Monday, July 31, 2017

Excommunicating the New Atheists

Those who enjoy reading about hypocritical ideological foibles will never find themselves short of good material to peruse.

Especially is this true of those interested in exploring the inconsistencies of those who claim to be for peace but frequently resort to violent "protest", who claim to be for tolerance but seek to silence those who disagree with them, who claim to be for the little guy while running big corporations which put little guys out of business, who claim to abhor oppression while supporting tyrannies all around the globe, who claim to be advocates for the poor but who support policies which ensure that the poor will remain so, who want to make it difficult for parents to send their children to private schools while they send their own children to private schools, who insist that we should all happily pay higher taxes while they themselves shelter their money and punctiliously take every tax deduction to which they're entitled, who deplore the use of carbon fuels while flying around the globe in their private jets, and on it goes.

Well, the National Review's Elliot Kaufman has presented us another fine example of such muddled, inconsistent thinking. Kaufman points out how the Left has essentially disowned many of the so-called New Atheists because, although these folks - people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Bill Maher, et. al. - were feted as long as their barbs were directed at Christians, especially Catholics, they could no longer be abided once they began to include Islam among the targets of their religious critiques.

Scoffing at religion is fine, indeed socially meritorious, as long as the religion isn't Islam.

Just as a lefty forfeits his membership card and risks excommunication if he insists on applying the same standards and expectations to blacks and Hispanics as he does to whites, just as one can freely criticize whites with the most baneful rhetoric but risks committing grievous heresy if she applies the same criticisms to minorities, so it is with religion. There are some religions, such as Christianity, upon which there is year-round open season for ridicule and derision and, on the other hand, there are religions, such as Islam, so sacrosanct that it's almost blasphemy to even politely question them.

There are plenty of gems in Kaufman's essay and I encourage you to read the whole piece, but here are a few excerpts:
Organized religion’s shallowest critics made the mistake of blasting Islam along with Christianity, and the Left crucified them for it. On Friday, it became official: The New Atheists are no longer welcome on the left. Battered, condemned, and disinvited, these godless and once-favored “public intellectuals” are now homeless, spurned by their erstwhile progressive allies. Richard Dawkins, the famously skeptical evolutionary biologist, was the last shoe to drop. He was disinvited from a speaking engagement at Berkeley because his “comments about Islam” had “offended and hurt . . . so many people,” according to the event’s organizers.

Dawkins is in good company. His New Atheist compatriots, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, had already been expelled from the party. In both cases, insufficient deference to Islam was the proximate cause. Hitchens was denounced as a “neocon” for his support of the Iraq War. This was nonsense; he remained a committed socialist, but felt a war on Islamic terror and autocracy was needed.

Harris is a liberal, straight and true, but drew the ire of Reza Aslan for refusing to except Islam from his broad critique of religion. “Islam is not a religion of peace,” Harris often says. In fact, he thinks it’s just the opposite. For that, everyone from Glen Greenwald to Ben Affleck has cast him as an Islamophobe and a bigot.

That means that three of the much-acclaimed “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism have been turfed from the left for extending their critique of religion to Islam. The fourth is Daniel Dennett, who also criticizes Islam. The only actual philosopher of the bunch, he is far too boring and ponderous to be noticed, let alone denounced, by anyone.

In his place, one can add Bill Maher, a popularizer of New Atheism who has also been barred from Berkeley over criticism of Islam. One by one, these men have been excommunicated from the Left.

What has happened? Why did the Left delight in seeing these men ignorantly mock and vilify Christians, but denounce them when they treated Islam the exact same way? Confirmation bias deserves at least a part of the blame. The New Atheists have long harbored an irrational fear of Christianity, but Christophobia doesn’t worry the Left. Combatting Islamophobia, however, is a progressive priority, and so it is noticed and addressed when it strikes. None of this New Atheist silliness bothered the Left so long as it flattered the right tribes and battered the wrong ones.

[On the left] the defense of Islam becomes a defense of Islamic radicalism and intolerance. Slavoj Žižek sees in Islamism “the rage of the victims of capitalist globalization.” Judith Butler insists that “understanding Hamas [and] Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.” These voices cannot just be dismissed as aberrant: They are prominent, fiercely secular left-wing intellectuals who find common cause with Hamas — which pushes gays off of buildings and stabs children in their sleep — and with Hezbollah, the “Party of God.”

In fact, they join a long line of left-wing apologists for murderous anti-Western regimes. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian, refused to abandon the Soviet Union, even after the tanks rolled through Prague. Professors Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman spent years dismissing and minimizing reports of a genocide in Cambodia as Western propaganda. Michel Foucault, the postmodern philosopher, defended the indefensible cruelty of the Iranian Revolution by claiming that Iran doesn’t “have the same regime of truth as ours.”
What really lies at the bottom of this tendentiousness, it seems, is not principle, nor is it genuine concern for people, it's rather an aversion to being applauded by people one holds in contempt:
In conversation with the Polish anti-Stalinist dissident Adam Michnik in 1993, the liberal philosopher Jurgen Habermas admitted “he had avoided any fundamental confrontation with Stalinism.” Why, asked Michnik? He did not want “applause from the wrong side” replied Habermas. You have to read that twice, and then think about the enormities of Stalinism, to realise just how appalling it is. But Habermas was only expressing a piece of liberal-left common sense.

In short, the New Atheists have won applause from the wrong side: the anti-Muslim, crusading Right. Christopher Hitchens, an endlessly entertaining writer who could give it to Saddam Hussein as good as anyone, was every right-winger’s favorite radical. Sam Harris started finding agreement with the likes of Douglas Murray and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Rich Lowry’s defense of Harris from Ben Affleck appeared in the New York Post. Bill Maher now delights the Right as much as he infuriates it. And the Left, smelling traitors in its midst, simply cannot tolerate this sort of transgression.
The strange love affair between leftists and radical Islamists was documented over a dozen years ago by liberal scholar Paul Berman in his book Terror and Liberalism (2004). Many on the left have always had a perverse fascination with violence and that, combined with the conviction that the capitalist West is an evil enemy, goes a long way toward accounting for their fulsome apologies for terrorism, terrorists, and tyranny throughout most of the last century.

Kaufman goes on:
Why must ardent secularists from the Islamic world like Ayaan Hirsi Ali — the type of people the Left looks to for inspiration in the history of Western secularism — be deemed bigots, while Sharia-supporting conspiracy theorists like Linda Sarsour are cherished? Why has criticizing Islam caused the New Atheists to cross a red line in the progressive imagination? These positions make no sense if one thinks of the Left as seriously secular, convinced of the need to end the reign of superstition.

New Atheism pleased the Left as long as it stuck to criticizing “God,” who was associated with the beliefs of President George W. Bush and his supporters. It was thus fun, rather than offensive, for Bill Maher to call “religion” ridiculous, because he was assumed to be talking about Christianity. Christopher Hitchens could call God a “dictator” and Heaven a “celestial North Korea,” and the Left would laugh. Berkeley students would not think to disinvite Richard Dawkins when he was saying “Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion.”
We might wonder what would liberal progressives would say were it common to find among white, male Christians a significant number who advocate executing gays, who call for the extinction of Jews, who wish to deny women the same civil and human rights as men, who wish to remove from the Constitution freedom of press, speech, religion, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments, who favor banishing the separation of church and state, who desire to base civil and criminal law on the book of Leviticus in the Bible, and so forth?

A Christopher Hitchens would properly say that they're advocating for a version of North Korea, and liberal pundits would smirk and offer emphatic "amens" in response. Late night liberal comedians like Stephen Colbert would subject such people to withering, relentless public derision and obloquy until they finally retreated in abject humiliation back into obscurity.

But switch the description of the promoters of those retrograde ideas from white, male Christians to swarthy, male Muslims and progressives rapidly reverse gears, censoring the voices of anyone who publicly disapproves of those religious beliefs while disdainfully sniffing that the complainers are themselves intolerant bigots and racists.

It's as amusing as it is amazing.

Perhaps you've seen this on Viewpoint before, but it's worth showing again. With apologies for the vulgarity, it serves as a pretty good summary of this post:

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Amazing Machines

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 28, 2017

On Time (Pt. II)

In yesterday's post (On Time Pt.I) I wrote that:
[Physicist Paul] Davies is saying here that the flow of time is an illusion like the apparent movement of the sun across the sky is an illusion. It's we who are moving, not the sun. Likewise, on Davies' view, sometimes called the static view of time, every moment of time, every event, past, present, and future exists now, and somehow our consciousness moves from one to the next.

On this view, the universe is like a movie that has been instantaneously burned onto a DVD. Every event in the movie exists simultaneously with every other event, but the characters in the movie, and even the person viewing the movie, perceive those events as happening sequentially.
Suppose for a moment that this is true. It would seem then that time does not exist "out there" but is rather somehow an internal feature of our minds. Time is a word we use to describe the way our minds apprehend events. Our minds create the illusion of temporality.

