Monday, 7/11/22

Culture, here and there

Universalism to the West, imperialism to the rest

Alone among civilizations the West has had a major and at times devastating impact on every other civilization. The relation between the power and culture of the West and the power and cultures of other civilizations is, as a result, the most pervasive characteristic of the world of civilizations. As the relative power of other civilizations increases, the appeal of Western culture fades and non-Western peoples have increasing confidence in and commitment to their indigenous cultures. The central problem in the relations between the West and the rest is, consequently, the discordance between the West’s—particularly America’s—efforts to promote a universal Western culture and its declining ability to do so. The collapse of communism exacerbated this discordance by reinforcing in the West the view that its ideology of democratic liberalism had triumphed globally and hence was universally valid. The West, and especially the United States, which has always been a missionary nation, believe that the non-Western peoples should commit themselves to the Western values of democracy, free markets, limited government, human rights, individualism, the rule of law, and should embody these values in their institutions. Minorities in other civilizations embrace and promote these values, but the dominant attitudes toward them in non-Western cultures range from widespread skepticism to intense opposition. What is universalism to the West is imperialism to the rest.

Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations (Kindle page 183)

Transnational capital and the progressive Left

This bears, and rewards, close reading:

Why would transnational capital be parrotting slogans drawn from a leftist framework which claims to be anti-capitalist? Why would the middle classes be further to the ‘left’ than the workers? If the left was what it claims to be – a bottom-up movement for popular justice – this would not be the case. If capitalism was what it is assumed to be – a rapacious, non-ideological engine of profit-maximisation – then this would not be the case either.

But what if both of them were something else? What if the ideology of the corporate world and the ideology of the ‘progressive’ left had not forged an inexplicable marriage of convenience, but had grown all along from the same rootstock? What if the left and global capitalism are, at base, the same thing: engines for destroying customary ways of living and replacing them with the new world of the Machine?

The post-modern left which has seized the heights of so much of Western culture is not some radical threat to the establishment: it is the establishment. Progressive leftism is market liberalism by other means. It enables the spread and growth of Machine society by launching an all-out war on any cultural norms that remain to us in the 2020s: norms which act as a brake on the spread of Machine values. The left and corporate capitalism now function like a pincer: one attacks the culture, deconstructing everything from history to ‘heteronormativity’ to national identities; the other moves in to monetise the resulting fragments.

Paul Kingsnorth, available at his Substack and now at Unherd (excerpted by Alan Jacobs).


Thinking outside a 50-year-old box

[T]he modern American anti-abortion movement that emerged by the late 1980s was an ecumenical joint with an evangelical id and a [narrow] sense of what it meant to be “pro-life.” In place of a broad societal vision, it had a highly specific legal goal: regulating the practice of abortion … Organizing, funding, and political activity all centered on this singular effort. Everything else was noise.

Thus, though American pro-life activists have had decades and plenty of encouragement to tackle the privations—poverty, poor housing options, and limited access to child care—that seem to precipitate many abortions, their attention has instead remained obdurately trained on regulating the practice of abortion itself …

Nevertheless, the triumphant post-Dobbs press releases had to say something, and most of them gestured at precisely the kind of legislation that the anti-abortion movement has adamantly ignored for the past 50 years …

A better tack: Rather than tee up an exhausting, decades-long legal battle over whether crisis pregnancy centers (the modern anti-abortion movement’s preferred delivery method for services, money, and goods for women in need) ought to receive state funds and under what conditions, agree that pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care should all be free, and demand that the federal government make it so.

This would require veteran pro-lifers to take on a trifecta of onerous tasks: moving on from a narrow fixation on regulating the practice of abortion itself; taking up welfare as a cause just as worthy of political agitation as abortion; and overcoming a veritable addiction to liberal tears, indisputably the highest goal of American politics at this point in time, and which militates against human flourishing in every case. It’s time the pro-life movement chose life.

Elizabeth Bruenig.

I kinda like it.

