Sunday, March 31, 2013

Resurrection Day

This post originally appeared on Viewpoint on Easter 2005:

Jon Meacham of Newsweek, perhaps chastened by the criticism he received following his foray into Christian theology over Christmas, pens a much less offensive column about the Resurrection of Jesus in the current issue. He notes that the tomb of Christ was almost certainly empty that first Easter morning. If it were not, he observes, the opponents of Christ had only to produce the body to abort the religious turmoil that the sect of Christians was beginning to arouse. This they did not do, a startling historical fact, really, which leads us to the obvious conclusion that they couldn't do it. This leads us in turn to ask why not.

No naturalistic explanation of the empty tomb makes sense. The most common of these is that the disciples stole the corpse, but this hypothesis is plausible only if one assumes a priori that non-natural explanations are impossible. To believe that the disciples stole the body one must believe that a band of terrified fishermen overpowered an armed military guard, a crime for which they were never arrested or charged, stole the cadaver, and eventually underwent torture and martyrdom for preaching around the world what they knew to be a lie. People will die for a lie they believe to be true, but only men suffering from some form of dementia would die for a lie they knew to be a lie, and there's no reason to think these men were demented.

Surely, if the authorities believed the disciples had stolen the body they would have brought irresistibly persuasive techniques to bear to coerce them into divulging its whereabouts. Yet there's no indication whatsoever in the historical record that this was even attempted.

The skeptic says, as was noted above, that no matter how implausible a given naturalistic explanation may be it's still more believable than the claim that a man rose from the dead. This objection, however, rests on the assumption that there is no God, an assumption that is much easier to make than to defend. If, contrary to the skeptical view, it's possible that God exists then it's also possible that miracles occur, and if they are possible, we have to examine the evidence for an alleged instance of one, especially one as significant as the resurrection of Jesus, to determine whether it is, in fact, credible. The evidence for the historical, physical revivification of Christ, many scholars have concluded, is at least as powerful as that for any other event in antiquity.

Other attempts to avoid the conclusion that a miracle actually occurred are equally unimpressive. Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code adopts a version of the swoon theory, that after some thirty six hours without medical care, Jesus somehow recovered from his wounds - including the spear thrust - with sufficient vigor to roll away the heavy stone blocking the tomb. He accomplished this astonishing feat without being detected by the Roman guard, and subsequently appeared to the disciples and dozens, even hundreds, of others, looking so hale and hearty that they believed that he had conquered death and was the very Son of God.

Even if something so improbable could have happened, the disciples would have known that Jesus had not "risen from the dead" in any theologically significant sense. He would have eventually died (or, as Brown has it, absconded to France with his beloved Mary Magdalene), and his dead body would be proof that he was not the Messiah. This, then, brings us back to the question above: Why would people have been willing to be tortured and martyred for a man they would have known to have been a false messiah?

Skeptics scoff at miracles, but the most important miracle in the history of Christendom is one which defies any attempt to explain away. The most plausible explanation for the empty tomb, unless one holds an a priori commitment to naturalism, is that God actually did raise Jesus from the dead just as we are promised that we will be. Because death did not result in the annihilation of His being we can have the hope that neither will it result in ours.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter and the Modern Mind

The Christian world is preparing to celebrate what much of the rest of the Western world finds literally incredible, the revivification of a man 2000 years ago who had been dead for several days. Modernity finds such an account simply unbelievable. It would be a miracle if such a thing happened, moderns tell us, and in a scientific age everyone knows that miracles don't happen.

If pressed to explain how, exactly, science has made belief in miracles obsolete and how the modern person knows that miracles don't happen, the skeptic will often fall back on an argument first articulated by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (d.1776). Hume wrote that miracles are a violation of the laws of nature and as a firm and unalterable experience tells us that there has never been a violation of the laws of nature it follows that any report of a miracle is most likely to be false. Thus, since we should always believe what is most probable, and since any natural explanation of an alleged miracle is more probable than that a law of nature was broken, we are never justified in believing that a miracle occurred.

It has often been pointed out that Hume's argument suffers from the circularity of basing the claim that reports of miracles are not reliable upon the belief that there's never been a reliable report of one. However, we can only conclude that there's never been a reliable report of one if we know a priori that all historical reports are false, and we can only know that if we know that miracles are impossible. But we can only know they're impossible if we know that all reports of miracles are unreliable.

But set that aside. Set aside, too, the fact that one can say that miracles don't happen only if one can say with certainty that there is no God.

Let's look instead at the claim that miracles are prohibitively improbable because they violate the laws of nature.

A law of nature is simply a description of how nature operates whenever we observe it. The laws are often statistical. I.e. if molecules of hot water are added to a pot of molecules of cold water the molecules will tend to eventually distribute themselves evenly throughout the container so that the water is a uniform temperature. It would be extraordinarily improbable, though not impossible, nor a violation of any law, for the hot molecules on one occasion to segregate themselves all on one side of the pot.

Similarly, miracles may not violate the natural order at all. Rather they may be highly improbable phenomena that would never be expected to happen in the regular course of events except for the intervention of Divine will. Like the segregation of hot and cold water, the reversal of the process of bodily decomposition is astronomically improbable, but it's not impossible, and if it happened it wouldn't be a violation of any law.

The ironic thing about the skeptics' attitude toward the miracle of the resurrection of Christ is that they refuse to admit that there's good evidence for it because a miracle runs counter to their experience and understanding of the world. Yet they have no trouble believing other things that also run counter to their experience.

For example, moderns have no trouble believing that living things arose from non-living chemicals, that the information-rich properties of life emerged by random chaos and chance, or that our extraordinarily improbable, highly-precise universe exists by fortuitous accident. They ground their belief in these things on their belief that there could be an infinite number of different universes, none of which is observable, and in an infinite number of worlds even highly improbable events are bound to happen.

Richard Dawkins, for example, rules out miracles because they are highly improbable, and then in the very next breath tells us that the origin of life, which also seems just as highly improbable, is almost inevitable, given the vastness of time and space.

Extensive time and/or the existence of an infinite number of worlds make the improbable inevitable, he and others argue. There's no evidence of other worlds, unfortunately, but part of the faith commitment of the modern thinker is to hold that they must exist. The modern clings to this conviction because if these things aren't so then life and the universe must have a personal, rather than a scientific, explanation and that discovery would produce a metaphysical shock to his psyche.

Nevertheless, if infinite time and infinite worlds can be invoked to explain life and the cosmos why can't they be invoked to explain "miracles" as well? If there are a near infinite series of universes, as has been proposed in order to avoid the problem posed by cosmic fine-tuning, then surely in all the zillions of universes of the multiverse landscape there has to be at least one in which a man capable of working miracles is born and himself rises from the dead. We just happen to be in the world in which it happens. Why should the multiverse hypothesis be able to explain the fine-tuning of the cosmos and the origin of life but not a man rising from the dead?

No one who's willing to believe in a multiverse should be a skeptic about miracles. Indeed, no one who's willing to believe in the multiverse can think that anything at all is improbable. Given the multiverse everything that is not logically impossible must be inevitable.

For the person who relies on the multiverse explanation to account for the precision of the cosmic parameters and constants and for the abiogenic origin of life, the resurrection of a dead man should be no problem. Given enough worlds and enough time it's a cinch to happen.

Of course, the skeptic's real problem is not that a man rose from the dead. His real problem is with the claim that God deliberately raised this man from the dead. That's what they find repugnant, but they can't say that because in order to justify such a claim they'd have to be able to prove that there is no God, or that God's existence is improbable, and that they cannot do.

If, though, one is willing to assume that there are an infinite number of universes out there in order to explain the properties of our universe, why would he have trouble accepting that there's a Mind out there that's responsible for raising Jesus from the dead? After all, there's a lot more evidence for the latter than there is for the former.

Friday, March 29, 2013

NDE Research

Recently a group of researchers carried out a study on Near Death Experience (NDE). Their theory was that if the experiences were imagined then their memories of them should be similar to memories of imagined events. What they discovered was that the memories reported by those who had an NDE were much more like memories of real events in the person's life.

