Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Call for a New New Atheism

Patrick O'Connor is an atheist who offers a critique of current iterations of atheism at The Business Insider. The crux of his essay is that New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Alex Rosenberg, et al. are presenting a form of atheism that does not address the existential needs of modern people, and O'Connor thinks this risks rendering atheism irrelevant in contemporary society. He writes:
Atheism is so often considered in the negative: as a lack of faith, or a disbelief in god; as an essential deprivation. Atheism is seen as being destitute of meaning, value, purpose; unfertile ground for growing the feelings of belonging needed to overcome the alienation that dogs modern life.

In more extreme critiques, atheism is considered to be another name for nihilism; a fundamental negation of existence, a noxious blight on creation itself.

Yet atheists – rather than flippantly dismissing the insights of theologians – should take them seriously indeed. Humans, by dint of being human, are confronted with baffling questions about meaning, belonging, direction, our connection to other humans and the fate of our species as a whole . The human impulse is to seek answers, and to date, atheism has been unsatisfactory in its response.
This is true enough for the simple reason that atheism as such has no response to give that would satisfy these yearnings, nor could it produce one. O'Connor finds Dawkins unduly bleak as in this well-known passage:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.
But Dawkins is hardly the only atheist who recognizes the dark implications of atheism. Listen to Nobel laureate in physics Steven Weinberg:
[T]he worldview of science [i.e. atheism] is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, .... we even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.
And 20th century atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, who lived and wrote two generations before the new atheists came on the scene, is no more upbeat:
Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins - all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
Quotes from famous atheists read as though they were surreptitiously inserted into the larger culture by prozac manufacturers to enhance the sale of their product. O'Connor, though, continues, determined to persuade his fellow atheists to be more optimistic about the benefits of atheism:
Atheist values are typically defined as humanistic. If we look to the values of the British Humanist Association, we see that it promotes naturalism, rational debate, and the pre-eminence of evidence, cooperation, progress and individual dignity. These are noble aspirations, but they are ultimately brittle when tackling the visceral and existential problems confronting humanity in this period of history. When one considers the destruction that advanced capitalism visits on communities – from environmental catastrophes to war and genocide – then the atheist is the last person one thinks of calling for solace, or for a meaningful ethical and political alternative.
Precisely so, if we ignore the swipe at capitalism and ignore, too, that the wars of the 20th century which costs millions of lives were instigated by atheists in states some of which were officially atheistic. But setting that aside, why would anyone call upon someone for a meaningful ethical alternative to the evils of the modern world whose worldview undercuts the possibility of any meaningful morality at all?
In the brutal economic reality of a neo-liberal, market-oriented world, these concerns are rarely given due consideration when debating the questions surrounding the existence or non-existence of god. The persistent and unthinking atheist habit is to ground all that is important on individual freedom, individual assertions of non-belief and vacant appeals to scientific evidence. But these appeals remain weak when confronting financial crises, gender inequality, diminished public health and services, food banks, and economic deprivation.
O'Connor just doesn't seem to realize that atheism lacks the resources to address any of these issues. There's simply no basis on atheism for saying that anyone ought to act against his or her own self-interest.

His essay takes a stunning turn when he advocates that atheism abandon humanistic values and embrace the thinking of Nietzsche, Marx, and Sartre:
Instead, we can look to a different breed of atheism, found in the work of continental, anti-humanist philosophers. For example, we can turn to Nietzsche to understand the resentments generated by human suffering. Meanwhile, the Marxist tradition offers us the means to understand the material conditions of unsustainable capitalism. Existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus allow us to comprehend our shared mortality, and the humour and tragedy of life in a godless universe. There is a whole other philosophical vocabulary for atheism to explore. Both Nietzsche and Sartre observe a different atheism, one embedded in the context of genuine questions of cruelty, economic alienation, anxiety and mortality.
Okay, but if you want a lodestar by which to guide your ethics in the modern world, embracing a man who praises cruelty (Nietzsche) and a man who insists upon the meaninglessness of human existence (Sartre) is going to have a lot of people wondering how this is any better than the empty hopelessness offered by Weinberg and Dawkins.

Here's a sample of Nietzsche: “To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle [....] Without cruelty there is no festival.”

And here's Sartre in a nutshell: "Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal."

The unpleasant truth is that if atheism is true then, as many atheists themselves tells us, it's also true that there is no good reason to think that human beings have free-will, a self (or soul), dignity, or a meaning for their existence. Nor is there any reason to think that there's a basis for human rights, hope, a belief in consciousness, ultimate justice, or objective moral duties.

In other words there's not much there to offer people looking to satisfy the existential emptiness of life in a post-Christian world. O'Connor's call for an atheism that gives answers is like a call for cool water in the desert. It's just not in the nature of thing to provide what's being asked of it.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Follow-up to Friday's Post

A friend and I have had some back and forth over Friday's post (Lukewarmism) on the article by Matt Ridley which critiques attempts to convince the world that global warming is not only real and anthropogenic but also that it's dangerous. Ridley thinks that those insisting that it's dangerous not only exaggerate what we know, but are relying on questionable methodology and, in some cases, repression of evidence and contrary interpretations. My friend disagrees. As part of our exchange I wrote this:
In any case, my purpose in doing a post on this wasn't to challenge the reality of global warming but rather to discourage the credulity with which we seem to be accepting the most dire pronouncements of scientists rather than doing ourselves what scientists and others should be doing which is trying to falsify the claims that the IPCC and others are making.

That's what good science (and a good citizenry) does. Someone reports a finding in a paper and other researchers calmly and objectively try to duplicate the reported results, or to pick apart the original methodology, or otherwise show that the work doesn't withstand scrutiny. If the reported findings do hold up to the best efforts to falsify or refute them then they become part of accepted scientific thinking, at least tentatively.

Unfortunately, we've abandoned the traditional methodology and replaced it with ideological confirmation. Claims are now to be accepted uncritically and doubt is to be prohibited if the claim conforms to ideological fashion and fits our preconceptions.

Fashion and popular opinion should have no influence on our intellectual judgments, but we've not only allowed these factors to sway us, we've allowed it to the point where anyone who seeks to exercise the proper sort of skepticism is considered a crank, and some even demand that the person who's seeking to ascertain whether the emperor really is clothed be thrown in jail to shut him up. We've become a society that lurches from one hysterical reaction to another - e.g. We rush to take the confederate flag out of stores, even out of Gettysburg NP(!), while leaving swastikas unmolested - rather than doing the hard work of rationally and objectively challenging and probing what we're being told by the scientific establishment for inconsistencies, errors, and fraud.

In the late sixties, a biologist by the name of Paul Ehrlich wrote a book titled The Population Bomb in which he predicted that the earth would run out of food and other natural resources by the 1990s, and the apocalypse would be upon us. Like so many similar prognostications it never happened, and the lesson we should take from past experiences such as this is that it's appropriate to be skeptical of such forecasts until we have very good reason to trust the research and the researchers. Ridley's article, which formed the basis of Friday's Viewpoint, suggests that in the climate change controversy we're not there yet.
Maybe the alarmists are right and we are headed for eco-catastrophe, but we shouldn't assume they're right just because they're scientists, and since so much is at stake we should be sure that what they're telling us is supported by facts and is not just a product of self-interested motivation or sloppy professional practice. On the matter of climate change the motivations and procedures of at least some proponents still seem open to question.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Marketplace of Ideas

When it comes to hypocrisy and muddled reasoning it's often hard to top the progressive left. Consider John Micek, op-ed editor of the Pennsylvania newspaper the Harrisburg Patriot-News, who immediately after the Supreme Court handed down its Obergefell ruling on Friday, declared that no op-eds or letters to the editor critical of same-sex marriage would henceforth be permitted.

Mr. Micek's reasoning, if such it could be called, was stunning.
As a result of Friday's ruling, PennLive/The Patriot-News will very strictly limit op-Eds [sic] and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage. These unions are now the law of the land. And we will not publish such letters and op-Eds [sic] any more than we would publish those that are racist, sexist or anti-Semitic.
The comparison is bogus, of course. Mr. Micek assumes that opposition to same-sex marriage is a form of bigotry, like racism, but this is like saying that people who oppose, say, the establishment of a tavern in their neighborhood are motivated by hatred against the people, perhaps including their own family members, who'd patronize it. Just as there may be very good reasons to oppose the tavern, there may be very good reasons to oppose gay marriage, but a plurality of one lawyer on the Court has said that gay marriage is now legal, and for folks like Mr. Micek its new-found legality has closed the debate over whether it should be legal.

