Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Air War So Far

News reports on the war on ISIL have been very sketchy so when I came across this summary of the air war at Strategy Page I thought it'd be helpful to post it since it gives some idea of what's going on:
Since August 2014 allied (mostly U.S. but also NATO and Arab) air strikes in Iraq and Syria have destroyed nearly 3,500 targets during some 1,700 separate attacks using about 5,000 smart bombs and missiles. This destruction included nearly 300 military vehicles (about 20 percent of them armored), nearly 700 bunkers and other fortifications plus over a thousand buildings.

In addition over twenty command posts, at least a hundred checkpoints and nearly as many parking lots and assembly areas were hit and destroyed or made unusable. Over 270 oil industry targets were destroyed. More than 700 civilian vehicles were hit, nearly half of them because they were armed (like the pickup trucks with heavy machine-guns mounted on then and often called “technicals”) or carrying men who obviously were. At least fourteen boats were also destroyed, as these were often armed and used for transportation on the Euphrates River.

Not all nations, for political reasons, are hitting targets in both countries. In Iraq the U.S., Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France and the Netherlands are flying while in Syria it’s the U.S., Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). American warplanes have flown most of the missions and in December alone American warplanes carried out 26 percent of all the air strikes so far. That averaged about 15 American air strikes a day in December.

Extreme measures are taken to avoid civilian casualties, which means a lot of military targets have to be left alone because ISIL uses civilians as human shields. For this reason it’s important to have friendly, and competent, troops on the ground to positively identify enemy targets that have a very low probability of causing civilian casualties if hit.
There was no data on the number of enemy casualties, but such a pounding must be taking a serious toll on ISIL's morale. Hopefully, the Kurds and Iraqi ground troops will be able to push them back across the Syrian border and bottle them up there. The trail of civilian slaughter they've left behind is one of the ghastliest atrocities since the Nazi holocaust, a horrific crime which ISIL would love the chance to duplicate.

Friday, January 30, 2015


ABC News reports on a survey that reveals that the American public is skeptical of many things scientists are assured of and assured of many things scientists are skeptical of.

For example,
Scientists are far less worried about genetically modified food, pesticide use and nuclear power than is the general public....Scientists were more certain that global warming is caused by man, evolution is real, overpopulation is a danger and mandatory vaccination against childhood diseases is needed.

In eight of 13 science-oriented issues, there was a 20-percentage-point or higher gap separating the opinions of the public and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), according to survey work by the Pew Research Center. The gaps didn't correlate to any liberal-conservative split; the scientists at times take more traditionally conservative views and at times more liberal.

In the most dramatic split, 88 percent of the scientists surveyed said it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, while only 37 percent of the public say it is safe and 57 percent say it is unsafe. And 68 percent of scientists said it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, compared with only 28 percent of the general public.

Ninety-eight percent of scientists say humans evolved over time, compared with 65 percent of the public. The gap wasn't quite as large for vaccines, with 86 percent of the scientists favoring mandatory childhood shots while 68 percent of the public did. Eighty-seven percent of scientists said global warming is mostly due to human activity, while only half of the public did.

What to do about climate change is another issue. Nearly two-thirds of scientists favored building more nuclear power plants, but only 45 percent of the public did. But more of the public favored offshore drilling for oil and fracking than scientists did. More than four out of five scientists thought the growing world population will be a major problem, but just less than three out of five members of the public did.
All of this is interesting and asking why the gaps exist might be instructive. I was struck, in this regard, by something the article attributed to the CEO of the AAAS, Alan Leshner. Leshner is concerned about the disparity between how the public and scientists look at these issues and remarked that, "Science is about facts; science is not about values. Policies are made on facts and values and we want to make sure that the accurate, non-distorted facts are brought in to any kind of discussion."

Well, ideally this may be true, but we don't live in an ideal world. Scientists bring suitcases full of assumptions and values to their observations of the data and the conclusions they draw are often skewed, even if only subliminally, by those values. Philosophers of science refer to this as the "theory-ladenness of observation." The ideal of a completely objective scientist doesn't exist and probably never did. Scientists have metaphysical commitments and political and economic agendas that all bear on how they interpret the data they uncover and even what they count as data.

For example, if a scientist has a prior commitment to metaphysical naturalism then he will insist that man has evolved from other primates, not so much because of the evidence for such a transition is so striking, but because if naturalism is true then that's the only plausible explanation there can be.

This is the reason for the gaps, I think. Laypeople recognize that scientists often have agendas and philosophical commitments at odds with their own, and thus they're skeptical of the ability of the scientist to set those agendas and commitments aside and be objective. Their skepticism is probably often warranted.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


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. The thought of our "forlornness," many have concluded, leads to a kind of despair and emptiness. It leads to nihilism.

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. Philosophers Alex Rosenberg, author of The Atheist's Guide to Reality, 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 also believe if one embraces atheism.

He/she (It's not clear which) 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.

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 is to accept that there's a God, then nihilism, as depressing, hopeless, and dreary as it may be, will still be more appealing to a lot of people than that alternative.

Reflecting on the utter despair that infuses the above assertions, I thought of a character in Dostoyevsky's novel The Possessed named Kirillov. Kirillov was an atheist and a nihilist. He says at one point in the story shortly before taking his own life, "I don't understand how a man can know there is no God and not kill himself on the spot."

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Science and Metaphysics

One misconception a lot of people have about science is that it's free of the sorts of metaphysical baggage that burdens other enterprises like religion and philosophy. I talked about this a few days ago in a post in which I discussed the "Demarcation Problem." There is among lay people and even some scientists the conviction that science is based on hard, empirical evidence and experiment, and is free of the speculative gobbledy-gook of the philosophers.

Unfortunately, this belief is not only untrue, it couldn't possibly be true. In order to do science the scientist must make a host of metaphysical assumptions, and moreover, many of the theories that pass as science and are taught in schools are more metaphysical than they are empirical. Here's a partial list of some of the things that either many scientists believe or that all scientists pretty much must believe, and none of them are themselves scientific. That is to say there's no way to verify or to falsify any of them:

1. The Many Worlds Hypothesis: The idea that ours is just one of a nearly infinite number of universes, all of which are closed off from each other thus defying detection.

2. The Oscillating Universe Hypothesis: The theory that our universe has expanded and collapsed an infinite number of times.

3. String theory: The idea that the fundamental units of material substance are unimaginably tiny vibrating filaments of energy.

4. The existence of other dimensions: The theory that the four dimensions of space-time are only part of physical reality.

5. Principle of Uniformity: The assumption that the laws and properties of the universe are homogenous and constant everywhere throughout the cosmos.

6. Assumption of Uniformitarianism: The idea that the same processes and forces at work in the world today have always been at work at essentially the same rates.

7. The Scientific Method: The idea that there is a particular methodology that defines the scientific process and which ought to be followed.

8. The Law of Parsimony: The principle that assumes that the simplest explanation which fits all the facts is the best.

9. The assumption that human reason is trustworthy: The notion that a faculty which has evolved because it made us better fit to survive is also a dependable guide to something else, truth, which has no necessary connection to human survival.

10. The assumption that we should value truth: The idea that truth should be esteemed more highly than competing values, like, for instance, personal comfort or group advancement.

11. The preference in science for naturalistic explanations: This is a preference based upon an untestable assumption that all knowable truth is found only in the natural realm.

12. Naturalistic Abiogenesis: The belief that natural forces are sufficient in themselves to have produced life.

13. The assumption that if something is physically possible and mathematically elegant then, given the age of the universe, it probably happened.

14. The assumption that the cosmos is atelic. I.e. that it has no purpose.

15. The assumption that there's a world external to our own minds.

16. Materialistic Reductionism: The conviction that all phenomena, including mental phenomena, can be ultimately explained solely in terms of physics and chemistry.

17. Assumption that the universe arose out of a "vacuum matrix" rather than out of nothing.

18. Ethical claims regarding the environment, nuclear power, cloning, or genetic engineering.

19. The Concept of the Meme: According to biologist Richard Dawkins memes are the cultural analog to genes. They are ideas or customs that are believed by Dawkins and others to get passed along according to their survival value rather than their truth value (see #9, above). An example of this, unfortunately, is the concept of the meme itself.

