Monday, December 31, 2012

Beyond Three Dimensions

Could it be that the three dimensional world in which we live is not all there is to reality? Is it possible that there are other dimensions, perhaps inhabited by other beings, which, though its all around us, we are oblivious to because we lack the ability to perceive more than three dimensions?

Such a possibility was the theme of a post I did in 2006 titled Plato's Cave for Modern Man. Check it out.

Also, check out this video which illustrates how a being possessing more dimensions than does our world would be completely incomprehensible, even though thoroughly immanent, to us:

2012: The Best of All Possible Years

Reading this editorial in The Spectator will fill you with Christmas cheer - unless you're an inveterate pessimist or a secular leftist who abhors anything smacking of either Christmas or capitalist success stories. Indeed, as I read it I had two thoughts: first, it sounds so Panglossian that it just begs for a Voltaire to skewer it, and second, I wondered whether it could be that we actually are on the cusp of the millenial kingdom. Give it a read and see what you think. Here's the lede:
It may not feel like it, but 2012 has been the greatest year in the history of the world. That sounds like an extravagant claim, but it is borne out by evidence. Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.

To listen to politicians is to be given the opposite impression — of a dangerous, cruel world where things are bad and getting worse. This, in a way, is the politicians’ job: to highlight problems and to try their best to offer solutions. But the great advances of mankind come about not from statesmen, but from ordinary people. Governments across the world appear stuck in what Michael Lind describes as an era of ‘turboparalysis’ — all motion, no progress. But outside government, progress has been nothing short of spectacular.

Take global poverty. In 1990, the UN announced Millennium Development Goals, the first of which was to halve the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015. It emerged this year that the target was met in 2008. Yet the achievement did not merit an official announcement, presumably because it was not achieved by any government scheme but by the pace of global capitalism. Buying cheap plastic toys made in China really is helping to make poverty history. And global inequality? This, too, is lower now than any point in modern times. Globalisation means the world’s not just getting richer, but fairer too.

The doom-mongers will tell you that we cannot sustain worldwide economic growth without ruining our environment. But while the rich world’s economies grew by 6 per cent over the last seven years, fossil fuel consumption in those countries fell by 4 per cent. This remarkable (and, again, unreported) achievement has nothing to do with green taxes or wind farms. It is down to consumer demand for more efficient cars and factories.

And what about the concerns that the oil would run out? Ministers have spent years thinking of improbable new power sources. As it turns out, engineers in America have found new ways of mining fossil fuel. The amazing breakthroughs in ‘fracking’ technology mean that, in spite of the world’s escalating population — from one billion to seven billion over the last two centuries — we live in an age of energy abundance.

Advances in medicine and technology mean that people across the world are living longer. The average life expectancy in Africa reached 55 this year. Ten years ago, it was 50. The number of people dying from Aids has been in decline for the last eight years. Deaths from malaria have fallen by a fifth in half a decade.
The editorial goes on to amass more such good news. Perhaps a New Years' Eve toast to 2012 is in order tonight. The Spectator closes its essay with this:
But now, as we celebrate the arrival of Light into the world, it’s worth remembering that, in spite of all our problems, the forces of peace, progress and prosperity are prevailing.
I'll sip some champagne to that even if I'm still not quite sure I believe it.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Guns, Israel, and Chicago

Rabbi Moshe Averick shares several interesting thoughts apropos the current controversy over gun availability and draws some pertinent conclusions. Here's the first:
Anyone from the United States who visits Israel cannot help but be struck with the two following observations:

1. There are guns everywhere. That includes pistols and semi-automatic handguns worn on the hips of civilians (some carry Uzi sub-machine guns) and guards at malls and theaters, rifles slung over the shoulders of teachers and guards accompanying school children on class trips and outings, and the ever present – and from my middle-aged perspective – impossibly young-looking soldiers, both male and female, carrying M-16 and Gallil automatic assault weapons.

Armed Israelis at a beach resort
2. One feels very safe. The reason is simple: Those carrying the guns are the good guys.

On the other hand, two observations about Chicago, where I grew up and currently reside:

1. Despite the fact that Chicago has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country (Illinois has completely outlawed concealed carry), 440 school-age children were hit by gunfire here in 2012. Of these, 60 died. Just in case it is overlooked, that is triple the number of those tragically murdered in Newtown, Conn. In fact, in a very bloody 2012 Christmas eve, 7 people were shot in the free-fire zones on the South and West sides of the city.

2. I do not feel safe. The reason is simple: Those carrying the guns are the bad guys.

First obvious conclusion: When good guys have guns we feel safe. When only bad guys have guns, you end up with…well, Chicago.
So why can guns be legally ubiquitous in Israel and there's little violence as a result whereas they're illegal but nevertheless still ubiquitous in Chicago and the violence is appalling? Averick argues that it's the result of decades of liberal policies. Read the rest of his post at the link to find out why he thinks that.

Punish the Rich

Jamelle Bouie at The Washington Post explains why Democrats are adamant that we raise taxes on the rich. It's not because of the revenue such taxes would raise because there's not much revenue to be gained from it. It's because they simply want to punish the rich. Bouie doesn't use the word punish, but that's what his column implies.

Democrats, it seems, are prepared to drive the country deeper into recession, perpetrate a disaster upon the poor, and see our military eviscerated just so they can knock the rich down a couple of pegs and make themselves feel morally righteous by so-doing. But let Bouie tell it:
[A couple of days] from now, the United States will probably “go over” the “fiscal cliff,” and begin to implement a series of tax increases and spending cuts that will — over the course of the year — take a large bite out of economic growth. A deal to avoid the cliff is still possible, but unlikely; Republicans remain opposed to upper-income tax increases, regardless of size, and even if they come with cuts to entitlement spending.

On Monday, I wrote that this opposition is rooted in a fundamentally different view of how to create economic growth in a recession.

Republicans believe that federal spending is driving the debt that, in their view, is holding back the economy. Until Washington gets its “spending under control,” conservatives have all but promised to shoot down any tax increases.

It’s also worth looking at the other side. Yes, we know that Democrats view the current economic climate as demand-driven, but that doesn’t explain their insistence on upper-income tax hikes, despite the fact that — all things equal — it’s probably better to keep the tax cuts and wait for further economic growth before ending them.

The key thing to remember, however, is that Democrats — and liberals, in particular — care about economic inequality as much as they do growth. And as explained in The Post this morning, it’s this concern with inequality that has driven Democrats to rethink their approach on the Bush tax cuts.

Rhetoric aside, there’s no doubt Democrats know that — barring a hike to pre-Reagan levels — there’s not much revenue to gain from restoring upper-income taxes to Clinton-era levels. And when it comes to deficit reduction, full employment — and robust growth — is the best solution. If upper-income tax hikes serve a purpose, it’s to slow the income gains of the wealthiest Americans, who — for the past decade — have reaped the lion’s share of gains from economic growth.
I don't think it's unfair to note that there are two very influential groups among liberals. There are those who are rich and feel guilty about being rich, and there are those who are not rich and who envy and/or resent those who are. The combination of guilt and resentment is a combustible mix that's causing Democrats, particularly the president, to insist on measures that'll do nothing to cure our country's economic ills but do a lot to make them worse.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Singer's Utilitarian Ethics

Peter Wicks reviews in First Things a book by Charles C. Camosy titled Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization. Singer, you probably know, is the enfante terrible of ethicists, insisting on a remorselessly consistent application of the utilitarian calculus, particularly in the matter of abortion and infanticide. For example, as Wicks writes:
Singer not only holds that abortion is permissible at all stages of pregnancy, but also notoriously defends the view that there are circumstances in which it would be moral to kill a newborn child.

Singer arrives at this position by running a familiar anti-abortion argument in reverse. The anti-abortion argument is that because a child does not undergo any transformation in the course of being born that could plausibly be supposed to give it a right not to be killed, the unborn have such a right, since to deny this would lead to the absurd conclusion that there is nothing inherently wrong in killing the newly born.

Singer reasons in the other direction and denies that both the unborn and the newly born have a right not to be killed.
In other words, pro-lifers argue that since there's no qualitative difference between the born infant and the unborn, and since killing the born infant is a moral wrong so, too, is killing the unborn. Singer, however, argues that since there's no difference between the born infant and the unborn, and since the unborn has no right to life, neither should the infant. Wick notes that:
Singer believes newborn infants are not yet persons because they lack the rationality and self-awareness required to possess a desire to go on living. It is the thwarting of that desire, rather than the taking of life as such, that he believes accounts for the wrongness of killing in those cases in which killing is wrong.

In the most recent edition of Singer’s Practical Ethics, he writes that strict conditions should be placed on the circumstances in which infanticide is permitted, but “these restrictions should owe more to the effects of infanticide on others than to the intrinsic wrongness of killing an infant.”

