Why free will matters

free willAnytime a newspaper reporter tries to tackle the subject of philosophy in a serious way, it’s a good thing. Carey Goldberg’s report in The Boston Globe on Harvard professor Marc Hauser’s work to prove that morality is universally hard-wired into the brain is no exception.

Tucked 12 paragraphs into the story is “huge news” that sadly receives little attention from Goldberg, who seems to focus more on the arguments of whose theory has the most validity rather than the possible real world effect of Hauser’s work:

Some critics also charge that Hauser’s emphasis on biology negates the concept of free will and implies that all our moral choices are predetermined.

What is the big deal regarding free will? Yes, I am all too familiar with the free will vs. predestination debates, and no, these critics are not saying that negating free will means the Calvinists won. That is not what this is about, at least for now. Eliminate the free-will doctrine and nobody is responsible for things anymore, at least in the courtroom. Here is The Economist in December:

Free will is one of the trickiest concepts in philosophy, but also one of the most important. Without it, the idea of responsibility for one’s actions flies out of the window, along with much of the glue that holds a free society (and even an unfree one) together. If businessmen were no longer responsible for their contracts, criminals no longer responsible for their crimes and parents no longer responsible for their children, even though contract, crime and conception were “freely” entered into, then social relations would be very different.

It is no new development in the American legal system for accused criminals to challenge the charge that their crime was their fault. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood started chipping away at that concept 40 years ago.

And it’s not just in the legal system that this matters. More from The Economist:

Markets also depend on the idea that personal choice is free choice. Mostly, that is not a problem. Even if choice is guided by unconscious instinct, that instinct will usually have been honed by natural selection to do the right thing. But not always. Fatty, sugary foods subvert evolved instincts, as do addictive drugs such as nicotine, alcohol and cocaine. Pornography does as well. Liberals say that individuals should be free to consume these, or not. Erode free will, and you erode that argument.

In fact, you begin to erode all freedom. Without a belief in free will, an ideology of freedom is bizarre. Though it will not happen quickly, shrinking the space in which free will can operate could have some uncomfortable repercussions.

This type of discussion is also key to figuring out the future of the culture wars in a society that bases its laws on the will of the people. A “moral dilemma” example given by Hauser is why most people find it wrong to kill a sick patient with no chance of surviving while it would be OK to do nothing and allow that patient to die. Is that type of moral reasoning hard-wired into the human brain? If so, why? If this “experimental philosophy” is somehow able to gain credibility in our society, how soon until we see it being used in determining the basis for our laws?

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When geoscientists attack

geoscientistOnce upon a time, I thought I wanted to become an economics professor. This delusion lasted from early high school until I took enough postgraduate classes to be convinced otherwise. I loved my field of study and I had fantastic professors. One way in which they were helpful was to counsel me to keep my private views on everything from monetary theory to the Coase Conjecture hidden.

There is nothing so political as the academy. And generally speaking there’s not a lot of room for people who express unorthodox views. They don’t call it a university for nothing! So even though Keynesian theories no longer have exclusive sway in non-academic economic fields, they completely dominated my college. My professors, some of whom were extreme socialists and some of whom had enjoyed the forbidden fruits of Posner and Hayek, told me how to play the game. Basically that meant that I would just study whatever I was assigned and complete coursework in support of the approved theories. Once I received my Ph.D., I was to keep up the facade, more or less, until I was tenured. Only then could I reveal my personal views.

That is a long way of saying that Cornelia Dean had a fantastic idea for a story in today’s New York Times. She found a geoscientist who completed his undergraduate and graduate schooling with great marks — all while being a young earth creationist (which the Times puts in scare quotes).

For him, Dr. [Marcus] Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

Ross says it’s no big deal and even uses an economics department as an analogy. But as you might expect, other professors are enraged that the academy let an, er, non-believer into their hallowed halls.

Dean really handled the story well, characterizing and quoting each side charitably. Major kudos for that. She also nails the crux of the debate:

And, for some, his case raises thorny philosophical and practical questions. May a secular university deny otherwise qualified students a degree because of their religion? Can a student produce intellectually honest work that contradicts deeply held beliefs? Should it be obligatory (or forbidden) for universities to consider how students will use the degrees they earn?

She speaks with one professor who concedes it’s a difficult issue but says that if an academic’s work is good, his work is good. End of story. Others disagree, saying the issue is how Ross will use his degree.

