Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Realists and Idealists

As everyone knows, words mean different things in different contexts. In philosophy, if one is a "realist" she believes that some entity under consideration - e.g. the physical world, moral values, numbers - has objective existence independently of us. The entity exists whether we perceive it, or believe it, or not. There are those, however, who believe that the physical world, for example, is a construct of a mind, that it has no objective reality. These folks are called "idealists." The color, flavor, odor, texture, and coolness of an apple are all ideas in the mind, and since the apple is simply the sum of these ideas the apple, too, is an idea in the mind of the one who is experiencing it. In other words, for idealists the world is like pain in the sense that it's reality is subjective.

In politics, though, the words "realism" and "idealism" take on a somewhat different meaning. A friend and colleague sent me an interesting article from the UK Telegraph which explains the distinction between realists and idealists in a foreign policy context:
How do you distinguish a foreign policy "idealist" from a "realist," an optimist from a pessimist? Ask one question: Do you believe in the arrow of history? Or to put it another way, do you think history is cyclical or directional? Are we condemned to do the same damn thing over and over, generation after generation -- or is there hope for some enduring progress in the world order?
This is one of the defining distinctions between liberals and conservatives. Liberals tend to see mankind as potentially perfectable and progressing toward a quasi-utopian historical Omega point. Conservatives tend to see mankind as quasi-incorrigible and thus caught in a kind of Nietzschean eternal recurrence:
For realists, generally conservative, history is an endless cycle of clashing power politics. The same patterns repeat. Only the names and places change. The best we can do in our own time is to defend ourselves, managing instability and avoiding catastrophe. But expect nothing permanent, no essential alteration in the course of human affairs.

The idealists believe otherwise. They believe that the international system can eventually evolve out of its Hobbesian state of nature into something more humane and hopeful. What is usually overlooked is that this hopefulness for achieving a higher plane of global comity comes in two flavors -- one liberal, one conservative.
Not all idealists are liberals or progressives. Some are "neo-conservative." These believe that man's nature, though bent toward evil, can be moderated by the imposition of liberty and democracy. Here's how the Telegraph puts the distinction:
The liberal variety (as practiced, for example, by the Bill Clinton administration) believes that the creation of a dense web of treaties, agreements, transnational institutions and international organizations (like the U.N., NGOs, the World Trade Organization) can give substance to a cohesive community of nations that would, in time, ensure order and stability.

The conservative view (often called neoconservative and dominant in the George W. Bush years) is that the better way to ensure order and stability is not through international institutions, which are flimsy and generally powerless, but through the spread of democracy. Because, in the end, democracies are inherently more inclined to live in peace.

Liberal internationalists count on globalization, neoconservatives on democratization to get us to the sunny uplands of international harmony. But what unites them is the belief that such uplands exist and are achievable. Both believe in the perfectibility, if not of man, then of the international system. Both believe in the arrow of history.
So what's the realist view?
For realists, this is a comforting delusion that gives high purpose to international exertions where none exists. Sovereign nations remain in incessant pursuit of power and self-interest. The pursuit can be carried out more or less wisely. But nothing fundamentally changes.
The Telegraph article goes on to give examples - most pertinently, President Obama:
Barack Obama is a classic case study in foreign policy idealism. Indeed, one of his favorite quotations is about the arrow of history: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." He has spent nearly eight years trying to advance that arc of justice. Hence his initial "apology tour," that burst of confessional soul-searching abroad about America and its sins, from slavery to the loss of our moral compass after 9/11. Friday's trip to Hiroshima completes the arc.

Unfortunately, with "justice" did not come peace. The policies that followed -- appeasing Vladimir Putin, the Iranian mullahs, the butchers of Tiananmen Square and lately the Castros -- have advanced neither justice nor peace. On the contrary. The consequent withdrawal of American power, that agent of injustice or at least arrogant overreach, has yielded nothing but geopolitical chaos and immense human suffering. (See Syria.)
The article concludes by noting that Mr. Obama seems to have been at least somewhat disabused of his idealism by his encounters with the intransigent and incorrigible leaders in Syria and China who don't seem to share his progressive view of things.

Be that all as it may, the liberal version of idealism seems so divorced from our historical experience and so contrary to human nature as to be literally incredible. The neo-conservative version of idealism that holds that people yearn to be free and would enthusiastically embrace democracy if only given the opportunity seems in the aftermath of the Iraq war to be almost equally at odds with the way the world is.

By way of personal confession I acknowledge that prior to the Iraq war I agreed with the neo-con view but have since accepted the bitter fact that democracy and freedom aren't as highly prized by Muslim Middle-Easterners as they are by Christian and secular Westerners. Some soils just don't seem suitable for the germination of democratic institutions based on individual freedom.

Thus, despite the promptings of our heart to embrace the optimism and hope of the idealist, reason urges us to shun the naivete that idealism requires and look at human beings as the realist sees them - flawed, fallen, often irrational and even more often prone to disappoint our most romantic, idealistic hopes.

Monday, May 30, 2016

On Memorial Day We Remember

On Memorial Day we remember the sacrifices and character of men like those described in these accounts from the war in Iraq:
A massive truck bomb had turned much of the Fort Lewis soldiers’ outpost to rubble. One of their own lay dying and many others wounded. Some 50 al-Qaida fighters were attacking from several directions with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. It was obvious that the insurgents had come to drive the platoon of Stryker brigade troops out of Combat Outpost Tampa, a four-story concrete building overlooking a major highway through western Mosul, Iraq.

“It crossed my mind that that might be what they were going to try to do,” recalled Staff Sgt. Robert Bernsten, one of 40 soldiers at the outpost that day. “But I wasn’t going to let that happen, and looking around I could tell nobody else in 2nd platoon was going to let that happen, either.”

He and 10 other soldiers from the same unit – the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment – would later be decorated for their valor on this day of reckoning, Dec. 29, 2004. Three were awarded the Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest award for heroism in combat. When you combine those medals with two other Silver Star recipients involved in different engagements, the battalion known as “Deuce Four” stands in elite company. The Army doesn’t track the number of medals per unit, but officials said there could be few, if any, other battalions in the Iraq war to have so many soldiers awarded the Silver Star.

“I think this is a great representation of our organization,” said the 1-24’s top enlisted soldier, Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Prosser, after a battalion award ceremony late last month at Fort Lewis. “There are so many that need to be recognized. … There were so many acts of heroism and valor.”

The fight for COP Tampa came as Deuce Four was just two months into its yearlong mission in west Mosul. The battalion is part of Fort Lewis’ second Stryker brigade. In the preceding weeks, insurgents had grown bolder in their attacks in the city of 2 million. Just eight days earlier, a suicide bomber made his way into a U.S. chow hall and killed 22 people, including two from Deuce Four.

The battalion took over the four-story building overlooking the busy highway and set up COP Tampa after coming under fire from insurgents holed up there. The troops hoped to stem the daily roadside bombings of U.S. forces along the highway, called route Tampa. Looking back, the Dec. 29 battle was a turning point in the weeks leading up to Iraq’s historic first democratic election.

The enemy “threw everything they had into this,” Bernsten said. “And you know in the end, they lost quite a few guys compared to the damage they could do to us. “They didn’t quit after that, but they definitely might have realized they were up against something a little bit tougher than they originally thought.”

The battle for COP Tampa was actually two fights – one at the outpost, and the other on the highway about a half-mile south.

About 3:20 p.m., a large cargo truck packed with 50 South African artillery rounds and propane tanks barreled down the highway toward the outpost, according to battalion accounts.

Pfc. Oscar Sanchez, on guard duty in the building, opened fire on the truck, killing the driver and causing the explosives to detonate about 75 feet short of the building. Sanchez, 19, was fatally wounded in the blast. Commanders last month presented his family with a Bronze Star for valor and said he surely saved lives. The enormous truck bomb might have destroyed the building had the driver been able to reach the ground-floor garages.

As it was, the enormous explosion damaged three Strykers parked at the outpost and wounded 17 of the 40 or so soldiers there, two of them critically.

Bernsten was in a room upstairs. “It threw me. It physically threw me. I opened my eyes and I’m laying on the floor a good 6 feet from where I was standing a split second ago,” he said. “There was nothing but black smoke filling the building.” People were yelling for each other, trying to find out if everyone was OK.

“It seemed like it was about a minute, and then all of a sudden it just opened up from everywhere. Them shooting at us. Us shooting at them,” Bernsten said. The fight would rage for the next two hours. Battalion leaders said videotape and documents recovered later showed it was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq fighters. They were firing from rooftops, from street corners, from cars, Bernsten said.

