Friday, October 30, 2015

Libet's Experiment

As a followup to last Monday's (10/26) post on the free will/ determinism question here's a post from the archives on the work of Benjamin Libet who conducted some experiments that seemed at first glance to support, even prove, that determinism is true:

Students of psychology, philosophy and other disciplines which touch upon the operations of the mind and the question of free will have probably heard mention of the experiments of Benjamin Libet, a University of California at San Francisco neurobiologist who conducted some remarkable research into the brain and human consciousness in the last decades of the 20th century.

One of Libet's most famous discoveries was that the brain "decides" on a particular choice milliseconds before we ourselves are conscious of deciding. The brain creates an electrochemical "Readiness Potential" (RP) that precedes by milliseconds the conscious decision to do something. This has been seized upon by materialists who use it as proof that our decisions are not really chosen by us but are rather the unconscious product of our brain's neurochemistry. The decision is made before we're even aware of what's going on, they claim, and this fact undermines the notion that we have free will as this video explains:
Michael Egnor, writing at ENV, points out, however, that so far from supporting determinism, Libet himself believed in free will, his research supported that belief, and, what's more, his research also reinforced, in Libet's own words, classical religious views of sin.

Libet discovered that the decision to do X is indeed pre-conscious, but he also found that the decision to do X can be consciously vetoed by us and that no RP precedes that veto. In other words, the decision of the brain to act in a particular way is determined by unconscious factors, but we retain the ability to consciously choose not to follow through with that decision. Our freedom lies in our ability to refuse any or all of the choices our brain presents to us.

Egnor's article is a fascinating piece if you're interested in the question of free will and Libet's contribution to our understanding of it.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Debate Fireworks

When Senator Marco Rubio said in last night's debate that the mainstream media was in fact a Democratic Party Super Pac he was expressing an opinion that was amply reinforced by the panel of CNBC moderators who subjected the GOP candidates to what was surely the most tendentious, irresponsibly partisan line of questioning in the history of presidential debates.

The Federalist staff summarizes the CNBC team's blatant and unprofessional bias this way:
The debate was barely 30 minutes in, but Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) stole the show when he went directly after CNBC’s Republican primary debate moderators, who had spent a good portion of the debate using their questions as an excuse to attack the Republican candidates on stage.

Cruz specifically called out CNBC moderators John Harwood, Becky Quick, and Carl Quintanilla for repeatedly asking loaded, partisan questions of the Republican candidates. Harwood’s first question to Donald Trump was whether Trump felt like a comic book villain. Becky Quick asked Carly Fiorina why she was so bad at her job. Carl Quintanilla asked Marco Rubio why he hadn’t resigned from the Senate already.

Harwood followed up his idiotic and universally panned Trump question by inviting liberal Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio), who’s polling at 1 percent in multiple polls, to criticize every candidate to his right. When he finally got the opportunity to answer a question, Cruz went straight at the moderators, pointing out that they were proving with their slanted questions why American trust in media is at record lows.
Here's Cruz:
and Rubio:
Too many contemporary journalists see themselves as extensions of the candidates they support and see their jobs as vehicles for promoting those candidates and destroying the opposition. They sacrifice professional objectivity to political partisanship and diminish themselves in the process.

Here's a montage of the candidates' responses to some of the more egregious questions they were asked:

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What Was He Supposed to Do?

I've watched the video of a police officer tossing a disruptive high school student to the floor that has a lot of people outraged, and I have to say I don't think the police officer had many alternatives. I also suggest that unless critics can state specifically what plausible tactic the officer should have employed they don't have much ground for condemning him for what he did do.

The facts, according to David French at NRO, are apparently these:
According to cell-phone video – apparently shot by students at Columbia, S.C.’s Spring Valley High School – a “student resource officer,” Senior Deputy Ben Fields, approaches an unidentified female student. After she refuses to move from her desk, he grabs her, yanks the desk over, and appears to drag, then throw her to the front of the classroom, where he apparently places her in handcuffs.

The relevant portion of the video is below: According to local reporting, Fields was called to the classroom after the student had refused to leave the room, first at the request of the teacher and then at the request of an administrator. A longer video shows Fields asking the student if she’ll leave, she refuses, he reaches down and says, “I’m going to get you up,” she appears to resist, [it has subsequently come to light that the girl punched the officer] then the officer escalates his use of force.

No one was injured in the fracas, but the media immediately identified it as an example of a white police officer brutalizing a black youth. Vox breathlessly said the video “shows what happens when you put cops in schools” and called it an example of the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Within a day, local officials had requested an FBI and Department of Justice investigation, and the media feeding frenzy was fully underway.
So, a student is disrupting the classroom and refuses the demand of the teacher, a principal, and a policeman to leave. Should they all turn around and just walk out? Unless students should be allowed to dictate what happens in the classroom and to ignore those in authority this student has to be made to leave, and if she refuses to go peacefully then the proper personnel are obligated to forcibly remove her.

The use of force, however, is rarely pretty. It can be very disturbing to those who have lived their lives insulated from those upon whom its exercise is sometimes necessary. When the resort to force is required the force applied should be adequate to accomplish what it's intended to accomplish.

The officer in the video was forceful, his actions may appear excessive, but the student was not hurt, so it's odd to call this a "brutal assault," as some have. Perhaps the officer could have dragged the girl, chair and all, out of the room, but at some point he would have had to remove her from the chair, and at that point he would've had to do pretty much what he did. Maybe he should have sat down beside her and tried to talk her into leaving peacefully, but presumably the school officials had already tried that. The police are usually only called in when all else has already failed.
Maybe the worst part of this episode is the attempt by some to turn it into another racial issue because the student was black and the officer was white. The FBI is getting involved to investigate potential "civil rights violations," but that seems ludicrous. It amounts to saying that only black cops can use force against blacks and only white cops can use force against whites.

When a teacher, a principal, or a police officer tells a student to leave the room, the student should leave the room. She doesn't get to refuse because of her race or gender. If, nevertheless, she does refuse then she, not they, have made the use of force necessary.

You might disagree, and I might be incorrect in my assessment of this situation. I'm certainly not confident that I'm right about it, but please don't tell me I'm wrong unless you can point to a realistic, less ugly option that the officer could have employed to make the girl comply. UPDATE: Evidently, the officer's superiors do disagree with me. The officer's been fired on what seems to be a bit of a technicality. The sheriff said that the officer did not follow proper procedures and shouldn't have thrown the student, but he never said what the officer should have done. I wonder if the firing wasn't just an attempt by the police department to forestall a lot of bad publicity and legal action.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Is Evolution Random?

One argument that Intelligent Design theorists make against naturalistic versions of evolution is that undirected, random processes cannot produce the amount of information we find in every one of the trillions of cells in our bodies. Naturalists respond, often, by arguing that evolution is not random, that natural selection is essentially directed toward producing fitness.

Biologist Ann Gauger finds this reply wanting because it reduces evolution to the process of natural selection, but, as she argues in a piece at Evolution News and Views, there is more to evolution than just natural selection:
Evolutionists often challenge us for referring to Darwinian evolution as "random." They point to the fact that natural selection, the force that supposedly drives the train, always selects more "fit" organisms, and so is not random. That is only part of the story, though, and to understand why evolution can indeed be called random, the rest needs to be told.

