Saturday, November 29, 2014

Christmas Gift Idea

Is there someone on your Christmas shopping list you think might enjoy reading a novel which blends philosophy, religion, and a crime story all together on a college campus during football season? If so, you might consider giving them a copy of my book In the Absence of God.

I know the foregoing sounds like a shameless plug, but Absence encapsulates a recurring theme throughout our ten years here at Viewpoint. It's a fictionalized argument for the proposition that naturalism affords little or no basis for either moral obligation or ultimate meaning and renders a host of other human needs and yearnings absurd. It's an existential dead-end, for unless there is a God, or something very much like God, then life really is, as Shakespeare put it, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

In the Absence of God is set on a mid-size university campus in New England at the beginning of the fall semester sometime in the early years of the last decade.

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

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

Over the course of three weeks in late August and early September the lives of these students become intertwined with those of Weyland and Peterson in ways none of them could have foreseen when the semester opened.

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

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

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

It's my hope that in reading this book you'll be stretched to think about things you perhaps hadn't thought about before, or that you'll at least think about your own beliefs in new and different ways. I hope that whatever your convictions about the matters taken up in this book may be, by the time you close its covers you'll agree that those convictions matter, and matter more profoundly than any other opinions you hold.
The book is available at my favorite bookstore, Hearts and Minds, and also at Amazon (paperback and kindle), where reader/reviewers have given it 4.5 stars, and at Barnes and Noble (paperback and nook).

I hope you'll consider putting it on your Christmas shopping list.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Does America Have a Racism Problem?

Writing at CNN in the wake of the decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown LZ Granderson states that we have a real problem with racism in this country.

He quotes Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP, who claimed that "What we have continued to see linger is the perception of young African-American men as dangerous and criminal. Until we begin to reverse this perception, and until all Americans -- white Americans in particular -- believe in the humanity of black people, we will continue to have these incidents of violence."

In other words, it wasn't Brown's actions which resulted in his death, it was the racism of the cop who shot him. She may be right, of course. Wilson may have done what he did because he was a bigot. It's possible, but who knows what was in his heart at the time he pulled the trigger? I certainly don't and I doubt very much that Ms Ifill does either. Why is it assumed that Mr. Wilson wouldn't have acted in the same manner had Brown been a white kid who punched him in the face? How does Ms Ifill or Mr. Granderson know that white Americans don't "believe in the humanity" of black people? Well, Granderson cites statistics:
A USA Today study found at least 70 police departments nationwide arrested blacks at a rate 10 times higher than nonblacks. Furthermore, "only 173 of the 3,538 police departments USA Today examined arrested black people at a rate equal to or lower than other racial groups." This isn't a coincidence or a fluke. This is a problem too many whites don't see, and too many blacks are besieged by.
We can agree that there's surely a problem here (although given that so many police departments operate in areas where the population is largely comprised of blacks, I'm not sure how significant that second statistic is), but I think it's simply nonsense to say that "too many whites" don't see it. I think they see it all too clearly. The problem is that blacks like Granderson, and many white liberals, are simply oblivious to what whites see.

What many whites see in their daily newspapers and evening newscasts is a minority group that commits crime out of all proportion to its size as a percentage of the population. They see a minority group that evidently seethes with hatred for whites to the extent that they're disproportionately inclined to victimize whites. If blacks are arrested at a much higher rate than other racial groups, then just maybe it's because they commit crimes at a much higher rate than other groups.

After reciting some of the claims made by black leaders concerning "the scourge of white-on-black violence" the editors at Discover the Networks offer some statistics on such violence:
Viewing America as a hotbed of racism, leftist civil-rights leaders and academics routinely promote the notion that white-on-black violence is a major scourge plaguing the black community. Al Sharpton once said that such violence had reached “epidemic proportions.” Professor Cornel West characterizes African Americans as our country's “exemplary targets of racial hatred.” Robert Staples, a former professor of sociology at a University of California medical school, has spoken of “a sort of genocide, targeting young black males.” Mary Frances Berry, former chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, says that “the primary explanation for racially motivated violence against blacks has been the need of a segment of the white population to preserve [its] belief in the inferiority of blacks, and to maintain the social and political subordination of an historically outcast group by any means, including violence.”

But in fact, white-on-black crime is a statistical rarity. According to data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), an estimated 320,082 whites were victims of black violence in 2010, while 62,593 blacks were victims of white violence. That same year, according to the Census Bureau, the white and black populations in the U.S. were 196,817,552 and 37,685,848, respectively. Whites therefore committed acts of interracial violence at a rate of 32 per 100,000, while the black rate was 849 per 100,000. In other words, the “average” black was statistically 26.5 times more likely to commit criminal violence against a white, than vice versa. Moreover, blacks who committed violent crimes chose white victims 47.7% of the time, whereas whites who committed violent crimes targeted black victims only 3.9% of the time.

For many years and for a wide variety of crimes, this pattern has been among the most consistent findings of criminal-justice research. Nationwide in 2010, there were approximately 67,755 black-on-white aggravated assaults, as compared to just 1,748 white-on-black crimes of the same description. Thus, blacks committed acts of interracial aggravated assault at a rate of 181 per 100,000—fully 201 times higher than the white rate of 0.9 per 100,000. Moreover, blacks guilty of aggravated assault chose white victims 44.1% of the time, while whites who committed aggravated assault selected black victims only six-tenths of 1% of the time.

Also in 2010, there were approximately 13,463 black-on-white rapes and 38,744 black-on-white robberies. Blacks guilty of rape chose white victims 50.2% of the time, and blacks who committed robbery chose white victims 48% of the time. By contrast, the number of white-on-black rapes and robberies reported in the NCVS surveys were so infinitesimal, that in each case whites were estimated to have accounted for 0.0% of all rapes and robberies committed against black victims in the United States.
If these statistics are accurate then several conclusions follow. First, we do indeed have a problem with racial violence in this country, but the problem is not primarily with white people. Second, if young black men resent being profiled by police then perhaps they should blame their fellow black males who are statistically far more likely to commit crimes than are any other group (If cops are such racists why aren't Asians the targets of police harassment and brutality?). Third, if interracial crime is a consequence of race hatred then by far the largest deposit of that hatred rests in the black community.

To be sure, whites sometimes say and do awkward, insensitive things. They sometimes tell racially-tinged jokes and indulge in stereotypes that blacks find offensive, but they rarely commit acts motivated by racial animus which actually and deliberately harm someone.

The out-of-whack statistics that Granderson cites will never be meliorated until responsible black voices stop imputing them to the phantom of ubiquitous white racism and instead start laying the blame where it belongs, in a community in which fatherlessness is epidemic and too many undisciplined youngsters enter their teen age years unequipped and unwilling to function in socially productive ways.

If we can't accurately identify the problem there's not much chance we'll ever solve it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation

Ever since the presidency of George Washington Americans had been celebrating days of thanksgiving, but they had been declared mostly by the states for the states. On September 28th, 1863, a 74 year-old magazine editor named Sarah Hale wrote to President Abraham Lincoln urging him to declare a nation-wide observance.

During his administration President Lincoln had issued many orders similar to this. For example, on November 28, 1861, he had ordered government departments closed for a local day of thanksgiving. Hale, however, wanted him to have the "day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival," an observance for which she had campaigned in her magazine, Godey's Lady's Book, for 15 years.