Science Daily has a report on their findings of which the following is a part:
Working together, researchers at the Coma Science Group (Directed by Steven Laureys) and the University of Liège's Cognitive Psychology Research (Professor Serge Brédart and Hedwige Dehon), have looked into the memories of NDE with the hypothesis that if the memories of NDE were pure products of the imagination, their phenomenological characteristics (e.g., sensorial, self referential, emotional, etc. details) should be closer to those of imagined memories. Conversely, if the NDE are experienced in a way similar to that of reality, their characteristics would be closer to the memories of real events.

The researchers compared the responses provided by three groups of patients, each of which had survived (in a different manner) a coma, and a group of healthy volunteers. They studied the memories of NDE and the memories of real events and imagined events with the help of a questionnaire which evaluated the phenomenological characteristics of the memories.

The results were surprising. From the perspective being studied, not only were the NDEs not similar to the memories of imagined events, but the phenomenological characteristics inherent to the memories of real events (e.g. memories of sensorial details) are even more numerous in the memories of NDE than in the memories of real events.
The article struggles to put a naturalistic gloss on these results:
The brain, in conditions conducive to such phenomena occurring, is prey to chaos. Physiological and pharmacological mechanisms are completely disturbed, exacerbated or, conversely, diminished. Certain studies have put forward a physiological explanation for certain components of NDE, such as Out-of-Body Experiences, which could be explained by dysfunctions of the temporo-parietal lobe. In this context the study published in PLOS ONE suggests that these same mechanisms could also 'create' a perception - which would thus be processed by the individual as coming from the exterior - of reality. In a way their brain is lying to them, like in a hallucination.
This is possible, of course, and scientists have a responsibility to explore every plausible naturalistic explanation, but it's also possible, one would think, that the memories of the NDEs are so much like memories of real experiences because they in fact are memories of real experiences. I wonder why the article doesn't mention that.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Meditation for Good Friday

Some time ago we did a post based on a remark made by a woman named Tanya at another blog. I thought that as we approach Good Friday it might be worth running the post again, slightly edited.

Tanya's comment was provoked by an atheist at the other blog who had issued a mild rebuke to his fellow non-believers for their attempts to use the occasion of Christian holidays to deride Christian belief. In so doing, he exemplified the sort of attitude toward those with whom he disagrees that one might wish all people, atheists and Christians alike, would adopt. Unfortunately, Tanya spoiled the mellow, can't-we-all-just-get-along, mood by manifesting a petulant asperity toward, and an unfortunate ignorance of, the traditional Christian understanding of the atonement.

She wrote:
I've lived my life in a more holy way than most Christians I know. If it turns out I'm wrong, and some pissy little whiner god wants to send me away just because I didn't worship him, even though I lived a clean, decent life, he can bite me. I wouldn't want to live in that kind of "heaven" anyway. So sorry.
Tanya evidently thinks that "heaven" is, or should be, all about living a "clean, decent life". Perhaps the following tale will illustrate the shallowness of her misconception:
Once upon a time there was a handsome prince who was deeply in love with a young woman. We'll call her Tanya. The prince wanted Tanya to come and live with him in the wonderful city his father, the king, had built, but Tanya wasn't interested in either the prince or the city. The city was beautiful and wondrous, to be sure, but the inhabitants weren't particularly fun to be around, and she wanted to stay out in the countryside where the wild things grow. Even though the prince wooed Tanya with every gift he could think of, it was to no avail. She wasn't smitten at all by the "pissy little whiner" prince. She obeyed the laws of the kingdom and paid her taxes and was convinced that that should be good enough.

Out beyond the countryside, however, dwelt dreadful, orc-like creatures who hated the king and wanted nothing more than to be rid of him and his heirs. One day they learned of the prince's love for Tanya and set upon a plan. They snuck into her village, kidnapped Tanya, and sent a note to the king telling him that they would be willing to exchange her for the prince, but if their offer was refused they would torture Tanya until she was dead.

The king, distraught beyond words, told the prince the horrible news.

Despite all the rejections the prince had experienced from Tanya, he still loved her deeply, and his heart broke at the thought of her peril. With tears he resolved to his father that he would do the exchange. The father wept bitterly because the prince was his only son, but he knew that his love for Tanya would not allow him to let her suffer the torment to which the ugly people would surely subject her. The prince asked only that the father try his best to persuade Tanya to live safely in the beautiful city once she was ransomed.

And so the day came for the exchange, and the prince rode bravely and proudly bestride his mount out of the beautiful city to meet the ugly creatures. As he crossed an expansive meadow toward the camp of his mortal enemy he stopped to make sure they released Tanya. He waited until she was out of the camp, fleeing toward the safety of the king's city, oblivious in her near-panic that it was the prince himself she was running past as she hurried to the safety of the city walls. He could easily turn back now that Tanya was safe, but he had given his word that he would do the exchange, and the ugly people knew he would never go back on his word.

The prince continued stoically and resolutely into their midst, giving himself for Tanya as he had promised. Surrounding his steed they set upon him, stripped him of his princely raiment, and tortured him for three days in the most excruciating manner. Not once did any sound louder than a moan pass his lips. His courage and determination to endure whatever agonies to which he was subjected were strengthened by the assurance that he was doing it for Tanya and that because of his sacrifice she was safe.

Finally, wearying of their sport, they cut off his head and threw his body onto a garbage heap.

Meanwhile, the grief-stricken king, his heart melting like ice within his breast, called Tanya into his court. He told her nothing of what his son had done, his pride in the prince not permitting him to use his son's heroic sacrifice as a bribe. Even so, he pleaded with Tanya, as he had promised the prince he would, to remain with him within the walls of the wondrous and beautiful city where she'd be safe forevermore.

Tanya considered the offer, but decided that she liked life on the outside far too much, even if it was risky, and she really didn't want to be in too close proximity to the prince, and "By the way," she asked the king, "where is that pissy little whiner son of yours anyway?"
Have a meaningful Good Friday. You, too, Tanya.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Paperless Future?

Perhaps you're one of those techie types who doesn't like paper. One of those folks, perhaps, who touts to all who'll listen the virtues of the newest smart phones, tablets, kindles and whatever other gadgets are out there and who firmly believes that paper will soon be obsolete.

Or perhaps you're someone who prefers the old ways, who has trouble adapting to all the new-fangled bells and whistles, who enjoys holding a book and writing with pen and paper.

If you're either of those, especially if you're the latter, you'll enjoy this 39 second French television ad:

Mind, Materialism, and Free-Will

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

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

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

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

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

It's true, of course, that free will and conscious minds are illusions if materialism is correct, but how do we know materialism is correct? We don't. Materialism, as Leiberman admits, is simply a metaphysical preference, and it's embraced, in my opinion, largely because to acknowledge the existence of a mind is to acknowledge a key element in the worldview of Christian theism, a step many modern thinkers are loath to take.

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

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

It's a very peculiar position to take.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

LAT to Israel: Please Drop Dead

A man named Ben Ehrenreich (son of Barbara Ehrenreich for those of you to whom that will mean something) has written a column for the Los Angeles Times in which he says essentially that there will never be peace in the Middle East as long as Israel is there. Ehrenreich states:
The problem is fundamental: Founding a modern state on a single ethnic or religious identity in a territory that is ethnically and religiously diverse leads inexorably either to politics of exclusion or to wholesale ethnic cleansing. Put simply, the problem is Zionism....
This is a very odd claim. To the extent that the Middle East is ethnically and religiously diverse it's only because Israel is there. Everywhere else in the region any diversity is either driven out, killed off, or enchained in a form of servitude called dhimmi.

