The strange story of David Horowitz and the “Bush-as-war-criminal” essay

I apologize for the length of this post but I felt a responsibility (especially since I had a role in creating this rolling snowball) to provide a fairly comprehensive update on the convoluted, strange, and suddenly fast-moving, saga of David Horowitz, the organization he founded called Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), and the college professor who allegedly asked his class to write a mid-term essay on “Why George Bush is a war criminal,” and then gave an F grade to a student who had been offended by the assignment and had instead turned in one on “Why Saddam Hussein is a war criminal.”
[Read more…]

What do creationist/ID advocates want-II?

We saw in an earlier posting that a key idea of the creationists is that it was the arrival of Darwin, Marx, and Freud that led to the undermining of Western civilization.

The basis for this extraordinary charge is the claim that it was these three that ushered in the age of materialism. These three people make convenient targets because, although they were all serious scientific and social scholars, they have all been successfully tarred as purveyors of ideas that have been portrayed as unpleasant or even evil (Darwin for saying that we share a common ancestor with apes, Marx with communism, Freud with sexuality).
[Read more…]

Universities as a reality-based community

In a previous posting I described the disturbing phenomenon that so many Americans seemed to be living is a reality-free world. I argued that this was because they were being systematically misled by people who should, and do, know better.

Further support for my somewhat cynical view comes from an article by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind that appeared in the October 17, 2004 New York Times Magazine and that deserves to be better known because of the light it sheds on the extent to which the current administration is ideologically driven. His article has this chilling anecdote:

“In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend – but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”

What you have on display here is a world-view that is so arrogant that it believes that it has the power to create its own realities.

It is not unusual in the hey-day of empires for its leaders to have the feeling that they alone can direct the course of events, that they can overcome the realities they face, and that nothing can stop them from achieving their goals, whatever they may be.

What is perhaps extreme in this case is that this arrogance seems to be causing the leaders to ignore the actual realities and to think that they can create their own version of it. In other words, they believe that what they want to believe actually exists. Now, in some ways, it is always possible to do this. Reality is a complex business, composed of many disparate elements, and it is always possible to pick out those elements that support one’s fantasy, ignore the rest, and act accordingly.

But what is happening here is deeper and more disturbing. What this administration is doing is trying to make reality irrelevant by creating an alternate “reality.” They do this by quickly and repeatedly and strongly saying the things that they wish the public to believe are true and depending on the media or the Democratic Party to not call them on the lack of support for the assertions. As a result, after a short time, the administration’s assertions enter the public consciousness, become the new “reality”, and thus become the basis for vacuous ‘policy debates’ that have nothing to do with the actual situation.

We saw this happen in the run-up to the war with Iraq and we are seeing it again with the recent killing in Lebanon of Rafik Hariri. Using a combination of innuendo and bombast, the administration has managed to make people think that Syria is the culprit even though, until today, no evidence in support of this claim has been presented and there even exists some counterevidence. On the other hand, Robert Fisk reports today that the UN investigation team is due to make a report that will allege that there may have been a cover-up of the investigation by Lebanese and Syrian authorities, so that the situation is still murky.

What most reality-based people realize is that while forcing your own version of reality on events can win you short-term political victories, it is a prescription for long-term disaster because eventually the contradiction between the ‘virtual reality’ and reality become too stark to make your actions viable. The “judicious study of discernible reality,” sneered at by the senior Bush advisor, is the way to arrive at reasoned judgments that have a chance of producing policies that make sense.

In many ways, universities have to be reality-based. The work of universities rests on empirical bases, on data, on evidence. This does not mean that they restrict themselves to describing just what is. Speculative ideas are the life-blood of academia because that is how new knowledge is created. Making bold speculations and pushing the limits of theories is part of the job of universities.

But such efforts must always rest on an empirical basis because otherwise they cease to be credible. You can build on reality, but you can’t totally depart from it. Academics know that their credibility rests on their ability to balance speculation and theorizing with empirical data. For example, a physicist who proposes theories that do not have a basis in data would be ridiculed.

But no such constraints seem to restrain the current political leaders. At one time, the media might have played the role of injecting reality into the public discussion, by comparing official statements with the facts on the ground and providing historical context. But now that the press has largely abdicated that role (see the previous postings on The questions not asked part I and part II) in favor of either acting as a mouthpiece for the fantasies of political leaders or debating tactical points while not questioning the core fantasies, it is up to the universities to fill that void.

