Saturday, August 30, 2014

Cruel Logic

I posted this last January, but, since the topic is coming up in my classes again this week I thought it'd be appropriate to post it again:

Here's the background. A professor has given a lecture this evening in which he claims that our behavior is the product of our genetic make-up. We don't really have free will. We're pretty much at the mercy of our genes which means that we're not really responsible for what we choose to do.

A psychopath has managed to kidnap the professor and challenges him to defend this thesis in the real world. The video, titled Cruel Logic, is pretty grim but as you watch it ask yourself, given the assumptions of the professor, what answer could he make to the psychopath's challenge.
If you were in the professor's position what could you say to save your life? Does the psychopath's behavior make sense if the professor is correct? If man truly is morally autonomous, if there is no objective standard of right and wrong, then what's actually wrong with the psychopath's behavior, beyond the fact that we're repelled by it? Does being repelled by something make it morally wrong?

The only way to resist the conclusion that there's really nothing wrong with what he's doing is to deny the premise that morality is a completely subjective phenomenon. But, in the absence of an objective, transcendent ground for moral behavior, there is no way to judge the psychopath's behavior as being wrong.

As philosopher Richard Rorty once said, the secular man has no answer to the question, why not be cruel. Ideas do indeed have consequences. If you believe that gratuitous cruelty is in fact wrong then you have to acknowledge that there's an objective standard of morality, but once you've taken that step, it's very hard to avoid the conclusion that there's a transcendent, personal, moral authority that has established that objective standard.

In other words, it's very hard to see how one can be a naturalist (i.e. an atheist) and also believe that what the psychopath in this video is doing is wrong.

Friday, August 29, 2014

No Strategy for Dealing with ISIS

In a press conference yesterday President Obama announced that he doesn't have a strategy yet for dealing with ISIS in Syria, and a lot of people are wondering why that is. The military, after all, spends countless hours working up detailed plans for every contingency. Surely they had a plan for dealing with ISIS long before anyone in the public ever heard of the group since our intelligence services have known about them for at least a year. For the president to sound as if ISIS just came along and now we have to come up with a strategy to address the threat they pose does little to bolster confidence in his leadership.

We can be assured that Mr. Obama would have no trouble coming up with a strategy for dealing with, say, John Boehner and the Republicans. I'm reasonably confident that he already has a strategy for dealing with the Republicans if they win the Senate in November, so why is it so hard to come up with a strategy for dealing with an army which everyone in the region despises and which has no air force.

Perhaps Mr. Obama's hectic schedule of sundry vacations, fundraisers, golf games and whatnot has made it difficult for him to sit down and actually pick one of those contingency plans to execute. Okay, but as the President eases himself into semi-retirement we can hope he soon comes up with a plan to neutralize the threat because it won't be long before these savages are doing to Americans here what they're doing to non-Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.

Robert Tracinski at The Federalist writes:
It has become obvious that the group that calls itself ISIS or just the Islamic State is the most serious terrorist threat to the United States since 9/11, and allowing its formation is the biggest mistake of President Obama’s administration.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently called ISIS “a force and a dimension that the world has never seen before.” It is not just a terrorist group distinguished by its brutality and fanaticism. It is not just a group that has demonstrated its interest in killing Americans. Worst of all, this is a group filled with an unprecedented number of jihadists from Europe, and even a few from America—Western passport-holders who will almost certainly make their way back home. According to the group’s own threats, ISIS members or sympathizers are already here.

So it cannot be allowed to exist, not without courting the risk of another 9/11. But no one in the administration seems to have figured out what will be required to make that happen.

I don’t just mean the size of the effort, though that’s part of it. While it would be nice to rely on local proxies like the Kurds, it’s becoming clear that there is no one on the ground in Iraq and Syria who can defeat them. Eradicating ISIS—not just suppressing them or stopping their advance, which is all we’ve done so far—will require a much larger effort. I’m pretty certain it will require American boots on the ground.

I’m sorry if that makes you nervous or breaks a campaign pledge or means you have to turn your back on your dad’s anti-war rhetoric. Don’t want another 9/11? Then you’ve got to get serious about ISIS. Suck it up.

As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey has been telling everyone, taking down ISIS will also require intervening in Syria. And that’s the real problem, the one issue that no one seems to have thought through. If all we do is go after ISIS, we are acting as shock troops for Bashar al-Assad (By eliminating his biggest threat and allowing him to focus his fire on the more moderate rebel groups).

If it seems like a disaster that we’re being drawn into a wider war in the Middle East, the irony is that this is a consequence of the Obama administration’s attempt to withdraw from the region and leave it to its own devices. It turns out that we can’t do that. Aside from the strategic importance of the region’s oil, the Middle East is the center and homeland of Islamic jihadism, which sees us (correctly) as its antipode and seeks to do us harm. This is a threat that we can’t allow to grow, which is what 9/11 taught us.
The days when we could retreat behind two big oceans and hide our heads in the sand are over. The Islamists simply won't allow us that option. They want to kill us and we're only making it easier for them by refusing to get involved now while they're still acquiring their strength.

Meanwhile, if the president is entertaining ideas for an immediate tactic while he mulls over a long-term strategy at his next fundraiser perhaps he might consider putting enough air assets into place in both Iraq and in bases near Syria so that every time an ISIS member peeks out a window he beholds a missile hurtling at several hundred miles per hour directly toward his Adam's apple.

No thanks or remuneration from the White House for this suggestion are necessary.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Molecular Machines

There are three possible positions to take with respect to biological evolution. One can hold that (1) all of life arose by random, unguided processes driven by nothing more than chemistry and natural selection; or one can hold that (2) evolution never occurred at all; or one can hold that (3) to the extent that evolution has occurred it was somehow directed by an intelligent agent.

Watch the following video about a cellular nanomachine called kinesin, one of thousands of such tiny molecular machines in every cell of every living organism and ask yourself which of the above views seems intuitively most likely.
Not only is the work of this vanishingly small molecule itself amazing but remember that something must be directing it in the cell so that it transports its cargo to the proper location, so that the microtubule on which it "walks" gets constructed, so that it recognizes whether another kinesin needs help, so that its own construction is executed properly so that it functions effectively, and all of these directions require information that must somehow have arisen and is stored somewhere in the cell and accessed where and when needed. This is all nothing short of astonishing.

I don't know which of the alternatives in the first paragraph is the correct one, but I hope I'll be forgiven for saying that I have a great deal of trouble seeing how it could possibly be (1).

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How Liberalism Stifles an Economy

Burger King is joining the growing list of corporations which are relocating their corporate offices outside of the country in order to avoid our onerous 35% corporate income tax. This is the highest tax rate in the developed world and since Mr. Obama took office in 2008 two dozen corporations have decided that the United States is simply too expensive to live in.

The flight to cheaper climes is called inversion and it's got a lot Democrats in a swivet which is ironic since deep down Democrats realize that taxes provide all sorts of disincentives for businesses, or at least they seem to since television commercials are running locally trying to persuade businesses to move to New York, a blue state, by offering tax breaks to businesses that come there.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration and others on the left refuse to change the U.S. rate and instead criticize and threaten corporations which participate in the exodus.

When businesses leave the country they not only pay less in taxes to Washington, they also take jobs with them which means more unemployment and even less tax revenue. The Obama administration is calling these corporations unpatriotic and threatening them with coercive sanctions to keep them here, a sort of economic Berlin wall, so to speak, to prevent corporations from going where they can thrive and prosper. It's the universal knee-jerk reaction of those with dictatorial inclinations to solve every problem by curtailing freedom.

Inversion is similar to the problem liberals have created in many of our urban areas. They tax those who pay taxes so heavily that anyone with money flees the city and all that's left are those too poor to leave and too poor to pay taxes. It's one reason why so many of our cities take on the aspect of a vast wasteland. High taxes drive out wealth.

What would happen, though, if congress decided to reduce the corporate tax rate to bring it in line with other countries in Europe and North America? What impact would that have on corporate investment, hiring, and retail prices. It sounds like it would be a boon to the economy which pretty much guarantees it won't happen anytime soon.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Age of Atheism

Lincoln Mullen has a review in Books and Culture of Peter Watson's The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God.

Mullen makes a point which I think needs to be clarified. He writes that:
The most common charge that Christians level against atheists is that they have no morals.
He might be right that this is a common charge, but even so the moral problem that Christians (and theists in general) have with atheism is not that atheists don't have moral values but rather that they have no ground for making moral judgments beyond their own subjective preferences.

Take a concrete example. A tobacco company lies about the danger its product poses to the consumer. A theist would say that such deception is objectively wrong because it violates the will of the Creator who ordains that people be treated with dignity, respect, and kindness, a command that rules out lying in any way that harms people.

