Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Will They Do it?

Mark Steyn makes the case in City Journal for doing whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. His essay is a bit longish, but here are some excerpts:

If Belgium becomes a nuclear power, the Dutch have no reason to believe it would be a factor in, say, negotiations over a joint highway project. But Iran's nukes will be a factor in everything. If you think, for example, the European Union and others have been fairly craven over those Danish cartoons, imagine what they'd be like if a nuclear Tehran had demanded a formal apology, a suitable punishment for the newspaper, and blasphemy laws specifically outlawing representations of the Prophet. Iran with nukes will be a suicide bomber with a radioactive waist.

Four years into the "war on terror," the Bush administration has begun promoting a new formulation: "the long war." Not a reassuring name. In a short war, put your money on tanks and bombs-our strengths. In a long war, the better bet is will and manpower-their strengths, and our great weakness. Even a loser can win when he's up against a defeatist. A big chunk of Western civilization, consciously or otherwise, has given the impression that it's dying to surrender to somebody, anybody. Reasonably enough, Islam figures: Hey, why not us? If you add to the advantages of will and manpower a nuclear capability, the odds shift dramatically.

Anyone who spends half an hour looking at Iranian foreign policy over the last 27 years sees five things:

1. contempt for the most basic international conventions;

2. long-reach extraterritoriality;

3. effective promotion of radical Pan-Islamism;

4. a willingness to go the extra mile for Jew-killing (unlike, say, Osama);

5. an all-but-total synchronization between rhetoric and action.

Yet the Europeans remain in denial. Iran was supposedly the Middle Eastern state they could work with. And the chancellors and foreign ministers jetted in to court the mullahs so assiduously that they're reluctant to give up on the strategy just because a relatively peripheral figure like the, er, head of state is sounding off about Armageddon.

What's the difference between a hothead and a moderate? Well, the extremist Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map," while the moderate Rafsanjani has declared that Israel is "the most hideous occurrence in history," which the Muslim world "will vomit out from its midst" in one blast, because "a single atomic bomb has the power to completely destroy Israel, while an Israeli counter-strike can only cause partial damage to the Islamic world." Evidently wiping Israel off the map seems to be one of those rare points of bipartisan consensus in Tehran, the Iranian equivalent of a prescription drug plan for seniors: we're just arguing over the details.

So the question is: Will they do it?

And the minute you have to ask, you know the answer. If, say, Norway or Ireland acquired nuclear weapons, we might regret the "proliferation," but we wouldn't have to contemplate mushroom clouds over neighboring states. In that sense, the civilized world has already lost: to enter into negotiations with a jurisdiction headed by a Holocaust-denying millenarian nut-job is, in itself, an act of profound weakness - the first concession, regardless of what weaselly settlement might eventually emerge.

Back when nuclear weapons were an elite club of five relatively sane world powers, your average Western progressive was convinced the planet was about to go ka-boom any minute. The mushroom cloud was one of the most familiar images in the culture, a recurring feature of novels and album covers and movie posters. There were bestselling dystopian picture books for children, in which the handful of survivors spent their last days walking in a nuclear winter wonderland.

Now a state openly committed to the annihilation of a neighboring nation has nukes, and we shrug: Can't be helped. Just the way things are. One hears sophisticated arguments that perhaps the best thing is to let everyone get 'em, and then no one will use them. And if Iran's head of state happens to threaten to wipe Israel off the map, we should understand that this is a rhetorical stylistic device that's part of the Persian oral narrative tradition, and it would be a grossly Eurocentric misinterpretation to take it literally.

Once again, we face a choice between bad and worse options. There can be no "surgical" strike in any meaningful sense: Iran's clients on the ground will retaliate in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and Europe. Nor should we put much stock in the country's allegedly "pro-American" youth. This shouldn't be a touchy-feely nation-building exercise: rehabilitation may be a bonus, but the primary objective should be punishment - and incarceration. It's up to the Iranian people how nutty a government they want to live with, but extraterritorial nuttiness has to be shown not to pay. That means swift, massive, devastating force that decapitates the regime - but no occupation.

The cost of de-nuking Iran will be high now but significantly higher with every year it's postponed. The lesson of the Danish cartoons is the clearest reminder that what is at stake here is the credibility of our civilization. Whether or not we end the nuclearization of the Islamic Republic will be an act that defines our time.

And time seems to be short and getting shorter. Read Steyn's entire essay at the above link. It's very good.

Conjectures and Refutations

It is often said that Intelligent Design (ID) isn't science because it does not lend itself to testing. There is, we are told, no way to falsify the claim that intelligence was involved in the development of living things and therefore the suggestion that it was is scientifically vacuous. This is the conventional wisdom, but it seems to me to be mistaken.

As Karl Popper instructed us, science proceeds by what he called conjectures and refutations. Scientists offer a conjecture that some phenomenon can be explained in a particular fashion and then other scientists set about trying to show that the conjecture is false. If there is no way that the conjecture can be tested then it's considered (by some but by no means all scientists) to be outside the domain of science.

As long as a testable conjecture withstands the scrutiny to which it is subjected, it remains scientifically viable. It remains a legitimate scientific hypothesis until evidence for its falsity, or its unliklihood, accumulates to the point where a consensus of scientists becomes persuaded that the conjecture is improbable. At that point it doesn't cease to be a scientific hypothesis, rather it falls into the category of "bad science." Even this is not a death sentence, however, since future investigators may resurrect it as new evidence becomes available and the old conjecture, perhaps modified, is seen as a compelling explanation for that new evidence.

