Monday, August 31, 2009

Lycan on Materialism and Dualism

William Lycan is a materialist philosopher, i.e. he rejects the dualist view that there are two fundamental essences to reality - matter and mind. He believes that matter is all there is and that mind is just a word we use to describe the functioning of the brain.

Nevertheless, in an upcoming paper he acknowledges that, though it pains him to say it, materialism is little more than a prejudice. The arguments for materialism, he notes, are no better than the arguments for dualism:

I mean to have shown here that although Cartesian dualism faces some serious objections, that does not distinguish it from other philosophical theories, and the objections are not an order of magnitude worse than those confronting materialism in particular. There remain the implausibilities required by the Cartesian view; but bare claim of implausibility is not argument. Nor have we seen any good argument for materialism. The dialectical upshot is that, on points, and going just by actual arguments as opposed to appeals to decency and what good guys believe, materialism is not significantly better supported than dualism.

Yet, I am inclined to believe, the charge of implausibility is not irrational or arational either, and I would not want this paper to turn anyone dualist. Have a nice day.

In the paper Lycan observes that the strongest argument against dualism is the incomprehensibility of two fundamentally disparate substances, mind and matter, interacting in the brain to produce mental phenomena. It's hard to imagine how an immaterial substance like mind could act causally on matter. Lycan doesn't think that this is much of an objection because we scarcely understand causality in the first place.

Another problem that the materialist has if he's going to cite "interactionism" as an objection to dualism is that materialists have long believed themselves that disparate entities could interact even though their interaction was incomprehensible. How, for example, does space generate quantum particles? Indeed, how does matter bend space? Whatever one's conception of space it's very difficult to conceive how such things happen. If a materialist, nevertheless, believes they do, as everyone since Einstein does, then it seems a case of special pleading to exclude mind/brain interaction on the grounds that we have no theory to explain how it could occur.

HT: Uncommon Descent


Teen Employment at Record Low

In a development which was thoroughly predictable by anyone who has thought about it fewer youth were employed in July than in any July since 1948:

The Labor Department said 4.4 million youths were unemployed in July 2009, or about 1 million more than in July 2008, putting the youth jobless rate at 18.5 percent, about double the overall national percentage. Fewer young people were even trying to be part of the labor force this year than in recent years, perhaps choosing summer school, odd jobs around the house or idleness instead.

Two factors are surely responsible for this: The first is the tight economy and the second is the recent increase in the minimum wage. Ed Morrissey at Hot Air focuses on the latter:

Since 2007, Democrats have led the charge to increase the minimum wage in the US, claiming that the poor hadn't gotten a fair shake from employers. Nancy Pelosi and the late Ted Kennedy pushed hardest for mandating increases in wages despite warnings that the net effect would be to lower employment for teens and entry-level workers while creating inflationary pressures on prices, negating the gains through loss of buying power. For the second year in a row, those predictions have come true.

It is a simple matter of common sense that if employers are required to pay their workers more money they'll try to get by with fewer workers, especially in a recession. Those lucky enough to find a job will perhaps benefit from the higher wage but millions of others will get left out. Moreover, the higher wage rate usually results in higher prices which reduces everyone's real income.

Raising the minimum wage is a lousy idea, as it increases both unemployment and inflation, but Democrats push it because it makes them popular with people who don't really think about, or care about, the hidden consequences of such measures.


Whitaker Chambers, We Need You

The Obama State Department is moving toward cutting off all aid to the country of Honduras because, they say, the Honduran military has executed a coup and deposed the elected president. This is nonsense. The Supreme Court of Honduras ruled that Manuel Zelaya should be removed from office, the legislature concurred and the military was employed to carry out the will of these two civilian branches of the Honduran government.

Zelaya had violated the constitution by calling for a referendum on whether he should be allowed to remain president when his term expired. The law calls for the immediate removal from office of a president who did what Zelaya had done and the Supreme Court ruled that the law should be carried out.

Zelaya was an anti-American leftist disciple of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro and as such the American reaction to his ouster is very unsettling. Rather than looking for reasons to punish the Honduran government and the poverty-stricken Honduran people by cutting off aid, one would think that the State Department would be bending over backwards to find reasons to affirm what Honduras did.

Exit questions: Would the Obama administration cut off aid to a Latin American country which deposed a right-wing president who was seeking to secure himself in office indefinitely and aggrandize his power? Would the State Department be demanding that the right-winger be returned to office? Take as much time as you like to formulate your answers.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Thought for a Sunday

This article at is well worth reading.

Every variety of tyranny rests upon the belief that some persons have a right - or even a duty - to impose their wills upon other people. Tyranny may be fastened upon others by the mere whim of one man, such as a king or dictator under various names. Or tyranny may be imposed upon a minority "for their own good" by a democratically elected majority. But in any case, tyranny is always a denial - or a misunderstanding - of the mandates of an authority or law higher than man himself.

Liberty rests upon the belief that all proper authority for man's relationships with his fellow men comes from a source higher than man - from the Creator. Liberty decrees that all men - subject and ruler alike - are bound by this higher authority which is above and beyond man-made law; that each person has a relation to his Maker with which no other person, not even the ruler, has any right to interfere. In order to make these conceptions effective for liberty, they must be deeply ingrained in the fundamental values of a people. That is to say, they must be part of the popular religion. There was one people of antiquity for whom this was true, the people who gave us our Old Testament. It was among the ancient Israelites that the conviction took hold and emerged into practice that there was a God of righteousness whose judgments applied even to rulers.


An experiment based on those principles was launched on these shores less than two centuries ago. It was the result of a conscious effort to forge an instrumentality of government in conformity with the higher law, based on the widely held conviction that God is the author of liberty.

Our political liberties were not born in a vacuum, but among a people who had a sense of their unique destiny under God. Our religious foundation has been alluded to in a Supreme Court decision (1892, 143 U.S. 457):

This is a religious people. This is historically true. From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation.

Surely there was a unity of the people in their religious beliefs at the time or some other basis would have been used as the foundation for Liberty in this country. Those that espouse Diversity as being good and necessary for the health of our country are dangerous indeed. They mistakenly use the "melting pot" concept of the early immigrations to this country by Europeans to demonstrate the supposed positive effects of Diversity. The fact of the matter is these diverse groups assimilated into the culture of the U.S. within a generation. Their children were strongly encouraged by their parents to speak English to facilitate their acculturation. Their children were not hyphenated Americans (German-American, Italian-American, etc.), they were "Americans" and proud of it. Diversity is divisiveness - and it's a classic strategy employed by the Liberals to fragment our society and generate discord. Run when you hear the Liberals spewing their toxic venom of "diversity" for the Liberal is truly the axe at the Roots of our Liberty today.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Dean Tells the Truth

DNC chairman Howard Dean gives an honest answer to a question at a town hall meeting and it doesn't make his fellow Democrats look good. In fact, it amounts to calling them cowards:

The gentleman who raised the original question is absolutely correct. Calling any legislation that ignores malpractice a "comprehensive reform" is like calling prisons institutions for behavioral reform.

The Democrats don't want to offend a major contributor - The Trial Lawyers Association - so instead they try to reduce the cost of health care by demonizing insurance companies and instituting policies that are almost guaranteed to raise costs, ration care, and result in fewer people wanting to go into the medical profession. And then they want us to believe that they're doing this to benefit the American people. No wonder people are angry.


<i>1984</i> in 2009

Victor Davis Hanson looks at the pages of George Orwell's 1984 and sees a lot that reminds him of 2009. For instance, in 1984:

Perceived enemies are everywhere - supposedly plotting to undo the benevolent egalitarianism of Big Brother. Citizens assemble each morning to scream hatred for two minutes at pictures of the supposed public traitor Emmanuel Goldstein. The "Ministry of Truth" swears that the former official Goldstein is responsible for everything that goes wrong in Oceania.

Former president George W. Bush - our new Emmanuel Goldstein - remains a daily target of criticism. Diplomats continue to discuss the need to hit a "reset" button that will erase the past. Last week, the president said those in the past administration caused our present problems - and so should keep quiet and get out of his way. Bush is somehow culpable for the newly projected $2 trillion annual deficits. Bush caused the new unemployment levels to soar to nearly 10 percent. Bush's war on terrorism failed. Bush is responsible for the most recent trouble abroad with Iran, the Middle East, North Korea, and Russia.

Doublethink is common. Presidential sermons on fiscal responsibility tip us off that deficits will soar. Borrowing an additional trillion dollars to manage health care is sold as a cost-saving measure. Racial transcendence translates into more racial-identity politics, reflected both in rhetoric and in presidential appointments.