Ross teaches at Liberty University and Dean explores how his classes are taught. He uses conventional texts but also discusses how they intersect with Christianity, he says. Dean gives a few other examples of the intolerance for conflicting views in scientific fields, including this one:

A somewhat more complicated issue arose last year at Ohio State University, where Bryan Leonard, a high school science teacher working toward a doctorate in education, was preparing to defend his dissertation on the pedagogical usefulness of teaching alternatives to the theory of evolution.

Earle M. Holland, a spokesman for the university, said Mr. Leonard and his adviser canceled the defense when questions arose about the composition of the faculty committee that would hear it.

Meanwhile three faculty members had written the university administration, arguing that Mr. Leonard’s project violated the university’s research standards in that the students involved were being subjected to something harmful (the idea that there were scientific alternatives to the theory of evolution) without receiving any benefit.

Dean talked to many people for her story and gives the reader a good understanding of Ross’ academic history and the challenges he faced at various schools. To ascertain whether the academic field believes that Ross’ religious views should result in his being ostracized, she spoke to many professors, including David Fastovsky, who is a paleontologist, professor of geosciences and Ross’ dissertation adviser. By hearing from so many people, the reader gets a better feel for the contentious issues:

Dr. Fastovsky said he had talked to Dr. Ross “lots of times” about his religious beliefs, but that depriving him of his doctorate because of them would be nothing more than religious discrimination. “We are not here to certify his religious beliefs,” he said. “All I can tell you is he came here and did science that was completely defensible.”

Steven B. Case, a research professor at the Center for Research Learning at the University of Kansas, said it would be wrong to “censor someone for a belief system as long as it does not affect their work. Science is an open enterprise to anyone who practices it.”

Dr. Case, who champions the teaching of evolution, heads the committee writing state science standards in Kansas, a state particularly racked by challenges to Darwin. Even so, he said it would be frightening if universities began “enforcing some sort of belief system on their graduate students.”

But Dr. [Eugenie] Scott, a former professor of physical anthropology at the University of Colorado [and executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a private group on the front line of the battle for the teaching of evolution], said in an interview that graduate admissions committees were entitled to consider the difficulties that would arise from admitting a doctoral candidate with views “so at variance with what we consider standard science.” She said such students “would require so much remedial instruction it would not be worth my time.”

That is not religious discrimination, she added, it is discrimination “on the basis of science.”

That last excerpt doesn’t include all of the professors she spoke with, but it gives you a taste. Rather than painting one side as anti-religious extremists or the other as evangelical yokel sympathizers, Dean gives you real humans with real ideas. Not everyone agrees, but they have the opportunity to share their views. If only academia were as welcoming to opposing views as Dean’s article!

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Newsweek moralizes on interfaith communion

interfaithNewsweek‘s weekly BeliefWatch section is great. It’s a guaranteed two-column slot in a national magazine that will focus on some unique issue relating the religion. Usually it’s a story that has received little or no coverage elsewhere, and for that the contributors to the section should be commended.

This week is a great example. How often do you read about the history and the results of “interfaith dialogue”? But unfortunately this piece by Lisa Miller gets off to a poor start by quoting Nexis search results. Miller found that of the 173 entries since 1997 in major national newspapers, 100 were in the past five years. I guess that tells us something, but there are better ways to prove a trend than keyword searches.

After explaining to us what a tremendous thing it was for Pope John Paul II to reach out to Jews in 1987 and to give support to the state of Israel, Miller goes on to explain that if children of different faiths become friends, “that’s all to the good” and that dialogue between religious sects is “essential to world peace.”

Now I don’t disagree with any of that, but why is Miller telling us this? Can she site specific examples where interfaith dialogue led to peace? I don’t doubt that there are examples out there, but unsupported statements fail to pass as quality journalism.

In an attempt to insert some skepticism, Miller interviews a college psychologist who seems to be an expert in interfaith issues. Here’s where the piece gets interesting:

Based on the sheer volume of these efforts, however, it’s reasonable to assume that the bulk of them, though sincere, are quixotic. For the past five years, Steve Worchel, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii, has been studying the effects of interfaith camp programs on youth over time. “You go to these camps [in the Balkans or the Middle East] and afterward, everyone’s hugging each other,” he says. That glow quickly fades. “Many of these programs are one-shot deals, and these are attitudes that have grown up over generations … You don’t change deep-seated hatred in a week.” More lasting, says Worchel, is a feeling of self-esteem. Kids who attend interfaith camp tend to think of themselves as part of the solution, but they need the long-term support of their community and political leaders to keep their minds open. And then Worchel says something really profound. Conflict, he says, is part of life and love; communities require enemies in order to cohere. Interfaith dialogue is not a magic bullet. The question is how to manage the human instinct for conflict into the future so it doesn’t destroy the world.