Truth will out

In 1973, David Attenborough presented a BBC documentary that included an interview with one of the leading modern synthesists, Theodosius Dobzhansky. He was visibly distraught at the “non-Darwinian evolution” that some scientists were now proposing. “If this were so, evolution would have hardly any meaning, and would not be going anywhere in particular,” he said. “This is not simply a quibble among specialists. To a man looking for the meaning of his existence, evolution by natural selection makes sense.” Where once Christians had complained that Darwin’s theory made life meaningless, now Darwinists levelled the same complaint at scientists who contradicted Darwin.

Stephen Buranyi, Do we need a new theory of evolution? (emphasis added).

I’ve paid so little attention to supposed faith/science controversies in the last decade or more that this story kind of blindsided me. Suffice that any need for an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis is not an argument for young-earth creationism.

Meanwhile, the slip of the tongue — that natural selection fills an existential need for meaning in the lives of some scientists — was interesting and blindsided me only by its candor.


I learned many women, especially lesbians, have experienced periods of wanting to be men in intense and visceral ways, ways that met the diagnostic criteria for GID or gender dysphoria, but were eventually really glad that they had instead made peace with themselves as one type or another of unconventional women.

I am grateful for the perspective transition has given me on how the medical-industrial complex fails women and girls in pain.

I understand why someone would feel transition saved their life. Do others understand that transition can also do profound harm?”

From Ryan T. Anderson, ‌When Harry Became Sally, Kindle pages 1203-31.

Saying such things today qualifies as "transphobia" and will get your book censored by our corporate overlords at Amazon. (See above on "Transnational capital" and Anthony Esolen, below.)


Envying the Brits

For an American liberal … the schadenfreude brought by [Boris] Johnson’s collapse is mixed with envy. We are watching a still-functioning democracy dispatch its bombastic populist leader because his amorality and narcissistic dishonesty were simply too much … Mired as I am in the demoralizing squalor of American politics, I’m jealous of the relative quaintness of the scandal that finally brought Johnson down: lying about someone else’s sexual misconduct! … Imagine having final straws!

Michelle Goldberg, The Delightful Implosion of Boris Johnson

Thinking outside the duopoly

I was reading in the New York Times this morning that the Democrats are looking at the four major planks of their new policy to see if they are going to have to take anything out when it comes to family benefits. They were looking at the child tax credit, paid medical leave, universal pre-K, and—I can’t remember the fourth one. All of the people they polled said, “Hey, we think universal pre-K is best.” And here I’m thinking, well, it doesn’t surprise me that the state thinks that’s the best way to handle the situation, because at the end of day, they want to directly control what the family looks like. They specifically say, we want everyone to be in the workforce.

I’m all for women working in the workforce. But if the family is the basic structure of society and of economic policy, then we want to be creating policy for the benefit of the family. Does the family benefit by us putting three-year-olds in school all day long and paying for it so mom can go out and work? That’s problematic because it doesn’t respect the nature of the family—not, as many people have said, like the child credit, which gives the family the opportunity to do what they think is best for their family with the funds they get. That might be daycare so mom can work. It might be so that mom or dad can stay home and be with the family.

Neither side respects the family. On the right, they only respect the corporation, and on the left, they only respect the state. And they’ll do whatever they can to squeeze the benefits out of us until there’s nothing left.

Alan Mickle, of the American Solidarity Party, which I’m pleased to learn is (at least by some measures) America’s fastest-growing third party.

Great Replacement Theory 101

The right wing version is that immigrants, especially immigrants of color, outbreed people who were born in the country, so that descendants of the former will “replace” descendants of the latter. This is supposed to be bad.

The left wing version is that immigrants, especially immigrants of color, trend more to the left than people who were born in the country, so that leftists will “replace” conservatives. This is supposed to be good.

Both versions of the theory are nuts.

As to the former version: If the country becomes browner in a few generations, so be it. People who are too selfish to have children deserve to be “replaced” by people who love them.

