Monday, October 24, 2011

The "Wacky" Religious Beliefs of Politicians: Should We Care?

Mitt Romney's Mormonism as inspired a lot of discussion lately about whether we it is okay to vote against a politician because of their religion. As everyone knows, Mormons have beliefs that seem odd to non-Mormons. Now it turns out that Herman Cain has an unusual supernatural-related belief as well: that the number 45 has a special significance in his life, often appearing as a "sign" of important events. Not too surprisingly, this has been discussed in the leftosphere in posts with titles like "Herman Cain is Even Crazier than You Thought." Here is a thoughtful discussion of whether Romney's religion is something we should care about.

Well, should we? I just want to make one point that hasn't been made yet in the discussions I have seen.

A lot of the discussion has been about how "wacky" the religious or supernaturalist beliefs of Cain and Romney supposedly are. My point is this: I don't think that the "wackiness" of a religious belief matters at all. The simple reason is that, in my experience, it does not correlate with anything else, including wackiness of non-religious beliefs.

As a senior in high school, I lived in a town (Santa Rosa, CA) that had a substantial Mormon community. I knew several Mormon teenagers and though I was already an atheist I even attended services in their church a couple of times. (No, I wasn't flirting with Mormon beliefs. I was flirting with a Mormon girl.)

These people, one and all, were as industrious, rational, well-adjusted and decent as anyone you would hope to meet. On the one hand. On the other hand, they believed things like -- that (some) people become gods when they die, that Satan is the estranged brother of Jesus, and that American Indians are descended from the lost tribes of Israel.

Facts of the latter sort seemed to have no effect on facts of the former sort -- unless it was a beneficial effect! .

I see a much more general phenomenon here. I have often noticed that distinctively religious belief, in general, not just the "wackiness" of such beliefs, is curiously insulated from the rest of life, and in particular from beliefs about other things. (This is one of the things that inspired philosopher Georges Rey to write brilliant paper, Meta-Atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception.)

I know scientists who are sincere religious believers, and those beliefs as often as not are as fuzzy and sloppy as their scientific work is clear and rigorous.

Religious belief seems to be a part of a person's life in which they get their crazies out. If this sounds offensive or nutty to you, just interpret it, for the moment, as a sort of thought experiment, as a thesis about religious beliefs different from your own. ... Does that help? Well, just as Romney's "magic underwear" seems wacky to you, so your belief that the Creator of the whole universe cares whether your marriage ends in divorce or not seems wacky to me. I have even heard tell of Christians praying to win at football -- as if the Great Mystery would pick sides in a game!

Religions are full of goofball ideas, and yet that does not seem to cause people to have goofball ideas in other realms. Like those scientists, we use one sort of logic for religion and a completely different one for everything else.

I can think of two possible explanations for this:

This subject-matter is special. Religion is about invisible beings with inexplicable super-powers. It just feels natural to think about them in ways that are paradoxical, paralogical, evidence-free, and obviously wish-fulfilling.

Or how about this:

There are no consequences. If you think irrationally about the stock market and act on those thoughts, reality will punish you for it. But if you think irrationally about an invisible super-being -- making sure that these thoughts do not lead you to make predictions about the real world - reality will not punish you.

Anyway, I'm not worried about the wackiness of a politician's religious beliefs. Except for real-world implications (for instance, regarding abortion or gay rights) their religious thoughts can just run riot as far as I am concerned - which, as often as not, they will.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sibelius' Second

The last two movements of Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 in D. The magnificent finale begins at 5:50.

Last night Nat and I heard the Madison Symphony Orchestra play this work.

I guess that it's a testimony to the power and vivdness of this music that people have often felt a strong need to look for some extra-musical meaning for it. According to Michael Allsen's excellent notes for the MSO concerts, there is a long-standing story that Sibelius did confide a "program" for the symphony to a friend of his: "a vaguely defined set of impressions of Finnish culture and politics." Politics!? I find that it gives me images of far northern landscapes: magnificent wastelands of forest, rock, and ice. The anthem-like themes of the finale seem to cry out for words. The brass choir seems to be signing the praise of something or someone. But whom? What? Each listener must supply his or her own sacred object.

