Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Materialist Superstition

Michael Egnor discusses six aspects of our mental experience that make a dualist explanation of that experience more plausible than a materialist explanation. The six he describes are: Intentionality, Qualia, Persistence of Self-Identity, Restricted Access, Incorrigibility, and Free Will.

Egnor gives a good summary of each of these and concludes that materialism, the view that the material brain is the sole locus and cause of our mental life, can't explain any of them. It's worth the read especially for philosophy students. For example, here's what he says about free will:

If the mind is entirely caused by matter, it is difficult to understand how free will can exist. Matter is governed by fixed laws, and if our thoughts are entirely the product of brain chemistry, then our thoughts are determined by brain chemistry. But chemistry doesn't have "truth" or "falsehood," or any other values for that matter. It just is. Enzymatic catalysis isn't true or false, it just is. In fact, the view that "materialism is true" is meaningless...if materialism is true. If materialism is true, then the thought "materialism is true" is just a chemical reaction, neither true nor false. While there are some philosophers who assert that free will can exist in a deterministic materialistic world (they're called "compatibilists"), and some have argued that quantum indeterminacy may leave room for free will, the most parsimonious explanation for free will is that there is an immaterial component of the mind that is undetermined by matter.

Egnor is correct, of course. If a belief, say, is just a particular chemical reaction that occurs in my brain what sense does it make to talk of beliefs being true? Chemical reactions aren't the sorts of things that are true or false. Furthermore, how do mere chemical reactions produce something like an understanding or a doubt? To say that matter is the ultimate source of all our mental experience really does seem to fly in the face of our deepest intuitions about that experience.

Check out what Egnor says about the other five elements of our mental lives for which materialism seems ill-equipped to offer a plausible explanation.


More Bus Ads

You may have seen the story last week about the ads placed on buses in Washington D.C. by the American Humanist Association asking, "Why believe in a god?" and then urging us to "Just be good for goodness' sake." The ads will run through December. Last month the British Humanist Association ran a similar campaign on London buses with the message: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

The ads cost the AHA $40,000 so one might wonder why they'd spend so much money to try to convince people that God is not necessary. Spokesman for the Association Fred Edwords explains, sort of:

"We are trying to reach our audience, and sometimes in order to reach an audience, everybody has to hear you. Our reason for doing it during the holidays is there are an awful lot of agnostics, atheists and other types of nontheists who feel a little alone during the holidays because of its association with traditional religion."

Anyone who thinks Christmas and Thanksgiving in the U.S. have anything to do with religion hasn't been in either a public school or a shopping mall lately, but, be that as it may, Edwords claims that the purpose of the ads isn't to argue that God doesn't exist or change minds about a deity, although "we are trying to plant a seed of rational thought and critical thinking and questioning in people's minds."

Well, they've been successful, at least with me. They've planted one question in my mind, which is: What on earth does it mean to be good for goodness' sake?

The article notes that Humanism offers itself as "a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity."

Well. Where does this responsibility come from? In what sense am I responsible to humanity? What is the nature of this responsibility if I am not morally accountable to anyone but myself for my actions? If I choose to shirk this responsibility in what sense am I doing something morally wrong? I wonder if the people who designed the Humanist ad would be so good as to design more such ads with answers to those questions.

Unfortunately, I don't think answers will be forthcoming. The bus ad is simply making one of those vapid statements like "We are the world" or "Have you hugged a green plant today?" It sounds clever and meaningful until you think about it, which, contrary to what the Humanists say about their ad, you're not really supposed to do.

The article closes by observing that there was no debate at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority over whether to accept the ad. Spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the agency accepts any ads that aren't obscene or pornographic. Too bad they don't expand the criteria to include "vacuous".


Friday, November 28, 2008

Two Questions about Mumbai

Bill Roggio reports that captured terrorists in Mumbai have admitted to having connections to Pakistan. This raises two troubling questions: First, if these connections are confirmed will we see a deterioration in the uneasy peace between India and Pakistan? There are indications that some in the Indian military have been eager to go to war with their nuclear neighbor for some time, but have been restrained by the Bush administration. Now that the administration is a lame duck will the Indian hawks prevail?

Second, how did the Indians manage to get the terrorists to talk so quickly? Whatever methods they used I hope they share them with the American intelligence services so that the CIA knuckle-draggers who resort to brutish interrogation techniques will learn that compassionate persuasion works just as well, if not better. One lesson to take from the Indian methods, which were doubtless gentle and sensitive to the terrorists' needs and comfort, is that places like Guantanamo Bay where prisoners are manacled and sometimes even looked at funny are barbaric anachronisms in a civilized society.


Post on <i>Most</i>

The story has it that a railway traversed a drawbridge and that commuter trains regularly crossed the span. One day the drawbridge operator brought his young son with him to work. A train was approaching and the bridge needed to be lowered to allow the train to cross. Tragically, the man realized as the bridge was lowering that his son was caught in the mechanism of the bridge. If he stopped the descent of the bridge to rescue his son the train would derail and tumble into the waterway below killing dozens of passengers. If he allowed the bridge to lower so that the train could pass safely his son would be crushed by the weight of the bridge.

I mentioned this story in class during a discussion of ethics and one of my students told me that it had recently been made into a short film, so I ordered it and watched it the other night. It's only thirty three minutes long, but it's a beautiful parable of heart-wrenching sacrifice, love, and redemption. The film is titled Most (Czech for "Bridge"), and the trailer can be viewed here.

Given the theme it might have been more appropriate to mention this film closer to Easter because the parable is really all about Good Friday, but it might be viewed with profit over the Christmas holidays as well. I couldn't find it on Netflix so those who would like to watch it might have to purchase it ($10) at the website.


Public Education and ID (Pt. II)

Atheistic philosopher Thomas Nagle has written a paper for the journal Philosophy and Public Policy in which he argues that the case for the exclusion of Intelligent Design from science curricula doesn't withstand scrutiny. We examined the first part of his essay last Monday. We'll continue our look at this noteworthy paper today.

Nagle writes that, contrary to what some critics have argued, we don't have to know how something was accomplished in order to recognize that it is purposefully designed. What the designer was thinking when it engineered a particular biological structure is not subject to scientific investigation, but the question whether the structure was purposefully designed is:

[T]he purposes and intentions of God, if there is a god, and the nature of his will, are not possible subjects of a scientific theory or scientific explanation. But that does not imply that there cannot be scientific evidence for or against the intervention of such a non-law-governed cause in the natural order. The fact that there could be no scientific theory of the internal operation of the divine mind is consistent with its being in large part a scientific question whether divine intervention provides a more likely explanation of the empirical data than an explanation in terms of physical law alone. To ask whether there are limits to what can credibly be explained by a given type of scientific theory, or any theory relying only on universal physical laws, is itself a scientific question.

This claim entails that questions like, "If God designed life why didn't he do it differently or better?" are irrelevant to the question of whether the claim that life is intelligently designed is scientific.

In other words, how and why the designer did what it did are different kinds of questions than whether some biological structure is, in fact, intentionally designed. The former are metaphysical matters whereas the latter is a scientific query and we need not be able to answer the former before we can scientifically investigate the latter.

Nagle observes that critics of ID assume that science cannot provide evidence for the existence of the designer (Which Nagle assumes to be God) and that therefore talk of designers is unscientific. He states flatly, however, that there's no reason to accept this assumption:

I suspect that the assumption that science can never provide evidence for the occurrence of something that cannot be scientifically explained is the principal reason for the belief that ID cannot be science; but so far as I can see, that assumption is without merit.

Indeed, many of the claims ID makes are certainly scientific claims. For instance, Michael Behe (author of Darwin's Black Box and Edge of Evolution) offers empirical arguments in Edge that random mutation is not sufficient by itself to explain the enormous diversity of living things. Nagle observes:

This seems on the face of it to be a scientific claim, about what the evidence suggests, and one that is not self-evidently absurd. I cannot evaluate it; I merely want to stress its importance for the current debate. Skepticism about the standard evolutionary model is not limited to defenders of ID. The skeptics may be right or they may be wrong. But even if one merely regards the randomness of the sources of variation as an open question, it seems to call for the consideration of alternatives.

There is in the evolutionary community a great deal of dissent from the standard Darwinian model, but none of that dissent causes much of a stir because most of it does not get to the heart of the Darwinians' deepest commitments. The fundamental objection to ID, the implication that arouses such passionate protest, is not scientific, it's metaphysical. ID poses no greater challenge to the science that undergirds evolutionary theory than do its materialist competitors. The unique challenge of ID, the reason it provokes so much opposition, is that it calls into question the metaphysical materialism and naturalism that many opponents of ID embrace.

