More on GOP Social Darwinism

I’ll stop calling Republicans social darwinists as soon as they stop BEING social darwinists.

Many of our trolls were quite upset yesterday when I compared today’s Republican Party to 19th century Social Darwinists: one even compared me to Dinesh d’Souza.

But the truth hurts.  You could do this almost every day, but today there is more.  Via Yglesias, we find that Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri is vehement about maintaining farm subsidies, but wants to cut Food Stamps.  As Matt notes:

The basic way that conservative politics works is that first you reduce taxes on rich people, creating a budget deficit. Then you rail against “spending” with reference to specific “weak claims” on the public purse. Then when it comes time to actually write a budget, you slash spending on “weak claimants,” vulnerable people with little political influence. Then you come back and do it all over again.

Meanwhile, over at TPM, we get a list of all the items that House Republicans want to cut from the President’s budget.  Where to they want to cut?  Ag subsidies?  Subsidies for oil companies?    The Defense Department?  Oh, no.  But they are happy to take a $2 billion whack out of job training, $1.3 billion out of community health centers, $200 million out of child and maternal health block grants, $405 million out of the Community Services Block Grant, and $530 out of the HUD Community Development Fund.

It’s not all about attacking the poor, of course: there is the war on the EPA, the NIH, the CDC, and just about all of federally-backed science.  But at the end of the day, it’s pretty clear.  I’ll stop calling Republicans Social Darwinists as soon as they stop being Social Darwinists.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

51 thoughts on “More on GOP Social Darwinism”

  1. Right on.

    But does it really upset conservatives to be called Social Darwinists? It’s so clearly apt.

  2. I’d argue that gutting the EPA, NIH and CDC is a twofer: you continue your war on the poor AND your corporate buddies increase profit. It is amazing to me why more people don’t get angry about moving backwards when the GOPers have power.

  3. Social Darwinism has more to do with theology and worldview rather than politics (although it certainly could play out in politics). I don’t know about certain political parties acting like Social Darwinists, but I can say that Social Darwinism is unmistakenly the logical natural end of the atheistic worldview. Aside from that, I think Jonathan simply does not get the very basics of the conservative political philosophy. Conservative Republicans want to cut entitlement programs and programs for the poor, not because they want to “attack the poor”, but precisely because they see this as a better way of ultimately helping the poor. It’s not the state’s primary job to help the poor. This is a role that churches, communities, religious organizations, etc. should be stepping up to do, and would likely be better able to do if government got out of the way. It’s the New Testament model of the early 1st Century Christian church. You don’t have to agree with this philosophy, but make sure you get the philosophy right before trying to argue on its merits. Just because conservatives want to help the poor without leeching them onto the government teet doesn’t mean that they care any less about the survival and prosperity of the poor.

  4. Bux says: “Just because conservatives want to help the poor without leeching them onto the government teet doesn’t mean that they care any less about the survival and prosperity of the poor.”

    Ummm, yes. It does.

    We have the last hundred years of empirical evidence of government looking out for the interests (albeit sometimes minimally) of the poor. We have all of recorded history before that of government staying out of the way and “churches, communities, religious organizations, etc.” doing it.

    In the last hundred years, kids get to go to school instead of factories. People work 8 hours a day and five days a week instead of 14 and 6. Life expectancy has increased almost 30 years (mostly just poor people’s; rich people a hundred years ago still lived into their 70’s). The air and water are cleaner now due to government action. Food is safer.

    We know how people/corporations behave in the absence of government regulation. Unless you are fortunate enough to be born one of the rich, it is unquestionably a less pleasant way to structure a society than what we have now.

  5. “Social Darwinism is unmistakenly the logical natural end of the atheistic worldview. ”
    Bux, how is this not trolling? Are you really trying to understand the atheistic worldview? I mean really trying.

    You then write that conservatives aren’t opposed to helping the poor. They just think the state shouldn’t be doing it, and that it could be done better by private churches, charities, etc.

    First, why shouldn’t the state be doing it? Second, how is it that private charities could do a better job?

    If the question is whether the poor ought to receive some level of equal access to support services, because we’ve decided it is morally correct (we are social responsible), then how could private charities do this better? I could run through a simple list of state services that charities couldn’t dream of replacing. So if the state could do it better, the question then becomes whether it should – because if it isn’t doing it, then it isn’t being done, which returns to the moral problem.

    Of course, we avoid all of this by simply saying “tough luck”, that the poor are to blame for their own misery and allow social Darwinism to take its shape – which is generally what we’re now doing in many regards.

