Cloning: Toward a New Conception of Humanity?

(originally published, Nov. 2001)

by Patrick Stephens

In 1971, James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, issued a call for a public debate on the ethics of human cloning. With the recent announcement that an international research team of fertility doctors will embark on the world’s first concerted effort to clone a human being, his call is finally being heeded. But as Watson realized, technological advances in cloning and genetic manipulation challenge our most dearly held assumptions. The debate about human cloning is a debate over nothing less than what it means to be human. The science of genetics, realized through technologies such as cloning, will have a tremendous impact on cultural conceptions of human nature. This debate, its implications, and its consequences are likely to be much the same as those that raged over Darwin’s The Origin of the Species more than 140 years ago.

Cloning technology presents humanity with the very real possibility that it may one day control not only its destiny but also its origin. Human cloning allows man to fashion his own essential nature and turn chance into choice. For cloning’s advocates, this is an opportunity to remake mankind in an image of health, prosperity, and nobility; it is the ultimate expression of man’s unlimited potential. For their detractors, human cloning and genetic manipulation intrude upon the profound nature of the inherently unknowable; they represent the bottomless depths of human arrogance and irresponsibility.

Like most popular debates in modern American culture, this one is driven by the detractors. The most cogent arguments against human cloning come from one of the more pre-eminent bioethicists in the United States, Leon R. Kass, of the University of Chicago. In The Wisdom of Repugnance, Kass offers a visceral, biting critique of human cloning and calls for an immediate international ban on all cloning research. Indicting the moral character of cloning’s advocates and at the same time summing his own critique, he muses: “Shallow are the souls who have forgotten how to shudder.”

While the critics of cloning, and Kass in particular, focus their attention on the spiritual consequences of human cloning, they are right to criticize current efforts in one respect; the current state of cloning technology is not yet advanced enough to warrant human experimentation. Cloning experiments have yet to show success rates in excess of 6 or 7 percent. Many cloned mammals exhibit grotesque genetic disorders, often ones that are life threatening to both the clone and the mother. Clones are routinely born oversized. There is usually a significant amount of birthing trauma for both mother and infant. The lifespan of cloned animals is unusually short. In this respect, it would be grossly irresponsible for anyone to engage in human cloning at the present time. But these risks will undoubtedly be overcome. At such time as the process carries risks comparable to natural reproduction, these objections will cease to be relevant. But the debate is now; concerns about the current feasibility of the procedure should not delay debate on the more substantial spiritual criticisms that the critics raise.

And to be sure, the debate over human cloning has raised the specter of various nightmare scenarios to which a spiritual reaction is indeed appropriate. Cloning technology raises the prospect that chimeras, animal-human hybrids, may be created. Likely chimeras range from the relatively benign recombination of human and pig DNA, where pigs are bred to provide organs for human transplants, to the more disturbing recombination of human and chimpanzee DNA, where apes are bred for sophisticated psychological and psychiatric research. The creation of chimeras blurs the distinctions between man and animal and raises questions that are not easily answered, such as “Would a sentient ape be accorded individual rights?”

Such questions are difficult to answer because they speak to the very essence of human nature. To deal with these kinds of eventualities would require a radically different conception of mankind, human nature, and man’s soul than is currently predominant in American culture. But cloning’s critics are averse to such a reformulation. For them, the questions that cloning raises need not be answered, so long as cloning is stopped now and those questions are never asked. To that end, the critics tend to focus on more immediate issues: the kind of life a cloned child will lead, the effect of cloning on family relationships, and the threat of cloning to traditional spirituality.

For critics like Kass, cloning leaves familial relationships in turmoil, rendering incomprehensible our most basic and personal relationships. A girl cloned from her mother would be her mother’s genetic twin; her grandfather would be her genetic father; and her siblings would be her genetic children. Yet centuries of experience with adopted children have shown that familial relationships are quite resilient. Indeed, the relationships that are formed in a healthy family are likely to render any semantic debate over the nature of “genetic” relationships largely irrelevant.

Critics have raised the prospect that a cloned child will be subject to an unnaturally demanding set of parental expectations. It is undoubtedly true that some parents will place unrealistic expectations on a cloned child–just as parents of “natural” children have been doing for centuries. Many parents already subject their children to terrible psychological stress; the image of a father living vicariously through his son is already a cliché. Parents already have children in attempts to “replace” a lost child or fill other emotional voids. There is, as yet, no way of effectively prohibiting bad child-rearing.

