Monday, February 29, 2016

What If the Russians Were Israelis?

You may not be aware of this if you get your news from the establishment news media, but it's a pretty safe bet that if the Israelis did what the Russians have apparently done the media and the progressive left in this country would be screaming their larynxes into shreds over it. For the left, atrocities in the Middle East are only atrocities when committed by Israel. The Palestinians can do whatever they wish to innocent Israelis and the left yawns. The Russians can bomb hospitals and the left snores. But if the Israelis, in the course of defending themselves against Palestinian terror, inadvertently kill civilians the left wants them brought up on charges of crimes against humanity.

Here are some excerpts from the article:
A shocking video shows an entire district destroyed by Russian cluster bombs in Aleppo as air strikes hit five hospitals and two schools. The death toll after the attacks in Syria today has risen to 50 with many more expected to be wounded. It is believed that among the dead are children with the bombings condemned by U.N. chiefs.

U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haqsaid said the attacks were 'blatant violations of international laws' that 'are further degrading an already devastated health care system and preventing access to education in Syria.'

The video emerges after activists say ballistic missiles, thought to be Russian, hit a children's hospital and school in Azaz, near the Turkish border, with three children and a pregnant woman among the dead. They said at least five missiles hit the rebel-held town where refugees fleeing a major Syrian army offensive in the Aleppo area were sheltering.

A resident said another refugee shelter south of the town was also hit by bombs dropped by jets believed to be Russian. Juma Rahal, a medic, told Reuters: 'We have been moving scores of screaming children from the hospital.' Several children were killed and ambulances ferried scores of injured people to Turkey for treatment, he said.

French charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) claims that at least eight staff are missing after rockets hit a hospital that it supported in the province of Idlib in north western Syria. In a statement, MSF said the hospital was hit four times in at least two attacks. It said the attacks were minutes apart, adding that at least eight members of staff are currently missing. 'This appears to be a deliberate attack on a health structure, and we condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms,' said Massimiliano Rebaudengo, MSF's mission chief.

'The destruction of the hospital leaves the local population of around 40,000 people without access to medical services in an active zone of conflict.' The aid group said the hospital had 30 beds, 54 staff members, two operating theatres, an outpatients department and an emergency room. Opposition activist Yahya al-Sobeih said: 'The entire building has collapsed on the ground. All members of the medical team inside are believed to be dead.'
Here's the video. There are more pics at the link:
So why doesn't the left demonstrate the same level of outrage, complete with demands for disinvestment and sanctions, against Putin as they do against Netanyahu? Why are we not hearing from those in the "peace-community" who inveigh tirelessly against the Israelis for blockading Gaza to prevent the importation of weapons and concrete used to build tunnels into Israel? Why is it that for the left it's only Israeli "atrocities" that matter?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Boko Haram

Readers are probably familiar with the Islamist terror group Boko Haram which operates in Nigeria and other parts of Africa, kidnapping young girls to serve as sex slaves, burning down churches, and murdering Christians. It appears, however, that these fine devotees of the religion of peace are falling on hard times as Strategy Page explains:
Captured Boko Haram men report growing morale problems. Many members oppose the current strategy of carrying out bombing attacks against any target that can be reached. Until late 2015 the Boko Haram mainly attacked security forces, government officials, non-Moslems and non-religious schools. All those targets are now much better protected and Boko Haram leadership goes after targets it can reach rather than suffer a lot of failed attacks. Now the victims tend to be Moslem women and children and that has caused more Boko Haram men to criticize their leadership (a dangerous move) or desert (also dangerous but less so).

Going after the corrupt government and non-Moslems attracted a lot of recruits, and still does. But over a year of defeats and much improved security around acceptable targets has left Boko Haram with few alternatives to targeting whatever victims they could hit. This often includes market places or refugee camps and a disproportionate number of victims are women and children. The raiding and looting is one thing, because even Holy Warriors have to live. But killing Moslem women and children has always been a hard sell for Islamic terrorist leaders and is usually a warning sign that a particular Islamic terrorist group is on its way out.

That’s because this mindless mayhem means it can no longer get enough new recruits to replace losses and also turns helpful civilian populations into hostile ones. This is what happened to al Qaeda in Iraq during 2005-7 and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan a little later.

Another source of plunging morale is how Boko Haram recruits a lot of its current suicide bombers. These are often kidnapped teenage girls who are brainwashed into believing that God wants them to be suicide bombers and that this will get them right into the afterlife paradise. Those who resist this indoctrination are killed, often in front of other young women. It is one thing for a young Moslem man or woman volunteering to be a suicide bomber, but this brutal method of coercing and using girls who remind many young men of their sisters or cousins has backfired within Boko Haram.
There's more at the link. No doubt American military assets - special ops people and surveillance platforms - are also taking a toll on this despicable organization. Few civilized people will be sorry to hear of their impending and condign demise.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Conservative Ants, Liberal Grasshoppers

People who don't pay much attention to politics, and even some who do, are often confused about the difference between conservatives and liberals. If, for example, you poll folks on the question "who are the most staunch advocates of individual liberty, conservatives or liberals," many would reply that it's the liberal and would look at you incredulously if you told them they were mistaken. Yet, they would be mistaken all the same.

Perhaps one of the earliest illustrations of the difference between the two political views is a famous fable by Aesop titled The Ant and the Grasshopper. It goes like this:

The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The grasshopper thinks the ant is a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away. Come winter, the ant is warm and well fed. The grasshopper has no food or shelter, so he dies out in the cold.

The moral, of course, is that we should all work hard and be responsible for ourselves. That's the conservative view.

A more contemporary version of the venerable tale, however, goes something like this:

The ant works hard in the withering heat and rain all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The ant worked hard in school as well, earned an education, waited until he was married before having children, and remained faithful to his ant-wife. The grasshopper thinks the ant is a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away. The grasshopper couldn't care less about school, sleeps with whichever other grasshopper will have him, and lives life in a haze of drugs, alcohol, cheese curls and television reality shows.

Come winter, the shivering grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while he's cold, hungry and without health insurance. The major networks all show up to provide pictures of the shivering grasshopper next to a video of the ant snug in his comfortable home with a refrigerator filled with food. America is stunned by the sharp contrast. How can this be, that in a country of such wealth, this poor grasshopper is allowed to suffer so?

Labor unions and activist groups stage demonstrations in front of the ant's house where news stations film them loudly condemning the ant for his lack of compassion.

Progressive politicians publicly chastise the ant and blame his Republican sympathies for the grasshopper's plight. They exclaim on the Sunday morning talk shows that the ant has gotten rich off the back of the grasshopper, and they call for a tax hike on the ant to make him pay his fair share and "spread the wealth around."

No longer able to pay his employees or his mortgage because of the tax burdens that have been imposed on him, the ant has to sell both his business and his home which the government buys and gives to the grasshopper because a job and a home are human rights.

The story ends as we see the grasshopper and his friends, sleeping till noon, and then finishing up the last bits of the ant's food while the business fails and the house crumbles around them because the grasshopper doesn't maintain it.

The ant has dropped out of sight, never to be seen again. The grasshopper is eventually found dead in a drug-related incident, and the house, now abandoned, is taken over by a gang of spiders who terrorize the ramshackle, once prosperous and peaceful neighborhood.

The moral of the story, of course, is that we get what we vote for.

Progressives are determined to make the ants, which comprise about 25% of the population and which pays about 87% of the nation's income taxes, pull the wagon full of grasshoppers which make up about 50% of our nation and pay almost no income tax. On top of that the top 25% will now have to pay the health insurance costs for 30 million people (50 million if they pass amnesty for illegal aliens). Ants are strong. They can carry loads a hundred times their own weight, but they can't carry all those grasshoppers.

Not a few people labor under the misapprehension that conservatives are cold, heartless, stingy and lack compassion for the poor. This, too, is manifestly untrue. Indeed, studies have shown that conservatives give more to charity than do liberals. What conservatives do believe, though, is that until the grasshopper changes his grasshopper ways, no amount of charity will help him rise up out of his poverty.