Despite the absence of another 9/11-like attack, we are still told by the new terrorism czar, John Brennan, that the old war was largely a Bush failure. Administration officials keep inventing euphemisms. Some have dubbed the war on terror "an overseas contingency operation." [And acts of terrorism are labelled "man-caused disasters"].

We were once told that military tribunals, renditions, the Patriot Act, and Predator drone attacks in Pakistan were George Bush's assault on the Constitution rather than necessary tools to fight radical Islamic terrorists.

Not now. These policies are no longer criticized - even though they still operate more or less as they did under Bush. Guantanamo is still open, but no longer considered a gulag. The once-terrible war in Iraq disappeared off the front pages around late January of this year.

If you've read Orwell's 1984 you'll enjoy Hanson's application of its themes to what we see happening in our current politics.

Thanks to Sarah for passing along the link.


Do Illegals Qualify?

President Obama has been very much put out by what he calls the distortions and myths perpetrated and perpetuated by critics of his health care reform proposals (or at least those of the House Democrats). One such set of "misrepresentations" devolves around whether illegal immigrants would be eligible for tax-payer funded health care. Defenders of the Democrats' plan insist that of course, they wouldn't, but as this piece by Mark Krikorian at NRO explains, the correct answer is that, indeed, they would. The following is taken from a press release by Rep. Lamar Smith whom Krikorian cites:

HR 3200 contains no provisions preventing illegal immigrants from participating in the Health Insurance Exchange that is to be created, including the government-run "public plan" that will be available through the federally-run and federally-subsidized Exchange.

According to CRS [Congressional Research Service]: "Under H.R. 3200, a 'Health Insurance Exchange' would begin operation in 2013 and would offer private plans alongside a public option...H.R. 3200 does not contain any restrictions on noncitzens-whether legally or illegally present, or in the United States temporarily or permanently-participating in the Exchange."

Democrats point to language in the House bill that says illegal immigrants cannot get benefits. While that may be technically accurate, it is far from the truth.

The fact is that the statement is meaningless because the bill contains no verification mechanism to ensure that illegal immigrants do not receive benefits. Democrats defeated amendments in two congressional committees to close this loophole, including amendments that would use the very same verification mechanism that already exists in statute for other federal programs. Why not include the same verification mechanisms in this bill as already exist for other federal benefits programs? Without the requirement that there be a verification mechanism, or a specific verification mechanism provided in statute, the Commissioner could determine that the eligibility requirements could be met either without verification or with as little as a signed attestation.

Moreover, as Smith's release goes on to explain, if one member of a family is eligible for benefits the entire family is eligible. There are millions of illegals in this country whose children or spouses are citizens and who would thus be eligible for tax-payer subsidized health care even though they are here illegally.

The piece is pretty informative. Check it out.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Evil and Open Theism

Open Theism (OT) is the view that God does not know in advance what people will freely choose to do in the future. One of the reasons some find OT attractive is that it offers a potential solution to the problem of why, if God knew the evil that this world would contain, He didn't create some other world instead that had less evil. That is, there must be an indefinite number of possible worlds God could have created, some of which would contain less evil than this one. If God knows everything that will transpire in any world He creates and if He is perfectly good then He would be expected to create the least evil world it would be possible for Him to have created, so either this world is the least evil world possible, which seems hard to believe, or God is not perfectly good, or God does not know in advance the free choices that people will make.

OT has been advanced by some philosophers as the least objectionable way out of the problem (See here for more discussion on Open Theism).

Alexander Pruss, however, doesn't buy it and offers an objection to OT at Prosblogion. Here's his criticism:

It seems to me that some folks--perhaps not philosophers--think that Open Theism (OT) somehow significantly helps with the Problem of Evil. But I do not think it does. The natural reason to think OT helps is to say that if an omnipotent God foreknows that George will freely do some evil E, then God can prevent George from doing E, and OT means that God can't foreknow it, so we can't blame God for failing to prevent E. But this is confused. For it would be impossible for God to both foreknow--or even forebelieve--E and prevent E. Foreknowledge does let God put plans for an event into effect before the event happens, but for actual prevention of foreknown evils, what would be needed is Middle Knowledge, not foreknowledge.

Pruss is arguing, I think, that God knows the choices we will make but cannot prevent them because if He does then God wouldn't know that we would make that choice because, in fact, we wouldn't make it. I don't think Pruss is right about this, though. Under most views of omniscience God knows all of the choices which would be made in every possible world, but He, presumably, creates only one. Thus, by creating only one, He prevents a myriad of choices from being made. So, under the traditional view, God both foreknows the choices made in possible worlds He doesn't create and prevents those choices by not creating those worlds.

In other words, God could have foreknowledge of the evil that would exist in this world and prevent it by not creating this world. So why did He create this world when He could have created another in which people were free to choose but more often, or even always, chose to do right? The open theist argues that in fact, the traditional view of omniscience is wrong. God doesn't know what choices free beings would make in whatever world God placed them in, and therefore, He didn't know that man would sin in this world. He knew it was possible, He knew what His response would be if man did sin, but He didn't, the open theist claims, know that it would actually come to pass that man would fall.

God created, in this view, the best possible world He could create for Man and placed Man in it with the freedom to requite God's love or reject it. When Adam underwent the temptation in the Garden all of heaven held its breath because the outcome was uncertain and when Adam succumbed all of heaven and earth was devastated by his failure. In this view, the world's evil is entirely Man's responsibility. God could have prevented it only by either not creating a world or not creating mankind with libertarian freedom. Both alternatives would have defeated the whole purpose of creating Man in the first place which was to have beings with which He could live in a significant love relationship.

At any rate, OT is not without its problems, but I don't think Pruss's concern is one of them.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Government-Run Maternity Care

If you're a young woman planning on having a family in the next ten years and you're not sure what to make of the debate swirling around nationalized health care you may find this article from the British Daily Mail Online helpful:

Thousands of women are having to give birth outside maternity wards because of a lack of midwives and hospital beds.

The lives of mothers and babies are being put at risk as births in locations ranging from lifts to toilets - even a caravan - went up 15 per cent last year to almost 4,000.

Health chiefs admit a lack of maternity beds is partly to blame for the crisis, with hundreds of women in labour being turned away from hospitals because they are full.

It shows the incredible waste that has taken place that mothers are getting this sort of sub-standard treatment despite Gordon Brown's tripling of spending on the NHS. Labour have let down mothers by cutting the number of maternity beds and by shutting down maternity units.

The NHS employs the equivalent of around 25,000 full-time midwives in England, but the Government has promised to recruit 3,400 more. However, the Royal College of Midwives estimates at least 5,000 more are needed to provide the quality of service pledged in the Government's blueprint for maternity services, Maternity Matters.

At the same time almost half of all midwives are set to retire in the next decade.

There are more details at the link. When government controls the health care system women give birth on toilets. What a metaphor.


Somali Pirates

We haven't heard as much about piracy off the coast of Somalia lately. Part of that may be due to the fact that three pirates were killed by U.S. Navy SEALS when they took an American ship captain hostage, and some of it is due to measures that merchant crews are taking to thwart piracy. Strategy Page fills us in:

Off Somalia, 136 ships have been attacked so far this year, and 28 (21 percent) have been taken. Last year, the pirate success rate was 40 percent. Moreover, 80 percent of the attacks defeated do not involve the foreign warships now patrolling the coast. The merchant sailors, and the ship owners, have adopted defensive measures that have become remarkably successful in defeating pirate attacks. For the captain himself, the best defense is knowing what speeds and maneuvers his ship can use to keep the pirates away. Larger ships can create dangerous wakes for the pursuing speedboats, by zig zagging. Captains also have to learn how fast their ship can accelerate to escape oncoming speed boats. Normally, captains are more skilled at moving their ships at slower speeds. Putting the pedal to the metal and hot roding around the high seas is not normally part of their skill set. But that's how you avoid getting hijacked by pirates. Captains are learning, and so are their crews.

Ship captains are organizing and drilling their crews on things that can be done to keep the pirates from getting aboard. This ranges from stringing barbed wire around likely boarding points, to practicing the use of fire hoses and other tools (like long poles) to keep the ladders or grappling hooks from enabling the pirates to get aboard. These drills build confidence in the ability of the crew to defend their ship.

The sailors also now keep track of where the nearest warships are, and prepare a "safe room" (an area of the ship the crew can barricade themselves in, until help arrives.) This includes providing emergency communications in the safe room. All this takes advantage of the fact that the pirates cannot take control of the ship unless they have the crew. Usually this comes down to barricading the crew in the engine compartment. If the crew prepares for that eventuality (having a radio available to contact the warships, along with water, food and medical supplies there), just getting everyone into the engine room when it appears that the pirates are going to get on board, means that the pirates will be caught between the crew they cannot reach, and the approaching warship that can certainly reach the pirates.

