Monday, November 30, 2015

Strange Strategy

Over at InfoWars they're in a bit of a swivet over the fact that the Obama administration required our military to give ISIS' oil tanker drivers 45 minutes to get clear of their trucks before we blew them to smithereens:
The Obama White House is giving ISIS a 45 minute warning before bombing their oil tankers by dropping leaflets advising potential jihadists to flee before air strikes in Syria.

“Get out of your trucks now, and run away from them. Warning: air strikes are coming. Oil trucks will be destroyed. Get away from your oil trucks immediately. Do not risk your life,” the leaflet reads.

The leaflet drops are justified under the premise that the oil tanker drivers might be civilians and not ISIS recruits, although it’s an explanation that doesn’t wash with critics.

“It’s not like these drivers are innocent, uninvolved ‘civilians’ like children or sick people,” writes J.E. Dyer. “They’re waging ISIS’s war, just like the other non-uniformed participants who make up 100% of ISIS’s ranks. This is how far the Obama administration is going to avoid “collateral damage” — and who knows, it may be worse.”
Okay. Forty Five minutes maybe seems a bit excessive, but unless the drivers are able to drive their trucks out of harm's way in that interval it doesn't seem to me to be anything other than a humane effort to avoid unnecessary casualties. I don't see anything wrong with that. In fact I applaud it.

On the other hand, I'm much more perplexed by the fact that the oil tankers are still around in the first place. President Obama launched the campaign against ISIS over a year ago and we're just now getting around to taking out their financial lifeline? What have we been bombing all this time? Speaking of which, why is it that when the French decided to hit ISIS after the Paris terror attack they were able to find a command and communication center with a munitions dump and training facility to bomb? Why was that target still available after all the explosives we were supposed to have been dropping on the ISIS psychopaths?

It sounds like our Commander in Chief has had our pilots burn a lot of jet fuel over the last year flying what pilots call lazy eights over Syria without dispatching very much ordnance on the enemy. Why?

Now comes word that the reason for President Obama's reluctance to attack the oil tankers is that he was afraid of incurring collateral environmental damage. This is stunning. He has apparently permitted ISIS to rake in billions of dollars a year selling oil on the black market, financing their crimes against humanity with the profits, because he was afraid that smoke from burning oil tankers would pollute the desert air? That just can't be right. We are to believe that he stood by watching hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Syrians and Iraqis be horribly tortured and executed all the while refusing to cripple the economic legs that supported these atrocities because he was afraid that oil would get spilled?

If that's true, if Mr. Obama is conducting this war as if he thinks that the roar of jet engines overhead is sufficient to terrify ISIS foot soldiers so much that they'll reconsider their murderous ways and link arms to sing peace on earth, good will toward men, then he's perhaps the most naive man to occupy the White House since Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Obama promised that we were going to "degrade and destroy ISIS" but at this point it looks as if he either didn't really mean it or, if he did, he has the most baffling war strategy of any president in the history of the country.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Privileged Species

One of the most profound discoveries that scientists have made over the last century or so is that there are an amazing number of facts about the universe, the earth, and chemistry that have to be just as they are in order for complex living organisms to exist at all.

This beautifully produced thirty minute video takes a look at just a few of the hundreds of examples of these astonishing "coincidences" and leaves the viewer with the impression that the claim that this world is the result of some sort of cosmic accident is, to say the least, implausible.

Take some time to watch it and see what you think:

Friday, November 27, 2015

Making Philosophy Matter

Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and a lecturer in philosophy at Simmons College, sounds the tocsin for his fellow philosophers, urging them to wake up to the fact that their discipline is in trouble. Universities looking for ways to tighten their budgetary belts have let their eyes fall upon their philosophy departments which are increasingly regarded as academic fat.

McIntyre laments the short-sightedness of such a view, but also blames his colleagues for not doing more to make philosophy relevant to the lives of their students and to our public debates.

Here's a sample from his essay:
In March administrators at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas announced that, because of budget cuts, the entire department of philosophy would be eliminated. Philosophers rallied, the administration flinched, and within a month the crisis was averted. So all is well, right?

Not so fast. Unless systemic changes are made within the profession of philosophy over the next several years, we can expect that within a few decades, the entire discipline may be threatened.

In November 2010, The Boston Globe reported that student interest in humanities courses has cratered in recent years. And long-term trends are troubling, too. When adjusted for total enrollment, numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics show a 20-percent drop in philosophy and religion majors from 1970 through 2009. Of course, none of that is news to anyone who has worked recently in an American philosophy department. There is anecdotal evidence aplenty that our students are disappearing.

And how have we responded? Do we design better courses? Try to attract more student interest? Some members of our profession do, but by and large our response has been pitiful. We collapse tenured positions as soon as their inhabitants retire. We hire more adjuncts. Instead of trying to figure out how to reach more people with philosophy, we cut back. But in doing so, we eat our seed corn. (Note that in saving philosophy at UNLV, the department agreed to slate all its junior faculty members for termination.)

Something should be done about the growing crisis in philosophy, but no one seems to be doing anything. Who is to blame?

We are. Philosophers. We did this to ourselves.
McIntyre goes on to explain exactly how philosophers have done it themselves. Everything he says rings true, but there's one thing he doesn't mention that's an interesting fact about the jeopardy philosophy finds itself in. It doesn't seem to be at all in trouble in religious schools, at least as far as I can tell. One reason, perhaps, is that the problems examined in philosophy courses are highly relevant and crucial to a thorough religious education.

Philosophy as taught by secularists in secular institutions always struck me as a dry, barren and tedious affair. Philosophy is most exciting, I think, to those who are interested in seeing how the ideas of the great thinkers bear on their own deepest convictions. Philosophers who teach courses on very narrow, abstruse topics are simply walling themselves off from a larger body of students who might otherwise be eager to think about ideas and issues that both challenge and reinforce their own convictions, particularly their metaphysical convictions.

McIntyre goes on to observe that unlike scholars in other disciplines, too many philosophers eschew writing for a popular audience:
We have painted ourselves into a corner of irrelevance so completely that at times I wonder whether most philosophical work is even very interesting to other philosophers. There is, of course, genuine value to pure research in philosophy, just as there is in other fields. But what seems problematic is the widespread philosopher's prejudice that we are somehow sullying our discipline any time we try to make a real-world connection.

Thus, even when we have the chance to make a difference, philosophers often blow it. How many of us, when we teach ethics, have used the hypothetical example of whether torture is justified to get evidence in the face of a ticking bomb? But when a U.S. president actually endorsed the use of torture, there was mostly silence from the philosophical community, from both sides of the political spectrum.

Few op-eds in national newspapers. Little attempt to make use of our terrific critical-reasoning skills in the public arena to cut through the fallacies of the politicians or the blowhards on cable TV. Too many preferred instead to brag of their brave political convictions to the captive audience in their classrooms.
Quite so. Any discipline which can't show people how the subject it studies matters to them, how it relates to their life and their deepest yearnings, is by definition going to be culturally irrelevant. Philosophy is a rich and fascinating discipline, but when it's decoupled from the ultimate questions of life, or when it's presented to students by instructors who are themselves lost in the arid, empty wastelands of a naturalistic metaphysics, it often comes across as a dessicated exercise in pointless erudition.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

How Thanksgiving Became an Official Holiday

Ever since the presidency of George Washington Americans had been celebrating days of thanksgiving, but they had been declared mostly by the states for the states. On September 28th, 1863, a 74 year-old magazine editor named Sarah Hale wrote to President Abraham Lincoln urging him to declare a nation-wide observance.

