Monday, June 30, 2008


Pink Floyd accompanies us on a tour of some of the marvels of the molecular machines that purely purposeless forces like blind chance and natural selection have teamed up to, er, engineer. Two of the prominent simulations are the production of messenger RNA from DNA, ATP synthesis, and the construction of a bacterial flagellum:

HT: Guts at Telic Thoughts


Hell on Earth

Zimbabwe used to be called Rhodesia. When it was Rhodesia it was the object of global outrage because it was a mostly black nation ruled by a minority white regime. The country was prosperous and largely well-governed, but blacks were second class citizens and the global community insisted that white rule was therefore unjust. Rhodesia became an international pariah, civil war broke out, and the government eventually succumbed, amidst the violence of the war, to international pressure and ushered in open elections. That was in 1980.

Since then Robert Mugabe has ruled the country. He has taken farms that whites had owned for generations, killed the whites if they resisted, and gave the land to his cronies thereby despoiling agriculture in this formerly highly productive land. He has driven the country to bankruptcy, inflation is currently around 100,580%, and the people live in fear, oppression, and squalor. The life expectancy for males has dropped from the mid-sixties to 37. For women it's 34. Sixty percent of the nation's wildlife has died off since 2000. White farmers who remain in the country have been told to leave or face jail, or worse. It's perhaps the most hellish place on a continent full of hellish places.

Nicholas Kristoff writes in the New York Times:

When I grew up in the 1970s, a central truth was that Ian Smith [Rhodesia's white president]was evil and Mugabe heroic. So it was jolting on my last visit to Zimbabwe, in 2005, to see how many Zimbabweans looked back on oppressive white rule with nostalgia. They offered a refrain: "Back then, at least parents could feed their children."

Recently, opposition to Mugabe mobilized and sought to unseat him in an election last week which the whole world has judged to be bogus. The opposition candidate dropped out of the race because the violence against him and his supporters made it impossible to continue.

FrontPage Mag has a good summary of conditions in the country, and this news item gives a sense of the day to day horror the people of Zimbabwe are living with under Mugabe and his thugs.

The Smith regime was oppressive and unjust, but justice involves much more than making sure that the tyrant is from the majority race. One hopes that those who campaigned so vigorously for the end of white rule in Rhodesia have learned at least that lesson from the catastrophe they've helped unleash.


Sunday, June 29, 2008

Pounding Mookie's Mahdi Army

You'll remember back a month or so ago the Iraqi army attacked the Mahdi army of Muqtada (Mookie) al Sadr in Basra in southern Iraq. You'll also remember that the attack got off to a slow start prompting media critics of the war to pronounce the IA a bunch of complete incompetents. You might be aware, too, how the fighting spread throughout Iraq, especially to Sadr City, a district of Baghdad.

What you are probably not aware of if you get your news from the MSM is the following:

The Mahdi Army suffered a significant blow during fighting against Iraqi and Coalition forces this year, according to an Iraq intelligence report. The heavy casualties suffered by the Mahdi Army have forced Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army and the Sadrist political movement, to change his tactics and disband the Mahdi Army in favor of a small, secretive fighting force.

"More than 2,000 cadres from the Mahdi Army leaders were killed recently," an Iraqi intelligence official told Gulf News. "This led to the almost complete collapse of the army," the official said. An estimated 1,300 Mahdi Army fighters "escaped to safe houses in Iran." Muqtada al Sadr currently resides in Qom, Iran, under the protection of Iran's Qods Force.

The Mahdi Army took heavy casualties while opposing the Iraqi security forces in Basrah and the South and against US and Iraqi forces in Sadr City during operations to secure the areas in March, April, and May. More than 1,000 Mahdi Army fighters were killed in Sadr City alone, according to a Mahdi Army commander in Baghdad. Another 415 were killed in Basrah. More than 400 were killed during fighting in the southern cities of Najaf, Karbala, Hillah, Diwaniyah, Amarah, Samawah, and Nasiriyah in late March and early April, according to numbers compiled by The Long War Journal. Thousands more have been wounded our captured.

The setbacks in Baghdad, Basrah, and the South have forced Sadr to turn the Mahdi Army into "a secret military organization," the Iraqi report stated. "The number of members doesn't exceed 150-200, hugely down from the total estimated number of 50,000 in the past two years."

There's much more bad news for the Mookster in this article, but you'll have to go to the link for it. If you have any anti-Bush friends who are feeling a little glum these days share this post with them. It'll cheer them up.


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Support for Torture Growing

Hot Air links to a report titled World Public Opinion on Torture. The report tells us, inter alia, that:

While Americans oppose the use of torture on the whole, the majority endorsing an unequivocal rule against torture is more modest than in other countries and has declined since 2006.

A modest majority (53%) feels that torture should unequivocally not be allowed, while forty-four percent favor an exception for terrorists. Thirteen say torture should be allowed in general.

Support for making exceptions for torture in the case of terrorists has grown among Americans since 2006 (44%, up from 36%), while the majority opposing the use of torture in all cases has fallen slightly (53%, down from 58%).

The arguments for or against an absolute prohibition on torture aside, there's an interesting irony in the above statistics. We live in a country where a majority of people believe that nothing is wrong absolutely and yet a majority also holds that torture is absolutely wrong. It's amusing to listen to secularists, whose position entails that there is no such thing as an objective moral wrong, go apoplectic when confronted with evidence that the Bush administration has employed "harsh measures" in their interrogation of terrorists.


Loser Letter #6

Mary Eberstadt concludes that until atheists understand the transcendent love that families engender they won't ever be able to persuade Dulls to come over to the Dark si..., I mean the Brights' side. Read her amusing analysis in her sixth Loser Letter at National Review Online.


Pretzel Logic

Howard Kurtz who is the media reporter at the Washington Post (i.e. he reports on the news media) takes the liberal MSM to task for completely ignoring Senator Obama's "pretzel logic" on the D.C gun ban issue:

Here's how the Illinois senator handled the issue with the Chicago Tribune just last November:

"The campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said that he ' . . . believes that we can recognize and respect the rights of law-abiding gun owners and the right of local communities to enact common sense laws to combat violence and save lives. Obama believes the D.C. handgun law is constitutional.' "

Kind of a flat statement.

And here's what ABC reported yesterday: " 'That statement was obviously an inartful attempt to explain the Senator's consistent position,' Obama spokesman Bill Burton tells ABC News."

Inartful indeed.

But even though the earlier Obama quote and the "inartful" comment have been bouncing around the Net for 24 hours, I'm not seeing any reference to them in the morning papers. Most do what the New York Times did: "Mr. Obama, who like Mr. McCain has been on record as supporting the individual-rights view, said the ruling would 'provide much-needed guidance to local jurisdictions across the country.' "

Supporting the individual-rights view? Not in November.

Even the Tribune--the very paper that the Obama camp told he supported the gun ban--makes no reference to the November interview. Instead: "Democrat Barack Obama offered a guarded response Thursday to the Supreme Court ruling striking down the District of Columbia's prohibition on handguns and sidestepped providing a view on the 32-year-old local gun ban. Republican rival John McCain's campaign accused him of an 'incredible flip-flop' on gun control."

So McCain accuses Obama of a flip-flop, and the Trib can't check the clips to tell readers whether there's some basis in fact for the charge?

USA Today takes the same tack:

"In a conference call put together by McCain's campaign, Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas said . . . that Obama has been changing his position on the gun issue and said the Democratic senator has done some 'incredible flip-flopping' on key issue."

And? And? That's all we get? He said/he said journalism?

Even if you wanted to maintain that it wasn't really a flip-flop, what about giving the readers the facts?

Facts? Facts?? Since when did the media feel constrained to supply us with facts unless those facts reflect poorly on Republicans or conservatives? The media is not about facts, they're all about creating an image and reinforcing impressions, and the public impression of Obama they want to reinforce is that he's a new kind of politician. if facts get in the way then the facts just get ignored.


Friday, June 27, 2008

Good News from Iraq

Vito calls our attention to this article in USAToday which really is heartening news:

WASHINGTON - Roadside bomb attacks and fatalities in Iraq are down by almost 90% over the last year, according to Pentagon records and interviews with military leaders. In May, 11 U.S. troops were killed by blasts from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) compared with 92 in May 2007, records show. That's an 88% decrease.

Military leaders cite several factors for the drop in attacks and deaths. They include:

� New vehicles. Almost 7,000 heavily armored Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles have been rushed to Iraq in the last year. "They've taken hits, many, many hits that would have killed soldiers and marines in uparmored Humvees," Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a recent interview. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made obtaining at least 15,000 MRAPs his top priority last year.

� Iraqi assistance. Ad hoc local security forces, known as the Sons of Iraq, have provided on-the-ground intelligence to U.S. forces looking for IEDs, said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commanded a division in Baghdad from February 2007 until May. Each member of the security forces earns about $8 per day. Lynch has hired about 36,000 of them to man checkpoints and provide intelligence on the insurgency. He said about 60% had been insurgents.

