Friday, September 30, 2016

Science, Logic, and Feminism

Joy Pullman, senior editor at The Federalist calls attention to a Ph.D candidate who concludes in her dissertation that science is hostile to women and minorities because it requires them to think logically and to hold to the view that truth is objective. The doctoral candidate is a feminist, but I can't imagine anything more harmful to the cause of advancing opportunities for women and minorities than declaring that they lack the cognitive ability to think logically and do science. Yet that's evidently what she says.

Here's Pullman:
College science classes are hostile to women and minorities because they use the scientific method, which assumes people can find reliable truths about the natural world through careful and sustained experimentation, concludes a recent dissertation by a doctoral candidate at the University of North Dakota.

Laura Parson, a student in the university’s education department, reviewed eight science class syllabi at a “Midwest public university” and said she discovered in them a hidden hostility to women and minorities:
Initial exploration of the STEM syllabi in this study did not reveal overt references to gender, such as through the use of gendered pronouns. However, upon deeper review, language used in the syllabi reflects institutionalized STEM teaching practices and views about knowledge that are inherently discriminatory to women and minorities by promoting a view of knowledge as static and unchanging, a view of teaching that promotes the idea of a passive student, and by promoting a chilly climate that marginalizes women.
Even though the course syllabi contained no “gendered assumptions” about students or other overtly discriminatory implications, Parson writes, they display prejudice against women and minorities because they refuse to entertain the possibility that “scientific knowledge is subjective.”
I don't even know what it means to say that scientific knowledge is subjective. Does it mean that the acceleration of a falling object, for example, depends on how the experimenter feels about it?
Throughout her dissertation, Parson assumes and asserts that women and minorities are uniquely challenged by the idea that science can provide objective information about the natural world. This is an unfair assumption, she says, because the concept of objectivity is too hard for women and minorities to understand. “[N]otions of absolute truth and a single reality” are “masculine,” she says, referring to poststructuralist feminist theory.
Instead of promoting the idea that knowledge is constructed by the student and dynamic, subject to change as it would in a more feminist view of knowledge, the syllabi reinforce the larger male-dominant view of knowledge as one that students acquire and use [to] make the correct decision.
So, in other words, using logic and the scientific method are inherently “male” ways of knowing that women and minorities cannot employ. Rather than rejecting this insulting view of women and minorities’ intellectual and rational capacities, Parson uses it as a pretext to advocate that science classes abandon the scientific method itself (which rests on the assumption that truth is unchanging and knowable) and all other “male” forms of oppression, such as “weed-out courses, courses that grade on a curve, a competitive environment, reliance on lecture as a teaching method, an individualistic culture, and comprehensive exams.”
There's much more on Parson's views at the link. The more one reads the more suspicious one becomes that this woman is putting everyone on, but assuming she's serious I have a question. If a white male doctoral candidate had written this dissertation what are the chances that it would not have been rejected out of hand by his outraged committee as both blatantly sexist and racist? Nil.

So why is Laura Parson not held to the same standard? Or are we now to think that not only should women not be held to the same standard as men in the field of science, they shouldn't be held to the same standard in matters of gender and racial bias either?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Hillary's Awkward Relationship with the Facts

It's a shibboleth of the left that our criminal justice system is infected with systemic racism. Hillary Clinton herself reaffirmed this article of liberal faith during the debate Monday night, but is it true? Heather MacDonald, author of The War on Cops and a writer for City Journal argues that the evidence simply doesn't support the claim. Here's part of what she says:
Criminologists have tried for decades to prove that the over-representation of blacks in prison is due to criminal-justice racism. They have always come up short. They have been forced to the same conclusion as Michael Tonry in his book, Malign Neglect: “Racial differences in patterns of offending, not racial bias by police and other officials, are the principal reason that such greater proportions of blacks than whites are arrested, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned,” Tonry wrote. In 1997, criminologists Robert Sampson and Janet Lauritsen reviewed the massive literature on charging and sentencing. They found overwhelming evidence establishing that “large racial differences in criminal offending,” not racism, explained why more blacks were in prison proportionately than whites and for longer terms.

To say, as Clinton did last night, that blacks are more likely to be incarcerated for doing the same thing as whites ignores the relevance of a defendant’s criminal history in determining his sentence, among other crucial sentencing factors. Just last week, an analysis of Delaware’s prison population presented to the Delaware Access to Justice Commission’s Committee on Fairness in the Criminal Justice System revealed that when juvenile and adult criminal records are taken into account, along with arrest charges and age, racial disparities in sentencing decisions are negligible to nonexistent.
Ms Clinton also sought to exploit the myth that "stop and frisk" is a racist police tactic, but MacDonald is having none of it:
Clinton claimed that “stop-and-frisk was found to be unconstitutional.” [But] No federal judge would have the power to declare pedestrian stops unconstitutional, because the Supreme Court put its constitutional imprimatur on the practice in 1965. Stop-and-frisk remains a lawful and essential police tactic. Criminologist David Weisburd examined the practice in New York City and found that it reduced crime in shooting hot spots. Federal district court judge Shira Scheindlin did rule that the New York Police Department’s practice of stops was racially biased, but her ruling applied only to the New York Police Department. That ruling was wholly unjustified and would likely have been reversed on appeal had newly elected New York City mayor Bill de Blasio not dropped the appeal.
But why did the judge rule that police stops were "racially biased" in the first place?
Judge Scheindlin used a population benchmark for measuring the lawfulness of police actions: if police stops didn’t match population ratios, they were unconstitutional, in Scheindlin’s view. Such a methodology ignores the massive disparities in criminal offending in New York City. Blacks commit over three-quarters of all shootings, though they are 23 percent of the city’s population. Add Hispanic shootings to black shootings and you account for 98 percent of all shootings in New York City.

Whites are 34 percent of the city’s population, [but] they commit less than 2 percent of all shootings. Such disparities in gun violence mean that virtually every time the police are called out on a gun run — meaning that someone has been shot — they are called to minority neighborhoods on behalf of minority victims, and, if any witness or victim is cooperating with the police, being given a description of a minority suspect. The reality of crime, not phantom police racism, determines the incidence of police activity, including pedestrian stops.
What Ms Clinton doesn't know, or doesn't want voters to know, is that "stop and frisk" is a blessing to minority residents of our urban neighborhoods:
Clinton claimed that stop-and-frisk was “ineffective” and “did not do what it needed to do.” [Yet] Felony crime dropped 85 percent from the early 1990s to the mid-2010s in New York City; more than 10,000 minority males were spared the violent death that they would have experienced had homicides remained at their early 1990s levels. Stop-and-frisk was a crucial part of that crime drop, the longest and steepest on record; it’s hard to imagine anything more effective than New York’s proactive policing revolution. Stop-and-frisk deterred criminals from carrying guns. Equally importantly, it intervened in a range of other criminal behaviors. If an officer saw someone casing a store on a boulevard plagued with burglaries, or saw someone walking quickly behind an elderly lady in a neighborhood plagued with robberies, he would stop that person and ask a few questions. That stop may not have resulted in an arrest, but it could have averted the commission of a crime.

Homicides and shootings in New York City rose 20 percent in the first half of 2015, thanks to the Scheindlin-induced drop in pedestrian stops. Then-police commissioner William Bratton responded with a massive deployment of overtime manpower to high-crime corners; officers used “command presence”—i.e., their mere presence on the street—to deter criminal behavior. This roll-out of manpower resources quelled the shooting spike and New York City ended 2015 with a 6 percent homicide increase. Other departments do not have the personnel available to them to make up for a drop in proactive policing.
Perhaps for the sake of the people living in these high crime neighborhoods the left should admit that our political correctness fetish is exacting a high cost in the maiming and killing of young blacks and Hispanics and let the police get the guns from those who are carrying them illegally, even if that means sometimes frisking innocent people. It can be demeaning to be frisked when one is completely innocent, but I should think that the innocent residents of New York and other cities would be willing to suffer a little indignity if it saves the life of just one black kid. Wouldn't you?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Most Horrifying Threat

Perhaps the most dangerous threat facing our nation from abroad is not the annihilation of our cities in a nuclear holocaust or the threat of chemical or biological warfare. Rather, the most terrifying danger we face is easily the threat of EMP visited upon us by the Iranians or the North Koreans.

What, you may ask, is EMP? An article by James H. Hyde in The Federalist explains. The whole article is worth reading but here's the salient excerpt:
EMP stands for “electromagnetic pulse,” and it is truly devastating to anything and everything that has a microchip in it or is part of the crumbling, antiquated, and hopelessly snarled convergence of wires we call our electric grid.

