Thursday, July 31, 2014

Atheists, Israel, and ID


David Klinghoffer at Evolution News and Views has a fine column praising, of all people, militant Darwinian atheist Sam Harris. Harris has written an essay titled "Why I Don't Condemn Israel," a column he felt constrained to write because so many of his fellow materialist atheists are criticizing him for supporting Israel's campaign to defeat Hamas.

Setting aside Harris' hostility to orthodox religious beliefs his column is an excellent read for those who find themselves ambivalent on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Klinghoffer interestingly ties Harris' column to the theme to which ENV is committed which is Intelligent Design. Both posts are very much worth reading.

In the course of his ENV piece Klinghoffer makes an interesting and important point:
If Israel today put down its arms, the country's Palestinian Muslim neighbors who support Hamas would immediately seek to commit genocide against Israel's Jewish citizens. So says the Hamas charter. If the Palestinians put down their arms, Israel would immediately seek to do business with them, forming a relationship like America has with Canada and Mexico.

Turn your neighbors into corpses or turn them into trading partners. That's the yawning moral difference between the ultimate goals of Hamas and the ultimate hopes of Israel.

The interesting thing about this is that almost everyone knows it to be true and yet some still seek to convince us that there's some moral equivalence between the two sides.

In further discussing the hostility of atheists like Harris to Christianity and the hostility of a number of atheistic biologists toward Israel Klinghoffer poses a thought experiment:
You're transported back in time to Poland seventy years ago where you are a Jew on the run from the Nazis. In a Warsaw street, two doors lie ahead of you. You have just enough time to knock on one, seeking aid, as the scuff of pursuing boots draws closer. One door belongs to a Catholic priest or nun. The other to a biologist -- better yet, an atheist evolutionary biologist. On whose door do you knock?

You've got 5 seconds to decide. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Go.

After noting the bizarre indecision among Darwinian atheist bloggers like P.Z. Myers who seem to be confused as to whether they should sympathize with a Muslim terrorist movement devoted to murdering every man, woman and child in Israel, he restates the experiment:

Say you're a Jew today in a European city, on the run from an anti-Semitic mob that is marching to support Hamas. Two doors lie ahead of you. Seeking safety, you can knock on one and only one. One belongs to a biologist inclined to doubt Darwinism in favor of intelligent design. The other to a New Atheist acolyte and Darwin supremacist.

Which door do you choose? You have 5 seconds to decide. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Go.
Read the whole thing, but if you can only read one, read Harris'. His antipathy for Christianity is off-putting, but his defense of Israel in the current conflict is very compelling.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Beg Your Pardon?

This blurb at Breitbart caught my eye:
On Sunday, President Obama and First Lady Michelle released a statement thanking Muslim Americans for their many “achievements and contributions… to building the very fabric of our nation and strengthening the core of our democracy.”

The comments were made to mark the celebration of Eid-al-Fitr, a time of spiritual renewal for Muslims which comes at the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan. The Obamas said in their statement that Eid “celebrates the common values that unite us in our humanity” and “welcomed their commitment to giving back to their communities.”
Actually, Muslims have done nothing to build the fabric of our society. Our society was constructed on the principles of human equality, free speech, religious liberty, and toleration of differences, all of which derive from our Judeo-Christian heritage. Muslims adhere to none of these principles. They are perhaps the most anti-democratic demographic in the country. To thank them for their contribution to building our society's fabric is ludicrous.

I once asked a Muslim cleric what would happen to the Bill of Rights if Muslims ever gained political control of our country. He told me unequivocally that the Bill of Rights was incompatible with Islam and left me to supply the implied inference.

I understand the Obamas' desire to offer Muslims their best wishes as they celebrate their holiday, but I think they should get the facts right. There's nothing to be gained by pretending that what's false is really true.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What to Do About the Children

George Will is getting beaten up on conservative talk radio for his remark Sunday as to how we should respond to the flood of illegal immigrant children on our southern border. Will said this:
“We ought to say to these children, ‘Welcome to America, you’re going to go to school and get a job and become Americans.’”

“We have 3,141 counties in this country. That would be 20 per county,” he added. The idea that we can’t assimilate these eight-year-old criminals with their teddy bears is preposterous.”
Will also added that the waves of immigrants America took in and assimilated in the 19th Century vastly outnumbered the present influx.

He said that the greatest counter to illegal immigration ever passed by the United States was NAFTA, “which put the Mexican economy on the road to prosperity.” Will advocated for a similar free trade agreement with Central American countries and a plan to reduce America’s illegal drug consumption in order to arrest the flow of immigrants from unstable countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

I have to say that I largely agree with Will, with qualifiers. I just don't think sending these kids back to their home countries is either necessary, practical, or right, but I would suggest that absorbing them into the United States should be done only if some other measures are sincerely committed to first.

The first measure, the one upon which the others are contingent, is that our government needs to commit itself to stopping the flow of illegal immigration. If this means finishing the border fence then we should finish it, but to do anything else before we stop the flood is like painting the living room while the roof is leaking.

George Bush was reluctant to build the fence and Barack Obama has been adamant in refusing to build it, or to do much else to control illegal immigration across our border. Nevertheless, we simply cannot ask the American people to do what no other country in the world does which is to allow in all who can make it across our border, and, if Mr. Obama has his way, even those who can't make it across. The president, for example, has proposed sending planes to Central America to bring back those who can't make it here on their own.

As with illegals who have been here since before the recent wave, no policy is worth considering if it's not predicated on a secure border. The reason no immigration reform will be passed as long as Mr. Obama is president is that no one trusts him to enforce any law he doesn't like, much less one requiring strong border enforcement.

Once there is a good faith commitment to securing our border we should inform the recent illegal immigrants that only those unaccompanied children under (say) sixteen can stay. All adults must return from whence they came. If the adults brought children with them they must take the children back with them since separating families is not good policy.

Those who stay will not be eligible for citizenship unless and until they complete high school or serve in the military. Nor will they be eligible for any taxpayer-provided benefits other than schooling. What benefits they receive should be administered by churches and other charitable organizations.

As Will says we can assimilate the children and the young ones are not here through any fault of their own. It would be a failure of compassion, I think, to hold the kids responsible for the decisions made by adults who sent them here. Nevertheless, it would be a failure of fairness to allow law-breakers to leap-frog ahead of those seeking to immigrate legally and it would also be a failure of fairness to require the American taxpayer to bear the burden of compensating for the dysfunctionalities that exist in their countries of origin.

Americans should take the children in, many of them are essentially orphans, but doing so should be largely an act of private charity not an act in which Americans are coerced by our government to undertake and accept.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The War in Gaza

For those interested in the situation in Gaza there's an interesting piece in the Jerusalem Post about the Maglan unit, an Israeli commando force which operates behind the lines:
Operating behind enemy lines in Gaza during the conflict with Hamas, the elite Maglan unit has attacked dozens of terrorist cells that fired on the IDF, destroyed areas used to launch rockets and killed and injured 40 terrorists in the last few days.