  6. Krugman gets it. From The Conscience of a Liberal:

    “One key message of this book, which many readers may find uncomfortable, is that race is at the heart of what has happened to the country I grew up in. The legacy of slavery, America’s original sin, is the reason we’re the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee health care to our citizens. White backlash against the civil rights movement is the reason American is the only advanced country where a major political party wants to roll back the welfare state. Ronald Reagan began his 1980 campaign with a states’ rights speech outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three civil rights workers were murdered…”

    As I see it…

    The left will win when it empowers the poor to vote, grabs a clear majority and forces the white-right to again moderate into Eisenhower republicans.
    Of course that is why the white-right infiltrated ACORN with secret cameras.
    That is why they worked so diligently to stomp ACORN out.

    Right now, the left should be fanning out into poor communities everywhere…
    Registering voters. Canvassing the masses. Getting out the latino and black and poor urban white vote.
    Talking the social Darwinism talk in street language…

    If Soros was a force (he is not of course), he would be massively funding this.
    Doing whatever the law doesn’t ban (for instance, giving out groceries if you register to vote) to increase the voting roles.
    What this country needs is left wing agitprops on the streets fanning class warfare with megaphones…
    What this country needs is its poor people to get informed, to get angry, and to vote.

  7. why yes kevo, yes I have. I lived for 5 years in West Africa among the poorest of the poor. After that, I spent 2 years in Chicago doing work in the notorious Cabrini Green housing projects.

    Eli, is it that I’m not trying to understand or that I’m understanding just fine and you’re not being logically consistent with your own worldview? If there’s something I’m not understanding, I’d really like to understand, which is why I keep coming back to it. Explain to me, for example, why you as an atheist should care about the poor unless you are poor yourself. I’m not saying you don’t care about the poor. Atheists still have God-given consciences that they act upon, but their act of caring for the poor is incongruent with their own worldview. By doing what is good and right and moral, the atheist turns around and denies the very essence of what it is that gives them the ability to do this (i.e., God). Not just the poor, but why should you care about the interest of anybody or anything unless there is ultimately something in it for you? Tell me how atheism can explain pure altruism?

    And it is interesting to me that now folks here are arguing for government instead of nonprofits and charities for addressing social ills, when only a few posts back we were treated to a delightful description of how much good Planned Parenthood has done. I’m not saying that government can’t do small things to support nonprofits/charities/etc., but the primary way that government can support is to get out of the way and let them do what they do best. There’s enough evidence that Republicans give more to charitable causes that Democrats. Just imagine how much more could go to charity if government stopped robbing so much from those evil rich Republicans (oh yeah, again, who by the way give more to charity than Democrats). You know what rich people do best, they spend money. Spending money is gonna help the poor, directly or indirectly. Or do you think the evil rich Republicans would just hoard their money under the mattress if allowed to keep more of it?

  8. @bux–you share a misconception about atheists and agnostics, of which i count myself one of the latter, with many others whose point of view is shaped by religion. that misconception being that if there is no supernatural force dictating a moral order to the universe then there is no reason for a human to be concerned with the welfare of his or her neighbors, neighbor being broadly defined. why you would rule out the possibility that one might take an interest in the welfare of others because of a belief in the inherent dignity and integrity of human life is beyond me.

  9. woah, woah, stop the train navarro. You said something very profound. You asked why I would rule out that atheists would be interested in the welfare of others simply because they believe “in the inherent dignity and integrity of human life”. What is so inherent about the dignity of human life? According to the atheistic worldview, we all come from nothing, are here for but a blip of time, and then return to absolute nothingness. There is no inherent worth there. If you think there is, explain to me how so.

  10. “Social Darwinism has more to do with theology and worldview rather than politics (although it certainly could play out in politics). I don’t know about certain political parties acting like Social Darwinists, but I can say that Social Darwinism is unmistakenly the logical natural end of the atheistic worldview.”

    I’d like you to expound on both these sentences, bux. I’d like to know what leads you to these conclusions.

  11. Bux wrote: I don’t know about certain political parties acting like Social Darwinists, but I can say that Social Darwinism is unmistakenly the logical natural end of the atheistic worldview.

    As one who is a 3rd generation atheist, who is married to a 3rd generation atheist with a different ethnic background (and different family history of religious affiliation prior to the 1st generation of atheists), and who has many friends who are also atheists of various stripes, I don’t believe that there is there single “atheistic worldview”. Nor do I believe that there is a “logical natural end” to skepticism about the existence of the supernatural, other than that the supernatural does not exist, or at least that there is no reliable evidence for its existence.

    When it comes to social and economic arrangements, one can logically arrive at many different end points if one begins with atheism. The particular one at which you arrive depends on what other assumptions or values you use, because you aren’t going to get anywhere logically, without something more.

