Thursday, April 30, 2015

Peacock Spider

The video below shows the courtship dance (set to music) of an Australian species of spider, which for reasons which will become obvious, is called the Peacock spider. There are a couple of things about this which are amazing. One, of course, is the pattern of the spider's abdomen which looks like it was painted to look like a witch-doctor's mask. The other is the astonishing dance this arthropod, with a brain the size of a pinhead, performs.

Take a look:
The standard model in biology has it that DNA codes for proteins which in turn build tissues and enzymes. Thus, inheritance of physical structure seems explicable in terms of DNA. What's inexplicable is the inheritance of behavior. How do proteins synthesized by DNA produce a species-specific behavior, and how does behavior get transmitted from generation to generation? If there's an answer to these questions I've never come across it. Maybe someone with a deeper understanding of biology than I have can write in and explain it to me.

Meanwhile, I marvel at the behavior found throughout the animal kingdom that's somehow programmed into organisms - from the mass migrations of monarch butterflies, to the waggle dance of bees, to insect metamorphosis, to the nest parasitism of cowbirds, to the border collies' instinctive knowledge of how to herd sheep. How did these behaviors originate and how are they transmitted down the generations? And how can so many purposeful behaviors, which must number in the billions when every species of organism is inventoried, be produced by blind, purposeless serendipity? I suspect there's a Nobel Prize waiting for whoever answers this question.

There's more on the Peacock Spider at Evolution News and Views.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Euthyphro's Dilemma (Pt. III)

Yesterday we took a look at the challenge posed by the Euthyphro Dilemma to those who believe that God's existence is a necessary condition for any meaningful, non-subjective, non-arbitrary ethics. We began by considering the second horn of Plato's famous dilemma which we stated this way:
Is an act morally good because God commands it or does God command it because it is good?
In this post I'd like to reflect on the first of the dilemma's two horns: Is good simply whatever God commands such that cruelty or hatred would be good if God commanded it? If so, it seems that good is just the arbitrary choice of the deity which strikes most people as an unacceptable option.

The problem with this part of the dilemma, though, is that if we stipulate that God is omnibenevolent, and that "good" is that which conduces to human happiness, then the suggestion that God could command cruelty or hatred is an incoherent act description. Here's why:

The question of God commanding cruelty presupposes a state of affairs in which a perfectly good being, i.e. one whose essence it is to always do that which ultimately conduces to human well-being and happiness, nevertheless commands us to do something which produces gratuitous suffering and pain. There appears to be a logical conflict in that.

In other words, if goodness is as we've defined it, and if God is perfectly good, then it's logically impossible for cruelty to be part of his nature or for him to command cruelty or anything else which would conflict with ultimate human well-being and happiness. It would require of God that he issue a command that is opposed to his own nature. It'd be like asking whether there is something which a being who knows everything nevertheless doesn't know.

So, the proper answer to the question of whether God commands us to love because love is good or whether love is good because God commands it, seems to me to be: "neither." God commands us to love because it is his desire to have the world conformed to his own essential nature which is love.

If what's been said in this and the previous post is correct then the Euthyphro Dilemma fails as an objection to the moral argument outlined in the first post in this series. It certainly doesn't succeed in putting the theist in the kind of bind some have thought it does.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Euthyphro's Dilemma (Pt. II)

Many philosophy students find themselves confronted with the Euthyphro dilemma, a problem often posed to convince them that God's existence is superfluous for our moral lives. The dilemma gets its name from the fact that it first appears in Plato's dialogue titled The Euthyphro and has popped up frequently in the philosophical literature ever since.

I'd like to share some thoughts on it over the course of the next two posts with the caveat that much of what I say is not original with me and that whatever might be original I offer with the humble recognition that it could well be nonsense.

With that caution in mind let's look at the dilemma. It's often put in the form of the following question:
Is something - love, for instance - morally good because God commands it or does God command it because it is good?
The question seeks to offer theists, at least those who hold to a divine command theory of ethics, two unpalatable choices. If the theist chooses the first option then presumably had God commanded us to be cruel, cruelty would be morally good, a state of affairs which seems at the very least counterintuitive.

If the second alternative is chosen then good seems to be independent of God, existing apart from God, and rendering God unnecessary for the existence of good or "right."

I think, though, that the choices with which the dilemma confronts us are unable to carry the weight placed upon their shoulders. To see why let's start with a definition for "moral good." Let's stipulate that moral good is that which conduces to human happiness and well-being.

It may be argued that we don't need God to know what conduces to human well-being and thus we can know what is good without having to believe in God. This may be true, but it misses the point in at least two ways.

First, our problem is not with recognizing good so much as it is with explaining why God is still necessary for good to exist. Just because we can recognize good without believing in God doesn't mean that God is not necessary for anything to be good. What is good is contingent upon the kind of beings we are, and the way we are is contingent upon God. We have the nature we do because God created us this way. Thus, what conduces to our well-being is a function of God's design. We can no more say that God is irrelevant to our well-being than we could say that just because we know that clean oil is conducive to our car's well-being that therefore the engineers who designed the car are irrelevant to our knowing that we should change the oil periodically. Oil is "good" for the car because that's how the engineers designed the car.

Secondly, even if belief in God is not necessary for one to know or recognize what conduces to well-being it is nevertheless necessary that there be a God, or something like God, in order for us to think we have a non-arbitrary duty to care about the well-being of others. If there is no God there is no moral obligation to concern ourselves with the good of others or to do anything else, for that matter. We may want to help others flourish, of course, but the belief that we should is completely arbitrary. If we didn't care about others, or if we acted against the good of others, we wouldn't be wrong in any meaningful sense.

Just because something is good for others doesn't mean we have a duty to do it, at least not unless we're assuming that we're obligated always to do what conduces to other people's happiness and well-being. But why should we assume such a thing? Where does this obligation come from? Purposeless, mindless natural processes and forces cannot impose moral duties upon us, so why should I not just promote my own well-being and let others fend for themselves? If God is off the table there's no real answer to these questions.

Thus, God's existence is crucial, not so that we can recognize good, perhaps, but rather as a ground for both the existence of good and for whatever duty we have to do good to others.

So, let's return to the dilemma. Consider again the second horn. Does God command love because love is good? Is the good of love independent of God? Does it exist apart from God?

I don't think so. Goodness is an essential element of God's being. Goodness is no more separable from God than the property of having just three angles is separable from triangles. Goodness is ontologically dependent upon God's existence much as sunlight is ontologically dependent upon the sun. If there were no sun, sunlight would not exist. If there were no God then moral goodness as a quality of our actions would not exist. Actions which lead to human well-being would have no moral value any more than a cat nursing her young has moral value even though her act conduces to their well-being. We would not consider the cat evil if it refused to nurse its young, nor, if there is no God, would we be able to judge a man objectively evil if he practiced cruelty.

God commands love because he has made us to be the sort of beings which flourish, generally, when nurtured in love, and he has made us this way because it is his essential nature to be loving. Love is not one thing and God another. God is love.

But what of the first horn of the dilemma? What if instead of God being love, suppose he were hateful and cruel? Would hatred and cruelty then be good? We'll consider those questions next time.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Euthyphro's Dilemma (Pt. I)

One family of arguments among the dozen or so which, taken together, make a strong case for the claim that theism is a better explanation for our experience of the world than is naturalism or, alternatively, that it's more probable that theism is true than that naturalism is true, are the arguments lumped under the heading of The Moral Argument. One version of this argument goes like this:

1. If there is no God then there are no objective moral duties.
2. There are objective moral duties.
3. Therefore, there is a God.

In this argument God is taken to be a transcendent, perfectly good moral authority who is able to hold us accountable. The argument is not a proof since when faced with it the skeptic has a couple of options:

A. He can reject the first premise and argue that even though there's no God there could still be objective moral duties.
B. He could accept the first premise but deny the second premise and thus embrace ethical subjectivism or nihilism.

Of course, if he accepts both premises he's logically bound to accept the conclusion.

The problem is that, as I argue in my novel In the Absence of God (see link at upper right of this page), either option he selects to avoid having to accept the conclusion creates difficulties. If he chooses A then it's incumbent upon him to show where objective moral duties could come from if not from a divine law-giver. Neither society at large nor the cosmos itself is a suitable source of moral value, and any moral duties the skeptic embraces are arbitrary choices.

If he therefore chooses B and embraces some form of subjectivism he has to recognize that his moral choices are simply an arbitrary preference or taste and that he must forfeit the ability to make judgments of anyone else's behavior which are also based on their own preferences which are no more right nor wrong than his are.

