Sunday, March 25, 2007

D'Sousa's Strange Alliance of Theocons and Islamists

One sign of the present confusion in American conservatism is that the Conservative Book Club is promoting both Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel and Dinesh D'Sousa's The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11.

As I have indicated in a previous post, Hirsi Ali defends the Western tradition of liberty and limited government against the oppressive theocracy of fundamentalist Islam, and many American conservatives have rightly embraced her position. But D'Sousa is trying to persuade American conservatives that they should ally themselves with fundamentalist Muslims. I agree with Andrew Sullivan's review of this book as a disturbing attempt to unite American theoconservatism and Islamic fundamentalism.

D'Sousa argues that "conservatives must move closer to the traditional Muslims" (287). His fundamental claim is that moral debate today is divided sharply between two positions. On the one side, conservatives believe in a religious morality as rooted in "an external moral order" and "external commands." On the other side, liberals believe in a secular morality of the inner self, "the morality of self-fulfillment" (18-20). The liberals' secular morality of self-fulfillment promotes moral corruption through hedonistic self-indulgence and materialism. Traditional Muslims believe that this liberal morality will destroy their religion and their way of life. And American conservatives, D'Sousa insists, should admit that they are right. America really is morally corrupt insofar as liberal morality has prevailed in American life. American conservatives should join with fundamentalist Muslims in fighting against the corruption of such secular morality.

I would say, however, that D'Sousa has created a false dilemma in assuming that our choice is between a religious morality of theocracy and a secular morality of hedonism. Darwinian conservatism respects religious belief insofar as it supports our natural moral sense. But that natural morality stands on its own--as rooted in human nature--regardless of our religious beliefs. We do not have to choose between a morality of "external commands" or a morality of "the inner self." We can recognize traditional morality as founded in our evolved human nature.

If our morality is rooted in human nature, then we can trust family life and the mediating institutions of private life to cultivate moral virtue without statist coercion. We do not need a theocratic state to coercively enforce morality.

But, of course, the Darwinian conception of natural morality would be rejected by fundamentalist Muslims who scorn Darwinian science as contrary to their Creationist conception of human origins. Many American conservatives agree with them about this.

It is not surprising, therefore, that D'Sousa's book has been endorsed by George Gilder, a conservative critic of Darwinian science who works for the Discovery Institute. In the New York Times Book Review (February 4), Gilder wrote:

"D'Souza raises the alarm that the anti-religious, sexual liberationist, anti-natalist and feminist thrust of American foreign, cultural, and free-speech global Internet policies threaten and estrange all the traditional cultures of the third world, whether Muslim or Christian, Hindu or Buddhist. Poor people cannot afford the epidemics, abortions, and divorces of Hollywood liberalism, and uphold a monotheist God as the foundation of their moral codes and worthy of respect."

"The American global cultural campaign pushes a billion non-militant Muslims to condone the jihad and thus threatens the existence of Israel and the survival of vulnerable American cities like New York."

That the "American global cultural campaign" is responsible for Islamic terrorism is only one of many absurdities to arise from this proposed alliance of theoconservatism and Islamic fundamentalism.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Women's War

The New York Times Magazine for March 18 has an article by Sara Corbett on "The Women's War on the experience of women returning from the Iraq war. Corbett reports that many of these women have been thrown into "post-traumatic-stress-syndrome"(PTSD) by the combination of combat violence and sexual assault.

The Iraq war is a remarkable experiment in the attempt to integrate women into combat. According to Corbett, 1 in 10 of the American soldiers in Iraq are women. 160,000 women have been sent to Iraq and Afganistan, as compared with 7,500 female soldiers in the Vietnam war and 41,000 in the gulf war.

In Darwinian Conservatism, I claim that war is predominantly a male activity. My claim would be refuted if this experience of sending so many women to war showed there was no difference between men and women in combat activity. But if this article is accurate, there is some evidence that women suffer from combat in a way that men do not.

Given our evolved human nature, it should not surprise us that when young women are put in military units in combat with young men that the women are exposed to male predatory sexuality. Neither should it surprise us that women are especially traumatized by combat.