The atheist may also be outraged that the tobacco company has lied to people about the hazards of using its product, but the only reason there would be, if atheism is true, for condemning the company's behavior is that one simply doesn't like it. If an atheist were to respond that it's just wrong to hurt people, the question needs to be asked, "Why is it wrong?" If atheism is true then we are here as a result of a blind, impersonal, evolutionary process, and blind, impersonal processes cannot impose a moral duty on any one. Nor can such processes prescribe behavior, nor declare the behavior wrong in any meaningful moral sense.

Lots of thoughtful atheists recognize this. Consider the following quotes by thinkers all of whom are, or were, atheists:
  • What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler was right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question. ~ Richard Dawkins
  • What’s moral is what you feel good after and what’s immoral is what you feel bad after. ~ Ernest Hemmingway
  • This philosopher (Joel Marks is speaking of himself) has been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t…Thelong and short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality…I experienced myshocking epiphany that religious fundamentalists are correct; without God there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality....Even though words like “sinful” and “evil” come naturally to the tongue as, say, a description of child molesting. They do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God…nothing is literally right or wrong because there is no Morality. Joel Marks
  • Morality is nothing but the sum total, the net residuum, of social habits, the codification of customs....The only immoral person, in any country, is he who fails to observe the current folkways. Margaret Sanger
  • For the secular man there's no answer to the question, why not be cruel. Richard Rorty.
  • The attempts to found a morality apart from religion are like the attempts of children who, wishing to transplant a flower that pleases them, pluck it from the roots that seem to them unpleasing and superfluous, and stick it rootless into the ground. Without religion there can be no real, sincere morality, just as without roots there can be no real flower. Leo Tolstoy
  • Communism abolishes all eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality. Karl Marx
  • One who does not believe in God or an afterlife can have for his rule of life…only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best. Charles Darwin
  • As evolutionists, we see that no justification (of morality) of the traditional kind is possible. Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends . . . In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding....Ethics is illusory inasmuch as it persuades us that it has an objective reference. This is the crux of the biological position. Once it is grasped, everything falls into place. E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse
  • Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear – and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death....There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will.... Will Provine
  • I would accept Elizabeth Anscombe’s suggestion that 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. Richard Rorty
So, the problem with atheism, as the theist sees it, is not that atheists can't choose to adopt the sort of values that the theist calls moral. Of course, they can. The problem is that they wouldn't be wrong in any meaningful sense had they chosen to adopt completely opposite values. Their choice is purely a matter of personal preference, like choosing to paint their house brown instead of green. So it's puzzling when atheists adopt the view that they hold to a superior morality than Christians as Mullen asserts in a later passage:
Listen carefully to the debate on contemporary issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and you will hear moral reasoning on both sides; when atheists, agnostics, or "nones" take a position, they do so out of a conviction that their morality is superior to that of traditional Christianity.
The most the atheist can claim is that, on Christian assumptions, the atheist's views on these issues are closer to what God wills than are the Christian's views, but in order to make this claim the atheist has to piggyback on a Christian moral understanding.

Moreover, the atheist cannot say that the Christian is wrong in holding the views on these issues that he does. The most he can say is that the Christian is being inconsistent with what he professes. And that may be true, but the atheist judges the Christian for inferior morality while adopting values himself that are grounded in nothing but his own tastes. They have no objective purchase at all.

This is the point I seek to make in my novel In the Absence of God. An atheist, if he's to be consistent, can either give up the pretense of holding to some non-arbitrary moral standard and admit that he's just making his morality up as he goes along, or he can admit that he believes that right and wrong are not just matters of taste but are real, objective features of the world. But if he admits that then, to be consistent, he'd have to give up his atheism and become a theist. He has to do one or the other, or he could simply do neither and admit that he prefers to live irrationally.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

It's almost unsporting to look for examples of hypocrisy among the hosts on MSNBC. One almost has to swerve to avoid the examples that litter the network landscape.

Nevertheless, some are too good to ignore. One such is provided for us by the host of MSNBC's "All In," Chris Hayes. Hayes was reporting live from Ferguson and some of the protestors threw rocks at him. He wasn't hurt, but his reaction is a great example of both the double standard liberals cling to and also the racist attitudes they hold to which even they seem completely oblivious.

The Washington Free Beacon has an excellent column on this by Larry O'Connor:
After witnessing the spectacle of MSNBC host Chris Hayes getting pelted with rocks by an angry mob in Ferguson, Mo., Monday night, I was struck by a feeling of anger and frustration. Not at the rioters. Rioters throw rocks. That’s what they do. My anger was at the despicable display of “tolerance” and “understanding” displayed by Hayes, as he lowered his expectations for civil behavior to accommodate his liberal need to be accepted by the mob.

Chris Hayes and his MSNBC colleagues Rachel Maddow, Laurence O’Donnell, Ed Schultz, Chris Matthews, and Al Sharpton, have spent hundreds of hours of air time explaining to the world how the grassroots conservative movement known as the “tea party” is the greatest threat to our democratic republic. Indeed, if Hayes or any of his colleagues were covering a tea party protest against Obamacare or big government spending and a stray rock was thrown his way, he would be suing everyone from Sarah Palin to Sean Hannity to Ted Cruz, and we’d be hearing all about the “violent extremists” on the right.

But, when multiple rocks are thrown at Hayes while reporting on a week-long riot, we are treated to this mind-numbingly stupid exchange:

HAYES: “People are throwing rocks at us”

RIOTER: “Y’all tell the true story!”

CRAIG MELVIN: “We ARE telling the true story!”

RIOTER: “Tell the true story!”

HAYES: “People are angry, man… they’re really angry.”

RIOTER: “Tell them what’s really goin’ on!”

HAYES: “We’re trying to… (To audience) A few rocks chucked at us. We’re fine, we’re fine!”

MELVIN: “This is something else we’ve seen a lot of tonight, Chris. People wearing masks.”

HAYES: ”Yeah.”

So, imagine if you will: The scene is a small town in Missouri and the tea party is holding a protest against high taxes, illegal immigration and Obamacare. Chris Hayes is reporting on the scene and conservatives wearing masks start throwing rocks at him and screaming at him to “tell the real story.”

Would Hayes’ response be “People are angry, man”?

Of course not. Why? Because Chris Hayes agrees with the rioter in Ferguson but not the tea party protester? I think there’s more to it than that. I think maybe it’s also because in Chris Hayes’ own arrogant, intellectually self-satisfied superiority, he actually expects less from the rock-throwers Monday night than he does other members of society. And that’s the real problem with progressivism.
I can't prove it but I think O'Connor is right. White liberals tacitly and subliminally assume that you cannot expect blacks to adhere to the same standard of civil behavior that they implicitly assume whites, especially white conservatives, should be held. If this isn't insulting to blacks, indeed, if this isn't racism, what is?

Of course, Hayes's assumption may be well-grounded. After all, as O'Connor notes, tea partiers are the people who, before leaving their protests, clean up whatever mess they've made. Such people don't throw rocks at people.

Thanks to Mary Katherine Ham at Hot Air for the tip. Ham's article is also well worth reading.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Compassionate Conservatism

Erick Erickson is one of the most well-known conservative bloggers, and his blog, Red State, is very popular on the right. He's also a Christian and deeply concerned that, based on some of the comments he gets on his blog from other conservatives, it's becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile some of what he hears from his fellow conservatives with what he believes his obligations are as a Christian. He's primarily dismayed with a strain of conservative troll, and even some more mainstream folk, that seems to be growing increasingly strident and uncharitable in their discourse.

What he's hearing may be an overreaction to the vitriol that has been thrown in the face of conservatives going back at least as far as the Bork confirmation hearings in the early 90s, and climaxing in the awful treatment administered by the left to George Bush, but no matter how understandable it is, it's nevertheless inexcusable, and conservatives should dissociate themselves from those whose contribution to the public discourse is informed more by hatred and bitterness than by cordiality and forbearance.

Erickson cites three recent issues in particular in which he has been disappointed by some of the commentary of some of his fellow conservatives. First, though, he offers a lament at having ever opened up his blog to comments in the first place:
Were I to recreate this site, I think it would have no comments section. Disqus is just horrible. I do not recommend it to anyone. And it just helps further what I see on so much social media these days. As much as the internet can bring people together of like mind, it also can help shrill minorities of people think their views are more mainstream than they are. That then emboldens them further.
This is one reason, by the way, why I never set up a combox for Viewpoint. There are too many people out there on both left and right who don't know how to disagree gracefully, and a combox is an invitation to these people to simply vent their obscenities and resentments in the ugliest fashion they can muster. The comment section of a blog seems to do for some people what getting behind the wheel of a car does to those with suppressed anger.

