Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hairless Apes

Barry Arrington at Uncommon Descent poses a question to Darwinian materialists, i.e. those who say that human beings are really nothing more than naked apes:
I have a question for our materialist friends. Let’s imagine a group of chimpanzees. Say one of the male chimps approaches one of the female chimps and makes chimp signals that he wants to have sexual relations with her, but for whatever reason she’s not interested and refuses. Is it morally wrong for the male chimp to force the female chimp to have sex with him against her will?

If you answer “no it is not morally wrong,” imagine further a group of humans. On the materialist view, a human is just a jumped up hairless ape. Is it morally wrong for a human male to force a human female to have sex with him against her will? If you answer “yes, it is morally wrong,” I certainly agree with you. But please explain why on the materialist view it is not wrong for a hairy ape to force a female to have sex with him, but it is wrong for a hairless ape to force a female to have sex with him.
Recall that Darwinians claim that ethics (or morality) are simply "illusions fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate" (Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson). If that's so then the Darwinian pretty much has to say that what the hairless ape does is not significantly different from what the hairy ape does. The materialist (or naturalist) has no grounds, in other words, for saying that rape is wrong, but will insist nevertheless that it is. Just don't ask him to explain why.

Actually, not all of them will insist that it's wrong. Some of the more thoughtful naturalistic materialists will admit they can't really say that. They acknowledge that, on materialism, there simply is no right or wrong, good or bad.

Thus, biologist Richard Dawkins: "What's to prevent us from saying that Hitler was right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question."

Or philosopher Joel Marks: "There is no morality....Even though words like 'sinful' and 'evil' come naturally to the tongue as, say, a description of child-molesting, they do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God."

And philosopher Richard Rorty: "For the secular man there's no answer to the question, 'Why not be cruel?'"

Even serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer saw clearly the implications of naturalistic materialism: "If a person doesn't think there's a God to be accountable to, then what's the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?"

We could go on, but the point is clear. Materialism, or naturalism (atheism), leads to moral nihilism. Imagine living in the materialist's dream society, a society that has extinguished belief in God. It's a society in which the hairless ape's rape is no different than the hairy ape's rape. It's a Hobbesian society of war of every man against every man in which life is nasty, brutish and short.

We can deny God's existence and authority or we can cling to the notion that rape really is objectively wrong, but we can't do both. Ideas have consequences.

Higher Taxes, Lower Revenues

Conservatives have been arguing since, well, forever that the best way to increase revenues to the treasury is to lower tax rates and the best way to reduce revenues is to raise taxes. This may seem counterintuitive, but not only has it happened every time it's been tried there are good reasons why it happens. When people, especially rich people, see their taxes exceed a certain point they simply find ways to avoid paying them.

This is exactly what has recently happened in England. The government raised the tax rates on the rich to 50% a year ago expecting that they'd reap greater revenues, but the opposite happened. Rather than realize the additional £1billion they anticipated they actually lost about £500 million. The Telegraph reports that:
The Treasury received £10.35 billion in income tax payments from those paying by self-assessment last month, a drop of £509 million compared with January 2011. Most other taxes produced higher revenues over the same period.

Senior sources said that the first official figures indicated that there had been “manoeuvring” by well-off Britons to avoid the new higher rate. The figures will add to pressure on the Coalition to drop the levy amid fears it is forcing entrepreneurs to relocate abroad.

The self-assessment returns from January, when most income tax is paid by the better-off, have been eagerly awaited by the Treasury and government ministers as they provide the first evidence of the success, or failure, of the 50 percent rate. It is the first year following the introduction of the 50 percent rate which had been expected to boost tax revenues from self-assessment by more than £1 billion.
This is why it's simplistic to just talk about taxing the rich. The rich will always find ways to avoid paying and we wind up with less revenue in the bank than if we had not raised taxes.

President Obama has indicated that this is of no concern to him. He wants to raise taxes, not because he thinks it'll help pay for what government needs but because he wants the wealthy to pay more regardless of the results. For him it's a matter of fairness, but this is an absurd exercise in cutting off our fiscal noses just to spite the rich. Even if it produces less income, even if it raises the debt and the deficit, he's determined to make the wealthy pay more because it's "fair."

Thus his recent budget proposal calls for an increase in the dividend tax rate (on families making over $250,000) from 15% to 39.6% and income on capital gains would be taxed at 20% rather than the current 15%.

In April of 2008 in a debate with Hillary Clinton Senator Obama was asked about his wish to double the capital gains rate. The moderator, Charles Gibson, questioned the wisdom of this since raising taxes on the wealthy generates less revenue, to which Mr. Obama replied:
Well, Charlie, what I’ve said is that I would look at raising the capital gains tax for purposes of fairness. We saw an article today which showed that the top 50 hedge fund managers made $29 billion last year — $29 billion for 50 individuals. And part of what has happened is that those who are able to work the stock market and amass huge fortunes on capital gains are paying a lower tax rate than their secretaries. That’s not fair.
The relevant exchange is in the first 100 seconds of this clip:
The rich must be forced to pay their "fair share," whatever that is (It's never defined). If that means the Treasury winds up with even less revenue, so be it. At least it's fair. Somewhere Karl Marx is applauding.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Correlation and Causation

I haven't read geologist Bill McGuire's book Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes so I don't want to be unfairly critical, but I do have a couple of questions.

According to an article in New Scientist McGuire cites evidence that "catastrophic outbursts of geological activity accompanied past periods of rapid climate change, for instance, when we shifted in and out of ice ages."

But he concludes from this (again, according to the New Scientist article) that:
The stresses and strains of rising and falling sea levels and the creation and loss of ice sheets triggered these outbursts. Climate change, he says, may already be shaking up the Earth anew.
My question is that if we accept the claim that climate change and geological activity are historically correlated, how does that justify the conclusion that climate change caused the geological activity? What evidence precludes the possibility that the reverse was the case, that increased geological disturbances like vulcanism, which spews massive amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, caused climate change?

The article continues with this:
During the last ice age, the weight of ice suppressed volcanic eruptions. When the ice melted the land surface lifted, sometimes by hundreds of metres, reducing pressure below and turning solid rock to liquid magma. The pent-up rage of the Earth was released. As the ice age faded, the number of volcanic eruptions grew 50-fold. Global warming threatens a reprise.
That's a plausible account of what could have happened, but no more plausible to my untutored mind than the possibility that increased volcanic activity produced the climatic changes that melted the glaciers.

New Scientist closes this unfortunate piece with a bit of unscientific nonsense:
It could be that something is afoot. Six years ago, McGuire suggested shrinking glaciers in New Zealand's Southern Alps might trigger an earthquake. Cue Christchurch [earthquake]last year.
In logic this is called the post hoc fallacy: Just because one event follows another it's assumed that the second event was caused by the other. It's the same sort of reasoning resorted to by astrologers: Ten years ago there was a conjunction of Mars and Jupiter and today Jeremy Lin is an NBA sensation, ergo the conjunction must have caused Lin's emergence as a superstar.

The final sentence is this:
The climate, we know, has been unusually stable in the past 10,000 years. That meant the world was more geologically stable as well. Now, as we face future climate chaos, we may also face geological mayhem.
Or, of course, we may not, who knows, but being scientifically accurate, sticking to the evidence, and being responsible wouldn't be as much fun as throwing a gratuitous scare onto the table.

Two and a Half Men Nation

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum has been criticized for emphasizing social issues in his campaign, allegedly to the exclusion of pressing economic issues facing the country. I don't think the criticism is accurate, but even if it were, he'd be justified for doing so.

Our economic problems are largely a consequence of the social disintegration that has been occurring in this country ever since the 1960s. Our biggest economic problem is our national debt which results from deficit spending year after year, and we spend more than we take in because we've decided that as a nation will absorb the consequences of the breakdown of the family.

When families unravel children often wind up being raised by one parent which almost always makes them poorer. Society compensates with welfare programs and medicaid. Society also bears the increased cost burden that accrues to schools, prisons, and remediation and rehabilitation facilities as more and more children, having never been effectively taught the disciplines and values needed for a successful life, become more difficult to handle and more of a burden on society's resources.

Moreover, in a society in which the family as an institution is disintegrating there are fewer families which can or do care for their elderly so the cost of this care also gets shifted to the taxpayer in the form of medicare and social security.

Why is the family less strong today? Because our sexual ethic has changed from one where sex was seen as appropriate and moral only within the context of deep commitment and marriage to where it has become a form of casual recreation expected of people almost as soon as they reach puberty. The entire culture has become sexualized, and the idea of a lifetime union with, and sexual fidelity to, one person has become a droll anachronism. Love is no longer seen as a commitment for life but rather as a burst of passion which, like a spring thunderstorm, is over almost as soon as it arrives.

