Monday, April 30, 2012

The Policy of Pretend

Charles Krauthammer looks at the president's Syria policy and sees incoherence:
Obama’s other major announcement — at Washington’s Holocaust Museum, no less — was the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board. I kid you not. A board. Russia flies plane loads of weapons to Damascus. Iran supplies money, trainers, agents, more weapons. And what does America do? Supports a feckless U.N. peace mission that does nothing to stop the killing. (Indeed, some of the civilians who met with the peacekeepers were summarily executed.) And establishes an Atrocities Prevention Board. With multi-agency participation, mind you. The liberal faith in the power of bureaucracy and flowcharts, of committees and reports, is legend. But this is parody.

Now, there’s an argument to be made that we do not have a duty to protect. That foreign policy is not social work. That you risk American lives only when national security and/or strategic interests are at stake, not merely to satisfy the humanitarian impulses of some of our leaders. But Obama does not make this argument. On the contrary. He goes to the Holocaust Museum to commit himself and his country to defend the innocent, to affirm the moral imperative of rescue. And then does nothing of any consequence.

If Obama wants to stay out of Syria, fine. Make the case that it’s none of our business. That it’s too hard. That we have no security/national interests there. In my view, the evidence argues against that, but at least a coherent case for hands off could be made. That would be an honest, straightforward policy. Instead, the president, basking in the sanctity of the Holocaust Museum, proclaims his solemn allegiance to a doctrine of responsibility — even as he stands by and watches Syria burn.

If we are not prepared to intervene, even indirectly by arming and training Syrians who want to liberate themselves, be candid. And then be quiet. Don’t pretend the U.N. is doing anything. Don’t pretend the U.S. is doing anything. And don’t embarrass the nation with an Atrocities Prevention Board. The tragedies of Rwanda, Darfur, and now Syria did not result from lack of information or lack of interagency coordination, but from lack of will.
Perhaps someday we'll get an explanation from our President or our Secretary of State as to why we had a duty to kill perhaps thousands of Libyan soldiers to protect Libyan civilians from Qaddafi's threat to do them harm, but we have done nothing perceptible to help the tens of thousands of Syrian civilians who are currently being slaughtered in the streets of their cities by Bashar Assad. We have thus far been given no explanation whatsoever for the disparity in the way we've reacted to these two situations.

If there's a reason why we go to war in one case but not in the other the American people have a right to know it, and if the administration won't tell us, and the media won't press them on their reasoning, then we're perfectly justified in assuming that there simply is no defensible rationale for it. We're justified in concluding, in other words, that this administration is simply pretending to have a policy and in fact has no idea what it's doing, at least insofar as resisting tyranny is concerned.

If the Universe Had a Beginning

When it was first proposed that the universe was not infinitely old but rather had a beginning in a cosmic explosion many cosmologists resisted the idea. Fred Hoyle coined the term "Big Bang" to describe the explosion, but he was actually using the term derisively. Many scientists were dismayed by the thought that the universe suddenly originated out of nothing because that sounded dangerously close to the story in Genesis at which many intellectuals had been scoffing for over a hundred years.

Even after predictions based on the Big Bang model were accidentally confirmed in the 1960s cosmologists continued to advance all sorts of sophisticated hypotheses to prop up the notion that the universe is eternal. According to a recent report in Technology Review, however, hopes of escaping the implications of a cosmic beginning are rapidly fading:
The Big Bang has become part of popular culture since the phrase was coined by the maverick physicist Fred Hoyle in the 1940s. That's hardly surprising for an event that represents the ultimate birth of everything. Hoyle much preferred a different model of the cosmos: a steady state universe with no beginning or end, that stretches infinitely into the past and the future. That idea never really took off.

In recent years, however, cosmologists have begun to study a number of new ideas that have similar properties. Curiously, these ideas are not necessarily at odds with the notion of a Big Bang.

For instance, one idea is that the universe is cyclical with big bangs followed by big crunches followed by big bangs in an infinite cycle.

Another is the notion of eternal inflation in which different parts of the universe expand and contract at different rates. These regions can be thought of as different universes in a giant multiverse. So, although we seem to live in an inflating cosmos, other universes may be very different. And while our universe may look as if it has a beginning, the multiverse need not have a beginning.

Then there is the idea of an emergent universe which exists as a kind of seed for eternity and then suddenly expands.

[T]hese modern cosmologies suggest that the observational evidence of an expanding universe is consistent with a cosmos with no beginning or end, but that may be set to change.

Today, Audrey Mithani and Alexander Vilenkin at Tufts University in Massachusetts say that these models are mathematically incompatible with an eternal past. Indeed, their analysis suggests that these three models of the universe must have had a beginning too.

Their argument focuses on the mathematical properties of eternity--a universe with no beginning and no end. Such a universe must contain trajectories that stretch infinitely into the past.

However, Mithani and Vilenkin point to a proof dating from 2003 that these kind of past trajectories cannot be infinite if they are part of a universe that expands in a specific way. They go on to show that cyclical universes and universes of eternal inflation both expand in this way. So they cannot be eternal in the past and must therefore have had a beginning.

Since the observational evidence is that our universe is expanding, then it must also have been born in the past. A profound conclusion (albeit the same one that lead to the idea of the big bang in the first place).
Numerous questions jockey to be asked: If the universe had a beginning in time what caused it to come into being? Could it have somehow caused itself? How did it come to have the exquisite degree of fine-tuning that it has? Given that there are only two kinds of causes, personal and impersonal, and given that impersonal causes have never been known to produce information, and given that the universe contains biological information, wouldn't the cause of the universe have had to have been personal?

I.e., if the universe is not eternal it seems to have been brought into being by a personal agent that looks very much like the traditional theistic version of God. That will certainly not sit well with those who insist that science entertain only material explanations for material effects.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Root of All Evil

Bill Whittle gives an Afterburner talk on how intellectuals come to be so profoundly committed to their theories that they're blind to contradictory evidence. Like love-struck adolescent girls infatuated with the class bad boy they simply don't see what everyone else sees.

The context of Whittle's talk is anthropogenic (man-caused) gobal warming (AGW) and Marxist economics, but he could just as easily have been talking about Darwinism. Give it a look:

Another Reason to Be Skeptical

There are a number of reasons why someone might be skeptical of claims that we're on the brink of eco-catastrophe if we don't do something soon to reverse the warming of the planet, and I think I've just come across another one. A science writer named Chris Mooney is a firm believer in man-caused global warming which is ipso facto sufficient reason to be skeptical of it.

I say that because Mooney has such bizarre views on other topics that simple induction leads me to be suspicious of anything he opines upon. Mooney has, for example, written a book in which he claims, presumably while sober, that Republicans are genetically inferior to Democrats.

Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell, a couple of scientists, slap him upside the head in a review of Mooney's argument, such as it is:
Are Republicans genetically inferior to Democrats? That might sound like a preposterous question, but essentially that is the thesis of Chris Mooney's latest book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science -- and Reality.

In a recent article, Mooney summarizes his case. "[I]t often seems there are so many factually wrong claims on the political right that those who make them live in a different reality." He continues, "So here's an idea: Maybe they actually do. And maybe we can look to science help understand why it is that they view the world so differently."

Translation: Republicans are stupid and there has to be a biological explanation for it.

If Mooney's argument sounds familiar to you, it should. It's called "eugenics," and it was based on the belief that some humans are genetically inferior. Taken to an extreme, it encouraged people to selectively breed in order to improve the gene pool and eliminate those who the elites determined were unfit. It was rightfully dismissed decades ago, but this does not stop a modern-day science writer from resuscitating it and applying it to political adversaries.
Berezow and Campbell offer more at the link, but, really, their effort is probably unnecessary. No one except people on the lunatic fringe is likely to take someone like Mooney seriously enough to read his book anyway.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Who Is Paul Ryan?

It's not often that one encounters a congressman at home with the thinking of Thomas Aquinas, but Republican Paul Ryan is such a man. In a piece at National Review Robert Costa profiles the Budget Committee Chairman who has been, in my opinion, far and away the brightest, most articulate government spokesperson on budgetary matters in the last four years. His critics, perhaps sensing that they're out of their league, come across as little more than pesky ankle-biters when they set out to tear him down.

One of the indictments the left levels against Ryan is that he's a disciple of Ayn Rand, but he dismisses this with a chuckle:
"You know you’ve arrived in politics when you have an urban legend about you, and this one is mine," chuckles Representative Paul Ryan, the Budget Committee chairman, as we discuss his purported obsession with author and philosopher Ayn Rand.

Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, recently called Ryan “an Ayn Rand devotee” who wants to “slash benefits for the poor.” New York magazine once alleged that Ryan “requires staffers to read Atlas Shrugged,” Rand’s gospel of capitalism. President Obama has blasted the Ryan budget as Republican “social Darwinism.”

These Rand-related slams, Ryan says, are inaccurate and part of an effort on the left to paint him as a cold-hearted Objectivist. Ryan’s actual philosophy, as reported by my colleague, Brian Bolduc, couldn’t be further from the caricature. As a practicing Roman Catholic, Ryan says, his faith and moral values shape his politics as much as his belief in freedom and capitalism does.

“I, like millions of young people in America, read Rand’s novels when I was young. I enjoyed them,” Ryan says. “They spurred an interest in economics, in the Chicago School and Milton Friedman,” a subject he eventually studied as an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio. “But it’s a big stretch to suggest that a person is therefore an Objectivist.”

“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.

Ryan mentions the Catholic principle of subsidiarity as an influence on his thinking. He believes that the best government is a government closest to the people. He is a strong believer in the power of civil society, not the federal government, to solve problems. Community leaders and churches, he says, can often do more for the poor than a federal bureaucrat who scribbles their names on a check, sustaining dependency.
There's more on Ryan at the link. He also recently delivered a speech at Georgetown University. You can read the transcript here. It's excellent.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Letter to a Young Woman

Several readers have dug into the archives and retrieved a letter I had written to my youngest daughter when she was a junior in high school some five years ago. I had posted the letter on Viewpoint at the time, and after perusing the emails from those readers I thought I'd repost it in hope that someone finds it helpful.

I originally titled it "A Letter to a Young Girl", but some readers, never having been a father with daughters, thought "young girl" was not a particularly apt description of a high school junior, so I've retitled it to avoid further criticism.

Here it is:
Hi Honey,

I've been thinking a lot about the talk we had the other night on what happiness is and how we obtain it, and I hope you have been, too. I wanted to say a little more about it, and I thought that since I was going to be away, I'd put it into a letter for you to read while I'm gone.

One of the things we talked about was that we can't assess whether we're happy based on our feelings because happiness isn't just a feeling. It's more of a condition or quality of our lives - sort of like beauty is a quality of a symphony. It's a state of satisfaction we gain through devotion to God, living a life of virtue (honesty, integrity, loyalty, chastity, trustworthiness, self-discipline), cultivating wholesome and loving relationships with family and friends, experiencing the pleasures of accomplishment in career, sports, school, etc., and filling our lives with beauty (nature, music, literature, art, etc.).

One thing is sure - happiness isn't found by acquiring material things like clothes and toys. It's not attained by being popular, having good looks, or being high on the social pecking order. Those things seem like they should make us happy, especially when we're young, but they don't. Ultimately they just leave us empty.

To the extent that happiness is a feeling we have to understand that a person's feelings tend to follow her actions. A lot of people allow their feelings to determine their actions - if they like someone they're friendly toward them; if they feel happy they act happy - but this is backwards.

People who do brave things, for instance, don't do them because they feel brave. Most people usually feel terrified when in a dangerous situation, but brave people don't let their feelings rule their behavior, and what they do is all the more wonderful because it's done in spite of everything in them urging them to get out of danger. If they do something brave, despite their fear, we say they have courage and we admire them for it.

Well, happiness is like courage. You should act as if you're happy even if you don't feel it. When you do act that way your feelings change and tend to track your behavior. You find yourself feeling happier than you did before even though the only thing that has changed is your attitude.

How can a person act happy without seeming phony? Well, we can act happy by displaying a positive, upbeat attitude, by being pleasant to be around, by enjoying life, and by smiling a lot. Someone who has a genuine smile (not a Paris Hilton smirk) on her face all the time is much more attractive to other people than someone whose expression always tells other people that she's just worn out or miserable.

One other thing about happiness is that it tends to elude us most when we're most intent on pursuing it. It's when we're busy doing the things I mentioned above, it's when we're busy serving and being a friend to others, that happiness is produced as a by-product. We achieve it when we're not thinking about it. It just tags along, as if it were tied by a string, with love for God, family, friends, beauty, accomplishment, a rewarding career, and so on.

Sometimes young people are worried that they don't have friends and that makes them unhappy, but often the reason they don't, paradoxically, is that they're too busy trying to convince someone to be their friend. They try too hard and they come across to others as too insecure. This is off-putting to people, and they tend to avoid the person who seems to try over-hard to be their friend. The best way to make friends, I think, is to just be pleasant, friendly, and positive. Don't be critical of people, especially your friends, and especially your guy friends, either behind their backs or to their faces. A person who never has anything bad to say about others will always have friends.

Once in a while a critical word has to be said, of course, but it'll be meaningless at best and hurtful at worst, unless it's rare and done with complete kindness. A person who is always complaining or criticizing is not pleasant to be around and will not have good, devoted friends, and will not be happy. A person who gives others the impression that her life is miserable is going to find that after a while people just don't want to hear it, and they're not going to want to be around her.

I hope this makes sense to you, honey. Maybe as you read it you can think of people you know who are examples of the things I'm talking about....

All my love,

How Serious Is the Chinese Threat?

There's been much in the news about the rapid growth of the Chinese military and a lot of speculation as to what Beijing's intentions are in building such a formidable force. Strategy Page has a good piece on this topic that offers some perspective. They think that the Chinese threat is primarily cyber theft and cyber warfare but not so much in the realm of conventional warfare:
Western military leaders are having a hard time figuring out what Chinese military strategy is. It’s becoming clear that China is not looking for a war, as that would turn the population against the communist dictatorship that still runs the country.

The communist leaders survive mainly by ensuring that the economy keeps growing. Any kind of war would endanger that, especially if the foe were someone with a large navy (like the U.S. or Japan). Yet China is fighting a war and they're winning. China has, for over a decade, been quietly fighting its way into Western computer networks and stealing military and technology secrets....Lawsuits have been more effective in fighting this than any military or diplomatic efforts, but most of the time the Chinese get away with the theft.

There is another aspect of the Chinese "Quiet War" that has not garnered much attention, and that is the large quantity of stolen military tech and data that (in theory) enables the Chinese to deceive many high-tech Western systems. Particularly vulnerable are electronic warfare, communications, and satellite based systems. Interfering with satellite communications or taking over control of satellites is a major nightmare. With the quantity of data China has stolen such meddling becomes possible. The Chinese are not going to reveal what they can do until they have to do it.
Strategy Page has this to say about their rapid accumulation of military hardware:
Are the Chinese really backing away from preparations for conventional war? Consider the evidence. First, China is reducing the size of its armed forces, by over a million troops in the last decade and still going. China has also doubled its defense spending (to over $100 billion a year) in the last decade. The big mystery is figuring what the Chinese military up to with all this spending? This question's been rattling around inside intelligence agencies, and among diplomats, for the last decade.

China is not buying a lot of high tech weapons but is mainly trying to replace the large quantities of ancient weapons and equipment many of their troops are still equipped with. By world standards the Chinese armed forces are decidedly second rate, although numerous. China spends a lot of money on developing new military technologies but then does not buy a lot of the stuff. Instead they go on to develop the next generation. The Chinese appear to be trying to catch up with the West in the quality of their military tech, before building a lot of it.
Nor are the Chinese without their problems:
Chinese military analysts, commanders, and politicians decry the sorry state of their military leadership, training, and doctrine. It's easier to build new weapons than it is to train and maintain troops capable of using them effectively. The Chinese are more concerned with that but are having a hard time making it happen.
How combat ready are the forces Beijing would need to rely on if hostilities broke out?
Technically, a lot of Chinese gear is well built....Chinese have the talent and persistence to acquire the needed management and technical skills. It takes time and Chinese leaders like to take the long view. That means realizing that current Chinese armed forces are not so good. Peacetime soldiers in general and Chinese ones in particular develop a lot of bad habits that translate into defeats early in a war. But in a world with nuclear weapons the old Chinese strategy of fighting a long war and grinding down a superior (man-for-man) force no longer works.

