Thursday, June 26, 2008

Gun Rights

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

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

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

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

HT: Hot Air


Genius Isn't Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

Einstein's political thinking was also naive:

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

Valiunas observes:

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

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

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

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

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

Valiunas concludes that:

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

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

HT: No Left Turns


Concessions from the Other Side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HT: Bradford at Telic Thoughts


Job Openings

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

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

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

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

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