Tiger Mothers, etc.

I was planning on blogging about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother today, but I'm not quite far enough along.  This is the publishing sensation of the month, it seems.  By exposing her wildly demanding approach to parenting, and calling it "Chinese," Yale law professor Amy Chua has made herself both a bestselling author and the Wicked Mom of the East.  Not ready to write much about it, but so far I'm finding the book both entertaining and thought-provoking.  It raises some good questions about what we should want for our kids and also about self-deception.  When are you helping your children do their best, and when are you actually creating trophy kids to boost your own self esteem?  I think the author, Amy Chua, may not be aware of that real and worrisome distinction.  Fortunately, she has a sense of humor about herself, and she does allow a question mark to hang over the whole book.  Is this really the way to go, she seems to want us to wonder, even as she sings her battle hymn.

More next week, maybe.  Meanwhile, 'round the web.  The endless conversation continues.  It's been interesting at many points.   Latest topic--this article, which shows (tries to show?) a spill-over effect. In regions of Europe with more religious people, both the religious and the non-religious are happier. In regions with more atheists, both the atheists and the non-atheists are less happy.  Carol Graham cites this (unpublished) study in the extremely interesting book Happiness Around the WorldMy interlocutor (Paul W) is not impressed.

Relatedly, I enjoyed this letter from Stephen Asma, whose Chronicle Review discussion of animism has generated lots of discussion in the blogosphere.

I dropped by this morning at Let Them Eat Meat, and found post-vegan contrarianism is alive and well.  The book Rhys  is discussing (Meat: A Benign Extravagance) looks like one I will need to look at.  Benign?   Well, maybe not quite.  I just discovered this very well-done video, narrated by Paul McCartney--Glass Walls.  The vegetarian group for which I'm faculty adviser recently did a "pay per view" event--$1 to each person who would watch the video.  Good for them! The group has a cool website too.

Last but not least:  does a shaved tiger have any stripes?  Thanks to my husband, who is reading The Tiger, I now know the answer.


The Emperor's Gnu Clothes

I'm always trying to figure out how it could be that I liked the first books of the new atheists so much, but I'm so thoroughly not on board with the so-called "gnus"--the contingent that makes fun of the way new atheists are criticized for militancy by adopting a militant name. (Think gays calling themselves "queer.")  Finally, a moment of clarity.  Jerry Coyne and Ophelia Benson have posts today that make it crystal clear why I've gotten off the train.

But first, let's have a story--"The Emperor's New Clothes."  The emperor marches along the parade route stark naked [ignore the green underwear in the picture], and the adults ooh and ahh about his finery.  One brave girl speaks up and says, naively "The emperor has no clothes!"  Good for her! Hurray!

I saw Dawkins and Harris, in the early days of new atheism, as that girl.  We're not supposed to speak openly about religion, and what's wrong with it, but they did.  I liked their books in just the way I like that girl.

Now we have the sequel:  "The Emperor's Gnu Clothes."  Other kids were impressed with the brave girl.  They started saying the same thing--"The emperor has no clothes!  The emperor has no clothes!"  Soon just saying he had no clothes lost its appeal.  They shouted louder and louder, and called the emperor a fatty and laughed uproariously.

Some of the adults said: "Children. You're right he's naked. The brave girl was perfectly right to say so.  But you've gotten carried away. It's time to think this through. Maybe the emperor actually enjoys being naked. Maybe he really doesn't know he's naked, and he can't figure it out when you're yelling at him.  Maybe when he looks at you, your clothes look ridiculous to him, too!  Control yourselves, think about how you're communicating!"

This made the children very, very angry. They wanted to believe they were just like that first brave girl. They didn't want to see themselves as rude and insulting.  So the children went after the adults who had chided them, and called them names, and derided the whole idea of Communicative Restraint and Politeness, which they called crap for short.

Now, you may or may not like my second story.  For you, the history of new-gnu atheism may be all girl, no follow-up kids.  And so you may think the adults really are out of line.   Yet, at least in general terms, the adults are right, and the "gnu" crowd doesn't even agree in general terms. They are downright dismissive toward the whole topic of communication.

