Thursday, April 27, 2017

Dubious Heritage

Quick question: If you had to name the political party in the U.S. which has historically been home to supporters of forced sterilization and other eugenicist schemes would you pick A. Republican or B. Democrat? If you answered B. give yourself an attaboy.

From The Federalist:
Most people close their eyes to unpleasantness in their past. Political movements do the same thing on a grander scale. Nowhere is this truer than in the willful blindness of twenty-first-century progressives to their early twentieth-century counterparts’ embrace of eugenics.

Eugenics, the theory that social policies must be enacted to cull the “bad genes” from society, was popular among progressives across the developed world, including the United States. What constituted “bad genes” was, according to its proponents, a matter of scientific consensus. Today we would call it racism and classism.

After seeing the end result of such ideas in the Holocaust, progressives naturally sought to bury their connection to this genocidal concept, and succeeded in doing so, at least when they can discredit conservatives who persist in mentioning it. That problem bubbled to the surface last week when Bloomberg’s economist and writer Noah Smith tweeted, “Apparently some people believe that eugenics was the scientific consensus 100 years ago. Sounds like a total myth to me.”

That historical denialism did not go unnoticed. The editors of The New Atlantis, among others, pointed out the dangerous historical ignorance at work in that statement. Indeed, they went further than Smith and cracked a book or two to back up their points.
So what did the New Atlantis come up with?
Citing from Edwin Black’s 2003 book, “War Against the Weak,” they described the scientific consensus on eugenics, with eugenicists “firmly entrenched in the biology, zoology, social science, psychology and anthropology departments of the nation’s leading institutions of higher learning.” The belief trickled down to high schools. A 1914 biology textbook, “A Civic Biology,” written by George William Hunter and issued by the nation’s largest book publisher, held that:
When people marry, there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. […] epilepsy and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well-born is called eugenics.
In case it is not clear what the author means, he goes on to describe what should be done about families that are not practitioners of “the science of being well-born.”
Hundreds of families such as those described above exist to-day, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money…. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.

If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe, and are now meeting with success in this country.
There's much else in the Federalist article in this vein. The subtext, usually tacit rather than explicit, is that the people most in need of sterilization were minorities, and the people who held these views were the ideological grandparents of today's progressive left. It's not a heritage in which one can take much pride.

The article concludes with this:
Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, was a leading eugenicist. In 1921, she wrote that “the unbalance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit’ [is] admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization” and that “the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” Time magazine sought to put this fact in context in a 2016 article, noting that in “the 1920s and 1930s, eugenics enjoyed widespread support from mainstream doctors, scientists and the general public.” Yes, yes it did.

Everything about 1910s and ‘20s progressives echoes in their modern intellectual descendants a century later. Absolute trust in government to do what is right. Certitude in their own scientific correctness, despite having seen “settled science” become unsettled with each generation. Knowing what is best for their fellow citizens, and the willingness to use force to overrule doubt and dissent....But most of all, there is the repeated theme, the fervent belief that some people are not people, not really, not in any way that would make them deserve rights and liberty.
The left is not only currently threatening free speech on university campuses, it has historically been the strongest advocate of racist eugenics ideas. Put those two together and it's easier to understand why people talk about liberal fascism.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Templeton Prize

It has recently been announced that philosopher Alvin Plantinga has been awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize for 2017. The prize is valued at about $1.4 million, is one of the world's largest annual awards given to an individual and honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.

Plantinga is certainly worthy of the award and indeed, some of his fellow philosophers have thought it was long overdue. One of his more recent accomplishments has been his argument that there is a serious conflict between naturalism and evolution, but that theism actually supports evolution or is compatible with it.

The article at the link offers a brief summary of Plantinga's argument:
In contrast to the common claim that evolution is incompatible with theism, the EAAN (Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism) asserts that evolution is incompatible with naturalism. In standard evolutionary theory, traits of organisms are selected for because they facilitate survival and reproduction.

