Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Egalitarianism on Steroids

Nina Power at The Philosopher's Magazine argues for the counter-intuitive proposition that we should presuppose that everyone is equally intelligent. Here's an excerpt:
The work of Jacques Rancière, who never tires of repeating his assertion that equality is not just something to be fought for, but something to be presupposed, is, for me, one of the most important ideas of the past decade. Although Rancière begins the discussion of this idea in his 1987 text The Ignorant Schoolmaster, it is really only in the last ten years that others have taken up the idea and attempted to work out what it might mean for politics, art and philosophy.

Equality may also be something one wishes for in a future to come, after fundamental shifts in the arrangement and order of society. But this is not Rancière’s point at all. Equality is not something to be achieved, but something to be presupposed, universally. Everyone is equally intelligent.

But what does the axiomatic assertion of the equality of intelligence mean? Surely not everyone is as capable as each other? Doesn’t Rancière’s claim fall to pieces when you look at differential exam scores, degree results and the entire way in which intelligence divides up and separates out humanity in general?

Rancière takes his cue from the maverick nineteenth-century French pedagogue Joseph Jacotot, whose simple question was “[w]ere all men virtually capable of understanding what others had done and understood?” What this means is that, as Peter Hallward puts it, “Everyone has the same intelligence, and differences in knowledge are simply a matter of opportunity and motivation.

On the basis of this assumption, superior knowledge ceases to be a necessary qualification of the teacher, just as the process of explanation – together with metaphors that distinguish students as slow or quick, or conceive of educational time in terms of progress, training, qualification, and so on – ceases to be an integral part of teaching.”
In other words, Ms Power wants us to believe that there are differences in knowledge but not in intelligence. Given the same educational opportunities and socio-economic background everyone could obtain the same knowledge.

This strikes me as egalitarianism on steroids. I've often been in the presence (perhaps too often) of people compared to whom I feel like a mental dwarf. Some of these people were not particularly well-educated, but they seemed to me to be far smarter than I am.

Not everyone is equally fast, equally strong, equally tall, or equally attractive. We don't all have the same personality or temperament. What reason is there to think that we're equally intelligent? Why would we be so obviously unequal in every way except in terms of intelligence? Why should we even think that in this one respect we are all the same? What is the empirical evidence for such a belief?

Indeed, it seems clear that we're not all equally intelligent. An adult is more intelligent than a toddler. Down's Syndrome children are less intelligent than "normal" children. You and I are less intelligent, probably, than Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking. Intelligence is the ability to grasp concepts and meaning, and it seems undeniable that there are some who can do this much better than others.

In fact, it seems to me so manifestly true that I have to wonder what the point is of denying it.

Slandering the Tea Party

Jim Wallis is really beginning to concern me, I'm afraid. Wallis is the editor of Sojourners magazine, and he's one of the President's most committed supporters among those on the Christian left. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and I have a great deal of respect for the work he has done on behalf of the poor. Even so, when he says things like he did in a recent interview he really needs to be called to account.

In the interview Mr. Wallis criticized FOX News for smearing President Obama over the question of his religious identity, which, parenthetically, I don't recall having heard anyone on that network do, but then he proceeded to do exactly what he criticized FOX for doing: He smeared the character of millions of Americans by claiming that, "To be blunt there wouldn't be a Tea Party if there wasn't a black man in the White House...and that's a fact." Here's the audio:
Wallis hasn't a shred of evidence to warrant this slander on the millions of good people who've gravitated to the Tea Party, and for him to state, as though he knows it to be a fact, that the Tea party is a racist organization, or is motivated by racism, is irresponsible and baffling. Wallis has been at pains over the last few months to urge upon all of us a greater civility in our public discourse, but his words ring hollow when they're compared to his own example.

He seems unwilling to concede that many sincere Americans view Mr. Obama as the most radical and unqualified person ever to occupy the office of the presidency, and they fear, not without reason, that his policies are destructive to our economy, our status in the world, and our national cohesion. Their opinions of his impact on the nation have nothing to do with his race. Nevertheless, Mr. Wallis seems to draw the ludicrous inference that because Mr. Obama is black, and because Tea Partiers oppose him, therefore Tea Partiers oppose him because he's black. It's nonsense, but that's the sort of reasoning in which Mr. Wallis is apparently indulging in order to discredit the President's political opponents.

One hopes that having insulted a large percentage of American voters with what is nothing more than an unsubstantiated, partisan cheap shot he'll at least have the grace to offer an apology.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Another Mass Murder Attempt

By now you've heard of the Somali teenager arrested in Portland for attempting to detonate a massive car bomb at a gathering of thousands of Oregonians attending a Christmas tree lighting service. Go here for a video of what the crowd looks like at that annual ceremony. Here's a rather chilling excerpt from the accompanying story:
The Somali-born university student met with an undercover FBI agent in August at a Portland hotel and told him he had found the perfect location for a terrorist attack: the city’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

Mohamed Osman Mohamud told the agent that he had dreamed of carrying out an attack for years, and the city’s Pioneer Courthouse Square would be packed with thousands, “a huge mass that will … be attacked in their own element with their families celebrating the holidays,” according to an affidavit.

On Friday, Mohamud parked what he thought was a bomb-laden van near the ceremony and then went to a nearby train station, where he dialed a cell phone that he believed would detonate the vehicle. Instead, federal authorities moved in and arrested him. No one was hurt.
We can be very thankful that our intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have been so vigilant throughout the past nine years, but as has been frequently said, the FBI needs to be lucky every time, the terrorists need be lucky only once.

Let's do a little theorizing and ask this question: Suppose this Somali Muslim had been successful and had killed and maimed hundreds if not thousands of men, women, and children celebrating the advent of the Christmas season. What do you suppose would have been the reaction to this atrocity, not just by the government but by the American people? I invite your thoughts. You can use the Contact Us feature, and I'll post your responses in a few days.

Circular Firing Squad

It appears that internecine warfare has broken out among secular humanists who disagree on the proper approach to religious folk. Some, like the founder of a couple of major humanist organizations, Paul Kurtz, want to engage religious people in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Others, like Ron Lindsey and biologist P.Z. Myers, want the conflict between believers and unbelievers to be conducted more along the lines of open warfare. Kurtz has lost the debate and has been relieved of his duties as Chairman of the Center for Inquiry, an organization he founded and chaired for decades.

It was a sharp slap in the face to Kurtz, and it apparently made for a lively conference attended by 300 of the unfaithful in Los Angeles recently.

The L.A. Times has the details:
Such a debate "would have been incomprehensible 10 years ago," said Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, which held its 30th anniversary meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. But the 9/11 attacks and a growing interest in atheism have emboldened the in-your-face wing of the movement and led to internal debate and dissension.

That rift cracked open recently when Paul Kurtz, a founder of the secular humanist movement in America, was ousted as chairman of the Center for Inquiry, a sibling organization to the Council for Secular Humanism. One factor leading to his ouster was a perception that Kurtz was "on the mellower end of the spectrum," Flynn said.

The tension was evident at the Biltmore, where about 300 nonbelievers from across the United States and Canada gathered for three days of lively and, at times, gleefully blasphemous debate. ("I have a personal commitment to committing blasphemy every day," biologist P.Z. Myers said.)

With that background, and with the legacy of 9/11 providing impetus to those who see religious fundamentalism as a threat, there was a sense of urgency at the Biltmore conference about finding the right approach. Should nonbelievers confront the religious or try to get along?

Even "accommodationist" atheists are not known for mincing words, and although there were periodic reminders that those at the gathering shared "99% of our intellectual DNA," as author Chris Mooney put it, the disagreements were not exactly gentle.

When Mooney, a leading voice for accommodation, said there was nothing to stop a nonreligious person from being spiritual, Myers' reaction was nearly physical. "Whenever we start talking about spirituality," he said, "I just want to puke."
Well, puking is one possible response, I suppose, when one is an intellectual bereft of intellectual arguments. At least it absolves one, temporarily, of the duty to respond to an intellectual challenge with a coherent reply. God bless him and let's hope he's seated in front of a bucket.

