Wednesday, September 30, 2015

New Book Release!

I'm excited to announce that my newest novel, Bridging the Abyss, has been released and is now available.

Here's the Prologue to the story:
A twelve year-old girl walking on the street near her home, in mid-afternoon, suddenly vanishes, the victim of an apparent abduction. Her disappearance sets off a chain of events which form the narrative recounted in the following pages, but before entering into that story it might be worth asking why men perpetrate such horrors. How do we explain human depravity? How can we account for the fact that moral evil seems so commonplace?

In 1948 philosopher W.T. Stace wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly, a portion of which serves, perhaps, as a partial answer to these questions. Writing about the shift in the 17th century from a theistic to a materialist worldview which entailed the belief that there were no purposes or final causes in nature, Stace says:
“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."
Bridging the Abyss should be read as a companion to my earlier novel In the Absence of God. Both are stories of people living in the wake of the revolution of which Stace speaks. They both offer a picture of a small slice of modern life, a glimpse of what it is to exist in a world in which people live consistently, though perhaps unwittingly, with the assumptions of modernity, chief among which is the assumption that God, if there is one, is irrelevant to our lives.

Having marginalized the God of traditional theism moderns find themselves shorn of any objective basis for forming moral judgments, for hope that the deep human yearning for justice could ever be satisfied, or for finding any ultimate meaning in the existence of the human species as a whole, or in the life of the individual in particular.

Moderns dispense with God and believe that life can go on as before, or even better than before, but this is a conceit which the sanguinary history of the 19th and 20th century confutes. A world that has abandoned God has abandoned the fountain of goodness, beauty, and truth as well as the only possible ground for belief in objective human rights or in the dignity of the individual.

Modernity has in many ways been a blessing, but it has also been a curse. History will ultimately decide whether the blessing has outweighed the curse. Meanwhile, Bridging the Abyss sketches the tension between these competing views of the world as they're illustrated by the lives of the characters who inhabit these pages.

I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Bridging the Abyss addresses some of the same themes as my previous novel In the Absence of God and is something of a companion volume to that earlier work. Like Absence, Bridging is an apologetic for Christian theism, but it's more than that. It's also a novel that raises some serious ethical questions, but I don't want to say too much about the story because I prefer that the reader decide for him or herself what lessons to take from it.

Both Bridging the Abyss and In the Absence of God are available at Amazon (paperback $15.99; kindle $7.99) Barnes and Noble (paperback and nook) and perhaps the best bookstore in northeastern North America, Hearts and Minds. I hope you'll read it, and if you do, I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, I hope you'll tell others about it via your Facebook page and other social media.



Thank you so much.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Nature of the Threat

This short video explains why Americans, and a lot of other people, should be very concerned about Islamism. The video focuses on Islamist extremists and their desire to impose sharia on the entire world, but there are large numbers of Muslims in America who are not extremists who nevertheless would gladly exchange the Bill of Rights for sharia. According to one study 51% of American Muslims would prefer to live under sharia, and 25% of American Muslims think that violence against those who insult Islam is justified.

Clearly, we have a problem. After all, what constitutes an insult? Drawing caricatures of Mohammed? Refuting Islam's historical claims? Believing that the Koran is a plagiarized Old Testament? Actually, most Muslims would consider all of these to be insults and if 25% believe insults deserve a violent response then our basic freedoms of speech and the free exchange of ideas are in jeopardy.

Anyway, watch the video. It's not long and it puts the problem into perspective:

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Problem with Mutation Rates

There have been numerous accounts in the news of late about the discovery of Homo naledi in Africa and the discovery of water on Mars, but one science story we've heard very little about is the growing dissatisfaction among biologists with the classical Darwinian account of how we got here. It's not that biologists are doubting the basic evolutionary explanation, but rather that they're increasingly skeptical that evolution can be explained by the mechanisms of genetic mutation, genetic drift, and natural selection - what we might call the standard model. Biologist Ann Gauger explains why in an essay at Evolution News and Views. She writes:
One of the reasons many scientists acknowledge the insufficiency of Darwinism is because they know the accounting won't work. The mutation rate, the generation times, the strength of selection versus genetic drift, the population sizes, and the time available don't match up.

For example, supposedly humans last shared common ancestry with chimps about six million years ago. Since that time, we have accumulated significant differences with chimps -- genetic, anatomical, physiological, behavioral, and intellectual differences, among others. The genetic differences between humans and chimps are much more than the (shrinking) 1.2 percent difference in base pairs that is so often quoted in the media....we have more than 11.7 percent of our genome with unique features not present in chimps.

There is only so much time for these differences to have accumulated. Mutations arise and are propagated from generation to generation, so the number of generations limits how many mutations can accumulate. The estimated mutation rate is about 10-8 per base pairs per generation, and we have an average generation time of somewhere between 10 and 25 years. Our estimated breeding population size six million years ago is thought to have been about 10,000.... Based on these numbers, one can estimate how many years it would take to acquire all those mutations, assuming every mutation that occurred was saved, and stored up.

But there's a difficulty -- it's called genetic drift. In small populations, like the 10,000 estimate above, mutations are likely to be lost and have to reoccur many times before they actually stick. Just because of random effects (failure to reproduce due to accidental death, infertility, not finding a mate, or the death of all one's progeny), a particular neutral mutation may have to arise many times before it becomes established in the population, and then many more years before it finally becomes fixed (that is, before it takes over the population and replaces all other versions).

How long before a single, new mutation appears and becomes fixed? An estimate from a recent paper using numerical simulations is 1.5 million years. That is within the range of possibility. But what if two specific mutations are needed to effect a beneficial change? Their estimate is 84 million years. Other scientists have done this calculation using analytical methods, but their numbers are even worse. One report calculates 6 million years for one specific base change in an eight base target typical of the size of a DNA binding site to fix, and 100 million years to get two specific mutations. (That work was later amended to 216 million years.) Extrapolating from other published data merely confirms the problem....

Yet in all likelihood many more than two binding sites would be required to change anything significant, and those binding sites must be appropriate in location and in sequence to accomplish the necessary changes. They must work together in order for a specific adaptive change to happen.

Genes operate in networks, and to shift a gene regulatory network would require many mutations, and not just random ones. Remember there are anatomical physiological, behavioral, and intellectual differences to explain, multiple traits each requiring multiple coordinated mutations. Unless one invokes luck on a large scale, those traits would not have come to be.
The point here is not that it didn't happen, but that there's no plausible naturalistic explanation for its having happened. Scientists will continue to hold onto the standard model until something better comes along, of course, but they're growing increasingly uneasy with it which is why books like philosopher Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False have created so much controversy and why they're being written at all. Nagel believes that the process of evolution is guided by some telic principle in the universe, that the process just couldn't, by chance, have led to conscious creatures who can think and and recognize moral value.

Nagel is not a theist, nor an advocate of intelligent design, but an increasing number of thinkers like him, scientists and philosophers alike, are beginning to believe that naturalistic explanations are simply inadequate to account for the world we see around us. Gauger's essay gives us a glimpse of the kinds of reasons driving them to this conclusion.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Sizes of Things

Here's a fun interactive site that will give you an appreciation for how big and how small the universe and it's constituents are. Go to the link and move the scroll bar to zoom in or out to see how big the universe is compared to our planet and how big we are compared to the smallest parts of an atom.

Give it a try and spend a little time just being amazed. You won't be able to stop playing with it.

