[See Update.] I’m not sure why anyone would expect Liberty University (the late Jerry Falwell’s Collegio Romano) to be even-handed in its treatment of Democrats and Republicans. However much the two parties may resemble one another in their allegiance to corporate interests, on certain matters dear to the heart of the fundamentalist Christians who run the University, Democratic positions are anathema and Republican positions are not.
Since late last year, Democrats on campus have had a club. This month the University withdrew its sponsorship, which means that the club gets no money and cannot use the name or logo of Liberty U in its communications.
An email from Liberty’s VP of student affairs, Mark Hine, to the College Democrats announces that the University has just finished a review of its policy on campus organizations. It then cites what seems to be a section of the Honor Code:
No student club or organization shall be approved, recognized or permitted to meet on campus, advertise, distribute or post materials, or use University facilities if the statements, positions, doctrines, policies, constitutions, bylaws, platforms, activities or events of such club or organization, its parent, affiliate, chapter or similarly named group (even if the similarly named group is not the actual parent, affiliate or chapter) are inconsistent or in conflict with the distinctly Christian mission of the University, the Liberty Way, the Honor Code, or the policies and procedures promulgated by the University.
Hine applies the rule to the case at hand. Because the positions of the Democratic party are “inconsistent or in conflict with the distinctly Christian mission of the University” or with the “Liberty Way”,
We are removing the club from the Liberty website and you will need to cease using Liberty University’s name, including any logo, seal or mark of Liberty University. They are not to be used in any of your publications, electronic or internet, including but not limited to, any website, Facebook, Twitter or any other such publication.
It’s worth noting that though the University’s rule effectively calls for a ban on meetings in University facilites, its action consisted only in denying to the club the use of the University’s name and logo. Nevertheless the implication is that the club, since it meets the conditions of the rule, could have been, and indeed should have been, banned altogether. The tone of the letter is that of a cease-and-desist letter, intended to intimidate.
Once the decision became a target of criticism, Jerry Falwell, Jr. issued a response in which, after complaining about media coverage, he denies that the “Democrat club” was banned:
The students who formed the Democrat club last October are good students. They are pro-life and believe in traditional marriage [in fact those positions are written into the club’s constitution]. They can continue to meet on campus. The only thing that has changed came about as part of a university-wide review of all student organizations for official recognition status. Official recognition carries with it the benefit of using the university name and funds. While this group will not be an officially recognized club, it may still meet on campus.
That’s true but a bit disingenuous. The club may meet, perhaps, but only on the sufferance of the administration: they would be tolerated, like prostitutes in a red-light district. At a later meeting with members of the club, the University offered the club the option of regaining recognition by becoming an affiliate of Democrats for Life of America, which opposes abortion; doing so would bring them into compliance with the rule. As of a few days ago, they were still mulling it over.
The College Republicans think that the Democrats’ club (which began shortly before the 2008 election) provides a welcome opportunity for debate.
Meanwhile, on the 26th, University administrators met again with members of the club. They wanted an apology for what they regarded as false claims made by the club’s president, Brian Diaz, and others to the media, mostly concerning Hine’s email.
The club is going to apologize. My sense is that Diaz and the others, who, as far as I can tell, are against abortion and gay marriage, found themselves in an exposed position—Terry McAuliffe and other Democratic leaders in the state had begun to cite the ban—and needed to back down. For its part the University, represented by Hine and Falwell himself, has done its best to persuade them.
And the moral is…
Americans United for Separation of Church and State has written a letter to the IRS urging that Liberty University’s tax-exempt status be reviewed (they’ve done so before). Liberty University has announced plans to file suit against Americans United. On what basis, I’m not sure.
Not much. Commenters have argued that the University has violated principles of free speech and have raised First Amendment issues. But the University has no obligation to respect principles of free speech, and doesn’t claim to. (People tend to invoke notions of the university as a site of free inquiry, but that is at best a recent and somewhat parochial way of conceiving the institution. Liberty University makes no pretense of being that sort of university; like, say, Oxford University until the 1870s, it promotes free inquiry but only within the faith.) Moreover if TaxProf is right, Liberty’s tax-exempt status is not jeopardized by its action.
The one live issue, mentioned by Ed Brayton, is that the University demands for Christian groups elsewhere the recognition it refuses to the Campus Democrats. Liberty University, or rather an outfit called Liberty Counsel that now operates under the aegis of its law school, has argued—and won—a case in which a campus religious group, Gator Christian Life, was denied official recognition on the grounds that it violated a policy against discrimination on the basis of religious preference.
