Smuggling meaning into a Godless universe


mRio / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

This recent blog post by a science writer at NPR insists that “We Don’t Need To Be Created To Be Relevant.” Here is how author Marcelo Gleiser frames relevance:

“For many people, the thought of being the result of mere accident is a nonstarter. They think that to be relevant we must have been created in some fashion. After all, the word accident usually denotes something bad. Chance is a better (but not perfect) word: We are the product of chance.”

Who or what are we supposed to be relevant to? Gleiser simply does not say. What he does do is subsequently expound on the mystery of biological life, reasoning that if intelligence is not necessary for life to dominate the Earth, then we are special.

Along the way, he punches the God of the gaps strawman, characterizing it as “a dangerous way to believe, given that science does advance and gaps do get squeezed away.” Its inclusion strikes me as odd; intelligence is a property of minds, things that science can’t induct into its material account of the world.

Consider the thoughts your mind produces: first-person, unified, subjective experiences which you can identify as being about things. A scientist cannot access these real phenomena directly; only you enjoy the privileged position that allows you to directly know and report what your mind thinks about. Science is principally incapable of describing the content of thoughts. Methaphysics, philosophy, and human language are needed. This is not God of the gaps, but simply what is beyond science’s purview.

Likewise, relevance, if it refers at all to the classical questions of ultimate meaning, value, and purpose, is illicit to science. The fact-value split initiated by eighteenth century thinker David Hume–and continued by the twentieth century developments of verificationism, noncognitive emotivism, and eliminative materialism–establishes that in a closed, material cosmos, there is no real value to anything, not even life itself. There is no “formal relation” between facts as they are, and values pointing to how the facts ought to be. You can’t get an ought from an is. No intrinsic worth, or ultimate significance. The rareness or infinitesimally unlikelihood of intelligent life is a quantitative measure that will not translate to the quality of being special or relevant.

In this world, roses are not red, and the sweetness of a salty summer sea breeze is an illusion of consciousness. Carl Sagan’s beloved pale blue dot holds no worth. Why pretend that it does? Bertrand Russell provides logically consistent advice for us when divinity does not partake in our cosmos: “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

But perhaps, this drab, desolate conception of reality is mistaken. Think about it.

Are rights invented or discovered?

Writing for The National Constitution Center, Lyle Denniston pinpoints the crux of the nation’s protracted same-sex marriage legal battle:

[it] will come down to a debate about granting a new right to a group of people, or confirming a right that is historically contained in the Constitution.

Denniston doesn’t consistently name the views, so for sake of reference let the former view be “invented rights” and the latter “discovered rights.” The Ninth Amendment seems to provide a justification for discovered rights:

“The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

That very promise, at least in one interpretation, set America and its institutions on a more or less continuous journey of discovering what those unspecified rights might be.

Trilobite Fossil at NMNH from Flickr via Wylio

Are rights discovered like fossils? © 2008 Mr.TinDC, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

I’d like to draw out the ontological implication of discovered rights. Or rather, a paleontological implication. It would seem on this view that constitutional rights are always existing, like some fossils that lay hidden, waiting to be dug up at the right moment in history. It would seem to invite a type of metaphysical Platonism. It might be like the Augustinian doctrine of traduccionism, the idea that you, me, and all descendants of Adam were actually present within him at the Fall of Man. What one thinks of traduccionism theologically is one thing. But constitutionally, wouldn’t it be a little absurd to posit that all future rights were somehow actually embedded in the document at the time of the Founders, waiting to be unpacked in a more progressive time? Could I now be writing words that contain new, untold rights of future generations? It seems quite absurd.

I find the alternative view better. Rights when enumerated, are spoken into being as new creations. Metaphysically, they would seem to be constructs. This does not make me a rights nihilist, but it might make me a rights nominalist.

Denniston frames the driving question of the more skeptical view this way:

What gives a new group, seeking constitutional protection, the right to ask that it get a new right all of its own?

But for those who would unpack preexisting rights, the question is, “Why should guarantees of equality of fair treatment be frozen in constitutional time?”

Notice the language: “equality of fair treatment.” The meaning seems under-determined, but to me the phrase looks redundant. Doesn’t fair treatment already imply an equality of consideration?

Take potential U.S. presidents Arnold Schwarzenegger and Madonna. It may be that the Constitution on procedural grounds fairly prohibits foreign-born Arnold from assuming the office of presidency but permits Madonna for the job. In this case, both persons can be equally and fairly considered, while the outcome is unequal but fair.