An EMP-based weapon would do a good deal of damage. But if the last two DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of North Korea) tests involved thermonuclear devices, they could become Super-EMPs. When those are put aboard a satellite and detonated 300 miles above the center of the U.S., just one of them would...[throw] our urban and suburban populaces into abject panic and chaos.

As I write this, the DPRK has two satellites flying above us on a south to north trajectory....While no data stream has been detected coming from either “earth-based satellite” (according to the DPRK), it is not known whether nuclear devices are aboard those satellites or whether they are “test vehicles.”

Kim Jung Un's request for a satellite in higher orbit is particularly troubling: it means he could pack an EMP or Super-EMP device on it and put it into orbit over the U.S. Unless we take swift measures to “harden” our electric grid and military assets—and soon—America could become an endangered society. An EMP or Super-EMP detonated at an altitude of between 25 and 300 miles (the higher the better) would be cataclysmic.

The detonation itself would not harm us physically. The kinetic energy (radiation) would dissipate harmlessly in space. The increased gamma rays, however, would race toward earth in three waves, milliseconds apart. Electrons in air molecules in our atmosphere would be knocked out by gamma rays in massive numbers that then rush earthward. Once they came in contact with the ground, they would take out transformers in substations. Hyper-electrical pulses would snake along our electric lines, destroying transmission and distribution technologies as they go.

The immediate effects would be withering: planes in flight would start falling from the skies. Chemical plants that control hazardous materials would no longer be controlled, imperiling all who live nearby as their computerized technology fails. Most cars built after 1974 would lose power. Trains, especially those operating on electrified tracks, would come to a halt. Tens of thousands would be stuck in elevators nationwide....City populations living in skyscraper apartment buildings would no longer get water pumped to them. Bottled water would disappear from supermarket shelves on the first day. Most supermarkets are stocked for only three days worth of consumable inventory, especially meats and fresh vegetables.

Perhaps most vulnerable in the transmission and distribution system are huge transformers that are extremely hard to replace, and (as with so many other industries) no longer manufactured here. They now come from Germany and South Korea. These transformers are complex power regulators that take a year to build and cost $10 million. They must be shipped here and off-loaded to special trucks that can accommodate them. Each one can weigh over 400 tons. A standard 18-wheeler won’t do the job. Their tires would burst.

Plus, gasoline would become extremely scarce. Oil refineries would cease to function, so finding enough gas to power these huge trucks would be nigh impossible. We have some backup transformers here, but nowhere near enough to replace all of the damaged ones hit by an EMP. Estimates are that it would be at least a decade before we could replace enough transformers to get at least some electricity flowing.
But the devastation would not end there. In fact that would be the least of it:
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “There are 60 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 100 nuclear reactors in 30 states in the United States. Of these plants, 36 have two or more reactors.” Nuclear power plants are as dependent on power from the grid as any other energy-consuming entities. The Nuclear Regulatory Agency mandates that a one-week supply of diesel fuel be sustained at each nuclear plant to fuel the backup generators. But it’s useless if there are any computer chips running those generators. The only other possibility is to use battery backups for as long as possible. When those fail, even reactors taken offline need to be bathed constantly in cold water. Without generators or batteries to pump that water, there’s no way to cool the reactors or the spent-fuel-rod pools. Once the water boils off, it’s Fukushima times 100.

Regardless of how it’s done, few would survive an EMP attack. If we were to be hit by a Super-EMP, only those who have amply prepared by having renewable water supplies and food stores will have a chance.All of those reactors will melt down with the spent-fuel rods. Hydrogen will build up in the tops of the reactors, as it did in Fukushima, and if ignited would cause the same explosions we saw in Japan. With the Jet Stream flowing from west to east, radioactivity would cover the nation.

Given barbarous regimes of North Korea and Iran, the fanaticism of their leaders, and their hatred for the United States, we should assume that if they ever achieve the capability to detonate a nuclear device over this country, they'll do it, even if it means their own national suicide. If such a horrific event ever does occur then most North Americans will die and those who survive will find themselves living under 19th century conditions.

Some critics think fears of an EMP attack are overblown, and perhaps they are, but no one really knows. Even so, why are our media and presidential candidates talking about how many bankruptcies Trump has filed and how many women will vote for Hillary? Why are they not talking about how they'll protect us from what is potentially the most serious threat facing this nation in its history? Why are we such an unserious people?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Assuming a Can Opener

Author Eric Metaxis recounts the old story of a chemist, a physicist, and an economist stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat but a can of soup:
Puzzling over how to open the can, the chemist says, “Let’s heat the can until it swells and bursts from the buildup of gases.” “No, no,” says the physicist, “let’s throw it off that cliff with just enough kinetic energy to split it open on the rocks below.” The economist, after thinking a moment says, “Assume a can opener.”
The humor of the story lies in the absurdity of the assumption. Of course, if there's a can opener then there's no problem getting the can opened, but what justifies the assumption that a can opener exists?

Metaxis compares this story with its convenient assumption of the existence of a can opener to the controversy surrounding the origin of life. He writes:
The way Darwinists approach the origin of life is a lot like that economist’s idea for opening the can. The Darwinian mechanism of mutation and natural selection explains everything about life, we’re told—except how it began. “Assume a self-replicating cell containing information in the form of genetic code,” Darwinists are forced to say. Well, fine. But where did that little miracle come from?

Dr. Stephen Meyer explains in his book “Signature in the Cell” why this may be Darwinism’s Achilles heel. In order to begin evolution by natural selection, you need a self-replicating unit. But the cell and its DNA blueprint are too complicated by far to have arisen through chance chemical reactions. The odds of even a single protein forming by accident are astronomical. So Meyer and other Intelligent Design theorists conclude that Someone must have designed and created the structures necessary for life.
Darwinian naturalists, however, simply assume a can opener. They assume, despite the complete and utter lack of empirical evidence, that something existed somewhere that somehow organized the first replicating cell.

When someone believes something despite the lack of supporting evidence we sometimes derisively call that blind faith. It's ironic that those who believe that the extraordinary complexity and functionality of life are evidence of an intelligent agent are accused of having "blind faith" by the same people who believe that nature waved a magic wand and fortuitously brought living things into being by accident from a chemical soup even though no evidence has ever been adduced that would support the claim that this is even possible.

Those who direct the pejorative of blind faith at those who posit an intelligent agent behind the origin of living things would do well to first examine a few of their own beliefs before they find themselves embarrassingly hoist with their own petard.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Cruz's Letter

A lot of people were stunned and disappointed when Senator Ted Cruz announced on Friday that he was going to vote for Donald Trump. During the primaries Trump insulted Cruz, his wife and his father and earned the enmity of the legions of Cruz supporters across the country. Unfortunately Trump won the nomination, but despite having pledged early on to support whomever the nominee turned out to be, Cruz has been understandably loath to do so publicly. Until now.

His decision has elicited a lot of comment from the #NeverTrump folks in the GOP. People have accused him of selling out his principles or of making a political calculation, but neither of these allegations is the most charitable interpretation of Cruz's decision.

If people supported Cruz because they believe he's that rare breed, a principled politician, why not give him the benefit of the doubt that his endorsement was dictated by principle? Why not think that the man was going to swallow his pride, set aside the personal insults, and do what he believed was best for the country?

Other critics have argued that, setting principle aside, this was a terrible political mistake, but it's not clear to me how this might be. Cruz is already the next most popular politician in Texas after the Governor, and few people will remember his endorsement of Trump or hold it against him in 2020 should he run again for president. Moreover, the Trump crowd will be much more likely to support him four years from now because of his endorsement of their man this year.

If Hillary wins in November, Cruz will be in a good position to run against her as a candidate that Trumpers and conservatives both can support. If Trump wins in November he'll be 74 in 2020 and probably not eager to put himself through the wringer again. Cruz would be in a good position, having gained the good graces of Trump's minions, to compete with Mike Pence for Trump's mantle.

But I want to give Cruz the benefit of the doubt and say that he did it, not as a result of some crass political calculation, but for the reasons he actually stated. Here's an excerpt from the letter he sent out:
I’ve made this decision for two reasons. First, last year, I promised to support the Republican nominee. And I intend to keep my word.

Second, even though I have had areas of significant disagreement with our nominee, by any measure Hillary Clinton is wholly unacceptable — that’s why I have always been #NeverHillary.

