Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Eight Baffling Questions About Your Brain

George Dvorsky at io9 discusses eight things about the brain that we have no idea how to explain. Here are the eight with a sentence or two of elaboration. For more discussion of these perplexing phenomena check out the link.
  1. What is consciousness? The nature and origin of consciousness is perhaps the most puzzling problem in all of science and philosophy. How does brain chemistry produce awareness? How do chemical reactions in the brain produce sensations like taste, fragrance, and color? How can sensory stimuli generate a meaning or be about something? Where does meaning come from and how is it produced? It's a deeply perplexing mystery.
  2. How much of our personality is determined by our brain? This is the old nature versus nurture debate. Are we a product of our genetic inheritance or of the environmental influences that act on us throughout our lives?
  3. Why do we sleep and dream? We spend about a third of our lives asleep, but we’re not entirely sure why we do it.
  4. How do we store and access memories? Like a computer’s hard drive, memories are physically recorded in our brains. But we have no idea how our brains do this, nor do we know how this information gets oriented in the brain. What’s more, there isn’t just one kind of memory. We have both short-term and long-term memory. We also can distinguish between memories that are recent and memories that are temporally more distant. How can chemical processes do that?
  5. Are all aspects of cognition computational? Computer scientist Alan Turing argued that cognition can be translated into an equivalent computation. This has given rise to the theory that our brains are basically information-processors, but this is hard to credit since there's so much that brains can do that an information processor like a computer cannot. Computers don't doubt, understand, feel guilt, hold a belief, experience sensations, wish, hope, experience boredom, and a host of other things that our brains do all the time.
  6. How does perception work? A primary function of the brain is to convert our senses into experiences. Our ability to perceive allows us to organize, identify, and interpret sensory information in way that helps us construct and understand our world. But how, exactly, does our brain transfer this incoming sensory information into such vivid qualitative experiences? And how is perception organized in the brain?
  7. Do we have free will? If our decisions are the result of a chain of physical events and physical events are determined by physical laws where is their room for free will? But if we do not in some sense choose our actions in what sense are we responsible for them.
  8. How can we move and react so well? We do an incredible job moving our bodies through space and time. But how we so seamlessly coordinate our movement remains a mystery. Think of the dexterity required to thread a needle. Or to play a piano concerto. These accomplishments are all the more incredible when considering how slow, haphazard and unpredictable our motor nerve impulses actually are. Clearly, there’s something very sophisticated going on between our motor cortex and the cerebral cortex that allows for such smooth, efficient actions. But what is it?
It is these sorts of facts about the brain that have led many philosophers and scientists to abandon the materialist view that we are made up solely of material stuff. In light of these profound mysteries, mysteries which seem impervious to scientific scrutiny, the idea that we have an immaterial mind or soul has become much more plausible and much more respectable among philosophers than it had been since the 19th century.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fourth Trimester Abortion

This would be funny were it not for what it says about how uncritical and thoughtless are some of those who are allegedly among our best and brightest.

The video records how easy it is to get people to sign a petition endorsing infanticide. I know that some of the signers didn't really care or give any thought to what they were doing, but that's the point. These people vote, and one has to wonder how much thought they put into that:
Now that this is all over the internet I wonder if some of the signers are still wondering what they did that's such a big deal.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Real Heroes

It's often lamented that our culture makes heroes out of people who aren't and fails to make heroes out of people who are.

I recently finished a book by a former student who is one of those who really does deserve to be considered a hero. He's certainly a hero to the parents of hundreds of physically and mentally disabled children in south-central Pennsylvania.

His name is Louis Castriota and what he's done for these kids is truly amazing. He recounts his story in a book titled Leg Up: The Courage to Dream. Louie, whose oldest daughter is autistic, was inspired to build a facility for disabled children that would be a refuge not only for the children but for their families as well.

He and his wife Laurie dreamed of a facility that would combine all the services such children need in a single location that would be a godsend for harried mothers and a blessing for special needs kids. The facility he and Laurie envisioned would be a farm where autistic and other developmentally challenged children would develop relationships with animals as a means of therapy.

All Louie and Laurie had at the start was the dream and the desire to make it happen. The book is the story of their struggle to find the means to launch their dream and turn it into a reality. It's a wonderful story (full disclosure: He says some kind things about me in the book, but it's a wonderful story nevertheless), and I urge you to go to their website to see what one man with determination and faith can accomplish.

It really is inspiring.

Another hero is a friend of mine named Andy Stump. Twenty years ago Andy left a comfortable life in suburbia to visit the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti. He decided to stay and he's still there today, teaching English and music to Haitian children, helping people with their problems and seeing to their medical care.

Andy has foresworn all the advantages of being an American and cast his lot with the poor in order to bring them whatever relief he can and to do whatever he can to help them improve their lives.

It's an astonishing example of selflessness, but Andy will tell you that it's an honor to be given the chance to serve God by serving others.

You can read about his work here. In a world that makes heroes out of celebrities, athletes, and even criminals, Louie and Andy are two stellar examples of the genuine article.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

God and Quantum Physics

One of the fascinating developments of the last two decades is how much work in both philosophy and science points to the existence of a transcendent, personal mind. Scholars in the philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, evolutionary biology, paleontology, cosmology, and quantum physics, have all made significant contributions to furthering the plausibility of the hypothesis that, contrary to the prevailing scientistic paradigm, the ultimate reality is not matter but mind.

One recent addition to the discussion is a piece by physicist Antoine Suarez at Big Questions Online. Suarez's article is a little abstruse, but the gist of it is that quantum mechanics has repeatedly demonstrated that two particles at vast distances from each other are nevertheless "entangled" such that a change in one is correlated with a corresponding change in the other.

The problem is that there's no known physical means by which such correlation could occur. The fact that it does strongly suggests that correlation is coordinated from outside the space-time manifold. In other words, laws of physics such as the law of conservation of energy, are somehow controlled from outside the physical universe.

As Suarez puts it:
To understand these implications it is crucial to be aware that quantum physics is not only a description of the material and visible world around us, but also speaks about non-material influences coming from outside the space-time [universe].
He also says this:
It is compatible with physics that a mind outside space-time can purposefully control quantum randomness. Quantum experiments help to overcome materialism.
Given what he writes in his essay the above is a conservative claim. Such a mind is not merely compatible with physics but appears, in fact, to be required by the physics. Suarez adds this:
But are we not claiming after all that invisible non-material principles underpin the whole visible world and not only the dynamic of human brains? Does this mean that in addition to the human mind, other minds (the mind of God and other spiritual beings) govern the corporal world? And if any such non-material agency does pervade the whole universe, which behavioral features are distinctively human? These may be interesting questions for the discussion online. Be it as it may, we cannot have nature without non-material (spiritual) agency.[Emphasis mine]
There's an interesting lag effect at work between science/philosophy and culture. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the prevailing philosophical view was a kind of atheistic materialism that admitted the existence of nothing but what could be ultimately explained in terms of matter and energy. The vast majority of the culture, however, still lived as if the traditional verities of Judeo-Christian religion were true and binding on their personal lives.

Gradually, however, religious belief gave way to the inexorable influence of materialism on men's minds and the culture in the latter half of the 20th century began to reflect the secular, amoral, implications of a world with no transcendent meaning or moral authority. Ironically, the abandonment of the religious view in favor of the atheistic view was gaining steam in the culture just as materialism was beginning to fracture in science and philosophy.

Now those fractures have developed into an incipient collapse and both science and philosophy are pointing us more and more insistently toward the Divine just as the culture has most deeply bought into the 19th century notion that we're all alone in the cosmos with no God to save us or to demand anything of us.

It's a very awkward situation and would be humorous were it not so tragic.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Mr. Holder's Gun Policy and Other Scandals

Attorney General Eric Holder still refuses to return George Zimmerman's weapon even though Zimmerman has been found innocent of all charges. There seems to be no legal justification for not returning the gun, but the Obama administration has never let details like legal justification deter them. This is the same AG, mind you, whose department funneled thousands of weapons to drug cartels in Mexico which have been used in hundreds, perhaps thousands of murders.

The good folks at DOJ see no contradiction in illegally providing high-powered weaponry to known killers, but refusing to legally return a single handgun to a man judged innocent by the evidence and by a jury of his peers.

It'd be entertaining to listen to Mr. Holder's explanation of how he reconciles these two policies.

Meanwhile in his speech the other day, President Obama blamed our dismal economy in part on the GOP's preoccupation with "phony scandals." He never explained which scandals in his administration are phony, of course, so we're left to wonder on our own. Is it the Fast and Furious operation, in which the Department of Justice illegally sent the above-mentioned weapons to murderers and thugs in Mexico only to have those weapons repeatedly used in the commission of hundreds of murders? Is it the Benghazi debacle in which four Americans died because the State Department refused to grant them the security they requested and while the attack on the consulate was taking place the President was nowhere to be found?