This view shocks many, including many who admire Singer for his work on our duties to animals and the world’s poor. But his position is exactly the one that his utilitarian theory implies, and the way that he arrives at that position can serve to illustrate features of the utilitarian approach to ethics that make it attractive even to those who are reluctant to accept the conclusions that it implies.
There's much more on Singer's utilitarianism at the link and I recommend reading it. Wick is correct when he adds that:
One reason utilitarian ethical thinking proves so persistently attractive even to those who are reluctant to accept the conclusions it implies is that many of us have difficulty imagining what else ethical thinking could be.
Of course, Singer is an atheist, and if he's right about there being no God then it's hard to imagine how anyone could argue that he's wrong about infanticide in particular and utilitarianism in general. The former follows from the latter, and in a godless world one ethical system is just as useful and defensible as another since they're all matters of arbitrary personal preference.

If a society spurns the notion of a transcendent moral authority which establishes right and wrong and to whom we are accountable then there's no reason to prefer utilitarianism over egoism. Utilitarianism says that we should maximize human well-being and happiness which means that when I act I should take into consideration how my act will affect the happiness of others, but, given atheism, why should I? Why should I care about the well-being of people I don't even know? Why should I not just care about my own happiness and well-being?

Moreover, once we realize that in a godless world egoism (the belief that my well-being is all that matters) is the default position there's no reason not to adopt an ethic of might-makes-right. There's certainly no reason to think that anyone who does adopt such an ethic is wrong to do so. If promoting my well-being is right then whatever I have the power to do is right to do as long as it makes me happy.

When God is banished from ethics, when the divine commands to love God and love our neighbor are deemed obsolete, then society will ultimately devolve to the ethics of the Roman Coliseum or Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games.

That's why it sounds so foolish when atheists like Singer make moral judgments about the treatment of animals or people. When an atheist asserts that X is wrong or immoral all he's saying is that he doesn't like X, but why should anyone care about what he likes? To that question the atheist can give no answer.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christianophobia

Silently, almost beneath notice in the West, Christianity is being extirpated in much of the world. An article on a report by Ruppert Shortt published in Civitas gives some details:
The report surveys in detail the extent of Christian persecution in seven countries – Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, Burma, China and India. And it cites findings from the Freedom House think-tank report to highlight the way that Muslim-majority countries are the most hostile to Christians.

Christianity is in serious danger of being wiped out in its biblical heartlands because of Islamic oppression, according to a new report from a leading independent think-tank. But Western politicians and media largely ignore the widespread persecution of Christians in the Middle East and the wider world because they are afraid they will be accused of racism. They fail to appreciate that in the defence of the wider concept of human rights, religious freedom is the “canary in the mine”, according to the report.

The refusal of young Christians in the West to become “radicalised” and mount violent protests against the attacks on their faith also helps to explain the “blind spot” about “Christianophobia” in influential liberal Western circles.
Intolerant Muslims and atheistic communists are waging war against Christian communities throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia:
Mr Shortt quotes expert findings that between a half and two-thirds of Christians in the Middle East have left or been killed over the past century. The pace of this assault is now intensifying with the rise of militant Islam in countries such as Egypt, Iraq and now, with the civil war, Syria.

Across the world as a whole, some 200 million Christians (10 per cent of the total) are socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs.

They [Muslims]impose the greatest curbs on religious freedoms and make up 12 of the 20 countries judged to be “unfree” on the grounds of religious tolerance. Of the seven states receiving the lowest possible score, four are Muslim.

Iraq has also witnessed the decimation of its Christian community amid frequent bombings, shootings, beheadings and kidnappings, especially since the invasion of 2003. In 1990 there were between 1.2 to 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. By 2003, there were only around half a million. Today there are less than 200,000.
Christians are also under assault in non-Muslim countries. Mr Shortt points out that more Christians are imprisoned in China than in any other country in the world. It is estimated that almost 2000 members of house churches were arrested during the 12 months after May 2004 alone.
The author concludes that it took Christian societies many centuries to evolve a tradition of tolerance towards other faiths. He expresses the hope that Islam might eventually reach the same destination.
In other words, whereas Christian nations realized centuries ago that religious freedom and toleration are far more amenable to social and political well-being than sectarian violence, and, whereas this emphasis on freedom and toleration led to enlightenment, science, and technological advance, Muslims and atheistic communists prefer still to live in the dark ages of intellectual and spiritual barbarism.

There's more on the persecution Christians are facing in much of the world today at the link.

Collapse of the Pro-Choice Movement?

Jon Shields, a professor of government at Claremont College, argues in First Things that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that removed abortion from the realm of democratic judgment by the citizenry and elevated it, implausibly, to the status of a constitutional right, has actually precipitated the demise of the pro-choice movement.

Perhaps he's right, but whether he is or isn't he does make an interesting argument. Here's the crux of it:
Roe v. Wade did far more than create a constitutional right to abortion—it crippled the pro-choice and energized the pro-life movement, creating one of the largest campaigns of moral suasion in American history. Even while nationalizing abortion politics, the Supreme Court’s decision also localized and personalized the issue by pushing it almost entirely out of legislatures, giving an unexpected opening to the pro-life movement to affect the culture, and in turn the wider political debate, in ways no one expected.

Before Roe, the pro-choice movement was truly a movement: It organized letter-writing campaigns, subverted restrictive abortion laws through underground networks of clergy and doctors, and eagerly sought opportunities to debate pro-life advocates. After Roe, obviated by its near-total victory, the movement almost collapsed. It has never fully recovered its former strength and energy.

The impressive efforts of pro-life citizens suggest that Roe did not render them powerless, as both liberals and conservatives sometimes assert. Yes, Roe effectively disenfranchised pro-life citizens by denying them the right to vote over the basic contours of abortion policy. But it also decimated the pro-choice movement and cleared the way for a massive campaign of moral suasion. Much like women in the nineteenth century, pro-life activists have found ways to shape our culture and politics without the franchise.

Skeptics might reasonably question the influence of the pro-life movement, especially since abortion opinion has hardly changed since Roe was decided. That fact alone, however, may indicate the power — not the weakness — of the pro-life movement.

While the country has become far more socially liberal on a large range of questions since Roe, abortion opinion has remained a strange outlier. In fact, pro-choice sentiment stopped increasing after Roe altogether, even though it had grown dramatically in years prior. Roe represented an end to the rapid liberalization of abortion attitudes, perhaps in part because of the utter collapse of the pro-choice movement. Recent surveys find that young Americans are less pro-choice than their elders, even though they are more secular and more likely to support same-sex marriage.

Abortion rates, meanwhile, have steadily declined by nearly a third since peaking in the early 1980s. Those rates would almost certainly have been higher absent the pro-life movement’s massive campaign of moral suasion.
I, for one, hope Shields is correct, but I wonder. Abortion rates may be down by a third from their peak, but that still means that there are a million unborn babies whose lives are snuffed out every year. That doesn't sound like most people's idea of winning.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What's Needed, What's Not

Mark Twain once observed that there are thousands of people hacking at the branches of evil for every one cutting at the root. Perhaps our media and politicians, in their zeal to do something, anything to control firearms in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting are good examples of Twain's aphorism.

John Fund Sails against the media wind with another good column on the media frenzy over guns and the alleged need to control them. He makes several points about gun control which can be summarized in these four statements:
  1. It isn't going to happen.
  2. It wouldn't work if it did happen.
  3. Most people in the media talking about "assault" weapons don't know what they're talking about.
  4. A better solution would be to remove the barriers to treatment - erected by leftist groups like the ACLU in the 1970s - for people who show signs of mental illness.
In some ways the debate over gun control is like the debate over the fiscal cliff. The left is adamant that we adopt measures (taxing the rich, banning semi-automatic rifles) that don't address the problem and won't do any good. Nevertheless, their proposals are not outrageous in principle. If raising taxes on millionaires or doing away with semi-automatic rifles would solve our debt problem or prevent mass murders then I'd be for them.

But they won't, and therefore I'm not. Such measures would only succeed in further restricting our freedom which may be one reason why the left is so eager to implement them.

Diverting Killer Rocks

Astronomer Phil Plait gives a 14 minute TED Talk in which he describes the problem posed by asteroids whose orbits take them into a collision course with earth. He also discusses some current strategies for dealing with these threats if they're discovered in time.

