Monday, March 31, 2014

Not Just a Third World Problem

We like to think that when people immigrate to the U.S. or European countries from the third world that they leave behind some of the more barbaric of their customs and embrace a more enlightened set of cultural mores. Unfortunately, as this article points out, that's often not the case.
When Marie was two years old, a woman in her village in Africa cut off her clitoris and labia. Now 34 and living thousands of miles away in New York, she is still suffering.

“I have so many problems, with my husband, with sex, with childbirth,” she told NBC News, withholding her real name to protect her identity. “The consequences on my life are all negative, both physically and psychologically."

The practice of Female Genital Mutilation is common across much of Africa, where it is believed to ensure sexual purity before marriage. But Marie says FGM is also “very common” in some communities in America.

“The pressure to get daughters cut is great,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 150,000 to 200,000 girls in the U.S. are at risk of being forced to undergo cutting. The CDC says “at risk” because there are no actual records of the practice, only estimates – and old estimates at that. Its latest data date to 1997, the year after it was banned in the U.S. But experts who work with victims and their communities say FGM is on the rise.
The article goes on to describe the various procedures that are employed and how extensive the practice is.
There are different degrees of FGM, the most severe form being the narrowing of the vaginal opening by repositioning the labia and stitching up the opening, sometimes leaving a hole the size of a matchstick for the passing of urine and menstrual flow.

The cutting is often carried out without anesthetic on girls between infancy and the age of eight. Victims can suffer numerous physical and mental health problems: severe abdominal pain, vaginal and pelvic infections, pain during sex, complications during childbirth.
And to what purpose is this horrific abuse inflicted on little girls? To insure that they have less motivation to be sexually unchaste and unfaithful to their husbands. It's ironic that left-wing media outlets like MSNBC and others tirelessly promote the myth that there's a Republican "war on women," a war that exists entirely in the imaginations of the folks who make the charge, while every day a real war on women is occurring in immigrant communities around this country about which the left, or at least much of it, has little or nothing to say. Why is that?

Saturday, March 29, 2014


Pediatrician Russell Saunders at The Daily Beast discusses the very disturbing statistics on autism and asks the big question: What's causing it?
[T]he CDC now reports that autism spectrum disorders (ASD), comprising autism, unspecified pervasive developmental delay (PDD-NOS) and Asperger disorder, have risen from one case for every 88 children in 2008 to one in 68 as of 2010. This represents an increase of about 30%.

I spoke with a colleague who specializes in developmental pediatrics, who expressed a lack of surprise at these numbers. They continue a trend that has already been demonstrated in numerous prior epidemiological studies, though the exact cause continues to elude us. This study doesn’t say anything about what’s actually causing these increases.

What this new report tells us is “how much” and “who.” Breaking down the numbers, we see that white children are more likely to carry an ASD diagnosis than black or Hispanic children, and that there is a great deal of variation throughout the country. (The study used data collected from 11 states to extrapolate rates for the US as a whole.) Boys are much more likely to be affected than girls, and nearly half of diagnosed patients had at least average intelligence.

Of course, what we would most like to know is what’s responsible for the rise in autism. It’s very frustrating to see these data and have little explanation for them. For all the pseudoscience and controversy, one of the few things we can know with certainty is that vaccines aren’t responsible.

Whatever the cause of autism, emerging evidence points to it happening early in development. In the other big news of the week, a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine reports evidence of brain abnormalities in autistic patients that likely began before birth. Comparing postmortem tissue samples from children with ASD against tissues from unaffected children, researchers found disorganization in nerve cells in the former group, a change that likely started prenatally.

At least some of this is probably related to genetics. Beyond that, however, the “why” of autism remains unclear. What is encouraging, according to one of the study’s authors, is that the disorganization was only found in certain areas of the brain, indicating that therapy may help mitigate the effects of ASD.
Saunders has more at the link. Another question that probably concerns most readers is whether that 30% increase in cases in just two years means that autism is actually occurring more frequently or whether the frequency is about the same but parents are becoming much more aware and thus having their children checked more diligently.

I don't know the answer, but if it's the former then wouldn't it make sense to think that the cause is environmental rather than genetic?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Why Naturalism Is Self-Refuting

Over the last several decades a number of theistic philosophers have developed a powerful argument the conclusion of which is that naturalism - the view that material nature is all there is - is self-refuting. They argue that if we believe naturalism is true then we must believe that none of our beliefs, including our belief in naturalism, is trustworthy.

The foremost proponent of this argument has been Alvin Plantinga who presents a lecture on it here. The lecture is in six parts and is perhaps too long for those with limited time so as an alternative interested readers might check out this short summary:
Lest one criticize the video for its theistic bias against naturalism it might be mentioned that a lot of naturalists have implicitly and explicitly agreed with the thesis of the video. Evolutionary cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, for example, has written that:
“Our brains are shaped for fitness, not for truth; sometimes the truth is adaptive, sometimes it is not.”
As an example of how a false belief may have survival value, at least for our genes, imagine a prehistoric society in which a belief arises that the more children one has the greater will be one's reward in the afterlife. Such a belief would be expected to produce large numbers of progeny, and the factors responsible for it, if they're genetic, will, over the course of time, eventually dominate in the society. Yet the belief is false.

As Plantinga says, one can believe in natural selection or one can believe in naturalism, but one can't believe in both. If natural selection has produced our cognitive faculties in a way consonant with naturalism then those faculties evolved to promote survival not to ascertain truth. Thus we have no good reason to think that our belief in naturalism is true. On the other hand, if natural selection was superintended by an intelligent agent then we have reason to think that the process shaped our cognitive faculties to discern truth. That allows us to still believe in natural selection, but, of course, the existence of the intelligent agent means that naturalism is false.

Naturalism really is a philosophical dead end. It leads to epistemological and moral nihilism.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Marriage Inequality

Marriage inequality is much in the news today and our social commentators have a lot to say about it. Unfortunately, the kind of inequality they're most concerned about is not the inequality they should be concerned about.

While our culture agonizes over whether the tiny percentage of Americans that comprises the set of homosexual couples who desire to wed will be able to fulfill their dreams, it almost completely ignores the really insidious marriage inequality that is having a devastating effect on our social and economic well-being.

The inequality that matters, that threatens the very fabric of our society, is the inequality in marriage between the upper and lower classes in America.

R.R.Reno at First Things explains:
The children of wealthy people go to good schools, get good jobs, and get and stay married. Meanwhile, the rest struggle to get together, and if they do marry often end up divorced.

Charles Murray’s report on white America in Coming Apart gives us some of the vital statistics. In 1960, among top earners—the uppermost 20 percent—more than 90 percent of prime age white adults (30-49 years old) were married. Hardly any of them were divorced. The lives of the poor white population of America—the bottom 30 percent measured by income—wasn’t all that different. More than 80 percent of them were married, and although the number of divorced adults that age was a bit higher than among the well to do, it was only around 5 percent.

This relative equality is now long gone. Beginning in the 1970s, the top and bottom began to diverge. There’s been a downward drift in marriage among the rich, but not by much. Today 85 percent of prime age economic winners are married, a surprisingly modest decline given all the media attention to single professional women. Meanwhile, marriage has collapsed among the white poor. In 2010 less that 50 percent of prime aged poor whites were married. That’s partly because fewer get married, and partly because divorce rates skyrocketed—again, for them, but not for the rich.

Social scientists agree that family stability is a key factor—the key factor—for healthy, happy, successful lives. So our growing marriage inequality contributes to and reinforces the gap between winners and losers in America. Divorced and single people have more health problems. They’re more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Their self-reported happiness among unmarried adults is lower than for those in stable marriages. Moreover, marriage inequality means that poor kids are overwhelmingly more likely to grow up without a mother and father than rich kids, which as we know from social scientific studies foretells worst life outcomes for them.
This is not a problem that just affects "other people." The costs to taxpayers to subsidize chronic poverty and the sundry dysfunctions that arise from the fatherlessness that results from the disintegration of family are enormous. Fatherless boys are much less likely to do well in school and much more likely to wind up in prison than those with fathers. Fatherless girls are more likely to wind up raising their own children without fathers and thus more likely to be poor.

Moreover, children raised in stable, two-parent families often benefit not only from having the combined incomes of both parents but also from having two sets of grandparents. This support structure affords these children enormous financial advantages that children of single parents simply don't have.