Six key policy differences inform my decision. First, and most important, the Supreme Court. For anyone concerned about the Bill of Rights — free speech, religious liberty, the Second Amendment — the Court hangs in the balance. I have spent my professional career fighting before the Court to defend the Constitution. We are only one justice away from losing our most basic rights, and the next president will appoint as many as four new justices. We know, without a doubt, that every Clinton appointee would be a left-wing ideologue. Trump, in contrast, has promised to appoint justices “in the mold of Scalia.”

For some time, I have been seeking greater specificity on this issue, and today the Trump campaign provided that, releasing a very strong list of potential Supreme Court nominees — including Sen. Mike Lee, who would make an extraordinary justice — and making an explicit commitment to nominate only from that list. This commitment matters, and it provides a serious reason for voters to choose to support Trump.

Second, Obamacare. The failed healthcare law is hurting millions of Americans. If Republicans hold Congress, leadership has committed to passing legislation repealing Obamacare. Clinton, we know beyond a shadow of doubt, would veto that legislation. Trump has said he would sign it.

Third, energy. Clinton would continue the Obama administration’s war on coal and relentless efforts to crush the oil and gas industry. Trump has said he will reduce regulations and allow the blossoming American energy renaissance to create millions of new high-paying jobs.

Fourth, immigration. Clinton would continue and even expand President Obama’s lawless executive amnesty. Trump has promised that he would revoke those illegal executive orders.

Fifth, national security. Clinton would continue the Obama administration’s willful blindness to radical Islamic terrorism. She would continue importing Middle Eastern refugees whom the FBI cannot vet to make sure they are not terrorists. Trump has promised to stop the deluge of unvetted refugees.

Sixth, Internet freedom. Clinton supports Obama’s plan to hand over control of the Internet to an international community of stakeholders, including Russia, China, and Iran. Just this week, Trump came out strongly against that plan, and in support of free speech online.

These are six vital issues where the candidates’ positions present a clear choice for the American people.

If Clinton wins, we know — with 100% certainty — that she would deliver on her left-wing promises, with devastating results for our country.

My conscience tells me I must do whatever I can to stop that.

We also have seen, over the past few weeks and months, a Trump campaign focusing more and more on freedom — including emphasizing school choice and the power of economic growth to lift African-Americans and Hispanics to prosperity.

Finally, after eight years of a lawless Obama administration, targeting and persecuting those disfavored by the administration, fidelity to the rule of law has never been more important.

The Supreme Court will be critical in preserving the rule of law. And, if the next administration fails to honor the Constitution and Bill of Rights, then I hope that Republicans and Democrats will stand united in protecting our fundamental liberties.

Our country is in crisis. Hillary Clinton is manifestly unfit to be president, and her policies would harm millions of Americans. And Donald Trump is the only thing standing in her way.
He could've also mentioned the corruption at the Department of Justice and the IRS which would doubtless continue under a Democratic administration, but the reasons he lists seem adequate to justify his decision. Why not take the man at his word?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Is Free Will an Illusion? (Pt. II)

Yesterday we took a look at philosopher Stephen Cave's essay on free will which appeared in The Atlantic last June. Cave quoted several neuroscientists who believe that our sense that we freely make the choices we do is in truth an illusion and that our choices are actually the product solely of chemical reactions occurring in the brain which are themselves the product of our genetic endowments or the environmental influences that have acted upon us throughout our lives. This view is called determinism.

Here are a few more excerpts, with my commentary, from Cave's article:
Determinism, to one degree or another, is gaining popular currency. The skeptics are in ascendance. This development raises uncomfortable—and increasingly nontheoretical—questions: If moral responsibility depends on faith in our own agency, then as belief in determinism spreads, will we become morally irresponsible? And if we increasingly see belief in free will as a delusion, what will happen to all those institutions that are based on it?

Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.
And little wonder. If determinism is true there really can be no moral obligation, nor any real moral right or wrong. Morality is based on the notion that we are free to choose between options. If no such freedom exists then neither does morality. It's merely an illusion, as Cave's words suggest.
Saul Smilansky, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, has wrestled with this dilemma throughout his career and come to a painful conclusion: “We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth” about free will. Smilansky is convinced that free will does not exist in the traditional sense—and that it would be very bad if most people realized this.

Smilansky advocates a view he calls illusionism—the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, “look the dark truth in the face.” Smilansky says he realizes that there is something drastic, even terrible, about this idea—but if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.
In other words, Smilansky can't live with the implications of his materialist worldview. It forces an untenable conflict between what's true and what's good, but any worldview that is unlivable is also unviable. Instead of saying that truth must go maybe he should be saying that his materialism must go. It's stunning that someone would cling so tenaciously to his worldview that he'd be willing to deliberately sacrifice the truth rather than give it up.
[N]euroscientist and writer Sam Harris, his 2012 book, Free Will, set out to bring down the fantasy of conscious choice. Like Smilansky, he believes that there is no such thing as free will. But Harris thinks we are better off without the whole notion of it.

According to Harris, we should acknowledge that even the worst criminals—murderous psychopaths, for example—are in a sense unlucky. “They didn’t pick their genes. They didn’t pick their parents. They didn’t make their brains, yet their brains are the source of their intentions and actions.” In a deep sense, their crimes are not their fault. Recognizing this, we can dispassionately consider how to manage offenders in order to rehabilitate them, protect society, and reduce future offending. Harris thinks that, in time, “it might be possible to cure something like psychopathy,” but only if we accept that the brain, and not some airy-fairy free will, is the source of the deviancy.

Accepting this would also free us from hatred. Holding people responsible for their actions might sound like a keystone of civilized life, but we pay a high price for it: Blaming people makes us angry and vengeful, and that clouds our judgment.
Harris' view is actually better than Smilansky's since Harris at least says that we should embrace the truth, at least as he understands it, and acknowledge that there's no free will nor any entailments of free will such as moral responsibility. This would perhaps free us from being "angry and vengeful," but at what cost? A world in which no one was seen as guilty (or praiseworthy), where no one was seen as morally responsible for anything they did, would quickly devolve into chaos. Moreover, who gets to define what "deviancy" is? One man's deviancy is another man's passion, and if determinism is true why should any deviancy be suppressed or "rehabilitated"?

These men are aware that there's a genuine conflict between free will, moral responsibility and materialism, but their solution is to hold tenaciously to materialism and have done with truth, free will, and/or moral responsibility. This is a bit like the obese man whose weight has caused his blood pressure to elevate and who chooses to address the problem by refusing to have his blood pressure taken. Maybe what the obese man should do instead is shed the weight, and maybe what the materialist should do is shed his materialism.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Is Free Will an Illusion? (Pt. I)

One of the most intractable of all philosophical questions over the centuries has been the question of whether we really have the freedom to make genuine choices or whether our choices are the product simply of environmental or genetic factors over which we ultimately have no control. In other words, do we have free will or are we determined - programmed by physics and chemistry - to choose the way we do?

A friend passed along a recent and very interesting article in The Atlantic by philosopher Stephen Cave who explores the question and, perhaps unintentionally, illustrates how one's worldview influences the philosophical positions one takes.

Here are just a few excerpts from Cave's essay:
In recent decades, research on the inner workings of the brain has helped to resolve the nature-nurture debate—and has dealt a further blow to the idea of free will. Brain scanners have enabled us to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons and allowing scientists to reach broad agreement that these networks are shaped by both genes and environment. But there is also agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.

We know that changes to brain chemistry can alter behavior—otherwise neither alcohol nor antipsychotics would have their desired effects. The same holds true for brain structure: Cases of ordinary adults becoming murderers or pedophiles after developing a brain tumor demonstrate how dependent we are on the physical properties of our gray stuff.
Throughout his article Cave simply assumes materialism is true. Of course, if it is true then obviously only the material brain can be responsible for our mental activity. But why think materialism is true? Cave never tells us but rather just seems to assume everyone, or at least all intelligent people, accepts it. If, though, it's not true and we do have immaterial minds then it could be that brains and minds work in tandem like the television set and the electromagnetic signals that the set receives and converts into an image. Fiddling with the set will disturb the image, but that doesn't mean that the set is all there is to the production of the image. Cave continues:
Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.
This is not quite correct, however. What Libet (who himself believed we have free will) showed was that even though electrical activity in the brain precedes our awareness of the need to make a decision, we still have the ability to overrule the decision that the brain has selected for us. (See here)
The challenge posed by neuroscience is more radical: It describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.
This is the contemporary scientific image because many neuroscientists embrace metaphysical materialism. In other words, it's their metaphysics that causes them to embrace this picture, not their science. If one has concluded that everything that exists is comprised of matter and energy then whatever explanation for our cognitive processes one invents will ultimately be based on nothing more than atoms and energy.