Rocks in the River

My friend Jason recommended that I read an essay by Jonah Goldberg at NRO on the Pope's views on condom use that received so much attention a couple of weeks ago. Jason noted that the essay is about that topic, of course, but about much more as well. He's right, and I, in turn, commend Goldberg's essay to you. Here's a glimpse:
In the spring of 2005, Pope John Paul II died. My father, who passed away that summer, watched the funeral and the inauguration of the current pope, Benedict XVI, from his hospital bed. My dad, a Jew, loved the spectacle of it all. (The Vatican, he said, was the last institution that “really knows how to dress.”)

From what he could tell, he liked this new pope too. “We need more rocks in the river,” my dad explained. What he meant was that change comes so fast, in such a relentless torrent, that we need people and things that stand up to it and offer respite from the current.
Further along Goldberg raises, no doubt unintentionally, an interesting ethical-theological question. Here's the salient passage:
What Benedict said in a book-length interview is that in certain circumstances using a condom would be less bad than not using one. To use Benedict’s example, a male prostitute with HIV would be acting more responsibly, more morally, if he wore a condom while plying his trade than if he didn’t.

The pontiff understands that not all harms are equal. Assault is wrong, for instance, but assault with a deadly weapon is more wrong than assault with a non-deadly one.
I think the Pope is correct that all harms are not equal, but this is by no means a universal view among protestant theologians. It's sometimes asserted, by those who devote themselves to such matters, that all harms, or sins, are equal, that no sin is less wrong or more wrong than any other. I think this is a mistake. if we take sin to be that which harms oneself or another then I think the view that all sins are equal is simply false. Murdering someone and wishing to murder someone are both harms, but one is much more harmful, and thus more sinful, than the other. It is much worse to lie in the witness stand and send someone to jail unjustly than to lie to one's wife about how nice a dress looks on her.

All men are sinners, but some men are worse sinners than others. Mother Teresa was a sinner but her sins were far less evil than those of Adolf Hitler.

Anyway, I love the metaphor of rocks in the river. If there are enough rocks perhaps the river of a depauperate culture that threatens to wash away everything good in its path can be dammed and stanched. Every rock helps.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Atheistic Darwinists and Begging the Question

In his book The Blind Watchmaker Richard Dawkins makes the claim that "biology is the study of complicated things which have the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." He goes on to argue, however, that the appearance is only illusory, a result of the blind tinkering of natural selection over eons of time. Maybe, but this has about it the sound of whistling past the graveyard.

As Michael Behe and others have noted, "If life gives the overpowering appearance of having been designed, then one is rationally justified in adhering to one's intuitions [that it is designed] unless and until a compelling reason is given to suggest that the appearance of design is only apparent."

So, is there a compelling reason to abandon one's belief that life is designed? Well, no. Some will argue, of course, that Darwin showed that design is a by-product of the purposeless process of evolution, but actually he did no such thing. What Darwin showed was that there are good reasons to think that evolution was the means by which living things diversify, he did not show that natural forces are ultimately responsible for the astonishing engineering and design that is ubiquitous in everything from living cells to the cosmos itself.

The argument of naturalists like Dawkins amounts to this: We know that the design in nature is only apparent because we know there is no intelligent designer. And we know there's no intelligent designer because there's no evidence that there one exists. And we know there's no evidence that an intelligent designer exists because the "overpowering appearance of purposeful design" that's cited as evidence is really only apparent. And we know it's only apparent because....Well, you get the picture.

The only way for the Darwinian naturalist to break out of this vicious cycle is to show that blind, purposeless forces can indeed create the appearance of complex purposeful design, but so far no one has been able to do this in a way that's convincing to anyone but those already committed to the belief that there is no intelligent designer.

If one is inclined to believe that an intelligent designer of the world exists there's no reason that any of the New Atheists have presented as to why that view should be given up. On the other hand, there are lots of examples in nature which confirm it. Maybe the simplest explanation for why nature has "the appearance of having been designed for a purpose" is because it has been.

Defeating al Qaeda

Strategy Page has an interesting article on how U.S. forces discredited al Qaeda in the Islamic world and precipitated their defeat in Iraq:
Long term, the U.S. has found that you don't have to kill terrorist leaders to disable them. For example, when American troops drove al Qaeda and the Taliban out of Afghanistan in late 2001, they captured large quantities of records dealing with al Qaeda administration. This was revealing. The al Qaeda leadership was constantly being criticized by subordinates for stupid mistakes, while the leaders were constantly monitoring their people for stealing and malingering.

The U.S. made sure a lot of this dirty linen was leaked, and eventually the media in Moslem nations began reporting on it. This paid off when al Qaeda in Iraq, despite vigorous objections within the organization, increased attacks that killed lots of civilians. This played a major role in al Qaeda going from an admired, to a despised, organization within the Islamic world. American intelligence leaked captured documents that made clear how uncaring the terrorist leaders were about these civilian deaths. The dead Moslem women and children were called "involuntary martyrs." This did not go over well in the Moslem world.

As al Qaeda's popularity declined, so did donations from the Moslem world. This forced the terrorists to resort to crime to raise money. This was publicized, along with details via captured documents, by the Americans. As a result, Moslems began to regard Islamic terrorists as criminals, as well as thoughtless killers. This was in sharp contrast as al Qaeda propaganda that tried to portray them as selfless fighters for the protection of Islam. This made al Qaeda look like hypocrites.

The final blow came from the mouths of captured terrorists. Most of these men tended to speak freely once captured, and often complained about how hard life was as a terrorist. This was especially the case with suicide bombers, who often had to be persuaded to do the deed. Then there was the use of the mentally ill, very young children (10-12, or even younger) and grief stricken widows. In most Moslem countries, widows faced a hard life under any conditions, and suicide among them is common.

The details of these recruiting methods were released, and by 2007, the Moslem media couldn't get enough of it. The callous treatment of young Saudi men, volunteering to "fight for Islam" in Iraq, was particularly effective in cutting off this source of manpower. The Saudi volunteers usually had no military training, and the Iraqi terrorist groups used most of them as suicide bombers, or in similar combat operations that were pretty much suicidal. Details of these policies were passed on to Saudi media, and parents began to regard a trip to Iraq, or even Afghanistan, as a form of murder (of innocent civilians as well as their sons).
Moderate Muslims in the West insist that Islamic terrorists are not "true" Muslims. Perhaps this message will catch on in the Middle East, and devout Muslims will stop financing the madrassas and mosques that teach and preach hate, jihad, and the glories of martyrdom. Until terrorism is discredited as an act of Islamic piety there's little chance that it will stop.

Droppers and Switchers

The conventional wisdom in the wake of the Democrats' electoral mugging three weeks ago was that much of their liberal base, minorities and young people, stayed home. The Wall Street Journal's Gerry Seib points to a number of studies, including research carried out by Democrat groups, that show that the conventional wisdom is not quite correct.

It turns out that what hurt the Democrats most of all was disaffection and lack of enthusiasm not among their base but among moderates:
A more direct study of these 2010 no-shows was undertaken by Third Way, a think tank for moderate Democrats, and Lincoln Park Strategies, a Democratic polling firm. They surveyed 1,000 Obama voters who abandoned Democrats in 2010. Half of them were "switchers" who moved their votes to the Republicans this time, while the other half were "droppers" who simply dropped out of the voting this year.

That survey found that, while the droppers were a bit more liberal than 2010 voters as a whole, they were split in almost precise thirds into liberals, moderates and conservatives. Moreover, just 42% identified themselves as Democrats, while 40% were independents and 8% were Republicans. Almost a quarter of them voted for Republican George W. Bush in 2004.

Nor were the droppers largely minority voters, as the popular stereotype might suggest. Eight in 10 were white, while just 7% were African-American and 5% Latino.
This is significant because it shapes how the Democrats will respond to their defeat over the next two years. If it had been the case that their voters stayed home because Congress and the President have not been liberal enough to suit them then we could expect the Democrats to move even further to the left to mollify their base's discontent. Since, however, they've lost the sympathies of moderate voters the party may move more to the center in the next couple of years to try to recapture their lost support among this group.