The classic 1934 Walt Disney version of Aesop's fable does a nice job of depicting this truth:

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Gravity Waves and the Cosmological Argument

The scientific community has been greatly excited by the recent detection of gravity waves which had been predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity one hundred years ago. Their detection is yet another confirmation of the truth of Einstein's theory and this, in turn, has an interesting philosophical consequence. It reinforces one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God, or something very like God.

Bruce Gordon at Evolution News and Views explains:
The gravity waves detected at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) were produced by the collision of black holes about a billion years ago and say nothing about the truth or falsity of inflationary cosmology. What this discovery really provides is additional and exceedingly strong confirmation of Einstein's already well-confirmed theory of general relativity by directly establishing the existence of gravity waves and giving further evidence of the existence of black holes.

The significance of discoveries confirming general relativity relate to one of the implications of the theory itself. As Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking demonstrated in the late 1960s, regardless of which solution of Einstein's equations is embraced, all backward-traced spacetime geodesics in classical general relativity terminate in a singularity, implying that space-time, matter, and energy all came into existence at some point in the finite past. This, of course, is the essence of Big Bang cosmology.

In other words, the universe began to exist, and there is no physical explanation in cosmology or physics for why this happened. This opens the door to various cosmological arguments, including, of course, the Kalam argument....
The Kalam argument, whose most notable modern defender has been philosopher William Lane Craig, goes like this:
  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning to exist.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause of its beginning to exist.
The argument is superficially very simple although arguing for the two premises can get pretty technical. The discovery of gravity waves adds another layer of confirmation on top of the already well-confirmed second premise. Philosophers who wish to avoid the conclusion of this argument have to cast doubt on either the first or second premise, and the progress of science keeps making it harder and harder to do that.

One common, but misplaced objection, is that the argument does nothing to show that the cause of the universe is the God of traditional theism, but this is not correct. The universe is the sum of all contingent entities (i.e. entities which could possibly not exist), including all space and time. Thus, whatever caused such a thing to exist must itself be non-contingent (i.e. it cannot not exist), must be immaterial (since matter is contingent and came into being when the universe did), must transcend space and time (both of which came into existence when the universe did), must be incredibly powerful and intelligent (to cause such a thing as our vast universe), and must be personal.

One reason for imputing this last trait to the universe's cause is that the only potential entities which might at least partially fit the description stated above are either abstract objects, like numbers or platonic forms, or a mind. But abstract objects do not have causal powers and are not intelligent. The number three, for example, can't bring anything into existence. Only minds, which are personal, can do that.

Now it's true that the above description is not an exact fit with the God of theism who is also believed, at least in Christian theism, to be a trinity and perfectly good, but it's pretty close. Too close, in fact, for an atheist to take any comfort in the fact that the argument doesn't lead all the way to the God of Christian theism. It still leads to a being which is very much like the Christian God and which, if such a being exists, renders atheism false.

Here's a short video illustrating the foregoing argument:

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Driving the Decisive Nail into the Coffin

Democrats and their media allies have been beside themselves over signals from Republicans that they will be loath to approve any Supreme Court nominee advanced by President Obama to fill the vacancy left by the sudden passing of Justice Antonin Scalia. All the usual rhetorical artillery has been wheeled out to be fired at the obdurate, obstructionist, racist Republicans, but the barrage has been thus far ineffectual given past statements by Senators Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer who urged that Democrats follow exactly the same policy they're now condemning when it was a Republican president who may have had an opportunity to make an appointment to the Court in his last year in office.

Now, however, comes the coup de grace to all claims by Democrats to be righteously doing the statesman-like thing while Republicans play an egregious game of partisan politics. C-Span has unearthed video of then Senate Judiciary Chairman Joe Biden calling for the Senate to refuse to approve a possible nomination by President George H.W.Bush in 1992. This video nails the coffin shut on the Democrats' pretense of nobility in the face of Republican scurrility.

Current Judiciary Charirman Charles Grassley had some fun with this the other day:
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley held his ground on the Senate floor on Monday, putting forth the words of former senator and current Vice President Joe Biden — what Grassley called the “Biden Rules” — as support for the legislative body’s decision to block any replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia until after the 2016 election.

Grassley’s floor statement came immediately after Minority Leader Harry Reid argued that respect for the Constitution demanded that the Senate not block the nominee. In 1992, then-Senator Biden argued that if a seat on the Court opened up, then “what is fair to the nominee and is central to the process” would be for President George H.W. Bush to postpone nominating a replacement until after the 1992 election. As Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Biden occupied the same position now held by Grassley. Emphasizing Biden’s honesty and sincerity, the Iowa senator put forth eight “Biden Rules” to guide the Senate during the nomination process.

“The Biden Rules recognize ‘the framers intended the Senate to take the broadest view of its constitutional responsibility. The Biden Rules recognize the wisdom of those presidents – including another lawyer and former state lawmaker from Illinois — who exercised restraint by not submitting a Supreme Court nomination before The People had spoken.

The Biden Rules recognize the court can operate smoothly with eight members for some time, and ‘the cost of such a result, the need to re-argue three or four cases that will divide the Justices four to four, are quite minor compared to the cost that a nominee, the President, the Senate, and the Nation would have to pay for what assuredly would be a bitter fight.’

The Biden Rules recognize that under these circumstances, ‘[the President] should consider following the practice of a majority of his predecessors and not name a nominee until after the November election is completed.’

The Biden Rules recognize that under these circumstances, ‘[It does not] matter how good a person is nominated by the President.’ The Biden Rules recognize that ‘once the political season is under way … action on a Supreme Court nomination must be put off until after the election campaign is over. That is what is fair to the nominee and is central to the process.’

The Biden Rules recognize that ‘Senate consideration of a nominee under these circumstances is not fair to the President, to the nominee, or to the Senate itself.’

The Biden Rules recognize that under these circumstances, ‘the Senate Judiciary Committee should seriously consider not scheduling confirmation hearings on the nomination until after the political campaign season is over.’”

Grassley closed his statement by saying: “If the President of the United States insists on submitting a nominee under these circumstances, Senator Biden, my friend from Delaware, the man who sat at a desk across the aisle and at the back of this Chamber for more than 35 years, knows what the Senate should do.”
Here's the video of Biden in 1992:
It might be noted in passing that Senator (now Vice-President) Biden may well be, among those still living, one of the men most responsible for the ugliness and polarization of our modern politics. In 1987 President Ronald Reagan nominated Robert Bork, one of the most eminently qualified jurists in the nation, to serve on the Supreme Court. Biden presided over hearings in which Senator Ted Kennedy and others savaged Bork, ultimately resulting in his rejection by the full senate.

It was the first time in our nation's history that a president's nominee for the Court was rejected, not for reasons of character or qualification, but simply because his judicial philosophy did not suit the majority party nor their special interest friends and donors. Ever since the Democrats tarnished a good man (and did it again to Clarence Thomas in 1991) there's been a deep antipathy between the two parties, an antipathy which has been exacerbated under Barack Obama.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Living in Flatland

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

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

One way to imagine what reality might be like if there actually are more than three dimensions of space is to think of ourselves as living in a two-dimensional world, a flatland, that's visited by a three-dimensional being as illustrated in this short video:
If we actually do consist of more than three dimensions we would look completely different to a being who could perceive those other dimensions than we do to each other. There could quite literally be, in other words, far more to us, and to reality, than what meets the eye.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Dawkins' Argument

News that biologist and uber atheist Richard Dawkins has suffered a stroke (apparently minor) brought to mind his attempts to undermine religious belief, specifically in his book titled The God Delusion. The book rocketed to the top of the best-seller charts and influenced who knows how many young people who lacked the skills to analyze the arguments it advanced against belief in God. Philosophers, however, even many who were sympathetic to Dawkins' naturalism, derided the book for its philosophical superficiality and, worse, its blunders.

For example, Dawkins claimed that the central argument of the book goes something like this:
  1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect is to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
  2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself, i.e. an intelligent designer.
  3. The temptation is a false one because the hypothesis raises the larger problem of explaining who designed the designer.
  4. The most ingenious explanation for the complexity of life is Darwinian evolution.
  5. We don't have an equivalent explanation in physics for cosmic fine-tuning.
  6. We should not give up hope of finding a better explanation in physics for cosmic fine-tuning.
  7. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.
Dawkins' conclusion appears like a rabbit pulled magically out of a hat. Nothing in the premises leads to it. In fact, even if all six premises were correct, there's no logically possible world in which that conclusion follows from them. The most that might be inferred from this set of propositions is that perhaps we'll someday discover a good physical explanation for cosmic fine-tuning, but even if that were to happen it still wouldn't justify Dawkins' conclusion that God almost certainly does not exist.