If politicians and activists really feel strongly about the problem of marriage inequality in this country, that's the inequality they should take on. I suspect, though, that this kind of inequality is not a major concern to them. People who see the traditional family as an "oppressive" social institution, as do many of those who are most vocal about the injustice of marriage inequality, aren't going to be eager to strengthen it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Heaven Help Us

When next you wonder why our government is dysfunctional and why the country is in the mess it's in just recall that we live in a nation which repeatedly elects to the House, Senate, and White House people like Sen. Barbara Boxer, and then all will be clear. Ms Boxer, weighing in on the case before the Supreme Court in which the government is seeking to compel businesses to provide coverage for contraceptives and abortifacients for their employees even though the employers believe that this is tantamount to providing their employees with the means to commit murder, seems oblivious to the distinction between drugs which kill embryos and drugs which enable males to perform sexually. Nor does she seem aware that very few insurance policies cover the latter. Watch the video and then read Ed Morrissey's commentary below:
First and foremost, Viagra (and other erectile-dysfunction drugs and treatments) aren’t widely covered by insurance. That’s one reason why a large online market for inexpensive purchases of the drugs exist.

Second, as anyone who gives a moment’s thought about the subject would realize, such drugs would be appropriate to help empower natural procreation, which isn’t against anyone’s religion, last I checked. Lastly, and this is a more minor point, Boxer ignorantly invokes the Catholicism of the plaintiffs in this court hearing, when none of them are actually Catholic.

The religious objection is to contraception and sterilization, and in the Hobby Lobby case, it’s narrowed to a specific kind of contraception — abortifacients. Boxer blithely dismisses the distinction and blathers about the employer taking away the woman’s right to choose her form of contraception — which is nonsense. Just because an employer refuses to subsidize that choice does not mean they are forbidding it or blocking access to it. It’s the same kind of “war on women” double-talk that assumes that employers have total control over the private choices of their employees, when the existence of an independent salary demonstrates the exact opposite. No one gets paid in company scrip any longer, and haven’t for a century or so.
Ms. Boxer's stunning foray into what is apparently for her the terra incognita of informed thought on these matters follows hard upon Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee's astonishing revelation that the Constitution is a 400 year-old document.

The charitable thing to do, perhaps, would be to avert one's eyes from Ms. Boxer and Ms. Lee as they undertake to publicly embarrass themselves. Unfortunately, they're a United States Senator and a United States Congresswoman and are making decisions that affect our lives in very critical ways, and it would be irresponsible to ignore their inexcusable ignorance. The people of the United States need representatives in Congress who possess at the least a passing familiarity with the matters upon which they hold forth.

Ultimately, of course, the blame rests with the voters who keep reelecting to office people who have no business being there. Whatever are we thinking?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cosmic Inflation

Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll at The Opinionator, a New York Times blog, gives us a very readable, very helpful explanation of the cosmological theories called cosmic inflation and the multiverse. These have been in the news recently because of the possible discovery of gravitational waves predicted by inflation theory.

Carroll is excited by this because, like many scientists, he's disturbed by the extraordinary fine-tuning that the early universe must have exhibited if inflation never happened. Since fine-tuning points to a cosmic designer, and since Carroll is an atheist who desires that the universe be completely natural, he's emotionally and intellectually invested in inflation theory.

Here are a few excerpts from the essay:
The Hot Big Bang model, which posits that the early universe was hot, dense, and rapidly expanding, is an excellent fit to cosmological data. But it starts by assuming that the distribution of matter began in an incredibly smooth configuration, distributed nearly homogeneously through space. That state of affairs appears to be extremely unnatural. Of all the ways matter could have been distributed, the overwhelming majority are wildly lumpy, with dramatically different densities from place to place. The initial conditions of the universe seem uncanny, or “finely tuned,” not at all as if they were set at random.

Good scientific theories can fit all the data but still seem unsatisfying to us.
If the Standard Big Bang model fits all the data and is simpler than the inflation model, why posit the inflation model?

The problem is that the universe displays a smooth distribution of matter and energy which is extraordinarily improbable if the origin of the universe is a random event. The inflation hypothesis is a way to escape the conclusion that this smoothness was somehow not random. In the first trillionth, trillionth, trillionth of a second of the universe's existence some unknown force, perhaps negative gravity, inflated the universe to a vast size almost instantly smoothing it out like an inflating balloon smooths out the wrinkles in the latex:
Alan Guth’s proposal (in the 1980s) was that the extremely early universe was dominated for a time by a mysterious form of energy that made it expand at a super-accelerated rate, before that energy later converted into ordinary particles of matter and radiation. We don’t know exactly what the source of that energy was, but physicists have a number of plausible candidates; in the meantime we simply call it “the inflaton.”

Unlike matter, which tends to clump together under the force of gravity, the inflaton works to stretch out space and make the distribution of energy increasingly smooth. By the time the energy in the inflaton converts into regular particles, we are left with a hot, dense, smooth early universe: exactly what is needed to get the Big Bang model off the ground. If inflation occurred, the smoothness of the early universe is the most natural thing in the world.
The inflaton, in other words, is a source of energy that hasn't been observed or measured but which is hypothesized to have existed in order to avoid the metaphysical implications of an extraordinarily improbable distribution of mass-energy at the origin of the universe.
Inflation has become a starting point for much contemporary theorizing about the beginning of the universe. Cosmologists either work to elaborate the details of the model, or struggle to find a viable alternative. Which is why excitement was so high last week when cosmologists announced that they had found the imprint of primordial gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background, the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. These gravitational waves are a direct prediction of inflation. Before last week, our reliable knowledge of the universe stretched back to about one second after the Big Bang; this observation pushes our reach back to one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second.

Cosmic inflation is an extraordinary extrapolation. And it was motivated not by any direct contradiction between theory and experiment, but by the simple desire to have a more natural explanation for the conditions of the early universe. If these observations favoring inflation hold up — a big “if,” of course — it will represent an enormous triumph for reasoning based on the search for naturalness in physical explanations.
It seems that the only reason for suggesting that this immense expansion occurred and that it was caused by a force that science has no other reason to think exists, is the desire to avoid any non-naturalistic entities involved in the creation. Carroll acknowledges, however, that even if inflation should turn out to be the case it only pushes the problem of fine-tuning back a step:
The triumph, unfortunately, is not a completely clean one. If inflation occurs, the conditions we observe in the early universe are completely natural. But is the occurrence of inflation itself completely natural?

That depends. The original hope was that inflation would naturally arise as the early universe expanded and cooled, or perhaps that it would simply start somewhere (even if not everywhere) as a result of chaotically fluctuating initial conditions. But closer examination reveals that inflation itself requires a very specific starting point — conditions that, one must say, appear to be quite delicately tuned and unnatural. From this perspective, inflation by itself doesn’t fully explain the early universe; it simply changes the kind of explanation we are seeking.
Carroll goes on to explain how inflation may lead to a multiverse, another hypothesis advanced primarily to avoid the fact that much of the rest of the cosmos also seems to be fine-tuned for life. Such precision is literally incredible if our universe is the only universe and if it arose by chance. But if ours is just one of an infinite number of different universes then ours becomes not only more likely but actually inevitable.
Fortunately — maybe — there is a complication. Soon after Guth proposed inflation, the physicists Alexander Vilenkin and Andrei Linde pointed out that the process of inflation can go on forever. Instead of the inflaton energy converting into ordinary particles all throughout the universe, it can convert in some places but not others, creating localized “Big Bangs.” Elsewhere inflation continues, eventually producing other separate “universes,” eventually an infinite number. From an attempt to explain conditions in the single universe that we see, cosmologists end up predicting a “multiverse.”

This may sound like a very peculiar result. But in the news conference after last week’s announcement, both Guth and Linde suggested that evidence for inflation boosts the case for the multiverse. And perhaps the multiverse repays the favor. The fundamental laws of physics obey the principles of quantum mechanics: Rather than predicting definite outcomes, we attach probabilities to members of an ensemble of many different experimental outcomes.

If inflation begins in any part of this quantum ensemble, and that inflation goes on forever, it creates an infinite number of individual universes. So even if inflation itself seems unlikely, multiplying by the infinite number of universes it creates makes it quite plausible that we find ourselves in a post-inflationary situation.
This sounds a bit circular to the layman. A highly improbable inflation produces the multiverse, and the multiverse makes inflation a near certainty. Carroll himself seems a bit abashed by the reasoning:
If you find the logic of the previous paragraph less than perfectly convincing, you are not alone. Not that it is obviously wrong; but it’s not obviously right, either. The multiverse idea represents a significant shift in the philosophy underlying inflation: Rather than explaining why we live precisely in this kind of universe, eternal inflation admits there are many kinds of local universes, and expresses the hope that ones like ours are more likely than other kinds.
I think that last sentence gives the game away. Inflation is based on little more than a hope that somehow the universe can be explained without recourse to an intelligent designer.