20. The criteria by which we distinguish science from non-science.

21. The assumption that science is the only way, or at least the best way, to arrive at truth.

Mention of none of these in public school science classrooms precipitates the levitation of a single eyebrow among the custodians of science purity yet every one of them is a matter of metaphysical preference, not empirical fact. Why, then, do those custodians suddenly wax squeamish when the topic of discussion turns to the possibility that incredibly complex information-based systems in the living cell are the product of intentional engineering? Why are some metaphysical claims permitted and others not?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Christianity and Islam

One of the more inane comments made in the wake of the recent massacre in Paris, according to Robert Tracinski at The Federalist, is that Islam is not inherently any more violent than any other religion. Tracinski, who is himself an atheist, argues cogently that when people cite the alleged misdeeds and atrocities committed by Christians they actually prove that in fact there's really no comparison. In order to find anything in the history of Christianity remotely comparable to the horrors being perpetrated by contemporary Muslims the critic has to go back 500 years to find them.

In any case, there are vast differences between the Christian religion and Islam that account for the fact that no one fears violence at the hands of Christians, but people throughout the world have ample reason to fear violence at the hands of Muslims.

Tracinski's column is a little long, but it's very good. Here are some excerpts:
The Charlie Hebdo massacre once again has politicians and the media dancing around the question of whether there might be something a little bit special about this one particular religion, Islam, that causes its adherents to go around killing people.

It is not considered acceptable in polite company to entertain this possibility. Instead, it is necessary to insist, as a New York Times article does, that “Islam is no more inherently violent than other religions.” This, mind you, was in an article on how Muslims in the Middle East are agonizing over the violent legacy of their religion.

As an atheist, I have no god in this fight, so to speak. I don’t think the differences between religions make one more valid than another. But as the Charlie Hedbo attack reminds us, there is a big practical difference between them. In fact, the best argument against the equivalence of Christianity and Islam is that no one acts even remotely as if this were true. We feel free to criticize and offend Christians without a second thought — thanks, guys, for being so cool about that — but antagonizing Muslims takes courage. More courage than a lot of secular types in the West can usually muster.

So it’s a matter of some practical urgency to figure out: what is the difference? What are its root causes?

As I see it, the main danger posed by any religion to its dissenters and unbelievers lies in the rejection of reason, which cuts off the possibility of discussion and debate, leaving coercion as an acceptable substitute....But all religions are different and have different doctrines which are shaped over their history — and as we shall see, that includes different views on precisely such core issues as the role of reason and persuasion.
Tracinski proceeds to discuss some of the differences between these two faiths, the first and perhaps most important of which is the difference between the life of Christ and the life of Mohammed:
Mohammed was a conqueror who gained worldly political power in his lifetime and used it to persecute opponents and impose his religion. He also fully enjoyed the worldly perks of being a tyrant, including multiple wives. Jesus, by contrast, was basically a pacifist whose whole purpose on earth was to allow himself to be tortured to death.

He even explicitly forbade his followers to use force to defend him. Here’s John, Chapter 18: “Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear…. Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?”

This does not imply that all Christians ought to be pacifists. But it certainly sets a tone for the religion. The life of the founder of a religion is held up to his followers as a model for how they should live their own lives. The life of Mohammed tells the Muslim that he should expect to rule, whereas the life of Christ tells the Christian he should expect to sacrifice and serve.
Another difference that Tracinski didn't cite is that between the teaching of Jesus in the parable of the wheat and the tares (Mat.13:24-30) in which Jesus emphasizes that it's not for his followers to punish those who reject the faith. Contrast this with the belief of many Muslims, based on passages in the Koran, that infidels should be put to the sword.

Another difference is that Christianity teaches that each individual is loved by God and of enormous worth. Tracinski contrasts this view with Islam which has no such notion of the value of the individual:
This is a very profound idea that goes against the grain of most of human history. I’m a big fan of the Classical world, but the pagans still regarded it as normal, right, and natural that the physically strong set the terms for everyone else. Thucydides famously summed it up in the Melian Dialogue: “The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Thucydides was clearly critical of that view, but the Classical world didn’t have a clear alternative. As far as I know, Christ was the first to insist that even the lowest, least significant person has value and that we will be judged by how we treat him.

Islam has no corresponding idea. The news is constantly bringing us a story of some imam somewhere declaring it consistent with Islam for a man to beat his wife, and the rise of the Islamic State in Syria has provided us current examples of Islam sanctioning slavery, including the capture and systematic rape of sex slaves. This is a religion that is still very much in the “rights of the conqueror” mode, in which the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
There's much more of interest in Tracinski's essay which would certainly repay an investment of fifteen minutes of the reader's time. For those who know little about either Christianity or Islam It's quite an education.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Can Torture be Moral?

Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting interviewed Oxford University moral philosopher Jeff McMahan for his column at the New York Times' Opinionator. The topic was whether torture can ever be moral. McMahan had some interesting things to say on the topic and as regular readers of VP will note, he comes down about where I do, at least on the matter of the morality of torture (For a more detailed explication of my thoughts see here, here, and here). I'm a little more dubious about his views on what the law should say about torture.

At any rate, here are a few excerpts:
Jeff McMahan: I think that torture is almost always morally wrong and that, for moral reasons, it ought to be prohibited absolutely in law. Torture has been used to extract confessions, to terrorize people associated with the victims, to punish presumed wrongdoers, and even to gratify and amuse sadists and bullies. These uses are always morally wrong.

The only use of torture that has any chance of being morally justified is to gain important information. But even when torture is used to gain information, the torturers are usually wrongdoers seeking information that will help them to achieve their unjust aims. And even when those seeking information have just aims, their victims are often innocent, or lack the information sought, or are sufficiently strong-willed to mislead their torturers, so that the torture is ineffective or counterproductive.

Still, both those pursuing unjust aims and those pursuing just aims will continue to be tempted to engage in torture if they can do so with impunity. Hence, torture has been widely practiced, though its use has almost invariably been wrong. This means that the overriding goal of the law ought to be to deter the wrongful use of torture, even at the cost of forbidding the use of torture in those rare cases in which it might be morally justified. The legal prohibition ought therefore to be absolute; for those who think that torture would be advantageous to them will always be tempted to try to exploit any legal permission to use it.
It's this last sentence where McMahan and I part company. There may be instances where torture is not only morally justified, but to refrain from its use may make someone morally culpable. It seems peculiar that McMahan recognizes this but would nevertheless make it illegal to do the very thing he says below that one could be obligated to do.
G.G.: But you do agree that torture can, in extreme cases, be moral. Why do you reject the absolute view that any instance of torture is immoral? J.M.: Torture can be morally justifiable, and even obligatory, when it is wholly defensive – for example, when torturing a wrongdoer would prevent him from seriously harming innocent people. It could do that by forcing a person to reveal the location where he has planted a bomb, or hidden a hostage who will die if not found.

It can be morally justifiable to kill a person to prevent him from detonating a bomb that will kill innocent people, or to prevent him from killing an innocent hostage. Since being killed is generally worse than being tortured, it should therefore be justifiable to torture a person to prevent him from killing innocent people. In cases in which torture is defensive in this way, the person tortured is not wronged. Indeed, he could avoid the torture simply by doing what he is morally required to do anyway – namely, disclose the location of the bomb or hostage.
McMahan goes on to explain that,
I think this is the explanation of why many people who aren’t absolutists about any other moral issue say they are absolutists about torture. They rightly want to avoid giving any aid or comfort to those who seek to justify torture in the circumstances in which it is actually practiced. But there is a dilemma here, for it can seem morally obtuse, and therefore discrediting, to deny that torture is permissible in those cases in which it obviously is permissible – for example, when it would in fact force a kidnapper to reveal the location of hostages who will otherwise die.
There's more from the interview at the link, and I encourage anyone interested in the question of the moral justification of torture and the legal treatment of its practice to peruse it.

One thing that struck me in reading the discussion is that McMahan makes such strong moral judgments. I understand how society may choose to make torture illegal, but on what grounds does McMahan conclude that it's immoral? He states in the passage cited above that,
Torture has been used to extract confessions, to terrorize people associated with the victims, to punish presumed wrongdoers, and even to gratify and amuse sadists and bullies. These uses are always morally wrong. The only use of torture that has any chance of being morally justified is to gain important information...
I have to ask, why are the motives he lists immoral and what is it about gaining important information that makes torture in that instance moral? It may seem obvious that torturing for amusement is immoral, but that's a holdover from an era when morality was grounded in the will of a transcendent moral authority. In our secular age when such authorities are banished from our public discourse, moralists have to come up with a secular justification for the decision to call something immoral, and it's not at all clear what such a justification could be in this case.