This bears emphasizing. ID is not scorned because it's not science. There's not much argument about the scientific facts of the matter. Both sides employ the same data, but they draw from it widely disparate metaphysical conclusions. The rejection of ID is primarily philosophical, one might even say religious. Opponents' arguments against the concept of intentional, purposeful design in the world distill to a desire that our children be taught only the belief that matter is the ultimate reality and that everything in the universe derives from, and is contingent upon, material substance. ID, on the other hand, promotes the possibility that the ultimate reality upon which all else is dependent is mind, and this many critics find philosophically and theologically intolerable.

Almost all other remonstrances against ID are either decoy and diversion or they are secondary theological objections. The value of Nagle's paper is that it helps us to see that more clearly. We'll continue with our reading of it in later posts.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Proclamation

In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation, a practice that presidents have repeated every year since then. Lincoln's wasn't the first such statement - Washington, John Adams, and Madison had all done likewise - but it was the first in the current unbroken string of such proclamations from our nation's leaders. Here's what Lincoln wrote:

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore if, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the city of Washington, this 3d day of October A.D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth. ABRAHAM LINCOLN

I wonder how many people objected back then to Lincoln's overt references to God as the source of the blessings he enumerated.

Have a Wonderful Thanksgiving.

Dick and Bill Cleary

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The War Against Civilization

With today's horrific attack in Mumbai, India, radical Muslims ramped up their on-going assault on civilization. There are several lessons we might take from the terrible news coming out of Mumbai. First, as long as there are Muslim extremists there will be savage brutalities like today's. The jihadis are convinced that history and Allah are on their side and no matter how often they are beaten down, as soon as they're able they'll strike again.

Secondly, this is not a war for territory or wealth. It's a war to spread a religion and the Islamists will not stop until every man, woman, and child has either bowed to the Koran or has been killed. In other words, this is a war that will last for generations, indeed, it has been ongoing since the middle ages, and Americans need to face up to that fact and prepare ourselves for a long struggle.

Thirdly, because Islam is a world wide faith, the war is world-wide. No democracy is immune and no non-Islamic or moderate Islamic country is safe. Democracy is antithetical to the beliefs of the imams who teach their young in many madrassas and mosques and any nation which values free people, free markets and moderation in religion is a target.

Fourth, it's remarkable that for seven years we have not had a terrorist attack on our soil. As hard as it must be for those who have derided George Bush throughout that span of time our security is a testament to his vigilance and effectiveness; and not just to him but to all those who work tirelessly to keep us safe.

On this Thanksgiving eve we should thank God that we have had a president and a security apparatus who have been so effective and successful in keeping us and our children safe.


Do the Right Thing

President Bush still has two months left before his term in office expires, two months to do the right thing, but I'm beginning to wonder whether he'll do it.

For the last two years two former Border Patrol agents, Jose Compean and Ignacio Ramos, have been languishing in prison because they shot a notorious Mexican drug smuggler in the buttocks as he fled apprehension and they then allegedly tried to cover up the shooting. For refusing to confess that they were guilty of anything more than a couple of procedural infractions they received eleven and twelve years in prison. They have been severely beaten by other inmates and have served in solitary confinement for their offense. Murderers often serve less time than they will if they serve their full term.

In any event, President Bush should pardon these men, but although he pardoned fourteen and commuted the sentences of two others just the other day, Ramos and Compean weren't among them. The men who were pardoned included drug dealers, welfare cheats, embezzlers, and thieves, but the two men who were trying to protect us from the predators who cross our borders to sell our children drugs he has as yet shown no sign of pardoning.

President Bush has eight weeks left to do for Ramos and Compean what he did for Scooter Libby. I dearly hope he does because if he doesn't it will forever diminish him in the eyes of those who have been his most constant supporters. And here's an irony: If Bush doesn't do the right thing there's a very good chance that President Obama will. His chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, co-sponsored a resolution calling for clemency for the two former agents last December when he was a member of congress. Obama could go a long way toward winning over many of those who opposed him in November by using his executive authority to pardon Ramos and Compean. It would be a shame if Bush squandered the good will he has among conservatives by failing to do this, but if Obama stepped up where Bush failed to tread it would be not only the right thing to do, it would be a stroke of political genius.


Too Busy

I taught in a public high school for 35 years and am a little sensitive to criticism of public school teachers. I've worked with so many good ones over the years, people who exhaust themselves in doing the best job they can for their students, people whose motto it was that it was better to burn out than rust out, that I find criticism of them often uninformed and unfair.

And yet sometimes I have to marvel at some of my erstwhile colleagues.

My daughter is a senior going through the college application process which means she needs letters of recommendation from her teachers. So, she asked a teacher she thought she had a good relationship with if he would write one for her. I was stunned when my daughter gave me his reply. This guy, who, as far as I know, does nothing else at school but teach, told her that he was too busy. Too busy?!

He's getting paid in the neighborhood of $70,000 for 187 days of work and he's "too busy" to do the job for which he's being paid? Writing letters of recommendation for one's students is part of the job. Assisting one's students as they seek to move on to college is part of one's job. If a teacher is "too busy" to do this maybe he should be in another line of work.

Tell the athletic and forensics coaches who teach all day and then give up their evenings and weekends for their kids - these are people, mind you, whose remuneration comes to pennies per hour - that a colleague who doesn't have any extra-curricular responsibilities is too busy to write a letter for one of his students.

Tell the teachers running science fairs, student council, the yearbook and a host of other activities that require endless hours of work in addition to their labors in the classroom that someone who doesn't do any of this is too busy to give a student a few minutes of his time.

Tell it to the teachers who bring their students in early and on weekends to give them additional instruction to prep them for their AP tests, etc. that someone who's making even more money than are some of them just can't find the time to do everything his job entails.

I don't want to be too hard on this guy because maybe he has something going on in his personal life that I don't know about, but if not, his response to the request for a letter of recommendation is very disappointing. Frankly, for me, as a former teacher, it's embarrassing that a member of my profession would ever be too busy to help a student.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Spreading the GPA

A student sent me this amusing story which puts President-elect Obama's economic aspirations in some perspective:

"In a local restaurant my server had on an "Obama 08" tie. I laughed as he had given away his political preference - just imagine the coincidence. When the bill came I decided not to tip the server and explained to him that I was exploring the Obama redistribution of wealth concept.

He stood there in disbelief while I told him that I was going to redistribute his tip to someone who I deemed more in need--the homeless guy outside. The server angrily stormed away.

I went outside, gave the homeless guy $10 and told him to thank the server inside as I've decided he could use the money more. The homeless guy was grateful.

At the end of my rather unscientific redistribution experiment I realized the homeless guy was grateful for the money he did not earn, but the waiter was pretty angry that I gave away money he did earn even though the actual recipient needed the money more.

I guess redistribution of wealth is an easier thing to swallow in concept than in practical application."

President-elect Obama's desire to spread the wealth has inspired in me a wonderful idea. I wonder if those of my students who voted for Obama and who are doing well in class would mind if I took some of the points they've earned and gave them to those students who are doing less well so that everyone gets a decent grade. If they do mind I could point out to them that according to Vice-president elect Joe Biden they're just being selfish. What do they need with all those points anyway? They have more than enough points to pass the course whereas some of their fellow students are struggling below the academic "poverty line" and need help.

We'll call it "spreading the GPA". I'm sure anyone who voted for Senator Obama will see the fairness in taking from the haves and giving to the have nots.


Fighting the Orcs

The war for civilization continues in Afghanistan. Here's a report of the fighting that ensued when 250 insurgents ambushed a 30-man Marine patrol. The Marines were outnumbered 8 to 1, but it still wasn't a fair fight - sort of like the Fellowship of the Ring versus the orcs.

Thanks to Hot Air for the link.


Yes, He Could

We noted a while ago that since it became clear that Barack Obama was going to be the next president the stock market has lost about 30% of its value. Investors are clearly assuming that Obama is going to make life difficult for business and they're getting out of the market while they still can. People are asking, "Where's Obama?" Why isn't he stepping forward to calm the markets with his soothing mellifluence?

We suggested that Obama could give the markets a jolt and reverse the downward plunge simply by promising that he has rethought his previous position and that in light of the current crisis he will not impose any further burdens on business and may even reduce them. We wondered further why he doesn't do this. One reason, of course, is that he really does want to raise the minimum wage, tax businesses more heavily, and pile more regulations upon their faltering backs.

