Thursday, May 5, 2016

Engineering Genius

I showed this video to some of my classes this week because it's so well done. Drew Berry is an animator who creates computer generated animations of cellular processes. The processes he depicts here are occurring all the time in each of the trillions of cells in your body. As you watch it keep in mind a few questions:

1. The proteins which work with the DNA to produce other proteins were themselves produced by DNA. So which came first? How did the DNA produce the helper proteins before the helper proteins existed to guide the process?

2. How did unguided processes like mutation and genetic drift produce such coordinated choreography? How did blind, unguided processes produce the information which tells the proteins where to go and how to function?

3. How does this information get processed by mindless lumps of chemicals and how is it passed on from generation to generation?

And notice how the motor proteins are structured in such a way that enables them to "walk" along microtubules carrying various items to locations where they're needed. How do these motor proteins "know" how to do this, and how did they evolve in the first place? Perhaps we'll eventually discover naturalistic, materialistic answers to these questions, but it seems that the more progress we make in biology the further away we get from plausible naturalistic explanations and the more it looks like the living cell has been intelligently engineered by a mind.

If you don't have time to watch the whole video start at the 2:54 mark:

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Being Thankful Key to Happiness

Robert Emmons, writing at Big Questions, discerns the key to Happiness in the Queen of the Virtues - Gratitude.
In modern times gratitude has become untethered from its moral moorings and collectively, we are worse off because of this. When the Roman philosopher Cicero stated that gratitude was the queen of the virtues, he most assuredly did not mean that gratitude was merely a stepping-stone toward personal happiness. Gratitude is a morally complex disposition, and reducing this virtue to a technique or strategy to improve one’s mood is to do it an injustice.

Even restricting gratitude to an inner feeling is insufficient. In the history of ideas, gratitude is considered an action (returning a favor) that is not only virtuous in and of itself, but valuable to society. To reciprocate is the right thing to do. “There is no duty more indispensable that that of returning a kindness” wrote Cicero in a book whose title translates “On Duties.”

Cicero’s contemporary, Seneca, maintained that “He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt.” Neither believed that the emotion felt in a person returning a favor was particularly crucial. Conversely, across time, ingratitude has been treated as a serious vice, a greater vice than gratitude is a virtue. Ingratitude is the “essence of vileness,” wrote the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant while David Hume opined that ingratitude is “the most horrible and unnatural crime that a person is capable of committing.”
Emmons goes on to discuss the myriad benefits of a spirit of gratitude for both the individual and society:
To give a flavor of these research findings, dispositional gratitude has been found to be positively associated with qualities such as empathy, forgiveness, and the willingness to help others. For example, people who rated themselves as having a grateful disposition perceived themselves as having more prosocial characteristics, expressed by their empathetic behavior, and emotional support for friends within the last month.

When people report feeling grateful, thankful, and appreciative in studies of daily experience, they also feel more loving, forgiving, joyful, and enthusiastic. Notably, the family, friends, partners and others that surround them consistently report that people who practice gratitude are viewed as more helpful, more outgoing, more optimistic, and more trustworthy.
One of the most important passages in the essay, at least in my opinion, was when Emmons says this:
A spirit of ingratitude corrodes human relationships and becomes epidemic within a culture when entitlements and rights are prioritized over duties and obligations, laments Senior Fellow Roger Scruton of the American Enterprise Institute. Is it any wonder then, that the biggest fear that parents now have for their children is a sense of entitlement and the resentment produced when life fails to deliver what their children think they are entitled to?
When people come to see themselves as entitled their sense of gratitude withers. That's one of the corrosive effects of the modern welfare state - people feel they're owed something from others and consequently their sense of thankfulness is often attenuated. Moreover, when people are granted help from a nebulous, impersonal government it's much more difficult to be thankful for it than when it comes from concrete individual persons.

At any rate, I urge those readers who are searching for happiness in their lives to do a little introspection and ask themselves how grateful they are for what others do, and have done, for them. I also urge readers to read the rest of Emmons' article. There's a lot of wisdom in it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Architectural Marvels

A friend has passed along a link to a fascinating series of photos of structures built by insects. Take a look at them and ask yourself a question: How is the information that codes for the behavior of these insects passed on from generation to generation? I don't think it can be coded for in DNA because DNA codes for proteins and proteins create tissue, so where does the information come from and how is it transmitted to offspring? If it is coded for on the DNA how are proteins DNA generates translated into behavior?

