Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Poverty and Bad Decisions

An interesting piece by Emily Badger at CityLab cites research that suggests that, contrary to common opinion, poor people are not poor because they make bad decisions but rather they make bad decisions because they're poor. The exigencies of poverty, some research shows, exert such a powerful pull on people that unwise choices are practically inevitable. Here's part of her essay:
Researchers publishing some ground-breaking findings today in the journal Science have concluded that poverty imposes such a massive cognitive load on the poor that they have little [cognitive] bandwidth left over to do many of the things that might lift them out of poverty – like go to night school, or search for a new job, or even remember to pay bills on time.

In a series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick, low-income people who were primed to think about financial problems performed poorly on a series of cognition tests, saddled with a mental load that was the equivalent of losing an entire night’s sleep. Put another way, the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults.

The finding further undercuts the theory that poor people, through inherent weakness, are responsible for their own poverty – or that they ought to be able to lift themselves out of it with enough effort. This research suggests that the reality of poverty actually makes it harder to execute fundamental life skills. Being poor means, as the authors write, “coping with not just a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources.”
I don't know how reliable this study is, but I hope it's conclusions are not true. If they are true then the plight of the poor is almost hopeless. According to the study the poor make unwise decisions because they're poor, but they can't get out of poverty until they stop making unwise decisions. They're caught in a vicious cycle. Indeed, this study provides those living below the poverty line with a good reason to just give up.

Badger thinks, though, that taxpayers should give the poor financial independence so they can be freed from the stressors that drive them to make bad choices:
Conversely, going forward, this also means that anti-poverty programs could have a huge benefit that we've never recognized before: Help people become more financially stable, and you also free up their cognitive resources to succeed in all kinds of other ways as well.
Unfortunately, we've already conducted that experiment. Since the 1960s we've spent $22 trillion on the War on Poverty and there are still millions of our fellow citizens living in relative poverty (I say "relative" because poor people in America are only poor relative to their contemporaries in the U.S. Relative to the vast numbers of people who've inhabited the planet throughout history our poor are fabulously wealthy). How much more can, and should, we give and what reason do we have for thinking that we're not now at the point of diminishing returns? When the government subsidizes something we get more of it. That goes as much for poverty as it does for anything else.

Reading Badger's column raises a question: If it's true that poverty makes people choose actions that perpetuate their poverty how do we account for the fact that so many poor people have surmounted their circumstances, especially before there were any social welfare programs in place to help them? Irish and Asian immigrants had nothing but the shirts on their backs when they landed on these shores, and the latter didn't even speak English. Yet many of them, despite suffering brutal discrimination, made the choice to work hard, and they overcame tremendous odds to succeed. Moreover, much of the American population was impoverished during the Great Depression, yet they rose out of it, and still today many are lifting themselves out of poverty and achieving middle class status or higher.

Maybe there's something I'm missing, but all of this taken together causes me to wonder if maybe it's not Ms. Badger and the study she cites that are missing something.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Reasons for Unbelief

A recent Pew survey found that the number of Americans who don't believe in God or who are unaffiliated with any religion is continuing to increase. The survey listed the reasons, and I have to say (and I hope no one is offended by this) the reasons seem pretty weak for such an important epistemic commitment:

Consider just the reasons for unbelief (I'm surprised, btw, that the problem of suffering didn't make the list since it's probably the best reason for skepticism out there.).

1. Learning about evolution. There's no incompatibility between evolution and God. Many theists believe in both. In fact, as philosopher Alvin Plantinga points out, the conflict really lies between naturalism (atheism) and evolution. If evolution is true then our rational faculties have evolved to help us survive, not necessarily to lead us to truth. Those who believe both atheism and evolution to be true have no basis for trusting their reason to lead them to truth, especially metaphysical truth. But if that's so they have no basis for trusting their reason when it leads them to conclude that either atheism or evolution are true. If God exists, however, then we have grounds for thinking that God has caused our reason to evolve to lead us to truth.

2. Too many Christians doing unChristian things. Even if it were granted that many people fall short of what we might expect of them (who doesn't?) what does that have to do with whether or not God exists? God's existence doesn't depend on whether people who believe He exists live consistently with that belief. One shouldn't confuse belief that God exists with a particular religious expression of that belief.

3. Religion is the opiate of the people. Even if it were granted that religion misleads or stupefies many people that's also irrelevant to the question whether God exists. The truth of theism is one thing, the truth of a particular religion, or religion in general, is something entirely different. It's ironic, parenthetically, that the opiate claim is taken from Karl Marx. If anything has stupefied the masses, as well as the intelligentsia, over the last one hundred years it has been atheistic Marxism.

4. Rational thought discredits religious belief. Even if it were granted that many religious beliefs cannot withstand rational scrutiny that has nothing to do with whether theism itself is rational. The claim that theism is discredited by rational thought is simply false as many, if not most, philosophers, both theist and atheist, have acknowledged.

5. Lack of evidence for a creator. This objection is as puzzling as it is common. There are numerous arguments that constitute evidence for a creator. At least two forms of the cosmological argument (the kalam argument and the argument from contingency of the universe), the argument from cosmic fine-tuning, and the moral argument are all strong arguments whose conclusions assert the existence of God.

6. Just don't believe it. I think this objection might better be stated, "I just don't want it to be true that God exists." If someone doesn't want theism to be true, of course, nothing will persuade him or her that it is.

I suspect this deep desire for a naturalistic world is the fundamental reason for most unbelief today. The other reasons listed above certainly don't seem to constitute adequate explanations of it.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Why Study Philosophy?

In the course of my teaching I sometimes encourage students to consider an undergraduate philosophy major or minor because I believe that a study of the questions philosophers address provides the most important background a thoughtful and intelligent student could acquire.

Students often ask, though, what they can do with a degree in philosophy. My reply is that most majors don't do anything professionally with their degree, but rather they find it excellent preparation for the sorts of careers they do choose to pursue. Employers in most occupations prefer to train their employees themselves in the skills they'll need, and most professions require graduate level work in a specific field. Undergraduate philosophy prepares a student well for either path.

A friend sent along a link to a post by Dr. Roy Clouser, author of the outstanding book The Myth of Religious Neutrality, and professor of philosophy at Trenton State College, in which he addresses these same questions. His post is entitled Why Major in Philosophy? and it contains a lot of good advice for a young high schooler or undecided undergrad who thinks they might enjoy philosophy but who isn't sure if it will prepare him or her for making a living. Clouser writes:

For most students arriving at college, philosophy is the one subject they've never had before so it's natural that it's one of the last they consider majoring in. It's also natural to wonder what the major is good for--after all, few people ever plan to be professional philosophers! Yet, year after year, students switch their major to philosophy, and others tell us they wish they'd discovered it sooner so they could have done so.

What these students discovered - surprising as it sounds - is that philosophy is the single most useful major in the entire undergraduate curriculum! (Yes, useful!)

It's true, of course, that not many people become professional philosophers. But neither do most history majors become historians or English majors go on to become novelists. The fact is that most students don't pick a major because they plan to make their living in that field. They choose a major based on their interests and on how well it will prepare them for the widest possible number of occupations after college. If you are deciding that way too, we can say this for certain: If you have the interest, philosophy is best possible major - hands down.

Let me explain.

Philosophy deals with theories about the most basic beliefs and values that people have. These include topics like the nature of reality and human nature, the nature and sources of knowledge and morality, the proper structure for society and government, and the nature of religious belief. It also studies theories about the nature of science, art, language, and law. In this way, every philosophy major is exposed to the most influential interpretations of the most important issues people face across the entire spectrum of human experience.

But more than simply learning about these issues, philosophy includes a keen training in logic and critical thinking - in the ability to argue and debate the truth of the various theories and viewpoints that are studied. It sharpens one's ability to spot difficulties, pose questions, and to weigh the evidence for and against the reasons given for any view on any topic. (A bank V.P. once told me that his logical training was the most valuable thing he got in his entire undergraduate education - even more valuable than his business courses.)

Even from this short description you may be able to see why a philosophy major is the best possible background for anyone who wants to deal with the public or who wants to write - whether as a novelist, or news reporter. It is also the very best major for those thinking of pursuing any sort of career in religion. And it should come as no surprise that law schools consider it the best background for the Law SAT and a career in law. (Speaking of standardized tests, the highest GRE scores consistently come from three majors: math, physics, and philosophy.)

