Sunday, June 21, 2009

Civil War Animation

Civil War buffs will want to check out this site which features animations of all the major battles. It's often difficult to get a sense of how the warring forces maneuvered throughout an engagement from static diagrams of their positions. This site explains the troop movements in ways that show their complexity and make those movements much more clear. It's pretty cool.

Thanks to No Left Turns for the tip.


What's Needed Now

Remember back after 9/11 when then President George W. Bush tagged Iran, North Korea and Iraq as the axis of evil? Do you recall the withering scorn to which he was subjected by the left for such an improvident accusation? Well, Iraq has been neutralized but Iran and North Korea are working together to develop nuclear weapons and delivery systems and both are among the repressive regimes in the world today. In light of the news coming out of both of these countries Bush's label looks absolutely accurate and his liberal detractors look absolutely foolish, a look to which they've perhaps grown accustomed by now.

On Saturday as Iranian citizens were dying in the streets, our current president went out for ice cream. Yesterday, while Iranians were pleading for his support, he played golf. I have no problem with this, actually, and don't criticize him for it. I only wonder how the liberal wing of the media would have reacted had George Bush done likewise in similar circumstances. Keith Olbermann would have been at his snarly, snarky "Have you no shame, sir?" best. But Mr. Obama unwinds in the midst of a historic crisis and there's nothing but acceptance from the traditional left-wing media.

Anyway, enough about the left's lack of objectivity and fundamental fairness. The more important question is how should the president respond to what's happening in Iran? I understand that he doesn't want to spoil the possibility of negotiating away Iran's nuclear ambitions by offending the Iranian mullahs, but there's almost no chance that those negotiations are going to succeed with Iran any more than they have with North Korea. Nor is there any reason why he can't give a major address and lay out the moral case for why the government should stop killing its people and live up to the basic principles of democracy. Surely, Mr. Obama, of all people, can do this in a non-threatening manner without humiliating the Iranian government.

The president deserved the benefit of the doubt about his relative silence in the first few days after the election, but now that time has passed. That doesn't mean we need saber-rattling. It doesn't mean we need to move a couple of aircraft carriers into the Persian Gulf. It does mean that we need moral leadership. We need an international Martin Luther King to stand up for freedom, democracy and the right of citizens to redress grievances in the Muslim world just as Reagan did in the communist world. Islamic nations around the globe, but especially in Iran, need to hear a powerful, landmark speech in defense of basic human rights. Who better than the president of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, to provide that leadership and give that speech?

UPDATE: After completing these thoughts I came across this essay by Victor Davis Hanson in which he lists several reasons why Obama should now speak out and several possible reasons why he might not. Read it. It's excellent.


Technological Immortality and Resurrection

Mike Labossiere has an interesting post up over at Talking Philosophy in which he thinks about Ray Kurzweil's idea that in the future technology will be able not only to keep us alive indefinitely but also enable us to resurrect the dead. Here are a few excerpts from Labossiere's post with some of my comments thrown in:

Oversimplifying things, Kurzweil envisions a future in which humans will be immortal and the dead will return to life. While these are common claims in religion, Kurzweil's view is that technology will make this possible. While some describe his view as a religion, I'd prefer to use a made up word, "techion" to refer to this sort of phenomena. As I see it, a religion involves claims about supernatural entities. Kurzweil's view is purely non-supernatural, but does have most of the stock elements of religion (the promise of a utopian future, immortality, and the raising of the dead). So, it is sort of a technological religion-hence "techion."

I'd want to quibble here with Labossiere. I don't think religion needs to be supernatural at all. Pantheisms, humanisms, and ideologies of various sorts are not necessarily supernatural, but are still religious. Even so, that's not really important to the rest of the post:

In the abstract, technological immortality is quite simple: just keep repairing and replacing parts. In theory, this could be kept up until the end of time, thus granting immortality. Even with our current technology we can repair and replace parts. For example, my quadriceps tendon was recently repaired. I have friends with artificial hips and other friends who gotten tissue and organ transplants. It is easy to imagine technology progressing enough to replace or repair everything.