Rabbi Moshe Averick, a man who suffers fools grudgingly, will have none of Ehrenreich's silliness, and composes a scathing retort to Ehrenreich at Here's part of it:
No kids, the problem is not Saudi Arabia, where practicing any religion other than Islam is punishable by death; the problem is not the murderous and tyrannical regime in Syria that has murdered tens of thousands of its own citizens (imagine what they would do to Jews!); the problem is not Jordan, where selling land to Jews is a capital crime; the problem is not Iran whose leader has vowed to inflict a nuclear Holocaust on the world; the problem is not Egypt whose fanatical Moslems assassinated the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel and is now ruled by a Moslem Brotherhood whose mantra is Jihad! Jihad! Jihad!, and the problem is certainly not the Palestinian Arabs whose only innovative contributions to mankind have been plane hijackings, murder of Olympic athletes, suicide bombers, and whose greatest hero – Yasser Arafat – is the godfather of all radical Islamic terrorism in the world.

In other words, the Arabs/Palestinians/Moslems are not expected to live up to any of the ideals of justice and morality expressed in exhortations of the prophet Jeremiah. They are permitted to routinely engage in “politics of exclusion” (try wearing a cross or Star of David necklace in Saudi Arabia) and “ethnic cleansing” (any Christians left in Bethlehem these days?).

No, the problem is Israel; the only pluralistic democracy in the middle-east, the country whose Arab population has a higher life-expectancy and per-capita income than any of the surrounding Arab states, where hospitals treat all of its citizens, be they Jew, Arab, Christian, or other; the only country in the middle-east with a truly free press and where freedom of religion and expression is guarded, where an Arab judge sits on the Israeli Supreme Court, where an Arab judge can preside over the trial of, and sentence, a former (Jewish) President of the State of Israel to a prison term for rape, and where Arabs vote and can (and do) elect Arab representatives to the Knesset who rail against the very state that confers upon them the right to be elected.
Averick continues to dismember Ehrenreich's column at the link, and it's all worth reading - especially if one is a little fuzzy on the goings-on in that part of the world - but one of Ehrenreich's paragraphs comes in for a special measure of Averick's scorn. Ehrenreich says:
If two decades ago comparisons to the South African apartheid system felt like hyperbole, they now feel charitable. The white South African regime, for all its crimes, never attacked the Bantustans with anything like the destructive power Israel visited on Gaza in December and January, when nearly 1,300 Palestinians were killed.
To which Averick replies:
Is it possible that Israel’s attacks on Gaza had something to do with the fact that Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, has in its official charter an exhortation to kill Jews and destroy the State of Israel? Did it have anything to do with the fact that Palestinians fired more than 2000 rockets from Gaza into Israel in 2012? When asked about the rocket attacks, Ehrenreich replied: “Rockets? What rockets? I don’t see any rockets. Do you see any rockets?
It really is utterly incredible that any educated man would compare the situation in Israel to that of the white regime in South Africa during the days of apartheid. Everything Israel has done it has done because it is constantly being terrorized and attacked by Palestinian Muslims who hate the fact that a non-Muslim state prospers in their midst and who thus wish to destroy it. Israelis have watched their children blown to shreds by suicide bombers, they've lived in constant terror as rockets rain down on their villages, they've listened with trepidation as Palestinians, Hezbollah, and Iranians have all sworn to obliterate them from the face of the earth. Finally, to stop the rockets they launch a military attack against Hamas in the Gaza strip, but since Hamas chooses to use civilians as human shields, innocent Palestinians are inadvertently killed. What on earth is the similarity between this and the oppression of a largely powerless and helpless black population by the South African government under apartheid?

On one point Ehrenreich is correct, though. There probably never will be peace in the Middle East, but it's not because Israel is there. It's because its enemies will never stop making war against it as long as they're able and as long as Israel exists. And then, if Israel does ever cease to exist, the Arab Muslims will then turn to making war on each other. It seems it's all they know how to do.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Are All Men Created Equal?

One of the axiomatic beliefs of the average American is that we are all equal, but, of course, stated this way, the belief is obviously false. We're certainly not equal in our talents, our intellectual gifts, our physical abilities, our fortunes, or in much of anything else. So why do we say it?

What we mean is that we should all be treated equally by the law regardless of the natural inequalities that exist among us in society, but why do we think we should all be treated equally under the law? What is the basis for that assumption?

Some might say it goes back to Thomas Jefferson's claim in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," but this lapidary statement is itself based upon 1700 years of Christian tradition going back to the words of the apostle Paul in a letter he wrote to the church in Galatia in which he told the believers there that in Christ all men are equal: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

I was reminded of this passage while reading a piece at Patheos by Mark Shea who wrote that,
And yet, by a sort of dead inertia, our cultural elites go on talking about “equality” as though it were something you could see and measure with a scale or an electroencephalogram. No one (yet) has alerted them to the fact that they are in fact mouthing a piece of utterly mystical Christian doctrine ... rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition (and in nothing else) .... No one has pointed out to them that when we confess “all men are created equal” we mean, and can only mean, that all people are equally precious to God and are creatures made in his image.

So far, we have coasted along on custom in continuing to talk as though our culture still is founded on that mystical Christian faith in human equality. I fear, however, that sooner or later, it will occur to somebody to get rid of this mystical Christian belief in equality as they have gotten rid of so much of the rest of the Christian tradition.

Either that, or we will have to repent of getting rid of the Christian tradition. But we can't coast forever.

Once you make materialism the basis for your ethos, there is no particular reason you can’t – as the racist tools at Occam’s Razor and related sites do – say, “I don’t see anything particularly equal about human beings, and so I will embrace a blood and soil racism and treat large segments of the human race with racist contempt.” All the buttercup-twirling babble about a happy return to pre-Christian paganism at one with Nature that we’ve heard in growing chorus over the past 40 years forgets that frank and open racist tribalism is the norm, not the exception, for man in his natural fallen state. Look for a lot more of this stuff as our culture de-christianizes.
Shea is right, at least I believe he is. A society can no more reject the basis for its fundamental convictions and continue on as if nothing had changed than a gardener can sever a plant from its roots and stick it back in the ground and expect it to blossom. The norm among human societies is racism and tribalism, hatred for the other, contempt for the different-from-me.

If naturalism is true, if we are simply the product of eons of blind, impersonal, purposeless forces and chance, the idea of a brotherhood of man - with all of us living idyllically in peace and love - is the sheerest nonsense and fantasy. It denies all experience and human history. The more likely template for a world that has embraced naturalism is 1930s Europe or the world of The Hunger Games.

It's human nature to hate the other, the outsider, the weaker, the different. Ethnocentrism is inscribed in our genes. Racism is the human default position. Darwinian evolution knows nothing of racial brotherhood, it recognizes only the cold, amoral struggle for survival.

It's only the Judeo-Christian belief that the other was created by God and that God loves him as much as he loves us that has put a check on our egoistic passions and has enabled us to live harmoniously together. In much of the West, however, that belief is wilting and with it will wilt the blossom of brotherly love. As society moves further away from the conviction that we're all equally loved by the Creator and that He wants us to treat each other with dignity, respect, and kindness, the closer we will move toward the world of the blood and soil fascists and a Hobbesian war of all against all. The more of our Judeo-Christian heritage we toss out the window the more will racism thrive.

The irony is that the more the secular left succeeds in eliminating religion from society the more they will also succeed, inadvertently, in resurrecting fascism.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Letter to a Young Girl

Some years ago I had occasion to write a letter to my daughter on the subject of happiness. I subsequently posted it on Viewpoint and a reader digging through the archives read it and reminded me of it, and I thought I'd like to share it again. Here it is:

Hi Princess,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All my love,


Friday, March 22, 2013

Promote What?

I found myself in traffic the other day behind a car whose bumper stickers made for interesting reading at stop lights. The car was decorated with a half-dozen or so messages which in one way or another were critical of theistic belief. One declared, for instance, that "God = Imaginary Friend," and another informed the reader that "In the Beginning Man Created God," and so on.

As my eye meandered over the messages one incongruous slogan aroused my attention. It exhorted us to "Promote Morality." Promote morality? In a world where God is merely the creation of people who need imaginary friends why should one promote morality? In such a world what exactly is moral anyway? If there's no transcendent moral authority how can morality be anything more than a declaration of our own behavioral tastes, preferences, and prejudices? In such a world why would it be wrong to just live for oneself?

