Thursday, December 31, 2015

In the Absence of God and Racial Bigotry

One of the comments I sometimes get from readers of my novel In the Absence of God is that they were somewhat surprised that, in their estimation, much is made of interracial dating in the book. In the opinion of these readers this is just not a concern in these enlightened times.

I'd offer two responses to this criticism. First, I don't think that the book makes that big a deal of it, and second, if anyone thinks that interracial romances are no longer an issue perhaps they should talk to the actress Tamera Mowry. Mowry recently discussed her own experience with Oprah Winfrey:
It’s no secret that “Sister, Sister” star Tamera Mowry is blissfully married to Fox News correspondent Adam Housely, but what some might not have known is that the actress has faced intense online abuse over their mixed-race relationship.

Mowry, 35, tearfully recounted the name-calling and mistreatment she has received as a result of her marriage to Housely in an interview for Oprah Winfrey’s “Oprah: Where Are They Now?”

She appeared on the segment alongside her twin sister and co-star Tia.

The response from online haters has apparently been so intense that Mowry told Winfrey she never experienced “so much hate” in her life until after her 2011 nuptials, the Daily Mail reported.

“See, this is where I get emotional, because it’s hurtful,” Mowry said through tears. “Because when my husband and I are so openly — and we’re fine with showing — in love. But people choose to look past love and spew hate.”
The story at the Daily Mail has more details, particularly about where the hurtful comments are coming from. It really is sad that in 2014 it's still very hard for some people to see past skin color, but apparently it is, and In the Absence of God captures a relatively small and quite mild slice of this bit of social reality.

Note: I ran the preceding post on VP last year and received a lot of feedback on it. Much of the response expressed disappointment and even outrage that still today a white woman cannot date a black man without being subjected to racist hate from other whites. The problem with this reaction is that it simply, and naively, assumed that Tamera Mowry is white, her husband is black, and that the racists who assailed her were also white. In fact, as the story at the link reveals, the opposite is true. It's amazing the assumptions people hold about race and the illicit conclusions they eagerly jump to.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

What We'll Lose

Secularists of various stripes applaud the decline of Christianity in the modern era, but should they? Set aside the question whether Christianity is true and ask instead the question what will be lost when Christianity is gone?

Put the question this way: What are the values that Western democracies cherish? At a minimum they would include:
  1. Individual equality (including that of women and minorities) under the law
  2. Tolerance of dissent
  3. Separation of church and state
  4. Social Justice (charity, concern for the poor)
  5. Freedom of speech
  6. Freedom of religion
There are others but just limiting ourselves to these, what other comprehensive belief system or worldview offers a ground for these values? Certainly not Islam which rejects all of them with the possible exception of #4 (but even here concern for the poor often extends only to other Muslims of one's own sect).

Nor does naturalism (the worldview held by many secularists that says that the natural world is all there is) offer any support for any of these. On naturalism we are the product of blind impersonal forces that have shaped us to survive competition with our competitors. There is nothing in this process which in any sense mandates any of the values listed above. There's no reason, on evolutionary grounds, why any society should value any of them over their contraries.

But, it might be argued, evolution has equipped us with reason and reason dictates that these values afford the best way to order a society. We don't need Christianity to instill or ground these values, it might be claimed, reason can do the job.

This, however, is not quite true. Reason can tell us the best way to exemplify these values, perhaps, but it cannot decide whether or not a society should incorporate them. To prefer a society which upholds them over against one which does not is simply an arbitrary preference. It is to say that a society which exhibits these values is better than alternative polities because, well, we just happen to have an arbitrary fondness for these values.

Aside from providing a solid grounding for those political values, what else has Christianity bestowed on the West? There's a consensus among scholars the vast majority of the world's best art and music has been inspired by Christian assumptions. These also furnished the motivation for the development of schools and hospitals in Europe and North America, and provided the fertile philosophical soil in which modern science could germinate and thrive. To the extent that other worldviews have inspired their followers to notable cultural achievements, generally speaking they have neither amounted to much nor been sustained for long without somehow piggy-backing on Christianity.

Naturalism and Islam may succeed in extirpating Christian influence, but the world they would create will look very much like either the Stalinist dystopia of Orwell's 1984 or the Islamic dystopia of ISIS. It might not happen abruptly - an airliner can glide a long way after having exhausted its fuel and the higher its altitude the longer it can remain aloft before crashing to earth - but it won't remain airborne indefinitely. Similarly, one or the other of these two bleak dystopias represents the future that awaits us a generation or two after the fuel of Christian assumptions has finally been drained from the West.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Woodpeckers and Concussions

According to an essay in The Federalist,
The average woodpecker hits its beak against a tree at an estimated 15 miles an hour, 20 times per second, about 12,000 times a day. According to physicists, for the bird, that is an equivalent of coming to a complete stop every second from 26,000 miles per hour. This happens every day over the woodpecker’s lifespan. In g-force—the force exerted using mass, weight, acceleration, and gravity—a woodpecker can withstand 1,200 g. Yet the birds do not suffer any head injuries or brain trauma.

In comparison, the average National Football League hit has two players colliding between 100 to 150 g, often experiencing concussions that register when impact reaches 80 to 100 g. How then, is it possible that a tiny bird can withstand ten times the impact as a human...?
Well, Matt Soniak at Mental Floss has an answer to that question. I've borrowed some of it here:
First, a woodpecker’s skull is built to absorb shock and minimize damage. The bone that surrounds the brain is thick and spongy, and loaded with trabeculae, microscopic beam-like bits of bone that form a tightly woven “mesh” for support and protection. On their scans, the scientists found that this spongy bone is unevenly distributed in woodpeckers, and it is concentrated around the forehead and the back of the skull, where it could act as a shock absorber.

Woodpeckers' hyoid bones act as additional support structures. In humans, the horseshoe-shaped hyoid is an attachment site for certain throat and tongue muscles. Woodpeckers’ hyoids do the same job, but they’re much larger and are differently shaped. The ends of the “horseshoe” wrap all the way around the skull and, in some species, even around the eye socket or into the nasal cavity, eventually meeting to form a sort of sling shape. This bizarre-looking bone, the researchers think, acts like a safety harness for the woodpecker’s skull, absorbing shock stress and keeping it from shaking, rattling and rolling with each peck.

Inside the skull, the brain has its own defenses. It’s small and smooth, and is positioned in a tight space with its largest surface pointing towards the front of the skull. It doesn’t move around too much, and when it does collide with the skull, the force is spread out over a larger area. This makes it more resistant to concussions, the researchers say.

A woodpecker’s beak helps prevent trauma, too. The outer tissue layer of its upper beak is longer than the lower beak, creating a kind of overbite, and the bone structure of the lower beak is longer and stronger than the upper one. The researchers think that the uneven build diverts impact stress away from the brain and distributes it to the lower beak and bottom parts of the skull instead.

The woodpecker’s anatomy doesn’t just prevent injuries to the brain, but also its eyes. Other research using high-speed recordings has shown that, in the fraction of a second just before their beaks strike wood, woodpeckers’ thick nictitans—membranes beneath the lower lid of their eyes, sometimes called the “third eyelid”—close over the eyes. This protects them from debris and keeps them in place. They act like seatbelts, says ophthalmologist Ivan Schwab, author of Evolution's Witness: How Eyes Evolved, and they keep the retina from tearing and the eye from popping right out of the skull.

There’s also a behavioral aspect to the damage control. The researchers found that woodpeckers are pretty good at varying the paths of their pecks. By moving their heads and beaks around as they hammer away, they minimize the number of times in a row that the brain and skull make contact at the same point. Older research also showed that the strike trajectories, as much as they vary, are always almost linear. There’s very little, if any, rotation of the head and almost no movement immediately after impact, minimizing twisting force that could cause injury.
Very interesting, but I have a question for Matt. Early on in his piece on woodpecker adaptations he says this:
In an average day, a woodpecker does this [bangs its head against a tree] around 12,000 times, and yet they don’t seem to hurt themselves or be the least bit bothered by it. This is because, after millions of years of this type of behavior, they’ve evolved some specialized headgear to prevent injuries to their heads, brains, and eyes.
My question is how did they survive for millions of years before the requisite anatomical equipment evolved? Imagine primitive human beings coming to think that banging their heads against a brick wall will somehow help them find food. It would seem that they'd all quickly give up the behavior or else go extinct long before they evolved the cranial structures to mitigate the damage they were doing to themselves. That woodpeckers have obviously not gone extinct, that they've evolved all these marvelous adaptations through sheer blind luck, is testimony to the stupefyingly miraculous powers and wonders of Darwinian naturalism. Or God.