I recall reading somewhere that if the sizes of all objects in the universe are averaged together it turns out that the average size is exactly the size of human beings. I don't know if there's some significance to that or if it's just an interesting coincidence, so I'll leave it to you to mull over as you play with the scroll bar.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Transgender Delusion

Richard Corradi is a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He has an article in the current issue of First Things (subscription required) in which he pretty much excoriates his own profession for what he sees as an abdication of their professional responsibility. Psychiatrists and psychologists have been so intimidated by the politically correct, Corradi claims, that they've failed to call mental illness by its name when it comes to issues of sex and gender.

Here are some excerpts:
Human nature does not change. Despite our postmodern sophistication and our wishful thinking about perfectibility, our nature is immutable—not least in its fickleness, its embrace of irrational ideas and practices, and its suggestibility.

The medieval field of alchemy—the attempt to change base metals into gold and to find the philosopher’s stone capable of bringing about human perfection, even immortality—is ludicrous to the modern mind, a relic of a prescientific time. Yet the ancient belief in transmutation is still with us. Current popular delusions are aspirations not to turn base metals into gold, but rather to transcend the laws of biology and transmute human nature. Among them is the popular belief that gender is fungible, so that whether we are born male or female is of no consequence.

Now consider one of our current popular delusions: that gender is a social construct rather than a biological fact. This is the notion that there are no biologically determined characteristics of either sex—that “male” and “female” are socially assigned roles. According to this worldview, a person is not simply male or female. In fact there are no “opposite sexes,” only a gender spectrum between femaleness and maleness (hence the prefix “trans-” in “transgender”), and one may choose to identify oneself with any point on the continuum, or to remain undecided.

This delusion has infected groups that are presumed to be the most highly educated, sophisticated, and worldly-wise in our society.

Another manifestation of denial of the biological differences between the sexes takes the form of a man’s declaring, in effect, “My gender is what I say it is. I feel like I’m a woman in a man’s body, and I demand that I be treated like one.” The demands that society accommodate such absurd personal delusions are becoming ever more aggressive. We see municipal and school authorities, for example, scrambling to mediate conflicts about gender-neutral bathrooms and shared locker rooms, fearful of being labeled as bigots, or sued, if they do not comply.

If someone wonders whether a middle-aged man who declares that he is a woman and demands the use of public female restrooms might be mentally disturbed, that doubter had better not voice her concern publicly; she risks not only being labeled a bigoted denier of civil rights but also having her business boycotted.

The entire spectrum of gender dysphoria disorders is treated as though it were an authentic lifestyle choice unreasonably suppressed by a bigoted majority.

It is lamentable that American psychiatry has abrogated its professional role and allowed public hysteria to define the transgender phenomenon. This deprives people of treatment that could lead them to understand themselves and take control of their lives, rather than be passive victims of a one-size-fits-all fad.... Transient developmental crises that would be amenable to appropriate psychotherapy are turned into profoundly life-altering, irreversible physical mutilations.

[A]norexia nervosa is a multidimensional disorder, similar to transgenderism in that it involves a profound dissatisfaction with one’s body. However, seriously underweight anorexic patients who see themselves as obese are not treated with weight-reducing liposuction by physicians who go along with their irrational belief. Instead, anorexia is treated as a psychiatric illness.

Another body dysmorphia that is currently receiving some notoriety—and acquiring a constituency that would like it to be included in the DSM—is “Body Integrity Identity Disorder” (BIID). Also known as “transableism,” BIID is the desire of an able-bodied person to become disabled—by a limb amputation, or by being blinded, rendered deaf, or even paralyzed. One hopes that common sense, which judges such a desire as grotesque, will prevail over those who would regard it as just another lifestyle choice. The wish to be rid of an offending limb is remarkably similar to the wish of a transgender man to be rid of an unwanted penis.

That purported experts on mental illness should enable the acting-out of a cultural delusion is egregious enough. Most flagrant, however, is their treatment of a mental disorder with mutilating surgery. What can my colleagues be thinking when they prime patients with hormones and prepare them for surgery? Are they themselves delusional, and do they believe that they can change women into men (and vice versa)? Do they think that surgery should be the treatment of choice for people who are dissatisfied with themselves? Have they forgotten, or did they never learn, about psychotherapy, a cornerstone of psychiatry that helps patients understand themselves and their experiences so that they can take control of their lives? Clearly the disaster of a previous attempt to treat mental illness with surgery—prefrontal lobotomy—has not served as a lesson.

Lest common sense fail to convince readers that surgery is not a treatment for a mental disorder, a Swedish study published in 2011 found that over the long term, 324 people who had ­undergone sex-­reassignment surgery demonstrated an alarmingly high suicide rate and experienced considerably higher numbers of ­severe ­psychiatric problems than were present in the general population.
All of this may lead the reader to wonder why it is that psychiatrists are so reluctant to call some neuroses disorders but shrink (pardon the pun) from labeling others as disorders which are similar but in one way or another involve sex.

Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that once we determine that any sexual expression is "good" we put ourselves on a slippery slope which offers us no stopping point at which we can say "no further." On the slippery slope of "sexual freedom" no sexual expression is "wrong." Indeed, in a society that has largely rejected the idea of any objective moral right and wrong about anything, let alone sex, there remains no ground upon which to stand to say that anything at all is morally perverse.

Unless, matters change and sanity is restored, we can expect in the not too distant future to see calls for the legalization of polyamory, pedophilia, and incest. Why not.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Seeing Bigots Under Every Bed

Last week in Irving, Texas a 14 year-old Muslim student named Ahmed Mohammed was questioned by school authorities and placed in handcuffs by the police for bringing to school a device he claimed was an electronic clock he had invented. The reaction by the school and the police, we were assured by the media and multi alia (for example Kevin Drum at Mother Jones), is proof that America is a bigoted, racist nation. Except that as is so often the case when the media pontificates on the moral failings of Americans, the story is much more complex than they let on.

Kyle Smith at The New York Post gives us some perspective:
By now you’ve heard the story of Ahmed Mohamed, crowned by the Daily Beast “The Muslim Hero America Has Been Waiting For” after the 14-year-old brought to school a beeping, strange-looking homemade concealed device that turned out to be a clock.

School officials, thinking, as 95% of Americans would, that it kinda looked like a bomb, hauled him out of class. Police put him in handcuffs and, even after the confusion passed, the boy was suspended from school.

That earned Mohamed a planned trip to the White House, a message of support from Hillary Clinton, an offer to stop by Facebook to meet Mark Zuckerberg and an invitation to be an intern at Twitter.

The police overreacted. Yet the device did look like something Ethan Hunt would lob out of a helicopter at the last minute in “Mission: Impossible.” As National Review’s Charles Cooke pointed out on Twitter, the scary-looking tangle of wires “looks a lot more like a bomb than a pop tart looks like a gun.”

Josh Welch, a white Maryland kid with ADHD who was 7 years old when he was kicked out of school for chewing a Pop-Tart into the shape of a pistol and pretending to shoot other students with it, must be puzzled.

Where’s his White House invitation? Where’s his chance to start networking at Facebook? His parents were forced to hire a lawyer and spent a year and a half just trying to get the suspension erased from the kid’s record. They were repeatedly refused.

“I stand with Ahmed, too. But I also stand with Alex Stone,” noted Reason writer Robby Soave. Alex Stone, a 16-year-old white kid from Summerville, SC, wrote a short story in which he imagined using a gun to kill a dinosaur. For this his locker was searched and he was arrested, handcuffed, charged with “disorderly conduct” and suspended from school for three days.

Obviously the White House and Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t be bothered to comment, but you’d think that, at the very least, Stephen King would have sent out a tweet expressing outrage that imagination was being punished.

Nada.

In Dyer County, Tenn., Kendra Turner says she was suspended for saying, “Bless you” after a student sneezed, and that her teacher told her that she would have no “godly speaking in class.” A school administrator said, “This was not a religious issue at all, but more of an issue the teacher felt was a distraction in her class.” Uh-huh. School leadership offered no explanation for the photos posted by students that showed “bless you” on a list of expressions banned in the classroom. Turner is still waiting for her call from President Obama.