Mr. Plait tries a bit too hard to be funny and his audience seems to have a low humor threshhold, both of which are somewhat irritating, but if you can tolerate that sort of thing, his talk is interesting:

Monday, December 24, 2012

Why Christians Celebrate Christmas

In this season of shopping and feasting it's easy to lose sight of why Christmas is a special day. The following allegory, which we've posted on Viewpoint several times in the past, is a modest attempt to put the season into perspective [Some readers have noted the similarity between this story and the movie Taken. The story of Michael first appeared on Viewpoint over a year before Taken was released so the similarities are purely coincidental.]:
Michael, a member of a top-secret anti-terrorism task force, was the father of a teenage daughter named Jennifer, and his duties had caused him to be away from home much of the time Jen was growing up. He was serving his country in a very important, very dangerous capacity that required his absence and a great deal of personal sacrifice. As a result, his daughter grew into her late teens pretty much without him. Indeed, his wife Judith had decided to leave him a couple of years previous and took the girl with her.

Finally, after several years abroad, Mike was able to return home. He longed to hold his princess in his arms and to spend every possible moment with her to try to make up for lost time, but when he knocked on the door of his ex-wife's house the girl who greeted him was almost unrecognizable. Jen had grown up physically and along the way she had rejected everything Michael valued. Her appearance shocked him and her words cut him like a razor. She told him coldly and bluntly that she really didn't want to see him, that he wasn't a father as far as she was concerned, that he hadn't been a part of her life before and wouldn't be in the future.

Michael, a man who had faced numerous hazards and threats in the course of his work and had been secretly cited for great heroism by the government, was staggered by her words. The loathing in her voice and in her eyes crushed his heart. He started to speak, but the door was slammed in his face. Heartbroken and devastated he wandered the streets of the city wondering how, or if, he could ever regain the love his little girl once had for him.

Weeks went by during which he tried to contact both his ex-wife and his daughter, but they refused to return his calls. Then one night his cell phone rang. It was Judith, and from her voice Mike could tell something was very wrong. Jennifer had apparently run off with some unsavory characters several days before and hadn't been heard from since. His ex-wife had called the police, but she felt Mike should know, too. She told him that she thought the guys Jen had gone out with that night were heavily into drugs and she was worried sick about her.

She had good reason to be. Jen thought when she left the house that she was just going for a joy ride, but that's not what her "friends" had in mind. Once they had Jen back at their apartment they tied her to a bed, abused her, filmed the whole thing, and when she resisted they beat her until she submitted. She overheard them debating whether they should sell her to a man whom they knew sold girls into sex-slavery in South America or whether they should just kill her now and dump her body in the bay. For three days her life was a living hell. She cried herself to sleep late every night after being forced into the most degrading conduct imaginable.

Finally her abductors sold her to a street gang in exchange for drugs. Bound and gagged, she was raped repeatedly and beaten savagely. For the first time in her life she prayed that God would help her, and for the first time in many years she missed her father. But as the days wore on she began to think she'd rather be dead than be forced to endure what she was being put through.

Mike knew some of the officers in the police force and was able to get a couple of leads from them as to who the guys she originally left with might be. He set out, not knowing Jennifer's peril, but determined to find her no matter what the cost. His search led him to another city and took days - days in which he scarcely ate or slept. Each hour that passed Jennifer's condition grew worse and her danger more severe. She was by now in a cocaine-induced haze in which she almost didn't know or care what was happening to her.

Somehow, Michael, weary and weak from his lack of sleep and food, managed to find the seedy, run down tenement building where Jennifer was imprisoned. Breaking through a flimsy door he saw his daughter laying on a filthy bed surrounded by three startled kidnappers. Enraged by the scene before his eyes he launched himself at them with a terrible, vengeful fury. Two of the thugs went down quickly, but the third escaped. With tears flowing down his cheeks, Mike unfastened the bonds that held Jen's wrists to the bed posts. She was weak but alert enough to cooperate as Michael helped her to her feet and led her to the doorway.

As she passed into the hall with Michael behind her the third abductor appeared with a gun. Michael quickly stepped in front of Jennifer and yelled to her to run back into the apartment and out the fire escape. The assailant tried to shoot her as she stumbled toward the escape, but Michael shielded her from the bullet, taking the round in his side. The thug fired twice more into Michael's body, but Mike was able to seize the gun and turn it on the shooter.

Finally, it was all over, finished.

Slumped against the wall, Mike lay bleeding from his wounds, the life draining out of him. Jennifer saw from the fire escape landing what had happened and ran back to her father. Cradling him in her arms she wept bitterly and told him over and over that she loved him and that she was so sorry for what she had said to him and for what she had done.

With the last bit of life left in him he gazed up at her, pursed his lips in a kiss, smiled and died. Jennifer wept hysterically. How could she ever forgive herself for how she had treated him? How could she ever overcome the guilt and the loss she felt? How could she ever repay the tremendous love and sacrifice her father had showered upon her?

Years passed. Jennifer eventually had a family of her own. She raised her children to revere the memory of her father even though they had never known him. She resolved to live her own life in such a way that Michael, if he knew, would be enormously proud of her. Everything she did, she did out of gratitude to him for what he had done for her, and every year on his birthday she went to the cemetery alone and sat for a couple of hours at his graveside, talking to him and sharing her love and her life with him. Her father had given everything for her despite the cruel way she had treated him. He had given his life to save hers, and his love for her, his sacrifice, had changed her life forever.
And that's why Christians celebrate Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Story of St. Nicholas

Theologian James Parker offers us a brief history of the original Santa Claus (a transliteration of "Saint Nicholas") and how the myths around him grew.

Here's an excerpt:
Most people simply do not realize the rich ancient heritage behind the Santa Claus story. The secularized and sanitized contemporary version pales in comparison with the deeply Christian ethos and content of the original.

Much exaggerated legendary material is connected with his life and ministry, but if nothing else, the legends tell us what values and beliefs the church held as important as they were projected onto Nicholas. To the bare minimum of facts, legend has supplied intriguing details through such writers as St. Methodius (patriarch of Constantinople in the 850s) and the Greek writer Metaphrastes in the 10th century.

The story goes that Nicholas was born in A.D. 280 to pious and wealthy parents who raised him in the fear and admonition of the Lord and taught him "sacred books" from the age of 5. He was forced to grow up quickly upon the sudden death of his parents.

Inheriting his family's wealth, he was left rich and lonely, but he had the desire to use his wealth for good. The first opportunity to do this happened when he heard about a father who, through an unfortunate turn of events, was left destitute with three daughters. Without marriage dowry money, the daughters would be condemned to a life of singleness and prostitution, so Nicholas threw some small bags of gold coins into the window of the home (some traditions say down the chimney), thereby saving the children from a life of misery.

Later as a teenager, Nicholas made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine. Upon returning home he felt called to ministry and was subsequently ordained. He spent time at the Monastery of Holy Zion near Myra until an old priest had a vision that he was to be the new bishop.

The congregation overwhelmingly elected him bishop, and he became known for his holiness, passion for the Gospel and zeal. He challenged the old gods and paganism at the principal temple in his district (to the god Artemis), and it was said that the evil spirits "fled howling before him."
There's more to the story. Nicholas was imprisoned under the Roman emperor Diocletian, savagely beaten, and later released under Constantine's Edict of Milan.
Those who survived Diocletian's purges were called "confessors" because they refused to renege on their confession of Jesus as Lord.

When Bishop Nicholas walked out of the prison, the crowds called to him: "Nicholas! Confessor!" He had been repeatedly beaten until he was raw, and his body was the color of vermilion. Bishop Nicholas was also said to have intervened on behalf of unjustly charged prisoners and actively sought to help his people survive when they had experienced two successive bad harvests.
Nicholas opposed Arianism, the belief that Jesus was a created being and not divine, and according to some perhaps apocryphal traditions, actually attended the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. where he got into a physical altercation with Arias himself.

Whether that's true or not, the story of St. Nicholas is a lot different, and much more interesting, than the popular mythology surrounding him. Read the whole thing at the link.

Microfinance on Christmas

Looking for a way to help the working poor this Christmas? Give microfinance a look. I'm partial to a group called Kiva, but there are dozens of similar organizations out there doing good work in third world countries. Let me use Kiva to illustrate how they work.

If you click on the link to Kiva it takes you to their home page. From there you select from hundreds of small entrepreneurs looking for a loan to help start or sustain a business. If you navigate around the site you'll see that you can select borrowers by country, type of business, etc.

You then click on the "Lend $25" button next to the person or group you've selected to receive your loan. That will take you to a page where you give your credit card and billing info.

You're now finished, and you've done something to actually help people help themselves.

The borrower eventually pays back the loan and the money is placed back in your account. You can reclaim it or lend it out again to someone else, adding each time to the principle if you wish. In effect, you become a no-interest bank.

Check it out. It's a wonderful gift to give someone on Christ's birthday.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Protecting the Children

President Obama last week assured us that he would do something to protect our children from future tragedies like the Sandy Hook massacre. Many politicians and pundits are nodding in agreement that we must do something to prevent our children from being victimized by the psychopaths that lurk in every neighborhood.

