Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Two Very Different Black Men

Lloyd Marcus is a black man who, he confides, is the only politically conservative person in his family, a circumstance that is fraught with trials and frustrations. Marcus pens an essay in which he undertakes to help his siblings understand him by explaining to them the basic differences between conservatism and liberalism.

Here's his lede:
About 99.9% of my family are Democrats because Marcus family tradition taught us that the democrats are "for the little guy." Republicans are "rich white racists." Liberal media and the Democratic Party jointly support and promote this silly, simple lie, which still wins the Democrats 95% of the black vote.

Despite me, the eldest of his five children, being a black conservative Tea-Party Republican, my 84-year-old dad's negative view of Republicans remains steadfast. Dad tolerates my baffling political views because he loves me.

However, I would not be surprised if my family scheduled an intervention. A black van pulls up, a hood is thrown over my head, and I'm carted off to an undisclosed location. I am denied food, water, and bathroom privileges, and I am subjected to video of Obama speeches 24/7 until I break.

It occurred to me that my family, like many Americans, is probably clueless regarding the truth of what it means to be a liberal or a conservative. Ironically, the majority of my family live extremely responsible "conservative" lives. They go to work every day, serve their communities, attend church, and raise their kids. And yet, the liberal media has led them to believe that the term "conservative" equals evil white racist.

So I would like to offer my family and others a little "Conservatism 101." Let us begin with a parable.
The parable, as well as the rest of his column, can be found at the link. Meanwhile, since we're profiling prominent blacks in the media, let's take a look at one of MSNBC's latest hires. I don't intend this to be a comparison with Lloyd Marcus because there really is no comparison. The only reason for bringing this man up is that apparently MSNBC considers him a representative voice of the African-American left.

The man's name is Al Sharpton, and his past record as a political activist and agitator is quite out of phase with his current rhetoric. Presumably, it matters little to MSNBC, but Mr. Sharpton has one of the most odious personal histories of anyone in their lineup.

An account of Mr. Sharpton's sundry bigotries can be found here, but for those pressed for time this video gives an inkling of both the style and the liberalism of Mr. Sharpton.
Here's the transcript in case you had trouble understanding the audio:
“White folks was [sic] in caves while we [Africans] was building empires.... We taught philosophy and astrology and mathematics before Socrates and them Greek homos ever got around to it.”
Evidently calling people "homos" is not a disqualifier for employment at progressive cable stations like MSNBC. It would appear that at that network all that matters is that you detest conservatives. If you satisfy that all-important criterion then perhaps you're given a pass on everything else.

Feminism's Mixed Legacy

Dennis Prager writes a provocative essay on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. Prager argues that the legacy of feminism is a mixed bag of good and bad, but on balance it's mostly bad.

He begins with this:
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan's feminist magnum opus, "The Feminine Mystique," we can have a perspective on feminism that was largely unavailable heretofore. And that perspective doesn't make feminism look good. Yes, women have more opportunities to achieve career success; they are now members of most Jewish and Christian clergy; women's college sports teams are given huge amounts of money; and there are far more women in political positions of power. But the prices paid for these changes -- four in particular -- have been great, and they outweigh the gains for women, let alone for men and for society.
The rest of the piece is given to arguing that these four aspects of the feminist legacy have been devastating for society in general and women in particular. Here's his summation:
In sum, thanks to feminism, very many women slept with too many men for their own happiness; postponed marriage too long to find the right man to marry; are having hired hands do much of the raising of their children; and now find they are dating boy-men because manly men are so rare.
I encourage you to read his supporting arguments at the link. They're very interesting.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Three Differences

Part of the difficulty the average person encounters in trying to follow present day ideological debates is a confusion of labels. Lots of people don't like labels, of course, but the fact is they are extremely useful and very hard to avoid.

As an example of label confusion, consider that modern conservatives hold views which in the 19th century were considered liberal. Thus, conservatives today are sometimes referred to as classical liberals, which is certainly confusing.

On the other hand, modern liberals hold many views which in the 19th century were associated with socialism. Today these liberals/socialists are often referred to as progressives, which has a more innocuous ring to it, at least to the ear of many Americans.

This short video does a nice job of illustrating three basic differences between classical liberalism (i.e. modern conservativism) and modern progressivism. There are other differences besides these three, to be sure, but these are pretty fundamental:
Thanks to Hot Air for the link to the video.

Neuroscientists vs. the Philosophers

An article at Nature News takes up the disparate ways in which neuroscientists and philosophers think about the problem of Free Will.

Neuroscience has shown that prior to a conscious choice the relevant part of the brain shows excitation, as if the brain makes the decision seconds before we are aware of it. Some investigators conclude from this that the brain determines the decision which, say the philosophers, is a bit naive. After all, we would expect that the brain plays some role in the decision-making process, but evidence that it plays a role in the choice is not evidence that it determines the choice.

Even so, if it were to turn out from analyzing brain states that it were possible to completely predict the decision that's ultimately made that would indeed be powerful evidence for determinism. We are, however, very far from being able to do such a thing:
Imagine a situation (philosophers like to do this) in which researchers could always predict what someone would decide from their brain activity, before the subject became aware of their decision. "If that turned out to be true, that would be a threat to free will," says Mele. Still, even those who have perhaps prematurely proclaimed the death of free will agree that such results would have to be replicated on many different levels of decision-making. Pressing a button or playing a game is far removed from making a cup of tea, running for president or committing a crime.
Whatever the case, if libertarian free will is shown to be an illusion, as many scientists believe, the consequences will be severe, but not even these scientists can live consistently with the belief the future is already set and that their choices are already determined.
The practical effects of demolishing free will are hard to predict. Biological determinism doesn't hold up as a defense in law. Legal scholars aren't ready to ditch the principle of personal responsibility. "The law has to be based on the idea that people are responsible for their actions, except in exceptional circumstances," says Nicholas Mackintosh, director of a project on neuroscience and the law run by the Royal Society in London.

Even so, if free will is an illusion, it's one which is very hard to escape, even for those most conscious of its unreality: Haynes's research and its possible implications have certainly had an effect on how he thinks. He remembers being on a plane on his way to a conference and having an epiphany. "Suddenly I had this big vision about the whole deterministic universe, myself, my place in it and all these different points where we believe we're making decisions just reflecting some causal flow." But he couldn't maintain this image of a world without free will for long. "As soon as you start interpreting people's behaviours in your day-to-day life, it's virtually impossible to keep hold of," he says.

Fried, too, finds it impossible to keep determinism at the top of his mind. "I don't think about it every day. I certainly don't think about it when I operate on the human brain."
The whole article is worth reading for anyone interested in the contemporary interface between neuroscience and philosophy. The question of free will is not simply an ivory tower exercise. There are a number of consequences which follow if it turns out that determinism is true, none of them good.

If it is the case that our choices are determined by extrinsic causes like environment or our genes then there can be no such thing as a moral obligation since we can only be obligated to do what's possible to do. Nor would reward and punishment ever be deserved since no one is ultimately responsible for their choices. The categories of good and evil would cease to be meaningful as moral categories since without moral obligation there really is no morality. Human dignity, which is based on an ability to choose our path, would be difficult to maintain and for those who are theists it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that the pain and suffering in the world is ultimately authored by God.

Any one of these consequences would by itself be disastrous for civilization. Let's hope that those neuroscientists intent on proving that they don't really have the freedom to choose to believe their theories or to reject them, but are determined by factors beyond their control to believe whatever they believe, come to discover that that notion makes not only their science but all of life incoherent. It's no wonder that they can't live consistently with it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Sophie Scholl

The other evening I watched what may have been the best movie I've seen in several years. The film is titled Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. Released in 2006 it's not only based on a true story, but much of the crucial dialogue was taken from the reminiscences of people involved with Sophie as well as official transcripts of her interrogation and trial.

Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans were devout Christians who were members of a resistance movement in Nazi Germany called the White Rose. They printed flyers which they then circulated among university students and others to attempt to counter the propaganda put out by the Nazi government.

The Scholls were caught, and the heart of the movie is the intense confrontation between Sophie and her Gestapo interrogator, Robert Mohr. Together with the final scene of her trial, every word of which was taken from transcripts, it is some of the most riveting dialogue you'll ever find in a movie. Both the acting and the cinematography are superb. The whole picture is shot in grays and browns except for Sophie's sweater which becomes an unspoken symbol of light and goodness in the otherwise drear, depressing world created by state atheism.