A senior source from the unit revealed that its members targeted Hamas gunmen waiting in ambush for the IDF’s ground forces, striking the threats before the soldiers passed by the would-be attackers.

The Maglan unit has detected and destroyed forward Hamas posts and rocket launchers. It detected a cross-border underground attack tunnel leading into Israel from Gaza, and found 20 bomb-laden, booby-trapped Gazan homes. The unit also uncovered a large quantity of weapons in raids.

The source said the company is operating in a heavily built up area, characterized by residential buildings, orchards surrounded by buildings, and tunnels. Hamas planted its military assets deep inside the very fabric of Gazan civilian life, he said.

“Hamas operatives and area commanders, as well as their rocket cell members, keep one part of their home for normal family life. A second part of the home is the command center, or the start of a tunnel. Daily life and military infrastructure are totally interwoven,” the source said.

“This is the source of the complexity we face in our combat. We must overcome the challenge of differentiating between Hamas and the civilian population,” he added. The Maglan unit has met the challenge, having detected a series of Hamas assets, he said.
The spokesperson also noted that the Hamas fighters seem to have lost their appetite for fighting Israeli soldiers:
The source added that in recent days, a recognizable wave of demoralization has washed over Hamas’s combat battalions. “They simply escape, leaving behind weapons and suicide bomb vests that were laid out for battle. This morning we stormed a position, and they just weren’t there. I don’t see a determined enemy. We have encountered stronger pockets of fighting in the past. But now, I would not give them a high grade for fighting spirit.”
I came across a report elsewhere that claimed that Hamas fighters are often abandoned by their officers and left to face the Israelis alone. In any case, one of the objectives of the Maglan unit is to identify and destroy the tunnels:
Hamas built a network of tunnels that begin a few kilometers away from the Israeli border, and pass under the frontier, the source said, in a bid to enable dozens of terrorists to infiltrate the country. In response, the IDF has used a wide array of firepower and ground units to tackle the challenge, employing a rapid maneuver to “shatter the enemy and deny it freedom of operation in closed areas, where it is based,” he said.

“We move in as quickly as possible, engage in close combat, and prevent the enemy from using its tunnels to enter our territory,” the source said.

He recalled seizing large numbers of weapons, suicide bomb belts, and projectile launchers in recent raids.

“Hamas has turned tunneling into a national profession. They lean on highly skilled engineers to do this. We’re dealing with all of these threats through close-range combat,” the source added.

Hamas has built “defensive layers around the tunnels. They have attack positions in mosques, in the homes of operatives, and tunnels that allow terrorists to approach our forces,” he said.
As for the attempts to avoid civilian casualties these are complicated by the use of civilians and their homes as shields and weapons repositories.
“I have not entered one civilian home that did not have weapons, suicide belts, or booby traps in it,” the source said. Any home found to be containing women and children leads to an immediate halt of the raid, he said.

“We hold our fire, there’s no question. We don’t take chances with children and women. We allow them to leave, and then continue the raid. That’s who we are, and this is the source of our strength,” he said.
Israelis try as hard as they can to avoid harming civilians while Hamas and the other Palestinian terror groups are trying as hard as they can to ensure that the Israelis inadvertently kill Palestinian civilians. They're also trying as hard as they can to kill Israeli civilians. How much outrage did the world express about Hamas' use of human shields and the rockets they and their associates launched against Israeli cities? Very little.

When the Israelis kill a Palestinian civilian who has been forced to remain in a house from which rockets are being fired, the western media is in high dudgeon. When the Palestinians force that same civilian to remain in a targeted building or shoot two thousand rockets at Israeli children, the world yawns.

Here's a thought experiment: Imagine that instead of Russian backed Ukrainian terrorists accidentally shooting down the Malaysian airliner and killing almost 300 people suppose Israelis had accidentally shot it down. What would the world's reaction have been? Why is the United Nations not demanding that Russia stop meddling in the Ukraine and cease supplying the terrorists there with weapons with the same fervor with which they call upon Israel to stand down? Why are there no riots in the major cities of the world against this horrible deed?

Why, on the other hand, when several dozen people are killed in an accidental strike on a Gazan hospital (which may have been due to a failed Palestinian rocket) do anti-Israel and anti-semitic protests break out all across the globe? Why do people tisk when airliners are shot down but demand the deaths of Israelis when a hospital is accidentally bombed? Why is there not universal outrage at Hamas for building tunnels directly under Israeli kindergartens? Why is the world not outraged at threats to Israeli civilians by high-ranking officers in the Iranian military

This is a pretty good illustration of a reprehensible double standard if not of arrant moral bankruptcy on the part of those who condemn Israel for the war in Gaza.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Is Matter All There Is?

Science writer George Johnson summarizes in a piece in the New York Times the perplexity many thinkers feel when they look at the cosmos through the eyes of materialism. The perplexity results from a sense that materialism is leaving something out. Johnson is evidently a naturalist, i.e. he believes that nature is all there is, there's nothing that transcends nature, but he wonders if nature might include mind as well as matter. Materialism, the naturalistic belief that everything that exists reduces to a single substance, matter (and energy), seems inadequate to account for what science is learning about the cosmos.

Here are some excerpts from Johnson's essay:
[I]t is almost taken for granted that everything from physics to biology, including the mind, ultimately comes down to four fundamental concepts: matter and energy interacting in an arena of space and time.

Since it was published in 2012, “Mind and Cosmos,” by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, is the book that has caused the most consternation. With his taunting subtitle — “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False” — Dr. Nagel was rejecting the idea that there was nothing more to the universe than matter and physical forces. He also doubted that the laws of evolution, as currently conceived, could have produced something as remarkable as sentient life. That idea borders on anathema, and the book quickly met with a blistering counterattack.

What makes “Mind and Cosmos” worth reading is that Dr. Nagel is an atheist, who rejects the creationist idea of an intelligent designer. The answers, he believes, may still be found through science, but only by expanding it further than it may be willing to go.

Dr. Nagel finds it astonishing that the human brain — this biological organ that evolved on the third rock from the sun — has developed a science and a mathematics so in tune with the cosmos that it can predict and explain so many things.

Neuroscientists assume that these mental powers somehow emerge from the electrical signaling of neurons — the circuitry of the brain. But no one has come close to explaining how that occurs.

That, Dr. Nagel proposes, might require another revolution: showing that mind, along with matter and energy, is “a fundamental principle of nature” — and that we live in a universe primed “to generate beings capable of comprehending it.” Rather than being a blind series of random mutations and adaptations, evolution would have a direction, maybe even a purpose.
Indeed. In their book Quantum Enigma physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner make a compelling case that so far from the materialist belief that mind, whatever it is, arises as an epiphenomenon from matter (much as light is an epiphenomenon of fire), it's coming to look as though matter arises as an epiphenomenon of mind. In other words, mind, not matter, is the fundamental substance which makes up reality.
“Above all,” Nagel wrote, “I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.”
Although Nagel's book made materialists apoplectic (Neuroscientist Steven Pinker dismissed it as the "shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker") he's certainly not alone in suspecting that materialism is an obsolete metaphysical hypothesis.
While rejecting anything mystical, the biologist Stuart Kauffman has suggested that Darwinian theory must somehow be expanded to explain the emergence of complex, intelligent creatures. And David J. Chalmers, a philosopher, has called on scientists to seriously consider “panpsychism” — the idea that some kind of consciousness, however rudimentary, pervades the stuff of the universe.

