Evolutionary Theory and the Global Warming Hypothesis: A World (of Evidence) Apart

March 18, 2010

A recent story in the New York Times draws attention to recent legislative attempts by creationists to force public schools to “teach the controversy” between evolution and creationism, and between the man-made global warming hypothesis and criticisms of it. Two recent developments have pushed the creationists to draw parallels between the controversies. First, attempts to enforce the view that evolution is “only a theory” have been struck down on the grounds of church/state separation. (The court noted that no other scientific theory of equal evidential status has been singled out for such demotion.) Second, the recent “ClimateGate” scandal—in which hacked emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia revealed what appears to be evidence of a conspiracy to fudge and suppress data—has raised fresh doubts about the veracity of the climate science behind the recent push to regulate carbon emissions. On the question of whether doubts about evolution and those about man-made global warming are justified, the Times article reveals a remarkable degree of agreement between the pro- and anti-evolution camps. According to John G. West of the Discovery Institute, which promulgates creationism, “There is a lot of similar dogmatism on this issue. . . . We think analyzing and evaluating scientific evidence is a good thing, whether that is about global warming or evolution.” On the other side, Lawrence M. Krauss, a pro-evolution physicist at Arizona State University, “described the move toward climate-change skepticism as a predictable offshoot of creationism.” Says Krauss: Wherever there is a battle over evolution now [. . .] there is a secondary battle to diminish other hot-button issues like Big Bang and, increasingly, climate change. It is all about casting doubt on the veracity of science—to say it is just one view of the world, just another story, no better or more valid than fundamentalism. Both sides are right to some degree. “Many scientists” agree with both evolutionary theory and the theory of man-made global warming. As the Times summarizes it:  For mainstream scientists, there is no credible challenge to evolutionary theory. They oppose the teaching of alternative views like intelligent design, the proposition that life is so complex that it must be the design of an intelligent being. And there is wide agreement among scientists that global warming is occurring and that human activities are probably driving it. But suppose for the moment that every scientist on the planet expressed belief in both theories. Suppose further that as laymen, we have no way of assessing all of the technical details of each theory. Could we nevertheless identify differences between the quality of the evidence scientists appeal to in support of their theories? Even moderately educated adults know (or could readily learn) that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is based on a vast array of evidence accumulated over more than a century and a half of investigation. It integrates observations from a variety of disparate scientific disciplines: Linnaeus’ taxonomy of the species, Lyell’s geology, Malthus’ population dynamics, as well as Darwin’s own collection of data from biogeography, paleontology, comparative anatomy, comparative embryology, and common sense observations about the success of dog breeders. And following Darwin’s own work, which integrated all of that, other scientists discovered further evidence in support of his theory—evidence such as later 20th-century discoveries in biochemistry that accounted for the mechanism by which evolved traits are passed on to descendents. Compare such evidence to the. . . Continue »


Virtue and the Realization of Human Life: Response to Roderick Long on Ayn Rand

February 3, 2010

In my last post, I responded to Will Wilkinson’s allegation that Ayn Rand‘s ethical egoism cannot support the principle of individual rights, because the egoist has no self-interested reason to refrain from using force against others. Wilkinson contended that bureaucrats who feast at the public trough seem to fulfill their self-interest even though they live by force. In response, I asked whether they might be able to live a better, happier life by becoming producers rather than looters. But many who read Ayn Rand’s works are troubled by Wilkinson’s question about why it is in the egoist’s self-interest to refrain from predation on others, and it is worth expanding on the answer. The question arises again in the series of posts from Cato Unbound that originally motivated Wilkinson’s comment. I want to briefly sketch an answer to one of these posts, by philosophy professor Roderick Long. Long also asks the question about how egoism supports rights, and offers an answer that he regards as superior to Rand’s. His position rests on a misunderstanding of Rand’s view on the relationship between means and ends. To explain his answer to the predation problem, Long invokes a distinction from the history of ethics: But what, in Rand’s view, connects our self-interest with the moral claims of others? For most of Rand’s aforementioned “eudaimonist” predecessors, the requirements of moral virtue were conceived as a constitutive part of the agent’s own interest; the Epicureans were the only major dissidents, regarding virtue instead as an instrumental strategy for attaining this interest (rather like Hobbes, in a way, though the Epicureans are surely closer to the main line of eudaimonism than Hobbes is). Rand appears to waver between these two approaches, treating the individual’s ultimate good sometimes as a robust human flourishing that has virtue as a component, and sometimes as mere survival to which virtue is only an external means. Long sees this distinction as relevant to answering the predation problem because if we adopt the “constitutive” view rather than the “instrumental view,” and regard a man’s honesty and integrity as proper parts of his self-interest, then his being a man of honesty and integrity automatically contributes to his self-interest, whereas his use of force against others would contradict these virtues and automatically count against his self-interest. Long thinks that he sees elements of this “constitutive” view in Rand’s fiction: The constitutive approach predominates in her novels; the chief reason that Rand’s fictional protagonists (such as architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead or railroad executive Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged) do not cheat their customers, for example, is pretty clearly that they would regard such parasitism on the productive efforts of others as directly inconsistent with the nobility and independence of spirit that they cherish for themselves, and not because they’re hoping that a policy of honesty will maximize their chances of longevity. Long rightly stresses that elsewhere in her work, Rand urges that virtue is not an end in itself but a means to the end of human life. This suggests that she regarded virtue as “instrumental” to self-interest, rather than as a proper or constitutive part of it. But Long contends that this instrumental view of virtue is harder to square with an obligation to refrain from initiating force against others. If virtue consists of whatever achieves one’s self-interest, and self-interest is constituted only by generic material gain, then regularly mugging one’s neighbor would. . . Continue »

