Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Failed Experiment

With all the crises, scandals, and more mundane sorts of incompetence that comprise the daily fare delivered to our doorstep with the morning paper, it seems that yesterday's hot topic is forgotten as a new one supplants it today.

The scandal of Mr. Obama's use of taxpayer money to reward his corporate cronies and big donors in the government bailout was eclipsed by news of Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice department facilitating the sale of guns to Mexican drug lords, and this remarkable breach of the law was obscured by the administration's refusal to protect American diplomats in Benghazi, which took a back seat to the incredibly botched rollout of Obamacare, which was followed by KGB-style spying on journalists by the Obama administration, which was lost amidst reports of Secret Service shenanigans with hookers in South America, which was overshadowed by the abuses of the IRS against the administration's political foes, which was superceded by the spying of the NSA on American citizens, which was pushed off the front pages by the incompetence of the Veteran's Administration which resulted in perhaps hundreds of unnecessary deaths, which were forgotten amidst the flood of illegal immigrants pouring across our essentially undefended borders, which was quickly overshadowed by the sudden appearance of ISIS in the vacuum left by the unnecessary American withdrawal from Iraq, which was ignored when the CDC seemed to not know what to tell us about Ebola.

Now we're being reminded that 2015 is going to be a critical year for Obamacare, and the portents are not looking favorable. Barbara Boland at CNS News reports that almost a quarter of a million of the nation's doctors are not going to participate in the exchanges for reasons Boland explains in her article:
Over 214,000 doctors won't participate in the new plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA,) analysis of a new survey by Medical Group Management Association shows. That number of 214,524, estimated by American Action Forum, is through May 2014, but appears to be growing due to plans that force doctors to take on burdensome costs. It's also about a quarter of the total number of 893,851 active professional physicians reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation. In January, an estimated 70% of California's physicians were not participating in Covered California plans. Here are some of the reasons why:

1. Reimbursements under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) are at bottom-dollar - they are even lower than Medicare reimbursements, which are already significantly below market rates. "It is estimated that where private plans pay $1.00 for a service, Medicare pays $0.80, and ACA exchange plans are now paying about $0.60," a study by the think-tank American Action Forum finds. "For example, Covered California plans are setting their plan fee schedules in line with that of Medi-Cal-California's Medicaid Program-which means exchange plans are cutting provider reimbursement by up to 40 percent."

2. Doctors are expected to take on more patients to make up for the lost revenue, but that's not happening, because primary care doctors already have more patients than they can handle. "Furthermore, physicians are worried that exchange plan patients will be sicker than the average patient because they may have been without insurance for extended periods of time, and therefore will require more of the doctor's time at lower pay," says the study.

The study also points to two reasons that doctors might not get paid at all:

3. An MGMA study indicates that 75% of ACA patients that had seen doctors had chosen plans with high deductibles. Given that most of the patients are low-income, doctors are concerned that the patients cannot meet the deductibles and they, the doctors, will get stuck with the bill.

4. Health and Human Services requires that insurers cover customers for an additional 90 days after they have stopped paying their premiums: the insurer covers the first 30 - but, it's up to the doctor to recoup payment for the last 60 days. This is the number one reason providers are opting to not participate in the exchange plans. Currently, about a million people have failed to pay their premiums and had their plans canceled.
As Boland notes, Obamacare is asking doctors to take on sicker patients for less money, and with the risk of not getting paid at all.

What are the lessons to be learned from all this? Here, in my opinion, are two:

1. When Americans vote they are voting irresponsibly if they don't vote for the person they believe to be the best qualified candidate to lead the country. To vote for someone because he/she speaks well, is young, attractive, the right gender, or the right race or ethnicity is to betray one's responsibility as a voter. To vote for someone on the basis of such factors when that person has nothing in his or her resume that suggests that he or she has the requisite background to lead the country is doubly irresponsible. It's like taking the most popular kid in the senior class and putting him at the helm of an aircraft carrier because he's so cool he'll surely know how to manage the thing.

2. Since WWII the left has been arguing that big, centralized government and European-style socialism is the solution to all of our problems. Their brief has been that when technocrats, bureaucrats, and wonks run our lives we'll be much better off than if we were free to make our own decisions without ivy-league graduates telling us what to do. The left rejoiced when the Democrats gained control of both houses of Congress and the White House in 2008 because now, they believed, they'd finally be able to conduct their grand experiment and prove how effective big government can be. Six years later it takes the blindest of leaps of faith to still believe that, given expanded power, government will be efficient, competent, transparent, and lawful.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Are We Headed for Eco-Catastrophe?