Immanuel Kant declared that "time, apart from the subject [i.e. the perceiver], is nothing". In other words, Kant is saying that time is not an objective reality but rather a structure of the human mind that enables us to experience the world. If Kant is correct then it follows that if there were no minds there'd be no time. There might be events like the events in the movie that's been impressed onto the DVD, but they wouldn't occur in any time unless they were experienced by a mind.

If we take this a step further it makes moot the questions of the age of the universe or the age of the earth. Since there were no minds (if we bracket out the mind of God) to perceive the unfolding of the universe then from the original "Big Bang" to the appearance of minds the events would have all occurred instantly or simultaneously, like "burning" an entire movie instantly onto a DVD.

Eventually, when observers with minds appeared they looked back at the evidence of cosmic history and concluded that, had a human observer been watching this "movie" it would have taken about 13.5 billion years, but since we're assuming there were no observers, no minds, it didn't take any time at all.

In other words, when human beings look back at the history of cosmic evolution - the expansion of the universe, the birth and death of stars, radioactive disintegrations, etc. - it's like popping the DVD into the player and watching the movie. Until the movie is played and observed it's just a bunch of pits in a disc. There's no time on the disc. Nothing on the disc has any meaning until it's put in the player and apprehended by a mind.

If Kant's view that time is part of the structure of our minds is correct then if the human race, or at least all creatures with minds structured to experience time, were to disappear, time itself would disappear. Just as there would be no pain or sound or color if there were no organisms with senses structured to experience these sensations, likewise there'd be no time if there were no minds to experience it.

This seems astonishingly counter-intuitive, but then Galileo's view that it was the earth, not the celestial bodies, that was moving was also counter-intuitive. The more we learn about the universe the stranger it seems. Indeed, it's quite possible that the world we experience is in reality not at all as it appears to us to be.

It's also quite possible that the only way to hold onto the belief that there is an objective time - that time would continue to exist even if human beings and other minds were extinguished from the earth - is to believe that time exists because an omnipresent mind, the mind of God, observes every event in the universe.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

On Time (Pt.I)

St. Augustine (354 - 430 A.D.) wondered in his Confessions about the nature of time. He wrote that "As long as nobody asks me I know perfectly well what time is, but as soon as I'm asked to explain it I haven't the faintest idea".

Philosophers and scientists ever since have sympathized with Augustine's perplexity. Time has been called one of the universe's greatest mysteries and no one really knows what it is.

John Steele, the publisher and editorial director of Nautilus puts some questions about time to physicist Paul Davies. In an interview for Nautilus Steele asks Davies the following:
  • Is the flow of time real or an illusion?
  • So where does this impression of flow come from?
  • Is time fundamental to the Universe?
  • So time could be emergent?
  • If multiple universes exist, do they have a common clock?
  • What do you think are the most exciting recent advances in understanding time?
Davies' answers to most of these questions amounts to an admission of scientists' ignorance on the topic, but his answer to the first question is interesting. He replies:
The flow of time is an illusion, and I don’t know very many scientists and philosophers who would disagree with that, to be perfectly honest. The reason that it is an illusion is when you stop to think, what does it even mean that time is flowing?

When we say something flows like a river, what we mean is an element of the river at one moment is in a different place of an earlier moment. In other words, it moves with respect to time. But time can’t move with respect to time—time is time. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that the claim that time does not flow means that there is no time, that time does not exist. That’s nonsense. Time of course exists. We measure it with clocks. Clocks don’t measure the flow of time, they measure intervals of time. Of course there are intervals of time between different events; that’s what clocks measure.
Davies is saying here that the flow of time is an illusion like the apparent movement of the sun across the sky is an illusion. It's we who are moving, not the sun. Likewise, on Davies' view, sometimes called the static view of time, every moment of time, every event, past, present, and future exists now, and somehow our consciousness moves from one to the next.

On this view, the universe is like a movie that has been instantaneously burned onto a DVD. Every event in the movie exists simultaneously with every other event, but the characters in the movie, and even the person viewing the movie, perceive those events as happening sequentially.

If this is true then it would seem that time does not exist "out there" but is rather somehow a feature of our minds. It's the way our minds apprehend events.

I'll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Hate Speech

Imagine that a prominent Christian pastor, speaking from the pulpit, called for the annihilation of gays. Imagine, too, that he referred to them as filth, and that his sermon was put up on YouTube for all the world to see. What do you suppose would be the reaction? Is it unreasonable to think there'd be nation-wide 24/7 condemnation of that pastor's bigotry and his hateful speech?

The pastor would become a pariah, and Christianity would be discredited, don't you think? The left, especially, would be marching outside that pastor's church, demanding he be removed from the pulpit.

Well, recently that very thing happened, sort of, and there's been almost no reaction to the preacher's hatred and bigotry whatsoever. Perhaps, you'll understand why when you read the details. You see, it wasn't a Christian pastor calling for the annihilation of gays in a sermon, it was a Muslim imam calling for the annihilation of Jews in a lecture:
In a July 21 lecture ... Muslim preacher Ammar Shahin spoke in English and Arabic about how all Muslims, not only Palestinians or Syrians, will be called upon to kill all the Jews on "the last day."
Shahin is an Egyptian who has been in the U.S. since 1999. His mosque isn't in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, it's in Davis, California.
In a video translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Shahin also stressed that the Hadith (oral tradition of sayings attributed to the prophet of Islam) does not say where the final battle will take place. "If it is in Palestine," for example, "or another place," hinting at the possibility that such a battle could happen in the United States or Europe as well.

He also prayed that al-Aksa mosque be liberated from "the filth of the Jews."
Here's the relevant clip:
This sort of rhetoric would not be tolerated were it to be delivered by a representative of any other religion or political party. Why is it tolerated when it's delivered by Muslims? Why are Muslims excused from standards of behavior we expect of everyone else in a tolerant, civilized society?

Shahin should be free to cite his beliefs, as repugnant as they are, but that doesn't mean that everyone else should just shrug and say, "Well, that's just what Islam teaches". Hatred of this sort, taking delight in the prospect of mass slaughter, should be exposed and roundly condemned, as it would be were it to come from any other source.

To the extent that Shahin accurately represents mainstream Islamic belief, and according to the article at the link he teaches Sunni Islam to Westerners, it sure makes it difficult to accept the notion that Islam is a religion of peace.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Where's the Racial Outrage?

It's good, I suppose, that a cop involved in an interracial shooting of an unarmed, innocent victim is receiving support from the press. It's important that in such situations our law enforcement be given the benefit of the doubt until we learn all the details. Our media, however, has not been particularly eager to grant the police that benefit in the past so the current reticence to pillory law enforcement, and the reluctance of organizations like Black Lives Matter to take to the streets calling for more cops to die, may seem a little surprising in the recent case of the shooting of an unarmed woman by police in Minneapolis.

It's surprising, that is, until one learns the details of the case. In Minneapolis the shooter is a black, Muslim police officer, and his victim was an innocent white woman. Given that set of facts the absence of the usual media hysteria and black outrage is totally understandable.

Scott Greer at the Daily Caller wonders why race and religion make a difference when white cops shoot black victims but not when black cops, who also happen to Muslims, shoot white victims:
Last weekend, an Australian woman, Justine Damond, called police to report an alleged assault that was occurring near her home in Minneapolis. But when police arrived on the scene, Damond ended up becoming the victim of an officer’s bullet.

While there are many questions still lingering about the shooting, the initial details of the case have all the ingredients for the media to paint it as another sign of lawless police brutality.

Except, the press has been remarkably reserved in its coverage of the case, there are no activists marching and chanting on the streets of Minneapolis, and Black Lives Matter is seemingly sitting out on this matter.

This is likely due to this shooting having a reversal of roles when it comes to race. Ms. Damond was a white woman, while her shooter, Mohamed Noor, is of Somali Muslim descent.

That probably explains why the emerging narrative from the press and Minneapolis’s leaders is concern that the shooting may prompt a backlash against the Somali community in the city. It’s quite odd to see since there is never a concern from the media that the white community may receive grief any time a Caucasian officer shoots someone over contended circumstances.
So, why is it that the media is eager to crucify white cops who shoot black victims, especially unarmed black victims, but they suddenly take seriously their responsibility as journalists not to be inflammatory when the shooter happens to be a minority?
But here we are seeing multiple outlets run with this narrative of blowback fears. The Washington Post published an article on Tuesday with the headline, “After Minneapolis officer in police shooting is named, Somali community braces for backlash.” The article begins with statements that America is experiencing unprecedented levels of Islamophobia, as well as “racial tension stoked in part by shootings of black people by white police officers.”

Although apparently, we don’t need to worry about tension stoked by shootings of Aussies by Somali police officers.