If you use conventional forces you strike first and fast, then call for peace talks before the nukes are employed. This situation does not work to China's advantage. Chinese generals are going through the motions of creating a well-trained and led army, like many Western nations have, but are making very slow progress. Meanwhile, the Americans are particularly admired, with all their practical training methods and combat proven NCOs and officers. China still has far too much corruption in their military establishment and too little initiative and original thinking to create a force that can match the Americans. Going through the motions may work in peace time but not once the shooting starts.
Strategy Page concludes that the Chinese might actually be telling the truth when they say that the alarmingly rapid growth in military procurement is purely defensive:
China insists that its growing military power is for defense only. That makes sense, as a lot of money is going into the navy, which protects the imports (mainly of food and raw materials) and exports (of manufactured goods) that are driving the unprecedented economic growth.

The Chinese try to explain away the military buildup opposite Taiwan as political theater. This may be true, for a failed attempt to take Taiwan by force would not only disrupt the economy (and create a lot of unhappy Chinese), but would be a major failure by the government. Dictatorships cannot survive too many such failures or too many angry citizens.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Darwinism and Racism

Joseph Allen surveys the media hyperventilations over the recently passed Tennessee law that allows for the teaching of the evidences for, and the scientific arguments against, Darwinian evolution and does a good job (if one can overlook the occasional crudity) of explaining intelligent design. It's refreshing to see someone get it right given all the misrepresentations of ID one finds in the popular media.

The most interesting part of Allen's essay, however, was when he recounted a trip to the Dayton, Tennessee courthouse, the site of the famous Scopes Trial in 1925. The trial was held to prosecute a substitute biology teacher named John Scopes who claimed to have been teaching evolution to his students. At that time teaching evolution was against state law.

Allen writes:
I paid a visit to the courthouse in Dayton a few months ago. One item in the display cases immediately caught my attention. It was a copy of George William Hunter’s A Civic Biology — used by John Scopes in his class — opened to page 195 .... Of course, the next page is safely hidden:
At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure…the highest type of all [are] the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.
Had they (courthouse visitors) been able to turn to page 263, they would find even more juicy tidbits from the evolutionary perspective:
Just as certain animals or plants have become parasitic on other plants or animals, [biologically inferior humans] have become parasitic on society…corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease....If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading.
Contemporary Darwinians huff that racialist beliefs such as these are no longer held by biologists, but the point is there's no reason not to hold them given their devotion to the evolutionary process. There's no reason to think that every species and race evolves at the same rate, pari passu, and indeed no Darwinian believes they do, but they make an exception for Homo sapiens. The exception, however, is motivated by political correctness not by their science.

Darwin himself believed that some races were superior to others and his followers in the social sciences accepted that inequality as a matter of course until Hitler carried their thinking to its logical conclusion and showed the world the horrific implications of Darwinian assumptions about survival of the fittest. Even though such views have been muted since the atrocities of WWII the logic remains unrefuted. Given naturalistic Darwinism there's no basis for thinking that all men or races are equal or have equal potential and there's no non-arbitrary moral reason why those in power shouldn't treat the races in their jurisdiction differently and prejudicially.

Indeed, the only reason for thinking that all human beings have equal value and dignity, the only reason for thinking that there are rights which inhere in every human being, is the conviction that we are God's property, as John Locke put it, and that we were created by God in His image and that He loves us. No one can harm with impunity what God loves.

That is the sole ground for human worth and human rights. Take God away, as Darwinism does, and substitute in His place purposeless and impersonal mechanisms like genetic mutation and natural selection, and it's hard to see how any of those passages in the textbook Scopes was teaching from are wrong.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Obama Boondoggle

No sooner does one ethical imbroglio in this administration begin to recede than another rears its ugly head. This time the chicanery has been uncovered by a pair of New York Post reporters named Benjamin Sasse and Charles Hurt.

Sasse and Hurt have a column up at the Post in which they explain how the Obama administration is using over 8 billion taxpayer dollars in a scheme to keep seniors in the dark until after the November election about the administration's plans to trim Medicare Advantage:
Call it President Obama’s Committee for the Re-Election of the President — a political slush fund at the Health and Human Services Department. Only this isn’t some little fund from shadowy private sources; this is taxpayer money, redirected to help Obama win another term. A massive amount of it, too — $8.3 billion. Yes, that’s billion, with a B.

Here is how it works.

The most oppressive aspects of the ObamaCare law don’t kick in until after the 2012 election, when the president will no longer be answerable to voters....

But certain voters would surely notice one highly painful part of the law before then — namely, the way it guts the popular Medicare Advantage program.

For years, 12 million seniors have relied on these policies, a more market-oriented alternative to traditional Medicare, without the aggravating gaps in coverage. But as part of its hundreds of billions in Medicare cuts, the Obama one-size-fits-all plan slashes reimbursement rates for Medicare Advantage starting next year — herding many seniors back into the government-run program.

Nothing is more politically volatile than monkeying with the health insurance of seniors, who aren’t too keen on confusing upheavals in their health care and are the most diligent voters in the land. This could make the Tea Party look like a tea party.

It’s hard to imagine a bigger electoral disaster for a president than seniors in crucial states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio discovering that he’s taken away their beloved Medicare Advantage just weeks before an election. This political ticking time bomb could become the biggest “October Surprise” in US political history.

But the administration’s devised a way to postpone the pain one more year, getting Obama past his last election; it plans to spend $8 billion to temporarily restore Medicare Advantage funds so that seniors in key markets don’t lose their trusted insurance program in the middle of Obama’s re-election bid.
In other words, the administration is using taxpayer money to lull seniors into thinking that their Medicare benefits are not going to be lost when in fact they will be. This is not only devious but also unethical and possibly illegal. The rest of the article explains why.

Mr. Obama promised us a transparent and ethical administration - the most open and honest administration in history - and many voters bought into his assurances, but the reality has proven to be somewhat less than what was promised. From shady deals to Congressmen in order to secure their votes for Obamacare to equally shady loans to big donors in failing green industries like Solyndra, to waivers from the health care law to his union supporters, to the Fast and Furious scandal, to the GSA and Secret Service Scandals, to the various assaults on the First Amendment, to the numerous luxurious vacations on the taxpayer's tab, as well as dozens of lesser malfeasances and instances of poor judgment, the current administration has been rife with ethical lapses and constitutionally dubious maneuvers.

If Obama was Bush the nation would be on fire over the corruption and mismanagement which plagues this presidency, but our media, like a woman in love with a cad, is still in denial. They haven't yet been able to comprehend that a man who gives such marvelous speeches and has such a winning smile could really be just a typical pragmatist politician, willing to do whatever works to keep himself in power.

Romney's Choice

One of the finest wordsmiths in contemporary journalism, Washington Post columnist George Will, penned a meditation last week on who Mitt Romney might select as his running mate and in the process offered logophiles and connoisseurs of fine writing, at least those frustrated by Mr. Obama's unsteady relationship with factual accuracy, quite a treat.

Here's his lede:
Barack Obama’s intellectual sociopathy — his often breezy and sometimes loutish indifference to truth — should no longer startle. It should, however, influence Mitt Romney’s choice of a running mate.

In his 2010 State of the Union address, Obama flagrantly misrepresented the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which did not “open the floodgates” for foreign corporations “to spend without limit in our elections” (the law prohibiting foreign money was untouched by Citizens United) and did not reverse “a century of law.”

Although Obama is not nearly as well educated as many thought, and he thinks, he surely knows he was absurd when he said last Monday, regarding Obamacare, that it would be “unprecedented” for the Supreme Court to overturn a “passed law.”

More important, and particularly pertinent to Romney’s choice, was Obama’s Tuesday speech comprehensively misrepresenting Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. (For Ryan’s refutation of Obama, go to Remarkably, the 42-year-old congressman is today’s agenda-setting Republican. Admirably, Romney has embraced Ryan’s approach to altering the ruinous trajectory of the entitlement state and forestalling what that trajectory presages, a “government-centered society” (Romney’s phrase in his fine Milwaukee speech Tuesday night).

Obama’s defense of reactionary liberalism — whatever is must ever be, only increased — is not weighed down by the ballast of scruples. His defense will be his campaign because he cannot forever distract the nation and mesmerize the media with such horrors as a 30-year-old law student being unable to make someone else pay for her contraception.

So Romney’s running mate should have intellectual firepower, born of immersion in policy complexities, sufficient to refute Obama’s meretricious claims and derelictions of duty. Here are two excellent choices.
You'll have to read the column to see who Will endorses. Suffice it to say that either would make an excellent pick.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Watch at Your Own Risk

C.S. Lewis once wrote that a young man who wishes to remain an atheist can't be too careful about the books he reads. Something of the sort can also be said about students who wish to remain Darwinians. They can't be too careful about the videos they watch.

