Saturday, February 28, 2015

Premoderns and Postmoderns (Pt. I)

There are in the West three basic ways to look at the world, three worldviews which serve as lenses through which we interpret the experiences of our lives. Those three worldviews are essentially distinguished by their view of God, truth, and the era in which they were dominant among the cultural elite. We may, with some license, label these the premodern, modern, and postmodern. The premodern, lasting from ancient times until the Enlightenment (17th century), was essentially Christian. The modern, which lasted until roughly WWII, was essentially naturalistic and secular, and the postmodern, which has been with us now for a couple of generations, is hostile to the Enlightenment emphasis on Reason and objective truth.

I recently came across a wonderful treatment of the tension between these three "metanarratives" in an essay written by medieval scholar Joseph Bottum for First Things back in 1994. FT reprinted his article in an anniversary issue, and I thought it would be useful to touch on some of the highlights.

Bear in mind that although the terms premodern, modern and postmodern refer to historical eras there are people who exemplify the qualities of each of these in every era, including our own. Thus though we live in a postmodern age due to the dominance of postmodern assumptions among the shapers of contemporary thought, there are lots of premoderns and moderns around. Indeed, outside the academy I suspect most people are either premodern or modern in their outlook.

About a quarter of the way into his essay Bottum, writing on behalf of the Christian (premodern) worldview, says this:

We cannot revert to the premodern, we cannot return to the age of faith, for we were all of us raised as moderns.

And yet, though we cannot revert, we nonetheless have resources that may help us to advance beyond these late times. The modern project that attacked the Middle Ages has itself been under attack for some time. For some time, hyper-modern writers have brought to bear against their modern past the same sort of scarifying analysis that earlier modern writers brought against the premodern past. These later writers, supposing the modern destruction of God to be complete, have turned their postmodern attacks upon the modern project of Enlightenment rationality.

The postmodern project is, as Francois Lyotard put it, a suspicion of all metanarratives based on reason. It rejects the Enlightenment confidence that human reason can lead us to truth about the world, particularly truth about the important matters of meaning, religion and morality. Indeed, postmodern thinkers are skeptical of any claims to a "truth" beyond simple empirical facts.

Bottum continues:

In some sense, of course, these words premodern, modern, and postmodern are too slippery to mean much. Taken to refer to the history of ideas, they seem to name the periods before, during, and after the Enlightenment, but taken to refer to the history of events, they seem to name the period from creation to the rise of science, the period from the rise of science until World War II, and the period since the war. It is tempting to define the categories philosophically, rather than historically, around the recognition that knowledge depends upon the existence of God. But the better modern philosophers (e.g., Descartes and Kant, as opposed to, say, Voltaire) recognize that dependence in some way or another. Perhaps, though definitions based on intent are always weak, the best definition nonetheless involves intent: it is premodern to seek beyond rational knowledge for God; it is modern to desire to hold knowledge in the structures of human rationality (with or without God); it is postmodern to see the impossibility of such knowledge.

In other words, premoderns believe we can have knowledge of God through direct experience apart from reason. As Pascal put it, "The heart has reasons that reason can never know." Moderns believe that knowledge can only come through the exercise of our reason. Postmoderns hold that moderns are deluding themselves. None of us can separate our reason from our biases, prejudices, experiences and so on, all of which shape our perspective and color the lenses through which we view the world. For the postmodern there is no such thing as objective reason or truth.

Bottum again:

The premoderns said that without God, there would be no knowledge, and the postmoderns say we have no God and have no knowledge. The premoderns said that without the purposefulness of final causation, all things would be equally valueless, and the postmoderns say there is no purpose and no value. The premoderns said that without an identity of reality and the Good, there would be no right and wrong, and the postmoderns say there is neither Good nor right and wrong. Though they disagree on whether God exists, premoderns and postmoderns share the major premise that knowing requires His existence. Only for a brief period in the history of the West-the period of modern times-did anyone seriously suppose that human beings could hold knowledge without God.

Here is an interesting insight. Christians hold in common with modern atheists that there is objective truth, that there is meaning to life, and that there is moral right and wrong. At the same time they hold in common with postmodern atheists (not all postmoderns are atheists, it should be stressed) that none of those beliefs can be sustained unless there is a God. Does this, as Bottum alleges, put Christians closer to postmoderns than to moderns?

More next week.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Head Transplant

New Scientist has an article about an Italian surgeon, Sergio Canavero, who fully anticipates doing head transplants within a few years. Aside from the practical difficulties involved, which Canavero thinks we're on the cusp of solving, there are some serious ethical concerns being raised about this. I'm not sure that most of the ethical concerns can't be assuaged, but I do wonder about something else.

Before I get into that here's the lede from the New Scientist report:
It's heady stuff. The world's first attempt to transplant a human head will be launched this year at a surgical conference in the US. The move is a call to arms to get interested parties together to work towards the surgery.

The idea was first proposed in 2013 by Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy. He wants to use the surgery to extend the lives of people whose muscles and nerves have degenerated or whose organs are riddled with cancer. Now he claims the major hurdles, such as fusing the spinal cord and preventing the body's immune system from rejecting the head, are surmountable, and the surgery could be ready as early as 2017.

The first attempt at a head transplant was carried out on a dog by Soviet surgeon Vladimir Demikhov in 1954. A puppy's head and forelegs were transplanted onto the back of a larger dog. Demikhov conducted several further attempts but the dogs only survived between two and six days.

The first successful head transplant, in which one head was replaced by another, was carried out in 1970. A team led by Robert White at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, transplanted the head of one monkey onto the body of another. They didn't attempt to join the spinal cords, though, so the monkey couldn't move its body, but it was able to breathe with artificial assistance. The monkey lived for nine days until its immune system rejected the head. Although few head transplants have been carried out since, many of the surgical procedures involved have progressed. "I think we are now at a point when the technical aspects are all feasible," says Canavero.
The article goes on to discuss exactly how Canavero hopes to accomplish this surgery and some of the reaction to it in the medical community. The question I would pose is this: If the surgery is successful, who would the resulting individual be? Would he/she be the person whose head is afixed to the torso, or would he/she be the person whose torso it is? Or would the resulting individual be a new person altogether?

Most people would probably opt for the first alternative, believing that the self is somehow associated with the brain. If, then, Dr. Canavero could somehow transplant simply the brain the resulting individual would be the self whose brain he/she bears. But why think that the material brain is necessary to identify the self? Why would the self not be the body or brain at all but rather the information that's contained in the brain so that if we could download the information contained in the brain into another brain/body physical system it would be identical to downloading the self into another physical system?

Of course, information is immaterial which means that the self is immaterial which means we're getting uncomfortably (from a materialist point of view) to saying that the self is really one's soul.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Litmus Tests

A writer at The New Yorker by the name of Adam Gopnik believes that a presidential aspirant's views on evolution should be a litmus test for serving as president. Really, he does. Speaking of the question asked of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker last week in London as to whether he believed in evolution, Gopnik says this:
What the question means, and why it matters, is plain: Do you have the courage to embrace an inarguable and obvious truth when it might cost you something to do so? A politician who fails this test is not high-minded or neutral; he or she is just craven, and shouldn’t be trusted with power. This catechism’s purpose—perhaps unfair in its form, but essential in its signal—is to ask, Do you stand with reason and evidence sufficiently to anger people among your allies who don’t?
This is silliness of a high order. It assumes that our politicians all have thought deeply about the matter and have arrived at a considered opinion about it, which is nonsense. I doubt very much whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama can explain the difference between genetic drift and natural selection or between micro and macroevolution, or what punctuated equilibrium is. Indeed, I doubt either of them could explain what Neo-Darwinism is. Nor should that deficit count against them as long as they don't decide to pontificate on the matter. If someone does not have much expertise on something then, pace Mr. Gopnik, it's both rational and wise to refrain from offering opinions on it as if he had.

More than than the silliness of what amounts to a religious test of high office, Gopnik's profession of fealty to reason and evidence is hard to believe. After all, evolution of the Darwinian variety, i.e. the view that natural processes and forces are adequate to account for all that we see in the living world, is not necessarily based on reason or evidence but rather often on a commitment to a naturalistic metaphysics. Consider what several accomplished evolutionary biologists have said on this very point:
“[I believe evolution to be true] not because it can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible,” the late D.M.S. Watson, chair of evolution at the University of London.