Take any species-specific behavior we find in the animal kingdom, particularly among the lower phyla and classes of organisms. Whether it's courtship, nest-building, webs, threat displays, migratory behavior or whatever, the behavior must be passed on from generation to generation, it's not learned, and it must somehow be an expression of information. So what's the carrier of that information and how did the behavior/information ever evolve in the first place?

Here's one of the photos of a structure built by the caterpillar of a moth called a bagworm:

As the photographer asks: How did the caterpillar manage to create such symmetry? How did it get twigs of just the right size to create the log cabin? I'd add to these questions, how did it know to do all this and to build it just this way? How do birds know how to build their nests? How do spiders know exactly what kind of web to spin?

Animal behavior is mysterious enough, but it seems literally incredible on the materialist view that it's solely the product of random mutations and chance genetic drift. It's also hard to see how this structure could have had a selective advantage over any of the thousands of simpler structures the bagworm could have adopted.

Perhaps biologists already have all this worked out, but I've never seen an explication of it, and if anyone knows what it is please let me know.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Of Protests and Riots

Did you hear about the Tea Party protestors at a Hillary Clinton campaign event who smashed some cars, swore at, threatened, and even beat up some of Hillary's supporters? No? Well, you certainly would have had it ever happened. According to the media of four years ago the Tea Partiers were a grave danger to American political civility despite the fact that their rallies were not much more boisterous than Sunday School picnics.

Now, however, we have leftists rioting at Trump rallies and the media acts as if it's just college kids on spring break. David Harsanyi at the Federalist wonders why:
If a mob of conservatives attempted to shut down a major Hillary Clinton event, as rioters did the other day during a Donald Trump event, America would be thrust into an insufferable national dialogue about the growing violent tendencies of the Right to crush debate. There would be a flood of anxious op-ed pieces and cable news roundtables featuring chin-stroking pundits contemplating the future of discourse in America. No one would be spared.

And you better believe every conservative politician in the country would be asked to comment on this bloodcurdling development.

Do you, sir, feel that your own rhetoric about immigration and guns has somehow contributed to this ugly trend we’re seeing?

Does the GOP need to soften its tone on abortion to stop this kind of violence from happening in the future?

You might remember that, during the 2009-2010 Obamacare debates, every false and exaggerated claim about Tea Party violence induced a thousand wringing hands to grapple over the fascistic tendencies and ugly underbelly of conservatism. You might remember the Democratic leadership in Congress decrying “acts of violence” against House members in concerted effort to create the perception that bloodshed was imminent. You will no doubt remember the fake bravery of Nancy Pelosi and friends carrying a gavel across big crowds of wholly peaceful people protesting leftist health care policy as if they were facing down Orval Faubus.

The media was happy to portray the peaceful Tea Party as a movement surreptitiously driven by racism without a shred of proof outside its opposition to Barack Obama. You will remember Paul Krugman blaming peaceful assembly and free speech for an insane person’s “assassination” attempt against Kathleen Gifford, and Ezra Klein lamenting how scary things get when conservatives oppose liberal doctrine. Every shooting in America necessitates a thorough investigation into political proclivities of the perpetrator. Is he angry at the president? Did he ever register as a Republican? Is he fond of the Confederate flag? But only when the facts mesh with the helpful narrative do we hear about it.

When a single incoherent nutjob shoots up a Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association and every pro-life organization—nay, every pro-lifer in the country—is called to do some soul-searching about their positions. All of it an attempt to chill speech.

But I don’t remember any riots during the heyday of the Tea Party. I do remember citizens making their case known in town hall meetings, often loudly. (When the Left is yelling, it’s activism. When the Right yells, we all are forced to ask ourselves, “What ever happened to civility?”) This week, the media informs us that “protesters took to the streets” at a Donald Trump campaign event in California.

From the AP report:
One Trump supporter had his face bloodied in a scuffle as he tried to drive out of the arena. One man jumped on a police car, leaving its front and rear windows smashed and the top dented and other protesters sprayed graffiti on a police car and the Pacific Amphitheatre’s marquee.

