Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Off to Rochester

On Thursday morning I will be flying to Rochester, New York to participate in the 18th Annual Midwest Conference on Combinatorics, Computing and Cryptography. Rochester? Pretty expansive definition of the midwest, I'd say.

Anyway, if any of my readers hail from Rochester and are curious as to what I do wehn I'm not doing this blog, stop on by! As you can see from this schedule, I got one of the coveted Saturday afternoon speaking slots.

Regular blogging resumes next week.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Tyranny of Rationalism

That's the title of this brief article from World magazine. It's author is Nancey Pearcey, who in other places has defended ID with considerable vigor. The article is an adaptation of a presentation given by Ms. Pearcey to the Heritage Foundation. Let's take a look:

Political groups are strategizing ways to bypass the gatekeepers to influence the election. The most powerful gatekeeper, however, is not a group of people. It's the dominant definition of truth: If a position does not fit the accepted definition of a genuine truth claim, then it will be simply filtered out of the debate.

We've seen several examples in this election. At the Democratic National Convention, Ron Reagan characterized opposition to embryonic stem-cell research as nothing but “an article of faith.” People are “are entitled to it,” he said, but their “theology” should not be allowed to guide scientific research.

For the record, here's what Reagan actually said:

Now, there are those who would stand in the way of this remarkable future, who would deny the federal funding so crucial to basic research. They argue that interfering with the development of even the earliest stage embryo, even one that will never be implanted in a womb and will never develop into an actual fetus, is tantamount to murder. A few of these folks, needless to say, are just grinding a political axe and they should be ashamed of themselves. But many are well-meaning and sincere. Their belief is just that, an article of faith, and they are entitled to it.

But it does not follow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many. And how can we affirm life if we abandon those whose own lives are so desperately at risk?

It is a hallmark of human intelligence that we are able to make distinctions. Yes, these cells could theoretically have the potential, under very different circumstances, to develop into human beings—that potential is where their magic lies. But they are not, in and of themselves, human beings. They have no fingers and toes, no brain or spinal cord. They have no thoughts, no fears. They feel no pain. Surely we can distinguish between these undifferentiated cells multiplying in a tissue culture and a living, breathing person—a parent, a spouse, a child.

Reagan is quite clear here that it is the idea that stem-cell research is tantamount to murder that is an article of faith, not opposition to stem-cell research per se. Furthermore, he then goes on to make an argument for why stem-cell research is not tantamount to murder. Nothing Reagan says here relates to the question of what is to be considered a valid truth claim. He is simply making an argument he hopes others will find persuasive.

If Pearcey has a counter-argument to show that Reagan is wrong, then I'd be happy to hear it. But it sounds like she is suggesting that if someone believes that stem-cell research is tantamount to murder, they should not have to defend that belief.

Now, it is possible that Pearcey is asserting that an argument like, “My understanding of Biblical principles tells me that stem-cell research is morally wrong, therefore such research should be outlawed”, should be considered valid in public discourse. She never comes out and says this, but that is the implication of what she does say. Of course, making law based on some people's interpretation of the Bible would be straight theocracy. If that's what Pearcey wants, then she should say it clearly. If that's not what she wants, then I'm not sure what point she's making by quoting Reagan.

Somehow I don't think Pearcey would be impressed by an argument that went; “My religion tells me that stem-cell research is A-OK, therefore it should be legal”. But how is that different from the sorts of arguments Pearcey is advocating here?

Pearcey continues:

Notice that people are invited to believe whatever they want—so long as they are willing to hold it as a subjective “article of faith,” not as objective truth relevant to public policy. Mr. Reagan is assuming the modernist definition of knowledge, which says that religion and morality are not a matter of genuine truth (as traditionally thought) but merely personal values.

This is often called the fact/value split. The assumption is that science gives us facts that are objective, rational, and value-free. The term “values” has been redefined to mean literally whatever I value—my personal preferences. They may be personally meaningful or culturally traditional, but they do not give actual knowledge about the world.

Once again, Pearcey is dancing around the central issue. It is a simple fact that people disagree on many religious and moral claims. I suspect Pearcey herself believes that all non-Christian religions are based on errors of fact about the world, and that moral claims at odds with her understanding of Christianity are wrong as well. The issue is not whether religious and moral claims are matters of &lduqo;genuine truth”. Rather, the issue is how we go about defending such claims.