“Evolution is unproved and improvable, we believe it because the only alternative is special creation, which is unthinkable,” Sir Arthur Keith, the late physical anthropologist and head of the Anatomy Department at London Hospital.

"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." Richard Lewontin, former professor of genetics at Harvard University.
Gopnik continues:
All the available evidence collected within the past hundred and fifty years is strongly in its favor, and no evidence argues that it is in any significant way false.
Unfortunately for Gopnik's thesis this claim is itself false. The theory may, in its major lineaments, be true, but it's simply wrong to say that there's no significant evidence against it. Gopnik should read Stephen Meyer's books, Signature in the Cell, or Darwin's Doubt, or Michael Behe's books Darwin's Black Box or The Edge of Evolution, or Jonathan Wells' Icons of Evolution, or Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis or Nature's Destiny. It may turn out that the evidence amassed in these works can be explained in Darwinian terms, but so far most refutations of them consist pretty much of assertions that the problems raised have all been answered without actually showing exactly how that is so.

Anyone wishing to read more about the problems with Darwinism without having to read a whole book can check out a relatively short piece by Casey Luskin in which he lists and explains ten problems that Darwinian versions of evolution have found to be intractable. The ten are these. Go to the link for the explanations:
  1. Darwinism has no viable mechanism to generate a primordial soup
  2. Unguided \chemical processes cannot explain the origin of the genetic code
  3. Random mutations cannot generate the genetic information required for irreducibly complex structures
  4. Natural Selection struggles to fix advantageous traits into populations
  5. The abrupt appearance of species in the fossil record does not support Darwinian evolution
  6. Molecular biology has failed to yield a grand "Tree of Life"
  7. Convergent evolution challenges Darwinism and destroys the logic behind common ancestry
  8. Differences between vertebrate embryos contradict the predictions of common ancestry
  9. Neo-Darwinism struggles to explain the biogeographical distribution of many species
  10. Neo-Darwinism has a long history of inaccurate Darwinian predictions about vestigial organs and "Junk DNA"
Apparently unmindful of these difficulties Gopnik goes on to say this:
But evolutionary biology is not an ideology, which one believes in or doesn’t. What it demands is not belief but what science always demands, and that is the ability to evaluate the evidence and hear out the theory, and to poke holes in it if you can. So far, the fabric remains defiantly unpoked, the holes either unmade or else readily mended, with the stitching improving the tensile strength of the whole.
Again, there may eventually turn out to be answers to these difficulties within a neo-Darwinian framework (although as time goes on this seems less and less likely), but the assumption that they will is an act of faith. It's a faith in the truth of the metaphysical view called naturalistic materialism. Ironically enough, for man committed to reason, Gopnik's insistence that presidential candidates share his particular faith seems more than a little unreasonable.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Fundamental Reality

This is a rerun of a post I wrote on May, 31st of last year. I'm reposting it since it's relevant to some topics my students and I have been discussing in class:

For most of the 19th and 20th centuries it was the consensus view among scientists and philosophers that reality, the universe, was fundamentally material. The belief was that everything was reducible to matter and energy and that if there was any immaterial substance, it was a property of matter. Thus, in this materialist view, there was no such thing as mind or soul that existed independently of matter. Mind, if it existed, emerged from matter.

All this began to change in the 20th century with the development of quantum physics, and as that century came to a close and the new century began a number of experiments were done which led physicists to believe that, in fact, mind is fundamental and that the material world is an emergent property of mind.

Rather than seeing the universe as a machine, as thinkers had done ever since Isaac Newton in the 17th century, the universe was now being viewed, in the words of Sir James Jeans, more like "a grand idea."

The following video gives a fairly good description of two experiments in physics which have led many (not all) scientists to agree with Jeans. The video moves quickly so you might wish to replay parts of it.

There's resistance to accepting the universe as a product of mind because such a view both refutes the materialism upon which atheism rests and fits nicely into a theistic view of the world (see the quote from physicist Alain Aspect below).

Nevertheless, this is the view accepted by a growing number of quantum physicists. Here are a few quotes to illustrate:

“As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.” Max Planck (1944)

“Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.” Erwin Schroedinger.

“It will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the scientific conclusion that the content of the consciousness is the ultimate universal reality” -Eugene Wigner 1961 – received Nobel Prize in 1963

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

"What is more, recent experiments are bringing to light that the experimenter’s free will and consciousness should be considered axioms (founding principles) of standard quantum physics theory. So for instance, in experiments involving 'entanglement' (the phenomenon Einstein called 'spooky action at a distance'), to conclude that quantum correlations of two particles are nonlocal (i.e. cannot be explained by signals traveling at velocity less than or equal to the speed of light), it is crucial to assume that the experimenter can make free choices, and is not constrained in what orientation he/she sets the measuring devices...To understand these implications it is crucial to be aware that quantum physics is not only a description of the material and visible world around us, but also speaks about non-material influences coming from outside the space-time." Antoine Suarez, 2013

"Why do people cling with such ferocity to belief in a mind-independent reality? It is surely because if there is no such reality, then ultimately (as far as we can know) mind alone exists. And if mind is not a product of real matter, but rather is the creator of the “illusion” of material reality (which has, in fact, despite the materialists, been known to be the case, since the discovery of quantum mechanics in 1925), then a theistic view of our existence becomes the only rational alternative to solipsism (solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist)." Alain Aspect, 2007

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Sizes of Things

Here's a fun interactive site that you won't be able to stop playing with. By moving the scroll bar you can zoom in or out to see how big the universe is compared to our planet and how big we are compared to the smallest parts of an atom.

Give it a try and spend a little time just being amazed. You'll need an updated version of Adobe Flash Player, though.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Spineless

It is perhaps indicative of the sad state to which our news media has sunk that they took to their fainting couches when the comments by former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani to the effect that he doesn't think President Obama loves this country assaulted their delicate sensibilities. Guiliani's remark set off a media code red summoning all good liberals to the defense of their president, tut-tutting endlessly, and often mindlessly, about this latest ATSBAR (Awful Thing Said By A Republican).

I honestly don't know what all the furor is about and am quite frankly a little surprised that anyone would find Guiliani's claim to be controversial. I assumed that it was common knowledge on both left and right that Mr. Obama is not particularly enamored of the country he was elected to lead. To understand why one might assume this, imagine a man who grows up surrounded by, and mentored by, misogynists, and who chooses as friends people who have contempt for women. Ironically, this man eventually meets a woman and tells her he'd like to marry her. She's inexplicably smitten by him, but she notices that he refuses to wear the pin she gave him as a token of their mutual love, and when they're among company she hears him criticizing her and apologizing for her shortcomings. She even overhears him say that it's his goal, once they're married, to fundamentally transform her. Wouldn't any woman in that circumstance have reason to think that this man doesn't really love her?

Mr. Obama is a progressive leftist. The progressive left derides patriotism and smirks at talk of love of country. If you think this is an exaggeration imagine yourself, if you can, at a convention of progressive liberals at which Lee Greenwood is invited to sing God Bless the U.S.A. The hall would fill with winces and groans. Affirmations of love of country are simply not part of the progressive vocabulary, and they tend to scorn expressions of patriotism among the average American as déclassé.

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post affords us sample of the media hysterics over Guiliani's remarks, but with a predictable twist. He chose not only to condemn Guiliani's statement of the obvious as "stupid," though he deigns not to explain to us exactly why it's stupid, but also to use it as a catapult with which to launch another salvo at Wisconsin governor Scott Walker:
What Rudy Giuliani did this week was stupid. What Scott Walker did ought to disqualify him as a serious presidential contender.

As the world now knows, Giuliani, the former New York mayor, said at a dinner featuring Walker, the Wisconsin governor, that “I do not believe that the president loves America.” According to Politico, Giuliani said President Obama “wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country.”

And Walker, just a few seats away, said . . . nothing. Asked the next morning on CNBC about Giuliani’s words, the Republican presidential aspirant was spineless: “The mayor can speak for himself. I’m not going to comment on what the president thinks or not. He can speak for himself as well. I’ll tell you, I love America, and I think there are plenty of people — Democrat, Republican, independent, everyone in between — who love this country.”