� Improved surveillance. Lynch said his troops used new security cameras that could see bomb builders up to 5 miles away. "If they're out there planting an IED, we can go whack them before they finish," he said.

Also, Lynch said, the 14-ton MRAPs have forced insurgents to build bigger bombs to knock out the vehicles. Those bombs take more time to build and hide, which gives U.S. forces a better chance of catching the insurgents in the act and then attacking them.

Perhaps the left and other anti-war folk will join with us in rejoicing that American casualties are diminishing. Let's hope it continues.


N.T. Wright on Colbert

N.T. Wright is one of the best known contemporary theologians and he has written what is perhaps the definitive work on the resurrection of Jesus titled The Resurrection of the Son of God. He has more recently written a book titled Surprised by Hope in which he argues that heaven is not the final destination of those who have eternal life.

Wright recently appeared on the Stephen Colbert show to discuss his book which, of course, is hardly a setting conducive to a serious consideration of his ideas. Nevertheless, here's the interview:


The God Delusion, Ch. 8

In chapter 8 of The God Delusion Richard Dawkins continues to pile implausible assertions on top of puerile arguments. He delivers himself of the claim, as an instance, that evolutionists believe in evolution because the evidence supports it and would abandon their theory overnight if new evidence arose to disprove it.

Now that may be true of him personally, though I very much doubt it, but it's certainly not true of evolutionists as a whole. Consider the famous admission of evolutionist Richard Lewontin who doubtless speaks for many in his camp:

"We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door."

That doesn't sound to me like a man particularly open to evidence. When Dawkins insists that absolutist belief systems are a source of evil in the world and that religion is absolutist, he should be reminded of the above passage from Lewontin.

The unmistakable trademark of the faith-based moralizer, Dawkins goes on to assure us, is to care passionately about what other people do (or think) in private. This reprehensible behavior is typical of religious people, especially those who condemn homosexuality and other forms of sexual libertinism.

Whether many Christians really care what others think and do in private I cannot say, but it certainly is typical of many of Dawkins' friends, if not he himself, to care about other people's private thoughts. If a student or faculty member of a high school or college knows all the facts of evolutionary theory but personally disbelieves their truth, many atheistic materialists have publicly admitted that they would, were it in their power, deny them a degree or a tenured faculty position.

We've noted on this blog several examples of Darwinists who care very passionately indeed about what people think in private about evolution. Why is it despicable to concern oneself with what others think in their hearts about sex but not despicable when it is private doubts about Darwinism that must be purged root and branch from peoples' hearts and minds?

Professor Dawkins is at pains in chapter 8 to defend abortion on demand and along the way ridicule religious believers for their opposition to it. He observes that Paul Hill, a Pensacola man who killed an abortionist and his bodyguard in 1994, was driven to his deed by his religious beliefs. By the lights of his religious faith, Dawkins states, Hill was entirely right and moral to shoot the abortionist.

Be that as it may, the irony of Dawkins' complaint here against religion is that by Dawkins' own lights he cannot say, though he does anyway, that Hill was wrong or immoral to shoot the abortionist. Dawkins has to import a theistic understanding and foundation of morality in order to make his case that Hill's act was contemptible because on atheistic grounds there simply is no justification for using the word "wrong" and no reason to think that murder is anything more than an offense against one's own subjective moral preferences.

Dawkins' main justification for killing the unborn, surprisingly enough, is not that they're not human but that, regardless of their humanity, they don't really suffer from being aborted. This is an astonishing argument. If we were to adopt it how could we avoid taking the short step to agreeing that no killing would be immoral as long as the victim didn't suffer? Where would this stop? Infants and the elderly could be put to death so long as it was done painlessly, but there'd be no reason to stop there. Everyone who couldn't defend themselves in a Dawkinsian world would be fair game for the stronger provided the killers did their deed without inflicting pain. Children, the weak and infirm, the poor, all would be vulnerable to Dawkins' enlightened thinking. Dawkins, though he apparently doesn't foresee it, would have us living in a Hobbesian world of war of every man against every man. To follow his logic would be to travel straight back to the holocaust.

Having proffered the stunningly stupid thesis that what essentially makes murder wrong is not that it takes a human life but rather that it inflicts pain, our intrepid philosopher is now prepared to traipse insouciantly on to chapter 9 where he will make the case, or at least attempt to make a case, that teaching children to be religious is a form of child abuse.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Gun Rights

The Supreme Court has finally ruled on the question of whether the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution applies to private ownership of firearms or whether it applies only to those firearms used in the service of a state militia. In a 5-4 ruling the Court decided that the right to own firearms is not merely tied to membership in a militia but applies to individual citizens. This is, I think, the first time in U.S. history that the Court has ruled on this.

The case involved a District of Columbia law that prohibited residents from keeping handguns inside their homes and required that lawfully registered guns, such as shotguns, be locked and unloaded when kept at home. This ban was found to be in conflict with the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution.

Once again we see the paramount importance of the Supreme Court and who we elect as president to appoint the Justices who serve on it and who we elect to the Senate to confirm them. Justices like those in the minority in this case are much more likely to be appointed by a Democrat president (although, ironically, two of them, Stevens and Souter, were indeed appointed by Republicans) and Justices like those in the majority are much more likely to be appointed by Republicans (indeed all of them were).

Also, we note that whereas Senator McCain has taken a firm position on the 2nd Amendment's reach, Senator Obama has, not surprisingly, equivocated.

HT: Hot Air


Genius Isn't Wisdom

In the course of writing my criticisms of The God Delusion I remarked that we cannot conclude from a man's brilliance in one area of intellectual endeavor that he will prove brilliant in every area or, for that matter, that he'll even be reasonably bright in other areas. Intellectual ability is like athletic ability. A man might be a great basketball player but a terrible swimmer.

Algis Valiunas in The New Atlantis gives us a fine illustration of this phenomenon in a wonderful glimpse of the life and genius of Albert Einstein.

Einstein was perhaps the most extraordinary thinker of the 20th century, but his personal life was heartbreakingly chaotic and his political and philosophical notions were often naive, inconsistent or even incoherent. For example, Valiunas tells us:

In 1935, animated by the Nazi military threat, Einstein reversed his earlier militant pacifism and insisted "no reasonable human being would today favor the refusal to do military service, at least not in Europe, which is at present particularly beset with dangers." Confirmed pacifists must support the concerted action of decent states to foil the warlike designs of the indecent. In August 1939, having been informed by the Hungarian refugee physicists Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner that the Germans may already be working on a nuclear bomb, Einstein famously wrote a letter to President Roosevelt urging that the U.S. government initiate a nuclear program of its own; it took months to see serious action, and Einstein was left out of atomic research during the war, but his letter was a prime impetus for the Manhattan Project.

If pacifism is the correct moral position then one must be a pacifist regardless of the nature of the threat. One cannot be a pacifist with regard to that war but not this one, or be a pacifist regarding wars in which the carnage is in the thousands but not in wars which threaten to kill millions.

Einstein's political thinking was also naive:

In 1953, during the height of the Red Scare, he published an open letter in the New York Times exhorting a Brooklyn schoolteacher subpoenaed by a congressional investigative committee to remain silent: "What ought the minority of intellectuals to do against this evil? Frankly, I can see only the revolutionary way of non-cooperation in the sense of Gandhi's. Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify, i.e., he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin, in short, for the sacrifice of his personal welfare in the interest of the cultural welfare of his country." To do otherwise, he concluded, was to live as a slave.

Valiunas observes:

One can only cringe at the rhetorical bluster, utterly oblivious to the fact that America was facing a potent enemy that kept tens of millions of slaves in the gulag archipelago. Einstein's genius suffered no greater injury than from his lifelong political crusading.

Another example of Einstein's massive intelligence failing to spill over into areas other than math and physics can be found in his philosophical ideas, some of which were incoherent. He was, for example, totally committed to a deterministic view of everything:

"I do not at all believe in free will in the philosophical sense," he declared in the 1930 essay "What I Believe." If he meant by this no more than that we are all creatures and cannot make ourselves anything we want to be, there is little to quarrel with in that. But elsewhere he averred, "Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible player."

Having said that, however, he nevertheless also says this:

"The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life."

Valiunas concludes that:

[Einstein] seemed finally to live a riven life, one of spiritual incoherence, denying freedom of choice yet preaching an exigent morality.

What this all teaches us is that we must not be overly impressed when we hear someone who has demonstrated intellectual accomplishment in one sphere of life offering opinions we find disagreeable in some other sphere. When scientists pontificate upon politics or religion, it's best to simply consider the merits of what they say and not put too much weight on whom it is that's saying it.