This is precisely the question that the protagonists in my novel In the Absence of God find themselves wrestling with throughout the story. Most people wish to insist that some acts are objectively wrong - not just distasteful - but wrong, but what does that mean? Why is anything wrong? Dostoyevsky says in The Brothers Karamazov that if God is dead nothing is wrong and the list of atheist philosophers who agree with him grows longer every year. Indeed, a controversy among atheist thinkers today is whether they should boldly acknowledge their amoralism or whether they should conceal it from a public which would think them all lunatics were they told the news.

So the fellow in the car ahead of me in the traffic is manifesting an anachronistic metaphysics. Like a character in Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra he hasn't yet heard the momentous tidings that if the antitheistic sentiments expressed on his bumper stickers are correct then the moral sentiment he displays on the "Promote Morality" sticker is nonsense.

I know one cannot expect philosophical profundity from bumper stickers, but one might at least expect coherence.

Atheists, it seems to me, must either embrace an amoralistic nihilism or reject atheism. What they can't do is declare there's no God but that we should promote "morality" anyway. To cling to the illusion that objective moral obligation is somehow independent of an objective moral authority is, after all, to make an imaginary friend of moral obligation.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nihilism, Explicit or Incognito?

I did say that the book has created a firestorm. Simply everyone is talking about it. Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard has one of the best-written essays on it I've seen so far, but rather than talk (yet again) about Thomas Nagel's book Mind and Cosmos I want to focus on something Ferguson says about a recent confab of atheistic materialist intellectuals at which Nagel's book was a major topic of discussion. What Ferguson observed at the meeting dovetails with one of the major themes of my own In the Absence of God.

First a bit of background. Modern atheists are of two minds about how they should present their worldview to the public. Specifically, there's debate within the skeptical community over how frank they should be in discussing the implications of atheism for both our human desire for ultimate meaning and our need for an objective basis for moral judgment. One faction insists that atheists should be up-front with the general public about the fact that, on atheism, there just is no ultimate meaning to human existence nor is there anything beyond our own tastes in which to ground moral obligation. These universal human aspirations and yearnings are simply unfulfillable illusions.

The other faction argues that admitting that would be a public relations disaster for atheism. It's better, this group maintains, to be more circumspect and oblique about the nihilistic implications of atheism lest the public perceive that atheism offers to quench our existential thirsts with glassfuls of dust. Here's Ferguson:
One notable division did arise among the participants, however. Some of the biologists thought the materialist view of the world should be taught and explained to the wider public in its true, high-octane, Crickian form. Then common, nonintellectual people might see that a purely random universe without purpose or free will or spiritual life of any kind isn’t as bad as some superstitious people—religious people—have led them to believe.

Daniel Dennett took a different view. While it is true that materialism tells us a human being is nothing more than a “moist robot”—a phrase Dennett took from a Dilbert comic—we run a risk when we let this cat, or robot, out of the bag. If we repeatedly tell folks that their sense of free will or belief in objective morality is essentially an illusion, such knowledge has the potential to undermine civilization itself, Dennett believes. Civil order requires the general acceptance of personal responsibility, which is closely linked to the notion of free will. Better, said Dennett, if the public were told that “for general purposes” the self and free will and objective morality do indeed exist—that colors and sounds exist, too—“just not in the way they think.” They “exist in a special way,” which is to say, ultimately, not at all.

On this point the discussion grew testy at times. I was reminded of the debate among British censors over the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover half a century ago. “Fine for you or me,” one prosecutor is said to have remarked, “but is this the sort of thing you would leave lying about for your wife or servant to read?”
Ferguson's entire essay is worth reading, unless you've already had your fill of the intellectual brouhaha over Nagel's book, but it's even more worth contemplating the fact that adherents of the worldview Nagel criticizes in Mind and Cosmos hold to a view whose consequences are so awful that many of them are afraid that, were the view to be universally accepted, civilization would collapse. There's something fundamentally dishonest about trying to persuade people to accept a metaphysical belief whose existential consequences one is reluctant to be frank about. It also says something about the nature of the belief in question.

If it's true that you can judge the quality of a tree by the quality of its fruit then we are justified in being suspicious that any plant whose fruit is so bitter, rotten and toxic that it dare not be offered straightforwardly to the public is itself noxious and hollow.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Of Persons and Pigs

One of the many problems with a naturalistic worldview, i.e. a worldview based on the belief that nature is all there is, is that it's dehumanizing. This was illustrated rather shockingly when the atheist stalwart Richard Dawkins recently tweeted that:
With respect to those meanings of "human" that are relevant to the morality of abortion, any fetus is less human than an adult pig.
Well, perhaps Dawkins intended to shock, but what he really accomplished was to make himself sound like a dunderhead.

For example, a fetus is fully human, a pig is not at all human. It's a simple matter of biological fact which any tenth grade biology student could understand let alone a professional biologist of Dawkins' stature.

Secondly, as an atheist Dawkins piggy-backs (pardon the pun) on theism by referring to moral considerations in the matter of abortion. This is a favorite tactic of atheists, one which they find it expedient to resort because on atheism there simply is no objective moral value. Lacking the resources to enable them to use moral language they employ the intellectual equivalent of sneaking past the turnstile by squeezing close to the paying customer and hoping that no one will notice.

The fact is that on atheism abortion is neither moral nor immoral, any more than a tonsilectomy is moral or immoral. Morality in a world without a transcendent moral standard is simply a matter of whatever you can get away with, a point that I try to drive home in my book In the Absence of God (Have I mentioned that I've written a book?), and abortion is something that, as matters stand today, anyone can get away with.

Thirdly, to place less value on a human fetus than on a pig is to open wide the gate to thinking that just as we can farm and slaughter pigs without violating any moral principle, so, too, can we farm and slaughter humans with moral impunity.

It's a frightening world that the modern atheist would lead us into, one where humans are no different than other animals, where humans have no particular dignity or moral status, where there's nothing special about us at all. That's, of course, the same sort of thinking that led to the 19th century slave markets and later to the 20th century horrors at Buchenwald and Auschwitz, and it's the ineluctable consequence of the atheist's denial that man is not a mere animal but is made in the image of God.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Naturalist's Conundrum

Barry Arrington at Uncommon Descent poses an interesting set of questions via an imaginary dialogue between a theist and a Darwinian materialist:
Theist: You say there is no God.
EM: Yes.
Theist: Yet belief in God among many (if not most) humans persists.
EM: I cannot deny that.
Theist: How do you explain that?
EM: Religious belief is an evolutionary adaption.
Theist: But you say religious belief is false.
EM: That’s correct.
Theist: Let me get this straight. According to you, religious belief has at least two characteristics: (1) it is false; and (2) evolution selected for it.
EM[looking a little pale now, because he’s just figured out where this is going]: Correct.
Theist: You believe the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis [NDS] is true.
EM: Of course.
Theist: How do you know your belief in NDS is not another false belief that evolution has selected for?
EM: ___________________
Our materialist friends are invited to fill in the blank.
This is the point that philosopher Alvin Plantinga has been making for the last twenty years or so. If we evolved the cognitive faculties we currently possess so as to be better suited for survival back in the stone age what grounds do we have for thinking that those faculties reliably lead to truth, especially truth about metaphysical beliefs like a belief in naturalism?

Consider an example: Suppose in some prehistoric society a belief arises that the more children one has the more richly they'll be rewarded in the afterlife. Suppose, too, that our doxastic inclinations are produced by our genes which are themselves the result of natural selection. If so, people who possess the genes for this belief are likely to have many more children on average than those who don't have it, and the gene that disposes toward the belief will spread rapidly through the population even though the belief is false.

In other words, evolution favors beliefs which have survival value, not necessarily truth value. If we believe ourselves to be solely the products of a natural process like evolution the most we can say about our beliefs about things like naturalism and theism is that they must have survival value or they wouldn't have persisted. A purposeless process like evolution which is geared to promoting survival is indifferent to the actual truth of beliefs. It's only attuned to their utility.

