Sunday, February 28, 2010

Follow-up to previous post

Josh Schrei over at the Huffington Post has written a good article about the same study I blogged about last night. I thought his main point was very insightful:
Kanazawa's study, implemented anywhere else but the modern western world and in any other time period, would have drawn drastically different results. One simply cannot make the conclusions his team does without consideration of the cultural, environmental, and historical landscape.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

That's what I call "bias"

A friend posted this article on facebook:

Liberalism, atheism, male sexual exclusivity linked to IQ

This article is a classic example of headlines being completely misleading. First, the difference in average IQ was hardly astronomical, as the article admits:
The IQ differences, while statistically significant, are not stunning -- on the order of 6 to 11 points -- and the data should not be used to stereotype or make assumptions about people, experts say.
What would we do without experts? We'd never be able to tell that not all religious people are idiots!

Second, the definitions of "liberal" and "conservative" used in the study had almost nothing to do with the actual meanings of those words in common American political discourse.
The study takes the American view of liberal vs. conservative. It defines "liberal" in terms of concern for genetically nonrelated people and support for private resources that help those people. It does not look at other factors that play into American political beliefs, such as abortion, gun control and gay rights.
In other words, the study doesn't take into account what it actually means to be, you know, conservative. Or liberal, for that matter.

Also, I don't see any evidence from the article that atheism, more than religion, could be at all connected with caring about strangers, which is supposedly a "liberal" trait. There doesn't seem to be any comparison between intelligent religious people and intelligent atheists.

Isn't it possible that among people with higher IQs, the religious people are actually more "liberal" than the atheists? I mean, of course, that they would care more about providing resources to perfect strangers. I don't think this is an unreasonable hypothesis; church-goers give on average a higher percentage of their income to charity (though still not enough).

Similarly, no comparison was made between intelligent atheist men and intelligent religious men on the subject of sexual exclusivity. Even though intelligence might curb sexual promiscuity among men, who says atheism does? Everyday experience would suggest quite the opposite.

The conflation of these three concepts, atheism, "liberalism," and male sexual exclusivity, together with the attribute of intelligence, is simply an editorial decision made by CNN in choosing a headline. It appears to have little or no grounding in reality.

So does anyone still wonder why people complain about media bias in reporting? You can talk all you want about how objectively the facts were laid out in your article, but that's not all there is to journalism. Presentation matters.

Headlines especially are crucial in shaping people's opinions. Even when people actually read the article (which is by no means 100% of the time!) the headline always leaves a certain impression, and perhaps even skews one's interpretation of the facts laid out in the article.

I can hardly believe that journalists for a network like CNN are so oblivious as to not realize this. Thus I can only conclude that they are intentionally naming their headlines in a manipulative way, and that is what makes me cynical about news media.

Besides this, I get really tired of interpretations of religion like the one presented in this article:

Religion, the current theory goes, did not help people survive or reproduce necessarily, but goes along the lines of helping people to be paranoid, Kanazawa said. Assuming that, for example, a noise in the distance is a signal of a threat helped early humans to prepare in case of danger.

"It helps life to be paranoid, and because humans are paranoid, they become more religious, and they see the hands of God everywhere," Kanazawa said.

Yeah, you know, it's really the paranoia that keeps me going to church every Sunday. It's as if researchers like this have never actually met anyone who's religious.

In fact, for 2000 years Christianity has in many ways been dispelling this kind of primitive paranoia Kanazawa is describing. By proclaiming that the One True God is not only sovereign but also loving and rational, Christianity practically paved the way for the modern era, one in which people don't have an inherent fear of nature but rather faith that nature can be mastered.

One might refer to this article for more insight on that topic.

Anyway, as a conservative religious man who also happens to be a PhD student in mathematics, I can assure you, you shouldn't believe every headline you read.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Calvin on Providence, Original Sin

Today is another day of reflection in my year-long reading through the Institutes. Recently I read through Calvin's teachings on everything people hate about Calvin--providence, and total depravity.

Of course, everyone loves Calvin's doctrine of providence until they suddenly don't. I mean, that's just the nature of discussions on free will--everyone wants it both ways. And in some ways, Calvin does, too. But I'll get to that in just a bit.

Here's Calvin's teaching on providence, clear as can be (from Ch. XVI, Sec. 3):
For [God] is deemed omnipotent, not because he can indeed act, yet sometimes ceases and sits in idleness, or continues by a general impulse that order of nature which he previously appointed; but because, governing heaven and earth by his providence, he so regulates all things that nothing takes place without his deliberation. (emphasis mine)
That is, one way or another, God is the cause of everything that happens, good, bad, or ugly. Of course people hate this.

And Calvin does relatively little to warm people up to the idea. That's what I love and hate about Calvin: he's just so matter-of-fact, content to call it like he sees it and let other people deal with it. I can't express this any better than he did (Ch. XVIII, Sec. 4, his closing paragraph on the topic of providence):
Let those for whom this seems harsh consider for a little while how bearable their squeamishness is in refusing a thing attested by clear Scriptural proofs because it exceeds their mental capacity, and find fault that things are put forth publicly, which if God had not judged useful for men to know, he would never have bidden his prophets and apostles to teach. ... Those who insolently scoff, even though it is clear enough that they are prating against God, are not worthy of a longer refutation.
It's hard to decide whether to laugh, cry, or cheer at such a statement. One thing is for sure: people capable of making statements as forcefully and eloquently as Calvin are destined to change the world.

In any case, Calvin really does offer a wealth of scriptural examples to support his teaching, and there is no point reiterating them all here. The interesting question is, how does Calvin deal with the problem of evil? That is, if God causes bad things, how can he avoid being the author of evil?

Although it takes a while to really figure out that Calvin isn't just a horrible person content with God allowing awful things to happen, eventually it becomes clearer that Calvin's doctrine of providence finds much of its inspiration in the event that is central to Christianity: the crucifixion of Christ. Quoting from Ch. XVIII, Sec. 1:
The Jews intended to destroy Christ; Pilate and his soldiers complied with their mad desire; yet in solemn prayer the disciples confess that all the impious ones had done nothing except what "the hand and plan" of God had decreed [Acts 4:28, cf. Vg.].
This is by no means the only example he brings up. Another perfect example is Joseph being sold by his brothers into slavery: "Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good." (Gen. 50:20)

For Calvin, it's clear that God uses bad things to do good things. What's never clear is how he's going to do that. But for Calvin, this is just yet another case in which we ought to be content with our lack of knowledge, because it is not for us to understand everything.

