Saturday, May 31, 2008

More Good News from Iraq

Here's some very good news, but don't expect the Keith Olbermanns of the world to dish out any high fives:

The U.S. military said Sunday that the number of attacks by militants in the last week dropped to a level not seen in Iraq since March 2004.

About 300 violent incidents were recorded in the seven-day period that ended Friday, down from a weekly high of nearly 1,600 in mid-June last year, according to a chart provided by the military.

The Iraqi forces are slowly taking over more of the combat operations and are becoming much more proficient in handling them. As this trend continues American infantry and Marines forces will be needed less and less, except as advisors, and will start coming home, possibly by mid-summer.

If so, the war will be a difficult issue for the Democrats to run on. They certainly won't want to remind the voters that they were all for pulling out when pulling out meant almost certain defeat. Unless something very surprising happens, and that's always a possibility in Iraq, the Democrats are going to look just plain wrong on the war to all but a relatively tiny group of pacifists, and McCain, compared to Obama, is going to look more and more presidential.


Empty Promises

For those readers looking for good reasons to vote for John McCain, here's one:

Susan Sarandon, who appeared in three films last year and won kudos for her TV movie "Bernard and Doris," is still not a contented soul. She says if John McCain gets elected, she will move to Italy or Canada. She adds, "It's a critical time, but I have faith in the American people."

Please, don't go, Susan. How will we ever get on without you?


Auto Repairs

This article has some good information about independent automotive service shops and dealership service departments. Unfortunately, the conclusion of the comparison is unhelpful, but the article itself is informative.


Your Taxes

The Tax Foundation has an interesting chart that shows a comparison of what your federal tax bill would be, assuming no children and standard deduction, without the Bush tax cuts. It's surprising to me that both Democrat candidates for president have promised to rescind Bush's tax cuts, and a lot of people who complain about not being able to make ends meet are still going to vote for whichever of the two wins the nomination.

Here's your homework assignment: Go to the chart and see the difference between how much you'd be paying if the cuts were not in effect and how much you pay as a result of the cuts. Multiply your answer by four and that's what a Democrat in the White House for the next four years is going to cost you - at a minimum.

Speaking of taxes here's an interesting factoid: The share of federal income tax needed to fund Social Security and Medicare in 2010 will be 8.6%. By 2050, however, largely because the Democrats have blocked all attempts to reform the system, it will grow to 76%.


Friday, May 30, 2008

Beautiful Birds IV

I thought I'd grace Viewpoint with pics of three more of the feathered gems I've been fortunate to observe this spring. The first is a common bird in the northeast whose soft colors give it an understated beauty. It's called a cedar waxwing because its wingtips look like they've been dipped in red sealing wax:

The red-headed woodpecker is one of the most striking members of that family, at least among those found east of the Mississippi. It's not very common in the east but seems to be increasing in numbers and should be looked for anywhere there are open stands of mature oaks such as in parks, etc.

I'm sometimes asked what my favorite bird is. I don't know if I have a favorite, but among eastern North American species this one probably ranks in the top five or six. It's a blackburnian warbler, and the flame-throated male is absolutely gorgeous in good light. These birds are difficult to see unless you're in an area where they breed or you're deliberately looking for warblers during migration. They're tiny and often flit about high in the forest canopy and so usually go unnoticed by casual observers.


Big Oil

This site, sponsored by the Petroleum Institute, is chock full of interesting information about oil and gasoline matters. Some of the more salient facts that can be gleaned from it include the following:

  • The amount of profit from a dollar of gasoline that goes to the oil companies is about 7.5 cents (though I've heard that it's even lower than that).
  • Oil demand worldwide has grown from 77 mbd (million barrels per day) in 2001 to 85 mbd in 2007. It will increase another 1.2 mbd this year and 1.3 mbd next year.
  • Next year's world oil production is expected to increase markedly over 2008 levels, which should push pump prices back down to about $3.45 a gallon.
  • Oil and natural gas sales in 2007 resulted in 8.3 cents profit on every dollar. The beverage and tobacco industry earned 19.1 cents per dollar. Oil profits were about average among all American industries.
  • Oil industry stock is overwhelmingly owned by the public. When oil companies profit almost all of us do as well. Individual investors own 23% of the stock; mutual funds almost 30%; pension funds hold 27%; IRAs hold about 14%; and corporate "insiders" own about 1.5%.
  • The top 27 energy companies paid $48.4 billion in income tax in 2004. With their friends Bush and Cheney in office giving them all sorts of tax breaks, starting wars on their behalf, and in general ripping off the little guy their income tax payments rose to $90.4 billion in 2006.
  • Oil companies in 2006 paid 40.7% of their income in taxes. The rest of American manufacturers paid 22.1%.
  • Since 1985 fifty seven refineries have closed but refining capacity has risen by 20% due to increases in efficiency. Continued improvements will boost domestic refining capacity by the equivalent of four new refineries by 2010.
  • The industry has spent $160 billion since 1990 on making their product more environmentally safe.
  • We have 112 billion barrels of crude oil offshore and in Alaska that we are not using. This is enough oil to power 60 million cars for 60 years. There's enough natural gas to heat 60 million homes for 160 years. Congress, however, has blocked all attempts to recover this resource.
  • Of the eighteen largest oil companies in the world, only one of them is a U.S. company. Our largest firm, Exxon/Mobil, produces only about 3% of the world's petroleum.
  • The U.S. imports 59% of the petroleum it uses. Our largest supplier is Canada (12% of what we use). Only 7% of our petroleum needs comes from Saudi Arabia. The only other Middle eastern supplier is Iraq (3%).

Despite these statistics, people like Maxine Waters want to nationalize the industry and all of our presidential candidates are talking about taxing oil companies even more heavily. Speaking of Waters, this video has to be seen in order to fully appreciate the congresswoman from California:

And to think we're paying her salary. Who votes for these people, anyway?


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Fuel Economy

If you're concerned about gas prices and are thinking about a new ride you might be interested in this article from Consumer Reports:

Consumer Reports recently announced its annual used cars ratings, and we weren't surprised to see one of the major categories was "Best in Fuel Economy." With gasoline and oil prices on a seemingly endless upward spiral, that's a key factor these days when choosing a used car -- or even a new one.

The cars that made this list were, according to Consumer Reports, "the affordable and reliable vehicles [that] returned some of the best results in our real-world fuel-economy tests."

Consumer Reports broke them up into two groups: "Under $10,000" and "$10,000-$20,000."

What follows is a list of the vehicles that Consumer Reports rated "Best in Fuel Economy," with a short description of each vehicle. The mileage figures stated are the ones calculated by Consumer Reports in their own on-the-road tests.

Read the recommendations at the link.



My friend Byron links me to a brief 1996 piece by Michael Martin, a philosophy professor at Boston university, who makes an argument against the existence of God. I read it with interest, impressed by the inverse relation between the ambition of Martin's project and the thinness of the argument he offers in its support.

Let's take a look. Martin writes:

Some Christian philosophers have made the incredible argument that logic, science and morality presuppose the truth of the Christian world view because logic, science and morality depend on the truth of this world view. Advocates call this argument the Transcendental Argument for Existence of God and I will call it TAG for short. In what follows I will not attempt to refute TAG directly. Rather I will show how one can argue exactly the opposite conclusion, namely, that logic, science and morality presuppose the falsehood of the Christian world view or at least the falsehood of the interpretation of his world view presupposed by TAG. I will call this argument the Transcendental Argument for the Nonexistence of God or TANG for short.

I don't know to which Christian philosophers Martin refers, but I know of no one who claims that logic, science, and morality depend upon the truth of Christianity. I do think, though, that morality, at least, depends upon the truth of theism, and that it may be that logic does also. As for science, it's conceivable that it could have emerged in an atheistic milieu, but it nevertheless seems to be the consensus among historians, even some who are not especially sympathetic to theism, that a Biblical worldview was an indispensible assist to the development of the modern scientific enterprise.

But let's see what Martin has to say in defense of TANG.