Plantinga shows that belief forming capacities can be perfectly adaptive even when the beliefs that they generate are false. As a result, if the only explanation for the formation of our belief forming capacities are random trait variation and natural selection, then it is unlikely that belief forming capacities are truth conducive (since there are many more ways to have false-but-adaptive beliefs than there are true beliefs). But it is incoherent to affirm that one’s beliefs are most likely false. As a result, it is incoherent to affirm evolution and naturalism and thus one must surrender one of these beliefs.

In his 2011 book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, he challenged the militant atheism and materialism that he found in the sciences. He argued that the real conflict is not between science and religion but between theism and naturalism – theism supports science while naturalism undermines it.
Plantinga is probably most famous for the revolution he wrought in philosophical epistemology with his trilogy of books defending the proposition that belief in God is rational and justified apart from evidence. It is, in other words, a properly basic belief, like one's belief that other people have minds, that one has free will, or that one is experiencing the color red. One is justified in holding these beliefs until confronted with a compelling defeater for them. In the same way, one is rationally justified in believing in God, if one does, in lieu of a compelling defeater for that belief. If no such defeater can be adduced one's theistic belief is perfectly rational.

This may not seem like such an extraordinary argument (although it took three books to establish it), but it was ground-breaking back in the 1970s and 80s when many philosophers simply assumed that theistic belief was irrational.

There's much more at the link on Plantinga, his life, work, and the Templeton prize.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Decline of the West

David Brooks at The New York Times offers some thoughtful opinions on the vigor and viability of Western civilization. Much of what he writes is insightful, but unfortunately some of it, I think, misses the mark. 

Let's look at what I think he gets right first. He begins by describing the traditional narrative of Western civilization:
This narrative was confidently progressive. There were certain great figures, like Socrates, Erasmus, Montesquieu and Rousseau, who helped fitfully propel the nations to higher reaches of the humanistic ideal.

This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most importantly provided a set of common goals.

Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.
This neglect has had far-reaching effects:
The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them....
Brooks focusses on authoritarians on the global stage, but then notes that the authoritarian spirit pervades much of the discourse on our modern campuses as well:
Finally, there has been the collapse of liberal values at home. On American campuses, fragile thugs who call themselves students shout down and abuse speakers on a weekly basis. To read Heather MacDonald’s account of being pilloried at Claremont McKenna College is to enter a world of chilling intolerance.

In America, the basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding following the loss of faith in democratic ideals. According to a study published in The Journal of Democracy, the share of young Americans who say it is absolutely important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today. The faith in the West collapsed from within. It’s amazing how slow people have been to rise to defend it....liberalism has been docile in defense of itself.
Perhaps the docility to which he refers is due to the fact that so many liberals seem to have lost confidence in their ability to make value judgments. For many liberal/progressives it's at best impolite and at worst culturally imperialistic to assert that some ways of life are better than others, that some systems of governance are superior to others, that a culture that produces Mozart, Bach and modern medicine is superior to a culture that produces nothing but increasingly innovative ways to murder people. 

Claims such as these are deemed hubristic by many moderns. They constitute an offense against the spirit of multiculturalism. Even so, they're still true for all that, even if many contemporary liberals, unlike their ideological forefathers, no longer have the heart to assert and defend them.

Brooks closes with this admonition:
These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.
On all of that I think Brooks is largely correct. I think he veers off track a bit, though, in two places in his column. In one of these he says the following:
While running for office, Donald Trump violated every norm of statesmanship built up over these many centuries, and it turned out many people didn’t notice or didn’t care.
Well, this may be partly true, but it seems to imply that Trump won mostly because people who voted for him didn't care that he was boorish and crude.

I don't think this is quite right. People voted for him despite his manifest shortcomings because they deemed him a much better choice than Mrs. Clinton who was in any case just as crude, boorish and corrupt as Trump, if not moreso. Bernie Sanders was correct when he said recently that Trump didn't win so much as Hillary lost.