I suppose the troubling thing about the concept of God's Sovereignty is that somehow God might think the ends justify the means. That doesn't accord with wisdom. Even if we have faith that God will make all things new, and bring about a perfection we can't possibly imagine, it's hard not to ask, why did it have to be this way?

But the crucifixion of Christ tells us that there's something going on that we don't understand. Calvin wants us to understand that we don't understand, and that we should simply believe that which is profitable for pious living. I can't help but think this is a pretty rigid way to look at it, but even when I indulge my curiosity with contemplating this topic, I find myself sympathizing with Calvin's view.

One thing the incarnation and crucifixion tell us is that God absorbs these evil things into himself. He doesn't merely cause them to happen and then glance over them as if the ends justify the means.

It's easy to object here that most of us suffer in this life not in the way Christ suffered, which was willingly and intentionally. We suffer against our will, and we often don't even see it coming.

But I wonder if our view of ourselves strictly as individuals clouds our thinking. The modern ethic of societies like America is typically "live and let live," but perhaps that's not the way God works. We're all in this together; everything is connected. One man's suffering is the suffering of the whole world, and it is God's suffering as well.

So is God some sort of masochist? No, masochists have a twisted attraction to pain. The image of God in Christ is quite different; he actually suffers, but paradoxically through that suffering he accomplishes his purposes. And he didn't mean for this to be something only God does. Jesus taught his disciples to take up their cross and follow him.

There must be incredible power in being able to conquer evil not by avoidance, nor by fighting evil with evil, but by absorption, by taking evil into the body and conquering it there. God not only does that himself on the cross, he even invites us to do that with him, by his power.

It is not small thing that Calvin's thoughts have led me down this line of thinking, but I doubt he would have let his own speculation go that far. Calvin, as I said last time, was not a fan of speculation. Only what is needed for piety, and nothing more.

There are a number of beautiful passages in Calvin's section on providence that I won't get to right now. I'm thinking particularly of Ch. XVII, Sections 8 - 11, in which he talks about how belief in God's providence gives us hope in the midst of adversity, and keeps us humble before both God and others. There's no way I can deal with all the things Calvin wrote about in this part of his book, because there really is so much richness in it.

On the doctrine of original sin, which opens up his second book "On the Knowledge of God the Redeemer," I just found it interesting to compare what Calvin actually said with what people think he said.

For instance, it's true that he thinks that knowledge of the self helps us to see how truly miserable we are, but that's not where he starts. Quoting from Book 2, Ch. I, Sec. 1:
But knowledge of ourselves lies first in considering what we were given at creation and how generously God continues his favor toward us, in order to know how great our natural excellence would be if only it had remained unblemished. ... Thus, in order that the great nobility of our race (which distinguishes us from brute beasts) may not be buried beneath our own dullness of wit, it behooves us to recognize that we have been endowed with reason and understanding so that, by leading a holy and upright life, we may press on to the appointed goal of blessed immortality.
Notice that he says first. In other words, knowledge of the self does not consist primarily in knowing how terrible we are, but rather in knowing how great God meant us to be. I think that in practice many Calvinists get this totally backwards.

It is only after meditating on what we have lost, Calvin says, that we truly long for the Kingdom of God and for eternal life. For Calvin, the goal is not to simply recognize yourself to be a sinner, but rather to desire to become a saint, to regain the "great nobility of our race."

It is in that context that he discusses original sin, where he draws mainly from Augustine. I'm not sure about Augustine's (and Calvin's) view that original sin is essentially a hereditary disease, but there is something that rings true about our inherited state as sinful people.

I guess I see it more as simply being cut off from the source of eternal life. Adam didn't have eternal life in himself; he ate of the tree of life, and he could live forever. But after his sin, God cut him off from that source of life, so that he and his children would face the world of decay.

One problem I have with classical Christian thinking on the Fall is that it tries to convince is that decay is utterly wrong, totally not the way things should be. But even the Bible seems to suggest that there's something noble about the cycles of life and death that appear in the world around us (e.g. Ecclesiastes 3:2). And certainly it would appear rather cruel of God to start letting animals die only because humans sinned against him, if in fact animals were destined for eternal life along with humans.

Perhaps instead it might be said that eternal life was prepared as a gift for humans, but the cycles of life and death and decay that govern the natural world are not necessarily evil in themselves. Maybe what is evil is for humans to forget that they are called to something higher, as Calvin suggests.

Thus God's punishment makes sense: in cutting us off from the tree of life, he is forcing us to enter a world that is governed by cycles of life, death, and decay, not a world that is inherently evil, but rather a world in which we could have had the privilege of eternal life with God. Instead we are now subject, along with everything else, to the law of entropy.

Well, that's it for my reflections today on Calvin. I think the next couple of weeks of reading should be interesting (Calvin's going to talk about free will and man's corruption. Whee!)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Black Barbie Doll

A friend sent me this in response to a my last blog post:

I usually don't delve into the whole "hey what about the men" part of the abortion debate, but this is a great poem, and an incredible performance.

Didn't think you'd see Def Poetry on my blog, did you?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

An unbridgeable divide

Last night I had what was to me a pretty bizarre experience. Google alerts included a link to a question on, a totally general web forum which I had never heard of before. This question came from a 24 year-old grad student who is scheduled to have an abortion.

A 24 year-old grad student. Second year of a PhD program. Maybe that's why I bothered to read this; this very easily could be one of my classmates.

What she wanted to know was what having an abortion was like from other people who'd had abortions. The truly bizarre thing was her tone. Here is what she wrote:

So, what can I expect during and after all of this? How long will it be until I am back to “normal”? What kind of pain can I expect during and after? Is it likely my boyfriend and I will be able to go out to lunch on the ride home, or will I be completely out of commission? How can I expect to feel Saturday afternoon? Will I be ready to go out and enjoy Saturday evening? What will Sunday be like? Will I be ready to return to work on Monday? Also, Is there anything I should do in advance (eating / not eating)?

Thanks in advance for sharing your stories! <3

I read through literally all the comments on this post, and I was truly fascinated to see the conversation unfold. This girl confessed in her comments that this decision to have an abortion was not hard at all. She'd thought it out completely in advance, and knew that if she got pregnant she would have an abortion. Simple as that.

There was quite a range of responses to this, of course. Most of the commenters were pro-choice, but that didn't keep some of them from being bewildered by the seeming ease with which this girl came to such a decision. That led to some interesting and sometimes heart-wrenching stories being exchanged.

