Saturday, May 27, 2017

Mathematical Ethics?

I'm currently reading the book Hidden Figures, a delightful true story told by Margot Lee Shetterly about a group of African American women in the 1940s and 50s who worked in aeronautics research as mathematicians. The book has been made into a movie and the story of how their math skills, as well as their pluck, enabled these women to overcome racial and gender barriers is compelling. So I was perplexed when I came across this report from Robby Soave at Reason.com about a math curriculum designed by a group called Teach for America that implies that it's somehow an injustice to expect minority students to learn mathematics as it's traditionally taught.

Soave writes:
Teach for America thinks that language is "social justice," and has designed a course that makes some startling claims about math. [For example]:
"In western mathematics, our ways of knowing include formalized reasoning or proof, decontextualization, and algorithmic thinking, leaving little room for those having non-western mathematical skills and thinking processes," the training course claims.
Whoever wrote this should be cashiered on the grounds of nincompoopery. So should whoever approved its publication. There's no such thing as "western mathematics." Math is universal. There's not one set of "mathematical skills and thinking processes" for Europeans, another set for Asians, and still another for Africans. Math is applied logic and the laws of logic are not relative to different cultures as though they were like preferences in food or dress. The law of non-contradiction is not a matter of cultural predilection or opinion.

Soave continues to extract more instances of buffoonery from the Teach for America materials:
"Mathematical ethics recognizes that, for centuries, mathematics has been used as a dehumanizing tool....mathematics formulae also differentiate between the classifications of a war or a genocide and have been used to trick indigenous peoples out of land and property."
Mathematical ethics? What could that possibly be? Are there scholars who teach and write about mathematical ethics? Do they explore the ethical implications of imaginary numbers or the moral ramifications of dividing by zero? Mathematical ethics sounds a bit like astrobiology - they're both disciplines without a subject matter.

The balance of the quoted sentence sounds even more nonsensical, perhaps, than the notion of a mathematical ethics.

But enough. Soave concludes with this:
I'm open to the idea that math—particularly advanced math—is over-valued as a K-12 subject. There's a good argument to be made that high schoolers should be taking less Algebra II and reading more Shakespeare. But if we're going to teach math, I'm not sure we should be teaching that it's mostly just this bad thing Western countries used to subjugate indigenous peoples, as if that's the main thing you need to know about math.
I agree with him completely about this. I question, for example, the need for academically-oriented high school students to take calculus, a math that even many engineers don't use much. Their time would be better spent taking probability and statistics or taking more history/government, literature, or philosophy, and saving calculus, if they need it, for college.

Soave is also correct in pointing to the absurdity of teaching young people that math is somehow a tool of evil oppression. On the contrary, I can think of no better way for young minority kids to improve their socio-economic prospects in life than to master mathematics. It opens a lot of highly remunerative doors for the student who makes the effort. Just ask many of our Asian-American students - who certainly don't seem to have a problem with "western mathematics" - or read Shetterly's Hidden Figures.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Maybe Closer Than He Thinks

In his bestselling book A Brief History of Thought French humanist philosopher Luc Ferry asserts that the paramount philosophical question throughout the history of civilization has been the question of how we find meaning in life when death looms for all of us.

He calls this the question of "salvation," and in his book he surveys the answers proffered by the ancient Stoics, Christians, Enlightenment thinkers, Nietzsche and the post-moderns, and comes, after much meandering, to the disappointingly tepid conclusion that salvation consists in loving others until we die. In considering others, he argues, we achieve a kind of transcendence without the metaphysical baggage of God.