How might TANG proceed? Consider logic. Logic presupposes that its principles are necessarily true. However, according to the brand of Christianity assumed by TAG, God created everything, including logic; or at least everything, including logic, is dependent on God. But if something is created by or is dependent on God, it is not necessary--it is contingent on God. And if principles of logic are contingent on God, they are not logically necessary. Moreover, if principles of logic are contingent on God, God could change them. Thus, God could make the law of noncontradiction false; in other words, God could arrange matters so that a proposition and its negation were true at the same time. But this is absurd. How could God arrange matters so that New Zealand is south of China and that New Zealand is not south of it? So, one must conclude that logic is not dependent on God, and, insofar as the Christian world view assumes that logic is so dependent, it is false.

Well, actually no. God cannot change the laws of logic, to be sure, but that's because those laws are an expression of his nature out of which he has engineered the creation, something like an artist impressing his personality upon his art. God cannot change his nature any more than he can cause himself to cease to exist. So, yes, logic is dependent upon God in the same way that Goodness, Beauty, and Truth are dependent upon God, but these are not "things" he creates. They are his very essence.

Even so, the principles of logic may also be thought of as necessary in that, being an essential element of a necessary being (God), they themselves cannot not exist. If they did the necessary being which possesses them would not exist and that is a contradiction. Logic, then, is an ontological effusion of God into His creation and exists necessarily because it is an essential aspect of a God who possesses necessary existence.

Martin continues:

Consider science. It presupposes the uniformity of nature: that natural laws govern the world and that there are no violations of such laws. However, Christianity presupposes that there are miracles in which natural laws are violated. Since to make sense of science one must assume that there are no miracles, one must further assume that Christianity is false. To put this in a different way: Miracles by definition are violations of laws of nature that can only be explained by God's intervention. Yet science assumes that insofar as an event as an explanation at all, it has a scientific explanation--one that does not presuppose God. Thus, doing, science assumes that the Christian world view is false.

Martin here makes enough errors to cause one's head to spin. First, it's not at all the case that "to make sense out of science one must assume that there are no miracles." If it were then Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Boyle and dozens more of the greatest minds in the history of science were not making sense out of the discipline to which they contributed so much. Nor does science presuppose that there are no miracles. It simply cannot do this without making a nonscientific assumption that either God doesn't exist or, if he does, he doesn't intervene in the physical world. Both of these assumptions are metaphysical, not scientific.

What science actually presupposes is that what we call physical laws are simply descriptions of the way nature operates the vast majority of the time. If there appears to be a breach in the law then scientists assume, as a matter of methodology, that there is a natural explanation, but that methodological principle does not rule out God's intervention. It merely assumes that God's intervention cannot be scientifically demonstrated. If a scientist were to observe water change to wine the most he could say as a scientist is that there's no natural process with which he is familiar which could account for the phenomenon. It doesn't mean that there isn't one, nor does it mean that God did not override the normal action of physics and chemistry to produce a true miracle. The scientist has simply come up against the limits of what he can speak about as a scientist.

Nor is Martin correct in saying that miracles, by definition, are a violation of the laws of nature. A law of nature is a claim that given certain conditions certain other conditions will follow as far as we've been able to tell. For example, every time we've looked we've found that if something has mass it will exert a gravitational attraction on every other body. We thus assume for convenience's sake that this holds true everywhere in the universe and every time it's tested, but we have no proof of that. Induction does not yield proof.

Moreover, scientists talk all the time about regions or domains in the cosmos (or multiverse) which could have different laws. If so, then why couldn't a God who superintends the whole of reality import laws from one domain into another and thus override laws which normally obtain with higher order laws which normally do not?

God could supercede a physical law just like the gravitational force between particles can be overcome if both particles possess the same electrical charge. Gravity is not violated, the force still acts on the particles, but its effect is overridden by another, stronger, force.

One more thing. It could be that the laws of physics are framed such that given X, Y will occur unless Z happens. The law of inertia is stated exactly this way: An object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. Perhaps, to take a biblical example, the laws of buoyancy are something like this: Denser objects will always sink when placed in less dense substances unless the denser object is the Son of God. Since no one in modern times has witnessed the qualifier, science would be completely unaware of that part of the law.

Here's the point that Martin misses: Miracles need have no effect on the assumptions of science unless they are frequent. If they are rare, if a man were raised from the dead on average only once every thousand years, then the impact of such events on the scientific enterprise and the assumptions necessary for science to be fruitful, would be negligible.

So, whether science and logic actually depend upon the atheist assumption or presuppose the falsehood of Christianity, as Professor Martin wants us to believe, his argument does little to help us decide.

More on the third element in his case later.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Hypocrisy, at the Very Least

"Well, why, all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner? This is one-and-a-half years after he left the administration. And now, all of a sudden, he's raising these grave concerns that he claims he had. And I think you have to look at some of the facts. One, he is bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign. He has written a book and he certainly wants to go out there and promote that book."

Scott McClellan, March 22, 2004, speaking of Richard Clarke who had just written a book blasting the Bush administration.

HT: Michelle Malkin

With all the sturm und drang today about McClellan's perfidy and hypocrisy, which shortcomings in his character he seems to have left little reason to doubt, the chief questions about his book have gone unanswered. To wit: To what extent, exactly, is George Bush actually guilty of the malfeasances his former friend implicitly accuses him of and what evidence does he offer in support of the charges?

This is from the link:

McClellan issues this disclaimer about Bush: "I do not believe he or his White House deliberately or consciously sought to deceive the American people."

But most everything else he writes comes awfully close to making just this assertion, all the more stunning coming from someone who had been one of the longest-serving of the band of loyalists to come to Washington with Bush from Texas.

The heart of the book concerns Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq, a determination McClellan says the president had made by early 2002 - at least a full year before the invasion - if not even earlier.

"He signed off on a strategy for selling the war that was less than candid and honest," McClellan writes in What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.

McClellan says Bush's main reason for war always was "an ambitious and idealistic post-9/11 vision of transforming the Middle East through the spread of freedom." But Bush and his advisers made "a marketing choice" to downplay this rationale in favor of one focused on increasingly trumped-up portrayals of the threat posed by the weapons of mass destruction.

During the "political propaganda campaign to sell the war to the American people," Bush and his team tried to make the "WMD threat and the Iraqi connection to terrorism appear just a little more certain, a little less questionable than they were." Something else was downplayed as well, McClellan says: any discussion of "the possible unpleasant consequences of war - casualties, economic effects, geopolitical risks, diplomatic repercussions."

Did the administration really make a conscious "marketing choice" or were they simply predisposed to see in Iraq what they expected to see? What evidence does McClellan offer that the administration deliberately manipulated facts to deceive the American public? Given what was known at the time and in the wake of 9/11, was the administration trying to enact an idealistic geo-political agenda by invading Iraq or were they following a policy of "better safe than sorry" in toppling one of the most evil men since Adolf Hitler? Or were they doing both?

I'm sure Mr. McClellan will be asked to answer these questions and others like them before more than one Congressional committee.

Meanwhile, we may reflect on how sad it is that people who feel that trashing one's benefactor in print after declining the opportunity to honorably leave the service of the benefactor, is an act of personal betrayal when done by others, but who will themselves indulge in the same ignoble behavior when the opportunity presents itself to them.


America's Dark Ages

In an essay in First Things titled The Sixties Again and Again George Weigel points to six events or "moments" which occurred in that lamentable decade which forever changed this nation and its people:

Taken together, these six moments suggest that something of enduring consequence happened to liberal politics, and thus to American political culture, during the Sixties. A politics of reason gave way to a politics of emotion and flirted with the politics of irrationality; the claims of moral reason were displaced by moralism; the notion that all men and women were called to live lives of responsibility was displaced by the notion that some people were, by reason of birth, victims; patriotism became suspect, to be replaced by a vague internationalism; democratic persuasion was displaced by judicial activism. Each of these consequences is much with us today. What one thinks about them defines the substratum of the politics of 2008, the issues-beneath-the-issues.

You'll have to read Weigel's essay to find out what those six moments were.

If reading about the sixties is more than you can think you can bear, take heart, it could be worse. The article could have been about the seventies. Perhaps the only decade in America's history more nightmarish than the sixties was the one which came immediately after it.

Roe v. Wade, forced busing, Watergate, mile long lines at the pumps, the explosive growth of crime, government entitlements and divorce, My Lai and our ignominious retreat from southeast Asia, the string of court decisions which made many of our schools all but ungovernable, and on and on. For a good synopsis of this miserable but strangely fascinating period in our nation's history see David Frum's How We Got Here.


