Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Great Wiesel Shoot

As I may have indicated some time ago, I recently wrote a response-essay to Leon Wieseltier's philistine review of the new Daniel Dennett book in the New York Times back in February. It's out now, and you can read it here. If I do say so myself, I've got the old gasbag dead to rights. Money quote:
The first philosopher to appreciate the problem of induction fully was not a Christian apologist like Plantinga, but the consummate atheist David Hume, who casts his shadow over any discussion of naturalism and the limits of naturalistic explanation because it is his epistemology that provides the theoretical foundation of the actual practice of science. To enter into the discussion, therefore, a working knowledge of Hume’s epistemology is absolutely indispensable. The root source of all of Wieseltier’s trouble is that he gets Hume’s epistemology completely, utterly wrong, and the cause of that error in turn is that, undeterred by a surfeit of biographical evidence and a consensus in Hume scholarship to the contrary, Wieseltier attributes to Hume a belief in the existence of God on the basis of an argument that contradicts the essential character of Humean philosophy. “His God was a very wan god,” asserts Wieseltier, understating matters to the point of absurdity. “But his God was still a god; and so his theism is as true or false as any other theism.” The meager evidentiary basis of that claim is a single sentence outside either of Hume’s two major philosophical works:
The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion. (The Natural History of Religion).
It does look fairly convincing on first glance that Hume both believed in the existence of God, and held that belief on the basis of an argument from design. Indeed, passing off this remark without further consideration of the major themes of Hume’s corpus is so suspiciously convincing that it precludes the possibility that it is just an honest mistake. Quite simply, either Wieseltier has been defrauded himself or he is attempting to defraud his readers. For in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, nearly universally regarded as Hume’s masterwork, and again in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he gives a devastating counterargument against affirming the existence of God from observations about design. Though Hume’s argument against theism-from-design has been cleaned up and formalized over the centuries, it has never been substantively improved upon.

Would Wieseltier have us believe that the man who constructed the definitive rebuttal to the argument from design nevertheless upheld the argument from design himself? Does Wieseltier believe Hume was a schizophrenic? Not even schizophrenia could make the notion of Hume-the-theist remotely plausible: Hume’s general methodological principles provide rules for rebutting all arguments of the type of which the argument from design is a token, and they also helpfully reveal what is actually going on in the passage from The Natural History of Religion. In contemporary philosophical discourse, “Humeanism” denotes the doctrine, as described by the metaphysician David Lewis, that “all there is to the world is a vast mosaic of local matters of particular fact, just one little thing and then another.” The foundation of Hume’s epistemology is the denial of necessary connections anywhere in nature. In the Enquiry he sets out to demonstrate that all we can ever have knowledge of is the conjunction of one event with another; reason then applies the concept of causality to our experiences and tries to deceive us into thinking that causality is something real, “out there,” rather than a cognitive illusion:
The bread, which I formerly eat, nourished me; that is, a body of such sensible qualities was, at that time, endued with such secret powers: but does it follow, that other bread must also nourish me at another time, and that like sensible qualities must always be attended with like secret powers?
“No,” goes the answer resoundingly. The evident dependence of the existence of causality on the necessary constancy from one moment to the next of invisible “secret powers” should tip us off to the fact that nothing makes it so that uniformities in nature are necessarily so. Belief to the contrary is based on phantoms in the minds of those whom reason has successfully misled. So Hume does not think there is any justification for inferring the necessary existence of cause-and-effect relations from observing nature. The suggestion that Hume believed God’s existence could be inferred from the same method is farcical.

What sense, then, can we make of the solitary line Wieseltier takes as dispositive of Hume’s theism? Quite the opposite, in fact, of what Wieseltier takes away from it. Consider precisely what it is Hume says: No “rational enquirer” can suspend his belief in theism and religion. But Hume is not, in his own idiom, a “rational enquirer”; he is the champion of empiricism, and rationalists are his philosophical antagonists. Of course a rationalist of the sort Hume is criticizing cannot suspend belief in God. Rationalism takes as indubitable the postulate that what pure reason makes out of perception is reality. Anyone laboring under that false doctrine, and who perceives nature as bearing marks of design, would be powerless to resist fallacious inferences from the appearance of design in nature to the reality of the existence of God. In a line from the Treatise I would find it hard to believe Wieseltier has never come across, Hume makes his thoughts about the role of reason overt: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” The rationalism Wieseltier believes is common ground between himself and Hume is in other words the precise object of Hume’s intellectual scorn. Hume is not affirming the argument from design, but laughing at those who do.