Women are often viewed by young men as little more than baubles, receptacles for male yearning, and the male, having satisfied himself, quickly exits the woman's life leaving her and the taxpayer responsible for whatever issues from his touch-and-go landing. Indeed, women often, in a multitude of ways both implicit and explicit, encourage young men to think of them as ornaments and the object of their fantasies, and then they're embittered when the man abandons them to raise their children by herself (with taxpayer assistance) as soon as an even more desirable fantasy presents itself.

Our sexual ethic has morphed from My Three Sons to Two and a Half Men in the space of a generation, and the social costs have exploded apace.

Santorum is right. We'll never get a grip on our economic problems until we address the moral issues that underlie their source. Even some atheists agree.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Size of Things

Here's something to play with if you have a few minutes to spend being fascinated. It's an interactive animation that gives you a sense of how big the universe is and how small the smallest things are. Check it out here.

Thanks to First Things for the link.

Who's the Doofus?

So last October an atheist marched in a Halloween parade dressed as "Zombie Mohammad." This insult to the Prophet so incensed a Muslim onlooker that the man leaped upon the hapless infidel and began to strangle him until removed by the police. The assault landed both the Muslim and the atheist in court where the judge dismissed the assault charges against the attacker and proceeded to insult and lecture the victim, calling him a "doofus," of all things.

It turns out that under sharia law, which the judge invoked, the Muslim man was justified in trying to kill the wretched blasphemer, but of course the parade wasn't in Iran or Saudi Arabia, it was in Pennsylvania. Who would have thought that Pennsylvanians are now subject to sharia law?

Andrew McCarthy has the story at National Review along with the transcript of the judge's lecture. It reads as if the judge may have been a couple of martinis over his limit. Let's hope so. The alternative is that the judge is pretty much of a doofus himself.

Machiavelli's Advice on Iran

Iran has consistently denied that it's pursuing its nuclear program for the purpose of building weapons, but nobody believes them, or at least, one hopes that nobody believes them. Jamie Weinstein's column at The Daily Caller leaves room for doubt:
Many foreign policy elites, perhaps epitomized by CNN host Fareed Zakaria, confidently assert that Israel specifically, and the West generally, can live with a nuclear Iran. The Iranian leadership isn’t suicidal, they tell us. Ignore Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, or Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s statement that Israel is a “cancerous tumor of a state” that “should be removed from the region,” or the supposed moderate former Iranian President Akbar Rafsanjani’s casual remark that the “application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.”

They’re just posturing or joking or have been misinterpreted, we’re told. Israel and the West can live with a nuclear Iran, foreign policy intellectuals in New York, London and Berlin proclaim.

Other nations have nukes, of course, and it might be wondered why we should be especially concerned that Iran has them.
The answer is that no other nation supports terrorism around the globe to the extent that Iran does. No other nation is led by people who believe that they can effect the return of their messiah by launching a nuclear holocaust, and no other nation has sworn to wipe another nation off the map as soon as they have the capability to do it. Iran has done all three.

Weinstein quotes the widow of a physicist who had been working on Iran's nuclear weapons until he was killed in Tehran by unknown assassins:
Mostafa’s ultimate goal was the annihilation of Israel,” Fatemeh Bolouri Kashani told the Fars News Agency this week. She was referring to the wishes of her late husband, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan Behdast, an Iranian nuclear scientist assassinated on the streets of Tehran in January.
Maybe Mostafa was just joking, although it must be said that Muslims aren't particular noted for their wonderful sense of humor.

Recently we wrote about the statement by a top Iranian official who declared that Iran must launch a preemptive strike against Israel, a declaration that all but forces Israel to attack first to avoid being preemptively obliterated.

Weinstein closes with this:
But while Western policy elites exude confidence in the rationality of the Iranian regime, we see from Kashani’s comment about her late husband that those intimately involved in making a nuclear Iran a reality believe it is their mission — likely the very reason they got involved in the nuclear project to begin with — to eliminate the Jewish state. And we aren’t talking about some uneducated bumpkin. This was a highly-educated nuclear scientist.
Machiavelli wrote that when war can not be avoided it can only be postponed to the advantage of the other side. It seems that war is coming once again to Israel one way or another, and the longer it is deferred the harder it will be for Israel to prevail and certainly the higher the cost they will pay. War with Iran will be a horrific thing, as we've said on numerous occasions on this site, but a nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran would be even worse despite whatever the naifs among our elites tell us.

Perhaps the biggest question for American citizens is, what will the United States do if Israel decides it doesn't want to wait until it's too late to find out whether the Iranians are just joshing about reducing them and their children to ashes?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

February's Unemployment

Hopes for an improving economy may be dampened when the February jobless numbers come out in a week or so. The Bureau of Labor Statistics bases it's unemployment number at the end of the month on the situation which obtains in the middle of the month. Gallup is reporting that as of February 15th unemployment stood at 9.0%, up from 8.3% in January.

Underemployment is also up according to Gallup:
Underemployment, a measure that combines the percentage of workers who are unemployed with the percentage working part time but wanting full-time work, is 19.0% in mid-February. This ... is up significantly compared with January's mid-month reading of 18.1%.
Perhaps much of this is due to rising gas prices which are being attributed to "instability" in the Middle East and Libya. If so, it underscores the need to become energy independent, which further underscores the need to exploit petroleum resources close to home and to increase our refinery capacity. The Obama administration, however, despite their rhetoric, is reluctant to proceed in this direction because the longer fossil fuels remain cheap the harder it will be to convince the American people to switch to "green" energy.

Despite his apparent over rising gas prices last week the president is, in fact, not at all averse to higher energy costs, and he and his energy secretary have both said as much (see below).
Mr. Obama's not opposed to having us pay more at the pump. He just doesn't want prices to go up too quickly or to go up now so close to the election when unhappy consumers and the desperate unemployed will be wondering why they should reelect him.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Inner Life of the Cell

I never get tired of watching this computer animation put out by Harvard of a few of the molecular processes occurring inside our cells. The video opens with blood cells streaming through a capillary and then a single leucocyte (white blood cell) is picked out and explored.

The question that comes to mind as I watch it is where are the instructions which tell all those proteins where to go and when to do it? What is it that coordinates all this activity so that everything happens at the right time and at the right place? Evidently, it's not DNA because DNA is one of the molecules whose activities need to be regulated and coordinated. The information is currently thought to be hard-wired into the architecture of the cell, the epigenome, but how it works and how such an arrangement could have evolved by unguided forces is still a mystery.

If you haven't seen it before I think you'll find it all pretty amazing, especially the motor protein kinesin which carries vacuoles around the cell along the microtubule superhighway. It requires numerous proteins interacting with the kinesin to cause it to move its "foot" forward and to release the trailing foot, and it manages twenty such steps every second.
It's even more astonishing to consider that the complexity, coordination, choreography, and timing depicted in the video is a tiny fraction of what actually occurs every second of every day of the life of each of the trillions of cells that make up our bodies.

Glenn Beck and John Fea

This post may be a little too much "inside baseball" for readers who don't listen to talk radio, but I have to get it off my chest. The other day I was listening to Glenn Beck on the car radio and almost drove off the road. I usually agree with Beck and often admire the stands he takes in solidarity with those he sees as being threatened either by foreign enemies (Israel) or government policy (the Catholic Church in the U.S. and minorities in Muslim countries). What made me almost lose control of my vehicle, however, was a mean and thoughtless riff he and his colleagues did on the chairman of the Messiah College history department, John Fea.

Fea committed the unforgiveable sin of stating something which is perhaps arguable but by no means blatantly false. He opined that Barack Obama is the most explicitly Christian president in the history of the United States. To listen to Beck's reaction you'd have thought that Fea was Adolf Eichmann. One of Beck's team declared that Fea should be fired (which is ironic given that the Beck staff was justifiably outraged that ESPN fired their headline writer for naively using the expression "chink in the armor" in reference to Jeremy Lin). Beck himself reminded his listeners in conspiratorial tones that Messiah College had hosted a speech last Fall by the radical leftist Francis Fox Piven, as if there was some connection between Fea and the Piven speech.

The whole thing was absurd and asinine. Beck thinks that Obama's many public and overt acknowledgements of the importance of his faith, probably more than any other president has ever made, don't count for anything. Beck apparently regards Obama's explicit affirmations of his Christian faith as insincere and, in any event, he doesn't think they don't make him "the most explicitly Christian president." All that matters for Beck is that Obama was a member of Reverend Jeremiah Wright's congregation for twenty years so he can't be a real Christian no matter what he says to the contrary.

