27 November, 2005

We Shall Forgive Him His Commenters: For They Know Not What They Say.

Hat tip to Pharyngula for this sprinkling of spice.

Perhaps there is little point to this post as so few people take him seriously, a condition I share wholeheartedly with him: we are brothers in mediocrity, if little else. But sometimes the man seems to intentionally try to personally reach me, his sexist slurs beckoning, his delightfully prickly prose teasing with my sense of propriety. One should not pretend such attentions go unheeded, even in the polite company of fellows which is the Internet.

Vox Popoli is not only ignorant of
Latin, but of the concepts of justice, crime, immorality, moral relativism and rape. The bold sections will be quotations from Vox unless stated otherwise.

I will begin by suggesting that I find the implications of this argument (Vox's paraphrase of Camille Paglia):

...a woman who gets drunk and goes to a man's bedroom deserves no more sympathy or understanding from society than the man who leaves his unlocked car running with the key in the ignition or the woman who leaves her purse unattended on a public park bench.

Rather more indicative of the kind of reasoning which feminists are usually ascribed by those opposed to and ignorant of feminism. Are all men obviously potential rapists and women 'stupid' for trusting any of them at times of personal vulnerability? Is Vox Day, in short, a shrieking,
anti male feminazi?

I agree with the notion that people can engage in risky behaviour and that there is the potential for someone to take advantage of it. I do think that we should take better care of ourselves and that we have some responsibility for our own well being, as Vox does. I am pleased that he does not think this removes the culpability of the person who takes advantage one iota.

However, I think it is ridiculous to suggest that this somehow means that the victim of malfeasance is undeserving of pity or sympathy. There are ways to minimise the risk to one's self, but to what extent we should protect ourselves is rarely blatant or clear cut. Should we all avoid going outside at all for fear of rape or sexual assault, obtain a rape alarm, learn self
defense? Do we refrain from placing trust in friends of ours whose sexual orientation would suggest us as possible sexual partners, and therefore possible rape victims, as Paglia and Vox outright argue?

Whether a given action is a 'stupid' risk or one of the thousand ordinary ones we take daily is generally far more obvious with hindsight, and rather more difficult to uncover through the filter of inebriation. I find it incredibly difficult to condemn an individual for trusting another human being to refrain from bloody raping them, particularly if the individual is one they know fairly well, as is the case with date rape. The assumption of no
rape should be a reasonable one, even in the dark and sinister world of a woman flirting with a man.

(I use the term "genuine rape" because most so-called "date rape" is not rape nor a crime of any kind, because he said-she said is no basis for a system of justice.

It occurs to my refined and powerful legal mind that a crime is not ameliorated, and sex is not magically rendered consensual, by the difficulty it takes to prove that such an act happened in court.

If sex without written permission is a crime...

Personally I would be happy with the coherent, informed permission from an individual of sound mind and legal age (as would most other teenagers, I am sure.) Vox's feminist reading (and reading of the act in question) may be somewhat more expansive than mine though, so perhaps it is my expectations as to what constitutes consensual sex which are the ridiculous straw man. Furthermore this is a bizarre complaint of Vox's given his adversity to 'he said-she said' systems of justice.

Women have demanded freedom from paternalistic protection they enjoyed/endured in the past. Now they've got it, and many of them are finding that they don't like it and thus have, as usual, turned to the State in search of the security they crave so badly.

Vox seems to blame womens' past 'freedom from paternalistic protection' at least in part for rape. The sheer depth of evidence he presents may threaten to cause you - as it did me - to actually accept that he was making a reasonable point, a horrifying prospect to be rejected a priori. The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics suggests that violent crime rates, including sexual assault and rape specifically, have been on the decline in America for decades (with only murder remaining higher than UK rates, incidentally.) Does this mean that Vox's argument must be turned on its head? That it is the
rejection of paternalistic protection which has led to a decline in sexual assault? Should we then thank the state for doing a better job of protecting women than the well-defined, almost scientific methodology of 'paternalistic protection'?

Alas for my figure, I am not Vox Popoli.
I do not even know the meaning of the term Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, let alone have the ability to practise it.

I'm just curious what basis the moral relativists have for condemning rape in the first place. If I deem the slaking of my desire for lust - or violence, if you prefer that theory of rape - to be an intrinsic good, who are you to condemn it? Certainly, one could argue that it is a violation of private property rights, but then, what of those moral relativists who reject the notion of private property. If all property is held in common, then how can a woman object if I decide to make use of that which belongs to me?