Anyway, Erickson continues:
In the past several months there have been three incidents that have solidified for me that my faith and my politics are starting to collide. While I am a firm believer in the idea of a conservative populism, I see a dangerous trend within the mix of unfortunate shrillness and hostility. That trend is playing out in the comments here at RedState and on social media.

To start, Christian conservatives were roundly assailed by other conservatives for daring to provide aid and comfort to children whose parents had shipped them across the border. Some could not distinguish between giving a child a teddy bear and supporting Mexican drug cartels. It was all one or all the other. In fact, many Christians, myself included, want expedited deportations and a secure border. But we also want to make sure the children, some victims of human trafficking, were taken care of, fed, and comforted.

But to some on the right, that is aiding law breakers. The anger and hysteria directed at conservatives engaged in private charity had all the makings of a leftist police state making us care about how we choose to spend our own money.
Glenn Beck and Ted Cruz both went to the border to express their concern for the children who were coming across and both were subjected to some awful criticism from the right. This was unconscionable. I certainly believe we need a secure border, and I deplore the Obama administration's apparent indifference to the problem of illegal immigration, but why anyone would blame the children who are being sent illegally into the country by adults is beyond me.
The second was bringing Dr. Brantly and his co-worker back to the United States. The number of angry calls into my radio program from well meaning conservatives, comments across social media, opinion columns, agreement thereto, etc. really boggled my mind. Here are two Americans risking their lives to help others and we are supposed to turn our back on them, leave them there, or criticize their decision to go in the first place? That’s not the America I know or love. The level of outright anger, fear, and bitterness over the decision to take care of American citizens and the lack of knowledge and understanding that formed the foundation for the anger, fear, and bitterness really left me wondering what is going on.
I heard Michael Savage and read Ann Coulter blast the decision to bring Kent Brantly back. Coulter even went so far as to call Brantly an "idiot" for going to Africa to practice medicine in the first place. It's despicable for Coulter who is not only a conservative but also a Christian to demean a brother for doing what Christ called his followers to do. It's hard to fathom why they think that Brantly, who has forgone a handsome living in a domestic practice in order to devote his life to helping those who suffer illness in places where medical care is scarce, should be left in Liberia to die an agonizing death when he could be safely helped here at home.
The last is the present situation in Ferguson, MO. The rush to win a fight and lay blame instead of mourning a loss and praying for a situation just leaves me perplexed. The rush to “change the narrative” with bad facts to replace bad facts by some folks who keep the ichthys on their car unsettles me.
I can't comment much on this last concern because I'm not sure that I've seen "the rush to change the narrative" that Erick mentions, at least not from conservatives (there's been plenty of it by liberals, of course).

Perhaps some conservatives are demanding that Officer Wilson be absolved of any wrongdoing before the evidence is heard, I don't know, but, if so, this is wrong. Conservatives should insist that Wilson be judged solely on the evidence, not exonerated just because he's a policeman and not inculpated simply because he's white and is ipso facto be found guilty and thrown in prison (or worse).

If the facts show that he deliberately, with malice, shot Michael Young then he should be convicted. If they don't, then he should be acquitted. Meanwhile, everyone would be wise to simply wait until the evidence is all released before making up their minds about Wilson's guilt or innocence. Isn't judging before the evidence is known the very definition of the word "prejudice"?

Speaking of already having one's mind made up, it was a shame that the Attorney General of the United States announced that he visited Michael Young's family but chose not to visit Officer Wilson's family. Why not? Is Wilson already guilty in his mind? Isn't Wilson's family living in fear of retribution by the anomic mob burning and looting the town of Ferguson?

I might add to all the above that it irritates me whenever I hear Rush Limbaugh disparage Michael Gerson's term "compassionate conservatism" which he wrote for George Bush. I know Limbaugh claims that the term is a redundancy, but why get upset about that? I've heard him complain that it implies that some conservatism isn't compassionate, but, in fact, there are some conservatives for whom compassion isn't high on their list of virtues, as Erickson's combox reveals. There are lots of liberals who seem to have a compassion deficit as well, mostly those on the secular left.

To be a Christian, though, obligates one to strive for a more irenic tone in one's discourse, and a compassion for those who suffer. This doesn't mean that a Christian should eschew criticism of our political leaders, nor does it mean that we shouldn't call foolishness, mendacity, hypocrisy, venality, and evil by their names. We should. What it means, though, is that we should rather forego criticism that is unfair, tendentious, and shallow and to refuse to engage in the sort of hurtful nastiness which does nothing but insult people.

Erickson closes by confessing that he sometimes may fall short of that standard, as I do, because he's a sinner, as we all are, but nevertheless that standard should be what we aspire to. The way Christian conservatives comport ourselves in the public square reflects not only on us but also upon the God we claim to follow, serve, and represent.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Is Our President a Sociopath?

On both ends of the political spectrum commentators are dismayed by Mr. Obama's seeming detachment from the concerns and issues confronting the American people. Even when he addresses those concerns, as he did the beheading of James Foley, he seems only perfunctorily engaged with them. After delivering a bland condemnation of Foley's murder he drove immediately to the golf course to yuk it up with Alonzo Mourning and other fat cats. This was certainly unseemly, reminiscent of the "selfie" episode at Nelson Mandela's funeral, only worse, and observers, even among those who supported him in the past, were left to wonder what it is about this president that seems so out of synch with how normal people would behave.



Chris Matthews on MSNBC, the same man who once said that Obama gave him "a thrill up his leg," was almost apoplectic at the president's insouciance about the Foley execution and the banality of his words at the press conference.

Maureen Dowd writes about the peculiar behavior of Mr. Obama in an essay in the New York Times in which she describes a man emotionally disconnected from people:
When Barack Obama first ran for president, he theatrically cast himself as the man alone on the stage. From his address in Berlin to his acceptance speech in Chicago, he eschewed ornaments and other politicians, conveying the sense that he was above the grubby political scene, unearthly and apart.

He began “Dreams From My Father” with a description of his time living on the Upper East Side while he was a student at Columbia, savoring his lone-wolf existence. He was, he wrote, “prone to see other people as unnecessary distractions.” When neighbors began to “cross the border into familiarity, I would soon find reason to excuse myself. I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew.”

His only “kindred spirit” was a silent old man who lived alone in the apartment next door. Obama carried groceries for him but never asked his name. When the old man died, Obama briefly regretted not knowing his name, then swiftly regretted his regret.
Perhaps Dowd is saying something revealing about Mr. Obama's psyche which I'll return to in a moment. She goes on to write:
The extraordinary candidate turns out to be the most ordinary of men, frittering away precious time on the links. Unlike L.B.J., who devoured problems as though he were being chased by demons, Obama’s main galvanizing impulse was to get himself elected.

Almost everything else — from an all-out push on gun control after the Newtown massacre, to going to see firsthand the Hispanic children thronging at the border, to using his special status to defuse racial tensions in Ferguson — just seems like too much trouble.
For my part, Mr. Obama more and more reminds me of Meursault, the main character in Albert Camus' novel The Stranger. Meursault was a narcissistic sociopath, he developed few emotional connections to others, he was indifferent to what others thought and apathetic about much that normal people would have been interested in. His only moral rule was to do whatever gave him pleasure in the moment.

Dowd's description of Mr. Obama in the paragraphs cited above sounds very much like such a man.

The Urban Dictionary offers a summary of the characteristics displayed by sociopaths:
A sociopath is often well liked because of their charm and high charisma, but they do not usually care about other people. They think mainly of themselves and often blame others for the things that they do. They have a complete disregard for rules and lie constantly. They seldom feel guilt or learn from punishments.
Psychology Today lists a number of traits to look for in identifying a sociopath, among which are:
  • Superficial charm and good intelligence
  • Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking
  • Absence of nervousness or neurotic manifestations
  • Unreliability
  • Untruthfulness and insincerity
  • Lack of remorse and shame
  • Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior
  • Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience
  • Pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love
  • General poverty in major affective reactions
  • Specific loss of insight
  • Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations
Do these descriptions fit our president? The reason it seems he's detached from the grief the nation felt at the horrific execution of James Foley might just be that, in fact, he is. Like Meursault who felt nothing for anyone besides himself Mr. Obama likewise seems to feel nothing for others. He seems to lack the ability to empathize. Whether it was the death of the little old man whose name he never bothered to learn, the attack on the Benghazi consulate when he absented himself during the entire tragedy, or the grisly murder of James Foley, he seems to think that there's no sense getting emotionally involved when one has a fundraiser or a tee time to think about.

Maybe all this amateur psychoanalysis is unfair. Maybe Mr. Obama is just a stoic who stifles his affections and internalizes and suppresses the urge to express certain feelings. Maybe, but what appears to be stoicism in people can also be a pathological inability to feel emotion or concern.