HT: No Left Turns


Concessions from the Other Side

A Darwinian materialist and journalist, Gordy Slack, writes about what Intelligent Design theorists get right. He lists four items:

First, I have to agree with the ID crowd that there are some very big (and frankly exciting) questions that should keep evolutionists humble. While there is important work going on in the area of biogenesis (origin of life), for instance, I think it's fair to say that science is still in the dark about this fundamental question. It's hard to draw conclusions about the significance of what we don't know. Still, I think it is disingenuous to argue that the origin of life is irrelevant to evolution. It is no less relevant than the Big Bang is to physics or cosmology.

Evolution should be able to explain, in theory at least, all the way back to the very first organism that could replicate itself through biological or chemical processes. And to understand that organism fully, we would simply have to know what came before it. And right now we are nowhere close. I believe a material explanation will be found, but that confidence comes from my faith that science is up to the task of explaining, in purely material or naturalistic terms, the whole history of life. My faith is well founded, but it is still faith.

Second, IDers also argue that the cell is far more complex than Darwin could have imagined 149 years ago when he published On the Origin of Species. There is much more explaining to do than those who came before us could have predicted. Sure, we also know a lot more about natural selection and evolution, including the horizontal transfer of portions of genomes from one species to another. But scientists still have much to learn about the process of evolution if they are to fully explain the phenomenon. Again, I have faith that science will complete that picture, but I suspect there will be some big surprises.

Will one of them be that an intelligent being designed life? I doubt it. Even if someone found compelling evidence for a designer, for us materialists, it would just push the ultimate question down the road a bit. If a Smart One designed life, what is the material explanation for its existence?

The third noteworthy point IDers make has its roots, paradoxically, in a kind of psychological empiricism. Millions of people believe they directly experience the reality of a Creator every day, and to them it seems like nonsense to insist that He does not exist. Unless they are lying, God's existence is to them an observable fact. Denying it would be like insisting that my love for my children was an illusion created by neurotransmitters. I can't imagine a scientific argument in the world that could convince me that I didn't really love my children. And if there were such an argument, I have to admit I'd be reluctant to accept it, however compelling it appeared on paper. I have too much respect for my own experience.

Which leads me to a final concession to my ID foes: When they say that some proponents of evolution are blind followers, they're right. A few years ago I covered a conference of the American Atheists in Las Vegas. I met dozens of people there who were dead sure that evolutionary theory was correct though they didn't know a thing about adaptive radiation, genetic drift, or even plain old natural selection. They came to their Darwinism via a commitment to naturalism and atheism not through the study of science. They're still correct when they say evolution happens. But I'm afraid they're wrong to call themselves skeptics unencumbered by ideology. Many of them are best described as zealots. Ideological zeal isn't incompatible with good science; its coincidence with a theory proves nothing about that theory's explanatory power.

Actually, the intelligent Design people get a great deal more right than just this, but this is a good start. It's not that Darwinians haven't conceded that ID is on to something before, but they almost always do it grudgingly, tacitly, and between-the-lines. It's nice to see a materialist freely acknowledge that there are very serious problems with the idea of blind, undirected, mindless evolution.

HT: Bradford at Telic Thoughts


Job Openings

Coalition forces continue to extirpate al Qaeda in Iraq, recently dispatching the emir (leader) of al Qaeda in Mosul:

The emir, who has not been named, was killed after a special operations team from Task Force 88, the hunter-killer teams assigned to take down terrorists in Iraq, stormed a building in Mosul. The commandos opened fire after one of the terrorists attempted to detonate his suicide vest was shot and another reached for a pistol. A woman with the group attempted to detonate the vest on the dead al Qaeda operative.

The takedown of al Qaeda's emir in Mosul is the latest blow to the terror network in the North. Over the weekend, the emir of eastern Mosul and the leader of car-bombing operations in western half of the city were detained. On June 20, Coalition forces detained al Qaeda's security emir in Mosul. His predecessor was captured just two months prior, and his predecessor was captured in February.

Scores of cell leaders, facilitators, weapons smugglers, and fighters have been captured or killed by US and Iraqi forces during operations in June.

There are real opportunities here for up-and-coming young guys with leadership qualities who only want to work a couple of weeks before being retired.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

<i>Kennedy v. Louisiana</i>

The Supreme Court (Kennedy v. Louisiana) has ruled 5-4 that it is cruel and unusual to impose the death penalty when the crime does not involve a death. The case before it was based on the appeal of a 43 year old man named Patrick Kennedy who raped his 8 year-old step-daughter. The liberals on the court ruled that raping a child is not a sufficient evil to warrant taking the rapist's life. According to Anthony Kennedy, whose decisions seem to be growing increasingly difficult to understand, the death penalty is not proportional punishment for the rape of a child.

The logic mystifies me. The five liberal Justices ruled that only if someone is killed is the crime heinous enough to merit the death penalty. Simply destroying someone's life in other ways doesn't. They believe, incredibly, that it would be either cruel and/or unusual to execute a man who wrecked a little girl's life by, say, torturing her, sexually mutilating her, dismembering her, repeatedly sodomizing her, and ultimately paralyzing her if in the end he didn't kill her.

How it could be either cruel or unusual to execute such a monster escapes me, but then I'm not very enlightened concerning the arcana of liberal thinking, I guess. I wonder how the five Justices in the majority would have ruled had their own eight year old daughters ever been subjected to such treatment.

This is why the choice of who we vote for in November is so important. A President McCain may wind up appointing more liberals to the Supreme Court, especially given the Democratic control of the Senate which must confirm his appointments, but a president Obama certainly would. In other words, if Obama is elected we're sure to get a lot more decisions like Kennedy v. Louisiana.

I wish someone in one of the debates coming up would ask the candidates whether they agree with the Court's ruling that enemy combatants captured on the battlefield should be given the same rights as American citizens and the ruling that child rapists aren't really doing enough harm to warrant being put to death. I think I know what McCain would say, but I think Obama would start his familiar tap dance around the question until he had managed to give every possible answer to it.

UPDATE: Senator Obama was indeed asked whether he agrees with the decision and replied that he disagreed with it and endorsed capital punishment in cases such as that of child rape. I applaud him for this but have a couple of questions: Is it not true that he would appoint judges who ruled as did the majority in Kennedy? Will his support on the far left be bummed by his claim to favor capital punishment in at least some cases? Would he have given this same answer were he not running for president? Given his history of standing on both sides of an issue one can't be sure. The best way to tell is to ask him to name a Supreme Court Justice present or past who best models the type of Justice he'd be likely to appoint to the Court.

HT: Hot Air.


The Inconstant Candidate

The other day we noted that Senator Obama reversed his position on FISA and public financing of his campaign. These switches in position come in the wake of numerous others. Here's a partial list of Obama's recent tergiversations:

  • Within a couple of weeks of saying that he could no more disown Rev. Wright than he could disown a member of his own family, he essentially disowned him.
  • When speaking to a meeting of American Jews a couple of weeks back, he told them he supports Israeli control of Jerusalem. The next day, trying to placate angry Arab supporters, Obama said "negotiators" should work out the contentious Jerusalem issue.
  • He criticized Hillary Clinton for months for voting to list Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Days after Clinton conceded, Obama flipped and said he himself supported the designation.
  • Obama repeatedly vowed to meet with various heads of terror states-most notably Ahmadinejad of Iran-"without preconditions." Then he changed his mind: "There's no reason why we would necessarily meet with Ahmadinejad. He's not the most powerful person in Iran."
  • In October, he supported NAFTA expansion. In March, campaigning in the Ohio primary, he called for a "reopening" of the trade pact's terms. This week, he called his own primary rhetoric "overheated" and said NAFTA has had a positive effect on the US economy.
  • After signaling opposition to nuclear power, he told Democratic governors he's open to expanding it.
  • He gave every indication that as president he would start withdrawing troops from Iraq immediately upon taking office but has lately proposed a more gradual withdrawal based on conditions on the ground.

The man is as hard to pin down as Osama bin Laden. Just when you think you know where he stands he turns up somewhere else. Is this the new politics his admirers in the media are swooning over?


Confused Atheists

The Pew Foundation survey on religion in America turns up some interesting statistics:

Consider this stunner: 21% of atheists and 55% of agnostics say they believe in God. Eight percent of atheists and 17% of agnostics are even certain that God exists. What's up with that? What's more, 10% of atheists and 18% of agnostics pray at least once a week.

I never suspected our local atheist club of opening their meetings with prayer, but maybe they hold hands in a circle, bow their heads, and ask God to bless their proceedings during which they'll all explain to each other why they don't believe he exists.

It could be that the atheists who identify themselves as believers are the non-believers' version of religious liberals. If very liberal protestants are almost atheists, perhaps very liberal atheists are almost protestants.

Anyway, 99% of evangelical protestants and 97% of Catholics say they believe in God, but that means that 1% and 3% respectively do not. Why would an atheist identify him or herself as an evangelical or a Catholic?