But there's more. It seems that a solid background in the influential viewpoints over a wide range of issues, and an ability to think logically about them, is also splendid training for a career in business according to several top business schools. But what may be most surprising of all is that the records of some of the best medical schools show philosophy as the undergraduate major of some of their most outstanding alumni!

So, if you have doubts about the major that's best for you - especially if you are presently an undeclared major - why not make an appointment at the philosophy department to talk over your interests with one of our faculty? Philosophy might, at least, be the ideal minor subject for you even if you decide not to major in it.

I offer only one caveat. Philosophy departments, like departments in any of the humanities, often are loaded with instructors who favor a particular school or style of philosophy. Some of these styles may be deadly dull to students who expect their philosophy experience to be an exciting intellectual excursion into the best that's been thought and written about life's most important questions. The student contemplating a major or minor in philosophy would do well to check out what approach the department is inclined toward before committing him or herself to signing up.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Unkillable Myth

William and Mary anthropologist Barbara King recently reviewed a new book by Alistair McGrath titled The Big Question: Why We Can't Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God, and criticized him for perpetuating what she calls the "unkillable myth" to which theists cling. The "myth" she has in mind is the conviction among many thoughtful people, theists and atheists alike, actually, that unless there is a purpose to the cosmos in general there can be no ultimate meaning to individual human existences.

King, who is herself an atheist, writes:
Here, yet again, is the unkillable myth, the persistent blind spot about atheism that apparently no amount of explaining can make go away. No matter how lucidly atheists explain in books, essays and blog posts that, yes, life can and does for us have meaning without God, the tsunami of claims about atheists' arid existence rolls on and on.

Where does this persistent (is it also willful?) misunderstanding come from?
Well, to answer her question, it derives from several sources, I think, one of which is the writings of atheists themselves.

McGrath cites a couple of those atheist writings, and King quotes him, but she remains unpersuaded by the quotes. She says that just because there's no meaning to nature or the universe it's illogical to conclude that individual lives have no meaning. She posits two steps that theists take to arrive at this conclusion:
First is the understanding, emergent from evolutionary theory, that neither the universe as a whole, nor we humans within it, have evolved according to some plan of design. Cosmic evolution and human evolution unfold with no guiding hand or specific goals. Most atheists do accept this, I think.

Second is to embrace as a logical next step the idea that our own individual lives have no purpose or meaning. Do you know of any atheists who believe this? I don't.
Perhaps King doesn't read much atheist literature, but there are plenty of well-known atheist philosophers, novelists, and filmmakers who believe this. A partial list would include Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Bertrand Russell, Hemmingway, Somerset Maugham, Woody Allen, and Jurgen Habermas.

To quote just one of these writers, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that "unless the point of life is to suffer, life has no point."

King adds:
Nor do I recognize the scientific communities of which I am a part — both online and offline — in McGrath's insistence that a "sense of cosmic pointlessness haunts many today, particularly within the scientific community."
But what about these famous words from Nobel Prize recipient Steven Weinberg?
...the worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature .... We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.
Or the insistence of the late Will Provine that,
There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death….There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will.
Or the words of another Nobel recipient Francis Crick:
‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’
What do any of these brilliant scientists mean if not that man is insignificant and that his existence has no more point or purpose than that of an insect?

Space precludes quoting other scientists such as Sigmund Freud, Bernard Rensch, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Hawking, inter alia.

King continues:
An anthropological perspective teaches us that we humans are a quintessentially meaning-making species. We create love and kindness (hate and violence, too), and also work that matters. We recognize and protect (or, too often, harm) our sense of connection to other animals, to plants and trees, to all of nature's landscapes. What are those acts if not ones of meaning and purpose?
There are a couple of things to be said about what she asserts in the previous paragraph. First, an illusion of meaningfulness is not the same thing as real meaningfulness, subjective meaning is not the same as objective meaning, and proximal meaning is not the same as ultimate meaning.

Anyone can insert meaning of the illusory, subjective, proximal kind into his or her life, but this is like an elderly lady in the rest home who finds great satisfaction in doing jigsaw puzzles all day, who experiences delight every time she inserts the right piece and is pleased when she finishes. Then she dismantles it all, puts it back in the box and begins the next one. The puzzles give her life meaning of a sort, but what she does doesn't really matter. It just allows her to stave off boredom.

If meaning is something we make up then meaning is merely a pretend fiction, like a child's imaginary friend. We may think our lives matter, but how could they if everything ultimately perishes? Unless what we do matters forever it doesn't really matter at all. To insist that life is meaningful even though we all hurtle toward extinction is just philosophical whistling past the graveyard.

Friday, August 26, 2016

A Couple of Puzzlements

For as long as I can remember the left has been reminding us of the plight of the black underclass in America. Indeed, liberals may be said to have been the conscience of the nation on this issue. Black communities suffer from unemployment, bad schools, poverty, drugs, family breakdown, crime, etc. If someone were to suggest that blacks have it pretty good in the U.S. compared to almost anywhere else in the world, that blacks have come a long way since the days of Jim Crow, etc. they'd be hooted down by liberals and progressives for their naivete and insensitivity.

Yet, when Donald Trump stands before a white audience and repeats basically what the left has been saying for over fifty years, when he affirms that blacks suffer all the disadvantages the left has claimed they have, Hillary Clinton tweets that his statement "is so ignorant it's staggering."

It seems that for people like Hillary no matter what Trump says he's wrong for no other reason than that it's him that's saying it. What did he say about the plight of many blacks that was "ignorant"? What did he say that liberals, and conservatives, haven't been saying for decades?

It's interesting that in much of the subsequent criticism of Trump's speech no one actually tries to refute him on the basic facts, they only offer the rather juvenile retort that he's "ignorant," or question his sincerity, or quibble about the venue in which he said it:
To object to Trump's speech on the grounds that because it was delivered before a white audience his argument is therefore somehow invalid is absurd. Do his critics think that unless a couple hundred African Americans are physically present in the auditorium that African Americans can't be moved by Trump's message? Do they think that African Americans won't hear the message unless they're in the same room as Trump? Do they actually think African Americans don't own televisions and computers?

Or could it be that they know that a lot of African Americans really are wondering what indeed they have to lose by voting Republican and this possibility is making them increasingly nervous?


The nation was outraged that Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte and some friends committed vandalism in Rio and lied about it to the police. He's since been punished emotionally by public opinion and financially by being stripped of endorsement contracts. He may have ruined whatever future he might otherwise have had because of his dishonesty.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has repeatedly lied to the nation about matters both great and small with the frequency and compulsiveness of a Tourette's sufferer. She's arguably been criminal in her handling of the nation's secrets, and her recklessness and negligence may have gotten people killed. Yet she's very possibly about to be rewarded by the American public with the presidency of the United States.

Why are people outraged over an athlete's relatively venial lie but seemingly indifferent to Mrs. Clinton's chronic flouting of the law and lies about far more serious matters?

Perhaps Mr. Lochte should announce that he's a registered Democrat and take to wearing an I'm with Her button and and probably all will be forgiven.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Fortuitous Flukes

Nobel Prize winning biologist Francis Crick once said that "Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see (in their microscopes) was not designed, but rather evolved."

It's no wonder Crick thought biologists had to keep reciting this mantra to themselves. It seems so counterintuitive that the miniscule structures they've discovered over the last fifty years are the product of a mindless, purposeless, accidental processes. The design intuition, as protein biologist Doug Axe calls it, is so powerful in biology that biologists, when incautious, find themselves frequently slipping into language redolent of purpose and engineering.

As an example of one of those structures consider ATP synthase. ATP synthase is a cluster of molecular machines which manufacture a molecule called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is to cells what gasoline is to cars. It provides the energy for everything the cell does. Here's a short video which shows how ATP is produced by ATP synthase. Bear in mind that the video simplifies what is in fact a much more complex process:
This system must have evolved quickly soon after the first cells appeared and without the benefit of eons of random genetic mutation. To think it evolved purely by blind chance is something like thinking that if you put all the separate component parts of an iphone in a blender and ran the blender enough times you'd get a functional iphone. It's possible, in the same way that anything not logically contradictory is possible, that there are such fortuitous flukes, but it takes an awful lot of faith - blind faith, actually - to believe they've happened.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Vetting Immigrants (Pt. II)

Yesterday I called attention to a column in NRO by former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy who argued that there's no constitutional proscription on banning immigrants who hold to an ideology antipathetic to American culture or values.

