Paley’s watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design

One does not have to spend much time reading about intelligent design creationism (IDC) to come across the “Mount Rushmore” argument. IDC advocate William Dembski even begins an article with it as follows:

Intelligent design begins with a seemingly innocuous question: Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? To see what’s at stake, consider Mount Rushmore. The evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design is direct—eyewitnesses saw the sculptor Gutzon Borglum spend the better part of his life designing and building this structure. But what if there were no direct evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design? What if humans went extinct and aliens, visiting the earth, discovered Mount Rushmore in substantially the same condition as it is now?

In that case, what about this rock formation would provide convincing circumstantial evidence that it was due to a designing intelligence and not merely to wind and erosion? Designed objects like Mount Rushmore exhibit characteristic features or patterns that point to an intelligence. Such features or patterns constitute signs of intelligence. (emphasis in original)

This idea that it should be obvious to anyone when something is designed and when it is not permeates the literature of the IDC movement and variations of the Mount Rushmore argument is brought up repeatedly because it provides a concrete image of the idea and has a simple persuasiveness. On a recent episode of The Daily Show Dembski was asked by host Jon Stewart about ID and he brought up the Rushmore example again, showing how valuable they think this example is, since on such shows you only have a few minutes to make your case.

Theologians and philosophers, of course, know that this type of argument has a venerable history and goes back two hundred years to the Christian apologist William Paley (1743-1805) and even earlier. Paley was an Anglican priest and in his book Natural Theology (1802) he talks about what would happen if you were walking across a field and came across a stone. You would not ask how it got there because it would seem perfectly natural that the stone had always been there and was not specially created and kept there. But what if you came across a watch? We can quote Paley himself:

. . . when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive. . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. . . . the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker — that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.

The marks of design are too strong to be got over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD.

The IDC argument is to say that there are things in nature that are analogous to the watch and Mount Rushmore in that they clearly could not have occurred naturally and they point to various biological systems that they claim support their position. The more sophisticated IDC people like Michael Behe (author of Darwin’s Black Box) take a minimalist approach and point to just a few (five actually) biochemical systems and processes as showing signs of design. But other religious believers take a more expansive view requiring a designer for a rising number of things, like the human eye, humans themselves, animals, etc. Some of them say that all living things must require a designer.

But whatever the sample that is selected for this purpose, all these things, they say, are too complex to have occurred by the gradual process of random mutation and natural selection, with a large number of small changes leading to the large variations in species that we see today.

The usual response by biologists to this argument is that the appearance of design in nature is just an illusion, that random mutations and natural selection are capable of producing the complex biological systems that we mistake for designed objects. Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker explicitly addresses Paley’s argument, and he followed it up in his other book Climbing Mount Improbable.

But apart from the biological issues, there is also a philosophical argument that is not often brought up and this will be discussed in the next posting.

It’s the Rael thing – 3

In two previous posts (here and here), I discussed how the Raelian theory of how life was far more comprehensive than that of intelligent design creationist theory. So all the arguments used by IDC (intelligent design creationist) advocates for inclusion of their theory in science curricula apply even more strongly to Raelian theory. Furthermore, while some might be able to dismiss the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a Johnny-come-lately competitor to IDC doctrine, that charge cannot be leveled against the Raelian model which has been around since the early 1970s and claims over 35,000 believers in over eighty five countries (according to Robert T. Pennock in his book Tower of Babel). So Raelism actually precedes the latest incarnation of intelligent design.

The belief structure of the Raelians is based upon messages sent to Earth from the extra-terrestrial Elohim race through Claude Vorilhon (a French journalist and race car enthusiast) who claims that he was twice contacted by aliens who came in flying saucers and revealed to him the story of how life originated on Earth. Vorilhon is called the “Guide of Guides” by his followers and adopted the name of Rael.

But is the Raelian theory of life science? In a series of earlier postings, I said that for a theory to be even considered as a candidate for science it had to meet two necessary conditions. One was that it had to be naturalistic (and by this I mean methodological naturalism and not philosophical or metaphysical or ontological naturalism) and the second was that it had to be predictive. The latter feature meant that the theory had to have some feature or mechanism that enabled it to be used to make predictions, because that was what made a theory useful to scientists.

I said that IDC failed on both counts, since it had the idea of an intelligent designer who was undetectable and could not be counted upon to act in predictably in a manner that could be tested by any sort of observations.

The Raelians are one step better than IDC theorists in that their theory is materialistic in that the designer who produced the seemingly designed biological species was not a supernatural deity but merely space aliens.

But the Raelian theory suffers from the fact that their theory is not predictive. There is nothing in their theory that enables scientists to do anything with it. All scientists can do is to wait around until the aliens decide to visit us again and show us their latest creations.

This is the problem with all theories that contain appeals to revelation, divine or otherwise. While they may be satisfying an emotional and spiritual need, and appeal to their faithful followers (and there is nothing wrong with that), they simply do not provide science with anything useful to work with.

The scientific community rejects the inclusion of Raelian and IDC theories within the family of scientific theories, not because they are inherently opposed to revelatory notions (after all, many scientists are religious), but because such types of theories have no applications.

The Raelian theory also just pushes the evolutionary question one step away. After all, how did the Elohim come about on their own planet? How did they become so advanced in their technology? Did they too evolve according to some Darwinian model? Or were they created by another alien race? According to the FAQ on their website, the Raelians were created by other extraterrestrials and so on, and that one day the people on Earth will similarly populate other planets. This is, of course, an infinite regression model, but not more difficult than the “who created god?” question posed to believers in a god. As long as you are only interested in how life came to be on Earth, the Raelian model “explains” it well.