Lewis' Woodpecker

Monday, December 28, 2015

Two Myths

Andrew McCarthy has an insightful piece at NRO in which he challenges two myths, one Republican, one Democrat, about ISIS and moderate Muslims. He begins with the Democrats' myth:
Let me ask you a question. Let’s say you are an authentically moderate Muslim. Perhaps you were born into Islam but have become secularist. Or perhaps you consider yourself a devout Muslim but interpret Islam in a way that rejects violent jihad, rejects the concept that religious and civic life are indivisible, and rejects the principle that sharia’s totalitarian societal framework and legal code must be imposed on the state.

Let’s just take that as a given: You are no more inclined toward terrorism than any truly peaceful, moderate, pro-democratic non-Muslim. So let me pop the question: Is there any insulting thing I could say, no matter how provocative, or any demeaning video I could show you, no matter how lurid, that could convince you to join ISIS?

Mind you, I am not asking whether, upon my insulting and provoking you, you would ever want to have anything to do with me again. I am asking whether there is anything that could be said or done by me, or, say, Donald Trump, or Nakoula Basseley Nakoula — the video producer (Innocence of Muslims) whom Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama tried to blame for the Benghazi massacre — that could persuade you to throw up your hands and join the jihad? Is there anything so profoundly offensive to Islam that we could conjure up that would make a truly moderate, peaceful Muslim sign up for mass murder? Torching and beheading? Killing children? Participating in systematic rape as a weapon of war?

I didn’t think so.

Yet, understand, that is what Washington would have you believe. Whether it is Barack Obama sputtering on about how Guantanamo Bay drives jihadist recruitment, or Hillary Clinton obsessing over videos (the real one by Nakoula that she pretended caused terrorism in Libya, and the pretend ones about Donald Trump that she claims have Muslims lined up from Raqqa to Ramadi to join ISIS), you are to believe violent jihad is not something that Muslims do but that Americans incite.
It's ludicrous, of course, to blame Americans and American policies for ISIS, but that's the Left's knee jerk response to whatever is wrong in the world. If it weren't for us evil Americans global peace and love would reign and the lion would lie down with the lamb. It's the bedtime story Barack Obama's mother told him when he was a child and other liberals imbibed from their university professors in the '60s.

Democrats do not hold a monopoly on the mythologizing, however. Republicans fault President Obama for not intervening sooner in Syria on behalf of the rebels, and allege that had he done so ISIS would never have gotten off the ground there. McCarthy thinks this is nonsense, and I, for what it's worth, agree.

McCarthy's point is that ISIS has a broad appeal throughout the Muslim world not because Americans insult Muslims, or because we imprison them in Guantanamo Bay, or because we avoided making the same mistake with Assad that we made with Libya's Qadaffi and Egypt's Mubarak, but because ISIS' violence strongly appeals to many Muslims who embrace a religion whose founder and holy books give ample justification for it.

In other words, the much heralded "moderate Muslim" is not nearly as common as we in America would like to think. If this seems exaggerated I recommend an article by David French at National Review Online in which French presents a compelling argument, backed up by data, in support of this claim with which he opens the essay:
It is simply false to declare that jihadists represent the “tiny few extremists” who sully the reputation of an otherwise peace-loving and tolerant Muslim faith. In reality, the truth is far more troubling — that jihadists represent the natural and inevitable outgrowth of a faith that is given over to hate on a massive scale, with hundreds of millions of believers holding views that Americans would rightly find revolting. Not all Muslims are hateful, of course, but so many are that it’s not remotely surprising that the world is wracked by wave after wave of jihadist violence.
There's much more in French's essay worth reflecting upon.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Sex Über Alles

Is there an absolute right to have sex? Planned Parenthood (PP) evidently thinks so. In fact, according to PP the right to sex trumps everything else, including a partner's right to know that she or he is about to be exposed to HIV. Kimberly Elis provides some details about PP's position at The Federalist:
It’s all laid out in International Planned Parenthood Federation’s booklet for HIV-positive youth entitled “Healthy, Happy and Hot.” It says, “Young people living with HIV have the right to decide if, when, and how to disclose their HIV status.” It continues: “Sharing your HIV status is called disclosure. Your decision about whether to disclose may change with different people and situations. You have the right to decide if, when, and how to disclose your HIV status.”

In other words, Planned Parenthood thinks it’s your human right to risk exposing other people to a potentially deadly disease without telling them.

“Some countries have laws that say people living with HIV must tell their sexual partner(s) about their status before having sex, even if they use condoms or only engage in sexual activity with a low risk of giving HIV to someone else. These laws violate the rights of people living with HIV by forcing them to disclose or face the possibility of criminal charges.”

The pamphlet then gives tips to protect oneself from criminalization, and does say that the best way to protect yourself (which is apparently more important than protecting your partner) is to tell your partner that you are infected before you have sex. This section ends with the statement, “Get involved in advocacy to change laws that violate your rights.” It appears that, according to Planned Parenthood, [the] right to have sex trumps [a] partners’ right to live.
This, I should think, raises an interesting question for secularists: Is PP right or are they wrong? Not just "reckless" or "tasteless" or "inappropriate", but morally wrong in the sense that someone who knowingly exposes a sex partner to AIDS has in fact violated an objective moral duty and justly deserves punishment.

Of course, if there is no divine moral law to which we're accountable then there's no reason why we should not put our own desires ahead of the well-being of others, there's no reason why it would be wrong in any morally meaningful sense to use people as a means to the end of our pleasure, which is essentially what PP is endorsing. They're advocating an egoistic hedonism that really is the ethical default position in a secular world.

If a secularist or atheist thinks it is wrong, though, to withhold what may be life or death information from one's partner, then at least two things follow. First, the secularist is tacitly admitting that there exists a moral authority to whom we are accountable who has proscribed this sort of behavior. Second, the person is admitting that ethical relativism is unworkable and that the notion that in a tolerant society we cannot condemn the behavior of others is arrant nonsense.

So we must decide. Either PP is right that no one should be obligated to disclose to a partner that they're HIV positive, or they're wrong and there is a moral duty to put the welfare of others ahead of one's own gratification. If there is no transcendent moral authority then, of course, PP is right and no one is doing anything immoral, no one is doing anything for which he incurs any sort of moral guilt, by putting one's own interests ahead of the interests of others.

If, however, we conclude that PP is wrong and that a person is morally culpable if he endangers someone's well-being simply for his own selfish purposes, then we are tacitly acknowledging an objective moral code that egoistic behavior violates. But an objective moral code can only exist if there is a transcendent moral authority to promulgate it. In other words, saying that PP is wrong and that people do not have the right to expose a partner to HIV without the partner's knowledge is very close to saying that God, or something very much like God, must exist.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

For Christmas Eve

Christmas is a magical time, but it's not the trappings of the secular world that make it magical - except maybe for very young children - rather it's the sense of mystery surrounding the Incarnation. The magic is a by-product of the belief that Christmas celebrates a miracle, the Creator of the universe deigning to become one of His creatures so that in the fullness of time He and His creatures could enjoy each other forever.

It's that belief, affirmed by Christians for 2000 years, that's so awe-inspiring and which fills us on Christmas with an ineffable sense of love and being loved, a sense that makes the whole experience of Christmas Eve tingle with magic.

The secular, commercial world has drained much of that excitement from the night by pretending that the source and meaning is irrelevant. All the talk of Santa Claus, ads for cars, beer, movies and phones, all the insipid secular "holiday" songs - none of these do anything to touch people's hearts or imaginations. They don't inspire awe. Christmas Eve is sterile and empty without the message of the Gospel and the conviction that this night is special, not because of the office Christmas party, last minute shopping, or Home Alone reruns, but because it's a night haunted by the presence of God and set apart for the delivery of the greatest gift in history.

Here are two traditional Christmas pieces (and a third contemporary piece) that capture some of the magic, mystery, and power of this night. I hope you enjoy them and hope, too, that each of you has a wonderful, meaningful Christmas and a very special 2016:

It might be best just to listen to this next one without watching it since the video is a bit out of sync with the audio:
And if you have a little time, this is perhaps my favorite contemporary Christmas song, particularly the lyrics in the second part which never fail to move me, though I'm not sure I can articulate exactly why:

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Why Christians Celebrate Christmas

In this season of shopping and feasting it's easy to lose sight of why Christmas is a special day. The following allegory, which we've posted on Viewpoint several times in the past, is a modest attempt to put the season into perspective [Some readers have noted the similarity between this story and the movie Taken, however, the story of Michael first appeared on Viewpoint over a year before Taken was released so the similarities are purely coincidental.]:
Michael, a member of a top-secret anti-terrorism task force, was the father of a teenage daughter named Jennifer, and his duties had caused him to be away from home much of the time Jen was growing up. He was serving his country in a very important, very dangerous capacity that required his absence and a great deal of personal sacrifice. As a result, his daughter grew into her late teens pretty much without him. Indeed, his wife Judith had decided to leave him a couple of years previous and took the girl with her.