During his administration President Lincoln had issued many orders similar to this. For example, on November 28, 1861, he had ordered government departments closed for a local day of thanksgiving. Hale, however, wanted him to have the "day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival," an observance for which she had campaigned in her magazine, Godey's Lady's Book, for 15 years.

She explained, "You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution." Prior to this, each state scheduled its own Thanksgiving holiday at different times, mainly in New England and other Northern states. President Lincoln responded to Mrs. Hale's request immediately, unlike several of his predecessors, who ignored her petitions altogether.

According to an April 1, 1864, letter from John Nicolay, one of President Lincoln's secretaries, this proclamation was actually written for President Lincoln by Secretary of State William Seward. A year later the manuscript, in Seward's hand, was sold to benefit Union troops. Here's Lincoln's proclamation:
Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863
By the President of the United States of America.
A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.

Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State
In some respects the proclamation reads as if it could have been written today. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Progressive Liberalism

Nick Cohen at the Guardian undertakes to contrast traditional liberalism with modern, progressive liberalism. He writes:
On the one hand, traditional liberals say they must oppose political Islam. It is oppressive in its attitude to women, freethinkers and gay people, dogmatic in its intolerance of believers in other religions and none, and contemptuous of democracy and human rights. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, it mandates theocracy. In Syria and Nigeria, it justifies slavery and the mass murders of unbelievers.

Traditional liberals say we should oppose its non-violent and violent sectarianism as vigorously as we oppose Christian, Jewish, Hindu or any other form of sectarianism. Let your enemies play the race card and call you an Islamophobe if they must. Liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims need your support and you need to show that you are not living a lie.

Against traditional liberalism stands multicultural liberalism, which the majority of people who call themselves “progressives” believe. An unimprovable example of how it turns old certainties on their heads came two days before the Paris massacres. The Muslim Council of Britain demanded a blasphemy law because “Muslim communities need to be able to respond to accusations [against] Muslims, or against the Prophet, in a more effective way”.

The council’s guest, Keith Vaz, appeared to agree. It is symptomatic of our time that Vaz is not a Tory traditionalist who thinks it wrong for impious critics to mock the beliefs of the faithful, but a Labour politician. In general today, the left rather than the right, multicultural liberals rather than Tories, are the most likely to defend religious conservatism.

There can be no compromise between these two versions of liberalism and we should have the honesty to admit it.
Cohen has more at the link. Cohen captures several ironies of modern, progressive liberalism in his column. One point that could be added to what he writes is that "progressive liberalism" is actually a misleading label. Modern progressives are much closer to fascists than they are to liberals in the classical sense. They reject, for example, the traditional freedoms that liberals have long cherished - freedom of speech, the spirited clash of ideas, freedom of religion, the equality of all persons under the law, free and open markets, etc.

Modern progressives oppose all of these. Where progressives are influential, as they are on university campuses, speech codes, forbidden words and topics and other stiflings free speech are rife. Ideas which dissent from the orthodox view are shouted down and their proponents subjected to all manner of intimidation and punishments ranging from loss of tenure (instructors), to expulsion from school (students), to calls for arrest (climate change skeptics).

Progressives endorse freedom of religion as long as long as the religion isn't Christianity. Christians are pressured to shed their belief in traditional marriage, for instance, and threatened with fines or loss of tax exemption and, in some European countries, even arrest if pastors speak out in favor of traditional marriage, but progressives would never dream of subjecting Muslims to such sanctions.

Having insisted for decades that minority groups are victims of racism and oppression progressives now find themselves unable to oppose or criticize whatever members of those groups demand, whether it be the right to practice sharia law or even the right to impose sharia on the broader culture by enacting blasphemy laws.

Progressives have constructed an implicit narrative that governs the way they see the world. According to this narrative those who have power are ipso facto oppressors and those who lack power are ipso facto innocent victims. Thus, whenever the oppressor, for example a police officer, employs force against a victim the officer is by the very nature of the case engaging in oppression against the oppressed. The victim is by definition innocent and the oppressor is by definition guilty. Justice demands that the innocent be vindicated and the guilty oppressor be punished.

This progressive narrative infuses much of the racial tension in this country and sets the tone for the relations of Muslims to the wider culture in Britain. One way the innocent are to be vindicated, in the progressive view, is by yielding to their demands, which emanate, after all, from the moral high ground, and turning a blind eye to their social, legal, and intellectual transgressions and inadequacies.

Of course, when this point is reached genuine justice is no longer possible. And that, indeed, is the legacy of progressive liberalism.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Responsibility

Walter Russell Mead at The American Interest lays responsibility for the Syrian refugee crisis at the feet of three people: Syrian president Bashar Assad, ISIS leader al-Baghdadi, and President Obama. Why President Obama, you ask?

This paragraph from the conclusion of the essay sums up Mead's indictment of the president's culpability and the rest of the article fills in the facts supporting his allegations:
For no one, other than the Butcher Assad and the unspeakable al-Baghdadi, is as responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria as is President Obama. No one has committed more sins of omission, no one has so ruthlessly sacrificed the well-being of Syria’s people for his own ends, as the man in the White House. In all the world, only President Obama had the ability to do anything significant to prevent this catastrophe; in all the world no one turned his back so coldly and resolutely on the suffering Syrians as the man who sits in the White House today—a man who is now lecturing his fellow citizens on what he insists is their moral inferiority before his own high self-esteem.
What exactly were the president's omissions, in Mead's estimation?
Obama’s own policy decisions — allowing Assad to convert peaceful demonstrations into an increasingly ugly civil war, refusing to declare safe havens and no fly zones — were instrumental in creating the Syrian refugee crisis. This crisis is in large part the direct consequence of President Obama’s decision to stand aside and watch Syria burn.

Many Americans who now oppose the President’s ill-considered refugee program have long supported the use of American power to create “safe zones” in Syria so the refugees could be sheltered and fed in their own country. If President Obama seriously cared about the fate of Syria’s millions of displaced people, he would have started to organize those safe havens years ago. And if he understood the nature of America’s role in Europe, he would have known that working with the Europeans to prevent a mass refugee and humanitarian disaster was something that had to be done.

