Saturday, February 28, 2009

Flight 1549

This is a computer animation of the flight of US 1549. It's very well done.


Betty and Jennifer

Mary Eberstadt comments on the fascinating similarities and polarities in the way we treat food and sex in our culture. She shares her insights in a wonderful article in Policy Review where she explains how our attitudes toward both have, in the space of fifty years, completely reversed. To illustrate this reversal Eberstadt tells us a story about a hypothetical woman, Betty, and her granddaughter, Jennifer:

To begin to see just how recent and dramatic this change is, let us imagine some broad features of the world seen through two different sets of eyes: a hypothetical 30-year-old housewife from 1958 named Betty, and her hypothetical granddaughter Jennifer, of the same age, today.

Begin with a tour of Betty's kitchen. Much of what she makes comes from jars and cans. Much of it is also heavy on substances that people of our time are told to minimize - dairy products, red meat, refined sugars and flours - because of compelling research about nutrition that occurred after Betty's time. Betty's freezer is filled with meat every four months by a visiting company that specializes in volume, and on most nights she thaws a piece of this and accompanies it with food from one or two jars. If there is anything "fresh" on the plate, it is likely a potato. Interestingly, and rudimentary to our contemporary eyes though it may be, Betty's food is served with what for us would appear to be high ceremony, i.e., at a set table with family members present.

As it happens, there is little that Betty herself, who is adventurous by the standards of her day, will not eat; the going slogan she learned as a child is about cleaning your plate, and not doing so is still considered bad form. Aside from that notion though, which is a holdover to scarcer times, Betty is much like any other American home cook in 1958. She likes making some things and not others, even as she prefers eating some things to others - and there, in personal aesthetics, does the matter end for her. It's not that Betty lacks opinions about food. It's just that the ones she has are limited to what she does and does not personally like to make and eat.

Now imagine one possible counterpart to Betty today, her 30-year-old granddaughter Jennifer. Jennifer has almost no cans or jars in her cupboard. She has no children or husband or live-in boyfriend either, which is why her kitchen table on most nights features a laptop and goes unset. Yet interestingly enough, despite the lack of ceremony at the table, Jennifer pays far more attention to food, and feels far more strongly in her convictions about it, than anyone she knows from Betty's time.

Wavering in and out of vegetarianism, Jennifer is adamantly opposed to eating red meat or endangered fish. She is also opposed to industrialized breeding, genetically enhanced fruits and vegetables, and to pesticides and other artificial agents. She tries to minimize her dairy intake, and cooks tofu as much as possible. She also buys "organic" in the belief that it is better both for her and for the animals raised in that way, even though the products are markedly more expensive than those from the local grocery store. Her diet is heavy in all the ways that Betty's was light: with fresh vegetables and fruits in particular. Jennifer has nothing but ice in her freezer, soymilk and various other items her grandmother wouldn't have recognized in the refrigerator, and on the counter stands a vegetable juicer she feels she "ought" to use more.

Most important of all, however, is the difference in moral attitude separating Betty and Jennifer on the matter of food. Jennifer feels that there is a right and wrong about these options that transcends her exercise of choice as a consumer. She does not exactly condemn those who believe otherwise, but she doesn't understand why they do, either. And she certainly thinks the world would be a better place if more people evaluated their food choices as she does. She even proselytizes on occasion when she can.

In short, with regard to food, Jennifer falls within Immanuel Kant's definition of the Categorical Imperative: She acts according to a set of maxims that she wills at the same time to be universal law.

Betty, on the other hand, would be baffled by the idea of dragooning such moral abstractions into the service of food. This is partly because, as a child of her time, she was impressed - as Jennifer is not - about what happens when food is scarce (Betty's parents told her often about their memories of the Great Depression; and many of the older men of her time had vivid memories of deprivation in wartime). Even without such personal links to food scarcity, though, it makes no sense to Betty that people would feel as strongly as her granddaughter does about something as simple as deciding just what goes into one's mouth. That is because Betty feels, as Jennifer obviously does not, that opinions about food are simply de gustibus, a matter of individual taste - and only that.

This clear difference in opinion leads to an intriguing juxtaposition. Just as Betty and Jennifer have radically different approaches to food, so do they to matters of sex. For Betty, the ground rules of her time - which she both participates in and substantially agrees with - are clear: Just about every exercise of sex outside marriage is subject to social (if not always private) opprobrium. Wavering in and out of established religion herself, Betty nevertheless clearly adheres to a traditional Judeo-Christian sexual ethic. Thus, for example, Mr. Jones next door "ran off" with another woman, leaving his wife and children behind; Susie in the town nearby got pregnant and wasn't allowed back in school; Uncle Bill is rumored to have contracted gonorrhea; and so on. None of these breaches of the going sexual ethic is considered by Betty to be a good thing, let alone a celebrated thing. They are not even considered to be neutral things. In fact, they are all considered by her to be wrong.

Most important of all, Betty feels that sex, unlike food, is not de gustibus. She believes to the contrary that there is a right and wrong about these choices that transcends any individual act. She further believes that the world would be a better place, and individual people better off, if others believed as she does. She even proselytizes such on occasion when given the chance.

In short, as Jennifer does with food, Betty in the matter of sex fulfills the requirements for Kant's Categorical Imperative.

Jennifer's approach to sex is just about 180 degrees different. She too disapproves of the father next door who left his wife and children for a younger woman; she does not want to be cheated on herself, or to have those she cares about cheated on either. These ground-zero stipulations, aside, however, she is otherwise laissez-faire on just about every other aspect of nonmarital sex. She believes that living together before marriage is not only morally neutral, but actually better than not having such a "trial run." Pregnant unwed Susie in the next town doesn't elicit a thought one way or the other from her, and neither does Uncle Bill's gonorrhea, which is of course a trivial medical matter between him and his doctor.

Jennifer, unlike Betty, thinks that falling in love creates its own demands and generally trumps other considerations - unless perhaps children are involved (and sometimes, on a case-by-case basis, then too). A consistent thinker in this respect, she also accepts the consequences of her libertarian convictions about sex. She is pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, indifferent to ethical questions about stem cell research and other technological manipulations of nature (as she is not, ironically, when it comes to food), and agnostic on the question of whether any particular parental arrangements seem best for children. She has even been known to watch pornography with her boyfriend, at his coaxing, in part to show just how very laissez-faire she is.

Most important, once again, is the difference in moral attitude between the two women on this subject of sex. Betty feels that there is a right and wrong about sexual choices that transcends any individual act, and Jennifer - exceptions noted - does not. It's not that Jennifer lacks for opinions about sex, any more than Betty does about food. It's just that, for the most part, they are limited to what she personally does and doesn't like.

Thus far, what the imaginary examples of Betty and Jennifer have established is this: Their personal moral relationships toward food and toward sex are just about perfectly reversed. Betty does care about nutrition and food, but it doesn't occur to her to extend her opinions to a moral judgment - i.e., to believe that other people ought to do as she does in the matter of food, and that they are wrong if they don't. In fact, she thinks such an extension would be wrong in a different way; it would be impolite, needlessly judgmental, simply not done. Jennifer, similarly, does care to some limited degree about what other people do about sex; but it seldom occurs to her to extend her opinions to a moral judgment. In fact, she thinks such an extension would be wrong in a different way - because it would be impolite, needlessly judgmental, simply not done.

On the other hand, Jennifer is genuinely certain that her opinions about food are not only nutritionally correct, but also, in some deep, meaningful sense, morally correct - i.e., she feels that others ought to do something like what she does. And Betty, on the other hand, feels exactly the same way about what she calls sexual morality.

As noted, this desire to extend their personal opinions in two different areas to an "ought" that they think should be somehow binding - binding, that is, to the idea that others should do the same - is the definition of the Kantian imperative. Once again, note: Betty's Kantian imperative concerns sex not food, and Jennifer's concerns food not sex. In just over 50 years, in other words - not for everyone, of course, but for a great many people, and for an especially large portion of sophisticated people - the moral poles of sex and food have been reversed. Betty thinks food is a matter of taste, whereas sex is governed by universal moral law of some kind; and Jennifer thinks exactly the reverse.

What has happened here?

Well, Ms Eberstadt goes on to explain in an astonishing display of scholarly breadth and depth exactly what it is she thinks has happened. It's an excellent read, full of insight and wisdom.