What makes this so ridiculous and ironic is that Beck counts himself a Christian, and he's a Mormon. I dare say that there's a bigger gap between standard Mormon theology and traditional Christianity than there is between Jeremiah Wright's Black Liberation theology and traditional Christianity.

Mormons believe, or at least their founders believed, that God was at one time a human and that he gradually became God but still retains a human form and that he has a harem of heavenly wives. The founders believed that a white woman who marries a black man should be executed and that slavery is God's will for blacks. They believed that Jesus was the literal offspring of a physical copulation of God the Father and Mary and that Jesus himself had at least three wives and children.

I'm not saying Mormons still believe these things, or that Beck does, but Joseph Smith and Brigham Young did. Before Beck launches a witless jeremiad against a good man (John Fea) and before he challenges the Christian bona fides of another (Barack Obama) he should at least explain how he himself reconciles some peculiar Mormon doctrines with traditional Christianity.

Professor Fea writes about this whole unpleasant episode here and talks about the hate mail he's received from Beck's listeners. Given the nature of the calumny and vituperation he's endured his irenic tone is remarkable. Glenn Beck owes him an apology on behalf of both himself and those of his listeners who disgraced themselves by attacking Fea.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Economists have often made the point that a government determined to regulate every aspect of American life is actually stifling American prosperity. The Economist explains both the ludicrous nature of some of these regulations as well as the oppressive effect they have on the economic activity of American business. Here's their lede:
Americans love to laugh at ridiculous regulations. A Florida law requires vending-machine labels to urge the public to file a report if the label is not there. The Federal Railroad Administration insists that all trains must be painted with an “F” at the front, so you can tell which end is which. Bureaucratic busybodies in Bethesda, Maryland, have shut down children’s lemonade stands because the enterprising young moppets did not have trading licenses. The list goes hilariously on.

But red tape in America is no laughing matter. The problem is not the rules that are self-evidently absurd. It is the ones that sound reasonable on their own but impose a huge burden collectively. America is meant to be the home of laissez-faire. Unlike Europeans, whose lives have long been circumscribed by meddling governments and diktats from Brussels, Americans are supposed to be free to choose, for better or for worse. Yet for some time America has been straying from this ideal.

Consider the Dodd-Frank law of 2010. Its aim was noble: to prevent another financial crisis. Its strategy was sensible, too: improve transparency, stop banks from taking excessive risks, prevent abusive financial practices and end “too big to fail” by authorizing regulators to seize any big, tottering financial firm and wind it down. This newspaper supported these goals at the time, and we still do.

But Dodd-Frank is far too complex, and becoming more so. At 848 pages, it is 23 times longer than Glass-Steagall, the reform that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929. Worse, every other page demands that regulators fill in further detail. Some of these clarifications are hundreds of pages long. Just one bit, the “Volcker rule”, which aims to curb risky proprietary trading by banks, includes 383 questions that break down into 1,420 subquestions.

Hardly anyone has actually read Dodd-Frank, besides the Chinese government and our correspondent in New York. Those who have struggle to make sense of it, not least because so much detail has yet to be filled in: of the 400 rules it mandates, only 93 have been finalized. So financial firms in America must prepare to comply with a law that is partly unintelligible and partly unknowable.

Dodd-Frank is part of a wider trend. Governments of both parties keep adding stacks of rules, few of which are ever rescinded. Republicans write rules to thwart terrorists, which make flying in America an ordeal and prompt legions of brainy migrants to move to Canada instead. Democrats write rules to expand the welfare state.

Barack Obama’s health-care reform of 2010 had many virtues, especially its attempt to make health insurance universal. But it does little to reduce the system’s staggering and increasing complexity. Every hour spent treating a patient in America creates at least 30 minutes of paperwork, and often a whole hour. Next year the number of federally mandated categories of illness and injury for which hospitals may claim reimbursement will rise from 18,000 to 140,000. There are nine codes relating to injuries caused by parrots, and three relating to burns from flaming water-skis.
There's much more at the link. If ever you wonder what it is that motivates those who favor small government all you need do is read this article.

Who Designed the Designer?

One of the questions skeptics like to put to theists who cite the Argument from Design as a good case for the existence of a designer is "Who designed the designer"? The objection is a variant of that posed to the First Cause (Cosmological) Argument when it's asked that "if everything has a cause then what caused God"?

Perhaps there are serious objections to some versions of both the Argument from Design and the First Cause argument, but surely this question is not one of them, notwithstanding that such luminaries as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have both trotted it out in their books and lectures.

Rabbi Moshe Averick takes a look at some of the problems with the objection in a post at He writes:
Most people are unaware that many, if not most, prominent atheist thinkers reject the idea of a creator, not because of a scientific alternative (there is none) but because they feel this approach is philosophically untenable. To their understanding, the question of “Who Created the Creator?” presents us with a philosophical barrier so formidable that it cannot be breached. Ergo, we are left with only one viable alternative: some unknown naturalistic process. The late Christopher Hitchens, who was an atheist himself, put it this way:
“[I was asked] where is the first cause…how can you do without a first cause? [My answer is] because it only gives you a sterile infinite regression. Where did the first cause of the first cause come from? The argument from design gives you the same problem; who designed the designer?
In other words, the question is supposed to baffle the theist by confronting him with an infinite regress of causes (or designers) which, the skeptic argues, reduces his belief in a First Cause to an absurdity. Averick goes on to say that:
Atheistic mathematician Jason Rosenhouse poses the question in the following manner:
Proponents of Intelligent Design [assert] that living organisms exhibit a certain kind of complexity…that is most plausibly explained as the result of intelligent design…the complexity of [the simplest living bacterium] is used as the evidence that a certain sort of designer exists.
Rosenhouse points out what seems to be the inherent problem in proposing such a solution:
This leads to a problem. The existence of complex entities was precisely the phenomenon in need of explanation. Hypothesizing the existence of something more complex than the thing to be explained only replaces one problem with a far greater one. If [the first living bacterium] can only be explained as the product of design, then any designer capable of crafting the [first living bacterium] must also be so explained. The result is an infinite regress of designers, each invoked to explain the existence of the one before.
In fact, the High Priest of modern “militant” atheism – Professor Richard Dawkins himself – uses this same idea as his trump card to justify his rejection of God the Creator and Intelligent Design:
Seen clearly, intelligent design will turn out to be a redoubling of the problem. Once again, this is because the designer himself immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin…any entity capable of designing something as improbable as [the first living bacterium] would have to be even more improbable than [the bacterium itself.] (The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins)
When the question is posed properly three points immediately become clear; three points which bring us very close to the solution to our problem.

(A) “Who Designed the Designer?” is a question that applies to physical matter.

(B) If astronomers received a detailed message in Morse code from a distant galaxy they would conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the result of intelligent extra-terrestrial life, even though they could not know who designed the designer. To state that a 747 and a laptop computer are the result of unguided processes because we cannot answer “Who designed the designer?” would be absurd. Just as it is obvious that the 747, the computer, and the Morse code signals are designed – whether or not I can answer “Who designed the designer?” – so too it is obvious that the bacterium is designed whether or not I can answer that question.

(C) The dilemma that emerges from “Who Designed the Designer?” does not lead us to conclude that the bacterium is the result of an unguided process, it tells us one thing only: That there cannot be an infinite regression of physical creators.
The significance of (A) and (C) is this: The premise of the objection, i.e. that the cause of complex things must be even more complex, and thus more improbable, than the things it causes, is simply false when applied to non-physical beings such as God is assumed to be. Only physical beings can be complex because only physical, material beings have parts. God, being pure mind, would have no parts. Minds are non-physical and simple. Thus the entire objection based on God's complexity is rendered useless.

Averick might also have noted that beings which are caused to exist are contingent, but God, if he exists, is not contingent - he's the necessary being upon which the existence of all contingent beings ultimately depends. God is by definition uncaused and self-existent. He has what philosophers of religion refer to as aseity and needs, nor has, any explanation outside himself.

Perhaps Dawkins, Rosenhouse, and Hitchens, not being philosophers, don't understand all this, but if not they shouldn't be writing books pontificating on matters about which they're so uninformed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

To Frack Or Not to Frack, That Is the Question

Bill McKibben is an environmental activist who's very skeptical of the claims of the gas drilling industry concerning the safety of fracking. He has an interesting, if lengthy, piece in the New York Review of Books in which he lays out his concerns on the subject.

Yet, on the other hand, Peter Aldhous of New Scientist is reporting on a study that suggests that fracking poses no more risk to the environment, or at least to groundwater, than conventional drilling methods. He writes:
Don't blame fracking for environmental problems associated with extracting gas from shale. That's the message of a new report from the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, released on the opening day of the AAAS meeting in Vancouver, Canada.