Dozens of cars — including those of Trump supporters trying to leave — were stuck in the street as several hundred demonstrators blocked the road, waved Mexican flags and posed for selfies. Some protesters badgered Trump’s fans as they walked to their cars in the parking lot.
Read the rest at the link. Violence and rioting is what the left does. It's what they've always done. And the media, which itself leans left, let's them get away with it like an indulgent parent refusing to chastise a spoiled child. Like an indulgent parent blind to the misbehavior of its offspring, it refuses to condemn the violence of those with whom it sympathizes. But let a Tea Partier or Pro-Life protestor hold up a sign that expresses an unwelcome or politically incorrect sentiment and the media howls as if the end of the Republic is nigh. Will Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders be asked to repudiate the rioters? Will they be badgered by the media to condemn the violence and intimidation? Don't hold your breath. The media only does that to Republicans. It's no wonder fewer and fewer people think them trustworthy.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Why Tyrants Ban the Bible

Eric Metaxas, has a column at USA Today in which he suggests some answers to a couple of interesting questions: Why do tyrants almost always ban the Bible, and why do so many secular folks fear it? Whether one believes that the Bible is the literal word of God or is convinced that it's just a compilation of the literary and historical musings of people who lived in a long dead civilization, the questions should have resonance, in fact they should have special piquancy for those who hold the latter view of the Bible. Why would a book of ancient fables and superstitions be feared by those who seek to exercise mind-control over the people? Why not just treat it like we treat Aesop's Fables?

Anyway, here are some excerpts from what Metaxas says:
Every single year the Bible is the world’s best-selling book. In fact, it’s the number one best-selling book in history. But recently it made another, less-coveted list: the American Library Association’s “top 10 most-challenged books of 2015.” This means the Bible is among the most frequently requested to be removed from public libraries.

But what’s so threatening about it? Why could owning one in Stalin’s Russia get you sent to the Gulag, and why is owning one today in North Korea punishable by death? What makes it scarier to some people than anything by Stephen King?

We could start with the radical notion that all human beings are created by God in His image, and are equal in His eyes. This means every human being should be accorded equal dignity and respect. If the wrong people read that, trouble will be sure to follow. And some real troublemakers have read it.

One of them was George Whitefield, who discovered the Bible as a teenager and began preaching the ideas in it all across England. Then he crossed the Atlantic and preached it up and down the thirteen colonies until 80 percent of Americans had heard him in person. They came to see that all authority comes from God, not from any King, and saw it was their right and duty to resist being governed by a tyrant, which led to something we call the American Revolution.

Another historical troublemaker was the British Parliamentarian William Wilberforce. When he read the Bible, he saw that the African slave trade — which was a great boon to the British economy — was nonetheless evil. He spent decades years trying to stop it. Slave traders threatened to have him killed, but in 1807, he won his battle and the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire. In 1833, slavery itself was abolished too.

In the 20th century, an Indian lawyer named Mohandas Gandhi picked up some ideas from the Bible about non-violent resistance that influenced his views as he led the Indian people to independence. And who could deny the Bible’s impact on the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said the Bible led him to choose love and peaceful protest over hatred and violence? He cited the Sermon on the Mount as his inspiration for the Civil Rights movement, and his concept of the "creative suffering," endured by activists who withstood persecution and police brutality, came from his knowledge of Jesus’ trials and tribulations.
It could be added that a book that teaches that no earthly authority is ultimate, that men must obey God's law when it conflicts with man's law, that tyrants who abuse their power, which they all do, will answer for their evil, a book that says all that is not going to find favor with dictators.

But why is it often banned from public libraries in countries which ostensibly have freedom of speech? Perhaps one reason is that the Bible defies the secularist orthodoxy that "the cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be" to quote Carl Sagan. Any book that says otherwise is simply not to be tolerated, even by those who claim to make a virtue of tolerance. These folks may not be tyrants of the sort who rule North Korea, but they share some aspects of the tyrannical spirit all the same.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Dark Ages

A lot of high school and even college students are taught that the historical period roughly from the fall of Rome to the 15th century was a time of intellectual stagnation with little or no scientific or technological progress. The ignorance that descended over Europe during this epoch has caused it to be called the "Dark Ages," a pejorative assigned to the Middle Ages by historians of the 18th century hostile to the Church and desirous of deprecating the period during which the Church wielded substantial political power.