I love how Miller has taken on the job of telling us what is “really profound” about a person’s words. And again, I agree, what Worchel says here is pretty profound, but I believe I can make that determination myself. I’m not against personal essays, but if this is supposed to be genuine journalism, personal opinions ought to be kept out.

Also, as an afterthought, since this is the age of the Internet, could we see more of Worchel’s work on Newsweek‘s site?

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Readers lost in Sea of Reeds?

parting red seaWhile I was covering the religion beat for The Charlotte Observer long ago, one of my editors stressed that I should not write in a story that a man said that a key moment in his life was when he “walked the aisle” and “accepted Jesus as his personal savior.”

It did not matter that these terms were used in an evangelical context and were explained. It also didn’t matter to the editor — a Unitarian, by the way — that the newspaper was in a city in which one of the major roads is named after that famous local guy named Billy Graham.

This is, however, an example of a crucial issue for professionals on the Godbeat.

How do we know what our readers understand and what they do not understand? Does it matter if a reporter uses religious language accurately if a large percentage of readers do not know what the words mean? Where do we cross the line between writing with authority and simply sliding — “inside baseball style” — into niche language?

Please consider this example on the left side of the sanctuary aisle.

GetReligion reader John L. Hoh Jr. recently sent us an interesting Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about rites held for five women who never been able to celebrate bat mitzvah ceremonies. Here is a crucial passage in the story:

(At) one point, Rabbi David Brusin surprised the people at Congregation Shir Hadash by having the five women take tambourines and move through the parting, swaying crowd in a symbolic re-enactment of Miriam crossing the parted Sea of Reeds with Moses.

The idea for Saturday’s event originated with the congregation’s Rosh Hodesh women’s group, named after the monthly appearance of the new moon in the Jewish calendar. It is celebrating its 13th anniversary this year, the age at which girls in this Reconstructionist congregation normally have a bat mitzvah ceremony.

Having these adult women become b’not mitzvah (the plural of bat mitzvah) was a meaningful way to mark the anniversary, said Sara Shutkin of Whitefish Bay, who is a founder of the group. Most grew up when such public ceremonies were not commonly offered for girls in Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative congregations in their areas.

I have some questions. It helps that the story makes an attempt to define, in some way, the small Reconstructionist movement (the modernist, progressive wing of Judaism). Still, readers are given little to work with in terms of where this movement fits in with Reform or Conservative Judaism, let alone the various forms of Orthodox Judaism. Do readers know things like that?

And what about the Sea of Reeds? I assume that people who have taken a biblical-studies class or two in college or graduate school would understand that reference. But many, many more people are likely to be confused. They are familiar with the parting of the Red Sea, as described in thousands of churches and synagogues (not to mention a certain Hollywood movie and plenty of other forms of populist art).

Should the reporter pause and explain the background of that “Sea of Reeds” reference? Should it be placed in the context of debates between premodern and modern forms of the Jewish faith? In other words, for whom is this story written? How much do these readers need to know in order to read their daily newspaper?

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Here’s a W library starting point

20040115 7 neworleans1 515hThe last time we tuned in the Southern Methodist University soap opera involving the George W. Bush presidential library, we were seeing lots of people claim that, for the faculty, this was an issue of academic freedom and, for a vocal chorus of Methodist clergy, it was a fight over W’s sins against “Methodist values” in foreign policy and a hot cultural issue or two.

The key quote came in a letter published by some professors at the Perkins School of Theology, who said:

“Do we want SMU to benefit financially from a legacy of massive violence, destruction, and death brought about by the Bush presidency in dismissal of broad international opinion? … What moral justification supports SMU’s providing a haven for a legacy of environmental predation and denial of global warming, shameful exploitation of gay rights, and the most critical erosion of habeas corpus in memory?”

That sounded like culture wars language to me, some of it, at least.

In response to that earlier post, GetReligion received this comment:

As a mid-90s Perkins alum, I can say that several of our faculty then excelled at mining the decades of (John) Wesley’s writings to proof-text anything they cared to believe. His exclusivist views on salvation and other ideas that might be embarassing to our modern and all-open, all-affirming ears were overlooked or consigned to the classrooms of a few of those wingnut types who still believed such things.

The amusing thing is that there is suddenly a concern among Perkins faculty about SMU’s Methodist image. That image is strong enough to survive a booze-drenched Greek system, a push to use the university’s initials rather than its name (so as to not ruffle those who might be uncomfortable being associated with a church) and years of athletic department abuses that brought about the NCAA’s only “death penalty” sanction. But it can’t survive this, it seems. …

Posted by Brett at 5:04 pm on January 27, 2007

So is this fight about the Iraq war? Yes.

