Friday, March 31, 2017

Why Infinity Is Not Normal

The following is excerpted from the book Beyond Infinity: An Expedition to the Outer Limits of Mathematics, by Eugenia Cheng. In this very interesting excerpt Cheng, who is an Honorary Fellow in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Sheffield, U.K., and is Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, explains why infinity is not a number in the ordinary sense and why we have to be careful in how we talk about it.

The passage begins with Cheng asking us to think about what we mean when we talk about infinity:
Mathematics is all about using logic to understand things, and we’ll find that if we’re not careful about exactly what we mean by “infinity,” then logic will take us to some very strange places that we didn’t intend to go....In the previous chapter I listed some beginning ideas about infinity.
Infinity goes on forever.
Does this mean infinity is a type of time, or space? A length?
Infinity is bigger than the biggest number.
Infinity is bigger than anything we can think of.
Now infinity seems to be a type of size. Or is it something more abstract: a number, which we can then use to measure time, space, length, size, and indeed anything we want? Our next thoughts seem to treat infinity as if it is in fact a number.
But if we treat infinity like a normal number we get contradictions:
If you add one to infinity it’s still infinity. This is saying
∞ + 1 = ∞
which might seem like a very basic principle about infinity. If infinity is the biggest thing there is, then adding one can’t make it any bigger. Or can it? What if we then subtract infinity from both sides? If we use some familiar rules of cancellation, this will just get rid of the infinity on each side, leaving
1 = 0
which is a disaster. Something has evidently gone wrong. The next thought makes more things go wrong:

If you add infinity to infinity it’s still infinity. This seems to be saying
∞ + ∞ = ∞
that is,
2∞ = ∞
and now if we divide both sides by infinity this might look like we can just cancel out the infinity on each side, leaving
2 = 1
which is another disaster. Maybe you can now guess that something terrible will happen if we think too hard about the last idea:

If you multiply infinity by infinity it’s still infinity. If we write this out we get
∞ x ∞ = ∞
and if we divide both sides by infinity, canceling out one infinity on each side, we get
∞ = 1
which is possibly the worst, most wrong outcome of them all. Infinity is supposed to be the biggest thing there is; it is definitely not supposed to be equal to something as small as 1.

What has gone wrong? The problem is that we have manipulated equations as if infinity were an ordinary number, without knowing if it is or not. One of the first things we’re going to see in this book is what infinity isn’t, and it definitely isn’t an ordinary number. We are gradually going to work our way toward finding what type of “thing” it makes sense for infinity to be.
You can read more of Cheng's thoughts on infinity here.

Sometimes scientists trying to avoid the fine-tuning problem or an initial origin event of the cosmos say things like there's an infinite number of universes in the multiverse or that the cosmos is infinitely old. Cheng shows that we have to be very careful about such uses of the word.

In fact, one argument against the universe being infinitely old is that if it is infinitely old then there has been an infinite number of moments of time. But if so, then there was no first moment, because if time is infinite in the past whichever moment one designates as "first" will always have been preceded by an earlier moment, and, if there was no first moment there could have been no second, or third moment, etc. The consequence of this is that if there were no first, second, third etc. moments then we could never have arrived at the present moment. But, of course, we have arrived at the present moment, which means that the universe must not be infinitely old. It must have had a beginning, a first moment.

This, then, provokes the question, "If the universe had a beginning, what caused it?" Whatever the cause, it must have been outside of space, outside of time (because these are components of the universe), very powerful and very intelligent. In other words, the cause must have been something like God.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The First Human

Stephen Barr is a physicist at the University of Delaware who writes on science-related topics. He has recently composed a review of a book by the famous MIT linguist Noam Chomsky and Chomsky's collaborator Robert Berwick. The book is titled Why Only Us: Language and Evolution and in it Berwick and Chomsky make some claims which are not only interesting but startling.

After noting that rationality has arisen only in man and that attempts to discover animal analogues to human rationality have largely failed, Barr states:
[Why Only Us] is a breathtaking intellectual synthesis. Using an array of sophisticated arguments based on discoveries in linguistics, neuroscience, genetics, computer science, evolutionary theory, and studies of animal communication, [the authors] develop a set of hypotheses about the nature and origins of human language, which will (if they hold up) have far-reaching implications. As the title of their book implies, Berwick and Chomsky argue that only human beings have language. It is not that there are other animals possessing it in germ or to a slight degree; no other animals, they insist, possess it at all. The language capacity arose very suddenly, they say, likely in a single member of the species Homo sapiens, as a consequence of a very few fortuitous and unlikely genetic mutations.
It is indeed breath-taking that Berwick and Chomsky have concluded that language, the sine qua non of rational beings, appeared first in a single human. We'll return to this thought in a moment, but first Barr elaborates on the distinctions Berwick and Chomsky draw between human language and animal communication:
Animal communication can be quite intricate. For example, some species of “vocal-learning” songbirds, notably Bengalese finches and European starlings, compose songs that are long and complex. But in every case, animal communication has been found to be based on rules of linear order. Attempts to teach Bengalese finches songs with hierarchical syntax have failed. The same is true of attempts to teach sign language to apes. Though the famous chimp Nim Chimpsky was able to learn 125 signs of American Sign Language, careful study of the data has shown that his “language” was purely associative and never got beyond memorized two-word combinations with no hierarchical structure.
Having argued that language is unique to the human species Barr returns to the difficulties inherent in thinking that it evolved gradually over eons of time. The genetic mutations necessary to produce the changes which gave rise to language must have been so sudden and so extensive that Berwick and Chomsky acknowledge they must have occurred in just a single individual. Barr quotes from Why Only Us:
Such a change takes place in an individual—and perhaps, if fortunate, in all of [his or her] siblings too, passed on from one or (less likely) both parents. Individuals so endowed would have advantages, and the capacity might proliferate through a small breeding group over generations.
In other words, a sudden, extensive discontinuity occurs in a single generation of a species. A unique being was produced with a genetic capacity radically exceeding that of his/her parents. Even so, what good is being able to speak in language unless there are lexical precursors ready at hand to be exploited by this novel ability? Here's Barr:
This brings us to a deep puzzle, which Berwick and Chomsky are brave enough to point out. The Merge procedure [a technique for forming language] requires something “to work on,” namely the “word-like atomic elements,” which they also call “conceptual atoms of thought,” “lexical items,” “atoms of computation,” “symbols of human language and thought,” and simply “human concepts.” Where did these originate? They write,
The atomic elements pose deep mysteries. The minimal meaning-bearing elements of human languages—word-like, but not words—are radically different from anything known in animal communication systems. Their origin is entirely obscure, posing a very serious problem for the evolution of human cognitive capacities, language in particular.
So, let's absorb this. Human rationality and the capacity for language that makes rational thought possible first arose in a single individual which found the constituent elements of language already laying about, as it were. This is far more astounding, I think, than Barr's measured prose would suggest. Indeed, it sounds very much like modern secular linguistic anthropologists are advancing a theory which is, in some significant respects, very similar to the Genesis account of the origin of the human race.

Barr concludes with this:
Is there an ontological discontinuity between humans and other animals? Berwick and Chomsky arrive, on purely empirical grounds, at the conclusion that there is. All animals communicate, but only humans are rational; and for Berwick and Chomsky, human language is primarily an instrument of rationality. They present powerful arguments that this astonishing instrument arose just once and quite suddenly in evolutionary history—indeed, most likely in just one member of Homo sapiens, or at most a few. At the biological level, this involved a sudden upgrade of our mental machinery, and Berwick and Chomsky’s theories of this are both more plausible than competing theories and more consistent with data from a variety of disciplines. But they recognize that more than machinery is involved. The basic contents and meanings, the deep-lying elements of human thought—“word-like but not words”—were somehow there, mysteriously, in the beginning.
Mysterious indeed, and fascinating.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


In 2011 (12/5) I ran the following post under the title of The Fatuousness of Relativism. Having just talked about relativism in some of my classes I thought it'd be appropriate to run it again:

Denyse O'Leary passes on a story told by a Canadian high school philosophy teacher named Stephen Anderson. Anderson recounts what happened when he tried to show students what can happen to women in a culture with no tradition of treating women as human beings:
I was teaching my senior Philosophy class. We had just finished a unit on Metaphysics and were about to get into Ethics, the philosophy of how we make moral judgments. The school had also just had several social-justice-type assemblies—multiculturalism, women’s rights, anti-violence and gay acceptance. So there was no shortage of reference points from which to begin.