As to the latter version: Immigrants who are acquainted with the politics of the country are often quite conservative; they don’t want to lose what they’ve worked and suffered to attain. So if left-wingers think immigration will lead to the “replacement” of conservatives by liberals, they may have it backwards.

J Budziszewski

The fallacy of Boromir

When people justify their voting choice by its outcome, I always think of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien emphasizes repeatedly that we cannot make decisions based on the hoped-for result. We can only control the means. If we validate our choice of voting for someone that may not be a good person in the hopes that he or she will use his power to our advantage, we succumb to the fallacy of Boromir, who assumed he too would use the Ring of Power for good. Power cannot be controlled; it enslaves you. To act freely is to acknowledge your limits, to see the journey as a long road that includes dozens of future elections, and to fight against the temptation for power.

Jessica Hooten Wilson, What ‘The Lord of the Rings’ can teach us about U.S. politics, Christianity and power.

If people have always said it, it is probably true; it is the distilled wisdom of the ages. If people have not always said it, but everybody is saying it now, it is probably a lie; it is the concentrated madness of the moment.

Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff here (cathartic venting) and here (the only social medium I frequent, because people there are quirky, pleasant and real). Both should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly or Reeder, should you want to make a habit of it.

CRT! (and some other stuff)

I’m trying out a new theme for the appearance of this blog. I often want to do quotes-within-quotes, and my current theme not only doesn’t do that (at least with Markdown files as the source), but makes the attempt look amateurish. I hope the new theme does better.

Mediocrities everywhere!

The 1984 film, Amadeus, tells the story of the child genius, Mozart. IMdB describes it in this manner:

The life, success and troubles of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as told by Antonio Salieri, the contemporaneous composer who was insanely jealous of Mozart’s talent and claimed to have murdered him…

Mozart’s genius is so profound that it is little more than a toy in the hands of a very spoiled and immature boy/man. Salieri feels that, in Mozart’s existence, God is mocking him. He has dedicated his life to his work, even “to the glory of God,” and nothing he produces can be compared to the slightest trifle of Mozart’s irreverent gift. In the last scene of the film, Salieri, now confined to a mental institution (from where he is relating the tale) blesses the world:

“Mediocrities everywhere! I absolve you!”

Salieri implicates the whole of the world in his crime, describing himself as the “patron saint of mediocrities.” It is one of the most deeply affecting scenes I have ever encountered.

His crime is driven by envy. It is a story that brilliantly exposes the reality that envy is the product of shame and our inability, or unwillingness, to bear it …

[M]ost of the time throughout history, there is a slow and steadfast persistence of grace that, on the one hand, sustains us in our existence, and, on the other, constantly makes the fruit of our lives exceed the quality of our work. We offer him what is mediocre, at best, and He yields back to us thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred. Indeed, we fail to understand that what some might judge to be “mediocre” is itself a work of grace.

… We are beloved mediocrities who have been commanded to become gods (by grace).

Fr. Stephen Freeman, ‌Mediocrity, Envy, and Grace


CRT is far from the most important topic in this blog installment (see above for something far more important), but it seems to be click-baity.

Seriously, I’m trying for more than click-bait here. We have too much of that on this topic.

The “zero-sum” race mistake

Virulent racists and anti-racist activists would seem to have little in common, but in fact they tend to agree on one mistaken premise: Race relations are a zero-sum game. If whites are doing well, it’s at the expense of members of other races. If members of other races are doing well, it’s at the expense of whites.

On the racist (or “white nationalist”) side, this assumption means that members of other groups need to be subordinated so that whites can thrive. For anti-racists, this means that since whites have benefited at the expense of other groups, whites will now have to give up their “privilege” and reduce their own standard of living to allow other groups to thrive.

In fact, whites, as a group, don’t benefit from discrimination against, or oppression of, other groups, except perhaps psychologically if such discrimination and oppression make them feel superior and such feelings of superiority make them happy. But from a purely economic perspective, wealth comes from gains from trade, and the wealthier your trading partners, the more wealth you can accrue.