    If you believe that homo-economicus is either an apt description of people, or that people should behave in that fashion, then likely you will end up with Social Darwinism. If you suspect that humans evolved in a social context, with some mix of status (and other) competition and concern for each other, and that therefore humans, including yourself, are happiest (and I won’t bother here trying to hash out a definition of that word, but will take it as given), then social darwinism is an unlikely outcome. If, for reasons of aesthetics or personal comfort, you prefer a social welfare state, as might be found in Scandinavia or the Netherlands, then you will end up there. Where you logically end up depends on where you begin, or does if your logical reasoning is valid. And belief in a god who cares about such things does not contradict this observation; it just means that you have a different starting point from an atheist. If your children are at the center of your life, then you likely will be concerned with social arrangements that will be the best for them, however you define “best”.

    I put myself in this last category, and I do not define “best for them” as “being rich as Croesus” nor being the dictator, etc. I think the best world for them would be something like Scandinavia with the ethnic and cultural diversity found in the US, equal rights for gays, and so forth. So much for a single logical end to the “atheistic worldview”.

  12. Heh, Bux does a classic weasel word maneuver. ‘I can say X Y Z’

    Likewise, I can say that Protestant religion leads to carnal relations with cows.

    Ok, I just said it.
    Doesn’t make it true.

  13. Marcel: if one is merely skeptical about the existence of a Creator, then isn’t that person an agnostic, rather than an atheist? In my view, atheists are as religious as I am. If you think there’s no evidence, why take a position on it?

    As for this whole Bux thing, if he wants to believe the private sector can help “the poor” better than “the government,” that’s his choice. I don’t see much point in us arguing something that large. Now I’d love to see him explain why the private sector can do more than a living wage. To me, if you really want to shrink government, you’ve got to put more money in the hands of working people, end of story. That means either unions or regulation. Realistically, that is. If you don’t care about being realistic, then one can indulge in fantasies about the private sector magically doing this.

  14. I just noticed that Bux employs a standard right wing debating tactic. Change the subject away from the logic of the Social Darwinian argument and reference to the empirical evidemce, and turn it, Karl Rive like, against the person making it while never addressing the issues it raises. We are treated to a discourse on the ORIGINS of Social Darwinism, atheism, and a supposed dichotomy between civil society (Planned Parenthood) and government – all distractions, every one of them.

    Very well done in a completely disgraceful way.

    Increasingly I think discussing with most so-called “conservatives” is a utter waste pf time.

  15. Poor people, regardless of how they got that way, are mostly grown-ups, and I presume that they know something about how they can be helped. I observe that according to the exit polls, if only people with under-$50K family income had voted, then the Democratic candidate would have won every election since at least 1992 (before 1992 there is no data). If only people with under-$15K family income had voted, then the Republican would have received less than 30% of the vote. Poor people themselves, when given a choice of the Democratic and Republican philosophies of how they can be helped, overwhelmingly prefer the Democratic way. Bux, why are they so sadly deluded?

  16. I’d like to point out the the original term “Social Darwinism” is unfair to actual Darwinists, because it referred not so much to a state of nature as to a state wherein a wide range of legal and social apparatus was employed to keep the (often relatively unfit) rich or titled in a position of power over the less wealthy. It’s as if lions were allowed to slap an injunction on any antelope who ran too fast or developed a way of warning other antelope that a predator was nearby.

    That said, the current version walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and is just as unpleasant to step in.

  17. Bux,

    If there’s something I’m not understanding, I’d really like to understand, which is why I keep coming back to it. Explain to me, for example, why you as an atheist should care about the poor unless you are poor yourself.

    Stop this childish trolling.

    There’s no difference between you deciding, arbitrarily, that a particular book is divinely inspired, and therefore you should follow its instructions, and an atheist deciding, arbitrarily, to be concerned about the wellbeing of others.

    Now, I’m not claiming that the atheist’s concern is just an unreasoned arbitrary decision. I’m saying if it is, in a particular case, then that’s no worse basis than yours.

    Or is it inconceivable to you that anyone might reach moral conclusions without the threat of damnation?

  18. I could even partly understand the “get out of the way of charitable agencies” argument if it were not now possible for the fortunate to completely insulate themselves from the unfortunate. Before the modern era, the rich at least lived with their servants, and before that, saw the day-to-day lives of their serfs. To a more or less limited extent, of course. Now, you’ve got an international corporate elite that thanks to industrial transportation and electronic communication can barricade themselves completely off.

    Well, for all that, I guess the Norman aristocrats in England were an international elite whose interests weren’t allied with those of the country they ruled. But that predates government by the people.

  19. @bux–since you seem to regard some aspect of what i am saying as fiction, we apparently have nothing to discuss. if you won’t credit the plain meaning of my words then how will anything else i have to add to them make any difference?

  20. I hate it when you guys feed the trolls. Bux is so clearly trolling it is sad. Saying things like “Conservative Republicans want to cut entitlement programs and programs for the poor, not because they want to “attack the poor”, but precisely because they see this as a better way of ultimately helping the poor.” is just troll bait. Cutting off free lunches for poor, malnourished children helps them! And cutting spending on public schools and making all schooling private, for profit schooling and therefore making education something only the very wealthy can afford is good for poor people too. Eat your toxic waste, it is good for you!