Yet as Michael Ramirez pointedly observes, there's another form of deadly insanity being inflicted upon our children, and the culprits are some of the same people, the president included, who are pontificating on the need to protect them.

Soon interest payments on the debt will consume almost our entire annual GDP. What are the president and his minions in congress doing about it? Talking about taxing the rich - a solution which will garner about enough revenue to run the government for a couple of days - and raising the debt ceiling so that we can borrow and spend even more money and go even further into debt.

The people in charge are running the country into the ground, consigning our children to a future of permanent hardship and joblessness, and all the while blathering about the need to "protect" them. We decided not to protect them in one way that really matters when we decided last November 6th to reelect this crowd.

Atheistic Versions of Intelligent Design

People sometimes ask who, or what, if not God, any candidate for an intelligent designer of the universe could be. The purpose of the question is to show that intelligent design (ID) is an inherently religious hypothesis because any such candidate would have to be God.

It's quite a bad argument but strong enough to convince such experts in philosophy as Judge John Jones, author of the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision a few years back.

There are several possible non-theistic candidates for the role of "universe designer," but even if there weren't, even if the God of Judeo-Christian tradition were the only possible candidate, that would not make ID a religious hypothesis. It would be a hypothesis with religious implications, certainly, but then it's hard to think of any hypothesis, scientific or metaphysical, theistic or naturalistic, that doesn't have religious implications.

Anyway, a physicist at the University of Washington proposes that the universe is intelligently designed and has suggested a way to test this idea. It follows that, if ID can be tested, it belongs in the realm of scientific inquiry. To be sure, the scientist, a physicist named Martin Savage, does not think that the designer is God, a fact which also shows that ID is not a religious theory.

The Seattle Times explains:
It is entirely plausible, says University of Washington physics professor Martin Savage, that our universe and everything in it is one huge computer simulation being run by our descendants.

You, me, this newspaper, the room you're sitting in — everything we think of as reality is actually being generated by vast, powerful supercomputers of the future. If that sounds mind-blowing, Savage and his colleagues think they've come up with a way to test whether it's true.

Their paper, "Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation," has kindled a lively international discussion about the simulation argument, which was first put forth in 2003 by University of Oxford philosophy professor Nick Bostrom.

Bostrom, the Oxford professor, first proposed the idea that we live in a computer simulation in 2003. In a 2006 article, he said there was probably no way to know for certain if it is true.
Bostrom's idea is that at some point in the future, our descendents, or some other beings, would evolve such high levels of intelligence and technology that they would be able to construct supercomputers capable of generating simulated universes much like current computers can be programmed to generate simulated games.

He goes on to suggest that the world we find ourselves in is, in fact, a simulation produced by these future intelligent agents. One motivation for such a strange notion is that the physical properties of the universe have astonishingly precise values and the whole universe seems intentionally designed for life. This fine-tuning of the universe points insistently to intelligent engineering, but so far from being God, the engineer, according to these thinkers, is probably your great grandson, so metaphysical naturalists and other theophobes need not be alarmed.

The problem is, though, that efforts like Savage's and Bostrom's are giving up the game. It's pretty hard to maintain the pretense that ID is religious when so many atheists are advocating it.

These speculations also illustrate the lengths to which people will go to avoid the conclusion that God exists. They remind me of the 1954 quote from Nobel Prize winning biologist George Wald in Scientific American:
There are only two possibilities as to how life arose. One is spontaneous generation arising to evolution; the other is a supernatural creative act of God. There is no third possibility. Spontaneous generation, that life arose from non-living matter was scientifically disproved 120 years ago by Louis Pasteur and others. That leaves us with the only possible conclusion that life arose as a supernatural creative act of God. I will not accept that philosophically because I do not want to believe in God. Therefore, I choose to believe in that which I know is scientifically impossible; spontaneous generation arising to evolution.
An amazing admission. It confirms what G.K. Chesterton once said: "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing -- they believe in anything."

Friday, December 21, 2012

Do Armed Civilians Save Lives?

Law professor Eugene Volokh considers the question posed above and discusses four instances that he's immediately aware of in which an armed civilian was able to prevent or minimize a mass murder. Volokh writes:
Backers of laws that let pretty much all law-abiding carry concealed guns in public places often argue that these laws will sometimes enable people to stop mass shootings. Opponents occasionally ask: If that’s so, what examples can one give of civilians armed with guns stopping such shootings? Sometimes, I hear people asking if even one such example can be found, or saying that they haven’t heard even one such example.

Naturally, such examples will be rare, partly because mass shootings are rare, partly because many mass shootings happen in supposedly “gun-free” zones (such as schools, universities, or private property posted with a no-guns sign) in which gun carrying isn’t allowed, and partly for other reasons. Moreover, at least some examples are contested, because it might be unclear ... whether the shooter had been planning to kill more people when he was stopped. But here are instances that I have seen, not counting killings stopped by people who were off-duty police officers (or police officers from other jurisdictions) at the time of the shooting.
You can read about his examples at the link. Meanwhile, this chart shows some interesting data from 2010. In cases in which the murder weapon was known, slayings committed with the aid of rifles, including semi-automatic weapons such as were used in the Sandy Hook massacre, were a small fraction of the murders in this country. And, it was a bit of a surprise to learn, twice as many people were murdered with fists and feet than with shotguns or semi-automatic rifles:

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Atheism's Moral Compass

Polly Toynbee is the outgoing president of the British Humanist Association. In a column for The Guardian she talks about what the incoming president can expect. Toward the end she says this:
For instance, he [her successor] might take offence at the charge that without God, unbelievers have no moral compass. Hitler and Stalin were atheists, that's where it leads. We can ripost with religious atrocities, Godly genocides or the Inquisition, but that's futile. Wise atheists make no moral claims, seeing good and bad randomly spread among humanity regardless of faith. Humans do have a hardwired moral sense, every child born with an instinct for justice that makes us by nature social animals, not needing revelations from ancient texts. The idea that morality can only be frightened into us artificially, by divine edict, is degrading.
Ms Toynbee packs a great deal of confusion into just a few sentences. let's examine her claims. She writes:
For instance, he might take offence at the charge that without God, unbelievers have no moral compass. Hitler and Stalin were atheists, that's where it leads. We can ripost with religious atrocities, Godly genocides or the Inquisition, but that's futile.
When a Christian kills innocent people he is profoundly betraying the truth and the God he professes to believe in. When an atheist of the Hitler/Stalin variety slaughters innocent people he's not betraying anything. There's nothing in atheism, qua atheism, that imposes any objective moral sanction at all. If there's no God then whatever a person chooses to do is neither right nor wrong. It just is.
Wise atheists make no moral claims, seeing good and bad randomly spread among humanity regardless of faith.
It is wise of atheists to make no moral claims, primarily because the atheist has no grounds for making such claims. If there's no transcendent, personal, moral authority then good and bad simply reduce to what we like and what we don't and that varies from person to person. Moreover, since good and bad are person-relative no one can say that anything any other person does is either good or bad in a moral sense. The most they can say is that I like it or I don't like it.
Humans do have a hardwired moral sense, every child born with an instinct for justice that makes us by nature social animals, not needing revelations from ancient texts.
We are indeed hardwired for morality, we have a law written on our hearts, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Roman Christians, but the question is what is it that wired us this way? If it was simply blind impersonal forces then why should anyone feel obligated to follow the impulses that our wiring prod us toward.

Furthermore, we're also wired to be aggressive, violent, promiscuous, selfish and bigoted. If evolution has wired our behavior and desires why are these not as worthy of being followed as the impulse to charity and kindness? Why is one set of impulses more "moral" than the other? The humanist atheist is tacitly comparing both sets of behaviors to some higher standard in order to discriminate between them while at the same time denying that any higher standard actually exists.
The idea that morality can only be frightened into us artificially, by divine edict, is degrading.
Why? Is a child degraded when the parent demands a certain behavior of the child on pain of punishment? Fear can be a good teacher. But, in any case, Ms Toynbee shows an unfortunate lack of understanding of what it is that motivates, or should motivate, Christian morality. The Christian believes four propositions about God that inform his or her moral behavior:
1. God created each of us.
2. God is perfectly good and knows what is right and best for us.
3. God's love for us is so great that he gave his human life so that we could live forever.
4. God asks in return only that we love him.
Since Christians believe the first three of those propositions to be true they regard it as inconceivably ungrateful to refuse the fourth. The Christian gives himself or herself to God in love and when one loves God one seeks to live the way God desires us to live even if we're sometimes tempted to do otherwise. Moral behavior is not motivated by fear, it's motivated by love and gratitude. That makes all the difference in the world.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Subsidizing Failure

Michael Gerson calls upon President Obama in a Washington Post column to focus some attention on one of the most appalling social problems in this nation - one that gets swept under the rug by liberals and conservatives alike - the plight of black males. As Gerson tells us:
The problem has gotten worse for decades, in good economic times and bad. Others benefited from the tight labor markets of the 1990s. African American men did not. By 2004, more than half of all black men in their 20s were unemployed. And the size of this problem gets consistently underestimated, since employment figures exclude the incarcerated. A problem that seems insoluble is thus rendered invisible.