Not even President Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq has been as destructive for Europe or as damaging to the Transatlantic alliance as President Obama’s hard-hearted and short-sighted Syria policy. The flood of refugees is shaking the European Union to its core, and Obama’s policy has cemented perceptions among many around the world that the United States is no longer the kind of useful ally that it once was. France didn’t even bother to invoke NATO’s Article 5 after the Paris attacks; nobody really thinks of President Obama as the man you want at your side when the chips are down.
Mr. Obama prefers to "lead from behind" which implies that he prefers to cede leadership to others, but this is an abdication of his responsibility. The American president, whoever he is, is ipso facto the leader of the free world. If America declines to lead Western civilization will be rudderless, disunited, and vulnerable to the savage barbarians howling for blood just outside the gates.
The collapse of President Obama’s Syria policy is hardly a partisan issue. He has repeatedly overruled his own national security officials, top diplomats, and advisors, many of whom have been horrified by the President’s passivity in the face of onrushing disaster. His abrupt policy switch on airstrikes left many senior Democrats who had supported his apparent determination to enforce his “red line” against Assad twisting in the wind.
Mead also points to an astonishing irony in the president's policy:
The Obama Administration’s extreme caution about engagement in Syria led it to insist on such a thorough process of vetting potential Syrian allies that years of effort and tens of millions of dollars resulted in only a paltry handful of people being found acceptable to receive American weapons and training. The refugee vetting process won’t be nearly this thorough; it’s almost certain that the President’s program will result in settling people in the United States who could not be certified to fight for the United States in Syria. Given our gun laws, uncertified Syrians living in the United States will soon have the opportunity to get weapons that the United States government would refuse to give them in Syria.
Being largely responsible for the refugee mess it ill-suits Mr. Obama to mock those who urge a cautious approach to allowing thousands of refugees, refugees his policies have contributed to creating, into this country. Nor is the crisis over:
The Syria war has not finished creating refugees, undermining regional and even global security, putting WMD in terrorist hands, or spreading the poisons of radicalism and sectarian war across the Middle East and among vulnerable Muslims in Europe and beyond. Things can and will get worse as long as American policy continues to flounder; instead of arguing about how to shelter a few thousand refugees we need to look hard at how we are failing to address the disaster that has created millions, and that continues to grow.
Mr. Obama came into office thinking, or at least giving the impression that he thought, that all he had to do was convince the world that he wasn't anything like George Bush and peace and love would break out all over. Unfortunately, the world is comprised of billions of people who care little about "goodness" and who are restrained by only two things: Power and the willingness to use it. The Obama administration has sounded an uncertain trumpet and refused to back up its own threats in Syria. The evil-doers in ISIS know that this administration is not really serious about stopping them, so, unintimidated by our weak hand and the lack of leadership from this administration, the world is merrily tearing itself apart.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Is Islam Violent?

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently claimed that "Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.” Secretary of State John Kerry recently assured us that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam.

Over and over we're told that Islam is a religion of peace. Well, the religion of peace is racking up quite a body count lately, not just the 3000 victims of the 9/11 attack, not just the more recent 600 plus victims of the Ankara, Beirut, and Russian airliner bombings, the 130 victims of the Paris slaughter, and the 30 or so victims of the Mali hotel attack, but uncountable lesser crimes throughout the world all done in the name of Islam.

To say that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism is like saying Christendom had nothing to do with the Inquisition. As Jonah Goldberg puts it:
The jihadists say they are motivated by Islam. They shout “Allahu akbar!” whenever they kill people. “Moderate Muslims” in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have been funding Islamic radicals around the world for nearly a century. This morning in Mali, terrorist gunmen reportedly released those hostages who could quote the Koran. The leader of ISIS has a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies and openly talks about restoring the Caliphate.

Oh, one other thing: The Islamic State is called the Islamic State. I used to eat at a restaurant called “Burrito Brothers.” Saying the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam is like telling someone eating a burrito they bought at Burrito Brothers that Burrito Brothers has “nothing whatsoever” to do with burritos.
It is inexplicable that so many of our politicians and opinion-molders seem unable to grasp this. If Republicans had rung up as many casualties as Muslim terrorists have you can bet there'd be no reticence about drawing the connection between Republican thinking and murderous barbarism. Indeed, some who can't bring themselves to put the words terrorist and Muslim together in the same sentence had no trouble putting the words Tea-party and terrorist together just a few years ago.

But set all that aside. The test of whether people are true Muslims or Christians is how closely their behavior, either theoretical or actual, comports to that of the founder of their religion - the one whose example and teaching they aspire to emulate.

When this test is applied to Islam it turns out, unfortunately, that the ISIS savages who enslave and behead are far more like their founder than are those Muslims who simply want to live in peace.

Mohammad himself practiced slavery, he condoned it for Muslims, and encouraged his followers to have sex with their female slaves. Yet all of these the world professes to be appalled at when practiced by ISIS.

Mohammad also cut off the heads of those he had taken prisoner. He had 500-900 Qurayza Jews, men and boys, decapitated after the battle of Trench and gave their wives, mothers, and sisters to his soldiers. When ISIS cuts the heads off their enemies they're following the example of the Prophet all Muslims revere and whose life they look to as their example. Indeed, Islamic literature, including the Qu'ran, is replete with passages enjoining Muslims to kill infidels.

This is why, perhaps, significant minorities of Muslims in eleven countries polled by the Pew Foundation condone the horrors that ISIS perpetrates. The numbers of supporters, though small in terms of percentage of the population, are huge in absolute terms. As many as 63 million people in eleven countries actually support ISIS, and that number rises to as many as 287 million if those who aren't sure are factored in. In Israel alone, for example, only 4% of the Muslim population supports ISIS but that translates to 66,000 individuals.

In any case, the claims of Clinton and Kerry that ISIS does not represent Islam and that Muslims have nothing to do with terrorism seem to be instances of burying one's head in the sand to avoid having to face a very unpleasant reality. We can be very grateful that millions of Muslims deplore the atrocities perpetrated by ISIS and other Islamic groups, but in order to do so they have to tacitly distance themselves from the behavior of Mohammad himself.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Unhelpful Rhetoric

President Obama has been strongly criticized, even by members of his own party, for his rhetorical lassitude in the wake of the Paris atrocity and for his refusal to see anything in the reluctance of many Americans to admit tens of thousands of Syrians into the country except unalloyed bigotry.

He recently couched a petulant response to his critics in the form of his favorite rhetorical device, the straw man, accusing opponents of his refugee policy of being frightened of "widows and orphans." This is an astonishingly silly characterization from the man who is supposed to be president of all Americans. Instead of explaining in a dignified manner befitting a world leader how his administration is making sure that no terrorists and terrorist sympathizers are sneaking in among the genuine refugees, he resorts to ridicule, a tactic more befitting a community agitator.

Mr. Obama insists that the refugees are being properly vetted, but until he explains exactly what that vetting process consists of it's hard to believe him. For most refugees there is no database, no records, against which to vet them. The vetting process consists essentially of asking them if they are who they say they are.

Over 70% of the refugees flooding Europe are young men of military age with no families. Many putative Syrian refugees are not Syrians at all but men from other nations carrying fake passports, and some Syrians are trying to sneak into the country illegally with fake Greek passports.

President Obama and others have chastised those who are calling for a cautious approach to letting in tens of thousands of people, some of whom may be murderous monsters, by declaring that such would be a denial of American values and that calls for caution only make it easier for ISIS to recruit. Both of these assertions are nonsense. There was no legal immigration into this country from 1924 to 1965. Moreover, according to current law, Cuban migrants seeking to come to the U.S. but intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba.

It might also be added that the attempt by some to compare the current refugee situation to that of Jews fleeing Nazi Europe in 1939 aboard the SS St. Louis, only to be turned away at American ports, is a red herring. Turning away a boatload of over 900 refugees from the Nazis was unconscionable, but the situation today is not analogous. There was no danger in 1939 that any of the Jews on board the St. Louis were plotting to commit mass murder of Americans, but ISIS boasts that they've heavily infiltrated the refugees and our FBI and Homeland Security leaders tell us there's no reason to doubt them.

Finally, if Mr. Obama really thinks that a cautious approach to the refugee problem gives ISIS a powerful recruiting tool then the president needs to get more rest. ISIS has successfully recruited young men and women because it offers them the promise of being in on the ground floor of the final victory of the forces of Allah over the hated infidels and Jews, not because of American immigration policies which are, it should be noted, far more liberal than those of any middle eastern Muslim country.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Luv Gov

A young woman named Alexis falls in love with a guy named Govinsky who turns out to be an overbearing, controlling lout who, despite his assurances of wanting only what's best for Alexis, gradually smothers her freedom.

