Monday, January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King

Today is the day we celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday and it would be well to focus on why we do. King was a man of great courage who was resolutely committed, not just to racial equality under the law, but to harmony among all the racial factions in America. His commitment to achieving justice under the law for every American was rooted in his Christian faith as his Letter From a Birmingham Jail makes clear, and it was that faith which made him a transformational figure in the history of our nation.

It's sad that though his dream of racial equality has been largely realized - the law no longer permits distinctions between the races in our public life - his dream of racial harmony has not.

One reason it has not is that his dream that his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character has been inverted so that the color of one's skin is often the only thing that matters.

Students are still accepted into colleges and given scholarships on the basis of their race without having to meet the same standards as those with a different skin color. The same is true of civil servants like police and firemen who are often hired and promoted on the basis of test performance, but who sometimes receive preferential treatment based on race. Our Attorney General is reluctant to prosecute blacks who deny others their civil rights, and any criticism of our president is interpreted as a racist reaction to his skin color rather than a reasonable opposition to his policies.

People are judged by the color of their skin rather than by the content of their character as much today, perhaps, as at any time in our history. I don't think this is what King had in mind.

Nor do I think he would have been happy that we celebrate black history month as if it were somehow separate from American history rather than, as Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby argues, an integral part of American history. The civil rights movement was not merely a black movement, it was an American movement in which the nation realized that we were not living up to the ideals of equality and liberty upon which America was founded. It was a time when the nation realized that we were not living consistently with the deepest convictions we held as Christians, namely that we are all brothers and sisters, children of the same God.

Martin Luther King persistently and bravely held these ideals and convictions before the American people, he refused to allow us to avoid seeing their implications, and repeatedly urged us to live up to what we believed deep in our souls to be true. And the American people, many of whom had never really thought about the chasm between what we professed and what we practiced, responded.

It was an American achievement that involved the efforts and blood of people not just of one race but of all races. Thinking of the great sacrifices and advances of the civil rights era as only a success story of one race is divisive. It carves out one group of people from the rest of the nation for special notice and tends to exclude so many others without whom the story would never have been told.

On Martin Luther King day it would be good for us to try to put behind us the invidious distinctions we continue to make between white and black. It would be good to stop seeing others in terms of their skin color, to give each other the benefit of the doubt that our disagreements are about ideas and policies and are not motivated by hatred, bigotry, or moral shortcomings. It would be good to declare a moratorium on the use of the word "racist," unless the evidence for it is overwhelming, and to stop think of racism as a sin committed by the majority race only.

Let's judge each other on the content of our character and of our minds and not on the color of our skin. As long as we continue to see each other through the lens of race we'll never have the unity that King yearned for and gave his life for.

Did the Cosmos Have a Beginning?

When the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe was first proposed it met with a lot of resistance from scientists and others who were dismayed by the fact that the Big Bang entailed that the universe had a discrete beginning rather than being infinitely old. If the universe had a beginning then it must have been caused by something outside itself, and since this sounded too much like the Genesis account of the Bible, many scientists resisted the Big Bang until the predicted background radiation left over from the initial "explosion" was serendipitously discovered in 1963 making further resistance seem futile.

Even so, the refuseniks have not given up and have over the years advanced a number of theories that would do away with the unpleasant theological implications of the standard Big Bang model by keeping the Bang, so to speak, but doing away with a cosmic beginning. However, in one way or another all of these theories have come to grief.

An article at New Scientist (subscription required) suggests that hope is fading that a beginningless universe can made to conform to the evidence we have. Here's part of the article:
While many of us may be OK with the idea of the big bang simply starting everything, physicists, including [Stephen] Hawking, tend to shy away from cosmic genesis. "A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God," Hawking told the meeting, at the University of Cambridge, in a pre-recorded speech.

For a while it looked like it might be possible to dodge this problem, by relying on models such as an eternally inflating or cyclic universe, both of which seemed to continue infinitely in the past as well as the future. Perhaps surprisingly, these were also both compatible with the big bang, the idea that the universe most likely burst forth from an extremely dense, hot state about 13.7 billion years ago.

However, as cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin of Tufts University in Boston explained last week, that hope has been gradually fading and may now be dead. He showed that all these theories still demand a beginning.
The details of Vilenkin's argument follow in the article, but the important point is that cosmologists are now in a quandary. The data does not support the idea of a beginningless universe, but if the universe had a beginning then the argument for a transcendent, very powerful, very intelligent, personal cause of the universe becomes almost irresistable.

Consider, for example, the following argument that has been popularized by the philosopher William Lane Craig:
1. Everything that comes into being has a cause of its existence.
2. Nothing is the cause of itself.
3. The universe had a beginning and thus came into being.
4. Therefore the universe had a cause.
5. There are only three kinds of causes: abstract (ideas), scientific (physical forces), and personal minds.
6. Abstract objects are causally impotent, and physical forces would only exist after the universe came into being.
7. Therefore, the cause of the universe must be a personal mind.
Thus we have good reason to believe that there is a transcendent personal cause that began the universe. Sound like anyone you know?

See vjtorley's post at Uncommon Descent and William Lane Craig's website for more.