I'd like to continue with McCarthy's article today. He states that:
You are not supposed to connect the dots and ask, “Well, how is it conceivable that any sharia-adherent alien could faithfully pledge allegiance to our Constitution?” .... Sharia is not religion. Sharia is a totalitarian societal structure and legal corpus that anti-American radicals seek to impose. Yes, their motivation for doing so is their interpretation of their religion — the fundamentalist, literalist construction of Islam. But that does not make sharia itself a matter of “religion” in the Western sense, even if vast numbers of Arab Muslims — for whom there is no cognizable separation of mosque and state — say otherwise.
By an almost logical necessity Sharia adherents must wish to ultimately establish a theocracy in which everything is subordinated to the principles of Islam. This is certainly not freedom of religion or of speech but quite the opposite. Nor can a sharia adherent agree to the principle that all persons are equal under the law nor that women are in all relevant respects equal to men. Quite simply, a sharia-inclined theocrat cannot consistently support the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution.

McCarthy writes:
Two things flow from this. The first involves immigration. As we’ve previously demonstrated, there is no constitutional prohibition against considering religion in deciding which aliens to allow into the United States — immigration is a privilege, not a right; and our Constitution is security for Americans, not a weapon for aliens to use against Americans. Nevertheless, even if there were a constitutional bar against “religious tests,” sharia is not religion. There are no constitutional constraints against excluding aliens on grounds of anti-American political ideology. Excluding anti-Americans from America is common sense and was regarded as such for much of our history.

In a time of radical Islamic threat to our national security, Donald Trump is right to propose that aliens from sharia-supremacist areas be carefully vetted for adherence to anti-constitutional principles. Leftists — those notorious disciples of the Framers — claim this is unconstitutional. When shown it is not, they claim that it is against our “tradition” — being, you know, big fans of American tradition. When shown that this is not the case either, when shown that our history supports ideological exclusion of anti-Americans, leftists are down to claiming, “It is not who we are” — by which they always mean it is not who they are, and who they would force the rest of us to be.
It's the repeatedly asserted goal of radical Muslims to use democracy as a means to enable them to gradually acquire political power so that politicians, out of concern for their political viability, will pass laws that impose sharia.

It's not hard to imagine how this could be achieved. When the population of Muslims gets large enough they'll be seen as a voting block that needs to be appeased and catered to just like other such groups. To keep them loyal to the party in which they form a formidable part of the base their demands will be acquiesced to whenever that party is in power. At first these demands might seem minor, like freeing their schools from certain regulations, or allowing Muslim communities a measure of legal semi-autonomy so that they can impose sharia on their own people.

Eventually, as Muslim mayors and councilmen are elected to office sharia will be imposed city-wide, by fiat or ordinance, and a nation, which has for the last eight years looked the other way as its laws and Constitution were flouted time and again by its president and candidates for president, will have a hard time invoking the Constitution as a restraint on the inexorable imposition of sharia. Indeed, something like this transformational process is already well along in Europe.

McCarthy packs much more into his column. He explains, for example, how the left came to endorse the position that we should allow radicals to freely immigrate into the U.S. It's as interesting as it is important.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Vetting Immigrants (Pt. I)

Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy has written a powerful essay in National Review Online on the idea of vetting Muslim immigrants that I highly commend to you. He begins by denying as utterly false the notion that barring immigrants is by itself unconstitutional:
The U.S. Constitution allows barring would-be immigrants who would subvert our Constitution. Imagine an American government official, interviewing an alien seeking admission to our country from, say, Syria:
U.S. official: “Will you support the United States Constitution?”

Syrian alien: “Well, sure, except that I believe the government should be overseen by a caliph, who must be Muslim and male, and who must rule in accordance with Islamic law, which no man-made law may contradict. None of this ‘We the People’ stuff; Allah is the sovereign. Non-Muslims should not be required to convert to Islam, of course, but they must submit to the authority of Islamic law — which requires them to live in the second-class status of dhimmitude and to pay a poll tax for that privilege.” “I also believe women must be subservient to men, and that men are permitted to beat their wives if they are disobedient — especially if they refuse sex, in which they must engage on demand. There is no such thing as marital rape, and proving non-marital rape requires testimony from four male witnesses. Outside the home, a woman should cover herself in drab from head to toe. A woman’s testimony in court should be worth only half of a man’s, and her inheritance rights similarly discounted. Men should be able to marry up to four women — women, however, are limited to marrying one man.” “Oh, and Muslims who renounce Islam should be put to death . . . as should homosexuals . . . and blasphemers . . . and adulterers — at least the ones we don’t let off with a mere scourging. The penalty for theft should be amputation of the right hand (for highway robbery, the left foot is also amputated); and for drinking alcohol, the offender is to be scourged with 40 stripes.” “There are a few other odds and ends — you know, jihad and whatnot. But other than that, will I support the Constitution? Sure thing.”

U.S. official: “Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on a second. That’s not supporting the Constitution. That would be destroying the Constitution.”

Syrian alien: “Yeah, maybe so. But it’s my religion.”

U.S. official: “Oh, your religion. Why didn’t you say so? I thought you were spouting some anti-American political ideology. But as long as you say it’s your religion, no problem. C’mon in!”
This conversation is impossible to imagine because . . . it would be honest.
Sally Kohn, a commentator at CNN, has apparently already accepted dhimmi status. She recently rebuked Trump for his wish to control Muslim immigration by claiming that there are lots of Muslims who embrace sharia who are also progressives.

This sounds oxymoronic, and Kohn has been hammered on twitter for her remark. Sharia and progressive are, or certainly should be, mutually exclusive descriptors. There's now a tongue-in-cheek petition circulating to get Kohn, who is herself a Jewish, lesbian feminist, to spend a week in a sharia-compliant country to see what she thinks of the progressive treatment Jews, women and gays receive there. Apropos Kohn's belief that sharia is compatible with progressive political views, last month I wrote the following (slightly amended):
One thing I think we can say about sharia is that it's not what Westerners would call "moderate" or "progressive."

Suppose you found yourself among a group of people which, it eventually became clear to you,...
  • held approximately the same views about gays as the Westboro Baptists, only worse.
  • held approximately the same views about women as Jim Crow era southerners held about blacks.
  • held approximately the same views about Jews as did the Nazis.
  • held approximately the same views about freedom of religion as medieval inquisitors.
  • held approximately the same views about freedom of speech as the North Korean government
  • held approximately the same views about human equality as advocates of the Hindu caste system.
Would you call the group "moderate"? Would you call them "progressive"? Yet these are views held by large numbers of mainstream Muslims, not just in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, but in Europe and the U.S. A Pew poll found that a majority of American Muslims prefer sharia, and one in four accepts the use of violence against other Americans who give offense to Islam, for instance, by caricaturing Mohammed.
I intend to look at some other aspects of McCarthy's NRO piece in tomorrow's Viewpoint. Meanwhile, I hope you'll read his column.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Can't Be Bothered

President Obama has been the recipient of a lot of criticism lately for not visiting Louisiana after the worst flooding since Hurricane Katrina. He apparently had to choose between the people of Louisiana and his golf game and he chose golf.

I actually don't fault him too much for not going to the flood devastated region. Such an act is largely symbolic anyway. What Mr. Obama should be criticized for, and harshly, is choosing to play golf with rich people on Martha's Vineyard after having indignantly slammed President Bush for not visiting Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To refuse to do what one has self-righteously condemned someone else for not doing is the zenith of hypocrisy:
That a politician holds others to a standard to which he refuses to adhere himself is not news, I guess.

But maybe I was too quick to assume that Mr. Obama declined to go to Louisiana. Maybe he managed to combine golf with a trip to the disaster region. Matt Drudge has what seems to be photographic proof that indeed the president did show up to render aid in one flooded area:

I don't know, maybe the photo is spurious. It's puzzling, though, why neither Mr. Obama nor Mrs. Clinton chose to go to Louisiana but Donald Trump did. I thought the Democrats cared about the little guy and Trump was the callous one. Who would have guessed?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Whatever Works Is Right

When a culture abandons objective morality in favor of subjective relativism they usually wind up as pragmatists. That is, whatever works to produce the desired ends is right. Achieving the ends justifies whatever means.

