Throwing Cheney Under The Bus

Posted in Culture at 4:00 pm by steve

In another desperate act of eating their own, the neocon hegemon has settled on throwing Vice President Dick Cheney under the bus. It couldn’t happen to a more suitable candidate. Cheney is unlikeable. He combines reptilian warmth, bulldog tenacity, and feline stealth. And he is the very embodiment of neocon hubris. He is loathed for his successes. He is ridiculed for his failures. He is dispised for hypocracy. His extraordinary strength is that even if, unlike Reagan, mud thrown at him sticks, he remains completely unaffected. He understands he is not popular. But taking a line from Machiavelli, he doesn’t care because “it is better to be feared than loved.” Somone gets in the way, you just cut them off at the knees. It’s such a common practice that Cheney uses the term of political art “kneecap” to describe the process. When one does a thing often one needs consise, descriptive jargon to talk about it.

The concern, of course, is that neocons imagine that by crucifying Cheney they might create a martyr for their cause. They imagine that if they portray the failures of this administration as being personal and executional, the gravy train they have created by preaching that war is good and more is better will not be run off the tracks.

The problems with the administration, however, are ideological. Iraq was not a mistake because it was badly executed. What made it a mistake was invading a sovereign nation unprovoked. Fabricating a reason out of whole cloth. Then pretending to “impose democracy.” Iraqis may have been happy about “liberation” initially. But now they are apoplectic. They are in despair. They want us out. They long for the halcyon days of Saddam. This is the empire we are creating; an empire of people who genuinely hate us as we hate Dick Cheney.

Iraq is symbolic of the way the administration treated every nation in the world: like a big, mean, muscular, dumb, pimply, smelly, testosterone-crazed thirteen-year old bully with the only switchblade in the neighborhood. Nobody likes to be treated that way. And everyone reacted badly. Latin America south of Mexico turned leftist. Europeans ran away. The Chinese, characteristically, remained cooly aloof. The Japanese found themselves talking about re-militarizing because they were being “protected” by madmen, men drunk on power. It’s the kind of protection that leads inevitably to ruin. And if one is to be ruined, one might as well do it on one’s own terms.

Ambition of empire, preached by neocons long before Reagan came to power, has lost the US more influence and prestige in the world than any more staid or isolationist posture ever could have. So has the unconditional free-trade bonanza. If one set out to reduce the US from being “the” world power to second world stature in a century, the neocon agenda instituted under Reagan could hardly be a more effective presecription. Meanwhile it makes the neocons rich, powerful, influencial. And when this zip code no longer suits them they will relocate to a more promising nation.

So why not sacrifice Cheney? After all, he’s not really part of the club. He belongs neither to the patricians who have held power in high places for three generations nor to the University of Chicago cabal. He’s an impostor. He’s the perfect sacrifice to appease the mob.

Learning from Games

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:05 am by steve

There is much one can learn from games. Even the simplest games will teach us strategy. One of the early freeware games available for the MacIntosh was a game called Galactic Empire. The premise was simple; you inhabit a galaxy in which there are 20 independent planets. These once existed as a single empire and they have been slipping into oblivion since the empire broke up. You have the charter of reuniting them by force. To do so you accumulate fuel, food, and forces, and travel out to conquer the galaxy one planet at a tume. But you have only a thousand years in which to succeed, else all is lost.

Play amounts to choosing the order in which planets are captured and the force levels commited to capturing and subduing each planet. One accumulates what is needed, flies to the planet, engages in battle. If one wins, then one leaves forces there who hold the planet. Hold the planet long enough, and it joins the empire and one can depend on it to create food, fuel, and forces to be used later in the game for other conquests.

It turns out that capturing a planet can be very costly. If one captures a planet, but fails to commit the forces to hold it, the planet reverts to an independent state and one’s efforts are wasted. The most effective way to lose the game convincingly is to engage in a lot of wasted efforts. Typically, if one has lost two planets in the course of a game, one has lost all hope of winning the game.

The lesson, in context of the game, is clear. Only commit to undertakings for which one has a very solid expectation of success. In this game, 90% chance of success is not good enough. Maybe 95% is good enough. In some critical cases 99% will be more like it. Of course, there is a cost of over-committing as well. If one commits thirty percent more resources to holding a planet than would be required, one wastes some resources that have been painstakingly accumulated.

Perhaps only a stupid person would have to learn the lesson from such a simple game, but this game taught me that in places in which one was invested - the work place, a political arena, or a relationship - one ought not initiate costly battles unless one can be almost certain of a favorable outcome. Favorable outcome may be how one chooses to define it. But it does require one to fully understand the costs of a decision. All conflict is potentially costly. Both the decision to engage and the means of engagement must be considered carefully in terms of the direct effects and the side effects. And it is a waste to spend more on a conflict than what is won in the process.

More recently I have played Civilization. The premise of this game is to “build a civilization that endures the test of time.” One manages to do so by building a civilization that is large enough and functional enough that it can manage to defend itself from invaders without overburdening itself with too much overhead; too many costly institutions or too much expenditure on the military. Yet a civilization with inadequate levels of these same qualities is dysfunctional and is ultimately doomed.

Play procedes by building a city at a location. The city can produce improvements or it can produce units. An improvement will generally make the city more functional. A unit may be a worker who builds roads, farms, and mines, making the city more functional. Or it may be a military unit. Or a settler who would travel into unoccupied territory and establish a new city. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world other players are doing the same. At some point adjacent civilizations collide and the friction starts.

Once again, the idea of not taking on any opponents unless one can be assured of some measure of success is a productive idea. The idea of engagement is more nuanced. In the early game it is important to acquire a critical amount of territory else one cannot develop at the neceessary rate to maintain a viable civilization. Still, even in the early stages aggressive land grabs can prove destructive if another player has developed a strong military. But all throughout the game, one must focus on peaceful development of institutions that improve culture, education, and productivity. Fail in these undertakings and a civilization is doomed.

Balanced development is the foundation to success in the game. Advanced players may understand this in more nuanced way, given the different capacities and temperaments of different foes; but one cannot afford to fight long without risking other problems. The biggest problem is the problem of development. Development falters in times of war; and this can give peaceful third parties some advantages. The effect can be important because a nation has profound advantages over another if it becomes markedly more developed. Thus, the focus of the game becomes development. Any player who focusses too narrowly on accumulating or holding territory sacrifices development and loses.

Development in Civilization is measured in terms of the “technologies” that a civilization has mastered. A few technologies give to a civilization crucial advantages in military might. Development of motorized transportation enables one to build tanks. And tanks prove to be among the most potent of military units. Other develoments have different side effects. Monotheism allows one to build cathedral improvements in a city, which ultimately helps preserve the peace and keep the city from collapsing into disorder. Develop a code of laws and build courthouses in far-flung cities and corruption is reduced, making them more productive of goods and culture.

One of the brilliant ideas behind the game is that it creates a context in which there is a zero-sum game that is bounded by geography and there is a non-zero sum game that is bounded by the success of the civilization in terms of its cultural achievements. On the one hand, one might win by holding enough territory. On the other, one might win by creating enough culture within a more limited territory to hold disproportionate influence over the rest of the world.

One cannot win the zero sum game without playing reasonably well at the non-zero sum game. One cannot take territory from a more advanced civilization and hope to hold it indefinitely. In fact, if a foe is very much more advanced, the surest way to lose what one has is to challenge the foe in battle. Once one understands this, then the greater part of play will generally involve being good at the arts of creating effective civilizations. Being effective at war can be seen as being a means of keeping destructive conflicts short. And of assuring that conflicts end by acquiring territory.

Both games teach one that winning wars alone is nothing. A war won becomes meaningful only when the vanquished is transformed into some sort of an extension of the victor. That might be an administered colonial territory as India to the British. It might be a territorial annex as the territory - now known as the states of New Mexico and Arizona - won in the Mexican American war. Or it might be an ally as Germany and Japan have been to the US since the success of the Marshall Plan. In the final analysis, it is engagement in trade and culture that makes these things work. It is being good at the non-zero sum games where winning actually can take place without producing losers. It’s a lesson a lot of political leaders today could do well to internalize.


