14 March 2007

In Which I Pick Up The Gauntlet

thrown down by Duck in this post. I've decided to blog my response here rather than in his comments, because I've been meaning to blog about this for a while. I've already written about the theory of Inevitable Progress and how invidious it is. Nevertheless, we can see a clear trend of technology and material wealth increasing over time. So much of the human experience has changed and improved that we are tempted to assume that humanity itself has changed fundamentally. As in all things, some of us always succumb to temptation.

And yet it is perfectly clear that we are no smarter now than humans have been throughout recorded history. Certainly we know more. We've had more time to make discoveries. We have more human experience to draw on. But given the same information, the same technology and the same upbringing, there's no basis to say that contemporary humans would do any better than humans from a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago.

This is a point that Ms Grabar hints at and which I think it is fair to say that atheists are more likely to ignore than the religious, who live more closely with the past. It is also a point that is fundamental to conservatism: that human nature has no history. When it comes to a subject that is entirely cerebral, theology for example, the present has nothing new to say to the past. All these arguments trotted out to put faith in its place may be tricked out with computerized bells and telescopic whistles, but when reduced to their essence, these questions have been around for millenia.

Hot rods and cute blonds, for example, may be new (or maybe not so new) but the ancients had a lot to say about middle-aged ennui

61 comments:

Duck said...

the religious, who live more closely with the past

Except when they don't:

" Free-market economics is a “truth” Ted says he learned in his first job in professional Christendom, as a Bible smuggler in Eastern Europe. Globalization, he believes, is merely a vehicle for the spread of Christianity. He means Protestantism in particular; Catholics, he said, “constantly look back.” He went on: “And the nations dominated by Catholicism look back. They don't tend to create our greatest entrepreneurs, inventors, research and development. Typically, Catholic nations aren't shooting people into space. Protestantism, though, always looks to the future. A typical kid raised in Protestantism dreams about the future. A typical kid raised in Catholicism values and relishes the past, the saints, the history. That is one of the changes that is happening in America. In America the descendants of the Protestants, the Puritan descendants, we want to create a better future, and our speakers say that sort of thing. But with the influx of people from Mexico, they don't tend to be the ones that go to universities and become our research-and-development people. And so in that way I see a little clash of civilizations.”

These simplistic arguments against athiests usually seem to follow a set structure: religious people act good/think of the past/support democracy/positive trait of choice because they believe in god. Atheists don't believe in god. Ergo athiests can't act good/think of the past/support democracy/do anything good.

You seem to think that since you are able to support positive valuesby reference to your theistic philosophy that it means your theistic philosophy is the only possible way to support those values. You can see the fallacious nature of the argument more clearly in syllogism form:

Religious people think of the past.
Athiests aren't religious people.
Therefore, atheists don't think of the past.

Harry Eagar said...

I think a lot about the past, but I got the Cosmic Atheists Union to give me an exemption.

Sheesh. This argument is so weird it's hard to know where to begin. How about: At some point, knowing more generates a qualitative change in human nature.

Like, f'rinstance, knowing that demons don't cause disease. Yes, I understand the religious people still believe this and that they therefore refuse to get vaccinated, and, when they can, they prevent other people from getting vaccinated.

I guarantee you, the behavior -- which is what human nature is -- of vaccinated people is profoundly different from the behavior of unvaccinated people.

David said...

Harry: As opposed to the atheists who don't get vaccinated because the vaccines cause autism? If you think that, for the average person, there's a qualitative difference between "demons" and "germs", you're just kidding yourself.

Just because some "religious" people act in a certain way does not make that way of acting religious anymore than atheists are xenophobic madmen just because Hitler was an atheist.

Duck: That has nothing to do with anything I wrote. I didn't say that religious people were stuck in the past, I didn't say that atheists weren't, I didn't say that being stuck in the past was good and I've never said that atheists can't be good people. I have said that whether atheists are good people is determined by how closely they keep to Judeo-Christian values, but I didn't even say that here. I have no idea what you're reacting to, but it's not what I wrote.

What I am saying is something that Ms. Grabar hints at. Atheists, because they tend to be ignorant about religion and think that science and the Enlightenment have worked, as Harry says, a qualitative difference in human nature, don't realize that these amazing logical arguments that they expect to disembowel religion have been around for thousands of years.

Dawkins is not going to think of anything to say about Christianity that hasn't been said before.

I did not say, however, nor do I think, that belief in Inevitable Progress, or even belief in a new, modern human nature, is true of all atheists or only true of atheists. I do think that it is an error that atheists are more likely to make because religion, properly understood, teaches that man is fallible and his works are fallible. That's why, or at least one reason why, there is a greater overlap between "religious" and "conservative" than between "religious" and "leftist." Leftists believe in the perfectability of human society and human reason and that human nature is malleable. Conservatives don't.

Harry Eagar said...

If they don't believe human nature is malleable, why do they spend so much effort trying to overcome it?

Also, I don't know of any link between atheism and believing that vaccination causes autism. I don't know the religious beliefs of anybody in the vaccine/autism camp except my cousins, Irish Catholics from the Sout' Side of Chicaga.

Ali said...

IQs are generally higher and the populace better-educated in the developed world than at any previous point in human history.

Brit said...

If some time travel device enabled you to swap a medieval baby with a modern baby, they would no doubt grow up with the attitudes of their environment, but surely their attitudes would be different from each other - because while of course many universals remain, humanity as a whole has changed in so many ways,

We can still find Chaucer funny, but Chaucer wouldn't get Chris Rock.

Peter Burnet said...

If you think that, for the average person, there's a qualitative difference between "demons" and "germs", you're just kidding yourself.

Or, for the superior person, between demons and genes.