Is this about other political issues? Yes.

Is this conflict also about the doctrinal and moral issues that are rocking the United Methodist Church, especially in a city where you have a liberal school of theology surrounded by, well, Texas?

In a word, yes. The best answer is “All of the above.” So how do you capture that in simple language in a short daily news report? Impossible, right?

Well, take a look at this section of a Religion News Service story by reporter G. Jeffrey MacDonald that moved the other day. The wrinkle is that, this time around, it is the conservatives who are playing the “tolerance” card. Can’t SMU allow some diversity? That leads to this:

What began as an internal flap at SMU became a national debate for Methodists after a library site-selection committee in December named SMU the sole finalist. Critics fear a privately funded policy institute, or think tank, will tie the Methodist name to a partisan public relations enterprise. Opponents are calling on the Methodist Church to forbid use of SMU property for such a purpose.

The Bush brouhaha brings out familiar fault lines between theological liberals and conservatives across the 8 million-member denomination. Methodists have battled for years over issues such as gay clergy and abortion.

The same people who have argued for pluralism within the denomination on matters of doctrine are insisting on a particular brand of ethical purity in the public square, supporters of the Bush library say.

It’s easy to argue about that last statement. But the key is the “fault lines” material in the middle of that passage. That is part of the Bush library battle. That’s a fact and that part of the story needs to be covered, in order to grasp the emotions stirred up by the conflict in Dallas pews, pulpits and classroom podiums. Can I get an amen?

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The Harvard way of getting religion

crew at harvard The smart folks over at Harvard University came out with their report on how to overhaul the general education curriculum, more commonly known as the core curriculum. As expected, the requirement asking students to study religion as a particular subject was dropped.

I found it curious that The Boston Globe ignored the religious angle until the ninth paragraph, but that did not stop the Associated Press and Reuters from proclaiming that the subject of religion would be included in the curriculum, just not as previously proposed. If you’re confused about the difference, you’re not alone. As best I can tell, the members of the committee found it best to tuck religious studies into a broader category:

An earlier proposal would have made Harvard unique among its elite Ivy League peers by requiring undergraduates to study religion as a distinct subject, but that was dropped in December.

The changes to the general-education requirements, imposed on students outside their major, still address religious beliefs and practices. Study of those issues, however, would be folded into a broader subject of “culture and belief.”

How is this different from what Harvard has now? Neither article told us, but I’m told that under the existing curriculum students had to take a class under the category of Moral Reasoning, which included some courses about religion but others that were closer to secular philosophy.

After my first post on the issue, reader Eric Chaffee asked why Moral Reasoning was dumped. That’s a good question reporters haven’t really answered. My impression is that the university is making the change for the sake of change, but it is definitely worth following up on.

What is most interesting in the AP and Reuters stories on the report is this fact:

“Harvard is a secular institution but religion is an important part of our students’ lives,” it said. It noted that 94 percent of Harvard’s incoming students report that they discuss religion “frequently” or “occasionally,” and 71 percent say that they attend religious services.

While that is a rather vague stat, one has to wonder how it compares with other secular universities. There is a story to tell about the status of religion at Harvard, and I’ll be waiting for someone to tell it.

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One chapel altar, minus one cross

virginia70This may sound like a strange question, but I think it is one that needs to be asked and, if asked, it could add some needed depth to a hot-button story in Virginia higher education.

Ready? Why does anyone think that there should be a cross on the altar of the nondenominational, multi-faith Wren Chapel at the College of William & Mary?

I realize that this is an emotional issue for many people, including alumni, donors, parents and a few students. I know that this 313-year-old school was founded as an Anglican institution (and I will avoid any cheap jokes about the role of the cross in modern debates between Episcopalians and Anglicans). But the fact is that — whatever its heritage — William & Mary is now a public school. It’s a state school.

Unless the school has other chapels available for members of other faiths, what is the church-state argument (other than historical) for a state school to have a Christian cross in its multi-faith chapel? After a quick run through the school’s website, I cannot find evidence of other chapels.

I raise this because of a page-one story by reporter Natasha Altamirano in the The Washington Times, under the headline “Bow to diversity leaves altar empty.” The hook for the story is the tense atmosphere at the back-to-school State of the College address by President Gene R. Nichol. Here is a key part of the story:

“I modified the way in which the cross is displayed in the ancient Wren Chapel seeking to assure that the marvelous Wren — so central to the life of the college — be equally open and welcoming to all,” Mr. Nichol told roughly 400 students, alumni and faculty packed into the college’s Commonwealth Auditorium.

