Saturday, September 29, 2012

What's the Most Likely Explanation?

Here's a five minute video showing just a few of the basic details of how a bacterial flagellum works and how it is constructed. Keep in mind that what you're watching is an animation that barely scratches the surface of the complexity of these microscopic organelles. Also keep in mind that the basic philosophical/scientific controversy today is over whether such structures - and the myriad of other structures in the cell - developed as a consequence of blind, impersonal forces and processes or, alternatively, whether they are the product of an intelligent, purposeful agent:
Suppose you were completely neutral on the question of what could have produced this. Suppose that you had no metaphysical inclinations either for or against theism or naturalism. Which of the two would you think to be the most likely explanation for such a structure? Would you think that such functional complexity is more or less likely to have arisen by chance mutations and natural selection or as a result of intelligent engineering by a mind?

Friday, September 28, 2012

Is Romney Really Ahead?

Political strategist Dick Morris explains why Romney is actually in a better position than Obama despite what both the pundits and the polls say. After a review of some of the problems that a number of the polls have he writes this:
Finally, with Obama below 50% of the vote in most swing states, he is hitting up against a glass ceiling in the high 40s. He can’t get past it except in heavily Democratic states like New York or California. The first time Obama breaks 50 will not be on Election Day. Either he consistently polls above 50% of the vote or he won’t ever get there in the actual vote.

So here’s where the race really stands today based on Rasmussen’s polling:
  • Romney leads decisively in all states McCain carried (173 electoral votes).
  • Romney is more than ten points ahead in Indiana – which Obama carried. (11 electoral votes).
  • Romney leads Obama in the following states the president carried in 2008: Iowa (44-47) North Carolina (45-51), Colorado (45-47), and New Hampshire (45-48). He’ll probably win them all. (34 electoral votes).
This comes to 218 of the 270 Romney needs. But…
  • Obama is below 50% of the vote in a handful of key swing states and leads Romney by razor thin margins in each one. All these states will go for Romney unless and until Obama can show polling support of 50% of the vote.
  • Obama leads in Ohio (47-46) and Virginia (49-48) by only 1 point (31 electoral votes).
  • Obama leads in Florida (48-460) and Nevada (47-45) by only 2 points (35 electoral votes).
  • If Romney carries Ohio, Virginia, and Florida, he wins. And other states are in play.
  • Obama leads in Wisconsin (49-46) by only 3 points (10 electoral votes).
  • Obama’s lead in Michigan is down to four points according to a recent statewide poll.
  • Obama is only getting 51% of the vote in Pennsylvania and 53% in New Jersey. And don’t count out New Mexico.
It would be accurate to describe the race now as tied. But Romney has the edge because:
  • The incumbent is under 50% in key states and nationally. He will probably lose any state where he is below 50% of the vote.
  • The Republican enthusiasm and likelihood of voting is higher.
  • The GOP field organization is better.
Perhaps this is all just a matter of putting the best face on things or perhaps Romney really is doing better than what we're hearing from the media.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

David Brooks' Conservatism

David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times who considers himself a conservative. Perhaps relative to his colleagues at the Times he is, but his conservatism is hard to discern in most of his columns. He recently wrote a piece in which he laments how, in his mind, one branch of conservatism in the Republican party, what might be called traditional values conservatism, has been squeezed out by economic, or free market, conservatism. He begins with this:
When I joined the staff of National Review as a lowly associate in 1984, the magazine, and the conservative movement itself, was a fusion of two different mentalities.

On the one side, there were the economic conservatives. These were people that anybody following contemporary Republican politics would be familiar with. They spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty. They upheld freedom as their highest political value. They admired risk-takers. They worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace.

But there was another sort of conservative, who would be less familiar now. This was the traditional conservative, intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching. This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.

Because they were conservative, they tended to believe that power should be devolved down to the lower levels of this chain. They believed that people should lead disciplined, orderly lives, but doubted that individuals have the ability to do this alone, unaided by social custom and by God. So they were intensely interested in creating the sort of social, economic and political order that would encourage people to work hard, finish school and postpone childbearing until marriage.
Perhaps Brooks thinks this sort of conservative is less familiar because he's not really looking for them. If he were he'd see exactly this sort of conservative in Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin. He'd see it in the leaders of most of the conservative grass roots organizations like the Tea Party.

What's happened, however, is that anyone who promotes "traditional values" conservatism is attacked by the liberal media and the message gets diffused as conservatives seek to defend a host of countercultural social positions.

Conservatives have implicitly decided, I think, that for the sake of defeating Barack Obama in November they will train all their fire on his economic failures and put the traditional social issues on the back-burner so as not to be side-tracked by interminable disputes over intractable questions.

Later in his column Brooks says this:
It’s not so much that today’s Republican politicians reject traditional, one-nation conservatism. They don’t even know it exists. There are few people on the conservative side who’d be willing to raise taxes on the affluent to fund mobility programs for the working class. There are very few willing to use government to actively intervene in chaotic neighborhoods, even when 40 percent of American kids are born out of wedlock. There are very few Republicans who protest against a House Republican budget proposal that cuts domestic discretionary spending to absurdly low levels.

The results have been unfortunate. Since they no longer speak in the language of social order, Republicans have very little to offer the less educated half of this country. Republicans have very little to say to Hispanic voters, who often come from cultures that place high value on communal solidarity.
This is just silly. Brooks is faulting conservatives for not being liberals. The fact is that conservatives realized long ago that money is not the solution to the problems of the working class and chaotic neighborhoods. You don't change people's character by giving them money. Indeed, throwing money at problems only exacerbates those problems. Since LBJ's Great Society of the 1960s we have spent over six trillion dollars on the sorts of programs that Brooks talks about, and the problems of the poor as deep as ever.

What the denizens of those chaotic neighborhoods need is not more government programs. What they need is economic opportunity which is created by a powerful economy, they need to learn the importance of marriage, and they need strong father figures who can teach them the importance of moral character. None of that can be provided by government, it can only be provided by the mediating institutions of church and civic organizations. Nor is any of it likely to emerge in the cultural cesspool that is modern entertainment. It will only flourish in an environment where the culture promotes messages which reinforce the value of monogamous marriage and family.

I would think someone of Brooks' acumen would see this much more clearly than he evidently does.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Oil and the Economy

Jeff Rubin at has a very informative piece titled How High Oil Prices Will Permanently Cap Economic Growth. Here's his intro:
For most of the last century, cheap oil powered global economic growth. But in the last decade, the price of oil has quadrupled, and that shift will permanently shackle the growth potential of the world’s economies.

The countries guzzling the most oil are taking the biggest hits to potential economic growth. That’s sobering news for the U.S., which consumes almost a fifth of the oil used in the world every day. Not long ago, when oil was $20 a barrel, the U.S. was the locomotive of global economic growth; the federal government was running budget surpluses; the jobless rate at the beginning of the last decade was at a 40-year low. Now, growth is stalled, the deficit is more than $1 trillion and almost 13 million Americans are unemployed.

And the U.S. isn’t the only country getting squeezed. From Europe to Japan, governments are struggling to restore growth. But the economic remedies being used are doing more harm than good, based as they are on a fundamental belief that economic growth can return to its former strength. Central bankers and policy makers have failed to fully recognize the suffocating impact of $100-a-barrel oil.

Running huge budget deficits and keeping borrowing costs at record lows are only compounding current problems. These policies cannot be long-term substitutes for cheap oil because an economy can’t grow if it can no longer afford to burn the fuel on which it runs. The end of growth means governments will need to radically change how economies are managed. Fiscal and monetary policies need to be recalibrated to account for slower potential growth rates.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration drags its feet on issuing permits to drill for the ocean of oil we have resting beneath the continental shelf. No doubt this is because Mr. Obama wants to limit oil availability so that the price of it stays high so that we'll use less of it. He said as much when he was campaigning for office the first time around.

What this seems to ignore, however, is the effect on the poor and the middle class of high oil prices. As oil prices rise everything becomes more expensive. It becomes harder for those trying to provide for their families on tight budgets to make ends meet. The upper middle class have a bit of a cushion, perhaps, but the poor have none. Moreover, the upper middle class may forego eating out as often, or going to the movies, or buying a new car or home entertainment system, but what effect does that reluctance to spend have on single moms who are trying to feed their own families by waitressing or working behind the counter at Sheetz?

As gas prices go up everyone gets poorer, and for some it's calamitous. We could avoid this by increasing the supply. We could approve the Keystone pipeline and drill offshore, but we won't as long as Mr. Obama is in office. The policies of the man who wants to be seen as the champion of the poor do nothing but insure that there'll be plenty of poor. It's a puzzlement.