To see the hypocrisy of the Patriot-News' policy, though, simply note that the Court also made abortion on demand the "law of the land" in 1973. Does the Patriot-News censor op-eds and letters which dissent from the current abortion regime? Moreover, the Court has made it the "law of the land" that it's legal to view pornography, to own firearms, and for corporations to make large contributions to political figures. Does the Patriot-News prohibit objections to these activities from appearing in its pages? If not, why carve out an exception for gay marriage? Where, exactly, does Mr. Micek draw the line between what's suitable for discussion and what's not?

Liberal/progressive/leftists consider freedom to express one's opinions a very dangerous thing. Dissent, disagreement, and freedom are intolerable because they impede social progress, as the liberal defines progress, and their knee-jerk reaction to it is to suppress it everywhere they can. Mr. Micek affords us a fine example of the mind-set.

Update: Micek has since tried to backtrack from his initial comments, which have apparently created a national firestorm, but he hasn't rescinded the policy.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Lukewarmism

Matt Ridley, zoologist, science journalist, member of the British House of Lords has a brilliant piece at The Quadrant Online in which he dissects the current climate change debate. The picture he paints is not pretty, but it's crucially important. In his article he discusses the poor science, fraud, gestapo tactics, grubby motivations, and sheer incompetence of many prominent climate change alarmists.

Ridley himself was once a believer in warming, but disillusioned by so much of what he saw close-up in the climate-change community he has partly left the faith. Here's his explanation:
[T]he great thing about science is that it’s self-correcting. The good drives out the bad, because experiments get replicated and hypotheses put to the test. So a really bad idea cannot survive long in science.

Or so I used to think. Now, thanks largely to climate science, I have changed my mind. It turns out bad ideas can persist in science for decades, and surrounded by myrmidons of furious defenders they can turn into intolerant dogmas.

This should have been obvious to me. Lysenkoism, a pseudo-biological theory that plants (and people) could be trained to change their heritable natures, helped starve millions and yet persisted for decades in the Soviet Union, reaching its zenith under Nikita Khrushchev. The theory that dietary fat causes obesity and heart disease, based on a couple of terrible studies in the 1950s, became unchallenged orthodoxy and is only now fading slowly.

What these two ideas have in common is that they had political support, which enabled them to monopolise debate. Scientists are just as prone as anybody else to “confirmation bias”, the tendency we all have to seek evidence that supports our favoured hypothesis and dismiss evidence that contradicts it—as if we were counsel for the defence. It’s tosh that scientists always try to disprove their own theories, as they sometimes claim, and nor should they. But they do try to disprove each other’s. Science has always been decentralised, so Professor Smith challenges Professor Jones’s claims, and that’s what keeps science honest.

What went wrong with Lysenko and dietary fat was that in each case a monopoly was established. Lysenko’s opponents were imprisoned or killed. Nina Teicholz’s book The Big Fat Surprise shows in devastating detail how opponents of Ancel Keys’s dietary fat hypothesis were starved of grants and frozen out of the debate by an intolerant consensus backed by vested interests, echoed and amplified by a docile press.

This is precisely what has happened with the climate debate and it is at risk of damaging the whole reputation of science. The “bad idea” in this case is not that climate changes, nor that human beings influence climate change; but that the impending change is sufficiently dangerous to require urgent policy responses.
Ridley now describes himself as a "lukewarmer:"
These scientists and their guardians of the flame repeatedly insist that there are only two ways of thinking about climate change—that it’s real, man-made and dangerous (the right way), or that it’s not happening (the wrong way). But this is a false dichotomy. There is a third possibility: that it’s real, partly man-made and not dangerous. This is the “lukewarmer” school, and I am happy to put myself in this category. Lukewarmers do not think dangerous climate change is impossible; but they think it is unlikely.

I find that very few people even know of this. Most ordinary people who do not follow climate debates assume that either it’s not happening or it’s dangerous. This suits those with vested interests in renewable energy, since it implies that the only way you would be against their boondoggles is if you “didn’t believe” in climate change.
There's much more at the link. His catalog of scandals among climate-change promoters, his comparison of the treatment of those who dare commit climate-change heresy with the way Islamists treat "heretics," and the egregiously sloppy science that underlies much of the popular discourse on climate-change are well-worth reading. Here's a good example to conclude with. Ridley begins it by citing some recent claims by politicians about the threat of global climate change:
“Doubt has been eliminated,” said Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and UN Special Representative on Climate Change, in a speech in 2007: “It is irresponsible, reckless and deeply immoral to question the seriousness of the situation. The time for diagnosis is over. Now it is time to act.” John Kerry says we have no time for a meeting of the flat-earth society. Barack Obama says that 97 per cent of scientists agree that climate change is “real, man-made and dangerous”. That’s just a lie (or a very ignorant remark): as I point out above, there is no consensus that it’s dangerous.

So where’s the outrage from scientists at this presidential distortion? It’s worse than that, actually. The 97 per cent figure is derived from two pieces of pseudoscience that would have embarrassed a homeopath. The first was a poll that found that 97 per cent of just seventy-nine scientists thought climate change was man-made—not that it was dangerous. A more recent poll of 1854 members of the American Meteorological Society found the true number is 52 per cent.

The second source of the 97 per cent number was a survey of scientific papers, which has now been comprehensively demolished by Professor Richard Tol of Sussex University, who is probably the world’s leading climate economist. As the Australian blogger Joanne Nova summarised Tol’s findings, John Cook of the University of Queensland and his team used an unrepresentative sample, left out much useful data, used biased observers who disagreed with the authors of the papers they were classifying nearly two-thirds of the time, and collected and analysed the data in such a way as to allow the authors to adjust their preliminary conclusions as they went along, a scientific no-no if ever there was one.

The data could not be replicated, and Cook himself threatened legal action to hide them. Yet neither the journal nor the university where Cook works has retracted the paper, and the scientific establishment refuses to stop citing it, let alone blow the whistle on it. Its conclusion is too useful.
No wonder Ridley fears for the reputation of science.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Simply Inexplicable

The Supreme Court has ruled 6-3 in King v. Burwell that when the Affordable Care Act says plainly that people are eligible for federal health insurance subsidies in those states in which the state has set up insurance exchanges, the Act really means that people will receive subsidies whether the state has established exchanges or not.

This is a simply inexplicable reading of the Obamacare law. The Court is saying, in effect, that it doesn't matter what the law says we're going to make it say what we think it should have said. This is very disconcerting inasmuch as it makes clear that we live in a country where words and laws don't matter, a country that is no longer of, by, or for the people, a country which it may not be far-fetched to think is teetering frighteningly close to the brink of judicial tyranny.

A common-sense ruling by the Court, whose job it is to determine whether laws are consonant with the Constitution, would have been to determine that Congress employed sloppy language in writing the law, that if they intended subsidies to be available to people regardless of whether the state in which they reside had set up exchanges, then that's what they should have said and then handed the law back to Congress to fix it. That would've been the proper exercise of their judicial responsibility and constitutional authority. Instead, they usurped the prerogative of Congress and undertook to fix it themselves, a task that's beyond their constitutional purview.

"But," some will object, "the law was passed by a Democratic congress. The current Republican congress would not have fixed it, and failure to do so would've made the Affordable Care Act unsustainable." Perhaps so, but that's what it means to have a government by the people. The voters evicted the Democrats from office in 2010 and 2014 largely because they don't want Obamacare and want the law changed. The legislature expresses the voice and the will of the people. If the Republican congress allowed Obamacare to die then the people's will would've been done. The six Justices who voted to fix the law themselves are not accountable to the people and had no business in deciding what the people's will in this matter should be, particularly since there were no constitutional issues at stake.

There are several other matters very much worthy of our concern in their decision. One is the precedent it sets. It's bad enough that the president frequently circumvents the laws of the land by executive order, but if the Supreme Court also bypasses the legislature when the legislature passes a law of which they disapprove then no law is really binding. Congress has been gelded, everyone will feel entitled do what is right in his own eyes, and there's nothing to guide or constrain those at the helm of state except current ideological fashion and social pressure.

Another matter that's rarely mentioned but which is deeply troubling is that four of the Justices on the current Court are expected as a matter of course to decide in accord with the wishes of Mr. Obama on anything of importance to him. It's taken for granted by the media that Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Breyer will always give Mr. Obama what he wants. In other words, we've come to accept with little more than a shrug that the concept of judicial independence is a sham, that it's ideology which rules on the Court, that it's members, or some of them, are little more than partisan hacks, and neither the law nor the Constitution are allowed to trump political necessity.

Justice Scalia's dissenting opinion in King is brilliant, by the way, and should be read by everyone who cares about the future of the country. Ed Morrissey provides a helpful summary of both Scalia's dissent and the profoundly unconvincing reasoning of the majority at Hot Air.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Philosophy: What's the Use?

Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting addresses a question in the New York Times section called The Stone that a lot of students ask: What's the use of philosophy? Here's part of what he says:
Almost every article that appears in The Stone provokes some comments from readers challenging the very idea that philosophy has anything relevant to say to non-philosophers. There are, in particular, complaints that philosophy is an irrelevant “ivory-tower” exercise, useless to any except those interested in logic-chopping for its own sake.

There is an important conception of philosophy that falls to this criticism. Associated especially with earlier modern philosophers, particularly René Descartes, this conception sees philosophy as the essential foundation of the beliefs that guide our everyday life. For example, I act as though there is a material world and other people who experience it as I do.

But how do I know that any of this is true? Couldn’t I just be dreaming of a world outside my thoughts? And, since (at best) I see only other human bodies, what reason do I have to think that there are any minds connected to those bodies? To answer these questions, it would seem that I need rigorous philosophical arguments for my existence and the existence of other thinking humans.

Of course, I don’t actually need any such arguments, if only because I have no practical alternative to believing that I and other people exist. As soon as we stop thinking weird philosophical thoughts, we immediately go back to believing what skeptical arguments seem to call into question. And rightly so, since, as David Hume pointed out, we are human beings before we are philosophers.
Gutting goes on to assert that we don't need arguments or evidence to believe much of what we do believe. We're perfectly justified and rational, for instance, to believe that we're not in the Matrix, or that we had cereal for breakfast this morning (if we remember that we did), or that I'm experiencing a toothache, or seeing blue, or that other people aren't mindless zombies, or that the world is more than five minutes old. These beliefs are "properly basic" and we're rational to hold them until someone can give us a good reason to think we're mistaken (what philosophers call a "defeater").
Even though basic beliefs on ethics, politics and religion do not require prior philosophical justification, they do need what we might call “intellectual maintenance,” which itself typically involves philosophical thinking. Religious believers, for example, are frequently troubled by the existence of horrendous evils in a world they hold was created by an all-good God. Some of their trouble may be emotional, requiring pastoral guidance. But religious commitment need not exclude a commitment to coherent thought. For instance, often enough believers want to know if their belief in God makes sense given the reality of evil. The philosophy of religion is full of discussions relevant to this question.

Similarly, you may be an atheist because you think all arguments for God’s existence are obviously fallacious. But if you encounter, say, a sophisticated version of the cosmological argument, or the design argument from fine-tuning, you may well need a clever philosopher to see if there’s anything wrong with it.

In addition to defending our basic beliefs against objections, we frequently need to clarify what our basic beliefs mean or logically entail. So, if I say I would never kill an innocent person, does that mean that I wouldn’t order the bombing of an enemy position if it might kill some civilians? Does a commitment to democratic elections require one to accept a fair election that puts an anti-democratic party into power? Answering such questions requires careful conceptual distinctions, for example, between direct and indirect results of actions, or between a morality of intrinsically wrong actions and a morality of consequences.
The "intellectual maintenance" Gutting talks about requires providing replies to defeaters that are adduced against one's beliefs, as well as supplying defeaters against the beliefs of others which are incompatible with our own. This may entail drawing out the conclusions of a belief to show that if followed logically the belief leads to conclusions that the person holding it would not want to embrace.

For example, Alvin Plantinga, whom Gutting mentions in his essay, has shown that there is indeed a conflict between science and religion, but it's not the conflict many suppose. The conflict, ironically enough, is between science and naturalism (the belief that nature is all there is). If, Plantinga argues, our cognitive faculties are indeed the product of a long evolutionary process then those faculties have evolved to enable us to survive, they have not evolved to enable us to apprehend truth.

Knowing what's true may sometimes enhance survival, but if so, it does so only coincidentally. Survival of one's genes can as easily be enhanced by false beliefs. Primitive reason might've led early hominids to believe, for example, that great heavenly rewards await those who sire dozens of children, or that it's right to kill off those rivals who belong to clans and tribes other than one's own. Both of these beliefs would lead to the survival and propagation of the cognitive abilities of those who hold them even though they're both false.

One only has a basis to trust the deliverances of one's thinking processes if one is a theist who believes that God gave us those processes and abilities to enable us to discover truth. The naturalist on the other hand, is in the awkward position of having to affirm that evolution causes those thinking processes to develop in order to make survival, not the discovery of truth, more likely.

Thus, if naturalism is true, the naturalist who believes in evolution (virtually all of them) has no basis for believing that his reason has reliably led him to his belief that naturalism is true. In other words, evolution is incompatible with the conviction that naturalism is true, but a theist who believes that God used evolution in order to produce cognitive faculties geared toward discovering truth has no problem reconciling his theism with evolution.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What We Should Be Talking About

In the wake of the Charleston, SC tragedy there's been much discussion of "root causes" and "work to be done," and so on. Much of the talk, it seems to me, illustrates Mark Twain's aphorism that "there are thousands hacking at the branches of evil for every one who is hacking at the root."

For example, many, if not most, of the individuals who've committed a mass murder in this country have been on some sort of anti-depressant drugs. Many of them were heavily involved in violent video games, and most, if not all, of them had tenuous relationships at best with their fathers. Yet all the talk on the cable shows, that I've heard, anyway, has been about the urgent need to ban the confederate flag and guns.

I have no truck with the stars and bars for reasons explained very well today by my friend Mike Mitchell at his blog Thought Sifter, but does anyone think that had there been no flag flying atop the state capitol building that Dylann Roof would not have committed his horrible crime?

What we should be talking about are the effects of psychotropic drugs and constant exposure to simulated violence on young men's brains, as well as the effect of fatherlessness on a boy's value system and perception of the world. Unfortunately, however, this is not a conversation that the left wants to have because it's the left's fundamental beliefs and policies which have spawned these problems in the first place. It's a lot easier to talk about flags and guns because these the left has had nothing to do with.

So we'll continue to ignore the root of our social dysfunction and hack instead at the branches, and we'll doubtless continue to experience heart-wrenching tragedies at the hands of drug-addled, violence besotted, fatherless young men.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Misunderstanding Conservatism

There is, I think, a lot of misunderstanding as to what conservatism and liberalism are in the contemporary political landscape. Both terms have evolved over the centuries and mean different things today than they did two hundred years ago. Doubtless this is part of the reason for the misunderstanding, but there are other reasons as well. For instance, the popular misunderstanding is due in no small measure to the distortions of the media which seems to have the unfortunate ability to get almost everything that involves subtle distinctions wrong. It's also due, in part, to the fact that conservatism and liberalism are culturally relative. For example, as Jonah Goldberg at National Review Online, observes:
A conservative in America wants to conserve radically different things than a conservative in Saudi Arabia, Russia, or France does. Even British conservatives — our closest ideological cousins — want to preserve the monarchy, an institution we fought a revolution to get rid of. In the Soviet Union, the “conservatives” were the ones who wanted to preserve and defend the Bolshevik Revolution.
In Saudi Arabia the conservatives want to preserve a strict form of Islam. Indeed, ISIS is a conservative movement. In the antebellum South conservatives wanted to preserve slavery, and in modern Russia it's the conservatives who wish to return to the days of the Soviet Union. In the modern American context, however, conservatism is essentially the desire, as paradoxical as it may sound, to preserve classical liberalism. It's the desire to hold fast to what has been proven through the ages to work, religiously, politically, economically, morally, and socially. It's a reluctance to change just for the sake of change. It recognizes that if something ain't broke it's foolish to try to fix it, and if it is broke the fix is often worse than the original brokenness.

Goldberg elaborates on the relationship between conservatism and classical liberalism:
America’s founding doctrine is properly understood as classical liberalism — or until the progressives stole the label, simply “liberalism.” Until socialism burst on the scene in Europe, liberalism was universally understood as the opposite of conservatism. That’s because European conservatism sought to defend and maintain monarchy, aristocracy, and even feudalism.

The American Founding, warts and all, was the apotheosis of classical liberalism, and conservatism here has always been about preserving it. That’s why Friedrich Hayek, in his fantastic — and fantastically misunderstood — essay “Why I am Not a Conservative” could say that America was the one polity where one could be a conservative and a defender of the liberal tradition.
Classical liberals, unlike their modern progressive counterparts, stood for freedom - freedom of the individual to believe what he wished and to speak his mind without suffering persecution from an intolerant government or social institutions. They also believed in the ability of free markets to maximize economic well-being, in the deadening effect of taxation, and in the dangers of big government. They believed in the inherent tendency of men toward evil and, for the most part, in the salutary effect of Christian belief on man's most destructive impulses.

