THE ISLAND OF DOUBT
An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
The Doubter's Companion:
Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org
A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
The Meaning of
the Island of
More Doubtful Blogs
Chris C. Mooney
SciAm Perspectives Panda's Thumb
Other Worthy Blogs
Random Douglas Adams quote
doubting we come to inquiry; and through inquiry we perceive truth.
Undisguised clarity is
easily mistaken for arrogance.
As for evolution, it
happened. Deal with it.
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
The saturation media coverage of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath has me revisiting the good old Problem of Evil.
I hadn't given it a whole lot of thought since my first-year philosophy class almost 20 years ago. The challenge posed to the faithful of the great monotheistic religions seemed and seems insurmountable -- a god that is omniscient, omnipotent and purely benevolent is not compatible with really bad things like Nazis, tsunamis and hurricanes -- and hardly worth further analysis.
I haven't changed my mind about the problem. Answers like "without evil, goodness has no meaning," "suffering is necessary to achieve holiness," or "free will requires it," still fail to impress. In the end, you're still left with arbitary cruelty, which would appear to undermine the very notion of a loving god.
I suppose it's not the problem of evil that troubles me, but its source. I'm not talking about Hurricane Katrina or other forces of nature, which I don't see as inherently malevolent. New Orleans and Mississippi had every opportunity to prepare for Katrina; there was plenty of time to minimize the loss of life and property damage. History is littered with specific warnings, both recent and more distant. That suggests that the real source of evil is the very human failure to pay heed to those warnings.
New Orleans was built below sea level despite advice that it was bad idea. You can't blame today's residents for that. But the city subsequently grew into a modern metropolis without developing an even minimally adequate emergency response plan. Giving car-owners a designated route to leave in the event of a mandatory evacuation order is all very well, but where was the protocol to ensure free passage on mass transit for those without their own means of transport?
As for Gulfport and Biloxi, whose idea was it to build floating casinos in a region prone to hurricanes?
Again, it's difficult to assign blame to the people who have lost everything. After families put down roots, you can't very well ask them to abandon everything they know based on the theoretical projections of a few meteorological algorithms. And yet, it's hard to shake the conviction that we could have done more to prevent what happened.
We don't have to get into second-guessing the response of the federal, state and local governments after Katrina hit. (Although why it took another two days after Katrina for the president to finally bring his record-breaking vacation to a close is a question that should haunt him for the rest of his term.)
We can, however, consider the fact that once again, the least powerful in society have suffered the most. The vast majority of homes destroyed on the Gulf Coast were not mansions. Most of the people left behind in New Orleans were not forced to seek shelter in the Superdome by choice. CNN's Wolf Blitzer was so taken aback by what his wall of giant monitors was telling him that he inadvertently blurted out that the people wading through the streets of New Orleans were "so poor and so black."
That's not what he meant to say. Still, it does remind us that, with the curious exception of the millionaires along the San Andreas Fault in California, the privileged among us rarely have to cope with the sort of challenges now facing the first -- but almost certainly not the last -- American refugees of the 21st century.
There is evil out there, evil that may or may not disprove the existence of the god to which many of the rich folks pray. Whatever its nature, it can most easily be found not in natural disasters, but among those who would rather put others in harm's way than the pay the price of doing what's right. There are some things free markets will not take care of.
So blame Bush for taking his own sweet time. Blame Michael Brown, the political appointee with no experience who found himself running the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the country's worst natural disaster. Blame the governor of Louisiana for not asking for Washington's help soon enough. Hold them all to account if you must. Just don't stop there. Spread it around some more.
Keeping in mind that the Southeast is almost certain to see more frequent and more powerful hurricanes, it's pointless to pretend that the problem of evil is restricted to a few selfish individuals or freaks of nature. A society that could let this happen is itself rotten to the core.