Heading off in another direction, a new book by the physicist Max Tegmark suggests that a different ingredient — mathematics — needs to be admitted into science as one of nature’s irreducible parts. In fact, he believes, it may be the most fundamental of all.

In a well-known 1960 essay, the physicist Eugene Wigner marveled at “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in explaining the world. It is “something bordering on the mysterious,” he wrote, for which “there is no rational explanation.” The best he could offer was that mathematics is “a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.”

Dr. Tegmark, in his new book, “Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality,” turns the idea on its head: The reason mathematics serves as such a forceful tool is that the universe is a mathematical structure. Going beyond Pythagoras and Plato, he sets out to show how matter, energy, space and time might emerge from numbers. But is mathematics, for all its power, really the root of reality? Or is it a product of the human mind?
If numbers are the root of reality where do numbers come from? Do they exist in some Platonic realm transcending space and time or do they exist in some transcendent mind? And why, when so much that we are learning, points to the universe as the product of a mind, is this idea so viscerally opposed? What are the implications of this view that so many thinkers find so repugnant and unacceptable, and why are they so repulsed by those implications?

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Left's Moral Blindness

In any conflict between peoples or nations the Left seems to assume that the stronger party is ipso facto villainous and the weaker party is noble. This simplistic assumption is nowhere more pellucid than in the current Israeli/Palestinian war. In order to maintain this assumption, though, the Left has to deny or suppress a host of facts. It also has to hold the stronger side of the battle to a standard that it's not willing to impose on the weaker side nor, for that matter, would it be willing to impose it on itself. This is either unintelligent or dishonest, or both.

Consider a recent editorial in the LA Times which is so estranged from reality as to justify the inference that it was written by representatives of Hamas. Breitbart gives us a summary:
The Los Angeles Times leads Thursday with a story entitled: "Gaza's dilemma: Deadly war or suffocating Israeli embargo." According to the story, Palestinians in Gaza are left with no choice but to wage war, because if they do not fire rockets at Israeli civilians, they must accept an Israeli [sic] "embargo." The article omits the obvious point that if Hamas would stop trying to kill Israelis, neither the embargo nor the war itself would be necessary.

The authors, Alexandra Zavis and Bathseva Sobelman, accept that Hamas started the war--and even suggest that most Palestinians in Gaza support it, though there is nothing beyond anecdotal evidence to prove that claim. They also describe Hamas's smuggling tunnels to Egypt--which have been used to import deadly weapons--in positive terms, lamenting their supposed closure: "Residents are left to struggle just to get by."

Nowhere--not once--in the entire article do Zavis or Sobelman note the terror tunnels that Hamas has spent the past several years building to attack Israel, diverting humanitarian aid and building materials for that purpose. Nowhere do they mention the fact that Hamas is using Palestinians as human shields, or that Israel has offered many ceasefires, or that the rockets fired from Gaza are intended to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible.

The article presents "war" or "embargo" as a false choice for Palestinians, utterly ignoring the fact that Gazans could choose peace instead of either of those options.
The Washington Post offers a condign rejoinder to the nonsense purveyed by the LA Times:
The distinguishing feature of the latest war between Israel and Hamas is “offensive tunnels,” as the Israeli army calls them. As of early Wednesday, 28 had been uncovered in Gaza, and nearly half extend into Israel, according to Israeli officials. The tunnels are the reason that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu decided last weekend to launch a ground invasion of Gaza, and they explain why that operation has strong support from Israelis in spite of the relatively heavy casualties it has inflicted.

Most significantly, the tunnels show why it has been difficult to reach a cease-fire and why any accord must forge a new political and security order in Gaza. Hamas’s offensive tunnels should not be confused with the burrows it has dug under Gaza’s border with Egypt to smuggle money, consumer goods and military equipment. The newly discovered structures have only one conceivable purpose: to launch attacks inside Israel. Three times in recent days, Hamas fighters emerged from the tunnels in the vicinity of Israeli civilian communities, which they clearly aimed to attack.

The ­concrete-lined structures are stocked with materials, such as handcuffs and tranquilizers, that could be used on hostages. Other tunnels in northern Gaza are designed for the storage and firing of missiles at Israeli cities.

The resources devoted by Hamas to this project are staggering, particularly in view of Gaza’s extreme poverty. By one Israeli account, the typical tunnel cost $1 million to build over the course of several years, using tons of concrete desperately needed for civilian housing.

By design, many of the tunnels have entrances in the heavily populated Shijaiyah district, where the Israeli offensive has been concentrated. One was found underneath al-Wafa hospital, where Hamas also located a command post and stored weapons, according to Israeli officials.

The depravity of Hamas’s strategy seems lost on much of the outside world, which — following the terrorists’ script — blames Israel for the civilian casualties it inflicts while attempting to destroy the tunnels. While children die in strikes against the military infrastructure that Hamas’s leaders deliberately placed in and among homes, those leaders remain safe in their own tunnels. There they continue to reject cease-fire proposals, instead outlining a long list of unacceptable demands.
Thanks to Hot Air for the links. I was watching MSNBC's Morning Joe yesterday morning when one of the panelists asked a retired El Al Israeli security chief one of the most boneheaded questions I think I've heard since this new war began. He asked the Israeli why, if Iron Dome is so successful in deflecting Palestinian missiles, do the Israelis feel they need to invade Gaza to defend themselves. After all, Hamas has tried without success to kill Israeli civilians by futilely firing thousands of missiles into Israel so why not just sit back and let them keep doing it?

The question was breathtakingly otiose - not just because the rockets aren't the primary reason for the invasion, the tunnels are, but because even if they were the primary reason, they're reason enough. The questioner, whose name I missed, apparently thinks that a policeman shot numerous times by a thug but saved each time by his kevlar vest, should refrain from using deadly force against his assailant by returning fire because he really hadn't suffered any harm.

The MSNBC panelist's question simply shows the lengths to which some will go, even to the point of self-embarrassment, in order to try to pin blame on the tragic Palestinian casualties on Israel rather than on Hamas where it belongs.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Kristallnacht All Over Again

A Parisian suburb known for its multiculturalism exploded in antisemitic hatred the other day.

It's interesting that news reports emphasize that the suburb was a multicultural oasis. Multiculturalism is just a feel-good euphemism for tribalism. Wherever disparate cultures are thrown together they either assimilate or they eventually wind up at each others' throats. The concept of a mosaic of cultures living together in harmony is a liberal fantasy rooted more in an unfounded belief in the inherent goodness of human beings than in empirical historical precedent.