Suppose, though, his advisors have prevailed upon him to dampen his enthusiasm for sophomoric socialism and to do the prudent thing to help turn around the economic nosedive. If so, would he announce his willingness to forego the imposition of onerous taxes and regulations now? Perhaps the Machiavelli in him reasons this way: "If I promise to create a business friendly environment now, the markets may respond enthusiastically and by the inauguration everything will be hunky-dory. Bush will get the credit for the recovery and I won't. On the other hand, if I wait until after the inauguration to goose the markets, it'll look like I have the Midas touch, when, in fact, all I did was promise not to do something I should never have promised I would do in the first place."

So, I might be completely wrong about this, but look for Obama to either wait until after he's in the White House or perhaps at least until after the holidays to announce that he's going to refrain from crushing business with any new taxes, etc. If he can make this sound credible, investors will start buying back in and the market will regain some of its former luster. Unfortunately for Obama, he'll lose a lot of luster in the eyes of his devotees on the left who'll be wondering what happened to the change that they believed in.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Public Education and Intelligent Design (Pt. I)

Bradford over at Telic Thoughts puts us on to a paper by atheistic philosopher Thomas Nagle in the journal Philosophy and Public Policy. Nagle, a Darwinian evolutionist, joins Richard Dawkins (See Ch. 2 of The God Delusion) in defending the proposition that ID, contrary to what we are so often told, actually is a scientific hypothesis. In light of his argument Judge Jones, the ACLU and much of the reasoning behind the Kitzmiller decision are all looking increasingly unenlightened.

This post will be the first of a series on Nagel's paper. He begins by pointing out that it would be intellectually irresponsible to avoid significant questions that lie at the interface of evolution and religion:

[T]he campaign of the scientific establishment to rule out intelligent design as beyond discussion because it is not science results in the avoidance of significant questions about the relation between evolutionary theory and religious belief, questions that must be faced in order to understand the theory and evaluate the scientific evidence for it. It would be unfortunate if the Establishment Clause made it unconstitutional to allude to these questions in a public school biology class, for that would mean that evolutionary theory cannot be taught in an intellectually responsible way.

This is so for a couple of reasons. First, Darwin originally advanced evolution as an argument against purposeful design in nature. To allow evolution to be taught without allowing the design hypothesis to defend itself is simply irresponsible. Second, to shelter a theory from criticism, to disallow the discussion of any counterevidence, as the defenders of Darwinism wish to do, is also intellectually inexcusable.

Nagle goes on to make an observation that we have made here at Viewpoint on numerous occasions. The fundamental claims of Darwinian evolution and Intelligent Design are contraries. If it is scientific to assert that life is solely the product of unintentional processes then the denial of the claim must also be scientific:

[Evolution's]defining element is the claim that all [life] happened as the result of the appearance of random and purposeless mutations in the genetic material followed by natural selection due to the resulting heritable variations in reproductive fitness. It displaces design by proposing an alternative. No one suggests that the theory is not science, even though the historical process it describes cannot be directly observed, but must be inferred from currently available data. It is therefore puzzling that the denial of this inference, i.e., the claim that the evidence offered for the theory does not support the kind of explanation it proposes, and that the purposive alternative has not been displaced, should be dismissed as not science. The contention seems to be that, although science can demonstrate the falsehood of the design hypothesis, no evidence against that demonstration can be regarded as scientific support for the hypothesis. Only the falsehood, and not the truth, of ID can count as a scientific claim.

Nagle is right on the mark here and has much else of interest to say on the matter of whether ID should be considered science and taught in science classes. We'll discuss more of his paper in the days ahead.


Good Riddance

Long War Journal reports that yet another al Qaeda leader has been killed in Pakistan by the U.S. military using missiles fired from a Predator drone aircraft. The latest casualty was one Rashid Rauf, the man who planned the attempt a couple of years ago to bomb a dozen trans-Atlantic flights using liquid bombs.

This makes the fifth senior al Qaeda operative in Pakistan to have been sent to the throne of Allah this year. Imagine what it must be like to be one of these psychopaths never knowing when you go to bed if a hellfire missile will disturb your dreams. There must also be a lot of paranoia developing among the cadres since it's obvious that the Americans are getting a lot of actionable intelligence from somewhere inside the inner circles of these killers. Who's providing it? Are the Americans paying off underlings for information on their superiors? The big rats must be suspicious of the mice, and it's likely that there's going to be a lot of finger-pointing, purges, executions and other ugly episodes that will foster resentments among the formerly faithful. This sort of thing will only lead to a breakdown in loyalty and produce even more intelligence.

Al Qaeda must be reeling. Perhaps they're hope is that President Obama will scale back operations against them and give them a chance to catch their breath. Let's hope he's smarter than that.


Hillary at State

Some historians say that Rome began its decline when it instituted a co-emperorship. With two men sharing rule there were two poles around which loyalties and power revolved. It seems that Barack Obama has chosen to do something similar by appointing Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State. She will have her own staff and doubtless her own foreign policy. It will be very hard for Obama to control her and the State Department may well morph into a co-White House.

I'm not sure why Ms Clinton would accept this post if she plans on running for president in 2012 since it'll be hard to quit after two years to run against the man who gave her the job. On the other hand, if she's seen as the author of a successful foreign policy she may eclipse Obama in the public eye. If he tires of her machinations and lets her go her devotees may be so upset that he'll have trouble in the primaries if she chooses to run against him.

The other question is why Obama named her to the post. Forgive me for being cynical, but I don't believe he thought she was the best qualified person available for the job. It could be that he felt that as a cabinet secretary she'd be too preoccupied to spend the next three years campaigning against him.

At any rate, having Hillary and, perforce, her husband at Foggy Bottom promises to offer a lot of drama for the media and a lot of headaches for Obama. Stay tuned.


Saturday, November 22, 2008


There are a couple of interesting responses to some recent posts on our Feedback page. Please check it out.

A number of readers replied to the post What's Love Got to Do With it? and many of them expressed frustration with the opposite sex. This is not new, of course, but I suspect that the erosion of traditional moral constraints on male/female relationships has made what was always a tense situation much worse. I didn't find in the replies I received to this post much disagreement with this.


Gimme Money

All the talk about bailouts reminds me of a song first done by Barrett Strong in 1959 and later reissued by a dozen other groups including The Beatles. It was called Gimme Money and went like this:

The best things in life are free, but you can give 'em to the birds and bees. Now gimme money (That's what I want), that's what I want (That's what I want), that's what I want, yeah, that's what I want.

Money don't get everything it's true, but what it don't get I can't use. So gimme money (That's what I want), a little money (That's what I want), that's what I want, yeah, that's what I want.

Yeah, gimme money (That's what I want). A little money (That's what I want), that's what I want (That's what I want). So gimme money (That's what I want), that's what I want, yeah, that's what I want.

And so forth.

I thought of this catchy little tune while watching the automaker execs go before Congress hat in hand asking for a couple of billion dollars of taxpayer money to compensate them for doing such a lousy job of running their industry.

We've heard that the auto industry cannot be allowed to fail, that it's "too big to fail", that millions of people will be out of work if it fails. Well, maybe, but into this maelstrom of claims and counterclaims strides Dan Weil of NewsMax with a refreshingly lucid column titled Ten Reasons Why the Auto Bailout Is a Bad Idea. Here are the first three:

1. A bailout would provide money only for short-term survival. It wouldn't alter car makers' flawed business models. GM is running through cash at the rate of $2 billion a month. So $10 billion from the government would give it only five months' breathing room. Can they turn over their business practices in that period? Please. The temptation would be simply to come back to taxpayers for more.

2. A government handout would allow the Big Three to avoid necessary cost cutting. Because of a strong union, the average GM employee received $70 an hour in combined pay and benefits last year. And it's not just line workers who are making too much. GM chief executive Richard Wagoner garnered about $24 million a year in 2006 and 2007, while leading his company toward oblivion.

3. Bankruptcy isn't all bad. It doesn't mean liquidation. It means taking the painful steps the companies have been unwilling to contemplate to date. The real losers in such a deal are car makers, equity shareholders and creditors. Bankruptcy would give the automakers the chance to throw out existing employee contracts with their onerous health and pension systems. The unions would be forced to temper their demands if they want the car companies to survive. In the case of GM, it could also dump some of its uncompetitive product lines such as Pontiac and Saturn. Discontinuing five of GM's eight domestic brands would save the company $5 billion annually.

