Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Comfort's Wager

The biggest howler in Ray Comfort's "Special Introduction" to the Mutilated Edition of On the Origin of Species comes not in the parts about Darwin, but in the Bible-tract preachment that makes up the last third of the piece. He offers the following instructive dilemma:
Imagine I offered you the choice of four gifts: 
  • The original Mona Lisa
  • The keys to a brand new Lamborghini
  • A million dollars in cash
  • A parachute
You can pick only one. Which would you choose? Before you decide, here's some information that will help you make the wisest choice: You have to jump 10,000 feet out of an airplane. (pp. 40-41)
The answer is supposed to be obvious, of course, though this is set up like one of those lateral-thinking exercises in which you take the keys to the Lamborghini and offer them as a bribe to some poor sucker who has one parachute and not a lick of sense . . .

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Affliction of Comfort

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species.  To mark the event, Ray Comfort (a.k.a. The Banana Man) of Living Waters Ministries distributed free copies of the book . . . last week sometime.

The edition of the book in question contains a strategically abridged version of Darwin's text with a 52-page introduction by Ray Comfort himself, drawing a direct connection between Darwin and Hitler and warning readers (*yawn*) of eternal hellfire, and so on.

Comfort has been a bit cagey about the whole thing, and the complete text of the introduction was recently removed from his website.  Before the big day, last week, Comfort stopped answering questions.  This from an article posted on the website of Living Waters Ministry:
From now on I will refuse to answer questions about the book or its contents," Comfort said, "because there is such a deep-rooted anger in the atheist world about this publication.

"They desperately want to stop us," he said, "and I don't want to give away any further details regarding the campaign."
Angry? Is he kidding?  I'm delighted! I managed to find a PDF of the introduction through another website.  I plan to spend a diverting hour or two playing Name That Fallacy.

It'll be like shooting fish in a barrel.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Politics Takes the Plunge

From time to time, I've made posts to this blog in which I've criticized political activists, from environmentalists to tea partiers, for engaging in ridiculous theatrics to draw attention to one cause or another.  Such useless and distracting political gestures typically serve only to obscure real, important questions of value and obligation that lie at the heart of most policy debates.

For all that, political theatrics can sometimes strike a chord.  For some reason, I found this one particularly touching:

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog, Blog, Blah, Blah

Today has been dubbed "Blog Action Day" by a group of people who have come together to dub today "Blog Action Day." Here's what the dubbers of "Blog Action Day" say about their event on their website:
Blog Action Day is an annual event held every October 15 that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day with the aim of sparking discussion around an issue of global importance. Blog Action Day 2009 will be one of the largest-ever social change events on the web.
Why have they done this dubbing?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Last week, while I was mulling over the principles of the 912 Project, I fell into a long and rambling conversation with the two other members of one of the bands in which I play fiddle.  The three of us have somewhat different backgrounds and come down in different places on the political spectrum.  Still, through our conversation, I started to glimpse the possibility of a new political movement.

I later dubbed it "The League of Noisy Moderates."

Lots of people are out there making lots of noise, motivated either by rigid ideology, nameless fear, or some other force that deprives their speech of nuance as it raises the volume.

Meanwhile, thoughtful people, those who might be willing and able to do the actual hard work of democracy, sit back quietly and shake their heads.

Enough of this. The time has come for those of us who are in the broad political middle - from thoughtful conservatives to thoughtful progressives, and everyone in between - to take to the streets in angry protest, demanding . . .

an end to angry street protests?

Oh, never mind.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Gold Standard

As I have been reconfiguring this blog, I have also begun to explore more widely what I've started to call The Skeptics' Corner of the blogosphere.  Some things I read this evening have converged with a few other threads that have been running through my thinking of late concerning the character of skepticism, all pointing to questions that require some sort of answer.

Here I am, ranging through human experience, subjecting beliefs and assumptions to the acid of doubt.  But what standard should I apply when I scrutinize beliefs and assumptions?  On what basis should I say this belief is faulty, but that belief is all right?

And then: To what end am I doing all this?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Death and Taxes

From time to time, I discuss the problem of evil - or, The Problem of Evil - with my students.

This week, it was in the context of a special topics course on the Darwinian Revolution and its philosophical implications.  Trying to bring them to some insight into pre-Darwinian ways of thinking, I had them read a few selections from Leibniz on the principle of plenitude - sorry, the Principle of Plenitude - and the Principle of Sufficient Reason, followed by the First Epistle of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man.