The US is riding the wave of a shale gas boom driven by fracking, or hydraulic fracturing - in which the rock is injected with water, sand and chemical additives at high pressure to release trapped methane.

[L]ead author Charles "Chip" Groat hopes the report will help regulators worldwide separate "fact from fiction". Reviewing existing studies, Groat's team could find no evidence linking groundwater contamination to fracking operations many hundreds of metres below.

A recent New Scientist analysis came to a similar conclusion. But this doesn't mean that shale gas extraction is benign, as the Texas team's review of the industry's track record revealed.
Groat's team studied instances of violations of environmental regulations in four states and found that in 21 out of 72 such cases there were "substantial" environmental consequences, but here is the key point in the report:
The problems were not caused by the process of fracking itself, but instead related to issues like ruptured well casings that also affect conventional gas production, or surface spills of chemicals or wastewater. "We found no direct evidence that hydraulic fracturing itself had contaminated groundwater," says Groat. "We found that most of the violations were at or near the surface."
As with the controversy surrounding climate change there seem to be competent, sincere people on both sides of the issue. Perhaps we won't know who's right until we've been fracking for a while longer, but it's certain that we'll never know who's right if we declare a moratorium on the process. Meanwhile, with so many benefits to be gained, and so much uncertainty about the nature and extent of the risks, it seems unwise to argue that we shouldn't proceed with extraction, accompanied by reasonable safeguards, just because there's some risk that some harm might befall the environment.

It seems, at least to me, that the proper course is to demand that drillers take all reasonable precautions and then reap the benefits of the fuel that's there for us. If it turns out that fracking is found to pose a serious hazard then let's address those hazards as they arise, just as we do with any other activity in life (e.g. automobile transportation) where the benefits are considered too great to forego.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Eugenics and the Left

Novelist Jonathan Freedland pens an essay in The Guardian about what he calls "one of the grisliest skeletons in the cupboard of the British intellectual elite, a skeleton that rattles especially loudly inside the closet of the left." The skeleton to which he alludes is the infatuation many prominent leftist intellectuals have historically had with eugenics and the lengths to which they were willing to go to purge undesirables from the human race.

Writes Freedland of the British intellectuals of the early 20th century:
[Eugenics is] the belief that society's fate rested on its ability to breed more of the strong and fewer of the weak. So-called positive eugenics meant encouraging those of greater intellectual ability and "moral worth" to have more children, while negative eugenics sought to urge, or even force, those deemed inferior to reproduce less often or not at all. The aim was to increase the overall quality of the national herd, multiplying the thoroughbreds and weeding out the runts.

Such talk repels us now, but in the prewar era it was the common sense of the age. Most alarming, many of its leading advocates were found among the luminaries of the Fabian and socialist left, men and women revered to this day. Thus George Bernard Shaw could insist that "the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man", even suggesting, in a phrase that chills the blood, that defectives be dealt with by means of a "lethal chamber".

Such thinking was not alien to the great Liberal titan and mastermind of the welfare state, William Beveridge, who argued that those with "general defects" should be denied not only the vote, but "civil freedom and fatherhood".

Indeed, a desire to limit the numbers of the inferior was written into modern notions of birth control from the start. That great pioneer of contraception, Marie Stopes – honoured with a postage stamp in 2008 – was a hardline eugenicist, determined that the "hordes of defectives" be reduced in number, thereby placing less of a burden on "the fit". Stopes later disinherited her son because he had married a short-sighted woman, thereby risking a less-than-perfect grandchild.

Yet what looks kooky or sinister in 2012 struck the prewar British left as solid and sensible. Harold Laski, stellar LSE professor, co-founder of the Left Book Club and one-time chairman of the Labour party, cautioned that: "The time is surely coming ... when society will look upon the production of a weakling as a crime against itself." Meanwhile, J.B.S. Haldane, admired scientist and socialist, warned that: "Civilisation stands in real danger from over-production of 'undermen'." That's Untermenschen in German.

I'm afraid even the Manchester Guardian was not immune. When a parliamentary report in 1934 backed voluntary sterilisation of the unfit, a Guardian editorial offered warm support, endorsing the sterilisation campaign "the eugenists soundly urge". If it's any comfort, the New Statesman was in the same camp.
Freedland is writing of the climate of opinion among leftist/progressive elites in Britain, but the same ideas were rampant on this side of the pond as well. Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood largely as an organization to control the propagation of undesirables which especially included, in her mind, blacks.

Other like-minded American eugenicists included Alexander Graham Bell and most of the early Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Davenport, H.G. Wells, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Woodrow Wilson, and a boatload of lesser lights. At the Nuremberg War Crimes trials the Nazis testified that they took their inspiration for the genocide of the Jews from American eugenicists.

Freedland goes on to say that,
The Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and their ilk, were not attracted to eugenics because they briefly forgot their left-wing principles. The harder truth is that they were drawn to eugenics for what were then good, left-wing reasons.

They believed in science and progress, and nothing was more cutting edge and modern than social Darwinism. Man now had the ability to intervene in his own evolution. Instead of natural selection and the law of the jungle, there would be planned selection. And what could be more socialist than planning? If the state was going to plan the production of motor cars in the national interest, why should it not do the same for the production of babies? The aim was to do what was best for society, and society would clearly be better off if there were more of the strong to carry fewer of the weak.

What was missing was any value placed on individual freedom, even the most basic freedom of a human being to have a child. The middle class and privileged felt quite ready to remove that right from those they deemed unworthy of it.

Progressives face a particular challenge, to cast off a mentality that can too easily regard people as means rather than ends. For in this respect a movement is just like a person: it never entirely escapes its roots.
This is a frightening thought given the power and influence progressives have in the American corridors of power today. The Nazis put the eugenic impulse in bad odor and drove it underground after WWII, but the desire to cull and regulate the human herd has not died out. It just doesn't get talked about much. How long that reticence will last in a progressive era like ours remains to be seen.

Anyone interested in reading the history of the flow of ideas from Darwin in the latter half of the 19th century through the progressive eugenicists of the first four decades of the 20th century, to the Nazis in the 30s and 40s might pick up a copy of Richard Weikert's book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany or Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg.

Randomness and Fitness

Darwinian evolution depends on the concept of biological fitness, but, to the degree that the notion avoids being a tautology, it's pretty much meaningless. There's no way to determine whether an organism is fit other than by seeing if it survives. But if survival is the measure by which we assess fitness then survival of the fittest equates to the vacuous claim that those organisms are fittest which survive and those which survive are fittest.

Stephen Talbot at The New Atlantis has a fine essay on the conceptual problems involved with the notion of Darwinian fitness. He starts out talking about the claim that evolutionary history is driven by random purposeless processes, a claim he finds untenable. He cites biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett to make his point:
Dennett, in one of his characteristic remarks, assures us that “through the microscope of molecular biology, we get to witness the birth of agency, in the first macromolecules that have enough complexity to ‘do things.’ ... There is something alien and vaguely repellent about the quasi-agency we discover at this level — all that purposive hustle and bustle, and yet there’s nobody home.”

Then, after describing a marvelous bit of highly organized and seemingly meaningful biological activity, he concludes: "Love it or hate it, phenomena like this exhibit the heart of the power of the Darwinian idea. An impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe."
And we read this in Dawkins:
Wherever in nature there is a sufficiently powerful illusion of good design for some purpose, natural selection is the only known mechanism that can account for it.” And: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all.
In other words, both Dawkins and Dennett hold that at bottom life is mindless, meaningless, and purposeless. Any indications to the contrary are illusions. Talbot, however, has serious problems with this view. If all the purposes and meanings in living things are just illusions, as Dawkins insists, then:
[W]hat is the difference between merely illusory purpose and the real thing? If Dawkins means that there is only illusion, then, if there is nothing for the illusion to be a convincing illusion of, it hardly makes sense to say it is an illusion at all, as opposed to being just what it seems to be.

On the other hand, if Dawkins admits that meaning and purpose actually exist as realities and are therefore available to be mimicked in an illusory way, what grounds does he have for claiming meaninglessness and purposelessness as fundamental to the world’s character?
Indeed. Talbot then goes on to reflect on the emptiness of the concept of survival of the fittest:
[F]irst, evolution can be explained by the fact that, on the whole, only the fitter organisms survive and achieve reproductive success; and second, what makes an organism fit is the fact that it survives and successfully reproduces. This is the long-running and much-debated claim that natural selection, as an explanation of the evolutionary origin of species, is tautological — it cannot be falsified because it attempts no real explanation. It tells us: the kinds of organisms that survive and reproduce are the kinds of organisms that survive and reproduce.

