Premodernism, Modernism, Postmodernism

I wrote the following on Monday morning, and haven't had time to follow up on the thoughts. I'll post it now and get back to this later in case hell freezes over and someone wants to comment on it.


N.B.: The following post draws on a few gross oversimplifications. Please take these generalizations with several grains of salt. I employ them for the sake of communicating some general thoughts based on recent experiences of mine.

This semester is a strange one for me, in terms of coursework. It's far more analytic or Anglo-American than any semester I've had previously, and I find myself reading many things that I strongly disagree with.

Nevertheless, I am a firm advocate of gaining familiarity with alternative positions on just about any matter. I am not monistic regarding truth; as far as I'm concerned, there are many viable interpretations in life, even though some are better or worse in certain respects in particular contexts. In this way I view myself as something of a postmodernist, in a loose sense of the term.

That said, I am open to a wide range of views and even those views I disallow on principle (dogmatism, absolutism, anti-pluralism, etc.) I still take some interest in understanding from the perspective of their adherents. This is particularly so if a view is held by those I regard as thoughtful, generally reasonable people, but also if a belief is popular and influential.

This morning, I found myself reacting strongly to a piece of writing I was reading for the seminar I'm auditing on contemporary ethics. Suffice to say that it was the work of a very serious neo-Kantian (Christine Korsgaard) who makes outrageous claims such as, and I quote, "Enlightenment morality is true."

Dogmatism about the authority of reason rubs me the wrong way. Kant, in particular, bothers me because of his univocal approach to the interpretation of ethical action: why should I believe that my action is describable in only one particular way (i.e., that it has a unique maxim)? How can we expect to get from the most abstract formalism to concrete human experience?

Korsgaard does an admirable job bringing Kant into the 21st century, but I'm content to leave him back in the 18th. She claims to be naturalistic in a way, but real she is just trying to reintroduce teleology into nature. I mean, she even cites Aristotle as having the best account of animal life! Give me a f-ing break! She clearly doesn't have even the most basic understanding of modern biology.

So, I found myself writing all of these interjections and occasionally rude comments in the margins. It was very difficult for me to be charitable, although I occasionally felt she made some good points.

(I'll even grant that Kant has at least 2 good ethical insights: 1) that persons should never be treated merely instrumentally as things; 2) that we cannot make ethical decisions, or any decisions for that matter, without operating under the practical idea of freedom.)

I regard Kant, Korsgaard, and all these other neo-Kantians, as consummate modernists, in a broad sense. These are people who more or less accord ultimate authority to human reason.

Well, upon finishing this text, I soon thereafter began reading something different for my seminar on the philosophy of religion. Soon, I found myself longing for something Kantian!

A word to the wise: never read Cornelius Van Til. I cannot decide if he is ignorant, idiotic, or insane. Hands down, this is the worst text--the most simplistic, the most disgusting, the most offensive, and quite frankly the most dangerous--that I have ever had to read for a class.

The man claims to be Christian, but Manichaean is a far more accurate description. He distinguishes between: 1) the Christian view and 2) the non-Christian view.

Oh, but he's not quite that simple. You see, he makes a distinction between different Christian views. You have the Romanists and Protestant evangelicals who maintain that man has some degree of autonomy, and then there are the Reformists (i.e., the right ones) who uncompromisingly maintain that man is absolutely subordinate to God.

He makes no distinction between different non-Christian positions.

You see, all non-Christian positions maintain that man has the final say, that his reason is the absolute authority. Van Til mentions Kant here as the main advocate of such a position. I didn't realize that a Christian like Kant perfectly encapsulated the only alternative to a Christian position, but that goes to show what I know.

Van Til is a decidedly premodern thinker. He's so out of touch that postmodernism isn't even on his radar screen. It is unfortunate that he espouses a view that roughly parallels that of a huge swath of humanity, that is, if they had the capacity to articulate it.

I make this contrast between premodern, modern, and postmodern--and unlike Van Til I readily acknowledge that these are very loose categories that are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive of all possibilities--in the light of another recent experience in class.

I am taking a seminar on contemporary democratic theory, centering on the notion of deliberative democracy. (For those of you keeping score, my fourth seminar is on Descartes.) After reading people like Habermas, who is also very Kantian, I found myself having a very similar reaction as the one I expressed with Korsgaard. The distinction between power and legitimate authority is not so very hard and fast, as far as I'm concerned.