This is why efforts like Ohio’s Senate Bill 24 that seek to restrict what university instructors can and cannot say are so dangerous. They seek to bring universities also under political control, to suffocate one of the few remaining viable reality-based institutions. While opponents decry universities as being too “liberal”, what really make universities “dangerous” is that they are fundamentally reality-based institutions that cannot be easily co-opted into accepting fantasies as reality.

It seems ironic that universities, long derided as ivory towers occupied by pointy-headed intellectuals out of touch with the “real world”, may in fact need to be the force that brings reality back into public life.


On Thursday, May 17) in the Guilford Parlor from 11:30-1:00pm there will be a forum on Ohio’s Senate Bill #24 (the so-called academic bill of rights. I will be on the panel along with Professor Mel Durschlag (Law), Professor Jonathan Sadowsky (History), and Professor Joe White (Political Science).


Update on a previous posting:

I received a call yesterday (March 14) from a person associated with Students for Academic Freedom informing me that my op-ed had triggered the release of more information on their website, where more details are given.

Although the student referred to had not in fact given this testimony at the Colorado Senate hearings as had been alleged earlier, the level of detail (which had not been released until now) provided on the SAF website is sufficient to remove this story from the category of urban legends since it does give some names and places and dates. But a judgment on whether this constitutes academic bullying will have to await more details on what actually transpired between professor and student. My contact at SAF says that the incident is still under investigation and confidentiality prevents the release of more information.

Update on the update (3/15/05): It gets curioser and curioser.

The blog Canadian Cynic reports that new information on this case has come out and that Horowitz is now backtracking on almost all of the key charges that were originally made. Canadian Cynic highlights Horowitz’s statements now that “Some Of Our Facts Were Wrong; Our Point Was Right” and “”I consider this an important matter and will get to the bottom of it even if it should mean withdrawing the claim.”

See the article on the website Inside Higher Education. It seems to be the most authoritative source of information on this case.

What do ID advocates want?

In an earlier posting, I spoke about how those who view Darwin’s ideas as evil see it as the source of the alleged decline in morality. But on the surface, so-called “intelligent design” (or ID) seems to accept much of evolutionary ideas, reserving the actions of a “designer” for just a very few (five, actually) instances of alleged “irreducible complexity” that occur at the microbiological level.

This hardly seems like a major attack on Darwin since, on the surface, it seems to leave unchallenged almost all of the major ideas of the Darwinian structure such as the non-constancy of species (the basic theory of evolution), the descent of all organisms from common ancestors (branching evolution), the gradualness of evolution (no discontinuities), the multiplication of species, and natural selection.

So where does ID fit into this attack on evolution? It’s role is explicitly outlined in the document that has been labeled the “Wedge Strategy” or the “Wedge Document put out in 1999 by the Center for the Renewal of Science & Culture (now called the Center for Science and Culture) of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which is the well-funded “think-tank” that funds and supports the work of creationists.

In the document it becomes clear that intelligent design is seen as kind of the shock troops that establish the beachhead on the fields of science, prior to the rest of the creationist army coming behind and occupying the entire landscape.

Here is an extended passage from the introduction of the document that outlines the issues as seen by them:

“The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art.

The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating. Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. Such moral relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences, and it still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology and sociology.

Materialists also undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment. The results can be seen in modern approaches to criminal justice, product liability, and welfare. In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions.

Finally, materialism spawned a virulent strain of utopianism. Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth.

Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.”

A little later in the document one comes across the ‘Governing Goals’ of the movement, which are:

  • “To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
  • To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

So there you have it. In a nutshell, the argument is:

  1. The greatest achievements of Western civilization are largely due to the idea that human beings were created in God’s image.
  2. Things were just peachy until a little over one hundred years ago.
  3. Then Darwin, Marx, and Freud dethroned this idea and instead introduced materialist ideas that spread into all areas of science and culture.
  4. Everything pretty much fell apart after that.
  5. If things are to improve, ‘scientific materialism’ needs to be defeated and God has to be accepted as the creator of nature and human beings.