This is all good as far as it goes, but it seems to me that it would be a lot easier to just let it be known that there are teams of armed guards on board these ships. Whether there are or not, it would certainly deter the dilletantes among the brigands and at least give pause to the more resolute careerists.


Lopsided Playing Field

Over at National Review Online John Pitney explains that contrary to what some might think, the President and his party enjoy every advantage a political party could hope for, yet they nevertheless may fail utterly to impose their agenda and to lead the country into the land of socialist milk and honey to which the leadership wants to take it.

The list of advantages is probably unprecedented in our political history. Here's Pitney:

Start with Congress. A few years back, House Democrats complained that the Republican majority was shutting them out of the legislative process. Now Speaker Pelosi and company are pulling tricks that Tom DeLay never dreamed of. A Brookings study concludes: "The number and percentage of restrictive rules used by Democratic leaders to control debate and amending activity on the House floor exceeded the degree of control and departure from regular order exercised by their Republican predecessors." The ruling party is even unfairly censoring Republicans' official mailings to constituents.

Senate Democrats have 60 votes, enough to close debate if they all hang together. Such strength is extraordinary. Democrats last crossed that line in the 95th Congress (1977-1979), and Republicans have not done so in more than a hundred years. Democrats claim that their majority is less decisive than it seems because they are more fractious than Republicans. But they aren't. In roll call votes during 2008, Senate Democrats scored higher in party unity (87 percent) than Republicans (83 percent).

Democrats do not exactly face a hostile media environment, either. The evening news broadcasts of the Obama-friendly Big Three networks have dropped in the ratings, but they still draw far more viewers than Fox News. That's why the Gibson and Couric interviews could do so much damage to Sarah Palin.

What of all-powerful talk radio? Rush Limbaugh reaches up to 25 million Americans, many more than other syndicated hosts. That's a big number, but it means that at least 80 percent of voters are not listeners. More significant, polls show that most Americans have a low opinion of El Rushbo. So the "Limbaugh Did It" theory works only if he can mesmerize millions who dislike him and/or don't even listen to him.

Liberals and Democrats also dominate the hot medium of our time, the Internet. During the 2008 campaign, the Obama campaign mastered social networking and other online technologies. By far the most popular political blog is The Huffington Post. Along with Talking Points Memo and others, HuffPo conducts a great deal of investigative journalism that advances liberal causes. As the Politico reported last year, the Right lags badly in this regard.

What about money? According to stereotype, the well-heeled GOP can bury the Democrats in campaign cash. That image is obsolete: Any Republican financial advantage is long gone. In 2008, Barack Obama smashed all fundraising records and got most of his money from large donors.

He raised twice as much as McCain from physicians and other health professionals, and three times as much from the health-service and drug industries. And listening to his attacks on the insurance industry, you would never guess that it supplied him with almost as much money ($2.3 million) as it did McCain ($2.4 million). No wonder Obama could co-opt business opposition to the health plan and strike a deal with Big Pharma: His corporate ties were a pre-existing condition.

The Democrats continue to hold the money edge. So far in the 2010 election cycle, Democratic national committees have raised $12 million more than their Republican counterparts.

And as in the past, liberals have the upper hand at foundations and universities. Research from these institutions has been especially important during the health-care debate. A Yale professor, for instance, devised the "public option."

So why is it proving so hard to get any more of their legislation passed? It's a testament to two things: the egregiousness of the legislation and the political incompetence of the leadership. Even so, they might still prevail by the sheer force of all that they have going for them.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Three Tips

Casey Luskin at the Discovery Institute offers students going back to school this fall three good suggestions if they're expecting to study evolutionary theory in their classes, but his advice is good regardless of the courses students might be taking.

Here are his tips:

  • Never opt out of learning evolution. In fact, learn about evolution every chance you get.
  • Think for yourself, think critically, and question assumptions.
  • Proactively learn about credible scientific viewpoints that dissent from Darwinism on your own time, even if your classes censor those non-evolutionary viewpoints.

The real value of Luskin's advice is in his explanations of these three recommendations. Check them out at the link.


He Won't Do It

William McGurn writes in the Wall Street Journal that President Obama is on the brink of failure but that he can save his presidency by taking a lesson from Bill Clinton:

Back in 1994, Mr. Clinton faced pretty much the same problem. Though he too had won the White House promising to be a new kind of Democrat, his first two years had a distinctly liberal tenor: battling over gays in the military, promoting a new energy tax, turning a promised middle-class tax cut into a huge tax hike, and trying to push through universal health care. Though he continues to deny GOP contributions to his success, after his 1994 health-care defeat, Mr. Clinton did what all smart pols do: He appropriated the most appealing parts of his opponents' agenda.

The result was a new Bill Clinton, embracing everything from deregulation and welfare reform to the Defense of Marriage Act. In his 1996 State of the Union, he even struck a Reaganite chord by announcing that "the era of Big Government is over." From this newly held center, Mr. Clinton advanced his presidency and pushed, both successfully and unfairly, to demonize Mr. Gingrich. Mostly he got away with it.

In his book "The Pact," historian Steven M. Gillon puts it this way: "Ironically, Gingrich's revolution may have saved the Clinton presidency by freeing him from the control of his party's more liberal base in Congress, giving him the opportunity to return to the moderate message that helped him win election in the first place.

McGurn says that If Obama loses on health care he would be wise to follow Clinton's example and move to the right. The problem with this is that it assumes that Obama has no ideological principles. It assumes that he's just a politician who doesn't care about policy except insofar as it keeps him in office. I think this misreads the man. President Clinton was by nature a moderate. It was not difficult for him to wrest himself free of the leftists in his party and seek accomodation and compromise with the more conservative Newt Gingrich. Obama, however, is a left-wing ideologue. The Progressive agenda is his life-blood. It's the air he breaths. He can no more move to the right than Rush Limbaugh can move to the left.

If Obama doesn't get health care reform he will keep fighting for the liberal policies he believes in. He'll fight for big government, for cap and trade, for the fairness doctrine, for a private security force, for union card check, as long as he's president. He has surrounded himself with people who are as ideologically committed as he is. He can no more abandon all that than a fish could abandon water.

If President Obama does not get health care reform he will probably be severely weakened and unlikely to get much else. If so, he will probably be a one-term president, but he will never be a moderate.


Ted Kennedy (1932-2009)

We woke this morning to the news that Senator Ted Kennedy has succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 77. Much will be said about his political legacy, which will be substantial, having served in the U.S. Senate for 47 years, but I'm struck by a more prosaic thought. Senator Kennedy was one of four Kennedy brothers - all of whom seemed destined for political greatness - and all of whom except Ted died long before their time. In fact, their deaths spanned my lifetime. The oldest, Joe, was killed in WWII. John and Robert were both assassinated in the 1960s (The only time I ever saw Ted in person was when the train bearing JFK's body passed my house and Ted was standing on the back of the train as it passed).

Senator Kennedy's life was filled with scandal and tragedy, but he managed despite it all to become one of the most influential voices ever to serve in American politics. As a young man he seemed the least promising of the Kennedy brothers, but he managed to overcome personal shortcomings and inadequacies to become one of the most influential politicians of the last forty years.

He will be mourned by friends on both sides of the political aisle.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Robert Cheeks at PostModern Conservative places Mel Gibson's Apocalypto on his list of ten best movies. I agree that it's quite worth seeing. It's one of the best "good versus evil" movies I've come across, and it does an excellent job, perhaps unintentionally, of exploding the Rousseuian myth of the goodness of man in the state of nature. The heart of man is desperately wicked, Jeremiah says, and Gibson certainly does a masterful job of reinforcing the prophet's sentiment.

Cheeks has some interesting things to say about the film in his review at the link.


Promises, Promises

President Obama, after having promised last February that he would cut the nation's deficit in half by the end of his first term - much to the astonishment of anyone who was paying attention - now informs us, on his way to Martha's Vineyard, that he'll actually be raising it another two trillion dollars. Hey, what are promises for if not to bamboozle the gullible?

The President is promising prosperity down the road while all many people can see out ahead is a looming economic cliff. But, in fairness to Mr. Obama, he does speak well, and his heart may be in the right place, and he's very smart, so we're told.

Perhaps we can cling to those comforts as we hurtle over the precipice.

HT: Moderate Voice


Monday, August 24, 2009

Whither Lutherans?