This suspension of moral judgment may sound good to someone of a post-modern inclination, but only until one gets down to cases. If our moral duties are all subjectively imposed we can't say that a child molester or rapist, or even the torture of children is "wrong." The most we can say is that these things certainly seem wrong to us, but if they don't seem wrong to the person doing them then in what sense are they really wrong? The idea that these things are not really wrong for the person doing them is extremely difficult to live with consistently. The subjectivist option leads at best to moral egoism, i.e. the view that the right thing for me to do is whatever increases my pleasure and contentment in life, and at worst to moral nihilism, i.e. the view that nothing is really right or wrong in a moral sense.

But, the skeptic will reply, relying on God creates problems for the theist as well. One famous attempt to show that the theist is in no better position than is the skeptic with regard to a foundation for morality first appeared in one of Plato's dialogues (The Euthyphro) in which Plato has Socrates pose the following question to an interlocutor named Euthyphro: "Is something morally good because God commands it or does God command it because it is good?" This is called the Euthyphro Dilemma because it seeks to confront the advocate of the moral argument with two unpalatable choices between which he must choose.

If the theist chooses the first option, that good is whatever God commands, then presumably had God commanded us to be cruel, cruelty would be morally good, a state of affairs which seems to be at the very least counterintuitive.

If the second alternative is chosen, that God commands us to do what is good, then good seems to be independent of God, existing apart from God, and rendering God unnecessary for the existence of good or "right."

Over the next couple of days I'd like to explain why I think the The Euthyphro Dilemma, for all it's popularity, doesn't do the work that some skeptics think it does. More tomorrow.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Testing Worldviews

One of the tests of any worldview is whether one can live consistently with it. On this test the worldview called naturalism, i.e. the view that nature is all there is, fails since many if not most naturalists find that they have to give up some things that are very difficult if not impossible to give up. Among the things for which there is no room in a naturalist ontology are the following:

1. ultimate meaning in life
2. free will
3. objective moral right or wrong
4. intrinsic value of human beings
5. mind/consciousness
6. an adequate ground for beauty, love and truth

On the other hand, not only do each of these fit comfortably in a classical Christian worldview, it could be argued that they're actually entailed by that view. The logic of naturalism, however, compels one to regard them all as illusions, but few naturalists can live consistently with that. They find themselves constantly acting as if their lives do have meaning, as if there really are objective moral rights and wrongs, as if they do have free will.

They can only deny the reality of these things at the theoretical level, but in the way they live their everyday lives they affirm their reality over and over again. They find themselves forced, in a sense, to become poachers, helping themselves to meaning, morality, free will and the rest from the storehouse of 2000 years of Christian heritage, because their own worldview has no room for them.

But when one has to poach from competing visions of reality in order to make life bearable one is tacitly sacrificing any claim to holding to a rational, coherent worldview. To be consistent a naturalist should be a nihilist and accept the emptiness that that entails, yet even though some naturalists see that, few bring themselves to accept it. For those who do, the loss of the aforementioned crucial existential human needs is more than compensated for, in their minds, by the liberation from God that naturalism requires, but this is a liberation from the only adequate ground for those needs.

For many others, though, who wish for that same liberation, either the consequences don't occur to them, or if they do, they're often simply ignored as though they don't exist. Naturalists are free to do this, of course, but they're not free to declare their worldview rational if they do.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The (Latest) Clinton Scandal

Ever since the Clintons burst onto the national stage in the 1990s the odor of scandal has hung heavily in their wake. Whitewater, the Rose Law Firm records, the Lincoln bedroom, Monica Lewinsky, Benghazi, deleted official emails, and now apparent influence-peddling during Mrs. Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State. More conspiracy-minded folk might also mention the strange run of mysterious deaths associated with the Clintons (Vince Foster, Ron Brown, et al). The Clintons are either the most corrupt political couple since the Macbeths reigned in Scotland or they are the unluckiest - although how unlucky can they be when their net worth is in the hundreds of millions and no one knows how they could have (legitimately) amassed such a fortune.

Anyway, for those who catch their news on the fly The Blaze helpfully lists six important things to keep in mind about the latest putridity to surround the Clintons. Here's a summary of The Blaze's summary:

1) The Clintons Failed to Report Millions of Dollars in Contributions From a Uranium Company Linked to Russia
The New York Times reported early Thursday morning that while Clinton was secretary of state, a Russian energy company called Rosatom was working to take over a Canadian company, Uranium One, that had stakes to uranium around the world, including some in America. Uranium One’s chairman used his family foundation to make four donations to the Clinton Foundation totaling $2.35 million, which, despite Mrs. Clinton's promise to the Obama White House to disclose any such income, she never reported. Additionally, Bill Clinton was then paid $500,000 for a speech in Moscow, which was paid by “a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock.”

2) The State Department Helped Approve the Sale of Uranium One When It was Led by Clinton
According to the Wall Street Journal, the State Department plays a role on the government committee that examines whether the sale of a company to a foreign company has an impact on U.S. national security. That committee approved the sale of Uranium One to Rosatom in 2010, when Clinton was Secretary of State.

3) Clinton’s Camp Is Denying Any Wrongdoing
While the uranium deal looks like Rosatom gave money to the Clintons in exchange for allowing the sale of Uranium One, Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Clinton, said no one has produced “a shred of evidence” that this is the case.

4) The Clinton Foundation Is Redoing Its Tax Returns
Reuters reported Thursday For example, the foundation had said that from 2010 to 2012, it received no funds at all from any government. But those claims were “errors.” that based on its own review of the Clinton Foundation, several tax errors are apparent, that that news is forcing the foundation to refile “at least five annual tax returns.” “[S]everal foreign governments continued to give tens of millions of dollars toward the foundation’s work on climate change and economic development through this three-year period,” Reuters wrote. A spokesman for the foundation told Reuters that they were “prioritizing an external review” of its tax forms, and said it’s possible returns from the last 15 years might have to be corrected. The Clinton Health Access Initiative is also refiling tax returns from 2012 and 2012 after finding “typographical errors.”

5) Companies Lobbying State Department While They Donate to the Clinton Foundation
These facts are in addition to ongoing reports that dozens of companies were lobbying the State Department for various reasons while Clinton was in office, and were giving money to the Clinton Foundation at the same time. The Wall Street Journal reported that “at least 60 companies” were doing this, and gave the foundation “more than $26 million.”

6) Companies Paying Speaking Fees to the Clintons While They Donate to the Clinton Foundation
According to the Washington Post, Bill Clinton was paid $26 million in speaking fees by companies that were also donating to the Clinton Foundation. “The amount, about one-quarter of Clinton’s overall speaking income between 2001 and 2013, demonstrates how closely intertwined Bill and Hillary Clinton’s charitable work has become with their growing personal wealth,” it said.

We might add to this that only 15% of the Foundation's income went to charity (most legitimate charities have a "pass through" rate of over 90%), 25% went to "expenses," and 60% went to "other." To borrow another Shakespearian reference, something's rotten in Denmark, but with the Clinton's that's been the case for a long, long time.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Whale Evolution

This animated video depicts a sperm whale hunting prey, including a giant squid, by echolocation.
Until recently the consensus opinion among biologists was that whales evolved from land animals, but recent finds have made this view increasingly untenable. Not only is the window of available time for all the requisite changes to adapt a terrestrial creature to a marine environment very narrow, but the sheer number and scope of the changes strains credulity. Here are a few of the changes that would need to have occurred within the span of about 3-5 million years:
  • Counter-current heat exchanger for intra-abdominal testes
  • Ball vertebra
  • Tail flukes and musculature
  • Blubber for temperature insulation
  • Ability to drink sea water (reorganization of kidney tissues)
  • Fetus in breech position (for labor underwater)
  • Nurse young underwater (modified mammae)
  • Forelimbs transformed into flippers
  • Reduction of hindlimbs
  • Reduction/loss of pelvis and sacral vertebrae
  • Reorganization of the musculature for the reproductive organs
  • Hydrodynamic properties of the skin
  • Special lung surfactants
  • Novel muscle systems for the blowhole
  • Modification of the teeth
  • Modification of the eye for underwater vision
  • Emergence and expansion of the mandibular fat pad with complex lipid distribution
  • Reorganization of skull bones and musculature
  • Modification of the ear bones
  • Decoupling of esophagus and trachea
  • Synthesis and metabolism of isovaleric acid (toxic to terrestrial mammals)
  • Emergence of blowhole musculature and their neurological control
Here's another video, courtesy of Uncommon Descent, which highlights some of the problems with the consensus view:

Whale Evolution vs. The Actual Fossil Evidence from Philip Cunningham on Vimeo.