I decided to open by simply displaying, without comment, the photo of Bibi Aisha (see below). Aisha was the Afghani teenager who was forced into an abusive marriage with a Taliban fighter, who abused her and kept her with his animals. When she attempted to flee, her family caught her, hacked off her nose and ears, and left her for dead in the mountains. After crawling to her grandfather’s house, she was saved by a nearby American hospital. I felt quite sure that my students, seeing the suffering of this poor girl of their own age, would have a clear ethical reaction, from which we could build toward more difficult cases.

The picture is horrific. Aisha’s beautiful eyes stare hauntingly back at you above the mangled hole that was once her nose. Some of my students could not even raise their eyes to look at it. I could see that many were experiencing deep emotions, but I was not prepared for their reaction.

I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a different culture.

They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.” Another said (with no consciousness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”

While we may hope some are capable of bridging the gap between principled morality and this ethically vacuous relativism, it is evident that a good many are not. For them, the overriding message is “never judge, never criticize, never take a position.”
This is a picture of Bibi Aisha. She was deliberately mutilated by her family because she did not want to stay in a marriage to which she did not consent and in which she was treated like livestock. Anyone who would do this to another human being is evil. Any culture which condones it is degenerate, and any person who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge this, or to sympathize with her suffering, is morally stunted.

The shocking prevalence of moral relativism in our culture should not surprise us, however. Once a society jettisons its Judeo-Christian heritage it no longer has any non-subjective basis for making moral judgments. Its moral sense is stunted, warped, and diminished because it's based on nothing more than one's own subjective feelings. Since no one can say that their feelings are superior to the feelings of the people who did this to Bibi Aisha we hear fatuous insipidities like, "If it's right for them then it's right," or "It's wrong to judge other cultures."

This is moral paralysis, and it's the legacy of modernity and the secular Enlightenment.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

On Teaching Ethics

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

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

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

The only way to break out of the circle, the only way we can make sense of propositions like "X is wrong," is to posit the existence of a transcendent moral authority, a personal being, who serves as the objective foundation for all our moral judgments and who holds us accountable for how we live. If there is no such being then neither are there any objective moral values or duties to which we must, or even should, adhere. This lack of any real meaning to the word "wrong" is a major consequence of the secularization of our culture, it makes teaching ethics from a solely secular perspective an exercise in futility, and it's one of the major themes of my novel In the Absence of God (see link at the top of this page) which I heartily recommend to readers of Viewpoint.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Balancing Compassion and Prudence

A passage from an article at Strategy Page caught my eye. The writer said this:
Most Israelis back the rebels [in Syria] and because of that many Syrians have come to see Israel as a friend rather than a threat. For example, Israel continues to quietly provide medical care for badly hurt Syrians who show up (usually at night) on the Israeli border. Since 2011 nearly 3,000 Syrians have been treated, most of them in the last two years. Israeli border guards regularly allowed badly wounded Syrians in and sent them to Israeli hospitals for medical care.

Until mid-2015 Israel would transport badly wounded Syrians to Israeli hospitals outside the Golan Heights. After 2015 treatment was provided at the border, using a temporary hospital set up there. By 2015 over a thousand Syrians had received such treatment. In 2013 Israel set up a military field hospital on the Golan Heights to deal with the growing number of wounded Syrians.

Israel lets some of these in for treatment but considers doing this long-term a security risk. So a heavily guarded field hospital right near the Syrian border is now used to treat all the injured. No Syrians will be moved to the interior because of fears that Islamic terror groups are seeking to infiltrate their people into Israel via the hospital care program.
Let's consider this. Unless they already harbor anti-Israeli sentiments most who read this would consider what Israel is doing to be an outstanding example of compassionate humanitarian assistance to people fleeing violence and in need of help. They would doubtless think this despite the fact that the Israelis, out of a prudential fear of terrorism, do not admit these refugees into the interior of their country. Most would probably say that the Israeli policy is understandable given the history and hatreds in the region for Israelis.

So why would it be wrong of Americans or Europeans to adopt a similar policy toward refugees? Why would it be "hateful" and "bigoted" and "racist" and "immoral", etc. if the United States helped refugees where they are instead of feeling that we're terrible people unless we bring millions of them into our own country? What Israel is doing is exactly right, of course. Indeed, it's extraordinary. How many of Israel's Muslim neighbors, after all, would do the same for them? Why, then, could we not follow their example and set up safe zones for refugees from the war in Syria in their own land or in contiguous countries which are ethnically and culturally similar?

Such safe zones would involve sacrifice on our part, to be sure, but it would strike a balance between compassion for desperate people and a prudent concern for minimizing threats to our own children here at home. On the other hand, to import millions of people who despise our way of life, who consider us infidels, and who have no real wish to assimilate into our culture, who, in fact, believe that our culture should actually be subordinated to their religion, is not compassionate toward either them or us and it's certainly not wise.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Amazing Cephalopods

This wonderful video raises some fascinating questions:

How did the physiology necessary to camouflage itself like this arise through stochastic mechanisms like genetic mutation and natural selection? How did the behavior that these cephalopods display evolve by those same mechanisms?

If mutations affect DNA and DNA programs for proteins, and proteins create tissues and enzymes, etc. what is it that mutations act upon in the organism that gives rise to behavior? How does the octopus "know" to make itself look like the particular background it finds itself in, and how did, or could, such a phenomenon evolve through purely mechanistic processes?

Anyway, keep in mind as you watch the video that, on naturalism, these creatures evolved these marvelous capabilities purely by undirected random mutations in their genome.

If you don't keep that in mind, you might find yourself strongly tempted to think that maybe the cephalopod's amazing abilities are the result of intelligent engineering of some sort and that naturalism, despite its popularity among intellectuals, offers completely inadequate explanations as to how living things came to be the way they are.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Storm Clouds of Scandal

There's a scandal brewing in Washington that bids fair to out-scandal the Watergate affair. If you try to follow developments in this ugly business via reports in the major media you're probably so confused by now that you've just given up trying to make sense of it. It doesn't help that the media is either obtuse or dishonest in their reporting on the matter, but Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist has a short essay that clears things up very nicely.

The president, of course, hasn't helped clarify matters by tweeting with his characteristic imprecision a couple of weeks ago that he has seen evidence that Obama had wiretapped his offices Trump Towers. The media latched onto that tweet like a dog clamped down on a juicy bone and has portrayed the whole issue as if President Trump was alleging that Mr. Obama himself climbed through a fortieth story window like Spiderman and connected listening devices throughout the building.

What apparently happened was a bit otherwise but nevertheless quite illegal. Our federal intelligence apparatus, in the course of surveilling Russian diplomats after the election, happened to pick up conversations among Trump's people. That surveillance is not illegal, nor is it illegal, or even irregular, for transition team members to have contact with foreign diplomats. Indeed, Mrs. Clinton's team evidently had such contacts as well, but when Americans are inadvertently identified in such surveillance operations it is required that their identities be masked and their privacy protected.

Nevertheless, the identities of these Americans were "unmasked" and their conversations were shared throughout the intelligence community and even made their way to the Obama White House. That is illegal, and people could well go to jail for it.

The media, still gnawing on the bone of Trump's original tweet about "wiretapping" and also professing indignation at the way the House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes handled the revelations when they came into his hands, have been studiously avoiding discussing the larger implications of what those revelations signify: Our intelligence agencies were illegally disseminating confidential material.

Here are some salient excerpts from Hemmingway's column:
In the last three months of the Obama presidency, significant personal information from and about the Trump transition was collected and widely disseminated at intelligence agencies, according to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes.

Dozens of intelligence reports provided to Nunes by an unnamed whistleblower were floating around during the sensitive transition period following the election, he said. The information collection itself may have technically been legal, but the failure to properly mask the information “alarmed” the California congressman, who notified the White House of the surveillance and dissemination of information on Wednesday afternoon.

He then dropped the bombshell: “First, I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition. Second, details about U.S. persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value, were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting. Third, I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked. Fourth and finally, I want to be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia or the investigation of Russian activities or of the Trump team.” Again:
  1. Information was collected on the Trump team by Obama administration agencies.
  2. This information had no reason to be shared in intelligence reports to Obama officials.
  3. Obama officials may have flouted legally required attempts to minimize and mask personal identifying information.
  4. This had nothing to do with Russia.
Such collections of information on foreign sources require hiding and protecting information about U.S. citizens incidentally picked up during the process when disseminating reports on information gleaned.

When an administration is spreading around reports of political and personal discussions, failing to mask that information, and the information itself isn’t of foreign intelligence value, you have the makings of a huge scandal.