If Trump was a sexual predator Hillary Clinton defended sexual predators, including her husband, smearing her husband's accusers in the process. If Trump was a liar Hillary was just as bad, if not worse, lying to the American public about why their fellow Americans lost their lives in Benghazi, for example. For most people, though, the critical difference was that Hillary would have continued President Obama's slide toward socialism, open borders, and the arrant political correctness that so many Americans find objectionable. Mr. Trump, his juvenile behavior and ugly outbursts notwithstanding, at least offered those voters hope that that slide would be arrested and reversed.

Brooks also implies that Trump is an authoritarian leader like "Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un." For reasons I wrote about here, I disagree. Trump can be criticized for many things, but so far, at least, he hasn't shown many signs of being an authoritarian, and certainly not an authoritarian like the men Brooks lists him with.

An authoritarian seeks to arrogate power to himself and his government. Trump has done the opposite, seeking to devolve more power to the states. His appointment of a strict constitutional constructionist to the Supreme Court is telling evidence that he's not striving to concentrate power in his office but is chiefly concerned with re-establishing the rule of law and the separation of powers.

In any case, Brooks' column is worth perusing and I urge readers to check it out at the link.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Stop Digging

Democrats (and everybody else, probably) are doubtless stunned by the news that a recent WaPo/ABC poll shows that if there was a do-over election today Donald Trump would still beat Hillary Clinton by a 43-40 margin. In fact, he'd not only win the electoral college but he'd also win the popular vote:
Despite the public’s skepticism of Trump’s first 100 days, the survey finds little evidence voters would render a different verdict from last November, when Trump won key states needed to secure victory in the electoral college despite Clinton winning more votes nationwide.

The new survey finds 46 percent saying they [originally] voted for Clinton and 43 percent for Trump, similar to her two-point national vote margin. Asked how they would vote if the election were held today, 43 say they would support Trump and 40 percent say Clinton.
Add to this dispiriting news the finding in the same poll, a poll weighted toward Democrats (31% - D, 24% - R, 36% - I), that 67% of respondents feel that the Democratic party is out of touch with them (Republicans didn't fare much better with 62% saying that the GOP is out of touch) and things must be pretty gloomy at DNC headquarters.

Nevertheless, DNC chair Tom Perez has chosen to deepen the melancholy and put his party even further out of touch by announcing that there's no room in the Democratic party for pro-life candidates. Here's an excerpt from a story in the HuffPo:
Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez became the first head of the party to demand ideological purity on abortion rights, promising Friday to support only Democratic candidates who back a woman’s right to choose.

“Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health,” Perez said in a statement. “That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”

“At a time when women’s rights are under assault from the White House, the Republican Congress, and in states across the country,” he added, “we must speak up for this principle as loudly as ever and with one voice.”
To be sure, this declaration will certainly please the party elites on both coasts, but what effect will it have on rank and file pro-life African-Americans and Hispanics whose support for the Democratic party is already teetering? Twenty eight percent of Democrats are pro-life. How many of them will decide that maybe it's time for a divorce from a party that doesn't really represent their convictions on a matter of deep importance to many of them?

I also wonder whether the DNC will make an exception for elected officials like Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey who is ostensibly a pro-life Catholic, but who is also a reliable Democratic vote in the senate. I suspect Casey has already been on the phone to Perez asking him what in the world he thinks he's doing by alienating these voters and making life difficult for politicians like himself.

The first rule when your party is digging itself into a hole is to stop digging. Apparently Mr. Perez isn't yet ready to put down the shovel.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Naturalism and Ethics

VJ Torley at Uncommon Descent comments on a passage from Thomas Huxley's essay Evolution and Ethics (1893) in which Huxley, otherwise known as "Darwin's bulldog," puts his finger on one of the chief difficulties with trying to establish a naturalistic basis for ethics. One popular candidate for such a ground is the evolution of our species, but Huxley, his arrant fealty to Darwinian evolution notwithstanding, illuminates the hopelessness of this strategy:
The propounders of what are called the “ethics of evolution,” when the ‘evolution of ethics’ would usually better express the object of their speculations, adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments in favour of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution.