One story in particular was from a woman who truly regretted her abortion, and shared that experience of regret. She did not indicate that she was pro-life; her initial comment was,
I support your right to choose too, but it’s certainly not something I, personally, would be running around telling people everybody and their brother with the same attitude of “How do you make chocolate chip cookies?”
Then in her next comment she shared what life after the abortion was like for her, which was so poignant.

I was rather taken aback at how many people dismissed this as unhelpful, and even chastised the woman for being judgmental. It could just be the pure insanity that grips most people who post on web forums, but something was seriously distorting the way these people viewed this conversation.

From reading other comments on this post, I realized that there is a fundamental divide in our country on this question: what is this creature?

At first it would appear to be a totally empirical question, but it ends up being a democratic one. It is really only if the strong majority of Americans can agree that the creature is human that we will work to protect it. (Or am I being too speciesist?)

I suppose the reason I think about and blog on abortion so much is that this really is a fundamental question. Yes, or no. Human, or not human. Live, or die. There is no in between. The law of the excluded middle could not be so painfully clear.

People on both sides of this question seem to wonder how on earth those on the opposite side could be such terrible people. Sometimes I have a hard time figuring out which side feels stronger. My first thought would be the pro-life side, but sometimes I'm not so sure.

Pro-lifers often don't understand that pro-choicers can seriously feel violated by what is perceived to be an invasive demand made by pro-lifers. A woman's fundamental human dignity at stake. Without her right to her own body, what dignity does she have?

Pro-choicers, on the other hand, don't appear to understand that pro-lifers seriously believe humans are being killed by these personal choices. If you believe fellow humans are being killed by something, is it a virtue to keep silent, to leave it all up to personal choice?

With so much at stake on both sides, what middle ground can we possibly hope for? If the unborn truly possesses basic human dignity, then how can there possibly be justification for abortion? But if the unborn is purely property of the woman, then how can there possibly be justification for taking away her right to choose?

There are a couple of temptations for humans faced with this extreme dilemma. One is the "deep down" hypothesis. This is the belief that "deep down" people on the other side know they're wrong, and for one reason or another are clinging to something they know is wrong.

Sometimes this temptation causes us to go on crusades to try to convert people, which isn't so bad, really, except that we fail to realize the huge divide we're trying to cross. Other times the "deep down" hypothesis leads us to make moral attacks on each other, as when pro-choicers attack pro-lifers for being crazy and judgmental, and pro-lifers attack pro-choicers for being selfish and callous.

Another temptation is to write off people on the other side as hopeless. The end result is both sides viewing each other as strategic targets that need to be eliminated in the war for America's conscience.

At this point many piously open-minded intellectuals would want to step back and search for common ground, as if to defy the law of the excluded middle. I am afraid, however, that despite my ability to view the issue from the other side, reality doesn't afford me the luxury of actually supporting both sides at once.

This is why it doesn't surprise me when even groups like Feminists for Life are treated as extremists pushing a dangerous agenda. There can be no compromise. Even seemingly friendly organizations are suspect.

The soul that longs to cultivate love for all humanity is heart-broken by realizations like these. The temptation arises to simply avoid controversial issues like this, to refuse to pick a side. But I find that ultimately such a choice cannot be the loving one. Can either side possibly view that as genuine love for human beings?

Thus I find it positively draining on my soul to be passionate about this issue. Yet I persist, possibly in the tradition of Martin Luther, that "it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience." But how can anyone who stops to reflect not wonder, is my conscience so much better than theirs?

As much as I wish answers to these questions would fall out of the sky, I can't hold my breath. If there is any value in personal integrity, then I have to act on the personal conviction that it simply makes no sense to kill something before it "becomes" human. What makes sense to me is that scientifically speaking the unborn is human, and morally speaking every human is a person.

I can, in theory, imagine believing that such is not the case, but I can't live in such thought experiments. All I can do, I suppose, is take away a certain amount of empathy from hearing various opinions, and try to translate that empathy into acts of love.

Beyond this, there is nothing I can do to bridge this wretched divide.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Response to XKCD blog (WARNING: this is super nerdy)

The following is a response to a post on the XKCD blog.

The puzzle described is as follows:

Alice secretly picks two different real numbers by an unknown process and puts them in two (abstract) envelopes. Bob chooses one of the two envelopes randomly (with a fair coin toss), and shows you the number in that envelope. You must now guess whether the number in the other, closed envelope is larger or smaller than the one you’ve seen.

Is there a strategy which gives you a better than 50% chance of guessing correctly, no matter what procedure Alice used to pick her numbers?

XKCD claims there is such a strategy, and you can read it here. Basically what I'm explaining below is why this strategy doesn't really work, although it's tempting to say it does. To summarize: this strategy allows a dumb computer to keep getting the right answer more than 50% of the time if I don't change Alice's two numbers. But this doesn't really describe reality, in which I have to view the numbers Alice has given me as random variables.

Okay, here's my response.

I've thought about this one a long time now, and I think I get what's going on, and why this is so counter-intuitive. The actual result here is that, given A < B, I can write a computer program that picks one of these values to retrieve at random and then determines whether the one it didn't pick was higher or lower, such that this program has more than a 50% chance of success. The fact that I can use any old monotone increasing function and still get above 50% no matter what A and B are is kind of neat, but in the end it's really not a big deal.

We need to ask in what sense we're boosting the odds above 50%. What we actually have is this: given a fixed A and B, if we iterate this program over and over again, the computer will get it right more than 50% of the time. But if you think about it practically, this is a sad little program. Any human, after the first run-through of this game, would know the answer 100% of the time, so long as A and B never changed.

We need to remember that the idea of probability is this: given enough trials, I should be able to identify the probability that an event occurs by taking the ratio of number of times that event occurred to number of trials I ran. Since in real life Alice would be allowed to come up with new numbers for each trial, the numbers she picks should also be viewed as random variables, not as fixed constants.

Consider the following program:

1) Pick X_0 and X_1 such that P(X_0 < X_1) = P(X_1 > X_0) = 1/2
2) Pick B in {0,1} with probability 1/2
3) Let X = X_B
4) Pick T in (0,1) uniformly
5) If T is less than p(X), return "lower"; if T is greater than p(X), return "higher"

The numbers 0 and 1 essentially represent the abstract envelopes. Assuming X_0, X_1, B, and T are all independent, I believe one can show that in this case the probability of this program returning the correct answer is exactly 50%, no matter what p(x) is. And that, I think, mimics real life much better than the analysis given by xkcd. We really have to think of Alice's numbers as randomly generated, because we don't just get to use the same numbers over and over again.