Imagine that President George W. Bush had listened in on Obama transition team discussions and spread that information throughout the bureaucracy. Can you imagine how outraged the entire press corps would have been? And rightly so! Abusing foreign surveillance machinery to collect and spread information on political opponents is wrong. Selectively leaking that information via a coordinated campaign to a receptive media complex in order to give an unsubstantiated impression that a political opponent is illegitimate or compromised is also not great.

If the laws and regulations guiding the collection of information by spy agencies were violated by the party in power to hurt the opposing party, that’s banana republic stuff....The effect was that members of the Trump team had their privacy invaded, and that the information gathered was disseminated and even leaked to the public by the Obama-led bureaucracy.

Further, the media attempts to deflect and downplay and run interference for Obama officials and other Democrats regarding this significant information reveal a journalistic complex seeking not truth nor protection of civil liberties, but partisan point scoring.
I imagine we'll be hearing a lot more about this in the days ahead as even media reporters begin to realize that something is terribly wrong when operatives of the party in power use the intelligence apparatus of the state to strip their political opponents of their right to privacy.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Mind: The Matrix of the Universe

This very interesting discussion in a post from the Viewpoint archive forms an appropriate sequel to Matter and Mind: What Are They? (3/21/17):

One of the fascinating developments of modern physics has been the creeping suspicion among physicists that what we call "matter" is really a kind of illusion, or perhaps more accurately, an artifact of our perceiving the world on the scale of size that we do. Were we very much tinier than we are matter would disappear in a fog of energy or more startling still, matter would turn out to be nothing more than a manifestation of consciousness.

A recent article in the Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research by G.P.Smetham collates the evidence for the conclusion that the fundamental, irreducible ground of reality is not matter but consciousness. The article is rather long and in places a little technical, but here are some of the highlights:
[A] significant number of respected physicists and philosophers are now converging on the possibility that consciousness is a central feature of reality operating through the quantum ground. The physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, in their important book Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness, are clearly making such a claim regarding the far reaching implications of quantum theory:

"The physical reality of an object depends on how you choose to look at it. Physics had encountered consciousness but did not yet realize it."
"Consciousness and the quantum enigma are not just two mysteries; they are the two mysteries; … Quantum mechanics seems to connect the two."

The majority of the founding fathers [of physics] also came to such a view, a notable exception being Einstein. According to Schrödinger, for instance, "Mind has erected the objective outside world...out of its own stuff."

And Max Planck came to a similar conclusion: "All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force....We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter."

More recently, in an article in the New Scientist Michael Brooks, commenting on quantum entanglement experiments..., tells us that the conclusion reached by the physicists involved is that, "[W]e now have to face the possibility that there is nothing inherently real about the properties of an object that we measure. In other words, measuring those properties is what brings them into existence."

And Vlatko Vedral, quantum researcher at the University of Leeds commented that, "Rather than passively observing it, we in fact create reality."

The headline for the article proclaims that, "To track down a theory of everything, we might have to accept that the universe only exists when we are looking at it...."

The evidence is inexorably stacking up in favour of the view that the ultimate nature of the process of reality is mind-like, or idea-like, as Stapp puts it.
In other words, at the most fundamental level of our physical world "there is no substance, the quantum field is actually 'empty' of substance." Matter turns out to be something like a rainbow. There appears to be an arc of color in the sky, but it's an illusion. Smetham quotes physicist Jonathan Allday:
Now, from a philosophical point of view, this is rather big stuff. Our whole manner of speech ... rather naturally makes us think that there is some stuff or substance on which properties can, in a sense, be glued. It encourages us to imagine taking a particle and removing its properties one by one until we are left with a featureless "thing‟ devoid of properties, made from the essential material that had the properties in the first place. Philosophers have been debating the correctness of such arguments for a long time. Now, it seems, experimental science has come along and shown that, at least at the quantum level, the objects we study have no substance to them independent of their properties.

Because there is no substantiality (and here Allday is using the term "substantiality" to indicate "matter") within quantum field theory the term "particle‟ is dropped and the term "quanta‟ is used, and these are "objects which have properties but are not substances."
Smetham and the physicists he quotes are coming to believe that the universe arose out of a "sea of potentiality" which crystallizes into an actual universe upon being "selected" by a mind, but what sort of mind could perform such a feat? What sort of mind preexisted the universe? Smetham's answer is God, but, he is at pains to make clear, not the God of monotheistic religion. His reasons for his objection to the God of Christianity and other monotheisms strikes me as very weak, but I'll let him state it:
We are now in a position to resuscitate the notion of God after the Hawking and Mlodinow failed assassination attempt. However it must be made clear that the concept of God which can be revived is not that which is conceived of by most Christians....The problem with the notion of God as it is enshrined in Christian doctrine and practice is the large amount of religious and cultural baggage that comes along with it, baggage which in no way could ever logically follow from any resurrected quantum divine principle; significant examples would be the virgin birth and the resurrection, for instance.
If I understand him, Smetham is saying that because quantum theory doesn't actually predict the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus, the God believed in by those people who believe in the historicity of these events can't be the God pointed to by quantum theory.

This seems to me to be a non-sequitur. As long as the concept of God believed in by Christians is compatible with the theory and with the God the theory points to, then I don't see the problem. Smetham, though, seems to be partial to Buddhism and is eager to rule out other possibilities. At any rate he continues:
In his book Why There Almost Certainly Is a God Keith Ward gives an account of his "God hypothesis‟ which clearly maps quite snugly on to the Hawking/Mlodinow model [In their new book The Grand Design] in all but one detail [Smetham refers to the Hawking/Mlodinow model, for reasons not important to our purpose, as the HAM-TOE]:

The God hypothesis proposes that there is a consciousness that does not depend upon any material brain, or any material thing at all. In this consciousness all possible worlds exist [subjectively], though only as possible states that may or may not exist [objectively]. The cosmic consciousness can evaluate these possible worlds in terms of their desirability – their beauty or elegance or fecundity, for example. Then, being actual, it can bring about desirable states and enjoy them.

The first part of this metaphysical vision is isomorphic to the HAM-TOE in that it proposes that the universe comes into being as a vast web of potentiality, possible worlds or possible pathways of experience. As we have seen, a logical analysis of the structure of the HAM-TOE clearly shows that this vast maze of cosmic potentiality must be of the nature of consciousness or mind. However, when it comes to specifying the selection mechanism by which a privileged set of these potentialities becomes actual Ward falls back upon the traditional view of the omnipotence of God.

According to Ward's proposal it is God, apparently acting as an independent agent taking the position of external cosmic observer firing quantum beams of approval into the world of potential manifestation, who "selects" which of the possible worlds are "desirable."
Smetham goes on to argue that since human beings are conscious entities they, too, perceive the world and therefore "select" the world that will exist [and bizarrely, the world that existed in the past]. Human agents are, as it were, the senses of God analogous to our sense of sight, hearing, and so on:
In other words the universe uses the perceiving process within the dualistic world of experience in order to explore and experience its own nature. Human beings occupy a central place in this process because they are the universe's agents (leaving aside the issue of beings elsewhere in the universe) in the process of universal self-exploration, self-perfection and self-transcendence; a universal process of self-discovery which modern theologians may wish to call "God."
The idea that God creates the world through His observation of it, or, more precisely, perhaps, His thinking it, is not a completely new idea. George Berkeley (1685-1753) had a similar notion, as did his contemporary Isaac Newton (1643-1727):
Sir Isaac Newton, who suggested that space was the "sensorium of God." In the Opticks Newton wrote:

"…does it not appear from phenomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite space, as it were in his sensory, sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself: of which things the images only carried through the organs of sense into our little sensoriums, are there seen and beheld by that which in us perceives and thinks."
Smetham closes with a passage that sounds like it could have been written by a contemporary advocate of intelligent design:
[A]t the ground of the process of reality there might be an infinitely potent, innately intelligent awareness which explores its own potentialities through manifesting the "little sensoriums" of all sentient beings. As quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger describes John Wheeler's quantum conclusion:

"…since we are part of the universe, the universe, according to Wheeler, creates itself by observing itself through us."

We are all part of the Grand Designer!
It's ironic that physics, traditionally the most materialistic of all the sciences, should be today coming to the conclusion that matter doesn't exist after all and that the ground of all reality is, in fact, a transcendent Mind.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Religious Liberty Is in Jeopardy

Rod Dreher has written a book he titles The Benedict Option in which he argues that religious liberty, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution contained in the Bill of Rights, is in serious jeopardy in contemporary America. Some have complained that his diagnosis is a bit too overwrought, but I'm not so sure.

