Thursday, September 30, 2010

More on Stuxnet

DEBKAfile has a report on the panic and havoc in Iran's military-industrial complex that's apparently being caused by the Stuxnet worm. The story opens with this lede:
Tehran this week secretly appealed to a number of computer security experts in West and East Europe with offers of handsome fees for consultations on ways to exorcize the Stuxnet worm spreading havoc through the computer networks and administrative software of its most important industrial complexes and military command centers. Debkafile's intelligence and Iranian sources report Iran turned for outside help after local computer experts failed to remove the destructive virus.
None of the foreign experts has so far come forward because Tehran refuses to provide precise information on the sensitive centers and systems under attack and give the visiting specialists the locations where they would need to work. They were not told whether they would be called on to work outside Tehran or given access to affected sites to study how they function and how the malworm managed to disable them.
The Iranians seem to be desperate and helpless to stop the worm's ravages. It's not only destroying industrial machinery it's also apparently stealing classified military information. The story concludes:
While Tehran has given out several conflicting figures on the systems and networks struck by the malworm - 30,000 to 45,000 industrial units - debkafile's sources cite security experts as putting the figure much higher, in the region of millions. If this is true, then this cyber weapon attack on Iran would be the greatest ever.
This seems to me to be the international news story of the year and I'm surprised it's not getting more coverage in the press than it has.

Gliese 581G

The Washington Post has a story about the discovery of a planet orbiting a star some 20 light years from earth that seems to be about the same size as the earth and about the right distance from its star to qualify as a "Goldilocks" planet - neither too far from the star nor too close to prevent simple life forms from existing on it. From these meager facts about the planet, named Gliese 581G, some media commentators have concluded that the planet is just right for life.

This is certainly a premature claim and goes beyond what the scientists themselves are saying.

The planet hasn't actually been seen, rather its presence is inferred by detecting slight wobbles in the star it orbits. From these it is deduced that there must be a planet of a certain mass and distance from the star. Scientists deduced a few other things as well. For instance they believe the planet always has one side facing the star and one side facing away, a condition called tidal lock, which means that whatever life might exist there must be restricted to a narrow band where the lit portion fades into darkness and the temperature is not too high nor too cool.

But there's much more to being a life-sustaining planet than just having the right temperature, and it's not known whether the new planet possesses any of these other necessities. For example, in order to sustain life of any kind, much less complex life, a planet needs to have water, a stable atmosphere, plate tectonics, a large moon, and a magnetic field. It also must be shielded from radiation and incoming meteorites. It also needs to have a rich supply of available oxygen, carbon and other elements, and the star itself must have an orbit that does not take it into the galaxy's spiral arms where life would be prevented or extinguished by violent collisions and radiation.

That planets of roughly the mass of the earth exist in the habitable zone of stars is not surprising. That any would be found that would possess all the conditions necessary to allow for life to emerge and survive would be. As Ward and Brownlee conclude in their book Rare Earth the conditions for life are so many and so rare that the earth may well be the only planet in the entire universe which possesses them.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Worm Turns

The Iranian computers used in their nuclear weapons production program have been mysteriously hit by Stuxnet, a computer worm of enormous sophistication and lethal capability. New Scientist has some very helpful background on how the worm operates and why it represents a quantum leap in terms of the potential hazard.

The fact that this worm seems to be concentrated in Iran and has infected their nuclear program naturally raises a lot of questions. For instance:

Who designed this worm? It seems to require resources that only a national organization could command. Is this a strategy initiated by the U.S. or Israel to compromise the Iranian nuclear program without having to launch military strikes or is there some other player involved (Some have suggested the Chinese)? If so, will it work, and how will Iran respond? Will they launch a cyber attack against whomever turns out to be the source of the worm?

Stay tuned.

Why They're Leaving

The other day we commented on the increasing number of parents who are choosing alternatives to public education for their children. A reader writes to share his experience and why he left the public school system:
I had an experience dealing with administration shortcomings and failures in the public school setting. During my sophomore year of high school I had an issue happen where I became a personalized victim. One day after being in the wrong place at the wrong time (ironically this meant standing at my locker collecting my books before heading to the bus to go home), I was assaulted. A teenager snuck up from behind and tackled me to the ground and beat me. Thankfully I was not badly hurt other than a couple of bruises and scrapes. However, I was caught totally off guard.
Not knowing what to do past that, I went on the bus and traveled home. Of course, when I got home my parents were furious and called the administration as soon as possible trying to get this matter resolved. Unfortunately, the administration did nothing other than suspend the boy for a couple of days, pat me on the shoulder telling me it was okay, and send both of us on our ways.
However, that did not stop or change the situation. Apparently, what had happened was I was wrongly confused with another person who had turned this man (as well as a group of students) in to the administration the previous year for selling marijuana on the school grounds. Completely unaware of the reason this happened, I was flabbergasted to find out that I was the target of some of those people who were suspended. They were trying to teach me a lesson that those who snitch will get punished.
Ironically I was very quiet in high school and tried my hardest in everything to mind my own business. However, somehow I was mixed up in this problem. Eventually it got so bad that I had to pull myself out of that high school and transfer to a private, Christian school. The administration did practically nothing despite threats, warnings, and even legal action. I was left to fend for myself in a situation I had nothing to do with and had no control over. Even getting the parents involved with this matter did not resolve the problem. In the end I was forced to abandon the life I had come to know at my public school.
This sort of story saddens me because I know from personal experience that there are a lot of fine schools out there staffed by many outstanding teachers, some of whom are personal friends and relatives. Yet, one wonders how long such schools and teachers will remain in the majority and whether there's a day coming when they become the exception.

Until administrators get serious about making schools safe for their students, until they get serious about culling from their student bodies the sort of thugs and riff-raff that populate too many public school hallways and classrooms, the best and the brightest will continue their exodus. Eventually, all that will be left will be those students too poor to afford an alternative and the punks and goons who prey upon them.

Mr. Wallis Please Call Your Office

The other day we noted Jim Wallis' call for a more civil political discourse this election season. It was a call that we are firmly behind, but I think Jim's plea has fallen on deaf ears among his friends in the Democratic party. Take Florida congressman Al Grayson, for example. Grayson, an incumbent running against a Republican named Dan Webster, has sponsored what is probably the most dishonest, sleaziest political ad since the Democrats tried to connect George Bush to the murder of a black man in Texas back in the 1990s.

Here's Grayson's ad:
To see how dishonest this is compare it to what Webster actually said:
It's clear that Grayson is portraying Webster as having said exactly the opposite of what he did say. This is not the first time Mr. Grayson, one of the left-most members of congress, has used such tactics. He had earlier accused Mr. Webster of being a draft dodger when it turned out that Mr. Webster, who had served four years in an ROTC program was turned down for active duty because of a medical condition.

It would be a real shame if Grayson were reelected to office. I hope Wallis publicly takes him to task for so despicably corrupting the political debate. We'll see.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Adult Conversation

It's hard to edify the public about the issues we face when one party in a discussion insists on misrepresenting the position of the other. Take, for example, this exchange between Democrat congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Republican congressman Paul Ryan:
Congresswoman Wasserman-Shultz is actually misrepresenting Congressman Ryan's plan. He has not suggested "pulling the rug out from under seniors." What he has proposed is giving people under the age of 55 the option of investing in the stock market a part of their income that would otherwise go to Social Security. Ms Wasserman-Schultz surely knows this, but she obfuscates the truth as though she doesn't want people to hear it for fear they might like the idea.

I wonder why it is that Ms Wasserman-Schultz, and most of her Democrat allies, are appalled by the idea of giving people the option of investing their own money in ways likely to produce the greatest return. Every retirement system in the country, except Social Security, is invested in the stock market. Could it be that Democrats don't like this idea because it would mean that revenue that would otherwise be available to them to spend on, say, bailing out union pensions, would no longer be there for them?

Who do you want to have to depend on for your retirement: the stock market or a government that is so far in debt that by the time you retire it'll no longer be able to meet its obligations to retirees? Wouldn't you like to be able to decide that question for yourself? People like Ms Wasserman-Schultz don't want you to have that choice.

Wave of the Future

A lot of people are taking their children out of public schools and are frustrated enough with the local school system that their investing the time and resources into teaching their kids themselves. It's a Tea Party movement, of sorts, for education.

They're tired of apathetic teachers, crowded and rowdy classrooms where nothing much gets accomplished, unchallenging curricula, and a moral climate in the halls and cafeterias that can best be described as debauched.