As it happens, the conclusion is not only a non-sequitur but it's based on at least one premise which is patently false. Premises 1, 2, 5, and 6 are uncontroversial, and I'm willing to grant 4 just to be easy to get along with, but premise 3 is clearly erroneous.

Dawkins tries to support premise 3 by arguing that if the world's complexity requires an explanation then the designer of the world must itself be even more complex than the world it designed, and must itself require an explanation a forteriori. There are, however, at least three things wrong with this:

1. If it were concluded that a designer was the source of the complex design of the cosmos (or of living things) that conclusion stands whether we can explain the designer or not. We believed, for example, that gravity existed long before there was any explanation for it, and if some future astronauts landed on Mars and discovered there a six foot platinum cube with nearly perfect angles and facets as smooth as glass they'd certainly be justified in believing that the cube was left there by some intelligent beings even if the astronauts had no idea who they were, how they made the cube, how they got it to Mars, or how long ago they did it. None of that would be relevant to the inference that the cube was an artifact of intelligent agents.

2. Complexity is a property of physical, material things which have parts. If there is a designer of the space-time-matter universe it would transcend the universe and thus itself not be material, physical, or spatial. It would be pure, immaterial mind. Mind doesn't have parts, and Dawkins commits a category error when he argues that minds must be complex. The products of minds might be complex, but it doesn't follow that minds themselves are complex.

3. If everything needed to be explained before it could count as an explanation then nothing would ever be explained. We'd be caught in an infinite regress of explanations, none of which would be satisfactory until it, too, was explained.

I wish Prof. Dawkins well in his recovery and hope that his health fares much better in response to the ministrations of his doctors than has the central argument of The God Delusion in response to the ministrations of his philosophical critics.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Diversity Myth

One of the many myths rampant in our modern politics is that the Democrat party is the party of diversity and inclusion and the Republican party is comprised of rich, white, red-necked bigots. This is what Progressives would like us to believe, but it simply doesn't conform to the facts. Consider, to take one example, the composition of the respective presidential fields. The Democrats are running two white, progressive/socialist candidates, neither of whom has ever accomplished anything outside of politics and whose average age is almost 72. The only diversity in this field is that one of them is female and the other male. Other than that it's hard to distinguish between them.

Compare that to the original Republican field which boasted an accomplished woman CEO (Carly Fiorina), an accomplished African American surgeon (Ben Carson), an Indian American governor (Bobby Jindal), two Hispanic senators (Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio), an accomplished businessman (Donald Trump), and assorted other successful state governors (John Kasich, Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee).

Moreover, if we want to administer another kick to the diversity myth while it's down, consider what has just happened among Republicans in South Carolina: A female governor of Indian descent (Nikki Haley) was joined by an African American senator (Tim Scott) to endorse a Hispanic senator (Marco Rubio) for the Republican nomination for president. And this, mind you, in the heart of Dixie.

As for which party is in thrall to wealthy donors keep in mind that one of the scandals hanging around Mrs. Clinton like a bad odor is the fact that she was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs just to give speeches, speeches the transcripts of which she is loath to make public. Remember, too, that many of the wealthiest people in the country are Democrats and wealthy labor and service unions pump millions of dollars into the Democratic party. The GOP does not have a monopoly on fat cats.

I'm not shilling here for the Republican party, with which I have my own disagreements, and in whose company I sit very uneasily. Nevertheless, though I personally don't see gender, race, and ethnicity as particularly important qualifications for elective office, if those things are important to people, if diversity is what voters are looking for, then the Republican party is where they'll find it.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Building Walls

Well. Pope Francis has decreed that anyone who wants to build a wall across America's southern border is no Christian. Christians don't build walls, they build bridges, the Pope has pontificated. A lot of people have interpreted his remarks to be aimed at Donald Trump who avers that he will build a wall, but actually most of the Republican candidates want to build the wall (or a fence) and so do a lot of other Americans who no doubt resent a Catholic Pope casting aspersions on their faith.

Francis' criticism is especially hard to take because, as many have already observed, he himself lives in the security afforded him by a massive wall whose size to be seen to be appreciated, a wall that almost encircles all of Vatican City.

Vatican Wall

Not only does the pope criticize Americans for wanting the same control over who comes into their country as he enjoys, but the Vatican has some of the strictest immigration and citizenship laws in the world.

Moreover, as far as I know, Vatican City is housing none of the Syrian refugees. They have plenty of space in St. Peter's Square and lots of space in the papal gardens that could be used for this purpose. Why doesn't the Holy Father insist that shelters be erected and refugees be allowed into these spaces where they can be fed and clothed?

Wouldn't you think that people who publicly disparage the sincerity of the Christianity of those who want to control who and how many immigrants are accepted into their country be themselves more assiduous in exhibiting the virtues they find lacking in those they criticize? Particularly if, like Pope Francis, they've been praised in the past for admitting that they're not in a position to pass judgment on others?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Advise and Consent

The President, Democrats in general, and the left-wing media are all in a swivet over statements by Republican leaders that they wouldn't look favorably on an attempt this late in the Obama presidency to appoint a Supreme Court justice to fill the seat of the late Antonin Scalia. Republican reluctance to cooperate has been called obstructionism, unconstitutional, unconscionable, unprecedented, and even, of course, racist. These are just some of the objections that have been raised in mighty chorus against the Republican plan, but, in truth, it's none of those things. In fact, not only is it not unprecedented, it's the very tactic endorsed by Senator Obama himself when George Bush nominated Samuel Alito, it was employed by a Democratic senate during the Eisenhower presidency, insisted upon by The New York Times during the Reagan presidency and by Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer during the Bush presidency.

An article in The Federalist helpfully reminds amnesiac Democrats and their allies of their attempts over the years to block Republican presidents from making judicial appointments.

Senator Schumer (D, NY), for example, said in 2007 that, President George W. Bush shouldn’t get to pick any more Supreme Court justices because Schumer was afraid the bench leaned too far Right. Schumer made this remark a whole 19 months before the next president was inaugurated.

“We should not confirm any Bush nominee to the Supreme Court, except in extraordinary circumstances,” Schumer said in a speech to the liberal American Constitution Society. “They must prove by actions, not words, that they are in the mainstream rather than we have to prove that they are not.”

His remarks in 2007 weren’t the only time Schumer vowed to stop a Republican nominee. In 2004, he said he would do everything in his power to stop Bush from elevating Charles Pickering to a federal appeals court in 2004.

“I’m prepared to do everything I can to stop the nomination of Justice Pickering,” Schumer said. “We can do a lot better.”
The Federalist mentions other instances in which Schumer was involved in efforts to prevent the president from naming judges, but let's pass on to Senator Obama who supported the Democratic-led filibuster to stop Justice Samuel Alito from making it to the Supreme Court. In 2006 he said this:
There are some who believe that the president, having won the election, should have complete authority to appoint his nominee…that once you get beyond intellect and personal character, there should be no further question as to whether the judge should be confirmed. I disagree with this view.
Obama wasn’t the only Democratic senator to oppose Alito’s nomination, The Federalist notes. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) led an opposition coalition, which attempted to filibuster to block the confirmation process. Kennedy was joined by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who publicly stated they opposed Alito’s confirmation.

There are more examples at The Federalist link. The other day President Obama was asked about how he justified his own filibuster of Alito in light of his complaints about Republicans threatening to do the same thing. Having no good answer he awkwardly sought refuge in gobbledygook:
It seems that to refuse consent to a lame duck president who will throw the Court's ideological composition out of balance is perfectly sensible if the president is a scoundrel Republican and his noble opponents are Democrats. But, we are to surmise, such tactics are unseemly, obstructionist, unconstitutional, unconscionable, racist, and unprecedented if the president is a saintly Democrat and the refuseniks are demonic Republicans.

These people have evidently never heard about gooses and ganders, nor do they seem to comprehend the meaning of the word "hypocrisy."