Substance Dualism

Dinesh D'Souza offers us a concise introduction to the mind/body controversy in this essay. He begins with this:

Conventional wisdom holds that the human mind is nothing more than the human brain. This belief derives from materialism. By "materialism" I don't mean the mania to shop unceasingly at the mall. Rather, I mean the philosophy that material reality is all that there is. Immaterial or spiritual realities are, in this view, simply epiphenomena of the material world.

We find the materialist view ably expressed in Francis Crick's The Astonishing Hypothesis. What Crick finds astonishing is that our thoughts, emotions and feelings consist entirely in the physiological activity in the circuitry of the brain. Daniel Dennett argues that "mind" is simply a term for what the brain does. And how do we know that the brain and the mind are essentially the same? The best evidence is that when the brain is damaged, the injury affects the mind. Patients whose brains atrophy due to stroke, for instance, lose their ability to distinguish colors or to empathize with others.

But in his book The Spiritual Brain, neuroscientist Mario Beauregard shows why the Crick-Dennett position is based on a fallacy. Yes, the brain is the necessary locus or venue for the mind to operate. It does not follow that the two are the same. Beauregard gives a telling analogy. "Olympic swimming events require an Olympic class swimming pool. But the pool does not create the Olympic events; it makes them feasible at a given location." Far from being identical to the mind, Beauregard argues that the brain "is an organ suitable for connecting the mind to the rest of the universe."

The book he refers to by Mario Beauregard, The Spiritual Brain, makes an excellent case for what is called substance dualism, the view that in addition to our material body we also possess a mind that is not reducible to matter. The book, co-written with Denyse O'Leary, plods in places but overall the two authors make a powerful case that materialism is simply wrong.

Thanks to Justin for passing the article along.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Positive Depictions

We often read of Hollywood's distaste for traditional religion and are irritated by the stereotypes they often present of people of faith. Yet there are occasionally films made - though not always by "Hollywood" - which present Christians in a realistic and favorable fashion, sometimes explicitly and sometimes in a more understated way.

I've tried to think of some examples that I've seen over the years and the following list is what I've come up with. I've limited the list to non-fantasy and thus have not included the Narnia films (e.g. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian), and I've not included films based on the Biblical narrative such as The Passion of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, etc.

Here's my list:

  • The Mission
  • Saints and Soldiers
  • The Scarlet and the Black
  • Chariots of Fire
  • Amazing Grace
  • Romero
  • The Big Kahuna*
  • Luther
  • End of the Spear
  • The Apostle
  • Facing the Giants

My friend Byron suggests some further possibilities:

  • Babette's Feast
  • The Hiding Place
  • Joni
  • Long Walk Home
  • Remember the Titans
  • To End All Wars*
  • Matewan
  • Entertaining Angels

* indicates an R-rating

I'm sure that there are many other films that we've overlooked so recommendations from readers would be welcome. You can send them along via our Feedback function.


Chauncy Obama

Charles Krauthammer, Jack Kelly, and Michelle Malkin tell us clearly, if tacitly, why we should see Barack Obama as an empty suit. As the campaign wears on there's a nervous apprehension beginning to take shape around the quality of Obama's education. Despite a degree from Harvard, he seems to possess a very uncertain grasp of both American history and American geography. Perhaps this judgment is unfair, but of this much we can be certain: If George W. Bush said just half the things Barack Obama has said, the hoots of derision would reverberate through the media echo chamber for years.

As Michelle reminds us in her piece, we still today hear about Dan Quayle misspelling of potato and George H. W. Bush's unfamiliarity with a supermarket scanner, but there's a good chance you haven't heard in the traditional media any of Obama's doozies reported by Krauthammer, et al.

Read their columns and contemplate that this man might well, in a few months, be the leader of the free world.

Here's a parting irony: George Bush often sounds a little dim when he speaks, especially extemporaneously, but he's known to be reasonably bright. Barack Obama sounds like Demosthenes when he speaks, but is rapidly coming to be seen as an intellectual poseur.

If you haven't already, you really should put Peter Sellers' Being There at the top of your Netflix queue. Senator Obama is Chauncy Gardner come to life.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

On this Memorial Day perhaps the best thing we can do to honor the men and women who have fought, died, and/or been grievously injured so that we can feel safe from communists, fascists, and terrorists while enjoying our backyard barbeques is to pause for a moment and send a card to someone lying in a bed at Walter Reed or any veterans' hospital around the country. You don't have to know anyone there, you can just send the card to the hospital and ask the staff to give it to someone of their choosing.

There are so many young men and women, and their families, trying to salvage something of their lives after suffering devastating injuries or the deaths of their loved ones, and so many other veterans of other conflicts who carry with them everyday the physical and psychological pain of war.

Surely we can take a moment on this day to express our gratitude to those whose sacrifice has made our comfort and security possible.


Feeling His Pain

I know exactly how Dilbert feels:

HT: Telic Thoughts


The End of Faith II

The other day we talked about David Brooks' assessment of the future of faith and left one part of his essay for separate consideration.

Brooks writes:

This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism.

If you survey the literature (and I'd recommend books by Newberg, Daniel J. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser if you want to get up to speed), you can see that certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion.

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

These, then, are the beliefs with which those who adhere to traditional faiths will have to contend in the future. Lets consider them seriatim:

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships.

I'm not sure what this means, nor am I sure that anyone can say exactly what the self is. I do think that if we have no soul then the self is either a nebulous and meaningless abstraction (e.g. "dynamic process of relationships")or it just is the physical body. In either case, those who wish to hold onto a meaningful notion of a self which possesses a body will probably do well to not abandon the idea of a personal and enduring soul.

Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions.

True enough, which raises the puzzling question of why this is. Is it because we have a common evolutionary ancestor from who we've inherited these intuitions? If so, then these intuitions are mere vestiges of an evolutionary history which need not encumber us today. Just as we can get along perfectly well without our tonsils so too can we get along just fine without the baggage of impulses that evolved to suit us for life in the stone age.

Or are these common moral intuitions a result of the Creator having inscribed on our hearts timeless principles which he expects all men to follow? If so, they are binding, obligatory. In other words, the sense of moral obligation points us toward the God of traditional theism rather than toward some nebulous New-Age force of nature.

Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love.

Perhaps so, but what is the significance of these experiences? Are they encounters with God or merely the result of a hyper-active id? Unless these are encounters with something personal and transcendent they're ultimately just expressions of the state of our own psycho-chemistry and as such they're at bottom meaningless. If they're to be considered meaningful then they point to the God of traditional theism rather than some impersonal cosmic warm fuzzy.

Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

I don't think this is the best way to conceive of God at all. First of all the claim is self-refuting. If God is unknowable then we can say nothing about Him (It), which means that we can't say that He's unknowable or the "total of all there is." Second, the claim turns God into a vague abstraction like the deity of the deists or the Force from Star Wars. That's hardly the best way to think of God. A better way to conceive of Him, in my view, would be along the Anselmian lines of a being who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, at once transcendent and immanent, eternal, personal, and necessary.

Such a being is, in fact, the God of traditional theism and is compatible with the deity of most major world religions. Only the existence of this kind of Supreme Being gives religion any real content at all. If God is not as described above then all of man's religiosity is empty posturing and futile psychologizing.

The attempt to invest our spiritual quest with meaning while stripping the universe of any trace of the God of theism is an exercise in absurdity.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Closing in on a Cure

Here's more marvelous medical news: Researchers have developed a vaccine which apparently prevents an Alzheimer's-like disease in mice. The hope is that the vaccine may even be able to reverse some of the causes of Alzheimer's. Read the story for the details.


The Loser Letters II

Mary Eberstadt sends off another letter to her BRIGHT overlords offering them some sage advice as to how to deal with Christian DULLS. Her letter is full of excellent insights. Let's hope the BRIGHTS decline her recommendations.


The Scientist and the Turtle

Scientist Sean Carroll responds to an article by physicist Paul Davies who wonders why the laws of nature take the form they do. Carroll writes:

I can think of a few possibilities. One is logical necessity: the laws of physics take the form they do because no other form is possible. But that can't be right; it's easy to think of other possible forms. The universe could be a gas of hard spheres interacting under the rules of Newtonian mechanics, or it could be a cellular automaton, or it could be a single point. Another possibility is external influence: the universe is not all there is, but instead is the product of some higher (supernatural?) power. That is a conceivable answer, but not a very good one, as there is neither evidence for such a power nor any need to invoke it.