Finally, after several years abroad, Mike was able to return home. He longed to hold his princess in his arms and to spend every possible moment with her to try to make up for lost time, but when he knocked on the door of his ex-wife's house the girl who greeted him was almost unrecognizable. Jen had grown up physically and along the way she had rejected everything Michael valued. Her appearance shocked him and her words cut him like a razor. She told him coldly and bluntly that she really didn't want to see him, that he wasn't a father as far as she was concerned, that he hadn't been a part of her life before and wouldn't be in the future.

Michael, a man who had faced numerous hazards and threats in the course of his work and had been secretly cited for great heroism by the government, was staggered by her words. The loathing in her voice and in her eyes crushed his heart. He started to speak, but the door was slammed in his face. Heartbroken and devastated he wandered the streets of the city wondering how, or if, he could ever regain the love his little girl once had for him.

Weeks went by during which he tried to contact both his ex-wife and his daughter, but they refused to return his calls. Then one night his cell phone rang. It was Judith, and from her voice Mike could tell something was very wrong. Jennifer had apparently run off with some unsavory characters several days before and hadn't been heard from since. His ex-wife had called the police, but she felt Mike should know, too. She told him that she thought the guys Jen had gone out with that night were heavily into drugs and she was worried sick about her.

She had good reason to be. Jen thought when she left the house that she was just going for a joy ride, but that's not what her "friends" had in mind. Once they had Jen back at their apartment they tied her to a bed, abused her, filmed the whole thing, and when she resisted they beat her until she submitted. She overheard them debating whether they should sell her to a man whom they knew sold girls into sex-slavery in South America or whether they should just kill her and dump her body in the bay. For three days her life was an unimaginable hell. She cried herself to sleep late every night after being forced into the most degrading conduct imaginable.

Finally her abductors sold her to a street gang in exchange for drugs. Bound and gagged, she was raped repeatedly and beaten savagely. For the first time in her life she prayed that God would help her, and for the first time in many years she missed her father. But as the days wore on she began to think she'd rather be dead than be forced to endure what she was being put through.

Mike knew some of the officers in the police force and was able to get a couple of leads from them as to who the guys she originally left with might be. He set out, not knowing Jennifer's peril, but determined to find her no matter what the cost. His search led him to another city and took days - days in which he scarcely ate or slept. Each hour that passed Jennifer's condition grew worse and her danger more severe. She was by now in a cocaine-induced haze in which she almost didn't know or care what was happening to her.

Somehow, Michael, weary and weak from his lack of sleep and food, managed to find the seedy, run down tenement building where Jennifer was imprisoned. Breaking through a flimsy door he saw his daughter laying on a filthy bed surrounded by three startled kidnappers. Enraged by the scene before his eyes he launched himself at them with a terrible, vengeful fury. Two of the thugs went down quickly, but the third escaped. With tears flowing down his cheeks, Mike unfastened the bonds that held Jen's wrists to the bed posts. She was weak but alert enough to cooperate as Michael helped her to her feet and led her to the doorway.

As she passed into the hall with Michael behind her the third abductor appeared with a gun. Michael quickly stepped in front of Jennifer and yelled to her to run back into the apartment and out the fire escape. The assailant tried to shoot her as she stumbled toward the escape, but Michael shielded her from the bullet, taking the round in his side. The thug fired twice more into Michael's body, but Mike was able to seize the gun and turn it on the shooter.

Finally, it was all over, finished.

Slumped against the wall, Mike lay bleeding from his wounds, the life draining out of him. Jennifer saw from the fire escape landing what had happened and ran back to her father. Cradling him in her arms she wept bitterly and told him over and over that she loved him and that she was so sorry for what she had said to him and for what she had done.

With the last bit of life left in him he gazed up at her, pursed his lips in a kiss, smiled and died. Jennifer wept hysterically. How could she ever forgive herself for how she had treated him? How could she ever overcome the guilt and the loss she felt? How could she ever repay the tremendous love and sacrifice her father had showered upon her?

Years passed. Jennifer eventually had a family of her own. She raised her children to revere the memory of her father even though they had never known him. She resolved to live her own life in such a way that Michael, if he knew, would be enormously proud of her. Everything she did, she did out of gratitude to him for what he had done for her, and every year on the day of his birth she went to the cemetery alone and sat for a couple of hours at his graveside, talking to him and sharing her love and her life with him. Her father had given everything for her despite the cruel way she had treated him. He had given his life to save hers, and his love for her, his sacrifice, had changed her life forever.
And that's why Christians celebrate Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

No Safe Spaces at Morning Joe

Mika Brezinski on MSNBC's Morning Joe gave former senator Rick Santorum a good browbeating yesterday for holding politically incorrect views on Muslims, but she herself said something that should have sent the racial sensitivity antenna of liberals humming toward the end of her reprimand:
Forget that citing white men with guns seemed like a bit of a non-sequitur in the context of the discussion, the deeper concern is the explicit racism, at least as the PC crowd see racism, in her challenge to Santorum. Why "white" men? Why does race matter when talking about gun deaths? Why not just say "men with guns"? This seems a clear-cut case of racial "macroaggression" if ever there was one.

Maybe somebody might reply that Mika believes the problem in this country really is white men with guns, that white men are responsible for the overwhelming majority of gun deaths nationally, but surely she can't think that. If she does she's burying her head in the sand. Has she not heard of the homicide statistics coming out of cities like Chicago where in one year five hundred victims are murdered by non-whites wielding guns?

Consider the data from FBI statistics for 2014:

2722 homicides were committed by whites (including several hundred females and Hispanics) in 2014. Blacks, despite being only 12% -15% of the population, committed 2676 homicides - virtually the same number as whites. If we assume that most of these murders were committed with guns then for Mika to implicate white men when white men are, in terms of their proportion of the population, obviously not responsible for the gun death problem in America clearly reveals a racial animus on her part toward whites.

Here's an irony: Her implied claim that the gun problem is a problem primarily of white men is factually incorrect but evidently acceptable in the liberal circles in which she moves because it's politically correct. However, had a conservative alleged that the real problem is black men with guns, she would be factually correct but would be labelled a racist for saying it because political correctness is more important in much of our society than is truth.

P.S. Those who, like me, are concerned about excessive use of force by police, might find this chart interesting. Look at the tiny sliver (pale blue) of deaths caused by police at the top of the chart. Notice that not only are the percentages of deaths, including justified deaths, caused by police miniscule, they're also about the same for whites as they are for blacks. We don't hear much about that from our media:

Monday, December 21, 2015


One of the most popular forms of the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God (or at least something like God) goes like this:
  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause
The argument then goes on to flesh out what sort of attributes a cause of the universe must have, and it turns out that those attributes describe a being that comes pretty close to the God of theism. It must, for example, transcend space, time, and materiality. It must be unimaginably powerful, intelligent, and personal.

Skeptics, however, take issue with the second premise. They argue that the universe could be past eternal, i.e. that it never had a beginning, but this view seems to run counter to the standard Big Bang model of cosmology which states that the universe exploded into being from a single point about 14 billion years ago.

One of the most prominent cosmologists in the field is a physicist named Alexander Vilenkin, who, along with Alan Guth and Arvinde Borde, developed the Borde, Guth, Vilenkin theorem which asserts, among other things that any universe that has the characteristics that ours does, had a beginning. Vilenkin writes about the implications of this theorem in an interesting piece here.

The passages most relevant to the second premise of the above argument are these:
Inflation [of the universe] cannot be eternal and must have some sort of a beginning.

[T]he universe could not have existed for an infinite amount of time before the onset of inflation.

This leads immediately to the conclusion that a cyclic universe cannot be past-eternal.

The answer to the question, “Did the universe have a beginning?” is, “It probably did.” We have no viable models of an eternal universe. The BGV theorem gives us reason to believe that such models simply cannot be constructed.
Nevertheless, Vilenkin sees a problem with the first premise. He asserts that it's possible for a universe to pop into existence out of nothing:
If all the conserved numbers of a closed universe are equal to zero, then there is nothing to prevent such a universe from being spontaneously created out of nothing. And according to quantum mechanics, any process which is not strictly forbidden by the conservation laws will happen with some probability.

