Saturday, September 29, 2007

Not All Evolutionistary Athiests Like Dawkins Either

A friend recently sent me a really interesting article by Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, Moral Psycology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.

Not being a social psychologist, and so approaching Haidt with little to no baggage, I've found his ideas to be quite interesting, and the points he is currently trying to win in the public forum to be somewhat alligned with my own.

In this article one of his goals is to take people like Richard Dawkins out of the current debate on how morality and religion fit/don't fit into evolutionary theory. I'd rather talk with Haidt than Dawkins. With Dawkins, you are forced into proving religion isn't a gene mutation gone bad, which is certainely possible to do, but you really end up debating his premises, and when you win you've accomplished nothing productive. With Haidt--whose premise is: secular western liberals have only two moral categories, whereas conservatives and basically the rest of human society circa all time have at least five--you can argue over the conclusion: whether or not secular liberals are therefore the pinnacle of evolutionary development, or are they the evolutionary blip. This is a conversation that I do want to have. Thus, the end of this NYT article, you have Haidt basically saying "if secular liberals take over our society we're in real trouble." (Obviously he also thinks the opposite is true.) Note also, that in Haidt's own article, he is using his system to point out that Dawkins and friends are using non-scientific, not exclusively "scientific" thinking systems, to point out problems with religion, but rather are relying on the other three moral categories Haidt identifies as traditional/conservative intuition. Very clever, funny and true.

Another interesting idea Haidt has: change the categories on the debate about the role of that "gut reaction" in moral thinking. For instance, the old survey where people are confronted with two piles of laundry and have to make an instant decision about which they prefer and are "proven" to use emotive reactions over reason/cognition, is shown to be falsely construed. With Haidt's categories he gets to say, because moral cognition encompasses more than reasoned altruism and fairness, its still moral thinking to have a gut reaction to people having sex in the middle of the street and to base your decision upon that reaction--he is putting moral impulses like that in the realm of "intuition" and so saying, look, they are reasonable too.

He also has the sense to pick his head out of the petri dish and make broad, reasonable suggestions based on general, common sense observations to his fellow evolutionary athiests such as this:
"Atheists may have many other virtues, but on one of the least controversial and most objective measures of moral behavior -- giving time, money and blood to help strangers in need -- religious people appear to be morally superior to secular folk."

As well as this:

"... surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. Most of these effects have been documented in Europe too. If you believe that morality is about happiness and suffering, then I think you are obligated to take a close look at the way religious people actually live and ask what they are doing right."

I'm not going to be sending Haidt donations or anything, but I think he's trying to change the conversation in really interesting ways, I appreciate his fairness and level headedness, and I hope he becomes widely accepted enough to be an important part of the public debate on religion for a while.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Wind in the Door takes L'Engle

The genius of Madeleine L'Engle's Time series was the combination of the most homely and ordinary things with something totally unlooked for, fascinating, unsettling, and somewhat wierd. The illustrative image is Mrs. Murry interrupting experiments to cook spaghetti for Meg and Charles Wallace and the Twins over the bunson burner and discuss school as every mom and kid do; or, well, the first line of A Wind in the Door: "There are dragons in the twins' vegetable garden," who actually turn out to be much more than dragons.

What perhaps does not get said often enough about her, and many other remarkable 'children's authors', is that she wrote very, very well. I refer you to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, 16. Use definite, specific, concrete language. "... the surest way to arouse and hold the reader's attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete. ... the significant details are given, and with such accuracy and vigor that readers, in imagination, can project themselves into the scene."

"... It was a still, chill pre-dawn. The grass was white with spider web tracings of dew and light frost. A thin vapor moved delicately across the lawn. The mountains were curtained by ground fog, although in the sky she could see stars." (Square Fish, 2007 reprint, Wind,p. 85).

The mountains were curtained by ground fog ... a perfect, memorable phrase of a vision that someone like me would have obscured with "... were so covered in fog it was as though they were draped in heavy curtains." [1]

L'Engle pushes a deep theology of love and mercy in a scientific mysticism, to a degree that I would not quite personally endorse, but it equipped her to embed piercing Christian truths in the midst of fantastic stories. Meg's challenge in Wind is to look at Mr. Jenkins (her principal) and name the true him simply based on her ability to know, and thus love, the real Mr. Jenkins. In the six months since I read the story, these scenes have stuck with me as I try to know and name those around me, especially those who are not exactly my favorite friends. Who are they, really; and how does Christ know them? Because knowing, naming someone is loving them sacrificially, for who they are -- its Christ on the cross saying, "... they know not ...". See, you know she gets it when every time you look up you see Jesus.