You can read the remaining seven reasons at the link. Weil and a lot of others are saying that the auto execs can sing Gimme Money all they want, but it doesn't make it a prudent thing to do. Why should the beleaguered public subsidize poor leadership and exorbitant worker salaries and benefits when the average taxpayer makes less than any of these guys? Management and labor have a right to make whatever they can get on the market or in contract negotiations, of course, but they don't have a right to expect us to open our wallets to compensate them for their avarice and incompetence.

Let them file for bankruptcy, reorganize, and get competitive.


Re: Atheist Charities

Some readers thought that it was a bit of an exaggeration to suggest in Atheist Charities that atheists are not as compassionate as Christians. They also thought that any implication that Christian compassion arises out of sense of duty makes it seem as Christian charity is simply a hoop that must be jumped through in order to get to heaven.

These are misapprehensions. The difference between atheists and Christians is not that atheists don't have the capacity for compassion and Christians do; it's that atheists, if their belief about God is true, have no reason to exercise that capacity. There simply is no reason to be compassionate in a Godless world except the inclinations urged upon one by her own personality. If she weren't compassionate, if she lacked kindness, she wouldn't be morally wrong or defective. She'd just be different than others who are compassionate.

Compassion is a duty for the Christian, to be sure. Indeed, it's commanded, but the motive for fulfilling that obligation is not the hope of heaven. The Christian already has that. The motive is love for God and gratitude for what He's done. We love others, or should, because God loves them and we love and are grateful to Him. To love Him is to love what He loves. If God does not exist there's no reason whatsoever why anyone should treat others, especially people he doesn't know (like poor Africans, for instance), with kindness.

That's why there are so few atheist charities, if indeed there are any at all. The atheist has no real reason to sacrifice his own resources for the benefit of complete strangers, but the Christian has several: The Christian believes his resources are not his but God's, to be employed in the service of God's kingdom and to help God's children. The Christian also believes that we are our brother's keeper and are responsible for doing what we can to help him. The Christian believes that each life is precious because it is valued by God and that each life has the potential to exist for eternity. The help we give a person today could shape and influence him not just for a few more years, but forever. The Christian believes that others have dignity which can only derive from their being made in the image of God and loved by Him and they are therefore worth our sacrifice.

The atheist, of course, believes none of this. The atheist may value other people but, if so, her decision to do so is completely arbitrary and subjective. It's not based on anything more substantial than her own feelings and the decision to value others, if atheism is true, is neither right nor wrong, good nor bad. It's qualitatively similar to the decision to buy a Toyota rather than a Honda.

This being the case, as society grows increasingly secular it's reasonable to expect that acts of charity, including charitable giving, will decline.

This post (which is based on this one) compares charitable giving among conservatives and liberals and, since Christians tend to be conservative and atheists tend to be liberals, these posts might offer some insight into the relative benevolence of atheists and Christians.


Friday, November 21, 2008


After the election we observed that its results exploded a couple of myths about Americans and America. One myth we didn't mention that wilted away during the campaign is the belief, common among the young, that their generation is much less "hung-up" on race than are older generations. Shelby Steele, the author of White Guilt, perhaps the best book written on race in the last decade, points out in an interview with Peter Robinson that, on the contrary, this election shows that much of this country, especially the young, is actually obsessed with race. Watch the video of the interview and note the conversation beginning at about the 3:45 minute mark.

Earlier in the discussion Steele makes another interesting observation about how the Obama candidacy meant different things to whites and blacks. For many whites, voting for Obama was a way of gaining absolution, of proving their non-racist bona fides, of clearing their conscience of the guilt of being a member of the racist, white ruling class. For blacks, on the other hand, it was a way of putting behind them their fears of their own racial inadequacy.

I think there's a lot to this. It's remarkable that many whites were enthusiastic about Obama, notwithstanding their complete lack of knowledge of his past or of his views (See, for example, the Zogby poll linked to here). On the other hand, it's also remarkable that among black Obama supporters criticism of him often seems to be taken personally. It's never said that way, exactly, but one gets the feeling that blacks think whites have no business criticizing Obama, and if they do it's reason to think that the critic is motivated by racial animus. This makes sense, of course, if blacks see the attempt to defeat Obama as more fundamentally an attempt to thwart their own struggle to expunge a perhaps self-imposed stigma of racial inferiority.

The Steele interview packs a lot into six minutes and is worth a look. In fact, the whole series with Steele is worth watching. You can find the other segments here.


Iran's Woes

Not all economic news is bad these days. There's always a silver lining. Apparently the current economic unpleasantness is hitting Iran pretty hard and that could be a good thing:

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where much of Iran's foreign trade is handled, local banks are refusing to do business with the 10,000 Iranian trading firms based there. This has caused delays and cancellations of Iranian imports (over $9 billion worth from the UAE last year) and exports. This is being felt by the ruling elite in Iran. There, the large extended families of the clerical leadership live the good life, and the goodies come in via the UAE. The sudden shortages of iPods, flat screen TVs, automobiles and bling in general, has been noticed in Iran, and is not appreciated.

The falling price of oil is producing another problem, national bankruptcy. The government admits that if the price of oil falls below $60 a barrel (which it has) and stays there (which it may, at least until the current recession is over), the nation will not be able to finance foreign trade (which is already having problems with increasingly effective U.S. moves to deny Iran access to the international banking system), or even the Iranian economy itself. The latter problem is largely self-inflicted, as president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad desperately borrows money to placate his few (heavily armed and fanatical) followers (about 20 percent of the population). The rest of the population has been in recession for years, and is getting increasingly angry over Ahmadinejad's mismanagement. Some 80 percent of Iran's exports are oil.

Maybe a restive Iranian populace will solve the problem of what to do about Tehran's nuclear ambitions so that military options become unnecessary. If that were a result of the current economic doldrums it would make the present financial pain worthwhile and would certainly be a wonderful turn of events.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Memo

A friend passes along a "memo" sent out recently to employees of an unnamed business enterprise:

As the CFO of this business that employees 140 people, I have resigned myself to the fact that Barack Obama will be our next President, and that our taxes and government fees will increase in a BIG way.

To compensate for these increases, I figure that the clients will have to bear an increase in our fees to them of about 8%, but since we cannot increase our fees right now due to the dismal state of our economy, we will have to lay off six of our employees instead. This has really been eating at me for a while, as we believe we are family here, and I didn't know how to choose whom to let go.

So, this is what I did. I strolled thru our parking lot and found six Obama bumper stickers on our employees' cars and have decided these folks will be the first to be laid off. I can't think of a more fair way to approach this problem. These folks wanted change; I gave it to them. If you have a better idea, let me know.

This is a joke, of course, but it touches upon an uncomfortable truth. If and when President Obama raises income taxes, capital gains taxes, insurance contributions, and the minimum wage, and allows the Bush tax cuts to expire, businesses will have to start shedding costs, i.e. workers. I wonder how long it'll be then before Obama supporters start removing their bumper stickers from their vehicles as a precaution against incurring the wrath of their laid-off co-workers.


Orwell's Oceania Comes to Ohio

Employees of no less than six state agencies in Ohio assiduously set about digging up dirt on Joe Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. Joe the Plumber, just as soon as he had displayed the breathtaking cheek to inquire of the Democratic candidate about his business tax plans.

So, where are all those Democrats who rent their garments a few months ago at revelations that the nefarious Bush administration was eavesdropping on terrorists' phone calls?

Evidently, the lesson we can take from the left's disparate reactions to these two situations is that spying on terrorists is evil, but spying on private citizens who happen to be potential GOP voters is understandable.

I'm reminded of the aphorism that he who travels the high road of principle in public life won't have to worry much about traffic. That's especially true, one might be excused for thinking, if he's driving in the left lane.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Leap of Faith

This video and the Zogby poll which accompanies it have created a bit of a stir in the blogosphere, but I'm not sure why. Anyway, the vid is both depressing and enlightening. It'll surely disturb those who believe that the health of a democracy is directly proportional to how well-informed the electorate is. It's interesting that the people polled know so little about Barack Obama and Joe Biden but so much (true or not) about Sarah Palin. Why do you suppose that is? The answers to the question at the end perhaps provide us with a clue.

The video by itself signifies little, but taken in conjunction with the poll, which can be viewed here, it suggests something disturbing about the American voter. Be sure to read both the criticism of the poll and Zogby's defense of it which are linked to at the site.