I don’t think Brayton has much of an argument. The parallel would have been this: suppose Lib U had a clause in its rules governing clubs to the effect that clubs could not discriminate on the basis of political affiliation, and proceeded to deny recognition to the Democratic club on the grounds that they did so discriminate. The Democrats could quite reasonably answer that it is in the nature of political clubs to require of their members that they subscribe to the principles of the club, and thus to discriminate between those who do and those who don’t. The issue raised by Liberty Counsel on behalf of Gator Christian Life isn’t one of free speech, it’s that some anti-discrimination principles are incompatible with some sorts of club. Liberty Counsel argued, successfully, that in the case of Gator Christian Life, the University’s blanket principle of non-discrimination must admit an exception.
Now there may be sorts of club whose raison d’être is so at odds with the principles of a university, or with moral principles generally, that any hint of endorsement would involve the university either in glaring inconsistency (e.g. a club whose purpose was to intimidate professors in the classroom) or moral wrong (a whites-only club). Liberty University takes the Democratic club to have been of this sort, insofar as its recognition by the University would be taken to be an endorsement somehow of the principles of the national Democratic party, principles that the University finds grossly at odds with its “Christian mission” (Falwell and co. tend to say that the pro-choice position is not Christian, but that’s descriptively false and normatively tendentious).
There is, nevertheless, an element of arbitrariness in the University’s action. Not because they have treated the Democratic club differently from the Republican club, but because the Democratic club has explicitly included in its constitution the positions that the University regards as required by its Christian mission. To return to Hines’s letter:
Even though this club may not support the more radical planks of the democratic party, the democratic party is still the parent organization of the club on campus. The Democratic Party Platform is contrary to the mission of LU and to Christian doctrine (supports abortion, federal funding of abortion, advocates repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, promotes the “LGBT” agenda, Hate Crimes, which include sexual orientation and gender identity, socialism, etc). The candidates this club supports uphold the Platform and implement it. The candidates supported are directly contrary to the mission of LU. By using LU or Liberty University and Democrat in the name, the two are associated and the goals of both run in opposite directions.
The passage is not entirely coherent, but the gist is clear. The very name “Liberty University College Democrats” forges a link between the University and the Party, a link which is reinforced by the club’s use of the University’s logo, colors, and so forth. The taint of that link is so great that it cannot be mitigated by any disclaimer the College Democrats might offer.
Forget Liberty University and its peculiar mission for a moment. Try to imagine cases where their position would be plausible. No university would want to appear to endorse genocide: a KKK chapter, even if it disavowed the aims of the national organization, could reasonably be denied support because the association of the university with white supremacism is odious enough to overwhelm any mitigation a disavowal could provide.
Liberty University’s view, then, is that association with the national Democratic party, or more precisely with an organization espousing the positions it finds odious, tinctures it with so great a taint that even at second hand no association can be tolerated.
That is the issue. People seem to want a more sensible basis on which to argue. There isn’t one, not here.
Update: The university has agreed to allow the Campus Democrats to be an “unofficial” club. They can use the University’s name and logo, but they must make it clear that they are not endorsed by the University. The College Republicans will be subject to the same condition. See Steve Benen at Washington Monthly, CNN, and
“We decided to go ahead and implement (the policy) as of today,” Falwell said Monday. “The (College) Republicans have been removed from official status and been moved to the new unofficial status that we just created.” […]
“We just decided, with our religious mission, it’s going to be a nightmare to try to figure out which candidates are in-line with our school’s mission and which ones aren’t. And we feel obligated to take the same approach with the Republican club as we do with the Democrat club.”
“We just decided, with our religious mission, it’s going to be a nightmare to try to figure out which candidates are in-line with our school’s mission and which ones aren’t. And we feel obligated to take the same approach with the Republican club as we do with the Democrat club.”
- Liberty University College Democrats, Facebook Page [viewed 29 May].
- Liberty University College Democrats, Home Page, [viewed 29 May].
- Ray Reed, “Kaine calls on LU to reconsider Democratic club ban”, Lynchburg News-Advance, 21 May 2009 (updated 4:15 p.m).