After all, if we're merely the accidental product of blind, impersonal evolutionary forces how can we have any objective moral duty to refrain from causing others pain? How can blind, impersonal forces impose a duty on us to do anything?

It seems to me that if we can no longer situate our moral judgments in a divine will then we can no longer make meaningful moral judgments at all. To say "torture is wrong" is simply to express the state of our feelings, to say that torture produces negative emotions in us, and such revelations about our interior states tell us nothing about whether torture is really in any significant sense right or wrong.

Such are the consequences of a rigid secularism. It in effect strips us of the ability to say anything meaningful about anything important.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Science and Philosophy

An interesting debate is beginning to take shape among scientists and philosophers over something called the "demarcation problem." This is the problem of defining exactly what criteria a theory has to meet in order to be considered a scientific theory.

Most people are of the opinion that scientific theories are theories that can be tested and which make predictions which can be confirmed or falsified, but a number of scientists, having grown fond of theories that don't lend themselves to these critieria, wish to exempt those favored theories from the criteria that apply to the rest of science. An article at Motherboard discusses the debate. Here's their lede:
Physics, cosmology in particular, is at an interesting and potentially dangerous crossroads, as argued in a ​recent, sharp piece in Nature by physicists Joseph Silk and George Ellis. In short, it would appear that theory, particularly neat-o ideas like string theory and the multiverse, has reached the outer limits of provability. We can't access the higher dimensions of string theory, nor can we observe (or not observe) our would-be sibling universes. Their fate is idea limbo, forever between notion and fact.

String theory and the multiverse are concepts that by definition defy experimentation, and yet a small movement within cosmology is attempting to make the case that they should be exempt. At stake, according to Ellis and Silk, is the integrity of science itself.

"This battle for the heart and soul of physics is opening up at a time when scientific results—in topics from climate change to the theory of evolution—are being questioned by some politicians and religious fundamentalists," the pair writes. "Potential damage to public confidence in science and to the nature of fundamental physics needs to be contained by deeper dialogue between scientists and philosophers."
Ellis and Silk are right about this, I think, but their examples are unfortunately ill-chosen. The reason both climate change and evolution are questioned by a lot of people - not just politicians and religious fundamentalists - is precisely because predictions of the former and the basic claims of the latter disqualify themselves from being considered scientific.

Climate change proponents predicted twenty years ago that global temperatures were going to rise steeply during the ensuing decades, but they haven't. The failure of the prediction should cause a reassessment of the theory, but so far there's been no apparent inclination on the part of proponents to undertake such a reassessment which suggests that the theory is being held more as a religious conviction than a scientific belief.

Evolutionary theory, at least of the sort which goes under the name "Neo-Darwinian," holds as its fundamental claim that natural processes and forces alone have produced all the various forms of life on earth without any input from any intelligent agent. This is not a scientific claim because there's no way to test it, nor can one imagine any empirical data which would conclusively show it to be false. It's therefore a metaphysical theory not a scientific hypothesis.

In any case, Motherboard continues:
Another voice within this movement [to broaden the criteria for scientific theories] is that of philosopher and theorist Richard Dawid. Dawid argues that we can use probability as a stand-in for experiment. That is, using Bayesian analysis, it's possible to determine the probability that a set of facts fits a theory. If the probability is good enough, we can chuck testability.
This is another unfortunate illustration because if Bayesian analysis is allowed to replace empirical testability then claims for the existence of God must be counted among scientific hypotheses, since many arguments for God's existence rely on Bayesian analysis. These arguments show, rather compellingly in my view, that God's existence is more probable than His non-existence. That being so, if being analyzable in terms of Bayes' Theorem is to provide us with an adequate crierion for determining what's scientific then much of natural theology, and certainly Intelligent Design, must be included under the rubric of science.
In essence, [Dawid is] arguing that theorized discoveries can be taken as evidence for fundamental theories. If we had the capability of conducting some experiment, it would probably have this outcome because the mathematics works out. Ellis and Silk argue simply that that's not good enough, for theoretical physics or any science.

The situation is similar for multiverse theories, which explain the fundamental constants of the universe (why everything is "just right" for human life) away as unspecial by claiming that in fact there are an infinite number of parallel universes composed of not just every alternative for those constants, but also any possibility for anything. Choices are never made in this reality, only new universes. There is an entire realm that exists in which I got two slices of pizza for lunch instead of three, and there is an entire realm that exists in which the strong force isn't strong enough to form atomic nuclei. Cool.

"Billions of universes—and of galaxies and copies of each of us—accumulate with no possibility of communication between them or of testing their reality," Ellis and Silk write. "But if a duplicate self exists in every multiverse domain and there are infinitely many, which is the real 'me' that I experience now? Is any version of oneself preferred over any other? How could 'I' ever know what the 'true' nature of reality is if one self favours the multiverse and another does not?" Stoners, beware.

"Post-empirical science is an oxymoron," the pair concludes.
Motherboard finishes their piece with a very interesting statement:
The scientific high-ground is at stake, with an ocean of pseudoscientists ready to flood the landscape, taking the public with them. The answer, according to the current paper, lies in a simple question. What observational or experimental evidence is there that would convince a theorist that their theory is wrong? If there is none, then the theory is not a scientific theory.
Precisely. Which is why so much of macroevolutionary darwinism is thought to be unscientific by such a large number of people.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Hard Problem

Why can't the most brilliant minds, The Guardian asks, solve the mystery of consciousness?

In a nutshell, the problem of consciousness is the problem of trying to explain what consciousness is and how it is produced in the brain.

When we look at a piece of red fabric, for example, all sorts of electrochemical reactions ensue causing us to perceive red, but that perception, the experience of redness, is not an electrochemical reaction, it's not physical at all. No one examining the brain of a person looking at the fabric would see red anywhere in the brain, so what exactly is going on when we see a color, or smell a fragrance, or hear a sound? No one knows.

This is called the "Hard Problem" of consciousness (as opposed to the easier problems such as mapping which parts of the brain are active when we have various experiences). The Hard Problem is explaining what those experiences are in the first place.

The Guardian piece is a little long, but it gives some interesting background on how the problem gained the attention of philosophers back in the 1990s. Here's the lede:
One spring morning in Tucson, Arizona, in 1994, an unknown philosopher named David Chalmers got up to give a talk on consciousness, by which he meant the feeling of being inside your head, looking out – or, to use the kind of language that might give a neuroscientist an aneurysm, of having a soul. Though he didn’t realise it at the time, the young Australian academic was about to ignite a war between philosophers and scientists, by drawing attention to a central mystery of human life – perhaps the central mystery of human life – and revealing how embarrassingly far they were from solving it.

The scholars gathered at the University of Arizona – for what would later go down as a landmark conference on the subject – knew they were doing something edgy: in many quarters, consciousness was still taboo, too weird and new agey to take seriously, and some of the scientists in the audience were risking their reputations by attending. Yet the first two talks that day, before Chalmers’s, hadn’t proved thrilling. “Quite honestly, they were totally unintelligible and boring – I had no idea what anyone was talking about,” recalled Stuart Hameroff, the Arizona professor responsible for the event. “As the organiser, I’m looking around, and people are falling asleep, or getting restless.”

He grew worried. “But then the third talk, right before the coffee break – that was Dave.” With his long, straggly hair and fondness for all-body denim, the 27-year-old Chalmers looked like he’d got lost en route to a Metallica concert. “He comes on stage, hair down to his butt, he’s prancing around like Mick Jagger,” Hameroff said. “But then he speaks. And that’s when everyone wakes up.”

The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do you know to jerk your hand away from scalding water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a noisy party? But these were all “easy problems”, in the scheme of things: given enough time and money, experts would figure them out.

There was only one truly hard problem of consciousness, Chalmers said. It was a puzzle so bewildering that, in the months after his talk, people started dignifying it with capital letters – the Hard Problem of Consciousness – and it’s this: why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? And how does the brain manage it? How could the 1.4kg lump of moist, pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?
Not all philosophers are as impressed with this problem as Chalmers is, of course. Those philosophers who are materialists (who believe that everything is reducible to matter) don't think there's a problem here at all. They argue that your sensations, ideas, self-awareness, etc. are all just the product of neurons firing in certain ways. They may be right, but they have no explanation for how the physical, material phenomena of an electrical current flowing along a nerve and transmitted across a synapse by molecules results in the experience of pain. Indeed, it's hard to see how the sensation of pain can be simply a material phenomenon.