That's where today's clarifying posts come in.  Jerry Coyne chides Chris Mooney for boldly insulting Birthers, but then not being as forthright about religion.  Well of course, it's a different communicative situation.  Different topic, different tone.  You couldn't both chide him for this and take the issue of how/when/why we communicate the least bit seriously.

Ophelia Benson offers a reason why communicative restraint on the subject of God is not required. It's because the non-existence of God is so obvious.  Right, like the emperor was obviously naked.  But obviousness is not a reason to dispense with communicative care. Lots of things are obvious (to me) but the way I communicate about them rightly varies from topic to topic, situation to situation. Of course.

Moral of the stories: be the girl, not the crowd. You have to take the issue of how/when/why we communicate seriously to make that distinction.


Playing with banners...

Testing, testing...it might change again.

Can Atheists be Pluralists?

President Obama's speech in Tucson lead to an interesting post by James Croft, a graduate student who is involved with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard.  Croft was ambivalent about the religious elements of the speech--
"I feel a similar ambivalence regarding the religious elements of Obama's beautiful speech. I am drawn-in by the poetry of his scriptural references, and I am powerfully moved by the image of a celestial Christina jumping in heavenly puddles. I can see that Obama's faith provides him with both courage and hope - essential qualities in a leader facing dark times - and I am challenged by the thought that much atheist writing provides neither. Yet I recognize, too, that I cannot join the ranks of Americans bending knee to pray while remaining true to my beliefs, to myself. I must express my shock and sadness in another way. I'm standing outside the church, my face pressed against the stained-glass windows, longing for solidarity with those inside, but unable to cross the threshold."
I like the fact that Croft feels, at worst, left out, and not incensed.  There was nothing to be incensed by.  The speech had the right elements to console those most in need of consolation. Period.

But now, what about standing outside "with face pressed against the stained-glass windows, longing for solidarity with those inside, but unable to cross the threshold"?  My reaction is--what's the problem?  Just go in.

I mean that quite literally.  Just go in.  Perhaps that's an impossibility for Croft  because he's a Christian atheist, not a Jewish atheist--and yes  (surprise, surprise) there really is a difference.  For Christians and former Christians, religion is all about belief.  There are creeds and confessions and things you've got to believe so you can have eternal life, and I suppose if you're not on board, you must feel like a terrible impostor.  For Jews, it's not like that.  Yes, strictly speaking there is stuff Jews believe. In fact, I have a book called What Jews Believe.  But Jews don't necessarily believe that stuff.  And they're not less Jewish for being non-believers.

In Jewish congregations it's very easy to find atheists, and agnostics, even among the high and mighty and influential.  I have known people who even converted to Judaism without believing in God--being in fact flat out atheists.  And they still participate, and still find it meaningful.  Kids can go through bar and bat mitzvahs (happily!) without believing. Their parents can stand up in front of the congregation, doing their part in the bar/bat mitzvah service, and say "I don't believe" -- I've seen it with my own eyes.  Even rabbis can be non-believers. It is OK--really OK--to be a non-believer and be part of a religious congregation.

But Christian atheists seem to not "get" this as an option.  Yes, there are aspects of Judaism that are distinctive.  But the essence of the thing is not. I don't see why you can't find the experience of being part of a church enriching, without believing in the basic tenets of the faith.  You might just like the sense of a refuge from everyday life, the aesthetics of the sanctuary, the feeling of harmony you get from singing and even from standing up and sitting down together (Jonathan Haidt talks about that in The Happiness Hypothesis), the focus on life, death, meaning, and values. If you pick the right church, there will be nothing ethically problematic about the messages, nothing hostile to science.  Nobody has to like this sort of thing, of course, but it's not foreclosed as an option for non-believers.

Croft sees it as foreclosed perhaps because he's troubled by a certain notion of pluralism.  As he explains, the pluralist writer Diana Eck thinks pluralism means putting God-the-sun at the center of the universe, and seeing other religions as planets orbiting around him/her/it.  Members of different religions all seek God, "through different trajectories and paths."  Croft says "there's no room for atheists in this solar system."  I suppose, to him, crossing the threshold would mean joining a God-centered solar system, revolving around a non-existent sun. It wouldn't make any sense.