There's more: Among atheists 12% believe there's a heaven and 10% believe there's a hell which causes me to ask which they think they're going to inhabit and who's going to see that they get there.

Fifty seven percent of people who belong to evangelical churches believe that other religions can lead to eternal life, and, among evangelicals, 86% believe in heaven. So what's the Good News for the other 14% of evangelicals who don't believe in heaven?

The more someone attends church the more they are likely to be politically conservative and the less they attend church the more likely they are to be liberal. That's not surprising, but this was:

Sixty one percent of evangelicals think abortion should be illegal in almost all cases, but only 45% of Catholics do. Sixty four percent of evangelicals believe homosexuality should be discouraged, but only 30% of Catholics do. Who'd have thought that a minority of Catholics oppose abortion?

There's much more on the results of this fascinating, if rather counterintuitive, survey here.



Ever wonder why people hold lawyers in such low esteem? Here's a video of a trial lawyer/ state representative speaking on the floor of the Massachusetts State House against mandatory sentences for child rapists.

It makes one wonder who's worse, the molester who rapes the child or the lawyer who wrecks the child's life to get the rapist off. I wonder, too, who's more embarrassed by this video, the man's fellow lawyers or his fellow politicians.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Loser Letter #5

Mary Eberstadt, alias A. F. Christian, laments all the "total craptacular hoser traitor enemy combatant Loser-lover guys" who are leaving the ranks of the Brights to join the Dulls in Loser Letter #5 at National Review Online.


Microscopic Clutch

The bacterial flagellum continues to give strict Darwinians migraines. Scientists have recently discovered that the flagellum's rotation is stopped by a protein assembly that acts just like the clutch in an automobile transmission.

"We think it's pretty cool that evolving bacteria and human engineers arrived at a similar solution to the same problem," said IU Bloomington biologist Daniel Kearns, who led the project. "How do you temporarily stop a motor once it gets going?"

Indeed. The whole flagellar assembly is a miniature outboard motor and the filament is disengaged from the motor by a clutch assembly such as intelligent engineers have designed for cars. Yet we are to believe that random genetic mutations occurring relatively quickly in geological time acted in tandem with natural selection to produce this astonishing machine completely without any guidance or intention.

Which came first, you may wonder, the flagellar motor or the clutch assembly? What good would each do the organism if the other didn't exist? If it does no good how was it conserved? If they evolved together how did such a marvel happen unless guided by an intelligent agent?

Never mind. It's impertinent to ask such questions. Just believe what the wise Darwinists tell you and don't be difficult.


The God Delusion, Ch. 7 (part II)

Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is a rambling, weakly argued polemic against God and religion in which no canard is considered too lame to be trotted out in service to the cause. In the second half of chapter 7, for instance, Dawkins reconstructs the obligatory sad history of religious oppression, conflict and bloodshed. He strongly implies that but for the baleful influence of religion all would be peace and light in the world.

As so often in his book, though, Professor Dawkins tells us only part of the tale, and a small part at that. Let's talk a little bit about what he leaves out, starting in 1915: First there was the Russian revolution (9 million dead), then the Ukrainian famine (15 million), the Nazi holocaust (6 million), the rape of Nanking (300,000) the war in Korea (2.8 million), the cultural revolution in China (40 million), post-war Vietnam (430,000), the Cambodian killing fields (1.6 million), the Rwandan genocide (750,000) These slaughters accounted for the deaths of about 80 million people, none of them had anything to do with religion, but most of them were perpetrated by devotees of an ideology that was explicitly or implicitly atheistic. In other words, the record of slaughter in the name of atheism and by atheists dwarfs that committed in the name of God. Moreover, if we consider not religion in general but only the Christian church the bloodshed which can be layed to the account of Christianity over the last four centuries is vanishingly small, especially compared to the crimes of state atheism.

Dawkins maintains that religion is a significant force for evil because religion, being a human enterprise, is subject to many of the flaws that humans possess, but he fails to recognize that it is the human element of religion that is the problem, not religion itself.

Because there is a widespread consensus about what's right and what's wrong, and this consensus has nothing to do with religion, he concludes that religion is unnecessary for morality. As an alternative to the Biblical commandments he offers a list of ethical rules that reflect what he calls the "moral zeitgeist." Some of the platitudes he serves up are: Always seek to learn something new; live life with joy and wonder; in all things strive to cause no harm. To each of these, however, the question needs to be put, "why?" What obligates anyone to observe Dawkins' rules? They're nothing more than banal expressions of his own preferences about how he'd like to see people live. Observing them or flouting them is neither right nor wrong.

Dawkins naively believes that the moral zeitgeist is moving us forward and that we're making moral progress. Notwithstanding the absurdity of such a claim in light of the statistics given above for the 20th century (which represent, by the way, only a fraction of that century's horrors), it is remarkable for what it reveals about his utter obliviousness to the fact that he has no grounds for calling an evolving moral consensus either progress or regress. It just is.

He assures us that the "zeitgeist," pushed along as it is by people like ethicist Peter Singer, is moving us toward a post-specieist condition where animals will have rights similar to those of human persons. This, Dawkins' enthuses, would be a "natural extrapolation of earlier reforms like the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women." What Dawkins chooses not to tell his readers is that Singer is the world's most outspoken proponent of legalizing infanticide, which is a "natural extrapolation" from a Darwinian worldview and an example of the progressive direction in which the zeitgeist is moving.

"The manifest progression of the zeitgeist is more than enough to undermine the claim that we need God in order to be good," Dawkins proclaims. In other words, as long as we can agree to follow certain precepts and platitudes who needs God? This is so naive that it seems almost an indignity to respond to it. One of his ethical rules is "Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race or species" (Interestingly, he does not prohibit discrimination based upon religion). But why should we not discriminate on the basis of sex or race? Why is such behavior wrong? Why is it wrong to harm another person? Dawkins doesn't tell us because he can't tell us. The Darwinian ethic is might makes right and under such a principle prohibitions against discrimination are ludicrous. Discrimination, or anything else, can only be wrong if we are somehow obligated to treat others with dignity and respect and we can only be so obligated if there is a God.

A big problem for anyone seeking to show that atheists are good folk is the record of oppressors like Hitler and Stalin so Dawkins devotes several pages to explaining how these men and others like them were not influenced to do what they did by their atheism. Their atheism was one thing, their deeds were another. This is a laughable defense given that he was loath to make the same concession to the historical crimes committed by Christians. But even if we allow him the point it's still irrelevant. The question is not whether these men were consciously acting on their atheistic beliefs when they committed their crimes, but rather whether what these men did was in any way inconsistent with an atheistic worldview. The answer to that is no. If atheism is true nothing Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao did is wrong.

Dawkins is offended that anyone would think that an atheist, qua atheist, would commit such atrocities as were recorded by Stalin and Hitler. "Why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?" He asks. Again this question muddies the water. Dawkins needs rather to answer the deeper question of why atheistic Marxists felt impelled to slay thousands of clergy and to attempt to wipe out Christianity in almost every country in which they seized power in the 20th century. If atheism is merely the absence of a belief why is it so hostile to believers? Why is it not simply indifferent? The reason is because atheism is indeed an absolutist belief system and it sees Christianity as its most vigorous rival.

Richard Dawkins does not believe in miracles but he should. The fact that a book as poorly argued as The God Delusion has become a best-seller and is making him wealthy is perhaps the most amazing miracle of our young century.


Monday, June 23, 2008


Congress has been trying to come up with a FISA bill that will be free of some of the short-comings of its predecessor legislation. The House has now overwhelmingly passed a bill that includes retroactive immunity to telecom companies that may otherwise be liable to lawsuits for helping the government eavesdrop on suspected terrorists.

The left is upset that the immunity provision was included. This puts Senator Obama in a sticky wicket since he supported the bill when it was in the House, but now that his base is aroused and angry he has reversed course and promises now to filibuster the bill that he previously supported.

In other words, as with public financing of his campaign, Obama was in favor of it before he was against it. The senator is sounding like a clone of John Kerry.

Ed Morrissey chronicles Senator Obama's political peregrinations on this issue at Hot Air.


Man from Nowhere

Michael Gerson spotlights the emptiness of Senator Obama's rhetoric about being "post-partisan" and willing to take political risks to reach across the aisle to work with members of the other party:

Jake Tapper of ABC News asked ... Barack Obama: "Have you ever worked across the aisle in such a way that entailed a political risk for yourself?" Obama's response is worth quoting in full: "Well, look, when I was doing ethics reform legislation, for example, that wasn't popular with Democrats or Republicans. So any time that you actually try to get something done in Washington, it entails some political risks. But I think the basic principle which you pointed out is that I have consistently said, when it comes to solving problems, like nuclear proliferation or reducing the influence of lobbyists in Washington, that I don't approach this from a partisan or ideological perspective."