Thus the liberal media supinely gave Obama all the latitude he needed to attain the goals they all shared whatever damage it may have done to the Constitution and the principle of the rule of law.

This is the message implicit in a recent column by Victor Davis Hanson in which he highlights an article by Peter Beinhart in the New York Times in which Beinhart expresses his fear that a President Trump may behave in the same above-the-law fashion as did Barack Obama, but in the service of causes disagreeable to liberal/progressives.

In other words, it's not flouting the law that upsets the Peter Beinharts of the world, it's the end for which one abuses the law that gives progressives like him anxious moments.

Hanson notes how, now that the Obama presidency is coming to a close, progressive organs like the NYT are belatedly, and rather weakly, expressing misgivings about his roughshod trampling of the Constitution:
I and many others, long ago in the pre-Trump age, cited the quite dangerous trajectory of Obama’s constitutional overreach. That worry is now shared apparently by the New York Times. Suddenly in year eight, its editors fear that someday another president, perhaps one less sensitive, more uncouth than Obama, might find his exemplar useful, but for less exalted progressive purposes.

Thus the Times has characterized Obama’s overreach as “bureaucratic bulldozing rather than legislative transparency.” And more ominously it notes, “But once Mr. Obama got the taste for it, he pursued his executive power without apology, and in ways that will shape the presidency for decades to come.”
One wonders where this fastidious concern for executive overreach was seven years ago. Hanson follows with an adumbration of some of the ways in which President Obama has placed himself above the law over the course of his tenure:
Long before the arrival of Donald Trump on the current election scene, many noted with alarm efforts to circumvent the Congress with Obama’s “pen and phone” executive orders and nullification of existing law — whether the executive-order amnesties and non-enforcement of the border that he had warned he could not do before his reelection, given that they would be the work of an autocrat, or his allowance of sanctuary cities’ Confederate-like nullification of existing federal law, or his arbitrary reelection-cycle, non-enforcement of elements of his own Affordable Care Act, or virtual rewriting of laws in federal bureaucracies such as the EPA, or the quite dangerous politicization of agencies such as Lois Lerner’s activity at the IRS or the Eric-Holder/Loretta Lynch Justice Department or his divisive Chavista braggadocio (“get in their faces,” “punish our enemies,” “bring a gun to a knife fight,” “you didn’t build that,” etc.).

Obama understandably grew confident that he could nullify or ignore existing federal law, on the assurance he was doing so on transformative grounds and thus would be largely exempt from press scrutiny. And he was largely proven right in his reliance on media collusion.
Because the media and others accepted the ends Mr. Obama strove to achieve by his actions they remained largely silent about his means. Now, faced with the possibility that a Donald Trump might employ similar means to achieve very different ends, the left is aghast at the prospect and are just now discovering that they really do hold to the principles of constitutional democracy and the rule of law after all.

There's a word for this, and it rhymes with "autocracy." Here's Hanson's conclusion:
In sum, violations of our constitutional freedoms could arrive in the form of a crude and blustering populist on the 2017 horizon; but far more worrisome is the fact that the dangers are already here, having arrived insidiously in the form of a suave constitutional-law lecturer, who assumed that because he was stamped as progressive, familiar, and one of the cultural elite, a liberal press would willingly overlook the means he employed to obtain their shared ends. The press corps need not worry that their freedoms will be taken away by Trump, given that for some time they have been only too happy to give them up.
There's much more good stuff at the link.

Friday, August 19, 2016

PC Is Harming Science

Alex Berezow at American Council on Science and Health cites a paper by Nathan Cofnas in the journal Foundations of Science in which Cofnas argues that political correctness is stifling science. Berezow writes:
To support his case, Mr. Cofnas focuses on the taboo subject of group differences in intelligence, which he says is suppressed by those who believe that even discussing the topic is “morally wrong or morally dangerous.”

Those who embrace such a viewpoint obviously do so with the honorable intention of preventing discrimination. However, the proverbial road to hell is paved with good intentions. Such misguided efforts to maintain perfect equality can hamper the advancement of knowledge. Mr. Cofnas states:
[W]hen hypotheses are regarded as supporting certain moral values or desirable political goals, scientists often refuse to abandon them in the light of empirical evidence.
Is he right? Absolutely, yes.

Not only do intellectuals refuse to abandon politically correct beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence, but simply questioning them can ruin a person’s career. Lawrence Summers’ tenure as president of Harvard was cut short because he suggested that there are intellectual differences between men and women. As a result of such punitive pushback, some researchers are afraid to investigate differences between male and female brains, which certainly exist. Without a doubt, this reticence is holding back the field of neuroscience.

A similar chilling effect can be seen in climatology. The only politically correct belief regarding the climate is that humans are 100% responsible for everything bad that happens and that the Four Horsemen are already marching toward Earth. Questioning that apocalyptic and unscientific belief has resulted in multiple researchers being labeled “climate deniers.” Climatology would greatly benefit from the more skeptical approach of so-called “lukewarmers,” but far too many are ostracized and demonized.

Discussions about the causes of homelessness also fall under the purview of the PC police. The politically correct explanation is that homelessness is the result of poverty. While obviously a factor, often left out of the debate is the fact that, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 20% to 25% of homeless people are severely mentally ill, a prevalence that is roughly four times that of the general population. The same group estimates that 38% and 26% of homeless people are dependent on alcohol and drugs, respectively. In fact, NCH states that, “Substance abuse [is] the single largest cause of homelessness for single adults.”
Berezow could have added to his examples of how science is stifled by political correctness the furor and opprobrium heaped upon sociologist Charles Murray for his 1994 book The Bell Curve which argued that there are disparities in average IQ between different races.

Or he could have mentioned the threats of legal sanction leveled at anyone who dares to suggest that transgenderism or homosexuality may, in some cases, be a treatable disorder, or the professional difficulties encountered by scientists who are skeptical of Darwinian explanations of origins.

Berezow closes with this:
Certainly, many — perhaps most — people prefer to ignore reality in favor of feel-good fallacies. Mr. Cofnas believes this phenomenon is rooted in a “deep human impulse to conflate facts and moral values.” In other words, (positive) statements that describe the world as it is are often interpreted by people as (normative) statements that prescribe the world as it ought to be.

This fundamental confusion distorts debate and impedes progress.
Indeed, there should be nothing off limits to scientific inquiry. Scientists should be free to follow the evidence wherever it leads and let the factual chips fall where they may. To place certain areas of inquiry out of bounds because honest research may lead to conclusions that are socially or politically inconvenient or morally unpalatable to some people is to be guilty of the same crime against the intellect of which the Church has often been accused for its punishment of Galileo.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


This column will either dishearten you or elate you depending upon your ideological preferences. In my opinion it's very sad because it reflects a society that has grown coarser and more intolerant than that in which many of us grew up.

It's written by Wayne Rossiter, a biologist at Waynesburg University and is titled, Why Conservatism is Doomed to Extinction. Rossiter writes:
The future sits in our classrooms. This is not a novel observation. For decades, perhaps even centuries, the academies have slowly guided public consciousness. Generation by generation, our young people have been exposed and sensitized to the “issues” at play in their society. When the academic culture is dominated by one view for a sustained period of time, that view holds sway over the future. And so it is. But why is a graduate of the class of 2017 more likely to don a Che Guevera T-shirt than a Ronald Reagan one (knowing almost nothing about either)? As recently publicized by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times,
We progressives believe in diversity, and we want women, blacks, Latinos, gays and Muslims at the table — er, so long as they aren’t conservatives. Universities are the bedrock of progressive values, but the one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological and religious. We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.
One might ask, to what social effect? The phenomenon is well known, and can be broadly explained by the words of Yuri Bezmenov (a KGB defector),
It takes from fifteen to twenty years to demoralize a nation. . . this is the minimum number of years which requires [sic] to educate one generation of students in the country of your enemy exposed to the ideology of the enemy. In other words Marxist-Leninism ideology is being pumped into the soft heads of at least three generations of American students without being challenged or counter-balanced by the basic values of Americanism, American patriotism. . . For example, your Leftists in the United States, all these professors and all these beautiful civil rights defenders, they are instrumental in the process of subversion, only to destabilize the nation.
Bezmenov was of course talking about “ideological subversion.” But is it really so different than what takes place on our campuses each day?
Rossiter goes on to describe a letter he received from a student at a large state university which he chooses not to identify. After recounting several instances of uncomfortable interaction with fellow students his correspondent says this:
There was one major conservative who spoke during my freshman year . . . [he] was invited by my liberty-minded club to speak about the dangers of political correctness in academia . . . At the lecture, dozens of students shouted out and interrupted [him] to the point where he had to stop speaking in order for them to calm down. Eventually, a few students stood up and smeared fake blood on themselves, screaming that [he] represented hatred. The room fell to chaos for a solid five minutes and, while yelling expletives and making obscene hand gestures, the protesters left a beautiful mess of red paint for the custodial staff to clean up . . . We later discovered that one of the official school ‘diversity centers’ sent out a mass email encouraging protests.
Rossiter adds:
Those not nodding their heads in shared experience with this student might doubt the prevalence of this sort of thing. Consider that our public universities don’t mind inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak (Columbia University), but line up to sign petitions against Condoleezza Rice (Rutgers University). One was a former provost of Stanford, but served in the Bush administration, while the other vows to annihilate Israel and claims no homosexuals even exist in his country.