Stephen Jay Gould pointed out back in 1976, however, that Darwin and his successors hypothesized independent conditions — “engineering criteria,” as biologists like to say — for the assessment of fitness. These conditions may facilitate and explain reproductive success, but do not merely equate to it. In other words, the concept of fitness need not rely only on the concept of survival (or reproductive success).
The problem, though, is that there's no way to test these "engineering criteria." Talbot again:
To make the problem worse, evolutionary biologists are driven to arrive at scalar values for fitness — values enabling reasonable comparison of traits and organisms, so that we can determine which is the fittest. But how do you take all the infinitely wide-ranging and interwoven considerations that might bear on fitness and reduce them to a scalar value? It is a practical impossibility.

As a pair of philosophers put it in a 2002 article, “Suppose a certain species undertakes parental care, is resistant to malaria, and is somewhat weak but very quick. How do these fitness factors add up? We have no idea at all.”
His conclusion is that the claim that meaning and purpose are illusions, a claim which I would argue is certainly entailed by naturalism, is simply wrong and that the concept of survival of the fittest is hopelessly muddled. Of course, if a claim entailed by naturalism is wrong then naturalism must be wrong, but Talbot chooses not to explore this aspect of the argument.

At any rate, those with an interest in the biological sciences and/or the philosophy of biology will find his essay a rewarding and challenging read.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Real Numbers

The recent unemployment numbers have been promoted to the public as good news for America and good news for the president's reelection prospects, but this Investors' Business Daily editorial indicates that the good news is superficial and misleading. The jobless rate remains stuck above 8% where it's been ever since the month following the president's inauguration.

It's the longest stretch of high unemployment since the Great Depression, and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, it's expected to stay pretty much where it is through 2014:
Even worse for an administration straining to make the case that it deserves to be around for another four years is the real unemployment rate. It's not 8.3%, but closer to 15%, a figure that reflects those who "would like to work but have not searched for a job in the past four weeks as well as those who are working part time but would prefer full-time work," says the CBO.

Another White House problem comes from the CBO report: "The share of unemployed people looking for work for more than six months — referred to as the long-term unemployed — topped 40% in December 2009 for the first time since 1948, when such data began to be collected; it has remained above that level ever since."

The CBO data aren't isolated. Gallup reports that its unemployment rate based on weekly surveys stands at 9%, while underemployment is at a hefty 19%.

Also threatening Obama's re-election offensive is the nation's shrinking labor force. Many laid-off workers, frustrated by grim prospects, have stopped looking for jobs and are no longer in the labor pool.

That makes the jobless rate look better, as that number is a percentage of the labor force, not the overall national population. But those jobless Americans are real people who will cast real votes in November.

The trouble is fixing these facts in voters' minds. They need to know the full truth, not the half-truth the media and the White House feed them.
The pool of unemployed people who are seeking work is getting smaller as many of them simply give up. That makes it appear as if the number of unemployed is shrinking because the unemployment rate is a measure of those still looking for work.

I don't suppose we're likely to hear very often over the next eight months that real unemployment is much worse than the government reports it to be, but we should. To ignore these numbers when presenting the unemployment situation to the public is at best disingenuous and at worst dishonest.

Tone Deaf

Let's try to understand this. According to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, it's wrong for a religious employer to deny insurance coverage of contraceptives and abortifacients to their employees because that's imposing the employers' values on their employees. On the other hand, Ms Wasserman Schultz sees nothing wrong with the president imposing his values on the religious employers by requiring them to provide the coverage:
How people can be so tone deaf to the irony inherent in their words is sometimes astonishing.

At any rate, here's a question I wish someone would have asked Ms Schultz: Why is it wrong, exactly, for anyone who has the power to do so, to "impose" his or her beliefs on someone else?

Someone might say that the question is silly. It's just obvious, it might be asserted, that imposing one's beliefs is unfair, but that reply doesn't help much. It simply leads to the question why it's wrong to be unfair. Fairness is a moral virtue only if it's grounded in a transcendent moral authority, but transcendent grounds of right and wrong have no purchase in a secular society.

So what is it that makes it wrong for one group to use its power in a lawful way (the question might be expanded to include unlawful ways, but we need not go there now) to impose its version of moral right on everyone else? The answer is that, in a secular society, nothing makes it wrong other than that some people, in this case Ms Schultz, don't like the particular moral beliefs that they fear are being imposed.

The Shale Boom

It may be hard to believe with gas prices set to rise above $4.25 a gallon by late April, but this article suggests we're poised on the cusp of the millenial kingdom of energy. Of course the article is an oil industry publication, but still.

It appears that domestic energy production will soon solve our employment problems, our energy dependence problems, and possibly our balance of payments and debt problems. It sounds too good to be true so take it with a grain of salt, but the claims in the article would seem to be easy to refute were they false and easy to confirm if they're true:
A funny thing is happening on the way to the clean energy future–reality is setting in. There is ‘incontrovertible evidence’ about the economic growth and job creating effects of America’s unconventional oil and gas production boom – more than 600,000 jobs directly attributable to shale gas development. Even President Obama is praising the job creating benefits of ‘America’s resource boom’. America is getting its energy mojo back and that is good news but not the entire story.

Total US recoverable natural gas resources (includes conventional, unconventional in lower 48, Alaska and offshore) totals 4.244 quadrillion cubic feet according to the Institute for Energy Research:
  • Enough natural gas to meet US electricity demand for 575 years at current fuel demand for generation levels.
  • Enough natural gas to fuel homes heated by natural gas in the United States for 857 years.
  • More natural gas than Russia, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkmenistan combined.
Global oil shale resources exceed 10 trillion barrels. More than 1.8 trillion barrels of oil are trapped in shale in Federal lands in the western United States in the states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, of which 800 billion is considered recoverable–three times the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia.

A report from Price/Waterhouse/Coopers for the National Association of Manufacturers says low cost domestic natural gas will save $11 billion per year in US manufacturing costs over the next ten years and create more than a million new jobs. This new low cost energy reality is expected to increase disposable income by $2,000 per year per household in the United States.
Moreover, natural gas is the likely replacement for coal which is great for air quality as well as the economy:
After pursuing a virtual war on fossil fuels imposing one new regulation after another to undermine the economics and weaken the support for low cost energy production in order to reduce demand and thus emissions, opponents of fossil fuels are also faced with a stark new reality.

New regulations may force the premature closure of coal generation plants, but that capacity is likely to be replaced with high efficiency natural gas fired generation not renewable energy. Low gas prices are a much more virulent threat to coal than anything the US EPA can dream up in regulations and more ruthlessly efficient. So older coal plants will be replaced with newer, cleaner, cheaper natural gas plants not a bad market outcome. Not a bad environmental outcome either.
There's much more good news of this sort at the link. I suggest you digest it slowly since too much optimism taken too quickly can be hard on the heart after a decade of consistently gloomy prognostications about American decline and rising fuel costs.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

What Am I Missing?

I need some help understanding something. All my adult life I've heard from Democrats and their media allies that Republicans want to end social security, or curtail its benefits, and that they, the Democrats, will let this happen only over their dead bodies. They are, I've always been told, the only bulwark against a niggardly, cold-hearted GOP which wants to throw old people out into the street.

So now we come to the debate over the Payroll Tax cut. The Payroll Tax is the only funding mechanism for social security, but it's not the Republicans who want to cut it, it's the Democrats, and when the Republicans balk the Democrats and the media wax livid.

In a confusing reversal of roles the Republicans argue, correctly it seems to me, that you cannot reduce revenues to social security by over a hundred billion dollars a year without having to borrow the money to pay for the shortfall from somewhere, and more borrowing just hastens fiscal armageddon.

Cutting the tax would reduce funding to Social Security by $119 billion over the next year, on top of the $105 billion reduced from funding in 2011, so who is it who's jeopardizing old folks' retirement? Is what I've heard all my adult life a fable? Is it really Republicans who want to protect seniors from being thrown into the streets and Democrats who are willing to pitch them under the bus for the short term political benefit of putting a few more dollars in younger workers' monthly paychecks?

Why isn't the media talking about this aspect of the debate? Does anyone think that if it were Republicans who were cutting social security funding that the network talking heads and newspaper opinionaters would not be venting their outrage 24/7? What am I missing? The world seems to have been turned upside down and all the media seems to be able to do is yawn and play endless clips of Whitney Houston singing "I Will Always Love You."

Friday, February 17, 2012

Pact with the Devil

Paul Rahe a professor of political history at Hillsdale College has a blistering critique of the Catholic Church at It's a long piece, but it will be of great interest to anyone who cares about American Catholicism.

The gist of it is that the current troubles the Catholic Church faces regarding the Obama administration's mandate requiring them to provide insurance for contraceptives and abortifacients are really their own doing and are the outcome of their longstanding complicity in the expansion of the welfare state.