Denniston presents a final juxtaposition of discovered rights versus invented rights:

Is it a sweeping right to choose one’s life mate without interference by government? Or is it a right that is fundamental only because it has deep roots in the traditional definition of one-man, one-woman marriage?

The first alternative is deeply twisted logic. The failure of government to affirm one’s very personal life choice does not constitute “interference.” This again confuses the positive right to receive something from government with the negative right to be left alone by government.

Denniston’s second alternative of rooting an individual right to marriage in tradition doesn’t sit quite right, either. The third, unpresented alternative is, why think marriage is a right at all? It seems to me that marriage, especially on the child-centered natural law view, is not anything more than a privilege or duty done for the public good. Let legal marriage bet distinct from personal, theological, and cultural conceptions of marriage.

Just as a childless individual pays taxes for and obtains the general benefits of public education, so we all generally benefit from stable child upbringings that obtain when men and women fulfill the obligations and responsibilities entailed in a marriage covenant. On this overlooked view, if there is a right to marriage, it does not belong to individual citizens, couples, or throuples, but to society as a whole.

This is why I find it especially alarming when attorneys general choose not to defend state constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Protecting an arguable public interest should not be left to personal whim!

If marriage is a policy in the public interest, we should consider that individual rights may not be able to expand forever. It should be becoming clear that digging up or inventing new rights is at best an absurd exercise, and at worst, damaging to the nation.

Who is the one imposing religious belief?


At The Huffington Post, a Christian pastor has recently demanded an end to religious exemptions in anti-discrimination laws. She sees them as veiled bigotry by those who would “impose their religion on others by using the courts or legal actions.” Is this really the case?

Observe the language The Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson uses:

Now, we realize religious exemption from the law is a dangerous by-product of religious bigotry, not religious liberty. Now, we see the harm. Systematically, anti-LGBTQ forces repeated and repeated again that their religious freedom would be harmed by LGBTQ equality; our marriages, our jobs, our families somehow harmed them. If they couldn’t exclude us, fire us, or destroy our families, their relationship with Jesus would be diminished — their families would be less valuable.

Wilson depersonalizes supporters of religious exemptions by calling them “anti-LGBTQ forces.” This label reduces religious freedom proponents to grotesque caricatures who don’t advocate for exemptions out of legitimate interest, but oppose LGBTQ-identified persons in their very being. This claim should not be made lightly or rashly; it tars others with the broadest and darkest brush. It kills rational discourse.

The Reverend Doctor exhorts later on:

It is time to blow the whistle on religious demagogues who say they are victims if they are not allowed to take away the rights of others.

Notice the framing of the issue: “taking away the rights of others.” For Hobby Lobby, this is the right to force one’s employer to pay for a health service that violates that employer’s conscience. For ENDA, this is the right to force a church to hire someone who openly, and without compunction, practices a lifestyle that is proscribed by its tenets. These are not innocuous claims to the right to to be left alone–known as negative liberty– but rights to positively impose one’s own favored moral precept on another person who holds to a disfavored moral precept. This is an Orwellian abuse of language.

Wilson warns that:

There will always be religious leaders — both well-intentioned and nefarious — who try to impose their religion on others by using the courts or legal actions.

Who is imposing on whom? Wilson’s rhetoric is incredible. Progressives invent new rights to transform society after their own particular fashion. Then, when a conservative wants to be left alone to continue in her own traditional, free association, the progressive uses courts and legal actions to allege that the conservative is the one imposing beliefs! This perverse hijacking of language must be resisted by people of good will.

Certainly, many who identify as LGBTQ have suffered ostracism at the hands of those who claim to be religious. It may even be true that new legislative protections are needed in the workplace. Indeed, LGBTQ-identified persons, like all human persons, bear the image of God and have their rights in virtue of this fact.

But simply saying the magic words “equality” and “rights” cannot legitimate Rev. Dr. Wilson’s imposition of her particular religious beliefs onto others wishing to stay true to their own. If religion means anything, it pertains to a community of people who are striving to conform to shared standards. The right to freely associate with others, especially based on their freely chosen actions, should be obvious for such a community. Contrary to popular belief, sexual activity (not orientation) really is among the many kinds of freely chosen actions. This is not to judge others for who they are.

Free association is precisely what opponents of religious exemptions want to take away. That’s illiberal and retrogressive. Let’s not go there.

Do corporations have a right to free religious exercise?