Are white kids being punished en masse for dopey quasi-infractions because of their race? Of course not. That’s ridiculous. But it’s equally absurd to suggest that you have to be Muslim, or brown-skinned, or live in Texas, to be subjected to overenthusiastic use of school discipline and police force.

“It never would have happened to a white kid”? It happens to white kids all. The. Time.
There's more at the link, but in what he has said above Smith has a point. How can this incident be powerful evidence of "Racist America" when much younger white kids have suffered much worse punishments for doing things far less serious? Of course, the people eager to see Ahmed as a symbol of racial or religious oppression have probably never had that question occur to them.

The media hyped the boy for his genius in "inventing" this clock but he actually did no such thing. The electronics were "out-of-the-box" stuff that could've been bought at Radio Shack. So what was the point of what the Ahmed did? Why did he do it? Who knows, but look at this from the standpoint of school authorities and imagine this hypothetical scenario:

A young Muslim brings to school something that looks to the untrained eye like an explosive. The school authorities, not wishing to appear to be picking on a Muslim student, accept his explanation that it's just a clock and tell him it's okay for him to bring it to school if he wishes. But this was a "dry run."

A few days later he brings the same device to school again. The authorities, having already given it a pass, say nothing and don't bother to check it. Only this time it's not a clock, it's a bomb. In the aftermath of the carnage wouldn't the families of the victims have wanted those school personnel to have been a little less concerned about the PC prudes in the media and a little more careful with the safety of their children?

"That would never happen," someone objects, but only someone who never reads the newspapers would be so naive as to think that in the world in which we live such a thing would never happen.

Putting young Ahmed in cuffs may have been unnecessary, but the prudence which lay behind it was not. Besides, if the slogan, "If you see something, say something" is to have any meaning at all then people who see something and do something should be given the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, benefit of the doubt is something the media only extends to people on the left.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Carson's Right, the Media's Wrong

The media mugging of the week is claiming Ben Carson as this week's victim. Carson is being pilloried, not only by the media but also by some of his fellow Republicans, for asserting on Meet the Press last weekend that he could not support a Muslim seeking the office of President of the United States. Here's the exchange with NBC's Chuck Todd:
"I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation, I absolutely would not agree with that," were Carson's exact words.

This bit of common-sense has driven his critics into a near-frenzy. There's been much squawking, for example, over Mr. Carson's apparent ignorance of the Constitution, Article VI of which forbids any religious test for any elected office, as if Article VI were relevant to what Carson said. Carson did not state that it should be illegal for a Muslim to occupy the White House, he said, in effect, that he would not endorse a Muslim for the office. In that he's the one who has the Constitution on his side because a president must swear to uphold the Constitution, but it is fundamental to the Islamic faith that Sharia law supersedes all human law and Sharia is in many ways in direct conflict with the Constitution.

Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the equality of persons regardless of race or sex are all concepts alien to Islam and the Koran. Democratic governance, as we understand it, is not possible for someone who lives by the Koran, and for such a person to take the oath of office as administered to inaugurated presidents would be dishonest.

Eugene Robinson, writing in the Washington Post, claimed that Carson was "dead wrong," but he never even attempted to explain why, probably because he couldn't. Others have claimed that statements like Carson's are an insult to Muslims, yet I suspect that all but the most nominal of Muslims would agree that Koranic law is incompatible with the Constitution (I personally had a Muslim imam tell me as much). If Muslims are sincerely offended by Carson's remark it can only be because they don't understand that the primary duty of the president is to defend the Constitution.

Unfortunately, the media, in their enthusiasm to find something to criticize Carson for (can you imagine Hillary getting a question like Todd asked Carson?) has failed completely to think through what electing a pious Muslim as president would mean for the Bill of Rights. Or maybe they just don't care.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Premoderns and Postmoderns (Pt. III)

This is the third in the series of reflections on Joseph Bottum's essay titled Christians and Postmoderns. Scroll down for the two previous posts on his essay.

Bottum writes that:

[Theists] should not become entangled in the defense of modern times. This is the key - the postmodern attack on modernity is right: without God, essences are the will to power. Without God, every attempt to call something true or beautiful or good is actually an attempt to compel other people to agree.

Of course believers are tempted, when they hear postmodern deconstructions of modernity, to argue in support of modernity. After all, believers share with modern nonbelievers a trust in the reality of truth. They affirm the efficacy of human action, the movement of history towards a goal, the possibility of moral and aesthetic judgments. But believers share with postmoderns the recognition that truth rests on a faith that has itself been the sole subject of the long attack of modern times.

The most foolish thing believers could do is to make concessions now to a modernity that is already bankrupt (and that despises them anyway) and thus to make themselves subject to a second attack - the attack of the postmodern on the modern. Faithful believers are not responsible for the emptiness of modernity. They struggled against it for as long as they could, and they must not give in now. They must not, at this late date, become scientific, bureaucratic, and technological; skeptical, self-conscious, and self-mocking.

A better word in the previous sentence might have been "scientistic" rather than "scientific," scientism being the belief that only science can give us knowledge and that any questions science can't answer, such as metaphysical questions, aren't worth worrying about.

In any case, "premoderns" are torn between modernity and postmodernity precisely because they share so much in common with both. They bristle at the withering assaults of the postmoderns on modernity's belief in objective truth, particularly truth about morals. Yet they are in fundamental agreement with the postmodern critique of the futility of modernity's attempt to ground meaning and truth in the philosophical quicksands of positivism, naturalistic metaphysics, the scientific method, or whatever. They recognize that modernity reduces man to a machine and thus robs him of his dignity and worth and inevitably his human rights.

We live in a tragically empty age, one in which the promises of secular reason to usher in a golden era of enlightenment and knowledge were dashed on the rocks of two world wars and the bloodiest century in human history. Postmoderns rightly ridicule the impotence of reason, it's utter inability to offer human beings meaning or to lead us into a humanist nirvana, but they offer nothing in its place other than subjectivity and nihilism.

We can't go back to the premodern era, of course, nor would many of us want to. Modernity, despite its failures and shortcomings, has made the physical burdens of life immeasurably easier to bear. Perhaps, though, we could, if we really set our minds to it, import the crucial assumptions of the premodern age about the necessity of a transcendent foundation for knowledge, meaning, morals, and human nature into our present era. Then not only would the physical burdens of life be easier to bear but so, too, would our spiritual and existential burdens.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Premoderns and Postmoderns (Pt. II)

I'd like to continue our look at the First Things essay (Christians and Postmoderns) by Joseph Bottum that I began Saturday.

Bottum writes that:

[T]he massive scientific advance of modernity reveals how easy it is to discover facts, and modernity's collapse reveals how hard it is to hold knowledge. We have an apparatus for discovery unrivaled by the ages, yet every new fact means less than the previously discovered one, for we lack what turns facts to knowledge: the information of what the facts are for.

Precisely so. Modernity offers us no satisfying interpretive framework for assigning meaning to the facts discovered by science. It attempts to supply the need for such a framework by interpreting everything in terms of evolutionary development, but the view that each of us is just a meaningless cipher in the grand flow of time and evolution fails somehow to quench our deepest longings. According to the modern worldview there really is no purpose for the existence of anything. The facts discovered by science, as important as they may be for the furtherance of our technology, don't really have any metaphysical significance. Like everything else, they're just there.