But did he agree with Giuliani? “I’m in New York,” Walker demurred. “I’m used to people saying things that are aggressive out there.” This is what’s alarming about the Giuliani affair. There will always be people on the fringe who say outrageous things (and Giuliani, once a respected public servant, has sadly joined the nutters as he questioned the president’s patriotism even while claiming he was doing no such thing). But to have a civilized debate, it’s necessary for public officials to disown such beyond-the-pale rhetoric. And Walker failed that fundamental test of leadership.
Hmm. Mr. Milbank accuses Scott Walker of spinelessness because Walker failed to disown "beyond-the-pale rhetoric." I wonder why calling someone "spineless" for refusing to be drawn into a controversy that doesn't involve him isn't itself "beyond-the-pale." I wonder if Milbank's asseveration that Walker's demurral disqualifies him from being president isn't itself a bit "beyond-the-pale." Indeed, I wonder how Milbank can call a man who stood without flinching against all the smears, threats, and pressure the Wisconsin public employees unions could bring to bear on him over the last four years "spineless," but perhaps logic isn't Mr. Milbank's strong suit.

But his silliness goes beyond just this. As Gateway Pundit reminds us, candidate Obama himself accused President Bush of being unpatriotic for allowing the national debt to increase by four trillion dollars during his tenure as president (This accusation is especially humorous when it's noted that Mr. Obama increased the debt by that much in his first three years as president.)
I wonder if Mr. Milbank went around demanding that Democrats come to the defense of Mr. Bush's patriotism and repudiate Mr. Obama's "beyond-the-pale" comment. I doubt it. The former Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, once publicly called Mr. Bush "a loser." Did Dana Milbank demand other Democrats dissociate themselves from Senator Reid's remark? Has he interrogated Hillary Clinton (if she could be enticed to come out of reclusion) as to what she thinks of all the absolutely fatuous and offensive things Vice-President Biden has said and done over the years, including most recently his nuzzling of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's wife on national television.


If a Republican had done this the media would be calling down fire from heaven on the perpetrator, but since Biden is a Democrat Mr. Milbank and his colleagues turn their indignation upon the hapless Mr. Walker for his reluctance to throw a fellow Republican under the bus for saying pretty much what many objective observers believe.

Liberals are desperate to find some way to discredit Governor Walker because they know they can't attack him on his record or his personal life. They'll still try, though, and in the months to come they'll be asking him all sorts of questions they wouldn't dream of asking a Democrat, questions about evolution, his faith, Mr. Obama's faith, Mr. Obama's patriotism, Mr. Obama's place of birth, the name of the current leader of Burkina Faso, anything at all to diminish the man, no matter how absurd. That's how politics is played by these folks, and it's why many decent people are turned off by both politics and the media.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Adios, Infinity

MIT physics professor John Brockman advances a surprising, perhaps even heretical, thesis: The idea of infinity should be retired from physics. Why? Because it causes too many problems. Here's an excerpt from his lede:
The assumption that something truly infinite exists in nature underlies every physics course I’ve ever taught at MIT—and, indeed, all of modern physics. But it’s an untested assumption, which begs the question: Is it actually true?

There are in fact two separate assumptions: “infinitely big” and “infinitely small.” By infinitely big, I mean that space can have infinite volume, that time can continue forever, and that there can be infinitely many physical objects. By infinitely small, I mean the continuum—the idea that even a liter of space contains an infinite number of points, that space can be stretched out indefinitely without anything bad happening, and that there are quantities in nature that can vary continuously. The two assumptions are closely related, because inflation, the most popular explanation of our Big Bang, can create an infinite volume by stretching continuous space indefinitely.

The theory of inflation has been spectacularly successful and is a leading contender for a Nobel Prize. It explains how a subatomic speck of matter transformed into a massive Big Bang, creating a huge, flat, uniform universe, with tiny density fluctuations that eventually grew into today’s galaxies and cosmic large-scale structure—all in beautiful agreement with precision measurements from experiments such as the Planck and the BICEP2 experiments. But by predicting that space isn’t just big but truly infinite, inflation has also brought about the so-called measure problem, which I view as the greatest crisis facing modern physics.

Physics is all about predicting the future from the past, but inflation seems to sabotage this. When we try to predict the probability that something particular will happen, inflation always gives the same useless answer: infinity divided by infinity. The problem is that whatever experiment you make, inflation predicts there will be infinitely many copies of you, far away in our infinite space, obtaining each physically possible outcome; and despite years of teeth-grinding in the cosmology community, no consensus has emerged on how to extract sensible answers from these infinities. So, strictly speaking, we physicists can no longer predict anything at all! This means that today’s best theories need a major shakeup by retiring an incorrect assumption. Which one? Here’s my prime suspect: ∞.
Brockman goes on to discuss this problem and to cite mathematicians who dismissed the idea that an actual infinite could exist. Philosophers, or at least some of them, have long disdained the idea of infinities because of the paradoxes to which they lead. For example, Hilbert's Hotel, the brainchild of mathematician David Hilbert who imagined a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, leads to the paradox that even if every room was occupied there'd still be an infinite number of rooms available. You could have an infinite number of rooms occupied and an infinite number unoccupied in the same hotel:
One consequence of removing infinity from the physicist's tool box is that it also removes an objection to one of the most famous families of arguments for the existence of a creator of the universe. The arguments are collectively called the Cosmological argument and one version, put simply, goes something like this:
  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. Nothing causes itself to exist.
  3. The universe is not infinite and therefore began to exist.
  4. Therefore, the universe has a cause outside of itself.
With the addition of a few more premises it can be shown that the cause is very much like the God of traditional theism, but that's a discussion for another time. The point here is that an objection to this argument is the claim that premise 3. is a false assumption. It's been more difficult to sustain this objection, of course, since the 1960s when the Big Bang cosmogeny was pretty much confirmed, but there have nevertheless been attempts to deflect the force of the above argument by insisting that there have been an infinite number of big bangs in the history of the universe which has been oscillating between phases of expansion and collapse forever.

Infinity is also employed against the argument for God from the fine-tuning of the universe. The argument here is that even though it seems astronomically improbable that a universe like ours, suitable for human life, should exist solely by random chance, nevertheless, given that there are an infinite number of different universes (at least hypothetically) every possible universe must exist. Thus, ours exists.

In other words, infinity has been an escape hatch for those who wish to avoid the conclusion that the universe is a product of a transcendent creator. By invoking it they've been able to justify, at least to themselves, their refusal to accept the conclusion of arguments such as the above.

It's interesting, then, to read a prominent physicist calling for the retirement of the concept.

Friday, February 20, 2015

No Answer

This segment of Bill O'Reilly's show last night illustrates why pacifism seems irrelevant to a lot of people. O'Reilly had as guests two pacifists, one a Quaker and the other the editor of Sojourners magazine, Jim Wallis. He asked them what we should do to stop ISIS, but, despite being pressed by O'Reilly for an answer, neither of them would, or could, give him one. The most they would offer was a list of things we shouldn't do.
I don't see how else to interpret their refusal to offer any realistic measures to try to stem the barbaric evil being perpetrated by the Islamic State other than as a tacit way of saying that people in the lands under assault by ISIS should just accept their fate. It's apparently better in the view of O'Reilly's guests for these wretched souls to submit to having their daughters taken into sex slavery, their sons beheaded and themselves slaughtered than for anyone to use violence against ISIS to stop it.

O'Reilly is, even by his own admission at the end of the clip, obnoxious, and I rarely can bring myself to watch his show, but obnoxious or not, he was certainly correct when he said to Wallis that he's got nothing. His theology allows him no response to this evil except capitulation to it.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Going the Full Jessup

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is a viable candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. Because he's a successful conservative governor in a very blue state and has defeated three attempts to unseat him in the last four years he has his political opponents' attention. They see the need to discredit him and one of the most reliable ways to do that is to try to embarrass the candidate by showing that he's "anti-science." Thus, the question to Walker during a trip to London about his views on evolution, a question as idiotic as it is malicious.

It's idiotic because his views on evolution are no more relevant to being President than his views on quantum mechanics, and it's malicious because the question is designed to trip the candidate up and make him look silly, not to learn something important about him. More than that it's designed to expose the candidate's Christian worldview. Showing someone to be an "anti-science" Christian, in the progressives' playbook, is to paint him in the public imagination as an ignorant hayseed.