In any case, Carroll has more to say on these matters at the link. It really is a good article, not only because it explains some very abstruse concepts in easy-to-understand fashion, but also because it's a nice illustration of how scientists, far from being the objective pursuers of the truth wherever it may lie, are really driven by metaphysical and religious commitments that dictate what theories they'll consider and which ones they won't.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Interesting Questions

If you're skeptical that the earth really is getting warmer, or if you're skeptical that whatever is happening with the climate is caused by human activity, you can expect to be called a flat-earther, a science-denier, an idiot, and you may even be told that you should be thrown in prison. You will hear that the overwhelming consensus among scientists is that we are headed for a climatological Armageddon and that it may already be too late to do anything about it.

Well, that scientific consensus, such as it is, appears to be fraying in light of the fact that the earth's temperature hasn't risen in 15 years. Now the Investor's Business Daily brings word that the American Physical Society (with a membership of 50,000 physicists) has established a commission to reassess their position on the matter. Here are some excerpts from the IBD's article:
At the risk of being accused of embracing what alarmists call the flat-earth view of climate change, the American Physical Society has appointed a balanced, six-person committee to review its stance on so-called climate change that includes three distinguished skeptics: Judith Curry, John Christy and Richard Lindzen. Their credentials are impressive....

A question the American Physical Society panel will address is one we ask repeatedly: Why wasn't the current global temperature stasis, with no discernible change in the past 15 years, not predicted by any of the climate models used by the IPCC, part of the United Nations?

The APS announcement lists among its questions to be answered: "How long must the stasis persist before there would be a firm declaration of a problem with the models?" In a nod to the likelihood that nature, not man, calls the shots, another APS audit question asks the panel: "What do you see as the likelihood of solar influences beyond TSI (total solar irradiance)? Is it coincidence that the stasis has occurred during the weakest solar cycle (i.e., sunspot activity) in about a century?"

The other three American Physical Society members, reports Quadrant Online, maintain that climate change is real, disaster is imminent and man is at fault. They are long-time IPCC stalwart Ben Santer (who in 1996 drafted, in suspicious circumstances, the original IPCC mantra about a "discernible" influence of man-made CO2 on climate), IPCC lead author and modeler William Collins, and atmospheric physicist Isaac Held.

The APS, to its credit, is addressing the chasm between computer models that cannot even predict the past and actual observations suggesting that warming is on hold and largely influenced by natural factors.
The committee is tasked with answering some very good questions, and the results of the APS study should be interesting. The fact that a committee has been commissioned at all is indicative of the growing concern that confidence in the predictions of the alarmists is waning. For example:
One such prediction noted that summer in the North Pole could be "ice-free by 2013." That was what former Vice President Al Gore insisted in his 2007 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, a call that was off by about 920,000 square miles of ice.

In an article on the website Hockey Schtick, APS panelist Christy says he analyzed the "tropical atmospheric temperature change in 102 of the latest climate-model simulations covering the past 35 years" and found that "102 model runs overshot the actual temperature change on average by a factor of three."
In science, when predictions based on a theory fail to materialize the theory is discredited and, at some point, rejected. When the failure of predictions to come true fails to dissuade adherents to a theory those adherents are no longer engaged in science, they're engaged in metaphysics.

Perhaps the committee will come up with plausible explanations as to why the predictions of the alarmists have proven to be as reliable as predictions about the date of the end of the world, but if they don't the APS study just may signal the end of an era of hysteria over climate change reminiscent of the witchcraft hysteria in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

For Philosophy Students

Here's a bit of philosophy humor courtesy of a friend named Dan:

Red Cells

Geneticist Michael Denton is the author of two outstanding books, one (Evolution: A Theory in Crisis) on why Darwinism simply can't explain life and one (Nature's Destiny) on how the laws of physics and chemistry and the properties of water and carbon dioxide make the world an extraordinarily fit place for the emergence of higher forms of life.

He's interviewed at a site called The Successful Student and the interview is a must read for anyone interested in how discoveries in biology consistently refute the Darwinian paradigm.

Here's just one of the problems he discusses, a problem I confess I had never heard of before reading the interview:
At King’s [College in London] the subject of my PhD thesis was the development of the red [blood] cell and it seemed to me there were aspects of red cell development which posed a severe challenge to the Darwinian framework. The red cell performs one of the most important physiological functions on earth: the carriage of oxygen to the tissues. And in mammals the nucleus is lost in the final stages of red cell development, which is a unique phenomenon.

The problem that the process of enucleation poses for Darwinism is twofold: first of all, the final exclusion of the nucleus is a dramatically saltational event and quite enigmatic in terms of any sort of gradualistic explanation in terms of a succession of little adaptive Darwinian steps. Stated bluntly; how does the cell test the adaptive state of ‘not having a nucleus’ gradually? I mean there is no intermediate stable state between having a nucleus and not having a nucleus.

This is perhaps an even greater challenge to Darwinian gradualism than the evolution of the bacterial flagellum because no cell has ever been known to have a nucleus sitting stably on the fence half way in/half way out! So how did this come about by natural selection, which is a gradual process involving the accumulation of small adaptive steps?

The complexity of the process — which is probably a type of asymmetric cell division — whereby the cell extrudes the nucleus is quite staggering, involving a whole lot of complex mechanisms inside of the cell. These force the nucleus, first to the periphery of the cell and then eventually force it out of the cell altogether. It struck me as a process which was completely inexplicable in terms of Darwinian evolution — a slam-dunk if you want.

And there’s another catch: the ultimate catch perhaps? is an enucleate red cell adaptive? Because birds, which have a higher metabolic rate than mammals, keep their nucleus. So how come that organisms, which have a bigger demand for oxygen than mammals, they get to keep their nucleus while we get rid of ours?

And this raises of course an absolutely horrendous problem that in the case of one of the most crucial physiological processes on earth there are critical features that we can’t say definitively are adaptive.... Every single day I was in the lab at King’s I was thinking about this, and had to face the obvious conclusion that the extrusion of the red cell nucleus could not be explained in terms of the Darwinian framework.

And if there was a problem in giving an account of the shape of a red cell, in terms of adaptation, you might as well give up the Darwinian paradigm; you might as well "go home." .... It’s performing the most critical physiological function on the planet, and you’re grappling around trying to give an adaptive explanation for its enucleate state. And the fact that birds get by very, very well (you can certainly argue that birds are every bit as successful as mammals). So, what’s going on? What gives? And it was contemplating this very curious ‘adaptation’ which was one factor that led me to see that many Darwinian explanations were “just-so" stories.
Denton also talks about another fascinating development in biology - the growing realization that everything in the cell affects everything else. That even the shape, or topology, of the cell determines what genes will be expressed and that the regulation of all of the cellular activities is far more complex than any device human beings have ever been able to devise.

It's all very fascinating stuff.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Get Your Priorities Straight

Here's a message certain to resonate with young folks. Recently, the most hipster president we've ever had was asked about the affordability of health care. The questioner pointed out that a lot of people, especially young people, can't afford the premiums:
At a recent town hall with Latinos, the President was asked how a family with $36,000 in income can afford $315 a month for the cheapest Obamacare premium. His answer: "...if you looked at their cable bill, their telephone, their cell phone may turn out that, it's just they haven't prioritized health care."
So, the message to low income Americans, apparently, is: Get rid of your cable internet, get rid of your cable tv, throw away your cell phone, and buy health insurance whether you want it or not. It's good for you. And while you're at it eat your peas.

I wonder how many people who voted for Mr. Obama ever dreamed that he'd be forcing them to buy health insurance at the sacrifice of their cable and their smart phone.

Young people should look at it this way: Getting rid of those things is liberating. Once free of them you'll be free at last to buy health insurance which is what you'd really much rather have if you only knew what was good for you. In the words of the late, great Janis Joplin: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

What We Could Do

Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he regards Ukraine as Russian territory and well he might. Over 30% of the former Soviet Union's defense industry was located in Ukraine, much of that in Crimea. After the breakup of the Soviet Union these manufacturers did a brisk business with China, essentially exporting Russian technology to China's military while undercutting Russian prices. One of Putin's aims, no doubt, is to rein in these manufacturers and bring them back into the Russian orbit.

How should the West respond to Putin's gambit? No doubt Putin calculated that neither the Europeans nor the Americans would do anything much to stop him. He sees America as a nation in decline and has little fear of or respect for President Obama. Freezing the assets of a few Russian oligarchs gains him nothing but understandable derision.

Given what the Marxists like to call "the correlation of forces" there is, indeed, little chance of a direct military confrontation over either Crimea or Ukraine. If Putin wants the whole region no one will risk war to stop him from taking it.

Even so, there are lessons to be learned and measures we could take in response. Defense expert Clifford May outlines several things we could, and should do. He writes:
What President Vladimir Putin has done in Ukraine [is] in clear violation of the United Nations Charter, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (which "guaranteed" Ukraine's territorial integrity in exchange for the surrender of its nuclear weapons), and the 1997 Ukraine-Russia Bilateral Treaty.

