Saturday, December 30, 2017

Why Has New York's Murder Rate Dropped?

Heather MacDonald is the author of The War Against Cops and writes often on crime and urban policy. She has a very interesting take on the recent statistics showing a drop in the murder rate in New York City to levels not seen since the 1950s, one response to which is that proactive policing - stop and frisk and other such measures - are unnecessary. MacDonald disagrees.

Here's an excerpt from her recent essay in National Review:
The New York Police Department’s reported-stop activity plummeted earlier in this decade as a result of a groundless trilogy of racial-profiling lawsuits against the department. Yet crime in New York ultimately continued its downward trajectory. Therefore, proactive policing like pedestrian stops is unnecessary, [some] cop critics say.

Their arguments are specious. New York City’s formerly high-crime neighborhoods have experienced a stunning degree of gentrification over the last 15 years, thanks to the proactive-policing-induced conquest of crime.

It is that gentrification which is now helping fuel the ongoing crime drop. Urban hipsters are flocking to areas that once were the purview of drug dealers and pimps, trailing in their wake legitimate commerce and street life, which further attracts law-abiding activity and residents in a virtuous cycle of increasing public safety.

The degree of demographic change is startling. In Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, for example, the number of white residents rose 1,235 percent from 2000 to 2015, while the black population decreased by 17 percent, reports City Lab. In Bushwick, Brooklyn, the number of whites rose 610 percent over that same decade and a half; the black population was down 22 percent.

Central Harlem’s white population rose 846 percent; the black share dropped 10 percent. In 2000, whites were about three-quarters of the black population in Brownsville-Ocean Hill; by 2015, there were twice as many whites as blacks. In 2000, whites were one-third of the black population in Crown Heights North and Prospect Heights; now they exceed the black population by 20,000.

The Brooklyn Navy Yards has now been declared the next cool place to be by the tech industry. Business owners are moving their residences as well as their enterprises to the area.

This demographic transformation has enormous implications for crime. A black New Yorker is 50 times more likely to commit a shooting than a white New Yorker, according to perpetrator identifications provided to the police by witnesses to, and victims of, those shootings. Those victims are overwhelmingly minority themselves.

When the racial balance of a neighborhood changes radically, given those crime disparities, its violent-crime rate will as well. (This racial crime disparity reflects the breakdown of the black family and the high percentage of black males — upwards of 80 percent in some neighborhoods — being raised by single mothers.)

The high-crime areas of Baltimore and Chicago have not been gentrified. Baltimore is experiencing its highest per capita murder rate for the third year in a row. While Chicago’s homicide numbers are down somewhat this year, thanks to the aggressive use of shot-spotter technology, they remain at a level far higher than in the past decade. The year 2017 will mark only the second time since 2003 that homicides surpassed 600, according to the Chicago Tribune.
In other words, when upscale yuppies and similar folk take over a neighborhood, violent crime goes down. In cities where gentrification hasn't happened on the same scale as in New York violent crime remains high.

MacDonald has much more to say about this in her essay which you can access at the link.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Movin' on Out

Conservatives have long argued that liberal policies, however well-intended they may be, are often counterproductive and/or destructive. One bit of evidence that can be adduced in this regard is the out-migration of residents from three states - New York, Illinois, and California - that have been dominated by liberal Democrats for decades.

For many residents, apparently, the tax and spend policies of their liberal state governments have made their states just too burdensome to live in:
The exodus of residents was most pronounced in New York, which saw about 190,000 people leave the state between July 1, 2016 and July 1, 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released last week.

New York’s domestic out-migration during that time period was about the same as it was in the same time 2015 and 2016. Since 2010, the state’s outflow of just over 1 million residents has exceeded that of every other state, both in absolute terms and as a share of population, according to the free-market think tank Empire Center.

Long-beset by twin budget and pension crises and the erosion of its tax base, Illinois lost so many residents that it dropped from the fifth to the sixth-most populous state in 2017, losing its previous spot to Pennsylvania.

Just under 115,000 Illinois residents decamped for other states between July 2016 and July 2017. Since 2010, the Land of Lincoln has lost about 650,000 residents to other states on net, equal to the combined population of the state’s four largest cities other than Chicago, according to the Illinois Policy Institute.

Illinois’ domestic out-migration problem has become a nightmare for lawmakers, who must find a way to solve the worst pension crisis in the nation as the state’s tax base shrinks year after year. Illinois’ Democratic-dominated legislature has tried to ameliorate the situation with tax hikes, causing even more people to leave and throwing the state into a demographic spiral.

“As people leave the state, they take their pocketbooks with them. That means there are fewer Illinoisans to pay the bills,” Orphe Divounguy, chief economist with the Illinois Policy Institute, told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s worrying because if you have a declining population and a declining labor force, you will for sure have a further slowdown of economic activity going into 2018.”