Technological resurrection is a bit trickier. While we can "jump start" people who have died, Kurzweil envisions something more radical. His view is that we might be able to take the DNA of dead people and rebuild them using nanobots. This, he claims, could create a new body that would be "indistinguishable from the original person." Of course, having a body that is indistinguishable from the original is hardly the same as having the original person back. It would, rather, be a case of having a twin. To recreate the person, his plan is that information about the original (such as things the person wrote and recollections of people who knew them) would be used to recreate the mind of the original.

Turning to immortality, the key question is this: would the identity of the person be preserved through the changes?

This problem is, of course, like the classic ship of Theseus problem: how much of the original can be replaced before it is no longer the same entity? Of course, it is also complicated by the fact that a person is involved and the identity of persons is a bit more complex than that of objects.

Actually this problem already exists since we are constantly replacing cells and tissue throughout our life. None of us is made of the same stuff that comprised us ten years ago. It's very difficult to say how a person in his seventies is the same person as he was when he was five.

Now, for resurrection....True resurrection, as noted above, has two key aspects. First, the original body has to be recreated. If you get a different sort of body, then you have been reincarnated.

This doesn't seem quite right, either. We don't think of butterfly metamorphosis as a kind of reincarnation, but surely the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis with a completely different sort of body than it had as a caterpillar. I don't think our resurrected bodies have to be anything like the ones we have now. They may be, but they don't have to be. (More on this tomorrow)

Second, the original person has to be restored. Locke's view on this matter is that come judgment day, God will recreate our bodies (hopefully at their prime) and place the right consciousness into each body (for Locke, the person is his or her consciousness).

Locke is right about this if we think of consciousness as somehow related to soul. (More on this tomorrow also)

Getting the original person back in the recreated body is the real challenge. Kurzweil does seem to clearly recognize that the method he envisions will not restore the original person. He seems to be right about this. After all, the method he describes relies on "public" information. That is, it depends on what information the person provided before death and what other people remember of him. This obviously leaves out everything that was not recorded or known by others. As such, it will be a partial reconstruction - a new person who is force fed the scraps of another person's life. This, obviously enough, raises some serious moral issues.

On the face of it, Kurzweil's resurrection seems to be morally appalling. That this is so can be illustrated by the following analogy. Imagine that Sally and Ivan have a son, Ted. Ted dies at 18. Sally and Ivan go through all the adoption agencies until they find a baby, Joe, that looks like Ted did. They rename Joe as Ted and then reconstruct Ted's life as closely as possible - punishing the former Joe whenever he deviates from Ted's life and rewarding him for doing what Ted did. Sally and Ivan would be robbing Joe of choice and using him as a means to an end-fulfilling their need to have Ted back. But, they have no right to do this to Joe - he is a person, not a thing to be used to recreate Ted.

The same certainly seems to hold in the situation Kurzweil envisions. To create a human being and force him to be a copy of a dead person is a horrible misuse of a person and a wicked act.

Hmmm. Why is it a wicked act? Why is it wicked to misuse people? Labossiere doesn't tell us. He just assumes we'll agree with him, but why should we? The only way misusing others is wicked is if there is a transcendent, objective moral right and wrong, but there can only be such a transcendent, objective right or wrong if there is a God. Does Labossiere believe in God? He doesn't say, but if he's going to make these kinds of moral claims, he certainly should say.

Anyway, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that although technological immortality is theoretically possible, technological resurrection is not. There's no way technology could, even in theory, recover the original person. It's dangerous to make pronouncements about what's technically possible and what isn't, I know, but a person is the totality of all one's experiences, memories, feelings, intentions, regrets, knowledge, etc. and there's no way that these, once gone, could even in theory be recovered.

Except by God.