Beauty of Gray

Friday, June 14, 2002

Intelligent Design?

Random thought--purveyors of intelligent design like to claim that it's really a scientific theory and not a religious one, and also that it's not simply a purely negative "anything but natural evolution" position. But the intervention of an outside force into the evolution of the Earth's biosphere presupposes the existence of such an outside force. So if humans on earth are too complicated to have developed through natural selection, where did those outside intervening intelligent agents come from? Seems like this is a runaway first cause type argument. If you don't think intelligence can evolve naturally, then intelligent design is itself impossible unless the intervention is from a God, something outside the natural universe. Or, to put it another way, there is no internally consistent intelligent design argument that is not forced to invoke God as an explanatory device.

Along the same lines, most would agree that the economy is too complicated to be simply managed or controlled by huamn intervention. If this is the case (as I think it is), then how is it that the biosphere, which is much more complicated than the economy, is presumed to be manipulable by some outside intervening being(s)? Or the equally complex relationship between an individual creatures DNA and its shape and function, for that matter.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:48 AM

McClellan vs. Terror

While most of the attention the JunkYardBlog has gotten in the last few days have focused on his posting concerning the mysterious John Doe #2, I hope everyone clicking through to read about that makes it down to this nice post about a visit to Antietam and the need for bold leadership in the coming war.

First, I’d like to encourage everyone out there who has a chance to visit the Antietam battlefield. It’s less well known and gets many fewer visitors than Gettysburg, but in my opinion it’s a much more rewarding site to visit. The battlefield itself is more compact and easier to follow while walking through it. It also has more identifiable and powerful landmarks. It’s impossible to walk down bloody lane, seeing the pictures posted there, without getting goosebumps. The stone bridge where a few hundred confederate riflemen held up an entire wing of the Union army, saving Lee’s flank flank, also still stands, and it’s easy to imagine the scene of chaos there. And the entire battlefield is sanctified by the innumerable monuments, erected after the war, commemorating the fallen of various regiments who fought there that day. There are also cannons planted upside-down at each of the sites where a general was killed during the battle, in an age where generals would be on the front lines with their troops.

I agree with the points raised in his post, and also with his worry that the current military leadership may be too risk averse. The recent report in the Washington Post about their resistance to take any action against Iraq has me concerned. As Napolean said, “An army of lions led by a stag will not fight like an army of lions.” In order for the US’s great military to function effectively, it needs leaders as excellent as its troops and equipment.

However, while McClellan is a good comparison, I think the problem here is a little different. McClellan’s problem was primarily tactical. He was able to build moral and create a top quality fighting force for the Union, and his strategic planning was good, but his nerve failed him when it came to actual battle. (In particular, I think his idea of an assault on Richmond from the sea was a brilliant stroke, although the execution was poor. But I’m surprised the Union never pursued that line further and attempted to press the outnumbered Confederates on two fronts in Virginia. The closest they came was at Chancellorsville, but the two prongs of that attack were so close together that a single army was able to defeat them both.)

As Bryan mentions, had McClellan been a little more bold at Antietam, he almost certainly would have won a decisive victory over Lee, perhaps crippling the Confederate army. Instead, not only did he fail to drive the Rebels from the field, he also failed to press the issue the following days with his rested reserves, allowing Lee’s army to retreat unhindered back to the defensive lines of the Rappahanock and Rapidan, setting the stage for the next cycle of Union embarrassments at Chancellorsville and Bull Run. In this, as in the entire first 3 years of the war, Lee benefited from facing second rate generals who were never able to take advantage of the tactical and strategic opportunities they were presented with.

Not to take anything away from Lee, though. He was still a great tactician who was, himself, able to take advantage of the mistakes of his opponents. A lesser general would probably have lost many of the battles he won, and it is his victories, regardless of the opposition, which prove his quality as a general. In fact, reflecting on the issue, I can think of very few examples of campaigns in which both sides were commanded by generals who could be considered great. (Of course, since great generals are considered great because of their victories, this is tough to pull off—to have both sides winning enough battles to identify certain commanders as great.)

Back to the point, I think the problem in our current war is less one of tactics than of strategy. It’s a matter of finding the right plan rather than executing the plan once it is chosen. I think that, so far, the leadership has done well, mixing military actions with intelligence gathering and financial strangulation. But that was the easy part. Afghanistan was the clear, visible target. The more challenging steps still remain, keeping the pressure on al Qaeda and preventing another massive attack on the US. And part of that effort must be cutting off any sources for weapons of mass destruction, or the detailed technical knowledge of how to construct them. I hope the US doesn’t let a strategic failure of nerve dictate a policy of risk aversion which will avoid casualties in the short term but ultimately cause more harm to the US in the long term.