Another reason this is significant is that it bodes ill for the President's reelection chances. Had his base among minorities and young people stayed home it could be assumed it was because he wasn't on the ticket and that they'd probably turn out when he is up again in 2012. The fact, however, that his base did show up and that it was independents who stayed home suggests that Mr. Obama's path to relection is going to be more difficult since it will be harder to woo back disaffected moderates than it would be to rouse his base.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Bottom of Their Shoe

It looks like there is a serious movement afoot to impeach Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Unfortunately, it seems that the impeachment may be for the wrong reasons. Reza Aslan reports on the story at The Daily Beast. One of the interesting aspects of his account is the utter economic shambles this oil rich country finds itself in:
The latest row between the president and the parliament comes at a time in which Iran's economy, already reeling from the steady success of President Obama’s targeted sanctions policy, is bracing for what many predict will be catastrophic consequences of Ahmadinejad's plan to end government subsidies for fuel, food, energy, and basic goods like milk, cooking oil, and flour. For decades, Iran’s presidents—from Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to Mohammad Khatami—have tried to amend the subsidies system, valued at about $100 billion a year.

But they were repeatedly deterred by the threat of massive protests. After all, in a country that has been isolated from the outside world for three decades, government subsidies are the sole means of survival for millions of poor and middle-class Iranians. According to a study by the International Monetary Fund, a typical Iranian household making about $3,600 a year receives an average of $4,000 a year in subsidies.

Although the subsidies program has yet to be fully terminated, the cost of basic goods and services in Iran already has skyrocketed. According to the Los Angeles Times, the price of a kilo of ground beef has jumped from $6, when Ahmadinejad began his first term as president, to $14.50 today. Meanwhile, as I reported last month, the cost of electricity has soared by as much as 1,000 percent for some Iranian households.

The irony is that Ahmadinejad is unquestionably doing the sensible thing in pushing ahead with the removal of government subsidies. Subsidies account for approximately 30 percent of Iran’s entire annual budget. That is simply untenable for an economy that just last month saw the value of its currency drop by a staggering 13 percent against the dollar. Iran’s oil industry, its most lucrative source of revenue, is in shambles after the recent departure of four oil companies— Shell, Total, ENI, and Statoil.

The carpet industry, once valued at $500 million, has disintegrated thanks to increased sanctions. The government claims that 22 percent of Iranians are unemployed (experts say the number is closer to 40 percent), three-quarters of them under the age of 30. Some 40 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. Inflation is officially at 10 percent, though many economists believe it to be more like 24 percent. With the price of oil remaining stable and Iran’s international isolation increasing, the government simply cannot afford to keep paying out nearly a third of its entire budget in subsidies.
It's comforting, in a twisted sort of way, to know that Iran's economy is in worse shape than our own, at least for now.

In any event, here's another irony. We recently posted on a story which made the claim that American foreign policy under President Obama is pretty much the worst it has ever been, but according to Aslan much of Iran's economic difficulty is due to Obama's targeted sanctions on industries like carpet manufacturing. Perhaps our foreign policy isn't quite the muddled mess that it seems. It's tragic that ordinary Iranians are suffering, but it would certainly be a good thing, on balance, if our President were successful in getting Iranians to give the bottom of their shoe to Ahmadinejad and give up their nuclear ambitions before war breaks out in the region.

First Thankful Thanksgiving

Robin of Berkeley is back with a meditation on her first thankful Thanksgiving. Robin is a psychotherapist and former leftist atheist who had an ideological epiphany several years ago and has written a number of columns on what it has been like for her to move from the left to the right.

In this column she reveals some details of another epiphany which has made this Thanksgiving especially meaningful for her. She opens with this lede:
Thanksgiving was never a favorite holiday of mine. Now that I think about it, I never cared for any of them: 4th of July, Christmas, or Columbus Day (which, by the way, Berkeley long ago renamed "Indigenous People's Day").

If I'm being completely honest here, my main activities during the holidays were ranting and raving. For instance: Why should we celebrate Thanksgiving when the holiday marks the slaughter of Native Americans? Why do these cashiers keep cheerfully extolling me to "have a Merry Christmas!"? And if I hear one more [censored] Christmas song, I will lose my frigging mind.

Of course, I was just one of the progressive pack, parroting the party line. Being a Leftist means honing in on every possible injustice. Never-ending gripes and grievances are the glue that keeps progressives cemented together.

But then, three years ago, the bottom fell out of my life. Slowly but surely, it dawned on me that everything I had held as sacrosanct was a lie. I woke up -- and now I behold the world with fresh eyes. Consequently, I am celebrating my First Thankful Thanksgiving.
Read the rest at the link. It's pretty interesting.

Black Friday

Now that the day given to thanking God is over many will today be observing yet another, unofficial, festival known as Black Friday. It, too, is a religious observance albeit an exuberant, rather pagan celebration of the religion of consumerism during which the faithful feel impelled by the spirit of the day to spend oodles of cash on toys, trinkets, and other non-essentials for people who neither need nor want what's been purchased for them.

The extravagance, the prodigality, of it all is, for me at least, tawdry and dispiriting. Jim Wallis writes on his blog that:
The pressure we feel [to buy] doesn’t just come from the ads we get in our inboxes or see on television. All of us have family and friends who are going to be doing a lot of shopping. If a friend goes out and spends money on us, we feel guilty if we don’t reciprocate at roughly the same level. What’s worse is if someone gets us a gift and we don’t get them anything at all. The problem is not giving gifts. Giving gifts becomes a problem when the exchange of stuff replaces building relationships.
It also becomes a problem because we become preoccupied with material excess and often lose sight of why we celebrate Christmas in the first place. The day is simply the climax of an orgy of splurge shopping at malls which create their idea of an appropriately seasonal atmosphere by piping in music like Alvin and the Chipmunks and Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. Everywhere we turn we're encouraged to shop till we drop. We're like a person being urged to sample not just one piece of chocolate in the box, but to plunge ahead and consume the whole thing. As we work through the selections the sweets cloy and after a while they just make us sick.

My crotchety outlook on Black Friday notwithstanding, I have mixed feelings about the rite. The jobs of millions of people depend upon us wasting money today on things nobody really wants or needs. If people were to turn Black Friday into a buy-nothing-day it'd cause an enormous amount of hardship for those businesses and their employees who rely on our profligacy for their livelihoods.

Even so, I'm a non-combatant conscientious objector to the spectacle. Maybe there's a better way. Perhaps some of us could put a little perspective and meaning back into the Christmas season by sending a note to family members, friends, and co-workers, who are often stressed over trying to find a gift for someone who already has more than enough of life's goods, asking that no presents (or at least not as many presents) be bought for us this year, and that in lieu of the gift a donation be sent to a charity of our choosing. Perhaps the address of the charity could be appended to the note.

This would not only help avoid the embarrassment of being showered with items for which one has no need and can't use, but it would also be a gift to our loved ones inasmuch as it would take the pressure off them to come up with something meaningful to give us.

At our Christmas gatherings they might hand us a card saying that a gift has been donated in our name to the charity we requested. For some of us that would be the most wonderful gift we could receive, and it would be a step toward recovering, at least in our own circles, the original spirit and meaning of Christmas day.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation

Here's the first Thanksgiving proclamation, issued by President George Washington in 1789. I said yesterday that it's hard to imagine a president making such a pronouncement in contemporary America. Read it and see what you think:
By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions-- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go: Washington

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Special Day

Among all the holidays Americans observe, Thanksgiving is unique.

Unlike other national observances which honor and celebrate the contributions of famous people, groups, or critical events in our history, Thanksgiving celebrates an attitude - an attitude of appreciation and gratefulness for all the blessings we enjoy as Americans.

It's a celebration laden with religious overtones and expectations, but unlike other religiously-oriented holidays it's an integral part of our public life. It was first established by presidential decree (Abraham Lincoln) and subsequently declared by a joint resolution of Congress to be a national holiday, which fact no doubt displeases our secularist friends. Indeed, setting aside a day for prayer and thanksgiving to God could scarcely be imagined in today's politico-social climate.

Moreover, unlike other religious holidays (e.g. Christmas, Easter) Thanksgiving is non-sectarian. People of any faith can give thanks to God, although it's probably a bit awkward for atheists who find themselves expressing their gratitude to nothing in particular.

In any event, we at Viewpoint wish all our readers a great and grateful Thanksgiving day.

Smart Diplomacy

Michael Filozov surveys the world scene and asks if American foreign policy has ever been as "screwed up" as it is at present. Reading his article certainly causes one to wonder if indeed our management of foreign affairs isn't at a low ebb. As if to add an exclamation point to Filozov's question mark the New York Times revealed today that peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan have been conducted with an imposter and we've actually paid the guy.