Rod Dreher sees three possibilities for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America now that they have decided to permit gays to serve as pastors in ELCA churches:

1. A significant number of conservatives will depart, accelerating the steady membership decline of the mainline Protestant denomination -- which, according to its own record-keeping, has lost 10 percent of its membership since 1987. This is a dying church, not a growing church, and this departure from Scripture and tradition will only make things worse.

2. Many conservatives may depart, making the short term situation worse, but the ELCA is on the right side of history. Younger people are dramatically more accepting than their elders of same-sex marriage. As these people age, start families, and go looking for a church, they're going to want to affiliate with a church that accepts gays fully. There will the ELCA be. Long-term, these Lutherans will benefit from their decision.

3. Many conservatives will depart, further weakening the declining denomination. But those who remain and who anticipate a rebound because of demographic eventualities will be disappointed, but not because conservatives will post absolute gains in membership. Rather, overall church attendance will continue to decline slowly as more Americans identify as secular. America will track the European model somewhat: conservative churches/denominations will prosper relative to liberal ones, because they offer a clear alternative to mainstream culture. In other words, the Christians who stay active in churches will tend to be those who are more highly motivated to affiliate with churches that offer a clear alternative -- but overall, secularization will continue steadily, with fewer Americans interested in church at all, and the gay-clergy decision won't have proved to have mattered much in the overall scheme of things.

Unfortunately, I agree with Dreher that #3 is the most likely scenario. It's not what I'd like to see happen, but it's what I think will happen. Religious faith, at least the Christian sort, is simply becoming less and less relevant to an affluent, pleasure-oreiented society that has learned to live by its feelings, gratify its desires, and reject anything that would impose restraints on its appetites and inclinations.


Ugly in its Own Way

I realize that it's fashionable among properly educated people to insist that no culture or society is any better than any other, but, in my opinion, that's a lot like professing admiration for the naked emperor's fine haberdashery. In order to maintain the charade one has to ignore an awful lot of evidence that's right before our eyes.

Imagine, for example, that an American is convicted of murdering several hundred women and children in a foreign country as was, say, Lt. William Calley who led a murderous rampage on the village of My Lai in Vietnam in 1968 during which 500 women, children and old people were brutally gunned down. Imagine, too, that after serving a couple of years of his sentence the murderer was released and, upon returning home, was greeted by throngs of thousands of cheering admirers showering him with confetti and hailing him as a hero.

Having trouble picturing that? If so, you're tacitly acknowledging that cultures are not all "beautiful in their own way." Nor do all cultures deserve to be celebrated. A culture which would treat William Calley as a hero would be a very sick culture. Certainly ours wouldn't and didn't. People who did celebrate someone like that would justly be considered pariahs among civilized people everywhere. Yet something almost analogous to our scenario happened Friday in Libya when Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, who was convicted of murdering the 270 passengers on Pan Am 103 that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, returned home:

Libya, and any other Arab nation which glorifies such men as Al Megrahi, should be regarded as a moral cesspool fit only for the company of barbarians and savages. No nation or culture in which such men are lionized can be said to be anything other than degenerate and contemptible.


Time to Correct the Textbooks

Anyone who has taken 10th grade biology remembers that one of the most persuasive arguments for the theory of descent by modification is based on the existence of putative vestigial structures in organisms, and one of the most popular examples of an evolutionary vestige is the human appendix. Vestigial structures are the remnants of structures that at one time had some function but because of changing needs, no longer do. Other examples are arm hair, the coccyx, wisdom teeth, hip bones in whales, junk DNA, and so on. Charles Darwin himself cited the appendix as evidence that the human species changes and evolves because it was thought that the appendix was a structure which no longer served any purpose.

Well, whatever the status and usefulness of other vestigial structures to evolutionary theory, the human appendix is now being quietly retired.

Science Daily reports:

The lowly appendix, long-regarded as a useless evolutionary artifact, won newfound respect two years ago when researchers at Duke University Medical Center proposed that it actually serves a critical function. The appendix, they said, is a safe haven where good bacteria could hang out until they were needed to repopulate the gut after a nasty case of diarrhea, for example.

Now, some of those same researchers are back, reporting on the first-ever study of the appendix through the ages. Writing in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Duke scientists and collaborators from the University of Arizona and Arizona State University conclude that Charles Darwin was wrong: The appendix is a whole lot more than an evolutionary remnant. Not only does it appear in nature much more frequently than previously acknowledged, but it has been around much longer than anyone had suspected.

"Maybe it's time to correct the textbooks," says William Parker, Ph.D., assistant professor of surgical sciences at Duke and the senior author of the study. "Many biology texts today still refer to the appendix as a 'vestigial organ.'"

Jonathan Wells argued in his book Icons of Evolution that textbooks are filled with certain evidences of evolution which enjoy the status of classic proofs in the world of evolutionary biology but which are, in fact, based on false, and even falsified, data. The Piltdown man was an early example which comes to mind, as does the peppered moth, and Ernst Haeckel's fraudulent drawings of embryos that seemed to support the notion that embryonic development recapitulated evolutionary history. Junk DNA is no longer on the list because functions performed by this material are being discovered with increasing frequency.

Despite the fact that so many of these icons have been discredited some textbooks still present them to students as solid evidence for Darwinian evolution. It'll be interesting to see how long it takes before the appendix joins the expanding list of evolutionary vestiges that aren't really vestigial at all.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Charming Liar?

As you watch and listen to the embed keep in mind that it was taken from Air America, the leftmost radio network in the nation. The male voice you hear is that of Greg Palast a journalist so far to port that he's in danger of falling off the ship. The left is understandably upset that the man in whom they invested so much of their emotional and economic resources has broken several campaign promises in order to do a deal with "big pharma" that guaranteed they wouldn't have to lower the price of their drugs. This deal came after the President had promised on several occasions in the campaign that he would not do precisely what he has done.

Listen to the exchange between the host and Palast and note the promises Mr. Obama makes in the video clips:

The left is a long way from giving up on Mr. Obama - he is, after all, one of them - but the wind in their sails has faded to a zephyr. If he doesn't deliver on the public option in the health care reform bill the perception among the lefties will be that he's a sell-out, and internecine warfare will break out in the Democratic party.

HT: Hot Air.


ELCA Crosses the Rubicon

Delegates of the Evangelical Church in America (ELCA), meeting in convention in Minneapolis, voted Friday to permit homosexuals to serve as leaders, including pastors, in the church. The ELCA has for many years been moving ineluctably toward this position and it was just a matter of time before they could muster the votes to get it passed.

The resolution carried 559 to 451 and states that people in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships" will be allowed to serve as rostered leaders of the church, i.e. they'll be allowed to serve in pastoral ministry.

The fear among many Lutherans who believe that legitimizing gay relationships is a repudiation of the scriptural teaching on homosexuality is that this step will trigger a mass exodus from the ELCA. It remains to be seen whether it will in fact have that result, but it seems certain that the denomination will be forever changed by this vote.


Political Cynicism

The Wall Street Journal Online has a piece that illustrates the cynicism with which democracy is viewed by some of our public servants in Congress:

Senator Ted Kennedy, who is gravely ill with brain cancer, has sent a letter to Massachusetts lawmakers requesting a change in the state law that determines how his Senate seat would be filled if it became vacant before his eighth full term ends in 2012. Current law mandates that a special election be held at least 145 days after the seat becomes available. Mr. Kennedy is concerned that such a delay could leave his fellow Democrats in the Senate one vote short of a filibuster-proof majority for months while a special election takes place.

"I therefore am writing to urge you to work together to amend the law through the normal legislative process to provide for a temporary gubernatorial appointment until the special election occurs," writes the Senator.

What Mr. Kennedy doesn't volunteer is that he orchestrated the 2004 succession law revision that now requires a special election, and for similarly partisan reasons. John Kerry, the other Senator from the state, was running for President in 2004, and Mr. Kennedy wanted the law changed so the Republican Governor at the time, Mitt Romney, could not name Mr. Kerry's replacement. "Prodded by a personal appeal from Senator Edward M. Kennedy," reported the Boston Globe in 2004, "Democratic legislative leaders have agreed to take up a stalled bill creating a special election process to replace U.S. Senator John F. Kerry if he wins the presidency." Now that the state has a Democratic Governor, Mr. Kennedy wants to revert to gubernatorial appointments.

When it looked as if a Republican governor would get to appoint a senator Mr. Kennedy wanted the law changed to prevent that. When it looks like a Democrat governor will get to appoint a senator Mr. Kennedy wants the law changed to allow that. It's all about power and whatever works to get it and keep it. No wonder the folks at town halls are showing such contempt for their elected representatives.