This passage perhaps best sums up his essay:
This is what the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church forgot. In the 1930s, the majority of the bishops, priests, and nuns sold their souls to the devil, and they did so with the best of intentions. In their concern for the suffering of those out of work and destitute, they wholeheartedly embraced the New Deal. They gloried in the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt made Frances Perkins – a devout Anglo-Catholic laywoman who belonged to the Episcopalian Church but retreated on occasion to a Catholic convent – Secretary of Labor and the first member of her sex to be awarded a cabinet post. And they welcomed Social Security – which was her handiwork.

They did not stop to ponder whether public provision in this regard would subvert the moral principle that children are responsible for the well-being of their parents. They did not stop to consider whether this measure would reduce the incentives for procreation and nourish the temptation to think of sexual intercourse as an indoor sport. They did not stop to think.

In the process, the leaders of the American Catholic Church fell prey to a conceit that had long before ensnared a great many mainstream Protestants in the United States – the notion that public provision is somehow akin to charity – and so they fostered state paternalism and undermined what they professed to teach: that charity is an individual responsibility and that it is appropriate that the laity join together under the leadership of the Church to alleviate the suffering of the poor. In its place, they helped establish the Machiavellian principle that underpins modern liberalism – the notion that it is our Christian duty to confiscate other people’s money and redistribute it.

At every turn in American politics since that time, you will find the [Church] hierarchy assisting the Democratic Party and promoting the growth of the administrative entitlements state. At no point have its members evidenced any concern for sustaining limited government and protecting the rights of individuals. It did not cross the minds of these prelates that the liberty of conscience which they had grown to cherish is part of a larger package – that the paternalistic state, which recognizes no legitimate limits on its power and scope, that they had embraced would someday turn on the Church and seek to dictate whom it chose to teach its doctrines and how, more generally, it would conduct its affairs.

I would submit that the bishops, nuns, and priests now screaming bloody murder have gotten what they asked for. The weapon that Barack Obama has directed at the Church was fashioned to a considerable degree by Catholic churchmen. They welcomed Obamacare. They encouraged Senators and Congressmen who professed to be Catholics to vote for it.

I do not mean to say that I would prefer that the bishops, nuns, and priests sit down and shut up. Barack Obama has once again done the friends of liberty a favor by forcing the friends of the administrative entitlements state to contemplate what they have wrought. Whether those brought up on the heresy that public provision is akin to charity will prove capable of thinking through what they have done remains unclear.
Rahe doesn't mention it, but the administration's attempt to tell insurers what they will cover and what they won't is disturbing as well on grounds other than religious freedom. Suppose down the road the government decides to mandate that insurers not cover the costs of having more than two children, or they mandate that insurers raise the premiums for anyone owning a firearm. The Obama administration is putting itself in position to control a vast swath of behavior simply by controlling what the insurance industry will cover and how much we'll pay for that coverage.

This way lies the road to serfdom, to borrow the title of Friedrich von Hayek's famous book, and it's another reason why Obamacare strikes many Americans as a very dangerous idea.

Hooking Kids on Sex

One of the reasons Planned Parenthood has incurred the wrath of so many Americans has nothing to do with abortion, nor birth control, nor the racist eugenics that animated their founding. Rather it has to do with the way they seek to expose young people to, and indoctrinate them in, a squalid pornographic view of human sexuality.

Tina Korbe at Hot Air discusses a video put out by the American Life League that reveals exactly how perverse are the PP "educational" materials they distribute to elementary and older kids. The video is at the end of her post. I didn't want to put it here because, frankly, although I think it's important and I have no qualms over its pull-no-punches style, the stuff it presents about PP is just too sleazy and disgusting for Viewpoint.

Instead I'll just recommend that if you want to know what your kids will be exposed to in many public schools and other venues in the name of "family planning" go to the link, scroll down, and watch the six minute video. And then marvel that the organization that puts this stuff out is subsidized by your tax dollars. UPDATE: The video has been taken down after someone claimed "copyright infringement."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Freedom to Choose

Hot Air offers video of three people called to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee which was conducting hearings on forced union membership. Their stories are sad, especially that of Sally Coomer.

Coomer was forced to join the SEIU by the state of Washington because she receives Medicaid for caring for her severely disabled daughter. She then has to pay the union $95 every month in dues, money which she needs for her daughter. This sounds incredible, I know, but watch the video:
It really is an outrage that Coomer and others like her are forced to join a union because she's considered to be a "health service provider" when she takes government money to care for her daughter.

Hot Air's Ed Morrissey writes:
Both Michigan and Minnesota tried to extend this forced-unionism into day-care operations as well as home-care situations. There is no reason to force parents who receive Medicaid to care for developmentally-disabled children into unions, except to pick their pockets for the benefit of union bosses and political parties. It’s positively ghoulish ... and only the efforts of Republican-controlled legislatures in both states kept them from forcing babysitters into unions.
Why is it that when President Obama talks about "fairness" he never seems to get around to questioning the fairness of forcing people like Sally Coomer to belong to a union and then having that union take almost $100 dollars a month out of her pocket for the privilege of being a member and helping to pay for causes she opposes? Mr. Obama won't complain about injustices like these, of course, because the unions, particularly SEIU, are among his biggest supporters and make up a large segment of his party's base.

There are similar videos at the link - testimony of others who've been forced to join a union if they wish to keep their jobs and feed their families. Progressives tout the "freedom to choose" but they only support that freedom for women who want to choose to terminate the life of their unborn child. When it comes to giving poor women the choice of which schools their children will attend or the choice of whether or not to join a union the word freedom suddenly vanishes from the Progressives' lexicon.

Politicians can support compulsory union membership or they can stand for individual liberty, but they can't do both.

What Must Moammar Be Thinking?

The shade of Moammar Qaddafi must be scratching its ghostly head over recent developments in Syria. After all, the Libyan leader was himself peremptorily dispatched to his eternal reward, such as it might be, largely because President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton insisted on humanitarian grounds that we intervene to prevent him from killing thousands of his citizens. So we proceeded to kill hundreds, maybe thousands, of young Libyan soldiers to keep Qaddafi from killing thousands of civilians.

"Very well," Moammar must be musing from his ethereal perch, "I can understand that, but then why not Syria? What's the difference?" Good question. How does Bashar Assad get away with killing thousands of his people with every bit as much remorseless brutality and cruelty as Moammar could ever have mustered and there's no military response from the U.S? Is it that Libya has oil and Syria doesn't? That can't be the reason because Mr. Obama and Ms Clinton are lefties, and if there's anything we know from the Iraq war it's that lefties would never, ever spill blood in order to secure oil. Heck, they won't even build a pipeline to secure oil.

Perhaps we've not intervened in Syria like we did in Libya because thousands of leftists have made it clear to Mr. Obama that if he threatens military force they'll journey to Syria and serve as human shields just like they did when George Bush threatened to invade Iraq. And they did, too, at least until the bombs started falling at which point they disappeared. Maybe they told Mr. Obama that this time they really mean it, and the administration believed them.

Okay, maybe that's not it. The vociferous anti-war left has been as quiet as church mice since Mr. Obama ascended to the Oval Office. It's only when Republicans launch hostilities, it seems, that they're able to find their voice.

Whatever it is, Mr. Qaddafi must be wondering today whether there are any guiding principles governing American foreign policy and if so, what they might be. If he is wondering this he's got a lot of company, except in the American media which seems completely uninterested in the question.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Two Options

Biological animator Drew Berry gave a TED talk in 2011 in which he described his work. In the lecture he displays some of his breath-taking animations of processes that occur around the clock in every cell of our bodies.

Keep in mind as you wonder at the precision and complexity of these molecular machines and the operations they perform that there are only two viable explanations for how they came to be. Either blind forces and chance mutations resulted in these amazingly choreographed molecular dances or they were intentionally designed by an intelligent agent:
The only reason anyone would opt for the first explanation, in my opinion, is that they've ruled out a priori the possibility of there being an intelligent agent capable of having directed the creation of life. Moreover, the primary reason, perhaps, for ruling out such an agent a priori is the fact that one simply doesn't want such a being to exist.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel provides a clear example of this when he writes the following in his book The Last Word:
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.
I suspect that most people, believers and non-believers alike, hope that God exists or that he doesn't. What I don't understand is why people like Nagel would hope that he doesn't.

Gutter Politics

It's sad, but we've come to expect high stakes political campaigns to be pretty sleazy. We expect character assassination, libel, and other offenses against propriety and civility. What we don't expect is that private, tax-exempt organizations will undertake, for political reasons, the systematic destruction of a television news network by any means that lies at hand. This is, however, what the progressive organization Media Matters for America (MMFA) has undertaken to do to Fox News.