M. Ali

IQs are generally higher...

Done those comparisons with 8th century IQ stats, have you? How do you think we would fare in an IQ test measuring skills prized in the 8th century, such as reciting incredibly long, detailed ballads and histories from memory or describing the seasons accurately over twenty years?

You dunnoists-tending-to-atheism are a real thin-skinned lot. Duck, are you going to trot out Haggard every time, just like Harry does the Assembly of God? American televangelism does not define Christianity no matter what political problems you think it causes. David's point is that modern atheists/secularists have so locked themselves into a past-bad/present-better/future-best mentality that you see only demons and ignorance and straw men behind you. Your religious/cultural traditions seem to be something you glory in escaping from rather than respecting or even recognizing as formative. You, not George Bush, are the modern Manicheists and it leads you guys to distort history wildly.

Just as an example, I've been reading Wilson on the Victorians yesterday (I love doing Harry imitations)and he points out that the 19th century British Christian species-creationist thinking Darwin challenged only became popular and widespread in the Renaissance. St Augustine is on record as believing life evolved from simpler forms and Acquinas probably did too. Also, it appears, Maimonedes and the other Jewish sages. Despite this much-repeated observation, from Dawkins to Duckians we still face secularists insisting the world just got around to questioning young-earth creationisn with 19th century science, getting extremely upset when we say we don't believe in it either and giving us firm lectures on not adhering literally to the scriptures you see as so dangerous the way you like to interpret them? It's like Harry not only trolling history for every bad thing a priest ever did, but completely denying any of them ever did (or do) anything good. Very weird.

As to Graber, this is a very American argument. Nobody else knows or gives a whit as to what their constitutional founders believed. If by democracy we just mean the vote and suffrage, I don't see her argument, but if the word implies limits on the role of the state in deference to community, family and the individual, she has a point worth debating, as 20th century judicial activism should make plain to you.

We can still find Chaucer funny, but Chaucer wouldn't get Chris Rock.

And THAT is evidence of progress and improvement? We can enjoy Shakespeare, but they wouldn't get Britney? C'mon, Brit.

Hey Skipper said...

David:

Clearly you have never read Nonzero: The logic of Human Destiny.

Perhaps it would be a good candidate for a future Read in Unison.

You are right that human nature is, for all intents, fixed. But where you go astray is here: But given the same information, the same technology and the same upbringing, there's no basis to say that contemporary humans would do any better than humans from a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago.

Of course there is no basis to say that. But just as obviously humans of one hundred, or a thousand, years ago did not have the same information.

Which means you have, by implication, asserted that in addition to human nature being unchangeable, humans cannot learn.

That is where Ms. Graber falls flat on her face. Unfortunately, by asserting that religionists live more closely with the past, you are at risk of following her.

Religious belief is, last time I checked, not a pre-requisite for reading, and learning from, history. Whether that of communism, or the apparently unchangeable human viciousness that attends universalist monotheism.

As far as theology itself, being entirely cerebral, it has nothing at all to say, except for the bits that touch on conduct in the material world.

In which case, the results do the talking.

The real question Ms. Graber needs to be dealing with is why monotheism is focussed on faith instead of works, and why universalist claims are particularly revealed.

They both say very much about human nature. None of it good, and none of it religionists seem capable of learning from.

Brit said...

Peter:

I prefer the word 'change' to 'improvement'. But we get both Chaucer's amusing observations on the farcical side of human affairs, and the far more intricate and subtle interactions of a post-feminist, multicultural world.

Chaucer couldn't begin to fathom the cultural depths that lie behind ironic uses of the n-word.

Peter Burnet said...

Chaucer couldn't begin to fathom the cultural depths that lie behind ironic uses of the n-word.

Possibly because there are none. But if your argument is that man has evolved an inability to distinguish art from trash along with the capacity to enjoy both equally, I agree with you.

Brit said...

Chaucer is as trashy as trashy gets.

Peter Burnet said...

Thus the modern aesthete reveals himself as the repressed prude he is. He thinks there are infinite cultural depths to the "n" word and only reads Chaucer for the dirty bits.

Ali Choudhury said...

"How do you think we would fare in an IQ test measuring skills prized in the 8th century, such as reciting incredibly long, detailed ballads and histories from memory or describing the seasons accurately over twenty years?"

Rote memorisation is not much of a skill. Still the Japanese are still quite good at it and I know any number of ten year-olds who've memorised the Quran.

Duck said...

Duck, are you going to trot out Haggard every time, just like Harry does the Assembly of God? American televangelism does not define Christianity no matter what political problems you think it causes.

No, I just trot him out when he supports a point I'm making. The point I'm making here is that you can't make blanket statements about religious people, that they all "look to the past". So I agree with you, Haggard doesn't define Christianity. Which means that you can't make warm, fuzzy generalizations about the wonderful qualities of Christians, because, as Skipper would put it, the generality is broken before it comes out of the shipping container.

By the way, I actually think that this quote from Haggard puts Christianity, or at least Protestant Christianity, in a positive light. You don't like it because it says bad things about Catholics, but having been a Catholic I can appreciate the truth of what he is saying. If looking to the past equates to Quebec style ultramontante Catholicism, then light the fuse on my rocket to the future, because I'll have none of it.

Peter Burnet said...

Gee Duck, if you get off on Haggard, you'd love this guy.

You lapsed Catholics travel to the strangest places.

David said...

I'm fascinated by the extent to which the comments have almost nothing to do with what I wrote. To paraphrase Freud, where he misreads, a problem lays hidden.

Hey Skipper said...

David:

I constrained my comment to exactly what you wrote.

Duck said...

Peter,
Who is that guy?

