Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Inference to the Best Explanation (Pt.III)

With this post we continue our examination of those aspects of the world which seem to fit more easily into a theistic worldview than that of atheism (See Part I and Part II). The fourth of these aspects is the fact of human consciousness.

How does it happen, for instance, that mere matter can produce qualia (e.g. the sensation of red or the taste of sweet)? How do electrochemical reactions in our neurons produce a belief, a value, a doubt, gratitude, regret, expectation, or disappointment? How does material substance produce forgiveness, resentment, or wishes, hopes, and desires? How does it appreciate (e.g. beauty, music, or a book)? How does it want, worry, have intentions, or understand something? How does matter come to be aware of itself and its surroundings?

These are vexing questions for a materialist view of the world. It may be that if we put the proper chemicals in a flask under the appropriate conditions the flask would become aware of itself, but we have no idea how it could do so, and the assumption that it could is simply an article of materialist faith.

In other words, on the assumption that matter is all there is consciousness is inexplicable. The existence of consciousness suggests that material substance is not the only constituent of reality.

5. The fifth aspect of the world that is better explained in terms of a theistic rather than an atheistic worldview is our sense that reason is trustworthy. If matter, energy, and physical forces like gravity are all there is then everything is ultimately reducible to material, non-rational particles. If so, our beliefs are just brain states that can be completely explained in terms of non-rational chemical reactions.

But any belief that is fully explicable in terms of non-rational causes cannot itself be rational. Therefore, if materialism is true, none of our beliefs are rational, reason itself is a non-rational illusion, and both truth and the reliability of scientific investigation are chimerical. Thus the atheistic materialist has no rational basis for believing that materialism, or anything else, is true.

As Stephen Pinker of MIT has said, "Our brains were shaped [by evolution] for fitness, not for truth."

Only if our reason is an endowment from an omniscient, good Creator do we have actual warrant for placing confidence in it. We may, if we don't believe that there is a Creator, decide to trust reason simply as an act of faith, but it's very difficult to justify the decision to do so since any justification must itself rely on reason. And, of course, employing reason to argue on behalf of its own trustworthiness commits the fallacy called begging the question.

6. The sixth characteristic of human beings that makes more sense given the existence of God than given atheism is our sense that we are free to make genuine choices and that the future is open. In the absence of God our sense that we have genuine choices and are responsible for those choices is problematic. In a Godless world we are just a collection of physical particles, and ultimately physical particles have no freedom, they simply move according to physical laws. There is no free will, there is only an inexorable determinism. At any given moment there is only one possible future, and our belief that we can freely create a future is pure sophistry and illusion.

Thus an atheist who faults me for writing this series of posts is acting inconsistently with his own assumptions. If there is no God I am driven to write by causes beyond my control and for which I am not responsible. Indeed, if there is no God, it's hard to see how anyone could be ultimately responsible for anything they do.

One can be an atheist and deny that we have consciousness, that reason is reliable, and that we have free will, but he will find few people who agree with him. If one believes that we do possess these attributes it's easier to explain them on the basis of theism than on the basis of atheism.

More tomorrow.


Petraeus' Answer

Matthew Rothschild at The Progressive makes much of General Petraeus' answer to a question from Senator John Warner on Wednesday. Since Chris Matthews of MSNBC's Hardball also went into orbit over Petraeus' response to this question last Tuesday night it might be worthwhile to consider a point I would have thought was obvious, but apparently isn't. Here's the first part of Rothschild's post:

During the Petraeus hearings in the Senate on Tuesday, there came a crucial and unexpected confession from the general .... then Warner asked whether the war in Iraq was making America any safer, a pretty fundamental question, one that Russ Feingold had tried to get an answer to a little earlier but failed.

Here's what Petraeus said: "Sir, I don't know, actually."

After 3,750 U.S. soldiers dead, 28,000 wounded, and maybe close to a million civilians killed, and the leading U.S. general in Iraq can't tell us whether it's made us any safer?

What a confession, what a concession for Petraeus to make!

Why are we there, then?

And how does he ask more soldiers to risk their lives for a war that he knows might not (indeed, is not) making us any safer?

And how does he talk to families of our fallen soldiers when he can't affirm that the war is doing any good?

And how does he console a mom whose son sustained horrific brain injuries in Iraq when he doesn't know, actually, whether Bush's war is making us any safer?

Nor could Bush have been happy with that answer, for Petraeus's confession undercuts Bush's whole rationale for this war in the first place, the notion, repeated ad nauseum, that the Iraq War is crucial for our safety.

It should be clear, however, that no one other than God can know whether what we're doing in Iraq is making us safer. Suppose the Iraq project was a total success and Iraq became terrorist-free zone. Does that make us safer? Who knows? Perhaps the terrorists flee Iraq and take up residence in some other country to which they wouldn't have otherwise fled but from which they're able to launch several successful attacks against us. If so, did the Iraq war make us safer or less safe?

Suppose Petraeus gave an affirmative answer to Sen. Warner and tomorrow a terrorist cell from Indonesia or someplace hits an American city. The terrorist act might have had nothing to do with Iraq but we can be pretty sure the media would be blasting the Petraeus' assurances of the previous day.