Whatever the case, I'm not the first to point out that this man is certainly an odd duck, and more and more observers, even among Democrats and other liberals, seem to be dancing close to the conclusion that what we've seen of him over the last six years bears an uncanny correspondence to how the Urban Dictionary and the Psychology Today checklist describe a sociopath.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Worst Religious Persecution in History

Mark Movsesian at First Things accuses both the Obama administration and, to some extent, the Bush administration of having a moral blind spot when it comes to the horrors being visited upon Christians by Muslims around the globe. This is doubtless the worst persecution in history for Christians and possibly the worst persecution of any religious group ever (I omit the Jewish holocaust inasmuch as that was an ethnic more than a religious persecution).

Whatever the historical facts may be, Christians around the globe are experiencing unprecedented suffering and much of the traditionally Christian West seems to be alarmingly indifferent.

Here's Movsesian:
In planning and delivering assistance to Iraqi refugees, the West—and particularly the United States, which has taken primary responsibility—should not ignore the plight of Christians. It may seem odd to voice this concern. After all, President Obama specifically mentioned Christians in his statements about American action. But Mideast Christians are often an afterthought for the United States, and it seems they are in this situation again.

A Wall Street Journal report, which quotes unnamed members of the Obama administration, indicates the threat of genocide against Yazidis was the primary factor in the American decision to intervene. “This was qualitatively different from even the awful things that we’ve confronted in different parts of the region because of the targeted nature of it, the scale of it, the fact that this is a whole people,” the official said.

That is a rather myopic view of the situation. We’re offering assistance to 40,000 Yazidi refugees whom ISIS has driven from their homes and threatened to slaughter. Great—we should. But in the weeks before ISIS turned on the Yazidis, it had displaced more than 100,000 Christians from their homes and driven them into the desert.

ISIS eliminated major Christian communities in Mosul and Qaraqosh, and the U.S. responded only with a concerned statement from its U.N. ambassador. And this is to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Christians who have become refugees since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. If genocide correctly describes what threatens the Yazidis, it also describes what’s happening to Iraqi Christians. Indeed, many of these Christians are the descendants of people who suffered genocide at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Movsesian piece is helpful overall, but it also strikes a false note or two. Like so many people who are reluctant to appeared biased in favor of one political side or another and who wish to be even-handed in their criticism, he says something I think to be just plain silly:
There are reasons why America tends to treat Mideast Christians as an afterthought. Mideast Christians lack a natural constituency in American public life. They are, as one commentator observed, too foreign for the Right and too Christian for the Left.
The notion that Mideast Christians don't get attention from the Right because they're too foreign is simply nonsense. Conservatives have been screaming for people to pay attention to this for several years now, but until recently, neither Washington nor the major media seemed interested. Whether it was because it was Christians who were being persecuted or some other reason I can't say, but the fact is that conservatives have repeatedly raised this issue, sometimes stridently, so often that I wonder if Movsesian just hasn't been paying attention.

In any case he continues:
Most of our foreign policy elites have a blind spot about them. And I don’t mean to single out the Obama administration. Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute has recounted her attempts to get the Bush administration to focus on the plight of Iraq’s Christians, only to be told by Condoleezza Rice that assistance for Christians would make the United States appear sectarian.
It's astonishing that Rice was afraid to address the plight of Iraq's Christians because it would give the impression that we care more about Christians than about others. It seems that neither Rice nor Obama would have come to the aid of the refugees on Mt. Sinjar had they been Christians rather than Yazidis because that would've sent the message that we're partial to Christians. Is there something about Washington that makes it impossible to see people as people rather than as members of some identity group? Movsesian writes:
[I]n the Middle East and around the world, Christians are often targeted for persecution in particularly severe ways, and the human rights community often seems not to notice. Indeed, as Pope Francis explained in remarks at a conference...in Rome this summer, Christians suffer perhaps the largest share of religious persecution in the world today.

[The Pope said this]:
It causes me great pain to know that Christians in the world submit to the greatest amount of such discrimination. Persecution against Christians today is actually worse than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era.
If we stand by and do nothing, say nothing, and act as if there's nothing we can do about these slaughters since they're happening over there, then what's the difference between us and the German citizens who knew the holocaust was occurring and did nothing? They, at least had reason to fear for their lives. What do we have to fear?

And if we ignore them simply because they are Christians who are suffering then we are despicable.

And if we ignore them because we simply don't want to be bothered then we deserve the same fate.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

It's Not Over

President Obama declared mission accomplished in northern Iraq proclaiming that the Yazidi's had been rescued, a humanitarian disaster averted and that American forces would be withdrawn from the region before his leftist base gets too outraged by American use of force. However, according to a Reuters report the crisis created by ISIS's genocidal terror against religious minorities continues apace. Hot Air's Noah Rothman summarizes:
Just minutes after Obama spoke, however, independent relief organizations and even the United Nations warned that the Yazidis’ ordeal was not yet over. Several thousand remained trapped on Mt. Sinjar and those who had managed to escape were far from safe.

Less than a week after the conclusion of that mission, Reuters reported that many Yazidis still face the threat of ISIS’s horrors. Reporters related stories of militants digging graves in which they would bury civilians alive, women and children executed en mass for refusing to undergo religious conversion, and a general sense of hopelessness among those who have been abandoned by their countrymen and the world.

“They put women and children under the ground. They were alive. I still hear their screams,” one 26-year-old Iraqi Yazidi told Reuters reporters. “They were trying to keep their heads up to keep breathing.”

“They tied the hands of one woman to the back of a car and her legs to another car and they split her into two,” another said. “Have you seen anything like this? This is all because she is not Muslim and did not want to be converted.”

Other reports indicate that the Islamic State has captured up to 3,000 Yazidi women and children, all of whom will be sold or are to be forced to serve as servants and wives to their captors.

“She said she is going to be sold as a slave this afternoon, for $10,” one Yazidi man said of his captured daughter last week. “The world needs to know that is where our women are, where they are being enslaved, young and old alike.”
Will the man whom Hot Air has dubbed our "semi-retired president" try to stop this barbarism or will he tear himself away from the golf course only when the plight of these people is so much in the news that he can no longer ignore it without appearing cold and insensitive?

One thing that the Western world needs to understand. This threat will not go away. These people are determined to visit these very same atrocities on us and our children, and unless we stop them they will eventually succeed, just as the surf eventually succeeds in wearing down the rock against which again and again it hurls itself.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Simplifying the Complexity

A friend questioned whether I was not missing the complexity of black dysfunction in a recent post titled Blaming the Victim? Yes. He felt that the causes of the dearth of stores and businesses in predominately black communities was a complicated matter which I over-simplified by attributing it to the reluctance of businessmen to invest in high crime areas.

I guess the reason I simplified this and the larger issue of black dysfunction is that I think the cause of the latter is, at bottom, fairly simple. I explain why in my reply to my friend which went something like this slightly edited version:

At the risk of sounding simplistic I don't think the problems in the black community are all that complex. I think they stem from government policies and cultural influences that have led to the disintegration of the black family. I don't think racism has played anything more than a minor role. The black crime rate, for instance was far lower in the 1950s than it is today, but surely racism was more virulent fifty years ago than it is today. The salient difference between then and now is that back then there were far fewer blacks growing up in fatherless homes and far fewer welfare programs providing disincentives for parents to stay together.

In fact, I think the reason the media has blown the events in Ferguson into a wall-to-wall coverage event is that they (at least the liberal media) are desperate to find a case of white on black crime that confirms the narrative of ubiquitous white racism. It's actually very hard to find a significant example of white racism that's more than just someone saying something insensitive that a black overhears. The overwhelming majority of interracial crime is black-on-white and the overwhelming majority of murders in which the victim is black are perpetrated by other blacks.

Given that the facts belie the liberal narrative, cases like the Zimmerman/Martin shooting or the one in Ferguson are magnified out of all proportion to their actual significance and are portrayed, whether the evidence supports it or not, as a confirmation that America is still a virulently racist country.

And the reason this is done is to somehow excuse the failure of the mass of blacks which, having been given historically unprecedented opportunities to better themselves, still languish in poverty. If that failure can be blamed on racism then blacks can be absolved of responsibility for their predicament. If racism is not a significant factor then blacks are at fault, and this leads to the conclusion that maybe there's something wrong, either with black people themselves, or with the welfare state and its effect on the character of people who live under it.

Neither alternative is appealing to liberals so they're desperate to avoid having to face either of them. Their best option, they've apparently concluded, is to show that blacks still suffer from white hatred and oppression and that all of their problems stem from white contempt rather than any inherent flaw either in the black psyche or with the welfare state that white liberals have promoted for the last fifty years.

As long as they cling to this myth, the situation of black people in this country will continue to stagnate because we'll never adequately address the real cause of the problems in black communities.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Should We Use Violence Against ISIS?

An essay in by Derek Flood Sojourners titled Is There a Non-Violent Response to ISIS? holds out the promise of an answer to the question posed in the title.

