Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Best American Novel Contest Update

With 3500 votes having been cast Powerline's Best American Novel contest shows Huckleberry Finn in the lead so far. You can still vote for your choice here (The poll is in the far right margin of the page).

Match Point

Summer is a good time to get caught up on the books I wanted to read during the school year and the movies I wanted to watch. One of the latter is Woody Allen's Match Point. Allen often gives the viewer's intellect something to chew on in his films, and I generally enjoy his stuff, even if it sometimes is gratuitously salacious, as Match Point is.

Match Point is really a conflation of Allen's earlier Crimes and Misdemeanors with Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. The main character, Chris Wilton, is a British Raskolnikov, a Nietzschean Uber Man who faces a problem quite similar to that faced by Martin Landau in C&M. A woman with whom he has been having an affair threatens to spill the beans to his wife.

At the outset of the story Wilton observes that "It seems scientists are confirming more and more that all existence is here by blind chance; [there's] no purpose, no design." Allen returns to the idea of life being just a matter of chance or luck several times throughout the movie and ties it together brilliantly at the end.

In the same conversation another character opines that, "Despair is the path of least resistance." To which Wilton responds, "I think that faith is the path of least resistance."

Chris Wilton is a modern man for whom religious faith is never considered except once and then only to be dismissed with derision: A man who lost both legs subsequently found Jesus, Chris tells us. To which Chris' brother in law-to-be responds "Sounds like a poor trade."

But by the end of the movie Wilton is himself in despair, having, like Raskolnikov, drunk deeply of the cup of his nihilistic convictions. It is only incredible good luck that saves him from utter ruin. He recognizes that, given his disdain for faith, his life is meaningless and that there is no justice in the world:

"It would be fitting if I were apprehended and punished. At least there would be some small sign of justice - some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning."

But for Chris life is without purpose, meaning, or justice, and consequently there's no moral obligation, either. All is chance, sheer luck. So it is for modern man without God. If God is dead, as he is for the Chris Wiltons of the world, then life is a great yawning emptiness that nothing can fill. It is day after day of meaningless, grindingly pointless existence. It is the life of Meursault in Camus' The Stranger.

Chris' wife chirpily proclaims that she doesn't care, she loves life anyway, but she is a woman who thinks little about anything beyond how to get herself pregnant. She plays Marie to Wilton's Meursault.

Wilton turns out to be indeed incredibly lucky (the movie's very clever ending is based on this), but one wonders whether his luck has saved him or whether it has condemned him to the hell of existing without purpose or meaning.

In Hannah and Her Sisters Allen says that he "doesn't want to go on living in a Godless universe. The only thing we can know for certain is that life is meaningless." Allen seems to have spent a career wrestling with the modern predicament. He doesn't want to believe there is a God, but he finds it difficult to live with the existential consequences of unbelief. Man has to believe in something, but if there is no God there's nothing worth believing in.

Follow Up

Ben Stein offers up a great article on corporate malfeasance that dovetails nicely with my post from the other day.

From the link:

Isn't there ever enough for you guys? You're already rich in every single case. You already have immense corporate perks. Isn't that enough? Do you also have to steal?


This country is at war. It's an outrage that while we're at war, executives who are already fabulously rich are stealing and are at liberty. America is humiliated by its brightest and most ambitious looting it, while its young men and women die for it.

Reactionaries at the ACLU

The ACLU is all for free speech, or so we have been told. It turns out, though, that this is only true when the speech is such as is deemed acceptable to the membership of the ACLU, even if the dissenting voices are directors on the ACLU's governing board:

The ACLU has always been a strong First Amendment advocate, but the pro-abortion group is planning to toss aside the free speech rights of its board members after some of them criticized the group for supporting a Congressional abortion bill that would unfairly target pregnancy centers. The ACLU joined leading pro-abortion organizations last month in backing a measure that would threaten to shut down pregnancy centers that abortion advocates say deceive women because they don't do abortions.

Members of the ACLU board gave various media interviews saying they disagreed with the groups decision to support the bill and say the board should have been consulted. Now the pro-abortion group is asking for board members to remain silent and not give public interviews about such disagreements.

An ACLU committee has proposed new standards for its board members and says they should no longer speak to the media and be mindful of the financial costs of public disagreement. "Where an individual director disagrees with a board position on matters of civil liberties policy, the director should refrain from publicly highlighting the fact of such disagreement," the committee proposes, according to a New York Times report.