Ferry himself anticipates the complaint that his conclusion is unsatisfying:
You might object that compared to the doctrine of Christianity - whose promise of the resurrection of the body means that we shall be reunited with those we love after death - a humanism without metaphysics is small beer. I grant you that amongst the available doctrines of salvation, nothing can compete with Christianity - provided, that is, that you are a believer.
So why does Ferry settle for what is really a hopeless, meaningless "humanism without metaphysics"? Because he simply can't, or won't, bring himself to believe that there's more to reality than matter and energy:
If one is not a believer - and one cannot force oneself to believe, nor pretend to believe - then we must learn to think differently about the ultimate question posed by all doctrines of salvation, namely that of the death of a loved one.
Ferry is correct, of course, that one cannot compel belief, either in oneself or another, but what he might be asked is whether he sincerely wants the Christian message to be true. Regardless of his disbelief, does he hope that he's wrong? Many if not most people who claim not to believe that we'll in some sense exist beyond death and that "we shall be reunited with those we love after death" by their own admission do not want such a notion to be true. They don't believe the Christian proclamation, and they don't want the world to be the sort of place where such claims are in fact correct.

The prominent philosopher Thomas Nagel provides us with a good example of this. In his book The Last Word, Nagel writes these words:
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself.

I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
I suspect that the person, on the other hand, who wants theism to be true, who is open to belief in God, is much more likely to find belief slowly creeping over him than those others whom C.S. Lewis describes in The Great Divorce as having, "their fists clenched, their teeth clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see." They refuse to allow themselves even to hope that there really is salvation in the Christian sense.

Ferry doesn't seem to be this sort of person, though. He writes at the end of his book:
I find the Christian proposition infinitely more tempting [than any of the alternatives] - except for the fact that I do not believe in it. But were it to be true I would certainly be a taker.
He seems to recognize, even though he doesn't explicitly say it, that unless what we do in this life matters forever, it doesn't matter at all. If death is the end of individual existence then nothing we do has any genuine meaning or significance.

If Ferry's being honest with his readers and himself, if he really is open to "the Christian proposition," then I suspect he's closer to faith than he might realize.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Roots of Hitler's Ethics

About five years ago Richard Weikart published a study on the roots of the moral thinking of Adolf Hitler, a review of which is posted at Evolution News and Views. Here's an excerpt:
One of the most controversial parts of the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed was the segment where Ben Stein interviewed the history professor Richard Weikart about his book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. Darwinists went apoplectic, deriding Stein and Weikart for daring to sully the good name of Darwin by showing the way that Hitler and German scientists and physicians used evolutionary theory to justify some of their atrocities, such as their campaign to kill the disabled.

Some critics even denied that the Nazis believed in Darwinism at all. Weikart challenges his critics to examine the evidence in his fascinating sequel, Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress, which examines the role of Darwinism and evolutionary ethics in Hitler's worldview.

In this work Weikart helps unlock the mystery of Hitler's evil by vividly demonstrating the surprising conclusion that Hitler's immorality flowed from a coherent ethic. Hitler was inspired by evolutionary ethics to pursue the utopian project of biologically improving the human race. Hitler's evolutionary ethic underlay or influenced almost every major feature of Nazi policy: eugenics (i.e., measures to improve human heredity, including compulsory sterilization), euthanasia, racism, population expansion, offensive warfare, and racial extermination.
Once people reject the idea that morality is rooted in an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being the next logical step is to abandon the idea that there's any objective moral standard at all. This leads inevitably to moral arbitrariness and subjectivity, i.e. what's right is whatever feels right to me. Moral subjectivism leads directly to egoism, i.e. the belief that one should put one's own interests ahead of the interests of others, and egoism leads to the ethic of "might makes right".