Peter Burfeind is a pastor and a contributor to The Federalist. He offers the Governor some advice on how he might answer that question in the future because, be assured, whoever the Republican front-runners are, it will be asked of them. It won't be asked of the Democrat nominee, of course, because no one in the media wants to embarrass the Democrat, but it will be asked of the Republican.

Here's Burfeind:
Walker should have answered with a paraphrase of Colonel Nathan Jessup, the Jack Nicholson character from “A Few Good Men” (1992). He should have said to that reporter, “You want the truth on my creationist views? You can’t handle the truth!

“Son, we live in a world that has walls. In the frontier lands that is the human psyche, we built the fort of civilization precariously near the wilderness of nihilism that ever threatens to encroach upon our cultivated abodes. This is a wilderness with beasts, monsters, and savages who want nothing more than to destroy the spiritual and intellectual basis of civilization. That’s why we have walls, walls protecting the truth upon which the West is built. It’s why the West has stood out as the font of humanitarianism for the rest of the world.

“And those walls have to be guarded by men with a steadfast faith in a transcendent God who has given us those truths. Who’s gonna do it? You, Brian Williams? You, Jon Stewart? We have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You curse the Christians. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what we know, that holding steadfast to the truth of human dignity—man created in the image of God, God’s redemption and restoration of that man to his image through his own involvement in our world—is the reason the West with its Christian roots has stood for something unique in all the world.

“And our existence, while intellectually grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives, bringing dignity to women, ending slavery, standing for the rights even of prisoners, for rules of engagement and law of war.

“You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you know you live off the residual fumes of our Christian past, that your ethics is built on a house of cards, a Christian ethic abstracted from Christian forms. That’s why you want us on that wall, you need us on that wall.

“We use words like truth, natural law, virtue. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending what is good and most redemptive in human nature. You use them as a punchline.

‘Our existence, while intellectually grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives, bringing dignity to women, ending slavery, standing for the rights even of prisoners, for rules of engagement and law of war.’

“We have neither the time nor the inclination to explain ourselves to people who rise and sleep under the blanket of the very protections a Christian intellectual framework provides, then questions why we hold it. We would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up some first principles with a modicum of consistency not based in legerdemain, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think of my creationist views.”
What Burfeind says here is all true, in my opinion, but as he admits, Walker's calm, irenic demeanor makes it unlikely that he would or could deliver a Jessup-worthy response. That's why I think my suggestion that he simply ask the questioner to explain what he or she means by "evolution" is more suited to Walker's personality. It would also completely flummox the interrogator who, if he or she is a political reporter, would be unlikely to have any idea how to answer it coherently.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

ISIL's Pedigree

Yesterday I wrote that Mr. Obama's decision to avoid identifying ISIL as Islamic may be the responsible thing to do given the need to deprive those who might seek retribution against innocent Muslim Americans of a possible pretext for violence. Unfortunately, it turns out that that's not the president's motive after all. Mr. Obama revealed today that calling the terrorists Islamic is to confer upon them a legitimacy that they desire but don't have because they're actually a peversion of Islam.

This view was put starkly by the Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel on CNN's Outfront on which Stengel told the host Erin Burnett:
[T]he actions of ISIS, the actions of these people, are by definition not religious. There is no religion on face of the earth or in human history that condones the kind of reprehensible criminal actions that ISIS commits. I think that is the President's point. Do these men say they are doing it in the name of Islam? Yes. Is it a completely distorted and narrow and ancient view of Islam? Yes. But I would not say it [is] Islamic.
This is simply false. As I wrote the other day, ISIL is attempting in everything they do to emulate the example of their founder, Mohammad. To say that ISIL is not Islamic is to say that Mohammad was not Islamic.

Graeme Wood at The Atlantic has an outstanding piece on the history and nature of ISIL in which he makes this point emphatically. His essay should be required reading for everyone in the West, especially for those who share Mr. Obama's and Mr. Stengel's views. Wood's thoroughly researched piece is a little lengthy but certainly worth the time to study. Here's a relevant excerpt:
We are misled ..., by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature.... There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combated, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.
In other words, the atrocities perpetrated by ISIL are not un-Islamic at all. They are in keeping with Koranic law. The reason ISIL has no tolerance for modern Muslims is that they see them as sell-outs and heretics who have deviated from the pure law of the Prophet. To refuse to see this and acknowledge it, as so many in this administration seem determined to do, is to bury one's head in the sand.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf has been taking a lot of heat for her comments yesterday on MSNBC to the effect that the disaffected young men drawn to ISIS do so because they have no jobs. This was silly because it refuses to recognize the appeal that a pure Islam has for these young men whether they have jobs or not, but perhaps the prize for silliness goes to her assertion on the same network this morning where she went out of her way to mention, in what was actually a complete non-sequitur, that Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army in Liberia is a group of Christian terrorists and nobody's talking about them.

Aside from the fact that the LRA is pretty much out of business nowadays, having been degraded to a few isolated cells in remote parts of central Africa, there are two reasons why Ms Harf's remark is stunningly ill-considered. First, compared to ISIL the LRA is a bunch of boy scouts. Second, they are not Christian. Unlike ISIL, they've nothing in common with the teaching of the founder of the religion they claim to follow.

This administration is doing itself no favors by its enthrallment to progressive political correctness. All it's accomplishing is making itself look more and more foolish to a public that's mystified by the incoherence of what it says and what it refuses to say.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Why the Reluctance?

This doesn't happen often, I suppose, but I'm going to defend something President Obama has been doing that's beginning to irk people on both the left and the right. The president has been noticeably, glaringly, unwilling to refer to the various horrific and barbaric acts of terrorism being perpetrated by Muslims around the globe as acts being perpetrated by Muslims. He's been very reluctant, for instance, to refer to ISIL as Islamic and to conjoin the words Islam and terrorism. For this he has taken a great deal of criticism from those who believe that the first step in dealing with a problem is correctly identifying the problem.

I agree with this principle, and I understand the growing dissatisfaction with the president's reticence, but I can also think of a very good, even noble, reason why he does not specifically identify Muslim terrorists as Muslims. I don't know if this is his reason, but if it is, I think he's taking the correct rhetorical course.

If the president were to state plainly that Muslims are behind almost all of the terrorism in the world today, from Boko Haram in Africa, to al Qaeda in Yemen, to ISIL in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, to the various irruptions of savagery in Europe and the U.S., it would almost surely stoke the fires of resentment and anger that are already simmering in this country toward Muslims. An acknowledgement by the president that the menace is an Islamic phenomenon might well cause that simmering anger to explode in brutal reprisals by one group of Americans against another.

Given that risk, it'd be irresponsible for Mr. Obama, as the leader of the nation, to be explicit in his denunciations of those who commit these atrocities. It would be seen by some as a signal, a green light, to harass, beat, and even kill innocent American citizens. There's much for which Mr. Obama can be rightfully criticized in his handling of terror: His open borders, his release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, his refusal to arm the Kurds, his insufferable display of insensitivity on the days we learned of the death of the American woman hostage, Kayla Mueller, and the beheading of the 21 Egyptian Christians - mugging for selfies on the day Mueller's death was announced and taking to the golf course on the day the Copts were slaughtered. Indeed, the list of puzzlements to which this president has given rise is extensive.

But on the matter of his almost awkward avoidance of identifying these terrorists as Muslims as well as his reluctance to identify their victims as frequently being Jews and Christians, I think, at least for now, he's probably doing the right thing.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Ant and the Grasshopper

People who don't pay much attention to politics, and even some who do, are often confused about the difference between conservatives and liberals. If, for example, you poll folks on the question "who are the most staunch advocates of individual liberty, conservatives or liberals," many would reply that it's the liberal and would look at you incredulously if you told them they were mistaken. Yet, they would be mistaken all the same.

Perhaps one of the earliest illustrations of the difference between the two political views is a famous fable by Aesop titled The Ant and the Grasshopper. It goes like this:

The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The grasshopper thinks the ant is a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away. Come winter, the ant is warm and well fed. The grasshopper has no food or shelter, so he dies out in the cold.

The moral, of course, is that we should all work hard and be responsible for ourselves. That's the conservative view.