They feel helpless against administrators, courts and politicians who seem unwilling or unable to do much about the problems and they figure that they can do at least as good a job as the schools are doing and provide a better environment for their child while doing it.

And their numbers are exploding:
Texas Home School Coalition, an advocacy organization, said an estimated 120,000 families statewide opted to home-school 300,000 children this school year, an increase of about 20 percent over the past five years.
About 4.5 million Texas children attend schools in the public school districts.
I've had a lot of students who were home-schooled take the college classes I teach. Many of them are still in high school, but they're taking college courses and are usually at, or near, the top of the class. I recently had one home-schooled student, still in the equivalent of high school, take three different philosophy courses from me while also at the same time studying Greek and Latin at another nearby college. My point is that home-schooled kids are often very bright and highly motivated students, and they're giving up on the government schools.

Maybe this article (also see previous post) in the Wall Street Journal on the sort of books public schools are using to try to get young boys to read gives us a hint.

I suspect that home-schooling will be the wave of the future unless the government panics and steps in to make it impractical. That's a possibility and it's another good reason to vote against candidates and parties that stand against individual freedom.

Monday, September 27, 2010

How Not to Close the Gap

Thomas Spence, in a column at the WSJ, observes that there's a growing literacy gap between boys and girls. The good news, he says, is that influential people recognize the problem. The bad news is that their solutions are just awful.
A considerable number of teachers and librarians believe that boys are simply bored by the "stuffy" literature they encounter in school. According to a revealing Associated Press story in July these experts insist that we must "meet them where they are"—that is, pander to boys' untutored tastes.
For elementary- and middle-school boys, that means "books that exploit [their] love of bodily functions and gross-out humor." AP reported that one school librarian treats her pupils to "grossology" parties. "Just get 'em reading," she counsels cheerily. "Worry about what they're reading later."
So, the solution our pedagogues have come up with to getting reluctant boys to read is to teach them to be boorish, moronic slobs. Sounds like a great plan.

Spence adds that:

Education was once understood as training for freedom. Not merely the transmission of information, education entailed the formation of manners and taste. Aristotle thought we should be raised "so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; this is the right education."
"Plato before him," writes C. S. Lewis, "had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful."
The idea that we have to cater to the young savages' penchant for the prurient is an abdication of one's role as an educator. What's next? Teaching arithmetic by counting the number of chocolate bars floating in the toilet bowl?

The problem, as you probably guessed, is that young boys spend a lot more time than girls with electronic amusements of one sort or another. The solution, Spence rather reasonably insists, is to severely curtail their access to these nefarious devices, and then ply them with good books.

I think he's right. Reading is not an enjoyable activity for many young boys. They'd rather be creating mayhem on the video screen. But just because civilizing males is not an easy task is no reason why parents and public schools should shirk the job of doing it.

Check out Spence's essay, especially if you're thinking about going into middle school or elementary ed. He makes a lot of interesting, and important, points.

Destroying Health Insurance

Throughout the debate over health care reform last winter and spring numerous critics argued that the package being voted on by the House and Senate was going to make health care more scarce and less affordable. Nancy Pelosi did little to reassure us that Congress knew what it was doing when she announced that we had to pass the bill so that we could find out what was in it (and liberals mock Christine O'Donnell for being empty-headed?).

Well, now the bill has passed and we're starting to learn what's in it, and what's in it is going to make a lot of people very unhappy. National Review focuses on just one item: child-only policies. These are policies written specifically to cover children, and they're relatively inexpensive because the policy doesn't have to cover items, like colonoscopies, prostate exams, mastectomies, etc., that children would never be expected to need.

It turns out that one of the many unintended consequences of Obamacare is that insurance companies are going to have to stop offering these policies. National Review's editors explain why:
Health-insurance giants Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Aetna, Cigna, CoventryOne, Humana, and UnitedHealthCare have stopped writing child-only policies in those jurisdictions where they are able to do so. The reason for this is obvious: Because Obamacare forces insurance companies to accept children who are already sick with pre-existing conditions on the same terms as healthy children, parents now have a strong incentive to wait until their children are sick to buy child-only policies, making the products a guaranteed money-loser for insurers, which are not in the business of guaranteeing losses to their investors and employees.
Those losses would be passed on to health-care consumers in the form of higher premiums and reduced benefits, meaning that the mandate to cover those with pre-existing conditions will function as a tax on other insurance consumers, and those who were responsible enough to buy insurance before they got sick will be punished to bail out those who were not similarly responsible.
The requirement to accept patients with pre-existing conditions essentially guarantees that a lot of people simply won't be buying insurance until they need the coverage. The insurers will have much less money coming in and much more money going out. There's no way a company can survive such mandates, which may actually be President Obama's plan. One way to achieve his goal of having a single-payer system where the government is the single-payer is to drive insurance companies out of business, and one way to do that is to make their coverage so expensive that fewer and fewer Americans can afford it.

If that's not his deliberate plan it is nevertheless what his plan may well achieve.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Are We A Simulation?

A post by Nullasalus at Telic Thoughts caused me to reflect on what I think is an interesting development in the battle over Intelligent Design as an explanation for both the highly ordered precision of the universe and the complexity of living things.

There seems to be a growing tendency among naturalists to tacitly acknowledge that the universe is quite probably designed by an intelligent agent of some sort even as they refuse to consider any non-natural agent as the designer. We talked last week about John Gribbin's hypothesis that the universe was designed by super-intelligent beings like ourselves, only much more advanced, living in some other universe.

Nullasalus also jogs our memory of a proposal by Nick Bostrom, made about a decade ago, that we are actually living in a computer simulated world designed by a civilization that has evolved from us. This civilization has an enormous amount of technological power at its disposal and has chosen to construct a simulation of its evolutionary past. Since we are part of that past, even though we seem to be real we're really just a sophisticated form of Sim City.

The world that we inhabit, according to this theory, is not real. It's like the Matrix designed by beings living in the future, our descendents. Bostrom, believe it or not, actually constructs a pretty interesting argument for this belief and claims that it's much more likely that we really are a sim than that we're not.

Whatever the case, I have three thoughts:

1) As I said in the post on Gribbin I find it amusing the lengths to which naturalists will stretch their imaginations in order to avoid having to say that maybe a God did design the world after all.

2) It also seems that given the expanding number of potential naturalistic designers it's time to tow the old clunker of an argument that ID is a necessarily religious hypothesis, a gussied up version of creationism, out to the junkyard of broken down ideas.

3) I have no problem with the notion that we are living in a simulation and in fact wrote a post suggesting something somewhat similar to this about four years ago. The difference between what Bostrom and I imagine, however, is pretty stark. It's the difference, really, between naturalism and theism.

Check it out.

Can't We All Just Talk Nice

Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine recently issued a plea for civil discourse in the upcoming election season.
Let’s try it. For the next six weeks before the election, let’s focus on truth and civility.
Why? Because it’s getting worse. With the campaign season in full swing, the level of our public discourse has hit new lows. From politicians to commentators, I keep hearing the same thing, “We’ve never seen it get this bad.” And some of them are clearly helping to make things worse.
Except for the part about it never having been this bad before - it was much worse, in my opinion, when George Bush was president, and Barack Obama hasn't been subjected to anything close to the horrendous treatment dished out to Bush or to Sarah Palin in the last campaign and its aftermath - I totally support what Wallis is asking for. Our public discourse is often abominable and degrading.

As an example here's Ed Shultz, one of MSNBC's stable of liberal talk show hosts, who doesn't seem to have gotten Wallis' memo. Shultz is referring to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in this video. The relevant portion starts at the 2:00 minute mark:
Wow, that was a persuasive argument Ed made there, don't you think? I was feeling pretty good about Christie until I heard Ed's analysis of what's wrong with him. Now that I know that Christie's just a "cold-hearted fat slob" I've changed my mind completely about the Governor. Now I want him to run for president in 2012 instead of 2016.

Seriously, personal insults, misrepresentations of opponents' positions, and baseless accusations of malicious motives, should have no place in our public discourse. We should be better people than this. Let's show each other some respect, especially when we disagree.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Saved by Camus?

Rob Moll at Christianity Today recounts some of the influences that led him as a college senior back to the faith of his childhood. Surely the most unlikely of the influences Moll discusses was his reading of Albert Camus' novel The Plague. I say this is unlikely since Camus was an atheist and the hero of The Plague is also an atheist. Indeed, the only Christian in the novel, a Father Paneloux, is something of a buffoon.

