A Secular Age (9): Cross Pressures
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Obama vs McCain

Obama_mccain Next week, the people of the United States, who I have lived among for some of my life and love as dearly as my own fellow citizens, will make a decision that will profoundly affect the future of our planet. We cannot see the future, but politics asks us to at least try to do so.

I feel it would be monstrously impolite of me, as The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland inadvertently gave the impression of doing the other week, to suggest that I should decide how you vote – your vote is yours to execute according to your conscience – but it is fair and equitable participation in the democratic process for me to talk about how I think and feel about this election, and in the process invite you to discuss it further with me.

For the record, if I had a vote I would be voting for Obama, for reasons that will come clear, but unlike many other people who live in Europe this is not because I haven’t weighed the merits of John McCain, since I consider him to be the best Republican candidate to run in my lifetime and I’m not one of these liberally-minded people who doesn’t understand how anyone could possibly vote for a Republican. (Although I do sometimes wonder how anyone can take either of these parties too seriously).

The Democrats have liberal values that arguably overvalue personal freedoms, as do about half of their compatriots, and believe in investing vast sums of money in institutions intended to help social welfare and health care, but which (as Ivan Illich savagely critiqued) end up making these problems worse. The Republicans have a more traditional view of society which they also share with about half their compatriots and quite justifiably don’t believe that money should be taken from the people for these purposes, but then become equally absurd when they instead decide to invest the same large sums of money in military and police institutions intended to help national security and domestic safety, but which (once again) end up making these problems worse.

Most voters in the coming election will cast their vote along partisan lines, largely because our brains are wired to cleave to this kind of divisive thinking. These votes (in a sense) “don’t count” because no voting decision has actually been made, but in another (perhaps more relevant) sense they count with great significance since they show that people have a commitment to certain values and are willing to vote to protect these values. Both parties are absurd if you try to examine them on the merits, which makes voting for either of them legitimate on any number of grounds too diverse to discuss here.

This means to a great extent the outcome of this election depends upon independently-minded people who haven’t made a voting decision in advance. For them, some of which visit this site as players of this peculiar game of mine, weighing the merits of this decision will help them make the decision that is right for them, and I hope in this piece to offer some assistance (albeit not without my own already declared bias).

It is important not to get held up in the issue of whether Obama or McCain (or their vice presidential sidekicks) are weasels, or which is the bigger weasel. They will both be weasels, because all politicians must learn to be weasels in order to function in politics, an idea neatly satirised by Matt Stone and Trey Parker in their South Park episode which observed “nearly every election since the beginning of time has been between some douche and some turd. They're the only people who suck up enough to make it that far in politics.”

So what are the major issues to be considered?

The principle issues around which a decision is likely to be formed are the following, although which issues matter to you will of course vary from individual to individual: the economy, energy independence, the environment, health care, the war in Iraq (and “against Terror”), human rights, the role of the US in the international community, and abortion. Yes, sorry liberal-minded people, abortion is a major issue in this election and in every US election until we learn to get beyond the partisanship and enter into the open and honest debate on this subject that is badly needed.

Let us look at abortion first since this is irresolvable at this time. There is a temptation, perhaps, for individuals who support a “pro-life” (more fairly, pro-fetus) position to vote for a Republican candidate because all Republican candidates reflect more traditional worldviews which oppose abortion because they are (justifiably) horrified by the specifics of this action when viewed in isolation from the other related ethical issues. However, one does not stop or reduce the incidence of abortions by making them illegal – which is essentially the only move currently being offered – and this issue will ultimately need to be resolved by intelligent communication between people, not from within the wider political system. Both sides of this debate have voices that need to be heard, because the conflict between the rights of the mother and the rights of the unborn is irreducible and far more complex than most people seem to acknowledge.

On the subject of the economy, both the Democrats and the Republicans bear a share of culpability for the current debacle. The Democrats encouraged banks to lend to the poor without checking that this was done in a responsible manner, the Republicans continued to let it happen even when it was clear this was a growing crisis. It’s far from clear either candidate is better positioned to resolve an issue which rests upon the greed of bankers, although I’m sure many people feel differently.

On the subject of energy independence, really, this one can't be left to the politicians. The citizens of the United States have inadvertently allowed the free market to train them into a nation of energy gluttons, and serious public debate is needed to fix this cultural addiction. McCain's plans to drill for more oil at best defers this problem to the near future. Is it really worth gambling Alaska's natural beauty, given that oil will continue to rise in value over time, this reserve isn't going anywhere, and future extraction technologies will certainly have less environmental impact than modern technologies?

Speaking of the environment, I would assess the biggest problem in this regard as unfettered freedom for corporations to value profit over environmental or human impact. No Republican candidate wants to restrict business, so if the environment is an issue for you voting Democrat becomes almost inevitable. Of course, this doesn’t mean Obama has a sensible plan to rescue the environment, just that McCain will never be in a position to offer one.

On the subject of the health care, Obama wants to fund a fairly poor attempt at universal health care that might not be worth its cost (although it is still, in my opinion, better than Hillary Clinton’s proposal which seemed to favour the medical sector over the people). McCain doesn’t want to get involved. If universal health care is important to you – and as anyone who has lived any part of their life in a country which has substantially addressed this issue (such as France) knows, there are excellent reasons to do so – you have to prefer Obama on this issue, even if his proposal is very weak indeed.

On the subject of the war in Iraq, McCain – as a lifelong soldier – has seen what is being fought for in Iraq, and believes it is worth fighting for. Truly, I understand this – like McCain (and, for that matter , Obama) I want what’s best for the Iraqi people. But what is being fought for right now is a US-conceived notion of a “free country”, and since the US itself is far from a model nation right now it has no business trying to infect this grossly faulty model of democracy elsewhere. (None of this reflects poorly on the incredible service the men and women of the US armed forces have selflessly given to their country, although some considerable shame does accrue to the Pentagon for failing in its duty to protect both US national security and its brave troops by the most appropriate means).

Resolving Iraq peacefully means entering into partnership with its neighbour, Iran, which is happening naturally at the moment because the men and women of Iraq and Iran still know on some deep level that they are brothers and sisters. Obama has proposed diplomatic discourse with Iran, and this is absolutely required right now, so for this reason I contend that on the subject of Iraq it is Obama whose position is more viable.

A few feminists will object – the situation of women in Iran is very poor. Very true. But we will not improve it by deploying military forces to “spread feminist values”. This, in fact, would be a total betrayal of the ideals of the original Feminist movement. One of the charities I support is Amnesty International, and I thus fully support the women of Iraq in their battle to claim what is due to them, and what Islam promises to them: fair and equitable partnership with their different-yet-equal menfolk. The way to help the women of Iran is not to increase tensions between it and the West by occupying its neighbouring country.

While we're considering human rights, it must be said that Guantanamo Bay is an insult to the integrity and high moral values of the American people, and a gross betrayal of the Universal Human Rights envisaged and enacted under President Roosevelt. Both candidates know this. McCain’s position attempts to preserve some advantage for US intelligence services, while Obama’s position is more absolute in its rejection of the horror that has been allowed to be conducted there. Both positions are reasonable, but McCain seems to leave the door open for it to happen again by voting against preservation of habeus corpus for detainees, effectively saying that human rights do not extend to people about whom the people of the US are suspicious. In this regard, McCain has rather disappointed me.

Finally, on the role of the US in the international community, well, it’s easy for those of us outside of the US to want a president who reflects our values, but we do not live in the United States and we have no business enforcing our values upon it. Yes, as Jonathan Freedland observed, we Europeans would on the whole prefer Obama, but it’s not up to us to decide how this election will resolve. It is up to the American voters. I hope they will look deep into their conscience and vote for the weasel they believe will have the greatest chance of moving towards their idea of a better world.