The problem of transitional forms remains a serious difficulty for any kind of "molecules to man" evolutionary hypothesis, as this article at Evolution News and Views illustrates. It may have happened that all forms of life on earth are descended from a single ancestral form, but it seems that the more we discover the less evidence there is for it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Deadbeats

If someone complains that your taxes are too low, as do many liberals, and then tries to limit his or her own tax liability by taking every deduction to which he/she is legally entitled, as do many liberals, it's not unfair, I don't think, to conclude that this person is being hypocritical. But, if that's so, how might we describe those who insist that we all pay higher taxes while they themselves don't even pay their own taxes? That's evidently the situation at the very liberal MSNBC cable news station where four of their personalities owe a ton of money in unpaid taxes to the IRS.

According to Jillian Kay Melchior at National Review Online. Melchior tells us that TourĂ© Neblett, co-host of MSNBC’s The Cycle, tweeted in January 2014, that, “Regressive taxation & tax-avoidance & union crushing & the financial corruption of legislation has fueled inequality more than hard work.” In 2012, he also criticized Republican politicians, saying they were “all afraid to vote for a modest tax increase of people who can totally afford it.” Now it turns out that Neblett himself owes the IRS more than $59,000 in taxes.

Joy-Ann Reid, who serves as managing editor of theGrio.com and until earlier this year hosted MSNBC’s The Reid Report has called taxes on the wealthy “a basic fairness argument,” also arguing for “smart spending and smart tax increases” to create economic growth, but last month New York filed a $4,948.15 tax warrant against Reid and her husband.

Melissa Harris-Perry, who hosts an MSNBC show named after herself, has claimed that, “We actually do better as a country when we spread the wealth around.” She has also quoted President Obama, calling income inequality “the fundamental threat to the American dream.” She called for Republican lawmakers to acknowledge that “the growing income disparity in America is, in fact, you know, a real thing,” but Ms Harris-Perry is herself a whopping $70,000 in arrears to the IRS.

Then there's Al Sharpton whose tax delinquency is almost legendary. In November, the New York Times estimated that Sharpton and his various enterprises owed as much as $4.5 million in taxes, penalties, and interest to the government.

These folks all think you should be paying more than you are, but think themselves somehow exempt. There's something delightfully schadenfreudeish in reading about people who lecture us about how we should all be forking over more of our income to the government, how we should be paying our "fair share," while they get caught trying to get away with paying nothing at all.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Wisconsin's Shame

There's been a lot of news coverage about the abuse of force by police in the last few months. In most of these incidents I have wanted to give the police the benefit of the doubt, in some of them that was exceedingly difficult as in the case of a South Carolina officer shooting an unarmed man in the back eight times or in the case of a female officer near Hershey, Pennsylvania who shot and killed a man in the back as he lay prone on the ground. Both of these officers have been charged with murder.

But one of the worst systematic abuses of police power I have ever heard about in this country has occurred in the state of Wisconsin where a prosecutor named John Chisolm has misused his authority to have police conduct terrifying raids on the homes of families who have done absolutely nothing wrong, nor were they suspected of having done anything wrong.

David French has the story at National Review Online. Here's his lede:
Cindy Archer, one of the lead architects of Wisconsin’s Act 10 — also called the “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill,” it limited public-employee benefits and altered collective-bargaining rules for public-employee unions — was jolted awake by yelling, loud pounding at the door, and her dogs’ frantic barking. The entire house — the windows and walls — was shaking. She looked outside to see up to a dozen police officers, yelling to open the door. They were carrying a battering ram. She wasn’t dressed, but she started to run toward the door, her body in full view of the police. Some yelled at her to grab some clothes, others yelled for her to open the door. “I was so afraid,” she says. “I did not know what to do.” She grabbed some clothes, opened the door, and dressed right in front of the police.

The dogs were still frantic. “I begged and begged, ‘Please don’t shoot my dogs, please don’t shoot my dogs, just don’t shoot my dogs.’ I couldn’t get them to stop barking, and I couldn’t get them outside quick enough. I saw a gun and barking dogs. I was scared and knew this was a bad mix.” She got the dogs safely out of the house, just as multiple armed agents rushed inside. Some even barged into the bathroom, where her partner was in the shower. The officer or agent in charge demanded that Cindy sit on the couch, but she wanted to get up and get a cup of coffee. “I told him this was my house and I could do what I wanted.” Wrong thing to say. “This made the agent in charge furious. He towered over me with his finger in my face and yelled like a drill sergeant that I either do it his way or he would handcuff me.”

They wouldn’t let her speak to a lawyer. She looked outside and saw a person who appeared to be a reporter. Someone had tipped him off. The neighbors started to come outside, curious at the commotion, and all the while the police searched her house, making a mess, and — according to Cindy — leaving her “dead mother’s belongings strewn across the basement floor in a most disrespectful way.” Then they left, carrying with them only a cellphone and a laptop.
Unfortunately, Archer's story was repeated dozens of times. French continues:
“It’s a matter of life or death.” That was the first thought of “Anne” (not her real name). Someone was pounding at her front door. It was early in the morning — very early — and it was the kind of heavy pounding that meant someone was either fleeing from — or bringing — trouble. “It was so hard. I’d never heard anything like it. I thought someone was dying outside.” She ran to the door, opened it, and then chaos. “People came pouring in. For a second I thought it was a home invasion. It was terrifying. They were yelling and running, into every room in the house. One of the men was in my face, yelling at me over and over and over.”

It was indeed a home invasion, but the people who were pouring in were Wisconsin law-enforcement officers. Armed, uniformed police swarmed into the house. Plainclothes investigators cornered her and her newly awakened family. Soon, state officials were seizing the family’s personal property, including each person’s computer and smartphone, filled with the most intimate family information. Why were the police at Anne’s home? She had no answers. The police were treating them the way they’d seen police treat drug dealers on television. In fact, TV or movies were their only points of reference, because they weren’t criminals. They were law-abiding. They didn’t buy or sell drugs. They weren’t violent. They weren’t a danger to anyone. Yet there were cops — surrounding their house on the outside, swarming the house on the inside. They even taunted the family as if they were mere “perps.”

As if the home invasion, the appropriation of private property, and the verbal abuse weren’t enough, next came ominous warnings. Don’t call your lawyer. Don’t tell anyone about this raid. Not even your mother, your father, or your closest friends. The entire neighborhood could see the police around their house, but they had to remain silent. This was not the “right to remain silent” as uttered by every cop on every legal drama on television — the right against self-incrimination. They couldn’t mount a public defense if they wanted — or even offer an explanation to family and friends. Yet no one in this family was a “perp.” Instead, like Cindy, they were American citizens guilty of nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights to support Act 10 and other conservative causes in Wisconsin. Sitting there shocked and terrified, this citizen — who is still too intimidated to speak on the record — kept thinking, “Is this America?”
It's the America we get when completely amoral men are in positions of power. French gives a final example:
“They followed me to my kids’ rooms.” For the family of “Rachel” (not her real name), the ordeal began before dawn — with the same loud, insistent knocking. Still in her pajamas, Rachel answered the door and saw uniformed police, poised to enter her home. When Rachel asked to wake her children herself, the officer insisted on walking into their rooms. The kids woke to an armed officer, standing near their beds. The entire family was herded into one room, and there they watched as the police carried off their personal possessions, including items that had nothing to do with the subject of the search warrant — even her daughter’s computer. And, yes, there were the warnings. Don’t call your lawyer. Don’t talk to anyone about this. Don’t tell your friends. The kids watched — alarmed — as the school bus drove by, with the students inside watching the spectacle of uniformed police surrounding the house, carrying out the family’s belongings. Yet they were told they couldn’t tell anyone at school. They, too, had to remain silent. The mom watched as her entire life was laid open before the police. Her professional files, her personal files, everything. She knew this was all politics. She knew a rogue prosecutor was targeting her for her political beliefs. And she realized, “Every aspect of my life is in their hands. And they hate me.”
The rogue prosecutor was John Chisolm, who, along with the judge who granted permission for the raids, a woman named Barbara Kluka, should be put in jail. The reason for this atrocious violation of police power is that Chisolm is a progressive leftist who was and is determined to destroy Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, and since he was unsuccessful stopping him from being elected and re-elected, he has chosen to use his power to go after Walker's supporters, people who contributed to his campaign and worked for organizations seeking to advance a conservative agenda. The terrors to which these people and their children were subjected in these raids has soured them completely on the police, as well they might. The officers who participated should be deeply ashamed of their conduct. French explains how Chisolm's vendetta got started:
It all began innocently enough. In 2009, officials from the office of the Milwaukee County executive contacted the office of the Milwaukee district attorney, headed by John Chisholm, to investigate the disappearance of $11,242.24 from the Milwaukee chapter of the Order of the Purple Heart. The matter was routine, with witnesses willing and able to testify against the principal suspect, a man named Kevin Kavanaugh. What followed, however, was anything but routine.

