Thursday, January 31, 2013

Word Power

Want to do better on your SATs, improve your chances of making more money and having a successful career? According to educational expert E.D. Hirsch one very good way to do all of that is to set out now to improve your vocabulary.

Hirsch notes the decline in verbal SAT performance over the last 40 years, ties it to "dumbed down" textbooks, and shows a correlation between that decline and increasing income inequality in our society. Educators, he argues, need to do more to help students enhance their vocabularies which he sees as a major key to future success. Here's an important part of his message:
There’s a well-established correlation between a college degree and economic benefit. And for guidance on what helps students finish college and earn more income, we should consider the SAT, whose power to predict graduation rates is well documented. The way to score well on the SAT—at least on the verbal SAT—is to have a large vocabulary. As the eminent psychologist John Carroll once observed, the verbal SAT is essentially a vocabulary test.

So there’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

Early in the twentieth century, a well-meant but inadequate conception of education became dominant in the United States. It included optimism about children’s natural development, a belief in the unimportance of factual knowledge and book learning, and a corresponding belief in the importance of training the mind through hands-on practical experience. In the 1920s and 1930s, these ideas began spreading to teacher-training institutions. It took two or three decades for the new teachers and administrators to take over from the old and for the new ideas to revolutionize schoolbooks and classroom practices. The first students to undergo this new schooling therefore began kindergarten in the 1950s and arrived in 12th grade in the 1960s.

From 1945 to 1967, 12th-graders’ verbal scores on the SAT and other tests had risen. But then those scores plummeted. Cornell economist John Bishop wrote in the 1980s of “the historically unprecedented nature of the test score decline that began around 1967. Prior to that year test scores had been rising steadily for 50 years.” The scores reached their nadir around 1980 and have remained low ever since.

Later, another Cornell scholar, the sociologist Donald Hayes, showed that the decline of the verbal SAT scores was indeed correlated with a dumbing-down of American schoolbooks. Following the lead of the great literacy scholar Jeanne Chall, Hayes found that publishers, under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies. Hayes demonstrated that the dilution of knowledge and vocabulary, rather than poverty, explained most of the test-score drop.

Such correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research. Of course, vocabulary isn’t perfectly correlated with knowledge. People with similar vocabulary sizes may vary significantly in their talent and in the depth of their understanding. Nonetheless, there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter. And between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart, and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.

Why should vocabulary size be related to achieved intelligence and real-world competence? Though the intricate details of cognitive abilities are under constant study and refinement, it’s possible to give a rough answer. The space where we solve our problems is called “working memory.” For everyone, even geniuses, it’s a small space that can hold only a few items in suspension for only a few seconds. If one doesn’t make the right connections within that space, one has to start over again. Hence, one method for coping and problem solving is to reduce the number of items that one has to make sense of at any moment. The psychologist George A. Miller called that process “chunking.” Telephone numbers and Social Security numbers are good examples. The number (212) 374-5278, written in three chunks, is a lot easier to cope with than 2123745278.

Words are fantastically effective chunking devices. Suppose you put a single item into your working memory — say, “Pasteur.” So long as you hold in your long-term memory a lot of associations with that name, you don’t need to dredge them up and try to cram them into your working memory. The name serves as a brief proxy for whatever aspects will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem. The more readily available such proxies are for you, the better you will be at dealing with various problems. Extend this example to whole spheres of knowledge and experience, and you’ll realize that a large vocabulary is a powerful coping device that enhances one’s general cognitive ability.
Hirsch goes on to discuss why the way students have been taught in the U.S. since the late 60s stifles the development of a powerful vocabulary and offers a number of suggestions for reform. It's a good article for anyone looking to make him or herself more marketable, as well as for those contemplating a career in primary education, or anyone concerned with the disparity between the "haves and the have-nots" in our society.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Who Cares If It's a Human Person?

One indication that people on one side of an issue are either winning or losing the intellectual argument is that, strangely enough, they grow more honest about what it is they want to accomplish.

For example, the left generally abhors the idea of private ownership of guns and would like very much to ban both firearms and the second amendment that protects the right to possess them, but they'll never acknowledge that that is their goal as long as it's unclear whether they'll win the issue. If they did admit it prematurely they'd be run out of town, so they speak more soothingly and circumspectly of "reasonable" measures while adopting a long-term incremental strategy for achieving their goal.

This, parenthetically, accounts for much of the resistance to their proposals by those who understand how the game is played. Savvy opponents realize that as soon as they compromise and grant some of the left's recommendations for gun restrictions the ratchet will kick in and additional "reasonable" measures will soon be advanced requiring even more compromise until eventually the right to possess a means of self-defense is eliminated.

If, on the other hand, the left thought it was either winning or losing on this issue we'd probably hear more of them admitting openly that we do indeed need to ban guns entirely and that until we do we'll never have a safe society, etc. Both losing big and winning big tends to elicit honesty. As long as the outcome is in doubt, however, these folks rarely tell us what they're really thinking.

We saw this ratchet at work recently on the debate over allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire. Those who did not want to raise taxes were assured that it'll just be the wealthy who'll be required to pay their "fair share," a term that was never explicitly defined, and once the wealthy have their taxes raised then that'll be the end of it. Yet no sooner were the necessary compromises made and tax rates on the wealthy allowed to return to pre-Bush levels than we heard two conflicting claims. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Minority Leader, naively declared that taxes were now "off the table," but Senator Chuck Schumer notified us that this was just an appetizer for our voracious government.

I thought of all this as I read an article by Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon in which Ms Williams as much as admits that the pro-life folks have won the intellectual argument, that an unborn child is in fact a human person, that there's no point in trying to deny that truth any longer, and that it doesn't matter anyway because she still wants the right to kill it. She writes:
I know that throughout my own pregnancies, I never wavered for a moment in the belief that I was carrying a human life inside of me. I believe that’s what a fetus is: a human life. And that doesn’t make me one iota less solidly pro-choice.

As Roe v. Wade enters its fifth decade, we find ourselves at one of the most schizo moments in our national relationship with reproductive choice. In the past year we’ve endured the highest number of abortion restrictions ever. Yet support for abortion rights is at an all-time high, with seven in 10 Americans in favor of letting Roe v. Wade stand, allowing for reproductive choice in all or “most” cases. That’s a stunning 10 percent increase from just a decade ago. And in the midst of this unique moment, Planned Parenthood has taken the bold step of reframing the vernacular – moving away from the easy and easily divisive words “life” and “choice.” Instead, as a new promotional film acknowledges, “It’s not a black and white issue.”

It’s a move whose time is long overdue. It’s important, because when we don’t look at the complexities of reproduction, we give far too much semantic power to those who’d try to control it. And we play into the sneaky, dirty tricks of the anti-choice lobby when we on the pro-choice side squirm so uncomfortably at the ways in which they’ve repeatedly appropriated the concept of “life.”

Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.

When we on the pro-choice side get cagey around the life question, it makes us illogically contradictory. I have friends who have referred to their abortions in terms of “scraping out a bunch of cells” and then a few years later were exultant over the pregnancies that they unhesitatingly described in terms of “the baby” and “this kid.” I know women who have been relieved at their abortions and grieved over their miscarriages. Why can’t we agree that how they felt about their pregnancies was vastly different, but that it’s pretty silly to pretend that what was growing inside of them wasn’t the same? Fetuses aren’t selective like that. They don’t qualify as human life only if they’re intended to be born.

When we try to act like a pregnancy doesn’t involve human life, we wind up drawing stupid semantic lines in the sand: first trimester abortion vs. second trimester vs. late term, dancing around the issue trying to decide if there’s a single magic moment when a fetus becomes a person. Are you human only when you’re born? Only when you’re viable outside of the womb? Are you less of a human life when you look like a tadpole than when you can suck on your thumb?