- Kevin Bondelli, “Liberty FAIL: Support the Right of Young Democrats to Exist at Liberty University”, Future Majority, 23 May 2009. [Includes the text of the letter sent by Hines to the College Democrats.]
- Dave Thompson, “Democrat club wary of Falwell offer”, Lynchburg News-Advance, 23 May 2009.
- Andrew Cain, “Liberty decision to pull Democratic club unleashes backlash”, News Virginian (Waynesboro), May 23, 2009.
- Jerry Falwell Jr., “Op/Ed: Media Has Misrepresented Controversy Over Club, Falwell Jr. Says”, Lynchburg News-Advance, 24 May 2009.
- Jerry Falwell, Jr, “Media’s misrepresentation of club controversy”, Liberty Journal, May 24, 2009.
- Darrell Laurant, “Shouldn’t be a mystery why Liberty University nixed club”, Lynchburg News-Advance, 24 May 2009.
- Ray Reed, “Liberty University Democratic club working to regain status”, Lynchburg News-Advance, 26 May 2009.
- Ray Reed, “Group asks IRS to review Liberty University’s tax-exempt status”, Lynchburg News-Advance, 27 May 2009.
- Ray Reed, “Falwell seeks apology from Democrats club”, Lynchburg News-Advance, 27 May 2009.
- Angela Hatcher, “Liberty University expects apology from College Democrats”, Lynchburg News-Advance, May 27, 2009.
- Ray Reed, “Liberty University Democratic club to apologize, try to regain status”, Lynchburg News-Advance, May 27, 2009.
- Lee Sandy, “Liberty’s College Democrats are ‘Up-and-Coming’”, Liberty University Champion, Apr 7, 2009.
- University Advancement staff, “LU officials meet with College Democrats”, Liberty University Journal, May 28, 2009.
- Ron Chusid, “Liberty University Bans Democratic Club”, Liberal Values, 23 May 2009.
- Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “IRS Should Review Liberty University’s Tax-Exempt Status For Partisan Politicking, Says Americans United”, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 27 May 2009.
- [ ], “Liberty University as Bob Jones University — Can the IRS Strip Tax-Exempt Status for Revoking Recognition of Democratic Club?”, TaxProf Blog, 25 May 2009.
- Barry Lynn [Americans United], “Letter to Lois G. Lerner [Director Exempt Organizations Division, IRS]”, 27 May 2009.
- University Advancement Staff, “Liberty Counsel to file complaint against Americans United for Separation of Church and State”, Liberty University News & Events, 28 May 2009.
- scarce, “Liberty University bans Democrats”, Crooks and liars, 23 May 2009.
- PZ Myers, “‘Liberty’ University really ought to look at the first word in their name”, Pharyngula, 22 May 2009.
- Ed Brayton, “Liberty University: No Democrats Here!”, Dispatches from the culture wars, May 26, 2009.
- Liberty Counsel, “University Reverses Policy and Allows Religious Clubs to Base Decisions on Religion”, Liberty Counsel, 23 Jan 2009.
- [ ], “Liberty Counsel”, Wikipedia, 29 May 2009.
What with budget-cutting, FBI snoops, and book-stealing, libraries need all the help they can get. In the US, the patron saint of libraries is St. Jerome, translator of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin; in Europe St. Lawrence (probably the first of that name) watches over them.
The patron saint of that branch of the Library of Babel known as the Internet is Saint Isidore (,,), best known for his Etymologiæ, an encyclopedia of ancient learning that became the most-used textbook of the early Middle Ages. The Hindu protector of libraries (and of learning generally) is the elephant-god Ganesh.
One thing libraries do well (when they’re not burned down, censored, or pillaged) is to preserve old books and manuscripts, and to make them available to the public. The Codex Sinaiticus, which is thought to be from the mid-4th century, is the oldest surviving complete copy of the New Testament in Greek. It also contains some apocryphal texts and a version of the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament;
the first part of this, from Genesis to I Chronicles, is missing. Only one other manuscript, the Codex Vaticanus, is as old; manuscripts older than these two contain only fragments of the New Testament. Four institutions now own parts of the Codex Sinaiticus:
- The British Library, UK
- Leipzig University Library, Germany
- St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai
- The National Library of Russia, St Petersburg
These four are cooperating to conserve the text and to digitize it for online distribution. Eight books so far have been processed, including Jeremiah, Psalms, and Mark.
