Monday, April 23, 2007

Music of the Spheres

Lem passes along a link to a site where the natural internal vibrations of the sun are translated into sound. Stars, were they not suspended in a vacuum, would produce an enormous number of bell-like resonances which would fill the cosmos with music.

Follow the links and you can hear some of the solar resonances. As you listen to them imagine what these would sound like, if they could be heard, coming from billions of stars in a single galaxy.


Compassionate Conservatism

Rush Limbaugh reports that over the course of one three hour broadcast on Friday his show raised $3 million dollars for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to assist in their search for a cure for blood cancers (Limbaugh himself donated $320,000). Three million dollars for a charity from an audience of allegedly stingy, tight-fisted mean-spirited, selfish, uncompassionate conservatives is quite a remarkable achievement.

Conservative talk-radio host Sean Hannity has also raised large sums for children of soldiers killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We await results of similar fund-raisers held under liberal auspices. No doubt the Great Souls in the party of compassion, liberality, and generosity have done even better. Or not.

In fact, does anyone know whether similar fund-raisers for charity have ever even been held by any broadcast medium under liberal auspices? Al Franken's bunch at Air America? Keith Olbermann or Chris Matthews at MSNBC? The New York Times or Washington Post? Newsweek or Time? Or is the liberal idea of charitable fund-raising just urging government to raise your taxes?


The Loss of Moral Clarity

Julian Baggini writes in The Guardian about what he sees as the death of moral clarity at the hands of post-modern philosophers. When the intellectual movers and shakers of our age abandoned the notion of objective truth and replaced it with the idea that all truth is a matter of one's own interpretation and experience, morality took to its death-bed:

Of course, the works of truth-deniers such as Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty are hardly bestsellers. Yet their ideas do filter through to society as a whole. Consider, for instance, how what passes for common sense about morality has been turned on its head. For millennia, most people believed that right was right and wrong was wrong, and that was all there was to it. Now, university lecturers report that their fresh-faced new students take it as obvious that there is no such thing as "the truth" and that morality is relative. In educated circles at least, only the naive believe in objectivity. What was shocking when Nietzsche first proclaimed it at the end of the 19th century became platitudinous by the start of the 21st.

Perhaps the most powerful idea to filter through from the universities to the streets was articulated by Foucault, who adapted and popularised the Nietzschean idea that what passes for truth is actually no more than power. There are no facts, only attempts to impose your view on the world by fixing it as "The Truth". This idea is now so mainstream that even a conservative like Donald Rumsfeld could complain about those who lived in the "reality-based community", arguing "that's not the way the world really works anymore ... when we act, we create our own reality."

Some philosophers, such as Bernard Williams and Simon Blackburn, have waded into the public debate in an attempt to put the relativist genie back into the bottle. Books such as Why Truth Matters, by my colleagues Jeremy Stangroom and Ophelia Benson, have also tried to stem the tide. But this is not really a highbrow academic debate about whether there is Truth with a capital T - it is about how abstract ideas relate to the business of everyday life.

Richard Rorty, for example, argues against Truth brilliantly, and it is far from clear that he is simply wrong. The problem is that he does not concede as unequivocally as he should that in practice his theories usually leave the world more or less as it is. Rorty believes as much as anyone else that the Holocaust happened more or less as described in history books, he just refuses to use an allegedly outmoded vocabulary of truth to say so.

Ironically, like many left-leaning intellectuals, Rorty thinks that denying objectivity and truth is politically important, as a way of liberating people from the ways of seeing the world promoted as the Truth by the powerful. However, it turns out that Rorty and his ilk seriously misjudged what happens if intellectuals deny truth stridently and frequently enough. Far from making liberal openness more attractive, such denials actually make it appear empty, repugnant and weak compared to the crystalline clarity and certainty of dogma.

They owe us an apology for failing to either see themselves, or make it clear to others, that in the everyday world we can and must distinguish truth and falsity, right and wrong, even if on close examination these terms do not mean what we thought they did. Science may not be God-like in its objectivity, but it is not just another myth. Moral values must be questioned, but if discrimination against women, homosexuals or ethnic minorities is wrong here, then it is wrong anywhere else in the world. Truth may not be the simple phenomenon we assume it to be, but falsehoods must be challenged.

Unless we can make a convincing case that the choice is not between relativism or dogmatism, more and more people will reject the former and embrace the latter. When they do, those who helped create the impression that modern, secular rationality leaves everything up for grabs in the marketplace of belief will have to take their share of the blame.

That last sentence is puzzling. Modern, secular rationality does indeed leave everything up for grabs, at least in terms of ethics. There can be no right or wrong unless people are morally obligated to do one thing rather than another, but in a secular world there is no moral obligation to do anything. Nothing obligates us, and there's no one to say that what we do is moral or immoral, right or wrong.

Nor am I sure I agree with Baggini when he says that the choice is between relativism and dogmatic certainty. The choice, rather, is between relativism (more accurately, subjectivism) and the belief(not the certainty)that there is objective truth about morals, and that Truth does exist.

If one denies the existence of objective moral truth, as one must if one also denies the existence of God, then one is left with a subjectivism that means the end of any meaningful ethical discourse. Right and wrong become matters of personal taste and preference, like questions about whether one likes Pepsi or Coke. In such a world morality is an anachronism and the idea that there are moral "falsehoods" and that moral "values should be questioned" is absurd. It would be like questioning someone's preference for Coke over Pepsi or saying that their preference for Coke is "false."


A Decent Interval

While the casualties at Virginia Tech were still being ambulanced to the hospitals The Nation's John Nichols was fulminating about how the NRA would despicably seek to spin and exploit this tragedy:

Do not doubt that the National Rifle Association is preparing its "this-had-nothing-to-do-with-guns" press release. The group has no compunctions about living up to its reputation for being beyond shame -- or education -- when it comes to peddling its spin on days when it would be better to simply remain silent. But the NRA will not be alone in responding in a self-serving manner.

Nichols then spent the rest of his article doing himself exactly what he predicted the low-lifes at the NRA would be doing - peddling his own spin in a self-serving manner on a day when it would be better to remain silent. Evidently people like Nichols see nothing wrong with criticizing others who might engage in the same behavior he does engage in.

He succeeds, in other words, in making himself look shameless and ridiculous both at once. Kudos.