Lately, however, historians have challenged the view that this epoch was an age of unenlightened ignorance. Rodney Stark has written in several of his books (particularly, his How the West Won) of the numerous discoveries and advancements made during the "dark ages" and concludes that they weren't "dark" at all. The notion that they were, he argues, is an ahistorical myth. Indeed, it was during this allegedly benighted era that Europe made the great technological and philosophical leaps that put it well in advance of the rest of the world.

For example, agricultural technology soared during this period. Advances in the design of the plow, harnessing of horses and oxen, horseshoes, crop rotation, water and wind mills, all made it possible for the average person to be well-fed for the first time in history. Transportation also improved which enabled people and goods to move more freely to markets and elsewhere. Carts, for example, were built with swivel axles, ships were more capacious and more stable, and horses were bred to serve as draught animals.

Military technology also made advances. The stirrup, pommel saddle, longbow, crossbow, armor, and chain mail eventually made medieval Europeans almost invincible against non-European foes.

Similar stories could be told concerning science, philosophy, music and art, and thus the view espoused by Stark that the medieval era was a time of cultural richness is gaining traction among contemporary historians who see the evidence for this interpretation of the time to be too compelling to be ignored.

This short video featuring Anthony Esolen provides a nice summary:

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Scylla and Charybdis

One of the mysteries of our current political drama is why so many people who would, one would think, be hostile to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton nevertheless support them. Trump, for his part, has received a lot of love from people who identify themselves as either Christian or conservative or both, yet there's not much in Trump's personal history nor his current deportment which would engender confidence that he is sympathetic to the concerns of either group and an awful lot in his history and conduct that would indicate that the opposite is true.

Even so, Trump is very popular and one reason why may be found in this article from the Washington Examiner:
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has revealed that 124 illegal immigrant criminals released from jail by the Obama administration since 2010 have been subsequently charged with murder.

"The criminal aliens released by ICE in these years — who had already been convicted of thousands of crimes — are responsible for a significant crime spree in American communities, including 124 new homicides. Inexplicably, ICE is choosing to release some criminal aliens multiple times," said the report written by CIS's respected director of policy studies, Jessica M. Vaughan.

What's more, her report said that in 2014, ICE released 30,558 criminal aliens who had been convicted of 92,347 crimes. Only 3 percent have been deported.

Her analysis is the latest shocking review of Obama's open-border immigration policy. And despite the high number of illegal immigrants charged with murder, the list doesn't include those released by over 300 so-called "sanctuary cities" and those ICE declined to take into custody.

Vaughan added that "ICE reported that there are 156 criminal aliens who were released at least twice by ICE since 2013. Between them, these criminals had 1,776 convictions before their first release in 2013, with burglary, larceny, and drug possession listed most frequently."
In a way, Donald Trump is a product of President Obama's open borders immigration policy. Trump has promised more forcefully than any other candidate, certainly more forcefully than either of the Democrat contestants, that he will put a stop to the flood of illegal aliens and criminals pouring into our country. It's that promise, perhaps - along with the fact that his supporters believe that, unlike the "establishment" Republicans who've been running the show for the last eight years and whom the rank and file regard as a bunch of milquetoasts, Trump will actually fight - which has won a lot of people to his candidacy despite his lamentable emotional immaturity and sundry other shortcomings.

For others, contemplating the looming choice between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton, who has made herself rich peddling access to the wealthy, both domestic and foreign, who wish to influence policy and legislation for their own benefit, and who behaved at best recklessly as Secretary of State and certainly incompetently, Homer's Odysseus comes to mind. The hero Odysseus was forced by circumstances to navigate his boat between the monster of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis, a perilous and terrifying task, and a political counterpart to which confronts the American voter this November. Americans will likely find themselves having to choose between the Scylla of Hillary and the Charybdis of Trump, who together comprise, perhaps, the most disagreeable pair of presidential candidates in modern times.

Scylla and Charybdis