Friday, July 29, 2005

On "Almost Comically Vile" Transhumanism

"Obviously one is dealing here with a sensibility formed more by comic books than by serious thought."

"Of course, there was always a certain oafish audacity in Fletcher’s degenerate driveling about “morons” and “defectives,” given that there is good cause to suspect, from a purely utilitarian vantage, that academic ethicists—especially those like Fletcher, who are notoriously mediocre thinkers, possessed of small culture, no discernible speculative gifts, no records of substantive philosophical achievement, and execrable prose styles—constitute perhaps the single most useless element in society."

"Decisions regarding who should or should not live can, by definition, be made only by those who believe such decisions should be made; and therein lies the horror that nothing can ever exorcise from the ideology behind human bioengineering."

"There is, as it happens, nothing inherently wicked in the desire to become a god, at least not from the perspective of Christian tradition; and I would even say that if there is one element of the transhumanist creed that is not wholly contemptible—one isolated moment of innocence, however fleeting and imperfect—it is the earnestness with which it gives expression to this perfectly natural longing. Theologically speaking, the proper destiny of human beings is to be “glorified”—or “divinized”—in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, to become “partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4), to be called “gods” (Psalm 82:6; John 10:34-36). This is the venerable doctrine of “theosis” or “deification,” the teaching that—to employ a lapidary formula of great antiquity—“God became man that man might become god”: that is to say, in assuming human nature in the incarnation, Christ opened the path to union with the divine nature for all persons."

-David B. Hart The Anti-theology of the Body

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Private Vice is, erm, Public Vice?

"..the more expensive the harbor is the less likely it is it will ever be built."
"What are you suggesting, that we exaggerate the cost?"
"My dear Narcissus, you have money in corn, I have money in corn, lots of people have money in corn. The more corn that can be landed in winter the lower the price will be. That worries me."
"That could be construed as a very selfish point of view."
"Are you saying there is less selfishness in wanting the price of corn to be low rather than high?"
"But there are more people who want it to be low!"
"Doesn't that add up to more selfishness rather than less?"
"That is sheer sophistry, I cannot argue with you."
"Well let's get the engineer's report, and I'm quite sure the costs will take care of philosophical considerations."
-Two Patricians, I, Claudius

Get your Hollywood Rumors Here!

But Scientology not only has a base in Hollywood, it has enjoyed powerful friends in Washington. For years, Scientology fought a battle with the IRS because the government would not recognize its claim to be a religion. The IRS finally granted Scientology its desired status under President Bill Clinton, the recipient of massive donations from Hollywood.

Now it gets more interesting: Clinton helped the Church of Scientology in return for John Travolta, a member of Scientology, softening up his portrayal of the Clinton character in Primary Colors! Clinton and Travolta cut a deal. Travolta agreed to go easy on Clinton in the movie Primary Colors and Clinton reportedly agreed to use his influence to get the German government to leave Scientology alone.

Cliff Kincaid, Tom Cruise Vs. Mel Gibson, Accuracy in Media

This would make a great story, but I doubt if there's any basis for this. For one, Travolta doesn't seem to have had much creative control of the project. But the ways of Washington and the ways of Hollywood are all mysteries to me.

Excuses for not Reading Latin Works Just Went Down by One

The complete works of Augustine in Latin are online! via The Old Oligarch

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Where are the Staunch Church-State Separationists now?

At $21,000 for a 30-day stay, the University of Colorado's new addiction-recovery center likely will attract more lawyers, executives and doctors than working-class folks.

"We talk about spirituality, about a power greater than themselves. They begin not seeing the center of the universe as themselves." (Dr. Franklin Lisnow, CeDAR's executive director)

"Patients, not insurers, likely to pay for CU's addiction clinic"

Rocky Mtn News 7/27/05

Monday, July 25, 2005

Pope bet on his own election!

Irish Journalist has the story

Considering that betting on the papal election is punishable by excommunication, this could be fodder for people who want to ignore the last few years of Cardinal Ratzinger's tenure at the CDF. The odd radical trad might use this to justify their continuing disobedience, but fortunately all excommunications are automatically lifted for electors in a papal election.

On a related note, Father Joseph Komonchak has published an article titled The Church in Crisis. It seems flawed at points, and Jamie Blosser offers his take.

Academic Jargon Written as Personal Threats!