Her friend Libby (Liberty) tries to warn her that "Gov" isn't what he appears to be, but Alexis allows herself, over a series of five short (5 minutes) videos, to become more and more deeply dependent until finally she has an epiphany and realizes that her dependence on Gov has wrecked her life.

Each of the videos in the series is an amusing parable for our times. Here's the first:

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Evolution and Consciousness

Sal Cordova at Uncommon Descent talks about how reflecting on the phenomenon of human consciousness as a high school student led him to doubt the Darwinian story:
I remember sitting in class and the biology teacher gave the standard talking points. But for some reason, the fact I was conscious did not seem reducible to evolutionary explanations. Strange that I would even be perplexed about it as a high school student, but I was. That was the beginning of my doubts about Darwin…

Years later, when I related the story to Walter ReMine, he explained to me that consciousness poses a serious problem for evolution.

He said something to the effect, “Say an animal has to flee a predator — all it has to do is run away. Why does it have to evolve consciousness in order to flee predators?” Mechanically speaking the animal can be programmed to flee, or even hunt, without having to be self-aware. Why does it have to evolve consciousness to do anything for survival?

Why would selection favor the evolution of consciousness? How does natural selection select for the pre-cursors of consciousness? I don’t think it can. Ergo, consciousness didn’t evolve, or it’s just a maladaptation, or an illusion — or maybe it is created by God. Materialists can say consciousness is an illusion all they want, but once upon a time, when my arm was broken in a hang gliding crash, I felt real pain. It would have been nice if consciousness were an illusion back then, but it wasn’t.
Somehow, at some point in our embryonic development consciousness arises, but how does a particular configuration of material stuff generate it? Dead people have the same configuration of matter in their brains (unless they suffered a head injury) that they had before dying and yet before death they were conscious and after death they are not. Why? What's missing after death?

How do physical processes like electrochemical reactions in the brain produce a belief, or a doubt, or understanding? How do atoms whirling about in our neuronal matrix give rise to our sense that the distant past is different from the recent past? How do chemical reactions translate a pattern of ink on paper into a meaning and how do firing synapses translate electrical pulses into the sensation of red? Not only does no one know the answers to these questions, it's very hard to see how they even could have an answer if our material brain is the only entity responsible for them.

Consciousness is an incredibly intriguing phenomenon. Not only is there no explanation in a materialist ontology of how it works, there's also no explanation for how it could ever have evolved through purely random, physical, material processes.

Cordova has more at the link.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Problem With Teaching Ethics

Ray Penning at Cardus Blog asks the question, "Can ethics be taught?" The answer, of course, is yes and no. Ethics, as the study of the rules that philosophers have prescribed to govern our moral behavior, can certainly be taught, but, although thousands of books have been written about this, I doubt that any of them have changed anyone's actual behavior. Part of the reason is that, as Penning observes:
Ethics courses that leave students with a bunch of “you shoulds” or “you should nots” are not effective. There are deeper questions that proceed from our understanding of what human nature is about and what we see as the purpose of our life together.
This is true as far as it goes, but the reason teaching such rules is not effective is that focusing on the rules fails to address the metaethical question of why we should follow any of those rules in the first place. What answer can be given to the question why one should not just be selfish, or adopt a might-makes-right ethic? At bottom secular philosophy has no convincing answer. Philosophers simply utter platitudes like "we wouldn't want others to treat us selfishly, so we shouldn't treat them selfishly," which, of course, is completely unhelpful unless one is talking to children.

The reply is unhelpful when aimed at adult students because students will discern that the reply simply asserts that we shouldn't be selfish because it's selfish to be selfish. The question, though, is why, exactly, is it wrong to do to others something we wouldn't done to us? What is it about selfishness that makes selfishness wrong?

Moreover, this sort of answer simply glosses over the problem of what it means to say that something is in fact "wrong" in the first place. Does "wrong" merely mean something one shouldn't do? If so, we might ask why one shouldn't do it, which likely elicits the reply that one shouldn't do it because it's wrong. The circularity of this is obvious.

The only way to break out of the circle, the only way we can make sense of propositions like "X is wrong," is to posit the existence of a transcendent moral authority, a personal being, who serves as the objective foundation for all our moral judgments. If there is no such being then neither are there any objective moral values or duties to which we must, or even should, adhere. This lack of any real meaning to the word "wrong" is a major consequence of the secularization of our culture, and it's one of the major themes of my novels In the Absence of God and Bridging the Abyss (see links at the top of this page), both of which I heartily recommend to readers of Viewpoint.

Monday, November 16, 2015

What Should We Do?

President Obama insists that the slaughter in Paris by Muslim terrorists, at least one of which was a refugee from Syria, will not deter him from bringing 10,000 Syrian refugees into this country each year for the next several years.

It's strange that some of the same people in this country who demand that climate change skeptics be jailed, and who have nothing but hatred for Christians who doubt evolution and oppose gay marriage, are all in favor of bringing 10,000 people, many of whom would abolish science and hang gays, into our communities.

Those who think this is a bad idea, especially in light of the experience of France which has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews emigrate from the country because of violent Muslim antisemitism, are called bigots. They're lectured about how most Muslims are good people and only a small percentage of them are radical sociopaths. Of course, it's also true that most Germans were good people during WWII, but the few who had the power were sociopaths and we should reflect upon the damage those few inflicted upon the world.

Suppose only 1% of the 10,000 or so the president wants to bring in are terrorists or potential terrorists. If so, we would be bringing into the country every year 100 people, or ten cells like the one which wreaked such carnage last Friday night on Paris. Do we really think that's compassionate and wise? Are the families of the Paris dead glad today that their country was so compassionate as to let in so many people who hate the French and all that France stands for?

The desire to be compassionate doesn't mean we should be stupid. If there was any chance at all that a blood transfusion you needed contained a few bits of HIV would you let that blood into your body if you had an alternative?

The administration scoffs at these concerns and assures us that the refugees will be "vetted", but how? There are no records in Syria that we can check to see if these people are innocent victims or ISIS operatives. All we have to go by is their word that they have no terrorist sympathies. The claim that we'll be vetting them is simply absurd.

So what should be done? We should do two things: First, demand that temporary refugee camps be set up in Saudi Arabia, southern Iraq, and other Arab countries, paid for by the oil-rich Arabs who should be shamed, if need be, into showing some compassion for their Muslim brothers and sisters. Second, we, together with European and Arab allies, should purge Syria of the elements whose terror has set this refugee crisis in motion in the first place so that these people can return to their homes. That purgation would include not only ISIS but Assad. This may bring us into conflict with the Russians and the Iranians, and it would have been less dangerous had this been done a year ago, but as long as they're there supporting Assad the suffering of the Syrian people won't improve.

