Friday, February 12, 2010

Ultimate Causes

In a recent interview mathematician Granville Sewell makes the following interesting point:

A typical college physics text I read contains the statement "One of the most remarkable simplifications in physics is that only four distinct forces account for all known phenomena." Most people just haven't ever thought about things in this way, that if you don't believe in intelligent design, you must believe this claim, that the four unintelligent forces of physics caused atoms on Earth to rearrange themselves into nuclear power plants, spaceships and computers. When they do think about it, they may start to see things a little differently. This is part of the "broader view" that is often missed by biologists, but noticed by mathematicians and physicists.

He's right that most people never stop to think about this. Either human minds, libraries, computer software, and jet engines are ultimately the product of an intelligent designer or they're ultimately the product of blind, purposeless forces like gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces.

Why is it somehow more rational to believe the latter than to believe the former? Why is it thought to take more faith to believe the former than to believe the latter? Indeed, it's more than a little ridiculous that people who believe the latter often make fun of those who believe the former.


Who Is Ayn Rand?

There's a revival of interest in the work of the woman who was in many ways the philosophical fountainhead of modern libertarianism, Ayn Rand, and Cathy Young explains for a new generation who Rand was and why she's significant. Young highlights both the salutary lessons Rand has to teach we the living in this age of creeping collectivization as well as the toxic liabilities embedded in many of her ideas:

Ayn Rand, the controversial Russian-born American writer, would have turned 105 years old on February 2. This anniversary takes place amidst a Rand mini-revival, sparked by the Obama Administrations push to expand government and resulting fears of socialism on the march. There has been a spike in sales of Rand's books, particularly Atlas Shrugged, the 1957 novel depicting a quasi-totalitarian future America in which the best, the brightest and the most productive go on strike in protest. Some bloggers have bandied about the idea of such a strike under Obama going Galt, after John Galt, the leader of the revolt in the novel. Rand has recently appeared on the cover of Reason, the libertarian monthly (where I am a contributing editor) and of GQ where she was the target of a profane, vitriolic rant.

Who is Ayn Rand, and what does her renewed popularity mean? A refugee from Soviet Russia who fled Communist dictatorship in the 1920s, Rand called herself a radical for capitalism rather than a conservative. Her vision, articulated in several novels and later in nonfiction essays as the philosophy of Objectivism, earned her a sometimes cult-like following in her lifetime and beyond it.

Politically, Rand wanted to provide liberal capitalism with a moral foundation, challenging the notion that communism was a noble but unrealistic ideal while the free market was a necessary evil best suited to humanity's flawed nature. Her arguments against "compassionate" redistribution, and persecution, of wealth have lost none of their power and persuasiveness. In an era when collectivism was often seen as the inevitable way of the future, she unapologetically asserted the worth of individual and each persons right to exist for himself.

It's an interesting article and an excellent introduction, perhaps even an anthem, to a very complex and influential woman.

(My apologies to those of you familiar enough with Rand to have winced your way through this post. For some reason I just couldn't resist the temptation.)


Fallujah in Afghanistan

The news brings word of an impending attack on the Afghanistan city of Marjah. The tactical template for the assault is presumed to be the battle some five years ago for the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Strategy Page explains:

The battle of Fallujah, in late 2004, become something of a case study for military historians and doctrine ("how to fight") experts. Like Marjah, the residents of Fallujah were warned that an attack was coming, and advised to get out. Most did. The subsequent Fallujah fighting was quite intense, even by historical standards, and the media missed a lot of the important details. What was noticed was how quickly the army and marine troops blitzed through the city, clearing out the 4,000 very determined defenders. The speed and efficiency of the American attack was the result of some unique, in the history of warfare, factors. But the principal reason for the success in Fallujah was the high degree of training the troops had. Many also had months of combat experience in Iraq. These factors (training and combat experience) have long been key factors in combat success. But the American troops in Fallujah had some relatively new advantages, that were used aggressively. These included massive amounts of information on the enemy, and robotic weapons. The standard gear of the 5,000 attacking troops was also exceptionally good by historical standards. Especially notable was the improved body armor and communications gear.

The end result of all this was a two week campaign that resulted in some 500 American and Iraqi casualties, but the obliteration of the defending force (1,200 killed, 1,500 captured, the rest either got out, or were buried in bombed buildings). While the enemy were not, compared to the U.S. troops, well trained, they were motivated, and often refused to surrender. But the speed and violence of the American assault prevented any coordinated defense. The U.S. troops quickly cut the city into sectors, that were then methodically cleared out.

The terrorists that got out later all repeated the same story. Once the Americans were on to you it was like being stalked by a machine. The often petrified defender could only remember the footsteps of the approaching American troops inside a building, the gunfire and grenade blasts as rooms were cleared and the shouted commands that accompanied it. If a building was so well defended that the American infantry could not get in, they would just obliterate it with a smart bomb. They used smaller weapons, like AT-4 rocket launchers, many of which fuel-air explosive (thermobaric) warheads. These would use an explosive mist to create a lethal blast, capable of clearing several rooms at once. The defenders could occasionally kill or wound the advancing Americans, but could not stop them. Nothing the defenders did worked, and the American tactics developers want to keep it that way.

The speed with which intelligence information (from troops, electronic intercepts, and constant live video via UAVs and gunships overhead) was processed enabled commanders to keep the battle going 24/7. The defenders were not ready to deal with this, and many of them died while groggy from lack of sleep. When in that condition, you are more prone to make mistakes, and the attackers were ready to take advantage.

Compared to earlier wars, there has never been anything quite like Fallujah. The Pentagon saw this as a good example of how to clear a city of fanatical defenders, with minimal friendly and civilian casualties. Fallujah was seen as the future of warfare. How accurate that assessment is will be seen soon in Marjah.

The media hasn't had much to say about Afghanistan lately and very little to say about the coming operation in Marjah, but it's apparently going to kick off any day now.


Philosophy of Religion

Those readers with an interest in philosophy of religion and Christian apologetics will find William Lane Craig's site called Reasonable Faith an excellent resource. Craig is one of the foremost philosophers of religion in the U.S. and has appeared in numerous debates over the years defending traditional orthodox Christianity. He has also been addressing a different question submitted by readers each week and his answers are usually very lucid. There's an archive on the home page which lists the 146 questions he's addressed so far.

For those who have a graduate level interest in the subject I recommend The Prosblogion, but be advised that the material here is highly technical.