Evolution can be considered to be composed of four parts. The first part, the grist for the mill, is the process by which mutations are generated. Generally this is thought to be a random process, with some qualifications. Single base changes occur more or less randomly, but there is some skewing as to which bases are substituted for which. Other kinds of mutations, like deletions or rearrangements or recombinations (where DNA is exchanged between chromosomes), often occur in hotspots, but not always. The net effect is that mutations occur without regard for what the organism requires, but higgledy-piggledy. In that sense mutation is random.

The next part, random drift, is like a roll of the dice that decides which changes are preserved and which are lost. As the name implies, this process is also random, the result of accidental events, and without regard for the benefit of the organism. Most mutations get lost in the mix, especially when newly emerging, just because their host organisms fail to reproduce, or die from causes unrelated to genetics. It can also happen that new mutations are combined with other mutations that are harmful, and so get eliminated.

The random effects of drift are large enough to overwhelm natural selection in organisms with small breeding populations, less than a million, say. New mutations are not born fast enough to escape loss due to drift. There is a fractional threshold in the population that must be crossed before a new mutation can become "fixed," that is, universally present in every individual. A new mutation generally is lost to drift before that population threshold is crossed.
The last two aspects of evolution are natural selection, which Gauger acknowledges is not random, and environmental change, which is. Thus, she concludes:
The sum of all these factors is what is responsible for evolution, or change over time. Mutation, drift, selection, and environmental change all play a role. Three out of these four forces are random, without regard for the needs of the organism. Even selection can be random in its direction, depending on the environment.

So tell me. Is evolution random? Most of the processes at work definitely are. Certainly evolution won't make steady progress in one direction without some other factor at work. What that factor might be remains to be seen. I personally do not think a material explanation will be found, because any process to guide evolution in a purposeful way will require a purposeful designer to create it
. The challenge for the proponent of naturalistic evolution, as opposed to proponents of some form of guided, or telic, evolution, is to explain how, against all odds, something as complex and specific as protein synthesis or DNA replication could have ever arisen purely by chance in the earliest cells. Any explanation that just assumes that it could have is ipso facto disqualified. There are no fairies waving magic wands allowed in scientific explanations.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Libertarianism, Determinism, and Compatibilism

In class discussions of free will and determinism, a number of students have asked if there isn't a middle way. One student even dug a post out of the archives that I did on such a via media back in 2008 (12/24/08). The post starts out by addressing the notion of a kind of compromise position between libertarian free will and determinism, usually referred to as "compatibilism," and ends up summarizing the discussions we've had in class on these different philosophical positions. Here it is:

Barry Arrington at Uncommon Descent offers a succinct rebuttal of compatibilism, i.e. the view that our choices are fully determined and yet at the same time free. As Arrington points out, this certainly sounds like a contradiction.

The compatibilist defines freedom, however, as the lack of coercion, so as long as nothing or no one is compelling your behavior it's completely free even though at the moment you make your decision there's in fact only one possible choice you could make. Your choice is determined by the influence of your past experiences, your environment and your genetic make-up. The feeling you have that you could have chosen something other than what you did choose is simply an illusion, a trick played on us by our brains.

Compatibilism, however, doesn't solve the controversy between determinism and libertarianism (the belief we have free-will). It simply uses a philosophical sleight-of-hand to define it away. As long as it is the case that at any given moment there's just one possible future then our choices are determined by factors beyond our control, and if they're determined it's very difficult to see how we could be responsible for them. Whether we are being compelled by external forces to make a particular choice or not, we are still being compelled by internal factors that make our choice inevitable.

The temptation for the materialist (i.e. one who allows no non-material entities in his ontology) is to simply accept determinism, but not only does this view strip us of any moral responsibility, it seems to be based on a circularity: The determinist says that our choices are the inevitable products of our strongest motives, but if questioned about how we can know what our strongest motives are he would invite us to examine the choices we make. Our actions reveal our strongest motives and our strongest motives are whichever ones we act upon. But, if so, the claim that we always act upon our strongest motives reduces to the tautology that we always act upon the motives we act upon. This is certainly true, but it's not very edifying.

On the other hand, it's also difficult to pin down exactly what a free choice is. It can't be a choice that's completely uncaused because then it wouldn't be a consequence of our character and in what sense would we be responsible for it? But if the choice is a product of our character, and our character is the result of our past experiences, environment, and our genetic make-up, then ultimately our choice is determined by factors over which we have no control and we're back to determinism.

It seems to me that if materialism is true and all we are is a material, physical being, and all of our choices are simply the product of chemical reactions occurring in the brain, then determinism must be true as well, and moral responsibility and human dignity are illusions, and no punishment or reward could ever be justified on grounds of desert.

This all seems completely counter-intuitive so most people hold on to libertarianism even if they can't explain what a free choice actually is. However, they can only hold on to a belief in free will if they give up their belief materialism. Only if we have a non-physical, immaterial mind that somehow functions in human volition can there be free will and thus moral responsibility and human dignity.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Shrugging at Lies

One of the most distressing things about the Benghazi hearings this past week was the almost complete indifference in the liberal media to the fact that Hillary Clinton was shown to have lied to the nation about what happened at Benghazi in Libya. The attack on our embassy that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya, was a coordinated terrorist attack. Mrs. Clinton has maintained ever since that it was a spontaneous riot precipitated by an obscure video that painted an unflattering picture of Islam and the Prophet. This was false and the hearings have shown that she knew it was false at the time.

Jonah Goldberg at National Review summarizes:
Yesterday’s hearings confirmed that Hillary Clinton deliberately and knowingly lied when she blamed it [the attack] all on that video. This really isn’t a debatable point now. We can argue about why she lied and we can debate whether that lie matters. But that she lied is incontrovertible.

First of all, we know that the video story wasn’t, in fact, true.

Second, we know that the Obama administration knew it wasn’t true.

Third, we know that Hillary knew it wasn’t true. (You could claim that she was lying to the Egyptian prime minister when she said, “We know that the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film.” But it seems less likely that she would have lied to her own daughter on the night of the attack.)

After reading many of Clinton’s e-mails -- never mind her bizarre claim in the Democratic debate that the Libyan intervention was a success story -- it seems pretty clear that one of her motivations was to shift blame away from what she -- and Sid Blumenthal -- had wrought. They had schemed for a long time to find a way to spin the Libyan adventure as her triumph in anticipation of a presidential run. The Benghazi debacle threatened to shed light on the underlying policy failure -- not just of failing to provide security, but of the whole intervention. Better to blame the video.
In the wake of the hearings I heard commenter after commenter enthusing about how Mrs. Clinton was poised and graceful, how the Republicans failed to goad her into "screech mode," how she now has a clear path to the presidential nomination, assuming the FBI uncovers no wrongdoing, or, if they do, assuming the Justice Department chooses not to indict Democratic wrong-doing.

Scarcely anyone seemed repelled by the acknowledgement that she had lied to the nation in order to save President Obama's bacon (Recall that he had assured us that al Qaeda was on the run. It wouldn't do to admit that al Qaeda was actually running through our embassy killing our diplomats) and to deflect questions about her own failure as Secretary of State (No one, for example, has been held accountable for not granting Ambassador Stevens' many requests for more security).

