Friday, October 31, 2014

What to Look For

My friend Jason sends along a link to an article by Charles Lipson, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, in which he discusses what we might look for from the president once Tuesday's election is over. The article requires a subscription unless you google: Lipson: Obama's Post-Election Blowout, but here's a quick synopsis:
1) Immigration. How many millions will the president let in? On what terms? One hint: The Department of Homeland Security recently ordered more than four million green cards and visas for next year and says it might order another 29 million for future years. The cards would give immigrants who are here illegally the right to continue living and working in the U.S. legally—and perhaps receive a variety of federal and state benefits. Should the president unilaterally issue these cards, there will be a brutal debate over the wisdom of this policy, whether it extends to welfare benefits, and whether the president has the constitutional authority to issue so many cards without specific congressional approval.

2) The next U.S. attorney general. The president wants a crusader on progressive causes and a reliable firewall to protect him, just as Eric Holder has done. Rumor has it that he wants Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who has been the point man on racial preferences.

3) Keystone XL Pipeline. Given his druthers, the president almost certainly would prefer to kill this project and appease his environmentalist supporters. But he won’t do that before the final votes are tallied for Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu , who is running for re-election.

4) Bergdahl. The Pentagon has completed a long-delayed report on Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl but won’t tell us what it says. Sgt. Bergdahl walked away from his unit in Afghanistan, was taken in by the Taliban, and was finally swapped for five Taliban leaders who were detained at Guantanamo Bay. If Sgt. Bergdahl is found to have deserted his post, the report will be bad news for the White House. People will ask why the president gave up so much for a turncoat and why the president held a Rose Garden celebration to mark Sgt. Bergdahl’s return.

5) Iraq and Syria. No one knows what the president will do with regard to Islamic State; in fact, it is now virtually impossible to tell who our “friends” are since America’s opposition to ISIS, a Sunni group, makes the U.S. effectively a partner of its Shiite opponents in Tehran and Damascus. The Saudis, who lead the Sunni coalition, are livid and wonder if the U.S. has switched sides in the Persian Gulf, flipping from its longtime partnership with Saudi Arabia to a de facto one with Iran. Everyone wonders what the president’s strategy really is and whether he will stick to it after the election.

6) Iran. This is the big enchilada. If the president cuts a major deal on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program—which will surely include major concessions on U.S. economic sanctions, he will face a storm of controversy among the public and on Capitol Hill. Worse, Mr. Obama might refuse to submit the deal to Congress, claiming that it is an agreement and not a treaty requiring Senate approval. That could generate a true constitutional crisis.
And a constitutional crisis would lead to calls for the President's impeachment, a move Republicans are loath to make and which there's no point in making if they don't win the Senate on Tuesday. Even so, the President is deeply unpopular and his plans are offensive to the vast majority of Americans so it may happen. Lipson concludes:
All of these matters have been high-profile and potentially deeply divisive. That is precisely why the White House is postponing any announcements. When the administration finally does speak, it will unleash a political storm, even if Democrats hold the Senate. If Republicans win, those winds will reach hurricane force, since the president will likely try to ram everything through a lame-duck Congress. If that happens, consider boarding up the windows.
When candidate Obama said in 2008 that he wanted to fundamentally transform the country I wonder how many people realized that this was the sort of thing he had in mind.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Failed Experiment

With all the crises, scandals, and more mundane sorts of incompetence that comprise the daily fare delivered to our doorstep with the morning paper, it seems that yesterday's hot topic is forgotten as a new one supplants it today.

The scandal of Mr. Obama's use of taxpayer money to reward his corporate cronies and big donors in the government bailout was eclipsed by news of Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice department facilitating the sale of guns to Mexican drug lords, and this remarkable breach of the law was obscured by the administration's refusal to protect American diplomats in Benghazi, which took a back seat to the incredibly botched rollout of Obamacare, which was followed by KGB-style spying on journalists by the Obama administration, which was lost amidst reports of Secret Service shenanigans with hookers in South America, which was overshadowed by the abuses of the IRS against the administration's political foes, which was superceded by the spying of the NSA on American citizens, which was pushed off the front pages by the incompetence of the Veteran's Administration which resulted in perhaps hundreds of unnecessary deaths, which were forgotten amidst the flood of illegal immigrants pouring across our essentially undefended borders, which was quickly overshadowed by the sudden appearance of ISIS in the vacuum left by the unnecessary American withdrawal from Iraq, which was ignored when the CDC seemed to not know what to tell us about Ebola.

Now we're being reminded that 2015 is going to be a critical year for Obamacare, and the portents are not looking favorable. Barbara Boland at CNS News reports that almost a quarter of a million of the nation's doctors are not going to participate in the exchanges for reasons Boland explains in her article:
Over 214,000 doctors won't participate in the new plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA,) analysis of a new survey by Medical Group Management Association shows. That number of 214,524, estimated by American Action Forum, is through May 2014, but appears to be growing due to plans that force doctors to take on burdensome costs. It's also about a quarter of the total number of 893,851 active professional physicians reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation. In January, an estimated 70% of California's physicians were not participating in Covered California plans. Here are some of the reasons why:

1. Reimbursements under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) are at bottom-dollar - they are even lower than Medicare reimbursements, which are already significantly below market rates. "It is estimated that where private plans pay $1.00 for a service, Medicare pays $0.80, and ACA exchange plans are now paying about $0.60," a study by the think-tank American Action Forum finds. "For example, Covered California plans are setting their plan fee schedules in line with that of Medi-Cal-California's Medicaid Program-which means exchange plans are cutting provider reimbursement by up to 40 percent."

2. Doctors are expected to take on more patients to make up for the lost revenue, but that's not happening, because primary care doctors already have more patients than they can handle. "Furthermore, physicians are worried that exchange plan patients will be sicker than the average patient because they may have been without insurance for extended periods of time, and therefore will require more of the doctor's time at lower pay," says the study.

The study also points to two reasons that doctors might not get paid at all:

3. An MGMA study indicates that 75% of ACA patients that had seen doctors had chosen plans with high deductibles. Given that most of the patients are low-income, doctors are concerned that the patients cannot meet the deductibles and they, the doctors, will get stuck with the bill.

4. Health and Human Services requires that insurers cover customers for an additional 90 days after they have stopped paying their premiums: the insurer covers the first 30 - but, it's up to the doctor to recoup payment for the last 60 days. This is the number one reason providers are opting to not participate in the exchange plans. Currently, about a million people have failed to pay their premiums and had their plans canceled.
As Boland notes, Obamacare is asking doctors to take on sicker patients for less money, and with the risk of not getting paid at all.

What are the lessons to be learned from all this? Here, in my opinion, are two:

1. When Americans vote they are voting irresponsibly if they don't vote for the person they believe to be the best qualified candidate to lead the country. To vote for someone because he/she speaks well, is young, attractive, the right gender, or the right race or ethnicity is to betray one's responsibility as a voter. To vote for someone on the basis of such factors when that person has nothing in his or her resume that suggests that he or she has the requisite background to lead the country is doubly irresponsible. It's like taking the most popular kid in the senior class and putting him at the helm of an aircraft carrier because he's so cool he'll surely know how to manage the thing.

2. Since WWII the left has been arguing that big, centralized government and European-style socialism is the solution to all of our problems. Their brief has been that when technocrats, bureaucrats, and wonks run our lives we'll be much better off than if we were free to make our own decisions without ivy-league graduates telling us what to do. The left rejoiced when the Democrats gained control of both houses of Congress and the White House in 2008 because now, they believed, they'd finally be able to conduct their grand experiment and prove how effective big government can be. Six years later it takes the blindest of leaps of faith to still believe that, given expanded power, government will be efficient, competent, transparent, and lawful.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Are We Headed for Eco-Catastrophe?

John Coleman, co-founder of the Weather Channel, has added his voice to the growing chorus of scientists who allege that prophecies of imminent climate catastrophe are not based on sound scientific research and are, at best, seriously misleading.

An article in the British Express quotes from an open letter in which Coleman criticizes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading organization of world climatologists, which has been predicting devastating global climate changes for a couple of decades.

