Thursday, February 28, 2013

Peter and the Darwinian Wolves

Peter Hitchens, brother of the famous atheist Christopher, is himself as unlike his late brother in his theological commitments as could be. He has a fine column in the UK Daily Mail in which he responds to critics who complain that his confidence in, and enthusiasm for, the efficacy of natural selection falls short of what's expected from informed modern laity by the Darwinian priesthood.

The column is interesting throughout, but a thought he shares toward the end struck me as particularly worth emphasizing:
Mr Platt’s assertion that ‘to suggest that the theory is “based upon speculation, not upon observation” is an insult to Darwin, and to the many biologists who have studied and refined the theory over the years.’ , with its interesting use of the word ‘insult’, is a mild but important warning of the inquisition-style rage which quickly enters arguments on this subject, and which is in fact the biggest single argument against the theory. Why are its supporters so furiously intolerant of doubt and dissent, if they are so confident?
It is indeed striking that when one visits web sites which discuss intelligent design one usually finds calm, reasoned arguments and patient respect, even occasional admiration, for those who disagree. On the other hand, Darwinist websites often offer little more than bitter vituperation for those who hold a different opinion. A sense of inquisitorial hatred often pervades the posts and the smell of smoldering heretics hangs thick in the air at these places.

I think Hitchens is correct that the anger and hostility bespeak a lack of confidence in the defensibility of the writer's position. It's a good rule of thumb that people who are confident of their convictions and their ability to articulate them don't feel the need to resort to name-calling and insult, and people who do often aren't.

Such behavior often appears in debate when someone becomes aware that his opponent is making him look bad in front of his fans and followers or that the cause to which he's devoted his life is at risk of collapsing all around him. He thinks, perhaps, that he can nevertheless maintain the allegiance of his admirers by out-shouting his opponents and publicly mocking them and their ideas.

Eventually, though, his disciples and others begin to wonder, if their master's ideas are so powerful, why doesn't he just simply refute the arguments that are raised against them? Why employ dodges and diversions? Why obfuscate the issues by resorting to ridicule and ad hominem?

Of course there are many Darwinian materialists who don't behave this way, but the point is that there are an awful lot who do. Why is that?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Give Him the Knife

Mandatory spending cuts are set to kick in on Friday and Mr. Obama continues to forecast woe and debacle. It's a lot like the Y2K scare. Remember that? Ramirez offers a visual to place the sequester into its proper perspective:
Senators Imhofe and Toomey are advancing a plan that would allay Mr. Obama's fears about what will happen when these cuts kick in: Simply allow the president to decide where the cuts will occur.

If Mr. Obama is concerned about essential services being cut indiscriminately then let him make the cuts where he thinks best instead of simply demagoguing the issue as he has been for the past couple of weeks. I think this is an excellent idea, and we here at Viewpoint even have a few suggestions, should Mr. Obama deign to ask us, as to where he might start.

He could, for example:
  • Postpone the navy's program to switch machinery to run on biofuels which will cost more than $2 billion a year more than conventional fuel.
  • Postpone the army's $28 billion battlefield intelligence processor that has failed operational tests.
  • Use the savings from the Afghanistan conflict which is now being wound down to fund other military needs.
  • Stop spending $1.7 billion a year on maintaining unused federal property.
  • Stop giving $115 billion a year in benefits to people not entitled to them.
  • Stop giving out $1.6 billion worth of free public cellphones.
  • Cancel the $100 million in grants awarded by EPA to foreign countries.
  • Cancel the $51.6 million being spent to promote Obamacare.
  • Cancel the $4 million spent each year to maintain a television studio at the IRS.
  • Cancel the $1.2 million spent by the National Science Foundation to teach senior citizens how to play the World of Warcraft video game.
Surely it's easy to find fat to cut out of the government, and I'm confident that if Congress gives Mr. Obama the paring knife he'd set about slicing it away just as he promised he would when he was campaigning in 2008.

What's the Point?

Philosopher Helen De Cruz at Prosblogion notes the emergence of churches for atheists and contemplates the question whether there is any point in an atheist going to an atheistic church. My answer is, not if you have to get up early to do it.

At any rate, her discussion of the question is pretty interesting as are the comments. Here's how she starts:
I am deeply intrigued by atheist religious practice. An atheist church in North London has opened last month. It proves to be very popular; as a matter of fact, vastly outstripping the neighboring Anglican evangelical church in congregation size. The ca. 300 members of this church congregate to sing secular songs, celebrate life and the natural world, have readings from secular texts, like Alice in Wonderland, and have secular sermons, on topics like "life is all too brief and nothing comes after it."

The atheist church fits in a broader tendency of atheists to incorporate aspects of religious practice, including Alain de Botton's temples for atheists. Is there any point for an atheist who is attracted to religious practice to attend atheist ceremonies, structured in ways similar to traditional religions?

When discussing the matter with a friend, who is a member of the Episcopal church, she thought it was pointless (and verging on the ridiculous) for atheists or agnostics to attend such a church. Couldn't an atheist who likes ritual and religious practice just make use of the structures that already exist, bracketing or privately denying the doxastic elements? In fact, as Gutting observed, many religious people (I suspect many religious academics, for instance) are agnostic at best about the doxastic aspects of their faith.
This last remark is interesting. I wonder how many people recite the creeds of their church, but don't really believe parts or even much of it. How many people who attend church or synagogue fairly regularly do so for the social or aesthetic experience and simply bracket out the doxastic elements of the service? I suppose there's no way to answer the question, but, like Cruz, I wouldn't be surprised if it's a significant number.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Nanny Impulse

There is among liberal/progressives an inveterate and insufferable tendency toward what might be called nannyism - an irresistable desire to protect people from themselves for their own good whether people want to be protected or not. Thus, Mayor Bloomberg in New York has promulgated an ordinance which prohibits selling sodas in containers larger than 16 oz. because, evidently, he feels it's his moral duty to prevent people from choosing behaviors which are harmful to themselves.

When the tendency manifests itself on a small scale it's irritating, but when government takes on the role of a "nanny" it becomes dangerous and frightening. This, however, is exactly what Sarah Conly advocates in a book titled Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism which is guaranteed by its price of $95 for 206 pages to be read by almost no one.

Fortunately, we need not buy it to know how Conly thinks. We can get some insight into the working of the nanny mind by reading a review of the book by another votary of governmental officiousness, Cass Sunstein, in The New York Review of Books. Sunstein is sympathetic to Conly, but even he finds her prescriptions for government coercion of its citizens a bit over the top. Where she would advocate government compulsion, Sunstein advocates what he calls governmental "nudges." The question for both Sunstein and Conly, though, is what measures do they advocate should people prove unyielding to their nudges and compulsions? How far should government be willing to go to protect people from themselves? How much freedom should the state usurp from its citizens in order to make them healthier and happier against their will?

This excerpt from Sunstein's review of Conly's book offers a peek into the progressive mindset. Conly puts into print what many liberals think but are reluctant to make explicit. They want to control peoples' lives and decisions, for their own good, of course, but if the people don't appreciate it and don't want to go along, well, the poor saps just won't be given that option:
Sarah Conly’s illuminating book Against Autonomy provides such a discussion. Her starting point is that in light of the recent findings, we should be able to agree that ... human beings [are incompetent] choosers. “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.” With that claim in mind, Conly insists that coercion should not be ruled out of bounds. She wants to go far beyond nudges....Even when there is only harm to self, she thinks that government may and indeed must act paternalistically so long as the benefits justify the costs.

Conly is quite aware that her view runs up against widespread intuitions and commitments. For many people, a benefit may consist precisely in their ability to choose freely even if the outcome is disappointing. She responds that autonomy is “not valuable enough to offset what we lose by leaving people to their own autonomous choices.” Conly is aware that people often prefer to choose freely and may be exceedingly frustrated if government overrides their choices. If a paternalistic intervention would cause frustration, it is imposing a cost, and that cost must count in the overall calculus. But Conly insists that people’s frustration is merely one consideration among many. If a paternalistic intervention can prevent long-term harm—for example, by eliminating risks of premature death—it might well be justified even if people are keenly frustrated by it.

To [the] claim that individuals are uniquely well-situated to know what is best for them, Conly objects that [this fails] to make a critical distinction between means and ends. True, people may know what their ends are, but sometimes they go wrong when they choose how to get them. Most people want to be healthy and to live long lives. If people are gaining a lot of weight, and hence jeopardizing their health, Conly supports paternalism—for example, she favors reducing portion size for many popular foods, on the theory that large, fattening servings can undermine people’s own goals.