David Bernstein, Racists and (Many) Anti-Racists Make the Same “Zero Sum” Mistake –

Stumbling over their own anti-CRT feet

I think my point is clear at this point. The defenses of anti-CRT laws are time and again running aground on the rocky shoals of … the actual anti-CRT laws. Welcome to the incredible difficulty of drafting speech codes. For decades, some of the smartest minds in higher education, Big Tech, and elsewhere have been trying hard to draft laws that ban the ideas they don’t like without sweeping too broadly or creating unintended consequences.

The allure is obvious. If we have the power to ban harmful speech, why not ban harmful speech? But the execution is always clumsy and dangerous if it’s broad, and narrow to the point of irrelevance if it’s precise. Another National Review pal, Ramesh Ponnuru, put things well in his own contribution to the debate in Bloomberg. “But regulation can be defensible in principle,” he says, “without a particular regulation being wise in practice. Some of the provisions in these bills are vague and sweeping.”

Yes, yes they are. But then Ramesh makes this vital point: “The more precisely these laws are written, though, the less they will proscribe and the easier they will be to evade.”

Yup. And that’s exactly why I circle back to my proposal—better curriculums and civil rights litigation. Thus you give teachers the confidence to teach something concrete and real without creating a fear that even their own course materials might suddenly be illegal …

David French, Even the Defenses of Anti-CRT Speech Codes Show the Problems With Anti-CRT Speech Codes

What’s really inflaming the CRT fights?

Again, I want to start with what the new progressivism is interested in changing. One change involves increasingly familiar terms like “structural” and “systemic” racism, and the attempt to teach about race in a way that emphasizes not just explicitly racist laws and attitudes, but also how America’s racist past still influences inequalities today.

In theory, this shift is supposed to enable debates that avoid using “racist” as a personal accusation — since the point is that a culture can sustain persistent racial inequalities even if most white people aren’t bigoted or biased.

… [T]he basic claim that structural racism exists has strong evidence behind it, and the idea that schools should teach about it in some way is probably a winning argument for progressives. (Almost half of college Republicans, in a recent poll, supported teaching about how “patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other institutions.”) Especially since not every application of the structural-racist diagnosis implies left-wing policy conclusions: The pro-life and school choice movements, for instance, regularly invoke the impact of past progressive racism on disproportionately high African-American abortion rates and underperforming public schools.

What’s really inflaming today’s fights, though, is that the structural-racist diagnosis isn’t being offered on its own. Instead it’s yoked to two sweeping theories about how to fight the problem it describes.

First, there is a novel theory of moral education, according to which the best way to deal with systemic inequality is to confront its white beneficiaries with their privileges and encourage them to wrestle with their sins.

Second, there is a Manichaean vision of public policy, in which all policymaking is either racist or antiracist, all racial disparities are the result of racism — and the measurement of any outcome short of perfect “equity” may be a form of structural racism itself.

The first idea is associated with Robin DiAngelo, the second with Ibram X. Kendi, and they converge in places like the work of Tema Okun, whose presentations train educators to see “white-supremacy culture” at work in traditional measures of academic attainment.

Ross Douthat, ‌The Excesses of Antiracist Education (bold added)

CRT dissent

I don’t even think the far left’s attempt to dismantle liberal democracy through critical race theory has been entirely a bad thing. It has revealed a consensus too: that we need to do better in telling the brutal truth about our white supremacist past. It’s been encouraging that even Republicans now agree that the Tulsa Massacre, one of the darkest moments in American history, should be taught without any attempt to disguise its evil. If this helps historians — and not critical race theorists — to uncover more of this shame, and to reckon with it, we will be a stronger country for it. It’s a real gain to have bipartisan support for a new federal holiday celebrating Juneteenth. And it’s also clear that the stealth campaign to indoctrinate children in the methods of CRT has begun to meet a real obstacle: parents of all races and backgrounds appalled by its racism.