John Coleman, co-founder of the Weather Channel, has added his voice to the growing chorus of scientists who allege that prophecies of imminent climate catastrophe are not based on sound scientific research and are, at best, seriously misleading.

An article in the British Express quotes from an open letter in which Coleman criticizes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading organization of world climatologists, which has been predicting devastating global climate changes for a couple of decades.

He writes that, contrary to the IPCC's claims and predictions of an imminent global calamity:
  • The ocean is not rising significantly.
  • The polar ice is increasing, not melting away. Polar Bears are increasing in number.
  • Heat waves have actually diminished, not increased. There is not an uptick in the number or strength of storms (in fact storms are diminishing).
  • There is no significant man-made global warming at this time, there has been none in the past, at least not in the last 18 years, and there is no reason to fear any in the future.
  • Efforts to prove the theory that carbon dioxide is a significant greenhouse gas and pollutant causing significant warming or weather effects have failed.
The article goes on to claim that,
Climate expert William Happer, from Princeton University, supported Mr Coleman's claims. He added: "No chemical compound in the atmosphere has a worse reputation than CO2, thanks to the single-minded demonisation of this natural and essential atmospheric gas by advocates of government control and energy production.

"The incredible list of supposed horrors that increasing carbon dioxide will bring the world is pure belief disguised as science."

In 2010 a high-level inquiry by the InterAcademy Council found there was "little evidence" to support the IPCC's claims about global warming.
It's perhaps relevant that Mr. Coleman's letter comes as the U.S. has, by some measures, experienced the coolest year in its history.

It's hard to know who to believe on this issue, but one thing seems fairly certain. The claim that global warming is "settled science" accepted by all the experts in the field is very hard to credit.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Explanatory Inadequacies

Casey Luskin points us to an interesting problem with naturalistic evolutionary explanations of human behavior. The problem is that Darwinian evolutionists seem to be at a loss to explain morality and language. Luskin writes:
Humans do appear hard-wired for morality, but were we programmed by unguided evolutionary processes? Natural selection cannot explain extreme acts of human kindness. Regardless of background or beliefs, upon finding strangers trapped inside a burning vehicle, people will risk their own lives to help them escape -- with no evolutionary benefit to themselves. For example, evolutionary biologist Jeffrey Schloss explains that Holocaust rescuers took great risks that offered no personal biological benefits:
The rescuer's family, extended family and friends were all in jeopardy, and they were recognized to be in jeopardy by the rescuer. Moreover, even if the family escaped death, they often experienced deprivation of food, space and social commerce; extreme emotional distress; and forfeiture of the rescuer's attention.
Francis Collins gives the example of Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who risked his life "to save more than a thousand Jews from the gas chambers." As Collins points out, "That's the opposite of saving his genes." Schloss adds other examples of "radically sacrificial" behavior that "reduces reproductive success" and offers no evolutionary benefit, such as voluntary poverty, celibacy, and martyrdom.

In spite of the claims of evolutionary psychologists, many of humanity's most impressive charitable, artistic, and intellectual abilities outstrip the basic requirements of natural selection. If life is simply about survival and reproduction, why do humans compose symphonies, investigate quantum mechanics, and build cathedrals? Natural Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell explained why evolutionary psychology does not adequately predict human behavior:
Darwinian explanations for such things are often too supple: Natural selection makes humans self-centered and aggressive -- except when it makes them altruistic and peaceable. Or natural selection produces virile men who eagerly spread their seed -- except when it prefers men who are faithful protectors and providers. When an explanation is so supple that it can explain any behavior, it is difficult to test it experimentally, much less use it as a catalyst for scientific discovery.
Contrary to Darwinism, the evidence indicates that human life isn't about mere survival and reproduction. But in addition to our moral uniqueness, humans are also distinguished by their use of complex language. As MIT linguist Noam Chomsky observes:
Human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world. If this is so, it is quite senseless to raise the problem of explaining the evolution of human language from more primitive systems of communication that appear at lower levels of intellectual capacity. ... There is no reason to suppose that the "gaps" are bridgeable.
Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has humorously observed that there's no Darwinian explanation for why we should have the intellectual ability to do higher math. The potential ability to do calculus was of no benefit to our primitive ancestors and even today it's only the rare grad student whose reproductive prospects are improved by his ability to solve quadratic equations.