    Seriously, stop feeding the trolls. This stuff is just childish gibberish anyways. “It’s not the state’s primary job to help the poor.” What does that even mean?

  21. “if one is merely skeptical about the existence of a Creator, then isn’t that person an agnostic, rather than an atheist? In my view, atheists are as religious as I am. If you think there’s no evidence, why take a position on it?”

    NGC, at what point do you ever go from being agnostic to atheist about something? For me, it is whether there is a reasonable probability that a thing might exist. Aliens, for instance. I’m agnostic about aliens. But God? I’m no more agnostic about that than I am about Santa Claus, the tooth fairy or unicorns. So I say, I don’t believe in them. Period. Thus, I’m an atheist.

  22. I just returned and was about to respond to NCG’s question, but Eli’s response is complete and does not leave me with anything substantive to add.

    But I might as well embellish, with someone else’s words, what Eli said. So, via Jerry Coyne, I present the words of Eric MacDonald, formerly an Anglican priest:

    It is, I think, significant that the Archbishop of Canterbury should speak about the New Atheism. He suggests that this is an intolerant form of atheism. It is certainly, at least, on his radar screen. But what he says is simply wrong, and the archbishop has misunderstood. What seems to him to be intolerance is a fairly new and fairly blunt claim, and that is that there is simply no basis at all for making the metaphysical or moral claims that religions make. We are not saying that there is insufficient evidence, but that we have seen no evidence on which to base religious claims. Religion has human fingerprints all over it, but so far no one has come close to showing that there might be more than this world and ourselves in it, with all the other animals, plants and inanimate objects of which is composed. We may always, with good reason, since this is the way reason works, keep an open mind about this. It may be that in time to come, evidence will be found which will indicate that the New Atheism was all a mistake, and, if there are any of us left, we will have, abjectly, to apologise; but none of us really thinks this is a remote possibility, and most would probably be willing to write a book with the title: Why Atheism is True.

  23. Eli’s explanation of the difference between an agnostic and an atheist is right. The way I see it is that an atheist would be like a religious believer only if he asserted affirmatively that God does not exist. Such an atheist would be like a religious believer because one cannot prove the non-existence of something, but must, like a religious believer, rely upon faith. There are few if any atheists of this sort. Most atheists believe that, in the absence of evidence for God, we must assume that God does not exist, as we do unicorns. An agnostic, by contrast, takes seriously the possibility that God exists, and is in a quandary, even though there is no more reason to take seriously the possibility that God exists than to take seriously the possibility that unicorns exist.

  24. Obviously we can’t even agree on what constitutes good evidence, since there is not, as Henry and others pose, an absense of evidence for God. God is therefore unlike Santa Claus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or any other make believe thing with no evidence for its existence. The problem is not that the evidence does not exist, it is that the atheist will not accept the evidence as evidence. I always begin debating an atheist on the existence of God by asking the simple question of what he/she will accept as evidence. I could give the strongest evidentiary case possible, but if the atheist will stubbornly not accept it as evidence then the debate is not a meaningful one. Usually what I find is that the atheist is dedicated to some sort of empirical positivism, in which only things that can be demonstrated empirically are to be believed. This despite the fact that those same atheists accept things in their personal life with no empirical evidence behind them.

  25. Bux, you’re right that atheists (speaking for myself at least) insist on evidence that can be demonstrated empirically. That’s what “evidence” means. But I’ll bite: what do atheists accept in their personal lives with no empirical evidence? Please do not say “that your spouse loves you,” which I believe is a traditional answer, as that conclusion is based on empirical evidence.

    I will concede that it would be difficult to cite evidence that could constitute proof of God’s existence, if one defines “God” as a being who created the universe, is omnipotent, omniscient, and all-good. But I wouldn’t a priori refuse to consider any evidence that was offered.

  26. Henry, there are many things that can’t be empirically proven but we’re all rational to accept. First, logical and mathematical proofs. Science pre-supposes them. To set out to prove them by science would be arguing in a circle. Second, meta-physical truths like the external world is real or that the past was not created 5 minutes ago with the appearance of age. Third, ethical beliefs. We can’t show with empirical evidence that what the Nazis did was evil, although I think there’s a near universal acceptance of evidence for the Nazis being evil. Fourth, aesthetic judgements. The beautiful likelihood cannot be empirically demonstrated. Fifth, and most remarkably, science itself cannot be empirically demonstrated nor justified by the scientific method. Science is permeated with unprovable assumptions. For instance, the special theory of relativity hinges on the assumption that the speed of light is constant in a one-way direction between any two points A and B, but this simply cannot be demonstrated empirically.