He writes that, contrary to the IPCC's claims and predictions of an imminent global calamity:
  • The ocean is not rising significantly.
  • The polar ice is increasing, not melting away. Polar Bears are increasing in number.
  • Heat waves have actually diminished, not increased. There is not an uptick in the number or strength of storms (in fact storms are diminishing).
  • There is no significant man-made global warming at this time, there has been none in the past, at least not in the last 18 years, and there is no reason to fear any in the future.
  • Efforts to prove the theory that carbon dioxide is a significant greenhouse gas and pollutant causing significant warming or weather effects have failed.
The article goes on to claim that,
Climate expert William Happer, from Princeton University, supported Mr Coleman's claims. He added: "No chemical compound in the atmosphere has a worse reputation than CO2, thanks to the single-minded demonisation of this natural and essential atmospheric gas by advocates of government control and energy production.

"The incredible list of supposed horrors that increasing carbon dioxide will bring the world is pure belief disguised as science."

In 2010 a high-level inquiry by the InterAcademy Council found there was "little evidence" to support the IPCC's claims about global warming.
It's perhaps relevant that Mr. Coleman's letter comes as the U.S. has, by some measures, experienced the coolest year in its history.

It's hard to know who to believe on this issue, but one thing seems fairly certain. The claim that global warming is "settled science" accepted by all the experts in the field is very hard to credit.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Explanatory Inadequacies

Casey Luskin points us to an interesting problem with naturalistic evolutionary explanations of human behavior. The problem is that Darwinian evolutionists seem to be at a loss to explain morality and language. Luskin writes:
Humans do appear hard-wired for morality, but were we programmed by unguided evolutionary processes? Natural selection cannot explain extreme acts of human kindness. Regardless of background or beliefs, upon finding strangers trapped inside a burning vehicle, people will risk their own lives to help them escape -- with no evolutionary benefit to themselves. For example, evolutionary biologist Jeffrey Schloss explains that Holocaust rescuers took great risks that offered no personal biological benefits:
The rescuer's family, extended family and friends were all in jeopardy, and they were recognized to be in jeopardy by the rescuer. Moreover, even if the family escaped death, they often experienced deprivation of food, space and social commerce; extreme emotional distress; and forfeiture of the rescuer's attention.
Francis Collins gives the example of Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who risked his life "to save more than a thousand Jews from the gas chambers." As Collins points out, "That's the opposite of saving his genes." Schloss adds other examples of "radically sacrificial" behavior that "reduces reproductive success" and offers no evolutionary benefit, such as voluntary poverty, celibacy, and martyrdom.

In spite of the claims of evolutionary psychologists, many of humanity's most impressive charitable, artistic, and intellectual abilities outstrip the basic requirements of natural selection. If life is simply about survival and reproduction, why do humans compose symphonies, investigate quantum mechanics, and build cathedrals? Natural Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell explained why evolutionary psychology does not adequately predict human behavior:
Darwinian explanations for such things are often too supple: Natural selection makes humans self-centered and aggressive -- except when it makes them altruistic and peaceable. Or natural selection produces virile men who eagerly spread their seed -- except when it prefers men who are faithful protectors and providers. When an explanation is so supple that it can explain any behavior, it is difficult to test it experimentally, much less use it as a catalyst for scientific discovery.
Contrary to Darwinism, the evidence indicates that human life isn't about mere survival and reproduction. But in addition to our moral uniqueness, humans are also distinguished by their use of complex language. As MIT linguist Noam Chomsky observes:
Human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world. If this is so, it is quite senseless to raise the problem of explaining the evolution of human language from more primitive systems of communication that appear at lower levels of intellectual capacity. ... There is no reason to suppose that the "gaps" are bridgeable.
Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has humorously observed that there's no Darwinian explanation for why we should have the intellectual ability to do higher math. The potential ability to do calculus was of no benefit to our primitive ancestors and even today it's only the rare grad student whose reproductive prospects are improved by his ability to solve quadratic equations.

In other words, human intellectual ability must have been latent in the species for millions of years before it ever could have been useful in the struggle for survival, but an ability that serves no useful function will eventually be purged from the genome. It certainly wouldn't be selected for since natural selection only acts upon traits that express themselves to the environment.

Darwinism may ultimately be able to contrive an explanation for phenomena like morality, language, and math aptitude, but it can't do so comfortably. The explanations don't flow smoothly from the theory, a fact which should cause theorists to reflect that perhaps there's something missing in a purely naturalistic, materialistic explanation of the development of the human species.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Appeal of Radical Islam

The recent shooting in Ottawa has caused us once again to ask what it is about Islam that drives so many of its adherents to murder. Or, conversely, why do so many people inclined to murder gravitate to Islam? Ray Pennings, editor of Comment magazine, comes at the question from a somewhat different angle. He asks what it is about Western culture that alienates so many young people so much that they're eager to embrace a radical jihadist version of Islam in the first place. Part of the answer to this question, Pennings believes, is to be found in the meaninglessness and emptiness of life entailed by a secular worldview:
I would also point out to those who advocate a public secularism, who insist that religion is simply a personal matter and is something of no public consequence, there are a number of “radicalized Islam fundamentalists” who are finding the answers of extreme Islamism more compelling than the emptiness of secularism that says there is no meaning beyond the here and now. These are not simple questions nor do I intend to suggest any sympathy or justification for Islamic fundamentalists. But it would be dishonest to ignore the reality that the nihilism of contemporary secularism is not at least in part the explanation for the appeal of extreme Islamic fundamentalism. Something always trumps nothing when it comes to providing a sense of meaning and purpose for individuals and our shared lives together.
Pennings is right, I think. Given a choice between a muscular worldview that infuses life with meaning, hope, and purpose - even if that worldview is otherwise fraught with error - and an arid worldview that empties life of meaning and purpose, which implies that life is nothing more than "a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing," which reduces love and beauty to neurochemistry, and which insists that hope of an existence beyond death is futile, many young men will find the former far more appealing than the latter.

It's ironic that secularism, the chief champion of the Darwinian view in the Western world, is being assailed around the globe by competing ideologies that seem to be more successful in the Darwinian struggle for survival.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Libet and Determinism

As a complement to yesterday's post on the free will/ determinism question here's a post from the archives on the work of Benjamin Libet who conducted some experiments that seemed to support, even prove, that determinism is true:

Students of psychology, philosophy and other disciplines which touch upon the operations of the mind and the question of free will have probably heard mention of the experiments of Benjamin Libet, a University of California at San Francisco neurobiologist who conducted some remarkable research into the brain and human consciousness in the last decades of the 20th century.

One of Libet's most famous discoveries was that the brain "decides" on a particular choice milliseconds before we ourselves are conscious of deciding. The brain creates an electrochemical "Readiness Potential" (RP) that precedes by milliseconds the conscious decision to do something. This has been seized upon by materialists who use it as proof that our decisions are not really chosen by us but are rather the unconscious product of our brain's neurochemistry. The decision is made before we're even aware of what's going on, they claim, and this fact undermines the notion that we have free will as this video explains:
Michael Egnor, writing at ENV, points out, however, that so far from supporting determinism, Libet himself believed in free will, his research supported that belief, and, what's more, his research also reinforced, in Libet's own words, classical religious views of sin.

Libet discovered that the decision to do X is indeed pre-conscious, but he also found that the decision to do X can be consciously vetoed by us and that no RP precedes that veto. In other words, the decision of the brain to act in a particular way is determined by unconscious factors, but we retain the ability to consciously choose not to follow through with that decision. Our freedom lies in our ability to refuse any or all of the choices our brain presents to us.

Egnor's article is a fascinating piece if you're interested in the question of free will and Libet's contribution to our understanding of it.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Freedom, Determinism, and Compatibilism

In class discussions of free will and determinism, a number of students have asked if there isn't a middle way. One student even dug a post out of the archives that I did on such a via media back in 2008 (12/24). The post starts out by addressing the notion of a kind of compromise position between libertarian free will and determinism, usually referred to as "compatibilism," and ends up summarizing the discussions we've had in class on these different philosophical positions. Here it is:

Barry Arrington at Uncommon Descent offers a succinct rebuttal of compatibilism, i.e. the view that our choices are fully determined and yet at the same time free. As Arrington points out, this certainly sounds like a contradiction.

The compatibilist defines freedom, however, as the lack of coercion, so as long as nothing or no one is compelling your behavior it's completely free even though at the moment you make your decision there's in fact only one possible choice you could make. Your choice is determined by the influence of your past experiences, your environment and your genetic make-up. The feeling you have that you could have chosen something other than what you did choose is simply an illusion, a trick played on us by our brains.