I say "she gets" in the present because despite the immediate loss, I trust that Madeleine L'Engle is singing the eternal song in company with the Cherubim, her feathered dragons.

[1] "One time a woman handed me a story she had written about her rather interesting childhood, a kid's story. I read it and said, "It's very interesting. But now I'd like you to rewrite it-only not for children this time. Write it for the people here in this group." She gave it to me the next morning. I told her, "That's how you write for children-not the way you first handed it to me." People think they need to write differently when they write for children. But they don't." (

Monday, September 03, 2007

Sign of the Times

August. That month in which the baseballwheat is separated from the baseballchaff, leaving a few interesting teams that could-just-get-it-together-in-time (see: Tigers, Detroit).

The Other Favorite AL Central Team of the Bourgeois Burglars (see: Twins, Minnesota) has both less hope to pull it together (at 69-68), and less to pull together anyway. This is, in general, ok with yours truly. The Twins have made it to the playoffs four of the last six years (counting this one), and though they always seem to get derailed by America's Favorite Team (The Yankees), the Kansas City Royals are a good reminder of how sweet it is to root for a perennial competitor.

On the other hand, it is hard to let go of that playoff rush, once experienced. You know its truly over when your team's website offers video highlights titled, not: "Stunning late inning comeback lifts Twins over reeling Yankees" or "Santana dominates Angels, striking out 15" but rather: "The Twins use small ball to get a run home Sunday Afternoon." Note, that we were playing the Kansas City Royals.

A couple weeks after the all star break,'s resident stathead, Rob Neyer, commented on how high he had ranked the Twins and how lowly they have performed (can't find the link) saying: "I did not conceive of how poorly their lineup would be managed." This was not Neyer coping out, it is something that Twins fans have been whining about increasingly all season long. The banner player for this phenomenon has been Nick Punto, the banner incident his multiple pop-up bunt attempts.

For documentary evidence of how pathetic a season Mr. Punto has had (and I wish him no ill, he is by all reports a fine, well-liked, hard working fellow ... just not a good major league infielder) the statistically WORST SEASON of all major league batters. The best measure of his performance is the new-fangled (not really) stat VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). The very basic definition of VORP explains that this is a calculation of "the number of runs contributed beyond what a replacement-level player at the same position would contribute if given the same percentage of team plate appearances. VORP scores do not consider the quality of a player's defense." Alex Rodriquez leads all major league batters with something ridiculous like an 82. Tori Hunter leads all Twins with a very respectable 39.2.

Mr. Punto, with his 128 games played and 467 plate appearances, leads all major leaguers with the line of -26.3. That means that Mr. Punto has taken away over 26 runs on the season that an absolutely league-average replacement level guy would not (see Jose Valentin, 2b, NY Mets). Punto is famed for his defense (which is, admittedly, very good and sometimes incredibly spectacular), but despite what Kelly Theiser argues in this article, even if you are Ozzie Smith you can't make up that many offensive miscues and bat .199. Seriously. Mr. Gardenhire, please stop putting Mr. Punto in the lineup.

In short, see you next season. Over the next month, Twins fans will enjoy previews of the incredible pitching rotation that is shaping up for next year, wring their hands at the idea of who will replace Hunter in CF now that he seems to be planning on hitting the big time free agent market, and hope God drops a decent Third Baseman into our laps.

Oh, and Go Tigers (Do you want to borrow a closer? We apparently have two, again, despite what this says).

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Classic Jones Gone Bad

Bottom of the ninth, Tigers up 7-5 against Oakland, at Oakland. They could pull even with Seattle in the wild-card race if they win; and they'd be 4.5 back from Cleveland in the AL Central. Note that Brandon Inge stranded a runner on third in the top of the ninth.

Strike, foul, foul, foul, line drive to right.

Ball, foul, homerun.

Game tied, 7-7. This is a Classic Jones gone bad.

Strike, strike, foul, single to center.

Ball, ball, foul, ball, ball, walk.

Ball, ball (Wild pitch! Runners go to second and third!), ball, ball, intentional walk.

Note that the bases are, how you say, loaded, and that there are no outs.

Piazza (the clean up hitter):
Strike, ground ball to short, double play (short to home to first).

Two outs, men on second and third.

Strike, ball, ball, ball, fly out to center.

Blah, blah, blah, Tigers lose in ten innings. Read this on Jones. Review the classic Jones criteria for homework.