Friday, December 29, 2006

Salvo Magazine

I received a complimentary copy of the premier issue of Salvo (autumn 2006). The publication is associated with the Fellowship of St. James, the folks who publish Touchstone, and similarly hopes to defend Christianity from the attacks of secularism. The mission statement from the masthead reads:

Salvo is dedicated to debunking the cultural myths that have undercut human dignity, all but destroyed notions of virtue and morality, and slowly eroded our appetite for transcendence. It also seeks to recover the one worldview that actually works.
A worthy mission indeed! This first issue focusses on dethroning science. I found it somewhat disappointing, but with some interesting features to recommend it and obvious promise to become a much better publication.

The visual busy-ness of the magazine indicates it is intended to acquaint a younger audience to the landscape of the cultural battleground. (But then how many young people need to have the identity of the "Borg" explained to them, as on p. 50?) In any event, I'm pretty certain the publication is not directed at supercilious physicists with training in philosophy (i.e., me), so please keep this in mind while reading this critique.

My overall impression of the publication is that there are too many graphic designers involved, and too few (thoughtful) editors. The pages are littered with pretty photos and informational text boxes. There are big photos that take up most of a single page or that even span two pages. Without the photos, the issue's 96 pages would probably be more like 64. It's all very pretty and very professionally laid out. But I found myself frustrated with the constant barrage of new visual elements, which made me feel as if I were trying to watch an educational television program while a channel-surfing teenager controls the remote.

The issue gets off to a rather poor start with the cover headline: "The Ghost in the MACHINE: Science dismisses it—but at what price?" The problem with the statement is its implicit dualism: it gives the idea that instead of a body-soul composite, we really are two unrelated substances, body and soul, as philosophy after Rene Descartes would have us believe. Ironically, this dualism is precisely what has allowed modern science to cast religion as irrelevant in the first place. The magazine actually explains Cartesian dualism in a helpful textbox on p. 48. But I'm still left wondering about the point of the title. Why poison your audience at the outset and then hope that they manage to stumble across the antidote inside? The only thing I can figure is that, with the word machine in all caps under the image of a bunch of umbilicals and computer connections painfully piercing the back of a young man's head, the title is perhaps trying to evoke something like "Rage Against the Machine."

The contents of the issue include a number of informational items helpful for those not knowledgeable of the culture war. While "Seven Things You Can't Do as a Moral Relativist" (p. 30) is probably something you could have picked up from the smart conservative kid in your freshman dorm (but too few don't), "Decode: Homophobia" (61) is a useful examination of a carelessly coined term. The "Passwords" section at the beginning (8) of the issue is likely to help those less familiar with the terminology to get up to speed.

For me, the most valuable article was "Out on a Limb" by Whitney Archer, about people who suffer from "a strong desire for elective amputation of an otherwise healthy limb." The condition is called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) or apotemnophilia. Several years ago that U.S. News columnist John Leo mentioned the condition in a column about transexuals. Mr. Archer's article fails to make that connection, but recounts the stories of several sufferers and does make other worthy points, including:

The apotemnophiliac demands amputation on the grounds that he owns his body and so can do anything he wants with it. And such sentiments are prety much ubiquitous these days, used to justify everything from sexual preference to suicide. Indeed, one could argue that there exists a continuum of contemporary behaviors, all predicated upon ostensibly "inborn" desires that do no harm to others...

The magazine also tackles such issues as nanotechnology (p. 13), Darwinism (14), genomic mapping and eugenics (24), moral relativism (30), reductionism (34), cloning (36), transhumanism (46), Darwinism and education (54), euthanasia (56), cosmetic surgery and Brave New World (62), Intelligent Design and Darwinism (76), Intelligent Design and Darwinism (80), Darwinism (84), lefist dominance of academia (86), and the shoddy state of science reporting (93). Speaking of issues, did I mention Darwinism?