So, I join with Goldberg when he says at the end of his piece that "It’s also why I have no problem with people who say that American conservatism is simply classical liberalism. As a shorthand, that’s fine by me."

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Why He Did It

Dylann Roof did what he did for the same reason that James Holmes (Colorado movie murderer), Adam Lanza (the Sandy Hook school murderer), the Columbine school killers, and, before people get too far down the road of blaming white racism as uniquely responsible for Roof's atrocity, let's remember Colin Ferguson who murdered six and injured nineteen whites on the Long Island Railroad in Garden City, New York in 1993, whose motive was "black rage." These were people who, whatever their mental health might have been, were seeking to make themselves noticed, to attach some significance to their otherwise meaningless, pathetic lives.

As another mass murderer, serial cannibalist Jeffrey Dahmer, once said: "If a person doesn't think there's a God to be accountable to, then what's the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That's how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from slime. When we died that was it, there is nothing."

A society that has expunged God from its consciousness and rendered him irrelevant has also eliminated any hope for objective meaning and moral value. Everyone of these killers lived or lives a life empty of meaning and moral value because they had been raised without any sense of a relationship with, or a responsibility to, a transcendent, personal, moral authority.

Atheists get angry when it's suggested that atheism leads to the conclusions I've mentioned, but it's hard to avoid it and most thoughtful atheists admit it. An atheist can seek out subjective purpose or impose subjective moral duties upon himself, but there's no adequate objective basis for either. Atheist philosopher Julian Baggini wrote about this in a column in the Guardian a few years ago. He noted that:
The problem with the "atheist" moniker has been recognised for decades. It's too negative, too associated with amoral nihilism. It's understandable then that many would agree with Richard Dawkins that we need a word like "gay" which "should be positive, warm, cheerful, bright". So why not "bright"?

One reason, which I mentioned right at the start of this series, is that it sounds too smug. But there's an even more important reason why we should not choose a word that is "positive, warm, cheerful": although many atheists are all those things, atheism itself is none of them.
Atheism, in other words, gives no reason why anyone should be happy and pleasant aside from their inherent disposition to be so.
Given how the atheist stereotype has been one of the dark, brooding existentialist gripped by the angst of a purposeless universe, this is understandable. But frankly, I think we've massively overcompensated, and in doing so we've blurred an important distinction. Atheists should point out that life without God can be meaningful, moral and happy. But that's "can" not "is" or even "should usually be". And that means it can just as easily be meaningless, nihilistic and miserable.
Baggini is right to say that atheists can live happy, meaningful, moral lives. Indeed, they can live any kind of life they wish, but on atheism there's no ultimate meaning to anything we do. On the atheist view, we're all like the band on the Titanic continuing to play while the ship is sinking. It's a nice gesture but pretty meaningless, all things considered. Likewise, the atheist can be "moral" as well, but the point is that, on atheism, one has no duty to act in any particular way. If one works in a soup kitchen on behalf of the poor or massacres people in a Bible study it makes no moral difference.

Dylann Roof can be viewed as a modern embodiment of Camus' character Mersault in his novel The Stranger who gratuitously shoots a man on the beach. Whether he chooses to shoot the man or chooses not to it all means the same, absolutely nothing (in the words of The Cure's Robert Smith):
Baggini continues:
Anyone who thinks it's easy [on atheism] to ground ethics either hasn't done much moral philosophy or wasn't concentrating when they did. Although morality is arguably just as murky for the religious, at least there is some bedrock belief that gives a reason to believe that morality is real and will prevail. In an atheist universe, morality can be rejected without external sanction at any point, and without a clear, compelling reason to believe in its reality, that's exactly what will sometimes happen.
In fact, it's what would often happen if atheists were to follow their atheism to it's logical, nihilistic conclusions. We can be thankful that most atheists don't.

To answer the question implied in the title of this post in a slightly different way, one could say of Dylann Roof that he murdered those people because a) he desired to be significant, to achieve notoriety, b) because he could achieve his desire by committing an infamous atrocity and, c) if he was a young man without God, he had no moral duty not to.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Telling it Like it Isn't

Theologians discuss a doctrine called creation ex nihilo according to which God created the cosmos literally out of nothing. Such a feat is incomprehensible to our finite minds, but perhaps we may resort to a mundane example of creation out of nothing which can help us get a mental handle on the concept. The example I have in mind is the ability of our president to conjure up facts ex nihilo. It's sort of the same thing, and just as one stands in awe of the power of God to create a universe from nothing, so, too, does one stand in awe at the skill of Mr. Obama to fabricate facts out of empty space.

For instance, as David Harsanyi at The Federalist notes, President Obama's statement in the wake of the Charleston church mass murder included, if taken literally, a fact created out of the thinnest of air. The president said:
Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun....We as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.
That second sentence contains a claim that the president concocted out of an epistemic vacuum. Perhaps he didn't intend to be taken at face value and is merely guilty of sloppy rhetoric. Given his history this is not an implausible hypothesis, and charity might demand that we give him the benefit of the doubt, but if he really did mean to be taken literally then he simply has either a very short memory or an uncertain relationship with the virtue of truth-telling.

Harsanyi does some fact checking and reminds us of the Charlie Hebdo murders in France in January, the murders of 69 school children in Norway in 2011, the murders of nine people in the Czech Republic last February, the murders of 13 teachers, two students and a policeman in Germany, and similar episodes in Serbia, Russia, England, Brazil and China in the last few years. He also reminds us that it wasn't too very long ago that one of the most advanced nations in history was throwing people into ovens by the millions, and the enlightened Soviet Union was deliberately starving its citizens to death by the millions. But maybe the president doesn't regard any of these countries as "advanced." This, too, is not implausible since he was, during his candidacy for the White House, under the impression that there were 57 states in the country he sought to govern.

In any case, Harsanyi adds this:
The idea that violence is uniquely American is best left to fringe leftists on college campuses. Moreover, as The Associate Press reported in 2012, many experts contend that mass shootings are not growing in frequency at all. One has data that shows that mass shootings reached their peak in 1929 and have declined steadily since. Overall, gun violence has also been declining since 1993.
Nor is this the first time Mr. Obama has made such a disparaging claim about the United States (can anyone recall when he has ever praised this country for anything?). Last year he stated that:
My biggest frustration has been that this society has not been willing to take some basic steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who can do just unbelievable damage. We are the only developed country on earth where this happens. And that it happens now once a week. And it’s a one day story.
Each of Harsanyi's claims in his essay is linked to a source if you'd like to check his veracity.

Perhaps Mr. Obama only meant that these terrible atrocities happen more often in this country than elsewhere (Harsanyi considers that possibility), but that's not what he said, and if what he said is not what he meant then we're forced to conclude that this man, whom we were assured was one of the most brilliant thinkers ever to occupy the Oval Office, a man whose towering intellect was truly Olympian, is also very careless with his words, even on occasions on which we might expect him to be especially careful in communicating the message he wants to send.

On the other hand, perhaps the message he sends is precisely the message he wants to send.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Astonishing Fit of Mathematics

There's a cool video at New Scientist for all you math types.

Musician Michael Blake has composed a piece of music based on the Golden Ratio. The Golden Ratio is an irrational number whose decimal places go on to infinity. It has fascinated mathematicians, architects, artists, and musicians for two thousand years.

Blake assigned a musical note to each of the first fifteen digits and as the music plays he adds instruments to the composition producing a beautiful melody. Here it is:
Isn't it a rather startling fact that the mathematical structure of the universe should be musical? How did that happen? For that matter, isn't it astonishing that mathematical concepts fit the universe we live in and describe it so elegantly and precisely? That's really quite amazing. In 1960 physicist Eugene Wigner marveled:
The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.
Elsewhere he used the word "miracle" again to describe the awe-inspiring fit that mathematics has with the physical structure of the cosmos:
It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here, quite comparable in its striking nature to the miracle that the human mind can string a thousand arguments together without getting itself into contradictions, or to the two miracles of laws of nature and of the human mind's capacity to divine them.
Scientists have been profoundly moved over the last thirty years by the discovery of how precisely calibrated the forces and parameters of the universe must be, and are, for conscious beings to exist anywhere in it. These phenomena have been referred to as "cosmic coincidences." The fact that the mathematics we can dream up in our minds can be used to describe that universe is surely another breath-taking example of a cosmic coincidence.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Cable Has Snapped

Rush Limbaugh spent most of his show on Monday ruminating about why the culture seems to have fallen so far so fast. It's an interesting question, but I don't think he ever hit upon the correct answer to it, at least not during the snippets I heard (If you catch any fifteen minute segment of his show on any given day you've pretty much heard the whole show. He repeats himself a lot.). As far as I could tell Rush seems to think that the country is in the grip of a mass delusion wherein traditional values are stood on their head, ridiculed, and dispensed with, while the Republicans, to his great dismay, seem reluctant to resist.