But no--that's not how you have to think about entering a church or synagogue.  A believer might want to think about members of different religions, and even non-believers, as revolving around God, but obviously a skeptic won't buy into that image.   In fact, the image isn't even compulsory for believers.  Pluralism can be nothing but the notion that different religions (and non-religions) are wise in different ways.  They all have their insights.  This is something you can believe without taking any of the supernaturalism seriously.

Actually, that ought to be obvious.  There is wisdom and beauty in the Iliad and the Odyssey, even if there's no Zeus and Athena, and there never was a Trojan War, and some of the moral messages of the books are atrocious (like how Achilles and Agamemnon--heroes!--fight over who gets to rape (yes, rape) Briseis.  There is wisdom and beauty in the bible, and the Talmud, and the writings of later sages, and the same goes for religious traditions I'm not a part of.

Can religious folk accept a pluralism along those lines, instead of presuming that their God is the center of everyone's religious experience? They actually can. In fact, the rabbi at a friend's synagogue gave a sermon last night about what we can learn from members of other faiths, including from atheists.  There was no presumptuous stuff about how everyone else is really (without knowing it) revolving around our God. My son went, listened to this message, and I'm confident he got something positive out of it, even though he's adamantly a non-believer.

So: no need for standing out in the cold.  I believe there are (formerly) Christian atheists who see things the same way--perhaps gravitating toward the Unitarian church. There's really no need to stand out in the cold, if you're attracted to the this-worldly elements of religious experience.


Trees and Chimpanzees

My paper on the great apes is nearing completion...and boy I wish I had more black and white views about this. It would make things easier if I thought chimpanzees had basic rights just like ours, and for that reason, could never be used in biomedical research. Without thinking of them that way, it's difficult to make the case that chimpanzees should be completely off limits, no matter what. Not just when people are doing hideously cruel experiments, or when they're doing pointless, badly designed experiments, or when they're violating the relevant animal welfare guidelines, but permanently, totally, no matter what. How do you argue for that?

It sounds shallow, but I think there's a lot of force to the argument that we simply value chimpanzees in a special way. They're our nearest non-human relatives, they have minds fairly similar to ours, and they reveal interesting things about human origins. Given all that, we want them to be living free lives of their own in the wild, and we're repelled by the thought of chimpanzees (so much like us!) being inoculated with our diseases, repeatedly biopsied, isolated part of the time...and treated as tools for human benefit.

The research advocate will now let out a loud cry. "But what about the people who won't be saved from serious diseases (hepatitis C is the main one studied using chimpanzees), if the NIH is forced to retire its whole chimpanzee population?!" What possible answer can be given to that? Maybe it's not so hard. There are lots of things we will not do to advance medicine. We won't sell off the National Gallery's art collection, for example. We won't offer Dubai the copy of the Declaration of Independence that sits in Washington.

To change the subject slightly...I read somewhere (does this ring a bell with anyone?) that the regal trees that line many French roads predictably distract drivers with their shadows and cause accidents. You could chop them down and save some number of lives every year. But no, losing the trees is not something we're prepared to do to save lives.

When we declare art, the original Declaration, and trees off limits, nobody feels like any one-to-one comparison is being made. It's not "people or art" or "people or documents" or "people or trees." We value people, we value trees...and never the twain shall meet. Surely we can spare chimpanzees in like fashion. It's not a matter of chimpanzees and people becoming equals, any more than we have to think people and trees are equals, when we leave the trees alone.

NB: I don't think chimpanzees are exactly like trees, paintings, or documents. Not even close, because we have direct obligations to them, and not to trees, paintings, or documents. It's interesting, though, that if you leave that out of the picture, you may actually get the strongest possible argument for ending experimentation on the great apes.

