October 30, 2008
While leaving work today I was handed a “No on Prop 8” leaflet. For those of you not living in CA, prop 8 seeks to undo our state Supreme Court’s recent decision to remove gender requirements from the institution of marriage. In CA, same-sex couples in a domestic partnership already had identical rights and obligations as their married counterparts. Their “package” was simply being called by a different name (domestic partnership vs. marriage). In effect, the Supreme Court simply demanded that they be given a name change. And they have been, against the express will of the people. In response, the people of CA organized a ballot initiative to amend our state constitution to define marriage as being between one man and one woman only. The people handing out the leaflet I received today oppose this initiative.
As I expected, the leaflet was a propaganda piece full of half-truths and sophistry. Rather than reproducing this piece, I’ll just refer you to the picture above. To read the text just click the picture (it will magnify it). I would like to bring some of the most blatant rhetoric to your attention. There are five paragraphs, but I will only respond to the first four:
#1 They claim same-sex marriage is a fundamental right, but since when? It has not been recognized by any society in history until a decade ago. A right no one recognized until 10 years ago can hardly be considered fundamental. Just because a handful of people in black robes declare it to be a fundamental right by judicial fiat, does not make it one in reality.
As for equality, I agree. But the law already afforded equality to all Californians. Everyone had an equal right to marry a non-relative of the opposite sex. The law did not stipulate that homosexuals could not marry. Homosexuals are just as free to take advantage of the institution of marriage as are heterosexuals, but if they wish to avail themselves of this right, they need to marry someone of the opposite sex. The fact that they choose not to afford themselves of this right is not grounds for radically changing the historic understanding of marriage.
#2 Yes, same-sex couples are our neighbors, but what follows from that? People in Utah have polygamists as their neighbors, but does that mean society must redefine the number of participants in a marriage? No, so why should the fact that we have gay neighbors cause us to redefine the gender requirements of civil marriage?
They claim that same-sex couples are hurt by not giving their legally-recognized unions the name “marriage,” but how? Because they are not accorded the same social approval? First, we do not alter fundamental social institutions so that some people won’t feel bad. Second, marriage is a social institution intended to provide social support to relationships society deems important to the success of society. People in society are free to choose whom to give their support to and whom to deny it. And many do not wish to extend it to same-sex couples because they do not think their relationships are beneficial to the social fabric (indeed, they may be detrimental).
#3 No, “it’s not the government’s place to tell couples who have been together for years whether or not to marry,” but that is not the issue. This sentence was either framed poorly, or strategically, because the government isn’t telling anyone-heterosexual or homosexual-whether or not to marry. It only tells them the requirements they must meet if they wish to marry. But if they were to have worded it this way, it is clearly wrong. The government represents the people, and the people of this country have the right to define the requirements for marriage; i.e. which relationships they will and will not extend their social approval and support to. That’s not to say they can be arbitrary in their definition, but clearly that is not the case in this country. There are principled reasons we define marriage the way we do, and those reasons make no room for same-sex couples.
They claim we let people decide what’s best for themselves in CA. No, we don’t. I decided it’s best for me to be able to talk on my cell phone in my car, but the government decided it wasn’t. Taken at face-value, what they are advocating is anarchy. And I find it ironic that the pro-Prop 8 prop are speaking negatively of “government interference” when they have been working ferociously over the last 20 years to intimately involve government in this issue. If they truly eschewed government interference, they would not be asking for the state of CA to recognize and regulate their relationships.
#4 In one sense it’s true that domestic partnerships are not the same as marriage. But where do they differ? You might be surprised to know that in CA they are the same in all but the name. Domestic partnerships afford same-sex couples all the same rights and responsibilities as marriage. That’s why it is disingenuous on their part to bring up the issue of medical power-of-attorney. Domestic partnerships already give same-sex couples such rights. The only thing domestic partnerships do not afford same-sex couples is “the same dignity” and “respect.” But why ought they be given such when their relationships do not function in the same way in society, and when many people consider their sexual mores immoral? I see no reason to.
I hope my fellow Californians will join me in voting YES on prop 8.
October 27, 2008
Posted by Theosophical Ruminator under Abortion
If anyone doubts this, see this piece in Public Discourse from The Witherspoon Institute (Princeton).