We bemoan the fact that politicians are corrupt, yet as long as they're on our side, so far from punishing them for their corruption, we applaud it.

Perhaps the left is willing to shrug at Mrs. Clinton's lies because they believe that everyone does it. The idea of integrity and character is foreign to so many of us that confirmation that the woman who could be the next president of the United States has lied persistently makes as little impression on them as a bb shot at the side of a battleship.

Now if the liar were a Republican, well, that would be different. Democrat lies are peccadilloes, at worst. Republican lies are evil at best.

The moral fiber of our nation has deteriorated to the point where it's hard to believe anything anyone tells us, and a big part of the reason is that too many of us don't see anything wrong with lying. Indeed, too many of us don't see much wrong with almost anything short of murder, child abuse, and opposition to gay marriage.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Evolution and Ethics

In an essay titled Evolution and Ethics written in 1893 Thomas Huxley, otherwise known as "Darwin's bulldog," puts his finger on one of the chief difficulties with trying to establish a naturalistic basis for morality. One popular candidate for such a basis is the evolution of our species, but Huxley, despite his total fealty to Darwinian evolution, illuminates the hopelessness of this strategy:
The propounders of what are called the “ethics of evolution,”... adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments in favour of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution.

I have little doubt, for my own part, that they are on the right track; but as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is, so far, as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist.

Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.
Huxley's right, of course. If the inclination to be kind and tolerant has evolved in the human species then so has the inclination to be selfish, violent, and cruel. So if evolution is to serve as our "moral dictionary" what grounds do we have for privileging kindness over cruelty? Both are equally sanctioned by our evolutionary history, and thus we can't say that either is better or more right than the other.

Huxley goes on to dispense with the notion that the evolutionary development of our ethical sensibility can provide us with some sort of guide to our behavior:
There is another fallacy which appears to me to pervade the so-called “ethics of evolution.” It is the notion that because, on the whole, animals and plants have advanced in perfection of organization by means of the struggle for existence and the consequent ‘survival of the fittest’; therefore men in society, men as ethical beings, must look to the same process to help them towards perfection.
The problem is that, for naturalists, the processes of nature are the only thing they can look to for moral guidance. Having rejected the notion that there exists a transcendent, personal, moral authority, the naturalist, if he's to avoid nihilism, is left trying to derive ethics from what he sees in nature, which leads to what I regard as the most serious problem with any naturalistic ethics: There's simply no warrant for thinking that a blind, impersonal process like evolution or a blind, impersonal substance like matter, can impose a moral duty on conscious beings.

Moral obligations, if they exist, can only be imposed by conscious, intelligent, moral authorities. Evolution can no more impose such an obligation than can gravity. Thus, naturalists (atheists) are confronted with a stark choice: Either give up their atheism or embrace moral nihilism. Unwilling to do what is for them unthinkable and accept the first alternative, many of them are reluctantly embracing the second.

Consider these three passages from three twentieth century philosophers:
I had been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t…The long and short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality….

I experienced a shocking epiphany that religious believers are correct; without God there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality….

Even though words like “sinful” and “evil” come naturally to the tongue as, say, a description of child molesting, they do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God…nothing is literally right or wrong because there is no Morality. Joel Marks, An Amoral Manifesto


The world, according to this new picture [i.e. the picture produced by a scientific outlook], 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. W.T. Stace, The Atlantic Monthly, 1948


We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or amoralists….Reason doesn't decide here….The picture I have painted is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me….Pure reason will not take you to morality. Kai Nielson (1984)
What these thinkers and dozens like them are saying is that the project of trying to find some solid, naturalistic foundation upon which to build an ethics is like trying to find a mermaid. The object of the search simply doesn't exist, nor could it.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Human Flourishing

Philosopher Sam Harris is often identified as a "New Atheist," one of a number of prominent thinkers who have undertaken to discredit religion in all its manifestations. Harris gave a TED Talk in 2010 which he based on his book The Moral Landscape and in which he sought to rebut the common view that science, being the study of that which can be observed and measured, really has nothing to say about the aesthetic life - the realm of values, including moral values. In his TED Talk Harris says this:
So, I'm going to argue that this is an illusion -- that the separation between science and human values is an illusion -- and actually quite a dangerous one at this point in human history. Now, it's often said that science cannot give us a foundation for morality and human values, because science deals with facts, and facts and values seem to belong to different spheres. It's often thought that there's no description of the way the world is that can tell us how the world ought to be. But I think this is quite clearly untrue. Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.
In other words, Harris claims that right and wrong are about what promotes the flourishing of human beings and that science can speak to this question. There are, however, at least three things wrong with using human flourishing as a criterion for ethics:

1. On what grounds do we privilege human beings over other animals? What works against human flourishing (e.g. mass slaughters) might be a boon to the flourishing of animals, particularly carrion-eaters. On atheism, then, what grounds are there for the specieist promotion of human flourishing over that of the flourishing of other animals in general and other mammals in particular?

2. Whose idea of flourishing do we promote? What promotes human flourishing in the mind of a member of ISIS who thinks the human race would be better off if everyone were forcibly converted to Islam or killed might be distinctly immoral to say, Sam Harris. Whose conception of human flourishing should we privilege and how do we decide that?

3. On what grounds does an atheist conclude that I should be concerned with the flourishing of others as opposed to simply my own flourishing? If I can flourish at the expense of others why would that be wrong? Why is it wrong for me to flourish by exploiting the earth's resources and letting future generations yet unborn to fend for themselves?

Perhaps Harris can answer these questions, but I have serious doubts. Atheism simply does not supply the philosophical resources necessary to support a belief in objective moral obligation. If atheism is true morality devolves to subjectivism, i.e. the view that what's right is whatever I feel is right or whatever I feel I should do, and subjectivism offers no rational justification for stopping short of a "might-makes-right" view of ethics.

On atheism, whoever has the power to make the rules gets to make them, whatever they are, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Bernie Sanders: Moralist

As Democrat voters grow increasingly wary of, and disenchanted with, Hillary Clinton and come to view her as representative of all that's wrong with politics and politicians, Bernie Sanders looks better and better by comparison. Whatever one thinks of Sanders' socialism, he certainly seems like an honest man, and indeed he likes to couch his policy proposals in moral rhetoric, describing them as "the moral thing to do."

It may seem naive in this Machiavellian age, but I agree that policy should be first and foremost moral. Nevertheless, my question for Sanders is what does he ground his moral judgments in? He says, for example, that income inequality is immoral, but why is it immoral? Why is it wrong for some people to have more than others? What makes that wrong? Perhaps the answer is that it's not fair, but then the question is why is unfairness wrong?

Perhaps someone might reply that I wouldn't want to be treated unfairly and therefore shouldn't treat others unfairly, but the conclusion in that reply just doesn't follow. It's true that I wouldn't want to be treated unfairly, but why's that a reason that I shouldn't treat others that way, especially if I can get away with it? Where does this notion come from that we should treat others the way we want to be treated? Why is it wrong to treat others however we wish?

Unless, Sanders is a theist (I know nothing of his views on the matter) all his talk about morality is literal nonsense. It's empty rhetoric. Unless moral judgments are grounded in the will of a transcendent, personal, and perfectly good Creator who has the power to hold people accountable for what they do, there simply is no such thing as moral right and wrong. How could there be?