...No cause is needed for the quantum creation of the universe.

The theory of quantum creation is no more than a speculative hypothesis. It is unclear how, or whether, it can be tested observationally. It is nonetheless the first attempt to formulate the problem of cosmic origin and to address it in a quantitative way.
Two things: Vilenkin is not saying that the universe actually did begin causelessly out of "nothing," but rather that quantum theory can't rule it out.

Secondly, Vilenkin employs a metaphysically problematic concept of "nothing." He seems to be saying that the pre-creational state could have been a physical system of zero energy out of which the universe could have arisen uncaused. This state he defines as "nothing," but a physical state of any sort is surely not nothing. It may have no material substance and the positive and negative energies may total zero or there may be no energy at all, but if it's a physical state it's not nothing. We may have difficulty comprehending it and describing it, but at least we can say that it is something. Nothing means "not anything," and what Vilenkin describes does not fit that definition.

In any event he closes his paper with these thoughts:
When physicists or theologians ask me about the BGV theorem, I am happy to oblige. But my own view is that the theorem does not tell us anything about the existence of God. A deep mystery remains. The laws of physics that describe the quantum creation of the universe also describe its evolution. This seems to suggest that they have some independent existence.

What exactly this means, we don’t know.

And why are these laws the ones we have? Why not other laws? We have no way to begin to address this mystery.
Well, with due respect to Professor Vilenkin, a good beginning to addressing the mystery can be found in the argument at the top of this post.

Saturday, December 19, 2015


The media was mildly surprised (disappointed?) that no disturbances materialized in Baltimore after a mistrial was declared in the case of officer William Porter who was charged in the death of a man named Freddie Gray while Gray was in police custody. There should've been no surprise. Officer Porter is black. Had he been white the city would now be in flames. This case is really not about the death of Freddie Gray, it's about the perceived mistreatment of blacks by white cops. If a black cop mistreats a black suspect that doesn't stoke the anger of the African American community, but if a white cop did the same thing and the jury failed to reach a verdict it would be explosive. The media would be dumping gas on the fire by pointing out at every opportunity the race of the cop (it was often never mentioned in the Porter case), and all but declaring that the whole system is racist. In other words, white cops are held to a higher standard than are black cops. Isn't that itself racist?

Bernie Sanders is rightly upset that the Democrat National Committee (DNC) has chosen to hold their presidential primary debate tonight, a Saturday night during peak shopping season when it's guaranteed that hardly anyone will be watching television. Of course, the DNC doesn't actually want anyone to watch the debate since the more exposure Hillary gets the lower her ratings fall, and the DNC wants her as their candidate. So, the DNC's chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has chosen to hide her from public view as much as possible. The DNC has also blocked the Sanders campaign from accessing a voter database, a move which Sanders is interpreting as yet another attempt to sabotage his campaign. Perhaps Sanders should consider exacting the ultimate revenge against the Democrats by running in the general election as an independent candidate. He's already an Independent senator and he has every reason to think he's been treated unfairly by the Democrats, so why not? Run, Bernie, Run!

Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has added his name to the growing list of ex-SecDefs who've expressed their dismay with the manner in which the Obama administration conducts its foreign policy. Hagel gives the impression that the president and his team are flying by the seat of their pants:
Jet-lagged from a long overseas trip, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had just sat down with his wife for a quiet dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant in northern Virginia when his phone rang. It was the White House on the line. President Barack Obama wanted to speak with him.

It was Aug. 30, 2013, and the U.S. military was poised for war. Obama had publicly warned Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad that his regime would face consequences if it crossed a “red line” by employing chemical weapons against its own people. Assad did it anyway, and Hagel had spent the day approving final plans for a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against Damascus. U.S. naval destroyers were in the Mediterranean, awaiting orders to fire.

Instead, Obama told a stunned Hagel to stand down. Assad’s Aug. 21 chemical attack in a Damascus suburb had killed hundreds of civilians, but the president said the United States wasn’t going to take any military action against the Syrian government. The president had decided to ignore his own red line — a decision, Hagel believes, that dealt a severe blow to the credibility of both Obama and the United States.

In the days and months afterward, Hagel’s counterparts around the world told him their confidence in Washington had been shaken over Obama’s sudden about-face. And the former defense secretary said he still hears complaints to this day from foreign leaders.

“A president’s word is a big thing, and when the president says things, that’s a big deal,” he said.
Hagel's complaint leads us to wonder why the options for our response to the contingency that Assad would cross Mr. Obama's "red line" not all planned out and agreed upon in advance. Isn't that how a competent White House would operate?

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Trump/Limbaugh Axis

Every now and then I read a column in which the writer says so many things that I agree with, and says them so well, that I just have to sit back and admire the piece as one would a work of art. Guy Benson has composed such a work recently in a TownHall essay.

What he says about Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh seems to me precisely right and expresses almost exactly the feelings I've had for some time about Limbaugh's advocacy of Trump. Limbaugh has been assiduously promoting Trump since last spring, shedding both logical consistency and his vaunted conservative principles like a newlywed shedding clothing in a dash to the wedding bed, and in the process depriving other more worthy candidates of much-needed political oxygen. Had Rush focused from the beginning on the accomplishments of the candidates instead of jumping headlong onto the Trump bandwagon perhaps Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal, two eminently qualified governors, might still be in the race.

Making his shameless shilling worse, all the while he has denied that that's what he's doing. It's discouraging to hear Limbaugh, who fancies himself the voice of genuine conservatism, joining the multitude of erstwhile conservatives who've been seduced into forfeiting their ideological chastity by a man who has himself been a life-long liberal.

Benson provides chapter and verse, supporting each of his claims about Trump with links to sources. His column might be an education for those who think Trump is the conservative Moses anointed to lead us out of Obama's Egypt. Here's his close:
My opposition to Trump, therefore, is rooted in a commitment to principles, an abiding belief that character matters, and a burning desire to win. People are welcome to disagree with my analysis. Rush Limbaugh, who's been at this longer than I've been alive, may recognize some utility in Trump that I'm missing. But I wish he and others would quit suggesting that passionate conservative resistance to Trump must be a capitulation to political correctness, or a "tell" that one has been seduced by the siren song of impressing the so-called 'smart set.'

Indeed, motive-impugning can cut both ways. For instance, some have suggested that Rush et al are indulging Trump against their better judgment because they're fearful of alienating their own audience, having stoked the embers of anti-establishment resentment for so long. But rather than ascribing unseemly and ulterior motives to one another, perhaps those of us who still care about issues and who prioritize the defeat of Hillary Clinton should focus our energies on a serious, substantive debate about who best fulfills William F. Buckley's sage electoral standard: Who is the most conservative candidate with the best chance of winning?

The answer to that question is necessarily subjective on both fronts, and opinions will inevitably vary. I'd submit that Donald Trump satisfies neither criterion; just the opposite, in fact. Despite his attention-grabbing bravado and unapologetic demeanor that appeals to many right-leaning voters at the moment, a robust empirical case can be made that he's both the least conservative and least electable figure in the GOP race. If you disagree, terrific. Feel free state your case and employ arguments to persuade Trump skeptics, preferably while eschewing his penchant for personal invective. I'll leave you with this -- which is, with respect, not persuasive [here Benson posts a tweet from Limbaugh essentially claiming that since Hamas condemns Trump's proposed ban on Muslims and many Republicans also condemned the ban, therefore the Republicans are in bed with Hamas]

Comparing Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, Charles Krauthammer, and Dick Cheney -- among many others -- to Hamas for opposing Trump's half-baked, already-revised Muslim moratorium "plan" relies on logic so fatuous that I'd very much enjoy listening to a Rush Limbaugh segment eviscerating it. If only it had been deployed by somebody else, against somebody else.
Me too.

