Twisting the Just War Doctrine: Ideological Thinking

Posted April 15, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: morality, philosophy

The religion editor in today’s New York Times (4/14/07) discusses the continuing effort of George Weigel, a lay theologian and activist often identified with the neocons, to show that the war in Iraq and all we have done there is consonant with the Just War Doctrine, so central to moral discourse, particularly among Roman Catholics. Apparently, many catholic writers take issue with Weigel on this matter, as well they might. A core dispute, according to the article, is Weigel’s refutation of the common assumption in more liberal Catholic circles that the Just War Doctrine begins with a “presumption against war”, a point these circles make especially when considering war in its modern forms. Weigel says this is not at all the case. War, according to Weigel, should be seen as a “neutral instrument of statecraft. If, for example, we believe we have a responsibility to assure security, justice, and freedom in the Middle East, then it is not against the doctrine to use war as the means to these good ends.

I bring up Weigel and his views because George is a long-time acquaintance. I first worked with him when I was par of the World Without War organization, and later when as a member of the Freedom House staff, I would run into him and people of similar views such as Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran minister who became a Catholic along the way. The species seemed to have a great deal in common with the neocons, who were, in turn, close to those I knew at Freedom House and Hudson Institute, as I knew along the way Richard Perle and William Schneider.

They were and are a well-meaning lot. But they were and are ideologues. They seemed over the years to grey from clever conservatives to increasingly ridiculous conservatives, persons who had simply lost touch with the outside world. I think back to my college years when I was a convinced pacifist concerned with the likes of satyagraha. For a few years everything I read and did may the conviction that I was right still stronger. I was in a pacifist cocoon, the type of cocoon I find these gentlemen in. Everything in their world proves them right day after day, and the foolishness of those on the outside seems immense.

After the Hudson and Freedom House experiences I vowed to myself to never again be or act like an ideologue. In fact, I came to hate ideologues of all stripes. Ideology, at least in the world outside hard science is a straitjacket that constrains, diminishes and ultimately overwhelms all thoughtful contribution. Those who would build toward a new enlightenment must be aware of the danger of putting on such blinders as they grow in self-righteousness.


Morality and Evolution

Posted March 24, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: morality

A couple of recent articles in the Times (one in the Science section) have again raised the question of the origins of morality. One discusses a study of Chimpanzees that demonstrated their ability to empathize with one another. (“Sympathize” is something else again; the difference should be considered.) They would sense that an individal needed help and would go to its assistance. “Lower” monkeys were unable to do this as reliably. Parallel to this, a study of brain injured persons showed that injury to a a particular part of the brain changed the moral calculus of individuals. When faced with a decision to kill a baby to make possible the survival of the group, the brain damaged individuals showed little compunction about killing the baby. “Normal” people found this much harder to do. The conclusion was that there was something in the normal human makeup that made certain actions almost unthinkable, whereas these controls had been removed when a certain part of the brain was damaged.

This research strengthens my feeling that moral behavior probably has a distinct evolutionary basis. The people who survived and reproduced generation after generation were those able to identify their interests with those of the group, and to establish emotional as well as intellectual limits on their behavior. (This is evolutionary selection on a group basis, a case doubted by many evolutionists, but I do not see why.) As one researcher suggested, human beings evolved before the Ten Commandments. What we have developed culturally as codes of behavior are intellectual selections and extrapolations from this biological base. The greatest difference between the ancient, emotive morality and the intellectualized moralities of civilization, is that some of the latter have been able to transcend the in-group and extend moral rules to all human beings — or even all beings. This extension frequently fails to work; it is more talked about than employed. But even the effort is quite an accomplishment. It is doubtful that Chimpanzees would have any concept of Chimpanzee rights, while they do have a strong moral sense governing their interactions within their in-group.

Spirituality Misdefined

Posted March 15, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: morality, philosophy, ways of life

Consideration of the Templeton Prize offers an opening to understanding what the demand for greater spirituality in American life seems to come down to.