For a candidate running as a centrist reformer, this is pretty weak tea. Ethics reform and nuclear proliferation are important issues, but they have hardly put Obama in the liberal doghouse. When I recently asked two U.S. senators who are personally favorable to Obama to name a legislative issue on which Obama has vocally bucked his own party, neither could cite a single instance.

Gerson goes on to contrast Obama's blank record of offending his fellow Democrats in order to work with Republicans to the maddeningly frequent instances of John McCain's hobnobbing with the Democrats. He finishes with this:

It is an odd thing when a presidential candidate bases his campaign on a manifest weakness. Rudy Giuliani ran on a platform of foreign policy experience while lacking it completely. Obama promises post-partisanship while doing little to demonstrate it in the Senate. And the independent voters so eagerly courted in this election may eventually ask about Obama the odd but appropriate question: What dogs has this man bitten?

Indeed, what indications are there that Obama has ever displayed any of the political talents and virtues his supporters believe he will bring to the White House? The Senator has come out of nowhere with nothing to commend him except beguiling speeches about hope and unity. He has no record of accomplishment and has never administrated anything much less a great nation. Yet for reasons that appear utterly non-rational, millions of people are prepared to put him in the White House. It's a little unnerving.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Three Things

A recent column by Dennis Prager got me thinking about how our country has changed since I was a boy. To see what I mean try this:

Name three things, other than racial discrimination and those advances that depend on technology, that are better about American society and culture today than they were fifty years ago.

I can't either.

Read Prager's column to see the sorts of things he thinks we've lost.


Of Principles and Polygraphs

The luster is quickly fading from the Obama mystique. The man who has spent his political career campaigning on the promise of reform turns out to be just as opportunistic, at least when it comes to campaign financing, as anyone else.

As soon as it became apparent that his principled opposition to private financing of campaigns was working to his disadvantage he abandoned his principled opposition.

The more things change the more they stay the same. Even Newsweek, a magazine which will almost certainly endorse Obama in November, calls his move "lame."

Liberal columnist Mark Shields is disillusioned to the point of essentially calling Obama a liar. He complains that Obama would be unable to pass a polygraph test.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Addressing the Energy Problem

The high price of energy is due largely, but not entirely, to the fact that supply is not keeping up with demand. The Democrats have proposed a number of measures to reduce demand (conservation, moving toward alternative sources of energy), a number of measures that would reduce supply even further (taxing oil companies, nationalizing oil refineries and companies - see, for instance, here), and some which just seem both bizarre and desperate (suing OPEC).

Barack Obama speaks for most Democrats when he acknowledges that he's actually in favor of high energy prices (See his response at the 2:30 mark of this interview), he just wishes the prices would have risen more gradually. The left wants high energy prices in hopes they'll encourage the development of energy alternatives, but Obama advocates in the CNBC interview that to mitigate the impact of high fuel costs the government give people a check to help them pay their energy bills. It's hard to understand how high prices will encourage conservation and alternative energy sources if people are going to be given money to offset the higher prices.

The Republican solution to our energy crisis is to increase supply until we can develop alternatives to petroleum. This means building more refineries, building more nuclear plants, and drilling for the oil that lies both off our shores and within our borders.

What a pickle we're in: The Republicans have the better ideas but they lack leadership, including, sadly, in the White House (see Michelle Malkin's piece on this here). The Democrats have strong leadership but they lack good ideas. Would that we could have the best of both parties.

Maybe that's a reason to vote for McCain - he's essentially a Democrat who has come to see the need to drill offshore (but, oddly, not in ANWR) and wants to build more nuclear power plants. Now that's a unity candidate.



Ben Johnson at FrontPage Mag summarizes the Left's narrative of the last eight years under George Bush:

"President Select" George W. Bush stole the 2000 election after his daddy's Supreme Court justices stopped the Florida election boards from counting all the votes. When he got into office, he did not make terrorism a top priority but immediately began dividing the nation along political lines. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the entire country came together in unity to get those who perpetrated this atrocity, and we stayed united as we fought al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But soon Bush and his neocon allies took our eye off the ball and used the attacks as a pretext to invade Iraq based on lies. Administration officials pressured CIA analysts, twisted intelligence, and insisted Saddam Hussein was an "imminent threat" who had sponsored 9/11. Bush lied that Saddam had WMD stockpiles and invented a story about him trying to buy nuclear material in Niger. But there were never any WMDs; Iraq had no ties to terrorists at all, much less al-Qaeda; and our presence in Iraq is drawing these terrorists to Iraq. (The CIA did not misinform him, because it is an instrument of ruling class hegemony and probably puts manganese into the crack it sells in black neighborhoods, when it's not blowing up levees in New Orleans.) The administration's perpetual campaign mode had them slur anyone who got in their way, questioning the patriotism of anyone who opposed the war and revealing Valerie Plame's identity when Ambassador Joseph Wilson told the truth about them. Bush even declassified sensitive information in the NIE to punish his political enemies. Ultimately, a jury convicted Scooter Libby of fixing Iraq intel to get us into war. Our soldiers - who are too poor and uneducated to help getting stuck in Iraq - are caught in the middle of a civil war. Even though the American people overwhelming want an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and voted for it in 2006, the cowardly Democrats keep passing funding bills and ignoring the will of the people. The Surge has failed, and our best option is to redeploy within six months, even if genocide follows.

Johnson argues that every single assertion in this narrative is either misleading or false. For anyone confused about why this country seems so politically divided today it might be salutary to take a few minutes to read his essay.



Of the eight Marines who were charged with committing an atrocity in the Iraqi town of Haditha, seven have been exonerated or had the charges dismissed. One remains to be tried. I haven't seen much about this in the MSM, a large portion of which was ready to march these young men to the gallows two years ago. You might also remember the execrable words of Congressman John Murtha who publicly pronounced the Marines guilty of murder: "Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood."

HT: Ramirez

Michelle Malkin documents not only Murtha's slanders but also those of Keith Olbermann, The New York Times, and The Nation magazine, all of whom tried to turn Haditha into an Iraqi version of My Lai which was a genuine atrocity from the Vietnam war.

We shall await an apology from these people for their willingness to publicly and repeatedly assume the worst of our young men, but I doubt very much whether any of them would even consider an apology. They ruin reputations and lives for a living, why start apologizing for it now?


Friday, June 20, 2008

The God Delusion, Ch. 7 (part I)

We continue our critical journey through Richard Dawkins' best-selling case for atheism, The God Delusion, with a look today at chapter 7. Here Dawkins sets two tasks for himself. The first is to discredit the Bible, particularly the Old Testament (O.T.), and the second is to offer an alternative ethical narrative, what he calls the "moral zeitgeist," to that of the Bible. None of what he says in this chapter has anything to do with the question of God's existence, but it may nevertheless be of interest to Christians.

It has to be understood that Dawkins' arguments are often logically flimsy, and his facts and interpretations are often suspect. TGD is so poorly argued, in fact, that it would not be worth the time it takes to read it were it not that it has sold so many copies and had such a powerful impact on audiences around the world.

One part of his argument in chapter 7 seems to be that it is inconceivable that any God as great as theists imagine him would care about the paltry sins of tiny human beings on our speck of a planet. "We humans," he writes, "give ourselves such airs, even aggrandizing our pokey little 'sins' to the level of cosmic significance."

But of course our sins are of cosmic significance, and so are we, since the creator of the cosmos chose to atone for those sins by offering himself on the cross. Dawkins, almost child-like, seems to equate significance with relative size. Since we're so tiny compared to the universe, he reasons, it's absurd to think that a creator God would care about us. His reasoning reminds me of a scene in the classic film The Third Man where a criminal named Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, takes his antagonist to the top of a Ferris wheel. From that vantage the people all look so small and their lives seem so insignificant. From that perspective it was easy for Lime to justify the crimes he committed against them. His victims were little more than ants. Dawkins apparently holds the Harry Lime view of humanity. We're so small that a God, if he existed, couldn't possibly care about us.

The Oxford professor goes on to examine the Old Testament stories and wonders why Christians would think that the people who are featured in them, people like Abraham, are moral exemplars. I know of no one, though, who has ever said that they were. The stories we read in the O.T. are instructive precisely because they teach us about the failings and faults common to humanity and how we are lost without God, not because they hold up the often sordid behavior of the characters as a model for the rest of us to emulate.

His basic point in the chapter, he tells us on p.279, is that because the O.T. characters are so depraved we can conclude that wherever modern moral ideas come from they don't come from the Bible. This, of course, is as silly as it can be. How does it follow from the fact that the Bible tells us about human sinfulness that therefore there are no moral principles to be found within its pages? Here are three principles that jump off almost every page of the Old Testament: Love God, do justice, and show compassion to the weak and poor. Dawkins apparently thinks that because these principles are often not followed that therefore they're not there.