Chisholm failed to act promptly on the report, and when he did act, he refused to conduct a conventional criminal investigation but instead petitioned, in May 2010, to open a “John Doe” investigation, a proceeding under Wisconsin law that permits Wisconsin officials to conduct extensive investigations while keeping the target’s identity secret (hence the designation “John Doe”). John Doe investigations alter typical criminal procedure in two important ways: First, they remove grand juries from the investigative process, replacing the ordinary citizens of a grand jury with a supervising judge. Second, they can include strict secrecy requirements not just on the prosecution but also on the targets of the investigation. In practice, this means that, while the prosecution cannot make public comments about the investigation, it can take public actions indicating criminal suspicion (such as raiding businesses and homes in full view of the community) while preventing the targets of the raids from defending against or even discussing the prosecution’s claims.

Why would Chisholm seek such broad powers to investigate a year-old embezzlement claim with a known suspect? Because the Milwaukee County executive, Scott Walker, had by that time become the leading Republican candidate for governor. District Attorney Chisholm was a Democrat, a very partisan Democrat. Almost immediately after opening the John Doe investigation, Chisholm used his expansive powers to embarrass Walker, raiding his county-executive offices within a week.
When that didn't work, Chisolm expanded his phony "John Doe" investigation to include citizens who supported Walker. This is what a police state looks like, and it's a vivid picture of what the country would be like if unprincipled thugs like Chisolm ever achieved sufficient power.

Read the full article at the link, if you have the stomach for it, and then ask yourself why you're not hearing about any of this from the liberal media. You sure would if a conservative prosecutor had used the police in this fashion and for this purpose. The sheer malevolence of the left, of which we catch a glimpse in Wisconsin and in Lois Lerner's abuses at the IRS, should cause everyone inclined toward aligning themselves politically with these people to ask themselves if these are the sorts of human beings with which decent people really want to be identified.

One other thing is for sure. Reading this has certainly made it a lot more difficult to continue to respect the people who have sworn to protect us and whom we pay to do it.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Molecular Machines

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Gift Idea

Graduation is right around the corner. Mothers' Day is even closer. If you're trying to think of a gift to give the family member or friend who's about to graduate, or if mom's a reader, perhaps you might consider presenting them with a copy of In the Absence of God.

If you're not familiar with it you can read about it by following the link at the upper right of this page.

Absence is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Berean, BAM, Lifeway, and my favorite bookstore, Hearts and Minds.

Books aren't a gift appreciated by everyone, of course. A lot of people, unfortunately, don't read, and if they do they sometimes shy from reading anything that might be a little demanding, but if you know someone who enjoys books and who's not averse to having a little metaphysics mixed in with their drama (or vice versa), you could do a lot worse than putting a copy of Absence in their hands.

Aside from making a good gift for a thoughtful graduate or mom, In the Absence of God would also make a fine selection for book clubs, reading groups, or youth groups. Here's what one reader said about it:
Thanks for telling me about your book, In the Absence of God. I bought it last Tuesday for my Kindle and finished it in two evenings, although the last evening lasted until 3:05 a.m.. I could not put it down. Thought provoking, good story lines and characters, entertaining reading, and very educational. Absolutely loved the book and have been talking about it to my kids, family and friends.
If you order a copy from Hearts and Minds I'll autograph it if you request it.

Friday, April 17, 2015

What it Would Take

If you believe in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming it's a reasonably safe assumption that you think those who don't are at best benighted and at worst a danger to humanity, deserving at the very least society's reproach and ridicule and maybe even imprisonment. You are probably perplexed at how otherwise intelligent people can be so obdurate when it comes to this issue. What would it take, you may wonder, to convince the skeptics that we are headed for eco-catastrophe, which, after all, we must be because Al Gore says so.

Well, Robert Tracinski at The Federalist offers a detailed response to just that question. He prefaces his answer with this:
Recently, Reason‘s Ronald Bailey asked what it would take to convince conservatives and libertarians that global warming is real. If generally rising temperatures, decreasing diurnal temperature differences, melting glacial and sea ice, smaller snow extent, stronger rainstorms, and warming oceans are not enough to persuade you that man-made climate [change] is occurring, what evidence would be?

This has since been picked up by Jonathan Adler at the Washington Post‘s token right-leaning blog, the Volokh Conspiracy. There’s no pressure: Bailey and Adler merely insinuate that you are “obscurantist”—that is, you hate new knowledge—if you don’t agree.

That, by the way — the smug insistence of global warming alarmists on presenting themselves as the embodiment of scientific knowledge as such — is one of the reasons I stopped taking them seriously. In fact, I have thought about what it would take to convince me global warming is real. And it’s pretty clear that Bailey has not thought about it.
After a brief elaboration on the unfortunate shortcomings exhibited by Messers Bailey and Adler, Tracinski lays out what it would take to convince him that global warming or climate change is real, anthropogenic (caused by humans), and catastrophic. Needless to say, the current state of both rhetoric and evidence falls far short of a rigorous demonstration:
1) A clear understanding of the temperature record.

The warmists don’t just have to show that temperatures are getting warmer, because variation is normal. That’s what makes “climate change” such an appallingly stupid euphemism. The climate is always changing. The environmentalists are the real climate-change “deniers” because they basically want global temperatures to maintain absolute stasis relative to 1970—not coincidentally the point at which environmentalists first began paying any attention to the issue.

That’s what makes ‘climate change’ such an appallingly stupid euphemism. The climate is always changing.

So to demonstrate human-caused global warming, we would have to have a long-term temperature record that allows us to isolate what the normal baseline is, so we know what natural variation looks like and we can identify any un-natural, man-made effect.

A big part of the problem is that we only have accurate global thermometer measurements going back 135 years — a blink of an eye on the time-scales that are relevant to determining natural variation of temperature. Within that, we only have a few decades of warming that could conceivably be blamed on human emissions of carbon dioxide: a minor run up in temperatures from the 1970s to the late 1990s. Since then, warming has leveled off (despite strenuous attempts to pretend otherwise). I think it’s impossible to claim, on that basis, that we even know what natural temperature variation is, much less to demonstrate that we’ve deviated from it.
In other words, small increases in global mean temperatures since 1970 are really pretty meaningless and are certainly not proof that human activity is the cause of those increases which brings Tracinski to his second criterion:
2) A full understanding of the underlying physical mechanisms.

We have to know what physical mechanisms determine global temperatures and how they interact. The glibbest thing said by environmentalists — and proof that the person who says it has no understanding of science — is that human-caused global warming is “basic physics” because we know carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide is a very weak greenhouse gas and there is no theory that claims it can cause runaway warming all on its own. The warmists’ theory requires feedback mechanisms that amplify the effect of carbon dioxide. Without that, there is no human-caused global warming. But those feedback mechanisms are dubious, unproven assumptions.

Basic questions about the “sensitivity” of the climate to carbon dioxide have never been answered. Even Bailey admits this:
In recent years, there has [been] a lot of back and forth between researchers trying to refine their estimates of climate sensitivity. At the low end, some researchers think that temperatures would increase a comparatively trivial 1.5 degrees Celsius; on the high end, some worry it could go as high as high 6 degrees Celsius…. In a 2014 article in Geophysical Research Letters, a group of researchers calculated that it would take another 20 years of temperature observations for us to be confident that climate sensitivity is on the low end and more than 50 years of data to confirm the high end of the projections.
If I understand this correctly climatologists don't know how much the temperatures are rising and disagree on how long it will take to find out. In other words, this is not at all the settled science we've been repeatedly told that it is.
3) The ability to make forecasting models with a track record of accurate predictions over the very long term.

We don’t know whether current warming departs from natural variation, nor have scientists proven the underlying mechanisms by which humans could cause such an increase. But even if we did know these things, we would have to be able to forecast with reasonable accuracy how big the effect is going to be. A very small warming may not even be noticeable or may have mostly salutary effects, such as a slightly longer growing season, whereas the impact of a much larger warming is likely to cause greater disruption.

I should also point out that the “catastrophic” part of “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming” is a much larger question that is even harder to forecast. For example, global warming was supposed to lead to more hurricanes, which is why movie posters for Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth featured a hurricane emerging from an industrial smokestack. Then hurricane activity in the Atlantic promptly receded to historical lows.

It’s pretty clear that scientists aren’t any good yet at making global climate forecasts. Current temperatures are at or below the low range of all of the climate models. Nobody predicted the recent 17-year-long temperature plateau. And while they can come up with ad hoc explanations after the fact for why the data don’t match their models, the whole point of a forecast is to be able to get the right answer before the data comes in.

Given the abysmal record of climate forecasting, we should tell the warmists to go back and make a new set of predictions, then come back to us in 20 or 30 years and tell us how these predictions panned out. Then we’ll talk.
So given all this what reason is there for the urgent demands to act now? Why are the Obama administration and so many others, particularly on the left, so desperate to do something now to reverse a trend that may not even exist or, if it does, may not be at all deleterious? Perhaps one answer is that if enough people are convinced there is an imminent crisis they'll be willing to cede more of their individual freedom and more power to the government to resolve it.