The final possibility, which seems to be the right one, is: that's just how things are. There is a chain of explanations concerning things that happen in the universe, which ultimately reaches to the fundamental laws of nature and stops. This is a simple hypothesis that fits all the data; until it stops being consistent with what we know about the universe, the burden of proof is on any alternative idea for why the laws take the form they do.

No further explanation is necessary or plausible. The universe is the way it is because it just is. But could it be designed? Yes, Carroll tells us, but there's no need to invoke that possibility.

Why not? There are mountains of evidence that the universe is amazingly suited for living beings and that such a universe is extraordinarily improbable. Doesn't that suggest the need for some explanation beyond itself?

No, Carroll insists. Why? Because there's no evidence that a designer exists. But what about the evidence of a precisely-tuned cosmos? That's not evidence, replies Carroll, that's just the way things are.

This is like the men who found a turtle perched atop a five foot high post. One man turned to his friend in wonderment and asked who he thought put the turtle there. His friend replied that there was no reason to think that anyone put the turtle on the post since there was no evidence that anyone else was around. But what about the turtle, the first man, asked, isn't that evidence? No, the second man answered, the turtle's sitting on the post because that's just the way things are.

That's how scientists think when they're determined to make their science support their atheism.


Friday, May 23, 2008

The Conservative Candidate

The American Conservative Union has issued its annual congressional rankings for 2007. Senator John McCain earned an 80%, Senator Obama stood at 7%, and Senator Clinton scored a zero. Obama would probably have gotten a zero as well but for an uncharacteristically sensible vote he cast on an earmark bill.

These results show that there are indeed important differences between McCain and his rivals, but even so: Of the five issues most important to us here at Viewpoint - the war on terror (of which Iraq and Afghanistan are instances), judicial appointments, the economy (taxes, spending, jobs, earmarks, etc.), illegal immigration, and energy independence - McCain figures, on the basis of his record, to be good on the first, a little iffy on the next two, and absolutely awful on the last two.

Sadly, whichever of the two Democrat contenders he faces in November will most assuredly be absolutely awful on all five, and that stark reality persuades us to inch grudgingly toward Mr. McCain.


More Cell-Phone Hazards

Here's yet another report on the hazards of using cell phones, this time to unborn children:

Women who use mobile phones when pregnant are more likely to give birth to children with behavioural problems, according to authoritative research.

A giant study, which surveyed more than 13,000 children, found that using the handsets just two or three times a day was enough to raise the risk of their babies developing hyperactivity and difficulties with conduct, emotions and relationships by the time they reached school age. And it adds that the likelihood is even greater if the children themselves used the phones before the age of seven.

The results of the study, the first of its kind, have taken the top scientists who conducted it by surprise. But they follow warnings against both pregnant women and children using mobiles by the official Russian radiation watchdog body, which believes that the peril they pose "is not much lower than the risk to children's health from tobacco or alcohol".

Surely one of the biggest hazards of cell-phones is that reading all the studies on them can cause one to be depressed. There's more at the link.


Advice for the Candidate

The Reverends Al and Jesse give Senator Obama some advice:

Doesn't this violate the separation of church and state, or something?


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Defense Spending

In the following video clip Barack Obama essentially promises to emasculate the American military. All he needs to make his list of promises complete is to promise to appoint terrorist William Ayers Secretary of Defense:

Here's one of the systems/capabilities the senator promises to kill if he's elected to the presidency:

The system used to destroy this malfunctioning satellite was developed to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles from China, Russia, and rogue states like North Korea and perhaps one day, Iran. This is a capability Senator Obama thinks we shouldn't have and which, in any event, is too costly.

Is he right? Isn't it true that we're spending an enormous amount of our resources on the military? Aren't Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bankrupting this country? Let's put military spending into historical perspective. The following is taken from the Federal Budget Historical Tables and passed along to us by Dick Francis:

In 2007, total defense spending was 4 percent of the GDP and 20.2 percent of federal spending. Most government spending is on human resources. This portion of the budget took up 64.4 percent of federal spending in 2007. But there's more:

In 1943, during World War II, defense spending was 37 percent of the GDP and 84.9 percent of federal spending.

In 1953, during the Korean War, it was 14.2 percent of the GDP and 69.4 percent of federal spending.

In 1968, during the Vietnam War, it was 9.5 percent and 46 percent.

And, most significantly, during the Carter Administration, with no war going on and a Democratic president and Congress in Washington, defense spending averaged about 4.8 percent of the GDP and 23 percent of the federal budget.

In other words, contrary to what Senator Obama and others of the President's critics would have us believe, the U.S. is allocating a historically low proportion of its economy and its national budget to the defense of our nation and our people.


Prince Caspian

There's a lot of commentary at NRO on the recently released Prince Caspian, a film based on the second installment of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series. Frederica Mathewes-Green thinks the movie is better than the book and offers a list of other movies which, in the minds of her friends and family, were better than the books they were based on.

For more on Prince Caspian check out Byron Borger's Booknotes.


Our Prospering Intellectual Culture

Perhaps we should start a list of public individuals who really need to see the movie Expelled. A worthy candidate for charter membership on our list might be Alan Wolfe, a Boston College sociologist, who delivered himself of the following little gem while commenting on the emergence of Evangelical thinkers among academic intellectuals. The paragraph is taken from a Washington Post article:

As evangelical scholars seek greater influence, Wolfe warns that getting respect is a two-way street. Evangelicals in the academy too often aren't open to truly engaging those who disagree, said Wolfe, who points to things like "faith statements" at evangelical colleges, which require professors to proclaim Christian belief. A prospering intellectual culture wouldn't make that requirement and shut other views out, he said.

Really? Tell that to Guillermo Gonzalez, formerly of Iowa State University, or any number of other non-tenured professors at any number of universities who remain closet anti-Darwinians for fear that public acknowledgement of their views would wreck their careers. Evidently, there's not much of a prospering intellectual culture at many of our major academies.

Come to think of it, Wolfe may unwittingly be on to something.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sen. Kennedy and Life Eternal

The news of Senator Ted Kennedy's brain tumor led me along a rabbit trail of reflections to some thoughts on the matter of eternal life.

I would have dearly loved to have Mr. Kennedy out of the senate, but not this way. I think his ideas and policies, his harsh, and sometimes vicious, attacks on Republicans from Ronald Reagan to Robert Bork to George W. Bush, have been deeply harmful to this country, but, even so, being wrong and doing things that hurt others is a human failing to which we are every one of us predisposed.

I pray that the treatments he will undergo will be successful and that his cancer will subside into remission.

The possibility that he has only a few months left to live, however, led me by stream of consciouness to wonder about eternity, and how, exactly, we should think about the eternal fate of people we believe to have deeply harmed our nation (Senator Kennedy's illness initiated this rumination, but I do not now have him in mind). It's tempting, no doubt, to resent the idea that such individuals could ever be granted access to Paradise, and it certainly seems fair that individuals who have perpetrated particularly terrible wrongs, people like the Nazis, for example, be made to suffer forever for their offenses.

Whatever one may think of the justice of this, it certainly seems uncompassionate, and unChristian, even if many of us often very reasonably succumb to this way of thinking. I can imagine a person who lost a loved one on 9/11 would have great difficulty with the notion that Osama bin Laden might wind up in heaven with them.

Thus I find myself in an uneasy theological position. I desire justice, that those who have done great harm somehow be made to pay, and yet I believe, too, that it's cruel to desire to see anyone, even someone as monstrous as a Stalin, Hitler or Saddam, suffer for eternity. In other words, I find myself having to admit that my hope should be that God's will eventually will be done and that everyone ultimately will be purged of his crimes and debt by accepting Christ's atoning work.

Since I also believe that our eternal fate is something that we choose, and since I believe that there are those who cannot bear to choose to spend eternity with God, and since these people therefore choose to separate themselves from God and all that is good, I have to consequently believe that some there are who could well be eternally lost. Yet, I wonder if their lostness doesn't produce an ache in God's heart like the pain the father of the prodigal must have had. I wonder if God is not in some sense like a loving parent, some of whose grown children nevertheless treat Him abominably and break His heart every day.