California was the third deep blue state to experience significant domestic out-migration between July 2016 and July 2017, and it couldn’t blame the outflow on retirees searching for a more agreeable climate. About 138,000 residents left the state during that time period, second only to New York.
In the past the high tax regimens in these states were tolerable because state and local taxes (SALT) could be deducted on one's federal income tax returns, but the newly-enacted tax reform bill caps SALT deductions at $10,000, a limit which will hit taxpayers in those states harder than just about any other state:
According to the Tax Foundation, New York, Illinois and California had three of the five highest tax rates expressed as a percentage of per capita income, with residents paying 12.7 percent, 11 percent and 11 percent, respectively.
An irony in this is that these states (Illinois being an exception) are on balance slightly increasing their population, but the increase is coming from births and international migrants. In other words, the people who are leaving are generally taxpayers who are being replaced by people who will contribute less in taxes and require more in benefits.

These states are about to pay a steep price for their fiscal irresponsibility. As Margaret Thatcher once said about socialism, pretty soon you run out of other people's money. When that happens the state's leaders will probably raise taxes again triggering another round of taxpayer flight, or they'll go to the federal government - i.e. the rest of us - demanding a bail-out to rescue them from their profligacy and the economic death spiral they'll find themselves in.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Which Questions?

The science writer at Forbes, Ethan Siegal, was asked which of these five physics-related mysteries would he most like to have the answer to:
  • Did cosmic inflation happen or was there another process?
  • Is earth the only place in the cosmos with life?
  • How [can we] merge general relativity and quantum mechanics?
  • What is dark energy and dark matter?
  • How did life begin on Earth?
These are all fascinating questions, and I'd like to know the answers to all of them, especially the last. Siegal gives interesting explanations at the link as to why these questions are significant, and interested readers should check it out, but for me the two most fascinating science-related questions are not on this list.

The first question I'd like to read a convincing answer to is how did brute matter - atoms and sub-atomic particles - ever give rise in evolutionary history to human consciousness? Indeed, what exactly is consciousness? It would seem that the explanatory gap between material stuff and conscious experience is enormous so how was it bridged in human development or, for that matter, how is it bridged in each human brain?

The second question I'd like to see answered is what is matter in the first place? What is the fundamental constituent of matter? Is it something solid or is it a force of some kind? If it's the latter then how does solidity arise? Is solidity just an illusion? Is the material world objectively real and to what extent is it so?

Someone might dismiss such questions with the remark that the answers make no difference to how we live our everyday lives, and at one level they'd probably be correct. But, if, as a lot of very smart people think, the answers to these questions would point to an ontic reality beyond the universe itself, an intelligent mind, then the implications for everyday life could be considerable.

If, for example, it should turn out that consciousness cannot arise from matter but must be itself the product of consciousness then it would appear that conscious mind underlies the cosmos, and if it should turn out that matter (or mass/energy) reduces to information then, since information is the product of minds, it would appear, again, that a mind must underlie the cosmos.

Those are conclusions, one would think, of immense significance.

Perhaps we'll never know the answers. Perhaps we cannot know them. Perhaps solving these puzzles is as far beyond our intellectual capacities as solving quadratic equations is beyond the intellectual capacities of a rabbit. All the same, it'd be a stupendous achievement were the answers ever found.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The President's First Year

President Trump has taken a remarkable and unprecedented drubbing in the media this year, but he's nevertheless ending 2017 with numerous accomplishments to his credit, and even some of his critics are beginning to acknowledge it.

Axios discusses just a portion of what has been achieved in the first year of the Trump presidency:
  • The big picture: You might not like his words or actions. But measured in terms of what Republican voters want and expected, he's winning on important fronts:
  • The tax bill passed with almost unanimous Republican support, before the end of the year, and in keeping with mostly mainstream conservative orthodoxy. Trump won a bigger corporate tax break than either Bush ever got, and will sign the most consequential new tax law in 30 years. And he followed through on cutting taxes for most small businesses and most Americans. He did this without losing a single GOP senator — even his harshest critics.
  • He failed to repeal all of Obama's health-care law. But Trump axed the individual mandate with the tax bill, and has chipped away at other parts of the law's foundation. Again, you might hate the outcome. But it's a significant step to blowing up a program most Republicans demanded be destroyed.
  • Axios health-care editor Sam Baker emails: "The smaller administrative steps Trump has taken — an executive order, cuts to enrollment outreach, ending a critical stream of funding for insurers — [are cumulatively] weakening the ACA's insurance exchanges and prompting some insurers to question whether those markets are worth the trouble."
  • Trump has tilted the court rightward in lasting ways. Justice Neil Gorsuch was a substantial, conservative addition to the Supreme Court. And it wasn't a one-off: The dozen new U.S. Circuit Court judges he has named is the most during a president's first year in office in more than a century.
  • Trump has followed through on eviscerating regulations, many of them imposed by Obama. He has revoked 67, and delayed or derailed more than 1,500 others.
  • No matter that much of it is not of his doing, the economy has grown consistently under his watch.
  • ISIS is in retreat. The N.Y. Times' Ross Douthat calls it "A War Trump Won."
All of these points are profoundly significant and as might be expected the media have been largely loath to talk about any of them. At CNN and MSNBC they're still fixated on Russian collusion and the Mueller investigation, hoping that something will come of it that'll force Trump from office.