Posted in Uncategorized at 6:04 am by steve

Officially pronouncing what we have long speculated, David Broder at WaPo declares that Cheney “used the broad authority given him by a complaisant chief executive to bend the decision-making process to his own ends and purposes, often overriding Cabinet officers and other executive branch officials along the way.” He takes pains to describe the hand-full of things Bush took into his own hands. But in the end, if history were to record this as the Cheney presidency it might actually be more reflective of the flow of power.

Retiring Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace correctly suggests that the metric for success in Iraq is dependent to a significant degree upon what Iraqi’s believe. Are things better now by this metric? No. They’re remarkably worse.

  • 39 percent of Iraqis said they feel their lives are “going well,” compared to 71 percent in November 2005.”
  • 40 percent of Iraqis said the situation in Iraq will be “somewhat or much better” a year from now, compared to 69 percent in November 2005.
  • 26 percent of Iraqis said they feel “very safe” in their neighborhoods, compared to 63 percent in November 2005.
  • 82 percent of Iraqis said they “lack confidence” in coalition forces.
  • 69 percent of Iraqis said coalition forces make “the security situation worse.”

Is the tide turning for talk radio? This story suggests that it is. The recent confrontation of Elizabeth Edwards vs Ann Coulter hosted by Chris Matthews suggests the same trend. Political discourse may have have hit rock bottom. A hopeful sign indeed.

When junior breaks the new toy dad bails him out. In this case, the toy in question is the whole body of international relations in general, Putin and Russia in particular.

Russia claims North Pole Seriously. As with any land-grab it’s the expectation of wealth that lies deep beneath. In this case, oil.

International point of view This prominent German publication evaluates Michael Moore’s comparison of the US and French health care systems.


Genghis Khan to Thomas Jefferson and Back

Posted in Social at 9:42 pm by steve

When the clouds of dust arose on the horizon announcing the approach of Genghis Khan’s armies, it was too late. Hoards of keshiks would descend on the city and demand fealty or death. One submitted or the city was levelled. Either way, the city fell, the hoards took what they wanted, and they rode on. Khan’s armies struck quickly and dealt severely with opponents. “I am the wrath of God,” claimed Khan. His sense of victimhood had turned to one of entitlement.

In a few decades he built one of the largest empires known to man. It stretched from the frozen Siberian tundra as far south as Cambodia. It stretched from the Korean peninsula as far west as Austria. His army was beseiging Vienna when they heard of his death.

Khan’s sons split his empire. And with their own deaths the empire fell into constituent parts that were pretty much as they had been before his martial successes. Khan’s achievements when measured in military terms are mind-boggling. But how did his legacy stack up? Perhaps the British used some of Khan’s many and marvelous administrative techniques of using local rulers to administer local areas. Perhaps Moghul emperors ruled the brutal middle Asian steppes north of India for some time. Perhaps Khan’s descendents were among the several invaders of the Chinese who arrived ruled, and were transformed by the people they ruled.

One side-effect that changed Europe was that, for a short time, it was safe to travel from Europe to China by land. Marco Polo did it. And his stories stimulated an emerging Europe to trade with the Chinese. But that is another story. So, too, is the idea that Khan’s invaders themselves or trade that was spawned as a result brought the plague to Europe.

If one thinks of Khan’s achievements in terms of statecraft, Khan’s military achievement amounted to nothing. There was no permanent state. There was no new identifiable people. There was no unique culture. There were no powerfully transformative ideas. Perhaps a good historian would be able to find ways in which Khan’s invasions overthrew a local regime that led to some permanent local change. And perhaps his action catalyzed other changes - ones that would have happened anyway but at a different time.

Khan’s monumental failure was a failure to understand the importance of permanent institutions. It was Khan’s personal relationships that maintained the shape of the empire. He had defined these completely. And once he was gone, there simply could be no replacement: nobody had the same relationships. Khan’s failure was a failure of institutions. It was probably his complete inability to think in terms of permanent institutions that allowed his success. But it was certainly his inability to think in terms of institutions that was to prove the downfall of his empire. Khan’s failure to establish institutions that properly defined the flow of power doomed his empire completely. It could not succeed.

Jefferson, by contrast, started with the idea that government was an institution. And that the institution of government had a particular relationship to the people it governed. He did two things. He established an institutional form of government that inherently kept government from being about a single person. All personal ambition was kept in check by it. And he created a body of philosophical work that simultaneously appealed to the governed and informed all of the noble goals of his effort.

The Constitution provided for a voluntary means by which states migh join the Union. This gave legitimacy of the Federal government, initially, derived from the legitimacy of existing democratic institutions, state governments, just as it did from popular support. Thus the government of the US was an institutional manifestation of a contract envisioned first by Rousseau. The idea proved transformative in the US. And its precepts were echoed throughout western Europe and in many other nations, too.

Some central ideas were: rule of law, balance of power, political involvement by the governed legitimizes government. There are several more. But the idea is that the simultaneous permanence and flexibility of the institution would withstand onslaughts of the ambitious and serve the public good in perpetuity.

Jefferson and his cohorts Madison, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, Jay and a few others established a body of thought in support of their ideas. Previous democracies had devolved into tyrannies and men such as Franklin were skeptical that their ideas would endure far into the future. Still, they imagined that if America had a rich institutional life the cult of personality would not lead to the collapse of the fragile institution of a democratic republic that they fashioned.

To that end they gave us mandatory public education. A person who is incapable of reading Plato, Aristotle, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Blackstone, and the founding fathers is incapable self-government. It is not true that being able to read the works of those men would necessarily make us individually wise as they were. But if enough of us were to understand their ideas it might make us jointly wise. So long as we remain both moderately critical and open to new ideas; so long as we listen to each other and work to arrive at good policies, democracy has a hope of enduring. That was their belief.

Democratic institutions are fragile. But at least they are a bit more durable than what was left behind by Genghis Khan.

There are institutions that fall somewhere in between. Organized crime cartels, for instance, might be thought of as associative institutions. They cooperate, have informal governing bodies, and so on. Their cooperation arises from an evolved code of conduct - a kind of honor among thieves. These kinds of organizations thrive when goods become contraband. Narcotics, for instance. And arms. They prove indestructible so long as there are laws limiting the flow of any goods. Just like the game Whack a Mole, the suppression of one group necessarily causes another to emerge. In any case, organized crime syndicates operate associatively, with the management of relationships being central to success. The lower levels of the organization may be heirarchical, but at the highest levels they can be relatively “clubby.” But there is a brutality of purpose to all of them; to exploit weaknesses.

Reckoning the role of institutions in stable society is one that would have been central in planning for the aftermath of an invasion in Iraq. If one had studied Iraq for, say, twelve or fifteen hours before the decision was made to invade, one would have been struck by the realization that there were essentially two or three large, functioning institutions with broad support through Iraq. One was the Baath party which controlled every aspect governmental power throughout the nation. If there was a governmental function, the Baath party had some role in regulating it. Another institution would definitely be the Shia religious organization. Among the faithful, no single entity had more influence. It plays a huge role in the social life of its members.

One might identify factions within these groups. And one might identify other sundry local and regional groups with extensive local or regional power. The Kurds, for instance. But pretty much every function that occurred state-wide was controlled by the Baathists. This would have included police work. But it would have included everything else from hospitals and schools to banks. Only the smallest proprietorships could be considered too small to be part of the apparatus. This is the nature of totalitarian rule.

The debaathification efforts that followed close upon the heels of invasion dismantled the only secular institution capable of ruling Iraq. Ostensibly, the purpose was to dismantle the totalitarian state to prevent a recurrence of the Sadam phenomenon. But it was so profound that also eliminated all hope of replacing it with something fundamentally different. The elections formalized the problem; parties led by religious leaders won large chunks of the seats in the the legislature.

My own prediction before “shock and awe” was that if the operation succeeded in changing the nature of the state there were two intermediate term possibilities. One was that the place would devolve into chaos and anarchy. And the only solution to this kind of complete failure is .. totalitarian rule. So long as people do not voluntarily behave, if one is to acheive order, one must use force.

