The Long View 2005-08-05: Police Powers; The Skeptical Assassin; The Ironies of ID; The Travelog Not To Be Described

Not the Assassins of Alamut

Not the Assassins of Alamut

The Aga Khan reportedly protested that the Assassin's Creed series falsified the history of his sect, the Nizaris. I am entirely sympathetic. But falsification may be more than the series is truly capable of, since it features an unusually insipid storyline.

I am also sympathetic to John's take on Intelligent Design. It is wrong, but not for the reason most of its opponents imagine, which is that it is religiously inspired and claims that God created the world. It is wrong because it doesn't give God enough credit.

Police Powers; The Skeptical Assassin; The Ironies of ID; The Travelog Not To Be Described


The case for treating terrorism as a law-enforcement problem was made in a recent article in the Times of London:

Urban terrorism can only be treated as a crime. Conspiring to explode devices in public places endangers life, destroys property and causes public nuisance. Like all criminal effects it has causes. A sensible democracy addresses those causes. But since ordinary citizens and even the police can do little about them in the short term, they rightly concentrate on the crime itself. The streets of London are alive with like dangers, with people who shoot, kill and maim dozens of people a year. We fight them all, whatever their proffered and spurious justification.

So what purpose was served last week by police crying, --They're still out there and trying to get you--? What good are daily briefings on --the inevitability-- of another attack? Street killings are inevitable, too. Apart from the gratuitous damage to public confidence and business, why stoke the very fears, hatreds and antagonisms that the bombers want stoked? Just get on and find the bombers, without publicising their allegedly awesome power to deflect blame from any deficiencies in public safety. Half the British Establishment seems to have signed up to the League of Friends of Terrorism.

There is something to be said for the policy of "pay no attention to them; that's just what they want." In this context, though, that attitude is lethally inapposite. There are three reasons:

The official response must differ in kind with the size of the threat: If the police suspect you are storing pirated copies of the latest Harry Potter book in your basement, then they call you "sir" when they knock on your door, and if you insist, they show you a warrant. In contrast, if your neighborhood is burning down and the only way to stop it is to make a firebreak, the police may kick down your door and blow up the building without so much as an "excuse me." It is true that society can get along with high levels of street crime. What it cannot live with is crimes that close down the transportation system or put the lights out. The rule has always been that such situations are not handled as ordinary criminal matters. There is no reason why terrorism should be an exception now.

Popular participation is needed to address the threat: The police by themselves can deal with the problems posed by a criminal gang that seeks to commit crime in secret. Only public vigilance can control a social underground that seeks to commit public outrages.

Multiculturalism is one of the underlying causes: Both official and popular response must take into account the possibility that cultural differences, which multiculturalism exists to preserve, might make a difference in the proclivity to commit terrorist acts.

It would be a disaster for Britain if everyone of South Asian ancestry were just deported, or ghettoized, or if Islam were simply proscribed, but draconian policies like that are false alternatives. It is entirely possible for liberal societies, in the old sense of "liberal," to defend themselves against threats like that posed by early 21st-century terrorism, quite without ceasing to be liberal. Before they can do that, however, they must recognize that extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures.

* * *

The archetype of holy terrorism is, if course, the sect of the Assassins, founded by Hasan-i Sabbah in the 12th century. Time Magazine records a visit by one of its reporters to Alamut, Sabbah's base in what is now Iran. Legend has it that Assassin recruits were drugged unconscious and brought to a pleasure palace at Alamut, which they were told was paradise. Then they were drugged again and returned to the world. A permanent return to paradise was promised them when they completed their mission of assassination, which generally entailed their own deaths. The reporter spoke to one of the keepers of the site:

"Was Sabbah the Osama bin Laden of his day?" I ask the guard before realizing that he was probably an Ismaili, one of the Assassins' descendants who are today spread across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and follow the Aga Khan, a determinedly peaceful lot.

"Of course not," he replies angrily. "Sabbah never killed innocents. And his men only used a dagger, never poisons or easy ways of killing. They studied their victims, spent years getting close to them before they struck."

And the Assassin's Paradise? Could it be hidden away in the cleft of a nearby mountain?

It has never been found, the guard replied in the exultant tone of one who believed it never would be, because Sabbah had transported his Assassins not into a pleasure garden, but into Paradise itself.

I am inclined to agree with the guard, at least to the extent that it seems unlikely to me that the story about the artificial paradise is true. It is the sort of explanation for other people's behavior that requires they be much, much stupider than the person giving the stupid explanation.

* * *

President Bush, in contrast, favors intelligent design. At any rate, he is on record with the opinion that Intelligent Design (ID, to its friends) should be taught in the schools along with evolution.

The institutional home of ID is The Discovery Institute. Visitors may be reminded of, say, The Heritage Foundation, or of the other partisan think tanks. I have used material from Heritage myself, and even consulted its experts. They will give you a plausible argument; just don't expect a disinterested opinion.

The chief vehicle of ID evangelization these days seems to be The Privileged Planet, which is the title of a book and a related film. There have been confused reports that The Privileged Planet not only questions the sufficiency of Darwinian evolution as an explanation for the development of life, but also the reality of the Big Bang. This assertion is apparently quite untrue. What Intelligent Design does question is any cosmology that invokes a Multiverse, either of quantum mechanical timelines or of parallel time-space continua.