Bakers, photographers and florists who, for religious reasons, have balked at helping to celebrate gay unions, are being driven out of business by ruinous, vindictive lawsuits. The sad story of Baronelle Stutzman, a florist sued by two long-time friends and customers because she balked at providing flowers for their wedding even though she recommended other florists who could provide the service, is the tip of a very troubling iceberg.

Academics who espouse certain religious views that until the day before yesterday were considered mainstream would be denied employment at many universities around the country if their religious beliefs were known to their potential employers.

Charles Haynes explains in an article at the Washington Post how the federal government's Commission on Civil Rights has been working to undermine traditional religious liberty protections. Haynes writes:
Nearly 225 years after the ratification of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the cause of conscience protected by the principles of “no establishment” and “free exercise” may be losing support in the minds and hearts of the American people.

Appeals by religious individuals and groups for exemption from government laws and regulations that substantially burden religious practice are increasingly unpopular and controversial. So much so that many in the media have taken to using scare quotes, transforming religious freedom into “religious freedom.” Now the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights appears to be recommending that we make it official: Our first freedom is first no more.

According to a commission report released Sept. 7, “civil rights protections ensuring nondiscrimination, as embodied in the Constitution, laws, and policies, are of preeminent importance in American jurisprudence.”

If we accept this assertion, it means that conflicts between religious freedom and nondiscrimination principles are resolved by denying accommodation for religious conscience — except perhaps in very rare and narrow circumstances.

According to the findings of the commission:

“Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon those civil rights.”
Haynes cites a commonsense solution to the problem of balancing civil rights and religious liberty rights:
Consider, for example, the bitter conflict over allowing county clerks to opt out of performing same-sex marriages. Last year, Utah passed legislation designed to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people while simultaneously protecting religious freedom.

A key provision of the Utah law ensures that county clerk offices perform marriages and that a clerk be readily available to marry same-sex couples. A clerk may opt out of performing a same-sex marriage if, and only if, another clerk is available to issue the license and perform the ceremony. Under this balanced approach, same-sex couples are provided the service (without knowing who, if anyone, has opted out in the clerk’s office) and religious conscientious objectors are accommodated.

Unfortunately, the commission’s report does nothing to encourage — and, I would argue, actually discourages — efforts like the one in Utah to find a balance between nondiscrimination and religious freedom.
Wouldn't it be to the benefit of everyone's rights if when someone feels they're being discriminated against for putatively religious reasons to have the court, instead of declaring winners and losers, appoint an arbitrator to work out an accommodation that could be mutually satisfactory and beneficial to all parties? This is what we do in labor disputes, and I don't see any reason why it couldn't be done when constitutional rights conflict. Why, after all, do people feel that someone always has to be punished and possibly ruined because they'd rather not be the florist that provides flowers at a plaintiff's wedding?

Haynes continues:
The title of the commission’s report alone speaks volumes: “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties.” First, the wording suggests that religious freedom is a “civil liberty,” when in truth it is a fundamental, inalienable right protected by the First Amendment. And second, the commission’s report is less about reconciling differences and more about asserting the primacy of nondiscrimination over religious freedom.
Haynes finishes with this bit of wisdom:
It’s time for all sides to reaffirm equality and liberty as twin pillars of the American republic. Authentic peaceful coexistence requires moving from the zero-sum game described in much of the commission’s report to the level playing field required by our constitutional commitment to both nondiscrimination and religious freedom.
There's no reason why we can't have both.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Matter and Mind: What Are They?

Physicist Adam Frank has an interesting essay at Aeon in which he discusses some of the problems quantum physics poses for materialism. Materialism is the view that everything is reducible to matter (and energy), and, of course, if everything is reducible to matter then there's no immaterial mental substance, no mind or soul that's not somehow a product of the material brain. Our physical, material selves are all there is to us.

Materialism, however, bears the burden of several very serious difficulties, including the following three: 1) No one knows what matter is; 2) Some popular interpretations of quantum mechanics seem to entail that matter is just a wave function, a mathematical posit, that has no objective existence; And 3) the most significant feature of minds - consciousness - seems inexplicable on any materialist ontology.

Here are some excerpts from what Frank says about this:
Materialism holds the high ground these days in debates over that most ultimate of scientific questions: the nature of consciousness. When tackling the problem of mind and brain, many prominent researchers advocate for a universe fully reducible to matter. ‘Of course you are nothing but the activity of your neurons,’ they proclaim. That position seems reasonable and sober in light of neuroscience’s advances, with brilliant images of brains lighting up like Christmas trees while test subjects eat apples, watch movies or dream. And aren’t all the underlying physical laws already known?

....In the very public version of the debate over consciousness, those who advocate that understanding the mind might require something other than a ‘nothing but matter’ position are often painted as victims of wishful thinking, imprecise reasoning or, worst of all, an adherence to a mystical ‘woo’.

....There is, however, a significant weakness hiding in the imposing-looking materialist redoubt. It is as simple as it is undeniable: after more than a century of profound explorations into the subatomic world, our best theory for how matter behaves still tells us very little about what matter is. Materialists appeal to physics to explain the mind, but in modern physics the particles that make up a brain remain, in many ways, as mysterious as consciousness itself.

When I was a young physics student I once asked a professor: ‘What’s an electron?’ His answer stunned me. ‘An electron,’ he said, ‘is that to which we attribute the properties of the electron.’ That vague, circular response was a long way from the dream that drove me into physics, a dream of theories that perfectly described reality.

Like almost every student over the past 100 years, I was shocked by quantum mechanics, the physics of the micro-world. In place of a clear vision of little bits of matter that explain all the big things around us, quantum physics gives us a powerful yet seemly paradoxical calculus. With its emphasis on probability waves, essential uncertainties and experimenters disturbing the reality they seek to measure, quantum mechanics made imagining the stuff of the world as classical bits of matter (or miniature billiard balls) all but impossible.

....Some neuroscientists think that they’re being precise and grounded by holding tightly to materialist credentials. Molecular biologists, geneticists, and many other types of researchers – as well as the non-scientist public – have been similarly drawn to materialism’s seeming finality. But this conviction is out of step with what we physicists know about the material world – or rather, what we don’t know.

....if one wants to apply the materialist position to a concept as subtle and profound as consciousness, something more must clearly be asked for. The closer you look, the more it appears that the materialist (or ‘physicalist’) position is not the safe harbor of metaphysical sobriety that many desire.
Indeed, the problem of conscious experience has caused many philosophers, like Thomas Nagel in his book Mind and Cosmos, for instance, to abandon materialism altogether.

Explaining conscious experience, the sensation of red or the taste of sweet, is what philosophers have referred to as the "Hard" problem and it has proven to be intractable on any materialist account. Indeed, it's a mystery on any account. For an explanation of what philosophers mean by this go here (also here and here). Frank adds this:
....Some consciousness researchers see the hard problem as real but inherently unsolvable; others posit a range of options for its account. Those solutions include possibilities that overtly project mind into matter.

Consciousness might, for example, be an example of the emergence of a new entity in the Universe not contained in the laws of particles. There is also the more radical possibility that some rudimentary form of consciousness must be added to the list of things, such as mass or electric charge, that the world is built of. Regardless of the direction ‘more’ might take, the unresolved democracy of quantum interpretations means that our current understanding of matter alone is unlikely to explain the nature of mind. It seems just as likely that the opposite will be the case.
If, as some versions of quantum physics insist, there really is no material entity until we observe it then it would seem that what everything reduces to is not matter, but an observing mind. If that's the case then some form of idealism would seem to be true.

But if mind is the ultimate reality, where did it come from? It didn't evolve since evolution can only act on material entities like molecules of DNA.

Perhaps our minds are derivatives of a universal mind which has generated everything that we perceive and holds everything in being. That may seem bizarre, but it's certainly no more bizarre than the idea that matter is, at bottom, simply an abstract wave function with no objective existence.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Five-Sided Argument

Matthew Continetti at The Free Beacon lays out many of the difficulties that will have to be faced once ISIS is defeated in Iraq and Syria. It would be a mistake, he writes, to think that the problems in the Middle East or even the struggle against Islamic terrorism will be over when ISIS is no longer able to field an army. Here's his lede:
The Islamic Caliphate announced in 2014 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, is approaching the end of its short and terrible life. Iraqi forces, supported by Americans, have reclaimed the eastern half of Mosul and are retaking the western one. Kurdish militias in Syria, also backed by the United States, are homing in on the ISIS capital of Raqqa. Word came this week that a contingent of Marines has been deployed in Syria to position heavy artillery for the fight ahead. "We expect that within a few weeks there will be a siege of the city," a militia spokesman tells Reuters.

