Saturday, December 16, 2017

Molecular Machines

Among the phenomena which support the claim that life is the product of intentional, intelligent design is the sheer number of complex molecular machines that operate in each of the trillions of our body's cells to ensure that these cells carry out the functions that keep us alive.

One of these machines is the system of proteins that synthesizes adenosine triphosphate (ATP) from adenosine diphosphate (ADP). Here's a short video animation that describes how this machine, called ATP synthase, works:
There are thousands of such machines in the cell, all of which, on the standard Darwinian account, somehow developed - through random, undirected, processes - not only their structure, not only the coordination with other systems in the cell necessary for proper function, but also the genetic regulatory mechanisms that control how and when the machine operates. If it happened, it's a near-miraculous achievement for blind, undirected processes.

David Hume, in his famous essay On Miracles, wrote that when we hear an account of a miracle we should ask ourselves whether it's more likely, given our experience, that a law of nature had been violated or that the witness was somehow mistaken. Hume argued that a mistaken witness is always more likely than that a law of nature had been violated, and we should always, he insisted, believe what's most likely. Applying Hume's principle to the present case, we should ask ourselves, what is the greater miracle, that an astonishing mechanism like ATP synthase came about by chance and luck or that it came about by intelligent engineering?

It seems to me that the only way one can assert the former is if they've already, a priori, ruled out the possibility of the existence of the intelligent engineer, but, of course, that begs the question. Whether the intelligent engineer exists is the very matter we're trying to answer by asking whether blind chance or intelligence is the best explanation for the existence in living things of such machines as ATP synthase.

If we allow the evidence to speak for itself rather than allow our prior metaphysical commitments to dictate what the evidence says then I'm pretty sure most people would agree that the kind of specified complexity we see in this video points unequivocally to the existence of a designing mind.

If this video has piqued your interest here's another that pushes us toward the same conclusion. It's an animation of just a few of the structures and processes in a living cell. Note the amazing motor protein that carries the vesicle along the microtubule:
How does the motor protein "know" to carry the vesicle along the microtubule and where to take it? What regulates the process? What's the source of the information needed to choreograph this phenomenon? How and why did such a complex system ever come about? Was it all just blind chance and serendipity or was it somehow a product of intelligence? On which of those possible explanations, intelligence or blind, purposeless, random processes, are such mechanisms more likely?

Friday, December 15, 2017

Christmas Mirror

A friend of mine writes a blog called Thought Sifter at which he posted a Christmas meditation last year titled The Christmas Mirror in which he suggests that how we celebrate Christmas is a reflection of who we are as a person. I'd like to share an excerpt with you:
For many, Christmas is the photo-negative of The Purge. Instead of angry people taking advantage of the temporary suspension of laws against violence to wantonly dish out pain and revenge on those they resent, these people get giddy over the once-a-year opportunity to express pent-up love and gratitude. These are those who get rapturous over the sight of outgoing party invitations and present tags with other people's names in the "to" line. Such are those who feel more hope than trepidation when even the most difficult family member comes to dinner. At Christmas, these people are like (some similes can't be improved) a kid at Christmas. It's just who they are.

Others have no interest in making a good Christmas but only a good Christmas card. These are people whose lack of interest in actively knowing and loving people through the year in no way dampens their zeal to send pristine, family Christmas cards and Facebook posts. These are the sentimentalists who love the feelings of Christmas even though they aren't interested in the relational realities that should be the basis for those feelings. They are the Christmas equivalents of students who are fixated on GPAs but uninterested in education. Such people are not excited that everyone's coming over to their house, but place great value on their (and everyone else's) awareness that Christmas was at their house. That's just who they are.

Then there are the true Grinches. They neither care about other people nor about what some people will think about them for not caring. And, of course, they are only so callous toward people because they have been so mistreated by the world, and so they spend Christmas as they spend the rest of the year, comforting themselves in indignant isolation with the knowledge that at least they have always been in the right. It is who they are.

Others will use Christmas as an excuse to party (that is, party in the empty-hearted, self-degrading sense). These are ones for whom "drunken debauchery" is a cute, condescending reference to the naive prudes who would use the same phrase to describe certain Christmas parties. Those who party hard at Christmas are a lot like someone celebrating their completion of rehab at a local bar, not because they falter, but with a smirk and a wink because all the cool kids know that rehab is a joke anyway. That's just who they are.

Others, with much more gravity and self-respect, don't mind having a glass of champagne and some dessert with friends, but are really perturbed at how the whole event fosters among the ignorant that religious fable that has been such a hindrance to "progress." They can't rationally comprehend how God could come as a child in a manger. And since their capacity of rational comprehension is the gold standard for determining what can and cannot exist, they're miffed, like an erudite, early-twentieth-century physics professor rolling his eyes at the gullibility of the stupid undergraduates who go on and on about the fad called quantum physics. They're way too advanced for such nonsense. That's just who they are.

But one of the things that makes the news of Christmas "good news that will cause great joy for all the people," is that the one who came to dwell among us has made it so that we don't have to stay the way we are. Christmas leaves us with two options; we can either stay who we are or allow ourselves to be transformed into the people we were meant to be.
Lovely thought, that, and one of the good things about it is that it's never too late to let the transformation begin. One of my favorite Christmas songs is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's rendition of What Child Is This on their album Lost Christmas Eve. The line that I find most poignant and hopeful is when an older man, though dying, finds his life transformed and cries out, "To be this old and have your life just begin!"

You probably have to hear it yourself which you can do below. The video, unfortunately, is only cell-phone quality. The relevant part starts at about the three minute mark and, as sung by Rob Evans, is deeply moving.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Rodney Stark on the Abolition of Slavery

One of the peculiarities of our current cultural moment is that many African Americans, associating Christianity with slavery, repudiate their "Christian" name and adopt an Arabic or Islamic identity. I say this is peculiar because according to Rodney Stark in his book For the Glory of God, Africans suffered as badly, if not worse, from Islamic slavery as they did from the European variety. This is especially true if Islamic slavery is compared to slavery as it was practiced in North America.

Muslim slave-trading began many centuries before Europeans discovered the New World and carried at least as many Africans into bondage, and probably more, as were shipped across the Atlantic. By 1600 more than 7 million Africans had been transported to Islamic countries, and another 1.2 million more were transported there between 1800-1900.

These numbers only reflect the number of Africans who arrived at the destination. The death toll while being transported (by African slavers, it should be noted) from the interior to the African coast was somewhere between 20%-40%. Another 3%-10% died while waiting to be shipped, and 12%-16% died in transit on hellish slave ships. Altogether, of those initially taken as slaves, 35%-66% died before reaching the Islamic slave markets.

This pic and the one below show the horrible conditions to which African slaves
were subjected on slave ships. The filth, heat, and stench would've been overpowering.

It's sometimes said that Africans were treated better by Muslims than they were in the West, but Stark argues that this is dubious. Although roughly equal numbers of Africans arrived in both the West and in the Islamic world there's no substantial black population today in the "land of Islam." This is attributed in large measure to very low fertility due to the practice of castrating black males and of killing any infants who show black ancestry. Castration not only meant that black males who survived it couldn't reproduce, it also created a very high mortality rate among males due to infection and blood loss.

Just as science arose only once, so too, did effective moral opposition to slavery, and, like science, it arose only in the West and by Christians. Slavery has existed in every society able to afford it, including Native American societies, but of all the world's religions only Christians developed the belief that slavery was a great sin and must be abolished.

Antislavery efforts began to appear in Christian theology soon after the decline of Rome and eventually led to its disappearance in all but the fringes of Christian Europe by the end of the 16th century. When Europeans subsequently instituted slavery in the New World they did so over strenuous papal opposition. Unfortunately, by this time in history Rome was too weak to exert its influence over slave-owners in the Western hemisphere.

It's an interesting detail that relatively few slaves were imported into North America. From 1626 to 1808 when it became illegal to import slaves in the U.S., the total number of imported African slaves was about 400,000. By contrast, 3.6 million went to Brazil, 1.6 million were imported by the Spanish colonies, and about 3.8 million wound up in the horrific Caribbean sugar plantations. Eventually, due to the efforts primarily of Quakers in North America and the Clapham Sect in England, most notably William Wilberforce, the slave trade was first abolished and then slavery itself was done away with in the West.

There was, however, no similar abolition movement in the Islamic world. Slavery was only ended in the Muslim world because of Western pressure to do so, but it persisted nevertheless well into the 20th century (Saudi Arabia banned it in 1962, Mauritania in 1981). The British navy embargoed Muslim slave ships and British and French colonial troops intercepted countless slave caravans, freeing the slaves and sometimes executing slave traders on the spot. In North America a catastrophic civil war was fought, primarily over the issue of slavery.