Discussion in the comments is welcome, but please be respectful of the diversity of political beliefs. Bloggers are also invited to trackback or otherwise extend this discussion to their own blogs. Remember that disrespectful partisans dishonour the parties and candidates they support, so please play friendly.


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However, one does not stop or reduce the incidence of abortions by making them illegal
Do you have any stats to back this up? I've seen plenty suggesting that making abortion legal increased the number of abortions massively. I'll have to go hunting to find them, but it seems the "making it illegal won't do anything" argument comes up a whole lot, without any evidence to show it.

The reason that it is firmly contested is because some of us believe that the forming baby is as much a person as you or I, and therefore should be protected with the same rights as a born person. Others believe that they are not people until a certain point is reached.

I don't think there is a possible compromise. Either they are human from conception, and therefore deserve protection, or they are not, and therefore can be removed like any other surgical procedure.

dj i/o here

I am an american and I am definitely voting for Obama. (disclaimer: I appologize for my brash partisanship) I firmly believe that if Mccain is elected, we will all die in a nuclear war.

This article is getting quite a bit of attention now, which is a good thing..


Basically, he's done a bunch of scary/terrible things throughout his life, but the one that takes the cake for me is this:

"Over the next 15 months leading up to the invasion, McCain continued to lead the rush to war. In November 2002, Scheunemann set up a group called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq at the same address as Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. The groups worked in such close concert that at one point they got their Websites crossed. The CLI was established with explicit White House backing to sell the public on the war. The honorary co-chair of the committee: John Sidney McCain III."

John Mccain was instrumental in the egging on of the american people and convincing us that we should go to war with Iraq. I was never convinced. Never. Even when Colon Powell said there is "definite evidence that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction". I had very strong feeling that it was not true. Then of course later on, we find out that it was a complete lie.

I do not believe the republicans have our best interests in mind, and I think John Mccain is a very dangerous man. Keep in mind that the Rolling Stone article only chronicles the things that are publicly known about him. Imagine what other treachery goes on behind the scenes...

It is overwhelming for me to keep up with the election. Good thing I don't watch much TV. I'm ready to vote and get this whole thing over with...

Hmm, it won't let me post that long of an article. Anyway, if you want to read it, just google "Make believe Maverick"

Also, I am going to be VERY upset if this comes down to a recount again, because I feel like for the past 2 elections, there is a possibility that there has been Republican influenced voter-fraud. Recounts for two elections. What are the chances of that? I think there are a LOT of things that go on behind the scenes that the general public has no idea about and the recounts are just one of them. If it happens again, something is very, very wrong with the political system.

No need for a recount, they have the easily-hackable diebold machines running the elections, remember.

I'm a conservative, and I'd be voting for Obama if I wasn't disallowed from voting on a technicality. I don't believe that McCain is anywhere near as bad as dj i/o seems to think, though -- and I believe that Palin is an attempt to throw the election.

On the other hand, I'd need to see some pretty detailed statistics and reports to convince me that there is absolutely no one who would have an abortion if they're legal and would not if they aren't. I would expect that group to be relatively sizable, just based on what I know of human nature. Not that I think the Republican politicians will do anything re: abortion -- after all, THEIR kids like casual sex, too.

Very polite, Mr. Bateman.

If I wrote this post, it'd go like this:

The election is bullshit, both sides are a sham, a mental trap, to bestow a strong and participatory illusion of choice. The reason Fascism Inc. permits elections is because they happen to be the most massive and effective way of focus grouping which PR figurehead is more generally effective. Collective stupidity acts as a sort of leverage for these people, and of course without these sort of applications of game design, the world would be very different.

It's briefer, or should I say: more brief.

Speaking of Abortion, I've been having a trip about that lately. I was raised with a hard-line catholic position in a country where it seemed impossible to ban abortion, to much consternation. Now I'm in a country with almost 100% illegal abortion and I'm waiting for a period to arrive on November 5th!

What are the fucking odds.

Thank you for the spirited comments!

Let me discuss abortion first. I'm going to use a theistic perspective, since this is where RodeoClown is coming from - I trust other readers will be patient with this.

The worldwide incidence of abortion has fallen from 46 million (1995) to 42 million (2003). This was not the result of tightening the law to deny access to it since this did not significantly happen within this interval. Almost half of these abortions (20 million of the 1995 figure) happened in countries where it was illegal. The best evidence we have is that legal status barely affects incidence - but it does radically affect the survival rates of those who undergo an abortion procedure.

On these grounds, tightening legislation chooses the rights of the fetus against the rights and well being of the mother. This may seem ethical to someone who is focussed on this perspective from an idea of God's wrath, but it is not acceptable to anyone who approaches it from an idea of God's love (or from outside a theistic perspective altogether). The mother is at least as deserving of our love and respect as the fetus, and many would argue that she deserves more respect as she is already in the world. (And let's not forget that a quarter of pregnancies result in miscarriages - conception does not mean birth with any degree of certainty)

"Either they are human from conception, and therefore deserve protection, or they are not, and therefore can be removed like any other surgical procedure."

These either/or arguments are a trap. The question here is: what makes a human being? That a fetus has the *potential* to become what everyone would agree is a human is not the same as saying that a fetus is a human being. A sperm and an egg in isolation also have this potential, but we would not use this as a justification for rape, to give an extreme counter argument.

This is very woolly ground and as with all metaphysical issues cannot be decided as a matter of fact. My position is: if we wish to reduce the rate of incidence of abortion, we should encourage the use of birth control. I appreciate the orthodox Christians' contribution on this issue as a valuable counterpoint against a totally dehumanising perspective, but we have to find a way forward that is in keeping with Jesus' ministry, and this will involve more than just a blind focus upon the fetus.

This issue is irreducible as a matter of fact. For this reason, I advocate more open debate about this, and not knee-jerk attempts to tighten the law which - on the basis of the statistics - do not appear to reduce the rate of incidence of abortion.

I'm happy to re-open this debate again some time next year, but I don't think debating this issue should be the focus of this election since the election is not going to significantly change this point of contention. But on other issues, such as Iraq, the election is absolutely critical.

dj i/o: Like you, I was never convinced by the case for war on Iraq. Even the justifications for invading Afghanistan were shaky in my book, although I accepted this in a way that I will never quite accept the invasion of Iraq.

Yes, McCain did pursue this line: he did so from a position in which he trusted the intelligence that was available. In this trust, he displayed a lack of judgement. But since so many in the United States made the same mistake in their post-911 anger I question the sense of making McCain the scapegoat here. Let us not forget the volume of support these measures enjoyed - the politicians were not about to deny the American people their "revenge". That this was a shocking betrayal of the high moral values upon which the Republic was founded has only definitively come to light after the fact. Responsibility falls upon the current administration - McCain's support of that administration may weigh against him, but that doesn't make it his responsibility.

Trevel: the choice of Palin undoubtedly seemed like a great move to McCain - 'I can court alienated Clinton voters by appointing a female veep', seems to be the logic. Only trouble is, Palin is the wrong candidate to bridge that gap. I believe she has hurt McCain's campaign quite significantly.

Patrick: I'm polite, and you're paranoid - business as usual, then. :) As for your situation... it's scary for an independently minded individual to face this kind of situation unexpectedly, but life is never truly in our control. Relax and let the chaos take you would be my advice!

Thanks for the comments everyone!

I would say the foetus IS a human being. Not just that it has the potential to be. And again, this is exactly why I can't compromise. I understand your point of view, but I disagree.
I don't see why loving the mother AND the baby are mutually exclusive. I'm not saying that the birth mothers must keep their unwanted child, I think adoption is a fantastic idea, and far too hard to come by in my own country.

Also - I'm all for birth control, but I don't think abortion as birth control is at all right.