I have little doubt, for my own part, that they are on the right track; but as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is, so far, as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist.

Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.
Huxley's right, of course. If the inclination to be kind and tolerant has evolved in the human species then so has the inclination to be selfish, violent, and cruel. So if evolution is to serve as our "moral dictionary" what grounds do we have for privileging kindness over cruelty? Both are equally sanctioned by our evolutionary history and thus we can't say that either is better or more right than the other.

Huxley goes on to dispense with the notion that the evolutionary development of our ethical sensibility can provide us with some sort of guide to our behavior.
There is another fallacy which appears to me to pervade the so-called “ethics of evolution.” It is the notion that because, on the whole, animals and plants have advanced in perfection of organization by means of the struggle for existence and the consequent ‘survival of the fittest’; therefore men in society, men as ethical beings, must look to the same process to help them towards perfection.
The problem is that, for naturalists, the processes of nature are the only thing they can look to for moral guidance. Having rejected the notion that there exists a transcendent, personal, moral authority, the naturalist, if he's to avoid nihilism, is left trying to derive ethics from what he sees in nature, which leads to what I regard as the most serious problem with any naturalistic ethics: There's simply no warrant for thinking that a blind, impersonal process like evolution or a blind, impersonal substance like matter, can impose a moral duty on conscious beings.

Moral obligations, if they exist, can only be imposed by conscious, intelligent, moral authorities. Evolution can no more impose such an obligation than can gravity. Thus, naturalists (atheists) are confronted with a stark choice: Either give up their atheism or embrace moral nihilism. Unwilling to do what is for them unthinkable and accept the first alternative, many of them are reluctantly embracing the second.

Consider these three passages from three twentieth century philosophers:
I had been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t…The long and short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality….

I experienced a shocking epiphany that religious believers are correct; without God there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality….

Even though words like “sinful” and “evil” come naturally to the tongue as, say, a description of child molesting, they do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God…nothing is literally right or wrong because there is no Morality. Joel Marks, An Amoral Manifesto

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The world, according to this new picture [i.e. the picture produced by a scientific outlook], is purposeless, senseless, meaningless. Nature is nothing but matter in motion. The motions of matter are governed, not by any purpose, but by blind forces and laws….[But] if the scheme of things is purposeless and meaningless, then the life of man is purposeless and meaningless too. Everything is futile, all effort is in the end worthless. A man may, of course, still pursue disconnected ends, money fame, art, science, and may gain pleasure from them. But his life is hollow at the center. Hence, the dissatisfied, disillusioned, restless spirit of modern man….

Along with the ruin of the religious vision there went the ruin of moral principles and indeed of all values….If our moral rules do not proceed from something outside us in the nature of the universe - whether we say it is God or simply the universe itself - then they must be our own inventions. Thus it came to be believed that moral rules must be merely an expression of our own likes and dislikes. But likes and dislikes are notoriously variable. What pleases one man, people, or culture, displeases another. Therefore, morals are wholly relative. W.T. Stace, The Atlantic Monthly, 1948

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We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or amoralists….Reason doesn't decide here….The picture I have painted is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me….Pure reason will not take you to morality. Kai Nielson (1984)
What these thinkers and dozens like them are saying is that the project of trying to find some solid, naturalistic foundation upon which to build an ethics is like trying to find a mermaid. The object of the search simply doesn't exist, nor could it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Nuclear Weapons

With things heating up on the Korean peninsula and the North Koreans threatening to "turn the US to ashes with a super-mighty preemptive strike" with their nuclear weapons it might be helpful to explain exactly what nuclear weapons are.

What, for example, is the difference between an atomic bomb and a hydrogen, or a thermonuclear, bomb?