Do for-profit corporations have a right to free religious exercise? A very interesting exchange took place last week at the law blog called Volokh Conspiracy. Responding to co-blogger David Post, atheist law scholar Ilya Somin argued that corporations can meaningfully exercise religion:

The idea that people can exercise religion through publicly traded corporations is regarded as absurd by many other critics of Hobby Lobby, as well. But a little reflection suggests that it is not absurd at all. As David recognizes, publicly traded corporations can engage in the exercise of free speech and many other constitutional rights. If the majority of stockholders decide that a corporation should publicize speech on political or moral issues, then the corporation will engage in such speech on their behalf. Similarly, stockholders can use corporations to adhere to a variety of secular moral principles. Some corporations boycotted apartheid South Africa because of the stockholders’ moral abhorrence of racism. If people can and do use publicly traded corporations to speak out on political issues or adhere to secular moral principles, then the same goes for religious principles. For example, the majority stockholders of a firm may choose to adhere to Orthodox Jewish religious law, and therefore refuse to do business on the sabbath.

If secular folks can muster moral indignation and make it part of their corporate practice, why can’t religious people? Somin–recall that he identifies himself as an atheist–goes on to affirm that religious exercise can be regarded as a public act:

David seems to draw a distinction between speech (which he recognizes can be exercised through a corporation), and religion (which he thinks cannot be), because speech is “an inherently public act,” while religion is not. I think that takes too narrow a view of religion. For many religious people, their faith is not just a purely private hobby. It is rather a set of moral principles that infuses every aspect of their lives, including their activities in the commercial world. If atheists like me can use publicly traded corporations to pursue secular moral principles, it is not difficult to see how religious people can do the exact same thing with their own beliefs.

Somin’s reasoning is clear, and his charity in discourse is exemplary.

The distinction really does seem to come down to whether one thinks religious acts are just done by people for the fun of it, or whether the religious person considers those acts to be as weighty as secular acts that come before the public courts. The former seems inconsiderate; the latter seems impossible to deny. There may be good reasons to disqualify a corporation’s line of reasoning for action, but merely attaching an eight letter word to it–“religion”–is not enough, and in itself is tantamount to irrational anti-religious discrimination.

If corporations can have the right undertake moral campaigns like divestment, boycotts, or make charitable contributions to non-profit organizations, then it should follow that corporations have the right to religious expression.

Christian privilege. Really?

Is there such a thing as Christian privilege? A blogger at Christianity Today thought the idea worth bringing to his reader’s attention. He links to a list of 30+ privileges that suggests, if you identify as Christian, “there’s a good chance you’ve never thought about these things.” How annoying to presume this of the reader.

Anyway, a quick perusal of the list will reveal just how surreal and absurd the idea of Christian privilege is. Here are three I find worth commenting on:

1. You can expect to have time off work to celebrate religious holidays.

2. Music and television programs pertaining to your religion’s holidays are readily accessible.

11. Positive references to your faith are seen dozens of times a day by everyone, regardless of their faith.

As for taking days off, what planet does the list author live on? California, where more than ten percent of Americans live, does not grant a holiday for Easter. Millions of Christians travel to be with family Easter Sunday, and then must hurry back for school or work on Monday. But the state does grant a holiday in proximity to Easter, in honor of labor organizer Cesar Chavez. Once every few years, the Christian church calendar may coincide with this progressive holy day, granting accidental reprieve to resurrection pilgrims.


torbakhopper / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

As for music and television, here’s an important public service announcement: Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer are not profound treasuries of Christian worship or doctrine. Serious Christians have to search as hard as others to find music, videos, and text that substantially facilitate holiday observance. Possibly, this Christian privilege list copies Peggy McIntosh’s white privilege list, which is essentially pre-Internet. Now, with webpages, YouTube, and streaming music services, a Hindu, a Jew, and an Atheist can walk into a bar and check their smartphones to find whatever suits their worship needs with equal ease.

As for daily affirmations, turning on a television might land you randomly on Family Guy, Modern Family, Bill Maher, Niel DeGrasse Tyson, or–until recently–Piers Morgan mangling a cartoonish conception of Christian belief, history, or practice. Websites like Upworthy, the Atlantic and Yahoo News extend the misrepresentation and stereotypes to the internet.

But let’s suppose that Christian privilege exists. Is it good to propagate a list enumerating those privileges? No, it is filled with generalizations that are liable to cultivate prejudiced stereotypes among most social media readers who read it. Perhaps there is a noble purpose in arousing empathy in certain readers, but essentializing an “other” identity with a list of pilfered factoids seems to contribute nothing to this end. Worse, privilege lists quite possibly aggravate interpersonal comparisons, building envy and escalating already existing feelings of grievance.