In any case, Tracinski closes with this:
So yes, I know exactly what it would take to convince me that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is really happening. And no, the warmists haven’t even come close.
Read the whole essay at the link, especially if climate change is an issue that, one way or another, interests you.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The End of Science

Back in 1996 science writer John Horgan, then with Scientific American, released a book that created a major stir in the scientific community. In the book, titled The End of Science, Horgan argued that for the most part science had come to the end of the age of great discoveries and that all that was left was to fill in the details. As might be expected, scientists bristled at the idea that the golden age of their discipline was over, but Horgan remains unrepentant to this day, and his publisher has recently produced a new paperback edition of his book.

He wrote the following for the preface of the new edition defending his thesis:
Here’s what a fanatic I am: When I have a captive audience of innocent youths, I expose them to my evil meme.

Since 2005, I’ve taught history of science to undergraduates at Stevens Institute of Technology, an engineering school perched on the bank of the Hudson River. After we get through ancient Greek “science,” I make my students ponder this question: Will our theories of the cosmos seem as wrong to our descendants as Aristotle’s theories seem to us?

I assure them there is no correct answer, then tell them the answer is “No,” because Aristotle’s theories were wrong and our theories are right. The Earth orbits the Sun, not vice versa, and our world is made not of earth, water, fire and air but of hydrogen, carbon and other elements that are in turn made of quarks and electrons.

Our descendants will learn much more about nature, and they will invent gadgets even cooler than smart phones. But their scientific version of reality will resemble ours, for two reasons: First, ours… is in many respects true; most new knowledge will merely extend and fill in our current maps of reality rather than forcing radical revisions. Second, some major remaining mysteries—Where did the universe come from? How did life begin? How, exactly, does a chunk of meat make a mind?–might be unsolvable.

That’s my end-of-science argument in a nutshell, and I believe it as much today as I did when I was finishing my book 20 years ago. That’s why I keep writing about my thesis, and why I make my students ponder it—even though I hope I’m wrong, and I’m oddly relieved when my students reject my pessimistic outlook… So far my prediction that there would be no great “revelations or revolutions”—no insights into nature as cataclysmic as heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, relativity, the big bang–has held up just fine.

In some ways, science is in even worse shape today than I would have guessed back in the 1990s. In The End of Science, I predicted that scientists, as they struggle to overcome their limitations, would become increasingly desperate and prone to hyperbole. This trend has become more severe and widespread than I anticipated. In my 30-plus years of covering science, the gap between the ideal of science and its messy, all-too-human reality has never been greater than it is today.
Horgan is certainly courageous. The fate of Francis Fukuyama's thesis, published four years before Horgan's book, that with the defeat of communism history had come to an end, should give Horgan pause. After all, the history of science is littered with examples of people who said that we'd never be able to do or know something. In the 1800's, for example, August Comte claimed that we'd never know what the sun was made of. Just a few years after his death in 1857 spectroscopic analysis was invented and revealed that the sun was made mostly of hydrogen.

In our present day there appears to be a revolution brewing in science regarding the fundamental nature of the universe. For a couple hundred years it had been assumed to be fundamentally comprised of material stuff, but a lot of people today are having second thoughts about that. According to some, it looks as if matter is reducible to information which, if so, suggests that mind, not matter, is fundamental. If this idea catches on it would certainly produce a revolution in science comparable to the Copernican revolution, maybe even more revolutionary than that. Perhaps Horgan will be proven wrong after all.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

C. elegans

One of the most fascinating fields of study in biology is the field of embryology - the study of how a zygote develops into an adult organism. For most animals our knowledge of their ontogenetic development is still incomplete, but a team of scientists has worked out the complete developmental history of a nematode called C. elegans and has won a Nobel Prize for their achievement.

The ontogeny of this tiny worm, so small that you need a microscope to see it, is programmed to follow a specific pathway, but several mysteries surround attempts to determine what it is that controls that ontogeny as well as attempts to elucidate how undirected processes could ever have produced such a control system in living things. Philosopher of biology Paul Nelson discusses some of the problems in this 10 minute video.
Perhaps there's a materialist explanation for embryological development such as we see in C. elegans and even more astonishingly in higher organisms, but if there is it's not very widely publicized. What we see in this presentation seems to point to a teleology that many scientists insist on ruling out a priori, but I wonder if they're not missing something by refusing to admit the possibility of teleological explanations into their scientific work.

I've quoted before in this context a passage from William James that I think is particularly apt. James wrote that, "Any rule of thought that would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth, if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule." If the purpose of science is to discover truth why rule out ahead of time certain kinds of explanations just because they're incompatible with a particular metaphysical commitment?

The refusal to permit the hypothesis that a mind may be somehow responsible for what we see in C. elegans reminds me of another quote, this one from geneticist Richard Lewontin who once said that,
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
Scientists used to declare that they were committed to following the evidence wherever it leads, but now that at least some evidence seems to lead away from materialism and toward mind as the fundamental substance underlying reality, that declaration is apparently no longer operative.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

VEST

Neuroscientist David Eagleman has been working with a team of engineers to design a device that will convert the frequencies of sound waves into vibrations that deaf people will be able to feel and interpret. These vibrations will allow the deaf to actually "hear" words that are spoken to them. This sounds like an amazing technological development, and I've posted some excerpts from the article in The Atlantic:
The VEST, or the Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer, is a wearable tool that allows the deaf to, as Eagleman puts it, "feel" speech. An app downloaded onto a smartphone or tablet with a microphone will pick up sounds and send them via bluetooth to the vest. The vest will then "translate" those sounds into a series of vibrations that reflect the frequencies picked up by the mic by using a network of transducers — devices that can convert the signals into vibrations. So, if you spoke to the person wearing the vest, that person would "feel" what you're saying through vibrations on their back, instead of through their ears.

But Eagleman is quick to point out that the vest isn't just translating the sounds into a code — the patterns felt aren't a "language" to be interpreted like braille. In fact, the device doesn't use a specific language; it responds to all ambient noises and sounds.

"What you're feeling is not code for a letter or a word...you're actually feeling a representation of the sound."

"The pattern of vibrations that you're feeling [while wearing the VEST] represent the frequencies that are present in the sound," he said. "What that means is what you're feeling is not code for a letter or a word — it's not like morse code — but you're actually feeling a representation of the sound."

So far, it all works, Eagleman said. The team tested a prototype on a 37-year-old deaf man who, after five days of wearing the VEST, understood the words said to him out loud by feeling the vibrations because, as Eagleman put it, "his brain is starting to unlock what the data mean."

That "unlocking" phenomenon, like adding a new sense, is hard to explain. How do a series of vibrations that supposedly reflect sound eventually have meaning when there's no language assigned to them? How does the brain on the first day have no idea what a couple of vibrations on, say, the lower back means, but by the fifth day, know that they form a specific word?
This leads me to wonder whether a bat's sonar system might work this way and whether something similar could be designed to aid blind people in navigating their environment.
"My view is that the brain is a general-purpose computational device," Eagleman told me. "You could take any kind of data stream and the brain will figure it out. I consider it the biggest miracle no one's heard of."
How does the brain perform this astonishing miracle? More specifically, how did such an ability ever evolve through chance and natural selection since clearly there was no need for the brain to be able to manipulate data streams in this fashion until now? I suppose we should put our doubts aside and just will ourselves to have faith in the capability of blind, purposeless forces to effect such miracles.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Left's State of Disrepair

Matt Purple at The American Spectator dissects the political left's unenviable current condition:
The Obama era should have been a high watermark for American liberalism. Democrats in 2009 not only laid claim to the House, the filibuster-proof Senate, and the White House, but did so during an economic recession in which jobs vanished, wages shrank, and Wall Street was held in nearly universal contempt. Deregulation was out and stimulus was in. The table was better set for progressive ideas than at any time since the Great Depression.

Early on, liberals made three calculations that cost them dearly. First, given enough political capital to tackle either sweeping Wall Street reform or sweeping health care reform, but not both, President Obama chose the latter. The public viewed that as a diversion from the real economic issues—jobs and wages—and punished Democrats in the 2010 elections, releasing the left’s hold on Congress.

Second, liberals hitched their fate to the economy by pledging that their policies would end the recession. They often did this in tangible terms, as when the president’s economic advisors said unemployment would never exceed 8 percent if the stimulus was passed. None of this worked as planned: GDP growth was anemic, the economy stagnated, and the unemployment rate jumped to 10 percent in October 2009. It wouldn’t dip below 8 percent for another three years. Democrats suffered accordingly.