And yet, our professor made a very good point that really struck me. Even though some of these democratic theories may seem impracticable, compared to the naked use of power that dominates American politics today, they are far, far preferable. At least these theorists feel a need to give reasons, justifications for political actions.

This really hit a chord with me. When I was doing research for a paper on Habermas and Foucault, I was struck by how Foucault, and others who are labeled as postmodernists, are sometimes interpreted as conservatives. I've also noticed a kind of similarity in discussions with more conservative friends. We tend to be equally critical of liberals, at least insofar as we are skeptical about the primacy of "neutral" rationality and excessive individualism.

However, when I read someone like Van Til or listen to someone like Bush, I know I am dealing with positions that are far more dangerous than even the most dogmatic, scientistic, rationalistic, reductionistic modernist. Modern science may be responsible for the atom bomb, but it's the primitive Christian belief in a coming apocalypse that is more likely to result in worldwide nuclear war.

When I teach, I also find myself in this position of advocating reason as necessary for humankind. I am torn between a strategic employment of the modernist appeal to authoritative reason, and sympathies to a postmodern position that acknowledges the irrational realities of human life. However, this postmodern view has gained sway in me, largely as a result of reason's critique of itself--again, understanding this in a broad sense.


Depression as a Failure of Neuroresilience: Thoughts on Peter Kramer's Against Depression

As an individual who has spent some time immersed in the academic environment, I have developed a degree of insight into itsperversionss and pathological tendencies. In fact, as someone with a melancholic, neurotic, cynical temperament, I have all too frequently participated in them.

Nietzsche tells us that it is not suffering itself, but the meaninglessness of unnecessary hardships which humanity finds unbearable. On my most skeptical days, I view the modern academic edifice as a sustained effort to fashion makeshift cloaks of significance for the naked victims of history. And a good academic always recognizes himself as among these victims; the first mask he crafts covers a face wracked in torments that are all too often self-imposed. Under this pale light, all humanistic scholarship is vanity and pretense, a meager palliative to make life bearable.

Happiness is synonymous with ignorance and shallowness, sadness and anxiety are merely the natural response to alienation. To be critical is to be deep, insightful, intelligent. Honors are conferred to those who paint the bleakest picture, the most insoluble dilemma. These artistic endeavors give us at least some small consolation in an absurd universe--and really, this is all we can hope for.

No more! I've had my fill. We think we are so smart merely because we see the ugliest parts of the world to which the supposedly beguiled masses are blinded by ideology. It is easy, too easy, to be critical. This is not to suggest that criticism isn't sorely needed. Nevertheless, it is far more difficult to take a risk and be constructive.

Such is the endeavor that Peter Kramer attempts in his fantastic book Against Depression. Kramer asks us to question the traditional heroic portrait of the melancholic thinker and to abandon the mistaken notion of pharmacotherapy as the mass administration of soma. As a sufferer of depression and an academic philosopher-in-training, I have come to see, with Kramer's aid, the wide gap between melancholia as purported critical insight and the reality of depression as devastating disease.

I will touch on some of the highlights of Kramer's arguments here, but I highly recommend that you read this work in full. It should be of interest not merely to those with an interest in psychological disorders, but also to any with the gut reaction that a world without depression would be some kind of nightmare, best realized only within the confines of dystopic science fiction as a warning of the dangers of "cosmetic psychopharmacology"”.

The key to Kramer's account is a new model of depressive illness. Many are familiar with the account that emphasizes neurotransmitters: depressives are those who lack sufficient amounts of serotonin and norepinephrine. Thus, drugs like Prozac (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs) are effective because they leave more serotonin available in neural synapses by blocking its reuptake--or something to that effect. Well, Kramer offers another kind of explanation for how these drugs help depressives, in which their function is merely incidental.

Kramer's alternative centers on the notions of neuroresilience, neuroprotection, neuroplasticity, and neurogenesis, in short, the capacity for the brain to maintain its neuronal structure under duress. Citing recent research, Kramer points out the recent discovery that adult human brains are able to regenerate neurons, refuting previous hypotheses to the contrary. As it turns out, some people's neurons are better equipped than others' to respond to the recurrent stresses of human life.