Patrick - a baby may not be expected (our first wasn't), but they are definitely a blessing. I pray that should you discover you are to be a dad that you'll be a great one.

dj i/o here

Patrick - I know what you are going through as well. Our first baby was unexpected. The day I saw the pregnancy test was one of the hardest days of my life.
The next six months involved running all over looking for houses, getting a mortgage at the age of 23 (when not even 1 year earlier I was terrified to move out of my mom's house), fixing that place up, and having the baby. It is a strange and terrifying experience, but having a family can change you in huge and positive ways.
5 years later, we are due to have our second child in a few weeks, and this one was by choice! I'm sure it will be chaos all over again, but hey, you can handle anything that is thrown your way. That is what we are supposed to do -- survive, and come up with creative solutions (evolve)

Relaxing and letting the chaos take you is quite good advice. (And eloquently said, I might add) It may be the only way one can stay sane. :)


"Yes, McCain did pursue this line: he did so from a position in which he trusted the intelligence that was available. In this trust, he displayed a lack of judgement."

I don't believe it. I guess I'm a conspiracy theorist, but I think Mccain was in on it along with Bush, knowing full well that the "intelligence" was false.

You, yourself, called them weasels. If we can't trust them to even tell the truth about simple issues during a debate, how could we possibly trust them about anything else?

Like I said, I think there is a LOT of dishonesty and behind the scenes deals in washington (i.e. the rabbit hole goes waayy deeper than we can even comprehend)

Chris: well played, though you may note with some skepticism that my paranoia has matured into rigorous zeteticism.

Rodeo and dj i/0: thanks for your comments and shared experiences. After doing some research and wading through much misinformation, I´m not terribly concerned anymore. I was worried that pre-come during ovulation might pose a significant probability; you might not be surpised at how many people on the net overblow probabilities in order to reinforce a moralism. Thank god for pH differentials.

Thing is, my girl is 19 and refuses to have a baby at that age, so I was looking at having to pay for an illegal abortion after making it clear that I´d be happy to roll with the punches. Emotionally that would have been havoc.

A few other brief points:

- why is Abortion statistically the most likely tangent from any political discussion? Why not economic or monetary policy? Why not civil liberties? ect.

- I think it´s pretty obvious that abortion is murder, but after this reflection I´m absolutely convinced it should be legal. If someone was trying to steal $100k from me and I killed that person, I shouldn´t be charged with manslaughter, and it should be easy for me to get the means to defend myself. See? It´s like gun rights.

- I draw the line at about 23 days, when the pineal gland activates the integrated nervous system. In other words, kill the thing when the thing looks like a lizard.

I hope this is not too off-topic. I want to comment not on the election itself, but on the interest it has generated internationally.

I am a German living in Ireland. The only time I've ever spent in America was for a two-week vacation in 1996, when I was 15 years old. Why do I and so many of my fellow Europeans care so deeply about this election while being almost apathetical about the politics of our home or host countries?

I used to follow German politics while I lived in Germany, but only with mild interest. Germany was during my youth for all intents and purposes a two-party system with two or three (three more recently) secondary parties that decided which one of the two big parties should be in charge. The two large parties, CDU (the Christian conservatives) and SPD (the social democrats) used to be somewhat different, but already during my youth a process begun which culminated these days with the two parties being indistinguishable for all intents and purposes. In short, there was never much to get excited about. It became harder and harder to even imagine what would change if one or the other party were in charge. For the last few years the two big parties, their importance crumbling fast, have been forced to enter a coalition, and to no one's surprise it's been business as usual.

Now I live in Ireland, which is a wonderful place to live. The people here are welcoming and relaxed, with seriously the most laid-back mentality I've encountered in all of Europe (for comparison's sake: Italians and Greeks are similarily relaxed about your job not being the centre of your life, but they are obviously much more emotional and love to argue much more than the Irish do. Finns are not relaxed--they are completely apathetic (and I mean this in a good way. I have a lot of Finnish friends). Poles seem very laid back until you realize this is only their non-commital face, which they show to outsiders. In a circle of friends and family they can be even more passionate and hot blooded than any Italian.) I am starting to feel very attached to this place and don't see myself moving away any time soon... and yet any attempts I've made to familiarize myself with Irish politics have been frustrated by the utter dullness of it all. Don't get me wrong, I think that the Irish state has made many good and important decisions, and I do believe that my personal happiness is, to some degree, based on whether or not the right people will be in charge to make the right kinds of decisions, but honestly? I can't tell who is right or wrong. I cannot imagine, once again, how Person A taking Person B's place will affect me at all.

America has always been the place of big stories. I occasionally write short fiction, and before I started thinking about setting, everything I wrote was set in a vaguely American-ish place. (It should probably be said that I've always written in English, and that I believe I'm much better at imitating American figures of speech and general conversation flow than I would be at imitating these things for British/Irish characters. I realize the irony, and I think my grasp on how people here speak is improving, but it's not exactly like I can ask a few friends to have a heated emotional conversation to see how soon an Irishman would resort to cursing and what collocations he would use exactly). In many ways, this has always been the most admirable aspect about America: that it inspires, that its stories are larger than life, that it was myth as much as reality. Even politics in that country seem to be larger than life.

I cannot honestly remember any election in my life that was as polarizing to me as this one is. Surely McCain is nowhere near as bad as Bush, but he doesn't believe Americans need to stop torturing their enemies, he does not believe it is necessary to apply due process to people held for years, he is at least implicitly on the side of those who want to teach intelligent design (not least of all because of his nomination of SP), and speaking of which, nominating an unexperienced, unqualified, loud-mouthed politician like Sarah Palin shows a horribly cynical approach to politics. Of course it's a game of weasel vs douche, no discussion, but normal human beings will at the very least attempt to hide their weaseling or, better yet, draw the line of purely utilitarian (as in, what benefits the candidate) politics somewhere. The cold-hearted, calculating scheming that must have gone into this VP nomination could have come straight from a Simpsons episode, with the shadowy GOP (including, of course, Burns, Krusty, and I think Dracula) seated around the long table of their magnificent gothic castle.

Also, and here I return to my image of America as the land of stories, having the audacity to hope (*cough cough*) and to be frank and open about it in public at the risk of seeming naïve and blue-eyed... this elevated Mr. Obama to a very special place in my heart. His speeches are actually well-crafted, delivered with conviction, and filled with just the right mix of pertinent issues and the type of up-lifting rhethoric that makes you want to go out and support this candidate out of sheer euphoric inspiration and not out of fear that the other guy might somehow hurt you.

But of course I also do agree with Chris's assessments of the issues and that's probably what should guide the hand of the voting Americans (who seems to be in the minority here ;P)

Chris asked me to consider returning to the game for this one, and I am happy to do so. I don't, however, ever write about my feelings on abortion, so that sidebar will have to carry on without me.

On the issue of the election:
I am a voting American, and I will be voting for Obama. I fall just barely to the right of raving-liberal-wacko, so voting for the Democrat is really my only viable choice. Politics is usually pretty simple for me. I vote almost exclusively on two issues: women's rights and gun control. Republicans tend to have nothing to offer me on either of those subjects, and they are the only ones about which my feelings are entrenched and so become the deal-breakers.

All that being said, I agree with Chris that McCain is the best Republican candidate I have seen in my lifetime. His history of a willingness to work with liberal Democrats on key issues is, frankly, astounding to me. His record of being his own man, regardless of the position of the Republican Party, has impressed me for years. I am, nonetheless, very disappointed in McCain the candidate, as the nomination seems to have turned him overnight into a Republican Automaton who does nothing but spout Party rhetoric. I hope that he is just doing that in an attempt to gain the trust of his Party base, which is lukewarm toward him on a good day. If I thought that McCain might actually turn around and think for himself after the election, I could possibly consider voting for him, but I fear that won't happen.

I, too, am disappointed in his choice of Palin as VP. I voted for Hillary Clinton in my state's primary, feeling honored to be voting for a woman. Had McCain chosen a woman who had any one idea in line with my own, I might have been willing to vote Republican for the first time in my life. Although I believe it is true that she has been demonized in the press and not given a fair shot, she is simply too conservative (read absolutely sure she's right about everything) for me.