I don't "get off" on Haggard, I'm not gay. But Haggard is expressing the typical American attitude on progress. Which makes Grabar's position rather strange, as it is American Protstantism that makes America the most forward thinking society on the planet. Moreso than the secular Brits, who never sleep and never dream. You see, they're a reasonable people.

joe shropshire said...

How about: At some point, knowing more generates a qualitative change in human nature.

Well, I suppose that human nature is the sum of necessary responses to the human condition. So if my own nature is really profoundly different from, say, a farm laborer's who lived and died 800 years ago then my condition must also be. So comparing our conditions in my mind's eye, I see that he was not vaccinated, or washed; that he ate poorly, worked like an animal, and feared the demons that bring disease. At his end he would have been flat on his back on a dirt floor, turning pale and then turning blue; he would have worked as hard as he possibly could to breathe one more time, and then would have been unable to work hard enough. Now I am vaccinated, warm, dry, clean, and well-fed; I sit on my backside and type for a living; I know that germs bring disease. And at my end, I shall be flat on my back in a clean, curtained-off area...

No, there really has not been a qualitative change. Death beat him like a mule, reminded him forcefully, every moment of an ill-fed, ailing, heavily-worked existence. It beats me a lot lighter, no more than a tap on the shoulder, really, and it costs very little to ignore. (That is the real change, that it costs me so much less to forget that I am dead, just the same way a loaf of bread costs me my a few minutes' labor instead him his half a day's.) Now I am glad, and grateful, for that great quantitative change. But I am as dead now that I exist, as was he when he existed; when I die, I cease ever to have existed at all -- I was never here in the first place -- just as he was never here. It really is an overwhelming power that death holds, and there really is no incremental improvement, no sort of gadgetry, that can change that. Although I can sort of understand the temptation to preach a gospel of increments, based on the great ease with which we now forget how completely death beats us. David is right: it is fascinating how you guys can have a intense conversation about religion, and simply flow around the great central fact of religion as if it were not there.

joe shropshire said...

By the way, if we have settled on Appleyard as the next Read In Unison book I would really, strongly suggest Varieties of Religious Experience to follow; or at the very least Chapters 4 and 5. I think William James would have been keenly interested in the phenomenon Harry represents -- a fire-and-brimstone preacher of the Church of Healthy-Mindedness.

Duck said...

Joe,
We can talk about death, it's just not the topic du jour.

David,
I'll get to a longer and more thoughtful reply tonight.

David said...

Skipper: Then why do you argue as if I said the exact opposite of what I actually said?

joe shropshire said...

Duck: that is the most stunning piece of denial I have ever read.

Duck said...

What am I denying?

joe shropshire said...

Lie down on your back and think about it.

Duck said...

Do you have a point to make?

Harry Eagar said...

'Just as an example, I've been reading Wilson on the Victorians yesterday (I love doing Harry imitations)and he points out that the 19th century British Christian species-creationist thinking Darwin challenged only became popular and widespread in the Renaissance. St Augustine is on record as believing life evolved from simpler forms and Acquinas probably did too. Also, it appears, Maimonedes and the other Jewish sages.'

Which Wilson? Edmund? E.O.? Harold? Brian? Nancy?

Augustine can hardly be accused of having any coherent thoughts about biology -- he thought it was managed by demons -- but if we are talking about the 'scala natura,' then it did not allow for development of kinds, although it did allow for hybrids and expected to find unknown kinds that would fill in every gap between any two similar kinds.

It is not historical to claim that young-earthism only arrived with Renaissance rationalism (which, in any case, is a different animal from scientific rationalism). The interpretation that the world would last about 6,000 years was early, which is why there was much calculating before 1000 AD just when the start date had been. As Martin Gardner relates, working back from Milleriteism, through the centuries, most theologians figured that the 6000th year was about 200 years in the future and kept rolling the end further out.

It is true that once observation made a hash of the scala natura, the Christian theologians began to emphasize the argument from design. That is what the pre-Darwinist critics attacked.

But if you are going to argue that some Christians used to believe in a billions-of-years-old earth, I want to see references.

Peter Burnet said...

Harry:

A.N. Wilson.

You want to see references. You who, if memory serves, have never provided one link or responded to one request for a reference to your many religious-bashing assertions. It's been three years now and I'm still waiting for a link proving the existence of those papal galley slaves you were frothing about.

Anyway, you can start here, especially:

If Augustine were alive today, he would probably agree. He adopted his non-chronological interpretation of the six days of creation after several unsatisfactory attempts to produce a consistent chronological reading. He was especially troubled by the problem of light created on the first day, when the sun, moon, and stars are placed on the fourth day.41 So he settled for intellectual light and days of intellectual illumination. 42 But he was not utterly attached to this view, as he himself tells us: "Whoever seeks another meaning in the numbering of those days, not figuratively in prophecy, but properly in the actual creation of things, let him seek and with the help of God let him find one. 1 myself may possibly discover some other meaning more in harmony with the words of Scripture. For I do not maintain this interpretation in such a way that I contend that another more preferable one cannot be found, in the way that I maintain that Sacred Scripture did not want to suggest to us that God rested, as it were, after feeling tired or worn out." 43 Thus, he did not firmly oppose the idea that God intervened repeatedly during six chronological days of creation. He also left the matter open in another way. He asks how God made these "causal reasons" in the first place. Did He also provide that "through these reasons creatures would be fully formed instantaneously, as Adam is believed to have been made an adult man without any previous period of development [to the mature individual]?" Augustine goes on to say: 'We must conclude, then, that these reasons were created to exercise their causality in either one way or the other: by providing for the ordinary development of new creatures in appropriate periods of time, or providing for the rare occurrence of a miraculous production of a creature, in accordance with what God wills as proper for the occasion."