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Please Don't Vote

I read recently that the fifth most frequently googled question about Jeb Bush during the GOP debate prior to the New Hampshire primary election was whether the Republican candidate was related to former president George Bush (Exactly which George Bush they were asking about wasn't made clear):
... according to Google, a lot of people watching the CNN Republican presidential debate were curious about Bush's background — specifically, whether Jeb Bush is related to George Bush. It is the fifth-most Googled question about him.
Reading this causes one to wonder how many people who'll be voting in November know that Hillary Clinton is former president Bill Clinton's wife.

Recalling the words of Thomas Jefferson that "any nation which expects to remain ignorant and free expects what never was and never will be," the fact that so many American voters had no idea as to the relationship between Jeb and George generated a feeling of despair for the future of our democracy.

Then came word from Gallup that their polling found that the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, whom one prominent legal scholar named "the most influential justice of the last quarter-century," was nonetheless unknown to nearly a third of Americans (32%) and generated no opinion from another 12% in 2015, Scalia's 29th year on the nation's top court.

In any case, between now and November we'll be hearing lots of people tell us that it's our duty as citizens of a free republic to vote, that the right to vote is a precious privilege that we're morally obligated to exercise, etc. This is not exactly true. It is not our duty as citizens, at least not our primary duty, to vote. It's our first duty as citizens to be informed about who our leaders are and what they are about. It may not be interesting or "sexy," indeed, politics may strike us as tedious, but we have a duty as citizens to be informed about it nonetheless.

We also have a second duty, in my opinion. If we have not taken the trouble to learn at least the basics of how our government works, who the major players are, what their character is like, and what their guiding principles have been throughout their careers then to vote would be irresponsible. It would only compound the failure to fulfill our first duty.

So here's my plea: If your vote is based on a candidate's looks, eloquence, charm, ethnicity, or gender - none of which have anything to do with whether the candidate will be a good president - if you're attracted to a candidate because he or she is good at insulting people and/or making grandiose but empty promises, and if you know nothing much else about the candidate, please find something else to do on election day. Please don't vote.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

What Difference, at This Point, Does it Make?

Every election cycle, it seems, there's a debate over whether the voting franchise should be extended to convicted felons. It appears now, according to former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, that during this cycle the debate could be over whether a felon should be permitted to serve as President of the United States. The Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, has almost certainly committed at least two felonies by violating two different federal statutes each of which carries a ten year prison sentence for each offense.

Here are some of the relevant excerpts from McCarthy's essay.
For all the surreal projection of normalcy, the race is enveloped by an extremely serious criminal investigation. If press reporting is to be believed — in particular, the yeoman’s work of Fox News’s Catherine Herridge and Pamela K. Browne — Hillary Clinton, the likely nominee of one of the two major parties, appears to have committed serious felony violations of federal law.

So these Democrats play Russian roulette: hopefully assuming that the FBI won’t dare recommend criminal charges with the stakes so high; that the Obama Justice Department won’t prosecute if charges are recommended; that Obama will figure out a way to intervene with a pardon that won’t do Clinton too much damage, and that the public can be spun into thinking an investigation led by Obama appointees and career law-enforcement officers is somehow a Vast-Right-Wing-Conspiracy plot dreamt up by Republicans.

To take the simplest of many apparent national-security violations, it is a felony for a person “being entrusted with or having lawful possession or control of any . . . information relating to the national defense” to permit that information “through gross negligence . . . to be removed from its proper place of custody” or to be “delivered to anyone in violation of his trust” (Section 793(f) of Title 18, U.S. Code).

Mrs. Clinton was entrusted with national-defense information and knew that working with such classified intelligence was a substantial part of her duties as secretary of state. Despite this knowledge, she willfully, and against government rules, set up a private, non-secure e-mail communication system for all of her government-related correspondence — making it inevitable that classified matters would be discussed on the system.

This was gross negligence at best. And the easily foreseeable result is that classified intelligence was removed from its secure government repository and transmitted to persons not entitled to have it — very likely including foreign intelligence services that almost certainly penetrated Mrs. Clinton’s non-secure system.

The penalty for violating this penal statute is up to ten years’ imprisonment for each individual violation. Mind you, there are already 1,600 reported instances of classified information being transmitted via the Clinton server system, and the latest indications are that at least twelve, and as many as 30, private e-mail accounts are known to have trafficked in our nation’s defense secrets. Many of these account holders were certainly not cleared for access to the information — and none of them was permitted to access it in a non-secure setting.

[Then there are] the unknown e-mails. What has been revealed about Mrs. Clinton’s disclosed e-mails has been so shocking that we often forget: There are 30,000 other e-mails that she attempted to destroy. We do not know what’s in them, so it is only natural that we have focused instead on what is knowable — the e-mails that have been disclosed. But there have been media reports that the FBI, to which Mrs. Clinton finally surrendered her private servers some months ago, has been able to retrieve many of the “deleted” e-mails, perhaps even all of them.

Mrs. Clinton told us she destroyed these e-mails because they were private and unrelated to government business. Basically we are to believe that one of the busiest, highest-ranking officials in our government had time to send tens of thousands of e-mails that were strictly about yoga routines, her daughter’s bridesmaids’ dresses, and the like. This, from the same Mrs. Clinton who looked us in the eye and insisted that none of her e-mails contained classified information.

... wholly apart from any classified information crimes, there is another penal law defining an offense that is very easy to prove: the federal embezzlement statute (Section 641 of Title 18, U.S. Code). This provision targets anyone who, among other things, embezzles, steals, purloins, or knowingly converts to his use . . . , or without authority . . . conveys or disposes of any record . . . of the United States or of any department or agency thereof . . . ; or . . . conceals, or retains the same with intent to convert it to his use . . . knowing it to have been embezzled, stolen, purloined or converted.

As with the afore-described crime of mishandling classified information, the penalty for violating this statute is up to ten years’ imprisonment for each instance of theft.

To the extent Mrs. Clinton’s e-mails involved government business, they were not private — they were government records. When she left the State Department, however, she took these government records with her: She didn’t tell anyone she had them, and she converted them to her own use — preventing the government from complying with lawful Freedom of Information Act disclosure demands, congressional inquiries, and government-disclosure obligations in judicial proceedings, as well as undermining the State Department’s reliance on the completeness of its record-keeping in performing its crucial functions.
There's more at the link. If Mrs. Clinton's elected to the presidency, as wits have suggested, we may have to move the Oval Office out of the White House and into the Big House.

Exit question: If Mrs. Clinton does become president could she pardon herself?

Monday, February 15, 2016

Epistemology 101

Professor Laurence A. Moran, a biochemist at the University of Toronto and evangelistic atheist, recently found himself in conversation with a theologian named Denis Alexander. He subsequently posted a critique of their conversation on his blog Sandwalk. Whatever the merits of Moran's overall criticism of Alexander may be he certainly takes a misstep at the start when he says this:
If you believe in such a being [as God] then that conflicts with science as a way of knowing because you are believing in something without reliable evidence to support your belief. Scientists shouldn't do that and neither should any others who practice the scientific way of knowing. Denis Alexander thinks there are other, equally valid, ways of knowing but he wasn't able to offer any evidence that those other ways produce true knowledge.
There are several problems with what Prof. Moran says in this paragraph.

1. He conflates knowing and believing. He oscillates between talking about beliefs and talking about knowledge, but knowledge and belief are not the same thing. One must believe something in order to claim to know it, but merely believing something isn't the same as knowing it. You can believe something and not know it, but you can't know it and not believe it. To be knowledge the belief must be warranted somehow, and it must have a high probability of being true.

2. He assumes evidence is required to justify a belief. That is something he himself apparently believes, but what evidence could he offer to justify believing it? He simply believes this claim without any evidence at all. Presumably, he means that our beliefs must be supported by sensory evidence, but this is surely false. Scientists as well as laymen hold all sorts of beliefs for which there's no sensory evidence whatsoever.

Many believe, for instance, that life originated purely naturalistically although there's not a shred of evidence that it did or that such an origin is even physically possible. They often seek to avoid the implications of cosmic fine-tuning by promoting the existence of a multiverse for which there's no empirical evidence. They believe that life exists elsewhere in the universe, and spend their careers searching for it, despite the utter lack of any evidence for such life. They believe that it's wrong to falsify data on a scientific paper, but cannot explain scientifically why anything at all is wrong.