I have enormous respect for many of the people who share Flood's desire for a non-violent world because many of them practice what they preach and are deeply committed to living a life of peace-making and non-violence. So what I hoped for in Flood's piece was some insight by an advocate of non-violence into what should be done right now about the plight of the Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar and Christians everywhere in Northern Iraq.

I thus found Mr. Flood's column disappointing since his answer to the question posed in the title of this post was "no, but maybe."

Mr. Flood delayed an answer to whether violence should be used to stop the horrors perpetrated by ISIS in Iraq (and Syria) till near the end. Most of his essay was given to urging policy-makers to think long term and plan for 40 to 50 years down the road.

This is sound but trivial advice that any American foreign policy-maker should heed, but it doesn't answer the question what we should do at this moment about the genocidal threat that ISIS presents to the Middle East in the immediate future.

Here's an excerpt from the Sojourners article:
Let me therefore begin by saying that I agree that we cannot stand by and do nothing. The practice of nonviolence and enemy-love cannot entail accepting abuse. It cannot entail neglecting to protect ourselves or our loved ones from harm. This is where we must begin. The goal of nonviolence is to stop violence and abuse, not tolerate it.
Okay, but how do we stop it in the specific case of a terror army beheading, crucifying, and burying religious minorities alive? Mr. Flood offers us nothing concrete:
What's crucial to understand is that nonviolence is not simply a refusal to add to harm (whether that harm is physical or spiritual/emotional), but more importantly it involves acting to restore, heal, and make things right. So in the case of the Islamic State, the question we need to ask is: What can we do to make things right? What can we do to protect the vulnerable? What can we do to stop the violence?

Jeremy Courtney, who started the hashtag #WeAreN — which became a symbol rallying cry worldwide expressing solidarity with their brothers and sisters in suffering Iraq — had this to say in an interview with with Huffington Post's religion editor Paul Rauschenbush:
We need a long-term plan, not just a short-term fix. There are agencies helping Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabak and others, and those services are necessary. But this isn't only about what Obama or Maliki must do now. The Christian church needs to reconsider its relationship with violence; that is part of what has landed us and others in this dire situation. We cannot carp about Christian persecution and not talk about violence and our use of violent solutions. We need a 40- to 50-year plan so that when the time comes to overthrow the next dictator, we are not as blind to our own complicity and stuck with short-term gains.
Yes, but telling this to the people hiding their children from ISIS is to tell them, in essence, that they're on their own. I'm sure that neither Mr. Flood or Mr. Courtney would state it this way because it sounds pretty callous, but that's what their counsel amounts to.

Mr. Flood then persists in avoiding the central issue:
The fact is, there may not be a good short-term solution to a situation that has gotten so out of hand that people are describing it in terms of Frankenstein monster, but what we need to face is our complicity in creating that monster. The fact is, violence has not only failed to create stability, in many ways it has acted to exacerbate the situation of instability and injustice which fuels terrorism. Violence does not stop violence, instead it causes it to escalate like a wildfire burning out of control.
This last sentence is simply silly. It was the violence employed against the Japanese and Germans in WWII that stopped the violence they were perpetrating on the Chinese and the Jews. It's the violence employed by armed citizens and police officers against would-be mass murderers who stop the violence of these psychopaths. It's absurd to say that violence does not stop violence. Surely what Mr. Flood intended to say is that violence does not always stop violence, but then this would be to acknowledge that there are some uses of violence that are warranted and proper, an acknowledgement which Mr. Flood is doubtless loath to make.
So what can we do?... If we truly wish to find a way out of the escalating cycle of violence we are caught in, we need to start at the roots and we need to think long term. We need to deal with our complicity in creating the mess and work toward making it right — not with bombs and drone strikes, but by working long term toward humanitarian goals such healthcare, poverty, and education, which work to create stable and safe societies.
Yes, yes, but what do we do now? While ISIS continues their gruesome slaughters we need to work on long term peace-making? Are we to say that those who are fleeing for their lives even as you read this are simply out of luck and shouldn't look to us for help because we deplore the use of violence to save innocent people's lives?

Mr. Flood persists in ignoring the crisis at hand and continues his focus on the long term by urging that we adopt the following three "commonsense pathways" to long-term peace:
So thinking long term, what can we do to prevent the next ISIS or al Qaeda from being born out of the soil of violence? Erin Niemela proposes these three commonsense pathways to peace:

1) Immediately stop sending funds and weapons to all involved parties.
Another way of saying this is, stop giving the Kurds and others the ability to defend themselves against those who will butcher their children, sell their women into sex slavery, and behead and crucify them. I'm certain Mr. Flood is not so cold as to stand by while such horrors happen and tell the victims that we can't rescue them because we have to make things more peaceful a century from now, but, on the other hand, that's what he is saying.
2) Fully invest in social and economic development initiatives in any region in which terrorist groups are engaged.
What social and economic development initiatives in northern Iraq should we be investing in? How can we do any investing at all while ISIS is murdering every non-Sunni who shows himself? Moreover, we can get an idea of how economic aid is put to use by these people by looking at how Hamas used their social and economic development aid in Gaza. Forty percent of it was spent on building tunnels into Israel and most of the rest was spent on weapons. Giving aid to people like this doesn't seem to be an effective way to promote peace.
3) Fully support any and all nonviolent civil society resistance movements. Whoever is left - give them whatever support is needed the most.
I wonder if the editors at Sojourners just missed the terrifying irony of this statement. "Whoever is left"?! Is the non-violent response to wait until the genocide is over and then move in and offer any survivors the promise of our full support? This sounds like something from a Monty Python skit.

Flood goes on to quote from a study that shows that from 1900 to 2006 non-violent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as successful as their violent counterparts. He links to the study in his column, and although I haven't read the study I wonder how many of the successful exercises of non-violent resistance it cites occurred in situations where the oppressing government was that of a Western nation with a long Christian tradition of democratic tolerance and human rights (like the civil rights movement in America, or Ghandi's pacifist resistance to the British in British-run India) and how many of them took place in countries where the oppressing power embraced a vicious genocidal ideology like Naziism or a mutant form of Islam. It makes a difference, I should think.

At any rate, having said all of this, having avoided the relevant question which is what to do in the short term, Mr. Flood one vague bow toward the question almost in passing. He writes:
This is not to categorically rule out the use of violence in the short term, although we certainly do need to be careful that in using violence we do not act to make things worse than they are.
He doesn't seem to realize that that one sentence completely undoes everything else he has said. The gravamen of his piece is what non-violent people should do about ISIS now. His answer appears to be: Maybe they should use violence.

What a reader might have been hoping for was a treatment of the principles governing when a fundamentally non-violent person would be justified in using violence, or answers to questions like: What makes the use of violence acceptable in this situation and not, say, in 2003 when Saddam Hussein was seeking to exterminate the Kurds and his own people? Or, would it be acceptable to supply weapons to the Ukrainian military? Or, is it acceptable to use violence in Africa where non-Muslims are being exterminated? Or, if force is justifiable against ISIS to what extent should it be used? Or, should we seek to totally eradicate this plague? Or, what if American bombing kills a couple thousand ISIS fighters and no Americans are killed, will the people at Sojourners complain about the disproportionality of the casualties?

These are questions that anyone who adopts the non-violent stance, a stance I would sincerely wish to be sympathetic to, needs to answer. Mr. Flood's decision to avoid addressing them in an essay whose title implies that they would be answered is disappointingly unhelpful. It's also a tacit admission that absolute non-violence is an unrealistic aspiration for those who choose to live in the modern world.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Blaming the Victim? Yes.

From time to time we hear the lament that our inner cities are food deserts because grocery stores have abandoned the area, we're also told that there are no job opportunities for young people in our urban areas because businesses won't open in African-American communities. The lack of stores and jobs are both attributed, of course, to white racism.

Perhaps a better explanation is to be found in the dysfunctional community that is Ferguson, MO which might be viewed as a general type that's all too common in the U.S.

A store owner is robbed by an African-American thug, the robber is subsequently shot by police in what are still murky circumstances, the other young thugs in the town seize upon the episode as a pretext for rioting and proceed to burn and trash dozens of shops in the neighborhood.

If you were a businessman trying to eke out a living would you want to open a business in this neighborhood? Of course not. So more stores, including food stores, will decide it's just not worth the risks one must incur to operate in such places, and urban blight and abandonment metastasize.

And, we may count on it, the cause of the exodus of businesses from the neighborhood will be said by such luminaries as Al Sharpton to be the racism of whites who don't want to live and do business in black neighborhoods. Maybe it would be good for African-Americans to stop blaming whitey, to ignore the demagogues, to reject the liberal nostrums which have gotten the mass of blacks nowhere in the last fifty years, and start looking at themselves for the source of their problems and for the solutions to them.