Thursday, December 17, 2015


President Obama has assured us that his intent as Commander-in-Chief is to degrade and destroy ISIS, but the American people might be forgiven for thinking that he's not really serious about this. In fact, to think he's not serious is to put the most charitable construction on the president's execution of his stated policy. The alternative explanation is that he's grossly incompetent. Here's why:
  1. The most effective anti-ISIS fighting force currently in theater are the Kurds, but to defeat ISIS the Kurds need more sophisticated weaponry which the Obama administration has refused to give them.
  2. The Obama administration agreed to essentially give 1.5 billion dollars to Iran which they are free to use to finance terror around the world, construct ICBMs, and eventually nuclear weapons. In exchange for this we got nothing. Not even the four Americans being held prisoner in Iranian jails.
  3. When the Russians decided to retaliate for ISIS' blowing up their airliner over Sinai they found hundreds of oil tankers to bomb. After over a year of our bombing ISIS targets why were these trucks, vehicles that are crucial to ISIS' ability to sell oil on the black market, still available as targets?
  4. When the French decided to retaliate for the Paris attacks they found training facilities and Command centers still available as targets. How could that be after we'd dropped so much ordnance on ISIS?
  5. Facilities used by ISIS to propagandize the Muslim world and recruit fresh jihadi warriors have also been left untouched by our aircraft.
  6. Now we're discovering that four years ago a DHS memo was circulated which suggested it might be useful to review the social media postings of those applying for visas to the U.S., but the Obama administration rejected the proposal. Had Tashfeen Malik been subjected to this sort of scrutiny she may not have ever been allowed into this country where she and her husband murdered a dozen of his co-workers:
Perhaps an alternative explanation for this administration's desultory approach to the threats which confront us is that Mr. Obama and his advisors are so deeply marinated in left-wing ideology that they're simply blind to the possibility that conservatives have been right all along about the severity of the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalists. This may be so, but it's indistinguishable from the possibility offered above that the demands placed on the occupant of the Oval Office are way over Mr. Obama's head.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Muslim Dilemma

Ross Douthat has penned a thoughtful piece in the New York Times on what he calls the Islamic dilemma. After citing polls which show a majority of Americans believing that Islam is incompatible with "American values", Douthat writes:
But for several reasons — because we don’t understand Islam from the inside, but also because we’re divided about what our civilization stands for and where religious faith fits in — we have a hard time articulating what a “moderate” Muslim would actually believe, or what we expect a modernized Islam to become.

And to any Muslim who takes the teachings of his faith seriously, it must seem that many Western ideas about how Islam ought to change just promise its eventual extinction.

This is clearly true of the idea, held by certain prominent atheists and some of my fellow conservatives and Christians, that the heart of Islam is necessarily illiberal — that because the faith was born in conquest and theocracy, it simply can’t accommodate itself to pluralism without a massive rupture, an apostasy in fact if not in name.
This is, of course true. At the heart of Islam is adherence to the law inscribed in the Qu'ran and Hadith called sharia. To renounce sharia is, in the eyes of many if not most Muslims, tantamount to renouncing Islam, but sharia is incompatible with the freedoms guaranteed in our Bill of Rights. Sharia does not permit freedom of speech or equality of persons. It imposes a patriarchal rule of men over women, enjoins mutilation for certain crimes and makes sodomy and conversion from Islam a capital offense.

As long as the numbers of Muslims are relatively few the Constitution can be enforced in their communities, but this would get more and more difficult as their numbers and political power grows.

Thus, as Muslims see it, they have two choices, hold on to sharia, the Qu'ran, and the example of Mohammad or simply reinterpret all the problematic stuff out of existence. Douthat goes on to discuss these alternatives:
The first idea basically offers a counsel of despair: Muslims simply cannot be at home in the liberal democratic West without becoming something else entirely: atheists, Christians, or at least post-Islamic.

The second idea seems kinder, but it arrives at a similar destination. Instead of a life-changing, obedience-demanding revelation of the Absolute, its modernized Islam would be Unitarianism with prayer rugs and Middle Eastern kitsch – one more sigil in the COEXIST bumper sticker, one more office in the multicultural student center, one more client group in the left-wing coalition.

The first idea assumes theology’s immutability; the second assumes its irrelevance. And both play into the hands of ISIS and Al Qaeda: The first by confirming their own clash-of-civilizations narrative, the second by making assimilation seem indistinguishable from the arid secularism that’s helped turn Europe into a prime jihadist recruiting ground.
Parenthetically, it's unfortunate that Douthat reverts here to this tiresome meme. It seems to reflect a belief that whatever we do it plays into the hands of ISIS. According to this belief, we can't win. If we attack ISIS they use "Crusader aggression" to win recruits. If we leave them to their demonic deeds young men around the world see them as sweeping all before them and rush to sign up to be in on the victory over the infidels. ISIS has us completely out-foxed, so it seems that we may as well all just convert and get it over with. Perhaps we should campaign for a moratorium on the use of "We're just playing into the hands of the terrorists." Anyway, Douthat continues:
In this landscape of options, the clearest model for Islam’s transition to modernity might lie in American evangelicalism — like Islam a missionary faith, like Islam decentralized and intensely scripture-oriented, and like Islam a tradition that often assumes an organic link between the theological and political.

Of course American evangelicals are often particularly hostile to Islam — as they are to Mormonism, which also offers an interesting model for modernizing Muslims.

But this is less an irony than a form of recognition: An Islam that set aside the sword without abandoning its fervor would be working in the same mission territory, Western and global, where evangelicals and Mormons presently compete and clash.

But it has to set aside the sword.
The problem is that in order for Muslims to set aside the sword they also have to set aside 1400 years of history and tradition, they have to set aside large chunks of the Qu'ran and Hadith, and they have to stop trying to emulate their founder, Mohammad. That's a very tall order. It would mean that Islam would have to morph into something very much different than it actually is. It amounts in fact, to adopting that second idea Douthat discusses above. Given the social pressures on Muslims to conform and the sense of utter betrayal they'd feel were they to reject the faith of their family and community, it's not likely that many will find it an attractive option.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Amusing Ourselves to Death

In 1985 Neil Postman wrote a book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death which has become something of a classic of cultural criticism. Its message seems to be just as timely today as it was thirty years ago. Here's the introduction:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
Of course it's possible that they were both right, that they were each "seeing" one side of the totalitarian coin. In an age when we suffer separation anxiety if we're unable to access our devices for more than a few minutes, an age filled with the trivialities of an entertainment culture which distract us from thinking about what really matters in life, an age when only half the population cares enough to vote and only half of voters care enough to educate themselves on who the candidates are and what they'll do if elected, an age when the centuries long Islamic war against the West has been resuscitated while the West deludes itself into thinking that the current crisis is just an aberration, an age when families and faith are alike disintegrating, an age when too many schools don't teach anything worth learning and too many students don't read anything worth reading, an age when our society is increasingly balkanized along racial, ideological, and ethnic lines - in such an age we are more than at any time in our history a society dazed on Huxleyian soma and vulnerable to Orwellian tyranny.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Only Two Alternatives

Physicist Leonard Susskind has written a book titled, Cosmic Landscape: String theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design in which he seeks to explain away the fine-tuning of the universe by offering the hope that there are something like ten to the 500th power universes out there all with different laws and constants so that one of them just has to be like ours. He suggests that there really are only two options: The existence of zillions of universes, so many that we cannot comprehend the number (To get an idea of the size of the number there are only ten to the 80th atoms in the whole of our universe), or there is only one universe and it was intentionally designed by a cosmic intelligence.

Some time ago New Scientist ran an interview with Susskind by Amanda Gefter. Here's an excerpt:

Gefter:So even if you accept the multiverse and the idea that certain local physical laws are anthropically determined, you still need a unique mega-theory to describe the whole multiverse? Surely it just pushes the question [of the source of fine-tuning] back?

Susskind: Yes, absolutely. The bottom line is that we need to describe the whole thing, the whole universe or multiverse. It's a scientific question: is the universe on the largest scales big and diverse or is it homogeneous? [i.e. Is it many universes or just one] We can hope to get an answer from string theory and we can hope to get some information from cosmology.

There is a philosophical objection called Popperism that people raise against the landscape idea. Popperism [named for philosopher Karl Popper] is the assertion that a scientific hypothesis has to be falsifiable, otherwise it's just metaphysics. Other worlds, alternative universes, things we can't see because they are beyond horizons, are in principle unfalsifiable and therefore metaphysical - that's the objection. But the belief that the universe beyond our causal horizon is homogeneous is just as speculative and just as susceptible to the "Popperazzi".

Gefter: If we do not accept the landscape idea are we stuck with intelligent design?

Susskind: I doubt that physicists will see it that way. If, for some unforeseen reason, the landscape turns out to be inconsistent - maybe for mathematical reasons, or because it disagrees with observation - I am pretty sure that physicists will go on searching for natural explanations of the world. But I have to say that if that happens, as things stand now, we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature's fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics. One might argue that the hope that a mathematically unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as ID.