Put another way, I can know that I'm experiencing pain even if I have no way to prove it to you; I can know that, despite much evidence against me, I'm innocent of a crime of which I've been accused; I can know that as a young boy I found a dollar bill, though I'd be helpless if asked to present evidence of the fact. These are all things that I can know despite my inability to produce evidence that I could offer to anyone else, especially to someone predisposed to doubt me.

If Prof. Moran were to reply that I have the evidence of my own internal states, the subjective experience of pain, the assurance of my innocence, the memory of finding the money, and that these states count as evidence, he'd be putting himself in an awkward position. He'd have to explain why these states warrant the relevant beliefs, but the internal assurance one might have of experiencing God does not warrant believing that God exists.

3. He's simply mistaken to assert that there's no reliable evidence to support theism. It's been argued on this site for the past twelve years that as Pascal said, there's enough evidence to convince anyone who's not dead set against it. Alvin Plantinga gives a couple dozen arguments for theism among which, in my opinion, the best are certain forms of the cosmological, moral, and cosmic fine-tuning arguments as well as the argument from the contingency of the universe.

I'm sure Professor Moran is a fine biochemist, but perhaps he'd do well to stick to his field and avoid dogmatic philosophical pronouncements.

For a more extended critique of Prof. Moran's argument against Alexander see philosopher V.J.Torley's piece here.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Three and a Half Problems

One of the most fascinating problems philosophers wrestle with is the problem of consciousness. What exactly is consciousness? How is it produced? What is its relationship to the brain? Etc.

Usually we think of consciousness as a state of being aware, but how does awareness arise from inanimate matter? How can atoms and molecules make us aware of ourselves and of the world external to ourselves? How does this all happen? How, for example, does an electro-chemical reaction in the brain generate the sensation of red?

Peter at Conscious Entities has an interesting discussion of what he calls the Three and a Half Problems of Consciousness.

The problems he discusses are the problems of Qualia, Intentionality, Morality, and Relevance. The article is a good primer on what is one of the most cutting edge fields in contemporary philosophy and also one of the most vexing because the problems seem so intractable.

Qualia are the sensations that we experience as part of our conscious awareness of the world. The sensations of color, sound, emotions, etc. are the qualia of our experience.

Intentionality refers to the fact that thoughts are about things. How is it that a particular flow of atoms, chemicals, and electricity can be about something.

The problem of moral responsibility concerns, among other things, the question of how we can be responsible for our actions unless we somehow cause them, but if we are bound by the laws of physics then in what sense is it us who causes our actions rather than the laws of physics which constrain us?

Anyway, read what Peter has to say on these things and you'll be well on your way to a graduate degree in the philosophy of mind.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Bird Migration

Bird migration is one of the most astonishing phenomena in nature, but since it happens largely at night most people aren't very much aware of the amazing spectacle that's occurring all around them in the spring and fall each year.

To help give a sense of the movements of many species of birds during migration, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has produced a fascinating animated feature that shows the annual migration pattern of 118 different North American species. The migration animation can be viewed here.

There's also a link on the page which takes you to a similar animation which shows the particular species of bird that's being represented. If you love nature you're sure to enjoy this. Here are a few questions to ponder while you're watching: How did migration ever evolve through random mutation and natural selection? How do these birds know how to navigate their way back and forth, often returning to the exact patch of territory they departed from six months before? How do the young of the year, which have never made the trip before, know how to do it?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Sagan's Argument from Religious Experience

Religious believers are often criticized for holding beliefs they can't empirically demonstrate to be true or at least probable. If no scientific evidence can be adduced in support of the belief then it's discounted as mere superstition. This was a popular view among skeptical philosophers from about 1870 to about 1980. It's called evidentialism and Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has a great deal of fun dismantling it in his book titled Warranted Christian Belief.

Plantinga asks, inter alia, why our beliefs should be considered guilty until proven innocent. Why should beliefs not be counted innocent until proven guilty?

He wonders, too, why a person of sound mind, convinced in her heart that God exists, and who has never been confronted with an antitheistic argument that she found compelling, should be required to nevertheless suspend her belief until she has acquired overwhelming evidence that her belief is true.

Suppose, for instance, that you were accused of a crime. There's substantial evidence against you and little that you can offer to offset it. Even so, you're convinced you're innocent. You know you're innocent. You can't explain the contrary evidence, but it doesn't matter. You just know you didn't commit the crime. Should you, despite this assurance, acknowledge anyway that you're guilty because you cannot mount an argument to explain why you're certain of your innocence?

Many people believe in God on the basis of a totally subjective experience that they can't document or prove but which leaves them with an assurance that they could not deny even were they so inclined. The experience of former atheist Kirstin Powers, a liberal journalist who appears on various shows on FOX News, provides us with a good example.
(See here for a full account of her experience.)
I was recently reminded by a student of a scene from the movie Contact, which was, ironically, based on a book by atheistic astronomer Carl Sagan. In the movie the character played by Jodie Foster, a scientist named Ellie Arroway, travels to the center of the galaxy, but upon her return is unable to offer any evidence that she actually left earth. None of the data collected by her colleagues from her transporter confirm that the experiment worked. Yet she's convinced that she in fact experienced all that she claims to have experienced.

Is she justified in holding that belief? If her belief is the product of properly functioning cognitive faculties belonging to a scientist not given to imaginative flights of hysteria, is what she says in this exchange with an interrogator discredited by her inability to present evidence?
Michael Kritz: "Wait a minute, let me get this straight. You admit that you have absolutely no physical evidence to back up your story."

Ellie Arroway: "Yes."

Michael Kitz: "You admit that you very well may have hallucinated this whole thing."

Ellie Arroway: "Yes."

Michael Kitz: "You admit that if you were in our position, you would respond with exactly the same degree of incredulity and skepticism!"

Ellie Arroway: "Yes!"

Michael Kitz: [standing, angrily] "Then why don't you simply withdraw your testimony, and concede that this "journey to the center of the galaxy," in fact, never took place!"

Ellie Arroway: "Because I can't. I... had an experience... I can't prove it, I can't even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever... A vision... of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how... rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone! I wish... I... could share that... I wish, that everyone, if only for one... moment, could feel... that awe, and humility, and hope. But... That continues to be my wish."
Ellie Arroway, in Sagan's telling of the tale, had what amounts to a religious experience. If she's warranted in believing her experience was veridical despite the lack of proof, or even any objective evidence, why are Christians faulted, by people just like Sagan, for believing in God on the basis of a subjective assurance similar to that expressed by Arroway?

Indeed, far more people have had an experience like Kirstin Powers than have had an experience like Ellie Arroway. If Arroway is justified in believing that she actually encountered a different world why would people like Powers not be similarly justified?

Just as it would be foolish to expect Ellie to discount her experience because she can't empirically prove that she had it, so, too, it's foolish of skeptics to think that the only warrant for a belief is the ability to provide objective, physical evidence that it's true.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

With Friends Like These

Bernie Sanders' victory over Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary yesterday was stunning. Ms. Clinton lost every demographic to the Vermont senator except senior citizens:
[Senator Sanders] carried majorities of both men and women. He won among those with and without college degrees. He won among gun owners and non-gun owners. He beat Mrs. Clinton among previous primary voters and those participating for the first time. And he ran ahead among both moderates and liberals.

Even so, there were a few silver linings for Mrs. Clinton. While Mr. Sanders bested her among all age groups younger than 45, the two candidates polled evenly among voters aged 45 to 64. And Mrs. Clinton won the support of voters 65 and older. And, though Mrs. Clinton lost nearly every income group, she did carry voters in families earning over $200,000 per year.
Meanwhile, Ms. Clinton's sort-of husband didn't help her when in a speech before the primary vote was taken he observed that her opponent, Senator Sanders, was being "hypocritical" in complaining about the exorbitant fees Ms. Clinton extracted from Wall Street fat cats for giving speeches. Sanders, Bill Clinton, informed us, gave speeches that he was paid for, too, so it's hypocritical of Bernie to criticize Hillary for doing the same thing. As Dick Morris notes, however, there's a big difference between Hillary's speeches and Bernie's speeches:
The aging and raging ex-president, meanwhile, speaking to a half-filled gym in a New Hampshire school, ranted about Sanders’s “hypocrisy” in condemning his wife’s paid speeches. Sanders, too, has given paid speeches, Bill Clinton claimed.