Some pro-lifers are arguing that the US Supreme Court is highly unlikely to overturn Roe, and thus we need to quit basing our vote largely on a candidate’s position on abortion. Even if I agreed with this assessment of the future of Roe (I don’t), it does not follow that a politician’s position on abortion is irrelevant. As the article makes clear, pro-life politicians who have passed laws restricting abortion are largely responsible for the declining abortion rates in this country. Does anyone think pro-abortion politicians would have passed such restrictions? Does anyone think that if pro-abortion politicians dominate public offices, they will not seek to undo those restrictions, and hence increase the number of abortions? You betcha!
We have a choice between Obama and McCain for president. Even if I granted that McCain will not appoint strict constructionists to the bench (as some say), or that those he appointed would not overturn Roe because of stare decisis, the fact remains that there would be fewer legal abortions under a McCain presidency than under an Obama presidency. Each candidates’ position on abortion is relevant! Obama has vowed to sign the Freedom of Choice Act if he becomes president. What would that do? It would repeal every restriction on abortion in every state in the union, including partial birth abortion. He would also repeal the Hyde amendment which prevents the government from spending tax dollars to fund elective abortions. A vote for Obama, then, is not equal to a vote for McCain. The fact of the matter is that a vote for Obama will result in more dead babies than a vote for McCain, wholly apart from the future fate of Roe.
October 20, 2008
Two years ago I reported on the outcome of South Dakota’s attempt to ban all abortions that were not necessary to save the life of the mother. The initiative was narrowly defeated (56% no; 44% yes). Polls indicated that a majority of voters would have supported the initiative if it included an exception for rape and incest as well. I wrote back then, that while I agreed with the initiative as written, tactically and practically speaking, SD would have been better off to include the exceptions for rape and incest.
Why? Is it because I believe children conceived by rape and incest do not deserve the protection of the law? No. They do. It’s because to date, we have not been able to persuade a majority of our fellow citizens that the circumstances surrounding conception make no moral difference to the question of abortion. But many people, including those in South Dakota, recognize that abortion should be outlawed in all other circumstances. So why not write an initiative that outlaws the abortions that a majority of people agree should be outlawed, and then work on outlawing the rest later? Considering the fact that less than 1% of abortions are due to rape or incest (for 2006, only 0.004% of abortions in SD were due to rape/incest), such a bill would save 99% of babies currently being aborted.
It just so happens that SD has an initiative on the November ballot similar to the 2006 version, but adding exceptions for rape and incest. In a perfect world I would not support such a bill, but in an imperfect world I would-and I think all pro-lifers should. But not all pro-life groups see it this way. South Dakota Right to Life does not support the initiative because of the rape/incest exceptions. For them, it’s all-or-nothing. Since this bill does not go for a complete ban on abortion, they do not support it.
I think this approach is wrong-headed. It makes a statement, but does not effect change. An incremental approach to outlawing abortion is better than an all-or-nothing approach, because an incremental approach has the effect of preventing a lot of abortions, whereas the all-or-nothing approach has proven to prevent none! If we are truly pro-life, we should support any bill that has the effect of saving babies. It is morally indefensible to vote against a bill that would save 99% of aborted babies from abortion, just because less than 1% will not be protected by the bill.
While I do not doubt the sincerity of those who oppose incremental legislation like the one SD is proposing, I do doubt their wisdom. They seem more interested in making a moral statement than they do with making a moral difference in our world. This is morally irresponsible. Being pro-life is not a position. It is a goal, and to get to that goal we have to chip away at the culture of death bit-by-bit, just like William Wilberforce did to slavery in England. We should not be opposed to steps that are taken in the right direction, just because they do not take us to the destination we see as ideal.
But isn’t this about conscience? Some will argue that their conscience will not allow them to vote for a bill that would explicitly allow the abortion of some babies. I do not doubt that this is true, but I do doubt that such a person has a properly informed conscience. After all, if one’s conscience commends them for voting no on a bill that could have saved thousands upon thousands of innocent babies from medical execution, on the basis that they stood up for the right principle, something is seriously wrong with their conscience. Yes, they stood up for the ideal principle, but they did not advance life when they had the chance to do so. A properly informed conscience would condemn such an act as an abandonment of the very people we say we want to save. Allowing thousands to die when we have the chance to stop it is hardly pro-life.
October 20, 2008
Posted by Theosophical Ruminator under Odds & Ends
England’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has asked the media not to report on the findings of a government study related to diapers. Apparently England has been pushing parents to use reusable diapers rather than disposable ones, to lessen their “carbon footprint” in the fight against global warming. But the report found that the carbon footprint from disposable diapers is less than reusable diapers. You would think that those who claim to be responding to the evidence of global warming would respond to this evidence as well, and tell people to use disposable diapers. You would be wrong. When the evidence is against you, I guess the appropriate response is to be against the evidence.