At the same time, Conly insists that mandates and bans can be much more effective than mere nudges. If the benefits justify the costs, she is willing to eliminate freedom of choice, not to prevent people from obtaining their own goals but to ensure that they do so.

Conly’s most controversial claim is that because the health risks of smoking are so serious, the government should ban it. She is aware that many people like to smoke, that a ban could create black markets, and that both of these points count against a ban. But she concludes that education, warnings, and other nudges are insufficiently effective, and that a flat prohibition is likely to be justified by careful consideration of both benefits and costs, including the costs to the public of treating lung cancer and other consequences of smoking.
Again the question presents itself to our attention, how far are people like Conly, who doubtless consider themselves our betters, prepared to go to force others to act in ways that promote their own good? Sunstein's summation of her ideas reminds one of that early progressive hero Jean Jacques Rousseau who wrote that the state knows what you really need and want and if you persist in thinking otherwise the state will just have to kill you. What Rousseau made explicit has been the tacit conviction of the left ever since, and whenever they've managed to seize power, from Bonaparte to Kim Jong Il, that's pretty much what they've done.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sequestration Silliness

If you're like most people you're probably suffering crisis fatigue from the latest iteration of Mr. Obama's governing philosophy which is to fabricate a faux crisis every other month or so to keep the American people thinking that we're teetering on the brink of total collapse.

This month's crisis is the automatic reduction in the increase in government spending over the next few years. The size of the reduction amounts to less than 2.5 cents on every dollar, but Mr. Obama, doing his best Chicken Little impersonation the other day, sounded as if our whole economy was at risk and that we were all headed for the soup lines. It was nonsense of course, and the president managed only to make himself look silly in the eyes of anyone who has been paying attention.

Here's the video of the president's talk:
Anyway, even if you've had it up to here with sequestration silliness you still need to read George Will's column. It's an excellent summation of why - if Mr. Obama doesn't soon adopt a different approach for dealing with the nation's fiscal problems and doesn't stop trying to paint Republicans as people who secretly eat babies - he's going to wind up in the history books as one of the most unserious men ever to occupy the Oval Office.

Here's an excerpt from Will's skewering of the phony, contrived "panic" we've been subjected to over the past week or so:
Batten down the hatches — the sequester will cut $85 billion from this year’s $3.6 trillion budget! Or: Head for the storm cellar — spending will be cut 2.3 percent! Or: Washington chain-saw massacre — we must scrape by on 97.7 percent of current spending! Or: Chaos is coming because the sequester will cut a sum $25 billion larger than was just shoveled out the door (supposedly, but not actually) for victims of Hurricane Sandy! Or: Heaven forfend, the sequester will cut 47 percent as much as was spent on the AIG bailout! Or: Famine, pestilence and locusts will come when the sequester causes federal spending over 10 years to plummet from $46 trillion all the way down to $44.8 trillion! Or: Grass will grow in the streets of America’s cities if the domestic agencies whose budgets have increased 17 percent under President Obama must endure a 5 percent cut!

The sequester has forced liberals to clarify their conviction that whatever the government’s size is at any moment, it is the bare minimum necessary to forestall intolerable suffering. At his unintentionally hilarious hysteria session Tuesday, Obama said: The sequester’s “meat-cleaver approach” of “severe,” “arbitrary” and “brutal” cuts will “eviscerate” education, energy and medical research spending. “And already, the threat of these cuts has forced the Navy to delay an aircraft carrier that was supposed to deploy to the Persian Gulf.”
In fact, the sequester, which, let us remember, was Mr. Obama's idea in the first place, will reduce spending to about what it was a year ago. I don't remember that level of spending imposing any of the dire hardships that we're being told a return to that level will surely produce.

Read the rest of Will's column. It's good.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Is ID Creationism?

A piece at Evolution News caused me to reflect on media coverage of the debates between Darwinian materialists, i.e. those who believe that life arose through purely natural processes and forces, and Intelligent Design (ID) theorists who maintain that however life arose it required the input of an intelligent agent.

One of the unfortunate aspects of the media's coverage of this controversy is the inability, or unwillingness, of more than a few of those who report on it to accurately portray ID. Their most common error is to conflate ID with creationism, and it's done so often that one gets the feeling that it must be intentional. The difference between these two views is significant, and, though it seems to have eluded the grasp of many journalists, it's not at all difficult to comprehend.

Creationism starts with the Genesis account in the Bible and seeks to show that the scientific evidence can be made to conform to that account. As such, creationism is essentially a theological program. It seeks to defend the truth of the Genesis narrative. ID, on the other hand, starts with the empirical data proffered by the architecture of both the cosmos and the living cell and argues that the best explanation for that data must include intelligent agency.

Creationists maintain that the designer of life and the cosmos is the God of the Bible who created the world by fiat in accord with the Genesis account. Though many IDers personally agree with this, as scientists and philosophers they make no formal claims about who or what the designer is, how the designer created, nor how long ago it all happened. As such, ID is compatible with creationism, but it's not identical to it. Whereas creationism uses scientific data to buttress a religious hypothesis, ID derives from the scientific data a critique of the metaphysical doctrine of materialism and also infers from that data a counterclaim of a cosmic mind.

Another way to illustrate the difference between them is this: If it were shown that the first two chapters of Genesis were completely wrong it would devastate creationism but it would not have any effect at all on ID. ID isn't contingent upon the truth of Genesis. It depends instead on the empirical data uncovered by scientists working in their laboratories and observatories and the validity of the inference from that evidence to the conclusion of intentional design.

Another aspect of the debate that too many reporters don't seem to understand is that there's no conflict between ID and evolution, indeed there are notable IDers who are themselves evolutionists. The conflict is between ID and Darwinian - i.e. naturalistic or materialistic - evolution. Darwinian evolution holds that natural processes and forces are sufficient to account for the appearance of the enormous quantity of complex information needed to run a living cell. IDers assert, on the contrary, that natural processes and forces are not adequate to account for high levels of biological information and that in addition to whatever natural processes may have been at work there must also have been an intelligent agent which somehow engineered, directed, and superintended these processes.

If people are going to make informed decisions about these matters they need to be correctly informed. The media could help in that effort by accurately distinguishing between the various points of view competing for our allegiance. It shouldn't be hard, at least not for reporters who are willing to suppress their own biases and objectively and fairly report the facts.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Viktor Frankl and the Modern View of Man

James M. Tour, world famous chemist and professor at Rice university, quotes Victor Frankl on where the modern view of man leads: Viktor Frankl, a former Auschwitz inmate wrote in The Doctor and the Soul, that the source for much of the 20th Century’s inhumanity has come from the [view of man promoted by modern materialism]:
“If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone.

“I became acquainted with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment; or as the Nazi liked to say, ‘of Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers [emphasis added].”
When men cease to see other men as having transcendent worth because of their status as beings created in the image of God by a God who cares about each of them individually, when they deny that there's any overarching purpose to human existence, deny that there's any objective ground for moral value, deny that there's any such thing as a soul, free will, or human dignity, when they come to view other men and themselves as the products of eons of natural accidents and coincidences that have serendipitously resulted in a human animal only slightly different than a cow, then human stockyards like Auschwitz become a logical, a rational, inevitability.

That's where the modern view of man leads, and it is, as Frankl notes, materialistic, naturalistic philosophers and scientists who have in the 19th and 20th centuries cleared the theoretical ground upon which those who wield political power build their abattoirs.

Take just three representative examples to illustrate what many modern scientists, philosophers, and legal scholars believe and ask where such thinking will lead us if it were ever to become the consensus view among our political class:

First a quote from evolutionary biologist Will Provine of Cornell: "Let me summarize my view on what evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear: There are no Gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death .... There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no meaning in life, and no free will."

Here's atheistic philosopher Richard Rorty: "For the secular man [like himself] there's no answer to the question, 'Why not be cruel'?"

And one more from early 20th century Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes: "When one thinks coldly I see no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand."

When people en masse come to think this way what reason would they have not to build another Auschwitz or Treblinka?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Big Reason for the Big Fail

A lot of folks were flabbergasted last November by the election day results. All the polls showed Romney doing well and indications were that he was going to win. He thought he was going to win, the pundits on Fox News thought he was going to win, but he lost. A lot of the post-mortem analysis has focused on Republican difficulties with Hispanics and African-Americans, but not much attention has been paid to the Evangelical vote. John West at First Things makes a case for thinking that this vote, or rather the lack of it, played a key role, maybe even a decisive role in Romney's defeat. Even though Romney did as well among Evangelicals nationwide as George W. Bush did in 2004, he failed to do well with this group in the key swing states and that apparently doomed him:
In Ohio, the percentage of white Evangelicals rose from 25 percent of the electorate in 2004 to 31 percent this year. According to CNN, Romney received only 68 percent of their votes in Ohio, slightly less than McCain’s lackluster campaign received in 2008, and a drop of eight points from the 76 percent who voted for Bush in 2004. Romney’s loss in support from Evangelicals in Ohio translated into nearly 115,000 votes, more than enough to lose the state.

