Friday, December 5, 2008

Jon Haidt: Moral Psychology and Politics

Social psychologist Jon Haidt studies the moral judgments and intuitions of people in a variety of cultural contexts. He's identified 5 domains of moral judgment that each of us are sensitive to, albeit in varying degrees.

He's observed some interesting patterns regarding how well members of different groups (i.e., religious, cultural, political) emphasize each of these domains. This video is a talk by Haidt (about 20 min. long) presenting some of his observations and interpretations regarding moral judgment and political discourse.

I'm fascinated by this sort of research, and I believe Haidt's research suggests a lot about human nature, and the universality of so called 'moral values'. His 5 domains, and some of his other interpretations may have a bit of a western bias (i.e., would the domains have been labelled differently if one came from China or India? Would there have been more or less domains if one came from Nigeria?), but his ideas are very innovative and useful for further understanding our moral instincts.

Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis is a great and fascinating and relatively quick read that examines how a number of psychological studies align well with the ideas of many of the great philosophers (who, it turns out, were great because they were great intuitive psychologists) tell us about what makes humans happy and how what we conceptualize as 'morality' works for us psychologically. Other books I would highly recommend that deal with similar issues of moral psychology include Marc Hauser's Moral Minds, Michael Gazzaniga's The Ethical Brain, Michael McCullough's Beyond Revenge, Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, and Matt Ridley's The Origins if Virtue.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Book: The Truth War by John MacArthur

In The Truth War John MacArthur purports to make the case against a 'new' movement within Evangelical Christianity that he sees as a threat to his version of orthodoxy or 'The Truth'. MacArthur, pastor of a southern California megachurch, believes that modern Evangelical Christianity is being led astray by a group of authors, theologians, and popular commentators who he views as a challenge to what he believes is the truth presented in the Bible. He believes that these thinkers, who he refers to as 'Emerging Christians' are poisoning American Evangelicalism with their pluralistic political views, references to modern popular culture, an ecumenical orientation, and especially their post-modern critique of traditionalist thinking. He goes so far as to suggest that these thinkers are evil promoters of apostasy and heretical thinking.

In opposing these thinkers, MacArthur intends to place himself in the tradition of Biblical prophetic voices calling for repentance among 'Bible believers'. However, rather than challenge people's thinking he simply asks them to submit to his ostensible authority and accept his interpretation of the Biblical texts. His challenge to the reader is not to question the status quo but rather to refrain from any sort of critical assessment of traditional Evangelical ecclesiastical authority and conventional fundamentalist thinking.

In a clear display of the feebleness of his own arguments, rather than engaging those he differs with in a meaningful discourse, MacArthur resorts to the use of desparaging ad hominem statements about their sincerity and the rigor with which they intellectually engage their Christian faith in terms of their American Evangelical heritage. In doing so, MacArthur fails to see that his 'opponents' have much more in common with his view of the world than they have in opposition to it. I would even suggest that the thinking of those he opposes is for the most part fairly traditional, albeit containing elements of pluralism and egalitarian thought that are absent from MacArthur’s thinking.

Like many fundamentalist arguments, MacArthur's discussion is fraught with contradictions, exaggerations, and tautological reasoning. While I believe he is correct in stating that objective truth exists, he fails to acknowledge that in many cases, particularly when considering ideas that fall outside the realm of empirical observation, we are incapable of knowing with any degree of certainty what that objective truth is. In his rejection of post-modern critical analysis, he denies the role of the reader in scriptural interpretation. According to MacArthur, a straightforward reading of the (English) Bible will by default lead to an understanding of truth that is self-evident and consistent with his own understanding. Such thinking inevitably blinds him to the fact that even in a 'plain-sense' reading of any text the reader brings their own understanding of the language, biases and prejudices, and conceptualizations of vague ideas that have no objective reference point.

Given MacArthur's (and his intended audience of like-minded individuals’) belief that 'The Truth' is self-evident, there is surprisingly little discussion in the book regarding what his idea of 'The Truth' actually is. Presumably, he deals with his own version of the truth in more depth elsewhere, assuming more depth is even possible. By presenting his own reading of Biblical texts as pure of bias, contamination, or interpretation MacArthur demonstrates an arrogance that makes it difficult for any thoughtful person take him seriously.

Kevin Padian discusses evolution, science, education, and religion

I became familiar with Kevin Padian as a scientist through the NOVA special Judgment Day about the Dover, PA trial over the proposed inclusion of Intelligent Design as part of the high school biology curriculum. In that case, Padian provided testimony regarding the evidence in support of Evolution, particularly the 'transitional fossils' ostensibly marking speciation over long periods of time. In Judgment Day Journalist Lauri Lebo suggests that Padian's testimony astonished journalists who were present in the courtroom that day. While many of them had tacitly accepted evolution, they had been unaware of the great depth of scientific evidence that did exist. Padian currently retains posts as Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Curator of Paleontology at the Univeristy of California Museum of Paleontology, and President of the National Center for Science Education. I recently came across this video at in which Padian discusses a variety of issues related to the broader science-faith discourse:

In my view he strikes all the right chords when adressing issues of faith and science. Aside from his ability to deal with the subject of religion respectfully while also firmly stating that religious thinking is not scientific thinking and therefore should not be part of science curricula, I found his discussion of methodological naturalism compared to philisophical naturalism (at 14:30 or so) to be well stated and enlightening. I also appreciate his statements about fundamentalism (at 17:00 or so) and the implication that fundamentalist thinking is not reserved for the religious. Overall, the discussion is about an hour long in total, but can be watched in segments here and is well worth the hour.