"I'll emanate your penumbra!"
"I'll shift your paradigm!"
"I'll immanentize your eschaton!"
"I'll raise your awareness!"
"I'll privilege your oppression!"
"I'll nuance your worldview!"
"I'll overthrow your status quo!
"I'll diversify your mindset!"
"I'll subvert your hierarchy!"
"I'll delegitimize your security!
"I'll marginalize your voice!"

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Every Sin a Misdirected Virtue

Eve Tushnet on problems in some "ex-gay" thought and rhetoric:

Jesus wept, people, read some daggone Evelyn Waugh why don't you! Read some Augustine. What on earth would make you think that sin never contains any seed of goodness, any element of love? St. Augustine thought precisely the opposite of that--that every sin was a virtue misdirected.
But then I noticed my other huge problem with the "ex-gay" form letter Jason describes: There's nothing to be loved. There's nothing beautiful to Whom the writer cleaves. There's only something horrible to be shunned. And while I have some personal sympathy for that perspective--the horror of sin is sometimes much easier for me to see than the beauty of Christ--it's a thoroughly crippled view of the Christian life.

I believe what the Catholic Church teaches not solely--not even, when I'm at my best, primarily--because the alternatives are ugly. Quite often the alternatives are attractive, insofar as they partake in a partial share of the goodness, love, and grace that God offers. I believe what the Catholic Church teaches because, when I'm at my best, I love Jesus Christ, I love God, and I can faintly discern the beauty, hope, and peace He wants for me.

Quite relevant to the Wilde quotation below.

In the Spirit of Localism

Just discovered a local political gossip and punditry weblog, Colorado Political News. It has comments, so I can inflict my views, whether wise or deranged, on people who live in my area.

Also, the Denver magazine 5280 also has a blog. I think I only touched their magazine once in my life. I'm under the impression it's for LoDo yuppies, but we'll see.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Quantum Agents versus Mechanistic Handpuppets

'Is there anything more boring than using Heisenberg's uncertainty principle
to try to prove free will?'

-Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos

Since my sophomore year in college, I haven't put much store in using contemporary physics theories to establish the freedom of the will. For one, I haven't the advanced knowledge necessary to speak with any authority on quantum physics. I've read Hawking's Brief History of Time, a few other articles written for laymen, and I've had a few basic physics classes. What's worse, it seems to be a major talking point for crappy new age inspirational works, one example being, I am told, the movie "What the Bleep do We Know?" So on the principle that better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt, I simply passed it by. Besides, I hadn't come across any explication of how quantum mechanics could be brought to bear on the question.


By necessity, it's an interdisciplinary work written by a Berkeley physicist, a neurologist, and a neuropsychiatrist. The paper has been published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which hopefully means it has passed through a crucible of quality peer review.

I sure can't critique many of the arguments invoking the big names of twentieth century physics. However, my concern about this article is that it seems to believe that human influences on descriptions of the world actually shape the world itself. Perhaps this isn't a confusion, but a foundational discovery or assumption of the new physics, but when the authors write "Thus the choice made by the observer about how he or she will act at a macroscopic level has, at the practical level, a profound effect on the physical system being acting upon" I suspect they are blowing something out of all proportion. I can grant that some observations change the observed thing, but I haven't a clue how that works on a cosmic level. If somebody wants to explain to me how telescopic measurement of light a star put out 50,000 years ago affects the star today, please do.

The paper jibes with some recent findings on how mental habits can change even the physical structure of the brain. I believe those studies concentrated on Buddhist monks, and oddly enough the Buddhist virtue of mindfulness pops up in this paper. As soon as Buddhist writings were cited, I feared I had stumbled onto some crappy new age pseudophysics, but the Buddhist remarks were relevant and not dwelled upon.

Anyway, the authors claim that, in contradistinction to classical Newtonian physics, wherein the observer was simply one more part(or sum of parts) in a mechanical universe, contemporary physics incorporates the observer's "inner space:"

The core idea of classical physics was to describe the “world out there,” with no reference to “our thoughts in here.” But the core idea of quantum mechanics is to describe both our activities as knowledge-seeking and knowledge-acquiring agents, and also the knowledge that we thereby acquire. Thus quantum theory involves, basically, what is “in here,” not just what is “out there.”