While attending one of our fine universities, a student might take courses like “Stupidity 101” (Occidental) or “Politicizing BeyoncĂ©” (Rutgers); course work sure to impress employers. While there, they can hear why post-birth abortion should be permitted up to the toddler age (Peter Singer, Princeton), why we should hope for a mass pandemic or world war and that “everyone who gets to survive needs to bury nine” (Eric Pianka, Texas Tech), or perhaps why this “should be the last generation” of humans on planet earth (Steven Pinker, formerly at Harvard).

And let’s not forget institutionalized sexual deviance. Students attending Columbia University are able to go on a university website (, which encourages and even offers locations for hook-ups, group sex, torture fetishes, and how to choose your favorite sex toy. Not to be out done, UCLA sponsored an on-campus showing of Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge, a high budget porn film. All you needed to get in was a student I.D. At Northwestern, an “explicit after-class demonstration” for a Human Sexuality course offered students a live public demonstration of “a naked non-student woman being repeatedly sexually stimulated to the point of orgasm by the sex toy.
It is astonishing that, despite the mountains of debt students accrue to attend university to prepare them for a career, they nevertheless waste their time and their money on classes like these that ultimately prepare them for nothing. As Rossiter puts it:
This is the story of the student attending modern American university, and it is precisely why your child should not. We no longer teach thoughtful disagreement, intelligent and respectful debate or love, compassion and tolerance. More disconcerting is the broad malaise Americans feel about the state of our universities. The shrug of the shoulders and lack of alarm is telling.

We are now three solid generations along in this indoctrination. Just the amount of time Bezmenov believed it would take to undo American values. In my estimation, we have already sped past the last exit on this highway to collapse, and it seems clear that the extermination of conservative thought in America is imminent. Hold on to your hats, it’s about to get fun!
I agree that conservatism is facing difficult challenges. An ideology that emphasizes hard work, self-reliance, self-discipline, and moral rectitude will always be at a disadvantage to one that offers the opposite of these virtues. An ideology which urges us to put the welfare of our country ahead of the welfare of our racial, gender, age, or economic group will always be less appealing than one that panders to our sense of tribal entitlement.

The task ahead for conservatives is difficult because it requires of us that we persuade people to think with their reason rather than their emotions. Sadly, those who find such a prospect attractive will always be substantially fewer than those who find it too daunting and therefore uncongenial.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Glossary

On Monday I suggested that it might be useful to post a glossary of terms frequently encountered in a discussion of the issue of the ultimate origin of the cosmos and of life. The following is certainly not exhaustive, but I hope it's helpful to readers who may not be familiar with the terms of the debate but wish to be:

1. Metaphysical claim - A claim that does not lend itself to empirical confirmation. For example, the claim that selfishness is wrong or that rainbows are beautiful.

2. Scientific claim - A claim that can be tested by observation. For example, the claim that disease is caused by bacteria or that oxygen is a by-product of photosynthesis.

3. Cosmology - The study of the history and structure of the universe.

4. Cosmogeny - A subdiscipline of cosmology which studies the origin of the universe.

5. Biogenesis (or Abiogenesis) - The study of the origin of life from non-life.

6. Biological evolution - The process of variation and diversification in organisms. The term is usually used as a synonym for macroevolution which is the large-scale, molecules-to-man view which holds that all life forms have developed from a single ancestral cell. Microevolution is a small scale variation within a particular group or taxon such as is seen in the diversity of types of dogs for instance.
6a. Naturalistic evolution - The view that evolution is a purely physical, unguided, random process.

6b. Materialism - The view that everything in the universe is ultimately reducible to material stuff.

6c. Physicalism - The view that everything in the universe can ultimately be explained in terms of the laws of physics.

6d. Theistic evolution - The view that although evolution is a naturalistic process it is somehow initiated and/or directed by God.

6e. Theism - Nowadays usually used as an abbreviation for monotheism it's the belief that there is one, personal, transcendent God.

6f. Deism - The belief that there's a God which is impersonal and/or uninvolved in the world.
7. Creationism - The view that God purposefully created the world.
7a. Evolutionary - Another term for theistic evolution (see above)

7b. Progressive - The view that God intervenes at various points in the created order to advance or change the direction of the evolutionary process.

7c. Special – The view that God created everything in six days as described in Genesis and that subsequent to the creation week relatively small changes have occurred within the created “kinds” or major taxa.
7c1.Young earth - The form of special creation that holds that the days of creation week were literal twenty four hour days and that creation occurred relatively recently (approx. 10,000 years ago).

7c2. Old earth - The form of special creation which gives a more figurative interpretation to the Genesis days and which accepts the scientific consensus on the age of the earth and the universe.
8. Intelligent Design - The view that the cosmos and living things show empirical evidence of having been intentionally designed. ID, as such, makes no claims as to who or what the designer was nor how, nor how long ago, it acted. It is, therefore an error to call ID religious or a form of special creationism.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Naturalism and Incoherence

I was listening to a podcast discussion yesterday between two philosophers, one an atheist and one a theist, on the topic of whether or not naturalism is incoherent. Disappointingly, the discussion quickly devolved into an exchange over whether or not God exists and never did get around to exploring the original topic.

Maybe it's just as well because I think the topic title is slightly misconceived.

A concept is incoherent when it contains mutually contradictory features. For example the concepts of a married bachelor, or a giant pygmy, or a round square are incoherent because the first term in each contradicts and precludes the second and vice-versa.

But naturalism itself is not incoherent in this way. There don't appear, to me at least, any internal contradictions in the view that nature, as can be described by science, is all there is.

However, this is not to say that there are not coherence problems in trying to live as a consistent naturalist. Many who adopt a naturalist worldview find themselves unable to live with it.

For example, most of us desire a number of what might be called existential qualities in our lives, none of which can be sustained under naturalism:
  • We desire meaning in our lives. Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, wrote in Man's Search for Meaning that men can't live without meaning. Yet on naturalism, there is no meaning to be found anywhere in the cosmos, just "blind, pitiless indifference" in the words of Richard Dawkins.
  • We desire to ground our moral judgments in something solid, but on naturalism morality is "just an illusion, fobbed off on us by our genes, to get us to cooperate with each other" according to Michael Ruse. Nothing is really right or wrong in a moral sense. It's just useful or not in promoting the survival of the species.
  • We desire justice, but on naturalism death is the end and the selfish and cruel have the same fate as their victims - extinction. Unless there's accountability for our actions justice is a fiction.
  • We desire dignity, but on naturalism we're just animals, gobs of protoplasm in thrall to our genes, with no free will and no real specialness. In the words of Stephen Hawking "The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet." Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes puts it this way: "I see no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand." On naturalism no lives matter.
  • We desire to live, but on naturalism we all die and when those we love are gone they're gone forever. The late Will Provine of Cornell University writes: "There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will."
  • We desire happiness, but on naturalism the fate of most humans who've ever walked the earth has been simply to be born, suffer, and die. There are moments of pleasure, Woody Allen once said, "but they don't add up to anything."
Most people who believe that the natural world is all there is, however, can't live consistently with these implications of their basic assumption. They're like a person who suffers from dissociative identity disorder. They live their daily existence as though their lives were meaningful, as though there were such things as justice, dignity, and morality, but then they switch into their alter ego and insist that the only thing that could actually make any of these possible - i.e., God - doesn't exist.