As an example of Republican acquiescence he cited the demand by some big Republican donors that GOP candidates just ignore social issues and concentrate their campaigns on economic and foreign policy matters. Of course, many Republicans don't need encouragement to shy away from the social issues because when they do talk about them they flounder about, sounding timid and muddled. Too few of them seem able or willing to articulate a cogent case for traditional values.

In my opinion, the reason for this, and for the cultural decline it abets, is the fact that we've lost the ability to talk about right and wrong, much less normalcy and perversity. Having been cowed by the secular left into accepting the exclusion of religious belief from the public square we're like passengers in an elevator whose cable has snapped. We're in moral free-fall, helpless to do anything to arrest the fall. Lacking any moral brakes or solid ground, or at least lacking a willingness to stand on such ground, Republicans are unable to mount a moral case for traditional values, and so the left closes in for the kill, picking off any Republican who dares to venture an opinion which sounds at all traditional. As the left attacks, the Republicans, like those Iraqi soldiers who heavily outnumbered their ISIS foes but who nevertheless threw down their weapons and ran because they had no leadership, the Republicans flee from the battle out of fear of being abandoned by their fellows and mocked to death in the media for their opinions.

Too many, it seems, believe that if they oppose gay marriage, abortion on demand, transgenderism, transracialism, or assert that single motherhood is less than an ideal environment for raising a child, not only will they be called haters, but they'll be roundly criticized for "injecting morality and social issues into politics," as if it's they who're introducing the issues in the first place. The left has been for a hundred years merrily intent on undoing 2000 years of moral experience and tradition, and if today anyone demurs, if anyone suggests that this might not be a good idea, they're condemned for trying to resist "progress." Like a man being repeatedly slapped in the face who raises his hand to ward off the blows, the traditionalist (dirty word, that) is faulted for trying to defend his values.

In the current moral free-fall anyone who holds views that almost everyone took for granted for 2000 years until the day before yesterday is considered to be on the "fringe," an extremist, a bigot. In the contemporary climate not only must you tolerate activities you might believe to be socially harmful, but if you're a preacher you also must not speak out against them, if you're a politician you must approve of them, and if run a business you must participate in them.

The left at some level understands that personal destruction of those who refuse to go along with the program is really their only effective weapon. They have no rational arguments on their side, if they did they'd use them instead of employing emotional appeals and vitriolic moral opprobrium. Indeed, having banished the use of any religious grounds for moral judgment the left has no basis for their own moral self-righteousness, but that doesn't stop them from resorting to moral rhetoric when it's useful. Nor do the Republicans fail to let them get away with their baseless moral denunciations because the Republicans themselves have accepted the same secular premises as the left. Either that, or they lack the sophistication to highlight the absurdity of the left's strategy of denying any basis for moral judgment to the right while indulging in an orgy of moral judgmentalism themselves.

So, the answer to Rush's questions about how we've come to the place in our society where no one is allowed to openly state and practice their moral convictions without being subjected to vile and vicious hatred from the left is two-fold. First, the folks holding traditional views lack either the political and philosophical sophistication to defend those views in the public square, or they lack the willingness to do so, or, more likely, both. Second, like many others in our culture they've abandoned the only basis anyone can have for declaring that something is wrong or perverse, a belief in the Judeo-Christian ethic rooted in the existence of the Judeo-Christian God.

Philosopher W.T. Stace foresaw the consequences of what Richard Neuhaus later called the naked public square. In 1948 Stace wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly in which he claimed that one result of the purge of belief in final causes, i.e. God, from human activity was that:
…The conception of purpose in the world was ignored and frowned upon. This, though silent and almost unnoticed, was the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated around the world….

The world, according to this new picture, is purposeless, senseless, meaningless. Nature is nothing but matter in motion. The motions of matter are governed, not by any purpose, but by blind forces and laws….[But] if the scheme of things is purposeless and meaningless, then the life of man is purposeless and meaningless too. Everything is futile, all effort is in the end worthless. A man may, of course, still pursue disconnected ends - money, fame, art, science - and may gain pleasure from them. But his life is hollow at the center.

Hence, the dissatisfied, disillusioned, restless spirit of modern man….Along with the ruin of the religious vision there went the ruin of moral principles and indeed of all values….If our moral rules do not proceed from something outside us in the nature of the universe - whether we say it is God or simply the universe itself - then they must be our own inventions.

Thus it came to be believed that moral rules must be merely an expression of our own likes and dislikes. But likes and dislikes are notoriously variable. What pleases one man, people, or culture, displeases another. Therefore, morals are wholly relative.
It's depressing to contemplate, but in a world where this is the unspoken assumption of most of our academics, media, and political class there's no way to halt the slide into moral chaos except for individuals to educate themselves as to how they can defend their convictions and to refuse to surrender. If enough people do that Republican politicians and maybe even some Democrats will be encouraged to stand against the tide of moral anomie washing across our culture.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Homeland Insecurity

Jim Geraghty writes in his Morning Jolt column about the almost complete lack of media outrage and national concern over the fact that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) had the data on over four million federal employees hacked, apparently by the Chinese.

It is indeed astonishing that Americans, or at least the American media, don't seem to care much about this. How many other bureaucracies have been similarly penetrated? Who is going to be held responsible for the failure to protect American citizens from having their personal information stolen? Americans seem to yawn at the questions, and at least 40% of those who vote for the next president in 2016 will still vote for a woman who kept classified data on her personal server in her basement which was almost certainly hacked. There seems to be an utter indifference to matters of national security both in many quarters of this administration, in much of the media, and in a sizable segment of the American public.

Geraghty goes on to list the appalling bureaucratic and security failures of this administration. He writes:
The story of the Obama era is the story of one colossal federal-government train wreck after another. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms shipped guns to Mexican drug cartels in Fast & Furious.

Recovery.gov, allegedly designed to promote openness and accountability, ended up filled with bad data.

The stimulus “was riddled with a massive labor scheme that harmed workers and cheated unsuspecting American taxpayers.”

The president stood in front of the White House, urging the American public to use Healthcare.gov when it wasn’t working.

The U.S. Secret Service, which began the Obama presidency by allowing the Salahis into the White House and stumbled through one humiliating scandal of unprofessional behavior after another.

The Obama administration toppled the government of Libya -- without any supporting act of Congress -- then sent Americans there and ignored the security requests from our ambassador.

The NSA hired Ed Snowden and gave him the keys to the kingdom after a month.

Veterans died, waiting for care, while the branch offices of the VA assured Washington everything is fine.

We traded terrorists for a prisoner, sealing the deal with an assurance to the public that Bowe Bergdahl “served with honor and distinction.”

The IRS data breach. The postal-service data breach. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hack. The data breach at federal contractor US Investigations Services, which performs background checks on DHS, ICE and border-patrol units.

And now, the epic OPM hack.

We are governed by progressives who have an infinite faith in the federal government’s ability to manage enormously complicated tasks and almost no interest in ensuring the government actually does those tasks well.
He might also have listed the disturbing failures of the TSA to prevent dangerous items from being smuggled onto planes in government security tests.

If there's one lesson to be learned from the last seven years of the Obama administration it's that there's very little that big, centralized government does well. It's unfortunate that so many people are nevertheless convinced that the answers to whatever problems that face us lie in expanding government even more.

If there's a second lesson to be learned it's that people are simply foolish to vote for a presidential candidate who has absolutely no qualifications for the job, and whose image, like the grin of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, is all there is to him. To vote for a man simply because he's black is as unwise as, well, voting for a candidate simply because she's female.

Monday, June 15, 2015

P.S. on the Dolezal Affair

Regarding the Rachel Dolezal affair about which I posted earlier, a friend of mine also wrote on the topic at his blog Thought Sifter (which I highly recommend) and said this:
I had been tempted to make a post about Jenner’s liberation from masculinity. But since it’s been one of the main headlines in the news, that typically means there are a number of other issues that are far more worthy of our attention. But even so, I had thought of commenting on how ironic it is that Jenner would be praised for his courage and bravery for doing something that would bring instant praise and adoration from millions of people.

I also thought of writing about how frightening and demoralizing it is that the President of the United States would commend someone for doing something that, in any sane society, would warrant a diagnosis of a profound psychiatric disorder. I also thought about speculating whether or not in ten or fifteen years the science of gender transformation will have developed enough to liberate people from the prison of being one gender and allow them the freedom to impregnate themselves, and how this might lower the divorce rate and benefit kids in making it easier for them to spend more quality time with both parents.
I thought this whole passage was very incisive and the last line very clever.