Julia Jentsch plays Sophie Scholl, Gerald Alexander Held plays Robert Mohr, and the trial judge, the insane Roland Friesler, is played by Andre Hennicke. All three are outstanding in these roles.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is a film about courage, faith, and martyrdom in the face of demonic evil. It shows the German people of the early 1940s at both their best and their worst. I highly recommend it, especially to those who appreciate films like Schindler's List and The Lives of Others.

All About Nothing

New Scientist offers a brief explanation of how the universe could have popped into existence out of "nothing." Actually, what it is is a mathematical account of how such a counter-intuitive event might be explained. It's pretty interesting:
An accompanying article by Paul Davies gives much more detail. Here's an excerpt:
So the modern conception of the vacuum [i.e. "empty space"]is one of a seething ferment of quantum-field activity, with waves surging randomly this way and that. In quantum mechanics, waves also have characteristics of particles, so the quantum vacuum is often depicted as a sea of short-lived particles - photons for the electromagnetic field, gravitons for the gravitational field, and so on - popping out of nowhere and then disappearing again.

Wave or particle, what one gets is a picture of the vacuum that is reminiscent, in some respects, of the ether. It does not provide a special frame of rest against which bodies may be said to move, but it does fill all of space and have measurable physical properties such as energy density and pressure.
Evidently, according to scientists who study these things, there is no such thing as nothing. Empty space is not completely empty. Very well, but I'm not sure how this explains the origin of the universe since before there was a universe there was no space and thus no vacuum out of which it could have arisen.

I suppose one might respond that our universe is actually only one of a multitude of universes embedded in a pre-existing space, like bubbles floating in the air, out of which our world arose. This, though, sounds more like metaphysical speculation than empirical science.

In any event, the universe is a very, very strange place.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Illegal Immigration (Pt. II)

Yesterday I posted a column explaining why it's necessary to stop illegal immigration. Today's post offers some suggestions as to how to do that in a way I believe finds the best balance between justice and compassion.

The issue is contentious, to be sure, but I think the American people would be willing to accept a two-stage measure which looks something like this:

The first stage would guarantee that a border fence be completed where feasible and the entire border secured. This is the sine qua non of any serious immigration reform. There's no point in painting the house while the ceiling is still leaking. Once our borders are impervious to all but the most dauntless and determined, and once this has been duly certified by a trustworthy authority or commission, then the situation of those already here could be addressed, but not until.

After certification, any subsequent plan for what to do with those already in the country illegally could be crafted to avoid the worst elements of amnesty and yet demonstrate compassion for people desperate to make a decent living. To that end, once the border is secure, I believe Congress would find public support for legislation that allows illegals to stay in the country indefinitely as "guest workers" with no penalty if the following provisos were also adopted and enforced:

1) Illegal aliens would be required to apply for a government identification card, similar to the "green card." After a reasonable grace period anyone without proper ID would be subject to deportation. This would be a one-time opportunity so that aliens entering the country illegally in the future would be unable to legally acquire a card.

2) No one who had entered the country illegally would at any time be eligible for citizenship (unless they leave the country and reapply through proper channels). Nor would they be entitled to the benefits of citizens. They would not be eligible to vote, or to receive food stamps, unemployment compensation, subsidized housing, AFDC, earned income tax credits, social security, Medicare, etc.

They would have limited access to taxpayer largesse, although churches and other private charitable organizations would be free to render whatever assistance they wish. Whatever taxes the workers pay would be part of the price of living and working here.

3) Their children, born on our soil, would no longer be granted automatic citizenship (This would require amending the 14th amendment of the Constitution), though they could attend public schools. Moreover, these children would become eligible for citizenship at age eighteen provided they graduate from high school, earn a GED, or serve in the military.

4) There would be no "chain" immigration. Those who entered illegally would not be permitted to bring their families here. If they wish to see their loved ones they should return home.

5) Any criminal activity, past or future, would be sufficient cause for immediate deportation, as would any serious infraction of the motor vehicle code.

6) There would be no penalty for businesses which employ guest workers, and workers would be free to seek employment anywhere they can find it. Neither the workers nor their employers would have to live in fear of the INS.

This is just an outline, of course, and there are details to be worked out, but it's both simpler and fairer than mass deportation or amnesty. Those who have followed the rules for citizenship wouldn't be leap-frogged by those who didn't, and illegals who have proper ID would benefit by being able to work without fear.

The long-term cost to taxpayers of illegal immigration would be considerably reduced, trouble-makers among the immigrant population would be deported, and American businesses would not be responsible for background investigations of job applicants.

It would also provide incentive for American youngsters to get an education and acquire skills so they don't have to compete for jobs with unskilled immigrants willing to work for lower wages. The one group that would "lose" would be the politicians who wish to pad their party's voter rolls. They'd be out of luck.

Of course, this proposal won't satisfy those who insist that we send all illegals packing, nor will it please those who think the requirements for letting them stay are too stringent, but it seems a more simple, practical, just, and humane solution to the problem than most other plans that have been suggested.

To be sure, it entails a kind of amnesty, but it doesn't reward illegals with the benefits of citizenship as does amnesty as it is usually conceived. The "amnesty" is contingent upon first stopping the flow of illegals across the border and also upon immigrants keeping themselves out of trouble while they're here.

If, however, these conditions for being allowed to work in this country proved too onerous, if illegal immigrants concluded they could do better elsewhere, they would, of course, be free to leave.

Quantum Weirdness

From time to time we've mentioned how quantum physics presents a serious obstacle to those who want to argue that the universe and everything in it, including us, is merely a physical machine subject to the inexorable laws of Newtonian mechanics. We've speculated that, to the contrary, quantum mechanics suggests that the most fundamental characteristic of the universe may be mind and that matter and physicality may simply be illusions created by mind.

Be that as it may, whatever the ontological implications of the quantum world are it's agreed by all that it's a very strange place.

This PBS Nova video featuring Brian Greene takes the viewer on a jaunt through some of the more fascinating aspects of quantum weirdness. In it Greene discusses things like superposition - the property of very tiny particles to be in more than one place at a time; wave-particle duality - the paradoxical notion that everything is really both a wave and a particle simultaneously; the observer effect - the idea that the existence of things is in some way dependent upon their being observed, and quantum entanglement - the truly bizarre notion that an observation made of a particle here instantaneously effects particles on the other side of the universe.

The video is about 45 minutes long, but it's well-worth watching if you wish to gain a better familiarity with these phenomena. One thing to keep in mind is that though the video will help acquaint you with the phenomena, it probably won't help you understand them. Nobody really understands them.


Watch The Fabric of the Cosmos: Quantum Leap on PBS. See more from NOVA.

Thanks to Uncommon Descent for the tip.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Illegal Immigration (Pt. I)

The most recent Republican presidential debate generated something of a kerfuffle when Newt Gingrich proposed a quasi-amnesty for illegal aliens. What he said reminded me of a pair of columns I wrote for the local paper a few years back.

The numbers are perhaps a little dated now, but I think the arguments are just as valid today as they were then. The piece I put up today addresses why we must stop illegal immigration, and tomorrow I'll talk about what I think we should do about the illegals who are already here:
Pennsylvania state legislators, responding to mounting evidence that the flood of illegal aliens across our southern border is putting a serious strain on our national well-being, have introduced a bill that would make Pennsylvania a less desirable destination for people who are here illegally.