Anyway, read the rest of Rubin's article at the link. It's good.

Bumps in the Road

All I can say about President Obama's comment comparing the deaths of four Americans, including an ambassador, the razing of the Egyptian embassy, and sundry other insults to our sovereignty around the Arab world to mere "bumps in the road" is that it's a good thing it was Mr. Obama who said it and not Mitt Romney.

If it had been Romney who invoked this trivializing metaphor there'd be a firestorm in the media right now that no amount of backing and filling and apologizing could quench. As it is, though, the mainstream media has pretty much ignored it and contented themselves instead with assuming a posture of outrage over Mr. Romney's relatively benign assertion that the 47% of Americans who pay no income taxes aren't going to vote for someone who'll insist that that percentage be reduced.
I wonder if the Israelis are wondering right now whether Mr. Obama would look at a nuclear attack by Iran as just a "bump in the road" in our Middle East policy.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Are We Getting Smarter?

James Flynn writes in the Wall Street Journal about the steady rise in IQ over the last century and what's responsible for it. It's a fascinating article. Here's part of it:
IQ tests aren't perfect, but they can be useful. If a boy doing badly in class does really well on one, it is worth investigating whether he is being bullied at school or having problems at home. The tests also roughly predict who will succeed at college, though factors like motivation and self-control are at least as important.

Advanced nations like the U.S. have experienced massive IQ gains over time (a phenomenon that I first noted in a 1984 study and is now known as the "Flynn Effect").

In 1910, scored against today's norms, our ancestors would have had an average IQ of 70 (or 50 if we tested with Raven's). By comparison, our mean IQ today is 130 to 150, depending on the test. Are we geniuses or were they just dense?

These alternatives sparked a wave of skepticism about IQ. How could we claim that the tests were valid when they implied such nonsense? Our ancestors weren't dumb compared with us, of course. They had the same practical intelligence and ability to deal with the everyday world that we do. Where we differ from them is more fundamental: Rising IQ scores show how the modern world, particularly education, has changed the human mind itself and set us apart from our ancestors. They lived in a much simpler world, and most had no formal schooling beyond the sixth grade.

A century ago, people mostly used their minds to manipulate the concrete world for advantage. They wore what I call "utilitarian spectacles." Our minds now tend toward logical analysis of abstract symbols—what I call "scientific spectacles." Today we tend to classify things rather than to be obsessed with their differences. We take the hypothetical seriously and easily discern symbolic relationships.
Flynn offers several examples of the difference in the way people tended to think a century ago compared to how they think now:
The mind-set of the past can be seen in interviews between the great psychologist Alexander Luria and residents of rural Russia during the 1920s—people who, like ourselves in 1910, had little formal education.

Luria: What do a fish and crow have in common?
Reply: A fish it lives in water, a crow flies.
Luria: Could you use one word for them both?
Reply: If you called them "animals" that wouldn't be right. A fish isn't an animal, and a crow isn't either. A person can eat a fish but not a crow.
The prescientific person is fixated on differences between things that give them different uses. My father was born in 1885. If you asked him what dogs and rabbits had in common, he would have said, "You use dogs to hunt rabbits." Today a schoolboy would say, "They are both mammals." The latter is the right answer on an IQ test. Today we find it quite natural to classify the world as a prerequisite to understanding it.
Flynn offers more discussion in the article of the difference between our contemporaries and our forebears. Flynn maintains that our brains have evolved to make us smarter, but I think this is unlikely. Evolution doesn't occur with such rapidity. I think it's more probable that our world is so much different from the world of 1910 that our brains utilize abilities that have been latent in the brains of human beings for millenia but which few people before the present era would ever have had need to utilize. Anyway, the rest of the article is worth reading.

In the Absence of God

A friend writes to say:
Thanks for telling me about your book, In the Absence of God. I bought it last Tuesday for my Kindle and finished it in two evenings, although the last evening lasted until 3:05 a.m.. I could not put it down. Thought provoking, good story lines and characters, entertaining reading, and very educational. Absolutely loved the book and have been talking about it to my kids, family and friends.

Good job, my friend.
Reading In the Absence of God in two nights is impressive as the book is close to 500 pages. You can get your copy, and one for a friend, at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at my favorite bookstore, Hearts and Minds.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Replacement Refs

We've been listening for three weeks now to almost every NFL broadcast team and sportswriter complain endlessly about the awful job the NFL's replacement refs are doing officiating professional football games, and I for one am getting a bit weary of it.

Sure the replacement officials are struggling. Sure they're slowing down the game and making bad calls, although I remember a lot of complaints about the officiating abilities of the regular refs, too.

But what's the alternative? Do those who're complaining so loudly expect the NFL to give in to the locked out officials' demands? That won't happen. Do they expect the regular refs to meekly eat crow and accept the owners' last offer? I doubt that'll happen either. So, the only alternative is for everybody to just accept the fact that the game is going to be less skillfully officiated than it otherwise would be and just shut up about it.

After all, with all the criticism these replacement guys have been getting I wouldn't blame them if they just said they're not going to take it anymore and just quit. Then there'd be no football season at all. How happy would the coaches, players, and fans be then? All the people who've been telling the substitutes how bad they are, how incompetent they are, how much they "stink," would turn on a dime and start begging them to come back on the job. They'd be grovelling in front of these guys, offering abject apologies for the way they criticized them over the first three weeks of the season and pleading with them to return to the field so that the fans can get their weekly football fix and the players and television networks can get their exorbitant paychecks.

The desperation that'd suddenly beset all these people if the replacement refs chose to walk off the field would be fun to watch. It'd serve them right.

Abdication of Leadership

The Daily Beast is owned and operated by the same folks who run Newsweek magazine so there's a lot of sympathy there for President Obama. Which is why it was surprising to find there an article written by two Washington lawyers named David Rivkin and Lee Casey which excoriates Mr. Obama for what they claim is a disastrous foreign policy.

The Daily Beast summarizes their critique this way:
The organizing principle of the administration’s foreign policy is one of weakness and passivity, coupled with a conspicuous rhetorical abdication of American leadership, write David Rivkin and Lee Casey.
After elaborating on the failures that led to the recent assaults on our embassies in Muslim North Africa and elsewhere the authors add this:
But all of this flawed crisis management pales in comparison with the administration’s strategic failures. The organizing principle of the administration’s foreign policy is one of weakness and passivity — whether in dealing with Russia, China, or Venezuela — coupled with a conspicuous rhetorical abdication of American leadership, evident in speeches by the president, secretary of state, and other administration officials. The ultimate irony for an administration oft-praised for superior rhetoric is that in today’s tightly knit global environment, words have palpable consequences.

This overarching problem is accentuated by the fact that everybody in the Middle East — our friends, foes, and folks in between — has correctly concluded that the administration has begun America’s disengagement from the region on a scale unseen since the days of the British withdrawal from “East of Suez.”

This has manifested itself in virtually every facet of our Middle East policy, from our failure to maintain any American military presence in Iraq and the consequent loss of diplomatic and economic influence in Baghdad; to Washington’s unwillingness to rally the American public to support our military efforts in Afghanistan and its repeated snubs of our strongest traditional Middle East ally, Israel; to our leading from behind on Libya and the total failure to lead from any direction on Syria; and last but not least, to our timidity in confronting the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

As a result, the Middle East elites and the proverbial “Arab street” have concluded that the U.S. is a waning power, Israel’s future is one of a besieged state that someday may disappear from the regional chessboard, and Iran has an excellent chance of becoming a regional hegemon, to be feared and placated.

These are self-inflicted wounds. The American disengagement has not been caused by military defeat or some adverse international developments that we have tried but failed to stop, but by an administration that has profoundly misunderstood the kind of world we live in, the types of threats we confront, and what constitutes vital American interests. The administration has amassed not just a middling or even moderately bad foreign-policy record, but an appalling one.

It is this record that is shaping the way the governments in the Middle East are handling the anti-American unrest. Unless the record is decisively reversed, it will lead to many disastrous developments down the road.
Strong words, but when you consider that the last time an American embassy was overrun was 1979 in Tehran during the presidency of Jimmy Carter you get some perspective on how deeply our current policy toward the Arab world has failed. This incident was far worse than the Iranian hostage crisis because in that affair, which brought an end to Carter's presidency, no one was killed. It is the obvious and unfavorable comparison to 1979 that explains why the Obama administration refused to admit that these assaults on American territory and lives was planned in advance. If they admitted this they'd have to answer the question why we didn't know it was coming and if the answer is that we did have intelligence that such a terrorist attack was coming why weren't we prepared for it?