Anyway, there's a lot more on this fascinating topic at the link.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Unending War

Thomas Albert Howard at Patheos reminds us that the current conflict between Muslims and Europeans is not a new phenomenon, but actually the most recent recrudescence of a war that has been raging for about 1300 years and will continue to rage as long as Muslims have the power to wage it. Here's the heart of his piece:
Europe’s conflicts with Islam—the reminders of which present themselves to the discerning eye—are not new but stretch back centuries.

At its height, the Ottoman Empire, the last great Islamic caliphate, reached far into central Europe, into the Balkans and up to present-day Hungary. Twice “the Turks” unsuccessfully besieged Vienna, once in 1529 and again 1683. These defeats coupled with the defeat of the Ottoman navy by Europe’s so-called “Holy League” at the Battle of Lepanto (1571) heralded the onset of the Ottoman Empire’s long decline and the problems that this created—designated as the “Eastern Question” by nineteenth-century diplomats. Incidentally, the place/subway stop in Rome right before the one closest to the Vatican is called Lepanto in memory of the naval victory of 1571.

From 711 until 1492, Islam had a robust presence in Spain and Portugal and even briefly in France. The legacy of Muslim subjection of the Iberian peninsula—or “Al-Andalus” as it is known—persisted until the Reconquista during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. The legacy of Al-Andalus is still richly apparent in the architecture of southern Spanish cities such as Cordoba, Seville, and Granada, the last Muslim stronghold.

Some 80 towns in Spain still celebrate what is known as the Fiesta de Moros y Cristanos, in which locals—not unlike America’s doughty Civil War reenactors–dress up in elaborate traditional costumes of Christian soldiers and “Moorish” fighters and reenact the expulsion of Muslims from Spain. The Islamicists who blew up 191 Spanish commuters in Madrid in 2004 gave as one of their motivations … you guessed it: revenge for the Reconquista of 1492.

Between 827 and 1300 Islamic influence penetrated present-day Italy. Sicily once had far more mosques than churches, and incursions by Muslim pirates extended far up the peninsula. “Saracen” raiders even tried to attack Rome in 846. What is more, before and after the conquest of Constantinople (1453), the Ottomans later tried to make inroads into Italy. The Republic of Venice was involved in ten costly wars against Ottoman fleets between 1423 and 1718. Today, many Italian coastal towns still celebrate festivals marking the defeat of Muslim raiders many centuries ago.
It's a centuries long war, driven by hatred for anyone who is seen as infidel and the belief among Muslims that Allah commands them to convert all nations to Islam, by the sword if necessary. The only time there has been a respite in the conflict has been when Muslims were too weak to fight. Their great advantage today is that whereas Westerners no longer believe in anything firmly enough to be willing to fight for it, Muslims do. Not only do they have the will to spend their entire lives waging jihad, not only do they glorify dying for the cause of Islam, many of them feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing so. To such a foe a decadent and effete West, steeped in the delusions of political correctness, must look like an easy target.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

An Amazing Thing to Watch

President Obama certainly knows an opportunity when he sees one. For six years under his presidency the economy has been lethargically plodding along with high unemployment and weak business performance. Nothing the administration did to create jobs and get business moving had any success.

Then, largely as a result of the boom in domestic oil production, a boom that Mr. Obama didn't want, refused to assist by opening up public lands and offshore sites for drilling, and sought to strangle with his cap and trade proposals in 2009, gasoline prices have declined dramatically.

The lower cost of fuel has been the equivalent of putting hundreds of dollars in the pockets of consumers and giving businesses a huge tax cut. It has almost by itself resulted in whatever moderately favorable economic trends there have been in the last couple of months, but none of it had anything to do with Mr. Obama. Indeed, if he had his way, none of it would have happened. Mr. Obama doesn't want lower gas prices and said so when he ran for president in 2008.
The president wants gasoline prices high so that people will be forced off of carbon-based fuels and on to cleaner energy. Nevertheless, there he was before the nation last night during his State of the Union message declaring with a straight face that his policies have resulted in a "bustling" economy and that lower gas prices are creating jobs:

We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet. And today, America is number one in oil and gas. And thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save $750 at the pump.

According to TownHall fact checkers,
None of these gains in domestic oil and gas production would have occurred if Obama had been able to pass the carbon cap and trade plan he pushed in 2009, the stated goal of which was to decrease oil and gas consumption by driving up the cost of producing it.

Only because Republicans stayed unified, and rejected Obama's cap and trade carbon tax, was the shale oil and natural gas boom able to produce the astounding results we are all enjoying today.
For Mr. Obama to now act as if he's delighted that gas prices are low and, worse, that he had something to do with it, is almost like watching a Stephen Colbert riff. In 2012 he ridiculed Republicans for suggesting that drilling for oil would lower the price:
And you can bet that since it’s an election year, they’re already dusting off their three-point plans for $2 gas. I’ll save you the suspense: Step one is drill, step two is drill, and step three is keep drilling. We heard the same thing in 2007, when I was running for president. We hear the same thing every year. We’ve heard the same thing for 30 years.

Well the American people aren’t stupid. You know that’s not a plan — especially since we’re already drilling....You know there are no quick fixes to this problem, and you know we can’t just drill our way to lower gas prices.
Yet the reason gas prices are dropping, according to many analysts, is because the Saudis are trying to make American oil production unprofitable by flooding the market with oil to force the price lower so that the expense of American drilling is greater than the profit the oil companies are making. In other words, our production is causing the price to plummet both by adding directly to the supply and by forcing our competitors to also add to the supply.

In 2012 Sarah Palin was roundly mocked by the liberal media for urging us to "Drill, baby, drill." They laughed then, but with fracking and other techniques we've been doing just what she encouraged us to do, and now those who mocked her, including the White House, are taking the credit for the results. It's an amazing thing to watch.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Future of ISIL

Hot Air is running a report claiming that the leader of ISIL was wounded in an Iraqi air attack recently. The report may be true, but there have been similar reports in the past. In any case there's reason to believe that ISIL's morale is plummeting. Hot Air cites a Fox News report that over fifty ISIL fighters were executed by ISIL itself for losing a battle with the Kurdish Peshmerga. When soldiers are being executed for losing battles it's a sign of desperation in the leadership.

Losing battles isn't ISIL's only problem. They're also losing momentum, revenue, and a lot of disenchanted recruits are going AWOL even though this, too, is a capital offense. Of course, under ISIL almost everything is a capital offense. I heard on the radio today that they even executed a couple dozen young boys merely for watching a soccer game. ISIL's ambassadors are certainly doing very little to make Sharia law attractive to any civilized individual.

Strategy Page has an interesting account of the tribulations ISIS is suffering and also inflicting on their fellow Muslims. Here are some excerpts:
ISIL is the most ruthless of dozens of rebel coalitions (or the government forces) involved [in the Syrian civil war]. Moreover ISIL territorial gains have mainly been thinly populated desert in the west or depopulated (by years of fighting) areas in the north and central Syria. When it comes to actually controlling population ISIL is at a big disadvantage. The degree of savagery practiced by ISIL, especially against unarmed civilians who do not cooperate has made ISIL the group people are most likely to flee.

Most other rebels and the Assads offer civilians benefits (economic and personal security) if they stick around. Not so ISIL which treats civilians like farm animals to be exploited and, if they are troublesome, killed. ISIL is the classic example of why Islamic radicalism has failed in reality (but never in theory or in the sermons of hard core clerics) for over a thousand years. The only benefit of this nightmare is that ISIL’s actions have united the Islamic world like nothing else for a long time. Conservative and more secular Islamic leaders are all condemning ISIL and some are even asking that something be done within the Islamic world to kill this endemic support for extremism once and for all. That last development is long overdue.

The air strikes against ISIL have been most effective at hitting economic targets. ISIL has been trying to establish an “Islamic State” in the thinly populated areas it controls in eastern Syria and western Iraq. These areas contain working oil fields and there has long been a network of dealers in the area who will buy oil, cheap (about $25 a barrel from ISIL), for cash and no questions asked. That only works if the oil fields are undamaged and still capable to pumping oil.

The air strikes not only shut down most ISIL oil production but have driven away the technicians needed to make even an undamaged oil field work. ISIL has been advertising for replacement staff, offering high pay and security. ISIL’s reputation makes it difficult to attract competent people especially since the Arab and Western nations opposing ISIL would prosecute anyone going to work for ISIL, especially skilled oil field technicians and managers.