There are, of course, alternatives to Humean science, and Plantinga points the way to one. Call it Kierkegaardian science — believe in God and, by virtue of the absurd, the science will follow. Aristotle’s science dominated most of the history of Western civilization, until Galileo and Copernicus embarrassed its geocentrism, Newton embarrassed its mechanics, and Darwin embarrassed its notion of biological species as eternal and unchanging. But the undoing of Aristotelian science is its method, not its conclusions. A science according to which penicillin cures bacterial infections because it possesses an antibiotic virtue is not a science capable of discovering penicillin in the first place. Moreover, it takes Kant, not Aristotle, to provide a principled basis for erecting the sorts of walls between science and philosophy and between individual sciences that Wieseltier proposes. The theoretical cost of doing so is accepting Kant’s theory that space and time are nothing more than “forms of sensible intuition,” and consequently that not even the images captured by the Hubble telescope advance us one inch towards an understanding of “things in themselves,” i.e. true, transcendental reality. Wieseltier wants Kantian science without Kantian metaphysics, a possibility ruled out not by the sinister scientistic machinations of the likes of Dennett, but by the minimal requirements of intellectual defensibility.

However, the science Wieseltier actually lends his support to is nothing so dignified as Kant’s, but the only science that could result from the self-parodying rationalism he mistakenly attributes to Hume (and here is where the political implications of Wieseltier’s arguments become apparent). There is unfortunately no shortage of bullies who claim to have proved, on the grounds that it seems to them that “nature bespeaks an intelligent author,” that such an author necessarily exists. The name of that peasant revolt against knowledge is “intelligent design theory,” and Wieseltier, for all his erudition, is its oblivious footsoldier. “[W]hy must we read literally in the realm of religion,” wonders Wieseltier, approximating candor, “when in so many other realms of human expression we read metaphorically, allegorically, symbolically, figuratively, analogically?” What a silly question. Of course we may read any way we choose to, and no one has suggested otherwise. All that naturalists ask is that we not mistake our right to read metaphorically for the power to make metaphors into literal truth by believing in them strongly enough. The occasional stridency Dennett displays in reminding us that the universe is indifferent to our thoughts about what it should be is nothing compared to the metaphysical hubris involved in self-righteously refusing to pay heed to those reminders.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

More World Cup Blogging

Now that every team has played at least once, why not pause for a few reflections and make a few (premature) predictions. First, because I'm a shameless imperialist capitalist running pigdog, I should mention that I'm not really concerned with any of the minor/non-contending countries, except inasmuch as their presence affects the sides with a chance to win. And sitting at the head of the table of non-contenders, surely, is the United States of America, which on Monday put together some of the worst 90+ minutes of international soccer I have ever seen. It's not that there haven't been worse teams and worse performances (there have been worse American teams and worse American performances), it's that the gameplan seemed to be not even to try to do anything with the ball in Czech territory under any circumstances.

The American performance on the pitch was downright impressive, however, compared to ESPN's coverage of the match. Let's not mince words: It was the most slanted reporting of any kind and of any subject in recent memory. ESPN's coverage of the US-Czech Republic match made Sean Hannity's interview with Dick Cheney look like an interrogation at Abu Ghraib. The "worldwide leader in sports" spent a week promoting, to the exclusion of any other angle on the match, the fact that this American team is the best ever and it is up to them to shock the world and prove that the USA is the best in the world even at a competition we regard as somewhere in between sport and a gay hippie orgy conducted in rhythm with the Internationale. A spectator who knew nothing about soccer but the line that ESPN was pushing that week would have assumed the US were favorites in the match. All three "experts" --- Eric Wynalda, Alexi Lalas, and Julie Foudy (more on them momentarily) --- predicted an American victory, which indicates that they are either retarded or dishonest creeps. [Both!--ed.] Once the Czech Republic sent Claudio "Asshole" Reyna, Landon "Asshole" Donovan &co. off the pitch in disgrace, ESPN's official line switched immediately to, "Will the valiant underdog superpower recover from this self-inflicted loss by defeating Italy, and has Oceania always been at war with Eastasia?" (Answers: "Yes and yes"). And so it has been ever since: unceasing hawking of the US-Italy match throughout their coverage of every other World Cup match. There are reminders of the time and date every few minutes or so, and whatever is actually happening on the pitch, you can count on Marcelo "Rocky" Balboa and his sidekick [I think it's Alan Colmes--ed.] to explain why it's just like the American match, or (just maybe) just like the predicament the Americans find themselves in. At one point during the Germany-Poland match yesterday, the area of action on the pitch was blocked out by a fucking promo for US-Italy. This bears repeating: ESPN blocked out German and Polish players contesting for the ball with a graphic advertising the next US match. Finally, about the aforementioned three musketeers, Wynalda, Lalas, and Foudy: You know that stereotype that certain classes of athletes (hockey players, lacrosse players, maybe football players) tend to be cretinous while others (i.e. soccer players) tend to be bright? Yeah, so much for that.

