Monday, February 26, 2007

Thoughts about abortion

After reading a post by Russell Arben Fox about his views on abortion, I was challenged to take a closer look at my own. Unlike Russell, I do think the revulsion we often feel at abortion stems from something inherently important about an unborn life. Maybe an embryo isn’t a person per say, but it certainly is full of potential (more than a sperm or egg alone), and I think that potential should be considered as a strong reason to not have an abortion. I’m not na├»ve enough to assume that a young embryo is on par with an 8 month old baby in the womb, and I will humbly admit that I can’t draw any definite lines. If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have told you that the only way to deter abortion is to make it illegal (except in cases of rape and incest), end of story. Recently, however, I’ve begun to realize that my ultimate goal (less frequent or even rare abortions) will not be accomplished by making it illegal. Abortion is the symptom, not the disease.

That being said, if abortion is only a sign of some deeper problem, then what exactly is it that I’m fighting against? It could be the objectification of women in our society, the debasing of sex in general (both for men and women), or maybe it’s something beyond sex entirely. My enemy is not the poor women who have been abandoned and have no way of supporting a child (in fact, they are the ones I’m worried the most about). My enemy is the individualistic ethos of our society. We want choices, and we want to be protected from the consequences of our choices. We want to feed kids crap and then sue the company that made the crap when the kids become morbidly obese. We want immediate gratification and not long term satisfaction. Abortion merely represents (in most cases) a society that wants to insure itself against its own decisions. That being said, the solution will not come by amending the laws. We need a cultural revolution, and that’s a tall order to come by.

So what happens with abortion if changing the laws won’t fix the real problem? Well, I think that there are some definite things that can be done to improve the situation. These suggestions would be best taken up by the tireless pro-lifers who seem to have more than enough resources and energy. I have zero respect (and even condemnation) for the militant pro-lifers, those who harm the lives of others in pursuit of their own ends (i.e. clinic bombers). They are full of contradictions and unreasonableness. I have more respect for those that peacefully combat abortion, though I feel these pro-lifers would be best advised to change their tactics. The women that go in to have an abortion should not be deterred by fear. They are the victims (of the greater enemy, our society), not the culprits. What they need most are people who love them, listen to them, and support them (both emotionally and financially). A woman who is supported by a loving community is less apt to choose abortion, because she knows that she and her child will be taken care of. This support should come from pro-choicers too, for that matter. If you really support the ability of the woman to choose what she really wants, you should make sure she isn’t being forced into a decision she’d rather not make. A women who chooses abortion for financial reasons (but who would much rather be able to have the child), is not making a free choice. So if you really want the women to be free to make decisions, then you should consider that keeping the option of abortion open is not the only choice that needs protection.

I’m a realist in that I recognize that women were having abortions long before they were legal, and those abortions were far more dangerous to the women than they are today. If we make abortion illegal, then we will be seriously jeopardizing the health and safety of a lot of women (not intentionally, but it will happen). That’s not something to be ignored. So again, it’s about tackling the mechanism that drives women to feel then need to (or even want to) have an abortion. We could start with the earliest possible prevention, better sex education and wider availability of contraception. That’s a good start (one that most of the pro-life proponents are unwillingly to support, unfortunately). But we should also make sure that the women who are pregnant are being taken care of in every sense of the word. No woman should feel alone and helpless, let alone a women carrying a child.

This doesn’t mean that I think society’s attitude towards sex should stay the same; it just means that I realize it’s not about to change anytime soon. So in the mean time, we ought to make every effort to prevent women from having to make the choice in the first place. But again, if a woman is forced to make the decision, we should do more to support her along the way. The psychological harms of abortion are real, and no one seems to want to address those. The least helpful thing to do would be to make her feel ashamed and unloved. If you are a pro-life Christian, then you should seriously consider what Jesus would have done. Would he have made the woman feel afraid or ostracized? Certainly not. He would be the first person to go give her a hug and bring her over for dinner. He would have worried first about her heart, second about her pregnancy. That’s something to keep in mind next time you go demonstrate in front of a clinic.

So what about sex… Society has demeaned sex, and it most certainly has demeaned the women who have it. Sex should be an intimate act that is shared between two people who are deeply in love. For me that means marriage, but I realize for others that’s not the case (which is fine for them). I think that when people wait until it’s meaningful, then they show that they not only value sex, but they value their own bodies and the intimacy of their relationship. One night stands or going home with someone from a party marginalizes sex. It takes away its intimacy, its importance. If you think sex is a good thing, then you should want to protect it from its own demise (which it is certainly on the road to). Today, sex is more of an immediate gratification than the sign of a deep relationship with long term satisfaction. So what needs to change? Not the laws…but our attitudes.

