Saturday, November 30, 2013

Darwinism and Consciousness

Sal Cordova at Uncommon Descent talks about how reflecting on the phenomenon of human consciousness as a high school student led him to doubt the Darwinian story:
I remember sitting in class and the biology teacher gave the standard talking points. But for some reason, the fact I was conscious did not seem reducible to evolutionary explanations. Strange that I would even be perplexed about it as a high school student, but I was. That was the beginning of my doubts about Darwin…

Years later, when I related the story to Walter ReMine, he explained to me consciousness poses a serious problem for evolution.

He said something to the effect, “Say an animal has to flee a predator — all it has to do is run away. Why does it have to evolve consciousness in order to flee predators?” Mechanically speaking the animal can be programmed to flee or even hunt without having to be self-aware. Why does it have to evolve consciousness to do anything for survival?

Why would selection favor the evolution of consciousness? How does selection select for the pre-cursors of consciousness? I don’t think it can. Ergo, consciousness didn’t evolve, or it’s just a maladaptation, or an illusion — or maybe it is created by God. Materialists can say consciousness is an illusion all they want, but once upon a time, when my arm was broken in a hang gliding crash, I felt real pain. It would have been nice if consciousness were an illusion back then, but it wasn’t.
Somehow, at some point in our embryonic development consciousness arises, but how does a particular configuration of material stuff generate it? Dead people have the same configuration of matter in their brains (unless they suffered a head injury) that they had before dying and yet before death they were conscious and after death they are not. Why? What's missing after death?

How does a physical process like electrochemical reactions in the brain produce a belief, or a doubt, or understanding? How do atoms whirling about in our neuronal matrix give rise to our sense that the distant past is different from the recent past? How do chemical reactions translate a pattern of ink on paper into a meaning or a firing of synapses translate electrical pulses into the sensation of red?

Consciousness is an incredibly intriguing phenomenon and not only is there no explanation of it in a materialist ontology, there's also no explanation for how it could ever have evolved through purely random physical, material processes.

Cordova has more at the link.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Shameless Exploitation of Black Friday

As one who has in the past expressed dismay at the glorification of consumerist excess on Black Friday and the crass commercialization of the Christmas holiday, I confess to a twinge of guilt as I post the following exhortation. Even so, I'll get over it.

A recurring theme throughout our eight years here at Viewpoint is that naturalism affords little or no basis for either moral obligation or ultimate meaning in life and renders a host of other human needs and yearnings absurd. It's an existential dead-end because unless there is a God, or something very much like God, then life really is, as Shakespeare put it, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

My novel, In the Absence of God, lays out this argument in the form of a story set on a mid-size university campus in New England at the beginning of the fall semester sometime in the early years of the last decade.

I mention it today for three reasons:

First, because I think the book would make an excellent Christmas gift for someone you know who is 1. college-educated, 2. a reader, and 3. wrestling with some of life's biggest questions.

Second, because, according to many who have already read it, it's a good read (see below).

Third, because all the proceeds from the book go to charity.

The main plot line involves a professor named Joseph Weyland who's forced by the events swirling around him - as well as the challenge presented by a young nihilist in his class - to come to grips with the implications of his materialistic worldview. As he wrestles with the issues his worldview raises he's engaged in an ongoing series of dialogues with a colleague and friend named Malcolm Peterson, and also with the pastor of his father's church, Loren Holt.

Meanwhile, the campus has been terrorized by an apparent serial rapist, and several young student-athletes find themselves thrust into the role of both victim and pursuer of the person who's perpetrating these crimes.

Over the course of three weeks in late August and early September the lives of these students become intertwined with those of Weyland and Peterson in ways that none of them could have foreseen on the first day of classes.

In the Forward to the book I write this:
This is not a book about football, though it may at first seem to be. Neither is it a crime novel, though it ends that way. Nor is it just a book about people sitting around talking, although I'm sure some readers will think so.

In the Absence of God is a novel about ideas concerning the things that matter most in life. It's a tale of three different worldviews, three different ways of seeing the world and of living our lives in it. It's the story of how for a few short weeks in September these three views come into conflict on a college campus in New England and how that clash of ideas forces people on campus to think seriously about the implications of their deepest convictions.

It has been said that ideas have consequences and nowhere is this more true than in one's personal philosophy of life - one's beliefs about God.

It's my hope that in reading this book you'll be stretched to think about things you perhaps hadn't thought about before, or that you'll at least think about your own beliefs in new and different ways. I hope that whatever your convictions about the matters taken up in this book may be, by the time you close its covers you'll agree that those convictions matter, and matter more profoundly than any other opinions you hold.
Here's a sample of the very gratifying praise the book has received from readers:
I finished reading In the Absence of God yesterday, which isn't anything to marvel at other than the fact that I also started reading In the Absence of God yesterday. I don't think I've ever read an entire book in one sitting before, and I certainly wasn't planning on reading this book in one day, but I simply couldn't put it down. Also, I don't think a book has ever affected me so deeply as this one has, I cannot stop thinking about the ideas that were presented throughout In the Absence of God.

I was nervous when I started reading the book that I would be bored by an abundance of philosophical ideas but the conversations in the book were engaging and masterfully weaved throughout the action and plot. The speech at the end by "Smerk" gave me chills as I was reading it, and I was deeply disturbed by how true it was that this was the logical conclusion of a materialist worldview. I identified with Professor Weyland in that I have been through some very difficult struggles with my faith because it seems as though the more "intellectual" and "logical" way to look at the world is through the lens of materialism. This book answered many questions that I've been asking for a long time, and I feel stronger in my faith because of it.

One quote in particular stuck with me as I finished the book, "For so much of his life Weyland simply took for granted that atheism made so much more sense, was so much more reasonable, so much more intelligent, than theism, but he could no longer think that. He'd never again be able to think his rejection of God, if that was the choice he ultimately made, was because atheism was so much more appealing or satisfying. What appeal is there in a worldview that has no answer to life's most important questions?" This describes where my mind was before reading this book. Thank you for writing it and reminding me of the truth I should have known all along.
I hope you'll consider In the Absence of God this Christmas season either for yourself or as a gift for someone else. It's available, in both paperback and e-book, from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and also from my favorite bookseller Hearts and Minds Bookstore.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Thanksgiving Proclamation

I wish all our readers a very meaningful Thanksgiving. I can think of no better way to observe the day on VP than to repeat our annual post of the Thanksgiving proclamation of one of the greatest Americans who ever lived:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor - and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be - That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks - for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation - for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war - for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed - for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions - to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually - to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed - to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord - To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and Us - and generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

George Washington
No doubt those who like to believe that this country was not founded by religious men nor upon Judeo-Christian presuppositions would rather Washington had never written such a proclamation, but there it is.

I encourage each of us to take time this day to follow our first president's advice and reflect upon all that we have to be grateful for, and reflect, too, upon the nature of our relationship to the God from whom all our blessings flow.

I also urge us to take a moment to pray for those of our acquaintances who find themselves grieving a loss or suffering pain, to pray that God may hold them especially close to His bosom and give them consolation and comfort.

Finally, we should keep in mind those who languish in poverty, either physical, psychological, or spiritual and ask that God reveal how we ourselves might bring them some measure of relief.

Have a lovely Thanksgiving, one filled with the spirit of gratitude and service.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Sticking Point on Immigration Reform

President Obama is talking a lot lately about immigration reform, although it's not clear what sorts of reform he has in mind. Nevertheless, most Democrats and a lot of Republicans favor an amnesty of illegal aliens with an eventual path to citizenship for immigrants who are here unlawfully. I used to favor a form of amnesty that would allow those who are here in violation of the nation's laws to remain here legally but with no path to citizenship, although there would be one for their children who were brought here by their parents.

I outlined my position on this in a column in the local paper which can be found here if anyone should care to read it. The kind of amnesty I supported at the time was contingent, however, on a secured border that would prevent any further uncontrolled influx of immigrants. I no longer support even this modest form of amnesty for the simple reason that President Obama has shown repeatedly that, despite the oath he swore to uphold the laws of the nation, he will not enforce any law he doesn't like, and, since he has also demonstrated an aversion to stricter border security, he cannot be trusted to enforce any provision in any law or reform that requires it.

A lot of people agree with the President that tighter border security is somehow uncompassionate and unworthy of a great nation. The tacit assumption is that we should let anyone in who wants to live here. Perhaps I'm too cynical, but I believe the reason why Republicans make this argument is that they want a large pool of cheap labor and the reason Democrats make it is because they want a large pool of likely Democrat voters. Neither of them really seems to care about the impact open borders would have on the character and economic well-being of the country.