Eventually, Deuce Four soldiers started to run low on ammunition. Bernsten, a squad leader, led a team of soldiers out into the open, through heavy fire, to retrieve more from the damaged Strykers. “We went to the closest vehicle first and grabbed as much ammo as we could, and got it upstairs and started to distribute it,” he said. “When you hand a guy a magazine and they’re putting the one you just handed them into their weapon, you realize they’re getting pretty low. So we knew we had to go back out there for more.”

He didn’t necessarily notice there were rounds zipping past as he and the others ran the 100 feet or so to the Strykers. “All you could see was the back of the Stryker you were trying to get to.”

Another fight raged down route Tampa, where a convoy of six Strykers, including the battalion commander’s, had rolled right into a field of hastily set roadside bombs. The bombs hadn’t been there just five minutes earlier, when the convoy had passed by going the other way after a visit to the combat outpost. It was an ambush set up to attack whatever units would come to the aid of COP Tampa.

Just as soldiers in the lead vehicle radioed the others that there were bombs in the road, the second Stryker was hit by a suicide car bomber. Staff Sgt. Eddieboy Mesa, who was inside, said the blast tore off the slat armor cage and equipment from the right side of the vehicle, and destroyed its tires and axles and the grenade launcher mounted on top. But no soldiers were seriously injured.

Insurgents opened fire from the west and north of the highway. Stryker crewmen used their .50-caliber machine guns and grenade launchers to destroy a second car bomb and two of the bombs rigged in the roadway. Three of the six Strykers pressed on to COP Tampa to join the fight.

One, led by battalion operations officer Maj. Mark Bieger, loaded up the critically wounded and raced back onto the highway through the patch of still-unstable roadside bombs. It traveled unescorted the four miles or so to a combat support hospital. Bieger and his men are credited with saving the lives of two soldiers.

Then he and his men turned around and rejoined the fight on the highway. Bieger was one of those later awarded the Silver Star. Meantime, it was left to the soldiers still on the road to defend the heavily damaged Stryker and clear the route of the remaining five bombs.

Staff Sgt. Wesley Holt and Sgt. Joseph Martin rigged up some explosives and went, under fire, from bomb to bomb to prepare them for demolition. They had no idea whether an insurgent was watching nearby, waiting to detonate the bombs. Typically, this was the kind of situation where infantry soldiers would call in the ordnance experts. But there was no time, Holt said.

“You could see the IEDs right out in the road. I knew it was going to be up to us to do it,” Holt said. “Other units couldn’t push through. The colonel didn’t want to send any more vehicles through the kill zone until we could clear the route.” And so they prepared their charges under the cover of the Strykers, then ran out to the bombs, maybe 50 yards apart. The two men needed about 30 seconds to rig each one as incoming fire struck around them.

“You could hear it [enemy fire] going, but where they were landing I don’t know,” Holt said. “You concentrate on the main thing that’s in front of you.” He and Martin later received Silver Stars.

The route clear, three other Deuce Four platoons moved out into the neighborhoods and F/A-18 fighter jets made more than a dozen runs to attack enemy positions with missiles and cannon fire. “It was loud, but it was a pretty joyous sound,” Bernsten said. “You know that once that’s happened, you have the upper hand in such a big way. It’s like the cavalry just arrived, like in the movies.”

Other soldiers eventually received Bronze Stars for their actions that day, too.

Sgt. Christopher Manikowski and Sgt. Brandon Huff pulled wounded comrades from their damaged Strykers and carried them over open ground, under fire, to the relative safety of the building.

Sgt. Nicholas Furfari and Spc. Dennis Burke crawled out onto the building’s rubbled balcony under heavy fire to retrieve weapons and ammunition left there after the truck blast.

Also decorated with Bronze Stars for their valor on Dec. 29 were Lt. Jeremy Rockwell and Spc. Steven Sosa. U.S. commanders say they killed at least 25 insurgents. Deuce Four left the outpost unmanned for about three hours that night, long enough for engineers to determine whether it was safe to re-enter. Troops were back on duty by morning, said battalion commander Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla.

In the next 10 months, insurgents would continue to attack Deuce Four troops in west Mosul with snipers, roadside bombs and suicide car bombs. But never again would they mass and attempt such a complex attack.

Heroics on two other days earned Silver Stars for Deuce Four.

It was Aug. 19, and Sgt. Major Robert Prosser’s commander, Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla, had been shot down in front of him. Bullets hit the ground and walls around him. Prosser charged under fire into a shop, not knowing how many enemy fighters were inside. There was one, and Prosser shot him four times in the chest, then threw down his empty rifle and fought hand-to-hand with the man.

The insurgent pulled Prosser’s helmet over his eyes. Prosser got his hands onto the insurgent’s throat, but couldn’t get a firm grip because it was slick with blood.

Unable to reach his sidearm or his knife, and without the support of any other American soldiers Prosser nonetheless disarmed and subdued the insurgent by delivering a series of powerful blows to the insurgent’s head, rendering the man unconscious.

Another Silver Star recipient, Staff Sgt. Shannon Kay, received the award for his actions on Dec. 11, 2004. He helped save the lives of seven members of his squad after they were attacked by a suicide bomber and insurgents with rockets and mortars at a traffic checkpoint.

He and others used fire extinguishers to save their burning Stryker vehicle and killed at least eight enemy fighters. Throughout the fight, Kay refused medical attention despite being wounded in four places.
For men like these and the millions of others whose courage and sacrifice have for two hundred and fifty years enabled the rest of us to live in relative freedom and security, we should all thank God.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Terrorism and Drone Strikes

One of the frequently-heard objections to the policy of using drone strikes to take out terrorist targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere is that such strikes sometimes collaterally kill innocent civilians, a misfortune which only inspires hatred among the population and serves as an effective recruiting tool for terrorist organizations.

I always thought this argument, like it's cousin - the argument that keeping terrorists in Guantanamo Bay prison enrages Muslims around the world to the point where they want to blow themselves up - was ridiculous (how does Guantanamo Bay compare, for example, to the average prison in the Muslim world?).

Now there's confirmation of my suspicions, From The Daily Caller:
Surveys of a Pakistani population closely affected by U.S. drone strikes found overwhelming support for the strikes, along with a belief drones are accurate and rarely result in civilian casualties.

The findings stand in stark contrast to larger surveys that have found widespread opposition to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, and to the “blowback” theory that the strikes lead to further radicalization of local populations and too often result in civilian deaths.

Writing in The Washington Post, professor and scholar Aqil Shah explains how he conducted 147 interviews with adult residents of North Waziristan in 2015 in an effort to find out what the people located close to the strikes think about the program. Shah found a 79 percent of the tribal elders, reporters, lawyers, activists and others interviewed support U.S. drone strikes, and that 64 percent believe the strikes accurately target militants.

“Most respondents support drone strikes,” Shah wrote in The Washington Post. “This is not to say that America’s drone campaign is ‘winning hearts and minds,’ to borrow that imperious slogan of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine. Instead, locals approve of drone attacks because they viscerally hate the militants and feel betrayed by their own government.”

As for non-militants caught in the crossfire, according to one key part of Shah’s write up, “Over two-thirds of respondents said that most of the non-militant civilians who die in drone attacks are known militant sympathizers or collaborators who may already be radicalized.”

The survey is not statistically representative of the whole population, but does represent the most comprehensive survey of a local population actually affected by the strikes, according to Shah. Most of the polling and information on Pakistanis opinions of the program are based on much broader surveys that disproportionately vocalize the opinions of urban residents largely unaffected [by drone attacks].
The article goes on to make another interesting point. If having one's family members killed moves one to be radicalized, why hasn't the population in Waziristan and elsewhere been radicalized against the militants who've probably killed more Muslims than has the Western coalition?

Anyway, the proponents of the "blowback" theory might well be asked to state their alternative to surgically decapitating the terrorist leadership from the air. There seem to be only three other options: 1. Seek to negotiate with the bad guys; 2. Do nothing; 3. Send in massive numbers of ground troops to root out the bad guys. Alternative 1. seems doomed to failure. Alternative 2. amounts to surrender to terrorism, and alternative 3. would be extremely costly in American blood and treasure, globally unpopular, and would probably result in far more innocent deaths than have coalition drone strikes.

MQ-9 Reaper
President Obama has dropped the ball on numerous occasions in his conduct of foreign policy, but his tactic of using drone strikes to kill the enemy seems to make more sense than any of the available alternatives.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Summer Reading

Thinking of some books to read over the summer, maybe while lolling about on the beach? If you like crime novels, mystery, and intellectual stimulation all wrapped in one package why not consider In the Absence of God and/or its companion novel Bridging the Abyss? Both of them offer an array of philosophical/theological ideas for you to ponder while you get drawn in to the drama that threads through both stories.

You can click on the buttons at the upper right of this page for more information on these books. I hope you'll give them a look and that, if you do, you'll share your thoughts about them with me. Thanks, and best wishes for a great summer.