Taking Fire from the Left

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writes a column to express his dismay and that of his fellow leftists' with President Obama. As far as he and his progressive amigos are concerned President Obama is betraying them, not because his policies are too socialist, but because they're not socialist enough. This is fascinating. The most left-wing president in history is insufficiently left to suit progressives like Krugman:

According to news reports, the Obama administration - which seemed, over the weekend, to be backing away from the "public option" for health insurance - is shocked and surprised at the furious reaction from progressives.

Well, I'm shocked and surprised at their shock and surprise.

A backlash in the progressive base - which pushed President Obama over the top in the Democratic primary and played a major role in his general election victory - has been building for months. The fight over the public option involves real policy substance, but it's also a proxy for broader questions about the president's priorities and overall approach.

That the President is not as radical as his supporters would have him be is modestly good news, I suppose, if you're a conservative, but it raises an interesting question: If conservatives who criticize Mr. Obama and his proposals are motivated by racism, as many liberals have claimed, either explicitly or implicitly, are Krugman et al also racists? Just wondering.


Friday, August 21, 2009

The Euthyphro Dilemma

Is kindness right because God commands it or does God command it because it's right? Thus runs the ancient dilemma posed by Socrates to Euthyphro some 300 years B.C. Philosophers have come down on both sides of the question with most atheistic philosophers arguing that if God commands it because it's right then we don't need God's command and thus we don't need God. Theistic philosophers argue that an act is right not because it's commanded by just any deity but because it's commanded by an omniscient, morally perfect Deity.

I think the theist has the better reply. If the moral authority is ab defino all-knowing and perfectly good then anything It commands would be necessarily good and It wouldn't command anything that wasn't good.

God commands certain behavior for the same reason that a car manufacturer puts a maintenance manual in the new car. Just as failure to operate the car properly ruins the car, certain behaviors - like cruelty - are harmful to human beings and certain other behaviors - like kindness - enhance human existence.

God commands us to enhance human existence because he loves us. To mistreat others is wrong not because it's wrong in itself, but because God obligates us to refrain from hurting those He loves. It's wrong, and this is crucial, only because it violates the will of God. If there is no God, as the atheist maintains, then whether the atheist decides to be cruel or kind is of no moral moment. There's nothing which obligates us not to hurt others except our own subjective preferences.

Just as the sun generates light and heat which would not exist if the sun ceased to exist, so, too, goodness is ontologically dependent upon God. It's an attribute of His essence. If God did not exist neither would goodness and neither would any obligation to perform one act rather than another. We are obligated to do justice and kindness only because God demands it of humans. Take away God and human beings would be animals just like sharks and wolves for whom moral categories and moral obligation simply don't exist.

So, its not that atheists can't be kind. They certainly can. It's that, on atheism, kindness is neither right nor wrong. It's no different, morally speaking, than cruelty. It's simply a personal preference like one's preference for Pepsi rather than Coke. In a Godless world morality is just a matter of taste.


Shameful Racial Legacy

Damon Root at discusses the attempt by Chip Berlet to link the opposition to Obamacare to white, right-wing racism:

Chip Berlet, a senior researcher at the liberal think tank Political Research Associates, went even further than that, telling New America Media: "For over 100 years-more like 150, you've had these movements, and they came out of the Civil War. It is a backlash against social liberalism and it's rooted in libertarian support for unregulated capitalism and white people holding onto power, and, if they see themselves losing it, trying to get it back."

Root is having none of it, however. If Berlet wants to go back 100 years to examine the history of racism in this country what he'll find is that it was largely a phenomenon of the left. Root provides chapter and verse:

Perhaps Berlet should consider the career of South Carolina's Benjamin "Pitchfork" Tillman (1847-1914), a leading progressive who railed against the sins of "unregulated capitalism" while preaching the salvation of white supremacy. An ally of the agrarian populist William Jennings Bryan, Tillman supported antitrust laws, railroad regulations, the free coinage of silver, and a host of other progressive panaceas. He first entered politics as a member of the Red Shirts, a Klan-like terror group that "came out of the Civil War" to menace African Americans during the early years of Reconstruction. When President Theodore Roosevelt entertained the black leader Booker T. Washington at the White House in 1901, Tillman served as a de facto spokesman for the Southern opposition, declaring: "The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again." It's hard to imagine a nastier threat of political violence than that-and Tillman is obviously nobody's idea of a libertarian.

In fact, as the historian David Southern has documented, the worst evils of the South's Jim Crow regime, including segregation, disfranchisement, mob violence, and lynching, all "went hand-in-hand with the most advanced forms of southern progressivism."

In a separate post, Root's review of Southern's book titled The Progressive Era and Race: Reform and Reaction, 1900-1917 provides excellent insight into the virulence of white racism during the Progressive era. Writing of Southern's book Root asks:

How did reformers infused with lofty ideals embrace such abominable bigotry? [Southern's] answer begins with the race-based pseudoscience that dominated educated opinion at the turn of the 20th century. "At college," Southern notes, "budding progressives not only read expos�s of capitalistic barons and attacks on laissez-faire economics by muckraking journalists, they also read racist tracts that drew on the latest anthropology, biology, psychology, sociology, eugenics, and medical science."

Popular titles included Charles Carroll's The Negro a Beast(1900) and R.W. Shufeldt's The Negro, a Menace to American Civilization (1907). One bestseller, Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race (1916), discussed the concept of "race suicide," the theory that inferior races were out-breeding their betters. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of many Progressives captivated by this notion: He opposed voting rights for African-American men, which were guaranteed by the 15th amendment, on the grounds that the black race was still in its adolescence.

Such thinking, which emphasized "expert" opinion and advocated sweeping governmental power, fit perfectly within the Progressive worldview, which favored a large, active government that engaged in technocratic, paternalistic planning. As for reconciling white supremacy with egalitarian democracy, keep in mind that when a racist Progressive championed "the working man," "the common man," or "the people," he typically prefixed the silent adjective white.

Throughout the post-civil war era the greatest impediment to the advance of the black man, especially in the South, was the Democratic party and Progressive infatuations with social Darwinism and eugenics. It's one of the ironies of our times that modern liberals are so eager to identify themselves as Progressives and that approximately 95% of African-Americans who voted in the last election voted for the most Progressive Congress and White House since Franklin Roosevelt - maybe since Woodrow Wilson.

One wonders how aware either liberals or African-Americans are of the history of twentieth century Progressivism in this country, not only the ugliness of its racism but also of its links to European fascism. If they are aware then their willingness to identify themselves with people who push the Progressive agenda is really puzzling.

In any event, it's important that we learn the lessons of history, philosopher George Santayana famously admonished, because if we don't we're just doomed to repeat them.

HT: Hot Air


Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Value of Argument

What use, we sometimes wonder, are arguments? People are rarely persuaded by them to accept something they're not already disposed to believe so why bother? People who disbelieve in God, for example, don't often change their mind because they've heard someone effectively argue the opposite position.

This is probably because disbelief is not usually a consequence of a lack of proof in, or evidence for, God's existence. More often it's due to either a bad experience with Christians or the church, an incredulity over the doctrine of Christian exclusivism, the prevalence of suffering and terror in the world, or a simple desire that Christianity not be true and that God not exist. As such it's not something that can be changed by appeals to a person's reason.

For most people, believers and unbelievers alike, faith is a matter of the heart, not the head. It's rarely arrived at, or decided upon, on rational grounds. People are drawn to faith through their hearts or they reject it because their hearts are closed to it. People are moved more by story, song, film, testimonial, and what they see in other people's lives than they are, say, by Anselm's ontological argument.

For a man to be convinced of an idea or a truth, his heart needs to be persuaded, and, it's important to note, the head will always follow the heart. But arguments are useless with the heart, they only appeal to the head. Since the heart is the gate to the head, if the heart is closed no argument will ever compel the head to accept it. On the other hand, if the heart is sold on an idea anyway, then arguments aren't necessary. In most human beings the heart is the master. The head is merely an advisor that submits to the will of the heart.

Thus arguments aren't of much use to people who are unwilling to accept the conclusion that God is real. A person who doesn't want a particular idea to be true, whose heart is closed to it, will not be persuaded no matter how compelling the argument. He'll always find some way to evade its force and reject the idea.

Yet arguments are not without value. Arguments can strengthen the faith of those who already believe and they can blow away intellectual smokescreens that skepticism often hides behind. Most importantly, perhaps, they can alter the intellectual ambiance of a culture so that the assumption that Christianity is intellectually disreputable is no longer prevalent among young people. Arguments can shape the culture so that whether people accept their conclusions or not they live and move in an environment in which they know that belief can no longer be credibly portrayed as irrational. Indeed, arguments can so influence the larger culture that people accept that belief is even the most rational option, even if they don't always submit to the realization.