By every measure, this is a disaster for the Obama administration. Mr. Obama can no longer say that he has kept us safe from terrorist attack nor can he take refuge in the boast that Osama is dead. Osama may be dead, but so is our ambassador.

Despite the fact that this is such a calamitous event, despite the fact that it appears that president Obama's approach to the Islamic world is an abject failure, despite the fact that were a Republican in the White House we would be reminded several times a day by the media of the incompetence of the administration, our media has instead been obsessed with trying to divert our attention with silly stories about Romney writing off 47% of American voters.

Are we really as shallow and stupid as our media evidently thinks us to be?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Another Textbook Myth Falls

No doubt you once upon a time read something in your high school biology class like the following narrative excerpted from a widely used text by Miller and Levine:
Darwin noticed several types of small brown birds on the islands with beaks of different shapes. He thought that some were wrens, some were warblers, and some were blackbirds. ... the little brown birds that Darwin thought were wrens, warblers, and blackbirds were actually all species of finches! They, too, were found nowhere else, though they resembled a South American finch species ... Darwin was stunned by these discoveries. He began to wonder whether different Galápagos species might have evolved from South American ancestors.

He spent years filling notebooks with ideas about species and evolution. ... Once Darwin learned that the birds were all finches, he hypothesized that they had descended from a common ancestor. Darwin noted that several finch species have beaks of very different sizes and shapes. Each species uses its beak like a specialized tool to pick up and handle its food... Darwin proposed that natural selection had shaped the beaks of different bird populations as they became adapted to eat different foods.
It's a pretty story, but it turns out that, like so much else we were taught about evolution, it isn't true. According to a Harvard historian of science named Frank Sulloway, Darwin was almost indifferent to the birds he encountered on the Galapagos Islands. Sulloway is quoted by Alberto A. Martinez in his book Science Secrets: The Truth about Darwin's Finches, Einstein's Wife, and Other Myths. Martinez writes:
Many old books claim that when Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos Islands, he was inspired to think about evolution by seeing variations in finches' beaks. ... Allegedly, he found that each species of finch belonged to a particular island and had developed distinct feeding habits that matched their evolving beaks, for cracking small or big seeds or for eating insects. That's what many people still think, and so, one of the most widely reproduced pictures in history is that of Darwin's finches.

However, in sterling historical studies, Frank J. Sulloway of Harvard University showed that, really, Darwin was hardly influenced by finches and scarcely observed their feeding habits.

He did not correlate their diets and beaks; in fact, Darwin collected too few specimens to determine whether any finch species was unique to each island. He did not even keep track of where he picked up every specimen. Really, no finch species was unique to any one island. Unfortunately, some teachers and writers remain unaware of Sulloway's historical findings.
There's more on this at Evolution News and Views. Like the Peppered moth story, the Recapitulation theory, Junk DNA, and so much else still found in textbooks even though they're obsolete and/or discredited, it persists for years in edition after edition because it makes for such a fascinating tale. After all, the claims don't have to be true, exactly, as long as they help students to understand the theory, or at least that seems to be the justification for continuing to teach these myths and falsehoods to our kids.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Yes, We Can't

Four years ago the rhetoric soared and the promises were intoxicating. The sick would be cared for, the oceans would reverse their rise, the planet would heal, and peace would fill the planet. It was the age of Aquarius. The millenial kingdom was at hand.
That was then. Now the president seems at almost every turn to be telling us that the economy was worse than he thought, the Republicans are more recalcitrant than he expected, the world is more complex than he knew. There are limits to what he can do. The change he promised us, well, it can't actually be effected from inside Washington.
It's hard to believe that a president whose party controlled both houses of the legislature for the first two years of his administration and who has been blessed with an obsequious media couldn't accomplish whatever he really wanted to accomplish. Nonetheless, "Yes we can" has in less than four years morphed into "No, I can't, but I deserve four more years anyway."

Mr. Obama's admission of failure reminds me of the man in a cynical limerick I heard a number of years ago that goes like this:
They showed him the thing
that couldn't be done,
and with a smile he got right
to it.
He tackled the thing that
couldn't be done,
and found out he couldn't do it.

The Magician's Twin

C.S. Lewis was a scholar of medieval classics and a writer of no little fame. He wrote the Narnia series and a number of other works, both fiction and non-fiction, which have been immensely popular with readers for over sixty years. One of his non-fiction works was titled The Abolition of Man, and in it he traces how modernity is inexorably extinguishing man's humanity. Lewis decries the dehumanizing scientism, the view that any question worth asking can be answered by science, which has come to dominate so many precincts in modern culture. Even so, his views on science and evolution have gone largely unexplored in the fifty years since his death (He died on the same day as John F. Kennedy).

Now there's a new book out on these aspects of Lewis' thinking titled The Magician's Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society and it's reviewed by Tom Bethell in the current issue of The American Spectator. The book takes its title from Lewis' claim that science and magic are in several respects twins.

Bethell writes:
We normally associate C.S. Lewis with Christian apologetics, English literature, and the Narnia stories; less so with science and questions about evolution. But as the Discovery Institute's John G. West points out in The Magician's Twin, throughout his life Lewis was concerned about the abject submission of culture and politics to the growing authority of science. Lewis respected science, but he rejected the idea that it is the only reliable method of knowledge about the world. He called that error scientism. As for evolution, his skepticism about it increased over the years.

In this anthology, John West and his co-authors gather material primarily from four books by Lewis: Miracles, The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength and The Discarded Image. Their findings are enhanced by West's research into Lewis's papers and correspondence, now at Wheaton College in Illinois. He also made good use of unpublished annotations and underlined passages in books preserved from Lewis's own library.

Lewis well understood the cultural dominance of the theory of evolution in his day and was at first reluctant to criticize the theory. He also tended to assume, as so many others have since, that Darwinism was better confirmed than it really was (or is). In fact, since Lewis's death in 1963, the new findings of molecular biology have made the theory look a good deal less plausible than it did 50 years ago.
Bethell goes on to outline some of the modern trends that Lewis could not have foreseen in their particulars but the general nature of which he limned in Abolition of Man. It's an interesting review and the book sounds like an interesting read.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Nagel on Plantinga

Thomas Nagel is an interesting philosopher. He's an atheist who, unlike most contemporary atheists, rejects materialism (i.e. the view that matter is the fundamental reality of the cosmos). He's recently written a book titled Mind and Cosmos: Why Materialism Is Almost Certainly Wrong in which he argues that materialist explanations like Darwinian evolution cannot explain the emergence in the human species of consciousness, cognition, or values - by which he means primarily moral values. Since he also rejects theism - which he admits is the most compelling explanation for these things but one he "can't imagine himself accepting" - he's left with the rather dubious alternative of believing that the fundamental reality is mental and personal but that it's not God.

Be all this as it may Nagel has an excellent essay in the current New York Review of Books on another very interesting philosopher, Alvin Plantinga. Nagel reviews Plantinga's latest book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism in which Plantinga makes a compelling case, the force of which Nagel acknowledges, for the claim that there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.

Here's Nagel's opening:
The gulf in outlook between atheists and adherents of the monotheistic religions is profound. We are fortunate to live under a constitutional system and a code of manners that by and large keep it from disturbing the social peace; usually the parties ignore each other. But sometimes the conflict surfaces and heats up into a public debate. The present is such a time.

One of the things atheists tend to believe is that modern science is on their side, whereas theism is in conflict with science: that, for example, belief in miracles is inconsistent with the scientific conception of natural law; faith as a basis of belief is inconsistent with the scientific conception of knowledge; belief that God created man in his own image is inconsistent with scientific explanations provided by the theory of evolution. In his absorbing new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished analytic philosopher known for his contributions to metaphysics and theory of knowledge as well as to the philosophy of religion, turns this alleged opposition on its head.

His overall claim is that “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” By naturalism he means the view that the world describable by the natural sciences is all that exists, and that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.

Plantinga’s religion is the real thing, not just an intellectual deism that gives God nothing to do in the world. He himself is an evangelical Protestant, but he conducts his argument with respect to a version of Christianity that is the “rough intersection of the great Christian creeds” — ranging from the Apostle’s Creed to the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles — according to which God is a person who not only created and maintains the universe and its laws, but also intervenes specially in the world, with the miracles related in the Bible and in other ways.

It is of great interest to be presented with a lucid and sophisticated account of how someone who holds these beliefs understands them to harmonize with and indeed to provide crucial support for the methods and results of the natural sciences.
Nagel's review affords the reader an excellent introduction to Plantinga's epistemology which has been extremely influential in philosophy over the last three decades. In fact, Nagel's presentation is so well done that I urge anyone interested in a deeper understanding of Christian epistemology to read it.