A more contemporary version of the venerable tale, however, goes something like this:

The ant works hard in the withering heat and rain all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The ant worked hard in school as well, earned an education, waited until he was married before having children, and remained faithful to his ant-wife. The grasshopper thinks the ant is a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away. The grasshopper couldn't care less about school, sleeps with whichever other grasshopper will have him, and lives life in a haze of drugs, alcohol, cheese curls and television reality shows.

Come winter, the shivering grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while he's cold, hungry and without health insurance. The major networks all show up to provide pictures of the shivering grasshopper next to a video of the ant snug in his comfortable home with a refrigerator filled with food. America is stunned by the sharp contrast. How can this be, that in a country of such wealth, this poor grasshopper is allowed to suffer so?

Labor unions and activist groups stage demonstrations in front of the ant's house where news stations film them loudly condemning the ant for his lack of compassion.

Progressive politicians publicly chastise the ant and blame his Republican sympathies for the grasshopper's plight. They exclaim on the Sunday morning talk shows that the ant has gotten rich off the back of the grasshopper, and they call for a tax hike on the ant to make him pay his fair share and "spread the wealth around."

No longer able to pay his employees or his mortgage because of the tax burdens that have been imposed on him, the ant has to sell both his business and his home which the government buys and gives to the grasshopper because a job and a home are human rights.

The story ends as we see the grasshopper and his friends, sleeping till noon, and then finishing up the last bits of the ant's food while the business fails and the house crumbles around them because the grasshopper doesn't maintain it.

The ant has dropped out of sight, never to be seen again. The grasshopper is eventually found dead in a drug-related incident, and the house, now abandoned, is taken over by a gang of spiders who terrorize the ramshackle, once prosperous and peaceful neighborhood.

The moral of the story, of course, is that we get what we vote for.

Progressives are determined to make the ants, which comprise about 25% of the population and which pays about 87% of the nation's income taxes, pull the wagon full of grasshoppers which make up about 50% of our nation and pay almost no income tax. On top of that the top 25% will now have to pay the health insurance costs for 30 million people (50 million if they pass amnesty for illegal aliens). Ants are strong. They can carry loads a hundred times their own weight, but they can't carry all those grasshoppers.

Not a few people labor under the misapprehension that conservatives are cold, heartless, stingy and lack compassion for the poor. This, too, is manifestly untrue. Indeed, studies have shown that conservatives give more to charity than do liberals. What conservatives do believe, though, is that until the grasshopper changes his grasshopper ways, no amount of charity will help him rise up out of his poverty.

The classic 1934 Walt Disney version of Aesop's fable does a nice job of depicting this truth:

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Does ISIS Represent Islam?

Noah Rothman at Hot Air, in the course of discussing a poll which found that 27% of Americans surveyed believe that ISIS represents Islam, disparages this opinion:
ISIS clearly does not represent Islam. Those who think it does are members of a minority, and that point of view does not withstand even modest scrutiny.
Well, maybe he's right, but I don't know how he can be so sure. Here's my problem. I've been involved in discussions with Muslims who insist that the radicals among them are heretics and that Islam does not condone the sorts of atrocities they commit. Very well, I reply, but what of the numerous Koranic passages which seem to suggest otherwise? All anyone who's interested need do is repair to Google and he or she will find examples that say things like:
  • 9:5 "... fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war) ..."
  • 9:14 "Fight them, and God will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame ..."
  • 9:29 "Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and his apostle nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth (even if they are) of the people of the Book, until they pay the Jizya [religious tax] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued."
  • 47:4 "Therefore, when ye meet the unbelievers, smite at their necks, at length when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them) ... but if it had been God's will, he could certainly have exacted retribution from them (himself), but (he lets you fight) in order to test you, some with others. But those who are slain in the way of God, he will never let their deeds be lost."
But these verses are being misinterpreted, my interlocutors protested. The best Muslim scholars assign such passages an interpretation that's different than the interpretation given them by the radicals. They then remind me, rightly, that Christian theologians disagree on how some of the more problematic passages in the Bible should be interpreted and that Christian doctrine has evolved over the centuries, just like Islamic doctrine.

At this point, not being a Koranic or Biblical scholar, I'm tempted to conclude that there's nothing left to say. Even so, it occurs to me that there's one thing more. It seems that one way to get at how these passages should be interpreted is to look at the founders of the two religions. Which of the competing interpretations of the problematic passages comports best with what we know of the lives of Jesus and Mohammad?

When we examine the life of Jesus we see nothing which would lead us to believe that he would ever condone violence. Indeed, we find quite the opposite. When we look at the life of Mohammad, however, we see some disturbing things, at least if the histories can be trusted. Among the most disturbing is his order to behead 700-900 Jewish men and boys who belonged to a tribe, Banu Qurayza, whose ruler Mohammad thought had betrayed him. In fact, reading some histories (see here, for example) of the life of Mohammad is pretty much like reading about ISIS today, including using captive women as sex slaves.

Or, put differently, ISIS has more in common with it's Islamic founding fathers than do moderate Muslims who practice peace and tolerance. It may be that peace-loving Muslims are in the majority today. One certainly hopes so, but they are living a life very much different than that of the founder they revere, at least according to the earliest biographies of Mohammad written by his own followers.

Perhaps, though, those critical biographies of Mohammad and histories of Islam are fraudulent. Perhaps Mohammad wasn't the cruel, rapacious tyrant those historians say he was (see the link above). I'm certainly not qualified to say, but there is an awful lot of scholarship, including Islamic scholarship, that says he was indeed all of that and worse, and more to the point, ISIS certainly believes he was. Whether that image of Mohammad is correct or not, that's the image they're emulating, and until it's clear that that's not who Mohammad was it's very difficult to say, as Rothman does, that ISIS does not represent Islam, at least as it was practiced by the man who founded it.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Random Ponderings

Here are a few questions I've pondered this week:
  • Why are so many women outraged when they hear that the Bible says that wives should submit to their husbands, but they're eager to pay money to watch a woman submit to the demands of a cool looking guy who happens to be a sexual pervert who subjects her to sado-masochistic sex in the movie Fifty Shades of Gray? And why are feminists not picketing what is essentially the mainstreaming and celebration of the objectification and degradation of women?

    How many feminists are, so far from being incensed by the release of this film, instead eager to watch it, and why are we not hearing fulminating condemnations of Hollywood from progressives for the film industry's escalation of the "war on women"?


  • Why does Wisconsin governor and possible presidential candidate Scott Walker get questions from the media about why he didn't finish college, as if that were a strike against his suitability to be president, but they were completely disinterested in how Barack Obama performed when he was in college? Are the journalists who attach so much importance to Walker's decision to leave college in his senior year to take a job (much like many college athletes do) as concerned about Joe Biden's record of plagiarism as an undergraduate? Were they as concerned about Ted Kennedy's cheating at Harvard or John Kerry's mediocre record at Yale? Why is it only Republicans whose college experience is deemed so crucial to their fitness for high political office?


  • Speaking of Scott Walker, why is he being asked his views on evolution, of all things? Why do his views on this subject matter? If they do matter has any Democrat been asked for his/her views on evolution? What are Hillary Clinton's views on the subject? Does anyone in the mainstream media even know what they're asking when they ask the question? Or, as Jonah Goldberg once put it:
    Why does the Left get to pick which issues are the benchmarks for “science”? Why can’t the measure of being pro-science be the question of heritability of intelligence? Or the existence of fetal pain? Or the distribution of cognitive abilities among the sexes [or races] at the extreme right tail of the bell curve? Or if that’s too upsetting, how about dividing the line between those who are pro- and anti-science along the lines of support for ... nuclear power? Or Yucca Mountain? Why not deride the idiots who oppose genetically modified crops, even when they might prevent blindness in children?
    Each of these has far more relevance to public policy than does one's view on evolution, but each of them is a position on which liberal Democrats would generally fall on the side of "anti-science" so the question will never be asked.

    The response any politician asked by a journalist for his/her views on evolution should be: "What do you mean by evolution?" That'll end this stupid interrogation since probably 99 out of 100 journalists who cover politics have no coherent idea what they mean by the word evolution in the first place.


  • Finally, why is the FBI investigating whether the tragic murders of three young Muslims in North Carolina was a hate crime [isn't every intentional homicide ipso facto motivated by hate?] even though the local police said the murders stemmed from a dispute over a parking space? Is this particular investigation prompted by the fact that the killer was white and the victims were Muslims?