We can't know whether we're being made safer by what we're doing in Iraq, we can only hope we are, but we can be pretty confident that if we pull out of Iraq we will almost certainly be less safe. In other words, success in Iraq is a necessary condition for the safety of the United States, but it's not a sufficient condition. This is not a difficult concept to grasp, but it's apparently beyond the ken of those who grasp at any straw to discredit the war effort.

Consider, for example, these words from Senator Clinton:

"There is no military solution, that is why I believe we should start bringing our troops home."

This unfortunate non sequitur is from the mind of the lady who was once acclaimed to be the smartest woman in the world. That lofty accolade notwithstanding Mrs. Clinton evidently doesn't understand that it simply doesn't follow from the fact that military action will not by itself produce peace in Iraq that therefore military action is unnecessary to produce peace in Iraq.

No policy, no strategy, has a guaranteed outcome, and it's disingenuous of Rothschild to jump on Petraeus' reply to Warner's question as if it was some sort of proof that all is really lost. Moreover, by saying as he does above that he knows the war is not making us safer, he dons the fool's cap that Petraeus wisely shunned. Rothschild knows no such thing, but it would be interesting to ask him to cite precisely those facts which assure him that he does possess the knowledge he claims to have.


Diplomatic Breakdown

If war with Iran comes let the record show that much of the responsibility must be borne by the Germans, Russians and Chinese who have refused to go along with any further economic sanctions imposed by the U.N.:

Germany - a pivotal player among three European nations to rein in Iran's nuclear program over the last two-and-a-half years through a mixture of diplomacy and sanctions supported by the United States - notified its allies last week that the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel refuses to support the imposition of any further sanctions against Iran that could be imposed by the U.N. Security Council.

The announcement was made at a meeting in Berlin that brought German officials together with Iran desk officers from the five member states of the Security Council. It stunned the room, according to one of several Bush administration and foreign government sources who spoke to FOX News, and left most Bush administration principals concluding that sanctions are dead.

And why are the Germans loath to impose sanctions on Iran?

The Germans voiced concern about the damaging effects any further sanctions on Iran would have on the German economy - and also, according to diplomats from other countries, gave the distinct impression that they would privately welcome, while publicly protesting, an American bombing campaign against Iran's nuclear facilities.

How like the Europeans. Like people witnessing a mugging who don't want to get involved the Germans don't want to risk their own peace and comfort. But if the Americans want to take action for them that'd be great. "Let's you and him fight." Of course, if Bush does do what the Germans apparently hope he does, they'll be sure to reward him with public contumely and criticism.

The view in the administration is that diplomacy has failed.

The Bush administration "has just about had it with Iran," said one foreign diplomat. "They tried the diplomatic process. China is now obstructing them at the U.N. Security Council and the Russians are tucking themselves behind them.

"The Germans are wobbling ...There are a number of people in the administration who do not want their legacy to be leaving behind an Iran that is nuclear armed, so they are looking at what are the alternatives? They are looking at other options," the diplomat said.

Consequently, according to a well-placed Bush administration source, "everyone in town" is now participating in a broad discussion about the costs and benefits of military action against Iran, with the likely timeframe for any such course of action being over the next eight to 10 months, after the presidential primaries have probably been decided, but well before the November 2008 elections.

The discussions are now focused on two basic options: less invasive scenarios under which the U.S. might blockade Iranian imports of gasoline or exports of oil, actions generally thought to exact too high a cost on the Iranian people but not enough on the regime in Tehran; and full-scale aerial bombardment.

On the latter course, active consideration is being given as to how long it would take to degrade Iranian air defenses before American air superiority could be established and U.S. fighter jets could then begin a systematic attack on Iran's known nuclear targets.

Most relevant parties have concluded such a comprehensive attack plan would require at least a week of sustained bombing runs, and would at best set the Iranian nuclear program back a number of years - but not destroy it forever. Other considerations include the likelihood of Iranian reprisals against Tel Aviv and other Israeli population centers; and the effects on American troops in Iraq. There, officials have concluded that the Iranians are unlikely to do much more damage than they already have been able to inflict through their supply of explosives and training of insurgents in Iraq.

There's more interesting insight on this developing crisis at the link. It certainly seems that a ground invasion of Iran is out of the question, but I wonder why there's no mention in the article of an aerial bombardment followed by surgical ground assaults on the nuclear facilities to completely destroy them. Whatever is done, and we still hope that Iran comes to its senses before military force is necessary, it's almost certain that there will not be an Iraq style occupation.

The most likely scenario, in my uninformed opinion, will be a destruction of the nuclear facilities, a serious degradation of the Iraqi military, and a decapitation of the government after which the Iraqi people will be left to reconstitute their leadership on their own.

We'll probably know by late February or early March. Pray for peace, prepare for the worst.


Scandal? What Scandal?

Michelle Malkin has pretty much all there is to know about the John Hsu/Hillary Clinton campaign finance scandal. And it's a good thing, too, because the MSM has suddenly developed a severe case of laryngitis.