An “objective fact” is one based on evidence that would be convincing to anyone of sound mind. Science can produce such facts, becuase everyone, Pearcey included, considers the methods of science to be legitimate. If religion has any comparable methods to offer, I am not aware of them.

In the context of Reagan's speech, presumably Pearcey is arguing that it is not a matter of faith that stem-cell research is tantamount to murder. It is a statement of fact. But statements of fact have to be defended on some basis. They can not merely be asserted. Science provides a set of methods for establishing certain sorts of truths. These methods have been so obviously effective for so long, that no one seriously argues with their validity. Revelation does not have a similar track record.

Pearcey apparently has some other method of truth validation in mind, and this other method is in some way religious. I wish she would just come out and tell us what it is.

She continues:

This provides a vital conceptual tool to decode today's campaign rhetoric. In the second presidential debate, when challenged on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, John Kerry said, “I really respect your—the feeling that's in your question . . . I respect it enormously . . . I truly respect it.” But he also restated his support for policies permitting both practices.

What's the underlying strategy here? First you placate religious conservatives by telling them how much you “respect” their feelings—but then you say that of course mere feelings are not something we can impose on others through government policy.

The late Christopher Reeve was particularly blunt. Talking about stem-cell research, he said: “When matters of public policy are debated, no religions should have a seat at the table.”

Reeve's point is clear and correct. If the only reason you have for advocating some public policy position is that your religion tells you it should be so, then you have no sound reason at all for advocating your position. To believe otherwise is to reduce public debate to a shouting match between rival religions. Again, if Pearcey is advocating theocracy I wish she would come out and say it.

Obviously, Pearcey regards it as a fact that abortion is murder. Other people disagree. How does Pearcey suggest we resolve this impasse? She obviously wants vaguely defined religious arguments to be taken seriously in public discourse, but, frustratingly, she never tells us what that actually means in practice.

To get a handle on the fact/value split, imagine you are presenting your position on some issue and the other person responds, “That's just science, that's just facts, don’t impose it on me.” Obviously, no one says that. But they do say, “That's just your religion, don't impose it on me.” Why the difference? Because science is thought to be public truth, binding on everyone, while religion is a private value relevant only to those who believe it.

But surely the difference is obvious. The fruits of scientific truth are all around us, where everyone can see them. As Richard Dawkins has noted, every time you get into an airplane you're taking it for granted that some engineer got his sums right. No one seriously argues that the methods that scientists use to establish the truth of their ideas are not valid methods. After all, the basic methods of science; inductive reasoning, experimentation, cataloging of evidence for and against a theory; are nothing more than applied common sense, as first noted by Thomas Huxley. Religion has no such methods to offer. The only distinctly religious sort of argument involves various forms of divine revelation. Sadly, it seems that everyone perceives such revelation differently. And there is no way to reconcile competing truth claims about God's desires.

So again I ask, on what basis is Pearcey asking us to accept the validity of religious propositions?

Pearcey concludes with:

This explains why Eleanor Clift, in Newsweek, criticized President Bush for allowing religious principles to inform public policy, but praised Sen. Kerry, writing, “He's not going to impose his religious beliefs on the country” but will govern by “rational decision-making.” The implication, clearly, is that religion is not rational. The article was actually titled “Faith versus Reason.” Notice the sleight of hand whereby secularism is passed off as merely “rational.”

The upshot is that Christians make a serious mistake when they talk about defending “traditional values” or “Christian values.” Once we allow religiously based positions to be labeled values, then the fact/value division will function as a gatekeeper to filter them out of the public debate.

For the last time, what does she mean by “religiously based positions”? What would it mean to allow such positions into the public debate? How do people of different religions resolve a disagreement regarding such positions?

Faith means belief without evidence. If you believe something based on evidence, that's not faith anymore. There are a great many things that I can not prove but believe nonetheless, but I make no attempt to force other people to live in accordance with those beliefs. That is precisely what Pearcey is suggesting in this essay. She clearly wants religious claims to be taken seriusly, but she offers no methods for determining the validity of such claims.