Third, following the placards-and-pitchforks election of 2010, Democrats began crusading against their political opponents with the desperation of a party shut out of power. The left’s obsession with stopping the Tea Party became so all-consuming that it distracted from the business of crafting policy. By the 2014 election, Democrats stood for nothing beyond sticking it to the anti-Obamacare wingnuts and shadowboxing something called the War on Women. While liberals smirked at Obama Derangement Syndrome, their own derangement was in a very advanced stage.

And that gets to the grand irony here. Liberals spent years sneering that Republicans were the party of no, out of ideas, deathly, dying, dead. This spurred conservatives and engendered a Great Awakening on the right the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Contract with America. It was liberalism that went bankrupt, with little internal dialectic and nothing to show but hatred, economic stagnation, and the same hoary tax-and-spend policies it’s been trying for decades.
Purple could have added the decline of race relations under the Obama administration, the president's refusal to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders, his legally dubious abuse of executive orders, his decision to release five hardened terrorists in exchange for one American deserter, the growing inequality between rich and poor, the constant seige of scandal that has beset his administration from the Secret Service to the NSA, VA, EPA, IRS and on to Benghazi, Fast and Furious, and on and on.

Purple could also have noted the mess the Obama administration has made of our foreign policy. We've alienated many of our friends and lost the respect of many of our enemies. Our appeasement of the Iranians has made the world less safe. Our refusal to aid the Ukrainians in any substantive way has sacrificed them to Mr. Putin's hegemonic ambitions. Our precipitous withdrawal from Iraq created a vacuum which ISIL rushed in to fill, slaughtering Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims by the thousands. Our unwise approach to Egypt and Libya has turned the latter into chaos and only the action of the Egyptian military, against Mr. Obama's wishes, has prevented chaos there. Mr. Obama's strategy, such as it is, of leading from behind around the world, so far from intimidating the world's tyrants, has served only to embolden them.

All of this has eroded confidence in the competence of this White House in particular and in the ability of the left in general to run the country, which perhaps explains why only two incumbent Republicans, Pennsylvania's governor and a Florida congressman, failed to win re-election in the 2014 mid-terms while Democrat incumbents were decimated. These losses have been catastrophic for the Democratic Party, coming on the heels of a disastrous mid-term in 2010, and leaving it with very few young, promising faces. Consequently, there's almost no one the party can run for president in 2016 other than the scandal-plagued Hillary Clinton who has no accomplishments to which she can point which qualify her for the nation's highest office, and who is running simply on the circumstance that she's married, sort of, to Bill Clinton.

Things can turn around quickly, of course. The United States has a volatile electorate, but at the moment the future looks bleak for the left, and they've pretty much done it all to themselves.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Ethical Duties

The journal Science (subscription required) ran a review a year or so ago by Rudolph Griss of a book by atheistic biologist E.O. Wilson titled The Social Conquest of Earth. At one point Griss says this:
As intriguing as self-understanding may be from an intellectual point of view, Wilson sees it as a means to an end: something that must be achieved if humans are to bring their unsustainable and destructive lifestyle to a halt. He laments, "We are needlessly turning the gold we inherited from our forebears into straw, and for that we will be despised by our descendants." We are not only polluting our planet beyond recognition, we are also bidding good-bye forever to species after species. Wilson tells us to grow up, to stop making excuses and shuffling off responsibility onto deities. We alone are responsible for the future of our planet. The sooner we understand who we are and where we come from, the sooner we will know where we need to go.
I thought this was interesting because Wilson seems to assume that we have some sort of moral obligation to future generations not to despoil and deplete the planet, but where does such an obligation come from? Who imposes it? Why is it wrong to exploit the earth's resources to make our lives as comfortable as we can and let future generations fend for themselves? Our descendants may despise us for acting this way but why should we care? What's wrong with selfishness?

It may seem obvious to some readers that of course we have a duty to care about the planet and our descendants, but it's not obvious to me at all that we do, or at least it's not obvious to me that an atheist has any grounds for believing that we do.

Indeed, I don't think Wilson, who is a Darwinian materialist, can cogently answer any of the above questions, because for the atheist there simply is no answer. To paraphrase philosopher Richard Rorty*, for the secular man there's no answer to the question, why not be selfish. Or to paraphrase Richard Dawkins*, what's to prevent us from saying that selfishness is right? That's a genuinely difficult question.

If we're simply the product of blind, purposeless Darwinian processes which enabled us to succeed in the struggle for survival then to suggest that we should not be selfish, that we should suppress our instincts and deny ourselves the benefits of the earth's largesse for the sake of generations yet to come, is absurd.

The only basis for thinking that we have a duty to conserve the earth's resources is the belief that a transcendent moral authority, a God, has imposed upon us the obligation to be stewards of the earth and to care about the well-being of others. Take away the divine source of that obligation, as Wilson does, and the obligation itself disappears.

Atheists delight in calling theists irrational, but what's more irrational, believing that we have a duty to care for the planet because the creator of the universe imposes that duty upon us, or believing that we have a duty to care for the planet even though there's nothing at all that could possibly impose such a duty upon us?

If Wilson thinks we do have such a duty then maybe he should reassess his commitment to atheism.

You can read more about Griss' review of Wilson's book at Evolution News and Notes.

* I substituted the word "selfish" for Rorty's original word "cruelty," and I substituted "selfishness" for Dawkin's original word "Hitler."

Friday, April 10, 2015

Some Questions about Rights

1) If it's okay for Angie's List and other businesses to boycott Indiana because they believe Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is wrong, why is it not okay for small businesses to boycott gay weddings because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that gay marriage is wrong? What is the significant difference?

2) Is there not a significant difference between the act of refusing service to people who enter a shop which is open to the public and the act of refusing to engage in business at an event which celebrates what the businessperson believes to be an immoral activity? Suppose, for example, that a group of Satanists walked into a catering business owned by Christians and asked them to cater a Satanic mass. Would, or should, the caterer be obligated to service this event? Suppose the mass involved explicit sexual behavior or animal sacrifice. Would any photographer who was solicited by the hosts of the event be required to provide photographic services at the affair even if she felt that this was something she didn't wish to be a part of?

Maybe there's something here that I'm missing, but it seems to me that if religious freedom has any meaning at all it should mean that a businessperson should not be required by the state to participate in, or attend, events to which the people running the business have sincere moral objections. This is a different situation, of course, than one in which people walk into an establishment to make a purchase. In that circumstance, the customer is not representing him or herself as anything other than a human being, and the businessperson is not being asked to participate in any activity other than a normal business transaction. In such a case the customer is, and should be, legally entitled to service, but if the laws of the state demand that businesspersons must actually attend, and thus participate in, events that are explicit expressions of behavior deemed immoral by the businessperson, those laws are unjust and need to be changed.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Iran Deal

The Obama administration, in concert with several European allies and Russia, has been negotiating with Iran over the future of their nuclear program, specifically whether they will ever be able to obtain nuclear weapons. The two sides claimed to have reached a preliminary agreement, but no sooner was the agreement announced than the Iranians were claiming that the United States was misrepresenting it.

In dispute, inter alia, is the American claim that sanctions won't be lifted until Iran has dismantled much of its nuclear production capability. Iran is claiming that the agreement was that sanctions would be lifted as soon as the final deal was signed. That the White House will nopt release a copy of the agreement does little to instill confidence that our interpretation is correct and theirs is wrong.

That aside, a letter in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend, authored by two heavyweight former Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, dissects the agreement, or at least what we know of it, and comes to the conclusion that this is a very bad deal for the world. The letter is a bit lengthy, but anyone interested in the future of the planet should read it. It begins with these lines:
The announced framework for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has the potential to generate a seminal national debate. Advocates exult over the nuclear constraints it would impose on Iran. Critics question the verifiability of these constraints and their longer-term impact on regional and world stability. The historic significance of the agreement and indeed its sustainability depend on whether these emotions, valid by themselves, can be reconciled.

Debate regarding technical details of the deal has thus far inhibited the soul-searching necessary regarding its deeper implications. For 20 years, three presidents of both major parties proclaimed that an Iranian nuclear weapon was contrary to American and global interests—and that they were prepared to use force to prevent it. Yet negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability, albeit short of its full capacity in the first 10 years.