Bottum continues:

And so "we must learn to live after truth," as a group of European academics wrote in After Truth: A Postmodern Manifesto. "Nothing is certain, not even this . . . The modern age opened with the destruction of God and religion. It is ending with the threatened destruction of all coherent thought." Nietzsche may have been the first to see this clearly .... But, even in the fundamental thinkers of high modernity, hints can be found that knowledge requires God: Descartes uses God in the Meditations in order to escape from the interiority where the cogito has stranded him; Kant uses God as a postulate of pure practical reason in order to hold on to the possibility of morality.

What [theistic] believers have in common with postmoderns is a distrust of modern claims to knowledge. To be a believer, however, is to be subject to an attack that postmoderns, holding truthlessness to themselves like a lover, never have to face. The history of modernity in the West is in many ways nothing more than the effort to destroy medieval faith. It is a three-hundred-year attempt to demolish medieval (especially Catholic) claims to authority, and to substitute a structure of science and ethics based solely on human rationality.

But with the failure to discover any such rational structure - seen by the postmoderns - the only portion of the modern project still available to a modern is the destruction of faith. It should not surprise us that, in very recent times, attacks on what little is left of medieval belief have become more outrageous: resurgent anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic broadsides, vicious mockery of evangelical preaching, desecrations of the Host in Catholic masses. For modern men and women, nothing else remains of the high moral project of modernity: these attacks are the only good thing left to do. The attackers are convinced of the morality of their attack not by the certainty of their aims - who's to say what's right or wrong? - but by opposition from believers.

I take Bottum to be saying here that modernity, in its death throes, wishes only to finish the business of killing off God, or at least belief in God. Modernity has nothing else to offer. It cannot give answers to any of life's most gripping existential questions. Nowhere in the writings of the anti-theists at large today do we find an answer to any of the following: Why is the universe here? How did life come about? Why is the universe so magnificently fine-tuned for life? Where did human consciousness come from? Why do we feel joy when we encounter beauty? How can we prove that our reason is reliable without using reason to prove it? How can we account for our conviction that we have free will? What obligates us to care about others? Why do we feel guilt? Who do I refer to when I refer to myself? What gives human beings worth, dignity, and rights? If death is the end justice is unattainable, so why do we yearn for it? Why do we need meaning and purpose? What is our purpose?

Ask the Richard Dawkins' of the world those questions and all you'll get in reply is a shrug of the shoulders or a recitation of the alleged historical crimes of the Church. They dodge the question because they have no answer. This is a bit ironic: Neither modern nor postmodern atheism has an answer to the most profound questions we can ask. The only possible answer lies in the God of the "premodern," and this is the one solution to man's existential emptiness that the modern and postmodern atheist simply cannot abide.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Premoderns and Postmoderns (Pt. I)

Having just this week finished talking about the philosophical distinctions between premodern, modern, and postmodern worldviews in my classes I thought it might be useful to rerun some posts on the subject from earlier this year. This one is the first in a three-part series:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottum continues:

In some sense, of course, these words premodern, modern, and postmodern are too slippery to mean much. Taken to refer to the history of ideas, they seem to name the periods before, during, and after the Enlightenment, but taken to refer to the history of events, they seem to name the period from creation to the rise of science, the period from the rise of science until World War II, and the period since the war. It is tempting to define the categories philosophically, rather than historically, around the recognition that knowledge depends upon the existence of God. But the better modern philosophers (e.g., Descartes and Kant, as opposed to, say, Voltaire) recognize that dependence in some way or another.

Perhaps, though definitions based on intent are always weak, the best definition nonetheless involves intent: it is premodern to seek beyond rational knowledge for God; it is modern to desire to hold knowledge in the structures of human rationality (with or without God); it is postmodern to see the impossibility of such knowledge.

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

Bottum again:

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

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

More next week.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Apologize? For What?

The Media-Democrat-Rino complex is putting me in a most uncomfortable spot. Their silly, hypocritical sniping is forcing me to defend Donald Trump.

At a recent public meeting a man in the audience asked Trump a question which he prefaced by alleging that Mr. Obama was a Muslim. Trump said nothing in reply to the charge and is now being roundly criticized for the omission by the Republican establishment, the media, and much of the Democrat party.

The criticism, such as that from Hillary Clinton, is appalling in its hypocrisy. Ms Clinton tells us that the American people should be told the truth by their political leaders and that Trump should apologize for not correcting the questioner about Mr. Obama's religion.

This is what we get from Ms. Clinton after she has repeatedly tried to hide the truth about her email server from the American people, lied about the provocation that led to the Benghazi attack on our consulate that led to four dead Americans, lied about a host of matters during her husband's presidency, and has never apologized to the families of those dead Americans for the State Department's refusal to grant the diplomats' requests for more security. Moreover, in 2008 her campaign, acting in her name, deliberately tried to portray candidate Obama as a Muslim.

One might also ask who in the media demanded that Mr. Obama apologize for, or repudiate, the incendiary remarks of his pastor for twenty years, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Calls for apologies are apparently only issued by the media to Republicans.

But Ms Clinton and Mr. Obama aside, there's a suppressed assumption in the critics' demands that Trump apologize for not correcting the questioner, and Trump would confound his critics by making that assumption explicit.

The assumption is that calling someone a Muslim is an insult, that it's somehow dishonorable or disreputable to be a Muslim, and that to call Mr. Obama a Muslim is an act of unforgivable disrespect. Trump should demand of his critics that they explain precisely why it's so bad to be called a Muslim, even if the charge is false, and then sit back and see what sort of answer they come up with. It would doubtless throw his opponents into a state of consternation which would be amusing to watch.

The liberal/left wants to say on one hand that Muslims are welcome in this country, that there's nothing wrong with being a Muslim, and on the other hand that it's somehow insulting to the president to be called one. It's like insisting that there's nothing wrong with being gay or lesbian, but to say someone is gay or lesbian who isn't is an outrageously offensive act.

Such are the absurdities some of Mr. Trump's opponents find themselves embracing.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Homo naledi

Perhaps you've heard of the recent discovery of a cache of hominin (human-like) bones in a remote, almost inaccessible cave in South Africa. The remains have been designated a new species of hominin named Homo naledi and their discoverer claims them to be an ancestor of modern humans.
Ann Gauger at Evolution News and Views writes a very helpful overview of the discovery and the significance of the unanswered questions about it. She cautions that until we know the age of the fossils, which we don't at this point, nothing can be said about their position, if any, in the human lineage.

Here are the facts according to Gauger:
1. Many bones were found in a nearly inaccessible cave in South Africa. They appear to be fossils with mixed traits. The shoulders and pelvis seem to be australopithicene in character, while the teeth, legs, and feet appear to be more like the genus Homo.

2. Many bones were found in that nearly inaccessible cave. This may be due to non-intentional natural causes, or perhaps the bones were intentionally placed there by someone (by their own species -- who knows?). The latter would argue for some special care of the dead, and perhaps intelligence like ours (or not -- for another point of view see an article by primatologist Frans de Waal in the New York Times). It also depends on whether there was ever another possible route into the cave, or some sort of natural disaster that collected them in one place.

3. Very few bones of small mammals or birds were found in the cave, which argues against both another previous form of access, or a natural disaster that swept them away.

4. The fossils represent many individuals, because multiple bones of the same type have been found.

5. The fossil skulls are small. How this is interpreted depends on the point of view of the interpreter.
Gauger then raises a pair of important questions:
1. How old are the fossils? This matters because if the bones are 3 million years old and from a single species, they would represent the oldest fossils with traits of our genus Homo, and traits of the australopithicenes. Under some interpretations, this might make them the missing link.

If the fossils are younger than 2 million years, the story remains interesting but not nearly so important. Why? Because that would make them younger than the oldest known Homo fossils, Homo erectus, whose morphology was almost exactly like ours. That would make Homo naledi an interesting side branch among hominins, but definitely not the missing link between us and an ape-like ancestor, if such a thing ever existed.