The really critical question, then, is whether there are good reasons to accept materialism, but, since materialism is, in fact, a metaphysical preference, that's not a question science can answer. More on Cave's article tomorrow.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Snowflakes and Censors

Oklahoma Weslyan University President Dr. Everett Piper's brief essay last Fall titled This is Not a Daycare, It's a University went viral.

The University of Chicago's Dean of Students, Dr. John Ellison raised eyebrows nationwide when he sent a letter last month cautioning incoming freshmen not to expect safe spaces and trigger warnings.

It's an astonishing development that such sentiments and expectations are so unusual that when they're expressed they become newsworthy.

Why are so many students so sensitive and fragile that they must be treated like emotional hemophiliacs to whom the slightest bruise to their self-esteem could prove fatal?

Indulge me in a bit of speculation. Maybe the deeper problem is not so much one of fragility, though it is that, but insecurity. I suspect that a lot of kids in the last couple of generations are profoundly insecure because they've grown up during a time of great instability and erosion of two institutions which had been traditional sources of security and comfort for children - the family and the church.

When children grow up in unstable homes, when they grow up with few adult role models to give them discipline and love, when they lack the structure and moral instruction provided by good parents and good churches (and good schools), and when they grow up in a culture that has largely abandoned the notion of truth, they may tend to be so desperate for love and attention that they come to see their needs as at the very center of the universe around which all else should orbit.

Maybe that analysis is all wrong, but it's as good an explanation as any I can think of for why someone thinks she can treat other people as this young woman at Yale thinks she has the right to treat her professor.
For the background to this encounter go here. It's sad reading, given that the provocation for her demeaning tirade seems, sub specie aeternitatis, so trivial. There are four other videos of this professor's encounter with his students here. Someone has labelled students who are so sensitive that the least transgression of their emotional ambit precipitates a meltdown snowflakes. They dissolve when touched.

In any case, I wonder if Yale considers this student's outburst to be hate speech because it certainly sounds hateful.

Speaking of hate speech, I didn't realize that Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again" is hate speech, but on some campuses it is, and there are people out there, such as the woman in the following video, who believe it must be censored:
I'm reminded of the words of the leftist MIT professor Noam Chomsky who once said that "If we don't believe in freedom of speech for people we despise we don't believe in it at all." Evidently, at least some on the left no longer believe in free speech at all. This is ironic since it was the left which demanded free speech back in the sixties in order to get their message out. Now that they've been largely successful in not only getting their message out but having it prevail, they want to shut down free speech for everyone who doesn't agree with them.

It seems that for at least some on the left freedom is just a tool that only they are allowed to use.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Reflections on the News

If I had my way there are two terms upon which I'd have the media place a moratorium, those being lone wolf and radical extremist. The first is used as promiscuously by media talking heads as some millenials use the word "like." Listening to media grandees discuss terrorist incidents is a variation on the infamous Chinese water torture. One finds oneself gritting one's teeth in anticipation of the next mention of a "lone wolf" much as the torture victim tenses himself in anticipation of the next drop of water striking his head with the force of a hammer. Surely the vocabularies of these ladies and gentlemen is not so depauperate as to prohibit them from employing from time to time a synonym.

The second term, radical extremist, is simply inapt. Islamic terrorists who seek to kill non-Muslims are no more radical extremists than are Christian Amishman or missionaries radical extremists. The pacifist Amishman and the evangelical missionary are simply trying to live out what they believe the New Testament calls Christians to do. They're seeking to emulate the one whose followers they desire to be. In precisely the same way the Islamic terrorist is simply striving to fulfill the injunctions imposed upon him by the Koran, among which are the duty to hate the infidel and kill him wherever he can, and to emulate the example of violence and terror set by the one whose followers they desire to be. The Islamic terrorist is not an extremist, he's a purist.


There's been another tragic police shooting. A female police officer appears to have shot and killed an unarmed man, apparently for no very good reason. It's national news now, and the Federal Department of Justice is even investigating. This is interesting because a couple of years ago in a town near where I live another female officer shot and killed an unarmed man, apparently for no very good reason, and it never became more than a local story and no federal investigation took place. So what's the salient difference between the two cases? Why does the media promote one story into the national headlines and onto nationwide evening news shows but not the other one?

Could it be that it's because the media never misses an opportunity to stir up racial hostility? I ask this because the only difference between the earlier case and the more recent one is that, although in both instances the officer was a white female, in the earlier case the victim was a white male and in the latter case he was a black male. Apparently, it's media policy when a cop kills a white man to yawn and roll over, but when a cop kills a black man, the media rouses itself to herald the news so that maybe they can incite a protest or, with luck, a violent riot. I know this sounds harsh, but what else could be their motive for treating these two stories so differently?

The fact is that the media is largely a liberal institution and the left has a vested interest in keeping the racial pot simmering. Racial unrest and dissatisfaction gets other liberals elected to political office, aggrandizes the left's power, and gives media folks lots of conflict narratives, their favorite theme, to write and talk about. Racial tension is not so good for the rest of us, but it's bread and butter for liberal politicos and journalists.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Language Problem

I've been enjoying Tom Wolfe's new book, The Kingdom of Speech, and heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the theory of evolution and/or the history of the study of linguistics. Michael Egnor at Evolution News and Views concurs with this commendation, and goes even further. Rather than me telling you what the book is about, I'll quote Egnor:
Tom Wolfe has a new book, The Kingdom of Speech, and it's superb. Wolfe's theme is that human language is unique and is not shared in any way with other animals. He argues forcefully that evolutionary stories about the origin of human language are not credible.

In the first chapter of his book, Wolfe describes an article in the journal Frontiers of Psychology from 2014, co-authored by leading linguist Noam Chomsky. Wolfe declares that:
"The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever," [the authors] concluded. Not only that, they sounded ready to abandon all hope of ever finding the answer. Oh, we'll keep trying, they said gamely... but we'll have to start from zero again. One of the eight was the biggest name in the history of linguistics, Noam Chomsky. "In the last 40 years," he and the other seven were saying, "there has been an explosion of research on this problem," and all it had produced was a colossal waste of time by some of the greatest minds in academia....

One hundred and fifty years since the Theory of Evolution was announced, and they had learned...nothing...In that same century and a half, Einstein discovered the speed of light and the relativity of speed, time and distance... Pasteur discovered that microorganisms, notably bacteria, cause an ungodly number of diseases, from head colds to anthrax and oxygen-tubed, collapsed-lung, final-stage pneumonia... Watson and Crick discovered DNA, the so-called building blocks genes are made of ...and 150 years' worth of linguists, biologists, anthropologists, and people from every other discipline discovered... nothing...about language. What is the problem? What's the story?...What is it that they still don't get after a veritable eternity?
Wolfe provides a précis of his argument:
Speech is not one of man's several unique attributes -- speech is the attribute of all attributes!
Yet despite almost two centuries of speculations and hypothesizing we're no closer today to being able to explain what language is or how we come to have it than we've ever been. Indeed, Darwin and his votaries tried to come up with a plausible explanation and failed so utterly that scientists gave up for almost eighty years trying to explain it. Says Wolfe:
It is hard to believe that the most crucial single matter, by far, in the entire debate over the Evolution of man - language - was abandoned, thrown down the memory hole, from 1872 to 1949.
It's also hard to believe that it's been 67 years since 1949 and still no progress has been made on this question. Egnor writes:
And yet, as Wolfe points out, Darwinists are at an utter loss to explain how language -- the salient characteristic of man -- "evolved." None of the deep drawer of evolutionary just-so stories come anywhere close to explaining how man might have acquired the astonishing ability to craft unlimited propositions and concepts and subtleties within subtleties using a system of grammar and abstract designators (i.e. words) that are utterly lacking anywhere else in the animal kingdom.
Egnor, who is himself a neuroscientist, closes his piece with these words:
I have argued before that the human mind is qualitatively different from the animal mind. The human mind has immaterial abilities -- the intellect's ability to grasp abstract universal concepts divorced from any particular thing -- and that this ability makes us more different from apes than apes are from viruses. We are ontologically different. We are a different kind of being from animals. We are not just animals who talk. Although we share much in our bodies with animals, our language -- a simulacrum of our abstract minds -- has no root in the animal world.

