body of evidence which suggests that:
"humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be."
So I would make a suggestion that we can objectify some understanding of where human morality comes from, but I want to add that it develops and is influenced by personal experience and culture. In this view there is a degree of morality that is constrained by the species evolution.
I also want to add that this comparative topic of where ours and other species "morality" comes from is also under study. Professor Frans de Waal, a primate behaviorist at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, has a good book on the evolutionary basis of morality and there are several others. De Waal summarizes his belief on the origin of human morality this way:
"Human morality was not formed from scratch, but grew out of our primate psychology. Primate psychology has ancient roots, and I agree that other animals show many of the same tendencies and have an intense sociality."
Here is an example about ownership, which it seems, has old primate roots. In decades of observations at the Yerkes colony, de Waal has noted that if the chimpanzees are given shareable food (like a big watermelon) they will race to get their hands on it. This, he believes, is because whichever chimpanzee gets the watermelon first, even the lowliest cur, will be respected as the owner of that morsel by the most dominant chimpanzee. De Waal concludes this seeing that even if mates beg and whine for some of it, no one will take the food away.
You can read more in his recent book "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society" or see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frans_de_Waal
Below is a bit of the argument. I want to stress that this is an organized argument with hypotheses and some data, which researchers are working on. So this isn’t established but an empirical form of some version of this may become a well supported “theory”.
The basic idea is that some substrate for morals tendencies are "inherited” in mammal brains through evolution. These were selected to provide a "social glue" that allowed some mammals (often aggressive and competitive animals, E.g. wolves) to live together in groups. Group life provided advantages so the social glue factors gets selected. During play, dominant wolves for example, will "handicap" themselves by engaging in roll reversal with lower ranking wolves, showing submission and allowing them to bite, provided it is not too hard.
One formulation is that what we might loosely call "moral codes" are species specific, (wolves social cohesion may have been selected in different ways than chimps for example) making them difficult to compare with each other or with humans. In this view there are moral nuances of particular cultures or group swill that make them different from another.
Various ethologists have compiled evidence from around the world that shows how different species of animals appear to develop a sense of thing we generally label as “ fairness”. Behaviorally they display empathy and help other animals that are in distress. One example people may have seen in film are displays of elephants concern for an injured elephant. But experience and culture plays a part in how intelligent species express their concerns. They are organized in different ways that we human describe as moral codes...a cultural phenomena.
So you can see some of the resulting perspective on morality expressed by Frans de Waal,:
"I don't believe animals are moral in the sense we humans are – with well developed and reasoned sense of right and wrong – rather that human morality incorporates a set of psychological tendencies and capacities such as empathy, reciprocity, a desire for co-operation and harmony that are older than our species."
Does view this make morality objective or subjective? Well to me the answer is not exactly either, but the question of how morality develops in individuals and its phylogenetic origins is a question we can study objectively.
Tuesday, March 08, 2011
In a rather tendentious argument about inside-baseball Jewish stuff, comes the following:
"When a Jew gives tzedakah, he's basically a Divine being accepting human obligations; he is basically humbling himself, lowering himself into the worldly human condition. When a non-Jew gives charity, he is basically a human being trying to elevate himself to something more Divine. So are the Jew and the non-Jew doing the same thing? Not at all. They're doing opposite things. The same act, but coming from opposite directions and accomplishing opposite results." (The full context can be found athttp://mondoweiss.net/2011/03/anti-muslim-hate-rally-organizer-eliezrie-to-teach-%e2%80%9ckabbalah-of-love%e2%80%9d-at-jewish-federation-vegas-mega-event.html.)
Now, this is an extremist point of view from an extremist strain of Judaism. Most members of liberal Jewish organizations would find this horrifying. My own liberal Hebrew Day School taught me many years ago that the concept of the "Chosen People" means that Jews are chosen for special responsibilities, not some version of quasi-divinity. And these same liberal Jews are quick to cite the obligation to Tikkun Olam -- fixing the world -- as the real responsibility of the Jewish people.
And yet. Even the liberal version of Jewish chosenness is fraught with problems. The concept of the special covenant between God and Abraham, inherited by every Jew, is central to Judaism. Many have argued that the concept of an exclusive contract with the divine is one reason the Jewish people survived centuries of exile and persecution. Only the divine dictat of an in-group could prevent assimilation into the surrounding culture, goes the argument. Perhaps so.
But as anyone who works on Middle Eastern issues realizes, this same concept complicates the concept of a Jewish state for a Jewish people. It infects arguments over land and history and sovereignity with an ethnocentricity that is understandable but often pernicious in practice. And, of course, a victimized people in a theocratic state, where ultra-religious rabbis regularly provide racist rulings to justify discrimination and occupation, is not usually going to be conscious of how the concept of chosenness has been used and perverted for political ends.
The Jews of Israel confront a people, the Palestinians, who are largely Muslim and have their own narrative of oppression and victimization -- a narrative also complicated by the religious dictats of Islam. Islam also insists on revealed truth available to its own adherents. What major religion does not?
Musing over Jewish history in the context of Israel is inescapable for anyone involved in the issues there, professionally or personally. Understanding that even liberal "Jewish values" involve self-imposed separation from the rest of the world, a paler and more acceptable version of the outrageous Chabad concepts, is not a popular notion among well-meaning social-justice Jews.
But it's the world I live in, and I'm stuck with it.