Not Enough Evidence

The famous atheist philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell was once asked to suppose that he'd died and found himself face to face with God who asked him to account for his lack of belief. What, Russell was asked, would he say? Russell's reply was a curt, "Not enough evidence."

This has been a common response to similar questions for centuries. The unbeliever argues that the burden of proof is on the believer to demonstrate that God does exist. Failing that, the rational course is to suspend belief.

In the lapidary words of 19th century writer William Clifford, "It is always wrong, everywhere and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence." Of course, Clifford would presumably want to exempt his own statement for which there's no evidence whatsoever.

In any case, a claim for which their was no conceivable empirical test was considered meaningless since there was no way to ascertain its truth or falsity. This evidentialism or verificationism, as it was called, enjoyed considerable popularity back in the 1930s and 40s among those who wanted to make the deliverances of science the touchstone for meaningfulness, but it eventually fell into disfavor among both philosophers and scientists because, rigorously applied, it excluded a lot of what scientists wanted to believe were meaningful claims (for example, the claim that life originated through purely physical processes with no intelligent input from a Divine mind).

But set the verificationist view aside. Is there, in fact, a paucity of evidence for the existence of God or at least a being very much like God? It hardly seems so. Philosopher William Lane Craig has debated atheists all around the globe using four or five arguments that have proven to be exceedingly difficult for his opponents to refute. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga expands the menu to a couple dozen good arguments for theism.

So how is this plenitude of evidence greeted by non-believers? Some take refuge in the claim that none of these is proof that God exists, and until there's proof the atheist is within his epistemic rights to withhold belief, but this response is so much octopus ink. The demand for proof is misplaced. Our beliefs are not based on proof in the sense of apodictic certainty. If they were there'd be precious little we'd believe about anything. They're based rather on an intuition of probability. The more probable it is that an assertion is true the more firmly we tend to believe it. Indeed, it's rational to believe what is more likely to be true than what is less likely.

Could it be more likely, though, that God doesn't exist? There really is only one argument that can be adduced in support of this anti-theistic position, and though it's psychologically strong it's philosophically inconclusive. This is the argument based on the amount of suffering in the world. When one is in the throes of grief one is often vulnerable to skepticism about the existence of a good God, but when emotions are set aside and the logic of the argument analyzed objectively, the argument falters (see here and here for a discussion).

This is not to say that the argument is without merit, only that it doesn't have as much power to compel assent as it may appear prima facie to possess. Moreover, the argument from suffering (or evil) can only justify an atheistic conclusion if, on balance, it outweighs in probability all the other arguments that support theism, but this is a pretty difficult task for an inconclusive argument to accomplish.

Actually, it seems likely that at least some who reject the theistic arguments do so because they simply don't want to believe that God exists, and nothing, no matter how dispositive, will persuade them otherwise. Even if God were to appear to them, a phenomenon some skeptics say they'd accept as proof, they could, and probably would, still write the prodigy off as an hallucination, a conjuring trick, or the consequence of a bad digestion. In other words, it's hard to imagine what evidence would convince someone who simply doesn't want to believe. Jesus himself once said precisely this (see Luke 16:19-31).

I'm reminded of something the mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal said some three hundred and fifty years ago. He was talking about religion, but what he said about religion is probably just as germane to the existence of God. He wrote in his Pensees that, "Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it is true."

The "not enough evidence" demurral is in some instances, perhaps, a polite way of manifesting the sentiment Pascal identified.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Above the Law

Guy Benson at Townhall dissects the State Department's Inspector General's disclosures concerning the IG's investigation of Secretary Clinton's use of a private email server. It turns out that she didn't just flout a few State Department regulations, she also violated federal law and has thereby is in jeopardy of having committed a felony:
The new, damning report directly refutes a number of insistent statements Mrs. Clinton and her allies have issued over the last 15 months. Many of her assertions at an initial press conference in March 2015 have been demonstrably proven to be inaccurate and deceitful. The list of falsehoods has now expanded.

The report concluded that Clinton violated the agency’s email rules when she chose to exclusively use a private email server during her four years at State Department and did not promptly turn over records after she departed the agency.

“At a minimum, Secretary Clinton should have surrendered all emails dealing with Department business before leaving government service and, because she did not do so, she did not comply with the Department’s policies that were implemented in accordance with the Federal Records Act.”

An official at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the former acting director of the CIA, and the former Secretary of Defense have all said that it's a virtual certainty that hostile foreign governments were able to access Clinton's unsecure server.

I'll leave you with a few refreshers: Hillary Clinton claimed none of the emails on her bootleg server were classified, and that she personally didn't send any classified materials. There were, in fact, more than 2,000 classified emails on that server, including top secret and above top secret information -- with dozens that were classified at the time (she signed a sworn agreement to protect all secret data, regardless of whether it was marked as such). She personally sent more than 100 of them.

Hillary Clinton was explicitly warned, and acknowledged the warning, that her improper and vulnerable email arrangement endangered sensitive material in 2011. Undeterred by the clear threat her behavior posed, she carried on with her reckless system through the end of her tenure. Hillary Clinton has lied about nearly every facet of this story, from start to finish. Soon, the Obama Justice Department will have to determine whether her conduct was grossly negligent, and therefore criminal.
By using a secret, unsanctioned, and unsecured private e-mail server, housed in a bathroom, for official State Department correspondence, Clinton put the lives of numerous Americans at risk, the IG report found.

We also learn from the IG's report what we already knew, viz. that she lied to just about everyone about almost every aspect of her use of this private server and utterly refused to cooperate in the investigation.

One final observation: The Clinton's have consistently imputed accusations of their wrong-doing to partisan political enemies trying to smear them, the "vast right-wing conspiracy" as Mrs. Clinton famously described it, but that dodge isn't open to them on this one. This is the Obama State Department.

Exit questions:

1. Will the Obama Justice Department set ideology and politics aside and abide by the rule of law and indict Mrs. Clinton?

2. If Mrs. Clinton is convicted after she's elected president can she pardon herself?

3. If she's convicted would Senate Democrats have the moral fiber to take a stand on principle and vote against her if the House impeaches her?

I suspect the answer to all three questions is No. Is it unreasonable to think so?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Astrobiology

A wit once described astrobiology - the study of life elsewhere in the universe - as a discipline without a subject matter.

Be that as it may, prolific science writer and cosmologist Paul Davies has a short piece at the Scientific American blog in which he demurs to the prevailing Zeitgeist on the question of life elsewhere in the cosmos. He writes:
When I was a student in the 1960s almost all scientists believed we are alone in the universe. The search for intelligent life beyond Earth was ridiculed; one might as well have professed an interest in looking for fairies. The focus of skepticism concerned the origin of life, which was widely assumed to have been a chemical fluke of such incredibly low probability it would never have happened twice.

“The origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle,” was the way Francis Crick described it, “so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.” Jacques Monod concurred; in his 1976 book Chance and Necessity he wrote, “Man knows at last that he is alone in the indifferent immensity of the universe, whence which he has emerged by chance.”

Today the pendulum has swung decisively the other way. Many distinguished scientists proclaim that the universe is teeming with life, at least some of it intelligent. The biologist Christian de Duve went so far as to call life “a cosmic imperative.” Yet the science has hardly changed. We are almost as much in the dark today about the pathway from non-life to life as Darwin was when he wrote, “It is mere rubbish thinking at present of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.”
It is interesting that so many people have come to believe that life is common in the universe even though so much of what we've learned about the conditions necessary for life to exist anywhere has actually decreased the likelihood that it exists anywhere but here. There are two reasons, I think, for the change in opinion on this question. One is philosophical and the other is scientific, and the latter is pressed into service to reinforce the former.

Davies touches on the scientific reason:
There is no doubt that SETI – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – has received a huge fillip from the recent discovery of hundreds of extra-solar planets. Astronomers think there could be billions of earthlike planets in our galaxy alone. Clearly there is no lack of habitable real estate out there.
The fact that there are so many planets, some of which might be habitable, floating about in the ether has caused scientists and others to hope that, given so many opportunities, life just has to exist on some of them. This, however, is not necessarily so. If the chances that life could arise through purely mechanistic, physical processes is astronomically high, as some have alleged (though Davies argues that such probabilities can't be determined), then even if there are billions of habitable planets that's still not enough to guarantee that life exists on any of them. Here's Davies:
Another common argument is that the universe is so vast there just has to be life out there somewhere. But what does that statement mean? If we restrict attention to the observable universe there are probably 10^23 planets. Yes, that’s a big number. But it is dwarfed by the odds against forming even simple organic molecules by random chance alone. If the pathway from chemistry to biology is long and complicated, it may well be that less than one in a trillion trillion planets ever spawns life.
There's more at the link. I said above that there were, in my opinion, two reasons why many think life exists elsewhere - one scientific, the other philosophical. The philosophical reason is that materialism would be given a shot of adrenalin were life to be found throughout the cosmos, and, since many scientists are materialists, they dearly long for that shot.