As for the actual soccer: If I were an England supporter, I would be weeping. They lucked out a win over Paraguay by virtue of an own goal, and barely beat Trinidad and To-fucking-bago today. They'll be playing either Germany or Ecuador, and will deservedly lose to either one. Which brings us to Germany: The team is better in all respects than the 2002-finalists, except that Jens Lehmann is no Oli Kahn (and apparently these days, Oli Kahn is no Oli Kahn, else he wouldn't be on the bench; or is Jürgen Klinsmann nuts?). Ballack has some forwards to play with, Lahm and Frings are more than competent, though utterly uncreative, and the defense seems to have sorted out the lazy nonsense that led to Costa Rica's two goals on blown offside traps. That said, I doubt Germany will win, but they'll stay around longer than several teams that are better on paper. The best team on paper is Brazil, and by all rights, they ought to have lost to Croatia. Brazil's durability in the tournament will depend on whether or not their coach is willing to bench Ronaldo for the rest of the tournament. He is awful; and his replacement, Robinho, looks dangerous. No one, myself included, will be surprised if Brazil goes all the way, but they're not my pick. Against Croatia, they looked like 10 primadonnas and a keeper, not a soccer team. This is the classic set-up for a World Cup collapse. Which is the fate that will befall Argentina, Italy, and the Netherlands. Portugal is the most exciting team to watch, but they appear utterly uninterested in playing defense, and will lose accordingly.

My pick: The Czech Republic, with or without Jan Koller. They are a team that includes phenomenal talents. I can't see them losing.

P.S. If I were watching in any other country in the world --- especially in Europe; nothing brings out the Real American Hero in me like listening to blond, orange-tracksuited Eurotrash idiots mock Americans for being fat and stupid [that rapier European wit--ed.] --- I'd probably be cheering the doughboys on. As things are, I want them not only to lose but to be humiliated and booted from the tournament as quickly as possible. Which makes me, as you know, objectively pro-terrorist.

UPDATE (6/17/06): Man is my face red. I stand by everything I said about ESPN tenfold, though.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Ann Coulter: Cross-Dressing In A Brownshirt

So this is hardly the worst thing Ann Coulter has ever said, but it may just be the thing that finally reduces her to the basement-dwelling newsletter schrifter she ought to have been all these years. Sometimes, it just takes the right put-down. As Auden put it in "Under Which Lyre" (which may be my favorite poem):
By night our student Underground
At cocktail parties whisper round
From ear to ear;
Fat figures in the public eye
Collapse next morning, ambushed by
Some witty sneer.
Michael Crowley and Jamie Martin [blog has been rolled--ed.] agree: this, from Andrew Sullivan, might be just the right sneer to collapse Coulter (sans the 'fat' part, natch.):
She's a drag queen impersonating a fascist.

Invade Germany

Whatever you think of TNR and their ongoing support for Joe Lieberman, their World Cup blog, "Goalpost," is superb. See especially this and this. Me, I'm pulling for Germany. (It goes back, if you must know, to seeing them beat Argentina in the final in 1990, which was the first soccer match I can remember.) Realistically, I don't expect the Germans to win --- though host countries do tend to do awfully well --- and their opener against Costa Rica, while high scoring, did not exactly inspire confidence. That said, I'd be quite satisfied with this world cup if any team but Brazil wins (I'm ABB).

Sunday, June 04, 2006

"The New Saladin"

Sorry for the absence. Chris Matthews, about ten minutes ago, rough paraphrase: "I'm afraid that the Iranian mullahs would prefer an attack from the United States to giving up their nuclear program... that they want to be the new Saladin, the heroes of the whole Arab world." Okay, problem: Saladin was a Kurd, the Iranians are Persians, and neither like Arabs very much. Other than that, spot on Chris.

UPDATE: And then, Joe Biden responding on MTP responding to Tim Russert's question about the effect her vote for the war will have on Hillary Clinton's primary chances: "I would be surprised if the vote on the war will be the defining issue of the primary." Well, that's a little self-serving Neil, I mean Joe. Anyway, I've seen the polls indicating that HRC is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, but I have yet to encounter anyone who actually supports her (besides this asshole). Who are these pro-Hillary Democrats? And will someone put me on the phone with them please? We have a lot to talk about.

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