The answer is not to posture. Nor, I think, is it to punish Russia directly. Instead, recognize that Mr. Putin, along with Iran's supreme leader, China's rulers, and other dubious international actors regard the diminution of American power as their strategic goal, a necessary precondition for the achievement of their regional and global ambitions.

So make it clear that the weakening of America stops right here and right now. Do that by implementing policies to strengthen America. This will frustrate our adversaries and enemies, and bolster our allies. The following are four such empowering policies:

First, restore missile defense: Five years ago, President Obama canceled plans to build a Europe-based missile-defense system. Why? To please and appease Mr. Putin, who thought it possible — and unacceptable — that such a system might be used to protect Americans from Russian missiles, in contravention of the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.

We should make it clear that henceforth, we intend to protect ourselves — without apology. America has the technological know-how to build a system that could prevent any intercontinental ballistic missile from any country reaching its intended victims anywhere in the world.

In addition: Cancel the 2010 New START arms-control treaty, which was a great deal for Mr. Putin (no cuts of deployed warheads or strategic launchers), and a bad bargain for the United States. (We have reduced our arsenal.)

Second, get energetic: Two years ago, Mr. Obama promised "an all-of-the-above strategy for the 21st century that develops every source of American-made energy." He has done next to nothing to fulfill that pledge.

Energy abundance and diversity should be our goal. That means more fracking. That means tapping petroleum on federal lands. That means ending the ban on "flexible-fuel" vehicles capable of running on a variety of liquid fuels. That means eliminating bureaucratic barriers to entrepreneurship and competition — with investors, not politicians, attempting to pick winners. That means eliminating environmental rules that impose more costs than benefits.

A byproduct of such policies: They would create jobs and reduce poverty — because the poor spend a larger percentage of their income on energy (electricity, gasoline and heating and cooling of their homes) than do their wealthier neighbors. Cheaper energy also would stimulate economic growth. A bigger American economy means a more powerful America.

Third, make a Group of Eight — Minus 1: The Group of Six was founded in 1975 as a forum of the world's leading industrialized democracies. When Canada joined the following year, it became the G-7. Russia was added to the club in 1998 despite the fact that it was not then — and is not now — an industrialized democracy.

On the contrary, Russia is an autocracy and relatively underdeveloped, with per-capita wealth about a third that of South Korea. What riches it possesses have not been created through invention, innovation and productivity, but through the exploitation of natural resources controlled by oligarchs.

Fourth, respect the wisdom of "Si vis pacem, para bellum." That's Latin for "If you want peace, prepare for war," a doctrine dating back to Plato. Mr. Obama does not subscribe to it. Instead, he assures us that the "tide of war is receding."

However, Iran, the world's leading sponsor of terrorism, continues to spin centrifuges. Al Qaeda forces are fighting in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and North Africa. China is throwing around its growing military weight — including a 12 percent increase in military spending for 2014.
There's much more in May's article that's worth considering.

I would just add that a fifth step would be to start selling some of that petroleum and natural gas May talks about to Europe to wean them away from dependency on Russian oil and thus Russian blackmail.

A sixth would be to open the pipeline of arms to Ukraine. The Ukrainian foreign minister came to Washington last week to ask for military assistance and President Obama promised him rations. Mr. Obama has to realize that there are people in the world who don't swoon when he speaks. He has to realize that there are national predators who will take whatever they can get away with taking. They are not deterred by seeing the only obstacle to their aims slashing its defense budget and reducing its nuclear forces. Weakness is not a deterrent. Conciliatory speech is not a deterrent. Apologies and appeasement are not deterrents.

Nobody wants conflict or tension, but President Putin has launched the opening salvo in a new cold war. He has seen Mr. Obama fritter away American influence and leadership in Europe. He has seen Mr. Obama talk tough on Iran and Syria and then do nothing. He draws the conclusion that if the U.S. won't take on the Iranians or the Syrians they're certainly not going to stand up to the Russians in their own backyard. Perhaps President Obama can find it within himself to rise to the challenge, but if he doesn't Mr. Putin will ultimately accomplish what the left constantly insists we can't do in our own society - he will have turned back the clock. In their case he will have turned it back forty years and reestablished the old Soviet Union.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Why We're Polarized

Why are our politics so polarized? Why is our public discourse so often so vile? Why can't people disagree without insulting each other? Here's what I think is at least a partial explanation.

Classical liberalism placed great emphasis on reason and the value of persuasion through logical argument in defense of the correctness of a political, religious, philosophical, or scientific position. If one's arguments failed to persuade a majority of one's fellow citizens then one accepted that outcome, albeit grudgingly, and either resolved to develop stronger arguments in the future or maybe even changed one's own position.

Modern liberalism (a different entity altogether from the classical variety) has essentially rejected that approach. Modern liberals, if they cannot win a consensus, seek to impose their views either through the courts, through censorship, or via some other form of repression. Examples abound:

If the liberal position on gay marriage or abortion fails to sway the majority of citizens, for example, then liberals simply override the majority through judicial or executive fiat.

If professors are promoting intelligent design in the classroom then rather than debate them or seek to offer an alternative educational experience for students on the issue, modern liberals simply seek to shut the dissident professor up by taking away his classes or denying him tenure.

If the majority of people are unpersuaded of the validity of arguments for man-caused global warming then modern liberals campaign for having the deniers put in prison.

I suspect the reason for this approach is that most liberal arguments are simply unconvincing to many people. They're often effective emotionally, to be sure, but intellectually they're frequently shallow and unpersuasive.

However that may be, the will of the majority is frequently thwarted in our political and cultural environment as liberals seek to shun or circumvent the process of convincing people with facts. As a result the minority view is forced upon an unwilling majority, not by persuasion, but by force. This cannot but have the effect of breeding resentments and backlash, which is why, in my opinion, we are where we are today with no one really listening to anyone else and with a debased public discourse less suited for persuasion than for serving as a vehicle for voicing hostilities and hatreds.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Is Theism Necessary for Morality?

The Pew Research Global Attitudes Project finds that there's a widespread belief around the world that belief in God is necessary for morality.

It's unfortunate that the survey questions were framed the way they were because I think they miss the point. I'll explain why in a moment.

Here are some of the results. Note that with the exception of the United States, people in wealthier countries did not think belief in God is necessary to be moral and with the exception of China, people in poorer countries do.
In 22 of the 40 countries surveyed, clear majorities say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values. This position is highly prevalent, if not universal, in Africa and the Middle East. At least three-quarters in all six countries surveyed in Africa say that faith in God is essential to morality. In the Middle East, roughly seven-in-ten or more agree in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia and Lebanon. Across the two regions, only in Israel does a majority think it is not necessary to believe in God to be an upright person.

Many people in Asia and Latin America also link faith and morality. For example, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and Malaysians almost unanimously think that belief in God is central to having good values. People in El Salvador, Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela overwhelmingly agree. However, most Chinese take the opposite position – that it is not necessary to be a believer to be a moral person. And in Latin America, the Chileans and Argentines are divided.

In North America and Europe, more people agree that it is possible to be non-religious and still be an upright person. At least half in nearly every country surveyed take this view, including roughly eight-in-ten or more in France, Spain, the Czech Republic and Britain. In these two regions, Americans are unique – 53% say belief in God is necessary to be moral.

There are also significant divides within some countries based on age and education, particularly in Europe and North America. In general, individuals age 50 or older and those without a college education are more likely to link morality to religion. For example, in Greece, 62% of older adults say it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person, while just 29% of 18- to 29-year-olds agree. In the U.S., a majority of individuals without a college degree (59%) say faith is essential to be an upright person, while fewer than four-in-ten college graduates say the same (37%).
There's much else at the link to mull over.

My criticism of the study is that I think it asks the wrong question. The question is not whether belief in God is necessary for someone to adopt a particular set of moral values, but rather whether the existence of God is necessary for objective moral values (i.e. values that exist independently of our own feelings about them) to exist.

A non-believer can certainly live by whichever values he pleases. He can be as kind, loving, honest and forgiving as the next person. The values he adopts don't depend upon his belief in God, but the point is that the non-believer has no reason other than his own personal preference to adopt those values. They're neither right nor wrong in any objective sense. He could as easily have adopted the opposites of these and he would be no more wrong nor right to do so. He has no obligation to do anything which he does not want to do, or to live in any fashion in which he does not wish to live.

As atheist philosopher Richard Rorty said, "If you do not believe in God, you would do well to drop notions like 'law' and 'obligation' from the vocabulary you use when deciding what to do." Rorty also observed that, "The secular man has no answer to the question, 'Why not be cruel?'" Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins laments that it's very difficult for an atheist like himself to say that Hitler was wrong.

The question, then, that the Pew Project should have asked is, "Is belief in God necessary to avoid moral nihilism?" It seems pretty clear that a lot of atheists think it is.