After lucidly and respectfully explaining Plantinga's views Nagel concludes with this:
The interest of this book, especially for secular readers, is its presentation from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist—an outlook with which many of them will not be familiar. Plantinga writes clearly and accessibly, and sometimes acidly—in response to aggressive critics of religion like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. His comprehensive stand is a valuable contribution to this debate.

I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.
In this review, as in his own book, it seems that Nagel tacitly admits that the arguments of people like Plantinga are so strong that the only reason to not accept them is that one simply cannot bring oneself to believe in the God that lies at their core. But why not? Perhaps Nagel gives us a clue in another of his books titled The Last Word. In the last chapter of The Last Word he writes this:
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
In the end, we'll usually believe what we most fervently want to be true and arguments don't often persuade us to do otherwise.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Obamacare in Disarray

Scott Gottlieb is a practicing physician who previously served in senior positions at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. He's currently a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. All of which is to say that he probably knows whereof he speaks when he assesses the current state of disarray in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

The Act isn't supposed to be fully implemented until 2014, but those elements which are operational now are not working out as promised. Here's Gottlieb:
A remarkable truth about Obamacare is how many aspects of its initial programs and initiatives are already in disarray.
  • The temporary "high risk" pools that Obamacare created, to provide a way for those with pre-existing health conditions to get insurance immediately, are undersubscribed yet way over budget. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the $5 billion allocated to these pools could enroll 200,000 consumers. They envisioned enrollment growing to more than 400,000. But only 77,877 have signed up as of July, yet the program is way over its budget. More than a quarter of these state-based risk pools are short on cash.
  • The CLASS Act, which was supposed to provide consumers government-financed long-term care insurance has been abandoned, blowing an $86 billion dollar hole in Obamacare's cost estimates. The CLASS Act was never financially viable. Its costs would have outstripped revenue as soon as it was in full operation. But since it took in money five years before it started to pay out benefits, budget gimmickry let Mr. Obama capture that revenue and use it to finance Obamacare. In abandoning the measure, the President's own health secretary called the scheme "unsustainable."
  • The crown jewel of Obamacare's effort to contain healthcare costs, the creation of Accountable Care Organizations, is so unwieldy that major provider groups have said they won't participate. The idea is to consolidate doctors, turning them into employees of large systems, and then pay these systems lump sums of money to take care of groups of patients. A letter from 10 major medical groups that previously ran similar programs said, "it would be difficult, if not impossible" to accept the financial design created by Obamacare. In another rebuke, an umbrella group representing premier medical organizations said 90 percent of its members wouldn't partake.
  • New regulations Obamacare puts on insurers have been so unworkable that the Obama team has had to dole out 1,231 waivers. These exemptions are granted when the Obamacare rules are projected to raise healthcare premiums more than 10 percent, or create a "significant decrease in access to healthcare benefits." These waivers haven't been doled out consistently. Entities winning the preferences are over-represented by plans offered by unionized businesses and other administration allies.
  • Obamacare can't even settle on an affordable definition to the term "affordable" -- creating the prospect that millions of middle class families will get priced out of coverage. According to a recent editorial in the New York Times, "the people left in the lurch would be those who had lower incomes but were not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid." Because of the way Obamacare defines what's "affordable" to these families, many working-class people would be unable to afford family coverage offered by their employers, and yet they would not qualify for subsidies provided by the law.
Gottlieb closes his depressing litany with this:
We're in a terrible economic climate, where medical utilization trends are way down. The cost of healthcare coverage should be falling as well. But premiums have risen far faster than overall inflation or GDP growth since Obamacare's passage. The regulations kicked in with no offsetting incentives to get people into the insurance pool to help absorb the costs. If the President wants to take credit for these costly insurance market reforms, he also has to accept blame for the rising costs.

So what's left for the President to tout?

Not much. Obamacare isn't even in full swing, and at every turn, the program is crumbling. The President's team is banking on a second term to try and right all of its fiascos but there's an emerging truth that the scheme is simply unworkable.
Reading this prompts the suspicion that the Democrats who gave us this mess, however well-meaning they may have been, simply had no idea what they were doing. They still don't, but they're determined to see it through no matter how much chaos and inefficiency they cause by forcing this calamity upon us.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

On the Run

Strategy Page explains how one of the effects of the UAV effort against al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen has been to force them to seek refuge in Syria where they then busy themselves by fighting against the Assad regime:
In the southeast (Hadramout province) tribesmen complain that there have been so many UAV attacks on al Qaeda vehicles lately that civilians are reluctant to go to the hills for picnics. This was usually done in a convoy, full of armed men (for protection from bandits and hostile tribal factions) who could be misinterpreted as an al Qaeda convoy. This rarely happens, as the CIA demands a lot of intel before authorizing an attack. That's why there are so few civilian casualties.

The U.S. believes, based on intercepted communications, interrogations of captured terrorists and reports from informants on the ground that al Qaeda is sending more and more of its personnel to Syria. There it is safer (no American UAVs and missile attacks) and the terrorists expect the Assad dictatorship to fall and the new government to reward al Qaeda (who are doing a lot of the fighting) to be given a sanctuary in Syria.

Getting out of Yemen isn't easy for known al Qaeda members (who need false documents and such), and even those who can easily pass as just another Yemeni need money and coordination with al Qaeda groups in Syria. So not as many al Qaeda men can travel to Syria as quickly as they would like.

The American UAV campaign has been a huge success, killing dozens of key al Qaeda personnel and many lower ranking terrorists. In the last two weeks at least three dozen al Qaeda have been killed by these attacks and so far this year about 200 have died. Many more al Qaeda have been killed or captured by the army in the south, which is out there daily looking for groups of al Qaeda trying to hide while planning more terror attacks and an eventual comeback.
Remember when some critics of the drone campaign were telling us that by hunting down terrorists we were just creating more of them? Maybe so, but which is better: to have lots of terrorists living in constant fear, unable to settle in one area for long, and with no veteran leadership, or to have lots of terrorists living in safety planning attacks against the U.S. under the direction of highly experienced and competent leaders?

Although I think it's true that almost any American president would be doing precisely what President Obama is doing in conducting these drone strikes, he still deserves credit, in my opinion, for ordering them.

The Birth of Modernity

French political scientist Pierre Manent traces the history of the birth of modernity in an essay at City Journal. He opens with these graphs:
We have been modern for several centuries now. We are modern, and we want to be modern; it is a desire that guides the entire life of Western societies. That the will to be modern has been in force for centuries, though, suggests that we have not succeeded in being truly modern — that the end of the process that we thought we saw coming at various moments has always proved illusory, and that 1789, 1917, 1968, and 1989 were only disappointing steps along a road leading who knows where.

The Israelites were lucky: they wandered for only 40 years in the desert. If the will to be modern has ceaselessly overturned the conditions of our common life and brought one revolution after another—without achieving satisfaction or reaching a point where we might rest and say, “Here at last is the end of our enterprise”—just what does that mean? How have we been able to will something for such a long time and accept being so often disappointed? Could it be that we aren’t sure what we want?

Though the various signs of the modern are familiar, whether in architecture, art, science, or political organization, we do not know what these traits have in common and what justifies designating them with the same attribute. We find ourselves under the sway of something that seems evident yet defies explication.

Some are inclined to give up asking what we might call the question of the modern. They contend that we have left the modern age and entered the postmodern, renouncing all “grand narratives” of Western progress. I am not so sure, though, that we have renounced the grand modern narratives of science and democracy. We may be experiencing a certain fatigue with the modern after so many modern centuries, but the question of the modern remains, and its urgency does not depend on the disposition of the questioner.

So long as self-understanding matters to us, the question must be raised anew. Even if we do not claim to provide a new answer, we should at least have the ambition to bring the question back to life.

When unsure about the nature of something, we sometimes ask when and how it began. Such an approach is legitimate when investigating the question of the modern, but it immediately raises difficulties. Beginnings are, by definition, obscure. The first sprouts are difficult to discern. One can easily be mistaken. In what time period should we look for the beginnings of modernity? In the eighteenth century, the age of the American and French Revolutions? In the seventeenth century, when the notion of natural science was elaborated? In the sixteenth century, the era of religious reformation?

These diverse origins are not contradictory, since modernity surely includes a religious reformation, science in the modern sense, and political and democratic revolutions. But what is the relationship between the Lutheran faith and the science of Galileo? Is there a primary intellectual and moral disposition that defines modern man? Or must we resign ourselves to the dispersion of the elements of modernity, which we would then see as held together only by the magic of a word?
Manent goes on in the essay to describe how the tension between the city and the Church gave rise to the uniquely modern form of government - the secular, representative democracy of the modern nation state - and how the contemporaries Luther and Machiavelli, inter alia, helped lay the foundations for it.