Other early codices now online include the Codex Boreelianus at Utrecht (11th century) and the Codex Boernerianus at Dresden (9th century).
- “Qui sont les Saints-patrons des bibliothécaires?”, Bibliobsession 25 July 2008.
- “Who’s watching over our libraries”, Warrior Librarian Weekly s.d., citing unpublished work by Robert Lee Hadden.
- “Patron Saint of Internet Shines in New Data Center at Boston College”, Chronicle of higher education 2 Dec 2006.
- Chris Reidy, “Internet saint overlooks BC data center”, Boston.com 1 Dec 2006.
- Nate Anderson, “Patron saint of the Internet smiles on Boston College data center”, Ars technica 3 Dec 2006 .
- Stefanie, “So Many Books”, Just a Few Things 23 July 2008.
- Mark Thwaite, “Codex sinaiticus”, The Book Depository 24 July 2008.
- Dave Graham, “Oldest New Testament Bible heads into cyberspace”, Reuters 21 Jul 2008.
Personally, I find the success of BBN to be one of the most impressive feats in all of modern science. Here we are, 7,000,000,000,000,000 minutes after the Big Bang, making quantitative statements about what was going on 1 minute after the Big Bang — and it’s a perfect fit. I’ll never cease to be amazed that we know exactly what the universe was doing when it was one minute old.
I don’t think it is politically wise for scientists to exhibit contempt for Intelligent Designers and the like. But I can understand why they might feel contempt. To dismiss evolution or cosmology, the work of thousands over the last two centuries, on the basis of a few half-understood claims about the workings of science, or by reference to disagreement on the remaining open questions, is not only to forego the best instruments reason has yet devised for understanding nature: it is also a kind of desecration. I use that word advisedly. If you think that reason is a gift of God to certain of his creatures, and that in using reason we come to know some aspect of the divine, then to dismiss its findings is to reject that gift.
A tu quoque applies here. Though one would hardly guess it from the current state of discourse on religion, there is such a thing as rational theology, which has, like modern science, its epics. The Summa theologiæ of Thomas, for example, or the works of Francisco Suárez—to mention two that I know something about. That is another, a more philosophical, reason not to reject theism out of hand, despite the ineptness of some of its representatives.
Source: Sean Carroll, “The universe is the poor man’s particle accelerator”, Cosmic variance 19 Dec 2005.
A portmanteau entry. First item: in Nature, a study is reported according to which, in the sciences at least, Wikipedia is not significantly more inaccurate than the Britannica (4 errors per article versus 3; the basis is 42 articles sent out by Nature for blind review by experts). Wikipedia is currently raising funds. There are of course more urgent needs in this season. I mention Wikipedia because it is free and open to all. It is not only an instrument for the dissemination of knowledge but also a tool for social justice, to help ensure that the door to knowledge doesn’t require wealth to open.
Second item: a quotation from an article on the Merry Christmas brouhaha. See “Grinch identified” and “Whichmas? Thatmas!” for other items of interest.
The saddest part of all is that the offended Christians would be satisfied by so shallow a gesture as this simple phrase. We used to think that putting the Christ back in Christmas meant that Christians would stop being so materialistic and focus on what the birth of Jesus meant for their lives and how we might bring peace to the world! None of us thought it meant putting the word Christ back in junk mail circulars and forcing unsuspecting sales clerks to wish us a “Merry Christmas.”
Opinions have differed, to say the least, on the celebration of the nativity of Christ. Here is Edmund Calamy, one of the “Westminster Divines”, preaching in 1644:
This day is commonly called The Feast of Christ’s nativity, or, Christmas-day; a day that has formerly been much abused to superstition, and profaneness. It is not easy to say, whether the superstition has been greater, or the profaneness…. And truly I think that the superstition and profanation of this day is so rooted into it, as that there is no way to reform it, but by dealing with it as Hezekiah did with the brazen serpent [II Kings 18:4]. This year God, by his Providence, has buried this Feast in a Fast, and I hope it will never rise again.
It happened that in 1644 Christmas coincided with the monthly fast day (which occurred on the last Wednesday of each month), and so the question arose of which was to take precedence. The Parliament ordered that the fast should be kept (Neal 2:284–285; Coleman n.19).
Imagine that: fasting on Christmas.