From the Times' story:
For months, the secret talks unfolding between Taliban and Afghan leaders to end the war appeared to be showing promise, if only because of the appearance of a certain insurgent leader at one end of the table: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the most senior commanders in the Taliban movement.

But now, it turns out, Mr. Mansour was apparently not Mr. Mansour at all. In an episode that could have been lifted from a spy novel, United States and Afghan officials now say the Afghan man was an impostor, and high-level discussions conducted with the assistance of NATO appear to have achieved little.

“It’s not him,” said a Western diplomat in Kabul intimately involved in the discussions. “And we gave him a lot of money.”

American officials confirmed Monday that they had given up hope that the Afghan was Mr. Mansour, or even a member of the Taliban leadership.

NATO and Afghan officials said they held three meetings with the man, who traveled from Pakistan, where Taliban leaders have taken refuge.
In most parts of the world you can't even cash a check without confirming who you are, but apparently the current administration regards such formalities, when applied to those who are trying to kill us, to be unreasonable impositions.

President Obama campaigned on the promise that so far from following his predecessor's maladroit handling of foreign affairs his administration would usher in an era of "smart diplomacy". I'm not certain what that entails, but I'm pretty sure it should mean that we negotiate with actual representatives of the other side and not with whomever walks in off the street.

Full Moral Status

Philosopher Peter Singer maintains that a child does not achieve full "moral status" until it is about two years old. It does not have full status, he argues, until it can recognize itself in a mirror, at which point it is "self-aware" and deserving of being considered a fully human being.

Here's Professor Singer:
My understanding is that it is not until after the first birthday, so somewhere between the first and second, I think, that they typically recognize the image in the mirror as themselves...Really, I think this is a gradual matter.

If you are not talking about public policy or the law, but you are talking about when you really have the same moral status, I think that does develop gradually. There are various things that you could say that are sufficient to give some moral status after a few months, maybe six months or something like that, and you get perhaps to full moral status, really, only after two years. But I don’t think that should be the public policy criteria.

He doesn't think that this should be a public policy criterion because if it were there'd be no moral constraint on killing children up to two years old just as there's no constraint today on killing them while they remain in the womb. Even so, Singer does advocate making infanticide legal up until a child is about 30 days old.
This is the slippery slope onto which the liberal view of abortion rights leads us. Once we deny that an unborn child should be considered a person we soon lack any basis for holding that born children are persons - at least until they become self-aware - and if it is the mother's right to terminate the life of an unborn non-person, it will eventually become her right to terminate a born non-person. Just as we have unwanted pets put away, so, too, will there be a demand for the right to put away other unwanted non-persons. Where does it end?

One would like to ask Professor Singer why self-awareness should be the criterion that confers "full moral status". Why not the ability to communicate, or to ratiocinate, or to do algebra? If self-awareness is to be used to separate persons from not-quite-persons are individuals in a coma sub-persons? If so, do they forfeit their right to life. If they do not, why not?

If the answer is that they have the potential to come out of the coma and be self-aware why does not the same apply to the unborn?

This is why advocates of an unrestricted abortion license long ago gave up trying to defend their position by arguments. They simply don't have any. All they have are slogans and the power, through the federal judiciary, to impose their will.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Joseph Bosco makes some trenchant observations and poses some interesting questions to moderate Muslims in The Christian Science Monitor. Here are some excerpts:
American Muslims are uniquely positioned to lead an honest conversation and bridge the growing divide – if they will accept the challenge. Tarnishing all Muslims as terrorists is unjust and counterproductive – but so is accusing sincerely concerned Americans of doing that.

Non-Muslims may not fully grasp the theological and political distinctions between Islam and Islamism, but they legitimately ask their Muslim fellow citizens just what the connection is between Islam and those who murder in its name.

While most Muslims are not terrorists, most terrorists are Muslims. There is reason to worry: If only 1/10th of 1 percent of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are terrorists, that is 1.6 million killers acting in Allah's name.

Yet Muslim extremists have come from diverse national, cultural, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds. So non-Muslims may be forgiven for asking: Is there something in Islam that makes it more susceptible to extremist interpretation than other religions?
Bosco asks several important questions in the balance of his essay. If over a million Muslims see themselves as mortal enemies of Western civilization then it behooves us to listen carefully to how those questions are answered.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Ice Cream Has Run Out

There have been lots of analyses in the wake of the electoral disaster suffered by the Democrats three weeks ago. Many of them have forecast the demise of the party, just as they forecast the demise of the Republicans after 2006/2008. I'm disinclined to pay such predictions any heed, but a piece by Monty Pelerin in The American Thinker makes a compelling case. Pelerin argues that the Republicans were tossed out in 2006 and 2008 because they had disregarded their principles, but that the Democrats were shown the door in 2010 because they adhered to theirs.

The problem is not so much President Obama or Nancy Pelosi, although their policies and the manner in which they have governed have certainly alienated many of the former supporters and hastened the party's approaching date with the political grim reaper. Rather, the problem is that the principles which animate the Democrat party are no longer feasible in a world beset by debt, recession, and a dearth of fiscal resources.

The Democrats have, since FDR, won elections on the promise of giving people more of everything, but that's a promise that everyone now recognizes is impossible to keep. The Democrats can no longer campaign on showering people with ever more goodies, but that's their whole raison d'etre. If they cannot offer the masses access to the public purse they have nothing else with which to entice the electorate.

Perelin asks us to imagine two third graders running for class president:
Johnny's platform includes a detailed program to improve various school matters and a commitment to work hard. His opponent, Mary, promises free ice cream for everyone. Mary is elected by an overwhelming margin.

Johnny's election campaign is similar to Republicans', while Mary's is similar to Democrats'. Republican principles are not as effective in an election campaign when competing against free ice cream. Sacrifice, abstinence, and/or self-reliance are a form of political "root canal" when compared to "freebies."

The ice cream strategy was implemented by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. Arguably, this strategy created the modern Democratic Party. It rescued a floundering party and enabled it to become dominant. From a political standpoint, the strategy was pure genius. From an economic standpoint, it produced a slower growth path for the country.
Perelin argues that after 80 years of the ice cream strategy the ice cream has run out and with it the only reason anyone had for voting for the Democrats has disappeared. Thus, the party has no viable future and will, within the next decade or so, morph into something else or be euthanized by the voters.

There's much more at the link. I don't know if Perelin is right, but his column is certainly provocative.

Christie Returns Fire

The speculation has already begun about who'll face Barack Obama in the presidential election in 2012. The left is panicked at the idea that it'll be Sarah Palin, as evidenced by MSNBC's "five minutes Palin hate" on every show in their daily lineup. Others are predicting Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. My preference is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Not only does he understand what the words fiscal responsibility mean, a qualification that puts him well ahead of the incumbent, but he's just so much fun to watch.

Recently, the head of the New Jersey Teachers' Union sent out an email urging the membership to pray for the Governor's death. A lot of GOP politicians might just ignore this kind of behavior, which is in any event not all that uncommon on the left*, but Governor Christie has demonstrated that he's not a man to be trifled with.

He discussed the episode in a recent speech:
You'd think that after a while people would stop picking fights with the guy. Everytime they do they wind up looking like Wile E. Coyote after his latest attempt to dynamite the Roadrunner.

*Similar sentiments have been expressed about Clarence Thomas, Dick Cheney, George Bush, the late Henry Hyde, and, of course, Sarah Palin, just to name a few.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Character of Consciousness

David Chalmers is one of the leading philosophers working on what he has famously designated as the "hard problem" of consciousness. The easy, or soft, problem, relatively speaking, is to explain how the physical mechanisms of the brain work. The hard problem is explaining how we have phenomenal experience, or what a layman might call sensation. Chalmers has a new book out titled The Character of Consciousness in which he discusses the myriad of problems involved in trying to understand this most mysterious of human attributes. The book is reviewed at Conscious Entities. Here are a couple of excerpts from the review:
Chalmers begins by setting out again the Hard Problem (a term with which his name will forever be associated) of explaining phenomenal experience – why is it that ‘there is something it is like’ to experience colours, sound, anything? The key point is that experience is simply not amenable to the kind of reductive explanation which science has applied elsewhere; we’re not dealing with functions or capacities, so reduction can gain no traction. Chalmers notes – justly, I’m afraid – that many accounts which offer to explain the problem actually go on to consider one or other of the simpler problems instead.