If you're interested in history Manent's piece is worth the time it takes to read.

Monday, September 17, 2012

You Didn't Build That

President Obama has found himself the object of much merriment for his claim that businessmen who built their business didn't really build them. What he meant, no doubt, was that no one accomplishes anything in isolation from the community in which he or she lives, but this is such an obvious observation as to hardly need saying. Indeed, as the following video illustrates, telling people this diminishes their achievement and is, whether intended or not, pretty insulting. Mr. Obama, in lecturing businessmen that their success depends upon the contributions of others, comes across very much like these parents:
The election in November will be about two competing visions of how a polity should be ordered. One vision is of a society that seeks to foster and promote individual initiative, ambition, hard work and reward it generously. In this view government should do what it can to make the success of such efforts possible. It should not get in the way of those efforts but rather should facilitate the aspirations and accomplishments of its citizens.

The other vision is of citizens and the businesses they create existing in large measure to serve the state. This view holds that the role of the state is to control and regulate its citizens so that no one has more than what they need and no one has less. In order to achieve this egalitarian vision those who have more should have the excess taken from them because, after all, they didn't achieve it on their own or in isolation from the community so they have no right to it. At the same time, it's not the fault of those who have less that they're poor so they should be given the wealth that those who have worked have earned but don't need.

Conservatives hold the former set of opinions, liberals hold the latter. When we enter the voting booth on November 6th we'll be endorsing one or the other of these visions.

Is the U.S. Becoming a Police State?

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit is so outraged by the use of police in the middle of the night to take in for questioning the man, Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, who made the movie that has allegedly triggered the violence in the Middle East that he believes President Obama should resign.

This is not just an empty rant. If we now live in a country where the government uses police to intimidate and threaten those who are simply exercising their First Amendment rights then we're dangerously close to becoming a police state.

The president takes an oath when he's inaugurated to uphold the Constitution. Where is his Attorney General who should be protecting this man's liberty? Where are the civil libertarians who profess to care about the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights? Some of them are actually calling for Nakoula's arrest!

Radical Muslims demand that we punish the filmmaker, and American liberals agree. Our police truckle to the Islamists' demands under the pretense that they want to question Nakoula about possible parole violations. Right. They want to question him about possible parole violations at 1:00 in the morning. This is intimidation, pure and simple. It's an attempt to appease those who seek to repress through violence and the threat of violence the freedom of speech many Americans have fought and died to preserve.

Meanwhile the administration and its surrogates are apologizing for something done by a private citizen and letting it be known that in the view of the government he's a despicable person whom they really would arrest if they could. This administration would do better to show more sympathy for the Bill of Rights and more backbone with the Islamists than it heretofore has or we're likely to see many more embassies on fire and many more diplomats returning to Dover Air Force base in coffins.

The proper response of the President of the United States and his representatives would have been to make it known that though there are very few things of which one can be certain in this life, one thing that any foreign thug can be pretty sure of is that if he harms an American citizen he won't die of old age.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Do Liberals Still Believe in Free Speech?

Everyone has by now heard of the terrible events surrounding American embassies throughout the Islamic Middle East. Muslims, ostensibly inflamed by a very irreverent and technically cartoonish film that lampoons the Muslim Prophet Mohammed, have burned a number of embassies and killed four Americans at the Libyan embassy including the ambassador. Despite the film's appearance it's creator is not a thirteen year old middle schooler, as you might expect, but rather a Coptic Christian with a legally troubled past named Nakoula Bassely Nakoula.

Nakoula may have violated terms of a probation by using computers to help create his film, but, that aside, the film is surely protected by the First Amendment, and yet during the last week there have been calls from liberals - the very people who used to proclaim that they would fight to the death for your right to say offensive things - for Nakoula's arrest. Here, for example, is Mike Barnicle, on MSNBC yesterday:
Mary Katherine Ham has a summary of the "eight dumbest things" said about free speech in the context of this incident here. Her post is an eye-opener for those who might still think that liberals care much about free speech, and it's worth reading. It's remarkable that people think this way, especially those on the left who for decades wrapped themselves in the mantle of protectors of the First Amendment.

It'd all be astonishing, in fact, if we hadn't grown so accustomed to the hypocrisy. An artist named Andres Serrano immerses a crucifix in a jar of urine and calls it art and he's defended by liberals because artists have the right to express themselves. We're told that if we don't like it we just shouldn't look at it. Bill Maher makes a movie mocking Christian belief and he's defended on the grounds that he's just a comedian who's an atheist and he mocks religion all the time so we shouldn't make too much of it, as Geraldo Rivera rather bizarrely argued on his radio show Friday. But let someone mock Islam and liberals join the mob screaming for his head.

Why is it that instead of blaming the savages and barbarians who would sodomize and then murder a U.S. ambassador over a video he had absolutely nothing to do with, some Americans seek to vent their anger on a man who was simply doing what Andres Serrano and Bill Maher do?

If Christians reacted to Maher the way Muslims have reacted to Nakoula or Salman Rushdie would liberals demand that Maher be arrested? Is only speech that doesn't offend anyone henceforth to be protected?

Surely these liberals see that by blaming Nakoula and seeking punishment for him they're effectively giving violent mobs a veto over both the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. They're saying, in effect, that if people still living in the seventh century are incensed by something someone says then we'll punish the speaker. Where does this end? Will it soon be illegal in this country to say anything at all critical of Islam? Given the reaction of people like Mike Barnicle and the others Ham cites that seems to be exactly the direction some on the left want us to go.

Meanwhile, all around the globe Muslims are murdering Christians with impunity. They're seizing their property burning their churches, throwing acid in the faces of young girls, raping and torturing them, for no other reason than that they're Christians, and our President and Secretary of State, who were not reluctant to condemn Nakoula's amateurish commentary, have been silent about the real atrocities occurring every day in the Muslim-dominated world. Why?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Big Announcement

A recurring theme throughout our eight years here at Viewpoint is that naturalism affords little or no basis for neither moral obligation nor ultimate meaning and renders a host of other human needs and yearnings absurd. It's an existential dead-end for unless there is a God, or something very much like God, then life really is, as Shakespeare put it, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

A few years ago I began working on a novel that would incorporate some of these arguments, and I'm pleased to announce that the book is now available for purchase. It's titled In the Absence of God and is available at the usual outlets (Amazon, Barnes & Noble) and also from my favorite bookseller Hearts and Minds Bookstore, the proprietor of which is offering a 20% discount on the cover price ($25).

In the Absence of God is set in a mid-size university campus in New England at the beginning of the fall semester sometime in the early years of the last decade.

The main plot line involves a professor named Joseph Weyland who's forced by the events swirling around him, as well as the challenge presented by a young nihilist, to come to grips with the implications of his materialistic worldview. As he wrestles with the issues his materialism raises he's engaged in an ongoing series of dialogues with a colleague and friend named Malcolm Peterson, and also with the pastor of his father's church, Loren Holt.

Meanwhile, the campus has been terrorized by an apparent serial rapist, and several young student-athletes find themselves thrust into the role of both victim and pursuer of the person who's perpetrating these crimes.

Over the course of three weeks in late August and early September the lives of these students become intertwined with those of Weyland and Peterson in ways that none of them could have foreseen on the first day of classes.

In the Forward to the book I write this:
This is not a book about football, though it may at first seem to be. Neither is it a crime novel, though it ends that way. Nor is it just a book about people sitting around talking, although I'm sure some readers will think so.

In the Absence of God is a novel about ideas concerning the things that matter most in life. It's a tale of three different worldviews, three different ways of seeing the world and of living our lives in it. It's the story of how for a few short weeks in September these three views come into conflict on a college campus in New England and how that clash of ideas forces people on campus to think seriously about the implications of their deepest convictions.

It has been said that ideas have consequences and nowhere is this more true than in one's personal philosophy of life - one's beliefs about God.