Mr. Nichol said the decision has received wide support but “many, many have seen it otherwise” and have asked him to reconsider.

. . . Mr. Nichol said removing the cross has raised broader questions: “Does the separation of church and state at public universities seek a bleaching of the importance and influence of faith and religious thought from our discourse?” and “Can a public university honor and celebrate a particular religious heritage while remaining equally welcoming to those of all faiths?”

The old policy at the college was that the 2-foot-high, century-old bronze cross stayed on the altar unless someone requested that it be removed for a special event. Now, that policy has been flipped. Those using the chapel can request that the cross be taken out of storage and returned to its place on the altar.

Before, the bare altar was optional. Now, the cross is optional at William & Mary.

Some people are upset by the symbolism of the change. I am asking about the legal reality. Why have a cross in a multi-faith, state-funded chapel?

If parents, students and donors are upset, they should support private schools where the presence of the cross is normative. That is their choice. It would be interesting to ask if any William & Mary supporters are planning to do that. Can Nichol please both sides?

However, if the opponents of this move have arguments that are deeper than symbolism and tradition, I would be interested in reading them. I hope reporters at the Times and elsewhere will ask that question.

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The Safety Dance

no dancing signSo if it’s Monday, that must mean I write about something from The New York Times Sunday Magazine. And so I will. Mark Oppenheimer used the hook of a nondenominational university in Arkansas permitting dance for the first time as a way to explore some Christians’ view of dancing. The piece is ridiculously smooth and well-written and looks at the issue from a number of angles.

Mark Oppenheimer edits In Character, a thrice-yearly journal that looks at a single ethical concern each issue. He has written for The Believer (not a religious publication but a pretty awesome one), The New Yorker, Harper’s, Slate, The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Century. He’s not ideological per se but he clearly has a healthy respect for religion and ethics. And The New York Times Sunday Magazine found him although he’s never written for Mother Jones.

He has a Ph.D. in religious history from Yale and his two books are Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America and Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture. Here’s how he begins:

On the first night of December, an unseasonably cold one in the Ozarks, the boys and girls of John Brown University primped in their zoot suits, suspenders, waistcoats, spats, faux-hawks, pompadours, knee-length pleated skirts, nylons, snoods and inch-high black heels and marched through snow drifts to their gymnasium in the Walton Lifetime Health Complex, one of northwest Arkansas’s monuments to the Wal-Mart family’s generosity. Inside, the gymnasium was decorated with rows of Christmas lights strung overhead across the width of the basketball court, from one railing of the mezzanine jogging track to the other. The occasion, which would last from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., was a dance, the first of its kind at this small, nondenominational Christian college.

He contends, with the help of various evangelical scholars, that schools that formerly banned dancing are more accepting of the practice as foreign enrollment increases. He explains how some fundamentalists and other Christians came to ban drinking, smoking and dancing. But he also shows how dancing is lauded by some of the same type of Christians:

For conservative Christians, dancing is also a way to teach the virtues. Students are schooled in chivalry, taught always to walk a lady to and from the floor, applaud the band and ask the girl standing by herself for a dance. A swing, ballroom or square dance usually takes place in a well-lighted space. The swing dancers of yore may have been escaping supervision, but now dancing is a family affair: Nathan [Cozart] and Craig [Congdon] both dance with their siblings. (Craig danced with his mom.) Unlike Christian rock, the music for these dances is palatable to older generations too. Formal dances require instruction in the proper steps, which creates a role for parents or teachers. And of course, the sexuality of dance can be a positive thing, if it provides a sexual release without the sex.

It’s obvious that Oppenheimer took the time to get to know his subjects. He understands their diversity, their unique viewpoints and their biblical approach. In fact, the reader ends up pulling for various dancers in the school’s dance contest because they’re made so human. This is a minor quibble, but since I do street dance, I have to complain. Oppenheimer writes:

Still it’s hard to imagine that hip-hop dancing would ever be acceptable at J.B.U. — if too sexual, it wouldn’t be Christian, and if too Christian, it would be laughable.

This could only be written by someone who doesn’t understand hip-hop dance. There is nothing that makes hip-hop a more sexual category of dance than any other. But this is GetReligion, not GetDance, so I’ll stop.

Anyway, let me know what you thought of the article. It certainly didn’t paint these people in a glowing light, although it was sympathetic. I’d be curious how some of you Shaw Moore (John Lithgow in Footloose) types feel about the portrayal.

Photo via iambrain.dk on Flickr.

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