I am also not delighted by Obama's choice of Biden. He had a shot at an historic ticket. No, I don't mean him and Hillary. Like that would have worked. I just mean him and anyone but an old white guy. Not that I don't like old white guys. My dad's an old white guy, and he's great. But they've had their turn. I had hoped for a bolder choice. Unfortunately, being bold does not get one elected.

As for the other issues, I'm not convinced that the choice of our next President will really affect the outcomes in a major way. The economy will continue to be dodgy until the rich make their peace with not being quite that rich and we find a way to make the poor less poor. As long as the money gap keeps widening, we will be where we are. Energy independence doesn't have a prayer as long as there is no legally defined conflict of interest between politics and the oil industry. Oil barons have and continue to run our government. As long as that is allowed, we will be where we are. The environment is going to have to start to hurt the financial security of the wealthy for it to ever be a player in the political arena of the US. Until a major hurricane hits Manhattan (we had one a few weeks ago here where I live in Ohio, so it could happen), we will be where we are. The lack of health care for many, like the environment, is going to have to hit the wallets of the rich for there to ever be change. The war in Iraq will have to stop being profitable for those in power before it will end. The ones who make the decisions are simply making too much money off of it. Human rights, you're joking right? Nothing going to change there except for them getting better at hiding their misdeeds. The role of the US in the international community is and will change as a result of our deepening economic crisis. I'm not sure that the election can change that.

At the end of it all, I'm not sure I've said anything worthwhile. Thinking back to Chris's last blog on cross-pressures, I find it terribly unfortunate that our political system is inherently divisive. Its polarizing nature is damaging to the country and to our ability to solve problems. Maybe one day we will grow up as a nation and find that there are many more than two sides to each debate.

why is Abortion statistically the most likely tangent from any political discussion? Why not economic or monetary policy? Why not civil liberties? etc.
Because it is (using your terminology) murder of an innocent. I mean, why did that Wilberforce guy keep harping on about slavery for years, when there were obviously other issues around too?

Something important to remember is that just because an issue is seen as being of primary importance to millions of people, doesn't mean they don't care about other issues - they just aren't as important.

I think it´s pretty obvious that abortion is murder, but after this reflection I´m absolutely convinced it should be legal. If someone was trying to steal $100k from me and I killed that person, I shouldn´t be charged with manslaughter, and it should be easy for me to get the means to defend myself. See? It´s like gun rights.

Only the difference in this instance is like opening your front door, inviting someone in and offering them your TV, then shooting them in the face because they took it.

I draw the line at about 23 days, when the pineal gland activates the integrated nervous system. In other words, kill the thing when the thing looks like a lizard.

Yeah, because those n*ggers don't look human, so we have no moral qualms keeping them as slaves. And because those womenfolk don't have penises (and so don't look like us) they shouldn't be able to vote. Anyone with a disfigurement doesn't look like a model human and so they don't count either. We should kill them off or keep them as freaks in a circus.

The 'it doesn't look human' defense doesn't hold much water. Far too easy to move your definition of 'looks human' to wherever is convenient for you.

* (I'm intentionally using a horribly derogative term here to make a point - I've *ed it to stop filters blocking your site Chris).

Patrick, can I just add, I really appreciate your honesty in this area.

Even more spirited comments! Thank you all for your participation here.

I suppose I had better dispose of the abortion issues first, once again. Patrick asks:

"why is Abortion statistically the most likely tangent from any political discussion? Why not economic or monetary policy? Why not civil liberties? ect."

Several reasons. First of all, it's a serious hot button issue for various psychological reasons, not least of which is that (a) anyone who has had a child and has life-affirming metaphysics is likely to suffer severe cognitive dissonance at the idea of "murdering" a child - we as humans cannot separate the personal and the abstract as well as we would like. (b) anyone who knows someone who has had an abortion knows that this issue is about more than the fetus. And between these two extremes lies enough difference to drive a partisan conflict to an irreconcilable extreme.

Why not economics? No-one *understands* economics. Even the economists admit that they know next to nothing about this black art!

Why not civil liberties? Only intellectuals care about anything so abstract.

It's always going to be abortion until we find a framework for resolving it.

In this regard, I find RodeoClown's tactic of comparing it to earlier civil rights advances to imply that the future must embrace his perspective on this to be dirty pool. It's a great tactic, but it's also unfair since it projects a particular metaphysics into the future and tries to use that as a bargaining chip. Trouble is, most of the people in the counterweight position don't share these metaphysics, so the attempt inevitably fails (with the negative fallout of entrenching the opponents even further).

*No-one* wants greater incidence of abortion, we all want to reduce it. The issues at task are whether or not the abortions that *will* take place happen safely or illegally, and at what point we want to make the cut off (and there are many possible choices here).

Patrick uses a typical materialist argument: consider the organism in its developmental state. Like RodeoClown's slavery analogy, this only works with compatible (materialist) metaphysics. I have sympathy for the position as a rationalisation, but it's no help for resolving the debate.

The way forward on this has to begin by agreeing that we all want to reduce the rate of incidence of abortion. Then we can discuss how to achieve this. The partisan gulf on this one is between "never, never, never" and the counterpoint this necessarily generates. If we can accept a notion of a just abortion - for instance, the termination of a fetus as a result of a father raping his daughter - we might be able to make progress here.

I don't want to disallow further discussion on this issue, but since this post is about the election can people please try to restrain themselves to "final words" on abortion for now? I'll happily reopen this debate next year in a post expressly focussing on this issue.

Daniel: thank you for sharing your perspective here! Speaking as a British citizen, the US election determines the policy decisions of the British Government more than the UK elections do. I have lobbied my government for a change in position on Iraq, or for an admission that what they did was illegal, and have been met with deaf ears. For this reason, the US presidential election is of greater political interest to me - it's the only way we can hope to restore some semblance of peace to the Middle East. Personally, I find this international displacement of political interest both natural, sad and amusing. :)

Plus, politics is one of my favourite sports, and US politics is the premier league of political games! :)

You appear to have a chip on your shoulder about intelligent design... answer me this: why shouldn't citizens be in charge of the curriculum of their schools? That sounds more like democracy to me than imposing one idea of "Truth" via government. No-one's campaigning to prevent the teaching of evolution... they just want their beliefs (the beliefs, I might add, of almost half of the US citizenry) to be allowed to be taught in schools. Don't make the mistake of thinking that science isn't a collection of disparate belief systems - it always has been, and perhaps always shall be. I believe (in common with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) that the people have that right to choose what their children learn, even when I disagree personally with what they want to teach. Why don't you?

Oh, and I'm not sure, but I believe the vampire in the Simpsons Republican secret committee might be Count Chocula. :D

TT: thanks for stopping by! I appreciate it. It's nice to hear you sharing my assessment of McCain here, and I agree with you that McCain the candidate has become a mouthpiece for the usual Republican tropes... The reason for this is undoubtedly political expediency: the election machine produces neatly edged cookie-cutter candidates because getting elected is a game of numbers. You can't assume from this that McCain won't be independently minded after being elected - but then, neither can you entirely trust that he will be able to shake off the compromises he's made in order to have the potential to be elected.

I don't agree that the change in candidate won't change the situation in Iraq (although I agree that the economy isn't going to be significantly affected by who wins). McCain will not withdraw the troops, Obama will do so. He's not influenced by Big Oil, and he's promised he's going to do it - if he doesn't follow through on this there will be trouble.

I completely agree that partisanship has come to be a major barrier to the purposes of the political process (from the perspective of the people). But you yourself have said that you "can't reason" with the other side... this divide in the US (and elsewhere) cuts deeply.

We need to learn to speak each other's languages, to acknowledge each other's issues... only when we can deal with each other with respect can we hope to affect change.