He now gives us a fuller account of the arguments in favour of qualia, the items of phenomenal experience, being a real problem for materialism, and categorises the positions typically taken (other views are of course possible).
  • Type A Materialism denies the epistemic gap: all this stuff about phenomenal experience is so much nonsense.
  • Type B Materialism accepts the epistemic gap, but thinks it can be dealt with within a materialist framework.
  • Type C Materialism sees the epistemic gap as a grave problem, but holds that in the limit, when we understand things better, we’ll understand how it can be reconciled with materialism.
In the other camp we have non-materialist views:
  • Type D dualism puts phenomenal experience outside the physical world, but gives it the power to influence material things,
  • Type E Dualism, epiphenomenalism, also puts phenomenal experience outside the physical world, but denies that it can affect material things: it is a kind of passenger.
Finally we have the option that Chalmers appears to prefer:
  • Type F monism (not labelled as a materialism, you notice, though arguably it is). This is the view that consciousness is constituted by the intrinsic properties of physical entities: Chalmers suggests it might be called Russellian monism.
Chalmers concentrates on the conceivability argument: this is basically the point often dramatised with zombies, namely that we can conceive of a world, or people, identical to the ones we’re used to in all physical respects but completely without phenomenal experience. This shows that there is something over and above the physical account, so materialism is false.
The zombie analogy is meant to show that it's perfectly possible that there could be beings exactly like us, but which are essentially blood and bone machines run by a brain that's an organic computer. Machines and computers don't experience sensations like color, flavor, etc., and since we do experience such things there must something more to us than just our material or physical hardware. There's something about us, the argument goes, that's immaterial and non-physical that's necessary to generate the phenomena of sensation, or what philosophers call qualia.

The problem of consciousness is one of the most important of the contemporary philosophical debates because it bears on the view we hold of the nature of human beings: Are we just material entities or are we some sort of composite of matter and mind (or soul)? If consciousness can ultimately be explained purely in terms of chemical reactions in the brain then materialism is probably true. If consciousness requires something more than matter to explain its character then materialism is probably false.

The book is not for beginners, and anyone who thinks they might be interested in the topics it addresses is advised to first read the review at Conscious Entities.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Turn Up the Lights

Hard on the heels of a former government bureaucrat all but announcing that the Fourth Amendment (guaranteeing freedom from unreasonable search and seizure) will have to be ignored, we have Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller launching the next round of attacks on our freedoms by complaining about the behavior of Fox and MSNBC, which he evidently thinks should be taken off the air:
Now I've said before that I don't care much for some of Fox's lineup - Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity are both very difficult to watch without yelling at the tv set - and I don't care at all for MSNBC's lineup, except for Morning Joe which I like once they've satisfied their daily need to express their contempt for Sarah Palin. But the programming on these networks is precisely the sort of speech that the first amendment was designed to protect. These shows, whatever one thinks of the hosts, are often very informative. Viewers learn things that they often don't read in their newspapers or hear on the evening news. Consequently, largely due to talk tv (plus talk radio and the internet), I think it fair to say that we probably have today the best informed public in the history of the nation.

It was telling that Senator Rockefeller said that if Fox and MSNBC were off the air Congress could get its work done. I'll bet they could. That's exactly why we need alternative media like cable news. They shine a light on the politicians, a light that many of them resent. Today's politicians are often just like the pompous politicos of Socrates' day who hated Socrates because he walked around Athens revealing to the public what buffoons they were. They resented being exposed so much that they eventually contrived a way to shut him up.

It's what those in power often do to those who shine a light on their stupidity and venality. What Senator Rockefeller might have said is that it's much easier for politicians to fool the people into thinking that they're an intellectually elite class - it's much easier for them to enrich themselves at the public trough - when no one can see what they're doing.

But here's the irony in suggestions like those of Senator Rockefeller that he'll turn out the lights on cable news (which he hasn't the authority to do anyway). General television programming has degenerated to the point that it's now a cultural cesspool, but this is not what has our politicians' attention. No, they're not concerned about the sleaze children are seeing and hearing on television. Their concern is that cable news is exposing their machinations in Washington, informing the public, and making it difficult for them to ram legislation through that they, in their wisdom, intend to ram down the throats of an unwilling populace - a populace they think should just shut up and remember their place.

Too bad, Senator. I say turn up the lights. If they're too bright, you're too corrupt.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Captain of the Ship

In the wake of an historic electoral defeat two weeks ago congressional Democrats yesterday reelected Nancy Pelosi to be their leader in the next congress. Some people might have thought this was like giving the captain of the Titanic a vote of confidence, but, Ramirez asks, why shouldn't the Democrats stick with the captain of the ship?

Republicans don't deserve to be this lucky, but it seems like everything, at least in the House of Representatives, is going their way. For now.


Susan Jacoby, an atheist and secular humanist (secular humanists are almost always atheists), wonders why secularists are such tightwads. She writes this:
Tis the season when snailmail and e-mail boxes are filled with exhortations to give to charitable causes of every kind. If you go to religious services at least once a week, you will probably add a donation to a secular nonprofit on top of what you have already given to your church. But if you have few ties to religion (whether you are an atheist or simply a lapsed churchgoer), this may well be the only time when you write checks to charities. Giving — unless a natural disaster catches your attention — is an annual event rather than a part of your everyday budget.

As an atheist and secular humanist, I find this scenario basically accurate (although there are many exceptions) because it used to fit me perfectly. I have changed in recent years because, like many secularists, I became disturbed by the gap between my values and my erratic giving. There is no doubt — although the gap has been exaggerated by some on the religious right to support its view of secularists as morally inferior — that the nonreligious give less than religious Americans.

But even allowing for the fact that most Americans spend most of their charitable dollars close to home, the religious give a higher percentage of their income, and are about 25 percent more likely to give, than do secularists. Indeed, believers are 10 percent more likely than secularists to give to secular causes (although they do not support these programs as generously as they support religion).

The question is why.
Well, the answer is simple. Religious people have two motivations for helping people that secularists don't. First, they believe themselves morally obligated to care for the poor. A secularist has no moral obligation to do anything for anyone. They may choose to help someone because they just feel they should, but they have no real duty to do so.

Second, Christians, at least, give to others from of a sense of gratitude to God for what He has done for them in Christ. He has lavished an incomprehensible love upon us and asks only that we love what He loves. He loves people, especially the poor, so we should, too. For the secularist the poor are really losers in a Darwinian lottery of survival of the fittest. They drag the species down and there's no reason to help them continue to do it. People like Ms Jacoby might never think that way, but that is certainly one logical consequence of her atheism whether or not she realizes it. Just read Ayn Rand.

She continues:
Arthur C. Brooks, in a 2003 Policy Review essay on faith and charitable giving, connects liberal secular support for government programs with personal stinginess. Yet Brooks acknowledges that religious involvement, not political ideology, plays the dominant role. Religious liberals are 19 percentage points more likely to give than secular liberals, and religious conservatives 28 percent more likely than secular conservatives.

[B]ut the death of my longtime partner was a more powerful motivator. There is nothing like losing the person you love most to make you understand the truth of all of those clichés about the finite time we have to make an impact in this world.
Yes, we have a finite time to make an impact, but worrying about it only makes sense if what we do here in this world matters for eternity. If our impact doesn't last more than a generation or two beyond our demise then what difference does it make? What will it matter once we're dead whether we gave money to feed the hungry in some far-off country so that those poor unfortunates could live a few more years until they die of something else? Why should Ms Jacoby, or anyone, care about the impact she makes if her life is really no more than a footprint in the sand at the edge of the surf?

If she wants to know why atheists are such scrooges the answer is that many of them simply live consistently, at least in this regard, with their fundamental assumptions that there is no God, there is no life after death, and there's no good reason why anyone should care about others, especially those who are in no position to return the favor.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Static Time

Mark Vernon contemplates the relationship between God and time at Big Questions Online. He writes:
Augustine made one of the best known and most insightful comments about time. “What then is time?” he wondered. “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

He puzzled over this most fundamental, and yet mysterious, aspect of the human condition in his Confessions, and arrived at a notion that was similar to Plato’s: the ancient Greek sage had defined time as “the moving image of eternity.” That fitted with Augustine’s conception of God, who had created time when He created the universe. To ask what God was doing before that great act is simply meaningless.