This is a pretty sweeping line of reasoning. Such broad-brush analyses of society are inherently suspect since the way societies function and form is highly complex and claiming all the good for one belief structure and all the bad for the opposing side is to oversimplify on a massive scale.

I discussed in the previous posting some of the problems with this kind of reasoning.

But what is clear is that the ultimate goal of this movement is to eliminate “scientific materialism” and bring back God into all areas of life. Getting ID into the science curriculum is just the first step, hence the name “wedge” strategy.

This is the first of a series on this topic. I will look more closely into what “scientific materialism” is and the implications of this strategy in future postings.

The questions not asked II – UN resolutions

It’s time to play another game of The questions not asked. This is where we examine the reporting of some news event and try and identify the obvious questions that should have been posed by the media, or the context that should have been provided to better understand the event, but wasn’t.

Today’s example is taken from a speech given by George W. Bush on March 8, 2005 and reported in the Houston Chronicle.

“The time has come for Syria to fully implement Security Council Resolution 1559,” Bush told a largely military audience at the National Defense University. “All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections for those elections to be free and fair.”

Bush, in a speech touting progress toward democracy in the broader Middle East, did not say what might follow failure to comply.

At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan also left the question open. “If they don’t follow through on their international obligations, then, obviously, you have to look at what the next steps are,” McClellan said.

So what questions were not posed? What context was not provided?

One immediate answer is to compare the situations in Lebanon and Iraq. How can Bush say that the Lebanese elections cannot be free and fair because of the presence of 14,000 Syrian troops there, when ten times that many US troops were present in Iraq during that election in January, but those elections were praised?

But that question was not asked, the context not provided.

But there is another obvious angle to this particular case that was also overlooked, and that is the way in which UN resolutions are used selectively to justify US policy decisions.

UN resolutions routinely call, among other things, for the withdrawal of foreign troops from other countries. And given that the UN is, for want of anything better, the closest thing we have to providing a global consensus, such resolutions should be taken seriously.

But this is not the first time that UN resolutions calling for the withdrawal of occupying troops to be withdrawn have been defied. For example, Stephen Zunes, professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco in his article US Double Standards in the October 22, 2002 issue of The Nation magazine says that more than ninety UN resolutions are currently being violated, and the vast majority of the violations are by countries closely allied with the US. He says:

For example, in 1975, after Morocco’s invasion of Western Sahara and Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, the Security Council passed a series of resolutions demanding immediate withdrawal. However, then-US ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan bragged that “the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.” East Timor finally won its freedom in 1999. Moroccan forces still occupy Western Sahara. Meanwhile, Turkey remains in violation of Security Council Resolution 353 and more than a score of resolutions calling for its withdrawal from northern Cyprus, which Turkey, a NATO ally, invaded in 1974.

The most extensive violator of Security Council resolutions is Israel. Israel’s refusal to respond positively to the formal acceptance this past March by the Arab League of the land-for-peace formula put forward in Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 arguably puts Israel in violation of these resolutions, long seen as the basis for Middle East peace. More clearly, Israel has defied Resolutions 267, 271 and 298, which demand that it rescind its annexation of greater East Jerusalem, as well as dozens of other resolutions insisting that Israel cease its violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, such as deportations, demolition of homes, collective punishment and seizure of private property. Unlike some of the hypocritical and meanspirited resolutions passed by the UN General Assembly, like the now-rescinded 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism, these Security Council resolutions are well grounded in international law and were passed with US support or abstention. Security Council Resolutions 446, 452 and 465 require that Israel evacuate all its illegal settlements on occupied Arab lands.

All the UN resolution pointed to be Zunes are very serious and are much older that the resolution 1559 being used against Syria, so that these violations are long standing. All this information is in the public record. Any reasonably competent journalist should know it and, when the administration (and this is done by both Republican and Democratic administrations) cynically invokes UN resolutions selectively to achieve narrow political ends, should be able to pose the relevant question of why only some UN resolutions have to be followed while others ignored.

But the mainstream journalists don’t do this. One question is why. But the more important question is, since they don’t do their job, what can we do to make up for it?

Evolutionary theory and falsificationism

In response to a previous posting, commenter Sarah Taylor made several important points. She clearly articulated the view that evolutionary theory is a complex edifice that is built on many observations that fit into a general pattern that is largely chronologically consistent.