To understand what motivates this legislation consider just a few points made by Pat Buchanan in his book State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America:
  • In 2005 there were 687 assaults on border agents, twice the figure for 2004.
  • In 2004 160,000 non-Mexicans were caught illegally crossing our border. Only 30,000 were returned.
  • Federal agents are required to release illegal immigrants if their home countries refuse to take them back.
  • In George Bush's first 4.5 years in office approximately 4 million people entered this country illegally.
  • Police in so-called "sanctuary cities" are prohibited from apprehending known illegal or criminal aliens. Gang members in L.A. who are in violation of deportation orders may not be arrested by police.
  • In L.A. 95% of all outstanding warrants for homicide, some 1200 to 1500, are for illegal aliens.
  • 66% of the 17,000 outstanding fugitive felony warrants in L.A. are for illegal aliens.
  • 12,000 of the 20,000 members of the 18th Street Gang in California are illegals.
  • Between 300,000 and 350,000 "anchor babies" are born to illegal aliens each year. These children, one in every ten babies born in the U.S., are automatically citizens and qualify for all benefits of citizenship.
  • Between 10% and 20% of all Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean peoples have moved to the U.S.
  • One in twelve illegals caught by the border patrol has a criminal record. It's estimated that 300,000 felons have crossed into the U.S. in the last five years.
  • Mara Salvatrucha, a gang responsible for numerous rapes, murders, mutilations and other crimes, has 8,000 to 10,000 members in 33 states. The illegal aliens in this gang are almost immune to police arrest and deportation because they operate in sanctuary cities. The gang is comprised primarily of El Salvadoran illegals.
  • Illegals are bringing diseases that had been virtually eradicated in the U.S. Malaria, polio, hepatitis, tuberculosis, leprosy, syphilis and other diseases are all skyrocketing in the southwest. From 1960 to 2000 there were only 900 reported cases of leprosy in the U.S. In the first three years of the 21st century there were 7000.
  • Since few illegals have health insurance and since hospitals are obligated to care for them, 84 California hospitals closed their doors between 1994 and 2003 because they could not afford to provide free medical care for the numerous illegals who needed it.
  • Immigrants in general, and illegals in particular, are depressing the wages of low-skilled Americans by almost 8% according to Paul Krugman of the NYT.
  • It's a myth that immigrants help the economy by paying taxes. The cost of schooling, health care, welfare, social security and prisons, plus the costs of pressure on resources like water, land, and power far exceed the revenue that immigrants, legal and illegal, contribute. The net cost to the taxpayer, imposed by immigrants, has been estimated at around $108 billion for 2006.
The above is but a fraction of the crisis Buchanan outlines in his book. Other sources estimate that as many as twelve Americans are murdered every day by illegal aliens. That's 1000 more dead each year than have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. Moreover, it's estimated that thirteen Americans are killed every day by DUI illegal aliens, and another study estimates that there are 240,000 illegal alien sex offenders in the U.S. who average four victims apiece.

I don't know how much of all this might be questioned by those more expert than I, but if only a tenth of it is accurate, we have an extremely grave problem on our hands. Unless our leadership in Washington is made to understand the peril, and commits itself to doing something to rectify it, our children and grandchildren are going to grow up in a very different country than we and our parents did.

There is no argument that justifies the fecklessness of both parties in Washington on this issue. Neither the argument based on compassion toward the poor nor the argument based upon economic necessity, nor the argument based upon the U.S. being a nation of immigrants justifies turning a blind eye to the economic and demographic convulsion building across North America.

President Bush signed a bill allocating $1.2 billion to erect 700 miles of high-tech fence, but construction has dawdled. Meanwhile, our state congressmen are to be commended for attempting to mitigate the consequences of the debacle being spawned by White House and Congressional indifference.


In the very cold Antarctic ice forms quickly on the water's surface, causing the remaining liquid water to become saltier. This brine is heavier than the water around it and thus sinks, but since it's so cold it causes the water around it to freeze which forms a briney icicle called a brinicle:
You can read more about the making of this video at The Blaze.

Stuxnet Redux

Debkafile raises the possibility that the recent missile explosion in Iran which killed some of their top scientists was in fact triggered by the Stuxnet virus that has infected their computer systems:
Exhaustive investigations into the deadly explosion last Saturday, Nov. 12 of the Sejil-2 ballistic missile at the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Alghadir base point increasingly to a technical fault originating in the computer system controlling the missile and not the missile itself. The head of Iran's ballistic missile program Maj. Gen. Hassan Moghaddam was among the 36 officers killed in the blast which rocked Tehran 46 kilometers away. (Tehran reported 17 deaths although 36 funerals took place.)

Since the disaster, experts have run tests on missiles of the same type as Sejil 2 and on their launching mechanisms. debkafile's military and Iranian sources disclose three pieces of information coming out of the early IRGC probe:

1. Maj. Gen. Moghaddam had gathered Iran's top missile experts around the Sejil 2 to show them a new type of warhead which could also carry a nuclear payload. No experiment was planned. The experts were shown the new device and asked for their comments.

2. Moghaddam presented the new warhead through a computer simulation attached to the missile. His presentation was watched on a big screen. The missile exploded upon an order from the computer.

The warhead blew first; the solid fuel in its engines next, thus explaining the two consecutive bangs across Tehran and the early impression of two explosions, the first more powerful than the second, occurring at the huge 52 sq. kilometer complex of Alghadir.

3. Because none of the missile experts survived and all the equipment and structures pulverized within a half-kilometer radius of the explosion, the investigators had no witnesses and hardly any physical evidence to work from.

Iranian intelligence heads entertain two initial theories to account for the sudden calamity: a) that Western intelligence service or the Israeli Mossad managed to plant a technician among the missile program's personnel and he signaled the computer to order the missile to explode; or b), a theory which they find more plausible, that the computer controlling the missile was infected with the Stuxnet virus which misdirected the missile into blowing without anyone present noticing anything amiss until it was too late.

It is the second theory which has got Iran's leaders really worried because it means that, in the middle of spiraling tension with the United States and Israel over their nuclear weapons program, their entire Shahab 3 and Sejil 2 ballistic missile arsenal is infected and out of commission until minute tests are completed.
If this last theory is true - that the missiles were detonated on a command from a computer virus - then as deadly as the explosion was it could actually be more of a setback for Iran's foes than for Iran. Whoever planted the code probably expected that it wouldn't trigger the missile explosion until Iran actually tried to use the weapons, producing a devastating series of explosions that would wipe out their entire arsenal at the critical moment when they tried to use it. Now that the Iranians have been alerted to check for the virus they may be able to clean it up without having lost their missile fleet.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Thoughts

I'd like to wish all our readers a very meaningful Thanksgiving. I can think of no better way to observe the day on VP than to repeat our annual post of the Thanksgiving proclamation of one of the greatest Americans who ever lived:

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 tranquillity, 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 increase 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.

George Washington
No doubt those who like to believe that this country was not founded by religious men nor upon Judeo-Christian presuppositions would rather you not read this, but there it is.

I encourage each of us to take time this day to reflect upon all that we have to be grateful for, having been born in this country or having come to reside here, and to reflect, too, upon the nature of our relationship to the God from whom all our blessings flow.

I also encourage each of us to take a moment to pray for those of our acquaintances who find themselves grieving a loss or suffering in pain that God may hold them especially close to His bosom and give them consolation and comfort.

We should also keep in mind those who languish in poverty, either physical, psychological, or spiritual and ask God that He show us what He would have us do to bring relief where we can.

Finally, on Thanksgiving Day we should remember our secular friends who also have so much to be thankful for but no one, really, to thank. It's a sad circumstance which tends to render the celebration rather meaningless I should think.

Have a great Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Marvel, Magic, Divinity

Evolution News and Views has posted a video of mathematician and medical image maker Alexander Tsiaras giving a TED lecture on applying his craft to the development of a child from conception to birth. As you watch listen carefully to the language he uses to describe what he's depicting:
; ;
Perhaps I am only manifesting my own ignorance, but I don't see how someone can watch this and not draw the conclusion that the materialist account of it, i.e. that it it all happened by chance mutations and natural selection, is an arrant fairy tale.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thankful for Our Foreign Readership

One of the many things I'm thankful for this Thanksgiving season are the many faithful readers of Viewpoint who visit us from all over the world. Most of our readers are North American, of course, but we have dozens of regular readers in most European countries as well as in countries in South America, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and Africa.

To give an idea of what I mean a Google website provides data on visits to blogs and has these stats for the past week on Viewpoint:
  • United States 635
  • France 50
  • Russia 33
  • Germany 16
  • Canada 10
  • Netherlands 9
  • Burkina Faso 6
  • Australia 5
  • Singapore 4
  • United Kingdom 3
When I started this blog with my brother in 2004 I never thought it would reach more than just a few friends and family, so I've been amazed and deeply gratified by the growth and constancy of our foreign readership.

I appreciate each one of you, and as I celebrate the American Thanksgiving this year I want you to know that I'll be thanking God for you and asking His blessing on each of our readers, including those who join us from overseas.

Killing the Goose

Once upon a time a farmer had an amazing goose that laid an egg of pure gold every day. The farmer was delighted, but as time went on he wanted more and more. He spent all his new-found wealth on luxuries and demanded that the goose lay two eggs a day to subsidize his profligacy. The goose, however, was unable to supply the extra egg. No matter how hard it tried it just couldn't squeeze out more than one egg a day. The farmer grew wroth with his goose because it couldn't give him all the eggs he wanted, and he beat the poor bird. Eventually, in a spasm of rage, he killed it. When he finally regained his senses he realized the stupidity of what he'd done, but it was too late. He lived out his days a remorseful pauper.