According to exit polls in Colorado, Romney received 76 percent of the white Evangelical vote, the same as McCain but a precipitous drop of ten points from Bush’s 2004 support. This translated into more than 59,000 votes, which again lost him the state.

Why did Romney fail to draw more support from these voters? What was it that some Evangelicals wanted and didn’t get?

It is certainly possible that anti-Mormonism played a role. But it is also possible that Romney failed to attract more Evangelical support because he did not do more to cultivate it. Except for the meeting with [Billy] Graham, he did not go out of his way to connect with Evangelical voters. This was nowhere more apparent than on the campaign’s official website, which prominently featured outreach groups for Catholics and Jews but listed nothing for Evangelicals. The informal “Evangelicals for Mitt” website was not part of the campaign, and you couldn’t get to it from the official Romney website. It was almost as if Romney’s campaign was embarrassed to be seen linked to Evangelicals.

Of course, it’s all too easy to second-guess electoral failures after the fact, but Romney was not elected, and his campaign’s tepid outreach to Evangelicals was part of the problem. Yes, future Republican candidates need to work to broaden the base of their party. At the same time, they cannot afford to take for granted the millions of Evangelical voters who have supported Republican candidates in the past. Their support is not guaranteed.
What do Evangelical voters want in a candidate? West gives his opinion:
First, many Evangelicals would appreciate candidates who can talk openly and honestly about what their faith means to them. Personal testimonies are a staple of Evangelical culture, and we often take our measure of a person by his ability to talk comfortably about his relationship with God. John McCain wasn’t able to do that, and neither was Mitt Romney. Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush both did, and it was one reason they received enthusiastic support from many Evangelicals, at least initially.

Second, a growing number of Evangelicals need further persuasion about conservative economic policies. Many Evangelicals are neither wealthy nor part of the ruling elites, and for them the Republican party often seems to be simply the party of big business and millionaires.

I still remember a conversation my wife and I had in 2008 with another Evangelical couple who complained they were “tired of being told to vote for Republicans just because of abortion.” They were both strongly pro-life, but they ended up voting for Obama because they were concerned about health care and jobs being shipped overseas. They were convinced that Republicans cared only about corporations. Although George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” ended up being too wedded to big government for my taste, at least Bush tried to articulate his policies in terms that many Evangelicals could appreciate.

Evangelicals are heavily focused on their families, and one way to address their concerns in this area is to explicitly champion economic policies that help families. During the primaries, Rick Santorum did this by proposing to triple the personal exemption for dependent children. The reaction of some business-oriented conservatives was telling: They derided Santorum’s plan as “social engineering.” Perhaps, but at least Santorum understood the need to defend tax policies with something more than the mere claim that they are good for business.

Third, many Evangelicals would like candidates who aren’t embarrassed by Evangelical views on social issues. The Republican establishment, including Romney, spent much of the last election running away from issues like abortion. They mistakenly believed that if they never spoke about social issues they would broaden their base of support.
I think West is right about this. A candidate who waffles and temporizes on matters of critical importance supposedly to himself and certainly to those who make up his base of support gains no one's respect. Romney was the victim of a massive smear campaign and a media all too pleased to facilitate it, to be sure, but any Republican is going to have to face that. What the Republicans need are candidates who not only have deep-seated principles but can articulate their beliefs cogently and fluently in a way that ordinary people can understand and in a way that makes the media look foolish when they try to misrepresent them, as they inevitably will.

What they need, in my view, is a man of Mitt Romney's accomplishment and character equipped with Newt Gingrich's intellect, eloquence, and ability to think on his feet. Sadly, none of their presidential candidates since Ronald Reagan has fit this description.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Dumber and Dumber

Mike Barret at highlights recent research by Stanford geneticist Dr. Gerald Crabtree that suggests that the human species is growing increasingly less intelligent. I'm not sure why research was needed to arrive at what may seem to be an obvious conclusion, but here's what Barret says:
Despite our advancements over the last tens or even hundreds of years, some ‘experts’ believe that humans are losing cognitive capabilities and becoming more emotionally unstable. One Stanford University researcher and geneticist, Dr. Gerald Crabtree, believes that our intellectual decline as a race has much to do with adverse genetic mutations. But there is more to it than that.

According to Crabtree, our cognitive and emotional capabilities are fueled and determined by the combined effort of thousands of genes. If a mutation occurred in any of of these genes, which is quite likely, then intelligence or emotional stability can be negatively impacted.

“I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues. Furthermore, I would guess that he or she would be among the most emotionally stable of our friends and colleagues,” the geneticist began his article in the scientific journal Trends in Genetics.

Further, the geneticist explains that people with specific adverse genetic mutations are more likely than ever to survive and live amongst the ‘strong.’ Darwin’s theory of ‘survival of the fittest’ is less applicable in today’s society, therefore those with better genes will not necessarily dominate in society as they would have in the past.
For his part Barret agrees with Crabtree's conclusion about declining intelligence in our species but attributes it to environmental factors like fluoridated water, pesticides, and high fructose corn syrup.

These are not mutually exclusive, however. It could be that environmental factors are responsible for at least some of the genomic degradation that Crabtree hypothesizes, or at least for accelerating it. Work on the human epigenome has shown that the complex of regulators that monitor and control the expression of genes in a cell is sensitive to environmental factors, and it's possible that the fluoride and pesticides Barret lists mutate our genes by disrupting the thousands of regulators that reside along, and are attached to, the DNA strands.

In any event, it's pretty scary. It also has a possible implication that would turn much of modern biology completely upside down. If it's true that we are actually inferior in important ways to humans who lived in the distant past then it could be that from the beginning of our existence as a species we've been devolving rather than evolving and that our earliest ancestors were actually not stupid brutes but, on the contrary, extremely intelligent.

If that idea started to gain traction it'd cause a reaction among academics something like throwing a snake into the monkey cage at the zoo because it'd mean that the entire Darwinian paradigm of human evolution is completely backwards and wrong.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Morality and Skepticism

Steven Novella a neuroscientist writing at Skepticblog, addresses the question of the extent to which morality depends upon the existence of God. I was particularly interested in what he had to say since it was one of the themes of my book In the Absence of God (see link above right for a brief discussion of the book) that there can be no objective moral value nor moral obligation unless there is a God or something like God. Novella, who I assume is an atheist, declares that there are fatal objections to this position, but none of the four examples of such objections that he puts before us supports his contention.

For example, he states first that there's no general agreement on whether or not there is a God or gods, and that even if there were there's no agreement on what that God wills for us to do.

He's right, but it's beside the point. The question is not whether we know what the will of God is but rather how objective moral duties and values can exist if there were no such being. Novella's objection is irrelevant to this question.

He goes on to claim that basing society's laws on a particular religious view are incompatible with religious freedom. This, too, might be true, but it also is irrelevant to the issue of whether objective moral duties can exist if there is no God. This issue has nothing to do with the question whether society should base its laws on people's understanding of those duties.

Another fatal problem, Novella maintains, is that even if we lived in a universe where there is a God who makes moral demands, nobody knows with certainty what those demands are. There is no one who objectively and verifiably knows the will of God, and God has not seen fit to unambiguously make his will known to all of humanity, therefore morality cannot depend upon the existence of God.

Here Novella confuses an epistemological question - can we know the will of God - with an ontological question - can objective moral values exist if they're not grounded in a transcendent moral authority. People may not know what is right, people may not do what is right, but the question is can there even be a right if it is not grounded in some legitimate authority that is perfectly good and powerful enough to enforce his demands. We have very strong intuitions about the wrongness, say, of child abuse, but unless our intuitions are instilled in us by a personal creator they're simply the product of blind evolutionary forces and such forces can neither impose moral duties nor make something morally right.

Novella's final objection is a version of the famous Euthyphro dilemma articulated by the Greek philosopher Plato. In the dialogue of that name Socrates poses the question whether something is good because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good. The dilemma is an attempt to show that God's moral judgments are either arbitrary - God just wills whatever he wants to be good - or God recognizes what is good and commands it in which case goodness is independent of God and could exist even if he didn't.