That being so, why should we have any confidence, on naturalism, that our reason is a reliable guide to truth? Indeed, the paradox for the naturalist is that if naturalism is true he can have no confidence that it is. His belief that it's true is the product of cognitive faculties shaped for survival, not for truth.

It's only the theist who believes that his cognitive faculties are designed by God to lead to truth who can have any confidence that those faculties are in fact reliable.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Structure of Scientific Revolutions at 50

2012 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Thomas Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The book presented a novel and unorthodox interpretation of the way science operates and changes and is still being read and cited today by every philosopher of science.

Contrary to the classic picture of scientists as dispassionate, objective investigators following the empirical evidence wherever it leads, Kuhn argued cogently that scientific theories are held dogmatically, often for reasons that have nothing to do with the evidence and sometimes even in spite of the evidence, and are overturned only when a new generation of scientists arises which has no particular allegiance to the old view. It's only when the old guard fades away and a younger cohort of independent thinkers arises that a paradigm shift, a term coined by Kuhn, occurs.

In recognition of Kuhn's achievement Matthew Rees at The New Atlantis has a feature story on his book. Here are some highlights:
The argument of Structure is not especially complicated. Kuhn held that the historical process of science is divided into three stages: a “normal” stage, followed by “crisis” and then “revolutionary” stages. The normal stage is characterized by a strong agreement among scientists on what is and is not scientific practice. In this stage, scientists largely agree on what are the questions that need answers. Indeed, only problems that are recognized as potentially having solutions are considered scientific. So it is in the normal stage that we see science progress not toward better questions but better answers. The beginning of this period is usually marked by a solution that serves as an example, a paradigm, for further research. (This is just one of many ways in which Kuhn uses the word “paradigm” in Structure.)

A crisis occurs when an existing theory involves so many unsolved puzzles, or “anomalies,” that its explanatory ability becomes questionable. Scientists begin to consider entirely new ways of examining the data, and there is a lack of consensus on which questions are important scientifically. Problems that had previously been left to other, non-scientific fields may now come into view as potentially scientific.
This leads to the emergence of a new competing paradigm:
Eventually, a new exemplary solution emerges. This new solution will be “incommensurable” — another key term in Kuhn’s thesis — with the former paradigm, meaning not only that the two paradigms are mutually conflicting, but that they are asking different questions, and to some extent speaking different scientific languages. Such a revolution inaugurates a new period of normal science. Thus normal science can be understood as a period of “puzzle-solving” or “mopping-up” after the discovery or elucidation of a paradigm-shifting theory. The theory is applied in different contexts, using different variables, to fully flesh out its implications. But since every paradigm has its flaws, progress in normal science is always toward the point of another crisis.

Kuhn quotes Max Planck, who famously wrote that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Over time, there again comes to be almost unanimous agreement on the validity of the predominant theory — it achieves paradigmatic status. Scientists tacitly assume agreement on the meanings of technical terms, and develop a shared and specialized technical vocabulary to facilitate data accumulation and organization. They establish journals dedicated to their scientific field, begin to cross-reference one another, and scrutinize each other’s work according to whether or not it conforms to the theory. Their students, likewise, learn to approach problems in the same way they do, much as an apprentice learns from a master. Normal science has resumed and the cycle begins anew.
Kuhn was accused of being a post-modern relativist because he didn't think that science progresses toward truth and didn't seem quite sure whether there even was a final, complete "truth" about the world at all.
It was important for Kuhn that his conception of the history and process of science was not the same as that of scientific progress. He maintained that the process of science was similar to biological evolution — not necessarily evolution toward anything, only away from previous error. In this way, Kuhn was rather skeptical about the idea of progress at all. This was the most controversial aspect of his thesis, the one that most concerned the contemporary critics of Structure, on the basis of which they accused — or celebrated — Kuhn as a champion of relativism. As University of Toronto philosophy professor Ian Hacking notes in an introductory essay prepended to the new fiftieth-anniversary edition of Structure, Kuhn’s notion that science moves away from previous error:
seems to call in question the overarching notion of science as aiming at the truth about the universe. The thought that there is one and only one complete true account of everything is deep in the Western tradition.... In popular versions of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cosmology, there is one true and complete account of everything, namely what God knows. (He knows about the death of the least sparrow.)

This image gets transposed to fundamental physics, many of whose practitioners, who might proudly proclaim themselves to be atheists, take for granted that there just is, waiting to be discovered, one full and complete account of nature. If you think that makes sense, then it offers itself as an ideal towards which the sciences are progressing. Hence Kuhn’s progress away from will seem totally misguided.
Rees talks about the extent of Kuhn's indebtedness to Michael Polyani and also compares and contrasts him to Karl Popper. He also gives a great deal of space to Kuhn's impact on the social sciences, a discussion which should be of interest to those in these fields.

Rees also mentions that Kuhn, who was a physicist by training, doesn't talk much about the Darwinian revolution in biology. I thought the point was apt, but I wonder if the more interesting point isn't that biology seems to be in the midst now of a Kuhnian crisis of its own wherein the anomalies of the Darwinian claim that high levels of complexity and information are the products of blind, purposeless forces are piling up. Perhaps we're witnessing a paradigm shift in our own time in biology.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Why We Celebrate St. Patrick's Day

Millions of Americans, many of them descendents of Irish immigrants, celebrate their Irish heritage by observing St. Patrick's Day today. We are indebted to Thomas Cahill and his best-selling book How The Irish Saved Civilization for explaining to us why Patrick's is a life worth commemorating. As improbable as his title may sound, Cahill weaves a fascinating and compelling tale of how the Irish in general, and Patrick and his spiritual heirs in particular, served as a tenuous but crucial cultural bridge from the classical world to the medieval age and, by so doing, made Western civilization possible.

Born a Roman citizen in 390 B.C., Patrick had been kidnapped as a boy of sixteen from his home on the coast of Britain and taken by Irish barbarians to Ireland. There he languished in slavery until he was able to escape six years later. Upon his homecoming he became a Christian, studied for the priesthood, and eventually returned to Ireland where he would spend the rest of his life laboring to persuade the Irish to accept the Gospel and to abolish slavery. Patrick was the first person in history, in fact, to speak out unequivocally against slavery and, according to Cahill, the last person to do so until the 17th century.

Meanwhile, Roman control of Europe had begun to collapse. Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410 A.D. and barbarians were sweeping across the continent, forcing the Romans back to Italy, and plunging Europe into the Dark Ages. Throughout the continent unwashed, illiterate hordes descended on the once grand Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books. Learning ground to a halt and the literary heritage of the classical world was burned or moldered into dust. Almost all of it, Cahill claims, would surely have been lost if not for the Irish.

Having been converted to Christianity through the labors of Patrick, the Irish took with gusto to reading, writing and learning. They delighted in letters and bookmaking and painstakingly created indescribably beautiful Biblical manuscripts such as the Book of Kells which is on display today in the library of Trinity College in Dublin. Aware that the great works of the past were disappearing, they applied themselves assiduously to the daunting task of copying all surviving Western literature - everything they could lay their hands on.

For a century after the fall of Rome, Irish monks sequestered themselves in cold, damp, cramped mud huts called scriptoria, so remote and isolated from the world that they were seldom threatened by the marauding pagans. Here these men spent their entire adult lives reproducing the old manuscripts and preserving literacy and learning for the time when people would be once again ready to receive them.

These scribes and their successors served as the conduits through which the Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the benighted tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruin of the civilization they had recently overwhelmed. Around the late 6th century, three generations after Patrick, Irish missionaries with names like Columcille, Aidan, and Columbanus began to venture out from their monasteries and refuges, clutching their precious books to their hearts, sailing to England and the continent, founding their own monasteries and schools among the barbarians and teaching them how to read, write and make books of their own.

Absent the willingness of these courageous men to endure deprivations and hardships of every kind for the sake of the Gospel and learning, Cahill argues, the world that came after them would have been completely different. It would likely have been a world without books. Europe almost certainly would have been illiterate, and it would probably have been unable to resist the Muslim incursions that arrived a few centuries later.