My paper is going to center on a real world drama that just recently got resolved.  200 chimpanzees living in Alamogordo, New Mexico, had been requested by the San Antonio National Primate Facility, to be used in Hepatitis C research (they are already using about 160).  The 200 had been saved from the notorious labs of the Coulston Foundation, which the USDA charged with numerous animal welfare violations in the 80s and 90s.  They live in a federal sanctuary, built just for them on the Holloman Air Force base in Alamogordo.  After ten years of retirement, they were going to be sent back to active duty as "medical models."  Governor Bill Richardson protested, Jane Goodall and the Humane Society protested, lots of animal rights organizations protested...and last week the NIH changed  its mind.  The 200 will remain in Alamogordo while the National Academy of Sciences studies the matter for two years.

It's interesting how the narrative here makes all the difference.  Nobody's having a fit about the 160 chimpanzees already being used for biomedical research in San Antonio.  What captures attention is the drama of the Alamogordo animals being snatched out of a safe haven.  They escaped research, only to be sent back? Now that's intolerable.  

Well, I'm not immune to a good story. It is intolerable.  I'm glad the Alamogordo 200 aren't being shipped to San Antonio.  But now the NAS has to put an end to the problems of all the rest.  At this point only the US and Gabon (Gabon?!) still support experimentation on chimpanzees. The UK stopped it in 1997, and the whole EU last year. It's time for the US to catch up with the rest of the world.

It's a wrench to change, to make an explicit sacrifice of potential discoveries. But once we've changed, I don't think the loss will be noticeable.  We don't experiment on people, and never notice the research advances we've forfeited.  Those advances are just...absent, not there. That's what it will be like if we stop invasive research on chimpanzees.


It's the Guns, Stupid

This was a lovely speech, but why do we keep letting these things happen? With all the talk of this factor and that, it seems to me it all comes down to the gun. Why can't we confront the bizarre way that many Americans make gun-ownership a core part of their identity? It's crazy, and it's one of the reasons why this little girl is being buried today.


They Shoot Democrats, Don't They?

And their children too.  This article has to be read.  There are random acts of violence in this country, but was this one? 

Two God Books

"Jesus is the reason for the season," I figured, so this Christmas I asked for Philip Pullman's book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and also read The God Dialogues:  A Philosophical Journey, by Torin Alter and Robert Howell.  Robert is a colleague of mine at SMU, and Torin teaches philosophy at the University of Alabama. 

The God Dialogues  is a great book for teaching philosophy of religion to undergraduates, but also engaging and enlightening for civilians.  The dialogue goes on between three students traveling around the US--mnemonically named THeo, evA, and GeNe.  You guess what position each takes.  There is amusing banter among them, but mostly they are the ideal interlocuters.  They're clear, they're coherent, they're witty. They even occasionally write out arguments with precision on pieces of paper.

In a book like this, and in philosophy generally, the explainer's job is to present each argument so it makes as much sense as it possibly can. Counterarguments have to be presented charitably as well.  The book is a model of impartiality, but the nice thing is that the interlocutors themselves are invested in their own positions.  That invites the reader to take a stand too.  A more encyclopedic overview of positions tends to make the reader/student just assimilate passively, instead of grappling.

So let's do some grappling.  The great thing about the book is that it tells you everything you always wanted to know about certain arguments, but were afraid to ask.  True confession:  I never quite "got" the modal version of the Ontological Argument.  As I recall from the last time I took a dive into the contemporary literature on the subject, it was pretty technical and dense.  So I was very happy to be enlightened in no more than a few painless pages.

So here we go... starting at page 90, after Theo the theist has given a quick snapshot of the modal version of the ontological argument.

THEO: Surely you think the conclusion follows from the premises.

EVA:  Actually, I'm not sure. It would help to have them...

THEO:  Written out in premise-conclusion form? Already done.

GENE:  Wow. Did you wake up early this morning and prepare for this discussion?

THEO:  Well, yeah.

GENE: You bum.

THEO:  It's better than spending the morning with my head under a pillow.

GENE:  Good point.