What's Love Got to Do With it?

This article by Kay Hymowitz in City Journal touts itself as "A report from the chaotic post-feminist dating scene, where only the strong survive." It might also be thought of as a disturbing examination of what the sexual revolution has wrought.

If you're young and single, or even if you're not, you might want to read Hymowitz's piece. It's depressing and distressing, and it'll cause you to worry about your prospects of ever finding an acceptable spouse, but I think she says some important things about love and romance in a secular, Darwinian, post-sexual revolution age.

The essay is R-rated and a bit long so here's a quick summary: Guys are jerks and women have no one to blame but themselves.


Paradigm Shift

It's beginning to look like everything you learned in high school about the gene and biological inheritance is quickly becoming obsolete.

A recent article in the New York Times explains why.

According to the Times the snippet of DNA which had once been thought to program for a particular trait is now known to be only part of the story. There are whole complexes of molecules that program for traits and a particular snippet (or exon) may code for as many as six or seven different proteins or no protein at all. In other words, the complexity of life keeps increasing the more we learn about it. The complexity, like some biological fractal, runs all the way down. Here are just a couple of excerpts from the article which suggest the enormous complexity of the mechanisms involved in inheritance:

A single so-called gene, for example, can make more than one protein (transcript). In a process known as alternative splicing, a cell can select different combinations of exons (segments of DNA) to make different transcripts. Scientists identified the first cases of alternative splicing almost 30 years ago, but they were not sure how common it was. Several studies now show that almost all genes are being spliced. The Encode team estimates that the average protein-coding region produces 5.7 different transcripts. Different kinds of cells appear to produce different transcripts from the same gene.

Even weirder, cells often toss exons into transcripts from other genes. Those exons may come from distant locations, even from different chromosomes.

But it turns out that the genome is also organized in another way, one that brings into question how important genes are in heredity. Our DNA is studded with millions of proteins and other molecules, which determine which genes can produce transcripts and which cannot. New cells inherit those molecules along with DNA. In other words, heredity can flow through a second channel.

One of the most striking examples of this second channel is a common flower called toadflax. Most toadflax plants grow white petals arranged in a mirror-like symmetry. But some have yellow five-pointed stars. These two forms of toadflax pass down their flower to their offspring. Yet the difference between their flowers does not come down to a difference in their DNA.

Instead, the difference comes down to the pattern of caps that are attached to their DNA. These caps, made of carbon and hydrogen, are known as methyl groups. The star-shaped toadflax have a distinct pattern of caps on one gene involved in the development of flowers.

DNA is not just capped with methyl groups; it is also wrapped around spool-like proteins called histones that can wind up a stretch of DNA so that the cell cannot make transcripts from it. All of the molecules that hang onto DNA, collectively known as epigenetic marks, are essential for cells to take their final form in the body. As an embryo matures, epigenetic marks in different cells are altered, and as a result they develop into different tissues. Once the final pattern of epigenetic marks is laid down, it clings stubbornly to cells. When cells divide, their descendants carry the same set of marks. "They help cells remember what genes to keep on, and what genes can never be turned on," said Bradley Bernstein of Harvard University.

It's just astonishing, is it not, the miracles of engineering that can be wrought by mere chance and chemistry. If I hadn't read my Richard Dawkins I might be tempted to think there was some merit in the observation by physicist Fred Hoyle that the odds of a living cell arising purely by chance are about the same as a tornado sweeping through a junk yard leaving in its wake a fully-assembled, fully-functional 747 jet airplane.

No snickering please.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Back to Basics

Much post-election political commentary has focused on the alleged need for the Republican party to "broaden its appeal" to attract the young and minorities and that it needs to abandon stances on issues, like abortion and immigration, that alienate these groups. It also needs to shed its reputation for penny-pinching and loosen up the public purse-strings in order to woo the poor into the party.

All of these recommendations are silly. They amount to saying that if Republicans want to compete with Democrats why, then, they should become Democrats. It amounts to selling their soul for a mess of political pottage, and it wouldn't work anyway. The Republicans have not fallen into disfavor because they hold to the wrong principles. They've fallen from grace because they don't appear to stand for any principles at all.

What Republicans need to do to regain the public's confidence is three things: First, they need to stop running old men for president. Beginning in 1992 with George H.W. Bush Republicans three times run seemingly out-of-touch, superannuated candidates against younger, more charismatic opponents and they've lost every time. The two elections in which they prevailed (2000, 2004) the GOP candidate was the same age as the Democratic candidate. If the Republicans want to get the under 30 vote they're going to have to bend to a sociological reality: Young people love and admire their grandfathers, but they prefer their presidents to be youthful, intelligent, articulate, and energetic.

Secondly, Republicans need to return to their principles. George W. Bush has spent money as though nothing was more abundant and what has it gotten him? He has a popularity rating that can only be measured with sonar and an economy which will probably ruin his presidential legacy.

Republicans need to stand firmly for spending discipline, they need to go cold-turkey on their addiction to earmarks, and they need to stop sounding an uncertain trumpet on social issues. Voters rightly wonder, if their choice is between a genuine liberal Democrat and a GOP knock-off of a liberal Democrat, why not just vote for the real thing? Meanwhile, conservatives stay home in disgust. McCain got five million fewer votes than Bush did in 2004 largely because McCain's record in the Senate failed to inspire confidence among conservatives that he was the genuine article.

Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, Republicans need to see themselves as educators. George Bush's biggest failing, aside from his economic profligacy and border apathy, was his failure to educate the American people as to why his other policies were right. Whatever the quality of his leadership in the White House may have been, he was often AWOL on the public airwaves when the people needed to be inspired, assured and instructed as to why they should follow him on the course he was setting.

A Republican leadership made up of the same anonymous mystery men who guided the campaigns of Bush the elder, Bob Dole, and John McCain will almost certainly guarantee the party an extended vacation in political Siberia. The reason why so many people were drawn to Sarah Palin and willing to forgive her her short-comings was that she was such a breath of fresh air in her declarations of her convictions. The cavils of a derisory media notwithstanding, those convictions are almost exactly those of the vast majority who comprise the GOP base and, indeed, many Democrats as well. Palin was a resonant trumpet to McCain's dubious kazoo and many people were grateful to her for that.

By all means Republicans should seek to attract those outside the party, but they should do it by promoting conservative principles, not abandoning them, and by selecting younger, attractive advocates for those principles. They need to make the case for their principles with such power and clarity that not even a media fully committed to doing wahtever it takes to neutralize their voices will be unable to prevent the message from eroding popular support from the Democratic ranks.

Just as I was finishing this post up I came across this article by Karl Rove which says much the same things only he says more and says it better.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Re: Add Congo

My friend Matt writes in response to our post on the Congo titled Add Congo to the List:

Thanks for your recent Congo post, Dick. I had just watched a documentary called The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo. A student had bought the rights to show it for her high school culminating project and then let me borrow the DVD. It was unimaginable. Unimaginable. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls and small children gang-raped. Hundreds of thousands!! And their SVU (special victims unit) for the entire country consists of ONE woman with no budget.

The men gang-rape with impunity. And they don't just gang-rape, they then destroy the women's genitalia with rods and poles. It's demonic. Purely demonic. And the few people who can stand to work for justice there have the aura of Christ. I don't know how they do it. The film is also somewhat helpful in explaining the situation in the Congo and how hopeless it is. That's crushing. I'd like to turn to lighter news, but would feel flippant if I did.

Matt also recommends the documentary WarDance which he describes as "the most impressively and artistically crafted of all the films I've seen on Africa, and the most honestly crushing and uplifting film. The others rarely give you stories of hope amidst the horror. I have to believe that's partly because there is no hope, but as Christians we have to believe there is. Wardance leaves room for that."

He goes on to commend another documentary that we've talked about on Viewpoint in the past titled As We Forgive which is an amazing story of forgiveness and reconciliation in Rwanda in the wake of the savage genocide that occurred there in the '90s. Matt notes that it won the academy award for best documentary by a student filmmaker.

I hope that Viewpoint readers will take the time to watch at least one of these films. They're all eye-openers which will doubtless shatter our naive complacency about the world in which we live. I've added them to my Netflix queue.


Scientific Consensus

Casey Luskin at Evolution News and Views reminds us of a quote from the science fiction writer Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, Andromeda Strain, et al.) who passed away just recently. Crichton gave a speech in which he was very critical of the tendency to cite the "scientific consensus" in order to clinch some debating point:

"I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.