The Interconnectedness of Life

Here's a great ecology lesson packed into four and a half minutes of film:
If you've never been to Yellowstone it's definitely worth the trip. It's probably the most geologically unusual landscape in the United States and it's a great place to see wildlife.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Why We Celebrate St. Patrick

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

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

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

Having been converted to Christianity through the labors of Patrick, the Irish took with gusto to reading, writing and learning. They delighted in letters and bookmaking and painstakingly created indescribably beautiful Biblical manuscripts such as the Book of Kells which is on display today in the library of Trinity College in Dublin. Aware that the great works of the past were disappearing, they applied themselves assiduously to the daunting task of copying all surviving Western literature - everything they could lay their hands on. For a century after the fall of Rome, Irish monks sequestered themselves in cold, damp, cramped mud huts called scriptoria, so remote and isolated from the world that they were seldom threatened by the marauding pagans. Here these men spent their entire adult lives reproducing the old manuscripts and preserving literacy and learning for the time when people would be once again ready to receive them.

These scribes and their successors served as the conduits through which the Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the benighted tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruin of the civilization they had recently overwhelmed. Around the late 6th century, three generations after Patrick, Irish missionaries with names like Columcille, Aidan, and Columbanus began to venture out from their monasteries and refuges, clutching their precious books to their hearts, sailing to England and the continent, founding their own monasteries and schools among the barbarians and teaching them how to read, write and make books of their own. Absent the willingness of these courageous men to endure deprivations and hardships of every kind for the sake of the Gospel and learning, Cahill argues, the world that came after them would have been completely different. It would likely have been a world without books. Europe almost certainly would have been illiterate, and it would probably have been unable to resist the Muslim incursions that arrived a few centuries later.

The Europeans, starved for knowledge, soaked up everything the Irish missionaries could give them. From such seeds as these modern Western civilization germinated. From the Greeks the descendents of the Goths and Vandals learned philosophy, from the Romans they learned about law, from the Bible they learned of the worth of the individual who, created and loved by God, is therefore significant and not merely a brutish aggregation of matter. From the Bible, too, they learned that the universe was created by a rational Mind and was thus not capricious, random, or chaotic. It would yield its secrets to rational investigation. Out of these assumptions, once their implications were finally and fully developed, grew historically unprecedented views of the value of the individual and the flowering of modern science.

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

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

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Defining Life

You may think it a simple question but an article by Ferris Jabr in the New York Times explains why defining exactly what "life" is is a devilishly difficult business. Every definition that scientists and philosophers have come up with either includes things we want to exclude or excludes things we want to include. The following excerpts from Jabr's piece begin with a very strange claim:
In fact, nothing is truly alive.

What is life? Science cannot tell us. Since the time of Aristotle, philosophers and scientists have struggled and failed to produce a precise, universally accepted definition of life. To compensate, modern textbooks point to characteristics that supposedly distinguish the living from the inanimate, the most important of which are organization, growth, reproduction and evolution. But there are numerous exceptions: both living things that lack some of the ostensibly distinctive features of life and inanimate things that have properties of the living.

Crystals, for example, are highly organized; they grow; and they faithfully replicate their structures, but we do not think of them as alive. Similarly, certain computer programs known as “digital organisms” can reproduce, mate and evolve, but ushering such software through the gates to the kingdom of life makes many people uncomfortable. Conversely, some organisms — such as gummy bear-shaped microanimals called tardigrades and brine shrimp (whose eggs are sealed up in little packets like baker’s yeast under the brand name Sea Monkeys) — can enter a period of extreme dormancy during which they stop eating, growing and changing in any way for years at a time, yet are still regarded as living organisms.

Why so much ambivalence? Why is it so difficult for scientists to cleanly separate the living and nonliving and make a final decision about ambiguously animate viruses? Because they have been trying to define something that never existed in the first place. Here is my conclusion: Life is a concept, not a reality.

To better understand this argument, it’s helpful to distinguish between mental models and pure concepts. Sometimes the brain creates a representation of a thing: light bounces off a pine tree and into our eyes; molecules waft from its needles and ping neurons in our nose; the brain instantly weaves together these sensations with our memories to create a mental model of that tree. Other times the brain develops a pure concept based on observations — a useful way of thinking about the world.

Our idealized notion of “a tree” is a pure concept. There is no such thing as “a tree” in the world outside the mind. Rather, there are billions of individual plants we have collectively named trees. You might think botanists have a precise unfailing definition of a tree — they don’t. Sometimes it’s really difficult to say whether a plant is a tree or shrub because “tree” and “shrub” are not properties intrinsic to plants — they are ideas we impinged on them.

Likewise, “life” is an idea. We find it useful to think of some things as alive and others as inanimate, but this division exists only in our heads.

Not only is defining life futile, but it is also unnecessary to understanding how living things work. All observable matter is, at its most fundamental level, an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These associations range in complexity from something as simple as, say, a single molecule of water to something as astonishingly intricate as an ant colony. All the proposed features of life — metabolism, reproduction, evolution — are in fact processes that appear at many different regions of this great spectrum of matter. There is no precise threshold.

Some things we regard as inanimate are capable of some of the processes we want to make exclusive to life. And some things we say are alive get along just fine without some of those processes. Yet we have insisted that all matter naturally segregates into two categories — life and nonlife — and have searched in vain for the dividing line.

It’s not there. We must accept that the concept of life sometimes has its pragmatic value for our particular human purposes, but it does not reflect the reality of the universe outside the mind.
Whether all this is true or not surely Jabr's claim that nothing is truly alive is absurd. To use his own example it's like saying that because we have a hard time telling the difference between shrubs and trees therefore there's no such thing as a tree. One color shades into another on the spectrum, but it would be silly to insist that therefore there is no blue or red color.

Even if there's no clear demarcation between the living and the non-living it doesn't follow that no distinction is useful. Living things are structural entities comprised of proteins that are manufactured by nucleic acids capable of replicating themselves. Perhaps there are entities that fit this description that I would want to say are not living, but I'm unable to think of one. Nor can I think of anything usually thought to be living that doesn't fit this definition.

In any case, a video accompanying the article shows big machines created by a Dutch artist called Strandbeests which Jabr implies are alive. Although the machines are truly remarkable there's no reason to say they're alive other than that they appear to move in ways superficially similar to animals. Here's the video:
Thanks to Matt for the tip on the article.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Shades of Nixon

National Review's Victor Davis Hanson makes the case that President Obama is a simulacrum of former President Nixon. It must be said that the similarities are numerous and striking. Hanson notes the following, for instance:

Nixon tried to use the Internal Revenue Service to go after his political enemies — although his IRS chiefs at least refused his orders to focus on liberals. He ordered surveillance to hound his suspected political opponents and was paranoid about leaks. Nixon wanted the Federal Communications Commission to hold up the licensing of some television stations on the basis of their political views and ignored settled law and picked and chose which statutes he would enforce — from denying funds for the Clean Water Act to ignoring congressional subpoenas.

All true, but what does that have to do with Mr. Obama?

The IRS under this administration has been used as a political tool to stifle, harass, and neuter political opponents. The CIA and NSA are monitoring Congress and ordinary citizens. The FBI has been used to intimidate people who have spoken out against the Obama administration. Mr. Obama sought to use the FCC to monitor media newsrooms in a fashion one might expect from Russia or China. He has also attempted through the FCC to impose regulations that would essentially kill talk radio and bring the internet under government control.

The Obama Justice Department, moreover:
...secretly monitored Fox News reporter and sometime critic James Rosen. The Justice Department even seized his e-mails and phone records in fear that he might publish administration leaks. To hide these shenanigans, the Justice Department fraudulently dubbed Rosen a flight risk and a possible criminal co-conspirator.

Dinesh D’Souza has written and filmed some very unflattering things about Obama. He might be as openly critical of the president as Daniel Ellsberg once was of Nixon. In January, the office of Obama-appointed U.S. attorney Preet Bharara indicted D’Souza on federal charges of violating campaign-finance laws. If convicted, D’Souza could be imprisoned for up to seven years. Usually, those accused of such transgressions face far lesser charges involving fines.
Mr. Obama has chosen to ignore laws he doesn't like, refusing to enforce marriage laws, immigration laws, and by executive fiat completely changing the Affordable Care Act. During his administration we have seen the most egregious power grab by the executive in our history and Congress is helpless to do anything about it because the president's party controls the Senate.

Hanson goes on to explain another reason why Nixon couldn't get away with what Obama has gotten away with:
There are a few differences, however, between the transgressions of Nixon and Obama, and America’s reaction to each.