But it would be interesting to see how IDC theorists respond to Raelian theory. If IDC theory is accepted by various school boards for inclusion in the school science curriculum because it “explains” some things that evolutionary theory cannot, then I do not see any grounds for rejecting Raelianism. In fact, using the IDC yardstick, Raelianism should actually replace IDC in schools because it “explains” everything that IDC does and some others things that IDC theory does not have ready explanations for, thus clealy being a better theory.

The Raelians have so far not been pushing for the inclusion of their ideas in science classes. But it would not surprise me if, if IDC people succeed in the court case currently underway in Dover, PA, they seize the opportunity to urge that their own program be included in science curricula too. (See here for a blog on the trial maintained by the ACLU which is challenging the Dover school board’s decision. Interestingly, Robert Pennock, whose book I have been quoting about the Raelians, testified yesterday.)

Coming soon to a courtroom near you, the case of Intelligent Design v. Raelianism….

POST SCRIPT: Update on the trial of “The St. Patrick’s Four”

In the trial of the antiwar protest group referred to in the post script of a previous posting, they were acquitted of the serious felony charge of conspiracy but were found guilty of misdemeanor charges of damage to property and trespassing.

It’s the Rael thing – 2

In an earlier post, I introduced the basic Raelian idea of how the various life forms on Earth were planted here after being created by the Elohim genetic engineers living on their distant planet. (See Robert T. Pennock’s excellent book Tower of Babel, pages 233-242.)

The Raelians have a pretty comprehensive theory that in the wealth of its details puts the IDC theory to shame. The Raelian explanations for many of the features of life are stunning in their simplicity and their explanatory power.

Take for example, the fact that many flowers and birds and animals have beautiful colors and scents and ornamental features that seem to serve no obvious functional purpose. Evolutionary theorists have to work hard to show how these features could arise from the small differential advantages they provided along their slow evolutionary trek to what we see now. (See Richard Dawkins’ book Climbing Mount Improbable, among others, for how some of these seemingly designed things came about according to Darwinian theory.)

IDC theory on the other hand simply sees biological sophistication and complexity as evidence for a designer, which is not really an explanation. But the Raelian explanation is far more straightforward. Their Elohim biological engineers worked closely with their artists to create not just functional organisms but also things of beauty. These artists were allowed in many instances to allow their creativity to run wild, even if in some cases form took precedence over function so that some birds, like peacocks, were barely able to fly but looked terrific. The spectacular plumage of some tropical birds can be attributed to a Raelian Jackson Pollock letting fly with the pigments.

What about the creation of human beings? This was their biggest technical challenge because we were to be created in the image of the Elohim. To achieve that result, they started with monkeys and tweaked them, experimenting with adding the kinds of features that make us human. Not all their experiments were successful and the errors resulted in the fossils found on Earth that, according to Raelians, Darwinian evolutionists mistake as being our evolutionary ancestors.

So in a sense, the Raelians agree with evolutionary theory that there is some hierarchy in the order in which biological organisms occurred on the Earth and thus there is some element of ‘descent with modification.’ But they disagree with modern biology (and agree with the IDCs) by saying that these organisms were designed and not the result of natural selection. The increasing complexity of life with time as revealed by the fossil record is, according to the Raelians, the consequence of more and more advanced and ambitious experimentation. But they disagree with the IDC people by saying that the designer was not god or anything supernatural but simply Elohim genetic engineers.

If you are looking for the ‘best’ explanation of life on Earth according to the criteria that IDC people would like to have us use, then the Raelian explanation beats ID hands down. With god as the intelligent designer for IDC, there is always the awkward question of how to explain those features of life that are not well designed, such as the human appendix. Or to explain the presence of diseases and death and other things that seem to not be very intelligently designed. Or to explain the existence of suffering. It is hard to understand why any intelligent designer would create Down’s syndrome and the many other cruel diseases that afflict children and adults. Looking at those seeming defects makes one want to echo the words of Alfonso X (king of Castile and Leon from 1252 to 1284 CE) who, surveying the increasingly messy picture of the solar system that was being described by the Ptolemaic system was driven to proclaim that “if God had consulted him when creating the universe he would have received good advice.” (Thomas Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, page 69.)

The IDC response to these challenging questions is to invoke the inscrutability of god. They say that we cannot know the aims and purposes of the designer so we are not in a position to judge the suitability of the design. They say that the purpose of the design is currently hidden from us but we have to accept on faith the existence of a purpose. It is not an unreasonable response, once one accepts the existence of an inscrutable god, but it does come off as somewhat defensive and unsatisfying to all but the true believers.

But the Raelian explanation has no problems at all with these questions. If some designs are flawed it is because they were made by imperfect aliens who, while advanced in their technology, were still experimenting and made mistakes. So cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and the like are bugs in the design. Raelian genetic engineers, squirreled away in their distant research laboratories, are presumably still working on better models. It is just our bad luck that we were based on engineering blueprints that were available before they had developed better models of humans.

The Raelian model explains a lot of other stuff as well. There is a huge industry involving speculations that aliens have visited the Earth. Even in the Bible there are passages that are puzzling but have been interpreted by some as being evidence of early alien visits. For example, in Genesis 6:1-4, just prior to the great flood story, there is a passage that says that “the sons of the gods saw that the daughters of men were beautiful so they took for themselves such women as they chose…In those days, when the sons of the gods had intercourse with the daughters of men and got children by them, the Nephilim were on earth. They were the heroes of old, men of renown” (The New English Bible adds a footnote that translates Nephilim as giants.)