Liberals will say - they always do - that this is just blaming the victim. Perhaps, but sometimes the "victim" is truly at fault, and sometimes the victim is victimized by himself.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Blurred Line

The consensus among conservative pundits is that the police in Ferguson, Missouri have conducted themselves abysmally since the shooting by an officer of an unarmed black teenager. I don't know the facts on the shooting, so I have no opinion on it.

The point is that no one else in the country knows the facts either, including the African American community in Ferguson, which makes the violent disturbances there, as opposed to the peaceful demonstrations, intolerably thuggish.

I do agree, however, with the column in Time written by Rand Paul, the Republican junior senator from Kentucky, in which he raises a very disquieting concern. He (and many others) are very troubled about the increasing militarization of our local police forces. Police are not supposed to be military units, and as they evolve into that the specter of a tyrannical, totalitarian police state looms more ominously in our future.

Here are some excerpts from Paul's column:
The outrage in Ferguson is understandable—though there is never an excuse for rioting or looting. There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response. The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.

The Cato Institute’s Walter Olson observed this week how the rising militarization of law enforcement is currently playing out in Ferguson:
Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors? Why are the authorities in Ferguson, Mo. so given to quasi-martial crowd control methods (such as bans on walking on the street) and, per the reporting of Riverfront Times, the firing of tear gas at people in their own yards? (“‘This my property!’ he shouted, prompting police to fire a tear gas canister directly at his face.”) Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone”?
Olson added, “the dominant visual aspect of the story, however, has been the sight of overpowering police forces confronting unarmed protesters who are seen waving signs or just their hands.”

How did this happen?

Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem. Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement.

This is usually done in the name of fighting the war on drugs or terrorism. The Heritage Foundation’s Evan Bernick wrote in 2013 that, “the Department of Homeland Security has handed out anti-terrorism grants to cities and towns across the country, enabling them to buy armored vehicles, guns, armor, aircraft, and other equipment.”

When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.

The militarization of our law enforcement is due to an unprecedented expansion of government power in this realm. It is one thing for federal officials to work in conjunction with local authorities to reduce or solve crime. It is quite another for them to subsidize it.
Hot Air also has a good piece on this topic which can be read here. Burgeoning government such as is envisioned by liberals need not necessarily entail militarized police forces, I suppose, but it certainly seems that as our government becomes increasingly more expansive, our police are becoming increasingly more like our Marines and the line between them has been blurred. I don't think that's good for communities nor for the relationship of the police to the citizenry. It's certainly not good for our liberties and rights.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Understanding and Belief

Keith Blanchard (who apparently has no particular expertise in biology) has written a column for The Week that has gained some attention.

The ostensible purpose of his article is to exhort people to embrace evolution as science and not as a matter of faith. As Blanchard says, we should understand evolution, not believe in it. If his point is simply that we can grasp the basic points of evolutionary theory without making a doxastic commitment to them ourselves, well, then that seems a little banal. If his point is that if you understand those points you will presumably believe them then his point is manifestly, glaringly false.

Moreover, it's misleading. Most people who reject evolution are not so much hostile to the idea of some kind of universal relationship of living things. What they object to is the way naturalistic metaphysics is smuggled in with the less innocuous aspects of the evolutionary package.

I might add that I have no quarrel with evolution. It may be true for all I know. My quarrel is with naturalism and naturalistic views of evolution which tell us that evolution is a blind, unguided, completely natural process. That's a claim that goes well beyond the empirical evidence. In other words, we may have arrived here through some sort of descent through modification, but if so, there's much reason to believe that there was more to our existence as a species than purely unintentional, unintelligent, physical processes like mutation and natural selection.

At any rate, Blanchard offers a summary of the basic claims of evolutionary theory which, were they correct, could apply to any kind of biological evolution, naturalistic or intelligently directed. The problem is, Blanchard's summary describes evolutionary theory as it stood about fifty years ago. Few evolutionists accept Blanchard's view today as anything more than a heuristic for elementary school children.

Here's his summary with a few comments. For a much more extensive critique of Blanchard's essay go here.

Blanchard writes:
  • Genes, stored in every cell, are the body's blueprints; they code for traits like eye color, disease susceptibility, and a bazillion other things that make you you.
No doubt our genes code for many aspects of our physical body, but Blanchard does not say that they code for everything that makes us us and for good reason. There's no genetic explanation for some our most important traits. It's a mystery, for example, how genes could possibly produce human consciousness, or many behaviors in the animal kingdom. How, after all, does something like an immaterial mind arise from material interactions of chemical compounds? Not only do we have no explanation for how conscious experience arises in individual persons, we have no explanation for how such a thing could ever have evolved by physical processes.

The same is true of behaviors. All birds of any particular species behave similarly, but how do genes, which code for proteins which in turn form structures or catalyze chemical reactions, produce a behavior? It's no more clear how molecules of DNA can produce behavior than it is how molecules of sucrose can produce the sensation of sweet.
  • Reproduction involves copying and recombining these blueprints, which is complicated, and errors happen.
Yes, they do and those errors are almost always dysgenic. They detract from fitness not enhance it. Just as an error in copying computer code is much more likely to cause a system to crash than it it is to cause it to work better.
  • Errors are passed along in the code to future generations, the way a smudge on a photocopy will exist on all subsequent copies.
As I said above, a smudge is a flaw. As similar "smudges" accumulate the result is not a new and different picture of high quality, it's an increasingly weaker and useless representation of the old.
  • This modified code can (but doesn't always) produce new traits in successive generations: an extra finger, sickle-celled blood, increased tolerance for Miley Cyrus shenanigans.
These examples, particularly the last, are dysgenic to human beings. Polydactyly may not be dysgenic but neither does it confer a survival advantage. If it did it would spread through the population, but it hasn't.
  • When these new traits are advantageous (longer legs in gazelles), organisms survive and replicate at a higher rate than average, and when disadvantageous (brittle skulls in woodpeckers), they survive and replicate at a lower rate.
This is the selectionist theory of evolution, i.e. that natural selection, acting on genetic mutations, drives evolution. It is held today by few biologists because it's fraught with empirical difficulties. In order to finesse these difficulties biologists have adduced other mechanisms such as genetic drift to do the heavy lifting in evolution.

In fact, as Michael Behe pointed out in his book The Edge of Evolution, any theory based on fortuitous mutations defies probability. Many traits require more than one specific mutation occurring fairly rapidly in an organism, and the chances of this happening are astronomically poor.

I repeat, this might have happened through a long evolutionary process, but to say that the process was completely natural (a claim Blanchard doesn't make, by the way) is to go beyond empirical science and enter the realm of faith and metaphysics, and even the belief that it happened at all requires a considerable amount of faith.

We can understand the basic hypothesized lineaments of the process, but that doesn't mean that it's not something that it's inappropriate to believe in. To believe in it is to have faith that the theory is the true explanation for how we got to be here. There are people who understand the theory and who believe in it's truth. There are people who understand the theory and don't believe in it, and there are many who understand it and are agnostic, believing that the scientific evidence often conflicts with the theory as Stephen Meyer has so powerfully shown in his two books Signature in the Cell and Darwin's Doubt.

In my opinion, a humble agnosticism with respect to the means by which life originated and diversified is the most intellectually prudent course. I'm far more confident, however, in the truth of the claim that however we came to be it was the result of the purposeful agency of an engineering genius than that blind chance can accomplish the equivalent of producing a library entirely unintentionally.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Working Conditions in Gaza

I recall reading years ago that the ancient Egyptians, having completed the construction of a pyramid, would kill the workers who built it so that they couldn't reveal the labyrinth of tunnels leading to the tombs of the kings and the treasure therein.

Things haven't changed much in the last 7000 years in that part of the world. The Times of Israel has a story relating how the very same fate may have awaited those who dug the tunnels for Hamas:
Hamas executed dozens of diggers responsible for its extensive tunnel system in past weeks, fearing the workers would reveal the site locations to Israel, a report on the Mako website’s army blog said.

The tunnelers, many of whom constructed the tunnels over the course of months, would dig for 8-12 hours a day, and received a monthly wage of $150-$300, according to the blog.
And low-skilled workers in the U.S. think they have it bad because they only get $7.25 an hour to cook french fries, and their bosses aren't threatening to kill them when their shift is over. One wonders why these poor tunnel diggers didn't unionize.
Sources in Gaza told the website that Hamas took a series of precautions to prevent information from reaching Israel. The terror organization would reportedly blindfold the excavators enroute to the sites and back, to prevent them from recognizing the locations. The tunnels were strictly supervised by Hamas members, and civilians were kept far from the sites.

M., a former tunnel digger and Israeli collaborator, told the website that Hamas would strip search the workers to ensure they had no recording devices or cameras hidden on them.