I address this dilemma more fully here, but will say in response to Novella that the dilemma fails to provide the sort of knockdown argument he and others might think it does. There's a third alternative to the two choices presented in the dilemma. One could argue that God is the locus of perfect goodness itself and thus his moral commands and his moral authority flow from his essence just as heat and light flow from the sun. What's good is not arbitrary because it's rooted in a perfectly good nature, and neither is it in some way independent of God because it's part of his very essence.

Novella's attempt to hold on to morality while rejecting the basis for it is a doomed project. Numerous atheistic philosophers are coming to this unhappy realization. Richard Rorty, to take just one example, once implicitly admitted that his fellow atheists have no answer to the criticism that atheism cannot provide a ground for moral obligation. He said, "The secular man (of which he was one) has no answer to the question, 'Why not be cruel?'."

When people reject the existence of God they board a train that takes them ultimately to either a "might-makes-right" egoism or to moral nihilism. There's no real escaping it and all other ethical accommodations are simply stops along the way. One can get off the train at one of these stops, but to do so is to simply admit that one lacks the courage to take the train to its logical terminus. The famous atheistic thinker Jean Paul Sartre admonished his fellow atheists to be willing to "draw the full conclusion from a consistently atheistic position," but most understandably refuse to do so because they see that it'd result in a world not unlike Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games.

Instead they live as if they believed that God existed even while vigorously denying that he does. This wouldn't be so peculiar if so many of them didn't spend their time calling irrational those who believe he does exist and who try to live consistently with that belief.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The President's Bad Idea

In his State of the Union speech the other night President Obama called for raising the federally mandated minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00. Is this a good idea? People making the minimum wage might certainly think so, but there are a lot of reasons why Congress should simply ignore it. Michael Strain at the American Enterprise Institute explains some of them. After presenting a brief and gloomy description of the current labor market crisis which has boosted real unemployment to over 14% Strain says this:
The consequences of the labor market crisis are vast. Divorce rates increase when the unemployment rate is high, as does the probability of suicide. Workers are losing valuable skills every day that they are unemployed. If they do return to work they will be less productive. But many may not return to work. Some economists believe that a worker who endures a long spell of unemployment will have a hard time finding a job because prospective employers may wonder why so many other firms have passed on the worker. The longer a worker is unemployed the more his professional network will deteriorate, making it even harder for her to find a job.

What happens to workers who can't find a job? The sad fact is that many will go on disability insurance, making it even less likely that they will ever again earn a living in the labor market - significantly reducing the chance that they will be able to live a full life, earn their own success, provide for their families, and realize their full human potential.

The labor market is more than an economic crisis. It is a human crisis.
But what does this have to do with the minimum wage? Strain explains:
The economic effects of minimum wage increases have been studied dozens and dozens of times in the past few decades. Different studies come to different conclusions, of course. But economists David Neumark and William Wascher, after conducting an exhaustive literature review, conclude that "among the papers we view as providing the most credible evidence, almost all point to negative employment effects, both for the United States as well as for many other countries."

They continue: "The studies that focus on the least-skilled groups that are likely most directly affected by minimum wage increases provide relatively overwhelming evidence of stronger disemployment effects for these groups."

The weight of the evidence suggests that increasing the minimum wage decreases employment, especially for lower-skilled workers.
In other words, raising the minimum wage makes it more costly for employers to hire and keep marginal workers. If they can get by with four rather than five someone will either not get hired or will be laid off. Nor will a minimum wage increase really help alleviate poverty as the president claimed:
The evidence suggests that it will not. Economists Joseph Sabia and Richard Burkhauser find that a small minority of workers who would benefit from a minimum wage increase - around ten percent - live in poor households. The White House itself states that workers who would benefit from a minimum wage increase bring home less than half of their household's total wage and salary income.

In other words, the workers who will benefit from an increase are secondary and tertiary earners - think more of teenagers with summer jobs, of spouses earning some income on the side, or of elderly grandparents earning some retirement income, and less of primary breadwinners. In fact, Professors Sabia and Burkhauser find that around two-thirds of minimum wage workers live in households with incomes more than twice the poverty line.

Speaking of teenagers: The unemployment rate for 16-to-19 year old African Americans is a massive 37.8 percent. For white teenagers, the rate is 20.8 percent. This crushing unemployment will ripple through the rest of their lives, affecting their labor market outcomes for years to come. Why does it make sense to increase the cost of hiring these unemployed teenagers by increasing the minimum wage?
Raising the minimum wage is a simplistic, short-sighted, feel-good answer to a difficult problem that will only exacerbate the very conditions it's intended to alleviate. Serious problems require serious thinking by serious people. Our president needs to do better.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Why the Perverse Fascination?

About ten years ago scholar Paul Berman wrote a book titled Terror and Liberalism in which he documented the sickening tendency of people on the left to make heroes out of murderers, at least those murderers driven by political motives that align with leftward political sentiments.

It really is a perverse phenomenon and it seems every generation has its own iteration of it. Mao, Che, Fidel, were all butchers but they were heroes to many on the left and still are today. Former Obama spokeswoman Anita Dunn even said publicly that Mao was one of her heroes.Why this horrid idolization of killers?

We've seen the phenomenon again this week with the celebration on Twitter and elsewhere on the left of Christopher Dorner by people regarding him as a "superhero," a "modern Django," and urging him, before he came to his incandescent demise, to keep up the fight. Consider what the man did: He killed several law enforcement officers, he shot a young woman and her fiance in cold blood, then taunted the girl's father, and did it because he felt offended by the LAPD's decision that he was psychologically unfit for the force.

This is the sort of man that some on the left see fit to lionize.

Nor is it just the nether regions of liberalism in which Dorner is seen as a mythic figure. Admiration for him is growing in the mainstream as well. Here's Columbia University professor Marc Lamont Hill, a regular guest on liberal cable news, waxing enthusiastic about "Django" Dorner:
To get an idea of how odious this is imagine someone calling Timothy McVeigh - a man who murdered 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995 as revenge for the federal government's massacre of innocent people at the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas - a superhero. Imagine saying that, "Yes, what McVeigh did was bad and all that, but we really should pay attention to his grievances." Imagine saying that watching the death and destruction McVeigh caused was "kind of exciting." Imagine that McVeigh had written a manifesto in which he lauded Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh. Do you think any conservative who put on a big smile and said about McVeigh what Hill says about Dorner would ever be invited to appear on television again?

Professor Hill is not the only liberal to express such fascination with Mr. Dorner. Buzzfeed writes:
Alternet, the leftist online magazine, ran a story by Chauncey DeVega arguing that Dorner could "be transformed through popular culture and storytelling into a figure talked about for decades and centuries to come, with multiple versions of his tales and exploits, shaped by the griots and bards for their respective audiences."

"Christopher Dorner dared to tell his version of the truth regarding the LAPD's history of corruption and racism," DeVega writes. "They do not like tattle tales and 'snitches.' Dorner was a particularly noxious threat to the status quo both because of his violent actions, as well as the symbolic power of his words and deeds."

Salon's Natasha Lennard has written a couple of stories sympathetic to Dorner ("Ex-cops sympathize with Dorner's anger," "Were Dorner's complaints legitimate?"). Vice, in a story about whether or not Anonymous will retaliate after Dorner's death, implicitly compared Dorner to anti-establishment heroes like Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz, while acknowledging that "a murderous ex-cop is a lot harder to defend than these nonviolent liberators of information."
Nor did Manning and Swartz deliberately target for murder the daughter of a man they didn't like. This sort of revolting travesty follows the same pattern as the liberal infatuation with Che Gueverra, a man who slaughtered thousands of innocent victims in cold blood. He did it, however, on behalf of some "progressive cause" so his face appeared on posters adorning dormitory rooms on every campus in America throughout the last three decades of the twentieth century.

These are the same people who condemn the Tea Party for violent proclivities for which absolutely no evidence is ever adduced but who talk about elevating a demented murderer to the status of a legend "whose exploits will be talked about for centuries to come."

Why is that? Well, I have a theory. When one no longer believes in a transcendent moral authority, a God, then one doesn't just believe in nothing. People who have rejected the Judeo-Christian God as a source of moral authority often make ideology their religion and pragmatism becomes their moral guide. Whatever promotes their ideology is right and good and whatever hinders it is bad. Dorner is seen as a martyr for left/progressivism, fighting the racists and bigots in the LAPD (and their families) and, in their twisted view, is therefore a hero. His methods are acknowledged by these people to be regrettable, of course, but given his grievance they're completely understandable, which is just a weaselly way of saying they're justified.

For the secular progressive pragmatist Lenin's words are truth: "If you want to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs." Any deed is redeemed by the cause it serves. The end justifies the means. People who agree with this will tolerate, indeed support, any horror, even the Ukrainian famine or the Nazi holocaust, as long as they agree with the goal.