Friday, February 27, 2009

Understanding Rush

Countdown with Keith Olberman gave us a great glimpse into the liberal mindset the other night. Olberman's guest was Janeane Garofalo who, with Olby cheering her on, conducted a Freudian analysis of Michael Steele, Rush "Limbow," and anyone who listens to Limbaugh, including the women who love him. It was quite a tour de force.

There's something immensely amusing about a woman covered with tattoos saying that other people have problems. She admits that she despises herself, but so does Rush, she avers, and besides she's a much better person than he is, presumably because she's a liberal and her hatred, directed as it is at conservatives, is socially and politically correct.

Watch the whole thing. It's rare that liberals so plainly put on display their own confusions and distempers.


Four Crises

Terence Corcoran at National Post sees four crises which will result from the implementation of President Obama's economic vision. The four are these: Fiscal, Investment, Financial, and Energy.

Here's what Corcoran says about the first two:

Fiscal crisis: Mr. Obama is clearly using the current economic mess as cover for scores of leftist programs and projects. Americans don't like to be called leftists or socialists, especially American leftists and socialists. They're liberals. Whatever they call themselves, they will drive the United States into a succession of trillion-dollar increases in the national debt, on bailouts, stimulus and health care. Nothing wrong with debt in principle, but it's a recipe for a fiscal nightmare if the debt and interventions undermine growth. No growth, no tax revenue to pay down the debt, equals debt spiral.

Investment crisis: The stock markets have already pronounced on the Obama economic strategy. If a live market ticker had been running through his Tuesday night speech, viewers could have watched confidence drain out of investors in real time. The Dow Jones average plunged almost 200 points in opening trading yesterday.

While claiming to support enterprise and entrepreneurship, Mr. Obama promised to continue waging ideological war on capitalism, on bankers, high income earners, Wall Street, the financial system, investors and free trade.

He warped concepts, dishonestly calling tax cuts to high-income earners "an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy." Cuts actually mean not taking wealth from the wealthy. He promised to raise taxes on the top 2% of American income earners, as if trillions were sitting in the pockets of Bernie Madoff's clients.

No one, not even Paul Krugman, Obama's most enthusiastic cheerleader at the New York Times, thinks Obama will be able to limit tax hikes to just the wealthy. Krugman, in one of the most self-contradictory editorials I've read in a while, doesn't see how the administration can refrain from imposing a middle class tax hike down the road.

I know, Obama promised he wouldn't do that, but he also promised transparency in government, an end to lobbyists in his administration, and an end to earmarks in appropriations bills. So much for promises.


Economics 101

Economics is an arcane, daunting field of study. Many find it incomprehensible, and even some of us who don't serve in Washington are mystified by it as well.

As a public service, therefore, Viewpoint offers this simple lesson on the various economic systems that will make some general principles of the "dismal science" perfectly plain. The lesson teaches the differences between the major economic "isms" of the world. Here's how they work:

SOCIALISM: You have two cows. The government takes one and gives it to your neighbor.

COMMUNISM: You have two cows. The government seizes both and provides you with milk. You wait in line for hours to get it. It's expensive and sour. Meanwhile, no one works and the cows drop dead of starvation.

FASCISM: You have two cows. The government seizes both, sells you the milk, and shoots you if you complain.

OBAMANOMICS: You have two cows. First the government pays you not to milk them. Then it regulates what and how much you can feed them. Then it taxes you for the cows until you can no longer afford them. Eventually, the government takes both cows, uses one for food, milks the other and pours the milk down the drain. Meanwhile, you go on welfare.

AMERICAN CAPITALISM: You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull.

Simple, no?


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Clash of Civilizations

As if the news isn't depressing enough these days the results of a new poll of world-wide Muslim opinion has recently been released. Details can be found here.

It turns out that moderate Muslims are to Islam what fiscal moderates are to the Democratic party. They may exist but not so as you'd notice. This quick summary will give you a sense of the flavor of the results:

Almost 40% of the Muslims in the Palestinian territories, which, mind you, are about to receive $900 million of our tax dollars courtesy of the Obama administration, favor, or at best have mixed feelings about, killing American civilians in the U.S. Eighty seven percent of Palestinians supported the attack on the USS Cole.

Almost half of all Pakistanis (some 86 million people) support killing European civilians.

Big majorities want strict Sharia law imposed in all Islamic countries (Sharia allows for murdering converts to Christianity, executing homosexuals, and other such acts of love, tolerance and human brotherhood). Large majorities also have positive feelings toward bin Laden.

There's much more from this poll to dampen any multicultural enthusiasms to which you may be clinging. Check it out at the link.

The survey was taken in Muslim countries which may not be indicative of Muslim beliefs elsewhere. I wonder what a canvass of Muslims in the U.S. would reveal. Would the results be significantly different? Let's hope.


Are We <i>Crazy</i>?

Let me be sure I understand this. On top of the original bank bailout of $700 billion came the $800 billion stimulus (which included nothing directed to help the biggest job generator in the nation, small business). Then yesterday the House passed a $410 billion spending bill with almost 9000 earmarks that President Obama in his speech the other night said would no longer be acceptable. Now comes word that we're going to spend almost a billion dollars to rebuild Gaza. On top of that the administration is putting together a plan to revamp health care that will cost another $640 billion just to get it started.

By the time this is all done we will have spent trillions of dollars that we don't have. I'm not a politician so I don't understand how you can just keep spending money you don't have, but I know if my family did this on our credit card we'd eventually lose everything we have. I also know if my neighbor did this I'd conclude that he's insane. Bernie Madoff ruined hundreds of lives and is going to prison for doing something just like this. Yet the Democrats, along with of a handful of Republicans, are doing pretty much the same thing.

Set aside the folly of nationalizing health care, subsidizing Hamas, wasting money on earmarked lard, and bailing out people who chose not to play by the rules, there's simply no way we can pay for all this without either inflating the currency, and/or piling ruinous debt on our children and grandchildren, and/or raising everyone's taxes.

President Obama says that only the very rich are going to have their taxes raised, but if he's to be believed, which I'm beginning to doubt more everyday, that still leaves us trillions of dollars in debt. In other words, the Democrats in Congress and the White House are leading this country toward a massive train wreck, and all much of the media seems to be able to do is make fun of Republicans, like Louisianna governor Bobby Jindall, who don't want to go along for the ride.

It's time to pray.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Science Vs Religion (Pt. V)

This is our fifth and final post on materialist biologist Jerry Coyne's essay in The New Republic on the alleged incompatibility between science and religion. Previous installments can be found here, here, here, and here.

Coyne observes in his piece that:

Beginning with Plato, philosophers have argued convincingly that our ethics come not from religion, but from a secular morality that develops in intelligent, socially interacting creatures, and is simply inserted into religion for convenient citation.

With all due respect to Professor Coyne, the term "secular morality" is gibberish. There can be no secular morality except insofar as a group of people arbitrarily agree upon certain rules that have no basis in anything other than the subjective preferences of the people who agree to them. There's no reason to think that a morality so arrived at imposes any kind of obligation upon anyone and there's no reason to feel guilt if one breaks the rules. Only morality grounded in something transcendent can obligate us. So far from secular morality being inserted into religion, it actually piggy-backs on religion, claiming itself to be independent but all the while relying on religion to carry it and give it credibility.

He continues:

In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin's colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that "science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact." As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer.

I doubt very much that Darwinians would be dissuaded by the discovery of any of the things Coyne mentions. All such discoveries would do would be to inspire the true-believers to become more creative with their hypotheses. If human fossils were found together with dinosaur fossils then we would read about the possible mixing of rock strata or the surprising survival of dinosaurs long after they had previously been thought to have gone extinct. The Darwinist metanarrative certainly wouldn't be falsified by such finds, only a particular part of the overall theory would be considered in need of an adjustment.

But let's apply Coyne's "How would we know we were wrong" test to Darwinian beliefs about the origin of life. How would we know that life did not arise through blind, impersonal forces if, in fact, it did not? What "ugly fact" would falsify the claim that life is the product of those blind, impersonal forces? No one can offer a candidate, but Darwinian materialists nevertheless continue to insist that their speculations on the matter are scientific. Since no discovery could possibly falsify their belief that life arose purely mechanistically must we not disqualify such beliefs about abiogenesis from the domain of science?

Professor Coyne adds this:

There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God's existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it. And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.