The Europeans, starved for knowledge, soaked up everything the Irish missionaries could give them. From such seeds as these modern Western civilization germinated. From the Greeks the descendents of the Goths and Vandals learned philosophy, from the Romans they learned about law, from the Bible they learned of the worth of the individual who, created and loved by God, is therefore significant and not merely a brutish aggregation of matter.

From the Bible, too, they learned that the universe was created by a rational Mind and was thus not capricious, random, or chaotic. It would yield its secrets to rational investigation. Out of these assumptions, once their implications were finally and fully developed, grew historically unprecedented views of the value of the individual and the flowering of modern science.

Our cultural heritage is thus, in a very important sense, a legacy from the Irish. A legacy from Patrick. It is worth pondering on this St. Patrick's Day what the world would be like today had it not been for those early Irish scribes and missionaries thirteen centuries ago.

Buiochas le Dia ar son na nGaeil (Thank God for the Irish), and I hope you have a great St. Patrick's Day.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Freedom and Fascism

Lars Hedegaard is a Danish writer who has had to go into hiding because of attempts that have been made on his life. He was recently interviewed by Dennis Prager and the interview is instructive. I urge readers to read the whole thing at the link but I want to offer a few highlights.

After Hedegaard's description of the attempt to murder him Prager asks this:
DP: You were nearly murdered. What did you write and what are you fighting for?

LH: I don't know exactly what motivated the attack. I've been writing on Islam, Islamic history and Islamic ideology for about ten years. I haven't done anything differently recently except that we started our new newspaper, the weekly Dispatch International, on the third of January. It's a Swedish language newspaper, but we have an online edition in English.

I've been wondering, of course, why someone wanted to shoot me, and I cannot think of anything that I've done differently recently than what I have been doing these last couple of years. I've been called a hate speaker, and I'm not a hate speaker. I've been called a racist, and I'm not a racist. I'm just a normal historian and a journalist. It's my job to describe what's going on in the world, and that's what I've been trying to do to the best of my abilities.

DP: Correct me if I'm wrong: You are a man of the left.

LH: Yes.

DP: Where are the attacks on you being racist coming from? What part of the ideological spectrum?

LH: I would say almost exclusively from the left. (Of course, also from Muslims. Not all Muslims, but some.) I seem to be very unpopular with my old friends. I think the problem is that I know what it's all about to be left-wing; I used to be a leading Marxist in this country. But I've held to the opinion that we first of all have to fight for free speech and freedom and equality between the sexes and the rule of law; and also, that we should not bow before religious fanatics of any type, regardless of where they come from. This seems to me what was the essence of being left-wing back in the days. No longer.

The left now seems to have reverence for fanatics -- as long as they are Muslim. Of course, they can criticize Christianity all they want. But when somebody threatens with violence -- if you criticize me, I'll come and kill you -- then all of a sudden they become soft. They become understanding. They talk about tolerance; we have to show respect. I don't want to show respect for people who say that men are worth more than women, that women can be killed if they are adulterers; that apostates from Islam should be killed; that people should be stoned, etc. I mean, I don't like that. I want to fight that. I want to describe it. And I don't think the left does.
The biggest threat to freedom today, the tactics most similar to those employed by 20th century fascists, are arising on the left. This is an important point to understand. The left side of the ideological spectrum may be described as shading from centrists to liberals to socialist/progressives to totalitarians (communists and fascists). Communists and fascists are fraternal twins. The only real difference between them is that, whereas fascism tends to be militaristic and nationalistic, communism is an international movement which professes to disdain the military, at least until they have managed to seize power for themselves.

The similarities communists and fascists share, however, are much more important. They both aspire to exercise total control over the life of the individual whose freedom must be suppressed or extinguished. The citizen must be subordinate to the state in everything he says, thinks, and does. Any deviation from what is permitted by the state must be prohibited and punished.

This is why political correctness is so pernicious. It's a step by liberals and progressives, whether they realize it or not, toward habituating the citizen to acceptance of state control over his life.

Hedegaard makes an important observation in this regard:
[In Europe] we don't have your First Amendment. The Free Press Society has been fighting for nine years to introduce a first amendment in Denmark and other places in Europe. We don't have that. We have an article in our penal code called 266(b), which means that you can be convicted of hate speech, racism, denigration of religion, or a number of things, which is despicable.

I agree with the American Constitution -- you should be able to say anything you want, and if you're an idiot or a jerk you should be corrected by other people. You can lose your career, you can lose your reputation if you talk ill of people because of their race, which I have never done. But you should have the right to say anything. You should have laws against libel, lying about people, threatening people with violence, revealing state secrets, etc. You have that in any civilized country. But apart from that, I agree with the First Amendment. We don't have it here.

DP: I'll tell you another thing you don't have there....: You don't have talk radio. This has been a major factor in America in offering the alternate universe to that which the Swedish press and the American left, such as the New York Times, which would be perfectly at home in Stockholm, present to us.

LH: You're right. Speaking about the New York Times, they had an article today about me, that I'm full of "bile and viciousness and racism" and what-not. No, we don't have talk radio. What we do have is state radio, something that the people are forced to support by their tax dollars.
The First Amendment is critical to a people remaining free, and the Second Amendment is critical to our being able to keep the First. When progressives are in power in Washington, as they are now, both of those freedoms will come under assault because they're seen as impediments to the government's ability to aggrandize control over peoples' lives.

The entire interview may be heard at

Friday, March 15, 2013

Free Thinking

For the last two or three centuries religious skeptics have been pleased to refer to themselves by the self-flattering term "freethinkers." Today that word is fraught with irony since there's no group of people more disdainful of "free thought" than freethinkers. Just ask Thomas Nagel.

As we've mentioned on previous occasions Nagel has written a book that has created a firestorm of controversy, and not a little calumny, because he had the temerity to express doubt that materialism, and thus Darwinism, offers satisfactory accounts of consciousness, cognition, and moral value.

This heresy from a prominent philosopher who is himself a former materialist has earned him the opprobrium of those eager to celebrate heretics as long as their apostasy is from theistic religion. Free thinking is only free, apparently, for those who think the proper thoughts, and Nagel doesn't.

Leon Weiseltier in The New Republic has a perceptive essay on the hypocrisy of those who extol intellectual rebellion against orthodox religion but seek to suppress it when it's naturalistic religion that's called into question. Here are a few paragraphs from his column:
Is there a greater gesture of intellectual contempt than the notion that a tweet constitutes an adequate intervention in a serious discussion? But when Thomas Nagel’s formidable book Mind and Cosmos recently appeared, in which he has the impudence to suggest that “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false,” and to offer thoughtful reasons to believe that the non-material dimensions of life—consciousness, reason, moral value, subjective experience—cannot be reduced to, or explained as having evolved tidily from, its material dimensions, Steven Pinker took to Twitter and haughtily ruled that it was “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”

Here was a signal to the Darwinist dittoheads that a mob needed to be formed. In an earlier book Nagel had dared to complain of “Darwinist imperialism,” though in his scrupulous way he added that “there is really no reason to assume that the only alternative to an evolutionary explanation of everything is a religious one.” He is not, God forbid, a theist. But he went on to warn that “this may not be comforting enough” for the materialist establishment, which may find it impossible to tolerate also “any cosmic order of which mind is an irreducible and non-accidental part.” For the bargain-basement atheism of our day, it is not enough that there be no God: there must be only matter.

Now Nagel’s new book fulfills his old warning. A mob is indeed forming, a mob of materialists, of free-thinking inquisitors. “In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against religion,” Nagel calmly writes, “... I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.”

This cannot be allowed! And so the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Secular Faith sprang into action. “If there were a philosophical Vatican,” Simon Blackburn declared in the New Statesman, “the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index.” I hope that one day he regrets that sentence. It is not what Bruno, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Voltaire, Hume, Locke, Kant, and the other victims of the anti-philosophical Vatican had in mind.

I understand that nobody is going to burn Nagel’s book or ban it. These inquisitors are just more professors. But he is being denounced not merely for being wrong. He is being denounced also for being heretical. I thought heresy was heroic. I guess it is heroic only when it dissents from a doctrine with which I disagree. Actually, the defense of heresy has nothing to do with its content and everything to do with its right. Tolerance is not a refutation of heresy, but a retirement of the concept.