  27. Bux, the claim that God exists is an empirical claim and therefore demands empirical evidence. Claims that are not empirical claims do not demand empirical evidence. You’re right that we cannot prove that the external world exists, but we must assume it for everything else we do. Even Berkeley assumed it in his daily life. Likewise as to logical principles; you and I could not have this or any conversation if we did not assume the law of non-contradiction. By contrast, we do not have to assume the existence of God. (At least I get along fine without doing so.) Ethical and aesthetic judgments are also not empirical and therefore do not demand empirical evidence. I am scientifically illiterate so I will not address your final sentence, except to say that I suspect that it is not on the basis of faith that scientists assume that the speed of light is constant in a one-way direction.

  28. Bux,
    1 – Yes, to think, one must think. This is a tautology. But so is 1 = 1.
    2 – Empirical requires empiricism. I could be in a vat. Or a lot of places. But all I can do is use what I assume is my brain. See #1.
    3 – Ethics are based on feelings and reason, both of which we possess in spades and can be tested empirically. I have no idea what “evil” is. But I have thoughts and feelings.
    4 – Aesthetic judgments can be assumed to be relative to mental function. See #3.
    5 – See #1 & 2

    Now may I ask, where is your evidence of God? Although, in some ways I deny the question’s legitimacy, in that it likely presumes the existence of that which can’t be knowable (or else it would be included in science). But to simplify things, how about simply evidence of anything like the Judeo-Christian God, and not simply a nebulous Deism?

  29. Henry, where do you get that the claim that God exists has to be an empirical claim? I haven’t called it an empirical claim. You’re asking me to accept your first premise, that the claim that God exists is an empirical claim, without any evidence to support this premise. Unless you are saying that only things we do not have to assume exist are things that are empirical claims. Setting aside that I don’t see how B proceeds from A under that logic, I have another concern. Just because you are “getting along fine” without assuming the existence of God doesn’t make it any less essential. What if God in fact does indeed exist and proclaims judgments of heaven and hell? Assuming that God exists all of a sudden becomes very essential, even if it is not a psychological necessity in the short-term. Don’t confuse the psychological interpretation of necessity with the actual necessity of something. What people actually need and what they think they need are not always the same thing.

    Eli, you are jumping a step ahead by asking for the evidence I have for the “Judeo-Christian” God (side note: I was lambasted on this site a while back for even using the term “Judeo-Christian”). We can’t jump to the evidence for a “Judeo-Christian” God before examining the evidence for any god(s). Now, as to the evidence I would offer for any god, I offer up the standard evidence for the existence of God, including the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the ontological argument, the anthropic argument, the moral argument, the transcendental argument, and their variants, among others. To fully unpack each of these arguments would take a good bit of time. The one argument that you and I have gone back and forth on, Eli, is the moral argument. I’m still more convinced that the idea of God is a better explanation of morality than any other explanation of morality that I’ve heard.

    The cosmological argument is an interesting one too. In order for anything to be in existence today, there are only four possibilities: 1) everything was created by an external uncreated being who has the power of eternal existence within himself, 2) we are uncreated beings who have the power of eternal self-existence, 3) we created ourselves, or 4) the observed world just has the appearance of being real but is not. I think we can both agree that #3 and #4 are silly. Referring back to the law of non-contradiction, if ever there was nothing then today there would be nothing. Something doesn’t come from nothing and nothing can’t create something. Thus, we couldn’t have created ourselves. Also, I don’t think any rational person believes that the world is just an illusion (although as I pointed out before, this cannot technically be empirically verified). So this leaves us with choosing between #1 and #2 for an explanation of the beginning of the material world. I find that #1 makes more sense than #2. How could the natural order have been eternally self-existent. If it was, then wouldn’t the natural order to start to look very much like what we might call god, and therefore we would say that nature is god. People obviously have claimed throughout history that nature is god. Either way there is a god. Either the god is within the natural order or external to the natural order. The logic of this is pretty strong evidence to me.

  30. Bux, the reason I used the Judeo-Christian God is that it seems a very different concept than the simple deist claim, which as you point out, could look exactly like what we call “nature”. (Further, any empirical evidence would be immediately subsumed into the “natural” world, yet likely in the “yet to be understood” category, along with the pre-big bang universe, etc.). Yet if we’re going to broaden things to the minimal Deist claim, I see little reason in continuing to use the term “God”. This would seem even further evidence of the classic anthropological critique of religion as a form of self-worship, as we’re merely transposing an anachronistic framework on to a modern worldview that neither requires it or benefits from it (I can find all the transcendence I need – and I do think humans have a “spiritual need” – without conjuring a mythological narrative).