As for the point about how there is no uniform distribution on the real line: this is correct, but we can still demand that the random variable X_0 - X_1 be such that P(X_0 - X_1 < 0) = P(X_0 - X_1 > 0) = 1/2. This seems fair; although Alice might have a different distribution in mind, in which case picking an envelope in an unbiased manner and then using xkcd's strategy is not necessarily to your advantage.

So essentially what I'm saying is that the result xkcd gives is counter-intuitive precisely because it's wrong. That is, it doesn't accurately represent a real-life situation in which you have to make a decision based on the information given. In real life, if given a choice between saying Alice has the larger number or saying Alice has the smaller number, just flip a coin. There really is no way to get better than a 50% shot.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mathematical "Reality"

What is real? How do you define "real"?

Morpheus, from The Matrix

I was reading an article over at Republic of Math that led me back to an older article about whether mathematics is just a language describing other things. Gary Davis insists that mathematics is not merely a language describing other things, such as physics or chemistry, but it has its own real content.

"My own view," he says, "is that mathematics is a science – it is a science of number, space, pattern and arrangement." I'm inclined to agree with him.
But this question of whether math has "real" content is a curious one. I wonder if the reason mathematicians deal with this question so often is that mathematics is embedded within a scientific community that has, as a rule, embraced materialism as a philosophy. Thus "reality" can only be thought of as particles colliding in space. Every other view of the world is just metaphysical and not "real."

So there's this curious phenomenon of mathematicians throughout not only the 20th century but even today bringing forth a revival of mathematical Platonism, the view that the objects we study really exist, and are in fact even more fundamental than physical reality (Davis seems to agree with this view here).

I can see what's so attractive about this view. Being a young mathematician myself, I most definitely get the feeling often of interacting directly with mathematical concepts. It feels as if the concepts are "out there," as if I can touch them with the hands of my mind. Surely when I prove something like the fact that there are infinitely many primes, I'm actually saying something real, which implies that I'm saying something about real objects, namely numbers. These numbers presumably exist in an eternal realm that is accessible only through the mind.

Christian philosophers throughout the ages have been attracted to this view, as well (e.g. Augustine), which has to be one reason why Christianity has always attached itself to the idea of an immortal soul. The relationship between mathematics and spiritual truth is rather fascinating. In both cases, our intuition seems to tell us that the only way we can know these things is directly through the soul, rather than through anything physical.

I tend to wonder whether this is false on both counts. Does experience really prove that there are any numbers existing in an eternal Platonic heaven? Likewise, does experience really prove that we have direct access to knowledge of the divine through a metaphysical soul?

Yet underlying the question of whether mathematical "reality" exists is the more pedestrian question of whether what we do is important. If all we do is push around symbols all day, then I guess mathematics should be merely subservient to science. That would be a rather hard idea for mathematicians to swallow (although in terms of government funding it's unavoidable).

But I don't see it this way, even without being a Platonist. The job of a mathematician is to create something. Create what? A system of thought. This is profoundly important. Political commentators are responsible for shaping our collective fate as a nation, yet all they really do is produce ideas. Many religious leaders are responsible almost solely for teaching people ideas about life, and yet those ideas shape the way we live. Likewise, mathematicians create ideas that shape the way we do science.

And we don't just come up with systems of thought; we analyze them. We deduce all the important results of that system. Just as Gary Davis points out, the natural numbers are a perfect example. We essentially create a system of natural numbers. It is a system that follows a limited set of rules. We are then able to deduce facts about that system from those few rules. This leads to all of our beautiful theorems about prime numbers and divisibility and so on.

Change one of the rules, and you get something else. There's nothing wrong with that. For instance, you can change the parallel line postulate of Euclidean geometry to get new geometries. That was a huge deal when someone first figured that out, but I wonder if we would've been better prepared for that if we didn't confuse the systems we construct with some Platonic heaven that we can experience with our minds.

Nevertheless, I do think that the systems we construct are certainly real. They exist in our minds! Where else do you want them to exist? Do you think science is any more "real"? Does science describe "reality"? Science tries to describe the "physical world"--but what is that? Is the concept of "physical world" not a system that we ourselves have come up with? It exists within the mind, just like mathematics.

This is not to say science and mathematics don't teach us anything! On the contrary, they teach us precisely because they form ideas within the mind. What else is learning other than to absorb and act on carefully constructed ideas?

Ultimately I believe we can fuse these two questions together. The first is, "What is reality like?" The second is, "What should I believe about reality?" I think it is important to fuse the empirical question together with the normative question, because otherwise we end up chasing phantoms. As in, "Oh, well, that might be a good way of looking at the world... but is that real?" Nothing is ever "real" in the sense being sought after by such a question.

Suppose I ask, "Is the computer in front of me real?" My question is already based on a mental construct called "computer." Our functioning in this world largely consists of building such mental constructs. This is OK! Mental constructs are wonderful! And until something leads me to think that my mental construct has failed me, I will continue to believe that yes, I have a computer sitting in front of me.

Basically what I'm saying is that there are good and bad ways of looking at the world, and nothing more. People try to draw a distinction between how we merely describe reality and what reality actually is, but the only purpose that serves is to gain authority as one who looks at the world in the right way. No, scientists are not allowed to cheat and say science studies real reality. Science is one way among many of looking at the world (it happens to be pretty decent).

So should mathematics be judged solely on how useful it is for scientific progress? I don't think so. I think there are plenty of other considerations. For instance, aesthetic appeal, or perhaps some deeper intuitive concepts. For one, mathematicians always like simple concepts that have big consequences. If the ratio between the number of theorems one can prove about X to the number of axioms it takes to define X is especially high, then so much the better!

(My favorite two definitions in mathematics are the definition of a topology and the definition of a sigma-algebra. Who knew that such simple concepts could tie together so much knowledge?)

My point is that mathematics can be thought of as a subject in its own right not because mathematical objects exist in some ethereal realm, but because they exist in the human mind, and that existence is as real as it gets. We shouldn't think of mental constructions as "mere" mental constructions. The world of the mind is not a "fake" world. So when humans create new concepts and study them, we are doing something quite real--as real as real can be.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Thomas Sowell on Fairness

Thomas Sowell recently wrote a four-part series on "The Fallacy of 'Fairness,'" which you can read here, here, here, and here.

Being already quite familiar with much of Sowell's work, nothing I read was that surprising. I have always enjoyed Sowell's contrarian nature, his common-sense debunking of starry-eyed liberal optimism, and his extensive knowledge of economics that he brings to bear on current issues.