Jim Giles, “Internet encyclopaedias go head to head”, Nature 14 December 2005; doi:10.1038/438900a. [Subscription only]
On the celebration of Christmas in seventeenth-century England and eighteenth-century America, see Chris Coldwell, “The Religious Observance of Christmas and ‘Holy Days’ in American Presbyterianism”; originally published in The Blue Banner 8.9–10, September/October 1999. Coldwell’s source for the sermon by Edmund Calamy is James Reid, Memoirs of the Westminster Divines (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982; reprint of 1811) 186. See also Daniel Neal, The History of the Puritans (London, 1837).
FBI agrees to “look into it”
There’s a very secret plan. And it’s a plan that nobody’s going to tell you, “Well, we want to diminish Christian philosophy in the U.S.A. because we want X, Y, and Z.” They’ll never ever say that.
Finally, that nasty creature (cleverly disguised as a fictional entity by the left-leaning Dr. Seuss) has had its cover blown, and now stands revealed to the world in all its putrescent splendor, thanks to Bill O’Reilly.
It’s George Soros!
Source: Media Matters, 30 Nov 2005. See also Cathy Young, “O’Reilly on the Christmas Warpath”, The Y Files 2 Dec 2005; and “Whichmas? Thatmas!” here at Phil Fortnights. The quotation is from the No Spin Zone 28 Nov 2005.
More on “Less Science”
Some additional items relevant to the Intelligent Designers’ attack on evolution. You might want to enjoy a Creation Moment first.
- “Index to Creationist Claims”
At talk.origins. A very good place to start if you need to respond.
- Why Creationists Need to Be Creationists
From Bora Zivkovic, Science and Politics. Nice observations on the motives of some creationists. Noting that creationists generally do not oppose the theories of Copernicus, Einstein, and so on, Zivkovic notes that “the more sophisticated folks object only to evolution. If their problem was that it is ‘just a theory’, they would have problems with other theories as well. If their problem was biblical inerrancy, they would have problems with all of science. If their problem is dethroning humans from the pinnacle of Creation, at least Freud would also be problematic. And here may lie the key.”Like some of the commenters, I don’t think the explanation then offered is the whole story. But it puts the issue in a helpful frame: evolution is offensive not for scientific or even for religious reasons, but for political reasons that have to do, among other things, with attitudes toward authority and with exploiting resentment of an “elite” who are, as it happens, frequently liberals.
- Stranger Fruit
John M. Lynch. More information about the Kansas Board of Education, in particular the statement of the Science Hearings Committee (9 June), and a newsletter piece by Connie Morris, a member of the Board. Morris concludes from the one-sided testimony at the science hearings, which cost the state somewhere between $17,000 and $30,000, that “Darwin’s theory of evolution is biologically, genetically, mathematically, chemically, metaphysically and etc. ‘wildly’ and ‘utterly impossible.’”. (Her newsletter bears the letterhead of the Kansas Board. Morris speaks of herself and her five creationist colleagues as a “well-oiled machine”. Freedom of thought, anyone?) It’s worth noting that biologists boycotted the hearings, on the grounds that they were biased.Stranger Fruit has also done useful work in tracking down publications of some proponents of Intelligent Design. The following extract, from an interview with Philip Skell, indicates, I think, the principles behind the biology curricula at Christian universities like Anderson and Taylor Universities (mentioned in “Less Science”):[Interviewer:} You have spoken about a “historical biology” being separate from an “experimental biology.” Could you please elaborate on the distinction? [Skell:] Modern biology is engaged in examining the structures and functions of tissues from live organisms; it is the most prolific and important branch of all the sciences. Historical biology has only the minuscule fragments of our ancestors, fossils, for examination. They are stones, not tissues. The geologists provide a reasonable time line, but minuscule evidence about their function, zero evidence for the “transit” from one species to another. The claim for “mountains of evidence” is a disingenuous lie. The modern biology, demonstrably, makes no use of the historical biology; at times the historical is an encumbrance on the modern.Lynch has also posted at Panda’s Thumb a discussion of what counts as “peer review” at the journal Progress in Complexity, Information and Design, published by International Society for Complexity, Information and Design. The entry includes a link to the analysis by the National Center for Science Education of the Discovery Institute’s tendentious “Bibliography of Supplementary Resources for Ohio Science Education”. Tendentious because, as the Center learned by querying the authors of articles cited in the Bibliography, the Institute’s summaries of those articles were misleading and sometimes erroneous. It is an instance of what has come to be called “quote-mining”, a venerable practice well described by John