If it could be shown that life can be confected wherever suitable conditions exist it would give a psychological boost to the materialist's fundamental claim that no intelligences, divine or otherwise, are necessary to explain life. Of course, logically, even if life were to be found on every other planet in the entire universe it would do nothing to dispel the claim of theists that a divine intelligence was indeed necessary to produce it, but what materialists are hoping for is psychological support for their non-theistic metaphysical assumptions, not logical proof, which is probably unattainable in any case.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The State of the War

Ronald Tiersky, at Real Clear Politics, draws on Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese war strategist, for advice on defeating ISIS. One particularly informative excerpt in a very interesting piece overall is this:
The war against the Islamic State turned in favor of coalition forces late last year. Right now it’s probably going better than the public is being told. An outsider such as this writer can be provocative: In spite of several spectacular terrorist bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere, the Islamic State’s situation in the Middle East looks grim. Possibly fewer than 20,000 or even 15,000 fighters with a decimated leadership structure are hunkered down in defensive occupation positions over a large territory, essentially waiting to be attacked and killed.

Only specialists remember the frighteningly plausible map issued two years ago revealing ISIS’s ambition to conquer most of the Middle East, Eurasia, and North Africa, or its plan to overthrow the House of Saud and incite internecine war in Muslim countries. The likelihood of such events unfolding has abated to zero, and even the mediatized individual and mass beheadings no longer keep international opinion awake at night.

What advice would Sun Tzu give concerning a plan for anti-Islamic State coalition military operations? A few more aphorisms from “The Art of War”: Instill confusion and conflict in the enemy, “throw them into disarray … Wait for them to become decadent and lazy … Cause division among them,” and disorganize their internal unity by working to intensify conflicts among their leaders, their fighters, and among each other.

Disorient leadership and chain of command and communication (which is already being done rather successfully). Sun Tzu also advises disrupting their “system of rewards and punishments.” Act surreptitiously to encourage killing among them. If punishments are immoderate, “there will be slaughter that does not result in awe.” Crucially, encourage conflict between those who, abandoning the ideology of martyrdom, at this point want to live, and those who will insist on being killed.

Use old tactics and new: Drop leaflets and use social media to demoralize fighters and give heart to the local population. Hack and troll their social media operations -- this is much more important than de-radicalization propaganda. Emphasize over and over again that the cause is lost and that ISIS has become a historic disgrace of Islam rather than its resurrection.

Detail how many top leaders have been killed and give names. (Local fighters may be uninformed.) Emphasize the decline in number of new recruits (now reportedly 200 monthly, down from 2000 in 2014-2015). Emphasize the dismemberment of ISIS’s international terrorist network in Europe. Show that the strategic retreat to Libya is not succeeding. Emphasize deadly drone strikes by the United States, with dozens killed at a time.

The strategic goal is to eliminate the choice the leaders set at the beginning: only victory or a martyr’s death. Denying Islamic State this “success” -- i.e. they win even if they lose -- is the formula for getting them to move, to do something. Sitting under siege with no hope of new success [is a] drag on fighters’ enthusiasm.
It certainly seems to be true that ISIS is a spent force struggling to hold on to a portion of the territory they conquered in Iraq and Syria two years ago, but a spent force can still perpetrate horrors on the populations they do control. To get an idea of the depravity of the savages preying on helpless victims under the banner of the Islamic State see here, here, and here.

In case you don't have the time to check out the links the first describes how ISIS executed 25 suspected spies by lowering them into a vat of nitric acid. The second describes how they tortured children who were suspected of having insulted Allah, which is ironic since the greatest insult to Allah has to be their invocation of him to justify their atrocities. Indeed, there's no evil so extreme that these loathsome orcs are not capable of it.

If even pacifists like Albert Einstein thought it was important in the 1930s and 40s to defeat Hitler, how much more important is it that the world unite to defeat the Islamic barbarians whose cruelties would have repulsed even the Nazis.

Monday, May 23, 2016

What Socialism Has Achieved

Bernie Sanders supporters, indeed, Democrats in general would do well to read this article in the UK Telegraph about what's happening today in Venezuela. Venezuela is a once-prosperous country which, having been run by socialists since 1998, stands today on the brink of utter ruin. The calamity is the consequence of a conflation of socialist economic policies and the collapse of oil revenues, each exacerbating the other. Here are some excerpts from the Telegraph's report:
Led by Hugo Chávez, the country’s firebrand former president, the country embarked on a wave of expropriation and redistribution with the charismatic leader offering cut-price fridges, appliances and even new homes to poor Venezuelans.

Chávez wanted to create a socialist paradise, an ideology that has been reinforced by his successor [Nicolas] Maduro following his death in 2013.

But the oil price collapse a year later served as a wake-up call for a country that chose profligacy over prudence in the hope that a rainy day would never come.

Oil accounts for 98% of total exports and 59% of fiscal revenues, but Moya-Ocampos says the price slide isn’t the country’s only problem.

“Even under Chavez and $100 a barrel oil, debt was rapidly rising and there were already food shortages,” he says, “This is ultimately to do with an interventionist model that is not sustainable and has reached a tipping point.”

Maduro’s declaration of a fresh three month state of emergency has sparked fears that the government will try to seize control of more private companies.

Many Venezuelans have already left the country, including Francisco Flores. “Venezuela has taken good working companies, given them to the poor but not equipped them with the skills to run them so they go bankrupt,” he says. “That’s just a recipe for destroying a country.”

The NHS therapist, who now lives in London, says the regime is based on a principle of keeping everyone “equal but poor”.

“This way, the state becomes a nanny and everyone loses the power to do anything because they are so dependent on it.”

Venezuela is now suffering from the effects of a deep recession and hyperinflation as the government prints money to try to plug a gap between revenues and spending that is on course to hit 25% of gross domestic product (GDP) next year.
The principle of keeping everyone "equal but poor" could be said to be what animates much of our own Democratic party which has drifted far to the ideological left since the days of John F. Kennedy. It certainly seems to be the consequence of, if not the motivation behind, certain of Barack Obama's policies as well as the economic philosophy of Bernie Sanders.

I wonder how many Venezuelans thought, when they voted for Chavez, that they were voting for "A Future to Believe In." It would be good to take the time to read the rest of the article. It could be a portent of our own future if we continue rambling down the path of big government socialism.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

What's the Difference?

NBC News reports that on his death bed former Senator Robert Bennett told his son that he desired to apologize to any Muslims who might be in the vicinity for the "anti-Muslim" rhetoric of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Trump has been roundly criticized for voicing an opinion, probably shared by many, actually, that not vetting Muslim refugees before allowing them into the country is foolish. The president took an oblique slap at Trump when he declared in a rcent graduation speech that voicing serious concerns about Muslim immigration is "not who we are."

Well, yes and no.

Surely we should not hate Muslims. Surely we should help those who are suffering from the Syrian civil war (although it would be nice if the Obama administration showed as much concern for Syrian Christians who are the object of ISIS's genocidal cruelty as he does Syrian Muslims), and yet .... and I know someone whose reading comprehension languishes at elementary school levels is going to accuse me of hatefulness and bigotry here .... it must be said that there's an awful lot of twaddle being circulated about this issue.

Let's do a thought experiment: Suppose a liberal progressive, someone who is appalled by Trump's "Islamophobic" rhetoric, were to learn that hundreds of thousands of members of some white supremicist group, say, the Ku Klux Klan, were being imported into the country, and that many would be resettled in that liberal's community. Would he or she not find this to be at least a little unsettling? Would anyone think it scandalously bigoted to express anxiety that bigots, abetted by the government, were going to be populating one's schools and neighborhoods? Would anyone think it hateful if someone voiced reservations about KKKers moving in next door?

Probably not. In fact, our newspapers would doubtless be running editorials condemning the beliefs of the KKKers and saying things like "their beliefs have no place in our community," and "people like this aren't who we are." They certainly wouldn't be lecturing us on how we should accept the Klan with open arms and embrace the new arrivals in the name of cultural diversity.

And yet - tell me what I'm missing - I'm hard-pressed to find much significant difference between the beliefs of the average Klan member, at least one of whom I've known personally, and the average devout Muslim, several of whom I've known personally.

Both tend to be xenophobic, they're both often anti-semitic, they both reject belief in human equality, and they both consider homosexuality to be a contemptible perversion. Let us grant that neither the average Klansman nor the average devout Muslim would perpetrate violence on those with whom they disagree, yet probably neither would be terribly outraged if someone else did.