The old watchdogs of civil liberties that took on Nixon — the American media of the Watergate era — are now silent. Obama is not right-wing, easily caricatured, unappealing, or an old anti-Communist agitator but an iconic liberal, charismatic, and, in the past, an experienced community organizer. A Democratic Senate majority now has little interest in auditing Obama, though it once zealously pounced on Nixon’s misdeeds.

If you once suggested that Nixon’s team was violating constitutional principles, you were hailed as speaking truth to power. Try that with progressive Obama and you are likely to be caricatured as some sort of embittered tea-party zealot at best, a retrograde racist at worst. Nixon ended impeached and disgraced; Obama may well enjoy a lucrative and in-demand post-presidency.
The failure of our media and the Senate under Harry Reid to protect the American people from the aggrandizement of power by the executive branch of government is the reason why there is a Tea Party in this country today.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Brilliance or Nonsense?

French philosopher Jaques Derrida is considered perhaps the foremost proponent of deconstructionism, the school of thought that seeks to analyze texts to find their hidden contradictions and oppositions. For many deconstructionism is an opaque field filled with jargon, ambiguity and gibberish.

One gets a sense of that in the most recent interview by Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting at The Opinionator. Gutting interviews Syracuse philosopher John Caputo, a proponent of deconstructionism, about his approach to religious discourse, and Caputo proves as hard to nail down as a drop of mercury on a smooth table.
Gary Gutting: You approach religion through Jacques Derrida’s notion of deconstruction, which involves questioning and undermining the sorts of sharp distinctions traditionally so important for philosophy. What, then, do you think of the distinction between theism, atheism and agnosticism?

John Caputo: I would begin with a plea not to force deconstruction into one of these boxes. I consider these competing views as beliefs, creedal positions, that are inside our head by virtue of an accident of birth. There are the people who “believe” things from the religious traditions they’ve inherited; there are the people who deny them (the atheism you get is pegged to the god under denial); and there are the people who say, “Who could possibly know anything about all of that?” To that I oppose an underlying form of life, not the beliefs inside our head but the desires inside our heart, an underlying faith, a desire beyond desire, a hope against hope, something which these inherited beliefs contain without being able to contain.

If you cease to “believe” in a particular religious creed, like Calvinism or Catholicism, you have changed your mind and adopted a new position, for which you will require new propositions. Imagine a debate in which a theist and an atheist actually convince each other. Then they trade positions and their lives go on. But if you lose “faith,” in the sense this word is used in deconstruction, everything is lost. You have lost your faith in life, lost hope in the future, lost heart, and you cannot go on.
Caputo seems to be saying that there's really no distinction between theism and atheism because they're both rooted in a more fundamental unifying quality called "faith." This, if I understand it, seems to be like saying that there's no distinction between oaks and grass because they're both green plants. I might be mistaken about this, however, because the language deconstructionists use is so imprecise as to allow for a host of possible interpretations as the subsequent exchange illustrates:
G.G.: I’m having some trouble with your use of “deconstruction.” On the one hand, it seems to be a matter of undermining sharp distinctions, like that between atheism and theism. On the other hand, your own analysis seems to introduce a sharp distinction between beliefs and ways of life — even though beliefs are surely part of religious ways of life.

J.C.: After making a distinction in deconstruction, the first thing to do is to deconstruct it, to show that it leaks, that its terms are porous and intersecting, one side bleeding into the other, these leaks being the most interesting thing of all about the distinction. I am distinguishing particular beliefs from an underlying faith and hope in life itself, which takes different forms in different places and traditions, by which the particular traditions are both inhabited and disturbed.

I agree they are both forms of life, but on different levels or strata. The particular beliefs are more local, more stabilized, more codified, while this underlying faith and hope in life is more restless, open-ended, disturbing, inchoate, unpredictable, destabilizing, less confinable.
I'm not sure what this last sentence means, exactly, but if it's the case that particular beliefs are rooted in an overall worldview that would seem to be a fairly unremarkable observation.
G.G.: O.K., I guess you might say that all thinking involves making distinctions, but deconstructive thinking always turns on itself, using further distinctions to show how any given distinction is misleading. But using this sort of language leads to paradoxical claims as, for example, when you say, as you just did, that beliefs contain a faith that they can’t contain. Paradox is fine as long as we have some way of understanding that it’s not an outright contradiction. So why isn’t it a contradiction to say that there’s a faith that beliefs both contain and can’t contain?

J.C.: The traditions contain (in the sense of “possess”) these events, but they cannot contain (in the sense of “confine” or “limit”) them, hold them captive by building a wall of doctrine, administrative rule, orthodoxy, propositional rectitude around them.
Surely there's a more lucid way of expressing what he's trying to say. The fact that deconstructionists use such murky language suggests, at least to me, that they're trying to camouflage banalities by wrapping them in phony profundity. You can check out the rest of the interview at the link and if you can bring some clarity to what Caputo is trying to express please let me know.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Forecast Gloomy for Dems

Yesterday brought very bad news for Democrats running for office this year. A special congressional election in Florida's 13th district pitted a Democrat with excellent name-recognition, a woman who almost won the state's last gubernatorial election, running in a district that went for Barack Obama in each of the last two elections, and who outspent her opponent by over a million dollars, against a relative unknown Republican, a former lobbyist who was recently divorced and is dating a woman fourteen years his junior. Nevertheless, despite all the advantages enjoyed by the Democrat, the Republican won by almost two points despite having to split the vote with a third party libertarian candidate.

The Republican, David Jolly, ran against Obamacare. The Democrat, Alexis Sink, had to defend Obamacare while painting her opponent as a climate-change denier, which he evidently is. Her message, however, simply failed to appeal to enough voters to swing the election in her favor, even though she was predicted by many observers to win it.

I don't want to suggest that this means more than it does, but I do think there's some reason here to think that the Democrats are in real trouble come this November. The Florida district was considered one of the best chances the Dems had for picking up a congressional seat. They need a net 17 pickups in November to win back the House of Representatives, but if they couldn't win this one it's hard to see where else they will win.

Moreover, the GOP needs a net pickup of six senate seats to retake the Senate. There are at least seven Democrat senators up for reelection in states that went for Romney in 2012 and three or four more in states where the Democrat candidate is vulnerable.

Democrat candidates will be forced to defend their vote for Obamacare, which much of the country is angry over, and few voters care much about the climate change issue, which many believe to be overblown. Nor do they care for raising taxes, rising gasoline prices, a weak economy, amnesty for illegals, gun control, and gay marriage, all issues that a Democrat candidate will be running on.

Moreover, Democrats were helped in 2008 and 2012 by having Mr. Obama at the head of the ticket. He was very popular in 2008, less so in 2012, but he nevertheless attracted millions of minority and younger voters to the polls who voted for the down-ticket Dems as well as the guy at the top. Unfortunately, for Democrat candidates in 2014 Mr. Obama is not on the ballot, and it's not likely that a Dem candidate will be able to count on a big turnout among minorities and younger voters. Also, Mr. Obama's popularity right now is at a dangerously low ebb so just being a member of his party does not brighten one's electoral prospects.

All of these considerations are why many political prognosticators are predicting that, come November, the Republicans will retain the House and enjoy at least a 50-50 chance of taking back the Senate. If that happens American politics is going to get very interesting as the House and Senate work in concert to reign in Mr. Obama's imperial presidency.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Human = Chimp

In a piece at ENV, biologist Ann Gauger debunks the notion, widespread in the popular press, that humans and chimps are genetically almost identical. The oft repeated figure is that the two species share 99% of their genes which implies a very close evolutionary relationship. There are numerous faults with this reasoning, however. Gauger explains:
You have probably heard that our DNA, the stuff that makes us human, is only 1% different from chimps. The claim that we are little more than apes is now part of the Zeitgeist of our culture, having been propagated in the popular press for nearly forty years. However, that statement and the conclusions drawn from it are false.

Let's look at the first claim, that we are only 1% different from chimps. That measurement only compares base changes in human and chimp DNA. It doesn't include other kinds of changes to the DNA, like deletions and insertions or rearrangements. In addition, because of the sequencing methods used, repetitive DNA is not included. Now that complete or nearly complete genome sequences for humans and chimps are available, a better picture of our differences and similarities is emerging. A 2007 essay in the journal Science, says this:

Researchers are finding that on top of the 1% distinction, chunks of missing DNA, extra genes, altered connections in gene networks, and the very structure of chromosomes confound any quantification of "humanness" versus "chimpness."
To be specific, in addition to the 1% distinction already noted, entire genes are either duplicated or deleted between the two species, sometimes in long stretches called segmental duplications. Such duplications represent a 6.4% difference between chimps and humans. There are also insertions and deletions within genes, which affect the structure and function of the proteins they encode. That contributes another 3%, according to some estimates. And there are entirely new genes, specific to humans.
This is just the beginning of the differences. Go to the link for the rest of Gauger's catalog of variances between the two species. The reason some are so interested in showing a close genetic relationship between humans and chimps, of course, is the more closely we are alike genetically the easier it is to draw the conclusion that we are biologically related and descended from a common ancestor.