Social scientists debate which are the greatest causes of these problems, but they generally agree on the list. Declining blue-collar employment opportunities. Failing schools. Lingering racism. Absent parents (just 37 percent of black children are raised in two-parent families). The growth of an “oppositional culture” that undermines achievement. Child-support policies that unintentionally penalize honest work (up to half of black males are involved in the child-support system). An incarceration boom that has made ex-offenders less employable.

Some of these trends gather a disturbing momentum. More than 50 percent of prison inmates are parents with minor children — and those children are significantly more likely to be suspended or expelled from school. Issues of economics and values are often impossible to disentangle. “As relative rewards to mainstream legal work of less-educated young black men have declined,” argues Holzer, “so have their own attachment to the mainstream worlds of school and work and to mainstream behaviors and values more broadly.”
So why, after decades of government subsidies to the black community and numerous efforts, at great expense, to lift the poor out of poverty, is the situation growing worse? Gerson lists several factors which receive blame:
Social scientists debate which are the greatest causes of these problems, but they generally agree on the list. Declining blue-collar employment opportunities. Failing schools. Lingering racism. Absent parents (just 37 percent of black children are raised in two-parent families). The growth of an “oppositional culture” that undermines achievement. Child-support policies that unintentionally penalize honest work (up to half of black males are involved in the child-support system). An incarceration boom that has made ex-offenders less employable.
Yet none of this sounds quite right. Times were a lot harder for blacks prior to the civil rights era and yet the dysfunctions we see in the black community today did not exist on nearly the scale then that they do now. Urban schools today receive far more aid than they did during the 1930s and 40s. College, food, medical care, and housing are all much more available today than for their great grandparents. Black kids have far more opportunities to succeed today than ever before.

What's different is the welfare culture which has devastated the black family over the last sixty years. Welfare subsidies given to poor young mothers make husbands superfluous and as a result illegitimacy is the norm in poor black (and white) communities. Poverty will never be overcome when entire generations of young males are growing up with no father figure, no positive male role model in their lives to teach them self-discipline, a strong work ethic, respect for women, and love of family.

With no father available to impose behavioral standards and expectations young men gravitate to the street where all the lessons they learn - lessons about manhood, the value of women, the importance of work - are all socially and personally destructive.

When you subsidize something you simply get more of it, and family breakdown and its attendant dysfunctions is what the entitlement culture subsidizes. Little wonder we're getting more of it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

One Way to Stop School Mass Murders

My friend Matt sends along the link to this CNN news report that explains how one school is protecting its children from the psychopaths among us.

Some people are calling for placing armed guards in every school, but I don't know that that's such a good idea. Why should a school district pay people to sit around in each school in the district doing essentially nothing every day of the school year when administrators with the proper training and ready access to a weapon can provide the same protection as part of their regular duties?

The school in the CNN report allows teachers as well as administrators to carry firearms, and while I'm not sure how I feel about that, given the numerous problems that could result from guns being stolen from teachers and so on, I do feel that armed personnel in the schools will put a speedy end, one way or another, to the horrific carnage that occurs when a maniac looks for helpless, defenseless victims.

The Humanist's Predicament

Philosopher William Lane Craig has a fine op-ed in the Washington Post, of all places, in which he succinctly explains the problem with naturalism, particularly the naturalist who is a humanist.

Indeed, part of his argument parallels almost exactly one of the major themes in my book (see link at upper right of this page). In fact, Craig even uses the same words that I use as my title. Do you think maybe he read In the Absence of God? Anyway, here's part of his column:
  • The theist maintains that objective moral values are grounded in God.
  • The humanist maintains that objective moral values are grounded in human beings.
  • The nihilist maintains that moral values are ungrounded and therefore ultimately subjective and illusory.
The humanist is thus engaged in a struggle on two fronts: on the one side against the theists and on the other side against the nihilists. This is important because it underlines the fact that humanism is not a default position.

That is to say, even if the theist were wrong, that would not mean that the humanist is right. For if God does not exist, maybe it is the nihilist who is right. The humanist needs to defeat both the theist and the nihilist. In particular, he must show that in the absence of God, nihilism would not be true.
In fact, the logical conclusion of atheism is nihilism. It's just that this is either unrecognized by most atheists or is too unpalatable for them to accept. Unwilling to admit that philosopher Richard Rorty was correct when he stated that "For the secular man there's no answer to the question,'Why not be cruel?'" and unwilling to accept the existence of a transcendent moral authority as the necessary ground of all moral obligation, they remain irrationally suspended in moral mid-air.

And then they claim that it's the theist who's not grounded in reason.

The rest of Craig's piece is very much worth reading.

Monday, December 17, 2012

More Thoughts on Sandy Hook

John Fund has a column at NRO that answers a couple of the questions I asked in my previous post. It turns out that mass killings are not more common today than they've been historically. Fund tells us this:
Mass shootings are no more common than they have been in past decades, despite the impression given by the media.

In fact, the high point for mass killings in the U.S. was 1929, according to criminologist Grant Duwe of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Incidents of mass murder in the U.S. declined from 42 in the 1990s to 26 in the first decade of this century.

The chances of being killed in a mass shooting are about what they are for being struck by lightning.

Until the Newtown horror, the three worst K–12 school shootings ever had taken place in either Britain or Germany.
Fund believes that rather than discussing gun control, a measure that would almost certainly fail to stem the tide of guns in the hands of criminals, we should be discussing the laws that make it difficult to control mentally ill people prone to violence and the wisdom of gun-free zones:
First, the mental-health issue. A lengthy study by Mother Jones magazine found that at least 38 of the 61 mass shooters in the past three decades “displayed signs of mental health problems prior to the killings.” New York Times columnist David Brooks and Cornell Law School professor William Jacobson have both suggested that the ACLU-inspired laws that make it so difficult to intervene and identify potentially dangerous people should be loosened. “Will we address mental-health and educational-privacy laws, which instill fear of legal liability for reporting potentially violent mentally ill people to law enforcement?” asks Professor Jacobson. “I doubt it.”
Civil libertarians won passage of laws in the 1970s that essentially emptied our mental health hospitals and dumped thousands of potentially violent people onto the streets. Ever since it's been difficult, as the mother in the previous post attests, to get such people committed to a long term facility to protect the rest of us from their rages.

But what about gun-free zones? Fund makes a strong case that such restrictions are counterproductive:
Gun-free zones have been the most popular response to previous mass killings. But many law-enforcement officials say they are actually counterproductive. “Guns are already banned in schools. That is why the shootings happen in schools. A school is a ‘helpless-victim zone,’” says Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff. “Preventing any adult at a school from having access to a firearm eliminates any chance the killer can be stopped in time to prevent a rampage,” Jim Kouri, the public-information officer of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, told me earlier this year at the time of the Aurora, Colo., Batman-movie shooting.

Indeed, there have been many instances — from the high-school shooting by Luke Woodham in Mississippi, to the New Life Church shooting in Colorado Springs, Colo. — where a killer has been stopped after someone got a gun from a parked car or elsewhere and confronted the shooter.

Economists John Lott and William Landes conducted a groundbreaking study in 1999, and found that a common theme of mass shootings is that they occur in places where guns are banned and killers know everyone will be unarmed, such as shopping malls and schools.

I spoke with Lott after the Newtown shooting, and he confirmed that nothing has changed to alter his findings. He noted that the Aurora shooter, who killed twelve people earlier this year, had a choice of seven movie theaters that were showing the Batman movie he was obsessed with. All were within a 20-minute drive of his home.

The Cinemark Theater the killer ultimately chose wasn’t the closest, but it was the only one that posted signs saying it banned concealed handguns carried by law-abiding individuals. All of the other theaters allowed the approximately 4 percent of Colorado adults who have a concealed-handgun permit to enter with their weapons.

“Disarming law-abiding citizens leaves them as sitting ducks,” Lott told me. “A couple hundred people were in the Cinemark Theater when the killer arrived. There is an extremely high probability that one or more of them would have had a legal concealed handgun with him if they had not been banned.”

Lott offers a final damning statistic: “With just one single exception, the attack on congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson in 2011, every public shooting since at least 1950 in the U.S. in which more than three people have been killed has taken place where citizens are not allowed to carry guns.”
Fund notes that the fear that armed citizens would be a danger to society is misplaced. Statistics show that the rate of improper use of a weapon by a holder of a license to carry a concealed weapon is about the same as the rate of improper use of weapons by police officers.