Mixing shrewd diplomacy with open defiance of U.N. resolutions, Iran has gradually turned the negotiation on its head. Iran’s centrifuges have multiplied from about 100 at the beginning of the negotiation to almost 20,000 today. The threat of war now constrains the West more than Iran. While Iran treated the mere fact of its willingness to negotiate as a concession, the West has felt compelled to break every deadlock with a new proposal. In the process, the Iranian program has reached a point officially described as being within two to three months of building a nuclear weapon. Under the proposed agreement, for 10 years Iran will never be further than one year from a nuclear weapon and, after a decade, will be significantly closer.
Messers Kissinger and Schultz go on to explain some of the problems with the agreement. Here are just a few highlights:
Under the new approach, Iran permanently gives up none of its equipment, facilities or fissile product to achieve the proposed constraints. It only places them under temporary restriction and safeguard—amounting in many cases to a seal at the door of a depot or periodic visits by inspectors to declared sites. The physical magnitude of the effort is daunting. Is the International Atomic Energy Agency technically, and in terms of human resources, up to so complex and vast an assignment?

In a large country with multiple facilities and ample experience in nuclear concealment, violations will be inherently difficult to detect. Devising theoretical models of inspection is one thing. Enforcing compliance, week after week, despite competing international crises and domestic distractions, is another. Any report of a violation is likely to prompt debate over its significance—or even calls for new talks with Tehran to explore the issue. The experience of Iran’s work on a heavy-water reactor during the “interim agreement” period—when suspect activity was identified but played down in the interest of a positive negotiating atmosphere—is not encouraging.

Compounding the difficulty is the unlikelihood that breakout will be a clear-cut event. More likely it will occur, if it does, via the gradual accumulation of ambiguous evasions.
The president assures us that if Iran is found to be cheating, a near-certainty given their track record, sanctions will be reimposed (a strange threat given that one of the justifications Mr. Obama offered for negotiating with Iran was that sanctions weren't working), but this is much easier said than done:
The agreement’s primary enforcement mechanism, the threat of renewed sanctions, emphasizes a broad-based asymmetry, which provides Iran permanent relief from sanctions in exchange for temporary restraints on Iranian conduct. Undertaking the “snap-back” of sanctions is unlikely to be as clear or as automatic as the phrase implies. Iran is in a position to violate the agreement by executive decision. Restoring the most effective sanctions will require coordinated international action. In countries that had reluctantly joined in previous rounds, the demands of public and commercial opinion will militate against automatic or even prompt “snap-back.” If the follow-on process does not unambiguously define the term, an attempt to reimpose sanctions risks primarily isolating America, not Iran.
Worse, after the ten year period of good behavior has elapsed Iran will be within a few months to a year of being capable of producing a nuclear weapon. None of the other countries in the region, many of them majority Sunni (Iran is majority Shia) will be content to sit by and see what Iran does with their bomb. They'll want a nuclear deterrent of their own, which means there'll be a nuclear arms race in the most volatile, suicidal region in the entire world.
Previous thinking on nuclear strategy also assumed the existence of stable state actors. Among the original nuclear powers, geographic distances and the relatively large size of programs combined with moral revulsion to make surprise attack all but inconceivable. How will these doctrines translate into a region where sponsorship of nonstate proxies is common, the state structure is under assault, and death on behalf of jihad is a kind of fulfillment?

Some have suggested the U.S. can dissuade Iran’s neighbors from developing individual deterrent capacities by extending an American nuclear umbrella to them. But how will these guarantees be defined? What factors will govern their implementation? Are the guarantees extended against the use of nuclear weapons—or against any military attack, conventional or nuclear? Is it the domination by Iran that we oppose or the method for achieving it? What if nuclear weapons are employed as psychological blackmail? And how will such guarantees be expressed, or reconciled with public opinion and constitutional practices?
If anyone thinks that a future president like Mr. Obama, or almost anyone for that matter, is going to launch a nuclear war against Iran in the event that Iran detonates a nuke over, say, Baghdad, they are incredibly naive. Moreover, if Iran alone has nuclear weapons they will be able to achieve hegemony in the Middle East without having to use them. The mere threat of their use will enable them to impose their will on surrounding Arab nations, and they will doubtless use this power to force a unified Arab assault against Israel.

Mr. Obama came to the White House boldly declaring that he would not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons, but he has made it much more likely than it was six years ago that within a decade they will indeed have them. And when they get them Armageddon will become a perpetual fear in the hearts of every Israeli.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Putting One's Money Where One's Mouth Is

In the wake of the Indiana passage of their Religious Freedom Restoration Act a lot of Very Important People have rushed to deplore Indiana's attempt to protect its citizens' religious liberties. Their concern, of course, is that the law gives businesspersons the right to refuse service to gays and others. One of the most outspoken was Apple CEO Tim Cook, who, according to blogger John Hawkins at RWN, proudly announced that:
Our message, to people around the country and around the world, is this: Apple is open. Open to everyone, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, how they worship or who they love. Regardless of what the law might allow in Indiana or Arkansas, we will never tolerate discrimination....This is about how we treat each other as human beings....Opposing discrimination takes courage. With the lives and dignity of so many people at stake, it’s time for all of us to be courageous.
Indeed, it does take courage to oppose discrimination, and it's wonderful to hear Apple's CEO assure us that Apple will never tolerate it, but as Hawkins goes on to note, Apple's indignation at discrimination doesn't seem to stand in the way of doing business with some of the worst nations in the world in terms of how they treat gays and women. Hawkins writes:
Tim Cook’s message seems rather ironic in light of the fact that Apple willingly does business with some of the most virulently anti-gay nations on the planet....[H]omosexuality is punishable by death in Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran. So not only is [Apple] willing to “tolerate discrimination” in those countries, Apple is also happy to sell an iPod to the people who are murdering gays so they can listen to some cheery music when they’re done. What these nations are doing to their gay communities is despicable and should be condemned by every decent person. We hope Tim Cook believes that as well.
Given the news coverage of the Indiana RFRA you might think this photo was taken outside an Indiana pizza shop, but it was actually taken in Iran, a country with which Apple does a very brisk business. The two boys about to be executed were arrested and convicted of homosexuality. Perhaps Mr. Cook has not yet heard of how homosexuality is treated in Muslim countries.


Hawkins concludes by calling on Cook to show that he's not just indulging in empty moral preening, but that he really does have the courage of his convictions. Indeed, that he actually does have the convictions he claims to have:
Tim Cook says that, “Opposing discrimination takes courage,” and we agree. We call on Mr. Cook to live up to our shared principles by pulling Apple out of Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran until they stop their official government policies of jailing and murdering gays and lesbians.
Well, Mr. Cook, how deep is your commitment to non-discrimination really? We look forward to the news that Apple refuses to do business any longer with any country that tyrannizes gays and oppresses women, but we're not holding our breath. There is, after all, a lot of money to be made in those countries.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

It's a Draw

William Lycan is a materialist philosopher, i.e. he rejects the dualist view that there are two fundamental essences to reality - matter and mind. He believes that matter is all there is and that mind is just a word we use to describe the functioning of the brain.

Nevertheless, in a paper on the subject he acknowledges that, though it pains him to say it, materialism is little more than a prejudice. The arguments for materialism, he notes, are no better than the arguments for dualism:

I mean to have shown here that although Cartesian dualism faces some serious objections, that does not distinguish it from other philosophical theories, and the objections are not an order of magnitude worse than those confronting materialism in particular. There remain the implausibilities required by the Cartesian view; but bare claim of implausibility is not argument. Nor have we seen any good argument for materialism. The dialectical upshot is that, on points, and going just by actual arguments as opposed to appeals to decency and what good guys believe, materialism is not significantly better supported than dualism.

Yet, I am inclined to believe, the charge of implausibility is not irrational or arational either, and I would not want this paper to turn anyone dualist. Have a nice day.

In the paper Lycan observes that the strongest argument against dualism is the incomprehensibility of two fundamentally disparate substances, mind and matter, interacting in the brain to produce mental phenomena. It's hard to imagine how an immaterial substance like mind could act causally on matter. Lycan doesn't think that this is much of an objection because we scarcely understand causality in the first place.

In this he is joined by a lot of other philosophers who, in the words of J.P. Moreland, find the so-called interaction problem to be "the most exaggerated problem in the history of philosophy." I discussed the problem recently here.

If the materialist wishes to cite "interactionism" as an objection to dualism he must confront the inconvenient difficulty that materialists themselves have long believed that disparate entities or substances could interact even though their interaction was incomprehensible. How, for example, does space generate quantum particles? Indeed, how does matter bend space? Whatever one's conception of space it's very difficult to conceive how such things happen. If a materialist, nevertheless, believes they do, as most thinkers since Einstein have, then it seems a case of special pleading to exclude mind/brain interaction on the grounds that we have no theory to explain how it could occur.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Ruse Seems Confused

Florida State philosopher of biology Michael Ruse has a piece at the New York Times' Opinionator in which he explores some reasons why some of the more well-known among his fellow atheists get so upset over religious belief. After cataloguing some of the more egregious crimes committed by religious believers in the 20th century - the abuse of boys by Catholic priests, the too numerous to count atrocities committed by Muslim fanatics (strangely, he neglects to mention the roughly 100 million murders committed in the 20th century in the name of state atheism) - he says this:
What is truly striking is that atheists of Dawkins’s stripe don’t just say that believing in God is an intellectual mistake. They also claim that it’s morally wrong to believe in the existence of God or gods. You might think there is something a little funny here.
Well, I do think there's something funny about this, although as we'll see later Ruse actually doesn't, but he should. What's "a little funny" is that an atheist like Dawkins would say that believing in God, or anything, for that matter, is morally wrong. Dawkins once said that the universe is a place where there really is "no purpose, no evil and no good." He also once remarked that it was difficult, on atheism, to say why Hitler was wrong. It is a little odd that someone who says this sort of thing would then assert that believing in God was morally wrong.