In fact, the average devout Muslim holds views that most liberals find much more offensive than they do the views of the average Klan member. Many pious Muslims, for example, are extremely patriarchal, treating women as second class human beings. They think homosexuals should be executed, and are scornful of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the concept of the separation of church and state.

This is not just how radical extremists think, it's how many mainstream Muslims view the world as Muslims themselves are happy to acknowledge:
So, my question to my liberal friends is this: If profound concern over a policy that would increase the presence of white supremicists in one's community is understandable and proper, why is concern over a policy that increases the presence of devout Muslims an unconscionable manifestation of bigotry for which we should apologize? What's the salient difference? Help me out here.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Nothing to Boast About

Quick Quiz:

1. Which American President holds the record for the longest period of time during his presidency in which the nation was at continuous war?

2. Which American president has presided over the longest continuous period of economic stagnation since the Great Depression?

The answer to both questions is Barack Obama, but perhaps these dubious achievements should not be held against him. Consider that, on the positive side of the ledger, no president has done more to insure that your daughter can share a restroom with a grown man who thinks he's a woman.

Anyway, The New York Times expatiates on the first question:
President Obama came into office seven years ago pledging to end the wars of his predecessor, George W. Bush. On May 6, with eight months left before he vacates the White House, Mr. Obama passed a somber, little-noticed milestone: He has now been at war longer than Mr. Bush, or any other American president.

If the United States remains in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria until the end of Mr. Obama’s term — a near-certainty given the president’s recent announcement that he will send 250 additional Special Operations forces to Syria — he will leave behind an improbable legacy as the only president in American history to serve two complete terms with the nation at war.

Mr. Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and spent his years in the White House trying to fulfill the promises he made as an antiwar candidate, would have a longer tour of duty as a wartime president than Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon or his hero Abraham Lincoln.
If you're interested in reading about Mr. Obama's economic record there's this:
Obama will end eight years in office without presiding over a thriving economy of the sort America enjoyed in the past. It also suggests that even the mediocre growth of recent years depended on high oil prices, which have collapsed by more than half.

This is the bitter fruit of creationist economics, the erroneous belief that government activity can somehow conjure new wealth and value.

Obama clings to the belief he brought with him into office, that he can legislate and regulate economic activity into existence. He promoted and signed a much-touted stimulus law that gave taxpayers' money to items on a Democratic wish list and to well-connected businesses, while doling out microscopic tax refunds to some workers. Beyond that, Obama's economic policy has consisted of imposing greater burdens on business in the form of labor rulings, environmental regulations, and mandates that increase the cost of job creation.

Higher minimum wages, new mandatory health costs, obligatory paid leave, and new powers for corrupt labor unions all hamper economic growth. For workers to get a larger piece of pie, the pie must grow. And right now, it is growing by only five thousandths per year.
According to Louis Woodhill, growth during Obama's tenure places his near the bottom of American presidencies, an "accomplishment" made the more remarkable by the fact that he came into office during a recession which should have enabled him to achieve higher levels of growth than had he entered during a time of prosperity.

So why does Hillary Clinton think it's a good idea to campaign as the one candidate who'll continue Mr. Obama's economic legacy?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

50th Anniversary of a Horror

Helen Raleigh is a Chinese woman who lived through China's "Cultural Revolution" in the late 1960s and currently resides in the United States. Ms. Raleigh describes some of her personal experiences of the Revolution in a short essay at The Federalist.

Her story is not only one of pathos, tragedy and human cruelty, it's also a cautionary tale about what lies in store for a people whose government erases all individual freedom, all civil rights, and subordinates everything to the state. It describes the logical endpoint of the leftist, statist dream of total centralized control of every aspect of life.

She begins with this:
May 16 marked the 50-year anniversary of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, a movement that was probably the darkest chapter in China’s history. The name Cultural Revolution is very misleading. It should be called “Cultural Destruction,” as it aimed to control every aspect of an individual’s life: how much one could eat; what, if any, education one could get; whom one could work for; where one could live; what entertainment one could have; what thoughts one could have.

The Cultural Revolution brought ordinary people nothing but suffering. There was a shortage of everything: food, cooking oil, cloth, bicycles, and so on. Everything was rationed via stamps. For instance, every person, adult or child, received an allotment of three ounces of cooking oil each month. Meat was hard to come by. Families who were fortunate to get hold of some pork would use the pig lard to supplement cooking oil.
She goes on to describe some of the personal suffering and horrors her family faced during these years. It's a brief but gripping account which I hope you'll read.

If you do, keep in mind that political leaders in this country are not immune to the totalitarian virus which infected the Maoists in the communist Chinese government and drove them to perpetrate the horrors Raleigh recounts. The desire to squelch freedom is manifest in every bureaucratic edict from Washington and every executive order which by-passes the legislature and defies the will of the people. Every negotiation based on lies (like the Obamacare bill and the Iranian nuclear accord), every economic statistic which distorts the truth (like the unemployment numbers released by the White House), every speaker who's shouted down on university campuses, every governmental sanction placed on what you can say and do, and every speech by a political leader which presents just one side of the complete story, every instance of any of these is another step, if even just a small one, toward totalitarianism.

The temptation to arrogate power to oneself and to control others is powerful, and a supine, uniformed, apathetic citizenry which only cares about receiving more and more benefits and free stuff from the state makes it all the easier for the totalitarians on the ideological left to realize their dreams.

That's why it would be marvelous if George Orwell's novels were more widely read, especially in schools, than they are. Studying Animal Farm and 1984 would go a long way toward immunizing a citizenry against the machinations of the statists who think they can "transform the country" and engineer a utopia if only they managed to acquire sufficient control over the people.

Indeed, the corpses of one hundred million persons murdered in the twentieth century in pursuit of the totalitarian ideal in Europe, Asia, Africa, Central America, Cuba and elsewhere give silent testimony to the futility and blasphemy of their dream, yet they remain undeterred. They're determined to succeed no matter the human cost, nodding in agreement with Vladimir Lenin who declared that if you're going to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs, but everywhere these men have tried to build their totalitarian paradise they've created instead a hell. It will happen again if we let it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Guess Who Said This

Quick Quiz: Which prominent American politician said the following (I paraphrase):
[T]here are some areas that the federal government ... should address and address strongly. One of these areas is the problem of illegal immigration. After years of neglect, I will take a strong stand to stiffen the protection of our borders. I will increase border controls by 50 percent and increase inspections to prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants. I will also sign an executive order to deny federal contracts to businesses that hire illegal immigrants.

I want to be very clear about this: We are still a nation of immigrants; we should be proud of it. We should honor every legal immigrant here, working hard to become a new citizen. But we are also a nation of laws.
If you said Donald Trump give yourself an F. If you ascribed the passage to any Republican at all give yourself another F. The correct answer is President William Jefferson Clinton in his 1996 State of the Union address. You can see the video here.

It's funny that there was no apoplexy on the left when President Clinton promised to crack down on illegal immigration, but when Donald Trump, or anyone else for that matter, criticizes the Obama administration for not securing our border and allowing millions of illegal entrants into the country, progressives respond as though Trump had endorsed torturing puppies.

There's an interesting psychology at play in this double standard that can perhaps be summed up this way:

When a liberal Democrat says we need to enforce our immigration law he's principled. When a moderate Democrat says we need to enforce our immigration law she's practical. When a Republican says we need to enforce our immigration law he's a pig-headed bigot.

Or, to say the same thing, whether we agree with what's being proposed or done all depends on who it is who's proposing or doing it. This is, unfortunately, a kind of tribal thinking typical of adolescents and intellectual primitives, but it should have no place among those who lead our nation and influence its policy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A New Liberal Party

A friend wrote to commend to me a serious article by Robert Tracinski in The Federalist suggesting that conservatives create a third party, one that would embody the conservative principles the Republican party has abandoned. The idea has a lot of appeal for me, but a third party is not only quixotic, it undermines what I think to be the most important political priority at this point in our nation's history.

Before I explain let me give you a couple of excerpts from Tracinski's column:
[T]he two major parties are offering us historically unpopular candidates. A two-way contest between them is likely to be pretty close, but only because it’s so hard to tell which candidate is more repulsive. The only person Donald Trump could possibly beat is Hillary Clinton, and the only person Hillary Clinton could possibly beat is Donald Trump. That means a big chunk of voters might be looking for a palatable alternative.

Trump manages to alienate nearly every ideological faction of the Right: serious foreign-policy hawks who realize our allies are vitally important and Vladimir Putin isn’t one of them; religious conservatives who don’t trust Trump on abortion and still hold the quaint notion that a candidate’s personal character matters; free-marketers who don’t like big-government cronyism; pro-business Republicans who like trade and don’t like defaulting on the national debt.

That leaves us with the interesting question of what to call the potential new party. ... I want to make the case for an American right-of-center Liberal Party.