Compatibilism, however, doesn't solve the controversy between determinism and libertarianism (the belief we have free-will). It simply uses a philosophical sleight-of-hand to define it away. As long as it is the case that at any given moment there's just one possible future then our choices are determined by factors beyond our control, and if they're determined it's very difficult to see how we could be responsible for them. Whether we are being compelled by external forces to make a particular choice or not, we are still being compelled by internal factors that make our choice inevitable.

The temptation for the materialist is to simply accept determinism, but not only does this view strip us of any moral responsibility, it seems to be based on a circularity: The determinist says that our choices are the inevitable products of our strongest motives, but if questioned about how we can know what our strongest motives are he would invite us to examine the choices we make. Our actions reveal our strongest motives and our strongest motives are whichever ones we act upon. But, if so, the claim that we always act upon our strongest motives reduces to the tautology that we always act upon the motives we act upon. This is certainly true, but it's not very edifying.

On the other hand, it's also difficult to pin down exactly what a free choice is. It can't be a choice that's completely uncaused because then it wouldn't be a consequence of our character and in what sense would we be responsible for it? But if the choice is a product of our character, and our character is the result of our past experiences, environment, and our genetic make-up, then ultimately our choice is determined by factors over which we have no control and we're back to determinism.

It seems to me that if materialism is true and all we are is a material, physical being, and all of our choices are simply the product of chemical reactions occurring in the brain, then determinism must be true as well, and moral responsibility and human dignity are illusions, and no punishment or reward could ever be justified on grounds of desert.

This all seems completely counter-intuitive so most people hold on to libertarianism, even if they can't explain what a free choice is, but they can only do so by giving up materialism. Only if we have a non-physical, immaterial mind that somehow functions in human volition can there be free will and thus moral responsibility and human dignity.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Opening the Floodgates

Reports have been circulating that the Obama administration is planning on granting amnesty to millions of illegal aliens after the November elections. It would be a move of dubious constitutionality and would put enormous stress on the nation's economy and would completely change the nature of the country. The Washington Times explains:
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Friday threw open the door to as many as 100,000 Haitians, who will now move into the United States without a visa. Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, rightly and accurately denounced enabling Haitians awaiting a U.S. visa to enter the country and legally apply for work permits as “an irresponsible overreach of the executive branch’s authority.”
But this is only the tip of the iceberg that the administration has planned for us:
Earlier this month the immigration agency solicited a printer able to handle a “surge” of 9 million green cards “to support possible future immigration-reform initiative requirements.” In an ordinary year, about 1 million green cards are issued, and over the life of this contract the company is expected to produce up to 34 million cards, a figure representing an increase of the population of the United States by 10 percent.
Set aside the legalities involved and ask, why is the President doing this? Why flood the country with people who'll become eligible for food stamps, health care, and a host of other taxpayer-funded goods and services? Why, in a time of low employment in the U.S., import millions of new workers to compete for the few jobs that are there?

The Times editors assert that these amnestied aliens will eventually be granted full citizenship and with that win the right to vote. Doubtless, they'll choose to vote as Democrats, ensuring Democratic majorities and presidencies for the next three generations if not longer.

But political power is perhaps not the only reason. Many observers believe that Mr. Obama has harbored an antipathy and resentment toward the United States ever since his youth. The most influential people in his life all despised the country, its values, its success, its power, and its influence in the world. If Mr. Obama were intentionally trying to reduce the U.S. to third-world status there'd be no better way to accomplish that than to do what he's doing. As the Times says:
It’s a disaster in the making — indeed already here — for public health and national security, straining the welfare state to its limit. Most Americans want no part of this. A Gallup survey finds that 74 percent of Americans want the level of immigration to stay where it is, or reduce it. Mr. Obama has no support for his amnesty scheme except from those who want to transform America into a nation that no one would recognize.
It's one reason why the election on November 4th is so important. If President Obama has a Democratic Senate for the last two years of his term there'll be no restraints on his power to do whatever he wishes. If Congress is unable to check him he'll certainly succeed in achieving his goal, plainly announced in 2008, of fundamentally transforming the country.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Our Need for Meaning

In his book Man's Search for Meaning, holocaust survivor Victor Frankel observed that men can't live without a purpose. He observed that when people conclude that their lives have no meaning or significance they often lose their will to go on living.

When we're confronted with some tragedy, for example, we seem to instinctively seek some significance, some overall silver lining, something to give the awful event meaning. The thought that there really is no such meaning is almost unbearable. Yet that's the implicit, and sometimes explicit, message modernity relentlessly hammers home to us. Modernity teaches us that there's nothing beyond nature, that the physical is all there is, but if this is true then it's hard to imagine what meaning there could be to human existence.

Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom of Yale talk about this in an article in the New York Times. They write:
As the phrase goes, everything happens for a reason. Where does this belief come from? One theory is that it reflects religious teachings — we think that events have meaning because we believe in a God that plans for us, sends us messages, rewards the good and punishes the bad.

But research from the Yale Mind and Development Lab, where we work, suggests that this can’t be the whole story. In one series of studies, recently published in the journal Cognition, we asked people to reflect on significant events from their own lives, such as graduations, the births of children, falling in love, the deaths of loved ones and serious illnesses.

Unsurprisingly, a majority of religious believers said they thought that these events happened for a reason and that they had been purposefully designed (presumably by God). But many atheists did so as well, and a majority of atheists in a related study also said that they believed in fate — defined as the view that life events happen for a reason and that there is an underlying order to life that determines how events turn out.

In other studies ...we found that even young children show a bias to believe that life events happen for a reason — to “send a sign” or “to teach a lesson.” This belief exists regardless of how much exposure the children have had to religion at home, and even if they’ve had none at all.

Whatever the origin of our belief in life’s meaning, it might seem to be a blessing. Some people find it reassuring to think that there really are no accidents, that what happens to us — including the most terrible of events — reflects an unfolding plan. But the belief also has some ugly consequences. It tilts us toward the view that the world is a fundamentally fair place, where goodness is rewarded and badness punished. It can lead us to blame those who suffer from disease and who are victims of crimes, and it can motivate a reflexive bias in favor of the status quo — seeing poverty, inequality and oppression as reflecting the workings of a deep and meaningful plan.

Not everyone would go as far as the atheist Richard Dawkins, who has written that the universe exhibits “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” But even those who are devout should agree that, at least here on Earth, things just don’t naturally work out so that people get what they deserve. If there is such a thing as divine justice or karmic retribution, the world we live in is not the place to find it. Instead, the events of human life unfold in a fair and just manner only when individuals and society work hard to make this happen.
There are a couple of points to make about this. First, the belief that things happen for a reason is logically incompatible with the prevailing cultural embrace of naturalistic materialism. Reasons are products of minds. If there is no mind controlling events, or at least able to control events, there can be no reason for whatever happens. In the universe of the materialist nothing that happens independently of human volition happens for a reason and for a materialist to hold that things do have reasons behind them is simply a case of cognitive dissonance.

If Dawkins is correct in his atheism then he's also correct in his assessment of the meaninglessness of life in a cosmos that cares nothing about us. Nothing the vast majority of us do matters much at all beyond the span of our own lives.

Second, if there is no "divine justice" there's no real justice of any sort. How can the world provide justice for the parents of a child brutally tortured and murdered by someone? Does executing the criminal satisfy justice? Imprisoning him for life? Nothing that could be done to him will ever remove the pain he has implanted in the hearts of those parents.

The secular man is caught between a rock and a hard place. Not willing to acknowledge the existence, or relevance, of God on the one hand, and not willing to give himself over to nihilism on the other, he denies the relevance of God while living nevertheless as if God undergirds his entire world. He hitches a ride on the train of a theistic worldview - living as if there are reasons for what happens in life, living as if his life has meaning, living as if justice exists, living as if there are objective moral duties - until it comes time to acknowledge the only sufficient ground for any of these and at that point the secular man jumps off the train, declaring that the ground, theism, is all foolishness and superstition.

How for example can philosopher Bertrand Russell write this and not be a nihilist:
Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins - all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
As Dostoyevsky's character in The Possessed, an atheistic anarchist named Kirillov, asks, "How can a man know there is no God and not kill himself on the spot?" Indeed, Kirillov ultimately shoots himself. Man can't live, at least not happily, with the worldview Russell portrays. He can't live with unyielding despair. Nor does he have to. Why he chooses to try is one of life's great mysteries.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Why Is There No Travel Ban?

A number of nations in West Africa have been, or are about to be, declared Ebola-free. One thing they all have in common is that they imposed a travel ban on the nations in the hot zone, a move which elicits the question, why won't the Obama administration do likewise?