The Post implies that it was wrong for media outlets to identify the officer due to his background. Reminder: there was never this quibble when it came to other controversial police shootings.

"They fear this will be just another event used to create animosity toward the Somali community,” one Somali Minneapolis leader said of how his community is reacting to the news. Another said that other Somali police officers are now feeling “nervous.”

The WaPo article also expresses a fawning attitude towards Officer Noor and makes sure to highlight how celebrated he was in his community. Additionally, the Post buried the important detail of how the Somali cop has racked up three complaints against him since joining the force in 2015.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune and Reuters ran similar stories to the Post’s that attempted to portray Noor in a positive light.
Did these news organizations write fawning stories about officer Darren Wilson after he shot a threatening thug named Michael Brown? I don't recall any.
In response to the Somali community’s so-far unfounded worries, the mayor of Minneapolis has promised to make its interests are a top priority in the investigation of the shooting of an unarmed white woman. “I stand with our Somali community. We can’t compound the tragedy of Justine Damond’s death by turning to racism,” Mayor Betsy Hodges tweeted out Wednesday.
How much do our politicians worry about racial backlash against the white community when the victim is black and the cop is white? Not so as anyone could tell.
For instance, one of the worst cases of police misconduct in recent memory comes from Louisiana where two black cops shot a white six-year-old several times as his father pleaded for them to stop.

One of the officers involved in the 2015 shooting was sentenced to 40 years behind bars in March. The other cop faces second-degree murder charges.

While an outrageous case, it netted nowhere near the amount of coverage as that of the shooting of Michael Brown and other incidents where the officer was later exonerated.
In fact, I never heard of this case until I read about it in Greer's column, and I'll bet most of you didn't either. It's hard to escape the conclusion that our media newsrooms are populated by people laden with so much "white guilt" that they simply can't bring themselves to treat these tragic episodes fairly and objectively. They're so eager to prove to minorities that they themselves are not racists, they themselves are not evil, that they debase both their profession and themselves by their tendentious and sometimes dishonest reporting.

It's one reason, perhaps, why confidence in the integrity of people in the media, at least on the part of people who pay a modicum of attention, is so abysmal.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Tasting His Own Medicine

Some might call this a story about karma, but there's something both amusing and disturbing about the recent cancellation of a scheduled speech by Richard Dawkins by a bunch of progressives who had originally agreed to sponsor it.

Dawkins, an atheist and hostile critic of religious belief as well as one of the most prominent promoters of naturalistic Darwinian evolution, has been disinvited from giving a speech at Berkeley, not because he has said some disparaging things about Christians, nor because he has advocated denying a livelihood to university professors who disagree with him about Darwinism.

The sponsors of his speech are apparently not concerned about such trifles as those. What got him disinvited was that he has committed the unpardonable sin of tweeting some criticisms of Islam.

The erstwhile sponsor of the lecture is a progressive radio station in the Berkeley area whose management is apparently cool with screeds against Christianity and creationists, but harsh words for Islam and Muslims is just taking matters too far. Here are a few details from the link:
Richard Dawkins’ biggest critics used to be conservative Christians. Now they’re Berkeley progressives who defend anything and everything Islamic. The militant atheist, evolutionary biologist and former University of Oxford “professor for public understanding of science” was supposed to speak about his new collection of essays at a Berkeley church, sponsored by a local progressive radio station, KPFA.

Then the station learned about his tweets critical of Islam and cancelled the Aug. 9 event.
KPFA said this in their email announcing the cancellation:
We had booked this event based entirely on his excellent new book on science, when we didn’t know he had offended and hurt – in his tweets and other comments on Islam, so many people.

KPFA does not endorse hurtful speech. While KPFA emphatically supports serious free speech, we do not support abusive speech. We apologize for not having had broader knowledge of Dawkins [sic] views much earlier.
It is ironic that a man who would silence others for their ideas on the matter of origins is himself silenced for his ideas on religion, but it's disturbing that the people responsible for the silencing evidently don't care that his book, The God Delusion, was primarily a rant against Christianity or that in it he called Christians child-abusers for raising their children in the faith. If they do care then why did they sponsor his talk in the first place?

The dhimmis at KPFA know there's no price to pay for mocking Christians, but not so, as events of the last several years have shown, for mocking Muslims. Dawkins would've been fine, presumably, had he limited himself to heaping abuse on Christianity, but Islam is above criticism at KPFA.

Dawkins sent an email to the station in which he pointed to this very inconsistency:
I am known as a frequent critic of Christianity and have never been de-platformed for that. Why do you give Islam a free pass? Why is it fine to criticise Christianity but not Islam?
Good questions. Here's another good question posed by Michael Egnor:
Why, one asks, is it fine to criticize Islam, but not Darwin? Dawkins has fought mightily to “de-platform” intelligent design scientists and anyone who harbors even a shimmer of doubt about Darwinian theology. But now he’s shocked — shocked — that defenders of another religion get to silence heretics too.

Freedom of speech is in retreat in America and throughout the West. One suspects that in the years to some, even atheists and Darwinists may come to lament the injunction on dissent that they pioneered and so assiduously maintained.
Dawkins should be free to criticize both Christianity and Islam if he wishes. He should even be free to criticize Jesus and the prophet, and KPFA should be free to cancel his speeches if he does. And the rest of us should be free to point out and laugh at the witless hypocrisy of both of them when they do.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Mysterious Stuff

Materialism is the belief that everything in the universe - including our bodies, our brains, our thoughts, our sensations - all of it is reducible in principle to material "stuff". There's no mental substance, no mind, just brains and the functions the brain performs. But if that's so, then what is the material stuff everything is made of? What, exactly, is matter?

Physicists, many of whom are materialists, tell us that matter is made up of particles which are themselves simply a "wave function", but then what's a wave function? What's it made of? No one seems to have an answer.

This video takes the viewer down to the smallest bits of matter, but when we ask what these smallest bits are comprised of the only reply from physicists is a shrug of the shoulders. At some point matter just seems to dissolve into energy, forces, and fields which are themselves inscrutable. They can be measured, but if we ask what it is, precisely, that we're measuring we just get another shrug for an answer. The fundamental nature of matter is a riddle:
Neuroscientist Michael Egnor helps us understand the provenience of the idea that everything is made of matter. He writes:
The materialist conception of matter derives in part from Democritus and Lucretius (two ancient materialist philosophers), but I believe that the most cogent view of matter as held by modern materialists is that of Descartes.

Descartes defined matter as res extensa — literally, substance extended in space. Matter, in the Cartesian view, is characterized by extension — length, width, and depth, and by associated properties such as mass that accompany extension in space. In the Cartesian view, all subjective mental properties, such as qualia and intentionality, were defined away — excluded — from matter itself. How, then, could the mind exist if subjective properties had no basis in matter?

In order to explain subjective experience and the mind, Descartes posited the existence of a second substance, res cogitans, which entailed subjective mental experience and which was [not] composed [of] matter in human beings. This was Cartesian substance dualism. The body and the mind were separable substances, each existing in its own right. Furthermore, Descartes believed that only humans had minds. Animals were automatons, essentially mindless machines made of meat.

Modern materialists have discarded Descartes’ mental substance, and have tried to explain nature and consciousness via matter alone. Modern materialists are Descartes’ descendants: although they have discarded Cartesian dualism, they retain Cartesian materialism. To the modern materialist, what really exists is matter extended in space, tangible stuff, and all intangible stuff (like the mind) needs to be explained in terms of tangible matter. Hence the bizarre cornucopia of materialist theories of mind, such as philosophical behaviorism, identity theory, computer functionalism, and eliminative materialism.
Of course, none of this explains what matter actually is. If it's "extended substance" then what kind of substance? And how can such a nebulous entity explain human cognition, human values, or any of the products of human consciousness? Egnor puts the question this way:
How, from a materialist perspective, can we explain the laws of physics? How can we explain abstract things, like universals and mathematics, if all that exists is matter extended in space? How can the mind arise from matter — how can meat think? How can we square the materialist understanding of nature with quantum mechanics, which reveals very non-materialist properties of matter at its most fundamental level?
Matter is a mystery and the belief that everything is made up of, and/or arises from, this mysterious substance is really nothing more than a prejudice that derives from a naturalistic worldview. There's no reason, in fact, not to believe that the fundamental stuff of the universe isn't material at all but rather mental. Indeed, this is the direction that modern physics has been moving in since the early years of the twentieth century. Perhaps, so far from mind arising from matter, the sensation of matter actually is a product of mind.

Just as Copernicus sparked a revolution in science by getting us to look at the solar system from a different perspective - a heliocentric rather than a geocentric perspective - looking at the world from the perspective of mental substance rather than material substance could spark an analogous revolution not only in science but also in metaphysics.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Punish the Wicked

Since the Supreme Court decided in Obergefell to overrule two thousand years of marriage tradition and force states to recognize gay marriages those who object to such unions on religious grounds have found themselves being legally and economically punished by the intolerant left.