People will only tolerate each other if they share a common core culture - particularly language and values. The more differences there are between people the more they are seen as "other" and the more friction there'll be between them. If there's a history of conflict and bloodshed between them in the countries of origin then the hope that they will get along in their adopted multicultural environment is almost certain to be dashed. This is why celebrations of differences among cultures living together is ill-conceived. What we should celebrate are the things that make us alike. We only encourage resentment and conflict by celebrating our differences and treating others as outsiders. Nations with large minority populations should strive to be cultural melting pots, not mosaics.

Lest we think that an apparent reprise of 1938 in Paris is limited to Europe and the effete French, the same sort of hatred for Jews is simmering in American cities. Boston saw a series of protests in recent days not just against Israel, but against Jews. Antisemitic insults were hurled and police had to extract several Jewish demonstrators from a crowd of pro-Palestinian leftist demonstrators who shouted for Jews to be killed and/or sent back to extermination camps.

The last time the Jews were targeted for murder it was by extremist socialists like the Nazis. This time it's socialists simpliciter. The Left and other Palestinian sympathizers, frustrated by their inability to harm Jews living in Israel, threaten to take out their hatreds on Jews living in supposedly enlightened Europe. Of course, "enlightenment" means little when it comes to tribal hatreds. Germany in 1938 was the most enlightened place in the world. Europeans, just like all human beings, have the heart of a beast covered by a thin patina of civilization. It doesn't take much to dissolve the patina away. Antisemitism seems to be an acid that dissolves that patina more quickly than just about anything else.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Michael Ruse's Ethics

Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting recently interviewed atheist philosopher Michael Ruse for his series of interviews at the New York Times Opinionator blog. At one point in the exchange Gutting asked Ruse about his views on the relationship between religion and morality.

Gutting asked, "Is one of religion’s merits that it provides a foundation (intellectual and practical) for morality through the idea of God as divine lawgiver?" To which Ruse replied,
I am on record as an “evolutionary skeptic.” I don’t deny substantive morality — you ought to return your library books on time — but I do deny objective foundations. I think morality is a collective illusion, genetic in origin, that makes us good cooperators. And I would add that being good cooperators makes each one of us individually better off in the struggle for existence. If we are nice to other people, they are much more likely to be nice to us in return.

However, as the philosopher J.L. Mackie used to argue, I think we “objectify” substantive ethics — we think it objectively the case that we ought return library books on time. But we do this (or rather our genes make us do this) because if we didn’t we would all start to cheat and substantive ethics would collapse to the ground. So I don’t buy the moral argument for the existence of God. I think you can have all of the morality you need without God.
Ruse's response raises several questions. If morality is merely a set of "substantive" rules that we ought to follow if we want other people to treat us well, what if I can get along perfectly well in the "struggle for existence" without following these rules? Would it be wrong for me to ignore them? What if it actually promotes my chances for evolutionary success to flout the rules, would it be wrong to flout them? What if I don't give a fig for my evolutionary success, why should I follow those rules?

Consider a concrete example. I choose to ignore, let us say, the suffering of children in some other part of the world. I'm in a position to help them, I even present myself to others as one who is helping them, but in fact am not. Am I doing anything wrong by ignoring them? What obligates me to help them? Why is it wrong to pose as their benefactor when in fact I am not? On Ruse's view why is it wrong to refuse to help others who will never be in a position to ever return the favor?

Or consider a very powerful ruler who has life and death authority over his subjects. If no harm can come to him for anything he does, what's wrong, on Ruse's view, with such a man treating his political opponents cruelly? Imagine further that this man is able to deceive his people into thinking that he is in fact a kind and benevolent ruler when in fact behind the scenes he's a terribly cruel tyrant. Would Ruse think that would be wrong? It's hard to see how.

Ruse's position leads inevitably to egoism, the view that my good is the only good I need be concerned about. When he says that morality is an illusion that our genes create to get us to cooperate with each other he undercuts any ground for taking morality seriously. Why should we take an illusion seriously? Why should we think that a random, impersonal process like genetic evolution could ever impose a duty on us to behave one way rather than another?

Unless there is an objective moral law established by a transcendent moral authority able to enforce the law and hold us accountable to it there simply is no right or wrong behavior. There are only actions that some of us like and others dislike.

In other words, one can hold that it's wrong to be cruel or one can hold that there is no God (setting aside the matter of how we should properly conceptualize God), but what one cannot do is hold both of these propositions simultaneously. If one is true the other is false.

Atheist philosopher Richard Rorty saw this clearly. He famously observed that "For the secular man there's no answer to the question 'Why not be cruel?' "

On atheism, morality is nothing more than a set of subjective preferences and tastes, of no more significance than a person's preference of one flavor of ice cream over another. That being the case, when an atheist says anything more about another person's behavior than that they like it or don't like it, they're acting as if God exists while simultaneously denying that he does, and that's irrational.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Angry Atheist

A year ago a video appeared on YouTube that ultimately went viral. Perhaps you saw it but, as often happens with pop cultural phenomena, I missed it completely. Happily, it was resurrected by Hot Air's resident atheist Allahpundit who pondered whether the tirade of the man on the video was staged or genuine.

I tend to think for reasons stated by the man who filmed it that it was genuine, but that the man who is the subject of the video needs help and compassion. He seems to be suffering a psychotic episode, but may, on the other hand, not be mentally deranged at all but just be releasing a lot of pent-up anger.

In any case, one wonders how representative of contemporary atheism this man is, not in terms of his behavior so much, but in terms of his convictions. How many people out there are as angry and hate-filled as he? How many atheists are laboring under as many misconceptions about Christianity as this fellow is? For that matter, how many Christians come across to non-Christians as angry and irrational as this man comes across?

The video is both funny and sad - sad because if it's genuine this man has evidently experienced a lot of pain in his life, and funny because, well, you'll have to watch it for yourself.

The incident takes place at Sproul Plaza on Berkeley's campus and viewers are cautioned that there's a lot of obscenity. I was reluctant to post it for that reason, but I chose to do so because I believe the man gives us an important look, though he's an extreme example, at how many people view Christians and Christianity.
You might wish to read also the commentary by atheists Allahpundit and Hement Mehta at the links above.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How the Israelis Know Where to Look

I returned Saturday from a vacation in Italy having spent a week admiring that country's vast treasures of art, history, and architecture. I had been pretty much out of touch with the news while abroad but had heard bits and pieces of the attack on the Malaysian jet by Russian-supported separatists in Ukraine, the ground invasion of Gaza, and the continuing crisis on our southern border.

The globe seems to be overwhelmed with unmanageable crises and yet the President's press secretary, Josh Ernest, assures us that his boss' policies have "made the world more tranquil." Either the world looks very different to people in Washington than it does to us living in the hinterlands or Mr. Ernest has been spending too much time in Colorado availing himself of opportunities afforded by Colorado's new pot laws.

Anyway, I came across a piece at Debkafile on how Israel knows where to look to find targets for their air and ground forces. Here's an excerpt:
IDF (Israeli Defense Force) obtains its eyes on the ground either voluntarily, inadvertently or by interrogating prisoners.