The more hopeful alternative was that Iraq would become a religious state a la Iran, ruled by democratically elected officials and under the strong influence of Shia law. The possibilites for outcomes were bounded by the nature of the local institutions.

The idea that one cannot “impose” democracy on a group of people is one that every reasonably educated person has been exposed to. My own formal study of history ended in 8th grade. All high school courses were taught by sports coaches and amounted to nothing. I took no college history or political science courses. And my only philosophy course was a simple introduction to philosophy. I don’t have any idea how I know it: but it is one of a handful of precepts about democracy that one has to know. Montesquieu wrote about it. Virtuous people, he claimed, would elect virtuous leaders. Scoundrels would elect scoundrels. In democracy, one gets what one asks for.

By contrast, the neocons who got us into this mess studied at the University of Chicago under Strauss, Bloom, and Wohlstetter - many of them. They were PhD candidates in areas of study such as History, Political Philosophy, Economics, and Political Science. So it is not conceivable that the people who decided to dismantle Iraq’s only secular institution could have failed to realize that it would necessarily mean that the nation would devolve into anarchy and chaos. Nor could it have been lost on them that taking absolute power away from a powerful, well-connected, and highly educated minority would definitely not be as easy as giving chocolate to a child. The Sunni would fight back. Iraq would descend into anarchy if the single nation-wide stabilizing institution were dissolved and there was no effective effort to replace it. Guys with guns were necessary. But they were not enough. A functional nationwide political system had to be in place and functioning. Conspicuously, Americans provided neither.

Failure both to anticipate the problem and to react to it early on exacerbated to the violence. This cannot be ascribed to executional error. It is a planning problem. Either the neocons are dumber than the class idiot - blind drunk; or they set out to create a destablized Iraq in order to achieve some other end.

Discover what that end is, and all of the ills of the Bush administration ascribed to incompetency can be more convincingly ascribed to some more occult plan. One that makes perfect sense if one believes in the possibility of associative institutions in the spirit of Ghengis Khan’s. Does “The wrath of God” approach? Or is it just another seasonal dust storm?


Heat but No Light

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:57 pm by steve

On Partiion of Iraq

Stephen Schwartz writes at the Weekly Standard about a conference on the partition of Iraq arranged by Senator Joe Biden. His first complaint is that there was but a single neocon there. And that was himself. This might be a fair complaint had the Iraq war not been sold to the American public by this same group using a pack of lies. If a stranger drives into town on a buldozer and demolishes your house and for years fails to explain why, it is simply is not reasonable to rely totally on his own good graces to restore it to working order.

The subject of the meeting is informed by a paper by Etzoni. It is called Plan Z and it advocates the partition of Iraq. The paper quotes Schwartz quoting a number of Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish dignitaries. It also quotes Schwartz on a number of insights about Bosnia and the Dayton agreement. These he objects to. We are to presume he does so because they are used to support a thesis which he himself does not support.

That he does not support partition of Iraq is clear. But why he does not, is another question. As is the case with so many neocon arguments, the reasons are far below the surface. And they frequenly bear not so much as a passing resemblance to any of the arguments or rationalizations* He cites as one problem the relocation of families, particularly of families of mixed Sunni-Shia marriages. But it’s clear he is not very concerned about this problem. He complains about the details of the plan, talking about the distinction between “hard” partition and “soft” partition.

I have seen maps of the Iraq. For the most part, it seems that partition hard or soft - or of any texture or consistency - would be a feasible task for much of the nation. There are, however, at least two cities where partition seems all but impossible. One is Baghdad itself, which is a patchwork quilt of Sunni, Shia, and mixed ethnicity neighborhoods. Another is Kirkuk. Perhaps there are a few others. In both cases the problem is compounded by the fact that the cities are located on what would otherwise be natural boundaries between areas. How one secures a city in such a situation seems to be well outside even the experience in once Yugoslavia. This seems like a stronger argument than Schwartz invokes. He does talk of the Shia shrine at Samarra which has been devastated by two bombings; and he reasonably objects to the idea that it should remain in Sunni control.

He cites the uneven distribution of oil, water, and arable land. But he fails to tell us how this uneven distribution will be unfair to specific groups. At this point the argument is ironic, however. He blames the current situation on the Sunnis who ruled Iraq before the invasion; but this will be the group to lose the most access to oil and water under partition. So there would be a kind of poetical justice to partition. But that idea runs counter to the purpose of his argument. So he does not develop it. This example illustrates why Schwartz might find his own evidence used against him in the Etzioni paper.

Just to underline his point he calls the Sunnis “terrorists” as if all Sunnis bear equal blame for the fact that a small portion of their group object violently to the fact that Schwartz and his friends invaded their country and destroyed their orderly if repressive rule of it. But for this to make sense, his objection to partition must presume that the Sunnis would be better off under partition than they are now. Again, he fails to develop that logic: It could only be true if partition were, in fact, to succeed in comparison to the current state of chaos, which one expected to extend on ad infinitum. So you see the problem: Schwartz logic only makes sense if he wants Iraq to fail.

Things get worse from there. Twice he suggests that partition would be unfair because, as he implies, “the Sunnis started it.” But history, if we were smart enough to listen, might teach another lesson. How is it that Schwartz and the neocons, of all people, could not see the destructiveness of their blame-based thinking? It was, after all, this kind of thinking that was enshrined in the treaty of Versailles. And the problems that caused postponed the final end of WWI until 1945.


*Of course this begs the question “What is the real reason neocons would object to partitioning Iraq?” Is it because Turkey would object? Is it because the oil rich regions would be Shia and would then fall under Iran’s sphere of influence? Or is it because partition might end the violence sooner; and a stable Iraq has less need of Blackwater contractors, and the money for that work dries up?


Farther Afield (2020)

Posted in Snark and Snarkier at 5:35 pm by steve

In a lightly attended press conference in the basement of an obscure beyond-the-beltway building spokesman for the Fatherland Security Authority announced today a new safety initiative. In a steady and clear voice, Alfred B Duncer announced:

Bearing in mind that corn has become a strategic resource whose role in the production of food and fuel has become central to The American Way of Life, the FSA hereby declares it illegal to use or possess photographic cameras, camera bodies, camera lenses, film, lights, or any other photographic paraphenelia within 2 miles of a location where corn, or any of its derivatives may be cultivated, transported, stored, processed or distributed. Nor shall any buildings or structures or natural resources involved in any of these processes be photographed. Doing so is a misdemeanor offense with a fine not to exceeed $100,000.

Here are some of the follow-up Questions:

Q: Mr. Duncer, serious concerns have been raised about the fact that the president’s fine head of hair is deteriorating. Is this a strategic problem as well?
A: Lucy, as you know, we at the FSA do not comment on the President’s health.
Q: Will photographers prosecuted under this provision be tortured?
A: The US does not torture. But, sure, if this guy turns out to have bad intentions we are going to find out. No matter what it takes.
Q: How does one find out if a potential corn-field photographer has bad intentions?
A: We don’t talk about interrogation techniques; But don’t underestimate the harm that can be done by exploiting simple information. Our goal is to eliminate all possibilty of that happening.
Q: Some people, when they hear about this, are going to say it is an overreaction; what do you say to that?
A: As we explained, corn is the very basis of all American activity. we have to keep it safe.
Q: But isn’t there a difference between actually harming corn and just photographing it?
A: In the opinion of the FSA any body of information that could or might or may be used to put our Fatherland at risk is too important to be disseminated to the public. You just don’t know who might be listening or watching. You just don’t know what ill intentions they might have.
Q: Some might argue that there is a difference between photographing something that represents a huge capital investment like a bridge or a refinery and photographing a cornfield.
A: Everything we can do to make it safer for Americans we will do. That is all.

A few questions remain. For instance, sunlight is a resource used in the cultivation of corn; are we to believe that any photographic effort that employs sunlight violates this executive directive? Has this equivocal notion of what may be photographed been left equivocal on purpose? What did Mr Duncer mean when he said “eliminate all possibility of that happening” in reference to getting simple information? We already need to use our passports to enter libraries and to get internet access. And technical libraries of all sorts require special credentials for access. Periodicals are nothing but picture magazines with fluff. And even arts and literature courses are being dropped from high school and college course offerings. It’s all public relations, communications, and accounting. Nobody below the age of sixty-five can remember what information was.