The culprit here is actually the whole system of fight-or-flight response with its production of stress hormones that spread from the adrenal glands through the blood to the brain. While this response is normally adaptive, too many stress hormones can actually kill cells. Those individuals whose neurons are better protected, more flexible, more easily regenerated--i.e., those with more resilient cells--are ones who are best suited to coping with stress. Those on the other end of the spectrum are largely sufferers of depression.

This model makes intuitive sense: those with the most resilient cells and neuronal structures happen to be those who are most resilient on a human scale. It's not that they have fewer sources of suffering than the rest of us, but that they are not so easily deterred by them; depressed individuals become dejected and despair over what many regard as minor setbacks. One might liken the difference to that between James' strenuous and easy-going mood. The neuroresilient can afford to take on additional hardships and maintain the energy of their efforts, while the depressed would be best served to play it safe.

A lack of neuroresilience is not merely correlated with depression: susceptibility to anxiety, heart disease, stroke, and other chronic conditions also crop up. If this model is right, the use of drugs (or gene therapy) that increased the defenses of neurons against stress hormones would have more positive effects than just decreasing susceptibility to depression. Not only that, but they would be likely to have less of an effect on personality, since they would not be altering the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. (Right now, Kramer believes that SSRIs and other antidepressants derive their benefits from increasing neuroresilience and neurogenesis.)

Many people are uneasy about the prospect of eliminating depression--in ways in which they are not about other diseases like polio, small pox, or AIDS, for instance--because they operate on a mistaken notion of what depression is and how it is treated. They ask, what would happen to the Kierkegaards, Poes, and Van Goghs of a world without depression? Would we lose some great insight into the human condition? This is precisely the kind of prejudice betrayed in academic circles, particularly those of Continental European thought.

This is not to say that their concern is not justified. If it were the case that a drug like soma were being administered on a large scale, I would be every bit as worried. However, depression is not equivalent to alienation, anomie, mourning, or even ordinary sadness. It is a pathological condition characterized by more than just depressed mood: quite often the depressive feels nothing at all, a kind of emptiness and numbness that bears striking resemblance to the misperception of what antidepressants do.

I think a partial contribution to this misunderstanding is an overly narrow understanding of what happiness is. By many (particularly among the remnants of puritanical culture), happiness is seen as a kind of passivity, as mere pleasure (eating chocolate ice cream, having an orgasm, lazing about on a Sunday afternoon, etc.)--i.e., as sinful, to be kept to a minimum. Those who have equated happiness with pleasure, such as Bentham, Mill, and other utilitarians, help to perpetuate this myth. But, if we return to a more classical understanding of happiness, perhaps in the Aristotelian sense of eudaimonia, a kind of activity that is done for its own sake, I think we are much better equipped to understand the reality of human emotional life.

Unsurprisingly to those who know me, I find Spinoza extremely helpful here. For him, human happiness is not the ataraxia or equanimity of the Hellenistic schools, but energetic striving: not mere satisfaction, but desire itself. In so far as we are active, we are joyful; sadness is mere passivity, a diminishment of our power. The joyful individual is one who does more, who is more capable of seeing how the supposed evils of life come about and of dealing with these problems. The joyful are actually more insightful than the saddened. Nietzsche, in his notion of Joyful Science, takes a very similar tack.

And this is the reality for the depressed individual: I may not be blinded by an unthinking optimism, but the stresses that I perceive all around me take a much heavier toll. I am beset on all sides by burdens too onerous to bear, but which seem to the average observer mere trifles. When I am depressed--and I am speaking in my own voice here--I feel less like myself. I have difficulty concentrating, remembering, even getting out of bed. Should I be inspired by my condition, I will nonetheless probably lack the energy to write about it.

Fortunately, I am in the midst of treatment that has proved quite effective: a mixture of pharmacotherapy and counseling. I have never felt better in my life, never more alive, never more energetic and excited. Has my critical capacity suffered as a result? Well, I can't speak with certainty here, but it doesn't seem that way to me. I'm still just as critical of myself and my world, but I feel more hopeful, more capable of doing something about my shortcomings and the defects of our society. I am both a better student and a better teacher. I focus less on myself and more on others. Life isn't perfect, to be sure, but at least I feel like it's definitely worth living now.