But wait, I hear you shout, the “liberals” in American politics are the Left! Yes, and that has been one of the great historical mistakes we need to correct. There’s nothing “liberal” about today’s Left.

That’s becoming increasingly obvious now that the Left is openly the faction of illiberalism, in favor of cracking down on personal freedom and autonomy in every area of life. They’ve always been the party of government intrusion in our economic lives. Now they’re also the party of feminist neo-Puritanism, repressive speech codes on campus, and “safe spaces” purged of ideological opposition. They’re the party of forcing people to bake cakes or dispense birth control in violation of their conscience and religious liberty.

the word “liberal” comes from the Latin word for “freedom.” To be the Liberal Party is to be the pro-freedom party. That’s how the word was historically understood and what it still means in much of the world.

Calling our new right-of-center party the Liberal Party would have the advantage of bringing a certain amount of confusion and disarray to our opponents on the Left. As I told a left-leaning friend today, part of the purpose of doing this is to make people like her uncertain about what to call themselves — to make them question whether they are truly “liberals” and what the idea even means. More to the point, part of the goal should be to entice centrist Democrats who still believe in freedom of speech and who haven’t quaffed Bernie’s socialist Kool-Aid. We should offer those people a new home as a moderate faction of the Liberal Party.

The point is to seize control of a name the Left has begun to abandon — they prefer to call themselves “progressives” now, despite being conspicuously opposed to most forms of economic and technological progress — and to steal an agenda they have turned against.

Let us openly fly the flag of our pro-freedom agenda by calling ourselves Liberals — and let’s set an agenda that will define the meaning of that word on our own terms. It might work a lot better, in the long run, than trying to rehabilitate the Republican Party after a loud-mouthed real-estate huckster is done running it into the ground.
I have to say that I'm torn. I agree with just about everything Tracinski says, and consider myself a candidate for membership in a new "Liberal" party, but I can't bring myself to concede this election to Hillary Clinton, which is what a third party comprised of conservatives would do. Trump is awful and may do awful things. Hillary is awful and certainly will do awful things.

Trump may do the right thing on Supreme Court appointments, immigration, national defense, Obamacare, and cabinet appointments. Hillary will almost surely give us more Elena Kagans and Sonia Sotomayors, open borders, impulsive foreign adventures like Libya and the Iranian nuclear deal, more government intrusion into our lives, and a cabinet stocked with left-wing ideologues like Van Jones, Loretta Lynch, Eric Holder, Lois Lerner, and John Koskinen. Her foreign and economic policies will be tailored to suit whomever has contributed the most money to her "charitable" Foundation. A Clinton administration will mean higher taxes and crony capitalism on steroids.

Moreover, she may well be abetted by a Democrat-controlled Senate led by Harry Reid or Chuck Schumer.

Given all that, plus the fact that Ms. Clinton may yet be indicted for felonies committed while Secretary of State, I think the more important project at this point in history is to stop Hillary rather than to devote resources to building a third party. Even so, I'd be happy to sign up after the election next November.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Male Chauvinist

The New York Times did a piece on Sunday, which, to the extent that it's accurate, seeks to enlighten us on Donald Trump's boorishness with women. The column is, ostensibly, an attempt to convince voters, particularly Democrat voters, that they really shouldn't be supporting such a cad. Fair enough. Trump is not my idea of a role model for American young men, and I find his behavior in general, not just toward women, to be appalling.

Having said that, though, it's ironic to the point of hypocrisy that the good liberal progressives at the Times are trying to persuade Democrats to shun Trump on the basis that he's a walking collection of chauvinistic microaggressions. After all, no one who supports or supported Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, LBJ, or JFK has any business telling anyone that they should eschew a candidate on the basis that he's a lout with women.

Trump's behavior will be a turn-off to a lot of social conservatives, to be sure, but liberal Democrats are not social conservatives. A lot of liberals didn't mind at all that each of the men listed above was pretty awful, and some were much worse than Trump. Indeed, Bill Clinton was not just a philanderer, he was credibly accused of sexual assault and rape, but progressives didn't care about that. He could be trusted to keep abortion legal and that was enough to justify their support. He may have been a man of deeply flawed character, but, we were repeatedly told, character doesn't count in a president, only competence counts. Now that Trump is the likely Republican nominee, however, liberals want everyone to think that character does count after all, that in fact it's paramount.

Of course, there's a problem in this for liberal Democrats because Trump's likely opponent has an ethical record even more odious than his own. Trump may have talked about women in ways that some might find offensive, for instance, but Hillary worked to destroy the reputations of women, the number of which was not inconsiderable, who made allegations of sexual impropriety against her husband. So, which is worse?

In this election it really does look like it will come down to voting for the lesser of two evils.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Believing in the Multiverse

Physicist and writer Brian Greene does a fine job of explaining the concept of the multiverse in a column at The Daily Beast.

In the piece he quotes Carl Sagan as saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and then tacitly acknowledges that there's not much evidence for the multiverse theory, so we're left to wonder why it has enjoyed so much popularity among some cosmologists.

Perhaps one reason is that the universe is comprised of forces and constants whose values are calibrated with unimaginably exact mathematical precision. If any of dozens of forces, like gravity, for instance, deviated in their strength from the tiniest amounts - one part in 10^40 in the case of gravity - the universe could not exist, or if it did it would not be the sort of place where living things could emerge.

It's mind-bendingly improbable that such precision would have emerged by sheer chance and there are thus only two viable explanations for it. Either the universe is the product of an intelligent engineering process or there are so many different universes, an infinite number, that one like ours would have to exist. Just as the probability of a blind-folded shooter hitting a postage stamp half a mile away is increased as the number of bullets fired increases, so, too, the chance of a universe like ours appearing increases as the number of different universes that are produced increases.

It seems odd that scientists would posit an explanation which requires the existence of so many entities for which there's so very little evidence, but consider that the only viable alternative is that the universe is the creation of an intentional agent, a God, and it's easier to understand why they do so. It is, at least for some of them, an act of metaphysical desperation. As physicist Bernard Carr once put it, "If you don't want God you better have a multiverse." They're the only two live options.

Anyway, it would be good to read Greene's article. It's written by a physicist who's sympathetic to the multiverse theory and, like much of his work, it's very lucid and accessible to the layman.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Insanity Continues

Jim Geraghty's Morning Jolt sums up pretty well one reason why there's contempt for liberal progressivism in general and the Obama administration in particular in many quarters of American society:
Your wages may not be up. Your 401(k) may be sputtering along. The murder rate in the country’s largest cities jumped 13 percent in the past year. A Federal Reserve Board survey finds 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage, and 47 percent say they couldn’t cover an unexpected $400 expense.

Children are starting to come across our southern border in greater numbers again, with fears of another surge coming this summer. Our immigration enforcement remains inexplicably lax; “In 2015, [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] freed 19,723 criminal aliens, who had a total of 64,197 convictions among them. These included 8,234 violent convictions and 208 homicide convictions; 124 criminal aliens released by ICE have subsequently been charged with homicide.”

But by golly, the Obama administration is not just sitting there!
What have they been doing, you ask? Why, just last night the Obama administration issued a directive to every public school in the nation "urging" them to make sure students are free to use whatever bathrooms match their gender identity or face punishment. Schools don't have to just provide facilities for transgendered students, mind you, they have to allow transgenders to use whatever facilities exist for students of the gender with which the transgendered student identifies.

As if public school employees didn't have enough problems, now they have to interrogate every male entering a girls' restroom (and vice-versa) to see if the students feel in their hearts that they're really a female (or male).

Here are some questions for the Solomonic bureaucrats in the Department of Education who have nothing better to do than to stick their meddlesome fingers into every local pie within their considerable reach: What criteria are school officials supposed to use to tell whether a student is telling the truth about their gender "identity"? How fluid is this identity? Can one feel he's a man today but identify as a woman tomorrow? Or an hour from now? How can anyone presume to tell the individual that he can't? Do we want to burden our already overburdened school officials with trying to sort through all this? Shouldn't applicants be required to pass an IQ test to get hired in the Department of Education?

Anyway, I can't think of a better way to guarantee that more parents will be opting out of the public school system in favor of private or home schooling than to tell them that their public school children will be sharing restrooms with students of the opposite sex. It'll also be interesting to see how many states will join Texas in suing the administration over this directive. I wonder, too, whether people will soon have had enough of Mr. Obama and his misbegotten efforts to fundamentally transform America.