Andrew Sullivan, Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part III. This one was near the top for me personally: Boring news cycle deals blow to partisan media – Axios

Angels on the head of a pin

A glib speaker in the Brains Trust once entertained his audience (and reduced the late Charles Williams to helpless rage) by asserting that in the Middle Ages it was a matter of faith to know how many archangels could dance on the point of a needle. I need not say, I hope, that it never was a “matter of faith”; it was simply a debating exercise, whose set subject was the nature of angelic substance: were angels material, and if so, did they occupy space?

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning

Elusive expression

The humanists felt that literature was closer to life, that it provided a better lens onto the moral and spiritual life of man. In short, they elevated imagination to its rightful place alongside faith or reason as one of the fundamental faculties of human nature. Erasmus often vented his frustration when his comic and satirical works were attacked and misunderstood. Those “whose ears are only open to propositions, conclusions, and corollaries” are deaf to the more subtle literary techniques of irony and ambiguity.

Gregory Wolfe, Beauty Will Save the World

Propositional truth, once a hallmark of evangelicalism, is making way for more elusive means of expression, such as narrative, image, and symbol.

Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation

Trump’s legacy

Wehner: What do you think is the most important legacy that Trump will leave?

Rauch: In the world I’m thinking and writing about, it’s that he has modeled for all time to come how to apply Russian-style disinformation in U.S. politics. And although he may have particular genius at doing that, this is an art that lots of people can practice. The KGB practiced it very successfully for a long time, not because they were geniuses, but because they had technicians who knew how to do it.

So it’s not just Trump anymore. I think he’s transformed the Republican Party into an institutionalized propaganda outlet; I think he’s had the same effect on conservative media, and that’s very hard to pull back in. Because once people start doing that, and they know it works, they continue to do it. And also the Republican base is in on it. They like it.

Disinformation is a participatory sport, not a spectator sport. It’s fun to tell yourselves narratives about how you really won; the other side cheated; you’re heroically taking back democracy; you’re in an existential fight against evil; you’re saving the country. This is way more fun than the boring truth. So the base now has picked up this style of spinning conspiracy tales, telling them to itself, acting on it; and the base is now leading the politicians. I don’t know how you put that genie back in the bottle. I think that’s maybe his most important contribution.

Peter Wehner, Jonathan Rauch on America’s Competing Totalistic Ideologies

Politics of loneliness

Work more often involves analysis of symbols (ideas and numbers) and takes place mostly within our own heads, mediated by technology, with remote work also becoming more common in recent years.

Damon Linker, ‌The politics of loneliness is totalitarian.

Linker lists several likely culprits for the surge of friendlessness over the past 30 years, but this one converged (I think) with other reading I’m currently doing.

Giving up on prohibition

Michael Pollan, whose writing about food I’ve admired, is turning to the “D” in FDA these days, advocating (with some nuance) for legalization of may currently illicit drugs. He’s especially fascinated by hallucinogenics, but hasn’t overlooked opioids:

Many people (myself included) are surprised to learn that the overwhelming majority of people who take hard drugs do so without becoming addicted. We think of addictiveness as a property of certain chemicals and addiction as a disease that people, in effect, catch from those chemicals, but there is good reason to believe otherwise. Addiction may be less a disease than a symptom — of trauma, social disconnection, depression or economic distress. As the geography of the opioid and meth crises suggests, one’s environment and economic prospects play a large role in the likelihood of becoming addicted; just look at where these deaths of despair tend to cluster or the places where addiction to crack cocaine proliferated.