Not only does Dawkins actually make the startling assertion that the Bible gives us no such principles, he also says that he doesn't think there's an atheist in the world who would do the sort of thing that religious people (Taliban Muslims) did in Afghanistan when they destroyed ancient Buddhist shrines and other sites of historical and religious value. Only religious people would be so philistine as to commit such an atrocity, he avers. Perhaps he was suffering a brain-freeze when he wrote this and had forgotten the crimes of the communists, committed in the name of state atheism, against Christian churches and clergy all through the twentieth century.

He wonders, too, who God was trying to impress by dying on the cross. Presumably, Dawkins sneers, he was trying to impress himself. This jejune comment reveals the utter shallowness of Dawkins' theological thought. If the crucifixion was intended to impress anyone it was intended to impress us. It was the greatest demonstration of love in the history of the world. The creator of the universe became one of us, not only to atone for our sin, but to give us a glimpse of how much he cherishes us. It's wonderful enough that a man would die for his friends who love him, but God died as well for those who, like Richard Dawkins, despise him. He wanted, among other things, to impress his beloved with the immensity of his love and what better way to do it than through such an unimaginable act of self-abnegation and sacrifice? Perhaps someone might send Dawkins a copy of Tale of Two Cities to help him understand how love can motivate such deeds.

Professor Dawkins vouchsafes to us the further revelation that Jesus never intended for his teaching to be given to anyone other than Jews (p.292) and that it was Paul who thought up the innovation of taking the gospel to the gentiles. He quotes with approval another writer who asserts that Jesus would be spinning in his grave if he knew that Paul had taken his message of love and forgiveness to the 'pigs' (gentiles). Regrettably he does not try to explain how this idea squares with the last couple of verses in Matthew's gospel where Jesus directs his disciples to take the gospel to the whole world, baptizing them and teaching them all that he has commanded. Nor is this claim easily reconciled with the parable of the Good Samaritan, the point of which is that we are enjoined to show compassion to everyone with whom we come in contact.

There is so much in chapter 7, as in the book as a whole, of which to be critical that it's difficult to limit oneself to spotlighting these few samples of Dawkinsian reasoning. Moreover, his reasoning is often so bad, so sophomoric, that one feels it is almost unsporting to deconstruct it. Even so, we'll plod on and look at some more of chapter 7 next time.


Ten Reasons for High Energy Costs

William Tate at the American Thinker offers his top ten reasons why we're suffering high gasoline prices and why the Democrats are largely to blame for each of them. Here are numbers ten through seven:

10) ANWR: If Bill Clinton had signed into law the Republican Congress's 1995 bill to allow drilling of ANWR instead of vetoing it, ANWR could be producing a million barrels of (non-Opec) oil a day--5% of the nation's consumption. Although speaking in another context, even Democrat Senator Charles Schumer, no proponent of ANWR drilling, admits that "one million barrels per day," would cause the price of gasoline to fall "50 cents a gallon almost immediately," according to a recent George Will column.

9) Coastal Drilling (i.e., not in my backyard) Democrats have consistently fought efforts to drill off the U.S. coast, as evidenced by Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz's preotestation against a failed 2005 bill: "Not only does this legislation dismantle the bi-partisan ban on offshore drilling, but it provides a financial incentive for states to do so."

A financial incentive? With [other countries] now slant drilling for oil just 50 miles off the Florida coast, wouldn't that have been a good thing?

8) Insistence on alternative fuels: One of the first acts of the new Democrat-controlled congress in 2007 was an energy bill that "calls for a huge increase in the use of ethanol as a motor fuel and requires new appliance efficiency standards." By focusing on alternative fuels such as ethanol, and not more drilling, Democrats have added to the cost of food, worsening starvation problems around the word and increasing inflationary pressures in the U.S., including prices at the pump.

7) Nuclear power: Even the French, who sometimes seem to lack the backbone to stand up for anything other than soft cheese, faced down their environmentalists over the need for nuclear power. France now generates 79% of its electricity from nuclear plants, mitigating the need for imported oil. The French have so much cheap energy that France has become the world's largest exporter of electric power. They have plans in place to build more reactors, including an experimental fusion reactor.

Read the other six at the link and every time you fill your tank or pay your home heating bill remind yourself that while these solutions remain unimplemented Congress spends much of its time and your tax dollars feverishly searching for a reason to impeach George Bush or to indict someone in his administration.


New Cancer Treatment

There's news from England of yet another encouraging treatment for some forms of cancer. This treatment involves selecting the few immune cells in the patient's body which fight cancer and cloning them so that billions of them can be injected back into the patient:

A cancer patient has made a full recovery after being injected with billions of his own immune cells in the first case of its kind, doctors have disclosed.

The 52-year-old, who was suffering from advanced skin cancer, was free from tumours within eight weeks of undergoing the procedure. After two years he is still free from the disease which had spread to his lymph nodes and one of his lungs.

Doctors took cells from the man's own defence system that were found to attack the cancer cells best, cloned them and injected back into his body, in a process known as "immunotherapy". After two years he is still free from the disease which had spread to his lymph nodes and one of his lungs.

The work raises hopes that this approach could not only offer a more effective treatment for skin cancer, or melanoma, which kills around 2,000 people in Britain alone, but be applied to other cancers too.

It's wonderful to think that perhaps within the lifetimes of many who are reading this a death from cancer will be as unusual as a death from small pox or polio.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Loser Letters #4

"Former Christian" Mary Eberstadt continues her efforts to get her new atheist friends to see that their tactics for converting Christians aren't working very well in this the fourth installment of her "Loser Letters." Why, she wonders, do the "Dulls" have all the great art.

Eberstadt's letters deserve to become classics.


Hard and Easy Problems

Michael Egnor treats us to a fine explanation of the problems conscious experience poses for a materialist view of the brain. How matter can give rise to the actual sensation of blueness, for example, is a mystery that baffles neuroscientists and which is an embarrassment to those who hold that all of our "mental" experience can be ultimately explained in terms of nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain (i.e. materialism).

Egnor closes his essay with this summary:

The origin of subjective experience is the fundamental question-the hard problem-in understanding the mind. Yet there is nothing in the material world that intrinsically refers to or explains subjective experience. There is nothing in third-person ontogeny from which one would infer first-person ontogeny. No theory in physics or chemistry invokes the emergence of first-person experience. A detailed scientific understanding of the physics and chemistry of the brain-from molecular structure to neurochemistry to electrophysiology to neuroanatomy-would not at any point provide a scientific explanation of why we are subjects and not just objects.

The hard problem of consciousness is the most important problem in understanding the mind, and thus far materialism has provided no insight. It is unclear how it even could provide insight. Nothing about the scientific characterization of matter-and nothing about materialism-explains the emergence of subjective experience. The principal materialist response to this catastrophe for materialist ideology has been to deny the relevance of subjective experience to our understanding of the mind. Yet the retreat to science and the denial of the relevance of philosophy is no refuge. Science is natural philosophy.

You really should read the whole thing, but if you go to the link you should keep in mind that I think he accidentally transposes the words mind and brain in the first sentence. I believe he means to say that materialists hold that the mind is completely caused by the brain.


The Ryan Plan

Jason forwards us an article by Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute that restores, a little bit, one's hope that some members of Congress are at least thinking about the problems this country is facing and coming up with workable solutions. This program for Republicans is the brainchild of Rep. Paul Ryan (R, WI). I say it's a program for Republicans because under their current leadership I can't imagine too many Democrats going along with it:

There are many reasons for the Republican Party's troubles, including an unpopular war, a sputtering economy, and a long string of corruption scandals. But perhaps most important, the party no longer seems to stand for its core commitment to limited government.

Enter Paul Ryan. Late last month, the five-term Wisconsin congressman introduced a comprehensive blueprint for reforming taxes, entitlements, retirement and health care. If Republicans are looking for a road out of the political wilderness, they should pay attention.

Health Care: Ryan would reform our employment-based insurance system by replacing the current tax exclusion for employer-provided insurance with a refundable tax credit of $2,500 for individuals, and $5,000 for families. This would encourage employers to take the money they currently spend providing health insurance and give it directly to workers, who could then use it to purchase competitive, personally owned insurance plans. That would be insurance that met their needs, not those of their bosses, and people wouldn't lose it if they lost their jobs.

Ryan would also allow workers to shop for insurance across state lines. That would mean residents of states like New Jersey and New York, where regulation has made insurance too expensive for many people, could buy their insurance in states where it costs less. And increased competition would help bring insurance costs down for all of us.

Medicare: Rep. Ryan recognizes that the skyrocketing cost of Medicare is threatening to bury our children and grandchildren under a mountain of debt. He would modernize the program, giving seniors more freedom to get the type of coverage that fits their needs, while bringing costs under control. He would give every senior an annual payment of up to $9,500 that they could use to purchase health insurance. The payments would be inflation protected and adjusted for income, with low-income seniors receiving greater support. Seniors would be able to save some of their funds in a Medical Savings Account.