Thank you all for your participation!

OK, final comments :)

I personally know several women who have had abortions, and all of them have regretted it. My wife and I know a teen girl who fell pregnant and was going to abort her baby, and so we offered to adopt him/her once the baby was born. She ended up keeping the baby herself, but I hope that shows that I'm not coming from a purely hypothetical point of view here.

*No-one* wants greater incidence of abortion, we all want to reduce it. The issues at task are whether or not the abortions that *will* take place happen safely or illegally, and at what point we want to make the cut off (and there are many possible choices here).

Why does no-one want a greater incidence of abortion? If it's just a mass of cells, then why not let people have as many as they want - it becomes more like cosmetic surgery than ending a life.

As for slavery being a bad reference - the arguments for abortion seem to me to read in a very, very similar manner to the arguments for slavery.

I am very aware that my views are shaped by my worldview, and I understand that you don't see these unborn children having the same value, but I don't see any compromise - I think it is one of the few black/white issues in this life - either the foetuses are children and valuable, or they are not. Again, it is my worldview that shapes this, and I will own the responsibilities of a world with fewer abortions - I will adopt children if necessary, and I will put my money to where it can help young mothers-to-be.

You're a good dungeon master, Chris, prodding me on like that :)

You must have rolled a natural 20 on that Detect Pet Peeve roll, too. Let me roll for Open Can Of Worms... yep, 20 as well.

I feel that I ought to start this with a


I am afraid that I have very strong opinions on some things and past experience has taught me that a certain type of person reacts very badly to me expressing these things I believe in with conviction. So if you feel any of the veins on your neck audibly popping while reading this, you may want to go and look at some soothing landscape photography instead. Just saying...

Mankind is amazing. Look at a random object in the room you're in and ask yourself, how long would it take to explain the various technologies that went into making this to a caveman? How recently, in a galactic sense of the word, have we been cavemen? And then look at what we're doing here. We're exchanging very precise and complicated thoughts on concepts so intricate and many-layered that I get dizzy when I think about it. I wanted to make this my usual plea for science by going the material road: look at the computer in front of you, at the clothes you're wearing, the music you're listening to and the device you're using to do so etc. But I think I want to challenge myself and present this in a slightly broader form.

The expression "we stand on the shoulders of giants" should be familiar to most of us. This is most easily visible in material sciences: to do even simple things in my everyday life, I use a complex, many-million transistor microchip and a small laser to read data off shiny discs. The centuries upon centuries of scientific advancements are easily visible. But the same is true in many other areas. When we discuss philosophy (and I really shouldn't go there, because I have only the vaguest understanding of it from my few discussions with my sister, who actually studies it, but this much I believe to be true:) we employ useful terms that describe concepts other people have arrived at before us, concepts that make it much easier to express thoughts, to analyze thought processes, to put into words what otherwise would just be a tangle of non-verbal concepts. When we make music today, we benefit from millenia of experimentation and theory, we can use so many ways to describe sounds and to produce them and thereby arrive at the music we want to create so much quicker and easier (or even at all). When America votes in five days, everyone will expect (to a reasonable degree, Diebold machines notwithstanding) fair results and a fair process, and that we have arrived at this point is once again because of centuries of thought on the matter, of experimentation, of weighing one way of doing things against another, and so on.

There is a concept of ideas evolving, freely competing, improving on each other at the very core of all these processes, and religion, any religion, is anathema to this concept.

Let me finally home in on the topic at hand. What the proponents of ID want is not merely for their ideas to be taught in schools. They can already have that, (pretty much) all around the world. It's called Religious Education, and it's a subject that I enjoyed during my school time (it should be said that I visited a catholic private school, but still, RE was interesting). This is not what they want, as far as I understand the issue (and someone please correct me if I'm wrong). What they want is for their dogma, that life on this planet was created by an intelligent outside force with purpose, to be taught as a scientific theory side by side with evolution. You do not teach the Russian Revolution in Math lessons and for pretty much the same reason you should not teach intelligent design in any kind of science class.

Religion is dogma. I admit that there is more to the religious experience. There is the spiritual experience, which I'm no stranger to, and which is a deep and rewarding moment that can come at unpredictable times. But since this moment is so subjective and unclassifiable, religion must needs exclude it from its rulings and rituals. You cannot force someone to have a spiritual moment when you want them to. You can say that when you feel this spiritual touch it is the Holy Spirit or one of your ancestors or whatever explanation you want to give for it, but this does not make the spiritual experience part of religion, it makes religion the parasite to the spiritual experience. Religion is dogma because there is nothing else it can be. It makes statements that are neither disprovable nor provable because they do not refer to entities or concepts that we can directly interact with. Religion is strict and imposing and pretty much the opposite of any kind of progress that elevated us to the heights of science (music/philosophy/democracy/you name it). In religion you cannot admit such competition of ideas because there is no way to judge the validity of an idea in a system that consists entirely of meaningless terms.

Let me employ a simile (if I have more than one reader at this point) (who is not foaming at the mouth). Religion is like a videogame that does not explain your input and has no output whatsoever. The manual says "you can use the space key to transnullify the mongrel-capacitator, but if you hold shift you will disassociate quantifiable doodads." The screen remains blank, no matter what I do. How do I know if I did anything good or bad? Well, easy, there are people who will tell me! "You pressed space twelve times without holding shift, now you must burn on a pyre!" "Why?" "Because we say so!"

Lemme try to tone the crazy down a little. "God created man in his likeness." What does that mean? There's a physical entity out there who anatomically looks like a specimen of Homo Erectus? Does that mean he comes from a planet that is similar to ours? Well, no, because it doesn't even mean that there is one single entity, apparently. It can mean pretty much anything. Everything in Genesis is arbitrary and meaningless if you take it at face value. The first day God separated darkness from light, then he did this and that, then he created all the animals, then he made Adam and Adam got to name all the animals... all of this is random, arbitrary information. You might as well have a Genesis that goes like this:

"God was a four-headed bison. First he created the world by peeing against a tree. Then, precisely fourteen hours later, he created the wolf. At first wolves were green, but then he made them grey." And so on.

What it boils down to, always, with religion, is the simple question of "but what would be different if that was not the case?" Anyone can claim any amount of wild facts that are so far in the past that no one can prove or disprove them. These facts only become relevant when we can see how they affect today's world, and that means when they become provable. If I say "Africa and South America used to be connected" that is all good and nice, but once I start thinking, oh, that means we should have certain similarities in fauna and flora, and I can go out and prove or disprove that theory, and suddenly it becomes a useful stepping stone, a pair of giant shoulders for someone else to stand on. If you ask "what would be different if Africa and South America had never been connected?" I could say, well, then I shouldn't have found this specimen here. "What would be different if Jesus had not died for our sins? What would be different if God did not love us? If there was no Holy Spirit? If our souls did not re-incarnate? If the mongrel-capacitator was not transnullified?" It's gibberish.

I realize most IDlers wouldn't want schools to teach all the details of how their preferred crazy nomad said, 4000 years ago, the world was created. I understand they want to get the message across that they believe some being (god, spaghetti monster, alien) created us and all other life, and you could say that this is an adorable and innocent thing to teach our children, but once you take it outside the confines of RE (where the implicit understanding is "this is all made-up stuff and you can take moral/ethic/spiritual lessons away from it but please don't take it as actual truth") and have it compete with scientific theories, you start chipping away at a pair of shoulders.

Because another thing that religion can never afford to be is tolerant. These people do not want children to accept ID as a parallel theory to supplement evolution, they want them to understand that evolution is WRONG and that they are RIGHT. This is the only way a dogma can survive. Once you manage to do that, you deprive a lot of children of a useful piece of information and replace it with semantically empty fairy tales. Scientific advances are based on the understanding of theories such as evolution, and children raised to not believe in them because they conflict with their society's chosen dogma are poorer for it, and the world is poorer for the scientists they could have been.