Whatever may be the case, I recall that a couple of years ago Robert Sarver, the owner of the Phoenix Suns NBA basketball team, castigated Arizona Governor Jan Brewer because she signed a border security measure that empowered the state to do what Washington was refusing to do which was to close the border between her state and Mexico. I wrote the following on VP at the time:
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer is taking a lot of heat for the apparent crime of exercising common sense on a political issue. The issue, of course, is illegal immigration, and Gov. Brewer is insisting, contra the wishes of the Obama administration, that the law against it be enforced.

This defiance of liberal political correctness is too much for most of her ideological opponents to bear, and consequently the left has encircled Brewer, tomahawks aloft, whooping and grunting in the characteristic fashion of primitives about to sacrifice a prisoner of war. One of Gov. Brewer's antagonists is Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver who, in his criticisms of Brewer, has demonstrated that running a basketball team does not require the same intellectual skills as running a state.

In response to Sarver's criticism of the Arizona law Governor Brewer issued this statement:

"What if the owners of the Suns discovered that hordes of people were sneaking into games without paying? What if they had a good idea who the gate-crashers are, but the ushers and security personnel were not allowed to ask these folks to produce their ticket stubs, thus non-paying attendees couldn't be ejected. Furthermore, what if Suns' ownership was expected to provide those who sneaked in with complimentary eats and drink? And what if, on those days when a gate-crasher became ill or injured, the Suns had to provide free medical care and shelter?"

This is, of course, a good analogy to what is happening along our southern border. The same logic may be applied in other cases, too. Why is there a fence around the White House and what would happen to someone who tried to climb it? Why do most people, including most liberals, lock the doors of their homes? What would they do if they came home and found an intruder sitting at their kitchen table availing himself of refrigerator, toilet and television? What if the intruder insisted not only on staying but on bringing his family to enjoy the benefits and screamed in protest if the homeowner objected? How are these situations any different than what's happening on our southern border?

Questions like these, of course, never get answered by those who oppose the Arizona law because even they can see where the answers lead. Instead, people like Sarver try, in effect, to convince us that, even though he would never dream of doing so himself, other owners should allow the less fortunate into their arenas without tickets and that it's just unAmerican and churlish to deny them the opportunity to see a game.

As Governor Brewer's rejoinder suggests, many of the arguments against the Arizona law are either stupid or hypocritical. Or both.

There can be no meaningful immigration reform unless we stop the traffic on our southern border, and we'll never do that as long as President Obama can decide whether or not he will enforce whatever provisions are promulgated by Congress. Thus, as long as Mr. Obama remains in office it's very difficult to trust him to follow the law, and thus it's very difficult to support any effort to resolve the problem of what to do with illegal aliens.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Sgt. Schultz President

In a recent column on the unraveling of Mr. Obama's presidency, George Will quotes a passage from a book on the life of President Obama. He writes:
The place to begin understanding the unraveling of his presidency is page 274 of “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.” The author, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, quotes Valerie Jarrett, perhaps Obama’s closest and longest-serving adviser, on her hero’s amazingness:

“He knows exactly how smart he is. ... I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. ... He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do. He would never be satisfied with what ordinary people do.”
I don't wish to sound churlish, but I really have my doubts that Mr. Obama is the intellectual titan Ms Jarrett portrays him as. I mean, where's the evidence? The President refuses, for example, to release his college records, which should certainly give us pause. After all, if Mr. Obama was a student of stellar intellect wouldn't his records show that, and wouldn't it be to his advantage to let the public know it? As it is we have no way to tell how well he performed in the classroom which would give us at least some indication of how smart a man he really is.

Moreover, most brilliant men and women are voracious readers, consuming books and articles on a wide range of topics, but there's no evidence that Mr. Obama reads much of anything. Indeed, we're told that he spends most of his "down" time watching ESPN, shooting hoops, and playing golf, none of which strike one as the sorts of activities a man of surpassing intellect would spend a lot of time engaged in, but the very sort of activities that ordinary people enjoy all the time.

Then there are Mr. Obama's various malapropisms that would have had President Bush's critics rolling on the floor in hysterics had he had the misfortune to utter them. It seems reasonable to think that even someone of modest intellectual gifts and education would know that Marine corps is not pronounced Marine corpse and that there are actually only fifty states in the union, not fifty seven, as Mr. Obama once alleged.

Finally, there are all the troubling matters about which President Obama was, according to himself and his spokespeople, completely in the dark. He didn't know about Fast and Furious, or the IRS's abuse of its power to suppress political opponents, or the NSA wire-tapping scandal, or the real reason why our consulate in Benghazi was attacked. Nor was he aware that the Obamacare website was nowhere near ready for launch. In fact, for a man of such extraordinary mental luminosity he seems to be stunningly uncurious about the most important things going on in his administration.

Like Sergeant Schultz in the 1960s Hogan's Heroes television series Mr. Obama sees nothing and knows nothing about what's going on all around him.
Ms. Jarrett can assure us that Mr. Obama floats far above the rest of us mere mortals, deigning to descend from Mt. Olympus only because duty requires it of him, but I wish someone would ask her to supply us with just a little bit of evidence that it's true.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Wouldn't it Be Nice?

This proposed piece of legislation limiting the ability of congresspersons to feed at the public trough is the brain-child, supposedly, of Warren Buffet. I don't know if he's actually the author of the idea or not, but no matter. It's a fine proposal whose desirability, unfortunately, is inversely proportional to its likelihood of ever being enacted:
1. No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman/woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they're out of office.

2. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security. All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.

3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen/women are void effective 12/31/13. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen/women. Congressmen/women made all these contracts for themselves.
Our representatives and senators, despite their pious demurrals, do not see themselves as public servants who consider it a privilege to serve the people. Rather, too many of them see public office as a way to feed their gluttonous egos while fattening their bank accounts. It would be a wonderful boost to our democracy to pass legislation like this, but since it's the Congress which would have to pass the legislation to curtail their own benefits, it doesn't have a prayer of ever being voted on, much less passed.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Knockout Culture

Ever since Rousseau in the 18th century and Karl Marx in the 19th it has been the dream of the statists on the left to eradicate both the family and the church. People are much more loyal to both than they are to the state and thus the left's dream of total dependency and fealty to the state will never be realized as long as those other loyalties persist.

Indeed, every legislative and social initiative of the last fifty years that erodes the strength of either of these institutions has been promoted by liberals. From no-fault divorce, the decoupling of sex and procreation from marriage, the welfare state, radical feminism, same-sex marriage, the hypersexualization of the culture - all of these, whatever one thinks of their individual merits, tend to exert a centrifugal force on the nuclear family. Similar pressures have been placed on the church, though perhaps more by the culture than by legislatures and courts.

I say all this by way of a prelude to commenting upon the epidemic of interracial violence we're witnessing in our cities in which groups of black men, some as old as thirty, are picking out random victims to assault by sucker-punching them, knocking them unconscious. It's called the "knockout game," but it's not a game. Several people have died as a result of this savagery, and the people who do it are apparently, like psychopaths, void of human sympathy.
The perpetrators are usually black and Hispanic, but I don't believe that their race is the reason why they do such horrible things. Rather, I'm willing to bet that what the perpetrators have in common, the factor that accounts most for their barbarism, is fatherlessness.

The knockout "game" is the fruit of the modern liberal assault on the family, the alienation of fathers from home, church, and community, and the complete anomie of the young men they spawn and subsequently abandon. For fifty years we've been taught by our liberal culture that men are superfluous, that marriage is oppressive, and that fathers are usually either boobs or abusive. We've turned poor children into wards of the state, we've created a culture of dependency that neither encourages two-parent families nor teaches virtue, indeed, discourages both, and then, when these children turn out to be psychopaths, we wonder why.

When young men grow up without a strong male presence in their lives and without a church to supplement the father's efforts their values are instilled in them by the street. Their role models are thugs, pushers, and pimps. They're molded and shaped by the "gangsta'" culture that permeates their music and entertainment. Violence is a way of life and a badge of honor, in fact, it's often the only source of honor available to a young man, and the approval and respect of their peers is the only source of affirmation many of them ever receive.

The dysfunction is especially pronounced in minority communities because fatherlessness is especially pronounced in minority communities, but these are the canary in the coal mine. As the culture increasingly disdains traditional family structure fatherlessness will continue to spread in white communities as well. Where minorities are today everyone else will be tomorrow.