Finally, I don't expect him to take advantage of it, but Mr. Trump has a golden opportunity here to force Hillary to either support this ghastly obtrusion of government power or to renounce it. Either way, he'd put her in a difficult spot, but Mr. Trump has himself forfeited the issue by having already expressed his own personal indifference to it. Too bad.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Restroom Wars

It's come to this:

The left, always in search of old traditions and moral boundaries to smash as they go about the business of destroying the country and culture, has taken up the cause of mandating that biological males be permitted into women's rest rooms. That sounds crazy enough to most sane people, but the rationale for it, and who's voicing the rationale, is stunning.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch has delivered herself of the opinion that laws excluding from women's rest rooms men who see themselves as women are like the Jim Crow laws that kept blacks out of white establishments. This is so looney that only an Obama official could have come up with it.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch
The Federalist has a staff editorial explaining just some of the looniness of Lynch's position. Here are some of the salient points:
After North Carolina refused to drop the law [excluding members of one sex from restrooms designated for the opposite sex] because the Obama administration said so, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Monday that the DOJ would take the state to court. According to the DOJ’s lawsuit, the law (HB 2) “constitutes a pattern or practice of employment discrimination on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Yuuuuuup. The DOJ is completely convinced that barring a grown man claiming to be a woman from entering the same public locker room as your vulnerable school-aged daughter is just like the Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation and perpetuated the racist notion that blacks and whites were genetically distinct.

DOJ’s new rationale is especially curious given that so-called trans advocates have claimed for years that sex and gender are distinct notions, and that one’s gender need not have any relation to one’s biological sex. The term “gender identity” was invented as a way of describing this particular delusion. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, however, does not mention gender. It mentions only sex, which is determined exclusively by one’s chromosomal makeup. As of today, though, DOJ has apparently once again decided that gender and sex are totally the same thing.
What matters is not the subjective view one has of oneself. What matters is the objective anatomical accoutrements one carries about. If one has male parts one should be restricted to male restrooms regardless of whether one thinks of oneself as male or female.
Comparing the transgender agenda to racial equality seems to be a favorite among leftists. This argument, however, just doesn’t make sense, because race is a social construct while sex is a biological one. For decades, civil rights advocates fought against the notion that blacks and whites were genetically distinct.

Everyone’s chromosomes are literally stamped with his or her sex. Female chromosomes contain two X’s and male chromosomes contain an XY, whereas there is no biological equivalent to dictate who is black and who is white, as much of the definition is dependent upon cultural context.

Wanting to prevent grown men from using the little girls’ room doesn’t make you a bigot, and wanting to force young girls to shower in a locker room with men who pretend to be women doesn’t make you Martin Luther King, Jr.
The reason racial discrimination is wrong is not because discrimination simpliciter is wrong. It isn't, indeed, it's often necessary. Racial discrimination such as was enforced by Jim Crow laws is wrong because it sends the message that one is inferior completely on the basis of one's race alone.

This is dehumanizing, but there's nothing dehumanizing about respecting personal privacy, respecting the desire of both males and females for modesty, and protecting girls and women from the sexual perverts who would exploit the ability to use women's rest rooms for nefarious purposes. Or, do the rights to privacy and security of the overwhelming majority of people have to be sacrificed so that the less than 1% of transgenders who feel inconvenienced by having to use a sex-appropriate restroom can have their feelings accommodated?

That any of this even has to be discussed shows how far off into insanity the progressive left has taken us.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Liberal Discrimination

Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times has stirred up something of a kerfuffle with a column that admits, and laments, the overwhelming and inexcusable bias in the culture against conservatives and conservative ideas. He writes:
[C]onsider George Yancey, a sociologist who is black and evangelical.

“Outside of academia I faced more problems as a black,” he told me. “But inside academia I face more problems as a Christian, and it is not even close.”

I’ve been thinking about this because on Facebook recently I wondered aloud whether universities stigmatize conservatives and undermine intellectual diversity. The scornful reaction from my fellow liberals proved the point.

“Much of the ‘conservative’ worldview consists of ideas that are known empirically to be false,” said Carmi.

“The truth has a liberal slant,” wrote Michelle.

“Why stop there?” asked Steven. “How about we make faculties more diverse by hiring idiots?”

To me, the conversation illuminated primarily liberal arrogance — the implication that conservatives don’t have anything significant to add to the discussion. My Facebook followers have incredible compassion for war victims in South Sudan, for kids who have been trafficked, even for abused chickens, but no obvious empathy for conservative scholars facing discrimination.

The stakes involve not just fairness to conservatives or evangelical Christians, not just whether progressives will be true to their own values, not just the benefits that come from diversity (and diversity of thought is arguably among the most important kinds), but also the quality of education itself. When perspectives are unrepresented in discussions, when some kinds of thinkers aren’t at the table, classrooms become echo chambers rather than sounding boards — and we all lose.
Kristoff goes on to cite studies that show that conservatives are grossly underrepresented on university faculties and adds this:
The scarcity of conservatives seems driven in part by discrimination. One peer-reviewed study found that one-third of social psychologists admitted that if choosing between two equally qualified job candidates, they would be inclined to discriminate against the more conservative candidate.

Yancey, the black sociologist, who now teaches at the University of North Texas,conducted a survey in which up to 30 percent of academics said that they would be less likely to support a job seeker if they knew that the person was a Republican.

The discrimination becomes worse if the applicant is an evangelical Christian. According to Yancey’s study, 59 percent of anthropologists and 53 percent of English professors would be less likely to hire someone they found out was an evangelical.

“Of course there are biases against evangelicals on campuses,” notes Jonathan L. Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard. Walton, a black evangelical, adds that the condescension toward evangelicals echoes the patronizing attitude toward racial minorities: “The same arguments I hear people make about evangelicals sound so familiar to the ways people often describe folk of color, i.e. politically unsophisticated, lacking education, angry, bitter, emotional, poor.”
It's not just university faculty who are biased against conservative ideas. Former Facebook employees have revealed how Facebook censored conservative news stories and sites so that they wouldn't get circulation.

Liberals will outnumber conservatives as commencement speakers at major colleges this year by a ratio of at least 4 to 1.

The intriguing question about this censorship of, and discrimination against, conservatives, especially conservative evangelicals, is why the left fears them so much that they have to deny them a platform and deny exposure for their ideas. Why do those on the left, despite a massive amount of empirical evidence to the contrary, continue to reinforce to each other the silly, self-serving myth that conservatives are not very bright and that their ideas have been discredited?

Perhaps it's because deep down they know that in a free and open exchange of ideas liberals simply don't stand a chance of convincing open-minded, critical listeners but conservatives do. Folks on the left know that if colleges made it a point to seek ideological balance on campus the same thing would happen to liberal ideas in the classroom as has happened to liberal ideas on talk radio, cable television, and internet news aggregators, all of which became dominated by conservatives almost as soon as conservatives chose to compete in these media.

Liberals suspect that they'll get clobbered in an open competition of ideas so in order to avoid being rejected by the masses they censor conservatism so that the uninformed masses don't realize that there's any alternative to their own ideas.

Which brings me to an irony in the Kristoff column: One person (Steven) was quoted as having declared, in so many words, that conservatives should be censored and discriminated against because they're stupid. Yet it was Jonathan Gruber, the architect of Obamacare, who repeatedly acknowledged that the Obama administration was able to foist the Affordable Care Act onto the American public because the voters were too stupid to know what was happening to them.

Now which voters was he talking about? It surely wasn't conservative voters who supported Obamacare, and indeed no Republican politician voted for it. All of the ACA's support came from Democrats, i.e. liberals. These are the people, the members of his own party, who the Obama administration's Mr. Gruber, enjoys calling "stupid:"

I wonder if Steven supported Obamacare.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Good Questions

Theist and scientist Hugh Ross was once invited by an atheist group to address a convocation of some 300 non-believers. In the course of his presentation he asked the audience two questions:

1. How many of you would believe in God if you saw compelling scientific evidence for His existence and saw that evidence increase as we learned more about the universe and the record of nature?

2. How many of you here would not believe in God until the scientific evidence eliminated all other alternate conceivable explanations for the universe and life?

Ross reported that one-third of the audience answered in the affirmative for question #1 while two-thirds answered in the affirmative for question #2.

Those two hundred or so who responded affirmatively to question #2 are implicitly acknowledging a couple of things: They're saying, firstly, that they want to set the bar for belief in God impossibly high so as to insure that it'll never be reached, and secondly, and following from the first, the fundamental reason they don't believe is that they just don't want theism to be true.

As long as there's any possibility, no matter how small, that there's an alternative explanation for the evidence that points to a cosmic creator, they'll refuse to believe that there is one. In other words, unless the theist can establish with absolute certainty that theism is true, these atheists will be able to justify to themselves their unbelief, but certainty is an unrealistic bar. Nothing is ever proven in either science or philosophy with absolute certainty.

What's aimed for is not certainty but plausibility and probability. If the arguments for theism are more plausible than opposing arguments, if the theistic hypothesis is more probably true than false, then anyone who is willing to believe is within his or her epistemic rights in doing so. In fact, we are intellectually obligated, when confronted with a forced choice (e.g. to believe or not), to believe whatever hypothesis best comports with the evidence and is most probably true.