Unfortunately, President Obama doesn't seem inclined to take either of these measures. I hope I'm not being unfair to him but he doesn't seem interested in actually leading. Instead, we bide our time, dropping a few bombs here and there (parenthetical question: France retaliated against ISIS yesterday by bombing a training camp, communications center, and munitions dump. Why, after all the bombs we've supposedly dropped on ISIS over the last year, was this target still available to the French? Why wasn't it destroyed long ago?) until ISIS makes good on its threat to attack Washington, D.C.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Inconsistencies

A few ruminations on some current domestic issues:

Open Borders - Some think it's immoral to prevent people from coming into this country whenever they wish to use the resources Americans have built and bought. Very well. Perhaps those folks might tell us whether they lock their doors when they leave home? If so, why do they? Why not share what they have - the contents of their refrigerator, the contents of their wallet, their bathroom and bedroom - with those who are in need of it? What's the significant difference between locking the border and locking one's house or car? What's a person called who condemns people who want to do the former while that person does the latter?

Tax Hikes - Here are a couple of questions to ask of anyone who insists that we should all be willing to pay higher taxes: "Do you take any deductions on your own taxes? If so, are you not saying that you yourself don't really want to pay what you're already assessed, let alone pay more? You just want everyone else to pay more." The person who calls for higher taxes while taking whatever deductions to which he's entitled is, to put it charitably, confused.

Minimum Wage Hike - Suppose you hire a lawn outfit to mow your grass. They charge just about what you can afford to pay so you give them the work. Soon, however, they inform you that they're now going to pay their employees twice as much to ride a mower around your property so they have to charge you twice as much to cover their expense. What do you do? Quite likely, you inform them that you'll mow your own grass. Now the lawn guys have less business and have to lay off some workers. A lot of good getting that raise is doing those workers now.

Campus Protests - Many college students demand to be treated as adults while acting like fragile children afraid to be exposed to speech and ideas that may hurt their feelings. How adult is it to demand "safe spaces" on campus to which you can flee to avoid hearing mean words or anything with which you might disagree? How adult is it to demand that there be "trigger warnings" given before a professor says something that might make the student feel uncomfortable? The need for "safe spaces" is understandable when children are eight years old, but we expect well-adjusted people to outgrow their need for such refuges as they leave elementary school behind. In any case, walking around with the equivalent of a security blanket is hardly something one associates with being a mature adult.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Poor Timing

Even as word of the horror perpetrated by Islamists in Paris spreads there's this report out of Vanderbilt:
At Vanderbilt, many minority students have in recent days renewed a push for the university to take action against Carol Swain (see photo below), a tenured professor of political science and law, over a column she wrote in January after the terrorist attacks in Paris against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

In the January column, Swain asked, "What would it take to make us admit we were wrong about Islam? What horrendous attack would finally convince us that Islam is not like other religions in the United States, that it poses an absolute danger to us and our children unless it is monitored better than it has been under the Obama administration?"

Many students and others said that the column stereotyped all Muslims in a way that was profoundly biased, but the university defended Swain's right to free speech.
                                                          Carol Swain

Why is pointing out that Muslims have been responsible for almost all of the terrorism around the world in the last two decades offensive? If it's a fact, if it's true, then why are those who bring it to our attention libeled as bigots? Are we to pretend that somehow the evil carried out in France tonight could just as easily have been done by Amishmen?

We can bury our heads in the sand and keep telling ourselves that most Muslims are not violent, and that may be true, but it's irrelevant. Tens of thousands are violent, and if Mr. Obama has his way tens of thousands more of them will soon be living among us.

Professor Swain is correct. The world does have a problem with Islamic radicals, and we delude ourselves to our peril if we insist that we don't, and, like the Vanderbilt students, insist instead on punishing those who say we do.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Why Are Middle-Aged Men Dying?

R.R.Reno notes that there has been a marked increase in the death rates of middle-aged white American men and claims that though observers have expressed surprise and bafflement at this, it's really neither surprising nor baffling. He writes:
We’re in the midst of a crisis. The New York Times reports that Angus Deaton and Ann Case, two Princeton economists, have identified increases in suicide and drug and alcohol related deaths among high school educated white Americas as the cause for a remarkable spike in the overall death rate for middle-aged white Americans. Various experts express surprise, shock, and sadness. I can understand the sadness, but not the surprise.

Over a fifteen-year period (1999-2014), the death rate for whites age 45 to 54 with a high school education or less increased by 25 percent, while death rates for the same age range in other groups in America and other rich countries declined. That is indeed shocking. It’s the sort of rise that only occurs during periods of social crisis or collapse. Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union is one instance. Europe during and in the immediate aftermath of World War II is another.
Reno goes on to discuss why he's not surprised at the statistics. I don't disagree with anything he says, but I'd place more stress on a factor that he mentions only obliquely:
I don’t find myself baffled. For the last few decades, cultural leaders have been waging a war on the weak. Their goal is to dismantle traditional norms and rules for family life. They push to dismantle gender roles and other foundational categories that ordinary people use to orient themselves and make sense out of their lives. They advocate for drug legalization and doctor-assisted suicide as well. The upshot: reliable guides toward a normal life are removed, and potentially destructive behaviors that rich people either avoid or discretely manage are normalized. The most vulnerable pay the cost.
The salient factor in the rise in death rates among middle-aged white men, I suspect, is that so many of them are either divorced or never-married. It's been known by sociologists for a long time that married men live longer, on average, than unmarried men. They engage in fewer of the self-destructive behaviors that unmarried men are prone to, they take better care of their health, and are more satisfied with their lives. On the other hand, as the number of unmarried men grows in the population so, too, does the incidence of harmful behaviors like alcoholism, drug use, etc. and the truncated life-spans these behaviors entail.

As an article published by the Harvard Medical School points out, marriage is good for men's health:
A major survey of 127,545 American adults found that married men are healthier than men who were never married or whose marriages ended in divorce or widowhood. Men who have marital partners also live longer than men without spouses; men who marry after age 25 get more protection than those who tie the knot at a younger age, and the longer a man stays married, the greater his survival advantage over his unmarried peers.
The article goes on to discuss why this is so, but there seems no doubt that marriage is a major factor in male longevity. Nevertheless, for a host of reasons, relatively fewer men are married today than in previous generations, and by the time these unaffiliated males reach middle-age a lot of health problems, apparently, catch up with them.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Modern Educayshun

No doubt that in some precincts of some universities the best that has been thought and written, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold, is still being taught by scholars who love the life of the mind and love teaching the great ideas and works of western civilization. In some campus alcoves the free exchange of ideas is still encouraged and vigorous debate and disagreement is relished, but one wonders how long these archipelagos of learning can survive, especially in the humanities, given the current climate in many of our institutions of higher learning.

Gone are the days when students could expect to be immersed in Aristotle, Shakespeare, Milton, Kant and other dead white males. Nowadays they can expect to be taught all about trigger warnings, microaggressions, safe spaces, transgender, cisgender, their "right" not to be exposed to speech they find hurtful or insulting, their "right" not to be offended or made uncomfortable, their "right" not to be confronted with ideas that challenge their own fervently, if often inchoately, held orthodoxies, their "right" not to be disagreed with, the need to intimidate and suppress those who dissent, and the evils of privilege, patriarchy, and other horrors of our corrupt and evil society.

This video, via Hot Air, takes a humorous, satirical look at the state of affairs that prevails, perhaps, in too many university classrooms.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Doctor and the President

As anyone who watches anything on television besides Dancing With the Stars knows, the media has been having a field day making up stories about Ben Carson's alleged mendacity. Joe Scarborough at MSNBC has recently called Carson a liar. Politico has tacitly admitted to fabricating a story about Carson's having lied in his autobiography. Much of the rest of the media can't get enough of the sheer pleasure to be derived from casting aspersions on Carson's memories of his violent youth or of his poorly phrased reminiscence of an alleged "scholarship" offer to West Point.