We may have strong intuitions that there are such things, but those intuitions are simply illusions which evolved eons ago as a result of impersonal forces shaping us for life in the stone age. They certainly have no power to impose obligations or duties upon us. The claims that lying, income inequality, or exploiting others or the environment are all wrong is really to claim nothing more than that we don't like these things, but of course our personal likes and dislikes are hardly the standard of right and wrong.

The next time you hear Senator Sanders use a word like "immoral" ask yourself what, in our secular age, he could possibly mean by the term if he's not implying that the behavior he's talking about violates the will of God. If he's not implying that, if he, in fact, is a non-theist, then all he's doing is venting his own subjective feelings and there's no reason anyone should be duty-bound by his feelings.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Death Spiral

Betsy McCaughey is one of the most knowledgeable critics of the Affordable health Care Act (Obamacare) in the country. In a recent column in the New York Post she observes that Obamacare is about to enter the predicted "death spiral."

The "death spiral" is the result of trying to insure everyone by raising the cost of insurance to those, like the young, who are healthy and don't use it. Obamacare requires everyone to buy insurance but despite the penalties for not having it, the young still calculate that it's cheaper for them to decline the purchase.

The failure to lure the healthy into the market means that those who are covered are sicker than the general population and thus the insurance companies have to pay more compensation out than what they're taking in. This forces insurance companies to raise the premiums on everyone else which causes even more people to decide that they can't afford it and drives them out of the market as well. As the price goes up fewer people are paying into the system, the government tries to compensate the insurers and subsidize those who can't afford the insurance, but this just makes the burden on taxpayers greater.

Eventually, the whole system collapses under its own weight, at least this is what critics have been predicting will happen in a year or two. McCaughey claims it's beginning to happen now:
The Obama administration is having trouble selling insurance plans to healthy people. That’s a big problem: When the young and healthy don’t enroll, premiums have to be hiked to cover the costs of older, sicker people, discouraging even more young people from signing up.

Last Thursday, the administration predicted enrollment for 2016 will be less than half what the Congressional Budget Office predicted in March.

Despite subsidies to help with premiums and out-of-pocket costs, most of the uninsured who are eligible for ObamaCare are saying “no thanks.” Only one in seven is expected to sign up. That’s despite a hefty increase in the financial penalty next year for not having insurance.

Bad enough that healthy people aren’t buying. Worse is that the administration is spending billions of your tax dollars covering up the problem, paying insurers to keep offering the plans, even though they’re losing their shirts. But facts are facts — and there’s no hiding these.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell predicts ObamaCare enrollment will inch up by 1 million or so, to 10 million people — half what the CBO forecasted. Open enrollment for the coming year, which begins Nov. 1, “is going to be a challenge,” she said.

David Wichmann, UnitedHealth Group’s president, announced higher premiums last week because enrollees will “require more medical services than original expectations.”

Many states (though not New York) are looking at premium hikes of 30 percent or more, according to a new Robert Wood Johnson/Urban Institute analysis. The Heritage Foundation estimates that insurers lost 12 percent selling ACA plans in 2014, with more losses this year.
McCaughey has more at the link. The republicans are reported to be coalescing around a plan to revamp the whole system while the Democrats (Clinton and Sanders) want to raise taxes to pay for the subsidies, raise the penalties, and compel people to buy health insurance.

And to think that Democrats once touted themselves as the party of individual freedom. Times have sure changed. The only individual freedom liberals endorse today is sexual freedom. Everything else they want to make subject to government regulation.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The First Cause

Philosopher Tim Maudlin is one of the top thinkers in the world on the subject of the nature and origin of the universe (i.e. cosmology). There's a six minute interview of him at Aeon in which he talks about some of the puzzling questions associated with the origin of the universe.

Specifically, he addresses the question whether something or nothing came "before" the Big Bang. Maudlin grants that if the universe is not eternal in the past it must have had a beginning. This raises the question, which he doesn't get into, of what caused the beginning since whatever comes into being must be brought into being by something else that already exists. If the beginning of the space-time universe is what we're trying to explain then whatever caused it must itself transcend space and time. Moreover, it must be exceedingly powerful and intelligent, and if intelligent then personal.

Furthermore, if we define the universe as the totality of contingent beings then the cause of this totality cannot itself be contingent (else it would be part of the universe) and must therefore be a necessary being. Necessary beings do not themselves have a beginning and thus do not require causes.

In other words, the cause of the universe sounds very much like the God of theism, but Maudlin, being a non-theist, doesn't draw out these implications. The interview is interesting but would've been much more so had he addressed the possibility that the universe is, in fact, the product of a creative act of God.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

An Anachronism in His Party

One of the more interesting moments in the Democratic debate last Tuesday night, at least for me, was when Anderson Cooper posed the question about who the candidates considered to be their enemy. Some of the answers were a bit peculiar. For example, Hillary listed, inter alia, the Iranians who want to see our children dead, and then went on to include the Republicans with whom she presumably will have to work if she's successful in achieving the presidency. It was a jarring juxtaposition.

The last candidate to answer the question was former Senator Jim Webb whose answer made the others' seem trivial, but for younger viewers his reply may have been a bit obscure. What was he referring to?
For those too young to remember, Webb is a former Marine and Vietnam veteran who received the Navy Cross for valor in combat. Here's an excerpt from his citation:
On 10 July 1969, while participating in a company-sized search and destroy operation deep in hostile territory, First Lieutenant Webb’s platoon discovered a well-camouflaged bunker complex which appeared to be unoccupied. Deploying his men into defensive positions, First Lieutenant Webb was advancing to the first bunker when three enemy soldiers armed with hand grenades jumped out. Reacting instantly, he grabbed the closest man and, brandishing his .45 caliber pistol at the others, apprehended all three of the soldiers. Accompanied by one of his men, he then approached the second bunker and called for the enemy to surrender. When the hostile soldiers failed to answer him and threw a grenade which detonated dangerously close to him, First Lieutenant Webb detonated a claymore mine in the bunker aperture, accounting for two enemy casualties and disclosing the entrance to a tunnel. Despite the smoke and debris from the explosion and the possibility of enemy soldiers hiding in the tunnel, he then conducted a thorough search which yielded several items of equipment and numerous documents containing valuable intelligence data. Continuing the assault, he approached a third bunker and was preparing to fire into it when the enemy threw another grenade. Observing the grenade land dangerously close to his companion, First Lieutenant Webb simultaneously fired his weapon at the enemy, pushed the Marine away from the grenade, and shielded him from the explosion with his own body. Although sustaining painful fragmentation wounds from the explosion, he managed to throw a grenade into the aperture and completely destroy the remaining bunker.
Webb stood on that stage last Tuesday, at least in that moment, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. It's too bad that in today's Democrat party men like Webb are anachronisms.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mind or Matter

In my classes recently we've spoken about the view of reality often referred to as Idealism. Idealists hold that what really exists is not objective material stuff but rather ideas in minds. The notion is intriguing, largely because it's so counterintuitive and also because it seems that so many scientists and philosophers have come to the belief that some version of it is more plausible than the common sense view that the world is composed of material substance.