Stark notes how the people who finally ended the moral scourge were acting essentially altruistically. They themselves had nothing to =gain from their efforts and some paid dearly for their commitment to the cause of blacks.

He concludes that although a Christian culture was certainly not a sufficient basis for ending slavery, it was nonetheless a necessary one since it was almost solely Christian thinkers and activists, working within a Christian understanding of human rights and equality, who reached anti-slavery conclusions and sought to help the larger culture recognize that they were participating in a great evil.

Perhaps if this history were more widely known fewer African Americans would be inclined to reject their Christian identity in favor of an Islamic one.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Rodney Stark on the Rise of Science

I had read Rodney Stark's book For the Glory of God some years ago but sat down to read it again recently. Stark is a scholar, both historian and sociologist, at Baylor University, and his book is the story, as the subtitle says, of how monotheism led to the Reformation, science, witch-burnings, and the end of slavery.

It's all very interesting, but most interesting to me was how Stark debunks some of the enduring myths about the interplay and significance of Christianity for both the emergence of modern science and the abolition of slavery.

Ever since the 17th century opponents of Christianity have sought to perpetuate the myth that religion and science have been locked in mortal combat. The myth culminated in the work of Andrew Dickson White, author of A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), a book whose themes are still influential today even though they've been almost entirely discredited by subsequent scholarship.

Stark shows how White's account of Columbus being impeded by religious men in Spain who thought the world was flat is totally false, as is belief in an epoch of "Dark Ages" which descended upon Europe like a shroud over the minds of men. There were no "Dark Ages," nor did anyone with any learning in Columbus' day think the world was flat. His proposal to sail across the Atlantic to India was resisted because it was believed, rightly, that Columbus had seriously underestimated the circumference of the globe and that he would never be able to make it to his destination.

Indeed, he would not have made it had he not serendipitously come upon the New World.

So, too, traditional accounts of the theories of Copernicus and the persecution of Galileo by the Church are often riddled with misinformation intended to make Christianity and Christians look like benighted fools and frame the founders of modern science as secular heroes struggling against an oppressive Church.

The facts are otherwise. As Stark points out, 50 of the 52 men who were most influential in the development of modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries were Christians, and over 60 percent of these were devoutly so, including some of the greatest names in the scientific pantheon: Boyle, Brahe, Descartes, Gassendi, Hooke, Huygens, Kepler, Leibniz, Newton, Pascal, Vesalius, et al.

Stark observes that so far from being inimical to science, the Church made it possible for science to flourish by building and staffing universities where men could pursue learning centuries before the "Enlightenment," but perhaps even more important than centers of scholarship was the pervading worldview in Europe that gave rise to modern science.

The theological assumptions that the cosmos had been created by an intelligent being, that it was logical, law-like and designed, and that its secrets could be unlocked through the application of human reason, all provided the impetus to explore and investigate the world and led to the burgeoning of scientific discovery.

This, Stark argues, is why "science arose only once in history - in medieval Europe - because only there was found a culture dominated by a belief in a rational, conscious, all-powerful Creator," and only in Christian Europe were men free to investigate nature and to "think God's thoughts after Him."

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Three Options

The book A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely-Tuned Cosmos by cosmologists Luke Barnes and Geraint Lewis discusses the incredibly precise fine-tuning of the forces, parameters and constants that comprise the structure of the universe. Here's a video trailer that introduces the theme of their book:
The trailer suggests that there are four possible explanations for this incomprehensible level of precision, but for reasons I'll explain in a moment, there really are only three.

The first is that something about the universe makes it a logical necessity that the values cosmologists find are in fact the only possible values a universe could have. There is no reason, however, to think this is the case. There's nothing about the universe, as far as we know, that makes it impossible for gravity or the strong nuclear force, to take just two examples, to have slightly different strengths.

The second explanation is that even though it's astronomically improbable that any universe would be so fine-tuned that living things could exist in it, if there are other universes, all with different parameters, universes so abundant that their number approaches infinity, then one like ours is almost bound to exist. This option goes by the name of the multiverse hypothesis.

The difficulty with this idea is that there's no good reason to believe other universes actually do exist, and even if they do why should we assume that they're not all replicas of each other, and even if they're all different whatever is producing them must itself be fine-tuned in order to manufacture universes, so all the multiverse hypothesis does is push the problem back a step or two.

The third explanation is that our universe is the product of a very intelligent agent, a mathematical genius, which exists somehow beyond the bounds of our cosmos.

There are actually two varieties of the third option. One is to say that the designer of the universe is a denizen of another universe in which technology has advanced to the point that it allows inhabitants of that world to design simulations of other universes.

The trailer treats this as a fourth option but since it posits a designer who resides in some other universe it's actually a combination of the second and third options and suffers some of the same difficulties as the multiverse hypothesis. It also assumes that computer technology could ever simulate not only an entire cosmos but also human consciousness, which is certainly problematic.

The other version of the third explanation is to assume that the designer of our universe is not some highly accomplished computer nerd in another universe but rather that it is a transcendent, non-contingent being of unimaginable power and intellectual brilliance who is the ultimate cause of all contingent entities, whether universes or their inhabitants.

Which of these options is thought most attractive will vary from person to person, but philosophical arguments won't settle the issue for most people. Human beings tend to believe what they most fervently want to be true, and what they most want to be true is often whatever makes the fewest demands upon their autonomy and their lifestyle.

Monday, December 11, 2017

How Does an Embryo Do it?

Ever since I was an undergraduate biology major I have been intrigued by the mystery of how a zygote (a fertilized egg) develops from a single cell into a multi-cellular embryo and from there to a complete organism. The reason this is such a profound mystery is that the initial cell somehow "knows" to divide and the daughter cells somehow "know" to form different kinds of cells which somehow "know" to migrate around the embryo and form different kinds of tissue which somehow "know" to integrate with other kinds of tissues to form organs, and so on. So, how do cells with no brains "know" how to do all this? Where are the instructions located which choreograph this astonishing process and tell all the parts what to do and how to do it, and how are those instructions communicated? The information is not to be found in the genome or the epigenome, apparently, so where is it, what is its storage medium, and how is it stored and accessed? What mechanisms control it so that the entire assembly unfolds in a flawless sequence with each step occurring precisely when it must in order to successfully construct an adult organism? And how, exactly, does the zygote "know" to produce, say, a flower rather than a fish, or a bird, or a human? These questions are fascinating and they emerge again in an article at Uncommon Descent that quotes geneticist Michael Denton:
The earliest events leading from the first division of the egg cell to the blastula stage in amphibians, reptiles and mammals are illustrated in figure 5.4 (in his book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis). Even to the untrained zoologist it is obvious that neither the blastula itself, nor the sequence of events that lead to its formation, is identical in any of the vertebrate classes shown.
The blastula stage is an early step in embryogenesis when the zygote divides several times to produce a ball of cells. When those cells then evaginate and begin to take on the form of the early embryo biologists call that the gastrula stage.

Denton continues:
The differences become even more striking in the next major phase of in embryo formation – gastrulation. This involves a complex sequence of cell movements whereby the cells of the blastula rearrange themselves, eventually resulting in the transformation of the blastula into the intricate folded form of the early embryo, or gastrula, which consists of three basic germ cell layers: the ectoderm, which gives rise to the skin and the nervous system; the mesoderm, which gives rise to muscle and skeletal tissues; and the endoderm, which gives rise to the lining of the alimentary tract as well as to the liver and pancreas....

In some ways the egg cell, blastula, and gastrula stages in the different vertebrate classes are so dissimilar that, were it not for the close resemblance in the basic body plan of all adult vertebrates, it seems unlikely that they would have been classed as belonging to the same phylum. There is no question that, because of the great dissimilarity of the early stages of embryogenesis in the different vertebrate classes, organs and structures considered homologous in adult vertebrates cannot be traced back to homologous cells or regions in the earliest stages of embryogenesis. In other words, homologous structures are arrived at by different routes.
In other words, different types of animals follow different pathways in building morphological structures such as the arm of a man, the foreleg of a horse, the wing of a bird, and the pectoral fin of a fish, that are otherwise believed to be evolutionarily "related."

If they follow different pathways then there must be a different set of assembly instructions for the development of these "homologs," and thus all of the above questions arise again.

There is in the organism from the time it's just a single cell at least until it's fully developed, a massive amount of information that programs its development. The locus, nature, and modus operandi of this information are unknown, but one thing I think can be inferred: If information of such astonishing sophistication controls the progression of the cell's development, it seems very unlikely that that information is the product of blind, impersonal, random processes. Complex information such as we find in computer code or architectural blueprints are never the product of random processes like genetic mutation, but are always, insofar as we've ever experienced it, the product of a mind.

