The Long View 2005-01-18: Murder, Integralism, & Neuroscience

It is prudent to discount anything "proved" with fMRI.


Murder, Integralism, & Neuroscience

 

I rarely follow crime news, so I paid no particular attention to the headlines I saw at the end of last week about the slaughter of the Armanious family here in Jersey City. Only yesterday was it brought to my attention that the leading rumor, if not quite the leading theory, is that the father of the family (a Coptic immigrant from Egypt, like his wife; they had two young daughters) had angered Islamists by criticizing Islam in a chat room. That could be the case, but the police point out that the house and the bodies were robbed. In any case, there was disorder at the funeral yesterday at the local Coptic church, as the large crowd objected to the presence of Muslim clerics who had come to pay their respects.

I am ashamed to say that I have no local knowledge of any of this. These stories about "convert or die" letters that Copts are supposed to be receiving are things I have heard about only from the Internet. Perhaps I should have been tipped off at the coffee hour after Mass on Sunday, when a priest approached me to ask whether I wanted to help organize a Catholics & Muslims Together alliance. I am not sure whether he knew about the details of the case then, either.

Still, despite my own lack of information, The New York Times is on the case with its accustomed reliability:

The friction started before the funeral yesterday morning as hundreds of people gathered for a procession in Journal Square in downtown Jersey City. One man yelled, "Who is going to be next?" as pallbearers lifted the four bronze coffins out of the hearses.

Journal Square is in Jersey City, but it's not downtown. In fact, as a general matter, all the reporting on this case should be taken with a grain of salt.

I don't think I'll be helping with the Catholic-Muslim project, by the way. Peter Kreeft proposed the same thing some years ago in Ecumenical Jihad, and it's still a bad idea.

* * *

Speaking of bad ideas, you can count on the New Oxford Review to have at least one whopper in every issue. This month's magazine has a new logo on its cover: a filigree phoenix bearing two firey swords. Perhaps in keeping with this militant attitude, the issue has a long commentary ("Would Protecting the Lives of the Unborn be Tyranny?") that takes Republican Senator Rick Santorum to task for opposing Roe v. Wade on the grounds of mere constitutional principle:

Santorum is a judicial "strict constructionist." But stare decisis also constitutes "strict constructionism" [no, but let the question pass]. And stare decisis upholds Roe. So, what hope is there? Santorum's animus against the Supreme Court is against its activist rulings in general. But if legislators allow abortion, he has "no dispute" with that. That's democracy, folks. But abortion is wrong, evil. It doesn't matter whether abortion is authorized by the Supreme Court or the people's representatives. It's a Holocaust either way. So we ask, do we need a Franco-style dictatorship to protect the unborn? Yes, we know, that's un-American. But we're Catholics, not Americanists.

No, we don't need a Franco-style dictatorship, but maybe some of us need to get a pet. Certainly not even a democracy can change the moral law. However, consensual government under law is, in the final analysis, the only morally tolerable state of affairs. As the Catechism puts it (Section 1903):

Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group and if it employs morally licit means to attain it.

A "moral tyranny," then, is an oxymoron. G.K. Chesterton could be an unendurable windbag sometimes, but he was right about democracy: government is one of those things that people should do for themselves, even if they do them badly.

* * *

The good thing about Scholasticism is that, whatever you think of its premises, you can at least use it to talk coherently about important subjects. One may contrast it with this appreciation in today's New York Times of November's presidential election from Joshua Freedman, a brain scientist: This Is Your Brain on Politics:

While viewing their own candidate [during a real-time brain scan], both Democrats and Republicans showed activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with strong instinctive feelings of emotional connection. Viewing the opposing candidate, however, activated the anterior cingulate cortex, which indicates cognitive and emotional conflict. It also lighted up the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area that acts to suppress or shape emotional reactions....This suggests that the passions swirling through elections are not driven by a deep commitment to issues...Will an awareness that we are conning ourselves to feel alienated from each other help to close the political gap? It is unknown, because neuroscience has advanced only recently to the point where humans can begin to watch themselves think and feel.

This isn't a joke; there really are people who believe that neuroscience adds something to political analysis. All I can suggest is that watching the brainscans of people who say these things might contribute more to the total sum of human knowledge than would listening to what they say.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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