This is predicated on the assumption, however, that DNA is what makes species different (or alike). Evidence is mounting that DNA is only one factor, maybe not even a major factor, in establishing the characteristics of a species. Gauger talks about some of these other factors and then concludes:
And that brings me to another false assumption underlying the mismeasure of man -- that genes make us who we are. Many things beyond our genes contribute to making us who we are. Our genes do not control us. Certainly, they can influence our predisposition to disease, the shape of our nose, or the color of our eyes, but they do not specify how we will respond to the challenge of disease, or what spouse we will choose.

Our experience and our moral character have something to contribute to those things. New studies in psychology indicate, for example, that we can rewire our own brains to think in new patterns; those new thoughts actually change the underlying neural connections. The choices we make matter. And this is a very non-Darwinian thought.
None of this means that chimps and humans did not descend from a common ancestor, but what it does mean is that there's good reason to doubt the notion, common in some circles, that we are "just" a naked ape, that we are "just" an animal pretty much like every other mammal. It also confirms the suspicion that so much of what we thought we knew about our evolutionary past is simply not true.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Review of Cosmos

Let me start by saying that I encourage people to watch the Cosmos remake that's running on Sunday nights on Fox and National Geographic. Based on last night's initial installment there's much to like about it. The CGI is very good and the series will present a lot of information about the universe in which we live in an entertaining and very accessible fashion.

Unfortunately, I have to issue a caveat. The creators of the series are, like their progenitor Carl Sagan, metaphysical naturalists who evidently feel the need to not only present the science in attractive ways but also to disparage competing metaphysical views in ways that are misleading and unfair.

In last night's episode they spent an inordinate amount of time on the Giordani Bruno matter. Bruno was a 16th century Italian Catholic monk who was imprisoned and eventually burned as a heretic. This is tragic enough, but the narrator, Neil deGrasse Tyson, made it sound as if Bruno was a martyr to science. This is very misleading. Bruno was executed not because he promoted heterodox views about the universe, but because he denied most of the doctrines of the Catholic Church.

From Wikipedia:
Beginning in 1593, Bruno was tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition on charges including denial of the Trinity, denial of the divinity of Christ, denial of virginity of Mary, and denial of Transubstantiation. The Inquisition found him guilty, and in 1600 he was burned at the stake. After his death he gained considerable fame, particularly among 19th- and early 20th-century commentators who, focusing on his astronomical beliefs, regarded him as a martyr for free thought and modern scientific ideas. However, scholars note that Bruno's ideas about the universe played a small role in his trial compared to his pantheist beliefs, which differed from the interpretations and scope of God held by the Catholic Church.
Tyson also makes much of the intolerance of religious thinkers toward people like Bruno and how we're much better off today now that we have a separation of church and state, but as Casey Luskin reminds us at Evolution News and Views, there sure is an awful lot of intolerance today. The difference between the 16th century and now is that today the intolerance is manifested by those who are hostile to religion, and they lack the political clout to actually imprison or execute their victims. Nevertheless, as a perusal of Luskin's essay will show, there are plenty of Giordano Brunos among those who are skeptical of Darwinian materialism and naturalism. Luskin lists the cases and the litany of repression, punishment, and closed-mindedness he documents is appalling.

Nor does Tyson mention that many if not most of the great scientists in the history of the discipline were themselves devout Christians, at least until the twentieth century.

Finally, Tyson avers that the qualities of science that have made it successful include the fact that science encourages its practitioners to follow the evidence wherever it leads and to question everything. Sadly, those who actually try to do this in the study of the history of life and the universe find that there are definite limits to exactly what sorts of data are allowed to count as evidence and what sorts of things one is allowed to call into question. Anything that challenges the naturalistic orthodoxy will be met with reprisals, and those who do question that orthodoxy are treated as heretics.

The Inquisition still lives today. It's just headquartered in American universities and media editorial offices rather than in the Vatican.

Even so, watch the second installment of Cosmos next Sunday. Just be aware of the metaphysical biases that are being smuggled into the science.

Saturday, March 8, 2014


Several decades ago astronomer Carl Sagan produced and narrated a series of science shows for PBS titled Cosmos. It was a smash.

Now the series is being reprised with Neil deGrasse Tyson, a disciple of Sagan's, filling the late astronomer's role. The series starts tomorrow night on Fox (9:00 Eastern) and should be quite good as long as it sticks to the science.

Unfortunately, if the opening statement in the trailer is any indication - it's Sagan's famous summarization of metaphysical naturalism in his own voice - the show will probably interlace the science with metaphysical assumptions presented as the deliverances of modern science. It'll take an alert viewer to filter out the metaphysics from the science.

But I'm just guessing. Maybe Tyson and the script writers, unlike those who wrote the original Cosmos, will just stick to the science. Here's the trailer:

Tomatoe and Rspect

Readers of a certain age will remember, perhaps vividly, how the media forever stigmatized Dan Quayle as a dunce because he couldn't recall, off the cuff, whether there was an 'e' at the end of the word 'tomato' or not. When a Republican vice-president gets a brain freeze that causes him to flub a spelling, it becomes an iconic moment in American political history, and the hapless Republican is never allowed to live down the embarrassment.

That's what the media does to Republicans, but don't they do the same thing to Democrats who stumble over words that any reasonably intelligent fourth grader can spell? Well, not so much. You probably hadn't even heard of this example of mind-lock until you watched this video:
I'm not making fun of the president. Anyone could suffer the same sort of lapse. I know I have, and that's the point. Journalistic hypocrites in the media skewered a good man like Dan Quayle for experiencing what they themselves have doubtless also experienced. They held him up to derision, portraying him as a dope, simply because he's a conservative, but they go into media mute mode when progressives like Mr. Obama commit the same faux pas.

That sort of double standard, the willingness to ridicule the other side for trivial slips to which everyone succumbs, is why many journalists or commentators, whether liberal or conservative, have so little credibility with anyone on the other side of the ideological divide.

Here's a suggestion: Before we tear down someone with whom we disagree for a goof like President Obama's or Vice-President Quayle's, let's ask whether we would tear the person down if he were someone on our side. If the honest answer is "no," then let's grant our opponent the same grace and forbearance we'd grant our ally. If we're not willing to do this then we don't deserve to be listened to.

This is not to say that we shouldn't civilly criticize what we see as errant policies or behavior among our political class. We absolutely should do so, but it does mean that we shouldn't criticize harmless human foibles to which everyone falls prey, just to make our political opponents look bad.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Ontology of Time

Anthony Aguirre at Big Questions Online discusses the two theories of time. His discussion is difficult to follow unless one is familiar with quantum mechanics and relativity theory, but he does give a clear explanation of the two basic theories on offer. What he calls below the "Unitary Block" theory is sometimes referred to as the B-Theory of time. What he calls the "Experienced World" is the A-Theory.
When we step back, we thus seem to have two rather different and contrary views of time’s nature. In one, the ‘Unitary Block’, spacetime and quantum states are laid out ‘all at once’, specified once and for all by some set of boundary conditions. Everything at any time is uniquely determined by — and thus implicitly contained in — any other time, and the world exhibits no distinction between past and future. At the same time, the ‘Experienced World’ we actually inhabit and observe has a very clear distinction between past, present, and future, produces entropy, and allows branching between a single present reality and several possible future realities.

Among knowledgeable and thoughtful people, there seem to be three basic views of this paradox:

1.The Unitary Block is the fundamental, and by implication more true description; things such as the arrow of time, definite experimental outcomes, etc., are emergent phenomena that, if we only could make precise enough computations, could be reduced to ‘nothing but’ the fundamental description.

2.The Unitary Block is wrong in some essential way; a more correct view would be much more like — and much more readily reconciled with — the Experienced World.

3.The Experienced World is more fundamental than the Unitary Block, which is just the correct description of regularities in the Experienced World in very particular regimes.

View 1 is by far the most common amongst my theoretical physicist colleagues, but I’ll make three arguments as to why we should think carefully before embracing it.
His arguments for considering the Experienced World (A-Theory) to be fundamental can be read at the link. One might wonder why scientists even think there is a Unitary Block. The answer has to do with Einstein's discoveries about relativity:
Right now, this second, an old man is exhaling his last breath. Elsewhere, two young lovers exchange their first kiss. Farther afield, two asteroids silently collide. Sunrise comes to a planet orbiting a neighboring star. This very second, a supernova detonates in a faraway galaxy.