Science vs. Religion

Posted in Science & Religion at 6:43 am by steve

Science. Religion. What’s the difference? Why does it matter?

Both questions are of vital importance in framing public policy debate; and that is why we take them on here. We intend to argue the second issue in a different essay; but we provide a quick sketch. In a practical sense, the difference between two things matters if one gets best results treating them differently. For instance; a rattlesnake and an apple. Both are live objects. And both are edible. But if one approaches and treats a rattlesnake precisely as one would an apple the outcome would not necessarily be the same. In one case one could expect to have a tasty snack in the other case one might expect to be dead.

That the confusion between science and religion can have similar ramafications is not always quite so intuitively obvious, but there are actually cases in which they either must or could. And on a large scale. There are actually a number of hazards that public policy will treat differently depending upon whether public policy decision criteria are based on scientific understanding or to some other modality*

One of the many hopes for this site is that it might illuminate how public policy is debated: how it is framed, how it is discussed. And so we take on the question of the difference between science and religion.

Because this is such a broad topic our dicussion must necessarily take on a sketch-like quality. We will not be developing points in painstaking, connected manner, but rather we will be making them in a way that is a little more desultory. Readers who are used to good academic writing might find this disorienting, but it is a necessity of the breadth of the topic. In a sense this is a kind of an exploratory essay or a kind of annotated outline to simply begin to collect and organize the topics that would reasonabaly need to be discussed.

Some readers may be disappointed that we neither support or deny any religious point of view. There are two reasons for this. One is that in the spirit of the essay it is not only unnecessary; rather such an assertion would run counter to the purpose. the purpose is to help people with different beliefs talk and listen more openly about these issues in public policy forums. Another reason is that as a scientific proposition, the exsistence of God is simply not meaningful. Neither philosophy nor science has anything conclusive to say about the subject. Aquinas proofs of God pretty clearly define God as being immaterial. And science has found altnernative explanations for pretty much everything attributed to God. But neither of these is proof one way or the other.

Finally, it is not the existence of God that atheists rightly find repugnant, but the conceptions of him. Since the conceptions are protected as holy by a body of theological thought, they attack at the vulnerable position. We intend to argue elsewhere that this cheats everyone. It cheats the people both inside and outside the religion who are negatively affected by dysfunctional conceptions of God. The most helpful approach is to attack the bad conceptions and trust that good people will respond. Kind of like what Martin Luther did.

Common Roots

Before we get to the differences it is useful to understand in what senses religion and science are similar. Good science is driven by wonderment. It is driven by asking questions. It is driven by a sense of puzzlement. It is propelled by mystery. Fail to be inquisitive and you cannot actually do science. Fail to be adequately playful and you will become a scientific drudge. All of the great scientific sea changes have been driven by asking the right questions, new questions, questions previously unasked. It is not information alone that drives science but the human craving for puzzlement, the desire for more powerful, more precise, more general explanations of how the natural universe works.

Similarly, it is mysticism and attraction to puzzlement that explains some part of the religious experience. There is a strangeness to the mythology and to the theology that sometimes people find attractive precisely because it doesn’t make sense. It is a kind of mixture of common daily images with uncommon and strange ones, annd a struggle to find some different way of framing their existing reality that attracts some people to religious practice. We talk about this idea a little more in our essay on Mysticism and Language

Religious icons: spirits and gods have been used by people in cultures all over the world to explain observed natural phenomenon. Even today in modern, scientific America “Acts of God” refer to phenomena with natural origins such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, mudlsides, and perhaps wildfires. This idea of superstitious notions and practices is described in great detail by Sir James George Frazer in the Golden Bough. It is a kind of anthropological tour-de-force, an overview of rites, superstitions, and taboos that live in cultures that antedate organized religious practice. The work suggests that many of these had sound empirical bases that can be more precisely treated with science. And it suggests that many were of more mystical nature and were absorbed into religious practice simply because they existed and people found some symbolic meaning in them.

So in two ways relgion and science arise from the same historical roots. One is an appreciation of the mystical. Another is as a means of explication. Common history and common psychological origin work together to confuse people.

The Difference Criteria

There are a number of ways in which science and religion are categorically different. They have different purposes. They deal with different subjects. Their modes of authority are different. Their claims are different. Their methods are different. Their practitioners are different. And their universes of discourse are different. One could, presumably, enumerate other areas of difference. We choose to talk about three: subject, authority, and purpose.


The subject is thing of interest, the thing being studied, the thing being observed, the thing being talked about, the thing to which we refer. In science that subject is matter and energy. Or it is matter and what reliably and predictably interacts with it. Since there is a mathematical equivalence between matter and energy, and since all forms of energy either are manifestations of particular states of matter or they are capable of interacting with matter or they have material origins, when we use the word matter here, we will generally mean it inclusively to include energy.

Matter, as we encounter it is made of atoms. The atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. And all of the physical properties of matter derive from ways in which these combine into larger molecules and from how all of these particles interact together. Matter is real. It is durable. It is exhaustively studied. It is well understood.

Physics is interested in learning fundamental rules about matter on the smallest and largest of scales. And in understanding the interactions of matter and energy in great detail. Chemistry is interested in how matter organizes in chemical compounds and how it can be transformed in chemical reactions from one compound to another. Biology is interested in describing flora and fauna whose existence is both made possible by and bounded by physical and chemical constraints. In all of these cases the subject of study is matter.

Matter matters, as a matter of fact. Assuming we accept the philosophical idea that it actually exists, is durable, and behaves in fixed ways, then science is capable of helping us understand all physical phenomena. It helps us make sense of the real world. This is the world from which we derive our air, our food, our shelter. And while we have exercised great control over our environment, we are still subject to fundamental physical constraints. When we forget these or when we deny them we make bad public policy. That is where we started this discussion.

In religion the subject is immaterial. That is, it is not made of matter. Some might argue that the subject of religion is God; but God is not the subject of all religions. And even in monotheistic religions it is more useful to imagine that the subject is one’s relationship with that God. It is that relationship that characterizes religious practice. That relationship is primarily experiential. And it is the experiential aspect that is common to all religions. Religious practice cultivates a certain kind of experience.

The kind of experience is a mystical one. It is difficult for me to describe these mystical elements in any great detail since I have reason to believe that some of kinds experienced by others are not among my own body of experience; but I am told that there exist special states of consciousness that have special qualities. And that these qualities are described in terms of religious experience. The chemical psilocybin, for instance, reproduces these same senses and does so more effectively than natural methods normally do. That this is true suggests that the experiences are very real. Sadly, it is not of great help in determining the source of the experiences under other conditions.

There are, of course, other forms of mystical experience. It is widely held that Newton was “the last great mystic.” This seems like a remarkable thing to say about a man who is considered a giant among a host of giants of the scientific field. But if one looks at his body of work there is a kind of relentless search for explanations. He was compulsive about solving puzzles, and took on many difficult projects. Fortunately motion was one of those. And that led to gravitation and calculus.

I happen to believe that this search for explanations and the sense of puzzlement that accompanies it is a fundamental quality of mystical experience. This, I believe, has some connection with the experience described above: Either it is the same in type but different in magnitude, or it depends upon at least one common mechanism or causal phenomenon. As I explained in my essay on Language and Mysticism, I believe that it is this quality that motivates the acquisition of language in pre-lingual children. I think it makes just about every child ask questions like “Why is the sky blue?” And I hypothesize that were it totally absent, our interest in learning anything at all would be similarly absent. We might learn facts, but our knowledge would be rote knowledge. We would not develop methods of abstraction and synthesis.

I think, too, that a sense of mysticism is a sense of openness to change, to new ideas, to active adaptation to the world. This idea is reinforced by fact that “consciousness altering” techniques are frequently used to help people change behaviors. Hypnotism has been used with some success in smoking cessation, I am told by a reputable hypnotist. And I have read articles about the use of psilocybin in the treatment of opiate addictions. All of these things point to a connection between mystical sensibilities and learning - its motivating forces and its “sticking power.”