The most recent Templeton prize has been to Charles Taylor, a professor at Northwestern University. The Templeton Foundation was set up to study the “Big Questions”, ranging from questions about the laws of nature to the nature of creativity and consciousness. Yet in practice the Foundation has seemed intent primarily on proving that religion has a significant part to play in understanding the human condition, or that religion is an important alternative to science in investigations of “reality”. The person presently in charge describes himself as an evangelical Christian.

The Prize is given every year to a person who has made a significant contribution to “Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities”, or, in other words, makes the best attempt to “expand human perceptions of divinity and to help in the acceleration of divine creativity”. Its monetary value is always set a bit above that of the Nobel prize to accentuated the Foundation’s belief that its goals are of greater significance.

After looking at several of the writings of Charles Taylor on the internet, he seems to have served Foundation purposes quite well. From his position as a philosophy professor, he attacks modernist thinking or “overcoming epistemology”. What this seems to mean, for example, in a discussion of religion and violence is that the scientific method does not make possible the construction of platforms from which to apprehend what is better and what worse in human behavior or human arrangements. Thus, while religion has led to violence on many occasions, so have anti-religious movements such as communism and fascism. The conclusion of all this is that societies exist and must exist on a foundation of belief that continues over time and expresses the judgment of the community in preference to that of rational argument.

What this comes down to is an argument that we should cling to religious beliefs because science is unable to provide answers either behaviorally or rationally to the existential or social questions that face succeeding generations. Since science either cannot address such questions convincingly or does not, then we must all as a society accept the religious beliefs that have guided the past. This will hold us together more firmly into moral communities and will offer the greater happiness to all.

This seems to me a ridiculous way to approach knowledge. Let me quote from a letter I published in the New York Times Science section on March 7, 2006.

In his essay ‘The Oracle Suggests a Truce Between Science and Religion’ (Feb. 28), William J. Broad argues that a truce should be declared in the ”war between science and religion” because neither answers all the questions that humanity confronts. He criticizes the arrogance of Daniel Dennett and Edward O. Wilson for appearing to claim that science will ultimately be able to solve the problems that religion has traditionally addressed.

While no one wants a ”war,” Mr. Broad does not seem to understand that it is the continued unwillingness of most scientists to confront irrational religious claims that threatens both political and educational progress, particularly in the United States.

Science may never be able to answer all questions, but it is healthier to leave some questions unanswered than to fill the voids with nonsense.”

The Templeton Prize is awarded, then, to persons, often scientists, who are interested in instilling character as well as knowledge into their students (and readers). By “character”, what seems to be meant is belief in the precepts and fundamentals of religious traditions. The facts that numerous studies have failed to show behavioral advantages for true believers over nonbelievers within our society or to show that there is any correlation between social behavior and the extent of religious beliefs in societies, perhaps rather the reverse, are simply ignored. We are then being urged by the Templeton Foundation and all right-minded folk to believe in two mysteries — the mystery of how apparently nonrational dogmas can be “true” and the mystery of why the advantages of believing in these dogmas fail to show up in behavioral studies.

There is quite a different meaning of spirituality that even the most irreligious can subscribe to.  Michael Shirmer has pointed out the scientific side of spirituality in the following passage: 

Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one’s place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond ourselves. There are many sources of spirituality; religion may be the most common, but it is by no means the only. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality-art, for example. Consider the 1889 post-Impressionist painting ‘The Starry Night’ by Vincent van Gogh. It is a magnificent swirl of dark and light, punctuated by stars, with the sky and land delineated by horizon, and the infinite vastness of space hovering over humanity’s tiny abode.”

Van Gogh painted the conflict between body and soul, between objective and subjective, and between outer and inner experiences. As he told his brother, Theo: “I retain from nature a certain sequence and a certain correctness in placing the tones. I study nature so as not to do foolish things, to remain reasonable-however, I don’t mind so much whether my color corresponds exactly, as long as it looks beautiful on my canvas.” In fact, van Gogh described ‘The Starry Night’ to his brother as “an attempt to reach a religious viewpoint without God.” Read “spiritual” for “religious.”