Russell said in his post (in relation to the debate as a whole): Far better to address the thing itself, rather than the context within which the thing arises, is quite often the underlying, unconscious thinking here, I suspect.

He compared fighting abortion to fighting slavery. In other words, too many of us want to fight the thing itself (which is noble, to an extent), without realizing the deeper issues. In the case of slavery, that was a predominately racist society (even among the abolitionists). Here, it’s our own self-indulgence.

I guess my feelings towards abortion may parallel my feelings (and that of some I know) about divorce. Some people may really need it, but our society shouldn’t endorse it as a solution. Marriage is valuable enough that it we should not be quick to divorce at the first sign of trouble. Some people need that extra motivation from society to stick it out, and in the same way society could do more to help those women who would really rather have the child be able to have it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Moral authority...

So recently I've been trying to figure out a certain line of reasoning of (some/most?) secular humanists. Professor BH tried to explain to me how you can be an atheist and still believe in non-relative (and not just a product of evolution) morality. I'm still not sure I understand, and this is why...

So let's assume that there is no higher power or divine justice. I won't limit this to physicalism, because I'm fairly certain not all secular humanists are physicalists (and certainly not strict ones if they are). And physicalism entails all sorts of problems with moral responsibility. So let's say that I believe that there are moral absolutes (that there is a fact of the matter as to what is right and wrong). I don't think this necessarily rules out value pluralism, so I'll ignore that for now because I don't know enough about it. Morality, then, exists separately from the physical world (like abstract objects). "Murder is wrong" (prima facie...sp?) would be on the same level as the number 2 is even. It just is, and it is not dependant on the world as such. You could also say that some parts of morality are easily accessible, but others require a substantial amount of thought and discussion to discern.

So far so good. My question lies in the binding power of these moral laws. Unlike the natural laws (gravity and such), they can (and frequently are) broken. They are more similar in nature to the logic laws. We can "break" the laws of logic only in the sense that we make mistakes in arguments, putting the laws into practice, and such (in the process of describing or appealing to these laws). You may make an argument where you include a contradiction, for example, but you by no means made a real contradiction (in other words, you never made A and not A come to be). That's like when a student writes down that 2 + 2 =3. They broke the rule, but they didn't actually make 2 + 2=3.

The same type of situation occurs with moral laws. We may mistakenly believe that murder is good, but that doesn't make it good. But here is my dilemma: if the moral laws of the universe are some abstract concept (like logic), on what basis can we appeal to them? When we try to justify an action on the basis that it promotes justice, for example, what are we really appealing to? Do we want to get the moral laws right (like those of logic), just for the sake of our own edification (because it would seem irrational to continue to violate them)? What actual powers do they have, if any? They certainly aren't like the natural laws (which we have no choice but to obey). So what is the incentive to follow them (other than the aforementioned appeal to rational improvement)? If there is no source of justice, what is the point?

I suppose one could argue that, like the rules of logic, recognizing and using them is good for other reasons....(mathematics is certainly helpful for practical reasons, and morality likewise brings social benefits). But I'm unconvinced that the social benefits (or even individual self improvement claims) are in anyway binding. I'm unclear on my own definition of binding, but I see it as something that eventually brings the end of affairs into agreement with the rules. For example, a student may make a mistake on a math quiz, but the teacher exercises authority over the student and corrects that mistake. So in the end, the right answer prevails (though it was not achieved by the student beforehand). For some reason, I need a mechanism to ensure that the rules are obeyed (at least when all is said and done). Without which, I feel the rules are useless. Yes they may be socially convenient, but you can't appeal to them in anyway to hold me morally responsible. So then what? Anarchy? That's not attractive. If you believe in moral absolutes (which can include value pluralism if you're so inclined), please explain on what basis these rules can be appealed to (in order to mandate my behavior, and if need be coerce it). What authority do they really have?

Now you may turn that right around and ask by what authority do I appeal to when justifying why moral rules are binding. I believe in a just God. Now Prof BH pointed out that my appealing to God is not very dissimilar to his appeal to abstract concepts. In fact, if there is a God, he said that God would be bound by those very rules himself (for God to be good there must be some concept of good by which He meets the standard). So it seems that I'm just adding a middle man, and Occam (I have no idea how to spell his name, ever) wouldn't like that too much. If God is bound by morality (he could never make it the case that torturing babies,p.f., is morally praiseworthy) then the same thing that binds him is what binds us even if He wasn't there. In which case, my question is still unanswered with or without God.