Who are these mysterious “sons of the gods” who, without warning or explanation by the writers of Genesis, suddenly appear on Earth and just as suddenly disappear? I have no idea what conventional theology says about this but Raelians say that these were a few of the Elohim aliens who were so enamored of their own creations that they formed liaisons with them. And there’s more. The fire and brimstone that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah? Atomic bombs dropped by the aliens. The Ten Commandments? Given to Moses by one of the visiting aliens. And so on.

Similarly Raelians suggest that the other Biblical and non-Biblical “evidence” for visits to earth by extraterrestrials that were championed by Erich von Daniken in his book Chariots of the Gods (which enjoyed a huge vogue a few decades ago and is still a source of inspiration to UFO enthusiasts) are also due to visits by the Elohim.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke makes the point that any sufficiently advanced technology will seem like magic to the naïve observer. Since the writers of the Biblical books had no understanding of such advanced technology, the Elohim and their acts were baffling to the writers who, being unable to comprehend such an advanced technology, saw in them acts of gods.

As you can see, the Raelian theory is pretty comprehensive. So if you want a theory that really “explains” things that other theories cannot, which is the measure that IDC advocates assert is the measure of a good theory, Raelism leaves IDC theories in the dust.

But is it science? We’ll see in a future posting. But if the suspense is unbearable for you, here’s a hint: The answer is no.

POST SCRIPT 1: When bad things happen

Stephen Colbert of The Daily Show ponders the age-old question: Why does God allow things like Katrina to happen?

It’s the Rael thing

In earlier postings on the issue of so-called ‘intelligent design creationism’ (IDC) I said that supporters of IDC assert that methodological naturalism and the ability to make predictions, which are the characteristic features of scientific practice, should be abandoned and that what should be the deciding factor in evaluating competing theories is to see which one explains things ‘better.’ They then go on to claim that since natural selection has not provided convincing explanations of some biological systems, that means that those things are probably ‘designed’ by an ‘intelligent designer’. The main IDC spokesmen (and they all do seem to be men) are coy about identifying this designer but after exhaustive study I have discovered who they are referring to and I’ll share the secret with this blog’s readers: It is god.

I (and countless others) have written before about all the logical and evidentiary fallacies behind this argument. For starters, negative evidence against a scientific theory can never be considered as positive evidence in favor a competing theory because it is never the case that there are only two competing theories.

But here I want to take the IDC argument about using better ‘explanations’ as the yardstick for theory quality at face value and see where, if the IDC policy is accepted, it can lead. And one place it leads to is, interestingly enough, the Raelians.

Some of you may remember the Raelians. They received a huge amount of publicity in 2002 when one of their spokespersons announced that they had successfully cloned a human being, that the baby (named Eve) had been born on December 26, 2002, and that four other cloned babies were on the way. They said that the mother and baby identities would be revealed later. The media was all over the story at first but it petered out when no evidence was presented in support of this sensational announcement. It looks like the whole thing was an elaborate hoax.

At that time, having no other knowledge of the Raelians, I thought that they were just some publicity-seeking crackpot sect but in reading Robert T. Pennock’s excellent book Tower of Babel, I learned some interesting things about the Raelian religion and it is clear that they have the ‘best’ explanation of all for the source of life on Earth.

The Raelians agree with the IDC people’s argument that Darwin’s theory of evolution as descent with modification (using the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection) is wrong because life on Earth is too complex to have evolved that way and must have been designed. But unlike the IDC people, they not only know who did the designing but are not hesitant to proclaim the news. It is not god. It is extra-terrestrials.

According to the Raelians, on a distant planet there lived a highly advanced alien community called the Elohim that long ago had reached a stage of scientific and technical knowledge whereby they had developed powerful biological engineering techniques that enabled them to make living cells and to tinker and modify them. But naturally they were fearful about letting loose these experimental organisms into their own environment because of the harm they could do. So they looked for a lifeless planet that they could use as a field test laboratory for their genetic engineering and found one. That planet was the Earth. So they used our planet to create a home for all their creations so that they could safely see what worked and what didn’t, just like scientists do in their own labs.

They took the lifeless planet Earth and staring building life on it. Starting with creating simple cells, they proceeded to create seeds, grasses and other vegetation and progressed to create plankton, small fish, then larger fish, then dinosaurs, sea and land creatures, herbivores and carnivores before they tacked the big project, creating beings like themselves. Thus came homo sapiens. This, according to the Raelians, is how the Earth became populated with all the life forms we see around us.

I must say that I was completely fascinated by this scenario. It is too beautiful for words. The details of how the Raelians set about designing their creations are also fascinating and in the next posting I will show why this explanation for life on Earth is far ‘better’ than the one proposed by IDC advocates.

POST SCRIPT 1: Forum on Katrina

Case’s Share the Vision program is hosting an open forum on Katrina in which I will be a panelist. The program is at 4:15pm in the 1914 lounge of Thwing. For more details, see here

POST SCRIPT 2: Dover court case on ID

Yesterday was the opening day of the trial by eleven parents of the Dover PA school district challenging the school board’s decision to include ID as an alternative to evolution in science classes.

You can read about what happened on the opening day of the trial here.