Steve Malanga at City Journal supplies us with a modern version of that old fable by recounting the sorry recent history of California. Once called the Golden State and considered the driver of the American economy, it has now sunk to the point where if businesses were fleeing any faster they'd have gridlock on all the eastbound highways. New businesses are avoiding California as though a nuclear accident had contaminated the entire state, and employment is flat-lining. The reason is, as it often is, the enormous burden the state government has placed on those who want to operate a business in California.

California's legislature, like the farmer in the allegory, has for the last twenty years demanded that the state's businesses lay two golden eggs rather than be satisfied with just one:
Last year, a medical-technology firm called Numira Biosciences, founded in 2005 in Irvine, California, packed its bags and moved to Salt Lake City. The relocation, CEO Michael Beeuwsaert told the Orange County Register, was partly about the Utah destination’s pleasant quality of life and talented workforce.

But there was a big “push factor,” too: California’s steepening taxes and ever-thickening snarl of government regulations. “The tipping point was when someone from the Orange County tax [assessor] wanted to see our facility to tax every piece of equipment I had,” Beeuwsaert said. “In Salt Lake City at my first networking event I met the mayor and the president of the Utah Senate, and they asked what they could do to help me. No [elected official] ever asked me that in California.”

California has long been among America’s most extensive taxers and regulators of business. But at the same time, the state had assets that seemed to offset its economic disincentives: a famously sunny climate, a world-class public university system that produced a talented local workforce, sturdy infrastructure that often made doing business easier, and a history of innovative companies.

No more. As California has transformed into a relentlessly antibusiness state, those redeeming characteristics haven’t been enough to keep firms from leaving. Relocation experts say that the number of companies exiting the state for greener pastures has exploded. In surveys, executives regularly call California one of the country’s most toxic business environments and one of the least likely places to open or expand a new company. Many firms still headquartered in California have forsaken expansion there. Reeling from the burst housing bubble and currently suffering an unemployment rate of 12 percent—nearly 3 points above the national level—California can’t afford to remain on this path.
Malanga traces the history of California's hostile relationship with business since 1974 and claims that at every turn government has imposed policies on business that businesses simply can't afford, and so they're leaving, or dying.
In 2007, California-based Google built a new generation of server farms not in its home state but in Oregon, employing 200 people. The following year, one of California’s most successful tech companies, Intel, opened a $3 billion production facility in Phoenix, Arizona. Earlier this year, eBay, based in San Jose, said that it would add some 1,000 back-office jobs in Austin, Texas, over the next decade.

Smaller firms have exhibited the same pattern of expanding outside the state. In fact, Silicon Valley lost one-quarter of its computer, microchip, and communications-equipment manufacturing jobs from 2001 to 2008, say Valley entrepreneurs.
There is much more in this vein in Malanga's depressing tale, and everyone should read it in order to understand the dynamics at play when government abuses its power to tax and regulate. The moral of the story is simple. It's the same moral captured in the old fable about the stupid, greedy, myopic farmer who killed the goose that laid golden eggs.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Thrill Is Gone

Remenber as you watch this that Chris Matthews is the man so smitten by Barack Obama that he confessed before the last presidential election that he had a thrill up his leg when he heard Barack Obama speak. Evidently, it's the morning after and Mr. Matthews is beginning to realize he spent the night with, if not a cad, then a poseur:
This should not be taken to suggest that Mr. Obama has lost the Chris Matthews liberals, but that there's tremendous dissatisfaction with the president's underperformance. Slowly, the realization that they've elected Chauncey Gardener is creeping over them.

Nor is it just Matthews who no longer feels the tingle. Democrat pollsters Pat Caddell (President Carter) and Doug Schoen (President Clinton) are calling for President Obama to step aside. A president who cannot plausibly run for reelection on his record has only one course left to him which is to try to destroy the opposition. Schoen and Caddell believe that this is the only path Obama can follow, but even if he wins with such a strategy it would be a Pyrrhic victory. He'll have so toxified the political atmosphere that governing would be impossible:
Put simply, it seems that the White House has concluded that if the president cannot run on his record, he will need to wage the most negative campaign in history to stand any chance. With his job approval ratings below 45% overall and below 40% on the economy, the president cannot affirmatively make the case that voters are better off now than they were four years ago. He—like everyone else—knows that they are worse off.

President Obama is now neck and neck with a generic Republican challenger in the latest Real Clear Politics 2012 General Election Average (43.8%-43.%). Meanwhile, voters disapprove of the president's performance 49%-41% in the most recent Gallup survey, and 63% of voters disapprove of his handling of the economy, according to the most recent CNN/ORC poll.

Consequently, he has to make the case that the Republicans, who have garnered even lower ratings in the polls for their unwillingness to compromise and settle for gridlock, represent a more risky and dangerous choice than the current administration — an argument he's clearly begun to articulate.

One year ago in these pages, we warned that if President Obama continued down his overly partisan road, the nation would be "guaranteed two years of political gridlock at a time when we can ill afford it." The result has been exactly as we predicted: stalemate in Washington, fights over the debt ceiling, an inability to tackle the debt and deficit, and paralysis exacerbating market turmoil and economic decline.

If President Obama were to withdraw, he would put great pressure on the Republicans to come to the table and negotiate — especially if the president singularly focused in the way we have suggested on the economy, job creation, and debt and deficit reduction. By taking himself out of the campaign, he would change the dynamic from who is more to blame — George W. Bush or Barack Obama? — to a more constructive dialogue about our nation's future.
Schoen and Caddell believe that were Barack Obama to step aside the Democrats would nominate Hillary Clinton by acclamation and that she'd be a formidable candidate.I think they're right, and I think that the last thing the GOP wants is for the president to take the pollsters' advice. Fortunately, from their perspective, there's not much chance that he will.

Utopian Dreamers

When I first read this piece I thought the writer, a woman named Kate Pickett, was composing an amusing parody of the British Left, but as I continued to read I realized that she was herself a British Leftist and that she was, as incredible as it seems, completely serious:
When Richard Wilkinson and I sat down towards the end of 2007 to start writing The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, which was published in March 2009, we had a clear objective. After years of research, and having published a large number of papers in academic journals, we were frustrated that what we and other researchers had learned about the damage caused by income inequality was so little known.

We had shown that bigger income differences lead to worse physical and mental health, more drug use, violent crime and higher rates of imprisonment, less trust and worse child wellbeing, more children doing poorly in school and low social mobility. Yet when any of these problems were discussed in the media, there was absolutely no discussion of the role of inequality.

Politicians and policymakers were happy to talk about poverty, but almost always failed to make the necessary distinction between absolute poverty and relative poverty. In the rich, developed countries, it is relative poverty and inequality that really matter and, because inequality wreaks its damage through status competition and status anxiety. Almost all of us are touched by the impact of inequality, not just the poor, the unemployed or the disenfranchised....

[T]he truth is that not only are high salaries and bonuses often undeserved, but the inequality they create damages society. Those countries that have a smaller gap in income and wealth between the bottom 99% and the top 1% do not suffer, they flourish.
There is more claptrap per paragraph in Pickett's article than in any piece I can recall ever reading. Her point is that we need to level out income inequality by taking wealth from those who earn it and giving it to those who don't. If we do that, she implies, we'll all flourish. If we don't do it, the implication is, we'll all be dysfunctional citizens of a dystopian hell.

Luckily, this happens to be an empirically testable claim. There are many countries which, over the last sixty or seventy years, have conducted their affairs precisely as Ms Pickett suggests. Several which spring immediately to mind are the old Soviet Union, East Germany, China, North Korea, Cuba, and Zimbabwe.

The fortunate residents of these idyllic Shangri-las flourished so profoundly and achieved such blissful levels of contentment from knowing that no one (except government honchos) had any more of the world's goods than anyone else, that their rulers were forced to erect walls with armed guards on their borders to keep their people from fleeing the place. They had no problem, of course, keeping people out because no one in their right mind wanted to get in, except perhaps for Ms Pickett. The problem was that they had to make emigration illegal because everyone wanted to do it.

Yet the countries cursed with that awful income inequality to which Ms Pickett alludes, countries rife with gross economic injustice, countries where the people despair because, despite all they have, they still don't have as much as the guy next door, those countries can't handle all the people who, for some reason, are willing to risk everything, including their lives, to live there.

I wonder how Ms Pickett explains that.