Social Security: Like Medicare, Social Security is hurtling toward insolvency. Rep. Ryan would preserve the program unchanged for current recipients and workers older than age 55, but he would allow younger workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes privately through personal accounts. Unlike the present system, workers would own the funds in their accounts, and when they died, they could pass any remaining funds on to their heirs.

Taxes: Rep. Ryan would radically simplify today's hopelessly complex, cumbersome and bureaucratic tax code. He would give filers a choice: They could pay their taxes under existing law, or they could choose a new simplified code, with just two tax rates (10 percent on the first $100,000 for joint filers; $50,000 for individuals, and 25 percent above that).

His plan would offer virtually no deductions or exemptions, except for an increased standard personal deduction and exemption of up to $39,000 for a family of four. He would also replace our current anti-competitive corporate income tax - the world's second-highest, at 35 percent - with an 8.5 percent business consumption tax (essentially a value-added tax), and eliminate taxes on capital gains and dividends. Although not everyone agrees with this particular approach to business taxation, Rep. Ryan understands that we must bring our corporate taxes in line with those of our competitors if we want to increase economic growth and create more jobs.

Our current level of government spending is unsustainable. According to the Congressional Budget Office, unless we act now, government will consume 40 percent of our national Gross Domestic Product by 2050. That would require a doubling of the tax burden just to keep up.

If a conservative candidate for president were to promote something like Congressman Ryan's proposal he might win in November and drag along the rest of the Republican ticket with him. Sadly, there aren't any conservatives running in November.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Winter Light

Tobias Wolff at The New Yorker writes a good piece on the Ingmar Bergman film Winter Light in which Bergman tells the story of a Lutheran pastor whose faith is slipping away, largely because he has substituted the form of religion for its substance. Wolff expresses many of the thoughts I have every time I watch the movie. I recommend both the article and the film, especially as a caution to anyone considering the ministry for all the wrong reasons.


An Ad Only Keith Olbermann Could Love

Move, the same organization that brought us the General Betray Us ads, crosses new frontiers of political mendacity and shamelessness with this spot:

Let's count the ways in which this ad seeks to deceive the viewer:

1. Even if McCain is elected in November he can only serve for at most eight years which would make Alex about eight years old when McCain leaves office. Unless we are truly desperate for soldiers it's doubtful that his little self will be much in demand at that point.

2. McCain's 100 year statement is taken completely out of context. What he said was that it would be okay with him if we stayed in Iraq for 100 years as long as American troops were no longer at risk. In other words, he was talking about a deployment such as we have had in Japan and Germany since WWII. MoveOn knows this, but truth-telling is not high, sad to say, on their to-do list.

3. Even if Alex were to turn 18 in the next couple of years his mommy seems not to realize that there is no draft. doesn't seem capable of grasping the fundamental difference between a volunteer army and a conscripted force, so let's make it as simple for them as we can: If Alex wants to go into the military when he turns 18 it'll be his choice.

This ad is so transparently disingenuous that intelligent and fair-minded voters should recoil from it in disgust. Unfortunately, MoveOn isn't pitching it to intelligent and fair-minded voters.


The God Delusion, Ch. 6

Author Richard Dawkins concerns himself in chapter 6 of The God Delusion (TGD) with an attempt to explain the relationship between God and morality and to argue that God is not necessary for good behavior. Richard Dawkins initiates the discussion with this question:

Isn't goodness incompatible with the theory of the selfish gene (the view that all of our behavior is determined by our genes to increase the chances that our genes will be perpetuated into the next generation)? The question could be asked more relevantly of atheism in general, but Dawkins replies to his query by claiming that evolution gives a much better explanation for morality than does the God Hypothesis.

Before we consider his answer we might pause for a moment to note something he says which I find intriguing. He argues that acts of altruism in animals are demonstrations of one individual's superiority over another:

The dominant bird is saying the equivalent of, "Look how superior I am to you, I can afford to give you food." Or "Look how superior I am, I can afford to make myself vulnerable top hawks by sitting on a high branch, acting as a sentinel to warn the rest of the flock feeding on the ground." ....And when a subordinate [bird] attempts to offer food to a dominant individual, the apparent generosity is violently rebuffed.

This makes a lot of sense to me. I've long thought it an interesting quirk of human nature that many people resent favors done them by others. Rather than see the favor as a kindness people sometimes react to it as though it were a personal insult (Think of the ingratitude many Iraqis feel for American sacrifices on behalf of their freedom, for instance). Perhaps the ingratitude is due to the fact that at some subliminal level the beneficiary of the favor realizes that he is being implicitly told that he is inferior, and no one likes to be told that.

At any rate, Dawkins' point in chapter 6 is that we don't need God to be moral. The urge to be kind, for instance, is a product of our evolutionary history and we'd have that inclination whether God told us to be kind or not. There's much in his reasoning on this matter of which we can be critical.

The problem is not how to explain "moral" behavior. People can certainly do "good" things whether God exists or not. The problem is trying to account for moral obligation. How are we obligated to do something just because evolution has inclined us to do it? Why should we be kind if there's nothing in it for us or if cruelty will benefit us in some way? Why is it wrong to be cruel? What does it mean to say that something is "wrong" anyway? How do we justify the belief that moral good and bad have any non-arbitrary meaning apart from an objective transcendent moral authority?

Evolution has bestowed upon us other tendencies besides an inclination to kindness (which, by the way, not all humans appear to possess) which we do not consider good. How do we decide which of these tendencies are good and which are bad? Evolution has given us a tendency to be aggressive, to be selfish toward non-kin, to be sexually promiscuous, etc. Is yielding to these inclinations wrong? If so, why?

Dawkins comes very close here to committing the genetic fallacy, the error that says that because we are a certain way that therefore we should be that way. He also informs us that he is himself a consequentialist, one who bases rightness on the results of the act, but who do those results have to benefit in order to be right? Other people? Himself? How does he decide which it is to be, and why would it be wrong to just care about the benefits of one's actions for oneself?

Dawkins cites studies which show that there's little difference in the way atheists and believers make moral judgments and concludes from this that "we do not need God in order to be good." This is quite an unusual conclusion to draw from these studies. All they show, if they show anything at all, is that atheists have moral convictions that are completely unsupported by their deepest beliefs. Their atheism gives them no basis for thinking anything is right or wrong but they believe there is right and wrong anyway. What the studies Dawkins cites suggest is that most atheists inconsistent, since every atheist who makes a moral judgment is acting as if his atheism were not true.

Dawkins goes on to allege that the Christian tries to be good only to seek God's favor. He concurs with Michael Shermer that "If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would 'commit robbery, rape, and murder,' you reveal yourself to be an immoral person."

This misunderstands the Christian motivation for the moral life. It's not fear of punishment and hope of reward that motivates Christians to do good deeds, when they do them, but rather love and gratitude to the God who has done so much for us. We do not seek God's love by being good. We are good, to the extent we are, because God loves us.

To say that anyone who rapes or murders is immoral, as Shermer and Dawkins do, begs the question. It assumes that the word "immorality" actually means something significant. For Dawkins an immoral act is merely an act which he doesn't like. If there is no God it can't be any more than this. To say that something is immoral is to say nothing more than that he wishes people wouldn't do it. Notwithstanding his wishes, the person who does do such things is no more "wrong" than a cat is wrong to torment a mouse.

In a classic illustration of the fallacy called Division Dawkins makes the ridiculous claim that rioters in Montreal during a police strike in the 1960s were mostly religious people because most Canadians are religious people. Perhaps we can forgive Dawkins this bit of asininity if it weren't that he comes right back on the next page and makes the same sophomoric argument again, this time by quoting a section from a book by fellow atheist Sam Harris.

Harris seeks to disprove the belief that religion leads to better behavior by observing that most of the crime in the U.S. occurs in our cities and most of the cities with the highest crime rates are in states which tend to vote Republican and are therefore most likely to be populated by Christian conservatives. I am not making this up. This is Harris' argument, and Dawkins signs on to it. What Harris and Dawkins are apparently unaware of is that even in Republican states the cities are overwhelmingly Democratic and secular. Instead of employing such a juvenile argument perhaps Harris should have just visited a prison and taken a poll of the inmates and asked them how many were devout, church-going believers who prayed daily at the time they committed their crimes. I wonder what the results would show.

It's hard to believe that otherwise intelligent people would make such embarrassingly dumb arguments, but when your task is to try to give a defense of morality without God you have to go with the best you can even if that means taking a chance on an argument that would be laughed at by middle schoolers.

The fundamental moral problem for the atheist, a problem which Dawkins never really addresses, is this: What is there which obligates us to behave in one way rather than another? What makes kindness better than cruelty? Why should I not just live for myself? Why should I care about others? What's wrong with selfishness? It's really no surprise that Dawkins doesn't address these questions. Indeed, the surprise would have been if he had, because for the atheist there just is no answer to them.