She explained, "You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution." Prior to this, each state scheduled its own Thanksgiving holiday at different times, mainly in New England and other Northern states. President Lincoln responded to Mrs. Hale's request immediately, unlike several of his predecessors, who ignored her petitions altogether.

According to an April 1, 1864, letter from John Nicolay, one of President Lincoln's secretaries, this proclamation was actually written for President Lincoln by Secretary of State William Seward. A year later the manuscript, in Seward's hand, was sold to benefit Union troops. Here's Lincoln's proclamation:
Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863
By the President of the United States of America.
A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.

Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State
In some respects the proclamation reads as if it could have been written today. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Political Nihilism

Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal is certainly no bomb-thrower, but even she has come to the conclusion that the current administration is sui generis, i.e. completely unique in American history, and not in a good way. In a column at the Wall Street Journal (subscription required)she writes:
What they [the Obama administration] forget is that facts largely decide what history thinks — outcomes, what happened, what it means. What they also forget, or perhaps never knew, is that the great [presidencies] are always constructive. They don’t divide and tear down. They build, gather in, create, bend, meld, and in so doing move things forward. That’s not this crowd.

This White House seems driven — does it understand this? — by a kind of political nihilism. They agitate, aggravate, fray and separate. Look at three great domestic issues just the past few weeks.

ObamaCare, whose very legitimacy was half killed by the lie that “If you like your plan, you can keep it,” and later by the incompetence of its implementation, has been done in now by the mindless, highhanded bragging of a technocrat who helped build it, and who amused himself the past few years explaining that the law’s passage was secured only by lies, and the lies were effective because the American people are stupid.

I don’t know how ObamaCare will go, but it won’t last as it is. If the White House had wisdom, they’d declare that they’d won on the essential argument — health coverage is a right for all — and go back to the drawing board with Congress. The only part of the ObamaCare law that is popular is its intention, not its reality. The White House should declare victory and redraw the bill. But the White House is a wisdom-free zone.

The president’s executive action on immigration is an act of willful nihilism that he himself had argued against in the past. It is a sharp stick in the eye of the new congressional majority. It is at odds with — it defies — the meaning and message of the last election, and therefore is destructive to the reputation of democracy itself. It is huge in its impact but has only a sole cause, the president’s lone will. It damages the standing of our tottery political institutions rather than strengthening them, which is what they desperately need, and sets a template for future executive abuse. It will surely encourage increased illegal immigration and thus further erode the position of the American working class.

And there is the Keystone XL pipeline and the administration’s apparent intent to veto a bill that allows it. There the issue is not only the jobs the pipeline would create, and not only the infrastructure element. It is something more. If it is done right, the people who build the pipeline could be pressed to take on young men — skill-less, aimless — and get them learning, as part of a crew, how things are built and what it is to be a man who builds them.

On top of that, the building of the pipeline would show the world that America is capable of coming back, that we’re not only aware of our good fortune and engineering genius, we are pushing it hard into the future. America’s got her hard-hat on again. America is dynamic. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Not just this endless talk of limits, restrictions, fears and “Oh, we’re all going to melt in the warm global future!”

Which is sort of the spirit of this White House.

Great presidencies have a different one. They expand, move on, reach out....

“But history will be written by liberals.” Fair enough, and they will judge the president the more harshly because he failed to do anything that lasts. ObamaCare will be corrected and torn down piece by piece. The immigration order will be changed, slowed or undone by the courts, Congress or through executive actions down the road. Keystone will pass and a veto overridden.

And the president has failed liberals through unpopularity, which is another word for incompetence.
And if all that happens, if ten years hence nothing of the last eight remains, will we look back at the Obama years as a promise broken and an opportunity squandered? What lessons will we have learned?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Very Sad Night for America

In the days to come there'll doubtless be much commentary on the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.

I don't know whether or not the black community in Ferguson has been mistreated by the police over the years, as has been claimed. Maybe they have. Maybe some of the treatment about which the community has complained is warranted by the circumstances that exist in their community. In any case, even if there have been unjustifiable abuses by the Ferguson police force that doesn't mean that Officer Wilson was one of the offenders, and it is unconscionable to insist that he be made a scapegoat regardless of whether he acted properly in the shooting of Michael Brown.

Justice demands that individuals be treated according to how they behave, not according to the behavior of others who may have the same job or may be of the same religion or race. To demand an indictment and to riot, burn businesses, and threaten lives because the grand jury didn't believe the evidence warranted the indictment the rioters insisted upon is disgraceful.

Some of the businesses that were burned last night were small minority-owned enterprises whose owners have lost everything. No doubt all of the ruined businesses employed blacks who now find themselves out of work. The actions that deprived these people of their livelihoods were not only criminal they were incredibly stupid.

The rioters didn't care about the exculpatory evidence presented to the grand jury, much of it by black witnesses. They didn't care whether Officer Wilson was in danger of being done great harm by Michael Brown. Many of them probably didn't even care about Michael Brown.

What they cared about was that a white cop killed a black man, and given that solitary fact, the cop is, in their minds, ipso facto guilty. Moreover, if he's not punished they'll take matters into their own hands and burn down the stores and other businesses which employ them, and then they'll wonder in a year or two why no businesses want to open in their neighborhood and why they have to travel across town to shop.

If Americans cannot base guilt and innocence on facts and evidence, but must base it instead on some racial calculus - one tribe pitted against another - then we are in real danger of devolving toward the sort of mindless feuds and hatreds that plague the Arab world, and our civilization, built on the rule of law, truly is in peril.

David Harsanyi at The Federalist has some wise words on the Ferguson situation. I recommend his column.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Goldilocks Planet

Scientists have cataloged dozens of parameters that have to be just right for life to appear on earth. The improbability of a planet having so many of these properties is so high that some scientists have speculated that life, at least complex life, might exist nowhere else in the universe no matter how many other planets are out there. This is the thesis of such books as Rare Earth by Ward and Brownlee and Privileged Planet by Gonzalez and Richards.

A few such parameters are:
...a galactic habitable zone, a central star and planetary system having the requisite character, the circumstellar habitable zone, a right sized terrestrial planet, the advantage of a gas giant guardian and large satellite, conditions needed to ensure the planet has a magnetosphere and plate tectonics, the chemistry of the lithosphere, atmosphere, and oceans, the role of "evolutionary pumps" such as massive glaciation and rare bolide impacts, and whatever led to the still mysterious Cambrian explosion of animal phyla. The emergence of intelligent life may have required yet other rare events.
New Scientist has a report on some research that shows yet another cosmic coincidence that allows life to exist on earth. It turns out that, as strange as it may seem at first, the orbit of Saturn has to be almost exactly as it is for life to exist on earth:
Earth's comfortable temperatures may be thanks to Saturn's good behaviour. If the ringed giant's orbit had been slightly different, Earth's orbit could have been wildly elongated, like that of a long-period comet.

Our solar system is a tidy sort of place: planetary orbits here tend to be circular and lie in the same plane, unlike the highly eccentric orbits of many exoplanets. Elke Pilat-Lohinger of the University of Vienna, Austria, was interested in the idea that the combined influence of Jupiter and Saturn – the solar system's heavyweights – could have shaped other planets' orbits. She used computer models to study how changing the orbits of these two giant planets might affect the Earth.

Earth's orbit is so nearly circular that its distance from the sun only varies between 147 and 152 million kilometres, or around 2 per cent about the average. Moving Saturn's orbit just 10 percent closer in would disrupt that by creating a resonance – essentially a periodic tug – that would stretch out the Earth's orbit by tens of millions of kilometres. That would result in the Earth spending part of each year outside the habitable zone, the ring around the sun where temperatures are right for liquid water.