Thanks to Bill for passing the article along.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Current Counter-Reformation

Those who have been following the intelligent design/ Darwinian evolution debate for a long time will appreciate Tom Bethell's retrospective on the early years. Those who have come to the controversy more recently will benefit from reading about its origins.

Bethell writes:
I first heard about Phillip Johnson from a retired lawyer named Norman Macbeth. Two decades earlier Norman had written a marvelous book called Darwin Retried and it made a big impression on me. We became friends. He lived in Spring Valley, north of New York City and I stayed with him several times.

More than once we went to see a friend of his, Ron Brady, who taught philosophy at Ramapo College. He too was a Darwin doubter. Macbeth would take me along to meetings at the American Museum of Natural History, where he introduced me to curators at meetings of the Systematics Study Group. Some were amazingly critical of Darwinism.

One day, in the fall of 1990, Norman told me that he had recently heard from a lawyer at UC Berkeley's law school -- "Boalt Hall," but I hadn't heard of that. The lawyer's name was Phillip Johnson. He had just written a book critical of Darwin, and had sent it along so that Macbeth could render a verdict. He didn't show it to me, but he told me it was excellent.

We were both delighted to know that another lawyer would be entering the lists and helping to make the case against Darwinism. Macbeth died about a year later. It was as though he knew that he had passed on the baton.

It wasn't until the following summer that I met Phil Johnson at his house near Berkeley. By then I had read Darwin on Trial, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Curiously, the concept of "intelligent design" wasn't explicitly invoked in the book, and ID certainly didn't exist as a movement. An odd parallel is that the word "evolution" doesn't appear in Darwin's Origin of Species. (The word "evolved does occur, once, and it is the last word in the book.)

I was familiar with some of the arguments in Darwin on Trial, but I now realize that the key to the book's influence was that religious objections to Darwinism were replaced by scientific and philosophical ones. Macbeth's book had done the same, but it never achieved the resonance of Phil's book.
Bethell's column brought back memories. As a grad student Norman Macbeth's book was one of several that inspired me to challenge the dogma that Darwinism (or more precisely materialistic "molecules to man evolution") is a scientific theory in my Master's thesis. My belief then, and still today 30 plus years later, is that it's a metaphysical hypothesis, based on untestable assumptions and a faith commitment to materialism.

If Darwin's Origin of Species triggered a "Reformation" in intellectual history then today we're experiencing a counter-reformation in which Norman Macbeth and Phillip Johnson have been pioneers and leading players.

The rest of Bethell's article is interesting and instructive. Give it a read.

Climate-Change Game-Changer

Matt Ridley is a highly celebrated science writer who recently (October 31) gave a speech at the Royal Academy of Arts in Edinburgh Scotland on confirmation bias (seeing what you want to see in the data), pseudoscience, and climate change. It's a fascinating ten pages of PDF that'll grab you in the first paragraph and cause you to not want to move until you've finished it - at least, it will if you have an interest in any of the three topics he blends into his lecture.

Drawing from history, both recent and not so recent, Ridley begins by formulating "six lessons" which we should bear in mind about scientific controversies:
  • The media is incredibly gullible.
  • Facts are like water off a duck’s back to pseudoscience.
  • Heretics are sometimes right.
  • Some great scientists, like Newton, dabbled in pseudo-science.
  • Be careful of your own confirmation bias.
  • Never rely on the consensus of experts about the future.
Having elaborated on these he launches an assault on the sacred cow of climate change alarmism that is perhaps the best piece I've ever read on the subject. I have no doubt that many of his listeners were squirming in their seats. He sets the table with this:
Using these six lessons, I am now going to plunge into an issue on which almost all the experts are not only confident they can predict the future, but absolutely certain their opponents are pseudoscientists. It is an issue on which I am now a heretic. I think the establishment view is infested with pseudoscience. The issue is climate change.

Now before you all rush for the exits, and I know it is traditional to walk out on speakers who do not toe the line on climate at the RSA – I saw it happen to Bjorn Lomborg last year when he gave the Prince Philip lecture – let me be quite clear. I am not a ‘denier’. I fully accept that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, the climate has been warming and that man is very likely to be at least partly responsible.

When a study was published recently saying that 98% of scientists ‘believe’ in global warming, I looked at the questions they had been asked and realized I was in the 98%, too, by that definition, though I never use the word ‘believe’ about myself. Likewise the recent study from Berkeley, which concluded that the land surface of the continents has indeed been warming at about the rate people thought, changed nothing.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that you can accept all the basic tenets of greenhouse physics and still conclude that the threat of a dangerously large warming is so improbable as to be negligible, while the threat of real harm from climate-mitigation policies is already so high as to be worrying, that the cure is proving far worse than the disease is ever likely to be. Or as I put it once, we may be putting a tourniquet round our necks to stop a nosebleed.

I also think the climate debate is a massive distraction from much more urgent environmental problems like invasive species and overfishing.

I was not always such a ‘lukewarmer’. In the mid 2000s one image in particular played a big role in making me abandon my doubts about dangerous man-made climate change: the hockey stick. It clearly showed that something unprecedented was happening.

I can remember where I first saw it at a conference and how I thought: aha, now there at last is some really clear data showing that today’s temperatures are unprecedented in both magnitude and rate of change – and it has been published in Nature magazine. Yet it has been utterly debunked by the work of Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick.
The case Ridley amasses in the remainder of his speech is devastating, or at least it seemed so to me. It may be that climate change is indeed the imminent threat some climatologists say it is, but the evidence that that is so seems exiguous at best. Moreover, the harm that's being done by government policies in an effort to mitigate CO2 emissions is extremely high in terms of both lives and treasure, especially given the paucity of empirical warrant.

Read his speech. It could be a game-changer for you. Thanks to Scott for calling it to my attention.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Most Ethical Administration Ever

We can add yet another of President Obama's cabinet appointees to the list of those associated with possible scandal. First it was Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (Tax Cheating), then came Attorney General Eric Holder (Fast and Furious, inter alia), followed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu (Solyndra), now it's Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius implicated in a scandal being dubbed "Shreddergate."

Kathleen Sebelius is the former governor of Kansas whom President Obama named as his Secretary of HHS. When you read this column by Jack Cashill you might wonder why she isn't in jail. If she were a Republican she doubtless would be.

You should read the whole of Cashill's report, but the quick summation is that as governor of Kansas Sebelius was implicated in an attempt to cover-up wrong-doing in her administration related to a criminal investigation of local Planned Parenthood personnel:
In 2002 Republican Phill Kline was elected attorney general of Kansas, and Democrat Kathleen Sebelius was elected governor. They had different agendas.

Kline wanted to know how Kansas, despite tough laws he had helped write as a legislator, had emerged as the world capital of late-term abortions. Sebelius did not want to know or want anyone else to know, either.

Kline quickly discovered that abortions performed on under-aged girls were not being reported to the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, or SRS, as mandated by law.

The purpose of the mandatory reporting laws is to remove a child from a situation in which the abuse is likely to happen again.

To track the reporting failure, Kline needed the abortion records kept by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, or KDHE, which, like the SRS, was now being run by Sebelius appointees. Although these records are kept for law-enforcement purposes, both agencies resisted in every which way they could.

It took Kline years of legal haggling to get the records. They showed that in the years 2002 and 2003, 166 girls under 15 had abortions at Kansas clinics, the great majority of them at George Tiller's clinic in Wichita or Planned Parenthood's in suburban Kansas City. Only two of them were reported to SRS, and both of those stories were already in the news.

Unable to stop Kline legally, Sebelius persuaded a popular Republican district attorney to switch parties to run against Kline in 2006. Through various cut-outs, Tiller invested nearly $2 million in the anti-Kline effort. And the Star won Planned Parenthood's top editorial honor for its virulent campaign against "Snoop Dog" Kline. Kline lost.

In a wonderful twist, Republican precinct captains elected Kline to take the DA spot vacated by Sebelius' new attorney general. Planned Parenthood just happened to be in that county. In October 2007, Kline charged Planned Parenthood with committing 107 criminal acts, including 23 felonies for manufacturing documents – the first criminal charges ever brought against Planned Parenthood anywhere.

Although the usual suspects saw to Kline's re-election defeat in 2008, new Johnson County DA Steve Howe continued the case Kline had launched. Last week, however, Howe had to ask that the felony charges be dropped. As he had just learned, the evidence had been destroyed.