There's an incoherence in naturalism, to be sure, but it's not found in the concept. Rather, it's found in the attempt to live as though the concept were true.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Retiring Theistic Evolution

John Farrell, writing at Forbes, quotes a number of Catholic scientists who embrace evolution but who wish to see the term "theistic evolution" retired from the lexicon. Their reasons are interesting.

The term has traditionally referred to the belief that evolution is in some way a God-ordained process that nevertheless appears to follow purely natural laws. In other words, theistic evolutionists (TE) differ from Intelligent Design (ID) folks in that IDers hold that there's ample evidence that the evolutionary process, to the extent that it has occurred, has been engineered by an intelligent agent whereas TE holds that even though evolution is a result of God's will you can't deduce that from the empirical evidence. According to TE there's no observable difference between God-ordained evolution and purely naturalistic evolution. God's role is discerned only through the eyes of faith.

So what do the people Farrell quotes have against the term "theistic evolution"? Here's what Stacy A. Trasancos, who has a PhD in chemistry and is a Catholic with her own blog about religion and science, writes:
Think about it. If you are a believer, it is already implied that you see all biological and physical processes as created and held in existence by God. You do not need “theistic” in front of biological terms. Who speaks of theistic reproduction? Or theistic gestation, theistic meiosis, or theistic menstruation? Plus, to qualify a biological process as ‘theistic’ implies that the opposite is possible, that God may not be involved in creating certain laws of nature.
Trasancos' objection, I think, is off the mark. The reason for employing the qualifier "theistic" in front of the word "evolution" is to distinguish that view from naturalistic evolution, i.e. the view that evolution is a process resulting from purely purposeless, physical influences and independent of any superintendency by a transcendent intellect. Pace Trasancos, the word "theistic" is a perfectly reasonable clarifier unless one assumes that all evolution is a purely naturalistic phenomenon, but why assume that?

Naturalistic evolution presents itself as a defeater for theism, and the conflict between the two is a worldview-level clash. There is no such controversy raging at the organismic level so no qualification or clarification is needed at that level.

One Catholic scientist who does believe that evolution is a wholly naturalistic process is Brown University biologist and author Kenneth R. Miller:
To me, and in the minds of most people who use the term, it implies that a god had to pre-ordain the outcome of the evolutionary process or at the very least guide it along to produce the world of today, including human beings his chosen creatures. I don’t believe that at all. Evolution is a fully-independent natural process driven by chance and necessity.
Miller, who professes Roman Catholic theism, sounds nevertheless very much like an 18th century deist, seeking to carve out in the world a major sphere of activity from which God is excluded. It's understandable, therefore, that he would object to being called, as he often is, a theistic evolutionist because he doesn't sound like a theist at all.

Farrell quotes Miller further:
The very fact that so many feel obliged to attach a statement about religious faith to evolution implies that evolution itself is a religious process, or at least has a special religious significance that other fields of science do not have. I reject that premise.
I think Miller is here poisoning the well a bit by introducing religion into what is in fact a discussion of issues in the philosophy of science.

Theistic evolution is a philosophical position, it's not necessarily religious, though religious people could hold it, nor do theistic evolutionists necessarily turn evolution into a "religious process."

To assert that the universe was designed and created by an intelligent agent is not to make a religious claim, although it certainly may have religious implications. After all, consider that those philosophers who assert that the world is really a computer simulation designed by intellectually advanced denizens of some other universe are not considered to be making religious claims. It's a mistake to assume that all talk of God, design, or creation is necessarily "religious."

One reason there's so much misunderstanding surrounding the question of origins, particularly the evolution/creation debate, is that there's so much misunderstanding about what the terms used in the discussion actually mean. Perhaps in an upcoming post we'll review some of the terminology to help facilitate understanding of this very important issue.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

History Lessons

I just returned form a wonderful tour of Germany that emphasized sites made famous by Martin Luther's contretemps with the Catholic church that evolved into the German Reformation. It was a thrill to stand in front of the church in Wittenberg where 500 years ago next year Luther appended his 95 theses to the church door soliciting debate, on, inter alia, the theological justification for Rome's practice of indulgences.

Indulgences, as you may know, were promises by the Church that one would be absolved of purgatorial punishment in exchange for a financial contribution. They were in fact nothing more than exploitation of the gullible masses in order to finance the Church's various wars and building projects, including St. Peter's basilica in Rome.

Luther's skepticism about the pope's authority to release people from purgatory led to a clash with Rome that resulted in his excommunication and which ultimately changed the world.

Anyway, our tour director was a woman of formidable intellect and knowledge of German history and culture. As we drove around Berlin and other sites in east Germany she frequently commented how grateful she and so many other Germans of her generation (she was born in the early 40s) were to the United States for helping to rebuild the country after the war. They were deeply grateful, she explained, for the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift which kept the citizens of West Berlin from being starved by the Soviet blockade, for John Kennedy's famous 1963 "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, and for Ronald Reagan's challenge, as he stood at the Brandenberg gate in 1987, to Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall which confined east Berliners in a dreary, stultifying prison:
Germans loved America for this, our guide assured us, even though we had bombed their cities into rubble during the war, a tragedy for which they blamed Adolf Hitler, not the U.S.

As she discoursed on this theme, I think most of the Americans on the bus (there were two Australians) probably felt at least a ripple of pride in the humanitarian task our parents' generation had undertaken, but I couldn't help but think, too, that I wished our first lady could have heard our guide's words. Mrs. Obama, of course, once declared that she hadn't been proud of her country until her husband was nominated to be the Democratic candidate for the office of president in 2008.

How could an educated person, a woman with a law degree no less, reflect on what the United States did for post-war Germany (and indeed Europe and Japan) and not take pride in the sacrifices her country had made for people who'd been devastated by the war? What other country in history has ever done anything for a conquered foe comparable to what the United States did after WWII?

To be fair, it could be that Michelle Obama never had a U.S. history class that wasn't taught by some Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky epigone, but whether she did or she didn't her statement was breathtakingly parochial, disappointing, and uninformed. Just ask the German woman who directed our tour and whose family suffered through those bleak days.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Liberals and Violence

What is it about liberals and violence?

There's been a myth circulating in our society for as long as I can remember that goes something like this: Conservatives are mean and violent while liberals are gentle and peaceful. The myth has been foisted on the public by liberals in the media and elsewhere ever since the 60s, but it's in fact a fraud belied by a ton of evidence.

For example, not only have most political assassins, successful or not, in the last sixty years been people on the left, but so much of the violent rhetoric on social media today emanates from liberals and progressives.

Here are just a few of many examples which could be cited:
  • A writer at GQ magazine tweeted recently that he wants to beat to death Pat Smith, the mother of an American slain in Benghazi, because she publicly blames Hillary Clinton for her son's death.
  • A university professor called for people to murder the staff of the NRA at their offices.
  • A man actually did try to assassinate Donald Trump at a public appearance during the primaries.
  • The editor of the Detroit Free Press called for the murder of GOP lawmakers.
  • A writer at Vox called for riots at Trump rallies.
  • A HuffPo writer argued that violence is necessary to stop Trump because his rhetoric incites violence and some of his supporters are violent people.
And these examples don't include all of the calls to murder white cops that we've heard in the last month.

Liberals have a problem. Thoughtful people often find liberal solutions and arguments unpersuasive, which is why so much of the liberal agenda has to be imposed by the courts and through executive orders, circumventing the will of the people.

But when circumvention doesn't work folks on the left seem to be increasingly resorting to calls for violence, hoping, presumably, that intimidation and social upheaval will accomplish what more peaceful strong-arm tactics could not.

Unfortunately, the liberal media, which wets its collective pants when Tea-Partiers wave Don't Tread on Me flags, rarely utter so much as a peep when their friends call for killing those with whom they disagree.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Genesis of Islamic Terrorism

We live in a time when stories of terrorist attacks by Islamic fanatics monopolize our daily news, a fact which prompts question like, where did this fanaticism come from? Why now?

Strategy Page has a brief history of the genesis of modern Islamic terror that will repay the ten minutes or so it'll take to read. Here's the opening:
Where exactly did the current crop of Islamic terrorists come from? Basically, they came from oil rich Arabia, mainly Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabi sect of Islam had always been among the most strict and intolerant and it comes from Arabia. The Saud family owed their power, in large part, to a 19th century alliance with the Wahhabi sect.