Now Tim Gill, a tech millionaire and LGBTQ activist is promising in an interview at Rolling Stone to further target Christians, and presumably Muslims, who hesitate to fully embrace the progressive orthodoxy on same-sex marriage.

In the RS interview Mr. Gill promises to "punish the wicked".

Bre Payton gives us some details at The Federalist. Here are a few excerpts:
For more than two decades, the software programmer [Gill] has poured an estimated $422 million into various gay rights causes. After the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal in all 50 states in 2015, Gill turned his attention and resources to targeting Christians.
Payton quotes from the Rolling Stone interview before elaborating:
The election of Donald Trump, who claims to support gay rights but stocked his administration with anti-LGBTQ extremists, has only emboldened those looking to erase the gains of the past decade. Gill refuses to go on the defense. ‘We’re going into the hardest states in the country,’ he says. ‘We’re going to punish the wicked.’
Allow me to add some context. After the Obergefell ruling in 2015, which forced all 50 states to perform same-sex marriages, several state legislatures passed protections to ensure that those who object to participating in a same-sex wedding for religious reasons have recourse when hauled into courts or extralegal commissions for this belief. It’s these state laws that Gill and his various nonprofit entities have decided to go after — and persecute Christians along the way.

[R]eligious Americans still serve gay customers in myriad capacities, just as they do every other customer. Their objections are to being forced to use their artistic talents to proclaim particular speech they find fundamentally false or to be required to participate in a religious ceremony that conflicts with their consciences.

[T]hese laws simply ask that judges use a simple balancing test when ruling on cases involving a person’s religious freedom.

Nevertheless, asking a judge to think twice before demanding that a baker craft a wedding cake for a lesbian couple and stomping all over his freedom of expression is apparently a wicked deed that Gill intends to punish.
The common sense solution to this problem is for the nuptial couple to be referred to other businesspersons who are willing to perform the service requested and refrain from state coercion as long as reasonable alternatives exist, but this would manifest tolerance, and some people, like Mr. Gill, aren't interested in tolerance for those with whom they disagree. They want to punish.

Does Mr. Gill think it's a "wicked deed" for a doctor opposed to abortion to refuse to perform them? Is it a "wicked deed" for a surgeon opposed to sex-change surgery to refuse to perform it? Is it a "wicked deed" for a surgeon who believes that those who wish to be made disabled are suffering from a mental illness to refuse to perform it? If so, why is it wicked, and if not, how are bakers and florists any different than those medical providers?

Along the way, Christian business owners have been maligned and demonized for not wanting to participate in a same-sex wedding. In Colorado, a cake baker was forced to change his company’s policies and provide training to staff after he objected to baking a cake for a gay couple. A Christian couple was slapped with a $13,000 fine for refusing to host a same-sex wedding on their property. People threatened to burn a pizza shop to the ground after its owners answered that they would happily serve gay customers, they just wouldn’t want to cater a gay wedding should they be asked to do so.
I wonder what's going to happen the first time a Muslim baker or florist refuses to participate in a homosexual union. I'm pretty sure the left's courageous crusaders for LGBTQ rights, including Mr. Gill, will suddenly find something else to occupy their attention. There are always Christians out there for ideological bullies to attack, and Christians make for much safer victims.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Evidence-Free Physics

In order to escape the overwhelming evidence that cosmic fine-tuning offers to those who believe the universe to be intelligently designed, many skeptics have staked their money, or at least their professional reputations, on the concept of a multiverse, for which there's scarcely any evidence at all. The multiverse, however, seems to be a suggested by string theory, for which there's also scarcely any evidence, but it remains a popular hypothesis in some circles nonetheless.

One might be forgiven for thinking that this popularity is due to the fact that without it the multiverse would be seen as sheer fantasy, and without the multiverse there's no escaping the conclusion that our universe appears to have been intentionally designed for life by a mathematical supergenius.

Cosmologist Bernard Carr once said that “If there is only one universe you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.” Of course, there could be both, but if there is a multiverse it obviates one of the best arguments for the existence of God, i.e. the argument based on cosmic fine-tuning.*(see below)

Denyse O'Leary brings us a nice summary of some of what's being said about string theory in an article at Evolution News and Views. She begins with the relationship of string theory to multiverse theory:
[S]tring theory... undergirds the concept of a multiverse: There are more universes than particles in our known universe.

How so? To work at all, string theory requires at least nine spatial dimensions (six of which are curled up out of our sight) plus time. But if our universe (three spatial dimensions plus time) arose randomly among the ten dimensions of possibilities (the “string landscape“), theorists reckon that there should be about 10^500 universes (or more). [If there are that many different worlds then] literally anything can happen, has happened, and will happen over and over again.

The sheer number suffocates the evidence for fine-tuning. Our universe happens to look fine-tuned? But the theoretical others don’t. New Scientist spells it out: “This concept of a ‘multiverse’ could explain a puzzling mystery — why dark energy, the furtive force that is accelerating the expansion of space, appears improbably fine-tuned for life. With a large number of universes, there is bound to be one that has a dark energy value like ours.”
O'Leary goes on to discuss the theory of Supersymmetry, for which there's scarcely any evidence either, and notes the opinion of Peter Higgs, the physicist who predicted the existence of the Higgs Boson:
Curiously, Peter not a believer in either supersymmetry or the multiverse: “It’s hard enough to have a theory for one universe,” he says. As the Economist pointed out in 2016, “Supersymmetry is a beautiful idea. But no evidence supports it.”
The lack of evidence and the inability to test these theories is starting to embarrass some science writers and critics:
Critics, perhaps less imaginative than the theorists, decry string theory’s lack of testability. Science writer Philip Ball complains, “Proposing something as dramatic as seven extra dimensions, without offering the slightest prospect of testing to see if they are there, is a step too far for some physicists.” ....Physicist Ethan Siegel tells us bluntly at Forbes that string theory is not science: It cannot be tested.

Physicist Frank Close is blunt: “[M]any physicists have developed theories of great mathematical elegance, but which are beyond the reach of empirical falsification, even in principle. The uncomfortable question that arises is whether they can still be regarded as science.”

Science writer John Horgan, even blunter, scoffs [at the proliferation of untestable hypotheses in physics] “At its best, physics is the most potent and precise of all scientific fields, and yet it surpasses even psychology in its capacity for bull****.”

Evidence or no, string theory remains popular. Skeptical Columbia mathematician Peter Woit wonders why: “The result of tens of thousands of papers and more than 30 years of work is that all the evidence is that if you can get something this way that looks at all like the Standard Model, you can get anything. Normally when that happens you simply acknowledge the problem and give up, but for some reason that hasn’t happened.”

If science-based reasoning doesn’t explain string theory, cultural history might: A culture might wish a multiverse into existence despite the facts, to satisfy emotional needs such as making naturalism appear to work. As Philip Ball says, “[N]ailing your flag to the mast of string theory has come to be seen as an expression of faith rather than reason, and physics has become polarised into believers and sceptics.”
The string theory/multiverse complex resists being thrown into the dustbin of discarded scientific ideas because for metaphysical naturalists it's really the only game in town. If there's only one universe then, as Bernard Carr said over a decade ago, you pretty much have to accept that it was intelligently designed. The improbability of so many conditions, force values, parameters, etc. being calibrated within tolerances so fine that deviations in some cases of just one part in 10^120 would have prevented the universe from existing at all is so astronomical as to make the notion that our universe is just an accident literally incredible.

* Here are just a few examples of cosmic traits which must be set to the precise values they have or life as we know it would be impossible:
  • Stars like the sun produce energy by fusing two hydrogen atoms into a single helium atom. During that reaction, 0.007 percent of the mass of the hydrogen atoms is converted into energy, via Einstein’s famous e = mc2 equation. But if that percentage were, say, 0.006 or 0.008, the universe would be far more hostile to life. The lower number would result in a universe filled only with hydrogen; the higher number would leave a universe with no hydrogen (and therefore no water) and no stars like the sun.
  • The early universe was delicately poised between runaway expansion and terminal collapse. Had the universe contained much more matter, additional gravity would have made it implode. If it contained less, the universe would have expanded too quickly for galaxies to form.
  • Had matter in the universe been more evenly distributed, it would not have clumped together to form galaxies. Had matter been clumpier, it would have condensed into black holes.
  • Atomic nuclei are bound together by the so-called strong force. If that force were slightly more powerful, all the protons in the early universe would have paired off and there would be no hydrogen, which fuels long-lived stars. Water would not exist, nor would any known form of life.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mis-critiquing Intelligent Design

J. B. Stump, who works for the BioLogos Foundation and teaches philosophy at Bethel College in Indiana, wrote a review a while back for Christian Century of a book by Benjamin Jantzen titled An Introduction to Design Arguments. Neither the reviewer nor Jantzen is terribly sympathetic to this family of arguments for the existence of God and so we read passages like this one critical of Michael Behe's notion of irreducible complexity:
Of course, there are many things we don’t yet understand about evolutionary history. So if Behe were to produce an example of an irreducibly complex structure for which scientists had no compelling evolutionary account, would that be enough to generate the conclusion that it must have been designed? No, says Jantzen; there is another problem with the argument. When Behe claims that irreducible complexity is best explained by a designer, Jantzen reminds us that "best" is a comparative term and can only mean “best among the known explanations.” If history is any guide here, we should expect that we don’t yet know all the possible explanations, so Behe’s claim is considerably weakened.
This is a very odd criticism. Practitioners in every field always embrace the best theory available at the time, if only tentatively. Rarely do we find scientists holding back from working with a hypothesis because, though it's the best extant, they hope there may be better ones down the road. It's the best theories that make it into the textbooks and that popularizers of science advance in their books and articles. It's true that theories are often held with a light hand, but it's simply weird to think that we should refrain from concluding, for the time being at least, that something is designed even though that's the best explanation for what we see, because there may be a better explanation in the future.