This is where the secular view of man as a mere flesh and bone machine leads. It takes us ultimately to Auschwitz, the Cambodian killing fields, the Hunger Games, and to the glorification of sick souls like Christopher Dorner.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Let it Be

Want to understand what all the talk about a sequester is and why it's probably going to happen? Read this column by Charles Krauthammer.

Here's his lede:
For the first time since Election Day, President Obama is on the defensive. That’s because on March 1, automatic spending cuts (“sequestration”) go into effect — $1.2 trillion over ten years, half from domestic (discretionary) programs, half from defense.

The idea had been proposed and promoted by the White House during the July 2011 debt-ceiling negotiations. The political calculation was that such draconian defense cuts would drive the GOP to offer concessions. It backfired. The Republicans have offered no concessions. Obama’s bluff is being called and he’s the desperate party. He abhors the domestic cuts. And as commander-in-chief he must worry about indiscriminate Pentagon cuts that his own defense secretary calls catastrophic.

So Tuesday, Obama urgently called on Congress to head off the sequester with a short-term fix. But instead of offering an alternative $1.2 trillion in cuts, Obama demanded a “balanced approach,” coupling any cuts with new tax increases.

What should the Republicans do? Nothing.
Krauthammer goes on to give three fine reasons why the Republicans should let Mr. Obama have his sequester even though it'll severely diminish our military's capacity to respond to threats from our increasingly powerful enemies. Mr. Obama's intransigence has taken us down this road and he has made it quite clear that he's not not at all interested in significant cuts to government spending. The sequester, which was his idea in the first place, is the only way to get him to do what has to be done to save the nation from slipping so far into debt that future generations are crushed under an unconscionable tax burden. Our massive debt will all but ensure that people in their twenties today will never enjoy the standard of living their parents and grandparents did. The only way to avoid it is to reduce spending, narrow the deficit and eliminate the debt.

You can read the rest of Krauthammer's column at the link.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Post-literate Post-moderns

I enjoyed this delightful bit of a rant against our increasingly illiterate and tawdry age from John Mark Reynolds at Patheos:
We love Jane Austen, but if Jane Austen were to see us she might think modernity and post-modernity were just another name for the justification of filth. Doyle’s Sherlock [Holmes] has been wrenched from Victorian morality and turned into a psychopath, and students increasingly lack the reading vocabulary to appreciate the original.

The great escape into literature, such as [afforded by] Charles Dickens, that saved many a soul in ugly places, is cut off from students who are trained to be post-literate with working vocabularies too small for novels from other times. Meanwhile, an educational elite consumes huge numbers of books, but ignores the moral lessons they teach. Instead, too often those of us who read take easy shots at ideas that are obviously wrong in the books.

A textbook about Aristotle introduces the great man by listing his errors before a student even knows to appreciate him. Aristotle makes great mistakes, but we don’t even rise to the intellectual level of understanding the mistakes — we just learn that they were mistakes.

It is the golden age for the educated to play at being a Bronte while flouting their view of reality . . . served by a working class unable to enjoy the texts or the morals that might bring their escape from drudgery. Instead, the working class are given lotteries and the Super Bowl and urged to buy their way to happiness. We form no Sam Weller or Sam Gamgee, because his soul disappears into a Honey Boo Boo bliss as Wesleyan morality is mocked, even by Wesleyans . . . the very thing that might have saved him.
As I say, it was sufficiently curmudgeonly to make it a fun read, but I really don't know how fair Reynolds' criticisms are. Nevertheless, students do seem to be arriving at college today with less basic background knowledge in literature and history than did earlier generations. In a class of thirty I often find that only two or three can remember reading Tale of Two Cities in high school and it's rare to find a student who has even heard of Dostoyevsky or Homer. This is especially true of students who are products of our public schools but less so of those who attended private schools or were home-schooled. I'm told that in at least some of our public schools students are no longer required to read the traditional literary classics and, to the extent that's true, those schools are cheating our kids out of a crucial aspect of a good education.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Naturalism's Hard Choices

William J. Murray at Uncommon Descent asks some impertinent questions about the implications of Darwinian materialism. Darwinian materialism claims that we are nothing more than a collection of atoms arranged in a particular configuration over eons of time by the push and pull of natural, physical forces. In other words, everything about us has been determined by those forces as they shaped us, through natural selection, for survival.

If that's true, though, then there are several odd consequences. Here's Murray:
Let’s consider that atheistic, Darwinstic materialism is true. Let’s say that what we believe and think are evolution-generated phenomena, the result of the physics of biology as it interacts with the environment. For instance, if I believe in God and think demons are real and that putting my socks on before I put my pants on brings me good luck, I think those things for no reason other than that I have been compelled by the cumulative interactive physics of billions of years of physical processes to believe such things and think such thoughts.

If this is so, am I responsible for my beliefs and thoughts in any significant manner other than, say, I am responsible for what color my skin is or how tall I happen to be? One might say that because “I” (this particular amalgation of physics/biology at this particular location) “have” or “am” those thoughts, that I am “responsible” for them; but if that is true, then I am equally responsible for the color of skin I have. These qualities of the “I” are just what a long line of interacting molecules happened to generate via evolutionary processes – same as my skin color, height, etc.
Thus, questioning the correctness of someone's opinion, on Darwinian evolution, would be like questioning the "correctness" of their eye color or their height. Murray goes on to ask a couple of questions about this:
If whatever I think and believe is as much an evolutionary product as the color of my skin, how is criticizing what I think/believe any different than criticizing me for my skin color?

Darwinism holds that evolutionary success is measured in terms of the number of progeny one leaves but then If we hold that “success of progeny” is the only significant measure of the success of evolution in any particular species unit, and thoughts and beliefs are evolution-generated features, why argue about whether or not any belief or thought is “true”, when what matters is only if the biological entity with those beliefs produces more successful progeny than those with different beliefs?
If all of the above is true, then isn’t arguing about the “trueness” or “validity” of a thought or a belief the same, categorically, as arguing about which shape of leaf is true, or which pattern of freckles is “true”, or “logically valid”?
In other words, on naturalistic Darwinism (as opposed to God-directed versions of evolution), beliefs are not objectively true or false, they're just successful in producing offspring or they're unsuccessful. If I have a gene that inclines me to hold a belief that I'll be rewarded in the afterlife in proportion to the number of descendents I leave behind, that gene, and thus the belief, would have enormous selective value and would quickly predominate in a population because those who shared it would tend to produce more offspring than those who didn't. The objective truth of the belief is irrelevant to evolutionary mechanisms.

This is why a number of philosophers have come to the conclusion that naturalism leads to a self-defeating paradox, i.e. If naturalism is true we'd have no good reason to believe it, or any other metaphysical belief, is true. If naturalism is true then we're all the products of impersonal evolutionary forces that blindly produce beliefs that give an edge in the struggle for survival. To the extent that such a mindless process might produce beliefs that are objectively true it's just a coincidence. We'd certainly have no reason to think that our belief in naturalism, no matter how fervently held, is anything more than a predilection imposed upon us by genes that are themselves the product of eons of random mutations.

The most a naturalist can say is that his genome has evolved to cause him to believe that naturalism is the best explanation for how things are, just as it has evolved to cause him to have brown eyes. For him to add that naturalism is also objectively true is to talk nonsense.

Thus the naturalist finds himself in an epistemological bind. He can remain a naturalist but then he has to abandon evolution (as Thomas Nagel does in Mind and Cosmos); or he can hold on to his belief in evolution and abandon naturalism; or he can simply accept the implicit irrationality of it all and hold onto both views; or he can do what perhaps most naturalists do which is to simply not think about the problem and hope that it goes away. It's hard being an intellectually fulfilled naturalist these days.

Leadership Vacuum

A book by two former special operations guys, Brandon Webb and Jack Murphy, sheds new light on the resignation of David Petraeus at CIA and the attack on our embassy in Benghazi.

In their book Benghazi: The Definitive Report the authors claim that Petraeus was betrayed by his security detail and high level CIA officials who resented how he was running the agency and who wanted him out at CIA. It was, in the author's words, a "palace coup."

Their research also shows that the Benghazi attack was likely a retaliation for a series of secret operations against radical groups that no one in the CIA or State Department, and maybe not even the president, knew about. They were operations run by the man who is President Obama's current pick to replace Petraeus at CIA, Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan.

It's all very fascinating, particularly the insight it gives into the president's lackadaisical, hands-free management style and his insoucient approach to secret operations.

