Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Impulse Shopping

Evidently Iran is not much concerned with customer service:

Venezuela is considering selling its fleet of U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to another country, perhaps Iran, in response to a U.S. ban on arms sales to President Hugo Chavez's government, a military official said Tuesday.

Gen. Alberto Muller, a senior adviser to Chavez, told The Associated Press he had recommended to the defense minister that Venezuela consider selling the 21 jets to another country. Muller said he thought it was worthwhile to consider "the feasibility of a negotiation with Iran for the sale of those planes."

Even before the U.S. announced the ban on arms sales Monday, Washington had stopped selling Venezuela sensitive upgrades for the F- 16s.

Chavez has previously warned he could share the U.S. jets with Cuba if Washington does not supply parts for the planes. He also has said he may look into buying fighter jets from Russia or China instead.

We can understand why Chavez wants to unload them since they're useless without spare parts, but we can't figure out why Iran, without access to parts, would want to buy them.

Besides, what does Iran expect to use them for? Oil exploration? Surely, the Iranians don't think those planes would be in any way a counter to American air power. The Iranian pilots who fly those F-16s against American fighters, assuming they'd even be able to get the planes off the ground, would be either very brave or very stupid.

There's Lots Going Right in Iraq

Bill Crawford has his latest summary of good news from Iraq up at National Review Online. The military stuff is especially interesting but even more important is the list of highlights from the Brooking's Institute study that he closes his report with:

1. Per Capita GDP (USD) for 2005 is forecast to increase from the previous year to $1,051. In 2002 it was $802.

2. Increases in GDP for the next five years: 16.8, 13.6, 12.5, 7.8, and 7.2.

3. Actionable tips from Iraqis have increased every month this year. In January, 4,025 tips were received; February, 4,235; and March, 4,578.

4. On an index of political freedom for countries in the Middle East, Iraq now ranks fourth, just below Israel, Lebanon, and Morocco.

5. Crude oil production reached 2.14 million barrels a day (MBD) in April of this year. It had dropped to 0.3 MBD in May of 2003.

6. Revenues from oil export have only slightly increased from prewar levels of $0.2 billion, to $0.62 billion in April.

7. Electrical output is almost at the pre-war level of 3,958 megawatts. April's production was 3,600 megawatts. In May of 2003, production was only 500 megawatts. The goal is to reach 6,000 megawatts, and was originally expected to be met in 2004.

8. The unemployment rate in June of 2003 was 50-60 percent, and in April of this year it had dropped to 25-40 percent.

9. The number of U.S. military wounded has declined significantly from a high of 1,397 in November 2004 to 430 in April of this year.

10. Iraqi military casualties were 201 in April of 2006, after peaking at 304 in July of 2005.

11. As of December 2005, countries other than the U.S., plus the World Bank and IMF, have pledged almost $14 billion in reconstruction aid to Iraq.

12. Significant progress has also been made towards the rule of law. In May 2003 there were no trained judges, but as of October 2005 there were 351.

13. As of January 2006, 64 percent of Iraqis polled said that the country was headed in the right direction.

14. Also as of January 2006, 77 percent said that removing Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do.

15. In May of 2003, Iraqi security forces were estimated at between 7,000-9,000. They numbered 250,500 in March of this year.

16. The breakdown of foreign terrorists by country of origin is interesting. The largest number come from Algeria, at 20 percent. The next two countries are Syria and Yemen, at 18 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

17. The number of foreign terrorists fighting in Iraq was estimated at between 300 and 500 in January 2004. That number increased in April of this year, to between 700 and 2,000.

18. From May 2003 and April 2006, between 1,000 and 3,000 anti-Iraqi forces have been killed each month.

You won't hear any of that on the evening news, and one wonders why that is. It seems as if the institutional media just can't bring themselves to report anything positive about Iraq for fear that Bush will get the credit, the Republicans will do well in November, and the temptation to use force in Iran will be reinforced. Of course, their job is to report the news and to let us decide what it means, but they don't see it that way. They evidently see their role as shaping public opinion to conform to the Democratic party's ideology. It's one reason why so few people trust them as a reliable source of news anymore.

Sam Harris' Trilemma

Sam Harris, atheist and author of The End of Faith, is a very bright guy, but he seems to have allowed himself to wander into a dilemma, or more correctly, a trilemma. How he does this is explained below. Meanwhile, BeliefNet's Laura Sheahen has an interview with him in which he scores some direct hits against Islam, raises several tough questions for Christians, and, as we suggested, also reveals some deep shortcomings in his atheism.

In the interview he asserts that if religion were to disappear we'd be a step closer to universal harmony:

L.S. : You're saying we should be part of the human race, not part of any particular religious or national group?

S.H. : Yeah. It is still fashionable to believe that how you organize yourself religiously in this life may matter for eternity. Unless we can erode the prestige of that kind of thinking, we're not going to be able to undermine these divisions in our world.

This reminds me of Francis Fukuyama's claim that the collapse of communism had brought us to the "end of history". Fukuyama didn't foresee, apparently, the rise of global Islam, nor did he consider that it's human nature to order the world along the lines of us vs. them. If no one held to religious beliefs walls between people would be erected with the bricks of political ideology, or race, or nationalism, but there would still be walls and there would still be group conflict.