She also notes that one distinguishing feature of science is that there are no questions that it shirks from, that there are no beliefs that it is not willing to put to the test. She says that “What makes scientific theories different from other human proposals about the nature of the universe are their courage. They proclaim their vulnerabilities as their strengths, inviting attack.�

I would mostly agree with this. Science does not shy away from probing its weaknesses, although I would not go so far as to claim that the vulnerabilities are seen as strengths. What is true is that the ‘weaknesses’ of theories are not ignored or covered up but are seen as opportunities for further research. Since there is no such thing in science as infallible knowledge, there is no inherent desire to preserve any theory at all costs, and the history of science is full of once dominant theories that are no longer considered credible.

But having said all that, it is not necessarily true that finding just one contradiction with a theory is sufficient to overthrow the theory. In the context of the challenge to Darwinian theory by intelligent design (ID) advocates, Sarah’s statement that “All that any ID devotee has to do is to show ONE fossil ‘out of place’, to prove the theory doesn’t work. Just one horse shoulder blade in a Cambrian deposit somewhere in the world, and we can say goodbye to Darwinâ€? is a little too strong.

Sarah’s view seems to be derived from the model of falsificationism developed by the philosopher of science Karl Popper (see his book Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge), 1963) who was trying to explain how science progresses. After showing that trying to prove theories to be true was not possible, Popper argued that what scientists should instead do is try to prove theories false by finding a single counter-instance to the theory’s predictions. If that happens, the theory is falsified and has to be rejected and replaced by a better one. Hence the only status of a scientific theory is either ‘false’ or ‘not yet shown to be false.’

But historians of science have shown that this model, although appealing to our sense of scientific bravado, does not describe how science actually works. Scientists are loath to throw away perfectly productive theories on the basis of a few anomalies. If they did so, then no non-trivial theory would survive. For example, the motion of the perigee of the moon’s orbit disagreed with Newton’s theory for nearly sixty years. Similarly the stability of the planetary orbits was an unsolved problem for nearly 200 years.

Good theories are hard to come by and we cannot afford to throw them away at the first signs of a problem. This is why scientists are quite agreeable to treating such seeming counter-instances as research problems to be worked on, rather than as falsifying events. As Barry Barnes says in his T.S. Kuhn and Social Science (1982): “In agreeing upon a paradigm scientists do not accept a finished product: rather they agree to accept a basis for future work, and to treat as illusory or eliminable all its apparent inadequacies and defects.�

Dethroning a useful theory requires an accumulation of evidence and problems, and the simultaneous existence of a viable alternative. It is like a box spring mattress. One broken spring is not sufficient to make the mattress useless, since the other springs can make up for it and retain the mattress’s functionality. It takes several broken springs to make the mattress a candidate for replacement. And you only throw out the old mattress if you have a better one to replace it with, because having no mattress at all is even worse. The more powerful and venerable the theory, the more breakdowns that must occur to make scientists skeptical of its value and open to having another theory replace it.

After a theory is dethroned due to a confluence of many events, later historians might point to a single event as starting the decline or providing the tipping point that convinced scientists to abandon the theory. But this is something that happens long after the fact, and is largely a rewriting of history.

So I do not think that finding one fossil out of place will dethrone Darwin. And ID does not meet the necessary criteria for being a viable alternative anyway, since it appeals to an unavoidable inscrutability as a factor in its explanatory structure, and that is an immediate disqualification for any scientific theory.

The purpose of college

Why go to college?

For some, college is just a stage in the educational ladder after high school and before entering the working world or going to graduate school. In this view, college is primarily the place where you obtain an important credential that is the pre-requisite for securing well-paying jobs. This is not an insignificant consideration.

Others might see college as the place where you both broaden and deepen your knowledge in a range of subjects and develop higher-order skills such as critical thinking and writing and researching skills.

All these things are undoubtedly valuable and worth pursuing. But for me, I think the primary purpose of college is that it is the place where you start to lay the foundations for a personal philosophy of life.

What I mean by this is that at least in college we need to start asking ourselves the question: “Why do I get up in the morning?” For some, the answer might be “Why not? What other option is there?” For others it might just be a habit that is unquestioned. For yet others, it might be that they have particular ambitions in life that they want to achieve. For yet others, it might be because other people depend on us to do various things.