Tilting Saturn's orbit would also stretch out Earth's orbit. According to a simple model that did not include other inner planets, the greater the tilt, the more the elongation increased. Adding Venus and Mars to the model stabilised the orbits of all three planets, but the elongation nonetheless rose as Saturn's orbit got more tilted. Pilat-Lohinger says a 20-degree tilt would bring the innermost part of Earth's orbit closer to the sun than Venus.
In other words, our solar system is like a delicately balanced ecosystem, all the parts of which seem to be important in making earth the sort of place where life can arise and be sustained. The odds of such a system existing elsewhere in the universe would seem to be very small.

It might be mentioned in passing that it's not just Saturn's orbit that makes life possible on earth. Scientists have shown that massive outer planets like Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune act as gravitational vacuum sweepers sucking up a lot of debris that would otherwise invade the inner reaches of the solar system and threaten earth with constant collisions. It really is astonishing how many factors must all be just right for life to exist on this one little planet.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Meaningful Thanksgiving

Looking to do something that'll make a difference in people's lives, a meaningful way to celebrate the Thanksgiving season? Why not consider Kiva:
Kiva is a world-wide microfinance organization. People from all around the world lend money to small businesspersons and others in the third world to help them obtain the capital they need to manage their businesses successfully. The borrowers then pay the loan back over time and the lender can relend the money or withdraw it.

It's a great way to help the poor help themselves and a wonderful way to express your gratitude for all that you have.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The President's Curious Reasoning

During the president's speech last night in which he informed the nation that he's no longer content to be president and is henceforth elevating himself to the rank of emperor, he delivered himself of this bizarre piece of rhetoric:
And to those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill. I want to work with both parties to pass a more permanent legislative solution. And the day I sign that bill into law, the actions I take will no longer be necessary.
This is as nonsensical as it is brazen. As Jonah Goldberg puts it:
Obama is in effect saying [to Congress], “If you don’t want me to do something you believe to be illegal or unconstitutional - and I eloquently agreed with you not long ago - all you have to do to stop me is to do exactly what I want.”

Placating Obama’s wishes doesn’t erase his lawless deed, it establishes a precedent for a new presidential power of lawless action. It’s against the law for me to steal your car. If I do it anyway and then say, “Look, all you have to do to nullify my lawless action is sign over the title to me, that way it will all be nice and proper” does that really make it all better?
Mr. Obama and his media sycophants are blaming the Republican congress for not passing the immigration bill that he wants passed, but if he was really so concerned about the plight of immigrants why didn't he do something to reform the system during the first two years of his presidency when he controlled both houses of congress? He didn't do it then when he could have and now he blames the Republicans for dragging their feet.

Actually, congressional Republicans have very good reason to be reluctant. No immigration reform is possible unless it is all but certain that our border is secured against further incursions of illegals coming north a couple of years from now. The problem is that it's up to the president who swore an oath to uphold the laws of the nation to enforce any legislation that he signs, and no one, at least no one who has been paying attention, has any confidence that Mr. Obama will fulfill his obligation keep our borders secure. He has dissembled about so much so often that he has no credibility, even within his own party much less with Republicans.

By refusing to accept the limitations placed upon his power by the Constitution, Mr. Obama has very likely thrown this country into a constitutional crisis, and probably cemented his reputation as the most divisive and lawless president in the history of our nation.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The President's Overreach

President Obama is taking an unprecedented action which threatens to throw this nation into a constitutional crisis and will almost certainly insure that relations between Republicans and Democrats will grow even more sour than they already are. The president has chosen to grant amnesty to 4 million immigrants in this country illegally, a move he himself has insisted on numerous occasions that he had no constitutional authority to do.

The issue at hand is not whether these immigrants should be allowed to stay - I've advocated for years on VP and elsewhere a policy very similar to what the president outlined tonight - it's whether any president has the constitutional right to essentially usurp the prerogative of the legislature to make law.

Speaker of the House John Boehner's office has compiled a list of twenty two instances wherein Mr. Obama insisted that he had no authority to do what he has now said he will do. Here are three:
1. I am president, I am not king. I can't do these things just by myself. We have a system of government that requires the Congress to work with the Executive Branch to make it happen. I'm committed to making it happen, but I've got to have some partners to do it....The main thing we have to do to stop deportations is to change the laws....[T]he most important thing that we can do is to change the law because the way the system works – again, I just want to repeat, I'm president, I'm not king. If Congress has laws on the books that says that people who are here who are not documented have to be deported, then I can exercise some flexibility in terms of where we deploy our resources, to focus on people who are really causing problems as a opposed to families who are just trying to work and support themselves. But there's a limit to the discretion that I can show because I am obliged to execute the law. That's what the Executive Branch means. I can't just make the laws up by myself. So the most important thing that we can do is focus on changing the underlying laws. (10/25/10)

2. I swore an oath to uphold the laws on the books....Now, I know some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own. Believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting. I promise you. Not just on immigration reform. But that's not how our system works. That’s not how our democracy functions. That's not how our Constitution is written. (7/25/11)

3. This is something I’ve struggled with throughout my presidency. The problem is that I’m the president of the United States, I’m not the emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed. And Congress right now has not changed what I consider to be a broken immigration system. And what that means is that we have certain obligations to enforce the laws that are in place even if we think that in many cases the results may be tragic. (2/14/13)
As a candidate in 2008 Senator Obama condemned the very sort of arrogation of power he now tells us he plans to effect:
1. I take the Constitution very seriously. The biggest problems that we’re facing right now have to do with [the president] trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all. And that’s what I intend to reverse when I’m President of the United States of America.(3/31/08)

2. We’ve got a government designed by the Founders so that there’d be checks and balances. You don’t want a president who’s too powerful or a Congress that’s too powerful or a court that’s too powerful. Everybody’s got their own role. Congress’s job is to pass legislation. The president can veto it or he can sign it....I believe in the Constitution and I will obey the Constitution of the United States. We're not going to use signing statements as a way of doing an end-run around Congress.(5/19/08)
Of course, that's what he announced tonight that he's going to do. There are things the Republicans can do to try to stymie him short of impeachment which isn't going to happen since it would take a 2/3 of the senators, or a total of 67, to vote to convict. There will be 54 Republicans in the new Congress seated in January which means there'd have to be 13 Democrats who would go along with impeachment and that seems more than far-fetched.

Other options are discussed here. One of the most worrisome things about the president's action is the precedent Mr. Obama is setting. Suppose the next president, perhaps a Republican, decides he doesn't want to enforce the Clean Air act, the tax laws, or welfare programs? If a president can now unilaterally decide which laws he will enforce and which he won't, the Constitution is void and we no longer live in a democratic republic, we instead live in a dictatorship headed by a modern day Caesar.

The policy he presented tonight, the policy he'll soon promulgate by executive order, may be what should be done, I think it mostly is (although I'm deeply skeptical that the president is, after six years in office, finally serious about genuinely securing the border), but the way he's doing it is extremely destructive to the constitutional foundation of this country.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Understanding and Belief

Steve Mirsky of Scientific American interviewed cognitive psychologist Tania Lombrozo from the University of California, Berkeley back in 2009. Lombrozo studies why people believe what they do, specifically, why they believe what they do about evolution, intelligent design, or creationism. The entire interview is interesting and worth reading. Here's an excerpt I found particularly fascinating:

Mirsky: Let's talk about some of the basics and some of the surprises about the people who accept and don't accept evolution and their reasons for it.