And also it's just offensively stupid.

I'll tackle your second point shortly: why should the people not decide what their children study in school. Well, the people are deciding, aren't they? Isn't a vote for Obama a vote against ID as well? (Okay, okay, now I'm just trolling. I'm sorry, I take that back ;P)

First of all, it is of course a blue-eyed view of democracy to believe that it will always boil down to "what most people want." I hope I break no news to anyone when I report that most people do not really know what they want and follow others very blindly most of the time. There will always be special interest groups (such as the church, or scientific lobbies) seeking to steer as many people as they can. (Phew, made it through this paragraph without saying "sheeple".) (D'oh!)

But even if we believed that the people are getting what they want to get, well, look at the public outcries you've had all over the states whenever some state tried to put ID on the science curriculum. I submit that a certain type of people, the type found in deeply religious communities, have a higher baseline level of being vocal about things they feel passionate about, so while ID was not being taught in the science curriculum and they wanted it there, these people were the constant buzzing we heard in the media. When a few states (I really do not want to go look up the details on this now--please correct me if I'm horribly wrong) attempted to put ID where it clearly doesn't belong, other people suddenly became very active and interested in the issue, and you could hear their voices. In all cases I'm aware of, sanity has prevailed, and the people who do not want ID taught in science classes have shown themselves to be in the majority.

I have a hundred more things to say on this topic, but I will force myself to push that preview button now, boggle at my own verbosity, stop proof-reading halfway through, and just submit this comment. I hope I haven't given too much offense because clearly I find the conversation here highly stimulating.

PS: I realize I'm a militant atheist (I'll fly a plane into your cathedral screaming "YAY FOR SCIENCE!"), but if you're actually religious, please indulge me here. Please try to show me where I'm wrong, what I'm missing, where I should reconsider. I'm never happier than when new data makes me revise a model in my head. It's scien-tastic!

(Now who still thinks abortion is the difficult topic?) (Don't get me started on abortion though;P)

RodeoClown: don't assume because I defend abortion on some level that I don't see the fetus as a child (although I only see it as a *potential* child - this is the nub of my distinction). We are not so far apart on this issue, I think... But with an eye on finding resolution I have to explore the middle ground because some kind of peace on this issue must lay there, somewhere...

You ask why no-one wants a greater incidence of abortion when some people believe it is just a mass of cells being excised... you've fallen into one of the traps this issue creates here. Even if one sees what is removed as just cells, the operation is still extremely distressing for the woman. Abortion is unpleasant whichever way you look at it, and nobody wants a greater incidence of it.

Thank you, as ever, for your involvement!

Daniel: Ah, I thought I could sense the unexploded cognitive dissonance bomb beneath your sniping there. ;)

I have now read so many people venting their relief of revolt on these issues that these kind of rants just wash straight off me, so rest assured I am not angry while I write this, but rather patiently trying to consider the best way to express the key issues to you. :)

Firstly, like so many militant atheists, you have confused religion with Christianity, and not even that, with institutional Christianity (the 'worst' kind!) When you say "religion is dogma" you admit your ignorance of comparative religion. What is dogmatic about Zen Buddhism? Sufi Islam? Discordianism? Even Hinduism, which does produce some dogmatists, is fundamentally anti-dogmatic (which frustrated the Christian missionaries to no end, since instead of converting to the imported dogma the Indian people just incorporated the Christian mythology into their own mythology!) :D

Religion is not dogma. Some religion is dogmatic. But so is some science. And if you were to look at this with unbiased eyes, you might have to come to the conclusion that there is as much dogma in science as in religion - that religious dogma produces more extreme behaviours than scientific dogma is not expressly the point here. Let's not forget that Wilhelm Reich was persecuted, had his books burned, and then died in jail because his work offended scientists who conducted a witch hunt against him.

Please do not conflate human flaws with religion simple because certain people with beliefs very different from your own express those flaws strongly, and they happen to come from the religious end of the spectrum of beliefs. Dawkins appears every bit as dogmatic as anyone you would find on the opposite side of the divide, no matter what he tries to claim of himself! :)

You fundamentally misunderstand the ID debate if you swallow the story that they want to teach religion in science. You misunderstand scientific beliefs (for this, you need to brush up on Kuhn - my piece on this is here) by thinking that science dictates a single paradigm, and therefore anyone who doesn't have "the latest paradigm" is wrong. That's dogma right there, and a more dangerous dogma than Biblical innerancy because it is taken more seriously by far more influential individuals.

While it is true, there are people in the US who would like their religious views to be forced onto others (and I shudder at this thought), the ID position is not expressly attempting this. They are asking that it be acknowledged that despite the widespread acceptance of evolutionary explanations as being fully sufficient (in itself, a suspicious claim!), many people still believe that an intelligent force was behind the emergence of life, either with or without natural selection as a mechanism. This belief comes from a religious background, but it is a scientific belief in so much that it is a belief about science. Because it is a metaphysical belief, it is also unproveable so "you can't teach that because it's not true" is just as deluded as "we must teach this because it is true" - and these are the two camps that clash over this issue.

(You shouldn't teach it in science because it is untestable is perhaps fairer, following Popper, but then, prepare to throw out sociobiology, possible worlds and several other allegedly scientific models when you assert this!) :)

I never advocated teaching ID in science classes (although I have defended the freedom to discuss it in science classes), but it doesn't belong in RE - here you make a category error. It belongs in a philosophy lesson, but no-one will agree to add philosophy to the curriculum. In the absence of this, I'm sorry to say, the place for ID would be in a science lesson, because where else would philosophy of science go?

One judge in the US rejected ID on the grounds that it wasn't a scientific theory. This wasn't an unfair decision, but it slightly missed the point. ID is a scientific belief - but it's an older scientific belief. If we insist on forcing our notions of science on everyone - if we insist that everyone must share one version of science - we have become as dogmatic in science as you are accusing religion of being! Isn't dogma the very complaint you want to oppose? You can't then say "this dogma (Biblical Christianity) is wrong, but this dogma (some version of science) is true" without being hoist by your own petard!

You begin by enthusing about the wonders of technology. Without wanting to fight you on this claim (which I am willing to do on a future occasion!) all this technology comes from essentially two scientific theories from the early 20th century - Einstein's relativity (special and general) and quantum mechanics. Evolutionary theories have produced precisely zero of the technologies of which you are so proud! I therefore suggest that you shouldn't pretend that belief in evolutionary theories is fundamental to our technological world - this is an illusion created by believing that we must believe in all the modern scientific theories, or none of them.

In Tennessee, where I lived for a while, there was no shortage of technology companies making high tech breakthroughs, and many of the employees of these companies would not oppose including ID in the science curriculum (although I suspect few of them would feel it was worth campaigning for it). Even the most dogmatic Christians do not deny most of the modern scientific belief system - they just get defensive when anti-religious dogmatists try to argue that "science disproves God". I personally feel that these kind of stories dishonour the scientific endeavour, but that perhaps is another story...

For a wholly different perspective on this, I recommend you read my piece on teleological games. While slightly tangential, I think you'll find it intriguing.

You begin your rant by (mis)quoting Sir Isaac Newton, who said "If I have seen further, it has been by standing on the shoulders of giants." Sir Isaac also wrote of the universe: "This most beautiful system could only proceed from the dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being." ID *used to be* the dominant scientific belief concerning life on Earth. That most scientists have moved to a different model does not make the older model unscientific, only out of date and unpopular within the scientific establishment.

I hope I have given you a few new ways to think about this issue. Mull what I am saying... the topic is not as clean cut as it might first appear.

Thank you for inviting me to discuss this with you, and I shall be happy to discuss it further, but I recommend you read a little more of the philosophy of science and/or metaphysics posts here at Only a Game before pushing this debate further.