"Let's be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

"There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period....

"I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way."

(Michael Crichton, "Aliens Cause Global Warming," reprinted in Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2008.)

The context of Crichton's remarks was the use of "scientific consensus" in the global warming debate, about which he was a skeptic, but his point applies equally well to the debate surrounding the origin of the cosmos and the origin of life. Dissenters from the consensus are often brow-beaten by the assertion that all "real" scientists believe life evolved by Darwinian processes when in fact that claim is not true and would be beside the point even if it were true.

"Darwinian processes" means that only physical mechanisms have been at work in the creation of the diversity of structures, functions, and operations found in living things. In other words, Darwinian processes (e.g. natural selection and random mutation) exclude any role for mind and intention, and it's simply untrue that all real scientists embrace the exclusion.

Even were it true, however, Crichton's point was that it doesn't mean much. Many if not most great advances in science came about because people who stood outside the mainstream refused to be cowed by the dominant view. This was certainly true of the work of Copernicus and Galileo and even of Darwin himself. It was true of Dalton, Einstein and Le Maitre. The fact that a majority of experts believe something should cause us to respect their theory, but it does not follow that what they believe is correct.

Crichton trenchantly notes in his speech that the club of consensus is usually brandished only when there is a lack of confidence in one's theory. It's a bit like the oft-heard claim that evolution is as well-established as the theory of gravity. This is simply false, and is shown to be false by the fact that one never hears a physicist say that the theory of gravity is as well-established as the theory of evolution. Physicists would never think to make such a claim because it's so obviously laughable.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Atheist Charities

Richard John Neuhaus on why religious organizations which provide government-subsidized social services should be free to prosyletize:

"The legitimate interest of government is in seeing that the social services for which it contracts are effectively provided, and, if the providers want to tell people why they're engaged in good works, that's their business. It should make no difference whether the providers are faith-based, faith-saturated, or atheists. The last is an academic point, of course, since, for some reason, there are few atheist charities."

Neuhaus is correct, of course, not only about the paucity of atheist charities, for which the reasons are not mysterious, but also about the right of faith-based charities to discuss with their beneficiaries the motivations for their benevolence. It's no business of the state's whether these organizations seek to persuade people to join their fellowship or not. The state's only concern should be whether the services being paid for with tax-payer's money are being duly provided.

As for the dearth of atheist charities, one need only ask why, in a godless world, anyone should care about the poor or the infirm. These people are the losers in the Darwinian lottery and there's no obligation to artificially sustain them. The obligation to care for the poor is imposed upon us only by God, not by nature, and it is out of love for Him that we love those He loves. If God doesn't exist then other people have no claim on our compassion or our purse, and there's no reason for us to not turn a blind eye to their suffering.

Indeed, if God does not exist then Sartre was probably not far from the truth when he noted that hell is other people.


Either the Multiverse or God

Tim Folger at Discover Online has a great piece on the choice confronting contemporary thinkers about what lies behind the universe's fine-tuning.

For those new to the discussion, fine-tuning refers to the fact that almost every fact about the universe has to be almost exactly what it is in order for the universe to be the kind of place in which higher life forms could thrive.

This means that hundreds of forces, parameters, values, etc. must be set to, in some cases, incredibly precise tolerances in order for the universe to exist at all and to be able to support life.

To take just one example, Hugh Ross invites us in Why the Universe Is the Way it Is to imagine that the universe were an aircraft carrier. If so, then had the mass at the beginning been off so much as the mass of a single fleck of paint, the universe would never have formed. Actually, Ross goes on to say, the tolerance is much less than that. In fact, if the mass of the universe were the same as the mass of an aircraft carrier it would only have to have been off by the mass of a billionth of a trillionth of the mass of an electron for the carrier to be unable to support living beings.

In the Discover article Folger interviews scientists who consider this amazing precision and conclude that there really are only two alternatives. Either the universe was intentionally designed or it's just one of a vast number of worlds which each possess different laws and forces. Amidst so much diversity the existence of a universe like ours, they aver, becomes much more probable:

Call it a fluke, a mystery, a miracle. Or call it the biggest problem in physics. Short of invoking a benevolent creator, many physicists see only one possible explanation: Our universe may be but one of perhaps infinitely many universes in an inconceivably vast multi�verse. Most of those universes are barren, but some, like ours, have conditions suitable for life.

The idea is controversial. Critics say it doesn't even qualify as a scientific theory because the existence of other universes cannot be proved or disproved. Advocates argue that, like it or not, the multiverse may well be the only viable non�religious explanation for what is often called the "fine-tuning problem"-the baffling observation that the laws of the universe seem custom-tailored to favor the emergence of life.

On the other hand, if there is no multiverse, where does that leave physicists? "If there is only one universe," says Bernard Carr, a cosmologist at Queen Mary University of London, "you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don't want God, you'd better have a multiverse."

Precisely. In order to avoid having to admit that there's a God a lot of people are prepared to believe in a near infinite number of universes that they can neither see nor measure nor say much at all about. I daresay that were it not for the fact that the alternative was God, no scientist would be seriously entertaining a theory whose only purpose seems to be to serve as an escape hatch for atheistic materialists.

Folger's article does a fine job of explaining all the relevant ideas and will help you become conversant on an issue which we will no doubt be hearing much more about as science continues to discover more and more examples of the astonishing precision with which our world is engineered.

You might also want to pick up Hugh Ross' book which describes this precision in a fashion very accessible to those with a minimal background in science. It can be ordered by phone from my friend Byron at Hearts and Minds Bookstore.


Re: Economic Basics

A student of mine named Alison wrote a response to Economic Basics. It's so good I thought I'd post it here, slightly edited:

I have to agree that handouts are not going to do any good in helping the poor. My parents are business owners in Connecticut. They own and operate an orchard, and can only hire seasonal help so you can imagine what kind of people we get for three months every year. They are minimum wage workers and for the most part, they are pretty poor.

Minimum wage in Connecticut is $7.65, which is quite a lot of money to pay someone to stand around and make cardboard boxes, but it is still not enough for someone to live on. Nearly every year minimum wage gets raised, but if you can't live on $7.65 per hour, do you think that you will be able to live that much better on $7.80? It seems doubtful to me, but it is just enough to make my parents consider how they can get by with fewer employees, cutting the number of jobs available.

Then there's the issue of unemployment checks which is totally bogus. These people that my parents hire for one season will go and file for unemployment the day the season ends. It doesn't matter that many of them are mothers who want the summers off anyway and can't work during that time. It doesn't matter that they hardly worked during the couple months for which they were hired. And there's no way out of paying these people for unemployment. There is a huge difference between unemployment for a mature worker who lost his job after 15 years and someone who decided give working a try for a couple months. If we never helped them out in the first place by giving them a way to earn money for a little while, we'd never have to pay the unemployment, but since, as my dad says, he "did them a favor and found some work for them to do," he's being punished.

So again, they make every effort to get by with as few employees as possible. Forcing businesses to pay unemployment to every employee who wants it is stupid and is in no way going to help the plight of the poor. Instead it's going to create more poor because small business owners can't compete and will eventually be added to that list of the unemployed.

Alison says it well. You don't help the poor by making it tough on business. One despairs that the lesson will ever be learned by our politicians in Washington.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Why the GOP Blew it

Libertarians share much in common with both conservatives and liberals. With liberals they share a disdain for government interference in matters of personal life-style and choice - for example, abortion and gay marriage. With conservatives they share a disdain for big government and regulatory interference in markets. P.J. O'Rourke is a libertarian who lists toward conservatism, and he offers a trenchant and funny post-election analysis of the Republican party at The Weekly Standard.

I don't find everything he says congenial, but he certainly hits the nail on the head often enough to make his essay worth passing on.


Economic Basics

The stock market tumbled sharply in the wake of Obama's election a week and a half ago, and the plunge is being attributed by some to fears that President Obama and the Democratic congress are going to raise the capital gains tax, the income tax, and the minimum wage, all of which would be very hard on businesses that operate on narrow profit margins.

Obama could perhaps reverse the downward economic trend before he even takes office. All he'd have to do is promise that he will not impose any new regulation, tax, or new minimum wage rate on businesses, and will in fact ease existing regulations and taxes on business. If he promised that his administration would fight to extend the Bush tax cuts and reduce regulations, investor confidence in the future of business would likely rise and the market might well recover. As it is investors fear that business is in for some very tough times under a Democratic economic hegemony.