However, Sowell deserves a good critique, coming not from the Left but from someone who is at least moderately conservative in outlook. He certainly has his points, which I don't mind agreeing with, but what ties all of his arguments together is a philosophy of individualism that I fundamentally disagree with.

First, the points I don't mind agreeing with. Sowell is right to point out that equality of treatment does not necessarily lead to equality of results, and probably never could:
Some years ago, for example, there was a big outcry that various mental tests used for college admissions or for employment were biased and "unfair" to many individuals or groups. Fortunately there was one voice of sanity-- David Riesman, I believe-- who said: "The tests are not unfair. LIFE is unfair and the tests measure the results."
This is absolutely correct, and Sowell is extremely good at conjuring up numerous examples along these same lines to demonstrate his point.

Sowell is right to criticize the overeager Left for wanting to pull the "discrimination card" all too often.
Creating a difference that would not exist otherwise is discrimination, and something can be done about that. But, in recent times, virtually any disparity in outcomes is almost automatically blamed on discrimination, despite the incredible range of other reasons for disparities between individuals and groups.
Perhaps the best thing about Sowell is that he really is firm on saying it isn't your fault if you were raised in a poor neighborhood or a broken home; likewise it isn't your virtue if you were raised in a rich family with two parents. Circumstances are inherited, and there's nothing you can do about that. And the same goes for natural ability.

Mixed up with the question of fairness to individuals and groups has been the explosive question of whether individuals and groups have the innate ability to perform at the same levels, if they are all treated alike or even given the same objective opportunities.

Intellectuals have swung from one side of this question at the beginning of the 20th century to the opposite side at the end. Both those who said that achievement differences among races and classes were due to genes, in the early years of the 20th century, and those who said that these differences were due to discrimination, in the later years, ignored the old statisticians' warnings that correlation is not causation.

So before one makes a shallow argument against Sowell as just another conservative with prejudices against people he thinks are lazy, one should really look carefully at what he is saying. He is not saying that a person's misfortunes are all his own fault; far from it. He simply objects to innocent people having to pay to correct misfortunes they had no part in causing.

Finally, Sowell gets to the heart of the matter, which is the problem of misdiagnosing society's condition:
It is certainly a great misfortune to be born into families or communities whose values make educational or economic success less likely. But to have intellectuals and others come along and misstate the problem does not help to produce better results, even if it produces a better image.
Here I still very much agree with Sowell. For instance, I have seen first hand how many students in lower income neighborhoods are unable to succeed, not simply because they are poor, but because studying is not a cultural good for them. I suppose innate ability might occasionally have something to do with it, but as there is absolutely nothing we can do about innate ability, we ought to focus on what we can do, which is try to teach the value of learning. But to do this is to admit that there's something wrong with the culture in which these kids have grown up, which is potentially a difficult admission in today's politically correct climate.

However, here's where I part with Sowell. He says,
Political correctness may make it hard for anyone to challenge the image of helpless victims of an evil society. But those who are lagging do not need a better public relations image. They need the ability to produce better results for themselves-- and a romantic image is an obstacle to directing their efforts toward developing that ability.
I've added emphasis to this statement to clarify what I think is wrong with Sowell's philosophy. I do not think life is fundamentally about what each of us can do individually. Our collective identity also has meaning.

That's not to say I'm a "collectivist," which is what the Right often accuses the Left of being. No, indeed, I think the false rhetoric of the Left comes out of the same individualist mindset that plagues the Right.

Think about it. Instead of appealing to our sense of corporate identity as Americans to help less fortunate groups of people, the Left more often cries "injustice" as if certain individuals had been personally wronged. As Americans, we can't help but be outraged at personal injustice. So the Left basically keeps lying to us and telling us it's still all our fault--we're still discriminating against minorities, etc.

The tragedy is that there would be no need for this kind of rhetoric if we had more of a collective sense of success and failure. This is a fundamental question we should ask ourselves: How do we measure the success of our culture? Is it in the ability of individuals to have upward social mobility? Despite what many on the Left seem to say, I do believe America wins in that category.

Yet where we fail is to deal with the philosophical question of how we ought to truly measure success, and I'm not sure it should be limited to the success of individuals. Anyone who has ever been on a sports team or something similar (for me it was drum line in high school) knows what it means to succeed or fail as a team. "You're only as strong as your weakest link" was what I always heard. It doesn't matter how good your best player is; what matters is whether the group as a whole succeeds.

Along with this question of how we measure success comes the question, who is "we"? We know to be responsible for certain people in our lives--our family, our close friends, and if we are Christians, members of the church (many equivalents exist for other faiths). But what does it mean that we're all Americans? Does that mean we're responsible for one another? Are we in any sense a family? These are tricky questions.

I am certainly far from suggesting that we all ought to be by law responsible for one another in every way. Certainly there are limits to this idea. But I think conservatives do wrong to keep insisting that America is strong because it lets every man be an island.

Doubtless conservatives will tell me yes, we agree that it is good and right to care about others, but we believe that should left up to the individual, you see, for it is a greater moral good when it is not coerced by the government. There is a certain ring of moral truth in that, but on the other hand, at some point shouldn't all societies have ways of enforcing some sort of moral standard of caring about other people?

To be sure, no one is so omniscient as to know how to balance individual freedom with collective identity. Maybe in the Kingdom of God we somehow see both perfectly. After all, God is Trinity, and while each person in the Trinity is genuinely individual, yet the Trinity is a perfect collective, since the Trinity is One God. Maybe our failure to understand that paradox also leads to our failure to have a just political order.

But my point is that conservatives can't make a coherent political ideology out of pure individualism. It doesn't work, and it's immoral. Sowell's purist version of fairness as treating everyone exactly equally is not the ideal. When someone in your family is in trouble, you don't treat that person the same as everyone else; you go out of your way to help him.

Likewise, in any society that views itself in at least somewhat familial terms, certain people will be treated "unfairly" precisely because they are in need. Of course there are limits to this, but that doesn't mean we just throw out the whole idea of collective responsibility.

And if Sowell insists on throwing out the idea of collective responsibility, then I wonder if he is all that different from the intellectuals he is always criticizing. After all, like them, he seems willing to put abstract ideas before flesh and blood human beings.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Calvin's Epistemology...

Two more weeks of reading Calvin; it's time for another blog post. Topics covered in the past two weeks: the Trinity, creation, angels, devils, the creation of man and the nature of the human soul.