Maybe they have a good reason, but if so they've chosen to keep it to themselves. None of the quasi-reasons they've given make any sense. The head of the Center for Disease Control, Thomas Frieden, the same man who said that you can't contract Ebola by sitting next to someone on a bus and then later advised that people who are symptomatic shouldn't use public transportation so as not to infect anyone, has been similarly incoherent on the travel ban question.

Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) summarizes the aberrant logic Mr. Friedan put on display when he appeared recently on Megyn Kelly's show The Kelly File:
Their conversation focused largely on the government’s refusal to stop travel into the United States by citizens of plague nations. “Why not put a travel ban in place,” Ms. Kelly asked, while we shore up the U.S. public-health system?

Dr. Frieden replied that we now have screening at airports, and “we’ve already recommended that all nonessential travel to these countries be stopped for Americans.” He added: “We’re always looking at ways that we can better protect Americans.” “But this is one,” Ms. Kelly responded.

Dr. Frieden implied a travel ban would be harmful: “If we do things that are going to make it harder to stop the epidemic there, it’s going to spread to other parts of—” Ms. Kelly interjected, asking how keeping citizens from the affected regions out of America would make it harder to stop Ebola in Africa.

“Because you can’t get people in and out.”

“Why can’t we have charter flights?”

“You know, charter flights don’t do the same thing commercial airliners do.”

“What do you mean? They fly in and fly out.”

Dr. Frieden replied that limiting travel between African nations would slow relief efforts. “If we isolate these countries, what’s not going to happen is disease staying there. It’s going to spread more all over Africa and we’ll be at higher risk.”

Later in the interview, Ms. Kelly noted that we still have airplanes coming into the U.S. from Liberia, with passengers expected to self-report Ebola exposure.

Dr. Frieden responded: “Ultimately the only way—and you may not like this—but the only way we will get our risk to zero here is to stop the outbreak in Africa.”

Ms. Kelly said yes, that’s why we’re sending troops. But why can’t we do that and have a travel ban?

“If it spreads more in Africa, it’s going to be more of a risk to us here. Our only goal is protecting Americans—that’s our mission. We do that by protecting people here and by stopping threats abroad. That protects Americans.”

Dr. Frieden’s logic was a bit of a heart-stopper. In fact his responses were more non-sequiturs than answers. We cannot ban people at high risk of Ebola from entering the U.S. because people in West Africa have Ebola, and we don’t want it to spread. Huh?
It's both embarrassing and disconcerting to reflect that people who think like this are ensconced in positions of power making life and death decisions for the rest of us.

Anyway, Mr. Obama himself appears to be taking the outbreak seriously enough, having taken the unprecedented step of cancelling a fund-raiser, something he didn't even do when our diplomats were being slain in Benghazi, to meet with his people to discuss developments. Presumably, part of the discussion was on the topic of how to completely flummox the American people on why he won't impose a travel ban. If he cancels a golf outing we'll know we're on the cusp of a serious Ebola calamity in this country.

I don't wish to make light of what is indeed a serious matter, but the absurdity of the administration's rationale for not imposing a travel ban forces us to draw conclusions about their reasons that are themselves bizarre. Some conspiracy mongers have alleged that Mr. Obama actually wants a crisis in this country in order to consolidate his hold on power. I think that's a little nutty.

Others have speculated that part of the reason the President hasn't issued a travel ban is because up till now he thought that all the fuss was over "a boli" and he couldn't imagine how a doughy Italian sandwich could really have precipitated a major medical threat to civilization.
I think that explanation is a little nutty, too. Anyone could have made a similar slip of the tongue, and it's churlish to fault the President for being human, although I do have to wonder how many times we'd have seen this video clip on the television news if it had featured George Bush referring to the virus as eboli?

At any rate the President could put an end to all of this foolish speculation simply by giving us a plausible, coherent reason why he still allows people into this country from places where Ebola is rampant. Until he does, the rest of us are just left to guess, even if the guesses are pretty crazy.

Friday, October 17, 2014

What Kristof Doesn't Understand

One argument sometimes heard when people express dismay at the horrific violence perpetrated by Muslims around the world is that it's unfair to condemn Islam for the crimes of some Muslims. Other religions and ideologies have their criminals, too, you know.

Well, this is true as far as it goes, but it misses the point. Consider Nicholas Kristof's recent column in the New York Times. Kristof was part of a debate on Bill Maher's television show a week or so ago that has received a lot of attention. Here's Kristof's description of the show:
Our conversation degenerated into something close to a shouting match and went viral on the web. Maher and a guest, Sam Harris, argued that Islam is dangerous yet gets a pass from politically correct liberals, while the actor Ben Affleck denounced their comments as “gross” and “racist.” I sided with let me offer three points of nuance.

First, historically, Islam was not particularly intolerant, and it initially elevated the status of women. Anybody looking at the history even of the 20th century would not single out Islam as the bloodthirsty religion; it was Christian/Nazi/Communist Europe and Buddhist/Taoist/Hindu/atheist Asia that set records for mass slaughter.
These two sentences are odd. If Islam elevated the status of women how bad must they have had it before Islam came on the scene? It's also simply misleading to lump Christians in Europe together with Nazis and Communists as though the Nazis and the Stalinists were Christians. The Nazis were pagans and the Stalinists were atheists. To somehow identify the faith of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the thousands of other Christians who risked their lives to smuggle Jews to safety during the holocaust and the tens of thousands of Christians who were martyred by the communists in the name of 20th century state atheism is an obscenity. But set it aside. Kristoff goes on to give us his second reason:
Second, today the Islamic world includes a strain that truly is disproportionately intolerant and oppressive. Barbarians in the Islamic State cite their faith as the reason for their monstrous behavior — most recently beheading a British aid worker devoted to saving Muslim lives — and give all Islam a bad name. Moreover, of the 10 bottom-ranking countries in the World Economic Forum’s report on women’s rights, nine are majority Muslim. In Afghanistan, Jordan and Egypt, more than three-quarters of Muslims favor the death penalty for Muslims who renounce their faith, according to a Pew survey.

The persecution of Christians, Ahmadis, Yazidis, Bahai — and Shiites — is far too common in the Islamic world. We should speak up about it.
This sounds so tepid a condemnation of evil as to be almost a parody of itself. It's about as mild as if Kristof had said that the beheadings and what not are "inappropriate, and we all might wish the Islamists wouldn't engage in that sort of unpleasantness." Why are liberals so reluctant to use the word "evil"? If that adjective doesn't apply to ISIS and Islamic terrorism in general what does it apply to? Republicans? Dick Cheney?
Third, the Islamic world contains multitudes: It is vast and varied. Yes, almost four out of five Afghans favor the death penalty for apostasy, but most Muslims say that that is nuts. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, only 16 percent of Muslims favor such a penalty. In Albania, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, only 2 percent or fewer Muslims favor it, according to the Pew survey.
Kristoff thinks that because the percentages are small there's nothing much to worry about here. The problem is that if only 10% of Muslims world-wide favor the death penalty for apostasy that's still 100,000,000 people which is quite alot of people, don't you think?
The caricature of Islam as a violent and intolerant religion is horrendously incomplete. Remember that those standing up to Muslim fanatics are mostly Muslims. In Pakistan, a gang of Muslim men raped a young Muslim woman named Mukhtar Mai as punishment for a case involving her brother; after testifying against her attackers and winning in the courts, she selflessly used the compensation money she received from the government to start a school for girls in her village. The Taliban gunmen who shot Malala Yousafzai for advocating for education were Muslims; so was Malala.
This touches on a crucially important distinction between Islam and other religions, especially Christianity, and it goes to the fundamental problem that Bill Maher and Sam Harris were trying to get at (I can't believe I'm on the same side as these guys).

If Christians behave barbarously they're violating the core tenets taught by their founder. They're betraying him, the Gospels, and their professed convictions. They cannot be said to be acting like Christ. On the other hand, if Muslims behave barbarously they're actually following in the footsteps of their founder who throughout his life resorted to violence and slaughter. Moreover, their behavior is consistent with much of the Qu'ran. In other words, moderate Muslims lack the theological resources to condemn the behavior of groups like ISIS, which is why it's so difficult for Muslim clerics who oppose ISIS to do so on theological grounds.