In other words, human intellectual ability must have been latent in the species for millions of years before it ever could have been useful in the struggle for survival, but an ability that serves no useful function will eventually be purged from the genome. It certainly wouldn't be selected for since natural selection only acts upon traits that express themselves to the environment.

Darwinism may ultimately be able to contrive an explanation for phenomena like morality, language, and math aptitude, but it can't do so comfortably. The explanations don't flow smoothly from the theory, a fact which should cause theorists to reflect that perhaps there's something missing in a purely naturalistic, materialistic explanation of the development of the human species.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Appeal of Radical Islam

The recent shooting in Ottawa has caused us once again to ask what it is about Islam that drives so many of its adherents to murder. Or, conversely, why do so many people inclined to murder gravitate to Islam? Ray Pennings, editor of Comment magazine, comes at the question from a somewhat different angle. He asks what it is about Western culture that alienates so many young people so much that they're eager to embrace a radical jihadist version of Islam in the first place. Part of the answer to this question, Pennings believes, is to be found in the meaninglessness and emptiness of life entailed by a secular worldview:
I would also point out to those who advocate a public secularism, who insist that religion is simply a personal matter and is something of no public consequence, there are a number of “radicalized Islam fundamentalists” who are finding the answers of extreme Islamism more compelling than the emptiness of secularism that says there is no meaning beyond the here and now. These are not simple questions nor do I intend to suggest any sympathy or justification for Islamic fundamentalists. But it would be dishonest to ignore the reality that the nihilism of contemporary secularism is not at least in part the explanation for the appeal of extreme Islamic fundamentalism. Something always trumps nothing when it comes to providing a sense of meaning and purpose for individuals and our shared lives together.
Pennings is right, I think. Given a choice between a muscular worldview that infuses life with meaning, hope, and purpose - even if that worldview is otherwise fraught with error - and an arid worldview that empties life of meaning and purpose, which implies that life is nothing more than "a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing," which reduces love and beauty to neurochemistry, and which insists that hope of an existence beyond death is futile, many young men will find the former far more appealing than the latter.

It's ironic that secularism, the chief champion of the Darwinian view in the Western world, is being assailed around the globe by competing ideologies that seem to be more successful in the Darwinian struggle for survival.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Libet and Determinism

As a complement to yesterday's post on the free will/ determinism question here's a post from the archives on the work of Benjamin Libet who conducted some experiments that seemed to support, even prove, that determinism is true:

Students of psychology, philosophy and other disciplines which touch upon the operations of the mind and the question of free will have probably heard mention of the experiments of Benjamin Libet, a University of California at San Francisco neurobiologist who conducted some remarkable research into the brain and human consciousness in the last decades of the 20th century.

One of Libet's most famous discoveries was that the brain "decides" on a particular choice milliseconds before we ourselves are conscious of deciding. The brain creates an electrochemical "Readiness Potential" (RP) that precedes by milliseconds the conscious decision to do something. This has been seized upon by materialists who use it as proof that our decisions are not really chosen by us but are rather the unconscious product of our brain's neurochemistry. The decision is made before we're even aware of what's going on, they claim, and this fact undermines the notion that we have free will as this video explains:
Michael Egnor, writing at ENV, points out, however, that so far from supporting determinism, Libet himself believed in free will, his research supported that belief, and, what's more, his research also reinforced, in Libet's own words, classical religious views of sin.

Libet discovered that the decision to do X is indeed pre-conscious, but he also found that the decision to do X can be consciously vetoed by us and that no RP precedes that veto. In other words, the decision of the brain to act in a particular way is determined by unconscious factors, but we retain the ability to consciously choose not to follow through with that decision. Our freedom lies in our ability to refuse any or all of the choices our brain presents to us.

Egnor's article is a fascinating piece if you're interested in the question of free will and Libet's contribution to our understanding of it.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Freedom, Determinism, and Compatibilism

In class discussions of free will and determinism, a number of students have asked if there isn't a middle way. One student even dug a post out of the archives that I did on such a via media back in 2008 (12/24). The post starts out by addressing the notion of a kind of compromise position between libertarian free will and determinism, usually referred to as "compatibilism," and ends up summarizing the discussions we've had in class on these different philosophical positions. Here it is:

Barry Arrington at Uncommon Descent offers a succinct rebuttal of compatibilism, i.e. the view that our choices are fully determined and yet at the same time free. As Arrington points out, this certainly sounds like a contradiction.