Harris urges us to be rational, to base our judgments and beliefs on evidence, and to get over our archaic belief in God and an afterlife. These beliefs, he argues, are the source of many of our conflicts and problems, but what is the evidence that man's problems stem mainly from belief in God? After all, it wasn't theism that made the twentieth century the bloodiest in history. It was state atheism, the pinnacle of the rational approach to human affairs that Harris touts.

Harris criticizes Islam for its violence and fundamentalist Christianity for its irrationality, but his real target is belief in God. Yet he cannot really argue against theism, so he tries to get at it by attacking the more outlandish expressions of that belief. He says, for instance, that:

"We need to lift the taboos that currently prevent us from criticizing religious irrationality."

What taboos are these? Where in the Western world are there any restrictions placed upon those who wish to criticize Christianity? He's correct that Islamic countries have a real problem with open criticism, but that's a complaint against Islam, not against religion in general, and certainly not against belief in God.

L.S. : What is the alternative? If there's no God who orders things, some people would say there's chaos, it's all random, their life is meaningless. There really is despair out there--especially about evolution.

S.H. : You don't have to believe in God to have the most extraordinary, mystical experience. Personally, I've spent two years on meditation retreats just meditating in silence for 12-18 hours a day.

You can try to be a mystic, like Meister Eckhart in the Christian tradition, without believing Jesus was born of a virgin. You can realize the value of community and compassion and love of your neighbor without ever presupposing anything on insufficient evidence.

Well, yes, but what is the evidence that valuing community and loving one's neighbor are morally right? Harris accepts these principles as obligatory, but where do they come from? Not the Bible, he asserts:

S.H. : There are many ironies here. The [sacred texts] themselves are very poor guides to morality. The only way you find goodness in good books is because you recognize it. They're based on your own ethical intuitions. In the New Testament, Jesus is talking about the Golden Rule--a great, wise, compassionate distillation of ethics. You're doing that based on your intuition.

Harris is now digging himself into the trilemma we mentioned earlier. We know, he insists, that it is right to love our neighbor through intuition, but what if someone has nastier intuitions than does Sam Harris? Why are Harris' intuitions right and Saddam Hussein's intuitions, for example, wrong? How do we judge between them except by holding both sets of intuitions up to a higher standard for comparison?

Yet for Harris there is no higher standard, so all we're left with is a social consensus - the intuitions of the majority are to be imposed upon the rest of us. Whatever the majority decides to be right, is right. This has bizarre consequences. It means, for example, that if a man is in the minority on some matter then he is ab defino wrong. He cannot be right because right is whatever the majority intuits.

Hopefully, also, you recognize that stoning someone to death for not being a virgin on her wedding night, or beating your child with a rod, as it recommends in Proverbs, and which millions of Christians do in our country, that's not a good thing. You know that based on your own intuitions and the evolving human conversation about what is ethical and most conducive to human happiness.

And if one doesn't recognize this, as many Muslims obviously don't, what reason can Harris give us for concluding that they are wrong? All he can say is that he doesn't like this sort of behavior. He can't say it's wrong in any meaningful sense. Indeed, he can't say that anything at all is wrong.

Moreover, as we noted above, if he were in the minority on this issue then he would have to accept that he is the one who is in error, not the Muslims.

We can agree that famine in Africa is intolerable to us for perfectly compassionate and rational and modern reasons that have nothing to do with [religious] beliefs. We just have to believe that it is unethical that people are starving to death while we are throwing out half of our meals.

Harris simply assumes that people will agree with him that it's wrong to let people starve, and most people, without thinking about it much, would agree with him, but they do so because they've inherited the moral capital of Christianity. It's this moral capital that has informed their intuitions and which they draw upon to make their judgments.

Nevertheless, if there is no transcendent moral authority, no God, then there simply is no right or wrong and Harris' assumption that there is, is not only an irrational leap of faith, but it is quite simply incorrect. There is no reason whatsoever why it would be morally wrong for me to waste all the food I please, even if the starving children were crouched at my table. It might be repugnant to Mr. Harris' intuitions, but that hardly makes it wrong.

Now we see the trilemma Mr. Harris and other non-theists must confront. If they're going to enjoin us to abandon the irrationality of religion and embrace the "rational" life they exemplify, then they should themselves forego the irrationality of moral judgment in a godless world and embrace moral nihilism. That is the logical endpoint of their atheism.

If, on the other hand, they wish to hold onto moral categories and language then they need to acknowledge that either they're guilty of a gross inconsistency by accepting the existence of right and wrong by blind faith, or they should grant that their conviction that right and wrong do in fact exist is prima facie evidence for the existence of a transcendent moral lawgiver.

In short, their atheism leads to either 1) moral nihilism, or 2) an irrational acceptance of an arbitrary, purely subjective moral standard, or 3) a recognition that there is indeed evidence that the God of theism exists. As far as I can see there are no other options available to him. It's a tough spot to be in, to be sure, but that's where atheism takes those who accept it.