The economic activity in ISIL controlled territory is either wrecked by fighting or crippled by poor access to the outside world. ISIL is willing to allow food and other aid into their territory but given the ISIL reputation for kidnapping aid workers (even Moslem ones from Syria or Iraq) there is growing reluctance to even send aid. This fear is made worse by the experience with groups similar to ISIL (like al Shabaab in Somalia) who would sell a lot of aid to fund their terror operations.

In short, time is against ISIL because as the months go on the population of its Islamic State grows hungrier and more desperate to rid themselves from this nightmare. ISIL, like al Shabaab, will try some imaginative, desperate and ultimately futile ideas to remedy the situation but there really is no solution for Islamic State that is, economically, a failed state from the beginning.

The best example of the ISIL future is seen in Raqqa, the capital of the west Syrian province of Raqqa. ISIL has remained in control of Raqqa, the largest city in eastern Syria, since early 2014. Normally Raqqa has a population of 220,000 but nearly half have fled since ISIL took over. These refugees all tell the same stories of a wrecked economy and savage rule. Throughout ISIL occupied portions of Syria schools have been closed, leaving over 600,000 children without an education.

Raqqa still has some phone service and some residents risk execution by reporting, usually to family outside the city, what is happening in Raqqa. Apparently many of the inhabitants are hoping the Americans will invade and free them from ISIL control. This despite the fact that American and Arab air attacks on Raqqa have killed hundreds of civilians living near ISIL targets. Yet that is not the major cause of violent death. Since mid-2014 ISIL is believed to have executed nearly 2,000 people. Most of the victims have been civilians or captured soldiers and police. But a growing number of the executions involve ISIL members who attempted to desert or otherwise misbehave.

ISIL is facing a very costly, public and embarrassing defeat at the town of Kobane on the Turkish border. A three month effort to take the town from Kurdish defenders has turned into a slaughter of the ISIL attackers. Over a thousand ISIL men have been killed and over 3,000 wounded in Kobane since October. Worse, by mid-December the Kurds began pushing ISIL out of Kobane and other areas around the town. By early January the Kurds control over 80 percent of Kobane.

Despite ISIL counterattacks the Islamic terrorists keep losing ground. This is largely because the Kurds are better (trained, experienced and led) fighters, and have air support. A major factor in the high ISIL losses was the air support. There were over 200 air attacks since September. The Americans appear to have had air controller teams with the Kurds in or near Kobane as well as UAVs constantly watching the town from the air for targets and movements by the ISIL gunmen.

By December it appeared that ISIL was no longer sending its best fighters to Kobane but instead using mainly new recruits. These men have, at most, a few weeks training (and indoctrination) and don’t last long against the Kurds. For new ISIL recruits orders to go to Kobane came to be seen as a death sentence or, as their leaders put it, a quick ticket to paradise (after a glorious death as a Holy Warrior). ISIL made a big deal of showing no fear of the air strikes, but the reality was that those smart bombs and missiles killed you whether you were afraid or not.

It is known that ISIL has been accusing senior officials of treason and spying for the enemy and some of these ISIL officials have been executed. From what is known (via civilians inside ISIL territory talking to kin “outside”) ISIL is caring for lots of casualties and ISIL deserters (who are now being executed by ISIL if caught trying to leave) report heavy losses among new recruits. These men get a few weeks training but are still basically amateurs going into their first fire fight and most do not survive more than a few weeks. This is normal for armed groups like this, there is decades of data from research and interviews with survivors to prove it.

ISIL has released recruiting videos showing the training of young (apparently as young as 14 or less) teenagers. Refugees report that children of that age are often coerced (taken at gunpoint from their families) and compelled, on pain of death, to undergo “training” which, initially consists mainly of indoctrination. Those that seem to resist the indoctrination are killed, which encourages others to at least pretend to be enthusiastic. It has been noted that a growing proportion of foreigners among ISIL dead and those taken alive. Deserters and refugees report the same trend. Fewer Syrians and Iraqis want to work for ISIL, which is not a good sign for the Islamic state seeking to gain control over all of Syria and Iraq. You can occupy territory, but without a population you preside over a wilderness.
There's more at the link. An army of evil, savage men can do a lot of harm and create a lot of terror, but eventually it begins to eat its own and when it does it's doomed. ISIS in Iraq will require a trained Iraqi army to root it out and kill it, but that'll eventually happen, maybe as early as this spring or summer. What it's fate will be in Syria where there is no competent army to confront it is a different matter, but in any case it seems that it's no longer the juggernaut it was a few months ago and its power is waning.

Just Kidding

The other day we heard that NASA and NOAA both claimed that 2014 was the hottest year on record, the implication being that global temperatures are rising and we better get serious about stemming the production of greenhouse gases and the use of fossil fuels.

We also heard from the skeptics who pointed out that even if it's true that 2014 was hotter than the next two hot years (2005, 2010) it was by a mere few hundredths of a degree which is insignificant and that what the data really shows is that global temperatures continue their nearly two decade-long plateau.

Now comes word that, in effect, NASA was just kidding. They don't know if 2014 was a record-breaker or not. Here's the report from the Daily Mail:
The Nasa climate scientists who claimed 2014 set a new record for global warmth last night admitted they were only 38 per cent sure this was true.

In a press release on Friday, Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) claimed its analysis of world temperatures showed ‘2014 was the warmest year on record’.

The claim made headlines around the world, but yesterday it emerged that GISS’s analysis – based on readings from more than 3,000 measuring stations worldwide – is subject to a margin of error. Nasa admits this means it is far from certain that 2014 set a record at all.

Yet the Nasa press release failed to mention this, as well as the fact that the alleged ‘record’ amounted to an increase over 2010, the previous ‘warmest year’, of just two-hundredths of a degree – or 0.02C. The margin of error is said by scientists to be approximately 0.1C – several times as much.

As a result, GISS’s director Gavin Schmidt has now admitted Nasa thinks the likelihood that 2014 was the warmest year since 1880 is just 38 per cent. However, when asked by this newspaper whether he regretted that the news release did not mention this, he did not respond.
In other words, it's much more likely that their original claim was wrong than that it was right. Is it any wonder that so many people doubt these people when they tell us we're headed for eco-catastrophe. Until climatologists can make predictions which come to pass and until they stop trying to scare the bejabbers out of us on the basis of a 38% probability and non-existent "hockey stick" temperature increases, the reasonable course is to take their pronouncements with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Monday, January 19, 2015

How Far Have We Come?

The following is a post I put up last year at this time:

When I was in high school in a suburb of Philadelphia in the early '60s there was a working class ethnic neighborhood not far from mine into which a black couple named Baker wished to move. The neighborhood, named Delmar Village, was all-white and there was a great deal of turmoil generated by residents who wanted to keep it that way. The mob smashed the windows of the Baker home and attacked police. Mounted state police were called in to quell the disturbances that lasted for at least a week and which at the time were called a race riot by the media.

The black family believed they had a constitutional right to live wherever they wished and could afford. Presumably, they wanted their children to have the same opportunities that white children of similar economic means had. The white residents, or many of them, felt that regardless of what the constitution says about equality under the law, the black family had no place in that neighborhood. They didn't belong there by virtue of their skin color.

Martin Luther King Day is a good time to reflect on that awful episode and lament the bigotry that leads one American to tell another that he has no place in a neighborhood simply because of his race. But even though this event happened fifty years ago last August and September, and even though we've come a long way in many respects since those years, that kind of bigotry is still around today, not just among the lower socio-economic classes of both whites and blacks, but at the highest levels of the liberal-progressive movement in this country.

As a case in point consider the statement last Friday by the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, who said this about conservatives:
"Who are they? Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are and they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are."
In other words, people who believe that we should protect the weakest among us by protecting their right to life, and people who believe that the second amendment of the Constitution allows them to defend themselves and their families are extremists and have no place among the good people of the state of New York.

It's not clear what Mr. Cuomo means by being "anti-gay," but if he's referring to people who oppose gay marriage then he's saying that those who hold a view of marriage that almost everyone held up until the day before yesterday are extremists and also have no place among tolerant New Yorkers.

This is what Jonah Goldberg calls "liberal fascism." It's the sort of bigotry that says to people "We don't want your kind here. You have no place in our neighborhood, not because you don't look like us, but because you don't think like us." It's the kind of bigotry in which one American tells other Americans that, regardless of what the Constitution says, their opinions are so odious that liberals don't want them living in even the same state as they live in.