In light of these class discussions I wanted to run this post that I originally put on VP a couple of years ago:

One of the many fascinating questions being revived in today's philosophical debates is the question of the ultimate nature of reality. In other words, what is the world made of? For the last two hundred years, and still today, the consensus answer among scientists and philosophers is that matter is the fundamental constituent of the world. Everything in the world, it's believed, can be reduced to matter (or energy).

This view is called metaphysical materialism, but despite its status as the consensus view there have always been prominent thinkers who've insisted that materialism is quite wrong. There has long been a substantial minority of very brilliant men who believe that the material world is really an expression of mind and that mind is fundamental. This view is usually referred to as metaphysical idealism.

Here are a few examples of quotes from scientists and philosophers who embrace(d) one form or another of metaphysical idealism:
"As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter." Max Planck, the father of quantum mechanics, 1944

"Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else." Erwin Schroedinger, quantum physicist

"It will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the scientific conclusion that the content of the consciousness is the ultimate universal reality." Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner, 1961

"If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history." Thomas Nagel, author of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, 2012.

"What is more, recent experiments are bringing to light that the experimenter’s free will and consciousness should be considered axioms (founding principles) of standard quantum physics theory. So for instance, in experiments involving “entanglement” (the phenomenon Einstein called 'spooky action at a distance'), to conclude that quantum correlations of two particles are nonlocal (i.e. cannot be explained by signals traveling at velocity less than or equal to the speed of light), it is crucial to assume that the experimenter can make free choices and is not constrained in what orientation he/she sets the measuring devices. To understand these implications it is crucial to be aware that quantum physics is not only a description of the material and visible world around us, but also speaks about non-material influences coming from outside the space-time." Antoine Suarez, 2013
So what does all this matter (no pun intended)? If mind is fundamental then it may follow, psychologically if not logically, that personality is as well, and pretty soon it seems plausible to think that the fundamental reality is in fact the Universal Mind of traditional theism.

This is an intolerable conclusion for metaphysical naturalists who thought they had laid such notions to rest in the 19th century. Now it appears that the matter is far from settled, and presently, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, there's an interesting philosophical donnybrook brewing over whether science and philosophy, so far from having proven there is no transcendent mind, no God, are actually, even if inadvertently, accumulating increasing evidence that there is.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Sundry Thoughts

A few ruminations in the wake of last night's Democratic debate:

There was a lot of talk about the damage that atmospheric CO2 is doing to our climate and how we need to tax carbon and end fossil fuel consumption. This would, of course, raise fuel costs, put an awful lot of people out of work, and be especially hard on the poor. That should concern those who claim to have the interests of the middle class and poor at heart, so I wonder if it might not be a better idea to offer research grants to encourage the development of economically feasible technology that would suck CO2 out of the air rather than destroy entire industries to try to prevent it from going in. It would certainly be better to create manufacturing and R&D jobs than to destroy them.

There was also much talk among the Democrat candidates about free college education, but the question that pleads for an answer is how would it be paid for? The consensus among the leftist/socialists on the stage was what it always is for leftist/socialists, i.e. tax the rich. This, however, is a proposal that's almost guaranteed not to work. I prefer Jim Geraghty's idea (or is it Jonah Goldberg's): Levy a tax on the endowments of our richest universities, like Harvard. They're loaded with dough, and they're all run by very progressive folks who are vociferously in favor of requiring the rich to pay more taxes. Surely they'd leap at the chance to pay their fair share to make free education possible for everyone, don't you think?

There was considerable enthusiasm last night for raising the minimum wage to $10 and hour so that everyone in the country could make a "living wage." This is a great idea, but it's only a start. If $10 an hour helps people get by, why stop there? Why not raise the minimum wage to $100 an hour so that everyone can be rich, own their own boat and vacation wherever it is the Obama's vacation? We should print bumper stickers saying, "Why not $100?" But where's the money going to come from, you ask? I don't know. Obama's stash. Who cares? It's the right thing to do. It helps the poor. If we need more money we can just print it.

Critics often allege that Hillary is not nearly as good a liar as her husband, Bill, but I think this is very unfair to Hillary, and, since she's a woman, the slur borders on being sexist. Indeed, she fibbed masterfully in the debate. For example, she claimed that because the GOP wants to end subsidies to Planned Parenthood of half a billion dollars a year that therefore they're really promoting big government. It's not clear how wanting to cut taxpayer support of Planned Parenthood and shifting the funds to other organizations which promote women's health is an act of "big government," but the art of telling a good whopper is, in part, saying something ridiculous and getting an unthinking audience and media, who are sure they've just heard a jolly good zinger, to cheer. Breitbart lists a bunch of other examples of Hillary's skillful mendacity in last night's event here.

Finally, once upon a time we were told that Hillary was the smartest woman in the world. Well, maybe so, but do smart people say things like, "I made no decision on the Keystone pipeline until I made a decision on the Keystone pipeline"? Just asking.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Multi-Dimensional Realities

To paraphrase Shakespeare in Hamlet there are more things in heaven and on earth than we dream of in our view of reality. We observe the world with our five senses and take for granted that the world we perceive is exactly what's there. We simply assume that our senses give us an accurate and exhaustive picture of reality, but why should we think that?

Why, for example, should we suppose that just because our minds can only apprehend three dimensions (four, if you count time) that that's all there are? Could the world not consist of numerous dimensions that we can not only not perceive, but we can't even imagine? Could there not actually be entire worlds integrated with our world but closed off to us because our minds lack the necessary structure to perceive them?

One way to try to imagine what reality might be like if there are actually more than three dimensions of space is to imagine how a three dimensional object would appear to a two dimensional being as illustrated in this short video:
If we actually do consist of more than three dimensions we would look completely different to a being who could perceive those other dimensions than we do to each other. There could literally be, in other words, far more to each of us than meets the eye.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Double Standards

You might recall that when Israel bombed Hamas a couple of years ago and inadvertently killed civilians, many of whom were being used as human shields by Hamas, the world rose up in high moral dudgeon to condemn Israeli "savagery." Israel almost became an international pariah for, in the course of trying to preserve its existence, killing Palestinian Arabs who were trying, and in many cases succeeding, to kill them. Well, Arabs are presently being killed in quantity all across the Middle East today, but the world doesn't seem to be much interested. When Arabs kill Arabs the world yawns. It's only when Israelis kills Arabs that the juices of moral indignation get to flowing.

Consider, for example some facts revealed in this article at Strategy Page and ask yourself how many editorials you've seen at the New York Times about them. Then ask yourself how many editorials you would've read had the death dealers been Israelis:
Saudi Arabia has its lobbyists in the West working overtime to deal with accusations that the Saudi led Arab coalition air attacks in Yemen have killed more civilians (more than 2,000) this year than Israel did during their 2014 war in Gaza with Hamas. That conflict saw 2,100 Palestinians killed and about two-thirds of them were civilians. The Palestinians, and their Arab allies in the UN, want Israel prosecuted for war crimes because of this. There is no such clamor for the Saudis to be similarly prosecuted.

The reality is that the situation is much worse than that. Far more Palestinians are killed by other Palestinians (and other Arabs) than by Israelis. For example nearly 3,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Syrian Civil War since 2011. Hundreds were tortured to death and more than that were executed, often in gruesome ways, for being on the wrong side or for “blasphemy”. In Gaza hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in factional fighting or executed by Hamas for various offenses (like disagreeing with Hamas rule.) In the last half century far more Palestinians have been killed by Arabs than by Israelis.