I know also how the feeling of profundity can help one get through a depressive episode. To feel as though one knows the world better by being a cynical realist is a means of coping--but not a very effective one. But it is just wrong to see depression as in any way necessary for being critical. The problems of our world are writ just as large for the healthy minded who make an effort to see them. Resilience gives us a means of avoiding despair. Thus, not only is it the case that personal suffering is diminished: it becomes far easier to make a difference in the world when not beset by fear and hopelessness.

Would life be different in a world without depression? Yes, but in a way in which what we lost was more than made up for by what would be gained. We could be a happier, healthier, more active, less self-centered, more resilient people. There would still be those of us who were melancholic by temperament, but without the crippling paralysis and decreased vitality that accompanies depression. Personally, I have made progress in this direction, while I eagerly await the new generation of anti-depressants that may offer a genuine cure.

In any case, I have touched upon but a fraction of Kramer's amazing text. Go to your local library or bookstore and see for yourself. Whether you are depressed or not, I promise you won't be disappointed. (Well, maybe you will be if you're depressed, but it will give you all the more reason to seek more effective treatment!)


The left is fed up...

Molly Ivins hits the nail on the head:

I'd like to make it clear to the people who run the Democratic Party that I will not support Hillary Clinton for president.

Enough. Enough triangulation, calculation and equivocation. Enough clever straddling, enough not offending anyone This is not a Dick Morris election. Sen. Clinton is apparently incapable of taking a clear stand on the war in Iraq, and that alone is enough to disqualify her. Her failure to speak out on Terri Schiavo, not to mention that gross pandering on flag-burning, are just contemptible little dodges.


The majority of the American people (55 percent) think the war in Iraq is a mistake and that we should get out. The majority (65 percent) of the American people want single-payer health care and are willing to pay more taxes to get it. The majority (86 percent) of the American people favor raising the minimum wage. The majority of the American people (60 percent) favor repealing Bush's tax cuts, or at least those that go only to the rich. The majority (66 percent) wants to reduce the deficit not by cutting domestic spending, but by reducing Pentagon spending or raising taxes.

The majority (77 percent) thinks we should do "whatever it takes" to protect the environment. The majority (87 percent) thinks big oil companies are gouging consumers and would support a windfall profits tax. That is the center, you fools. WHO ARE YOU AFRAID OF?


You sit there in Washington so frightened of the big, bad Republican machine you have no idea what people are thinking. I'm telling you right now, Tom DeLay is going to lose in his district. If Democrats in Washington haven't got enough sense to OWN the issue of political reform, I give up on them entirely.

Do it all, go long, go for public campaign financing for Congress. I'm serious as a stroke about this -- that is the only reform that will work, and you know it, as well as everyone else who's ever studied this. Do all the goo-goo stuff everybody has made fun of all these years: embrace redistricting reform, electoral reform, House rules changes, the whole package. Put up, or shut up. Own this issue, or let Jack Abramoff politics continue to run your town.

This is precisely the kind of platform that the Democrats--and the United States--need to embrace. Chomsky has been making this same point for a while. The US has no effective opposition party, no party that actually cares about what most people want.

I think running on universal healthcare (paid for with the repeal of the Bush tax cuts, maybe even a tax increase relative to what was in place before to make up for lost revenue) alone would be sufficient to propel the Democrats into Congressional majorities and a 2008 presidency.

Nevertheless, our democracy is ailing and in need of serious reform. In addition to the recommendations Ivins makes, I would add one further suggestion:

Make voting mandatory. Sound extreme? Belgium and Australia do it. This is how it would work:

First, election day becomes a national holiday--this is done by many democracies and should really be a no-brainer. The idea is that if voting is a disincentive--if it imposes a cost on individuals without any clear gain--then people will be more inclined not to go to the polls. Losing part of a day's pay is too great a cost for many.

Second, to increase the incentive for voting, impose a fine--on the order of a speeding ticket, say, between $100 and $250--for all those registered to vote who fail to do so. In addition, just as 18-year-old men are required to register for the draft, all turning this age would be required to register to vote (the same kind of penalties for not registering for the draft could be used, i.e., no access to federal financial aid for college, etc.).

Included on the ballot would be a "no vote" option, for those who favor no candidates, wish to register some protest vote, etc. Those who want a greater statement of protest can just choose not to vote and pay the fine.