Anyway, here's the heart of Moll's account:
[T]he biggest influence on my spiritual journey was the novels and philosophy of Albert Camus, a French existentialist of the 1940s and '50s—and an atheist. C. S. Lewis warned, "A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading." Camus should have been safe territory for me, but as I like to say now, I was saved by an atheist....
The world, as Camus found it, is absurd. Humans yearn for meaning, yet life offers none. God is absent. But Camus argued against the nihilism of his fellow Europeans who found life meaningless and therefore flocked to totalitarian, fascist, or communist philosophies. "I don't know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it," Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, his argument against suicide. "But I know that I do not know that meaning." Rather than take a leap of faith, Camus sought to "know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone."
He illustrated his philosophy of creating meaning in the face of meaninglessness in the novel The Plague. When the city of Oran is struck by disease, officials quarantine the city. The main character, the physician Rieux, chooses to stay, throwing himself into caring for the sick. This is how one creates meaning amid the meaninglessness of the sudden outbreak of plague. And life is no different, Camus believed. We are to work against wrongs and injustice, with humility, trying to aid others in small ways.
Rieux....realized that "I, anyhow, had had plague through all those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I'd believed ... I was fighting it." Not only that: "I have realized that we all have plague."
Camus was right, and I, too, had plague. I was sick and in need of a Physician. Camus' willingness to accept the truth that humans are fallen allowed me to do the same. Camus held a mirror to my face—in a way that no pastor, preacher, or professor had—and I knew I needed salvation.
There's much more in the essay that makes it worth taking five or six minutes to read. Indeed, there's much in others of Camus' works that's worth reading, not just in The Plague but also in his other famous novel The Stranger. Camus doesn't shrink from portraying the awful emptiness of a life lived in the absence of God. To repeat Lewis' words, "A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading."

Disincentives to Crime

Caleb passes along a report released by the NRA based on recently released FBI crime statistics. The report points out that over the last two decades violent crime has been decreasing as private gun sales have been increasing. I think we have to be careful about drawing a cause and effect relationship, though all the trends are certainly suggestive of one, but we need not be coy about declaring that predictions that more guns would result in greater crime rates have been pretty much discredited.

The NRA summarizes their report in this paragraph:
Coinciding with a surge in gun purchases that began shortly before the 2008 elections, violent crime decreased six percent between 2008 and 2009, including an eight percent decrease in murder and a nine percent decrease in robbery. Since 1991, when violent crime peaked, it has decreased 43 percent to a 35-year low. Murder has fallen 49 percent to a 45-year low. At the same time, the number of guns that Americans own has risen by about 90 million.
Predictions by gun control supporters, that increasing the number of guns, particularly handguns and so-called “assault weapons,” would cause crime to increase, have been proven profoundly lacking in clairvoyance.
Documentation is provided at the link. Perhaps criminals perform a subconscious calculation, pondering the chances that an intended victim may be armed and proceeding accordingly. As gun ownership has increased, the likelihood of encountering an armed victim increases apace, and the thug's crude cost-benefit analysis weighs heavily against an assault.

This stands to reason, especially in crimes like rape or robbery. If most potential robbers thought their intended victim was likely to produce a weapon instead of a wallet it could make the crime decidedly unprofitable and just not worth the risk.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Parting the Sea

There's a new theory among some scientists as to what may have happened during the events surrounding the Israelites' flight from Egypt. The book of Exodus records that the Israelites were pinned against the sea as the Egyptian military pursued them. It appeared as if there was no escape, but then, the record shows, the sea parted as a result of a strong wind, and the Israelites were able to cross over to the other side. The 14th chapter of Exodus says: "And the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided."

When the Egyptians tried to follow them the next day the winds abated and the waters flooded back over them, drowning many of their number.

This video is an animation of what the latest theory proposes. The site of the crossing is at what is called the Sea of Reeds, and it would have taken a wind of about 60 miles per hour to drive the water back:
There's more on this hypothesis in a summary at New Scientist, which is pretty interesting despite the gratuitously dismissive tone of the author's passing reference to the possibility that God was somehow involved.

"Shut Up," They Explained

Apparently the notion that knowledge is best advanced by encouraging a free exchange of ideas by men and women dispassionately engaged in the quest for truth has become obsolete in countries other than just the United States. Christopher Booker recounts his experience at a conclave of French scientists several months ago in which the scientists recounted the personal and professional price they've had to pay for dissenting from orthodox Darwinism. Booker writes about it at Deccan Chronicle and opens with this lede:
Three months ago I spent a fascinating few days in a villa opposite Cap Ferrat, France, taking part in a seminar with a dozen very bright scientists, some world authorities in their field. Although most had never met before, they had two things in common. Each had come to question one of the most universally accepted scientific orthodoxies of our age: the Darwinian belief that life on earth evolved simply through the changes brought about by an infinite series of minute variations.
The other was that, on arriving at these conclusions, they had come up against a wall of hostility from the scientific establishment. Even to raise such questions was just not permissible. One had been fired as editor of a major scientific journal because he dared publish a paper sceptical of Darwin’s theory. Another had not yet worked out how to admit his scepticism to his fellow academics for fear that he too might lose his post.
The typical mode of academic disagreement on the left (the people who act this way are almost always ideological leftists), whether the issue at stake is Darwinism, global warming, or whatever is not to calmly reply to the dissenters with arguments and evidence to show how they are mistaken. It is rather to avoid engaging them with arguments at all and instead to punish them, vilify them, and portray them as scientific lepers. Here's Booker:
[N]othing better reveals the hole at the heart of their belief system than the fanaticism with which they turn on anyone who dares question the assumption on which it rests, who must be anathematised with all the venom once turned on heretics by the churches.
But the response of the Darwinians has not been to debate these very serious questions but simply to scorn them, caricaturing anyone who raises them as a “neo-Creationist”, no different to those zealots who take Genesis as literally true.
There's more in Booker's column that's worth reading, especially in his last couple paragraphs, but there's something happening here that's not good for science and the cause of Truth. The left is trying to use science as a Trojan horse for smuggling into the culture a naturalist, materialist worldview that they want hardened into a dogma that will brook no challenge. They are totalitarians of the mind, seeking to impose a tyranny of uniform thought on a society that largely has no idea what's happening. They are contemporary Torquemadas, and the more they succeed the less free all of us will be to say, think, and believe what we wish.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Liberal Lexicon

In the wake of the upset of Delaware congressman Mike Castle by Tea-Party endorsed Christine O'Donnell who thus won the right to run for the U.S. Senate seat formerly occupied by Joe Biden, there's been a lot of liberal wailing and teeth-gnashing. Many hands have been wrung, for example, over "fears" that there's no longer any room in the GOP for "moderates" and "alarm" that "extremists" are taking over the Republican party.

In light of how frequently words like these are bandied about among the lefties it might be helpful to define exactly what is usually meant by them. It's not what you think.

You might assume, for instance, that a "moderate" is someone who votes liberal and conservative with approximately equal frequency, but you would be mistaken. You might also think that an "extremist" is someone lurking on the fringes of society, whose views are so far out of the mainstream as to reasonably be considered weird. Again, you'd be wrong. This is what the left wants you to think when you hear these words, of course, but it's not how they use them.

The real definition of "moderate" as it is often employed by liberal pundits in today's political discourse is this: "Any Congressperson or Senator who votes with the Democrats when the vote matters and votes with the Republicans when it doesn't."

Thus Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, Colin Powell (although he's not a Congressman), and Mike Castle are all regularly referred to as moderates, while Christine O'Donnell, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Jan Brewer, Sharon Angle, and Glenn Beck (another non-politician) are called extremists. (Hmmmm, do liberals have something against women?)

The liberal definition of "extremist" is equally exotic. A political extremist is: "A Republican (There are no Democrat extremists) who opposes the policies of the Democrats."

In other words, in the liberal worldview there are no Democrats who are extremists and no genuine Republicans who aren't. It's certainly strange that according to the liberal lexicon views held by over 70% of Americans get you labeled as an extremist if you happen to share them.