It's my hope that in reading this book you'll be stretched to think about things you perhaps hadn't thought about before, or that you'll at least think about your own beliefs in new and different ways. I hope that whatever your convictions about the matters taken up in this book may be, by the time you close its covers you'll agree that those convictions matter, and matter more profoundly than any other opinions you hold.
I'd be delighted to hear from anyone who reads the book and wishes to share his or her thoughts on it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Fundamental Nature of Reality (Pt. II)

A few days ago we talked about Andrew Briggs' essay on the ultimate basis of reality at Big Questions Online. In the course of this piece Briggs says this:
One of the biggest questions anyone can ask is what happens after I die? Answers range from annihilation to reincarnation or some nirvana-like state. For those who have confidence in the evidence of the resurrection, the concept of information may offer insights into how the self endures. It will not be in the same body, which decays following death, but neither will it be disembodied. In some way information may give continuity to the reality of a person after death.
If we assume theism is true Briggs could be on to something. Could it be that a person's soul is not some ethereal substance within us, nor is it identical to our minds as many philosophers have thought, but could it rather be information? Seen this way the soul is a complete description of who we are. It's not a substance at all but rather it's every true proposition about us. It's an exhaustive description of our personality, our character, our personal history, our hopes and dreams, virtues and vices. If so, then it's data and just as data is stored in a database perhaps the data that describes us is stored in the database that is the mind of God.

In other words, our soul is our essence in the form of information, and since it's stored in the mind of the Creator it's eternal and indestructible (unless God presses the "delete button").

Perhaps, too, when this body falls victim to physical death the information which describes us is "downloaded" into another body of some sort in another dimension or another world. Just as the information contained in computer software cannot function apart from the hardware of the computer perhaps our soul needs the physical hardware of a body to enable it to express itself.

At any rate, if the fundamental "substance" of the world is information then the ultimate reality is very likely mind, and if that's so then the universe could well be infused with purpose, design, and personality. This seems to be looking more and more probable, and materialism appears to be looking less and less likely, with every passing year.

That Promise Didn't Last Long

At the Democratic nominating convention last week President Obama promised, to the cheers of the delegates, that he would never do what Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan has proposed to do and turn Medicare into a voucher program:
But no sooner was the convention adjourned than the president seems to have done exactly what he said he wouldn't do. His Department of Health and Human Services launched a pilot program that would force seniors eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid into Medicaid and put them on a voucher program. Here are some highlights from the National Journal article on HHS program:
In his convention speech in Charlotte, President Obama vowed to block the Republican Medicare reform plan because “no American should ever have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies.”

But back in Washington, his Health and Human Services Department is launching a pilot program that would shift up to 2 million of the poorest and most-vulnerable seniors out of the federal Medicare program and into private health insurance plans overseen by the states.

About 40 percent of Medicaid’s costs go toward patients who are also eligible for Medicare. Advocates of the pilot program also say it could lead to better coordination of care for patients who often struggle to navigate the two different programs.

Still, there is powerful opposition to the pilots among doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, patient groups, and key lawmakers, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who wrote the provision in the health law that created the office in charge of the pilot program.

“I urge you to take immediate steps to halt this initiative as currently structured and to take the time necessary to develop a well-designed and thoroughly evaluated care coordination model for dual eligibles that meets the standards outlined in the law,” Rockefeller wrote in a letter to HHS.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, a group of experts who advise Congress on Medicare policy, has also weighed in with an 11-page letter to HHS, warning that the speed and scope of the program raised questions about whether patients would receive the care they need.

Scott Gottlieb, a former health official in President George W. Bush’s administration, called the program “immoral.”

“Why are we taking the duals, who are entitled to Medicare benefits, and moving them into Medicaid?” asked Gottlieb, now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The Medicare reform plan championed by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, would encourage more seniors to move into managed-care plans by giving them vouchers to purchase insurance. The idea is to create a marketplace that would compete with traditional Medicare for customers.

Obama has repeatedly warned that this approach would lead to the demise of traditional Medicare, one of the most popular government programs. He has also attacked Romney’s proposal to give states fixed sums to care for Medicaid patients, a change from the current system in which the federal government matches a portion of state spending.
Like a master magician, President Obama leads us to think that he's determined to do one thing while he's in fact doing the opposite. Meanwhile, a servile media does nothing to call him to account for the deception and much of the electorate is bamboozled by it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Animal Consciousness

Discovery Magazine tells us that a group of scientists have issued a declaration announcing that animals possess consciousness:
An international group of prominent scientists has signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which they are proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are -- a list of animals that includes all mammals, birds, and even the octopus.

While it might not sound like much for scientists to declare that many nonhuman animals possess conscious states, it's the open acknowledgement that's the big news here. The body of scientific evidence is increasingly showing that most animals are conscious in the same way that we are, and it's no longer something we can ignore.

What's also very interesting about the declaration is the group's acknowledgement that consciousness can emerge in those animals that are very much unlike humans, including those that evolved along different evolutionary tracks, namely birds and some encephalopods.

"The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states," they write. "Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors."

Consequently, say the signatories, the scientific evidence is increasingly indicating that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.
That animals have conscious states is not a new hypothesis. What's new - and surprising - is the claim that they're conscious to the same degree humans are. I say it's a surprising claim because nothing in the article really supports it.

How do these scientists know that animals don't experience the world in a manner similar to that of humans who are sleepwalking or under anesthesia? Humans in this state are aware of their environment and interact with it, but they're not fully conscious of it. Perhaps animal consciousness is similar.

Or how do we know that animals aren't conscious in the same way that a zombie is conscious? A zombie could have all the sensory inputs that a normal person has and display all the same behavioral outputs but still not be self-aware, or understand, or doubt, or believe, or have any of the first person experiences that humans have. They're simply flesh and blood robots. Nothing in the story explains why these scientists have ruled this possibility out.

In any case, consciousness continues to be a fascinating impediment to materialists who wish to reduce the world to nothing but matter and energy. Consciousness, whether human or animal, vigorously resists these kinds of reductionistic explanations, which suggests, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that there are more things in heaven and on earth than we dream of in our science.

It Could've Been Worse

The Daily Show has put together a couple of political ads, one for each candidate, which are pretty creative. The first, a satire on Mitt Romney's flip-flopping, gets good toward the end where he's depicted "rebuilding" himself in order to appeal to conservatives.

The second ad uses Mr. Obama's own words to illustrate his campaign theme and the entire basis he's offering to voters for re-electing him - as bad as things are they could've been worse. Enjoy:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Junk DNA

An article in New Scientist (subscription required) describes what researchers are discovering about the human genome and how it works. It's turning out that our cellular machinery is far more complex than anyone imagined just a couple of decades ago.

It's also turning out that one of the widely-accepted assumptions - the assumption that vast amounts of DNA were little more than vestigial junk (an assumption that intelligent design people have been predicting for fifteen years would turn out to be false) - is turning out to be false. Researchers are finding that as much as 80% of our genetic material has a function in the cell and that number appears to be a lower limit.

All of which is to say that however the cellular machinery came about it's becoming increasingly unlikely with every passing year that it came about by purely purposeless, mechanistic processes.

Here's an excerpt from the New Scientist article:
After the genome was sequenced, another major project was launched to try to understand which bits of the genome do what. The results, released this week, reveal that our genome is far more complex and mysterious than biologists imagined just a decade ago.

Back in the 1960s, a beautifully simple picture emerged. Our DNA consisted of recipes for proteins. The double helix could be unzipped to allow RNA copies of these recipes to be made and sent to the protein-making factories in cells. But by the 1970s, it had become clear that only a tiny proportion of our DNA codes for proteins - just 1.2 per cent, we now know. What about all the rest? Some assumed it must do something, others suggested it was mostly junk. "At least 90 of our genomic DNA is 'junk' or 'garbage' of various sorts," the geneticist Susumu Ohno wrote in 1972.

Ohno knew, though, that some of the DNA that didn't code for proteins still played a vital role. For instance, the process of making RNA copies of genes - transcription - involves clusters of proteins binding to specific sequences near the genes. These proteins - called transcription factors - control the activity of genes by either boosting or blocking transcription, so the sequences to which they bind are known as regulatory DNA or switches.

So how much DNA acts a switch, or has some other function? To provide an overall picture of which parts of the genome do what, the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project was set up in 2003. It involves many teams around the world using a variety of techniques. The results of a pilot study looking at just 1 per cent of the genome were released in 2007. This week, the results of its study of the entire genome were released, with the publication of more than 30 papers in Nature and other journals.

Among other things, ENCODE looked for switches that control gene activity. The researchers did this by taking known transcription factors and seeing which bits of DNA these proteins bound to. So far, they have found 4 million sites, covering 8.5 per cent of the genome - far more than anyone expected.

Even this is likely to be a gross underestimate of the true number, because ENCODE hasn't yet looked at every cell type, or every known transcription factor. "When we extrapolate up, it's more like 18 or 19 per cent," says Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, UK, who is coordinating the data analysis for ENCODE. "We see way more switches than we were expecting, and nearly every part of the genome is close to a switch."
You can read the entire article at the link for free for the next four days.

It used to be that anyone who believed that living things were the product of intentional, intelligent engineering were thought to be benighted, hopelessly superstitious, credulous simpletons. It seems that that description is currently shifting toward those who insist that this breathtaking complexity could just happen by mindless accident.