This philosophical shift arises from the explicit recognition by quantum physicists that science is about what we can know. It is fine to have a beautiful and elegant mathematical theory about a really existing physical world out there that meets various intellectually satisfying criteria. But the essential demand of science is that the theoretical constructs be
tied to the experiences of the human scientists who devise ways of testing the theory, and of the human engineers and technicians who both participate in these tests, and eventually put the theory to work. Thus the structure of a proper physical theory must involve not only the part describing the behavior of the not-directly-experienced theoretically postulated entities, expressed in some appropriate symbolic language, but also a part describing the human experiences that are pertinent to these tests and applications, expressed in the language that we actually use to describe such experiences to ourselves and to each other. And the theory must specify the connection between these two differently described and differently conceived parts of scientific practice.

Happily, the writers do not follow the habit of so many armchair quantum mystics and leave "free will" a vague and cheery phrase. For the purposes of their paper, free choices are free "in the sense that they are not specified by the currently known laws of physics." This is because for the Copenhagen school of quantum physics, "the human experimenter is considered to stand outside the system to which the quantum laws are applied." (In this there is an echo of another Dane, Kierkegaard, who pointed out that the self is always a leftover of one's theory.) I suspect here the difficulties are passed over, which might lead a reader even more casual than I to believe their argument is more solid than it is. In one sense, this can be caricatured as the statement "our system presupposes it, therefore it must be true."

The paper also, alas, invokes the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to support free will. as I read them, they hold that nobody will ever be able to completely capture the activity of the calcium ions bouncing between nerve endings, and so determinism is unprovable by scientific means. Obviously, the impossibility of proof for determinism isn't a positive proof for free will. I hope I have misread them here, but it seems they are going about proving human agency, and not human freedom. However, in their defense I believe that they aren't so much arguing for free will as a belief requiring full assent to the belief "this is real," as for a more pragmatic belief "this works." As the psychological section declares, "Quantum physics works better in neuropsychology than its classical approximation because it inserts knowable choices made by human agents into the dynamics in place of unknowable-in-principle microscopic variables." In addition, the paper makes a few predictions about "attention density," a concept I'm not going to touch, the measurements of which they claim should vindicate their position.

Supposedly, quantum mechanics doesn't apply to the atomic level at which the brain works. For what it's worth, the authors of this paper argue against it, claiming neurobiology can be described by "almost classical physics," but not classical physics simpliciter. I'll leave that evaluation to my scientific betters. Also of note, the article touches upon the Libet Experiment, which various popularizers presented as hard evidence for determinism.

Part of their conclusion is worth recording here:

Materialist ontology draws no support from contemporary physics, and is in fact contradicted by it. The notion that all physical behavior is explainable in principle solely in terms of a local mechanical process is a holdover from physical theories of an earlier era. It was rejected by the founders of quantum mechanics, who introduced crucially into the basic dynamical equations choices that are not determined by local mechanical processes, but are attributed rather to human agents.

Their last line reads: "A shift to this pragmatic approach that incorporates agent-based choices as primary empirical input variables may be as important to progress in neuroscience and psychology as it was to progress in atomic physics." In my eyes, an "agent" is not quite a person, but the concept is certainly better off than the marionette theory of the self.

A Decadent Speaks

"Much of my moral obliquity is due to the fact that my father would not allow me to become a Catholic. The artistic side of the Church and the fragrance of its teachings would have cured my degeneracies. I intend to be received before long"

-Oscar Wilde, via Wittingshire.

I went on a Wilde binge my first semester at college, courtesy of a Wilde anthology inherited from a great-uncle. Dorian Gray still haunts me, and I suspect it kept me out of a great deal of trouble. A re-read is certainly in order. He has been adopted by some libertines who neglect his regrets.

Monday, July 18, 2005

A Bon Mot for the Day

Self-mockery, like sound argument, is a prophylactic against bad criticism.

Mock-Irish Whiggery

A great tramping, barracking, bollocking man was our Father O'Pression. His writ ran the length and breadth, the highways and the byways, the up hill and the down dale of County Tooraloora. And to be sure, any of us boys at Saint Miseryguts had only to whisper a hint of a glimmer of a fancy of what we all wanted to do to witty, pretty Kitty McMahon behind Finnegan's cowshed, when then, as sudden as the rains that fell from the shimmering, slatey-grey clouds above, he would appear before us, as tall and as terrible as old Finn MacCool himself, stinking of the bacon sandwiches he stuffed in his soutane, of the Jameson's he swigged from a battered pewter flask and of the lack of the deodorant he damned as a wicked Protestant innovation, the wrath of a thousand Dies Iraes in his eyes, etc etc.