Hey Skipper said...

David:

Skipper: Then why do you argue as if I said the exact opposite of what I actually said?

Pick one or all of the following:

a) Your implicit assumptions are either wrong or meaningless

b) You make historically incorrect assertions

c) You are mistaken

I'll start with the first. You stated, in agreement with Ms. Graber, and without substantiation, that the religious live more closely with the past. Where that statement has some meaning, that is, the religious are more immersed in history, it is meaningless: there is no religious barrier to learning, or deriving meaningful lessons from, history.

Unfortunately, your statement verges on inimical hostility to any meaning whatsoever. Parts of what consitutes "the past" are sectarian fantasy. For example, to all but the Jews, G-d is not a real estate agent. To state one lives more closely with a past that never existed reiterates the notion that an unexamined idea isn't worth having.

Further, you have rendered humans automatons defined solely, and unchangingly, by human nature. I will never deny human nature is fundamental, but it isn't the whole ball of wax. You ignore that, in addition to material wealth, societies partaking of the rule of law, private property, and the opportunity to regularly change the government are, to all but the blinkered, a vast moral improvement over tribal or sectarian societies.

Yes, human nature is the same. But the knowledge that, say, slavery, no matter how divinely justified, is both morally reprehensible and a material failure leads to markedly different outcomes, even in the face of unchanged human nature.

Which leads directly to your assertion about theology. If it is entirely cerebral, where the present has nothing new to say to the past, then it is an exercise whose sole focus must be completely divorced from the material world. However, it is not. As the example of slavery demonstrates, divine imprimatur, surely the province of theology, had to face over time a series of "presents" which collecitvely had a great deal to say to theology: it was dead wrong.

So the questions, when reduced to their essence, have been around for millenia. Yet you ignore answers that material experience has forced upon theology. Sure, humans of any vintage would do just as well today as contemporary humans. In order to do so, however, they would have to shuck reams of divine revelations as odes to the loathsome aspects of human nature that religionists pride themselves on knowing so well, but ignoring so thoroughly when the alternative is facing the implications of particular revelation.

Consequently, since I am merely addressing your argument in rather more detail here than in my post above, and going, as before, to the text in your post, I may be arguing something completely opposite to what you meant, but not what you said.

I doubt there is any lesson you could draw from religion that would contradict any lesson I could draw from material existence. That renders your argument empty.

As for Ms. Grabar, she has written a three ring a circus of logical fallacies, ahistorical nonsense, and ad hominem attack.

Peter Burnet said...

Duck:

I really can't imagine how Joe could possibly make his point any clearer than that. I think he is amused by people arguing over religion for years and never getting past the "How did we get here?" stage.

Quite the show-stopper that, Joe. But I guess if we are talking about death, show-stoppers have their place.

Say, you haven't by any chance seen Karl Malden's sermon in Pollyanna, have you?

Brit said...

Yes we all get it, Joe. If you're having an unpleasantly prolonged attack of the Death Nausea, I sympathise. Really.

Your posts are getting interesting but then you spoil it all by angrily asserting that everybody else is stupider than you. Which may even be true (there's not enough evidence to judge one way or the other) but good manners don't cost nothin'.

Duck said...

So how does the fact that people die determine the argument as to whether religious people live closer to the past than atheists? As I told you before Peter, if you don't want me to guess at the subtext, then provide more text.

That goes for you too Joe. You may think you have a profound statement to make, but if you talk in riddles then noone will know. So again, what am I denying?

Peter Burnet said...

Skipper;

What you don't know about the abolitionist movement in Britain, America and the British Navy is a lot. You seem to think slavery was defeated by Tom Paine types writing pamphlets on the French Revolution and equality of man. Those made for great dinners in clubs for radical freethinkers, but they didn't free any slaves, or anyone else.

Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

You seem to think slavery was defeated by Tom Paine types writing pamphlets on the French Revolution and equality of man.

Before accusing me of ignorance about the abolitionist movement re-read my post, with the goal of not adding anything that isn't there.

I said absolutely nothing about who was responsible for defeating slavery (I am completely willing to acknowledge the role of religionists), only that, over time, a series of "presents" said something very clear to theology, both morally and materially.

Thereby contradicting David, regardless of the abolitionists religious beliefs.

Hey Skipper said...

Joe:

David is right: it is fascinating how you guys can have a intense conversation about religion, and simply flow around the great central fact of religion as if it were not there.

Up to that point, your post was nearly lyrical.

I am completely aware of religion's omnipresence, and am completely unexercised by it.

What is exercising, though, are its baseless impositions.

Christianity, not so much.

Islam, very much. It has passed a death sentence upon me. Hard to treat that as if it wasn't there.

Just as hard as it is to see why Ms. Grabar could gloss over that.

Well, on second thought, not so hard, given the quality of her article.

David said...

Skipper: Do you agree with Wright that evolution is teleological?

Also, I have to say that "[Y]ou have rendered humans automatons defined solely, and unchangingly, by human nature" is one of the great English sentences. There are probably languages in which you can't even think that.

You say that I imply that humans can't learn. I explicitly said the opposite.

You say that I said that atheists can't study history or learn from it. I said no such thing.

You say obviously humans of one hundred, or a thousand, years ago did not have the same information as if that wasn't a point that I made explicitly.

You say As far as theology itself, being entirely cerebral, it has nothing at all to say, except for the bits that touch on conduct in the material world which is just nuts. Math, too, is entirely cerebral as is political theory. Both, along with theology, have a lot to say about the material world. Would you trust 60 or 70 contemporaries selected by the state legislatures to get together in Philadelphia and design a form of government better than what we now have?