Hugh Ross's "How Intelligent Design [ID] Advocates Have Undermined Their Own Cause" was interesting. Dr. Ross disagrees with the purely negative approach of criticizing Darwinism and advocates coming up with a "credible creation/ID model" alternative. Others, including yours truly, argue that the most meritorious element of the ID movement is the critique of Darwinism. Positive ID proposals fall prey to the same fallacy that plagues Darwinism: that divine influence has to operate extrinsically, as if God sticks his finger into the world, instead of working within his creation. Dr. Ross acknowledges his approach can fall into a "god-of-the-gaps" fallacy (though he proposes a work-around, one that I find unsatisfying1). What most shakes the confidence of the hard-core atheistic Darwinist is the discovery of an actual mechanism of evolution. In a previous post, I explained Rick Sternberg's observation that atheistic Darwinists dogmatically oppose discovery of order in nature. I recounted in a another post Mark Ryland's observation that Darwinism is simply the biological consummation of the Cartesian-Newtonian view of the world, for which order can only be imposed from outside. ID theorists take up this mechanistic worldview uncritically. Despite their healthy intentions, the positive proposals of ID-proponents ally them with atheistic Darwinists in denying order within nature; by neglecting to examine their own presuppositions, they actually promote the dualism that scientism, including Darwinism, feeds on.

There are many more things I could write about, but you can take a look at the "Dispatches" (features?) on the Salvo homepage for yourself. (Other articles are available only in physical issue.)

The most manifestly problematic item in the issue was on page 16, "Trust Issues: No Offence, Science, but Can We Get a Second Opinion?", which contrasts scientific opinion "Then" with "Now". One item says that scientific opinion now says, "[D]on't drink fluids when you're sick." Hello? That's news to me! My mother is a nurse and has never deviated from enjoining me to drink fluids for colds. My skepticism found further support in the January 2007 issue of Consumer Reports, which advises treating cold-caused congestion to "[d]rink plenty of fluids, including chicken soup, which may help fight inflamation and the cold virus itself" (p. 47). The source is uncited, but maybe the Salvo author bases his statements on a single news item or study. Science doesn't turn on a dime. It takes more than a single study to change the medical consensus. Beside spreading medical misinformation, the tenor of the piece exacerbates what Hugh Ross elsewhere in the issue calls "the wearisome 'us versus them' hostilities" between theists and scientists (p. 82).

Indeed this sense of being an outsider's critique pervades the entire issue of Salvo. But I suppose that such a blemish is all but inevitable given that the criticism comes from a group that as far as I can tell includes very few scientists. William Dembski, who is on the editorial advisory board, is the only identifiable scientist besides Hugh Ross. To be truly effective, a real critique of science needs to come from an intimate knowledge of science, and yet maintain contact with a larger view of the world that predates its ascendance. Sadly, precious few people have access to either knowledge base, let alone to both.

The magazine seems to be aimed at informing a younger or less knowledgeable audience about the issues behind the culture wars, and this purpose is eminently valuable. Hopefully the publication will not only improve, but also play to the writers' strengths in future. The final page advertises the theme of the second issue as "Sexual Healing."


1. Dr. Ross writes:

We can use current gaps in understanding to test whether a "god-of-the-gaps" or a "naturalism-of-the-gaps" fallacy is in play. Here's the test: If, from a naturalistic perspective, a gap gets wider and wider as scientists learn more and more about a phenomenon, then a miraculous explanation for the gap becomes increasingly justified. If the gap gets narrower and narrower as the database increases, then a naturalistic explanation becomes increasingly justified
Certainly, Dr. Ross is correct about whether a miraculous or naturalistic explanation appears more justified. But why does the opposition have to be between miracle and naturalism? Why is God's action confined to the miraculous? The fact that there is order at all in nature testify to God's action; St. Paul certainly thinks so, as he writes in his letter to the Romans (1:20). Additionally, Ross has confined discovery of divine action to the provisional mode of discovery of modern science; a gap that is widening today may be narrowing tomorrow. Ross seems unaware that his proposal needlessly hands the advantage to the atheistic naturalists.