There are good reasons to believe that God exists and that Christianity is true, but the person who doesn't want to accept those beliefs, whose heart is already dead set against them, will, like a man who can look at the sky at noon on a clear day and claim not to see the sun, fail to see those reasons.

Even so, most people who have watched the debates between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens or have read the work of any number of Christian philosophers and apologists will, whatever conclusions they eventually draw for their own lives, have a very difficult time holding on to the notion that being a theist is somehow for fools, dunces, and old people.


Somethin's Happenin' Here

Did you ever notice how, at family gatherings, the older folks sometimes seem to just sit quietly while the conversation and activity swirls around them? I'm beginning to understand why older people sometimes just feel "out of it," and according to this video it's not going to get any easier for them:

As impressive as all this is, I can't escape the feeling that any medium which reduces communication to a series of single words or sentence fragments, as happens on Twitter, for example, is not a good thing. Banal and trivial dialogue where no real thinking is taking place can't be good for one's mental development.

Of course, it's reactionary notions like this which are sure to render people who hold them completely irrelevant, and not just at family gatherings.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Re: We're Right Because You're an Idiot

Byron issues a plea that we point out the ugly rhetoric emanating from both sides of our political debates and not just what's coming from the left. His email is on the Feedback page.

His concern is a fair one, but as I replied to him, I'm just not hearing consequential people on the right, except for some talk radio hosts whom I have criticized in this space on more than one occasion, using the sort of invective that Paul Begala and others are using. Begala called Sarah Palin, for example, "half a whack job" because she espied the possibility of "death panels" in HR 3200. I haven't heard anyone use that kind of language to describe Mr. Obama, but maybe I'm just not tuned in to it.

I therefore invite any of our readers who would like to participate in what we'll call a "civility patrol" to submit any instances of incivility that you encounter from people who are leaders in their parties or in the media to our Feedback page, and we'll post the results. The examples can be from conservatives or liberals, it doesn't matter.


Back to the Future?

A lot of Americans are growing increasingly vocal in expressing their concerns about the ideological direction of the current administration. Some few have even peered out ahead of the trajectory and espied "Nazism" skulking about on the horizon. This seems to me to be unfair, hyperbolic, and ahistorical (I note in passing, though, that no one on the left seemed to mind when George Bush was compared to Hitler by people on the left). The Nazis were first and foremost blood and soil nationalists, bent on militarism, conquest, and, in the early 1940s, genocide. One has to have a very vivid imagination to discern those particular themes in anything President Obama has said or done.

That doesn't mean, however, that there's no reason for concern that modern progressivism, of which President Obama is the avatar, bears an eerie similarity to patterns and traits which typified other versions of twentieth century fascism, of which the Nazi party was an extreme type. The concern arises, firstly, because of the historical fact that prior to WWII American progressives and European fascists, particularly Italian fascists, enjoyed a cozy philosophical relationship.

But the apprehensions are made more acute by a number of disturbing developments on our domestic political scene that collectively sound a note that has been historically discordant with the ideals of political freedom. We have in the past year witnessed, for example, the apotheosis of a charismatic leader by a worshipful media; an inexplicable rush to pass opaque legislation that would vastly expand the role of government in our lives; and a menage a trois between big business, big finance and big government.

The perception has grown that we're being misled about the purpose of major legislation, and that health care reform would subsidize death, both early and late. We've seen our President select as advisors several men who are radical advocates of either population control, euthansia and/or eugenics. We've been alarmed by the President's weird call during the campaign for a civilian defense force as well-trained and well-funded as the military and by attempts by some in our government to intimidate, silence, and demonize those in the media who oppose them.

Together these developments have engendered deep concern among a lot of Americans, an uneasiness that's been exacerbated by the President's nebulous vow to "fundamentally change America" and the failure of his administration to keep its promise to allow ample time for the public to review and debate its legislative proposals. The confidence originally reposed in Barack Obama by the American people and the willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt on his radical past associates and associations have been eroded by the fact that so many Democrats, and the President himself, were prepared to pass a massive arrogation of power by the federal government in the form of health care reform before they, or almost anyone else, even knew what was in the bill.

All of this is very troubling to those who value personal liberty and the lessons of history because so much of it has happened before. Most of the items listed above were associated with totalitarianisms and tyrannies of various stripes which plagued the twentieth century. Mr. Obama might sincerely recoil from any suggestion that he would want to retrace that history, but the fact is that, whether intentionally or not, much of what he says and does is an echo of it. The growing fear that once his policies are implemented they'll make it much easier for his successors to impose increasingly greater control over people's lives is genuine and largely salutary. It's rooted in the same skepticism that Americans have always had for big government going all the way back to the Founding Fathers' experience with the oppression of King George III.

It may be that concerns about the political themes and direction of our country will turn out eventually to be incorrect, but, given the evidence at this point in time, they certainly seem warranted, reasonable and prudent.


Atheism and the Future

Atheists often claim to be more rational than theists. They claim to base their lives on reason rather than faith, but they don't. What reason, for example, does an atheist have for arguing that we should preserve the earth's beauty and resources for future generations? What reason is there for caring what happens to the earth after we are gone from it? Would it be immoral for the present generation to use up everything and leave nothing for those who come after? Why, on the assumption of atheism, would it?

According to the atheist all we have is our own life. There's absolutely no reason why we should care about anyone else. We may care about others, of course, but if we don't why is that wrong?

The atheist may respond that we shouldn't leave our descendents bereft because we wouldn't have wanted that done to us. Of course we wouldn't, but that's no reason why we shouldn't do it to someone else. In other words, if there is no God, there is just no reason why we shouldn't live for ourselves. Atheism can give no reason why egoism is wrong except to say that it just is.

That doesn't sound to me like a very rational reason.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Confusion and Paradox

The Gallup organization has found something very puzzling:

According to new data released by Gallup on Friday, conservatives outnumber liberals in all 50 states--including President Obama's home state of Illinois--even though Democrats have a significant advantage over Republicans in party identification in 30 states.

"In fact, while all 50 states are, to some degree, more conservative than liberal (with the conservative advantage ranging from 1 to 34 points), Gallup's 2009 party ID results indicate that Democrats have significant party ID advantages in 30 states and Republicans in only 4," said an analysis of the survey results published by Gallup.

What are we to conclude from this paradox? Perhaps people either don't understand what it means to be conservative/liberal or they don't understand what it means to be Republican/Democrat. In any case, I think it shows that any politician who thinks that because he won an election he has a mandate to implement an ideological agenda is making a big mistake. Chances are, people voted for him because he was taller or better looking or more charming or a better speaker than his opponent or maybe because their friends were voting for the guy. I'm guessing, of course, but I doubt that very many people, even among those who take the trouble to vote, really have any idea who a candidate is or what he's going to do once elected.

That may be why, when President Obama sought to implement pretty much what he promised in the campaign that he'd do, he was reportedly taken by surprise at the public reaction and resistance. He thought people voted for him to do what he's doing, but many people voted for him for reasons completely unrelated to policy.

It's very discouraging.


Re: The Heavens Declare

Mike writes regarding yesterday's post titled The Heavens Declare to share with us a quote from C.S. Lewis:

It's hard to imagine a more fitting response to the writer of the article you posted on Hubble Telescope than the words of C.S. Lewis in Miracles:

"If our Reason told us that size was proportional to importance, then small differences in size would be accompanied by small differences in importance just as surely as great differences in size were accompanied by great differences in importance. Your six-foot man would have to be slightly more valuable than the man of five feet, and your leg slightly more important than your brain...

To a mind which did not share our emotions and lacked our imaginative energies, the argument against Christianity from the size of the universe would be simply unintelligible. It is therefore from ourselves that the material universe derives its power to overawe us. Men of sensibility look upon the night sky with awe: brutal and stupid men do not...For light years and geological periods are mere arithmetic until the shadow of man, the poet, the maker of myths, falls upon them."

Good stuff.


Ruse on the New Atheists

Philosopher Michael Ruse takes the "New Atheists" to the woodshed and gives them a good thrashing in a short essay at Belief.Net. Ruse is himself an atheist but he holds the quaint idea that atheists and believers can still respect each other and even like each other even as they disagree with each other's ideas. He also argues that the new atheists are hurting the cause of science in America. Here are a couple of paragraphs to give you the gist:

Let me say that I believe the new atheists do the side of science a grave disservice. I will defend to the death the right of them to say what they do - as one who is English-born one of the things I admire most about the USA is the First Amendment. But I think first that these people do a disservice to scholarship. Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing. As I have said elsewhere, for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the ontological argument. If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly indignant. (He was just this when, thirty years ago, Mary Midgeley went after the selfish gene concept without the slightest knowledge of genetics.) Conversely, I am indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group.