The current situation becomes more embarrassing when you look at the reaction of Arabs and their supporters in the West to all this. The Palestinian accusations, and willful ignorance of Palestinians killed by Arabs has been increasingly supported in the West, especially among leftist political groups, who automatically agree with the Palestinians.

This justifies accusations that Israel must be doing something wrong. Israel points out that their Arab and Western critics would, and do, respond as Israel does when attacked by nearby terrorists, but that fact is ignored. Well, not completely. Many Arabs, especially Arab diplomats who know a lot about Israel and the Palestinians privately agree with the Israelis. But to openly point out the reality of the situation in the Moslem world will get you death threats, or worse. In the West it’s safer to point out the obvious although in leftist political circles the pro-Palestinian supporters can be loud and even a little violent at times. In Europe this has led to more tolerance of anti-Semitic violence and more European Jews moving to Israel (and elsewhere).
This situation can only get worse as Europe (and the U.S.) absorbs more and more Syrian refugees. Eventually a point is going to be reached where these immigrant Muslim populations have the political clout to affect the policy of their governments toward Israel and Israel will then find itself increasingly isolated in the world. Add to the mix a nuclear Iran and the current administration's surly antagonisms toward Israel, and the future of this tiny outpost of freedom and democracy in the midst of millions of hostile people ruled by tyrants and autocrats looks very bleak.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Imagining Our Politics

Imagine a cop who spends much of his time in the donut shop. You note that lawlessness is rampant in the neighborhood, laws are not being enforced, and you march into the donut shop to ask the cop why. He shrugs it off, tells you he doesn't like the laws and isn't going to enforce them. You tell him he's not doing his duty, but you're powerless to change anything so you storm out. Next thing you know the cop is pulling you over and writing you up for going three mph over the speed limit, having a small crack in your windshield, and a burned-out taillight. He tells you that if you don't like the way he does his job you can expect more of the same. That's Barack Obama.

Imagine a cop who stops you and tickets you for a minor infraction. Later you see the same cop pulling over a Cadillac for running a red light and nearly causing an accident. The wealthy driver hands the cop his license and a $100 bill. The cop says "thanks" and sends the driver on his way. You also learn that this cop has top secret inside information on undercover police operations involving organized crime and terrorism which he freely shares with his friends on Facebook for the whole world to see. That's Hillary Clinton.

Imagine a job applicant who, when asked how he would benefit the company were he hired, instead of answering the question, proceeds to mock the other applicants, laughing at them because they sweat too much in the interview, or have an ugly face. You think this applicant is suffering from arrested emotional development and has the maturity of a twelve year old. That's Donald Trump.

Imagine a father who has two sons. One works hard to support himself and not be a burden to the family. He works long hours and barely has time to eat, but he does what's necessary to pay his way and save for his children. The other son sleeps till noon and plays video games the rest of the day. The father nevertheless loves the second son and supports him, paying his bills and accommodating the family to the son's life choices. Finally, though, the father runs out of money. Rather than force the second son to act responsibly and get a job the father insists that the first son give 70% or more of his income to support his brother. That's Bernie Sanders.

Heaven help us.

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Future of Warfare

Lasers are employed so ubiquitously as weapons in science fiction movies that it may come as a surprise to read that they really haven't been applied that way in the military. They're used as targeting devices, to be sure, but, with the exception of a laser weapon on a naval warship, the USS Ponce, not as the instrument that does the damage. According to an article in The Week, however, that's soon going to change:
This week Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor behind the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, announced it was exploring ways to put a laser on the controversial fighter. The U.S. Navy has already fielded a laser weapon on the USS Ponce. And the U.S. Army is looking for ways to use lasers to protect troops in the field from artillery shells, missiles, and drones.

All of this is just a start. As lasers grow smaller and more compact, eventually they will be mounted on everything from bombers to tanks. A quiet killer at the speed of light, lasers may some day dominate the battlefield as we know it.

A laser inflicts damage with heat produced by focused light. This heat can burn a hole in the skin of airplanes, set a pickup truck's gas tank on fire, and even burn holes in people. Pointed at an artillery shell in flight, a laser can heat the shell until the explosive inside detonates. Engineers have known how lasers work for decades but have been held back by various problems, chief of which are power generation and storage. A laser needs a lot of energy — in the tens of kilowatts range or higher — to be usable as a weapon. And it needs it instantly.

Despite the technological hurdles, there are reasons why research has persisted. Lasers have many advantages over conventional projectile weapons. A laser moves at roughly the speed of light, or 186,000 miles per second. Unlike a missile, an accurate laser beam can't be avoided. Lasers aren't affected by strong winds and can't be blown off target.

Laser weapons are invisible, operating at an optical wavelength the human eye cannot discern. They are also silent and unlike bullets and shells, do not produce miniature sonic booms. Unlike conventional weapons, which utilize a controlled explosion to generate energy, lasers have no recoil.

Lasers are also affordable. A single Griffin short-range missile costs at least $115,000. A shot from a laser costs usually costs less than a dollar, the price of the energy used. The actual laser system is more expensive — the laser on the USS Ponce cost $40 million, including six years of research and development — but expect the price tag to fall as they become more common.
The article goes on to discuss a few more pros and cons of laser weapons and the military's plans to use them. The article doesn't mention it, but for years the military was researching ways to mount lasers on high-flying aircraft to shoot down attacking nuclear ICBMs while they were still in their boost phase. With the North Koreans and Iranians developing ICBMs to deliver nuclear weapons against the U.S. homeland, and a few other nations like China and Russia already having this capability, it would be nice if we had a way to protect ourselves from such a horrific possibility.

The Democrats in general, however, and the Obama administration in particular, have been reluctant to develop such a capability fearing that it would lead to another arms race. This argument may have made some sense when the only real nuclear threat was the old Soviet Union, which was led by men who, whatever else they were, were at least not lunatics. Given that we can't say that about the North Koreans nor the Iranians it makes eminent sense to do what we can now to defend ourselves from the psychopaths who have their fingers on the nuclear button in these countries.

Of course, it would've also been helpful had the president not seen fit to release $150 billion of frozen Iranian assets so that the fanatic mullahs in Tehran, who keep declaring their devout wish to incinerate us, could fund their nuclear dreams of mushroom clouds filling American skies.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Information Enigma

One of the major intellectual controversies of our time is the debate between naturalists and non-naturalists over origins. Naturalists maintain that life originated and developed through purely mechanistic processes, processes which acted blindly and strictly in accord with physical laws. Some non-naturalists reply that blind random forces and laws cannot generate the information we see in living things. Information, they argue, is always the product of intelligent minds, never the product of random mechanisms, and living things are saturated with it.

One version of this non-naturalist view is called intelligent design. Intentionally or unintentionally, ID is perhaps the most misrepresented theory, scientific or metaphysical, on the contemporary scene. It's detractors frequently confuse it with creationism, which is a caricature, and insist on calling it religious, which it is not.