If the behavioral differences between men and women are culturally constructed and not natural, then we should expect that eventually women and men will be socialized into a gender-neutral pattern, so that men and women react to war and combat in the same way. I doubt this. The reports in this article suggest that I am right--that the evolved natural differences between men and women make it dangerous for women to be treated the same as men when it comes to war.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Brain Imaging Fallacy in Neurolaw and Neuroeconomics

The New York Times Magazine for last Sunday (March 11)has an article on "neurolaw" by Jeffrey Rosen. Advances in the technology for brain-imaging seem to allow us to look into the brain as it's working and thus to literally read the minds of human beings as they think. "Neurolaw" is the use of such brain-imaging in the courtroom and in legal discussions of human behavior. Similarly, "neuroeconomics" is the use of the same technology to study economic behavior.

This research suffers from a fundamental fallacy, which I will call the brain-imaging fallacy. The brain-imaging fallacy is the false assumption that brain-imaging techniques explain and predict human thoughts, actions, and consciousness.

One of the most commonly used techniques is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). A fMRI machine uses a magnetic field to detect increases in blood oxygenation that show increased blood flow to active areas of the brain. Computer analysis can generate colored pictures showing patterns of blood flow that presumably indicate which parts of the brain are most active at some point in time. As Rosen's article indicates, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that fMRI allows us to read the human mind. But in fact, all that fMRI shows us is patterns of blood flow in the brain. To infer that these patterns of blood flow explain thoughts, actions, and consciousness requires speculation that goes beyond the evidence of the brain imaging.

For example, Rosen refers to the famous experiments conducted by Elizabeth Phelps who used brain scans to detect unconscious racism. Individuals were shown pictures of white and black faces. When they saw unfamiliar black faces, the fMRI scans showed high activation in their amydalas, which is associated with fear and other strong emotions. But when they saw pictures of familar black faces (such as Denzel Washington or Martin Luther King, Jr.), there was no increase in amygdala activity. This was interpreted as a sign of unconscious racism. If so, this would have legal implications, because we could identify such unconscious racism as a propensity to illegal racist behavior.

But notice how speculative this is. All that the fMRI scan shows us is patterns of blood flow. Increased blood flow to the amydala can be identified as emotional arousal only if we assume that we know exactly how emotion is localized in the amydala and how exactly specific emotions are activated there. We cannot see racist emotions directly. We can only infer such emotions based on elaborate speculation about the underlying neural circuitry. Do we really understand exactly how blood flow to the amydala causes specific emotions? Aren't emotions likely to arise from complicated interactions of many elements of neural circuitry that are not well understood?

Can we be sure that this amydala activity shows racist emotions? As indicated in Rosen's article, some researchers doubt this. The amydala activity in response to seeing black faces might indicate our awareness that black people are socially disadvantaged.

Moreover, even if we could be certain that we could locate specific emotions in specific brain areas like the amygdala, we still could not be sure that this would predict actions. People might often have racist emotions without ever acting on those emotions.

It is also false to assume that we can see human consciousness in these brain scans. We all have direct access to our own consciousness. But none of us has direct access to the consciousness of others. When people come out of the fMRI machines, they are interviewed. We need their verbal reports about what they were consciously doing, because the machines cannot record consciousness. The machines can only record brain activity that might be correlated with conscious experience. But this correlation is not identity.

Rosen makes a lot of the claim that brain imaging throws doubt on the traditional belief in moral responsibility. If people's thoughts, actions, and consciousness are determined by their brains, then we might conclude that human beings are not capable of free choice.

But as I have argued in Darwinian Conservatism, brain imaging shows that human beings have the power to make choices that actually change their brain circuitry. In the book, I cite the work of Jeffrey Schwartz. Working with patients suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, Schwartz has showed them how to use "directed mental force" to change their brains. Those with this disorder can be locked into repetitive behavior--such as washing their hands over and over again--that they cannot control because the brain's neuronal circuits for this behavior are overactive. Dr. Schwartz has helped these people by training them to concentrate their minds to divert their attention away from the obsessive-compulsive behavior. So when they feel compelled to wash their hands, for example, they might concentrate on an alternative behavior such as tending the flowers in their garden. As this mental exercise becomes habitual, it becomes easier to resist their obsessive-compulsive behavior. Using brain-imaging, Dr. Schwartz has discovered that this therapy actually changes the neuronal activity of the brain so that the activity of the frontal cortex exerts a mental force to activate one circuit rather than another. So it seems that the mind that emerges from the human brain can change the brain itself. This emergent power of the brain for mental attention is the natural ground for human freedom and moral responsibility. Here we see the emergent evolution of the human soul in the human brain.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Conservative Infidel--Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel is a fascinating autobiography that touches on many of the issues that I have taken up in defending Darwinian conservatism. (I have not yet read her other book--The Caged Virgin.)