Perhaps part of the reason for the MSM blackout on Hillary's complicity in this crime is the fact that for the liberal media scandal equals something that only Republicans do. Besides who cares about real criminality when we can talk about Larry Craig's wide stance in the men's room?


Threat to Civilization

There have been a number of statements recently by various individuals expressing deep concern about the threat to society posed by "radical Christianity." The CNN documentary titled God's Warriors which aired last week was the most recent attempt to insinuate into the public consciousness the notion that freedom in the U.S. is as imperiled by Christians who take Christianity seriously as it is by radical Islamists.

This is a jarring claim to anyone familiar with both "radical" Christianity and radical Islam and Gary Bauer does a good job pointing out how nonsensical it actually is. His column is so good that I've copied most of it here:

I'll spare you the details of the six hour mini-series and get right to the documentary's central message:

Conservative Christians who pray in front of abortion centers and orthodox Jews who settle down to live in Israel pose as much of a threat to freedom-loving Americans as fanatical Muslims who preach hatred of all non-Muslims and send their children off to become suicide bombers. "God's Warriors" trumpets the stale myth that what threatens America is not Islamic extremism but, more broadly, religious fundamentalism of all stripes.

Merriam Webster defines "radical" as: "of or relating to the origin: fundamental" and "forming a basis or foundation." The foundation of Christianity is Jesus Christ and His injunction to "love one another as I have loved you." In the Gospel of Matthew, a Pharisee tests Jesus with a question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replies, " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." Love is the foundational virtue in Christians' relationships with God and with other Christians and non-Christians alike.

But "radical" can also mean "extreme," and Christians are explicitly called to an extreme, or radical, love, which, following the example of Jesus on the Cross, has at its core an authentic forgiveness that is to be extended even to our enemies. Understanding that love and forgiveness lie at the heart of Christian faith helps illuminate why Christians respond to attacks against their faith not with violent protests and murderous threats but by "turning the other cheek."

Consider a recent case. When a New Jersey high school held a mock hostage emergency drill for their students, it chose to portray the terrorists as a group of fundamentalist Christians seeking justice after the daughter of one of its members had been expelled for praying before class. Students were further told that the terrorist group, called the New Crusaders, had already gunned down several students and had taken hostages in a classroom.

While the incident provoked the ire of many Christians, no violent protests were held and no death threats were issued. Instead, Christians wrote letters to the editors of their local newspapers and parents voiced their displeasure by writing to the school's principal and the city's mayor.

Perhaps the best recent example of "radical Christianity" was on display in the wake of the Amish school massacre last fall, when mentally disturbed milk truck driver Charles Roberts stormed the West Nickel Mines Amish School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and tied up and shot 10 girls before killing himself.

What the nation saw in the aftermath of this unfathomable rampage was the core of Christianity, a Christ-like love and forgiveness. While undoubtedly overwhelmed with feelings of anger and sorrow, the entire Amish community immediately forgave Roberts for his crimes. How did they do it? As one Amish leader explained, "We forgive because God has forgiven us. God extends his forgiveness to us in Christ, then, we must receive it. Once we do, we must share it with others."

For Christians, forgiving one's enemies is not to agree with what they do, or to be deluded into thinking they are nice people when they are not. It means hating the sin but loving the sinner. Anyone would hate what Roberts did. His actions were evil, and love does not diminish our hatred of those acts. In fact, Christians are called to hate the sin precisely because we love the person. And our hate for the sin deepens when we realize what it has done to a person whom God loves and values beyond our comprehension.

In the wake of the school shootings, many commentators seemed surprised that the family and friends of the victims were able to forgive someone who had committed such unspeakable acts of violence. Some even suggested that it was wrong for them to show such forgiveness. But the community's response was the essence of the Christian message. When God commands us to "love one another as I have loved you," He means exactly that. Is it radical? Yes. Is it a threat to America? Hardly.

Radical Islam is indeed a threat to civilization, but radical Christianity is a blessing and a gift.


Frustrated and Stymied

Anti-war leaders are, in their words, "frustrated and stymied" by the refusal and/or the inability of the Democratic congress to end the war in Iraq. Reading the article about a conference call involving a number of leaders in the anti-war movement, however, it's plain to see why they have failed. They simply offer no good argument as to why we are doing the wrong thing by staying. They have opted instead to try to advance their cause with bumper sticker slogans like "Bush Lied" and "Stop the War."

Very well, but as soon as one asks the question why we should stop the war all we hear, if we hear anything at all, is a series of assertions that too many Americans are dying, the surge isn't working, and the Iraqi government isn't functioning well. None of these, however, presents an argument persuasive enough to convince the majority of our representatives in Congress that we should risk throwing the region into utter chaos by pulling out.

Perhaps I'm wrong about this. Perhaps there really is a good argument for retreating from Iraq before that nation is stable enough and strong enough to defend itself from its enemies. If anyone is familiar with one please share it with me.

Until they come up with one the anti-war people are just going to have to accept the reality that bumper sticker slogans are a poor substitute for thoughtful deliberation.