via Kevin Michael Grace

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Straight from a Doc Percy novel

This manifesto outlines a strategy to eradicate suffering in all sentient life. The abolitionist project is ambitious, implausible, but technically feasible. It is defended here on ethical utilitarian grounds. Genetic engineering and nanotechnology allow Homo sapiens to discard the legacy-wetware of our evolutionary past. Our post-human successors will rewrite the vertebrate genome, redesign the global ecosystem, and abolish suffering throughout the living world.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Another Banal Atrocity in an Age Full of Atrocities

George Neumayr tries to put together the numbers on Eugenic Abortion

Addendum 7/18: DarwinCatholic on Parents who Don't Abort Down's Syndrome Kids

A Time to Laugh.... At Richard Dawkins!

From a BBC article:

Each species, in fact, has a different "reality". They work with different "software" to make them feel comfortable, he suggested.

Because different species live in different models of the world, there was a discomfiting variety of real worlds, he suggested.


He concluded with the thought that if he could re-engineer his brain in any way he would make himself a genius mathematician.

He would also want to time travel to when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

That, and he'd like a genetically-engineered talking pony too.

I don't believe I've referenced Stephen M. Barr's delightful review of Dawkins' last book. Here's my favorite paragraph:

One encounters in A Devil’s Chaplain at least three Dawkinses: there is Dawkins the Humanist, Dawkins the Reasoner, and Dawkins the Darwinist. Each sits on a different branch, sawing away at the branches on which the others sit. Dawkins the Humanist preaches, inveighs, denounces; he bristles with moral indignation. Dawkins the Darwinist tells him, however, that his humanism is speciesist vanity, his moral standards arbitrary, and his indignation empty. Dawkins the Humanist rebels, proclaiming himself (in human affairs) passionately anti-Darwinian. Dawkins the Reasoner joins the rebellion, declaring that our minds allow us to transcend our genetic inheritance. Dawkins the Darwinist answers with lethal effect that our brains “were only designed to understand the mundane details of how to survive in the stone-age African savannah.”

Thursday, July 07, 2005

I just learned of the Speigel interview with African economist James Shikwati, noticing how much aid money is counterproductive. I'll skimp on organizing this post just to pull out a few gems:

Malaria is just as much of a problem[as AIDS], but people rarely talk about that.

Because for one reason the most effective anti-mosquito efforts used DDT, which is anathema to the environmentalists. I'm surprised he thinks AIDS is a political disease on his own continent.

Why do we get these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing here.

Jobs with foreign aid organizations are, of course, quite popular, and they can be very selective in choosing the best people. When an aid organization needs a driver, dozens apply for the job. And because it's unacceptable that the aid worker's chauffeur only speaks his own tribal language, an applicant is needed who also speaks English fluently -- and, ideally, one who is also well mannered. So you end up with some African biochemist driving an aid worker around, distributing European food, and forcing local farmers out of their jobs. That's just crazy!

This is pretty funny. Pity such absurdity has a negative impact on so many people.

I've wondered if aid could be better spent in setting up small credit unions free of corruption to make business loans and provide better funding sources for African economic renewal. But the poster proxy_user on FreeRepublic takes a cynical view: "But Mr.Shikwati! The Europeans are not as dumb as you think. They have their hands full competing with China and India. They certainly don't want to have to compete with Africa too, and for a very small price they are able to dodge that problem."

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Future Belongs to Whom?

In The New Atlantis Charles T. Rubin has written a wise essay, titled Daedalus and Icarus Revisited, reflecting on the debate between Haldane and Russell about science, ethics, and progress. One paragraph:

Above all, the very thinness of any notion of progress that survives the Haldane-Russell debate—little more than the fact of accumulation of knowledge and a vague hope that things might turn out well in light of unspecified yet grand civilizational projects—helps to explain the widespread belief that any effort to restrain science on the basis of ethics represents a threat to “scientific progress.” To see this as simply a result of the self-interest of scientists is to do them an injustice. Like Haldane, most scientists are probably unaware of how the belief that morality must adjust to scientific and technological change amounts to saying that might makes right. The sense of threat is partly due to the poverty of thought on the subject, and perhaps the narrow education that is required for making measurable scientific achievements. For restraint doubtless would slow accumulation, and (from this point of view) can only represent the triumph of fear over hope. But what is to be said for accumulation when Russell and Haldane have done with it? It serves either the power of the conventionally powerful or the power of the scientists.