It’s an idea that’s stuck. And to some, it is entirely commensurate with the way modern physics grapples with the mystery. Here, time is typically envisaged as a relationship between events. Einstein presented what is referred to as the “block universe” – the notion that all times exist equally. (For comparison, Augustine wrote: “In the Eternal nothing passeth away, but that the whole is present.”)

So, what you see just depends on what you set t to in any given equation. “The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent,” the genius of relativity mused. He was so clear about the illusory nature of time that the thought even provided him with comfort in the face of death.
This is fascinating stuff, to be sure, but in my opinion it's even more fascinating to think that if it's true that the universe is a "block" and the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion what would happen if there really is life after death? Do we pass out of this "block universe" and into an eternal present where all of cosmic history falls simultaneously before our gaze, like taking in an entire page of a book at once?

If so, if we are at that point conscious beings which transcend the space-time manifold, would not all events in the history of the world be in our present? If that's so, then when we die every future event, including the future deaths of our loved ones, must happen simultaneously with our death. If that's so, when we die we could be immediately united with those who, on earth, still grieve our passing. But this would mean that our loved ones must have a kind of dual existence.

They would exist here on earth awaiting the future and simultaneously they'd exist in eternity where the future is in the present. In fact, if this is the case, all of us must have a dual existence, like quantum particles which can exist in more than one place at the same time. Perhaps the self that exists "there" is just as unaware of our existence "here" as our self here is unaware of our existence there.

Who knows? It seems to me, though, that if time is a block, an objective reality, and if there's some sense in which we survive physical death, there's no reason why this couldn't be the way things are.

Anyway, I better stop speculating about all this before you start to think that I'm dabbling with some mind-altering substance while sitting at my computer.

Insect Migration

Cornelius Hunter relates some interesting facts about migratory insects like butterflies:
Anyone who travels much by air knows that pilots try to ride the wind. Flights may even deviate substantially from the shortest-distance route if the wind is strong enough elsewhere. But of course the wind is not likely moving exactly toward your destination. Add to this the fact that the wind also varies with altitude, and the problem of designing the optimal route of flight becomes highly complex.

It is a problem in the calculus of variations (optimizing functionals rather than mere functions) and is analogous to the optics problem of predicting the path of light through a medium with variant refractive index. But this approach requires analytical wind fields, described with functions, rather than numerically derived winds described, for instance, on a grid. In practice the optimal routing problem is solved using various iterative methods. Amazingly, migratory insects also solve this type of problem.

Research using entomological radar has found that migratory insects such as butterflies and moths perform their own flight planning in order to optimize their flights across continents. They select the right time to ride the wind, and they determine the right altitude and flight heading to reach their destination (rather than where the wind is going). As one of the researchers explained:

"Migratory butterflies and moths have evolved an amazing capacity to use favourable tailwinds. By flying at the heights where the wind currents are fastest, migratory moths can travel between their summer and winter grounds in just a few nights."

Luna Moth Caterpillar
This is certainly remarkable, but what's even more remarkable is the fact that butterflies have the ability to migrate and navigate at all. How and why did such a complex behavior arise in such a tiny nervous system? I'm sure it can all be explained by fortuitous genetic mutations being selected for because they conferred a reproductive advantage on the insects that had them.

Adult Luna Moth
I'm sure, too, that lepidopteran metamorphosis can be explained the same way. Somehow caterpillars developed mutations that caused them to spin cocoons around themselves (after they developed the ability to spin out the fibers that make up the cocoon). And then they had more mutations that caused all their tissues to dissociate and migrate around inside the cocoon and then reassemble in the form of a folded-up butterfly. Then more mutations gave the folded up butterfly the ability to break out of the cocoon at just the right time of year and then pump air into the veins in their wings and fly away a completely different creature than they were when they went into the cocoon.

What's that you say? It sounds like a fairy tale? That sort of talk just shows that you don't understand the omnipotent, omniscient character of blind, impersonal, random forces in nature.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Taking a cue from a recent column by Denis Prager at NRO I venture here to list ten claims which I think are almost indisputably true but which people are very reluctant to discuss in polite politically correct society:

  1. People are not basically good.
  2. Men are generally superior to women in some ways and women are generally superior to men in others.
  3. African Americans are, in general, much better athletes than members of other groups.
  4. Black males are disproportionately responsible for violent crime in America.
  5. Jewish and Asian men are disproportionately successful over other groups in mathematics-related fields.
  6. Some ways of living are better for human flourishing than others.
  7. Many people are poor by choice.
  8. America was founded on principles derived from a Christian worldview.
  9. By almost any measure, America is the greatest nation in the history of the world.
  10. Americans are the most generous people in the history of the world.
Are any of these propositions false? If not, why is it almost taboo in our society to voice them? Why do we seem so afraid to say things that are true? Or am I wrong in thinking that people feel a certain inhibition about discussing such things publicly?

Each of these statements has important implications. If they are true we shouldn't shrink from discussing why they are true and what their truth means for public policy and education.


A little over a year ago philosopher of science Stephen Meyer came out with a book that has completely reoriented the Darwinism/ID debate. The book was titled Signature in the Cell and it presented a massive amount of evidence in favor of the proposition that living cells, even the most primitive, contain massive amounts of information. It further argued that information is not a feature of blind random processes such as those which are believed to have produced the first living things.

Touchstone magazine has an article on Meyer's book which, inter alia, says this:
Signature in the Cell has been the subject of intense controversy, mostly in what is known as the blogosphere, meaning electronic publications on the Internet. In a way, the attacks are only to be expected, because another thing we know from our uniform experience is that Darwinists tend to be bitterly resentful of any thinker who challenges the fundamental theory on which their careers have been built.

In another way, however, it is peculiar that there is such a furious and often ill-informed objection to a learned volume that isn’t even about the theory of biological evolution. The book advances well-reasoned arguments based on solid evidence about a prior problem—the origin of the cell’s information content—concerning which most scientists would concede that they know very little.

The one thing that many of these scientists think they do know for certain is that, however the cell may have originated, the process could only have involved natural (i.e., unintelligent) causes. But this conclusion is not something these scientists know from the evidence. On the contrary, it is something they know—or rather, think they know— regardless of the evidence. For a long time, it has been the rule in evolutionary science that, if the evidence does not support a fully naturalistic theory about both the origin of life and its subsequent development, then there must be something wrong with the evidence rather than with the theory or its underlying philosophy.

This last paragraph shines a light on the way many people think about evolution. They work from a basic theological assumption, i.e. either God doesn't exist or, if He does, He doesn't meddle with the natural world. This, it should be noted, is not a conclusion that science is qualified to render. It's not based on empirical evidence. It's a purely theological assumption about the existence and nature of God.

From that basic conviction, though, it's argued that, since there's no divine intervention into the natural world, however life arose it must have been through exclusively natural processes and any theory that denies this must be wrong because it contradicts the basic conviction. If you sense that this has about it the odor of a circular argument you wouldn't be wrong.

It's ironic that the theory that is everywhere hailed as scientific - naturalistic evolution - is at bottom religious (and circular). Yet this theory, based as it is upon theological assumptions about God, can be taught in public schools but Intelligent Design, which does not require any assumptions about God, cannot. Why is that?

Thanks to Evolution News and Views for the tip.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Doing Good and Feeling Good

Last week we did a couple of posts on helping the poor. I subsequently came across this article in The Globe and Mail by Margaret Wente titled Is Humanitarian Aid Bad For Africa? Here are a couple of key passages:
A growing number of humanitarian and development experts – including former true believers – argue that aid money frequently prolongs wars, props up dictators, impedes democracy, aids oppression and stifles human rights. Nowhere, they say, is this chain of unintended consequences more apparent than in Ethiopia.

The starving children of Ethiopia were not the victims of drought, as most people believed at the time. They were the victims of politics. The government of the time was using famine as an instrument of war, and the rebels were more interested in defeating the government than in feeding famine victims. As William Easterly, a leading aid skeptic, puts it, “It’s not the rains, it’s the rulers.” Political famines attract the food aid industry, with the consequence that governments or rebel groups are able to feed their own armies and divert resources to buy more weapons.

Most of us believe that humanitarian aid is a morally pure way to respond to suffering in the world. But what if our good intentions are just a newer version of colonialism? That’s what Mr. Gill thinks. “The colonial mindset of ‘we-know-best’ has surely persisted,” he writes. The trouble is that we haven’t learned the difference between doing good and feeling good. Until we do, many of our aid efforts will be worse than useless.
Let's do all we can to help the hungry and the sick, but let's make sure that the aid we send is getting to the people who need it and not being used to erect opulent palaces for the tyrants who run the country and crush their people.