Cole:Creationists have developed a skill unique to their trade: that of misquotation and quotation out of context from the works of leading evolutionists. This tactic not only frustrates scientists but it misleads school board members, legislators, and the public. Whether such actions by creationists of selectively seeking out quotations or references in order to prove a preconceived case are willful distortion or the product of wishful thinking is irrelevant. Such acts misuse science and scientists in bogus appeals to authority.Quote-mining is a new name for an old practice. It is not at all unique to creationism; it is very common in any sort of apologetics. Those who claim to find prophecies in the Old Testament—Pascal was one—are quote-miners. Quote-mining is suspect only when the parti pris of the quote-miner leads to misrepresentation of the sense of the passage quoted or when the mining is selective. Quote-mining introduces noise into the channel of transmission of results and opinions; reduction of noise takes work.Unfortunately, the quote-miner can presume that (i) readers approach an author in the expectation that the author will not deceive them (this is especially true of readers who have been taught to form their opinions on the basis of authority, but it is also a condition of informative communication generally); and that (ii) readers are unlikely, not only because they assume the author is trustworthy but because time and resources are limited, to return to the sources to find out whether they are being misled or deceived.Anthologies, common-place books, anas, and so on are labor- and money-saving devices. We all depend on them. Our dependence is warranted insofar as authors for the most part trustoworthy enough; but as with any shared understanding of this sort, cheating is always possible. The abusive quote-miner lacks integrity: he presents himself as trustworthy when he is not (I exclude here confirmation bias and other tendencies that an author may be unaware of). One can see from the interview with Karen Brauer cited below that integrity of this sort counts for little with certain zealots who act, they say, in accordance with a “higher law”. Yet without it science (and philosophy as most philosophers understand it) would cease to exist.
- Steve Dutch on “Science, Pseudoscience, and Irrationalism”
Via Stranger Fruit. “Self-Appointed Experts” takes on the accusations of arrogance that experts sometimes face. It’s an able defense of expertise. I think that the political issues deserve more consideration. The moment you call your opponent “stupid”, the debate turns toward questions of persons and power. The right has learned very well how to exploit the resentments that then tend to come to the fore. The temptation to express one’s irritation is strong. But to give in to it is to play into the hands of your opponent, who knows that the practical question—here the teaching of evolution—is decided not by scientists but by politicians and their more vocal constituents.Nevertheless, as an argument against the insinuations and pig-headedness of those who take issue with science they know nothing about, Dutch’s argument is sound.There are serious issues, of both philosophical and political interest, concerning the role of expertise (which has been criticized by the political left too) in public discourse and political decision-making (see various works by Steve Fuller and Ian Hacking). In my view “knowledge in the wild”, especially the we know or the it is known that embodied in the expert, deserves more attention from epistemologists than I see it getting (I should mention, however, Margaret Gilman, On social facts, Princeton, 1992, orig. publ. 1989).
- Darwin’s Little Darling
Mike Price. “Making martyrs out of monsters” discusses the “disturbingly widespread trend of pharmacists refusing to fill perscriptions for birth control or dispensing the ‘morning after’ pill on the basis of personal beliefs”. Pharmacists for Life International is an organization (see the interview with Karen Brauer at Media Matters 30 Mar 2005; see also SourceWatch) whose brief is to promote the position that pharmacists (and by extension all medical professionals) have a right to refuse to perform acts contrary to their religious beliefs.
In Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, one of the Firesign Theatre’s best albums, a story within the story concerns Porgie and Mudhead’s attempts to find their high school, More Science, after it’s stolen by the students at Commie Martyrs. ‘Commie Martyrs’ is certainly passé. But is ‘More Science’ far behind?
The recent attempt of the Kansas Board of Education to introduce Intelligent Design into the public schools—creationist in all but name, to judge from some Board members’ comments—is only one of many (see the NCSE website for details). Here in Missouri a bill introduced at the end of the House session was not acted on (NCSE, “Antievolution bill dies in Missouri”, 17 May 2005). In our neighboring state of Oklahoma, the Tulsa Zoo has agreed to a display depicting the six days of Creation (NCSE, “Tulsa Zoo to Add Creationism Exhibit”, 10 Jun 2005; see also “Tulsa Zoo and Creationism” at Panda’s Thumb).