Maybe you find expositions on privilege refreshing and needed. If so, I’d love to hear from you. But the next time you come across a list or guide to privilege, I hope you will consider carefully before pressing the “share” button.

(In)tolerance at Mozilla

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

-The Friends of Voltaire (1906)

Tolerance in the face of disagreement, even incredibly odious disagreement, has been a hallmark of American civil discourse. The idea as we know it today crystallized with Voltaire, although Jacques Barzun informs us that it was the English Puritans who first gave it to us.

Today, it seems tolerance is gone. I was watching this Red Eye clip just yesterday, where Reason‘s chief editor Nick Gillespie was marveling that, in America’s post-scarcity economy, consumers can afford to make political statements by boycott. This in response to news that dating website OK Cupid blocked Mozilla Firefox users from its service because Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich gave a $1,000 political donation to California’s Proposition 8. That was the overturned state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

Gillespie was right; boycotts are a luxury of those fortunate enough to be able to choose how to spend their money and time. They are a possible solution to the first-world problem of having to live with someone who makes you uncomfortable by virtue of their seeing the world differently from you. Some progressives seem to be very good at wielding this blunt, destructive, stigmatizing tool of social ostracization and economic isolation. Recall the Oregon bakers whose painstakingly-built business was shuttered by boycott and intimidation in 2013.

On Thursday, after just a few days of pressure, Mr. Eich stepped down because some of his employees simply did not like how he spent his own money. They did not like his political speech, so they cut short his career. He happened to be a Mozilla co-founder. Oh, and he only invented javascript. That kind of tearing down of someone who makes things for a living, transforms the way we live our lives, but just happens to see things differently from you, that’s what I call progress.

It would seem an apology is in order to Mr. Eich, but as it turns out, the apology went the other way around. The Wall Street Journal reports:

In a blog post Thursday, Mozilla’s executive chairwoman, Mitchell Baker, apologized for Mr. Eich’s appointment, writing, “We have employees with a wide diversity of views. Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public…But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community.”

Amazing. Baker’s apology was not for Mozilla’s being intolerant of Eich’s views, but for his alleged intolerance to the company. On what evidence? Now that he’s gone, everyone can feel safe “to share their beliefs and opinions in public.” Orwellian. Chilling.

Maybe Mr. Eich was hateful. I don’t know. How does one determine that? According to the Journal, he made conciliatory moves. But even if he were a hateful, smoldering homophobic imp, I will have to make the point as I have a few times before by asking, why think that it is inherently immoral, blameworthy, or hateful for government to restrict the kinds of relationships it recognizes?

 

Equal protection? Piece of cake!

Sugar Daze / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The week after Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s vetoed “anti-gay” bill SB 1062, The Atlantic ran this headline on its story feed: “How Religious-Freedom Laws Could Come Back to Hurt the Faithful.” Jonathan Merritt lays out a hypothetical turning of tables, where a Unitarian refuses service to a Baptist. Then he asks:

Would conservative Christians support this storeowner’s actions? Because if not, they better think long and hard about advocating for laws that allow public businesses to refuse goods and services to individuals anytime they believe the person’s behavior conflicts with their sincerely held convictions.

The moral lesson seems simple and airtight:

If you are able to discriminate against others on the basis of religious conviction, others must be allowed to do the same when you are on the other side of the counter.

But was the bill really about legally enshrining anti-gay discrimination? The actual text makes no reference to sexual orientation. Read the bill, it’s short. Neither does it say anything about discriminating against a customer on the basis of the customer’s religious belief.

It is very easy to imagine a criterion where a business owner may refuse service: when the requested service violates her conscience. This can happen when an artist is forced to render service to an event she personally finds unconscionable. Maybe she is a florist, photographer, or baker; these people have already been sued and boycotted for refusal of service.

Consider if a caterer, who is a strict vegan by conviction, were forced to serve meat to carnivores. That would be a clear violation of conscience, unjustified and wrong. Some would argue that she should not be in the catering business in the first place, but that’s illiberal and hard-hearted.

However, if the caterer were forced to provide a vegan meal to carnivores, that would pass muster according to the correct understanding of equal protection.

Refusal of service based on an immutable trait of the customer is one thing. But refusal of service based on the impact the service would have on the producer is one possible rational basis for the right to refuse service.

Why hasn’t the mainstream media picked up on this?

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