I'm not sure what this is supposed to demonstrate other than that religious faith is not the same sort of thing as empirical science, but then nobody said that it was. Coyne is comparing apples and oranges. All anyone he has quoted in his article has said is that science and religion are compatible, not that they're identical. The appropriate comparison is between theistic belief and materialism. The very same phenomena that would falsify materialism, an unmistakable appearance by God, say, would serve to verify theism. On the other hand, if theistic belief cannot be falsified that simply means that materialism cannot be verified. So given this epistemic symmetry why does Coyne believe so adamantly that a scientist can consistently be a materialist but not a theist? How is a scientist's materialism any more compatible with his practice of science than would be his theism? They're both theological.

To be sure, particular religious beliefs may be incompatible with certain scientific beliefs, just as contrary scientific beliefs can be incompatible with each other, but it's one thing to say that a particular tenet of religion is incompatible with a tenet of science, it's quite another to say, as Coyne does, that religious belief is incompatible with science.



Rita Kramer, at The American Thinker, gives us a fascinating history lesson on the origins of the NAACP. Here are her opening paragraphs:

This is Black History Month, perhaps an appropriate time to call attention to an aspect of black history that has been papered over and all but forgotten in the official accounts and in what is taught in schools.

How many people today, black or white, know that the National Association for Colored People was founded by three white folks, two WASPS and a Jew, and that it was led and funded until well into the last century by whites, many of them Jews? It is understandable that after a hundred years some degree of historical Alzheimers may appear in the memory of the organization-as it does on its web-site-but perhaps it is time to remember the truth about how it all happened.

Exactly one hundred years ago, on the centenary of Abraham Lincoln's birth and just one hundred years before a man of color would be elected to the Presidency of the United States, the situation in the Southern states was dreadful for dark-skinned Americans. Most eked out a living as tenant farmers, exploited by the owners of the land they worked. They were prevented from voting and their children, if they attended school at all, went barefoot to ramshackle buildings with few books or other supplies. Negroes (the polite term then, which we will adopt for this article) were subject to arson, rape, and mob murder by lynching, with little or no interference by the elected authorities. In many places it was a crime for black and white to frequent the same place at the same time. The South was a society of complete and brutally enforced segregation.

Northern indignation was roused by a race riot at Springfield, Illinois in the summer of 1908. It began when the local newspaper ran a story about a white woman who claimed she had been raped by a black man. Police arrested the accused man and took him to the city jail. A crowd of angry white citizens gathered and demanded the prisoner, but the local Sheriff had been able to secretly transport him to safety. Enraged, the crowd trashed homes and businesses belonging to Jews downtown and to Negroes in black neighborhoods. A man who tried to defend himself was killed, his barber shop burned and his body hung from a tree. By this time an estimated crowd of 12,000 people had gathered to watch black-owned homes burning. Realizing that the local authorities were powerless in the face of the crowd, the governor called out the state militia. Order was restored, but not before an elderly black man married to a white woman had been lynched. The riots left 40 homes and 24 businesses in ruins. A grand jury indicted nearly 80 individuals for participation in the riots but only one man was convicted. He was a Russian Jew who peddled vegetables, and he was convicted of stealing a sword from a member of the militia. The woman whose story had started it all later admitted that her accusation was false.

Out of these and other injustices and atrocities the NAACP was born. Get the rest of the story at the link. It's a good read and an appropriate way to conclude Black History Month.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Schiff for Senate

We have several times, at Bill's behest, linked to interviews of Peter Schiff a maverick economist known for his gloomy but accurate economic forecasts. Now according to an article by James Pethokis at U.S. News there is a movement to get Schiff to run for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut. Given that his potential opponent would be Chris Dodd, a man largely responsible for the financial meltdown, such a race would be extremely enlightening. Here's Schiff's agenda as taken from his website:

For the last several years, Peter Schiff had been predicting a severe correction in the stock, credit, and housing markets. These predictions were highly unpopular; he was often mocked and ridiculed by other so-called investment experts. In late 2008, Peter's predictions were largely vindicated, and a shocked consensus took notice.

While it's important to recall that he was accurate in these particular predictions, his solutions are often lost in the media frenzy. In his books, op-ed pieces, and countless television interviews, Peter has offered the following set of solutions to restore economic viability to our great republic.

1. Increase savings and production. People need to start saving and paying down credit card debt, and the US needs to become a net producer and manufacturer of goods once again.

2. Vote no on all bailouts. Instead, the government should begin eradicating grotesque budget deficits and national debt by reigning in profligate spending.

3. Allow the recession to run its course and rebuild quickly from a fresh start. "Let it collapse today so it can prosper tomorrow." To use a crude analogy, wildfires are devastating in the short term, but they are extremely beneficial in the long run for the entire ecology. Currently, the trillions of dollars of new government spending is akin to pouring gasoline on the fire. It will only serve to exacerbate the problem and delay meaningful recovery.

4. Let the free market operate without inefficient, ineffective, and cumbersome government involvement. The government should enforce the integrity of free markets, not manipulate them.

5. Drastically cut federal spending. It's time to quit over spending and over borrowing and start living within our means.

6. Cut corporate and personal income taxes to spur savings, job growth, and real industrial production.

7. Minimize corporate regulation. If you allow the free market to operate, businesses and banks which accrue massive debt will fail. More efficient and fiscally responsible banks and institutions will prevail and restore prosperity to the economy.

8. Restore the value of the US dollar. Since 2002, the US dollar has been devalued by nearly 30%. Put a stop to the Federal Reserve setting artificial interest rates and printing trillions of dollars out of thin air. Instead, get the Fed out of the markets and bring back balanced budgets, low taxes, and robust production.

If these policies continue to be rejected, Peter predicts a complete collapse of the U.S. dollar and extreme hyperinflation sooner rather than later (or much sooner than expected). Hyperinflation, due to a devalued dollar, is nothing more than an invisible tax on our future prosperity. However, if these solutions are enacted, a period of short term pain will be followed by a sustained economic boom, based not on artificial bubbles, but real value. Considering he was right about the stock market, credit, and housing bubble collapse, we should take a long, hard look at his proposed alternatives.

If Schiff decides not to run in Connecticut I wonder if he'd be interested in moving to Pennsylvania to run against Arlen Specter. I'd be willing to pay his way.


Re: The Chimp and the Stimulus

The post on the Chimp Cartoon has elicited some interesting feedback. Among my students who have responded, the African-American students, not surprisingly, disagreed with my contention that there was no reason to think that racial malice was intended by the cartoonist. White students, however, overwhelmingly thought that the contretemps was an attempt to make something out of nothing.

One thing this controversy has confirmed is that postmoderns are right when they remind us that how we see things is colored by our experience and our perspective. It's so hard to find common ground on some of these issues because the narratives we live by have such a powerful grip on how we see events. What we see depends on who we are and what we have experienced. This being so, one wonders what purpose is served by having the kind of conversation on race that Attorney General Holder desires. Without common ground, without common understandings, the postmodern tells us, seeking to change minds is futile. All we can do is bring power to bear to force our interpretation on those who disagree with us. If this is right it's a real tragedy for our nation.

Anyway, I've posted some representative replies on our Feedback page. Feliz lectura.


Monday, February 23, 2009

It's All Relative

It may come as a surprise, but the economic news isn't all bad. It happens that as bad as it seems here in the U.S. it's considerably worse everywhere else. Floyd Norris explains why in a New York Times article:

In the fourth quarter of last year, the American economy shrank at a 3.8 percent annual rate, the worst such performance in a quarter-century. They are envious in Japan, where this week the comparable figure came in at negative 12.7 percent - three times as bad.

Industrial production in the United States is falling at the fastest rate in three decades. But the 10 percent year-over-year plunge reported this week for January looks good in comparison to the declines in countries like Germany, off almost 13 percent in its most recently reported month, and South Korea, down about 21 percent.

Even in the area of exploding mortgages, the United States has done better than some countries, particularly in Eastern Europe. There it is possible now to owe twice what a house is worth - even if the house has not lost much of its value.

Well, what about the stock market? We're doing very well there, too. We've only lost about 50% of our investment value. For most countries it's worse: Consider how much money you would have left if you had put $100 into the stocks in the leading market indexes of major countries at the end of 2007, less than 14 months ago.

In the United States, you would now have about $53. That fact - coupled with the reality that more Americans than ever are depending on the stock market to pay for their retirement - has severely depressed sentiment and spending.