But I'm not quick to make a linear ranking of morality/logic/etc and God. This is why (and this is where I depart from philosophy and try my hand at something I am admittedly unqualified for...theology) I don't want to say that. In many Biblical descriptions (interpretations) of God, He does not merely possess certain qualities, but rather is that thing. "God is love", for example (1 John 4:16), not just God is loving. Now, I do realize that perhaps this is just a product of translation. However, it does make me wonder... Is it possible for God to not be a just God but to be justice itself? He would sort of be the pinnacle goodness that Plato thought philosophers tapped into. He would be goodness, love, justice... If that's the case, then God is both the benchmark and the evaluator. He is the standard, and the judge. In which case, He would be bound by moral laws in virtue of those laws being an essential part of his nature, part of what it is to be God. It's a thought, anyways. Does that seem plausible or am I way off base??

So let's say that God is both the ruler we are measured against and the mechanism for setting things back to good (in the end). We would be obliged to follow the moral laws because...? Divine retribution? I think it's more than that. So let's say we really were created (don't get bogged down in the how), and let's also say that we were endowed with both the ability to discern these laws and the ability to choose whether to follow them. Are the laws only knowable by reading sacred texts? I'll wager a no on that (not from the Christian God). Here's why:
"I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart" Psalm 40:8
"Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts" Isaiah 51:7
"I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts." Jer 31:33

So lets say God endowed everyone with the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis throwback if you will). Why bother? Why allow us to know evil and still choose it? I believe He wanted to create beings who were able to freely love Him (if they so desired). Those who don't want to, well they don't have to. With that comes the ability to choose lots of things, including evil (even if you love God...you're going to mess up a bit). So what? Why have any consequences?

I think that if God really is goodness (like God = the good/best/whatever), then He can't tolerate (by nature) the presence of evil (which is essentially corrupted good). So, eventually He'll have to serve justice, make everything right. And like I said before, He could do it now, but He's giving us the chance to make some important decisions. So morality is binding to me, because it is part of my choosing God. I choose God, and so I want to be more like God...so in turn I want to follow His commands. You get the point. Those who don't choose God, well in the end they won't get to chill with Him (which they didn't want to do anyways). On a side note, you may wonder about my views on hell. I believe hell is the absence of God, which to those who love God could very well be comprable to a lake of fire...if you want to imagine a sucky way to end up). But, if you don't choose God, then the presence of God would be hell. So I think it's really about choosing whether or not to experience His presence from here on out (and I honestly don't know what His absence would be like, but I know for me it would suck more than anything). So there's my random two cents on that.

I have my answer, and I really wish I understood the secular response...but unfortunately I don't. I don't see the authority there in the same way it is with God (or at least something like God). That's not a frivolous question either, because if there really is no authority without God and God doesn't exist...well then why hold people morally responsible for anything? That's all for now. Sorry it was so long...and I promise that one day I will learn to write cleary without using a ton of parenthetical qualifiers. Sorry.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Living with Darwin

Living with Darwin, by Philip Kitcher, is a book that I have mixed feelings about. While I applaud his efforts to disentangle the mess that has become the Darwin-education debate, I feel like overall he makes some fairly large leaps of faith himself (that he would otherwise criticize religious people for doing). So here goes nothing….

As far as the distinction between the 3 types of Darwin opponents (those who take Genesis literally, quasi-literally, and those who are merely anti-selectionists), I agree that all three branches of dissent ought to be subject to scientific scrutiny if they are candidates for being taught in school. However, disproving a theory that is intrinsically supernatural merely because one doesn’t believe in the supernatural is clearly begging the question. I concede that these theories musn’t be taught in schools if they aren’t purely scientific (physical) explanations; however, using that same measure to judge its inherent value is misleading. This requires a bit of heavy-lifting in the metaphysics arena, one that Kitcher made no effort to do (which would have been understandable if his critique of the theories was not so sweeping). Though I will officially agree that evolution should remain a theory taught in schools. I was taught it, and I can only figure how my beliefs fit into that because I learned about it. More on that in a bit.