THEO:  Thank you. The argument has two parts. The first establishes God's possibility, and the second infers His actuality.  Here's the first part:

1.  It's conceivable that God exists. 
2.  If it's conceivable that God exists, then it's possible that He exists.
3.  Therefore, it's possible that God exists. In other words, there's at least one possible world in which He exists.

GENE:  Okay.

THEO:  And here's part two:

4.  If it's possible that God exists, then it's necessary that He exists. In other words, if He exists in any possible world, then He exists in all possible worlds--including the actual world.
5.  Therefore, God exists in the actual world.  In other words, God exists.

GENE:  I think there's a little verbal magic going on here.

Eva the Atheist makes an interesting concession right away--if you want to block this proof, you're going to have to ramp up your atheism. You're going to have to reject the first part of the argument, and deny that it's even possible that God exists.  You would have thought atheists just believe God doesn't exist, not that he couldn't exist.  The argument thus succeeds in a strategic sense--it pushes the atheist toward a position that seems too strong.

Or does the atheist have to go that route?  I found myself wanting Eva to accept the first part of the argument, but challenge premise 4. The whole idea of God as a necessary being strikes me as peculiar. Theo explains it like this--

THEO:  ... If God existed contingently, then His existence would depend on the way things turned out--on luck, or in any case on something other than Himself. But God, as a perfect, being, simply does not depend on other things.  God is a being that depends on nothing but Himself. (p. 87)

And then on the next page like this--

THEO:  ... If God exists, the it's impossible that he would have failed to exist.  You're not like that. You do exist, but you didn't have to exist--your parents might never have met. (p. 88)

It's easiest to get a grip on necessary facts.  2 + 2 = 4 is necessarily true--true in every possible world.  However things might have gone differently, starting 10 years ago, or 100, or a billion, or from the beginning, it still would have been true that 2 + 2 = 4.  And maybe the numbers themselves are necessary entities--they exist (in some sense) in every possible world.

Maybe there are even some less abstract things that exist in every possible world.  Might we think of space as a necessity?  Or maybe time? Or spacetime?  OK...that doesn't sound crazy.  But what's with the idea of an all powerful, all good being, who exists in all possible worlds?   Could we also construct the concept of a necessary book, or a necessary person, or a necessary mountain?  But obviously none of that even begins to make sense.  Why does it make sense that the omnipotent, omniscient creator of everything would be able to add  necessity to his laurels?  (And don't say it's just "by definition," because the necessary mountain is also necessary by definition, and that makes no sense.)

Another way of making this point occurs to me.  If you already have the Cosmological Argument under your belt, and you think you've shown that a world couldn't get going without God, then God must exist in every possible world--no matter how this world had gone differently, there would still be God.  Necessity would be an upshot of the proof, along with God's existence.  However, the ontological argument is supposed to work from scratch. It would be useless if you needed a different argument for the existence of God in order to make the Ontological Argument work.

Eva actually winds up overcoming the Ontological Argument by turning it against itself (see pg. 93).  You see, two can play that game.  Just take the original and put "doesn't" in front of every "exist" or "exists".  The argument now proves God doesn't exist.  Eva claims this reverse argument is actually more compelling than the original (see pg. 93-6 for details).  But making the reverse argument does saddle the atheist with the view that God is impossible.  That's certainly atheism on steroids!

And now for Pullman's novel--if that's the word for it. This is a retelling of the gospel of Jesus Christ, with Jesus and Christ portrayed as twins.  Let's just say, interesting!  I would call the book a discussion-generator more than a really gripping piece of literature, but it's a great discussion-generator.  It would be a good choice for reading groups of all sorts--especially for Christians and former Christians. I think it must help if you know the gospels extremely well, because no doubt much of the excitement lies in seeing all the departures from the original.  I don't know the gospels well enough to pick up on every intriguing deviation.  The book is ultimately about scripture, and how it comes to be...and if I tell you any more I'll spoil it for you. I had read no reviews at all beforehand, and I was very glad I hadn't.


God Books

The kids are back in school, so it's time to get Focused, and I'm going back to Saturday-only blogging.  This Saturday I'll be talking about two God books--The God Dialogues, by Torin Alter and Robert Howell (great fun), and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman (interesting).  Stay tuned.