I am not suggesting that there is anything outrageous about the criticism of Nagel’s theory of the explanatory limitations of Darwinism. He aimed to provoke and he provoked. His troublemaking book has sparked the most exciting disputation in many years, because no question is more primary than the question of whether materialism (which Nagel defines as “the view that only the physical world is irreducibly real”) is true or false.
Weiseltier has more at the link. It's interesting that so many of Nagel's critics have shied away from actually addressing his arguments and have aimed their fire at him personally. That's what people do, of course, when their worldview is threatened and they realize they have no convincing defense.

You might wish to check out Alvin Plantinga's column on Nagel's book in the same magazine. It's a treat.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

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Have I mentioned lately that I have a book out (Follow above link to In the Absence of God)? Now you can help get the word out by "liking" it (whatever that might mean) on Facebook. It'd be great if you could take a moment and stop by. Thanks.

Cultural Chauvinism

We sometimes hear the claim, though not as often as formerly, that all cultures are equally worth celebrating and that it's chauvinistic, which is assumed to be a bad thing, to believe that some ways of thinking and living are superior to others.

On the other hand, we also sometimes wonder why it is that some groups of people never seem to advance but appear content to live as they have for thousands of years. We're reluctant to think that this is not good because we don't want to be thought to be chauvinists, but deep down we really do think that we'd much rather live in a society that has electricity, indoor plumbing, and human rights than one which doesn't. Deep down we believe that a culture which promotes hard work and discipline is superior to one in which indolence is a way of life.

In fact, we tacitly admit this when we raise money to send to those who are suffering in cultures, whether foreign or domestic, which never seem to progress. I thought of all this as I was reading a piece on Strategy Page about why it's so hard for Americans and our European allies to work effectively with Arabs.

I quote the article at some length because it gives us a good insight into the Arab mindset and culture:
[T]he unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia is 12 percent and many of those men are unemployed by choice. Not even counted are most women, who are barred from most jobs because they are women. Arab men tend to have a very high opinion of themselves and most available jobs, even to poorly educated young men, do not satisfy.

Thus most Saudis prefer a government job, where the work is easy, the pay is good, the title is flattering, and life is boring. Thus 90 percent of employed Saudis work for the government. In the non-government sector of the economy, 90 percent of the jobs are performed by foreigners. These foreigners comprise 27 percent of the Saudi population, mostly to staff all the non-government jobs and actually make the economy work. This means most young Saudi men have few challenges. One might say that many of them are desperate for some test of their worth, but a job in the competitive civilian economy does not do it, nor does the military.

The Saudi employment situation is not unique. The UAE (United Arab Emirates) has foreigners occupying 99 percent of the non-government jobs. The unemployment rate is 23 percent, but only a tenth of those are actually looking for a job. A survey indicated that most of the unemployed are idle by choice. Kuwait is more entrepreneurial, with only 80 percent of the non-government jobs taken by foreigners. The other Gulf Arab states (which have less oil) have a similar situation.

Arabs in general don't care for the Western custom of establishing minimum standards for, say, fighter pilots. It's long been known that it's very difficult to wash out an Arab pilot who is well connected (especially a member of a powerful local family). There are some very good Arab pilots but they are a minority. The rest get by. As long as they can take off and land, they can stay in a squadron.

During combat exercises, especially with American squadrons, it's understood that the low overall performance of Arab pilots is not to be discussed with the Arabs, or anyone else. Junior American officers get irked by this but it is career suicide to disobey orders on this point. The Gulf Arabs do spend a lot of money on training and letting the pilots fly. For this reason, they are considered marginally better than other Arab air forces. But against the Iranians, who more enthusiastically accepted Western training methods, they would have problems. Iranian aircraft are older and less well-equipped, but pilot quality would make up for a lot of that.

The problem extends to ground crews, who don't take responsibility seriously and have to be constantly hounded by their foreign advisors and specialists hired to make sure the aircraft are flyable. And when something goes wrong, the foreign experts are expected to take the blame. That's what the foreigners are there for. In many cases the foreigners simply do most of the work and let their Arab maintainers take very long coffee breaks.

Many Arab leaders are aware of the problem, especially those who have studied in the West or spent some time there. As a result, there are some very competent Arab doctors, scientists, and bankers. But this minority knows they are up against an ancient and well-entrenched culture that does not seek out innovation and excellence as it is done in the West. The more insightful Arabs seek ways to work around these problems.

It comes down to a different cultural attitude towards taking responsibility for your actions. It's human nature to avoid failure or taking responsibility for a mistake. Thus we have the concept of "saving face." One reason the West has made such economic, cultural, military, and social progress in the last five hundred years is because they developed a habit of holding people responsible for their actions and giving out the rewards based on achievement. In the West, this sort of thing is taken for granted, even if it is not always practiced.

But in much of the rest of the world, especially the Arab world, things are different. Most Arab countries are a patchwork of different tribes and groups, and Arab leaders survive by playing one group off against another. Loyalty is to one's group, not the nation. Most countries are dominated by a single group that is usually a minority, as in Bedouins in Jordan, Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq (formerly), and Nejdis in Saudi Arabia. This means that officers are usually assigned not by merit but by loyalty and tribal affiliation.

Then there are the Islamic schools, which are so popular in Moslem countries, which favor rote memorization, especially of scripture. This has resulted in looking down on Western troops that will look something up that they don't know. Arabs prefer to fake it and pretend it's all in their head. Improvisation and innovation is generally discouraged. Arab armies go by the book, Western armies constantly rewrite the book and thus usually win.

All of this makes it difficult to develop a real NCO corps. Officers and enlisted troops are treated like two different social castes and there is no effort to bridge the gap using career NCOs. Enlisted personnel are treated harshly. Training accidents that would end the careers of US officers are commonplace in Arab armies and nobody cares.

Arab officers often do not trust each other. While an American infantry officer can be reasonably confident that the artillery officers will conduct their bombardment on time and on target, Arab infantry officers seriously doubt that their artillery will do its job on time or on target. This is a fatal attitude in combat.
There's a lot more in this vein at the link.

I am among the first to point to serious problems in our society, and a not insignificant fraction of our population is in several respects similar in mindset to what we just read above, but I think it's silly to think that a culture in which men lack the discipline to work, which oppresses women, and which produces nothing of any real value other than what others have been able to extract from their portion of earth is somehow just as much worth celebrating as one which has none of these liabilities.

Call me a cultural chauvinist if you wish, but as bad as things might be in much of the Western world and as much as some in the West might think like those young Saudi men, I wouldn't want to live in any country whose culture is not shaped by the values traditionally taken for granted in the West. I suspect that most of those who "celebrate" multicultural diversity and insist that no culture is superior to any other feel the same way I do, even if they won't admit it.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

For Logophiles

A friend forwarded me a delightful piece titled Twenty English Words That Should Make a Comeback. The words have passed into obsolecence and are hard to find even in a good dictionary, and it's too bad. Some of them are marvelous. I told my friend that when a word passes out of usage it's as if a species of plant or animal has gone extinct except that the word can be brought back if people start using it again.

Take a look at the list of words at the link and see if you can't find an opportunity to use one or two of them in your scriptitations or the next conversation you have. Be careful, though, not to jargogle your listeners with perissology or you'll make yourself ludibrious.

On the other hand, such adroit use of the language may make you illecebrous to members of the opposite sex so go for it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

It's Come to This

A seven year old Maryland boy was recently punished by school administrators for the crime of having sculpted a pop tart into the form of a gun. The horrified authorities sprang into action and quickly taught the young terrorist a lesson he'd never forget. They suspended his miserable little redneck self from school.

Now a Maryland lawmaker, incredulous that the stupidity of these administrators makes such measures necessary, has introduced a bill that would prevent schools from suspending students for making a gun with their fingers, and, presumably, out of the fearsome pop tart as well.
Zero tolerance for zero tolerance. That’s how one lawmaker feels about young children being suspended from school for forming their finger or food in the shape of a gun. As [reporter] Gigi Barnett explains, he has a bill designed to keep students in class if they’re caught.