Concerns that a clone will suffer psychological distress from living a life-already-lived are likewise weak. Twins don’t seem to suffer any psychological trauma from living a life-already-being-lived. These arguments amount to a kind of Xerox assumption. Cloning does not produce psychological replicas of the DNA donor. If critics wish to condemn the practice of replication, they would be better off debating the morality of the Xerox machine because psychological replication has nothing to do with human cloning. As identical twins demonstrate, it is certainly possible for two people to share DNA and still live separate and completely fulfilling lives.

These arguments illuminate the critic’s assumption, best exemplified by Kass, that human relationships are determined not by affection or choice but by necessarily arbitrary circumstances. Kass argues that both genetic bonding and social taboos are more responsible for familial kinship than the actual affection that exists between parent and child. “Social taboos on incest everywhere serve to keep clear who is related to whom . . .” For Kass, it is crucially important that both the taboo and the genetic relationship remain unchosen. For Kass, the family is characterized primarily by obligation and duty. He says, “considering reproduction (and the intimate relations of family life!) primarily under the political-legal, adversarial, and individualistic notion of rights can only undermine the private yet fundamentally social, cooperative, and duty-laden character of child-bearing, child-rearing, and their bond to the covenant of marriage.” But lasting familial relationships must be grounded on at least some semblance of mutual respect and shared affection. In fact, most social taboos arise primarily out of the recognition that twisting the mutually consensual nature of any relationship into an act of domination is fundamentally wrong.

More to the point, however, is Kass’s argument that cloning itself represents a kind of despotic domination. Kass sees the parent of the cloned child as subjecting it to a set of demands–forcing it, in effect, to become a particular kind of person. This argument actually leads him, and other critics, to the absurd charge that cloning is wrong because the cloned child cannot consent, before conception, to his existence as a clone. The fact that consent-prior-to-conception on the part of any creature is an utter absurdity is apparently lost on these critics. One wonders if they would perceive an equal injustice in the fact that a child may not choose its sex. Ultimately, however, all parents exert a profound influence upon their children’s lives. And many, if not most, take an active role in the design of their children. Parents select the language and culture in which their children are raised, and (one hopes) give them moral and philosophical guidance. This influence is, for the vast majority of parents and children, a good thing. Cloning does not allow parents a greater degree of control over their children’s lives; it simply provides them with better information and reasonable expectations about the child’s relative fitness, overall health, and intellectual potential.

Cloning does not produce carbon copies, but genetic engineering and cloning do provide individuals with the opportunity to introduce an element of choice into reproduction. Parents may not be able to create duplicates of themselves, but they can create life in their own image. For the religious, this creation stands as a direct affront to God. And while many of cloning’s critics do not explicitly ground their arguments in these religious terms, their ethical foundation is clearly based on a Christian sense of duty and humility.

For the religious critics, it is the presence of the divine spark that exalts man, and cloning represents a threat to that divine spark. If man is capable of remaking his children in his own image, what then is the difference between man and God? Cloning is not simply man playing at godhood; it is man becoming God. For the devout, this is the greatest of all sins. But even many secular critics respond with moral indignation at the prospect that man may start aspiring to godhood. For religious and secular critics alike, the ultimate danger of cloning lies in the fact that it allows man to take an active role in his own being and, as Kass says, “transgress what is unspeakably profound.”

As Kass puts it, such an act reeks of the “excesses of human willfulness” and is evidence of “the Frankensteinian hubris to create human life and increasingly control its destiny.” More than anything else, it is the fact that cloning is an expression of the willful mind of man that most bothers the critics.

This resistance to willfulness is essentially a resistance to reason. The critics’ arguments are characterized by a reliance on faith that finally renders them unable even to articulate their argument. What is all the more enlightening is that some critics, Kass in particular, go so far as to elevate their irrational rage into a kind of moral justification. Cloning, Kass argues, is simply repugnant, and “. . . repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it. . . . Repugnance here, as elsewhere, revolts against the excesses of human willfulness.” It is ultimately the process of discovery and articulation –the process of willful rationality–that Kass opposes.

For critics like Kass, willful rationality militates against the humility of the human soul. The “shallow souls” who have “forgotten how to shudder” at the unknown pose the greatest threat. These critics believe that the human soul is fixed by Creation as an inherently limited and humble thing and that any attempt to understand what is “unspeakably profound” is an act that demands revulsion and repugnance.

But cloning, like any other technology, simply extends man’s range of choices. And it is the extension of choice and the pursuit of knowledge that offer man the opportunity to expand the boundaries of his existence. In the end, man’s spirit, that within him which searches for truth and morality, that part of his mind that aspires and dreams–his soul–is ultimately the product of his own design. Man’s spirit is, fundamentally, not a gift or an accident, but the product of a lifetime’s achievement. His soul is the willful product of his own rationality, the manifestation of his conceptual mind. It is not the shallow shudder of humility that ennobles a man’s soul, but the enraptured embrace of knowledge, opportunity, and choice.