Here's an excerpt from the Daily Mail's article on the book:
Behind closed doors, President Obama had given his counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, carte blanche to run operations in North Africa and the Middle East, provided he didn’t do anything that ended up becoming an exposé in The New York Times and embarrassing the administration. In 2012, a secret war across North Africa was well underway.
There's much more at the link. Anyone interested in the Petraeus scandal and the Benghazi attack will find several details there that have not previously come to light. The article's revelations helped me, at least, to understand why on the night of the embassy attack no one seems to have had any contact with the president. He's simply not interested in supervising such things, whether it's legislation, or special operations, or attacks on our embassies, he simply prefers to let others make the decisions. It's not just a matter of delegating authority. Rather, it's that he apparently doesn't even care to know what his delegates are doing with their authority.

If this is true then this is not merely an instance of "leading from behind." It's not leading at all.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Science Literacy

Just when you think that poking a little fun at the media for their ideological prejudices is so easy it's hardly fun anymore someone will go where no broadcast journalist has gone before and expand the envelope of ludicrousness beyond anything one might have thought possible.

A couple of years ago some in the media were blaming earthquakes on global warming, but as geologically risible as that was, CNN news anchor Deb Feyerick has made it seem almost erudite by comparison. Feyerick, at pains to blame climate change for everything from snow storms to halitosis, evidently espies a possible cause and effect between climate change and, well, just watch:
One has to wonder whether she even knows what an asteroid is, or if she has ever taken a middle school level course in earth and space science. And what in the world is a "meteoric occasion" anyway? Alas, people like Ms Feyerick are in a position to shape the opinions of vast chunks of the American viewing public.

No wonder educators fear that we're becoming scientifically illiterate. We are - at least at CNN.

Nor is Ms Feyerick alone among our cultural elites in her abysmal understanding of basic science. Indeed, Congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia would probably be mystified why anyone would think there's anything wrong with what she said. The honorable gentleman from the peach state, you might recall, once revealed himself to be under the impression that large oceanic islands are actually floating rafts of rock and may tip over if too much weight is placed on them. I know you think I'm kidding so watch for yourself:
It never gets old. Anyway, at least the congressman wasn't blaming island tipping on global warming. Nor does he shape public opinion. He just votes for the laws that the rest of us have to live under.

Do Animals Suffer?

VJ Torley alternately chides philosopher William Lane Craig for claiming in a debate that animals don't suffer as humans do and then criticizes Craig's critics for claiming that they do. The fact is, Torley argues, we simply don't know. Science cannot say that animals are self-aware or conscious nor can it tell us whether an animal's experience of pain is or is not like our own.

His article is long but interesting, especially if one's concerned with the question why a benevolent God would tolerate animal suffering. He opens his essay with three quotes to summarize his argument:
“[A]nimals like horses, dogs, and cats ... do not experience ... the awareness that one is oneself in pain… Even though your dog or your cat may be in pain, it really isn’t aware of being in pain, and therefore it doesn’t suffer as you would when you are in pain.” (Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, in a debate held 17 October 2011, in London, U.K., on the topic, “Does God Exist?”)

“[N]onhuman animals may indeed feel pain but cannot suffer in the way that we can.” ("New Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett, Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness)

“[F]rom a scientific view, we understand so little about animal consciousness (and indeed our own consciousness) that to make the claim that we do understand it, and that we now know which animals experience emotions, may not be the best way to make the case for animal welfare. Anthropomorphism (seeing animals as just like humans) and anecdote were assuming a place in the study of animal consciousness that, it seemed to me, leaves the whole area very vulnerable to being completely demolished by logical argument .... It is, perhaps, not a comfortable conclusion to come to that the only scientific view of consciousness is that we don’t understand how it arises, nor do we know for certain which animals are conscious.“ (Marian Stamp Dawkins, Professor of Animal Behavior and Mary Snow Fellow in Biological Sciences, Somerville College, Oxford University, writing in an online article entitled, Convincing the Unconvinced That Animal Welfare Matters, The Huffington Post, 8 June 2012.)
Torley also adds this from Marian Dawkins:
In her recently published book, Why Animals Matter: Animal consciousness, animal welfare, and human well-being (Oxford University Press, 2012), Marian Dawkins adds that “there is no proof either way about animal consciousness and that it does not serve animals well to claim that there is.”
He then goes on to observe that,
The quotes listed above all highlight the danger of anthropomorphism when talking about animal suffering. The authors of these quotes are all professors who have published widely in their fields: the first two are prominent philosophers, while the third is an eminent biologist. Yet the author of the first quote, despite being a devoted pet-owner, is widely scorned by secular humanists for his alleged insensitivity to animal suffering, while the authors of the second and third quotes have kept their reputations unscathed. I have to ask: what motivates this curious inconsistency?
Reasonable question, I guess, but surely the answer to it is not hard to surmise. Craig is the bete noir of atheist debaters on the existence of God and thus his opponents are quick to exploit any perceived chink in his armor that they can find.

One implication of the rest of Torley's article is that Craig's error was really not such a big deal, but that doesn't deter his antagonists, of course. When someone repeatedly makes one's own position look foolish, as Craig does in his debates with skeptics, one will hammer away at any error one discovers him making no matter how minor or trivial it might be.

The larger questions in Torley's essay, though, are the more interesting. Are animals conscious in the same sense we are? Do they feel pain as we do, or is their experience of pain somehow qualitatively different? Could animal pain be somewhat like the pain we have when we sleep - a sensation of which we are not really consciously aware but to which our bodies nevertheless respond? Are animals aware in the sense that a person with "blindsight" is aware? These are matters about which we know very little, but Torley's article nicely illuminates some of what we do know about them.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sounds of Silence

From the media coverage of the ex-LA cop Christopher Dorner who has gone on a killing rampage to avenge his firing from the police department four years ago we've learned much about Dorner. One thing, though, that has received scant attention in the major media are his ideological affinities as revealed in his "manifesto." This seems odd because the barrel of Jared Loughner's gun had barely cooled before the media was ascribing his shooting of Gabriel Giffords and others to "right-wing hate."

Despite the complete and utter lack of any evidence, folks on the left tried with all the creativity they could muster to connect these crimes to Sarah Palin's ad showing congressional districts in her electoral crosshairs, to the Tea Party, and to sundry other offenders in talk radio. Fifteen years earlier when Tim McVeigh bombed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City killing 168 people the left blamed Rush Limbaugh's passionate rhetoric for emboldening McVeigh even though there was no evidence that McVeigh ever heard of Rush Limbaugh.

These attempts to tarnish conservatives and conservatism by associating the crimes of violent lunatics with conservative activism were as mindless as they were tendentious. After all, almost all of the presidential assassins in our history, plus Unabomber Ted Kazsinski, plus Floyd Lee Corker - the guy who tried to shoot employees of the Family Research Council because the FRC opposed Gay Marriage - and anyone else who plotted, schemed, and/or carried out multiple murders and who could also be shown to have had any ideological leanings at all, was someone who'd been influenced by the left.

The same is true of Dorner. His manifesto reveals him to be a man whose sympathies lie with liberal/progressive causes. I don't mean to suggest that liberalism is somehow responsible for Dorner's rage. It may be, but I don't know.

What I am confident of, though, is that if he'd been found to have had Tea Party websites bookmarked on his computer we'd be reading today about how conservatives are creating a climate of "hate and violence" in the country and how Tea Party dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama's policies and Rush Limbaugh's rhetoric are triggering horrific outbursts from emotionally unstable and violent people like Mr. Dorner. And the left would be screaming at us to stop the right-wing madness.

As it is, we'll probably continue to hear nothing much at all from the major media about Mr. Dorner's politics because like so many of his murderous predecessors his political proclivities are too inconvenient to bear publicizing. It's only important, you understand, that the public be made aware of such things when the criminals can, with sufficiently imaginative mental gymnastics, be made to appear to have been influenced by conservatives.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Speaking Truth to Power

At yesterday's National Prayer Breakfast world renown pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson did what few people have been able to do. He outlined a couple of policy prescriptions for the nation that run almost completely counter to those of the president, and did so in a forum in which the president was not only a captive listener but sitting only two chairs away.

Carson's speech was simple, compelling, and full of common sense. It has also apparently gone viral in the cyberworld.