Ross Douthat is a fierce but honest anti-Trumper at the New York Times, and the column referred to above praises, albeit somewhat grudgingly, Trump's foreign policy successes in the Middle East. He writes:
There is nothing more characteristic of the Trump era, with its fire hose of misinformation, scandal and hyperbole, than that America and its allies recently managed to win a war that just two years ago consumed headlines and dominated political debate and helped Donald Trump himself get elected president — and somehow nobody seemed to notice.

I mean the war against the Islamic State, whose expansion was the defining foreign policy calamity of Barack Obama’s second term, whose executions of Americans made the U.S.A. look impotent and whose utopian experiment drew volunteers drunk on world-historical ambitions and metaphysical dreams.

Its defeat was begun under Obama, and the hardest fighting has been done by Iraqis — but this was an American war too, and we succeeded without massive infusions of ground troops, without accidentally getting into a war with Russia, and without inspiring a huge wave of terrorism in the West.

Why haven’t we noticed this success?....

[T]his is...a press failure, a case where the media is not adequately reporting an important success because it does not fit into the narrative of Trumpian disaster in which our journalistic entities are all invested....

I include myself in this indictment. Foreign policy is the place where the risks of electing Trump seemed to me particularly unacceptable, and I’ve tended to focus on narratives that fit that fear, from the risk of regional war in Middle East to the perils in our North Korean brinksmanship.

Those fears are still reasonable. But all punditry is provisional, and for now, the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East has been moderately successful, and indeed close to what I would have hoped for from a normal Republican president following a realist-internationalist course.

In particular, Trump has avoided the temptation often afflicting Republican uber-hawks, in which we’re supposed to fight all bad actors on 16 fronts at once. Instead he’s slow-walked his hawkish instincts on Iran, tolerated Assad and avoided dialing up tensions with Russia. The last issue is of course entangled with the great collusion debate — but it’s still a good thing that our mini-cold war has remained relatively cool and we aren’t strafing each other over Syria.
Douthat goes on to commend the Trump team for its handling of the Saudis, the Yemen calamity, and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. He closes with this:
The rule with this White House is that if you write in praise of anything it has done, something disastrous swiftly follows. So if this column conjures up a Saudi invasion of Lebanon, a renewed intifada, or something terrible in the Koreas — well, I apologize in advance.

But if you had told me in late 2016 that almost a year into the Trump era the caliphate would be all-but-beaten without something far worse happening in the Middle East, I would have been surprised and gratified. So very provisionally, credit belongs where it’s due — to our soldiers and diplomats, yes, but to our president as well.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Tax Cuts and Bonuses

You won't hear much about this on the mainstream media, but even before the recently passed tax reform bill has gone into effect hundreds of thousands of average Americans were already benefiting from it.

Some corporations are giving out thousand dollar bonuses to their employees, others are raising their minimum wage to $15.00 and hour, and others are planning on expanding their businesses and creating more jobs.
It started with AT&T expanding its bonus program to an additional 200,000 staffers getting $1,000 apiece.

Next came Boeing announcing a gift of $300 million in investment in its employee-related charitable program “to support our heroes, our homes and our future.”

Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bancorp announced they would raise their minimum wage to $15 in the New Year, with Fifth Third kicking in an additional bonus of $1,000 to 13,000 employees.

Comcast NBC Universal anted up $1,000 bonuses to more than 100,000 non-executive employees, announcing the move was not only tied, like all the others, to the tax cut but to the Federal Communications Commission’s elimination of government regulation of the Internet. Comcast NBC Universal Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Brian L. Roberts added the company plans to spend more than $50 billion in the next five years on infrastructure investments that he expects will create “thousands of new direct and indirect jobs.”

In fact, before the bill was even passed, Kroger Chief Executive Officer W. Rodney McMullen offered that the legislation would influence his company “to continue to invest in our business, which will grow jobs.”
No Democrat in the House or Senate voted for it. In fact the opposition to it was fairly fierce. Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the bill an “Armageddon” for the American people and insisted that it was "the worst bill in history." The Democrats' main argument was that by dropping the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% we'll just be making the rich richer and doing nothing to help the middle class.

It may be that under the new tax reform law the cumulative tax break for some will only be a couple of hundred dollars but add that to enhanced job creation and thousand dollar bonuses and it's a lot more money than most average Americans received from any policy enacted in eight years of the Obama administration.

It makes one wonder how much those who opposed tax reform really understand about businesses and how much they really care about the average worker.