Kitcher’s dilemma for Christians is that science, as we have it today, is not at all compatible with the providential God (one who created us on purpose for whatever reasons….etc). However, his justification for this is a bit odd. He rejects Intellectual Design (of which I don’t hold in high esteem myself), and in doing so rejects the supernatural altogether. The reason this is strange is that ID supposedly (on its less meaty versions) includes very little (if any after the initial set in motion of things….like the unmoved mover of Aristotle…I think) intervention on behalf of God. This intervention, though by no means extensive (according to ID), is not possible because Kitcher does not see how God could do it (as he denies the supernatural). He is upset that there is not “the slightest inclination of how Intelligence performs the magic that poor, limited, natural selection cannot” (104). Well, if you discount the non-material possibilities, I don’t suppose there could be any “magic” anyways…He operates under an assumption that he does not prove, but he can confidently rely on the fact that most of his readers (non-believers) will placidly agree with it. On a separate note, I'm reading another book that is extremely helpful (Darwin's God, appears in a footnote by Kitcher but he never takes a stand against the book which is weakness on his side if you've ever read it...). Quantum physics, the indeterminate nature of molecules that correspondingly affects all other sciences, provides an amazingly huge relief to any believer who grew up in the Diestic world of Newtonian physics (which leads to a God that at best just watches his creation unfold and neither He nor we have any power to change anything about what happens). It provides a cool way for God to intervene in a non-intrusive/ non-detectable way that you wouldn't have thought of, the unpredictable motion of subatomic particles. God created a world that He could leave independent and could give us free will. One where we could choose to love him, but one where He could still step in as needed without threatening that independance...You have to read the book to fully appreciate that view.

I am also uneasy with his conclusion that a “truly intelligent designer…could do much better” (49) than this. Why should humans, Kitcher argues, share traits with a whale or share genes with a fly (it was a different animal, but same point)? The common makeup of living things seems to be a problem for Kitcher’s view of God. I, however, take it in a different light (and I openly admit my bias on this point). Let’s say you want to make two sculptures, one of ladybug, and one of a human. These should arguably turn out much different from each other, and they do. Only later a friend argues that they are too similar because you made them both from clay, and you should have made them out of completely different moldable substances. Does that complaint seem reasonable? Not to me. The property of life seems to be crucial here. Who’s to say that genes and DNA and all that jazz aren’t a crucial aspect of having this property (regardless of what organism you are), and how does that reflect poorly on a creator? I think it’s ingenious that such slight variations can produce such a variety of organisms. The other problem for Kitcher is that of the imperfectness of this world. He slides the problem of evil under the table masked as a scientific objection. Again, Kitcher is dealing with a philosophical problem that I think he too easily dismisses (although at the end he does come out and admit that he’s referring directly to the problem of evil, he just isn’t so obvious in the preceding chapters and uses under the pretext of scientific problem). Maybe I’ll take that up later (but I’ll have to read up on some Plantigna…).

Kitcher’s best objection to evolution being reconciled with faith came at the end of the first chapter. His objection is forceful, and I applaud him for it. If one can’t take the literal meaning of one part of the text, then shouldn’t that lead you to wonder if any of it can be taken literally. If it can’t, then the very foundation of the religion you believe is gone (Christ’s resurrection, for example). That, to me, is the most serious objection. I will not pretend to be a Biblical scholar (though I have studied it to the best of my own ability), but I feel as though there is a solution. The Bible, as Pastor Chris often points out, was written for us but not to us. The crowd that it was intended for lived in a very different world from our own. They carried their own issues into the text, and would have read the texts in a much different manner than we do. Each section corresponds to a different part of history, one that should be studied to gain more understanding. The Jews who studied Genesis were not interested in how God created the earth, but rather why they were created. The important part to them was that God took nothing and made something and gave that something a purpose for being. Genesis delivers that message very well. Personally, I think God could have made the earth anyway he felt like, and while I think he gives us glimpses of his process, we are far from ever fully understanding it (a position, or retreat, that Kitcher does not like, I admit).

There are two main principles of Kitcher’s that I want to challenge, both of which I will argue against later as I think on it more. The first is his denial of the non-physical. The second is his ability to maintain morality in spite of his physicalism (which I have reason to believe is contradictory). These both involve reflecting more on metaphysical arguments (which I just so happen to be studying this semester, though not as in depth as I could use).

I’d like to end by mentioning that I enjoyed the book (really I did!), and I found it very enlightening (as I’m not well versed in matters of science). His admission of the importance of religion today shows he understands more about what's really going on than many of his comrades. What he sees as a function of society that can be replaced by secular humanism doesn't fly with me though. The crutch he describes I've already seen in people. I call it the "God-hole". The need we all have to find meaning and hope that only God can truly fill. Some fill it with drugs, academics, family, friends, possessions, but none of that can fully fill you. People inevitably let you down, things don't come even close to filling the void. So I'm not sure his version of modified religion would do all that much (the only ones it could even sort of help are those few intellectuals who study and embrace it already, but even then I think it's still lacking in a huge way). Also, it’s clear to me that Kitcher’s denial of the supernatural is as much on faith as my support of it. One reason that evolution doesn’t worry me is that science is always changing. By denying that in the future the non-physical will never be an acceptable part of science is arrogant. If your denial depends on predicting the future path of science, you had best find a new foundation. No one would have predicted relativity or quantum mechanics. So it’s best to not rule things out prematurely. That’s all for now, more to come…

(I had way more thoughts while reading the book, and I should have written them down. I'm reading a new book, Darwin's God. And so far it says everything I've always kind of thought but wasn't sure if it was some fanciful notion I had or an actual scientific possibility...so I like it a lot so far!)