But while all these considerations undoubtedly play a part for all of us, the question that I am addressing goes somewhat beyond that and asks what we think of as our role in the universe. What is it that gives our lives meaning? What should be the basis of our relationships with our family and friends and society? What is our obligation to all those to whom we are tied together by a common humanity? What should be our relationship with nature and the environment?

All of us think about these things from time to time. But I suspect that these various areas of our lives remain somewhat separate. By ‘developing a personal philosophy of life’, I mean the attempt to pull together all these threads and weave a coherent tapestry where each part supports and strengthens the other.

I think that the university is a wonderful place to start doing this because it has a unique combination of circumstances that can, at least in principle, enable this difficult task to be pursued. It has libraries, it has scholars, it has courses of study that can enable one to explore deeply into areas of knowledge. It provides easy access to the wisdom of the past and to adventures towards the future. But most importantly, it has people (students and staff and faculty) of diverse backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, nationalities, gender, etc.

But I wonder if we fully take advantage of this opportunity or whether the day-to-day concerns of courses, homework, research, teaching, studying prevent us from periodically stepping back and trying to see the big picture. In fact, it looks like the search for broader goals for college education is declining alarmingly. In 1969, 71% of students said they felt it essential that college help them in “formulating the values and goals of my life.” 76% also said that “learning to get along with people” was an essential goal of their college experience.

But by 1993, those percentages had dropped to 50% and 47% respectively, from the top ranked items to the bottom, being displaced by an emphasis on training and skills and knowledge in specialized fields. (Source: When Hope and Fear Collide by Arthur S. Levine and Jeannette S. Cureton, 1998, table 6.1, page 117.)

In my mind, this is an alarming trend and needs to be reversed.

One thing that events like the tsunami do, even for those not directly affected by it, is to bring us up short, to realize the fragility of life and the importance of making the most out of our time here. It reminds us that there are big questions that we need to ask and try to answer, and we cannot keep avoiding them.

This kind of thoughtful introspection mostly occurs outside formal classes, in the private discussions that we have in informal settings, in dorms, lounges, parks, offices, and coffee shops. But how often does it happen? And how can we create a university atmosphere that is conducive to making people realize the importance of having such discussions?

The meaning that we attach to life will depend on a host of individualized factors, such as our personal histories, what we value most, and what we are willing to give up. And we may never actually create a fully formed personal philosophy of life. The philosophy we do develop will most likely keep changing with time as our life experiences change us.

But the attempt to find out what our inner core is so that we act in life in ways that are consistent with it is something that I think college is perfectly suited for. I only hope that most people take advantage of it.

A Theory of Justice

I have to confess that this blog has been guilty of false advertising. On the masthead, of all the items listed, the one thing I have not talked about is books and it is time to make amends.

But first some background. Last week, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening having an informal conversation with about 20 students in the lobby of Alumni Hall (many thanks to Carolyn, Resident Assistant of Howe for organizing it). The conversation ranged over many topics and inevitably came around to politics. I had expressed my opposition to the attack on Iraq, and Laura (one of my former students) raised the perfectly legitimate question about what we should do about national leaders like Saddam Hussein. Should we just let them be? My response was to say that people and countries need to have some principles on which to act and apply them uniformly so that everyone (without exception) would be governed by the same principles. The justifications given by the Bush administration for the attack on Iraq did not meet those conditions.

But my response did not have a solid theoretical foundation and I am glad to report that a book that I have started reading seems to provide just that.

The book is A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, in which the author tries to outline what it would take to create a system that would meet the criteria of justice as fairness. The book was first published in 1971 but I was not aware until very recently of its existence. I now find that it is known by practically everyone and is considered a classic, but as I said elsewhere earlier, my own education was extraordinarily narrow, so it is not surprising that I was unaware of it until now.

Rawls says that everyone has an intuitive sense of justice and fairness and that the problem lies on how to translate that desire into a practical reality. Rawls’ book gets off to a great start in laying out the basis for how to create a just society.