Language is the tool by which we think abstractly. It is sui generis. It is a gift, a window into the human soul, something we are made with, and it did not evolve. Language is a rock against which evolutionary theory wrecks, one of the many rocks -- the uncooperative fossil record, the jumbled molecular evolutionary tree, irreducible complexity, intricate intracellular design, the genetic code, the collapsing myth of junk DNA, the immaterial human mind -- that comprise the shoal that is sinking Darwin's Victorian fable.
The charm of Wolfe's book is that it reads like a novel, which is the metier for which Wolfe is famous. It's free of scientific jargon, it's funny and contains some fascinating insights into several of the major figures in the history of the search for an explanation for the origin and nature of language. Plus, it's only 169 pages long. All in all a great read.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Premoderns and Postmoderns (Pt. III)

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

Bottum writes that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Premoderns and Postmoderns (Pt. II)

I'd like to continue our look at the First Things essay (Christians and Postmoderns) by Joseph Bottum that I began yesterday.

Bottum writes that:

[T]he massive scientific advance of modernity reveals how easy it is to discover facts, and modernity's collapse reveals how hard it is to hold knowledge. We have an apparatus for discovery unrivaled by the ages, yet every new fact means less than the previously discovered one, for we lack what turns facts to knowledge: the information of what the facts are for.

Precisely so. Modernity offers us no satisfying interpretive framework for assigning meaning to the facts discovered by science. It attempts to supply the need for such a framework by interpreting everything in terms of evolutionary development, but the view that each of us is just a meaningless cipher in the grand flow of time and evolution fails somehow to quench our deepest longings. According to the modern worldview there really is no purpose for the existence of anything. The facts discovered by science, as important as they may be for the furtherance of our technology, don't really have any metaphysical significance. Like everything else, they're just there.

Bottum continues:

And so "we must learn to live after truth," as a group of European academics wrote in After Truth: A Postmodern Manifesto. "Nothing is certain, not even this . . . The modern age opened with the destruction of God and religion. It is ending with the threatened destruction of all coherent thought." Nietzsche may have been the first to see this clearly .... But, even in the fundamental thinkers of high modernity, hints can be found that knowledge requires God: Descartes uses God in the Meditations in order to escape from the interiority where the cogito has stranded him; Kant uses God as a postulate of pure practical reason in order to hold on to the possibility of morality.

What [theistic] believers have in common with postmoderns is a distrust of modern claims to knowledge. To be a believer, however, is to be subject to an attack that postmoderns, holding truthlessness to themselves like a lover, never have to face. The history of modernity in the West is in many ways nothing more than the effort to destroy medieval faith. It is a three-hundred-year attempt to demolish medieval (especially Catholic) claims to authority, and to substitute a structure of science and ethics based solely on human rationality.

But with the failure to discover any such rational structure - seen by the postmoderns - the only portion of the modern project still available to a modern is the destruction of faith. It should not surprise us that, in very recent times, attacks on what little is left of medieval belief have become more outrageous: resurgent anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic broadsides, vicious mockery of evangelical preaching, desecrations of the Host in Catholic masses. For modern men and women, nothing else remains of the high moral project of modernity: these attacks are the only good thing left to do. The attackers are convinced of the morality of their attack not by the certainty of their aims - who's to say what's right or wrong? - but by opposition from believers.

I take Bottum to be saying here that modernity, in its death throes, wishes only to finish the business of killing off God, or at least belief in God. Modernity has nothing else to offer. It cannot give answers to any of life's most gripping existential questions. Nowhere in the writings of the anti-theists at large today do we find an answer to any of the following: Why is the universe here? How did life come about? Why is the universe so magnificently fine-tuned for life? Where did human consciousness come from? Why do we feel joy when we encounter beauty? How can we prove that our reason is reliable without using reason to prove it? How can we account for our conviction that we have free will? What obligates us to care about others? Why do we feel guilt? Who do I refer to when I refer to myself? What gives human beings worth, dignity, and rights? If death is the end justice is unattainable, so why do we yearn for it? Why do we need meaning and purpose? What is our purpose?

Ask the Richard Dawkins' of the world those questions and all you'll get in reply is a shrug of the shoulders or a recitation of the alleged historical crimes of the Church. They dodge the question because they have no answer. This is a bit ironic: Neither modern nor postmodern naturalism has an answer to the most profound questions we can ask. The only possible answer lies in the God of the "premodern," and this is the one solution to man's existential emptiness that the modern and postmodern naturalist simply cannot abide.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Premoderns and Postmoderns (Pt. I)

Having just this week finished talking about the philosophical distinctions between premodern, modern, and postmodern worldviews in my classes I thought it might be useful to rerun some posts on the subject from earlier this year. This one is the first in a three-part series:

There are in the West three basic ways to look at the world, three worldviews which serve as lenses through which we interpret the experiences of our lives. Those three worldviews are essentially distinguished by their view of God, truth, and the era in which they were dominant among the cultural elite. We may, with some license, label these the premodern, modern, and postmodern. The premodern, lasting from ancient times until the Enlightenment (17th century), was essentially Christian. The modern, which lasted until roughly WWII, was essentially naturalistic and secular, and the postmodern, which has been with us now for a couple of generations, is hostile to the Enlightenment emphasis on Reason and objective truth.

I recently came across a wonderful treatment of the tension between these three "metanarratives" in an essay written by medieval scholar Joseph Bottum for First Things back in 1994. FT reprinted his article in an anniversary issue, and I thought it would be useful to touch on some of the highlights.

Bear in mind that although the terms premodern, modern and postmodern refer to historical eras there are people who exemplify the qualities of each of these in every era, including our own. Thus though we live in a postmodern age due to the dominance of postmodern assumptions among the shapers of contemporary thought, especially in the academy, there are lots of premoderns and moderns around. Indeed, outside our universities I suspect most people are either premodern or modern in their outlook.

About a quarter of the way into his essay Bottum, writing on behalf of the Christian worldview, says this:

We cannot revert to the premodern, we cannot return to the age of faith, for we were all of us raised as moderns.

And yet, though we cannot revert, we nonetheless have resources that may help us to advance beyond these late times. The modern project that attacked the Middle Ages has itself been under attack for some time. For some time, hyper-modern writers have brought to bear against their modern past the same sort of scarifying analysis that earlier modern writers brought against the premodern past. These later writers, supposing the modern destruction of God to be complete, have turned their postmodern attacks upon the modern project of Enlightenment rationality.

The postmodern project is, as Francois Lyotard put it, a suspicion of all metanarratives based on reason. It rejects the Enlightenment confidence that human reason can lead us to truth about the world, particularly truth about the important matters of meaning, religion and morality. Indeed, postmodern thinkers are skeptical of any claims to a "truth" beyond simple empirical facts.

Bottum continues:

In some sense, of course, these words premodern, modern, and postmodern are too slippery to mean much. Taken to refer to the history of ideas, they seem to name the periods before, during, and after the Enlightenment, but taken to refer to the history of events, they seem to name the period from creation to the rise of science, the period from the rise of science until World War II, and the period since the war. It is tempting to define the categories philosophically, rather than historically, around the recognition that knowledge depends upon the existence of God. But the better modern philosophers (e.g., Descartes and Kant, as opposed to, say, Voltaire) recognize that dependence in some way or another.

Perhaps, though definitions based on intent are always weak, the best definition nonetheless involves intent: it is premodern to seek beyond rational knowledge for God; it is modern to desire to hold knowledge in the structures of human rationality (with or without God); it is postmodern to see the impossibility of such knowledge.

In other words, premoderns believe we can have knowledge of God through direct experience apart from reason. As Pascal put it, "The heart has reasons that reason can never know." Moderns believe that knowledge can only come through the exercise of our reason. Postmoderns hold that moderns are deluding themselves. None of us can separate our reason from our biases, prejudices, experiences and so on, all of which shape our perspective and color the lenses through which we view the world. For the postmodern there is no such thing as objective reason or truth.

Bottum again:

The premoderns said that without God, there would be no knowledge, and the postmoderns say we have no God and have no knowledge. The premoderns said that without the purposefulness of final causation, all things would be equally valueless, and the postmoderns say there is no purpose and no value. The premoderns said that without an identity of reality and the Good, there would be no right and wrong, and the postmoderns say there is neither Good nor right and wrong. Though they disagree on whether God exists, premoderns and postmoderns share the major premise that knowing requires His existence. Only for a brief period in the history of the West-the period of modern times-did anyone seriously suppose that human beings could hold knowledge without God.