Here's his presentation. It lasts a little over twenty six minutes, but it's worth listening to. The whole talk is good, but the controversial part is during the six minutes from about the 16 minute mark to about 22 minutes.
Carson has been criticized by some in the liberal media for being disrespectful to the president. Do you think he was out of line or do you think he was speaking truth to power in the spirit of the Old Testament prophets? If you think he was out of line would you have formed the same judgment had it not been Barack Obama sitting at the table but rather George W. Bush and if the speaker had been as obliquely critical of Bush's policies as Carson was of Obama's?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Abolishing the Constitution

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says in part: "No person .... shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." The Obama administration, it's been discovered, appears to find this fundamental right inconvenient and has arrogated to itself the prerogative of killing American citizens against whom no evidence of criminal activity has been adduced, who have not been charged with any crime, and who have not received the benefit of judicial review.

Mr. Obama was one of the foremost critics of the Bush administration for detaining known terrorists without a trial and for wiretapping without benefit of judicial warrant foreigners believed to be engaged in terrorist activity. Senator Obama, his fellow Democrats, and the liberal media were outraged at Bush for what they perceived to be his violation of civil liberties, but now that they're in power they're adopting measures far more lethal and constitutionally problematic than anything Bush ever did.

The folks at MSNBC's Morning Joe, all of whom are Obama supporters, are appalled that the president would be a party to this, but they shouldn't be surprised. Mr. Obama's disdain for the restrictions placed on government action by the First, Second, and Fifth Amendments has been clear for some time. Here's the discussion on Morning Joe:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The memo they're talking about lays out a three part test for killing an American citizen. According to the article at the above link:
In addition to the suspect being an imminent threat, capture of the target must be “infeasible, and the strike must be conducted according to “law of war principles.”
But the definition of "imminent threat" and "infeasible" appears to be very elastic. For example:
“The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.

Instead, it says, an “informed, high-level” official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.” The memo does not define “recently” or “activities.”
By this definition of "imminent threat" even Mr. Obama's friend the erstwhile terrorist Bill Ayers could be targeted for killing by a drone strike.

But at least Bill Ayers really was a terrorist. Two years ago Democrats were calling Tea Party members terrorists. If American citizens can be killed abroad even though they haven't actually plotted to commit any crime against America, what's to stop the government from labeling American citizens here at home as terrorists simply for speaking out against the government and having them arrested, or worse?

The fact that the man who made the video which the administration falsely blamed for inciting the mob in Benghazi to kill our ambassador still languishes in a California prison on a minor charge should give us pause before we dismiss the fear that citizens exercising their First Amendment rights would be punished by this, or a future, administration.

Moreover, what makes a capture "infeasible"? Is it just danger to American troops? How much danger? What if the American citizen is in a country that will not arrest him nor permit us to do so? What if Bill Ayers decides to live in Cuba or Venezuela? If so, he'd qualify, under the Obama policy, as a terrorist whose capture is infeasible and the only protection he'd have from a missile being delivered through his bedroom window is that he happens to be a friend of the Obamas.

This policy is an assault on the Constitutional protection afforded by the Fifth Amendment all by itself, but worse, it places us on a slippery slope at the bottom of which lies a total disregard of the Constitution should whoever is president deem it expedient.

On the bright side, it has also placed conservatives and at least some liberals in the very unusual position of being united in mutual outrage.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Nagel's Critics

I've written several times in the last month or so about philosopher Thomas Nagel's new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. The book has stirred a hornet's nest of criticism, probably because Nagel was himself a materialist and still is an atheist, yet he finds materialism and the Darwinian view that is its chief intellectual buttress deeply unsatisfying and intellectually untenable.

VJTorley at Uncommon Descent casts a gimlet eye upon the arguments of some of Nagel's critics and finds them uniformly unconvincing. The fascinating thing about the reviews he examines is the degree of faith that the reviewers place in materialism. His column is a bit long, but his lede paragraph is a good summation:
I do not wish to question the sincerity and learning of the reviewers, but I was deeply shocked by their unshakable attachment to Darwinism. Reading through the reviews, I was astonished to find the authors arguing that even if the origin of life should prove to be a fantastically improbable event that would not be expected to happen even once in the entire history of the cosmos, even if scientists are utterly unable to predict the general course of evolution, even if all attempts to reduce the science of biology to physics and chemistry are doomed to failure, even if it can be shown that we will never be able to explain consciousness in terms of physical processes, and even if neo-Darwinism proves to be incompatible with the existence of objective moral truths, such as “Killing people for fun is wrong,” we should still prefer Darwinism to any other account of origins, for to do otherwise is unscientific. I have to ask: whence such madness?
These are indeed astonishing admissions by Nagel's critics, and Torley examines them more thoroughly in his essay. The reviewers as much as assert that even if materialism is an utter explanatory failure we should still cling to it because science relies on materialist assumptions, and we cannot abandon science. Better to be scientific but wrong than to perhaps find the truth by abandoning materialism, especially if the truth might be that life can only be adequately accounted for as the product of the design of an intelligent mind.

The inviolable rule that any explanation must be a materialist explanation, even if materialist explanations cannot account for the empirical data science discovers, reminds me of a line from William James' The Will to Believe. James writes that, "a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth, if these kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule."

So it would.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


I'm probably going to stir up controversy, and maybe even hostility, with what I say at the conclusion of this post, but it's something I feel strongly about and needs, I think, to be said.

In the area in which I live in south-central Pennsylvania Ring-necked pheasants and Bob-white quail were once abundant. Suddenly, beginning in the 1970s, their numbers suffered a dramatic decline resulting in the complete disappearance of both species by the 1990s. Pheasants are no longer seen in Pennsylvania fields, except on game lands where they're stocked by the game commission, and quail are never seen nor heard anymore in the county in which I live.

The extirpation has been variously ascribed to bird flu, West Nile virus, habitat loss, etc. but I've long suspected that feral house cats played a major role. Now a study published in the science journal Nature reinforces my admittedly speculative opinion. Here's the abstract of the study:
Anthropogenic threats, such as collisions with man-made structures, vehicles, poisoning and predation by domestic pets, combine to kill billions of wildlife annually. Free-ranging domestic cats have been introduced globally and have contributed to multiple wildlife extinctions on islands. The magnitude of mortality they cause in mainland areas remains speculative, with large-scale estimates based on non-systematic analyses and little consideration of scientific data. Here we conduct a systematic review and quantitatively estimate mortality caused by cats in the United States. We estimate that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals annually. Un-owned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality. Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals. Scientifically sound conservation and policy intervention is needed to reduce this impact.
These numbers sound almost incredibly high to me, but even if they're off by a factor of ten the toll taken by cats is immense. And it's not just un-owned cats that are the problem. Owned cats which are allowed to roam freely throughout a neighborhood take a heavy toll on birds at feeders as well as mammals like chipmunks and voles. It is, in my opinion, simply irresponsible of people who own cats to allow them to come and go as they please. Unconfined cats are a disaster to wildlife and people simply should not own them if they're unwilling to keep them in the house.

There, I've said it. Let the hate mail from cat enthusiasts begin.

The Illegal Immigration Problem

Can we trust the political class on immigration reform? Specifically, can this administration be counted upon to enforce any requirement to stop the influx of illegals along the border? If the past is an indicator the answer is no.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have been feckless in their attention to border security and Mr. Obama has signaled that he has no desire to be any more diligent in upholding our laws in a second term than he was in his first.

Thus any reform which trusts either Republicans or Democrats to establish a secure southern border somewhere down the road is doomed. The current plan, much ballyhooed because Senator Marco Rubio supports it, is a farce. Eleven million (or so) current aliens will be granted immediate amnesty on the promise that sometime in the foggy future the administration will bestir itself to do something it currently has no inclination or incentive to do. Fat chance.

At VP we've long advocated a kind of amnesty for those already in the country illegally (To read it go here and scroll down to "Addressing Illegal Immigration"), but insisted that it be predicated on two prior conditions: First, that it be codified into law that no one who has broken our existing laws to get here be placed on a path to citizenship, and second, that prior to any amnesty being declared a secure fence be erected along the entire length of the southern border to ensure that there'll be no future deluge of illegal immigrants into the U.S. Israel has done something similar and has cut terrorist infiltration from Gaza to zero. We can do it, too.

Some Republicans oppose such measures, though, because they mistakenly see illegal immigrants as a source of cheap labor and as the answer to our long-term social security funding problem. Democrats won't go along because they see illegals as a vast Democrat constituency. Rush Limbaugh has pithily observed that Democrats would be down on the border right now pouring the footers for the fence if they were persuaded that illegal immigrants would, upon being granted citizenship, vote overwhelmingly Republican. He's also claimed that he himself would support complete amnesty and a road to citizenship if part of the deal was that these new citizens be prevented from voting for twenty five years. If that were the condition, he opines, the Democrats would quickly lose interest in any solution to the immigration problem. He's probably right.