For a full listing of what some American companies have done for their employees in the wake of the passage of tax reform, not including what might be done by other companies in the weeks and months ahead, go to the link.

Monday, December 25, 2017


Some people get a little miffed during the Christmas season over the use of Xmas rather than Christmas, but perhaps their discomfiture is misplaced, as the late theologian R.C. Sproul explains:
People seem to express chagrin about seeing Christ’s name dropped and replaced by this symbol for an unknown quantity X. Every year you see the signs and the bumper stickers saying, “Put Christ back into Christmas” as a response to this substitution of the letter X for the name of Christ.

First of all, you have to understand that it is not the letter X that is put into Christmas. We see the English letter X there, but actually what it involves is the first letter of the Greek name for Christ. Christos is the New Testament Greek for Christ. The first letter of the Greek word Christos is transliterated into our alphabet as an X. That X has come through church history to be a shorthand symbol for the name of Christ....There’s a long and sacred history of the use of X to symbolize the name of Christ, and from its origin, it has meant no disrespect.
This is interesting and helpful, but I still suspect that a lot of people use Xmas to avoid writing Christmas and have no idea what the etymology of the word is. In any case, Sproul goes on to explain the origin of the fish as a symbol for Christianity:
The church has used the symbol of the fish historically because it is an acronym. Fish in Greek (ichthus) involved the use of the first letters for the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” So the early Christians would take the first letter of those words and put those letters together to spell the Greek word for fish. That’s how the symbol of the fish became the universal symbol of Christendom.
I hope this Xmas has been a wonderful and meaningful day for you.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Christmas Eve Meditation

Christmas is a magical time, but it's not the trappings of the secular world that make it magical - except maybe for very young children - rather it's the sense of mystery surrounding the Incarnation. The magic is a by-product of the belief that Christmas celebrates a miracle, the Creator of the universe deigning to become one of His creatures so that in the fullness of time He and His creatures could enjoy each other forever.

It's that belief, affirmed by Christians for 2000 years, that's so awe-inspiring and which fills us on Christmas with an ineffable sense of love and being loved, a sense that makes the whole experience of Christmas Eve tingle with magic.

The secular, commercial world has drained much of that excitement from the night by pretending that the source and traditional meaning of the night is irrelevant. All the talk of Santa Claus, ads for cars, beer, and phones, all the insipid "holiday" songs and movies - none of these do anything to touch people's hearts or imaginations. They don't inspire awe. Christmas Eve is sterile and empty without the message of the Gospel and the conviction that this night is special, not because of the office Christmas party, last minute shopping, or Home Alone reruns, but because it's a night haunted by the presence of God and set apart for the delivery of the greatest gift in history.

Here are two traditional Christmas pieces that capture some of the magic, mystery, and power of this night. I hope you enjoy them and hope, too, that each of you has a wonderful, meaningful Christmas and a very special 2017:

It might be best just to listen to this next one without watching it since the video is a bit out of sync with the audio:

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Why Christians Celebrate Christmas

In this season of shopping and feasting it's easy to lose sight of why Christmas is a special day. The following allegory, which we've posted on Viewpoint several times in the past, is a modest attempt to put the season into perspective [Some readers have noted the similarity between this story and the movie Taken, however, the story of Michael first appeared on Viewpoint over a year before Taken was released so the similarities with the movie are purely coincidental, although the similarities with my novel Bridging the Abyss, are not.]:
Michael, a member of a top-secret anti-terrorism task force, was the father of a teenage daughter named Jennifer, and his duties had caused him to be away from home much of the time Jen was growing up. He was serving his country in a very important, very dangerous capacity that required his absence and a great deal of personal sacrifice. As a result, his daughter grew into her late teens pretty much without him. Indeed, his wife Judith had decided to leave him a couple of years previous and took the girl with her.

Finally, after several years abroad, Mike was able to return home. He longed to hold his princess in his arms and to spend every possible moment with her to try to make up for lost time, but when he knocked on the door of his ex-wife's house the girl who greeted him was almost unrecognizable. Jen had grown up physically and along the way she had rejected everything Michael valued. Her appearance shocked him and her words cut him like a razor. She told him coldly and bluntly that she really didn't want to see him, that he wasn't a father as far as she was concerned, that he hadn't been a part of her life before and wouldn't be in the future.

Michael, a man who had faced numerous hazards and threats in the course of his work and had been secretly cited for great heroism by the government, was staggered by her words. The loathing in her voice and in her eyes crushed his heart. He started to speak, but the door was slammed in his face. Heartbroken and devastated he wandered the streets of the city wondering how, or if, he could ever regain the love his little girl once had for him.

Weeks went by during which he tried to contact both his ex-wife and his daughter, but they refused to return his calls. Then one night his cell phone rang. It was Judith, and from her voice Mike could tell something was very wrong. Jennifer had apparently run off with some unsavory characters several days before and hadn't been heard from since. His ex-wife had called the police, but she felt Mike should know, too. She told him that she thought the guys Jen had gone out with that night were heavily into drugs and she was worried sick about her.