ISIS has put moderate Muslims in a very difficult position. In order to oppose the savagery of these terrorists Muslims have to both reinterpret the Qu'ran and ignore the example of the Prophet whom they revere. Maher and Harris understand this, Kristoff and Affleck evidently don't.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Lure of ISIS

One question that puzzles some readers of the news out of the Middle East is why ISIS is able to attract so many young men to its banner when even other Muslims are calling ISIS barbaric and savage. Islamic scholar Ayman S. Ibrahim at First Things gives three reasons for the appeal ISIS holds for so many Muslims. Here's a brief synopsis:
First, ISIS knows how to use the Qur’ān....To support expelling, mutilating, beheading, and crucifying their enemies, ISIS provides verses such as (Qur’ān 5:33; 8:12; 47:3-6). To encourage their members to participate in jihad and thus inherit the terrific Paradise waiting for them, ISIS recites (Q 47:15).

Second, ISIS knows how to use the early Muslim history to support its claims and military operations. It is noteworthy to mention that the Sunni Muslims view the early years of Islam not only as history, but specifically as a sacred one. Not only the prophet Muhammad, but also his companions were heroes; examples and role models to follow. The years of Muhammad, his prophetic career, his raids and expeditions, and his first four successors (caliphs) are commonly viewed as the best days in Islam, especially among the Sunni.

Third, ISIS is quite appealing to some as it serves as the fulfillment of the long awaited dream of the one unified Muslim umma (community). With the emergence of ISIS, for the first time in centuries, Muslims from many ethnicities and cultural background can claim to be “one” in Allah’s restored caliphate. They pine for the “golden days” of Islam.
This last is especially interesting. For six centuries Arab Muslims and black North African Muslims have seethed in a stew of inferiority vis a vis the infidel West. They feel deeply perplexed that they, having "the truth" and with Allah on their side, nevertheless, lose confrontation after confrontation with the technologically superior West. They were even out-teched during the crusades and only managed to defeat the crusaders because of the long supply lines and lack of support on the home front that the crusaders had to deal with. At any rate the sense that the infidels are somehow superior to them is galling.

So, when a Sunni Muslim army like ISIS seems to be sweeping all before it, seems destined finally to be on the verge of establishing the long-dreamt of caliphate, and of defeating, not only the hated Shia, but eventually the even more deeply hated Israelis and Americans, disaffected Muslims from all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East yearn to be a part of it. The atrocities they're expected to commit are exactly what Allah desires of them, as the Qur'an teaches (see above), and thus whatever qualms they may have they set aside because they are doing Allah's will.

Glory awaits them and for young men whose lives are stultifyingly wretched and hopeless, the promise of that glory is a powerful lure.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Have Some Sympathy

Those readers who follow politics have probably heard that the democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky, Alison Lundergen Grimes, has repeatedly refused to admit to having voted for Mr. Obama. Her refusals have reached the parodic stage, and I started to think that maybe the truth is that she actually voted for Mitt Romney or forgot to vote at all and knew that such an admission would destroy her chances of defeating Mitch McConnell. This seems an unlikely explanation, however, since she actually campaigned for Mr. Obama in 2012.

Even so, why the aversion to admitting that she voted for him? I mean, okay, a lot of people don't want to admit they voted for him, and understandably so, because he had no qualifications for the office when he ran in 2008 and appears headed for the distinction of the most incompetent president of the last 100 years, so an admission that one voted for him reflects very poorly on one's judgment. I understand that, but even so, what is she telling her fellow Democrats when she won't admit having voted for a man whose election she worked for? Is Mr. Obama really that politically toxic?

Anyway, Molly Hemmingway has come to her defense, sort of, in a piece at The Federalist. Hemmingway writes:
Here’s the thing. It wasn’t just Grimes who voted for Obama multiple times. It was literally (literally “literally,” not Joe Biden “literally”) tens of millions of other people in this country. They really did it. For real. They put up bumper stickers. They put up yard signs. They called him a light-worker and an enlightened being. They said “He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair.”

He was given a Nobel Freaking Peace Prize. The award citation reads like satire. Seriously, it’s hi-larious. If you’re ever having a bad day, just recall that President Obama once won a Nobel Peace Prize. If you’re having a really bad day, read the citation. I guarantee your mood will improve.

The media fawned over him. They got thrills up their legs. By any metric, the mainstream media was obsequious in its coverage of the president, only pulling back marginally, quite recently, and in the tiniest few quarters as the crush of scandal and incompetence has continued and grown.

Anyway, point being that it’s not just Grimes who is trying to avoid the uncomfortably truth that she played a role in electing and re-electing Obama.

Pretty much everyone who voted for Obama is looking to change the topic if it comes up. Even the crazy person who lives down my street in a house that looks haunted finally took down his Obama sign. It had been up for years. My Obama-bumper-sticker-saturated neighborhood is nearly Obama bumper sticker free these days. My Democratic friends are all talking more about Obama’s incompetence than the role they played in inflicting our country with his presidency. Yours are, too. Heck, you are, too, if you were one of the majority of voters who voted for Obama. (Or you’re shifting blame desperately in a comment thread as we speak.) Listen, I know the options weren’t great, but that’s still no defense for picking the guy who is bad at everything.

I mean, at this point, we’re down to, like, Ezra Klein and the Vox Crew when we’re counting people who are reluctantly admitting that they were in that group of people. We’re at 2006 levels of people trying to avoid talking about voting for the guy who they made president. Maybe worse. Think about that. We are in the middle of a presidency that is making the Bush administration seem like it was chock full of managerial geniuses and strategic masterminds. Of course you’re going to deny having had anything to do with the presidency that is making the predecessor look competent by comparison.

I don’t blame Grimes one bit for denying she helped elect the guy whose top hits include Solyndra, Obamacare health premiums, the assault on religious liberty, Joe Biden, ISIS sprawl, and a growing list of scandals that make Nixon, Warren G. Harding and Ulysses S. Grant look like choir boys (She might have included the failure to prepare for Ebola in this list-RLC).

So let’s lay off her. She did what she had to do. So are tons of the remaining Obama voters. They made a huge mistake. No need to vote for Grimes, obviously, but have some sympathy.
Point taken, Molly, but until I hear her actually explain why she voted for a man who pretty much just walked into the White House off the street it'll be hard to gin up much sympathy for her.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ends and Means

During the recent conflict with Hamas a young Palestinian was apprehended by Israeli forces. The prisoner was a bomb expert who possessed a lot of information on the whereabouts of a tunnel from Gaza to an Israeli kibbutz. The Israelis didn't know which kibbutz was threatened but they did know that the tunnel had been packed with explosives timed to detonate at the common dinner hour in the kibbutz. A hundred Israeli families would be wiped out if all went according to Hamas' plan. Such is the nature of the enemy the Israelis have on their border.

At any rate, an Israeli interrogator was brought in to question the terrorist. The interrogator was also a young man, as young as the man he was questioning. He was under enormous pressure to find out where the tunnel is before the explosives were to detonate in a few hours. How did he do it?

You can read the account of this episode from the war here.

As you read the article ask yourself these questions: Did the end justify the means? If so, why? If not, why? What do you suppose eventually happened to Hamid? Would the interrogator have been justified in using physical torture to get the information from the prisoner? If so, why? If not, why not? Is the infliction of physical pain morally distinct from the infliction of emotional pain? If yes, then how?

Monday, October 13, 2014

News Flash: Bono Is a Republican

Or at least he would be if he were an American citizen, and who'd have thought it? The U2 lead singer believes lower tax rates actually bring in more revenue and create greater prosperity for everyone. This is exactly what conservatives have been saying for a hundred years. Maybe now young people who are often swayed by the opinions expressed by their pop culture icons will at least have a little doubt about the liberal progressive claim that the road to economic prosperity is to soak the rich, especially corporations. One can hope.

Anyway, here's the smoking gun:
The U2 frontman said he believes large companies that avoid paying billions in taxes bring prosperity, rather than harm the economic growth of the country.

“We are a tiny little country, we don’t have scale, and our version of scale is to be innovative and to be clever, and tax competitiveness has brought our country the only prosperity we’ve known,” he told the Observer.

“We don’t have natural resources, we have to be able to attract people.”

Because of its generous tax allowances, he added, Ireland has reaped the benefits of “more hospitals and firemen and teachers because of [the tax] policies”.
If all these things are true of a small country with few resources they're no less true of any other country. For some unfathomable reason, however, we keep electing people who think that the way to finance the welfare state is to smother the most productive engines of our economy in taxes and regulations.