But it merits one of the top grades in this world. Among major markets, only Japan, at $59, has done better. In Britain, France, Spain and Germany, the figure would be around $45. In Italy, it would be $37. About a quarter of the money would still be there in countries like Ireland, Greece and Poland.

Remember the BRIC countries, where growth possibilities seemed limitless not long ago? The stars there are Brazil and China, where about $46 or $47 remains. In India, the figure is $35, and in Russia it is $23. At least they have all done a lot better than Iceland, where you would have just $3 left of your hypothetical $100.

Now don't you feel better?


Where's the Change?

Imagine the distress on the left. First came word that a study commissioned by President Obama has found that detainees in Guantanamo receive treatment that satisfies the standards of the Geneva Conventions. This means there really isn't much reason to shut the base down except that Obama promised the lefties during the campaign that he would without really knowing why, except that they wanted it.

Now we learn that the Obama Justice Department has ruled that detainees held in Afghanistan do not have rights under the United States Constitution. Wasn't President Bush declared a war criminal for holding essentially this same position?

There are two kinds of Americans: Those who hoped Obama's policies vis a vis terrorists would be a radical departure from those of President Bush and those who feared they would be. The first group has reason to wonder what happened to the Obama they campaigned for. The second has reason to think that the president, at least with regard to the handling of terrorists, might not be a complete disappointment after all.

Add to this President Obama's backtracking on an Iraq pullout, his planned surge of troops into Afghanistan, and his expanded use of predator drones to attack terrorist targets in Pakistan, and the left must be beside themselves. This is not what they thought Obama was going to do.

Maybe they'll soon start superimposing Obama's face on all those "General Betray-Us" posters they have left over from a year or so ago. Or maybe they'll just start telling us that they're cool with whatever Obama does to keep this country safe. After all, it's not like he's "BushHitler" or anything.

Thanks to Hot Air for a couple of the above links.


Information Overload

Useless, perhaps, but fascinating nonetheless:


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Frank Conversation

Attorney General Eric Holder summons us to a "frank conversation" about race, and Heather MacDonald at City Journal responds to the call. I don't think, though, that her talking points are quite what Holder had in mind. Even so, they're nothing if not frank.

If people start responding like MacDonald does to Holder's invitation to more open and honest dialogue he might rue the day he ever brought it up.


Science Vs Religion (Pt. IV)

This is the fourth installment of our analysis of biologist Jerry Coyne's New Republic article on the incompatibility of science and religion. See here, here, and here for previous posts.

Coyne set out to argue that religion and science are incompatible because they have different doxastic criteria (justifications for belief). It may be true that the claims of each require different sorts of warrant but that hardly makes them incompatible. Where, for example, is the conflict between the claim that birds migrate by the stars and the claim that God exists? Where's the incongruity between the belief that the universe is comprised mostly of dark matter and energy and the belief that an omnipotent, omniscient and personal God created it?

The incompatibility is not between religious belief and science but between religious belief and materialism. Materialism, however, is metaphysics, not science, and Coyne's tendency to conflate the two is ironic as we'll point out in the last paragraph.

Coyne writes:

In a common error, [Karl] Giberson confuses the strategic materialism of science with an absolute commitment to a philosophy of materialism. He claims that "if the face of Jesus appeared on Mount Rushmore with God's name signed underneath, geologists would still have to explain this curious phenomenon as an improbable byproduct of erosion and tectonics." Nonsense. There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky. The fact that no such things have ever been scientifically documented gives us added confidence that we are right to stick with natural explanations for nature. And it explains why so many scientists, who have learned to disregard God as an explanation, have also discarded him as a possibility.

This is hard to follow. Coyne seems to want to say that the materialistic assumptions scientists employ are just a methodological tactic, but he winds up endorsing a kind of materialistic metanarrative. Moreover, the notion that the experience of certain phenomena would jar scientists out of their materialism hardly proves that their materialism is merely tactical. If it's true that scientists could be persuaded by empirical evidence to jettison their materialism it only means that they're open-minded and rational.

Even so, I think Coyne is mistaken about this. If any of the phenomena he mentions actually occurred, a materialist would immediately, and rightly, set about looking for a mechanical, natural explanation. If his search were unsuccessful he'd simply issue a promissory note and assure us that science will surely discover the causal mechanisms behind the phenomena eventually. Angels in the sky would be explained away as either mass hallucination events or the visitation of life-forms from other planets. Even were a DNA sequence or star pattern found that somehow spelled out "I, God, Made This" the materialist would simply shrug and say something like, "Given an infinity of worlds there has to be at least one where such an amazingly improbable pattern would exist." The point is that someone who doesn't want to believe in God will withhold belief as long as there is an "out" through which they can escape. Coyne is being a little naive if he thinks that materialist scientists could be persuaded to abandon their worldview so easily.

He goes on to say that:

Like Giberson, [biologist Ken] Miller rejects a literal interpretation of the Bible. After discussing the fossil record, he contends that "a literal reading of the Genesis story is simply not scientifically valid," concluding that "theology does not and cannot pretend to be scientific, but it can require of itself that it be consistent with science and conversant with it." But this leads to a conundrum. Why reject the story of creation and Noah's Ark because we know that animals evolved, but nevertheless accept the reality of the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, which are equally at odds with science? After all, biological research suggests the impossibility of human females reproducing asexually, or of anyone reawakening three days after death.

Coyne raises an interesting question here, but muddies it up by seriously misrepresenting science. Science emphatically does not suggest that miracles are impossible. Science deals in probabilities, not possibilities. Indeed, there's very little that science declares impossible. The most science can "say" is that as far as any scientist has ever been able to observe under laboratory conditions, human virgins have never produced offspring and dead people have never revivified. Science qua science cannot say neither of these ever happened nor that they never could happen. Miracles are statistically improbable, they're not logically impossible.

Coyne really seems to be saying something like this: If materialism is true, miracles performed by a supernatural being are impossible. Materialism is true, therefore miracles are impossible. But if this is his argument it's not very persuasive since the truth of the second premise is very much open to dispute. The second premise is, in fact, a religious assumption about the world, as Roy Clouser points out, and it undergirds Coyne's science. This is ironic, as we said above, since Coyne is arguing in this essay that religion and science are incompatible even as he himself has no trouble harmonizing the two in his own life.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Re: Killing Her Softly

Several readers thought that I was a mite unfair to Muslims in comments I made in Killing Her Softly. The consensus among those readers was that I was portraying an extreme view among Muslims, that it's okay to beat, and even kill one's wife, as though it were a common view among moderate Muslims. It is.

In many Muslim societies, especially among Arab Muslims, wife-beating is considered a husband's prerogative. It's not helpful to pretend that this is not so just because one wishes that it weren't so. Nor does it mean that all Muslims accept or practice it. I'm sure many don't, but the fact is that millions obviously do and among these millions are people, like the man who beheaded his wife, who are considered moderates because they dress like Westerners and don't actively support terrorism.

The status of women in many Muslim societies is not unlike the status of slaves in the antebellum South. Not all slave-owners beat their slaves, but if someone did it wasn't considered extraordinary or extremist, and a man could even kill a slave (if it was his slave) and incur no punishment because the slave was his property to do with as he wished.

Should we withhold our condemnation of this attitude and behavior among slave-owners just because there were some who didn't engage in it? Does the fact that some people, perhaps most people, refused to own slaves mean that slave ownership was not a typical feature of the South? Just so, the mistreatment of women is a typical feature of much of the Islamic world. Indeed, one of the reasons the West is despised in the Arab Muslim world is because women in Western societies are treated as equal to men.

It might be pointed out that there are a billion Muslims in the world. If only 1% of them thinks like this imam that's ten million people:

Read Kaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns for some anecdotal insight into this cultural phenomenon and/or google "honor killings" to get a sense of the dimensions of the problem. If you do google it you'll get about six million hits.


The Chimp and the Stimulus

A story that's bizarre even by New York's high standards is made even moreso by the reaction to a cartoon which appeared in the New York Post.

You're probably familiar with the basic outline of events:

The police were called because a 200 lb. chimpanzee was mauling a woman, and the police wound up shooting the chimp.

Well, a Post cartoonist, Sean Delonis, decided to tie the shooting to the stimulus bill:

I know. It's not funny. I don't see any humor in it, either, but neither do I see the racism that Al Sharpton, the people at MSNBC, and apparently a lot of others, are finding in it.