The you go off on some rant about how religion is evil that also has nothing to do with my point, either pro or con, since my point was not how wonderful religion is.

I do note, however, that you hold me responsible for for anything ever done by anyone who claimed religious justification -- and by some who abjured it just because you consider them religious -- while not taking any responsibility for any evil atheists have perpetrated, which was exactly my point, albeit that I assigned that I assigned this trait to the left, not to atheists.

Again, and I repeat myself only because you repeated yourself, I am not saying that religion is a prerequisite to either studying or learning from the past.

Name a god who is not "a real estate agent," as you put it, although, again, nothing to do with my post.

And your points about theology and slavery just escape me. Yes, chattel slavery is immoral, an argument that was made for as long as chattel slavery existed. Again, we moderns have not had some sudden blinding insight unknown to our ancestors. The Abolitionists were largely Christians who used scripture to further their arguments. (And yes, I know that the slave-owners quoted scripture, too. So does the devil.)

All of the Dunnoists here, plus Harry and minus Brit, are arguing with some stereotype they carry around with them, and not with any point I made.

My point was (and is) simple. We have learned a great deal and we've got a lot of stuff. I'm interested in much of what we know and I love the stuff. I wouldn't go back and live in any other time. But it is simply silly to think that, because it was good in the United States yesterday and better today, the best is yet to come. Progress is not inevitable and lots of what we call progress isn't a step forward. We simply call it progress because it came next.

There's a great, if overlooked, Heinlein short story, "Coventry," which captures this attitude perfectly. The main character, an English professor, chooses exile to Coventry, a placed where the government sends anti-social types, after he punches a critic on the nose. Heinlein describes him packing for exile like this:

His goods filled every compartment of the compact little freighter. He checked the last item from his inventory and ran a satisfied eye down the list. Any explorer or adventurer of the past might well be pleased with such equipment, he thought. He could imagine showing Jack London his knockdown cabin. See, Jack, he would say, it's proof against any kind of weather- perfectly insulated walls and floor- and can't rust. It's so light that you can set it up in five minutes by yourself, yet it's so strong that you can sleep sound with the biggest grizzly in the world snuffling right outside your door. And London would scratch his head, and say, Dave, you're a wonder. If I'd had that in the Yukon, it would have been a cinch!

and like this:

He turned and commenced loading his steel tortoise. Under the romantic influence of the classic literature of a bygone day he had considered using a string of burros, but had been unable to find a zoo that would sell them to him...

The vehicle he had chosen was not an unreasonable substitute for burros. It was extremely rugged, easy to operate, and almost foolproof. It drew its power from six square yards of sunpower screens on its low curved roof. These drove a constant- load motor, or, when halted, replenished the storage battery against cloudy weather, or night travel. The bearings were 'everlasting', and every moving part, other than the caterpillar treads and the controls, were sealed up, secure from inexpert tinkering.

It could maintain a steady six miles per hour on smooth, level pavement. When confronted by hills, or rough terrain, it did not stop, but simply slowed until the task demanded equaled its steady power output.

The steel tortoise gave MacKinnon a feeling of Crusoe-like independence.

Oroborous said...

Huh.

I've never heard anyone bring up Coventry before in real life, nor ever seen it discussed or referrenced on-line, and yet I was just talking with my wife about the meta-messages of Coventry last week, and now here's another mention.

But it is simply silly to think that, because it was good in the United States yesterday and better today, the best is yet to come. Progress is not inevitable...

Yes, it is.

Or at least, human progress hasn't stopped during the past 75,000 years, so it would take a mighty powerful argument to make the case that "the end is near".

Of course, progress in the United States, or even in today's advanced nations generally, isn't guaranteed. But why is it silly to believe that an unbroken trend of betterment in America, a streak 387 years old, won't simply continue ?

Absent some specific and credible reasons, believing that America's best days are behind her simply because things have been too good for too long is evidence of psychological or emotional pathology.

David said...

O: "Coventry," and particularly Dave's feeling of unearned supremacy to London, et al., because he bought some nice equipment, have stuck with me vividly since I first read it, which has to be at least 25 years. When I was young, I thought that Heinlein was exagerating Dave's lack of insight. Now I know that he was, if anything, underselling it.

Progress, even in the narrow material sense, is neither inevitable nor constant. Heck, the Dunnoists are always talking about the Dark Ages and how the Church led Europe into stagnation. In some ways, mostly having to do with water, we only caught up to the Romans in the last 150 years. Until, say, 20 years ago, China's best years were 600 years in the past.

Harry Eagar said...

Boy, I'd like to see those old arguments against chattel slavery. I spent a good deal of time, 30 years ago, studying the history of slavery. Never encountered them.

Somewhere, back then, I picked up a book of quotations about slavery from Christian thinkers. I've forgotten the title, but the intent was to show that Christianity was and had always been anitslavery.

Oddly enough, considering that the Fathers of the Church had all died before 500, the earliest document in the book was from a 9th c. bishop.

There was no statement of what I have called moral antislavery until the 18th c. (In "The Slave Trade," Hugh Thomas, no liberal, says the first "reasoned argument" against slavery was by Judge Sewall, 1711. And, yes, it drew on biblical imagery -- he titled it "Joseph's Coat." However, it would be diffficult to turn that into a Christian or even Judeo-Christian argument, inasmuch as he lived in a Christian theocracy and his pamphlet was in opposition to the laws of his province.)

I think it is fair to say that Christianity, for the first 85% of its history, was proslavery.

I don't know A.N. Wilson, but I do know Augustine (and Lovejoy). I followed your link. Nothing there from Augustine about development.

