How the NSA can impact our souls. [QUOTE]


Persons of faith should be deeply concerned about the current surveillance flap not because privacy is an absolute end in itself but rather because it points to and safeguards something else even more basic and fundamental, namely, human dignity. According to Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, real dignity requires that human beings “should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by sense of duty.” Such responsible freedom is the basis for both the establishment of friendships and the maintenance of family [and social] life. Without the possibility of non-coercive self-disclosure, which is vitiated by unfettered intrusion, such relationships are fatuous.

— Timothy George, “American Stasi? What’s Wrong with NSA Surveillance?” via First Things’ On the Square blog

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9 thoughts on “How the NSA can impact our souls. [QUOTE]

  1. As far as I can vision the issue of state surveillance has nothing to do with religion at all and everything to do with human dignity, a commonality we all share, irrespective of religion or any other socially defining feature. The statement made here (and in the connected post) are nothing more than could be said by a member of any ideology, religious or non-religious. I think too often we try to make ill-considered connections or identify issues with our religious persuasion when, in fact, the issues are bigger, and far more universal, than these attempts would allow.

    My two cents.

    – Daniel

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    • Yeah, but surely we can agree that certain worldviews have a greater foundation from which to speak to certain things, right? I know this is a staple of usually-pretty-lame apologetics, but I still think it stands: though secular humanists may believe in some sort of “human dignity” I can’t imagine what the simple naturalistic process is that gives rise to that belief. What objective right does anyone have to be bothered by NSA surveillance if the world really is simply social Darwinism, and our nation needs to “survive”? If that really is the reality of the matter, why would it be so wrong for America to try and remain as the “top predator” in the world?

      So yes, we all have a sense of human dignity from which to appeal for our offence at this NSA stuff. In fact, the Vatican document quoted is actually a document about freedom of religion! The primary application of this human dignity principle is in religious freedom for ALL people, even Atheists.

      But though this is the case, I’d still say that Christianity speaks to human dignity in a unique way and that it’s beliefs, actions, and Savior show how it has a unique perspective, vantage point, and authority in speaking to these matters..

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      • “What objective right does anyone have to be bothered by NSA surveillance if the world really is simply social Darwinism, and our nation needs to “survive”?”

        Paul, you may want to consider that we have the capacity to reflect on Darwinism and its principles for guiding life on earth (unlike non-human animals). Given this, what makes you suppose we would wish to apply its principles to the sociopolitical sphere? If you understand this, then you will understand why your comment above is but a caricature of the science and an appeal to nature fallacy.

        Also, objectivity is a fleeting notion outside the empirical sciences. Ethics and morality aren’t like the composition of nitrogen 😉

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        • Sorry, if I made it seem like you all were not able to think critically about how to apply these principles sociopolitically! That’s not what I think at all! I’ve heard Dawkins speak quite powerfully and beautifully on this topic, and how we should be proud that we’ve reached the level of consciousness that we can now critically examine the drives that got us here and evaluate what role they have in our continued development.

          My real point was a little bigger than that. I know secular humanists that have better morals than me, and can more powerfully speak against abuses like the NSA issues. My belief, though, is that these individuals have no greater principle by which to explain why they feel this or why others should agree with them. They have that “intuition” that there is such thing as dignity and injustice, but I still can’t find a convincing argument for how these “intuitions” could have evolved so universally.

          Yes, I’m shamefully stealing from Cornelius VanTil here, and I don’t even like a lot of what he says, but he has some powerful stuff on this topic, saying, in essence, that non-believers appeal to these ideas of dignity and morality and justice by using the “borrowed capital” of Christianity and the truth it speaks to. I know that could sound patronizing and all, as if you’re not smart enough to know right from wrong yourself and that it’s actually deep, secret spiritual things that keep you from acknowledging this, but I hope you can trust me that I’m trying to speak with at least a little more nuance and depth here.

          We don’t need God in order to know most of what is right or wrong. But I think that we do need him to know WHY those things might themselves be right or wrong. Is the NSA stuff INHERENTLY an attack on human dignity, or is it an otherwise morally neutral thing that just so happens in our time and context violates whatever social contract we have to maintain social cohesion and order?

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  2. Paul,

    Thanks for the prompt reply. I understand your point. Your point is one of ontology, not of the advocacy of any one ethical value. That is, you and the secular humanist may agree on the ethics implicit to the surveillance issue, but you contend that the humanist has no justification for his/her position.

    The problem I see with this is that it doesn’t affect the argument. By example, if Person A and Person B concur that imperialist genocide is a poor ethic, does it matter whether their undergirding ideologies has some basis written into the narrative? Both will work to achieve the same ends.

    Likewise, it’s not as if the contention that one’s ideology has no overarching basis for thinking the NSA datatapping is wrong renders their argument void.

    So I guess my question would be: In what way(s) does ontology change the cogency or substance of a moral argument?

    “They have that “intuition” that there is such thing as dignity and injustice, but I still can’t find a convincing argument for how these “intuitions” could have evolved so universally.”

    The answer would appear to lie on its surface. Our ethical intutions did not evolve “universally”. We critique moral issues differently, and those differences surface in our ethical discourse. It’s, in fact, how ethics have progressed over the aeons, why we no longer deem it prudent to sell our daughters for three goats and a cow or to institutionalize forced labor. The humanist acknowledges this and engages questions of moral value via a process of mutual respect and human conversation. For the humanist, ontology is subordinate.

    “Yes, I’m shamefully stealing from Cornelius VanTil here, and I don’t even like a lot of what he says, but he has some powerful stuff on this topic, saying, in essence, that non-believers appeal to these ideas of dignity and morality and justice by using the “borrowed capital” of Christianity and the truth it speaks to.”