President-elect Obama wants to help the poor. So do most people, but the poor are not helped by handouts and stimulus checks. After they've spent their check they're still poor. The best way to help people struggling to get out of poverty is to free up business to hire the marginal worker, the employee they would not hire if they had to pay high taxes and benefits. If burdens on employers are reduced jobs will become available and those who want to work will be able to find jobs.

But if we do what the Democrats and Obama have promised to do, if we increase the cost of running a business by taxing and regulating, unemployment will continue to rise as businesses retrench and cut back on all but essential expenses. In such an environment the primary employer is going to be government, and we will have become Venezuela.


Please Focus

Adam Rutherford makes a couple of claims in this video that are simply false, one of which is that teachers who accept intelligent design clearly do not understand evolution.

Actually, Rutherford clearly does not understand intelligent design. If he did he wouldn't talk as if evolution and ID were contraries. ID does not oppose evolution (I wish I had a dollar for every time someone, somewhere has had to say this in response to a confused news article or commentator). ID is in conflict with materialism. It denies the materialist claim that the origin of all biological organisms, structures, systems, and processes can, in theory, be fully accounted for in terms of physical processes and mechanisms.

Materialism asserts that mind is not necessary to account for the design of life. ID claims that any examination of the evidence, unfettered by a priori assumptions of the truth of materialism, would conclude that it is. The materialist claim is philosophical, not scientific. There's no empirical evidence for it. Thus, if ID should not be taught in a science classroom because it fails the test of empirical verification, then so, too, should materialism not be taught and any teacher who insists on teaching it should, by Rutherford's lights, be banished from the classroom.

The materialists make this mistake of so often that I suspect there's more afoot here than a simple inability to understand the ID position or to get it right. The materialist knows that if he can confuse the casual observer into thinking that the conflict is between ID and evolution he can discredit ID by producing lots of evidence for evolution. Once ID has been discredited then materialism prevails by default without having to fire a single shot. In other words, evolution is used as a surrogate for materialism to defeat ID which materialism itself could never do. It's an example of "Let's you and him fight."

The problem with this tactic, of course, is that lots of Intelligent Design advocates believe that the designer of life employed an evolutionary process to accomplish the task. Michael Behe is one notable example. There's an increasing fondness among many IDers for the theory of front-loaded evolution, i.e. the idea that the designer packed the genomic potential for all of subsequent diversification into the genome of the first cell or cells (See the excellent book by the pseudonymous Mike Gene titled The Design Matrix).

It may be that this is incorrect. It may be, as other IDers think, that the designer intervened at certain stages of the evolution of life to tinker with the process.

Not all IDers are evolutionists, some are creationists, but the point is that, contrary to what people like Rutherford would have us believe, there's no contradiction between the concept that there's evidence in the natural world that leads to the conclusion that a mind is responsible for it and the concept that life is a result of descent by modification.

Now if we could just get people like Rutherford to focus on this simple truth long enough for it to sink in we will have advanced the dialogue a considerable distance.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Add Congo to the List

Meanwhile, Africa continues in its doleful role as the most dysfunctional continent on the face of the globe. You've read about the terrors of being a Sudanese and perhaps you've heard of the crimes of Mugabe in Zimbabwe and how he has devastated that once beautiful and productive land. You've seen movies (Hotel Rwanda, Beyond the Gates) about the genocide in Rwanda and other films (e.g. Blood Diamond) about the horrors of child soldiers in Sierra Leone. You may have seen films such as The Last King of Scotland that give some insight into the thugocracy that afflicts these miserable people and you're also familiar, perhaps, with the ghastly gang warfare that plagues Somalia (see Blackhawk Down).

But have you read about what's happening in the Congo? If you haven't yet succumbed to compassion fatigue you might want to peruse a piece at the McClatchey web site that tells the awful tale: Five million deaths over the last decade, 45,000 refugees dying every month, and on it goes. If you've read one of these stories, you've read them all. Corrupt government, rebel militias, unimaginable cruelty and degradation, impotent U.N. and rampant disease and starvation afflicting tens of thousands of terrified refugees. It's the same awful litany of problems almost everywhere across the continent.

In his book The Bottom Billion Paul Collier suggests that the only way African nations like the ones mentioned above, as well as others like Chad and dysfunctional states elsewhere around the world (such as Haiti) will ever be able to achieve some level of normalcy for their beleaguered populations is via a concerted intervention - political, economic, and military - by the developed world. Of course, that means Europe and the U.S. since no other nation with the resources to help has much of a history of humanitarian concern, and unfortunately, because of the violence the radical Muslim world threatens to inflict as it seeks to establish global Islam, our energies must be diverted elsewhere.

It's such a tragedy to be able to help but to be unable and/or unwilling to commit the resources to do anything effective because radical Islamists have us tied down elsewhere. But even if that weren't the case I doubt that many Americans would have the stomach to send troops into Africa when our national interests are not at stake there. Instead we avert our gaze from the teeming mass of humanity that cries out for rescue from the tyrants and thugs and assuage our guilt at doing essentially nothing by sending a few vials of penicillin and a couple of crates of blankets.

The left deplored European colonialism in Africa as oppressive and exploitative, but the people of Africa were far better off under European rule than they are under the boot of the criminals who terrorize them now.


Jefferson on Public Debt

My friend Dick Francis passes along a crucially relevant insight from Thomas Jefferson:

"If we run into such debts as that must be taxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and our comforts, in our labors and our amusements, for our callings and creeds, as the people of England are, our people, like them, must labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, and give the earnings of fifteen of these to the government for their debts and daily expenses;

And the sixteenth [hour of labor] being insufficient to afford us bread, we must live, as they do now, on oatmeal and potatoes, have no time to think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account; but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains around the necks of our fellow sufferers;

And this is the tendency of all human governments. A departure from principle in one instance becomes a precedent for a second, that second for a third, and so on 'til the bulk of society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery, to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering... And the forehorse of this frightful team is public debt. Taxation follows that, and in its train, wretchedness and oppression."

What would Jefferson be thinking were he alive to witness the last year of bailouts and President-elect Obama's talk of higher taxes to come?


Has Anyone Seen Bob?

Those readers who have been on a whale-watch know that you can spend a great deal of time sitting patiently over a spot in the ocean where a whale was seen to have "sounded", waiting eagerly for the creature to rise again from the depths and make its grand appearance as it breaks through the surface. Whale-watching and the sometimes long hours of anticipation, waiting for a whale to "breach", came to mind today as it occurred to me that it had been a long time since the junior Senator from my fair state of Pennsylvania has surfaced.

Two years ago Pennsylvania voters tired of incumbent Senator Rick Santorum, one of the finest men to have served in the senate - a man who fought hard on behalf of the poor, the oppressed and the helpless both at home and abroad, a man who also saw clearly the threat posed by radical Islam, but a man tied too closely to President Bush - and chose in their wisdom to replace him with one Robert Casey.

Mr. Santorum is still involved in his various causes, but that election seems to have been the last anyone has heard from Mr. Casey. The newly-minted senator appears to have "sounded" and Pennsylvanians have been waiting patiently and fruitlessly for two years for him to resurface.

Perhaps it's time that someone file a missing persons report on the gentleman and possibly affix his photo to a milk carton or billboard. Who knows but that he's being held hostage somewhere, bound and gagged, until his term expires at which time he'll be trotted out again by the Democrat nabobs to stand for reelection so that he can once again disappear into the briney depths of political anonymity.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Butterfly

The other night I watched a lovely French film entitled "The Butterfly". The movie tells a delightful story about a lonely septuagenarian lepidopterist named Julian (Michael Serrault) and a young girl of eight named Elsa (Claire Bouanich) who is pretty much ignored by her mother. The girl lives in the apartment above Julian and attaches herself to the grandfatherly butterfly collector, somewhat to his dismay. She even manages to persuade him to allow her to tag along as he journeys into the French Alps in search of a rare species of butterfly (it's actually a moth, but no matter) called the Isabella. For those who like stories about how relationships develop this movie will touch your heart.

There is a line where Elsa tells the old man an off-color joke which one might wish were not in the film, but aside from this it's a wonderful movie. You might want to add it to your Netflix queue.


Without God: Concluding Thoughts

So, we are confronted with a choice: Either we believe that there is no God and that consequently our existential yearnings are inexplicable and unfulfillable, a view which leads logically to nihilism, or we believe that there is a God and that we possess those yearnings because they lead us to the source of their satisfaction. They point us toward God. In other words, the existence of God is the best explanation for the data of human existence. The atheist has no good explanation for these yearnings and must take a leap of faith to avoid the nihilism and despair that her worldview pushes her toward. She has to live as if God exists while denying that He does. Many atheists actually repudiate their own naturalism simply by the way they choose to live their lives.