Could it be possible that perhaps part of the mission and challenge of some in the new earth will be to minister to these wretched souls for as long as it takes to bring them back (See C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce)? Could it be possible that this is the plan the Father has for the "younger brothers" in His Kingdom? Perhaps it is the case that only when everyone is safely home will the Father be able to fully rejoice.

In any event, while we desire, hope and pray for justice in the world let's also pray that we not become like the Pharisees who, in their pursuit of justice, forgot all about compassion. In other words, regardless what our personal convictions about salvation may be, we should hope that somehow, ultimately, everyone will find their way home.

Shouldn't we?


Off-Limits? Why?

Barack Obama was indignant on Good Morning America the other day over Republican criticisms of his wife's recent remarks:

"But I do want to say this to the GOP. If they think that they're going to try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign, they should be careful. Because that I find unacceptable," he said.

Obama praised his wife's patriotism and said that for Republicans "to try to distort or to play snippets of her remarks in ways that are unflattering to her I think is just low class ... and especially for people who purport to be promoters of family values, who claim that they are protectors of the values and ideals and the decency of the American people to start attacking my wife in a political campaign I think is detestable."

"But I also think these folks should lay off my wife," he told 'GMA' as his wife chuckled beside him.

Gracious me. The Senator evidently believes that Michelle Obama should be allowed to join in the political fray, make whatever comments she pleases about the meanness of the United States and how there's nothing about the U.S. of which she can be proud, and the GOP must dare not quote her remarks or express any disapproval of them whatsoever. Such behavior is "detestable" according to the outraged husband.

I wonder. Is it also detestable for Hillary's spouse's comments to be scrutinized and criticized? Is Michelle Obama a child to whom we should all condescend when she makes speeches in the public square bearing on matters of public interest? If Obama wants his wife to be off-limits to GOP political ads then he should get her off the political stage. If she's going to act like a politician then it's just as silly to declare her exempt from public criticism as it is to declare Bill Clinton exempt.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Pay Up

Think about this if you're starting a family - you're already, right now, half a million dollars in debt:

The federal government's long-term financial obligations grew by $2.5 trillion last year, a reflection of the mushrooming cost of Medicare and Social Security benefits as more baby boomers reach retirement. That's double the red ink of a year earlier.

Taxpayers are on the hook for a record $57.3 trillion in federal liabilities to cover the lifetime benefits of everyone eligible for Medicare, Social Security and other government programs, a USA TODAY analysis found. That's nearly $500,000 per household.

When obligations of state and local governments are added, the total rises to $61.7 trillion, or $531,472 per household. That is more than four times what Americans owe in personal debt such as mortgages.

So what are your congresspersons doing about it? How much enthusiasm is there for reforming the system? When President Bush tried to relieve the burden on Social Security the Democrats said that the system was not in jeopardy and blocked his reform plans. Of course, the President himself added to the problem by expanding medicare entitlements.

Someday soon this debt is going to be unsustainable and millions are going to lose medicare coverage, social security and perhaps even see their private pensions dry up. This will almost certainly rock Wall Street so even those who have invested in the markets, which all pension funds do, will likely lose their nest egg. It's a time bomb that could devastate millions of lives.

Meanwhile, Congress spends its time, and your tax dollars, dreaming up ways to indict former Bush administration officials.

One thing we can count on. When you and I lose our retirements, your congressperson won't.



This video is a pastiche of scenes cut from Unlocking the Mystery of Life, Privileged Planet, and Expelled, with a little Rappin' With Dicky Dawkins and Judas Priest thrown in for good measure. The result's maybe a C+:

Caroline Crocker's story is interesting. It's too bad she doesn't get more time on the vid.

HT: Uncommon Descent


Mixing Science and Philosophy

One of the arguments against teaching intelligent design in science classes is that ID is a philosophical hypothesis, and only scientific hypotheses should be taught in science classes, especially in public schools. Even if it were the case that ID falls short of the criteria which define science, criteria which no one has ever really been able to satisfactorily identify, that should hardly disqualify it from mention in the science classroom. There are, after all, dozens of topics and ideas discussed in science classes, especially those populated by the brighter students, which surely share the same philosophical status as ID.

Here's a partial list of examples taken from a Viewpoint post from a couple of years ago:

1. The Many Worlds Hypothesis: The idea that ours is just one of a nearly infinite number of universes, all of which are closed off from each other thus defying detection.

2. The Oscillating Universe Hypothesis: The theory that our universe has expanded and collapsed an infinite number of times.

3. String theory: The idea that the fundamental units of material substance are unimaginably tiny vibrating filaments of energy.

4. The existence of other dimensions: The theory that the four dimensions of space-time are only part of physical reality.

5. Principle of Uniformity: The assumption that the laws and properties of the universe are homogenous and constant everywhere throughout the cosmos.

6. Assumption of Uniformitarianism: The idea that the same processes and forces at work in the world today have always been at work at essentially the same rates.

7. The Scientific Method: The idea that there is a particular methodology that defines the scientific process and which ought to be followed.

8. The Law of Parsimony: The principle that assumes that the simplest explanation which fits all the facts is the best.

9. The assumption that human reason is trustworthy: The notion that a faculty which has evolved because it made us better fit to survive is also a dependable guide to something else, truth, which has no necessary connection to human survival.

10. The assumption that we should value truth: The idea that truth should be esteemed more highly than competing values, like, for instance, personal comfort or group advancement.

11. The preference in science for naturalistic explanations: This is a preference based upon an untestable assumption that all knowable truth is found only in the natural realm.

12. Naturalistic Abiogenesis: The belief that natural forces are sufficient in themselves to have produced life.

13. The assumption that if something is physically possible and mathematically elegant then, given the age of the universe, it probably happened.

14. The assumption that the cosmos is atelic. I.e. that it has no purpose.

15. The assumption that there's a world external to our own minds.

16. Materialistic Reductionism: The conviction that all phenomena, including mental phenomena, can be ultimately explained solely in terms of physics and chemistry.

17. Assumption that the universe arose out of a "vacuum matrix" rather than out of nothing.

18. Ethical claims regarding the environment, nuclear power, cloning, or genetic engineering.

19. The Concept of the Meme: According to biologist Richard Dawkins memes are the cultural analog to genes. They are ideas or customs that are believed by Dawkins and others to get passed along according to their survival value rather than their truth value (see #9, above). An example of this, unfortunately, is the concept of the meme itself.

20. The criteria by which we distinguish science from non-science.

Mention of none of these in public school science classrooms precipitates the levitation of a single eyebrow among the custodians of science purity yet every one of them is a matter of metaphysical preference, not empirical fact. Why, then, do those custodians suddenly wax squeamish when the topic of discussion turns to the possibility that incredibly complex information-based systems in the living cell are the product of intentional engineering?


Monday, May 19, 2008

Beautiful Birds III

Here are a couple more pics of some of the more brilliant examples of our North American avifauna. The first is a Wood duck, one of the most common waterfowl in the northeast. Despite their abundance they're not often easy to see up close. They're shy, they inhabit wooded ponds and streams, and will often take flight before they are even spotted. Nevertheless, if the male can be seen at close range or with good optics in good light, it's stunningly colorful.

This next little fella' inspired one of America's most famous naturalists and artists, Roger Tory Peterson, to devote his life to the pursuit of birds. As a boy he was walking in New York City's Central Park one May, and a birder directed his gaze to a Magnolia warbler flitting in the bushes. Once he saw it he was hooked for life.

Finally, this last photo is of perhaps the most colorful songbird in all of North America. It's a male Painted bunting. These are found across the south and only rarely wander north of the Mason-Dixon line. Nevertheless, there was a female in Philadelphia's John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge throughout the winter of 2006.

Nature offers so much beauty to delight the senses and enrich our lives. It's a shame that we have so little time, and, sadly, too little inclination, to take it in.


The Future of Faith Pt. I

David Brooks has a column in the New York Times (free subscription may be required) which has already sparked some lively discussion. He talks about how advances made in the field of neuro- and other cognitive sciences are ultimately going to undermine belief in the Bible and in the soul, but not in the existence of a transcendent deity.