Here is an interesting insight. Christians hold in common with modern atheists that there is objective truth, that there is meaning to life, and that there is moral right and wrong. At the same time they hold in common with postmodern atheists (not all postmoderns are atheists, it should be stressed) that none of those beliefs can be sustained unless there is a God. Does this, as Bottum alleges, put Christians closer to postmoderns than to moderns?

More tomorrow.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Sniper and the Sadist

Here's a story particularly difficult, I think, for those who believe that war is never the answer. I don't recount the story to belittle anyone's principles, but rather to suggest how difficult it is to hold consistently to our principles, whatever they are, in the world in which we live.

The story unfolded in Syria where a sadistic ISIS executioner was going from town to town gleefully killing prisoners that ISIS had labelled as spies. He did this by burning them to death with a flamethrower.

The U.S. had placed this monster on its "kill list" several months ago and he was finally tracked down near Raqqa in Syria where he and several of his assistants were preparing to immolate twelve terrified hostages, eight men and four women. The assistants were setting up camera equipment to film the grisly deaths.

A British sniper was positioned almost a mile away, and just as this horrid ISIS executioner was about to fire his flamethrower the sniper fired his rifle. Here's the account in the New York Post:
A sharpshooter killed a top ISIS executioner and three other jihadists with a single bullet from nearly a mile away — just seconds before the fiend was set to burn 12 hostages alive with a flamethrower, according to a new report.

The British Special Air Service marksman turned one of the most hated terrorists in Syria into a fireball by using a Barrett .50-caliber rifle to strike a fuel tank affixed to the jihadi’s back, the UK’s Daily Star reported Sunday.

The pack exploded, killing the sadistic terrorist and three of his flunkies, who were supposed to film the execution, last month, the paper said.

The ISIS butcher — who reportedly delighted in burning hostages alive — had been on a US “kill list” for several months, sources told the paper, which did not identify the sniper or the executioner.

He and his band of wicked men had been traveling around ISIS-held compounds in Syria slaughtering civilians labeled as spies. Their prisoners were tied to stakes or thrown in cages before being torched by the executioner, according to the report. ISIS started using flamethrowers after the torture method was popularized in North Korea.

The ISIS killer was so feared that his victims would beg to be shot rather than be set on fire.

Just before the sniper rescue operation outside of Raqqa, Syria, “the SAS team moved into an overwatch position above a village where they were told the execution was going to take place,” a source told the Star.

“Up to 12 civilians were going to be murdered — eight men and four women.

“The executioner gave some sort of rambling speech . . . then when he finished, the SAS sniper opened fire,” the source said. The captives were then rescued by British and US special forces.
So, here's a question to mull over. Was the sniper morally wrong to kill the jihadi?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Repeat After Him

"Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved." So cautioned Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.

Why did Crick feel it necessary to admonish his fellow biologists to resist the temptation to think that what they study was not designed? Well, perhaps because of phenomena depicted in videos like this:
One of the puzzling questions this video raises is how the complex of proteins which works in tandem with the DNA could have arisen in the first place. DNA produces the proteins but DNA can't work without them, so if DNA can't work without them how did it produce them? It's very puzzling.

Here's another question. DNA codes for proteins, but what is the source of information that directs the proteins to the proper regions of the cell or the body and then instructs them to build the structures they do? If DNA codes for proteins what codes for this information and where in the cell does this coding mechanism reside? Moreover, how is the information that directs the proteins mediated? How are the information translated into the action of the proteins?

One more question. DNA codes for proteins, but what is the source of the information that controls an animal's behavior? Where does that information reside and how is it passed from generation to generation?

These are baffling questions so we must just shove them aside and not think about them. Instead we should all close our eyes real tight and repeat after Professor Crick: "These things were not designed. These things were not designed. These things were not ..."

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


What was most dismaying about Hillary Clinton's recent "Basket of Deplorables" faux pas was not that she said that there are some deplorable people supporting Trump because there are (and some supporting her as well), nor that she went so far as to say that those undesirables comprise fully half of his support and, by implication, roughly 25% of the nation's voters (which they surely don't, but Hillary, like The Donald, has never been known to be punctilious about facts).

The truly regrettable aspect of what she said is that it reflects the left's skewed, tendentious definitions of the pejoratives she used.

Here are her words:
You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their Web sites that used to only have eleven thousand people—now have eleven million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric.
Listening to some of the liberal talk shows on cable the last couple of days it was clear that to many of Hillary's supporters, and quite probably Hillary herself, a racist is anyone who thinks voters should have an ID, a sexist is anyone who disparages the first female nominee for president, a homophobe is anyone who opposes gay marriage, a xenophobe is anyone who thinks we should take control of our borders, an Islamophobe is anyone troubled by the fact that devotees of sharia do not share the values upon which this country was founded, and a bigot is anyone so old-fashioned as to suspect that 40 year-old men do not belong in your ten year-old daughter's restroom.

Perhaps I've exaggerated, but if so, not by much. To define people as Hillary supporters are trying to define Trump voters is neither accurate nor helpful to our public discourse. It's not only slanderous, but it's, in fact, a form of censorship of ideas, and it explains in part why a buffoonish prevaricator like Donald Trump is so popular with average Americans. People are tired of leftist elitists defining them as "deplorables" when they know that they and their families and friends are good, decent people. Trump is a deeply flawed candidate, many of his supporters reason, but at least he's not going to misrepresent and slander them.

Moreover, it's unseemly for a woman who recklessly made our national secrets available to anyone with the technical expertise of a high school hacker, who refused to grant extra security to the diplomats in the Benghazi consulate, who accepted huge contributions to her foundation from foreign governments while serving as the chief foreign policy officer of the United States, and who consistently and persistently lied about all of this, to question the character of Americans who have done none of those things.

Who should be calling whom a "deplorable"?

Monday, September 12, 2016


It's easy to take things for granted as we go through our everyday lives, but when we stop and think about some of those things it can just take our breath away.

Consider, for example, fire. When we reflect upon all the things about earth that have to be just right for fire to exist and then think about all the physical characteristics of an animal that have to be just right for that animal to be able to use fire, and then contemplate what that animal's culture would be like were the animal or the earth even slightly different such that fire could not be made or harnessed, it just leaves one shaking his head in amazement.

In this 21 minute video Australian geneticist Michael Denton walks us through the astonishing series of properties and characteristics of the earth, fire, and mankind that have to be precisely calibrated in order for humans to have developed the culture that we have today. Had any of those properties been other than what they are humans might never have survived at all, much less developed an advanced culture.

Someone hearing all this for the first time might well be astounded by the fortuity of it all.
The book on which the video is based is available here.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

How the West Has Blessed the World

I find myself often referring in conversation with friends to Rodney Stark's excellent book titled How the West Won. Like all his books HWW is history that reads like a novel. He argues in the book that all of the progress we've enjoyed in the world since the medieval period has had it's genesis in the West.

His theory, convincingly defended, to my mind, is that progress only occurred in areas with high levels of personal liberty, low taxation, and strong property rights. To the extent these were absent, as they have been in most parts of the world throughout history, progress died in the crib, as it were. He also argues that the crucial soil for progress was a Judeo-Christian worldview in which the universe was seen as an orderly, law-governed, rational product of a personal God. Where this belief was absent, as it was everywhere but Europe, science and technology, medicine and learning, never developed.

Along the way Stark punctures a host of myths that have become almost axiomatic on the left but which are at complete variance with the historical facts. He makes a strong case for the claim that capitalism and even colonialism have been blessings, that the fall of Rome was one of the single most beneficial events in world history, that the "Dark Ages" never happened, that the crusades were not at all the rapacious ventures by murderous Christians of gentle, pastoral Muslims we've been told they were, that historical climate change had many salubrious effects on Western progress, that there was no scientific "revolution" but rather a continual and accelerating unfolding of scientific discovery that began at least as far back as the 13th century and probably earlier.

I urge anyone interested in history to get a copy. Stark includes a lot that he covered in earlier works, but much of it is new and what isn't new bears repeating anyway.

An example of something that's both myth-busting and new was Stark's discussion of the work of Robert D. Woodberry.

Woodberry's research makes it clear that much, if not most, of the progress made around the world is due to the work of Western missionaries who labored a century or more ago.

Here's what Stark writes about the role missionaries played in making life better for millions:
Perhaps the most bizarre of all the charges leveled against Christian missionaries (along with colonialists in general) is that they imposed "modernity" on much of the non-Western world. It has long been the received wisdom among anthropologists and other cultural relativists that by bringing Western technology and learning to "native peoples," the missionaries corrupted their cultures, which were as valid as those of the West....But to embrace the fundamental message of cultural imperialism requires that one be comfortable with such crimes against women as foot-binding, female circumcision, the custom of Sati (which caused women to be burned to death, tied to their husbands' funeral pyres), and the stoning to death of rape victims on the grounds of their adultery.