Ross writes:
This approach [i.e. the response to question #2] presents [theists] with an impossible challenge. A [theist] would need to acquire complete knowledge not only about the physical universe but also about everything that could conceivably exist beyond the universe. Neither goal is possible.

Since our powers of investigation are constrained by the universe’s space-time dimensions, it is impossible for humans to ever gain a complete database about the properties of the universe, let alone about what lies beyond. Our inability to ever gain absolute proof, however, does not mean that we cannot attain practical proof.
To satisfy the evidential demands of these atheists the theist would have to prove beyond any possible doubt that both the universe and life did not arise through purely natural processes. The atheists in Ross' audience are saying they're justified in clinging to their atheism, even if the probability of a naturalistic origin of either the cosmos or of life were so low as to be beyond comprehension, unless that probability can be shown with certainty to be zero.

This, it would seem, is not only irrational, but it makes plain the fact that much unbelief (like much belief) is often more a matter of the will and of the heart than it is of the reason.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Ms. Clinton Headed for Rough Seas

The conventional wisdom is that the campaign has now come down to a contest between a developmentally arrested bully and a serial fabulist who may soon be facing felony charges for having broken the law with respect to the handling of classified material when she was Secretary of State. Which of these excellent candidates will the voters of our Republic select to be our national leader for the next four to eight years?

Most Americans are probably at least dimly aware that Ms. Clinton has been under investigation by the FBI for the past year regarding her secret and apparently illegal use of a private email server upon which classified information was found and which could have been, and probably was, hacked by every intelligence service in the world.

That investigation has gotten relatively little coverage by the media, at least compared to what it would have gotten had it been a Republican candidate under FBI scrutiny, and what it has received has sometimes been misleading. In any case, the investigation may soon be coming to a close. Jazz Shaw at HotAir.com brings us up to speed:
At one point in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private bathroom email server, reporters were able to coax an unnamed “FBI official” into saying that Hillary Clinton was “not the target” of the investigation. It’s a line which all of her defenders, including the White House, have stuck to like glue. But now the end days of this long process appear to be upon us and that line of defense is crumbling quickly. As The Hill reports, this process is developing pretty much in keeping with the standard FBI playbook, with Clinton’s closest allies having been interviewed shortly before the former Secretary of State herself will answer questions. And the last person you talk to is pretty much always “the target.”

A former U.S. Attorney who has handled similar cases, Matthew Whitaker, was quoted as saying that investigators will be looking to see if there are any contradictions between Clinton’s answers and those of her aides and others involved with the installation and maintenance of the server. This won’t be an effort to gather new information because, “they’re only going to ask her questions that they know the answers to already.”
One notion that has been advanced frequently in the media is that Ms Clinton is not really in any legal jeopardy because she didn't intend to violate any law, but this is little more than an attempt to put wings on a pig to make it fly. According to the law intent doesn't matter:
[A]n experienced national security lawyer, Bradley Moss, ... put this line of media defense to rest.

“[T]he extent to which the person intended to remove classified documents is irrelevant,” he said in an email to The Hill. “All that matters for strict legal purposes of culpability is whether the person, by virtue of their official position, came into possession of classified information and affirmatively removed the information to an unauthorized location (i.e., the private server). Whether the person knew or suspected the information was classified is irrelevant.”
The evidence against Ms. Clinton is alleged to be overwhelming so, Jazz Shaw writes,
The only remaining question is whether or not [FBI Director] James Comey has the intestinal fortitude to pull the trigger and what the Justice Department will do with this hot potato if it lands in their lap less than two months before the Democrats name the target of this felony level national security investigation as their nominee to be the leader of the free world.
It's hard to imagine that if the case against Ms. Clinton is strong the Attorney General won't at least make it look like they're prosecuting her. If they don't indict and prosecute, anyone with any integrity in the FBI, which could be a lot of people, including the Director, will resign and Mr. Obama hardly wants that sort of scandal marring his last days in office.

The downside for the president in giving the AG the green light to prosecute is that if Clinton is fatally weakened (politically), and a Democrat does not win in November, his entire legacy could be reversed by the Republicans in a matter of months.

So, it's a tough call for Mr. Obama, assuming that his decision will be based purely on a political calculus and not on simply doing what's right, but given the choice between another major scandal and sacrificing Ms. Clinton, for whom the Obamas have little love in the first place, Ms. Clinton might find herself under indictment and Mr. Obama might decide to take his chances with Bernie Sanders carrying on his legacy.

Of course, Mr. Obama could shock the world and just follow the law regardless of the consequences for himself and the Democrat party, but after eight years of watching this administration conduct itself it's doubtful that more than a few idealists expect that that will happen.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

A Morning Walk

A morning walk through a local park today produced a few of nature's gems. Here are a few pics (taken from the web) of some of the birds that were flitting about the trail:

This strikingly colored bird is called a scarlet tanager. There are a number of species of tanagers throughout the country but this is the only one commonly found in the northeast. If you know their song you can find them in almost any fairly large stand of mature deciduous woodlands:



This beauty is a rose-breasted grosbeak. It's found in the same habitat as the scarlet tanager but is less common.



The following picture shows an indigo bunting. They're about the size of a sparrow and are very common around open fields and meadows, but many people miss them because they only show the brilliant blue color when seen in good light.



All the birds shown above are males. The females of each species lack the beautiful coloration of the males and are much plainer.

There's a lot of gorgeous things to see on a simple walk through the woods and fields, but it helps to know the birds' songs and to have a good set of field glasses along if you want to get good looks at them. But even if you don't have field glasses, if you look carefully on the trail, especially where the sun hits it, you might very well see tiger beetles. One common species in the northeast is only about 3/4 of an inch long but is the most breathtakingly emerald green color you'll ever see:

Friday, May 6, 2016

Troubling News from Europe

While debate continues about the wisdom of importing large numbers of unvetted Muslim refugees into the country it's instructive to look to the experience of the Europeans. We're all familiar with the rise in Islamic terrorism in Europe perpetrated by indigenous Muslim residents, but Strategy Page has a piece that gives us a different slant on the danger. The article focuses on the number of radical Muslims in the police and military in several European countries. Here are some excerpts:
In the wake of the late 2015 ISIL attack in Paris and the early 2016 attack in Brussels most European countries were forced (by the majority of voters and much of the local media) to reveal data on the extent of Islamic terrorist activity in local security forces.

Germany reported that since 2007 at least 22 military personnel have been identified as Islamic radicals and supporters of Islamic terrorism. Five of these people had completed their service and were civilians again but 17 were still in uniform and were dismissed from service. In addition at least 65 military personnel are currently under investigation for Islamic terrorist sympathies and 29 former military personnel have been identified as having gone to Syria to join ISIL.
The situation is no less troubling elsewhere in Europe:
France recently admitted that since early 2015 the number of suspected Islamic terrorists in general had risen 50 percent to 8,250. Worse, the French admitted they had problems with some Moslems in their own security forces. France had identified 17 Moslem policemen who had been radicalized since 2012. It was already public knowledge that by early 2015 at least ten Moslem French soldiers had deserted and joined ISIL in Syria. Some of these deserters have since been identified as training other terrorists in skills they learned in the French military. One of these deserters had risen to a leadership position in ISIL.

The problems with radicalized police were worse because police have access to police databases containing information about terrorism suspects, counter-terrorism tactics and ongoing counter-terrorism operations. Not all the details of this infiltration of the security forces has become public and it is believed there is more of it and the French are, for obvious reasons, not revealing exactly what they are doing about it.
We keep telling ourselves that it's only a minority of Muslims who've been radicalized, and that it's unjust to be suspicious of the intentions of all Muslims, qua Muslims. Perhaps so, but liberals, at least, are pretty selective in how they employ this claim.

For example, it's only a small minority of gun owners who use their weapons illegally, but the left wants to punish all gun owners by banning firearms altogether. Moreover, it's probably only a small minority of Klansmen who would actually do something to harm people they don't like, but it's considered a moral virtue to despise anyone associated with the Klan which, in its bigotry, is probably no worse than that of many intrepretations of Islam. Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see why it's right to despise the Klan but wrong to be merely wary of adherents of a religion that has spawned so much carnage, death and terror over the last three decades.

Polls in Britain found that almost 20% of British Muslims felt little loyalty to Britain but were completely loyal to Islam, a finding which leads one to ask, at what point does the risk associated with bringing among us people who believe that God hates us and who want nothing more than to destroy our way of life, become intolerable? At what point do we decide that maybe it's not a good idea to have people, many of whom have contempt for this country and its people, occupying positions of leadership in the military and police forces?

A lot of Europeans are evidently asking themselves those same questions right now.