The whole point of medieval and later Christian social theology was about each one knowing his place, from king to peasant. That is, to say the least of it, a problem for anyone looking for ancient suspicions of evolution.

Hey Skipper said...

David:

Do you agree with Wright that evolution is teleological?

I can't possibly agree with Wright on a position he has not taken.

You say that I imply that humans can't learn. I explicitly said the opposite.

You said we are tempted to assume humanity has changed fundamentally. We agree that human nature has not changed, yet modern humanity behaves fundamentally differently than our ancient forebears, and not just because of material comforts.

It very much appeared to me that the knowledge of which you spoke is merely technical, that our human nature prohibits us from learning anything that might cause us to act differently than the first temptation of our human nature.

You say that I said that atheists can't study history or learn from it. I said no such thing.

You are right, you didn't. I was merely trying to derive some meaning from ... the religious, who live more closely [than atheists] with the past. Considering the nature of the assertion, perhaps you should have provided something along the way of justification.

Math, too, is entirely cerebral as is political theory.

Well, taken at that level, every human activity is entirely cerebral, rendering your assertion trivially true. However, that wasn't my primary objection. Rather, the present has nothing new to say to the past, is.

Surely you don't mean to say that, with respect to math, or political theory, the present has nothing to say to the past?

Presuming you don't, then among cerebral activities, you single out theology as being outside of time. Yet it isn't, because historical events have changed theology.

The you go off on some rant about how religion is evil.

No, I didn't. When you make an assertion that religionists live closer to the past, or understand human nature better than atheists, those are claims that are open to inspection. The claim fails, because religion incorporates as divine revelation some very dodgy aspects of human nature. Presuming such wonderful understanding, religionists would have rejected such things outright. They did not; and in too many cases today, do not.

I do not hold you responsible for even one religious justification for anything; rather, I'm holding you responsible for the content of your argument, and its consequences.

Which is why my invocation of slavery (NB: I never confined myself to chattel slavery)as a historical example of theology not being outside of time. That which was divinely encouraged is no longer. One could say the same of usury, or any number of similar things.

My point was (and is) simple. We have learned a great deal and we've got a lot of stuff ...

If that was your only point, you should have stopped there.

Unfortunately, to me it appeared your real point was that Ms. Grabar was on to somethings, among them being that atheists can't figure out the immutability of human nature, or that religionists somehow live closer to the past.

Whatever that means.

Oroborous said...

Religious galley slaves of the French Catholics, with the explicit approval of the Vatican:

[T]aken from The Huguenots In France and America by Hannah F. Lee.
Originally Published Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1843. Pages 132-164.
Chapter XXXI, A Huguenot In France Condemned To the Galleys. [...] The following account is abstracted from the memoir of an individual, published about the year 1716.


Also this.

David:

What I most remember about the story is his progress to emotional maturity, and how he began to sacrifice for others, and risked his life in defense of the society from which he'd been exiled.

The "Dark Ages" are largely a myth.

In all ways except for water, the Romans were surpassed by 537.

But basically, your objections all boil down to "progress isn't constant or inevitable in any given location or society".

True. But what has that to do with the progress of humanity itself ?

As I noted, we've come a long way from living in caves. Therefore, progress up until now has, in fact, been inevitable.

For it to stop being inevitable, this would have to be the all-time zenith of human achievement.

Barring the killer asteroid, that seems extremely far-fetched.

Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

I am completely willing to acknowledge the role of religionists.

No Skipper, acknowledging their role won't do it. Best Supporting Actor isn't was this is about. They did it and your team didn't. End of story. While your proto-secularists were challenging slavery, the ancien regime, private property, the class system, marriage, the family, the Church, feudalism, religion, Platonism, blah, blah, as one indivisible whole in one of those self-contemptuous, incohate and ultimately murderous rebellious fervers we are prone to, real, live, passionate and loyal Christians in the British navy were dying in droves sailing up fetid African estuaries chasing slavers, Quakers (the old kind) were risking and losing their lives on the Underground Railroad and 19th century style evangelicals were dying for a godly cause in Kansas. Escaped slaves always fled to churches, not the local naturalist society or freethinkers' taverns. Name me one declared non-religionist who so much as suffered a cut on his hand or the loss of $5.00 in the cause of defeating slavery, When are the scales going to drop, Skipper? C'mon, you know who ended slavery and what they marched to in so doing. You can't just keep re-writing history to fit into your ideology.

Duck said...

I don't think that progress is inevitable, but I'd say that from a probability standpoint it is more likely than not that progress will continue for the foreseeable future. It definitely won't be smooth. There will be periods of discontinuity, dark ages and steps backward. But I'm more confident about the future than about the past.

I don't think that it is necessary to change human nature to transform the human experience. I'm sure that there were many near genetic equivalents to me in the past, but none of them had access to antidepressants. They have made a huge impact on my life. And I think that technological society has greatly changed the way that people interact within society, with no change to human nature itself. Technology has broken down the tyranny of place. People's lives were circumscribed by family, clan, caste and class to a greater degree than today. Whatever dislocations this has caused, whatever levels of heightened ennui or feelings of alienation have been more than compensated by the freedoms and possibilities of a more individualized life. Such a life was neither possible or even thinkable for the great majority of humanity prior to the 19th century.

I would agree with Skipper that religious people live with a past that is filtered through the lens of their faith. It needn't distort their view of the past, but it too often does. Not that secular people don't filter history through their own ideological lenses, but they are less pressed to defend a perceived continuity between ages that simply doesn't exist. As with the slavery argument. Certainly Christians were in the forefront of the abolition movement, but they were also the main perpetrators of the institution to begin with. It was a battle of good against evil that took place totally within the Christian tradition. Thankfully it was a case of the physician truly healing himself. But it is not a victory that indicates that Christians are uniquely or solely suited to defend these values that we hold dear today, contra to what Ms Grabar would have us believe.

Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

I see you failed to re-read my post.

I never made any mention one way or the other about who ended slavery, or why. In fact, if you had attended my argument a little more closely, you would have noted the implicit requirement that religionists were the ones who changed their theology.

So, nice rant. But it isn't even glancingly related to anything I have said here (or anywhere else that I can recall, for that matter).

Peter Burnet said...

Certainly Christians were in the forefront of the abolition movement, but they were also the main perpetrators of the institution to begin with.

How in the world can you say such a thing about an institution that had been universal to all of mankind except Christendom since the year dot regardless of nation, creed, religion, empire, civilization, whatever? In fact, Western Christendom was the only society in history that didn't have slavery as an integral part--right back to the beginning of the Middle Ages. It's exposure to slavery was entirely tied up with its history of dealing with "the other." There is absolutely nothing about slavery in the entire history of the common law or English constitutional history. It is completely absent from medieval social history. C'mon, Duck, that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Did it just roll off the tongue because it felt right? Where did you get this from?

Harry Eagar said...

'Red Beard. This success also attracted many other Turkish and Moorish entrepreneurs to collaborate and operate their galleots with Aruj Rais. His technique in the earlier years was to employ only Turkish or Muslim freeman to propel their boats in contrast with the Christian policyslaves, Muslims as well as Christians.'

http://www.defencejournal.com/2001/feb/barbarossa.htm

Harry Eagar said...

'There is absolutely nothing about slavery in the entire history of the common law or English constitutional history. It is completely absent from medieval social history.'

As if medieval Christianity were limited to England.

It's true that English Christians had no ready supply of slaves and that slavery died out there gradually from economic inutility. The concept of chattel slaveholding by Englishmen outside England, however, was never revoked. 'The air of England maketh a man free' but nowhere else.

A strange doctrine, that, but not a moral one, as at the same time the English government -- an assertively Christian government -- was going to war to enforce its right to the asiento -- a grant from an even more assertively Christian government.

That antislavery eventually, after more than a millenium of enthusiastic proslavery, arose among a Christian nation is odd and requires a deal of explaining.

That it arose after, and never before, the assault of scientific rationalism on the accepted standards of Christian morality is, at least, suggestive.

And it is not entirely true that escaping slaves only went to churches. They also went to the Union Army, to the decidedly unChristian Indians.

That no other religion has ever rejected slavery, and that Christianity (in northwest Europe and North America but not in Central Europe or Latin America) did so only after the rise of secular philosophy in the 17th century tells me that religion is the friend of slavery and secularism at least potentially (though not inevitably) its enemy.

It is interesting that the petitions against the slave trade did not begin because of a religious abhorrence of keeping a fellow human in captivity but because of an agitation against its wastefulness which appalled a grasping capitalist middle class which had never existed during the Age of Faith.

Antislavery is the child of modernism, not of faith.

David said...

You guys couldn't illustrate my point better if you understood it.

We don't get any bennies for being anti-slavery in the United States in 2007. "Oh, I'm so moral. I abhor slavery several centuries in the past." Anti-slavery is a gift from the past, when opposing slavery actually meant taking a stand and even fighting a war.

I notice, though, that no one has taken up my challenge to let the state legislatures pick a handful of men each to design a new government for us. We know so much more, after all, and we're all so secular and rational and fundamentally better than people were in the past -- especially slaveholders and those willing to consort with them. Certainly our new model rulers could do better than those who designed that pact with the devil that we currently call our Constitution.

Ali Choudhury said...

You're comparing a very narrow category of people and declaring victory.

Why not compare how well today's soldiers, businessmen, doctors, scientists, farmers, journalists etc. compare to those of the Revolution era?

Didn't Theodore Roosevelt once comment on the higher quality of men engaged in public life during his era as compared to then?

David said...

Ali: My point isn't that the past was better and it certainly isn't that science, etc., hasn't progressed. I like the present just fine. I wouldn't live at any other time. My response to those who do claim that they are, for example, 18th century men born too late is "painless dentistry."

But the idea that we are smarter or more moral or better people than those who came before us is just silly. It is the point that Heinlein attacks to well in "Coventry." Dave is not a rugged individualist because he we able to buy a rugged, useful ATV to carry his stuff. I'm not a hearty homesteader because I live in the middle of the woods and get my water from a well (with a 3 hp pump).

This belief that we are fundamentally different from the demon-ridden slaveholders, Inquisitors and pillagers of the past is as wrong as a belief that we are faster or stronger because we can drive at 60 mph or use a forklift. It is also anti-conservative, a point that we are amply demonstrating here is more likely to be clear to believers than non-believers.

Hey Skipper said...

David:

You don't understand my point, and Peter has missed the boat by so far that he is at the train station, thereby taking the thread to an unintended destination.

So, instead of trying to make it, I will tell you what it is.

You have failed to identify any redeeming element to Ms.Grabars article. Perhaps the link you intended to embed in theory of Inevitable Progress would have provided the deep background. Unfortunately (and I should have mentioned this at the time, it doesn't appear to go where you want it.

Absent that link, your statements that the religious live more closely to the past, or that the present has nothing to say to theology, are variously near meaningless, or flat wrong.

That's it, right there. No brief for atheism, or against religion, only that you have failed to pick up the gauntlet.

It is also anti-conservative, a point that we are amply demonstrating here is more likely to be clear to believers than non-believers.

No, you aren't, since it is a point no one here has made, but rather issues from some private in Ms. Gabar's army of strawmen.

Duck said...