Fund closes with this:
In all of the fevered commentary over the Newtown killings, you will hear little discussion of the fact that we may be making our families and neighbors less safe by expanding the places where guns aren’t allowed. But that is precisely what we may be doing. Both criminals and the criminally insane have shown time and time again that those laws are the least of the problems they face as they carry out their evil deeds.
I argued in this space several years ago that I thought one way to end school shootings would be to have a weapon available to school administrators in case of emergency and require them to take annual training in its use. Nothing that has happened since has caused me to change my opinion. Surely, if the principal of the Sandy Hook school had been armed when she courageously rushed at the man slaughtering her children she might have been able to save many of their lives. As it was she became one of his victims.

Time to Talk About Mental Illness

A woman named Liza Long who blogs under the name Anarchist Soccer Mom writes a post in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy that's apparently gone viral. It's her story, but it's the story of perhaps tens of thousands of mothers like her. She writes:
In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.

“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.

“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”

“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”

“You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,” I said, my tone affable, reasonable. “And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.”

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.
There's much more to her post which you can find here.

One question her story raises is why there seems to be so many more deeply disturbed children today than formerly. Was it always like this or is there something especially tragic afflicting people to an unprecedented extent in our modern society?

Another question that the Connecticut mass murder raises is whether there are commonalities between the perpetrators of these horrific acts. Specifically, I would like to know the following:
1. What is the nature of the perpetrators' relationship with their father?
2. To what degree are they immersed in our contemporary culture of violence and death (video games, music, movies, etc.)?
3. What is the family's attitude toward religious belief and practice?
4. How often do they use non-medicinal drugs?
I've never seen any studies that address these questions, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say what I think such a study would find. I suspect that in many cases of mass murderers in the last decade or so the answers would be:
1. Poor to none
2. Deeply
3. Indifference
4. Often
If someone knows where such data can be found, and if that data contradicts my suspicion, I'd appreciate hearing from you. Meanwhile, read the rest of Ms Long's post. The pain she and so many other contemporary parents are experiencing is heartbreaking.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Krauthammer Has it Just Right on RTW

Isn't it peculiar that liberals insist that we should have no choice about where we send our children to school nor should we have a choice about whether we support a union at our place of employment, but that we should be able to choose whether to kill our unborn child.

Something's not right about this. Anyway, Charles Krauthammer has a column in the Washington Post that I think sounds all the right notes on the matter of right to work.

Union people have a legitimate complaint when they object to workers benefiting from union negotiations without having to make a contribution to support those efforts.

Even so, one can be sympathetic to the union argument without completely agreeing with it. It seems to me that people should be free to join a union or not and they shouldn't have to pay union dues if they choose not to join. Perhaps the situation of workers who wish not to join is a bit like that of those who claim conscientious objector status in time of war. The conscientious objector benefits from the freedom and prosperity that our military fights to defend even though the CO refuses to participate in that defense.

The two situations are not exactly congruent, of course. The CO declines to serve because of a profound moral commitment to pacifism, whereas the worker may decline to join the union for less noble reasons. Even so, just as a society worth preserving will be able to find plenty of people willing to fight on its behalf and should tolerate those who have moral compunctions against violence, so, too, a union should be able to attract enough workers who believe in its cause that they need not coerce those who don't.

Krauthammer's take is slightly different. He begins with this:
For all the fury and fistfights outside the Lansing Capitol, what happened in Michigan this week was a simple accommodation to reality. The most famously unionized state, birthplace of the United Auto Workers, royalty of the American working class, became right-to-work.

It’s shocking, except that it was inevitable. Indiana went that way earlier this year. The entire Rust Belt will eventually follow because the heyday of the sovereign private-sector union is gone. Globalization has made splendid isolation impossible.
He elaborates with some interesting statistics.
Let’s be honest: Right-to-work laws do weaken unions. And de-unionization can lead to lower wages.

But there is another factor at play: having a job in the first place. In right-to-work states, the average wage is about 10 percent lower. But in right-to-work states, unemployment also is about 10 percent lower.

Higher wages or lower unemployment? It is a wrenching choice. Although, you would think that liberals would be more inclined to spread the wealth — i.e., the jobs — around, preferring somewhat lower pay in order to leave fewer fellow workers mired in unemployment.

Think of the moral calculus. Lower wages cause an incremental decline in one’s well-being. No doubt. But for the unemployed, the decline is categorical, sometimes catastrophic — a loss not just of income but of independence and dignity.
I also thought his conclusion was just right:
I have great admiration for the dignity and protections trade unionism has brought to American workers. I have no great desire to see the private-sector unions defenestrated. (Like FDR, Fiorello La Guardia and George Meany, however, I don’t extend that sympathy to public-sector unions.)

But rigidity and nostalgia have a price. The industrial Midwest is littered with the resulting wreckage. Michigan most notably, where its formerly great metropolis of Detroit is reduced to boarded-up bankruptcy by its inability and unwillingness to adapt to global change.

It’s easy to understand why a state such as Michigan would seek to recover its competitiveness by emulating the success of Indiana. One can sympathize with those who pine for the union glory days, while at the same time welcoming the new realism that promises not an impossible restoration but desperately needed — and doable — recalibration and recovery.
I think unions need to ask themselves why it is that there's so much popular antipathy toward them, even among people who have family members in unions. Perhaps it's at least partly because, whereas when unions first gained power they had a just cause, today people see them as organizations whose workers have it very good and want it much better. Just as the average person despises those CEOs who take huge bonuses and retirement packages, so, too, do they resent union workers who demand benefits that are driving companies like Hostess out of business.

Read the rest of Krauthammer's piece at the link.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Liberal Racism

Just as most of the political violence and incivility in today's society is on the left, so, too, is most of the racism. The latest example of this is found in comments made by a black ESPN analyst named Rob Parker:
So, if a black man is a Republican or has a white fiance then he's not genuinely black. He's not down for the struggle, in Mr. Parker's tribalistic worldview.

I wonder what the media would do to a white analyst who said similar things about a white athlete who had a black fiance. I'm pretty sure the analyst would be quickly dispatched to Mr. Obama's burgeoning list of unemployed persons, a list which happens to include a disproportionate number of "brothers," both cornball and otherwise.

Robert Griffith has made it a point to tell people that he's not interested in being identified as a "black" quarterback. He just wants to be identified as a man. Unlike racial troglodytes like Parker, Griffith refuses to live in the 1960s.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fledglings

Like young birds teetering tentatively on the edge of their nest, wanting to fly, but afraid to leave, Darwinian materialists seem to be finding the old nest increasingly unsuitable for the accumulating knowledge of the 21st century. Yet they're reluctant to make a clean break with the philosophical nest they've called home for much of their lives.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel created a stir in the philosophical world when he took wing a couple of months ago with the release of his book Mind and Cosmos: Why Darwinian Materialism Is Almost Certainly Wrong. Now comes word that cosmologist Paul Davies, one of the most prolific writers of science books in the last twenty years, has placed himself on the rim of the nest and is flexing his wings.

An article in Science Daily discusses a recent paper Davies has written with a coworker named Sara Walker that sounds almost as if it could have been written by an Intelligent Design advocate. The article starts this way:
One of the great mysteries of life is how it began. What physical process transformed a nonliving mix of chemicals into something as complex as a living cell?
Davies and Walker have come up with what they think is a partial answer:
In a nutshell, the authors shift attention from the "hardware" -- the chemical basis of life -- to the "software" -- its information content. To use a computer analogy, chemistry explains the material substance of the machine, but it won't function without a program and data. Davies and Walker suggest that the crucial distinction between non-life and life is the way that living organisms manage the information flowing through the system.

"When we describe biological processes we typically use informational narratives -- cells send out signals, developmental programs are run, coded instructions are read, genomic data are transmitted between generations and so forth," Walker said. "So identifying life's origin in the way information is processed and managed can open up new avenues for research."

"We propose that the transition from non-life to life is unique and definable," added Davies. "We suggest that life may be characterized by its distinctive and active use of information, thus providing a road map to identify rigorous criteria for the emergence of life. This is in sharp contrast to a century of thought in which the transition to life has been cast as a problem of chemistry, with the goal of identifying a plausible reaction pathway from chemical mixtures to a living entity."
In other words it's information that defines life and information processing that must be explained, but as Intelligent Design theorists have been saying now for a decade and a half, information is uniquely a characteristic of minds. If life is all about information what is the genesis of that information? Living cells are like libraries of information. They're like computer software, but the library's books and software codes are products of intelligence. You don't get Windows XP by random chance and natural forces.