Two lines from Pope provide a deft summary of Leibniz, and help to solidify the idea of the Great Chain of Being.
. . . all must full or not coherent be,
And all that rises rise in due degree.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Weak Tea, part five, addendum

Thomas L. Friedman's column today in the Times is worth a read.  It relates to an idea I was trying to develop in yesterday's post: the people as a unity, not just an aggregation.

Toward the end, he lists a number of factors that have changed American politics, allowing noisy and unthinking fringe groups on all sides to overwhelm the ingenious checks and balances of the system set down in the Constitution and make it difficult, if not impossible, to do anything at all for the common good:

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Weak Tea, part five

Here, at last, is the ninth principle of Glenn Beck's "912 Project": 

9. The government works for me. I do not answer to them, they answer to me. 
Who works for whom? “I consider the people who constitute a society or a nation as the source of all authority in that nation.” Thomas Jefferson

Yet again, the principle as stated obscures and distorts some genuinely interesting and important questions.  And, again, it openly contradicts the fifth principle, that no one is above the rule of law.   How is the rule of law carried out, except that executive power is entrusted to a government, and each of us thinks of ourselves, in this respect at least, as answerable to the government?  There seems to be a muddle here, which can only be sorted out by going back to the basics of democratic theory.

I would note in passing that the quotation from Jefferson is a bit ambiguous.  What does he mean by “the people”?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Weak Tea: A Side Show

My brother sent me a link to the following video, with a note that it "speaks for itself."

This is outrageous!  I mean, what a terrible, terrible song!

If I were Mr. Obama, I'd be mortified.

Competing Images of Democracy

A comparison.

First, some images of recent "town hall" outbursts (photos from Charles Dharapak/AP Photo and Commercial Appeal/Landov):

. . . and one image of protests around the G20 meetings in Pittsburgh (photo from AP):

Now, some images of yesterday's World Wide Views project meeting in Atlanta:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Weak Tea, part four

Just one principle from the 912 Project, this time. I'll finish up in a day or two.
8. It is not un-American for me to disagree with authority or to share my personal opinion.
On your right to disagree “In a free and republican government, you cannot restrain the voice of the multitude; every man will speak as he thinks, or more properly without thinking.” George Washington
Again, it’s hard to disagree with this, at least on its face.

And again, where were these people during the Bush administration, when we were told that dissent was all but tantamount to treason, weakening our resolve and giving "aid and comfort" to our enemies? That was the line from Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Cheney, and the rest from 9/11 on down.

Copenhagen: A Memento

Here's something I discovered on my trip to Copenhagen last March.

First, my version of the standard postcard view of a famous (though not so very significant) landmark:

Now, with a slight change of angle, we can see what she's really looking at:

Friday, September 25, 2009

World Wide Views on Global Warming

Tomorrow I serve as Head Facilitator of the Atlanta Meeting of the World Wide Views project. This was the reason for my trip to Copenhagen in March (see this, and this).

Now that it comes down to it, I'm actually really excited to be participating in the project. The first meetings have already begun, way over by the International Date Line, and the last meeting, in southern California, will wrap up about 22 hours from now.

And the results are already starting to come in, though only on the first, rather bland questions.  It's the later questions on which it will be most interesting to see the results, most especially the recommendations from the assembled citizens that will be gathered at the end.

You can follow the results at

I'll have more to say about this afterward, though probably not immediately. I need to be careful not to step on the toes of those carrying out research on the effects and the effectiveness of citizen consultation carried out by this method at this scale.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Weak Tea, part three

I seem to be on a roll. Here we go, deeper into the principles of the 912 Project . . .
6. I have a right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, but there is no guarantee of equal results.
Life, Liberty, & The Pursuit of Happiness “Everyone has a natural right to choose that vocation in life which he thinks most likely to give him comfortable subsistence.” Thomas Jefferson
Most of the first part of principle is itself a direct quotation from the Declaration of Independence. To question that would be tantamount to blasphemy.

The second half of the principle also seems fairly uncontroversial . . . in part because strict equality of outcome is all but incoherent as a goal for any economic and political system that involves human beings. Does anyone seriously propose this any more?

Weak Tea, part two

Moving along . . .
4. The family is sacred. My spouse and I are the ultimate authority, not the government.
Marriage/Family “It is in the love of one’s family only that heartfelt happiness is known. By a law of our nature, we cannot be happy without the endearing connections of a family.” Thomas Jefferson
Now the principles of the 912 Project start to get a little more serious, and my responses will, too.

This one is very curious. On the one hand, there is an issue of real substance here regarding the proper relationship between public and private, and regarding the kinds of decisions appropriately left to each realm.