As the Star reported on Thursday, "All copies of key documents needed to support those charges no longer exist." Sebelius's hand-picked attorney general, Steve Six, destroyed the certified copies in 2009, and the Sebelius-run KDHE destroyed the original records in 2005.
There's much more on Shreddergate at the link.

Mr. Obama promised us the most ethical, the most transparent administration in history. What he's delivered is certainly something less than that.

Thanks to Byron for passing the story along.

A Movie Running Backwards

There is a universally accepted principle of thought which says that given a choice between multiple explanations for a phenomenon the preferred explanation is the one which is simplest and fits all the facts.

Mathematician Granville Sewell at Evolution News and Views invites us to imagine a scenario which illustrates this principle:
A high school science teacher rents a video showing a tornado sweeping through a town, turning houses and cars into rubble. When she attempts to show it to her students, she accidentally runs the video backward .... [T]he students laugh and say, the video is going backwards! The teacher doesn’t want to admit her mistake, so she says: “No, the video is not really going backward. It only looks like it is .... and she proceeds to give some long, detailed, hastily improvised scientific theories on how tornadoes, under the right conditions, really can construct houses and cars.

At the end of the explanation, one student says, “I don’t want to argue with scientists, but wouldn’t it be a lot easier to explain if you ran the video the other way?”
That's the simplest explanation for the phenomena in the video, certainly simpler than the teacher's contrived explanation, and thus it should be preferred.

Sewell wants to relate this to the problem of Darwinian evolution.
Imagine, he writes, a professor describing the final project for students in his evolutionary biology class. “Here are two pictures,” he says. “One is a drawing of what the Earth must have looked like soon after it formed. The other is a picture of New York City today, with tall buildings full of intelligent humans, computers, TV sets and telephones, with libraries full of science texts and novels, and jet airplanes flying overhead.

Your assignment is to explain how we got from picture one to picture two .... You should explain that 3 or 4 billion years ago a collection of atoms formed by pure chance that was able to duplicate itself, and these complex collections of atoms were able to pass their complex structures on to their descendants generation after generation, even correcting errors.

Explain how, over a very long time, the accumulation of genetic accidents resulted in greater and greater information content in the DNA of these more and more complicated collections of atoms, and how eventually something called “intelligence” allowed some of these collections of atoms to design buildings and computers and TV sets, and write encyclopedias and science texts....

When one student turns in his essay some days later, he has written, “A few years after picture one was taken, the sun exploded into a supernova, all humans and other animals died, their bodies decayed, and their cells decomposed into simple organic and inorganic compounds. Most of the buildings collapsed immediately into rubble, those that didn’t, crumbled eventually. Most of the computers and TV sets inside were smashed into scrap metal, even those that weren’t, gradually turned into piles of rust, most of the books in the libraries burned up, the rest rotted over time, and you can see see the result in picture two.”

The professor says, “You have switched the pictures!” “I know,” says the student, “but it was so much easier to explain that way.”
That's the problem with Darwinian evolution. The idea that blind chance and the laws of chemistry alone could have conspired to create a living cell, or produce a process as extraordinary as butterfly metamorphosis, or create a structure as unimaginably complex as a human brain requires so many assumptions and ad hoc explanations, so much suspension of incredulity, that it's far simpler, and much more in keeping with our everyday experience, to posit that these things were the intentional product of an intelligent mind.

Otherwise, Sewell concludes, the process is like a movie running backward. The whole of biological history is as improbable as assuming that purposeless, undirected forces like tornadoes could actually cause scattered debris to assemble into complex, well-integrated structures.

Of course, if a mind was somehow directing the process that would change everything.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mind v. Matter

Raymond Tallis reviews a couple of books on mind and materialism for the Wall Street Journal. One of the books is titled Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter by Terrence Deacon the other is by Michael Gazzaniga titled Who's In Charge? Tallis begins his column with this:
The world of academe is currently in the grip of a strange and worrying epidemic of biologism, which has also captured the popular imagination. Scientists, philosophers and quite a few toilers in the humanities believe—and would have the rest of us believe—that nothing fundamental separates humanity from animality.

Biologism has two cardinal manifestations. One is the claim that the mind is the brain, or the activity of the brain, so that one of the most powerful ways to advance our understanding of ourselves is to look at our brains in action, using the latest scanning devices. The other is the claim that Darwinism explains not only how the organism Homo sapiens came into being (as, of course, it does) but also what motivates people and shapes their day-to-day behavior.

These beliefs are closely connected. If the brain is an evolved organ, shaped by natural selection to ensure evolutionary success (as it most surely is), and if the mind is the brain and nothing more, then the mind and all those things we are minded to do can be explained by the evolutionary imperative. The mind is a cluster of apps or modules securing the replication of the genes that are expressed in our bodies.

Many in the humanities have embraced these views with astonishing fervor.
Indeed. Materialism is the reigning religion in academe today, but judging from what Tallis writes in his review, that may be changing. Setting aside his curious insistence on making it clear that he himself is definitely not an apostate from Darwinian orthodoxy he makes many interesting observations. Some are those of the authors he reviews and some are his. Here's a sample:
A brain in good working order is, of course, a necessary condition of every aspect of human consciousness, from basic perception to the most complex constructed sense of self. It does not follow that this is the whole story of our nature—that we are just brains in some kind of working order. Many aspects of everyday human consciousness elude neural reduction.

Biologism commands acceptance in the humanities because it is promoted or endorsed by scientists whose prowess in their chosen field seems to qualify them to pronounce on what are essentially philosophical questions. Thus it is notable when two books written by neuro-biologists of the greatest distinction are nonetheless critical of the simplifications—both scientific and philosophical—of biologism. Both authors look outside the conceptual frameworks upon which biologism depends.

"Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter"... does not deliver on its subtitle ... is long, slow-moving and peppered with neologisms, but it is infinitely preferable to the flashy tomes of the Professors of Legerdemain who assure us that the mind could emerge from matter in the brain "just like that" simply because "the brain is the most complex object in the world."

Along the way, Mr. Deacon demolishes fashionable computational theories of the brain. Anyone in the future who is tempted to assert that "the mind is the software of the brain" should reflect on Mr. Deacon's observation that the apparent agency of a computer "is just the displaced agency of some human designer." The use of simplistic analogies to make the mind look machine-like and machines mind-like and thereby solve the mind-brain problem should never again pass unchallenged.

One of the founding fathers of cognitive psychology, Jerry Fodor, has argued that to solve the puzzle of conscious experience "there's hardly anything we may not have to cut loose from." Mr. Deacon has not cut loose from quite enough yet—in particular from the notion that matter organized in a certain way must be mindful—but he has started to reframe the terms of the discussion. His 500 densely argued pages testify to his awareness of the intractability of the problem.
Having considered Deacon's book in far more detail than I have suggested here, Tallis turns to Gazzaniga's work:
Unlike many in his profession, Mr. Gazzaniga is philosophically sophisticated. He believes that, while the brain "enables" the mind, mental activity is not reducible to neural events.

If the mind really were identical with activity in individual brain-bits, which were themselves machines causally wired into the material world, free will would be an illusion. One purpose of Mr. Gazzaniga's book is to reveal the implications of this mistaken notion for one of the most sinister of the neuro-prefixed pseudo-disciplines: "neuro-law." Neuro-law aims to replace the untidy processes of the current judicial system with something more biologically savvy. Isn't criminal behavior the result of (abnormal) brain function? If so, the brain, not the defendant, should take the rap.

Mr. Gazzaniga will have none of this, and he deplores "neuroscience oozing into the courtroom." The author savages the uncritical use of neuro-technology in court and laments that juries and judges have little idea of the shakiness of the connections between minor abnormalities on brain scans and the commission of a particular crime. Neuro-law is not merely premature; it overlooks the fact that, as Mr. Gazzaniga says, "we are people, not brains," and brain scans tell us little about our personhood.

Mr. Gazzaniga's incomparable knowledge, along with his mastery of the art of making things clear without oversimplifying them, means that "Who's in Charge?" is a joy to read. Is his book, along with Mr. Deacon's, an indicator that the mighty edifice of philosophically naïve conventional neuroculture is starting to fall apart? Are these books harbingers of a better future in which the task of trying to make sense of what we are is not hampered by a reductive scientism that identifies us with the activity of brains evolved to serve evolutionary success? I hope so. While we are not angels fallen from heaven, we are not just neural machines. Nor are we merely exceptionally clever chimps.
One may be forgiven for thinking that even Darwinians are bailing on strict materialism. Matter and force, it is coming to be recognized, simply leave too much about the world unexplained. The mysteries of human consciousness as well as the mysteries of quantum physics point to not only the existence of mind, but also, perhaps, its ontological pre-eminence.