The issue is not one of science but of power, of resentment fueled by the suspicion that the sort of people who regard evolution as proved look down on the true Christians who oppose them. H. Allen Orr, in his New Yorker piece, summarizes the issue from the standpoint of the scientists:
Biologists aren’t alarmed by intelligent design’s arrival in Dover and elsewhere because they have all sworn allegiance to atheistic materialism; they’re alarmed because intelligent design is junk science.
(The “Dover” in question is Dover, Pennsylvania: see the NCSE listing of articles.) It is all too easy for the creationists, or their retooled successors, to take the designation “junk science”, however deserved, and treat it as an expression of contempt for the religion that motivates them and their defenders.
Descartes without the boring parts
John J. Emerson offers a “A Naïve Reading of Descartes’ Discourse on Method”. The gist of the reading is that Descartes’ metaphysics and his professions of faith are not seriously meant. Their purpose is to keep the enforcers of orthodoxy at bay so that he can get on with his scientific work. Descartes, thus read, becomes “almost completely different” from “the Descartes we read about in history of philosophy, but it’s all there in the text”.
Naïve it may be, but Emerson’s reading is not unusual, not even among academic historians of philosophy (↓1). It is true that an older history, whose origins can be found in the late eighteenth century, casts Descartes as the founder and exemplar of “rationalism” (↓2). In the mythology of philosophy, rationalism and empiricism are structural opposites, ideological distinctions posing as historical categories. The Rationalists construct the world from their armchairs. The Empiricists, a more adventurous bunch, rest all their assertions on experience. Oddly enough, all the empiricists are British and all the rationalists are not.
If—antecedently to any study of the past—you think that theories of knowledge are (like sex organs in natural history, according to Linnæus) the most basic character by which to classify philosophies; if you think also that theories of knowledge fall neatly into those that hold that the originals of all our ideas come from the senses, and those that don’t, then (by a fortunate coincidence) you can combine the history of modern philosophy up to Kant quite neatly with a systematic exposition of the two chief theories of knowledge. Not only that, but by way of the First Meditation you can set it all up with the Problem of Knowledge, which is (so I hear) to “answer the skeptic”.
Not surprisingly, the Descartes of mythology is an incomplete Descartes, a Descartes from whose portrait just those features are missing that the Naïve Reading highlights. Descartes the Arch-Rationalist is a metaphysician through and through. His natural philosophy we can neglect. His inept vortices and illusory animal spirits can easily be detached from the cogito, the proofs of the existence of God, the theory of ideas and the rest of what is living in his philosophy. Descartes the Arch-Rationalist is the reverse of Descartes Naïvely Read. The roots of the tree of knowledge for the one are for the other mere excrescences; the project of pure inquiry for the one is for the other only squid-ink and delusion; the first two parts of the Discourse, almost irrelevant for the one, are for the other the heart of it (here I think Emerson has a point).
The pragmatic, canny working scientist of the Naïve Reading is indeed “all there in the text” (↓3). But not all the texts are taken account of in that Reading (as Emerson himself notes: he has “deliberately left a lot out”). I’ve said before that I have no grief against drawing on old texts for inspiration (see “Your Own Private Plato”). I think Bloom was right in his insistence on misreading, though as a misreader of Bloom I feel free to ignore all that stuff about ephebes and clinamen (↓4). Thinkers use other thinkers; creation begins with appropriation. Descartes, in his dressing-down of Beeckman, says that if you have truly learnt something, then it no longer matters from whom you first heard of it. It is “entirely yours” (↓5). It was self-serving for Descartes to offer this bit of wisdom to his erstwhile collaborator. But wisdom it remains: the pragmatico-atheist does nothing wrong in extracting an agreeable sentence here & there from old texts, so long as she makes it hers.
Nothing, that is, until the pragmatico-atheist makes what on the face of it are factual statements about what Descartes said and intended. Then the Historian cocks an ear and frowns. The Naïve Reader writes:
Why does Lou Dobbs hate Christmas?
Lou Dobbs holds that Christmas is not a holiday (or perhaps only that it is not a happy holiday). How else can you construe the claim that Macy’s is “excluding” celebrants of Christmas when it greets customers and the public at large with “Happy Holidays”?
Psychopathology in everyday life (“press gaggle” edition)
What would your diagnosis be if in conversation someone responded to you as Scott McClellan does to the press? (The rest is below the fold because I must quote at length to exhibit the phenomenon I’m interested in.)