I agree with her attack on the moral relativism of multiculturalism and her moral defense of individual liberty and limited government against the theocratic tyranny of Islamic fundamentalism. Darwinian conservatism would show how her defense of liberty can be justified as conforming to the natural desires of a universal human nature as shaped by evolutionary history.

But I disagree with her claim that fundamentalist Islam is the only true version of Islam. In taking such a position, she actually agrees with the fundamentalist Islamists that their reading of the Quran is the only correct reading, which is a big mistake.

In this post, I continue with some of the points that I made last year in another post on "Do the Bible and the Koran Support Theocracy?".

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia. She was raised as a Muslim, living in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. As a child, her genitals were mutilated by family members practicing "female circumcision" as a way of ensuring female virginity by excising the clitoris and sewing up the vagina. In 1992, she fled to Holland as she ran away from a forced marriage to a cousin who was a Somali Canadian. Working as an interpreter in Holland, she saw that many Muslim women in Holland were being beaten--and some even killed--by their male relatives who believed that Islam dictated the submission of women as part of an Islamic tradition of male domination and honor. She studied political science and then went to work for the Labor Party in Holland. She became famous as a campaigner for the human rights of Muslim women. She switched to the "People's Party for Freedom and Democracy"--VVD for the Dutch: Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie--which is a "conservative liberal" party in the tradition of classical liberalism that favors free markets and individual liberty. She was elected as a Member of the Dutch Parliament. She worked with Theo van Gogh to produce a short film--Submission--that dramatized the oppression of Muslim women as sanctioned by the teachings of the Quran. This brought death threats from anry Islamic fundamentalists. In 2004, van Gogh was brutally murdered on a street in Amsterdam by a Muslim fanatic, which shocked not only the Dutch, but people across Europe, who had assumed that such violence to suppress free speech was impossible in modern Europe. Hirsi Ali had to be surrounded by body guards. Eventually, she left Parliament, and then left Holland in 2006 to join the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C. She calls herself an "infidel," because she has rejected Islam and become an atheist. But as a Fellow at AEI, she might be called a "conservative infidel."

In Darwinian Natural Right, I have a long section on female genital mutilation (pp. 149-160). I use this to illustrate the dangers of multicultural relativism. Multiculturalists argue that since all moral standards are culturally constructed, there is no universal standard for judging cultural traditions as better or worse, good or bad. So if female circumcism is a deeply rooted cultural tradition in some social groups, we cannot properly condemn it without showing the "cultural imperialism" of imposing Western cultural values on a non-Western culture. Against this, I argue that female genital mutilation can be rightly condemned as frustrating the natural desires of the women who suffer from this practice. These natural desires are universal insofar as they manifest a universal human nature. If the good is the desirable, then we can condemn cultural practices that unreasonably frustrate our natural desires.

Hirsi Ali confirms much of what I say about female circumcism being based on false beliefs that impose unnecessary suffering on women who have had this done to them (see, for example, Infidel, pp. 31-34, 112-13, 140). But she seems less inclined than I am to rely on gradual reforms. She notes that the Quran does not mandate female circumcism, and that most Muslims do not circumcise their daughters. To me, this suggests that a reform campaign could stress that this practice is not really dictated by Islam. In fact, Hirsi Ali's father opposed the practice as barbaric and was shocked when he discovered that her grandmother had done this to her. And yet, Hirsi Ali does not see much room for gradual reform, because she is convinced that all of Islam is a brutal denial of human liberty and happiness, particularly the liberty and happiness of women.

Hirsi Ali's father argued that the Quran did not support Islamic fundamentalism, because the Quran could be interpreted as compatible with democratic liberty. But she disagreed, because she had been persuaded by the fundamentalist Muslims--like the Muslim Brotherhood--that the Quran cannot be properly interpreted this way (see pp. 179, 347-48). She is convinced that Islam in its "purest form" as dictated by the actual words of the Quran requires the sort of theocratic tyranny and denial of individual liberty sought by fundamentalist Islam as practiced in countries like Saudi Arabia and promoted by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. This then leads her to the conclusion that to embrace the libertarian principles of the European Enlightenment, which denies theocratic tyranny by promoting religious liberty and toleration, she had to totally reject Islam and become an atheist.

