Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Last Lecture

I recently read Randy Pausch's Last Lecture. It's a poignant book written by a Carnegie Mellon Computer Science professor who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given just a few months to live. In the book Pausch talks about his life and some very simple lessons he's learned that he passes along to his children and to the rest of us.

The chapters are brief but Pausch packs a lot into them. My three favorites, I think, are the chapters on Thank You Notes, Gratitude and Apologies. Anyone who has teenage children will find what Pausch has to offer here worth passing on to their kids.

For example on apologies he says this:

Apologies are not pass/fail. I always told my students: When giving an apology, any performance lower than an A really doesn't cut it. Half-hearted or insincere apologies are often worse than not apologizing at all because recipients find them insulting. If you've done something wrong in your dealings with another person, it's as if there's an infection in your relationship. A good apology is like an antibiotic; a bad apology is like rubbing salt in the wound.

He goes on to give examples of two classic bad apologies:

1. "I'm sorry you feel hurt by what I've done." (This is an attempt at an emotional salve but it's obvious you don't want to put any medicine in the wound.)

2. "I apologize for what I did, but you also need to apologize to me for what you've done." (That's not giving an apology. That's asking for one.)

And then he offers this:

Proper apologies have three parts:

1. What I did was wrong.

2. I feel badly that I hurt you.

3. How do I make this better.

Good stuff. If you've ever gotten a huffy "Well, I'm sorrrrry" from a teenager when you were hoping for a sincere apology then you'll immediately see the value of Pausch's little homily.


Without God (VII)

Another aspect of the human condition which is much easier to understand given theism rather than atheism is that we are burdened with a deep sense of moral obligation. As human beings we strive to ground morality in something more solid than our own subjective preferences, but if there is no God there is nothing else upon which to base it. In a purely material world morality is nothing more than whatever feels right to the individual.

This is not to say that the non-theist cannot live a life similar in quality to that of a theist. She can of course, but what she cannot say is that what she does is morally good or right. There simply is no moral good unless there is an objective, transcendent standard of goodness, and the existence of such a standard is precisely what non-theists deny. Consider these two quotes from some well-known atheists:

"In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. The way our biology forces its codes is by making us think that there is an objective higher code, to which we are all subject." E.O. Wilson

"Life has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind indifference." Richard Dawkins

For the atheist moral judgments can be little more than expressions of personal preference, and no one's preference is any more authoritative than anyone else's. This leads ineluctably toward a might makes right egoism, either on the level of the individual or the level of the state. Whatever those who control power do is not morally right or wrong - even if they commit torture or genocide - it just is.

Moreover, unless there is a transcendent moral authority there is nothing whatsoever which obligates us to act in one way rather than another. What could possibly obligate me, in a moral sense, to act in the interest of the collective rather than in what I perceive to be my own interest? Given naturalism, there is nothing which obligates us to care for the poor, nothing which makes kindness better than cruelty, nothing, indeed, to tell us why the holocaust was wrong.

Given atheism, morality is either subjective, and thus arbitrary and personal, or it doesn't exist at all, and our sense, our conviction that it does is simply self-deception. If God exists, however, then, and only then, does our intuition that objective moral value and obligation also exist make sense.

Related to the matter of moral obligation is the question of guilt. We experience feelings of guilt, and have a sense that guilt is not just an illusion, but without an objective standard of morality before which we stand convicted there can be no real guilt. Human beings are no more guilty in a moral sense than is a cat which has caught and tortured a bird. The feeling of guilt is merely an evolutionary epiphenomenon which arose to suit us for life in the stone age and which, like our tonsils, we no longer need. Indeed, it's a vestige of our past that we should suppress since it bears no relation to any actual state of affairs.

On the other hand, if there is an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good Creator of the universe, then our sense that we are actually guilty has an explanation. We feel guilt because we have transgressed the moral law instituted by the Creator before whom we stand and to whom we must give an account.

It is this Creator who imposes upon us moral obligation. Take away God and there's no moral law, there's no moral obligation, there's no transgression, and there's no moral guilt. As Dostoyevsky put it, if God is dead then everything is permitted.


Decapitating Al Qaeda

Bill Roggio at The Long War Journal provides some background on the recent American Special Forces raid into Syria that eliminated much of al Qaeda's leadership in the region. His report opens with this:

Al Qaeda leader Abu Ghadiya was killed in yesterday's strike inside Syria, a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal. But US special operations forces also inflicted a major blow to al Qaeda's foreign fighter network based in Syria. The entire senior leadership of Ghadiya's network was also killed in the raid, the official stated.

Ghadiya was the leader of al Qaeda extensive network that funnels foreign fighters, weapons, and cash from Syria into Iraq along the entire length of the Syrian border. Ghadiya was first identified as the target of the raid inside Syria late last night here at The Long War Journal. The Associated Press reported Ghadiya was killed in the raid earlier today.

Several US helicopters entered the town of town of Sukkariya near Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, just five miles from the Iraqi border. US commandos from the hunter-killer teams of Task Force 88 assaulted the buildings sheltering Ghadiya and his staff.

The Syrian government has protested the attack, describing it as an act of "criminal and terrorist aggression" carried out by the US. The Syrian government claimed eight civilians, including women and children, were killed in the strike. But a journalist from The Associated Press who attended the funeral said that only the bodies of seven men were displayed.

The US official said there were more killed in the raid than is being reported. "There are more than public numbers [in the Syrian press] are saying, those reported killed were the Syrian locals that worked with al Qaeda," the official told The Long War Journal. "There were non-Syrian al Qaeda operatives killed as well."

Those killed include Ghadiya's brother and two cousins. "They also were part of the senior leadership," the official stated. "They're dead. We've decapitated the network." Others killed during the raid were not identified.

The strike is thought to have a major impact on al Qaeda's operations inside Syria. Al Qaeda's ability to control the vast group of local "Syrian coordinators" who directly help al Qaeda recruits and operatives enter Iraq has been "crippled."

There's more at the link.