Religious practice in many religions involves some invocation of a spirit world: Gods, angels, spirits of the dead, and so on. Whether these entities actually exist as a scientific proposition is irrelevant. The fact is that the practices that invoke them change a person’s state of consciousness in some subtle and usually meritorious way. In any case, the person practicing the religion finds it so. So there is a kind of “endogenous” reality to the experience. The acts of reverence, of worship, of supplication, or whatever, actually change a person’s state of being. This relates directly to the discussion about the mystical. Christ, perhaps, summarizes this part of the religious experience thus: “Love the lord God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all you might..”

The second subject of religion is relationships between people. All the major religions define proper social relationships between people. They define interactions in a way that demonstrates fundamental caring and good judgment in balancing interests between conflicting parties. This body of religious knowledge is sometimes known as morality. Christ summarizes morality in two ways that, I believe, are identical “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Treat others as you would be treated.” This is the “Golden Rule” and I think it is a necessary part of religious practice. Some version is found in more than twenty religions including all the major monotheistic ones, Buddhism and Hinduism.

So the subject of religion a particlular kind of experience. Experience is a little difficult to define. But it has to do with our internal attitudes, emotions, reactions, and predisposition to action in the physical and social world. It embodies satisfactions, and dissatisfactions, elation, and sadness, joy and sorrow. At the center of religion is a body of “right feeling”

A famous Jewish comedian said “Right and wrong: yes, I believe in right and wrong. What’s the difference? When I do wrong I feel terrible.” There is a way in which religion derives from, codifies, and accentuates that sensibility. Studious and careful religious practice can frequently illuminate the path and help people avoid doing things that make us feel terrible.

Cognitive scientists will explain to us the actual physiological processes that are taking place, perhaps invoking “mirror neurons” or “dopamine release.” And evolutionary biologists who are acquainted with Axelrod’s Evolution of Cooperation will demonstrate why these physiological responses predispose cooperative individual and therefore societies composed primarily of cooperative individuals to be more successful than less cooperative ones. In other words, moral thinking is informed by and is a reflection of a physiological adaptation that allows humans to form low-friction societies.

Moses, or or whoever it actually was who wrote the first half dozen or so of the books of the Old Testament, understood this idea better than almost anyone alive today. If one reads Hammurabi’s code and Moses’ body of law the number of parallels is incredible. They deal with the same general ideas - which is completely unsurprising. They make essentially the same distinctions - which could be explained by similarities in culture and social structure. They both have extremely strong appeals to authority. They strike similar postures on similar things, But their tone, style, and presentation are almost identical. It is impossible to imagine that Moses did not have a written copy of the code before him as he wrote the body of law. Moses also understood that Hammurabi’s code was temporally challenged. Because it derived authority from a person, its own authority expired with the person. Moses had to base his law on a more durable authority. He invoked God. And he either invented a mythology to support that idea or he co-opted one. That is the purpose of earlier parts of Genesis.


This brings us to the second category of distinctions between religion and science, authority. One of the sources of authority in religious practice must be an innate sense of rightness. We have already discussed a little about what this is and how it can be explained in terms of evolutionary fitness. Any person who has used the word “conscience” has referred to this sensibility of “rightness” in a social context.

In religious parlance, a sense of rightness might be something that moves us toward God or it might be an actual experience of God’s grace. We can judge these propositions in many terms. As an empiricist, I would argue that so long as these explanations aid us in behaving cooperatively and fairly inside society, so long as they increase our personal levels of satisfaction without materially diminishing those of others who might believe differently, they are favorable ways of looking at the world. And I would hope that a religious person, using the moral ideas that normally pervade religious thought, would afford me a complementary point of view.

We might not think of ourselves as sources of authority. But we are creatures imbued with some capacity of knowledge and judgment. Each of us must necessarily have some innate authority. Fundamentally, we have the authority to judge how ideas in society affect our own lives. And we have some obligation to voice our concerns when those ideas are hurtful; for hurtful ideas generally degrade the lives of all touched by them. Aristotle develops the idea of moral character. And we talked about conscience above. In all of these senses moral authority is derived internally. And it arises from a complex interaction of our capacity for empathy and our ability to make situational judgments.

Authority, more traditionally, is assumed to flow from older to younger. Or from higher rank to lower. Here, again, we can find an evolutionary reason. And it is as old as mammals. Offspring learn behavior from parents. Successful behaviors tend to spawn success. So copying behaviors found in older members of society is a proven means of evolutionary success. This is the evolutionary basis of the idea of exogenous authority. It is the basis of equating authority with age. It is certainly not foolproof; but it can be quite a useful counterbalance to youthful intemperance and impetuousness.

Gods are conceived by abstraction of human authorities. To a young person, an old person is almost inconceiveable. It’s not much of a leap from there to an imaginary being. At first they might take on physical forms in our imaginations. All the Greek gods had physical descriptions, if I am not mistaken. But as we create their images in our minds, and as we gain more experience with our gods through a combination of shared experience and mythology, they become defined less by physical qualities and ever more by behavioral attributes described in terms of human analogy. Gods, since they have lived an especially long time, and since they have superhuman powers must also have extraordinary powers of authority for the same reasons that old people have authority. In fact, as we have just explained in the case of Moses that is one powerful reason one might invent a God.

Once again, even if a God did not exist, the conception of a God and the attribution to her of ideas, arguments, reasoning, and mythology tends to accrete authority to that God. Religions have authority that individuals do not have, precisely because they are institutions and their body of practice, experience, and mythology is deeper than that of any one, or ten, or one hundred individuals. This body of stuff has proven helpful in keeping societies peaceful and well organized. And it has proven helpful in allowing humans to find meaning within those societies. Thus the authority granted to Gods can be warranted, even if it is based upon a myth.

Holiness in this construction is a special attitude we hold toward ideas, objects, or practices. It is an attitude with a mystical component, veneration. And the object of the attitude generally is deserving of some veneration for its institutional significance. An attitude of holiness helps hold together institutions. I suppose reverence might be an alternative term. For example, in the US, there exist a group of people who revere the US constitution. Not the document, but the ideas it embodies. And that reverence elevates the document to a position almost of holiness. It means that its ideas and ideals are energetically defended, and its precepts are kept at the center of legal practice in the US. Were we to live in an age where the reproduction of documents was extremely painstaking and expensive, then the copies of the document would be held just as dear, as the Koran to moslems.

The authority of science, by comparison is consensus. And that consensus is arrived at by experimentation. Well designed exeperiments with clear results create consensus about hypotheses whose truth was previously unknown. It is a well defined process.

It is not quite so simple as that, however, because experiments are not used to prove just the observation of the experiment itself; they are designed to test theories. This raises all sorts of correspondence problems. If we start with a poor enough understanding of the relevant categorical relationships we can design experiments that tell us nothing. Or that mislead us.

A perfect example of this is a an old joke about a scientist and a frog. He places the frog on the floor and instructs the frog to jump. The frog jumps 16 inches. He writes in his lab journal “Frog with four legs jumps 16 inches.” He cuts off one of the legs. He tells the frog “Frog jump.” The frog jumps 12 inches. He writes in his lab journal “Frog with three legs jumps 12 inches.” He does the same experiment with two legs, and measure 8 inches. And again with one leg and measures 4 inches. Finally, he cuts off the fourth leg, places the legless frog on the floor and demands “Frog jump.” But the frog doesn’t jump. He raises his voice. Frog just sit there motionless. Then he yells at the top of his lungs. “Frog jump.” And he gets no reaction at all. He writes in his lab book “Frog with no legs is deaf.”

Sometimes this is the way we approach science. And when we do we get back nonsense. One of the problems in science, then, is that scientists do not always ask the right questions. That creates all kinds of problems. When a field has asked the wrong questions for long enough it becomes marginalized.

One of the terrific problems in science, however, is that the level of abstraction in a number of sciences is such that only a fraction of a percent of the population can understand what’s going on. And sometimes only a fraction of the practitioners really have sensible things to say about the field. When this happens, sometimes the field gets ossified and the people who practice stop being real scientists but become more like protectors of a kind of faith about a body of knowledge. The word orthodoxy comes to mind. In this case authority is credentials. When fields become characterized by this practice, the field is dead. It may serve as a repository of knowledge, like a musty library, but science is not being done there. Authority in such cases derives from work described in old, classic papers. And the “scientists” come to resemble medieval scholastics defending an ancient orthodoxy.