The media stories over the last week range from ridiculous to libelous and amount to asseverations that because they have searched diligently and can't find any eye-witnesses to events Carson claims happened fifty years ago therefore Carson's claims are false.

Okay. Character assassination is what the media does, especially to Republicans, but as low as their professional standards are, they'd be somewhat less contemptible were they not so obviously one-sided about their hit pieces. A microscopic examination of the candidate's past, undertaken for the sole purpose of discrediting the candidate, was certainly nowhere to be found in 2008 and 2012 when the candidate was Barack Obama. Instead what the media gave us during Mr. Obama's campaigns was idolatrous hagiography. Yet, while evidence is turning up to vindicate Dr. Carson, Mr. Obama's track record for honesty remains pathetic.

For example, Kyle Becker at Independent Journal discusses nine falsehoods that Barack Obama promotes in his autobiographies and elsewhere that are demonstrably untrue, yet scarcely any of those journalists currently taking to their fainting couches over Dr. Carson's alleged unreliability raised any objection to Sen. Obama's dissimulations seven years ago and certainly did not call him a liar.

Here are a five of the nine that Becker summons to our recollection. You can find links to the sources at Independent Journal:

Mr. Obama claimed that his uncle helped liberate Auschwitz in WWII:

In response to a question at a Memorial Day appearance in New Mexico, Mr. Obama said an uncle helped liberate the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz during World War II. However Auschwitz, evidently unbeknownst to Mr. Obama, was liberated by Soviet forces.

Mr. Obama claimed that the civil rights march in Selma served somehow as the inspiration for his conception:

[W]hen the president spoke before an audience in Selma back in 2007, Mr. Obama credited the civil rights march as the inspiration for his conception. Remarkably, however, the president was already three years old when the march occurred in 1965.

Mr. Obama claimed that his grandfather was tortured by the British in Kenya:

David Maraniss, the author of Mr Obama’s most comprehensive biography so far, claims that while “incidents of that sort certainly happened”, it “seems unlikely” that Mr Obama’s grandfather was one such victim. “Five people who had close connections to Hussein Onyango [Mr. Obama's grandfather] said they doubted the story or were certain it did not happen.”

Mr. Obama claimed that his step-grandfather died while fighting Dutch troops in Indonesia:

Mr. Maraniss notes that the story about the death of Mr. Obama’s step-grandfather was “a concocted myth in almost all respects.” Mr. Maraniss writes that the man died trying to hang drapes.

Mr. Obama claimed that his mother, while suffering from cancer, was denied insurance coverage:

However, a new book by New York Times reporter Janny Scott has revealed this story appears to be a fabrication ... and that her actual health insurer had apparently reimbursed most of her medical expenses without argument.

There are more such tarradiddles by the president at the link, and these, of course, don't include his claims that his health care plan would make insurance cheaper and allow everyone to keep their plan and their doctor, none of which is true.

Becker goes on to say that,
At least 38 false accounts of President Obama’s life story were documented in just the Maraniss biography, as counted by Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith.

Additional falsehoods have been detected in Obama’s biographies, many of them apparently designed to further a narrative of overcoming racial adversity and an underprivileged life.
Despite this record of factual errancy afflicting the president, the media snores. If, though, Dr. Carson, or any other Republican had told these whoppers, you can bet that the media would be all over it.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Metaphysical Chasm

What, exactly, is the significant difference between human beings and non-human animals such as other primates? Neuroscientist Michael Egnor offers some interesting thoughts on the question at Evolution News and Views:
It is important to understand the fundamental difference between humans and nonhuman animals. Nonhuman animals such as apes have material mental powers. By material I mean powers that are instantiated in the brain and wholly depend upon matter for their operation. These powers include sensation, perception, imagination (the ability to form mental images), memory (of perceptions and images), and appetite....

Nonhuman animals are purely material beings. They have no concepts. They experience hunger and pain. They don't contemplate the injustice of suffering.

A human being is material and immaterial -- a composite being. We have material bodies, and our perceptions and imaginations and appetites are material powers, instantiated in our brains. But our intellect -- our ability to think abstractly -- is a wholly immaterial power, and our will that acts in accordance with our intellect is an immaterial power. Our intellect and our will depend on matter for their ordinary function, in the sense that they depend upon perception and imagination and memory, but they are not themselves made of matter. It is in our ability to think abstractly that we differ from apes.

It is a radical difference -- an immeasurable qualitative difference, not a quantitative difference.
To put it differently, both animals and humans are sentient, but only humans are sapient. The difference is enormous. As Egnor says, "We are more different from apes than apes are from viruses. Our difference is a metaphysical chasm."

If this is so we might wonder how such a chasm came to exist. How did a purely physical, material process like evolution ever give rise to the abilities Egnor mentions. Indeed, how does the material brain of any animal convert physical stimuli, the firing of synapses and the flux of molecules in neurons, into immaterial sensations like pain or pleasure, and experiences of sound, color, fragrance or flavor? We take it all for granted, but it really is an astonishing mystery how a material brain could produce not only these sensations but also conceptualize abstractions and give meaning to words on paper.

indeed, Egnor believes that these phenomena are beyond the capabilities of matter alone which is why he believes that we also possess an immaterial mind.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Chinese Room

One major controversy in the philosophy of mind is driven by the claim that computers can think, or soon will be able to. If that claim is true then it makes it a lot easier to assume that the brain is a kind of computer and that what we call mind is simply a word we use to describe the way the brain functions.

Or put another way, mind is to brain what computer software is to the computer's hardware. This view is called "functionalism." In 1980 philosopher John Searle published an argument that sought to show that functionalism is wrong and that there's more to our cognitive experience than simple computation. His argument came to be known as the Chinese Room argument and neuroscientist Michael Egnor has a helpful discussion of it at Evolution News and Views. Egnor describes the argument as follows:
Imagine that you are an English speaker and you do not speak Chinese. You've moved to China and you get a job working in a booth in a public square. The purpose of the both is to provide answers to questions that Chinese-speaking people write on small pieces of paper and pass into the booth through a slot. The answer is written on a small piece of paper and passed back to the Chinese person through a separate slot.

Inside the booth with you is a very large book. The book contains every question that can be asked and the corresponding answer -- all written only in Chinese. You understand no Chinese. You understand nothing written in the book. When the question is passed through the slot you match the Chinese characters in the question to the identical question in the book and you write the Chinese symbols corresponding to the answer and pass the answer back through the answer slot.

The Chinese person asking the question gets an answer that he understands in Chinese. You understand neither the question nor the answer because you do not understand Chinese.

Searle argues that you are carrying out a computation. The booth is analogous to a computer, you are analogous to a CPU, and the information written in Chinese is analogous the algorithm. The question and the answer written on the paper are the input and the output to the computer.
In other words, the computer, like the person in the booth, has no understanding of what it's doing. As Egnor says: Thought is about understanding the process, not merely about mechanically carrying out the matching of an input to an output according to an algorithm.

Searle's argument denies that computers "think." They simply follow an algorithm. Since we do think, however, and we do understand, either our brains are not computers or functionalism is not true.

Searle points out that the computation performed by the booth and its occupant does not involve any understanding of the questions and answers provided. His point is that computation is an algorithmic process that does not entail or require understanding, but since we do understand when we perform a computation, human cognition is something qualitatively different from mere computation.