These folk, hyper-sensitive to any sign that this is still a racist country despite the election of a black man to the nation's highest office, are declaiming that since Obama signed the stimulus bill, and since Obama is black, and since historically African Americans have been cruelly referred to as chimps, that therefore this cartoon was blatantly racist.

They may have had a point if the cartoon were about Obama, but clearly the cartoon was directed at the people who wrote the stimulus bill. Obama didn't write it, indeed there's some doubt that he's even read it. All he did was sign it. It was written by the mostly white staffs of white high-ranking congressional Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, and if the economy continues its death spiral "chimp" is among the least offensive things they'll be called.

For people like Sharpton, Chris Matthews and Keith Olberman, however, such facts are irrelevant. They require way too much thought. As far as they're concerned Obama wanted the stimulus bill, the cartoon associates the stimulus bill with a chimp, ergo the cartoonist and his employers are racists.

This is a fine example of exactly what we talked about in yesterday's post (Racial Cowardice) on why people don't want to talk about race. The most innocent remark can be expected to be immediately turned into a causus belli by race-hustlers and assorted grievance-mongers who are looking for a reason to take offense and who lack both common sense and a willingness to extend good will to others.

More than that, though, these people are hypocrites. For eight years President George Bush was compared to a chimp hundreds of times by the left - do a Google search of "Bush chimp" and see how many hits you get - and no one at MSNBC or any of the others who are expressing outrage today ever complained. It's hard to take people seriously when their outrage is so selective and so mindless.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Racial Cowardice

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle in the media over Attorney General Eric Holder's maladroit criticism of what he perceives to be the reluctance of Americans to talk about race:

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," said Holder, the nation's first black attorney general.

Race issues continue to be a topic of political discussion, Holder said, but "we, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race."

He urged people of all races to use Black History Month as a chance for frank talk about racial matters.

"It is an issue we have never been at ease with and, given our nation's history, this is in some ways understandable," Holder said. "If we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us."

I say Holder was "maladroit" because "cowards" hardly seems the appropriate word to use in this context. People don't talk about race because they're afraid, rather they don't talk about race, at least in racially mixed company, for the same reason they often decline to talk about politics and religion in mixed company: They don't wish to offend nor do they care to abase themselves.

Discussions about race can go badly for two reasons. First, many people don't know what to say. What's there to talk about, exactly? Most whites don't think much about race and they read even less. It's not something they're interested in, particularly, and to expect them to engage in a conversation about it is like someone who never reads the financial pages being pressed to engage in a discussion on the global banking system.

Moreover, a lot of whites feel that any conversation with a black interlocutor is only going to wind up with the black venting about white racism and oppression. At this point the white knows that he'll have two options. He can either nod his or her head in agreement, which many see as an act of servility, or he/she can take issue with the charges, which leads to the second reason such conversations go wrong.

As soon as a white person disagrees with a black person about race, many whites are convinced, their racial bona fides will be called into question and suspicions will be raised about latent racism lurking in the white person's heart. If the disagreement continues then the suspicions mount until the R-word is trotted out and that's the end of that conversation.

Holder wants Americans to have "frank conversations" about race, but it's not clear to me that that would be a good thing. Genuinely frank conversations, I'm afraid, are too often too painful for one party or the other to endure with equanimity.

Better to avoid the unpleasantness altogether, many conclude, by simply not talking about it. That's not cowardice, it's good manners.



Yet another Democrat has been found to be suffering from ethical difficulties. This time it's the new senator from Chicago, Roland Burris. Mr. Burris was apparently less than candid in his sworn testimony before an Illinois state House committee weighing whether to impeach Governor Rod Blagojevich for allegations that he sought to sell President Obama's senate seat.

It's getting hard to keep track of all the miscreants among our political ruling class, particularly those in the President's party, and especially those from Chicago or those the President has himself appointed. Obama cannot be blamed for the fact that yet another (allegedly) dishonest pol sits in our nation's capitol building, of course, but the long string of tainted nominees to his cabinet is another matter.

It's hard to say exactly how much responsibility President Obama actually bears for the incompetence of his vetting team, but surely he has been poorly served by those he has entrusted with the job of making certain his appointments have no ethical or legal skeletons squirreled away in their Georgetown closets.

At some point his inability to find Democrat appointees who have a clean record with the IRS has got to become a severe embarrassment to the president. Indeed, the joke is that the reason he picked a Republican (Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire) to head up the Commerce Department was that he wanted to have at least one cabinet secretary who pays his taxes. Now that Gregg has withdrawn, the challenge for the Obama team is to find somewhere in the country a Democrat to run Commerce who can pass an ethics investigation.

Now word has it that the investigative spotlight is shining on Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. It turns out that he may have tax problems similar to those of Tom Daschle.

Where does it end? Pretty soon the only Democrats who will qualify for a job in the Obama administration will be high school students who never made enough money to have to file a tax return.


Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin*

Edward Schumacher-Matos at The Washington Post thinks that despite having won a referendum that removes term limits and effectively allows him to be president for life, Hugo Chavez's days as president of Venezuela are numbered:

Venezuela is suffering from the worldwide recession, low oil prices, high inflation, and Chavez's mismanagement. Schumacher-Matos thinks that he will soon go the way of so many other socialist leaders in South America who drove their country to ruin.

There is a lesson here for the new Obama administration. It should not engage Ch�vez in public quarreling and certainly should not work privately against him inside Venezuela. Both approaches are a fool's errands, ones that leftover Cold War warriors foisted on George W. Bush during his first term. The clever Ch�vez verbally made Bush into a laughingstock south of the border and badly damaged hemispheric trust in the United States when the Bush administration seemed to endorse a 2002 coup against Ch�vez that failed.

Well, yes, but that's not the only lesson for the Obama administration. High inflation and economic recession are in the offing here at home as well, and these two apocalyptic horsemen have a way of trampling those who have the bad luck to be responsible for them.

President Obama's misnamed stimulus plan requires that we choose from among three unpalatable alternatives to get the money to pay for it: Either we raise taxes - which would strangle in the crib any nascent recovery; or we borrow trillions - if we can find lenders - and go into enormous debt for generations; or we just print the money we need to pay for all the spending the stimulus authorizes - which means we inflate the currency to close to Zimbabwean dimensions.

Whichever we choose we could easily become the next Venezuela, and Obama could be the next Chavez. He has until the summer of 2010 to make the stimulus work. If he hasn't done it by then - and few think he will - if unemployment is high and the value of the dollar is low, the writing will be on the wall. Voters will have weighed the Democrats in the balance and found them incompetent. Republicans will likely take back control of the Congress, if not numerically, at least in terms of being able to block any further manifestations of Democratic recklessness, and if that happens, Obama will either have to bend to Republican will and policies, as did Clinton with welfare reform, or risk being a one-termer.

As of yet it's not clear how Obama expects to pay for all the goodies he's loaded onto his sleigh - although from what I hear the printing presses are running merrily churning out crisp, new inflated dollars - but when we find out it will tell us much about what the next couple of decades will be like in this country.

* See here


Many Earths

There could be one hundred billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy. So says Dr Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution of Science at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. According to a BBC report:

[T]elescopes have been able to detect just over 300 planets outside our Solar System. Very few of these would be capable of supporting life, however. Most are gas giants like our Jupiter; and many orbit so close to their parent stars that any microbes would have to survive roasting temperatures.

But, based on the limited numbers of planets found so far, Dr Boss has estimated that each Sun-like star has on average one "Earth-like" planet. This simple calculation means there would be huge numbers capable of supporting life.

"Not only are they probably habitable but they probably are also going to be inhabited," Dr Boss told BBC News. "But I think that most likely the nearby 'Earths' are going to be inhabited with things which are perhaps more common to what Earth was like three or four billion years ago." That means bacterial lifeforms.

Dr Boss estimates that NASA's Kepler mission, due for launch in March, should begin finding some of these Earth-like planets within the next few years. Recent work at Edinburgh University tried to quantify how many intelligent civilisations might be out there. The research suggested there could be thousands of them.

Well, maybe. Dr. Boss is an expert and I'm not, but the experts I've read would, I think, say that his optimism is unwarranted. The article makes it sound as if planets suitable for life are commonplace in our galaxy, but all the astronomical discoveries of the last couple of decades point to the conclusion that life-sustaining planets are probably very unusual if not very rare in our galaxy.