Nuclear physicist David Heddle responds:

Susskind's answer shows that his book should be subtitled String Theory and the Possible Illusion of Intelligent Design. He has done nothing whatsoever to disprove fine-tuning. Nothing. He has only countered it with a religious speculation in scientific language, a God of the Landscape. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, he tells us that we should embrace the String Theory landscape, not in spite of its ugliness, but rather because of it. Physics should change its paradigm and sing praises to inelegance. Out with Occam's razor, in with Rube Goldberg. Out with reductionism, in with lots of free parameters. Why? Because if we don't (according to Suskind) there really is no way to explain the fine-tuning, except by Intelligent Design. He even likens, in his last sentence quoted above, those physicists who search for the antithesis of his landscape, a simple, beautiful fundamental theory, to IDers.

I think he is correct. For a fundamental theory that predicted all the constants would be a "win" for ID - it would destroy the only real threat to cosmological ID: multiple universes with varying laws of physics.

The subtext (at times explicit) in Susskind's book is that fine-tuning is real, in the sense that our universe really does exist on a knife's edge, so much so that it demands attention. The only possible way that it is an illusion is if our universe is but one of many. To save materialism, Susskind argues that we must explain this fine-tuning, and his landscape [i.e. that there are zillions of universes] has the best chance of playing the role of a white knight.

Susskind's argument demonstrates the desperation of materialists who wish to escape the conclusion that there is an intelligence behind the cosmos. He is willing to jettison the criteria of testability, falsifiability and Occam's razor and accept on faith, without any evidence, that there exits a nearly infinite number of other worlds. With so much cosmological variety, he believes, one of those other worlds just has to possess the extraordinary complex of features required to support life. Thus our universe is not so extraordinary after all.

Susskind's interview makes it plain that the battle over Intelligent Design is not one between science and religion but rather between two different philosophical views of the world. Susskind says that our universe certainly appears to be intricately well-ordered and planned for living things, but that any apparent purpose and intention woven into the parameters of the universe are simply illusions. Given the fact that so many universes exist, he asserts, the existence of one as improbable as ours becomes much less astonishing.

The intelligent design theorist counters that the only evidence we have tells us that this universe is the only one that exists. ID tells us that our world is singular, unique, and alone and that this is in any event the most parsimonious hypothesis. Thus, we think we see purpose and intentional engineering in the fabric of the cosmos because it's really there, and the only reason one would have for failing to accept this conclusion is an a priori metaphysical commitment to atheism which is not a very scientific approach to the search for truth.

Should anyone question why everyone seems to agree that the universe at the least appears to be deliberately fine-tuned I commend either or both of the following: Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen Barr and Nature's Destiny by Michael Denton.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Why Americans Dislike Muslim Society

At NRO David French, a veteran of our Middle East military efforts, cites recent polls showing large pluralities of Americans hold unfavorable views of Muslims and Islam and offers an interesting theory as a partial explanation why that is:
Yesterday, YouGov and the Huffington Post released a poll showing that large majorities of Americans — and pluralities across every political demographic — have an “unfavorable opinion” of the Islamic faith. The numbers are simply not close: There will be no doubt some hand-wringing about “Islamophobia” and further calls to continue the American elite’s fourteen-year track record of whitewashing Islamic beliefs and culture, but I wonder if the media is missing a powerful, largely-uncovered influence on America’s hearts and minds — the experience and testimony of the more than two million Americans who’ve served overseas since 9/11 and have experienced Islamic cultures up-close.

Yes, they were in the middle of a war — but speaking from my own experience — the war was conducted from within a culture that was shockingly broken. I expected the jihadists to be evil, but even I couldn’t fathom the depths of their depravity. And it was all occurring against the backdrop of a brutally violent and intolerant culture. Women were beaten almost as an afterthought, there was a near-total lack of empathy for even friends and neighbors, lying was endemic, and sexual abuse was rampant. Even more disturbingly, it seemed that every problem was exacerbated the more religious and pious a person (or village) became.

While it’s certainly unfair to judge Indonesia or Malaysia by the standards of Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s very hard to shake the power of lived experience, nor should we necessarily try. After all, when we hear stories from Syria, Yemen, Gaza, the Sinai, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Mali, Pakistan, and elsewhere they all fit the same depressing template of the American conflict zones. Nor is the dazzlingly wealthy veneer of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or the other Gulf States all that impressive. Tens of thousands of soldiers have seen the veritable slave labor that toils within the oil empires and have witnessed first-hand their casual disregard for “lesser” life.

Two million Americans have been downrange, and they’ve come home and told families and friends stories the media rarely tells. Those stories have an impact, but because of the cultural distance between America’s warriors and its media, academic, and political aristocracy, it’s an impact the aristocracy hasn’t been tracking. Experience trumps idealistic rhetoric, and I can’t help but think that polls like YouGov’s are at least partly registering the results of a uniquely grim American experience.
French goes on to say that American soldiers treasure the Muslim friends they did have overseas largely because these people took enormous risks to help Americans, help that made it necessary for them to side with American soldiers and Marines against their own violent and dysfunctional social structure.

In any event, French offers an interesting argument, one that certainly sounds plausible. It's not hard to imagine that each American who has served in that region has held dozens of friends and family spell-bound as he recounted his or her experience of the societies Islam has produced in the Middle East, and those impressions doubtless rippled outward to many others. Might those stories be unfair? Perhaps, but one clue that they're not might lie in the fact that so many refugees from the region, Muslim as well as Christian, have no desire to go to other Muslim countries but prefer instead to risk their lives to get into Europe.

Friday, December 11, 2015

God and Evil (Pt. II)

Yesterday's post discussed one classical response of theists to the problem of evil based upon the assumed existence of human free will. It was pointed out that although human volition may account for some kinds of evil, what's usually called moral evil, the question remains as to why an all-powerful, benevolent God would tolerate evil that resulted not from human free will but from natural causes like storms, accidents, famine, and disease.

Before attempting to address this question, we should be reminded that in yesterday's post it was stipulated that the understanding of God's power that we're working with holds that God can do anything that is logically possible to do, i.e. God can do anything that does not entail a contradiction or a logically inconceivable state of affairs. For example, it is not within God's power to create a world in which it would be true to say that God did not create it. That's a logical impossibility and not even God can do the logically impossible.

So, the question before us is, wouldn't a perfectly good and omnipotent creator have designed a world in which there was no natural evil. One way to answer this question, perhaps, is to suggest that it may not be possible, even for God, to create a world governed by physical laws in which there's no potential for harm. Any world governed by gravity, for instance, and the law of momentum is going to contain within it the potential for people to fall and suffer injury. Thus the laws of gravity and momentum are not compossible with a world free of the potential for injury. Once God decided to create a world governed by laws, those laws entailed the possibility of harm.

At this point it might be objected that theists hold that God creates heaven and that heaven is a world in which there is no natural evil so it must be possible for a world governed by laws of some kind to exist without there being any human suffering. If God could create heaven, why wouldn't he, if he was perfectly good, create this world like that?

Perhaps the answer is that God did create this world like that. Perhaps the reason that there is no evil in heaven is that God's presence suffuses that world, fills every nook and cranny and acts as a governor, an override, on the laws which might otherwise result in harm to beings which exist there. The skeptic might rejoin that even were he to grant that God's presence in heaven could serve as an override to the laws which govern that world, that doesn't help the theist because there's no reason why God couldn't do that here in this world as well, and, since he doesn't, he must not be perfectly good.

This is, however, exactly what Christian theology says that God did, in fact, do. The account goes something like this: God created a world regulated by the laws of physics and indwelt that world with man, his presence negating any harmful effects the expression of those laws may have had. Although the potential for harm existed, there was no disease, suffering, accident, or even death. At some point, however, man betrayed the idyllic relationship that existed between himself and God. In an act of cosmic infidelity, man chose to use his freedom in a way, the only way, apparently, that God had forbidden. It was as if a good and faithful husband returned home to discover the love of his life in bed with his worst enemy.

If, as was suggested yesterday, God did not foresee this crushing blow coming, it must have broken his heart, metaphorically speaking. Man had made a choice to treat with contempt the wishes of his creator, and God would not force him to do otherwise. Grief-stricken at the rejection he suffered at the hands of his beloved, God withdrew his presence from the world, leaving man, in his self-imposed, self-chosen alienation and estrangement, to fend for himself against the laws and forces which govern the universe.

God did not abandon man entirely, but he has given man his autonomy, he has set man free in the world. All subsequent history is the story of God's attempt to woo mankind back to himself, to win back the heart of his unfaithful lover. God's love for us still burns, and he wants us back despite our disloyalty. Indeed, he desires our love so much that he redeems us himself. Man's infidelity deserves eternal divorce, eternal separation, from God, but God atones for our unfaithfulness himself on the cross in the person of Jesus the Messiah. The story of God's redemption is a beautiful, tragic story, a romance, a story of faithfulness, goodness and perseverance, and it's a story that makes sense of human history.