We’re so intimidated by the wingnuts, we get spooked out of having these conversations. We let the archconservatives browbeat us with the concept of “life,” using their scare tactics on women and pushing for indefensible violations like forced ultrasounds. Why? Because when they wave the not-even-accurate notion that “abortion stops a beating heart” they think they’re going to trick us into some damning admission. They believe that if we call a fetus a life they can go down the road of making abortion murder. And I think that’s what concerns the hell out of those of us who support unrestricted reproductive freedom.
Ms Williams believes her side has won on the larger issue, and she feels free to plainly admit that what pro-lifers have been saying for fifty years - that there's no substantive difference between a born and an unborn child and that abortion kills a person - is true. She says, in effect, "Yeah, abortion kills a living human person, but so what? If it makes my life easier I want to be able to do it." It's pretty chilling to think that this is probably the mainstream view among liberals.

She puts the cherry on top by calling those who are troubled by the culture of death she promotes "wingnuts." In Ms Williams' opinion it's not the people who are zealous in their determination to retain the right to kill children who are nuts, it's the people who want to protect children from a grisly death who are the lunatics. This piece of reasoning is nothing if not grotesque.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Media Derelictions

I realize that complaints about the dismal lack of professional fairness and objectivity in our major media are low-hanging fruit so easy to pluck that one sometimes wonders whether it's really worth bothering about. It's clear that much of the traditional media is in thrall to a liberal ideology and believe it their mission to promote that ideology and its champions in the White House and congress.

Perhaps we should just accept that fact, adjust to it, and not worry about the many egregious examples of bias and dishonesty that assault those of us who read newspapers and watch television news shows to learn the truth about what's going on in the country and in the world. Perhaps we should just accept that the media have lost all sense of a duty to objectively and even-handedly "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," and have instead placed themselves in the service of the Democrat party and the Obama administration.

Perhaps we should just accept it, but, even so, I can't.

The almost complete lack of media interest over the Fast and Furious scandal and Attorney General Holder's stonewalling of congressional hearings seeking to get to the bottom of it, and their insouciance over the Benghazi affair and their delight over Secretary Clinton's shameful performance in the recent congressional hearings are just two examples of their derelictions. They certainly wouldn't have been as disinterested had these scandals and disasters been the result of Republican incompetence and mismanagement.

Here's another example brought to our attention by Newsbusters:
The annual pro-life march, this year marking the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision, drew tens of thousands to Washington, DC on Friday, but didn’t garner a syllable of coverage on Friday’s World News on ABC nor the CBS Evening News. Yet on Saturday night, both newscasts highlighted a pro-gun control protest in DC which CBS anchor Jim Axelrod pegged at drawing “close to a thousand people.”
A protest drawing a few hundred people merited coverage, but a protest drawing tens of thousands did not. What was the justification for this disparity? One can't help but think that the media honchos see gun control as a desideratum and wish to give the impression that its popularity as a cause is sweeping the nation. Pro-lifers, on the other hand, represent a cause that's anathema to liberal sensibilities and thus any suggestion that their cause is popular among the people must be squelched.

So, ABC, for example, couldn't find time to inform us about the pro-life rally in D.C. but they did have time to discuss the national crisis spawned by the discovery that Subway's foot-long subs are actually only eleven inches long.

They also spent six minutes recently interviewing Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey on the subject of immigration reform, but asked him nary a single question about the current FBI investigation of his dalliances with underage prostitutes. Had that been an interview with any Republican politician does anyone think that that topic would have been ignored? It would doubtless have been the lead story on the broadcast, but since Menendez is a liberal Democrat it never got mentioned.

These anecdotes illustrate why contemporary political journalists, members of a once noble profession, often rank in public esteem about where used-car salesmen ranked a generation or two ago. They simply cannot be trusted to be impartial and fair in what they report and how they report it.

They've exchanged the role of a people's watchdog over corruption and power-grabbing among politicians for the role of cheerleaders for those same politicians. Instead of maintaining an attitude of professional detachment from the people upon whom they report, they act, as they did at the presidential inauguration, like swooning, squealing thirteen year-old girls at a Justin Beiber concert. One got the impression listening to reporters enthuse about being so close to the President that they could almost touch the hem of his garment that had he taken off his shirt and thrown it to the crowd they would've joined in the melee to win possession of it.

All of which is why we can be thankful for the internet. Were it not for this amazing development in the dissemination of information we'd know next to nothing, at least nothing we could place our confidence in, about what was really going on in the world. To the extent that the net is driving traditional media out of business it's too bad, but in large measure they've brought it upon themselves by trading the public's trust and respect for a mess of political pottage.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Welcome to Brave New World

Wesley J. Smith has a piece at First Things that should send chills down the spines of every reader. He argues that the radical environmentalist movement represents an "ongoing convergence of deep misanthropy, radical Malthusianism, and renewed advocacy for wealth redistribution." In other words, a profound contempt for humanity conflated with a fear of dire ecological consequences from overpopulation and a yearning for economic egalitarianism is hurtling us into frightening times.

Radical environmentalists (as opposed to conservationists) see human beings as a blight, a "plague upon the earth" to use David Attenborough's phrase. For many of them we're a toxic bacillus whose numbers need to be severely reduced.

The suggested means for the needed purgation are all, we're assured, non-coercive, but if our presence on the planet is such a cancerous curse why would Darwinian materialists, if given the power, not favor whatever means are necessary to bring about ends they deem so overridingly urgent?

What sort of means might we be hearing about in the not-too-distant future? Forced sterilization, compulsory abortion, elimination of the aged, infirm, and criminal, etc., are no doubt some examples, and why not? Why, given a materialist, naturalistic worldview, would any of these be wrong? Why would it be wrong to kill people if such measures are necessary to save the planet? As atheist superhero Richard Dawkins put it, "What's to prevent us from saying that Hitler was right?"

All that stands in the way, in a secular society unmoored from the belief of earlier generations that every person is created in the image of God and is precious to God, is the task of acquiring sufficient media and political influence to legislate those kinds of policies into law. A culture which no longer values life will have no difficulty finding ways to promote death.

Women in Combat

Ryan Smith is an attorney who was also a combat Marine veteran of the Iraq War. He points to a little commented upon aspect of the Obama administration's decision to allow women in combat. It's a consideration that causes one to wonder, after reading Smith's column in the Wall Street Journal, whether anyone in the Pentagon thought about or cared about it. Here's the heart of his essay:
Many articles have been written regarding the relative strength of women and the possible effects on morale of introducing women into all-male units. Less attention has been paid to another aspect: the absolutely dreadful conditions under which grunts live during war.

Most people seem to believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have merely involved driving out of a forward operating base, patrolling the streets, maybe getting in a quick firefight, and then returning to the forward operating base and its separate shower facilities and chow hall. The reality of modern infantry combat, at least the portion I saw, bore little resemblance to this sanitized view.

I served in the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a Marine infantry squad leader. We rode into war crammed in the back of amphibious assault vehicles. They are designed to hold roughly 15 Marines snugly; due to maintenance issues, by the end of the invasion we had as many as 25 men stuffed into the back. Marines were forced to sit, in full gear, on each other's laps and in contorted positions for hours on end. That was the least of our problems.

The invasion was a blitzkrieg. The goal was to move as fast to Baghdad as possible. The column would not stop for a lance corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, or even a company commander to go to the restroom. Sometimes we spent over 48 hours on the move without exiting the vehicles. We were forced to urinate in empty water bottles inches from our comrades.

Many Marines developed dysentery from the complete lack of sanitary conditions. When an uncontrollable urge hit a Marine, he would be forced to stand, as best he could, hold an MRE bag up to his rear, and defecate inches from his seated comrade's face.

During the invasion, we wore chemical protective suits because of the fear of chemical or biological weapon attack. These are equivalent to a ski jumpsuit and hold in the heat. We also had to wear black rubber boots over our desert boots. On the occasions the column did stop, we would quickly peel off our rubber boots, desert boots and socks to let our feet air out.

Due to the heat and sweat, layers of our skin would peel off our feet. However, we rarely had time to remove our suits or perform even the most basic hygiene. We quickly developed sores on our bodies.

When we did reach Baghdad, we were in shambles. We had not showered in well over a month and our chemical protective suits were covered in a mixture of filth and dried blood. We were told to strip and place our suits in pits to be burned immediately. My unit stood there in a walled-in compound in Baghdad, naked, sores dotted all over our bodies, feet peeling, watching our suits burn. Later, they lined us up naked and washed us off with pressure washers.