It also requires one to agree that tyranny is every bit as desirable as democracy, and that slavery should be tolerated if it accords with local customs. Similarly, one must classify high-infant mortality rates, toothlessness in early adulthood, and the castration of young boys as valid parts of local cultures, to be cherished along with illiteracy. For it was especially on these aspects of non-Western cultures that modernity was "imposed," both by missionaries and other colonialists.

Moreover, missionaries undertook many aggressive actions to defend local peoples against undue exploitation by colonial officials. In the mid-1700s, for example, the Jesuits tried to protect the Indians in Latin America from European efforts to enslave them; Portuguese and Spanish colonial officials brutally ejected the Jesuits for interfering. Protestant missionaries frequently became involved in bitter conflicts with commercial and colonial leaders in support of local populations, particularly in India and Africa....

A remarkable new study by Robert D. Woodberry has demonstrated conclusively that Protestant missionaries can take most of the credit for the rise and spread of stable democracies in the non-Western world. That is, the greater the number of Protestant missionaries per ten thousand local population in 1923, the higher the probability that by now a nation has achieved a stable democracy. The missionary effect is far greater than that of fifty other pertinent control variables, including gross domestic product and whether or not a nation was a British colony.

Woodberry not only identified this missionary effect but also gained important insights into why it occurred. Missionaries, he showed, contributed to the rise of stable democracies because they sponsored mass education, local printing and newspapers, and local voluntary organizations, including those having a nationalist and anticolonial orientation.

These results so surprised social scientists that perhaps no study ever has been subjected to such intensive prepublication vetting....

Protestant missionaries did more than advance democracy in non-Western societies. The schools they started even sent some students off to study in Britain and America. It is amazing how many leaders of successful anticolonial movements in British colonies received university degrees in England - among them Mahatma Ghandi and Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya....

Less recognized are the lasting benefits of the missionary commitment to medicine and health. American and British Protestant missionaries made incredible investments in medical facilities in non-Western nations. As of 1910 they had established 111 medical schools, more than 1,000 dispensaries, and 576 hospitals. To sustain these massive efforts, the missionaries recruited and trained local doctors and nurses, who soon greatly outnumbered the Western missionaries....

[Woodberry's] study showed that the higher the number of Protestant missionaries per one thousand population in a nation in 1923, the lower that nation's infant mortality rate in 2000 - an effect more than nine times as large as the effect of current GDP per capita. Similarly, the 1923 missionary rate was strongly positively correlated with a nation's life expectancy in 2000.
These missionaries battled every kind of pestilence, hardship, and deprivation. They were often murdered or died from disease, all in an effort to make life better for people living in miserable circumstances, while leftist academics sit in their comfortable, air-conditioned offices, never having made anything better for anyone, blithely and foolishly condemning those who did for being "superstitious" and "cultural imperialists" who imposed their values on idyllic societies that would be better off if left alone.

Some might call these academics intellectually arrogant or even stupid, but if nothing else it's certainly a display of moral blindness.

Woodberry's paper can be read in pdf here.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Receding Tide

Pat Buchanan suggests that the Clinton campaign is losing momentum and a lot of people, including people in her campaign, are puzzled as to why she's not running away with this race given Trump's uncanny ability to shoot himself in the foot whenever he's given the opportunity.

Here's Buchanan:
Sixty days out, one senses she has lost momentum – the “Big Mo” of which George H.W. Bush boasted following his Iowa triumph in 1980 – and her campaign is in a rut, furiously spinning its wheels.

The commander in chief forum Wednesday night should have been a showcase for the ex-secretary of state’s superior knowledge and experience.

Instead, Clinton looked like a witness before a grand jury, forced to explain her past mistakes and mishandling of classified emails at State.

“Of the two candidates,” the New York Times reported, “Mrs. Clinton faced by far the tougher and most probing questions from the moderator, Matt Lauer of NBC, and from an audience of military veterans about her use of private email, her vote authorizing the Iraq war, her hawkish foreign policy views...”

On defense most of the time, Clinton scored few points.

And with a blistering attack on Lauer, the Times all but threw in the towel and conceded that the Donald won the night. “Moderator of Clinton-Trump Forum Fields A Storm of Criticism,” was the headline as analyst Michael Grynbaum piled on: “Mr. Lauer found himself besieged on Wednesday evening by critics of all political stripes, who accused the anchor of unfairness, sloppiness, and even sexism in his handling of the event.”

When your allies are ripping the refs, you’ve probably lost the game.

Moreover, when it comes to her strongest suit, foreign policy, before Clinton can elaborate on her vision, she is forced to answer for her blunders.

Why did she vote for the war in Iraq? Why did she push for the war in Libya that produced this hellish mess? Does she still defend her handling of the Benghazi massacre? What happened to her “reset” with Russia?

Most critically, when facing the press, which she has begun to do after eight months of stonewalling, she is invariably dragged into the morass of the private server, the lost-and-found emails, her inability to understand or abide by State Department rules on classified and secret documents, and FBI accusations of extreme carelessness and duplicity.

Then there are the steady stream of revelations about the Clinton Foundation raking in hundreds of millions from dictators and despots who did business with Hillary Clinton’s State Department.

And with thousands of emails still out there, the contents of which are known to her adversaries, she will likely have IEDs going off beneath her campaign all the way to November.
My hunch is that polls will continue to show Trump gaining, especially in the battleground states. Hillary seems to be casting about for a way to damage Trump but, despite the fact that he offers so many targets for her to aim at, he seems so far to be made of teflon. This must be galling for the Clintonites because every time Trump opens his mouth he seems to say something that should make him a laughingstock, yet Clinton can't effectively criticize him because every accusation made by her or her supporters seems to boomerang back on her or her surrogates.

For example, George Stephanopolous, a Clintonite and host of a Sunday talk show on ABC, asked Trump's campaign manager, Kelley Ann Conway, whether she thought it was a good idea to have a sexual harasser (i.e. Roger Ailes) advising Trump. This might have been an effective question if made on behalf of any other candidate, but an obvious retort to the Clintons, if anyone presses Ailes' access to Trump, is to ask whether it's a good idea for Hillary to be taking advice from the sexual harasser to whom she's married.

Again, Hillary avers that Trump is lying about his university, Trump U, and he probably is, but when Hillary calls someone else a liar people laugh out loud at the absurdity and chutzpah of an allegation of mendacity coming from the woman whose name is almost synonymous with duplicity.

Others have said that Trump's not qualified to be president, and of the 17 original Republican candidates he's surely the least qualified, but most of the people scoffing at Trump's qualifications voted for Obama in 2008, a man whose qualifications for serving as president could have been listed on a post-it note in 50 pt. font.

A final example: Daughter Chelsea has called Trump a misogynist which would be a serious charge indeed were she not the daughter of one of the most notorious users and abusers of women ever to walk the halls of the White House.

"Meanwhile," Buchanan writes, "Donald Trump’s message has begun to come through – loud, clear and consistent."
He will secure the border. He will renegotiate the trade deals that have been killing U.S. manufacturing and costing American jobs. He will be a law-and-order president who will put America first. He will keep us out of wars like Iraq. He will talk to Vladimir Putin, smash ISIS, back the cops and the vets, and rebuild the military.

Other than being the first woman president, what is the great change that Hillary Clinton offers America?
Unfortunately for Trump, Hillary may well start off the evening on November 8th with 240 of the 270 electoral college votes she needs to win just because she's a Democrat and all but certain to carry big states like California and New York. It'll take some tectonic events between now and then to overcome that math and shift it into Trump's favor.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Metaphysical Freeloader

Note: This post ran on VP three years ago, but, given what my students and I are talking about in class, I thought it'd be helpful to run it again.

P.Z. Myers is a very devout atheist. He's committed to an evolutionary view of life so it's perplexing that he makes so many moral pronouncements in his recent condemnation of atheistic fellow-traveler Richard Dawkins' latest transgressions against Myers' moral sensibilities. Myers quotes from an article in The Times magazine in which Dawkins discusses an incident from his childhood:
In an interview in The Times magazine on Saturday (Sept. 7), Dawkins, 72, said he was unable to condemn what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.

Referring to his early days at a boarding school in Salisbury, he recalled how one of the (unnamed) masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.”

He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.