October 16, 2008
Posted by Theosophical Ruminator under Politics
Some Christians plan to sit out this presidential election because none of the viable presidential candidates reflect their conservative ideals, and think casting a vote for any of them would be morally wrong. While I am somewhat sympathetic to this position, ultimately I think it is unwise, and possibly even immoral. This is a serious charge, and I do not make it lightly. Allow me to substantiate my charge with a reasonable argument (credit, for which, goes largely to Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason ministries).
The time to vote according to one’s ideals and conscience is the primary election, not the general election. In a general election our options are narrowed down to two viable candidates, and we vote for the best available candidate. It may be that neither candidate represents our ideals, and we are tempted to sit out the general election for conscience’ sake, or to send a message to the political parties that we do not like the candidates they are advancing (protest vote). Whatever the motivation might be, the fact remains that one of the two major candidates will be elected whether we vote or not, and they will have an impact on the issues that matter to us. Sitting out the election will do nothing to change that. Sitting out the election, however, can determine whether some of our ideals will be advanced or attacked.
It may be the case in a general election that both candidates equally fail to represent our ideals, but in most cases, one candidate will better represent our ideals than the other. For example, candidate A may share with us 3 out of 10 ideals, while candidate B may only share 2 out of 10. While neither comes close to representing our ideals, candidate A more closely resembles our ideals than candidate B, and is more likely to promote our ideals than candidate B. If we take our ideals seriously—meaning we want to see them advanced for the good of our fellow Americans—we should be interested in electing those who will do the most to promote them. As such, we have a moral responsibility to vote for the candidate who will act to promote a greater amount of good, and work to prevent a greater amount of evil. Failing to vote, however, may result in candidate B being elected over candidate A, which in turn may increase the net amount of evil in the world. To see how this is so, let me illustrate.
Let’s say candidate A (the better of the two bad candidates) has 51% of the popular vote (of registered, likely voters), and candidate B has 49% of the popular vote. If 4% of conservative Christians refuse to vote for candidate A because he does not match up to their ideals, they shift the vote to the other candidate. Now, candidate A only has 47% of the popular vote, and candidate B has 53% of the popular vote. Ironically, then, sitting out an election may result in the increase of evil, by throwing the election to the worse of the two candidates. In other words, sitting out could have the unintended consequence of increasing evil.
One might respond that choosing the lesser of two evils is evil. I disagree. Choosing the lesser of two evils is a moral good because it results in the greater good. In fact, when we have the ability to reduce evil in the world, and our inaction would have the effect of increasing evil, we are morally culpable if we do nothing. If not voting will cause greater evil, then we have a moral obligation to vote. We are not obligated to vote for the best candidate, but the best candidate available.
What about one’s conscience? While I would never advise someone to violate their conscience, neither can I pretend the conscience that demands one do something that would increase evil is a properly functioning conscience. Only a misinformed conscience could demand such a thing of a person. Any conscience that demands we do something that will result in increased evil needs to be informed by a different set of moral principles.
If you don’t care for your presidential choices, you are not alone. I don’t care much for them either. But I recognize that one of them is better than the rest when measured against conservative ideals: John McCain. While this individual is not my ideal, his presidency would result in more good and less evil than the presidency of the other candidates, and that is why I will vote for him in the general election. I hope you will vote as well. Remember, all it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.
October 15, 2008
*Read previous post before reading this one.*
There is a difference between the question, Is existence necessary?, and Does X exist necessarily? The first question asks about existence in general, whereas the second asks about the existence of some specific thing within the larger domain of existence.
Regarding the first question, is it necessary that something exist? The answer to this question depends on whether one is speaking of historical possibility, or metaphysical possibility. Historically speaking, the answer is an emphatic yes. Something must exist, and must exist eternally. Why? Because something does exist. If there was ever a time when absolutely nothing existed, absolutely nothing would “exist” now, because nothing has no potentiality to ever become something. And yet there is something, so we know there has never been a time when nothing existed.
But from a metaphysical perspective, there is no reason to think existence itself is necessary. We can conceive of absolute nothingness. Furthermore, there is nothing logically incoherent about the concept of non-existence. Existence, then, is not necessary, but contingent, and contingent things require an explanation for their existence. What, then, is the explanation of existence? Why is there something, rather than nothing?