Lombrozo: Sure. I think one of the most surprising findings has to do with the relationship between understanding the basics of evolutionary theory and accepting it as our best account of the origins of human life. So most people, I think, [or] in particular scientists, tend to think that if people reject evolution and in particular evolution by natural selection, it's because they don't understand it very well; they don't really understand what the theory is telling us. But in fact, if you look at the data from psychology and education, what you find is either no correlation between accepting evolution and understanding it or very, very small correlation between those two factors, and I think that's surprising to a lot of people and in particular to educators and scientists.

Mirsky: Yeah, it was surprising to me when your data were presented. So what [does] that mean for, you know, education in the country? What should people be thinking about if they have a desire to have evolutionary theory be more accepted by more people?

Lombrozo: I think it has a couple of consequences. One of them is that any kind of educational intervention that increases people's understanding of evolutionary theory is not necessarily going to have a consequence to whether or not people accept evolution. I think that's surprising, but it also raises a lot of complicated ethical issues; whether or not it's even appropriate in the classroom for teachers to be trying to deliberately influence students' acceptance of evolution as opposed to whether or not they understand it. We normally think about the role of education as being one to communicate basic concepts, to communicate scientific theories, not to actually change whether or not people accept a particular theory that might conflict with their relative views. So I think it raises some complicated issues there.

Two things are worth noting about this. First, Lombrozo is correct that the role of a public school teacher is to present students with the relevant ideas, not to indoctrinate them in those ideas. Teachers should teach students the pros and cons of evolutionary theory and let the students decide for themselves what they believe.

Second, the difficulty with teaching just the facts on evolution is that, by itself, it's apparently not enough to persuade many students that evolution is true. The problem is not that students don't understand the concepts and therefore don't accept them, the problem is that many of them do understand the theory and find it literally incredible.

The reason some Darwinists want students to be inculcated with Darwinism and don't want any criticism of Darwinism taught in the classroom is that they know intuitively that if students are made aware of the profound difficulties with naturalistic explanations of the origin of life and the inability of natural selection and random mutation to account for the enormous biological sophistication of living things, many kids will simply be skeptical of the whole business.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Faith of Scientists

Philosophers of science have long noted that the line between empirical science and metaphysics has been increasingly blurred in the modern era. Scientists who once prided themselves on taking nothing on faith and demanding hard evidence for their scientific beliefs have long since abandoned that position. Science today is very much about faith.

A piece at NPR by Marcelo Gleiser elaborates on this. Gleiser writes:
I want to ... examine a ... controversial issue, one that has been in the limelight of cutting-edge physics for the past few years: Do some scientists hold on to a belief longer than they should? Or, more provocatively phrased, when does a scientific belief become an article of faith?

To talk about faith in the context of science seems quite blasphemous. Isn't science the antithesis of faith, given that it is supposedly based on certainties, on the explicit verification of hypotheses? This vision of science as being perfectly logical and rational is an idealization. Of course, the product of scientific research must be something concrete: Hypotheses must be either confirmed or refuted, and data from experiments should be repeatable by others.
This is all true, but it seems to fall afoul of much thinking today on matters of global warming, evolution, and the multiverse, the first of which seems to suffer from a dearth of empirical confirmation and the latter two of which lead to no experiments repeatable by others. Yet they're firmly held to be true by many scientists, and indeed they may be true, but the belief that they are is based more on faith than on empirical evidence and experimentation. Gleiser goes on to say that,
There is, however, an essential difference between religious faith and scientific faith: dogma. In science, dogma is untenable. Sooner or later, even the deepest ingrained ideas — if proven wrong — must collapse under the weight of evidence. A scientist who holds on to an incorrect theory or hypothesis makes for a sad figure. In religion, given that evidence is either elusive or irrelevant, faith is always viable.
The claim here is that it's dogmatic to hold to a theory in spite of the evidence and that such doxastic tenacity is characteristic of religious belief but is anathema among scientists. Yet surely Gleiser knows that the most deeply ingrained ideas, ideas that lie closest to the bone of our deepest metaphysical commitments, are rarely proven wrong in science. As Thomas Kuhn famously argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the old ideas only pass away when the scientists who hold them do.

When the beliefs people hold are entailments of their worldview those beliefs will not be surrendered unless the worldview itself shifts. And that tectonic intellectual event requires such a formidable expenditure of psychological energy and exertion of the will that it happens only infrequently among those who have reached their mature years.

If one's worldview demands materialistic explanations of phenomena, for example, then some materialistic explanation of a phenomenon will be clung to regardless of whether there's good evidence for it. The belief becomes a dogma, and scientists are no less likely to embrace dogma than are religious people. Examples of prominent scientists admitting to this are not hard to find. Here's a well-known admission from one of the world's top biologists, Richard Lewontin:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
In other words, defending materialism is more important than following the evidence. Evolutionary atheist and philosopher of biology Michael Ruse acknowledges that belief in evolution is actually religious, of all things:
Evolution is promoted by its practitioners as more than mere science. Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion—a full-fledged alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality. I am an ardent evolutionist and an ex-Christian, but I must admit that in this one complaint...the literalists are absolutely right. Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today.
The stereotype of the completely objective scientist persuaded only by empirical evidence and unencumbered by biases, preferences, and ideological predilections is hard to find in the real world, at least in those scientific fields which have profound metaphysical implications.

Monday, November 17, 2014


I was listening to a show on public radio this morning, and they featured a segment during which it was explained that the EPA is very concerned with the amount of food that gets wasted in American households. The bureaucrats at the EPA (and the good folks at my local PBS) evidently think this deplorable and are doing studies to assess exactly how much food gets scraped off our plates and stuffed down the garbage disposal each week.

I was inclined to agree, in a knee-jerk kind of way, that it's bad to waste food until I heard this segment and started to think about it. I certainly agree that waste is bad when it's a non-renewable resource like oil that's being squandered, or if what's wasted is a mind, or time, or a life. To see any of these wasted is very sad.

But why is wasting food bad, I asked myself. It's not as if the food that goes down the garbage disposal would otherwise go to feed hungry children somewhere in the third world. Our wastefulness isn't depriving someone else of sustenance.

Then I wondered what would happen if people only bought exactly what they were going to eat. Would that be good? Well, not necessarily. The more food we buy the more money we put in the pockets of the food merchants who sell it, the farmers who produce it, the processors who prepare it, and the truckers who transport it, whether the food we buy gets eaten or not. This is a good thing. The food may go moldy in our cupboards, but buying it provides jobs for a lot of people and if we all limited ourselves to buying only what we consumed, a lot of those people would be worse off.

So maybe I'm missing something, but wasting food doesn't seem to be the same sort of thing as wasting time or wasting water during a drought. As long as it's not taking food out of the mouths of the hungry I don't see why it's "wrong" at all, and I don't know why the EPA thinks it's any business of theirs how much people waste.

Maybe if the EPA is concerned about waste they should do a study on how many taxpayer dollars they waste on dumb studies on waste.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Molecular Machines

Here's a post from April of 2013 that I thought worth running again:

Among the phenomena which support the claim that life is the product of intentional, intelligent design is the sheer number of complex molecular machines that operate in each of the trillions of our body's cells to ensure that these cells carry out the functions that keep us alive.