Cuomo's statement is ironic on several levels. It's ironic because liberals like to appear in public clothed in the theoretical raiment of tolerance and diversity, but in practice, they're intolerant of anyone who disagrees with them, and their openness to diversity only applies to things like skin color, gender identity, and sexual preference. Ideological and often religious diversity are unwelcome.

It's ironic because the governor is proposing to exile from the state probably 50% or more of its citizens for the crime of embracing both traditional views of marriage and constitutional freedoms.

It's ironic because the governor refers to conservatives as holding extreme views, but which is more extreme, to protect unborn children or to kill them at a rate of a million annually? Which is more extreme, to honor a provision of a constitution which has governed this country for two centuries or to seek to abrogate it? Which is more extreme, to hold to a view of marriage that has thousands of years of tradition behind it or to revise and probably end it for the sake of a notion of equality that was unheard of just a a few decades ago?

The governor's statement is also ironic because it's symptomatic of exactly the sort of thinking that led not only to the riot in Delmar Village in 1963, but also to the Japanese internment camps during WWII, and to the expulsion of Indians from Georgia and elsewhere in the 19th century, all of which liberals rightly deplore.

The tactic of the liberal fascists is to cover their own extremism in octopus ink while hurling the allegation at anyone with whom they have a political disagreement. I suppose it works with the uninformed, the gullible, and those who wish to be gulled, but I think we'd do well to recall the words of Martin Luther King who longed for the day when his children (and ours) would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin (or on which side of the ideological divide they reside).

Saturday, January 17, 2015

War on Science

A column by Greg Satell at Forbes is remarkable for the degree of misunderstanding it reveals.

His ostensible purpose is to explain how the "war on science" hurts us all, but what does he mean by a "war on science"? He seems to be saying that there are just too many people out here in the boondocks who are unwilling to accept pronouncements from scientists if they're not supported by empirical data. In other words, there are too many people who are holding scientists to the standards that scientists claim make science different from other pursuits. Satell seems to find this skepticism among the laity unsettling. He writes this:
The work of scientists, when properly done, is reproducible and testable and that makes all the difference....

One of the great debates that politicians seek to devoid [sic] by touting their lack of scientific credentials is the one between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and intelligent design. Many people in the US, more than 40% in fact, believe in some form of creationism and want it taught in schools.

At first glance, they would seem to have a point. After all, no one actually saw humans evolve, so who’s to say that Darwin’s theory is true and creationism is false? Why, in the interest of academic inquiry, shouldn’t both be included in state curricula?

The reason is that Darwin’s theory is science — a subject taught in public schools — while intelligent design is a matter of faith, which is not. Darwin’s theory produces testable hypotheses that can be falsified through experiment. Creationism does not. It is a matter of belief, not a subject for investigation.
By "Darwin's theory" Satell presumably means the Neo-Darwinian view of molecules to man evolution driven by natural selection and random mutation. If he thinks that this theory is testable and falsifiable through experiment then he's unfamiliar with what many of its most devoted supporters have said about it. Here are a couple of examples:
Evolution is unproved and unprovable. We believe it because the the only alternative, special creation, is unthinkable. Sir Arthur Keith, physical anthropologist and head of the Anatomy Department at London Hospital.
Geneticist Richard Lewontin, speaking about evolution, said that:
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.
D.M.S. Watson, chair of evolution at the University of London, said that he believed in evolution, "not because it can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible."

In other words, the conflict is not between science and something else - there's no more a "war" on science than there is a "war" on women - but there is a conflict between two metaphysical understandings of reality. Materialists, as we saw above, often accept Darwinism, not because it's "reproducible and testable," as Satell claims a scientific hypothesis must be, but because materialism demands that any explanation for life exclude any non-physical entities. Those whose metaphysics permits or includes such entities (God, for example) are skeptical of any rival metaphysical theory that's advanced under the flag of science. It's not the science they oppose, it's the metaphysics, the religious assumptions that are smuggled in under the scientific banner.

Mr. Satell would do well to understand that there's a big difference.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Hottest Year Ever

Last October I did a post in which I cited a statement to the effect that in some ways 2014 may turn out to be one of the coolest on record in the U.S. This displeased some readers who wrote to tell me what an idiot I was. Actually, that characterization of their correspondence gives it credit for being more polite than it actually was.

Anyway, at the risk of eliciting more juvenile email from those who have yet to mature to the point where they're able to disagree without employing insult, I note that NASA and NOAA have released a report that claims that 2014 was the hottest year on record. Here's an excerpt from the AP story:
For the third time in a decade, the globe sizzled to the hottest year on record, federal scientists announced Friday.

Both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA calculated that in 2014 the world had its hottest year in 135 years of record-keeping. Earlier, the Japanese weather agency and an independent group out of University of California Berkeley also measured 2014 as the hottest on record.

NOAA said 2014 averaged 58.24 degrees Fahrenheit, 1.24 degrees above the 20th-century average.

But NASA, which calculates temperatures slightly differently, put 2014's average temperature at 58.42 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 1.22 degrees above their average, which they calculate for 1951-1980.

Earth broke NOAA records set in 2010 and 2005. The last time the Earth set an annual NOAA cold record was in 1911....

Texas A&M University climate scientist Andrew Dessler and other experts said the latest statistics should end claims by non-scientists that warming has stopped.
This sounds pretty dire, and it may be, but it's apparently not the whole story. The report has its critics and, pace professor Dressler, they're not non-scientists.

Climatologist Dr. Judith Curry, for example, notes that 2014 was only .07 degrees F warmer than the previous highs of 2010 and 2005, an amount which is within the margin of error of the measuring devices, and statistically insignificant. She notes that this means 2014's global average is essentially about what it's been for a decade and that the conclusion to be drawn is that there has been no significant warming throughout that period. In other words, global warming has, if not stopped, at least taken a long hiatus.

Other scientists at the link argue that the static period, or "pause" has been almost two decades long and that the skyrocketing temperatures predicted by some of the same folks cited in the AP story have failed to materialize.

Whether the alarmists are right or the skeptics are right I don't know, but the data do seem to show that the predictions of a global temperature "hockey stick" such as Al Gore prophesied simply haven't been fulfilled. Maybe there's a reason why global temperatures have plateaued over the last decade or so, or maybe the alarmists are simply wrong.

In any case, science is based on accurate predictions. When a theory's predictions fail to come to pass then that theory is in trouble. The question I'd like to ask is how long must the "pause" in warming last before scientists consider the current global warming theory to be falsified? If the theory is essentially immune to falsification, if it's maintained no matter what the global temperatures do, then it's not a scientific hypothesis, it's more like religion.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Once More on Fine-Tuning

VP readers are doubtless aware that the topic of cosmic fine-tuning is something of a favorite interest of mine. Since several recent posts have dealt with this subject in one way or another I thought it'd be useful to new readers to explain what it's all about, or, better yet, let philosopher Jay Richards explain what it's all about:
“Fine-tuning” refers to various features of the universe that are necessary conditions for the existence of complex life. Such features include the initial conditions and “brute facts” of the universe as a whole, the laws of nature or the numerical constants present in those laws (such as the gravitational force constant), and local features of habitable planets (such as a planet’s distance from its host star).

The basic idea is that these features must fall within a very narrow range of possible values for chemical-based life to be possible. Some popular examples are subject to dispute, and there are some complicated philosophical debates about how to calculate probabilities.

Nevertheless, there are many well-established examples of fine-tuning, which are widely accepted even by scientists who are generally hostile to theism and design. For instance, Stephen Hawking has admitted: “The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers [the constants of physics] seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”
Richards goes on to list and explain twenty two of those widely accepted examples of these precisely calibrated features.

First, there are Cosmic Constants:
(1)Gravitational force constant
(2)Electromagnetic force constant
(3)Strong nuclear force constant
(4)Weak nuclear force constant
(5)Cosmological constant

Then there are Initial Conditions and “Brute Facts”:
(6) Initial distribution of mass energy
(7) Ratio of masses for protons and electrons
(8) Velocity of light
(9) Mass excess of neutron over proton

And “Local” Planetary Conditions:
(10) Steady plate tectonics with right kind of geological interior
(11) Right amount of water in crust
(12) Large moon with right rotation period
(13) Proper concentration of sulfur
(14) Right planetary mass
(15) Near inner edge of circumstellar habitable zone
(16) Low-eccentricity orbit outside spin-orbit and giant planet resonances
(17) A few, large Jupiter-mass planetary neighbors in large circular orbits
(18) Outside spiral arm of galaxy
(19) Near co-rotation circle of galaxy, in circular orbit around galactic center
(20) Within the galactic habitable zone
(21) During the cosmic habitable age

Finally, Richards mentions the Effects of Primary Fine-Tuning Parameters:
(22) The polarity of the water molecule

Some of these examples express a balance of several features. A spectacular instance of this is the cosmological constant (#5) which is a relationship between the repulsive force of dark energy, which is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate, and the force of gravity which causes the universe to tend toward collapse. This balance must be set with a precision of one part in 10^120. If the value of the cosmological constant were off by that much, an incomprehensibly tiny amount, the universe would either collapse or rip itself apart.