    Let me quickly address morals. I have the capacity to imagine that others (including animals) feel and think similarly as myself. Thus, the golden rule. This is *at least* as adequate as any religious concoction. Lions can’t do this, so they generally have few morals. When they kill an innocent creature it is not evil; it is neither right nor wrong. If I kill, we can call it that because of our moral imagination. This is entirely a physiological process. Looking back through evolution, evil evolved right alongside man, in the form of his capacity for empathy. Interestingly, some higher mammals do appear to have a rudimentary moral imagination. Often it extends only to their kin, but it is a start. And many humans never get much further!

  31. Bux, you’ll have to explain how any assertion that “X” exists is not an empirical claim. If a zoologist announced that unicorns are not a myth but in fact exist, I assume that you’d ask him or her for evidence. How is God different?

    And, yes, I grant that God may send me to hell for not believing in him. Or he may send you to hell for believing in him. Or a council of unicorns may send both of us to hell for not believing in them. Or they may send us to Atlantis. Given that there is no evidence for the existence of hell, how can we possibly allow it to influence our beliefs about other things?

  32. Bux, I want to make clear that I am not trying to change your mind about the existence of God (and I certainly do not presume that I could). If believing in God helps you through life, then more power to you. I just don’t understand why, like most believers, you do not acknowledge that belief cannot reasonably be based on evidence, but must be based on faith. If you said that you believe as a matter of faith, then I’d have nothing to say in response. But, as long as you insist on making what appears to be an empirical claim based on evidence (and simultaneously to argue that evidence is not necessary for many everyday beliefs so, presumably, should not be necessary for belief in God), then you’ve brought the conversation into the realm of science and I am entitled to ask for your evidence.

  33. Henry, you are still confusing a subset of evidence (i.e., empirical evidence) as being all of evidence. We fundamentally disagree on what constitutes evidence. Don’t get me wrong, I actually quite like empirical evidence. I make a living off of it, since I’m a social scientist. But to think that the only evidence we can have for anything must come to us empirically just does not make sense to me. You pointed out the example of there being no empirical evidence that your wife loves you. I didn’t bring that one up, I used several other examples. But let’s go to your example. Where is your empirical evidence that your wife loves you? I presume you believe that your wife loves you though (I’m presuming you’re married; if not, indulge me for argument’s sake). You can’t quantify something like love (a fitting statement for Valentine’s Day). You experience it though.

    The more I debate atheists, the more I think that our starting-point definitions are fundamentally different for two words: “evidence” and “proof”. Atheists tend to think, as you do Henry, that only empirical evidence counts as evidence, whereas the rationally thinking theist does not. Also I believe atheists tend to confuse the definition of “proof” by making statements such as “you can’t prove the existence of God”, since proof in a strict mathematical sense is a difficult standard in which we often aren’t able to meet in other areas of life in things that we accept. I grant that we can’t prove the existence of God (again, in the strict mathematical sense), and I grant that there is little empirical evidence for God (I don’t want to say no empirical evidence for God since I believe that biology provides what I believe to be some strong indirect empirical evidence for God), but what I can’t grant is that there is no evidence for God since I see plenty of evidence for the existence of God beyond empirical evidence.

    I despise the idea of blind faith. I do believe as a matter of faith Henry, but it’s not a blind faith. It’s a faith with evidence to support it. Just as my faith that my wife loves me is not a blind faith, so my faith that God exists is not a blind faith. If I accepted the existence of God blindly, then I should be pitied and not taken seriously in anything I say.

  34. “My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety towards the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests.”
    — George Santayana

    I…um…believe…this addresses the reprehensible social Darwinism point as well.

  35. Bux, my definition of “empirical evidence” is not as narrow as you seem to think it is; it is not limited to evidence that one can quantify or prove in a mathematical sense. I know that my wife loves me from the way that she looks at me, speaks to me, and behaves towards me. That is all empirical evidence, even though the way that she looks, speaks, and behaves towards me could, in theory, be interpreted differently from the way I have interpreted them; in other words, I can’t prove my interpretations mathematically.

    But you have offered no empirical evidence that God exists — not even empirical evidence that is non-quantifiable and non-provable in the mathematical sense. You say that there is (1) “indirect empirical evidence for God” and (2) “evidence for the existence of God beyond empirical evidence.” I’ll guess that (1) means evidence that we can infer from evidence of our senses, such as the existence of the dark side of the moon, and I’ll guess that (2) means non-quantifiable empirical evidence, which you now know that I recognize to count as empirical evidence. If I have not guessed correctly, then please correct me. But, whether I have guessed correctly or not, can you provide an example of both (1) and (2)?

  36. Bux, does your set of beliefs extend to supernatural events, such as Balaam’s donkey speaking to him, Jonah being swallowed whole and surviving three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish, and Adam being an actual person who lived to age 930?

    If so, where is the evidence supporting these beliefs?