The second question is quite different. It does not ask whether existence itself is necessary, but whether the existence of some particular X is necessary. In cosmological arguments, X stands for the universe. Does the universe exist necessarily?
Some atheists assume the answer to this question is wrapped up in the first: Since something must exist eternally, the universe must be eternal. While it is true that something must have always existed, why think the universe is that something? Not only are there compelling scientific and philosophical reasons to think the universe exists contingently, but this begs the question in favor of atheism. It assumes materialism from the start (i.e. the universe is all that exists), reasoning that since something must be eternal, and the universe exhausts reality, then the universe must be eternal. But that the universe exhausts reality is what stands to be proven.
Secondly, thinking the universe exists by a necessity of its own nature is a grandiose claim that few philosophers are willing to countenance. To say the universe exists by a necessity of its own nature does not merely affirm the necessity of a universe in general, but the necessity of our universe in particular. It is an affirmation that the very fundamental particles of our universe–quarks, neutrons, electrons, etc.–are necessary, not just in kind, but in number and arrangement as well. But this is absurd. There is no reason to think the universe could not have been composed of a different set/number of fundamental particles, arranged in a different way, operating by a different set of physical laws, resulting in a totally different kind of universe. In fact, it is quite possible to conceive of a physically empty universe, or no universe at all. There is no physical or logical law that requires the universe to exist. So modal logic alone demonstrates the universe is not necessary. It is contingent, meaning it is metaphysically possible that it might have never been.
We can agree with the atheist that existence is necessary as a historical fact, and that the universe does not exist necessarily. But these two truths, coupled with the scientific and philosophic evidence for the finitude and contingency of the universe, provide a strong argument for a personal God. Something must exist eternally, and since the universe is not that something, it must be something else. Whatever caused the spatio-temporal-material universe to exist must itself be eternal, non-spatial, and immaterial.
Only two things fit such a description: abstract objects, or an unembodied mind. Since abstract objects are causally impotent by definition, they cannot be the cause of the universe, and thus are unlikely to be that which has always existed. That leaves us with an unembodied mind as the eternal reality. This makes sense. Not only are we are intimately acquainted with the idea of minds creating things, but it also makes sense of the design and order we see in the universe. An intelligent agent best explains why the universe exists as it does. Since an eternal, non-spatial, immaterial, intelligent mind is what most mean by “God,” it is best to conclude that God is that which exists eternally, and hence necessarily. He is a necessary being, who contains within Himself the sufficient reason for His own existence, and is the cause of everything else.
October 15, 2008
Something exists. For all but radical skeptics, this much is clear. But why does something exist? Why is there something rather than nothing at all? There is, after all, nothing logically incoherent about the concept of non-existence. It seems possible, at least, that nothing exist. So why is there something rather than nothing?
Interestingly, modern science has garnered several lines of empirical evidence highly suggestive that nonexistence was a historical reality. Cosmogonists hold that the physical universe came into being ex nihilo a finite time ago. Matter, space, and time all had their beginning at an absolute point of origin, before which there was no physical reality. While the scientific evidence does point to an absolute origin of physical reality, it does not preclude the possibility of a preexistent, immaterial reality from which the physical universe emerged-and thus does not require that physical existence emerge from absolute nonexistence. That question is left open, as it is beyond the realm of scientific inquiry.
Materialists, however, are only a little hesitant to deny the existence of such an immaterial reality, and subsequently affirm that the universe popped into being from literally nothing. As atheist and physicist, P.C.W. Davies wrote, “The coming-into-being of the universe as discussed in modern science…is not just a matter of imposing some sort of organization or structure upon a previous incoherent state, but literally the coming-into-being of all physical things from nothing.” This is echoed by physicists John Barrow and Frank Tipler: “At this singularity, space and time came into existence; literally nothing existed before the singularity, so, if the Universe originated at such a singularity, we would truly have a creation ex nihilo.” We have then, as a matter of historical fact, a point in time in which nothing existed-at least nothing physical. And yet now, physical reality exists. But why?
Traditionally, atheists punted on this question, responding that the existence of the universe is just a brute, inexplicable fact.1 As Bertrand Russell famously quipped, “The universe is just there, and that’s all.” This sort of response might work given an eternal universe, but it is preposterous to pass this off as an acceptable answer if the universe is finite and contingent. Everything that begins to exist has an external cause. If the universe began to exist, it stands to reason that it, too, requires an external cause. It is unbelievable and irrational to think the universe could just pop into existence uncaused from absolutely nothing.