    How many times have local police determined that a black on white (or Asian) crime of violence was not a hate crime, and no one, least of all the Department of Justice, questioned that judgment? It seems that the Holder Justice Department is only interested in hate crimes when the perpetrator is white and the victim is a racial or religious minority.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Winking at Lies

We come to learn lately that what Mr. Obama has been telling us for years about his position on gay marriage was simply not true. He was not telling us the truth when he told pastor Rick Warren that, “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian — for me — for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.”

Nor were we told the truth by his acolytes when they told us that he had "evolved" on the issue. The truth, it turns out, is that Mr. Obama believed all along that gays should be able to marry, but for political reasons he felt it best to lie about is beliefs. As his former advisor David Axlerod reveals in his new book, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, that, "There’s no doubt that his sympathies were on the side of allowing gay couples to marry. He also recognized that the country wasn’t there yet—that we needed to bring the country along.” In other words, political expediency justified the lie.

One shame of this is that so many on the political left see nothing wrong with lying for the cause. They didn't see anything wrong with lying about Obamacare, as Jonathan Gruber boasted. Nor did they see anything wrong with telling people, as Mr. Obama did on numerous occasions, that they'd be able to keep their health care plans and their doctors, and that the cost of their plans would be cheaper, even though they knew these claims were false. Nor did they see anything wrong with lying to the nation about the reason for the violence and deaths of Americans in Benghazi.

The list could go on, but why bother? Most people shrug their shoulders at the president's mendacity because lying has become an accepted part of our discourse. Integrity doesn't matter, character doesn't matter, what matters today for many is achieving one's goals and those who wish to see those goals realized will countenance whatever it takes to get there.

I watched a panel on MSNBC the other night discuss Mr. Obama's dissimulations on his position on Gay Marriage. Not once in the entire segment did anyone condemn the fact that the president of the United States deliberately misrepresented his position on this issue to the American people. No one on the panel, apparently, thought this was an important part of the story. Yet, as David Harsanyi at The Federalist observes, those who are unperturbed at Mr. Obama's contempt for the truth would be incensed were it their own ox that was being gored:
But imagine, if you can, a president whose position on abortion “evolves” after the election. Imagine this president advocating that all innocent human life is worth protecting. Imagine that she appoints judges to solidify her new pro-life attitude. And then imagine the president’s top advisor informs us that the president was a pro-lifer all along. I imagine that would be a pretty big story.
Indeed, it would. Those who adopt a pragmatic view of morality when it's liberals who are doing the lying, and when the lies are being told to promote a cause they favor, would be instantly transformed into moral absolutists were it a pro-lifer who had deceived them by posing as a pro-choicer.

The other day I put up a post on an interview with Michael Shermer, an atheist who argues that human survival and flourishing are the starting point for all moral valuations. If this truly is the starting point, if there really is no Divine moral authority, where does such a view lead? The answer, I suggest, is that it leads straight to the view that lying is morally right if it promotes the right political causes because these causes will surely result in greater "human flourishing." Yet if lying is deemed acceptable today something else, something even worse, will be accepted tomorrow. Perhaps those whose unpopular views on climate change or Darwinian evolution, views judged by those in power to be an obstacle to human flourishing, will find themselves forced to wear the equivalent of a yellow star.

A society so corrupt and perverse that it not only accepts lying from its leaders but actually applauds it will not long remain one that most people would want to live in.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Campus Speech

Public universities no longer police drinking on campus, they no longer even house men and women in separate dorms, and they certainly don't object to anyone on campus tossing around the old F-bomb, but don't call someone Mrs. or Mr. and don't use words like insane or crazy else you might be hauled before the campus inquisition and be lucky to emerge without having been stretched on the rack of political correctness.

The College Fix reports on the state of free speech at the University of Michigan:
Dozens of posters plastered across the University of Michigan caution students not to say things that might hurt others’ feelings, part of a new “Inclusive Language Campaign” at the state’s flagship public university that cost $16,000 to implement. Words declared unacceptable through the campaign include “crazy,” “insane,” “retarded,” “gay,” “tranny,” “gypped,” “illegal alien,” “fag,” “ghetto” and “raghead.” Phrases such as “I want to die” and “that test raped me” are also verboten.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald told The College Fix in an email the campaign aims to “address campus climate by helping individuals understand that their words can impact someone and to encourage individuals to commit to creating a positive campus community.” Students have been asked to sign a pledge to “use inclusive language” and to help their peers “understand the importance of using inclusive language,” according to campaign materials.

Though only in existence for one semester, the Inclusive Language Campaign has maintained a strong presence throughout the university. Students roaming the campus frequently encounter posters of all sizes reminding them: “YOUR WORDS MATTER,” and asking questions such as: “If you knew that I grew up in poverty, would you still call things ‘ghetto’ and ‘ratchet’?”
I'm not sure why a person raised in poverty would object to the word "ghetto," but then I admit to being pretty much out of the loop on these matters. I mean, I have no idea what "ratchet" even refers to other than a kind of wrench.

Anyway,
Junior Kidada Malloy, who helps promote the program on campus, told the Michigan Daily the campaign “is a great program because it will improve the day-to-day language of students on campus by providing education around words that are offensive.”

Students living in university housing are urged to take part in a Change It Up! workshop, which “brings bystander intervention skills to first-year housing residents for the purpose of building safe, inclusive, and respectful communities.” Before and after completing these workshops, students fill out surveys in which they reflect on internal biases that may pose a threat to an “inclusive campus.”
When I read this I thought maybe Kidada was putting us on. The paragraph (as well as the rationale at the link for purging the particular words the students are aggrieved by) sounds so much like a parody of liberal muddle-headedness I thought it was really a piece from The Onion, but no:
As the Inclusive Language Campaign has enlarged its influence on campus through various kick-off events, interactive programming and provoking visuals, some students have called into question how it reconciles with the university’s policy on free speech, which “encourages open and vigorous discussion and strives to maintain an environment where the free exchange of ideas and opinions can flourish.” Asked if the campaign stifles free speech, Fitzgerald said “we believe this program has just the opposite effect. We believe it will make discourse more constructive by respecting the views and perspectives of others,” he said. “A campus conversation about the impact of words is good for everyone.”
Yes, and as Orwell put it, war is peace, love is hate, and freedom is slavery.

Actually, I have no objection to students working together to elevate the level of speech on campus, in fact I think it's a good thing. But I find it curious that the list of words to be eschewed are mostly words that only a liberal or someone who is hypersensitive (which may be the same thing) would find offensive. Why is there no effort to get students to eliminate from their public discourse words traditionally considered vulgar, scatalogical, or obscene? After all, they're certainly offensive to most people of good breeding. And why omit words that are employed as racial epithets or words like "fatso" and "obese" that demean the morphological extremists on campus or words like "skinny" which is certainly hurtful to those who are skinny? And what about words that hurt the feelings of conservative students, words like "reactionary", "right-winger," and "white privilege"? Perhaps the liberal students who put this list together simply don't know how devastating it can be to a young man or woman's self-esteem to be called a reactionary. Many is the adult who still bears the scars of the trauma such words inflicted on him or her while in their college years. In fact, it just occurred to me that it may be hurtful to liberal students to be called "liberals" since many liberal politicians flee from the label as though it were the herpes virus when the media identifies them as such.

At any rate, the point is that there are a lot more words that could, and should, be banned, and I don't think the U of M students are really thinking this project through. They need to get to work and expand their list to include all the words that anyone anywhere might find offensive. Of course, if they succeed the English lexicon will probably be pared down to about fifty words, none of which will be adjectives.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Good Without God Pt. II

Writer and philosopher Sam Harris interviewed his fellow naturalist Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, about Shermer's book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.

Shermer made a couple of statements in the interview that I thought tied in well with the recent post on Viewpoint titled Good Without God? Here are some excerpts. Shermer states:
The criterion I use [for moral judgment]...is “the survival and flourishing of sentient beings.” By survival I mean the instinct to live, and by flourishing I mean having adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding, and social relations for physical and mental health. I am trying to make an evolutionary/biological case for starting here by arguing that any organism subject to natural selection—which includes all organisms on this planet and most likely on any other planet as well—will by necessity have this drive to survive and flourish. If it didn’t, it would not live long enough to reproduce and would therefore not be subject to natural selection.