Overall reflections: Calvin is fun to read for the same reason he is difficult to read. His writing leaves no ambiguity; he is blunt and generally uncharitable towards his theological opponents. His knowledge of the Scriptures is encyclopedic. His arguments for any given point most often (but not always!) essentially consist of a mountain of Bible passages that are all very relevant. The Institutes make up a two-volume set in my edition, totaling around 1500 pages (without the appendices), yet Calvin's writing is actually extremely terse; the length of this work seems to come only from the fact that he deals with literally every doctrinal issue in the Christian religion while making an effort to confront all the significant competing viewpoints on each topic that he is aware of.

I have noticed a particular trend in Calvin's thinking these past couple of weeks. He loathes speculation. His chapter on the Trinity (Book I, Ch. XIII) was frankly quite boring, because he limited himself entirely to proving the doctrine by quoting Scripture verses. This was intentional, as he makes clear at the end of Section 19, where he says, "Indeed, it is far safer to stop with that relation which Augustine sets forth than by too subtly penetrating into the sublime mystery to wander through many evanescent speculations." Likewise in his discussion of angels (Ch. XIV) he makes sure to note, "Yet it is not worth-while anxiously to investigate what it does not much concern us to know." (Section 7, specifically speaking of guardian angels.) This seems to be a general principle with Calvin: if it can't be proved, leave it alone.

If, on the other hand, Calvin feels that something can be proved from Scripture, he then draws an immovable line between orthodoxy and heresy on that particular issue. For example, to believe that angels are "either the impulses that God inspires in men or those examples of his power which he puts forth" (as the Sadducees apparently did) is sheer "nonsense" and "crass ignorance." For Calvin, the Bible is supremely authoritative and not made for loose interpretation.

A lot of Christian interpretation of the Bible is subtle and nuanced, creating room for speculation and curiosity about divine mysteries. "Subtle" and "nuanced" can in no way describe Calvin's interpretation laid out in the Institutes. And that's why I both love and hate this reading. I love it because it's clear, it's bold, and it changed the world (I don't think that's an understatement). I hate it because I simply have to take it or leave it at each point, and at many points I'm choosing to leave it.

I suppose there's something to this anti-speculative theology, though. Humans tend to use intellect and reason often as a means of control. The word comprehend, for instance, has as its root the word meaning "to grasp," similar to apprehend. How fascinating that so much of our learning takes place in the posture of taking. I wonder if this is what has created the modern scientific era. In this posture of grasping, intellectual and technological progress become virtually synonymous. Control of our surroundings is the very meaning of knowledge.

Probably this has not only been true of the modern scientific era but of all human history, as long as we've been lusting for power. But I would think it's all the more true in our case, where science has informed so much of our epistemology. To the average modern person, the most reliable knowledge comes from tests done in a setting controlled by humans, as evidenced by how many news headlines feature the words "studies show." Now that's faith in human control.

Calvin's epistemology is essentially the opposite of this. For him, knowledge is not about taking, but about receiving. It is not about learning about how we can manipulate the world around us, but rather how we can find our true place in it. It is not about extending the limits of our minds, but about seeing those limits more clearly.

This seems to inform his entire approach to Scripture. The Church receives Scripture; she does not take it for herself. Thus the job of theologians is not to improve upon Scripture, but rather to clarify it. It is no wonder, then, that arguments and evidence are far more important for Calvin than poetry. Logic is a truth-preserving activity; it is an act of receiving whatever premise is being given. Poetry, on the other hand, for all its importance in human life, is not a truth-preserving activity. It is not an act of strictly receiving, but it adds something of the author's own essence. For Calvin, theology should not do that. True knowledge of God is not about exploring all the avenues of thought our hearts yearn to travel; it is about hearing and doing what is written.

Thus Calvin's posture is essentially one of humility, although you might not feel that way after having read a passage of him blasting your ideas. But that humility alone is not enough to make me believe this is the right posture. I think I have some problems with his epistemology, and I think they still affect religious conversations today.

For one thing, implicit in Calvin's method of receiving Scripture is almost this idea that the Bible doesn't actually need to be interpreted; one simply figures out what it says and accepts it. This can create humongous problems between different people who share Calvin's basic approach, but disagree on the details. For instance, one group says infants should be baptized, and another says infants should not be baptized. Each side looks at the other, saying, "Why don't you accept what is written?" and they never get anywhere. That's because they're both convinced they're simply receiving what God has said in the Scriptures, and anyone not willing to receive that is disobedient to the gospel.

And then suddenly this posture of receiving turns into a rather different posture, one of defending. Defending can be a remarkably violent activity on occasion, but even when it isn't it still has the feeling of violence. It draws up barriers between people, even when the goals of those people are essentially the same.

But what can I say? Does anyone really have a posture that is totally defensible? Surely any approach to life and learning could be criticized if only we thought about it long enough, or if only we watched and waited for someone to screw it up.

Okay, I guess that's probably all I have to say on Calvin for another couple of weeks.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Building a Brave New World

I've never spoken out much about sex education, in part because it is a very divisive issue in the pro-life movement. The more religious pro-life organizations tend to promote abstinence-only sex education, while more secular pro-life organizations take a different stance.

Conservative Catholics, especially, seem to view contraception as a link in the chain leading to abortion. The problem I have with this is that abortion is not contraception, and any claim that contraception leads to abortion seems to promote the misconception that pro-lifers are trying to tell women what to do with their own bodies.

Be that as it may, I have recently discovered that those pushing for "sex education" may be pushing for much more than that, and it frankly scares me.

A U.N. report (which you can read about on FoxNews here) just came out advocating a comprehensive sex education program for children ages 5-18.

"The UNESCO report, called "International Guidelines for Sexuality Education," separates children into four age groups: 5-to-8-year-olds, 9-to-12-year-olds, 12-to-15-year-olds and 15-to-18-year-olds.

Under the U.N.'s voluntary sex-ed regime, kids just 5-8 years old will be told that "touching and rubbing one's genitals is called masturbation" and that private parts "can feel pleasurable when touched by oneself."

By the time they're 9 years old, they'll learn about "positive and negative effects of 'aphrodisiacs,'" and wrestle with the ideas of "homophobia, transphobia and abuse of power."

At 12, they'll learn the "reasons for" abortions — but they'll already have known about their safety for three years. When they're 15, they'll be exposed to direct "advocacy to promote the right to and access to safe abortion."

It sounds as if the U.N. wants to make scenes like this one a reality:

"That's a charming little group," he said, pointing.

In a little grassy bay between tall clumps of Mediterranean heather, two children, a little boy of about seven and a little girl who might have been a year older, were playing, very gravely and with all the focussed attention of scientists intent on a labour of discovery, a rudimentary sexual game.