Maybe the President considers the IRS business "phony." Perhaps he thinks it's all faux outrage on the part of American citizens upset that the IRS was used by political partisans, taking orders from a political appointee in the White House, to harass and stifle groups and individuals based on political or religious affiliation. Perhaps he thinks it's "phony" of people to be angry that IRS officials paid millions of our dollars to disport themselves in Las Vegas. Or perhaps the phony scandal the President had in mind was the matter of the NSA illegally snooping on reporters deemed hostile to the administration, and even some who aren't, and which is collecting information on every citizen in the U.S.

I don't know which of these scandals the President thinks are "phony," but I'm pretty sure that were he back in the Senate and any of these events had happened in the Bush years he wouldn't be calling them "phony." He'd be calling for impeachment. There is indeed a lot that's phony in Washington, if I may say it, but it's not the scandals.

UPDATE: A couple of victims of Mr. Obama's "phony" scandals speak out:

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Jesus and Mohammed

Pamela Geller notes an interesting example of media religious bias. There's a book out on Jesus, titled Zealot, which is receiving a lot of praise in the leftist media. The book seeks to debunk the traditional beliefs that Christians have held about Jesus' life, death and resurrection. The coverage has been so favorable that the book is at #2 on Amazon, but what a lot of the coverage has omitted to tell us is that the author is a radical Muslim whose book is short on facts and long on speculation.

But that's not the most egregious part. A little more than a year ago Robert Spencer, a scholar on Islam and the author of a dozen books on the subject, published Did Mohammed Exist? which met with either silence or vitriol from the liberal media.

Here's part of Geller's account:
Not so long ago, Robert Spencer, one of the world’s leading scholars on Islam, wrote an extraordinary book entitled “Did Muhammad Exist?” It was a brilliant, original and scholarly work investigating the legitimate questions surrounding the historical value of the early Islamic texts about Muhammad. Spencer pulled together information from ancient documents with linguistic and archaeological data in a remarkable re-evaluation of Islam’s origins.

Robert Spencer is a writer without peer and a nonpareil scholar, the author of 12 books on Islam, jihad and related topics, including two New York Times bestsellers. Yet “Did Muhammad Exist?” was ignored and dismissed by the intelligentsia, the media elite and subversive academia.

Juxtapose that to the recent adulation heaped upon the Islamic supremacist Reza Aslan for his new book. Aslan is an advisory board member of the National Iranian American Council, which has been recently exposed in court as a lobbying group for the Iranian regime. He has smeared and lied about Spencer and me on national television, and responded to Spencer’s reasoned rebuttals with homophobic abuse worthy of a seventh-grader: “I must tell you that I’m flattered but you’re really not my type. … If I send you a picture, will that satisfy your lust for a while?”

You should ask yourself, how did we get here? How can a reasonable, educated and pre-eminent scholar like Robert Spencer be relegated to the very fringe (if that) of the literary world, while jihadist operatives like the vicious Reza Aslan are carried on the shoulders of the media and intelligentsia like a football hero at the end of an impossibly fought game.

Who would have imagined that 12 years after 9/11 the media and academic elite would laud this pro-nuclear Khomeinist? He is funded by who knows who, and he employs vicious trolls who spend their days spreading libel and defamation about Spencer and other freedom fighters, much the way the wicked witch of the west used the flying monkeys – and they, too, are very well paid.

Remember also: Spencer’s book was accurately and forthrightly entitled, “Did Muhammad Exist?” It’s a legitimate question, even though on the BBC recently an interviewer tried to badger Spencer into admitting that there was something wrong, and offensive to Muslims, with even investigating this historical question. Reza Aslan, on the other hand, refers negatively to Jesus in his title as “Zealot.”

Clearly, Robert could have entitled his book “Pedophile,” because we know that Muhammad’s favorite wife was taken at the age of 6 and that their “marriage” was consummated when the Muslim prophet was 54 and she was 9. Spencer could also have called his book “Annihilator,” because we know that Muhammad slaughtered an entire Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayza, by beheading. Surely Spencer exercised restraint in not entitling his book “Bloody Warmonger.” Any of these would have been the equivalent of Aslan’s title “Zealot.”

But although Spencer didn’t entitle his book any of those things, and “Did Muhammad Exist?” is a straightforward, dispassionate historical investigation, the media treated it as if it were the one that was designed solely to denigrate and disparage the founder of a religion. That is not true of Spencer’s book, but it is true of Aslan’s screed “Zealot.” Yet the media never comment on the derogatory title of Aslan’s book. It is just fine with the media to speak negatively about Jesus, deny his historicity, deny his importance, denigrate his teachings and more. But any true word that is spoken about Muhammad, whether it be about how he is depicted in Islamic texts or about the historical value of those texts, is viciously attacked.
Liberals, at least the secular variety, are hostile to religion, but they're quite fearful of Islam. They do not fear Christianity because Christians are, in the main, peaceful, forgiving, and tolerant, but they do fear Muslims because they're often just the opposite of these qualities. Thus, a book that derogates Christianity will be praised by secular liberals whether it has any scholarly merit or not, but a book that questions Islam will either be ignored, or the left will express their outrage in a ploy to ingratiate themselves with Muslims so that the more violent among them will leave them alone and even perhaps look favorably upon them.

It's pusillanimous, to be sure, but then we're talking about people who a couple of decades ago boasted of their willingness to die on behalf of the right to say offensive things about religion. That was until it turned out that there was a good chance that they may be called upon to do exactly that. When they realized in the early years of the 21st century that Muslims actually killed people who offended them the left quickly shut up about Islam and focused all of their "bold" and "intrepid" critiques on Christianity for which they knew there'd be no reprisals and no price to pay, only the adulation of their peers who would lavish admiration upon them for their great courage in embarrassing Christianity and making Christians look like simple-minded or deluded fools.

Their bravery is breathtaking.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Liberal Failure Is Republicans' Fault?

For sixty years Detroit has been run by the Democrat party which has governed according to a liberal tax and spend philosophy. The result is the worst case, but not the only case, of urban blight and economic mismanagement in the nation.

For sixty years the city has been doling out big salaries to city employees and generous pensions to city government retirees. When times were good and the auto industry was prospering the city could afford it, but several factors conflated to cause Detroit's finances to plummet. The auto industry, suffering in part from foreign competition found itself struggling to stay afloat. A changing demographic in the city was accompanied by soaring crime rates. Crime, high taxes and a recession all drove people out of the city. The population went from over 1.8 million in 1950 to about 750,000 today and many of the residents who remain consume benefits and services but don't pay taxes.

In short, the city can't pay its bills, can't pay those ample pensions, and can't maintain government services. The man in charge of fixing the problem, Kevyn Orr, tried to get unions and others to whom the city owes money to accept a cut but they refused. The city was left with one option, bankruptcy, which will allow it to renegotiate those contracts, but everybody is going to wind up taking a substantial hit.

One might think that the lesson to be learned here is that enacting high taxes to pay bloated pension benefits coupled with all of the unpleasantness associated with a burgeoning criminal class makes for a very poor quality of life, but amazingly the left is blaming conservative fiscal policies for the Detroit debacle. There hasn't been a conservative office holder in Detroit since Noah boarded the ark, but that doesn't matter. It's conservative policies which are being blamed by some liberals for Detroit's undoing.

The most brazen example of this trope is Ed Schultz who packs more subtle deception and misinformation into a few minutes than Dan Brown managed to squeeze into the entire Da Vinci Code.
What Schultz elides is that the depleted tax base of Detroit has nothing to do with conservative policies but with migration out of the city due to the utter unliveability of the place. He also fails to mention that the reason Detroit is in such a financial bind is they owe millions to public service union retirees that they don't have, can't raise, but are required to pay.

National Review's Rich Lowery offers some statistics about Detroit's crime rate, tax burden and other fruits of liberal utopianism in a fine essay at NRO. Here's part of what he writes:
The city was at the pioneering edge of urban liberalism and discovered that all the social spending in the world doesn’t deliver order, family stability, education, economic dynamism, or effective governance. In the hands of Detroit’s rotten political class, it proved inimical to all of those things.

It was the city’s dysfunction that made it unappealing to the auto companies rather than the diminished state of the auto companies that made the city dysfunctional.

GM had nothing to do with the city council promising benefits to retirees that it couldn’t possibly pay. Chrysler didn’t disgracefully mismanage city agencies. Ford didn’t disastrously degrade the city’s human capital.