Yes, a woman is as capable as a man of pulling a trigger. But the goal of our nation's military is to fight and win wars. Before taking the drastic step of allowing women to serve in combat units, has the government considered whether introducing women into the above-described situation would have made my unit more or less combat effective?

Societal norms are a reality, and their maintenance is important to most members of a society. It is humiliating enough to relieve yourself in front of your male comrades; one can only imagine the humiliation of being forced to relieve yourself in front of the opposite sex.
Read the whole article at the link, particularly Smith's last paragraph, and ask yourself whether you think it's wise to throw men and women together into these kinds of situations.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

No Exchanges, No Obamacare

The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) continues to run into unforeseen difficulties. One of the gravest is that should states refuse to set up insurance exchanges the federal government will have to do it in their stead, but the tax credits and subsidies which were to help people purchase qualified insurance plans can only be awarded by the states, not the feds. This means that financial incentives to buy insurance will not exist which means that after four years of fighting and trillions of dollars of expense we'll still have as many, maybe even more, uninsured people as we did at the outset.

This is pretty dispiriting given that the ostensible purpose of going through this bitter four year ordeal was to insure all those who couldn't, or wouldn't, buy health insurance on their own. Here's an excerpt from a piece in The Daily Caller that explains the predicament:
The Obama administration is waiving the deadline for states to establish a health insurance exchange in accordance with Obamacare, reports The New York Times. But it should not be taken as a sign of deference to the states, or a willingness to be flexible; it should be taken as a sign of desperation.

The announcement is in fact an attempt by the administration to shore up the health care law’s inherent weaknesses and to cajole states into enacting a federal scheme. Contrary to what the feds now claim, the latest and most glaring weakness of Obamacare is that it was crafted to depend on states to establish health insurance exchanges. These exchanges are meant to be the vehicles for the distribution of tax credits and subsidies to buy qualified health insurance plans.

If a state refuses to set up an exchange, and so far 25 have refused, the federal government must step in and create one. However, the law does not authorize tax credits and subsidies to flow through federally created exchanges, only those created by states....[This] has huge implications. If federal exchanges cannot facilitate tax credits and subsidies, they also cannot be used to impose penalties on employers that fail to comply with the law’s “employer mandate” — a fine of $2,000 per employee per year. States that refuse to set up an exchange could therefore shield thousands of their residents and small businesses from onerous federal taxes and penalties.

[B]y stipulating that tax credits and subsidies would be available only through state-created exchanges, Congress sought to create an incentive for states to set up their own exchanges — because it could not simply order states to create them without overstepping constitutional boundaries. It seems that it did not occur to Obamacare’s authors that many states would simply refuse, or that offering tax credits and subsidies would not be sufficient inducement for them to comply. It was a gross miscalculation, and could mean the undoing of Obamacare.
During the debate over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) congressmen scoffed at the suggestion that they should actually be expected to read the 2000+ page bill before they voted on it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi embarrassed herself by averring that we'd "have to pass the bill to see what was in it."

Well, now they've passed it, by hook and by crook, and they're seeing what's in it, and a lot of it is making those who rammed the bill through Congress and signed the thing into law look like a bunch of incompetent amateurs.

Friday, January 25, 2013

How High Gas Prices Kill an Economy

Many of us grumble when the price at the pump goes up, but the pinch it puts on our own pocketbooks aside, higher gasoline prices are a millstone around the neck of the economy and are often a near-death sentence for the poor.

Gail Tverberg writes a post at The Energy Collective titled Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices Are a Problem in which she lists and explains the ramifications of high oil prices. Her piece could have been titled How High Gas Prices Kill an Economy and Devastate the Poor. Here's just one example:
It is not just oil prices that rise. The cost of food rises as well, partly because oil is used in many ways in growing and transporting food and partly because of the competition from biofuels for land, sending land prices up. The cost of shipping goods of all types rises, since oil is used in nearly all methods of transports. The cost of materials that are made from oil, such as asphalt and chemical products, also rises.

If the cost of oil rises, it tends to raise the cost of other fossil fuels. The cost of natural gas extraction tends to rise, since oil is used in natural gas drilling and in transporting water for fracking. Because of an over-supply of natural gas in the US, its sales price is temporarily less than the cost of production. This is not a sustainable situation. Higher oil costs also tend to raise the cost of transporting coal to the destination where it is used.
High oil prices mean higher prices for everything. This means people have less discretionary income to spend on restaurants, vacations, automobiles, college, homes and home repairs, etc. This means that the jobs of people working in these sectors, particularly marginal jobs most often held by the working poor, are placed at risk. As unemployment rises the government has to spend more on relief, but it's also taking in less tax revenue because there are fewer taxpayers. This means that relief programs have to be pared back. All of this means that high gas prices result in more people struggling to get food, heat, and shelter.

Liberals see higher gas prices as a good thing because they think that if the price is higher people will use less of it, and there'll be less carbon polluting the atmosphere. They're right about that, of course, but high energy costs are no way to solve the problem, if it really is a problem, of carbon emissions. Tverberg gives a good illustration from the airline industry of the ripple effect of high fuel prices. Check it out.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

ATP Synthase

It seems the more we learn about biology the less plausible any naturalistic account of living things becomes. Science has discovered that living cells, for example, are filled with tiny protein machines that are constructed just like machines in the macro-world. The amazing functions and complexity of these machines strongly suggests intentional, purposeful engineering and only someone with an apriori commitment that permits only materialistic, naturalistic causes could insist otherwise.

One of perhaps thousands of such machines in living things is the tiny motor in the cell's mitochondria that produces, or synthesizes, ATP from ADP. ATP is a molecule that provides energy for myriad tasks within the cell, and copious quantities of it are necessary for the cell's vitality. The motor that churns it out, called ATP synthase, is illustrated in this short video:
One can believe that this device came about as a result of blind, purposeless, random processes like genetic mutation. One can believe that such things happened in a land faraway in the far, far distant past, but one would be hard-pressed to show how impersonal forces produce such marvels in any other sphere of human experience.

In other words, when we see machines like this we understand them to have been designed purposefully by an intelligent agent or agents. We have a "uniform experience," to borrow Hume's term, that machines do not result from the mindless activity of natural forces and processes but require the intentional activity of a mind.

It's not logically impossible that such contrivances could come about apart from intelligent agency, I suppose, but it takes a blind, irrational faith in chance and nature to think that they actually have.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Re: Liberalism and the Black Community

A student named Donavan writes in response to the recent post titled How Liberalism is Devastating the Black Community. I thought I'd share his reply with you, slightly edited:
I would have to agree with this article in some regard. I personally believe that you are absolutely correct that guns aren't the true problem. Like almost every action we do has an underlying emotion, so does violence in black communities. The thing that's behind the violence in these communities is the absence of fathers. I'm from Harlem, NY, and most of my friends that I grew up with are fatherless. All of them that I can think of right now are either dead or in jail, they either don't know their fathers or their fathers weren't present in their lives.

So first hand, I know the patterns of what could happen when a father isn't in the picture.

To go along with the fact that Chicago already has 25 murders, Philadelphia had the highest murder rate last year and those murders were committed by black and hispanic males. The statistics don't lie about how these neighborhoods need, as you put it, self-control and just all around guidance. Most media outlets in my opinion don't cover these stories as well as they should. I was complaining about this to some people that I know and I remember a person shared with me that if the news were to report just the deaths in New York alone, there would always be breaking news. I also remember someone else sharing with me that the news is too depressing as it is, and we don't need anymore depressing stories. Both of these comments make me see how people are viewing murders in these communities.

In my opinion, the first person was really saying, "Although I agree with you, there is no hope of this ever stopping." The second was saying, "This will never stop, and I'm sick and tired of it and don't want to deal with it." Multiple murders are tough to understand and deal with. Most people in these communities want to try but don't know where to start. I believe you have started in the best place possible, with fathers. Now my question is what is the plan?