Humans will be cloned. Scientific and technological progress has shown few signs of halting for spiritual objections. Like the birth-control pill and in-vitro fertilization, the technology of cloning will advance, techniques will be improved, and knowledge will be gained. The inevitable questions that cloning technology will raise–questions about family, rights, and what it means to be human–will challenge society’s most deeply cherished and most profound beliefs. But such a challenge should not be resisted. Cloning’s difficult questions can be answered only through a dedicated pursuit of knowledge and an exercise of our willful rationality, and in the end, the answer to the debate over human nature may be simply that the nature of man is the product of his own will.


My kid is great. Your kids suck.

Yeah, I know. It’s an obnoxious title. I don’t really mean it, but I think it’s an honest description of much of the sentiment behind modern population whining.

There’s a thread over at Whatever that John Scalzi started on population growth, resource use, how many human babies the planet “needs ” and how many are simply open, sucking mouths mindlessly consuming vital (vital!) resources.

OK, to be fair, most of my ire is directed not at Scalzi (although he shares in the general confusion over resource consumption) but at the Zero Population Growth idiots who are just oh so concerned about how there are just way too many babies in the world. Some gems from the comments:

“Most women DON’T want to have tons of kids, but do so only because of cultural pressure or lack of comprehensive family planning education and resources.”

This commenter rails against the Vatican’s senseless opposition to birth control, which he rightly characterizes as sexist and demeaning to women. But you know, it’s also demeaning to imply that the only reason a woman might want a large family is because she’s pressured and ignorant. The same person goes on:

“I notice that birthrates are declining in educated, liberal areas, while they’re skyrocketing in areas that are heavy with cultural conservatives. All those Quiverfulls in Oklahoma are certainly making up for all the adamantly child-free intellectuals in Seattle.”

Jay-sus, is that offensive or what?

try this on for size — in my opinion the planet can reasonably sustain roughly one tenth the human population that exists today. that’s right, 600 MILLION, not 6 BILLION. there are no easy answers to getting there. i made the choice out of conscience to have only one child, then got a vasectomy. that’s a start. but given the multiple interacting global degradations that we’ve set in motion, it will take war or famine or plague to reduce our numbers quickly enough.

War or famine or plague! Yay! This is all because people suck. Oh, but not his kid.

“the wildlife and wilderness that existed in my childhood, half a century ago, have been decimated beyond recognition. that, my friends, is as important a loss as any you can name.”

“Beyond recognition?” Really? Beyond recognition? Whatever, that’s a pointless argument; definitions shift as the sand…. But let’s try–just to see–if we can come up with a loss that might–just maybe–be as evil as the extinction of the Puerto Rican Shrew. 2,800 African children die every day from Malaria.

My kid is great. Your kids suck.

The fun goes on and on,

People who choose to have large families should be taxed or otherwise penalized for the extra children. Seems fair to me. (I’m childfree, incidentally.)

Purely incidental to her opinions on taxation, I’m sure. This commenter has her own blog. She has more opinions,

A radical solution might be to cull (as in kill) the surplus young males (wars already tend to do this, in a somewhat uncontrolled manner). In fact, that is something that could be done in any society with a surplus of single, young, unemployed males between 12-25 years (who tend to be the most troublesome elements – just consult any statistics for violent crime). As a female, I would feel a lot safer if there were fewer aggressive young males around.

Unh hunh.

But let’s get back on point. At the heart of Scalzi’s original post is a concern about overpopulation and resources use. The leaping off point was a question,

If we procreate, we doom civilization through overpopulation and depletion of resources. If we don’t procreate, we doom civilization through exacerbating an aging population. What’s a potentially procreative person to do?

The question assumes that children are either unproductive resource drains or mere instruments whose existence is justified only by their ability to support aging dependents. Bleak, bleak, bleak.

And wrong.

In the first case, more people generally means more opportunity for innovation, advancement and wealth creation. Only if we imagine that the creation of wealth is a zero-sum game (or if we force it to be) can we imagine that additional children are a drain on resources. This is, at heart, a kind of political thinking that prioritizes the distribution of wealth over the creation of wealth. If we ignore the source of wealth then it’s easy to see people as nothing more than appetites feeding at a trough. If, however, we recognize that wealth is created, then we can see people as innovators who make life better for everyone around them. That’s the miracle of trade; everyone benefits.