His last paragraph provides a good summary of his essay:

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That's bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They're going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day. I'm not qualified to take sides, believe me. I'm just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We're in the middle of a scientific revolution. It's going to have big cultural effects.

Actually, the future Brooks predicts has been with us for almost two centuries. Ever since Darwin, and even before, scientific naturalism and religious faith have been at daggers drawn. Moreover, for the last several decades we've seen the growth of a syncretistic "New Age" religion which seeks to hold onto transcendence while pretty much disposing of inconvenient religious doctrines.

In any event, Brooks thinks that our deepening understanding of the brain is going to somehow hasten the process of dissolving religious particularism. He believes that Christian belief will become less and less persuasive for more and more people as science learns more and more about how the brain works. If he's right then those churches and Christian institutions which have failed to teach their young the basis for belief and ground them in a solid understanding of why they believe what they believe have done the faithful a real disservice and will indeed come to be seen as increasingly irrelevant.

He writes:

Lo and behold, over the past decade, a new group of assertive atheists has done battle with defenders of faith. The two sides have argued about whether it is reasonable to conceive of a soul that survives the death of the body and about whether understanding the brain explains away or merely adds to our appreciation of the entity that created it.

Brooks makes an assumption here about the soul that needs be teased out. He seems to be conflating soul and mind, which is not an unusual association, but neither is it necessary. Mind and soul may well be two different entities, in which case the question is not whether the soul survives the death of the body but rather whether the mind does. In other words, even if the materialist view is correct that we are just atoms, and that mind is just a word we use to describe the function of the brain, that doesn't necessarily eliminate the soul.

In the materialist view the soul, life, emotions, and consciousness are nothing but the products of chemical processes which have reached a certain critical mass and give rise to certain astounding emergent phenomena. But we need not accept this dehumanizing reductionistic materialism, a view which, by the way, is thoroughly unscientific because there's no way to test it, in order to grant that it might be that there's no soul, in the classic sense, residing in persons. It is possible that we have a mind which works in concert with the brain and is necessary for its proper function and also have a soul which is not necessarily a mental entity.

Perhaps the soul is not some gossamer, wraith-like entity that inhabits our body like a ghost-in-a-machine, to use Gilbert Ryle's famous metaphor. Perhaps instead we can think of it as the sum total of information which describes us as a person. It is, on this view, the totality of our history, our personality, hopes, dreams, loves, and fears. It encompasses a complete description of our physical, emotional, and moral selves. It is a comprehensive account of every aspect of our being all stored like a computer file folder in the data base that is the mind of God. As such it is eternal and indestructible unless God chooses to delete it. Even at the death of the body we have the potential to exist as long as God holds us (the information which describes us) in being in His mind. God may, if He chooses, reinstantiate us when our body gives out by downloading selected files from our folder into another suitable structure in some other reality.

Thus the materialists could be correct that we (our bodies) are comprised solely of material substance (I don't think they are, though, because I have my doubts that matter alone can fully explain consciousness) but they could still be wrong in asserting that there is no soul.

And yet my guess is that the atheism debate is going to be a sideshow. The cognitive revolution is not going to end up undermining faith in God, it's going to end up challenging faith in the Bible.

This is probably true, but it's not news. The Bible has been under assault for at least two hundred years. Despite the exegetical difficulties presented by certain passages, especially in the Old Testament, it has weathered many storms. Whether it will continue to do so depends, at least from the human side of things, on the scholarship and skill of its defenders. Again it must be said there will be increasing need for well-educated, committed Christian scholars to face these challenges. If we don't produce them Christianity could well become sociologically and culturally marginalized.

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

Here we see one of the many vulnerabilities of secular materialism. If our moral sense is just a by-product of genetic evolution then we're no more obligated to obey our instinct for fairness, say, than we are to obey our instinct to be promiscuous or aggressive. Instincts impose no demands and are not moral imperatives. They carry no moral value. To act contrary to human instinct, if indeed such a thing exists, is to do nothing that can be judged morally wrong.

The best explanation for universal moral intuitions, and the only one that gives them any moral sanction, is that they were woven into the universe by an omnibenevolent, omniscient mind which insists, on pain of eternal consequences, that they be obeyed.

Brooks says more on the future of faith that I'd like to talk about in a separate post.


Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Loser Letters

A former Christian who has converted to atheism initiates a series of letters to her new colleagues cautioning them about some of their attitudes and rhetoric. The preliminary letter as well as the first installment can be read at National Review Online. The ex-Christian admonishes her new friends in the letter to be very careful about how they talk about sex.

Those who have enjoyed C.S.Lewis' Screwtape Letters will appreciate this clever addition to the genre.


The Culture War

The California State Supreme Court has ruled 4-3 that there is in the state's constitution, evidently, a right to marry for same sex couples. This decision overrules a law favored by over 60% of the state's citizens that restricts marriage to a man and a woman.

Several observers have noted that there's nothing in the majority's decision which would prevent plural marriage or incest, only a tepid footnote which states that "our nation's culture has considered [those] relationships inimical to the mutually supportive and healthy family relationships promoted by the constitutional right to marry."

Well, has not our nation's culture long considered homosexual marriage to be inimical to healthy family relationships? If the gender of the people entering marriage no longer matters why should the number of people?

In Pennsylvania, where there's an ungoing struggle to pass a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman, a man testifying before the state senate was grilled by one senator with this question: If two homosexuals are allowed to marry will that harm your marriage to your wife? The witness was temporarily at a loss for a response and the Senator interpreted that as some sort of victory for the gay marriage advocates.

The appropriate answer to the Senator is that the problem is not the effect that opening marriage to same sex couples will have on particular heterosexual unions. The problem is the effect it will have on the institution of marriage in general.

If court decisions like that in California are allowed to stand (California voters will have the opportunity to effectively overturn it in a referendum scheduled for November) they will act as a social acid gradually but inexorably eating away at the institution of marriage and the family, dissolving both. Once any combination of people can marry each other then marriage will come to mean anything at all, and, consequently, nothing at all.


Friday, May 16, 2008

On Dignity

Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, has written something of a screed in The New Republic in which he's very critical of a book produced by the President's Council on Bioethics addressing the role of human dignity in formulating public policy. He's even more critical of the book's contributors and passes up no opportunity to insult them for their views and the religious assumptions which inform them. Pinker is an atheist and is therefore of the belief that dignity, if it exists at all, is irrelevant to human ethical thinking.

There are three sections of his piece to which I'd like to call special attention. In the first Pinker writes:

The problem is that "dignity" is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, "Dignity Is a Useless Concept." Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy--the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele's sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, "dignity" adds nothing (Italics mine).

This is a good illustration of the confusions in which one gets mired once one abandons the notion of transcendence. The italicized claim is a non-sequitur. How does it follow from the fact that we share certain traits in common that therefore no one has the right to "impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another?" What is the logical connection between the two propositions? There simply isn't any.

Moreover, Macklin and Pinker confuse autonomy with dignity. It is not our autonomy that confers rights upon us. It's the fact that we have dignity. Our autonomy follows from the fact we have a prima facie right, bestowed by God, to be treated with respect. Indeed, this is what dignity is and we have that right because we are created in the image of God and because He loves and values each one of us.

If there is no God, if we're simply a cosmic accident, then not only has no one any right to be treated with respect but no one has any natural rights at all. Whatever rights we have are purely legal, they're just words on paper.

Pinker adds:

To be fair, most of the chapters in the Dignity volume don't appeal directly to Catholic doctrine, and of course the validity of an argument cannot be judged from the motives or affiliations of its champions. Judged solely on the merits of their arguments, how well do the essayists clarify the concept of dignity?

By their own admission, not very well. Almost every essayist concedes that the concept remains slippery and ambiguous. In fact, it spawns outright contradictions at every turn. We read that slavery and degradation are morally wrong because they take someone's dignity away. But we also read that nothing you can do to a person, including enslaving or degrading him, can take his dignity away. We read that dignity reflects excellence, striving, and conscience, so that only some people achieve it by dint of effort and character. We also read that everyone, no matter how lazy, evil, or mentally impaired, has dignity in full measure. Several essayists play the genocide card and claim that the horrors of the twentieth century are what you get when you fail to hold dignity sacrosanct. But one hardly needs the notion of "dignity" to say why it's wrong to gas six million Jews or to send Russian dissidents to the gulag.