I agree that Liberalism is part of the problem. My view on welfare has changed over the years. As a person that has been on the receiving end of welfare, I do understand the relief that it provides to single mothers, on the other hand, I also see how it promotes laziness. Seeing both sides of the coin, I can still understand how you can draw this conclusion. If I had a father in my life, it would've been easier on us or manageable with more income.

I completely agree that the media has completely destroyed the image of a father. We look at fathers today and see an oppressor, someone that never understands, someone that doesn't know how to apologize and someone that gets run over. One of the things I don't like is watching a movie where the daughter dictates what happens in the house, for a young man growing up without a father, why would I want to have a child that tells me what to do and how to do it, who even embarrasses me? The media makes fathers look weak. Another reason I think that kids don't grow up talking about being fathers is because it doesn't look attractive. The question I have is can this view that is being displayed by the media be directly linked to liberalism? Or better yet, who is to blame?

Another problem with media displaying bad views of fathers is they promote violence, sex, and what looks like "freedom". If no one is guiding a child, walking with him/her, telling him/her "no" on occasion, the pleasure-filled life looks amazing. When a child grows up without a father, they hurt. In addition to the city life that always offers whatever you want whenever you want it, why would you aspire to a future of parenthood?

Most people want to be parents, until they have a child. Living in the city, the mindset is "I want it, and I can get it". Who is sitting down with these children and telling them that the fun stops, who is telling them that they aren't really having fun, who is telling them that one day you will wake up to be thirty? (Kind of hard to get a child to see that when they think they won't make it to 21) The problem with violence, sex and drugs (all linked to gangs) is that they actually medicate. They feel good for the moment, but then it wears down. The need for a father's order, discipline and guidance is so high.

I agree with your view that liberalism is a problem as it relates to lack of fathers and violence, but there are also many others. I don't think you think that liberalism is the total foundation of the problem, but if you do then I don't agree. I believe it is a huge brick but not the whole problem. The problem as we both know is sin.

I was going to go into how the church has failed the community, but everyone does that so I'll focus on my opinions how we can help. I feel that we can get out into the community more often. I think in this generation we should talk more about marriage and sex and how beautiful it is when it is the way God intended. Going along with what you said in class today, it would help a ton if we would know the culture so we can better see how distorted the picture is and show them how it is supposed to be. I think we can do a better job of going to them and not waiting for them to come to us. All in all, I agree with you that liberalism does have a huge part in the devastation in the black community.

Chutzpah

The same man who heads the department which implemented Operation Fast and Furious which produced, by some estimates, 2000 dead Mexican civilians as well as at least two dead Americans, the same man who refused to answer the questions posed to him about this operation by a congressional oversight committee, is now saying that "we need tough penalties on gun traffickers who help funnel weapons to dangerous criminals."

Well, no kidding, but our Attorney General is essentially telling us that we need tougher penalties on people like himself, a statement with which I find myself in complete agreement:
After the Fast and Furious debacle and his stonewalling of the congressional inquiry into it how can he say this with a straight face?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Shade vs. Sun

A friend sent me a link to an article by biologist Julie Craves that explains how the kind of coffee we drink can have a substantial effect on wildlife here in the U.S.

Those who care about protecting endangered species, especially birds, might want to read the whole piece. Here are some important excerpts:
“Our” migratory birds spend more time in the tropics in the winter than they do here in the breeding season. To survive long enough to migrate north and nest once again, they must find suitable living conditions during the winter months. Historically, shade coffee farms have provided a great deal of such habitat.
Shade farms grow their coffee trees in the midst of a mix of other, taller trees and plants that provide excellent habitat for birds, but sun farms eliminate the taller trees and grow only coffee.
Unfortunately, a quest for cheaper coffee over the last several decades has caused tens of thousands of acres of this valuable land to be destroyed. New coffee types — known as “sun coffee” or “technified coffee” — have been developed that can be grown without the protection of shade, in higher densities, and with higher yield. In Latin America alone, roughly three million of the nearly seven million acres of shade coffee have been converted to sun cultivation.

The impact of the deforestation is much greater than the absolute levels of destruction would indicate. Sun coffee requires the application of large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, and it depletes soils through erosion and the sapping of nutrients — all things that damage intricate tropical ecosystems.
For reasons Crave explains in her essay there's no standard definition of "shade-grown" coffee. She suggests that we buy only "certified" coffee, a term which requires a bit of explanation:
Unfortunately, certified coffees make up a relatively small portion of the coffee sold in the world today. If you have trouble finding it in stores, keep in mind that certifications are voluntary and market-driven. If we buy more certified coffee (and pay more for it), supply will increase, and it will become easier to find. And even if you can’t find certified coffee right now, you can still drink responsibly. Here are three steps to take when shopping:

1. Consider the country of origin. Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bolivia, India, and Ethiopia are more likely to grow coffee under shade, while Costa Rica, Brazil, and Colombia are more likely to grow sun coffee.

2. Try to buy from a small company dedicated to coffee, rather than a large multinational corporation. Good roasters develop relationships with the farms and co-ops — it’s in everybody’s best interest for the coffee to be grown sustainably. Large corporations, on the other hand, are more interested in profit, which means high volume and low prices achieved through technified sun coffee.

3. Which brings us to price. Cheap coffee is not sustainable, not for the farmer and not for the environment. I can’t state it any plainer than this: If you are buying inexpensive grocery-store or fast-food coffee, you are contributing to the destruction of bird habitat and the decline of migratory songbirds. It’s one of the worst things you can do for the environment on a daily basis — and one of the easiest things for you to change.
Among coffees that are labeled "shade grown" the consumer should look for a "Bird-friendly" certification:
This is the only true “shade-grown” certification. Developed by ecologists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, it has the most robust habitat requirements of any coffee certification, including rules on the height and density of the canopy cover and the number and types of shade-tree species. In addition, coffee that is Bird-Friendly must also be certified organic. Only coffee certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center can be called Bird-Friendly.
Craves discusses other considerations in her article as well. It's a piece well-worth reading if you're concerned about what you can do to make a contribution toward the ecological well-being of the planet.

On the Anniversary of Roe

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision which granted a woman the right to have an abortion at any time in her pregnancy for any reason whatsoever. The occasion caused me to think.

Isn't there something odd about the overwhelming reaction of horror and grief to the terrible massacre of children at Newtown when similar massacres occur almost daily in abortion clinics all across the country? Aside from the fact that the Sandy Hook children were wanted and loved, what's the difference? Why should whether the child is wanted and loved make a difference? If any of the Sandy Hook children were not wanted and loved would their deaths be any less tragic?

Even if one argues that there's a qualitative difference between a six year old child and a six month old fetus what exactly is that difference, how significant is it, and how does it account for the horror we feel when contemplating the shooting?

Is it not really that the difference in our reactions comes down to little more than that one set of slaughters was done publicly while the other is done privately?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Meditation for MLK Day

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 thinking 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.

Embryos and Fairy Tales

A couple of years ago I posted a video of Alexander Tsiaras giving a TED Talk on his work as a computer animator working with scientific subjects. Specifically his talk was about his work with developing embryos. The video is back in the news - Huffpo is running it - so I thought it might be appropriate to repost it. Here's the Viewpoint post from 23rd November, 2011:

Evolution News and Views has posted a video of mathematician and medical image maker Alexander Tsiaras giving a TED lecture on applying his craft to the development of a child from conception to birth. As you watch listen carefully to the language he uses to describe what he's depicting:
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I don't see how anyone can watch this and not draw the conclusion that the materialist account of what it depicts - i.e. that it it all happened by chance mutations and natural selection - is anything but a modern fairy tale.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

True Lies

Last October, right before the election, Mitt Romney made the claim that Jeep was going to start producing vehicles in China, and as a result jobs that could have been created here will be created in China.

This was immediately met with shrieks of derision in the media and other liberal precincts. The company denied it, Romney stood by it, and a fact-checking group called Politifact eventually called it "the Lie of the Year."

It's the sort of thing the media too frequently does to good people. If they can't attack their record they attack their character.

Well, it turns out that Mr. Romney was right after all. You can read the details at The Weekly Standard if you're so inclined.