Justice as fairness and limits to religion

In response to an earlier posting, Jake took issue with my assertion that a secular society in which religion stayed in the private sphere was least likely to create friction amongst different religious beliefs.

He invoked the first amendment to the US constitution to imply that it would be unconstitutional to prevent Christianity from the public sphere. He also made the argument that there seemed to be no good reason to even try to do so since Christianity in the US had always been benign and that it seemed wrong to restrict it to the private sphere out of a sense of fairness. He felt that there was nothing sacrosanct about ‘fairness’ that made it worth exalting to a position of a primary organizing principle for society. He said that “there is no law demanding that the majority make the minority feel like everything is fair? No, they [i.e. people who argue for a secular public sphere] religiously believe that fairness is the highest ideal.”

Constitutional provisions are important but applying them consistently has not been easy. For example, the First Amendment does not allow any and all religious practices. Polygamy amongst Mormons and the smoking of peyote among some Native American groups have both been disallowed even though both groups claimed a religious basis for their actions.

Christian Scientists also have faced restrictions on whether they can withhold medication from their children, but here the issue becomes more complicated because of the issue of the extent to which children should be subjected to their parents’ beliefs. It is not unreasonable to argue that children should not have to risk sickness and death because of the religious beliefs of their parents.

But polygamy and peyote smoking are acts involving freely consenting adults, the people that I assert should have the least restrictions on their behavior, but the state still seemed to find reasons for restricting such acts. Similarly, I am not sure what interest the state has in preventing, say, the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes or forcing people to use seat belts. I always wear my seat belt because it seems to me to be silly not to and I am fully convinced of its benefits. But when I was in a car with a colleague, someone whom I consider to be extremely sensible, he did not buckle up. When I asked him why, he said it was because he resented being forced to do something “for his own good.” If it was for his own good, he felt that he should be the one making the decision.

The First Amendment does not provide a blanket guarantee of religious freedom but draws lines concerning what religious groups can and cannot do. And it is deciding where to draw the lines that things can become messy. Saying that other religions have nothing to fear from Christianity does not completely address the issue because all it takes is one conflict somewhere for things to turn acrimonious. Suppose that a small community somewhere in the US happens to develop a Muslim majority. Would people be amenable to having the crescent symbol in city hall or to start meetings with a Muslim prayer facing Mecca?

My point is that as the US becomes more and more multi-religious, such scenarios become more and more likely. Allowing religion in the public sphere would result in a multitude of religious voices competing for space in it, and adjudicating those disputes is bound to be complicated and cause bad feeling. The alternative would be to grant one religion (obviously in the US it would be Christianity) special privileges in the public sphere not granted to others. It is not clear to me whether the US Supreme Court would decree that the First Amendment allows that but if it did, then the US becomes legally like Muslim countries that give a special place to Islam or like Sri Lanka in giving pride of place to Buddhism.

It is true that I elevate ‘justice as fairness’ to a primary organizing principle for structuring the institutions of society. In this, I agree with John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice where he argues that the desire for justice as fairness is an almost intuitive need of humans. Even little children, long before they are aware of abstract concepts such as liberty and freedom and even religion, have an understanding of fairness. “It’s not fair” is perhaps one of the most common complaints voiced by children. It is the one principle that is rigidly incorporated into all our games and sports.

Of course, how this principle of ‘justice as fairness’ manifests itself in concrete ways is something that needs to be worked out, and Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ suggests a procedural method although it is not always obvious how to apply this. (See here for an earlier posting on this and links to other posts.)

So we seem to have three options: (1) we have a secular state for the public sphere with wide religious freedom in the private sphere or (2) we have every religious belief having equal access to the public sphere or (3) we give access in the public sphere to only one religion.

Those who believe that one particular religious tradition is right and the others wrong, or that one religious tradition is inextricably identified with this country, most likely will support the third option. But given that religious beliefs are presumably freely chosen, it is not inconceivable that there could come a time in the future when, say, Islam is the majority religion in the US. Would the people currently supporting option three still hold to that position in that event?

My own position argues against assigning any specific religion pride of place in the public sphere, thus ruling out option three. This leaves me with options one or two. But I also feel that option two, while ‘fair’, is likely to be awkward in actual implementation since the question of what constitutes a legitimate religion is hard to adjudicate.

This leaves me thinking that only the first option, of having a secular public sphere and wide religious freedom in the private sphere, allows for harmonious co-existence.

POST SCRIPT: Massive antiwar rallies last weekend

Saturday, September 24 saw a massive antiwar rally in Washington DC and other cities around the world. Crowd estimates are notoriously unreliable but it seems like between 100,000 and 200,000 people turned up in Washington. See here for more articles and photos.

The pledge of allegiance and political divides

I love history because when one looks into the historical roots of current events, one uncovers all kinds of interesting bits of information. This is true about the pledge issue. In addition to the (by now) well-known fact that the phrase “under God” was not part of the original pledge at all and was only added in 1954 as part of the Cold War fight against “godless Communism,” there is an interesting history to the pledge that suggest that the people on either sides of the lines being drawn on this issue are not as predictable as one might expect. For example, it is now assumed that the people who oppose the inclusion of the phrase “under God” are “on the left” or “liberal” and that those who want it included are “on the right” or are “conservative,” whatever those labels might mean. But a little investigation shows that things are not so simple.

Gene Healy, Senior Editor of the libertarian Cato Institute pointed out after the 2002 ruling that the pledge exemplifies the kind of devotion to the state that conservatives should be wary of and he is puzzled by why they have rushed to defend it.