He said the most notorious cases of pedophilia involve rape and even murder and should not be bracketed with what he called “just mild touching up.”
That was Dawkins saying that being briefly fondled by his teacher as a child was no big deal. Well, it is to Myers. Note the moral outrage in his criticism of Dawkins:
I can think of some lasting harm: he seems to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children. He was a victim of an inexcusable violation; that he can shrug it off does not mean it was OK, or ‘zero bad’, or something trivial.

Should I have raised my children with such a lack of self-respect that they should have allowed dirty old men to play with their genitals? I would have wanted them to inform me, so that such behavior could be stopped.

Just when did it stop being OK for acquaintances to put their hands inside Richard Dawkins shorts? I presume it would be an utterly intolerable act now, of course — at what age do the contents of childrens’ pants stop being public property?

Should we be giving pedophiles the idea that a “mild touching up” is reasonable behavior? It’s just a little does no “lasting harm”. [T]hat sounds like something out of NAMBLA.

And that all Richard Dawkins experienced was a brief groping does not mean that greater harm was not being done. That man was a serial child molester; do we know that he didn’t abuse other children to a greater degree? That there aren’t former pupils living now who bear greater emotional scars?

We do not excuse harm to others because some prior barbaric age was indifferent to that harm. Furthermore, the excuse doesn’t even work: are we supposed to believe that a child-fondling teacher would have been permissible in the 1950s? Seriously? Was that ever socially acceptable? And even if it was, in some weird version of British history, it does not excuse it. It means British schools were vile nests of child abuse, just like Catholic churches.

Thanks for swapping the moral high ground for a swampy mire of ambiguity, Richard. I’m not going to argue that compelling kids to memorize Bible verses and fear hell, as stupid an excuse for education as that is, was child abuse, while getting manhandled by lascivious priests was a trivial offense, to be waved away as harmless. I’m sure many Catholics are quite gleeful that Richard Dawkins has now embraced the same moral relativism that they use to rationalize crimes against children.
Myers is incensed that Dawkins would pooh-pooh what Myers sees as a terrible wrong. He condemns the act because of the harm it does, and expresses disdain, while he's at it, for Dawkins' moral relativism.

Now I share all of these sentiments with Myers, but what I'd like to know is where does Myers think his moral sensibilities come from? If he says they've evolved in us over the eons then why, exactly, should we pay them any heed? Evolution molded us for life in the stone age, not the modern age. Besides, if our sense of moral aversion to pedophilia is a product of evolution then so is the urge to indulge in pedophilic behavior. Why does the aversion take precedence over the indulgence? Why is the antipathy toward molestation any more "right" than the desire to fondle children if both are the products of evolution?

Moreover, how can an impersonal process like evolution impose a moral duty on us to refrain from molesting children in the first place? Moral duties cannot be imposed upon us by an impersonal force or process. They can only be imposed by the personal Creator of the universe, but Myers is absolutely hostile to the idea that such a Creator exists. Yet the fact is that for someone who shares Myers' worldview there are no grounds whatsoever for saying that pedophilia is wrong because in the absence of a personal, transcendent moral authority we have no moral duties at all.

Myers can say he doesn't like what happened to the young Dawkins and doesn't like Dawkins' minimizing of it, but for him to talk as if there's something terribly wrong with it, for him to talk as if there's much more than a simple expression of his personal distaste involved, is just silly.

As I argue in my novels (see links above right) when an atheist makes a moral judgment, he's essentially acting as if God existed. On atheism there are no grounds for such judgments, but man can't live consistently with the nihilism his atheism entails so he temporarily piggy-backs on Christian theism in order to favor us with his moral pronouncements and hopes all the while that no one will notice that he is, in effect, a metaphysical freeloader.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Atheism's Moral Dilemma

Lincoln Mullen has a review in Books and Culture of Peter Watson's The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God.

In the course of his review, Mullen makes a point which I think needs to be clarified. He writes that:
The most common charge that Christians level against atheists is that they have no morals.
He might be correct that this is a common charge, but even so, the moral problem that Christians (and theists in general) have with atheism is not that atheists don't have moral values but rather that they have no ground for making moral judgments beyond their own subjective preferences.

Take a concrete example. A tobacco company lies about the danger its product poses to the consumer. A theist would say that such deception is objectively wrong because it violates the will of the Creator who commands that people be treated with dignity, respect, and kindness - a command that imposes a clear moral duty not to harm people.

The atheist may also be outraged that the tobacco company has lied to people about the hazards of using its product, but the only reason they could have, if atheism is true, for condemning the company's behavior is that they simply don't like it. If an atheist were to respond to this by insisting that it's just wrong to hurt people, the question then needs to be asked, "Why is it wrong?" If atheism is true then we are here as a result of a blind, impersonal, evolutionary process, and blind, impersonal processes cannot impose a moral duty on anyone to do anything. Nor can such processes prescribe or proscribe behavior, nor pronounce a behavior wrong in any meaningful moral sense.

Lots of thoughtful atheists have admitted this. Consider the following quotes by thinkers all of whom are, or were, atheists:
  • What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler was right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question. ~ Richard Dawkins
  • What’s moral is what you feel good after and what’s immoral is what you feel bad after. ~ Ernest Hemmingway
  • This philosopher (Joel Marks is speaking of himself) has been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t…The long and short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality…I experienced my shocking epiphany that religious fundamentalists are correct; without God there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality....Even though words like “sinful” and “evil” come naturally to the tongue as, say, a description of child molesting. They do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God…nothing is literally right or wrong because there is no Morality. ~ Joel Marks
  • Morality is nothing but the sum total, the net residuum, of social habits, the codification of customs....The only immoral person, in any country, is he who fails to observe the current folkways. ~ Margaret Sanger
  • For the secular man there's no answer to the question, why not be cruel. ~ Richard Rorty.
  • The attempts to found a morality apart from religion are like the attempts of children who, wishing to transplant a flower that pleases them, pluck it from the roots that seem to them unpleasing and superfluous, and stick it rootless into the ground. Without religion there can be no real, sincere morality, just as without roots there can be no real flower. ~ Leo Tolstoy
  • Communism abolishes all eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality. ~ Karl Marx
  • One who does not believe in God or an afterlife can have for his rule of life…only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best. ~ Charles Darwin
  • As evolutionists, we see that no justification (of morality) of the traditional kind is possible. Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends . . . In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding....Ethics is illusory inasmuch as it persuades us that it has an objective reference. This is the crux of the biological position. Once it is grasped, everything falls into place. ~ E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse
  • Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear – and these are basically Darwin’s views. 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.... ~ Will Provine
  • I would accept Elizabeth Anscombe’s suggestion that if you do not believe in God, you would do well to drop notions like “law” and “obligation” from the vocabulary you use when deciding what to do. ~ Richard Rorty
So, the problem atheism has with morality, as the theist sees it, is not that atheists can't choose to adopt the sort of values of which society approves. Of course, they can. The problem is that they wouldn't be wrong in any meaningful sense had they chosen to adopt completely opposite values. Their choice is purely a matter of personal preference, like choosing to paint their house brown instead of green.

Thus, it's puzzling when atheists adopt the view that they hold to a superior morality than that of Christians as Mullen asserts in a later passage:
Listen carefully to the debate on contemporary issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and you will hear moral reasoning on both sides; when atheists, agnostics, or "nones" take a position, they do so out of a conviction that their morality is superior to that of traditional Christianity.
The most the atheist can claim, however, is that, on the Christian's own assumptions, the atheist's views on these issues might be closer to what God wills than are the Christian's views, but in order to make this claim the atheist has to piggyback on the theist's belief that both God and objective moral duties exist.

Moreover, the atheist cannot say that the theist is wrong in holding the views on these issues that perhaps he does. The most the atheist can say is that the theist's views are inconsistent with what he professes to believe about God's moral will. Of course, it may be true that the theist is not acting consistently with his fundamental moral assumptions, but that doesn't make those fundamental assumptions wrong, and it certainly doesn't make them inferior to the atheist's values which are grounded in nothing more authoritative than his own tastes.

This is the point I seek to make in my novels In the Absence of God and Bridging the Abyss. An atheist, if he's to be consistent, can either give up the pretense of holding to some non-arbitrary moral standard and admit that he's just making his morality up as he goes along, or he can admit that he believes that right and wrong are not merely matters of subjective preference but are real, objective features of the world. But, if he admits that, then, to be consistent, he'd have to give up his atheism and become a theist. He has to do one or the other, or he could simply do neither and admit that he prefers to live irrationally, which is the option many atheists apparently settle upon.