I wonder if Mr. Romney will be receiving any apologies from those who called him a liar and debased his character. I rather doubt it, apologies not being the sort of thing one expects from people who are quick to engage in character assassination and political slander.

Friday, January 18, 2013

How Liberalism Is Devastating the Black Community

If President Obama wishes to do something really helpful to protect children he might direct his attention to the epidemic of fatherlessness that's ravaging our nation's minority communities and placing millions of young black kids, particularly males, at risk. Lee Habeeb at National Review has an excellent article on this crisis, a crisis that the media seems largely disinclined to discuss.

I'd like to display it in its entirety but I'll just give you this and urge you to read the rest at the link. Be especially sure to read the story of the elephants:
Twenty children and six adults were killed in Newtown, Conn., last month, and the media quickly, and justifiably, descended to tell the tragic story. In the first few weeks of January in Chicago, 25 people have already been murdered. Most were young black and Hispanic men, murdered by other young black and Hispanic men.

In Chicago, it’s Newtown every month. But the media haven’t converged on Chicago this month.

You don’t know the names of those kids and adults gunned down in Chicago this January, all by handguns....You don’t know the names of the other 530 young people, most of them minorities, who were killed in Chicago between 2008 and January 2012 either. You don’t know their names, and the national media haven’t parked their media trucks in Chicago, because the liberal narrative does not offer easy answers to the problems haunting Chicago.

You don’t know their names because the real racism that exists in the media is this: A young black male’s life is not worth reporting when it is taken by another black male. You don’t know the names because the media don’t or can’t blame the deaths in Chicago on a weapon like the AR-15, or on the NRA.

You don’t know their names because the media aren’t interested in getting at the real cause of much of the senseless gun violence in America: fatherlessness. About 20,000 people live in my hometown of Oxford, Miss., and there are probably twice as many guns. Folks own handguns, shotguns, rifles, and all kinds of weapons I’ve never even heard of. But I can’t remember the last murder story in the local paper.

That’s because my town has lots of guns, but lots of fathers, too.

Chicago doesn’t have a gun problem; it has a father problem.

Gun control isn’t the problem on Chicago’s streets; self-control is. When young men don’t have fathers, they don’t learn to control their masculine impulses. They don’t have fathers to teach them how to channel their masculine impulses in productive ways.

When young men don’t have fathers, those men will seek out masculine love — masculine acceptance — where they can find it. Often, they find it in gangs.

In my little town, if some boys tried to form a gang and do violence on our streets, the fathers wouldn’t bother calling the sheriff. Those boys would face a gang of fathers hell bent on establishing order in our community. And if that meant using physical force, so be it.
Why is the slaughter in Chicago not deemed worthy of national media attention? Perhaps the liberal media, as Habeeb suggests, simply doesn't care about the plight of black kids, but I'd rather withhold that uncharitable allegation to offer as a last resort. I think there are several other reasons that seem to me more plausible.

First, the fatherlessness epidemic can be convincingly tied to the welfare state, a sociological phenomenon that has been promoted and expanded by liberals for fifty years. The liberal media is reluctant to call attention to the slow-motion disaster occurring in our minority communities because it's largely due to a set of policies that media liberals have themselves been vigorous proponents of.

Second, liberalism has been telling us for those same fifty years that fathers are not all that important anyway, that the traditional family is oppressive, that "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," and the media is understandably loath to run stories that show in stark tones the utter destructiveness, fatuousness, and idiocy of these claims.

Third, the ongoing degradation of our culture - the hypersexualization, the violence, and the secularization that pollute the cultural sea in which young men swim - is leading to its predictable denouement, and all of these trends have for the last five decades been facilitated and encouraged by liberalism and the liberal media.

Readers have occasionally questioned me as to why I'm so impatient with liberalism and its instantiation in the modern Democratic party. My response is, in light of the above how can anyone not be?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Pro-Choice Logic

An article in the recent issue of Touchstone reminded me of a post I did in March of last year. The article and post were both on the logic of the pro-choice movement and how that logic lead us ineluctably to the normalization of infanticide. I thought It'd be worthwhile to rerun the post, so here it is:

Back in the 1960s it was argued that a developing child isn't really a person until it reaches viability and that a woman should be permitted to abort up to that point.

In the 70s personhood was deemed to arrive at the moment of birth, and then it was set at the moment at which the entire child is outside the mother's body. Any time before that moment the child could be killed.

Then in the 90s people like philosopher Peter Singer argued that the baby really isn't a person until it can anticipate the future and have wants and desires for the future. All others, in Singer's view, are non-persons.

Now Singer's argument has gone mainstream. Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argue in the Journal of Medical Ethics that newborn babies are not “actual persons” and do not have a “moral right to life”. These academics also argue that parents should be able to have their baby killed if it turns out to be disabled when it is born.

The journal’s editor, Julian Savulescu, said the article's authors had received death threats since publishing it and claimed that those who made abusive and threatening posts about the study were “fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society”.

I certainly don't condone death threats, but I have to say that Savulescu has an odd view of what constitutes a "liberal society." A liberal society is one which protects the rights of the weakest of its members. There's nothing liberal (in the classical sense) about seeking to justify infanticide and laying the philosophical groundwork for killing others who don't fit an arbitrary definition of personhood.

The report on all this is written by Stephen Adams for the Telegraph. Adams states that:
In the [Journal] article, entitled After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?, the authors argued that, “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”

Rather than being “actual persons”, newborns were “potential persons”. They explained: “Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’.

Giubilini and Minerva define a person as “an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.” As such they argued it was “not possible to damage a newborn by preventing her from developing the potentiality to become a person in the morally relevant sense.”
Since there's no significant difference between a newborn and a fetus, and since we feel free to kill a fetus if we so choose, we should also be free to kill a newborn, or so the argument goes.

I happen to think Giubilini and Minerva are right that there's no significant difference between a fetus and a newborn, but quite the opposite conclusion could be, and perhaps should be, drawn from this: Since it's illegal to kill a newborn and since there's no difference between a newborn and a fetus, it should also be illegal to kill a fetus.

Referring to the outraged mail and death threats Savulescu says:
This “debate” has been an example of “witch ethics” - a group of people know who the witch is and seek to burn her. It is one of the most dangerous human tendencies we have. It leads to lynching and genocide. Rather than argue and engage, there is a drive is to silence and, in the extreme, kill, based on their own moral certainty. That is not the sort of society we should live in.
This surely should win some sort of prize for irony. Isn't killing on the basis of their own moral certainty precisely what the authors of the article are advocating? They're presuming to have moral certainty concerning the personhood of the infant and on that basis they're advocating the right to kill it.

If we're going to adopt arbitrary definitions of "persons" perhaps we should define a person as someone who holds to a high view of human life and dignity. We could thereupon declare the authors of "After-birth Abortion" to be non-persons and thus subject to being the recipients themselves of an after-birth abortion. Would the Journal of Medical Ethics publish such an article, do you suppose?

Savulescu defends the writers by declaring that what they propose is not novel among ethicists:
What these young colleagues are spelling out is what would be the inevitable end point of a road that ethical philosophers in the States and Australia have all been treading for a long time and there is certainly nothing new.
He's certainly right about that. This isn't new. Progressives and fascists have been advocating infanticide for almost a century now, but he's wrong about this being the endpoint. History teaches us that it's in fact only the midpoint. Once we accept killing born children there's no place on the slippery slope we can stop. Next it will be mental and physical defectives, then the elderly, then criminals, the indigent, Republicans, anyone who is deemed undesirable.

We've been down this road before. It leads to the holocaust. Apparently people like the folks at the Journal of Medical Ethics don't much care.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Failure of Materialistic OOL

Paul Davies is a physicist and science writer who, although he's not a theist, certainly seems to tread close to the water in some of his writing. A recent essay in The Guardian UK is a good example. Davies is talking about the origin of life (OOL) and says things like this:
The origin of life is one of the great outstanding mysteries of science. How did a non-living mixture of molecules transform themselves into a living organism? What sort of mechanism might be responsible?

A century and a half ago, Charles Darwin produced a convincing explanation for how life on Earth evolved from simple microbes to the complexity of the biosphere today, but he pointedly left out how life got started in the first place. "One might as well speculate about the origin of matter," he quipped. But that did not stop generations of scientists from investigating the puzzle....