Finally, to return this issue to the election, during an early Republican debate, the topic of evolution came up, and the moderator (in a brilliantly scripted moment) asked "who here believes in evolution?" McCain (who clearly had volunteered to dive on this grenade in advance) said something akin to the following. "From a personal standpoint, I believe in evolution. But when I hike down the Grand Canyon and watch the sun rise, I see the hand of God." McCain has no beef with natural selection - like roughly half of the Christians in the US, he believes that evolution was the mechanism God used to make life on Earth. Yes, he supports ID - but not to oppose teaching of evolution. He supports ID because his constituents support it. Isn't that what we would want our politicians to do - to reflect the views of the electorate?

Thanks for taking an interest!

Speaking as an atheisticy person... And as a geek(y person)... ID could be simply seen as a revision process by a being of creation.

You know, start with an early alpha, invite some friends ("Hi, Adam, make yourself a person!"), then start refining...

Hmm, this primate thing is a bit naff, let's make it stand up - then maybe we can make it use those front paws for making Game Boys...

It doesn't sound too ridiculous put into a context understandable today. It would help enormously if we could find the version number somewhere....

Not everything once believed by scientists now qualifies as science, or even qualified as science at the time. For instance, Gregor Mendel believed in transubstantiation, a belief that may be true or false, but cannot be scientific. We cannot determine what is (was) science by examining what scientists have written. ID is not science because it does not proceed from a methodological naturalism; the belief in intelligent design cannot be coherent absent the context of a non-natural being. ID has other flaws as well, but this is the one relevant here. Science can, of course, provide you a greater window into the mysteries of the universe and thus inspire your faith, but that does not mean that the faith or the inspiration of it.

For an interesting view of the relationship between ID, evolution, creationism, and religion, I strongly recommend you examine Steve Matheson's blog Quintessence of Dust at http://sfmatheson.blogspot.com .

"are science or scientific." is how I should have ended that first paragraph. Argh.

Sparky: thanks for getting involved here, but like Daniel you really need to brush up on Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This book has been in print now for almost 50 years, it is not substantially in dispute, and is the most basic starting point for philosophy of science. (A link to my precis of this work can be found above).

Some people think the idea of ID is a travesty - I think it's a travesty that our international science curriculum doesn't include Kuhn! :)

Right at the beginning of the book, Kuhn summarises his key observation from analysing the history of science as follows:

If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sort of methods and held for the same sorts of reason that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today. Given the alternatives, the historian must choose the latter. Out-of-date theories are not in principle unscientific because they have been discarded. That choice, however, makes it difficult to see scientific development as a process of accretion.

You say "ID is not science because it does not proceed from a methodological naturalism", and in doing so you attempt to erect a boundary condition. Paul Feyerabend argued, quite convincingly, that one cannot erect a permanent boundary condition for science. As such, these boundaries are always going to be subject to change as our knowledge and methods change.

So following Kuhn ("Out-of-date theories are not in principle unscientific because they have been discarded"), and with a nod to Feyerabend, intelligent design can be seen as a modern spin on an out-of-date theory - one held, for instance, by Sir Isaac Newton. Now I don't think this is a smart thing to be teaching in science classes for reasons I will explain in just a moment (although I do believe we should teach basic philosophy of science in science classes!), but you can't say with any authority that ID is "unscientific" since it was part of scientific thinking in the past, when the predominant thinking about the boundaries of science were different. What we're dealing with can thus be seen as people who have *older* scientific beliefs - that doesn't necessarily make their beliefs unscientific except in a very revisionist way of thinking.

And either way, the Universal Declaration of Human rights quite sensibly gives *parents* the rights to decide upon their children's education. For this reason, I question the argument for excluding ID from schools in the US - but since judges are given the authority to decide upon these issues, their word is law (quite literally!) irrespective of what I say. :)

(Incidentally, I'm not subscribed to Quintessence of Dust - I have too many blogs in my reader as it stands - but I have read a few things there from time to time and enjoy Stephen's perspective very much).

Finally, returning to the issue of the imminent election, I want to say that whether you are a Christian in favour of ID being taught in schools, or someone in the opposite camp, if you believe that ID is the most important issue in the 2008 election then I think you something of a mooncalf! :)

You are free to choose the issues of importance to you, of course, but seriously: if you are Christian, (re)read the Gospel of Matthew and tell me honestly that you think *this* is what Jesus wants you to be doing in the world, and if you are against ID "because it isn't science" you need to read the aforementioned The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and consider more carefully the nature of the scientific endeavour.

Thanks for getting involved, and especially since this was you "outing" yourself from lurker status! :)

Nice to "meet" you! *waves*

Hi Chris, Happy to be here.

I think you somewhat missed my point. We can go on about Kuhn all day, and it's true it's been well over a decade since I read him, but I'm not sure he matters here. To say that Newton's belief that the universe implies God is a *scientific* belief, you have to prove that it really does fit in some scientific program. It's not just a question of whether Newton thought it was scientific, it's a question of whether he was right about that. Whether we're fitting him into a modern paradigm or an older one, we still have to ask whether this really was a part of the science (as opposed to loosely associated theological implications therefrom), and if so, whether that science was a coherent belief system.

Even if Kuhn is correct, I would say the correct standard to apply is the modern one, because ID claims to be scientific by current standards, not by those of the 17th century. Newton's beliefs about a clockwork universe produced by a watchmaker God do not support ID's claims to be scientific in the modern sense.

Nor would this view of God be theologically acceptable to many of ID's proponents. Newton's reasons for holding his belief emerge from assumptions about science and theology that most American ID proponents would reject wholesale. Newton and ID may agree that the universe proves the existence of God, but in most cases their justifications for this are mutually exclusive. To assert that ID recapitulates the older view simply because both reach the same answer seems to me to be overly simplistic.

I haven't read Feyerabend, but I don't agree that it is impossible to set *any* boundary condition for science, although many specified conditions have been bad. Naturalism in method would seem to be robust; we've always kept notebooks. Does Feyerabend refute this specifically?

I agree that there are much better bases for decision than like or dislike of ID in this election, but the candidate's attitude towards science is important. The current administration sees scientific knowledge as an enemy to be ignored, spun, or suppressed; that cannot be allowed to continue. However, a candidate who proposes open-ended or poorly-structured research initiatives is not a great improvement. The result of the well-intentioned NIH budget doubling, for instance, has been the creation of enormous structural problems in the job market and funding system for the biological sciences, not to mention budget cuts at other research agencies. A retuning of the NIH system, and better planning for future initiatives, are in order. Neither of the candidates has been particularly good on this point.

One campaign, however, has acquired a consistent habit of distorting descriptions of successful and arguably helpful science programs so that they can score cheap political points. That behavior has an effect on my decision, and probably not the effect that campaign desired.

Sparky: thanks for continuing our discussions!

"It's not just a question of whether Newton thought it was scientific, it's a question of whether he was right about that."

This assumes that there is an objective criterion for science, which is precisely what I am arguing against here. There are no entirely objective standards. Scientific beliefs cannot simply be audited post-hoc by new standards and rendered "scientific" or "unscientific" - or rather, you can do this but all it tells you is how the popular paradigm of science has changed. It doesn't tell you anything about the science at the time, which was subject to its own standards and beliefs.

Who can say what aspects of 20th century scientific beliefs will be called unscientific in the 23rd century? In the absence of a reliable appeal to authority in this regard, we must allow people to choose their own beliefs about science. It seems that the only way to shut this particular barn door is to become an epistemological fascist of the kind I lampooned in the Science Pope"! :)

ID effectively says "despite the success of evolutionary explanations, many people still believe that teleological explanations for life are valid." Now the teleological argument for God has been pretty much discredited since Kant, but philosophical discredit doesn't eliminate the range of beliefs people can choose from.