“Men are to decide in advance how they are to regulate their claims against one another and what is to be the foundation charter of their society…Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, not does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like…The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.” (my emphasis)

In other words, we have to decide what is fair before we know where we will fit into society. We have to create rules bearing in mind that we might be born to any of the possible situations that the ensuing structure might create. Right now what we have is ‘victor’s justice’, where the people who have all the power and privilege get to decide how society should be run, and their own role in it, and it should not surprise us that they see a just society as one that gives them a disproportionate share of the benefits.

Rawls argues that if people were to decide how to structure society based on this ‘veil of ignorance’ premise, they would choose two principles around which to organize things. “[T]he first requires equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties, while the second holds that social and economic inequalities, for example, inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society. These principles rule out justifying institutions on the grounds that the hardships of some are offset by a greater good in the aggregate.”

Rawl’s argument has features similar to that young children use when sharing something, say a pizza or a cookie. The problem is that the person who gets to choose first has an unfair advantage. This problem is overcome by deciding in advance that one person divides the object into two portions while the other person gets first pick, thus ensuring that both people should feel that the ensuing distribution is fair.

(Here is an interesting problem: How can you divide a pizza in three ways so that everyone has the sense that it was a fair distribution? Remember, this should be done without precision measurements. The point is to demonstrate the need to set up structures so that people will feel a sense of fairness, irrespective of their position in the selection order.)

All this great stuff is just in the first chapter. Rawls will presumably flesh out the ideas in the subsequent chapters and I cannot wait to see how it comes out.

I will comment about the ideas in this book in later postings as I read more, because I think the ‘veil of ignorance’ gives a good framework for understanding how to make judgments about public policy.

Where was God during the tsunami?

Last Thursday I moderated a panel discussion (sponsored by the Hindu Students Association and the Religion Department at Case) on the topic of theodicy (theories to justify the ways of God to people, aka “why bad things happen to good people�) in light of the devastation wreaked by the tsunami, which killed an estimated quarter million people.

The panel comprised six scholars representing Judaism, Islam, Jainism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism and the discussion was thoughtful with a good sharing of ideas and concerns.

As the lay moderator not affiliated with any religious tradition, I opened by saying that it seemed to me that events like the tsunami posed a difficult problem for believers in a God because none of the three immediate explanations that come to mind about the role of God are very satisfying. The explanations are:

  1. It was an act of commission. In other words, everything that happens is God’s will including the tsunami. This implies that God caused it to happen and hence can be viewed as cruel.
  2. It was an act of omission. God did not cause the tsunami but did nothing to save people from its effects. This implies that God does not care about suffering.
  3. It is a sign of impotence. God does care but is incapable of preventing such events. This implies that God is not all-powerful.

These questions can well be asked even for an isolated tragic event like the death of a child. But in those cases, it is only the immediate relatives and friends of the bereaved who ask such things. The tsunami caused even those not directly affected to be deeply troubled and it is interesting to ask why this is so.

Some possible reasons for this widespread questioning of religion are that the tsunami had a very rare combination of four features:

  1. It was a purely natural calamity with no blame attached to humans. Other ‘natural’ disasters such as droughts and famines can sometimes be linked indirectly to human actions and blame shifted from God.
  2. The massive scale of death and suffering.
  3. The rapidity of the events, the large number of deaths on such a short time-scale.
  4. The innocence of so many victims, evidenced by the fact that a staggering one-third of the deaths were of children.

Of course, although rare, such combinations of factors have occurred in the past and all the major religions are old enough to have experienced such events before and grappled with the theological implications. It was interesting to see the different ways in which the four theistic religions (Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam) and the two non-theistic religions (Buddhism and Jainism) responded. But whatever the religion, it was clear that something has to give somewhere in the image of an all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent God, whose actions we can comprehend.

As one panelist pointed out, the last feature (of the ability to comprehend the meaning of such events) is dealt with in all religions with an MWC (“mysterious ways clause�) that can be invoked to say that the actions of God are inscrutable and that we simply have to accept the fact that a good explanation exists, though we may not know it.

Each panelist also pointed out that each religious tradition is in actuality an umbrella of many strands and that there is no single unified response that can be given for such an event. Many of the explanations given by each tradition were shared by the others as well. In some ways, this diversity of explanations within each tradition is necessary because it is what enables them to hold on to a diverse base of adherents, each of whom will have a personal explanation that they favor and who will look to their religion for approval of that particular belief.