Most research into life's murky origin has been carried out by chemists. They've tried a variety of approaches in their attempts to recreate the first steps on the road to life, but little progress has been made. Perhaps that is no surprise, given life's stupendous complexity. Even the simplest bacterium is incomparably more complicated than any chemical brew ever studied.

But a more fundamental obstacle stands in the way of attempts to cook up life in the chemistry lab. The language of chemistry simply does not mesh with that of biology. Chemistry is about substances and how they react, whereas biology appeals to concepts such as information and organization. Informational narratives permeate biology. DNA is described as a genetic "database", containing "instructions" on how to build an organism. The genetic "code" has to be "transcribed" and "translated" before it can act. And so on.

If we cast the problem of life's origin in computer jargon, attempts at chemical synthesis focus exclusively on the hardware – the chemical substrate of life – but ignore the software – the informational aspect. To explain how life began we need to understand how its unique management of information came about.
This sounds an awful lot like what intelligent design theorists have been saying now for two decades, but there's more:
Now a new perspective has emerged from the work of engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists, studying the way in which information flows through complex systems such as communication networks with feedback loops, logic modules and control processes. What is clear from their work is that the dynamics of information flow displays generic features that are independent of the specific hardware supporting the information.

Information theory has been extensively applied to biological systems at many levels from genomes to ecosystems, but rarely to the problem of how life actually began. Doing so opens up an entirely new perspective on the problem. Rather than the answer being buried in some baffling chemical transformation, the key to life's origin lies instead with a transformation in the organisation of information flow.
As Stephen Meyer points out in his magisterial work Signature in the Cell complex coded information is always in our experience the product of an intelligent agent. Computer software and books do not result from natural processes acting randomly. Such a phenomenon has never been observed, yet when it comes to life we are told that we must believe that the equivalent of entire libraries of information somehow arose almost spontaneously in some "warm little pond" to use Darwin's phrase. A lot of thinkers, even those disinclined or even averse to the idea of an intelligent designer, scientists like Paul Davies and philosophers like Thomas Nagel, are beginning to realize that such a scenario is so highly implausible as to be literally incredible. Davies concludes his column with this:
The way life manages information involves a logical structure that differs fundamentally from mere complex chemistry. Therefore chemistry alone will not explain life's origin, any more than a study of silicon, copper and plastic will explain how a computer can execute a program. Our work suggests that the answer will come from taking information seriously as a physical agency, with its own dynamics and causal relationships existing alongside those of the matter that embodies it – and that life's origin can ultimately be explained by importing the language and concepts of biology into physics and chemistry, rather than the other way round.
Perhaps at some point they'll also realize that they need to import the language of intelligent, purposeful agency as well.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Two Kinds of Atheism

Those who reject theism often argue that atheism is the default position and that the burden rests with the theist to demonstrate that there are good reasons to believe in God. A reader named Mat sent along a link to a blog by a fellow named Jason Dulle who assesses this and a few related claims.

Jason makes several very good points, but part of what he says I find problematic. In order to understand his argument I should explain that I hold that atheism is literally the lack of belief in a God or gods and that there really are two ways to be an atheist. One could claim that one lacks such a belief because there simply are no such beings as gods. This is a strong claim which I call hard atheism.

The second type is to say that one lacks a belief in God because one can find no convincing reasons to think such a being exists. This view, which is usually called agnosticism, I call soft, atheism. It doesn't assert, as hard atheism does, that there is no God, it simply asserts that, whether there is or isn't, there's insufficient warrant for believing there is.

Dulle rejects this view. He argues instead that only the hard version of atheism qualifies as atheism and that agnosticism is not true atheism. I think he's mistaken about this, but I invite anyone interested in the matter to read his entire argument at the link.

Here's his objection to the position I hold:
This new definition of atheism as “non-theism,” or a mere “lack of belief in God” transforms atheism from an ontological claim to a mere epistemological claim. It reduces atheism to an autobiographical note, telling us only about the psychology of its adherent, but nothing about whether God, in fact, exists or not.
I agree but one doesn't need to make an ontological claim about God's existence in order to lack a belief in that existence. Whether a person claims there is no God or simply holds no belief on the matter he's still an a-theist.
As a result, this new definition ceases to be explanatorily meaningful. Indeed, it ceases to be a view at all. Babies, and even dogs would qualify as atheists according to this definition. That seems patently absurd.
Well, yes, but it's also absurd to treat babies and dogs as the sort of beings who have metaphysical beliefs in the first place. Would it be appropriate to call a baby, dog, tree, or rock an agnostic because none of these holds a belief about God? Of course not. It's only appropriate to use these terms to describe persons capable of holding the beliefs in question, so I don't think this objection has much force.

Dulle continues:
There is a cognitive element to atheism that this new definition does not take into consideration. If atheism is to be understood as a meaningful position on the question of God’s existence, it must be about the object, not the subject; ontology, not epistemology. Otherwise, the presumption of atheism is more akin to agnosticism than atheism in any meaningful sense of the word. Indeed, it is difficult to see any meaningful distinction between the two. It appears to be a distinction without a difference. In the end, [atheism] collapses into agnosticism.
This is true, at least insofar as we're speaking of soft atheism, but I fail to see the problem with it. Dulle's quite sure there is one, though:
This new definition of atheism seeks to shirk its epistemic responsibility by engaging in meaningless word games. Every negative claim is an affirmative claim in reverse. If I say "I don't believe in Santa Claus" (a negative claim), it reflects my positive affirmation that "I believe Santa Claus does not exist." The same goes for the claim, "I don't believe God exists." The contrapositive of that negative claim is the positive affirmation, "I believe God does not exist." Seeing that every negative claim is a positive claim in reverse, the presumptive atheist cannot avoid making a positive claim, and therefore must shoulder his burden of proof for that claim.
This is also true, but only for the hard atheist because only he is making a negative claim. It's why, in fact, even such atheist stalwarts as Richard Dawkins, when pressed, will back away from the strong claim that there is no God. They realize that it's an intellectually indefensible position so they temporarily retreat from it until the challenge has passed and then they return to it.

But Dulle's critique only applies to the person who makes the strong claim. He goes astray, I think, when he says that "I don't believe in Santa Claus" is equivalent to "I believe Santa Claus does not exist." The claim could mean that, but it could also mean "I hold no beliefs about the existence of Santa Claus," or, as in the current case, God. Such a person is not saying, "I believe God does not exist," yet he is an atheist all the same. To see Dulle's error consider the proposition, "I hold no belief about whether Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2016." This is a perfectly reasonable assertion, but it's not at all equivalent to "I believe Hillary Clinton will not run for president in 2016."

Perhaps this is all much ado about nothing, but I think it's important to be aware of the distinction between hard and soft atheism because a lot of people take refuge in agnosticism, thinking that it's more intellectually respectable to be called an agnostic than to be called an atheist. I suggest that it be pointed out to them that agnosticism is just atheism-lite.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Do We Have Souls?

Tim O'Connor addresses the question of the existence and nature of the soul at Big Questions Online.

His essay discusses several basic views: Materialist reductionism - which says that everything about us can in principle be reduced to the workings of material particles like atoms and their constituents; Emergentism - which says that we are fundamentally material but that the material of which we are comprised is organized in such a way as to give rise to capacities and features which are fundamentally different. It's similar to how a gravitational field emerges from a material object like a star; and Aristotelianism - the view that the soul is the form, or essence, of the body. It's that which makes us a human being.

O'Connor himself adopts an emergent view:
To have a human soul, on this account, is to be an embodied creature having (in some measure) such personal capacities or the biological potential to develop such capacities.
In other words, our soul is more like the capacities and potentialities we have by virtue of having the kinds of bodies we do. But O'Connor is a Christian so he wonders whether such a view is compatible with the traditions of the Christian faith:
Is this account congruent with religious understandings of the nature and destiny of human souls? In remarking briefly on this question, I will restrict myself to the understanding common to my own Christian belief and those of the other Abrahamic religions.