2. Does the find represent a single species with mixed traits, or is it a mixture of two species? The authors of the paper claim that all the fossils are definitely of the same species, with any differences due to sexual dimorphism and age. (Sexual dimorphism means the sexes look different from one another. Think of how gorilla babies, full-grown male silverbacks, and adult females look compared to each other.) Other scientists doubt that claim, and say the differences indicate separate species.
So often in the past hasty judgments about the significance of hominin fossils had to be retracted later after further study made those judgments obsolete. Gauger properly urges restraint in the interpretation of H. nadeli, but it will be interesting to see if this really is older than the oldest known hominins.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Naturalism and Nihilism

French existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once wrote that existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to take atheism to its logical conclusion. Many atheists are reluctant to do this because they can't live consistently with their belief that man is all alone in the cosmos. The thought of our "forlornness," many have concluded, leads to a kind of despair and emptiness and ultimately to nihilism.

Some there are, though, who call upon their fellow non-theists to face up to the gloomy entailments of the belief that nature is all there is. Philosophers Alex Rosenberg, author of The Atheist's Guide to Reality, and Joel Marks are two who seek to face squarely the logic of their unbelief. Another example is a commenter at Uncommon Descent who lays out clearly and with no sugar-coating what one should also believe if one embraces atheism.

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

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

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

Another fellow who realizes that we can't dispense with belief in God and have everything go on as before is an anonymous commenter at 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. 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 genes' 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 (or naturalism) 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 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, honest, and generous, and presumably many atheists are, but the point is that there's nothing in atheism that would make cruelty, dishonesty, or 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 acknowledging 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. In a world with no transcendent moral authority 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 soon-to-be released novel Bridging the Abyss.

Some have asked, essentially, So what? What's the point? The point is that when one adopts a worldview, whether theistic or naturalistic, one must be prepared to also adopt the consequences of that worldview. Otherwise one is acting irrationally.

To be consistent an atheist must either be a complete nihilist, or, like "John," he or she must simply live by his or her own predilections, recognizing that it's a purely subjective choice, and that it's no better nor 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 that behavior may be.

Moral judgments, after all, imply an objective moral standard and naturalism rules such standards out. The atheist who makes moral judgments of others, who condemns, for example, child abuse, racism, exploitation of the environment, or opposition to gay marriage, is living as if there is an objective standard that's being violated while adopting a worldview that makes that standard impossible.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

We're With You

When I first heard about this ad from Hillary Clinton I thought it was something from The Onion or some other satirical website, but, no, it turns out that Ms Clinton really did say these things:
Younger readers who weren't around in the 1990s may not know why this ad is so breath-takingly, jaw-droppingly incredible.

In the early 90s it came to light that her husband, Bill Clinton, the President of the United States of America, had been accused by one woman (Paula Jones) of exposing himself to her, by another woman ( Kathleen Willey) of groping her, by another woman (Juanita Broaddrick) of raping her and by another woman (Monica Lewinsky) of carrying on an affair with her and then lying about it under oath. This last accusation was shown to be true which led to Clinton's impeachment for lying under oath.

And these were just the women who had the courage to come forward. How many others there were who didn't come forward we'll probably never know.

So, what was Mrs. Clinton doing and saying when all this was unfolding? Was she telling these women they have a right to be heard and a right to be believed? Was she standing with them to ensure that justice was done? No, not exactly. She was in charge of managing what her husband's aide, Betsey Wright, memorably described as "bimbo eruptions." During her husband's campaign for the presidency and afterward Hillary did everything she could to deny these women a voice and to convince the nation that they shouldn't be believed. She was complicit, if not instrumental, in discrediting them and their stories.

She went on NBC's Today show, for instance, doing an interview with Matt Lauer in which she called the allegations against her husband part of a "right-wing conspiracy" against him. She sent James Carville and others out to smear Paula Jones, calling her trailer trash.

Now she's telling women just like these that she's with them and that they deserve to be believed, and she's doing it with a straight face. That's chutzpah.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Hummingbird's Tongue

One of the most amazing creatures in the world is the tiny hummingbird. It's unique even among birds. The smallest birds hummingbirds and the smallest hummingbird, the 5-cm bee hummingbird, weighs less than a penny (2.5 g). Hummers are the only birds which can fly backwards, and they can do so at speeds exceeding 34 mph.

They're indigenous only to the western hemisphere and most diverse in the South American Andes where there are about 160 different species, but only a single breeding species can be found in eastern North America.

They're known as hummingbirds because of the humming sound created by their beating wings which flap at high frequencies audible to humans. They hover in mid-air at rapid wing-flapping rates, typically around 50 to 80 times per second.

Hummingbirds have the highest metabolism of any homeothermic animal. To conserve energy when food is scarce, and nightly when not foraging, they go into torpor, a state similar to hibernation, slowing metabolic rate to 1/15th of its normal rate.

Hummingbirds consume more than their own weight in nectar each day, and to do so they must visit hundreds of flowers. They're continuously mere hours away from starving to death and are able to store just enough energy to survive overnight. They supplement the nectar on which they feed with small insects.

The video below illustrates a fascinating feature of the hummingbird tongue which is much more complex than previously thought. It doesn't function like a simple wick or a soda straw but rather like a pump. It's pretty amazing:

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Letter to a Young Girl

Some years ago I had occasion to write a letter to my just barely teen-age daughter on the subject of happiness. I subsequently posted it on Viewpoint and a reader digging through the archives read it and liked it, so I thought I'd like to share it again. Here it is:

Hi Princess,

I've been thinking a lot about the talk we had the other night on what happiness is and how we obtain it, and I hope you have been, too. I wanted to say a little more about it, and I thought that since I was going to be away, I'd put it into a letter for you to read while I'm gone.

One of the things we talked about was that we can't assess whether we're happy based on our feelings because happiness isn't just a feeling. It's more of a condition or quality of our lives - sort of like beauty is a quality of a symphony. It's a state of satisfaction we gain through devotion to God, living a life of virtue (honesty, integrity, loyalty, chastity, trustworthiness, self-discipline), cultivating wholesome and loving relationships with family and friends, experiencing the pleasures of accomplishment in career, sports, school, etc., and filling our lives with beauty (nature, music, literature, art, etc.).

One thing is sure - happiness isn't found by acquiring material things like clothes and toys. It's not attained by being popular, having good looks, or being high on the social pecking order. Those things seem like they should make us happy, especially when we're young, but they don't. Ultimately they just leave us empty.

To the extent that happiness is a feeling we have to understand that a person's feelings tend to follow her actions. A lot of people allow their feelings to determine their actions - if they like someone they're friendly toward them; if they feel happy they act happy - but this is backwards.

People who do brave things, for instance, don't do them because they feel brave. Most people usually feel terrified when in a dangerous situation, but brave people don't let their feelings rule their behavior, and what they do is all the more wonderful because it's done in spite of everything in them urging them to get out of danger. If they do something brave, despite their fear, we say they have courage and we admire them for it.

Well, happiness is like courage. You should act as if you're happy even if you don't feel it. When you do act that way your feelings change and tend to track your behavior. You find yourself feeling happier than you did before even though the only thing that has changed is your attitude.

How can a person act happy without seeming phony? Well, we can act happy by displaying a positive, upbeat attitude, by being pleasant to be around, by enjoying life, by smiling a lot, and by not complaining. Someone who has a genuine smile (not a Paris Hilton smirk) on her face all the time is much more attractive to other people than someone whose expression always tells other people that she's just worn out or miserable.