The Daily Caller has been running a series of articles based on revelations from employees and former employees of MMFA detailing exactly what and how they're trying to smear and discredit Fox News and the lengths to which they're willing to go to harass and intimidate Fox's employees.

It's a pretty sordid tale but then the MMFA folks are progressives, after all, and progressives, or at least many of them, are firm believers in the principle that the end justifies the means.

The DC exposé makes for fascinating reading for those familiar with some of the players, and it's certainly important that people be aware of the sorts of things that are being done to insure Mr. Obama's reelection. Liberal lawyer Alan Dershowitz even observed that all of this is going to backfire and that MMFA will single-handedly cause Mr. Obama's defeat in November because he'll inevitably be associated with, and soiled by, MMFA's squalid tactics. We'll see.

Meanwhile, check out the series at the Daily Caller website. The links to the installments are below the picture of MMFA president and founder David Brock at the top of the DC home page.

UPDATE: The Daily Caller's page has changed so the best way to access their series on MMFA is to go here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Is it Fair?

Wall Street Journal columnist Stephen Moore notes that President Obama's main criterion for measuring the value of a policy is "fairness." That being so, he writes, it is perhaps worthwhile to ask about the fairness of much of what the president and his party are doing, or would like to do, in the realm of public policy. I leave it to you to decide how fair the following of Moore's facts are:
  • Is it fair that the richest 1% of Americans pay nearly 40% of all federal income taxes, and the richest 10% pay two-thirds of the tax?
  • Is it fair that the richest 10% of Americans shoulder a higher share of their country's income-tax burden than do the richest 10% in every other industrialized nation, including socialist Sweden?
  • Is it fair that American corporations pay the highest statutory corporate tax rate of all other industrialized nations but Japan, which cuts its rate on April 1?
  • Is it fair that President Obama sends his two daughters to elite private schools that are safer, better-run, and produce higher test scores than public schools in Washington, D.C.—but millions of other families across America are denied that free choice and forced to send their kids to rotten schools?
  • Is it fair that Americans who build a family business, hire workers, reinvest and save their money—paying a lifetime of federal, state and local taxes often climbing into the millions of dollars—must then pay an additional estate tax of 35% (and as much as 55% when the law changes next year) when they die, rather than passing that money onto their loved ones?
  • Is it fair that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel and other leading Democrats who preach tax fairness underpaid their own taxes?
  • Is it fair that after the first three years of Obamanomics, the poor are poorer, the poverty rate is rising, the middle class is losing income, and some 5.5 million fewer Americans have jobs today than in 2007?
  • Is it fair that roughly 88% of political contributions from supposedly impartial network television reporters, producers and other employees in 2008 went to Democrats?
  • Is it fair that the three counties with America's highest median family income just happen to be located in the Washington, D.C., metro area?
  • Is it fair that wind, solar and ethanol producers get billions of dollars of subsidies each year and pay virtually no taxes, while the oil and gas industry—which provides at least 10 times as much energy—pays tens of billions of dollars of taxes while the president complains that it is "subsidized"?
  • Is it fair that those who work full-time jobs (and sometimes more) to make ends meet have to pay taxes to support up to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits for those who don't work?
  • Is it fair that those who took out responsible mortgages and pay them each month have to see their tax dollars used to subsidize those who acted recklessly, greedily and sometimes deceitfully in taking out mortgages they now can't afford to repay?
  • Is it fair that thousands of workers won't have jobs because the president sided with environmentalists and blocked the shovel-ready Keystone XL oil pipeline?
  • Is it fair that some of Mr. Obama's largest campaign contributors received federal loan guarantees on their investments in renewable energy projects that went bust?
  • Is it fair that federal employees receive benefits that are nearly 50% higher than those of private-sector workers whose taxes pay their salaries, according to the Congressional Budget Office?
  • Is it fair that soon almost half the federal budget will take income from young working people and redistribute it to old non-working people, even though those over age 65 are already among the wealthiest Americans?
  • Is it fair that in 27 states workers can be compelled to join a union in order to keep their jobs?
  • Is it fair that nearly four out of 10 American households now pay no federal income tax at all—a number that has risen every year under Mr. Obama?
  • Is it fair that Boeing, a private company, was threatened by a federal agency when it sought to add jobs in a right-to-work state rather than in a forced-union state?
  • Is it fair that our kids and grandkids and great-grandkids—who never voted for Mr. Obama—will have to pay off the $5 trillion of debt accumulated over the past four years, without any benefits to them?
Fairness often seems to be in the eye of the beholder. It's a bit annoying of the president and his epigones to insist, for example, that the rich need to pay their "fair share" of taxes but never tell us what's unfair about the rates they now pay and what rates they should pay. No one disagrees that tax rates should be fair, but telling us the "rich need to pay their fair share" is simple-minded demagoguery unless it's accompanied by an explanation of what exactly their fair share would be and why that amount is more fair than what they're currently contributing.

To assert that the rich need to pay their fair share is to imply that they should be paying more than the 40% of the total taxes paid by Americans they now pay even though they comprise less than 1% of the population. Why is it "fair" to demand they do more? Just because they can?

We need to have this discussion about fairness and taxes, but we need to go beyond silly sound bites and no one who's talking about "everyone paying their fair share," least of all the president, seems willing to do that.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Stay Away From Black Holes

One never knows when one might be traveling through space and encounter a black hole. Here's a simulation of what it might look like should such a calamity ever befall you:

Platypus Walk

Whatever you might think of Mr. Obama's politics and leadership there's one thing about this administration that I think is beyond doubt. Mrs. Obama is surely the best dancer of any First Lady in the history of the republic:
Thanks to The for the video.

What's the Difference?

I'm one who believes that the Obama administration was wrong to attempt to compel the Catholic Church to bend to its will on the matter of contraception coverage. I also agree with those who find the subsequent "compromise" little more than a ridiculous charade. For more on why it's all smoke and mirrors read this piece by Hanna Smith at National Review Online. Mr. Obama seems to be telling the Catholic Church that if they don't want to eat their peas that's okay, but he's going to put the peas in a salad and make them eat the salad.

But this post isn't about that. I have a question that no one yet seems to have addressed. How is a government mandate that requires people to violate their conscience by forcing employers to provide coverage for morally problematic products and procedures substantively different from the government requiring people who are opposed on religious grounds to war and capital punishment to pay taxes to support those? Is there a significant difference between being forced by the state to pay for birth control and abortions and being forced by the state to pay for military action and criminal executions when one opposes all of them?

If religious groups can be exempted from mandates to provide certain kinds of insurance coverage on grounds of conscience (which they should) why aren't religious believers exempted from paying taxes on similar grounds? William James once said that "A difference, in order to be a difference, has to make a difference." So what's the difference here that makes a difference?

I'm just asking the question. I don't have an answer.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


A panel of mostly young conservatives discusses what it is to be a conservative, particularly in the context of the current Republican primary race:
Conservatives often refer to themselves as classical liberals which sometimes confuses people. This is addressed briefly at the end of the clip and it's pointed out that the values embraced by conservatives were, a century and a half ago, considered liberal.

The ideological spectrum has since then shifted so far to the left, however, that people who today call themselves liberal would have been considered socialists or communists in the 19th century and people who call themselves conservatives today would have been considered liberal in that earlier age.

Thanks to The for the video.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Mysterious Epigenome

Recall your tenth grade biology class wherein you learned that the code or blueprint for building a living organism was contained in the DNA in the nucleus of the cell. Segments of DNA form genes and these code for proteins and those build the body of the organism. Well, biologists are learning that that's only part of the story, and maybe a very small part at that. It's beginning to look as if the information that directs the construction and maintenance of the organism is dispersed throughout the cell and maybe even throughout the organism.

This is the thesis of a new book by Thomas Woodward and James Gills who argue that beyond the organism's genome (the set of genetic instructions contained in DNA) there is a deeper level of instruction, the epigenome, that is to the genome what the submerged part of an iceberg is to its tip.

Their book is titled The Mysterious Epigenome and according to Casy Luskin who reviews the book at Evolution News and Views, it's a very accessible introduction which is geared toward the layman interested in the biological sciences. Luskin quotes the authors:
In probing the operation of DNA, scientists have learned much more about a second biological encyclopedia of information that resides above the primary information stored within our DNA. Researchers have discovered a complex system in the cell -- sophisticated "software" situated beyond DNA -- that directs DNA's functions and is responsible for our embryonic development and the differentiation of a single, fertilized egg cell into more than two hundred cell types in a mature body.

This higher control system is also implicated in aging processes, cancer, and many other diseases. It guides the expression of DNA, telling different kinds of cells to use different genes, and to use them in the precise ways that meet the needs of those different cells. This "information beyond DNA" plays a crucial role in each of our sixty trillion cells, telling the genes exactly when, where, and how they are to be expressed.