Bravo, Mr. Jones

I don't know exactly what this father said, and maybe he went too far, but I admire him. His daughter, who has cerebral palsy, was afraid to get on the bus because on previous occasions she'd been tormented by the riff-raff that rides it with her. The dad apparently did what any father who cares about his daughter would want to do, which is to come within a whisker of knocking a couple of those punks silly. He also, apparently, had some bracing words for the bus driver who'd done nothing to stop the harassment of his daughter.
I know we should eschew violence, and there were doubtless innocent kids on that bus who were terrified by Mr. Jones' angry rant, but sometimes, like when your child is the victim of malicious bullying, I think turning the other cheek is just not the loving thing to do. Sometimes what a young miscreant needs most is a strategically delivered boot, and for my part, I wish there were more fathers like Mr. Jones (and fewer mothers like the one in the video). If there were there might be fewer young thugs plaguing society and pushing young girls into contemplating suicide.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Atheists Can Be IDers, Too

Adversaries of the view that the universe shows evidence of having been intelligently designed (ID) have been successful in keeping ID out of public schools because they've managed to persuade school boards and school administrators that ID is a fundamentally religious hypothesis. Since ID entails the existence of a designer, and since that designer has to be God, ID must be religious, or so the argument goes.

It's a philosophically bogus argument, but educators, unfortunately, are often too philosophically naive to see the problems with it (For starters, there's no reason, as you will see below, why the designer must be God).

Even so, atheist physicist John Gribbin has apparently made the ID opponents' case even less persuasive than it was previously. Gribbin offers us this hypothesis:
[I]s our universe a designer universe? By this, I do not mean a God figure, an "intelligent designer" monitoring and shaping all aspects of life. Evolution by natural selection, and all the other processes that produced our planet and the life on it, are sufficient to explain how we got to be the way we are, given the laws of physics that operate in our universe.
However, there is still scope for an intelligent designer of universes as a whole. Modern physics suggests that our universe is one of many, part of a "multiverse" where different regions of space and time may have different properties (the strength of gravity may be stronger in some and weaker in others). If our universe was made by a technologically advanced civilisation in another part of the multiverse, the designer may have been responsible for the Big Bang, but nothing more.
There are a couple of things to say about this. First, a designer that is only responsible for the Big Bang is not really a designer, it's just an initiating force and there's no reason to think it intelligent. Second, it's not just the origin of the universe that needs to be explained as I discuss in the previous post (This Too shall Pass).

In any event, Gribbin goes on to describe how a non-theistic intelligent designer might have operated and then adds this:
This might sound far-fetched, but the startling thing about this theory is how likely it is to happen – and to have happened already. All that is required is that evolution occurs naturally in the multiverse until, in at least one universe, intelligence reaches roughly our level. From that seed point, intelligent designers create enough universes suitable for evolution, which bud off their own universes, that universes like our own (in other words, suitable for intelligent life) proliferate rapidly, with "unintelligent" universes coming to represent a tiny fraction of the whole multiverse. It therefore becomes overwhelmingly likely that any given universe, our own included, would be designed rather than "natural".
While the intelligence required to do the job may be (slightly) superior to ours, it is of a kind that is recognisably similar to our own, rather than that of an infinite and incomprehensible God.
Note what Professor Gribbin is tacitly admitting: Our universe shows evidence of having been intelligently designed. In fact, the evidence is so strong, apparently, that Professor Gribbin is prepared to acknowledge that there is a designer behind it as long as the designer isn't God.

Moreover, this argument inadvertently opens the door for two consequences that would horrify Professor Gribbin and his fellow atheists if he realized what he was doing.

First, as I indicated above, he undercuts the argument of ID opponents against teaching ID in public schools. That argument is based largely on the allegedly religious nature of ID which, it is often falsely asserted, entails the existence of God as the designer. Gribbins' argument, though, explicitly claims that the universe is designed and that the designers are creatures much like ourselves. Since a scientist like Gribbin is admitting the possibility that the designer is not a deity, it simply cannot be said that ID is inherently a religious theory.

Second, any argument which invokes the multiverse in order to increase the probabilities of a life-sustaining universe existing by chance without the need for God is actually self-defeating. Here's why: If there really are an infinity of different universes, as the multiverse hypothesis suggests, then there must be an infinity of worlds capable of sustaining life. As long as the probability of one of these worlds being created by a transcendent intelligent agent (TIA) is greater than zero then, given an infinity of such worlds, one of them must have been created by a TIA and therefore such an agent must exist. Thus, so far from providing the naturalist with an escape from the conclusion that there is a TIA, the multiverse, if such there be, actually guarantees the existence of one. Furthermore, if ID opponents wish to stick with their claim that a cosmic designer must be God then surely God must exist.

This is certainly not the result that the atheists were hoping to achieve by touting the multiverse as a way of making our highly improbable universe inevitable without having to invoke a deity to explain it.

Anyway, as I read Gribbins' article I was struck by how far into the realm of the fantastical atheists are willing to burrow in order to find a theory that will allow them to explain the exquisite design of the universe without having to attribute it to the extraordinarily powerful, intelligent and personal mind of God.

Thanks to Telic Thoughts for the tip.

Monday, September 20, 2010

This Too Shall Pass

Stephen Hawking's new book, The Grand Design, is receiving a lot of attention, even though there's nothing really new about his claim that the universe is self-creating. That idea has been around since the ancient Greeks and received a big boost from the French philosophes in the 18th century. The nub of it, essentially, is that once the universe got started it pretty much unfolded in a deterministic, inevitable way and we don't need to posit God to explain any of it, not even as a first cause. The universe, modern cosmologists like Hawking tell us, could have simply caused itself.

Well, maybe, but beyond seeming counter-intuitive, to say the least, this idea has another problem that I think can be illustrated by comparing the universe to a Rube Goldberg machine that's set in motion by a single falling domino. The materialist wants to say that that first domino could have been knocked over by some pre-existing impersonal force, like wind, setting off the whole grand system. There's no need to say that "God did it."

Perhaps, but even if we set aside the problem of where the pre-existing force came from, or what it acted upon, or how it acted, there's another very serious problem in accounting for the complex precision of the machine itself. Watch this (Turn your sound on):
It's not hard to imagine the domino falling by some accident without the intelligent agent knocking it over with the toy car. What is hard to imagine, though, is this system constructing itself, not out of the parts we see but out of raw energy, and then arranging those parts to do precisely what it does purely through impersonal, purposeless accident, without any input from an intelligent agent.

This machine was designed by the engineers who are seen in the video standing on the platform overlooking their creation. It may seem superficially to be able to run it's course without their intervention, but not really. Their intervention came in the planning, design, and construction of the apparatus. Without them it never would have existed.

I wonder if Stephen Hawking has ever watched this video of This Too Shall Pass. He should. It sounds like an appropriate title for an assessment of attempts to do away with the need for God.


When I think of movies that illustrate well the existential predicament of modern man, a couple come to mind. I think of the emptiness and sordidness of contemporary life portrayed in American Beauty, or the absurdity of life reflected in A Serious Man. And, henceforth, I'll think of a 2008 film I saw for the first time this weekend which stunningly captures all of these elements - emptiness, sordidness, and absurdity. The movie is Synecdoche, New York featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the pathetic playwright Caden Cotard.

I'm not recommending the film, even though I wish I could, because it's R-rated, and although there's no violence, there's plenty of other unfortunate stuff in it that makes it inappropriate, especially for younger viewers. Nevertheless, there are few films which present to their audience in starker accents what I believe is this movie's chief message: Life without God is a pretty pointless and joyless affair.

Cotard spends fifty years of his life trying to fill the emptiness of his miserable existence with sex and his art, but none of it is fulfilling. His wife, an artist herself, leaves him early on, taking their daughter with her to Europe. Cotard then tries to replace the emotional loss with a series of implausible sexual relationships - implausible given the attractiveness of the women drawn to this very unattractive loser.

He wants to produce an autobiographical play, but because his life keeps dragging on he never gets the play completed. Fifty years later he's still conducting rehearsals. In the meantime he's beset with a series of physical ailments that range from the bizarre to the disgusting and a series of emotional calamities that make his life agonizingly sad.