"Charming, charming!" the D.H.C. repeated sentimentally.

"Charming," the boys politely agreed. But their smile was rather patronizing. They had put aside similar childish amusements too recently to be able to watch them now without a touch of contempt. Charming? but it was just a pair of kids fooling about; that was all. Just kids.

It appears Aldous Huxley was truly a prophet.

I can only hope American liberals aren't truly in favor of this kind of "sex ed," which is really an indoctrination program into a rather cruel vision of humanity.

This vision of humanity is one in which our inhibitions are meaningless, our efforts to abstain are futile, and our bodies mean nothing beyond their usefulness in satisfying our desires. But this is subhuman. I am not fully human until I have learned to master desires, to delight in the strength that comes from abstinence, and to respect my body as something sacred. This is not merely with regards to sex; it applies to all of life.

I wrestle with the question of how realistic abstinence-only education is. However, I do not take kindly to the notion that sex is nothing sacred, but merely something to be enjoyed at the mere consent of two people (even children).

Ideally, sex education would have at its very heart the notion that the human body is sacred. Therefore, there are boundaries to be respected. Why can't other people touch you any way they want? Because your body is precious. It is not a toy for others to play with. Nor should you use it like a toy. Your body can cause new life to come into being--accept the responsibility that comes with that. Respect your body. Love your body. Guard it well.

But there are some who would seem to have us believe that the body is only worth what you can get out of it. The primary ethical impulse in such a vision is, "Don't infringe on others' ability to pleasure themselves." Proponents of this vision call this freedom, but human life has to have dignity before it can have freedom.

And of course the idea that generations of children would be indoctrinated into believing abortion to be morally acceptable is horrifying. I don't suppose any part of that abortion education would involve showing pictures of what a horror it really is.

It's frightening to me that people with such power are pushing such an agenda. I might be paranoid, but sometimes I truly wonder, will we wake up in time to see what's happening?

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Can you believe this is Charlottesville? This is what it looked like this morning right in front of my house. (That's my little Toyota on the bottom left.) Haven't seen it snow like this in Virginia before...

It's really just so beautiful! It's too bad it has to be so dangerous for people driving. There's something broken about our relationship with nature. What we find beautiful can still be dangerous. What we find dangerous can still be beautiful. One really appealing thing about the supernatural claims of Christianity is that our relationship with nature can be redeemed. The New Heavens and New Earth and all that. What a beautiful thing it would be, to live at peace with glorious nature all around us. I am painfully aware that we don't.

Keep safe during these winter storms!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Duly noted

William Saletan over at Slate argues that Tim Tebow's Pro-life ad about to appear on the Super Bowl this Sunday sends the wrong message about the kind of complication Tim's mother went through:

Pam's story certainly is moving. But as a guide to making abortion decisions, it's misleading. Doctors are right to worry about continuing pregnancies like hers. Placental abruption has killed thousands of women and fetuses. No doubt some of these women trusted in God and said no to abortion, as she did. But they didn't end up with Heisman-winning sons. They ended up dead.

Being dead is just the first problem with dying in pregnancy. Another problem is that the fetus you were trying to save dies with you. A third problem is that your existing kids lose their mother. A fourth problem is that if you had aborted the pregnancy, you might have gotten pregnant again and brought a new baby into the world, but now you can't. And now the Tebows have exposed a fifth problem: You can't make a TV ad.

Though I consider myself a solid pro-life, I have to agree with Saletan's analysis. I don't think it's being wishy-washy to consider the life of the mother a valid exception for having an abortion.

I do recall weeks ago when a friend forwarded me the story about Tim Tebow's ad, and how it might potentially air on the Super Bowl. At the time, I thought nothing of it, except that 1) it probably wouldn't air (oh me of little faith) and 2) it doesn't really do much for our cause, anyway, since that kind of exceptional case isn't the kind of case we need to be talking about.

And that's the fact of the matter. Tim Tebow's story is inspiring, and it has gotten people's attention because of the very public stage on which it is being told. But that's where its usefulness for the pro-life movement ends. As a pro-lifer, I don't seriously want to argue that every woman must act just like Pam Tebow and risk her own life for the sake of her baby.

The thing is that most abortions simply aren't about saving the life of the mother. As you can easily read for yourself in studies like this one at the Alan Guttmacher Institute (which is basically an arm of Planned Parenthood) no more than 15% of abortions have anything at all to do with the health of the mother; I imagine actually saving the life of the mother represents a much smaller figure than that.

In other words, we have a real moral problem on our hands. I don't think we need to go convincing women that they all have to be super-woman and willingly risk their lives for the sake of childbearing. That's not what being pro-life is about.

I'm sure the ad on Sunday won't overtly suggest that all women need to be superheroes. Nevertheless, if you hold that Tebow's story is instructive for all women, you're kind of pushing the pro-life case a bit far.

Saletan correctly points out the reason for an ad like Tebow's:

Pro-lifers have always struggled with the invisibility of unborn life: millions of babies aborted every year, concealed in wombs behind closed doors. How do you open the world's eyes to what it can't see? In Tim Tebow, they see the invisible made visible: a child who has lived to tell his story because an abortion didn't happen.

In essence, I suppose Tebow will just have to do. I would be much more comfortable with someone sharing a more instructive story, such as, say, Nick Cannon's. But right now Tebow is in the right place to be seen by a large audience and share an important message.

As you can tell, I'm caught in a bit of a dilemma about what makes the most sense pragmatically. But hey, it's not my $2.5 million to spend. So, I guess I'll just keep adding my voice to the conversation, and see how it all plays out.

In the meantime, have a look at Nick Cannon's video (if you haven't already)!

Augustine on reading Genesis

From Confessions, Book XII, Chapter XVIII:

What harm is it to me, I ask again, if I think the writer had one meaning, someone else thinks he had another? All of us who read are trying to see and to grasp the meaning of the man we are reading: and given that we believe him a speaker of the truth, we should obviously not think that he was saying something that we know or think to be false. While therefore each one of us is trying to understand in the sacred writings what the writer meant by them, what harm if one accepts a meaning which You, Light of all true minds, show him to be in itself a true meaning, even if the author we are reading did not actually mean that by it: since his meaning also though different from mine, is true.

What's so fascinating to me about this quote is the kind of approach to scripture that it presents. Augustine was an educated man, and as he read scripture he wasn't about to throw all of that education aside as he read. On the contrary, it was precisely out of reverence for the scriptures that he read them against what he already knew or believed to be true.

