Philosophy: July 2007 Archives

As I was posting my latest post in my Christianity and Politics series at the conservative philosophy blog Right Reason, I thought it might be nice to put together a post here linking to all the posts in the series. I will update this post as I add posts there. Posts 7 and 8 are tentatively titled, and I may even restructure what I hope to cover in remaining posts.

1. Introduction: Christian and Politics (Guest Blogging)
2. Augustine on Civil Government: The Two Cities
3. Augustine on Civil Government: Two Further Preliminaries
4. Augustine on Civil Government: Authority
5. Augustine on Civil Government: The City of God and Compromise
6. Christian Political Political Participation
7. Religious Motivations in Politics
8. Religion and the First Amendment

The Problem of Waste

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A while back, Stephen Colbert had biologist Ken Miller, who teaches at my alma mater (although I never took a class with him), on his show to talk about evolution and intelligent design. Miller is known for being a devout Catholic who supports the scientific consensus of contemporary evolutionary theory. It's a a strange interview. One of Miller's main points is that people who deny evolution can't explain why we need flu shots every year, since the flu virus evolves to the point that old vaccines won't cut it. This is, of course, a terrible straw man argument, because even the most vehement critics of evolution don't deny evolution within a species, what they call microevolution.

But one argument struck me as particularly strange. Miller seems to think waste is a problem for intelligent design, since God designed things that went extinct. Oops! Fossils show God's mistakes. Miller thinks he has a higher view. God set in motion a process that gave rise to everything on this planet, and it shows God's greatness that he used evolutionary processes. So he has a theological reason for favoring the non-ID model.

But wait a minute. Doesn't the theistic evolution model have the same problem? Aren't there all these things that resulted from the process that God initiated that got left behind? If God set in motion the processes that lead to evolution of more complex species, you still get species that result from that process that die out. You get waste. Did God intend that result? If so, then the same problem arises for Miller. Something God designed died out. If not, then we seem to have a denial of God's purposes in creation. Is this the idea common in deism that God sort of set things up but didn't concern himself with the details of how it turned out? That's not very Catholic of Miller, who claims to be a pious, orthodox Catholic. But those seem to be his only options. Either there are forms that were designed by God that no longer exist, or those forms were not designed by God and do not fall under his plan of providence.

So it turns out that this is really an argument against theism and a doctrine of providence, not an argument against intelligent design. This is just puzzling. I don't know Miller's views on providence, but it seems to me that his argument is misdirected either way it turns out, and it should apply as well to any theistic evolutionary view that holds to the theological positions of the Roman Catholic Church. It's really just a particular case of the problem of evil, and I don't really know his views on that issue either. But whatever else is true, this isn't a problem for ID any more than it is for theistic evolution.

Update: Check out the excellent comments on Ted Poston's Prosblogion post on this subject. I'm in full agreement with almost all of the comments to this point (7:42 EST Aug 1, 2007), and some of them are making some of the points I wanted to make in this post but in a much better way. There are also some considerations there that hadn't occurred to me at all but seem right.

My final Augustine post is up at Right Reason, Augustine on Civil Government: The City of God and Compromise. The foundation is now laid for me to apply these general principles in a contemporary setting in my next post.
The next post in my series at Right Reason is up, entitled Augustine on Civil Government: Authority. This post moves a little more into socio-political issues. The next post will be my last on Augustine's own views, finally getting to the main question of Christians and civil government, and then I'll move on to a contemporary focus and how I'd extend the basic Augustinian view to the sitution of an evangelical Christian in the United States today (i.e. my own case).

My second post on Augustine and Civil Government is up at Right Reason. It's entitled Augustine and Civil Government: Two Further Preliminaries, for lack of a better name. It looks at two more background issues, one related to divine governance and the other on the subject of what kind of collection of people counts as "a people", both of which will be relevant for his more concentrated treatment of the primary subject I'm interested in, which is how Christians should relate to civil government. 

My next post in the series on religion and politics is up at Right Reason. It's called Augustine on Civil Government: The Two Cities, and it provides some of the background on Augustine's general views before I launch into his direct treatment of the issues I'm going to focus on.

[Cross-posted at Prosblogion]

At Prosblogion, Trent Dougherty links to an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Michael Ruse called Creationism. The SEP is usually very good, and I have to say that Ruse is much more reasonable on these issues than many in the anti-ID movement. He understands the positions he's criticizing a little more accurately and usually represents them a little more fairly. Any philosopher knows a lot more philosophy than Richard Dawkins, but Ruse stands out as someone willing to discuss the philosophical issues as philosophy, while many in the debate are dismissing them as other things (usually as religion or as bad science).

But this piece reveals that in some ways he does display a number of symptoms that I find throughout the anti-ID movement. Trent calls the article deplorable, and I do wonder how this got published in the SEP. It's not as bad as anything you'd find in Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins, but it's actually worse in some ways than the Wikipedia entries on these issues, which I don't have a very high opinion of.

Devin Carpenter asks in a comment why Trent finds the piece deplorable, and I decided to type up my reasons, which quickly got long enough that I didn't want to leave it as a comment. So here are some of why I consider this to be a fairly bad Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy entry. This is only after a quick skim and then once through with a closer read, so I may have misunderstood him in some places (although a couple times I think he may be at fault if I did). But I'd be very surprised to have gotten him that wrong on all these issues. Some of these are more minor and may well just be pet peeves of mine, but I think a number are much more serious. I'm listing them in the order they occurred to me as I was reading through the article more carefully.