“It’s probably too much to ask politicians to reflect a little before they lunge for a political hot-button issue. But any conservatives so inclined should think about what they’re defending. What’s so conservative about the Pledge?

Very little, as it turns out. From its inception, in 1892, the Pledge has been a slavish ritual of devotion to the state, wholly inappropriate for a free people. It was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist pushed out of his post as a Baptist minister for delivering pulpit-pounding sermons on such topics as “Jesus the Socialist.”

Though no one can be legally compelled to salute the flag, encouraging the ritual smacks of promoting a quasi-religious genuflection to the state. That’s not surprising, given that the Pledge was designed by an avowed socialist to encourage greater regimentation of society.

Regardless of the legal merits of Newdow’s case – which rests on a rather ambitious interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment clause – it’s ironic to see conservatives rally to such a questionable custom. Why do so many conservatives who, by and large, exalt the individual and the family above the state, endorse this ceremony of subordination to the government? Why do Christian conservatives say it’s important for schoolchildren to bow before a symbol of secular power? Indeed, why should conservatives support the Pledge at all, with or without “under God”?

The idea that the pledge is somehow neutral with respect to religion is addressed by one of the judges in the 2002 9th circuit verdict. From the website The Moderate Voice we find that Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote:

In the context of the Pledge, the statement that the United States is a nation “under God” is a profession of a religious belief, namely, a belief in monotheism. The recitation that ours is a nation “under God” is not a mere acknowledgment that many Americans believe in a deity. Nor is it merely descriptive of the undeniable historical significance of religion in the founding of the Republic. Rather, the phrase “one nation under God” in the context of the Pledge is normative. To recite the Pledge is not to describe the United States; instead, it is to swear allegiance to the values for which the flag stands: unity, indivisibility, liberty, justice, and – since 1954 – monotheism. A profession that we are a nation “under God” is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation “under Jesus,” a nation “under Vishnu,” a nation “under Zeus,” or a nation “under no god,” because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion. The school district’s practice of teacher-led recitation of the Pledge aims to inculcate in students a respect for the ideals set forth in the Pledge, including the religious values it incorporates.

The verdicts on issues like the pledge, the public display of the ten commandments, the burning of the flag, and school prayer will not affect the daily life of anybody in any noticeable way. But where people stand on this issue does say a lot about how they view their individual rights and liberties in relation to the rights of the state, and about their views of the relationship of the state with religion.

POST SCRIPT: The case for immediate withdrawal from Iraq

Tomorrow, Saturday, September 24 is the big antiwar march and rally in Washington DC. Tom Englehardt and Michael Schwartz make the case for immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

The Pledge of Allegiance back in the news

There seems to be no battles that the public and the media enjoy more than symbolic ones that have little or no effect on the actual lives of people. Among these are battles over the public display of the ten commandments, the burning of the flag, school prayer, and the inclusion of the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance.

And that last issue is back in the spotlight now that US District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton in California has held that including the phrase in the pledge does indeed make the reciting of the pledge in schools unconstitutional. A similar judgment was arrived at in 2002 and that earlier decision was upheld by the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Karlton said that he was bound by that precedent. That earlier case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which essentially punted by saying that the parent in that case (Michael Newdow who also acted as his own lawyer) did not have standing to file suit because he did not have legal custody of his daughter on whose behalf he was objecting to the phrase. Thus the Supreme Court avoided having to rule on the merits of the case.

This time around it was again Michael Newdow who filed the suit but on behalf of three other unnamed parents who presumably do have custody since Judge Karlton said that the unnamed parents in the new case had the standing to sue.

Opponents of removing the “under God” phrase have vowed to appeal the new ruling to the same 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. If that court again upholds Karlton’s ruling, then we would have two conflicting appeals court rulings, since in August of just this year the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia upheld a Virginia law requiring public schools to lead a daily Pledge of Allegiance recitation, similar to the requirement in California. It seems that this issue is again likely to end up in the US Supreme Court.

While the courts may be divided on this issue, there is no doubt about where Congress stands. In their rush to be seen as being on what they perceive as the side of god and patriotism, the Senate has already condemned the new ruling and said in a non-binding resolution approved by unanimous consent that it approves the pledge as it stands and said “that the phrase “one nation under God” in the pledge reflects the religious faith central to the founding of the nation and that its recitation is “a fully constitutional expression of patriotism.”” After the 2002 appeals court decision, both House and Senate passed similar resolutions.

An interesting feature about this case is that the families on whose behalf Newdow filed his latest suit have chosen to be nameless. One assumes that this is because they fear a backlash in their communities and that they and their children might be the targets of hostile words and even actions.

This raises the question of why people get so angry over this kind of symbolic action. Why do people care so much that it generates this kind of fear? Why not simply let the case work its way through the courts and be done with it?

In general, I feel that saying things like the pledge, with or without the phrase “under God,” are only meaningful if done completely voluntarily and should not be part of organized rituals where people feel obliged to participate. Pledges to the flag, country, god, or whatever are pointless if they are done under explicit or implicit coercion. In fact, such forced assertions of allegiance or belief are likely to breed cynicism or become so routine that people just go through the motions.