Friday, November 6, 2015

What's it Like to be a Bat?

Raymond Tallis at The New Atlantis discusses the devastating assault on philosophical materialism that began in the 1970s when American philosopher Thomas Nagel explored the question, "What is it like to be a bat?"

Nagel argued that there is something it is like to be a bat whereas it does not make sense to say that it is like something to be a stone. Bats, and people, have conscious experience that purely material objects do not have, and it is this conscious experience that is the defining feature of minds.

This experience, Tallis observes, is not a fact about the physical realm:
This difference between a person’s experience and a pebble’s non-experience cannot be captured by the sum total of the objective knowledge we can have about the physical makeup of human beings and pebbles. Conscious experience, subjective as it is to the individual organism, lies beyond the reach of such knowledge. I could know everything there is to know about a bat and still not know what it is like to be a bat — to have a bat’s experiences and live a bat’s life in a bat’s world.

This claim has been argued over at great length by myriad philosophers, who have mobilized a series of thought experiments to investigate Nagel’s claim. Among the most famous involves a fictional super-scientist named Mary, who studies the world from a room containing only the colors black and white, but has complete knowledge of the mechanics of optics, electromagnetic radiation, and the functioning of the human visual system.

When Mary is finally released from the room she begins to see colors for the first time. She now knows not only how different wavelengths of light affect the visual system, but also the direct experience of what it is like to see colors. Therefore, felt experiences and sensations are more than the physical processes that underlie them.
Nagel goes on to make the claim, a claim that has put him in the bad graces of his fellow naturalists, that naturalism simply lacks the resources to account for conscious experience. Tallis writes:
But none of the main features of minds — which Nagel identifies as consciousness, cognition, and [moral] value — can be accommodated by this worldview’s [naturalism's] identification of the mind with physical events in the brain, or by its assumption that human beings are no more than animal organisms whose behavior is fully explicable by evolutionary processes.
One might wonder why naturalistic materialists are so reluctant to acknowledge that there's more to us than just physical matter. What difference does it make if an essential aspect of our being is mental? What does it matter if we're not just matter but also a mind? Indeed, what does it matter if we are fundamentally mind?

Perhaps the answer is that given by philosopher J.P.Moreland. Moreland makes an argument in his book Consciousness and the Existence of God that naturalism entails the view that everything that exists is reducible to matter and energy, that is, there are no immaterial substances. Thus, the existence of human consciousness must be explicable in terms of material substance or naturalism is likely to be false. Moreland also argues that there is no good naturalistic explanation for consciousness and that, indeed, the existence of consciousness is strong evidence for the existence of God.

Nagel, an atheist, doesn't go as far as Moreland in believing that the phenomena of conscious experience point to the existence of God, but he comes close, arguing that there must be some mental, telic principle in the universe that somehow imbues the world with consciousness. There is nothing about matter, even the matter which constitutes the brain, that can account for conscious experiences like the sensations of color or a toothache. There's nothing about a chemical reaction or the firing of nerve fibers that can conceivably account for what we experience when we see red, hear middle C, taste sweetness, or feel pain. Nor is there anything about matter that can account for the existence of moral value.

If it turns out that naturalism remains unable to rise to the challenge presented by consciousness then naturalism, and materialism, will forfeit their hegemony among philosophers, a hegemony that has already been seriously eroded.

Read the rest of Tallis' article at the link. It's very good.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Fictionalism

At the New York Times' Opinionator column, philosopher William Irwin discusses "fictionalism", an idea promoted by another philosopher, Richard Joyce, that belief in God, free will, and objective morality are useful fictions that we believe even though we know they're not true. Joyce thinks that believing what one "knows" not to be true is, in this case at least, a good thing. Reading this gives the impression that philosophers must twist themselves into intellectual pretzels in order to accommodate a naturalistic worldview.

In the following excerpt Irwin describes Joyce's argument:
The philosopher Michael Ruse has argued that “morality is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes.” If that’s true, why have our genes played such a trick on us? One possible answer can be found in the work of another philosopher Richard Joyce, who has argued that this “illusion” — the belief in objective morality — evolved to provide a bulwark against weakness of the human will. So a claim like “stealing is morally wrong” is not true, because such beliefs have an evolutionary basis but no metaphysical basis.

But let’s assume we want to avoid the consequences of weakness of will that would cause us to act imprudently. In that case, Joyce makes an ingenious proposal: moral fictionalism.

Following a fictionalist account of morality, would mean that we would accept moral statements like “stealing is wrong” while not believing they are true. As a result, we would act as if it were true that “stealing is wrong,” but when pushed to give our answer to the theoretical, philosophical question of whether “stealing is wrong,” we would say no.

The appeal of moral fictionalism is clear. It is supposed to help us overcome weakness of will and even take away the anxiety of choice, making decisions easier.
This is a kind of philosophical make-believe, an attempt to live "as-if" there were objective moral duties because it's very hard to live without them. Even so, if one didn't believe was stealing is wrong why act as if it is? What's the point of trying to conform to what you "know" isn't true? Irwin wonders about this, too:
There is, though, a practical objection to moral fictionalism. Once we become aware that moral judgments have no objective basis in metaphysical reality, how can they function effectively? We are likely to recall that morality is a fiction whenever we are in a situation in which we would prefer not to follow what morality dictates. If I am a moral fictionalist who really wants to steal your pen, the only thing that will stop me is prudence, not a fictional moral belief.

It is not clear that this practical objection can be overcome, but even if it could, moral fictionalism would still be disingenuous, encouraging us to turn a blind eye to what we really believe. It may not be the most pernicious kind of self-deception, but it is self-deception nonetheless, a fact that will bother anyone who places value on truth.
But if a philosopher is willing to consign God, freedom, and morality to the realm of fiction, why place a value on truth? Why not go all the way and just say that all "truth" is really just fiction? The fictionalist can give no answer to this question.

Irwin goes on to describe how Joyce defends his moral fictionalist account and how he applies it to God and free will. I encourage you to check out the article at the link.

One of the tests of the soundness of one's view of the world is whether or not it's actually possible to live consistently with it. If a worldview entails that one must live as if fictions are true or truth is fiction perhaps there's something wrong with the worldview. Evidently, Joyce has adopted a worldview that requires him to embrace "fictions" like the existence of God, free will, and morality even though he believes these things don't really exist. He holds to a worldview, in other words, with which he can't really live. Indeed, he finds himself living as if his worldview is false. That's a good sign that it probably is.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Transgenders in the Shower

If you're a high school female you might soon be faced with having anatomical males sharing your shower and rest rooms with you, but you shouldn't mind because these anatomical males identify themselves as females so in the eyes of the Obama administration that makes it alright. Perhaps you yourself won't mind this peculiar state of affairs, but I'm pretty sure millions of others would, and if the Obama administration has their way in court none of them are going to have any say in the matter either way.

Boys who identify as girls, the Obama Department of Education has decreed, must be allowed access to girls' facilities as well as girls' athletic teams. This is liberal egalitarianism on steroids. The New York Times reports:
Federal education authorities, staking out their firmest position yet on an increasingly contentious issue, found Monday that an Illinois school district violated anti-discrimination laws when it did not allow a transgender student who identifies as a girl and participates on a girls’ sports team to change and shower in the girls’ locker room without restrictions.