This is becoming hilarious. What we have here is an extreme form of the Anthropic Principle. If I understand correctly, ID posits not only the fine-tuning of the fundamental physical constants to make life possible, but also some version of the "Rare Earth" argument, which has it that Earth's history and astrophysical characteristics make it the only possible home of intelligent life in the universe. Unlike the Creationists, the ID people understand that the Big Bang is prima-facie evidence for theism; part of the reason the Multiverse was conceived was to disembarrass cosmology of a Creation story. (There are Multiverse Theologies, however.) As for the Rare Earth hypothesis, that was essentially what Stephen J. Gould was going on about all those years when he was proclaiming the randomness and unrepeatability of evolution, in the mistaken belief that he was exorcising religion from biology. Gould was probably wrong about the randomness of evolution. One great irony is that his arguments are now being used as evidence of the miraculous.

The greatest irony of all is that, while the supporters of ID are not, for the most part, interested in the objective pursuit of knowledge, they do at least have the merit of supporting a theory that is falsifiable in the Popperian sense, something which Darwinism is not. Does that mean that ID should be given equal time in the schools? By no means, not unless ID passes the usual tests of scientific utility. Should that happen (and it's possible, if unlikely), it would be a supplement to evolutionary theory, not a replacement for it.

* * *

Danny Yee is back from Leng, or at least from Mongolia, which is one of those places I did not know that you could go to as an ordinary tourist. A travelog and archive of images are going online here.

Mongolia, apparently, looks a great deal like Ray Bradbury's idea of Mars, down to the architecture.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: After Darwin

One of John's best quotes is this:

In 1914, when the century began to manifest its characteristic features, the guiding spirits of the time were Freud and Marx and Darwin and Einstein. In 1989, when in a political sense the 20th century was already over, the guiding spirits of the time were Freud and Marx and Darwin and Einstein. There was no other century of modern times that produced so little new intellectual history. Indeed, all but the earliest part of the Middle Ages was livelier.

It seems impossible, but there is truth here. In some ways, nothing much of note happened in the twentieth century.

Which is not the same thing as saying that nothing has happened at all. There was a great deal of intellectual activity in the twentieth century. It seems that we have shifted our focus in a subtle way, choosing to perfect what we have rather than create the entirely new. In the end, there is a lot to be said for this, because it has made the life of ordinary people better faster than anything else in history. It simply doesn't make for fascinating history.

AFTER DARWIN The ice is beginning to crack on yet another section of the cold surface of modernity. The part of the frozen lake that is breaking up this time is Darwinism, or at any rate Darwinism as a worldview with implications for culture and social policy. As happened in the case of Marx and Freud, we may not like what bubbles to the surface when all the ice finally melts.

The death of Darwinism, it is now pretty clear, will be chaos theory (or "complexity" theory, as the researchers in the young science of emergent order seem to prefer). The problem with Darwinism, as all honest Darwinists have always admitted, is that it has nothing to say about how new features of living things arise or how new instinctual behaviors originate. It has a great deal to say about how natural selection can preserve and refine these things once they appear, of course. The search in the fossil record it inspired for the lineages of living creatures has given our natural science a historical depth that makes our civilization unique. Darwinism is not wrong, it just is not the final answer to the question of how living things originate. We've been looking in the wrong place for the answer. It is not a matter of genes, but of the order that arises spontaneously from simpler units, particularly the geometries of complex molecules.

Even children often notice that the paw and foreleg of a dog are like a very strangely distorted human hand, with the thumb appearing as a useless claw partway up the foreleg. The skeletons of all vertebrates, in fact, have long been known to be variations on a few basic structural themes. Anatomical analogies show up among all classes of living things. These analogies were the basis in the eighteenth century for the comprehensive species classification system drawn up by Carolus Linnaeus. Variations on common anatomical themes do not occur only between species, either. Within individual organisms, sophisticated features grow from the variation of more primitive ones, as illustrated by Goethe's still persuasive derivation of all the major parts of a plant from the basic form of the leaf. A description of nature like this invites the search for common mechanisms in living things to generate the archetypical forms. If biology had maintained this perspective into the next century, however, the search might not have produced fruitful results, since the physics of the time was far from being able to address the question of the spontaneous generation of order. In any event, this way of looking at biology was reduced to a minor theme of scientific thought for several generations as more accessible avenues of research appeared.



Thomism and Intelligent Design

Thomist philosophy is not compatible with Intelligent Design, as some ID proponents have discovered the hard way. This may come as a surprise to some, since Thomists do tend to be religious conservatives, but Thomism really cannot abide ID, or to put it more clearly, Thomism clearly exposes the rotten, foolish core of Intelligent Design in much the same way cream or ivory appear white until you put them next to something that is truly white.

One of my favorite Jesuits, Edward T. Oakes, replied incisively to his critics in First Things after reviewing The Wedge of Truth in that journal.  Oakes takes ID to task for its philosophical naiveté, specifically for confusing final and efficient casuality. ID would require the Creator of the universe to micromanage His creation, a considerable demotion. Oakes regards ID as the best breeding ground for appalling ignoramuses such as Richard Dawkins, because it is so ridiculous it is easy to refute.  Dawkins imagines he has refuted all religion when in fact he is tiling at windmills.

Oakes makes a passing reference to complexity theory and the Santa Fe Institute. Just as a robust philosophy and theology has nothing to fear from evolution, a robust biology has better explanations than random walks and Just-So Stories. Biology will probably reincorporate some kind of final causality to explain the much less than random tendencies that evolution exhibits. I await this eagerly, because it will herald the coming of a much better philosophy of science.

h/t Edward Feser

Cross-posted to Dead Philosophers Society