But while I have definite preferences on each of the things I listed at the top (public display of the ten commandments, the burning of the flag, school prayer, and the inclusion of the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance) I really don’t care so much that I get all upset about them. If the Supreme Court rules that the phrase “under God” is constitutional, I will disagree but it is not going to cause me any sleepless nights. If they throw out the phrase “under God,” I will approve of that decision as part of my belief that the public sphere should be secular, but you will not find me throwing a big party or dancing in the streets.

What really concerns me is that there are a lot of people for whom this issue is a huge deal, so much so that people who challenge the constitutionality of the pledge are seemingly fearful of even having their names known. That is wrong. People should be able to take any stand they wish on issues such as these without having to fear personal abuse or harm.

POST SCRIPT 1: Antiwar activists go on trial

Four Catholic antiwar activists who already stood trial for their stand against the invasion of Iraq and were cleared of the original charge of criminal mischief, are now, two years later, being charged with by federal authorities on conspiracy charges for the same actions and will be tried again. Leigh Saavedra reports on the case and the extent to which the government will go to silence critics of its war.

POST SCRIPT 2: Phil Donahue socks it to Bill O’Reilly

Phil Donahue takes on Bill O’Reilly and gives a lesson on how to argue with loud bullies.

When does “looting” become legal?

The events following Katrina have raised disturbing questions about what to do about “looting” in situations such as those.

One grants that looting just for the sake of personal enrichment or to take advantage of another person’s weakness is wrong on both legal and moral grounds.

But what about looting for survival? If people are hungry and thirsty, is it appropriate for them to break into a locked store and take food and water, against the wishes of the owner? Or what if they steal a vehicle to escape from danger? In this Reuters photograph by Rick Wilking Reuters3_L.jpg the caption reads “Texas game wardens force people who used a mail truck to escape the flooded areas of East New Orleans to lie on the highway Aug. 31, 2005. The people were freed but forced to continue on foot.” The photograph clearly indicates that the people were being treated like criminals.

Except for those who have raised property rights to the level of a fetish, most people would concede that those who “looted” food and water out of desperation had the moral right to do so because all of us can easily envisage ourselves being in that kind of situation and doing the same thing. But most of us would also likely argue that while the action itself was legally wrong (on some absolute scale), such people should not be prosecuted, which is what seemed to have happened to the mail truck appropriators. The truck was taken away from them but they were not arrested.

But do such people also have a legal right to do this? In other words, could it be that they were not even guilty of theft under the law, even if some zealous prosecutor values property above all other considerations and orders them arrested and charged? Jonathan Rowe argues that they do have such legal rights. He says:

There is a legal tradition that justifies such action, and it comes from the theological teachings the President harkens to on other matters, and also the Natural Law teachings so favored by rightward judges. It is called the doctrine of “overruling necessity”, and it says that property is secondary in times of urgent human need. “Necessity sets property aside,” wrote Thomas Rutherford, a noted 18th century legal commentator, in his Institutes of Natural Law. At such times there is a “community of goods.”

….

Natural law theory typically is invoked to establish the sanctity of private property. But as Rutherford said, it contains the seed of this exception too. Here’s John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government, which is a bible of the property rights camp. It is a “Fundamental Law of Nature,” he said, that the property claims of the rich man “must give way to the pressing and preferable Title of those who are in danger to perish without it.”

….

A kindred world view is evident in the colonial laws permitting people to hunt and fish on other peoples’ land so long as it wasn’t fenced. When push came to shove, the need for sustenance came before abstract rights of property. What is most interesting though is how the proponents of the law of necessity justified it. It was not that a needy individual had a claim on what belonged to other people. Rather, it was that the needy person had a prior property right – a common property right – that trumped the latter one in this circumstance.

At some point in the distant past, the argument went, all property was a commons. From this common pool, individuals asserted private claims, justified in Locke’s version by their own toil upon the land.

….

But these private claims are provisional not absolute. They are valid in normal times but not all times. “[I]n cases of extreme necessity,” observed Hugo Grotius, the noted 17th century jurist, “the original right of using things, as if they had remained in common, must be revived; because in all human laws, and consequently all laws relating to property, the case of extreme necessity seems to form an exception.”

Natural law theory assumes that people consent to the impositions of society by a kind of implied contract. Property is part of that contract. “No one,” observes Novak, summarizing the commentators, “could be assumed to have consented away the right to use another’s property when self or social preservation were in jeopardy.”

Not being a legal scholar, I cannot really judge the validity of Rowe’s thesis. But I found the idea that at one time all property was considered to be in common and that this prior right to property can be legally (and not just morally) invoked in times of extreme need to be highly intriguing.

POST SCRIPT: The “battle” for the New Orleans Convention Center

One of the many curious, if not tragic and outrageous, things about the plight of the people housed at the New Orleans Convention Center in the wake of Katrina was how quickly they became viewed by some of the security forces as some kind of “enemy” to be defeated in a manner similar to the way Iraqi insurgents are battled, with the Convention Center itself being viewed as a hostile stronghold to be conquered like, say, Falluja.

This extended blog item describes this mentality and is worth reading.

Why we should leave Iraq immediately

(Text of the talk prepared for the Camp Casey meeting held on Friday, September 9, 2005 at Church of the Savior, Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.)

I suspect that most of us who are here are people who opposed the war on Iraq from the beginning. So I will not spend time making the argument that a country that waged an immoral and illegal war after selling it to the nation and the world under the false pretenses of weapons of mass destruction is not a country that should be allowed to continue its domination of the country it conquered.