The possible explanations range over the following: that things like the tsunami are God’s punishment for either individual or collective iniquity; that they are sent to test the faith of believers (as in the Biblical story of Job); that God created natural laws and lets those laws work their way without interference; that God is “playing� with the world to remind us that this life is transitory and not important; that the tsunami was sent as a sign that the “end times� (when the apocalypse arrives) are near and hence should actually be seen as a joyous event; that it was a sign and reminder of God’s power and meant to inspire devotion; it was to remind us that all things are an illusion and that the events did not “really� happen.

(Update: Professor Peter Haas, who spoke about Judaism, emails me that I had overlooked an important aspect of that religious tradition. He says that: “My only comment would be that you did not quite capture my point about Judaism, which was that the real question is less about WHY things like the Tsunami happened but about how we are to respond to such human suffering given that we live in a world where such things happen.”)

All of these explanations posit a higher purpose for the tsunami, and some definitely relinquish the notion of God’s benevolence.

The non-theistic religions have as their explanatory core for events the notion of karma. Karma is often loosely thought of as fate but the speakers pointed out that karma means action and carries the implication that we are responsible for our actions and that our actions create consequences. Thus there is the belief in the existence of cause-and-effect laws but there is no requirement for the existence of a law-giver (or God). The karma itself is the cause of events like the tsunami and we do not need an external cause or agent to explain it. The MWC is invoked even in this case to say that there is no reason to think that the ways the karmic laws work are knowable by humans.

The non-theistic karma traditions do not believe in the existence of evil or an evil one. But there is a concept of moral law or justice (“dharma�) and the absence of justice (“adharma�), and events like the tsunami may be an indication that total level of dharma in the world is declining. These traditions also posit that the universe is impermanent and that the real problem is our ignorance of its nature and of our transitory role in it.

The problem for the karma-based religions with things like the tsunami is understanding how the karma of so many diverse individuals could coincide so that they all perished in the same way within the space of minutes. But again, the MWC can be invoked to say that there is no requirement that we should be able to understand how the karmic laws work

(One question that struck me during the discussion was that in Hinduism, a belief in God coexists with a belief in karma and I was not sure how that works. After all, if God can intervene in the world, then can the karmic laws be over-ridden? Perhaps someone who knows more about this can enlighten me.)

(Update: Professor Sarma, who spoke on Hinduism, emails me that: “As for the inconsistencies in Hinduism –there are lots of traditions which are classified under the broad rubric “Hinduism” so the attempt to characterize a unified answer is inherently flawed.”)

Are any of these explanations satisfying? Or do events like the tsunami seriously undermine people’s beliefs in religion? That is something that each person has to decide for himself or herself.

Urban legends in academia?

Did you hear the story about the college professor who asked his class to write a mid-term essay on “Why George Bush is a war criminal,� and then gave an F grade to a student who had been offended by the assignment and had instead turned in one on “Why Saddam Hussein is a war criminal�?

I wrote about this in an op-ed piece that appeared in today’s (March 4, 2005) Plain Dealer.

You will be asked by the site to fill in your zip-code, year of birth, and gender for some kind of demographic survey. It takes about 10 seconds.

Update on 3/14/05

I received a call today from a person associated with Students for Academic Freedom informing me that this op-ed had triggered the release of more information on their website, where more details are given.

Although the student referred to had not in fact given this testimony at the Colorado Senate hearings as had been alleged earlier, the level of detail (which had not been released until now) provided on the SAF website is sufficient to remove this story from the category of urban legends since it does give some names and places and dates. But a judgment on whether this constitutes academic bullying will have to await the release of the facts of the case on what actually transpired between professor and student. My contact at SAF says that the incident is still under investigation.

Update on the update (3/15/05): It gets curioser and curioser.

The blog Canadian Cynic reports that new information on this case has come out and that Horowitz is now backtracking on almost all of the key charges that were originally made. Canadian Cynic highlights Horowitz’s statements now that “Some Of Our Facts Were Wrong; Our Point Was Right” and “”I consider this an important matter and will get to the bottom of it even if it should mean withdrawing the claim.”

See the article on the website Inside Higher Education. It seems to be the most authoritative source of information on this case.