The second case is a matter of morality. Our children are not means to our parents’ ends.

But let’s look at the resource question, because that’s where most of the discussion is centered. Scalzi gets part of the answer right,

…the issue isn’t how many people the planet has; the issue is how the people who are on it (however many there are at any given point) handle their resource management and way of living.

This is unquestionably true, if we want to support radically more people than we currently do, we need to change something. We can either reduce resource consumption, we discover entirely new resources, and we can use existing resources more efficiently. I pick all three. And, luckily for us, that’s the course we’ve taken throughout human history. In a modern economy, consumption drives the price of resources up, which creates incentives for innovation and efficiency, which drives prices down. This cycle ends up driving inflation-adjusted prices down over the long term.

The cycle works so well, in fact, that we can effectively imagine our supply of resources to be infinite. Yes, infinite.

The earth’s natural resources are finite, which means that if we use them continuously, we will eventually exhaust them. This basic observation is undeniable. But another way of looking at the issue is far more relevant to assessing people’s well-being. Our exhaustible and unreproducible natural resources, if measured in terms of their prospective contribution to human welfare, can actually increase year after year, perhaps never coming anywhere near exhaustion. How can this be? The answer lies in the fact that the effective stocks of natural resources are continually expanded by the same technological developments that have fueled the extraordinary growth in living standards since the industrial revolution. — The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (I have more on this, here.)

So, yes, to support billions more people we’ll need to do things differently. But that does not mean that we need to curtail energy consumption or somehow put a governor on wealth creation. and it certainly doesn’t mean that we should puts limits on population growth: more people mean more brains and more brains means more better. (See The Ultimate Resource by Julian Simon.)

As I mentioned before, the central problem isn’t the distribution of wealth, it’s the creation of wealth. Scalzi misses that,

And in point of fact we do a really crappy job of [resource distribution] overall. For one thing, resources are highly unevenly distributed (said the guy living in the country that consumes 25% of the world’s energy while having only 5% of the world’s population); for another thing, the lifestyles, desires and goals of the people of the whole world are too heterogeneous to make coordinated and evenly distributed resource management possible

Damn those pesky people with their desires, dreams, and hopes that conflict with the will of the political over-mind! OK, that’s uncharitable. But the fact that the desires and dreams of the billions of men and women on the planet are wildly diverse is a good thing. Diversity is good for all the reasons that we usually credit it: new ideas, different ways of approaching problems, different techniques, competing solutions, etc., etc….. More brains means more better!

The world’s wealth isn’t a giant fixed piece of pie that we carve up and distribute out. It’s a giant multi-layered marble cake with cream cheese frosting that we bake every day and just keeps getting bigger and bigger… at least, it does and it will so long as we allow people to innovate and trade.

It’s certainly true that standards of living vary wildly around the world–and it’s also certainly true that the wild disparity in living standards seems, at some basic level, unjust. None of us chose what country we’d be born into, and for the vast majority of those unlucky enough to be born in Sierra Leone, Burma, or the Sudan… that sucks. For the vast majority of those born in the industrial West, that rocks.

It’s natural to ask what we can do to even things out. What can we do to make life better in the horrid parts of the world? How can we increase their wealth? Sending them our money is an option, but it’s a short-term fix that doesn’t usually have long-term benefits.

Wealth is a product of human innovation. Free trade, property protection, stable government, and a society that discourages corruption all radically increase the speed of wealth creation. The poorest countries in the world are those that fail these basic tests: they’re universally strnagled by command and control economies run by self-serving autocrats and corrupt tyrants who bend the law to subjucate their citizens.

The best thing we can do to spread wealth is to spread the foundations of a free society. The best thing we can do to level the distribution of wealth in the world is to help the world create more wealth for itself.

As for population… more babies means more brains and more brains means more better.

Winners and losers

Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get a different list of priorities, but essentially, we all believe that the government’s essential function is to mitigate public risk. Some people want the government to focus on mitigating the risk of global instability, foreign wars, and terrorists. They might agree that a strong internal defense is necessary and that the government should help mitigate the risk of criminality, insurrection, fraud and force. Others want the government to mitigate economic risk; they want the government to stabilize financial markets and to subsidize and regulate economic transactions.

All this risk management comes at a cost. Generally speaking, the higher the risk, the greater the potential reward, the lower the risk, the lower the reward. Mitigating risk means reducing potential profits: trading wealth for security. It doesn’t matter if we’re reducing the risk of terrorist attacks, the risk that we might lose money on investments, the risk that we might get sick, or the risk that we might get mugged. No matter what security we buy, we have to pay for it.