Instead, I will address my remarks to those of us who are genuinely upset at the death, injuries, and havoc that has been wreaked on both the Iraqi people and the American soldiers occupying that country and their families back home. Such well-meaning people now seek to salvage whatever good that can be extracted from an essentially impossible situation, a situation that has been created by the political leadership of this country who either knew, or should have known, better and yet recklessly went ahead with this disastrous policy.

The group of well-meaning people trying desperately to salvage something good from this bad situation fall into two categories: those who favor an immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and those who feel there is a case to be made for staying on until some suitable stage is reached that would allow for the gradual withdrawing of troops.

Although I can understand, appreciate, and sympathize with the reasons given for staying on for a while, I belong to the group favoring immediate withdrawal. Some of the arguments favoring immediate withdrawal are in the flyer that was handed out and I will not repeat them. The flyer, incidentally, also makes suggestions for what you can do.

In broad terms, the arguments for not withdrawing US troops immediately fall into two categories: humanitarian and those of US national interest.

The humanitarian argument says that since it was the US invasion that destroyed the infrastructure that had made Iraq a functioning country and held the different ethnic groups in Iraq together, US troops need to stay on for some time to rebuild the country’s infrastructure so as to prevent anarchy or an ethnic bloodbath or the splitting up of the country.

Unfortunately, the history of what happens after colonial powers leave a country (and Iraq is now effectively a colony of the US) is not encouraging. Even after over 150 years of occupation in India and my own native Sri Lanka, the departure of the British led to ethnic conflicts on a major scale in both countries. It is a similar story in the many African and Asian countries that suffered under colonial rule. In fact one can make the case that the longer the colonial power stays, the greater the chance of such a conflict erupting because rather than resolving the underlying issues, the colonial power merely suppresses them, and usually tends to get identified as being partial to one side or the other. This situation breeds increasing and simmering unrest that can explode once the lid is lifted with the departure of the colonial army. So the longer the US military stays, the greater the risk of trouble when (and if) they leave.

Furthermore, it is hard to convince the Iraqi people that the US is there temporarily for humanitarian reasons when the biggest embassy in the world and massive permanent military bases are being constructed in their country. This fact alone is guaranteed to generate suspicion of the US’s motives for invading Iraq, and stimulate an equally permanent insurgency, which like all struggles against an occupying military force, tends to get stronger with time, not weaker.

The second reason given to stay there is that of US national interest. It is argued that to withdraw immediately would be to concede that the US has lost the war and would show weakness in the eyes of the world. But we have to realize that when you are battling a guerilla insurgency, then even a stalemate (which is what seems to be the current state) is effectively seen as a defeat for the occupying traditional army. So in some senses, this war is already ‘lost,’ as even some Republican senators like Charles Grassley are conceding.

What the stalemate in Iraq has also done is actually expose a critical US military weakness. What the world sees is that a rag-tag group of insurgents, using low-level weaponry and seemingly without mass support of even its own population, has managed to tie down the US military into a no-win situation.

Another national interest argument is the infamous ‘fly paper strategy,’ which asserts that having the insurgents fight the US army in Iraq keeps them occupied and prevents them from carrying out attacks in the US itself. I have heard this argument often, usually in the form of alliterative couplets such as “We must fight them in Mosul so we don’t fight them in Minneapolis” or “We must fight them in Tikrit so we don’t fight them in Tuscaloosa.”

This argument makes no sense. Apart from the unconscionable use of the US military as some kind of bait, to serve merely as targets for random acts of violence, we must never forget that Iraq and Iraqis have not committed any terrorist attacks against the US. Furthermore, the opportunity to repel an occupying army is, as opposed to distracting them from other targets, probably creating more recruits, both foreign and domestic, for the insurgency,

And finally is it really in the US national interest to have such a large fraction of its army and national guard permanently held hostage in a foreign country, effectively under siege in a few safe zones? What if another national emergency like Katrina occurs?

The final reason I will give for withdrawing from Iraq immediately is that, for all intents and purposes, an incipient civil war has already begun in Iraq even with the US troops there, so to argue that US troops there to prevent a civil war is being seen as increasingly hollow.

Whatever the reasons given in favor of continued occupation, they are clearly not working. We have been given repeated promises that after this or that event, things would get better. But as this graph created by Case for Peace activist Norman Robbins tellingly demonstrates, if we take the rate of deaths of US troops as a measure of the intensity of the insurgency, each of these so-called “turning points” has been anything but. So if what we have been doing so far has not improved anything, what is the logic of continuing doing the same thing? (See The Intelligence Squad Reports for a similar but more detailed graph.)

Calling for the immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq should definitely not mean that we wash our hands of responsibility for that country or its people. We owe the Iraqi people a huge debt for (1) helping Saddam Hussein consolidate his power over the people of Iraq; (2) supporting him during the period of some of his worst excesses; and (3) the massive loss of life, both direct and indirect, that runs into the hundreds of thousands and which was caused by the ten years of sanctions leading up to the war, and the deaths and destruction caused by the war itself.

What it does mean is that we should use the billions of dollars that are currently being spent on the military occupation of Iraq to instead rebuild the hospitals, the water supply and sanitation systems, the schools, the roads, and the destroyed lives of the people in devastated areas, not only of Iraq, but also of Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama.

POST SCRIPT 1: What happened to the anthrax investigation?

Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the anthrax attacks, which occurred right after the 9/11 attacks and helped to provide the emotional basis for the attacks on Iraq. Remember that? Like me, you may be wondering why such an important investigation seemingly went nowhere and what its current status is. Justin Raimondo, editorial director of the website Antiwar.com, followed that investigation closely and provides an update.