What too many of us fail to consider is that the lower the corporate tax rates in a country (The U.S. has the highest in the world) the more attractive that country is to business, the more businesses that plant themselves in a nation the more jobs they create for the people, the more jobs that are created the more money people have to spend on their families and the more taxes they pay, the results of which are a higher living standard for the people and more revenue for the government.

Even so, the idea of lowering corporate tax rates is anathema to Democrats, not because they can't see the force of the argument, many do, but because they can't bear the thought that the people at the top will be getting even richer than they are. What seems to drive tax policy on the left is a desire not to raise more revenue, but rather to reduce income inequality between rich and poor. Rather than raise the poor up by creating jobs, they prefer to close the income gap but bringing the rich down.

Maybe this makes sense to somebody, but I just don't see it.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Multi-Dimensional You

To paraphrase Shakespeare in Hamlet there are more things in heaven and on earth than we dream of in our view of reality. We observe the world with our five senses and take for granted that the world we perceive is exactly what's there. We simply assume that our senses give us an accurate and exhaustive picture of reality, but why should we think that?

Why, for example, should we suppose that just because our minds can only apprehend three dimensions (four, if you count time) that that's all there are? Could the world not consist of numerous dimensions that we can not only not perceive, but we can't even imagine? Could there not actually be entire worlds integrated with our world but closed off to us because our minds lack the necessary structure to perceive them?

One way to try to imagine what reality might be like if there are actually more than three dimensions of space is to imagine how a three dimensional object would appear to a two dimensional being as illustrated in this short video:
If we actually do consist of more than three dimensions we would look completely different to a being who could perceive those other dimensions than we do to each other. There could literally be, in other words, far more to you than what meets the eye.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Does Your Mind Die?

The view called metaphysical materialism holds that everything in the world can be explained in terms of material substance. In other words, matter is all there is. Materialists deny the existence in human beings of any mental substance or soul that exists in tandem with the body. For the materialist when our body dies that's the end of our existence.

This view has been very popular for the last two hundred years or so, but it's coming under increasing strain by anecdotal reports from credible sources as well as from scientific research that suggests that there is indeed something immaterial about us that survives our physical death. Moreover, this immaterial substance seems to be conscious which is hugely significant.

Recently an article appeared in The Independent which discusses the state of research into NDEs (Near-Death Experiences) and draws the conclusion that there's something happening here that's totally unexpected if materialism is true. The article claims that:
There is scientific evidence to suggest that life can continue after death, according to the largest ever medical study carried out on the subject. A team based in the UK has spent the last four years seeking out cardiac arrest patients to analyse their experiences, and found that almost 40 per cent of survivors described having some form of “awareness” at a time when they were declared clinically dead.

Experts currently believe that the brain shuts down within 20 to 30 seconds of the heart stopping beating – and that it is not possible to be aware of anything at all once that has happened. But scientists in the new study said they heard compelling evidence that patients experienced real events for up to three minutes after this had happened – and could recall them accurately once they had been resuscitated.

Dr Sam Parnia, an assistant professor at the State University of New York and a former research fellow at the University of Southampton who led the research, said that he previously [thought] that patients who described near-death experiences were only relating hallucinatory events. One man, however, gave a “very credible” account of what was going on while doctors and nurses tried to bring him back to life – and says that he felt he was observing his resuscitation from the corner of the room.

Speaking to The Telegraph about the evidence provided by a 57-year-old social worker Southampton, Dr Parnia said: “We know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped beating. “But in this case, conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes.

“The man described everything that had happened in the room, but importantly, he heard two bleeps from a machine that makes a noise at three minute intervals. So we could time how long the experienced lasted for.

“He seemed very credible and everything that he said had happened to him had actually happened.”

Dr Parnia’s study involved 2,060 patients from 15 hospitals in the UK, US and Austria, and has been published in the journal Resuscitation. Of those who survived, 46 per cent experienced a broad range of mental recollections, nine per cent had experiences compatible with traditional definitions of a near-death experience and two per cent exhibited full awareness with explicit recall of “seeing” and “hearing” events – or out-of-body experiences. Dr Parnia said that the findings of the study as a whole suggested that “the recalled experience surrounding death now merits further genuine investigation without prejudice”.
Studies like this, coupled with the work of researchers like Dr. James Tucker who has investigated dozens of credible reports of very young children having memories of events that actually happened to other people but which the children couldn't have known about certainly should temper the dogmatic certainty of some that we human beings are nothing else but our material selves.

It also addresses one of the traditional objections to the existence of mental substance. It's alleged that it's hard to imagine how a disembodied immaterial substance could think and perceive without a brain and senses, which it is. The evidence seems to be accumulating, however, that somehow it happens. Amazing stuff.

If our minds can survive the death of the body the next question that is sure to be raised is exactly where is it that they exist?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Do We Keep Them Out? How?

Consider this hypothetical (or maybe not so hypothetical) situation. Ebola virus spreads to Central America where it begins to explode exponentially throughout a population woefully unable to deal with it. Meanwhile, hospitals in the United States have shown themselves to be adept at handling these cases. What do you suppose will happen?

Of course. If tens of thousands of children are sent on a perilous journey north by parents despairing of their child's economic prospects, what will they do if threatened with mass death?

Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly,the commander of U.S. Southern Command, shared his opinion in a recent speech:
“By the end of the year, there’s supposed to be 1.4 million people infected with Ebola and 62 percent of them dying, according to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly said. “That’s horrific. And there is no way we can keep Ebola [contained] in West Africa.”

If it comes to the Western Hemisphere, many countries have little ability to deal with an outbreak of the disease, the general said. “So, much like West Africa, it will rage for a period of time,” Kelly said.

This is a particularly possible scenario if the disease gets to Haiti or Central America, he said. If the disease gets to countries like Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, it will cause a panic and people will flee the region, the general said. “If it breaks out ... there will be mass migration into the United States,” Kelly said. “They will run away from Ebola, or if they suspect they are infected, they will try to get to the United States for treatment.”

Also, transnational criminal networks smuggle people and those people can be carrying Ebola, the general said. Kelly spoke of visiting the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua with U.S. embassy personnel. At that time, a group of men “were waiting in line to pass into Nicaragua and then on their way north,” he recalled.

“The embassy person walked over and asked who they were and they told him they were from Liberia and they had been on the road about a week,” Kelly continued. “They met up with the network in Trinidad and now they were on their way to the United States -- illegally, of course.” Those men “could have made it to New York City and still be within the incubation period for Ebola.”
So, here's your ethics question of the day. An epidemic rages throughout Central America, millions of people, many of them infected, surge against our southern border. What should President Obama do? Let's hope he's giving this question some thought while he's out there on the links.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Mind or Matter

In my classes recently we've spoken about the view of reality often referred to as Idealism. Idealists hold that what really exists is not objective material stuff but rather ideas in minds. The notion is intriguing, largely because it's so counterintuitive and also because it seems that so many scientists and philosophers have come to the belief that some version of it is more plausible than the common sense view that the world is made of material substance.

In light of these class discussions I wanted to run this post that I originally put on VP a year ago:

One of the many fascinating questions being revived in today's philosophical debates is the question of the ultimate nature of reality. In other words, what is the world fundamentally made of? For the last two hundred years, and still today, the consensus answer among scientists and philosophers is that matter is the fundamental constituent of the world. Everything in the world, it's believed, can be reduced to matter or energy.

This view is called metaphysical materialism, but despite its status as the consensus view there have always been prominent thinkers who've insisted that materialism is quite wrong. There has long been a substantial minority of very brilliant men who believe that the material world is really an expression of mind and that mind is fundamental. This view is usually referred to as metaphysical idealism.

Here are a few examples of quotes from scientists and philosophers who embrace(d) one form or another of metaphysical idealism:
"As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter." Max Planck, the father of quantum mechanics, 1944

"Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else." Erwin Schroedinger, quantum physicist

"It will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the scientific conclusion that the content of the consciousness is the ultimate universal reality." Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner, 1961

"If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history." Thomas Nagel, author of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, 2012.