When one reflects on it for a moment, however, Russell’s response is not rational even for an eternal universe. According to Leibnitz’s principle of sufficient reason, everything that exists has an explanation for its existence either in the necessity of its own nature, or in an external cause. An eternal universe cannot have an external cause, because that which is eternal is by definition uncaused. It exists by a necessity of its own nature. Given the principle of sufficient reason, then, the defender of an eternal universe must confess that the universe exists by a necessity of its own nature. And yet few atheists are willing to countenance the notion. And for good reason.
To say the universe exists by a necessity of its own nature does not merely affirm the necessity of a universe in general, but the necessity of our particular universe. It is an affirmation that the very fundamental particles of our universe-quarks, neutrons, electrons, etc.-are necessary, not just in kind, but in number and arrangement as well. But this is absurd. There is no reason to think the universe could not have been composed of a different kind/number of fundamental particles, arranged in a different way, operating by a different set of physical laws, resulting in a totally different kind of universe. In fact, it is quite possible to conceive of a physically empty universe, or no universe at all. There is no physical or logical law that requires the universe to exist.2 It is contingent, meaning it is metaphysically possible that it might have never been.
The defender of an eternal universe, then, is in the unusual spot of having to deny that the universe exists in virtue of an external cause, and not willing to accept that it exists by a necessity of its own nature. Whence does it exist, then? No sufficient reason is given, which is intellectually unacceptable. The atheist must offer an explanation for why the universe exists, or offer an explanation for why no explanation is necessary. Merely asserting that there is no explanation, or that the question is meaningless is not a satisfactory answer. Surely no atheist would accept this kind of answer for anything else. Indeed, atheists often challenge theists to explain why God exists, and are unwilling to accept the answer that He exists inexplicably. They rightly demand that His existence be explained, so on what grounds are they justified in exempting the universe from explanation?
To date, no atheist has provided a non-question begging explanation for why the universe does not require an explanation. Some argue that a cause of the universe is logically impossible, because any such cause would have to obtain prior to the universe. And yet, since nothing existed prior to the emergence of the universe, no cause can obtain. But this assumes all causal relations are temporal, and that the only possible state of affairs prior to the universe is a physical state of affairs. This begs the question in favor of materialism and atheism, and thus an explanation for why the universe needs no explanation still stands.
If no explanation as to why the universe does not require an explanation can be provided, then the atheist is under rational obligation to embrace an external cause as the sufficient reason for the universe, or the necessity of its own nature. Given the fact that the latter is absurd, it is more reasonable to embrace an external cause for the universe. In doing so, he will have to abandon his belief in an eternal universe, and embrace a finite universe, causing him to squarely face our original question: Why does the universe exist, rather than not?
Why and how did something emerge from nothing? The most basic ontological principle is that out of nothing, nothing comes; and yet in the case of the universe, out of nothing something came. There must be a sufficient cause for the universe to come into being, and that requires that something exist external to the universe. Given that whatever caused space, time, and matter to begin to exist cannot itself be spatial, temporal, or material, we are limited to two possible causes of the universe: abstract objects, or an unembodied mind.
Since abstract objects are causally impotent by definition, they cannot be the cause of the universe, and thus are unlikely to be that which has always existed. That leaves us with an unembodied mind as the eternal reality. This makes sense. Not only are we are intimately acquainted with the idea of minds creating things, but it also makes sense of the design and order we see in the universe. An intelligent agent best explains why the universe exists as it does.
Since an eternal, non-spatial, immaterial, intelligent mind is what most mean by “God,” it is best to conclude that God is that which has always existed. He is a necessary being, who contains within Himself the sufficient cause for His own existence, as well as the existence of everything else.
1. Some have also responded to the question of why the universe exists, that such a question is irrelevant. All that matters is that it does exist. But surely this is false. Imagine walking through the forest, and coming upon a translucent ball off the beaten path. Would it be relevant to ask why it exists, and from whence it came? Of course. An explanation of its existence is in order. It would be absurd to think there is no explanation for why it is there. Explicability would still be required even if we increased the size of the ball to the size of a planet, or even the size of the universe. Increasing its size does not remove the need for an explanation. Likewise, the universe begs for an explanation. Its size does not exempt it from the causal principle.
2. Even if there was such a law, it would itself have ontological existence, and thus we would still have to ask why it exists, ad infinitum.
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