In the first place, for the opening sentence above to be true, each star in the galaxy, not just each sun-like star, would have to average one earth-like planet in it's gravitational field, but astronomers know that most stars are completely unsuited for sustaining life.

In order to support life in its solar system a star must be located within a fairly narrow region in the galaxy. It can't be too close to the center, where radiation would be intense, nor too far away where it would revolve at dangerous speeds around the galactic pinwheel. The star has to be rich in heavier elements, and has to be fairly remote from other stars in the galaxy. It has to be a middle-aged star of relatively constant luminosity, not too big and not too small, not too old and not too young.

In other words, stars suitable for sustaining life are relatively unusual in our galaxy, but this is just the beginning. The star has to possess a planetary satellite capable of generating and sustaining life and this means it has to have perhaps hundreds of precisely-tuned properties. The planet has to be just the right distance from its star which means it has to revolve around the star at just the right speed. It has to have a nearly circular orbit and the right tilt to its axis. It has to be just the right mass so that its gravity will hold oxygen in the atmosphere but not hold slightly lighter noxious gases like ammonia. It has to rotate on its axis at the right speed, lest the temperature differences between day and night be too great, and it must possess a shifting crust. It must also have ample water and carbon, among other things, and also a large moon which has to be at just the right distance from the planet to stabilize its wobble. It must also be in a solar system where it's protected from meteorites by large gravitational vacuum sweepers like Uranus, Neptune, Jupiter and Saturn, and so on.

As the number of parameters that must be just right in order for a planet to be able to support life increases the chances of such planets existing in great numbers in our galaxy decrease.

This is why Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee titled their book on this subject Rare Earth. It's why Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards titled their book on a similar subject Privileged Planet. Life, so far from being widespread throughout the Milky Way, may well exist on only one planet in the entire galaxy, indeed in the whole universe --- ours.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lost in the Cosmos

Peter Steinfels in The New York Times reviews two books written by atheists who, unlike some of their angry, militant colleagues who focus their fire entirely upon religious belief, address instead the problems of living a life without God. One of the authors, Ronald Aronson, says this:

A "new atheism must absorb the experience of the 20th century and the issues of the 21st," he wrote. "It must answer questions about living without God, face issues concerning forces beyond our control as well as our own responsibility, find a satisfying way of thinking about what we may know and what we cannot know, affirm a secular basis for morality, point to ways of coming to terms with death and explore what hope might mean today."

Actually, if any of this could be done it would have been done a long time ago. Philosophical atheism has been with us for a long time, but no one has been able to accomplish what Aronson says needs to be accomplished. In a world without God, there is no secular morality other than might-makes-right. There is no coming to terms with death except to resign oneself to its inevitability. There's no basis whatsoever for thinking that there's any "meaning" in hope. Indeed, if death is the absolute end of all life all there can be is hopelessness.

Steinfels goes on quoting Aronson:

[C]ontemporary secularism has lost the buoyant confidence it once gained from "its essential link to the idea of Progress, which promised so much and came to such grief during the 20th century."

"To live comfortably without God today," he says, "means doing what has not yet been done - namely, rethinking the secular worldview after the eclipse of modern optimism."

Modern optimism was based on the belief, derived from a Darwinian worldview, in the perfectability of man. It was rooted in the belief that man was evolving toward greatness. He was becoming progressively better, more intelligent, wiser, more moral. Then came the 20th century with all of its grisly horrors and the clear evidence of man's savagery. The idea of man's perfectability went up in the smoke of Auschwitz.

Aronson again:

"[R]eligion is not really the issue, but rather the incompleteness or tentativeness, the thinness or emptiness, of today's atheism, agnosticism and secularism. Living without God means turning toward something."

Unfortunately, if atheism is true there's not much to turn toward. Today's atheism is empty and thin because it has no real answers to life's most profound questions (See Without God in our Hall of Fame).

Moreover, Aronson's task of finding the existential silver lining of atheism has been made exceedingly more difficult by the fact that so many thoughtful atheists have so clearly and emphatically articulated the meaninglessness and absurdity of life without God. To conclude that such a life leads one anywhere but to nihilism requires a willful leap of blind faith and escapism.

Consider, for instance, the lament of some prominent 20th century figures:

  • Life is a short day's journey from nothingness to nothingness. - Ernst Hemmingway
  • All we are is dust in the wind. - Kansas
  • The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless. - Woody Allen (Hannah and Her Sisters)
  • If God is dead everything is permitted. - Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Brothers Karamazov)
  • God is empty and so am I - Smashing Pumpkins (Zero)
  • In all of our searching the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other. - from Contact
  • Ethics is just an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. - E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse
  • The only plausible answer to the problem of the meaning of life is to live, to be alive and to leave more life. - Theodosius Dobzhansky
  • Our only significance lies in the fact that we can look out on the universe and it can't look back on us. - Will Durant
  • Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear - and these are basically Darwin's views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death....There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will.... Will Provine
  • The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. Richard Dawkins
  • Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal. Jean Paul Sartre
  • For anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. Albert Camus
  • Life is an unpleasant interruption of nothingness. - Clarence Darrow
  • Man knows ... that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity out of which he emerged only by chance. - Jacques Monod
  • Neither the existence of the individual nor that of humanity has any purpose. - Bernard Rensch
  • If death ends all, if I have neither to hope for good nor to fear evil, I must ask myself what am I here for....Now the answer is plain, but so unpalatable that most will not face it. There is no meaning for life, and [thus] life has no meaning." Somerset Maugham (The Summing Up)
  • I was thinking...that here we are eating and drinking, to preserve our precious existence, and that there's nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing. Jean Paul Sartre (Nausea)
  • There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it. Voldemort

The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once wrote a play about hell titled No Exit in which people were trapped together in a room forever with no way out. Atheism might be thought of the same way. There's no exit from it's consequences. To accept the premise that God is not is to accept the conclusion that there's nothing about life that can support meaning, morality, justice, dignity, hope, or even reason. We are forlorn, lost in the cosmos, as Walker Percy put it, and books like Aronson's, though they raise important questions, offer answers which are little more than whistling past the graveyard.


Do Something, <i>Anything</i>

The Democrats "stimulus" bill is, in large part, a spending and welfare bill being foisted on the American people under cover of fear and disingenuousness. Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged that only 58% of the bill is geared to creating jobs, and he was probably exaggerating. That three Republican senators - Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins - would go along with this charade is inexplicable, at least to one who wants to give his elected representatives the benefit of the doubt that they have good reasons for voting the way they do.

Jonah Goldberg, in a biting essay at National Review makes the case that these three "centrists" could not have had any idea what they were doing when they voted for the bill.

Goldberg describes a political centrist this way:

For certain Beltway centrists, the highest principle is to prove that you are attached to no principle. Rather, your duty is to split the difference between the "ideologues." If one side says we need a 1,000-foot bridge to span a canyon, and the other side says we don't need a bridge at all, the centrists will fight for a bridge that goes 500 feet and no farther, then pat themselves on the back.

Senator Specter's argument (The other two, as far as I know didn't even bother to defend their recklessness) went something like this: The economy is in bad shape. Something must be done. Therefore, we must pass this bill. Of course, he has little idea what's in the bill since no one really had much chance to study its 1000+ pages before the vote, but the President says we need it, the President invited Senator Specter to the White House to watch the Super Bowl, so, by golly, let's pass this thing.

Goldberg calls Specter a living antonym for the word "Churchillian." Jonah's at his best in this essay. Give it a read.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009


This video is of a Democrat lady back in 2000 who had just learned that George Bush had beaten Al Gore in the presidential election -- just kidding. Actually, it's video of a woman who arrived at the departure gate at Hong Kong International airport too late to board her plane for San Francisco. She appears to be someone who's very much used to having her way.

At any rate, she was put on a flight a couple of hours later and, I understand, made all of her fellow passengers totally miserable the whole way to San Francisco.


Israeli Covert Ops

Last December President Bush refused to give Israel the go-ahead for an attack on Iran's nuclear bomb-making facilities, opting instead for vague "destabilizing" covert activities. This report in the Telegraph is a little more specific as to what those covert activities entail. Here's the gist:

Israel has launched a covert war against Iran as an alternative to direct military strikes against Tehran's nuclear programme, US intelligence sources have revealed. It is using hitmen, sabotage, front companies and double agents to disrupt the regime's illicit weapons project, the experts say.