The spies on the ground of the Shin Bet, IDF combat intelligence-gathering and AMAN field units, trained in clandestine operations in an Arab environment, may pick up data bonanzas from ordinary people in war zones, who are willing to talk out of various motives:

Financial: Ordinary Gazan Palestinians, in contrast to their ruling elite, are in dire financial distress. They may be persuaded to part with valuable information for a cash reward or a permit to cross into Israel.

Revenge: They are deeply fragmented by factional and personal rivalries. Certain elements may offer information to settle scores with their opponents.

Safe Guarantee: A Palestinian in Gaza may be willing to sell valuable secrets to buy an IDF guarantee of safety from attack for himself, his family and his property for the duration of the Israeli-Hamas military conflict.

Buying long-term collaborators with financial or medical rewards is one of the key HUMINT operations which are performed under cover of the IDF ground incursion.
How likely is it, do you suppose, that the Palestinians have cultivated the same sorts of sources among Israelis?

Of course, different measures are employed against captured combatants but even with these the Israelis prefer subtlety to force:
Contrary to conventional assumptions, Israeli interrogators have not found violence to be the most productive method of extracting secrets from unwilling subjects. They obtain their best results by tricks and subterfuge and, dovetailing the information obtained with the data incoming from other sources, human and other.

They also act on the premise that their subjects may be utterly faithful to their national and religious ideals, but some may also be human beings with personal ambitions, wives, aging parents or sick children in need of medical or other assistance. Therefore, a detailed rundown on the subject’s CV obtained in advance will give the investigator the advantage of knowing where to apply pressure to extract information.

This sort of pressure is apt to produce a gold mine, the key piece of information for unlocking such secrets as the locations of terrorist tunnel openings – the first of which Israel ground forces in fact found Friday night in schools, private homes and greenhouses.

It may also yield from prisoners such valuable data as the whereabouts of the booby traps Hamas rigged for invaders, the identities of contact men, the Hamas chain of command, its combat systems, its technological resources and its command and control centers.
One of the things Israeli interrogators have learned is that Hamas has built its command and control center in the basement of a hospital to protect it from Israeli air attack. They've placed their rocket launchers in schools and homes for the same reason. That is a very illuminating fact for two reasons: It's an acknowledgement that Israel tries hard to avoid civilian casualties, a fact which Hamas exploits, and it offers a stark contrast with Hamas which would not be deterred at all from bombing an Israeli hospital whether or not there were military targets therein.

As Benjamin Netanyahu said the other day, Israel uses missiles (Iron Dome) to protect it's people. Hamas uses people to protect it's missiles. Indeed, Hamas is reported to be telling people in Gaza not to flee their homes because they know that if the people flee the Israelis will be less reluctant to assault urban areas, and they also know that if the people stay and some are killed this works to Hamas' advantage in the court of world opinion.

It could in fact be argued that Hamas cares less about the welfare of the Palestinian people who are useful merely as human shields than do the Israelis. If Hamas did care about their people they would've spent a far larger percentage of the millions of dollars in aid they've received from the global community, including the U.S., on mitigating the rough edges of the poverty in which Gaza is mired and less on weaponry and tunnel building.

All of which illustrates the difference between a civilized people and barbarians.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Vacations, Mine and Yours

I'll be away until next week so Viewpoint will be on hiatus. Please feel free to browse the archives in my absence.

Speaking of absence, if you're looking for a good summer time read please consider In the Absence of God.

With as much humility as I can muster, let me say that it'd be a great book to take to the beach, or anywhere you're vacationing this summer. Thanks for considering it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

An Important Difference

The difference between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs could not have been more starkly on display than it was in the wake of the recent murders of three Israeli teens and, in retaliation, a Palestinian boys.

When the young Israelis were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas the Palestinian people celebrated. Palestinian websites praised the crimes and the perpetrators. No attempt was made by Palestinian authorities to apprehend the murderers. When the Palestinian boy was killed in retaliation the Palestinians rioted.

Nevertheless, the Israelis hunted down the killers of the Palestinian teen and arrested six Israeli suspects, some of whom have confessed and now face prosecution.

Israel acted like a civilized nation, the Palestinians acted like barbarians, and much of the Western media acted like blockheads, prominently featuring the murder of the Palestinian boy, the awful but relatively minor beating of another Arab boy who happened to be an American, and the rage of the Palestinian people, while scarcely mentioning the three murdered Israeli youngsters. In our leftist media Israeli lives seem somehow not so important.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Sermon for Our Times

Andrew Klavan packs an excellent message into these few paragraphs:
I am a skilled hiker, but a week or so ago, I made a perilous error. Carelessly neglecting my clear and accurate guide, I mistook a side path for the main trail down the mountain. As I descended along the narrow track, the way became steeper and steeper until, abruptly, it ended at a sheer cliff above a long fall. Short on water, out of breath, weakened by the blistering heat, I looked up and saw my only other option was a dauntingly vertical climb back to the main trail above. My heart misgave me.

Then three words came into my mind unbidden: Don’t be afraid.

I know who speaks those words to me. I said a quick prayer to him for courage and felt myself promptly flooded with the stuff. I began the climb, and though the way was very difficult, and even dangerous once or twice, I was surprised how quickly I found myself back on the main trail, the way home.

Our country has made a similar error, and equally perilous. We have carelessly neglected our clear and accurate guide to the governance of a free people. We have gone by another way into a steeper and steeper decline. Soon, we will reach a point where the only choice is between a catastrophic fall and a long, hard, upward journey. Our hearts may tell us the climb is impossible.
Don’t be afraid.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Rising Conservative Majority?

David Leonhardt at The Upshot, a New York Times blog, writes a column in which he speculates that today's teens may be growing increasingly conservative. Here are a few excerpts:

There was a time not so long ago when the young seemed destined to be liberal forever. Americans in their teens and 20s were to the left of their elders on social issues. They worried more about poverty. They voted strongly Democratic....

In the simplest terms, the Democrats control the White House (and, for now, the Senate) at a time when the country is struggling. Economic growth has been disappointing for almost 15 years now. Most Americans think this country is on the wrong track. Our foreign policy often seems messy and complex, at best....

To Americans in their 20s and early 30s — the so-called millennials — many of these problems have their roots in George W. Bush’s presidency. But think about people who were born in 1998, the youngest eligible voters in the next presidential election. They are too young to remember much about the Bush years or the excitement surrounding the first Obama presidential campaign. They instead are coming of age with a Democratic president who often seems unable to fix the world’s problems.

“We’re in a period in which the federal government is simply not performing,” says Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center, the author of a recent book on generational politics, “and that can’t be good for the Democrats.”

Academic research has found that generations do indeed have ideological identities. People are particularly shaped by events as they first become aware of the world, starting as young as 10 years old, as a new analysis by the political scientists Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gelman notes.

In other words, young people who come of age during the Obama years, Leonhardt fears, are going to be unimpressed with liberalism and its promises of a smoothly running governmental machine and candy for everybody.