I leave it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The "Rational" Man

Philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, in her book The Sovereignty of Good (1970) describes in vivid accents the modern man who prides himself in his rational approach to life unencumbered by the silly superstitions believed in by gullible religious people. The modern rational man, typified in her telling by someone like the 18th century philosophical icon Immanuel Kant, is a man who ...
...confronted even with Christ turns away to consider the judgement of his own conscience and to hear the voice of his own reason . . . . This man is with us still, free, independent, lonely, powerful, rational, responsible, brave, the hero of so many novels and books of moral philosophy. The raison d’ĂȘtre of this attractive but misleading creature is not far to seek . . . . He is the ideal citizen of the liberal state, a warning held up to tyrants. He has the virtue which the age requires and admires, courage. It is not such a very long step from Kant to Nietzsche, and from Nietzsche to existentialism and the Anglo-Saxon ethical doctrines which in some ways closely resemble it. In fact Kant’s man had already received a glorious incarnation nearly a century earlier in the work of Milton: his proper name is Lucifer.
Lucifer? Why such a harsh judgment? Perhaps because the modern, "rational" man believes only what science and his senses tell him. The rational man looks at himself and his fellows as little more than flesh and bone machines, animals, whose only real "purpose" is to reproduce, experience pleasure and avoid pain. He regards morality as an illusion. His reason affords him no basis for caring about the weak or the poor, no basis for human compassion, no particular point to conserving the earth's resources for future generations. Whereas Kant thought that reason dictated the categorical imperative, i.e. the duty to treat others as ends in themselves and not merely as a means to one's own happiness, in fact, reason, unfettered from any divine sanction, dictates only that each should look to his own interests.

In practice modern man may care about the well-being of others, but he must abandon his fealty to science and reason to do so because these provide no justification for any moral obligations whatsoever. Indeed, the purely rational man is led by the logic of his naturalism to the conclusion that might makes right. The pursuit of power frequently becomes the driving force of his life. It injects his life with meaning. It leads him to build places like Auschwitz and Dachau to eliminate the less powerful and less human.

Would Kant have agreed with this bleak assessment. No, but then Kant wasn't quite in tune with the modern, rational man. Kant believed that in order to make sense of our lives as moral agents we have to assume that three things are true: We have to assume that God exists, that we have free will, and that there is life beyond the grave.

The modern man, of course, rejects all three, and in so doing he rejects the notion of objective moral value or obligation. That's why reason has led men to embrace ideologies that have produced vast tracts of corpses, and that's why, perhaps, Murdoch uses the name Lucifer to describe them.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Naturalism and Its Discontents

Denyse O'Leary observes that the effort to keep metaphysical naturalism propped up and viable keeps running into obstacles. The obstacles consist of the empirical discoveries of scientists, many of whom are naturalists themselves.

Sometimes the evidence is negative, that is, discoveries predicted by naturalism or which would support naturalism, just don't seem to be in the offing. Instead, naturalists content each other and the public they wish to persuade with "promissory notes" - assurances that if we just keep looking someday we're bound to find the confirmatory evidence that naturalism predicts.

Meanwhile, there are doubters and heretics afoot who need to be silenced. Here's O'Leary's lede. She links to the sources for her assertions in the original so read that to assess her claims:
The scientific discoveries that might have supported the naturalist view of the universe, life, and the human mind have never actually occurred. Stubborn problems, old and new, make such discoveries less likely than ever. New technology in neuroscience, for example, has enabled unexpected new findings that point unambiguously in a non-naturalist direction, raising the suspicion of more such findings to come.

Naturalists are not taking it well; fighting superstition is easier than fighting magnetic resonance imaging. For some decades, we have simply been informed that “science would find the answer” to stubborn problems. But what happens if “stubborn problems” are signals that our ideas are incomplete and new insights are needed?

Today, “science” means naturalism. Whether current directions are fruitful or not, no non-naturalist approach may be entertained in principle. Karl Popper called this stance promissory materialism. It is the basic editorial position of most popular science magazines. It is less open to doubt than the laws of mathematics. Much popular culture passionately agrees.

In 2005, a Darwin-in-the-schools activist advised her lobbyists to portray ID sympathizers “‘in the harshest light possible, as political opportunists, evangelical activists, ignoramuses, breakers of rules, unprincipled bullies, etc.” The strategy may have backfired in recent years due to a number of conflicts with evidence. But many naturalists seem to see themselves as she did, fighting an existential evil. To entertain doubt about such a cause is a sin.
O'Leary goes on to discuss three endeavors in particular in which confident predictions, based on naturalist assumptions, have failed to be fulfilled: The development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the search for extraterrestrial life (ET), and the attempt to prove that humans are little more than hairless apes.

With regard to the difficulties involved in simulating human consciousness in computers she writes that,
A powerful computer cannot have more insight or different intentions from its programmer’s ability for the same reasons as characters in a novel cannot have more insight or different intentions from the author’s conception. And, in the absence of consciousness, why would computers wish for power or anything else? If they lack wishes of their own, massive computers add nothing to the risks already posed by proliferating nuclear weapons.

Rodney Brooks, former director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, hints at the confusion:
I am told that I do not understand how powerful AGI [artificial general intelligence] will be. That is not an argument. We have no idea whether it can even exist. I would like it to exist — this has always been my own motivation for working in robotics and AI. But modern-day AGI research is not doing well at all on either being general or supporting an independent entity with an ongoing existence.

It mostly seems stuck on the same issues in reasoning and common sense that AI has had problems with for at least 50 years.
In a recent edition of Technology Review, we hear the worry, “Is AI Riding a One-Trick Pony? Just about every AI advance you’ve heard of depends on a breakthrough that’s three decades old. Keeping up the pace of progress will require confronting AI’s serious limitations.”

Some keep the faith and add to it. Dan Brown of Da Vinci Code fame tells audiences that AI-induced collective consciousness will replace God: “Our need for that exterior god, that sits up there and judges us…will diminish and eventually disappear.” Given that naturalism considers consciousness an illusion, God will be a collective illusion.

An organized religious enterprise, “Way of the Future” (WOTF), founded by Silicon Valley lightning rod Anthony Levandowski, is currently seeking non-profit status as a religion of technology “to develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead [to] contribute to the betterment of society.”

Way of the Future’s site explains, “While biology has evolved one type of intelligence, there is nothing inherently specific about biology that causes intelligence. Eventually, we will be able to recreate it without using biology and its limitations.”
Despite hope that extraterrestrial life will eventually be discovered the number of properties a planet must possess to generate and support living organisms seems to be increasing with each new scientific discovery so that the earth looks more and more like it could well be unique, not only in our galaxy but in the entire universe. O'Leary notes that, "It’s unclear whether popular naturalist culture can grapple with the idea that ET might not be out there, possibly because if he doesn’t exist, it is more difficult to maintain that humans are not special."

She finishes with a withering critique of attempts to convince the public that apes are essentially on the way to being human. The whole essay is worth reading, especially if the reader has an interest in science.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

David Hume and Intelligent Design

In his famous and much criticized argument against miracles in Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) Scottish philosopher and famous skeptic David Hume wrote this:
The maxim by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings is ... that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments we ought to give preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations.
Hume intended these assertions to serve as part of his argument against the reasonableness of believing in miracles, but what he didn't foresee and what many of his skeptical votaries don't see today is how acceptance of this maxim undercuts belief in naturalistic theories of both cosmogenesis (origin of the cosmos) and biogenesis (origin of life).

In fact, Intelligent Design advocates use an argument similar to Hume's maxim to buttress their claim that the universe and living things should both be seen as products of intelligent agency.

Whenever we encounter machines, information, or extraordinarily precise calibrations of some kind we infer them to be the result of the causal agency of a mind. We have no experience of information like that found in a book coming into existence apart from a mind nor do we have experience of complex machines like outboard motors coming into existence apart from the work of an intelligent engineer or mechanic.

So, if we follow Hume's maxim we should attribute the enormous amount of information carried on the DNA of every cell in our bodies or the breathtaking complexity of cellular machines like bacterial flagella or ATP synthase to intelligent agency, yet for some reason, the same folks who invoke Hume in arguing against miracles suspend Hume''s maxim when it comes to explaining both the finely-tuned universe and information-laden living organisms.

If it's true that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable, and if we should always believe what's more probable than what's less probable, and if we have a uniform experience of information and complex machinery resulting solely from intelligent activity, then it follows that we should attribute the origin of DNA, cellular machines, and cosmic fine-tuning to a mind.