The most dramatic element of the "decapitation" programme is the planned assassination of top figures involved in Iran's atomic operations.

Reva Bhalla, a senior analyst with Stratfor, the US private intelligence company with strong government security connections, said the strategy was to take out key people. "With co-operation from the United States, Israeli covert operations have focused both on eliminating key human assets involved in the nuclear programme and in sabotaging the Iranian nuclear supply chain," she said.

Israel has also used front companies to infiltrate the Iranian purchasing network that the clerical regime uses to circumvent United Nations sanctions and obtain so-called "dual use" items - metals, valves, electronics, machinery - for its nuclear programme. The businesses initially supply Iran with legitimate material, winning Tehran's trust, and then start to deliver faulty or defective items that "poison" the country's atomic activities.

Well, now. This poses some interesting ethical questions. Let's assume that the Israelis could be successful in retarding the Iranian weapons program until some future date when the government collapses due to, say, low oil prices. Suppose further that the only realistic alternatives to the Israeli covert ops are a) we allow Iran to procure nuclear weapons, or b) we, and/or Israel, bomb Iran and risk a lot of carnage and a much wider war. Given those two suppositions, what are the moral objections, if any, to doing what the Israelis are doing? Take your time thinking it over.


Killing Her Softly

Muzzammil Hassan resides in Orchard Park near Buffalo, NY, and is the founder and chief executive officer of Bridges TV, which he launched in 2004, amid hopes that its programming would help boost the image of Muslims in the eyes of Americans.

He was arrested the other night for having murdered his beheading her.

That's probably not going to help his cause of portraying Muslims in a positive manner much, at least with anyone other than wife-beaters and misogynists.

But before you think poorly of Muslims let me remind you that there are many moderate Muslims out there who don't behead their wives and who are doubtless appalled at what Hassan did. After all, there are other ways of killing one's wife without resorting to such grisly means as this.

It's not the Hassans of the world who should shape our opinion of Muslims, but rather the millions of moderates who would be satisfied with just giving their wives a good beating or, if need be, murdering her more gently, to whom we should turn to gain a better understanding of Islamic culture.

By the way, Kaled Hosseini's most recent book A Thousand Splendid Suns offers the reader some disturbing insights into that culture. It's not quite as riveting as The Kite Runner, but it's still a very good read.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Obama Picks Defender of Child Porn

President Obama has appointed David Ogden to be Deputy Attorney General. This selection will be a major disappointment to anyone concerned about our cultural slide into the sewer since Ogden, in private practice, was an ardent defender of pornographers in general and child pornographers in particular. Now as a Deputy Attorney General it will be his job to prosecute those who seek to exploit children for sexual purposes, but it's hard to imagine how he could do this with any enthusiasm given his view that pornography is protected free speech.

Here's Matthew Schmitz of the Witherspoon Institute on Ogden:

Ogden has argued that a law designed to protect children from molestation and rape at the hands of child pornographers would "burden too heavily and infringe too deeply on the right to produce First Amendment protected material." The law Ogden opposed reasonably asks that those who wish to profit by selling explicit content keep documents verifying that their models are of legal consenting age.

Even those who think that adults have a right to obtain and use pornographic material should recognize that David Ogden's advocacy for the pornography industry goes much further. His position would allow the purveyors of exploitative images to hide their abuse behind a vanishing paper trail. There is some irony in the fact that while our country employs thousands of inspectors to ensure that meat and poultry are safe, David Ogden opposed even basic steps to ensure that the images consumed by pornography users are not of children. While David Ogden's stated concern was protecting "free speech"-in his confirmation hearing he said that he is opposed to the exploitation of minors, and presumably he is sincere-it is hard to see any justification for a position that has the effect of abetting abuse.

In addition to making it harder to prosecute those who sell images of child molestation and rape, Ogden has sought to ensure that pornography can be easily distributed and readily accessed in almost any medium or location. He has fought cases in Puerto Rico to allow Playboy to broadcast explicit programming on TV. He represented Philip Harvey, a man who runs the nation's largest mail-order pornography shop out of North Carolina, in his attempt to deflect a Department of Justice investigation of his business. Completing a sort of multi-media grand slam, Ogden has sued to allow sexually-explicit content to be transmitted over the phone. Taking this quest to its absurd limits, he has even claimed in court that there is a constitutional right for pornography to be kept in firehouses. Ogden's position is good for the industry groups he has represented but bad for female firefighters who could be subjected to humiliating and harassing images in the workplace. With an equal disregard for the comfort and protection of children, in 2000 Ogden sued to allow pornography to be accessed in public libraries.

It's hard to imagine how a man with two young daughters would choose someone with Ogden's history to serve anywhere in his administration, let alone in the Justice Department, but he has. The Senate must still confirm the appointment so there's a chance that enough senators will find Ogden more repellent than does our President. But who knows with this bunch?

Rumor has it that Larry Flynt is set to chair the President's new Council on Marriage and the Family.


British Dhimmitude

Dogs, cats and other animals will often, when afraid, adopt a posture of submission and obsequiousness to their owner, and may, if they're nervous enough, even wet the carpet. I thought of that when I read about the action of the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband.

In an astonishing spasm of cowardice and dhimmitude Miliband has barred Geert Wilders, the Dutch parliamentarian, from entering England. Wilders, recall, was the man who made the sixteen minute movie Fitna which inflamed Muslims because it revealed the truth about Islamic extremism. Now the Foreign Secretary prevents Wilders from entering his country on the pretext that Fitna contains "extreme anti-Muslim hate and we have very clear laws in this country" against that sort of thing. Perhaps, but according to a post by Andrew Stuttaford at NRO Fitna itself has not been banned in England, so why should its producer be?

But here's the best part. Edmund Standing at Harry's Place writes:

Miliband, having watched Fitna, obviously feels it does "stir up hate, religious and racial hatred." But, hold on... When asked by the interviewer if he had actually watched Fitna he responded that he had not and didn't need to as he already knew what was in it!

Fitna is a 16 minute film, easily accessible online. Is it really so much to ask that our political overlords bother to watch a film before condemning it and supporting its creator being barred from the country? How is Miliband any better than Muslims who screamed about The Satanic Verses without bothering to read it?

This is as reckless and irresponsible as three Republicans and all but seven congressional Democrats voting on the $780 billion stimulus bill without having read it.

Anyway, Mark Steyn, the Canadian writer who was recently hauled before a Canadian tribunal for the crime of offending Muslim sensibilities in his book America Alone, has some caustic reflections on the unseemly self-abasement Western political leaders seem determined to disgrace themselves with when any Muslim chooses to be insulted by an exercise of free speech. It's worth a read.

Meanwhile, next time the British Muslim population casts a baleful glance at Secretary Miliband somebody better quick grab the carpet cleaner.


Loose Lips

No wonder the Bush administration tried to keep sensitive information from the Democrats. They just can't help blabbing whatever they know to anyone who'll listen. Take, for instance, the recent case of Senator Dianne Feinstein:

A senior U.S. lawmaker said Thursday that unmanned CIA Predator aircraft operating in Pakistan are flown from an airbase inside that country, a revelation likely to embarrass the Pakistani government and complicate its counterterrorism collaboration with the United States.

The disclosure by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, marked the first time a U.S. official had publicly commented on where the Predator aircraft patrolling Pakistan take off and land.

At a hearing, Feinstein expressed surprise at Pakistani opposition to the ongoing campaign of Predator-launched CIA missile strikes against Al Qaeda targets along Pakistan's northwest border.

"As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base," she said of the planes.

The basing of the pilotless aircraft in Pakistan suggests a much deeper relationship with the United States on counterterrorism matters than has been publicly acknowledged. Such an arrangement would be at odds with protests lodged by officials in Islamabad and could inflame anti-American sentiment in the country.

This information had been kept secret because it would doubtless create problems for the Pakistani government if their people knew we were launching air strikes on Islamic terrorists from their soil. Now there might well be pressure to end the use of Pakistani air bases which may make it more difficult to hit terrorist leaders in the western wilderness of the country.

I wonder how many intelligence services around the world are reluctant to share sensitive information with the U.S. because they know that our government is filled with Dianne Feinsteins?