This one, for example, is an animation that shows how six feet of DNA is coiled into a microscopically small volume, how that DNA replicates, and how it transcribes RNA which is then translated into proteins.

I once commented on VP that when I was a student evolutionary biologists would constantly impress upon us the amazing awesomeness of the systems we were studying. They didn't hesitate, back in those days when Darwinism had the field all to itself and no competitors were anywhere to be seen, to exclaim about the astonishing design of biological systems.

Now, however, with intelligent design posing such a powerful challenge to standard Darwinism, I suspect that Darwinian biologists are much more reluctant to marvel at these things in front of their students. So many young people watching videos like this will be filled with such a sense of transcendent wonder that there's a high risk that they'll conclude that life is indeed so marvelous that it just can't be an accidental consequence of blind natural forces.

Doing What Comes Naturally

There's been a lot of soul-searching in the wake of the Secret Service and GSA scandals in which significant numbers of federal employees behaved dishonorably and with utter contempt for the taxpayers who employ them.

As awful as it is, though, we shouldn't be surprised at the behavior. A society which has declared traditional moral restraints and motivations obsolete and irrelevant shouldn't be shocked when people conclude that whatever one can get away with is okay and the only thing that's really wrong is getting caught. In fact, given the subjectivism and relativism they've been hearing all their lives, they're exactly right.

For four decades we've been scrubbing our public life of all vestiges of the only ground there is for objective moral duty. We've been purging our public spaces of any mention of any standard of moral value that transcends human arbitrariness and emotivism, and then we're disappointed when people behave in ways that are perfectly consistent with the loss of that standard. We shouldn't be. We should expect it, and we should expect that it'll get worse in the future.

As we watch the video of the GSA employees squandering our tax dollars on lavish frivolities with complete indifference to the people who're paying for their self-indulgence, when we read about Secret Service agents disgracing their country and themselves cavorting with prostitutes in Columbia, we should remind ourselves and others that it's all a part of the price we're paying for insuring that people hear as little about God in the public square as is possible.

When we lose the sense that we have an obligation to live up to a standard higher than our own feelings and social convention then we inevitably lose the sense that we have an obligation to live up to any standard at all. When we reach that point we just do whatever comes naturally which is, I guess, exactly what the GSA staffers and the Secret Service agents were doing.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Chuck Colson, R.I.P.

Chuck Colson was a man who fell suddenly from a life of privilege, power, and self-aggrandizement and subsequently committed himself to serving and helping others. He spent a bit less than a year in prison in the mid-seventies for his role in the Watergate scandal and upon release founded Prison Fellowship, a ministry to help convicts straighten out their lives.

His is a remarkable story, showing as it does the power of redemption and giving hope to thousands who despaired of ever being able to change their own lives.

Colson died today due to complications from surgery to relieve a clot on his brain. He was eighty years of age. Go here to read more on this extraordinary man.

Hume's Tacit Endorsement of Intelligent Design

One of the interesting paradoxes in the debate over whether living things are the product of intelligent agency or whether they have evolved through purely mechanical means from an organic broth in a primeval pond is that those who take the latter view also take as one of their heroes a man who sounds in some of his writings like an advocate of the former view.

The great skeptical philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), in arguing against the rationality of believing in miracles (in Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding), says that experience should be our guide in what we believe. If there is a uniform experience against the occurrence of miracles then that experience amounts to a proof that any report of an alleged miracle is likely to be bogus.

Well, if a uniform experience is to be our guide in determining what is credible and what isn't how can we believe that life arose from non-living matter apart from the agency of an intellect? We have, after all, absolutely no experience of such a thing happening. Even if living things are someday created in a laboratory we will still have no experience of life coming to exist apart from a purposeful mind.

A little further on in the Inquiry Hume writes:
We may observe in human nature a principle which, if strictly examined, will be found to diminish extremely the assurance which we might, from human testimony, have in any kind of prodigy. The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings, is that the objects of which we have no experience resemble those of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments we ought to give preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations.
One of the things that needs to be explained in any theory of origins is how biological information could ever have been produced by randomness and blind chemical action. Whenever we find information being produced today, whether in books or computer programs or whatever, it is always, without exception, produced by a mind. Thus, to the extent that one accepts Hume's principle as valid and reasonable one should assume that the information we find in living cells - in their DNA and in their architecture - was also the product of a mind.

Let me repeat Hume's words: Whenever there's a conflict of explanations "we ought to prefer the one based on the greatest number of past observations." Just as this principle rules out believing that information could be produced by anything other than intelligent agents it also rules out belief in any naturalistic theory of biogenesis. In order to believe that life arose from non-life we have to believe something we have never observed or experienced in all of human history. We have a uniform experience of life always and only arising from other living organisms. Thus as good Humeans we must conclude that whatever initially produced life on earth must itself have in some sense been alive.

Elsewhere (see his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion), Hume argues against the argument for God based on the design we find in the world, but his argument fails to discredit the notion that life and the universe are the products of design. To the extent that his argument is effective it is only so in showing that we can't conclude from the design of the world that the designer must be the God of the Bible. His argument does nothing to demonstrate that the world is not intelligently designed.

Though Hume's devotees would recoil in horror at the notion, the fact is that if we follow their champion we have no reason to think life was not intelligently designed and very good reason to believe that it was.

Stepping on the Gas

Political Math illustrates the silliness of the Obama administration's attempts to slough the national debt problem off on his predecessors:

As Morgen Richmond says at Hot Air:

If you ask me, this, even more than the economy, should be the defining issue of the 2012 election. The President was presented with multiple opportunities to address the long term deficit – including a bipartisan framework from his own commission – and each time he simply chose to walk away. This is one of the most remarkable failures of presidential leadership in history, and it’s time to take the keys away before we careen into an abyss we’ll never get out of. Which is apparently located somewhere south of Puerto Rico.

Friday, April 20, 2012

You Are Not Free

Evolutionary materialist and biologist Jerry Coyne insists that your belief that you have free will is an illusion. Here's Coyne:
The term "free will" has so many diverse connotations that I'm obliged to define it before I explain why we don't have it. I construe free will the way I think most people do: At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.

Although we can't really rerun that tape, this sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics. Your brain and body, the vehicles that make "choices," are composed of molecules, and the arrangement of those molecules is entirely determined by your genes and your environment. Your decisions result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another. These molecules must obey the laws of physics, so the outputs of our brain—our "choices"—are dictated by those laws.
What Coyne has done here is surreptitiously smuggle in the assumption that materialism is true without ever arguing for it. He just assumes that everyone agrees that our physical self is all there is, that human beings are completely reducible to atomic particles. If, however, we possess immaterial minds or souls then everything he says is rendered irrelevant. In order to argue that our choices are determined by physics Coyne has to show that physics can explain everything about us, that we are purely physical machines, and this he doesn't even hint at doing. In his view we're pretty much just flesh and bone computers:
To assert that we can freely choose among alternatives is to claim, then, that we can somehow step outside the physical structure of our brain and change its workings. That is impossible. Like the output of a programmed computer, only one choice is ever physically possible: the one you made. As such, the burden of proof rests on those who argue that we can make alternative choices, for that's a claim that our brains, unique among all forms of matter, are exempt from the laws of physics by a spooky, nonphysical "will" that can redirect our own molecules.
This is a subtle move. Coyne seeks to shift the burden of proof onto those who believe that genuine alternatives do exist, but this seems to me to be precisely backward. When confronted with an apparent choice everyone, even Coyne, has the overwhelming sense that we're free to decide between options. The burden of proof is thus on the determinist who claims that this powerful sense of freedom is really just an illusion.

It's as silly to demand that those in thrall to this overwhelming conviction that they're free prove they are as it is to demand that someone convinced that he's reading this sentence prove that he's not imagining or dreaming it. If Coyne thinks my strong belief that I can choose to type this post or go take a nap is a delusion then it's incumbent upon him to demonstrate that it is. It's not incumbent upon me to demonstrate that it's not.
So what are the consequences of realizing that physical determinism negates our ability to choose freely? ... What is seriously affected is our idea of moral responsibility, which should be discarded along with the idea of free will. If whether we act well or badly is predetermined rather than a real choice, then there is no moral responsibility—only actions that hurt or help others. That realization shouldn't seriously change the way we punish or reward people, because we still need to protect society from criminals, and observing punishment or reward can alter the brains of others, acting as a deterrent or stimulus. What we should discard is the idea of punishment as retribution, which rests on the false notion that people can choose to do wrong.
This is naive. If moral responsibility no longer exists then neither does moral obligation. Actions that hurt or help others may be either approved by society or disapproved, but categories such as right or wrong are as meaningless when applied to us as they are when applied to computers.