Where's the Honor in This?

A young man, his father and his mother are charged in Ontario with having murdered the young man's three sisters and the man's first wife in an "honor killing." Evidently, the girls were dating guys. That can get you killed if your father's a Muslim. MacLean's is following the trial:
Hamed Shafia wants to look at the photographs of his dead sisters, their drowned bodies freshly extracted from an underwater car. Sgt. Michael Boyles tries to convince him otherwise, but Hamed is nothing if not determined. He wants to see the corpses.

“Please,” he says quietly.

“Alright,” Boyles answers.

It is July 23, 2009, almost 3 o’clock in the morning, and the 18-year-old Afghan immigrant is sitting in a police interrogation room in Kingston, Ont. A video camera is rolling. He has just been arrested—along with his beloved mom and dad—for the alleged “honour killing” of four family members: three sisters (Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; Geeti, 13) and his father’s first wife in the polygamous clan, Rona Amir Mohammad. The doomed foursome was found, nearly a month earlier, at the bottom of the Rideau Canal, the victims of what investigators say was a mass execution meant to look like a freak car accident.

For three hours, officers presented Hamed with clue after damning clue, including their smoking gun: shattered pieces of a Lexus headlight found at the midnight crime scene. (The victims were discovered in a submerged Nissan Sentra, but prosecutors allege that the family’s other car, a silver Lexus SUV, was used to ram the sedan over the edge of the Kingston Mills locks.) As Hamed flips through the full-page photos, his eyes fixated on the departed, Boyles urges him to finally come clean. “They deserve to know the truth,” he says. “They deserve better than this.”
It's hard to understand how people can think that a loving and merciful God condones the murder of young girls, but evidently, many Muslims do. It's also very difficult to see how anyone could think that murdering one's family somehow restores honor to the family.

Read the rest of this riveting account at the link.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

He Wouldn't Do That, Would He?

Victor Davis Hanson believes that an attack on Iran is far more likely in an Obama administration than it would have been under President Bush. The reason, he opines, is the Left's inconsistency:
In terms of the Obama presidency, there is now no anti-war movement. It simply vanished in January 2009. Former outrages like Guantanamo, renditions, and Predator-drone assassinations almost magically became A-okay. The left-wing base dared not continue its old Bush slurs, given its support for Obama’s liberal domestic agenda. Quiet conservatives were perplexed over whether to be outraged that Predator-in-Chief Obama proved to be such an abject hypocrite, or relieved that, better late than never, he had morphed into a Bush-Cheney national-security disciple.

The result is that for the next year or so, Obama can more or less do whatever he wishes abroad. If he chooses to bomb a country that poses no direct threat to the U.S. without congressional authority, like Libya, or to assassinate a U.S. citizen-terrorist, like Anwar al-Awlaki, the Left will keep mum. And the Right, for different reasons, probably will, too.

If we get to the scary point of Iran’s going nuclear in 2012, expect the Obama administration — up for reelection and without much of a domestic record to run on in these hard times — to consider a preemptive strike. Be assured that if it does, there will be no outrage in the Democrat-controlled Senate, no campuses on fire, no ad hominem ads in the New York Times — all the sorts of anti-war hysteria that once sought to turn a moderate like George W. Bush into a caricature of some trigger-happy yokel from shoot-’em-up Texas.

And conservatives? Again, they would mumble that an Obama “wag the dog” strike would cynically be all about the president’s reelection. Or they would at least note the irony, given the Nobel Laureate–in–Chief’s prior demonization of Bush’s use of military force. Nonetheless, Republicans would largely grow silent if — a big if — a strike were successful and ended Iran’s nuclear threat.
This is an extraordinary charge Hanson is making here. He's telling us that President Obama is not above risking a massive war with Iran just to extend his tenure in office. If Hanson is right, a prospect I deeply doubt and find hard to accept, it would require the president to be a far more contemptible man than even his most implacable political foes think him to be.

Heretofore, Mr. Obama hasn't shown much of an appetite for military risk. Killing terrorists with Predator drones and bombing Libyan mercenaries are, after all, relatively risk-free ventures. Bombing Iran, on the other hand, would be cataclysmic.

It would almost certainly result in a massive assault by Hezbollah, Syria, and Hamas against Israel. It would also trigger terror attacks throughout the Western world. Oil supply lines would be sabotaged and chemical and biological agents might well be unleashed in Western cities.

Does Hanson suggest that President Obama might be the sort of man who would risk all this just to remain in the White House? Does he believe Mr. Obama is willing to accept massive civilian casualties, a possible nuclear war in the Middle East, and the reproach of his Left-wing, anti-war base just to avoid political defeat?

It's troubling to think that serious people have such a view of the president and it's also troubling that the fate of the world could hinge on Mr. Obama's poll numbers next Fall. Would he be willing to roll the dice if it looks like he's headed for electoral ignominy and gamble that a successful strike against Iran would win him the acclaim of the American electorate who might temporarily forget about the miserable economy in the afterglow of a military operation that relieved the world of the threat of Iranian nukes?

Taking out Iran's nukes may turn out, for strategic reasons, to be the right thing to do, but to do it for political reasons would be reprehensible. As much as I disagree with our president I don't believe, pace Hanson, that he's a man who'd sacrifice many thousands of lives for his political career.

The rest of the world better hope I'm right and that Hanson's wrong.

Stiffing the Pipeline, Squandering Jobs

There are good reasons, perhaps, for delaying the decision to construct the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring oil from Alberta to Texas, create twenty thousand jobs, and go a long way toward making us energy independent, but do they outweigh the benefits of constructing the pipeline?

The proposed path of the pipeline was feared to threaten Nebraska's water table, but the pipeline's environmental impact has been studied for 39 months with no compelling evidence that the water would be affected. Nevertheless, President Obama has decided that it needs to be studied some more, until, well, until after the 2012 election.

The Globe and Mail has some details and adds this:
But the delay, which will very likely place a final Keystone decision well after the presidential election a year from now, was the culmination of a remarkable few weeks that saw the president take an increasingly personal interest in the issue. That interest, many observers believe, makes it clear this was a political decision, made by a White House eager to hold on to a base of young environmental-minded voters who were instrumental in handing Barack Obama the presidency.

“It’s blatant politics,” said David Wilkins, former U.S. ambassador to Canada, in an interview Friday. Mr. Wilkins lobbied for Keystone on behalf of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. “It’s politics at its worst. It was a move by the president to placate a certain wing of his party and I think it was a real travesty.”

Mr. Wilkins pointed out that Mr. Obama had passed up 20,000 Keystone jobs to “protect one job, his own.”
Canadian officials have declared that they're now prepared to build a pipeline to their west coast where the oil will be shipped to China. In other words, the oil is going to be mined. It's going to be shipped, it's going to be burned, and it's going to help the economy of a rapidly growing nation, but that nation won't be the U.S. Moreover, the nation that burns it has far fewer regulations controlling emissions than does the U.S. Thus, environmentalists who oppose the pipeline because they don't want more carbon being spewed into the atmosphere are about to receive a lesson in unintended consequences.

This is not to say that there aren't legitimate concerns about shipping the oil across the United States, but every major project carries with it environmental risks. Building the interstate highway system or dams that harness the energy of moving water or digging a coal mine all create hazards, but the jobs they create and the improvements they make in the quality of life of every American have made those hazards worth risking.

It's hard to believe Mr. Obama sincerely wants to put Americans back to work when he declares a drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico that costs tens of thousands of jobs and devastates economies of towns all along the Gulf coast and follows that moratorium with an order to delay a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline that curtails the creation of tens of thousands more jobs.

Would he really play games with peoples' livelihoods just so he can keep his own job? I want to believe that he's a better human being than that, but I'm mystified as to why he's doing the things he's doing when it comes to developing oil resources and energy independence.

Note: The first two paragraphs have been revised since they were posted yesterday.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lines in the Sand

Satellites orbiting the earth have recently discovered some interesting markings in the Chinese desert. New Scientist makes a convincing case that, given what one can see when the photos are blown up, they're designed by the Chinese military to serve as an artillery range.