The fact that one individual (or even many individuals,) find rape acceptable need not change one's own sense of ethics. Moral relativism simply means that one recognises that morality is not an intrinsic universal reality but a concept constructed by humans. This means that a moral relativist does not need to necessarily refrain from judging the actions or ethics of others at all. Vox is attacking a very specific kind of relativist, one who wouldn't attempt to impose their own sense of ethics on anyone anyway. This is the rough philisophical equivalent of attacking the terrifyingly imposing bloc of the Amish in response to environmentalist pressure.

Moreover, one's own ethical construct is the reference from which we make judgments anyway, whether we are absolutist, relativist, or couldn't give a damn about ridiculous metaphysics. Ist. I do not know whether there is an objective morality: I am entirely unaware of any empirical research affirming the reality of absolutist morality, and certainly know of no way of finding out what it actually is. Unless God really is the prankster creationists judge Him to be, neither does Vox. What I know for a fact is that humans' concepts of ethics differ wildly and the ones they express probably are their personal constructs, based as they may be on the culture or tradition of their communities. It is these constructs - our own and others - that we must deal with on a daily basis.

-The Rev. Schmitt.

25 November, 2005

A Round Up Of Rocking Your Face Off.

Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller fame explains strong atheism as an ideology. It is quite funky. The only point I don't cuddle up to with a licentious gentleness not seen enough on this Earth is that there's any need to actively believe God does not exist to enjoy reality. It is enough for me to recognise that He cannot in any foreseeable future be suggested to exist by empirical experimentation. I think some models of God could in principle exist, but pending the downfall of science as a useful methodology, using Him as an explanation for a natural phenomena is an added and untestable hypothesis; a hindrance to understanding clung to for ideological reasons. Anyone therefore using Him as a justification for any action worries me somewhat, that they must respond to the outside world by relying on a persona which they or others have almost certainly made up.

The universe is a remarkable and glorious thing, and there are people who are good, kind, reasonable and intelligent. Understanding why people act kindly; the rationale behind their behaviour, can make their actions all the more wonderful, allows us to understand how and why they are good, allowing them to serve as an inspiration. Understanding the world and its horrendously complex intricacies only makes it all the more wondrous and fascinating. For instance
male giant squid mate by impaling the tentacles of females and injecting them - and often, in their frenzy, themselves and other males - with packets of semen. Science!

There are bad parts to the world, too, and I think it is most appropriate to begin to deal with those parts with understanding them to the best degree that mankind can. It is certainly preferable to the alternatives, such as hiding from them or assigning to them mystical, ineffable properties.

The Raving Atheist brings us news of the insidious hatred within a faith-based charity. If people use their religion in order to serve the greater good of humanity, then all the more power to them, though I wish people were able to acknowledge that they simply enjoy helping others. Events like these serve as a reminder that religion, even in a form often associated with the alleviation of suffering for the downtrodden, can always serve as a vehicle for prejudice. Religious people are still people, after all.

I get the impression that this opening of a gate between Egypt and Palestine marks something joyful for Palestinians and Israelis, but am delightfully ignorant about the whole mess. I've been loosely following the Israel-Palestinian conflict for a while, but remain completely baffled and overwhelmed by the duelling political stances of journalists and pundits.

Have I mentioned how much I love Sadly, No!? Deutschland uber alles!

Lastly, I would like to take the time to remind certain idiots that Christmas was made a federal holiday in 1870, precisely because the founding fathers were entirely in favour of the vile antiChristian nonsense that is wishing other people a happy holiday. Bill O'Reilly is anti-American.

(Thanks to The Evangelical Atheist for Penn's ridiculously good article, and Sadly, No!, for sharing Kaye Grogan with the world.)

-The Rev. Schmitt.

24 November, 2005

My Friend & Yours: Chuckie D in the Hizzouse.

It is the 146th anniversary of the initial publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, by Charles Robert Darwin. The text is freely available here and it is, frankly, beautiful. The book is extremely accessible for a Victorian and a scientific work; the brilliance of Darwin evident in the manner by which he attacked and solved considerably difficult problems for empirical research.

Darwin was by no means the first to suggest that organisms changed over time, or even that all organisms on Earth descend from a common ancestor. But he did reject the metaphysics many scientists of the time still appealed to, and combined the different evolutionary hypotheses; he himself collecting a horrendous amount of data which in turn knocked down or shored up these different hypotheses. He developed a coherent mechanism by which evolution functioned; natural selection. In short, The Origin of Species turned descent with modification into a science.

There is a lot that he wrote that was wrong, as we must say about the work of every scientist after a century. He still supported the notion of Lamarckian inheritance in some instances; the notion that variability in the use and disuse of appendages would cause organs to be more fully developed, weakened, or lost in offspring. For example a Lamarckist could suggest that a giraffe's neck is particularly long because its ancestors had to stretch their necks to reach certain plants, and that subsequently each animal's neck became longer as each offspring inherited the longer neck of its ancestor.