1. He claims that six-day creationists are enthusiastic about Intelligent Design, which is simply false if he's referring to the arguments of Dembski, Behe, and Johnson (which his later section on ID makes likely). Most creationists in the narrow sense do not support ID arguments of that sort, since they think such arguments concede too much to evolutionist and to old-earth creationism. The ID leaders want to include six-day creationists, but they've had a hard time winning them over.

In two previous posts, I first presented an account of deontological ethics in which it is sometimes ok to go against moral principles in order to previous seriously grave consequences. Moral principles are not all absolutes. Many of them have thresholds, and if the consequences are bad enough the principle is no longer in effect. I then argued that this kind of deontological view allows a pro-life voter to vote for a pro-choice candidate who is not as bad (to a pro-lifer) than a more strongly pro-choice candidate (and who is better in the voter's mind on other issues).

Now I want to apply the same kind of reasoning to a situation within the Republican primary. A commenter on this post said the following:

Actually, it is NOT the federal government's purpose to protect our life, liberty, and property. The federal govt's job is much narrower than that, and is spelled out clearly in Article 1, Sec 8, for anyone who can read. If you insist on giving the feds more powers than those granted by the Constitution, you promote lawlessness and open up to the Congress and Executive a boundless field of power, no longer subject to definition.

The Bill of Rights doesn't say, "Congress shall make laws protecting our freedom of speech" (for example.) No, rather it's a negative, "Congress shall make no law..." Congress is prohibited from infringing on our rights. The Constitution should be viewed as a restrictive document, defining and restraining federal power.

The only crimes Congress has a right to punish are piracy, counterfeiting, and treason. Murder, jaywalking, rape, embezzling do not fall under federal jurisdiction, therefore may not be punished by the feds. Abortion is murder. But even if abortion were "healthcare" it would still be without federal jurisdiction, as healthcare is not listed among the enumerated powers.

To insist that the feds must prosecute abortionists is to trash the whole Constitution in letter and spirit. If we amend the Constitution to prohibit abortion (in order to restrain the out of control courts) then we are also putting the nail in the coffin of federalism, and altering the spirit of the Constitution.

Ron Paul is the most principled and consistent opponent of abortion in DC today! He is principled rather than pragmatic; ends do not justify means.

One issue is the original meaning/intent of the Constitution as opposed to all that's been added in how courts have interpreted the Constitution and how the government now functions as a result. The U.S. Constitution does give a very narrow purpose for Congress's role. But two things might be said for rejecting such a narrow view today, and neither involves the idea of a living Constitution that typifies judicial liberalism.

Does the Constitution set up the judiciary branch to interpret the law and the Constitution? The Constitution never speaks of judicial review (although the Federalist Papers do). The Supreme Court is never given any task at all in the Constitution itself, although it is said to have power extending to all cases in law and equity that arise under the Constitution. But power to do what?

A few days ago I posted about the differences between deontological and consequentialist views in ethics. Consequentialists think consequences are all that matters in terms of evaluating the moral status of an action. Deontologists think other factors can sometimes trump consequences, and thus you'll end up with situations when doing the right thing requires doing something that doesn't lead to the best consequences.

My main point in the post was to defend a moderate deontological position in one respect. Absolutists think the moral principles that are more important than consequences are always more important than the consequences. In other words, absolutists hold that deontological moral principles always apply, and consequences are irrelevant. A moderate deontologist in this respect will argue that deontological principles are not always absolute in that sense. Sometimes consequences will be so much more important that the principle doesn't truimp the consequences in that case. These deontological principles will then have a threshold. If the consequences are serious enough that they surpass the threshold, then the principle no longer holds for that action. If they are below that threshold, then they hold.

An example of how this works comes from Plato. It's usually wrong to steal, and if you borrow something it's usually immoral to refuse to return it. But what if you borrow your friend's sword, and your friend returns to you asking for the sword after you've discovered that your friend intends to use it to commit a great evil? Plato argues that it would be wrong to return the sword, even though normally you ought to do so. The moderate deontologist explains this in terms of this particular action being above the threshold for the immorality of stealing (or more precisely of refusing to return borrowed possesions).

In the rest of this post, I'd like to apply this line of thought to the first case I presented at the outset of my previous post. I want to say that in those cases a deontologist can say what I want to say without being a consequentialist. The first case was a pro-life voter who shudders at pulling the lever for someone as pro-choice as Rudy Giuliani, even if the consequence of pro-lifers taking such an attitude is that the even more pro-choice Hillary Clinton would be guaranteed to become the next president. Two things matter here. One is that Rudy Giuliani really is preferable to Hillary Clinton according to pro-life criteria, even if both are much closer to the not preferred end of the spectrum. The second is that the moral principles at stake here are not absolutes, and in certain situations above the threshold the principles no longer apply.

As a fiscal conservative with federalist tendencies, Giuliani doesn't think the federal government is the place to further such an agenda. He didn't even further it at the local level when he was mayor of New York City. He simply retained the status quo. Hillary Clinton would much more militantly pursue a pro-choice regime.



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