Two findings underscore this point, both described in Johann Hari’s 2015 book on drug addiction, “Chasing the Scream.” Much of what we know, or believe we know, about drug addiction is based on experiments with rats. Put a rat in a cage with two levers, one giving it heroin or cocaine, the other sugar water, and the rat will reliably opt for the drug until it is addicted or dead. These classic experiments seemed to prove that addiction is the inevitable result of exposure to addictive drugs, a simple matter of biology. But something very different happens when that experimental rat is sprung from solitary confinement and moved to a larger, more pleasant cage outfitted with toys, good food and companions to play and have sex with. This is the so-called rat park experiment, devised by a Canadian psychologist named Bruce Alexander in the 1970s. He and his colleagues found that in this enriched environment, rats will sample the morphine on offer but will consume a small fraction of the amount consumed by rats living in isolation, in some cases five milligrams a day instead of 25. Dr. Alexander came to see that drug abuse isn’t a disease; it’s an adaptation to one’s environment and circumstance — to the condition of one’s cage.

The second phenomenon Mr. Hari recounts took place at the end of the Vietnam War. Some 20 percent of U.S. troops became addicted to heroin while in-country. With the war coming to an end, experts worried about tens of thousands of addicts flooding America’s streets. But something unexpected happened when the addicted service members got home: Ninety-five percent of them simply stopped using. It made no difference whether or not they received drug treatment. This is not to minimize the harm done by heroin to those who couldn’t quit; it is only to suggest that there is much more to addiction than exposure to an addictive drug

Michael Pollan, How Should We Do Drugs Now? (The New York Times)

I think Pollan is right that legalization of a lot of drugs is where the country is headed. I’m far from convinced that it’s a good trend, but am leaning toward “opposed but not distraught”.


We shouldn’t forget that two of the most destructive drugs in use today — alcohol and tobacco — have long been perfectly legal. Having wisely given up on prohibition, we’ve worked hard as a society to regulate their use, deploying both laws and customs. Recognizing the dangers of tobacco, we’ve desocialized its use over the past 50 years, devising rules and taboos about when and where one may smoke. Along with high taxes, these expressions of cultural disapproval have substantially reduced tobacco use …

There’s enough libertarian in me for that to sound pretty good, and that’s without getting into how enforcement of drug laws disparately affects some minority groups — part of the “systemic racism” that’s hard to deny.

New construct: “Luxury Surveillance”

I am not without sin when it comes to Luxury Surveillance, the willingness, if not eagerness, to adorn oneself and one’s life with tools of surveillance capitalism.

On the good side, I shut off the microphone on my Amazon Echo so Alexa can’t listen in on daily life. (A lot of people say Amazon started sending ads for things that had been discussed in Alexa’s hearing.) On the bad side, I was drooling over Apple Watch this week — an itch I ended up scratching with a $30 Casio dumb watch.

But really, read the article Luxury Surveillance and see if you want to play in this game. Or if you can’t change your life without getting furious, you can read ‌Delete Your Amazon Prime Account. Now..

Debriefing Covid

The last thing I would say is sort of a core failure is Zoom. I think many people think Zoom is what liberated us—were it not for Zoom, how bad would this pandemic have been? But my counterfactual is different. Zoom allowed a lot of upper-middle-class white-collar people the ability to work and make money and not lose their jobs, and to exclude themselves from society. That fundamentally changed the pandemic. If you went back 15 years ago, and you didn’t have Zoom, you would be facing unprecedented layoffs of wealthy, upper-middle-class people. I think a lot of businesses would have had staggered schedules and improved ventilation. Schools would have pushed to reopen. Amazon Prime and Zoom and all these things in our lives allowed a certain class of people to be spared the pains of COVID-19, taking them out of the game, and making them silent on many of the issues that affected other communities.

The closing of those schools doesn’t have a relationship to the spread of the virus, or the hospitalizations, or the deaths. It’s only really related to the political valence of the town, and the strength of the teachers union. Strong union towns that are left-leaning were far more likely to be closed than right-of-center places that have weaker unions. What sense does that make? That’s certainly not a virus driving that decision. It’s a policy decision. It’s playing politics with kids.