He relied particularly heavily on Lamarckism when considering vestigial organs, such as the receded or useless eyes of cave fish, which Darwin could not fathom as being a burden to the fish, (although he accepted that they a
re useless in such an environment.) We now know that eyes are an extremely energy taxing organ, and since eyes serve no practical purpose in the dark of a cave, they are indeed selected against in such an environment. Lamarckism fell by the wayside, replaced by Darwinism after Darwin's death.

Darwin had no theory of genetics; he simply didn't know about the existence of genes. However, his evolutionary theory predicted and needed a mode of inheritance, that is to say a method by which parents passed on their variance to their offspring. Darwin constructed a hypothesis called pangenesis which served to explain the different traits seen in species, but which ultimately was replaced with genetics, which more parsimoniously explained the evidence. Pangenesis essentially held that every cell in an organism's body contributed a small part of itself (termed gemmules) to the creature's descendant. Meanwhile, Gregor Mendel was conducting his famous experiments with pea heredity which would have saved biologists decades had his results become widely known. He sent a letter about his work to Darwin which, unfortunately, was never opened.

It was not until the 1880s that DNA was isolated; a nucleic acid with a biological function that scientists could only guess at. Two decades later Mendel's work, and its importance, were rediscovered. Over the next forty years great strides were made in biology, evolution and genetics; chromosomes became recognised as the mode by which inheritance occurred, though how they conveyed information was still unknown. It became clear from fruit fly experiments that mutation and recombination were the primary sources of variability within a population. This period marked a reconciliation between biology, genetics and evolution, which became known as the neoDarwinian, or modern evolutionary synthesis. DNA's structure was not unraveled until Watson and Crick's Science paper in 1957, beginning our understanding about how chromosomes convey the information that evolution required to function.

The central ideas of evolution have only accumulated evidence supporting their validity. We know that there is variation within a given population. These variations are passed on from parents to offspring. The environment can only support a limited number of organisms, and so there is competition. This competition results in differential rates of survivability due to variance; aka natural selection, and differential rates of reproduction, as for example in sexual selection. Geology, astrophysics and palaeontology have supported an old age of the Earth (approximately 4.6 billion years,) and the organisms which have lived upon it (about 3.85 billion years.)

The fossil record supports common descent; the idea that all organisms we know of living on Earth are descended from a small population, or a single ancestor. It demonstrates with intermittent elegance the profound similarity of form; the homogeneity of organs and appendages in organisms, with transitional forms serving to blast apart the notion of Richard Owens' archetypes, as well as the notion that any organism is more perfect or more evolved than any other. These are the facts, the data of evolution.

Evolutionary biology is an ongoing science, one constantly adapting as new evidence is uncovered. The mechanisms by which evolution occurs, and the relative importance of each, are a constant source of debate within the scientific community. A 'theory', in scientific jargon, is neither guess nor speculation, but a powerfully evidenced explanation for a wide body of data. It is the most successful a hypothesis can get: the best explanation humanity can provide from our knowledge at a given time. The mechanisms by which evolution occurs are the theoretical explanation for the facts of evolution.

Darwin is not God, and he made mistakes, sometimes considerable mistakes, though they were quite understandable given the level of knowledge in his time. But this does nothing to diminish his importance and intelligence. Medicine, agriculture, and vaccination have been revolutionised or could only develop in the first place because of evolutionary theory, and their successes at saving millions of lives are amongst the strongest evidence for its predictive power, usefulness, and validity.

-The Rev. Schmitt.

The Reverend Schmitt., FCD

I suppose I should write an introductory entry to all of the quite terrible business which is to follow.

Hello, I am Jason, but have long been using the Schmitt pseudonym, because its origins are a thing of grace and elegance. I am an English undergraduate attending the University of Central England, Birmingham. I am ridiculously British. I am agnostic; a term near meaningless without explanation, one I will almost certainly be providing. This section of the post is not my friend or yours.

I've long had an online journal, but have rather wanted something a wee bit spicier, where I could post about serious business indeed; my beliefs, opinions, politics, interests, and about news stories which catch my eye. That being said, I'm hoping to keep this fairly impersonal, and this will hopefully be the most self indulgent entry of the blog.

Regarding all of those titles: I was ordained by the Universal Life Church, because it was amusing, and I severely doubt that the title thereby granted of 'Reverend' is the least bit recognised in the UK. I am also a Friend of Charles Darwin, because science - that most mystical of methodologies - is neat.

-The Rev. Schmitt.