Why He's Still Ahead

John Hinderaker at Powerline wonders why it is, given the state of the economy and the failure of the President to articulate any plan for getting us out of the morass we're in, that Mr. Obama is still leading in the polls:
On paper, given Obama’s record, this election should be a cakewalk for the Republicans. Why isn’t it? I am afraid the answer may be that the country is closer to the point of no return than most of us believed. With over 100 million Americans receiving federal welfare benefits, millions more going on Social Security disability, and many millions on top of that living on entitlement programs–not to mention enormous numbers of public employees–we may have gotten to the point where the government economy is more important, in the short term, than the real economy. My father, the least cynical of men, used to quote a political philosopher to the effect that democracy will work until people figure out they can vote themselves money. I fear that time may have come.
If Mr. Obama wins in November it will be another historical milestone to add to his achievement as the first black president. It'll be the first time a president was ever reelected with unemployment this high. Hinderaker is surely correct that when so many people are dependent upon government, attempts to reduce its size and power fall on deaf ears, but I think there's also another dynamic at play.

I can't prove it, but I suspect that another part of the reason Mr. Obama is still afloat is that there are a lot of people who would vote for him no matter how bad the economy is simply because he's black, he's pro-choice, and he's "cool."

The people hardest hit by unemployment are African Americans, but, unlike years past when the choice was between two white candidates, a large number of African Americans will vote for Mr. Obama whether they have a job or not. The same is true of many women who care more than anything else about keeping abortion legal. Mr. Obama could be found to be giving state secrets to the Russians and many people will still vote for him for these two reasons alone.

Nor should we underestimate the "cool" factor. There are perhaps millions of people who will vote in November who have no grasp whatsoever of the issues that are being debated, but they know whether a candidate is cool or not, and they'll vote for cool over competence every time. They voted for JFK over Nixon largely on that basis, they voted for Bill Clinton over George H. W. Bush largely for the same reason and reelected him over Bob Dole again because he was cool and Dole was not. George W. Bush ran against Al Gore and John Kerry, elections in which the coolness factor was a wash, but in 2008 it reemerged with unfortunate consequences for the hapless and decidedly uncool Senator McCain. And in 2012 cool is once again pretty much on the side of President Obama.

The notion that the state of the economy will make a difference is, in my opinion, simply mistaken. It only matters if the candidates are both the same race and of approximately equal "coolness."

I know this is not a very flattering picture of those who would vote for someone largely on the basis of superficialities, and I repeat that I can't prove it, but there you have it. I'd bet that many if not most people who'll vote in November couldn't even name five Supreme Court Justices or their own U.S. Senators. They don't know much about the national debt and deficits, and they don't much care. What they do care about is that Mr. Obama is black, he's pro-choice, and he's cool.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Obamacare in One Sentence

Dr. Barbara Bellar is a physician running for the Illinois State Senate. At a recent event she summed up Obamacare in one single, very long, but very incisive sentence:
It's interesting that scarcely anyone among the Democrats touts the Affordable Care Act as a reason to reelect the President. If they do, they stick to glowing generalities and don't talk much about the details. Little wonder.

The Fundamental Nature of Reality

At Big Questions Online Andrew Briggs ponders the ultimate nature of reality and wonders whether, at bottom, everything is information. It's an intriguing question. What is the fundamental reality that makes up our world and ourselves?

Generations of scientists have assumed it was matter made of atoms, but as we learn more about the atom it seems that the appearance of materiality that the world presents to our senses is in fact something of an illusion, a trick played on our senses by something even more fundamental than matter. After all, when we dissect an atom down to its tiniest constituents we find that they're really just ghostly manifestations of energy (whatever that is). They seem to be nothing more substantial than a mathematical abstraction.

We find that these subatomic particles don't play by the same rules that macroscopic material objects play by. Subatomic particles can be in two different places simultaneously, a phenomenon called superposition, and they can also affect each other even though they're at opposite ends of the universe moving away from each other at the speed of light, a bizarre phenomenon called quantum entanglement.

If matter turns out not to be the fundamental reality what would be? If, as Briggs suggests, it's information then that suggests an even more basic reality, i.e. mind, that underlies everything. That would really upset the metaphysical applecart because if mind is the fundamental reality then we're but a few short steps, philosophically speaking, from the conclusion that God, or something very much like God, exists.

The Benediction

One of the most incongruous events of the recent Democratic convention was the closing prayer offered by Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Dolan's prayer was a gentle rebuke of practically everything that was said in the first two days of the gathering. During the early speeches speaker after speaker affirmed the necessity of preserving a mother's right to choose to terminate her pregnancy, even at taxpayer expense, and the need for taxpayers to pay for other people's birth control.

Dolan's prayer essentially called on God to confute all those demands, using phrases like, “Grant us the courage to defend life…waiting to be born, welcomed and protected.”

He also prayed for “life, without which no other rights are secured,” and that God would grant us "the right to life so we can choose liberty and happiness."

He added this: "We praise You for the gift of life, grant us the courage to defend it.”

These petitions to the Almighty on behalf of innocent children won him the contumely of hundreds of liberal/progressives who showered the twitter-sphere with ugly imprecations and foul exhortations to the Cardinal to commit acts which, let us just say, the Church deems sinful. It's funny that liberals call for civility and decency in our political discourse but often feel no obligation to behave with civility and decency themselves.

Anyway, here's the video of Dolan's closing prayer. It's really quite remarkable, given the venue and the convictions of the people gathered there.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Pastor Freed from Iranian Death Row

Long time readers of Viewpoint may recall our posts a year ago on Yousef Nadarkhani a Christian pastor, condemned to death in Iran for apostasy. Details are still sketchy, but it seems that Nadarkhani has, after three years in prison, been released. Evidently, the prayers and outcry from around the globe convinced the Iranians that executing him would be a public relations disaster:
Iranian Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who was originally sentenced to death in his native country for his Christian faith, was acquitted of apostasy charges and released from custody.

Nadarkhani, 32, was imprisoned for three years and waiting execution for refusing to renounce his Christian faith. His charges were lowered to evangelizing to Muslims, which carried a three-year sentence. He was released with time served, according to the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington-based watchdog group that had been campaigning for the pastor's release.
Yousef Nadarkhani
You can read more on his release here.

Noonan on the DNC

Peggy Noonan's take on the Democratic National Convention is insightful and interesting. She seems sad that the party has devolved into something far different than the party of Harry Truman and JFK, but her analysis confirms my own thoughts as I watched the proceedings, and she expresses those thoughts far more eloquently than I could.

Here's part of her column in which she employs the adjective "extreme" in its proper context, doubtless as a satire on the promiscuous use of the word as a description of Republicans whose views are anything but extreme:
Was it a good convention?

Beneath the funny hats, the sweet-faced delegates, the handsome speakers and the babies waving flags there was something disquieting. All three days were marked by a kind of soft, distracted extremism. It was unshowy and unobnoxious but also unsettling.

There was the relentless emphasis on Government as Community, as the thing that gives us spirit and makes us whole. But government isn't what you love if you're American, America is what you love. Government is what you have, need and hire. Its most essential duties—especially when it is bankrupt—involve defending rights and safety, not imposing views and values. We already have values.

Democrats and Republicans don't see all this the same way, and that's fine—that's what national politics is, the working out of this dispute in one direction or another every few years. But the Democrats convened in Charlotte seemed more extreme on the point, more accepting of the idea of government as the center of national life, than ever, at least to me.

The fight over including a single mention of God in the platform—that was extreme. The original removal of the single mention by the platform committee—extreme. The huge "No!" vote on restoring the mention of God, and including the administration's own stand on Jerusalem — that wasn't liberal, it was extreme. Comparing the Republicans to Nazis — extreme. The almost complete absence of a call to help education by facing down the powers that throw our least defended children under the school bus—this was extreme, not mainstream.

The sheer strangeness of all the talk about abortion, abortion, contraception, contraception. I am old enough to know a wedge issue when I see one, but I've never seen a great party build its entire public persona around one. Big speeches from the heads of Planned Parenthood and NARAL, HHS Secretary and abortion enthusiast Kathleen Sebelius and, of course, Sandra Fluke.

"Republicans shut me out of a hearing on contraception," Ms. Fluke said. But why would anyone have included a Georgetown law student who never worked her way onto the national stage until she was plucked, by the left, as a personable victim? What a fabulously confident and ingenuous-seeming political narcissist Ms. Fluke is.