She had good reason to be. Jen thought when she left the house that she was just going for a joy ride, but that's not what her "friends" had in mind. Once they had Jen back at their apartment they tied her to a bed, abused her, filmed the whole thing, and when she resisted they beat her until she submitted. She overheard them debating whether they should sell her to a man whom they knew sold girls into sex-slavery in South America or whether they should just kill her and dump her body in the bay. For three days her life was an unimaginable hell. She cried herself to sleep late every night after being forced into the most degrading conduct imaginable.

Finally her abductors sold her to a street gang in exchange for drugs. Bound and gagged, she was raped repeatedly and beaten savagely. For the first time in her life she prayed that God would help her, and for the first time in many years she missed her father. But as the days wore on she began to think she'd rather be dead than be forced to endure what she was being put through.

Mike knew some of the officers in the police force and was able to get a couple of leads from them as to who the guys she originally left with might be. He set out, not knowing Jennifer's peril, but determined to find her no matter what the cost. His search led him to another city and took days - days in which he scarcely ate or slept. Each hour that passed Jennifer's condition grew worse and her danger more severe. She was by now in a cocaine-induced haze in which she almost didn't know or care what was happening to her.

Somehow, Michael, weary and weak from his lack of sleep and food, managed to find the seedy, run down tenement building where Jennifer was imprisoned. Breaking through a flimsy door he saw his daughter laying on a filthy bed surrounded by three startled kidnappers. Enraged by the scene before his eyes he launched himself at them with a terrible, vengeful fury. Two of the thugs went down quickly, but the third escaped. With tears flowing down his cheeks, Mike unfastened the bonds that held Jen's wrists to the bed posts. She was weak but alert enough to cooperate as Michael helped her to her feet and led her to the doorway.

As she passed into the hall with Michael behind her the third abductor appeared with a gun. Michael quickly stepped in front of Jennifer and yelled to her to run back into the apartment and out the fire escape. The assailant tried to shoot her as she stumbled toward the escape, but Michael shielded her from the bullet, taking the round in his side. The thug fired twice more into Michael's body, but Mike was able to seize the gun and turn it on the shooter.

Finally, it was all over, finished.

Slumped against the wall, Mike lay bleeding from his wounds, the life draining out of him. Jennifer saw from the fire escape landing what had happened and ran back to her father. Cradling him in her arms she wept bitterly and told him over and over that she loved him and that she was so sorry for what she had said to him and for what she had done.

With the last bit of life left in him he gazed up at her, pursed his lips in a kiss, smiled and died. Jennifer wept hysterically. How could she ever forgive herself for how she had treated him? How could she ever overcome the guilt and the loss she felt? How could she ever repay the tremendous love and sacrifice her father had showered upon her?

Years passed. Jennifer eventually had a family of her own. She raised her children to revere the memory of her father even though they had never known him. She resolved to live her own life in such a way that Michael, if he knew, would be enormously proud of her. Everything she did, she did out of gratitude to him for what he had done for her, and every year on the day of his birth she went to the cemetery alone and sat for a couple of hours at his graveside, talking to him and sharing her love and her life with him. Her father had given everything for her despite the cruel way she had treated him. He had given his life to save hers, and his love for her, his sacrifice, had changed her life forever.
And that's why Christians celebrate Christmas.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Secularist's Confusion

A few years ago Susan Jacoby wrote a piece in the New York Times about a book by Phil Zuckerman titled Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. Her review serves up several examples of how to miss the point. As an atheist herself Jacoby is eager to defend Zuckerman's thesis that one can live a life that's just as morally good, or better, than that of any theist. Belief in God, both Jacoby and Zuckerman aver, is not necessary for the moral life. She writes:
Many years ago, when I was an innocent lamb making my first appearance on a right-wing radio talk show, the host asked, “If you don’t believe in God, what’s to stop you from committing murder?” I blurted out, “It’s never actually occurred to me to murder anyone.”
In addition to the usual tendentious use of the word "right-wing" whenever a progressive is referring to anything to the right of the mid-line on the ideological highway, her answer to the question is a non-sequitur. The host is obviously asking her what, in her worldview, imposes any moral constraint on her. To answer that it never occurred to her to do such a thing as murder is to duck the question. The question is on what grounds would she have thought murder to be morally wrong if it had occurred to her to commit such a deed? She continues her evasions when she says this:
Nonreligious Americans are usually pressed to explain how they control their evil impulses with the more neutral, albeit no less insulting, “How can you have morality without religion?”
We might want to pause here to ask why Ms Jacoby feels insulted that someone might ask her what she bases her moral values and decisions on. Is it insulting because she's being asked a question for which she has no good answer?