  37. Ok, if the way your wife looks at you, speaks to you, and behaves towards you is empirical evidence, then the transformation in behavior that I have observed among people who once did not believe in God but had a conversion experience. I and others have observed hardened criminals, drug addicts, dirty politicians, the selfishly rich, etc. completely tranform their lives into ones of virtue, selflessness, kindness, etc. Just as in the example of your wife’s love, sure you could in theory interpret this differently and attribute it to something other than God. I have hard time drawing on this as evidence when debating though, because the mind has a powerful way of deceiving, and one could argue that these conversions are deceptions of the mind just like one could argue that you interpreting your wife’s behavior as love is a deception of the mind. At some point I suppose it becomes implausible that it is a deception though, which I have found to be the case for all of the conversions I have seen or heard of secondhand. I don’t like to go to the conversion experience first though, when talking about evidence.

    As far as indirect empirical evidence (under what I was previously considering to be your definition of empirical evidence), how about the evidence for intelligent design, which assumes a god although not specific to the nature and characteristics of any particular god. There is much to be said and much that has been written on intelligent design. Let’s take just one example. Scientists have discovered that bacterial cells are propelled by miniature rotary engines called flagellar motors that rotate at speeds up to 100,000 rpm. These engines look like they were designed by Ford, with many distinct mechanical parts (made of proteins) including rotors, stators, O-rings, bushings, U-joints, and drive shafts. The absence of any one of these parts results in the complete loss of motor function. Is this appearance of design merely illusory? Could natural selection have produced this appearance in a neo-Darwinian fashion one tiny incremental mutation at a time? I would say the evidence points more towards a designer than random chance. Of course there is much more to intelligent design too. This counts as empirical evidence.

  38. Bux, of course believing in God can transform one’s life, but it doesn’t constitute any evidence that God exists. In college, many years ago, I read Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, and learned that drug addicts, fundamentalist religious believers, and dedicated Communists and fascists all seek meaning in their lives outside themselves, and that’s why they move so often from one form of escape to another.

    As for intelligent design, I’ll leave it to biologists to hypothesize as to the evolutionary basis of any particular phenomenon. In the absence of such a hypothesis in a particular case, however, to cite God as a cause is the same as saying, “I don’t know the cause.” The ancient Greeks couldn’t explain thunder and lightning, so they attributed it to Zeus’s anger or something like that. God is merely a placeholder.

  39. The parallel between the example of God and of the love of a wife is this. We can’t observe either. We can’t observe God and we can’t observe this thing called love. We can observe behavior that we attribute to God and behavior that we attribute to love. There’s no more reason for me to say that the behavior I observe is the working of God than for you to say the behavior you observe from your wife is the working of love. I don’t think you went this way, but we also have to be careful about commiting the ontological fallacy in that just because there’s a psychological reason to believe in God (e.g., seeking meaning in life) does not constitute evidence that God doesn’t exist. In fact I think we have to recognize that there are equally deep psychological reasons for not believing in God.

    As far as your response on intelligent design, I’ve heard this whole “god of the gaps” thing many times from atheists. I don’t see how citing an independent, metaphysical, intelligent, powerful, self-existent being (call him “god” or whatever you will) is the same thing as saying I don’t know the cause. God is merely a label. The attributes of God for which are made necessary by these biological observations is what is important. It is a distinct hypothesis and is not the same as saying “I don’t know the cause”.

  40. Bux, I was not saying that I attribute my wife’s behavior to love, and thereby prove that her love exists. That would be circular. I attribute my wife’s behavior to her decision to behave in the way she behaves. Then, based on experience, I interpret that behavior as evincing love (or anger or any other emotion). You, however, engage in just the sort of circular reasoning I just described. You attribute behavior to God, and thereby prove that God exists.

    You are right that I do not believe that the fact that there is a psychological reason to believe in God constitutes evidence that God does not exist. Of course it does not. In fact, there is no evidence that God does not exist, and to assert that God does not exist would require a leap of faith. Rather, there is an absence of evidence that God does exist, and, until that absence is removed, one should assume that God does not exist. Atheism is a provisional belief (which isn’t conceding much, because belief in the non-existence of Santa Claus is provisional too.)

    As for intelligent design, you seem to be saying: I don’t know what caused human beings to exist, so I will posit a transcendental being for which there is no evidence, and, because this transcendental being, to have accomplished something as remarkable as causing human beings to existence, must be intelligent and powerful, I will also posit that he is intelligent and powerful.