The Humean can't have it both ways. If, as Hume insists in the Inquiry, "a uniform experience amounts to a proof," then our uniform experience of information, complex machinery and precisely fine-tuned calibrations being produced by a mind should amount to a proof that similar phenomena in the structure of both living cells and the cosmos should amount to a proof that living cells and the cosmos are both the creations of a mind.

Here are a couple of videos of cellular machines that illustrate their astonishing design:
A man may believe that these machines are somehow the product of blind, unguided forces if he chooses, but one who does so choose can scarcely claim intellectual superiority over those who believe in other kinds of miracles than does he.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Making Necrophilia Okay

It's often been argued here at VP that neither naturalism nor materialistic evolution afford any grounds for thinking that there are any objective moral wrongs. An article at Big Think by a South African bioethicist named Tauriq Moosa offers an interesting illustration of the point.

Moosa argues that sex with dead people (necrophilia) should not be considered immoral since there's nothing special or sacred about human beings, dead or alive. Indeed, the idea that humans are special is based on the belief that we're specially created by God, a belief at which Moosa directs his scorn:
The major problem is that almost all arguments about respect for the dead tend to be extrapolations from the idea of humans as some kind of cosmic or metaphysically “special” beings: that is, humans are, by definition, sacred because of some relation to elements or entities that transcend our everyday existence. This is usually a god or something equally important to many people. There are few reasons to think such supernaturally and cosmically important entities even exist, so naturally there will be little reason to think their relations with us true.

Indeed, untying ideas of sanctity from assertions of divinely-ordained anthropocentrism is, I think, impossible. And there is little reason to think humans are cosmically special, since there are few arguments that are not merely circular, theological pap....

For our current purposes, denying the automatic sanctity accorded humans means we can more seriously consider whether there’s justification for thinking human bodies are automatically inviolable.
Moosa is right about this, of course. Once we no longer believe that we're created by God in His image then there's no longer any reason to declare something like necrophilia morally depraved.

Wesley Smith perceptively points out that Moosa's argument that there's nothing special about a dead human body could be used to justify cannibalism or the portrayal of dead people in pornographic "art."

Just so. Once we cut ourselves loose from any objective moral moorings there's no behavior so vile or degrading that it merits being labelled immoral.

Smith closes with this thought:
As a book reviewer of a Darwin biography put it ..., if animals and plants are the result of impersonal, immutable forces ... then “the natural world has no moral validity or purpose.” We are all of us, dogs and barnacles, pigeons and crabgrass, the same in the eyes of nature, equally remarkable and equally dispensable.

That last word is the key. Treating the dead with respect not only values the “who” of the deceased in life, but extols the unique importance of humanity itself. We reject that fundamental insight at our own peril. For if we ever come to see ourselves as just another animal in the forest, that is precisely how we will act.
It could be added that in a society in which any sexual conduct is condoned as long as neither party objects necrophilia couldn't be wrong since dead people don't object. If Bill Cosby reads the Big Think piece he'll probably kick himself for not having his lawyers make the argument in court that his victims, since they were drugged, never objected to him molesting them.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Few Economic Facts

Here are a few interesting miscellaneous economic facts including a couple more indicators that our economy is picking up steam under the current administration:
  • The S&P 500 gained +3.1% (total return) in November. Thus for 20 of the last 21 months (including 13 months in-a-row) the index has posted a positive result.
  • Our country’s 147.0 million employees are split 85/15 between the private sector(i.e., non-government workers) and the public sector (i.e., government workers). This is one reason politicians are loath to reduce the size of government - they're afraid it'll put too many people out of work.
  • The median sales price of existing homes sold nationally in October 2017 is 108% of the median sales price of existing homes sold nationally in June 2007, the latter date being the peak of the real estate boom. Sale prices in the Northeast have not completely bounced back. The October 2017 median sales price in the Northeast is just 93% of its June 2007 median sales price.
  • The House’s “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” proposes a 1-time tax of 14% on the estimated $2.6 trillion of profits held in overseas subsidiaries of US multinational firms. The 14% proposed tax rate would replace the existing 35% top marginal rate that is doubtless deterring movement of the funds back to America. The Senate’s version of tax reform proposes a 1-time tax of 14.5%. A similar tax holiday was utilized in 2005 when a 5.25% one-time tax incentive (also down from a top marginal corporate tax-rate of 35%) motivated American businesses to repatriate $360 billion back to the USA .
  • The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” has proposed a long overdue 1.4% levy on the investment income from the endowments of private colleges, earnings that are currently untaxed. For example, Harvard’s $37.1 billion endowment would have owed $39 million on the $2.8 billion it earned in fiscal year 2017. Why these universities and colleges have been getting a free ride has been a source of puzzlement to a lot of people for a long time.
  • When President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the Social Security retirement program in 1935, his financial people projected that total Social Security expenditures would reach $1.3 billion in 1980 or 45 years into the future. Actual outlays in 1980 were $149 billion. Thus, the analysts’ 1935 estimate represented less than 1% of actual 1980 Social Security expenditures. Politicians almost always underestimate the actual cost of the programs they advocate.
  • The US economy grew by +4.2% per year over the 24 years from 1950 through 1973, a period of worldwide economic expansion. The US economy grew by +3.2% per year over the 27 years from 1974 through 2000, and has grown by +1.8% per year over the last 16 years from 2001 through 2016 during the Bush and Obama years.
  • Detroit was the 5th largest city in the United States in 1950 with 1.9 million people, but is currently the 23rd largest city in the United States with 673,000 people. A lot of the people fleeing Detroit are apparently heading to Phoenix which was the 99th largest city in the United States in 1950 with 107,000 people but is currently the 5th largest city in the U.S. with a population of 1.6 million.
See here for some additional indicators of the growing health of the economy which had been anemic for the decade or so prior to 2016.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Unlivable Worldview

A worldview is the set of assumptions we hold, consciously or unconsciously, that help us interpret our experience of the world. One of the tests of any worldview is whether one can live consistently with the consequences entailed by it.

On this test the worldview called naturalism, i.e. the view that nature is all there is, fails since many, if not most, naturalists find that they have to give up things that are very difficult if not impossible to live without. Among the items for which there is no room in a naturalist ontology are the following:

1. ultimate meaning in life
2. free will
3. objective moral right or wrong
4. intrinsic value of human beings
5. mind/consciousness
6. belief that love is more than just a neurochemical response
7. an adequate ground for objective beauty and truth
8. an adequate ground for human rights

On the other hand, not only do each of these fit comfortably in a classical Christian worldview, it could be argued that they're actually entailed by that view. The logic of naturalism, however, compels one to regard them all as either subjective and arbitrary or complete illusions, but few naturalists can live consistently with that.

They find themselves constantly acting as if their lives do have meaning, as if there really are objective moral rights and wrongs, as if they do have free will, as if their love for their families is more than just chemistry, and as if there really are objective human rights.

They can only deny the reality of these things at the theoretical level, but in the way they live their everyday lives they affirm their reality over and over again. They find themselves forced, in a sense, to become poachers, helping themselves to meaning, morality, free will and the rest from the storehouse of 2000 years of Christian heritage, because there's no room for them in naturalism.

But when one has to pilfer one's deepest convictions and values from competing visions of reality in order to make life bearable one is tacitly sacrificing any claim to holding to a rational, coherent worldview. To be consistent a naturalist should be a nihilist and accept the emptiness that that entails, yet even though some naturalists see that, few bring themselves to accept it.

For those who do, the loss of the aforementioned crucial existential human needs is more than compensated for, in their minds, by the liberation from God that naturalism makes possible, but this is a liberation from the only adequate ground that could sustain those profound human needs.

For many who yearn for liberation from a cosmic Creator, either the consequences don't occur to them, or if they do, they're often ignored as if they don't exist.

Naturalists are free to do this, of course, but they're not free to declare their worldview rational if they do.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Socrates and the Moral Argument (Pt. III)

Yesterday we took a look at the challenge posed by the Euthyphro Dilemma to those who believe that God's existence is a necessary condition for any meaningful, non-subjective, non-arbitrary ethics. We began by considering the second horn of Plato's famous dilemma which we stated this way:
Is an act morally good because God commands it or does God command it because it is good?
In this post I'd like to reflect on the first of the dilemma's two horns: Is good simply whatever God commands such that cruelty or hatred would be good if God commanded them? If so, it seems that good is just the arbitrary choice of the deity which seems to most people to be an unacceptable option.