As much as I'd like for Leonhardt to be right, I'm not sure he is. The allure of government handouts and the chimeric benefits of cradle to grave security resonates with those who never stop to think about things like who'll pay for it and how it will be paid for. Nor do they give much thought to what government dependency does to the moral fiber of a society. A lot of people just want the goodies and couldn't care less where they come from. That's why conservatives, being more thoughtful, rational, and prudent, will probably always be a minority in this country.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Perpetual War

Ever since its founding in 1948 the Israelis have been fighting a defensive war against their neighbors, particularly the Palestinians. Their neighbors attack and Israel responds until the attack is repulsed and their enemies lack the ability to continue. Then the world prevails upon Israel to relent, to show restraint, and retreat from the field which, of course, allows the enemy to recover, regroup, resupply, and at some future date restart the whole cycle all over again.

It seems like an exercise in futility, but this is the status quo in the Middle East and it will continue until Israel's foes, who have sworn its destruction, ultimately wear it down and destroy it. It often seems that this would not bother the West overmuch, which perversely views the stronger more civilized side in a dispute to be ipso facto the evil aggressor and oppressor. Nevertheless, the prospect of their ultimate destruction should bother Israel, one would think, unless, like the rest of the West, they've succumbed to the notion, promoted by the left for the last eighty years or so, that the civilized nations of the West just don't deserve to survive.

Perhaps it's time for Israel to create a new status quo. Perhaps it's time to eliminate Hamas in Gaza. Roger Simon at PJ Media puts it this way:
A permanent truce, i.e., genuine peace, does not seem part of the vocabulary of jihadists whose sworn goal is to make the world Islamic, sooner or later, like it or not. They just take a time out when it looks as if they could be in trouble, like a hockey player with a twisted ankle. As an example, Hamas is known for its hudnas, cooling down (or pretending to) and then heating up again as soon as possible to do what the beginning of its charter always promised it would do — destroy Israel.

For years the bien pensant of the West (Europe, the U.S.) have urged, actually put strong pressure on, Israel to play the hudna game with Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and the rest of the sociopathic Islamofascist crew. The Israelis, from a humanistic tradition and anxious to be thought well of, have acquiesced, even when they have the extreme whip hand. The results have been as one would predict: another war, another hudna and on and on. This has been going on since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, even before that really. In other words, for a long while.

Maybe it’s time for a different approach. How about just...winning?
What many Israelis realize but many other Westerners seemingly don't is that radical Islam is in a state of permanent war with the world. It's been going on since the 7th century and will continue until Islam is the only religion in the world (actually it will continue beyond that as Muslims will be killing each other to decide which sect of Islam will be the only sect in the world). We will never be safe from this threat. To think that it's at an end, or that we have somehow made peace with the Islamists, is to confuse their temporary tactic of hudna with a genuine desire for peace.

The world shouts "peace, peace" but there is no peace. The Islamists don't want peace, they want total victory. That's why there's really no solution to the conflict in the Middle East and no prospect of compromise.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Talk of Impeachment Is Premature

Sarah Palin said the other day, quite rightly, I think, that if this president doesn't deserve impeachment then no president does. True, true. Mr. Obama has, inter very many alia, failed to uphold the laws he took an oath to uphold, but nevertheless I think impeachment efforts at this point would be a mistake. Pat Buchanan is correct, in my opinion, when he writes this:
Any Republican attempt at impeachment would go up against a stacked deck. And the GOP would be throwing away a winning hand for a losing one.

For while the American people have shown no interest in impeaching Obama, they are coming to believe they elected an incompetent executive and compulsive speechmaker who does not know what the presidency requires and who equates talk with action.

With the economy shrinking 3 percent in the first quarter, with Obama sinking in public approval, and with the IRS, NSA and VA scandals bubbling, why would Republicans change the subject to impeachment?

The effect would be to enrage and energize the Democratic base, bring out the African-American vote in force and cause the major media to charge the GOP with a racist scheme to discredit and destroy our first black president.

Does the GOP really want a fight on that turf, when they currently hold the high ground? If you are winning an argument, why change the subject?

If the nation is led to believe Republicans seek to gain the Senate so they can remove Barack Obama from office after a GOP-led impeachment, then Republicans are not likely to win the Senate.
It's a tough call because Republicans shouldn't be putting the nation at risk by allowing a man wholly unsuited for the office to continue to dig us into an ever deepening hole just to make it more likely that the GOP will prevail in 2016. Even so, it seems more prudent to me to view the task at hand as continuing to educate the public as to the destructive nature of Mr. Obama's policies and those of his allies in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Impeachment may come, but it should come when the overwhelming number of Americans have indicated that they want the President out, and as far as I can tell we haven't yet reached that point.

Mr. Obama is not popular, but his unpopularity shouldn't be confused with a willingness to see the first black president thrown out of office. As Buchanan points out, that's something which at this juncture, neither the media, nor the African-American community, nor the majority of Democrats would abide. Even so, there are signs that the nation might be moving in that direction. The November election results should give us some inkling of what's in the offing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Obama's Long Fall

Joseph Curl cites a new Quinnipiac poll in support of his claim that President Obama is the worst president of our lifetime. I don't think polls are a good measure of such things, though. After all, the second worst president in the poll was George W. Bush who was ranked worse than both Carter and Nixon, which is absurd. Whether the current president is the worst or not - I think a strong case can be made on the basis of evidence unrelated to polls that he is - he has certainly made himself unpopular with everyone but liberal Democrats who stick with him, I believe, only because he's their guy on the left. Many liberals are embarrassed by the utter ineptness he has displayed throughout his term, but Obama's ideology is their ideology and they're not going to throw him overboard as long as he remains the symbol of modern progressivism.

Yet the policies of this administration have been disastrous. A piece at the Daily Beast lays the Iraq debacle largely at the feet of a dithering White House, and the tragedy on our southern border has been allowed to explode with little sign that the President has any desire to stop it.

Meanwhile, over the last six years the nation has grown to despise a mendacious IRS, an obtrusive NSA, an incompetent State Department which bungled Benghazi, a worse than incompetent HHS which bungled the Obamacare rollout, a corrupt Veterans Affairs Department, and a Department of Justice whose sole mission seems to be to cover the President's derriere.

All of this corruption and incompetence is tolerated, if not encouraged, by the President. He has obstructed every attempt to hold any of the malefactors accountable and has presided over six years of continuous scandal and economic malaise. He has rewarded his corporate and union cronies with taxpayer bailouts and supports, he has done nothing to get the economy firing on all cylinders, and is either deliberately trying to diminish the stature of this country on the world stage, in which case he is malevolent, or is simply a poseur who prefers to be out on the golf course or jetting around the world to solving the country's problems.

Like I said, polls should be treated with skepticism, but they seem to be unanimous nonetheless in showing that it's only a remnant of Americans who have any lingering confidence in Mr. Obama's ability, his intelligence, or his integrity.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Why Liberals Can't Govern

John Hawkins at Townhall.com explains the reasons behind what has become increasingly obvious to even the most myopic observers - that liberals are terrible at governing. He gives six reasons and his elaborations on those reasons are important. Here's part of what he writes:
When you think poor governance, you think liberalism. Barack Obama could fairly be called the worst President in history and one of his biggest competitors for that crown is Jimmy Carter, whose name primarily brings to mind the words "malaise," "hostage crisis," and "liberal peanut farmer." Lyndon Johnson? Other than the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which more Republicans voted for percentage-wise than Democrats, his presidency was a complete disaster.