One of these machines is the system of proteins that synthesizes adenosine triphosphate (ATP) from adenosine diphosphate (ADP). Here's a short video animation that describes how this machine, called ATP synthase, works:
There are thousands of such machines in the cell, all of which, on the standard Darwinian account, somehow developed - through random, undirected, processes - not only their structure, not only the coordination with other systems in the cell necessary for proper function, but also the genetic regulatory mechanisms that control how and when the machine operates.

David Hume, in his famous essay On Miracles, wrote that when we hear an account of a miracle we should ask ourselves whether it's more likely, given our experience, that a law of nature had been violated or that the witness was somehow mistaken. Hume argued that a mistaken witness is always more likely than that a law of nature had been violated, and we should always, he insisted, believe what's most likely. Applying the principle to the present case, when confronted with a structure like ATP synthase we should ask ourselves, what is the greater miracle, that such an astonishing thing came about by chance and luck or that it came about by intelligent engineering?

It seems to me that the only way one can assert the former is if they've already, a priori, ruled out the possibility of the existence of the intelligent engineer, but, of course, that begs the question. Whether the intelligent engineer exists is the very matter we're trying to answer by asking whether blind chance or intelligence is the best explanation for the existence in living things of such machines as ATP synthase.

If we allow the evidence to speak for itself rather than allow our prior metaphysical commitments to dictate what the evidence says then I'm pretty sure most people would say that the kind of specified complexity we see in this video points unequivocally to the existence of a designing mind.

If this video has whetted your interest here's another that pushes us toward the same conclusion. It's an animation of just a few of the structures and processes in a living cell. Note the amazing motor protein that carries the vesicle along the microtubule:
How does the motor protein "know" to carry the vesicle along the microtubule and where to take it? What regulates the process? How and why did such a complex system ever come about? Was it all just blind chance and serendipity or was it the product of intelligence?

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Looming Iceberg

Almost overshadowed amidst revelations by Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who was one of the chief architects of the Affordable Care Act, that he and his colleagues lied and misled Congress and the American people about what the law contained in order to get it passed, is the news that the Supreme Court has decided to hear the Halbig case (technically called King v. Burwell)

Essentially, what Halbig is about is this: When the ACA was designed it mandated that poor people be given subsidies to offset the cost of insurance if they purchased their coverage through their state's insurance exchange program. Thirty four states, however, refused to set up exchanges and the federal government had to go in and provide the service. The problem is that the ACA explicitly asserts that only consumers using state exchanges are eligible for subsidies, and it makes no provision for subsidies to people who use federal exchanges. Thus, as the law is written, millions of poor people in states with no state exchange will not be eligible for subsidies and will not be able to afford insurance. This, some observers believe, would be the death knell for Obamacare.

Consequently, the White House is arguing that the intent of the law was to give everyone subsidies even though the law explicitly denies this, and the same Jonathan Gruber is on tape explicitly insisting that subsidies were meant to be granted only to those using the state exchanges. The case has been quietly making its way through the judicial court system and the Supreme Court has now decided to take it up.

This development has led to a lot of speculation about exactly who the justices were (there were four of them) who voted to hear the case. Hot Air's Allahpundit makes a good case for thinking they were three conservatives (Scalia, Thomas, and Alito) plus Anthony Kennedy. If he's right about this, and if he's also right that it's unlikely these Justices would've chosen to hear the case unless they were inclined to rule against the administration, then Chief Justice John Roberts, who saved Obamacare in 2012 from being declared unconstitutional by transmogrifying a fine into a tax may well find himself the swing vote once again.

Roberts received so much condign criticism for that 2012 decision that a lot of people wonder whether he'd be willing to go through all that misery again and might instead be looking for a reasonable way to justify voting against the White House this time around (It's odd that nobody seems to think that a Supreme Court Justice might actually rule on what the Constitution says, but Roberts seriously diminished confidence that he would so rule by deciding as he did in 2012).

Richard Hasen at the LA Times thinks Roberts might decide against the White House in the current case by arguing that the Congress wrote what it wrote and that if they didn't say what they meant to say in the ACA then it's up to them to change it. This would certainly be a reasonable position, but it would almost certainly be the end of Obamacare because there's very little chance that a Congress now controlled by the Republican party, not a single member of which voted to make the ACA law, will now vote to save it.

I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Raising the Minimum Wage

There's been much talk lately about raising the federal minimum wage. It's very hard to see, however, how such a move will not do more harm than good.

When the minimum wage is raised it's not just the wages of the very lowest paid workers that must be raised. Everyone's wages must go up. When the lowest paid entry level workers have their starting wage increased to, say, $10 an hour those who have been employed by that business for a longer time who are also making $10 and hour are going to resent that new hires are making as much as they are. Thus, the salaries of these more experienced workers will also rise. The raises will ripple right up the entire wage structure of the business.

In the end, many small businesses will be unable to survive without raising their prices, laying people off, or refusing to hire new employees. Many other businesses will simply have to close down. How does any of this help anyone?

The Federalist has a couple of stories about how small businesses and the people who work for them are suffering as a result of raises to their state's minimum wage. Here are some excerpts:
“I got my son back because I worked here. It kept me out of trouble and on the right path,” Stacey Osborn said.

Osborn lives in Hillsdale, a small town in rural Michigan. She used to work at Tastes of Life, a local restaurant that supported a residential program, Life Challenge of Michigan. It provided training in social, developmental, waitressing, and cooking skills to people who needed help getting on their feet. Some employees had cancer, experienced deaths in the family, spent time in jail, or struggled with substance abuse.

That is, until Michigan’s legislature hiked the mandatory minimum wage.

Osborn was with Tastes of Life from day one—Father’s Day of 2012—until the restaurant closed on September 28 because of the minimum wage hike. She said she came to the restaurant with a lot of problems that the owners, Pastor Jack Mosley and his wife, Linda, helped her through.

“I could go to them for anything,” Osborn said. “It hurts so bad that it closed.”

Mosley explained that, unlike a typical business that might fire a chef with a hot temper “who breaks dishes,” Tastes of Life managers were more long-suffering and wanted to help employees polish their life skills.

“Life has issues,” Mosley said. “This was a place to shore them up, and help them cope and get through.”

Osborn said she has looked for other jobs, but nothing compares to what Tastes of Life was to her. Instead of working for a warm family restaurant, Osborn has found herself bartending late at night. She doesn’t want to work someplace that will send her in the wrong direction.

“I did the math and realized I would need 200 more customers a week to stay open,” Mosley said.

That, accompanied by the fact that many of their customers go south for the winter and food prices have risen dramatically, forced Mosley to close doors. Twelve people lost their jobs.

Terry Hatch, another Tastes of Life employee, had worked at the restaurant for six months.

“I have a few disabilities and this gave me friends. It was a lot more than a paycheck,” Hatch added.

Lori Burger, manager of Hillsdale’s House of Pizza and BBQ, said she has started cutting her employees’ hours. She employs seven young women, and the minimum wage affects her profit margin.

Although she will keep taking applications, she said there’s no sense in hiring new employees when she is cutting hours for the ones she already has.

The very people the wage hike is supposed to help end up with a higher wage, but less work. Lisa Slade has worked at the Finish Line Restaurant since 1976 and now owns the business. She said the first incremental wage increase hasn’t affected her yet because she only has one minimum-wage employee. However, she said the future increases will mean she’ll have to raise menu prices.