The problem with this part of the dilemma, though, is that if we stipulate that God is omnibenevolent, and that "good" is that which conduces to human happiness, then the suggestion that God could command cruelty or hatred is an incoherent act description. Here's why:

The hypothesis that God could command cruelty presupposes a state of affairs in which a perfectly good being, i.e. one whose essence it is to always do that which ultimately conduces to human well-being and happiness, nevertheless commands us to do something which produces gratuitous suffering and pain. There's a profound logical conflict in that.

In other words, if goodness is as we've defined it, and if God is perfectly good, then it's logically impossible for cruelty to be part of his nature or for him to command cruelty or anything else incompatible with ultimate human well-being and happiness. It would require of God that he issue a command that is opposed to his own nature. It's like positing a state of affairs in which there is something which a being who knows everything nevertheless doesn't know.

An act is morally good not because God commands it but because it approximates or conforms to His nature which is the ultimate standard or template of goodness.

So, the proper answer to the question of whether God commands us to love because love is good or whether love is good because God commands it, seems to me to be "neither." God commands us to love because it is his desire to have the world conformed to his own essential nature which is perfect goodness and love.

If what's been said in this and the previous posts is correct then the Euthyphro Dilemma fails as an objection to the moral argument outlined in the first post in this series. It certainly doesn't succeed in putting the theist in the kind of bind some think it does.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Socrates and the Moral Argument (Pt. II)

Many philosophy students find themselves confronted with the Euthyphro dilemma, a problem often posed to convince them that God's existence is superfluous for our moral lives. The dilemma gets its name from the fact that it first appears in Plato's dialogue titled The Euthyphro and has popped up frequently in the philosophical literature ever since.

I'd like to share some thoughts on it over the course of the next two posts with the caveat that much of what I say is not original with me and that whatever might be original I offer with the humble recognition that it could well be nonsense.

With that caution in mind let's look at the dilemma. It's often put in the form of the following question:
Is something - love, for instance - morally good because God commands it or does God command it because it is good?
The question seeks to offer theists, at least those who hold to a divine command theory of ethics, two unpalatable choices. If the theist chooses the first option then presumably had God commanded us to be cruel, cruelty would be morally good, a state of affairs which seems at the very least counterintuitive.

If the second alternative is chosen then good seems to be independent of God, existing apart from God, and rendering God unnecessary for the existence of good or "right."

I think, though, that the choices with which the dilemma confronts us are unable to carry the weight placed upon their shoulders. To see why let's start with a definition for "moral good," and stipulate that moral good is that which conduces to human happiness and well-being.

It may be argued that we don't need God to know what conduces to human well-being and thus we can know what is good without having to believe in God. This may be true, but it misses the point in at least two ways.

First, our problem is not with recognizing good so much as it is with explaining why God is still necessary for good to exist. Just because we can recognize good without believing in God doesn't mean that God is not necessary for anything to be good. What is good is contingent upon the kind of beings we are, and the way we are is contingent upon God. We have the nature we do because God created us this way. Thus, what conduces to our well-being is a function of God's design. We can no more say that God is irrelevant to our well-being than we could say that just because we know that clean oil is conducive to our car's well-being that therefore the engineers who designed the car are irrelevant to our knowing that we should change the oil periodically. Oil is "good" for the car because that's how the engineers designed the car.

Secondly, even if belief in God is not necessary for one to know or recognize what conduces to well-being it is nevertheless necessary that there be a God, or something like God, in order for us to think we have a non-arbitrary duty to care about the well-being of others. If there is no God there is no moral obligation to concern ourselves with the good of others or to do anything else, for that matter. We may want to help others flourish, of course, but the belief that we should is completely arbitrary. If we didn't care about others, or if we acted against the good of others, we wouldn't be wrong in any meaningful sense.

In other words, just because something is good for others doesn't mean we have a duty to do it, at least not unless we're assuming that we're obligated always to do what conduces to other people's happiness and well-being. But why should we assume such a thing? Where does this obligation come from? Purposeless, mindless natural processes and forces such as those involved in the evolution of human beings cannot impose moral duties upon us, so why should I not just promote my own well-being and let others fend for themselves? If God is off the table there's no real answer to these questions.

Thus, God's existence is crucial, not so that we can recognize good, perhaps, but rather as a ground for both the existence of good and for whatever duty we have to do good to others.

So, let's return to the dilemma. Consider again the second horn. Does God command love because love is good? Is the good of love independent of God? Does it exist apart from God?

I don't think so. Goodness is an essential element of God's nature. Goodness is no more separable from God than the property of having just three angles is separable from triangles. Goodness is ontologically dependent upon God's existence much as sunlight is ontologically dependent upon the sun. If there were no sun, sunlight would not exist. If there were no God then moral goodness as a quality of our actions would not exist. Actions which lead to human well-being would have no moral value any more than a cat nursing her young has moral value even though her act conduces to their well-being. We would not consider the cat evil if it refused to nurse its young, nor, if there is no God, would we be able to judge a man objectively evil if he practiced cruelty.

God commands love because he has made us to be the sort of beings which flourish, generally, when nurtured in love, and he has made us this way because it is his essential nature to be loving. Love is not one thing and God another. God is love.

But what of the first horn of the dilemma? What if instead of God being love, suppose he were hateful and cruel? Would hatred and cruelty then be good? We'll consider those questions tomorrow.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Socrates and the Moral Argument (Pt. I)

One family of arguments among the dozen or so which, taken together, make a strong case for the claim that theism is a better explanation for our experience of the world than is naturalism or, alternatively, that it's more probable that theism is true than that naturalism is true, are the arguments lumped under the heading of The Moral Argument. One version of this argument goes like this:

1. If there is no God then there are no objective moral duties.
2. There are objective moral duties.
3. Therefore, there is a God.

In this argument God is taken to be a transcendent, perfectly good moral authority who is able to hold us accountable for our actions. The argument is not a proof since when faced with it the skeptic has a couple of options:

A. He can reject the first premise and argue that even though there's no God there could still be objective moral duties.
B. He could accept the first premise but deny the second premise and thus embrace ethical subjectivism or nihilism.

Of course, if he accepts both premises he's logically bound to accept the conclusion.

The problem is that, as I argue in my novel In the Absence of God (see link at upper right of this page), either option he selects to avoid having to accept the conclusion creates difficulties. If he chooses A then it's incumbent upon him to show where objective moral duties could come from if not from a divine law-giver. Neither society at large nor the cosmos itself is a suitable source of moral value, and any moral duties the skeptic embraces are arbitrary choices.

If he therefore chooses B and embraces some form of subjectivism he has to recognize that his moral choices are simply an arbitrary preference or taste and that he must forfeit the ability to make judgments of anyone else's behavior which are also based on their own preferences which are no more right nor wrong than are his own.

This suspension of moral judgment may sound good to someone of a post-modern inclination, but only until one gets down to cases. If our moral duties are all subjectively imposed we can't say that a child molester or rapist, or even the torture of children is "wrong." The most we can say is that these things certainly seem wrong to us, but if they don't seem wrong to the person doing them then in what sense are they really wrong? The idea that these things are not really wrong for the person doing them is extremely difficult to live with consistently. The subjectivist option leads at best to moral egoism, i.e. the view that the right thing for me to do is whatever increases my pleasure and contentment in life, and at worst to moral nihilism, i.e. the view that nothing is really right or wrong in a moral sense.

But, the skeptic will reply, relying on God creates problems for the theist as well. One famous attempt to show that the theist is in no better position than is the skeptic with regard to a foundation for morality first appeared in one of Plato's dialogues (The Euthyphro) in which Plato has Socrates pose the following question to an interlocutor named Euthyphro: "Is something morally good because God commands it or does God command it because it is good?" This is called the Euthyphro Dilemma because it seeks to confront the advocate of the moral argument with two unpalatable choices between which he must choose.

If the theist chooses the first option, that good is whatever God commands, then presumably had God commanded us to be cruel, cruelty would be morally good, a state of affairs which seems to be at the very least counterintuitive.

If the second alternative is chosen, that God commands us to do what is good, then good seems to be independent of God, existing apart from God, and rendering God unnecessary for the existence of good or "right."

Over the next couple of days I'd like to explain why I think the Euthyphro Dilemma, for all it's popularity, doesn't do the work that some skeptics think it does. More tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Failed Climate Predictions

Michael Bastasch at The Daily Caller has done a little digging and come up with a dozen or so past predictions of imminent environmental calamity made by reputable scientists and politicians.

Despite the fact that none of these dire predictions has come to pass we still hear the same sort of apocalyptic doom and gloom from numerous sources today. There seems to be something in human nature, a trait possessed in common among religious enthusiasts and some scientists, that makes predicting the eschaton nearly irresistible.

Anyway, here's a pastiche of the predictions Bastasch unearthed. The details can be perused at the link:

Ten years ago, the U.N. predicted we only had “as little as eight years left to avoid a dangerous global average rise of 2C or more.”