Secondly, I think that the new atheists are doing terrible political damage to the cause of Creationism fighting. Americans are religious people. You may not like this fact. But they are. Not all are fanatics. Survey after survey shows that most American Christians (and Jews and others) fall in the middle on social issues like abortion and gay marriage as well as on science. They want to be science-friendly, although it is certainly true that many have been seduced by the Creationists. We evolutionists have got to speak to these people. We have got to show them that Darwinism is their friend not their enemy. We have got to get them onside when it comes to science in the classroom. And criticizing good men like Francis Collins, accusing them of fanaticism, is just not going to do the job. Nor is criticizing everyone, like me, who wants to build a bridge to believers - not accepting the beliefs, but willing to respect someone who does have them....

Most importantly, the new atheists are doing terrible damage to the fight to keep Creationism out of the schools. The First Amendment does not ban the teaching of bad science in publicly funded schools. It bans the teaching of religion. That is why it is crucial to argue that Creationism, including its side kick IDT, is religion and not just bad science. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If teaching "God exists" is teaching religion - and it is - then why is teaching "God does not exist" not teaching religion? Obviously it is teaching religion. But if science generally and Darwinism specifically imply that God does not exist, then teaching science generally and Darwinism specifically runs smack up against the First Amendment. Perhaps indeed teaching Darwinism is implicitly teaching atheism. This is the claim of the new atheists. If this is so, then we shall have to live with it and rethink our strategy about Creationism and the schools. The point is however that the new atheists have lamentably failed to prove their point, and excoriating people like me who show the failure is (again) not very helpful.

....I have written elsewhere that The God Delusion makes me ashamed to be an atheist. Let me say that again. Let me say also that I am proud to be the focus of the invective of the new atheists. They are a bloody disaster and I want to be on the front line of those who say so.

I think Ruse is wrong about Intelligent Design, of course, but he's a good man, a lapsed Quaker who still retains much that is admirable about the Quaker people, and I appreciate and admire his tone and openness.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

We're Right Because You're an Idiot

It's getting tiresome hearing political hit-men like Paul Begala and others mocking Sarah Palin for suggesting on her website that the Democrats' health reform proposals would include "death panels" that would decide whether people suffering from severe disabilities, terminal illness, or advanced age would be eligible for major medical care.

Yesterday morning our Sunday paper carried a piece by a staff columnist calling people who believed such things "bat-guano insane," "charlatans," "nuts," and "lunatics." According to this writer the idea of death panels is "idiocy," and Sarah Palin is suffering from a "paranoid delusion rattling around in her empty skull." Of course, the only counter he offered to Palin's claim, when he wasn't shooting off personal insults like a fireworks finale, was to cite a minor error of fact by a misinformed writer at Investor's Business Daily and one or two fuzzy questions and accusations that emerged among the many town hall meetings held over the last couple of weeks. In other words, our columnist denied vehemently and viciously that the proposed legislation really provided for Palin's "death panels," but he never gave his readers any reason to believe that it didn't.

Maybe this was because the fear that the legislation would allow for such panels is grounded not in paranoia but in the President's own words. In an interview last April with the New York Times the President was talking about the story of his terminally ill grandmother who had hip replacement surgery so that she would not be bed-ridden for the last year of her life. Here's what he said:

PRESIDENT: So that's where I think you just get into some very difficult moral issues. But that's also a huge driver of cost, right?

I mean, the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here.

NYT: So how do you - how do we deal with it?

PRESIDENT: Well, I think that there is going to have to be a conversation that is guided by doctors, scientists, ethicists. And then there is going to have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place. It is very difficult to imagine the country making those decisions just through the normal political channels. And that's part of why you have to have some independent group that can give you guidance. It's not determinative, but I think has to be able to give you some guidance. And that's part of what I suspect you'll see emerging out of the various health care conversations that are taking place on the Hill right now.

As of last April the President certainly seemed to be talking about some sort of group (Okay. He didn't use the words "death panel") which would make the kind of decisions that Ms Palin was concerned about. Why is it "bat-guano insane" to think that the President meant what he said?

Other commentators, no friends of Sarah Palin in particular or conservatives in general, have come to the same conclusion:

Lee Siegel at The Daily Beast, Charles Lane, editor of The Washington Post, and columnist Eugene Robinson at the WaPo have all held their noses and acknowledged that Palin was right. Are they also insane?

Indeed, the writers of the bill were so concerned that the language of the legislation was compatible with Palin's interpretation that they decided to strike it from the original bill. Were they crazy?

It would be helpful in this very important matter if the defenders of the current health reform legislation would just answer the many incisive questions that are being asked about it and address the problems being raised by it. It's harder than just calling them names, it requires more effort, but it'd also be a lot more instructive and persuasive.


The Heavens Declare

Bradlaugh at Secular Right posts this marvelous video based on the Hubble Deep Field photo, but he draws from it an odd conclusion:

He writes:

I have heard Heather (MacDonald) say that she has never been afflicted with any musings about the significance of human consciousness, or the place of humanity in the universe. (I hope I am not misquoting her.) I can't say the same. Images like this fill me with wonder, with something quite close to terror, and with something considerably closer to despair.

They also of course make the notion of a loving god with a particular interest in humanity, seem pretty darn ridiculous.

Just how does the fact that the universe is huge make the idea of a personal God who cares about us ridiculous? Is God's concern for humanity somehow contingent upon the size of the universe? Does your love for your children depend on the size of your house?

Cosmologists have demonstrated that in order for life to appear anywhere in the universe - given that the universe began in a big bang - the universe has to be about as old as it is and thus as big as it is (since it's been expanding since its origin).

It also has to have about the precise amount of mass/energy that it does, in fact, contain. More or less matter and the universe would have either collapsed or blown itself apart long ago.

In other words, if God created the universe as a home for humans, and did so along the lines that modern cosmology has elucidated, then in order for us to exist on this tiny speck, everything else must be almost exactly as it is to a breathtakingly precise order of magnitude. In order to create us God had to create the whole universe, all 100 billion galaxies. They are there so that we can be here.

Like Bradlaugh, I'm overwhelmed by the sheer size of the world, but unlike him I feel the opposite of terror and despair. The thought that God cares so much for us that, like a man who lavishes everything He can upon His beloved, He fills the whole of space with marvels beyond our imagining fills me with a sense of confidence and awe.

HT: Hot Air


Wind Turbine Mortality

As the Obama administration pushes for clean energy one possible source would be wind farms with dozens or even hundreds of wind turbines. These might be thought to be environmentally friendly, although they're aesthetic eyesores, since they don't have any perceptible impact on the land and don't generate any pollution. They do have an important downside, though, as this article from the American Bird Conservancy explains:

Recent U.S. studies indicate that bird mortality at wind turbine projects varies from less than one bird/turbine/year to as high as 7.5 birds/per turbine/year. This means that between 10,000 and 40,000 birds may be killed each year at wind farms across the country - about 80% of which are songbirds, and 10% may be birds of prey. While not a large figure, local or regional impacts may be significant, and the rate of increase in turbine construction has conservationists concerned that new generators be built to standards that minimize the potential for bird kills. Bats are also subject to high mortality at wind farms frequently at considerably higher rates than birds.

The increasing number of proposals for new projects has stimulated discussion on the need for proper siting, operation, and monitoring guidelines or regulations to prevent, or at least keep to a minimum, avian and bat mortality.

Before construction of new wind farms, detailed studies should be conducted to assess the potential impact on birds, bats, and other wildlife. Sites known to be used by birds and bats listed under the Endangered Species Act should be avoided if the construction and operation of wind plants might adversely affect these species, as should locating turbines in known local bird migration pathways, in areas where birds are highly concentrated, or in areas or landscape features known to attract large numbers of raptors.

So I wonder if the following isn't a plausible scenario. President Obama gets cap and trade and wipes out the coal industry as he admitted his policy would do (see here). Entrepreneuers then try to get into the wind farm business, but they find that because of the effect of turbines on wildlife few of their siting proposals can pass EPA muster. So now we have no coal generated electricity and no wind generated electricity. Then what? Relax EPA standards? Build nuclear plants? Fat chance of that as long as the Democrats control the approval process.