“It irritates me because the government dictates what to pay,” Slade said. “I like to give people raises when they do a good job. The guy who is doing a good job shouldn’t make the same amount as the guy who is still learning.”

Pai Ringenberg, owner of the Coffee Cup Diner, shared Slade’s sentiment.

She said if lawmakers raise the wage, businesses will raise prices to cover it, and that influences everyone’s cost of living. As a result, lawmakers will want to raise the wage again.

In the end, a forced wage increase only makes it harder for people to get into the workplace. If employers have to pay more, they want their employees to come with more specialized skills and stronger work ethics.

But entry-level workplaces such as restaurants or retail stores can’t survive under the pressure. The wage increase discourages entrepreneurs from chasing the American Dream, because they can’t afford the price tag.

As Osborn’s story shows, the very people the minimum wage hike was sold as helping often lose their jobs because of it. Those who need more work hours are getting fewer, and those who would have benefited from lower prices are paying more for everyday items. The minimum wage hike is a self-destructing initiative—just ask your local barista.
Raising the minimum wage is a bad idea, and imposing it on employers is an abuse of power. People should be paid according to their value to their employer, not according to what bureaucrats in some state capital or worse, in Washington, D.C., think they're worth. If the job is such that it requires no particular skill or talent then why should employers be forced by the state to pay as if it does? The value of someone's work is something that should be agreed upon between employer and employee. If an employee doesn't want to work for what the employer wants to pay then they're free to look for work elsewhere.

For the state to dictate what employers must pay their employees is yet another symptom of the modern usurpation of our liberty by a metastasizing government.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Way Forward

Now that The Republicans will control both houses of Congress in January suggestions for legislation they should pass have been littering the editorial pages.

It must be remembered, however, that many bills require a 60 vote majority to pass in the Senate because the minority party can filibuster. That is, the Democrats can block any bill they don't like by declaring a filibuster which it takes 60 votes to override. The Republicans will only have (at most) 54 senators so they'd have to find six or more Democrats willing to buck their party leadership to move the bill through the Senate and onto the president's desk. That will be difficult.

Nevertheless, here are some measures that are being proposed by conservatives. Some of them would be wonderful, some I'm not sure about, and some I don't like, but you decide what you think about them.

University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds offers six suggestion several of which which reflect his libertarian inclinations. The accompanying explanations are excerpted from his article:

End the federally imposed 21-year-old drinking age. The limit was dreamed up in the 1980s as a bit of political posturing by then-secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole. It has been a disaster. College drinking hasn't been reduced; it has just moved out of bars and into dorm rooms, fraternities/sororities and house parties. The result has been a boom in alcohol problems on campus.

Repeal the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This awful law, passed in the Clinton era, is a giveaway to the entertainment industry. It places major burdens on Internet and computer users and electronic innovators.

Make birth-control pills available over the counter. Cory Gardner made this a part of his winning platform in Colorado's Senate race. Let women choose.

End public-sector employee unions. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker eliminated dues-withholding for public employee unions in his state. The unions were so angry that they organized a recall campaign against him. They lost. They then tried to recall a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who upheld his action. They lost. They then tried to beat Walker in last week's election. They lost again. President Franklin Roosevelt opposed public employee unions because he thought that people whose salaries came from the taxpayers shouldn't have the right to collectively bargain against citizens whose taxes were being collected by force, and that collective bargaining by public employees was a conflict of interest. He was right.

Institute a "revolving door" surtax on those who make more in post-government employment. Leave a Treasury job making $150,000 a year to take one in private industry paying $750,000, and you'll pay 50% surtax on the $600,000 difference. Most of the increased pay is based on knowledge and connections you got while on Uncle Sam's dime, so why shouldn't Uncle Sam get a share?

Syndicated columnist George Will of the Washington Post offers another half dozen suggestions. I've shortened the explanations somewhat and added a one sentence note to the last one:

Abolish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.The CFPB is empowered to “declare,” with no legislative guidance or institutional inhibitions, that certain business practices are “abusive.” It also embodies progressivism’s authoritarianism by being, unlike any entity Congress has created since 1789, untethered from all oversight mechanisms: Its funding, “determined by the director,” comes from the Federal Reserve.

Repeal the Independent Payment Advisory Board. This expression of the progressive mind is an artifact of the Affordable Care Act and may be the most anti-constitutional measure ever enacted. When the IPAB’s 15 presidential appointees make what the Affordable Care Act calls a “legislative proposal” limiting reimbursements to doctors, this proposal automatically becomes law unless Congress passes a similar measure cutting Medicare spending. Under this constitutional travesty, an executive-branch agency makes laws unless the legislative branch enacts alternative means of achieving the executive agency’s aim. The Affordable Care Act stipulates that no measure for the abolition of the board can be introduced before 2017 or after Feb. 1, 2017, and must be enacted by Aug. 15 of that year. So, one Congress presumed to bind all subsequent Congresses in order to achieve progressivism’s consistent aim — abolishing limited government by emancipating presidents from restraint by the separation of powers.

Repeal the Affordable Care Act’s tax on medical devices.This $29 billion blow to an industry that provides more than 400,000 jobs is levied not on firms’ profits but on gross revenues, and it comes on top of the federal (the developed world’s highest) corporate income tax, plus state and local taxes. Enough Democrats support repeal that a presidential veto might be overridden.

Improve energy, economic and environmental conditions by authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would reduce the risk of spills by reducing the transportation of oil in railroad tankers.

Mandate completion of the nuclear waste repository in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. The signature achievement of Harry Reid’s waning career has been blocking this project, on which approximately $15 billion has been spent. So, rather than nuclear waste being safely stored in the mountain’s 40 miles of tunnels 1,000 feet underground atop 1,000 feet of rock, more than 160 million Americans live within 75 miles of one or more of the 121 locations where 70,000 tons of waste are stored.

Pass the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act. It would require that any regulation with at least a $100 million annual impact on the economy — there are approximately 200 of them in the pipeline — be approved without amendments by a joint resolution of Congress and signed by the president. “In effect,” writes the Hudson Institute’s Christopher DeMuth, “major agency rules would become legislative proposals with fast-track privileges.”

As it is various executive agencies can promulgate regulations with enormous economic impact and Congress is essentially helpless to stop them.

For those interested more in process and the larger picture Senator Mike Lee has some excellent advice in a column at The Federalist.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On Veteran's Day

In recognition of Veteran's Day, I thought I'd run this post from last year:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P.S. Louie Zamperini passed away on July 2nd of this year. He was 97.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Whatever Works

This video is from a conference on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) a couple of years ago, but it's been resuscitated lately and is making the rounds on the internet. It consists of fifty two seconds of one of the architects of the law, Jonathan Gruber, essentially admitting that he and his colleagues deliberately misled the American people about the act in order to get it passed into law.
Mr. Gruber affords us an excellent illustration of political pragmatism. If you have to lie and deceive in order to get your law passed then it's right to do so.

Of course, we know that the creators of Obamacare aren't the only ones who deceived us. The president himself insisted on numerous occasions that the ACA would lower premiums and that people would be able to keep their doctors, but we know now that he knew at the time that none of that was true.

The law was passed only because the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress as well as the White House and because the American people were persuaded by such as Mr. Gruber and Mr. Obama that they were being told the truth about the law when, in fact, they weren't.

If anyone doesn't understand why the Democrats took such a drubbing in 2010 and again last Tuesday, they need only reflect on the utter loss of confidence among a growing segment of the American electorate in that party's ability to tell us the truth.