Thus, if society approves of slavery, or genocide, or raping children, or infant sacrifice, or torturing animals, or squandering the planet's resources then those things are not wrong and we have no moral obligation to refrain from them. If society adopts a Darwinian view of the weak and the poor then allowing those unfortunates to suffer and perish would be neither right nor wrong and we have no moral obligation to ease their suffering and help them survive. Does Coyne really believe this? Does he really believe that someone who rapes or tortures a child isn't doing something deeply, profoundly wrong? Does he really believe that human beings have no moral obligations?

Coyne thinks we can give up free will and nothing will change, but in fact everything changes. Not only is reward and punishment never deserved, not only can there be no moral obligation, neither is there any ground for human dignity. Our dignity derives from our belief that we're different from other animals in that we can choose our behavior and that we're responsible for the choices we make. Take away choice and we take away the basis for human dignity (and human rights), and once we lose that we open the floodgates to being treated by the powerful as nothing more than cattle to be herded and slaughtered. After all, what would be wrong with that?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Least Racist Country in the World

Recent events have stirred the racial pot in the U.S. once again, and it's good to remind ourselves when the race-baiters and race-haters appear on our news outlets that America is one of the least racist countries, if not the least racist country, in the world. This is the message of a Dennis Prager column from a couple of weeks ago. Prager writes that everyone knows this except the ideological left and black Americans who are constantly reminded by those stirring the pot that they're still oppressed by a racist nation that wants only to exploit them. Prager opens with this:
In light of the tragic killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin -- and the manufactured hysteria surrounding it -- one thing needs to be stated as clearly and as often as possible: The United States is the least racist and least xenophobic country in the world. Foreigners of every race, ethnicity, and religion know this. Most Americans suspect this. Most black Americans and the entire left deny this.

Black Africans know this. That is why so many seek to live in the United States. Decades ago, the number of black Africans who had immigrated to the United States had already surpassed the number of black Africans who were forcibly shipped to America as slaves.

And members of other races and nationalities know this. Even Muslim and Arab writers have noted that nowhere in the Arab or larger Muslim world does an Arab or any other Muslim have the individual rights, liberty, and dignity that a Muslim living in America has. As for Latinos and Asians, vast numbers of them from El Salvador to Korea regard America as the land of opportunity.

And when any of these people come here - from anywhere, speaking any language, looking like a member of any race -- they are accepted as Americans the moment they identify as such. He or she will be regarded as fully American. This is not true elsewhere. A third-generation Turkish-German, whose German is indistinguishable from the German spoken by an indigenous German, will still be regarded by most Germans as a Turk. The same holds true elsewhere in Europe. On the other hand, a first-generation Turkish American, who speaks English with a heavy Turkish accent, but who identifies as American, will be regarded every bit as American as anyone else.

As is often the case, a foreigner pointed this out most clearly. On a visit to America in February, The president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, said: "The other day, I was in a small company -- and there were Asians, Koreans, Middle Easterners, some other people. And they had been in America for, like, two, three, four years. And they talk American. They look American. Body language is American. I'm sure they already think American. Go to Korea and become Korean in one or two years' time. Good luck with that. That's what's so special about this country."
Prager argues that the left in general and the Democratic Party in particular are deeply invested in the narrative of white oppression:
The political aspect is this: The Democrats and the left recognize that if blacks cease viewing themselves as victims of racism, the Democratic Party can no longer offer itself as black America's savior. And if only one out of three black Americans ceases to regard to himself as a victim of racism, and votes accordingly, it will be very difficult for Democrats to win any national election.

The other issue is black memory. Apparently, most blacks either cannot or refuse to believe that the vast majority of whites are no longer racist.
I think Prager is right about this. Many if not most white Americans don't want to be, or be thought to be, racist, and they bend over backwards to not give offense and to not even entertain thoughts that might be construed as bigoted. On the other hand, it's black organizations like the New Black Panthers and black individuals like Al Sharpton, Jeremiah Wright, Louis Farrakhan, et al. who seem determined to keep blacks and whites from ever getting to the point where they live harmoniously with each other.

Racial rapport will remain out of reach as long as blacks and whites are held to different standards of behavior. When the New Black Panthers put bounties on "whites" like George Zimmerman for shooting a black kid under ambiguous circumstances, when black on white violence that occurs every day in our cities is met with silence by the black community, when whites are outraged when blacks are treated with possible injustice but blacks express no discernible outrage at unjust treatment of whites by blacks, all that's going to happen is that white resentments will be stoked and the gulf between the races is going to widen.

This would be a tragedy for our nation after all these years of progress, but it'll be inevitable unless we start holding everyone to the same standards of justice and civility. Right now we don't.

Dog Eat Dog Campaign

The Democrats and their allies in the major media are laboring to convince us that Mitt Romney would make a terrible president because he's a terrible human being. As proof they submit the fact that on a family vacation a quarter century ago they transported their dog in a carrier strapped to the roof of the car. This is a chilling demonstration, we are to believe, of Romney's fundamental inhumanity and his unsuitability for office.

Meanwhile, as the media busies themselves uncovering these atrocities in Romney's past, the incumbent has not been able to submit a budget worthy of a single Democrat vote for two years, has amassed more national debt than all other presidents combined, and has been helpless to bring unemployment down to where it was when he took office. His primary achievement, Obamacare, teeters on the brink of being thrown out by the Supreme Court, and we are more divided as a people today than we were even under the Bush administration. Things seem to be in dire disrepair and the media is all aflutter about a faux war on women and dogs on the tops of cars.

But worse. Romney supporters slyly point us to the fact that Mr. Obama admits in his autobiography that as a lad he actually ate dogs. Oh, the horror! Not only this, but we actually have documentation of Adolf Hitler being given the news that his own beloved Fluffy was one of Mr. Obama's repasts.

We can be sure that the liberal media will do all they can to suppress this footage lest people who yawn at skyrocketing debt and unemployment grow outraged that Mr. Obama consumed Fluffy:

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Want to know what scientists are referring to when they talk about the complexity of living things? Go here.

You can click on any region of the map, and it'll give you a blow-up of that region.

A word of caution: You must keep in mind that all of this amazing intricacy, organization, and plain genius just looks designed, but the appearance of design is an illusion. All intelligent people know that blind chance and chemistry are responsible for having built these pathways serendipitously from scratch. It happens all the time.

Keep telling yourself that as you look at it, because if you don't you're likely to find yourself wondering if those nefarious intelligent design people, who foolishly think this sort of thing is evidence of the creative activity of an intelligent agency, aren't on to something.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Minds, Free Will, and Materialism

An article in Psychology Today by Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles named Matthew Lieberman caught my eye. Lieberman is a materialist who writes an interesting piece about the connection between a belief in free will and the belief that we have a mind. Here's part of his article:
It is impossible to take a materialistic view of the universe (i.e. the view that there is nothing but physical material in the world, atoms bouncing off one another in perfectly predictable patterns) and not come to the conclusion that free will is an illusion because your will must ultimately be caused by events in your physical brain which were caused by previous events in your brain, body, environment and so on. It makes no sense to talk about a will that is disconnected from causal chains of biological events.

Given a materialist view of the universe, it makes no sense to talk about consciousness or experience at all. We have absolutely no idea what it is about the three pounds of mush between our ears that allows it to perform this trick of being conscious. If you damage one spot in visual cortex, a person will cease to see motion. If you damage another spot, they may lose the ability to see things in the right side of their visual field. But we have no idea why those regions cause us to have conscious experience of motion or the right side of the visual field in the first place. Knowing that an engine can’t run without a particular part is not the same as knowing why it can run because of that part.
In other words, we have no idea how consciousness can arise from mere chemical reactions in matter, but he believes that it does despite the powerful intuition that there's something more to us than just the material aspect of our nature. He even acknowledges that his belief in materialism is a "leap of faith":
I am a neuroscientist and so 99% of the time I behave like a materialist, acknowledging that the mind is real but fully dependent on the brain. But we don’t actually know this. We really don’t. We assume our sense of will is a causal result of the neurochemical processes in our brain, but this is a leap of faith.