Somewhere Marx and all his leftist comrades are rubbing their hands in glee.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Dangerous Idea

Three philosophers talk about an argument C.S. Lewis once made in his little book Miracles to the effect that one can embrace metaphysical naturalism or one can believe that reason leads us to truth, but one cannot do both. Naturalism, in other words, is incompatible with a confidence in reason:
This is ironic since naturalists pride themselves on their reasonableness and often emphasize that their reliance on reason as a means of gaining knowledge is much superior to other ways of knowing, such as religious faith. Yet the naturalist must accept the trustworthiness of reason by faith, and indeed he can't argue that reason is trustworthy without presupposing that it is trustworthy. He has to use reason in order to argue that reason is reliable. This is called begging the question.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has convincingly demonstrated that since the evolutionary story accepted by naturalists maintains that traits evolve based on their survival value and not upon whether they lead to truth, human reason would have evolved because it somehow equipped early man to survive in his environment and would only coincidentally have had anything to do with truth.

For example, primitive cognitive faculties that produced a belief that one's reward in the afterlife depended upon how many children one had in this life would have spread through a population of prehistoric humans like rumors of a White House sex scandal among a gaggle of journalists. But although those cognitive faculties would have conferred enormous evolutionary advantages, they would've had nothing to do with truth.

Thus the argument from reason poses a serious problem for naturalism. Victor Reppert, one of the philosophers in the video, writes about it in his book C.S. Lewis' Dangerous Idea, and Alvin Plantinga explains it in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies. Both are excellent reads for the philosophically-minded.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Who's Anti-Science?

Climate Depot summarizes the hype, hysteria, and hyperbole surrounding Typhoon Haiyan which may have spawned more absurd claims about climate change than any event in the last twenty years. Marc Morano reports the following asseverations uttered by UN worthies at the UN Climate Summit in Warsaw Poland on November 19th:
UN head Ban Ki-moon claimed that Typhoon Haiyan was due to climate change: "We have seen now what has happened in the Philippines. It is an urgent warning. An example of changed weather and how climate change is affecting all of us on Earth."

Jeffrey Sachs, Special Advisor to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, charged that, "Climate liars like Rupert Murdoch & Koch Brothers have more and more blood on their hands as climate disasters claim lives across the world."
That's what some of the non-scientists were saying, but what are scientists saying? Here's a sample:
  • Storm expert Brian McNoldy of the University of Miami observed that, "We don’t get to pick and choose which storms are enhanced by a warmer climate and which ones aren’t."
  • Meteorologist Dr. Ryan Maue states that, "Over past 1,000 years the Philippines have been hit by 10-20 thousand tropical cyclones. Don't be so arrogant as to believe that human activity caused Haiyan."
    Maue went on to demolish claims that Typhoon Haiyan was the ‘strongest storm ever.’ In fact, Haiyan is the 58th Super Typhoon since 1950 to reach central pressure of 900 mb or lower. Moreover, 50 of 58 Super Typhoons with pressure of 900 mb or lower occurred from 1950-1987, but only 8 such megastorms have occurred in the past 25 years.
    Nor was Haiyan the "strongest storm ever." It ranks seventh among the strongest storms to have struck the Philippines.
  • The UN's IPCC notes that there have been "no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century."
  • Prof. Roger Pielke Jr. states that "The scientific evidence does not presently support attribution of the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on tropical cyclone behavior with respect to century-long trends, much less the behavior of individual storms. In practical terms ... a signal that cannot be seen is indistinguishable from a signal that does not exist. I am not convinced that 3 mm/year of sea level rise is a big issue in the magnitude of disaster losses."
  • Gabe Vecchi, a research oceanographer with NOAA, said that if global warming altered Haiyan, it did not do so to a significant extent. "I expect that the contribution of global warming to Haiyan's extreme intensity is likely to have been small, relative to other factors like weather fluctuations and climate variability."
  • Pielke Jr.: "Given this data, substantial research on it, and a strong IPCC consensus does anyone really want to argue that typhoon disasters have become more common?"
  • Bjorn Lomborg: "Facts don’t support the claims that climate-change caused typhoon Haiyan. Strong typhoons have been declining in the years from 1950 to 2010."
  • The Real Science website offers this: "There have been 35 cyclones in the last 800 years that have killed more than 10,000 people. Thirty-three occurred with atmospheric CO2 levels below 350 PPM. The deadliest one in 1970 was blamed on global cooling at the time."
So who are the folks who are anti-science? Are they those who, despite their inability to adduce any scientific evidence to support their allegations, claim that Haiyan was the worst typhoon ever and was spawned by global warming (could an average global temperature increase of just a couple of degrees over the last several decades really have such a dramatic effect on the weather?), or are they the scientists themselves who retort that the claims of the non-scientists are non-sense?

Meanwhile, 132 countries walked out of the UN confab because they demanded reparations of $100 billion annually from the U.S., Europe, and Australia, and those nations, somewhat uncharacteristically perhaps, declined to succumb to first-world guilt and fork over the money.

The money was allegedly supposed to compensate poor nations for the damage that will be caused by the rising of the seas and so on. Evidently, these 132 nations are as little impressed by President Obama's assurance in 2008 that he would reverse the rising of the seas as the rest of us are with his assurance that we could keep our health insurance if we liked it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Are We Alone?

Prolific science writer and cosmologist Paul Davies asks in a recent NYT column whether we are all alone in the universe. He cites speculation featured prominently in the news that some astronomers have speculated that there are as many as 40 billion planets in our galaxy that are suited for life, which speculation leads to the assumption that the universe must be teeming with life. Davies is skeptical of these claims. He writes:
What can be said about the chances of life starting up on a habitable planet? Darwin gave us a powerful explanation of how life on Earth evolved over billions of years, but he would not be drawn out on the question of how life got going in the first place. “One might as well speculate about the origin of matter,” he quipped.

In spite of intensive research, scientists are still very much in the dark about the mechanism that transformed a nonliving chemical soup into a living cell. But without knowing the process that produced life, the odds of its happening can’t be estimated.

When I was a student in the 1960s, the prevailing view among scientists was that life on Earth was a freak phenomenon, the result of a sequence of chemical accidents so rare that they would be unlikely to have happened twice in the observable universe. “Man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance,” wrote the biologist Jacques Monod.

Today the pendulum has swung dramatically, and many distinguished scientists claim that life will almost inevitably arise in Earthlike conditions. Yet this decisive shift in view is based on little more than a hunch, rather than an improved understanding of life’s origin.
Put bluntly, there's no more evidence now than there was in the 1960s that there's life elsewhere in the universe. Claims that there is are based more on wishful thinking than on empirical evidence. Davies continues:
The underlying problem is complexity. Even the simplest bacterium is, at the molecular level, staggeringly complex. Although we have no idea of the minimal complexity of a living organism, it is likely to be very high. It could be that some sort of complexifying principle operates in nature, serving to drive a chaotic mix of chemicals on a fast track to a primitive microbe. If so, no hint of such a principle has been found in laboratory experiments to re-create the basic building blocks of life.
This is, of course, the big obstacle facing any naturalistic account of the origin of life. No one has been able to come with a plausible explanation as to how the enormous complexity of a living cell could ever have arisen through purely mechanistic processes.
On the other hand, if life arose simply by the accumulation of many specific chemical accidents in one place, it is easy to imagine that only one in, say, a trillion trillion habitable planets would ever host such a dream run. Set against a number that big — and once you decide a series of unlikely accidents is behind the creation of life, you get enormous odds very easily — it is irrelevant whether the Milky Way contains 40 billion habitable planets or just a handful. Forty billion makes hardly a dent in a trillion trillion.
So why are scientists striving so earnestly to find evidence of life on planets elsewhere in the galaxy? Why do they keep reassuring each other that it just has to be out there? Perhaps it's because they need to find life elsewhere to bolster their faith in metaphysical naturalism. The likelihood of life emerging on earth solely through chance and chemistry is deemed so low that many people believe that something more than chance and chemistry, an intelligent agent, must also have been at work. But if it can be shown that life does occur throughout the galaxy it becomes much easier to think that it's not so improbable after all and that no intelligent agent is necessary to account for it.