ISIS doesn't have a chance. American air and ground forces, working with local proxies, are about to terminate its existence as a state. "Crushed," to paraphrase President Trump. A just—and popular—cause.

But that won't be the end. Recent events suggest that the military defeat of ISIS is just the beginning of a renewed American involvement in Iraq and Syria. And whether the American public and president are prepared for or willing to accept the probable costs of such involvement is unknown. That is reason for concern.

To glimpse the future, look at the city of Manbij in northeast Syria. Humvees and Strykers flying the American flag have appeared there in recent days. The mission? Not to defeat ISIS. Our proxies kicked them out last year. What we are doing in Manbij is something altogether different from a military assault: a "deterrence and reassurance" operation meant to dissuade rival factions from massacring one another. If you can't remember when President Obama or President Trump called for such an operation, that's because they never did.

And there's a twist. One of the factions we are trying to intimidate is none other than the army of Turkey, a NATO member and purported ally. Turkey moved in on Manbij not because of ISIS but because of the Kurds. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish autocrat, opposes one of our Kurdish proxies. He says the YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker's Party, which has conducted an insurgency against his government for decades. Yet the YPG is also the most effective indigenous anti-ISIS force on the ground. We need it to take Raqqa.

Things get even more complicated. Also in Manbij are the Russians, who are helping units of the Syrian army police a group of villages. The Kurds invited them, too, presumably as a separate hedge against Turkey. To keep score: The Americans, the Russians, the Turks, the Kurds, and the Syrians are all converging on an impoverished city in the middle of nowhere that has no strategic importance to the United States.
From about 1950 to 2004 the United States was at war for about six years (in Vietnam). We were accustomed to living at relative peace. Since 2004, however, we have been at constant war, and it looks to many experts like things may continue that way for decades. The Islamic world, or at least a significant chunk of it, will not let the West live in peace. They see Westerners as infidels who must either be converted, subjugated, or killed. As long as we refuse to submit we will have to fight for the day we stop is the day the Islamists win. Yet the Middle East is hopelessly chaotic. Everybody is warring against everybody else in a senseless free-for-all that seems to offer no hope of resolution.

The balance of Continetti's analysis highlights the confused nature of the region and the complex array of combatants and actors. He closes with this:
A contributor to The Weekly Standard likes to tell the following story: Covering the Lebanese civil war in 1983, he visited an outpost of U.S. Marines. They came under sniper fire from one militia. Then another militia started shooting. Then the Syrians joined in. At which point a lance corporal turned to him and said, "Sir, never get involved in a five-sided argument."

Saturday, March 18, 2017


Andrew Sullivan is a writer for New York Magazine who has penned a compelling critique of the newest fad among politically-minded college students - something called intersectionality. He was moved to write on this topic by the reprehensible behavior of Middlebury College students at a lecture given, or attempted to be given, a week or so ago by a scholar named Charles Murray.

Sullivan, who is gay, a survivor of HIV-AIDs, a supporter of President Obama, and a libertarian on most issues, is hardly a "right-wing fanatic" and is considered by some to be one of the most influential writers on American culture and politics alive today.

I say all this so that readers can have a sense of where Sullivan is coming from when he writes about the Middlebury College episode and its tie-in to intersectionality, which he deems to be something of a post-modern religion. He writes:
Here’s the latest in the assault on liberal democracy. It happened more than a week ago, but I cannot get it out of my consciousness. A group of conservative students at Middlebury College in Vermont invited the highly controversial author Charles Murray to speak on campus about his latest book, Coming Apart. His talk was shut down by organized chanting in its original venue, and disrupted when it was shifted to a nearby room and livestreamed. When Murray and his faculty interlocutor, Allison Stanger, then left to go to their car, they were surrounded by a mob, which tried to stop them leaving the campus. Someone in the melee grabbed Stanger by the hair and twisted her neck so badly she had to go to the emergency room (she is still suffering from a concussion). After they escaped, their dinner at a local restaurant was crashed by the same mob, and they had to go out of town to eat.

But what grabbed me was the deeply disturbing 40-minute video of the event, posted on YouTube. It brings the incident to life in a way words cannot. At around the 19-minute mark, the students explained why they shut down the talk, and it helped clarify for me what exactly the meaning of “intersectionality” is.

“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power. At least, that’s my best attempt to define it briefly. But watching that video helps show how an otherwise challenging social theory can often operate in practice.

It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.

Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.

It operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.
There's much more to Sullivan's critique at the link as well as some criticism of Donald Trump at the end that'll warm the hearts of anti-Trumpers. What interested me most, though, was his description of the absolute intolerance and the fascist tactics of at least some of those who embrace the severe doctrines of intersectionality.

Liberal democracy requires the freedom to share ideas. It requires that people be given the opportunity to voice ideas that may be unpopular or even despised and that other people have the opportunity to hear them out, if they so choose.

Many on the left, however, don't seem interested in liberal democracy. They're more interested in emulating the medieval church, banning ideas they hate, rooting out heresy, demanding strict adherence to orthodox dogma, and brooking no dissent.

Liberal democracy also requires a commitment to reason and rational argument, but again many leftists aren't interested in this either. As Sullivan observes, if science fails to support their "smelly little orthodoxies" about race, gender, etc. then so much the worse for science. If they or their ideas can't compete in rational debate their opponents must be shouted down, prevented from speaking, and even violently assaulted.

This is a repudiation of civility and civil discourse. It's a repudiation of the values that have made Western civilization superior to those civilizations in which power is obtained and enforced by physical violence. It's a river that's leading us deep into the heart of darkness.

Sullivan wraps up his essay with this:
This matters, it seems to me, because reason and empirical debate are essential to the functioning of a liberal democracy. We need a common discourse to deliberate. We need facts independent of anyone’s ideology or political side, if we are to survive as a free and democratic society. Trump has surely shown us this. And if a university cannot allow these facts and arguments to be freely engaged, then nowhere is safe. Universities are the sanctuary cities of reason. If reason must be subordinate to ideology even there, our experiment in self-government is over.

Liberal democracy is suffering from a concussion as surely as Allison [Stanger] is.
Unfortunately, liberal democracy is suffering from something far more serious than a concussion. It's suffering from a cancer that's eating away at the values which make it both liberal, in the classic sense, and democratic.

Friday, March 17, 2017

On Saint Patrick's Day

The following is a post I've run on previous St. Patrick's Days and thought I'd run again this year because, I say in all modesty, it's pretty interesting:

Millions of Americans, many of them descendents of Irish immigrants, celebrate their Irish heritage by observing St. Patrick's Day today. We are indebted to Thomas Cahill and his best-selling book How The Irish Saved Civilization for explaining to us why Patrick's is a life worth commemorating. As improbable as his title may sound, Cahill weaves a fascinating and compelling tale of how the Irish in general, and Patrick and his spiritual heirs in particular, served as a tenuous but crucial cultural bridge from the classical world to the medieval age and, by so doing, made Western civilization possible.

Born a Roman citizen in 390 A.D., Patrick had been kidnapped as a boy of sixteen from his home on the coast of Britain and taken by Irish barbarians to Ireland. There he languished in slavery until he was able to escape six years later. Upon his homecoming he became a Christian, studied for the priesthood, and eventually returned to Ireland where he would spend the rest of his life laboring to persuade the Irish to accept the Gospel and to abolish slavery. Patrick was the first person in history, in fact, to speak out unequivocally against slavery and, according to Cahill, the last person to do so until the 17th century.

Meanwhile, Roman control of Europe had begun to collapse. Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410 A.D. and barbarians were sweeping across the continent, forcing the Romans back to Italy, and plunging Europe into the Dark Ages. Throughout the continent, unwashed, illiterate hordes descended on the once grand Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books. Learning ground to a halt and the literary heritage of the classical world was burned or moldered into dust. Almost all of it, Cahill claims, would surely have been lost if not for the Irish.

Having been converted to Christianity through the labors of Patrick, the Irish took with gusto to reading, writing and learning. They delighted in letters and bookmaking and painstakingly created indescribably beautiful Biblical manuscripts such as the Book of Kells which is on display today in the library of Trinity College in Dublin. Aware that the great works of the past were disappearing, they applied themselves assiduously to the daunting task of copying all surviving Western literature - everything they could lay their hands on.