Stump also says this which seems quite wide of the mark:
The ID camp does a disservice to the predominantly conservative Christian community to which it appeals by conditioning that community to mistrust science. Its arguments depend on accepted, settled science getting things wrong. So now an alarming number of Christians also reject the conclusions of scientific experts on climate change and vaccines. Of course experts make mistakes. The trick is to realize that they can be trustworthy as well as fallible.
This is just false. I'd challenge Stump to explain how it is that Intelligent Design theorists condition people to mistrust science. ID is not anti-science. Many of the ID people are themselves scientists or philosophers of science. Behe is a biochemist. They embrace and practice science. What they oppose are the metaphysical assumptions that naturalistic scientists smuggle into their interpretations of the empirical data. The conflict is not between ID and science, it's between ID and naturalism. It's a metaphysical, or perhaps methodological disagreement, but both IDers and non-IDers use the same scientific data and neither holds science in any higher esteem than the other.

Stump exacerbates the error by claiming that because of ID people are skeptical of climate change and vaccines, but this is ridiculous. People are skeptical of the claims of some climatologists that the globe is warming at dangerous rates because they find that a) some of the people making these claims have a personal or political stake in the issue, b) some of them have fudged data and forfeited their credibility, and c) there are other climatologists who have come to different conclusions. None of this has anything to do with ID. Likewise with those who are leery of vaccinating children. They agree with Stump's last sentence above, that experts can be both trustworthy and fallible. They just don't want the experts making their mistakes on their children.

Stump does take Jantzen to task for a very serious omission. According to Stump, Jantzen completely elides mention of Stephen Meyer's books:
It is a curious omission that there is no treatment at all of intelligent design’s currently most prominent figure, Stephen Meyer. His books Signature in the Cell (2009) and Darwin’s Doubt (2013) have become the leading edge of the movement. I suspect that Meyer’s work came along too late in the development of Jantzen’s book, which is clearly the fruit of many years of engagement with the material. It is regrettable, though, that what aims to be a comprehensive treatment of design arguments does not include the most important contemporary exemplar.
Stump's attempt to provide Jantzen with an excuse here is hard to credit. Meyer's first book came out in 2009, the second in 2013. Jantzen's book was released in February of 2014. He certainly had time to treat the first one, even if he had no time to add an appendix to offer some thoughts on the second. The fact that he ignored Meyer's work is indeed very unfortunate.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Europe's Refugee Crime Crisis

A lengthy column by Dr. Cheryl Bernard in The National Interest describes Austria's experience with Afghan refugees and demonstrates precisely why so many people support President Trump's call for "extreme vetting".
This is not an article that has been fun for me to write. I have worked on issues related to refugees for much of my professional life, from the Pakistani camps during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to Yemen, Sudan, Thailand, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Lebanon, Bosnia, Nicaragua and Iraq, and have deep sympathy for their plight.

But nowhere had I encountered a phenomenon like this one. I had seen refugees trapped in circumstances that made them vulnerable to rape, by camp guards or soldiers. But for refugees to become perpetrators of this crime in the place that had given them asylum? That was something new.

A few weeks ago, the Austrian city of Tulln declared a full stop to any further refugee admissions. As the mayor made clear, that decision was aimed at Afghans, but for legal and administrative reasons it could only be promulgated in a global way. That had not been the city’s intention—to the contrary, it had just completed the construction of an expensive, brand-new facility for incoming asylum seekers, which would now, the mayor declared, be given over to another purpose.

His exact words: “We’ve had it.” The tipping point, after a series of disturbing incidents all emanating from Afghans, was the brutal gang rape of a fifteen-year-old girl, snatched from the street on her way home, dragged away and serially abused by Afghan refugees.
Her description of the rape and the subsequent fate of the victim is horrific, and, as she adds, it's just a solitary example of what is an epidemic of outrageous attacks by refugees on women all across Europe (See here, for example)

It took a while for the Austrian media, cowering before the intimidating visage of political correctness, to start identifying the perpetrators as refugees, but the situation is now so bad they can no longer ignore it. It's not only assaults on women that these ungrateful wretches are subjecting the Austrian people to, there's also widespread abuse of their welfare system as well.

When young men have been taught all their lives that women are essentially property, when they've been taught to hate the West and everything about it, the only surprise in what Dr. Bernard describes is that anyone would be surprised:
This brings us to a third, more compelling and quite disturbing theory [for why these crimes are happening] — the one that my Afghan friend, the court translator, puts forward. On the basis of his hundreds of interactions with these young men in his professional capacity over the past several years, he believes to have discovered that they are motivated by a deep and abiding contempt for Western civilization.

To them, Europeans are the enemy, and their women are legitimate spoils, as are all the other things one can take from them: housing, money, passports.

Their laws don’t matter, their culture is uninteresting and, ultimately, their civilization is going to fall anyway to the horde of which one is the spearhead. No need to assimilate, or work hard, or try to build a decent life here for yourself — these Europeans are too soft to seriously punish you for a transgression, and their days are numbered.

And it’s not just the sex crimes, my friend notes. Those may agitate public sentiment the most, but the deliberate, insidious abuse of the welfare system is just as consequential. Afghan refugees, he says, have a particular proclivity to play the system: to lie about their age, to lie about their circumstances, to pretend to be younger, to be handicapped, to belong to an ethnic minority when even the tired eye of an Austrian judge can distinguish the delicate features of a Hazara from those of a Pashtun.
Dr. Bernard concludes with this thought:
Finally, the Left has to do a bit of hard thinking. It’s fine to be warm, fuzzy and sentimental about strangers arriving on your shores, but let’s also spare some warm, fuzzy and sentimental thoughts for our own values, freedoms and lifestyle. Girls and women should continue to feel safe in public spaces, be able to attend festivals, wear clothing appropriate to the weather and their own liking, travel on trains, go to the park, walk their dogs and live their lives.

This is a wonderful Western achievement, and one that is worth defending.
We have a moral obligation, I believe, to help those who suffer, but let's be sure that those we're helping are genuinely in need of our assistance, and let's help them where they are. No one has a duty to succor the homeless by bringing them into their homes, neither must we bring millions of moral illiterates into our communities, putting our wives and daughters at risk, in order to rescue them from tyranny in their homelands.

If there are those who think it too strong to call the perpetrators of the crimes described in Dr. Bernard's essay "moral illiterates" then her article is, for them, "must reading".

Monday, July 17, 2017

Why Aren't Men Working?

In a piece at First Things (subscription required) Irish writer John Waters cites some depressing statistics about male employment in the U.S. The good news is that there are plenty of jobs for people who want to work. The bad news is that evidently fewer men than ever want to work:
In a recent book, Men Without Work, Nicholas Eberstadt shows that, although unemployment in the U.S. has been falling in what he calls this “second Gilded Age,” there is simultaneously a “flight from work” by men in their prime.

Even while manufacturers are finding it difficult to fill vacancies, the percentage of working men between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four is now lower than it was at the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Approximately one in eight men in their prime has left the workforce altogether, and about one in six is without paid work, a trend that has been visible since the mid-1960s. The graph of this male exodus from the workplace is an almost straight upward line, regardless of booms or recessions, indicating that weakening market demand is not the critical factor.

Nearly seven million American men in their prime have left behind—it seems of their own volition—the idea of trading their skills and talents in the marketplace, and many have turned their backs on all forms of commitment and responsibility. Some are ex-cons, but the greater part is composed of single men without parental responsibilities and with limited formal education, a significant quotient of these being African Americans.