In other words, the search for life in the galaxy is spurred by much the same sort of motivations that drive people to search for Noah's ark. Just as the ark's discovery would provide strong confirmation of the truth of the Old Testament narrative, the discovery of alien life would provide strong confirmation of the truth of the naturalist narrative. I wonder if it's not a sign of a deep-seated insecurity surrounding the truth of the narrative that compels people to seek such confirmations.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Male Chauvinist Pigs

It's common nowadays to hear the left bewail the "war on women" allegedly being waged by the right. People who don't follow matters very closely hear the refrain so often that they quite naturally assume it must be true, yet if there's a war on women occurring in this country it's being waged by the misogynists at the most liberal network on television, MSNBC.

MSNBC hosts like Ed Schultz, Alec Baldwin, Chris Matthews, and former host Keith Olbermann, have leveled disgusting insults at women. Each time it happens their bosses require a pro forma apology, of course, but it's just a matter of time until another of their colleagues follows suit. When you have contempt for people of a certain race or gender it's hard to keep it pent up inside.

The latest malefactor is Martin Bashir who, in the course of a vitriolic string of insults of Sarah Palin's intelligence, described a disgusting punishment meted out to slaves in 18th century Jamaica. The punishment involved forcing human excrement and urine down a slave's throat. Bashir concluded his diatribe by pronouncing that such is what should be done to Sarah Palin. The irony is that he calls the degradation inflicted on the Jamaican slaves barbaric and inhumane and then says it's what Palin deserves. What, then, does that say about Mr. Bashir?

This is how much of the left thinks and talks when they let their guard down. They pay lip service to civil discourse, but they just can't bring themselves to maintain the appearance of decency for very long before they revert to form. David Letterman and Bill Maher are not on MSNBC, but their squalid comments about female politicians like Palin and Michelle Bachmann certainly qualify them for a job there.

Go here for a brief review of some of the vileness that has emanated from the left over the last five years.

Rush Limbaugh rightly got himself into hot water for suggesting Sandra Fluke was a "slut" for demanding that taxpayers pay for women's contraceptives. The media castigated him for his "crudity," "insensitivity," and his "contempt" for women. Yet the men at MSNBC and elsewhere on the left talk about women as though they think they're cattle and the only way anyone hears about it is if they read the Drudge Report.

I challenge anyone to find anything on Fox, a right-leaning cable network, or on conservative talk radio remotely close to the incessant misogyny and degradation of women, particularly conservative women, one routinely hears from liberals.

If there's a war on women being waged in this country it's awful hard to find evidence of it on the right, but easy to find ample evidence of it in the regular dehumanization of women by spokespersons of the left, and the silence of liberal women's groups when these men spew their filth demonstrates that among liberals ideology is thicker than principle.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Spear Tips and Speciation

Scientists have found chiseled spear heads that predate the earliest known fossils of Homo sapiens by 85,000 years, a discovery which raises a few uncomfortable questions for our darwinian friends.

For example, did our supposed ancestors create these sharpened pieces of obsidian? If so, why do we think that these members of the genus Homo, specifically H. heidelbergensis, are actually ancestral to our species? Why are sapiens and heidelbergensis separated into different species anyway?

The answer one usually hears is that heidelbergensis is morphologically different, though not much, from modern humans, and if one assumes an evolutionary progression it makes sense to think that they were the species that eventually evolved into H. sapiens.

This reasoning, though, is questionable. The biological definition of a species is a reproductively isolated population of organisms. That is, if a certain population of creatures cannot interbreed with members of other populations and produce fertile offspring the two groups are considered taxonomically distinct species.

But how do we know that H. heidelbergensis could not interbreed with H. sapiens? Morphological differences are hardly a reason for thinking that they couldn't. After all, there's far more morphological variation among the different breeds of dogs, but every one of them is a member of the same species.

Maybe there are really just two kinds of hominids: Men and apes, and any attempt to draw arbitrary and hypothetical gradations between them is simply an attempt to find an evolutionary connection that isn't there.

Here's the lede from the story of the spearheads:
Remains of the oldest known stone-tipped throwing spears, described in a new paper, are so ancient that they actually predate the earliest known fossils for our species by 85,000 years.

There are a couple possible implications, and both are mind-blowing. The first is that our species could be much older than previously thought, which would forever change the existing human family tree.

The second, and more likely at this point, is that a predecessor species to ours was extremely crafty and clever, making sophisticated tools long before Homo sapiens emerged.

Homo heidelbergensis, aka Heidelberg Man, lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia from at least 600,000 years ago. He clearly got around, and many think this species was the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens in Africa and Neanderthals in Europe and Asia. The new paper, published in the latest PLoS ONE, focuses on the newly identified stone-tipped spears, which date to 280,000 years ago. They were found at an Ethiopian Stone Age site known as Gademotta.

....the spears were made from obsidian found near the site. The toolmakers had to craft the pointy spearhead shapes and spear shafts. They then needed to attach the points securely to the shafts. Even today, all of this would require skill, concentration and multiple steps.
Could it be that the human species - our species - actually has no true ancestral hominid precursors? If it should ever turn out that that's the case, it would throw Darwinian explanations of human evolution, already tenuous enough, into a tailspin.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Bundle of Contradictions

In the wake of the accumulating wreckage of the Obamacare rollout and millions of cancelled insurance policies, with millions more still to come, a number of political prognosticators are forecasting the implosion of modern liberal statism.

We'll see if that actually comes to pass, but I'm reminded that Marxists used to assure us that it was capitalism that would soon collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. This assurance is amusing given that if anything is groaning under the weight of contradiction and paradox today it's modern liberalism, particularly the secular variety. Consider some of the odd beliefs to which secular liberals cling:
  • They believe that it's absurd to think, as some religious folks do, that we all bear the guilt of our primeval ancestors' sin, but while they scoff at this idea they themselves insist that it's almost self-evident that if you're white you bear guilt for the sin of slavery committed by other whites (and some blacks) 200 years ago.
  • They believe that capital punishment is immoral, that executing a heinous murderer is wrong, that it dehumanizes us as a people, and that society should proscribe it. At the same time they believe that the grisly execution of an innocent child in its mother's womb is not a moral matter and is certainly not any of society's business.
  • They declaim that those who believe in a supernatural creator are uneducated, superstitious bumpkins who believe in things without much evidence. But at the same time they believe, despite the complete dearth of evidence, that life arose by sheer accident from non-life, that consciousness evolved from brute unconscious matter, and that there are innumerable other universes, a multiverse, beyond our own.
  • They scoff at the "blind faith" of those who place their trust in the words of men who lived 2000 years ago, while at the same time placing total confidence in politicians who voted for a 2000 page health care reform law without ever having read it and who insouciantly urged their colleagues to pass the thing so they could find out what's in it.
  • They mock those who appeal to faith as a justification for belief, but they themselves place complete faith in the pronouncements of scientists who prophesy that the earth is headed for eco-catastrophe because of global warming, even though the average global temperature has remained inexplicably static for 16 years.
  • Liberals believe that a 16 year-old girl is the best judge of whether she should have an abortion while at the same time they tell adults that they're simply not competent to decide for themselves how much soda they should drink and what kind of health insurance they should have, or even if they should have any at all. On these matters the government must dictate, but terminating a life in the womb should be a personal choice.
  • The liberal chortles at the mere mention of "trickle down" or "voodoo" economic theories that teach that lower taxes actually increase revenues. Yet at the same time he believes that raising the minimum wage and thereby increasing an employer's costs will perversely motivate him to actually hire more workers. Liberals also believe with all their heart that we can extend insurance coverage to everyone, including people with costly preconditions, and that the cost to the average family will nevertheless shrink by $2500.
  • The liberal believes society can change the definition of marriage from one man and one (biologically unrelated) woman by removing the restriction on the gender of the participants while still retaining restrictions on the number of participants and their biological kinship. They can't say why they're so certain that one part of the definition can be changed while keeping the rest of it intact, except that they just know no one would want to be involved in a group marriage or marry his sister.
It's not just that to be a liberal one must believe impossible things, but rather that while believing impossible things one must also reject common sense.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Evolutionary Ethics

VJ Torley at Uncommon Descent reminds us of a passage from Thomas Huxley's essay Evolution and Ethics (1893) in which Huxley, otherwise known as "Darwin's bulldog," puts his finger on one of the chief difficulties with trying to establish a naturalistic basis for ethics. One popular candidate for such a ground is the evolution of our species, but Huxley, despite his arrant fealty to Darwinian evolution, illuminates the hopelessness of this strategy:
The propounders of what are called the “ethics of evolution,” when the ‘evolution of ethics’ would usually better express the object of their speculations, adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments in favour of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution.