It is impossible to make sense of the distinction between religion and science without discussing purpose. The purpose of science is explication. Specifically, it is explication of fact. Explication of events. Explication of all things that involve matter. I define explication here to mean systematically searching for, finding, testing, and propagating robust models that explain and predict behavior of matter and of collections of matter. My essays On Knowledge deal a little more with the issue of knowing. Explication is fundamentally about knowing, about how we come to know.

The purpose of religion is a matter open to debate. But I see that it has two fundamental purposes. One is one’s own satisfaction, happiness, fulfillment, motivation, and so on. If one believes in an afterlife, it is concerned with the same issues in that case. Some Christians talk of salvation; that is a term of their particular practice that corresponds to what I am saying. The other purpose is the promotion of smooth-running society. I believe that religions are successful because there is a general tendency for them to actually succeed in promoting both of these public goods. Were they to fail profoundly in either area they would fail profoundly in real life. Failure in the first area would cause people to stop practicing. Failure in the second would cause societal collapse.

I have no questions about the legitimacy of either of these purposes. But I do object to exclusive claims that religions have to them. I am doubtful of the idea that people might not find personal fulfillment in the absence of either a particular religious practice or religious practice in general. I do believe that the ubiquity of religious practice suggests that it is easier to find such fulfillment within the context of a a supportive religious community; but I think the operative terms here are supportive and community more than they are religious.

I will certainly grant that religious practice and religious authority create a shortcut to ethical reasoning. I might even be convinced that religious authority is necessary if one is to create a society that reflexively practices sound ethical reasoning. But, I am afraid, I shall never come close to imagining that religious institutions have some perfect authority over moral thought.

The Catholic Church proves that one either clings to dogmatic ideas that grow anachronistic and begin to look downright evil, or one updates moral ideas and ideals to reflect the extremely slowly evolving ideas of fair and sound ethical practice. And when one does make a change it produces the appearance that the previous practice was in some way wrong.

But in reality, it’s not like that. It is not necessarily true that there is some real, durable, everlasting right point of view to every ethical or theological question ever posed. At any point in time there are good arguments for maintaining the status quo point of view and there are arguments for change. When a change occurs it is not because there is something inherently right or wrong about a disputed position. Salman Akhtar suggests in his discussion of fundamentalism, only murder is categorically wrong. Of every other action, rational and caring people in different cultures might disagree. Cultural contexts can change the points of view. They are profoundly influenced by issues of geography, definitions of property rights, mating rituals, and a host of other issues.

For example, in almost every culture in which marriage is an institution, marital fidelity is considered a kind of a norm. In some cultures this norm is taken very seriously; and in others it is seen, perhaps, more as a suggestion. But long ago some of the Inuit had a different custom; male visitors would sleep with a host’s wife. This may be seen as an extreme measure of hospitality. But in a culture in which population was extremely sparse and tiny families were very isolated, it turned out to be a way of reducing the hazards of inbreeding. In an evolutionary sense it could benefit everyone involved. It was a cultural practice that had utility. To argue that it was morally wrong is actually to inflict harm on the culture.

If we view religious practice and religious tradition in a cultural context as being an accretion of useful thought and action, we can imagine such tradition to be a kind of nucleation site for agreement, a point of cohesion. Religious practice, after all, gained much of its political power from its ability to cause neighboring cultures, tribes, and states to find points of commonality.

Religion has social utility. But if we cling too tightly to its provisions while remaining blind to its power to unite us, we might actually risk trading away any personal and societal transformative power it might offer.**


I think it is very important to understand what religion properly ought to claim. What it reasonably might claim, and what it properly ought not to claim.

Claims of Religion
First: Religion is not a system of explication. Explication plays almost no role in its purpose. Explication plays almost no role in its authority. And explication has nothing to do with the subject involved. The confusion arises because of one of the first errors of man was to explain things in terms of gods. Gods were invented as explanations. And this really tells us a lot more about ourselves and our psychological makeup than it does about the gods themselves or the things that the gods were invoked to explain. Science is about explication. Religion is not. This really matters.

Take the issue of ID. ID posits that it is not natural selection that drives evolution but divine selection. Let us suppose that were true. Now let us consider the issue of antibiotic resistant bacteria. (ARB) We know that cases of deaths from antibiotic resistant bacteria have been rising over the last decades. They are responsible for a significant and growing portion of the hospital deaths due to infection. And this is among the more common causes of death in the nation.

Now, if we imagined that natural selection were responsible for the problem we would take certain steps to slow the speed at which antibiotic resistant strains would survive. This might include changing antibiotics chosen, changing dosing regimens and so on. But if we attribute selection to God, then God is the cause and all of these changes in regimens will make no difference whatsoever. In actual fact, though, changing regimens does change outcomes. So either God doesn’t intervene in the selection of bacteria. Or he only does it when we aren’t looking.
If we develop health policy about ARB assuming ID, we will not be looking. And a lot more people will die. Explaining all of this with ID either defies science and observation and risks killing a lot of people or it requires a really knotty theology that describes when God intervenes in selection and when he doesn’t.

ARB outbreaks have enormously huge potential for widespread fatalities. Before the advent of antibiotics outbreaks of cholera, plague, or tuberculosis could decimate cities. So if we respond incorrectly to ARB by assuming ID, millions could die who might otherwise not die in such an outbreak. And, it seems to me, that proponents of ID could reasonably be held legally liable for creating a body of thought they knew was false. Even if they were not, they would be thought of as supporting health policies that led to millions of unnecesary deaths. It matters what we believe about God. It matters whether religion is invoked to explain things that it is unprepared to explain.

Second: Religion, so long as it remains exclusively a body of ideas that illuminate life in the first person, is generally helpful and rarely harmful. To the extent that a person’s religious experience is primarily with his God, and to the extent that the secondary experience is good social adaptation: treatment of others with kindness and respect, it is good. Any person whose religion produces precisely these effects must be respected not just for their inherent value as a person, but also for their dedication to a kind of shared human existence.

But where religion is always wrong is in its third person claims. Religion certainly has first person claims. That is a definition of its nature. Religion might possibly have second person claims. That is, there may be contexts in which a religious person is warranted in discussing his beliefs and their merits with a second person. Religion has absolutely no third person claims. It cannot make “them” do anything. When it does it always errs. When it does it is always evil.

Claims of Science
First: Science claims explication. This it owns in toto. Explication is extremely powerful. And yet, when it comes to the complexities that govern interactions between all sorts of physical entities - whether they be atoms, molecules, cells, organs, bodies, institutions, or societies, science has only illuminated a tiny fraction of what we need to know.

This suggests that we must have bridging strategies - ways of dealing with things that are unknown. The first part of any such strategy is to understand what is known and what isn’t. The second is to understand the consequences of making various choices, particularly the consequences of being wrong. The purpose of public policy discussion is to do this very thing. Sadly, that sort of thing disappeared from public discourse in the mid 1970’s and has only begun to be part of political reality in the last several years thanks to the Web. But hardly anyone has any practice at it and only a tiny bit of what we are doing in the area is very good. Still, there is hope.

Second: Science’s claims beyond explication are tenuous. Science might be able to describe what constitutes meaningful existence but it cannot bring meaning. Science might be able to create antibiotics, but it cannot bring them into people’s lives when they need them. Science might enable us to travel to the moon, but it is not science that actually gets us there. We must depend completely upon science for things it can tellus. And we must learn to use scientific ideas and techniques to help us gain some loose and tenuous grasp on what we do not. Then we must used bridging techniques. Finally, we must try things. We must fail. We must acknowledge failure. We must learn from it. And we must try again.

Universe of Discourse

The universe of discourse of science is fact. If there is a fact, it is connected to matter. It either is descriptive of some embodiment of matter or it is descriptive of an event, a change in state or an interaction between bodies of matter.

The universe of discourse of religion is inner life. It is about how a person experiences his or her existence in ( or out of) time.