Marriage trumps race as an indicator of employment, as does being a recent immigrant. For every man in his prime deemed unemployed, there are three others who are neither working nor looking for work. Almost three in five of these men are receiving at least one disability benefit, a factor that Eberstadt concedes may not be driving the phenomenon but is certainly financing it.
Men who marry or who have taken the trouble to immigrate are much less likely to be unemployed than those who eschew marriage. This isn't surprising, but it is distressing. How are these millions of single men surviving? Who's paying their room board and medical expenses? The answer, of course, is those who do work. It's very kind of those struggling to eke out a living for their own families to turn over a chunk of their paycheck to subsidize those whom Waters describes thus:
We observe, then, the depths of an existential rather than an economic or purely social crisis, with most of these men wasting away for an average of 2,100 hours a year in front of screens, binging on TV, pornography, sugar, and painkillers, no longer feeling that America has a place for their humanity. They don’t do civic society, religion, or volunteerism.
Actually, I'm not sure if that last clause in the first sentence is accurate. I doubt these men feel anything of the sort. I suspect rather that they simply don't care. Men who aren't willing to commit to family, church, or community aren't likely to care about much else beyond themselves and certainly don't care whether "America has a place for their humanity".

Waters concludes his treatment of Eberstadt's book with this:
If 1965 work rates pertained in the U.S. today there would be approximately 10 million more men with paid work than there are now. ­He professes to find this baffling, given that national wealth has doubled since the turn of the millennium. He expresses ­similar incomprehension about the fact that, ­globalization and deindustrialization notwithstanding, this precise syndrome has not afflicted other Western ­societies to anything like the same extent. He calls it the “quiet catastrophe,” ignored by politicians and commentators.
Little wonder the catastrophe is ignored by politicians and commentators. If a conservative politician were to call attention to some of these facts he'd doubtless be excoriated as a bigot, or an elitist, or a racist and remanded to the re-education camps we euphemistically call sensitivity training.

Nor are progressives likely to speak out too loudly about the calamity that's been visited upon us since for fifty years or so many of these folks have been working like Stakhanovites to undo the American family. They've largely succeeded, at least with the lower socio-economic classes, and as Charles Murray points out in his book Coming Apart, the results are indeed devastating.

Usually, people responsible for a catastrophe don't have too much to say about the damage they've inflicted.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

What Do People Really Think?

A column in USA Today by Tom Krattenmaker discusses a recent Gallup poll which shows a decline in the number of people who support "Creationism" and an uptick in the number of people embracing naturalistic evolution. By "Creationism" Krattenmaker means "young-earth creationism":
New polling data show that for the first time in a long time there’s a notable decline in the percentage of Americans — including Christians — who hold to the “Young Earth” creationist view that humankind was created in its present form in the past 10,000 years, evolution playing no part.

According to a Gallup poll conducted in May, the portion of the American public taking this position now stands at 38%, a new low in Gallup’s periodic surveys. Fifty-seven percent accept the validity of the scientific consensus that human beings evolved from less advanced forms of life over millions of years.
Does this mean that those 57% are embracing naturalistic evolution? Not necessarily, according to Gallup:
As the poll reveals, the biggest factor in the shift is a jump in the number of Christians who are reconciling faith and evolution. They are coming to see evolution as their God’s way of creating life on Earth and continuing to shape it today.
Gallup has been asking the same questions on this poll since the 1980s so it's not obvious to the casual observer why Christians are finding it easier to reconcile "faith and evolution". The reason is, perhaps, that many Christians are finding very intellectually satisfying another explanation that wasn't so well-known back in the 80s and thus didn't show up on Gallup surveys.

That alternative, Intelligent Design, is proving to be a very attractive option both philosophically and theologically because it takes no formal position on who designed the universe, how long ago the designer designed the universe, and how the designer managed to accomplish the feat. It simply asserts that the universe and living things both exhibit the signs of having been intelligently engineered and that impersonal, mechanistic processes are inadequate as explanations for the massive evidence of design that scientists discover almost daily.

In other words, whether the designer employed evolutionary processes or some other creative means, cosmic fine-tuning, the origin of life, and the high information content of living things are inexplicable apart from intentional, intelligent agency.

The question then for many is not a simple Evolution vs. Creation binary. The question (at least as it pertains to life) is between the efficacy of random mutation, genetic drift, and natural selection vs. the efficacy of intelligent agency in accounting for the origin and subsequent biological information. Gallup would give us a clearer picture of where people stood on this issue if they formulated their questions to reflect that dichotomy.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Calling for a Muslim Reformation

In her book Heretic Ayaan Hirsi Ali calls for a reformation among Muslims, a reformation she compares to that which occurred in Christianity in the 16th century. She's doubtless correct that Islam needs a reformation but I'm not sure comparisons to the Christian reformation are quite apposite.

For one thing, the Christian reformation was a call to the Church to set aside papal authority and tradition and return instead to the teaching of Christ and the authority of the Bible. It would seem that precisely the opposite is needed in Islam. The radicals are those who are committed to the Prophet and the Koran, and the reformers are in the position of having to entice them away from some of the more embarrassing teachings of both.

Indeed, it's hard to see how a reformed Islam, one in which both Mohammad and the Koran are subjected to critical examination, can survive. If Muslims come to believe that Mohammad is not a perfect model for their emulation and that the Koran contains much that must be rejected, Islam, being a religion based on a conviction of the perfection of both, would doubtless lose much of its attraction.

In any case, there are other courageous Muslim reformers out there besides Hirsi Ali, and one such is a physician, author, and former naval officer named Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser. Dr. Jasser was interviewed for The Federalist last January by Steve Postal.

The whole interview is enlightening, but a couple of things are worth highlighting here. For example, Dr. Jasser supports what he calls Trump's "travel pause" and adds this:
Some studies report around 23 percent of those seeking refuge here have sympathies for ISIS. Those individuals have no right to come to the United States. Those who come to the United States should not do so solely out of humanitarian need, but also to share our values. Those with sympathies for Islamists (e.g., Muslim Brotherhood or ISIS) as well as those with sympathies for fascist dictatorships (e.g., Assadists or those with allegiances to the Russian government) should never be given the freedom to come to the U.S.
He also believes that reform must change people's minds, not just subdue those who take up arms and resort to terror:
Islamists know that the greatest threat to their supremacist program is when we advance the ideas of liberty, freedom, and universal values of human rights protected by secular national identity. That is the only antidote to Islamism (political Islam and the idea of an Islamic state). The means of terror has now morphed from suicide belts and bombs to vehicular jihad and machetes. While we must learn to confront this changing landscape, we must see all these attacks for what they are: the very tip of the iceberg, the militant violent expressions of the massive global Islamist movement.

We can and will continue to fight this war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. But victories there are only pyrrhic and fleeting. In order for the West to see a day free from wars against Islamist terror and its caliphate(s), we must wage an ideological war to influence the minds of Muslims against political Islam.
This seems right. All the military victories over Islamic extremists our armed forces can achieve will not entirely remove the threat, it will only push it underground. Islamist violence will subside only happen when Muslims, both the violent jihadis, those who sympathize with them, and those on the fence are convinced that murder and torture is not at all the will of God. The belief that holy war and killing is what God wills is what motivates them, our previous administration's unwillingness to acknowledge this uncomfortable fact notwithstanding, and it is only when Muslims come to question the basis for that motivation that acts of violence will diminish.

This means an active global effort to counter Islamic doctrine as it relates to violence should be undertaken, an effort which engages the resources of both our government and private institutions like mosques, churches and schools. The Church, in particular, is in an especially propitious position to educate the American people, who are still largely ignorant of the nature of Islam, on the threat posed by sharia to our basic freedoms like freedom of religion, speech and press, as well as the threat it poses to the dignity of women.

In my opinion, the Church is the only institution which can offer devout Muslims, who not unreasonably deplore many of the fruits of Western secularism, a compelling religious alternative to violence and conquest, but it must do so with love and humility.

The left, of course, will see the foregoing as anti-Muslim bigotry. That's an absurd allegation but one nevertheless sufficient to provoke loud protests among Islamist groups like CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) and intimidate those in government and elsewhere who lack confidence in the values articulated by our Founding Fathers.

Perhaps the Trump administration will prove itself to be comprised of people with stiffer spines and stronger convictions than we've seen in our public servants heretofore.

In any event, read the rest of the interview with Dr. Jasser at the link. It's very good.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Are Ethics Self-Evident?

Philosopher Patrick Grim offers a Lecture for the Great Courses series in which he asks by way of introduction what kind of knowledge ethical knowledge is. In other words, is our knowledge that it's wrong to abuse children like our scientific knowledge - subject to empirical verification? Or is it more like the intuitive knowledge we have upon reflection, like the axioms of geometry? He begins his query with this:
We do know things about ethics. We know that human life is important and valuable. We know that people have rights; rights to take their own paths in life. We know it is ethically wrong to violate those rights. We know we have obligations to our family, to our friends, to humanity at large. I take that to be an important kind of knowledge, but a normal kind of knowledge.