Perhaps the brain is something like a complex radio receiver that integrates consciousness signals that float around in some form. Perhaps one part of the visual cortex is important for decoding the bandwidth that contains motion consciousness and another part of the brain is critical to decoding the bandwith that contains our will. So damage to brain regions may alter our ability to express certain kinds of conscious experience rather than being the causal source of consciousness itself.

I don’t actually believe the radio metaphor of the brain, but I think something like it could account for all of our findings. Its unfalsifiable which is a big no-no in science. But so is the materialist view — its also unfalsifiable. We simply don’t know how to reverse engineer consciousness. Saying that the complexity of the brain explains why we are conscious is just an article of faith — it doesn’t explain anything. We don’t know why our brains are associated with conscious experience and nothing else in the universe besides brains seems to be.

If we acknowledge just how much we don’t know about the conscious mind, perhaps we would be a bit more humble. We have so much confidence in our materialist assumptions (which are assumptions, not facts) that something like free will is denied in principle. Maybe it doesn’t exist, but I don’t really know that. Either way, it doesn’t matter because if free will and consciousness are just an illusion, they are the most seamless illusions ever created. Film maker James Cameron wishes he had special effects that good. So we will go on acting like free-willing creatures no matter what. Its what we're built to do.
Reflect for a moment on how much one must deny in order to avoid the conclusion that we are something more than just a lump of protoplasm. We must deny the overwhelming sense that we make free choices and that we are responsible for those choices. We must also deny the powerful intuition that we have a conscious mind that is something other than the brain with which it is integrated. We must deny this in order to maintain belief in a metaphysical position which is not, as Leiberman points out, scientific, which is strongly counterintuitive, and which must be accepted not because there's evidence for it but purely on faith.

It's true, of course, that free will and conscious minds are illusions if materialism is correct, but how do we know materialism is correct? We don't. Materialists, as Leiberman admits, simply believe it by faith, and they do so, in my opinion, largely because to acknowledge the existence of a mind is to acknowledge a key element in the worldview of Christian theism, a step they're loath to take.

That'd be their business, of course, except that so many of them - unlike Lieberman - insist on telling those who believe these powerful intuitions exist in us precisely because they correspond to reality, that they're irrational.

In order to sustain their materialism the materialist has to deny what everything in their experience is telling them is true, and then they try to persuade us that the worldview which most comfortably accommodates and explains this experience, Christian theism, is a non-rational and superstitious alternative.

It's very odd.

What's Not to Like?

Gary Jason is a philosopher and a senior editor of Liberty. In an essay at American Thinker he reviews the state of play between the EPA and the natural gas industry. He writes that after concerted attempts to limit or stop the use of fracking technology to drill for gas, the EPA seems to be backing off their earlier opposition. Here are a few of the important points he makes in the essay:
[The EPA] has withdrawn its lawsuit against Range Resources Corporation wherein, it had alleged that the company was polluting water wells near Fort Worth, Texas. Moreover, the EPA will now retest water in Wyoming about which it had earlier raised questions.

Add to this the fact that the Agency has tested well water in Pennsylvania, once found to be polluted, and now (like the state's own similar agency) declares the water to be safe, and you begin to sense that the EPA is being forced to retreat from its ... opposition to the new technology.

One good sign is that the extremist environmentalist groups are beginning to come down hard on the EPA, long considered an agency that belonged to them.

What is emerging here is a consensus among scientists that to the extent that gas from fracking gets into a water supply -- and that is relatively rare as it is -- the cause is not the fracking itself (i.e., the injection of water, sand, and small amounts of chemicals into shale to release the gas), but rather wells that are not properly constructed.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection recently worked with Chesapeake Energy to come up with a greatly improved well design....Chesapeake agreed to those improvements (which increase the drilling costs per well by about 10%, or half a million dollars) after one of its wells leaked natural gas into the water supply. But it is important to note that the leakage in this one well occurred before any fracking had been done.

Add to this the realization that the production of natural gas made possible by fracking should actually reduce atmospheric greenhouse gasses and it seems as if it would be environmentally foolish to stop it.
How does fracking reduce CO2? Jason explains: Fracking (and horizontal drilling) have led to a massive increase in the production of domestic natural gas, driving the prices dramatically down. In fact, from 2008 to the present, the price of natural gas has plummeted over 80% from $12 to $2.30 per million Btus (MMBtu). This has led to natural gas being used to generate power formerly generated by coal-fired plants, and burning natural gas emits less CO2 than does burning coal.

Summing up, Jason writes:
Fracking is ecologically safe, helps America achieve energy independence, provides great-paying jobs for blue-collar workers in an era of seemingly endless rates of high unemployment, and lowers greenhouse gas emissions.
If the first part of that really is true, and there are those who contest it even if the EPA is no longer among them, then what's not to like about it?

Well, it seems that the Obama administration is still not convinced.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Breaking News: Philosophy Doesn't Exist

Following the lead of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris who claim to have demonstrated that God almost certainly doesn't exist, a pair of Copenhagen philosophers have constructed a proof that philosophy doesn't exist either. You can read the report that has rocked the academic world here.

Just for the sake of cheap titillation I'll share with you the lede:
Two philosophers based in Denmark have apparently come up with a proof that shows that philosophy doesn’t exist and their discovery is rocking the philosophical community. For centuries, philosophy has been at the core of just about every discipline and has provided a foundation for most of Western thought. From Plato to Kripke, philosophers have been tackling the universe’s toughest problems. But in 2012 Dr. Soren Filosht and another thinker who wants to be known only as “Dagmar” have developed a complex argument that ostensibly shows that philosophy is merely the product of wishful thinking and has no basis in reality.

The two Danes are arguing that disciplines like metaphysics and epistemology are a crutch that the weak-minded have used to better understand the world, and their proof casts serious doubt on whether these things actually exist. “It’s necessarily true that everything is just real and reality consists of properties, relations, sets, and facts and you can study them. No metaphysics required.” claims Dagmar.

Epistemology, too, is a chimera and these thinkers are calling on all philosophers to give it up. “Look, we just know stuff. If you are justified in believing a statement is true, then you know it. People who believe they’re doing ‘epistemology’ just confuse the matter and the sooner they come to believe that, the better off we’ll all be.”

They developed their proof while sampling the wide variety of local plant life in Christiana (a small community inside of Copenhagen). As with most discoveries of this kind, they weren’t looking for it. They were functioning as working philosophers developing a paper that attempted to show that Kripke’s possible worlds have no basis in anything actual.

“We were close. Real close.” Dagmar recalls. “Then we got a brainwave, as if we were in some kind of psychotic hallucination.” Not only are possible worlds not actual, they hit upon the striking fact that philosophy itself isn’t real. “We kind of felt like modern-day Descarteses; we thought philosophy out of existence: cogito ergo non philosophia.” Filosht added, visibly shaken as he spoke.
"Visibly shaken" probably doesn't begin to describe what's being felt in humanities departments all across the world. Read the rest of this revolutionary achievement - an achievement to rival that of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al. - at the link.


Meg Jay is a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — and How to Make the Most of Them Now. In an essay in the New York Times she says that she neither favors nor opposes cohabitation, but couples should know that as a prelude to marriage it's fraught with hazards. Nor does it make divorce unlikely once the cohabiting couple does marry. In fact, it actually increases the chances that divorce will eventuate. She writes:
When Jennifer started therapy with me less than a year later, she was looking for a divorce lawyer. “I spent more time planning my wedding than I spent happily married,” she sobbed. Most disheartening to Jennifer was that she’d tried to do everything right. “My parents got married young so, of course, they got divorced. We lived together! How did this happen?”

Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation.

This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing. But when you talk to people in their 20s, you also hear about something else: cohabitation as prophylaxis.

In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.

But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.
Much of the problem with cohabitation stems from the different ways in which it is viewed by women and men:
Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage. One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.
Couples often feel they wasted years of their lives living with someone when their relationship would probably have ended after only a few months had they just been dating. The live-together relationship acquires a certain inertia due to what Jay calls setup and switching costs:
Cohabitation is loaded with setup and switching costs. Living together can be fun and economical, and the setup costs are subtly woven in. After years of living among roommates’ junky old stuff, couples happily split the rent on a nice one-bedroom apartment. They share wireless and pets and enjoy shopping for new furniture together. Later, these setup and switching costs have an impact on how likely they are to leave.