Reflective theological speculation concerning the soul down through the centuries has not been so nearly uniform as popularly thought, with many theologians emphasizing on scriptural, no less than philosophical-empirical, grounds the deeply embodied nature of human persons. (It is not for nothing that the ancient Christian creeds, e.g., look forward to the bodily resurrection of the dead.)

However, we might wonder whether a psychological, fully embodied account of the soul is consistent with the belief that all persons are deemed of ‘equal worth in the sight of God,’ given that some human persons exhibit these psychological capacities to a far lesser degree than others. By way of reply, I turn to the foundational Genesis text that states that all humans are divine ikons, image-bearers of God.

Plausibly, this not only describes our present distinctive capacities for rationality, for self- and God-awareness, for moral freedom, and for self-emptying love, it promises a future gift: the offer of friendship with God and an eventual, fuller realization of our human potential....

Of course, this promised destiny is predicated on the assumption that we will individually survive death. But how can this be, on an embodied view of the soul, given what death entails for the body? Note that in the Abrahamic religions, human persons are not naturally immortal. (Indeed, all of created reality is sustained in existence by God.) Survival of death would be a supernatural gift.
My own view is that our soul is not a set of capacities or a substance that's contained within us, but rather that our soul is information or data. It's every true fact about us, what we look like at every instant of our lives, what we think at every instant, our hopes, idiosyncrasies, personality, who our ancestors were, everything that forms a complete, exhaustive description of us.

Just as the information with which we are familiar in our everyday lives must exist in some medium like a book or a hard drive so, too, must our souls exist somewhere, but it's not "in" us. Rather it's in the mind of God. We might think of God's mind as a vast database that contains a "file" on everyone who has ever existed. Since it exists in the mind of God the soul is potentially immortal.

When a person's body dies, it's conceivable that God uses the information in our "file" to instantiate us in another body in another level or aspect of reality.

Perhaps there are some whom, for whatever reason, God chooses not to instantiate so they cease to enjoy conscious existence. Perhaps there are some whose file God simply chooses to delete so they cease to exist altogether.

In any event, the proper place to look for the soul, on this view, would not be inside us but in the mind of God.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Real Heroes

When Chilean miners were rescued after surviving trapped underground for 69 days in 2010 the world media oddly treated them as though they had done something heroic when in fact it was their rescuers who were the real heroes.

By contrast when hundreds of Japanese technicians chose to stay at the Fukushima nuclear plant after the 2011 tsunami they struggled at great risk to themselves to save a large portion of Japan from nuclear contamination. It was an act of genuine heroism and altruism, but these men live today in obscurity, stigmatized by their association with a company that many Japanese blame for the radiation hazard that befell them when the plant was damaged.

Even so, but for their selfless sacrifice the damage would have been far worse.

The Guardian UK has their story. Here's part of it:
Almost two years after the tsunami, the men who stayed behind at Fukushima Daiichi and spared Japan from an even worse fate occupy an uncomfortable place in the country's post-disaster psyche. While the Chilean miners who spent 69 days trapped deep underground in 2010 were feted as national heroes, most of the Fukushima workers continue to live unseen in the shadow of the disaster.

Tepco turns down most interview requests, and all but two of the handful of workers who have commented publicly did so on condition of anonymity. Most have chosen to remain silent, fearing they would be ostracised in the communities they tried, but failed, to prevent from turning into post-nuclear wastelands for years, perhaps decades.

Yoshizawa understands their anger. "Generally speaking, people in Japan believe we were the cause of the accident, and it's important to bear that in mind. As Tepco employees we have to take responsibility for the accident, and ensure that it never happens again. It's a matter of regaining people's trust, but it will take time. "Looking back, maybe there were things we could have done better to prepare, but at the time we did everything possible to respond to the accident."

The perception that the workers perpetrated the accident and then botched their response appeared to permeate every level of Japanese society. The Fukushima 50 waited 18 months before the then prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, publicly thanked them for "saving Japan", a gesture repeated this month by his successor, Shinzo Abe.
Some of the men in this story lost everything, including their loved ones, in the tsunami, but they nevertheless risked their lives to save others. It is indeed strange, perverse, even, that such men live in anonymity while the Chilean miners who had no choice but to just wait until they could be rescued were turned into celebrities.

$180 Billion Failure

One of the criticisms of liberal solutions to our nation's problems is that 1. They're usually expensive and 2. They rarely work. Welfare is a good example, subsidizing green energy is another. A recent article at Heritage.org by Lindsey Burke and David Muhlhausen tells us about yet another. They write about Head Start, a program initiated to prepare poor kids for school so that they don't fall behind in the early grades and condemn themselves to a lifetime of underachievement.

Since its inception in the 1960s we've spent over 180 billion dollars on the program and we're discovering now the disheartening news that the children we had hoped to help are doing no better than had there been no Head Start program in the first place.

The following excerpt is taken from the opening paragraphs of the article:
In 2008, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) completed data collection for its third-grade follow-up study of Head Start, a federal preschool program designed to improve the kindergarten readiness of low-income children. Four years later, just before Christmas, the agency finally published the results of the congressionally mandated evaluation.

The report’s publication date reads October 2012, meaning the final product sat at HHS for two months before being released.

Since 1965, taxpayers have spent more than $180 billion on Head Start. Yet, over the decades, this Great Society relic has failed to improve academic outcomes for the children it was designed to help. The third-grade follow-up evaluation is the latest in a growing body of evidence that should urge policymakers to seriously consider Head Start’s future.

The timing of the release raises questions about whether HHS was trying to bury the findings in the report, which shows, among other outcomes, that by third grade, the $8 billion Head Start program had little to no impact on cognitive, social-emotional, health, or parenting practices of participants. On a few measures, access to Head Start had harmful effects on children.
The details are at the link, but here's one that's particularly worrisome given the ineffectiveness of the program:
Congress will soon vote on a supplemental aid package to Hurricane Sandy victims that includes $100 million in additional Head Start funding. The Senate Appropriations Committee notes that 265 Head Start centers will receive the funding, which equates to more than $377,000 per center.
Somebody's evidently benefiting from taxpayer contributions to the program, but it's not the children.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Fifty Most Religiously Oppressive Countries in the World

There's an interesting report from Open Door.org's World Watch List linked to at The Blaze on the 50 worst countries to live in if you're a Christian. As one might expect most of them are either Muslim or officially atheist (communist) and some are Hindu. The one notable exception, which surprised me, is Colombia, and I'm not sure what makes that country such a difficult place for Christians who wish to practice their faith. Perhaps a reader can help me out with that.

At any rate, here are a couple of graphics from the article. If you have trouble reading them they're clearer here:
The darker the country is colored the worse the level of persecution it inflicts upon religious minorities.

Here's an ordered ranking of the fifty worst:
There's a video at The Blaze which explains how the World Watch List arrived at its ranking. Whether we're Christian or not we should be thankful we live in a nation that protects the freedom to believe and practice what you want. At least it does for the time being.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Five Facts about Guns and Violence

In response to calls - some bordering on the hysterical - for more gun control, even to the extent of confiscation, we offer a few facts from a piece at Reason.com.
1. Violent crime – including violent crime using guns – has dropped massively over the past 20 years. The violent crime rate - which includes murder, rape, and beatings - is half of what it was in the early 1990s. And the violent crime rate involving the use of weapons has also declined at a similar pace.

2. Mass shootings have not increased in recent years. Despite terrifying events like Sandy Hook or last summer’s theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, mass shootings are not becoming more frequent. “There is no pattern, there is no increase,” says criminologist James Allen Fox of Northeastern University, who studies the issue. Other data shows that mass killings peaked in 1929.

3. Schools are getting safer. Across the board, schools are less dangerous than they used be. Over the past 20 years, the rate of theft per 1,000 students dropped from 101 to 18. For violent crime, the victimization rate per 1,000 students dropped from 53 to 14.

4. There Are More Guns in Circulation Than Ever Before. Over the past 20 years, virtually every state in the country has liberalized gunownership rules and many states have expanded concealed carry laws that allow more people to carry weapons in more places. There around 300 million guns in the United States and at least one gun in about 45 percent of all households. Yet the rate of gun-related crime continues to drop.