The first, the grandest, the most decisive act of judgment which the statesman and General exercises is rightly to understand the War in which he engages, not to take it for something, to wish to make of it something, which by the nature of its relations it is impossible for it to be.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 8:48 AM

Back in the Saddle

Sorry for the lack of posts. All my free time the last few days was sucked up trying to solve all the levels in this maddeningly addictive laser game. Click through if you have time, but if two weeks from now you're out of a job, wandering around muttering about mirrors and lightbulbs, don't say I didn't warn you.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 7:56 AM

Monday, June 10, 2002
Real Political Correctness

I can't believe no-one else has picked up on this story. Basically, it seems that Republican operatives are compiling lists of the private, personal political preference of lobbyists and whether and how much they have donated to the different parties. As private citizens, mind ytou, not as part of their lobbying job--it's the politics of individuals rather than the lobbying firms that they're worried about here. Why? So they can deny access to the Democrats. Basically, they want to strong arm the firms into hiring more Republicans. Or, to put it another way, they want to control the actions of private firms to force them to hire individuals whose political affiliation is deemed acceptable to the government of the state.

This is true political correctness and is profoundly unamerican. One of the core values of a true democracy is that private political affiliation is just that--private. The government has no business coming in and dictating what are allowable political convictions, which is exactly what they're trying to do here. Frankly, I find it disgusting, and just lost most of the grudging respect I'd begun to feel for the current admistration. (Check out their ridiculously weaseling non-denial denials if you think Bush has advantage over Clinton in the duplicitous vote-whore category.)

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 3:24 PM

Spirituality and Environmentalism

The following quote is from Simon Schama’s fascinating book Landscape and Memory.

The real problem is whether it is possible to take myth seriously on its own terms, and to respect its coherence and complexity, without becoming morally blinded by its poetic power…

Of one thing at least I am certain: that not to take myth seriously in the life of an ostensibly “disenchanted” culture like our own is actually to impoverish our understanding of our shared world.

In this passage Schama is writing about the difficulty confronting historians studying myth—the tension between true understanding of the power of myth and the intellectual distance necessary to analyze it. What I’m more interested, though, is the reverse—the problem not of maintaining distance and rationality when confronted by myth but of the possibility of injecting some spirituality from myth into a rationalist culture.

Although the US is still a religious country, for many (myself included) religion no longer has explanatory power. Christianity, while certainly still alive and well and a powerful force in the country, is no longer a universal religion in the way it was in the middle ages and renaissance. However, while many find it impossible to believe in the message preached by organized religion, there is still a deep human need for some spirituality, and I would argue that this is at the root of much of the environmental movement, or is at least a motivating factor for many environmentalists.

The problem for a non-believer is to find something to believe in—something to provide spiritual sustenance and to give life meaning. This has been a major theme in western philosophy for the past 150 years or more. Really the question, although a discussion of that would be beside the point here. Some are able to elevate humanity or science or some other human task or abstraction to a universal goal and satisfy themselves that way, but for many those are either unacceptable or too abstract to satisfy. Certainly since the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment this has been a minority approach.

Instead, there has been a return to the root of religion—awe and respect for nature. For most it is a relatively inchoate thing, sort of a Pagan Unitarianism, if you will. Of course, this is nothing new; there has always been a strong strain of nature-religion in the West, from Pagan holy groves to the Gothic architecture and ornamentation which echoed them, the conflation of the True Cross and the Tree of Life, harvest rituals, maypoles, the list goes on. Open The Golden Bough to any random page to explore this rich mythic vein, which existed before Christianity and, at least partially, was integrated into it. And if Christianity (or Judaism or Islam or…) is rejected, there is still this underlying level of myth that can be drawn upon.

While the spiritual sustenance that many get from nature doesn’t rise to the level of an organized religion, it is still a religious urge and one that underpins much environmentalist sentiment. If wilderness has become, in a way, sacred, the site of your own spirituality, then protecting it becomes a powerful imperative. Taken too far, this leads to ecoterrorism and other extremes of the environmental movement, which see any development or expansion of human society as a despoiling, an invasion of sacred space, the cutting of the holy grove. It also explains why moderation is such a difficult position to find in the environmentalist movement, and why there is resistance to cold-eyed cost-benefit analysis of ecological issues.

Religion is not amenable to compromise, and no value can be placed on the sacred. What will it benefit you, if you gain the world and lose your soul? For many, the wilds are the seat of their soul; they gain inner strength from hiking in the woods, being on top of a mountain, swimming under a waterfall. Ultimately, I think one of the reasons people talk past each other on this issue is that for one side it is really a religious issue, while the other side uses the language of economics. Try debating a Catholic sometime about the need to dissolve the church to release its property and capital holdings to benefit the economic growth of the country and see how far you get. To a greater or lesser extent, I think many feel the same way about the environment.

Of course, this doesn’t explain why so many on the other side of the argument so firmly believe that whatever environmentalists say is wrong, tilting their own extremism to the level of being anti-environment. But that is a discussion for another day, and one to which I have no insight to contribute.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:11 PM

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