One other thing about happiness is that it tends to elude us most when we're most intent on pursuing it. It's when we're busy doing the things I mentioned above, it's when we're busy serving and being a friend to others, that happiness is produced as a by-product. We achieve it when we're not thinking about it. It just tags along, as if it were tied by a string, with love for God, family, friends, beauty, accomplishment, a rewarding career, and so on.

Sometimes young people are worried that they don't have friends and that makes them unhappy, but often the reason they don't, paradoxically, is that they're too busy trying to convince someone to be their friend. They try too hard and they come across to others as too insecure. This is off-putting to people, and they tend to avoid the person who seems to try over-hard to be their friend. The best way to make friends, I think, is to just be pleasant, friendly, and positive. Don't be critical of people, especially your friends, and especially your guy friends, either behind their backs or to their faces. A person who never has anything bad to say about others will always have friends.

Once in a while a critical word has to be said, of course, but it'll be meaningless at best and hurtful at worst, unless it's rare and done with complete kindness. A person who is always complaining or criticizing is not pleasant to be around and will not have good, devoted friends, and will not be happy. A person who gives others the impression that her life is miserable is going to find that after a while people just don't want to hear it, and they're not going to want to be around her.

I hope this makes sense to you, honey. Maybe as you read it you can think of people you know who are examples of the things I'm talking about....

All my love,

Dad

Friday, September 11, 2015

Science Quiz

The Pew Research organization has a 12 question exam to test your scientific acumen.

A survey of 3,278 adults in the U.S. found that, overall, the majority of Americans can answer basic science-related questions, but numbers dwindle as the topic becomes more technical. The researchers found that only 6 percent of respondents got all 12 questions right; eight was the average number of correct answers. If you scored 10 or 11 correctly, you’d be in company with 26 percent of respondents.

You can take the test here and see how you measure up.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Decline

When I was in high school one of my teachers said something that has stuck with me ever since. He said that my generation, the boomer generation, was the last generation which could expect its children to be better off than we were. He was saying that America was headed for a long, slow decline. He turned out to be prescient. Everything that seemed to be a matter of course when my age cohort was growing up, all that we took for granted living in America, seems today to have been much more fragile than we ever dreamed. To paraphrase Marx, all that was solid is melting away.

Jim Geraghty at National Review has a piece in which he gives an analysis of the economic aspect of this decline.
Americans came to think of the economic conditions of the postwar boom -- low unemployment, easy entry into the workplace, job stability, considerable purchasing power and lots of consumer goods, high exports, good pensions, etc. as “normal.” What no one wanted to really acknowledge was how rare our advantage of that era was: We were an intact first-world economy on a planet where almost every other country was rebuilding from being blasted to hell during World War II.

Decade by decade, the rest of the world caught up and offered economic competition, primarily in the form of cheaper labor. The debate between trade and protectionism was largely one among elites. Non-wonk Americans lamented the decline of manufacturing jobs while buying Japanese (and then Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese) electronics, German and Japanese cars, etc. Free trade is terrific for consumers but not so great when somebody overseas can do your job for less money. From where I sit, it’s on the whole advantageous but horrible if it’s your job being “outsourced” overseas.

The public’s interest would briefly stir for NAFTA or Most Favored Nation status for China, but by and large, Americans either applauded globalization, loved its benefits but lamented its costs without ever connecting the two, or just ignored it.

For a while, Americans were told that the graduate-high-school-and-go-to-the-widget-factory-assembly-line life model was disappearing, but was being replaced with a better one: graduate-from-college-and-go-to-the-white-collar-job. In fact, it was so much better, it was worth taking on tens of thousands or even $150,000 in debt, because you would make more money over the course of your lifetime.

And then, sometime around the Great Recession, that deal changed, too. Companies realized they didn’t need that many entry-level positions (or they could shift it to unpaid labor in the form of internships). Undoubtedly, some colleges let their standards slide, and too many young people focused on basket-weaving, gender studies, or humanities majors and found themselves with a degree that didn’t translate well to the needs of the job market. A dramatic expansion of unskilled labor in the form of illegal immigration put the squeeze on another corner of the workforce; automation did even more. For many, that path to the good life seems steeper, rockier, and less clear than their parents ever faced....

These are giant, sweeping problems that are best measured on generational time-frames and go well beyond one law or one president or lawmaker. This change is tied to our nation’s long, slow, painful slide from a system of public schools where kids were likely to get at least a “good enough” education to prepare them for the workforce to one where public schools range from excellent to abysmal.

It’s tied to the U.S. going from a nation of 14 million immigrants in 1980 (both legal and illegal, 6.2 percent of the population) to 40 million immigrants in 2010 (12.9 percent). It’s tied to changing from a world with one primary, stable, relatively predictable antagonist (the Soviet Union) to an asymmetric, multinational, amorphous, adaptive slate of demonic foes like ISIS and al Qaeda. And it’s tied up in going from a relative monoculture influenced by Judeo-Christian values and identities to a cultural Balkanization where the counterculture became the dominant culture, then shattered itself.

Ultimately, electing a better president is one step on the road -- an important one, but only one. A lot of this comes down to what Americans expect of themselves. Do we want to compete in the global economy, and if not, are we willing to live with the consequences of closing ourselves off from the rest of the world? Are we willing to study hard to be qualified for good jobs and work hard once we get them? Are our companies willing to see themselves as national institutions instead of global ones? Are employers willing to show greater loyalty to their employees, and are their employees willing to reciprocate?

It would be spectacular if we could shake the country out of its fascination with caudillo-like figures. You would hope people would have learned from the experience of electing Barack Obama the Lightworker, the Munificent Sun God, the first man to step down into the presidency. But no, for far too many people, the lesson is not that we shouldn’t look to a president to be our savior, it’s that we chose the wrong one -- but Hillary, or Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders will be the right savior.
It could be argued that economic troubles comprise just one strand, an important strand to be sure, but only one strand of a web of interrelated cultural factors that have radically changed over the last fifty years and which have not been salutary for the nation. Geraghty is right that electing better presidents and members of congress is an important step in regaining our footing, but unless we also learn to discipline ourselves and repudiate the hedonism which has become almost a national trademark, the attitude that life is just one big party, that families can be fluid and children can pretty much raise themselves, we'll never get better leadership, better schools, or a better social environment.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Black Holes

Australian cosmologist Luke Barnes answers eight questions submitted to him by a young student about black holes. If you've ever wondered about any of these questions, or even if you haven't, you'll want to watch the video Barnes has put together on this. Here are the questions:
  1. How do scientists know there is a supermassive black hole in the centre of every galaxy?
  2. Many sites say scientists don’t know how supermassive black holes are formed. Are there any theories?
  3. Why does a star explode into a supernova when it runs out of energy?
  4. If it has run out of energy, where does the energy for the explosion come from?
  5. Why do extremely dense objects have so much gravity?
  6. Does a black hole really ‘blow out’ matter sometimes and why?
  7. When a black hole consumes more matter does its gravity increase?
  8. Can black holes die?
  9. Is it possible for a black hole to have an ‘other side’ and if so what could it be?
And here are Barnes' answers to these questions:

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Birthright Citizenship

Set aside whatever negative opinions you might have about Ann Coulter and just objectively consider the case she makes out for the claim that the 14th Amendment was never intended to cover children born to parents in this country illegally, but was intended to cover black children of slaves who had been here for generations.

The most important part of her column she recaps the relevant Supreme Court cases bearing on the Court's interpretation of the 14th Amendment, the relevant portion of which says that, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside."