In talking about the gravitational force (#1) Richards creates a word picture to give us a mental image of the amazingly fine tolerances that physicists have discovered:
Imagine a measuring stick like a ruler that extends from one end of the universe to the other. Imagine that this ruler represents the range of force strengths from the weakest force (gravity) to the strongest (the strong nuclear force). If the force of gravity deviated from its actual value by the equivalent of about one inch on the ruler there would be no life-sustaining planets in the universe.
No doubt the most remarkable example of fine-tuning is #6, the initial distribution of mass/energy in the nascent universe just after the Big Bang. Richards says:
One way of summarizing the initial conditions is to speak of the extremely low entropy (that is, a highly ordered) initial state of the universe. This refers to the initial distribution of mass/energy. In The Road to Reality, physicist Roger Penrose estimates that the odds of the initial low entropy state of our universe occurring by chance alone are on the order of 1 in 10^10^123. This ratio is vastly beyond our powers of comprehension. Since we know a life-bearing universe is intrinsically interesting, this ratio should be more than enough to raise the question: Why does such a universe exist?
Good question. Here's another: Is this unimaginable degree of fine-tuning more likely on the assumption that theism is true or on the assumption that naturalism is true?

Richards gives a brief explanation of each of the twenty examples here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

More on Metaxas

In an earlier post I mentioned an article in the Wall Street Journal by Eric Metaxas, and a couple of days later I mentioned in an update that the article has stirred up some controversy. The controversy is a bit surprising, actually, since what Metaxas wrote about has been circulating among philosophers and scientists, both theist and atheist alike, for the last twenty years. Perhaps the thought of facts like those cited by Metaxas being disseminated among the general public has aroused concern among those who desire to keep the divine foot from getting in the door, as biologist Richard Lewontin once put it.

One critic who has taken exception to Metaxas' piece is atheistic physicist Laurence Krauss. He wrote a letter to the WSJ which Daniel Bakken at Evolution News and Views excerpts and to which he offers a cogent reply.

Philosopher V.J. Torley has a lengthier and more thorough response to another of Metaxas' critics, Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith, at Uncommon Descent.

In the course of his critique of Beckwith Torley quotes writer Damon Linker who contends that even if Eric Metaxas’ argument were valid, it doesn’t prove the existence of a God who loves us, let alone the God of the Bible. Says Linker:
...[N]atural theology doesn’t demonstrate the existence of the God of the Bible....Even if we consider it reasonable to speculate about the possible, mysterious role played by some form of divine intelligence on the origin of life, that provides not one ounce of support for the detailed, specific stories of divine revelation laid out in the pages of scripture. The God of the philosophers (and the scientists) is not the God of the Bible. At least not obviously or inevitably. And no new piece of scientific evidence is likely to change that.
Linker is technically correct, of course, but it's a little difficult to place much weight upon his objection. To see why, imagine for a moment that it were established with a high degree of probability that the universe is in fact the work of an intelligent agent. What might we reasonably conclude about the nature of that agent?

Surely we could conclude that the agent is transcendent, i.e. it's not itself the universe - not material nor temporal - but is rather the being which fashioned the physico-spatio-temporal manifold and that it did so out of nothing since the material universe came into being, according to most cosmologists, ex nihilo (i.e.out of nothing).

We could also conclude that this being must be both unimaginably powerful and incomprehensibly intelligent. Since it transcends time it might also be eternal. Since it transcends space it's not limited by space. Moreover, since it has created, either directly or indirectly, personal beings with a sense of morality, justice, beauty and humor, it's reasonable to believe that it itself is personal and either possesses the aforenamed qualities or at least understands how they operate and "feel."

Finally, since it is the being upon which the contingent universe depends it's reasonable to think that this being has the property of being self-existent, not dependent on anything else for its own existence, otherwise we're faced with the absurdity of an infinite regress of creators.

Now all this may not add up to the God of traditional Christian theism, but it's pretty close. In other words, once it's admitted that the universe was created it's not a big leap to to the belief that the creator possesses many of the qualities of the God of Christianity. Thus, although a compelling argument for a cosmic designer does not amount to a knockdown proof that God exists, that's not what's important or significant about the argument. What's significant is that it provides rational justification for the theist's belief that God exists.

Indeed, it's also warrant for believing that theism is more rational than atheism. After all, the rational course is always to believe what's more probable than what's less probable, and the fine-tuning of the universe that Metaxas talks about is certainly more (epistemically) probable given that theism is true than it is given that naturalism is true. Put differently, intentional agency is a much better explanation for cosmic fine-tuning than is blind chance.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Drawing Opposite Conclusions

One of the frustrations of dialogue with those who hold opinions opposite our own is that so often we look at the same event and come to completely different conclusions about it. The conclusions we draw are shaped by our worldview, including our political ideology and religious convictions. Liberals and conservatives often talk past each other because they begin from different philosophical starting points and also because it's often hard for either to really understand how the other thinks.

There was an example of this over the weekend in the Washington Free Beacon which featured an excerpt of an interview on MSNBC with the very liberal columnist from the Washington Post Eugene Robinson. Here's the Beacon's report:
While appearing on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports on Friday, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson said it was good that the terrorist attacks taking place in France this week didn’t occur in the United States because America has more guns. Robinson said that the wide availability of firearms in the United States would lead to further violence in similar situations to those the French are now dealing with. He did not elaborate on why he believed that was the case.

“Just to keep it in perspective, I don’t think we should imagine that the conditions and the threat are exactly the same in the United States as they are in France,” he said. “They are different.”

“In fact, one thing that is different here is weapons are universally available and so, uh, it is actually a very good thing that…that…that the tensions are not exactly the same because we would expect to have a lot more of that sort of carnage here.” The Islamic extremists who have attacked locations across Paris were reportedly heavily armed despite the country’s strict gun laws. However, most of their victims were reportedly not armed.
As near as I can figure Robinson seems to be suggesting that should terrorists wish they could do a lot more harm in the U.S. than in France because weapons are more readily available here than there.

This, though, makes no sense to me. The Paris terrorists apparently had no difficulty procuring weapons and were heavily armed. The problem in France was that there weren't enough weapons in the hands of the victims. One reason, it might be argued, that incidents like the Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher deli attacks would actually have a smaller chance of "success" in the U.S. is that the shooters would be more likely to encounter someone who could shoot back.

If Mr. Robinson thinks the chances of slaughter in this country would be diminished if Americans would disarm all he has to do is look at what happened in France where most citizens and even the responding police were unarmed. Indeed, every mass killing in this country, whether in a school or a movie theater or even on a military base, occurred when the only person who had a gun was the killer, and these tragedies often ended when the killer encountered another person with a gun.

Pace Mr. Robinson, if Americans were to disarm the chances of carnage like we saw last week in Paris would actually increase because the killers would have certainly no trouble obtaining weapons and they'd know they'd encounter no immediate resistance. This seems to me to be pellucidly obvious, but evidently it's not so to Mr. Robinson, and I have to wonder why not. Of course, he'd probably wonder the same about me.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Are We Charlie?

David Brooks puts his finger on a peculiarity in some of the reaction in the United States to the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff. Brooks notes that the same intolerance of those who voice opinions we don't like, of those who ridicule our most cherished beliefs, exists right here in the putative bastion of free speech, the American university.

It does seem both fatuous and hypocritical for American liberals to proclaim "Je suis Charlie" while at the same time establishing campus speech codes, disinviting speakers, and punishing faculty for holding opinions that lie outside the mainstream of acceptable progressive thought.

Brooks puts it this way:
The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.

Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.

Just look at all the people who have overreacted to campus micro-aggressions. The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality. The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the N.R.A. Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians.

Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.