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Science Vs Religion (Pt. III)

In the New Republic column we've been reviewing biologist Jerry Coyne makes some interesting claims about the relationship between science and religion (See Part I and Part II). Some of what he says is helpful and some is not. An example of the latter is this graph:

[A]ll creationists share four traits. First, they devoutly believe in God. No surprise there, except to those who think that ID has a secular basis. Second, they claim that God miraculously intervened in the development of life, either creating every species from scratch or intruding from time to time in an otherwise Darwinian process. Third, they agree that one of these interventions was the creation of humans, who could not have evolved from apelike ancestors. This, of course, reflects the Judeo-Christian view that humans were created in God's image. Fourth, they all adhere to a particular argument called "irreducible complexity." This is the idea that some species, or some features of some species, are too complex to have evolved in a Darwinian manner, and must therefore have been designed by God. Blood clotting in vertebrates, for example, is a complex sequence of enzyme reactions, involving twenty proteins that interact to produce the final clot.

As it happens Coyne is presenting us with a straw man. First, he conflates creationism with ID and then claims that because all creationists believe in God therefore all IDers believe in God. This is false, of course. IDers believe in a designer. Some think the designer is the God of the Bible, but others have no idea who or what it is. It could be an Aristotelian prime mover, a Platonic demiurge, or, for all we know, an inhabitant of one of the infinite worlds posited by multiverse enthusiasts.

Second, Coyne asserts that IDers all believe that God intervened at points in the evolution of life to create various forms, especially man. Some do believe this, of course, but it's simply false to claim that all do. One model of God's creative activity sees God not as an artist doing touch up work on a canvas but more like the bed of a braided river:

Just as the bed guides the flow of water as it splits and wanders toward its destination, so, too, might God underlie the entire process of evolution leading it at every moment in the direction he wants it to flow. In this model, God's intervention is not a one-time or periodic event, but rather a continuous, moment by moment channeling of the flow of evolutionary progress.

Coyne continues:

ID turns out to be simply a "god of the gaps" argument--the view that if we do not yet comprehend a phenomenon completely, we must throw up our hands, stop our research, and praise the Lord. For scientists, that is a prescription for the end of science, for perpetual ignorance.

The problem for Coyne's thesis here is that it's refuted by the fact that people like Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Boyle, Faraday, Maxwell and so many others, ID advocates all, didn't just throw up their hands and say "God did it" and proceed to look for some other line of work. These men spawned the age of science and they all believed exactly what Coyne claims to be fatal to the scientific enterprise: That the world reveals evidence of having been intelligently engineered.

The "god of the gaps" argument is invoked by people who have no explanation for a phenomenon, but modern ID isn't based on what we don't know, its based on what we do know. What we know is that the biosphere is information-rich and that information, whenever we have otherwise encountered it, has always and invariably been the product of intelligence. The information coded in our DNA, for example, or the information on display in something like the Krebs cycle, or biomolecular machines, have their analogs in computer software and hardware and what we know is that these are certainly not artifacts produced by blind, purposeless forces.

Coyne goes on to say:

But no serious scientist wants evolution to become anything like a religion, or even a source of ethics and values. That would mean abandoning our main tool for understanding nature: the resolution of empirical claims with empirical data.

Evidently Coyne hasn't read Richard Dawkins' God Delusion in which Dawkins grounds all of life in an evolutionary worldview. And what's this about resolving empirical claims with empirical data? Where are the data to support the claim that life arose by a purely naturalistic process? Or the claim that consciousness is a purely physical, material phenomenon? Or that this world is one of an infinite number of worlds? Where are the data that show that blind, purposeless chance and natural selection have produced butterfly metamorphosis, or sexual reproduction, or insect flight, or human consciousness?

A lot of people are impressed by the astonishing fine-tuning of cosmic parameters and forces (see here and here) and impute this to intelligent, intentional engineering, but not Coyne. He's committed, we are to understand, only to what the data show. He'll admit only the empirical facts of the matter. So how does he explain cosmic fine-tuning? With empirical data? Alas, he offers us only vague hopes, wishes, and speculative metaphysics:

[S]cientists have other explanations [for the universe's exquisite precision], ones based on reason rather than on faith. Perhaps some day, when we have a "theory of everything" that unifies all the forces of physics, we will see that this theory requires our universe to have the physical constants that we observe. Alternatively, there are intriguing "multiverse" theories that invoke the appearance of many universes, each with different physical laws; and we could have evolved only in one whose laws permit life. The physicist Lee Smolin has suggested a fascinating version of multiverse theory. Drawing a parallel with natural selection among organisms, Smolin proposed that physical constants of universes actually evolve by a type of "cosmological selection" among universes. It turns out that each black hole--and there are millions in our universe--might give rise to a new universe, and these new universes could have physical constants different from those of their ancestors. (This is analogous to mutation in biological evolution.) And universes with physical constants close to the ones we see today happen to be better at producing more black holes, which in turn produce more universes. (This resembles natural selection.) Eventually this process yields a population of universes enriched in those having just the right properties to produce stars (the source of black holes), planets, and life. Smolin's theory immensely raises the odds that life could appear.

When Coyne says there are explanations "based on reason, not faith" what he actually means is that there are explanations based on materialism not on intelligence. After all, he himself is displaying a powerful faith that ultimately a plausible materialist explanation will be found.

In any event, such a theory as he proposes might be true, who knows? But that's the point. There's no empirical evidence for these hypotheses. Our Knight of Faith has tacitly admitted that his belief is based not on empirical facts at all but upon an unshakeable metaphysical faith-committment to naturalism.

Moreover, if there is a multiverse in which all logically possible conditions prevail then there might well be a world in which there dwells a being capable of creating a world like ours. If so, why could not our world represent the creative effort of such a being? In other words, by embracing the concept of the multiverse Coyne refutes his own argument that ID's designer has to be the God of the Bible.

Coyne seems to vaguely realize that he's wandered onto very thin ice and tries to explain why his faith in nature is better than belief in an intelligent agent:

[Belief in] the existence of multiverses does not require a leap of faith nearly as large as that of imagining a God.

This is interesting. He acknowledges that his views are based upon faith, not empirical data, but he justifies taking the "leap" by asserting that his leap is shorter than that of the IDer. How, though, does Coyne measure the size of such leaps? What metric does he use? Are such leaps subject to empirical quantification? Coyne thinks that the breath-taking precision of dozens of cosmic properties is easier to impute to the existence of a near infinity of contingent worlds, all having different constants and forces, none of which we have any evidence for, and whose origin itself would stand in need of an explanation, than it is to attribute it to the existence of a singular intelligence whose existence is not contingent upon anything. How does Coyne decide that the latter requires a greater leap of faith than the former?

And some scientific explanations of the anthropic principle are testable. Indeed, a few predictions of Smolin's theory have already been confirmed, adding to its credibility. It may be wrong, but wait a decade and we will know a lot more about the anthropic principle. In the meantime, it is simply wrong to claim that proposing a provisional and testable scientific hypothesis--not a "belief"--is equivalent to religious faith.

This is what the materialist usually winds up saying: "Wait a decade." He insists that empirical claims must be resolved with empirical data, but if the empirical data is lacking, materialist conclusions are drawn anyway. They're simply backed by a promissory note: "Just wait," the materialist urges. "Someday the empirical evidence will arrive, but in the meantime you must have faith that they will." This sounds very much like secular eschatology.

At any rate, if ID believes in a "God of the gaps" then materialism believes in a god of the promises. What Coyne apparently meant by resolving empirical claims with empirical data was that empirical claims must be resolved with empirical data or by nebulous promises of such data appearing in the future. Meanwhile, we are commanded to just believe and not question our scientific bishops.



How anyone with a shred of decency could vote to spend $780 billion of our money and thereby risk plunging us into a hyperinflationary depression and piling trillions of dollars of debt onto the backs of our children and grandchildren without even having taken the trouble to read the bill mystifies me. How anyone with a shred of intelligence and concern for their country and their children can vote to keep these people in office is every bit as mystifying.

The Democrats promised that members of congress would have 48 hours to review the bill before the vote was taken. Instead, they rammed it through before anyone had a chance to examine what was in it. No one who voted for this bill really knows what they voted for. Only three Republicans voted for it, but all but seven Democrats did. There's a joke in Washington that says that Republicans worry that people won't understand what Republicans are trying to do and Democrats worry that people will understand what they're trying to do.

It's no longer funny.