POST SCRIPT 2: Constitution Day Forum

Case will host a forum on the topic: What Should Be in a Constitution?
Thursday, September 22, 2005
Strosacker Auditorium, Case Western Reserve University
4:30 – 6:00 p.m.
(Reception with refreshments, 4:00 – 4:30 p.m., Strosacker Lobby)

With the First Annual Constitution Day Forum, Case initiates a series of discussions of how the Constitution works and affects our lives. This year’s forum asks the most basic of questions: “What Should Be in a Constitution?”

The U.S. Constitution is distinctly shorter than the constitutions of other countries or of American states. It is also the oldest written constitution in the world. Does that mean we should be glad when amendments fail? Or does that mean our system is out-of-date and too slow to change?

Faculty from history, law, and political science will speak briefly, and then the floor will be open for discussion.

- Laura Y. Tartakoff, J.D., adjunct associate professor of political science, will moderate the forum.

- Elizabeth Bussiere, Ph.D., visiting associate professor of political science, will consider “Courts and Welfare Rights,” why the courts have not found such rights in the Constitution.

- Jonathan Entin, J.D., professor of law and political science, will discuss “Budgets and Flags: Current Proposals for Constitutional Amendments.”

- Ken Ledford, J.D., Ph.D., associate professor of history and law, will contrast our constitution to others, discussing “The Constitution for Europe and Positive Liberties.”

- Ted Mearns, J.D., emeritus professor of law, will discuss “What Shouldn’t Be in a Constitution.”

Reflections on the Camp Casey event

Last Friday evening (September 9) I moderated the event where the traveling members from Camp Casey spoke. It was gratifying to see an overflow crowd at the event, suggesting that there is real concern that something has to be done about the stalemate that is now in Iraq.

The main speakers at this event were members of the bus tour that is going around the country calling for an end to the war. These are people who are members of Gold Star Families for Peace (people who have had family members who died while serving the US military in Iraq) and/or members of Military Families Speak Out and/or members of Veterans for Peace. We were welcomed at the beginning by Rosemary Palmer who is the mother of Edward “Augie” Schroeder who was one of the fourteen Ohio marines who died on a single day in August and who, with Augie’s father Paul Schroeder has since been speaking out against the war.

This nationwide bus tour is an outgrowth of the activities at what was known as Camp Casey in Crawford, TX. Cindy Sheehan, the mother of Casey Sheehan who was killed in Iraq, initially pitched a tent near Bush’s ranch in an effort to confront President Bush with questions about the purpose of the war in Iraq. When he refused to meet her, the protest suddenly swelled until it became in effect a tent city.

Once Bush left Crawford at the end of his vacation, the people at the site fanned out on buses to various places, to finally convene in Washington DC on September 21, just before the planned March on Washington on September 24 to protest the Iraq war. (There will buses going from Cleveland. For details of the march and how you can join or help, please see Post Script below.)

One of the people who spoke was Bill Mitchell of California whose son was killed in Sadr City on the same day as Casey Sheehan. This sad coincidence caused him to bond with Cindy Sheehan and together they co-founded Gold Star Families for Peace. The other speakers had close relatives serving in Iraq right now.

It was a very moving evening, listening to the sad stories of these people. Because they are so close to the events and have such a personal interest in the war, it was interesting to see that they had such a nuanced and complex view of the situation. They understood that not everyone agreed with them on the need to begin an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. They knew that their own family members serving in Iraq were ambivalent about the peace activism of their family members. They felt deep compassion for the beleaguered people of Iraq. They commiserated with other military families who had also had loved ones killed in Iraq but who felt that their children had died for a noble cause and still supported the war.

In this recognition of the complexity of the situation and the fact that there were no simple answers, the speakers provided a refreshing contrast to the politicians and pundits who, not having to fight themselves and having the luxury of not having any personal stake in the occupation of Iraq, feel free to see things in stark terms of good and evil and to label opponents of their policies as ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘not supporting the troops’ or ‘forgetting the lessons of 9/11′ and other tired justifications of the war.

In addition to being moderator I was also due to speak but since many of the speakers spoke for longer than expected and I did not want to cut short their personal testimonies, I decide to not give my talk to leave more time for the question-and-answer session. I will post the text of my talk later.

I personally found it very moving to meet the military families who have met such personal tragedy. It was clearly hard for them to speak about what happened and one has to admire their willingness to go public with their opposition to the war, knowing that they will be criticized and even vilified.

POST SCRIPT: NATIONAL PEACE MARCH & RALLY

Case for Peace is pleased to support the above peace march and rally to be held on:

Saturday, September 24 in Washington, DC

Bring the Troops Home Now!
Money for Jobs, Education, Health Care & Housing, Not for Wars and Occupations!

Buses from Cleveland depart Friday September 23, 11 PM, from Gordon Square (W 65 and Detroit) returning Sunday, September 25, morning.

Seats $45 per person round trip. Some financial help available. If you can’t go, please consider contributing for scholarships.

Checks payable to Northeast Ohio Anti-War Coalition (NOAC) and mail to Linda Park, 1848 Beersford Rd., E. Cleveland, OH 44112

Reserve your seat now!!

For more information call the Northeast Ohio Anti-War Coalition at 216-736-4716 or send email to NOAC.

United for Peace and Justice, a sponsor of the rally, plans additional activities on Sept. 25 and 26 in DC. For details on all 3 days, go here.