I have little doubt, for my own part, that they are on the right track; but as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is, so far, as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist.

Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.
Huxley's right, of course. If the inclination to be kind and tolerant has evolved in the human species then so has the inclination to be selfish, violent, and cruel. So if evolution is to serve as our "moral dictionary" what grounds do we have for privileging kindness over cruelty? Both are equally sanctioned by our evolutionary history and thus we can't say that either is better or more right than the other.

Huxley goes on to dispense with the notion that the evolutionary development of our ethical sensibility can provide us with some sort of guide to our behavior.
There is another fallacy which appears to me to pervade the so-called “ethics of evolution.” It is the notion that because, on the whole, animals and plants have advanced in perfection of organization by means of the struggle for existence and the consequent ‘survival of the fittest’; therefore men in society, men as ethical beings, must look to the same process to help them towards perfection.
The problem is that, for naturalists, the processes of nature are the only thing they can look to for moral guidance. Having rejected the notion that there exists a transcendent, personal, moral authority, the naturalist, if he's to avoid nihilism, is left trying to derive ethics from what he sees in nature, which leads to what I regard as the most serious problem with any naturalistic ethics: There's simply no warrant for thinking that a blind, impersonal process like evolution or a blind, impersonal substance like matter, can impose a moral duty on conscious beings.

Moral obligations, if they exist, can only be imposed by conscious, intelligent, moral authorities. Evolution can no more impose such an obligation than can gravity. Thus, naturalists (atheists) are confronted with a stark choice: Either give up their atheism or embrace moral nihilism. Unwilling to do what is for them unthinkable and accept the first alternative, many of them are reluctantly embracing the second.

Consider these three passages from three twentieth century philosophers:
I had been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t…The long and short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality….

I experienced a shocking epiphany that religious believers are correct; without God there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality….

Even though words like “sinful” and “evil” come naturally to the tongue as, say, a description of child molesting, they do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God…nothing is literally right or wrong because there is no Morality. Joel Marks, An Amoral Manifesto


The world, according to this new picture [i.e. the picture produced by a scientific outlook], is purposeless, senseless, meaningless. Nature is nothing but matter in motion. The motions of matter are governed, not by any purpose, but by blind forces and laws….[But] if the scheme of things is purposeless and meaningless, then the life of man is purposeless and meaningless too. Everything is futile, all effort is in the end worthless. A man may, of course, still pursue disconnected ends, money fame, art, science, and may gain pleasure from them. But his life is hollow at the center. Hence, the dissatisfied, disillusioned, restless spirit of modern man….

Along with the ruin of the religious vision there went the ruin of moral principles and indeed of all values….If our moral rules do not proceed from something outside us in the nature of the universe - whether we say it is God or simply the universe itself - then they must be our own inventions. Thus it came to be believed that moral rules must be merely an expression of our own likes and dislikes. But likes and dislikes are notoriously variable. What pleases one man, people, or culture, displeases another. Therefore, morals are wholly relative. W.T. Stace, The Atlantic Monthly, 1948


We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or amoralists….Reason doesn't decide here….The picture I have painted is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me….Pure reason will not take you to morality. Kai Nielson (1984)
What these thinkers and dozens like them are saying is that the project of trying to find some solid, naturalistic foundation upon which to build an ethics is like trying to find a mermaid. The object of the search simply doesn't exist, nor could it.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

World Leader by 2015

As bad as the economy is, it's all poised to turn around if we don't kill the goose laying the golden eggs before the bird has a chance to deliver its blessings.

I'm talking about the fact that the United States is projected to become the world's largest producer of oil in two years. This could have enormous economic benefits for Americans, especially for the poor and the middle class, but the windfall will only last for a couple of decades because only private and state lands are currently open to oil drilling, and the drilling is being done largely by fracking of which the Obama administration takes a dim view. The administration has, moreover, refused to open federal lands to drillers and has also refused to expand offshore wells. If, however, people less in thrall to environmental extremism than is the current administration are elected in 2014 and 2016 the bonanza could be extended for another fifty or sixty years.

Here are some excerpts from a McClatchy report on what lies immediately ahead:
The United States will surpass Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the world’s largest oil producer in 2015, the International Energy Agency forecasts.

But the IEA’s long-term energy outlook, released Tuesday, predicted the Middle East will retake its position a decade later as the dominant source of global oil supply growth.

American energy production is skyrocketing, led by Texas and North Dakota, as oil companies use the techniques of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to tap oil and natural gas trapped in shale rock. “Technology and high prices are unlocking new supplies of oil, and of course also gas, that were previously thought to be out of reach,” Maria van der Hoeven, the IEA’s executive director, said Tuesday.

The International Energy Agency, which advises governments on energy issues, said America’s ascendancy as the world’s oil king is coming sooner than expected, and that North America’s need for oil imports will all but disappear by 2035.
This means that we won't be vulnerable to extortion by OPEC, we won't be sending our money to nations where it's simply redirected to wealthy sheiks and terrorists, we won't have to fight wars for oil in the Middle East, and fuel prices will remain relatively low helping all Americans enjoy a better standard of living than we otherwise would.
But the Middle East, boosted by a surge in Iraqi production, is expected, starting in the mid-2020s, to take back its role as the world’s oil powerhouse as America’s shale oil output peaks and then starts a decline.

The International Energy Agency forecasts that “sweet spots” in America’s top shale oilfields will run out and that the drilling will move to less productive areas that struggle in cost competition with other nations. But the agency added that it could be wrong about a U.S. decline.

“United States performance has consistently overshot most projections to date and it is possible that more resources will be found and developed to sustain production at a higher level and for longer than we project,” the IEA report said. “Especially if oil prices hold up, technology advances continue and environmental concerns are allayed.”
And, of course, if Washington permits more offshore drilling and environmentally safe petroleum extraction on federal lands the predicted decline could be postponed till closer to the end of the century.

The revenues this would generate would go a long way toward paying down our national debt, restoring us to fiscal health, and would be an enormous benefit to those who struggle to pay bills, every one of which rises directly with rising energy costs. The benefits would ripple through the economy, creating jobs and providing states with the wherewithal to address the manifold needs of their citizens.

There's light at the end of the tunnel, if only the federal government would get out of the way and let us get there.

There's more at the link.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Operation Underground Railroad

Glenn Beck related a story on his radio program yesterday morning that everyone should hear. It was about human trafficking of children to be used as "sex toys" by men and what one group of Americans is doing to curtail and hopefully end the practice.

The organization is called Operation Underground Railroad and their website can be found here. They're a kind of international SWAT team that finds these children, extracts them from the hell in which they're living, and puts the pedophiles who abuse them in jail.

I have to say that it all sounds like something out of a television crime drama, and I was a little concerned that they don't actually name any of the people they've helped bring to justice, but apparently they're for real. One reason for thinking this is that I can't imagine Glenn Beck putting his national credibility on the line unless he was convinced that this organization is, and does, what it claims.

I've read about a number of organizations involved with trying to get kids out of these terrible situations, but often their personnel simply lack the ability to do much more than try to kidnap the children away from the men who control them. This is heroic, but it can only work so often before the rescuers find that most of the children in need of saving are beyond their reach and capabilities.

In any event, if the metastasizing cancer of child sex slavery is something which horrifies and repulses you, go to the first link above and read what Beck talked about on his show yesterday. Then visit the O.U.R. website and decide for yourself. The video on their home page explains more about the work they do and how you can be a part of it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


The Affordable Care Act, which is producing huge premium and deductible increases when it's not causing people to lose their insurance altogether, is beset with so many other problems that it's hard to keep up with them.

Ed Rogers has a column at the Washington Post in which he gives six reasons why things are just going to get worse for the Democrats responsible for this fiasco.

The six reasons Rogers gives are these:
  • There will be more canceled health insurance plans. Millions of Americans are losing the insurance plans they had and with which they were satisfied.
  • If you like your doctor, you can’t keep your doctor. Millions will soon discover that this promise was simply false.
  • Sticker shock. Premiums for many people are going through the roof and so are their deductibles.
  • Obamacare ads. Republicans can be expected next Fall to air ads over and over showing the President and many Democrat office-holders declaring that people will be able to keep their doctors and their insurance plans.
  • Navigators. See below
  • Security breaches. The online exchanges are going to be a playground for hackers and identity thieves. There's no security and the administration seems blithely indifferent to the fact.
Go to the link for Rogers' explanation of these.