In small doses, that makes sense. We trade a little wealth (or we give up higher rates of growth) for a little security. After all, massive returns in the market aren’t worth much if buildings are exploding around you, if you’re shot in a drug raid, or if you bet on the wrong stocks and your portfolio goes south.  I don’t have a theoretical problem with trading some wealth for some security, but I also don’t want to trade too much. Security doesn’t matter much if I have no wealth. After all, what point security but to protect what I hold dear?

The problem with mitigating risk is that the only way to do it is to spread risk around. You can’t eliminate risk, you can only “level” it off. Let’s say I wanted to reduce the risk of gambling in a casino. I could rig the games to produce a more “equitable” result; fewer losers and fewer winners. Or, I could simply tax the winners and give some of their winnings to the losers. Functionally, the means are different, but they achieve the same outcome. Rigging–or regulating–the casino games is exactly the same as increasing taxes. The increased regulation acts as a damper on winnings, in just the same way that increased taxation does. I can only reduce the risk by reducing the potential reward.

This is true of all risks. I can only lower the risk of financial insolvency for some investors by reducing (either through regulation or taxation) the potential return on investment for everyone. I can only lower the risk of terrorism or foreign attack by reducing the scope of international trade and domestic freedoms (trading security for the potential return on free, open trade).

It’s also true that we can’t effectively mitigate all risk. We have to pick and choose where we want to focus our efforts–and we have to pick and choose whose risk to dampen, whose security to protect, whose assets to rescue. This puts us in the position of deciding who we’re going to let “win,” who we’re going to let “lose,” how big we’ll let the winnings get, and how much we’re willing to lose.

Well, we don’t decide–we let the government decide for us.

When we let the government mitigate our risk, we let the government pick winners and losers.

In any government program, rule, regulation, or tax, there’s a winner and a loser.The stimulus bill picked a lot of winners; in many cases, the winners were explicitly identified. The losers are less visible, but no less real. The taxpayers who will bear the burden of the additional debt are some of the losers, but so too are the firms whose businesses were not sufficiently politically capitalized to merit inclusion. Amtrak gets additional money to continue operating and the taxpayers take a hit. But so do bus companies, the airlines, and anyone who else who competes with Amtrak. The same is true of the bailouts, only more strikingly so. Bear Sterns was bailed out, Lehman Brothers was not.

Winners and losers.

In the course of mitigating risk from domestic criminality, anarchy, fraud, theft, and force, the government generally has a centuries of accumulated legal guidelines to ensure that the selection of winners is made according to well-established procedures and rigorous due-process; we have the courts, rules of jurisprudence, stare decisis, and the common law.

It’s when we get into the mitigating the risk of foreign threats and domestic economic malaise that the criteria for determining who gets to win and who gets to lose becomes… more subjective. Deciding to give Amtrak millions of dollars in operating subsidies, or to assume part of the USPS pension obligations, to bail out AIG, or to tax the bonuses that AIG gave out, to cover this medical procedure and deny that medical procedure, or to decide that mortgage interests should be tax-deductible while rental payments should not be… those are all political decisions.

That’s crucially important. When the government picks these winners and punishes these losers, the reasons are invariably political. Whom to bail out and whom to tax are not decisions made by judging objective criteria–they couldn’t be, because there is no criteria around which to create a decision making framework. These are purely political decisions, made for purely political reasons.

When we ask why Lehman Brothers was ignored, or why some financial windfalls are subject to a 90% tax and others aren’t, why some contracts are honored and others aren’t, why the Treasury addresses some issues and not others, the only answer is because those are the results that are politically expedient or advantageous to the party in power.

It’s not even really appropriate to speak of justice when we talk about these kinds of political decisions, because there’s no sense in which these decisions can be evaluated by any standard relevant to a coherent notion of justice. Justice, when we speak of justice in the courts or justice in law, is a the result of a codified, coherent, and complex process that we have developed and refined over the course of the last three thousand years.

When we speak about the result of a political decision, however, we’re not talking about the result of a process, just the simple manifestation of political will. Is it “right” that the AIG bonuses are subject to a 90% tax? There’s no way to evaluate that tax as “right” unless we define it as right to begin with. In other words, we can’t adjudicate political decisions or subject them to due process, they simply are what they are: the manifestation of political will.

It’s tempting to believe that the politicians exercising these powers are somehow nobler than the rest of us, or that they’re somehow immune to confirmation bias, temptation, and petty grievance, but it’s not true. In fact, it’s emphatically not true. Politicians respond in general to incentives and temptations in the same way that everyone does: they act to maximize their own long term gain. (The formal study of political interest is known as public choice economics.) Politicians will reward those people who are in the best position to reward politicians. Politicians will punish those people who are least likely to benefit them: the “aristocracy of pull.”