For a century after the fall of Rome, Irish monks sequestered themselves in cold, damp, cramped mud huts called scriptoria, so remote and isolated from the world that they were seldom threatened by the marauding pagans. Here these men spent their entire adult lives reproducing the old manuscripts and preserving literacy and learning for the time when people would be once again ready to receive them.

These scribes and their successors served as the conduits through which the Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the benighted tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruin of the civilization they had recently overwhelmed. Around the late 6th century, three generations after Patrick, Irish missionaries with names like Columcille, Aidan, and Columbanus began to venture out from their monasteries and refuges, clutching their precious books to their hearts, sailing to England and the continent, founding their own monasteries and schools among the barbarians and teaching them how to read, write and make books of their own.

Absent the willingness of these courageous men to endure deprivations and hardships of every kind for the sake of the Gospel and learning, Cahill argues, the world that came after them would have been completely different. It would likely have been a world without books. Europe almost certainly would have been illiterate, and it would probably have been unable to resist the Muslim incursions that arrived a few centuries later.

The Europeans, starved for knowledge, soaked up everything the Irish missionaries could give them. From such seeds as these modern Western civilization germinated. From the Greeks the descendents of the Goths and Vandals learned philosophy, from the Romans they learned about law, from the Bible they learned of the worth of the individual who, created and loved by God, is therefore significant and not merely a brutish aggregation of matter.

From the Bible, too, they learned that the universe was created by a rational Mind and was thus not capricious, random, or chaotic. It would yield its secrets to rational investigation. Out of these assumptions, once their implications were finally and fully developed, grew historically unprecedented views of the value of the individual and the flowering of modern science.

Our cultural heritage is thus, in a very important sense, a legacy from the Irish. A legacy from Patrick. It is worth pondering on this St. Patrick's Day what the world would be like today had it not been for those early Irish scribes and missionaries thirteen centuries ago.

Buiochas le Dia ar son na nGaeil (Thank God for the Irish), and I hope you have a great St. Patrick's Day.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Illiterate Teachers

A recent article by the AP illustrates, perhaps inadvertantly, how political correctness harms minority kids. The article explains that New York education officials are planning to do away with a test given to prospective teachers to test their ability to read and comprehend what the read. The reason the test is being terminated is that too few minority teaching candidates are passing it:
New York education officials are poised to scrap a test designed to measure the reading and writing skills of people trying to become teachers, in part because an outsized percentage of black and Hispanic candidates were failing it.

The state Board of Regents on Monday is expected Monday to adopt a task force's recommendation of eliminating the literacy exam, known as the Academic Literacy Skills Test.

Backers of the test say eliminating it could put weak teachers in classrooms. Critics of the examination said it is redundant and a poor predictor of who will succeed as a teacher.
Well, maybe so if the teachers are going to be teaching something like phys ed, but if they're going to stand in front of an academic classroom one would think it'd be to their advantage and that of their students that they be able to read the textbooks their students are using. If they cannot it makes the claim that teaching is a profession somewhat hard to defend.
Leaders of the education reform movement have complained for years about the caliber of students entering education schools and the quality of the instruction they receive there. A December 2016 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that 44 percent of the teacher preparation programs it surveyed accepted students from the bottom half of their high school classes.

The reformers believe tests like New York's Academic Literacy Skills Test can serve to weed out aspiring teachers who aren't strong students.

But the literacy test raised alarms from the beginning because just 46 percent of Hispanic test takers and 41 percent of black test takers passed it on the first try, compared with 64 percent of white candidates.

A federal judge ruled in 2015 that the test was not discriminatory, but faculty members at education schools say a test that screens out so many minorities is problematic.

"Having a white workforce really doesn't match our student body anymore," Soodak said.
This seems a silly justification for allowing semi-literate teachers to be teaching kids. Having teachers who are married or over the age of twenty doesn't match the student body either, but those are not compelling reasons to employ single teenagers as teachers.

Kids, no matter what skin color they may have, deserve to have the best educated professionals at the front of their classrooms that the school can provide, whatever skin color those professionals may be. We do these young people no favors by truckling to the racist shibboleth that only black teachers can teach black students nor do we improve their chances in life by yielding to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Perhaps there are good reasons, as some people quoted in the article believe, for dispensing with this particular test, but the fact that those who fail are disproportionately black and Hispanic is not among them since the test was found by a federal court not to be discriminatory. In any case, there's an irony lurking about here.

When blacks were enslaved their owners often made it a serious offense for them to learn to read or for others to try to teach them to read. A literate, educated slave was considered to be dangerous. Now, education officials are tacitly saying that they, too, would rather young blacks not be taught to read if they're to be taught by competent, literate teachers who'll be able to exemplify the value and importance of literacy but who aren't the same color as the students.

The motivation of the state officials, though misguided, is certainly more noble than that of the slaveholders, but the end result is the same - black kids are held down and prevented from receiving the best education they can get, and thereby prevented from improving their chances of advancing in life.

I assume the education officials don't see the injustice of what they're doing to these kids but I wonder if they see the irony.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sagan on Extra Dimensions

A student recently watched the video I posted on 2/25/17 in which Dr. Quantum visits Flatland and ecounters a two-dimensional "person." The video shows how the two-dimensional person would be completely baffled by an encounter with a three dimensional being.

The student recalled watching a similar video in which the late astronomer Carl Sagan illustrated what a three-dimensional object would look like in a two-dimensional world. The student liked the video and linked me to it.

It's classic Sagan and pretty good so I'll share it with you:

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

How Physics Refutes Realism and Confirms Idealism

My classes have recently spent some time discussing realism and idealism. Realism is the view that there is a world out there existing independently of our minds and perceptions, whereas idealism holds that the world is created by our minds by means of the observations we make. Idealism is a philosophical expression of the ideas popularized by the movie The Matrix.

Idealism strikes most of us as at best counter-intuitive. We're accustomed to think of matter as the fundamental reality (a view called materialism). Matter, we assume, is objectively real and exists whether we perceive it or not (Realism). On this view, whatever mind is it's somehow a creation or function of our material brains. Idealism turns this view on its head and declares that mind is actually the fundamental reality and that matter only exists as a subjective experience in minds.

As I said, this view is counter-intuitive, but it's the view held by a lot of physicists who study the fundamental quantum structure of the world. This video gives a pretty clear idea of the thinking of many physicists, some of whom think that idealism is not only correct but that it leads to the conclusion that there is a God, or something very much like God.

The video's a bit long (17 minutes) and moves quickly. It also discusses some arcane physics at points along the way. Nevertheless, you don't have to understand the physics in order to follow the narrative. The science really only illustrates the basic idea which is that mind is fundamental and that matter is downstream, as it were, from mind.

Give it a click, kick back and savor how mysterious is the world in which we live and move and have our being:

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Fortunate Universe

Back in December I did a post on a book by two cosmologists named Luke Barnes and Geraint Lewis titled A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos.

The book details a number of the parameters, forces, constants and ratios that have to be just what they are to a breath-takingly fine precision or else the universe either wouldn't exist or wouldn't be the sort of place that could sustain life.

I thought the book to be so important and the style in which Barnes and Lewis compose it to be so accessible to laymen that when I came across this short video publicizing it I thought it'd be good to post it on VP in hopes that some readers may want to read the book.

This cosmic fine-tuning as it's called constitutes a powerful cumulative argument for the existence of an intelligent mind responsible for it all. There seem to be no other very plausible explanations, but some who are queasy about the support fine-tuning gives to traditional theism have adduced other possibilities. Some have posited that our universe is the product of a computer simulation somewhat like the Matrix.

Of course, this explanation still relies on an intelligent transcendent being. Others have sought to abandon the idea of an intelligent creator altogether and have embraced the idea of a multiverse which incorporates every possible universe in one unimaginably vast array of worlds.

If such a multiverse exists, the thinking goes, then since our universe is possible it must exist somewhere in this enormous ensemble.

So, there are essentially three possible explanations for why our universe exists: A computer simulation designed by a mind in some other world, an infinity of universes (Geraint Lewis' position), or theism (Luke Barnes' position). The problem is that both of the first two explanations themselves must be explained. If the creator of our world is an alien computer wizard, then how did the wizard come to be? Or, if the reason for our universe is some sort of multiverse generator, how did that come to be?

On the other hand, if the creator of the universe is the God of classical theism then the creator is a necessarily existent mind upon which all contingent existents depend. The creator's existence requires no further explanation because the creator is not a contingent being. The explanation of its existence is in itself. Here's a video I posted with the original piece on A Fortunate Universe which elaborates on this argument:

Saturday, March 11, 2017

How Non-Judgmentalism Hurts Women

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali woman who has endured genital mutilation and a forced marriage, prompting her to flee the bondage in which she suffered. She eventually found her way to the United States, after European Muslims made too many threats against her life. She is a strong advocate for women's rights with emphasis on the severe oppression women suffer throughout the Islamic world.