The story is mesmerizing, and the viewer can't help but feel pity for Cotard, played magnificently by Hoffman, as he endures one blow after another. Throughout the film the message that comes through, whether intentionally or not, is that modern, secular man is lost in space, to borrow Walker Percy's phrase. He's alienated from everything and everyone around him, he's all alone, forlorn, and his life is empty, paltry, pointless, sleazy and absurd. Cotard keeps plodding resolutely, even bravely, on but the only progress he makes is toward the senescence of old age, and then his life ends. None of his relationships, none of what he has striven to accomplish, amount to anything. Cotard's life serves as an artfully crafted synecdoche for human existence in the age of metaphysical naturalism.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Explaining Naturalism (Pt. III)

This is the third and final installment in our series of reflections on Alex Rosenberg's essay entitled The Disillusioned Naturalist's Guide to Reality. Parts I and II can be found here and here. In this section Rosenberg argues that naturalism (actually materialism) entails that there is no need to posit the existence of a mind distinct from the brain. Mind is simply a word we use to describe the functioning of the brain, just as we use the word digestion to describe the functioning of the stomach.

This claim has some interesting consequences. If all we are is matter and the matter that makes us up is constantly changing, it follows that there is nothing about us that stays the same over time. In the final analysis human beings are reducible to little more than a constantly shifting and changing bundle of perceptions. Here's Rosenberg:
Nevertheless, if the mind is the brain (and scientism can’t allow that it is anything else), we have to stop taking consciousness seriously as a source of knowledge or understanding about the mind, or the behavior the brain produces. And we have to stop taking our selves seriously too. We have to realize that there is no self, soul or enduring agent, no subject of the first-person pronoun, tracking its interior life while it also tracks much of what is going on around us. This self cannot be the whole body, or its brain, and there is no part of either that qualifies for being the self by way of numerical-identity over time.
There seems to be only one way we make sense of the person whose identity endures over time and over bodily change. This way is by positing a concrete but non-spatial entity with a point of view somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears in the middle of our heads. Since physics has excluded the existence of anything concrete but non-spatial, and since physics fixes all the facts, we have to give up this last illusion consciousness foists on us.
What are the consequences of denying that there is an enduring self? One is surely the bizarre conclusion that we cannot be said to be the same person today that we were ten years ago. If we are in constant flux then we are different from the individual who went by our name in the past. Now, if this is true it would be unjust to be held responsible for anything that other person did. In the same way that it would be unjust to expect you to keep the promises made by another person, it would be unjust to expect me to keep promises made years ago by a person who had my same name. Marriage vows, for one example, would become worthless once people realized that it wasn't they who made them.

Furthermore, it would be unjust to punish criminals for a crime committed years ago because the person we're punishing is not the same person who committed the crime. For those of you familiar with the movie, we might ask this question: Is Jason Bourne responsible for that couple he killed in the Bourne Identity if he has no memory of killing them? Was it really he who killed them? Rosenberg would be hard pressed to explain how it would have been.

T.S. Eliot puts it like this: "What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since every meeting we are meeting a stranger."

This seems absurd, to be sure, but it is another of the consequences of naturalism that Rosenberg wants his fellow atheists to recognize and acknowledge. Little wonder that so many atheists are unwilling to stay with him on the atheism train all the way to it's logical endpoint. They can see that the tracks terminate at a precipice and that the train is going to hurtle over a cliff into the abyss of nihilism and so, still clutching their atheism, they jump off before it gets there.

This is, of course, irrational, but perhaps the most irrational thing they do after having jumped off the train, after having made a completely arbitrary, unwarranted, and irrational leap in order to avoid going over the cliff of their logic, they turn and point to the Christian (or other theist), whose worldview entails none of these problems, and tell them that it is they who have abandoned reason because they chose not to take the train at all.

One can only smile and shake one's head.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Telling it Straight

For those readers who've not yet heard of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, or who've heard of him but don't know why he's considered a rising star in the Republican party, I invite you to watch this video of Christie responding to claims by New Jersey teachers that plans to curtail their pension benefits are having a deleterious effect on the morale of students in the classroom:
It's so refreshing to hear a politician talk like this. Most pols are terrified of the possibility that they might offend a major special interest and thus look for ways to appease them. Christie just doesn't care. He says he's not interested in the presidency, but at the rate he's going he'd be a frontrunner for the nomination in 2012 or 2016 if he did want it. He's turned into something of an icon among conservatives.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

All Things Considered

In all of the sturm und drang over the Christine O'Donnell win over Mike Castle in the Delaware GOP primary I wonder if anyone has mentioned perhaps the strongest reason not to have voted for the very liberal Mr. Castle.

People have noted that Mr. Castle is a credible threat to bolt the party once he got elected, but suppose his victory had given the Republicans 51 seats and thus the majority. He wouldn't have to defect to the Democrats in order to render the Republican advantage useless. All he'd have to do would be to threaten it, and he'd be holding the whole GOP caucus hostage to the Democrats' progressive agenda, an agenda which he largely supports.

The mere threat to switch parties, an act which would result in the Republicans losing their majority, and thus control, of the Senate would be enough to frighten his GOP colleagues into compromising and dithering where compromise and dithering were not necessary. What then would Republicans have accomplished by electing him to the Senate?

Christine O'Donnell has some ethical problems (although it's not clear how serious they are), but in an election like last Tuesday's what Republican voters need to ask is which candidate's votes in the Senate would be worse for the country? Here's a thought experiment for conservatives: Suppose Bill Clinton, a moderate-liberal with a lot of well-documented ethical shortcomings, were running against Barack Obama, a far-left radical, for the United States Senate. Which man should you vote for? I can't imagine any conservative answering that they would vote for Obama even if it were more likely that his election would produce a favorable majority in the Senate.

O'Donnell has nothing like the ethical baggage of Clinton, and she's more conservative. Mike Castle is pretty much an older version of Obama, at least in terms of his votes in Congress.

All things considered, it seems to me that Delaware Republicans made the right choice.

The Case for Traditional Marriage

The editors at National Review make an excellent argument in favor of maintaining the traditional view of marriage and rejecting the arguments proffered on behalf of same-sex marriage. Here's an excerpt:
Both the fact that we are debating same-sex marriage and the way that debate has progressed suggest that many of us have lost sight of why marriage exists in the first place as a social institution and a matter of public policy. One prominent supporter of same-sex marriage says that the purpose of marriage is to express and safeguard an emotional union of adults; another says that its purpose is to make it more likely that people will have others to give them care in sickness and old age.
So at the risk of awkwardness, we must talk about the facts of life. It is true that marriage is, in part, an emotional union, and it is also true that spouses often take care of each other and thereby reduce the caregiving burden on other people. But neither of these truths is the fundamental reason for marriage.
The reason marriage exists is that the sexual intercourse of men and women regularly produces children. If it did not produce children, neither society nor the government would have much reason, let alone a valid reason, to regulate people’s emotional unions. (The government does not regulate non-marital friendships, no matter how intense they are.) If mutual caregiving were the purpose of marriage, there would be no reason to exclude adult incestuous unions from marriage. What the institution and policy of marriage aims to regulate is sex, not love or commitment.
If you're chary of same-sex marriage but not sure how to best respond to those of your friends who challenge you on the issue, this article is a must-read.

Hey, Let's Make 'em Vote

The Daily Beast's Peter Beinart offers a typically liberal solution to the problem of voter apathy: Compulsory voting. Pass a law that would require everyone to submit a ballot every election. With compulsory voting, Beinart argues, the Democratic base, normally torpid during mid-term elections, would be compelled to vote for whomever their political overseers instruct them to support, and we wouldn't be getting all these right-wing extremists winning elections. It would increase civic involvement, and given the edge enjoyed by Democrats in voter registration, ensure Democratic hegemony until, well, until the eschaton.

Great idea. Force people to vote. More state coercion. Less individual freedom. More corruption of the election process. More people voting who haven't a clue whom they're voting for or why. This is an idea to make a liberal's heart thrum with excitement and make everyone else wonder how a guy like this gets anyone to read him.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Internecine Squabble

Conservative pundits are all atwitter at the rift that has opened in the movement between those who are angry that Christine O'Donnell has won the Republican primary for the senate seat of Joe Biden in Delaware and those who think it's outrageous that so many are pummeling a fellow conservative selected by the people.

The former group argues that the candidate she defeated, a notorious liberal named Mike Castle, was a shoo-in to win the November election, and that O'Donnell, because she has a history of difficulties in her personal finances (who hasn't?) is an almost certain loser. Thus people like Karl Rove, Charles Krauthammer, and The Weekly Standard folks, among others, are angry that GOP voters have diminished their chances of wresting control of the Senate from Harry Reid's Democrats in November by nominating a weak candidate.