We’ve seen the selection of winners and losers on a grand and sweeping scale in the last few months and all of those decisions have been purely political decisions designed made for purely political reasons. This has all been in the cause of mitigating the risk of collapsing financial markets.

But we can’t mitigate that risk without cost, and whatever we choose to do about the risk, the end result will be the same:  we’ll take from some people (the losers) and we’ll give that money to some other people (the winners). The current administration is picking those winners and losers with alarming speed, very little deliberation, and absolutely no due process.

I’m left wishing that we could subject political appropriations to a process as rigorous and as tested as the court system, but we can’t. Such process as exists for deciding political issues is limited to the procedural rules in Congress and the process of elections. To analogize further with the court system, it’s as if we tossed out the common law, stare decisis, the rules of evidence, the adversarial system, and the judge. We’re left with only jury selection and procedure: hardly a reliable system.

The only way to subject questions of political expropriation to an objective process is to take those decisions out of the legislature. Until and unless we can agree to place further limits on the government’s power to extract and expropriate wealth, until we decide that the arbitrary results of influence peddling and political arm-twisting should be disdained rather than ennobled, we’ll continue to see more of the same.

Isn’t that a risk we shouild mitigate?

Drives me nuts

Note: This post involves the absurd internecine disputes within the objectivist movement. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, or if you just don’t care, ignore the rest of this post and go check out Garfield minus Garfield, which is my favorite existentialist cartoon project on the web. If you don’t care for existentialist cartoons or objectivism, then… well, then I’ve got nuthin.

Screed after the cartoon.

A hug

So I came across this today. It’s a post by Diana Hsieh, laying out the particulars of some mailing lists she runs. They’re mailing lists for Objectivists (is it possible to double-capitalize a letter?), but ONLY for REAL Objectivists. Because, you know, the movement is so big and unwieldy and so widely influential that it’s really, really important to draw a very fine distinction about who can and who can not be admitted to any particular No-Homers Objectivist club.

Yeah, I’m probably one of the Non-Objectivist objectivists that these lists specifically exclude. I used to work for an organization that gave her scholarships and philosophical training, and I’ve actually spent time working and associating with some of the most prominent, intelligent, and articulate libertarian (hisssss… hisssss…) defenders of free-markets and free societies in the country.

But my frustration isn’t about me being excluded from her mailing lists. Really, I’ve been excluded from lots of mailing lists; being bumped by a bunch of people supposedly committed to empiricism and intellectual rigor for ideological apostasy is OK. I’m not hurt by it. It’s like getting kicked out of the chess club for playing chess.

But… there’s a list dedicated to activists.  She includes an activism requirement for list membership, which is fine. She even says that, “arguing with people already substantially familiar with Objectivism in online forums does not qualify as activism.”

You bet it doesn’t!

But then why limit the list to self-described big-O Objectivists? What drives me completely freaking nuts is that Diana says the lists, “All aim to help promote Objectivist ideas in the culture at large.” Apparently, by only admitting people in the culture writ small. I like miniatures and models as much as the next geek, but I don’t want my ideas, my debates, or my movements to be small and petty.

It’s a list dedicated to figuring out how to advance contentious ideas in the world at large, but it’s limited to a tiny subset of people who all agree. Let’s learn new things by talking amongst ourselves! Let’s build a movement within our walls!


Now, my point here isn’t to hash out the particular disagreements that Diana has with particular people or organizations in the movement. I agree with some of her assessments and disagree with others. I share some of her frustrations and wholeheartedly agree with some of her condemnations. I disagree with others. For the most part, I find the excessive, petty partisanship tedious and counter-productive.

And sad.

Faith & Reason

Timothy Sandefur has a fantastic post up on faith, reason, epistemology and political liberty.

The opponents of evolution education are not disputing the facts of any particular scientific conclusion—that’s why they don’t do experiments, or publish research. What they are want is “equal time”: equal time between religious dogma and science—between faith and reason—between provable theory and unprovable assertion. The basic principle they are seeking to establish is the equivalence between the approach of reason and science on one hand, and the approach of tradition and mystical revelation on the other—and that means, between the careful, precise process of science on one hand, and the emotive utterances of religious authorities on the other. They want to snatch the mantles of respectability that science has earned, and wrap it around the pronouncements of their prophets.

What would this equivalence mean in practice, if it were followed consistently? For one thing, it would mean the end of political freedom in America. Political freedom demands a skeptical populace, open to dissent and reasoned discussion; it is incompatible with the intellectual attitude of authoritarianism, dogma, and enforced tradition.

