Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Thought Experiment

Steve Petermann at Telic Thoughts invites us to try a thought experiment:

Suppose there is an alternate universe where there is also a trial in Dover, PA. However, in this universe a few things are different. In this universe this is how evolution is currently taught in high school biology classes:

Evolution means change over time. Observation suggests that life has evolved with some form of common descent. It also suggests that change occurs because of mutations in the genome where the environment has some effect on what gets passed on from one generation to the next. Except for materials on fossils and genetics, that's it.

Now in Dover a majority of the school board members believe that this explanation of biotic emergence is scientifically inadequate. They claim that the best scientific explanation is that mutations occur strictly by chance, that they are unguided and purposeless. These board members are known as evangelical atheists and deists. They vote to include this additional level of explanation in high school biology classes. But some parents of students sue because they believe that this additional material does not belong in science class and is instead an attempt to smuggle atheism or deism into public schools. A trial ensues.

The plaintiffs offer expert witnesses who argue that the additional material is not scientific because it cannot be tested or falsified. They also challenge the defense experts claim to be able to scientifically detect what is unguided and purposeless in evolution. Then they call witnesses who testify that the board members who pushed for the new syllabus have often talked about how a knowledge of science naturally leads to atheism or deism.

The defense calls expert witnesses who claim to offer scientific evidence that unguidedness and purposelessness in evolution can be detected. They claim it offers the best scientific explanation available and therefore should be included in science classes. They also assert that the religious beliefs of board members are irrelevant to the issue.

Given that this universe has the same constitution as in ours, how should the judge rule?

Well, regardless of how he should rule, if he's Judge John Jones he would rule exactly opposite of the way he decided in the real Kitzmiller case, of course. He would find in favor of the school board since they're the defenders, in this hypothetical case, of materialist metaphysics.

But Petermann's point is well taken. The belief that the development of life is an unguided, purposeless process is no less "religious," and no more scientific, than is the contrary claim that life is the product of intelligent planning. Sooner or later even Judge Jones will realize this.

Lost Cause

Ralph Peters has returned from Baghdad and he's not happy. With the media. Here's what he says:

During a recent visit to Baghdad, I saw an enormous failure. On the part of our media. The reality in the streets, day after day, bore little resemblance to the sensational claims of civil war and disaster in the headlines.

No one with first-hand experience of Iraq would claim the country's in rosy condition, but the situation on the ground is considerably more promising than the American public has been led to believe. Lurid exaggerations and instant myths obscure real, if difficult, progress.

I left Baghdad more optimistic than I was before this visit. While cynicism, political bias and the pressure of a 24/7 news cycle accelerate a race to the bottom in reporting, there are good reasons to be soberly hopeful about Iraq's future.

Much could still go wrong. The Arab genius for failure could still spoil everything. We've made grave mistakes. Still, it's difficult to understand how any first-hand observer could declare that Iraq's been irrevocably "lost."

He then goes on to give eight examples of how "what everyone knows" about Iraq is false:

Consider just a few of the inaccuracies served up by the media:

Claims of civil war. In the wake of the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, a flurry of sectarian attacks inspired wild media claims of a collapse into civil war. It didn't happen. Driving and walking the streets of Baghdad, I found children playing and, in most neighborhoods, business as usual. Iraq can be deadly, but, more often, it's just dreary.

Iraqi disunity. Factional differences are real, but overblown in the reporting. Few Iraqis support calls for religious violence. After the Samarra bombing, only rogue militias and criminals responded to the demagogues' calls for vengeance. Iraqis refused to play along, staging an unrecognized triumph of passive resistance.

Expanding terrorism. On the contrary, foreign terrorists, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, have lost ground. They've alienated Iraqis of every stripe. Iraqis regard the foreigners as murderers, wreckers and blasphemers, and they want them gone. The Samarra attack may, indeed, have been a tipping point--against the terrorists.

Hatred of the U.S. military. If anything surprised me in the streets of Baghdad, it was the surge in the popularity of U.S. troops among both Shias and Sunnis. In one slum, amid friendly adult waves, children and teenagers cheered a U.S. Army patrol as we passed. Instead of being viewed as occupiers, we're increasingly seen as impartial and well-intentioned.

The appeal of the religious militias. They're viewed as mafias. Iraqis want them disarmed and disbanded. Just ask the average citizen.

The failure of the Iraqi army. Instead, the past month saw a major milestone in the maturation of Iraq's military. During the mini-crisis that followed the Samarra bombing, the Iraqi army put over 100,000 soldiers into the country's streets. They defused budding confrontations and calmed the situation without killing a single civilian. And Iraqis were proud to have their own army protecting them. The Iraqi army's morale soared as a result of its success.