In any case, Ruse comments that there are a number of arguments which support belief in God. He discusses two in particular, the cosmic fine-tuning argument and the argument from consciousness:
This is a pretty remarkable state of affairs that we have here — planets, suns, organisms, humans and so forth. Why is there any of it? Why is there something rather than nothing? This question is not about the Big Bang or if anything went before. It is about the very fact of existence. One doesn’t expect something like this, with its astounding interdependency and innumerable complex parts functioning in service of the whole, to just happen.

The existence of consciousness, or sentience, can be seen in the same way. Brain science has thrown a lot of light on the way we think, but the very fact of thinking is a puzzle. And the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of progress forward. We know a lot about how conscious states are correlated with brain states, but this tells us nothing about how consciousness as we experience it could be a brain state.

Can such a wonderful universe be entirely without point?
This is all to the good, but then, says Ruse, you start to look at the other side.
According to many monotheistic religions, God is supposed to be both all loving and all powerful. If so, why does he/she allow human suffering? For war, starvation or painful diseases to exist? And more to the point, perhaps, why does he allow the abuse of children by members of the clergy of his/her own religion, whether they be Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis, Muslim clerics or Protestant pastors?
Fair enough. The problem of suffering and evil has long been a difficult problem for theistic philosophers, but then he seems to lapse into silliness:
This is only a small sample of what is going on in the minds of atheists. Yes, there are good reasons to think that there is more than meets the eye. But no, the Christian and other theistic solutions are simply not adequate. So, if there are so many problems with theistic belief, why do people continue to take it seriously? The truth is that many don’t. In parts of the world where people are allowed and encouraged to take these things seriously and to think them through, people increasingly find that they can do without the God factor. It is in places where one is being indoctrinated from childhood and bullied in adulthood that people continue with God belief.
The problem with this is that there are tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of people who count themselves believers who were never indoctrinated as children nor bullied as adults. Journalist Kirstin Powers' story is typical of many.
Even more, it seems morally repugnant to accept — if not rejoice in — living in a world ruled by the God of religions. The moral repugnance is only increased when we see the self-deception and indoctrination that leads people to accept such astounding claims on such paltry evidence. Here it is worth recalling the Victorian philosopher and mathematician W. K. Clifford’s admonition: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” That universal claim may be too strong. But too often religious believers seem oblivious to Clifford’s admonition and accept things with way too little evidence.
Yes, it is indeed too strong. In fact it's so strong that it refutes even itself. If one accepts Clifford's admonition, they're wrong to do so since there's no evidence that it's true. Clifford's maxim is self-referentially incoherent, but Ruse's insistent resort to moral censure in this article is, well, if not self-refuting, at least inconsistent with much else that he's said in the past. For example, he closes with this:
That I much suspect is what motivates the New Atheists and in fact expresses the deepest and most powerful moral objection to theism.
But elsewhere Ruse has written that "morality is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate." It's hard to see how there can be powerful moral objections to theism if moral objections are nothing more than illusions. This is a problem for naturalists like Ruse who'd like to have things both ways. On the one hand, their naturalistic metaphysics demands that they abandon belief in any objective morality, but on the other hand, they simply cannot resist the temptation to employ moral rhetoric. Ruse claims that belief in God is morally repugnant, but whether it is or isn't at least it's not irrational, like saying that a belief is morally repugnant while also holding that morality is an illusion. One has to be more than a bit confused to commit an error like that.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Easter and Miracles

The Christian world is preparing to celebrate what much of the rest of the Western world finds literally incredible, the revivification of a man 2000 years ago who had been dead for several days. Modernity finds such an account simply unbelievable. It would be a miracle if such a thing happened, moderns tell us, and in a scientific age everyone knows that miracles don't happen.

If pressed to explain how, exactly, science has made belief in miracles obsolete and how the modern person knows that miracles don't happen, the skeptic will often fall back on an argument first articulated by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (d.1776). Hume wrote that miracles are a violation of the laws of nature and as a firm and unalterable experience tells us that there has never been a violation of the laws of nature it follows that any report of a miracle is most likely to be false. Thus, since we should always believe what is most probable, and since any natural explanation of an alleged miracle is more probable than that a law of nature was broken, we are never justified in believing that a miracle occurred.

It has often been pointed out that Hume's argument suffers from the circularity of basing the claim that reports of miracles are not reliable upon the belief that there's never been a reliable report of one. However, we can only conclude that there's never been a reliable report of one if we know a priori that all historical reports are false, and we can only know that if we know that miracles are impossible. But we can only know they're impossible if we know that all reports of miracles are unreliable.

But set that dizzying circularity aside. Set aside, too, the fact that one can say that miracles don't happen only if one can say with certainty that there is no God.

Let's look instead at the claim that miracles are prohibitively improbable because they violate the laws of nature.

A law of nature is simply a description of how nature operates whenever we observe it. The laws are often statistical. I.e. if molecules of hot water are added to a pot of molecules of cold water the molecules will tend to eventually distribute themselves evenly throughout the container so that the water achieves a uniform temperature. It would be extraordinarily improbable, though not impossible, nor a violation of any law, for the hot molecules on one occasion to segregate themselves all on one side of the pot.

Similarly, miracles may not violate the natural order at all. Rather they may be highly improbable phenomena that would never be expected to happen in the regular course of events except for the intervention of Divine will. Like the segregation of hot and cold water, the reversal of the process of bodily decomposition is astronomically improbable, but it's not impossible, and if it happened it wouldn't be a violation of any law.

The ironic thing about the skeptics' attitude toward the miracle of the resurrection of Christ is that they refuse to admit that there's good evidence for it because a miracle runs counter to their experience and understanding of the world. Yet they have no trouble believing other things that also run counter to their experience.

For example, moderns have no trouble believing that living things arose from non-living chemicals, that the information-rich properties of life emerged by random chaos and chance, or that our extraordinarily improbable, highly-precise universe exists by fortuitous accident. They ground their belief in these things on their belief that there could be an infinite number of different universes, none of which is observable, and in an infinite number of worlds even highly improbable events are bound to happen.

Richard Dawkins, for example, rules out miracles because they are highly improbable, and then in the very next breath tells us that the origin of life, which also seems just as highly improbable, is almost inevitable, given the vastness of time and space.

Extensive time and/or the existence of an infinite number of worlds make the improbable inevitable, he and others argue. There's no evidence of other worlds, unfortunately, but part of the faith commitment of the modern thinker is to hold that they must exist. The modern thinker clings to this conviction because if these things aren't so then life and the universe must have a personal, rather than a scientific, explanation and that discovery would deal a considerable metaphysical shock to his psyche.

Nevertheless, if infinite time and infinite worlds can be invoked to explain life and the cosmos why can't they be invoked to explain "miracles" as well? If there are a near infinite series of universes, as has been proposed in order to avoid the problem posed by cosmic fine-tuning, then surely in all the zillions of universes of the multiverse landscape there has to be at least one in which a man capable of working miracles is born and himself rises from the dead. We just happen to be in the world in which it happens. Why should the multiverse hypothesis be able to explain the fine-tuning of the cosmos and the origin of life but not a man rising from the dead?

For the person who relies on the multiverse explanation to account for the precision of the cosmic parameters and constants and for the abiogenic origin of life, the resurrection of a dead man should be no problem. Given enough worlds and enough time it's a cinch to happen.

No one who's willing to believe in a multiverse should be a skeptic about miracles. Indeed, no one who's willing to believe in the multiverse can think that anything at all is improbable. Given the multiverse everything that is not logically impossible must be inevitable.

Of course, the skeptic's real problem is not that a man rose from the dead. His real problem is with the claim that God deliberately raised this man from the dead. That's what they find repugnant, but they can't admit that because in order to justify their rejection of the claim they'd have to be able to prove that there is no God, or that God's existence is improbable, and that they cannot do.

If, though, one is willing to assume that there are an infinite number of universes out there in order to explain the properties of our universe, why would he have trouble accepting that there's a Mind out there that's responsible for raising Jesus from the dead? After all, there's a lot more evidence for the latter than there is for the former.