Of course, liberal incompetence isn't just confined to the White House. Who botched the hurricane preparation for New Orleans so badly that tens of thousands of people were stuck in a city built inside of a geological soup bowl when Hurricane Katrina rolled in? Liberals. Who bankrupted Detroit? Liberals. Why are states like Illinois, Michigan, and California on track to default on their debts in the next few years? Liberals.
Hawkins goes on to give six reasons why the record of liberal administrations in our nations cities, states, and federal government is so poor. His reasons are these:
  1. Their political alliances require a lot of corruption.
  2. Their close-mindedness keeps them from getting feedback.
  3. They don't care if their policies work.
  4. Their strategy is centered around amassing government power.
  5. They don't like America very much.
  6. They believe the ends justify the means.
Hawkins defends each of these allegations at the link. I think a couple of other points could be made on this. For example, another reason, in addition to those Hawkins discusses, that liberalism makes for a poor governing ideology is that to be a liberal is to be in favor of change for the sake of change. Thus, even if a circumstance is as good as it can humanly be, it's never good enough if it's not perfect and it needs therefore to be changed. Changing an optimal situation, however, always makes it worse than it was.

Another problem is that for liberals the answer to every problem is for the state to create a right, a tax, a law, to impose a regulation, or to spend money. When the state does everything for people the people grow dependent upon it and demand that it do even more. They lose their initiative, their sense of self-reliance and personal responsibility. They grow passive and indolent. A disaster strikes New Orleans and the citizens wait for the state to rescue them and to rebuild their community. A similar disaster strikes a town in the mid-west and the people don't wait for the state to help, they rebuild it themselves.

Indeed, one of the worst indictments of liberalism, in my opinion, is that it punishes initiative, ambition, and hard work and rewards lassitude and self-indulgence. That's no way to produce a vibrant society.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Last Good American Atheist

Sean Salai S.J. writes movingly of the evolution of Christopher Hitchens from an independent-minded political journalist of the first order to an alcohol-fueled, full-time atheist. Salai begins his remembrance this way:
I asked the middle-aged man across from me, “Who was the last good American president?” It was the year 2000. As a 19-year old college journalist studying history and political science, I was eager to know my drinking partner’s response to this question. He had just finished railing against Presidents Clinton, Reagan and Bush '41. At this point, I was wondering if he liked any U.S. president at all.

To my surprise, I didn’t have long to wait for an answer. Without hesitation, Christopher Hitchens leaned across the table, looked me in the eye, and quipped with boozy conviction: “Eisenhower.” Then he sipped his whiskey, took a drag from his cigarette, and exhaled through his nose as he stared me in the eye, waiting for my reaction amidst the frivolity of our dingy student hangout.

Amused, I asked: Why Eisenhower?

“Because he was the last president who didn’t take a dump on the Constitution,” Hitchens shot back, taking another drag.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about Hitchens, the British-born journalist who died at 62 on Dec. 15, 2011. He had a knack for punctuating discussions with playful one-liners. Some of his witticisms still come to mind whenever I go to a bookstore and see his books on atheism perched—ironically enough—on the religion and philosophy shelf.

When I shared that drink with him in March 2000, the self-described “conservative Marxist” had come to Wabash College in Indiana to debate Ronald Reagan’s legacy with the conservative Catholic political pundit Dinesh D’Souza. It was Reagan Appreciation Week at Wabash, where the student news magazine I edited had paid for these two men to cross swords. Hitchens is on my mind partly because, 10 years ago this summer, he wrote an article for Slate.com on the Wabash debate that remains posted online here [linked in the original].

At the time I saw him debate D'Souza, Hitchens was still a razor-sharp political writer for The Nation magazine, not the village atheist he later became. He was different in those days, more fun and less bitter. I, the future Jesuit, was not even Catholic when I met him.

Today I marvel at how God brought us together for that conversation after the debate. In my memory, the Hitchens who wrote leftist essays for The Nation 14 years ago was different from the Hitchens who made a public career out of atheism while dying from esophageal cancer. Sometimes I wonder whether they were even the same person.
There's more at the link. If you liked Hitchens, or if you didn't, you'll find Salai's essay interesting.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Declaration of Independence

Today being Independence Day in these United States I thought it might be instructive to revisit The Declaration of Independence with the aim of ascertaining what the Mother Country was doing that motivated the Founders to put their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor all on the line by breaking free of British oppression. The document was written largely by Thomas Jefferson who borrowed some of his phraseology from the British philosopher John Locke.
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Note that the Founders believed that our equality is a gift from God and that our fundamental rights come from God. Neither of these come from the state. The role of the state is to insure that the equality and rights that God grants are secured by the laws it enacts. If God does not exist then human equality and human rights are fictions.
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
These paragraphs are a close paraphrase of passages in Locke's Second Treatise on Government and reflect the influence of Locke on Jefferson.
Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
Revolution is both a right and a duty when the government abuses its proper role, when it usurps power to which it is not entitled. This is what King George III was guilty of in the minds of the colonial Americans. Jefferson enumerates the long train of abuses and usurpations. Some items on the list may have a contemporary ring to them:
  • He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
  • He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
  • He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
The King refused to pass laws that the people wanted and refused to enforce laws he didn't like.
  • He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
  • He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
  • He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
  • He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
  • He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
  • He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
  • He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.
The King unleashed a pestilential bureaucracy upon the colonies which essentially made it impossible for businesses to thrive.
  • He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
  • He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
  • He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
  • For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
  • For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
  • For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
  • For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
  • For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:
  • For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:
  • For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
  • For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
  • For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
The King used his sovereign power to overrule the will of the colonies and to prevent them from passing laws and adopting measures they deemed proper and necessary.
  • He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
  • He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
  • He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
  • He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
  • He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
Jefferson then concludes with this:
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

(57 Signers)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Why Isn't the Universe God?

It's often argued that the universe must have had a cause and that this fact is more probable with the belief that naturalism is false and theism is true. The naturalist objects that if everything has a cause then God must have had a cause. This objection is philosophically naive for several reasons, but Ed Feser at First Things explains one of them in a review of a book by atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss. Feser writes:
A critic might reasonably question the arguments for a divine first cause of the cosmos. But to ask “What caused God?” misses the whole reason classical philosophers thought his existence necessary in the first place. So when physicist Lawrence Krauss begins his new book by suggesting that to ask “Who created the creator?” suffices to dispatch traditional philosophical theology, we know it isn’t going to end well.

In general, classical philosophical theology argues for the existence of a first cause of the world, a cause that does not merely happen not to have a cause of its own but that (unlike everything else that exists) in principle does not require one. Nothing else can provide an ultimate explanation of the world.

For Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, for example, things in the world can change only if there is something that changes or actualizes everything else without the need (or indeed even the possibility) of its being actualized itself, precisely because it is already “pure actuality.” Change requires an unchangeable changer or unmovable mover.