Anyway, after some more irrelevant filler she eventually arrives at the nub of Zuckerman's book:
[Zuckerman] extols a secular morality grounded in the “empathetic reciprocity embedded in the Golden Rule, accepting the inevitability of our eventual death, navigating life with a sober pragmatism grounded in this world.”
Very well, but why is it right to embrace the principle that we should treat others the way we want to be treated but wrong to adopt the principle that we should put our own interests ahead of the interests of others? Is it just that it feels right to Zuckerman to live this way? If so, then all the author is saying is that everyone should live by his own feelings. In other words, morality is rooted in each person's own subjective behavioral preferences, but if that's so then no one can say that anyone else is wrong about any moral matter. If what's right is what I feel to be right then the same holds true for everyone, and how can I say that others are wrong if they feel they should be selfish, greedy, racist, dishonest, or violent?

Just because I, or Susan Jacoby, feel strongly that such behaviors are wrong that surely doesn't make them wrong. Jacoby seems to unaware of the difficulty, however:
The Golden Rule (who but a psychopath could disagree with it?) is a touchstone for atheists if they feel obliged to prove that they follow a moral code recognizable to their religious compatriots. But this universal ethical premise does not prevent religious Americans (especially on the right) from badgering atheists about goodness without God — even though it would correctly be seen as rude for an atheist to ask her religious neighbors how they can be good with God.
This paragraph is unfortunate for at least three reasons. First, Jacoby's insinuation that only a moral pervert would reject the Golden Rule (GR) is a case of begging the question. She's assuming the GR is an objective moral principle and then asks how anyone could not see it as such, but the notion that there are objective moral principles is exactly what atheism disallows. Indeed, as indicated above, it's what Zuckerman and Jacoby both implicitly deny.

Second, the fact that someone can choose to live by the GR is not to the point. Anyone can live by whatever values he or she chooses. The problem for the atheist is that she cannot say that if someone disdains the GR and chooses to live selfishly or cruelly that that person is doing anything that is objectively wrong. In a Godless world values are like selections on a restaurant menu. The atheist can choose whatever she wants that suits her taste, but if her companion chooses something she doesn't like that doesn't make him wrong.

Third, Jacoby seems to imply that belief in God doesn't make one good, and in fact makes it hard to be good. This is again beside the point. One can believe in God and not know what's right. One can believe in God and not do what's right. The point, though, is that unless there is a God there is no objective moral right nor wrong. There are merely subjective preferences people have to which they are bound only by their own arbitrary will.

Morality requires a transcendent, objective, morally authoritative foundation, a foundation which has the right to impose moral strictures and the ability to enforce them. That is, it requires a personal being. If no such being exists then debates about right and wrong behavior are like debates about the prettiest color. They're no more than expressions of personal taste and preference.

Jacoby unwittingly supplies us with an interesting example from which to elaborate on the point:
Tonya Hinkle (a pseudonym) is a mother of three who lives in a small town in Mississippi....Her children were harassed at school after it became known that the Hinkles did not belong to a church. When Tonya’s first-grade twins got off the school bus crying, she learned that “this one girl had stood up on the bus and screamed — right in their faces — that they were going to HELL. That they were going to burn in all eternity because they didn’t go to church.”
Jacoby thinks this was awful, as do I, but why does Jacoby think that what these children did to Tonya's children was wrong - not factually wrong but morally wrong? She might reply that it hurt the little girl, and so it did, but on atheism why is it wrong to hurt people? Jacoby, falling back on the GR, might say that those kids wouldn't want someone to hurt them. Surely not, but why is that a reason why it's wrong to hurt others? How, exactly, does one's desire not to be hurt make it wrong to hurt others? All an atheist can say by way of reply is that it violates the GR, but then she's spinning in a circle. Where does the GR get it's moral authority from in a Godless universe? Is it from social consensus? Human evolution? How can either of these make any act morally wrong?

At this point some people might reply that it's wrong to hurt others because it just is, but at this point the individual has abandoned reason and is resorting to dogmatic asseverations of faith in the correctness of their own moral intuitions - sort of like some of those obnoxious fundamentalists might do.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is, though, that, on atheism, if those kids can hurt Tonya's children and get away with it, it's not wrong, it's only behavior Jacoby doesn't like, and we're back to right and wrong being measured by one's personal feelings.

It's a common error but an error nonetheless when non-theists like Jacoby and Zuckerman seek to defend the possibility of moral values while denying any transcendent basis for them, and it's peculiar that Jacoby feels insulted when she's asked to explain how she can do this.