Third, for this to be fair, the means of voting must be made less difficult: easier absentee balloting, less restrictive rules about provisional ballots, more opportunities for early voting, etc. Perhaps people could even be given a receipt (or mailed one), so they have some kind of evidence in the case of a mix up. (With electronic voting, there would need to be a paper trail anyway.)

The Republicans might argue that this would increase "voter fraud"--probably because too many people voting would render them a more or less permanent minority party. Nevertheless, the concern is a legitimate one, and reforms making voting easier would have to come with certain precautions. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about the mechanics of voting to create an in-depth articulation, so I leave this issue open for the moment.

This is a surefire way to increase voter turnout and strengthen our democratic process. Coupled with completely public financing for elections and a ban on lobbying, it could restore power to the people and strip the unfair influence away from the wealthy few.

Do I think this is plausible? Well, I know it's not perfect, but I believe that such an implementation could work, after careful investigations of how most effectively to implement it. Federal funding for these researches and the implementation of the program would be necessary to ensure consistency between states.

Where does such money come from? My solution to this kind of problem will always be the same: tax the rich. A CEO does not need to make 800 times what the lowest level employees make. Even if this hurts our economy significantly--and it is not certain that it would--it is worth the cost in the long run to live in a more democratic nation.

I don't see the Democrats embracing an idea like this in the near future. But if they don't advocate something, they should not expect to count on my vote. I am sick and tired of the marginalization of progressives and leftists in this country. If Republicans can embrace their radical elements and still win elections, why can't the Democrats--especially when this "radical" fringe, in many cases, is constituted by the majority of Americans.

So, like Ivins, I will not vote for Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, or any of these saps unworthy of the progressive movement. To steal a line from Stephen Colbert: Democrats, you're on notice.


Why am I so clever?

Sometimes names reflect something of what they designate. For instance, while's there's no "I" in "team," "teamwork" has an "ewok".

Other times, things have really inappropriate handles. Take fundamentalism. It needs a better name.

Regardless if it's Christian, Islamic, Jewish or whatever, fundamentalists tend to discourage a lot of human activities. No fornicating, no drunkenness, no gluttony, no sinning at all! (Unless, of course, it's done in God's name.) Fundamentalism is anything but "fun". It'd be a little more appropriate to call it "damentalism".

On second thought, that won't do either. These people tend not to be big on a lot of other things too: independent thinking, science, logical argumentation... pretty much the entire life of the mind. I'd say "mental" has no business being in that word.

That leaves us with just "da" and "ism". Hmm... maybe that's not so bad. Considering that "da" is a bastardized version of "the"--as in, say, "you da man!"-- it's not in the least bit surprising that "daism" would be a dumbed down "theism".

Henceforth, let these religious extremists be known as "daists", and their crackpot ideology as "daism". With its pronunciation, i.e., "DUH-iz-um", I could not think of a more apt title.

Al Gore needs a theme song.

I have too much free time on my hands:
(to the tune of "Trogdor!")


Al Gore was a man
He was a prez'dential man
Actually, he shoulda been prez'nit
But he was still AL GORE!

Environating the countryside
Environating the polluters
Environating all the CEOs
In their smoke-stacked FACTORIES!


And the Al Gore beats down the RIIIIIGHT!


Speaking of Al Gore...

Check out this article about a speech Gore is planning to give on Monday.

If his speech is half as passionate and cogent as his talk on global warming, it will be a resounding success.

I can only offer one response: Gore for president in 2008!


False Controversies

I taught my second section of ethics for the first time today. It went ok. I feel like these students are almost as humorless as my previous second section, but at least a lot of them participate, so far.

I came out a little too quickly with some of my biases. Still inspired by the Gore talk, I brought up global warming with the one student (out of over a dozen) who went to see it. She said she found it convincing but wanted to hear the other side. I told her there is no other side, just as with evolution. Evolution came up again when one student, a major in a subfield of biology, said it was "just a theory." And he was serious. Biologists should know better.

And this brings me to the topic of this post. You might recall (from the last post)l that Gore showed us two studies on the frequency of doubts about global warming, one of which indicated out of a random sample of 982 articles (roughly 10% of the total) from the last 10 years on climate change, exactly 0 expressed any doubt, whereas in the same time period, 53% of all popular newspaper and magazine articles on the subject called warming into question.

Gore drew a parallel with science concerning the effects of smoking, in which one tobacco company memo admitted that the real product they were selling was "doubt." This is what many energy companies, and their hired scientific whores, do with warming today.