After the tunnels were completed, dozens were reportedly executed to prevent intelligence leaks to Israel. “Anyone they suspected might transfer information to Israel on the tunnels was killed by the military wing,” a different source said. “They were very cruel.”
Yes, of course they're cruel, but not nearly as cruel as Israelis, we're told by the leftist media, who kill Palestinians when they take out Hamas' rocket launchers which Hamas places on the roofs of the Palestinian's houses.

Reading further we learn that the Palestinian equivalent of OSHA is really fumbling the ball:
In 2012, a Journal of Palestine Studies article claimed 160 Palestinian children were killed while working on Hamas’s tunnel system.
One hundred sixty children killed in the first two years of constructing tunnels to enable Hamas to kill Israeli children. How many have died in the last two years? And there's been not a peep about this from those in the world community standing atop the lofty Moral High Ground hurling imprecations at the Israelis for accidentally killing other children Hamas deliberately placed in harm's way. We see no news footage of bereaved parents of the child tunnel diggers wailing at their child's funeral because, presumably, such scenes are newsworthy only if the Israelis can be blamed for the children's deaths.

And note this:
The digging of tunnels began four years ago and has demanded 40 percent of Hamas’s budget, The Times of Israel has learned.

Tunnel diggers have been using electric or pneumatic jackhammers, advancing 4-5 meters a day. The tunnels found were reportedly mostly dug 18-25 meters (60-82 feet) underground, though one was discovered at a depth of 35 meters (115 feet). “That’s like a 10-story building underground,” one expert said.
The Palestinian people live in penury, allegedly because of the evil Israelis, yet over the last four years 40% of their government's economic resources, not to mention the human lives, have been squandered on building tunnels constructed for no purpose other than to kill Israelis.

Not only is it absurd to try to draw some kind of moral equivalence between Hamas and the Israelis, as is done in the West every time open conflict breaks out, it's obscene.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Long War

When liberal stalwarts at NBC and its cable outlet MSNBC begin looking around for the exits the White House knows it's got serious problems with the American people. Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell combined the other day to, in effect, throw up their hands in exasperation over the lack of a coherent foreign policy coming from the Obama administration. Here's an excerpt from a NewsBusters report:
The segment began with Chuck Todd, NBC News Political Director, Chief White House Correspondent and host of MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown, arguing that “I’ve been trying to figure out this man's doctrine now for six years. He doesn't have one. He ran basically with a wink and a nod that this was going to be a George H.W. Bush type of foreign policy, stability and diplomacy first.”

After Todd did his best to explain away why Obama failed to establish a coherent foreign policy, Mitchell continued to chastise the White House:
But right now he’s tactically, he’s being held hostage to endless negotiations to get Maliki out. And to decide that you’re not going to do anything until you have a government is to wait forever, and is to permit ISIS to do what it has done.
The host of Andrea Mitchell Reports continued to scold the Obama Administration, this time for claiming it didn’t have adequate intelligence to stop ISIS' recent attack:
And to say he that didn't have intelligence. This is not a hard target. This is Irbil. We have people there. The fact is, there was intelligence. And to say that they were shocked by the Peshmerga on Saturday night being routed is a farce. The White House wasn't listening.
Mr. Obama's ad hoc foreign engagements have been variously attributed to his lack of interest, his incompetence, and his naivete about human nature and the way the world works. All of these may appertain, but I think the biggest reason that he and many others on both left and right have failed in the Middle East is that too few policy makers grasp that we're in a trans-generational war with a radical Islam whose long term goal is the violent destruction of Western civilization.

Simply stopping ISIS from murdering tens of thousands of Yazidis does nothing to secure peace with the Islamists. Pressuring Israel to stop short of eliminating Hamas does nothing to secure peace with Islamists. The only way there will ever be a semblance of security against groups like ISIS and Hamas is to defeat them utterly and to show the rest of the Muslim world that it is in their interests to get along with the West rather than seeking to destroy it.

Mr. Obama came into office burdened, evidently, by the misapprehension that if we withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan, tried to strike a balance between Israel and Hamas, and called for the overthrow of unpopular strongmen like Mubarek, then the Muslim world would faint like teenagers at his campaign rallies at the wonder of his words, his loving-kindness, and charismatic presence. If only, he seemed to think, the Muslim world knew that we really cared about them and were going to leave them alone when they committed their atrocities the Age of Aquarius would be upon us and the lion would soon lie down with the lamb.

It was all incredibly naive, but it's what Americans, tired of the unwelcome intrusions and distractions of war, and eager to get back to their x-boxes, twitter accounts, beach parties, and daytime soap operas, wanted to hear. It's not completely their fault, however, since no politician has been willing to describe to the masses of Americans the precise nature of the enemy we're faced with. No politician wants to explain to the American people that the beheadings, crucifixions, immolations, live burials of still living children, and other horrors perpetrated by ISIS are not aberrations. They're what Muslims have been doing to non-Muslims for 1500 years and what they would love to do to Americans and Israelis if ever they have the chance.

But to explain this to the American people would be to inform them that we'll either be fighting the Islamists for the rest of their lives or we'll simply have to surrender to their demands. That being a very unpopular message, one unlikely to win elections, it goes undelivered.

Consequently, we stumble along from one conflagration to another, refusing to see that most of these crises share a common thread. They're instigated by hatred on the part of Muslims for anyone not of the particular religion or Islamic sect as they. We also seem unable to acknowledge that this conflict is not likely to end within our lifetimes. Perhaps Mr. Obama is beginning to realize that. If so, it's better late than never.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Heather McDonald

Heather McDonald is a former liberal who, as she matured, evolved into an excellent conservative thinker who currently writes for the Manhatten Institute's City Journal. She is also, inexplicably in my view, an atheist, but never mind that. If she spoke in British accents she might be mistaken for an avatar of Margaret Thatcher in her prime.

McDonald was interviewed recently by Charles Kesler of the Claremont Institute for a series titled The American Mind. In the first segment she discusses her undergraduate infatuation with Paul de Man's deconstructionism and her subsequent disillusionment with critical theory. It's pretty interesting and might whet your appetite for the two segments which follow:
McDonald is especially good in the next segment of the interview where she expresses her disdain for liberal ideas on crime and immigration:
If you'd like to hear what she has to say about the contemporary university and its silly enthusiasms over race and gender, and why wouldn't you, watch this part of the interview:
Exit question: Why are so many highly intelligent, well-educated women conservative and so many of the opposite sort (Sheila Jackson Lee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, Maxine Waters, to mention just a few) liberals? On second thought, that may be an unfair question, comparing, as it does, thinkers with politicians, so feel free to disregard it.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Another Objection Collapses

One of the most popular canards leveled against the concept that an intelligence has somehow designed life is that this intelligent designer must be incompetent since the retina of the human eye has an obvious design flaw. The alleged flaw is, to simplify a complex matter, that the placement of certain cells of the optic nerve actually block light from striking the retina because they're positioned in front of the retina rather than emerging from behind it. A human designer, it's alleged, would not make such a simple error, but naturalistic evolution, acting blindly (as it were), might and did.

Though this objection persists in textbooks and on the internet it was actually disposed of years ago when it was shown that the cells which sit over the retina actually act like fiber-optic cables channeling light directly onto the photoreceptor cells. As Casey Luskin writes at Evolutionary News and Views:
These cells ensure that there is no loss of visual acuity due to the presence of the optic nerve, as the paper found, revealing the retina "as an optimal structure designed for improving the sharpness of images." As New Scientist put it at the time, these funnel-shaped cells "act as optical fibres, and rather than being just a workaround to make up for the eye's peculiarities, they help filter and focus light, making images clearer and keeping colours sharp."
In other words, the eye functions better because these cells are located where they are, but that's not all. Now, new research shows that these "fiber optic" cells act as funnels which separate light by wavelength to enhance day vision without limiting night vision and minimizing light distortion. Luskin comments:
The implications of these findings have not been lost on expert optics commentators. A striking article at Phys.org about this new paper, Fiber Optic Light Pipes in the Retina Do Much More Than Simple Image Transfer," reflects a keen awareness of the debate over whether the vertebrate eye is sub-optimally designed. It concludes that the retinal architecture, as it now stands revealed, settles the debate. In the words of Phys.org, the notion that the vertebrate eye is sub-optimally wired "is folly." Why? Because "Having the photo-receptors at the back of the retina (i.e. behind the cells of the optic nerve) is not a design constraint, it is a design feature."
Of course, none of this is proof that the eye is intelligently designed. It's still logically possible, after all, that given enough time and enough mutations and enough incredible blind luck, such a system might have evolved by chance, just as given enough time a troop of blind-folded monkeys pecking away at keyboards could produce War and Peace. I mean, it's possible. It's just that the probability of the chance development of the human retina is vanishingly small while the probability of it being designed, given our experience of designs by intelligent human beings, seems much more likely, unless one rules out the existence of a non-natural designer apriori. But why do that other than one just doesn't want to accept the existence of such a being?