A group of 1,700 scientists and experts signed a letter 25 years ago warning of massive ecological and societal collapse if nothing was done to curb overpopulation, pollution and, ultimately, the capitalist society in which we live today.

Prince Charles famously warned in July 2009 that humanity had only 96 months to save the world from “irretrievable climate and ecosystem collapse, and all that goes with it.”

World leaders meeting at the Vatican issued a statement saying that 2015 was the “last effective opportunity to negotiate arrangements that keep human-induced warming below 2-degrees [Celsius].”

When France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius met with Secretary of State John Kerry on May 13, 2014 to talk about world issues he said “we have 500 days to avoid climate chaos.”

The United Nations Foundation President Tim Wirth told Climatewire in 2012 that Obama’s second term was “the last window of opportunity” to impose policies to restrict fossil fuel use. Wirth said it’s “the last chance we have to get anything approaching 2 degrees Centigrade,” adding that if “we don’t do it now, we are committing the world to be a drastically different place.”

Even before that, then-National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Space Flight Center head James Hansen warned in 2009 that Obama only “has four years to save Earth.”

“We have hours to act to avert a slow-motion tsunami that could destroy civilization as we know it,” Elizabeth May, leader of the Greens in Canada, wrote in 2009. “Earth has a long time. Humanity does not. We need to act urgently. We no longer have decades; we have hours. We mark that in Earth Hour on Saturday.”

In 2009 United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned there were only “50 days to save the world from global warming,” the BBC reported. According to Brown there was “no plan B.”

Rajendra Pachauri, the former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in 2007 that if “there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late.”“What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment,” he said.

Environmentalist George Monbiot wrote in the UK Guardian in 2002 that within “as little as 10 years, the world will be faced with a choice: arable farming either continues to feed the world’s animals or it continues to feed the world’s people. It cannot do both.”

The San Jose Mercury News reported June 30, 1989 that a “senior environmental official at the United Nations, Noel Brown, says entire nations could be wiped off the face of the earth by rising sea levels if global warming is not reversed by the year 2000.”

In any other science except climatology (and maybe evolutionary biology) this many failed predictions would discredit whatever theoretical models the predictions were based upon. Climatology, however, is apparently a privileged discipline. It's theories are not held to the same standard of predictive success as are other scientific theories. We might understandably wonder why that is.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Eye

For about the last century or so Darwinian naturalists have cited the eye's design as evidence against the existence of an intelligent designer. This is surprising because the eye is an exquisitely engineered organ, but the argument of the Darwinians has been that there are several design flaws in the eye's structure that any competent engineer would have avoided.

One of the alleged flaws is that the rod and cone cells in the retina face backward rather than forward which would seem to minimize the amount of light that reaches them. As such, the eye seems to reflect sub-optimal engineering, and, the argument goes, since sub-optimal structures are what we would expect given that naturalistic evolution is a blind, rather haphazard process, they're the very opposite of what we would expect were the structure intelligently constructed by a competent designer.

As the short video below illustrates, however, the backward facing cells are actually an ingenious way to optimize vision and not a defective design at all.

The video also makes short work of the claim that complex eyes evolved over very long periods of evolutionary time by numerous successive short steps. In fact, the very earliest eyes found in the fossil record are just as complex as are the eyes found in organisms today. If eyes did evolve the process must have been very rapid and thus, it's reasonable to suspect, somehow intelligently directed.

Indeed, the only basis there can be for ruling out an intelligent agent guiding the process is an a priori commitment to metaphysical naturalism, but why privilege naturalism in such a way if there's evidence to suggest it may be wrong? Yet people do it all the time as this famous quote from geneticist Richard Lewontin reveals:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism [i.e. naturalism].

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
As Lewontin's declaration of fealty to naturalism illustrates, it's not science as such that conflicts with the notion of intelligent agency at work in biology. The conflict is one between two metaphysical worldviews, naturalism and theism. Lewontin is acknowledging that his choice to embrace naturalism is a subjective philosophical preference, a preference akin to a personal taste and not based on any empirical evidence at all. He embraces naturalism for no reason other than that he has a deep metaphysical, and perhaps psychological, aversion to theism.

Anyway, give the video a look:

Monday, November 27, 2017

So, Why Is it Wrong?

There's been a lot of talk in the news about sexual assault and other forms of abuse by men in positions of power who prey upon women in their orbit. The tacit assumption, pretty much universal in all the discussion, is that this is morally despicable behavior, and it is, but there's an irony buried in this assumption.

In a secular society comprised of people who have largely declared God to be irrelevant what does it mean to say that the behavior of these men is morally wrong? Having abandoned any transcendent moral authority to whom we are all accountable, must we not also give up the traditional notion that there are any objective moral norms and obligations?

It's certainly difficult, as even most secular thinkers have acknowledged, to see how there can be a standard of moral good without an adequate objective authority whose nature serves as that standard, and if there is no objective standard there really is no objective good, at least in the moral sense, and therefore no objective moral wrong.

Thus, good and bad, right and wrong if they exist at all, must be subjective which means that they're dependent on one's inner feelings or preferences. If one person's feelings differ from another's, though, neither person is right nor wrong, they're just different.

This subjectivity expresses itself differently among the three main groups of people involved in these sex scandals.

First, there are the victims who, lacking any objective standard by which to assess what was done to them, simply allege their aversion and revulsion. For them what was done to them is wrong for no reason other than they were made uncomfortable, repulsed, or frightened by it, or the like.

Then there are the perpetrators. Lacking any objective reference point for their behavior, they intuit that there's nothing wrong with forcing themselves on a weaker individual as long as they can get away with it.

In other words, for these men, might makes right. Others may deplore what they do, society may choose to punish what they do, but if they can get away with it they're not doing anything wrong in any meaningful sense, and, if they're powerful enough to be immune from social sanctions why should they care what society thinks? The sad truth is that powerful men often do get away with it, with the help of the next group, as the case of Bill Clinton illustrates.

The third group are the commentariat in the media and elsewhere who condemn what these men do, who suspect, perhaps, that there's something deeply wrong with sexual assault, but who can give no real reason for their suspicions. They may insist that people have a right not to be violated in such intimate ways, but upon reflection they may realize that such rights are simply conventions fabricated by society.

Having abandoned God they've also abandoned the ability to cite any truly objective rights. After all, what could it actually mean to say that it's morally wrong to violate a "right" if there's no ultimate accountability for what anyone does?

These are some of the same folks who pooh-poohed the allegations of women back in the 90s of Bill Clinton's escapades and predations and who insisted that "character doesn't matter in a president," only competence matters.

So, for this group, right and wrong are pragmatic. Nothing's really wrong except insofar as it harms the prospects of one's political party or, more cynically, if it can be used to harm the prospects of one's political opponents. Put differently, these people believe that whatever hinders their own political aspirations is wrong and whatever promotes them is right.

So, they'll ignore the odious behavior of the Clintons and Weinsteins of the world as long as it does no harm to their party, and they'll express moral outrage at the similarly odious behavior of their opponents if they can gain political advantage by so doing.

Thus, what Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Roy Moore or the growing host of others in Hollywood, Capitol Hill, and corporate penthouses are alleged to have done, is only wrong for the pragmatist because the members of the victim group are exposing the perpetrators in such a way as to harm their respective party's prospects among the vast numbers of unenlightened voters who still believe in God, who still believe in objective moral values, and who still believe that preying on women is objectively evil.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

A Black Saturday Gift Suggestion

Yesterday I urged readers to consider my novel In the Absence of God (2012) as a Christmas gift for friends and family and mentioned in passing its companion novel Bridging the Abyss which came out two years ago.

Bridging is, in part, the story of the search for a young girl who has disappeared off the streets of Baltimore and is believed to have been abducted. Members of the girl's family as well as those involved in the search are forced to confront the tension between a secular view of life which offers no ground for thinking any act "evil" and the obvious evil of which some men are capable.

Here's an excerpt from the Prologue:
In 1948 philosopher W.T. Stace wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly, a portion of which serves as an appropriate introduction to the story which follows in these pages. Stace wrote:
"The real turning point between the medieval age of faith and the modern age of unfaith came when scientists of the seventeenth century turned their backs upon what used to be called "final causes" …[belief in which] was not the invention of Christianity [but] was basic to the whole of Western civilization, whether in the ancient pagan world or in Christendom, from the time of Socrates to the rise of science in the seventeenth century …. They did this on the [basis that] inquiry into purposes is useless for what science aims at: namely, the prediction and control of events.

"…The conception of purpose in the world was ignored and frowned upon. This, though silent and almost unnoticed, was the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated around the world….