Hitler's "morality" was completely consistent with his rejection of a belief in a personal God. Hitler was who every atheist would also be if they a) had the power and b) were logically consistent. Thankfully, few of them are both powerful and consistent, but in the 20th century some were. Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot all were atheists who had complete power within their sphere and acted consistently with their naturalistic, materialistic worldview. The consequences were completely predictable.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Getting it Not Quite Right

A recent Gallup poll reveals that the number of people who hold to the strict creationist view that God created humans in their present form at some time within the last 10,000 years or so has declined and the number of people who believe in some form of evolution, whether naturalistic or directed by God has increased:
The percentage of U.S. adults who believe that God created humans in their present form at some time within the last 10,000 years or so -- the strict creationist view -- has reached a new low. Thirty-eight percent of U.S. adults now accept creationism, while 57% believe in some form of evolution -- either God-guided or not -- saying man developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life.
Allahpundit, a commentator at HotAir.com, looks at the data and writes:
The pure creationist position was trending downward, then made a big comeback in 2011 for no obvious reason. It’s tempting to call that result an outlier or statistical noise, but the hybrid position of guided evolution polled poorly in the low 30s in 2011 and remained flat in 2014, suggesting a real trend. Now suddenly it’s come surging back. Why? You tell me.
Here's the graph he refers to:



Maybe the answer to Allahpundit's question is that many people who formerly embraced a literal seven-day creation have been persuaded by intelligent design theorists that ID offers a more satisfactory explanation of origins. Many people who may formerly have thought that there was a conflict between evolution and theism might now, after almost three decades of work by intelligent design theorists, believe that the two are compatible. In other words, the survey is stuck with a format of questions that are no longer very helpful. David Klinghoffer, commenting Gallup's questions, correctly observes that,
Since 1982 [Gallup] has been asking:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings — 1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, 2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process, 3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so?

What I wish they would ask is:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of living creatures – 1) Animal and human life arose and developed over billions of years, guided by a designing intelligence, whether God or otherwise, 2) Animal and human life arose and developed over billions of years, by strictly blind, natural processes, unguided by any intelligent agent, 3) God created all animal and human life at one time within the last 10,000 years or so?

Now that would tell you a lot about the state of the evolution debate. But the modern intelligent design movement didn’t exist 35 years ago, so Gallup is stuck in 1982.
The Gallup poll also shows that fewer than one in five Americans holds a secular view of evolution, but that proportion has almost doubled from about 10% in 2000 to about 19% today. Allahpundit makes a compelling argument that this number gives a pretty good idea of the percentage of atheists in the U.S. That number is usually pegged at around 3% to 10%, but it may be much higher. Here's Allahpundit:
The 19 percent figure for evolution without God is interesting in light of [a] recent [study] suggesting there may be many more atheists in the U.S. than everyone believes. Ask people if they think of themselves as “atheist” and chances are no more than three percent will say yes. Ask them if they believe in God without using the A-word and maybe 10 percent will say no.

How many people secretly believe there is no God, though, and are simply reluctant to say so, even to a pollster? [The] study ... divided people into two groups and gave them identical questionnaires filled with innocuous statements (e.g., “I own a dog”) — with one exception. One group had the statement “I do not believe in God” added to their questionnaire.

People in each group were asked to identify how many of the statements were true of them without specifying which ones were true. Then the numbers from the control group were compared to the numbers from the “I do not believe in God” group. Result: As best as researchers can tell from the numerical disparity, 26 percent don’t believe in God, way, way more than most surveys show. I’m skeptical that the number runs quite that high, but the fact that 19 percent told Gallup they believe in evolution without God may mean the number of atheists is higher than the 3-10 percent range usually cited.

After all, how many religious believers are likely to also believe that God played no role in man’s development? Per Gallup, just one percent of weekly churchgoers signed on to that proposition and just six percent of nearly weekly or monthly observers did. “Evolution without God” may be a reasonably good proxy for atheism.
If so, the ratio of theists to atheists in this country is about 4 to 1. Of course, a lot of people can believe or disbelieve in God without acting or thinking consistently with that belief, and many respondents to the study may not have answered the questionnaire in a manner consistent with their true convictions. A similar poll several years ago, for instance, found that 9% of those who claimed to be atheists prayed at least once a week. One wonders how carefully those folks thought about their responses.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Neither a Right Nor a Privilege

The recently crowned Miss USA, Kára McCullough, was asked during the pageant whether she thought health care was a right or a privilege. Poor girl. Not realizing that the "correct" answer is that it's a "right," she proclaimed it to be a "privilege" and was roundly criticized on social media for her abysmal lack of awareness. She subsequently backtracked, "correcting" her error, switching from "privilege" to "right" the following day, which is too bad.