She recently wrote an essay for The Daily Beast in which she had some important things to say, some of which are highlighted below:
The problems being protested against [in the recent Day Without a Woman demonstration] —inequality, vulnerability to discrimination, sexual harassment, and job insecurity—are all too real for many disadvantaged women, but the legal protections for them are in place here in the United States. Women who are unfairly treated at work or discriminated against can stand up, speak out, protest in the streets, and take legal action. Not so for many women in other parts of the world for whom the hashtag #daywithoutawoman is all too apt.

Around the world women are subjected to “honor violence” and lack legal protections and access to health and social services. According to Amnesty International’s recent annual report, throughout the Middle East and North Africa, women and girls are denied equal status with men in law and are subject to gender-based violence, including sexual violence and killings perpetrated in the name of “honor.”

The relationship between the sexes in Muslim majority countries is inspired and often governed by a mix of tribal, traditional practices and Islamic law. Algerian author Kamel Daoud recently referred to this system as entailing “sexual misery” for both men and women throughout the Islamic world.Daoud favors the full emancipation of Muslim women, yet many commentators criticized him as being guilty of “Islamophobia,” a term increasingly used to silence meaningful debate.

International Women’s Day should be a day to raise our voices on behalf of women with no recourse to protect their rights. Yet I doubt Wednesday’s protesters will wave placards condemning the religious and cultural framework for women’s oppression under Sharia law. As a moral and legal code, Sharia law is demeaning and degrading to women. It requires women to be placed under the care of male guardians; it views a woman’s testimony in court as worth half that of a man’s; and it permits a husband to beat his wife. It’s not only women’s legal and sexual freedoms that are curtailed under Sharia but their economic freedoms as well. Women generally inherit half of the amount that men inherit, and their male guardian must consent to their choosing education, work, or travel.
Having laid the predicate - that Sharia is profoundly oppressive of women - Ali goes on to note that many feminists tacitly accept and even excuse it:
There is a growing trend among some feminists to make excuses for Sharia law and claim it is nothing more than a personal moral guide, and therefore consistent with American constitutional liberties.

Many Western feminists struggle to embrace universal women’s rights. Decades ago, Germaine Greer argued that attempts to outlaw female genital mutilation amounted to “an attack on cultural identity.” That type of deference to traditional practices, in the name of cultural sensitivity, hurts vulnerable women. These days, relativism remains strong. Too many feminists in the West are reluctant to condemn cultural practices that clearly harm women—female genital mutilation, polygamy, child marriage, marital rape, and honor violence, particularly in non-Western societies. Women’s rights are universal, and such practices cannot be accepted.
This is an important point. The elites in our culture, having abandoned the notion that there are objective moral duties imposed on us by our Creator, have adopted in its place a moral relativism that holds that members of one culture are not in a position of privilege to criticize the practices of another culture. All cultures are equally "valid," according to the relativist, thus no one in the West can judge what Middle Eastern Muslims do. This is, of course, a perfect recipe for moral paralysis.

Relativism and its corollary, non-judgmentalism, sound high-minded and tolerant, and as such they have great appeal to the bien pensant, but they have a crushing effect on women in other cultures and even the poor in our own society. Our refusal to make moral judgments, a refusal that follows from the secularization of our public life, is a tacit green light to those who think it's fine to whip and murder women for disobeying their husbands, or to hang gays, or to mutilate young girls so that as wives they're not tempted to infidelity.

Two young gay men about to be executed in Iran
Secular man has realized, if only subliminally, that having abandoned any transcendent ground for moral right and wrong there's no place left for him to stand to pronounce such practices what they are - evil. Oddly, Ali is an atheist, but she nevertheless writes as if theism is true, speaking the moral language of theism and complaining about the relativism of her fellow postmodern atheists:
Like Wednesday’s protest, a large portion of Western feminism has been captured by political ideologues and postmodern apologists....

This International Women’s Day, we should protest the oppression of women who have no access to legal protections. We should support those Muslim reformers, such as Asra Nomani, Zuhdi Jasser, and Irshad Manji, who seek to reform Islam in line with full legal equality between men and women. And we should strive to overcome domestic political divisions to defend the universality of women’s rights.
Indeed we should, but only because the treatment of women under Sharia is morally reprehensible. My heart goes out to Ayaan, but what she doesn't seem to recognize is that those postmodern relativists and apologists for Sharia, to the extent that, like her, they've adopted the assumptions of secularism, are being more consistent in this matter than she is.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Untold Story

Donald Trump was roundly criticized for claiming during the election campaign that many illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America are felons, specifically rapists. This claim drew the ire of not only Hispanics but a lot of non-Hispanic Americans, too, so why did Trump make it? Is there any reason to think that it's true?

Columnist Ann Coulter thinks so. In an essay at the Daily Caller she asserts that the media are downplaying the facts about what amounts to an epidemic of rape in North Carolina, an epidemic that involves a disproportionate number of Hispanic immigrants. The statistics she cites are alarming:
According to North Carolinians for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, immigrants commit hundreds of sex crimes against children in North Carolina every month — 350 in the month of April 2014, 299 in May, and more than 400 in August and September. More than 90 percent of the perpetrators are Hispanic.
If this is true, it's literally shocking. Coulter goes on to identify many of the perpetrators of these horrible crimes and notes the failure of the government and the media to inform the public of what's really happening. She adds that,
There have been more stories in the American media about a rape by white lacrosse players that didn’t happen than about thousands of child rapes in North Carolina that did.
Coulter's column addresses one kind of crime, sexual assault, in one state. But if a piece by Adam Bandler at The Wire titled 9 Things You Need to Know about Illegal Immigration is accurate the statistics for other crimes like homicide, drug trafficking, DUI, and so on are equally appalling.

For example, Bandler quotes a FOX News study that,
...sorted through myriad "local, state and federal statistics" and found that "illegal immigrants are three times as likely to be convicted of murder as members of the general population and account for far more crimes than their 3.5-percent share of the U.S. population would suggest."

The percentage of illegals committing the number of crimes are as follows, according to Fox News:
  • 13.6 percent of those sentenced for all committed crimes in the country
  • 12 percent of murder sentences
  • 16 percent of trafficking sentences
This is not an argument for preventing Hispanics from seeking a better life in this country - many of them make wonderful contributions to our nation - but it is an argument, a powerful one, for making sure that we control who, exactly, is coming in and that we know what their backgrounds are.

One reason Trump beat Clinton last November is that Trump promised to gain control of our borders while Hillary seemed more inclined to follow President Obama in throwing our borders wide open. Those who support open borders, however, are probably not among the parents of those thousands of girls raped every year in North Carolina and presumably elsewhere.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Inappropriate and Distasteful

Some readers may be aware that the Marine Corps is in the midst of a bit of scandal. It seems that some Marines, whether current or former isn't clear, took pornographic photos of female Marines which they subsequently and without the consent of the women, posted to the internet.

In other words, the men acted like pigs. The surprise in this brouhaha is that the Marines' conduct is considered outrageous. Let me explain, but first read this excerpt from the story:
[A Marine spokesperson] added that "the Marine Corps is deeply concerned about allegations regarding the derogatory online comments and sharing of salacious photographs in a closed website. This behavior destroys morale, erodes trust, and degrades the individual."

Gen. Robert B. Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, also declined to comment on the specifics of the case. "For anyone to target one of our Marines, online or otherwise, in an inappropriate manner, is distasteful and shows an absence of respect," Neller said. "I expect every Marine to demonstrate the highest integrity and loyalty to fellow Marines at all times, on duty, off-duty, and online."

Sgt. Maj. Ronald Green, the Corps' highest-ranking non-commissioned officer, said these allegations go against the core values of the Marine Corps. "There is no place for this type of demeaning or degrading behavior in our Corps -- this includes our actions online," Green said. "We need to be brutally honest with ourselves and each other. This behavior hurts fellow Marines, family members, and civilians. It is a direct attack on our ethos and legacy."
Well, okay, except that there's something incongruous about this reaction insofar as it represents the reaction of society at large (of course, maybe it doesn't). We teach young men in school that being human isn't anything special, that each of us is just a more highly evolved ape. We teach them that morality is relative and arbitrary, that right and wrong are in the eye of the beholder, that nothing is objectively wrong, and that the only thing that makes something wrong is getting caught. We then place them into a high testosterone crucible such as the Marine Corps, and add to this volatile environment young women whom we place in close contact with these men who are at a stage in life which could be described as hormonal hyperdrive.