"The world, according to this new picture, is purposeless, senseless, meaningless. Nature is nothing but matter in motion. The motions of matter are governed, not by any purpose, but by blind forces and laws….[But] if the scheme of things is purposeless and meaningless, then the life of man is purposeless and meaningless too. Everything is futile, all effort is in the end worthless. A man may, of course, still pursue disconnected ends - money, fame, art, science - and may gain pleasure from them. But his life is hollow at the center.

"Hence, the dissatisfied, disillusioned, restless spirit of modern man….Along with the ruin of the religious vision there went the ruin of moral principles and indeed of all values….If our moral rules do not proceed from something outside us in the nature of the universe - whether we say it is God or simply the universe itself - then they must be our own inventions.

"Thus it came to be believed that moral rules must be merely an expression of our own likes and dislikes. But likes and dislikes are notoriously variable. What pleases one man, people, or culture, displeases another. Therefore, morals are wholly relative."

This book, like my earlier novel In the Absence of God, is a story of people living in the wake of the revolution of which Stace speaks. It's a portrait of a small slice of modern life, a glimpse of what it is like to live in a world in which men live consistently, albeit perhaps unwittingly, with the assumptions of modernity, chief among which is the assumption that God does not exist or is in any case no longer relevant to our lives.

A world that has marginalized the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is a world which finds itself bereft of any non-arbitrary basis for forming moral judgments, for finding any ultimate meaning in the existence of the human species as a whole or the life of the individual in particular, and for hope that the human yearning for justice could ever be satisfied.

Modern man dispenses with God and believes that life can go on as before - or even better than before - but this is a conceit which the sanguinary history of the 19th and 20th century confutes. A world that has abandoned God has abandoned the fountain of goodness, beauty and truth as well as the only possible ground for human rights and belief in the dignity of the individual.

Modernity has in some ways of course been a blessing, but it has also been a curse. History will ultimately decide whether the blessings have outweighed the curse. Meanwhile, Bridging the Abyss offers an account of what I believe to be the only way out of the morass into which widespread acceptance of the assumptions of modernity has led us.
If you'd like to read more about either novel click on the link at the top of this page, and if you're looking for a gift for someone who likes to read and who thinks like W.T. Stace both Absence and Bridging might be just the thing. I hope you'll give them a look. They're available at Hearts and Minds Bookstore, a great little family-owned bookshop, and in both paperback and e-book at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Black Friday Gift Suggestion

Is there someone on your Christmas shopping list you think might enjoy reading a novel which blends philosophy, religion, and a crime story all together on a college campus during football season? If so, you might consider giving them a copy of my book In the Absence of God.

I know the foregoing sounds like a shameless plug, but Absence encapsulates a recurring theme throughout our thirteen years here at Viewpoint. It's a fictionalized argument for the proposition that naturalism affords little or no basis for either moral obligation or ultimate meaning and renders a host of other human needs and yearnings absurd.

Naturalism, to put it succinctly, is an existential dead-end, for unless there is a God, or something very much like God, then life really is, as Shakespeare described it, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

In the Absence of God is set on a mid-size university campus in New England at the beginning of the fall semester sometime in the early years of the last decade.

The main plot line involves a professor named Joseph Weyland who's forced by the events swirling around him, as well as the challenge presented by a young nihilist in one of his classes, to come to grips with the implications of his materialistic worldview. As he wrestles with the issues his materialism raises he's engaged in an ongoing series of dialogues with a colleague and friend named Malcolm Peterson, and also with the pastor of his father's church, Loren Holt.

Meanwhile, the campus has been terrorized by an apparent serial rapist, and several young student-athletes find themselves thrust into the role of both victim and pursuer of the person who's perpetrating these crimes.

Over the course of three weeks in late August and early September the lives of these students become intertwined with those of Weyland and Peterson in ways none of them could have foreseen when the semester opened.

In the Forward to the book I write this:
This is not a book about football, though it may at first seem to be. Neither is it a crime novel, though it ends that way. Nor is it just a book about people sitting around talking, although I'm sure some readers will think so.

In the Absence of God is a novel about ideas concerning the things that matter most in life. It's a tale of three different worldviews, three different ways of seeing the world and of living our lives in it. It's the story of how for a few short weeks in September these three views come into conflict on a college campus in New England and how that clash of ideas forces people on campus to think seriously about the implications of their deepest convictions.

It has been said that ideas have consequences and nowhere is this more true than in one's personal philosophy of life - one's beliefs about God.

It's my hope that in reading this book you'll be stretched to think about things you perhaps hadn't thought about before, or that you'll at least think about your own beliefs in new and different ways. I hope that whatever your convictions about the matters taken up in this book may be, by the time you close its covers you'll agree that those convictions matter, and matter more profoundly than any other opinions you hold.
< /br> You can read more about In the Absence of God by following the link at the top of this page. it's available at my favorite bookstore, Hearts and Minds, and also at Amazon (paperback and kindle), where reader/reviewers have given it 4.5 stars, and at Barnes and Noble (paperback and nook).

I hope you'll consider putting it and/or it's companion novel Bridging the Abyss (about which more tomorrow) on your Christmas shopping list.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

On Gratitude

Thanksgiving is a beautiful celebration because it reinforces gratitude - gratitude to family, friends, neighbors, and God.

It's been said that gratitude is the most fragrant of the virtues and ingratitude one of the ugliest of character defects. Those who are grateful for what others have done for them have about them a certain sweetness and loveliness not exuded by any other personality trait while those who take all their blessings for granted, or think of them as things to which they're entitled, or who are otherwise ungrateful for what others have done for them project a self-centeredness or ignorance that's thoroughly unpleasant to be around.

In fact, I suspect one reason many people are resentful of the protests that have of late accompanied every NFL pre-game national anthem is that the demonstrators seem to the average fan to be ungrateful for the many blessings this country has bestowed upon them.

These athletes have become fabulously wealthy, famous and beloved, they've reached a level of achievement that would've been impossible for them to attain in any other nation on earth, and yet they have so little gratitude that they refuse to show respect for the anthem that represents all the sacrifices that have made their success possible, all the principles from which they have benefitted and all the opportunities that they enjoy as Americans.

Whether ingratitude actually lies at the root of this disdain for the anthem or not, many fans probably intuit that it does and are understandably repulsed by it.

In any case, we all have much to be thankful for, and it would be good tomorrow on Thanksgiving Day to express our appreciation to, and for, those to whom we owe so much.

Here's a quick video that explains the history behind the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims in Massachusetts:

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Problem with Teaching Ethics

Ray Penning at Cardus Blog asks the question, "Can ethics be taught?" The answer, of course, is yes and no. Ethics, as the study of the rules that philosophers have prescribed to govern our moral behavior, can certainly be taught, but, although thousands of books have been written about this, I doubt that any of them have changed anyone's actual behavior. Part of the reason is that, as Penning observes:
Ethics courses that leave students with a bunch of “you shoulds” or “you should nots” are not effective. There are deeper questions that proceed from our understanding of what human nature is about and what we see as the purpose of our life together.
This is true as far as it goes, but the reason teaching such rules is not effective is that focusing on the rules fails to address the metaethical question of why we should follow any of those rules in the first place. What answer can be given to the question why one should not just be selfish, or adopt a might-makes-right ethic? At bottom secular philosophy has no convincing answer. Philosophers simply utter platitudes like "we wouldn't want others to treat us selfishly, so we shouldn't treat them selfishly," which, of course, is completely unhelpful unless one is talking to children.

The reply misfires when aimed at adult students because students will quickly, if only intuitively, discern that it asserts simply that we shouldn't be selfish because it's selfish to be selfish. The question, though, is why, exactly, is it wrong to do to others something we wouldn't done to us? What is it about selfishness that makes selfishness wrong?

Moreover, this sort of answer simply glosses over the problem of what it means to say that something is in fact "wrong" in the first place. Does "wrong" merely mean something one shouldn't do? If so, we might ask why one shouldn't do it, which likely elicits the reply that one shouldn't do it because it's wrong. The circularity of this is obvious.

The only way to break out of the circle, the only way we can make sense of propositions like "X is wrong," is to posit the existence of a transcendent moral authority, a personal being, who serves as the objective foundation for all our moral judgments. If there is no such being then neither are there any objective moral values or duties to which we must, or even should, adhere, and each of us is like an astronaut floating in space trying to decide which direction is up.

This lack of any real meaning to the word "wrong" is a major consequence of the secularization of our culture, and it's one of the major themes of my novels In the Absence of God and Bridging the Abyss (see links at the top of this page), both of which I heartily recommend to readers of Viewpoint.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Bad Options

Why does our politics always seem to present us with two very unsavory alternatives between which we either must choose or effectively opt out of the political process?

