Are we in a war?

Barry Arrington, owner of the pro-ID blog, Uncommon Descent is alleged to have written the following in an email to a contributor:

We are in a war. That is not a metaphor. We are fighting a war for the soul of Western Civilization, and we are losing, badly. In the summer of 2015 we find ourselves in a positon very similar to Great Britain’s position 75 years ago in the summer of 1940 – alone, demoralized, and besieged on all sides by a great darkness that constitutes an existential threat to freedom, justice and even rationality itself.


In this thread I don’t want to discuss the rights and wrongs of the email itself, nor of whether or not TSZ constitutes a “great darkness”.  Barry is entitled to decide who posts at UD and who does not; it’s his blog.

What interests me is the perception itself, which I suspect is quite widely shared.

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Unyielding Despair

Gregory has made the connection more than once between atheism and despair. But he wasn’t the first.

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

– Bertrand Russell. A Free Man’s Worship

I’m thankful that my foundation is not one of unyielding despair.

The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with with a problem of pure metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves.

– Aldous Huxley. Ends and Means

I am also thankful that I do not believe that there is no valid reason why I personally should not do as I want to do, and that my friends have no desire to seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves.

The relevance of science to the debate on abortion

VJ Torley has linked to a National Review article criticising a You-tube video by Bill Nye. I don’t think Nye is right but he raises a good point which the article evades. Nye argues that “many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans” – the biggest failure rate is right at the beginning, a high percentage fail to be embedded in the uterine wall – so if you accord fertilized eggs the same rights as humans, then who should be sued/sent  to jail for this failure?

The NR review article is quite right to point out that there is a moral difference between an intentional intervention like abortion and natural unavoidable wastage. But it is  nevertheless relevant that many more fertilised eggs fail to embed than succeed.If you really think that a fertilised egg is morally equivalent to a human being then this process represents a loss of life far larger than abortion, malaria, war or pretty much anything else you can mention. It means many more “individuals” die from this process than are ever born. A truly staggering disaster. Sure It is no one’s fault, but why does no one seem to care very much?  Where are the appeals for research into avoiding this tragedy? Where is the mourning for all these dead individuals? Surely we should be diverting research from relatively minor natural killers like malaria to this worst of all natural tragedies?

This doesn’t happen because only crackpots really believe that a fertilised egg has the moral rights of a new born baby. But it only becomes obvious when the consequences are made clear. The abortion debate turns on whether a fertilised egg is morally equivalent to a new born baby. If someone believes they are morally equivalent then I can’t prove them wrong (I am a subjectivist after all) but they have to face up to the consequences of their belief and the science tells them they should be appalled by the tragedy of failure to embed in the uterus.

There is another twist to this.  Like many articles, the NR article argues that the fertilised egg is morally equivalent to a baby on the grounds that is a genetically distinct individual. This is a materialist argument. There is no mention of the soul. Surely most Christians think that the individual is not a bunch of chemicals, however special the bunch, but something spiritual? There are many theories about when the soul gets attached to the body but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to suppose it is attached when the process of creating the body gets started, especially as that process can lead to more than one body at that stage – each of which would presumably have its own soul.

Some things are not so simple

I have been distracted for months but I thought I would look in on UD to see if anything had changed.  All is much the same but I was struck by this OP from Barry. The thrust of the post is that Barry is a plain-speaking chap stating obvious ethical truths and anyone denying it is using sophistry and is evil.  The particular “obvious truth” that Barry is discussing is:

Anyone who cannot unambiguously condemn the practice of chopping little boys and girls up and selling the pieces like so much meat shares in the evil of those who do so.

I would argue that this gives the appearance of simplicity but hides considerable complexity and subtlety. It also illustrates how Barry, like everyone else, is actually a subjectivist in practice, whatever he might say in theory.

There is one obvious way in which this is statement is too simple.  It leaves out whether the little boys and girls are alive or dead. Most people find it morally acceptable to reuse organs from people (including babies and infants) who have recently died.

But also the statement is packed with emotional use of language. (Throughout this I assume Barry is referring to the practice of using parts of aborted foetuses for research and/or treatment and charging for providing those parts).

1) “Meat” suggests flesh that is to be eaten. I don’t think anyone is selling foetuses to go into meat pies.

2) “Chopping up”. Body parts from foetuses presumably have to be extracted very carefully under controlled conditions to be useful. To describe this as chopping up is technically accurate but again has connotations of a butcher.

3) “Little boys and girls”. By describing a foetus as a little boy or girl,  Barry appeals to our emotional response to little boys and girls that we meet, embrace and talk to.