The compatibilist defines freedom, however, as the lack of coercion, so as long as nothing or no one is compelling your behavior it's completely free even though at the moment you make your decision there's in fact only one possible choice you could make. Your choice is determined by the influence of your past experiences, your environment and your genetic make-up. The feeling you have that you could have chosen something other than what you did choose is simply an illusion, a trick played on us by our brains.

Compatibilism, however, doesn't solve the controversy between determinism and libertarianism (the belief we have free-will). It simply uses a philosophical sleight-of-hand to define it away. As long as it is the case that at any given moment there's just one possible future then our choices are determined by factors beyond our control, and if they're determined it's very difficult to see how we could be responsible for them. Whether we are being compelled by external forces to make a particular choice or not, we are still being compelled by internal factors that make our choice inevitable.

The temptation for the materialist is to simply accept determinism, but not only does this view strip us of any moral responsibility, it seems to be based on a circularity: The determinist says that our choices are the inevitable products of our strongest motives, but if questioned about how we can know what our strongest motives are he would invite us to examine the choices we make. Our actions reveal our strongest motives and our strongest motives are whichever ones we act upon. But, if so, the claim that we always act upon our strongest motives reduces to the tautology that we always act upon the motives we act upon. This is certainly true, but it's not very edifying.

On the other hand, it's also difficult to pin down exactly what a free choice is. It can't be a choice that's completely uncaused because then it wouldn't be a consequence of our character and in what sense would we be responsible for it? But if the choice is a product of our character, and our character is the result of our past experiences, environment, and our genetic make-up, then ultimately our choice is determined by factors over which we have no control and we're back to determinism.

It seems to me that if materialism is true and all we are is a material, physical being, and all of our choices are simply the product of chemical reactions occurring in the brain, then determinism must be true as well, and moral responsibility and human dignity are illusions, and no punishment or reward could ever be justified on grounds of desert.

This all seems completely counter-intuitive so most people hold on to libertarianism, even if they can't explain what a free choice is, but they can only do so by giving up materialism. Only if we have a non-physical, immaterial mind that somehow functions in human volition can there be free will and thus moral responsibility and human dignity.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Opening the Floodgates

Reports have been circulating that the Obama administration is planning on granting amnesty to millions of illegal aliens after the November elections. It would be a move of dubious constitutionality and would put enormous stress on the nation's economy and would completely change the nature of the country. The Washington Times explains:
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Friday threw open the door to as many as 100,000 Haitians, who will now move into the United States without a visa. Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, rightly and accurately denounced enabling Haitians awaiting a U.S. visa to enter the country and legally apply for work permits as “an irresponsible overreach of the executive branch’s authority.”
But this is only the tip of the iceberg that the administration has planned for us:
Earlier this month the immigration agency solicited a printer able to handle a “surge” of 9 million green cards “to support possible future immigration-reform initiative requirements.” In an ordinary year, about 1 million green cards are issued, and over the life of this contract the company is expected to produce up to 34 million cards, a figure representing an increase of the population of the United States by 10 percent.
Set aside the legalities involved and ask, why is the President doing this? Why flood the country with people who'll become eligible for food stamps, health care, and a host of other taxpayer-funded goods and services? Why, in a time of low employment in the U.S., import millions of new workers to compete for the few jobs that are there?

The Times editors assert that these amnestied aliens will eventually be granted full citizenship and with that win the right to vote. Doubtless, they'll choose to vote as Democrats, ensuring Democratic majorities and presidencies for the next three generations if not longer.

But political power is perhaps not the only reason. Many observers believe that Mr. Obama has harbored an antipathy and resentment toward the United States ever since his youth. The most influential people in his life all despised the country, its values, its success, its power, and its influence in the world. If Mr. Obama were intentionally trying to reduce the U.S. to third-world status there'd be no better way to accomplish that than to do what he's doing. As the Times says:
It’s a disaster in the making — indeed already here — for public health and national security, straining the welfare state to its limit. Most Americans want no part of this. A Gallup survey finds that 74 percent of Americans want the level of immigration to stay where it is, or reduce it. Mr. Obama has no support for his amnesty scheme except from those who want to transform America into a nation that no one would recognize.
It's one reason why the election on November 4th is so important. If President Obama has a Democratic Senate for the last two years of his term there'll be no restraints on his power to do whatever he wishes. If Congress is unable to check him he'll certainly succeed in achieving his goal, plainly announced in 2008, of fundamentally transforming the country.