The article continues:
"To a physicist or chemist life seems like 'magic matter,'" Davies explained. "It behaves in extraordinary ways that are unmatched in any other complex physical or chemical system. Such lifelike properties include autonomy, adaptability and goal-oriented behavior -- the ability to harness chemical reactions to enact a pre-programmed agenda, rather than being a slave to those reactions."
"Magic matter?" One might think that Davies has taken wing, but he's not ready to leave the materialist nest just yet. He still thinks that there's some purely physicalist explanation for the amazing amount and functionality of information in the cell, at least he says he does. Perhaps, he's at the stage of the fledgling which knows that leaving the nest is inevitable, but it clings to the security the nest represents as long as possible. After all, there's a tremendous professional price to pay when one becomes a full-fledged heretic.

Book Signing Reminder

Just a reminder that I'll be doing a book signing/meet and greet on behalf of my book In the Absence of God at Hearts and Minds bookstore in Dallastown, PA tomorrow evening (December 14th) beginning at 7:00pm.

My friend Byron Borger, the proprietor of Hearts and Minds, has graciously offered to host this event at his bookshop, and I hope many of you can make it, especially if you live close-by. It'll be an evening of good conversation, light refreshments, an opportunity to make new acquaintances, and an opportunity to browse the shelves of perhaps the most charming bookstore you'll ever visit.

It's also a great place to do some Christmas shopping, and In the Absence of God may make the perfect gift for someone who prefers novels to non-fiction and who's interested in questions about God. For more information on the book click on the link at the upper right of this page.

The address of Hearts and Minds is 234 East Main Street, Dallastown, York County, PA. I hope to see you there.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Civil Disagreement Over Right to Work

Michigan governor Rick Snyder signed a measure yesterday that would make it possible for workers who refuse to join a union to decline to pay dues to the union. This is called Right to Work, and it's vigorously opposed by the unions who see it as both unfair that those who don't contribute to the union still get the benefits negotiated by the union and also as a threat to their political influence.

Heretofore in Michigan and elsewhere a worker who refused to join certain unions still had to pay dues to the union.

Byron York writes on this in The Washington Examiner:
Michigan, home of the nation's heavily unionized auto industry, will become the 24th right-to-work state in the country -- a development that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Republicans say the move would not only give current workers the freedom to choose whether to join a union and pay dues but would, more importantly, bring many, many new jobs to Michigan. Rep. Gov. Rick Snyder, who supports the bill, points out that Indiana enacted (after a long and bitter fight) the same kind of law earlier this year. "We've carefully watched what's gone on in Indiana since they passed similar legislation back in February," Snyder told Fox News' Greta van Susteren last week, "and they've seen a significant increase in the number of companies talking about [bringing] thousands of jobs to their state."

Of course, the move is not just economic. It's political, too. Democrats depend on millions -- actually, billions -- of dollars in support from the forced dues of union members. If that money supply were to dry up, or even just decrease, the Democratic Party would be in serious trouble.

Which is why President Obama just happened to discuss the situation during his campaign-style visit to the Daimler Detroit Diesel Plant in Redford, Mich., on Monday. "These so-called right-to-work laws don't have anything to do with economics -- they have everything to do with politics," Obama said. "What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."
Meanwhile, outside the capitol building union protestors were engaging Right to Work supporters in a cordial effort to persuade them of the error of their ways. One such beneficiary of the union members' gentle appeals to reason was Fox News' Steven Crowder who was complaining, no doubt insolently, him being a Tea Party sympathizer and all, that the thugs, er, protestors had just pulled down a tent on top of women and children who were caught inside.

When Mr. Crowder failed to come around to their point of view, the protestors decided to employ a different kind of logic, a form of argument with which they're much more comfortable, in an attempt to hammer home to him the facts of the matter.

I need someone to explain to me why it is that when a Tea Partier holds up a sign saying Don't Tread on Me there are universal expressions of revulsion at the implied "violence," but when union thugs bully women and children, spew filth, and physically assault someone who doesn't agree with them no one seems much disturbed by it.

I suppose when the violence is on the left, it's no big deal. Boys will be boys, after all. When rapes, muggings and murders break out at the Occupy encampments, well, we just have to expect unfortunate things to happen when people are thrust into close quarters. When Obama supporters threaten to riot in the streets and burn down their cities if he loses the election, we're told that they're just kidding. But when a Tea Party guy says he's tired of excessive government spending and taxes the media treats him like he's Lee Harvey Oswald.

Why is that?

Honor and Mercy

The New York Post's Maureen Callahan writes a wonderful story about honor in wartime based on the book A Higher Call, by Adam Makos. Callahan's account opens with this:
On Dec. 20, 1943, a young American bomber pilot named Charlie Brown found himself somewhere over Germany, struggling to keep his plane aloft with just one of its four engines still working. They were returning from their first mission as a unit, the successful bombing of a German munitions factory. Of his crew members, one was dead and six wounded, and 2nd Lt. Brown was alone in his cockpit, the three unharmed men tending to the others. Brown’s B-17 had been attacked by 15 German planes and left for dead, and Brown himself had been knocked out in the assault, regaining consciousness in just enough time to pull the plane out of a near-fatal nose dive.

None of that was as shocking as the German pilot now suddenly to his right. Brown thought he was hallucinating. He did that thing you see people do in movies: He closed his eyes and shook his head no. He looked, again, out the co-pilot’s window. Again, the lone German was still there, and now it was worse. He’d flown over to Brown’s left and was frantic: pointing, mouthing things that Brown couldn’t begin to comprehend, making these wild gestures, exaggerating his expressions like a cartoon character.

Brown, already in shock, was freshly shot through with fear. What was this guy up to? He craned his neck and yelled back for his top gunner, screamed at him to get up in his turret and shoot this guy out of the sky. Before Brown’s gunner could squeeze off his first round, the German did something even weirder: He looked Brown in the eye and gave him a salute. Then he peeled away.

What just happened? That question would haunt Brown for more than 40 years, long after he married and left the service and resettled in Miami, long after he had expected the nightmares about the German to stop and just learned to live with them.
There's much more to this story, especially in how it ends. Check it out and watch the video.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Inadequacy of Darwinian Naturalism

Paul Nelson is a philosopher of biology who gave a talk at Saddleback Church in California the Sunday after Thanksgiving. His topic was on why unguided natural processes, particularly genetic mutation and natural selection, cannot by themselves account for the evolution of microbes to mammals.

As Nelson puts it natural selection is real, but it can only conserve, it cannot create. Nelson explains one of the gravest difficulties for Darwinian evolution as a creative force - the origin of different animal body plans. The difference between a worm and a fly is enormous, but the kinds of mutations in the genomes of any ancestral species that would be needed to create either worms or flies are invariably lethal to the organism.

The video of Nelson's presentation is forty minutes long, but for someone interested in his argument and the ramifications of the evolutionary inadequacy of purely natural processes it only seems like ten minutes. Give it a look here.

Monday, December 10, 2012

But What Happens to the Little People?

You might think that falling gasoline prices would be welcome news to the left. Cheaper gas brings down the cost of everything which is a special boon to the poor. It also reduces the cost burden of businesses which enables them to hire more people. Moreover, the reasons for the lower prices - the natural gas boom at home and the slowdown in petroleum demand worldwide because of cooling economies in India and China and difficulties in Europe - means that less carbon is being thrown into the atmosphere. All of this should be welcome news to the left, but it's apparently not.

The problem, as they see it, is that if gas is relatively cheap, then alternative fuels will not be competitive and there'll be little to no incentive to move toward developing them. Thus, lefties like those in the piece at the link believe we need to artificially make fossil fuel more expensive by imposing a hefty tax on carbon consumption.

The left doesn't seem to care much that such a tax will severely hurt the poor and middle class, stifle job creation, and smother any chance of an economic recovery. What they care about is making fossil fuels economically impractical and whoever has to be sacrificed to get to that goal is evidently expendable.

Cheap fuel is a blessing for everyone, but especially for the "little guy." If we really care about him we'd be a lot more reluctant to make his life harder than it already is.

Out of Whack

A post at the Daily Caller shows that something is very much out of whack with welfare spending. According to the article:
[T]he amount spent on federal means-tested welfare programs, if converted to cash payments and divided among households below the poverty line, would equal a daily income greater than the median household income in 2011.

The cash value of welfare spending, according to the analysis, is $167.65 daily per household in poverty. The median household income in 2011 was $50,054 or $137.13 per day, according to the analysis, released Friday.

When broken down into an hourly wage, welfare spending would be enough for $30.60 an hour for 40 hour weeks for each household in poverty. The median household hourly wage is $25.03, which drops to between $21.50 and $23.45 after federal taxes, depending on deductions and filing status, the minority side of the committee showed. The wage is further reduced with local and state taxes. Benefits from government assistance programs, they note, are not taxed federally.
No wonder people receiving government benefits are in no hurry to find gainful employment. Almost any job they take would result in a pay cut.