"What is more, recent experiments are bringing to light that the experimenter’s free will and consciousness should be considered axioms (founding principles) of standard quantum physics theory. So for instance, in experiments involving “entanglement” (the phenomenon Einstein called 'spooky action at a distance'), to conclude that quantum correlations of two particles are nonlocal (i.e. cannot be explained by signals traveling at velocity less than or equal to the speed of light), it is crucial to assume that the experimenter can make free choices and is not constrained in what orientation he/she sets the measuring devices. To understand these implications it is crucial to be aware that quantum physics is not only a description of the material and visible world around us, but also speaks about non-material influences coming from outside the space-time." Antoine Suarez, 2013
So what does it matter (no pun intended)? If mind is fundamental then it may follow, psychologically if not logically, that personality is as well, and pretty soon it seems plausible to think that the fundamental reality is in fact the Universal Mind of traditional theism.

This is an intolerable conclusion for metaphysical naturalists who thought they had laid such notions to rest in the 19th century. Now it appears that the matter is far from settled, and as we enter into the second decade of the twenty-first century there's an interesting philosophical donnybrook brewing over whether science and philosophy, so far from having proven there is no transcendent mind, no God, are actually, even if inadvertently, accumulating increasing evidence that there is.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

How to Get Thugs Off the Streets

The story starts out almost like a joke: Four men walk into a bar .... except this story isn't funny. According to news reports, two of the four men stood by the door while the other two produced weapons and ordered everyone to lie down on the floor. It was early morning and the bar was closing so there weren't many patrons in the establishment. The four men thought it'd be an easy heist - clean out the cash register and do heaven only knows what to the barkeeper and waitress who were closing up.

What the four men didn't realize, however, was that one of the few remaining patrons sitting at the bar was carrying a weapon of his own. He drew it and began firing. The would-be thieves got off three shots. I don't know how many shots the patron fired, but when the smoke cleared two of the thieves were dead and the other two had skeedaddled. No one else was hurt.

I suppose there are some lessons in this incident and numerous incidents like it that occur all across the country.
  1. It's a dangerous world out there with lots of bad people in it.
  2. Bad guys have guns and are perfectly willing to use them for nefarious purposes.
  3. Keeping guns out of the hands of good guys is a bad idea.
  4. When citizens are armed it gets much more dangerous for the thugs, fewer of them are successful, and fewer of them, like the two mentioned above, will have the opportunity to repeat their crimes.
Some readers will object, though, that if guns proliferate more people, especially children, will be injured or killed in accidental shootings. That may be true, but it reflects a misplaced concern. Here's why: In their very popular book Freakonomics Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner point out that children under ten drown at a higher rate in backyard pools than are killed in accidental shootings. The rate is one child drowning for every 11,000 pools (about 550 children per year overall), and one child accidentally killed for every million guns (about 175 children in total per year). In other words, a child is far more likely to die in a swimming accident in a residential pool than as a result of an accidental discharge of a gun.

If gun ownership and right to carry laws should be restricted because of the chance of accidents then, to be consistent, we should also restrict who can have a pool in their backyard, but, though a child's death is tragic no matter how it occurs, no one is campaigning for the restriction of swimming pools.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Camille Paglia and Our Cultural Delusion

Camille Paglia is no conservative but neither has she any patience with the shibboleths of much of the left and their sundry delusions about sexuality and human nature. A recent article by Paglia in Time is worth reading in its entirety, but I've included the most pungent excerpts here. She's a voice worth heeding, at least on this topic.

The springboard for her critique of leftist delusions about human sexuality and male/female difference is the recent disappearance of a UVA sophomore named Hannah Graham and the arrest of a hulking 32 year-old who is also suspected in another such disappearance:
Too many young middle class women, raised far from the urban streets, seem to expect adult life to be an extension of their comfortable, overprotected homes. But the world remains a wilderness. The price of women’s modern freedoms is personal responsibility for vigilance and self-defense.

Current educational codes, tracking liberal-Left, are perpetuating illusions about sex and gender. The basic Leftist premise, descending from Marxism, is that all problems in human life stem from an unjust society and that corrections and fine-tunings of that social mechanism will eventually bring utopia. Progressives have unquestioned faith in the perfectibility of mankind.

Liberalism lacks a profound sense of evil .... The gender ideology dominating academe denies that sex differences are rooted in biology and sees them instead as malleable fictions that can be revised at will. The assumption is that complaints and protests, enforced by sympathetic campus bureaucrats and government regulators, can and will fundamentally alter all men.

There is a ritualistic symbolism at work in sex crime that most women do not grasp and therefore cannot arm themselves against. It is well-established that the visual faculties play a bigger role in male sexuality, which accounts for the greater male interest in pornography. The sexual stalker, who is often an alienated loser consumed with his own failures, is motivated by an atavistic hunting reflex. He is called a predator precisely because he turns his victims into prey.

Misled by the naive optimism and “You go, girl!” boosterism of their upbringing, young women do not see the animal eyes glowing at them in the dark. They assume that bared flesh and sexy clothes are just a fashion statement containing no messages that might be misread and twisted by a psychotic. They do not understand the fragility of civilization and the constant nearness of savage nature.
It's hard to disagree with any of this. From female naivete about men to the feckless delusions among liberals that sexual assaults can be meliorated by speech codes and absurd protocols for male/female interactions, the left seems to think that we can immerse young males in a highly sexualized, even pornographic culture, but yet keep them from acting out their fantasies on relatively helpless and trusting young women by wearing ribbons and wagging our fingers in their faces when they cross some line of "inappropriate" conduct.

Where I do disagree with Paglia is in labeling men who commit such crimes as psychotic or aberrational. These men are not abnormal. They're not mentally deranged. They are the inevitable products of a pornographic culture which has embraced the notion that moral judgment is an anachronism. A society which can no longer teach its young men that sexual predation is evil, that it is a crime against God's law, is inevitably opening the door to a "might-makes-right" view of life which justifies any transgression as the prerogative of the strong over the weak in the Darwinian struggle.

Some men use women and then kill them. This is evil, but the modern world is averse to using that word because evil is a term laden with moral import. When society insisted on secularizing morality it forfeited the ability to use moral terms altogether. It abandoned the traditional categories by which rape and murder had formerly been judged. Add to this the insistence that man is just an animal and that there's nothing about him that's transcendent, that he's just a flesh and bone machine, and the only surprise in men acting consistently with the assumptions they've all their lives absorbed from the cultural voices with which they've been surrounded is that we are shocked and horrified by this completely predictable behavior.

This is pretty much the theme of my book In the Absence of God. I hope that if you haven't read it you will.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Bamboozling Us about Jobs

The Obama administration released a jobs report last week that touted the fact that 248,000 jobs had been created in the past month and that unemployment has dropped to 5.9%, its lowest level since 2008. This sounds good and has been been presented to the public that way, but for a different take on these numbers check out the analysis by Wayne Allyn Root who declares that the numbers are pure fantasy.

First, he points out, the reason unemployment dropped to 5.9% is that 315,000 more Americans dropped out of the Labor Force last month.

To understand why this is significant, suppose imagine a population in which there are 100 people with jobs or looking for jobs. Of those one hundred, 90 are working and 10 are unemployed but still seeking work. The unemployment rate would then be 10%. Now there are two ways to lower that rate. The desirable way is to increase the number of workers by having some of the unemployed find jobs. If, say, five out-of-work people obtain work the number of unemployed would be cut in half and now only five percent of the labor force is unemployed.

But evidently this isn't what's happening. What's happening is that every month more people drop out of the labor force. In other words, if the ten unemployed in our imaginary labor force all gave up looking for jobs and left the labor force, then unemployment would drop to zero since there'd now be ninety people left in the labor force and ninety people working. It's full employment but it's hardly a sign of a healthy economy.

Thus, the 5.9% unemployment figure from last month means nothing when so many people are dropping out of the labor force. It doesn't tell us anything about how many more people are working than were working a year ago. In fact, the Labor Force Participation Rate is lower now than it's been in 36 years. Ninety two million Americans of working age are not currently working. Where have these people gone?

Some have gone on disability, some have retired, some are on some form of welfare, but with fewer people working and more people living off what those who are working pay in taxes, we're finding ourselves in an unsustainable position.

But what about those 248,000 new employees the administration is so proud of? Again, the figure is deceptive. A full 230,000 of the new jobs went to those in the 55 to 69 year-old age group. In other words, most new jobs went to retirees who need to continue working at other jobs to pay their supplemental insurance premiums, to pay the taxes and mortgages on their homes, and to help support their kids and grandkids who can't find work and can't afford to live in the Obama economy.

In fact, in the prime working age group of 24 to 54 years old, 10,000 jobs were actually lost last month.