In both cases, economic interest leads to a campaign of misinformation that has proven highly effective on a populace little educated in science. The real controversy is whether there is a controversy in the first place. (I'm in the middle of writing a paper on matters like this, concerning evolution.)

But there seems to be no obvious economic interest in this evolution "debate." People will go so far as to doubt the entirety of a scientific community to preserve their false beliefs. What is the rationale here? Why is evolution perceived as a threat?

When we break it down, we see that the debate over the origin of species consists of a number of distinct but interrelated controversies. On the surface, there is the question of the facticity of evolution. If this is denied, and evolution is taken to be "just a theory," a second question is posed: are there any legitimate competing theories? But even asking this question takes sides on two other controversial matters.

First, there is the assumption that evolution is incompatible, a competitor, with certain beliefs grounded in religion. Many people do not accept this, and are willing to compromise on something often called "guided evolution," essentially an updated version of deism. Second is that there is something robust enough to be called a theory, viz., "intelligent design" [sic].

I think this second question has not often enough been emphasized. Spinoza, writing nearly two centuries before Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species, preempts the arguments of the anti-evolutionists. In possibly my favorite passage in all of philosophy, he writes:
[Early humans] consider all natural things as means to their own advantage. And knowing that they had found these means, not provided them for themselves, they had reason to believe that there was someone else who had prepared those means for their use. For after they considered things as means, they could not believe that the things had made themselves; but from the means they were accustomed to prepare for themselves, they had to infer that there was a ruler, or a number of rulers of nature, endowed with human freedom, who had taken care of all things for them, and made all things for their use....

So they maintained it as certain that the judgments of the Gods far surpass man's grasp. This alone, of course, would have caused the truth to be hidden from the human race to eternity, if Mathematics, which is concerned not with ends, but only with the essences and properties of figures, had not shown men another standard of truth....

...the Followers of this doctrine, who have wanted to show off their cleverness in assigning the ends of things, have introduced--to prove this doctrine of theirs--a new way of arguing: by reducing things, not to the impossible, but to ignorance. This shows that no other way of defending their doctrine was open to them.

For example, if a stone has fallen from a roof onto someone's head and killed him, they will show, in the following way, that the stone fell in order to kill the man. For if it did not fall to that end, God willing it, how could so many circumstances have concurred by chance (for often many circumstances do concur at once)? Perhaps you will answer that it happened because the wind was blowing hard and the man was walking that way. But they will persist: why was the wind blowing hard at that time? why was the man walking that way at that same time? If you answer again that the wind arose then because on the preceding day, while the weather was still calm, the sea began to toss, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will press on--for there is no end to the questions which can be asked: but why was the sea tossing? why was the man invited at just that time? And so they will not stop asking for the causes of causes until you take refuge in the will of God, i.e., the sanctuary of ignorance.

Similarly, when they see the structure of the human body, they are struck by a foolish wonder, and because they do not know the causes of so great an art, they infer that it is constructed, not by mechanical, but by divine, or supernatural art, and constituted in such a way that one part does not injure another.

Hence it happens that one who seeks the true causes of miracles, and is eager, like an educated man, to understand natural things, not to wonder at them, like a fool, is generally considered and denounced as an impious heretic by those whom the people honor as interpreters of nature and the Gods. For they know that if ignorance is taken away, then foolish wonder, the only means they have of arguing and defending their authority, is also taken away.
(from Ethics I, Appendix; Curley's translation; my emphases)
Beautiful, isn't it? It's no coincidence that the Kansas skoolbord had to change the very definition of science in order to pass ID as scientific. But it's not simply the case that ID "theory" offers an alternative explanation that happens to rely on supernatural instead of natural causes.

Rather, intelligent design is not an explanation at all. It is a new name for foolish wonder, for taking refuge in the sanctuary of ignorance. It is an impetus to inquiry, a blockade against further reflection and observation. What new research programmes have been spawned by ID? What kinds of experiments can we conduct to learn more about how it works and whether it is supported by evidence? There can be none, in principle.

This is why, in one sense, the Discovery Institute and its ilk do not pose a threat to biological research (except insofar as they threaten its funding). They are simply saying, "Give up, these things are too complicated to be explained by human beings! Only God knows how it works." Meanwhile, the researchers can nod their heads, mutter "whatever" under their breath, and then get back to the lab to try and figure out some of these unanswerable questions.