Friday, February 16, 2007

Here it goes...

The point of this blog is much different from my last one (not a journal about traveling, but about ideas), which will probably be very boring for everyone sauf moi. So sorry about that, but don't say I didn't warn you. In case you were wondering, the "regardant les nuages" means staring at the clouds in french. "Sauvant la foi" means saving the faith. Which brings me to the point of this. It's time I took the balance of my intellectual integrity and spiritual convictions more seriously. I've spent 3 years studying philosophy, being challenged, rethinking my beliefs, and inevitably deepening my faith. But, despite being under attack at virtually every philo lecture I've ever attended, it wasn't until recently that I truly felt challenged to sort out exactly what I believe and why. This challenge came from one of my professors (whom I respect a ton). He may be a secular ultra-leftist, but maybe I am too. Who knows? (momma, you're probably very worried at this point, but that's okay because you are more liberal then you think, just as many liberals are more "conservative" then they realize...anyways...). So this is where I'm going to figure some stuff out, hopefully with help (though I'm not going to delude myself into thinking that many people will care too much about my ramblings...).

So I guess I'll start with what I do believe, and go from there.
1. I believe in God.
2. I believe that God created me and you and everything else, on purpose.
3. I believe that we can't know how he did it, how long it took, or if we came from monkeys...and frankly, I don't care (because nothing in science threatens my belief thus far, evolution included).
4. I believe that we all mess up, a lot...but that we want to do good, to do better than we are right now
5. I believe God loves us, sent his son to save us from ourselves, and wants us love others in the same way.
6. I believe that Jesus was not a politician, and that any politician that uses the God-card for votes will be held responsible later.
7. I believe that I suck at living a life like Christ. I'm never kind enough, generous enough, loving enough...
8. I believe God intervenes, daily, constantly, in our lives to help us.
9. I believe the Bible was written for us, not to us, and that studying the context of the culture it came from can open up many of its mysteries.
10. I believe any person who professes to be a Christian should not conquer the world with hate, but rather win the hearts of others with love (when they see our good actions, may they then praise our father in heaven..)
11. I believe that no good tree bears bad fruit, no bad tree bears good fruit, and so we can know those who have a heart for God (whether they themselves know it yet) by their fruit...

As for being a Christian, I'm not into religion. If I never went to church a day in my life, I know I could still have a relationship with God. But I do believe God gave us the gift of fellowship to challenge and support each other...hence communities of believers. My faith doesn't make me Republican, but I'm not a Democrat either. I hate politics, but I love to study it- in the philosophical sense at least (don't ask).

It took me long enough, but I finally felt like my intellectual integrity has been put on trial (by total strangers I might add) because of my faith. I'm here to defend both. God has blessed me with an amazing ability to understand, learn and analyze the world we live in. Even given my lack of confidence in this arena (which may surprise some of you, but not others), I am certain that God has given me that gift, for which I am eternally grateful. Now imagine my dismay when I am told that intelligence and faith are mutually exclusive. Therein lies the problem...

Some may assume that while I am perfectly confident in many disciplines, when it comes to the existence of God (or the validity of my specific faith) I am either a selective learner, incompetent, or too far indoctrinated to ever be enlightened. While I resent that implication, I've decided it's time to take it seriously. So many Christians in academia are confronted with this accusation, yet too many of us deny that we are even on trial for it...so how can we possibly clear our names? our faith? That won't happen by running away, being in denial, or using the same accusatory tactics on our opponents. Am I surprised that Christians are labeled as misguided, ignorant, stupid...no. Have the Christians in history/present treated non-believers worse than they now treat us? Definitely. So it's time make some changes. If you don't want to play hardball, you have to change the rules of the game (sorry, reference to philo class). Dialogue, honesty, open-mindedness are crucial...but so is standing firm. So there you have it. My thoughts on various (and probably random) topics will follow, as soon as I can make them comprehensible.

"See to it that no one takes you captive by hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." Col 2:13

"Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given to me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should." Eph 6:17-20