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.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Silence and Light

We've passed the solstice and light has begun to reclaim our days. A recent Catholic News Agency story tells us that a universal indult for use of the traditional Latin Rite is imminent: mid- to late-January.

The winter issue of Latin Mass magazine featured Peter A. Kwasniewski's wonderful article on the goodness of the emptiness of the sanctuary in traditionally appointed churches, and the goodness of the silences throughout the Traditional Rite.

May darkness, silence, and emptiness reign in our hearts this Christmas so that our Lord may find room to stay with us.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


This morning I rose especially early and managed to make it to church several minutes before anyone else (the church is in a safe area, so it's left unlocked). It was wonderful to pray in the darkness with only the company of the vigil lamp and our Lord. Eventually others filtered in, but what really ruined the solitude was the old guy who switches on the lights. I'm sure he does it in all innocence. In our electrified world, no one remembers the value of darkness.

Having just posted on nothingness, it is appropriate to ponder darkness. Today, December 21st, is the winter solstice, the day that the sun stands still and turns back from its southward journey to begin its climb to the north. The day is shortest and the night longest. NPR had a great little segment this morning on our civilization's lamentable eradication of darkness:

Our brighter world also affects sleep patterns. Ekirch says the standard of eight continuous hours is a modern invention. Before artificial light, he says, Western Europeans slept in stages.

"The average person slept for three or four hours, awoke for an hour or more of quiet wakefulness and then returned for a second round of sleep, he says.

That wakeful period provided a time to think, or pray, or ponder dreams while they were still vivid, Ekirch says.

Artificial light also can affect hormones. For example, it can suppress the production of melatonin, which seems to affect both sleep and the immune system

Given this interstitial period of wakefulness, rising to pray the office of Vigils wouldn't have been violent to natural sleep patterns as it might seem at first glance.

In the usual traditional symbolism (exemplified in St. John's writings), light symbolizes goodness and darkness evil.1 But like any analogy, it has its limits. There are ways in which darkness is superior to light. Darkness allows us to push away the distractions and busy-ness of life and to focus on what's most important. In Charles Peguy's Portal of the Mystery of Hope, God praises his creation Night2:

Night is what is continuous. Night is the fabric
Of time, the reservoir of being.


O Night, o my daughter Night, the most religious of all my daughters.

The most reverent.

Of all my daughters, of all my creatures, the most abandoned into my hands.

You glorify me in Sleep even more than your Brother, Day, glorifies me in Work.

Because in work, man only glorifies me in his work.

Whereas in sleep it is I who glorify myself by man's surrender.


O beautiful night, night of the great mantle, my daughter of the starry mantle

You remind me, myself, you remind me of the great silence that existed

Before I had unlocked the firmament of ingratitude.

And you proclaim, even to me, you herald to me the silence that will exist

After the end of man's reign, when I will have reclaimed my scepter.

And sometimes I think about it ahead of time, because this man really makes a lot of noise.


1. There are of course exceptions in which darkness has a connection with God, as in Psalm 18. Not to mention the "still, small voice" that Elijah recognizes as the Lord's.

2. This section of the poem is so lovely that at some point I'll have to post a longer excerpt. Maybe next year.

Jon Hamilton, "Is a Brighter Earth a Better One?" NPR Morning Edition (December 21, 2006).

Charles Peguy, Portal of the Mystery of Hope trans. David Louis Schindler, Jr. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman's, 1996), 130, 132, 136. Another edition available here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Zero vs. Nothing

Lately I've been reading about conceptions infinity, which is an important topic to natural philosophy and which Aristotle discusses in Book 3 of the Physics.

In any event, this is the reason I picked up David Foster Wallace's popular treatment of the mathematics of infinity (from Zeno up through Cantor). Wallace's writing is definitely mannered. He maintains a modern bias against Aristotle and in favor of the actuality of infinity, both of which points the book inadequately supports. (Sometime I'll have to do a full review.) Because of these flaws, the excellence of his explanation of the difference between zero and nothing is quite surprising:

It's a tricky difference [between the number 0 and the abstract word 'nothing'], but an important one. The Greeks' inability to see it was probably what kept them from being able to use 0 in their math, which cost them dearly. But 0 v. nothing is one of those abstract distinctions that's almost impossible to talk about directly; you more have to do it with examples. Imagine there's a certain math class, and in this class there's a fiendishly difficult 100-point midterm, and imagine that neither you nor I get even one point out of 100 on this exam. Except there's a difference: you are not in the class and didn't even take the exam, whereas I am and did. The fact that you received 0 points on the exam was thus irrelevant—your 0 means N/A, nothing—whereas my 0 is an actual zero. Or if you don't like that one, imagine that you and I are respectively female and male, both healthy 20-40 years of age, and we're both at the doctor's, and neither of us has had a menstrual period in the past ten weeks, in which case my total number of periods is nothing, whereas yours here is 0—and significant. End examples.

I suppose the difference can be summarized by noting that with zero, there is at least to start out with a possibility of having a something. Then of course the notion of possibility (vs. actuality) is critical to the whole notion of infinity....

David Foster Wallace, Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞ (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003), 142.

Also of interest: Nothing Comes from Nothing

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


End of semester crunch is on, so I won't be posting for perhaps another week. I apologize for the delay.


Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Small, Small World of the New York Times

This Thanksgiving I spent in Brooklyn with a friend's family. They are a wonderfully conservative family, but they subscribe to the New York Times. My friend's father remarked that letters to the Times give him the sense that their writers have no news source outside the Times. That may be a slight exaggeration, but at least it's plain that they speak to few people outside a closed circle of Northeastern-type liberals.

The same remark can be made about the editors of the Times. In an editorial of that day, ("Family Planning Farce"), the editors lambaste President Bush's pick of Eric Keroack to head family planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services. They call him a doctor "nationally known for his wacky theory about reproductive health."

What are Dr. Keroack's "wacky" theories? One is the link between abortion and breast cancer (ABC). The Times is obviously blind to the overwhelming evidence supporting this connection. The study that supposedly definitively disproved the connection, actually proved it (or at least provided further evidence in support of it). Unfortunately the editors of the medical journal were afraid of political reprisals and wrote the summary article to give the idea that the study reached the opposite conclusion. Being good journalists, the Times (among so many other news sources) failed to probe deeper and took the summary at face value. And why would they probe deeper, when they got the answer they were looking for?

Other tenets of Dr. Keroack to which the Times objected:

[A Woman's Concern, the group Dr. Keroack led] has stated on its Web site that the distribution of contraceptive drugs or devices is “demeaning to women, degrading of human sexuality and adverse to human health and happiness.”


When speaking at abstinence conferences across the country, and in his writings, Dr. Keroack has promoted the novel argument that sex with multiple partners alters brain chemistry in a way that makes it harder for women to form bonding relationships. One of the researchers cited by Dr. Keroack [Dr. Rebecca Anne Turner1] has called the claim “complete pseudoscience” unsupported by her findings.

That contraceptives are degrading to women (insofar it severs a woman's connection to the ineffable mystery of bringing forth new human life, and opens her to being seen as only a pleasure machine to satisfy men) I'll leave to another time; the argument involves the purposes of human life and requires a discussion of the meaning of "degrading," both of which are beyond my current purpose.

But the second point, that having multiple sexual partners degrades a woman's ability to form permanent bonding relationships, is low-hanging fruit. Whether or not Dr. Turner's 1999 research supports Dr. Keroack's claim, it's hyperbolic to call the claim "complete pseudoscience." The debate centers on the role of the hormone oxytocin, which is called a "bonding hormone" because it stimulates in a woman a sense of togetherness with the person doing the stimulation (viz., a breast-feeding child or a sexual partner). Take for example this paragraph from the site (a far-from-morally-conservative site)2:

Premenopausal women sometimes become attached to a man with whom they have had sex, even if the man isn't good for them, because the sexually induced secretion of oxytocin encourages this binding. After menopause, intercourse does not result in an oxytocin surge, thus permitting women to make a more rationale [sic], and less instinctive, choice.


Women often assume that men desire sex just for the physical pleasure it provides. No doubt, that's sometimes all the man is after. However, I think that many men realize that intercourse can make the woman feel attached to the man. Longing for love, men may desire sex as a means of fostering a romantic bond.

Furthermore it is scientifically plausible that forming such bonds makes it more difficult to form future bonds. Let's ignore the obvious inference that being bonded to one person necessarily decreases the bond to another person, rather like a used piece of scotch tape has less stickiness. Restricting ourselves to "scientific" research, it is not pseudo-science to assert that exposure to oxytocin desensitizes cells to oxytocin (hormonal desensitization over time is not uncommon, as for example desensitization to dopamine from dopamine-stimulating drugs). Just a casual search of the web turns up a 2003 abstract in a peer-reviewed research journal containing this: "RESULTS: Pretreatment with oxytocin resulted in a decrease in the percentage of cells that responded to subsequent oxytocin exposure." The article is titled "Oxytocin-induced desensitization of the oxytocin receptor."

"Complete" implies that the claims are not only absolutely unsupported by any scientific research, but actually run counter to a large preponderance of such research. A less politically motivated response would have modestly said that Dr. Keroack's claims were unsupported by the cited research. Dr. Turner's "rebuttal" is empty rhetoric. If anything is pseudoscience in this whole incident, it is Dr. Turner's use of the phrase "complete pseudoscience."

Of course, people like the Times editors are so satisfied with easy answers that they simply repeat Dr. Turner's claim without scrutiny. As their lives, a claim that satisfies their preconceived notions remains unexamined.3

For me, the satisfying thing about reading such an intellectually insular publication like the Times is knowing that a group of people so misguided about something as basic as human bonding and procreation live not only in a small world, but perforce in a shrinking world.


1. I will refrain from dwelling on Dr. Turner's unfortunate initials.

2. Here are a few sites that discuss oxytocin:

3. Here are a few sites that lip-synch the Times's pablum as an opportunity to vent further self-righteous outrage at the Bush administration:

Christopher Robinson, Ralph Schumann, Peisheng Zhang, Roger C. Young, "Oxytocin-induced desensitization of the oxytocin receptor," American journal of obstetrics and gynecology 2003, vol. 188, no2, pp. 497-502.

Alan Wirzbicki and Bryan Bender, "Critics protest health post pick" Boston Globe, November 18, 2006.