Here are the Supreme Court opinions Coulter cites:
Supreme Court opinion in the Slaughterhouse cases (1873):

“(N)o one can fail to be impressed with the one pervading purpose found in (the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments), lying at the foundation of each, and without which none of them would have been even suggested; we mean the freedom of the slave race, the security and firm establishment of that freedom, and the protection of the newly-made freeman and citizen from the oppressions of those who had formerly exercised unlimited dominion over him.”

Supreme Court opinion in Ex Parte Virginia (1879): “[The 14th Amendment was] primarily designed to give freedom to persons of the African race, prevent their future enslavement, make them citizens, prevent discriminating State legislation against their rights as freemen, and secure to them the ballot.”

Supreme Court opinion in Strauder v. West Virginia (1880): “The 14th Amendment was framed and adopted … to assure to the colored race the enjoyment of all the civil rights that, under the law, are enjoyed by white persons, and to give to that race the protection of the general government in that enjoyment whenever it should be denied by the States.”

Supreme Court opinion in Neal v. Delaware (1880) (majority opinion written by Justice John Marshall Harlan, who was the only dissenting vote in Plessy v. Ferguson): “The right secured to the colored man under the 14th Amendment and the civil rights laws is that he shall not be discriminated against solely on account of his race or color.”

Supreme Court opinion in Elk v. Wilkins (1884): “The main object of the opening sentence of the 14th Amendment was … to put it beyond doubt that all persons, white or black, and whether formerly slaves or not, born or naturalized in the United States, and owing no allegiance to any alien power, should be citizens of the United States … The evident meaning of (the words, “and subject to the jurisdiction thereof”) is, not merely subject in some respect or degree to the jurisdiction of the United States, but completely subject to their political jurisdiction, and owing them direct and immediate allegiance. … Persons not thus subject to the jurisdiction of the United States at the time of birth cannot become so afterward, except by being naturalized …”

One has to leap forward 200 years from “the founding of the republic” to find the first claim that kids born to illegal immigrants are citizens: To wit, in dicta (irrelevant chitchat) by Justice William Brennan, slipped into the footnote of a 5-4 decision in 1982.
Of all the developed countries in the world only the U.S. and Canada confer citizenship on children born on our soil. It's a policy based upon a distorted reading of the Constitution and supported by Democrats because they want Hispanic votes and by Republicans because they want cheap labor.

As Coulter points out 70% of illegal aliens are being subsidized by American taxpayers. Coulter is a big Trump fan largely because Trump promises to end birthright citizenship, but beyond his populist Huey Long-type rhetoric there's no reason in his history to think he will. It's almost certain, however, that no Democrat president will end it.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Refugee Crisis

The tragic flood of refugees pouring into Europe is not without its ironies. Muslim refugees from Muslim wars and tyrants are paying all they have and risking their lives to get to Europe. Why are they fleeing to Europe rather than another African or Middle Eastern country? One answer is their fellow Arab and African Muslims won't let them in. Even though some of these countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE) are awash in oil wealth they're willing to do very little beyond offer financial support to help their fellow Muslims and they're shameless enough to criticize Europeans for not doing more.

The significance of being treated much better by the infidels than by other Muslims is not being lost on either the refugees or the Europeans:
With half of Syria's population displaced in the worst refugee crisis since World War II, according to the United Nations, and Europe overwhelmed by the hundreds of thousands of people flooding the continent, accusations are flying as to why the wealthy Gulf states are not welcoming people with whom they share a common language and heritage.

Gulf states have cited possible security concerns, and worries that Syrians might eventually compete for jobs. But to the Syrians, the answer is simple: they are not welcome.

"Gulf countries have closed their doors in the face of Syrians," Yassir Batal, a Syrian refugee who fled to Germany, told Bloomberg.

The voyage to Europe necessitates a dangerous and often disastrous ending for the refugees. They must pay smugglers exorbitant fees for space on either overcrowded rubber dinghies or unseaworthy vessels, and thousands end up drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

But the only Arab countries Syrians may enter without a visa are Algeria, Mauritania, Sudan and Yemen.
Of course, these nations are themselves war-torn economic basket cases and are hardly attractive destinations for those fleeing poverty, conflict, and tyranny.
It is virtually impossible to gain citizenship in a Gulf state, and these countries favor hiring unskilled workers from Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, the BBC reported. The Syrians, who are usually fairly well educated, would compete with jobs with Gulf state locals.

Several tweets point out the hypocrisy of Arab leaders pointing to Europe to do more when they, who share a language, heritage and religion in common with the refugees, do nothing to help, but after photos of a Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach went viral this week and prompting worldwide attention, many Arabs took to social media to express their outrage that Islamic countries failed to do more for their own brethren.

For their part, the Gulf states say they are not indifferent to Syrians' suffering and point to the billions of dollars of aid and the camps they have set up in Jordan and Lebanon. The United Arab Emirates spent $540 million in relief aid to set up a camp in Jordan and another in northern Iraq, a U.A.E. official told Bloomberg.

A cartoon published in Saudi Arabia showed an Arab behind a shut door guarded with barbed wire berating a European for not opening his door to the refugees. "Why don't you let them in, you discourteous people?!" he says.

"Have consciences died? Why can't able countries like [the] Gulf nations take part in hosting refugees?" Salman Aloda, a popular Saudi cleric tweeted.

On Facebook, the Syrian Community in Denmark community page shared a video of migrants being welcomed into Austria from Hungary, "prompting one user to ask: 'How did we flee from the region of our Muslim brethren, which should take more responsibility for us than a country they describe as infidels?'"

Another user replied: 'I swear to the Almighty God, it's the Arabs who are the infidels,' reported the BBC.

As Europe weighs how to deal with the massive crisis at their doorstep — economically strapped Greece absorbed 142,000 refugees since June 1 — European leaders have also pointed bitterly to the Gulf states' indifference.

"I'm most indignant over the Arab countries who are rolling in money and who only take very few refugees," Danish Finance Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen told Bloomberg. "Countries like Saudi Arabia. It's completely scandalous."
For those with a sense of history another irony is that for almost a thousand years Muslim Arabs sought to invade Europe and came very close to conquering the continent before being thrown back by technologically superior European forces. Doubtless, many Europeans and Muslims see the flood of refugees as an inadvertent but de facto means of accomplishing through the exploitation of Christian compassion what they could not accomplish by force of arms.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Why I'm Not a Trumpster

Jonah Goldberg at NRO makes the conservative case against Donald Trump. A summary of his case may go something like this: You can be a conservative or you can be a Trump supporter, but you can't be the latter without abandoning the principles that made you the former.

Trump's biggest appeal for conservatives is that he doesn't accept the rules of political correctness laid down by the media and other liberals. Beyond that and his vague rhetoric about Making America Great Again it's hard to find anything in his history that should appeal to social, economic, or foreign policy conservatives.

I'll quote Goldberg at length because he makes the case so well:
If I sound dismayed, it’s only because I am. Conservatives have spent more than 60 years arguing that ideas and character matter. That is the conservative movement I joined and dedicated my professional life to. And now, in a moment of passion, many of my comrades-in-arms are throwing it all away in a fit of pique. Because “Trump fights!”

How many Republicans have been deemed unfit for the Oval Office because of comparatively minor character flaws or ideological shortcomings? Rick Perry in 2012 saw his candidacy implode when he couldn’t remember the third item on his checklist of agencies he’d close down. Well, even in that “oops” moment, Rick Perry comes off as Lincolnesque compared with Donald Trump.

Yes, I know Trump has declared himself pro-life. Good for him -- and congratulations to the pro-life movement for making that the price of admission. But I’m at a total loss to understand why serious pro-lifers take him at his word. He’s been all over the place on Planned Parenthood, and when asked who he’d like to put on the Supreme Court, he named his pro-choice-extremist sister.