State Senator J.B. Jennings says he does not intend for this bill to be a part of the growing gun debate in Maryland, but he does say he wants it to bring some common sense discipline to state schools.

Anne Arundel County school leaders suspended 7-year-old Joshua Welch last week for eating a pastry in the shape of a gun.

“When you compare the caliber of the offense to the caliber of the punishment, they don’t match up,” the boy’s father said.
Uh, oh. I hope the school principals didn't read this. It'd afford them the perfect explanation for why the little miscreant is obsessed with guns. "The apple falls nigh to the tree," we can hear them say. "His father thinks in terms of calibers. Get it? Calibers? Ammo? Guns?" Doubtless the school authorities believe the father should also be penalized for setting such a loathesome example for his son.
Back in January, 6-year-old Rodney Lynch received the same punishment for forming his fingers in the shape of a gun. Montgomery County school leaders sent Lynch home for two days.

“These kids are 6 or 7 years old. They don’t understand what they’re doing,” said Sen. Jennings.
"Well," our Solomonic administrators are probably objecting, "what does that matter? Who says the urchins have to understand what they're doing?" When you're on a mission to eliminate gun violence, as these zealous educators are, you have to assume that anything that remotely resembles a gun strikes terror into the hearts of students and teachers, and anyone who simulates use of a deadly weapon must be punished.
Jennings says zero tolerance rules on school campuses are going too far, so he wrote a bill. It bans school leaders from suspending students who make the shape of a gun with their fingers or food, or students who draw a gun on a piece of paper.

“If it’s done in a violent manner, then yes, we can take it to the next level. We can look at suspension,” said Jennings.
By all means, any use of a pop tart suggestive of violence should be taken to the "next level." So, too, should suggestive displays of donuts, which, when pointed at someone can vaguely resemble the muzzle of a gun. Any child who points a donut at someone, assuming those agglomerations of fat and sugar are even allowed on school campuses in politically correct Maryland, should be summarily suspended for perpetrating an act of violence.
Jennings says his office has received several calls from parents who fear that a suspension in elementary school will mar their children’s academic career.

“So the parents are the one’s who’ve had concerns saying ‘OK, now my kid has to carry this.’ So when they get into middle school and they start placing them in classes, they’re going to look and say ‘Well wait a minute, this kid has been suspended when he was in second grade.’ And he’s always going to be looked at as ‘what did he do?’” Jennings said.
Indeed, why not brand a scarlet G for "gun" into his forehead so everyone knows that when this psychopath was in second grade he actually - with malice aforethought and without remorse - shaped a pop tart to look like a firearm, and if he ever points an index finger at someone - whether the thumb be raised or not - perhaps he should have the offending digit cut off.
If the bill passes and a student is caught forming their food or fingers in the shape of a gun, they would be sent to a counselor’s office first–not suspension.
By all means, get the child counseling. Who knows what terrible crimes a young boy who draws pictures of guns is capable of? If he's not shown the wickedness of his ways the next thing you know he'll be pointing bananas and pickles at people and saying "bang." Then what does an administrator with an advanced college degree that presumably implies an IQ somewhere above the freezing point of water do?

I wonder en passant if counseling is required for young boys who, as boys are wont to do, fashion their food into the simulacrum of genitalia and festoon their notebooks with sketches of marijuana leaves and depictions of various pornographic fantasies. Probably not. Those creations are no doubt deemed by the liberal sachems to be imaginative, if inchoate, artistic expressions and are only offensive to prudish conservatives. The real problem are the children who make guns out of pop tarts.

Alas, there seems to be no end to this lunacy.

Absence Featured in Sunday Paper

Sarah Chain does a column on books for the local paper, and she did a piece for last Sunday's edition on my novel In the Absence of God (Follow the link at the top right of this page for more info on the book).

Sarah's article was marred only by the fact that it included a picture of me, but other than that it was a fine summary of the book. Check it out at the link, and if you haven't read Absence yet it's available at Amazon and at Hearts and Minds bookstore. It'll soon be available in other bookstores as well. It'd make a fine gift, I say humbly, for someone of a philosophical frame of mind interested in questions surrounding the existence or non-existence of God.

Monday, March 11, 2013

An Innate Disposition Toward Theism?

Big Questions Online has an interesting topic this month. Justin Barrett asks whether belief in God - or rather, is receptivity to belief in God - innate in the same way as the propensity for language formation is innate? If it is, then that fact has interesting epistemological implications, though Barrett doesn't address this aspect of the question. If we are in some way wired to believe a priori in God then it would seem that theistic belief is epistemically warranted or justified apart from any evidence one could present on behalf of the belief.

The inclination to believe in God would be as natural, as rational, as the belief that my memory of having spent last night reading Dickens is reliable. Both beliefs are what epistemologists call properly basic beliefs. They require no evidential support, one is justified in believing them unless and until dispositive evidence is adduced to show that the belief is wrong.

If the inclination to believe is somehow hard-wired into us then there's no need to provide a justification for one's belief that God exists, and the claim by skeptics that belief in God is irrational, a very weak claim in any case, is simply mistaken.

Here's how Barrett frames the question:
Let us take “God” to mean an intentional being or agent with mental states and a will, who can and does act in the natural world. Let us also understand “God” to designate such an agent who has played some role in designing or ordering the natural world, has superhuman access to information about what is the case in the world, and is immortal. With these definitions in mind, then, the big question is: Are typical humans born with such propensities that, under ordinary developmental conditions, belief will likely arise in the existence of at least one God (i.e., an intentional agent who has played some role in ordering the natural world, has superhuman access to information about the world, and is immortal)? If that is our question, then we have reason to think the answer is yes.
The question whether there's a natural disposition to believe raises further questions. Is this disposition genetic? If not, what is it? If there is an innate disposition to believe, how do we come to have it? How is the possession of such a trait explicable in evolutionary terms? Does everyone possess it? If so, why does a significant fraction of the world's population not believe?

Lots to chew on. Check out the link.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Something From Nothing

Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, is an atheist cosmologist at pains in his book to give a completely naturalistic answer to the question why there is a universe at all. His explanation, however, has failed to impress David Albert, a philosopher of science at Columbia University who penned a review of Krauss' book in the New York Times last March in which he pretty much demolishes Krauss' argument.

Krauss contends that the universe arose out of the quantum vacuum, a state which he insists is tantamount to sheer nothingness. Thus the universe popped into being out of nothing, but, according to Albert, that's all hogwash. Albert writes:
But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields!
In other words, real nothing is not a field (fields are areas of influence where forces operate - like gravitational or magnetic fields). It's the complete absence of any field. The quantum vacuum state is not nothing, it's a particular arrangement of the basic stuff of the universe. Albert explains:
The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.
Just as a fist is a particular arrangement of one's hand, but the hand is not nothing, so, too, the universe is an arrangement of a particular kind of quantum field that manifests itself as particles (atoms). A vacuum state is a field that manifests no particles at all, which is why it's sometimes misleadingly referred to as "nothing." But the vacuum is still physical stuff, it's still something, just as a hand that's not clenched is still something even though it's not a fist.

Albert has much more to say about Krauss' argument, but the significance of it all is this: Krauss wants to argue that the universe doesn't need an explanation for its existence. He's trying to make the idea of a Creator superfluous. The universe doesn't need a cause, he maintains, to explain its coming into being. It's simply something that popped into existence out of nothing just as particles pop into being out of the primordial relativistic quantum field. Thus Krauss flatters himself to have obviated the cosmological argument for God's existence.

But, as Albert points out, he's done no such thing. Even if he's correct that the universe formed out of a particular configuration of the primal field, all he's achieved is push the problem back a step. We still need to ask where the relativistic quantum vacuum field came from. It's as though having explained that the fist is simply an arrangement of the fingers of the hand, Krauss is satisfied that he has explained all that needs to be explained. The question, though, is where did the hand come from?