I defend people's right to support ID simply because it is what they have chosen to believe. If we want to change that we need to work on influencing those beliefs through discussion - not by denying educational rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I favour the discussion, personally - but it's very difficult to achieve progress in this regard while there are people making bizarre claims like "science disproves God" - the philosophical ignorance of many scientists, even prominent scientists, is easily on par with the equivalent ignorance from the ID camp, but considerably more embarrassing since these people supposedly lay claim to being an intellectual elite! Shame on them.

"I haven't read Feyerabend, but I don't agree that it is impossible to set *any* boundary condition for science"

Feyerabend doesn't say you can't set a boundary condition, he says there are no *permanent* boundary conditions. So of course, we can set up boundaries - but we can't say what will happen to these claims in the future.

Besides, appealing to "naturalism" is no help here - how does one define what is natural? The naturalistic philosophical belief basically says that everything labelled supernatural is either false, or lacks a current theory. This does not provide a valid boundary condition of any kind! It leaves it up to the individual to guess which of these cases applies, thus rendering the boundary process entirely subjective.

May I direct you to my post concerning psi research as a case in point here? I believe these experiments falsify the oft made claim to objectivity in science, but I'd be interested in your perspective on this topic.

As for the relationship between science funding and the election, the vast majority of money paid to researchers in the US appears to come from the military. Everything else is a mere sneeze. That, for me, gives me pause for thought.

Do you work in the sciences, incidentally? You write as if you do, but one can never be sure in these sort of situations if you are just expressing a healthy interest in science! :)

Best wishes!

Scientific research seems to always depend on the assumption that the universe behaves as if it is governed by universal laws. I identify this as the naturalistic assumption. While the underlying explanations for *why* the laws are what they are have ranged from the dry to the mystical, scientists of all stripes, back to the alchemists, have been committed to the naturalistic assumption. We have moved from braziers to bunsen burners, shifted from prisms to diffraction gratings, gone from ballistics to supercolliders, but we have *always* kept notebooks. The act of recording data commits us to the proposition that those records have meaning in the form of universal propositions dictating the behavior of physical objects.

I grant that this assumption would not necessarily exclude, say, astrology, or many kinds of paranormal research. The assumption is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for identifying something as science. This is also why science cannot disprove the existence of "supernatural" phenomena; it is a requisite feature of scientific research that they are assumed not to exist, or to be poorly-understood natural phenomena for which the laws have not yet been identified. The behavior of researchers attempting to "scientifically" prove the existence of ghosts, ESP, etc. substantiates this assertion, as they treat these phenomena as the latter. Similarly, science cannot prove that the universe actually is governed by natural laws -- this is assumed implicitly by the process. Science can only identify what those laws would be if it were. So, in my view, Newton's statement about God is unscientific because it attempts to *justify* the assumption, rather than *following* from it.

I think you have completely misrepresented the popular argument for ID. While it is true that some ID proponents believe in well-proven concepts like common descent and evolution and merely rely on ID to explain abiogenesis, this is not the case for the main body of the movement. They would argue that evolution has *failed* to explain anything, that the naturalistic assumption is false, due to pervasive or occasional exceptions, and so life must have been designed by a supernatural creator. Few of them would concede that evolution has any successes to speak of at all. For Newton, the existence of natural laws could only be the result of the workings of an omnipotent God. For the typical ID proponent, natural laws do *not* explain the universe and therefore God must have interfered. Although the conclusion is somewhat the same, the reasoning used and the meaning of "God" are completely incompatible between the two.

I read the psi research post, and I'm afraid I missed your point. Perhaps I am misreading your argument, but you seem to be saying that scientists should simply disregard the significant volume of evidence disproving the existence of ESP on the basis of a single kind of experiment. That would be ridiculous; the results of the Ganzfeld experiment, valid or not, don't make all that other data go away. New evidence must always be interpreted in light of existing evidence. Are you arguing that the interpretation or weighing of data itself renders science subjective? In which case, what would you perceive to be an objective discipline, if any?

Also, I am curious, given your definition of science, whether you believe that making a peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich on whole wheat toast is science. And if not, why not? Just to clarify, I am an active scientist, primarily researching the structural dynamics of energy (information) transfer in proteins. If you look me up in pubmed you can read one of my articles for free (Clarkson, Gilmore, Edgell & Lee 2006) to see the sort of research I do. The sandwich was my lunch.

As for funding, I long ago gave up on hearing any serious candidate for national office promise to reduce our enormous and pointless defense outlay. Last night's result is an encouraging step forward, in my view, but realistically we are a long way from enacting sane policies with respect to climate change, our military, and our economy. Conceivably, Obama just won the hardest task for a President since FDR.

Sparky: thanks for coming back and continuing our discussion! Part of your comment here actually refers to another post - if possible, I would appreciate it if you tried to keep comments on the posts they refer to, although I accept that this can be inconvenient! :)

"Scientific research seems to always depend on the assumption that the universe behaves as if it is governed by universal laws. I identify this as the naturalistic assumption."

Oh, okay. This wasn't clear from your choice of words. "Naturalism" is a manifestly overburdened word. I encourage you to use other terms if you have any. This one is radically devalued by conflation of competing meanings!

"So, in my view, Newton's statement about God is unscientific because it attempts to *justify* the assumption, rather than *following* from it."

Did you read my piece on teleological games? (Link above) Many people who call themselves scientists do precisely the same thing when they create explanations for biological features on some story dependent on a teleological explanation drawing from Darwinian or neo-Darwinian principles. This "sin" is far from constrained to Christians in science, I'm afraid!

Besides, I don't share your view on science here... I think there is more to scientific beliefs than derived universal principles. I'd invoke Kuhn again, but that would be boring! How about instead I point out that the universality of these laws is an assumed prior belief and not a testable one... try telling astrophysicists (I used to be one, incidentally) that the speed of light might not always have been a constant - prepare for horror! :o Yet this scenario cannot be eliminated, except by a "leap of faith".

"I think you have completely misrepresented the popular argument for ID."

Fair enough. Perhaps you should accept my position thusly: I don't care what it is that these people belief in respect of science, they could believe that a magic polar bear is the source of dark energy for all it matters to me. As far as I'm concerned, parents have the right to decide what their children are taught, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nothing trumps this for me, and I'm never going to put my notion of truth ahead of a parent's right to raise their own children. Will you?

Besides, regardless of the agenda of the people pushing ID, which I don't doubt is dodgy in places, their actual proposal is so inoffensive to me that I just can't find any sense in opposing it so vehemently. Doing so just makes science seem as/more dogmatic than institutional religion! Who gains from this?

If schools try to teach scientific dogma, parents will instil a greater distrust of science into their children. Is it perhaps not better to compromise, reduce their cognitive dissonance, and thus open a dialogue on these issues?

"Also, I am curious, given your definition of science, whether you believe that making a peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich on whole wheat toast is science. And if not, why not?"

I'm curious - what's my definition of science? I wasn't aware I had one of these, but I guess one might have accidentally leaked out somewhere. :) In so much as 'science' has any meaning for me now, it describes the epistemological explorations of people who look at the world from a particular (set of) perspective(s)... *Making* the sandwich wouldn't necessarily be science by itself, but if you quantify the results, it certainly could be. :) And either way, scientific beliefs could go into the sandwich-making... you might decide on the amount of peanut butter based on nutritional beliefs, for instance.

Now you must excuse me - I'm about to go on my blogging hiatus for a month, so if you reply and I say nothing it's because I'm away from my desk. I will return to any comment that has been left to me when I return, but usually these conversations don't survive such a break. Perhaps we should resume our discussions in another post in the future, since I'm certain I will write about other topics which enrage/engage you! :)

Let me leave you with one more of my older posts that is apposite to our discussions. This one asks the question, do we follow Popper's suggestion for a boundary condition for science, or accept Feyerabend's claim that these conditions are essentially unfounded? The post is here. Since writing it, I have slid slightly more towards Feyerabend's position, I think. ;)

Best wishes - and Happy New President!

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