This brings Root to the worst part of all of this. Most of the 248,000 new jobs are either part-time or low wage. That's why older Americans are taking them. Eighty percent of new jobs were in what he calls the lowest quality categories.

No wonder so many people favor raising the minimum wage even though doing so would actually reduce overall incomes. Minimum wage jobs are all that are available to a lot of people today.

The next time you hear an administration spokesperson boast that unemployment is down, be very skeptical until you find out how many people have dropped out of the work force and what kind of jobs new hires are getting. The administration doesn't publicize those statistics, and the media mentions them only sotto voce, but without knowing those numbers the unemployment rate is meaningless.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Preaching and Practicing

During Israel's recent war with Hamas in Gaza our administration repeatedly expressed it's dismay and outrage at the inadvertent civilian casualties resulting from Israeli bombs. Now that American bombs are producing inadvertent civilian casualties as we try to "degrade" ISIS in Syria the White House seems to have misplaced its moral punctiliousness. In fact, President Obama has even relaxed the standards he had set for predator strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere in order to give our bombers more leeway to hit ISIS targets even if civilians may be "collateral damage." Israel's Bibi Netanyahu might be forgiven if he thinks Mr. Obama has been a bit hypocritical in this matter.

So, too, might George W. Bush be forgiven for thinking the same thing. As a U.S. Senator, Mr. Obama ripped President Bush for what he perceived to be our national unpreparedness in dealing with a potential avian flu epidemic. Avian flu never reached our shores, but Ebola has. During the Obama presidency, Ebola has afflicted more Americans and people in America than did avian flu. We certainly seem to have been caught unprepared. There's precious little of the antidote that saved the lives last summer of two American missionaries, and we seem to have no policies in place to prevent people from immigrating here from infected regions. When is Mr. Obama going to issue an apology to former President Bush?

I don't blame Mr. Obama for relaxing the standards governing when we can drop bombs and when we must hold back. Nor do I fault him for the fact that Ebola has made its way to the U.S. I do fault him, however, for his very strong criticism of others who did, essentially, the same thing Mr. Obama is doing or failed to do the same thing Mr. Obama has failed even more to do. His criticisms of Israel and former President Bush turn out to be a dish of political opportunism, buttered with moral posturing, and seasoned with hubris - standard fare in this White House.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Two Cheers for Discrimination

Not too long ago President Obama assured us that it was unlikely someone with Ebola would make it to our shores, but not unlike other of his assurances what he gave us to believe would not happen has happened, and the fact that it has happened prods me to ask a couple of questions about immigration.

We've been told that it's selfish of us to close our borders, that we're a nation of immigrants and should welcome anyone into the country who can make it in. We're told that it's discriminatory to exclude people from the blessings the United States has to offer and that those of us who have enjoyed those blessings should be willing to share them with the poor of the world who have not.

In reply to these asseverations it's appropriate to raise two questions:
  1. Do the people who make them lock their doors when they leave their homes and their cars? And,
  2. What's wrong with discrimination?
If someone who locks their home or car tells us that we should admit anyone into our national home who wants to come in I think we're entitled to ask them why they lock their own homes? Why don't they welcome into their home anyone who can get there and make available to them whatever blessings they have in their refrigerators and wallets? The reason they don't, of course, is not because they're stingy or selfish, but because they wish whatever of their goods they share with others to be offered on their own terms. They don't want what they worked for and built to be subject to plunder by every passerby who decides to plop himself down in front of their tv and clean out their refrigerator. Precisely so, but then why is our national border any different than their front door? Why should we not lock our border and only let in those we can accommodate?

Indeed, why is there a fence around the White House and armed guards to prevent people from wandering in, at least theoretically? Why are we upset that someone breaches the White House door, but we're not supposed to be upset that tens of thousands are breaching our national door?

All of which leads to the second question. If someone locks the door to her home, she usually allows family and friends in when they call, but is nevertheless leery of strangers. Why? Because she discriminates. She discriminates against the stranger and in favor of her family members, and there's nothing at all wrong with that. Indeed, it's prudent. To accuse people of the sin of "discrimination" because they wish to close our national home until we've determined that applicants for admission will not be a threat to our safety or a drain on our resources is simply hypocrisy unless the persons making the charge do not themselves discriminate against strangers seeking admittance to their personal homes.

In our Politically Correct age when people are discouraged from actually thinking, and the mere recitation of a word is sufficient to put an end to a dialogue - like calling someone a racist puts an end to any discussion about race and confers the moral high ground on the person who makes the allegation - we're fearful of being thought discriminatory. But discrimination, like prejudice, is bad only in some contexts, and it's simplistic and simpleminded to think that one has delivered a telling moral judgment on another merely by accusing them of either.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Talk

David Barash is an atheistic evolutionary biologist who has an essay in the New York Times Sunday Review in which he explains "The Talk" he has with his biology students every year. The Talk is his attempt to convince students that science and religious belief are incompatible and that science is fact-based whereas religion is values-based.

There's much in his article which merits criticism, but I want to focus on three claims with which Barash confronts his students, and which he apparently believes are devastating to his students' religious beliefs. Barash writes:
As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.

The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. This once seemed persuasive, best known from William Paley’s 19th-century claim that, just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator.

Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.
Well, if this is all it takes to demolish his students' faith their faith probably wasn't very well-informed to start with. In the first place, Barash misunderstands the argument he thinks he has refuted. It's not an argument from complexity, it's an argument based on specified complexity, i.e. information. It is information which needs to be explained because the living world is full of it and it's no more a product of random processes such as operate in evolution than a library is a product of blindfolded monkeys hacking away at a computer.

Secondly, it's pretty much an open secret among biologists that the processes Barash cites, random variation and natural selection, cannot account for the introduction of new information into the genome. The most they can accomplish is a reshuffling of the information that currently exists. This allows for variation to arise, like various breeds of dogs from an ancestral prototype, but it doesn't explain how dogs could ever have arisen from a single-celled structure.

Thirdly, the Darwinian processes Barash cites cannot explain how that single-cell ever arose in the first place. There is no more frustrated group of biologists today than those who are seeking a plausible explanation for the origin of life. The reason for their frustration is simple. It's maddeningly difficult to come up with a mechanism which could have operated prior to the existence of living things which could have created the information contained in even the simplest cell, especially since, in our experience information is never produced by anything other than intelligent agency.

Barash goes on to boast that:
A few of my students shift uncomfortably in their seats. I go on. Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.
This is a peculiar argument: Barash is saying that because we are physiologically indistinguishable from other animals therefore there's nothing about us to suggest that we have not descended from other animals, but this is a straw man. No one has ever said that what makes us unique is our bodies. What makes us distinguishable from other animals are not physical traits but mental and/or spiritual traits such as reason, language, art, the capacity for wonder, compassion, morality, a sense of transcendence, a sense of truth, etc. No one knows how these things evolved or why. No one knows how the human mind with its ability to discern meaning, to do math, and to form abstract ideas could have evolved. For Barash to suggest to his students that we're just phylogenetic mammals and that's the end of the matter is to burden them with the misconception that the ontological gulf between humans and other creatures is narrower than it really is.

Barash continues his demolition work:
Adding to religion’s current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering.

Theological answers range from claiming that suffering provides the option of free will to announcing (as in the Book of Job) that God is so great and we so insignificant that we have no right to ask. But just a smidgen of biological insight makes it clear that, although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death — and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things. The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.
This is not the place to discuss the problem of suffering which is indeed vexatious. Suffice it to say, though, that it's not at all clear how human suffering is logically incompatible with the existence of an all-powerful and good God, as Barash implies. The fact that it may be difficult to see why such a God would permit suffering hardly entails the conclusion that such a God doesn't exist.

The point, though, to which I wish to call attention is Barash's claim that we are "produced by a natural, totally amoral process." If this is so, then where does our moral sense come from? How does a totally amoral process produce the universal belief that some things are objectively wrong to do? And if a totally amoral process did give rise to such beliefs why do we feel compelled to obey them? How can blind, impersonal processes impose upon us a duty to behave in accord with them? It's like thinking that it's somehow wrong to go up in a hot air balloon because we'd be offending the law of gravity.

So here's the syllogism with which Barash's students should confront him: If man is the product of a totally amoral process then no objective moral duties exist. However, objective moral duties do exist (e.g. a duty not to abuse children, or to cheat the elderly out of their life savings). Therefore, we are not the product of a totally amoral process.

Now having a student raise that argument would certainly make Professor Barash's talk a lot more interesting.