The following recently released twenty minute video, titled Information Enigma, presents a nutshell explanation of ID. It's intended for those who wish to have an accurate understanding of the theory and why increasing numbers of philosophers and scientists are finding ID's arguments intellectually compelling. It's worth the twenty minutes it takes to watch it:

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Science and Metaphysics

There's a school of thought in philosophy called scientism which asserts that there is no significant truth about reality that is not in principle discoverable through the methods of science. Philosophers who embrace this view are at pains to eliminate metaphysics from their ontology. There are no metaphysical truths worth knowing, the devotee of scientism argues, everything worth knowing is a physical fact. In the words of Duke philosopher Alex Rosenberg, "Physics fixes all the facts."

The problem with this, beside the fact that it seems patently false, is that it itself is a metaphysical assertion. It's making a claim about reality that transcends the ability of science to adjudicate. Science simply cannot tell us what the limits of science are. Nor can it tell us whether there are facts to which the methods of science are blind.

An excerpt from a new book by philosopher Roger Trigg, the title of which is Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics, discusses the problem:
Once the logical independence of reality from science is accepted, the question is why reality has a character that enables it to be understood scientifically. The intelligibility and intrinsic rationality of reality cannot be taken for granted. Even the greatest scientists, such as Einstein, have seen that the intelligibility of the world is a mystery.

He famously remarked that “the eternally incomprehensible thing about the world is its comprehensibility.” Like the way in which mathematics seems to map the intrinsic rational structure of the physical world, this is presupposed within science and cannot be given a scientific explanation. It appears to be a metaphysical fact, and the explanation for which, if there can be one, must come from beyond science.
In other words, metaphysical assumptions are woven into the body of assumptions that scientists make as they go about their everyday work. Science would be impossible without these assumptions (for example, the assumption that the universe is intelligible and that it can be explained by mathematics). When scientists and philosophers allege that science doesn't use or require metaphysics they're, in fact, sawing off the branch on which they sit.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

New Species?

The recent discovery of hominin (human-like) bones in a South African cave has sparked a lot of excitement. The skeletal remains are virtually intact and reveal a people who have an interesting blend of characteristics - curved fingers which suit them for arboreal life and modern feet which indicates that most of their time was spent walking upright. An article in The Guardian elaborates on the find. Here's an excerpt:
Another team led by William Harcourt-Smith at the City University of New York analysed 107 pieces of Homo naledi foot bone. Writing in the journal, they describe how the foot is similar to those of Neanderthals and modern humans, but with a number of subtle differences. The toe bones are slightly curved, which may have helped Homo naledi a little when it took to the trees. The arch of the foot is low, or absent entirely, making Homo naledi flat-footed.

“It was unequivocally spending more time walking upright than not,” said Harcourt-Smith. “But you can imagine it spending time in the trees to gather fruit, or perhaps nesting in trees, or going there when there are predators around.” The curved toe bones are thought to be skeletal adaptations that Homo naledi inherited from its more arboreal ancestors and had not lost.

Until the bones can be dated, one of the major questions surrounding Homo naledi will remain: did the species emerge millions of years ago and live in successful isolation, perhaps even overlapping with modern humans? That is one possibility. Another is that Homo naledi is an evolutionary side-branch, a sister species of a known human ancestor, such as Homo erectus.

“You can imagine this lineage emerging early on, close to the origins of the Homo genus, and hanging on for a long period of time,” said Harcourt-Smith. “But that’s speculation. Evolution is messy. There is lots of experimentation going on, and lots of dead ends.”
However long ago H. naledi lived a question still remains that I've not seen anyone answer. Why is it assumed that these are the bones of an organism that is an entirely different species from H. sapiens? For that matter why is it assumed that H. erectus and H. sapiens are different species? The definition of a species is (or was) a reproductively isolated population of organisms. In other words, if two organisms can copulate and produce fertile offspring they're considered to be members of the same species. If they can't produce fertile offspring then they're assigned to different species.

So the question is how do we know that H. naledi, H. erectus, and H. sapiens could not interbreed? Even if they were separated in time that doesn't mean that they were a different species any more than a H. sapiens today is a different species than a H. sapiens which lived 50,000 years ago. It's true that all of the hominins are anatomically different but why would that make them different species? After all, every breed of dog, as different as they all are, are all the same species.

I'm eager to be instructed on this point, but until I am it seems to me that calling any of these hominins anything other than morphological variations of the same species is simply unwarranted on the basis of the evidence we have. What reason do we have to think that just because these different populations of hominins were separated by time or morphology that they would've been incapable of producing fertile offspring?

Monday, October 5, 2015

Gun Deaths

In the wake of the awful murders of college students in Oregon by a hate-filled lunatic there has been a resurgence of calls for gun control. I want to say something about that, but before I do I want to pose a question. Imagine that a white bigot targeted blacks (as happened in Charleston) or Muslims. Would we be talking about gun control or would we be talking about the state of racism or anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S.?

I'm pretty sure that from the president on down the talk would be primarily about the latter, but, if so, why is it that when a bigot of a different sort targets Christians all that gets talked about is the need to "do something" about guns? Isn't the fact that this guy picked out Christians for execution worth probing? What does it say about the state of anti-Christian bigotry in this country that haters want to kill people just because they're Christians? Just wondering.

Anyway, an article at Hot Air has some interesting numbers on gun deaths in the U.S. According to the CDC's most recent figures (2011) there were 32,352 deaths inflicted by firearms in this country which certainly sounds horrific, but when the numbers get broken down the tell a somewhat different story:
[Of] those 32,352 gun deaths, 21,175 of them were suicides. That leaves us with 11,177 deaths to account for. But as it turns out, the FBI records that 8,583 deaths were murders of various sorts involving guns of all types. The remaining roughly 2,500 were accounted for by accidents and unintentional injuries.

Of the actual 8,583 gun murders committed in 2011, 323 were committed with “rifles.” And that’s all rifles, including bolt action, deer hunting rifles and all the rest. The number committed with so called “assault rifles” were a fraction of that. When you ask how dangerous those rifles are, compare that to nearly 1,700 who were stabbed as well as nearly 500 murdered with blunt objects and more than 700 beaten to death by somebody with their bare hands.
How many murders were committed with legally purchased guns? Less than 850. That's still too many, of course, but the point is that legal gun ownership is a relatively minor factor in the murder rate in this country. So, too, is legal ownership of automatic rifles. The real problem is illegal gun possession, but politicians don't have the stomach for measures that have proven effective in reducing that. One such measure is "stop and frisk." Stop and frisk was responsible for a significant reduction in the number of illegal guns on the streets of New York and a consequent reduction in the level of violence, but there was concern among civil libertarians that police were using racial profiling to do stop and frisk and that young black men were disproportionately targeted, so the policy has been curtailed.

Meanwhile, the murder of young black men by other young black men with illegal guns continues apace, but at least now it's harder for the police to profile.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Movie Running Backwards

A student recently dug this old post out of the archive and I thought I'd re-post it:

There is a universally accepted principle of thought which says that given a choice between multiple explanations for a phenomenon the preferred explanation is the one which is simplest and fits all the facts.

Mathematician Granville Sewell at Evolution News and Views invites us to imagine a scenario which illustrates this principle:
A high school science teacher rents a video showing a tornado sweeping through a town, turning houses and cars into rubble. When she attempts to show it to her students, she accidentally runs the video backward .... [T]he students laugh and say, the video is going backwards! The teacher doesn’t want to admit her mistake, so she says: “No, the video is not really going backward. It only looks like it is .... and she proceeds to give some long, detailed, hastily improvised scientific theories on how tornadoes, under the right conditions, really can construct houses and cars.