Another atheist, Robert Tracinski at The Federalist, makes a related mistake in an otherwise fine discussion of the thought of Ayn Rand. Tracinski explicitly acknowledges that most thoughtful atheists, at least those on the left, embrace moral subjectivism. He writes:
Probably the most important category [Rand] defied is captured in the expression, “If God is dead, all things are permitted.” Which means: if there is no religious basis for morality, then everything is subjective. The cultural left basically accepts this alternative and sides with subjectivism (when they’re not overcompensating by careening back toward their own neo-Puritan code of political correctness).
This is mostly correct except that I'd quibble with his use of the term "religious basis." Morality doesn't require a religious basis, it requires a basis that possesses the characteristics enumerated above: It must be rooted in an objectively existing moral authority - personal, transcendent and capable of holding human beings responsible for their choices. The existence and will of such a being - God - may or may not be an essential element of a particular religion.

Tracinski, then says that:
The religious right responds by saying that the only way to stem the tide of “anything goes” is to return to that old time religion.
It's not necessarily a return to "old time religion," or any religion, for that matter, which is needful for eliminating the subjectivity of moral judgments. It's a return to a belief that the world is the product of a morally perfect being who has established His moral will in the human heart and who insists that we follow it, i.e. that we treat others with justice and compassion.

Those beliefs may be augmented by a belief in special revelation and by the whole edifice of the Christian (or Jewish, or Islamic) tradition, but the core belief in the existence of the God of classical theism is not by itself "religious' at all. That core belief may not by itself be a sufficient condition for an objective morality but it is necessary for it.

Which is why people ask the question Jacoby finds so insulting. Put a different way, it's the question how an atheist can avoid making right and wrong merely a matter of personal taste. If that sort of subjectivity is what the secular life entails then its votaries really have nothing much to say, or at least nothing much worth listening to, about matters of right and wrong.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

St. Nick

This is a post I've put up on VP a few times over the years during the Christmas season that I think you'll find interesting:

Theologian James Parker offers us a brief history of the original Santa Claus and how the myths around him grew.

Here's an excerpt:
Most people simply do not realize the rich ancient heritage behind the Santa Claus story. The secularized and sanitized contemporary version pales in comparison with the deeply Christian ethos and content of the original.

Much exaggerated legendary material is connected with his life and ministry, but if nothing else, the legends tell us what values and beliefs the church held as important as they were projected onto Nicholas. To the bare minimum of facts, legend has supplied intriguing details through such writers as St. Methodius (patriarch of Constantinople in the 850s) and the Greek writer Metaphrastes in the 10th century.

The story goes that Nicholas was born in A.D. 280 to pious and wealthy parents who raised him in the fear and admonition of the Lord and taught him "sacred books" from the age of 5. He was forced to grow up quickly upon the sudden death of his parents.

Inheriting his family's wealth, he was left rich and lonely, but he had the desire to use his wealth for good. The first opportunity to do this happened when he heard about a father who, through an unfortunate turn of events, was left destitute with three daughters. Without marriage dowry money, the daughters would be condemned to a life of singleness and prostitution, so Nicholas threw some small bags of gold coins into the window of the home (some traditions say down the chimney), thereby saving the children from a life of misery.

Later as a teenager, Nicholas made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine. Upon returning home he felt called to ministry and was subsequently ordained. He spent time at the Monastery of Holy Zion near Myra until an old priest had a vision that he was to be the new bishop.

The congregation overwhelmingly elected him bishop, and he became known for his holiness, passion for the Gospel and zeal. He challenged the old gods and paganism at the principal temple in his district (to the god Artemis), and it was said that the evil spirits "fled howling before him."
There's more to the story. Nicholas was imprisoned under the Roman emperor Diocletian, savagely beaten, and later released under Constantine's Edict of Milan (313 A.D.).
Those who survived Diocletian's purges were called "confessors" because they wouldn't renege on their confession of Jesus as Lord.

When Bishop Nicholas walked out of the prison, the crowds called to him: "Nicholas! Confessor!" He had been repeatedly beaten until he was raw, and his body was the color of vermilion. Bishop Nicholas was also said to have intervened on behalf of unjustly charged prisoners and actively sought to help his people survive when they had experienced two successive bad harvests.
Nicholas opposed Arianism, the belief that Jesus was a created being and not divine, and according to some, perhaps apocryphal, traditions, actually attended the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. where he got into a physical altercation with Arias himself.

Whether that's true or not, the story of St. Nicholas (Say Saint Nicholas quickly with an Italian accent and you get Santa Claus) is a lot different, and much more interesting, than the popular mythology surrounding him. Read the whole thing at the link.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Better Hurry

Democrats' dreams of somehow prying Donald Trump out of the White House are in a race against time. The longer he remains as president the more likely is a significant portion of the Democrat base to wash right over to him in 2020. Several news stories this week tell why.

First, black unemployment is at its lowest rate in 17 years. If African Americans come to believe that their improved prospects didn't just fall out of the sky but are due to an improved economy brought about by Trump's dismantling of the stifling regulations put in place by past administrations some fraction of them will begin to realize that Republicans have done a lot more for them than have Democrats.