Holy Warriors from the Wahhabi tribes provided the crucial muscle that enabled the Sauds to conquer Saudi Arabia and establish their kingdom 70 years ago. But the Sauds realized that the more reactionary attitudes of the Wahhabis would hurt the kingdom in the long run. For example, many Wahhabi clerics were opposed to modern technology (unless it was a weapon). Radio, automobiles, and all manner of gadgets were resisted. The Sauds were constantly haggling with the Wahhabi clerics.

Finally, in the 1970s, after a serious outbreak of Islamic terrorism, the Sauds made a fatal deal with the Wahhabi clerics. The Wahabbis could control education in the kingdom, and have their own "lifestyle police" to enforce proper Islamic standards on Saudis, in return for keeping Islamic terrorism under control.

Then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Wahhabi clerics saw this as an assault by communist atheists (which is what Islamic conservatives considered the Soviets) on an Islamic state. The Wahhabi declared jihad (holy war, although a more appropriate translation would be “crusade”) against Russia. Billions of dollars and thousands of Arabs (most of them Saudis) went off to help the Afghans fight the Russians.

The Pakistanis cooperated because, at about the same time, the generals running Pakistan had seized on Islamic conservatism as a cure for the corruption that was making the country ungovernable and bankrupt. The Wahhabis, and their money, were welcomed. The Americans were there as well, as the "Afghan Freedom Fighters" were popular in the United States. The Americans provided some high tech weapons, intelligence, and trainers but most of the aid, and weapons, came from the Saudis.

In addition to guns, the Saudis also brought in Wahhabi preachers to set up religious schools for the millions of Afghan refugees. Pakistanis were allowed to attend these schools as well. The result was that some of the Pushtun tribes on both sides of the Afghan border were radicalized with Wahabbi beliefs. At this point Saudi Arabia was also exporting billions of dollars, and thousands of Wahhabi preachers, to many other Islamic countries in Asia and Africa. Some of that money went to Moslem communities in Europe and the Americas as well.
The article brings the state of affairs closer to the present day and concludes with this:
So how do you fight Islamic terrorism these days? Can't use the old ("kill 'em all") methods, so all you can do is keep the killers out of your own territory and wait for the madness to die out naturally, as it has done many times before....Another nasty aspect of Islamic terrorism is that, while only a small percentage of Moslems are willing to become Islamic terrorists, a larger percentage (ten percent or more, even among Moslems in the West) will support the Islamic terrorists and a majority of Moslems will, if asked, say they believe Islamic terrorism is justified when used to “defend Islam.”

Unless the Arab world reforms itself, the terrorism will keep returning until it does because the appeal of Islamic terrorism has, for over a thousand years, continually inspired young Moslem men to step up and kill for the cause. Because the victim populations, especially non-Moslem ones, will not stop fighting back, it’s either Islamic reform or continued mayhem.
Saudi Arabia made a bargain with the devil and has been exporting Wahabbism for thirty years. The world has been paying the price ever since.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Who Are the Racists?

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down a North Carolina law that would have required voters to present an identification at the polls in order to vote. This doesn't seem to be an onerous requirement since ID is required for almost everything else we do in our public life, but the three judges hearing the case discerned the scent of racism in the law and struck it down. You can read about their decision here.

Interestingly but not surprisingly, the decision was praised by the left and criticized by the right. Some might say that this is all to be expected since conservatives are racists anyway, but is that really true?

Suppose you were asked this question: "Among which group of people, conservatives or liberals, is racism most likely to be found today?" How would you answer?

This brief video looks at three issues - affirmative action, voter ID, and school choice - and asks whether the conservative or liberal position is most harmful to blacks who are usually thought to be the chief victims of racism in America.
If racism is an attitide of behavior harmful to the interests of the victims why is it that so many African Americans fail to see the implicit racism in the condescension of liberal attempts to thwart measures that actually treat blacks as capable, responsible members of society?

Why do so many blacks reject those who want to treat them like adults while remaining loyal to the party that treats them like children?

Monday, August 8, 2016

Good Without God

Jerry A. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago. He's also a prominent atheist who has written a book titled Faith Vs. Fact in which he tries to explain why theism is false.

A few years ago he wrote a column for USA Today in which he argued that belief in God is not necessary for one to live a moral life. He complains that:
As a biologist, I see belief in God-given morality as American's biggest impediment to accepting the fact of evolution. "Evolution," many argue, "could never have given us feelings of kindness, altruism and morality. For if we were merely evolved beasts, we would act like beasts. Surely our good behavior, and the moral sentiments that promote it, reflect impulses that God instilled in our soul."
There are three things wrong with this. First, "God-given morality" is not incompatible with evolution. God could be the ground both of moral value and of evolutionary change. The incompatibility is between "God-given morality" and naturalism, the belief that the natural world is all there is.

Second, no one argues that evolution could not, at least in theory, have given us the sentiments Coyne lists. The problem is that if evolution is the source of these impulses then it's also the source of avarice, bigotry, cruelty, etc. Given that evolution has produced all human behavioral tendencies, on what basis do we say that one set of behaviors is good and the other bad? Are we not assuming a standard above and beyond nature by which we adjudicate between behaviors to determine which are right and which are wrong?

Third, if an impersonal, mindless, random process is the ultimate source of these behaviors it can't in any moral sense be wrong to act contrary to them. If moral sentiments are the product of chance chemical happenstance and natural selection there is no non-arbitrary moral value to anything. Right and wrong reduce to subjective likes and dislikes.

Coyne continues his argument:
But though both moral and immoral behaviors can be promoted by religions, morality itself — either in individual behavior or social codes — simply cannot come from the will or commands of a God. This has been recognized by philosophers since the time of Plato.

Religious people can appreciate this by considering Plato's question: Do actions become moral simply because they're dictated by God, or are they dictated by God because they are moral? It doesn't take much thought to see that the right answer is the second one. Why? Because if God commanded us to do something obviously immoral, such as kill our children or steal, it wouldn't automatically become OK.

Of course, you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he's a completely moral being, but then you're still using some idea of morality that is independent of God. Either way, it's clear that even for the faithful, God cannot be the source of morality but at best a transmitter of some human-generated morality.
Coyne here adverts to the classic Euthyphro dilemma which has been discredited by philosophers for centuries (see here, and here). It's unfortunate that Coyne is unaware of this, but it illustrates the hazard of experts in one field speaking dogmatically on matters in other disciplines.

There's more:
So where does morality come from, if not from God? Two places: evolution and secular reasoning. Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we'd expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors.
Assuming this is correct what makes these behaviors moral or right? If a chimp acted contrary to these tendencies would we think the chimp immoral? Would we call its actions evil or wicked? Why, then, is it evil - if we're nothing more than hairless apes - to torture people or abuse children? We have an aversion to such things, to be sure, but aversion doesn't make something wrong.
And the conditions under which humans evolved are precisely those that would favor the evolution of moral codes: small social groups of big-brained animals. When individuals in a group can get to know, recognize and remember each other, this gives an advantage to genes that make you behave nicely towards others in the group, reward those who cooperate and punish those who cheat. That's how natural selection can build morality.
In other words we should be nice because we've evolved to be nice. This is fallacious. Because we have evolved a certain tendency, if indeed we have, it doesn't follow that we should express that tendency. As mentioned above, we've also evolved the tendency to be selfish and mean and a host of other like behavioral traits. Are these behaviors right just because they've evolved? Should we consider cruelty good because it's an evolved behavior?