[Detroit's] crime rate is five times the national average. Henry Payne notes that 80 percent of the city’s children grow up fatherless, and that of the 50 percent of black men who are high-school dropouts, more than 70 percent don’t have a job, and 60 percent have done time.

It has the highest per capita tax burden in Michigan, despite the low per capita income of its residents. It can’t even collect its taxes well. An Internal Revenue Service audit called its tax system “catastrophic.”

None of this is the product of the “creative destruction” of capitalism; it is the destructive destruction of corrupt statism.
You can watch a couple of other examples of lefties trying to blame conservatism for the collapse wrought by a half-century of liberal Democrat incompetence here and here.

One gets the impression that liberals, seeing the collapse of Detroit coming for a long time, strategized as to how they'd play it when it happened, and decided that, heck, they might as well blame Republicans because most of their base won't know any better and the one's who do will be happy to see the right get pounded for something that they had nothing to do with, anyway.

Either that or people like Ed Schultz are delusional, a possibility that should not be too hastily discounted. Hatred does that to people. Consider the story out of Florida involving a family of four that was involved in an accident a few days ago in which their vehicle overturned. Two men came to their rescue and helped them out of the car, one of whom was, of all people, George Zimmerman.

Immediately left-wingers were making all sorts of accusations, charging Zimmerman supporters with having staged the accident in order to frame Zimmerman as a hero. This is, of course, bizarre. How would average people stage an overturned vehicle, and who in the world would risk their family's lives to pull such a stunt off? One has to be either a moron or blinded by hatred in order to entertain such a theory, but some people on the left would sooner believe this than believe that maybe they had so completely misjudged George Zimmerman in the first place.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The President's Race Speech

David Brooks of the New York Times on Sunday stated that Mr. Obama's speech on race last week was one of the highlights of his presidency. In a presidency bereft of genuine highlights as has been Mr. Obama's I'm not sure how much of a compliment Mr. Brooks is bestowing. At any rate, assuming he meant it as high praise, I wish to register my dissent. I thought the speech was awful, and I shall explain why.

The Washington Post has a transcript. Here are Mr. Obama's main points with my thoughts on them interpolated:
First of all, I want to make sure that, once again, I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle’s, to the family of Trayvon Martin, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.
What about Mr. Zimmerman's family, Mr. President? Their son has been repeatedly threatened with death as have they. He's in hiding and has to wear a kevlar vest when he ventures out. The parents' address has been made public by Roseanne Barr and Spike Lee, and they receive harassing and threatening calls. I can only imagine what they must they be going through, especially as they watch their son, whom they love, made the object of national hate and vilification. Why isn't the president of all Americans concerned about them? Why doesn't he call on all Americans to stop the hate?
Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
Surely Mr. Obama doesn't expect us to believe that he would have been suspended from school several times for fighting, would have been found with a cache of jewelry in his possession that wasn't his, would have emulated the thug lifestyle, would have punched a neighborhood watch volunteer to the ground, jumped on him and pounded him with his fists? What is it about Trayvon Martin, aside from his drug use, that Mr. Obama thinks could have been him?
There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
This sort of demagoguery is simply beneath the dignity of the office the president. He's subtly asserting that Trayvon Martin was racially profiled even though almost everyone associated with the case insists that race had nothing to do with the events of that night. The prosecutors said it had nothing to do with it, Martin's parents said it had nothing to do with it, Rachel Jeantel said that she and Martin concluded, not that Zimmerman was profiling Martin, but that he was a homosexual predator, and no evidence has been adduced to indicate that race was at all a factor, at least in Zimmerman's mind. For Mr. Obama to poison the racial atmosphere surrounding this trial even further with this reckless remark is very disappointing.

But even if he's right, even if people do profile blacks, maybe we should ask why that is? Could the fact, if it is a fact, that there few African-American men who haven't been profiled have anything to do with the fact that there are few African American men who haven't spent time in police custody or jail for one reason or another? Could it be that non-blacks are fearful of African-American men for a reason? The same reason, perhaps, that caused Jesse Jackson to admit that when he hears a group of youths following him he's relieved when he turns and sees that they're white?

Perhaps the reason white people lock their doors when they see young black men approach is in fact the same reason that black people lock their doors when they see young black men approach. Here's a true story: Last March in Brunswick, Georgia a young white mother pushing her 13 month old child in a stroller was accosted by a 17 year-old black thug. Here's what happened:
"A boy approached me and told me he wanted my money, and I told him I didn't have any money. And he said, 'Give me your money or I'm going to kill you and I'm going to shoot your baby and kill your baby,' and I said, 'I don't have any money,' and 'Don't kill my baby.'"

The boy tried to grab her purse and opened fire when she tried to tell him she had no money, West [the young mother] said, with the shot grazing her head. She said the boy then shot her in the leg.

West continued, "And then, all of a sudden, he walked over and he shot my baby in the face."
The baby is dead. I wonder if Mr. Obama might entertain the notion for a moment that stories like that have something to do with why those locks click.
The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
Here Mr. Obama seems to be saying that black people don't interpret cases like this based on the evidence. Rather than examine the evidence to see whether it justifies the verdict, he's suggesting, what they do is simply consult the history of racial disparity and conclude that racism is the explanation for any verdict that fails to satisfy their hopes.

This is either a condescending insult to the intelligence of black people or it's true, in which case it belies a fundamental simplemindedness on the part of the African-American community. Is this what the president really wished to imply?
Now, this isn't to say that the African American community is na├»ve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact — although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.
This is nonsense. Black crime has skyrocketed since the 1970s. Prior to that black communities experienced rates of violence much below what they are today. There is indeed a historical context for black crime, but it's not what the President wants us to believe it is. Violence in the black community has risen in almost direct proportion to black fatherlessness, and black fatherlessness is largely a result of the liberal assault on religion, the family, and the emergence of a welfare system that fosters dependency, renders fathers superfluous, and reduces men to little more than sperm donors.
And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.
What does this even mean? Is he saying that Martin was killed because he was black? Is he saying the jury acquitted Zimmerman because those six women were all racially biased in favor of the lightest-skinned of the two parties involved? The media should insist that the President clarify what he means by this.
And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.
I guess this is as close as the president is going to tread to declaring that the jury was racist. How else can we understand the meaning of his words? He's telling us that had the races been reversed it would have been more likely that the shooter would have been found guilty. This is just a roundabout way of asserting that the jury was racially motivated. His words are as insulting to the women who served on that panel as they are disgraceful.
I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through, as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family. But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do.
The Martin family attorney ridiculously compared Trayvon Martin, a wannabe thug, with Emmit Till and Medgar Evers. To the extent that Mr. Obama believes Martin deserves to be honored he's making a similarly absurd comparison. The President seems to imply that Martin was just an innocent bystander in the events of that fateful evening. He's ignoring what all the evidence either showed or didn't refute, that Martin initiated the violence and that Zimmerman was defending his life.
I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code. And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.
What the President here seems to be saying is that, despite all that he's implied about the injustice of the trial, despite his subtle admission that this was in his mind a racially motivated hate crime, there's no evidence to support that judgment and therefore those who are getting their hopes up that Zimmerman will still swing from a tree should realize that there's only so much that can be done when the whole nation is watching and you have to follow the law.

The rest of his speech is a discussion of a couple of proposals that actually have nothing to do with the Zimmerman/Martin case. He calls, for instance, for a reevaluation of stand your ground laws, but misleads his listeners as to what stand your ground laws are.
And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these "stand your ground" laws, I'd just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.
The answer is not ambiguous and the President is embarrassing himself in the eyes of everyone who has a particle of intelligence. The stand your ground laws do not grant a person the right to shoot someone who is following them in a car. They instead release a citizen from a duty to flee from an assailant, a freedom which, in the 31 states which have it, acknowledges the law-abiding citizen's right to be where he is and the right essentially to not be a coward. Martin had the right not to flee from Zimmerman, and he had the right to defend himself had Zimmerman assaulted him. He did not have the right to initiate an assault on Zimmerman, which is what he did. To the extent that Mr. Obama keeps obfuscating this point he's behaving like a demagogue.
[W]e need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys. And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?
Why is it primarily the task of the country to show that it cares about these kids? They don't need to know that they're cared for by an abstraction like "the country", what they need most of all is to be shown that their fathers care about them. They need to be shown that their fathers love them enough to marry their mothers and to stay married to them, to get a job, even if it's only menial, and to set a positive example for their sons as to what a man should be. That'd be a great start, but Mr. Obama thinks this is the government's job, which is the sort of thinking that has caused the tragic predicament of so many black boys in the first place.
And let me just leave you with a final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.
This is the best part of his speech and I'm glad he said it. It's a fact that the left too often ignores or suppresses.
And so we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues. And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.
Precisely so, but heightening divisions is exactly what he did with this speech.

What he apparently doesn't understand is that he had an opportunity, a historic opportunity, to use this tragedy to bring us together, but instead, deliberately or not, by impugning both Zimmerman and the jury, by talking about interracial violence as if it's a "white" problem, he gave the wedge a couple of more whacks with the sledgehammer, drove it deeper, and split us further apart.

I wonder, had the races of Martin and Zimmerman been reversed and the President been white and said these things, whether the media would have praised this speech or whether it would have been seen as at best insensitive and at worst racially incendiary.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Atheism and Nihilism

Randy Boyagoda talks about atheist author David Shields (Reality Hunger: A Manifesto) in a recent column at First Things. Here's an excerpt from Boyagoda's post:
Shields writes,
“In the absence of God the Father, all bets are off. Life makes no sense. How do I function when life has been drained of meaning?”
[Shields] appreciates the stakes of his project, the nullity and nihilism that ultimately characterize a godless existence, and challenges his readers to join him in what he regards as courageous atheism:
“[F]or many people in the post-transcendent twenty-first century, death is not a passageway to eternity but a brute biological fact. We’re done. It’s over. All the gods have gone to sleep or are simply moribund. We’re a bag of bones. All the myths are empty. The only bravery consists of diving into the wreck, dancing/grieving in the abyss.”
But the person writing the book isn’t done yet, nor are the people reading it, and so what are we supposed to do in the meantime? Shields wants us to seek salvation by putting our otherwise useless faith in ourselves and our reading lists, just as he has done.

“Writing as religion” he commends in a passing koan that he elaborates upon late in the book by recommending some fifty-five works “I swear by,” effectively the works that he positions as a testament to his concluding tenet: “I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this—which is what makes it essential.”
So, as I understand Shields, his point is this: There is no God nor conscious existence beyond the grave. Your life is therefore no more meaningful than the life of a protozoan. We're born, we suffer, we die and that's all there is to it. There's nothing we can do about this absurd, empty, pointlessness, except read a couple of books, the best of which simply remind you that you're nothing more than a cosmic hiccup.

Well, I agree with Shields that, given his atheism, life pretty much is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I think he's correct that in a Godless world life has no objective meaning or value. Unless what we do matters forever it doesn't matter at all, and I think too few atheists either recognize or admit the fact that what they're prescribing is utter hopelessness and despair. You'd think it'd be a tough sell.

At some point in our lives we each come to an intersection. We can take the road that leads to atheistic nihilism as Shields has done, or we can take the road that leads to purpose and meaning. This road, however, requires of us that we reject atheism. What fascinates me is that there are so many who eagerly choose the first road, not because they want their lives to be a hiccup, but because they just don't want to believe in God. They're so repelled by the idea that there really is a loving creator who guarantees us life forever that they'd rather accept a depressing belief in our existential worthlessness. Why?

Some people reply that there's just no evidence for God, but this is not only untrue, it's a cop-out. Lack of evidence is not why most unbelievers don't believe. If the two roads were instead two stories, most people who disbelieve do so because they simply don't want the second story to be true. It has nothing to do with evidence.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel probably speaks for many of his fellow atheists when he wrote in his book The Last Word that, "I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that."

In the movie Life of Pi an atheistic journalist is interviewing Pi because he's heard that Pi has an amazing story to tell of how he survived an ordeal at sea after the ship he was on sank. Pi tells the journalist that he's going to persuade him that God exists. The journalist encourages him to give it a shot. Pi then relates his story which seems just too fantastic to be true. It's filled with events that just don't seem credible.

He then explains that when he was finally rescued he was taken to a hospital where he was interviewed by agents of the company that insured the ship. They asked him to recount what happened to him, which he does, but they don't believe him. So he gives them another account which has no fantastic elements to it at all. This seems to satisfy them and they leave. Pi then asks the journalist which story he prefers, which one does he wish to be true, and the journalist replies that he likes the first one, the one in which incredible things happened. Pi then says to him, "So it is with God."

After all the arguments and the evidence have been articulated and exhausted we often wind up believing the story we want to be true. If Shields doesn't believe in God, I suspect that, like Nagel, deep down he simply doesn't want there to be a God in the first place. He'd rather live by a story that makes his life nothing more than the fizz on the head of a beer than accept that the universe is the creation of a divine artist. He prefers the story that leads to emptiness and despair rather than the one that leads to beauty, love, and hope.

Sometimes I think that that is just perverse.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Absence of God and Shaw's Two Percent

George Bernard Shaw once wrote that, "Two percent of the people think; three percent of the people think they think; and ninety five percent of the people would rather die than think."

Whatever the exact percentages may actually be Shaw's probably not far off the mark. Most people have the same aversion to thinking that a cat has to water. Even so, let's acknowledge, though it may be unseemly to do so aloud, that Viewpoint readers are surely in the two percent.

Because I'm so convinced of that I'm urging any of our readers who may be planning on heading to the beach this month or next to consider taking along a copy of In the Absence of God. It makes entertaining beach reading, but most importantly it'll make you think. You'll come off the beach smarter and wiser than you were when you settled under the umbrella.

You can read more about Absence by clicking on the link at the top right of this page. I hope you read it. If you do, I hope you like it, and if you do, I hope you'll tell others about it.

Talking about the Issue

President Obama on Thursday opined on the George Zimmerman trial in a speech that cries out for deconstructive analysis of what it tells us about the president's mindset, but that will have to wait until next week. For now I just want to follow his urging to talk about the relevant racial issues. “I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching,” he said.

Okay, Mr. President, here is some soul-searching. I'm going to focus on one aspect of the incident. I want to talk about what drove this story.

In my opinion (and it's only that. I certainly can't prove it, and I'm open to contrary views, but I believe it's true), this story became a national sensation because of the desire among liberals, both black and white, to find confirmation of their conviction that whites are inherently racist.

The fact that there has been so little substantive evidence of white racism over the last few decades is a perplexing and frustrating challenge to this their most cherished racial dogma, especially since almost every example of racism anyone could point to over that span was exhibited by a liberal, and almost every example of interracial violence that has turned up on the back pages of the newspapers was perpetrated by blacks. These inconvenient truths have made it very difficult to sustain the narrative that racism is endemic to, and pervasive among, whites.

Thus liberals of both races are eager to find an example of white racist violence to which they can point to prove to themselves and others that that's where the evil really lies. And every time they've thought they had their proof it turned out to be fool's gold. The Duke lacrosse team case, the numerous instances of racially hateful graffiti that were eventually discovered to have been scrawled by troubled blacks, the bogus accusations of white assaults on blacks, the many imagined slights and acts of prejudice that have other, more plausible, explanations - all of these have been miserable, embarrassing disappointments. They need something substantive to give impetus to the myth of ubiquitous white racism, but nothing can be found save perhaps the overreactions of a relative few police officers (some of whom are themselves black).

So the Zimmerman story seemed like a godsend to them. They wanted Zimmerman to be guilty, he just had to be guilty. The facts weren't in yet, but, as with the Duke lacrosse players, that didn't matter. It was their truth that Zimmerman was guilty. It was true for them. The narrative had purchase, it resonated in their communities, and they were stunned and outraged when the jury didn't see it the same way.

When the dogma of Zimmerman's culpability began to fall apart the media resorted to lies and innuendo to shore up their faith in the doctrine of white racism, even to the point of maliciously editing audio tapes and giving the Hispanic Zimmerman a new racial identity as a white. All that mattered was the need to reaffirm the narrative, to reinforce the faith, to prove to the doubters that one's worldview is true after all, even if an innocent man must be sacrificed in order to satiate the need for confirmation.

If the prosecutors couldn't make a case for 2nd degree murder then, they pleaded, convict him of manslaughter, child abuse, anything, but convict him of something. He must pay whether he as an individual is guilty or not because he's a synecdoche for the whole oppressive white racial establishment. He's a symbol of white privilege. He's guilty because he's white.

When the jurors did their duty and announced that they could find no reason to declare Zimmerman guilty of anything, liberals were incredulous and aghast. After all, what could they say? The jury was comprised of six women, and no liberal is going to open himself to charges of "waging a war on women" by impugning the integrity of an all-female jury. That war is a war only conservatives are supposed to be fighting.

So blacks poured into the streets, some happily fulfilling the low expectations in which they are held by many non-blacks by forming mobs which randomly beat people and damaged property. The odious Mr. Sharpton made his appearance, as he always does, to stir the pot of racial resentment. Jesse Jackson absurdly declared that Florida is an "apartheid state." An AP reporter moronically tweeted that the verdict means that black children can now be shot with impunity just for being black. Melissa Harris-Perry at MSNBC fretted bizarrely that it "feels very much as though [the jury] is saying it is acceptable, it is ok, to kill an unarmed African-American child who has committed no crime." Her colleague Chris Matthews pompously presumed to apologize to blacks on behalf of the entire white race for the verdict. It seems that the Zimmerman trial has caused liberals to take complete leave of their senses.

Mr. Obama has now weighed in with laments about how black kids, including himself when he was younger, are scrutinized in stores and avoided on the streets as if this is somehow indicative of white hostility to blacks. Perhaps Mr. Obama ought to experience what it feels like to be a shop-owner in a black neighborhood or a white kid walking down the streets in some neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Baltimore, or D.C.

I'm reminded of the observation of one prominent American who once admitted that when he hears a group of young men approaching him from behind he's relieved when he turns and sees that they're white. That was Jesse Jackson who said that.

Nevertheless, anecdotes abound about how black mothers caution their youngsters to be wary of white people as though this is somehow dispositive of white racism rather than black mythology or self-delusion. As Heather McDonald points out in an excellent piece at National Review, given the horrifying statistics on black violence, if black parents are really concerned about their children's safety they should do everything they can to move to a white neighborhood.

Much of the commentary, especially from liberal redoubts like MSNBC and CNN, has been predictably stupid, but the most sickening aspect of the whole awful, tragic episode for me is the lengths to which the media, the prosecutors, some politicians, and the mob have been willing to go to see Zimmerman hung. The complete ease with which they assumed his guilt before there was any evidence of guilt. He was "white" and Martin was black and that was all the evidence that a lot of people needed, and that's as saddening as it is unjust.

So, Mr. President, that's what I think, and I'll bet that a lot of decent, intelligent folks in this country, white and black, think the same way. Too bad none of them are writing your speeches.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Et Tu, Unions?

As public confidence in Obamacare suffers one blow after another even Democrats are heading for the tall grass. Senator Max Baucus called it a train wreck a few weeks ago. Then a vote Tuesday in the House of Representatives on legislation that would make licit Mr. Obama's legally dubious postponement of implementation of the employer mandate secured 35 Democratic votes despite Mr. Obama's vigorous opposition to the bill.

Mr. Obama's disapproval put the House Democrats in the peculiar position of incurring the President's displeasure by agreeing with him that the mandate should be delayed.

Anyway, a second vote to postpone as well the individual mandate garnered 22 Democratic votes.

One must wonder why so many Democrats are bailing out? I'm reminded of an old cartoon that showed the interior of an airplane. The cockpit door is open, and the passengers are startled to see the pilot and co-pilot - hands in their pockets, casually whistling, looking at the ceiling and trying to appear unconcerned - nonchalantly walking down the aisle toward the rear exit door of the plane with parachutes strapped to their backs.

It looks like the people who brought us Obamacare are strapping on the parachutes. The most recent group to express their disillusionment are some of the Affordable Care Act's biggest boosters, the nation's unions. Union leaders are beginning to realize that Obamacare is going to be a disaster for a lot of union workers who'll lose either their jobs, their hours, or the excellent insurance coverage they'd won via collective bargaining.

Charles Krauthammer discusses their epiphany:
Captain Obama tried to allay concerns with a speech yesterday in which he assured us that Obamacare is doing just fine. Unfortunately, as is his wont, he spun so many yarns and tall tales that an AP fact check almost ran out of column space trying to correct all of the misrepresentations and deceptions.

Some are predicting the ACA will, like an overloaded plane, never get airborne and will crash to the ground under its own weight, complexity, and unworkability. The question is how high will the plane rise before it falls out of the sky and how many passengers will go down in flames with the plane.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Random Thoughts on a Tragedy

I thought I'd share some ruminations I had (and you probably had, too) in the wake of the Zimmerman trial:
  • It's disturbing, I think, that, despite the evidence, so many blacks thought O.J. Simpson was innocent, and thought, despite the evidence, that George Zimmerman was guilty.
  • It's also disturbing that so many people apparently believe that if you find yourself in the midst of being beaten to death you have no right to use deadly force to save yourself if your assailant is black.
  • I also thought it disturbing that so many people apparently think that evidence shouldn't matter in determining guilt or innocence. All that matters is the race of the parties involved.
  • Part of this tragedy is that had Trayvon Martin simply walked away from Zimmerman, or had walked away even after punching him and knocking him to the ground, he'd probably still be alive today. His decision to jump on Zimmerman and pound him mercilessly while Zimmerman apparently called for help was a fatal decision.
  • Imagine that a similar shooting had happened but that the races were reversed. Would the case have gone to trial? Would the media have turned it into a national circus? Would there be rumblings from the DOJ after acquittal to pursue Civil Rights charges against the black man?
  • I wonder why the media repeatedly referred to Martin as "Trayvon" and to Zimmerman as "George Zimmerman."
  • I wonder, too, whether the media, from whom only naifs expect fair, objective reporting, can get away with distorting the facts of the case so baldly and so badly. I refer to CNN's allegation that Zimmerman called Martin a "coon," and the edited NBC tape that made it sound like Zimmerman was suspicious of Martin because he was black. Neither of these narratives were true, both were fabricated. I also refer to the media's insistence upon showing pictures of Martin as he looked when he was about twelve. Why did they do these things? Were they intentionally trying to get Zimmerman hung even before the trial began?
  • Why has there been no outrage over the assault of a white grandmother on a California freeway by a black protester? If the races had been reversed the entire nation would be in flames.
  • Why does Angela Corey, the execrable Florida prosecutor, still have her job while Mike Nifong doesn't have his? Corey's conduct in withholding evidence from the defense and introducing charges at the last minute, among other unethical abuses of her office, shows her to have been much more concerned with politics than with justice.
  • Many have asked why, if Zimmerman is to be described as a "white Hispanic," is Barack Obama not to be described as a "white African American"? What exactly is a "white" Hispanic anyway? Perhaps it's someone who would otherwise enjoy politically correct racial immunity from the judgments of the New York Times so who must be shoe-horned into a different racial category - white - in order to be legitimately subject to the contumely and invective that the left wishes to heap upon him.
  • It's amazing that anyone actually invites Al Sharpton to give his opinion on anything after his odious behavior in the Tawana Brawley case. That alone, aside from the damage his rhetoric has inflicted on life and property over the years, should have discredited him for a lifetime.
Exit Question: How many of those who are critical of the verdict would, if they were flat on their back with their head being smashed against the concrete, their face being punched repeatedly, their nose broken and in fear of their life, refrain from doing what Zimmerman did if they had the chance to save themselves thereby?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Secular Society

At The New York Times David Brooks takes on the formidable task of summarizing Charles Taylor's dense 800 page tome titled A Secular Age. He begins his essay where Taylor begins his book, with this question:
“Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say 1500, in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?” That is, how did we move from the all encompassing sacred cosmos, to our current world in which faith is a choice, in which some people believe, others don’t and a lot are in the middle?

This story is usually told as a subtraction story. Science came into the picture, exposed the world for the way it really is and people started shedding the illusions of faith. Religious spirit gave way to scientific fact.

Taylor rejects this story. He sees secularization as, by and large, a mottled accomplishment, for both science and faith.
It's conventional to think that science shed the "illusions of faith," but I'm not so sure. None of the alleged illusions that are usually imputed to believers are critical dogmas of religious faith, at least not Christian faith. Science disabused us of a belief in a geocentric universe and has given us reason to doubt that the universe is relatively young, but neither of these beliefs is central to any of the world's major religions. There are adherents to the young earth view among Christians, to be sure, but there are many devout, scientifically-literate Christians who accept that the universe is on the order of billions of years old, so I don't know what illusions Brooks is referring to that have been undermined by science.

Science has, if anything, made belief in God more difficult to avoid, not less. Nor has it done nothing to undermine the traditional accounts of the Deity, Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It's true that to the extent one embraces materialism or naturalism one will certainly reject all of these doctrines of Christian faith, but materialism and naturalism are alternative metaphysical postures, they're not science.

One can, and many do, labor in the field of science while embracing all the major elements of the Christian religion. Some of the greatest names in the history of science - Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Boyle, Agassiz, just to mention a few - were devout Christians. Their science did nothing to diminish their faith. If anything it enhanced it.

Brooks adds this:
These achievements [of a secular age] did make it possible to construct a purely humanistic account of the meaningful life. It became possible for people to conceive of meaningful lives in God-free ways — as painters in the service of art, as scientists in the service of knowledge.
Brooks fails to explain what he means by the term "meaningful lives." The quotidian activities of life can of course have temporary, proximal meaning. One has a job to go to in the morning which gives him a reason to get out of bed, for instance, but it's hard to see how anything we do can have ultimate meaning unless it's somehow lasting. If all is ephemeral and if death is the end, then we're in somewhat the same position as a condemned man who insists on weeding his garden before being taken off to the gallows. The activity may occupy the mind and seem purposeful, but it's really rather pointless.

Brooks goes on:
But, Taylor continues, these achievements also led to more morally demanding lives for everybody, believer and nonbeliever. Instead of just fitting docilely into a place in the cosmos, the good person in secular society is called upon to construct a life in the universe. She’s called on to exercise all her strength. People are called to greater activism, to engage in more reform.
This is a very peculiar statement, I think. "Called upon" by whom? In a Godless world who, exactly, calls upon us to "construct a life in the universe" and to "exercise all our strength" in doing so, and by what authority do they call upon us to do this?

Moreover, the idea that in a secular world we're called upon to greater activism is a non-sequitur. What reason is there for reforming anything? The word "reform" implies that there's something wrong with the way things are, but if there is no objective moral arbiter of right and wrong, what's wrong with, say, the institution of slavery? Why should not the strong exploit the weak? Why is it wrong for those with the power using it for their own benefit? What's wrong with being selfish or cruel? What light can science shed on the matter for us? The answer is "none."
Taylor can be extremely critical of our society, but he is grateful and upbeat. We are not moving to a spiritually dead wasteland as, say, the fundamentalists imagine. Most people, he observes, are incapable of being indifferent to the transcendent realm. “The yearning for eternity is not the trivial and childish thing it is painted as,” Taylor writes.
It's doubtless true that most people yearn for something more than the nihilism and emptiness to which materialism leads. Most people want more than to be told that their lives are pointless and absurd, but, on materialism, why should they want this? If we're just a swirl of atoms, the product of eons of accidental mutations and selection pressure that fit us to the environment we're in, why should we yearn for a fulfillment or satisfaction that doesn't exist? Why would we not have evolved to be content with the world as it is?

Secularism does offer one undoubted potential benefit. In some of it's political manifestations it keeps adherents of competing metaphysical views from killing each other, but to the extent that it attempts to answer ultimate questions, neither it nor the naturalism that often underwrites it have anything to offer that anyone would want, except, perhaps, a license for hedonism.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

T-Cells and Cancer Cures

The U.K. Independent has a story that may soon become international news.

It seems that researchers have developed a means of treating cancer that uses the body's own immune system to kill tumor cells. This is revolutionary because whereas current treatments have a lot of undesirable side-effects, this treatment has none.

It works by employing cells called T-cells, the most effective killers in the immune system, to destroy cancer cells. The difficulty that had to be overcome was that though T-cells are very good at recognizing foreign invaders like bacteria, they're not good at recognizing cancer cells.

The solution, developed by a small lab in England, is to use an intermediate protein called ImmTAC, which can be engineered to recognize tumor cells and at the same time bind with T-cells so that the T-cell is brought into contact with the cancer and thereby destroy it.

Here's a schematic from the article that illustrates how it works.

One amazing aspect of the work of this lab is that the ImmTAC can be designed to recognize many kinds of tumor cells so that it can be used against breast, prostate, and brain tumors.

The researchers believe that this treatment will not just put cancers into remission, like other treatments which often don't kill every tumor cell, but that this treatment will actually rid the body completely of cancer.

It's a wonderful development and you can read more about it at the link.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Colors and Patterns

An article at Phys.org recounts some amazing results of research that was done into why bird feathers take on the colors and patterns that they do.

It turns out that there are cells in the feather follicles that act like the ink jets in a printer. These cells inject colored pigments into the feather as it emerges from the follicle.

This is astonishing. What turns these cells on and off? What determines which colored pigments will be produced, when, and in what sequence? And how did a biological ink jet color printer ever evolve as a result of purely unintelligent, unguided processes?

The fundamental question each of us must answer, it seems to me, is this: Assuming that we don't know a priori whether a transcendent, intelligent artist exists or doesn't exist, and given what's now known about the production of the peacock feather in the above photo, does it seem more reasonable to think it's the result of intentional design or mindless chance?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Will There Be Blood?

It seems that a lot of people, including a lot of African Americans are fearful that should George Zimmerman be acquitted there'll be riots, death, and destruction.

Why? Why is it assumed that blacks will riot? Would the same assumption be made about whites or Asians or Hispanics? I doubt it, so one wonders if lurking in the hearts of many of those who expect riots is the further unspoken assumption that blacks just can't be held to the same standard as others, that they can't be expected to behave as well as others.

I don't see how this cannot be what is tacitly behind all the talk of race riots in the event that George Zimmerman is found not guilty of murder or manslaughter in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, so that raises a question: Is it racist for these people to fear that blacks will do what no other racial community would be expected to do? In other words, is it racist to think that blacks do not hold themselves to the same standards of civilized behavior as do others?

The answer seems obviously to be yes, given the contemporary understanding of what racism is, but if so then there are a considerable number of black leaders who are racists, who hold their own people to rather low expectations. That seems very odd.

It leaves us with a perplexing pair of alternatives. Either racism - i.e. thinking large segments of one race are in some way inferior - is justified or there's something very wrong with our contemporary understanding and use of the word racism.

UPDATE: CNN is reporting that the jury has found Zimmerman not guilty. I guess now we'll find out whether the assumption of violence in the black community is justified or not.

Friday, July 12, 2013

How Not to Review a Book

Gareth Cook at the New Yorker does his best to discredit Darwin's Doubt and its author Stephen Meyer, but his best isn't very good. Maybe his heart wasn't in it. Maybe he realized that he had no real case to make but felt he had to go through the motions anyway. He sprinkles in enough innuendo to make the reader think that maybe there really is something disreputable about Meyer's effort, but Cook's allegations suffer from a dearth of factual support and often completely ignore the arguments that Meyer makes. Cook's review will only convince those who either haven't read the book or who simply don't want to believe its message.

The message of Darwin's Doubt in a nutshell is that the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, the conjecture that all of life can be explained in terms of purely mechanistic, unguided processes like natural selection acting on random genetic mutations, is a failed hypothesis. It's staggering around academia like a drunk looking for a place to lie down and pass out.

David Klinghoffer has a fine response to most of Cook's review here, but there are a couple of things that Cook says at the end of his piece to which I'd like to offer a reply. For example, he says this:
Most absurd of all is the book’s stance on knowledge: if something cannot be fully explained by today’s science—and there is plenty about the Cambrian, and the universe, that cannot—then we should assume it is fundamentally beyond explanation, and therefore the work of a supreme deity.
Meyer, however, says no such thing. He does not say that the Cambrian fossils are beyond explanation and must therefore be the work of a supreme deity. He says, in fact, that the Cambrian fossils are evidence that the explanation for them is ultimately intelligent and purposeful, not random and purely physical. In other words, intelligent mind is an explanation and it's the best explanation for the appearance of the kind of information that must be present to create all the phyla of animals, especially suddenly and in a relatively brief period of time.

"But do not underestimate Darwin’s Doubt,” Cook adds, "it is a masterwork of pseudoscience."

Pseudoscience? What Meyer has done is essentially compile a very thorough search of the literature on several of the main problems afflicting Neo-Darwinian explanations of phylogenesis, and he concludes from the statements made by people working in the field, most of whom are themselves Darwinians, that there simple is no plausible, non-purposive explanation for the phenomena they're trying to explain. How is that pseudoscience? Cook never tells us, of course. It's easier to just throw the word out there and leave people with the impression that it fits.

The most dismaying statement he makes, though, comes close to the end of his essay:
The book’s best, most honest moments come in the concluding chapter, in which Meyer travels to see the famous Burgess Shale in person. His son goes ahead on the trail but then suddenly freezes, stricken with vertigo after peering down the mountainside. Meyer likens his son’s paralysis to modernity’s despair at materialism, its shock at the prospect that the universe is utterly indifferent. Meyer writes frankly, saying that his quest is to give people back their sense of meaning and purpose. Here, at last, Meyer is not pretending to be a scientist. (My emphasis)
Clearly the impression Cook wishes to leave with his reader is that Meyer has been dishonest in what he has written, that he has distorted or fabricated facts, but such a charge demands support, otherwise it's a sleazy cheapshot. Cook, however, offers none. He indulges, rather, in what might be called "refutation by smear." He suggests to the reader that Meyer has been dishonest and thereby discredits his book in the reader's mind.

Resort to this tactic is vile, but it has the advantage of sparing the one who employs it the burden of having to actually construct a logical refutation when there's none to be had.

Moreover, his suggestion that Meyer has been "pretending to be a scientist" is asinine. It suggests that Cook only read snippets of the book before he wrote his review. Either that or he naively thinks that unless one is actually performing experiments one is not a scientist. Darwin's Doubt is a multidisciplinary look at the Cambrian fossils. Meyer's background as an historian and philosopher of science as well as his ability to report on current research makes him very well-qualified for the task he undertakes.

In a way, the sorts of insults Cook deploys are actually a compliment. They're an admission that the reviewer has no substantive brief against the book, that he can't find any significant fault with it, and can only hope to diminish its impact by somehow casting aspersions on the integrity of the author. It's a loathsome practice in the eyes of people who value truth and honesty, but it's common enough among those desperate to resuscitate a paradigm that seems to no longer offer answers and which demands an incredible degree of blind faith to believe.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Homosexuality

Having written several times in the past on reasons why same-sex marriage is a very bad idea, I thought I'd try the social equivalent of wandering back and forth across a busy freeway and share some thoughts on homosexuality itself.

Those who adopt the traditional view, myself included, believe that homosexuality is an abnormal predisposition, a gender or sexual disorder. Whether it's a consequence of nature or nurture is not particularly relevant since there are numerous disorders to which we are genetically or environmentally inclined but which are still regarded as derangements of the norm.

There are some, of course, who will immediately upon reading this, ask, perhaps with an excess of pique and asperity in their tone, if I'm asserting that there's something "wrong" with the homosexual person.

The frank answer is, yes, I am, but then I believe there's something or other wrong with all of us. We're all beset with flaws of some sort. Anger, lust, addiction, mean-spiritedness, selfishness, lack of compassion, a critical spirit, etc. are all disorders (I'm using the word "disorder" here to mean functioning in a way that's either harmful or in some way incompatible with the way humans are designed to function or should function).

Homosexuality is a disorder, in my opinion, in much the same way these others are disorders, but of those afflictions that visit themselves upon human beings, homosexuality may be far from the worst. It can be very harmful, of course, to the person who finds himself experiencing same-sex attraction, particularly if it's compounded with promiscuity, but each of the disorders mentioned above can also be harmful to ourselves and others and can often be much more detrimental than homosexuality.

A young man of my acquaintance has recently had a PFA issued to him on behalf of his wife and children. He's a good guy, but he can't control his anger and it has cost him his family. His disorder, I would suggest, is far worse than that of a homosexual who is no threat to anyone.

Another person I know had a womanizing problem that eventually cost him his family. Another had a problem with alcohol that nearly caused the death of his child in a car crash. I'd argue that these disorders are much worse than that of many non-promiscuous homosexuals.

Homosexuality, whether male or female, is not normal in any sense of the word - not statistically nor anatomically, nor psychologically - and it's a mistake, in my view, for society to seek to normalize it, just as it's a mistake to normalize any of the above-mentioned disorders. But neither should we treat the person who is struggling to reconcile himself with his or her homosexuality any less lovingly than we ourselves would want to be treated as we struggle with our own faults and flaws.

Nor should we think, just because someone can function normally in society, under most circumstances, that their disorder is not a disorder. People can function in society, as the young PFA recipient does, as many womanizers and alcoholics do, and still have a part of him that's not healthy.

So, in my view we have a moral duty to treat homosexuals with love while recognizing that there's an element of their being that's not functioning properly. If, however, homosexuals want more from us than that, if they want us to acknowledge that that element of their being which we find problematic is integral to who they are and should thus be affirmed and celebrated as in some sense normal, then they're asking more than that to which they are entitled.

Moreover, if it be demanded of us that we agree with them that homosexuality is not morally problematic or else shut up about it then those who make this demand are seeking to impose upon us their own moral beliefs and are demanding what no one has a right to demand. We are all entitled, to the extent we don't harm others, to be treated with dignity, respect and kindness as persons, but we are not entitled to have our predilections and behaviors given society's stamp of approval, even if only tacitly.

If a homosexual, or an advocate on behalf of homosexuals, wishes to argue, contra what I said above, that homosexuality is not a disorder, and that the claim that it is is therefore insulting, I am certainly open to their argument, but they will have to bring more to the table than just shibboleths and the "some of my best friends are gay" argument. I'm willing to be persuaded, but I think the challenge of demonstrating that homosexuality is indeed compatible with the way we are designed to function as human beings is a pretty daunting task.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Barney Fife Award

Those of a certain vintage will remember that Sheriff Andy of Mayberry had a deputy named Barney Fife who was so incompetent that Andy only let him have one bullet for his gun lest he do serious harm to himself or others. I thought of old Barney when I read an article about how the Washington D.C. City Council has shot themselves in the foot, pushing some 900 jobs out of the District of Columbia by trying to force Wal-Mart to pay its employees more than the D.C. minimum wage requires:
Wal-Mart is pulling out of two, possibly three, D.C. sites where it planned to build stores, citing the D.C. Council's impending adoption of a bill mandating large retailers pay a "living wage" to employees. The bill, which passed on its first vote last month, will be put to a final tally Wednesday during the Council's final meeting of the current legislative session.

Representatives from Wal-Mart say the company will no longer build its planned stores at Skyland Town Center and Capitol Gateway, retail sites in Ward 7. "They're not bluffing me," Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) says, having just left a meeting with the world's largest retailer. "We worked for many years to get this commitment. I really didn't think it would get to this point."

The Large Retailer Accountability Act requires companies that take in at least $1 billion in revenue annually to pay their employees at least $12.50 an hour, well above the District's minimum wage of $8.25. The bill also only applies to stores that are at least 75,000 square feet, thus exempting companies like Apple and Starbucks.

In addition to the two Ward 7 stores, Alexander's chief of staff, Ed Fisher, also says Wal-Mart's move imperils a store planned for New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who represents that area, was one of eight "yes" votes on the bill's first reading.

"That was without knowing Wal-Mart was going to pull out," says Jeannette Mobley, McDuffie's chief of staff. Mobley says her boss is "going to give this some thought" before tomorrow's Council session.

Fisher says each planned Wal-mart was going to have at least 300 full- and part-time employees, as well as enhance food shopping options in Ward 7, where there are only four full-service supermarkets. "We're going to have fewer options for groceries and commercial retail," Fisher says. "At least 900 people won't have an opportunity whether it's full-time or part-time. Whether it's a student in high school or a senior or a job someone can use as a stepping stone."
This is a marvelous lesson in the law of unintended consequences, a law to which liberals for some reason think they're immune. Now rather than have 900 people with jobs, some of which are minimum wage, they'll have 900 people with no job living off the dole. Now, rather than have three more low cost food stores in the District, where people often complain of "food deserts," there'll still be only those food stores that are already there.

Good move, fellas. If there were a Barney Fife award for people whose confidence in their own cleverness is as unshakeable as it is unwarranted you all would surely qualify.

Secular Humanism and Charity

Joe Klein at Time magazine's Swampland blog cogitates on why secular humanists are not prominent in charitable work and religious organizations are. Klein is at pains to clarify that he himself is a secular humanist, but unlike many of his fellow secularists, he claims not to be an atheist, a claim about which he's mistaken, as I'll explain below.

Klein's not fond of religious organizations, but he feels he must give them their due. Here's the crux of his piece:
Well, there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle about my observation in this week’s cover story, that you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals in disaster relief areas like Moore, Oklahoma, after the tornados. Let me explain....

There was a time when secular service organizations had a greater sway in this country and, no doubt, a greater presence when disaster struck. But that’s not true now–although, it is certainly true, as my critics point out, that secular humanists, including atheists, can be incredibly generous. I never meant to imply they weren’t. But they are not organized. The effects of this post-modern atomization is something I’ve been trying to puzzle through for most of my career.

That’s why I find the groups featured in my cover story about public service this week so inspiring. I believe that they sustain an essential part of citizenship that the rest of us have lost track of, the importance of being an active part of something larger than yourself.

I’m going to be spending the next nine months on book leave, trying to drill down into this area.
It's not a mystery why a secular society does not produce the charitable organizations that religious societies do, and I'm a bit surprised that Klein doesn't seem to understand this. Religious people - in the U.S. they're primarily Christians - believe they're commanded by God to help their fellow man, that people in need are manifestations of Christ Himself, that when we help others we are manifesting Christ to them, and that, despite our human inclination toward selfishness, our gratitude to God for all he has done for us compels us and obligates us to love those whom He loves.

Those who see the world through a secular lens, however, have no such incentive. At bottom, if one believes there is no God then selfishness is no vice and charity is no virtue. There's no duty to help one's fellow man, indeed, an arrant secularism would see the world in terms of a Darwinian struggle in which the weak and unfortunate simply must give way to those whose survival chances are better.

In other words, the answer to Klein's puzzlement is that if there is no personal, transcendent moral authority there's simply no reason why anyone should feel an obligation to help anyone else. An atheist may wish to help others, but doing so is neither a moral virtue nor a moral duty. It's simply an emotional preference, a personality trait which some have and some don't, and which, like other traits (e.g. eye color), is neither good nor bad.

If atheism imposes any moral duty at all it is, as Ayn Rand so powerfully illustrates in her life and works, a duty to maximize one's own well-being. There can be, on atheism, no imperative to help others.

Is Klein, despite his demurrals, an atheist? He says this:
First of all, I consider myself a secular humanist. It seems, somewhat to my surprise, that some people equate that term with atheism. You can certainly be a secular humanist and an atheist; but you can also be, as I am, a secular humanist for whom the jury is out on the question of the divine providence.

To my mind, secular humanists are those who lack the scientific certitude of atheists, and also lack the spiritual certitude of the religious. It makes perfect sense to me: Can atheists be absolutely sure that there’s nothing after this? Can believers be sure that there is?
Klein is assuming that atheism is the denial of the existence of God, but though those who deny God's existence are atheists, not all atheists explicitly deny God's existence. Atheism is not the denial of God's existence but rather the lack of belief in God's existence. These are not equivalent. One can lack a belief in God without denying that there is such a being, just as one can lack a belief in extraterrestrial aliens without denying that such creatures may exist. Klein admits to lacking such a belief in God, ergo he's an atheist.

Those who deny that there is a God we might call "hard" atheists. Those, like Klein, who don't make this strong claim, who are willing to allow for the possibility that God exists, but who nevertheless lack any affirmative belief that He does, are "soft" atheists. Some call such unbelievers agnostics, but agnosticism is really a weaker form of atheism.

At any rate, we can expect that as our culture becomes more and more secularized and less and less influenced by the Christian worldview, the incentive to do charitable works will ineluctably decline. A secular society can exhort people to care about their fellow man, but it can give them no reason to. Perhaps as Klein "drills down into this area" he'll come to realize this and write about it in a future article.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Darwin's Doubt

Stephen Meyer is a historian and philosopher of science. Several years ago he wrote Signature in the Cell (SIC), a book that shook the materialist assumptions of biological science because it raised the challenge of how the original information that programs the development of living things could have ever arisen through purposeless, mechanistic processes. The arguments he raised have yet to be satisfactorily refuted, and even as the Darwinian establishment is reeling from that blow Meyer has launched another roundhouse punch in a book titled Darwin's Doubt (DD).

Whereas SIC was a critique of mechanistic explanations of the origin of life DD is an examination of the problem of how living things, once they have appeared, could have diversified to produce the tremendous variety we see today.

The book is organized into three parts. The first section recounts the problem raised by the relatively sudden appearance of most of the animal phyla some 530 million years ago in the period known to scientists as the Cambrian era. Meyer includes in this section the fascinating story of the discovery of perhaps the most amazing fossils of the Cambrian, a formation called the Burgess Shale high in the Canadian Rockies.

The difficulty for any purely materialistic evolutionary explanation posed by these fossils cannot be overstated. Almost all the major animal body plans appear suddenly, in evolutionary terms, in the fossil record with no precursors in older strata. It's as if in the space of a few million years single-celled organisms suddenly proliferated into all the basic forms of multicellular animal life and left no trace of how they did it. Meyer considers all the current theoretical explanations of this phenomenon and explains why evolutionary scientists themselves find these accounts all inadequate.

In the second section he delves into the biology of the genome and the amazing hierarchy of information that exists in the cell. We all learned in high school that our DNA programs us to be what we are, but this is not quite true. DNA programs the production of proteins, but there's a higher level of information, the epigenome, which regulates the DNA. It tells the DNA when to produce a protein and when to remain quiescent. The epigenome is as complicated and complex as a circuit diagram in a computer and defies explanation in terms of the traditional neo-Darwinian mechanisms of mutation and natural selection.

The DNA produces proteins, but the real problem is in elucidating what it is that tells those proteins where to go, how to get there, and what sort of tissues to form. This information appears to be encoded somehow in the very spatial and temporal architecture of the cell. It's a layer of information that not only cannot be explained in terms of the traditional neo-Darwinian mechanisms, but neither, Meyer makes clear, can it be explained by any of the more recent hypotheses that scientists have come up with to try to salvage their theory.

The third portion of the book is an argument that almost all of the difficulties raised by the Cambrian fossils and the cellular information hierarchy can be explained in terms of intelligent agency. Meyer addresses questions like whether such a hypothesis is science, whether it can be tested, whether it makes predictions, what mechanisms such an agent might have used, and other objections that are frequently raised against it. He also explains how the intelligent design hypothesis differs from both creationism and theistic evolution.

In my opinion, general readers would benefit greatly from the first and third parts of DD but may struggle, depending on their grasp of cell biology, with the second part. Even so, it's a book that, like its sister volume SIC, is destined to deeply affect the debate between Darwinian materialists and Intelligent Design advocates.

Those who are deeply committed to Darwinian materialism will not be persuaded, of course, because they hold an a priori conviction that there simply cannot be anything non-physical, non-material, or non-natural operating in the universe. Thus these individuals would be convinced that a book that makes the case that there actually is such an influence at work in the cosmos simply must be wrong even if the individual cannot say why it's wrong.

Those who are not so dogmatic, however, will find themselves challenged by Meyer's book to consider seriously the possibility that behind the physical aspects that comprise the world in which we live there is intelligent purpose. Darwin's Doubt will compel many readers to consider that there's powerful evidence, and excellent reason to believe, that beyond the material world perceived by our senses there is a transcendent Mind.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Bad Example

It will be, or at least should be, astonishing if President Obama escapes the appellation of future historians as the most lawless president in this nation's history.

Any law he doesn't like he simply disregards and somehow he gets away with it. I can't imagine any other president, certainly no Republican president, flouting the law like Mr. Obama does without the media hounding him out of office.

His latest foray into rule by executive fiat is his decision to suspend anti-fraud measures built into the Affordable Care Act:
President Barack Obama’s health care requires that applicants applying for tax subsidies for health insurance prove that their income was somewhere between 100 percent to 400 percent of the federal poverty line. The bill also requires that applicants prove that they weren’t receiving employer-provided insurance.

But HHS decided last week to suspend these anti-fraud measures.

The administration will now “rely on self-reported data,” the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein writes.

“You read that correctly. A man who earns $50,000 per year and gets insurance through his employer could log on to the new government website and say he earns $20,000 and gets no insurance through his employer, and the government would not even attempt to confirm that the information is accurate before forking over generous taxpayer subsidies,” Klein adds.

If you thought Medicare and Medicaid fraud was bad, wait until Obamacare goes into full effect sans its anti-fraud provisions.

True, as the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff and Sandhya Somashekharand explain, anyone caught defrauding Obamacare could be fined up to $25,000 and be forced to “repay any excess subsidies they received.” But how are you going to catch them?

“With this news coming after the employer mandate delay announcement, the Obama administration has now openly conceded that it is in way over its head when it comes to implementing this unworkable law,” Klein notes.
The Affordable Care Act is the law, as regrettable as that may be, and we are, or should be, a nation of laws. Disregarding ACA's provisions is a violation of the presidential oath of office in which the president vows to uphold the Constitution and, by implication, the laws of the land. It would be as if Congress passed the Clean Air Act or the Civil Rights Act and a Republican president simply refused to enforce it.

In the wake of the president's announcement that he will suspend the employer mandate in Obamacare and now the announcement that he will suspend the requirement that income must be verified before subsidies are granted, how can any Republican member of Congress be expected to vote for any legislation advanced by the Democrat party given that no one knows whether any provisions in that legislation would ever be enforced by the executive? It seems to me that unless democrats win the House in 2014 no legislation will go anywhere in Congress for the next three years and that the only way Mr. Obama is going to get anything done is by executive dictat, just as is done in third-world banana republics.

Mr. Obama is setting a terrible example for American citizens by encouraging disrespect and disdain for the law. How many citizens will be tempted to rationalize to themselves that if the president can decide which laws to honor so can they, and commence their foray into lawlessness by lying about their income in order to receive insurance subsidies or by cheating on their taxes? If the president is seen as contemptuous of both the democratic process and the rule of law why should the average citizen feel any differently?