Well, then. Why is it wrong for those who have the power to murder and enslave others to actually do it? David Berlinski in The Devil's Delusion quotes Heinrich Himmler, faced with the difficulties posed by Germany's treaty obligations with surrounding countries, as wondering aloud, "What, after all, compels us to keep our promises?" Indeed, Berlinski asks, what does?

On what grounds does Pinker, or any atheist, deny that might makes right? Like many atheists, Pinker believes that somehow moral right, wrong, and obligation can exist in a world where human beings are simply flesh and bone machines. This is the atheist delusion, if you will. They think they can still make meaningful moral judgments after having sawn off the metaphysical branch upon which they're sitting. Having rejected any adequate transcendent ground for moral right and wrong they're left with nothing but their own subjective feelings upon which they base moral pronouncements proclaimed ex cathedra, as though they were grounded in some inexorable law of the universe.

Here's an example:

Worst of all, theocon bioethics flaunts a callousness toward the billions of non-geriatric people, born and unborn, whose lives or health could be saved by biomedical advances. Even if progress were delayed a mere decade by moratoria, red tape, and funding taboos (to say nothing of the threat of criminal prosecution), millions of people with degenerative diseases and failing organs would needlessly suffer and die. And that would be the biggest affront to human dignity of all.

Forget about the obvious mendacity of the first sentence. Ask instead, yet again, what grounds Pinker has for being outraged by such an affront were it really the case. Once more, all he's doing is emoting, telling us something about his own likes and dislikes, declaring to all and sundry that he doesn't feel good about allowing moral constraints to hold up biomedical progress. But of course, that's no reason for him to think such impediments are actually wrong. On his view they can be nothing more than an unfortunate inconvenience.

Pinker suffers from an advanced case of the atheist's delusion, the belief that moral obligation can be grounded entirely in one's own feelings, and perhaps only a miracle, ironically enough, can cure him.

Yuval Levin offers a devastating response to Pinker's other claims at NRO.


Happy Birthday to Us

Today is a special day here at Viewpoint. Four years ago today we put up our first post (on gay marriage). Since then we've tallied 4290 posts and almost 259,400 visitor hits. Special thanks to my brother Bill for keeping everything up and running and to all of our faithful readers who visit us regularly and give us the inspiration to keep going.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Atheist Delusion

William Lane Craig is a philosopher in the tradition of the ancient Greek Socrates. He believes that philosophical ideas, particularly religious ones, should be debated in the public square rather than confined to academic cloisters. Consequently, he finds himself frequently invited to debate prominent atheists in public forums.

He recently engaged Dr. Louise Antony, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachussetts, on a topic that gets a lot of print here at Viewpoint: "Is God Necessary for Morality?" Craig reflects on the debate here.

One of the exchanges he mentions had to do with a problem first raised by Epicurus over 2000 years ago and frequently cited by skeptics ever since. Here's Craig's summary of it:

In her opening speech .... [Dr. Antony] went on the offensive and argued that moral values cannot depend on God .... Her argument was an old, familiar one: either something is good because God wills it or else God wills something because it is good. The first alternative is unacceptable, since it makes what is good (or evil) arbitrary, and the second alternative implies that the good is independent of God. So moral values cannot depend on God.

David Berlinski presents this same argument in his otherwise enjoyable Devil's Delusion. Berlinski claims that there are three possible answers to the question of what sanctions our moral sentiments - God, logic, and nothing. Berlinski claims that all three are inadequate. He's right about the last two but not about the first. His mistake is to think that if morality derives from God's will then if God's will were to change what's wrong today - rape, murder, and cruelty - could all be right tomorrow. The problem with this is that morality doesn't derive from God's will but rather from His nature. His will simply reflects His nature and His nature is unchanging.

Craig responds to Antony in similar fashion:

In my second speech I immediately dispatched this false dilemma by explaining a third alternative: God wills something because He is good. This is the classical theistic position: God's nature determines what is good (so the good is not independent of God) and His nature necessarily expresses itself toward us in the form of His commandments (so that they are not arbitrary).

The atheist just cannot circumvent the fact that if atheism is true moral obligation is an illusion and nothing is more absurd than an atheist delivering himself of moral opinions and judgments, which, of course, many of them do with amusing regularity. This is what might be called the atheist delusion.

Craig challenges Antony with this very point:

In my opening speech I presented three challenges to any atheist who, like Prof. Antony, wants to cling to objective morality in the absence of God. (1) If there is no God, what is the basis for objective moral values? In particular, what is the basis for the value of human beings? (2) If there is no God, what is the basis of objective moral duties? Who or what imposes these obligations and prohibitions upon us? (3) If there is no God, what is the basis of moral accountability? Since all human life ends in death, morality becomes vain, since our fate is unrelated to our moral behavior. I knew that Dr. Antony, though an atheist, believes in objective morality, so what I was challenging her to give was some positive account of how morality is objective in the absence of God.

Apparently, Dr. Antony declined to respond to those challenges, but that's not surprising. There's really nothing she could have said by way of reply. You can read more on the debate at the link.


The Winner

Larry Wright's cartoon tells a strange story. The media which fawned all over Senator Clinton when she first announced her candidacy and which staunchly defended her and her wayward hubby throughout the nineties despite their numerous crimes, misdemeanors, malfeasances and peccadilloes, has now, like a middle aged man undergoing a mid-life crisis, tossed Hillary aside for a younger, sexier political novice.

It's bad enough that she has suffered this treatment from her husband but to suffer it now at the hands of a fickle press who has left her for a candidate she probably regards as a political bimbo must be almost unendurable.

Another ironic thing about the narrative of this primary is that Hillary may well wind up with a higher popular vote total than Obama if Michigan and Florida are counted. She has won almost all of the big states and would possibly have more appeal to moderate Republicans and independents than Obama would once his views are fully vetted. Yet the Democrats seem determined to go with a virtual novice, a complete unknown.

Fortunately for them their opponent is John McCain who is himself determined to do whatever he can to alienate his Republican base.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Beautiful Birds II

Spring is full of delights to the eye. Flowers and butterflies, for example, are incredibly beautiful when viewed up close. My favorites, though, as I noted the other day, are the birds: Here are pictures of three North American species that are particularly lovely. The first is found anywhere in the east there are mature trees in relatively open woodlots. It's the bird for which the major league Baltimore orioles are named:

This next is a fairly common migrant, and in fact I just had one in my backyard today. It's called a Rose-Breasted grosbeak and the combination of black, white and red makes it a gorgeous bird:

This striking creature is harder to find unless one lives south of the Mason-Dixon line. It inhabits wooded swamps and nests in cavities, mostly in the south. It's a prothonotary warbler, and it played a prominent role in the famous Alger Hiss spy trial back in 1948.

There are lots more feathered jewels of spring so I'll post a few more pics in a day or so.



Is Senator Obama unelectable? I'd feel more confident that he was if it weren't for McCain's propensity for thumbing his nose at conservative Republicans. Enough Republicans may vote for McCain, but few are enthusiastic about him, and enthusiasm is crucial. It translates into volunteers, contributions, and friends and family being persuaded to vote for the candidate one feels strongly about.

If the Republican party had had the foresight to groom and nominate someone with administrative experience, personality and solid conservative credentials Obama would be a flash in the pan. As it is he may very well prove to be our next president. If so, he will probably be the furthest any president has ever been from the philosophical mainstream of the American people.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Time to Invade Burma?

Gosh. Time magazine, of all people, has an article all but calling for the U.S. to invade Burma in order to rescue the suffering millions from the wicked delinquencies of their leaders. Can this be the same Time magazine that has been reliably opposed to our efforts to do pretty much the same thing in Iraq where we have far more in the way of national interest at stake than we do in Burma?

Is the difference between the two cases merely that Iraq was George Bush's idea and therefore misguided, but invading Burma would be a liberal idea and therefore noble? I don't know, and I don't necessarily oppose military action to rescue those poor wretched peasants in principle. I just wonder why Time would think military force in Burma more justifiable than military force in Iraq.

See also here, and National Review Online starting here.


Philosophers' Version of Fight Club

Two prominent philosophers whose specialty is the study of mind have been at each other's throats, as it were, for twenty five years, all because of an impolitic remark one made about the other's girl-friend. No one holds grudges with the tenacity and bitterness of intellectuals.