He’s got a point. In 2013, for example, Sanders made all of $1,500, which he donated to charity as required by federal law. In 2014, he raked in $1,850 for paid speeches. By contrast, Clinton made, and kept, over $21 million during the same time period. Sanders was only reimbursed for coach class airfare, while Clinton demanded private jets. Sanders’s hosts were the TV show “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Avalon Publishing and a machinists union. Clinton’s were Goldman Sachs, the big banks and the pharmaceutical and energy industries.
When people pay you $21 million for a bunch of hour long speeches they're not doing it because they think you're Demosthenes. They're doing it because they're expecting that you'll eventually be in a position of power and they're buying influence. In other words, should Ms. Clinton gain the White House everyone who paid her big bucks, including foreign governments who contributed to her foundation, will be expecting to benefit from their investment. When she declares in her campaign speeches that she'll rein in Wall Street, the guys in the penthouse offices must be rolling on the floor in laughter.

Nor has Ms. Clinton been particularly well-served by some of her celebrity supporters. Gloria Steinem, the octogenarian feminist warhorse, insulted millions of young women by blurting out recently that the only reason these silly things are supporting Sanders and not Hillary is that the Sanders campaign is where the boys are. Yes, according to Ms Steinem, of all people, the very person who famously proclaimed that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, girls don't really care about politics, they just want to get boyfriends.

Then there was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, another octogenarian, who gave us another glimpse of how some of the older female supporters of Ms. Clinton think when she insisted that there's a special place in hell for women who don't support other women. She apparently believes that women shouldn't think for themselves and support candidates they believe would be best for the country. Rather they should vote simply on the basis of their gender. It's a kind of tribalism Ms. Albright is endorsing.

I wonder if the estimable Madame Secretary thinks there's a special place in hell for Jews, or men, or senior citizens who don't vote for Bernie Sanders. Probably not.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Modern View of Man

James M. Tour, world famous chemist and professor at Rice university, quotes Victor Frankl on where the modern view of man leads: Viktor Frankl, a former Auschwitz inmate wrote in The Doctor and the Soul, that the source for much of the 20th Century’s inhumanity has come from the [view of man promoted by modern materialism]:
“If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone.

“I became acquainted with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment; or as the Nazi liked to say, ‘of Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers [emphasis added].”
When men cease to see other men as having transcendent worth because of their status as beings created in the image of God by a God who cares about each of them individually, when they deny that there's any overarching purpose to human existence, deny that there's any objective ground for moral value, deny that there's any such thing as a soul, free will, or human dignity, when they come to view other men and themselves as the products of eons of natural accidents and coincidences that have serendipitously resulted in a human animal only slightly different than a cow, then human stockyards like Auschwitz become a logical, a rational, inevitability.

That's where the modern view of man leads, and it is, as Frankl notes, materialistic, naturalistic philosophers and scientists who have in the 19th and 20th centuries cleared the theoretical ground upon which those who wield political power build their abattoirs.

Take just three representative examples to illustrate what many modern scientists, philosophers, and legal scholars believe and ask where such thinking will lead us if it were ever to become the consensus view among our political class:

First a quote from evolutionary biologist Will Provine of Cornell: "Let me summarize my view on what evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear: There are no Gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death .... There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no meaning in life, and no free will."

Here's atheistic philosopher Richard Rorty: "For the secular man [like himself] there's no answer to the question, 'Why not be cruel'?"

And one more from early 20th century Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes: "When one thinks coldly I see no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand."

When people en masse come to think this way what reason would they have not to build another Auschwitz or Treblinka?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Taxonomy of Political Ideology

Probably one reason why a lot of people steer clear of politics is that they find the ideological labels (as well as words like ideological) to be very confusing. Terms like left, right, liberal, conservative, progressive, libertarian, fascism, socialism, and communism are thrown around a lot by our punditry and they're rarely accompanied by any explanation of what they mean. This post will try to supply that lack so that as we roll deeper into the campaign season readers might have a bit better understanding of what they're hearing.

For starters, a political ideology is the set of principles which guide and inform one's social, economic, and foreign policies. All the terms listed in the previous paragraph denote various political ideologies.

The following diagram will give us a frame of reference to talk about these terms:
Let's start on the right side of the spectrum and define the terms going right to left. Each of them expresses a different view of the role of government in our lives and a different view of what rights citizens have vis a vis the state. I have one quarrel, though, with the diagram. I personally don't think either anarchy or mob rule belong on it since neither is a stable ideology. They both either evaporate, like Occupy Wall Street did, or they morph into communism or fascism. With that said, let's consider the remaining elements of the spectrum:

Libertarianism: This is the view that the role of government should be limited largely to protecting our borders and constitutional rights. Libertarians believe that government should, except to protect citizens, stay out of our personal lives and out of the marketplace. They are also very reluctant to get involved in foreign conflicts. Senator Rand Paul who recently withdrew from the race for the Republican nomination for president, is perhaps the most well-known contemporary libertarian politician. Ayn Rand (who wrote Atlas Shrugged and for whom Rand Paul is named) is the most well-known libertarian writer.

Conservatism: Conservatives tend to be libertarians, but see a somewhat more expansive role for government. The emphasis among conservatives is on preserving traditional values and the Constitution and also upon diffusing governmental authority from the central, federal government and giving it back to the states and localities. They're reluctant to change unless it can be shown that the change is both necessary and has a good chance of improving the problem the change is supposed to solve.

Conservatives take a strict view of the Constitution, interpreting it to mean pretty much precisely what it says, and oppose attempts to alter it by judicial fiat. They also oppose government interference in the market by over-regulation and oppose high tax rates as being counter-productive. They strongly oppose illegal immigration and believe in a strong national defense, but, though more willing to use force abroad when our interests can be shown to be threatened, are nevertheless leery of foreign adventures. Ted Cruz is perhaps the most well-known contemporary conservative politician, and William F. Buckley is the most well-known conservative writer.

Moderates: Moderates tend to be conservative on some issues and liberal on others. They see themselves as pragmatists, willing to do whatever works to make things better. They see themselves as non-ideological (although their opponents often see them as unprincipled). President George W. Bush was a moderate politician and New York Times columnist David Brooks would be an example of a moderate writer.

Liberalism: Liberals see a more expansive role for government. They take a loose view of the Constitution, interpreting it according to what they think the founders would say if they wrote the document today. They tend to think that traditional values shackle us to the past and that modern times and problems require us to throw off those shackles. They agree with libertarians that government should stay out of our personal lives, but they believe that government must regulate business and tax the rich and middle classes to subsidize the poor. They tend to hold a very strong faith in the power of government to solve our problems, a faith that conservatives and libertarians think is entirely unwarranted by experience. President Bill Clinton might be an example of a liberal politician.

Progressivism: Progressivism can be thought of as hyper-caffeinated liberalism. Most prominent members of today's Democratic party are progressives as are many in the mainstream media and on cable networks like MSNBC. Progressives tend to see the Constitution as an obstacle to progress. Whereas conservatives view the Constitution as a document which protects individual rights, progressives see it as an archaic limitation on the ability of government to promote social and economic justice. They tend to be indifferent to, or even disdainful of, traditional values and institutions such as marriage, family, and religion.

Progressives are essentially socialists who are reluctant, for whatever reason, to call themselves that. A humorous depiction of progressivism can be found here. President Barack Obama and candidate Hillary Clinton are progressives.

Socialism: As stated in the previous paragraph, socialists are progressives by another name. Both progressives and socialists desire that power be located in a strong central government (they're sometimes for this reason referred to by their opponents as "statists.") and both wish for government to be involved in our lives "from cradle to the grave" (see this ad which ran in the last presidential campaign). They favor very high tax rates by which they hope to reduce the disparity in income between rich and poor. Perhaps one difference between socialists and progressives is that though both would allow corporations and banks to be privately owned, socialists would impose more governmental control over these institutions than progressives might. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is an example of a contemporary socialist.