By sentient I mean emotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, conscious, and therefore able to feel and to suffer. Here I’m following the argument made by Jeremy Bentham with regard to animals: It isn’t their intelligence, language, tool use, or reasoning power that should elicit our moral concerns, but their capacity to feel and suffer.

In this sense, my argument is one for natural rights. I know that Bentham called “rights” nonsense and “natural rights” nonsense on stilts, but he came before Darwin and all the rights revolutions.
There are several points to be made in reply to this. First, it's very difficult to espy the difference that Darwin's theory would make for Bentham's observation. Indeed, on naturalism, Bentham is surely correct. How can an impersonal process like evolution confer rights on individuals? The notion of human rights, given the truth of naturalism, is simply a comfortable fiction we live by. It doesn't refer to anything in the real world. Natural rights can only exist if they're conferred by a transcendent person who possesses the authority to confer them and the power to enforce them.

Thomas Jefferson, following John Locke, wrote in the Declaration of Independence that our rights derive from our Creator. These we possess by virtue of the fact that we are created in his image and loved by him. Take this away and all talk of natural rights is, as Bentham aptly put it, "nonsense on stilts."

Shermer continues:
By extension, I then make the case that social problems such as homicide and violence ought to be—and in fact are—treated as public health issues. Over the centuries the rates of violence in general and homicide in particular have plummeted, primarily as a result of better governance, better policing, and numerous other social policies grounded in reasoned arguments and empirical data. If you agree that millions of lives have been saved over the past couple of centuries by a reduction in violence due to improved technologies and policies, then you might well concur that applying the methods of the social sciences to solving problems such as crime and violence is also something we ought to do.

Why? Because saving lives is moral. Why is saving lives moral? Because the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is our moral starting point.
Several more questions assert themselves here. Such a starting point seems arbitrary. Given his Darwinian presuppositions it's strange that he wouldn't say that in fact it's only his survival and flourishing, the survival and flourishing of the individual, which is the moral starting point. Indeed, elsewhere in the interview he makes it very plain that he believes that it is the individual, not the species, which is the relevant focus of evolutionary pressures.

Shermer takes as an axiom that we should care about others, but this is the very point at which all naturalistic ethics falters because it can't give us a reason why it would be wrong to care only for oneself. Why would it be wrong, on Shermer's view, to not care about others except insofar as their welfare benefits oneself? And if their welfare doesn't benefit oneself why is it wrong simply to ignore them, or even, as many try to do today to those whose existence they find inconvenient, kill them?

Shermer would doubtless be aghast at such a question, but I doubt he could give a convincing answer to it. As naturalistic philosopher Richard Rorty once said, "The secular man has no answer to the question, 'Why not be cruel?' "

Here's another question for Shermer. On atheism, what does it mean to say that an act is "wrong"? If there's nothing or no one to hold us accountable and no non-arbitrary standard of behavior, what does it mean to say that a behavior is wrong to do? If a dictator has the power to enslave, torture, and kill his subjects with impunity what makes his deeds wrong? It can't just be that his subjects don't like what he does. Why should he care what they like? Nor can it be that the dictator is wrong because he's violating the Golden Rule. Who or what obligates him to follow the Golden Rule? Who or what enforces it? As naturalistic biologist Richard Dawkins once pondered, "What's to prevent us from saying that Hitler wasn't actually wrong? That's a genuinely perplexing question."

Shermer tacitly admits that there's no good answer to this question when he says further along in the interview that,
[M]ost people act in what they consider to be moral ways, so when we can clearly see (and measure) that they are in fact behaving in ways that lead to the suffering or death of sentient beings, it is probably more accurate to say that they are mistaken in their beliefs than that they are simply immoral or evil. And the solution is not so much that we need to make them more moral as it is that we need to correct their mistaken beliefs. Science and reason are the best tools we have for doing just that, so ultimately moral progress comes about from generating better ideas rather than better morality.
In other words, according to Shermer, our hypothetical dictator suffers from an epistemic deficiency, not a moral deficiency. His crimes are really not wrong in a moral sense, they're not evil, they're only wrong in the same way that saying 2 + 2 = 5 is wrong. I can't think of a way to more effectively trivialize what human beings have done to each other throughout history than to say that the perpetrators of great misery simply had mistaken beliefs and needed more science. But science is silent about moral value. Science can tell us what is, but it cannot, despite Shermer's protestations to the contrary, tell us what ought to be. As Physicist Steven Weinberg put it,
The worldview of science is rather chilling, Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature.... We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.
Shermer himself seems to intuit this. He starts out the interview using moral language and winds up denying, as we saw above, that there really is any immorality or moral evil.

This is precisely where naturalism leads. Apart from a transcendent moral authority there can be no objective moral duties. To quote Dawkins again, "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

Monday, February 9, 2015

Afghanistan Was a Success!

Who would have thought it?

From Strategy Page:
While most Americans and the mass media worldwide have declared the 13 year U.S./NATO effort in Afghanistan a failure, most Afghans disagree. Although over 100,000 died during those 13 years nearly half the deaths in the 13 year war were Taliban, other Islamic terrorists and their drug gang allies. Another 30 percent of the dead were civilians, usually the targets of Taliban or gang intimidation. The Afghan security forces (mostly the police, plus the army) suffered 18 percent of the deaths. A little over three percent of the deaths were foreign troops, who gave the government forces an edge in firepower, support, intel and tactical leadership. The death toll since 2001 is a lot less than the millions who died during the decade of fighting the Russians and less than suffered during the 1990s when Afghans fought each other.

Most Afghans are well aware that in many ways their lives are much better since the Americans arrived. GDP has grown continuously since 2001 with average family income increasing noticeably each year. In early 2001 only a million children were in school, all of them boys. Now there are eight million in school, and 40 percent are girls. Back then there were only 10,000 phones in the country, all very expensive land lines in cities. Now there are 17 million inexpensive cell phones with access even in remote rural areas. Back then less than ten percent of the population had access to any health care, now 85 percent do and life expectancy has risen from 47 years (the lowest in Eurasia) to 62 (leaving Bangladesh to occupy last place in Eurasia). This is apparently the highest life expectancy has ever been in Afghanistan and the UN noted it was the highest one decade increase ever recorded. Afghans have noticed this even if the rest of the world has not.

Opinion polls show 60 percent of Afghans believe the country is going in the right direction and 90 percent respect the army (and 70 percent the police). Only ten percent respect the Taliban, despite foreign media predicting that the Taliban will soon regain control of the country. Afghans scoff at that, if only because most would rather die fighting rather than submit to Taliban rule again. Foreigners tend to forget that angle, but the Afghans don’t. While many Afghans are saving to pay a smuggler to get them to the West (where they can make a lot more money and live even longer) most are staying and see better prospects than have existed for decades.
What other country in history has done more good for more people than has the United States? It's a remarkable record. Since WWII we have rebuilt Europe and helped our erstwhile enemies in Germany and Japan develop strong, relatively free economies and polities. We also helped Israel and South Korea do likewise. In addition, we've rendered valuable economic and humanitarian aid to Africa, Egypt, Haiti and those nations devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami. Our assistance has been a factor in India's emergence as an economic power. What we've done for Afghanistan, Jordan, and Iraq, though tenuous in the case of Iraq, is nonetheless a marvel. Despite all our flaws, which our president seems fixated on reminding us of and apologizing for, the United States is still the greatest blessing the world has ever had.

If that grates on the ears of progressives who prefer to focus on our national sins, I challenge them to name another nation which has done half as much. And if this sounds like unsophisticated chauvinistic boosterism to those same progressives, well, I urge them not to insist on holding their collective breath waiting for an apology.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

High Horses

So much has been written about Mr. Obama's admonition to Christians at the Washington Prayer Breakfast against mounting their "high horse" (I've always wondered what, exactly, that expression was supposed to mean) and waxing judgmental of the Islamists who are beheading, immolating, and burying people alive in Syria and Iraq, that there's not much I can contribute to the conversation. Even so, there is one thing.