Nat Henthoff, a former ACLU board member who is pro-life and a nationally syndicated columnist, told the Times: "For the national board to consider promulgating a gag order on its members -- I can't think of anything more contrary to the reason the ACLU exists."

"I find it quite appalling that the ACLU is actively supporting this," board member Wendy Kaminer told the New York Sun in an interview shortly after the ACLU supported the bill. "I think this is precisely the kind of legislation we should be opposing, not supporting."

"I am troubled by the assumption in the legislation that abortion services, as a matter of linguistics and a matter of law, cannot include discussing with a woman why she shouldn't have an abortion," Kaminer said.

This is rich. Someone needs to explain to idealists like Hentoff and Kaminer that, contrary to their fervent asseverations, many leftists simply don't see free speech as a good in itself. It is only a good insofar as it can be used to weaken the social fabric that has held this country together for 200 years. It is certainly not prudent, in their view, to so liberalize speech that it be a potential impediment to the work of the ACLU itself as it seeks to undermine the institutions of this nation. Such a freedom would be, well, reactionary.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

William Dembski quotes this astonishing passage from a speech given this spring by uber-Darwinist and atheist Daniel Dennett:

The late Steve Gould was really right when he called Richard and me Darwinian fundamentalists. And I want to say what a Darwinian fundamentalist is. A Darwinian fundamentalist is one who recognizes that either you shun Darwinian evolution altogether, or you turn the traditional universe upside down and you accept that mind, meaning, and purpose are not the cause but the fairly recent effects of the mechanistic mill of Darwinian algorithms. It is the unexceptioned view that mind, meaning, and purpose are not the original driving engines, but recent effects that marks, I think, the true Darwinian fundamentalist.

How can such heartless culling produce the magnificent designs that we see around us? It seems just about impossible that such a simple mechanical sieve could produce such amazing design in the biosphere.

Francis Crick called Orgel's Second Rule. "Evolution is cleverer than you are."

Again and again evolutionists, molecular biologists, biologists in general, see some aspect of nature which seems to them to be sort of pointless or daft or doesn't make much sense - and then they later discover it's in fact an exquisitely ingenious design - it is a brilliant piece of design - that's what Francis Crick means by Orgel's Second Rule.

This might almost look like a slogan for Intelligent Design theory. Certainly Crick was not suggesting that the process of evolution was a process of intelligent design. But then how can evolution be cleverer than you are?

What you have to understand is that the process itself has no foresight; it's entirely mechanical; has no purpose - but it just happens that that very process dredges up, discovers, again and again and again, the most wonderfully brilliant designs - and these designs have a rationale. We can make sense of them. We can reverse-engineer them, and understand why they are the wonderful designs they are.

It would help us to understand how this is possible if we could break all this brilliant design work up into processes which we could understand the rationale of, without attributing it to the reason of some intelligent designer. [In other words, it would help if there were a shred of evidence for Darwinian algorithms having the creative power that Dennett attributes to them. -WmAD]

These processes are arms races. Not just arms races between armies of intelligent people, but arms races between trees, and between bacteria, and between any form of life you want to name. We can watch an arms race generate more and more design, more exquisite solutions to problems, in ways that are strikingly similar to the more intelligently (but not very intelligently) guided arms races that give us the metaphor in the first place.

Of all the species on the planet, Homo sapiens, is exceptional: it is the only species that has evolved that can understand that it's one of the fruits on the tree of life.

It's hard to read this without getting the feeling that Dennett is trying with all his might not to admit that living things certainly appear to be intelligently designed. Indeed, were it not for Dennett's a priori committment to atheism he would probably not even bother to engage in such a laborious struggle. He gives the game away in this paragraph where he tries to convince us that a blind, mecahnical process is even more brilliant, more ingenious, than the most clever of human engineers:

What you have to understand is that the process itself has no foresight; it's entirely mechanical; has no purpose - but it just happens that that very process dredges up, discovers, again and again and again, the most wonderfully brilliant designs - and these designs have a rationale. We can make sense of them. We can reverse-engineer them, and understand why they are the wonderful designs they are.

Dennett's confidence that, despite all appearances to the contrary, living things are not really intelligently designed rests upon his confidence that there is no intelligent designer. In philosophy this sort of thinking is called begging the question, or less technically, putting the cart before the horse.