Wednesday, September 5, 2007

D. James Kennedy (1930-2007)

A generation of very well-known Evangelical preachers seems to be passing from the scene in this first decade of the 21st century. First it was James Montgomery Boice in 2000, then Henry Morris (who was not really a preacher but whose ministry was probably more influential than that of any preacher except for Billy Graham) last year, then Jerry Falwell last May and now James Kennedy, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida. It's like an era in contemporary Christianity is coming to a close.



One of the most fascinating areas of philosophical study is the study of human consciousness. What is it exactly and where does it come from? The physicalist view is that consciousness is just a product of brain chemistry, but many philosophers are not convinced that consciousness can be reduced to atoms spinning around in the brain.

Physicalism is essentially synonomous with materialism (the view that matter is all there is). It's the view that everything is explicable in terms of physical processes and forces. There's nothing about us, the physicalist maintains, which is non-physical. As such, it's possible that someday computers may possess all the attributes of human beings.

Human consciousness, however, is the fly in the physicalist soup. There is no physicalist explanation of consciousness that has really been successful in persuading philosophers not already inclined toward physicalism.

Consider one aspect of the problem posed to physicalism by consciousness - the problem of sensory experience, or what philosophers refer to as qualia. If human beings are purely physical, like machines, then everything about us should be quantifiable. A complete physical description of us should be a complete description of us. But it's not. The problem was illustrated by Frank Jackson in 1986. Jackson invites us to imagine a student named Mary:

Mary is confined to a black-and-white room, is educated through black-and-white books and through lectures relayed on black-and white television. In this way she learns everything there is to know about the physical nature of the world. She knows all the physical facts about us and our enviroment, in a wide sense of 'physical' which includes everything in completed physics, chemistry, and neurophysiology, and all there is to know about the causal and relational facts consequent upon all this, including, of course, functional roles. If physicalism is true, she knows all there is to know. For to suppose otherwise is to suppose that there is more to know than every physical fact, and that is what physicalism denies.

It seems, however, that Mary does not know all there is to know. For when she is let out of the black-and-white room or given a color television, she will learn what it is like to see something red, say. This is rightly described as learning--she will not say "ho, hum." Hence, physicalism is false.

In other words, Even if Mary knows everything there is to know about the physical world she doesn't know what it is like to see red (or hear noise, or smell fragrance). She can't know it until she has the experience, but this experience cannot be described in physical terms. A complete physical description of the world is not a complete description of the world.

Thus, there must be more to reality than just the physical, and it is doubtful that a computer, or any machine, could ever know what it is like to experience color or enjoy pleasure or suffer pain.



Journalist Piers Morgan once mockingly derided George Bush for falling off a Segway scooter, a device Morgan claimed to be "idiot-proof," with these words:

"You'd have to be an idiot to fall off, wouldn't you Mr President. If anyone can make a pig's ear of riding a sophisticated, self-balancing machine like this, Dubya can."

Now, in yet another example of how those who hold Mr. Bush in derision so often wind up with a face dripping with egg, Mr. Morgan has himself fallen off a Segway...and broken three ribs. A broken rib is very painful, and we shouldn't laugh but ....

This article has details and video.


Racial Disparity

News out of San Diego informs us that recently released state test scores in California reveal a glaring disparity in student performance between blacks and Latinos and their white and Asian counterparts - regardless of income:

"These are just not economic achievement gaps. They are racial achievement gaps and we cannot afford to excuse them," state Superintendent of Instruction Jack O'Connell said at a media briefing. "They simply must be addressed."

The disparity in achievement is stark....Statewide in English/language arts, only 30 percent of black students and 29 percent of Latino students scored proficient or better. In contrast, 62 percent of white students and 66 percent of Asian students scored proficient or better.

In math, only 26 percent of black students and 31 percent of Latino students statewide scored proficient or better, while 54 percent of white students and 68 percent of Asian students scored proficient or better.

While discussing the achievement gap yesterday, O'Connell said the new state test scores clearly show that lower achievement by black and Latino students cannot be "explained away" as the result of poverty. "The results show this explanation simply is not true," O'Connell said.

Similar gaps are seen in San Diego County. "This has never been about race or income," said Randolph Ward, San Diego County superintendent of schools.

Okay, but Superintendent O'Connell just said that these were indeed racial achievement gaps. If neither race nor poverty is a relevant factor then exactly what is the cause for the disparity? The news article explains:

The achievement gap persists for several reasons. One is that the most experienced and talented teachers often work at more affluent schools, while younger and less experienced teachers fill slots at poorer schools, which typically enroll minority students.

A student's economic status surely plays a role, but so do low expectations that the student's teachers, principal, counselors, family and friends have for them, educators say.

Well, maybe, but I think that placing part of the blame on teachers is a cop-out. Whether these students had experienced teachers or not these same problems would persist. After all, white and Asian students in the same school with presumably the same teachers do better than their black and Hispanic counterparts. It may be that teachers have low expectations of minority students, but teachers know their students' capabilities better than anyone, so if they don't expect much perhaps it's because they know from bitter experience that minority students simply don't perform at the levels other students do.

Even if these teachers, many of whom are minorities themselves, it should be noted, harbor diminished expectations that doesn't mean that they try less hard with these students. Teachers don't dislike the children in their classrooms, minority or not. They want their youngsters to do well. They long for them to succeed, but experience has taught them that too many of them simply don't have the tools to do it.

The important question is, why don't they? If the reason isn't racism nor economics we're left with two alternatives. One is the possibility that Charles Murray was correct when he wrote in The Bell Curve that some groups are intellectually, on average, more capable than others. The second possibility is that the problem is social. Before we resign ourself to the first possibility, we really should make a concerted effort to do something about the second.

Many minority students come from communities where, for whatever reason, neither traditional family nor educational excellence is valued. Too many black and Hispanic kids are allowed to dress, speak, and act as if they are morons and proud to be so, and the culture in which they are immersed not only permits this perversity but encourages it.

Moreover, students who grow up with only a single parent invariably find school more of a struggle than do those who grow up with both biological parents. The job of keeping after children to do their homework or taking them to libraries or cultural sites of various sorts, is simply daunting to many moms who strain just to get food on the table. When children, especially sons, get to be twelve or thirteen they often become very difficult to control, and it's even harder then to demand that they focus on academic work. Instead, the young men gravitate to the streets to affirm their masculinity by identifying with thugs, siring another generation of fatherless children, and dressing, talking, and acting as if their IQ were somewhere around the freezing point of water.

The problem certainly exists in every racial group in the country, but it's most severe in the black and Hispanic communities. Until we begin to take the plight of fatherless children seriously all our talk about improving minority academic performance is just going to be so much wasted time and breath, and all our efforts to help minorities close the achievement gap will be like bailing floodwater out of New Orleans with a teaspoon.

We cannot allow another generation of kids to sink into socio-economic oblivion nor can we allow political correctness or what Shelby Steele calls "white guilt" to inhibit us from talking about the problem. The fundamental solution to the tragedy of our inner cities centers upon reinvigorating and restoring the biological family and discouraging behaviors which send the message that it's cool to be stupid. Everything else is just applying a band-aid to a broken arm.