Fascism: Typically fascism is considered an ideology of the right, but this is a mistake. Fascism, like communism, is a form of totalitarian socialism. Indeed, the German Nazis as well as the Italian fascists of the 1930s were socialists (The Nazi party was the National Socialist Party). Fascism is socialist in that fascists permit private ownership of property and businesses, but the state has ultimate control over them. Fascism is usually militaristic, nationalistic, and xenophobic. It is totalitarian in that there is usually only one party, and citizens have few rights. There is no right to dissent or free speech, and fascists are prone to the use of violence to suppress those who do not conform. Those on the far left on campus who shout down speakers and professors whose message they don't like are adopting fascistic methods.

Communism: Like fascism, communism is totalitarian and socialist, but it's a more extreme socialism. Under communism there is no private ownership. The state owns everything. Moreover, communism differs from fascism in that it is internationalist rather than nationalist, and it doesn't promote a militaristic culture, although it certainly doesn't shy from the use of military force and violence to further its goals. Like fascism, however, communism does not permit free speech, and those who dissent are executed or cruelly imprisoned.

Few completely communist nations remain today though throughout much of the twentieth century the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba and many other Asian and African states were all communist. Today North Korea is probably the only truly communist nation. Scarcely any contemporary politicians would admit to being communists though some of President Obama's close associates and friends over the years, such as Bill Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, Van Jones, and mentor Frank Marshall Davis are, or were, all communists.

I hope this rather cursory treatment will be helpful as you seek to make sense of what the various pundits and candidates jockeying for their party's nomination are saying.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Understanding the Crusades (Pt. II)

As was mentioned in yesterday's post the Crusades were not wars of aggression against innocent Muslim Arabs but rather were reactions against atrocities committed by Muslims against Christians throughout the Middle East. Greg Scandlen, reviewing Rodney Stark's book God's Battalions, writes:
.... what would prompt hundreds of thousand Europeans to leave their homes and travel 2,500 miles to engage an enemy is a desert kingdom—especially after the Muslim conquest of Europe had been turned back?

There had been long-festering concern about the fate of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. After his conversion to Christianity in the early 300s, the Roman Emperor Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site of what was believed to be Jesus’ tomb, and other churches in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives. These sites prompted a growing number of European pilgrims to visit the Holy Land, including Saint Jerome, who lived in Bethlehem for the last 32 years of his life as he translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. By the late fifth century, Stark reports, more than 300 hostels and monasteries offered lodging to pilgrims in Jerusalem alone.

But in 638 Jerusalem surrendered to Muslim invaders, and mass murders of Christian pilgrims and monks became commonplace. Stark includes a list of select atrocities in the eight and ninth centuries, but none worse than the some 5,000 German Christians slaughtered by Bedouin robbers in the tenth century.

Throughout this period, control of Palestine was contested by several conflicting Muslim groups. Stark writes, “In 878 a new dynasty was established in Egypt and seized control of the Holy Land from the caliph in Baghdad.” One hundred years later, Tariqu al-Hakim became the sixth caliph of Egypt and initiated an unprecedented reign of terror, not just against Christians but against his own people as well. He burned or pillaged some 30,000 churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the tomb beneath it.

Soon enough, newly converted Turkish tribes came out of the north to seize Persia and Baghdad (by 1045) and press on to Armenia, overrunning the city of Ardzen in 1048, where they murdered all the men, raped the women, and enslaved the children. Next they attacked the Egyptians, in part because the Turks were Orthodox Sunnis and the Egyptians were heretical Shiites. While the Turks did not succeed in overthrowing the Egyptians, they did conquer Palestine, entering Jerusalem in 1071. The Turks promised safety to the residents of Jerusalem if they surrendered the city, but broke this promise and slaughtered the population. They did the same in Ramla, Gaza, Tyre, and Jaffa.

Finally, they threatened Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Alexius Comnenus wrote to Pope Urban II in 1095, begging for help to turn back the Turks. This was remarkable given the intense hostility between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Perhaps the pope saw an opportunity to unite or at least reduce tensions between the two Christian churches, but he responded with a call to create an army that would go to the Middle East.
Thus, a series of expeditions known as the Crusades were begun. I hasten to note that one shouldn't have the impression that the Crusaders were all noble soldiers of high moral caliber. They were, in fact, often a mixed lot, and some of them were little more than criminal thugs. A German contingent during the first crusade, enroute to the Middle East from Germany, slaughtered thousands of Jews in European towns along their way, apparently for sport, despite heroic attempts by Christian bishops to protect the Jews and universal opprobrium among Christians for what the Germans were doing. It was thought to be divine retribution that these men were themselves later massacred in a series of hostile encounters with local forces in Hungary.

The point, though, is that, in Stark's telling, the Crusades were fought largely for just reasons, and largely by valiant men with noble motives and were, when supported by their leaders back home and not betrayed by allies or ravaged by disease and starvation, quite successful. Indeed, as Stark puts it, the Crusader knights, "starving, riddled with disease, having eaten most of their horses, and with greatly reduced numbers," not only pushed the Turks back from Constantinople, but, "pushed on to Jerusalem and against all odds stormed over the walls to victory."

I highly recommend God's Battalions to anyone interested in the history of the Crusades and looking for a readable account of that history.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Understanding the Crusades (Pt. I)

Islamic terrorism, it's sometimes alleged, is fueled by resentments fostered by the wars conducted against Muslims in the Holy Land 800 years ago. The Crusades are often claimed to have been wars of imperialism waged against peaceful Muslims who defended themselves heroically against the malevolent Europeans, defeating them time after time in battle. All of that, however, happens to be false, according to Rodney Stark in his excellent book on the Crusades titled God's Battalions.

The Crusades, Stark argues, were defensive wars fought in response to Muslim atrocities against Christian pilgrims. The Crusader armies were technologically superior to their foes and were almost invariably victorious over them, but, after several centuries of occupation, eventually failed to hold their gains because of a lack of will among political leaders back home to spend the money necessary to sustain an army at such a distance. Moreover, so far from going to war to rob Arabs of their wealth, the Crusaders incurred enormous expense to make the arduous journey and few expected to reap any profit from a land that, in any case, offered precious little wealth to plunder. Indeed many Crusaders expected never to return home at all and many did not.

A review by Greg Scandlen in The Federalist of Stark's book helps clear away a lot of the mythological fog about the Crusades. Here are some highlights:
In light of President Obama’s recent remarks comparing the brutality of the Islamic State to the Crusades, it might be time to take a fresh look at those events. Were they really the one-sided Dark Ages barbarism we have been taught? Were they an early manifestation of Western imperialism and global conquest?
Scandlen notes that the Crusades were first of all a reaction against Muslim aggression and atrocities:
[I]n the final years of Mohammed ... a newly united Arab people swept through (Zoroastrian) Persia and the (Orthodox Christian) Byzantine- controlled areas of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa. (Byzantine refers to the Greek-speaking eastern remainder of the Roman Empire.) Eventually Arabs took over control of the Mediterranean islands, most of Spain, and the southern part of Italy, and even reached as far as 150 miles outside of Paris before being turned back by the Franks, or early French.

The Muslims were brutal in their conquered territories. They gave pagans a choice of converting to Islam or being killed or enslaved. Jews and Christians other People of the Book) were usually but not always treated somewhat better, and allowed to retain their beliefs but under conditions of Sharia subjugation....

Not surprisingly, there was intense Christian resistance and determination to take back lost territories. Especially effective were the Normans and the Franks in Spain and Italy.
But that was all prelude. One myth Stark wishes to dispel is that Islamic science and learning was somehow superior to that of Europeans of the period. In fact, he argues, Islamic learning and technology was largely a borrowed commodity:
Stark says the best of the Islamic culture was appropriated from the people Muslims conquered—the Greeks, Jews, Persians, Hindus, and even from heretical Christian sects such as the Copts and Nestorians. He quotes E.D. Hunt as writing, “the earliest scientific book in the language of Islam [was a] treatise on medicine by a Syrian Christian priest in Alexandria translated into Arabic by a Persian Jewish physician.” Stark writes that Muslim naval fleets were built by Egyptian shipwrights, manned by Christian crews, and often captained by Italians. When Baghdad was built, the caliph “entrusted the design of the city to a Zoroastrian and a Jew.” Even the “Arabic” numbering system was Hindu in origin.