Jennifer said she never really felt that her boyfriend was committed to her. “I felt like I was on this multiyear, never-ending audition to be his wife,” she said. “We had all this furniture. We had our dogs and all the same friends. It just made it really, really difficult to break up. Then it was like we got married because we were living together once we got into our 30s.”
There's more at the link. Any young person contemplating moving in with his or her significant other ought to read it. It'll at least help to have one's eyes open when one makes the move. It'll also help to know that couples shouldn't expect living together to strengthen their relationship. It may, but based on statistics, it probably won't.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Out of Touch

Supporters of President Obama are frequently heard making the claim that Mitt Romney is "out of touch" with the average American. He has been insulated by his wealth from the sorts of concerns and exigencies faced by middle class Americans, they say.

Well, perhaps this is true, but it sounds awfully strange coming from people who are striving to reelect a man who spent much of his childhood in distinctly unAmerican Indonesia and then in Hawaii, who spent his college years in the insular cocoon of ivy league schools, who then taught law students at the university level, and who worked as a community organizer dealing mostly with inner city poor. From there he was catapulted into the state legislature, then into the U.S. Senate, and finally into the White House.

So, when in his adult life has Mr. Obama rubbed elbows with middle class Americans? What does he know of their values and problems? How is he any more "in touch" with average people than is Mitt Romney? He's never worked a blue-collar job. He's never sent his kids to a public school. He's never had to meet a payroll. He's probably never had to worry about making a mortgage payment.

There's nothing wrong with any of this, of course, but there is something wrong with one of the most out of touch presidents in modern history having his surrogates fault his opponent for being out of touch with average Americans.

Tax the Rich

CNBC's financial analyst Rick Santelli expresses quiet doubt (I'm kidding) that raising taxes on "millionaires and billionaires" as the president keeps insisting we do will do any good at all:
I suggest that anyone who wants others to pay higher taxes should be asked whether they themselves take any of the deductions to which they're legally entitled. If they do, then they should be asked why they do. There's something hypocritical about saying on the one hand that we should all be willing to pay more tax to the government and on the other ensuring that one pays as little tax as he can.

Warren Buffet, the multibillionaire who complained that his secretary pays at a higher rate than he does and urged that the wealthy be required to pay more than they do, is a good example of this hypocrisy. Buffet is ten years delinquent in his own tax obligation, he owes the IRS a billion dollars, and he's fighting them to keep from having to pay it. What a guy.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Closing of the American Mind at 25

Those of a certain age and intellectual appetite might remember the amazing stir caused in 1987 by the publication of professor Allan Bloom's devastating critique of modernity titled The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom set out in the book to chronicle the demise of American higher education and culture and to lament the relativism that had seeped into every interstice of the modern American university.

His critique led to howls of execration from humanities professors whose toes he stepped upon, but surprisingly, Americans (and others) bought his book in prodigious quantities, making him, by the time of his death five years later, a very wealthy man.

Even so, despite the popular reception of his cultural indictment, not much has changed. The charges he leveled against American education in 1987, seem in many ways to be just as valid today.

Now his publisher, Simon and Schuster, is releasing a 25th anniversary edition of Closing and Andrew Ferguson at The Weekly Standard observes the occasion by offering an essay on Bloom, the reception of his book, and the themes it addressed. Here's an excerpt from early on in Ferguson's fine retrospective:
It’s useful to recall the world Bloom and his book broke into and riled so. In material ways, the United States of America of 1987 seems as remote as Republican Rome. Our national wealth has more than tripled in the last 25 years. The digital revolution, with its upending of commerce, communication, and the habits and patterns of everyday life, was just getting underway.

Music lovers delighted in the portability and convenience of their book-sized Walkmans, never imagining the tiny wonders they would be slipping into their shirt pockets a decade hence. Cars, on the other hand, seem to have been roughly half their present size, at least in memory. You couldn’t carry around a telephone unless you yanked it off the wall. Atari was as sophisticated as gaming systems came. And nobody used the words “gaming system.”

Culturally, the country fretted. Culturally, of course, all countries, or some segments of them, are always fretting, and have been doing so since Cicero grieved, “O tempora, O mores,” up to and beyond Yeats’s insistence that the center cannot hold. But by the end of the 1980s in the United States, there were numbers to underscore the worry. In the previous 30 years, violent crime had increased 500 percent, the divorce rate had doubled, the teen suicide rate had tripled, and the number of “illegitimate births” (this was the last era when you could use the term) had increased 400 percent.

Beyond the numbers, the worriers readily found signs of the culture’s degradation, if not its imminent collapse. On TV, Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jessy Raphael had introduced a new kind of freak show that would have been unthinkable a decade before and proved enormously popular, banishing modesty and discretion, making a virtue of exhibitionism, inviting adulterers and wifebeaters and cross-dressers to strut their hour upon the stage set. (Eerie fact: Exactly nine months after Closing’s publication date, Snooki Polizzi was born.)

Popular fiction chronicled a generation of pampered youth lost to anomie and cocaine. As the Iran-contra scandal shook the executive branch, pundits discovered among the people a loss of faith in their institutions. A devastating crash on Wall Street was credited to greed unchecked by law or moral obligation.

And as if all that weren’t sufficient cause for alarm, consider this: Madonna.
Here's another:
He asked readers to consider contemporary students as he encountered them. They arrived ill-equipped to explore the large questions the humanities pose, and few saw the need to bother with them in any case. Instead, he said, they were cheerful, unconcerned, dutiful, and prosaic, their eyes on the prize of that cushy job. They were “nice.” You can almost see him shudder as he writes the word. “They are united only in their relativism,” he wrote. “The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate.”

Relativism, in fact, was the only moral postulate that went unchallenged in academic life. Defenders of relativism often defend it by denying it exists: No one, they say, truly believes that one idea is ultimately as good as another. And of course they’re right that none of us in our own lives act as though we believed this. But most of us profess it nonetheless, especially if we’ve got a college education, in which case we will be careful to use air quotes when we are forced to say the word “truth” in polite company.

In a genial but harrowing review of Closing, a professor at Carleton College, Michael Zuckert, told of canvassing the students in his class on American political thought. He asked whether they agreed that the truths in the first lines of the Declaration of Independence were indeed “self-evident.” Seven percent voted “yes.” On further conversation, he wrote, it turned out “that they were convinced there is no such thing as ‘truth,’ self-evident or otherwise, in the sphere of claims of the sort raised in the Declaration.” He would have gotten the same response in almost any college classroom today, and I’m not too sure about the 7 percent.

What follows when a belief in objectivity and truth dies away in higher education? In time an educated person comes to doubt that purpose and meaning are discoverable​—​he doubts, finally, that they even exist. It’s no mystery why fewer and fewer students in higher education today bother with the liberal arts, preferring professional training in their place.

Deprived of their traditional purpose in the pursuit of what’s true and good, the humanities could only founder. The study of literature, for example, was consumed in the trivialities of the deconstructionists and their successors. Philosophy curdled into positivism and word play. History became an inventory of political grievances....
I strongly urge those unfamiliar with Closing to first read Ferguson's piece at the Weekly Standard for background and then get a hold of a copy of the new edition. It's worth it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Thomas Nagel and the Inadequacy of Materialism

Thomas Nagel is a prominent philosopher who once wrote that he didn't want God to exist. It wasn't just that he didn't believe that God existed, it was that he didn't want God to exist. Stern stuff, but despite that earlier sentiment he seems recently, perhaps, to have taken a step closer to changing his mind. He's now arguing that materialism is a philosophically inadequate and sterile metaphysics and that there must be something more to evolutionary history and cosmology than just physics.

This will be seen by many of his fellow atheists as a scandalous betrayal, leading as it does to intimations of the Divine, but he feels so strongly about it that he's written a soon-to-be-released book on the topic. The volume is titled Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False and is published by Oxford University Press. Nagel argues in the book, inter alia, that materialism simply cannot explain the phenomena of consciousness.

Here's the publisher's blurb:
In Mind and Cosmos Thomas Nagel argues that the widely accepted world view of materialist naturalism is untenable. The mind-body problem cannot be confined to the relation between animal minds and animal bodies. If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.

Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history.

An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. No such explanation is available, and the physical sciences, including molecular biology, cannot be expected to provide one.