The latter group, comprised of people like Michelle Malkin, Sarah Palin and most of the conservative radio talkers argue that whether O'Donnell wins or loses in November, it's time conservatives stopped basing their vote on political expediency and started basing it on principle. It's time to send the good ol' boys at the top of the party that the country doesn't need or want any more RINOs (Republican In Name Only) like Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, or Susan Collins.

I'm with the latter group, but not just for the reason stated above. I think O'Donnell can win, I think she's basically a good person who made some bad judgments, and I think her ethical difficulties are less serious than those of the average Democrat in Congress (e.g. Charlie Rangel, Harry Reid, Dianne Feinstein, Al Franken, Maxine Waters, et multi alia). And there's one other thing that I haven't heard many commentators mention: If Mike Castle were elected to the Senate it would not necessarily help Republicans gain control of that body because Castle's ideological home is on the Left. There's a very good chance that he would succumb to efforts to persuade him to jump parties, like Arlen Specter and Jim Jeffords did, and then all that the GOP would have accomplished would be the election of one more liberal Democratic senator.

It's time for Castle's GOP backers to realize that the chances Castle would bolt the party once elected are at least as good as the probability that O'Donnell will lose in November. I'd prefer to take my chances on an O'Donnell win than on Mike Castle staying in the GOP and voting for all of the Democratic party's agenda.

Explaining Naturalism (Pt. II)

This post is Part II (See Part I below) of our look at Alex Rosenberg's paper titled A Disillusioned Naturalist's Guide to Reality. In this section Rosenberg considers whether the universe and life reflect a purposeful design. In other words, is there any purpose to either the cosmos or to human existence? Rosenberg's answer is, no:
[A]ll of the beautiful suitability of living things to their environment, every case of fit between organism and niche, and all of the intricate meshing of parts into wholes, is just the result of blind causal processes. It’s all just the foresightless play of fermions and bosons producing, in us conspiracy-theorists, the illusion of purpose.
He goes on to tackle the question whether morality can exist in a naturalistic world. He titles the section, Nice Nihilism: The Bad News About Morality and The Good News. I quote from it at length because it's unusual to find such an explicit statement of the consequences for morality entailed by atheistic naturalism:
If there is no purpose to life in general, biological or human for that matter, the question arises whether there is meaning in our individual lives, and if it is not there already, whether we can put it there. One source of meaning on which many have relied is the intrinsic value, in particular the moral value, of human life. People have also sought moral rules, codes, principles which are supposed to distinguish us from merely biological critters whose lives lack (as much) meaning or value (as ours). Besides morality as a source of meaning, value, or purpose, people have looked to consciousness, introspection, self-knowledge as a source of insight into what makes us more than the merely physical facts about us. Scientism must reject all of these straws that people have grasped, and it’s not hard to show why. Science has to be nihilistic about ethics and morality.
There is no room in a world where all the facts are fixed by physical facts for a set of free floating independently existing norms or values (or facts about them) that humans are uniquely equipped to discern and act upon. So, if scientism is to ground the core morality that every one (save some psychopaths and sociopaths) endorses, as the right morality, it’s going to face a serious explanatory problem. The only way all or most normal humans could have come to share a core morality is through selection on alternative moral codes or systems, a process that resulted in just one winning the evolutionary struggle and becoming “fixed” in the population.
If our universally shared moral core were both the one selected for and also the right moral core, then the correlation of being right and being selected for couldn’t be a coincidence. Scientism doesn’t tolerate cosmic coincidences. Either our core morality is an adaptation because it is the right core morality or it’s the right core morality because it’s an adaptation, or it’s not right, but only feels right to us. It’s easy to show that neither of the first two alternatives is right. Just because there is strong selection for a moral norm is no reason to think it right.
All this should be pretty disturbing to those atheists who want to hold on to moral obligation while denying any transcendent ground for it. It's also precisely correct given Rosenberg's atheistic starting point.

Thus far Rosenberg has drawn the proper conclusions from his naturalism, but then he says something odd. Having denied any ground for distinguishing between right and wrong, he says this:
This nihilistic blow is cushioned by the realization that Darwinian processes operating on our forbearers in the main selected for niceness! The core morality of cooperation, reciprocity and even altruism that was selected for in the environment of hunter-gatherers and early agrarians, continues to dominate our lives and social institutions. We may hope the environment of modern humans has not become different enough eventually to select against niceness. But we can’t invest our moral core with more meaning than this: it was a convenience, not for us as individuals, but for our genes. There is no meaning to be found in that conclusion.
What does Rosenberg mean here by imposing a value on niceness, cooperation, and altruism? Would someone who was not nice or cooperative be wrong? A naturalist like Rosenberg cannot say he would, nor do I think he would try to say that. Such judgments of moral value are completely unwarranted on naturalism except as expressions of personal taste.

Even more problematic is his claim that evolution has selected "in the main" for niceness, etc. I don't think this is true at all. Certainly this claim runs counter to human experience. There's just as much meanness and cruelty in the world as there is niceness. That being the case, evolution must have selected at least as much for meanness as for niceness, and an atheistic naturalist simply has no grounds for saying that one is right and the other is wrong. The most he can say is that he likes one more than he likes the other, but right and wrong are not established by our likes and dislikes.

More later.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Explaining Naturalism (Pt. I)

Alex Rosenberg is an atheistic naturalist [One who holds that nature is all there is, there is no supernature] who seeks in this essay to provide an overview of what it is that naturalists believe. He begins with this preface:
This is a précis of an argument that naturalism forces upon us a very disillusioned “take” on reality. It is one that most naturalists have sought to avoid, or at least qualify, reinterpret, or recast to avoid its harshest conclusions about the meaning of life, the nature of morality, the significance of our consciousness self-awareness, and the limits of human self-understanding.
Rosenberg wishes to draw "the full conclusion from a consistently atheistic position," as Sartre put it in describing existentialism. He will have none of the namby-pamby naturalism of those atheists, like Hitchens and Dawkins, who think they can reject God and still cling to belief that life is meaningful, that morality exists, and that truth can be known. Rosenberg's is a full-blooded naturalism that recognizes that all of those things are contingent upon the existence of a transcendent moral authority. Rosenberg's essay is a call to his fellow atheists to "man-up" and disabuse themselves of their comfortable illusions. No God, he avers, means no genuine meaning to life, no non-arbitrary morality, and no objective truth.

He divides his essay into eight topics, some of which will be addressed here at Viewpoint over the next couple of days. His first topic is headed, Why Leave Life’s Persistent Questions to Guy Noir? and is an explication of "scientism," a term that is in some disrepute but which Rosenberg wants to resuscitate. Here's an excerpt:
We all lie awake some nights asking questions about the universe, its meaning, our place in it, the meaning of life, and our lives, who we are, what we should do, as well as questions about god, free will, morality, mortality, the mind, emotions, love. These worries are a luxury compared to the ones most people on Earth address. But they are persistent. And yet they all have simple answers, ones we can pretty well read off from science....Scientism is my label for what any one who takes science seriously should believe, and scientistic is just an in-your face adjective for accepting science’s description of the nature of reality. You don’t have to be a scientist to be scientistic.
Scientism is the view that answers to all important questions can be provided through scientific investigation. This is because everything that exists is simply some combination of matter and energy [This is a view called materialism]. Since science investigates matter and energy it will eventually find the answers to all our questions. If one embraces naturalism [the belief that nature is all there is] then one is likely also to embrace scientism.
Rosenberg's claim here that science can answer all the important questions is surely wrong. It can't, for example, answer the question whether we have a soul, whether there's life after death, whether altruism is morally superior to selfishness, whether God exists, or a host of other very important matters about which human beings frequently wonder. At least, it can't give answers to those questions which are any more authoritative than are, say, the answers provided by religion or philosophy.

In the next topic, titled The Nature Of Reality? Just Ask Physics Rosenberg gives a pretty clear statement of what materialists believe about the world:
What is the world really like? It’s fermions and bosons [subatomic particles], and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them. All the facts about fermions and bosons determine or “fix” all the other facts about reality and what exists in this universe or any other if ... there are other ones.
Ideas have consequences. If Rosenberg is right in saying that all that exists is matter, energy and the forces between them then several conclusions inevitably follow. Those conclusions are the topic of the remaining sections of his paper. We'll reflect upon them over the next several days.

The End of the Revolution?