She really does think — and her party apparently thinks — that in a spending crisis with trillions in debt and many in need, in a nation in existential doubt as to its standing and purpose, in a time when parents struggle to buy the good sneakers for the kids so they're not embarrassed at school . . . that in that nation the great issue of the day, and the appropriate focus of our concern, is making other people pay for her birth-control pills. That's not a stand, it's a non sequitur. She is not, as Rush Limbaugh oafishly, bullyingly said, a slut. She is a ninny, a narcissist and a fool.

And she was one of the great faces of the party in Charlotte. That is extreme. Childish, too.
In the early paragraphs of her piece Noonan delivers one of the most masterfully crafted insults (directed at Vice-President Biden) I think I've ever read. It employs language a bit stronger than one might wish, even if one thinks it merited, but it'll probably go down in the annals of journalism as a classic. Check it out at the link.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Compromise and the Ratchet Effect

Politics is all about compromising, we're often told, and when one side refuses to cooperate there's gridlock and nothing gets done. The liberal media tell us that the reason the Obama administration has failed to solve our nation's economic problems is that the conservatives in congress simply refuse to compromise.

Actually, there are two good reasons why conservatives don't, and shouldn't, compromise with liberals. One is that compromise is based on trust, and conservatives simply don't believe that Democrats can be trusted. Back in the early '90s George H.W. Bush campaigned on a pledge not to raise taxes. The Democrat leadership, however, managed to convince him that if he would ignore his pledge and raise taxes they would agree to cut spending. Both sides would anger their base, to be sure, but we'd achieve a lower deficit and maintain fiscal sanity (those were the days), and the country would be better for it.

Well, Bush agreed to raise taxes, breaking his "no new taxes" promise and all but ruining his chance of reelection, but the Democrats never reduced spending. In fact, with the increased tax revenue they decided to increase spending. The memory of being bamboozled by the Democrats makes todays conservative Republicans very leery of liberal promises.

The second reason is that conservatives believe that compromising with liberals is a losing proposition even when they don't immediately get swindled. This is because of the ratchet effect inherent in any compromise between one party which wants to maintain the status quo and another which wants radical change.

Here's how the ratchet works: Consider a series of numbers from 1 to 10 representing the various positions on any issue. The national consensus is, let's say, at 4 on some issue, but liberals want to take it to 10. So they propose a compromise that would move the issue to 6. As soon as conservatives agree to this "compromise" they've already lost the battle and will soon lose the war because we, as a society, are now moving in the direction the liberals wanted to take us all along.

Some years later, the Democrats propose another compromise. They propose that we move to 8. If the conservatives agree then we've moved almost completely to the liberal goal. Conservatives have gotten nothing and liberals are almost home, and of course there's no going back to 4. Anybody who suggests a return to the status quo ante is labelled a reactionary. The process continues over time until the nation is finally at a 10. If conservatives refuse to go along they're called obstructionists and do-nothings.

Here's something else: Even when society has been moved to 10 on a given issue liberal/progressives cannot be satisfied. The 10 is now the new status quo, and if progressives are satisfied with the status quo they're no longer progressive. They must, in order to be a progressive in good standing, continue to push the envelope ever further to the left. Because of the ratchet what was unimaginable yesterday, becomes a fringe view today and a mainstream view tomorrow. Meanwhile, those who think we never should have moved away from 4 in the first place are called "extremists."

Take gay marriage as an example. When the gay rights movement first got under way it was a movement that asked only for tolerance of an "alternative lifestyle." Americans agreed, but then the request for tolerance morphed into a demand for acceptance and then into a demand for approval. Once that was largely achieved we were confronted with further demands that gays be allowed to marry. If the ratchet ever crosses that threshhold, which seems inevitable, what'll be left for a good progressive to fight for?

Right now campaigns to make polyamory legal seem way out on the fringe, but once gay marriage is codified polyamory will probably move much closer to the mainstream. Even further out on the fringe are those who wish to remove barriers to consensual sex between men and boys, but once polyamory has been ratcheted into place pedophilia will not seem so bizarre.

What's bizarre, after all, is simply what we're not used to. As Alexander Pope wrote:
Evil is a monster of such frightful mein,
that to be hated needs but to be seen.
But seen too oft, familiar with her face,
First we endure, then we pity, then we embrace.
When one believes his position is correct, whether on any moral, social, or economic issue, compromise is an abandonment of his principles. If politicians are willing to betray their principles just to appear "reasonable" to the media then they've also betrayed the trust the people have placed in them and should be voted out of office.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

God and the Democrats

The Democrat delegates to their convention had earlier this week quietly removed language from their party platform that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and also voted to expunge the phrase "God-given potential" from their document, presumably because a lot of delegates don't want to give the impression that they might think God is in some way relevant to our public life.

Their seeming willingness to stick their thumb in the eye of both Jewish and Christian voters won them considerable opprobrium so on Wednesday the leadership, apparently at the urging of President Obama who foresaw a needless disaster in the making, moved to have the language restored. The voice vote on restoring the language was inconclusive (it required a 2/3 vote) so on the third attempt the motion was declared passed despite the fact that the nays seemed to actually outnumber the yays, and the delegates erupted in a chorus of boos at the undemocratic manner in which the change was rammed through despite the wishes of the delegates.

This presented the nation with the charming spectacle of a substantial number of liberal Democrats voting "no" on both our Israeli allies' right to decide where they will have their own capital and on a tacit recognition in their platform of the existence of God. I'm sure it's not the picture that the Democrats wanted, but it shows the extent to which the party has become the party of secularism and the party of indifference to Jewish concerns.

Here's a video of the debacle:
Incidentally, President Obama has in the past declared that the question of the Israeli capital should be a matter of negotiations with the Palestinians. It's not his position, at least not his public position, that Jerusalem is, or should be, recognized as the Israeli capital.

Yahoo has the story here.

Having spent much of the first two days demanding that women have the right to a tax-payer funded abortion at any stage of a pregnancy and demanding, too, that the Republicans help them raise taxes, it seems that the Democrats are happy now to present themselves to the nation as the party of death, taxes, and secularism.

Sounds like an electoral trifecta.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Vacuity of Evolutionary Ethics

The recent edition of the journal Science (subscription required) has a review by Rudolph Griss of a new book by atheistic biologist E.O. Wilson titled The Social Conquest of Earth. At one point Griss says this:
As intriguing as self-understanding may be from an intellectual point of view, Wilson sees it as a means to an end: something that must be achieved if humans are to bring their unsustainable and destructive lifestyle to a halt. He laments, "We are needlessly turning the gold we inherited from our forebears into straw, and for that we will be despised by our descendants." We are not only polluting our planet beyond recognition, we are also bidding good-bye forever to species after species. Wilson tells us to grow up, to stop making excuses and shuffling off responsibility onto deities. We alone are responsible for the future of our planet. The sooner we understand who we are and where we come from, the sooner we will know where we need to go.
I thought this was interesting because Wilson seems to assume that we have some sort of moral obligation to future generations not to despoil and deplete the planet, but where does such an obligation come from? Who imposes it? Why is it wrong to exploit the earth's resources to make our lives as comfortable as we can and let future generations fend for themselves? Our descendants may despise us for acting this way but why should we care? What's wrong with selfishness?

It may seem obvious to some readers that of course we have a duty to care about the planet and our descendants, but it's not obvious to me at all that we do, or at least it's not obvious to me that an atheist has any grounds for believing that we do.

Indeed, I don't think Wilson, who is a Darwinian materialist, can cogently answer any of the above questions, because for the atheist there simply is no answer. To paraphrase philosopher Richard Rorty*, for the secular man there's no answer to the question, why not be selfish. Or to paraphrase Richard Dawkins*, what's to prevent us from saying that selfishness is right? That's a genuinely difficult question.

If we're simply the product of blind, purposeless Darwinian processes which enabled us to succeed in the struggle for survival then to suggest that we should not be selfish, that we should suppress our instincts and deny ourselves the benefits of the earth's largesse for the sake of generations yet to come, is absurd.

The only basis for thinking that we have a duty to conserve the earth's resources is the belief that a transcendent moral authority, a God, has imposed upon us the obligation to be stewards of the earth and to care about the well-being of others. Take away the divine source of that obligation, as Wilson does, and the obligation itself disappears.

Atheists delight in calling theists irrational, but what's more irrational, believing that we have a duty to care for the planet because the creator of the universe imposes that duty upon us, or believing that we have a duty to care for the planet even though there's nothing at all that could possibly impose such a duty upon us?

If Wilson thinks we do have such a duty then maybe he should reassess his commitment to atheism.

You can read more about Griss' review of Wilson's book at Evolution News and Notes.

* I substituted the word "selfish" for Rorty's original word "cruelty," and I substituted "selfishness" for Dawkin's original word "Hitler."