The book explores these problems through a general treatment of the obstacles to reductionism, with more specific application to the phenomena of consciousness, cognition, and value. The conclusion is that physics cannot be the theory of everything.
I think it's fair to sum up the implications of Nagel's thinking with a simple syllogism:
1. Either the universe is ultimately the product of mind or it is solely the product of natural forces acting on matter.
2. It is not solely the product of natural forces acting upon matter (Nagel's argument).
3. Therefore, the universe is ultimately the product of mind.
If this is indeed the conclusion toward which Nagel is listing a lot of New Atheists will be sorely vexed.

Racism and Double Standards

When Washington, D.C. Councilman Marion Barry offered his opinion recently that Asian shopkeepers should get out of D.C. the racial geiger counters in the liberal media registered hardly a click. Perhaps that's because although most of the racist rhetoric nowadays, particularly the most vicious forms of it, is coming from the (Listen to this if you can stomach the hatred) black community it's not politically correct to make a big deal of it, and besides everybody's pretty much grown accustomed to it.

Here's what Barry said:
We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops. They ought to go. I’m going to say that right now. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.
It's only when a white, preferably a Republican, makes a relatively mild or innocuous comment like Trent Lott made in comforting Strom Thurmond, the former segregationist, on his 100th birthday that he'd have made a great president, or when George Allen refers to a swarthy Middle-eastern heckler as "macaca", or when a "white Hispanic" who's getting his head bashed against the concrete shoots his black attacker, that the progressive left and the race-hustlers go ballistic.

When the former D.C. mayor says he wants Asians out of the black community so that blacks can take over their businesses, that's scarcely worth a comment on the evening talk shows. Does Barry really think that if Asians leave his neighborhood that their businesses will be taken over by African-Americans? Why are there so few African-American businesses now in a community that's almost 95% black?

Barry laments that shopkeepers and restauranteurs in D.C. have been first Jews, then Italians, and now Asians, but why haven't African-Americans stepped up and started businesses of their own? What's stopping them? Racism? That excuse is getting very tired, very fast.


On a perhaps not completely unrelated note this video describes some amazing advances in biotechnology:
What does the video have to do with Marion Barry's racism? Well, Ada Poon, the scientist featured in the video, the scientist who is developing a technology that may someday save Marion Barry's life, appears to be an Asian. I wonder what Mr. Barry thinks about that.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Animals Are People, Too

Wesley Smith writes an article in The Weekly Standard that describes the ongoing effort to secure human rights for animals, or more specifically to get animals treated under the law as persons. Here are a few excerpts:
For years, animal rights activists have been preparing the intellectual ground to overcome the “animals aren’t persons” legal impediment to their goal of allowing animals to sue their owners—a concept known as “animal standing”—by which they plan to destroy animal industries and eventually end all domestication of animals. They know that no legislature will pass laws elevating even the most intelligent animals to the status of persons. So they plan to file multitudinous lawsuits, hoping judges will bootstrap animals into the moral community.

It has already started. The European Court of Human Rights agreed in 2008 to hear the appeal of an Austrian Supreme Court ruling denying personhood to a chimp. More such cases could soon be filed in the United States. Law professor and animal rights activist Steven Wise was quoted in the New York Times recently promising to file lawsuits starting in 2013 with the goal of using “the latest science to help persuade state court judges that such creatures as whales and chimpanzees should be accorded common law personhood and rights.”

It would be easy to roll one’s eyes and dismiss this as simply what radical lawyers do, to little effect. That would be a mistake. “Animal personhood” has become a respected idea in philosophy, the life sciences, the academy generally, and among some within the highly politicized science establishment.

But animal personhood is a real and present threat. Indeed, as Wise has written, it would only take one judge ambitious to make history to open the floodgates of litigation, first demanding inclusion of ever more animals in legal personhood, and from there, granting those animal persons standing to sue their owners for violations of their fundamental rights.

The lawyers who would take those cases are ready and waiting for the judicial go-ahead, their legal briefs already written. For years, professors have been busily training students in animal law courses and seminars at more than 100 of America’s top law schools, preparing an army of legal minds for the day they can represent whales, dolphins, chimps, elephants, pigs, and other animal “clients” in court.
I couldn't help wondering, as I read this, whether once animals are given the same rights as persons there will be prisons for animals which kill or steal from each other. Will entire species be considered irredeemably vicious and thus either exterminated or imprisoned? Will animals be entitled to health care? Will surrogates be appointed to cast votes on their behalf?

Mostly, though, I wondered why these people are trying so hard to extend personhood to animals but not to unborn humans? Did they file amicus briefs in those states which tried to pass personhood laws that would protect the unborn under the Fifth Amendment?

But set all that aside. The personhood for animals movement makes a certain amount of sense in a post-Christian world. After all, traditionally the only reason human beings had for thinking that they were qualitatively distinct from animals was that human beings were believed to be created in the image of God and animals weren't. There was an ontological chasm between mankind and animals that separated us from each other, but as that view faded in the 19th and 20th century enthusiasm for Darwinian materialism the chasm narrowed to a ditch and then pretty much disappeared altogether.

Perhaps the crucial blow was struck by Desmond Morris in the 1960s with his book titled The Naked Ape. Man, Morris argued, is nothing more than an ape without all the hair. That being the case there's no reason, at least in the minds of the secular elites, for not conferring legal rights upon animals.

Once we embark down the road of a secular, materialist vision of man there's no end to the absurdities we find ourselves logically compelled to accept.

Photo ID

States all across the country are trying to impose voter photo ID laws to protect the integrity of the voting process. The Obama administration in general, and Attorney General Eric Holder in particular, have argued that such laws are unnecessary, that there's no evidence of voter fraud occurring in the U.S., that photo ID laws are a solution in search of a problem.

After this video of a bit of surreptitious investigative journalism by James O'Keefe, I'm not so sure. O'Keefe presents himself to the poll worker and asks if they have a registration under the name of Eric Holder. Watch the rest, his "goodbye" line is clever:
It's ironic, as the video shows at the end, that the Department of Justice is fighting efforts to require photo ID for voters, but they require photo ID to gain admission to their office building.

The Talk

John Derbyshire was until recently a writer for the conservative journal National Review. He is an atheist and a Darwinian (the significance of which I'll explain below) which is unusual among political conservatives, and he was recently fired for writing a racially insensitive column based on "The Talk" that a number of African-Americans are saying that they have at some point with their children.

"The Talk" could be construed to be racially offensive to whites, in my opinion, but few commentators seem to want to say that out loud. Derbyshire was an exception. He satirized "The Talk" by writing down advice he has given to his own children over the years.

Some of what he said was wise, some of it was simply sociological fact, but some of it was seen as unfair, inaccurate, and gratuitously insulting to blacks, and for that he was fired. I'll leave it to you to read his essay and judge it for yourself. For my part, I'd like to focus on an aspect of it that no one else has remarked upon, at least so far as I am aware.

Let's assume for the sake of discussion that Derbyshire was indeed motivated by racial animus and eager to insult blacks qua blacks. Let's suppose that he really is a racist. If one is an atheistic Darwinian like Derbyshire why would one think that there was anything wrong with that? Darwin himself believed that blacks were an inferior race and as we've argued here on numerous occasions atheism entails moral nihilism, the idea that there is no right or wrong.

In other words, there's nothing wrong with racism unless there's an obligation binding each of us to love our neighbor, i.e. to treat him with dignity, respect and kindness, but there can only be such a duty if there's a transcendent moral authority who imposes it. Since, on Derbyshire's metaphysical presuppositions, there is no such authority, neither he nor anyone who shares those presuppositions can say that he was wrong to say what he said, or to think what he thinks. The most that can be said is that he violated some social taboo, but what's wrong with that?

Put simply, unless there is a Divine law-giver who imposes upon us the duty to treat each other the way we want to be treated then there's no basis whatsoever for saying that racism is wrong. One may find racial bigotry distasteful, of course, just as one may find the thought of eating dog food distasteful, but it's not morally wrong.

Thus, when an atheist pontificates about the evils of racism he's just blowing hot air. Only a theist has any grounds for saying that racism is evil.

Whether Derbyshire really is a racist or whether he's just a contrarian who refuses to truckle to the politically correct pieties of our age, I can't say, but it's hard to imagine a black writer being fired for writing similar things about whites, and it's hard to imagine, in any event, why secularist progressives would be outraged at what Derbyshire wrote even if they are racist.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Parental Warning

Paul Pardi at Philosophy News features this poster warning parents of alarming studies that find that one in five kids will experiment with philosophy.

Parents - be sure you're able to recognize the warning signs: