Monday, September 30, 2013

A Shutdown Isn't Really a Shutdown

If the government shuts down what would happen? Sean Lengell at the Washington Examiner gives us the scoop on what'll likely happen if Congress does not agree on a budget bill by tomorrow:
Up to 800,000 federal employees could be furloughed as services deemed "non-essential," such as national parks, passport offices and most regulatory agencies -- including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Securities and Exchange Commission -- are closed.

If the federal government closes for business Tuesday, non-essential employees would be furloughed without pay. "Essential" workers-- such as military personnel, border security officials and air traffic controllers -- would be told to report to work. They wouldn't receive paychecks during the shutdown but would be paid retroactively after Congress passes a government funding bill.

Mail would be still be delivered, Social Security checks still be would sent out and airports would remain open. New Medicare applicants likely would have to wait to be enrolled, though a shutdown isn't expected to affect medical services for those already in the program.

But a shutdown likely would shutter national parks, museums and monuments, including all Smithsonian Institution museums, as well as passport offices and visa application centers.
There's more at the link.

Tomorrow is also the day the rollout of Obamacare is supposed to take place. By all reports it will not be smooth. Ramirez thinks it'll be, well, here's what he thinks:

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Human Origins

There's an interesting article at Salvo magazine on human evolution, or rather the lack of evidence for it. Casey Luskin reviews the current state of paleoanthropology and shows that the fossil record contains two kinds of hominin fossils - complete apes and complete humans. There are no transitional forms, or at least none that paleoanthropologists agree to be intermediates.

It's an interesting and informative piece. One scientist remarked that if we take the fossil record at face value it's as if there was a kind of Big Bang at the outset of the appearance of human beings. They appear suddenly, completely human, and very much different from apes.

Another observed that something quite remarkable happened when humans appeared and the novel developments weren't just in the brain.

This all runs counter to contemporary Darwinian assumptions about human provenience, of course, because in the evolutionary scheme of things humans unquestionably evolved from ape-like ancestors. Maybe they did, I certainly don't know, but Luskin shows that if they did there's no compelling evidence in the fossil record that they did. The reason why it's widely assumed that humans evolved from ape-like creatures is not because there's fossil evidence of it, but because it's assumed a priori that the Darwinian grand narrative must be true.

Friday, September 27, 2013


Philosophers and scientists have been perplexed for centuries by the phenomenon of human consciousness. There seems to be no plausible explanation for how it could have arisen in the evolutionary scheme of things and no explanation for how conscious experience - our sensations, beliefs, doubts, hopes, etc. - could be produced by a brain made of nothing but unthinking atoms.

The quandary has led some philosophers back to a view that has actually been around for a long time, the view that somehow every particle of matter contains a tiny bit of consciousness or mind. Mind, in this view, pervades the entire cosmos. This is called panpsychism.

I came across an article on panpsychism written in 2007 by Jim Holt for the New York Times in which Holt lays out the basic problem:
Most of us have no doubt that our fellow humans are conscious. We are also pretty sure that many animals have consciousness. Some, like the great ape species, even seem to possess self-consciousness, like us. Others, like dogs and cats and pigs, may lack a sense of self, but they certainly appear to experience inner states of pain and pleasure. About smaller creatures, like mosquitoes, we are not so sure; certainly we have few compunctions about killing them. As for plants, they obviously do not have minds, except in fairy tales. Nor do nonliving things like tables and rocks.

All that is common sense. But common sense has not always proved to be such a good guide in understanding the world. And the part of our world that is most recalcitrant to our understanding at the moment is consciousness itself. How could the electrochemical processes in the lump of gray matter that is our brain give rise to — or, even more mysteriously, be — the dazzling technicolor play of consciousness, with its transports of joy, its stabs of anguish and its stretches of mild contentment alternating with boredom?

This has been called “the most important problem in the biological sciences” and even “the last frontier of science.” It engrosses the intellectual energies of a worldwide community of brain scientists, psychologists, philosophers, physicists, computer scientists and even, from time to time, the Dalai Lama.
Imagine that, like the images on a computer screen, the physical world consists of pixels embedded in a material substrate. But these are not pixels made of chemicals like those on your monitor, but rather they're pixels made of mind. If you can imagine this you are on your way to grasping the panpsychist hypothesis:
So vexing has the problem of consciousness proved that some of these thinkers have been driven to a hypothesis that sounds desperate, if not downright crazy. Perhaps, they say, mind is not limited to the brains of some animals. Perhaps it is ubiquitous, present in every bit of matter, all the way up to galaxies, all the way down to electrons and neutrinos, not excluding medium-size things like a glass of water or a potted plant. Moreover, it did not suddenly arise when some physical particles on a certain planet chanced to come into the right configuration; rather, there has been consciousness in the cosmos from the very beginning of time.
This view is not popular among those who hold to a naturalistic metaphysics for the simple reason that naturalists are leery of anything that sounds suspiciously like an attempt to reinsert God back into the universe from which he was banished by modernity, and the panpsychist view certainly swings the gate wide open. Moreover, naturalists are often materialists - i.e. they believe that matter (and energy) are all there is, there's no room for an immaterial substance such as mind in the materialist's world-picture.

Yet the problem of how to explain consciousness haunts the discussion. It's like the elephant in the middle of the room that can't be ignored. Whether the solution turns out to be panpsychism or some version of mind/body dualism, it seems clear that materialism is gently being shoved in the direction of the boneyard of obsolete ideas.

There's more on Holt's article on panpsychism at the link.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ted Cruz

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has been roundly and viciously criticized, not only by Democrats but also by his fellow Republicans, for launching a 21 hour filibuster Tuesday in an attempt to draw the nation's attention to the very deep flaws in the Affordable Care Act. Cruz's filibuster was undertaken, ostensibly, in what he knew to be a doomed attempt to defund the whole health care plan, which almost every Republican has agreed needs to be done but which no other Republican has any idea how to accomplish.

It's been very disappointing to see the response from his fellow Republicans. Many of them merely disagreed with the tactic, which is fine, but many others engaged in personal attacks on Cruz that were deeply discouraging. Senator John McCain, Rep. Peter King, and ersatz conservative Joe Scarborough at MSNBC were among the worst.

Senator Cruz during his 21 hour filibuster
Aside from the scurrilous attacks by these men, one of the more frustrating criticisms of Cruz was the assertion that what he was doing would never work. It was quixotic, a fool's errand, to fight a battle that couldn't be won. The Democrats control the Senate and the White House and there's no hope that Cruz would succeed. Thus, he was portrayed as everything from a "terrorist," an "arsonist," and an "extremist," (by Democrats) to a "fraud" and an "idiot" (by Republicans). I think this is not only a shameful response, it's absurd.

It's a bit like calling the Texans at the Alamo fools for standing and fighting when there was no way they could win. It's like calling the Spartans at Thermopylae idiots for refusing to flee when they knew they were in a hopeless position. I'd bet that many of those who think Cruz a "whacko bird" for fighting a fight in which he couldn't prevail were themselves inspired as they watched the movie version of Les Miserables by the young men who chose to fight an unwinnable battle on the barricades for the principle of liberty. The man who fights against impossible odds for what he believes to be right, who fights for a principle, is not a fool. In fact, we call such men heroes.

This leads me to another shameful criticism of Cruz, namely, that he only carried out the filibuster in order to bolster his chances of gaining his party's presidential nomination in 2016, not because he was animated by principle. According to the people who allege this, Cruz is in reality an unprincipled fraud whose primary motivation for taking the lead in the fight to defund Obamacare is pure political self-interest, but if this really was Cruz's motivation he chose a very odd strategy for achieving it - alienating the entire party establishment.

Furthermore, how do the people who bring this charge know that that is his motivation? What reason do they have for imputing ignoble motives to him? Have we become so cynical that we no longer believe that any politician ever does anything in the best interest of the country? Does everyone in politics always have a political motive for everything they do?

Why can't people disagree with someone without assuming the worst motives in that person? What sort of man is it who's so quick to attack an opponent with slander and insult, especially an opponent in one's own party? These attacks by Cruz's own colleagues in the GOP conference are not only extraordinarily hurtful they're historically unprecedented.

Throughout the barrage of invective, however, Cruz has responded with grace and forbearance, refusing to respond in kind to the calumnies to which he's been subjected. He's shown himself, through the arguments he's made and the irenic demeanor he has displayed, to have a compelling case against the Affordable Care Act, to be more principled than many of his detractors, and to be a far better man than any of his ugliest critics.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mr. Obama Is about to Thank You for Your Vote

The future of health care in America, or at least the cost of insurance, is beginning to become clear. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has released a report that enables some conclusions to be drawn, and although news reports were giddily reporting that premiums for people who must buy their own insurance will be "sixteen percent lower than expected," that phrase is meaningless happy talk, according to Avik Roy at Forbes magazine. In fact, when you run the numbers, as Roy has done, it turns out that:
Based on a Manhattan Institute analysis of the HHS numbers, Obamacare will increase underlying insurance rates for younger men by an average of 97 to 99 percent, and for younger women by an average of 55 to 62 percent. Worst off is North Carolina, which will see individual-market rates triple for women, and quadruple for men.
These are national averages, but in the original article Roy breaks down the expected increase for each state for 27 and 40 year old males and females. In some states the increase is negligible, in others like Nebraska and North Carolina it's over 250%. Males will be especially hard hit in most states.

The administration has promised subsidies to lower income people to help them with the cost of their premiums but Roy shows that the subsidies won't help much:
However, the overall results make clear that most people will not receive enough in subsidies to counteract the degree to which Obamacare drives premiums upward. Remember that nearly two-thirds of the uninsured are under the age of 40. And that young and healthy people are essential to Obamacare; unless these individuals are willing to pay more for health insurance to subsidize everyone else, the exchanges will not serve the goal of providing coverage to the uninsured.
Roy closes with this:
For months, we’ve heard about how Obamacare’s trillions in health care subsidies were going to save America from rate shock. It’s not true. If you shop for coverage on your own, you’re likely to see your rates go up, even after accounting for the impact of pre-existing conditions, even after accounting for the impact of subsidies.

The Obama administration knows this, which is why its 15-page report makes no mention of premiums for insurance available on today’s market. Silence, they say, speaks louder than words. HHS’ silence on the difference between Obamacare’s insurance premiums and those available today tell you everything you need to know. Rates are going higher. And if you’re healthy, or you’re young, the Obama administration expects you to do your duty and pay up.
In other words, the claim that premiums are going to be "lower than expected" is small comfort. They're still going up and for some people the increase is going to look like that global warming hockey stick.

And remember that, courtesy of the august jurists on our nation's highest court, you are now required by your government to purchase insurance whether you want it or not, whether you think you need it or not. If you don't purchase it you'll be fined by the good folks at the IRS. The Supreme Court decided to call the fine a "tax" in order to keep it constitutional, but, of course, everyone, including the Obama administration, knows that it's a fine.

Check out the link for details on what the premium increases look like in your state and keep something in mind. The people who imposed this on the rest of us, our Democratic Congresspersons, have exempted themselves from it. They won't be paying those higher premiums, but they made sure that you will.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Three Geologists

Granville Sewell at Evolution News and Views places his tongue in his cheek and explains for us by means of a parable the difference between naturalism, intelligent design, and theistic evolution. His parable goes something like this:

Three geologists are standing at the base of Mt. Rushmore admiring the spectacle. One of them says, "This mountain depicts perfectly the faces of four presidents. It must have been created by a brilliant sculptor." The second geologist objects: "You're a geologist," he admonishes, "you should know that mountains are formed by natural forces and processes like vulcanism and plate tectonics. The rocks are then carved by other forces like wind and erosion. There's no need to posit an intelligent sculptor to explain those faces in the rock."

The third chimes in by telling the second that, "I agree with you. The natural forces of nature are perfectly adequate to explain these faces on the mountain. Only someone ignorant of science would think that they were intentionally designed." But then he turns to the first geologist and exclaims, "But what a magnificent result! There must have been a Master Sculptor standing by watching nature create this marvelous mountain."

The first geologist in Sewell's parable represents intelligent design theorists who believe that nature shows evidence of having been designed by an intelligent agent. The second geologist represents naturalism, the view that natural processes and forces are adequate to account for the apparent design we see in nature. The third geologist represents theistic evolutionists who believe that God exists but played no role in the evolution of life other than perhaps creating the laws that run the cosmos.

Sewell evidently thinks theistic evolution is a bit strange.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Can Science Satisfy? Pt. IV

This is our last post in a series on an article in the Boston Review by Tania Lombrozo. Lombrozo, it will be remembered, wishes to argue that science can fill one's life with as much meaning, significance, hope and joy as can traditional religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, the arguments she musters in support of this project are pretty thin. She bases much of her case on research which, as we saw in part III, does little more than infer causation from mere correlation. In other words, the conclusions of the research she cites, as Lombrozo presents them, are a bit like the conclusion that roosters cause the sunrise because every morning the sun comes up about an hour after the roosters start crowing.

At any rate, toward the end of her paper Lombrozo discusses how one can inject meaning into his or her life through the contemplation of the exquisite wonders of Darwinian evolution.

She writes that our sense of powerlessness in the face of cosmic randomness makes us susceptible to embracing origin accounts that invoke a Creator who has everything under control. Thus, if we frame evolution as an orderly, deterministic process in which things proceed in a fairly regular fashion people will find it comforting.

"This suggests that, like intelligent design, the idea of a non-random, deterministic evolutionary process helped relieve the discomfort of feeling powerless," she avers. But when evolution was presented to test subjects as a deterministic and orderly process, "the two appeared to be equivalent in their ability to compensate for low personal control."

So, the key to alleviating our existential forlornness, our despair at finding ourselves embedded in the meaningless cosmic flux, is to meditate not just upon Darwin's Origin of Species, but also on how law-like the whole evolutionary process is.

One imagines rescue teams dispatched to talk potential suicides down off the ledge being trained to have a few excerpts from Darwin committed to memory to recite to distraught souls convinced that their life is no longer worth living. Of course, it's not clear how assuring people that they're just an insignificant atom in the swirl of dust that is the cosmos would help convince anyone that he really shouldn't jump from the ledge. It seems, rather, that it'd have the opposite effect.

Anyway, Lombrozo enthuses about the deep existential satisfactions waiting to be mined from biology as long as the dross of random, chaotic features are filtered out:
What we can do is rethink the way evolutionary ideas are presented, and work to improve people’s understanding of the ways in which natural selection is—and is not—a random and unpredictable process. While humanity may be an evolutionary accident in some sense, our place in the tree of life can be characterized in highly systematic ways that highlight the exquisite dynamics of evolutionary change. There are patterns in the natural world, and grasping them can be revelatory.
That biology can be exciting and rewarding I heartily agree, but what religious belief does that no science can do is provide hope that personal death isn't final and that one's life has meaning. It provides a ground for thinking that justice will ultimately prevail, if not in this life then in the next, that those who suffer now will be rewarded, and that our moral judgments are grounded in something more solid than arbitrary personal preference. Religion, at least many forms of theistic belief, gives us a basis for thinking that human beings have dignity and worth, and that we're endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights by virtue of the fact that He bestowed them upon us.

Those are some of the consolations of theism, and, pace Ms Lombrozo, evolution, deterministic or otherwise, simply can't provide any of them.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Can Science Satisfy? Pt. III

In Part III of this series (see Pt. I here and Pt. II here) on an essay by Tania Lombrozo in the Boston Review I want to consider the reasons she offers for thinking that belief in science can be at least as existentially satisfying as can religious consolations. She opens this section of her piece with this:
In fact, four recent papers confirm that science offers many of the same existential benefits as religion. The implications are powerful.
Well, given what Ms Lombrozo tells us about these studies her use of the words "powerful" and "confirm" seems a bit hyperbolic. In fact, based on Ms. Lombrozo's account, what these studies do in each case is make the mistake of assuming that because two factors are correlated one of them must cause the other. This is the "false cause" fallacy, and Ms Lombrozo seems oblivious to it. Consider her first example:
First, consider a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, which examines whether belief in science can mitigate stress and anxiety about death. In an initial study, rowers were asked to fill out a questionnaire either immediately before a competition (a high-stress situation) or before a routine practice (a low-stress situation).

The questionnaire assessed the rowers’ belief in science by asking them to indicate how much they agreed with statements such as “science provides us with a better understanding of the universe than religion does” and “science is the most valuable part of human culture.”

Sure enough, participants in the high-stress condition were significantly more likely than those in the low-stress condition to endorse these claims, suggesting that affirming the value of science was a strategy for mitigating high levels of stress.
Because two variables were correlated the conclusion we're to draw is that preferring science over religion somehow, subconsciously reduces anxiety. This is more than a bit silly. It's like insisting that since you exhale about once every couple of seconds and since someone on earth dies once every couple of seconds, your exhalations must be the cause of the deaths.

And why does Ms Lombrozo conclude that affirming the value of science is in fact "a strategy" for mitigating stress? Are we to believe that athletes before a competition sit around in the locker room meditating on the wonders of the scientific method in order to calm their nerves? Who does that?

As philosophers frequently remind us, correlation does not necessarily imply causation, but Ms Lombrozo evidently thinks it does. She adds this:
The idea of a non-random, deterministic evolutionary process helped relieve the discomfort of feeling powerless.
One wishes she might have explained how the idea that we're the helpless product of deterministic processes over which we are powerless helps us relieve the discomfort of feeling powerless. Perhaps it's one of those paradoxical mysteries that must be taken on faith.

The conclusions drawn from the rest of the studies she cites are equally as mystifying, but you'll have to read those at the link.

She concludes her essay by tackling the question whether belief in evolution can make your life meaningful. I'll have something to say about that in Part IV next week.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Social Darwinism

Darwinians are fond of citing Theodosious Dobzhansky's assertion that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Evolution, we've often heard, is a grand narrative that expresses a universal law of development. It's a process that's been found to have application not just in biology but in numerous related disciplines as well. All of this is said with the glowing approval of the Darwinians. Until, that is, someone undertakes to apply the principals of selection and survival of the fittest to human populations, and then squawks of protest drown out all other conversation.

It's objected that Darwinism applied to society, what's called Social Darwinism, is a gross misapplication of the theory. Darwin didn't intend for his theory to be used in this manner, we're told. Besides, we've evolved ethical constraints and understandings that make it wrong for us to apply the principle of "survival of the fittest" to human populations.

Well, maybe, but I've not seen a good argument for why this should be.

George Dvorsky writes a fine essay at io9 on the history of social Darwinist thought and concludes with the standard rebuke of those who would extend Darwinism to human societies. I find Dvorsky's objections very unconvincing.

He writes:
Following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1860, many political theorists and opportunistic politicians applied his findings to human society. In the 20th century, these ideas were put into practice — and it nearly destroyed us....Social Darwinism was one of the worst ideas ever.

Darwin’s theory served not merely as an explainer for life on Earth — it was also a veritable God-killer. What’s more, it “reduced” humanity to the level of animals, forever disrupting the Judeo-Christian notion that humanity existed in an exalted place between God and the natural world. Humanity, it was suddenly realized, was not privy to the whims of God, but rather to the laws of nature.

In the absence of God, went the argument, humanity needed to act to ensure its fitness and ongoing survival. Darwin’s thesis seemed to provide a blueprint on how this could be done. And thus began the transference of Darwinian theories from animal species to social groups and races — a development that would lead to catastrophic results.
Indeed it would, but once God was dispensed with there was no logical reason why this development shouldn't occur. Having been told over and over again that human beings really are just "naked apes" there was no reason not to apply the principles that governed the evolution of other apes to the human ape. Moreover, having killed God there was no reason why man, having become his own god, shouldn't undertake to engineer the human species in any way those who held power saw fit.

Critics of Social Darwinism like Dvorsky don't have a problem with throwing God overboard, but they do have a problem with following the implications of that act of cosmic rebellion to their logical endpoint.

What's the problem with applying Darwinism to human societies? As Dvorsky points out it led to eugenics, racialist theories of inferiority, anti-semitism, colonialism, war, and though Dvorsky doesn't mention it, the founding of Planned Parenthood as an organization among whose purposes was to cull the unfit from the population. He assumes we're all appalled at the record, but to paraphrase Dostoyevsky, once God is eliminated it becomes impossible to say that anything is wrong.

Dvorsky closes with a complaint:
Quite obviously, equating natural selection...with the ills of Social Darwinism is a tragic mistake. The science is still science, while Social Darwinism, with its gratuitous generalizations and misreadings of how natural selection works (e.g. it completely fails to account for group selection theories and the rise of such characteristics as empathy) will forever remain in the realm of pseudoscience.
Presumably, Dvorsky thinks that since we've evolved empathy for our fellow man that makes racism and anti-semitism and all the rest morally abhorrent, but I simply don't see how someone who's willing to embrace Darwinian naturalism can think that human empathy has any moral binding force. Also, if both human empathy and the human desire to kill off those outside one's own group are equally the products of Darwinian evolution, how can we say that empathy is right and killing outsiders is wrong? How can a blind, impersonal process make one of its results morally superior to another?

Here's one more excerpt:
What’s more, the application of Darwinian processes to human morality is about as facile an exercise as it gets. As a moral maxim, “survival of the fittest” is as unenlightened as it gets.
This is true enough, but only if one assumes the existence of a transcendent, personal moral authority. The problem for Dvorsky is that he wants to say that just because something happens in nature that doesn't make it right, and he's correct. But, if nature is all there is then neither can we say that whatever happens in nature, or in human society, is wrong. It just is.

For Dvorsky to express a sense of moral repugnance at the Social Darwinist's application of survival of the fittest to human societies is, given his metaphysical assumptions about God, absurd. What, exactly, is the basis for his moral sensitivities? What is the ground he stands on when making his moral judgments of the behavior of others?

For the metaphysical naturalist the answer can only be that he stands on nothing more substantial than his own subjective feelings and preferences, but to criticize others because their behavior doesn't conform to one's own tastes is nothing more than empty hubris.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Can Science Satisfy? Pt. II

In a previous post I looked at the early paragraphs of a column written by Tania Lombrozo in The Boston Review in which she argues that science can afford people the same quality and quantity of existential satisfaction as is offered by religion. I replied in my post that Ms Lombrozo makes some unfortunate claims in the early going of her essay which cast doubt on the reliability of what comes later.

Sadly, what comes later does little to alleviate that doubt.

She speculates freely, for instance, about possible psychological explanations for why belief in a purposeful creation is so widespread, but she never considers the possibility that perhaps so many people believe that the universe and life were in some way created because that explanation makes more sense than does the idea that it all just happened by accident. At least it makes more sense to anyone who's not already committed to metaphysical naturalism. Here's some of what Lombrozo writes:
[P]sychologist Paul Bloom argues that creationism and belief in God may be “bred in the bone,” byproducts of the very evolutionary forces that shaped the human mind....some have claimed that humans are “promiscuously teleological,” saddled with a tendency to construe objects and their properties as designed for a purpose. Understanding the natural world in terms of design suggests some prolific operator behind the scenes, so theistic stories of creation fill a useful explanatory role for the teleologically minded.

Relatedly, humans appear to be overzealous in our attributions of agency, inclined to posit some sort of person or beastie at the slightest provocation—the sound of a broken twig in a forest, the creak on an old staircase, or the face-like constellation of whorls in a cloud....The comforts afforded by religious beliefs in the face of death also play a role in promoting the idea of a creator.
All of which is to say that, for her, the plausibility of competing theories is not relevant to which explanation people will believe. Rather, there must be some psychological neurosis that causes people to reject metaphysical naturalism and embrace supernatural creation. The credulity of these poor souls must be due, ironically, to psychological hang-ups bestowed upon them by the very evolutionary process that these people are rejecting.

But there's also another possibility for why so many are so intellectually obdurate about this matter: Science is hard to understand. Lombrozo quotes Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker: “It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe.”

Well, maybe so, but could it be instead that it's hard to believe Darwinism because the human brain is specifically designed to be able to distinguish intuitively between the products of chance and physical forces and the products of intelligent engineering? Clearly, the information content of living things, their specified complexity, is very difficult to explain in terms of physical mechanisms we know to be operating today.

Lombrozo adds that,
Indeed, many psychologists have argued that, beyond the desire for comforting religious belief, additional tendencies conspire to make natural selection especially difficult to understand and accept, particularly when applied to the case of humans.
This is a clever tactic: The reason simple-minded folks don't believe Darwinism, she avers, is because they're just not smart enough. Smart people, which we'd all like to be, embrace Darwinism. Dumb people, or people with psychological maladies, which none of us want to be, reject it. The problem with Darwinism isn't the theory, it's with the doubters who are just not bright enough to understand it, or so her reasoning goes.

She erects a straw man by shifting her discussion from evolution writ large to natural selection. The number of people who doubt natural selection is probably vanishingly small, but Lombrozo equates natural selection with the Neo-Darwinian "grand narrative" that all of life developed naturalistically from prebiotic ingredients into all the amazing life forms we see today solely through the action of natural processes, chance, and time. It's that Grand Narrative about which people are skeptical. It's the claim that natural selection, unaided by intelligent guidance, can produce a human brain from some primordial ooze that elicits snickers from those dull-witted skeptics Ms Lombrozo finds so puzzling.

Finally, people often draw inappropriate conclusions from evolutionary claims—conclusions that they prefer to reject. One study asked undergraduates to identify whether the truth of evolution would have negative, positive, or neutral implications for a host of social and personal issues.

The researchers found that the overwhelming majority of students queried believed that evolution made it harder to find purpose in life, threatened the existence of free will, and justified selfishness and racism, among other undesirable ends. These claims are examples of what philosophers call the “naturalistic fallacy,” the error of deriving “ought” from “is”—an error that readers often make in response to strictly descriptive scientific findings. For example, the idea that genes are selfish might offer a compelling description of some evolutionary dynamics (though even that is controversial), but it doesn’t follow that human selfishness is appropriate.
She's right about some of this. She's correct when she states in so many words that it doesn't follow from the fact that we've evolved selfishness that therefore selfishness is right. What does follow, though, is that neither our tendency to be selfish nor our tendency to be racist is wrong.

Lombrozo misapplies the naturalistic fallacy. It would indeed be a mistake to argue that because we are a certain way that we therefore should be that way, but that's not the real danger inherent in denying free will and human purpose while affirming that we are genetically prone to selfishness and racism. The danger is not in people concluding that we should be that way, though some atheists have certainly drawn that conclusion, but rather in concluding that it's not wrong to be that way.

There's a considerable difference between arguing that because things are a certain way that therefore they ought to be that way and arguing that because things are a certain way that therefore, on atheism, it can't be wrong for them to be that way.

The former would indeed commit the naturalistic fallacy. The latter, however, is just common sense.

We haven't yet discussed Lombrozo's reasons for thinking that science offers all the consolations, and more, of religion. We'll do that in a future post.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

This Was Not Designed

"Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved." So cautioned Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Why did Crick feel it necessary to say this? Well, perhaps because of phenomena depicted in videos like this:
One of the puzzling questions this video raises is how the complex of proteins which works in tandem with the DNA could have arisen in the first place. DNA can't work without them, but if DNA can't work without them how did it produce them?

Here's another question. DNA codes for proteins, but what is the source of information that directs the proteins to the proper regions of the cell or the body and instructs them to build the structures they do? What codes for this information and where in the cell does it reside?

One more question. DNA codes for proteins, but what is the source of the information that controls an animal's behavior? Where does that information reside and how is it passed from generation to generation?

These are baffling questions so we must just shove them aside and not think about them. Instead we should all close our eyes real tight and repeat after Professor Crick: "This was not designed. This was not designed. This was not ..."

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Rethinking Global Warming

There's an interesting piece on global warming at the WSJ by Matt Ridley. It turns out that an important report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) due to be released in a week or so will reveal that earlier predictions of "hockey stick" shaped graphs depicting skyrocketing temperature increases are mistaken, and the alarms sounded by the Al Gores of the world are overwrought. It even suggests that the climate change that is occurring may be on balance beneficial, a possibility we've wondered about at VP on a number of occasions.

Here's part of what Ridley says:
The big news is that, for the first time since these reports started coming out in 1990, the new one dials back the alarm. It states that the temperature rise we can expect as a result of man-made emissions of carbon dioxide is lower than the IPPC thought in 2007.

Admittedly, the change is small, and because of changing definitions, it is not easy to compare the two reports, but retreat it is. It is significant because it points to the very real possibility that, over the next several generations, the overall effect of climate change will be positive for humankind and the planet.
Ridley follows this with a bunch of numbers which the interested reader can read for him or herself, but then there's this:
A more immediately relevant measure of likely warming has also come down: "transient climate response" (TCR) — the actual temperature change expected from a doubling of carbon dioxide about 70 years from now, without the delayed effects that come in the next century. The new report will say that this change is "likely" to be 1 to 2.5 degrees Celsius and "extremely unlikely" to be greater than 3 degrees.

Most experts believe that warming of less than 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels will result in no net economic and ecological damage. Therefore, the new report is effectively saying (based on the middle of the range of the IPCC's emissions scenarios) that there is a better than 50-50 chance that by 2083, the benefits of climate change will still outweigh the harm.

Warming of up to 1.2 degrees Celsius over the next 70 years (0.8 degrees have already occurred), most of which is predicted to happen in cold areas in winter and at night, would extend the range of farming further north, improve crop yields, slightly increase rainfall (especially in arid areas), enhance forest growth and cut winter deaths (which far exceed summer deaths in most places). Increased carbon dioxide levels also have caused and will continue to cause an increase in the growth rates of crops and the greening of the Earth—because plants grow faster and need less water when carbon dioxide concentrations are higher.

Up to two degrees of warming, these benefits will generally outweigh the harmful effects, such as more extreme weather or rising sea levels, which even the IPCC concedes will be only about 1 to 3 feet during this period.
Ridley notes that even the reduced expectation of increasing temperature in the IPCC report may be too high. Other reports point to even milder warming than forecast by the IPCC report. All of which is to say that there's reason to be cautious in forming opinions about the severity of the threat we face. Indeed, those who only a year or two ago were calling any climatologist who was skeptical of Mr. Gore's dire predictions the equivalent of a terrorist who should be fired or otherwise censored have been a bit muted lately. And for good reason:
It is now more than 15 years since global average temperature rose significantly. Indeed, the IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri has conceded that the "pause" already may have lasted for 17 years, depending on which data set you look at. A recent study in Nature Climate Change by Francis Zwiers and colleagues of the University of Victoria, British Columbia, found that models have overestimated warming by 100% over the past 20 years.

Explaining this failure is now a cottage industry in climate science. At first, it was hoped that an underestimate of sulfate pollution from industry (which can cool the air by reflecting heat back into space) might explain the pause, but the science has gone the other way — reducing its estimate of sulfate cooling. Now a favorite explanation is that the heat is hiding in the deep ocean. Yet the data to support this thesis come from ocean buoys and deal in hundredths of a degree of temperature change, with a measurement error far larger than that. Moreover, ocean heat uptake has been slowing over the past eight years.

The most plausible explanation of the pause is simply that climate sensitivity was overestimated in the models because of faulty assumptions about net amplification through water-vapor feedback. This will be a topic of heated debate at the political session to rewrite the report in Stockholm, starting on Sept. 23, at which issues other than the actual science of climate change will be at stake.
By this Mr. Ridley is suggesting that what comes out of Stockholm may very well be a product more of the ideological and political aspirations and predilections of those who draft the report than of the empirical data that climatologists are coming up with.

Monday, September 16, 2013

How Not to Conduct a Philosophical Debate

This may be a first. Two guys standing in line for beer get into an argument over Immanuel Kant's philosophy and one shoots the other. Don't tell me nobody takes philosophy seriously anymore:
MOSCOW (AP) -- An argument in southern Russia over philosopher Immanuel Kant, the author of "Critique of Pure Reason," devolved into pure mayhem when one debater shot the other.

A police spokeswoman in Rostov-on Don, Viktoria Safarova, said two men in their 20s were discussing Kant as they stood in line to buy beer at a small store on Sunday. The discussion deteriorated into a fistfight and one participant pulled out a small nonlethal pistol and fired repeatedly.

The victim was hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening. Neither person was identified.

It was not clear which of Kant's ideas may have triggered the violence.
My guess is they were quarreling over Kant's theory of transcendental apperception. Or perhaps it was his categorical imperative which brought the men to blows. The categorical imperative is a rule that enjoins us to always act in ways we would want everyone to act. If this was indeed the point of contention we may presume that the shooter was arguing against adoption of the rule.

Can Science Satisfy? Pt. I

Tania Lombrozo at the Boston Review asks whether science can offer the same existential satisfactions as can religion. She answers in the affirmative but nothing in her column gives the reader confidence that her answer is correct.

Her very first paragraphs raise doubts about her grasp of the subject. She writes that:
The claim that humans evolved from non-humans is among the best established in science.... Yet, according to a Gallup survey, nearly half of Americans reject evolution, instead endorsing the view that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”
There are at least two things wrong with this. First, the claim that humans evolved from non-humans may be true, but to place it among the best established claims in science is either a sign of ignorance or an indication of intellectual dishonesty. Well-established scientific claims are testable via observation and repeated experimentation, but the claim that humans evolved from non-humans lends itself to neither of these criteria. To place evolutionary descent in the company of such staples of science as the inverse square law, the value of the speed of light, Newton's laws of motion, or quantum mechanics is silly and uninformed.

In fact, human descent isn't even among the most well-established principles of biology. Biologists can be much more certain, surely, that DNA codes for proteins or of the chemical reactions involved in photosynthesis than they can be that human beings have evolved from non-human ancestors.

Second, Lombrozo's implication that one either believes in evolution or believes in Young Earth Creationism may have been true in the 1920s, but it's either dishonest or inexcusably ignorant of her to suggest that it's true today. There's a voluminous literature on this topic, and the error she commits has been rebutted so often that one wonders how anyone who has done her homework could still make it.

The contemporary discussion orbits the question whether the best explanation of origins (of the cosmos, of life, of life's diversity) is one which solely invokes physical processes and forces or one which imputes origins to the action of an intelligent agent. Among those who opt for the latter view the matter of how the agent constructed the world and living things is at most a secondary concern. The crucial, more fundamental question, as they see it, is whether the empirical evidence being discovered everyday by researchers around the globe fits more neatly the view that the universe and life are the product of blind, impersonal, mindless processes or whether it suggests the input of an intelligent mind.

There's more to lament in Ms Lombrozo's essay, and I'll have additional thoughts to share on it throughout the week.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Religion of Our Age

Tom Bethell writes a column at Evolution News and Views in which he identifies the religion of our modern age as materialism. He's talking about materialism in the metaphysical sense, of course, rather than the consumerist sense. Metaphysical materialism is the view that matter and energy are the only constituents of everything there is. Nothing immaterial - minds, souls, God, angels, etc. - exists.

Metaphysical materialism is a species of naturalism. Naturalism denies the existence of any non-natural entities. There's nothing supernatural. All materialists are naturalists, but one can technically be a naturalist and not be a materialist. Even so, most naturalists are in fact materialists.

Bethell cites Duke philosopher Alex Rosenberg who declares that everything that exists is made ultimately of fermions and bosons, the particles that comprise atoms. There's nothing else.

Of course, if this is true a host of profound consequences follow, among which are that there are no minds, no free will, and thus no moral value. Morality depends for its existence on our ability to freely choose between alternative actions. If we're simply material beings then we no more have free will than does a machine, and thus there are no morally right or wrong choices, only choices which we've been programmed by our environment or our genes to select.

Moreover, if we really are machines, if it's true that we lack free will and that morality is an illusion, then it's nonsense to talk about human dignity. Dignity is rooted in freedom and choice. There can be no dignity where there is no freedom. To go one step further, if there's no genuine dignity in being human then neither is their anything of worth or value in being human, and the notion of inherent human rights is a chimera. There simply is no such thing as an inherent "right" to anything - not property, not liberty, not life. Indeed, in a material universe where would such rights come from?

Materialism is a distressingly dehumanizing philosophy. It reduces us to little more than clever chimps. Little wonder that the materialism that held sway in 20th century totalitarianisms around the globe led to human slaughter on an historically unprecedented scale. A creature with no intrinsic worth, no intrinsic rights, no intrinsic dignity is simply fodder to satisfy the appetite for power of those who already possess enough of it to impose their will on the rest of us.

Ideas have consequences, and this maxim is particularly true of metaphysical ideas about the nature of humanity. Belief in materialism leads inexorably to what C.S. Lewis called the abolition of man. It puts us on an express train for a real life Panem, a dystopia where slaughter is a source of pleasure for a morally depraved and depauperate culture.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Demanding Repentance from Dawkins

One of the heroes of the atheist community, Richard Dawkins, has transgressed a Very Important Rule in the freethinker's catechism and now the community of the non-religious, or at least part of it, is raining anathemas down upon the sinner demanding his repentance. As I wrote last Wednesday, Dawkins has been under fire for "insensitive" comments he made recently that were thought to be too dismissive of the seriousness of child molestation.

Now a petition has been circulated which garnered 600 signatures among atheists and humanists demanding that he retract the comments and "condemning" him for his insensitivity. Here's part of what the petition said:
We, the undersigned atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and other non-believers, hereby condemn Richard Dawkins' continued comments trivializing what he termed 'mild' sexual abuse of children. Dr. Dawkins is seen by many as a representative of the atheist community -- but when it comes to his dismissive comments on the incredibly serious topic of sexual abuse, the atheist community emphatically does not stand with him.
This sounds all very pious, I suppose, but exactly how would the atheists who signed this petition answer the question, "what, precisely, is wrong with what Dawkins said"? The signers obviously don't like his remarks, but that's no reason to think that there's something reprehensible about them. Here's the last paragraph of the petition:
Those who have signed this petition vehemently oppose Dr. Dawkins' trivialization of sexual abuse victims. As humanists, freethinkers, atheists, and agnostics we wish to voice our opposition to his insulting vitriol. We find these statements derogatory, dismissive and harmful to victims of sexual abuse and view his ideas on this subject abhorrent. As such, we utterly repudiate them.
Okay, but what makes them abhorrent? His comments may indeed be hurtful to victims of abuse, but why, on atheism, is it wrong to say something that hurts another person? Dawkins' comments about religious people are certainly hurtful, but no petitions condemning Dawkins for his "insulting vitriol" against religious believers in his many writings have been circulated by his fellow atheists. Indeed, they lionized him for his insults.

The problem is that on atheism there is no moral right or wrong, there are just behaviors people like or don't like. It seems odd that atheists would take the trouble to express their "vehement" opposition to behavior that merely offends their personal tastes. In fact it seems pretty silly.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Biological Gears has a report about a British leaf-hopper, a small insect of the genus Issus which moves by taking large leaps, much like a grasshopper. This particular insect, however, is especially noteworthy because the legs which propel its leaps are synchronized not by nerves but by mechanical gears.

Here's an excerpt from the article:
A plant-hopping insect found in gardens across Europe - has hind-leg joints with curved cog-like strips of opposing 'teeth' that intermesh, rotating like mechanical gears to synchronise the animal's legs when it launches into a jump.

The finding demonstrates that gear mechanisms previously thought to be solely man-made have an evolutionary precedent. Scientists say this is the "first observation of mechanical gearing in a biological structure".

The gears in the Issus hind-leg bear remarkable engineering resemblance to those found on every bicycle and inside every car gear-box.

Each gear tooth has a rounded corner at the point it connects to the gear strip; a feature identical to man-made gears such as bike gears – essentially a shock-absorbing mechanism to stop teeth from shearing off.

The gear teeth on the opposing hind-legs lock together like those in a car gear-box, ensuring almost complete synchronicity in leg movement - the legs always move within 30 'microseconds' of each other, with one microsecond equal to a millionth of a second.

This is critical for the powerful jumps that are this insect's primary mode of transport, as even miniscule discrepancies in synchronisation between the velocities of its legs at the point of propulsion would result in "yaw rotation" - causing the Issus to spin hopelessly out of control.

"This precise synchronisation would be impossible to achieve through a nervous system, as neural impulses would take far too long for the extraordinarily tight coordination required," said lead author Professor Malcolm Burrows, from Cambridge's Department of Zoology.

"By developing mechanical gears, the Issus can just send nerve signals to its muscles to produce roughly the same amount of force - then if one leg starts to propel the jump the gears will interlock, creating absolute synchronicity.
This is all incredibly fascinating, but almost as fascinating is what the discoverers of these gears say about them next in the article:
"We usually think of gears as something that we see in human designed machinery, but we've found that that is only because we didn't look hard enough," added co-author Gregory Sutton, now at the University of Bristol.

"These gears are not designed; they are evolved - representing high speed and precision machinery evolved for synchronisation in the animal world."
I'd like to ask two questions: First, how does Mr. Sutton know these gears weren't designed? When a structure bears such a close resemblance to a structure we know to be designed by an intelligent agent we conclude by analogy that the original structure has a reasonable possibility of being similarly designed. This is the principle, widely accepted in science, that like effects are reasonably attributed to like causes. Why should we simply acquiesce to the view that such wonders are the product of unintelligent forces plus chance plus time?

Second, isn't a bit embarrassing for scientists to always have to impute such a marvelous capacity for innovation and engineering to blind impersonal processes? When amazing structures such as this gear system or the outboard motor that propels bacteria are discovered Darwinians express no reservations about dutifully waving their magic wand of mutation and natural selection, squirting a little pixie dust into our eyes, and declaring that even though it nay seem like magic to the benighted, functional gears and outboard motors are the sorts of miracles that purposeless forces and chance can build a dozen times before breakfast every morning.

It seems to me that one has to be either a) very gullible or b) resolutely committed a priori and with religious tenacity to metaphysical naturalism in order to believe such prodigies uncritically. Someone with a healthy scientific/philosophical skepticism would judge claims like Mr. Sutton's to be at best rash and at worst superstitious nonsense.

Scientists don't, or at least shouldn't, invoke magic or miracle as an explanation.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Metaphysical Freeloader

P.Z. Myers is a very devout atheist. He's committed to an evolutionary view of life, so it's perplexing that he makes so many moral pronouncements in his recent condemnation of atheistic fellow-traveler Richard Dawkins' latest transgressions against Myers' moral sensibilities. Myers quotes from an article in The Times magazine in which Dawkins discusses an incident from his childhood:
In an interview in The Times magazine on Saturday (Sept. 7), Dawkins, 72, said he was unable to condemn what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.

Referring to his early days at a boarding school in Salisbury, he recalled how one of the (unnamed) masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.”

He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.

He said the most notorious cases of pedophilia involve rape and even murder and should not be bracketed with what he called “just mild touching up.”
That was Dawkins saying that being briefly fondled by his teacher as a child was no big deal. Well, it is to Myers. Note the moral outrage in his criticism of Dawkins:
I can think of some lasting harm: he seems to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children. He was a victim of an inexcusable violation; that he can shrug it off does not mean it was OK, or ‘zero bad’, or something trivial. Should I have raised my children with such a lack of self-respect that they should have allowed dirty old men to play with their genitals? I would have wanted them to inform me, so that such behavior could be stopped.

Just when did it stop being OK for acquaintances to put their hands inside Richard Dawkins shorts? I presume it would be an utterly intolerable act now, of course — at what age do the contents of childrens’ pants stop being public property?

Should we be giving pedophiles the idea that a “mild touching up” is reasonable behavior? It’s just a little does no “lasting harm”. [T]hat sounds like something out of NAMBLA.

And that all Richard Dawkins experienced was a brief groping does not mean that greater harm was not being done. That man was a serial child molester; do we know that he didn’t abuse other children to a greater degree? That there aren’t former pupils living now who bear greater emotional scars?

We do not excuse harm to others because some prior barbaric age was indifferent to that harm. Furthermore, the excuse doesn’t even work: are we supposed to believe that a child-fondling teacher would have been permissible in the 1950s? Seriously? Was that ever socially acceptable? And even if it was, in some weird version of British history, it does not excuse it. It means British schools were vile nests of child abuse, just like Catholic churches.

Thanks for swapping the moral high ground for a swampy mire of ambiguity, Richard. I’m not going to argue that compelling kids to memorize Bible verses and fear hell, as stupid an excuse for education as that is, was child abuse, while getting manhandled by lascivious priests was a trivial offense, to be waved away as harmless. I’m sure many Catholics are quite gleeful that Richard Dawkins has now embraced the same moral relativism that they use to rationalize crimes against children.
Myers is incensed that Dawkins would pooh-pooh what Myers sees as a terrible wrong. He condemns the act because of the harm it does, and expresses disdain, while he's at it, for Dawkins' moral relativism.

Now I share all of these sentiments with Myers, but what I'd like to know is where does Myers think his moral sensibilities come from? If he says they've evolved in us over the eons then why, exactly, should we pay them any heed? Evolution molded us for life in the stone age, not the modern age. Besides, if our sense of moral aversion to pedophilia is a product of evolution then so is the urge to indulge in pedophilic behavior. Why does the aversion take precedence over the indulgence? Why is the antipathy toward molestation any more "right" than the desire to fondle children if both are the products of evolution?

Moreover, how can an impersonal process like evolution impose a moral duty on us to refrain from molesting children in the first place? Moral duties cannot be imposed upon us by an impersonal force or process. They can only be imposed by the personal Creator of the universe, but Myers is absolutely hostile to the idea that such a Creator exists. Yet the fact is that for someone who shares Myers' worldview there are no grounds whatsoever for saying that pedophilia is wrong because in the absence of a personal, transcendent moral authority we have no moral duties at all.

Myers can say he doesn't like what happened to the young Dawkins and doesn't like Dawkins' minimizing of it, but for him to talk as if there's something terribly wrong with it, for him to talk as if there's much more than a simple expression of his personal distaste involved, is just silly.

As I argue in my novel In the Absence of God (see link above right) when an atheist makes a moral judgment, he's essentially acting as if God existed. On atheism there are no grounds for such judgments, but man can't live consistently with the nihilism his atheism entails so he temporarily piggy-backs on Christian theism in order to favor us with his moral pronouncements and hopes all the while that no one will notice that he is, in effect, a metaphysical freeloader.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

No Such Thing As Cyberwar

There's been lots of talk over the past decade about cyberwarfare, but rarely has the concept been teased out in order to understand exactly what it is. Thomas Rid does this for us in a brief essay at New Scientist. It's Rid's thesis that when we understand what cyberwar entails we realize that it probably won't ever happen although lots of other bad things that are wrongly considered to be versions of cyberwar have happened and will continue to happen.

Rid starts by explaining three characteristics of warfare that do not typify cyber attacks:
What would an act of cyberwar look like? History suggests three features. To count as an armed attack, a computer breach would need to be violent. If it can't hurt or kill, it can't be war.

An act of cyberwar would also need to be instrumental. In a military confrontation, one party generally uses force to compel the other party to do something they would otherwise not do.

Finally, it would need to be political, in the sense that one opponent says, "If you don't do X, we'll strike you." That's the gist of two centuries of strategic thought.

No past cyberattack meets these criteria. Very few meet even a single one. Never has a human been injured or hurt as an immediate consequence of a cyberattack. Never did a state coerce another state by cyberattack. Very rarely did state-sponsored offenders take credit for an attack. So if we're talking about war – the real thing, not a metaphor, as in the "war on drugs" – then cyberwar has never happened in the past, is not taking place at present, and seems unlikely in the future.
He's quick to point out that cyberwar should be differentiated from cyber attacks:
That is not to say that cyberattacks do not happen. In 2010, the US and Israel attacked Iran's nuclear enrichment programme with a computer worm called Stuxnet. A computer breach could cause an electricity blackout or interrupt a city's water supply, although that also has never happened. If that isn't war, what is it? Such attacks are better understood as either sabotage, espionage or subversion.
Even granting Rid the distinctions he makes his essay has about it the feel of quibbling about words. Sabotage, espionage, and subversion are all tactics widely used in war, even if they also occur between parties not in direct violent conflict with each other. Indeed, sabotage, like the insertion of the Stuxnet virus into the Iranian computers used in the development of their nuclear weapons, is an act of war. The only reason Iran did not respond against Israel or the U.S. for damaging their centrifuges with this virus was because they were too weak to do anything about it.

At any rate, Rid goes on to elaborate on his view of why cyberwar, properly understood, is not in our future. It's an interesting read if you're into that sort of thing.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Global Freezing?

An article in the local paper today lamented how global warming is devastating state fisheries. A piece on the local public radio station this morning noted that a nearby ski resort is expanding to include warm weather activities due to, the reporter implied, dwindling snowfalls resulting from climate change, i.e. global warming.

Both of these stories were aired despite the fact that our state has experienced one of the coolest summers in memory, but perhaps our weather this summer is an anomaly. Perhaps, but what about this? For a decade or more we've been subjected to alarming cries of melting polar ice caps. We've been shown pictures of polar bears on shrinking ice floes to convince us that the situation is dire.

Yet the British Daily Mail published a report recently that claims that:
A chilly Arctic summer has left nearly a million more square miles of ocean covered with ice than at the same time last year – an increase of 60 per cent.

The rebound from 2012’s record low comes six years after the BBC reported that global warming would leave the Arctic ice-free in summer by 2013.

Instead, days before the annual autumn re-freeze is due to begin, an unbroken ice sheet more than half the size of Europe already stretches from the Canadian islands to Russia’s northern shores.
With all the conflicting claims about the catastrophic effects of global warming on one side and reports that there has been no warming at all for the last twelve years and the ice cap is actually growing on the other, how do we decide what's true?

Perhaps the wisest course is to decline to be swept up in the hysteria until unambiguous, incontestable evidence is adduced one way or the other. It would be wise, perhaps, to simply suspend opinion and maintain an open-minded skepticism toward both the claim that we're on the brink of an eco-catastrophe as well as the claim that nothing particularly unusual is happening.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Coyne on Free Will and Morality

Biologist Jerry Coyne over at Why Evolution Is True raises an important question about human nature. Specifically, Coyne asks how, if man's morality is a product of the impersonal action of evolutionary forces, there can be such a thing as "free will," and if there isn't free will, if man doesn't in some sense choose his actions, how can there be such a thing as moral right and wrong?

Now, Coyne is a determinist who believes our choices are predetermined by environmental or genetic influences over which we have no control. Thus, he rejects the popular notion that there is such a thing as morality. He holds that what we call morality is simply an expression of our likes and dislikes. I think he's very much mistaken about this, but, given his naturalism, his conclusions are certainly unassailable. Here's part of what he says:
Readers here will know that, being a determinist, I’d prefer to dispense with the term “moral responsibility,” replacing it with the simple idea of “responsibility.” That’s because I don’t think we have dualistic free will that would allow us to decide between doing “right” and “wrong”. If that’s the case, then why add the adjective “moral,” which implies that one does have a choice?

We always hear that “unlike humans, nature is amoral.” You can’t say that the actions of animals are moral or immoral—they just are. When a male lion invades another group and kills the cubs, when a chimp tears another chimp to bits, those are just bits of nature, and aren’t seen as wrong.

So why, when a stepfather kills his stepchild (something that, presumably is not something he decides to do “freely”), that is morally wrong, but when a lion does it, or a chimp kills an infant, it’s just nature, Jake.

Now the idea of ethics—a codified set of rules to which we adhere for various reasons, usually as a form of societal glue—clearly was concomitant with the rise of human society and language. But much of our morality is surely based on evolution. I’m not saying that those evolved principles are the right ones to use today: clearly in many cases, as with xenophobia, they aren’t. But some of them remain salubrious, including reciprocal altruism, shame, guilt, and so on. So why can we do wrong but chimps can’t?
It's not clear to me why shame and guilt are salubrious if there's nothing to be ashamed of or to feel guilty about, and if there are no moral wrongs then surely there is nothing to feel ashamed or guilty about. But let's let Coyne finish his thought:
In other words, is it really true that all of nature, including primate societies, must be seen as amoral, while human actions must be judged by this thing called “morality”?

Why, if a male lion has no more choice about killing step-cubs than a human does about killing stepchildren, do we hold the human morally responsible but the lion not? (The ability of humans to foresee consequences and take in a variety of inputs seems to me irrelevant here). Should we punish cub-killing lions, given that they cause enormous pain and terror to the cubs and their mothers?
So Coyne poses this puzzle for us: If we don't hold animals morally responsible for doing things like torturing and killing their young why should we hold humans, who are also animals, morally responsible for doing the same thing? And if we think humans should be held morally responsible then don't we have to assume that humans have a moral obligation that other animals don't have? And if we assume that, then must we also assume both that humans have free will and that there exists a personal moral authority that imposes upon us that obligation?

In other words, it seems to me that accepting Coyne's naturalism leads, if one takes it to its logical conclusion, to moral nihilism. Coyne doesn't take it that far, but he gives us no reason why he doesn't. Perhaps he realizes that if people saw where naturalism leads a lot of them might be disinclined to accept it, but if one rejects nihilism then one must also logically reject naturalism.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Just Say No

President Obama has gone to Congress seeking authorization to bomb Syria, an authorization he insisted he didn't need until just the other day, but it's difficult to see the point of such an attack. We'll kill several hundred, maybe several thousand Syrians, many of them civilians, in order to punish Bashar Assad for the crime of killing several hundred other Syrian civilians, and what will we have accomplished thereby?

President Obama got himself into his current predicament when in a bit of bravado he gave everyone to understand a year ago that if chemical weapons were used by the Assad government Assad would be in deep trouble. At that point the President should have had contingency plans on the table ready to be implemented if in fact those weapons were used by the Syrians. Subsequently there were indications that chemical agents were in fact employed by the Syrian army against the rebels, but no measures were taken nor was anything much said about it.

Nevertheless, by that point those contingency plans should certainly have been fully developed if not implemented, but they were not. Now chemical weapons have manifestly been used, though it's not clear by which side, and for the past month we've been told that the President is still "weighing his options." The weighing should have been done a year ago. What has the President been doing since he first warned Syria against their use?

Mr. Obama also told us that he doesn't need Congressional authority to punish Syria militarily. But when Britain opted out, the President, in a fine example of "leading from behind" went to Congress to request an authorization to attack. This came after waxing absolutely loquacious about what kind of strike he had in mind, as if to assure the Syrians that it wouldn't really hurt too much and they certainly needn't worry about any "shock and awe." He even assured them it wouldn't last long, it wouldn't target their leadership, and it wouldn't seriously degrade their military operations. So, he seemed to be pleading with Damascus, don't make too much fuss, just let him flex his muscles to save face, and then you can get back to killing your people through more conventional means. Again, why should Congress go along with this charade?

Throughout his dithering and temporizing Mr. Obama has looked weak, indecisive, incompetent, and ineffective, and now he wants Congress to give him political cover by actually making the decision for him. His representatives have testified that the credibility of the U.S. is at stake, that we must not allow the Syrians to get away with the use of chemical weapons, but in fact, it's not American credibility that hangs in the balance, it's President Obama's credibility. He got us into a mess and to salvage his tattered reputation as a world leader he ostensibly wants to drag the country into a pointless, meaningless attack that would, like Clinton's attack on a North African aspirin factory, accomplish nothing except allow the President to posture and preen and declare that he did something.

Well, it's not at all clear to me why we should intervene in a civil war in a country in which we have no vital interest and which is surrounded by neighbors which have the military capability to punish Assad if they think it necessary.

Congress should decline to give Mr. Obama the authority he has insisted he already has for the same reason that Sheriff Andy refused to give Deputy Barney Fife bullets for his gun. Andy was afraid Barney was not competent to carry a loaded sidearm. It seems that similar considerations may apply in this current muddle.

If the President wants to do something truly meaningful and significant he should ignore the rattles at the tail of the snake and cut off the head of the serpent - in this case Iran. Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons is a far greater threat to both the region and to the world. It is Iran which empowers Assad and equips him to carry out his atrocities. If we're going to launch an attack it should be an all out effort to destroy Iran's nuclear capability and to decapitate its leadership. This would be a condign and meaningful act, but alas, those who seem eager to toss a few feckless missiles at Assad have little stomach for tossing those missiles where they'd do some real good and serve a real purpose.

At any rate, the President wants approval for an attack on Syria. As Congress debates the authorization request this week our representatives need to ask what's going to happen once we've done it? What will we have accomplished? What's going to happen when the attack is over and the Syrian forces emerge from their bunkers to resume the war? What's going to happen when photos come out of Syria showing dead children, their bodies dismembered by our Tomahawks? Those photos will surely appear whether they're genuine or not. Will Israel's enemies use our assault as a pretext to attack Israel? If so, will we then be drawn into a wider war?

These are questions to which the American people deserve answers, but none have so far been forthcoming from the warhawks in the White House or in Congress.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Demographic Time Bomb

Taylor Washburn at The National Interest has a column that should be of special interest to our Russian and Chinese readers.

Despite their apparent chumminess the demographic trends in both Russia and China are an ominous augur for the future of Sino-Russian relations. Chinese population is growing, Russian population is contracting. Where will the burgeoning Chinese masses go? Washburn thinks that the vast underpopulated Russian territory along the Chinese border may prove an irresistible temptation for Beijing.

Here are a few excerpts from Washburn's essay:
For although China currently maintains no claims to Russian land, many in Moscow remain convinced that Beijing has not given up on the Far East forever. Fueling Russian fear is a fantastic population imbalance and a wave of illegal Chinese immigration which could eventually render European Russians a regional minority. With 110 million residents—and 65 million in the border provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin alone—the northeast holds only 8 percent China’s population but is more than three quarters the size of Russia’s, which is heavily concentrated west of the Ural Mountains.

With around 6 million people, the Russian Far East is among the most vacant places on earth and is only growing emptier, as nationwide demographic collapse is compounded by out-migration. Endowed with oil, gas, coal and timber, the region is the opposite of nearby China: rich in resources while starved for labor and capital.

Thus, although Moscow and Beijing recently staged their largest-ever joint naval drill off the coast of Primorsky Krai, Russia has continued to run exercises which appear to be aimed at China—including a 2010 ground drill tailored to repel an invasion by an unnamed foe resembling the People’s Liberation Army, and massive war games held just last month.

In addition, the Kremlin has maintained its time-honored partnership with India, and has also sought to improve ties with China’s archnemesis Japan, pledging to negotiate a long-delayed World War II peace treaty, which would not only sow the seeds for additional Japanese investment in Far East oil and gas fields, but could provide a hedge against Chinese economic and military coercion.
Washburn concludes with this thought:
...relentless demographic trends in Northeast Asia suggest that any collaboration between Moscow and Beijing will operate under a cloud, which could grow darker as China’s relative military strength increases. Even if Chinese leaders try to reassure Moscow that its hold on the Far East is secure, both states surely know that the growth of the region’s Chinese population amidst Russian decline may place the other in a bind, with nationalist pressure setting constraints on compromise. While Putin and Xi grip and grin, the demographic time-bomb between them is ticking—and if it goes off, a shared suspicion of the United States may prove a brittle bond.
It would seem that the natural frictions that would be exacerbated by population trends along the Sino-Russian border offer the United States opportunities to advance its own interests. If tensions increase between the two Asian powers both would have an interest in courting the favor of the U.S. An adroit State Department would work that to our advantage. It'll be interesting to see how matters unfold in this region.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Women in Combat

Last January I did a post titled "Women in Combat" in which I quoted from a piece written by an attorney and combat veteran of the Iraq war named Ryan Smith who explained why the Obama administration's plan to integrate women into combat units was a thoroughly bad idea. The post elicited a response from a student named Dustin who wrote this:
As I was reading through Mr. Smith's article about women in combat I found myself agreeing with every point that he made. I am also a combat veteran with a tour to Afghanistan and when I first heard about the integration of men and women into combat units many of Mr. Smith's points entered my mind. I have no doubt that there are plenty of women that can meet the physical requirements of being in a combat unit. This does not, however, mean that they would be able to mesh properly with the men in their units.

"Combat effectiveness is based in large part on unit cohesion," and the combat effectiveness of the military that has worked for well over 200 years would be damaged by integrating men and women into the same combat arms units. I have seen and experienced what can happen when women are merely attached to combat arms units. I was disciplined following a mission because a female military intelligence officer was offended that, while in a vehicle, I had to urinate and I used an empty water bottle in her view.

Animosity towards women can also build up because of the special treatment they can receive. Co-ed showers were not allowed on our combat outpost so we had one shower dedicated to men while the other was dedicated to women. It greatly frustrated the men that we always had to wait in line while the women, who were much smaller in numbers, came and went as they pleased. The biggest issue that can come out of men and women serving in combat units together, in my opinion, is sexual desires. It could ruin a unit's cohesion if sexual relationships developed between men and women that could turn friends against friends.

I am now off of active duty and in the Pennsylvania National Guard. I received word that my unit will be one of the units that are the first to have women integrated into combat arms. I truly hope that I am out of the military before that happens.
The military is an institution maintained to fight and win wars. It's not a laboratory for social engineers to test their theories on how best to structure society. Mixing women with men in combat will not improve the effectiveness of our fighting forces and, as Dustin points out, may well diminish that effectiveness. The only reason the administration is doing it is because it's another step toward the left's dream of complete egalitarianism and the obliteration of all differences between the social roles performed by men and women.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Bad Parents

Every now and then a liberal progressive lets drop the mask of pretense and circumlocution and affords us a candid example of how and what folks on the left really think. Such is the case with an article at Slate by a woman named Allison Benedikt.

When a friend first sent me this column I thought it was a satire on liberal thought, a parody of the left's insistent demand that other people behave in ways that are unreasonably altruistic for the sake of some pie-in-the-sky greater good. Having read it a couple of times I've concluded that it is indeed a parody, but the parody is inadvertent and the subject is, in fact, precisely people who think like Ms Benedikt.

A quick summary: Ms Benedikt argues that the remedy for the dismal condition of many of our public schools is for parents who send their kids to private schools to be shamed into keeping their children in their dysfunctional public schools. She all but recommends a scarlet letter be affixed to the clothing of any parent who has so little concern for others that they would choose to send their child to a school where the youngster might receive an education.

Here's her lede:
You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.

I am not an education policy wonk: I’m just judgmental. But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.
The judgmental Ms Benedikt (isn't being judgmental a sin in the liberal catechism?) is just getting warmed up. Meanwhile, we might ask why parents are flocking to private schools in the first place. Is it not largely because they've grown frustrated with their inability to effect change in their child's inadequate public schools? Why think that if they returned their children to those schools that things would change?

She continues:
So, how would this work exactly? It’s simple! Everyone needs to be invested in our public schools in order for them to get better. Not just lip-service investment, or property tax investment, but real flesh-and-blood-offspring investment. Your local school stinks but you don’t send your child there? Then its badness is just something you deplore in the abstract. Your local school stinks and you do send your child there? I bet you are going to do everything within your power to make it better.

And parents have a lot of power. In many underresourced schools, it’s the aggressive PTAs that raise the money for enrichment programs and willful parents who get in the administration’s face when a teacher is falling down on the job. Everyone, all in. (By the way: Banning private schools isn’t the answer. We need a moral adjustment, not a legislative one.)
Unfortunately for her thesis, the reasons public schools struggle has little to do with parental involvement in the school and everything to do with parental involvement with their children at home. Moreover, many of the problems schools face are impervious to parental involvement - burdensome mandates issued by state and federal bureaucracies, disciplinary chaos, and powerful unions which make firing bad teachers nearly impossible, to mention just a few.
There are a lot of reasons why bad people send their kids to private school. Yes, some do it for prestige or out of loyalty to a long-standing family tradition or because they want their children to eventually work at Slate. But many others go private for religious reasons, or because their kids have behavioral or learning issues, or simply because the public school in their district is not so hot. None of these are compelling reasons. Or, rather, the compelling ones (behavioral or learning issues, wanting a not-subpar school for your child) are exactly why we should all opt in, not out.

And you're a bad person if you avail yourself of the opportunities a private school might offer your child. Instead, you should be a "good liberal" and send your kids to the public school (There are, of course, some very good public schools. Many of you attended one, and I taught in one for 35 years. Some, however, are execrable.) where they might waste twelve years of their life, as Ms Benedikt all but boasts that she did, so that other kids seventy years from now might benefit from your involvement in your child's school.

I believe in public education, but my district school really isn’t good! you might say. I understand. You want the best for your child, but your child doesn’t need it. If you can afford private school (even if affording means scrimping and saving, or taking out loans), chances are that your spawn will be perfectly fine at a crappy public school. She will have support at home (that’s you!) and all the advantages that go along with being a person whose family can pay for and cares about superior education — the exact kind of family that can help your crappy public school become less crappy. She may not learn as much or be as challenged, but take a deep breath and live with that. Oh, but she’s gifted? Well, then, she’ll really be fine.
Why will she be fine? Is Ms Benedikt saying that smart kids really don't need good schools? Is she arguing that it's more important that the mass of kids at the bottom experience a marginal improvement in their standardized test scores rather than that the really bright kids excel? She seems so afraid that the country is going to be stratified into a pyramid of achievers at the top and a vast class of uneducated, unemployables at the bottom that we need to lop off the top of the pyramid or smoosh it down so that the educational achievement chart is shaped less like a pyramid and more like a football with everyone clustered in the middle.

I went K–12 to a terrible public school. My high school didn’t offer AP classes, and in four years, I only had to read one book. There wasn’t even soccer. This is not a humblebrag! I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. You know all those important novels that everyone’s read? I haven’t. I know nothing about poetry, very little about art, and please don’t quiz me on the dates of the Civil War. I’m not proud of my ignorance. But guess what the horrible result is? I’m doing fine. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that I got a lame education. I’m saying that I survived it, and so will your child, who must endure having no AP calculus so that in 25 years there will be AP calculus for all.
This is astonishing. It amounts to a plea for parents to just be satisfied with a diploma for their child regardless how much real learning the diploma represents. But the goal of education isn't to merely "survive," it's to prepare the ground for future success.

Ms Benedikt addresses any concern parents might have about their child's academic preparation by dismissing the importance of academics. What's important, she informs us, is learning how to get along in a diverse world:
Also remember that there’s more to education than what’s taught. As rotten as my school’s English, history, science, social studies, math, art, music, and language programs were, going to school with poor kids and rich kids, black kids and brown kids, smart kids and not-so-smart ones, kids with superconservative Christian parents and other upper-middle-class Jews like me was its own education and life preparation. Reading Walt Whitman in ninth grade changed the way you see the world? Well, getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house did the same for me. In fact it’s part of the reason I feel so strongly about public schools.
What a sterling message Ms Benedikt brings us. The best part of an education is getting drunk together. It teaches you how to be part of the universal brotherhood of man. Ms Benedikt's disdain for quality education seems rather analogous to Miley Cyrus' attitude toward modesty.
Many of my (morally bankrupt) colleagues send their children to private schools. I asked them to tell me why. Here is the response that most stuck with me: “In our upper-middle-class world, it is hard not to pay for something if you can and you think it will be good for your kid.” I get it: You want an exceptional arts program and computer animation and maybe even Mandarin. You want a cohesive educational philosophy. You want creativity, not teaching to the test. You want great outdoor space and small classrooms and personal attention. You know who else wants those things? Everyone.
Well, not everyone, but lots of people do to be sure. Nevertheless, just because not everyone can have what they want doesn't mean that no one should. Lots of people would like to have a house at the beach and a European vacation every year. Doubtless Ms Benedikt, Slate's Nurse Ratchet, would upbraid those who can enjoy these things on the grounds that since not everyone can enjoy such amenities neither should they.
Whatever you think your children need — deserve — from their school experience, assume that the parents at the nearby public housing complex want the same. No, don’t just assume it. Do something about it. Send your kids to school with their kids. Use the energy you have otherwise directed at fighting to get your daughter a slot at the competitive private school to fight for more computers at the public school. Use your connections to power and money and innovation to make your local school—the one you are now sending your child to—better. Don’t just acknowledge your liberal guilt—listen to it.
Yes, if you really love your child you'll send her to a school where she'll walk the halls in fear, where she'll be pressured into taking drugs, having sex, getting drunk with Ms Benedikt's kids before basketball games, where she may be taught to despise her country and her religion and where she'll emerge after 12th grade without having learned much of anything except what a fine thing diversity is.

Instead of shaming parents into sending their kids to inferior schools a better approach might be to shame her liberal friends into supporting school choice so that every parent who wanted a good education for his or her children could get it for them. This approach, however, would never occur to progressives like Ms Benedikt or, for that matter, Mr. Obama. Indeed, one of the first steps taken by President Obama, after enrolling his own daughters in the finest private school in town, was to shut down the voucher program in D.C. that enabled thousands of minority kids to escape the woeful D.C. public schools. Progressives make the rules that everyone else lives by while they exempt themselves.

Anyway, in the eyes of the left if everyone can't experience excellent schools then no one should. Progressives want footballs, not pyramids. If you think that excellence is what made this country great, if you think the government should facilitate people rising toward the top rather than squashing everybody into mediocrity, if you send your kid to the best school you can afford, then you're morally bankrupt. Just ask Ms Benedikt.

Perhaps if she had attended a private school instead of her "crappy" public school she would've learned how to avoid making such silly arguments.