Then, after all that, we profess to be shocked and dismayed when we find these young men acting completely consistently with the modern views on anthropology, morality, and sex they've been soaking up since they were in preschool. What foundation have we given them to behave in any other way?

Reflect upon the word choice of Marine Corps commandant, General Neller. The strongest language he seemed able to summon was to call the behavior "inappropriate" and "distasteful." That's pretty lame stuff. He can't seem to bring himself to declare that humiliating another human being is morally wrong or evil, he only says that it offends his, and presumably others', taste, as if offending another person's taste were a compelling reason not to do something.

If that's the most powerful moral rhetoric in the general's arsenal I'm afraid it'll fall a bit short of making the perpetrators feel guilt and remorse for what they've done. Yet it's all that a postmodern, politically correct society permits him to use. The rules of engagement, as it were, imposed by our secular culture force us to use moral language that is the equivalent of shooting bbs in a fire-fight.

So, here's the exit question for those who wish to eliminate all religious grounds for any moral conviction from our public life: Why, exactly, is it wrong to exploit women, or anyone, for that matter, if one has the power and desire to do it?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Illusion of Time

Time has been called one of the universe's biggest mysteries and there's little wonder why. What is time? In what sense does time exist? Is time, like Immanuel Kant thought, simply the way our minds structure experience or does time actually exist objectively, independently of human beings and other perceivers?

Physicist Brian Greene discusses time in this video and argues that our experience of past, present, and future is a kind of illusion. There is, he argues, no definite, objective past. The same is true for the present and the future.

This may seem very strange to you if you're hearing this for the first time (no pun intended) so take a look:

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Simulation Hypothesis (Pt. II)

By way of concluding yesterday's post on the possibility that you, I, and our entire universe actually exist in a computer simulation developed by some superior intellect in another world, we note that Robert Kuhn points out that the simulation hypothesis has great difficulty with the phenomenon of human consciousness:
A prime assumption of all simulation theories is that consciousness — the inner sense of awareness, like the sound of Gershwin or the smell of garlic — can be simulated; in other words, that a replication of the complete physical states of the brain will yield, ipso facto, the complete mental states of the mind. (This direct correspondence usually assumes, unknowingly, the veracity of what's known in philosophy of mind as "identity theory," one among many competing theories seeking to solve the intractable "mind-body problem".)

Such a brain-only mechanism to account for consciousness, required for whole-world simulations and promulgated by physicalists, is to me not obvious (Physicalism is the belief that everything in the universe is ultimately explicable in terms of the laws of physics. Physicalism is, for most purposes, synonomous with naturalism).
Kuhn is raising the question here as to how, for example, the sensation of seeing blue or feeling pain could be simulated. Until there is a plausible physical explanation of consciousness, which there is not at this point, it seems very unlikely that conscious beings are nothing more than a simulation.

There's more of interest in the original article, including how physicist Paul Davies uses the simulation argument to refute the multiverse hypothesis. Kuhn closes his piece with this:
I find five premises to the simulation argument: (i) Other intelligent civilizations exist; (ii) their technologies grow exponentially; (iii) they do not all go extinct; (iv) there is no universal ban or barrier for running simulations; and (v) consciousness can be simulated.

If these five premises are true, I agree, humanity is likely living in a simulation. The logic seems sound, which means that if you don't accept (or don't want to accept) the conclusion, then you must reject at least one of the premises. Which to reject?
Personally, I find premise (i) problematic, premise (ii) possible, but questionable (it's just as likely that technological growth reaches a ceiling or collapses altogether), and premise (v) extremely doubtful.

I also think it peculiar that people who scoff at the notion that an intelligent agent designed the universe when that agent is believed to be God, have no trouble believing that an intelligent agent designed the universe as long as that agent is not God.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Simulation Hypothesis (Pt. I)

Here's a post from last year that's relevant to some of the discussions that have come up in a couple of my classes recently:

Robert Kuhn host and writer of the public television program "Closer to Truth" has an excellent column on the theory that our universe is actually a computer simulation developed by a higher intelligence in some other universe. Kuhn writes:
I began bemused. The notion that humanity might be living in an artificial reality — a simulated universe — seemed sophomoric, at best science fiction.

But speaking with scientists and philosophers on "Closer to Truth," I realized that the notion that everything humans see and know is a gigantic computer game of sorts, the creation of super-smart hackers existing somewhere else, is not a joke. Exploring a "whole-world simulation," I discovered, is a deep probe of reality.

Philosopher Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, describes a fake universe as a "richly detailed software simulation of people, including their historical predecessors, by a very technologically advanced civilization."

It's like the movie "The Matrix," Bostrom said, except that "instead of having brains in vats that are fed by sensory inputs from a simulator, the brains themselves would also be part of the simulation. It would be one big computer program simulating everything, including human brains down to neurons and synapses."

Bostrum is not saying that humanity is living in such a simulation. Rather, his "Simulation Argument" seeks to show that one of three possible scenarios must be true (assuming there are other intelligent civilizations):
  • All civilizations become extinct before becoming technologically mature;
  • All technologically mature civilizations lose interest in creating simulations;
  • Humanity is literally living in a computer simulation.
His point is that all cosmic civilizations either disappear (e.g., destroy themselves) before becoming technologically capable, or all decide not to generate whole-world simulations (e.g., decide such creations are not ethical, or get bored with them). The operative word is "all" — because if even one civilization anywhere in the cosmos could generate such simulations, then simulated worlds would multiply rapidly and almost certainly humanity would be in one.

As technology visionary Ray Kurzweil put it, "maybe our whole universe is a science experiment of some junior high school student in another universe." (Given how things are going, he jokes, she may not get a good grade.)

Kurzweil's worldview is based on the profound implications of what happens over time when computing power grows exponentially. To Kurzweil, a precise simulation is not meaningfully different from real reality. Corroborating the evidence that this universe runs on a computer, he says, is that "physical laws are sets of computational processes" and "information is constantly changing, being manipulated, running on some computational substrate." And that would mean, he concluded, "the universe is a computer." Kurzweil said he considers himself to be a "pattern of information."

"I'm a patternist," he said. "I think patterns, which means that information is the fundamental reality."
Information, of course, is the product of minds, thus, if information is the fundamental reality in our world there must be a mind that has generated it. Many people, of course, agree with this and argue that the information which comprises this world is produced by the mind of God, but scientists, at least naturalistic scientists, argue that God is a metaphysical concept which lies outside the purview of science. Instead they advert to the existence of computer hackers in other universes which is also a metaphysical posit, but since it's not God, it's presumably okay to speculate about them.

At any rate, Kuhn goes on:
Would the simulation argument relate to theism, the existence of God? Not necessarily.

Bostrum said, "the simulation hypothesis is not an alternative to theism or atheism. It could be a version of either — it's independent of whether God exists." While the simulation argument is "not an attempt to refute theism," he said, it would "imply a weaker form of a creation hypothesis," because the creator-simulators "would have some of the attributes we traditionally associate with God in the sense that they would have created our world."

They would be superintelligent, but they "wouldn't need unlimited or infinite minds." They could "intervene in the world, our experiential world, by manipulating the simulation. So they would have some of the capabilities of omnipotence in the sense that they could change anything they wanted about our world."

So even if this universe looks like it was created, neither scientists nor philosophers nor theologians could easily distinguish between the traditional creator God and hyper-advanced creator-simulators.

But that leads to the old regress game and the question of who created the (weaker) creator-simulators. At some point, the chain of causation must end — although even this, some would dispute.
In other words, the universe displays indications of having been intelligently designed rather than having been an enormously improbable accident. This poses vexing problems for naturalists who feel constrained to account for the design without invoking you-know-who. So they theorize about a multiverse of an infinite number of worlds or speculate about extra-cosmic computer programmers who've created a world that looks real but is in fact just a computer simulation.

These extraordinary hypotheses are taken seriously by some philosophers and scientists, but if someone were to suggest that maybe this universe really is the only universe, that maybe it's real and not an illusory simulation foisted on us by some pimply extra-terrestrial, and that maybe it's instead the product of a single intelligent transcendent mind, he would suffer the ridicule and scorn of those who'd sooner believe that the universe is a science project of a seventh grader in some other more technologically advanced universe. I wonder which is the more implausible hypothesis.

I'll conclude with a couple more thoughts on this in Part II tomorrow.