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Friday, February 04, 2011

Social Darwinism vrs. Real Darwinism

My typical reaction to people criticizing Darwin as being connected to Social Darwinism is to become extremely irritated with them. "The two are totally unrelated!" I scream in my head, as I become frustrated at yet another anti-science beachhead being formed. It was with this framework in mind that I listened to the 18 min. RadioLab podcase linked below which is an interview with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who defends Darwinism and attack social Darwinism.

After listening to the podcast I actually started to wonder if the theories are not more connected than I had thought. I had thought that there are many holes in the general notion of social darwinism--which I would explain as the proposition that if you practice charity, you are assisting an organism that has characterists adversely adapted to our environment survive and propogate, and thereby allowing adverse "mutation" in society to persist. One of the core problems with it is that it focuses on society and not individuals. I value individual humans.

But then this thought came to me: Does the purposeless world that evolution via natural selection suggests, make it less rational to value individual humans? Is this another way real Darwinism is connected to Social Darwinism?

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Luke & Plutarch

Here are excerpts from the opening few paragraphs from Plutarch's Lycurgus
There is so much uncertainty in the accounts which historians have left us of Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta, that scarcely anything is asserted by one of them which is not called into question or contradicted by the rest. Their sentiments are quite different as to the family he came of, the voyages he undertook, the place and manner of his death, but most of all when they speak of the laws he made and the commonwealth which he founded. . . . But notwithstanding this confusion and obscurity, we shall endeavour to compose the history of his life, adhering to those statements which are least contradicted, and depending upon those authors who are most worthy of credit.
Now consider this opening to the Gospel of Luke, which curiously enough was written a basically the same time.
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Luke 1: 1-4. What we have here is two first century writers, attempting to recount the life of a significant figure, but feeling compelled from the outset to acknowledge that others have set out to do the same thing. Luke's author is a bit more self-assured than Plutarch, which is reasonable I suppose given that Plutarch was considerably more separated from his subject.

Mortimer Adler's notion that Western literature is a conversation is compelling to me. Obviously, reading the works that his group selected to be Great only reinforces that notion. But I think it is crucial to recognize that the Bible is also a "Great Conversation," and this passage from Luke makes it pretty explicit.

A final note, one can promote an allegorical reading of the creation myths without abandoning the notion of a divinely inspired, even divinely authored Bible. Why shouldn't God communicate morals to God's people through a parable? The opening to Luke, on the other hand, seems to strain that notion to the breaking point--at least, if the other accounts include Matthew and Mark. (John wouldn't be written for some time after Luke.)

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Imprecatory Prayer

Religion Nerd has a post about a new kind of prayer for me. Imprecatory Prayer. Although, it turns out that if I had been paying attention while reading Psalms I would have recognized it.
1 My God, whom I praise,
do not remain silent,
2 for people who are wicked and deceitful
have opened their mouths against me;
they have spoken against me with lying tongues.
3 With words of hatred they surround me;
they attack me without cause.
4 In return for my friendship they accuse me,
but I am a man of prayer.
5 They repay me evil for good,
and hatred for my friendship.

6 Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
and may his prayers condemn him.
8 May his days be few;
may another take his place of leadership.
9 May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow.
10 May his children be wandering beggars;
may they be driven[a] from their ruined homes.

[and on, and on, and on]
Psalm 109.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Shared Wisdom

Consider these two passages. The first is from the Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, chapter 6; the second from Matthew 7:13-14.
Again, it is possible to fail in many ways (for evil belongs to the class of the unlimited, as the Pythagoreans conjectured, and good to that of the limited), while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult- to miss the mark easy, to hit it difficult); for these reasons also, then, excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the mean of virtue; For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Now lets do a similar exercise with these two. The first from the Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, chapter 9; the second is an internet summary of Buddhist thinking. (Sorry, no time to find something from the Dhammapada.)
That moral virtue is a mean, then, and in what sense it is so, and that it is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency, and that it is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions, has been sufficiently stated. Hence also it is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for every one but for him who knows; so, too, any one can get angry- that is easy- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

The Buddha claimed that the practices he advocated in the quest for enlightenment avoided the extremes of sensual self-indulgence on the one hand and self-mortification on the other and thus he gave his Noble Eightfold Path the alternative name of the Middle Way. (Majjhima patipada).
A similar comparison is frequently done with the teachings of Buddha and Christ. What explanation do we have for this other than one being directly influenced by the other? The teachings of Jesus might have been influenced by Hellenistic culture, and certainly the version of those teachings recorded in the Gospels was. But, I don't think there is any reason to believe that Buddhism influenced Aristotle.

Is the best explanation that they were all providing wisdom on the human condition, and there are certain universal truths about how to live life in the best way?

Monday, January 31, 2011

Which came first: the Just Act or the Just Person

I've enjoyed a nice FB conversation spawned by the following status update.

Does one become a just person by doing acts of justice, or is doing acts of justice the product of being a just person?

First off, clearly both are required. If an wicked person accidently did something that had a beneficial effect, I wouldn't call it a virtuous act. (Or shoud I?) Nonetheless, I think which causes which is important in deciding how to instill values. E.g., if you are going to work at a soup kitchen and your kid doesn't want to go, should you make him? If behaving in a virtuous manner, makes us virtuous, then the answer is yes. If truly virtuous acts require a virtuous heart first, then making him go is no good, and maybe even counterproductive.