In truth, ID is creationism under a new name, employing scientific arguments in bad faith, only so that they may preserve the ignorance and obedience to authority of the primitive masses. They may not do so consciously, but it is in the best interest of the respected interpreters of the gods, the Jerry Fallwells and Pat Robertsons and Ralph Reeds, to keep their flocks from asking too many difficult questions.

It is not God's, but the authority's will which must remain unquestioned. The smarter ones know that the design argument is the most compelling one for the existence of God, and they know that evolution demolishes it.

They know that it spawns in the flock impious desires to lift their heads up from the ground and get a better look at these wolves in shepherds' clothing. And so, they lead their herds across treacherous paths to the barren grounds of ignorance, fleecing their sheep as the little lambs noisily chew a cud of fear and falsity and bleat excitedly in anticipation of the joyous slaughter that awaits them.

(Hey, that's not bad. Maybe a little forced, but it's pretty poetic for me. But do sheep chew cud? I hope so.)

So, who benefits from making evolution into a controversy? On the one hand, we find the religious demagogues, who make their livelihood off of foolish wonder. But joined by the bonds of an unholy covenant, we find also the lawmakers/lawbreakers who discover false piety to be a quick and dirty means of satisfying their cravings for power, and also corporate America, which will happily exploit whatever opportunities for fleecing the public that it can get.

I'm not saying that all or any of this is necessarily conscious. Karl Rove is probably aware of his malevolence, perhaps also Cheney, but most believe enough of the pia fraus to fool themselves.

The phenomenon is of course more complicated, but a think that something like this goes a long way toward explaining why so much energy is invested into making evolution into a controversy. Coupled with it is probably a dim realization on the part of the superstitious that evolution does in fact threaten a number of their beliefs, and makes the world out to be uncomfortably complex, impossible for their simple minds to grasp.

I have not fully decided if this is a battle worth fighting--to what end? with what minimal chance of success? However, I am compelled to be repulsed by ignorance, particularly when it is willfully imposed on others by people who should know better. In any case, I can assure you that in any future philosophy class I teach, if it is relevant, I will be discussing the design argument, and Spinoza's and Darwin's responses thereto.

UPDATE: Check out this response from a philosopher of science on the question of evolution "theory vs. fact."

Dickson is more careful about distinguishing between the terms than I am. In light of his comments, which I largely agree with, I would say that I am trying to argue that, regardless of what one means by "theory" or "fact," ID is not even on the same playing field as evolution.

Evolution offers an explanatory model, supported by mountains of evidence and useful for designing further experiments, which in turn refine this complex explanation of how all life has a common origin. (A philosopher of science could articulate this process more clearly, but I set that aside.) ID, on the other hand, is just a dead end. It explains nothing and leaves no room for new evidence.

Also, it makes the designer look like the "I" should stand for "incompetent." A first-year engineering student could design some of the features of our bodies better. Why all the dead ends and vestigial organs? Why the mass extinctions? Why the rapid adaptation of newer and newer pathogenic microbes that require novel immune responses? As one recent guest on the Colbert Report suggested, everyone who gets a flu shot should have to sign a statement saying they acknowledge the truth of evolution; otherwise there is no explanation for why a new shot is required annually. What, is God keeping us on our toes?


The Man Who Should Have Been President

Those who know me know I am not one quick to praise American politicians, even Democrats. However, tonight I had the distinct privilege of seeing a presentation by former VP Al Gore on global warming and, I must say, he is quite a presence.

In person, he is larger than you'd think and he has a lot more charisma than you'd expect. His presentation was rhetorically brilliant and downright inspirational. Gore is a man passionate about the moral imperative that we owe to ourselves, future generations, and other life on earth, to preserve the health of our planet.

For almost 90 minutes, he barraged us with evidence: charts, graphs, statistics, projections, and, perhaps most compelling, photographs of the devastation that humankind has wrought upon our environment. Yet not once did I find myself bored, so enraptured was I by his words.

Gore laid to rest any doubts I might have entertained about how serious this problem is, and how utterly irresponsible it is to ignore it. It is absolutely despicable that a few corporations jeopardize the entire future of our species for the sake of their narrowly self-interested avarice, actively spreading disinformation to undermine a scientific fact. That the Republican party is beholden to these interests and aids them in the rape of our planet is unconscionable.