When external facts have bearing on this experience there can be an interaction between science and religion. When they do not, there is none. The fact that morality is relegated to religious study is because it is a body of thought that describes how we are affected by our behavior.

For example, moral thought is a kind of explication of how we experience our existence. Moral thought has traditionally been associated with religion, but it need not be so. Kant’s categorical imperative which might reasonably be viewed as a kind of philosophical method one might use to derive moral truth systematically. It really is a kind of mathematical formalization of the Golden Rule.

Gauthier in his Morals by Agreement takes another approach of defining the Golden Rule in terms of rational choice and market theory. The fact that the Golden Rule idea is part of almost every form of religious thought and practice suggests that in some measurable way - in a way that relates directly to how humans experience the world - it is more important than the God of monotheistic religions. Or else it defines the experience of God in terms of a moral code.

Our moral codes are product of six thousand years of thought, debate, and practice enshrined in religious practice. It is likely that this process got some things right. It is right that we should approach the tradition with some reverence. But it is not helpful to imagine that some hypothetical holiness puts all specific tenets of religious thought beyond further evaluation or critique, for there are cultural differences between our own time and Biblical times. Nor is it helpful to assume that any single religious moral code is axiomatically right or holy.

What we need to do is live our own lives with reverence to any religious and moral ideas that give our lives meaning and help us live rich and cooperative social lives. We need to respect the religious and moral ideas that other people find to enrich their own lives. We intend to argue that ethical training be part of schooling; and that it not be religious. I have been told that “civics” is the technical term for what I mean by that, though I am not old enough to know it from experience. When people live well together voluntarily, the law needs little scope or force. And that is an ideal society to inhabit.


I am afraid this is but the most cursory sketch of my conception of the difference between science and religion. There are many vast bodies of explanation missing. Still, I hope that for all its shortcomings, this provides some basis for a discussion on the difference between science and religion and why it matters.

I hope, too, that by searching for some common ground and developing a body of things upon which we can agree it allows us to begin bridging the gap between fundamentalist reactionaries to mid-twentieth century liberalism - “moral majority and their ilk” - and the anti-fundamentalist atheistic reactionaries of today - Hitchens, et al. We cannot afford an amoral society Nor can we afford a scientifically ignorant one. The first sort will be the end of democracy and of liberty; the second sort could lead to the collapse of civilization.

Religion Science
Purpose mystical and moral development explication
Subject relationships and mystical experiences matter and energy
Authority innate sense of rightness, tradition consesus, observation of fact

I used this table to write the work, but I fear that there is still some lack of correspondence between the two. As I meant to say, this is a work in progress.

*Frequently at this sight we use the words religious and orthodox to refer to ideas that are held primarily by faith and promulgated primarily by force of authority. For the purposes of this particular article we will be referring to religions in a slightly more traditional way. We think of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and a handful of other institutions with defined rituals, beliefs, forms, communities. By modality we mean religious faith or faith in any unwarranted method of arriving at a policy decision. We have in mind a kind of blind faith in laissez affaire capitalism as a means to achieve every humann good as an exemple of one such modality.

** Our argument is that religion can illuminate a society’s necessary debate about ethics, but it cannot usurp it. Similarly, we are not arguing for situational ethics, we are arguing for a dialogue that struggles to gain a general agreement on a wide range of ethical issues, not by teaching people what to think about ethical issues, but by teaching them how to think about them.


The Unsinking Sheep of Love

Posted in Snark and Snarkier at 6:21 am by steve

Sometimes phonetic spelling doesn’t translate well… Here is a real e-mail that I think is deserving of a reply.

Hello Max,

You should know that there is a lady in this world, I am here for you, and for me your name is not just an empty sound, for me you are a man who will always be gentle and caring with me. Let the memories of me come to you each time you read my words.

I believe that we will take the non-sinking sheep of love and will go far away to the ocean, on the waves of unopened passions, we will open the doors of wishes and dreams which never happened yet…

I still believe that I can be happy and that you will reply to my brave letter for you at ( You know where to find me) And I will write my letters to you and will greet you: Hello, My Destiny! It’s me again!

A rivederci


Now, I am touched by this letter. The imagery is bold and poetic. The appeal to romance unlike anything that has been dreamed of in the west since at least the days when Audrey Hepburn was considered girlish, Bogart was with Bacall, and Elizabeth Taylor was still working on Richard Burton. How is one to reply courteously while being mindful that accepting wild promises too frequently leads to getting fleeced?

Hello Marishka,

I find it quite flattering to imagine being greeted as someone’s destiny, yours no less than anyone else’s. I am also delighted to know that you are so fond of the sound of my name; but who, pray tell, is Max?

I can assure you that your words will always make me smile. Although I believe you wrote me the same thing a day or two ago, it is not every day that I am offered a romantic trip aboard a titanic, seaworthy, wooly mammal. Ahh… the unsinkable sheep of love; I can almost smell it now. I admit I had never considered sheep to be seaworthy. Not even in a romantic way; … although it does suggest a limerick about a Gaucho named Bruno…

Your offer is, indeed, a brave one - what with all the wave action and the fluffy farm animals. And I really do not mean to seem ungrateful for your thoughtfuness. I also agree with you that I should know that there is a lady in this world. In fact, I think we should both be mindful that there is one in my house. And that she is, in fact, my wife.

So, alas, my impish Russian coquette Marishka: I must decline all of your generous offers. Believe me, it is as painfully sad for me as it is for you. I wish for you all the things you set out to give me; I hope you receive in kind all you intended to give. Ten times over.

Bon Voyage,



How Dali Anticipates Cheney

Posted in Social at 8:01 am by steve

In a 1934 hearing in front of that movement’s leader, Breton, Salvadore Dali was thrown out out of the Surrealist’s movement for actually behaving in a genuinely surreal way. In a pivotal part of the hearing Dali draws a pamphlet from his pocket, waves it at Breton and quotes back to him his own words: “Surrealism is thought dictated in absence of all control by reason and outside all moral and aesthetic preoccupation.”

Observers cast the disagreement in other terms, but from what little I know of the story, it would appear that to Breton this was an artistic statement. It was a description of how Surrealists approached their craft. But to Dali it was a description of how one lived. It was a kind of idealization of Dali’s unique essential self. Hugnet, a Surrealist who was there casts Breton as an anti-establishment bourgoisie. And of this class it is to be remembered that there is a cultivated capacity to say one thing but to think another, thus art might be an expression of self, or it might be an expression of something else - a kind of intellectual exercise. Breton’s reactions to Dali’s theatrics suggest this kind of duality. But Dali is not of the same ilk.

To Dali the distinction between art and life was meaningless. Art was not an expressive exercise, it was a name chosen by others for the natural product of his existence, like carbon dioxide. Dali tells his mock jurists about his dreams. Hitler with six testicles, Hitler as ravisher. Dali is clever enough that he could be fabricating it all, but he was drawn to the fascists in a way his cohorts never were. If he is fabricating, his fabrications have a basis in reality.

Another observer, Jean, sees Dali as a fraud, a huckster. And he sees his arguments as simply being rhetorical, self-serving. But this fraudulence and hucksterism is Dali. It is not an act. It is not an artifice. It is not behavior crafted from some philosophical ideal. Nor is it meant to deconstruct or to frame or to redefine anything. It just is Dali.

In the end, Dali was cast out of the Surrealist club not because he wasn’t a real surrealist, but because he was one. He was the only person who did not see Surrealism as a kind of intellectual construction, a kind of straw man set up by the artistic community to serve a particular societal purpose. This mock trial would prove that to Breton and others in the movement the Surrealist ideal of being outside reason and beyond moral code was descriptive of the art, not the person - regardless of the nature of their rhetoric.

Dali played the rogue for all it was worth. And near the end of his life it is said he earned his keep signing blank canvases or sheets of lithograph paper at a rate of up to 1800 per hour, accumulating over 300,000 signed blank sheets. These were then used by other artists either to enlarge the number of “limited edition” prints of existing works, or to create a whole body of work falsely attributed to Dali. The scale of his fraud was so profound that a whole new Art Fraud division was founded at the FBI. And even today a Google Search of Dali and fraud produces practically as many document references as one of water and wet.