What's most likely, it seems to me, is that electricity will get rationed just like medical care. You'll only be able to use it during certain hours of the day and in certain amounts. Kiss that air-conditioner good-bye, hope and change are cool enough all by themselves.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Interesting Disparity

The Pew Research Center recently conducted a study of scientists and their religious beliefs. Some of the results were expected and some were a bit surprising.

Whereas most Americans (83%) profess a belief in God, just a third (33%) of scientists say they hold such a belief. There's nothing unexpected there since those figures have been around for a while. What was a surprise, though, was the finding that younger scientists are substantially more likely than their older counterparts to say they believe in God. Forty two percent of scientists (or students studying to be scientists) between the ages of 18 and 34 claim to be theists, but only 28% of those over 65 make that claim.

I don't know what this portends for the future of theistic belief among the nation's scholars, but I would like to see if these numbers are similar across other disciplines. Assuming these survey results accurately reflect the state of theistic belief among contemporary scientists, I'd also like to know what's happening in the culture that's responsible for the disparity between the younger generation of scientists and their elders. Any ideas?


Does She Or Doesn't She?

Does Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi appreciate disrupters or does she not? I guess it all depends on who's doing the disrupting (via Hot Air):

Since Speaker Pelosi also seemed shocked that someone was sporting a swastika at one recent town meeting, although this was never confirmed, I'll bet she was apoplectic at the demonstrations against President Bush that took place throughout his presidency in her very own district. I seem to remember, in fact, her fiery speeches denouncing the protestors whose photos appear here. I think I recall her outrage that people in her district would resort to such despicable tactics and ugly rhetoric. Or maybe I'm just hallucinating from being up too late and awake too long.


Why No Supermarkets?

An article at CNN raises disturbing questions. The piece addresses the predicament those who live in Detroit face as unemployment in the state continues to rise and fewer families have the money to buy food. It goes on to talk about how social agencies and volunteers from churches and parachurch organizations are working to meet the need (I didn't see any mention of the help being offered by the local secular humanist society, but, I hasten to add, that doesn't mean they're not doing anything.).

Anyway, the disturbing part was this paragraph:

"In this recession-racked town, the lack of food is a serious problem. It's a theme that comes up again and again in conversations in Detroit. There isn't a single major chain supermarket in the city, forcing residents to buy food from corner stores. Often less healthy and more expensive food."

Now why is that? Why would supermarket chains not exploit a market niche that they exploit in every other city and suburb in the nation? I'm sure someone will say that it must be racism, but of course that's absurd. Why Detroit and not Chicago? Or is the lack of supermarkets in cities more widespread than the article indicates?

Whatever the case, the urban poor are caught in a vicious cycle. They are poor, sometimes, because they can't find jobs. Because they're impoverished their communities are subject to all the dysfunctions often associated with poverty, including lousy education, crime, and feral fatherhood. Because their communities are ridden with crime and populated by uneducated, unskilled workers, businesses don't want to operate there. Because businesses don't locate in poor neighborhoods, the residents can't find employment and thus are poor.

What's the solution? The strongest predictor that a person will have weak education, turn to crime, and be economically poor is not having a father. When urban communities realize that fatherlessness is a blight on their neighborhoods and a curse upon their children perhaps pressure will mount on women to hold off having children until they're married and men will realize that if they want what women can give they have to be committed to a monogamous relationship. Until that day comes we'll not solve the problem of poverty in America no matter how much the government redistributes the nation's wealth.


New National Park

Some people think I never say anything nice about liberalism, but that's not true. I might not be able to remember when the last time was that I said anything nice about it, but I'm sure I did. One area, for instance, in which I think liberalism has it all over conservatism (although it really shouldn't be this way), is, ironically enough, the matter of conservation. I applaud President Clinton for preserving vast tracts of the southwest, President Bush for preserving vast tracts of ocean habitat, and now Senator Carper and Vice-President Biden for working to preserve Delaware's historical and natural heritage in a new National Park:

It's been a long time since tiny Delaware distinguished itself as it did way back in 1787 when state fathers huddling at Dover's Golden Fleece Tavern became the first to ratify the Constitution. Now, more than two centuries later, Delaware is back as the state of firsts. And not just because Joe Biden is the first vice president from Delaware. The mid-Atlantic coastal state could finally get its first national park, a goal championed by Biden in the 1990s. And he's now in a position to make sure it happens.

Delaware doesn't have what most national parks do-vast acreage. But at the suggestion of First State citizens, Interior is looking at a unique model that would connect historical and cultural landmarks in a collection of spoke and hub patterns, like a bike. "A hub with spokes leading to maybe the Golden Fleece Tavern where the Constitution was first debated and ratified in 1787," suggests Senator Tom Carper. "Or the spokes could lead to stops on the Underground Railroad."

Legislation is required, but with the support of Biden and [Secretary of the Interior] Salazar, says Carper, "I like our chances."

Details of the Park's unique design can be read here. Kudos to both Joe Biden and Tom Carper for their contribution to this effort. Why is it that more conservatives aren't interested in conserving our natural and historical treasures?


Materialism Isn't Science

There's a piece, in the LA Times, written by atheists, taking their fellow atheists to task for trying so strenuously to persuade people that science and religious belief are not only incompatible, but that science has shown religious belief to be empty:

This fall, evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins -- most recently famous for his public exhortation to atheism, "The God Delusion" -- returns to writing about science. Dawkins' new book, "The Greatest Show on Earth," will inform and regale us with the stunning "evidence for evolution," as the subtitle says. It will surely be an impressive display, as Dawkins excels at making the case for evolution. But it's also fair to ask: Who in the United States will read Dawkins' new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?

Surely not those who need it most: America's anti-evolutionists. These religious adherents often view science itself as an assault on their faith and doggedly refuse to accept evolution because they fear it so utterly denies God that it will lead them, and their children, straight into a world of moral depravity and meaninglessness. An in-your-face atheist touting evolution, like Dawkins, is probably the last messenger they'll heed.

Dawkins will, however, be championed by many scientists, especially the most secular -- those who were galvanized by "The God Delusion" and inspired by it to take a newly confrontational approach toward America's religious majority. They will help ensure Dawkins another literary success. It's certainly valuable to have the case for evolution articulated prominently and often, but what this unending polarization around evolution and religion does for the standing of science in the U.S. is a very different matter.

It often appears as though Dawkins and his followers -- often dubbed the New Atheists, though some object to the term -- want to change the country's science community in a lasting way. They'd have scientists and defenders of reason be far more confrontational and blunt: No more coddling the faithful, no tolerating nonscientific beliefs. Scientific institutions, in their view, ought to stop putting out politic PR about science and religion being compatible.

What people like Dawkins are doing is actually intellectually dishonest for at least two reasons. First, in The God Delusion Dawkins argues that the proposition God exists is a scientifically testable claim. If so, how can he now argue that propositions about ultimate reality are not scientific? Secondly, some of the "New Atheists" confuse people about what science is by conflating the practice of science with a metaphysical position held by many atheistic scientists called materialism.

Science is a search for truth that relies on testing theories about the physical world by observing how well those hypothetical explanations conform to the empirical evidence. As such, science, ironically perhaps, can provide us reasons for thinking that the universe is in fact the product of a transcendent mind, but no matter how much we learn about the cosmos, science will never be able to conclude that God does not, or even probably does not, exist. Once a scientist starts making claims like that he's no longer doing science, he's doing metaphysics.

Scientists, qua scientists, simply cannot say that there is no Creator or that miracles are impossible. On questions like these scientists must follow Wittgenstein's dictum that "whereof we cannot speak, thereof we should be silent." Scientists assume in their day to day work that physical phenomena will have physical, natural, proximal causes just as everyone assumes that the events that occur in their everyday lives have causes that could, in principle, at least, be observed. This is called methodological or procedural materialism. It's simply the assumption that, in general, things in our experience can be expected to follow physical laws. This procedural assumption has nothing to do with whether God exists or whether metaphysical materialism is true.

Atheists, however, are metaphysical materialists. That is, they believe that matter is the fundamental reality and that nature is all there is (also called naturalism). There is no room in their worldview for a supernatural reality. Now both materialism and naturalism are incompatible with theism, so what people like Dawkins do, is conflate metaphysical materialism with methodological materialism so that the unwary reader doesn't realize that a bait and switch has occurred. In other words, they piggyback their metaphysical materialism onto science and argue that because science has shown that many phenomena have material proximal explanations that therefore there are no immaterial ultimate explanations. At this point he's no longer speaking as a scientist but as a philosopher, even though he's using his standing as a scientist to authorize his metaphysics.

It's a kind of shell game that they play, they know they're playing it, and it's fundamentally disingenuous.