It is deeply unfortunate that even otherwise outstanding defenders of science—even many scientists themselves—are willing to accept that compromise. Unable or unwilling to defend the reliability of reason, they hang it up with their lab coats when they leave for the day. They understand that one cannot operate a particle accelerator on faith; that one cannot interpret a fossil by asking some prelate to pronounce on the issue in Latin; that one cannot predict how a medicine will work by consulting a 5,000 year old scripture. Yet when it comes to the nature of reality, let alone morality, they are willing to defer to just these things. As Coyne writes, “Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.” While these scientists apply the tools of reason to everything from the atoms to psychological reactions, they are willing to accept the baseless claims of religious authorities on equal terms. They turn off the skepticism just when it matters most. And that is all that religious authorities demand of them.

If science is ever destroyed, this will be why. It will be because the defenders of science opened the city gates from within to the forces of unreason, admitting them on the terms of this false equality.

Sandefur articulates the conflict between reason and faith and deftly illustrates why the conflict matters. It’s an absolutely excellent piece.

The following, in particular, illustrates the fundamental incompatibility between faith and reason,

Then there is Miller himself, who insists once more on his right to have his reason and eat it too. “What science does require is methodological naturalism,” he writes. But why does it require that? That commitment is not an arbitrary postulate—it is an epistemological position, imposed on us by the nature of knowledge and of reality. Miller recognizes this when he acknowledges that “[w]e live in a material world, and we use the materials of nature to study the way nature works.” But of course he then flies to a higher strain—by assuming, without any evidence, that there is some other kind of world in which we also live (a world which, if it is immaterial, by definition has no interaction with our own and would therefore be inaccessible to our knowledge). He, arbitrarily and without foundation, asserts that there is some other world, which he arbitrarily and without foundation asserts can be known by some other method—a method which he arbitrarily and without foundation asserts is religious knowledge. These are three separate assertions about reality which he is willing to endorse not only without reasons, but without even acknowledging the need for reasons. And this he amazingly calls “honest and open empiricism”!

If there is one point in which I disagree with Sandefur, it is only in a matter of emphasis. He says, “It’s the fact that these two ways of knowing are and always have been, incompatible by their nature, and that those who pledge allegiance to both are either dishonest or simply wrong.” I think “simply wrong” is by far the more common cause. Sandefur’s point is deeply philosophical and very few scientists are deeply philosophical. Those scientists who do explore philosophical issues, who attempt to reconcile faith and reason… well, they’re guilty of some pretty deep evasion.

Faith as an epistemological tool is indisputably useless, but the common conception of faith is so inextricably tied up with the particular social structures that we (in the West) call religion, that it’s easy to forget that faith has any political or epistemic content at all. There is a large part of the Western public–into which I think many scientists fall–that reserves its faith for what they consider to be decidedly un-epistemic pursuits: communal confirmation of moral intuitions, ritual ceremony, and personal reflection/meditation.

I don’t think any of those actually are un-epsitemic, but I can understand a perspective (even if I don’t agree with it) that considers science and resaon to govern a kind of exteroceptive knowledge and faith to rule in a proprioceptic (or maybe kinesthetic) world. “Reason is for the external world, but my faith is personal,” is a common sentiment. And of course, to the extent that faith is a private avocation, then I follow Jefferson’s dictum, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

But to the extent that issues of faith are public, then as a polity we must choose how to resolve conflicting claims. The standard on which we should rest, the ultimate arbiter, should resolve to reason.

President Obama

On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the following from the Birmingham, Alabama city jail.

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.

Today, Barack Hussein Obama II will take the Oath of Office. Just 46 years ago, the most prominent black man in America was jailed for seeking simple justice. In the space of merely two generations, the most prominent black man in America becomes the 44th President of the United States.

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. — “I Have a Dream

Today’s inauguration represents the culmination of tremendous change and is a testament to the hope and dedication of all the millions and millions of Americans who have ever fought for equality, justice, and liberty. This moment is deservedly historical and Americans are right to be proud, but it is not the culmination of our struggle.

I hope to see more victories like this one. I hope to see the fight against intolerance, ignorance, and injustice continue apace. The first woman President. The first Native-American President. The first Jewish President. The first homosexual President. The first President to embrace sane economic policy.

We will wake tomorrow and today’s problems will persist. Our economy is stagnating, our debt is rising, growth is slowing, discrimination still exists, intolerance and ignorance remain, and we remain the target of barbarous thugs. The struggle continues.