Et Tu, Brute?

Morning Joe's Joe Scarborough, on the very liberal MSNBC mind you, reveals that the most powerful Democrats in the Senate are disenchanted with the President and criticizing him behind his back to media people like himself. This can't be good for the White House. If the President has his allies stabbing him in the back (It recalls to mind Shakespeare's Julius Caesar) how can there be anything but turmoil between the administration and the Congress for the next two years:
If it's true that the President has lost the confidence and loyalty of the Democrat committee chairs he may well be a lame duck with two years left in his first term. Indeed, there'll probably be a movement afoot to challenge him in the primary or to persuade him not to run*. Has a sitting president ever lost a primary challenge? Mr. Obama may be a historic president in ways he never imagined.

Thanks to Hot Air for the video.

* After I wrote this I came across this editorial. Prescience.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Gross Out

A couple of years ago, in one of the local parades hosted by the small city near which I reside, a local pastor marched with signs featuring photos of what happens to a fetus when it's aborted. The pictures were gruesome and repellant, which they were intended to be, and there was much tut-tutting by the local commentariat about the tastelessness and vulgarity displayed by the pastor. Children, after all, saw those signs and being too innocent to realize that it's okay to dismember unborn babies, they were upset.

Now comes word that HHS is considering requiring tobacco companies to put gross pictures of dead people on cigarette packs to try to discourage people from smoking.

Never mind the problem of having government insist on telling you what's good for you and compelling a legal business to incur the cost of packaging their product in such a way as to deter people from buying it. What I'd like to know is why it's okay to show photos of corpses on cigarette cartons to dissuade people from smoking, but it's over-the-line offensive to show people what happens to a baby in an abortion. Might the acceptability of the photos depend on the interest group which is being targeted?

If tobacco companies are forced to put these photos on their products shouldn't Planned Parenthood be obliged to put photos of aborted children in their brochures and on their walls? If not, why not?

The Free Exchange of Ideas

I was talking with a colleague the other day about what I think is an interesting aspect of paradigm shifts. It seems that when a new idea is struggling to gain a hearing its youthful defenders are wholly committed to the free exchange of ideas, open-mindedness, thinking outside the box, questioning authority, etc. but once the idea has been established as the new orthodoxy its now older advocates treat any alternative ideas which rise up to challenge it as heresies to be stifled, strangled, and crushed.

For example, in my undergraduate days, the Left was very big on freedom of speech. The dictum attributed to Voltaire that he may not agree with what you say but would fight to the death for your right to say it was on every young revolutionary's lips. The counterculture largely won the debate back then, and the notion that speech, any speech, might be censored, that some ideas be suppressed, was roundly repudiated. My hirsute classmates shaved, got a haircut (or went bald), donned a tie and percolated upward through academic and governmental hierarchies.

Now these former zealots for free speech comprise much of the "establishment", but somewhere along the road to power many of them have forsaken their idealistic reverence for the intellectual values they cherished as youths. Today those who challenge the reigning orthodoxies are often shouted down, denied tenure, or fired from NPR, by some of the same people who condemned the establishment forty years ago for being closed-minded, intolerant, and dogmatic.

In the back of my mind during the conversation with my colleague was a post I had read just the day before about the reaction of an evolutionary biologist named Jerry Coyne to an essay in NewScientist. An evolutionist named Ken Bennett who has, like a lot of other biologists, grown skeptical of the ability of natural selection to work the magic the Darwinian faithful believe it capable of, voiced his doubts in the new NewScientist article. Bennett's deviation from the Darwinian consensus didn't sit well with Professor Coyne who rent his garments and, like a character straight out of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, called for a boycott of NewScientist for the sin of publishing Professor Bennett's rather modest heresy.

When biologists were fighting to get evolution taught in schools back in the 1920s they argued that students should be able to hear ideas that challenge their religious beliefs, that this is the best way to sharpen young minds, etc. Now that the Darwinian paradigm is solidly ensconced in the academy all that talk of open minds and the free exchange of ideas is discarded like used tissues. Now the orthodox faith must be preserved and protected at all costs, freedom to express and consider contrary opinions is no longer useful and must be snuffed out. Books and journals that carry those opinions must be burned, or at least their publishers should be driven out of business.

Somebody should send Mr. Coyne a copy of John Stuart Mill's classic work On Liberty, or at least this excerpt:
"When a creed becomes hereditary, and is received passively, not actively - when the mind is no longer compelled, in the same degree as when the creed was new, to exercise it's vital powers on the questions which its belief presents to it, there is a progressive tendency to ... give it a dull and torpid assent ... until it almost ceases to connect itself at all with the inner life of teh human being....The creed remains as it were outside the mind, incrusting and petrifying it against all other influences...manifesting its power by not suffering any fresh and living convictions to get in, but itself doing nothing for the mind or heart, except standing sentinel over them to keep them vacant."
You can read more about the brouhaha over Bennett's article at Telic Thoughts.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bush Approved Waterboarding

We've talked about this topic in dozens of previous posts (as the results of typing the word "torture" into our search feature will show), but the release of former President George W. Bush's new book gives us occasion to bring it up again. Here's an excerpt from the Washington Post article on the book:
Human rights experts have long pressed the administration of former president George W. Bush for details of who bore ultimate responsibility for approving the simulated drownings of CIA detainees, a practice that many international legal experts say was illicit torture.

In a memoir due out Tuesday, Bush makes clear that he personally approved the use of that coercive technique against alleged Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed, an admission the human rights experts say could one day have legal consequences for him.

In his book, titled "Decision Points," Bush recounts being asked by the CIA whether it could proceed with waterboarding Mohammed, who Bush said was suspected of knowing about still-pending terrorist plots against the United States. Bush writes that his reply was "Damn right" and states that he would make the same decision again to save lives, according to a someone close to Bush who has read the book.
The human rights community and a lot of other people are aghast that Americans would have used "torture" on a terrorist, and even more appalled, perhaps, that Bush would seem so unrepentant about it, but I've never been sure why. Before I explain, I think it's noteworthy that no one did anything to Mohammed until it was approved at the highest levels. "Enhanced interrogation" was not undertaken lightly by American interrogators. Whether to use such methods was considered a matter of the utmost gravity.

But was Bush's decision wrong? Let's leave to the lawyers the question of its legality and focus instead on its morality. Pundits an several shows this week have asserted the immorality of waterboarding Kalid Sheik Mohammed as if it were self-evident that doing what is illegal is ipso facto immoral, but I'm not sure they're right.

Surely it is morally wrong to torture someone for the reasons that many thugs use torture around the world today. To torture someone for revenge, for punishment, for amusement, even for routine interrogation purposes, is simply evil.

But the assumption that is being made when the pundits say it is morally wrong is that it is absolutely wrong, that there is no circumstance, nor can there be, in which it would ever be justified. If they really believe this, however, then I question whether they have thought the matter through.

About a year and a half ago I did a post in which I argued that if we love people there may be circumstances, in this fallen world we inhabit, in which torture is morally right. That sounds paradoxical, I know, so let me share with you what I wrote and then you can tell me where my error lies:
In my philosophy class we talk about love, distinguishing the sort of love we have for our fellow man from eros or romantic love. We define the former as treating people with dignity, respect, and kindness.

With that background I was asked the other day by a student how I reconcile the notion that we owe that kind of love to others with my belief that torture is not absolutely wrong.

This is a fair question and deserved an answer. Here's how, had I had the time, I would have replied:

Our obligation to love is a prima facie obligation. By that I mean that we owe respect and kindness to every individual until such time as the obligation to treat one person with love comes in conflict with our obligation to others who also have a claim, perhaps a greater claim, on our love.

When a man threatens the lives of others, particularly those I have a special obligation to protect and for whom I have a special bond of love, then it would be unloving to fail to do everything in my power to stop him. He has nullified my obligation to treat him with respect and kindness and forced me to choose between loving him and loving those he threatens. The moral course in such a circumstance, the course that I believe is demanded by the obligation to love, is to protect the innocent and to stop those who would harm them.