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Force versus Egoism and Happiness: Response to Will Wilkinson on Ayn Rand

January 25, 2010

Commenting on the recent revival of interest in Ayn Rand, libertarian blogger Will Wilkinson recently asserted that while “Rand’s emphasis on the role of individual rights in generating creativity and entrepreneurial effort remains enlightening,” her moral justification for individual rights fails. Wilkinson, himself a former Ayn Rand enthusiast who became disenchanted with Objectivism, dismisses Rand’s argument with stunning brevity: On the face of it, Rand needs to solve the compliance problem—why should a rational egoist comply with constraints on self-interested action?—and the way to solve the compliance problem is to show that mutual restraint is generally to mutual advantage. But I don’t think Rand ever shows this. Instead she goes off the rails trying to argue that rational thought, and therefore a distinctively human life, is impossible in the absences [sic] of a strong version of the non-coercion principle, and that predation or parasitism are never in an individual’s self-interest. None of that is convincing. (A strong version of the non-coercion principle is not in effect, but we’re doing fine thinking rationally and living human lives. Lots of people live long and satisfying lives of institutionalized parasitism and predation, especially in and around Washington, DC.) Wilkinson’s objection unjustly attributes a bizarre kind of naiveté to Rand’s argument. Does Wilkinson really believe that in Rand’s view all rational thought and happiness must cease immediately in a society that adopts even the tiniest amount of coercion? This interpretation is difficult to square with Atlas Shrugged, in which John Galt, Hank Rearden, and Dagny Taggart make important discoveries, produce innovations, and at least at times draw substantial happiness from these achievements, in spite of the coercion to which they are subject. Rand’s point, quite obviously, is that the greater the extent of force used against individuals, the less they are able to act on their own judgment, and thus the less happy they can be. As Leonard Peikoff summarizes in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand In all its forms and degrees, from private crimes to the incursions of the welfare state to full dictatorship, the principle is the same: physical force, to the extent it is wielded or threatened, denies to its victim the power to act in accordance with his judgment. In the context of the present mixed economy, Wilkinson’s contention that we are “doing fine thinking rationally and living human lives” is ridiculous. Surely we are doing better than cave men and Medieval serfs, but as the present financial crisis illustrates, we could obviously be doing a lot better—and the crisis is demonstrably a result of government coercion. Wilkinson’s only remotely plausible objection is his allegation that Rand’s egoist has no reason to refrain from coercion because it seems as though he can profit from predation and parasitism. The example of comfortable beltway bureaucrats feeding off the public trough could lend one pause. But how are we to evaluate Wilkinson’s smug contention that these people live satisfying lives—and his implication that they would not live better lives if they were producers rather than plunderers? Wilkinson is a fan of empirical “happiness studies,” which measure people’s self-reported happiness under different social and economic conditions. He is happy to trot out empirical evidence alleging that people in richer countries are happier than those in poorer ones, that those in less-religious countries are happier than those in more-religious ones, and that those in more-individualist cultures are happier than those in more-collectivist cultures. On. . . Continue »

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The Missile Gap and the Morality Gap