Liberty is not seperable; it cannot be parsed into races, sexes, or categories. We cannot slice our freedom in two, extending “personal” liberty while trampling “economic” liberty. We cannot secure our borders by violating the rights of citizens, and we cannot pursue happiness if we are shackled by rising deficits and growing debt.

The struggle for the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a struggle against ignorance, prejudice and corruption. The extent to which we cherish reason, respect individual rights, and punish graft and theft, is the extent to which we succeed.

Here’s hoping for more victories.

Logic fail…?

Jeff Atwood posed a question,

Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, you met someone who told you they had two children, and one of them is a girl. What are the odds that person has a boy and a girl?

What’s your answer?

Jeff’s posts on the question generated thousands of comments. Many, many people simply refuse to accept the answer. The correct answer is that the odds the person has a boy and a girl is 67% (two-thirds).Most people argue strenuously that the correct answer is 50%. After all, the sex of one child doesn’t affect the sex of the other child does it?

Jeff poses the question as an illustration of two things: our inability to process probability and our inattention to detail,

This problem, although seemingly simple, is hard to understand. For cognitive reasons that are not fully understood, while our intuitions regarding a priori possibilities are fairly good, we are easily misled when we try to use probability to quantify our knowledge….

The key thing to bear in mind here is that we have been given additional information. If we don’t use that information, we arrive at 50% — the odds of a girl or boy being born to any given pregnant woman. That’s true insofar as it goes, but it’s the answer to a different, much simpler question, and certainly not the answer to the question we asked.

Our question contains additional information:

  1. The person has two children.
  2. One of those children is a girl.

But rather than pose additional information, the question hides information. The question as it’s usually asked masks the nature of the problem and relies on the listener’s natural inclination to analyze problems in context and arrive at a conclusion that makes sense in the real world.

The solution to the problem runs like this:

Say there are 100 couples. They each have a child. 50 will have boys and 50 will have girls. Each couple then has another child. Of the 50 that had boys, 25 will have girls and 25 will have boys. Of the 50 that had girls, 25 will have boys and 25 will have girls. The final breakdown will be: 25 each of Bg, Bb, Gg, Gb (uppercase indicates the older child).

If we know that the person has a girl, that leaves only three possible child combinations: Gb, Gg, Bg. Two of those combinations (67%) have a boy.

If we ask the question, what are the odds that any given couple will have a boy and a girl, the answer is 50%. (Bg, Gb) If we ask what percentage will have a boy, the answer is 75% (Bg, Bb, Gb). If we’re told that one child is a girl, that removes 25 couples from our pool (the 25 Bb couples have no girls). If we ask, of those remaining (Gg, Bg, Gb), how many have boys, the answer is 67% (Bg, Gb).

“But!” Say the doubters, “Shouldn’t we eliminate the artificial distinction about which child came first? Gb and Bg are functionally equivalent! The combinations for gender are: BB, GG, and BG. We know the person has a girl, which leaves GB and GG, so 50%! Birth order does not matter!”

This argument rages in Jeff’s comments, and as Jeff points out, that’s the answer to a different question. That’s the answer to, “A person has a child, that child is a girl. What are the odds that his next child will be a boy?”

Sure, that’s not the question that was asked, and so we can say that many people don’t listen. But that’s not really fair. The question is kind of silly. It’s a pointless abstraction that pretends to divine the listener’s mathematical intuition, but it does that by deliberately obfuscating the problem.

For example, we could phrase the question this way:

“Suppose you meet someone. This person tells you that he has flipped two coins. What are the odds the the person has both heads and tails? What are the odds that the person both heads and tails if we know that the person does not have two heads?”

It’s not phrased that way because that makes it look like a logic problem. The question as asked is designed to elicit “incorrect” answers. It does that by relying on the ability of the listener to make sense of the world.

If we ask the question as first given, the average listener places the question into a familiar, real-world context and imagines a conversation with another person. In the real world, if someone says to you, “I have two children and one of them is a girl.” The natural assumption is that the other child is a boy because why else would the person phrase it that way? If he had two girls he should have said “I have two children, both girls.” If he does have two girls but still says, “one of them is a girl” then he’s being deliberately evasive.

Why does it matter? It matters because context matters. The point of logic is to make sense of the world. If we’re writing a computer gambling program, then we need to be sure that we understand probability distributions and game theory. In that context, abstraction is appropriate. If we’re having a conversation in the lunch-room at work, then we need to emphasize a different set of essentials.

No problem exists as pure abstraction, there’s always a context and that context is always relevant. Whether that context is a deck of cards, a set of coins, a lunch-room conversation, or your neighbor’s money, we can’t solve real-world problems by ignoring context.