It was all predictable and, in fact, had been predicted by lots of people ever since Obamacare was enacted into law in 2009. There was no way that coverage could be extended to millions of people who couldn't pay for it without raising the costs to everyone else, but those who did the math were dismissed as bitter clinger, tea party racists by those who voted for the bill or otherwise supported it without having read it. The skeptics were nevertheless right and now we find ourselves on the brink of a massive social upheaval as millions of people face medical bills without coverage and are unable to afford whatever coverage is out there.

Meanwhile, James O'Keefe the intrepid undercover videographer who has documented numerous scandals and criminality at ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and elsewhere has turned his documentary skills to the "navigators" who have been hired to help people find their way through the thicket of Obamacare's insurance options and rules.

It turns out that these people are largely untrained and unvetted. Many of them have been hired from the ranks of community activists and radical ideologues. Despite not having been subject to background checks these navigators will have access to much of their client's personal financial information, including, perhaps, social security numbers. The potential for identity theft is enormous, and the dismal ethics of the navigators appearing in O'Keefe's video does little to assure us that our information is in safe hands.

Nor is it comforting to learn that the people manning the exchanges are working hand in glove with the Democratic party to enroll new Democrat party members and voters:
For an elaboration on the video read John Fund's column at NRO. Reading Fund's piece makes one wonder why would anyone go on these exchanges to purchase insurance.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans' Day

National Review's Quin Hillyer reviews two books apropos for this Veteran's Day. One of the books, Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior, by Rorke Denver with Ellis Henican, describes the brutal training undergone by men who aspire to be SEALs. The second book, Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea, by William C. Latham recounts the many acts of courage and endurance demonstrated by American POWs in Korean prisoner of war camps in the early 1950s.

Hillyer discusses Denver's book first:
Where this book fully captivates is in its description of the process of creating a SEAL in the first place. We may know, intuitively, that the training (and winnowing-out process) is incredibly arduous, but the details still astound.

Despite Denver’s assurances that SEAL training stays just on the right side of “the fine line between tough and torture,” his descriptions of “the random acts of instructor violence” — “more random and more violent every day” — are enough to give pause to any reader. Forced swims in 52-degree Pacific surf, on next to no sleep after days of physical abuse, “sand and salt water in your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth,” followed by paddling sea races so intense that participants hallucinate: It’s enough to make one cringe just to think about them.

To read about this training, and then to read about the missions for which the training prepared the SEALs, is to understand that the warrior’s life is not one of video-game glamour but of grit and pain — pain borne, as Denver goes to great lengths to emphasize, by real human beings with real fears and real families.
Hillyer then turns to Latham's account of a different kind of heroism:
The privations suffered by many of the POWs matched some of the horrors of World War II’s Bataan Death March. In one particularly horrific incident, a Korean major nicknamed “the Tiger” summarily executed a lieutenant, Cordus H. Thornton, for the offense of having too many of his men “fall out” of a forced march because of severe exhaustion, grievous injuries, and rampant dysentery.

In one prison compound, “typhus, hepatitis, and pneumonia spread throughout the camp, and the doctors soon found themselves treating more than 350 cases a day, with very limited success.” Day after day, more would die, with one historian writing that “here were the bodies of America’s finest young men, covered with filth and lying in stacks in a hostile country.”

In the midst of these horrors, numerous incidents that Latham recounts involved heroic acts of mercy and courage: men carrying each other despite Korean (or Chinese) orders to abandon them; other prisoners sneaking around camp, at mortal peril if caught, to forage for extra food or medical supplies for the wounded. Chief among these heroes was a chaplain, Father Emil Kapaun, whose ministries to the sick and suffering, despite his own serious infirmities, went far beyond the ordinary call of duty.

Particularly riveting was Latham’s description of Easter Sunday 1951:
Kapaun openly defied Communist ideology by celebrating an ecumenical sunrise service in the ruins of a burned-out church. Holding a makeshift crucifix, Kapaun wore his priest’s stole, as well as the purple ribbon signifying his pastoral office, and recited the Stations of the Cross. Most of the men in the officers’ compound attended, including Catholics, Protestants, Jews and atheists. While the Chinese guards watched nervously, Kapaun ended the service by leading the men in song; “America the Beautiful” echoed from the surrounding mountains, still blanketed by snow. The officers sang at the top of their lungs, hoping the music would reach the other prisoners at Pyoktong.
Two months later, Kapaun was dead. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously last April.

In addition to these books I would add a favorite of my own, Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, written by Laura Hillenbrand. Zamperini was an Olympic distance runner who became a bomber pilot in WWII. His plane crashed into the Pacific during a mission and Hillenbrand recounts his absolutely astounding tale of human endurance and survival. He and another crewman were afloat for over forty days on a tiny life raft in the vast ocean only to be "rescued" by Japanese soldiers and sent to a POW camp on the mainland where he and thousands of others were held for years, all the while subjected to unimaginable deprivation and suffering.

As Hillyard says in his concluding sentence, on this special day each year we should thank God for putting such men and women in our midst.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Interaction Problem

I've run a few posts on the topic of mind and matter this past week, largely because we've been discussing it in my classes and the topic is, I think, fascinating.

There's one more thing I'd like to say about it, particularly with regard to one of the common objections materialists make to the belief that we are at least partly comprised of immaterial mental substance.

This is the objection based on what's called the interaction problem. The problem is that it's inconceivable or unthinkable that two completely different substances, mind and matter (brain), could in any way interact with each other. Given that we can't describe how brains interact with immaterial minds and vice versa, belief that they do is unwarranted, or so it is said.

The problem with the interaction objection is that it seems to be based on the assumption that something can only be affected by other things which are like them. That is, matter, the brain or bodies, can only be affected by other things which are material, but this principle - that like can only affect like - is surely not true. We see counter examples all around us:
  • The idea of food, an immaterial phenomenon, causes the physical reaction of salivary glands secreting saliva.
  • The excitation of cone cells in the retina, a physical reaction, produces the sensation of red which is non-physical.
  • Swirling fluid in your inner ear, a physical condition, causes the sensation of dizziness which is non-physical.
  • Getting your fingers caught in a closing car door, a material situation, causes pain which is an immaterial phenomenon.
And so on. The only way that the principle that "like causes like" can be known to be true is if we know materialism to be true, but the truth of materialism is the very point that's in question in this discussion.


My friend Jason said he thought of me when he came across this joke relevant to the topic of philosophical materialism. Don't read it if bad jokes make you cringe:

Why don't materialists trust atoms? Because they're quite sure they make everything up.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Atheism and Nihilism

French existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once wrote that existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to take atheism to its logical conclusion. Many atheists are reluctant to do this because they can't live consistently with their belief that man is all alone in the cosmos.

Some there are, though, who call upon their fellow non-theists to face up to the gloomy entailments of the belief that nature is all there is. Alex Rosenberg and Joel Marks are two who seek to face squarely the logic of their unbelief. Another example is a commenter at Uncommon Descent who lays out clearly and with no sugar-coating what one should also believe if one embraces atheism.

He/she writes:
I’m a nihilist because it shows reality. If there is no higher power, then everything humanity holds dear was constructed by humanity and therefore not real.

There is:
  • No objective, absolute, inherent meaning in life or the universe
  • No objective, absolute, inherent purpose in life or the universe
  • No objective, absolute, inherent value in life or the universe
  • No objective, absolute, inherent morality in life or the universe. No good, no evil, no right, no wrong
  • No objective, absolute, inherent truth in life or the universe
  • No objective, absolute, inherent knowledge in life or the universe
  • No objective, absolute, inherent logic in life or the universe
There's more:
  • We are the cobbled together Frankensteins of billions of years of trial and error
  • We have no free-will, mind, consciousness, rationality or reason. They are illusions and [the notions of] personhood, identity and humanity are not real.
  • The emotions we express are just chemicals in our brain. The very things we seek in life like happiness, peace, contentment, joy are just chemicals reducing us to nothing more than chemical addicts.
  • We are no more important than other animals. A dog is a rat is a pig is a boy.
  • There is no afterlife. Once we die, we fade from existence and all our memories, experiences, knowledge etc goes with it. In time, we are forgotten.
  • All the things we do in life are just for survival. Learning, loving, seeking, being positive, eating, relating, having fun are created for the sake of ignoring the real reason we are here and that’s to live as long as we can.
  • There is no help coming to save humanity as a species or as individuals. We are all alone and on our own. If you can’t survive, you die.
The reader might wonder why anyone would embrace such a melancholy set of beliefs, but if the only alternative is to accept that there's a God, then nihilism, as depressing, hopeless, and dreary as it may be, will still be more appealing to a lot of people than that alternative.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mind and Materialism

Raymond Tallis at The New Atlantis discusses the devastating assault on philosophical materialism that began in the 1970s when American philosopher Thomas Nagel explored the question, "What is it like to be a bat?"