Camille Paglia is as ardent an advocate of the sexual revolution as you're likely to find this side of the Playboy mansion so when she talks about the revolution's demise it catches one's eye. In the U.K. Sunday Times Paglia points to the exotic and beguiling Lady Gaga as exhibit A in her case that the social revolution in sexual mores which began after WWII has run its course. I'm not nearly as educated on these matters as is Ms Paglia, but nevertheless I'm not so sure that Western society could be so fortunate. In any event, here's a bit of what Paglia has to say about Ms Gaga:
Can it be that Gaga represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution? In Gaga’s manic miming of persona after persona, over-conceptualised and claustrophobic, we may have reached the limit of an era…
Gaga has borrowed so heavily from Madonna (as in her latest video-Alejandro) that it must be asked, at what point does homage become theft? However, the main point is that the young Madonna was on fire. She was indeed the imperious Marlene Dietrich’s true heir. For Gaga, sex is mainly decor and surface; she’s like a laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture. Alarmingly, Generation Gaga can’t tell the difference. Is it the death of sex? Perhaps the symbolic status that sex had for a century has gone kaput; that blazing trajectory is over…
Actually, I doubt it. That "blazing trajectory" which has left so much pain, heartbreak, and shattered lives in its wake won't be over until the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, recognize that sexual license causes far more hurt and suffering than it does pleasure. It has certainly been lethal to families and destructive of young lives, particularly those of women, especially minority women, and their children. Sexual liberation created a culture of death, represented by the abortion industry, fed an explosion in the rate of divorce, and an increase in the incidence of STDs. It could be argued that the only people who have really benefited from the revolution are pornographers, doctors, lawyers, therapists and abortionists.

Easy access to sexual gratification has led to the devaluation of marriage and a disinclination on the part of men to make a commitment to one woman for a lifetime. It has been something less than the blessing its proponents were promising back in those heady years of the late fifties and early sixties when women were encouraged to loosen their inhibitions and men were urged to act pretty much like a buck in rut.

Lady Gaga is not, in my opinion, a symptom of the revolution's demise so much as a symptom of it's weariness. When society wearies of sex, when sex begins to cloy, people don't lose interest. They turn instead to ever more bizarre, destructive, and violent means of gratification. If Ms Gaga's peculiar persona is a manifestation of sexual ennui then it's also a sign of even more perverse expressions of sex to come.

Lucky us.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Coping with IEDs

Strategy Page has an interesting piece on how the military is minimizing the threat of IEDs in Afghanistan. Here are a couple of excerpts:
The tactics and equipment that neutralized IED (Improvised Explosive Device, a roadside, or suicide car bomb) in Iraq, have arrived in Afghanistan. There are now 12,000 MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles in Afghanistan, and they have played a major part in reducing NATO casualties there. In Iraq, the use of a similar number of MRAPs, reduced casualties from IEDs by over 60 percent. In Afghanistan, the math is similar. While 80 percent of hummers or trucks hit with IEDs result in one or more passengers killed, that only happens in 15 percent of MRAPs hit with IEDs. A year ago, About two-thirds of all casualties in Afghanistan were from roadside bombs. Thus these vehicles reduced overall casualties by about a third, and now IEDs create less than half the casualties.
Over the last year, the U.S. has been hustling to get MRAP vehicles to Afghanistan. At times, over 500 a month were arriving. Most of those coming in are the M-ATV model, designed for use in Afghanistan. A B-747 freighter can carry five M-ATVs per trip, but larger An-124s are also being used. The vehicles are moved by ship to a European or Persian Gulf port, to shorten the flight time (and enable a fully loaded B-747 to make it in one jump from the Gulf.)
In addition to many more MRAPs going to Afghanistan, the supply of explosives (nitrate based fertilizer) has been reduced by mandating the use of non-explosive fertilizers in Afghanistan. The U.S. also transferred its bomb detection techniques, and equipment, to Afghanistan, along with its methods of identifying and hunting down the teams that manufacture and place the bombs. These tactics greatly reduced the number of bombs being placed, and the MRAPs made those that did get used, much less effective. In some parts of Afghanistan, the use of IEDs has already declined enormously. This is usually due to finding the specialists who build the IEDs (and killing or capturing them) and destroying the workshops and supplies of bomb components.
I think the Obama administration seriously blundered by announcing a withdrawal date from Afghanistan, but other than that they seem to be doing all they can to protect our troops and to bring that conflict to a reasonably successful conclusion. Who'd have thought during the 2008 campaign that Mr. Obama would turn out to aggressively prosecute a war?

The New Literature

At Patheos Robert Velarde writes that film and tv are the new literature:
The Western world has, by and large, shifted from what Neil Postman called the Age of Exposition to the Age of Entertainment (Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985). Contemporary culture has in many respects left behind the scholarly engagement of literary ideas and displaced them with film and television. We have shifted from a "Have you read?" mentality to a "Have you seen?" perspective.
While I firmly believe that literary people will always exist, they are now in the clear minority. This is unfortunate, since the great ideas of history are most commonly discussed in depth not on screen, but in print. Nevertheless, thoughtful films can indeed offer much to ponder philosophically and theologically, while even poorly constructed films can provide us with opportunities to discuss meaningful ideas.
Velarde is right, of course. Film affords us a rich mine of ideas, illustrations, and metaphors to aid us in bridging the social chasms that have opened up between people who live in different cultural worlds and hold to completely disparate worldviews.

Pundits often lament that our nation has become increasingly divided over the last couple of generations, that we don't really talk with each other so much as at each other, and that when we do talk it's as if we're broadcasting over a radio on one frequency while their "receiver" is set at a different frequency.

The medium of film (and music) can give a powerful assist to our attempts to communicate to our friends our own thoughts and convictions, and it has this critical advantage: It's a lot easier today to persuade someone to watch a film than it is to read a book.

Check out the rest of Velarde's column at the link.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Beware the Tea Party Terrorists

It's a measure of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Left that they so frequently resort to such laughable tactics as seeking to discredit their opposition by conflating in the public mind the Tea Party with all sorts of nefarious far-right organizations. The Daily Caller, for instance, tells us that:
Tea Party leaders say a series of reports by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) attempting to connect the Tea Party movement with domestic terrorists in the militia movement shows how desperate the left has become trying to stop the political juggernaut.
The group says individuals such as Glenn Beck, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann — all regulars at major Tea Party gatherings — have given widespread visibility for ideas espoused by the militia movement, or the “Patriot movement” as SPLC calls it.
According to SPLC, the Patriot movement — largely comprised of white supremacists — was animated in the 1990s by a shared view of the federal government as the enemy and a belief the Federal Emergency Management Agency secretly runs concentration camps.
“The ‘tea parties’ and similar groups that have sprung up in recent months cannot fairly be considered extremist groups, but they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism,” Mark Potok, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, wrote in a piece titled “Rage On The Right: The Year In Hate And Extremism” from the group’s Spring 2010 edition of its Intelligence Report.
Yes, indeed. There's even photographic evidence of some of those hate-filled bigots and potential terrorists plotting violent revolution at one of their insidious rallies:


Honoring Our Heroes

Today is a day to remember those who died on this date nine years ago as well as to honor the men and women who have been fighting ever since against the people who launched the 9/11 attacks and their allies. The Washington Post has an account of one such young man. It begins with this:
Under a bright Afghan moon, eight U.S. paratroopers trudged along a ridge in the Korengal Valley, unaware they were walking right into a trap. Less than 20 feet away, a band of Taliban fighters executed the ambush plan perfectly, enveloping the paratrooper squad in an explosion of bullets and grenades.
Salvatore Giunta, a 22-year-old Army specialist from Hiawatha, Iowa, was knocked flat by the gunfire; luckily, a well-aimed round failed to penetrate his armored chest plate. As the paratroopers tried to gather their senses and scramble for a shred of cover, Giunta reacted instinctively, running straight into the teeth of the ambush to aid three wounded soldiers, one by one, who had been separated from the others.
Two paratroopers died in the Oct. 25, 2007, attack, and most of the others suffered serious wounds. But the toll would have been far higher if not for the bravery of Giunta, according to members of his unit and Army officials.
Read the rest of the story of Giunta's bravery here.

The Post article goes on to tell us that President Obama will award Giunta the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor, and that will make him the first living recipient of the medal who has served in any war since Vietnam.