Vinay Prasad, associate professor in Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California San Francisco, interviewed (along with others) by Emily Yoffe in ‌What We Got Wrong (and Right) About COVID-19

Orbital obliquity

SciTech Daily:

Planets which are tilted on their axis, like Earth, are more capable of evolving complex life. This finding will help scientists refine the search for more advanced life on exoplanets. […]

“The most interesting result came when we modeled ‘orbital obliquity’ — in other words how the planet tilts as it circles around its star,” explained Megan Barnett, a University of Chicago graduate student involved with the study. She continued, “Greater tilting increased photosynthetic oxygen production in the ocean in our model, in part by increasing the efficiency with which biological ingredients are recycled. The effect was similar to doubling the amount of nutrients that sustain life.”

“Orbital obliquity” is one of those scientific terms — like “persistence of vision” and “angle of repose” — that just cries out for metaphorical application.

All of the writers and thinkers I trust most are characterized by orbital obliquity. They are never quite perpendicular; they approach the world at a slight angle. As a result their minds evolve complex life.

(Alan Jacobs, orbital obliquity – Snakes and Ladders)

Weary of hearing what he has never heard

The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgements; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard.

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

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Adam & ho anthropos

NPR’s Talk of the Nation Thursday had a 30-minute segment on “Christians Divided Over Science of Human Origins. Apart from a few callers and e-mailers, the discussion was basically between Daniel Harlow of Calvin College and Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

I will not even try to sort out their debate overall, but Mohler said something I believe to be demonstrably false. Continue reading “Adam & ho anthropos”

The paradox of the self-denying mind

I jokingly said on FaceBook a few weeks ago that I thought I’d lost my need for certainty over the last decade, but I wasn’t sure. One of the areas which no longer move me to indignation very often is the “Creation/Evolution” controversy.

As if by force of habit, however, I do still read about it when I stumble onto something. I probably have 3-4 unread books in that general area, as well as having read a dozen or more over the years – and a dozen is probably a gross underestimate.

I’m not really competent enough in the hard sciences to rely on primary sources sources, but there are some accounts for intelligent non-scientists that seem to be at a fairly high level. I take them all with a grain of salt, however, as (1) it has become clear that everybody has an ax of some sort to grind – else they wouldn’t be writing about it and (2) one side sounds pretty good until I revisit the other side.

There are Christians whose integrity and intelligence I respect (it is because I respect and read them that I stumble onto articles and books on the controversy as often as I do) who are adamant foes of evolutionary theory and proponents of Intelligent Design. But I don’t share their visceral passion. They may be right and I may be wrong. I was wrong once.  (Thought I was a second time, but I was wrong.)

Here’s my full bona fide, extemporaneous disclosure of what ax I have to grind – I who can go weeks at a time without thinking about the controversy:

  1. “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” (Nicene Creed)
  2. I.e., I believe there is an invisible creation, which conventionally is called “supernatural” but is in fact just as created as the visible, “natural” created world. The key distinction is not nature versus supernature, but created versus uncreated. And only the Holy Trinity is Uncreated.
  3. The uncreated Holy Trinity is impenetrable by science or reason generally, but has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. That’s Himself. Not scientific detail about the past. (And not – cover your eyes, Hal Lindsay and Tim LaHaye – details of earthly life that are yet future.) The Old Testament preeminently reveals Christ typologically; secondarily, it reveals God’s dealings with earthly Israel and its neighbors. If there’s tertiary purpose – and there probably is – it doesn’t come readily to mind.
  4. Although there are Orthodox Christians – including Father Seraphim Rose, who was no intellectual slouch – who adhere to something like a full-throated Creationism® (used as a term of art for creation in 6 days of 24 hours about 6,000 – 10,000 years ago), I do not by any means understand that to be obligatory. My own position, very lightly held except for the preceding points, is generally Intelligent Design rather than Creationist®.
  5. Whatever else you can say about it, the theory of evolution has been scientifically fruitful. So, I’m told, was the theory of alchemy. If you can get the whole Guild on the same page, it tends to make things interesting and productive even if the theory later collapses. So evolutionists have not been dogmatically hanging onto a delusional and unproductive theory just because it reinforces a prior commitment to metaphysical naturalism (though one of their own famously said he’d prefer any natural explanation to any supernatural explanation because of such a prior commitment).
  6. I do not understand Darwin to have said anything about the origins of life – only about The Origin of Species.
  7. I don’t think neo-Darwinism has much more to say about the origins of life than did Darwin – except, perhaps, a few just-so stories.
  8. I believe in what Wesley J. Smith calls “human exceptionalism.” Regardless of the origin of the human species in evolutionary terms, there’s within us a microcosm of the one in whose image we are made.