Nagel argued that there is something it is like to be a bat whereas it does not make sense to say that it is like something to be a stone. Bats, and people, have conscious experience that purely material objects do not have, and it is this conscious experience that is the defining feature of minds.

This experience, Tallis observes, is not a fact about the physical realm:
This difference between a person’s experience and a pebble’s non-experience cannot be captured by the sum total of the objective knowledge we can have about the physical makeup of human beings and pebbles. Conscious experience, subjective as it is to the individual organism, lies beyond the reach of such knowledge. I could know everything there is to know about a bat and still not know what it is like to be a bat — to have a bat’s experiences and live a bat’s life in a bat’s world.

This claim has been argued over at great length by myriad philosophers, who have mobilized a series of thought experiments to investigate Nagel’s claim. Among the most famous involves a fictional super-scientist named Mary, who studies the world from a room containing only the colors black and white, but has complete knowledge of the mechanics of optics, electromagnetic radiation, and the functioning of the human visual system.

When Mary is finally released from the room she begins to see colors for the first time. She now knows not only how different wavelengths of light affect the visual system, but also the direct experience of what it is like to see colors. Therefore, felt experiences and sensations are more than the physical processes that underlie them.
Nagel goes on to make the claim, a claim that has put him in the bad graces of his fellow naturalists, that naturalism simply lacks the resources to account for conscious experience. Tallis writes:
But none of the main features of minds — which Nagel identifies as consciousness, cognition, and [moral] value — can be accommodated by this worldview’s [naturalism's] identification of the mind with physical events in the brain, or by its assumption that human beings are no more than animal organisms whose behavior is fully explicable by evolutionary processes.
One might wonder why naturalistic materialists are so reluctant to acknowledge that there's more to us than just physical matter. What difference does it make if an essential aspect of our being is mental? What does it matter if we're not just matter but also a mind? Indeed, what does it matter if we are fundamentally mind?

Perhaps the answer is that given by philosopher J.P.Moreland. Moreland makes an argument in his book Consciousness and the Existence of God that naturalism entails the view that everything that exists is reducible to matter and energy, that is, there are no immaterial substances. Thus, the existence of human consciousness must be explicable in terms of material substance or naturalism is likely to be false. Moreland also argues that there is no good naturalistic explanation for consciousness and that, indeed, the existence of consciousness is strong evidence for the existence of God.

Nagel, an atheist, doesn't go as far as Moreland in believing that the phenomena of conscious experience point to the existence of God, but he comes close, arguing that there must be some mental, telic principle in the universe that somehow imbues the world with consciousness. There is nothing about matter, even the matter which constitutes the brain, that can account for conscious experiences like the sensations of color or a toothache. There's nothing about a chemical reaction or the firing of nerve fibers that can conceivably account for what we experience when we see red, hear middle C, taste sweetness, or feel pain. Nor is there anything about matter that can account for the existence of moral value.

If it turns out that naturalism remains unable to rise to the challenge presented by consciousness then naturalism, and materialism, will forfeit their hegemony among philosophers, a hegemony that has already been seriously eroded.

Read the rest of Tallis' article at the link. It's very good.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Evolution of Consciousness

One of the many problems consciousness poses for naturalism (the view that only the natural world exists. There is no supernature) is the difficulty of explaining how consciousness could have evolved. Natural selection acts on physical bodies, but consciousness seems to be something altogether different from physical, material body.

Barry Arrington at Uncommon Descent highlights the problem when he writes:
Consciousness could not have evolved from “simpler” states of matter, because it is not a state of matter. To say that consciousness evolved from matter is like saying Newton’s theory of gravity evolved from apples.

Even if for the sake of argument one concedes that natural selection might account for the development of a material body, consciousness remains a mystery. There is still a vast uncrossable gulf between the physical body and mind. In other words, the difference between body and mind is qualitative, not quantitative. You can’t get an immaterial mind no matter how many slight successive modifications of the body there may have been.
This is a serious problem for naturalism because most naturalists hold that naturalism entails physicalism, i.e. the view that physics fixes all the facts about the world, and materialism, the view that all of reality is reducible to matter. Consciousness, however, does not seem to be something explicable in terms either of physics or matter which means that it is a prima facie defeater for naturalism.

Naturalists can avoid utter defeat by conceding that both physicalism and materialism are false and trying somehow to enfold consciousness into a naturalistic ontology, but this would be an accommodation most naturalists would find devastating.

Naturalism dominated philosophy for the two centuries from about 1750 to 1950, but it appears that work being done in the last couple of decades in the philosophy of mind is bringing an end to the reign it once enjoyed and making it increasingly difficult to be an "intellectually fulfilled atheist," as Richard Dawkins once put it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Good at Killing People

This report has created a bit of a controversy among those interested in plumbing President Obama's character and psyche:
President Barack Obama told his staff that he’s “really good at killing people,” according to a new book set to hit shelves Tuesday.

The book, titled “Double Down” and authored by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, reportedly says the Nobel Peace Prize winning president made the comments while discussing drone strikes with his aides.
This is a disturbing revelation, all the moreso since Halperin and Heilemann are both Obama supporters who would not be expected to be trying to make the President look bad.

In time of war most of us certainly do want our leaders to be resolute in taking the fight to the enemy, but it's alarming that a president would actually boast about killing people, especially when, as with Mr. Obama's drone strikes, those whose bodies are blown apart are sometimes women and children.

I don't know the manner in which Mr. Obama said this, or if in fact he even did say it, but I hope that if he did, it was with a sense of deep remorse and not a spirit of gloating. Killing terrorists may be necessary, but it should never be something about which we should brag. To do so erodes our humanity, hardens our hearts, and reduces us to the level of savages. If President Obama was indeed gloating, and he may not have been, what would that say about the man that rather than be filled with deep anguish at being responsible for the deaths of children and other innocent bystanders he would actually find their deaths something to brag about?

Let's hope that our President uttered those words with regret, pain, and irony and not as though he had just birdied a par three on a golf outing.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Gay Marriage and Other Arrangements

Robert George at First Things shares some thoughts that tie in with our recent post at VP on polyamory. George writes:
The logic of the sexual revolution continues to play itself out in exactly the way defenders of “traditional” marriage and norms of sexual morality saw (and said) that it would. When I and many others noted that the abandonment of the idea of marriage as a conjugal union and its replacement with a conception of “marriage” as sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership would swiftly be followed by the mainstreaming of polyamory and eventually demands for the legal recognition of “poly” partnerships and families, we were accused of “scare mongering” and making illicit “slippery slope” arguments.

What we saw—and what anyone should easily have seen—is that the displacement of the conjugal conception of marriage left no ground of principle for supposing that marriage is the union of two and only two persons, as opposed to three or more (“throuples,” “triads,” “quadrads,” etc.) in multiple partner sexual ensembles....

Today, fewer and fewer people on the liberal side of questions of marriage and sexual ethics are even pretending to have moral objections to polyamorous sexual relationships or their recognition. ... Moral objections to their ”identity” and the sexual expression of their love is condemned as mere “prejudice.” We must, we are told, fight the “bigots” who are stigmatizing them and “harming their children.” When you have a script that works, I guess you keep using it.
When I posted recently on this topic I added that the mainstreaming of polyamory and other conjugal exotica was inevitable once marriage was no longer restricted to the union of one man and one woman. Some readers protested, not to the argument that legalizing gay marriage would result in opening the legal doors to other marital arrangements, but rather to my conclusion that we therefore shouldn't change the definition of marriage to include homosexual unions.

The objections to the assertion that gay marriage is not a good idea were varied, but they essentially had in common the claim that it's unfair to gays, who are often wonderful people, to deny them the rights that heterosexuals enjoy. Of course, I never said that gays were not fine people, but I did aver that legalizing gay marriage would ultimately mean the end of traditional marriage, which certainly is in a precarious enough state as it is, and that that would not be a good outcome for society.

Some readers took umbrage with my claim that changing the laws that specify that marriage be between a man and a woman will ultimately result in changing the laws that specify that marriage must only be between two people. Their objection was based on their personal incredulity that anyone would really want to do this. Their inability to imagine that people would push for various forms of polyamory notwithstanding, however, it's almost inevitable that once we no longer limit marriage to men and women limiting marriage to just two people will also become equally anachronistic.