As Ayn Rand said in a very interesting if quirky essay, "Art and Cognition":
Music cannot tell a story, it cannot deal with concretes, it cannot convey a specific existential phenomenon, such as a peaceful countryside or a stormy sea. The theme of a composition entitled “Spring Song” is not spring, but the emotions which spring evoked in the composer. Even concepts which, intellectually, belong to a complex level of abstraction, such as “peace,” “revolution,” “religion,” are too specific, too concrete to be expressed in music. All that music can do with such themes is convey the emotions of serenity, or defiance, or exaltation. Liszt’s “St. Francis Walking on the Waters” was inspired by a specific legend, but what it conveys is a passionately dedicated struggle and triumph—by whom and in the name of what, is for each individual listener to supply.
(HT for photo to the C. I. A.)

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Aulaqi Killing and the Law

As I have said before (here and here), the process by which a liberal democracy decides to kill a particular combatant in the battlefield is very, very different from that in which it decides whether to execute someone accused of a crime. One process is very inaccurate and treats you as having no right to due process, the other is relatively very accurate and treats you as loaded with rights, including due process.

Previously, there were two reasons, that I know of, to be concerned about the US government's avowed intention to treat Aulaqi as an enemy in the field and not a criminal, both of which were debated last year when his father sued to get him taken off the kill-or-capture list: 1) his location in Yemen is not a battlefied, and 2) he is an American citizen (born in New Mexico) and thus entitled to due process.

This article raises a new concern. The administration has revealed that they determined that this killing is indeed legal, and issued a memorandum explaining exactly why it is, but refused to publish it. In other words, the legal justification for their action is a secret.

The concern here is that law and secrecy do not mix.

Lon Fuller wrote a great book, The Morality of Law, in which he argued (among a great many other things) that a secret law is not a law at all. His reasoning was that "law is the process of subjecting human conduct to the governance of rules," and a secret rule cannot be followed: thus it produces no governance. It is simply a means by which tyrants can inflict violence on the unsuspecting and the unoffending.Of course that argument cannot be applied here, at least not directly, since this is a case, not of a secret rule applied to the subject, but of a secret legal justification acted upon by the sovereign. Yet a case might be made for a broader version of Fuller's rule, which would apply to both.

Consider a third case, the secret legal hearing associated with the World War II era Supreme Court decision of ex parte Quirin. Eight German spies (including two American citizens) landed in the US on a mission to commit sabotage against military plants and facilities. Some were immediately spotted by a Coast Guard patrol, who sounded the alarm. This apparently had no effect whatsoever. Two of them, Ernest Burger and George Dasch (pictured above), turned themselves in and informed on the other six. They had considerable difficulty in doing so, however, as the still clueless FBI thought their story was some kink of hoax.

President Roosevelt convened a secret tribunal that, incredibly, sentenced all eight to death. Prompted by appeals from the Attorney General and the FBI Director, FDR commuted the sentences of Burger and Dasch, the two informers, to life and thirty years respectively. This was their reward for taking some trouble to spare the US from a potential disaster -- a result the American law enforcement and counterespionage aparatus probably would have been unable to achieve without their help. (To his credit, Harry Truman had the two men freed and deported after the war was over).

Surely, this tribunal's stunningly unjust treatment of two men who had probably delivered American lives and military resources from destruction had a lot to do with the fact that it was conducted in secret.

Part of the problem is that people tend to behave better when they think that they are being watched, or at least that outsiders will eventually find out what they did and how they did it.

But there is a deeper problem. The system in which Americans live was altered by Quirin the case and the killing of Aulaqi, both of which, as I understand it, were legal innovations. It is part of the democratic conception of justice that such changes be justified to these people.

Indeed, a secret justification has some of the inherent absurdity of a secret rule. The administration has justified killing this man -- to whom? It looks like the answer is: to the people who wanted to kill him. They are not the primary ones who are owed a justification.