    Van Til was a presuppositionalist who embodied an a priori rejection of neutral starting points. It is a reverse form of epistemology, where evidence and arguments are only marshaled after the fact to justify theological assumptions that have already been made. Not only is this form of dialectic circular (i.e., you’re arguing for beliefs by appealing to presuppositions), I shouldn’t have to point out that this undercuts the entire project of reason (i.e., you can’t skirt justification for your first premise and still call yourself reasonable), which is why most today are evidentialists. Otherwise, you’re simply begging the question.

    “Is the NSA stuff INHERENTLY an attack on human dignity, or is it an otherwise morally neutral thing just so happens in our time and context violates whatever social contract we have to maintain social cohesion and order?”

    I would simply maintain that the issue is not so black and white. There seem to be valid points from both camps and such an issue does not so easily dichotomize. Paul, I think you might find the discussion that was generated from my review of Dawkins’ book below very helpful. The comments by me and S. Prewitt should illumine my points and my position on these issues more fully.

    http://www.amazon.com/review/R2O5B8X750ESYS

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    • And I’d encourage you to check out the work of James K.A. Smith, namely “Desiring the Kingdom”. Yes, presuppositionalism is circular, but I honestly think every other “system” is. I do not ascribe to the “project of reason” you appeal to, because I don’t think (ala Smith) that humans are, basically, first and foremost “thinking” or “reasoning” creatures. My views have shifted much in my life, and it’s not really because of any “new” information I ever received and “reasoned” about. That’s simply not how we work. Smith talks about his belief that we are “liturgical” creatures, and that rather than act on what we “think”, we instead act on what we “love”. And what we love is shaped by our idea of the Good Life (or in Christian parlance, “The Kingdom”). And this idea of the Good life, is not shaped primarily by our thoughts but by our actions and habits–the “liturgies” we inhabit. He uses this to critique the “cultural liturgies” around us and show how they shape us and form what we love, and SUBSEQUENTLY what we believe and “think”. We love first, think later, in other words.

      All of life is circular. Ideas about the world vary individual by individual, and yet we’re all looking at the same world, the same evidence, the same texts, etc. etc. And yet we come to different conclusions. The account for why this is has to be different than simple “reasoning deficiencies” or “mental crutches” or whatever. Frankly, it’s because we love different things and are shaped and formed by different lives.

      So how can we know ANYTHING? I prefer a critical realist approach to life: We should use our reason best we can, knowing it’s not the end all be all of faculties, trust ourselves and our perceptions enough to live life and maybe even flourish, but let’s not trust it enough that we ever stop critiquing both our beliefs AND our doubts. I think this is also where Christians would start talking about our need for the doctrine of “Revelation”, but that’s for another day.

      Just curious, re: your move from Christianity to Atheism: did you actually hear any new information or facts that you had not heard before that led you in that direction? And why is it, you think, that others that may have those same facts put in front of them will not abandon their faith while you did?

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      • Paul,

        Excellent. I’ll add that one to the list.

        So my questions went unanswered, to wit: In what way does ontology change the substance or power of a moral argument?

        Much of your comments are addressed in my linked discussion appending my Dawkins review.

        “I do not ascribe to the “project of reason” you appeal to, because I don’t think (ala Smith) that humans are, basically, first and foremost “thinking” or “reasoning” creatures.”

        …By reason project I mean that humans are capable of proper reasoning, which includes the capacity to know where we have erred or reasoned improperly. I don’t think you understand the follow-through of what you’ve just stated above. If you think we LACK this capacity to reason properly/the universe is intelligible (my first premise and the only presupposition that all of us can share…what evidentialists and philosophers call a neutral starting point), then in no way can you claim your presupposition is reasonable either (whatever that is…you still haven’t clearly stated what it is). The argument is self-defeating.

        Most important, your argument is merely theoretical. In practice, you rely on reason just as much as your neighbor.

        “My views have shifted much in my life, and it’s not really because of any “new” information I ever received and “reasoned” about. That’s simply not how we work.”

        …Once again, one must wonder if you’ve worked through the ramifications of these arguments. OF COURSE that’s how we work, and unless you are privy to some schizoid form of genetic programming, it’s also how YOU work.

        I once thought the Earth was 10,000 years old. Disconfirming evidence changed my view.

        I once thought Christopher Columbus was a hero. History changed my view.

        I once thought libertarianism was a feasible political system. Economics and sociology changed my view.

        I once thought the Bible was the inerrant word of a disembodied agency. *Reading* the Bible changed my view (along with engaging the worldviews of others and studying science).

        New information changes minds all the time. It’s in fact how I became an atheist. New information.

        If “that’s simply not how we work”, then I can guarantee the world’s neuro-practitioners would love to have your number 😉

        “And yet we come to different conclusions. The account for why this is has to be different than simple “reasoning deficiencies” or “mental crutches” or whatever.”

        No it’s actually a bit simpler than that. The human mind is very good at compartmentalization, keeping dissonant thought at bay and not allowing it to interfere in areas where it would erode conflicting reasoning processes. Beyond that, I continue to contend that most devoutly religious people don’t understand science (or what it actually tells us) to a sufficient degree that would catalyze a change in beliefs. This has always been, and continues to be, my view. For example, most Christians who flippantly claim that evolution and their faith are compatible don’t actually understand what the science tells us.

        “Just curious, re: your move from Christianity to Atheism: did you actually hear any new information or facts that you had not heard before that led you in that direction? And why is it, you think, that others that may have those same facts put in front of them will not abandon their faith while you did?”

        (Answers above.)

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