Intelligent Design, or at least that argument for it based upon irreducible complexity (IC), lends itself nicely to the Popperian model.

Let some structure, system, or process (S) be adduced which exhibits at least prima facie design in the form of what appears to be irreducible complexity. The ID position is twofold: It asserts 1. that there are at least some (S) that are irreducibly complex, and that, 2. if these instances of (S) do in fact exhibit IC then whatever processes might be ultimately responsible for (S) must include as part of the mix intelligent guidance or agency (I). The latter claim is not especially controversial, but the first claim is.

Thus it is this claim that biologists must refute in order to discredit IC (and derivatively, ID), and this claim, that some (S) are irreducibly complex, is testable.

Once the claim that a particular (S) possesses IC is made then biologists set about trying to come up with a plausible pathway or set of mechanisms that could have produced (S) independently of (I). The solution must be plausible and not merely logically possible.

If they are successful in formulating a plausible naturalistic pathway for the construction of (S) then the ID option in this case will be effectively refuted. If they are repeatedly successful over a wide range of examples of (S) then ID, at least in its biological dimension, will, over time, be seen as falsified. Failing such a demonstration, however, the conjecture that (S) could not have arisen apart from (I) should be accepted as a valid scientific hypothesis.

Indeed, it is this very process of seeking to refute the conjectures of irreducible complexity that biologists are undertaking in labs all across the country. The most recent example is the work of Bridgham, et al. at the University of Oregon whose paper is being touted as a refutation of claims of IC in the endocrine system (ID theorists maintain that their work does no such thing).

Whether the Bridgham paper accomplishes what its promoters say it does or not, the important point here is that it argues that ID, at least in this one instance, is false. The critics of ID can't have it both ways, however. They can't say that ID isn't falsifiable while simultaneously crowing that it is false. There is irony in the fact that the very attempt to show that ID is false confirms that ID can be tested and is therefore a legitimate scientific hypothesis.

Judge John Jones might not think ID is science, the witnesses who appeared for the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover may have argued that it's not science, but real scientists are certainly acting as if it is. They're trying very hard to falsify it, and this is exactly as it should be. It's what science is all about.


An interesting and helpful essay on the theories of strong and weak emergence that have taken on a certain cachet among philosophers and scientists in recent years can be found at Science and Theology News.

The more interesting of the two is strong emergentism which, briefly put, is the view that there are laws which produce increasing complexity in the world and that complex systems are not explicable simply in terms of their component parts:

Among those who think about emergence, said Australian philosopher David J. Chalmers, two main positions have developed: strong emergence and weak emergence. Supporters of weak emergence make the claim that the more fundamental theory can in principle explain the phenomena of the higher-level theory. And many also argue that emergent laws and properties, even if they do exist, don't cause anything on a lower level of reality to change in any way.

According to this view, mind, for example would be an epiphenomenon of the material brain and if we knew how the material substrate worked in all of its detail we'd understand exactly what mind is.

Those who favor strong emergence, meanwhile, search for examples of emergence where the emergent property, or alleged law, cannot be reduced in this way. To use a common emergentist phrase, the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts - and the whole really causes things to happen among lower-level parts. "In the broadest sense, as elements combine into complex structures, new properties emerge that are surprising and not present in earlier, simpler stages, that new things come about through the appearance of complex structures," said William Hasker, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Huntington University in Huntington, Ind. "As such, these new things are not added from the outside but through the complex structure itself."

In this view, mind is not reducible simply to chemical reactions in the brain. It is a higher order phenomenon that actually affects the lower order phenomena of the brain which in turn exerts control obver the even lower order phenomena of the physical body. In strong emergent thinking there is a hierarchy to nature and no level in the hierarchy is completely reducible to lower levels.

Supporters of weak emergence say that stronger forms leave the door open to an unwarranted intrusion of religion into science, even though many atheists also believe in strong emergence.

Indeed, it does leave the door open, and it looks as if the more we learn about the natural world the harder it will be to keep that door shut.

Update: See this interview for more on the emergent paradigm.

The Wrong Time to Quit

Given the following facts about the war it's hard to understand why the Last Helicopter folk are so strident in their calls for us to get out of the country:

First off, US soldiers killed in Iraq continues to fall. This is the 5th straight month.

Even IED deaths, after a brief surge in February are down to their lowest level since I started keeping track.

Each month, there are more Iraqi troops available.

Slightly more Iraqi police were killed in March then in February, but the trend has plateaued at about 200 fatalities a month.

Meanwhile, March was actually one of the more peaceful months in Iraq since the insurgency began, even for civilians.

This could all change over night, of course, but the trend lines are certainly pointing in the right direction. It seems awfully foolish to be calling on the United States to quit while it's ahead, yet that's exactly what Kerry, Murtha, Pelosi and other Democrats are doing. I don't think this is true of Murtha, but it certainly seems true of others that their biggest fear in Iraq is that the U.S. will win, and that winning will embolden us to use force again. At least some on the left want us to fail so that we will be too chastened and weakened to resort to military intervention again any time soon. The aversion to force is understandable, if wrongheaded, but the means some are willing to employ in order to produce it are reprehensible.