  41. I’m not saying that I attribute the converts behavior to God and therefor prove that God exists. You’re right, that would be circular logic. But you insert the word “prove” for the previous word we were dealing with which was “evidence”. I hadn’t even originally brought the convert’s experience up as evidence, as I see this as relatively weaker evidence compared to the other evidence for God. I still think, in combination with all of the other evidence, the convert’s experience is one form of evidence (not proof) for the existence of God. But let me try to put it in the phrasing that you used. You said that you attribute your wife’s behavior to her decision to behave in the way she behaves. This is so obvious that it hardly bears mentioning, since in almost every case people behave the way they do because they decide to behave so (with the exception perhaps of mentally ill or intoxicated people, although even intoxicated people are not completely void of decision-making). In the same vein, it’s patently obvious that the convert behaves in the way he/she does because he/she has decided to behave that way. The leap is where you interpret that behavior as evincing love. You do this because love is simply a label for some combination of characteristics (e.g., love is patient, love is kind, etc.). Similarly God is a label for some combination of characteristics. If one of those characteristics of the thing that we call God is that he has supernatural power, then why would it be unreasonable to attribute supernatural power (call it “God”) to the radical transformation of the convert’s life?

    As far as intelligent design, I don’t know with absolute certitude what caused human beings to exist but I’m pretty sure something caused human beings to exist. As I referred to much earlier, logic necessites that either the natural order is self-existent and always existed or that it was created by a self-existent being. Whatever contains the power of self-existence in and of itself I’m gonna call God. The only real question is whether the “first cause” is external to or internal to the natural order. From all I know through empirical experience of the natural order, it seems highly more likely that biological orbservations such as the propulsion of bacterial cells and DNA organization comes from something supernatural (i.e., external to the natural order). This is evidence. So you say that I’m filling in the gap of not knowing what caused human beings to exist with something for which I don’t have evidence, but I do have evidence.

  42. You’re right that I should speak of evidence rather than of proof, because that is the subject at hand. I deny that there is any evidence of God’s existence, whereas you believe that there is such evidence.

    Anyway, I do not believe that love is a label for a combination of characteristics, such as patience and kindness. I believe that love is an emotion that is evidenced through behavior such as patience and kindness. If my wife were unable to communicate with me for a period of time, she could still love me, even though I would have no evidence that she did. She might stop loving me while we were incommunicado, but, nevertheless, I know that she _could_ still love me, because I have independent reason to believe that love exists and that she was at least previously capable of feeling it.

    By contrast, “God” is merely a label. Whatever characteristics you might claim are evidence of God, such as the apparent design of various phenomena, cannot be said to constitute evidence of God unless you have an independent reason to believe that God exists. You would say that, just as patience and kindness are evidence of love, so is the apparent design of various phenomena evidence of God. But I have an independent reason to believe that love exists, whereas you have no independent reason to believe that God exists. You’re trying to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

    As for intelligent design, you claim that you “know through empirical experience” that it is likely that certain biological phenomena come from something supernatural. You add, “This is evidence,” so I will take “know through empirical experience” to mean that you can cite empirical evidence. OK, then, go ahead and do so, and we can evaluate your evidence.

  43. From my observational experience of the natural world, I have never seen something with such complexity be put together by pure chance rather than by design. I would say that this then makes it highly likely that the irreducible complexities in biology come from supernatural design then. I think folks have even calculated the estimated probabilities of such processes or observations occuring by chance. The odds, as you can imagine, are astronomical. And since we’re talking about evidence rather than proof, we’re dealing with probabilities. If I was a betting man, I’d put my bet on a designer rather than random chance. That constituted evidence to me.

  44. Bux, I did not mean to be disingenuous, but I believe now that my challenge to you to cite empirical evidence is pointless. This is because I have rejected apparent design as evidence in the absence of evidence independent of God’s existence. I’m not sure what kind of evidence there could be, but I suppose that it would have to be direct evidence, in which God appears to one or more of our five senses and demonstrates his powers, like a super-magician. Obviously, you are not going to offer evidence of that sort. Any evidence you cite would have to be circumstantial, as apparent design is. And I believe that my objection to apparent design would apply to all circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence cannot constitute evidence unless we have independent evidence that the circumstance of which it is supposedly evidence may exist.

    Maybe this thought-experiment will help make my point clear. Suppose that no one has ever witnessed any person die; it appears that all humans are immortal. One day, Bill is missing. You say, “Bill must have died,” and I reply, “But we have no evidence that people can die.” You say, “My evidence is that Bill is missing.” I reply, “But that does not constitute evidence that he died unless we have an independent reason to believe that it is possible for a person to die. If you bring me direct evidence in the form of Bill’s corpse, then, the next time someone is missing, that will constitute circumstantial evidence that he died. But not until then.”

  45. Bux, our last two posts crossed in the mail, so to speak. I’m glad that you cited the argument from design, and I sense that is what we have been debating, or at least to where we have been leading; it puts things in focus. But the argument from design is very old; see I do not wish to rehearse it; nor am I particularly qualified to do so. This exchange with you has been fun, but I’m exhausted. Perhaps we will pick it up on some other thread, although I keep promising myself that I will spend less time at the computer, and in particular that I’ll stop posting on blogs, because doing so causes me to continually check whether anyone has responded to my blog comments. Good night.

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