The question, as I see it, is not whether we have that kind of knowledge. The question is a reflective question about what kind of knowledge that is.
Not having heard the lecture series, I don't know where Grim eventually comes down on this question, but I'd say two things about it here. First, I'm not sure we do know the things Grim says we know, although it's certainly true that many of us believe those things. Secondly, in order for those beliefs we hold to be knowledge they have to have some warrant or justification, and that leads us to a crucial question: What warrant do we have for thinking that our beliefs - for example, that others have rights - are true beliefs, i.e. knowledge?

If someone claims that other people have rights then we might ask where those rights come from. If our rights are inherent in us because we're human then it'd be wrong for anyone to deprive us of them, but where do "inherent" rights come from, and what do we mean when we say that depriving someone of an inherent right is "wrong"?

If the human species is nothing other than the end-product of a blind, naturalistic process of development that occurred over eons of time then to say something is wrong is to say little more than "I don't like it", but if "wrong" is just what someone else doesn't like then why should anyone care about refraining from doing what others don't like if it doesn't suit them to do so?

Philosopher David Hume in his book The Treatise of Human Nature came to the conclusion that right and wrong are simply whatever wins the general approbation or disapprobation of one's fellows, but if that's all we mean by right and wrong then the terms are synonymous with "socially fashionable". To accuse someone of doing wrong is like accusing them of gaucherie because they slurp their soup. Such behavior may be unconventional and distasteful, but it's not wrong. When we say that child abuse is wrong, however, we surely want to say more than that it's unconventional and distasteful behavior. We want to say that it's evil.

Ethics are indeed self-evident, and we do have intuitive knowledge of right and wrong, but only because, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, we've been endowed by our Creator with a law, in the words of St. Paul, "written on our hearts". That law, being the gift of a perfectly good and wise being who will ultimately hold us accountable to it, is the source of all our moral understanding.

It's binding upon us only because it's bestowed by a personal being. If it were merely the product of impersonal evolutionary forces we would be no more obligated to observe it than we are obligated to refrain from flying in an airplane because it flouts the law of gravity.

If, as Grim says, we know that human life is important and valuable, that people have rights; rights to take their own paths in life, that it's ethically wrong to violate those rights, and that we have obligations to our family, to our friends, and to humanity at large, then we are tacitly acknowledging that there must be a God who has bestowed those rights and obligations upon us.

Either that or we're trying to hold on to the belief in right and wrong while discarding the only suitable foundation for that belief. It's like pulling the table out from under the dinner setting and expecting the dishware to all remain in place.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

We Are Not a Simulation

I have occasionally written (see most recently here and here) on the fascinating notion that the universe we live in is actually not "real" but is rather a computer simulation designed by some intelligent creatures living in a different world altogether. This theory has been popularized, perhaps most notably, by philosopher Nick Bostrom.

I find the theory fascinating not because I think it's plausible but because those who do are actually trying to account for the enormous amount of apparently intelligent engineering and design manifested by the fine-tuning of our universe without having to concede that theism is true. They are right, I think, to see an intelligence behind the universe, but wrong if they conclude that the intelligence is anything less than the maximally great being posited by theism.

There's a good article by computer expert Peter Kassan at in which he explains the simulation hypothesis and offers several criticisms of it.

Kassan gives us a summary of the argument for thinking we live in a simulation:
  • The universe contains a vast number of stars.
  • Some of these stars have planets.
  • Some of these planets must be like Earth.
  • Since intelligent life arose and eventually invented computers on Earth, intelligent life must have arisen and invented computers on some of these planets.
  • It is (or inevitably will be) possible to simulate intelligent life inhabiting a simulated reality on a computer.
  • Since it’s possible, it must have been done.
  • There must be a vast number of such simulations on a vast number of computers on a vast number of planets.
  • Since there’s only one real universe but there’s a vast number of simulations, the probability that you’re living in a simulation approaches one, while the probability that you’re living in the real universe approaches zero.
As Kassan observes there is no empirical evidence for, or testable implications of, this argument. It's therefore not a scientific hypothesis. It's more akin to science fiction or theology. Kassan calls it "cybernetic solipsism". There’s little reason, he says, to argue that anyone else in your simulated universe is conscious—to achieve verisimilitude, there’d be no need to actually program anyone else’s consciousness but yours.

More than that, though, even an immensely powerful computer would not be able to program human consciousness:
But even a superdupercomputer wouldn’t produce even a single conscious being. The crucial move in the argument is that the simulation of a human mind would actually be conscious in the same sense that you and I are. Your computer simulation wouldn’t simply behave exactly like a real person, it would actually feel pain, pleasure, lust, fear, anger, love, nausea, angst, ennui, and everything else you can feel. It would actually experience the same optical (and other sensory) illusions you do. It would feel what you feel when you get sick, or when you drink or take drugs. It would fall asleep and dream, and then wake up to realize that it was only dreaming. Presumably, it would even die.
In other words, the qualia of sensory experience would have to somehow emerge from the whirrings of the computer's hard drive, but a physical computer can only produce physical outputs, and our sensations - pain, color, sound, etc. - are not physical or material. They're produced by physical stimuli, they're generated by electrochemical reactions in our nervous system, but the sensation of blueness when we look at the sky, to take one example, is not itself physical.

Kassan looks at another aspect of the problem of how a material device like a computer can produce immaterial effects when he considers how a computer can generate what philosophers call intentionality:
The argument that a sufficiently complex computer program would be conscious in the same way you and I are goes something like this:
  • The brain is an information processor.
  • A computer is an information processor.
  • A computer can be programmed to process the same sort of information the brain processes in the same way that the brain processes information.
  • The conscious mind arises from information processing in the brain.
  • Therefore, a conscious mind will arise from equivalent information processing on a computer.
The argument depends crucially on the concept of information. A computer contains, processes, and displays data like a highway road sign consisting of a rectangular array of light bulbs. As we drive by, we can interpret the pattern of light as letters and words, but the message we read is actually nowhere contained in the display. Imagine a space alien interpreting the display as a binary code, with each column of eight light bulbs conveying one byte. How would they interpret a sign that to us read DANGER—CONSTRUCTION AHEAD? A computer is processing data (information) only because we interpret it as doing so; a brain behaves as it does without interpretation.
In other words, the arrangement of the bulbs in the sign has a meaning to us, but how do the reactions in our brains when we see the sign generate that meaning? The brain is just an enormously complex system of neurons. Where does the meaning come from? There's no meaning in the chemical reactions that fill the brain when we observe the sign. Nor does a computer generate meaning. It simply produces data. Meaning is the product of conscious observers.

Kassan finishes with a couple more thoughts about all this:
There’s another irony concerning the notion that we’re all just computer simulations. If you believe you’re living in a computer simulation, then everything you think you know about the world—including its vastness, the probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and even the very existence of computers—is part of that simulation, and so is completely worthless. The evidence on which the entire chain of reasoning depends, in short, is illusory—and so nothing at all can be argued from it.
None of our beliefs are reliable since they're all just beliefs we hold because we've been programmed to do so. Among those simulated beliefs are our moral beliefs:
If we believe we’re just simulations, how should we behave? Should we treat everyone around us as if they’re just a figment of someone else’s imagination, shamelessly manipulating them for our own pleasure or gain? Should we take careless risks, knowing we’ll live again in another simulation or after a reboot? Should we even bother to get out of bed, knowing that it is all unreal? I think not.
If the universe is a simulation then we're all programmed to live the way we do. No behavior is wrong in any meaningful sense. There's no free will, no morality, no meaning to our existence, no justice or injustice. We're all just actors on a stage manipulated by an intelligent programmer for his own purposes. Thus, there is nor can there be, any value to our lives. This, by the way, would be true as well if the programmer were a God who preordains every aspect of our lives.

Belief in a real world and other minds besides our own is properly basic. We are within our epistemic rights to believe that the world exists objectively unless and until we are confronted with a compelling defeater for that belief. The simulation hypothesis falls short of being a compelling defeater.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Simple Rules for Avoiding Poverty

The headline of George Will's recent column in the Washington Post reads "What if the Major Causes of Poverty Are Behavioral?" Huh. Despite the fact that a lot of people have been insisting for a long time that much of the poverty in America is largely a result of the choices and behavior of those who find themselves stuck in it, progressives have turned a contemptuous ear to the very idea that people are in large measure responsible for their station in life.

It's therefore encouraging to see the WaPo entertain the notion that that idea may very well be correct after all.

Will begins by describing the collapse of communities like the Bronx in New York into intergenerational poverty. He notes that perhaps the chief cause is the disintegration of the American family and goes on to remark about what a pair of University of Virginia researchers have called the "success sequence" for Millenials:
Something now seems indisputable: Among today’s young adults, the “success sequence” is insurance against poverty. The evidence is in “The Millennial Success Sequence,” published by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies and written by Wendy Wang of the IFS and W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and AEI.