As Charles Krauthammer argues, we need to build the fence first - we could even have the president go down and drive in the final golden post at a Promontory Point II - and then declare amnesty. To do it the other way around means that the golden post will never get driven in, and we'll be having this same debate all over again in another twenty five years when there are millions more illegals in the country.

Krauthammer's probably right, too.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Craig/Rosenberg Debate

A pair of philosophers who couldn't be more different met Friday night at Purdue University to debate the question whether faith in God was reasonable. The combatants were William Lane Craig a Christian philosopher who has written, debated, and lectured extensively on theism and Alex Rosenberg, the philosophy department chairman at Duke and a widely published advocate of atheism.

If you'd like to watch all or part of the debate you can view it here. The introductions begin about four minutes in.
Rosenberg offered, in my opinion, a number of weak arguments and one fairly good one. I think he's right to point to human suffering as counting against the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, but that argument by itself is not enough to make belief in God unreasonable. His best argument, however, was implicit in his question as to why God didn't create a world in which everyone had free will but always chose to do right. I thought Craig's dismissal of this was premature. Surely that world is a logically possible world and thus one which God could create, so why didn't he?

I thought Rosenberg was disingenuous when he sought to deflect the force of Craig's attack on the views he advocates in his book in which he endorses moral as well as other forms of nihilism. Craig points out that by Rosenberg's own admission atheism produces nihilism. Rosenberg replied - unconvincingly, I thought - that nihilism does not follow from atheism but that both of them follow from science. Thus, Rosenberg argued, if one wishes to embrace science, which all thinking people should, one should be an atheist as well as a nihilist.

I think this view is mistaken. Science does not entail either atheism or nihilism. Science is simply the search for empirical truth. Taken straight, unencumbered by the philosophical presuppositions of some of its practitioners, it has nothing to say about the existence of a God. Atheism, however, certainly does entail nihilism, both moral and epistemological.

Craig, for his part, made a number of arguments which, though they're not proofs that God exists, can rationally be accepted and thus together make belief that there's a God a reasonable epistemic position which was, after all, the topic of the debate.

For what it's worth the auditorium audience voted 1390 to 303 in favor of Craig as the winner. Online viewers voted 734 to 59 for Craig, and the judges voted for Craig 4 to 2. I'm frankly not sure what those two judges who voted for Rosenberg saw that I didn't.

Evolution and Altruism

An article in Science Daily on altruistic behavior in plants, of all things, quotes a Harvard evolutionary biology professor named William Friedman:
"One of the most fundamental laws of nature is that if you are going to be an altruist, give it up to your closest relatives," said Friedman. "Altruism only evolves if the benefactor is a close relative of the beneficiary."
Either Friedman doesn't consider humans the product of evolution, which would be an odd stance for an evolutionary biologist to take, or he's never heard of Mother Teresa.

Why We Need the 2nd Amendment

One of the types of firearms that some folks would like to ban from public use are semi-automatic weapons - The very type of weapon that saved a Texas woman and her son from a trio of thugs recently. Watch the video here, and then ask yourself why lawmakers should be allowed to disarm people like this mother. If semi-automatic handguns are banned - which a law against semi-automatic "assault" weapons would probably do - this woman might not have had a means of self-defense at her disposal but the thugs who broke into her home surely would have.

For more examples of how possession of a firearm saved innocent lives, go here.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

More on Women in Combat

I recently posted a piece by an Iraq vet named Ryan Smith about some of the problems created by putting men and women together in combat conditions, a move the Obama administration evidently intends to make. Now comes a similar piece, this one written by a female veteran, explaining why she thinks such a policy would be foolish. It appeared at Hot Air which quoted it in its entirety so I'm going to do likewise since it's now all over the net anyway. I urge you, though, to go to HA to read their remarks.

I wonder how many of those who are so eager to throw women into combat have actually spoken to women like this vet who writes under the pseudonym "Sentry." I wonder how many of them even care what people like her think:
I’m a female veteran. I deployed to Anbar Province, Iraq. When I was active duty, I was 5’6, 130 pounds, and scored nearly perfect on my PFTs. I naturally have a lot more upper body strength than the average woman: not only can I do pull-ups, I can meet the male standard. I would love to have been in the infantry. And I still think it will be an unmitigated disaster to incorporate women into combat roles. I am not interested in risking men’s lives so I can live my selfish dream.

We’re not just talking about watering down the standards to include the politically correct number of women into the unit. This isn’t an issue of “if a woman can meet the male standard, she should be able to go into combat.” The number of women that can meet the male standard will be miniscule–I’d have a decent shot according to my PFTs, but dragging a 190-pound man in full gear for 100 yards would DESTROY me–and that miniscule number that can physically make the grade AND has the desire to go into combat will be facing an impossible situation that will ruin the combat effectiveness of the unit.

First, the close quarters of combat units make for a complete lack of privacy and EVERYTHING is exposed, to include intimate details of bodily functions. Second, until we succeed in completely reprogramming every man in the military to treat women just like men, those men are going to protect a woman at the expense of the mission. Third, women have physical limitations that no amount of training or conditioning can overcome. Fourth, until the media in this country is ready to treat a captured/raped/tortured/mutilated female soldier just like a man, women will be targeted by the enemy without fail and without mercy.

I saw the male combat units when I was in Iraq. They go outside the wire for days at a time. They eat, sleep, urinate and defecate in front of each other and often while on the move. There’s no potty break on the side of the road outside the wire. They urinate into bottles and defecate into MRE bags. I would like to hear a suggestion as to how a woman is going to urinate successfully into a bottle while cramped into a humvee wearing full body armor. And she gets to accomplish this feat with the male members of her combat unit twenty inches away. Volunteers to do that job? Do the men really want to see it? Should they be forced to?

Everyone wants to point to the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] as a model for gender integration in the military. No, the IDF does not put women on the front lines. They ran into the same wall the US is about to smack into: very few women can meet the standards required to serve there. The few integrated units in the IDF suffered three times the casualties of the all-male units because the Israeli men, just like almost every other group of men on the planet, try to protect the women even at the expense of the mission. Political correctness doesn’t trump thousands of years of evolution and societal norms. Do we really WANT to deprogram that instinct from men?

Regarding physical limitations, not only will a tiny fraction of women be able to meet the male standard, the simple fact is that women tend to be shorter than men. I ran into situations when I was deployed where I simply could not reach something. I wasn’t tall enough. I had to ask a man to get it for me. I can’t train myself to be taller. Yes, there are small men…but not so nearly so many as small women.

More, a military PFT doesn’t measure the ability to jump. Men, with more muscular legs and bones that carry more muscle mass than any woman can condition herself to carry, can jump higher and farther than women. That’s why we have a men’s standing jump and long jump event in the Olympics separate from women. When you’re going over a wall in Baghdad that’s ten feet high, you have to be able to be able to reach the top of it in full gear and haul yourself over. That’s not strength per se, that’s just height and the muscular explosive power to jump and reach the top. Having to get a boost from one of the men so you can get up and over could get that man killed.

Without pharmaceutical help, women just do not carry the muscle mass men do. That muscle mass is also a shock absorber. Whether it’s the concussion of a grenade going off, an IED, or just a punch in the face, a woman is more likely to go down because she can’t absorb the concussion as well as a man can. And I don’t care how the PC forces try to slice it, in hand-to-hand combat the average man is going to destroy the average woman because the average woman is smaller, period. Muscle equals force in any kind of strike you care to perform. That’s why we don’t let female boxers face male boxers.

Lastly, this country and our military are NOT prepared to see what the enemy will do to female POWs. The Taliban, AQ, insurgents, jihadis, whatever you want to call them, they don’t abide by the Geneva Conventions and treat women worse than livestock. Google Thomas Tucker and Kristian Menchaca if you want to see what they do to our men (and don’t google it unless you have a strong stomach) and then imagine a woman in their hands. How is our 24/7 news cycle going to cover a captured, raped, mutilated woman?

After the first one, how are the men in the military going to treat their female comrades? ONE Thomasina Tucker is going to mean the men in the military will move heaven and earth to protect women, never mind what it does to the mission. I present you with Exhibit A: Jessica Lynch. Male lives will be lost trying to protect their female comrades. And the people of the US are NOT, based on the Jessica Lynch episode, prepared to treat a female POW the same way they do a man.

I say again, I would have loved to be in the infantry. I think I could have done it physically, I could’ve met almost all the male standards (jumping aside), and I think I’m mentally tough enough to handle whatever came. But I would never do that to the men. I would never sacrifice the mission for my own desires. And I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if someone died because of me.

- Sentry