But the Quran is more ambiguous on these matters than she is willing to admit. It declares that "there is no compulsion in religion" (2:256). And some Muslims see this as Quranic authority for religious liberty and toleration. Some argue for "minding one's own business," and they cite the Quranic verse that says: "O you who believe! Guard your own souls: If you follow right guidance, no hurt can come to you from those who stray" (5:108).

The ambiguity of the Quran on whether belief can be coerced by law is similar to the ambiguity of the Bible. A big part of the Enlightenment argument for toleration and religious liberty turned on interpretations of the Bible. Although much of the Old Testament seems theocratic, the New Testament can be read as favorable to religious liberty. The Christians of the New Testament do not use government to enforce their Christian beliefs. Proponents of religious toleration could cite the New Testament as supporting their position, and this was crucial for promoting toleration as compatible with Biblical religion.

By contrast, Hirsi Ali leaves her reader with the impression that the Enlightenment defense of toleration requires atheism. One reason for this is that she seems to identify the Enlightenment with the French Enlightenment and its scorn for religious belief. But this ignores the British and American Enlightenments, which were more favorable to religious belief. (Gertrude Himmelfarb has defended this analysis of the Enlighenment in The Roads to Modernity.)

As Hirsi Ali indicates, the crucial issue is whether morality is separable from religious belief. Fundamentalist Islamists--like fundamentalist Christians--assume that without religious belief, there can be so solid morality. Consequently, the moral order of any society requires the enforcement of religious belief, which then tends to support theocratic tyranny. But if there is a natural moral sense rooted in human nature, then we can judge good and bad without necessarily requiring any specific religious doctrines. In the British and American Enlightenments, it was generally assumed that this natural moral sense would be shared by all healthy religious traditions. We could allow for religious liberty and thus religious multiplicity with the confidence that the natural moral sense would prevail even without agreement on religious doctrines.

Darwin's biological account of the moral sense as a product of natural evolution supports this position. Although some religious believers scorn this Darwinian morality as atheistic, there is nothing in the Darwinian argument that dictates atheism. Saying that morality is part of "Nature's Law" leaves open the possibility that behind this Nature is "Nature's God."

According to Hirsi Ali, "Darwin said creation stories were a fairy tale" (p. 239). But that's not quite right. Darwin certainly denied the theory of "special creation" of each species. But he left open the possibility that the original laws of the universe were impressed on matter by the Creator (as he suggested at the end of The Origin of Species).

Hirsi Ali says that "Spinoza . . . was the first modern European to state clearly that the world is not ordained by a separate God. Nature created itself, Spinoza said" (p. 282).

Perhaps so. But this points to the problem of ultimate explanations. If we ask why nature exists and exists with the kind of order that it has, the naturalist might say that nature is just a brute fact that is self-contained and self-explanatory. That's just the way it is! But such an assumption that "Nature created itself" cannot be proven, because such an assumption is the starting point of any proof. And yet the transcendentalist might appeal to the Divine Creator as the uncaused cause of Nature as an alternative starting point. The choice between these two stances on First Causes cannot be resolved by pure reason alone. And this leaves room for religious faith.

So I generally agree with Hirsi Ali that there is a universal human nature that allows us to judge cultural traditions as better or worse in conforming to that human nature, and therefore that multicultural relativism is wrong. I also agree with her that this gives us a natural ground for morality that does not absolutely depend on religious belief.

But I do not agree with her that this leads us to atheism. Rather than a dogmatic atheism, we might better be left with a skeptical openness to fundamental mysteries that allows for religious faith even as it allows us to condemn theocratic tyranny. Darwinian conservatism neither affirms nor denies the theological truth of religious belief. But it does respect the practical truth of religious traditions that foster social cooperation and healthy morality.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Darwin's God

The New York Times Magazine for March 4th has an article on "Darwin's God", which surveys the current debate over Darwinian explanations for religious belief. This debate supports my claim that the desire for religious understanding is part of the evolved nature of human beings.

It is said that Darwinian scientists studying the evolution of religion "agree on one point: that religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain."