This is hard to believe. There've been so many stories of incredible bravery emerging from the wars of the last nine years that the military bureaucracy must be a very stingy bunch to find none of them deserving of its highest award. What Giunta did was extraordinary and merits the Medal of Honor, but so do the actions under fire of these and many other Americans who are risking and giving their lives every day to keep us safe from the barbarian hordes who want to kill us and our children and return the world to the 7th century.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Amoralist

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut who writes for the blog Philosophy Now. He's an atheist and has come to realize that attempts by atheists to defend their belief in the validity of moral obligation in a Godless world are futile. Rather than retain his belief in moral obligation by accepting the existence of God, however, Marks chooses to retain his belief in atheism by rejecting morality. Marks explains his decision to become an "amoralist":
In a word, this philosopher has long been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t.
How I arrived at this conclusion is the subject of a book I have written during this recent period (tentatively titled Bad Faith: A Personal Memoir on Atheism, Amorality, and Animals). The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it.
Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.
Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it.
The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort?
In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality.
Give Marks credit for finally seeing what Christians have been telling atheists for decades if not centuries: Take away God and you take away any ground for moral judgment. As I mentioned in a post last week the atheists that Marks refers to as soft atheists live in an unsustainable tension. They want to hold on to moral judgment while also holding on to their atheism. As Marks has realized, it can't be done. Unfortunately, of the two solutions available to him - reject atheism or reject morality - Marks has chosen the latter which, although consistent, strikes me as almost perverse.

The rest of the post is interesting, and I invite you to read it. Meanwhile, I wonder now whether Marks, having claimed to be an amoralist (one who rejects the view that there are moral duties), will be able to refrain, as he must, from making moral judgments. I wonder, for example, whether he really will be able to say that kindness is no more "right" than cruelty, that selflessness is no more right than selfishness, or that there's no obligation to help the poor. I wonder whether he'll now say that torture is neither right nor wrong, and that acts like murder, though they may be unpopular, are not really morally wrong. I wonder if Marks even realizes that he's going to have to answer these questions.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Which Year Is It?

As Tony Blankley observes there are two ways of seeing the growing crisis in Iran. Some people see it through the lens of 1964 and some through the lens of 1938. Blankley explains:
Neoconservatives, Reaganites and other militarily assertive factions in the United States are sometimes accused of thinking it is always 1938 (Britain's appeasement of Hitler at Munich) -- that there is always a Hitler-like aggressor being appeased and about to drag the world into conflict. There is sometimes merit in that charge.
As, likewise, there is sometimes merit in the charge against isolationists and other doves that they always see 1914 (start of WWI) or 1964 (beginning of escalation of troops in Vietnam) -- the imminent and foolish entry into or escalation of a war that can't be won -- or even if victory were to be gained, it would be Pyrrhic.
[T]hose for whom it is now 1938 make a number of assumptions: 1) The Iranian regime intends to develop nuclear weapons; 2) once it has them, being fanatics, they may actually use them against Israel, as they have repeatedly threatened; 3) even if they don't use them, it will change the dynamics of the Middle East by inducing a nuclear arms race between Sunni Muslim countries and Iran, and by giving Iran a huge capacity to intimidate and dominate the region; 4) both Europe and the United States will eventually fall within the missile shadow of a nuclear Iran -- thus giving Iran capacity to be a world player and possible precipitator of nuclear war even beyond the Middle East; 5) the regime is inherently hostile and aggressive, particularly against the U.S. and Israel, and will keep pushing until pushed back; and 6) even tough sanctions will not deter Iran -- moreover, Russia is too invested in Iran to truly cooperate with us, and even Europe will not enforce tough sanctions.
The 1938'ers further believe -- or claim to believe -- that while Iran can create havoc in response to our military action (threaten oil transport out of the Gulf, terrorist attacks in the Middle East, Europe and probably the United States, further harm to our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan), they would be even more dangerous -- and just as ill intentioned -- if nuclear armed.
On the other hand, there are those, many Obama people among them, who see the world through the lens of 1964. They hold vastly different assumptions. They argue that:
1) Iran may actually not want nuclear weapons. 2) If they do want them, Russia will help us stop them. 3) If we settle the Israeli/Palestinian dispute that will reduce any nuclear aspirations Iran may have. 4) If we were to attack Iran, Iran could create more chaos than we can manage. 5) But if Iran did develop their nuclear weapons, we can deter their use by providing a nuclear umbrella for both Arab and Israeli. And, factually, they assume the danger is off by at least a year -- and that Iran is running into technical problems.
Blankley thinks this view is much too pollyannish. I think he's right. The advantage possessed by those who see the world through the lens of 1938 is that it is based on historical experience and not wishful thinking. There have always been and are today lunatic, power-mad dictators out there ready to destroy the world in order to gain it. Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad certainly has all the field marks to identify him as one of these.

President Obama has been trying without much success to appease the Iranian leader while not giving the appearance of appeasing him. The problem is that, just as Neville Chamberlain learned to his everlasting shame with Hitler, what Ahmedinejad wants the United States can't give him, and what we can give him he doesn't want, at least not as much as he wants to destroy Israel.

No Need for God

Our post on Stephen Hawking's new book in which he apparently claims that all that's necessary to account for the existence of the universe is a force like gravity, and that there's no need to posit a role for God, reminded a reader of this old joke:
God was sitting in heaven one day when a scientist said to Him, "God, we don't need you anymore. Science has finally figured out a way to create life out of nothing - in other words, we can now do what you did in the beginning."
"Oh, is that so? Explain..." replies God. "Well," says the scientist, "we can take dirt and form it into the likeness of you and breathe life into it, thus creating man."
"Well, that's very interesting... show Me."
So the scientist bends down to the earth and starts to mold the soil into the shape of a man. "No, no, no..." interrupts God, "Get your own dirt."
This is precisely the problem Hawking has. Where does the dirt - the energy as well as the dozens of laws and forces that comprise the universe - come from in the first place? What determines that these essential components of the cosmic structure will have the precise values they do such that had the value of any one of them deviated by as much as the mass of an electron compared to the mass of an aircraft carrier, the universe would not have formed?

What Hawking wants us to believe is the equivalent of asserting that an aircraft carrier could have been built such that had its mass varied by as much as an electron, had its height been off by as much as the thickness of an atomic nucleus, had its width fallen short by the width of a razor blade, had its color been any shade but precisely the one it is, had the friction in the propeller shaft been different by the weight of a mosquito, had any of these and more been the case the carrier would have collapsed in the drydock and never made it to sea. Then Hawking serves up the pièce de résistance by assuring us that these extraordinarily exacting specifications notwithstanding, blind, purposeless forces just accidentally managed to pull all the requisite parts together and perform the dazzling feat of arranging them with such astonishing precision that those specifications would be satisfied and the ship would be launched.

And then he and his fellow atheists scoff at Christians for believing in miracles. Pretty funny.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

He Wants Your Money

Jason tells me that this film is being made by a writer from MAD magazine. I wonder if it's not really about a government that writers from MAD might have dreamed up had they been in a malicious mood:

Decapitation Strategy

Strategy Page gives us an update on military operations in Afghanistan. Here's part of it:
Between April and July of this year, U.S. and allied (including Afghan) special operations forces killed nearly 400 Taliban leaders, and arrested another 1,400 Taliban. All this was mostly done via night operations by commandos (mainly U.S. Special Forces and SEALs) and missile attacks by American UAVs. This is part of a trend.
This “decapitation” campaign was successful in Iraq, and earlier, in Israel (where it was developed to deal with the Palestinian terror campaign that began in 2000.) Actually, the Americans have used siimilar tactics many times in the past (in World War II, 1960s Vietnam, the Philippines over a century ago and in 18th century colonial America.) But the Israelis developed decapitation tactics customized for use against Islamic terrorists.
In some cases, the Special Forces efforts have been so successful that the Taliban has been unable to get anyone to take the place of dead leaders. In some cases, the Taliban have called on friend and kin in the Afghan government, to try and get the Americans to stop. This puts these Afghan officials in a tight spot. While they are officially on board with this campaign against the Taliban, they also have members of their tribe, or even close relatives, who are in the Taliban. That’s not unusual in Afghanistan, where even the most pro-Taliban tribes have members who are not only pro-government, but actually work (most of the time) for the government. That’s how politics works in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the major media rarely report any of this stuff. Listening to the evening news one would think that all is doom and gloom in Afghanistan and that U.S. forces are on the verge of being run out of the country by the Taliban with their tail between their legs. Of course, this is how they reported on Iraq, too. It seems that when it comes to American efforts abroad the media can't help but focus on the clouds and ignore the wide swaths of blue sky.