It seems that every time critics of intelligent design come up with a feature of living things that confutes the design hypothesis researchers get busy studying the feature and show that, in fact, it's much more "optimal" than the critics had believed. This has happened with the human appendix, junk DNA, and a number of other features.

Maybe the best strategy for opponents of ID is, when they think there's a poorly designed system in living things, to just keep quiet so as not to draw attention to it.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Disproportionate Casualties

Now that the world has expressed their outrage at the "disproportionate casualties" inflicted upon civilians in Gaza by the Israelis, who, it has been alleged by the UN Human Rights Council, have been indiscriminately and wantonly engaged in killing civilians, the BBC pauses to give the matter a little thought.

Reasonable observers are beginning to take not of an odd fact about these casualties first brought to light by the New York Times. Here's an excerpt from the BBC piece:
[I]f the Israeli attacks have been "indiscriminate", as the UN Human Rights Council says, it is hard to work out why they have killed so many more civilian men than women.

An analysis by the New York Times looked at the names of 1,431 casualties and found that "the population most likely to be militants, men ages 20 to 29, is also the most overrepresented in the death toll. They are 9% of Gaza's 1.7 million residents, but 34% of those killed whose ages were provided."

"At the same time, women and children under 15, the least likely to be legitimate targets, were the most underrepresented, making up 71% of the population and 33% of the known-age casualties."

He said that part of the reason for the discrepancy between the figures was "when militants are brought to hospitals, they are brought in civilian clothing, obscuring terrorist affiliations."

"Hamas also has given local residents directives to obscure militant identities," he said.

"It's important to bear in mind that in Operation Cast Lead [the last Israeli ground offensive in December 2008-January 2009], Hamas and Gaza-based organisations claimed that only 50 combatants were killed, admitting years later the number was between 600-700, a figure nearly identical to the figure claimed by the IDF."

In conclusion, we do not yet know for sure how many of the dead in Gaza are civilians and how many were fighters.
Uh, huh. So not only do the brave warriors of Hamas use women and children as human shields to run up the number of civilian deaths, they also apparently masquerade their own dead as civilians for the same purpose. Meanwhile, much of the world naively accepts whatever Hamas tells them because, perhaps, it fits their narrative that Jews are inherently evil and Hamas is simply the noble expression of the legitimate grievances of an oppressed people.

The evil, though, is in refusing to face the truth about where the evil really lies.

For those who need help in discerning where it lies one can start with the charter of Hamas which declares their goal to be the "obliteration" of Israel. If someone's stated ambition is to kill you and your family, and they do everything they can to carry it out, it seems to be common sense to me that you have the right, the duty, even, to do everything you can to eliminate the threat.

Nevertheless, though they have the right to eliminate the threat to their very existence the Israelis have not done everything they could do. The Israelis build a wall to prevent the terrorists from freely walking into their homes, and the world calls for sanctions and divestitures. They set up a blockade to prevent the terrorists from getting weapons and missiles, and the world howls in protest. They allow humanitarian and building materials into Gaza, and Hamas uses them to build tunnels to facilitate their murders while the world goes silent. The Israelis then go into Gaza to blow up the tunnels, and the world condemns them. But one thing they haven't done is destroy Hamas altogether, and they haven't done this, evidently, because they don't want to kill the civilians that Hamas doesn't scruple to place between them and Israeli bullets. Yet people call the Israelis evil.

When men can no longer distinguish the moral distinction between the attempt to murder someone and the attempt to prevent that murder, when men call evil good and good evil, then surely the world has gone morally berserk.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Saving the Innocent from ISIS

The New York Times has announced this evening that the United States has employed air assets against ISIS in Iraq, to which my editorial comment is why did it take so long?

Forty thousand members of religious minorities, mostly Yazidis and Christians, terrified by ISIS's threats against them, are huddled on a mountain top in territory recently defended by the beleaguered Kurds in northwest Iraq. The refugees are suffering from heat, thirst, and starvation - 40 children have already died - as the ISIS forces mass at the base of the mountain. ISIS also claims to have gained control of the large Mosul dam that controls the flow of water to Baghdad, and is pushing Kurdish defense forces back to the point where ISIS now threatens the major Kurdish city of Erbil.

It's not certain, however, that it was American planes involved in the attacks since the Pentagon has denied it, but nevertheless, it appears someone is trying to bring some relief to people who live in fear of torture and execution at the hands of these Muslim extremists.

According to the Times the White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, said that there would be no American combat troops in Iraq and that any military action would be extremely limited.

Why? Didn't Mr. Obama unleash a powerful assault on the government of Libya because Qaddafi was threatening to kill a couple thousand of his citizens? Weren't we told by Samantha Power at the U.N. that we have a moral responsibility to protect the innocent where we can?

The Times article tells us that Mr. Earnest added: “There are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq. These problems can only be solved with Iraqi political solutions.”

Well, perhaps, but this confuses sufficient with necessary conditions. It is necessary that the threat posed by ISIS be degraded from the air to the extent that the Kurds and maybe, if miracles happen, the Iraqi army, can push them back into Syria. ISIS is a threat to everyone in that Islamic madhouse called the Middle East, and there's no reason why others, like Turkey and Jordan, shouldn't be lending a hand, and Saudi Arabian businessmen be compelled to stop the flow of aid to their fellow Sunnis in ISIS.

Here's another little detail from the story:
The administration had been delaying taking any military action against ISIS until there is a new Iraqi government. Both White House and Pentagon officials have said privately that the United States would not intervene militarily until Mr. Maliki stepped down. But administration officials said on Thursday that the crisis on Mount Sinjar (where the 40,000 Christians and Muslim minorities are trapped) may be forcing their hand.
I understand that Maliki is odious, but people have been dying at the hands of these savages for months now. For Mr. Obama to wait until he gets his way in Baghdad's politics while people are being crucified, beheaded, and starved is itself odious. Iraq is not Syria where failure to get involved was understandable. The immediate situation in Iraq is not nearly so complex.

Mr. Obama, in his determined effort to avoid being George Bush, has made numerous foreign policy blunders in his six years in office. He could redeem some of them by saving the Iraqis, especially the Kurdish Iraqis, from the horrors of ISIS.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Does Immortality Make a Difference?

At Big Questions Online John Martin Fischer addresses the question whether a belief in immortality affects the way we live now. He breaks the topic into two questions. The first is, how the recognition of extreme longevity or even living forever would change the way we would behave (or should behave). He then considers the second question which is whether belief in an afterlife would (or should) affect our behavior.

The first question doesn't really interest me inasmuch as living to a very old age on the order of hundreds or thousands of years is simply not a live possibility for anyone. The second question is much more interesting since life after death is a very real possibility for everyone.

In posing the question Fischer seems to rely on a popular conception of what sort of life is rewarded by eternal immortality. He says this:
But let’s abstract away from details. In all plausible religious views, what matters crucially for your prospects after you die—your next life in the wheel of reincarnation or your place in heaven, hell, or perhaps purgatory—is the moral quality of your life here and now. That is, your prospects are enhanced by right action for the right reasons in this life. You need actually to care not just about yourself, but about others—you need to love others and to care about justice. If your actions manifest love of others and a dominant concern for justice, then you will be rewarded in the afterlife.
Now I don't strongly disagree with this, that is I do think love and justice are the two absolutes by which we are commanded by God to live, but it's possible that there are people who live by these absolutes who nevertheless despise the God who ordains them. On the Christian understanding of eternity, heaven is established as a "place" where we live forever bathed in the love of God. For those who reject God's love, who are hostile to God, eternal life with God would be hell. Each person has to choose whether they desire to spend eternity with God or not, and I suspect our attitude toward God in this life serves as our choice.

Fischer continues:
It is key that you must act for the right reasons. And here it is important that the reason for your behavior must not be that it will enhance your prospects in the afterlife. You may of course understand and anticipate this fact. But it cannot be your reason for action. If it were, then your action would be motivated by self-interest and not morality. You would not be doing the right thing for the right reason. So there is a sense in which your behavior now should be focused on this world and the needs and interests of others here and now, even if one were to believe in an afterlife.
The right reason for loving others is gratitude to God for what he has done for us in securing for us eternal life. We love others because we love God, are thankful to him, and want to do what God wants us to do. And what he wants is for us to love the people he loves.

If our love for others is based on self-interest, or grows out of the kind of personality we're born with, or is based on fear of punishment, that love, by itself, is not salvific because as Fischer says it's not based on the right reason. The right reason is a love for God, at least that's the right reason in the Christian tradition.

If this makes sense it may prompt the question of the fate of those who don't love God. I'll share some thoughts on this in a day or two.