At the end of the explanation, one student says, “I don’t want to argue with scientists, but wouldn’t it be a lot easier to explain if you ran the video the other way?”
That's the simplest explanation for the phenomena in the video, certainly simpler than the teacher's contrived explanation, and thus it should be preferred.

Sewell wants to relate this to the problem of undirected Darwinian evolution.
Imagine, he writes, a professor describing the final project for students in his evolutionary biology class. “Here are two pictures,” he says. “One is a drawing of what the Earth must have looked like soon after it formed. The other is a picture of New York City today, with tall buildings full of intelligent humans, computers, TV sets and telephones, with libraries full of science texts and novels, and jet airplanes flying overhead.

Your assignment is to explain how we got from picture one to picture two .... You should explain that 3 or 4 billion years ago a collection of atoms was formed by pure chance with the ability to duplicate itself, and these complex collections of atoms were also able to pass their complex structures on to their descendants generation after generation, even correcting errors that crept in.

Explain how, over a very long time, the accumulation of genetic accidents resulted in greater and greater information content in the DNA of these more and more complicated collections of atoms, and how eventually something called “intelligence” allowed some of these collections of atoms to design buildings and computers and TV sets, and write encyclopedias and science texts....

When one student turns in his essay some days later, he has written, “A few years after picture one was taken, the sun exploded into a supernova, all humans and other animals died, their bodies decayed, and their cells decomposed into simple organic and inorganic compounds. Most of the buildings collapsed immediately into rubble, those that didn’t, crumbled eventually. Most of the computers and TV sets inside were smashed into scrap metal, even those that weren’t, gradually turned into piles of rust, most of the books in the libraries burned up, the rest rotted over time, and you can see see the result in picture two.”

The professor says, “You have reversed the pictures! You did it backwards” “I know,” says the student, “but it was so much easier to explain that way.”
That's the problem with Darwinian evolution. The idea that blind chance and the laws of chemistry alone could have conspired to create a living cell, or produce a process as extraordinary as butterfly metamorphosis, or create a structure as unimaginably complex as a human brain requires so many assumptions and ad hoc explanations, so much suspension of incredulity, that it's far simpler, and much more in keeping with our everyday experience, to posit that these things were the intentional product of an intelligent mind.

Otherwise, Sewell concludes, the process is like a movie running backward. The whole of biological history is as improbable as assuming that purposeless, undirected forces like tornadoes could actually cause scattered debris to assemble into complex, well-integrated structures.

Of course, if a mind was somehow directing the process that would change everything.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The "Why" Questions

In the wake of the tragic shooting in Oregon yesterday, a lot of people from President Obama on down are demanding that we just DO SOMETHING. Well, yes, but what? To simply demand that something be done, that laws be passed, is little more than emotional cathexis. Talking about "doing something" substitutes for actually doing something constructive. The problem is that when these people, from the president on down, are asked what, exactly, should be done, they have no answer.

In the excerpt below, Mark Halperin insists that we need to be "more passionate" about finding solutions, but he admits that he himself has none to offer. As Charles C.W. Cooke says in the video, none of them do.

The problem is not guns, it's a spiritual sickness that pervades our society. Too many young men have been inculcated from their youth with the message that everything is meaningless and pointless, that their lives are empty and futile, that they're just animals like any other, that violence in movies, video games, and music is cathartic and makes them a man, and then we're shocked when men actually act consistently with what they've been absorbing from the culture all their lives.

Perhaps it's not a coincidence that in these horrific events the shooter sometimes singles out Christians as victims. It happened at Columbine, in Charleston, and in Oregon. Why? Why is there such hatred for Christians? Where does it come from? Could it be that Christianity, being an utter repudiation and denial of the nihilism these young men have embraced, engenders, in a perverse sort of way, a resentment that stokes their frustration to the level of rage?

Having committed themselves to moral anomie and metaphysical absurdity perhaps these see Christianity as an indictment of their choice and of themselves, an indictment they can't bear. In their existential despair they are gripped by a powerful urge to destroy everything and everyone that, like a mirror held up to their face, shows them an alternative, the only viable alternative, but one the very thought of which sends them into an irrational fury. I don't know, but I wish the media wouldn't just ignore the apparent pattern.

In any case, passing laws won't heal this sickness. We have laws against murder but we still have murders. Nor will trying to get rid of guns succeed. This would only work if these deranged young men were also disarmed, but they wouldn't be. We can't even stop millions of people from sneaking across our border, how would we stop the smuggling of millions of guns into the country for sale on black markets everywhere?

If we are to solve this problem we need to ask why so many kids are so filled with hatred and violence, why they hold human life in such contempt, and then we need to address those causes. I doubt, though, that modern secular America is going to ask those "why" questions. The answers they may find might not fit their view of how things should be.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Putin's Objectives

Ralph Peters writes on foreign policy matters for the New York Post. In his latest column he argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin's goal in propping up Bashar Assad in Syria is to humiliate President Obama. I have no doubt that this is true. Putin sees Obama as weak and lacking the will to do anything risky to stop him, but there's more in Putin's calculation than just a desire to emasculate an American president.

After explaining why Putin will keep pressing to make Mr. Obama look as ineffectual as possible, Peters lists what he sees as Putin's strategic goals:
In the short term, rescue the failing regime of Russia’s ally, Syria’s blood-drenched President Bashar al-Assad. And in doing so, eliminate all opposition groups except ISIS, leaving the United States, Europe and the world with the stark choice of “Assad or Islamic State?”

In the mid-term, create a fait accompli, irreversible circumstances, on the ground in the Middle East (and in Ukraine) that will defeat the next US president even before he takes office.

In the longer term, Putin intends to re-establish Russia’s grandeur and glory from the apogee of the czars — and to go still further by dominating the Middle East and its energy resources. Putin has bet on the Shia world against the Sunni Muslims and is well along in the process of building a wall of allies from Tehran to Tripoli. Already, Russia has a renewed presence and influence in the Middle East after a four-decade absence.

Our response? We’re still funding the Iranian-owned Baghdad government; still shortchanging the Kurds; still afraid to use real military power against ISIS; and terrified that Putin will push the Syrian situation into a confrontation. He will. And the Obama administration is utterly, profoundly unprepared.
There is no doubt that Mr. Obama's biggest blunder was withdrawing from Iraq, a withdrawal that left a vacuum in the region for ISIS, Russia, and Iran to fill, and they have. Russia will now have military bases and seaports in Syria, but most importantly, and this is probably Putin's long-term goal, they will have enormous influence over the flow of oil from Iraq and Iran.

By controlling so much oil, Russia will be in a position to dictate terms to our European and Asian allies who need petroleum for their economic survival. Long term, the Russians will use that leverage to wean these allies away from us, isolate us on the world stage, and reduce us to impotence. Meanwhile, President Obama is cutting our military, alienating our Israeli allies, empowering Iran, and giving Putin the impression that he's pushing against an open door.

It's all very difficult to understand. In fact, it's easier to understand why the Russians are doing what they're doing than to understand why we're doing what we're doing.