The actual answer is that health care is neither a right nor a privilege as Ed Morrissey explains at Hot Air:
Taken as a whole, the market for health care services and goods is a commodity, and our failure to treat it as such is what’s making it so dysfunctional.

Health care consists of goods and services produced and delivered by highly specialized providers in exchange for monetary compensation. Overall, it’s a commodity, for which the terms “right” and “privilege” are largely meaningless. In an economic sense, health care is no different than markets for other commodities, such as food, vehicles, fuel, and so on. The ability to purchase goods and services depends on the resources one has for compensation for their delivery in most cases....

Rights, as understood by founders, do not require the transfer of goods and services, but come from the innate nature of each human being. The right to free speech does not confer a right to publication, or to listeners. The right to peaceably assemble does not confer a right to confiscate private property in which to gather or to destroy either. The right to bear arms does not require the government to provide guns or ammunition, and so on. Rights do not require government provision....
Morrissey goes on to explain why health care is not a privilege either:
In our form of self-governance and generally free markets, privilege generally refers to licensed access to certain restricted activities involving public assets. The most common of these is a driver’s license, which confers a privilege to use public roads. One does not need a license to drive exclusively on private roads, as anyone who grew up on a farm or ranch can attest. Doctors and lawyers require licenses to practice their professions, so providing health care can be described as a privilege, but we do not require a government grant to consume health care. Anyone who can provide compensation (directly or through third parties by mutual consent) for care can access it. Some providers — notably those maintained by religious communities, who have recently come under fire — don’t even require compensation for access.
There's more from Morrissey on this topic at the link. One thing he doesn't mention in his very helpful piece, though, is the absurdity, in a secular society in which religious beliefs are supposed to have no bearing on public policy, of any talk of "rights" at all.

On a secular view of society the concept of a right is vacuous. Where does a right come from? What confers it upon us? The answer, given the secular viewpoint, is nowhere and nothing. Rights are artificial, imaginary constructs that we invoke in order to give strong expression to our feelings, but there are no such actual entities as rights unless they're conferred by something higher than ourselves.

It may be argued that certainly governments can confer legal rights as does ours in our Constitution, but this doesn't help those who insist that health care is a right since health care is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution.

If there is a meaningful right to health care it must somehow be a human right conferred upon us, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, by our Creator, but then those who wish to exclude Creators from the public square cannot have recourse to one when they want to assert that health care is a human right.

We don't have human rights because we exist, or because we're rational, or because we're nice people. To the extent that our rights are inherent in us it's only because we're created in the image of God and God loves us. We belong to Him, and that's what gives us value as persons and a right not to be harmed by others. Shove that underlying premise out of our public life and talk of rights is just silly, empty rhetoric.

One wonders why so many secular folk don't see that they're talking nonsense and how they continue to get away with doing it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Beetle Origami

One of the countless fascinating examples of engineering in nature that defies explanation in terms of random mutation and natural selection is the ability of insects, such as beetles, to fold and unfold their wings. It's an astonishing ability since the folds are quite complex as this video of a ladybug beetle shows:
If the metaphysical view called naturalism is true, such processes are the result of fortuitous accidents and coincidences throughout the history of beetle evolution, yet one might rightly wonder how accident and coincidence, acting with no goal or purpose in mind, can produce a feature that, were it found in some other context, would certainly be attributed to the design of an intelligent agent.

David Klinghoffer at Evolution News quotes from an article on this phenomenon from USA Today:
Japanese scientists were curious to learn how ladybugs folded their wings inside their shells, so they surgically removed several ladybugs’ outer shells (technically called elytra) and replaced them with glued-on, artificial clear silicone shells to peer at the wings’ underlying folding mechanism.