Speaking of last Tuesday's election, the most serious consequence of the massive defeat suffered by the Democrats, perhaps, is what it has done to their "feeder systems" at the state level. Republicans now have complete control — the governorship and the legislature — in 23 states. Democrats control only seven. Democrats hold 18 governorships, but only a handful are in the most populous states.

The implications of this for the Democrats' future may be dire. State houses and governorships are the spawning grounds for future candidates and at that level the party is being eviscerated because of dissatisfaction with the people at the top. As a result there are few Democrats who look like future candidates at the national level.

Indeed, other than Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and maybe Andrew Cuomo. There seem to be few heavy hitters on the Democrat bench, and unless the party can turn things around at the state level there'll be fewer still in the years after 2016.

All of which tempts me to risk a prediction. If Hillary fails to get elected in 2016, either because she doesn't run or is defeated, I predict that one of the most attractive candidates in the Democratic Party in 2020 will be the newly elected governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf. Everybody likes the guy, even the people who won't vote for him. He's a very successful businessman and offers, on the surface, at least, a moderate alternative to the extremist progressives who head the party today. If he manages to work fairly well with his GOP legislature and wins a second term in 2018, there'll be a lot of interest in him for 2020.

You heard it here first.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Four Errors about Tuesday

Several mistaken claims (at least, I think they're mistaken) have been circulating in much of the post-election analysis of last Tuesday's sweeping Republican victory over the Democrats. Here are four that I think are particularly flawed:

1. Voters voted for Republicans because they want something to get done in Washington. I don't think the results warrant this conclusion. If the voters wanted Washington to get things done they would've voted to give the president a Congress run by his own party. You don't vote to "get things done" by splitting the balance of power between the executive and the legislative branches. The fact that voters voted the Democrats out in the Senate and decreased their numbers in the House suggests to me that so far from wanting Washington to work together they were voting to stop the president from acting like a monarch.

2. The GOP won big because the elections were mostly in "Red" states. In fact, this is not so. Illinois is a deep "blue" state and yet it elected a Republican governor. The same is true of Maryland and Massachusetts. Florida, though not as deeply Democratic as Illinois, Maryland, or Massachusetts, nevertheless went for Barack Obama in 2012 but it also elected a Republican governor on November 4th. Iowa has been reliably Democratic for a while but it still elected a Republican senator and Democratic states like Virginia and New Hampshire came within a whisker of electing Republican senators.

3. Democrats lost because of low voter turnout. This is partially true. The turnout was low and the Democrats suffered because much of their base didn't show up (the same problem that cost Mitt Romney the election in 2012). But think about what this means. It means that the strength of the Democratic party lies largely in rousing the most indifferent, apathetic, uninformed segments of our society to bestir themselves to get to the polls. In other words, if the people who don't have any idea what they're voting for turn out, they'll vote Democratic, largely because they know Democrats give them stuff, and the party elected by these, the least responsible elements in our society, will run the country. That can't be a good thing.

4. The election was about the economy. I'm not sure about this. A lot of voters said that the economy was their number one concern, but I think the economy is just a convenient synecdoche for the entire sweep of Mr. Obama's tenure as president. I suspect that Tuesday's vote was a referendum on Mr. Obama whom many see as heading an administration riddled with abuses and corruption, listless and without a compass in foreign policy, and divisive and destructive on social policy. I also think that Mr. Obama is viewed by the majority of voters who cared enough to show up on Tuesday as a man who much prefers the perquisites of office than actually doing the job of president and who was singularly unqualified for the position in the first place. The economy is a concern, to be sure, but the biggest concern people had on Tuesday, I suspect, was the quality of leadership being provided by the man at the top.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Fascism, Hate, and Deception

One of the more lamentable casualties of our modern politics and the ideological polarization of the country over the last few decades is the erosion of tolerance for people whose views fall outside the mainstream of fashionable opinion. The classical liberal tolerance espoused by people like 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill who argued so eloquently in his book On Liberty for the proposition that almost any dissenting idea should be allowed free expression is hard to find among those who call themselves liberals today.

Mill's argument that society benefits from hearing diverse opinions and that permitting them is the only way to honor a commitment to truth has been rejected by those who a generation ago were claiming his views on free expression as their own. Today, especially on the left, any opinion that deviates from the orthodox position is seen as an ideological cancer that must be destroyed, along with the person who holds it.

Among no group, perhaps, is this more noticeably the case than among gay rights activists. One flagrant example is that of Robert Oscar Lopez, an associate professor of English at California State-Northridge University. Lopez tells the story of his ordeal at the hands of the gay rights inquisitors in an article in First Things. Here's the heart of it:
I am a professor of English and Classics at Cal State-Northridge, where I began teaching in 2008 after earning my doctorate in English and MA in Classics from SUNY. I specialize in American literature and published a scholarly study of American writers and conservatism in 2011.

On August 6, 2012, I published an essay in Public Discourse, entitled “Growing Up with Two Moms.” It described my life growing up with a lesbian mother and her partner. Discussion of same-sex parenting until that point generally treated the children of gay parents as extensions of gay adults. Whatever was good for gay adults was presumed to benefit children they raised. No serious consideration was given to divergence between the children’s interests and the interests of gay adults who wanted and loved them. My point was this:
Quite simply, growing up with gay parents was very difficult, and not because of prejudice from neighbors. People in our community didn’t really know what was going on in the house. To most outside observers, I was a well-raised, high-achieving child, finishing high school with straight A’s. Inside, however, I was confused.
There were loving things about my childhood, but it was hard. That is all I wanted to say. I didn’t argue anything about gay marriage or even gay adoption. Eventually I did come to voice support for traditional marriage laws, but here I only spoke out of my own experience.

The same day, I received an email from someone named Scott “Rose” Rosenzweig, the first of more than a dozen. His message went to my Cal State account and was copied to colleagues and administrators, saying among other things,

Recently, CSUN’s Lopez published a gay-bashing essay ... on the website of the Witherspoon Institute....[F]or reference, Lopez’s politicized gay-bashing is here.
Note how this distorts my essay from personal reminiscence to “gay-bashing,” an inflammatory charge on a college campus, the first in a relentless twenty-six months of harassment.
This was only the beginning for Lopez. He goes on to recount an incessant stream of lies, distortions, and hatred to which he has been subjected simply because he talked about the pain of his childhood with a lesbian mother and her partner. The persecution he has suffered makes for fascinating and very troubling reading, and I encourage you to take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with it. Here's a portion of it:
Soon I was getting hit by writers all across the web. A piece on August 9, 2012, in Frontiers LA affixed my photograph and began with the line, “Perhaps you know Cal State Northridge bisexual professor Robert Oscar Lopez—and hence might understand why he wants to cozy up to the antigay National Organization for Marriage.”

At that time I had no connection to the National Organization for Marriage, yet as late as September 2014, the Human Rights Campaign would still claim that I spoke at NOM “March for Marriage” rallies. All of this would be jarring news for NOM, since I support gay civil unions and foster care eligibility for gay couples.

Against these charges, I tried to explain myself, even writing a three-thousand-word rebuttal in Frontiers LA, but the misrepresentations continued.

On August 14, 2012, the campaign reached my workplace in a whole new way when my dean informed me that I would have to turn over all emails from January 2009 onward that had anything to do with Mark Regnerus and his research team, Witherspoon Institute, Bradley Foundation, NOM, U.S. elected officials, the Romney campaign, Republican National Committee, and University of Texas officials.