Believe it or not, that’s all preliminary. The actual occasion of this posting is my discovery (if I’d read it before, I had forgotten) of an essay by polymath George Gilder, titled Evolution and Me. Gilder does not diminish the importance of others’ work in Intelligent Design, but takes his own path away from any materialistic reductionism through Information Theory:

I came to see that the computer offers an insuperable obstacle to Darwinian materialism. In a computer, as information theory shows, the content is manifestly independent of its material substrate. No possible knowledge of the computer’s materials can yield any information whatsoever about the actual content of its computations. In the usual hierarchy of causation, they reflect the software or “source code” used to program the device; and, like the design of the computer itself, the software is contrived by human intelligence.

The failure of purely physical theories to describe or explain information reflects Shannon’s concept of entropy and his measure of “news.” Information is defined by its independence from physical determination: If it is determined, it is predictable and thus by definition not information. Yet Darwinian science seemed to be reducing all nature to material causes.

As I pondered this materialist superstition, it became increasingly clear to me that in all the sciences I studied, information comes first, and regulates the flesh and the world, not the other way around. The pattern seemed to echo some familiar wisdom. Could it be, I asked myself one day in astonishment, that the opening of St. John’s Gospel, In the beginning was the Word, is a central dogma of modern science?

In raising this question I was not affirming a religious stance. At the time it first occurred to me, I was still a mostly secular intellectual. But after some 35 years of writing and study in science and technology, I can now affirm the principle empirically. Salient in virtually every technical field — from quantum theory and molecular biology to computer science and economics — is an increasing concern with the word. It passes by many names: logos, logic, bits, bytes, mathematics, software, knowledge, syntax, semantics, code, plan, program, design, algorithm, as well as the ubiquitous “information.” In every case, the information is independent of its physical embodiment or carrier.

I wont go much beyond that teaser about any details. Gilder speaks for himself, and you’ll find him persuasive or not for yourself.

But I do want to say this: I have difficulty seeing this as a “breakthrough description of the case against Darwinism” (Discovery Institute blurb) in any way that should affect non-scientists like me. Perhaps it really is a breakthrough scientifically (don’t expect to see white flags waving, however), but I’ll relegate that question to the scientists themselves.

For non-scientists like me, Gilder’s argument is cumulative evidence that there’s more going on in humanity, if nowhere else, than that which can be explained materially. The proverbial “bottom line” is kind of old hat:

Materialism generally and Darwinian reductionism, specifically, comprise thoughts that deny thought, and contradict themselves. As British biologist J. B. S. Haldane wrote in 1927, “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose my beliefs are true . . . and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” Nobel-laureate biologist Max Max Delbrück (who was trained as a physicist) described the contradiction in an amusing epigram when he said that the neuroscientist’s effort to explain the brain as mere meat or matter “reminds me of nothing so much as Baron Munchausen’s attempt to extract himself from a swamp by pulling on his own hair.”

Analogous to such canonical self-denying sayings as The Cretan says all Cretans are liars, the paradox of the self-denying mind tends to stultify every field of knowledge and art that it touches and threatens to diminish this golden age of technology into a dark age of scientistic reductionism and, following in its trail, artistic and philosophical nihilism.

Anyone who has taken philosophy knows that the “meat machine” is – well, a philosophical possibility. But I can’t live that way. And every word the materialist says to prove materialism to others says that he can’t live that way, either.

As I lose my need for absolute factual certainty, that’s evidence enough for me.