Religion and Evolution

Posted March 6, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: morality, philosophy, ways of life

There has been another rash of religious discussions of religion-nonreligion controversies in the New York Times. One, by its religion editor, summarized some harsh criticisms of scientific god-bashers that have recently been issued by other scientists. Essentially, the criticism of the god-bashers is that their learning is not grounded sufficiently in theology to mount an effective and convincing case against the religionists. In fact, some of the critics have studied a good deal of theology. But the essential point is that the study of theology is hardly a necessary prelude to a criticism of many aspects of religion. It is as though one said that astrology could not be criticized without a thorough grounding in the arcana of astrology, or that Voodoo can only be dismissed by those thoroughly indoctrinated in its rituals and beliefs.

In the most general terms two levels of the discussion should be distinguished. One level addresses the question of whether there is a god who intervenes directly in human affairs, or, in other words, a god who can be prayed to with an assumption that prayers will move him (or her) to a particular action. The atheist says that this assumption fails on three grounds. First, there is little or no evidence of the effectiveness of prayers to such a god. Second, there is no conceivable mechanism by which such a god would intervene. Third, there is no conceivable reason why such a god, if he or she existed, would want to intervene in human affairs. It doesn’t take much theology to make these arguments. On the second level, we can understand god to be an indescribable entity or force existing outside of time and the events of our lives. This God may be a prime mover or the creator, the being responsible for it all. This God cannot be disproved by science. However, since it is a scientific principle that what cannot be disproved, cannot be proven, the existence of God, and of belief in such a God, lies beyond the concern of scientists who attack religion.

The question of how evolution might have brought about religious belief, or specifically belief in God is more interesting. This Sunday’s NY Times magazine has a somewhat confusing account of the ways in which anthropologists have approached this issue. We need not consider the bulk of their evidence. But the discussion led me to raise two points. First, Human beings are probably the only creatures with an existential consciousness. Specifically, they are the only creatures who are conscious of the fact that they and those dear to them will die, will apparently cease to exist, bringing to an end all that their existence has meant. It does seem likely that much of religion has been created as a psychological defense against the acknowledgement of this fact. This defense would obviously have survival value, for it would make possible more confidence in a variety of situations, including mortal combat and resistance to disease, and those with more confidence would have more progeny etc. Secondly, religious beliefs and symbols when shared by the members of a community have a survival value for that community, for it gives the individuals in it something of value beyond the values specific to the individuals in it. To believe in a group’s religion is actually to believe in the group and its values, to share in its existence. It might appear that it would not make a great deal of difference what these beliefs were. But it may also make a difference in that the more irrational the beliefs, the more they go against normal ways of thinking, the greater the sacrifice of the members in adhering and adhering openly and repeatedly to these beliefs. I have often noticed that groups that appear to have particularly unlikely beliefs, such as the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses are also those most likely to sacrifice for their group. The strength of their group is enhanced by their flagrant willingness to set aside the natural for the supernatural. Fundamentalisms thrive on this fact; at the extreme violent cults thrive even more on this willingness. Incidentally, to make this last point is to accept the position that evolution is based as much on the ability of groups to survive and procreate as that of individuals. Although many biologists appear to reject this position, I simply do not understand their rejection.

Free Will: Does It Exist?

Posted January 10, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: morality, philosophy

A recent article in the New York Times Science section addressed the question of the existence of free will. This is the perennial topic for anyone trying to understand himself or herself and the world they live in. The question inevitably places rationalists in a quandary. Most “believe in” science. Science is based on the study of observable cause and effect. This means that when we examine human actions, we do not look for causes in the will of actors but in the concatenation of events that have preceded their actions. But if this is so, then there are no actors, there are only  automatons. An individual cannot know that he has freely willed something to happen. Forgetting his internal life for a moment and analyzing himself from a distance, it would be easy for him to conclude that his life is a complex cycle of cause and effect and nothing more. He doubts that he wills his dream life, and finds it hard subjectively to distinguish his dream life from his daytime life. Although human beings have an irreducible, subjective sense that they are controlling their lives, at least to a degree, they find it impossible to know this objectively about themselves, and apparently equally impossible to know it objectively about others. through the objective study and analysis. The number of variables for a full explnataion of why a person made decision X instead of decision Y would be incalculable. Many possible factors would remain unknown, let alone their etiology. Even a deliberate attempt to escape causation by doing something really wild, by breaking out of one’s usual routine, can be seen as a precaused attempt to prove one’s freedom that is as devoid of freedom (or not) as any other action.