The Incredible Blackness of Rachel Dolezal

Perhaps by now you're tired of the Rachel Dolezal brouhaha, but perhaps, on the other hand, you have no idea what the Rachel Dolezal brouhaha is all about. If the latter is the case then read on.

Rachel is a white woman who has for years claimed to be black, and even rose to the presidency of a local NAACP chapter before being "outed" by her parents who revealed that she's actually as white as the driven snow. This has created some credibility problems for Rachel, as you might imagine, and also gives cause for concern about her mental health. For that reason we should have compassion for her.

The episode, though, has led to an interesting question, a question that some in the progressive left are angrily denouncing.

The impertinent question is this: If Bruce Jenner can claim he's a woman, and we must all ooh and ahh at the wonder and beauty of transgenderism, should we not also embrace Rachel Dolezal's claim to be black? If Bruce was a woman trapped in a man's body, why not acknowledge that Rachel is a black woman trapped in a white woman's body? She claimed to be black because despite having white parents she just felt black. If that's enough to make Jenner a woman why isn't it enough to make Dolezal black? This is thought to be an insulting question to ask largely, it seems, because those who wish to affirm Jenner's "courage" in coming out as a woman have no good answer to it.

It will not do to reply that transgendered people like Jenner aren't lying about their identity as Dolezal did. That's beside the point. The question is, how does Dolezal see herself? If she sees herself as black then she's black according to those who think that truth is whatever the individual has been conditioned by her society to fervently believe. It's her truth and who are we to question it?

Unfortunately, to call this nonsense and to assert that she's deluded about her blackness is to imply that Jenner is also deluded about his femaleness, and that all of his enthusiastic supporters are equally deluded. So, the progressives resent being confronted with the question and take the well-traveled road of calling people who insist on raising it unhinged. As the always insightful Robert Tracinski puts it in summing up his excellent column on Bruce (Kaitlyn) Jenner "[I]n an era when the insane are normal, the normal are insane."

Yet, despite the outrage of those who think that the two cases should not be compared, as far as I can see the parallels between them are substantial, and I haven't seen any argument, as opposed to simple demands that people shut up about it, that would show that the question is unreasonable. What's unreasonable, of course, is the post-modern view of truth progressives often embrace that says that despite having male plumbing and male accoutrements a man is a woman if he thinks he is. But then why couldn't Michael Jackson be white if he thinks he is or Rachel Dolezal be black if she thinks she is? It's all very puzzling.

Liberals are twisting themselves into pretzels trying to avoid admitting the two cases are basically equivalent. I heard one fellow on tv argue that the cases are different because race is a social construction whereas gender is biologically determined (or was it the other way around? It was hard to tell.), but then he seemed to realize that, if that's so, there's no way he could think that Jenner was female since his biology determined his maleness whether he liked it or not. And, the tv fellow had to admit, if race is socially constructed and we're whatever race others see us as, Dolezal could be black despite not having a single drop of African blood in her whole lily-white body. It was all as amusing as it was confusing.

A couple of short articles on the contretemps over Ms Dolezal that are especially good are one by Mollie Hemmingway and another by Sean Davis, both at The Federalist, and a longer one by JazzShaw at Hot Air.

Perhaps this incident will help us get over the silly notion of the relativity of truth and admit that maybe there are objective facts about human nature after all, facts both about race and gender.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Fast Track

Yesterday the House of Representatives voted to reject the attempt by the Republican Congress and President Obama to massively increase the power of foreign governments over Americans' lives by turning down a bill that would have allowed for the president's secret Pacific Rim Trade deal to go through.

House conservatives are joining with House liberals (When candidate Obama said he wanted to fundamentally transform the country who thought this would happen?) to block it. Conservatives and liberals have different reasons for their opposition, of course, but they agree that this is a very bad bill. Nevertheless, Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Finance Committee Chairman Paul Ryan aren't giving up, which is very disappointing, and are rescheduling another vote for Tuesday.

My chief objection to the trade bill is that the House will vote on very important legislation that the American people are not permitted to see. Ryan, apparently unaware of how much like Nancy Pelosi he sounded, said that after the bill is passed we'll be able to see what it says. That's what Pelosi told us about Obamacare, and it's not good enough for a free people living in a democratic republic.

Moreover, according to Breitbart, there's a lot in the bill that would essentially give Mr. Obama the ability to dictate immigration policy (See here). Whatever the case, here's Republican senator Jeff Sessions, who opposes the bill, explaining why it's a very bad piece of legislation for the American people:
It appears there will be another attempt by Tuesday to force through new executive powers for President Obama. A vote for TAA next week is a vote to send fast-track to the President’s desk and to grant him these broad new executive authorities. If that happens, it will empower the President to form a Pacific Union encompassing 40 percent of the world’s economy and 12 nations—each with one equal vote. Once the union is formed, foreign bureaucrats will be required to meet regularly to write the Commission’s rules, regulations, and directives—impacting Americans’ jobs, wages, and sovereignty. The union is chartered with a “Living Agreement,” and there is no doubt it will seek to expand its membership and reach over time.

Fast-track will not only apply to the Pacific Union, but can expedite an unlimited number of yet-unseen international compacts for six years. There are already plans to advance through fast-track the Trade in Services Agreement, the goal of which includes labor mobility [i.e. immigration] among more than 50 nations, further eroding the ability of the American people to control their own affairs.

Americans do not want this, did not ask for it, and are pleading from their hearts for their lawmakers to stop it.

The same people projecting the benefits of leaping into a colossal new economic union could not even accurately predict the impact of a stand-alone agreement with South Korea. The latter deal, which promised to boost our exports to them $10 billion, instead only budged them less than $1 billion, while South Korea’s imports to us increased more than $12 billion, nearly doubling our trading deficit. This new agreement will only further increase our trading deficit: opening our markets to foreign imports while allowing our trading partners to continue their non-tariff barriers that close their markets to ours.

If we want a new trade deal with Japan, or with Vietnam, then they should be negotiated bilaterally and sent to Congress under regular order. Under no circumstances should the House authorize, through fast-track, the formation of a new international commission that will regulate not only trade, but immigration, labor, environmental, and all manner of commercial policy.

What American went to the polls in 2014 to vote for fast-track and a new global union? Can anyone honestly say that Congress is trying to ram this deal through because they think their constituents want it?

While elites dream of a world without borders, voters dream of a world where the politicians they elect put this country’s own citizens first.

The movement among Americans toward a decent, honest populism — toward a refocusing on the needs of American citizens and American interests — grows stronger by the day. Every vote to come before Congress, beginning with the next fast-track push, will face this test: does your plan strengthen or weaken the social and economic position of the loyal, everyday working American?
If you're opposed to being told that you can't see this agreement until after it's passed; if you're opposed to giving this president the power to unilaterally decide who crosses our borders and to place our national sovereignty in the hands of leftists in the Obama administration who don't think much of the idea of national sovereignty in the first place, call your congressperson's office this weekend and register your concern.

Friday, June 12, 2015

On Being Consistent

We live in an age in which people think we can dispense with belief in God and everything will go on as before, or even better than before. Very few who embrace atheistic naturalism give serious thought to what it entails and very few of those who do give it thought find that they can live consistently with those entailments. From time to time, however, one comes across an atheist who is clear-eyed and honest about what it is he or she is accepting.

One such is a fellow who posted a comment a year or so ago at a blog called CrossExamined.org. The author of the blog, J. Warner Wallace, by way of introducing the commenter's submission, said this:
Several weeks ago, a gentleman (we’ll call him “John”) replied to a blog I posted at CrossExamined.org. As a skeptical non-believer, John wasn’t responding to what I had posted, but to fellow atheists who had been interacting with Christians in the comment section. John’s post was controversial but honest. In fact, he clearly delineated the problem of atheistic moral grounding. While the comments on the blog aren’t typically all that courteous, John complained they were too courteous, especially given the atheistic worldview of the people who were posting. Here’s what John had to say:

“[To] all my Atheist friends.

Let us stop sugar coating it. I know, it’s hard to come out and be blunt with the friendly Theists who frequent sites like this. However in your efforts to “play nice” and “be civil” you actually do them a great disservice.

We are Atheists. We believe that the Universe is a great uncaused, random accident. All life in the Universe past and future are the results of random chance acting on itself. While we acknowledge concepts like morality, politeness, civility seem to exist, we know they do not. Our highly evolved brains imagine that these things have a cause or a use, and they have in the past, they’ve allowed life to continue on this planet for a short blip of time. But make no mistake: all our dreams, loves, opinions, and desires are figments of our primordial imagination. They are fleeting electrical signals that fire across our synapses for a moment in time. They served some purpose in the past. They got us here. That’s it. All human achievement and plans for the future are the result of some ancient, evolved brain and accompanying chemical reactions that once served a survival purpose. Ex: I’ll marry and nurture children because my genes demand reproduction, I’ll create because creativity served a survival advantage to my ancient ape ancestors, I’ll build cities and laws because this allowed my ape grandfather time and peace to reproduce and protect his genes. My only directive is to obey my genes. Eat, sleep, reproduce, die. That is our bible.