Mr. Obama's quote was this:
"And lest we get on our high horse and think this [Islamist atrocities] is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
The president has been roundly, rightly, and humorously criticized for both botching his history and for having resorted to historical events of a thousand years ago as if they had happened just last week to make the point that we should be reluctant to express our moral horror at these barbarians (or even call them barbarians, for that matter) because we're bad people, too. Or something like that.

My biggest problem with what Mr. Obama said, though, was that I think it's not a little hypocritical. I doubt, for instance, that he would have issued a similar lecture to those who condemned the evil of South African apartheid. I can't imagine him wagging his finger at those who were morally outraged at the injustice of apartheid, telling them to get off their high horse and remember that America once enslaved blacks and enforced Jim Crow. Nor can I imagine him rebuking those who sit on their "high horse" reproaching the Nazis for the holocaust by reminding them that Americans did some bad things to the American Indians.

I doubt he'd censure those people, not because Mr. Obama doesn't think apartheid and the holocaust were great evils, but because their evil is so great that to refrain from condemning them as cruel and barbaric because of things that happened in this country centuries ago would be just silly. It'd be an instance of taking moral equivalence to such an extreme that it becomes moral paralysis. It'd be a bit like lecturing a Native American that before he criticizes the use of enhanced interrogation techniques against terrorists (if he's inclined so to do) he should remember that Indians slaughtered and scalped a lot of settlers in the 18th century.

I can't imagine Mr. Obama saying such a thing, so I wonder why he felt it necessary to reach back a thousand years to find a justification for admonishing Christians not to criticize the Islamic terrorists for the horrors they're committing today. Either he believes that the sins committed in the name of Christ centuries ago are as relevant today as are the quotidian atrocities being practiced by ISIL in the Levant, or he's just very afraid to say anything that would suggest that there's something unique about Islam that induces its votaries to perpetrate particularly hideous evils. I suspect it's the latter.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Truth and Credibility

Want to know why it's so hard to trust the media? Read the story of Brian Williams, NBC News evening anchor, and considered by many to be the most upright guy on television news.

The quick version is that Williams confessed to fabricating a tale about how a helicopter in which he was riding in Iraq took fire from enemy ground forces during the Iraq war. He had recounted this concoction a number of times in the twelve years since he went to Iraq to report on the war for NBC. It turns out, though, that it wasn't true, and it's almost impossible to believe, given the manner in which he has repeated it over the years, that he wasn't deliberately prevaricating.

Williams joins a long list of journalists and politicians who have told stories about war-time experiences (Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) or about political foes (former CBS newsman Dan Rather) that were subsequently shown to be blatantly false. The question is, why do they do it?

A partial answer, perhaps, is that lying is no longer considered morally wrong. Our post-modern culture has abandoned the notion of objective truth, and embraced the concept that whatever narrative you can tell about yourself that you can get others to believe becomes your truth. It's true for you because you want it to be true, even if there's not a shred of objective fact in the story.

There is, too, the post-modern concept of moral right and wrong according to which whatever works to help you achieve your goals is right. If lying works then lying is justified.

Thus, Dan Rather insisted that George Bush had been AWOL during the Vietnam war and when the evidence he was found to be relying upon was shown to be a forgery he bizarrely declared that the story was "fake but accurate." He meant by this that even though the evidence was phony it still pointed to the larger truth that Bush was a shirker, an allegation for which there was no evidence but which Rather desperately wanted the public to accept.

The same notion of truth as a purely subjective preference was in play in the recent University of Virginia rape case. The story, run by Rolling Stone, was found to be completely unsubstantiated, but feminists still said that that didn't matter because it reinforced a narrative about campus rape that those feminists wanted the general public to accept. So, if the charges of rape were "fake," so what? They were still "accurate" even if the alleged perpetrator had his life ruined by them.

Hillary Clinton has claimed several times that during the Bosnian war a plane she was on had to take evasive action to avoid sniper fire as the pilot tried to land at a Bosnian airport, and that the ceremony at the airport had to be cancelled as they ran to their cars with their heads down. Her fable unraveled when video of her being greeted on the tarmac by children bearing poems emerged.

There are perhaps a near infinite number of other examples we could cite, including the numerous claims by Barack Obama that under the Affordable Care Act we'd be able to keep our doctors, keep our insurance, and that our insurance would get cheaper. None of this is true, and one has to be extraordinarily gullible to think that he didn't know the claims weren't true when he uttered them. Just as one has to extraordinarily gullible to believe that the White House didn't know that the narrative they foisted on the nation about the cause of the Benghazi embassy attacks (an obscure anti-Islam video) was false.

Sadly, perhaps tragically, we no longer place a premium on truth, and people don't seem to mind being lied to by their leaders and peers. It's no longer considered a big deal. Indeed, we seem to expect it. Senator Blumenthal told a whopper of a tale about his service in Vietnam until it was discovered that he never set foot in the country. The people of Connecticut shrugged and elected him to the U.S. Senate in 2010.

If the only thing wrong with lying is getting caught we can assume that we're going to be lied to an awful lot by the people who are convinced that their ends justify whatever means they must employ to achieve them. We can also assume that those who wish to somehow burnish their reputations by claiming to have survived experiences they never had will also proliferate. Brian Williams isn't the first, and he surely won't be the last.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Proof of Evolution

When pious people pray and what they pray for comes to pass they sometimes cite this happy circumstance as proof that God exists and answers prayer. If what they pray for doesn't happen they still sometimes insist that God exists and answers prayer but that his answer in this case was "no."

Skeptics scoff at this. They argue, understandably, that you can't use the conjunction of a prayer and the realization of the hoped for outcome as confirmation of God's existence if you refuse to accept the conjunction of prayer and the failure to realize the hoped for outcome as a disconfirmation of God's existence.

This imperviousness to falsifiability, we're told, is what makes religion inferior to science as a means of discovering the truth about things. Science does not permit the sorts of evasions illustrated by the above example. Unless, that is, the scientific topic is evolution. When evolution is at issue science often becomes indistinguishable from religion.

Consider a recent story in the Washington Post about a study of bacteria found off the coast of Australia:
Far beneath the ocean’s surface, buried in a layer of murky sludge, communities of ancient bacteria have existed virtually unchanged for nearly half of Earth’s history. In what researchers call the “greatest absence of evolution ever reported,” these deep-sea creatures have taken a pass on the chaos of biological progress for the past 2.3 billion years.

A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said these communities offer evidence of “extreme evolutionary stasis” — a total lack of evolution in response to a lack of change in the surrounding environment. Populated by sulfur-cycling bacteria that derive energy from processing dissolved sulfate in the surrounding water, the communities were found in nearly identical forms at two distinct points in the fossil record and still exist today.

“The microbes we see in the fossils are almost identical to what we see in the ocean now,” study co-author Malcolm Walter, a professor of astrobiology at the University of New South Wales, told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “They have similar shapes and are doing similar chemistry.”

But the fact these particular organisms successfully avoided evolving for billions of years doesn’t disprove the theory of evolution — quite the opposite.

Darwin’s theory states that species evolve through natural selection in response to environmental changes — increased threats from predators, new competition from other animals, changes in access to water or air. But the inverse is also true: If there is no change in the environment of a balanced ecosystem, the organisms that constitute it should remain similarly unchanged — a principle dubbed evolution’s “null hypothesis.”
But how do the study's authors know that the ocean environment has been stable for billions of years? How do they know there haven't been subtle physical and chemical changes in the habitat of these bacterial organisms? After all, other creatures in the same marine environment have apparently evolved. It seems that we're being told that we can know the environment has been stable because the bacteria haven't changed and the bacteria haven't changed because their environment has been stable.

This not only has about it a whiff of circularity, it also happens not to be true that evolution only responds to changes in the environment. Evolution, according to theory, can occur whether the environment changes or not, purely through genetic drift.

Anyway, the article goes on:
“These microorganisms are well-adapted to their simple, very stable physical and biological environment,” the study’s lead author, University of California at Los Angeles professor William Schopf, said in a university press release. “If they were in an environment that did not change but they nevertheless evolved, that would have shown that our understanding of Darwinian evolution was seriously flawed.”
So, If organisms change over time that's strong evidence of evolution, and if they don't change at all throughout the entire history of life on earth, well, that's also evidence for evolution. This sounds a bit like a religious person insisting that if he gets what he prays for that's evidence that God exists, and if he doesn't get what he prays for that's also evidence that God exists.

Who says scientists aren't religious?