5. “Assault Weapons Bans” Are Generally Ineffective. While many people are calling for reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons – an arbitrary category of guns that has no clear definition – research shows it would have no effect on crime and violence. “Should it be renewed,” concludes a definitive study, “the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”
Here's a video that accompanies the article at Reason.com:
In the wake of a tragedy like Sandy Hook it's easy to succumb to the desire to do something, even if what we do is ineffective. Even so, whatever measures we take should be dictated by the facts and not by emotion. More gun control is not going to solve a problem that is, at its core, a symptom of moral degeneration and cultural rot.

Got the Flu?

Perhaps you did your due diligence and got a flu shot this year but nevertheless came down with the bug anyway and are wondering why.

An article at The Blaze.com explains that there could be several reasons although one of them, the particular strain of virus that you came down with was not included in the vaccine, doesn't apply to this year's breakout:
[W]hy does [the flu] seem to be so virulent this year? The most popular strain identified this season is Type A influenza H3N2, which is historically associated with more serious illnesses. It is also among the strains covered by the flu vaccine.
The article goes on to give two other problems with the immunization that may apply in cases where a person got the shot this year but still got ill:
But as Cranston said “no vaccine is 100 percent effective.” One reason is the lag time between vaccination and active immunity. A person who received a flu shot but comes in contact with the virus before the vaccine becomes effective — between 10 days and two weeks — they are still susceptible to becoming ill.

[Moreover] recent studies have shown that the flu vaccine as a whole is only about 59 percent effective at preventing the illness... [T]he vaccine [also] appears to be less effective for the elderly, which is a population often highly encouraged to receive the shot in the first place.
So, the lesson seems to be get the shot early next year before you're exposed to the virus and hope that you're among the 59%.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What's a Liberal to Think?

Like the islanders in King Kong, every now and then liberals feel the need to sacrifice someone to appease the gods of racial "justice."

Remember when George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in Florida last year how the media did everything it could to portray Zimmerman, who evidently was having his skull bashed in by Mr. Martin, as the Grand Kleagle of the KKK? They seemed desperate to use the incident as confirmation of their conviction that white men are racists and black men are oppressed victims, even to the point of coining the odd construction "white Hispanic" to describe Zimmerman lest anyone should miss the point.

Unfortunately, the evidence in the case, as often happens, just wouldn't permit them to get away with it, but I'm wondering what will happen in the case of a young Georgia woman, a mother of two, who shot a man whom, since he was black and she was white, some in the media will probably portray as an innocent neighbor simply seeking to borrow a cup of sugar:
The incident happened at a home on Henderson Ridge Lane in Loganville around 1 p.m. The woman was working in an upstairs office when she spotted a strange man outside a window, according to Walton County Sheriff Joe Chapman. He said she took her 9-year-old twins to a crawlspace before the man broke in using a crowbar.

But the man eventually found the family.

"The perpetrator opens that door. Of course, at that time he's staring at her, her two children and a .38 revolver," Chapman told Channel 2’s Kerry Kavanaugh.

The woman then shot him five times, but he survived, Chapman said. He said the woman ran out of bullets but threatened to shoot the intruder if he moved.

"She's standing over him, and she realizes she's fired all six rounds. And the guy's telling her to quit shooting," Chapman said.

The woman ran to a neighbor's home with her children. The intruder attempted to flee in his car but crashed into a wooded area and collapsed in a nearby driveway, Chapman said.

Deputies arrested 32-year-old Atlanta resident Paul Slater in connection with the crime. Chapman said they found him on the ground saying, "Help me. I'm close to dying." Slater was taken to Gwinnett Medical Center for treatment. Chapman said Slater was shot in the face and neck.

In February, Slater was arrested on simple battery charges, according to the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office. He has been arrested six other times in the county since 2008.
There's more at the link. This story is fraught with peril for our liberal friends. How does a good liberal decide what to think about it? A woman (a member of an oppressed class) who happens to be white (an oppressor race) shot a man (an oppressor) who happens to be black (an oppressed minority) with a gun (which she shouldn't have been permitted access to) in order to protect herself and her children (a noble act).

Perhaps the best thing to do, rather than try to untangle all these conflicting threads, is to just ignore the story entirely which is why we probably won't hear one hundredth as much about this shooting as we did about the Zimmerman/Martin affair. The media won't put her on trial, Al Sharpton won't be demanding "justice," The New Black Panthers won't put a bounty on the mother's head, and no one will be complaining about her ownership and use of a gun.

Anyway, here's an exit question for those who would like to see handguns banned. Could you say to that mother, who huddled with her terrified children in the attic listening to the intruder's steps drawing closer, "I'm glad you weren't harmed, but given the choice between protecting yourself and your children from that man and having access to a handgun, I prefer you hadn't had access to the weapon"?

That's essentially what people on the left are saying every time they say they want to keep guns out of the hands of responsible citizens.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Finding Out What's in It

An article in the New York Times should give pause to anyone who bought the sales pitch for Obamacare that it was going to "bend the cost curve down." People who work for small businesses or who buy their own insurance are, in some states, in for a real shock:
Health insurance companies across the country are seeking and winning double-digit increases in premiums for some customers, even though one of the biggest objectives of the Obama administration’s health care law was to stem the rapid rise in insurance costs for consumers.

Particularly vulnerable to the high rates are small businesses and people who do not have employer-provided insurance and must buy it on their own.

In California, Aetna is proposing rate increases of as much as 22 percent, Anthem Blue Cross 26 percent, and Blue Shield of California 20 percent for some of those policy holders, according to the insurers’ filings with the state for 2013. These rate requests are all the more striking after a 39 percent rise sought by Anthem Blue Cross in 2010 helped give impetus to the law, known as the Affordable Care Act, which was passed the same year and will not be fully in effect until 2014.

In other states, like Florida and Ohio, insurers have been able to raise rates by at least 20 percent for some policy holders. The rate increases can amount to several hundred dollars a month.

The proposed increases compare with about 4 percent for families with employer-based policies.
In order to provide insurance coverage for a few million people who didn't have it because they couldn't afford it, congress passed a law, Obamacare, that forces millions of those who are almost in that situation themselves to pay for those who can't. Then Mr. Obama boasts that he's cutting taxes on the middle class. What a guy.

California, Ohio, and Florida all voted for Mr. Obama in November. I wonder how they're liking him now.

Monday, January 7, 2013

How Much Risk Is Too Much?

The New York Times reports that an analysis done by the state of New York has shown that drilling for natural gas using hydrofracking poses minimal risks to people and the environment, but some environmentalists are not satisfied and, despite the enormous economic benefits that would accrue to the people of the state, still oppose fracking:
The state’s Health Department found in an analysis it prepared early last year that the much-debated drilling technology known as hydrofracking could be conducted safely in New York, according to a copy obtained by The New York Times from an expert who did not believe it should be kept secret.

The analysis and other health assessments have been closely guarded by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his administration as the governor weighs whether to approve fracking. Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, has long delayed making a decision, unnerved in part by strident opposition on his party’s left. A plan to allow a limited amount of fracking in the state’s Southern Tier along the Pennsylvania border is still seen as the most likely outcome, should the drilling process receive final approval.

The eight-page analysis is a summary of previous research by the state and others, and concludes that fracking can be done safely. It delves into the potential impact of fracking on water resources, on naturally occurring radiological material found in the ground, on air emissions and on “potential socioeconomic and quality-of-life impacts.”
According to a WSJ piece quoted in Hot Air the stakes are pretty high:
According to the Manhattan Institute, lifting the fracking ban in New York could result in $11.4 billion in economic output and $1.4 billion in tax revenues, not to mention 15,000 to 18,000 new jobs.
Environmentalists, the Times piece notes, have raised some pertinent caveats to the state health department's report, but at some point the governor has to ask how low the risk of harm has to be and how serious must the potential harm to humans and the environment be to warrant continuing the ban on drilling. Some environmentalists seem to be of the opinion that any risk at all and any amount of harm are simply not worth it.

That's a position that, in this economy, seems awfully hard to defend.