4) “selling” suggests a product which is being produced, stocked and sold with the objective of creating a profit. It would indeed be shocking if organisations were deliberately getting mothers to abort so they could make a profit from selling the body parts. If you describe the same activity as covering the cost of extracting and preserving body parts of reuse it sounds quite different (the cost has to be recovered somehow or it would never happen).

What interests me is how Barry has chosen words for their emotional impact to make an ethical argument. If it had been described as:

Reusing parts of aborted foetuses for research and/or treatment and charging for providing those parts.

then it sounds a lot more morally acceptable than

chopping little boys and girls up and selling the pieces like so much meat

If morality were objective then it shouldn’t matter how you describe it.  It is just a matter of observation and/or deduction – like working out the temperature on the surface of Mars. But ethics is actually a matter of our emotional responses so Barry has to use emotional language to make his point.

Baby or Vat?

Zachriel asks, at UD:

Here’s a simple thought-experiment. There’s a fire at an fertility clinic, and there is precious little time before the entire building is engulfed in flames. Down one hallway, there’s the soft purring sound of an incubator with a thousand frozen embryos; down the other hallway, the cries of a newborn baby. Which do you choose to save?

Usually, people answer “the baby” and the interesting debate then concerns why.

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Bad Materialism

In various threads there have been various discussions about what materialism is, and isn’t, and various definitions have been proposed and cited.  In this thread I want to ask a different question, addressed specifically to those who regard “materialism” as a bad thing.  William, for instance, has said that “materialism” was “disproven” in the 18th century, yet laments

the spread of an 18th century myth in our public school system and in our culture at large.

So here is my question: if you are against something called “materialism” and see it as a bad thing (for whatever reason), what is your definition of the “materialism” you are against?

Harry’s Choice

This post is inspired by Barry Arrington’s post at Uncommon Descent:

Harry Barrington, is a good, Christian man with objective morality who finds himself in a terrible position: He is in a hospital which has caught fire and he only has time to visit one of two rooms and escape before the whole building comes down, killing all within.

In room A is a beautiful, newborn baby girl. There is time to save only her.
In room B there are 10,000 IVF embryos, each waiting to develop into a wonderful child. There is time to save only them.

Should Harry:
1) Save the Baby
2) Save the IVF embryos
3) Save neither as some calculations must be literally unthinkable

And if (3) Should he even save himself from the fire?

The Steven Salaita Case

Curious what people here (including phoodoo!) think about this case involving academic freedom and, I guess, rudeness.  (though I probably can guess). Here are some relevant links:

Thanks for your comments!

Our prejudices: Implicit associations

We all have biases that we should try to be aware of. Our implicit prejudices may be at odds with our explicit attitudes. One problem when discussing issues such as racism and sexism especially is that surprisingly many people seem to think that such things have been largely dealt with in the 20th Century and are now of minimal importance. has several tests designed to measure our implicit biases. As with any scientific test, there could be issues with methodology etc and, in addition to discussion of implicit biases (e.g. the psychology of them, how they affect our skepticism), that also seems an appropriate topic for discussion here.

Does Atheism Entail Nihilism?

I take it that most (though not all) non-theists assume that atheism does not entail nihilism.  More specifically, most non-theists don’t believe that denying the existence of God or the immortality of the soul entails that truth, love, beauty, goodness, and justice are empty words.

But as we’ve seen in numerous discussions, the anti-materialist holds that this commitment is not one to which we are rationally entitled.  Rather, the anti-materialist seems to contend, someone who denies that there is any transcendent reality beyond this life cannot be committed to anything other than affirmation of power (or maximizing individual reproductive success) for its own sake.

The question is, why is the anti-materialist mistaken about what non-theists are rationally entitled to?   (Anti-materialists are also welcome to clarify their position if I’ve mischaracterized it.)

Snakes, suicide, and selective statistics

VJ Torley has a post at UD where he claims that

Atheism destroys many more innocent human lives than religion ever will.

His argument is that atheists commit suicide at a higher rate than theists. While this is true, “disingenous” is a charitable word for his failure to include, at the very least, statistics on murder.
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The inconstancy of Christian morality

In the fifties, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel released records as that most familiar American duo, Tom & Jerry. It was the sixties before their now famous Jewish names were allowed an airing. A similar thing happened with Jesus. Truth is, without Paul, Jesus may have been simultaneously too Jewish, too old fashioned, and too radical to make it big. Jesus in the Gospels is not quite the laissez faire hippie that many Christians want him to be. He is quoted as saying

Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery

(Matthew 19:9)

yet good Christians divorce for reasons other than infidelity all the time. Society’s moral values have changed, and the moral values of Christians have changed with them. Jesus says nothing against slavery whereas a modern Christian placed in his situation and time might feel compelled to speak out.

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