Caryl said...

Good review of Salvo, which seemed to me glitzy and superficial. I don't know if the way to appeal to young readers is to pretend to be a television. The Touchstone folks seem to me to be well-meaning but Touchstone does not seem to me of a high intellectual standard, and certainly not Salvo.
Christians need think more deeply - and unconventionally, imaginatively- to recapture the culture. But what is needed is creativity in thinking, not a lowering of standards.

Mike God said...

Hello Lawrence,
re your post 'Positive ID proposals fall prey to the same fallacy that plagues Darwinism: that divine influence has to operate extrinsically, as if God sticks his finger into the world, instead of working within his creation.'
Isn't it that ID does not want to stand for a deist approach,which seems implied above?
Forgive my simplistic ideas,but I see the possible senario as analagous to the computer operating system and the program.Both deal in order,both originate from not from blind necessity but from intent.
The order that is part of the natural world is akin to the operating system,such as natural laws-(afterall where did they come from ?)with the program being analagous to extrinsic action.
Great post by the way.

Lawrence Gage said...

Caryl and Mike,

Thanks for your comments!

Caryl, actually I rather like Touchstone and have recommended several articles here. It's not "intellectual" like First Things, but it often includes excellent articles, well-written on unique topics or from unique perspectives.

Mike, the irony is that the ID approach feeds right in to deism. If nature has no inner connection to God, then God has no real part in nature, except to start things off, or intervene miraculously. And as we've seen over the past few hundred years, if we don't see God in the guts of things, then why not "cut out the middle man" and leave God out altogether?

Instead of ID, I think Eastern Christian notion of panentheism captures the truth much better. Whereas pantheism says that everything is God and God is everything, panentheism says that God is not only part of everything (through the Logos), but is also transcendent.

The problem with the computer software-hardware analogy is that the order of nature ("software") is not separable from its physical manifestation ("hardware"); they are interdependent: each forms the other. The order vs. nature dualism that your analogy implies directly parallels the deism you reject.

Certainly God creates intentionally, but the order of nature needn't be a direct manifestation of His will. Secondary causes are important, and they are also manifestations of His will.

I hope that this clear up the matter for you, but please ask if you need further clarification.


Mike God said...

Hi Lawrence,
Thanks for your reply it was interesting and something I had not thought of before.
The notion of deism I am most familiar with is where God uses the physical characteristics of matter as a means to play out his plan without ever directly intervening, resulting perhaps, in a determined world (a bit like Laplace’s demon).
However I understand God uses the fundamental characteristics of matter and chemical bonding, bond angles etc to make upstream complexity like DNA possible, either through necessity or design. God’s sovereignty implies an active role in nature both transient and immanent; I guess that would include secondary sources too, the spirit hovering over the waters rather than in them. I have never come across the notion of panentheism before either, although if nature is somehow part of God how does the falleness of nature reconcile itself to a holy God?
Also Panentheism seems to deny creation ex nihilo (proverbs 3:19) as God is identified within his creation rather than separate from it.
I maybe getting this wrong, but if God is perfect from the get go then creating or adding to himself seems to go against the notion of perfection?
Perfection implies unchangeable characteristics.
Creation from Ex nihilo implies an act of free will on Gods part rather than creating out of pre-existing material such as would be implied by panentheism.
Gods Immanence and transience seems to answer the need for God to be in the Guts of things?

Lawrence Gage said...