I notice, though, that no one has taken up my challenge to let the state legislatures pick a handful of men each to design a new government for us.

It's an interesting proposition, but it ignores an important consideration: noone in a state legislature today was put there with an expectation that they would be nominating delegates to a constitutional convention. People would be making different decisions in a time of crisis than they do currently.

I don't know that they would do a worse job than the founders. Of course there would be some very deep faultlines. The difference between now and then is that then the faultlines were more geographically defined than now. Today's fault lines are more demographic than geographic.

Back then people identified with their home state more than the Union. Most people expected to live their lives as citizens of one state, so there was less urgency to come to agreement on all of the wedge issues. Federalism was an easier compromise then than it would be now. Now people expect to have the same basic rights wherever they travel in the country, and they do expect to live in different states in different points in their life.

The union might not hold another time. There would be a strong possibility that several smaller unions would result. The South might take the opportunity to secede for good. You might see the country break up along the lines of Joel Garreau's "Nine Nations of North America". Who knows?

The new model rulers would derive constitution(s) that reflected the values system of their time, just as the original founders did. But they don't have to, because the States elected representatives have been molding the Founder's consitution into one that reflects their values ever since the original constitution was written.

So I'm not sure what point you intended to prove. Certainly we have inherited a great deal from our predecessors, but our successors will inherit a great deal from us in turn. History will determine whether it was good or bad. But I neither assume the typical backward-looking view that all our ancestors were giants and we are midgets by comparison, nor the future looking view that they were midgets, we are giants, and our children will be supergiants.

Peter Burnet said...

Duck:

Well, that's a start and distinguishes yours from Harry's and Skipper's straightline pseudo-marxist view of history. But how about giving us a few examples of things you think were better a hundred years ago?

David, you often remark that the Duckians are always railing against a god nobody believes in. They also can get mighty indignant about a past that never occurred. I wouldn't want to live more closely to that one either.

Duck said...

100 years ago? It was easier to be awed by new technology than it is today. Things like the automobile, the airplane, radio, the telephone, moving pictures, etc revolutionized everyday life in ways that today's gewgaws don't. Today we expect computers to be twice as fast, half as big and half as expensive next year than this year. We expect to be taking a space vacation on our 60th birthday. Back then every new invention came as a shock. It must have been an exciting time.

I think entertainment was better then. I've been waiting for Hollywood to make a really scary movie for the last decade, but with all their special effects they can't do it. The original Nosferatu probably had people peering behind the drapes for months after they saw it. I've not had a really good movie fright since the Exorcist.

Harry Eagar said...

I'm pretty sure I've never argued for straight-line progress. I believe I was the one who pointed out that more parasites evolved than hosts.

As for redrawing the Constitution, we did that already, piece by piece.

The really clever thing the founders did was to set up principled goals that were beyond their ability to achieve at the time.

The obvious example was banning the slave trade, not in 1787 but prospectively, in 1807.

It can hardly be a coincidence that Denmark banned the slave trade in 1807.

The logic of a general franchise was written into the Preamble. At the time, the franchise was restricted everywhere, less so in some places, more in others.

It would be hard to improve on that approach in principle. No once challenges today's physicists to improve on Clausius's theory of heat. It works just fine.

We do challenge ourselves to improve on the Constitution of 1787, but hardly anybody (except Lani Guenier) proposes to replace it.

There's a reason for that.

I'm also pretty sure I did give Christians credit for antislavery, in those instances where they were, in fact, against slavery. Germany was a Christian nation of slaveholders almost up to my time.

Who's rewriting history now?

Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

David, you often remark that the Duckians are always railing against a god nobody believes in.

One of the lessons I have tried to teach my kids is avoid the use of the words "never" and "always", as that is practically begging to be proved wrong.

Duckians rarely -- so rarely that I'll bet you will have a hard time coming up with instances -- rail against any specific God.

And when Duckians do, it is to highlight the contradiction between reality, and the anodyne God believers themselves have concocted.

joe shropshire said...

Ann Althouse, who is guest-blogging at Instapundit, has been reading your thoughts. The click-throughs (to Matt Yglesias and Immodest Proposals) are here and here. The question that occurs to me is: if Yglesias got a job on the rewrite committee, would he "challenge himself to improve" the Constitution, in Harry's phrase, or simply express the same casual contempt for it that shines through in that post? Could he even tell the difference? This also touches a point that came up in the thread below this one, which I shall paraphrase as follows: [real] conservatism is arbitrary dedication to the past. Are you guys sure you are that? (Or, how could you do that?) One response is, you've seen the future, its name is Matt Yglesias (seriously, he's a splendidly-educated young thing, with a long and prominent career in center-left politics ahead of him), and it is every bit as arbitrary as the past ever was.

Ali Choudhury said...

David:

Check out The Descent.

Harry Eagar said...

Yes, David is rather Bolshevist in the way he declares the actual minority to be the majority.

Where I live, and taking belief in demons as one aspect of belief in a god, the biggest sect, the second biggest, the third biggest and the fourth biggest are all demon-believers. You have to go down to the Congregationalists in fifth place before you start turning up the secular rationalists that David thinks are the norm.

I disbelieve in all imaginary gods equally, but when I talk about god generically I'm usually thinking of the one I grew up with.

David said...

Harry: Where do I say that I think that secular rationalists are the norm? I actually think that they're second cousins to the Unicorn.

Harry Eagar said...

I mean that your idea of a mainline American Christian is one who is indistinguishable from your average mainline secular rationalist, except that he goes to church Sundays (some Sundays).

I say the typical American Christian believes that demons cause disease, that the deity intervenes frequently in his daily life, that cosmic forces decide who thrives or fails.