If God does not exist, if death is the end, then all of life, all of history, is a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." There is no purpose, there is no significance. It's all absurd. The evil which besets us, the suffering, pain, and grief we experience, are all meaningless. They're all for nothing. Atheism, carried to its logical conclusion, ends in nihilism, the belief that nothing has meaning, nothing has value, nothing matters.

In the face of this despair Christianity infuses life with hope, meaning, and dignity. Christianity redeems the absurdity of the world by insisting that nothing in our world is for nothing. There is a reason for our existence and a reason why there is evil. We may not know what it is, but if we were created by God we may assume that God had a purpose for doing so, and that that purpose is our purpose. If our world is beset by evil we have grounds for hoping that there is a reason why God endures it, and that in some future existence justice will be done and suffering will be no more.

Atheism offers none of this. In a world without God people are born out of nothingness, they suffer, and eventually sink back into the void from whence they came, and there's no significance or meaning to it at all. Atheism offers no basis for hope that there is any ultimate meaning to life or any ultimate justice in the world. It offers no basis for believing that right and wrong are grounded in anything other than subjective feeling. It offers no basis for granting human beings dignity and significance. In a world without God there is no point or purpose to life beyond whatever short-term goals we set for ourselves to keep us from reflecting on the fact that everything we do ultimately goes for naught.

Christianity may not be true, but each of us, including the atheist, should certainly hope that it is. Inexplicably, most atheists hope for the very opposite. They hope that they are right that there is no God. The atheist, in fact, finds himself in the awkward position of holding firmly to a view which, one might think, he should hope with all his heart and mind is completely wrong.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

God and Evil (Pt.I)

The philosophical problem of suffering (or evil) has come up in my classes so I thought it might be useful to reach back to a pair of posts from 2004 (7/27 and 8/8) which offer a few thoughts on the topic. The first post follows and the second will be up tomorrow:

In an earlier post entitled God and Time I mentioned that despite the serious liabilities entailed by the idea that God does not have complete knowledge of the future - that is, he doesn't know what choices free beings will make in their future - it is nevertheless an attractive idea because it provides the theist with an answer to a difficult apologetic question. That question arises in the course of attempts to give a reply to the problem of evil. Let's look at that problem first and then the problematic question that it raises.

No doubt the most troubling objection to the existence of a God as traditionally construed by theists is the existence of evil in the world. Whether people are persuaded by the presence of evil that the existence of a God is unlikely or whether they employ evil as an a posteriori rationalization for the disbelief they've already embraced, it is a difficult challenge for theists and has been since at least the time of the ancient Greeks.

One thing that needs to be said about the problem is that despite its power to instill and sustain doubt, the reality of evil does not constitute a proof against God's existence. Its philosophical strength, its advocates argue, is that it makes the existence of God unlikely.

The traditional argument takes the form of a dilemma:

1.If God is perfectly good he would want to prevent evil.
2.If God is all-powerful he would be able to prevent evil.
3.However, evil exists.
4.Therefore, either God is not perfectly good or God is not all-powerful.

In either case, God is not the God of traditional theism.

This is not a proof that God doesn't exist or that he's not all-powerful or good because it's possible to slip between the horns of the dilemma and reply that God could be both able to prevent evil and wants to prevent evil but for some reason chooses to permit it to occur.

Most anti-theists grant this as a theoretical possibility but, they ask, what kind of God would allow evil to exist if he could prevent it? What loving father would stand by and do nothing as his child suffers, if he could do something to stop it? No reason the theist can come up with, the skeptic argues, can justify the suffering of an innocent child. Thus, it is unlikely that the world is the product of the kind of God the theists believe in.

Before we consider the classical theistic response to this challenge we should lay a bit more groundwork. First, we need to understand that to say that God is omnipotent is not to say that he can do anything at all. Rather, it is to say that God can do anything that it is logically possible to do. This means that it is beyond God's power to do anything which entails a contradiction of some sort. For example, it is not within God's power to create a world in which it would be true to say that God did not create it, or, it is not within his power to bring it about that you and I, or God himself, never existed. These are contradictory states of affairs and therefore logical impossibilities.

A theist might say here that God is not constrained by the laws of logic, that God really can make a square circle if he wishes, but if one wants to argue this way he has to recuse himself from arguing at all and retreat into a private mysticism where nothing much can be said about God. To abandon the constraints of logic is to put God beyond the ability of men to reason about him, or to know anything about him, because anything that one could say about God could be both true and false at the same time, which is incoherent.

The second thing we should mention is that there are two basic kinds of evil. There is evil that emerges from human volition, and there is evil which results from natural causes like disasters, disease, famine, etc. The first we may call moral evil and the latter we'll call natural evil.

Having said this, let's look at why God might allow moral evil to exist, given that it is within his power to prevent it. We'll take up the question of natural evil tomorrow.

The argument that many Christian theologians have put forward goes something like this:

Part of God's essence is that he is perfect love. Love desires an object, something to lavish itself upon, something to live in a relationship with. He could have made man so that man would have no choice but to love God, but this would be about as satisfying as programming the screen saver of your computer to say "I Love You." The most satisfying relationships are those between persons who are free to both receive and give love. Thus God created persons to live in a love relationship with him, and he endowed them with the quality of freedom so that they could genuinely choose to requite his love or to reject it.

This freedom is what makes us human, it makes us more than brutes, it gives us dignity. Without freedom we're little more than sophisticated robots and there's no dignity in that. Freedom is part of the Imago Dei. God gives us the freedom to choose as a marvelous gift, and to the extent that we misuse that gift, to the extent we use our freedom wrongly, moral evil enters the world.

So God could prevent moral evil and wants to eliminate it, but doing so would entail depriving us of the very thing that makes us human and makes our relationship with him meaningful, our free will. This would not only reduce us to automatons and destroy our humanity, it would nullify the whole purpose for which we were created in the first place, which is to live in a freely chosen love relationship with God.

Some might deride the idea that this love between God and man is worth allowing men to inflict such terrible misery upon his fellows. Whether this is so is difficult to ascertain from our vantage. We have to look at the matter sub specie aeternitatis, or from the standpoint of eternity. Surely, if this life is all there is then all human suffering is meaningless and existence is a cruel hoax for hundreds of millions of people whose lives have been filled with it. On the other hand, if this life is a relatively brief interlude between nothingness and eternity, then our temporal suffering, as horrible as it may be, may ultimately seem a very small price to pay for having lived it.

So, the suggestion that moral evil exists because God gave man free-will as a means of enhancing and elevating our relationship to him seems plausible. It also seems plausible that the reason God does not prevent evil is because he considers it an even greater evil to strip us of our freedom and thus of our humanity.

However, this brings us to the difficulty we mentioned at the beginning. Let's assume that it's possible to know the future. Let's assume, therefore, that God knows the future and thus knows what would happen in any world, not just this one, that he could create. Among the worlds God could have created are worlds in which people are free to choose, but in which they always choose to do right.

Imagine God before the creation. He has an image of every world he could possibly make in his mind. Because he knows everything it is possible to know (assuming that it is possible for God to know the future) he knows every choice that every being would make in every one of those worlds if that world were to actually be created. At least one of those worlds, it would seem, would contain free beings who always chose to do the right thing. They could have chosen to do wrong, but they don't. Such a world is certainly possible, after all, since Christians believe that heaven will be such a world. So the question is, would not a perfectly good and loving God have created that world instead of the world he did create where people are free but choose to do evil far too often?

Why, in other words, didn't God create the best world he possibly could? For God to have done less is to have deliberately created a world in which some people would suffer terribly, and then, if the traditional Christian view of hell is true, spend eternity in further torment, when he could have created a world in which no one would suffer from moral evil and no one would choose hell. People would be free to choose in this world and would always choose to love God and each other. So, if that world is a possible world, one which God could have created, why didn't he create that world instead of this one? The fact that he didn't, it is alleged, is powerful reason to conclude that God is not perfectly good.

Faced with this question the theist is put in a difficult spot. He can plead that at this point our ability to understand God's ways simply fades out; or he can resort to something like Alvin Plantinga's concept of trans-world depravity, a flaw that afflicts every human in any possible world in which humans exist, and thus makes it impossible for God to create a world in which free people always choose to do right; or he can say that perhaps one of the things that is beyond God's power is to know what free beings will choose in a future which does not yet exist.