A team of IT workers and student employees were allowed to access emails and turn them over to my off-campus accusers.

For a year, the provost’s office, dean’s office, and president’s office at Northridge were barraged with angry emails denouncing me and demanding that the university take action.
There are several ironies in his story. One is that Lopez is himself a bisexual who supports gay marriage. Another is that the attempt to censor him and to destroy his career comes from people who themselves have for years demanded tolerance of their own beliefs about sexuality and would have insisted that hiring and firing on the basis of sexual preference is a violation of their civil and human rights. Yet they refuse to extend the same tolerance to those who offer an alternative point of view to the narrative they wish to advance about sexuality in our society.

A lecture delivered by Dr. Lopez at Stanford on the Architecture of the Family can be viewed here.

Fascism is alive and well today, but it's not a phenomenon of the right as is so often thought. It's contemporary practitioners are found most prominently on the left, especially on many of our elite university campuses.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Moral Paralysis

In 2011 (12/5) I ran the following post critical of ethical relativism. Having just talked about that topic recently in my classes I thought it'd be appropriate to run it again:

Denyse O'Leary relates a story told by a Canadian high school philosophy teacher named Stephen Anderson. Anderson recounts what happened when he tried to show students what can happen to women in a culture with no tradition of treating women as human beings:
I was teaching my senior Philosophy class. We had just finished a unit on Metaphysics and were about to get into Ethics, the philosophy of how we make moral judgments. The school had also just had several social-justice-type assemblies—multiculturalism, women’s rights, anti-violence and gay acceptance. So there was no shortage of reference points from which to begin.

I decided to open by simply displaying, without comment, the photo of Bibi Aisha (see below). Aisha was the Afghani teenager who was forced into an abusive marriage with a Taliban fighter, who abused her and kept her with his animals. When she attempted to flee, her family caught her, hacked off her nose and ears, and left her for dead in the mountains. After crawling to her grandfather’s house, she was saved by a nearby American hospital. I felt quite sure that my students, seeing the suffering of this poor girl of their own age, would have a clear ethical reaction, from which we could build toward more difficult cases.

The picture is horrific. Aisha’s beautiful eyes stare hauntingly back at you above the mangled hole that was once her nose. Some of my students could not even raise their eyes to look at it. I could see that many were experiencing deep emotions, but I was not prepared for their reaction.

I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a different culture.

They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.” Another said (with no consciousness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”

While we may hope some are capable of bridging the gap between principled morality and this ethically vacuous relativism, it is evident that a good many are not. For them, the overriding message is “never judge, never criticize, never take a position.”
This is Bibi Aisha. She was deliberately mutilated by her family because she did not want to stay in a marriage to which she did not consent and in which she was treated like livestock. Anyone who would do this to another human being is evil. Any culture which condones it is degenerate, and any person who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge this, or to sympathize with her suffering, is a moral dwarf.

The shocking prevalence of moral dwarfism in our culture should not surprise us, however. Once a society jettisons its Judeo-Christian heritage it no longer has any non-subjective basis for making moral judgments. Its moral sense is stunted, warped, and diminished because it's based on nothing more than one's own subjective feelings. Since no one can say that their feelings are superior to the feelings of the people who did this to Bibi Aisha we hear fatuous insipidities like, "If it's right for them then it's right," or "It's wrong to judge other cultures," or the ultimate criticism, "This sort of thing is inappropriate."

This inability to make moral judgments or to call evil by its name is a form of moral paralysis, and it's a legacy of modernity and the secular Enlightenment.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Naturalism and Nihilism

This is a slightly revised version of a post which appeared on VP on 11/8/13.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Eight Questions about Consciousness

In an article in The Guardian a couple of years ago, Anil Seth listed eight problems concerning consciousness that neuroscientists are investigating. The article presupposes a materialist view of the subject but even one who finds materialism to be an incomplete account of human ontology will find the questions fascinating. Seth lists and gives a brief summary of each of the eight. I've made his summaries even more brief and urge interested readers to visit the link for more detail. Seth writes:
Consciousness is at once the most familiar and the most mysterious feature of our existence. A new science of consciousness is now revealing its biological basis. Here are eight key questions that neuroscientists are now addressing:

1. What are the critical brain regions for consciousness?

We now think that consciousness depends primarily on a specific network of regions in the cortex (the wrinkled surface of the brain) and the thalamus (a walnut-sized structure buried deep in the interior). Some of these regions are important for determining the level of consciousness (the difference between waking and dreamless sleep) while others are involved in shaping conscious content (the specific qualities of any given experience).

2. What are the mechanisms of general anaesthesia?

A good way to study a phenomenon is to see what happens when it disappears. General anaesthesia can be induced by many different substances but the outcome is the same: total loss of consciousness. There is now increasing evidence that anaesthesia involves a disintegration of how different parts of the brain work together, a sort of "cognitive unbinding" rather than a general shutting-down.

A key question now is how similar general anaesthesia is to other states of unconsciousness, such as dreamless sleep.

3. What is the "self"?

Selfhood is a complex phenomenon, encompassing a first-person perspective on the world, a sense of ownership of our body, actions, and thoughts, perceptions of our internal physiological condition, and of course the narrative we tell ourselves about our past experiences and imagined futures.

We now know that these different features depend on different brain mechanisms, and can even be manipulated experimentally (for example, it's possible to generate "out of body" experiences in the lab). Understanding how the brain constructs the conscious self will help us better understand and treat psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, which involve a disintegration of selfhood.

4. What determines experiences of volition and 'will'?

The question of whether "free will" exists is guaranteed to raise philosophical hackles. Neuroscientists have studied this issue since the 1980s by looking for neural signatures of volition (the experience of intending to do something) and agency (the experience of causing an action). A growing consensus now rejects the idea of volition as explicitly causing actions, instead seeing it as involving a particular brain network mediating complex, open decisions between different actions.

5. What is the function of consciousness? What are experiences for?

Researchers have now discovered that many cognitive functions can take place in the absence of consciousness. We can perceive objects, make decisions, and even perform apparently voluntary actions without consciousness intervening. One possibility stands out: consciousness integrates information. According to this view, each of our experiences rules out an enormous number of alternative possibilities, and in doing so generates an incredibly large amount of information.

6. How rich is consciousness?

This evidence may provide a basis for tackling one of the thorniest problems in consciousness science: distinguishing the brain mechanisms of consciousness itself from those involved in being able to relate what we experience.

7. Are other animals conscious?

Mammals share much of the neural machinery important for human consciousness, so it seems a safe bet to assume they are conscious as well, even if they can't tell us that they are. Despite this similarity, animal consciousness is unlikely to involve conscious selfhood in the same sense that humans enjoy.

8. Are vegetative patients conscious?

In the US alone, about 15,000 patients are in a "vegetative state", having suffered massive brain injury. The key feature of this state is that patients' behaviour suggests that they are awake but not aware. Brain imaging has revealed, however, that at least some of these patients are conscious, and has even facilitated communication between these patients and their families and doctors.
Seth closes with what is perhaps the most interesting question: Why is consciousness part of the universe at all? Indeed, even if consciousness can ultimately be explained purely in terms of material processes, something many philosophers deeply doubt, it is hard to imagine how or why it should have arisen in a purely mechanistic, naturalistic world in the first place. So, if not, where did it come from?