I apologize for being unclear. Panentheism in the sense I mean doesn't say that creation is part of God, but that God is immanent to creation (as well as being transcendent). The Wikipedia article on Panentheism has a good section on the Eastern Christian notion of Panentheism:

The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches....teach that God is not the "watchmaker God" of the Western European Enlightenment. Likewise, they teach that God is not the "stage magician God" who only shows up when performing miracles. Instead, the teaching of both these Churches is that God is not merely necessary to have created the universe, but that His active presence is necessary in some way for every bit of creation, from smallest to greatest, to continue to exist at all. That is, God's energies maintain all things and all beings, even if those beings have explicitly rejected Him. His love of creation is such that he will not withdraw His presence, which would be the ultimate form of slaughter, not merely imposing death but ending existence, altogether. By this token, the entirety of creation is sanctified, and thus no part of creation can be considered innately evil. This does not deny the existence of evil in a fallen universe, only that it is not an innate property of creation.

This Orthodox Christian panentheism is distinct from a "fundamentalist" panentheism in that it maintains an ontological gulf or distance between the created and the Uncreated. Creation is not "part of" God, and the Godhead is still distinct from creation; however, God is "within" all creation, thus the Orthodox parsing of the word is "pan-entheism" (God indwells in all things) and not "panen-theism" (All things are part of God but God is more than the sum of all things).

Since the connection is through the Logos, God acts (at very least) as an exemplary cause of creation and creatures.

I hope in my next post to make clearer how God can be a cause of creation outside of intervening in the modern physical sense.


Mike God said...

Hi LG,
thanks ,Its not your lack of clarity its my density thats the problem :/

Nathan said...

Not sure how your panentheism differs from traditional Theism in philosophical terms, but I look forward to hearing you out on this.

I have heard this explanation of "pan-entheism" before, but take it as a confusing misuse of philosophical terms. I am troubled by the panentheism of Whitehead, Hegel, the Process folks and others, and its criticism of Theism. I hope that you will contribute an interesting and compelling interpretation of Theistic action in the world that will accomodate or answer panentheistic objections. Have you read Nancey Murphy's bit on this issue in Anglo-American Postmodernity?

Lawrence Gage said...

Nathan, panentheism is simply a variety of traditional theism. How else would a good as concerned about "right belief" as the Eastern Orthodox even consider subscribing to it?

I can't say I'm familiar with any (meaningful) panentheistic (in the broad sense) objections to theism. The following post lays out how God can act in the world outside the confining framework of modern physical science. Perhaps you can write further comments under that post? It seems to me that modern panentheism and process theology are unreasonable.

I can't say I'm familiar with the Nancey Murphy item you allude to. Tell me how it relates.


rjp said...

Dembski is definitely not a Deist.

See his paper:

Lawrence Gage said...

Did anyone say Dembski was a deist? As the paper you reference makes clear, he is certainly not formally a deist:

Without immanence, transcendence leads to deism. Deism views God’s relation to the world, after some initial act of creation, as an absentee landlord. Christian theism, by contrast, regards God as actively present and involved, moment by moment and from start to finish, in every aspect of creation.

Notice that he never defines what he means by "immanence." God can act immanently in creation either intrinsically or extrinsically. It is this extrinsic kind of acting that Dembski's system supports, and that feeds into deism. (Please see the succeeding post for how God can act intrinsically to creation.)

Newton wasn't a deist, and neither is Dembski, but the assumptions of both are perfectly consistent with deism and do nothing to vitiate a movement to deism.


rjp said...

Dembski in one of his books seems to identify information with formal cause (I can't remember which book but he emailed chapter 16 to me sometime before it was published.) And Behe is another IDer who is not a Deist. Two instance should be enough to show ID does not necessarily lead to Deism.

However, Dembski does say in the paper I referenced what he means by immanence. You must have missed it. "Immanence denotes the ongoing presence and activity of God in creation."

Lawrence Gage said...

You're attacking a straw-man. No one said that ID necessarily leads to deism. The claim is that ID feeds into deism (i.e., tends to encourage deism, because it leaves the underlying problem unaddressed), just as Newton's system did.

Yes, he gives a nominal definition of immanence, but crucially leaves undefined "presence and activity." That he doesn't specify what he means by "activity" was my point.

Next time would you do me the favor of excerpting the salient selection, instead of merely posting a link? That would be a big help. Thanks.