Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Gary Wills on abortion

I won’t repeat Ramesh Ponnuru’s criticisms of Gary Wills’s op-ed on abortion--you can read them for yourself--but I’ll add my own. Wills argues that the state should have no authority over abortion because "the people are divided on this," an argument that would seem to deprive the state of authority over almost every issue.

Perhaps Wills could respond that tis is true only when "science" or "reason" don’t speak authoritatively. There you have it: Wills could be said implicitly to favor some combination of scientific dictatorship and libertarian choice in matters in which science is allegedly silent. (I know I’m exaggerating, but his argument does seem to cede a great deal of authority to science and to deny the state to make any determinations when there is popular disagreement. By this argument, the only possible justification for our constitution could be either popular unanimity or science. There’s no room for just government by the consent of the governed, determined by majorities to supermajorities.)

Update: For more on Wills’s confusions from our friends, see Rick Garnett and, quite succinctly, RC2. Wills appears to have been blinded by his modernist anti-theological ire, in evidence at least since this 2004 op-ed.

Discussions - 6 Comments

"Wills could be said implicitly to favor some combination of scientific dictatorship and libertarian choice in matters in which science is allegedly silent."

Much talk in the comment sections of other threads about "polytheism" and the elevation of various "gods" and "idols." Here is one such idol: "science."

As we've seen in many other debates, "science" is not always unarguably conclusive on a point. And, as we are seeing in areas such as cloning and genetic engineering, science may say "You can," but it remains silent on "You should."

Count me as one deeply skeptical about the authority of "science" by itself. If God exists, then science is subordinate to God, as are we. But of course that point has not, and probably will never be, resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

Well said Don, but I have a few points of disagreement: "If God exists, then science is subordinate to God, as we are."

If a personal Christian God who has revealed something of "shoulds" exists we agree. The simple existence of God as an unmoved mover on the other hand doesn't tell us any more about what we "should" do than the law of gravity. Well, I retract that: The law of gravity tells us that we don't want to walk over the edge of a cliff if our goal is to stay alive. Science in other words tells us what sort of causal relationship exists between our actions and the results we can expect. Science allows us to direct our means towards the ends we seek to accomplish, on the other hand it is silent about the ends.

As was said by Bacon, Nature to be commanded must be obeyed.

Viewing science as an idol is I believe the root of the problem itself. You can do a billion studies and bring scientific knowledge to the fore. But in every case the scientific study will only tell you how to go about maximizing a certain desireable outcome, or minimizing a less desireable outcome. But the outcomes supplied are external to science itself. Science can end up telling you that a nuclear bomb is good if your desired outcome is a lot of death destruction and nuclear fallout. A scientific mind can make the trains run on time in Washington DC or Paris, it can also ensure that the trains run on time at Auschwitz. A thing is good scientifically if it accomplishes all its functions. What the functions are supposed to be is a matter to be supplied elsewhere.

By itself science can't tell us if abortion is good or bad, or rather it can tell us that abortion is good for ending pregnancy but bad for bringing a child to term, and if you need a study to tell you that it is a wonder you haven't walked over a cliff.

While you are right that science can become an "idol" it largely becomes one for people who are already morally certain of the objectives they persue...engineers who find a calling building things, doctors who preform surgery... Science is knowledge that you are doing things in the best manner possible.

You can poke fun at sports nutrionist and sientists who do studies about beer claiming that 500ml is optimal...Of course what you are really being skeptical of is the assignment of an "end" to beer drinking...as if human beings drink beer for the sole function of optimizing hydration, and even then scientists will tell you that gatorade is better. Hell scientifically drinking 500Ml is worthless for the function of getting obliterated drunk, unless you are talking about infants...1500ML might be ideal for telling stories with old friends...but thinking about beer consumption scientifically is anathema to the primary function of beer in the first place, not that a thing can't have multiple functions...and scientists are both wonderfull and dreadfull for comming up with new uses for things. But in areas like sports nutrition you would be foolish to suggest that science is not an effective tool...if you go down to the Arnold Expo in Columbus and see the body builders you will know that they are the result of this science applied with extreme discipline to the function of getting huge and sculpted.

In my opinion, living in a world with more modern marvels(one of my favorite TV shows) than any other time in world history, you are rather dense to argue against science qua science, I would be willing to listen if you produced a flying carpet or broom that could compete with my Honda. On the other hand the "idolatry" of science is actually the uncritical acceptance of utilitarian functions as a replacement for questioning by what standard such a function is good in the first place. Since most people lack discipline this results in a sort of polytheism of the moment.

But the Idolatry of science could also be a rigid Monotheistic discipline. If you allow me to say that Body Building is a scientific religion. The body builder worships a certain promethian physique, and through discipline and the science of sports nutrition and weightlifting remakes himself into that which he worships.

When you see a body builder and you disagree with the idolatry of science you are disagreeing with his preocupation with the body, you are disagreeing with his religion, but you aren't disagreeing with the efficiency of his religion...Clearly he knows something of discipline and his science is valid for its function.

Science may be valid without making the body builder the ideal.

If God truly did create all that is, then naturally all that is is subordinate to God. The "blind watchmaker" theory might hold that God created and stepped away, but it does not follow that such a watchmaker is prohibited from stepping back. Only that the watchmaker chooses whether to step back, or not at all.

Now, I grant that it is possible to argue from the position that there is no pre-existent super-natural creator being. All that exists simply has always existed and always will. But in such an environment morality must necessarily be arbitrary. And hence "science" practiced in such an environment is bounded by nothing more than the arbitrary morality we ourselves create.

But I am arguing from the position of there being a pre-existent and self-aware being that is the creator and author of all that is. Given that, we -- and "science" -- are logically subordinate to that being.

And it is at this point that the topic of "free will" comes into the picture -- the degree to which that creator has granted his creation to exercise freedom of thoughts and deeds. That brings the issue of willful subordination to the table. That gets to the question of "should."

I would argue that we as created humans are better off willfully subordinating ourselves to God. I would argue that our pursuit of science would be more properly bounded within God's morality if we subordinated ourselves to God. But I freely admit that no "non-falsifiable proof" of this proposition can be offered. I also freely admit that I quickly get in over my head logically and philosophically when discussing this topic.

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Now to a more important question: a Honda? Motorcycle? What kind?

Interesting posts!

I would just like to note that "The simple existence of God as an unmoved mover on the other hand doesn't tell us any more about what we "should" do than the law of gravity." is not really a God at all, thus you are correct but most would not call an "unmoved mover" a God (maybe a god of sorts, but not God).

Also, while you are correct to point out the difference between means and ends, "science" is not really so abstracted as that (except in textbooks). People "do science", thus there is always an "end" in it even if denied. This means that for many many people, science is in fact an idol, in that the current version of it (a neo-Epicurean materialism with a neo-Epicurean pain vs. pleasure morality) readily supplies ends...

An article from Constitutionally Correct on the "scientism" of Gary Wills: Are Religious Folks Even Allowed to Talk About Abortion

That's good that we can take the credit loans and this opens completely new opportunities.

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