[T]he living cell possesses vast riches of life-enabling codes, which go far beyond the spiral thread of DNA itself. Information, in a diversity of usable forms, is lodged in virtually every corner of the cell, from the outer cortex to the centrosome, with its system of microtubules, to the histones with their decorated tails, to the methylation patterns attached to DNA. The mutual integration of these systems and layers of information is a marvel to behold. Unraveling these complex relationships will surely occupy the diligent study of biologists for decades to come.
Luskin himself asks the question that is inevitably raised by the discovery of this new layer of information in the cell:
Could this newly discovered information arise by the Darwinian mechanism? A key issue addressed by the book has to do with the implications of the epigenome for the debate over Darwinian theory and intelligent design. The authors believe this new information points to "irreducible complexity" in the cell, and ask: "How can scientists account for a nature-driven origin of the cell's complexity when they stumble upon new layers of information -- a whole new system of coded-language -- above and beyond the cell's DNA?"
Woodward and Giles close by pointing out the challenge posed by the epigenetic revolution to materialist views of evolution:
[T]he epigenome adds tremendous pressure to the already-weak Darwinian explanatory apparatus. Random changes, inherited over generations, must not just explain the explosion of DNA as one moves up the purported tree of life; one must also now explain by these mindless mechanisms the rise of each sophisticated layer of the epigenome.
Biologists are just beginning to understand this new source of information. Indeed, the whole field is really on the cutting edge of a fascinating biological frontier. As Luskin says:
The newly discovered layers of cellular complexity they discuss are astounding. What's even more astounding is the likelihood that if Woodward and Gills were to rewrite this book in another five years, they would have much more to add about known levels of cellular epigenetic information.
The deeper we probe, the more we learn, the more complex, the more information-rich, we find living cells to be. It makes the old 20th century materialism seem almost quaint.

Here's a computer animation which shows in greatly simplified form how the cell constructs proteins. The question that it raises is how the cell knows how and when to perform all these operations? What's the "control center," so to speak, that coordinates and directs all of this activity, and how did such an amazing thing ever evolve?
The amazing choreography of all this makes one wonder if perhaps the panpsychists (those who believe that everything is pervaded by mind) aren't on to something.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Iron Man, Marching Bands, and Embryos

The other night I paused as I was flipping through the channels to watch a part of the Iron Man movie where Robert Downey, Jr. is encased in his hi-tech iron man suit. As all of the robotic assemblers timed and coordinated their operations with magnificent precision to construct the suit around Downey's body I was reminded of an article I'd read that afternoon which describes how a developing human embryo is assembled in pretty much the same way.

The coordination, timing and precision needed to assemble the iron man suit, as exacting as it is, is really a pretty simple affair compared to that which takes place in every developing child. After all, the iron man assembly process was presumably intelligently designed by human engineers, but embryonic assembly is designed to unfold by .... what? Accident?

Here's the article's lede:
Embryonic development unfolds as if it were a symphony and the members of the orchestra were the various genes that are turned on and off in the course of development. Every player must perform his part at the right moment and in the right way, otherwise the delicate balance of turning on and off signals will be disrupted, with catastrophic results. Scientists have been uncovering layer upon layer of complexity that seems to point to a symphony of processes that could only have been orchestrated by design.
In the embryo, cell processes, like musicians in an orchestra, are turning on and off with astonishing precision, but even more astonishing, perhaps, is that while they're doing this they're also migrating to precise locations around the embryo. Embryonic cell activity is actually more like a highly accomplished marching band performing a halftime show than it is like a stationary orchestra.

Imagine a band instructor leaving to chance whether the band members will play their instruments properly while moving to their assigned spots on the field at just the right time. How long would it take for a band of several hundred members to hit upon just the right pattern if every time the wrong pattern was formed the band is disqualified and another band takes its place? After all, if an evolving embryonic process gets it wrong the embryo dies.

It takes enormous faith, blind faith, in chance and serendipity to think that such a process evolved naturalistically, but blind faith is not in short supply among naturalists.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Nietzsche and the Death of God

Giles Fraser at the U.K. Guardian discloses the interesting autobiographical tidbit that it was through reading the work of atheistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that he was prompted to convert from atheism to Christianity. Giles doesn't explain exactly how such a counterintuitive result came about, veering off course just as he seemed about to tell us, but he does go into a lot of illuminating detail about Nietzsche's hostility toward Christian theism. Here's part of his column:
The Big Ideas series has for several months now explored the meaning of a number of familiar intellectual phrases, among them Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message", Hannah Arendt's "the banality of evil" and Adam Smith's "invisible hand". But none of these feels quite as big an idea as Friedrich Nietzsche's "God is dead". After centuries of Christianity, a new dawn is being announced. And the language Nietzsche uses in his famous passage from The Gay Science reflects the enormity of his discovery: "How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?" Nothing again will ever be the same.

But what is his discovery? It isn't a eureka moment in which Nietzsche comes to understand that God does not exist. Indeed, he is not all that interested in the question of God's existence. The Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson recently told me that he would be an atheist even if God walked into the restaurant. Similarly for Nietzsche, it's not a question of evidence or the lack of it.

He is in a completely different place to the new atheist brigade of Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling. If God walked into the room, Nietzsche would stab him – for his "God is dead" revelation is that humanity can only become free if it rejects the idea of the divine. Christianity is not a mistake. It is wickedness dressed up as virtue.
Nietzsche chafed at the constraints Christian morality places on man's natural inclinations and appetites. To read Nietzsche straightforwardly is to read a call for the "overmen" - the supermen, such as himself - to give free reign to his passion, his selfishness, and his cruelty.
Nietzsche's case against Christianity was that it kept people down; that it smothered them with morality and self-loathing. His ideal human is one who is free to express himself (yes, he's sexist), like a great artist or a Viking warrior. Morality is for the little people. It's the way the weak manipulate the strong. The people Nietzsche most admired and aspired to be like were those who were able to reinvent themselves through some tremendous act of will.

I have never seen anything to admire in Nietzsche's view of morality or immorality. He was badly interpreted by the Nazis. But his ethics, if one can call them that, are founded on the admiration of power as the ultimate form of abundant creativity. His hatred of Christianity comes mostly from his hatred of renunciation and the promotion of selflessness.

Jesus was a genius for having the imaginative power to reinvent Judaism but a dangerous idiot for basing this reinvention on the idea that there is virtue to be had in weakness. The weak, Nietzsche insists, are nasty and cruel. They take out their frustration on those who have the power of genuine self-expression.
It's ironic that nastiness and cruelty are not really wrong in Nietzsche's world. He despises the Christian, in fact, for influencing the strong and noble to suppress their own nastiness and cruelty. These, for Nietzsche are the prerogatives of the strong, and the weak have no business usurping them or imposing a sense of guilt on the strong who would, but for their feelings of guilt, exercise them.

Giles writes an interesting article that serves as a good introduction to the thought of the man who is considered by some to be the first modern existentialist. Give it a read.

Wisconsin Recall

This spring we'll be hearing a lot about the effort in Wisconsin to unseat their governor, Republican Scott Walker, via a special recall election. Who's trying to do this and why?

Christian Schneider at explains. He opens with this lede:
One morning last February, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker called his staff into his office. “Guys,” he warned, “it’s going to be a tough week.” Walker had recently sent a letter to state employees proposing steps—ranging from restricting collective bargaining to requiring workers to start contributing to their own pension accounts—to eliminate the state’s $3.6 billion deficit. That day in February was when Walker would announce his plan publicly.

It turned out to be a tough year. The state immediately erupted into a national spectacle, with tens of thousands of citizens, led by Wisconsin’s public-employee unions, seizing control of the capitol for weeks to protest the reforms. By early March, the crowds grew as big as 100,000, police estimated. Protesters set up encampments in the statehouse, openly drinking and engaging in drug use beneath the marble dome. Democratic state senators fled Wisconsin to prevent a vote on Walker’s plan. Eventually, the Senate did manage to pass the reforms, which survived a legal challenge and became law in July.

The unions aren’t done yet: they’re now trying to recall Walker from office. To do so, they will try to convince Wisconsin voters that Walker’s reforms have rendered the state ungovernable. But the evidence, so far, contradicts that claim — and Wisconsinites seem to realize it.
So how have Walker's reforms been working out for the people of Wisconsin? You'll have to read the rest of Schneider's piece to get the details, but the short version is this: In just six months Wisconsin has balanced the state budget, saved the taxpayers of the Wisconsin millions of dollars, and saved the jobs of hundreds of people.

It's not a bad record. It'd be nice if the folks in Washington would follow Walker's example.