It's fitting to close with a quote from Dawkins' hero, Charles Darwin. Darwin writes in his Autobiography these words:

"One who does not believe in God or an afterlife can have for his rule of life...only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best."

In the absence of God, all we have to guide us are our feelings and no one's feelings are any more authoritative than anyone else's. Unfortunately, the fact that for the atheist one's own subjective feelings are no more morally superior than anyone else's doesn't prevent Mr. Dawkins from repeatedly making moral judgments of others throughout his book and especially in the next chapter.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bush Didn't Lie

James Kirchick, an assistant editor at the liberal New Republic, writes in the liberal LA Times that those who continue to push the meme that Bush lied us into Iraq are themselves being dishonest. Viewpoint has been saying much the same thing since 2003. It's simply disreputable to accuse Bush of having lied to precipitate a war with Iraq. It was disreputable in 2003 because there was insufficient evidence of a lie, and it's even more disreputable now because there's a lot of evidence that he did not lie.

Moreover, by discrediting the President his critics have succeeded in ratcheting up the threshold of provocation necessary to compel us to use military force to the point where it would be almost impossible, politically or psychologically, to employ force today on some new front. More timorous presidents than George Bush will be very reluctant to resort to military means even when it's clear that terrorist nations like Iran are implacably determined to produce nuclear weapons which they all but promise to use, either themselves or through terrorist surrogates.

Those who have so bitterly defamed the President's integrity over the last five years have made the future far less safe for our children and they've done it by despoiling the reputation of the one man who acted to prevent that from happening. To the extent that they slandered George Bush out of malice as well as a thirst for political power they deserve historical ignominy. If there is justice in the world their names will forever be uttered with contempt.

Kirchick's LA Times column is a fine piece of writing and a fresh breeze of honesty coming from a man who normally stands in political opposition to Republican policies.


Avoid the Argument from Good Works

Mary Eberstadt's third in her series of "Loser Letters," written to her atheist friends advising them as to how best to discredit Christians, is perhaps her best so far. In it she urges them, as it is their wont to do, not to make a big deal about how atheism is at least as serviceable as Christianity in providing grounds for good works. By all means, she enjoins, they should continue to hammer away at the various crimes committed 700 years ago by the Inquisition, but whatever they do, they should not tout atheism's own record of human kindness.

You'll find it hard to stifle a smile and an occasional chuckle as you read it. That is, unless you're an atheist.


Gays in the Military

Andrew writes to share some thoughts on the issue of gays serving in the military. I've posted his letter on the Feedback page and invite comment.


Like, You Know?

Taylor Mali, whom I'd never heard of before, does an amusing riff on the most "aggressively inarticulate generation" since whenever:

HT: Evangelical Outpost


Monday, June 16, 2008

The God Delusion, Ch. 5

Having shown to his satisfaction, if to no one else's, that there's almost certainly no Deity, Professor Dawkins next assays to consider where the whole business of religion came from anyway. He concludes in chapter 5 that religion is an evolutionary misfiring, or by-product, of something else. By way of explanation he invites us to consider the self-destructive behavior of moths which spiral into a flame. Why do they do this? Well, over the eons they have evolved light sensors that enable them to navigate by the moon and the stars. These luminous objects are very far away and seem to the moths like stationary beacons in the night sky, but when artificial light was introduced into the moths' environment the lights were so close that they appear to shift as the moth moves, requiring any moth that's fixing on them to also deviate from a straight-line path to keep the light at a fixed point. The result was that the confused moth takes a spiral path toward the light, or something like that.

Professor Dawkins doesn't trouble himself to explain why moths need to navigate by celestial objects in the first place since they don't migrate and spend much of their adult lives confined to a localized area. When they do travel it's along chemical trails of pheromones produced by females. So why would they have evolved these light sensors? But this is a digression. His point is that the spiraling behavior of moths is really a by-product of something else and that likewise religious behavior in humans is a by-product of some other behavior which evolved because it conferred a selective advantage.

Dawkins avoids the simpler explanation that religion itself confers a selective advantage and thus humans evolved it. This is an unacceptable explanation, even if it has the merit of being less cumbersome, because if it were the case Dawkins would have to admit that atheism is a maladaptive mutation, and he certainly doesn't want to have to make the case that atheists are genetic mutants.

So what is religion a by-product of? It turns out that all we have are guesses, but one guess is that natural selection produced in children the tendency to believe whatever their parents and other elders tell them, a bit of news that'll surprise most parents. This aids the children in survival. Parents tell kids about God so kids grow up believing in God.

It's not clear whether children lose this gullibility as adults, but if they do why do they retain belief in God when they don't retain other childhood beliefs like belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy? Why, too, do so many people come to belief as adults? Why isn't Dawkins himself religious since he received a lot of exposure to it when he was a child? If one's belief about God is a result of psychological misfires in the brain then isn't atheism also a result of such a misfire and thus can't we conclude that atheists don't believe in God because of evidence but because of some psychological quirk? Professor Dawkins doesn't help us with these questions. He's in too much of a hurry to rush on to his next grievance against the religious - their irritating tendency to be dualists - which he also sees as a holdover from childhood.

There are other guesses as to what religion is a by-product of, of course, - love, projection, wishful thinking - but the general idea Dawkins wants to advance is that it's a by-product of something advantageous for survival.

Another reason why religion has survived and diversified has to do with memes. A meme is like a mental gene. It embodies an idea or set of ideas (called a memeplex) that spreads through a culture. For example, the belief in human rights is a meme, as is any belief. Natural selection acts to weed out unsatisafactory memes in the same way it culls unfit genes. Religious beliefs are also memes which have spread, not because they are true, but because they afforded those who held them some survival advantage.

Dawkins is obviously pleased with this explanation for the widespread occurrence of religion even though the theory is completely speculative and even self-defeating. After all, if all our beliefs are merely memes then so is atheism a meme, so is Darwinian evolution a meme, and, indeed, so is belief in memes a meme.

He closes the chapter with a rambling discussion of cargo cults, religions that spring up among primitive people when they encounter for the first time the "magic" of modern technological society. He notes that ignorant people often regard the radios and machines of visiting Europeans as being supernaturally produced because they never see them being made or repaired. None of this, like much else in the remainder of the book, has anything at all to do with whether God exists.

Dawkins is apparently convinced that the existence of God and the manner in which some people express their homage to that God are one and the same thing. He seems to think that if he can discredit religious beliefs then he can discredit belief in God. Perhaps this is the strangest "God delusion" of all.

Critiques of previous chapters in The God Delusion can be found here:


Left or Right

No doubt you've heard people speak of the difference between being left or right "brained," but perhaps you were unsure what it meant or which of the two describes you. If so, you might want to read this interesting little self-assessment which AOL featured recently:

Are you a genius at certain jobs but feel like a half-wit when trying to complete other types of work? The two sides of the brain each have distinct preferences and capabilities, and your strong suits and weaknesses are frequently based upon the side of your brain that is dominant. Take this quiz to find out whether or not you are a right or left brain thinker and check out the career choices that might be best for you.

1. Are you better at math and science than art and literature?

YES - People who are left-brain thinkers are often better at and enjoy math and science over art and literature, making them perfect candidates for a career in engineering.

NO - People who are right-brain thinkers are often better at and enjoy art and literature over math and science, making them perfect candidates for a career in grant writing.

2. Do you love playing sports outdoors over reading indoors?

YES - The great outdoors and athletics are favorites of people who are right-brain thinkers, and a career that can combine the two, like one as a recreation director, is perfect.

NO - Staying indoors and reading are favorites of people who are left-brain thinkers, and a career that can combine the two, like one as a librarian, is perfect.

3. Do you prefer verbal communication over physical communication?

YES - Left-brain thinkers love to work things out by talking, enjoying jobs like career counseling, where they are very effective.

NO - Right-brain thinkers are more likely to think that actions speak louder than words and prefer showing their worth without words. A career path of yoga instructor would fit their preferences.

4. Would you rather draw pictures freehand instead of putting together a model airplane?

YES - People who are right-brain thinkers aren't fans of tremendous structure and prefer having some creativity at work, which makes marketing a perfect career for them.

NO - People who are left-brain thinkers are in need of structure and prefer having specific guidelines at work, which makes computer programming a perfect career path for them.

5. Do you like being in groups more than being alone?

YES - Group-oriented people are usually right-brain thinkers, making a job in retail a good fit for their lifestyle preference.

NO - Loners are usually left-brain thinkers, making a job in accounting a good fit for their lifestyle preference.

6. When given instructions, are lots of pictures easier to understand than lots of text?

YES - Right-brain thinkers love picture explanations over textual explanations, and this visual preference usually lends well to a career in interior design.

NO - Left-brain thinkers love textual explanations over pictorial explanations, and this preference usually lends well to a clerical career.

Most people are doubtless a blend so I suppose the question is in each case do we tend to have more of one of these traits than another.