Even so, suppose we were unable to magnify the pics. What would you attribute these patterns to:
Would you think them to be the products of purely natural causes, like wind, water, and chemical activity? If not, why not? Most of us doubtless ascribe these lines to intelligent agency, but why? It's not as if they showed some regular geometric pattern. The lines appear random except for their borders, but I suspect that even if the borders were irregular most of us would still think the lines to be intentionally constructed, even if we didn't know who did it, or why, or how.

This recognition of intelligent agency is precisely the intuition that underlies the believe that life is not solely the product of random natural processes. The probability of blind, natural processes being able to produce the Chinese lines is far higher than the probability of natural processes producing by chance a living, reproducing proto-cell. Yet, despite the sheer improbability of the latter, many folks nevertheless immediately assume it happened even as they would scoff at the notion that the lines in the desert were produced in the same way.

Why is that? The only way it makes any sense is if the existence of an intelligent designer of some kind is ruled out apriori, but that would be to reject the conclusion of the argument before the argument is allowed to make its case. It begs the question to assume there is no designer and then dismiss any evidence which might establish that a designer exists.

This, however, is what the materialist (or more precisely, the physicalist) does. He's certain that there's nothing to reality other than matter, energy, and force, and thus he excludes any explanation for any phenomenon that relies on a purposeful mind. There's no room in his worldview for any kind of God, and so he has no trouble imputing to intelligent human agents the Chinese lines but imputing to chance and the laws of physics the almost infinitely less likely emergence of life and biological information.

Your GPS

Ever wonder how your GPS works? Here's a one minute animation that explains the basics compliments of New Scientist:

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Global Warming Debate

This pretty much covers all the talking points. It's amusing.

Well, some won't find it amusing, but others will. It depends upon what side of the debate you're on, I guess:
HT: Evolution News and Views.

Ten Best Bio Pics

This is a magnified cluster of stink bug eggs the photograph of which placed in the top ten biological photographs of 2011:
I'm sure that many readers have found the adult stink bugs endearing over the last couple of years.

The other nine winners can be viewed at

Who Says They Had a Moral Obligation?

One of the interesting aspects of the Penn State case, at least for me, is the way in which people are tossing around the term "moral obligation." The coaches and administrators, we're being told, had a "moral obligation" to intervene to protect children from a man they knew to be a sexual predator.

So, we might ask, where does such an obligation come from? Who imposes it? Why is it wrong to just mind one's own business in such situations? The secular man simply has no answers to these questions. In order to make a moral judgment of the behavior of Jerry Sandusky he has to parasitize the Christian world-view and talk as if his moral sentiments were actually grounded in something beyond his own subjective predilections.

This morning I heard on the radio a story about the recently resigned president of PSU, Graham Spanier. Penn State had sponsored a "sex fair" on their campus a couple of years ago, at taxpayers' expense, which amounted to a festival given to pornography and sexual licentiousness. When President Spanier went later to the state legislature to ask for funding for the university he was grilled about this. He waffled, ducked and weaved and never really answered any of the legislators' questions. Finally, one exasperated lawmaker asked him point blank whether he thought the sex fair was wrong. Spanier replied that he really couldn't answer the question because he didn't know what the legislator meant by "wrong."

That, in a nutshell, explains what the problem is at Penn State and many other universities in the country. Academics can no longer talk about right and wrong because, having jettisoned the traditional Judeo-Christian ground for morality, they no longer possess the categories necessary to give those words meaning.

Indeed, I don't see how a secularist can even say that Jerry Sandusky's behavior with young boys was morally wrong. If a secularist wanted to say it was wrong because children are harmed by it they simply move the question back one step. Why is harming children wrong? It won't do to respond, as so many of the New Atheists do, that most people feel it to be wrong. If this were the standard then if people's feelings were changed then child rape would become right. Moreover, if the consensus determines right and wrong what if the consensus supports genocide or slavery, would that make these horrors right?

Harming children is not wrong because people have a subjective aversion to it. It's either wrong objectively or it's not really wrong at all, and it's only wrong objectively if it violates the law of an objective, transcendent, moral authority.

Graham Spanier and Jerry Sandusky give us a glimpse into the world as it will be when the secular tide is completely successful. It's not only not pretty, it's thoroughly ugly. Indeed, it looks a lot like Sodom and Gomorrah.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Omen

A lot of attention was been showered on the success of Issue 2 in Ohio which was a repudiation of the efforts of the Republican governor, John Kasich, to limit the power public employee unions wielded over the state's taxpayers. The failure of the Ohio GOP to turn back the unions on this ballot initiative was seen as a massive setback for the GOP and a favorable augury for President Obama in this pivotal 2012 state.

Almost lost in the media excitement over this single hopeful reed to which the administration is clinging was the news out of Virginia which is a far more unfavorable augury than Ohio is hopeful. Despite extraordinarily heavy investments of time and resources in Virginia the Democrats were trounced.

Kim Strassel at the Wall Street Journal fills in the details:
Virginia Republicans added seven new seats to their majority in the House of Delegates, giving them two-thirds of that chamber's votes—the party's largest margin in history. The GOP also took over the Virginia Senate in results that were especially notable, given that Virginia Democrats this spring crafted an aggressive redistricting plan that had only one aim: providing a firewall against a Republican takeover of that chamber. Even that extreme gerrymander didn't work.

Every Republican incumbent — 52 in the House, 15 in the Senate — won. The state GOP is looking at unified control over government for only the second time since the Civil War. This is after winning all three top statewide offices — including the election of Gov. Bob McDonnell — in 2009, and picking off three U.S. House Democrats in last year's midterms.

Elected state Democrats — who form the backbone of grass-roots movements — couldn't distance themselves far enough from Mr. Obama in this race. Most refused to mention the president, to defend his policies, or to appear with him. The more Republicans sought to nationalize the Virginia campaign, the more Democrats stressed local issues.
According to Strassel many Democrat candidates even tried to identify themselves with the state's Republican governor in a desperate bid to separate themselves in the voters' minds from a president whose policies are growing increasingly unpopular in a state he won easily just three years ago.

Virginia may not be a bellwether for 2012, but it's certainly an omen and, viewed from the Oval Office, it's can't be a happy one.

One More Word

The Penn State scandal continues to receive attention from both the media and readers of Viewpoint. One theme that keeps popping up among those commenting on the discovery by Mike McQueary of coach Jerry Sandusky with a young boy in the locker room shower is that McQueary was morally obligated to do something to stop the assault on the boy, and that he failed this duty. I agree and have tried to offer over the last two days an explanation of why he didn't meet that obligation that doesn't call him a coward or impugn his moral character.

There is an obvious possibility, however, that has oddly been overlooked by many of the commentators, including me, that sounds very plausible and which anyone should consider who wants to give McQueary the benefit of the doubt rather than just revile him, like some of the people I've heard and read in the media seem wont to do.

In the narratives of this awful episode it's been assumed by McQueary's detractors that when he chanced upon Sandusky raping the boy in the shower that he quickly left without saying or doing anything to stop the crime, but how does anyone know that when Sandusky saw McQueary the whole thing didn't end right then? It might well have happened that when Sandusky realized that he'd been discovered he released the boy. Indeed, it's hard to imagine that the brutality continued after Sandusky, perhaps mortified that a former player and now a coaching colleague had witnessed him engaging in his disgraceful, disgusting and criminal behavior, realized that he'd been found out.

If Sandusky did stop when he and McQueary saw each other what more do McQueary's critics think he should have done other than taking the boy with him, an action which again presupposes that McQueary was able to think calmly and clearly at a moment when his whole world had been turned upside down?

This is what disturbs me about the media hostility to McQueary. There are a number of possible, at least partially exculpatory, explanations for what happened that night that people don't seem to be willing to concede.They seem instead to want to fulminate against McQueary, heaping opprobrium upon him, calling him a moral idiot and coward who had to "run to daddy," when it could easily have been the case that, in the very act of discovering what was going on, he brought the crime to a halt.

Parenthetically, others have pointed out that calling McQueary a coward is another example of the extraordinary judgmentalism that has surrounded this particular aspect of the case. It has come to light that this "coward" once intervened to break up a dining hall knife fight between two football players. I wonder how many of his despisers, happy to call him a coward from the safety of their arm chairs, would have had the guts to do that.

I don't know what all the facts are, but until we do know more I think it's reprehensible to burn McQueary at the stake, as so many people in the media and elsewhere are eager to do. It's especially reprehensible in my view to commit McQueary to the flames for allegedly failing to do what, in fact, he may actually have done. It may turn out that he's a much better man than a lot of his most hurtful critics think and a much better man than they are themselves.