Why bother with such seemingly frivolous research? It turns out that how the bugs naturally fold their wings can provide design hints for a wide range of practical uses for humans. This includes satellite antennas, microscopic medical instruments, and even everyday items like umbrellas and fans.

“The ladybugs’ technique for achieving complex folding is quite fascinating and novel, particularly for researchers in the fields of robotics, mechanics, aerospace and mechanical engineering,” said lead author Kazuya Saito of the University of Tokyo.
The highlights are mine.

It's truly remarkable that our most brilliant engineers are being taught design by what they are seeing in living things. It's not something that would be expected given a belief in a mechanistic, purposeless, atelic natural world. On the other hand, it's not at all surprising that the natural world would be infused with engineering marvels if the natural world is itself the product of intelligent engineering.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Tabloid Journalism

The media, particularly the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC, are yearning to get something on Trump that could topple his presidency. So eager are they to relive the glory years of the early 1970s and Watergate that, in lieu of anything substantial to nail the president with, they've decided that simply making stuff up is not beneath them.

Here's a sample of fabrications by "journalists" at the Washington Post excerpted from a column by Mollie Hemmingway:
1. On May 10, the Washington Post‘s Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, Sari Horwitz, and Robert Costa claimed that:
[Deputy Attorney General Rod J.] Rosenstein threatened to resign after the narrative emerging from the White House on Tuesday evening cast him as a prime mover of the decision to fire Comey and that the president acted only on his recommendation, said the person close to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
It turns out, however, that this report was false:
But the “person close to the White House” who made the claim without using his or her name was contradicted by none other than Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein himself. The next day he said, “I’m not quitting” when asked by reporters. “No,” he said to the follow-up question of whether he had threatened to quit.
2. On May 10, Ashley Parker wrote:
Last week, then-FBI Director James B. Comey requested more resources from the Justice Department for his bureau’s investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, according to two officials with knowledge of the discussion.
This story was also false:
The story was based on anonymous sources, naturally, and noted “The news was first reported by the New York Times.” If true, it would support a narrative that Trump had fired Comey not due to his general incompetence but because he was trying to thwart a legitimate and fruitful investigation. Anonymous sources again had something very different to say from people whose comments were tied to their names, who all denied the report. The Justice Department spokeswoman immediately responded that the claim was false....

The next day under oath, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe repeatedly denied that the probe into Russia was undersourced or requiring any additional funds.

3. On January 26 Josh Rogin reported that “the State Department’s entire senior management team just resigned” as “part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.”
This story was false, too:
The story went viral before the truth caught up. As per procedure, the Obama administration had, in coordination with the incoming Trump administration, asked for the resignations of all political appointees. While it would have been traditional to let them stay for a few months, the Trump team let them know that their services wouldn’t be necessary. The entire story was wrong.

4. Rogin also had the false story that Steve Bannon had personally confronted Department of Homeland Security’s Gen. John F. Kelly to pressure him not to weaken an immigration ban.
False again:
‘It was a fantasy story,’ Kelly said. Of the reporter, he said: ‘Assuming he’s not making it up… whoever his sources are, [they're] playing him for a fool.’

5. This week, the Washington Post reported that President Trump threatened national security during his meeting with Russians last week....
Ditto:
The report was immediately slapped down as false by multiple high-level Trump officials who were present in the meeting, including National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster who said,
The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time, at no time, were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the Secretary of the State, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. Their on the record accounts should outweigh anonymous sources. I was in the room. It didn’t happen.
If the WaPo keeps this up pretty soon you'll be able to buy it in the supermarket checkout lane where it'll be displayed right next to the Globe, Star, and National Enquirer. In fact, all it needs to compete with those tabloids is go half-size and add a few lurid photos. It's already got the story-telling down pat.