Appropriate though it may be, it was not fraud that got me searching for passages about Dali, it was surrealism. It was this story about the Office of the Vice President. A more complete rendering of the story can be found at the site of the Speaker of the House.

The essence of the story is that Vice President Dick Cheney, humble and lovable though he may seem to ducks and duck hunters alike, has been defying executive order 12598. That order requires executive branch offices to be audited for compliance with classification and declassification procedures. Since 2002, Cheney’s office has refused the audit. The auditor in question at least twice referred the issue to the Attorney General who is charged with enforcing the order. And guess what? Nothing happened.

Cheney, when pressed, argued that the Office of the Vice President is not part of the executive branch. This is a remarkable argument on the face. So remarkable, in fact, as to be considered absurd, or surreal.

What are the factors that would determine whether it is or is not part of the executive branch? The questions would involve whether the Vice President himself has a permanent presence in a governmental office building, whether he is on the payroll of the government, whether he is depended upon by the President in any official or unofficial capacity in the execution of the role of the Presidency, and whether he has any staff with similar situation, pay, and function. Another factor might be if the office had access to classified information. Government institutions are reticent about passing out classified information to non-governmental entities. So if Cheney has ever propagated classified information among executive branch members in the interest of president or of public policy, he would be fulfilling a duty of the executive branch.

The Constitution itself establishes the Vice President as a government employee. And it is impossible to imagine that he should be expected to function without a small coterie of assistants, deputies, and secretaries who would also be paid by the government. they would be housed in a government building and they would have the special protections and priviledges of high-ranking government employees.

Now our government has precisely three branches. The executive, the judicial, and the legislative. None of the vice president’s roles are judicial. He has but a token and contingent legislative role, that of breaking tie votes in the Senate. If he does anything - and some vice presidents don’t - it is in support of the function of the executive. This role in support of the executive is more than subtly hinted at by the title bestwoed in the language of the Constitution. Cheney has been unusually active as a vice president. He has been so vigorous in his ministrations that he has frequently been mistaken - though mostly in jest - for the actual president.

So Mr. Cheney’s claim that the office of the vice president is not part of the exectutive branch is absurd, surreal, bizarre. So bizarre, in fact, is this claim, that Atrios snidely calls Cheney’s office the “Fourth Branch.” Augmenting the surrealist motif, CNN correspondant Richard Wolfe says of Cheney’s argument “if it’s constitutional I’m a banana.”

The surreal nature of Cheney’s acts of politics and of speech will require a great deal of examination and explication for this thesis to move beyond the stage of “interesting hypothesis;” but we imagine that if history is honest, the comparison will be made more convincingly than we will ever make it.

If we start with the age-old Anglophone ideal that government is about protecting the common weal or common good, and we judge Cheney’s role in government against this ideal, then it should not take much effort to show that his acts satisfy the surrealistic definition of “thought dictated in absence of all control by reason and outside all moral and aesthetic preoccupation.”

For example, Cheney has long maintained that his status as a member of the executive branch puts him beyond reach of Congress’ authority to investigate and punish members of the executive for wrongdoing: he will not testify before Congress when called. This, by itself is an unteneble interpretaton of the Constitution. To assert that for one convenient purpose the vice president enjoys executive priviledge - a mythical priviledge that exists only in the minds of presidents and vice presidents with serious reason to fear impeachment- while simultaneously maintaning that the office of the same official is not part of the executive branch for some other purpose strikes one as thought nor well bounded by reason.

But the connection between Cheney and Dali is more than just the use of surreal to desribe their acts.

Dali was an eccentric, an artist. We might forgive him for his eccentricities because he chose to exercise them in a way in which participation was optional. They only affected art buyers. And it was more the art buyer who wanted to make a buck than it was the art buyers who genuinely loved art who were taken. So Dali exploited greed and lack of taste. One can, sometimes, choose not to be at the receiving end of a fraud. It makes it no less eggregious, and no less objectionable to whom is affected, but it does limit the scope of the public menace a little. And in this case the crime preyed most on those who most debased art.

Similarly, artists tell us something about ourselves that we do not realize. Dali’s graphic arts taught us something about how our subconscious nature deals with the world symbolically. His massive fraud taught us something about how the world of art commerce exploited artist and purchaser alike. It was almost as if Dali were telling us that art is too important to belong to individuals.

Cheney, if he is an artist, is a special kind of performance artist whom we call politician. And the charm of the politician in the system invented by America’s founding fathers, is that the amount of harm that one performance artist can do is theoretically limited by a series of structural barriers sometimes called “checks and balances.”

But checks and balances don’t work when one manages performance theater on a grand enough scale. If one manages to fool everyone in the nation at once, for instance, checks and balances are meaningless. Bill Moyers at PBS documented how Cheney fooled the entire nation into believing the myth of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in order to justify an unjustifiable and unprovoked invasion of a foreign land. The ploy worked. At the height of his popularity the administration had a 70% approval rating, most of which was due to its swaggering treatment of Iraq.

Hubris is the word that comes to mind. Just as it takes much hubris to anticipate cheating 300,000 art buyers, it takes an incredible amount of hubris to imagine one might deceive the whole world into participating in a fraud the scale of the Iraq war. Only a man with the same kind of view of the world as Dali could have done it. What, I wonder, does Cheney dream of?

Meanwhile Iraqis live in a nightmarish world. nearly 2.5 percent of their population has died as a result of the invasion. Violence pervades every corner of the country: mortar rounds land in the cafeteria of the Green Zone. The desparation is palpable. Like a woman being raped by a sadist they beg us to “just finish it…”

When all the rubble has fallen, when the wreckage of the Cheney administration is cleared away, when the carcinogenic dust has been purged from our lungs by some offshore sensibility imported at great hazard under cover of obscurity, when the scars have healed, and the dead are just about forgotten, we might look at what has been done and learn something from the experience. We might learn that, once again, it was our human weaknesses of greed and fear that nourished and sustained Cheney’s unique kind of performance art. And that in some sense we got what we asked for. Until then onlookers will look on us with pity and disgust as victims of a massive fraud, the prey of a great huckster, a man who beat Dali at surrealism, absurdism, and fraud all at once.


Bush Doctrine of Truth

Posted in Rant and Rave at 5:51 pm by steve

Political truth lies in what can be sold by the elite, and in what will be bought and paid for by an undereducated and disenfranchised underclass.

Bush entered the White House determined to create political truth by controlling information. The idea that information is power was not lost on the administration; so it sought to create the mythology that would support its practices. The creation of a suitable mythology meant choking off access to information that contradicted the official point of view. John Dean discussed this problem in Worse than Watergate. Scooter Libby is paying the price for but one small part of of the practice. Casual acquaintance with the ongoing news stories today demonstrates that it does not take long to realize that the lies that led us into Iraq are just the tip of the iceberg.

To ambitious politicians it is an alluring idea - the idea of creating political truth out of whole cloth. It descends from the idea that in politics perception is reality, that authories can “spin” stories to create any favorable interpretation they please. Frank Luntz championed the idea for the Republicans, and Newt Gingrich exploited it first. George Lakoff treats the idea in Don’t Think of an Elephant. There is some truth to this idea, but as is true for any models of reality it has its limitations.

One problem is that denying real world conditions only works for so long. And if one tells the same lies for long enough one starts to believe them: it is an inevitable part of human nature. This then stops one from being able to perceive the problems. It debilitates one in solving real world problems. It logically sets one on a path of justifying bad behavior or inaction as conditions deteriorate. Once the real problemmatic conditions have disappeared from one’s carefully fabricated “reality” spun from twisted lies, there is no hope of addressing those conditions.

This leads to the second problem. The conditions that fail to correspond to the political dogma continue to deteriorate in the face of delusional thinking. And eventually the people who are affected by the denied conditions begin creating other narratives and explanations of reality that undermine the official version of truth.

It is not long before the official in question has credibility of “Baghdad Bob” claiming “There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!

Here’s another case in point. This is who we must become to win in Iraq. And the current administration has taken upon itself to make that happen. In the official story everything is hunky-dory, nothing but green pins, all in service of the tribal clan or the political elite. In the real story, carnage.

Spin has its costs. And everybody pays.

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