For Neoplatonists, everything made up of parts can be explained only by reference to something that combines the parts. Accordingly, the ultimate explanation of things must be utterly simple and therefore without the need or even the possibility of being assembled into being by something else. Plotinus called this “the One.” For Leibniz, the existence of anything that is in any way contingent can be explained only by its origin in an absolutely necessary being.

But Krauss simply can’t see the “difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without one.” The difference, as the reader of Aristotle or Aquinas knows, is that the universe changes while the unmoved mover does not, or, as the Neoplatonist can tell you, that the universe is made up of parts while its source is absolutely one; or, as Leibniz could tell you, that the universe is contingent and God absolutely necessary. There is thus a principled reason for regarding God rather than the universe as the terminus of explanation.
Leibniz's point is that the universe is itself contingent and the sum of all contingent entities. That is, the universe's continued existence is dependent upon something beyond itself which must not be contingent since, if it were, it would be part of the universe. Thus, that upon which the universe depends must have necessary being, meaning that whatever it is, it depends on nothing else for its existence. It's uncreated, uncaused, and self-existent.

There's more of Feser's critique of Krauss' book at the link. His review, like reviews by philosophers of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and similar works by other atheistic scientists, shows the value of philosophers in the marketplace of ideas. We might say, paraphrasing Einstein, that science without philosophy is blind. Certainly a lot of scientists are intellectually handicapped by their failure to understand the philosophical implications of what they write about, particularly when they write about God.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Poetry Feeds the Soul

A friend and I were discussing over lunch the other day the incredible literary quality of letters written by Civil War soldiers. The writers were often young men in their teens or early twenties and, as my friend said, reading them is like reading Shakespeare. Not every young man in the middle of the 19th century could write like this, of course, and doubtless many of them were illiterate, but the point is that so many of them could and so few today could.

There's no gainsaying that we've lost something of value when we lost the ability, and the inclination, to write so eloquently. A man or woman who writes with elegance is an artist, a poet. A culture in which ordinary people are artists or poets of this sort is deeply enriched thereby.

Perhaps one reason we so rarely see contemporary writing of this sort is because we no longer think this way and the reason we no longer think this way is, in part, because we've abandoned poetry in our schools. Suzanne Fields elaborates on this in a recent column. She writes:
The other day a teacher of a ninth-grade English class at an elite private school in the nation’s capital asked students who had transferred from public schools to list the poets they had studied. Several hands shot up, eager to tell. When one of them said “Langston Hughes,” the hands quickly went down. Langston Hughes, a distinguished black poet well worth reading, was nevertheless the only poet they knew.

Gone from their classrooms were the old staples, Samuel Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Walt Whitman’s “My Captain, My Captain.” These poems once were essential parts of a child’s poetic repertoire, learned before high school. Many public school students are cheated now by the politically correct, deprived of a sense of the sweep of poetry power that once made up the common cultural heritage.

Kids don’t get to dance with the daffodils, grow thirsty with “water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink,” and read “quoth the raven evermore.” They never know the playful fun of teasing someone with big feet as having “longfellows.”

Help may be on the way. Last week, James Billington, the librarian of Congress, named Charles Wright as the new poet laureate of the United States, a man who thinks poetry leads to thoughtful reflection, a scarce commodity indeed in contemporary Washington. Mr. Wright, a soft-spoken Southerner who keeps a lock of Robert E. Lee’s hair on his desk, is apolitical in a political world. He finds “the true purpose of poetry to be a contemplation of the divine — however you find it, or don’t find it.”

Such refreshing insights could usher in a new appreciation of language, reviving an interest in the importance of the precise word in the right place at the right time for those addicted to the idiomatic shortcuts of texting. This is particularly good news for conservatives, since the use of precise language conserves what’s left of the best in a debased media culture where talk drives out the written word.
There's more to her excellent column. Please read the whole thing. She closes with this thought:
“Without poetry, there’s just talk,” Mr. Wright, the new poet laureate, tells The Paris Review. “Talk is cheap and proves nothing. Poetry is dear and difficult to come by. But it poles us across the river and puts music in our ears. It moves us to contemplation.” Are we listening?
To the extent that students are no longer required to read and memorize great poetry (and other literature, for that matter) we impoverish them and us. It's as if we deliberately have extinguished a big part of our individual and collective soul.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Just Weigh the Fish

Philosopher Robert Pasnau pens an entertaining column at The Stone about the low esteem in which philosophy is held in some academic precincts. Here's his lede:
Morale these days has fallen pretty low along the corridors of philosophy departments. From one side, we get the mockery of the scientists. Freeman Dyson calls philosophy today “a toothless relic of past glories.” According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, majoring in philosophy “can really mess you up.” Stephen Hawking declares that “philosophy is dead.” From another side, we have to cope with the apostasy of our own leading figures. John Searle describes the field as being in “terrible shape.” Peter Unger says that philosophers are “under the impression that they’re saying something new and interesting about how it is about the world, when in fact this is all an illusion.” What’s going on? Has philosophy gone horribly amiss? Or are there broader cultural factors at work, perhaps something to do with a general decline in respect for the humanities?

Philosophers have always been the subject of ridicule, both from within and without. RenĂ© Descartes thought the entire discipline — up until his arrival, at least — had failed to make any important progress. A century later, David Hume wanted to take most of what philosophers had written and “commit it to the flames.” Such scorn goes all the way back to the origins of the subject. Thales, who many consider the first Western philosopher, was reputed to have been so distracted while out on his evening walk that he once fell into a well. Falling to the bottom of a well is presumably no laughing matter, even when it happens to a philosopher. But the Thracian servant girl who discovered him is said to have reacted not with concern but scorn; she ridiculed him for being so oblivious.

Thales, as it happens, was a founding figure not just for philosophy but also for science. Indeed, the usual reason given for his fall is not that he was ogling the girl (as some readers today might suspect of a philosopher) but that he was studying the stars.

For the next 2,000 years, the sciences were assumed to be a part of philosophy — indeed, what the philosopher mainly did was to pursue science. And that is precisely what they were mocked for: always pursuing and never attaining. Pietro Pomponazzi, a Renaissance philosopher, cautioned his students that their field would be the greatest of careers but for two things. One, of course, was that philosophy did not pay. The other was that it constantly failed to achieve results, and so rather than being a serious discipline, it was more like “playing with toys.” Several centuries later, Charles II is said to have himself toyed with the philosophers, asking them to explain why a fish weighs more after it has died. Upon receiving various ingenious answers, he pointed out that in fact a dead fish does not weigh anything more.
One aspect of philosophy that makes it unpopular with some academics is that it tends to impose boundaries on them. It seeks to draw lines of demarcation separating science from non-science, right from wrong, beautiful from non-beautiful, knowledge from non-knowledge, justice from injustice, truth from falsity, meaningfulness from nonsense. This is a problem because practitioners in other disciplines don't like non-practitioners calling them out for transgressing boundaries set by the non-practitioners. In any event there's much more from Pasnau at the link.