For instance, while in the last 10 years, not a single peer-reviewed article on climate change has cast doubt on global warming, roughly half of all popular news and magazine articles have tried to create a controversy where there is none. All thanks to a few people whose pockets grow fatter if you believe a falsehood. Listen, people, global warming is a fact. Just like evolution is a fact. These are not "just theories."

If you think otherwise you are misinformed, stupid, or both. Virtually anyone who actually knows anything about science can tell you that these are facts. The evidence is one-sided, there is no controversy. Stop pretending that your moron ideology has all the answers. Use the fucking brain that your God supposedly created for you.

And if you don't believe me, good! There is some miniscule hope that you can think for yourself. Now go do some research and see for yourself where the evidence points.

Anyway, that's enough talking to the non-existent wingnuts reading my blog.

As Gore so eloquently put it, this is not a political issue, but a moral one. Humankind, through the development of our civilization, the explosion of our population, and the invention of earth-changing technologies has itself become a force of nature. There is a lot of evidence, on the one hand, connecting human industrial activity to increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and, on the other, linking these increased levels to a variety of disastrous weather conditions.

These include increased temperatures leading to deadly heat waves, more intense (and perhaps also more frequent, although the evidence is not as extensive) hurricanes and tornadoes, excessive rainfall and flooding in some areas but also droughts and famines in others, and the melting of glaciers and ice shelfs leading to raising sea levels and more flooding. These conditions harm humans, animals, plants, and all complex life on this planet.

Unfortunately, I cannot go into the level of detail or make as compelling a case as Mr. Gore, but I encourage everyone to take this problem very seriously and do a little bit of research on it yourself.

But even though the problem seems immense and people never seem to change their ways, we should not lose hope. As his talk came to a close, Gore stressed how, by simply employing existing technologies more extensively, we could reduce CO2 levels to pre-1970s levels.

Remember the hole in the ozone? Due to concerted efforts to reduce the production of CFCs, we've made real progress in reversing the damage we caused. We don't hear about the hole as much anymore because bipartisan efforts to curb chlorofluorocarbons has made a difference. It's not too late, but we can no longer pretend the problem does not exist.

Gore did not merely inspire me and the audience, but also gave us a bittersweet glimpse of what might have been. Imagine a US that ratified Kyoto, that took a leading role in advocating green policies, rather than one that had oil industry execs as heads of the EPA, that was responsible for Orwellian policies like the "Clear Skies Act" and the "Healthy Forests Initiative."

Just contrast Gore and Bush, once again. Gore is a man who is passionate about doing what is right for our country and our planet, not what is beneficial for his corporate friends. He is committed to scientific inquiry rather than religious ideology, long-term planning rather than shortsighted greed, and the life of the mind rather than snorting coke off some hooker's ass.

Not that we needed it, but this gives us even more reason to despise Shrub and everything he stands for. This man, for whom no epithet is sufficiently pejorative, and those soulless vermin who pull his strings are singlehandedly responsible for making the world a less hospitable place for human and animal alike.

Two of my professors have come out and told me that they cannot even stand to hear the man speak. One becomes physically ill, while the other will sing "lalalala" and cover his ears just to drown Bush out. I share their revulsion.

That man is not fit to lead anything, let alone the most powerful nation on earth. He is a dangerously incompetent madman, a traitor to our nation and way of life, a tyrant and usurper. He has stolen 2 elections yet somehow remains in power. He is destroying our democracy and our planet.

We need to impeach him. Now. I'd say he should be tried and hung for treason, but death is too good a fate for him (and also, I'm against the death penalty). He's lucky there's no such place as hell. But let him rot in a cell, for once in his life not be showered with honors and privileges he hasn't earned.

If only things had turned out slightly differently. Just a few more votes in Florida, or a slightly less rightwing supreme court justice. An alternative design for the butterfly ballot, or Nader deciding not to run. Fewer black voters disenfranchised, or a recount allowed to finish. *sigh*

It gives me no satisfaction to say that progressives were once again right, if it means that we end up living in a much less stable, much more dangerous world.

For the love of all that is good in this world, let us not keep making the same mistakes. Let us be worthy stewards of this planet, not defilers and corrupters of earth.

But first, let us uproot this one poisonous plant...