One of them has written a book which has been reviewed by the other. This article in The Guardian describes the review:

It is probably the most negative book review ever written. Or if there is a worse one, do let me know. "This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad," begins Colin McGinn's review of On Consciousness by Ted Honderich. "It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent."

The ending isn't much better: "Is there anything of merit in On Consciousness? Honderich does occasionally show glimmers of understanding that the problem of consciousness is difficult and that most of our ideas about it fall short of the mark. His instincts, at least, are not always wrong. It is a pity that his own efforts here are so shoddy, inept, and disastrous (to use a term he is fond of applying to the views of others)."

Ouch. There's more at the link including some amplification by both combatants.

HT: Mindful Hack


Monday, May 12, 2008

Unassisted Triple Play

This has happened only fourteen times in major league history - an unassisted triple play:

It happened tonight in a game between the Indians and the Blue Jays. You'd think the announcers would be a little more excited about having witnessed it.


Regarding Reagan

My friend Jason passes along a Newsweek piece in which a liberal, Sean Wilentz, and a conservative, George Will, discuss the legacy of Ronald Reagan. It's an interesting conversation in its own right, not least because Wilentz has a lot of admiration for Reagan and suggests that he's becoming more universally recognized as a historic president. I urge any reader interested in recent history to give it a look.

The thing about it that I found most fascinating, however, is that almost everything both men say about Reagan could also be said about George W. Bush. I've said before that I believe Bush will go down in history as a much more consequential president than Ronald Reagan, especially if Iraq and Afghanistan are long-term successes. I don't like everything that George Bush has done, but most people forget that there was a lot about Reagan that even members of his own party didn't like (Will and Wilentz mention a few). People point to Bush's approval numbers and scoff at any suggestion that he'll be vindicated by history, but they forget that Harry Truman, who is widely respected by historians today, had even lower numbers than Bush does.

Bush's legacy, especially among conservatives, will someday eclipse that of Ronald Reagan who is justly regarded by contemporary conservatives as an icon. Bush's impact on the Supreme Court and on tax policy, the relative health of the economy despite terrific shocks (9/11, Katrina, the lending crisis), his liberation of 50 million people from oppression, his success in preventing further terrorist attacks on our soil, his stand for life, his compassionate outreach to the poor around the world, especially in Africa, the culmination under his leadership of Reagan's dream of a ballistic missile defense, his personal grace, virtue and faith, his appointments of minorities to positions of power, all of these and more are either the equal of RR or exceed what Reagan was able to accomplish.

Anyway, read the article. It's well worth the ten minutes it'll take you to do it.


Operation Chaos

There's been a flurry of media attention over the last several days on the matter of Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos," i.e. the talk show host's attempt to persuade Republicans to cross over and vote for Hillary in those Democratic primaries where voting is "open" to anyone. He's also urging Republicans to change their registration to Democrat for the sole purpose of voting for Hillary in those primaries which are closed. The putative purpose of all this is to keep Senator Clinton close enough to Senator Obama in the balloting that she'll be encouraged to stay in the race until the convention. Rush's thinking is that the longer this race goes on, especially if it goes all the way to the convention in August, the weaker the Democrat candidate who emerges from the fray will be.

Some Democrats are upset by this, but exit polls show that Mitt Romney defeated John McCain among Republicans in several states that McCain won because he garnered more of the non-Republican vote. So, the Democrats really have no right to complain.

There's been some media commentary on the ethics of all this, but it is legal, and that brings us to the topic of this post. Whether Rush succeeds in weakening the Democratic party or not, Operation Chaos will have served a salutary purpose, in my opinion, if it accomplishes two things:

First, it will be a good thing if the blatant manipulation of one party's nominating process by members of the other party causes both parties to realize that open primaries are a political absurdity. Why should Democrats, for example, have a say in who the Republicans will run against them? Perhaps after this primary season state parties will start asking themselves that question and close their primaries to all but members of their own party.

Second, there has been a trend for the last several decades toward doing everything possible to make voter registration easier. In some states you can join a party and vote in their primary just a few weeks, or even one day in the case of Connecticut, prior to the election. If the rules were changed to require that registration be closed, say, by Dec. 31st of the year before the primaries begin, that would effectively end tactics like Operation Chaos. Months before the voting started voters would be less likely to know whether there would be a close race in their own party and would thus be more reluctant to change their affiliation just for the sake of voting in another party's contest.

Whatever effect Operation Chaos has had, and Obama's people have said that it gave Hillary 7% in Indiana, a state she won by 2%, it would have been impossible to pull off at all had primaries been closed to non-members and had registration been closed long before the primaries began. If these two reforms gain wider consideration because the Democrats have been manipulated into a self-destructive primary campaign, then Operation Chaos will have been, on balance, a very good thing.


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Heroes Must Be Punished

There's a certain type of person, unfortunately all too common, who's like a mechanical device. Whenever input A is received, output B is spit out. It doesn't matter what the circumstances are, A must always result in B. As with automatons, there can be no exceptions, no deviations, only a rigid, unthinking, invariable stimulus/response. These people would be no more willing to actually think about what they do than they would be willing to donate their monthly paycheck to a local street gang. They possess consciousness, but prefer not to use it, opting instead to act like mental zombies. Such are the corporate overlords who run Super America:

A local gas station employee is out of a job after he thought he was helping save someone's life. Mark Beverly was one of two employees inside a Roseville Super America when a robber came into the store on March 26.

Beverly was cleaning the bathroom when he heard the store clerk cry out. He came out to find a robber attacking the female employee.

"I just jumped on his back and trying to hit his head and pushed him over the counter. I jumped back over and he was out of there," he said.

Later that day, Beverly returned to work only to be punished for his actions.

"I didn't think I was going to get fired for it," he told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.

Super America issued a statement, saying that 'employees are never to take action that could endanger themselves or others. It's regrettable this happened.'

"I didn't care about the money, I know Super America is insured. But I thought he was attacking her, that's why I jumped on him," he explained.

The Roseville Police Department has not made any arrests regarding the robbery. Beverly has been denied employment with Super America.

Mr. Beverly is a hero, but he's treated as though he were caught sleeping on the job. It makes sense to have a policy of non-resistance to robbers, but that's not what was happening here. A co-worker was being beaten. What do the corporate sages at Super America, who have probably never risked anything to help anyone in their lives, suggest that Mr. Beverly should have done? Dialogue with the mugger? Call 911 and let the woman be beaten for five long minutes until the police responded? Continue to mop the floor and pretend nothing was happening?

It doesn't matter to the lobotomized suits who inhabit the Super America penthouse suite that Mr. Beverly did the only thing that any decent human being in his position could do. All they know is that he breached company policy and so must be made an example for any other would-be decent human beings in their employ. This is how we reward those, their dismissal of Mr. Beverly warns, who have the insolence to care about the well-being of other people enough to risk harm to themselves to help them.

I hope there are some businessmen in the twin cities region who possess brains as well as spine and who will see in Mr. Beverly the kind of humanity and courage that they would like to have working for them. He's obviously over-qualified for Super America.

HT: Hot Air


Friday, May 9, 2008

Re: Bailout

About a week ago we did a post on an opportunity for readers to express their displeasure with Congress' plans to bail out lenders and borrowers who can no longer make payments on their mortgages by signing a petition.

One reader who signed the petition offers his reasons on our Feedback page. I'm sure he speaks for millions of Americans, and his letter will help those who might not quite understand what the fuss is about to see the issue more clearly.

To read it click on the Feedback button to the left.


Evangelical Manifesto

The Evangelical Manifesto we wrote about earlier this week has been released, and although I haven't had time to examine it thoroughly it seems on first reading to be a very impressive document. The concerns I expressed in the earlier post have been largely allayed.

The Manifesto's twenty pages are much too rich to summarize in a single post, but I certainly urge everyone to study it. Christians should familiarize themselves with it because it's a lodestone for people of faith looking to navigate the currents of modern culture, and non-Christians should study it because it's a Rosetta stone for those who seek to go beyond media stereotypes of Christianity and to decipher and understand for themselves who Christians are and what they really believe.

The Manifesto can be read here. A list of signatories can be found here.