The success sequence, previously suggested in research by, among others, Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, is this: First get at least a high-school diploma, then get a job, then get married, and only then have children. Wang and Wilcox, focusing on Millennials ages 28 to 34, the oldest members of the nation’s largest generation, have found that only 3 percent who follow this sequence are poor. A comparably stunning 55 percent of this age cohort have had children before marriage. Only 25 percent of the youngest baby boomers (those born between 1957 and 1964) did that.

Eighty-six percent of the Wang-Wilcox Millennials who put “marriage before the baby carriage” have family incomes in the middle or top third of incomes. Forty-seven percent who did not follow the sequence are in the bottom third.
Progressives tend to scoff at this prescription for success because it smacks of bourgeois values, but such disdain puts ideology ahead of people. It derides the means of escape from poverty simply because it's the means that have worked for a class of people they don't like. Some leftist African Americans also sneer at the success sequence because it implies that blacks should live the way white people do.

Well, yes. But a lot of whites don't live this way and are poor and a lot of blacks do live this way and aren't poor. What's more important, racial ideology or getting people out of poverty?

I would add to what Will says about the success sequence just a couple of things (in italics): 1. Get a meaningful diploma. Make sure you can at least read on a high school level when you graduate. 2. Get a job and don't leave it unless it's for something better. Be the best employee you can be. 3. Get married before having children and stay married, especially after having children. 4. Stay away from drugs and alcohol. 5. Regularly attend a good church.

There may be people who've followed this prescription who are still living below the poverty line, but I'll wager that one would have to look awfully hard to find them, and it's worth mentioning that, except for education, none of this costs the taxpayers a penny.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Philosophical Dead End

Over the last several decades a number of theistic philosophers have developed a powerful argument the conclusion of which is that naturalism - the view that material nature is all there is - is self-refuting. They argue that if we believe naturalism is true then we must believe that none of our beliefs, including our belief in naturalism, is trustworthy.

The foremost proponent of this argument has been Alvin Plantinga who presents a lecture on it here. The lecture is in six parts and is perhaps too long for those with limited time so as an alternative interested readers might check out this short summary: Lest one criticize the video for its theistic bias against naturalism it might be mentioned that a lot of naturalists have implicitly and explicitly agreed with the thesis of the video.

Naturalist philosopher Thomas Nagel in his book Mind and Cosmos acknowledges that materialist versions of evolution simply can't explain cognition, value, or consciousness.

Evolutionary cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has written that “Our brains are shaped for fitness, not for truth; sometimes the truth is adaptive, sometimes it is not.”

As an example of how a false belief may have survival value, at least for our genes, imagine a prehistoric society in which arises a genetic mutation inclining the possessor of the mutation toward the belief that the more children one has the greater will be one's reward in the afterlife. Such a belief would be expected to produce large numbers of progeny, and the factors responsible for it, if they're genetic, will, over the course of time, eventually dominate in the society. Yet the belief is false.

As Plantinga says, one can believe in natural selection or one can believe in naturalism, but one can't believe in both. If natural selection has produced our cognitive faculties in a way consonant with naturalism then those faculties evolved to promote survival not to ascertain truth. Thus we have no good reason to think that our belief in naturalism is true.

On the other hand, if natural selection was superintended by an intelligent agent then we have reason to think that the process shaped our cognitive faculties to discern truth. That allows us to still believe in natural selection, but, of course, the existence of the intelligent agent means that the basic metaphysical assumption of naturalism, that nature is all there is, is false.

Naturalism appears to be a philosophical dead end. Followed to its logical conclusion it results in epistemological and moral nihilism.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Propagandist for Oppression

Some people are completely tone deaf to irony. Some are completely indifferent to their own hypocrisy, and some unfortunate individuals, like Linda Sarsour, are both. Sarsour is an American Muslim woman who was co-organizer of the recent Women's March.

One might think that such a woman would be a strong advocate of women's rights, but Sarsour is also a devout Muslim and proponent of sharia - Islamic law based on the Koran and the Hadiths - which only someone steeped in Orwellian newspeak could see as being compatible with women's rights.

It's not that under sharia women have no rights. They do. They have the right to be beaten and raped by their husbands. They have the right to marry the man chosen for them by their families. They have the right to be prohibited from marrying outside the Muslim faith. They have the right to inherit only half of what a man can inherit, or to have their court testimony count less than that of a man. They have the right to marry only one man who himself may marry four women. In short, they have the right not to have any rights.

Their rights are certainly not the sort most women in the West would wish to have, and it's therefore odd that this woman would be praised as a champion of women's rights. But that's not all there is to say about Ms. Sarsour. Ben Shapiro gives us a fuller description of the lady:
Sarsour, who was called a “Champion of Change” by the Obama White House, has a long history of speaking kindly of shariah law and terrorists. Sarsour stated that underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a CIA agent; she supports attacks on the Israeli Defense Force; she stated that “the sacrifice the black Muslims slaves went through in this country is nothing compared to Islamophobia today”; she stated that Brigitte Gabriel and victim of Islamic genital mutilation Ayaan Hirsi Ali didn’t deserve to be called women, explaining, ‘I wish I could take their vaginas away – they don’t deserve to be women.”
Indeed. Well, Ms. Sarsour recently made news when she gave a speech in which she began by praising a known terrorist sympathizer and then called for "jihad" against the White House which, she averred, was occupied by "fascists", "white supremacists", "islamophobes" and other nefarious types.

This from a woman who adheres to a form of Islam that wishes to impose sharia on everyone in the world, which sees itself as the supreme and only truth, and which allows for the oppression, if not murder, of anyone who disagrees. How is that not just a variety of the fascist, supremacist, phobia she thinks resides in the White House?

Sharia, Sarsour has claimed, is nothing more than refraining from alcohol and pork and following the Islamic way. Apparently, following the Islamic way includes, inter multi alia, being disingenuous about what sharia really is. She doesn't mention, for example, that under sharia homosexuals are to be executed, women can be beaten for going out of the house without being properly covered or without their male guardian's permission. They can also be stoned to death for adultery and flogged for lesser offenses.

Under sharia in Saudi Arabia women aren't allowed to drive cars. A joke in Israel, a nation she despises, has it that more women fly F-15s in Israel than drive cars in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, under sharia there would be no freedom of religion - apostates from Islam can be killed - no freedom of speech, and no separation of church and state.

If a white Western male advocated for women what sharia demands of women he'd be treated with utter contempt, but when a Muslim advocates these things, explicitly or implicitly, he/she is invited by good progressives to lead marches for women and to speak at conferences and commencement services. Logical and moral consistency is perhaps not a prerequisite to being a progressive nor a feminist:

The reason Ms. Sarsour so despises Brigitte Gabriel and Ayaan Hirsi Ali is that both have been outspoken in exposing exactly what sharia and Koran-based Islam entail. Gabriel was born in Lebanon and had her eyes opened by her experience there:
She recalls that during the Lebanese Civil War, Islamic militants launched an assault on a Lebanese military base near her family's house and destroyed her home. Gabriel, who was ten years old at the time, was injured by shrapnel in the attack. She says that she and her parents were forced to live underground in all that remained, an 8-by-10-foot (2.4 by 3.0 m) bomb shelter for seven years, with only a small kerosene heater, no sanitary systems, no electricity or running water, and little food. She says she had to crawl in a roadside ditch to a spring for water to evade Muslim snipers.

At one point in the spring of 1978, a bomb explosion caused her and her parents to become trapped in the shelter for two days. They were eventually rescued by three Christian militia fighters, one of whom befriended Gabriel but was later killed by a land mine.

Gabriel wrote that in 1978 a stranger warned her family of an impending attack by the Islamic militias on all Christians. She says that her life was saved when the Israeli army invaded Lebanon in Operation Litani. Later, when her mother was seriously injured and taken to an Israeli hospital, Gabriel was surprised by the humanity shown by the Israelis, in contrast to the constant propaganda against the Jews she saw as a child. She is quoted as saying of her experience:
I was amazed that the Israelis were providing medical treatment to Palestinian and Muslim gunmen...These Palestinians and Muslims were sworn, mortal enemies, dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the slaughter of Jews. Yet, Israeli doctors and nurses worked feverishly to save their lives. Each patient was treated solely according to the nature of his or her injury. The doctor treated my mother before he treated an Israeli soldier lying next to her because her injury was more severe than his. The Israelis did not see religion, political affiliation, or nationality. They saw only people in need, and they helped.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia and lived under Islamic law until she managed to escape as a young woman to Holland. Read her memoir Infidel or her call for an Islamic Reformation titled Heretic and you'll wonder why any woman who wants to be treated not as property but as a human being equal under the law to men could possibly sympathize with sharia or Linda Sarsour.