We deride the Theists for having created myths and holy books. We imagine ourselves superior. But we too imagine there are reasons to obey laws, be polite, protect the weak etc. Rubbish. We are nurturing a new religion, one where we imagine that such conventions have any basis in reality. Have they allowed life to exist? Absolutely. But who cares? Outside of my greedy little gene’s need to reproduce, there is nothing in my world that stops me from killing you and reproducing with your wife. Only the fear that I might be incarcerated and thus be deprived of the opportunity to do the same with the next guy’s wife stops me.

Some of my Atheist friends have fooled themselves into acting like the general population. They live in suburban homes, drive Toyota Camrys, attend school plays. But underneath they know the truth. They are a bag of DNA whose only purpose is to make more of themselves. So be nice if you want. Be involved, have polite conversations, be a model citizen. Just be aware that while technically an Atheist, you are an inferior one. You’re just a little bit less evolved, that’s all. When you are ready to join me, let me know, I’ll be reproducing with your wife.

I know it’s not PC to speak so bluntly about the ramifications of our beliefs, but in our discussions with Theists we sometimes tip toe around what we really know to be factual. Maybe it’s time we Atheists were a little more truthful and let the chips fall where they may. At least that’s what my genes are telling me to say.”
Several readers questioned whether John really was an atheist or just a theist posing as an atheist, so Wallace clarified:
Since posting this comment, I’ve been able to peek at John’s life in a very limited way, and I’ve had a brief interaction with him. He appears to be a creative, responsible, loving husband and father....When John first posted his comment many of the other atheists who post at CrossExamined were infuriated. Some denied John’s identity as a skeptic and accused him of being a disguised Christian. But in my interaction with John, he told me he was weary of hearing fellow atheists mock their opponents for hypocrisy and ignorance, while pretending they had a definitive answer to the great questions of life. He simply wanted his fellow atheists to be consistent. As it turns out, theism provides the consistent moral foundation missing from John’s atheistic worldview.
"John" is, of course, correct. Given atheism there's nothing morally wrong with doing any of the things he mentions because on atheism there are no objective moral duties, nor can there be. This outrages some atheists who think such a claim is tantamount to accusing atheists of being wicked or immoral, but this misses the point. A person can be kind and generous, and presumably many atheists are, but the point is that there's nothing in atheism that would make cruelty and selfishness wrong. On atheism no one has an objective duty or obligation to be kind rather than cruel. As "John" suggests above, the only constraint on anyone's desires is what that person can get away with. "John" is saying that a man who has the power to act with impunity is not violating any moral law by torturing children or shooting up a movie theater. For the man without God, might makes right.

The famous French writer Voltaire expressed it this way. He said, "I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants and even my wife to believe in God, because it means I shall be cheated, robbed, and cuckolded less often."

This is the theme I try to amplify in my novel In the Absence of God and also in my forthcoming novel Bridging the Abyss (about which more in a couple of weeks). Some have asked, essentially, so what? What's my point? The point is that very few people can live with the logical implications of atheism. They want to live as if the Christian worldview were correct while rejecting the Foundation for that worldview. To be consistent an atheist must either be a complete nihilist or, like "John," one must live by one's own predilections, recognizing that it's a purely subjective choice and that it's no better or worse, morally speaking, than any other choice. Moreover, one must forfeit the "right" to make any moral judgments of anyone else's behavior regardless how cruel or revolting it may be. Moral judgments imply an objective moral standard and atheism rules that out. The atheist who makes moral judgments of others, who condemns child abuse, racism, exploitation of the environment, or opposition to gay marriage, is living as if God exists while denying that he does.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Marco Rubio's Scandalous Extravagance

Michael Ramirez is probably the best political cartoonist in the field today. After the New York Times disgraced itself this week by trying to turn the accumulation of a number of traffic tickets, a home with an in-ground pool, and the purchase of a modest fishing boat by Florida GOP senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio into a major scandal, Ramirez illustrated the utter mindlessness of the Times' effort with this:


It really is true that a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, the unspoken words of Ramirez's cartoon describe the sheer tendentiousness and untrustworthiness of the New York Times' political reporting.

Here's a picture of Rubio's "luxury boat." For comparison sake, this craft cost $80,000. John Kerry's yacht cost $7 million. I wonder how many stories the Times did on Kerry's extravagance when he ran for president in 2004.


For a picture comparing Rubio's home in Florida with that of, say, Hillary Clinton's humble bungalow on Chappaqua, visit the story linked to above.

Deals Done in Secret

It's distressing that the Obama administration, which boasts that it's the most transparent in history, is negotiating and presenting to Congress a trade bill they refuse to let the American people see. It's distressing that such a bill has passed the Senate (controlled by Republicans, no less), and it's distressing that the House (also controlled by the GOP), which will vote on it as early as tomorrow, may pass it.

Regardless what's in it, as a matter of principle no legislation should be voted on by any member of Congress that the American people are given no opportunity to review. Word should go out to every member of the House of Representatives that anyone who votes for this secret trade bill will forfeit the support of that voter in the next election.

But as bad as voting for a bill that hasn't been publicly debated is, it turns out that things are even worse. Thanks to Wikileaks we learn that this bill would greatly increase Mr. Obama's authority to control, or decontrol, immigration, essentially nullifying existing immigration law. Breitbart has the story:
Discovered inside the huge tranche of secretive Obamatrade documents released by Wikileaks are key details on how technically any Republican voting for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) that would fast-track trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal would technically also be voting to massively expand President Obama’s executive authority when it comes to immigration matters. The mainstream media covered the Wikileaks document dump extensively, but did not mention the immigration chapter contained within it, so Breitbart News took the documents to immigration experts to get their take on it. Nobody has figured how big a deal the documents uncovered by Wikileaks are until now.

The president’s Trade in Services Act (TiSA) documents, which is one of the three different close-to-completely-negotiated deals that would be fast-tracked making up the president’s trade agreement, show Obamatrade in fact unilaterally alters current U.S. immigration law. TiSA, like TPP or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) deals, are international trade agreements that President Obama is trying to force through to final approval. The way he can do so is by getting Congress to give him fast-track authority through TPA.

TiSA is even more secretive than TPP. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill can review the text of TPP in a secret, secured room inside the Capitol — and in some cases can bring staffers who have high enough security clearances — but with TiSA, no such draft text is available.

Voting for TPA, of course, would essentially ensure the final passage of each TPP, T-TIP, and TiSA by Congress, since in the history of fast-track any deal that’s ever started on fast-track has been approved.

Roughly 10 pages of this TiSA agreement document leak are specifically about immigration.

“The existence of these ten pages on immigration in the Trade and Services Agreement make it absolutely clear in my mind that the administration is negotiating immigration – and for them to say they are not – they have a lot of explaining to do based on the actual text in this agreement,” Rosemary Jenks, the Director of Government Relations at Numbers USA, told Breitbart News following her review of these documents.
There's much more at the Breitbart link. Thankfully, the House Democrats are strongly opposed to this bill and there may be enough Republicans willing to buck their leadership to do the responsible thing and demand that the bill be given a thorough public airing. I never thought I'd say this, but thank goodness for those House Democrats. Gosh, thanking Wikileaks and Democrats in the same post; I need to go lay down.

If you're so inclined you can go here to find your representative's phone number to register your concern.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Does the Hiatus Exist?

A piece by Joe Romm at Think Progress confidently predicts, on the basis of a recent rejiggering of the global warming data by NOAA, that the warming of the planet is about to speed up:
In other words, the long-awaited jump is global temperatures is likely imminent. How big is the jump? As I reported in April, top climatologist Kevin Trenberth has said it would be as much as 0.5°F. Given that 2015 is crushing it for the hottest year on record, we appear to be already witnessing a big piece of that jump.

NOAA’s new study not only incorporates the latest global temperature data from 2013 and 2014. Their “calculations also use improved versions of both sea surface temperature and land surface air temperature datasets” (detailed here). The result, as NOAA explains, is that the new “study refutes the notion that there has been a slowdown or ‘hiatus’ in the rate of global warming in recent years.” In particular, the authors conclude bluntly:
Indeed, based on our new analysis, the IPCC’s statement of two years ago – that the global surface temperature “has shown a much smaller increasing linear trend over the past 15 years than over the past 30 to 60 years” – is no longer valid.
Robert Tracinski at The Federalist explains why Mr. Romm's enthusiasm is at best premature.
The new adjustments are suspiciously convenient, of course. Anyone who is touting a theory that isn’t being borne out by the evidence and suddenly tells you he’s analyzed the data and by golly, what do you know, suddenly it does support his theory—well, he should be met with more than a little skepticism.