But the way the principle is stated begins to reveal a pattern that bedevils this and most of the principles that follow: a substantive issue about which there may be reasonable disagreement is entirely obscured by a provocative exaggeration, one that both misses the point and poisons the well.

Weak Tea, part one, addenda

Two further thoughts on the first three principles of the 912 Project:

First, it now occurs to me that there is good reason why there is no quotation from the Founding Fathers to accompany the first principle: Beck or his ghost-writers couldn’t find one.

The Founders didn’t really go in for mindless jingoism, you see. That would come later.

Second, it has also occurred to me that there may be a still more insidious meaning behind the third principle.  It is worded very carefully so that it does not actually commit adherents to being fully Honest today, so long as they are more Honest than they were yesterday and they make an earnest promise to be still more Honest tomorrow.

So, some of these folks may be a lying gasbags today but, hey! You shoulda heard ‘em yesterday!

In fact, the principle can be seen as positively forbidding adherents to be fully Honest today. If they were, how could they be still more Honest tomorrow?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Weak Tea, part one

My recent - now, mercifully, terminated - email exchange with my brother did serve the function of piquing my curiosity about the September 12 rally in Washington and the intentions of its organizers. Most especially, I'm interested in Glenn Beck's so-called "912 Project."

Built on 9 Principles and 12 Values, it seems intended to provide a common platform for the protesters, talking points, a rallying cry, a unifying vision . . . whatever.

Oh, please. 9 Principles and 12 Values? It sounds like a hastily written self-help book. What's next, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Wingnuts? (With profound apologies to Steven R. Covey.)

Still, I will suppress my rising gorge long enough to take a look at these principles, one by one, over the next couple of posts.  As presented on the website of the 912 Project, each principle is followed by a quotation, cherry-picked from the writings and speeches of the Founding Fathers.

Let's take a look.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tea Party!

I've fallen into a heated email exchange with my brother. It began when he sent me a link to a YouTube video in which scenes of the September 12 "Tea Party" rally in DC are strung together with the apparently revolutionary (but secretly reactionary?) song by The Who, "We Won't Get Fooled Again". The images, one after the other, display the shoddy propaganda and misguided hysteria of the crowd.

My brother avowed that he was moved by the actions of "those patriots" at the rally.

Well, I couldn't take this sitting down, so I wrote:

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Sentiments Trap

Teaching environmental ethics this summer, I've found a new wrinkle in an old argument.

In a number of early articles in defense of Aldo Leopold's land ethic, the philosopher J. Baird Callicott appeals to a theory of moral sentiments to connect facts and values: from descriptions of ecological relationships he hopes to derive prescriptions as to how we should make decisions about environmental change, with moral sentiments as the middle term.

I've long had doubts about this move, and I've taken up the matter in a number of papers I've had published. The most basic problem is that, while the moral sentiments view introduced by Hume and cultivated by Darwin offers important insight into human moral experience, on its own it seems to undermine the very possibility of ethical deliberation.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

From Copenhagen, Day 3

I didn't post last night, because I was too tired. I'm still too tired.

(There is, I have learned, a way of meeting and working peculiar to the Danish. It is characterized by long days and full schedules executed with ruthless efficiency, with breaks that are few and brief.)

I think better of the World Wide Views process than I did when last I posted, though there are still things of which I will be watchful.

Monday, March 23, 2009

From Copenhagen, Day 1

So I've fallen into a very interesting project related to the UN COP15 climate negotiations to take place in Copenhagen in December 2009.

The Danish Board of Technology, which advises the Danish Parliament on matters of technology assessment, has developed a methodology for providing public input on difficult matters of policy. To make a long story short, they have decided to go global with the project.

On September 26, if all goes as planned, meetings will take place at 55 sites in 46 countries around the world.  At each meeting, 100 citizens will learn about climate change, then discuss and vote on answers to various questions. The results will be posted to the web as they are gathered. The task then will be to bring the results to the attention of delegates at COP15. The whole thing is called the World Wide Views project (

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Theory and Practice, Man, Practice!

I'm continuing to develop a thread introduced here some time ago regarding the possibility of a theoretically informed moral imagination. I've written in earlier entries about Newtonian imagination, Darwinian imagination, and even hinted at thermodynamic imagination. I could add ecological imagination, climatological imagination, sociotechnical imagination, and any number of others.

The question is: How and to what extent can scientific theory shape ordinary lived experience? It's an interesting question for phenomenology, and I'm working on a paper along those lines, now. My interest is not just theoretical, however, but practical. What I want to know is how and to what extent scientific theory can influence what we attend to, what we value, what we expect, what we hope for, what we foresee, and ultimately what we do.