And, while it is true that the Arabs embraced the writings of Plato and Aristotle, Stark comments,
However, rather than treat these works as attempts by Greek scholars to answer various questions, Muslin intellectuals quickly read them in the same way they read the Qur’an – as settled truths to be understood without question or contradiction…. Attitudes such as these prevented Islam from taking up where the Greeks had left off in their pursuit of knowledge.
Meanwhile, science and technology were burgeoning in Europe and it was these advances which gave the Europeans enormous advantages over their Muslim opponents in war:
[The] explosion of technology [in Europe] made ordinary people far richer than any people had ever been. It began with the development of collars and harnesses that allowed horses to pull plows and wagons rather than oxen, doubling the speed at which people could till fields. Plows were improved, iron horseshoes invented, wagons given brakes and swivel axles, and larger draft horses were bred. All this along with the new idea of crop rotation led to a massive improvement in agricultural productivity that in turn led to a much healthier, larger, and stronger population.

Technology was also improving warfare with the invention of the crossbow and chain mail. Crossbows were far more accurate and deadly than conventional archery, and could be fired with very little training. Chain mail was almost impervious to the kind of arrows in use throughout the world. Mounted knights were fitted with high-back saddles and stirrups that enabled them to use more force in charging an opponent, and much larger horses were bred as chargers, giving the knights a height advantage over enemies. Better military tactics made European armies much more lethal. Stark writes:
It is axiomatic in military science that cavalry cannot succeed against well-armed and well-disciplined infantry formations unless they greatly outnumber them…. When determined infantry hold their ranks, standing shoulder to shoulder to present a wall of shields from which they project a thicket of long spears butted in the ground, cavalry charges are easily turned away; the horses often rear out of control and refuse to meet the spears.

In contrast, Muslim warriors were almost exclusively light cavalry, riding faster but lighter horses bareback with little armor, few shields, and using swords and axes. Their biggest advantage was their use of camels, which made them much more mobile than foot soldiers and gave them the ability to swoop in and out of the desert areas to attack poorly defended cities.
Another advantage Stark discusses but Scandlen omits is the development of something called Greek fire, a mysterious napalm-like substance that could be sprayed from tubes at enemy ships and other fortifications. Because it was flammable even in water, it was extremely effective in warding off incursions by Muslim fleets in the centuries prior to the Crusades but doesn't seem to have been used much during the Crusades themselves.

Tomorrow we'll take a closer look at what prompted the series of campaigns against the Muslim Arabs that came to known as the Crusades.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Contingency of the World (Pt. II)

Yesterday, we discussed the Argument from Contingency as it has been formulated by philosophers Stephen Davis and William Lane Craig, following the 17th century genius Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz can rightly be called a genius because he was not only a philosopher and theologian but also a mathematician who invented (simultaneously with, but independently of, Isaac Newton) the mathematics of calculus.

The argument, in outline, runs as follows:
  1. Any entity that exists must have an explanation for its existence, either in itself or in something else.
  2. The universe exists.
  3. Therefore, the universe has an explanation for its existence, either in itself or in something else (from 1 & 2).
  4. If the universe has an explanation, that explanation is God.
  5. Therefore, God exists (from 3 & 4).
We noted yesterday that this argument is valid so that if the premises all turn out to be true then the conclusion must be true. We then inquired as to the truth of the premises noting that premise 2 is obviously true and premise 3 clearly follows from premises 1 and 2. That left us with ascertaining the truth of premises 1 and 4. We discussed 1 yesterday and will look at 4 today.

I closed yesterday's post by saying that 4 is simply a restatement of what most atheists believe. Here's why: Most atheists assert that the universe has no explanation at all. In the words of the famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell, it's just there. Its existence is a brute, inexplicable fact. In other words, if there is no God to have created the universe then there just is no explanation for its existence. Since atheist thinkers believe there is no God to have created the universe then they believe that the universe has no explanation.

But consider that claim: If there is no God then the universe has no explanation for its existence. This is logically equivalent to saying that if the universe does have an explanation then there is a God who created it. In other words, if the universe has an explanation then that explanation is God which is what premise 4 states.

So premises 1, 2, 3, and 4 all seem to be accepted, even by the atheist, as true, which means that 5 is true also.

Now, this conclusion could be avoided by admitting that the universe must have an explanation, but that either a) the explanation is that it's necessarily existent, which we considered yesterday, or b) the explanation is something other than God. We saw yesterday that it's more reasonable to think the universe is a contingent rather than a necessary entity so adopting a) seems to be an unfruitful strategy. What, though, about b)? Could the explanation of the universe be something other than God?

We need first to understand what a cause of the universe would be like. Since the universe is all of space, time, and matter whatever explains it must itself be non-spatial, non-temporal, and immaterial. The only kinds of things which could exist and fit this description would be either abstract objects, like numbers or concepts, or disembodied minds. However, abstract objects, if they exist, don't cause anything. The number 7 doesn't bring anything about, nor does the concept of, say, justice, by itself, have any causal efficacy.

That leaves us with a mind as the ultimate explanation for the universe, and any mind that is a sufficient explanation for the universe must be extraordinarily powerful, intelligent, and purposeful. Moreover, if it's intelligent and purposeful it's also personal.

In other words, the most plausible explanation for the universe is a being that has many of the characteristics traditionally attributed to God.

Here's a short video that might help to make the argument a bit clearer:

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Contingency of the World (Pt. I)

One of the classical arguments for the existence of God has experienced something of a renaissance in the last few years. The argument was originally popularized by the great philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) and is sometimes referred to as the Argument from Contingency. Leibniz asks the question why does anything at all exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? His answer to this question ultimately leads to the existence of the God of traditional theism.

Modern advocates of the argument, such as philosophers Stephen Davis and William Lane Craig, outline the argument somewhat like this:
  1. Any entity that exists must have an explanation for its existence, either in itself or in something else.
  2. The universe exists.
  3. Therefore, the universe has an explanation for its existence, either in itself or in something else (from 1 & 2).
  4. If the universe has an explanation, that explanation is God.
  5. Therefore, God exists (from 3 & 4).
At first glance this syllogism, particularly premise 4, may seem highly dubious and contrived, but it is in fact a valid argument. If the premises are all true then the conclusion must be true, but are the premises true, or at least more likely to be true than false? It certainly seems so.

Premise 2 is obviously true, but what about 1 and 4? In the remainder of this post we'll look at premise 1 and then consider premise 4 tomorrow.

What does premise 1 mean? It's simply an expression of what's called the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Existing entities have an explanation of their existence either in the necessity of their own nature or in some external cause.

To say that their explanation is in the necessity of their own nature is to say that it's impossible for the thing to not exist. It's not caused by anything else nor is its existence in any way dependent upon anything else. It has what philosophers call necessary being. Some mathematicians think that numbers and other mathematical "objects" exist in this way.

Almost everything in our experience, however, is explained by some cause outside of itself. These things - like trees, chairs, cars, and people - could possibly not exist and are referred to as contingent beings. They depend upon something outside of themselves for their existence.

So premise 1 is saying that every entity which exists is either a necessary being or a contingent being. This is clearly the case, so the universe, which is of course an existing entity, is either a necessary being or a contingent being. It's possible, however, that the universe not exist. Indeed, there was a state of affairs, apart from the Big Bang, in which it did not exist. Therefore, the universe is contingent, and its explanation must be found outside of itself.

Now, there's much more that could be said about premise 1. There are objections that have been raised, and answered, to the claim that the universe is contingent, but I think it fair to say here that the contingency of the universe is by far the consensus view among philosophers who attend to the matter. It's difficult to imagine that the universe is necessary, i.e. the sort of thing that could not not exist.

Thus we're left to defend premise 4 which certainly seems to commit the fallacy of begging the question. That is, it seems to be stating the very thing the argument strives to conclude. As we'll see the next time, though, so far from begging the question, premise 4 simply affirms what most atheists say all the time.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Premoderns, Moderns, and Postmoderns (Pt.III)

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

Bottum writes that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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