In the last presidential election we were offered, on the one hand, a corrupt, deceitful, mean-spirited, reckless and feckless liberal progressive, and, on the other, an odious, deceitful, politically reckless, emotionally immature businessman who boasted publicly of vile behavior towards women.

Next month the citizens of Alabama are offered a choice between, on one side, Roy Moore, a man who has been accused of imposing himself upon underage girls 38 years ago when he was 32, as well as stalking and assaulting older girls, and, on the other, Doug Jones who supports a legal right to kill babies up until the time they're being born.

Those who believe Moore's accusers but who also believe in redemption, might be inclined to extend him the benefit of that belief after the lapse of almost 40 years were it not for the fact that they believe he's lying about his innocence today. Whether he is or he isn't, I don't know, but many commentators are assuming that he is, and I have to say that at least some of his accusers sound credible.

Nevertheless, among those who are expressing disgust and moral outrage at the reports of sexual abuse of women, whether it's perpetrated by the host of Hollywood sleazes led by Harvey Weinstein or politicians like Roy Moore or Senator Al Franken, there's one group of people who have no credibility whatsoever on the issue - the group comprised of anyone who supported Bill Clinton in the 1990s when the allegations against him were as thick as mosquitoes in a swamp.

These weren't just allegations of youthful indiscretions, they weren't just one or two unsubstantiated or ambiguous charges that could've been misunderstandings, they were numerous, consistent and included a very credible accusation of rape.

Moreover, no one who supported Hillary in the last election has any ground upon which to stand when condemning any of the current crop of abusers for Hillary was herself instrumental in discrediting whomever among her husband's victims had the audacity to came forward to accuse him. Indeed, she led the effort to smear them.

When MSNBC host Mika Brezinski now declares twenty years after the fact, and after genuflecting toward Hillary throughout the 2016 campaign, that Bill Clinton was indeed a predator and that she's done with tip-toeing around the fact, one can only think that, as John Sexton at Hot Air points out, had Hillary actually won a year ago Mika and everyone else at MSNBC would've continued to fawn over the Clintons as much as ever.

One further point: Among the allegations that've been leveled against Senator Robert Menendez in recent years was that he has patronized under-age prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, yet liberals still seem much more eager to hammer senatorial candidate Roy Moore for his sins of 40 years ago than to pursue the relatively recent claims made against Menendez who is a sitting senator.

Why? Because Menendez is a Democrat and Moore is a Republican?

If that's the reason then how sincere are their declamations of outrage over the degrading treatment of women in our society? Apparently not very.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Naturalism, Utilitarianism and Egoism

Peter Singer is a philosopher at Princeton who has gained substantial notoriety for invoking his utilitarian ethical principles to justify infanticide and animal rights. In a piece at The Journal of Practical Ethics the editors interview Singer and question whether utilitarians can, or do, live consistently with their own ethical philosophy.

Here's part of the interview:
Editors: Frances Kamm once said...that utilitarians who believe in very demanding duties to aid and that not aiding is the same as harming, but nevertheless don’t live up to these demands, don’t really believe their own arguments....She concludes that ‘either something is wrong with that theory, or there is something wrong with its proponents’. What do you think about this argument? Why haven’t you given a kidney to someone who needs it now? You have two and you only need one. They have none that are working – it would make a huge difference to their life at very little cost to you.

Peter Singer: I’m not sure that the cost to me of donating a kidney would be “very little” but I agree that it would harm me much less than it would benefit someone who is on dialysis. I also agree that for that reason my failure to donate a kidney is not ethically defensible.... Donating a kidney does involve a small risk of serious complications. Zell Kravinsky suggests that the risk is 1 in 4000. I don’t think I’m weak-willed, but I do give greater weight to my own interests, and to those of my family and others close to me, than I should. Most people do that, in fact they do it to a greater extent than I do (because they do not give as much money to good causes as I do). That fact makes me feel less bad about my failure to give a kidney than I otherwise would. But I know that I am not doing what I ought to do.
This response raises several questions, but I'll focus on just one. Singer believes it's wrong not to give the kidney and he feels bad, he feels guilty, about not doing so, yet why should he? In what sense is his violation of utilitarian principles morally wrong? Indeed, why is utilitarianism morally superior to the egoism to which he admits to succumbing?

To put it differently, if Singer chooses to be a utilitarian and donate the kidney while someone else chooses to be an egoist and keep his kidneys, why is either one right or wrong? Given Singer's naturalism, what does it even mean to say that someone is morally wrong anyway? On naturalism there's no moral authority except one's own convictions and no accountability, so in what way is keeping one's kidneys an offense to morality?

Elsewhere in the interview, Singer notes that his ethical thinking is based on the work of the great 19th century ethicist and utilitarian Henry Sidgwick and mentions that,
Sidgwick himself remained deeply troubled by his inability to demonstrate that egoism is irrational. That led him to speak of a “dualism of practical reason” — two opposing viewpoints, utilitarianism and egoism, seemed both to be rational.
In other words, the choice between them is an arbitrary exercise of personal preference, although Singer doesn't agree with this because he believes evolution affords grounds for rejecting egoism. It's hard to see how this could be the case, however, since blind impersonal processes cannot impose moral duties. Nor is it easy to see how acting against the trend of those processes can be morally wrong. How is one doing anything wrong if he chooses to act contrary to the way mutation and natural selection have shaped the human species. Why should he accept the ethical results of evolutionary history any more than we accept the physical limitations imposed on us by gravity when we go aloft in an airplane or hot air balloon?

The only reason we have for not putting our own interests ahead of the interests of others - as in the example of the kidney - and the only rational reason we would have for feeling guilt over our failure to consider the needs of others is if we believe that such failures are a transgression of an obligation imposed upon us by a transcendent personal moral authority. Singer lacks such a belief and can thus give no compelling explanation for his feelings of guilt nor any reason why one should be a utilitarian rather than an egoist.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Future Shocks

In a sobering column at The Federalist Robert Tracinski reminds us of ten crises that Americans, and indeed the world, will likely be facing over the next few months and years.

Here's his first five with a brief explanation:
The National Debt
Above everything else there is the specter of the national debt and the unsustainable long-term cost of middle-class entitlements.

Our entire political status quo, in terms of the balance between free markets and the welfare state, is financed with massive amounts of debt, and at some point we won’t be able to keep borrowing our way out of the problem. There will be a reckoning, and when it comes it will be all the more traumatic because we have put it off so long.

The Wreckage of Obamacare
I have recently encountered a number of businesses and non-profit organizations that are reeling from the effects of rising health insurance costs, which are forcing them to raise their prices or lay off workers. Obamacare upended the entire health system on the promise that it was going to solve this problem. Instead, it made it worse. Health-care costs are spiraling out of control because of a program that didn’t work but that nobody can manage to get rid of.

Slow Growth
No wonder this is an era of slow economic growth. America’s post-World War II growth averaged between 2 and 3 percent. For the past 15 years, it has been under 1 percent. This is a crisis because slow growth breeds stagnation and hopelessness. A return to 4 percent growth, or more, would provide a vibrant economy full of opportunities and allow us to grow our way out of our massive debt. But it would take radical change to get us there.

The Revival of Fascism and Communism
If these crises are going to force us to seek out new political solutions, what are we being offered? Some who claim to be on the Right, if only the “alt-right,” are trying to revive white nationalism and fascism, both in our own back yards and in Europe. Just to keep the horror balanced, some on the Left are attempting to revive Communism under the banner of a violent, intolerant “anti-fascism.”

Campus Totalitarianism
All of this starts in the very institution that ought to be stamping out intolerance and authoritarianism: higher education. Instead, universities are leading the way toward a regime of totalitarian groupthink led by fanatical student mobs.
His last five include North Korean nukes and terrorism. He doesn't mention Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and the consequences that will entail, but he does discuss regional conflict in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia. You can read more about what Tracinski says about all of this at the link.

He concludes his column with these words:
...we could and probably will find ourselves someday facing difficult and costly wars and violent internal conflict while mired in a debt crisis that we’re not able to grow our way out of. If all of these crises do not hit at once, at least some of them will. When that happens, what are we going to need above all else? We’re going to need to draw upon and reinforce the values and norms that make it possible to solve these problems, and to keep from killing each other in the process....

Above all, we need to focus on the importance of ideas, values, and norms as bulwarks against the forces that are about to drive us to chaos. When the chips are really down—and it can get far, far worse from here—it might not be much of a comfort to know that the grandstanding creep in the Senate (or the White House) has your party’s initial after his name....