Reconstruction efforts have failed. Just not true. The American goal was never to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure in its entirety. Iraqis have to do that. Meanwhile, slum-dwellers utterly neglected by Saddam Hussein's regime are getting running water and sewage systems for the first time. The Baathist regime left the country in a desolate state while Saddam built palaces. The squalor has to be seen to be believed. But the hopeless now have hope.

The electricity system is worse than before the war. Untrue again. The condition of the electric grid under the old regime was appalling. Yet, despite insurgent attacks, the newly revamped system produced 5,300 megawatts last summer--a full thousand megawatts more than the peak under Saddam Hussein. Shortages continue because demand soared--newly free Iraqis went on a buying spree, filling their homes with air conditioners, appliances and the new national symbol, the satellite dish. Nonetheless, satellite photos taken during the hours of darkness show Baghdad as bright as Damascus.

Peters isn't naive. He recognizes that Iraq can still implode, but:

[T]he foreign media have become a destructive factor, extrapolating daily crises from minor incidents. Part of this is ignorance. Some of it is willful. None of it is helpful.

Read the rest of his essay at the link. The short version is: Iraq is a lost cause only to those who want it to be.

Pombo Bill

The House of Representatives last September passed a piece of legislation authored by Richard Pombo (R-CA) which would effectively gut the Endangered Species Act. It puts at risk the ability of the Federal government to protect threatened species of living things as well as habitat critical for the fluorishing of these organisms.

The bill is now in the Senate which must vote to pass it, or a compromise measure, in order for it to become law.

If you believe that allowing our wildlife and wild places to be extirpated and asphalted is irresponsible, profligate, and myopic, write or call your Senator to tell him or her so. You can find their e-mail, snail mail, and phone addresses here.

Political Sucker-Puncher

New York Times reports on Senator Feingold's dismay with his fellow Democrats:

Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold accused fellow Democrats on Tuesday of cowering rather than joining him on trying to censure President Bush over domestic spying. "Democrats run and hide" when the administration invokes the war on terrorism, Feingold told reporters.

Feingold introduced censure legislation Monday in the Senate but not a single Democrat has embraced it. Several have said they want to see the results of a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation before supporting any punitive legislation.

Republicans dismissed the proposal Tuesday as being more about Feingold's 2008 presidential aspirations than Bush's actions. On and off the Senate floor, they have dared Democrats to vote for the resolution.

"I'm amazed at Democrats ... cowering with this president's numbers so low," Feingold said. The latest AP-Ipsos poll on Bush, conducted last week, found just 37 percent of the 1,000 people surveyed approving his overall performance, the lowest of his presidency.

Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., tried to hold a vote Monday on Feingold's resolution but was blocked by Democrats. He said Tuesday that Feingold should withdraw the resolution because it has no support. "If the Democrats continue to say no to voting on their own censure resolution, then they ought to drop it and focus on our foreign policy in a positive way," Frist said in a statement.

Feingold's resolution condemns Bush's "unlawful authorization of wiretaps of Americans within the United States without obtaining the court orders required" by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Of course, his Democratic colleagues are not the only ones who have failed to display the courage of their convictions. Senator Feingold himself left the Senate chamber after introducing his resolution, leaving it to others to debate it for him. The Senator, evidently an accomplished political sucker-puncher, whacks the president with an allegation of criminal activity and then flees. Gutsy.

On Friendship

It is in the friendship of good men that feelings of affection and friendship exist in their highest and best form. -- Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics.

I had occasion recently to reflect upon what I thought to be the ingredients of friendship. I ventured that friendship requires that two people share an affection for each other based upon similar values and interests, mutual esteem, and shared experience. To the extent that two persons hold common intellectual, moral, and spiritual values and are bonded by similar personality traits and shared experiences in life, to that extent their friendship will be deep. The less they share in common, either in terms of values, personality, or experience, the more superficial will be any relationship between them.

Atleast that's what I think. There are many other opinions on the matter much more profound and compelling than mine. Of those that I'm aware of, the loveliest expression of the nature of friendship is found in Augustine's Confessions. Augustine, describing his grief at the death of a dear companion, writes of his friends that:

All kinds of things rejoiced my soul in their company - to talk and laugh and do each other kindnesses; read pleasant books together, pass from lightest jesting to talk of the deepest things and back again; differ without rancour, as a man might differ with himself, and when most rarely when dissension arose find our normal agreement all the sweeter for it; teach each other or learn from each other; be impatient for the return of the absent, and welcome them with joy on their home-coming; these and such like things, proceeding from our hearts as we gave affection and received it back, and shown by face, by voice, by the eyes, and a thousand other pleasing ways, kindled a flame which fused our very souls and of many made us one.

This is what men value in friends, and value so much that our conscience judges them guilty if they do not meet friendship with friendship, expecting nothing from their friend save such evidences of his affection. -- Confessions Book IV: viii, ix

Beautifully put.