Ann Coulter wrote of Newt in 2011: “If all you want is to lob rhetorical bombs at Obama and then lose, Newt Gingrich -- like recent favorite Donald Trump -- is your candidate. But if you want to save the country, Newt’s not your guy.” Now Ann leads a chorus of people claiming that Trump is our only savior. Has Trump changed, or have Ann and her followers? Is there a serious argument behind the new thinking, or is it “because he fights!”?

It is entirely possible that conservatives sweat the details of tax policy too much. Once in office, a president must deal with political realities that render the fine print of a campaign pamphlet as useful as a battle plan after the enemy is met. But in the last month, Trump has contemplated a flat tax, the fair tax, maintaining the current progressive tax system, a carried-interest tax, a wealth tax, and doing nothing. His fans respond, “That shows he’s a pragmatist!”

No. It shows that he has absolutely no ideological guardrails whatsoever. Ronald Reagan once said, “Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.” Trump is close to the reverse. He’s a mouth at the wrong end of an alimentary canal spewing crap with no sense of responsibility.

In his embarrassing interview with Hugh Hewitt last night, Trump revealed he knows less than most halfway-decent D.C. interns about foreign policy. Twitter lit up with responses about how it doesn’t matter and how it was a gotcha interview. They think that Trump’s claim that he’ll just go find a Douglas MacArthur to fix the problem is brilliant. Well, I’m all in favor of finding a Douglas MacArthur, but if you don’t know anything about foreign policy, the interview process will be a complete disaster. Yes, Reagan delegated. But he knew enough to know to whom to delegate.

If you want a really good sense of the damage Donald Trump is doing to conservatism, consider the fact that for the last five years no issue has united the Right more than opposition to Obamacare. Opposition to socialized medicine in general has been a core tenet of American conservatism from Day One. Yet, when Republicans were told that Donald Trump favors single-payer health care, support for single-payer health care jumped from 16 percent to 44 percent.

I’ve written a lot about my problems with populism. One of my favorite illustrations of why the populist mindset is dangerous and anti-intellectual comes from William Jennings Bryan. “The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver,” Bryan announced. “I will look up the arguments later.” My view of conservatism holds that if free silver is a bad idea, it’s still a bad idea even if the people of Nebraska are for it. But Trumpism flips this on its head. The conservatives of Nebraska and elsewhere should be against single-payer health care, even if Donald Trump is for it. What we are seeing is the corrupting of conservatives.

I agree that presidents don’t need to be experts on everything. But they do need to do their homework....

When running for president, doing your homework is a question of character and even patriotism. If you love this country and want to be the president, quite literally the least you can do is be prepared. So let’s return to the issue of character.

In 2012, Mark Steyn wrote that a President Gingrich would have “twice as many ex-wives as the first 44 presidents combined.” If that (quite brilliant) line resonated with you three years ago, why doesn’t it for a President Trump?

I understand the ... compulsion to celebrate anyone who doesn’t take crap from the mainstream media. But when Newt Gingrich brilliantly eviscerated the press in 2012, there was a serious ideological worldview behind it. Trump’s assaults on the press have only one standard: whether the journalist in question is favorable to Trump or not. If a journalist praises him, that journalist is “terrific.” If the journalist is critical of Trump he is a “loser” (or, in my case, a loser who can’t buy pants). Not surprisingly, Hugh Hewitt is now “third rate” because he made Trump look bad. I’m no fan of Arianna Huffington or Gail Collins, but calling them “dogs” because they criticized you is not a serious ideological or intellectual retort. (It’s not even clever.) I think Trump did insinuate that Megyn Kelly was menstruating during the debate. He denies it. Fine. But what in the world about his past would lead someone to give him the benefit of the doubt? This is the same man who said, “You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”

Trump’s glass-bottom id lets the whole world see his megalomania. He talks about himself in the third person all the time. He explains that Trump is great because Trump is rich and famous. He’s waxed profound on how he doesn’t want blacks counting his money (he prefers Jews in yarmulkes). He makes jokes on national TV about women fellating him. He pays famous people to attend his wedding and then brags about it as if he got one over on them. He boasts in his books how he screwed over business associates and creditors because all that mattered was making an extra buck.

If your neighbor talked this way, maybe he’d still be your friend, because we all have friends who are characters. But would you want him to be your kid’s English teacher? Guidance counselor? Would you tell your kids you want them to follow his example? Would you go into business with him? Would you entrust him with nuclear weapons?
Goldberg is right. Trump's not a conservative, he's a narcissistic political opportunist. Conservatives rightly criticized the elevation of style over substance in 2008 and 2012 when the country elected a man whose chief qualification seemed to be personal charisma. Now in 2015 many conservatives are embracing Donald Trump for pretty much the same reason. Goldberg closes with this:
Karl Marx coined the term lumpenproletariat to describe working-class people who could never relinquish their class consciousness and embrace the idea of a classless socialist society. Hence, they were useless to the revolutionary cause. I’m no Marxist, so I don’t buy the idea that anybody -- never mind a whole class of people -- are beyond persuasion. But I am tempted to believe that Donald Trump’s biggest fans are not to be relied upon in the conservative cause. I have hope they will come to their senses. But it’s possible they won’t. And if the conservative movement and the Republican party allow themselves to be corrupted by this flim-flammery, then so be it. My job will be harder, my career will suffer, and I’ll be ideologically homeless (though hardly alone).

That’s not so scary. Conservatism began in the wilderness and maybe, like the Hebrews, it would return from it stronger and ready to rule. But I’m not leaving without a fight. If my side loses that fight, all I ask is you stop calling the Trumpian cargo cult “conservative” and maybe stop the movement long enough for me to get off.
Since this post is about politics and I'm feeling reckless this morning, I offer the following:

Political prediction: Either Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina, or both, will be on the Republican ticket. Jeb Bush will not be.
Political opinion: Donald Trump should not be.

Friday, September 4, 2015

American Justice

So Kimberly Davis must go to jail for refusing to issue licenses to gay couples who wish to marry. It's a difficult situation. She swore an oath, presumably, to uphold the law, and she's now refusing on religious principle to do what she swore to do.

Some argue that she should resign if her job conflicts with her faith. Maybe so. In fact, maybe every elected official, like Ms Davis, should resign or be put in jail if they refuse to uphold the laws they swore to carry out. Of course, as Sen. Ted Cruz correctly notes, that includes many of our nation's mayors and even our nation's president:
For every politician — Democrat and Republican — who is tut-tutting that Davis must resign, they are defending a hypocritical standard. Where is the call for the mayor of San Francisco to resign for creating a sanctuary city — resulting in the murder of American citizens by criminal illegal aliens welcomed by his lawlessness?

Where is the call for President Obama to resign for ignoring and defying our immigration laws, our welfare reform laws, and even his own Obamacare?

When the mayor of San Francisco and President Obama resign, then we can talk about Kim Davis.
Quite so. We have a double standard in this country when it comes to requiring public officials to follow the law. CIA Director General David Petraeus broke the law by keeping classified documents in his home, and he's been punished with two years probation and a $100,000 fine. Hillary Clinton kept classified documents on a computer to which the whole world had access and not only has she not been indicted, but every Democrat in the country will still vote for her for president.

President Obama has consistently violated laws, as Cruz mentions, concerning welfare reform, Obamacare, and immigration, but there's nothing that can be done because the constitutional remedy for law-breaking by a public official - impeachment - is impossible in the president's case as long as there are enough Democrats in the Senate to block his removal.

But let an intrepid but powerless woman who has the courage of her convictions, whether her convictions are right or wrong, do what President Obama and numerous city mayors have done with much greater harm to the citizens of this country when they refuse to carry out our immigration laws, and some bully of a judge slaps the poor woman in jail lickety-split. What a country.