If requiring that marriage be between a man and woman is merely an arbitrary limitation based on personal taste and custom why isn't limiting marriage to just two people also arbitrary and unjustifiable? Some readers invoked the "icky" factor, declaring that polyamory is just icky, forgetting, perhaps, that this was at one time a major objection to gay marriage as well.

But let's grant for the sake of discussion that marriage should be limited to just two people. Then what? Suppose two siblings wished to marry. Should they be permitted to do so? If not, why not? What compelling reason would there be to deny two siblings who loved each other the same rights that non-siblings have? Please don't reply that that would be "icky." Ickiness doesn't count as a compelling reason.

Suppose you say that siblings should not be allowed to marry. What if the two siblings were gay or lesbian? Should they then be permitted to marry if they wish? If not, why not? If so, doesn't it discriminate against heterosexual siblings to prohibit to them a right given to homosexual siblings? And if incest is no longer prohibited, why on earth should any other consensual arrangement be prohibited, regardless of the number of partners?

Indeed, why must marriage be consensual at all? In much of the world it's certainly not, and throughout much of history it hasn't been. What reason is there for legally preventing fathers from giving their pre-pubescent daughters as brides to other men? Is it not merely a Western cultural prejudice that sustains the laws against doing this? How can we justify keeping laws on the books that are based on nothing more substantial than cultural prejudice? And if we're not going to allow cultural prejudices to keep us from betrothing our daughters to other men then, if gay marriage is acceptable, why should we be legally prohibited from giving our sons to other men for the same purpose?

The proponent of gay marriage might object that this would be both icky and wrong, but if we ask them to explain preciselywhy it's wrong it's hard to imagine what answer they could give. They'd simply reply, presumably, that it's offensive to them to subject children to non-consensual marriage, but it's a long way from being personally offensive to being wrong. After all, the fact that many people oppose gay marriage because they find it personally offensive is not considered by gay marriage proponents to be anywhere close to being a good reason to think gay marriage wrong or to keep it illegal.

Once we've started down the slippery slope by removing the requirement that marriage be restricted to one man and one woman, there's no logical way to stop the slide. There's no non-arbitrary place on the slope at which we can say that this is where the line must be drawn. If you think there is you're welcome to explain where that line is and why the slide wouldn't take us all the way to non-consensual child betrothal. Or beyond.

Once Pandora opens the box who knows what's going to come flying out? When we tinker with an institution that's thousands of years old the effects ramify throughout the culture. It's simply naive to think that nothing much would change.

Whether or not gays really yearn to marry their partners or whether they are good people is in fact irrelevant to the argument. The critical question is what effect gay marriage would have on marriage itself and ultimately upon our culture. By undermining the traditional one man, one woman formula I maintain that it'd be a cultural calamity.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Hawking's Hypocrisy

Columnist Mona Charen observes that world famous physicist Stephen Hawking has decided to decline an invitation to speak in Israel after hearing from Palestinian academics that to do so, one supposes, would be to be complicit in Israel's alleged crimes against the Palestinian people.

Charen deftly skewers the hypocrisy, or if not hypocrisy, certainly the mindlessness, of Hawking's decision. She writes:
Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned physicist and celebrity, has canceled a planned trip to Israel, where he was invited to participate in a conference sponsored by Israeli president Shimon Peres. His explanation: “I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference.”

It’s an odd world, isn’t it? By what inverted moral calculus does someone of Hawking’s stature find it morally problematic to set foot on the soil of the region’s only democracy? One wonders: How many other nations has Hawking declined to visit in order to express his disapproval of their policies?
She goes on to note that Hawking did not scruple to visit the old Soviet Union when it was one of the world's chief violators of human rights, nor did he shrink from visiting the Ayatollah's Iran in 2007, a country that not only sponsors terrorism around the world but imprisons Christians, stones women to death for adultery, and hangs both apostates from Islam as well as homosexuals.

Evidently, Mr. Hawking's moral fastidiousness only bothers him when it comes to Israel. Indeed, why is it that of all the nations in the world which treat their own citizens, not to mention those of their neighbors, abysmally, Israel almost exclusively singled out as particularly worthy of what Charen refers to as BDS (boycotts, divestments, and sanctions)?

It is especially peculiar that Israel is deemed uniquely worthy of punishment when it's recalled that Israel has a substantial minority population of Arabs who enjoy all the benefits of citizenship in a free and open democracy, even being permitted to practice their religion and hold political office. I can't think of one Arab country in which Jews are granted anything close to similar status.

In most Arab countries Jews (and Christians) live a tenuous existence where the best policy is to keep one's head down and mouth shut and maybe you won't have your house burned, your children seized and your life forfeit.

Charen also mentions that Arabs, and those like Hawking and other celebrities eager to demonstrate their political hipness and moral grandiosity, often express outrage that the Israelis built a wall between Israel and Palestinian Gaza which works a hardship on some Gazans who find themselves separated from their places of employment by the barrier. This, they say, is an intolerable cruelty.

Indeed, the wall is unfortunate, but why did the Israelis build it? Before the wall was erected Palestinian terrorists were easily crossing into Israel and blowing up Israeli schoolchildren and murdering Israeli families almost weekly. Rather than doing what most of the countries with which Hawking has no moral quarrel would do, which is to simply bomb Gaza into pulverized sand and dust, Israel simply built a fence to keep the terrorists out, and it has worked. But that simple non-violent measure of self-protection is too much for the delicate sensibilities of Hawking, et al., and he refuses to travel to a country which would be so insensitive to the rights of Palestinian Arabs as to protect themselves from their depradations.

Like so many on the left, Hawking seems to believe that Israel has a moral obligation to allow itself to be obliterated by its enemies, and if it refuses to cooperate in its own destruction then it's ipso facto not the sort of place that deserves to be graced by his awesomeness.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Is it All Intentional?

For some time now a number of commentators on the right, most notably Rush Limbaugh, have been insisting that the failures of the Obama administration, which most people, even among Democrats, ascribe to incompetence and a general disdain for the details of governing, are in fact part of a deliberate effort to cripple the United States both economically and militarily to make it easier to impose a socialist economic model on the nation and to diminish the ability of the U.S. to "bully" the rest of the world.

In the wake of the events of the last couple of months proponents of this view seem to be growing more numerous and more vocal. Norman Podhoretz, formerly the editor of Commentary, has made a case for it at the Wall Street Journal.

It ultimately comes down to whether one believes that Mr. Obama and his acolytes are unqualified by either intellect, temperament, or experience for the positions they hold or whether one believes they are diabolically brilliant strategists determined to transform this country, by whatever means necessary, into their vision of a Marxist/socialist dystopia.

Perhaps Podhoretz and Limbaugh are correct. There's certainly much to commend their theory, especially in the wake of revelations about the Obamacare rollout which almost seems to have been deliberately sabotaged by HHS, but I think the most parsimonious explanation for the debacles and scandals we've witnessed in the IRS, the Department of Justice, the Obamacare rollout, the economy, the stimulus, and our actions abroad is that nothing in Mr. Obama's biography prepared him to lead a government, much less this entire country, much less the world. I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt that he really believes that the policies he's ostensibly pursuing, at home and abroad, are best for the nation. I think he's completely and even catastrophically wrong in his judgment, but I'm willing to allow that he really believes he's right.

To accept the Limbaugh/Podhoretz's thesis, after all, one would have to believe that this president, a man with a towering ego, would nevertheless be willing to suffer the humiliation of being considered a disastrous failure and ranked among the worst presidents ever to occupy the office, in order to deviously effect the transformation of the country by deliberately bringing it to its knees. Maybe such treachery is indeed afoot, but I think we need more evidence than what's been adduced so far before embracing such a theory. Even Limbaugh seems unable to make up his mind whether Mr. Obama is a malevolent genius or a complete incompetent.

Of course, there is yet a third, even more disturbing possibility, which is that Mr. Obama is really just a figurehead, a puppet who allows himself to be cleverly used and manipulated by sinister puppet masters behind the scenes. It's possible, but there's no evidence at all that I'm aware of that it's true.

In any case, whether the explanation is gross incompetence, or a brilliantly conceived, convoluted conspiracy, or some combination of the two, there's no comfort in any of them for those concerned about what's happening to the country or who care about the country their children and grandchildren will inherit.