Atomic bombs utilize nuclear fission to generate energy. Hydrogen bombs, also called thermonuclear bombs, utilize nuclear fusion. In fission, a nucleus of an atom of uranium or plutonium absorbs a stray neutron, becomes unstable, and splits apart, releasing energy and three more neutrons. These neutrons are absorbed by more nuclei causing more splitting (or fissioning) releasing more energy and more neutrons and within a fraction of a second there's a chain reaction in which all the atoms of the fuel are split. A mass of plutonium the size of grapefruit can produce the energy equivalent of 13,000 tons (13 kilotons) of TNT. This was the approximate yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Hydrogen bombs are even more powerful. The average hydrogen bomb has a yield of about 1 million tons (one megaton) of TNT, but some can produce as much as 50 megatons. This is about 4000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima blast.

These weapons rely on the energy released in the process of nuclear fusion. When hydrogen nuclei are forced together under great pressure they fuse and convert a small amount of mass into energy according to the equation E=MC^2. The pressure is generated by first producing a fission explosion. This generates enormous heat which in turn generates enormous pressure which forces the hydrogen nuclei together producing a fusion explosion. Thus, a hydrogen bomb is actually a combination of a fission and a fusion explosion. Because these weapons are triggered by the intense heat produced in a fission chain reaction they're called "thermonuclear" weapons.

This is video of a 1954 test of a 15 megaton weapon:
It's not clear whether the North Koreans have thermonuclear weapons or only fission weapons (which are bad enough). What most nuclear nations do is mount these weapons on missiles (called nuclear missile warheads) as well as drop them from planes as bombs, and this capability is what both North Korea and Iran are trying to achieve. If they're successful it'll have a seriously destabilizing effect on the world as all of their neighbors seek to develop their own arsenals to counter those of Iran and North Korea.

The enormous blast power of a single one megaton warhead can destroy an entire city. The radioactive fallout from the blast could kill tens of thousands more downwind from the blast. Such weapons in the hands of fanatics and madmen is a frightening prospect which is why so much of the world insists that neither Iran nor North Korea must be allowed to develop the capability to mount these weapons on missiles.

Unfortunately, it may take war to prevent them from obtaining those nuclear missiles.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Another Missile Strike?

According to the occasionally reliable DEBKAfile another American missile strike is imminent, but not, as one might expect, against the North Koreans. Here are some excerpts from their report:
The US Mediterranean fleet is moving into position ready for a decision to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles for a crushing assault on the Islamic State’s mountain strongholds in central Sinai, DEBKAfile’s military and counterterrorism sources report.

The prospective American missile attack in Sinai ...would have been discussed during the Egyptian President Abdul-Fatteh El-Sisi’s visit to the White House on April 3. He explained to his host, President Donald Trump, the immense difficulty of overcoming the Islamic State’s affiliate when its headquarters were dug into an interconnected web of tunnels and caves in the central Jabal (Mount) Halal of the peninsula.

Nicknamed the “Tora Bora of Sinai,” approach roads to this mountain fastness are few and far between....

The last Egyptian assault on ISIS’ towering mountain stronghold took place on April 2, shortly before El-Sisi traveled to Washington. The Egyptian military announced that 31 terrorists had been killed and a number of caves holding arms and ammunition destroyed.

But the damage was not devastating enough to disrupt the Islamist terrorists’ operations, DEBKAfile’s military sources report. Most of the terrorists escaped with the help of allied Bedouin tribesmen who, familiar with every nook and cranny in the desert peninsula, guided them to safety in new caves in Jabal Halal that were even more inaccessible to Egyptian troops.

Their new headquarters can only be destroyed by cruise missiles capable of exploding underground.
There's more at the link. The report also claims that a final decision to go ahead with a US missile assault on central Sinai rests with Defense Secretary James Mattis who arrived in Cairo yesterday, April 19.

I suppose we'll know soon enough what the results of Mattis' consultations with the Egyptians are.