And the perception is that the economy is improving. Indeed, economic optimism is soaring. James Carville famously demanded that Bill Clinton's campaign focus on the economy since it's the economy that wins elections ("It's the economy, stupid"). Well, if that's true, Democrats are going to have a very difficult slog, especially in 2020 when Trump is up for re-election.

In 2017, for the first time ever the Dow-Jones stock index rose 5000 points in a single year, and buoyed by the prospect of passing tax reform this week, stock futures continue to rise.

Despite the economic boon this reform would provide to the country, the Democrats, under the leadership of liberal dinosaurs like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, are resolved to vote against it, but their recalcitrance will look absurd to all but the uninformed and the left-wing true believers if the economy continues to flourish under the new tax policy.

Meanwhile, GDP is projected to approach 4% in the fourth quarter of the year. During the Obama years it struggled to achieve an annual rate greater than 2%, and in 2016 it was an anemic 1.6%.

If Carville was right the Democrats would do well to give up their hopes of impeachment, take off their Resist! buttons, and start working with Republicans so they can claim at least a piece of the credit for all this. But they won't. It's just not in their DNA.

If you're interested in how you might fare under the Republican tax reform bill, you can go here to get an idea. You have to ignore the glass half-empty headline (it is an NBC site, after all) and understand that the data isn't definitive, but it gives an idea of what you can likely expect given your income and the state in which you reside.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Men Behaving Badly

From the initial revelations on October 5th of Harvey Weinstein's predations up to December 11th the New York Times has tallied 42 men in the media, entertainment, politics, or the corporate world who've been fired or resigned due to sexual misconduct and another 24 whose conduct is under review.

As of the 17th The Daily Beast claims 97 men and one woman who've fallen afoul of the #MeToo movement. And the toll continues to mount almost daily. Indeed, The Daily Caller reports today that MSNBC made a separation payment of $40,000 to an unwilling recipient of boorish behavior by Chris Matthews in 1999.

It's really quite a remarkable development and we might wonder why so many men in positions of influence and power are behaving so badly toward women.

Perhaps one reason is that many of the men guilty of these assaults don't think that what they did was in any objective sense morally wrong, and, sadly enough, the culture in which they've all their lives been steeped has facilitated the very behavior that it now condemns.

Men today have been marinated in pornography from the time they were first able to access the internet, and, concomitantly, they've been inculcated with the Playboy philosophy that sex is really just a form of recreation, like dining out. They've been taught, moreover, that human beings are just animals, the product of blind, impersonal, amoral forces, with animal appetites that yearn to be sated.

They learned during the Clinton years that power has its prerogatives and that as long as you're on the right side of the political spectrum (or actually the left side) you're insulated and protected by your allies from any serious consequences to your behavior. They've also been told, in so many words, that there's really no objective right and wrong because there is no God and morality is just a creation of one's own conscience.

Then men who have absorbed all these lessons throughout their lives, who have been cosseted and feted by society, who have had pretty much whatever they want in life handed to them, who have accepted the notion that Christian morality is an anachronism, find themselves in environments with provocatively attired young women whom, we're told by feminists, have the same drives and desires as men and shouldn't be considered to be different in any significant way.

Indeed, men have had it drilled into them that it's demeaning to put women on a pedestal or to otherwise treat them deferentially.

Then they're told that, even so, they should refrain from acting consistently with all of that.

It's a little bit like putting a plate of fresh-baked cookies in front of a hungry child, telling the child that the cookies are delicious but that he must not touch them, and then being dismayed when the child has crumbs on his chin.

Temptations are hard enough to resist when the tempted individual believes with all his or her heart that it'd be wrong to give in, but they're all but impossible to resist for the person who believes all the cultural, moral, and anthropological claptrap that contemporary men and women have been exposed to and have absorbed over the course of their lifetimes.

After all, if it's true that men and women are just soulless, sexual animals, if there are no objective moral wrongs, if there is no ultimate accountability to a God, if the woman "really wants it" as badly as the man and just needs to have her resistance worn down, what sort of behavior can we realistically expect from men, especially those who have power over their subordinates?

If we sincerely want to change how men behave toward women then we have to change the hyper-sexualized environment in which they grow up, we have to change their belief that they're just material beings, we have to change their belief that something is only wrong if one gets caught, and we have to change the belief that men and women differ only in their anatomy.

Simply punishing men for being found out is only a palliative, a temporary remedy. All it does is send others the message that they themselves need to be more careful, that those who've been shamed have merely transgressed a transient politically correct norm of our very confused and fickle culture, and that with time things will probably revert back to the "good old days," especially if another Bill Clinton is elected to high office.

What punishment alone doesn't accomplish, despite all the insincere mea culpas that the outed villains have dutifully delivered, is to convince either them or others that they've actually done anything objectively wrong.

By the way, Vice-President Mike Pence's rule about never dining with a woman unless his wife is along, a rule for which he was roundly and fatuously mocked, looks pretty smart right now, doesn't it.

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.

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.