Coyne concludes with this thought:
Secular reason adds another layer atop these evolved behaviors, helping us extend our moral sentiments far beyond our small group of friends and relatives — even to animals.
This is silly. Secular reason says no such thing. What secular reason dictates is that I should look out for my own interests, I should put myself first, and, pace Kant, use others to promote my own well-being and happiness. That may entail that I give people the impression that I care about them in order to get them to assist me in my own pursuit of happiness, but people who are of no use to me are of no value to me. Thus, it'd be foolish of me to sacrifice my comforts to help some starving child in some other part of the world who will never be of any use to me. Why, on Coyne's view, is it wrong to refuse such aid to victims of starvation? Atheistic philosopher Kai Nielson stresses this very point:
We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view or that all really rational persons unhoodwinked by myth or ideology need not be individual egoists or amoralists. Reason doesn't decide here. The picture I have painted is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me...pure reason...will not take you to morality.
Secular reason and evolution have no answer to the question why we should help those who are in no position to help us, at least none that doesn't reduce to the claim that helping others just makes us feel good. It's an ugly fact about naturalism that its logic entails such conclusions and either Coyne knows it's ugly and doesn't want his readers to know it, or he has no idea. In either case he should stick to biology.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Laffer Curve

Sometimes we hear acquaintances or political commentators on television scoff at the notion that decreasing taxes can actually increase the revenue taken in by the federal government. Indeed, superficially it does seem counter-intuitive to suggest that if the government reduces the taxes it assesses taxpayers it will actually reap more money for the treasury. Yet, to a point, it's true. There's a rate on the tax rate scale above which tax revenue diminishes and below which it increases.

The concept is based on something called the Laffer Curve, named for economist Art Laffer who first brought it to public attention back in the 80s. This short video explains the idea. As stated in the clip, if you're a liberal who wants big government then, as strange as it may sound to you, you should be in favor of lowering, not raising, taxes:
The Laffer Curve is one reason why conservatives have long favored modest tax rates, and why they think the liberal tendency to call for raising taxes, sometimes as high as 70% or more, is counterproductive and foolish.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Millenials and Capitalism

A poll taken last spring reveals that a majority of young people do not support capitalism, according to a story in the Washington Post, and fully one third of them favor socialism.

It's not clear whether their disenchantment is a result of a principled opposition to market economies, a failure to understand what capitalism is, or a consequence of the young feeling frustrated at the shrinking job market.

In any case, it seems clear that what many of the people surveyed are discounting is that the free market has brought more well-being to more people in more parts of the world than any other economic system in history. Even the world's poor are much better off as recipients of aid from countries where there's an abundance of wealth created by dynamic economies than they would be had those economies not been the engines of wealth creation they've heretofore been.

As this video shows, pace Bernie's supporters, socialism is neither a just nor a desirable alternative. The video addresses one aspect of the socialism/capitalism distinction, i.e. taxation, but it's also a good general illustration of socialist and capitalist approaches:

Thursday, August 4, 2016

True But Irrelevant

Media talking heads, intent on mocking Trump, point out that curtailing Muslim immigration wouldn't have prevented the Orlando massacre because the shooter was an American born citizen. This is as irrelevant as it is true.

The problem of violence is not with Muslim immigrants (unless they're terrorist infiltrators). The problem is with their children and grandchildren who seem to be especially vulnerable to the seductions of jihad. In fact, according to the Washington Times second generation Muslim Americans account for half of deadly terrorist attacks in the U.S.

An article at Breitbart amplifies this thesis:
For instance, Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born jihad propagandist and “spiritual advisor” to 9/11 terrorists was the son of migrants from Yemen; Syed Farook, the Chicago-born San Bernardino terrorist was the son of Pakistani migrants; Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter was the son of a woman who emigrated from Palestine; and Muhammed Youssef Abdulazees, the Chattanooga shooter who murdered four U.S. Marines was an immigrant from Kuwait, who naturalized at the age of 6.

In a December letter to the Obama administration demanding the release of the immigration histories of those connected to terrorism, Senator Jeff Sessions wrote: “We are dealing with an enemy that has shown it is not only capable of bypassing U.S. screening but of recruiting and radicalizing Muslim migrants after their entry to the United States. The recruitment of terrorists in the U.S. is not limited to adult migrants, but to their young children and to their U.S.-born children – which is why family immigration history is necessary to understand the nature of the threat.”

“It’s an unpleasant but unavoidable fact that bringing in large unassimilated flows of migrants from the Muslim world creates the conditions possible for radicalization and extremism to take hold, just like they’re seeing in Europe,” Sessions said on the Senate floor.
Trump may have been characteristically hyperbolic when he declared that all Muslim immigration be stopped, but that's not to say that he's not right when he says we have a serious problem that needs to be vigorously addressed. Unfortunately, there appears to be zero inclination on the part of the federal government under this administration to address it.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Thought Experiments

A thought experiment is a mental exercise in which the thinker constructs a scenario that perhaps does not or could not actually exist in the physical world but which helps one to visualize some problem. For example, you might be asked to imagine what the world would be like for someone who lacked the sense of sight and hearing. Or, what would things look like to a person travelling faster than the speed of light?

Philosophers and scientists use thought experiments all the time as they're very useful heuristic tools.

New Scientist has an article in which they discuss seven of the most famous thought experiments in science and philosophy. Here's their lede and three of their examples. I've added the videos:
If you imagined that thought experiments were mere mental gymnastics meant to bamboozle the uninitiated, think again. Take Schrödinger’s cat, perhaps the most famous example, which involves a cat that is simultaneously alive and dead. It seems bizarre – and that’s the point. It was designed as a slap on the wrist for quantum theorists, to show that a theory that predicts such nonsense must be missing something. Current thinking is that perhaps nothing is missing, and quantum theory really is as weird as it seems.

But other thought experiments have forced us to reformulate the laws that describe nature. Take Maxwell’s demon, which appears to break the laws of thermodynamics. It showed us that thermodynamics really was missing something (see “Matter, energy… knowledge: How to harness physics’ demonic power“).

Newton’s cannon

Take one gigantic cannon, put it on top of a mountain so high it reaches above the atmosphere, and fire horizontally. Irresponsible, perhaps, but instructive. If the cannonball is fired at a low speed, gravity will soon drag it down to the ground along a tightly curving arc. If you add more gunpowder, the ball will go faster and its arc will be more gradual, taking it further around the curve of the Earth. Fire it fast enough and the cannonball’s path will not meet the ground at all – it will fly all the way around and hit you in the back of the head.

This thought experiment helped Newton show that gravity is a universal force: the force we see pulling cannonballs and apples to Earth can also explain the orbit of the moon around Earth, and Earth around the sun.

We are used to the idea of universal forces now. We know that nuclear reactions fuel the distant stars, and that exoplanets can be magnetic. But before Newton there was no expectation that the celestial realm should have the same rules as Earth. His cannonball blew a big hole in such heavenly pretentions.

Achilles and the tortoise

Two-and-a-half millennia ago, the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea apparently proved that motion is an illusion. One of his paradoxes sets fleet-of-foot Achilles to chase a tortoise that has a small head start. Achilles can never catch the tortoise, argued Zeno, because first he must reach the point where the tortoise started, but by then the tortoise has moved on to a new position. So then Achilles must run there – by which time the tortoise has moved on again. The “dichotomy paradox” is more general: to cover any distance, you must first cover half that distance, then half of what’s left, then half of what’s left, and so on for ever. It seems that you can never get there, no matter what the original distance or how fast you move.

Since then, mathematicians have pointed out that although these arguments take an infinite amount of time to pan out, real motion doesn’t have to. We know for instance that that an infinite series of terms can add up to something finite. If you add an infinite series of fractions starting with ½ and halving in value with each new term (½ + ¼ +1/8…), the infinite sum is equal to 1. You can use maths like this to represent the distance traveled or the time taken in Zeno’s paradox, so — phew – motion is possible after all. That said, Zeno’s paradox may manifest itself for real in the quantum world.

The Chinese room

Can a computer be conscious? In an attempt to disprove this idea of “strong artificial intelligence”, John Searle, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, imagined himself inside a room of dictionaries and rule books that hold instructions for translating Chinese to English and vice versa. Someone posts a question through the door written in Chinese, and using his rule books Searle works out an appropriate answer. To the questioner it would seem there is a mind in the room that understands Chinese, even though there isn’t. Searle claims that a hypothetical rule-bound computer designed to speak Chinese would be the same — a mere machine with no understanding.

There are many objections to this thought experiment. Some argue that although Searle does not understand Chinese, he is part of a larger system, including the rule books, that does. You might balk at the idea that a mind could be made from a person plus some books, but it’s only a very dim mind, taking perhaps years or millennia to respond to one question.

Another interpretation is that Searle’s idea merely highlights the mystery of “other minds”: that you can’t know whether a computer, a penguin or the person next door is conscious in the same way as you are. If the Chinese room doesn’t disprove strong AI, thinking about it could help us to find out what’s missing from our understanding of consciousness.

Read the others. They're fascinating.