Open Thread

This post by Benjamin Nelson lead to a long discussion, which is continuing elsewhere.  Maybe there's more to say here (and maybe there isn't).   Nothing inflammatory please. I'm just thinking constructive conversation might be a possibility. Somehow the beginning of January seems like the time for it.


Catholic Abortion Ethics

A Catholic hospital in Phoenix was recently disenfranchised by the Catholic church for authorizing an abortion in the case of a woman with a life-threatening pregnancy. Even assuming the mother and fetus would have died, had the pregnancy continued, Catholic ethics says the fetus couldn't be killed to save the mother. We must never intentionally kill an innocent person, even to bring about "the greater good."

It's worth thinking a bit about where the biggest problem with the Catholic position lies. There are two parts to the position: one is that the fetus is a person, no different from a baby or an adult. The other is that we must not kill person A to save person B. Rather, we should let both A and B die.

You get the Catholic position on abortion when you add together the two parts. The result is an intolerably perverse view, but wherein lies the problem? I think part one is the problem, not as much part two.

In fact, in real life situations where the alternatives are "kill A to save B" or "let both die" most of us will think "let both die" is at least sometimes preferable. First, imagine a mother is on a sinking lifeboat with her adopted baby. She knows the baby can't possibly survive--she has no food to give her (or whatever). If the mother throws the baby overboard, the lifeboat will stop sinking and she might survive. I think it's at least ethically coherent for the mother to think--no way, I can't do that.

Another scenario--a mother is holding a crying baby as she hides from the Nazis. She knows that if she is discovered, there will be no hope for either of them. So either she smothers the baby to save herself, or she lets them both be discovered and killed. I can certainly see it as at least coherent if she decides she will not kill her child.

Now, in both these cases, it's the mother who sacrifices herself to avoid killing her child. You might think--that's one thing, but a third party would have a very clear duty to kill the child to save the mother, especially if that's what the mother wanted. Suppose in the second scenario the mother can't bring herself to smother the child, and she asks a bystander to do it--someone whose life is not at risk (for some reason). Now we have a situation a lot like the one a doctor is in, when asked to provide an abortion for a potentially terminal mother.

I don't find it utterly beyond the pale if the bystander says "No, I cannot kill that innocent child. Better to let the two die, than for me to kill one to save the other." This is probably not the right view, all things considered, but it's not just a crazy, mind-addled view. You could have that view based on sheer moral reflection, and without any brain-washing by crazy clerics.

So I don't think part two is what makes the Catholic position on abortion so super-crazy. The problem is really part one. The fetus is not in fact a baby, but only a baby-to-be. To my mind, that means a certain level of care and reflection should precede terminating a pregnancy, but the situation is actually nothing like the three scenarios above. A Catholic mother (or any other) who let herself die rather than abort a fetus really would be delusional, I'm afraid, and a third party at a Catholic hospital even more so.

But you could at least say this for them--if there really were a full grown baby in the picture, refusing to kill it to save the mother would be an ethically comprehensible stance--not sheer irrational poppycock.


Happy New Year!

"2011" sure has a futuristic sound. It's like  we might finally have arrived at a time futurists were talking about a long time ago.  From the sound of it, you'd think people might be walking around with little mobile video phones and such.  Wait...

I hope you will pardon just a little navel-gazing.  Courtesy of Blogger, here are the top 10 posts here in 2010 (they began this service in June, so the ranking excludes earlier posts).


You can see the blog doesn't have a huge readership, but I've got some readers, and I appreciate everyone of you (sob, smile).   I sure do get extra readers when I write about atheism and especially when I involve myself with Giant Kerfuffles.  That sounds like a huge, fat, amorphous green thing, which isn't a bad description of the whole "TJ" affair.

How nice that "Pescatarian" got (and continues to get) so many readers.  All the views for "The Moral Landscape" reveal something interesting.  Just because people aren't commenting on a post doesn't mean it isn't being read.

Happy New Year!