I've sought in this series of posts to defend the claim that the simplest explanation for the nature of the world and the deepest longings and feelings of the human spirit is that they are what they are because they conform to some existential reality. Those profound convictions are most simply accounted for by positing the possibility of satisfaction, but they can only be satisfied if there is a being that corresponds to the traditional notion of God. If theism is correct we can find intellectual and emotional contentment in the hope that the tragic condition of the world and of our lives is only temporary, that death is not the end and that a beautiful future lies ahead.

If God exists then we can assume that He made us for a reason, that there is a purpose to our existence and that we have dignity and inalienable rights as human beings because we are made in the image of God and loved by Him. If God exists then there is a transcendent moral authority which obligates us to respect others, which provides us in this life with an objective standard upon which to base moral judgment and which will ultimately mete out justice. We feel guilt because we're actually guilty. We feel free because we're actually free. We have an identity that endures because that identity exists in the mind of God. If God exists there is a basis for hope of life beyond death and some sense can be made of an otherwise senseless and existentially chaotic world.

The atheist, if he's consistent with his belief that there is no God, finds himself completely at odds in almost every important way with the structure of his own being. He finds himself inexplicably out of synch with his world. He is alone, forlorn, abandoned in an empty, unfeeling, indifferent universe that offers no solace nor prospect that there might be meaning, morality, justice, dignity, and solutions to the riddles of existence. The atheist lives without expectation or hope that any of the most profound yearnings of our hearts and minds can ever be fulfilled. How, then, do we come to have them? Why would natural selection shape us in such a way as to be so metaphysically and psychologically out of phase with the world in which we are situated?

It's possible, of course, that the atheistic answer is correct, that this is just the way things are, and we should simply make the best of a very bad situation. Yet surely the skeptic should hope that he's mistaken. Surely he would want there to be a God to infuse the cosmos with all the richness it is starved of by His absence. Nevertheless, I've never known or read one who held such a hope. It's incomprehensible that some, like philosopher Thomas Nagel, for instance, actually cling to the fervent desire that there be no God. This is tantamount to wishing, bizarrely enough, that life really is a meaningless, senseless, cruel and absurd joke. Nagel says in his book The Last Word:

"I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."

Nagel's ability to see his motivations clearly is uncommon and commendable, but his honesty and insight are little compensation for the profound sadness one feels at what he finds in his own heart. How anyone can actually wish the universe to be the sort of place where meaning, morality, justice, human worth and all the rest are vain illusions, is very difficult, for me, at least, to understand.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Civilian Security Force?

Perhaps Senator Obama meant nothing sinister by the remarks he made in a call to service speech he made at Colorado Springs before the election, but I would like to know what he meant by his call for a national security force as powerful and well-funded as the military. Given the history of such security forces, and the fondness that thugs and tyrants have had for such enforcement mechanisms, it's a little unnerving.

Exactly what does Mr. Obama have in mind?


<i>Getting it Right</i>

For political junkies who like a little modern history with their politics, especially those who may have some familiarity with the work of the late William F. Buckley and/or National Review (I hope I haven't narrowed the field too much) I'd like to recommend a novel titled Getting it Right. It was written by Buckley about four years ago and it tells the story of the three-way struggle between Ayn Rand, the John Birch Society, and the crowd at National Review for the soul of conservatism.

It's a fascinating account beginning in the 1950s and ending with the Goldwater defeat in 1964. Buckley does a masterful job of allowing Rand to skewer herself in its pages, making her look like the megalomaniacal genius that she was. It also provides a fascinating account of how the John Birch Society got started and how it came a cropper. Along the way you meet many of the key players of the time, including Buckley himself. It's a good read, especially for conservatives eager to bone up on the details of this critical gestation period of American conservatism.


Things to Come

Quin Hilyer of The American Spectator advises conservatives on what we might expect from Obama's minions and other disciples of Saul Alinsky who will run the government come January. The comments which follow add a few other cautions. It's not pretty and I deeply hope Obama will not do what Hilyer predicts, but I confess I have very little ground for that hope.

Everything he and the Democratic leadership have been saying for the last couple of years conforms to Hilyer's frightening augury. Read the article at the link. It's not long.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Making a Difference

A student recently mentioned to me that as a science major he thought it a shame that philosophers study stuff that doesn't make any difference in peoples' lives. He was giving me a little dig and said it with a smile.

I returned the smile and told him that actually the questions philosophers deal with are among the most important we can imagine. Questions about God, meaning, morality, justice, human nature, mind and soul, love, etc. These are questions that bear on how we should live and how we can achieve a good life.

I then asked him what string theory, quantum mechanics, cosmology, cosmogeny, biogenesis, paleontology, exobiology, much of astronomy, and pure mathematics have to do with most peoples' lives. Not much, I suggested. So why are think the study of these to be somehow more noble or more worthwhile than the study of philosophy? More smiles.


Jolly Old St. Barack

What was the source of Barack Obama's appeal among the masses? Perhaps it was the conviction that he was really Santa Claus in a business suit:

This isn't just one woman speaking, I'm afraid. Ms Joseph is the whole country - financially troubled state governments, corporations, institutions, individuals - everyone has their hand out and expects everyone else to pay for their gas and mortgage. In American politics it has come to this: If you want to win an election just promise to give more people more goodies than does your opponent.

Ms Joseph's excitement over what she thinks Obama will do for her and the rest of us reminds me of the words attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville: "America will last until the populace discovers that it can vote for itself largesse out of the public treasury."

And then comes the eschaton.


Working for WALNUT

Hot Air's intrepid correspondent Jason Mattera goes underground yet again, this time to get signers on a petition for ACORN's sister organization WALNUT. WALNUT is petitioning for the right of oppressed peoples to be allowed to vote twice. It's pretty funny. Here's part I. Part II follows:

For more Jason Mattera go here.


Without God (X)

As we continue our series on the existential inadequacies of the atheistic worldview and its inability to conform to the way the world is we might consider this: In a Godless world the concept of soul becomes problematic and with it the notion of a self other than the physical body. If our self just is our body, as the atheistic materialist believes, since our body is constantly changing we're continuously creating a new self, moment by moment, year by year. There is nothing which perdures through time which makes me the same person I think I was ten years ago. There is no permanent "I", only a kaleidoscopic, fragmented bundle of patterns, impressions, memories, none of which has any real significance in determining who I really am.

As T.S. Eliot put it in The Cocktail Party, "What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since every meeting we are meeting a stranger." Our sense that we are a self strongly suggests that there's more to us than just our physical being. Yet, unless there is a God, transient physical flux is all there is.

Nevertheless, we seem to be convinced that there is an enduring self, an "I" which exists through time. Either this conviction is an illusion or there's more to us than just a physical body. If we do have a soul, an eternal essence, an identity that exists in the mind of God, then there is something about us which is not transient and which justifies the sense that we are a coherent, enduring self.

In other words, our belief that we have a permanent identity is more compatible with the belief that there is a God than with the belief that matter is all there is.

Finally, human beings want desperately to live and yet we know we're going to die. In a Godless universe, the fate of each of us is annihilation. There's no basis for hope that loved ones we've lost still somehow exist or that we'll ever "see" them again. There's no consolation for the bereaved, no salve for grief. Many face this bravely, of course, but, if they're reflective, they must acknowledge that their bravery serves to mask an inner despair. If death is the end then life truly is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." If death is the end then human existence is completely absurd. But, of course, death is indeed the end if the materialist is right. Only if God exists is there a realistic basis for hope of something beyond this life. Only if God exists can we have a reasonable hope that our longing for life will be fulfilled.

Karl Marx is said to have called the belief in an afterlife a narcotic which anaesthetized the suffering of people in this life and which kept them complacent and subdued so as not to rebel against their bourgeois overlords. But as Czech writer Czeslaw Milosz says in Roadside Dog it's the belief that there is no afterlife that is the real narcotic. He recalls Marx's phrase that religion is like opium that dulls the pain of life and then goes on to counter that: "And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death - the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged." (emphasis mine)

God and the promise of eternal life are necessary beliefs if our deepest existential yearnings and the nature of the world itself make any sense. Atheism may be true, but we have no reason to think it is and a great deal of reason to think, and hope, that it is not.