If stopping the guilty entails doing him harm then so be it, but the harm done should, whenever possible, be never greater than what's necessary to remove the threat. Nor should it ever be something one feels good about inflicting. A government which feels compelled to use "torture" (I use quotes because the definition of torture is so broad as to include almost any kind of incivility - a fact which really renders the word almost meaningless) to save the lives of its people is justified in doing so as long as that's the only reason it's used and so long as it's never continued beyond the point where it accomplishes its purpose.

Love is not a warm feeling toward other people, nor is it sentimentality. Sometimes, as in the case of a surgeon operating in a Civil War field hospital without anesthetics, doing the right thing means causing great pain. Sometimes, as in dealing with modern terrorism, doing the right thing for one person entails causing pain to another.

Perhaps you disagree and would argue that "torture" is absolutely wrong, that there's never any justification for it. Before you commit to such a view, though, ask yourself whether you would condemn a man who saved the life of your child by causing her abductor pain in order to coax him to reveal where his accomplices were holding her (cf. the movie Taken).

Before you say that the man was wrong to do this, imagine looking your child in the eyes after she has been rescued from people who were abusing her and preparing to murder her or sell her into child slavery or the sex trade, and telling her that you would rather she not have been rescued than for her rescue to have entailed that pain be inflicted on the man who kidnapped, molested and planned to kill her.

Perhaps you could say that to your child, but if not, then you agree that torture is not absolutely wrong. If that's your position then the question that next needs to be answered is not "should we torture?" but rather, "how should we define torture?" and "under what circumstances is torture morally justified?" The sooner we have that debate the better off we'll be as a nation.
The question to pose to those who condemn Mr. Bush is, do they really think torture is absolutely wrong in the moral sense or was it just wrong in the circumstances in which it was used against Kalid Mohammed. If the answer is the latter then we should ask what it was about those circumstances that made it wrong in that case. For my part I think it would be very difficult to provide a compelling answer to that question.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Values and Duties

Frans de Waal has a follow up at The Opinionator to his post last month titled Morals Without God about which we commented here. Apparently de Waal has received a lot of angry emails from atheists taking him to task for being insufficiently hostile to religion.

His response affords an occasion to emphasize more explicitly than I perhaps did in the earlier post what I think is an important distinction in the discussion of whether God is necessary for morality.

Atheists will often insist that they can be, and often are, just as morally good as anyone else and that God is not necessary for them to be so. What they mean by this, I take it, is that they can hold the same values as does any believer without the concomitant belief in God. An atheist can be just as kind, generous, peaceful, gentle, loving, etc. as anyone else.

My argument is that this is certainly true, but it's entirely beside the point. The debate is not over whether an atheist can hold a particular set of moral values, the debate is over whether an atheist is constrained by any moral obligation to abide by one set of values rather than another. In other words, if atheism is true can there be moral duty?

The answer to that, it seems to me, is no. If there is no transcendent moral authority to impose an obligation on us to, say, care for the poor, then there is no such obligation. It might be objected that the individual himself can impose the obligation, but a self-imposed obligation is an illusion. If someone sets himself up as his own moral authority and imposes an obligation upon himself then he surely has the authority to rescind the obligation whenever it suits him. An obligation that can be repudiated whenever the person who is under the obligation chooses to cast it off is no obligation at all.

An atheist can choose to be kind and generous, but if he's right about God his choice simply reflects an arbitrary preference. Had he chosen to be cruel and selfish he would not be wrong. His values could not be said to be morally inferior, they're just different values.

An irony in all this is that the atheist lives by a superstition. She believes that something called moral right exists when in fact, on atheism, it not only doesn't exist, it cannot exist. But this means that an atheist should logically be a nihilist and most atheists cannot live with that conclusion even though its where their reason leads them. Instead they deny what reason dictates and live instead by their feelings. In order to believe that moral values matter, that some values are better than others, they must leave reason behind and make an irrational leap based upon their own personal moral tastes.

A further irony is that certain of their number (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al.) then scoff at Christians and other theists for holding what they allege is an irrational belief in God. They claim that the Christian is irrational despite the fact that a Christian can live perfectly consistently within his basic assumptions about God, whereas most atheists cannot live at all consistently with theirs.

It'd be funny were it not so tragic.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Reducing the Deficit

It looks like we're at least getting some movement on reducing spending and trimming entitlements. The two co-chairs of a presidential commission established to come up with ideas for reducing our government's enormous appetite for spending have produced a series of proposals that has in it something to antagonize pretty much everyone, but at least it should give us something to build upon:
A presidential commission’s leaders proposed a $3.8 trillion deficit-cutting plan that would trim Social Security and Medicare, reduce income-tax rates and eliminate tax breaks including the mortgage-interest deduction.

The plan would throw out hundreds of tax breaks for items such as capital gains and child care. It would raise the gas tax, slash defense spending and bring down health-care costs by clamping down on medical malpractice suits. The Social Security retirement age would rise to 68 in about 2050 and 69 in about 2075.

None of the proposals would take effect next year to avoid disrupting the economic recovery. Under one option, income-tax rates would be reduced to three levels: 8 percent, 14 percent and 23 percent. Currently there are six tax levels ranging from 10 percent to 35 percent. The corporate income-tax rate would be cut to 26 percent from 35 percent.

Wiping out all tax breaks, including the home mortgage deduction, while lowering rates would cost taxpayers $100 billion a year under the plan.

Increasing taxes and cutting defense spending will not be popular with conservatives, although the simplified tax rates will be, and Nancy Pelosi has already voiced her objection to tinkering with Medicare and Social Security:
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California called the plan “simply unacceptable,” saying older Americans “are counting on the bedrock promises of Social Security and Medicare.”
This seems an odd objection since as far as I can tell from the article, few of today's "older Americans" will still be around when the new retirement age goes into effect.

Anyway, a detailed list of proposals can be found here. Something has to be done soon as one of the chairmen said when the proposals were released:
“This country’s out of money and we better start thinking,” said Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of the panel created by President Barack Obama. Without “tough choices,” Bowles said, “we’re on the most predictable path toward an economic crisis that I can imagine.”
Indeed. If we don't do something to reign in entitlements and reduce the deficit the country our children and grandchildren inhabit will look very much different, and very much poorer, than the country we live in today.

Microfinance in China

Yesterday we talked about microfinance as a great way to help the world's poor improve their condition. I received this email in response, and I thought some of our readers might be interested in it:
To Viewpoint,

My name is Brendan Rigby, and I am a volunteer representative of Wokai a microfinance organisation dedicated to poverty alleviation in China. We are currently raising awareness of poverty and microfinance in China and how everyone can now get involved.

Essentially, Wokai is a peer-to-peer approach to microfinance that was created by two young social entrepreneurs. It is an innovative, contributor-driven microfinance website that connects contributors in the international community with borrowers in China. Contributors can choose borrowers to support, watch repayments, and pick who to fund next. Unlike much of the global sector, the impact of a contributor's donation is visible and apparent through Wokai.

Wokai has also built a community of contributors through the website, in which users can access user-rated and user-generated content on microfinance in China. We also encourage other social entrepreneurs to establish Wokai Chapters in their city to mobilise support and encourage others to get involved. Through information and capital exchange, Wokai aims to grow the microfinance sector in China and correspondingly increase opportunities for the poor to generate a sustainable livelihood and access education and healthcare services.

We are currently reaching out to bloggers such as yourself to help us build this community of contributors. We would be very appreciative your support in our effort to raise awareness build community support.

Microfinance in China is an extremely underdeveloped and overlooked issue that deserves more attention. Poverty in China is often overlooked and overshadowed. According to World Bank and UN statistics, around 200 million Chinese live on less than US$1.25 a day. China's financial and banking system makes it difficult for entrepreneurs and small business owners to access loan credit, especially in rural areas.

Since the website launch in November 2008, Wokai has raised over US$374.000 in loan capital, attracted 6,700 contributors, and empowered 491 borrowers. Wokai works closely with two Chinese microfinance institutions (MFI) in Sichuan and Inner Mongolia, achieving a 99.5% on-time repayment rate. By the end of 2011, Wokai is aiming to raise US$1 million in loan captial to expand its partnerships with Chinese MFIs. This is an achieveable goal, but not without more support from individuals passionate about empowering families to lift themselves from poverty.

Thank you for your time, love reading the blog and I look forward to speaking further about microfinance in China and Wokai.
I encourage readers to check out Wokai's webpage here.