Legal and religious institutions assume free will, or at least are structured as though their sponsors believed in it. Society could punish a crime for purely instrumental reasons: as a deterrent or as a means of taking a dangerous person out of circulation. But it generally has greater pretensions, as when it asks for a person to declare his “guilt”. Much of religious thought in our heritage also assumes that sin is the result of conscious decisions. Therefore, we are left with the uncomfortable religious proposition that God created and decided all things and yet decided to allow a restricted area of freedom so that He might test his creations. He wanted to see what would happen apparently. This is not a very elevated narrative to my mind.

In the science piece, Overbye (“Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t”, January 2) confuses the issue further by implying that conscious decision and free will are two sides of the same coin. They are in fact quite distinct, as a reconsideration of the Libet experiment he describes should suggest. He writes that in the experiment, “The  volunteers were asked to make random motions, like pressing a button. . ., while [Libet] noted the time on a clock.” On the basis of brain imaging techniques, he found that the “brain signals associated with these actions occurred half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them.” “In short”, we are told, “the conscious brain was playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion . . .” But the experiment did not show that the sense that the individuals were making the decisions were illusory. One could just as reasonably say that the volunteers had evidently decided on another level to do what Libet asked them to do. They then set up a semi-automatic neural response system to carry out this request. It was a two-step process similar to what a tennis player goes through when he plans to go down the line if the serve lands on his right. In the event, the details of his execution may appear unconscious, but the decision to go down the line could arguably be said to have been conscious.

Free will is both an impossibility and a necessity. If I think that I do not have free will, then my expression of this thought is as determined as would be the thought that I have free will, if I do not. In a deterministic universe, we cannot escape the shadow of determinism, even when it falls across our deterministic arguments. I am afraid that understanding free will must forever remain beyond our grasp. What is in our grasp, as the article suggests, is the intuition that without some freedom, our lives would hardly be worth living.

Sincerity and Authenticity

Posted January 9, 2007 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: morality, philosophy, ways of life

In an recent Op-Ed. Orlando Patterson, a well-known African American sociologist, who has been much concerned with issues of discrimination takes on the distinction between authenticity and sincerity as this was outlined in the 1970s by Lionel Trilling. The issue is an important one for anyone interested in a new enlightenment.

To Patterson and Trilling, sincerity is an attitude or social opinion that is expressed through actions, while authenticity is achieved when an action (or a statement, which is another type of action) is understood to be an expression of what the active person “really is”. Patterson points out that the idea that we have to somehow get behind sincerity to the real core of an individual before we can judge him or her poisons social relations and our understanding of the world.

In the authenticity world, we look for emotional connections, we doubt the motives of others and ourselves. Instead of accepting at face value the behavior and statements of others, we ascribe to them motives and “deep values” that seem to cancel out what we loosely call “the surface”. This devaluing of the conscious in favor of vague insights into the subconscious poisons society.

Patterson argues that what matters is civility and tolerance, willingness to follow the social rules, to keep promises.

It is interesting that Islam long ago confronted this problem. To be accepted as a convert to Islam one must recite the Shahadah
(“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”). According to a well-known tradition, Muhammad was asked how to know if a convert really believed. He replied that if he recited the Shahada three times, he should be believed. The implication was that one should not “dig deeper”.

The enlightened world is a world in which people are to be judged by their actions and words rather than their “essences”. This is the only way in which we can work with people toward common goals.