So this might be a teachable moment. As we are mortified by the slaughter of those writers and editors in Paris, it’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists.
Brooks' column provokes a question: How much of the left's willingness to identify itself with the Charlie Hebdo staffers is a consequence of the fact that much of Charlie Hebdo's satire was aimed at targets the left holds in contempt? Would the left be as sympathetic if the magazine were written from a more "right-wing" perspective and went to great lengths to lampoon the pieties of the left? In any case it certainly is ironic to see folks of the same ideological stripe as those who seek to silence critics of global warming, Darwinism, gay marriage, and other progressive sacred cows painting, if only in a figurative sense, "Nous sommes Charlie" on their faces.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Sky Dancers

Sean Davis at The Federalist applies C.S. Lewis' description of men without chests in his Abolition of Man to that segment of our modern media which has allowed themselves to be intimidated into dhimmitude by Islamic violence.

Here's an excerpt:
Following the Charlie Hebdo attack, CNN allegedly issued a memo to staff detailing what types of images and words would be banned by the network and what would be allowed:

"Although we are not at this time showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet considered offensive by many Muslims, platforms are encouraged to verbally describe the cartoons in detail. This is key to understanding the nature of the attack on the magazine and the tension between free expression and respect for religion.

"Video or stills of street protests showing Parisians holding up copies of the offensive cartoons, if shot wide, are also OK. Avoid close-ups of the cartoons that make them clearly legible.

"It’s also OK to show most of the protest cartoons making the rounds online, though care should be taken to avoid examples that include within them detailed depictions of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons."

Where to begin? For starters, note that the network is apparently afraid of even using the word Muhammad. Instead, the Islamic religious figure is referred to by CNN merely as “the Prophet.” Not a prophet. And not even the prophet. “The Prophet,” with a capital P.

If we are to take CNN’s memo at its word, no other prophets existed before or after Muhammad. He is literally the only one. Forget Moses. Forget Abraham. Forget that both are major prophets for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Nope. Muhammad is the only one (even if that statement itself is heretical to the ideology they’re desperately trying not to offend) and he will be faux-respected by fearful news executives, even if that faux respect results in the blatant disrespect of other religions that outright reject Muhammad’s alleged teachings. Your offense is only worthy of note if comes packaged with a death threat.

I look forward to CNN referring to Jesus Christ as “the Messiah” from now on. I look forward to CNN referring to God as “G-d” out of respect for Jews who believe it is sinful to utter His name. And I really look forward to never seeing another historically illiterate Easter-time screed masquerading as news about how Jesus is just a silly myth who never really existed and that people who put any stock in the most well-attested historical documents in all of antiquity are just a bunch of nutty kooks.

I mean, if we’re talking about respect for religion, surely that must mean respect for religions that don’t send masked terrorists to gun down your news bureau whenever it publishes something stupid and insensitive, right? Or do my views only deserve respect insofar as they refuse to acknowledge your right to even exist?

For the Men Without Chests, however, history, theology, and even grammar must bow low before the altar of terrorism.
It's surpassingly ironic that a media and arts culture which praises Andres Serrano's photos of Jesus Christ on the cross immersed in a jar of urine, which admires Chris Ofili's painting of the virgin Mary covered in elephant dung, which mocks the Catholic priesthood because of pedophile priests, which scoffs at religious believers who dare question the creation myths of the metaphysical naturalists, which produces scores of books seeking to debunk and deride Christian belief, nevertheless wriggles and twists like journalistic sky dancers trying to explain why they won't show the cartoon images published by the Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo that so outraged the Muslim psychopaths.

Even so, I don't fault our cultural elites for their fear nor their reluctance to give offense, and I can understand why devout Muslims might be offended at some of those cartoons. What I fault the elites for is their sanctimonious self-congratulation for their "bold" and "daring" "transgressions" against Christian piety while cowering in fear of doing anything that might provoke angry Muslims. I fault them for their punctilious regard for the sensibilities of intolerant devotees of the Prophet and their complete disregard for the sensibilities of Christians. They know they can mock the pope and even the Christ whom Christians believe to be God incarnate, and the most unpleasant consequence that'll befall them will be that Christians will pray for them. They also know, on the other hand, that if they publish a cartoon of Mohammed in an unflattering light they may find their workday interrupted by automatic rifle fire aimed in their direction.

Given those realities they choose to mock Christ and profess reverence for Mohammed. Wouldn't it be more virtuous and less cowardly to just show respect for both?

Friday, January 9, 2015

Feral Philosophy

In a column for the New York Times' Opinionator Steve Neumann discusses the need for popular, as opposed to academic, philosophy. It's not that academic philosophy is not important for Neumann, it's just that, like any academic discipline, it's inaccessible to the public which would benefit greatly from its insights and ideas. Neumann writes:
I really do believe we need philosophy journalists in the same way and for the same reason we have science journalists — to prepare the arcana of academia into a dish digestible by the public. But philosophy journalists like me certainly aren’t enough — we also need professional philosophers practicing their craft outside the academy.

The strength of philosophy — the unflinching interrogation of existence, in accord with the highest standards of reasoned argument — is mostly being exercised between academics relegated to making incremental refinements to their areas of specialization....
This sentence, perhaps inadvertently, sums up why so much contemporary scholarship, not just in philosophy but in other humanities subject areas as well, seems so pointless and arid. Once most of the great advances in a discipline have been made there's little left to occupy its practitioners but to putter around the margins. This is stifling for many bright minds, and it's the reason, in my opinion, why a lot of academics advance novel theories and churn out work that borders on the bizarre. They're desperately trying to do something original so that their life's work doesn't seem so meaningless to them and to others.

Those who find this puttering to be a frivolous use of one's time either leave the profession or settle for teaching others about those great advances. Neumann gives us a couple of examples of philosophers who have followed both paths:
Nigel Warburton, who left his position as a senior lecturer at the Open University in 2013 to devote his time to the popular Philosophy Bites podcast, among other things, told me it was primarily the limited opportunities for teaching subjects that he was interested in that led him to leave. “It didn’t work for me. Perhaps that’s my problem,” he said. “But I’ve been heartened by the number of academics who have written to me saying they feel more or less the same but don’t have a straightforward escape route.” He added that he wished more philosophers would follow suit, but that “many are too timid, or are effectively gagged on controversial topics by their institutions.”

Another philosopher who left academia to try his luck in “nature red in tooth and claw” is Dan Fincke, the author of Camels With Hammers, a blog on the atheist channel of Patheos. Fincke told me that, like Warburton, he left his position as an adjunct philosophy professor at both Hofstra and Fordham Universities because of “the demands to produce technical scholarship rather than just continue to follow my philosophical interests.” Fincke is a prolific blogger who was excited by the prospect of being able to “speak to the wider educated lay audience out there about the relevance of philosophical concepts to what they actually cared about.” In addition to his daily blog, he also runs an online philosophy class via videoconference.
These are examples of what Neumann later refers to as "feral" philosophy. It's philosophy geared to the layman outside the formal university classroom.

The great value of philosophy, at whatever level it's taught, is that it teaches people what the important questions in life are are, what others have thought about those questions, and helps us to think about them for ourselves.

Philosophers have for thousands of years debated questions like why am I here? What purpose, if any, does my life have? How did the cosmos and life ever come to be? Does God exist? If so, what is God like? Is the material world all there is? Do we have minds? Do we have free will? If not, does anyone ever deserve reward or punishment? Is love more than just a chemical reaction in our brains? In what sense is the world outside of our minds real? In what sense is time real? What does it mean to know something? Can we have knowledge without certainty? What's the difference between knowing and believing? What is right to do? What makes something right? Must I care about other people's welfare or just my own?

These and many other questions we could think of weave together to form the tapestry of philosophy and it's mind-expanding and fascinating to ponder them. We may not ever arrive at the correct answers to these questions, indeed for some questions there may be no correct answers, but what addressing them does is enable us to develop a more coherent view of our life, our place in the world and of human existence in general.

Neumann says something like this when he writes that:
I think the key difference between science and philosophy is that we need the results of science more than we need everyone in the body politic “doing science.” By contrast, we need everyone “doing philosophy” more than we need the results of philosophy. In other words, we don’t need to know or understand how the scientist has gone from the minute molecular intricacies of DNA to a public good like genetic counseling.

On the other hand, the emulation of the critical thinking and logical argument of a philosopher is a virtue that can be applied to any area of life — from where you stand on the most important social and political issues of the day to how best to spend the rest of your days on this planet.
I agree.