The "byproduct theorists"--like Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer--argue that while religious belief has never served any adaptive purpose--it has never enhanced survival and reproduction--it has arisen as an accidental consequence of mental propensities that were adaptive in human evolutionary history. For example, it was probably adaptive for human ancestors to have an evolved capacity for causal reasoning--to be able to explain events in the world through cause-and-effect logic, because this would have allowed them to be more successful in the natural world. But then when they faced unusual or mysterious events, they might have looked for mysterious superpowers to explain these events, and thus they would have found religious belief comforting.

Moreover, it was probably adaptive for human ancestors to detect intentional agents (animals and other human beings) and to be able to imagine what other people were thinking. Such natural tendencies to see the world as governed by intentional agents and thinking beings might then have led human beings to assume the existence of disembodied agents or minds as spiritual beings that intervene in the world.

On the other side of this debate, the adaptationists--like David Sloan Wilson--would say that religious belief was not just a side effect of mental adaptations but was itself an evolutionary adaptation. Wilson would say that religious belief helps to bind believers together into cooperative groups that outcompete groups that are not so tightly bound together. Religious beliefs and rituals are commitment devices by which religious people show that they can be trusted to cooperate with their fellow believers. Such group selection enhances the Darwinian fitness of religious groups.

In arguing for "Darwinian conservatism," I would say that there is some truth in both positions. My list of 20 natural desires rooted in evolved human nature includes the natural desire for religious understanding. Human beings generally desire to understand the world through religion or spirituality. Religious doctrines about human relationships with divine powers or spiritual feelings of self-transcending union with the universe satisfy this longing to make sense of things. Driven to fear and despair by their experience of pain and death, human beings impagine themselves surrounded by mysterious forces that determine their fate. Driven to hope and pride by their feeling of spiritual exaltation, human biengs image that their existence can be redeemed by ecstatic union with the divine.

Religious understanding satisfies our natural desire to make sense of things, to explain the order of the universe in which so much seems mysterious to us. Ultimately, we are driven to ask about the first causes of everything, and such questions have no final answer except by invoking some transcendent causal order of things.

Religious understanding also serves to unite us into a community of believers who can trust one another to be cooperative, even when this requires individual sacrifice for the good of the group. That's why conservatives tend to see religion as necessary for social order. Regardless of what one thinks about the theological claims of religious belief, religion can have a practical benefit in holding believers together in cooperative communities.

That's why even skeptical conservatives (like Friedrich Hayek) paid tribute to traditional religion as an evolved, spontaneous order that supports social cooperation.

Darwinian science sustains this conservative understanding of religion by showing how religion could have evolved as part of human nature to satisfy our natural desires for understanding and cooperation.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Hayek and Fusionism

The TCS Daily has an essay by Edward Feser on "Hayek and Fusionism". I have written some posts on Hayek. And I agree with Feser that Hayek's political thought offers the best ground for "fusionism"--the understanding of conservatism as combining traditionalism and libertarianism. But I would also argue that Darwinian conservatism offers the best way to support this shared commitment to individual liberty and traditional morality that constitutes fusionist conservatism.

Like Feser, I think it's significant that Hayek identified himself as a Burkean Whig, which suggests a union of the classical liberalism that began with the Whigs and the traditional conservatism that began with Burke.

I also agree with Feser in seeing this Hayekian union of liberty and tradition as rooted in Hayek's view of human knowledge as radically limited. Because human knowledge is limited, we cannot rely on central planning to secure either economic order or moral order. Free markets and moral traditions embody the dispersed knowledge and experience of millions of individuals over time in a way that is beyond the rational design of any economic planner or moral innovator.

Feser rightly points to Hayek's fundamental claim that economic and moral order arises from the working out of "the contingent facts of biological and cultural evolution." But Feser objects to Hayek's evolutionary account of order as denying the view "that traditional morality rests on a set of objective metaphysical truths knowable through reason."

As I have argued in previous posts, I don't see that conservatism requires a belief in eternal, cosmic purposes as sustaining economic and moral order. We can defend economic liberty and traditional morality as conforming to our evolved human nature. Whether that evolved human nature manifests the intelligent design of "Nature's God" is an open question that points to a fundamental mystery. Religious conservatives will see that evolved order of nature as manifesting a cosmic teleology of transcendent purposefulness. But skeptical conservatives like Hayek will be content to affirm that "life has no purpose but itself."