And yet ‘this very second’ across the universe apparently does not really exist! Our best fundamental theory of space-time, Einstein’s Relativity, expressly precludes a single, objective definition of simultaneity. Events occurring ‘now’ by one observer’s estimation can — with equal validity — be said to occur at different times according to another observer who is far away and/or in motion relative to the first. We don’t notice this issue much here on Earth, but it becomes very obvious for example in cosmology, where how one defines ‘now’ can determine whether the universe looks uniform or not, and even if it is finite or infinite!
It's all very fascinating stuff with fascinating implications. For example, if the Unitary Block theory is correct I'm not sure what sense it makes to talk about the age of the universe. Every moment of time would have come into being at the instant that the universe was created. If that's so, then what does it mean to say that the universe is 14 billion years old?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Can One Know That God Doesn't Exist? (Pt. III)

In his interview with atheistic philosopher Louise Antony Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting suggests that Ms Antony sounds as though she doesn't think it much matters whether we believe in God or not. Here's her reply to Gutting's suggestion:
Well, I do wonder about that. Why do theists care so much about belief in God? Disagreement over that question is really no more than a difference in philosophical opinion. Specifically, it’s just a disagreement about ontology — about what kinds of things exist. Why should a disagreement like that bear any moral significance? Why shouldn’t theists just look for allies among us atheists in the battles that matter — the ones concerned with justice, civil rights, peace, etc. — and forget about our differences with respect to such arcane matters as the origins of the universe?
Professor Antony simply doesn't appear to understand the significance of the question. She seems to think that the question of God's existence is of the same sort as the question of life elsewhere in the universe - interesting as a sort of philosophical exercise or as a topic for sci-fi movies but not particularly important to real life. I think she couldn't be more wrong.

In my novel In the Absence of God (see link at top right of this page) I argue that how we answer the question of God's existence informs everything we believe about the possibility of meaning in life, the possibility of moral obligation, our view of humanity, our belief in ultimate justice, and much else besides. All of these are ontologically dependent upon the existence of God. If Antony thinks they're not then she should explain why she does not, but it's simply incorrect to allege that the question of God's existence doesn't have any practical importance.

Atheistic scientist Steven Weinberg outlines what life looks for those like himself who seek to substitute science for God:
[T]he worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, of the sort imagined by philosophers from Anaximander and Plato to Emerson. We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.
And that's "at our best."

Dostoyevsky, writing over a hundred years earlier, responds to Weinberg in his novel The Possessed in which he has the atheist Kirillov, who is planning suicide, exclaim: "I can't understand how an atheist can know there is no God and not kill himself on the spot." What Kirillov grasps, and Professor Antony evidently does not, is that the question of God's existence is a matter of life and death for anyone who really thinks about it and that if God doesn't exist then, as Weinberg admits, there's nothing left but meaninglessness, nihilism, and despair.

Scroll down to read Parts I and II in this series.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Can One Know That God Doesn't Exist? (Pt. II)

Monday's post on Gary Gutting's interview with UMass philosopher Louise Antony ended with the claim that there are dozens of good reasons for believing that God exists. One such reason is the modern argument from design, but Professor Antony tries to anticipate that argument in the interview:
Many theists think they’re home free with something like the argument from design: that there is empirical evidence of a purposeful design in nature. But it’s one thing to argue that the universe must be the product of some kind of intelligent agent; it’s quite something else to argue that this designer was all-knowing and omnipotent. Why is that a better hypothesis than that the designer was pretty smart but made a few mistakes? Maybe (I’m just cribbing from Hume here) there was a committee of intelligent creators, who didn’t quite agree on everything. Maybe the creator was a student god, and only got a B- on this project.
The problem with this objection is that the concession that the designer exists but is a bit incompetent is that it concedes too much. Once we grant the existence of a designer (or a committee of designers), even if the designer(s) seems to be unable to create a perfect world, then the atheist has essentially lost the argument. She's conceding that something beyond this universe exists which is powerful enough and intelligent enough to create this universe, even though imperfect. That's a concession that an atheist cannot afford to make.

Moreover, we may assume that this creator is also personal, since it has created personality embodied in beings like you and I. So it's plausible to believe that any designer of the universe would have to be transcendent, unimaginably powerful, unimaginably intelligent, and probably personal. If so, we're getting pretty close to the God of traditional theism. Too, close, certainly, for the comfort of most atheists.

Even a less than perfect designer is still a designer that transcends this universe. Even a team of designers are still designers which transcend this universe. It may not be possible to logically identify such a designer with the God of theism, but the existence of a transcendent designer(s) of any sort is certainly much more compatible with that God than it is with the naturalists' claim that the universe is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.
G.G.: Would you say, then, that believers who think they have good reasons for theism are deceiving themselves, that they are actually moved by, say, hopes and fears — emotions — rather than reasons?

L.A.: I realize that some atheists do say things like “theists are just engaged in wishful thinking — they can’t accept that death is the end.” Theists are insulted by such conjectures (which is all they are) and I don’t blame them. It’s presumptuous to tell someone else why she believes what she believes — if you want to know, start by asking her.
When atheists allege that theism is an expression of wishful thinking it should be noted that if so - and I have little doubt that that's part of why many theists hold to their convictions - it must also be the case that atheism is also an expression of wishful thinking. If wishful thinking lies behind the believer's faith then it also lies behind the unbeliever's lack of faith. In other words, the atheist disbelieves because she simply doesn't want there to be a God. You can read a couple of very bright atheists admitting this themselves here.

The claim that theism is just wishful thinking is a two-edged sword that cuts both ways. As such it reminded me a little of mathematician John Lennox's retort to atheist biologist Richard Dawkins in a debate between the two. Dawkins averred that theists believe in God because they're afraid of the dark. Lennox responded by saying that atheists disbelieve in God because they're afraid of the light.

Part(III) tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A More Dangerous World

Vladimir Putin knows precisely how to poke his thumb in Mr. Obama's eye. He knows that the U.S. is not going to contest his move into Crimea militarily, and he also knows that whatever economic consequences ensue, they won't last long. Mr. Obama has shown himself to have little appetite for economic sanctions or punishments, as has been made clear in Iran. Nor does he have a taste, nor should he, for enforcing ill-conceived red lines, as was evident in Syria.

There are economic punishments at Mr. Obama's disposal should he choose to use them. One which might be especially effective would be to open the spigots of our petroleum resources to sell oil to Europe. This would undercut a vast Russian market and weaken the Russian economy to the extent that Putin, perhaps, would be forced to temper his aggression. But this would involve increasing our oil production and Mr. Obama has demonstrated a decided aversion to doing anything which would increase the amount of carbon in the world.

Crimea was pretty much low hanging fruit for the Russians. Mr. Putin has taken the measure of Mr. Obama and is evidently unimpressed. Mr. Obama's sundry vacillations, appeasements, and unseriousness in the past have given Putin no reason to expect serious opposition from him now. Men like Putin spend their time pondering how to acquire more power and how to reassert Russian influence in the world. They're not apt to feel particularly intimidated by a president who spends his time reflecting upon how to promote gay marriage, reduce the size of our military, improve his golf game, and defeat Republicans.

One question the recent actions by Russia raises is whether China will be emboldened by Putin's demarche to seize some territory of its own. If Mr. Obama fails to respond to the Russian move with anything other than lassitude and a reluctance to make aggressors pay for their aggression will the Chinese gamble that they can seize Taiwan with impunity? Will they calculate that the U.S., despite being treaty-bound to come to the aid of the island nation, will find reasons not to?

Indeed, how many Americans would be willing to go to war with China over Taiwan anyway? Most Americans have scarcely heard of it and probably couldn't find it on a map. There'd be as little stomach for war with China over Taiwan as there is for war with Russia over the Crimea.

Mr. Obama faces very serious problems - in Ukraine, in Asia, and in the Middle East - and has decided nevertheless to cut the size of our army to pre-WWII levels. This will surely embolden various actors on the world stage to take advantage of our inability to project force or to sustain extended military operations.

By presiding over a flaccid economy and the downsizing and weakening of the American military, Mr. Obama is making the world less stable, not more, and more volatile, not less. For sixty years the United States was a force for stability in the world, and as the U.S. fades as an economic and military power the world is going to become a much more dangerous place.

War on Humans: The Documentary

A post the other day focused on Wesley J. Smith's book The War on Humans. The book is an indictment of radical environmentalism and its goal of granting to nature the same legal status as humans. The book is actually a companion to a thirty-one minute documentary by the same name which can be viewed below. If you don't have thirty-one minutes to give to it just watch the first five. They afford a pretty good insight into where the radical left wishes to take us:
It's ironic that the left, or at least this segment of it, is eager to grant personhood and the rights that go with it to plants, but they deny personhood and its attendant rights to unborn human beings and consider it a good thing that the unborn human being has almost no legal protection at all.

There's something very strange and very disturbing about people who consider the lives of plants to be more sacred than the lives of humans.