I don't know if this means that if Augustine had lived in this era he would have found Darwinian evolution an acceptable theory. There are, after all, a number of philosophical issues to be worked out on that front. But it does suggest to me a general approach that ought to encourage more openness in the Church on the issue.

For a scientifically minded reader of Genesis, it would not be hard to see the pattern of seven days actually mirroring modern scientific theories: first light comes into existence (signifying an original burst of energy, a "big bang"), then stars and planets begin to form, then simple creatures and vegetation, then animals, and finally humans.

(One thing that's slightly off is that the sun doesn't appear until after the sky has formed and after plants have been placed on the ground. But this detail has been accounted for on numerous occasions: it is meant to inform surrounding pagan cultures that the Sun and stars are, in fact, no gods at all, but are completely subordinate to the true Creator God.)

Applying Augustine's point of view, this is perfectly legitimate. A scientist who wants to take both his own knowledge and the Bible seriously is free to do so. In fact, Augustine says, the question of what Moses actually thought is not strictly relevant (though it is helpful to try to figure out what exactly Moses meant). What matters is what's true, and what's true, Augustine says, should be counted as public property:

For what they say, they say not because they are godly men and have seen it in the mind of Your servant Moses, but because they are proud men: it is not that they know the opinion of Moses but that they love their own opinion, and this not because it is true but because it is their own. Otherwise they would have as much love for the truth uttered by another: just as I love what they say when they say truth--not because it is theirs but because it is truth: from the mere fact that it is true it ceases to be theirs. But if they love it because it is true, then it is not only theirs but mine too, it is the common property of all lovers of truth. (Book XII, Chapter XXV)

What's most fascinating to me about Augustine is how many different points of view he can entertain on just the first chapter of Genesis. Keep in mind that he was writing in the 4th century! Yet he deals with questions that most of us modern Christians don't even begin to ask, much less answer. I suspect there are both good and bad reasons for that, but my point is that things aren't nearly as simple with Genesis as they appear.

In modern dialogue about science and religion, Christians need a healthy way forward, and Augustine, writing 16 centuries ago, has already given it to us. Read scripture with reverence, but be open to different interpretations as we gain more understanding of the world around us. And always, always follow the rule of charity:

Let one be not puffed up against the other for another, above that which is written. Let us love the Lord our God with our whole heart and our whole soul and our whole mind and our neighbor as ourself. Whatever Moses meant in his books, he meant according to these two commandments of charity.... Now we see how foolish it is, in such a flood of true meanings which can come from those words, rashly to assert that Moses especially intended one or another of them, and in sinful contention to offend that charity by reason of which he, whose words we are seeking to explain, said all that he said. (Book XII, Chapter XXV)

Monday, February 1, 2010

True Pro-Choice Response to Tebow's Ad

Google alerts fills me in daily on what's going around the web related to abortion and other political issues. Lately it seems half the articles tagged "abortion" are articles criticizing the decision to have Tim Tebow's story appear in a 30-second ad during the Super Bowl. There's been quite a lot of backlash from pro-choicers, including some who go so far as to imply Tebow's story isn't true.

But there has been some very reasonable response from the pro-choice camp. A New York Times editorial entitled "Super Bowl Censorship" argues that it was a good thing that CBS allowed the ad.

The would-be censors are on the wrong track. Instead of trying to silence an opponent, advocates for allowing women to make their own decisions about whether to have a child should be using the Super Bowl spotlight to convey what their movement is all about: protecting the right of women like Pam Tebow to make their private reproductive choices.

CBS was right to change its policy of rejecting paid advocacy commercials from groups other than political candidates. After the network screens ads for accuracy and taste, viewers can watch and judge for themselves. Or they can get up from the couch and get a sandwich.

Can't say it any better than those last two sentences, you know?

Another article from the Washington Post, written by the former president of NARAL Pro-choice America and the former president of Catholics for Choice, argues that the pro-choice movement needs to stop whining about the ad and adopt a similar strategy.

Women's and choice groups responding to the Tebow ad should take a page from the Focus on the Family playbook. Erin Matson, the National Organization for Women's new vice president, called the Tebow spot "hate masquerading as love." That kind of comment may play well in the choice choir, but to others, it makes no sense, at best; at worst, it's seen as the kind of stridency that reinforces the view that pro-choice simply means pro-abortion.

For me, Erin Matson's comment fits both of those descriptions: it makes no sense, and it reinforces my view that pro-choice often simply means pro-abortion. But I'm glad to see pro-choicers arguing for a more reasonable stance.

The other nice thing about the Post article is how in-depth it goes talking about the recent history of attitudes toward abortion. For one thing, they admit that science has taught us a lot about the abortion issue:

Today, the first picture in most baby books is the 12-week 3D ultrasound, and Grandma and Grandpa have that photo posted on the fridge. We read about successful fetal surgery; we don't read about women dying in pools of blood on their bathroom floors after botched abortions, as we did when the procedure was illegal.

And for another thing, they give a nice free shout-out to Feminists for Life:

Groups such as Feminists for Life started out relatively small but invested heavily in reaching out to college students, talking not about making abortion illegal but about helping college women keep their babies. Their pro-life message wasn't exclusively anti-abortion; it was anti-capital-punishment, antiwar, for saving the whales, for not eating meat and for supporting mothers.

Advances in science and the development of a coherent, progressive pro-life ethic are two things that get me excited about the pro-life movement. It makes me happy that folks on the other side are noticing those things, too.

As I read these articles I began to think, as I often do, about the issue of common ground between pro-lifers and pro-choicers. Ultimately, I know that I can't compromise my views on abortion, mainly because of the nature of the act. One decision can end the life of a human being in the womb; once that's done, that human being will never live again.

But there is certainly common ground on this issue. Common ground doesn't mean compromise. It just means there are certain things that people on both sides understand. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers can both see how beautiful it is for a child to be raised in a loving family. Both can see how hard pregnancy is. Both can see how heart-wrenching it can be when the issue of fetal deformities comes up. Both can understand "that life without tough choices doesn't exist."

Sure, it's hard to know what to do with that common ground, since fundamentally there is no compromise on this issue. But coming from a pro-life perspective, I know it's important to recognize this common ground because we need to continually set before our eyes the humanity of our opponents.

We are pro-life; we respect the true dignity of all human beings. This can't just be an abstract principle. It has to be put into practice through civility in our public discourse, and through genuine understanding of the struggles that lead to abortion. The goal is not simply to prevent one act of violence, but to promote human flourishing more generally.

I sure hope that's something we can all agree on. Anyway, try not to let all the controversy ruin the Super Bowl for you.