January 21, 2010

In my post about the contradiction between the technological sophistication of the Burj Dubai and the primitive superstition on display in the mosque at its pinnacle, I argued that this disparity is another example of the general disparity in progress between science and morality. But what accounts for this gap? Two reviews in last week’s New York Times Book Review provide a clue. The first, commenting on the first Soviet test of an atomic bomb in 1949, speaks of the nuclear arms race with the United States that followed: Those years are some of the most complicated in American history. Great successes, like the Marshall Plan, combined with one monumental failure: the beginning of a catastrophically unwise arms race. Somehow, rational decision was piled upon rational decision to create something utterly irrational. Four decades later, two countries with few disputes over land had lavished trillions of dollars and rubles on world-destroying weapons. The second, also a story of postwar technological intrigue, comments on how Werner von Braun, onetime architect of the Nazi V-2 program, could have acquired respectability for his work on the U.S. space program: [In the author’s view,] von Braun escaped from the sphere of moral judgment with the help of the American authorities, who wanted to employ him in the missile and space programs. [The author’s] aim is to make him answerable, if only posthumously, for what he did. And he has a more general point to make, too: scientists and engineers, by claiming to be “apolitical,” often escape being held to account for what they help to produce. In other words, von Braun is an egregious example of a more general phenomenon. What is the “more general phenomenon” here, and what does it have to do with the passage from the first review? The first passage characterizes Soviet and American military decisions as equally rational. But why would anyone describe the actions of a brutal totalitarian regime as equal in rationality to those of the government of a free nation? One could portray Soviet decisions as “rational” only by judging their effectiveness as a means to an end, without judging the rationality of the end itself. That is, one could consider the Soviet construction of a bomb to be a “rational” means of defending the regime against foreign threats only by leaving aside the question of whether it is rational for an oppressive regime to maintain its grip on power in the first place. The view that rationality judges only of means, not of ends, is the “general phenomenon” of which von Braun and too many other scientists are guilty. These scientists assume that they need not evaluate the ends for which their discoveries and creations are used, and that scientific rationality has nothing to contribute to the evaluation of these ends. Science, they think, is “value free,” and the ends of action can only be judged non-scientifically. This “general phenomemon” is a contemporary version of a view made famous by the British philosopher, David Hume, who wrote in his Treatise of Human Nature, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” But is it not obvious that to enslave a whole society and threaten with death the rest of the world is irrational? By contrast, is it not obvious that some of von Braun’s endeavors—his assistance in the development of the U.S. space program, and the life-giving technology it spawned—were rational. . . Continue »


The Towering Contradiction

January 18, 2010

The beginning of the new year and decade bore witness to the opening of the world’s newest tallest building: the Burj Dubai in the UAE. Like many other commentators, Landon Thomas of the New York Times noted the dire economic situation Dubai faces as it celebrates this moment of triumph: All the same, the tower’s success by no means signals a recovery in Dubai’s beaten-down real estate market, where prices have collapsed by as much as 50 percent and many developers are having trouble finding occupants for their buildings. Unlike other commentary, Thomas goes further in noting paradoxes surrounding the spectacle of the opening: With its mix of nightclubs, mosques, luxury suites and boardrooms, the Burj is an almost perfect representation of Dubai’s own complexities and contradictions. It will have the world’s first Armani hotel; the world’s highest swimming pool, on the 76th floor; the highest observation deck, on the 124th floor; and the highest mosque, on the 158th floor. When humanity achieves the technical feat of erecting a 2,717-foot skyscraper in the desert and places a mosque on one of its highest floors, one is tempted to reflect on the builders’ hierarchy of values, in this case as expressed by the literal, physical hierarchy of the superstructure. Of greater importance than worldly pursuits to these builders are certain values of the spirit. But what pursuits of the spirit do a mosque, or a church, or a synagogue represent and encourage? Religious buildings—whether cathedrals or minarets—often feature architecture that reaches for the sky. But everyone knows that the heavens are cold and lifeless. And “reaching for new heights” would be a fitting metaphor to describe religious devotion were it not for the fact that so many religions encourage us to grovel, to submit, to lay down our spirits for the service of a higher power. What is the human spirit, in the end? Our spirit, if it is anything, is our “glassy essence,” what distinguishes us from all other living beings: our rational mind. But the reasoning mind is precisely what religious faith bids us to ignore or abandon. There are still those religious thinkers (mostly obscure figures in the West) who think that God’s existence might be proved rationally. But this is not the attitude that motivates the masses or their religious leaders to build monuments to an all-powerful, unseen deity, to which all of their worldly pursuits must be subordinate. Many have noted the disparity between mankind’s technological and moral progress. Often the example is the invention of advanced weaponry which is subsequently used to slaughter masses of people. But if morality pertains to human flourishing on Earth, and if human reasoning is what enables that flourishing, then war is not the only example of this disparity. The contradictions of the Burj Dubai illustrate it, as well.