Education officials said the decision was the first of its kind on the rights of transgender students, which are emerging as a new cultural battleground in public schools across the country. In previous cases, federal officials had been able to reach settlements giving access to transgender students in similar situations. But in this instance, the school district in Palatine, Ill., has not yet come to an agreement, prompting the federal government to threaten sanctions. The district, northwest of Chicago, has indicated a willingness to fight for its policy in court.

In a letter sent Monday, the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education told the Palatine district that requiring a transgender student to use private changing and showering facilities was a violation of that student’s rights under Title IX, a federal law that bans sex discrimination. The student, who identifies as female but was born male, should be given unfettered access to girls’ facilities, the letter said. The Education Department gave 30 days to the officials of Township High School District 211 to reach a solution or face enforcement, which could include administrative law proceedings or a Justice Department court action. The district could lose some or all of its Title IX funding.
The rest of the article sheds more light on the matter. For example:
Officials in the Palatine district, which serves more than 12,000 students, have framed their position as a middle ground. The transgender student in question plays on a girls’ sports team, is called “she” by school staff and is referred to by a female name. But the district, citing privacy concerns, had required her to change clothes and shower separately.

The district said she was allowed to change inside the girls’ locker room, but only behind a curtain. The student, who has not been publicly identified, has said she would probably use that curtain to change. But she and the federal government have insisted that she be allowed to make that decision voluntarily, and not because of requirements by the district.

“What our client wants is not hard to understand: She wants to be accepted for who she is and to be treated with dignity and respect — like any other student,” said John Knight, the director of the L.G.B.T. and H.I.V. Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, who is representing the student. “The district’s insistence on separating my client from other students is blatant discrimination. Rather than approaching this issue with sensitivity and dignity, the district has attempted to justify its conduct by challenging my client’s identity as a girl.”
The Obama administration and the ACLU are saying that the rights of this one transgender student to express "her" identity as a female trumps the rights of privacy of the hundreds of other female students. That may strike you as jaw-droppingly moronic, but we're on a sexual slippery slope in this country and there's no place on the slope where we can arrest the slide and say this is enough.

Once we grant the premise that no form of sexual expression or identity is any better or worse than any other we have to accept the conclusion that your daughters and sisters should feel no awkwardness showering with someone who looks for all the world as if he was your son or brother.

In any case, I'd like to propose a solution that should satisfy everyone but won't. Have the student in question change and shower behind a curtain in the boys' locker room. That seems like a fair compromise, but it would doubtless be seen as an infringement on the transgendered student's "rights." Yet when rights must be balanced it seems to me that the rights of hundreds of female students to their privacy should outweigh the rights of one transgender student to his/hers.

But this is all common sense, and the left long ago passed the point where common sense has anything much to do with how they handle matters when they're in charge, so I'm not optimistic that the Obama administration will show concern for the interests and rights of those hundreds of other female students.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Income Inequality

An article at CNS News offers some dismal statistics about the state of education in America's cities. In Detroit for example,
Ninety six percent of eighth graders are not proficient in mathematics and 93 percent are not proficient in reading. Only 4 percent of Detroit public school eighth graders are proficient or better in math and only 7 percent in reading.
Why is this? Is it because not enough money is being spent on education? Evidently not:
This is despite the fact that in the 2011-2012 school year—the latest for which the Department of Education has reported the financial data—the Detroit public schools had “total expenditures” of $18,361 per student and “current expenditures” of $13,330 per student.

According to data published by the Detroit Public Schools, the school district’s operating expenses in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2014 amounted to approximately $14,743 per student.
The depressing statistics are only marginally better nationwide, but they're especially bad in urban districts. Less than fifty percent of eighth grade students in twenty one major cities are proficient in reading:


In reading, the Cleveland public schools were next to last among the large urban school districts with only 11 percent scoring proficient or better. Baltimore and Fresno were tied for third worst with only 13 percent scoring proficient or better; and Philadelphia ranked fifth worst with only 16 percent scoring proficient or better.

The Cleveland public schools also ranked next to last in math, with only 9 percent of eight graders scoring proficient or better. Baltimore and Fresno were also tied for third worst in math, with only 12 percent scoring proficient or better; and Los Angeles ranked fifth worst with 15 percent scoring proficient or better in math.
When so few young people are able to do basic math and read well those youngsters face a very bleak future. They're poorly prepared to enter a workforce that requires basic intellectual skills in order to succeed economically. It's simply common-sense that those with reading and math competency are going to command higher incomes than those whose education suits them for little more than manual labor, and that the gap between the educated and the uneducated is going to grow wider as society becomes less dependent upon manual labor and more dependent upon technical skill. This education gap is the proximal cause of the income gap that distresses so many observers.

But why are so many of these kids failing? Are their schools terrible? Are their families and neighborhoods chaotic? Are they unmotivated and uneducable? Or is it some combination of these? Whatever the case, when Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton complain about income inequality they should be asked why their party, which runs every one of these cities, and has controlled them for fifty years, hasn't been able to fix the problem, and why we should think that electing them would make things any better.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Review of Bridging the Abyss

There's a very favorable review of my new novel Bridging the Abyss at Booknotes, a column written by the owner of Hearts and Minds Bookstore, Byron Borger. I encourage you to read it by going here and scrolling down to the picture of my previous book In the Absence of God. Here's an excerpt from Byron's review:
Bridging the Abyss ... is really full of action and pathos and page-turning thrills which makes for a better read. Of course it keeps coming back to this central insistence -- if modern people dispense with God and believe life can go on as before, valuing goodness and beauty and meaning and human dignity - they are living a conceit. There is no sturdy reason or basis for acting as if this or that is truer or better. Dostoevsky was right. We are staring at a huge abyss if we are only honest enough to admit it. The title comes from a realization that one of the characters in the story voices in his own struggles with this very question. The cover photo aptly shows an abyss.

Unless, unless. Unless there is an older truth - deeper magic, in Lewis terms - that tells us that there is indeed more to life than meets the eye. There is more. There is a God and God has spoken and we can deduce right and wrong, or at least notions of the good, the true, the beautiful. There is an order to the givenness. The abyss is real, but it can be bridged, and the gospel of Christ is the most reliable answer to our existential quandary.

The dialogues between the main characters in this new story are realistic enough, but they do circle back to these tough religious questions. In Bridging the Abyss, though, these are not college teachers in the faculty lounge. These lively characters in Bridging include frantic, grief-stricken Baltimore parents whose daughter has suddenly disappeared - we learn that she has been abducted by a deadly serious cell of sexual traffickers and she is most likely bound for a perverse Saudi sheikh. Their questions are more urgent then most of us can imagine.

Unknown to the parents, or their caring inner-city pastor, whose own story is wonderfully told, there is an under-the-radar group of former Navy SEALs doing a vigilante-style rescue of the captured and trafficked children. (Does the FBI know about these guys? Are they complicit, at odds, in some sort of "look the other way" cooperation? Who are the good guys and who is to be trusted? Why are they doing this undercover work?)
If you choose to purchase a copy of Bridging - and of course I hope you do - I hope also that you'll order it from Hearts and Minds. H&M is an independent mom and pop bookshop, probably among the best such bookstores on the east coast, and the folks there are top-notch in terms of their knowledge of books and the service they provide their customers.

Unfortunately, it's not easy carving out market share when you're competing with big box stores like Borders and online giants like Amazon. Byron and his wife Beth, have worked very hard over the last thirty or so years to build a wonderful bookstore and an outstanding reputation, and they deserve the support of all of us who buy, read, and love books.