President Obama is not satisfied, however, that we're doing enough to subsidize poverty in this country. His budget would increase federal means-tested spending another 30% over the next four years. Heck, why not? Just tax the rich to make them pay their "fair share" and none of us would have to work.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Dare You to Cross That Line

I can remember seeing a cartoon when I was young in which one character drew a line in the dirt and dared an antagonist to cross the line. When the antagonist promptly stepped across the mark the character backed up and drew another line and again dared the foe to cross that one. Of course, he did and the character had to back up again and draw a third line making himself look both foolish and irresolute.

Barack Obama is making himself look like that character. According to an article in the NYT:
When President Obama first warned Syria’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad, that even making moves toward using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that might force the United States to drop its reluctance to intervene in the country’s civil war, Mr. Obama took an expansive view of where he drew that boundary.

“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” he said at an Aug. 20 news conference. He added: “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

But in the past week, amid intelligence reports that some precursor chemicals have been mixed for possible use as weapons, Mr. Obama’s “red line” appears to have shifted. His warning against “moving” weapons has disappeared from his public pronouncements, as well as those of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The new warning is that if Mr. Assad makes use of those weapons, presumably against his own people or his neighbors, he will face unspecified consequences.

It is a veiled threat that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta repeated Thursday: “The president of the United States has made very clear that there will be consequences, there will be consequences if the Assad regime makes a terrible mistake by using these chemical weapons on their own people.”
This sounds like playground threats. "You better not cross that line or else I'll...I'll do something, and you won't like it."

If the threat to do something if Assad uses the weapons sounds like playground rhetoric, the excuse for not having done anything yet sounds reminiscent of Bill Clinton's "It all depends on what the definition of 'is' is." Here's the Times:
The White House says the president has not changed his position at all — it is all in the definition of the word “moving.”

Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said Thursday that “ ‘moving around’ means proliferation,” as in allowing extremist groups like Hezbollah, which has training camps near the weapons sites, to obtain the material.
So when the Assad regime finally decides to thumb its nose at Mr. Obama and use the weapons against the rebels perhaps we'll be told by the administration that actually what the president meant by "using" those weapons was "using them against us," and since the Syrians haven't used them against us we should not entangle ourselves in their domestic affairs, etcetera.

By the way, from whence did the Syrians get those biological and chemical weapons, and why isn't the media wondering about that? Remember when the search for precisely these kinds of munitions in Iraq came up empty, how much abuse George Bush took for having claimed in the first place that the Iraqis had them. "Bush lied, people died" and all that. Remember, too, that convoys of trucks were seen moving from Iraq toward Syria immediately prior to our invasion of Iraq. Maybe Bush was right after all. No wonder the media isn't curious where Syria got these weapons from. The last thing the media would want is to raise the prospect that Bush had been right all along.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Sleight-of-Hand

This guy is absolutely amazing. His name is Yann Frisch. See if you can figure out how he does this stuff:
There's more on Frisch and his act here.

By the way, I don't wish to be pedantic, but the term that describes Frisch's art is sleight-of-hand, not slight-of-hand as the people at the link spell it, although it is pronounced as if the word were "slight."

Meaningful Gift-Giving

Looking for a meaningful way to observe Christmas and to file a silent protest against the crass commercialization and consumerism which seems to have taken over the season in which we celebrate the birth of Christ?

Nicholas Kristof has some suggestions in a recent New York Times column:
Looking for an unusual holiday gift? How about a $60 trio of rabbits to a family in Haiti in the name of someone special? Bunnies raise a farming family’s income because they, well, reproduce like rabbits — six litters a year! Heifer International arranges the gift on its Web site.

Or for $52 you can buy your uncle something more meaningful than a necktie: send an Afghan girl to school for a year in his name.
Kristof adds a number of other suggestions along with accompanying links. These include Shining Hope for Communities a Kenyan girls' school and clinic started by Kennedy Odede, a slum-dweller in Nairobi, Kenya, who taught himself to read; a hospital, school and refugee camp in war-torn Somalia; The Polaris Project, a leader in the fight against human trafficking in the United States; Fair Girls a Washington-based organization also engaged in the fight against sex trafficking at home and abroad.

Kristoff gives details on all these in his column, and they all seem worthy of our attention and consideration this Christmas season.

Some of my own favorite charities include Kiva, a microfinance organization that provides loans to third world entrepreneurs; Logos Academy, a private school in York, PA for underprivileged children; and ASAPH ministries, the support organization for a friend of mine who's been a missionary in Haiti for twenty years and who has started a school there.

If you'd like to give this Christmas but aren't sure where your gift would do the most good, I can promise you that each of the above are doing great work on behalf of the poor.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Reflection on the Election

Contemplating the results of the last presidential election has become something of a pastime, I suppose, and there are lots of theories floating about as to why things turned out the way they did last November 6th.

For my part I think that the election revealed a deep fault line running through our culture. There appears to be a fundamental difference in how we understand the basic principles of freedom, justice, and compassion.

Americans, perhaps guided by their individual temperaments and personalities, have found themselves on opposing sides of an epistemological divide. This is why political liberals and political conservatives so often feel like they're talking past each other. It's because they are. It's not that some people think these principles should inform our votes and others don't. It's that many conservative and liberal Americans agree that our politics should be oriented toward maximizing freedom, justice and compassion, but they interpret these principles in very different ways.

Consider the principle of freedom, for instance.

Conservatives often frame their understanding of freedom in terms of economics - the free market, minimal government regulation, private property, the freedom to invest, hire, fire, and so on in whatever way the individual thinks best.

Liberals might also think of freedom in economic terms but for them it's freedom from the tyranny of financial want and worry.

Conservatives tend to see big government as a threat to their freedom and want government kept small and unobtrusive. Liberals tend to see government as the defender of their freedom, a source of security, and tend to want more of it.

Conservatives place freedom from government above personal security whereas liberals tend to place personal security above all. Thus conservatives lament the welfare state while liberals promote universal health care and social programs. Given these differences it's easy to see why conservatives, for instance, want to repeal the Affordable Care Act and liberals see it as a great advance.

Or consider justice.

Liberals see justice as a striving for economic equality. Large gaps between rich and poor are, in the liberal view, fundamentally, unjust and need to be narrowed through tax policy and entitlements. Conservatives tend to see justice as a matter of ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.

For conservatives inequality is not, by itself, an indicator of injustice, but confiscatory taxation - the seizure by government of one's property - is. For liberals, on the other hand, the disparity between the rich and the poor is a clear measure of systemic injustice in a society and those who possess the nation's wealth should be compelled to share it with those who don't.

Compassion, too, is seen differently by conservatives and liberals.

For conservatives government should provide a safety net for the poor, but compassionate outreach to the poor beyond the safety net should be extended through the mediating institutions of the society - neighborhood societies, private charities, churches, etc.

Liberals tend to be skeptical that such institutions are adequate to the task of caring for the poor or that people, if allowed to keep their wealth, will use it for the common good. It therefore falls upon government, they believe, to insure that the poor are provided not only an adequate portion of life's necessities, but also given enough that they can be reasonably comfortable.

Neither side along the divide understands the other because they don't share a common view of freedom, justice and compassion. And neither side particularly appreciates the other because both sides think the other is ignoring very important aspects of these principles.

Parenthetically, it's an irony, in my view, that our secular friends often bandy terms like freedom, justice, and compassion about, but they fail to see that unless there's a transcendent personal moral authority who obligates us to pursue these there really is no moral reason why anyone should care about the well-being of anyone but himself. Those secularists who admonish us about our "moral duty" to do justice and have compassion for the less fortunate are simply indulging an arbitrary personal preference similar in kind to their preference for Pepsi rather than Coke.

This is one of the themes I try to develop in my book In the Absence of God (about which you can read more by clicking on the link at the upper right of this page)

In any case, when a wealthy businessman - like Mr. Romney - who wants to maintain low taxes on other very wealthy people competes against someone - like Mr. Obama - who boasts a strong identification with the poor and who guarantees them that his primary concern is distributing wealth to more of them, liberals will find the redistributionist's message much more attractive than that of the guy who wants to help people hold on to what they've earned.

I don't know if we've ever not been a divided nation. We were divided over the Revolution when many colonists took the side of the British or were at best uninterested in supporting the quest for Independence. We were certainly divided during the antebellum years, the Civil War, and during Reconstruction, and we were divided during the turbulent 1960s, but through all of that we more or less shared a common understanding of what it meant to be free, to do justice, and to be compassionate, even if many people failed to hold to those ideals.

We no longer have that shared understanding, though, and I suspect that the election of 2012 stamped an exclamation point to that fact.