If we look, we find some big problems. The most important data adjustments by far are in ocean temperature measurements. But anyone who has been following this debate will notice something about the time period for which the adjustments were made. This is a time in which the measurement of ocean temperatures has vastly improved in coverage and accuracy as a whole new set of scientific buoys has come online. So why would this data need such drastic “correcting”?
In other words, NOAA adjusted the measurements which show a plateau in the global temperature readings and now, mirabile dictu, there's no longer any plateau.

Tracinski offers a lot of reasons to be skeptical of this adjustment, and, if he's right, it does sound very much like NOAA is trying hard to make the data fit the theory of anthropogenic global warming. Nevertheless, whether they are or not manipulating the data there is here an opportunity to see whether the skeptics or the alarmists are correct about what's happening climatologically. Romm says that the alleged "hiatus" never existed but that if it did it's over, that temperatures are about to soar.

Maybe so, let's see what the data show over the next few years. Not only do we have a prediction to test, we also have an opportunity to see whether people on either side of the debate are willing to have their beliefs about global warming falsified. If we're not willing to admit that a belief we hold is shown to be wrong by the evidence then our belief is not a scientific belief. This all assumes, of course, that one side or the other doesn't keep reinterpreting the data until they get the result they want.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Demarcation Problem

An article by two physicists, Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser in the NYT, suggests that science is experiencing an identity crisis. It used to be assumed that what distinguished science from other disciplines was that science was based on testing predictions which were entailed by a theory. This was called the hypothetico-deductive method.

Unfortunately, it seems that some theories in physics and biology have reached the limits of testability. In particle physics, for example, in order to probe more deeply into the structure of matter we have to build particle accelerators that would circle the earth. Since this is economically and, presumably, technically impractical, particle physics may have reached a dead end. It's not that we know everything there is to know, it's that we may have reached a point where we know everything which can be known, at least about particle physics.

Rather than submit to this disappointing state of affairs, however, some scientists want to expand the definition of legitimate science to include metaphysical speculation. The problem of discerning what to count as science is called by philosophers the Demarcation Problem and the tendency to blur the lines between science and philosophy (metaphysics) is especially prominent among string and multiverse theorists. Here's part of what Frank and Gleiser have to say about this:
A few months ago in the journal Nature, two leading researchers, George Ellis and Joseph Silk, published a controversial piece called “Scientific Method: Defend the Integrity of Physics.” They criticized a newfound willingness among some scientists to explicitly set aside the need for experimental confirmation of today’s most ambitious cosmic theories — so long as those theories are “sufficiently elegant and explanatory.” Despite working at the cutting edge of knowledge, such scientists are, for Professors Ellis and Silk, “breaking with centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical.”

Whether or not you agree with them, the professors have identified a mounting concern in fundamental physics: Today, our most ambitious science can seem at odds with the empirical methodology that has historically given the field its credibility.

How did we get to this impasse? In a way, the landmark detection three years ago of the elusive Higgs boson particle by researchers at the Large Hadron Collider marked the end of an era. Predicted about 50 years ago, the Higgs particle is the linchpin of what physicists call the “standard model” of particle physics, a powerful mathematical theory that accounts for all the fundamental entities in the quantum world (quarks and leptons) and all the known forces acting between them (gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces).

But the standard model, despite the glory of its vindication, is also a dead end. It offers no path forward to unite its vision of nature’s tiny building blocks with the other great edifice of 20th-century physics: Einstein’s cosmic-scale description of gravity. Without a unification of these two theories — a so-called theory of quantum gravity — we have no idea why our universe is made up of just these particles, forces and properties. (We also can’t know how to truly understand the Big Bang, the cosmic event that marked the beginning of time.)

This is where the specter of an evidence-independent science arises. For most of the last half-century, physicists have struggled to move beyond the standard model to reach the ultimate goal of uniting gravity and the quantum world. Many tantalizing possibilities (like the often-discussed string theory) have been explored, but so far with no concrete success in terms of experimental validation.

Today, the favored theory for the next step beyond the standard model is called supersymmetry (which is also the basis for string theory). Supersymmetry predicts the existence of a “partner” particle for every particle that we currently know. It doubles the number of elementary particles of matter in nature. The theory is elegant mathematically, and the particles whose existence it predicts might also explain the universe’s unaccounted-for “ dark matter.” As a result, many researchers were confident that supersymmetry would be experimentally validated soon after the Large Hadron Collider became operational.

That’s not how things worked out, however. To date, no supersymmetric particles have been found. If the Large Hadron Collider cannot detect these particles, many physicists will declare supersymmetry — and, by extension, string theory — just another beautiful idea in physics that didn’t pan out.

But many won’t. Some may choose instead to simply retune their models to predict supersymmetric particles at masses beyond the reach of the Large Hadron Collider’s power of detection — and that of any foreseeable substitute.

Implicit in such a maneuver is a philosophical question: How are we to determine whether a theory is true if it cannot be validated experimentally? Should we abandon it just because, at a given level of technological capacity, empirical support might be impossible? If not, how long should we wait for such experimental machinery before moving on: ten years? Fifty years? Centuries?

Consider, likewise, the cutting-edge theory in physics that suggests that our universe is just one universe in a profusion of separate universes that make up the so-called multiverse. This theory could help solve some deep scientific conundrums about our own universe (such as the so-called fine-tuning problem), but at considerable cost: Namely, the additional universes of the multiverse would lie beyond our powers of observation and could never be directly investigated. Multiverse advocates argue nonetheless that we should keep exploring the idea — and search for indirect evidence of other universes.
Similar dead ends seem to be looming in cosmogeny (the study of the origin of the universe), origin of life, and origin of consciousness studies, all of which raises a question. If scientists yield to the desire to include in the discipline of science explanatory theories which are inherently untestable and which are essentially metaphysical, on what grounds can anyone argue against allowing the teaching of Intelligent Design in public school science classes?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Worst President Ever

Who would you say is the worst U.S. president ever? I suspect that liberals asked that question would answer George W. Bush or maybe Richard Nixon. Conservatives might respond with Barack Obama or Lyndon Johnson, but according to Robert Merry at the National Interest it's none of these, although in his mind Bush comes close. In fact, his answer will perhaps surprise most readers, but here's a hint: It won't surprise faithful listeners of Glenn Beck's radio program.

Here's how Merry begins his very interesting column:
If you wanted to identify, with confidence, the very worst president in American history, how would you go about it? One approach would be to consult the various academic polls on presidential rankings that have been conducted from time to time since Harvard’s Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. pioneered this particular survey scholarship in 1948. Bad idea.

Most of those surveys identify Warren G. Harding of Ohio as the worst ever. This is ridiculous. Harding presided over very robust economic times. Not only that, but he inherited a devastating economic recession when he was elected in 1920 and quickly turned bad times into good times, including a 14 percent GDP growth rate in 1922. Labor and racial unrest declined markedly during his watch. He led the country into no troublesome wars.

There was, of course, the Teapot Dome scandal that implicated major figures in his administration, but there was never any evidence that the president himself participated in any venality. As Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, put it, “Harding wasn’t a bad man. He was just a slob.”

The academic surveys also consistently place near the bottom James Buchanan, of Pennsylvania. Now here’s a man who truly lacked character and watched helplessly as his country descended into the worst crisis of its history. He stepped into the presidency with a blatant lie to the American people. In his inaugural address, he promised he would accept whatever judgment the Supreme Court rendered in the looming Dred Scott case. What he didn’t tell the American people was that he already knew what that judgment was going to be (gleaned through highly inappropriate conversations with justices). This is political cynicism of the rankest sort.

But Buchanan’s failed presidency points to what may be a pertinent distinction in assessing presidential failure. Buchanan was crushed by events that proved too powerful for his own weak leadership. And so the country moved inexorably into one of the worst crises in its history. But Buchanan didn’t create the crisis; he merely was too wispy and vacillating to get control of it and thus lead the nation to some kind of resolution. It took his successor, Abraham Lincoln, to do that.

That illustrates the difference between failure of omission and failure of commission—the difference between presidents who couldn’t handle gathering crises and presidents who actually created the crises.
So who does Merry consider to be the worst? I'm afraid you'll have to go to the article itself to see, but while you're there read the whole thing. It's worth the time.