In this latter view, the world God fashioned may well be the best possible world he could have created, consonant with the existence of human freedom. Given that God desired to create a world in which humans were free, he had to accept that although he knew all possible outcomes, he didn't know for sure how man would choose to use his gift of choice. Would man use it to love or to hate? In order to have creatures to love, God took a tremendous risk. He knew the stakes and deemed them worth it.

As was said earlier, despite the advantage of providing an answer to the question why God didn't create a better world than the one he did create, there are serious difficulties with this theory and for that reason many theologians and philosophers think it to be on balance not worth the cost of what has to be given up in order to embrace it. Some have even called proponents of the "Open Future" idea heretics.

In any case, the argument that evil is a consequence of human freedom, to the extent that it is persuasive, only accounts for why there is moral evil. It doesn't explain the existence of natural evils such as accidents, famines, disease, etc. We'll talk about that tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Trump's Proposal

Donald Trump has provoked a spasm of media pants-wetting over his statement that we should temporarily halt all Muslim immigration, but why is this a bad idea? A lot of people are saying it's unconstitutional, but our immigration laws already allow us to refuse admission to certain classes of immigrants and, in fact, President Carter refused to allow Iranians into this country in the 1970s. The relevant law reads as follows:
Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate. (Sec.10, f)
Some people are rightly concerned that terrorists will infiltrate the immigrant refugees President Obama is bringing to the states, but while this is a serious problem, it's perhaps a secondary concern. The primary concern should be the ease with which second and third generation Muslims, the children of immigrants, can be turned into killers. The calamity that Trump's proposal is intended to forestall is one that will be faced by the next generation of Americans as potentially large numbers of children of Muslim refugees gravitate toward those who preach violence, terror, and jihad. This is what's happening, in fact, in Europe and it's precipitating a cultural crisis there.

Parenthetically, although there's been much moral preening by those who want to be seen as standing up for immigrants, there's almost no concern raised over the fact that we're actually deporting Iraqi Christians who are already here. Nor is the President allowing Syrian Christians into the country. Only Muslims.

But an influx of terrorists is not the only problem that permitting large numbers of Muslims to immigrate presents. Majorities of Muslims, even among those already here, devoutly wish to replace the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and Bill of Rights with sharia law. Sharia calls for women to be treated like property, for criminals to be mutilated, for gays and lesbians to be executed, for any criticism of Islam or Mohammad to be a capital offense, for Christians and Jews to be treated as second class citizens, for atheists to be killed.

It's not just that Muslims hold to a different religion than that of many Americans. It's not like we're just adding one more denomination to the religious stew, as though Muslims were like Baptists moving into a Catholic neighborhood. Muslims have a deep antipathy toward non-Muslim culture. A Muslim imam once admitted to me that if they had the political power they would impose sharia. Even those who seem moderate and friendly if pressed would say that their allegiance is to sharia, not to the Constitution of the United States. Bringing them into the country in large numbers without taking time to allow for assimilation makes no more sense today than bringing large numbers of communists into the country would have made sense in the 1950s.

Our media seems shocked every time there's a Muslim act of terror in this country. They ask why these Muslims who have lived the American dream and benefited from the freedoms and opportunities our country offers hate us so much. There's no mystery to this. They hate us for three simple reasons:
  1. We are essentially Israel's protector
  2. We are not Muslims
  3. The Qu'ran, to which they are deeply devoted, instructs them that Allah despises the infidel and that unbelievers deserve whatever treatment they get from the hand of the believer.
Most Muslims do not, and probably would not, commit acts of violence, but the more devout a Muslim is, the more literally he interprets the Koran, the more closely he emulates the example of Mohammad, the more likely he is to sympathize with those who do.

Compassion demands that we help these people, prudence dictates that we do so in a manner that doesn't entail cultural suicide. Just as we can help the homeless without bringing them into our homes, so there are things we can do to help refugees without bringing into our national home hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who think like Syed Farooq and Tashfeen Malik.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Testing Worldviews

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

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

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

They can only deny the reality of these things at the theoretical level, but in the way they live their everyday lives they affirm their reality over and over again. They find themselves forced, in a sense, to become poachers, helping themselves to meaning, morality, free will and the rest from the storehouse of 2000 years of Christian heritage, because their own worldview cannot provide them.

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

For many others, though, who long for that same liberation, the nihilistic consequences either don't occur to them, or if they do, they're often simply ignored as though they don't matter. Naturalists are free to embrace this schizoid view of life, of course, but they're not free to live as if they can hold onto those existential needs while denying the only adequate ground for them and at the same time declaring their worldview more rational than the Christian alternative.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Post-Prandial Beheadings

Reading this essay by Timothy George one realizes that the butchers of ISIS make the pacifist option even more difficult than it already is. There's much in the piece worth reading but I'll focus on this excerpt:
Perhaps the president should listen to the Rev. Canon Dr. Andrew White, who for many years was the Anglican Chaplain in Iraq and Vicar of St. George’s Church. The “Vicar of Baghdad,” as he is called, is a remarkable pastor who built up his church to a congregation of more than 6,000 with an outreach that included a school, a clinic, and a food bank. But in recent years he has seen his church decimated by violence and mayhem. Some 1,200 men, women, and children who once worshipped in his church have been killed as the Christian population in Iraq has declined in recent years from 1.5 million to only 260,000. Among those who have been killed were four boys White knew. They were decapitated by ISIS for refusing to embrace the faith of Islam.

Andrew White is no stranger to terrorists. For more than two decades he has served as a hostage negotiator and an apostle of reconciliation in one of the most volatile regions in the world. He has been kidnapped, shot at, and held captive. He was once the director of the Center for Peace and Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral and still wears around his neck a cross made out of nails taken from the cathedral after it was bombed by the Germans during World War II.

So, when his friends and parishioners were being killed or fleeing for their lives, Canon White did what he had often done before when confronting an enemy. “I invited the leaders of ISIS for dinner. I am a great believer in that. I have asked some of the worst people ever to eat with me.” He did receive a reply to this surprising initiative. The ISIS leader said, “You can invite us to dinner, but we’ll chop your head off.” Something like that happened to John the Baptist when he dared to speak truth to power in the time of Christ. The head of Canon White is worth a lot to ISIS, which have placed on it a bounty of 157 million dollars.

Archbishop Justin Welby, whose friendship with Andrew White goes back to their days together in Coventry, ordered his friend to leave Baghdad last Christmas. “Andrew, look,” Welby said, “what you are doing is so important and the reality is you are more use alive than dead. Come out of there. Don’t die.” Thanks to the Archbishop’s intervention, Canon White still has an unsevered head.

These experiences have led Canon White, like Pope Francis, to admit that military force may be necessary to stop the kind of terror and atrocities perpetrated by ISIS. Canon White does not regret seeking dialogue with the Islamic State. Time and again he has risked his own life in order to serve and help others. But as painful as it is for him to admit, he acknowledges that there is an evil so palpable, so demonic in theological terms, that it can only be dealt with through the use of force. “Can I be honest?” White asked. “You can’t negotiate with them [ISIS]. I’ve never said that about another group of people. These are really so different, so extreme, so radical, so evil.” White made clear that he was not talking about all Muslims. There are “many good Sunni leaders,” he said. But the ISIS radicals who perpetrate terror in the name of God need to be dealt with “radically.”
Two generations ago many pacifists, including Albert Einstein, laid aside their principled non-violence and urged the world to unite in resisting the demonic evil of Nazism. In the present day it is the demonic evil of ISIS which, though it may seem impossible, is at least an order of magnitude worse than that of the Nazis.

If these people get nuclear weapons, a prospect made frighteningly more likely by President Obama's Iran deal, then the horrors of 9/11 and San Bernardino will seem mild by comparison to the prospect we'll be facing. Fighting this evil may not by itself be sufficient to stop them, but surely it's necessary. One hopes that Mr. Obama will soon get serious about it.

Saturday, December 5, 2015


If you live near York, PA and are free Friday night, December 11th, how about visiting the best indie bookstore in Pennsylvania? I'm going to be participating in a book-signing event for my novel Bridging the Abyss at Hearts and Minds Bookstore at 234 E. Main St. in Dallastown at 7:00 pm., and I invite you to stop by.

Another author and I will be discussing our books, reading excerpts, and signing copies. If you're trying to come up with an idea for a Christmas gift for a reader on your list, a signed copy of Bridging the Abyss might be just what you're looking for, but whether you purchase a book or not, I'd love to see you and hope you can stop in for a few minutes.