Sunday, October 29, 2006

As the pendulum swings

As a bit of popular philosophy, the pendulum theory of equilibrium as applied to social and political alignments over time has garnered wide appeal. There seems to be some aspect of human nature that establishes a long term equilibrium between opposing generational passions for order and liberty, tradition and innovation, authority and rebellion. Just as a secular trend toward one pole or another seems to have gained permanent status, the pendulum theory posits that the seeds for its decline have already been planted and are generating sprouts underneath the shade of its canopy.
This article may just point to such a sign of the peak of conservative influence:

GOP and Man at Yale
The intellectual dexterity that once distinguished campus conservatives has given way to mindless Republican boosterism.
by Daniel McCarthy

James R. Lawrence III doesn’t look like a campus misfit. The North Carolina State University senior has the kind of clean-cut, buttoned-down appearance one expects of a major in biomedical engineering, a field whose academic rigors leave little room for an “Animal House” or Abbie Hoffman way of life. But Lawrence is more unusual than his demeanor might suggest. He’s distinctly in the minority of a minority, as both a campus conservative and one who’s against the Iraq War.

In the eyes of some of his friends on the Right, that makes Lawrence really a kind of leftist. When he published an editorial for the anniversary of Hiroshima criticizing Harry Truman’s use of nuclear weapons against Japan, one of his colleagues on the campus conservative paper, The Broadside, suggested he was its “token liberal.” That isn’t surprising—student conservatives across the country tend to resent any suggestion that U.S. foreign policy could be immoral. But it is ironic, considering that one of the classic texts of postwar conservatism, Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, was written in response to the horrors of the Second World War, including America’s use of nuclear weapons. “The atomic bomb was a final blow to the code of humanity,” Weaver wrote to a friend in 1945.

Lawrence cited Weaver and Human Events founding editor Felix Morley in his article, but that counted for little. The young men and women of the Right aren’t reading much Richard Weaver these days—nor much Robert Nisbet or Russell Kirk, to name two other seminal conservative thinkers critical of modern warfare. The time when Young Americans for Freedom wore badges blazoned with the slogan “Don’t Immanentize the Eschaton” has long passed. Now College Republicans parade in shirts proclaiming “George W. Bush Is My Homeboy.” The campus Right has almost always been more activist than intellectual, just as the wider movement has been more political than cultural. But where once students were at least familiar with the names Kirk and Weaver, or Mises and Nock, today they look to Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter for guidance. They’re little acquainted with the wisdom of the contemporary Right’s founding generation, and it shows.

I think what this indicates is that Republicanism has become the new "club" defining the path to advancement, power and influence in the culture. Once a political movement has succeeded to the point where it becomes a vested interest in the government, its defining principles and motives become corrupted by the institutional imperative of sustaining and increasing the penetration of movement members into the various organs of government, education and the media. Once there, members develop career and economic imperatives that compete with or trump the ideals and principles upon which the movemement was initially founded. Activism leads to careerism, and ambitious career oriented students fill the ranks. Once a certain point of inflection is passed, the movement has more to lose than to gain from change, and becomes brittle and reactionary.

Some other signs to look for are when cant, ridicule and hyperbole are substituted for reasoned argument by the more popular voices of the movement. Here's a sampling from a conservative's fireside reading list by Ben Shapiro, one of the younger voices on the Right:

Bankrupt, David Limbaugh
Godless, Ann Coulter
Unhinged, Michelle Malkin

One could add Ramesh Ponnoru's "The Party of Death" to the list. It is all the rage among conservative writers to invoke the Left with single word invectives. Political debate becomes guerilla warfare. Ann Coulter is the queen of invective conservatism and has established the publishing trend with her earlier books "Treason" and "Slander".

I would have to say that the biggest sign has to be when long-standing principles of the movement are compromised or abandoned in favor of a "deal with the devil" to cement the loyalty of a powerful constituency. This is the point when a small group of movement leaders "bet the house" on what they believe is the wave of the future, but end up fracturing the coalition that brought them to power, with the result that disaffected parties are wooed to the other party. The movement is then wedded to a single constituency, and becomes more and more radicalized by its demands.

The Democrats made this pact with the devil in 1973 when they bet the house on secular urban liberals and feminists with their embrace of Roe vs Wade, thus driving Catholics and red state working class Democrats into the Republican fold.

The Republicans may be making the same mistake now by betting the house on the Evangelical, or "values" vote. These voters are primarily concerned with conservative social issues like abortion, gay marriage, school prayer, evolution and church-state separation issues. They are not primarily fiscal conservatives, and in many ways welcome the expansion of government programs as a way to influence social trends. Their willingness to ignore fiscal discipline has alienated the fiscal conservatives, and their willingness to push government remedys for social issues like gay marriage or end-of-life issues like in the Terry Schiavo affair have alienated libertarians and small government federalists.

Has the pendulum reached it's inflection point? We may know more next week.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Steal this Bible!

You have to give this to the modern evangelical movement; it has learned the value of marketing. Evangelicals have learned that in order to compete with modern media culture, they have to adapt to it and excel at its methods. A prime example of how evangelicals have put this lesson to work is a new web and print based endeavor called the Crux Project. Here is part of the mission statement for Crux:
What is The Crux Project?

"Practice and thought might gradually forge many an art."

Quite simply, it is the lone voice in the wilderness, the avant-garde of the avant-garde, the bane of conventional wisdom, a thorn in the flesh of ideology, a last bastion of Truth, and the home of tough questions and even tougher answers. But that barely scratches the surface . . .

Crux is:

* where even "scientific fact" is routinely placed under the microscope
* about rejecting the "culture of cool" and the dictates of "what's hot"
* a refuge for that endangered species known as humanity
* a cry from the center in an increasingly decentered universe
* the cutting of a forgotten edge and the new wave of an ancient way
* the virtual dwelling place of a transcendent reality
* an intellectual counterpoint to the intelligentsia
* a landscape where the law is natural and the logic eternal

Crux is not:

* the lifestyles of the rich and famous
* a pusher of products or the promoter of projects
* a partisan play for power or influence
* a fashion guide for the tragically hip
* a home base for the perpetuation of the status quo
* a haven for the safe or the mouthpiece of the politically correct
* a separatist movement that hides from the dominant culture
* a poor imitation of existing websites

But The Crux Project is first and foremost an idea factory---one bent on challenging the damaging cultural myths that have undercut human dignity, all but destroyed the notions of virtue and morality, and slowly eroded respect for mystery and the transcendent.

From this home base, we plan to produce print magazines and radio shows, to host film screenings and focus groups---to launch a full-scale multimedia assault on all of the tastemakers, artists, scholars, and pundits who would have us live only for today and our own selfish desires.

Think of it as a "onward to the past" message. The language speaks of counter-cultural hipness and bravado, and anti-authoritarian individuality. From the first two paragraphs you would think that the project was about some kind of post-modern effort to deconstruct Western civilization, and in some sense it is about that. Not to move beyond modernity, but to move before it.

The language is transparently a pose, a marketing ploy to engage the youth demographic. When they say they are the "bane of conventional wisdom, a thorn in the flesh of ideology" what they really are about is the reassertion of an older conventional wisdom and a more rigid ideology than anything in operation today.

There is not a single reference to God or religion in this statement, but the underlying direction could not be clearer. Here are some passages from an article from the site titled "How American Politics Became Secularized":

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that many evangelicals in the eighteenth and nineteenth century failed to recognize what was happening. Having embraced a two-story concept of truth, they assumed that political philosophy was a lower-story "science" that could be pursued apart from any distinctively Christian perspective. As a result, many evangelicals at the time simply adopted secular political philosophies—especially that of John Locke. Whatever Locke's personal religious faith was (which is endlessly debated), there can be no doubt that his political theory was at root secular, grounding civil society not in moral goods like Justice and Right but merely in individual self-interest.

How did evangelicals miss that? As George Marsden explains, "Locke's contract theory of government was, in practice, sufficiently like the Puritan concept of covenant that no one in the revolutionary era seems to have thought it significant to criticize its essentially secular theoretical base." By treating the lower story as philosophically neutral, Christians failed to recognize alien philosophies—and sometimes even adopted them without being unaware of it.

In our own day, this same secularization process explains why politics leaves so many people disillusioned and spiritually dissatisfied. "The liberalism of Hobbes and Locke is founded upon the relatively 'low' human goals of self-preservation and the desire for wealth," writes Stanley Kurtz—which accounts for "the chronic disenchantment at the heart of modernity." At the core, humans are moral beings, and we long to see our highest moral ideals expressed in our corporate life. Ultimately the secular version of civic life fails to satisfy the human longing to live together in moral communities, committed to Justice and Righteousness.

Now that is a very slick way of packaging a message that essentially says "the American experiment is a failure, it is time to re-establish Christian rule". The earlier, less media-savvy generation of Christian radicals wouldn't think it necessary to use code words like "our corporate life" to express their intentions, but then they weren't very successful in generating mind-share, were they?

The Crux Project is also publishing a quartery magazine called "Salvo" aimed at teens and young adults. Its mission statement reads:
Blasting holes in scientific naturalism, marveling at the intricate design of the universe, and promoting life in a culture of deaty.
Critiquing art, music, film, television, and literature, interrupting mass media influence, and questioning the sanity of our consumerist lifestyle.
Countering destructive ideologies, replacing revisionist fictions with undeniable facts, and paring away political correctness.
Debunking the cultural myths that have undercut human dignity, all but destroyed the notions of virtue and morality, and slowly eroded our appetite for transcendence.
Recovering the one worldview that actually works.

In yo' face, homey! Now all the insufferably arrogant know-it-all snobs on campus will be carrying a copy of "Salvo" instead of "Atlas Shrugged".

There is one more bit of posturing from the introductory letter from the editor that is just too transparently bogus to ignore:

And that goes for every issue of Salvo. We will continue to interrogate fallacious and destructive thinking no matter who advocates it or from whence it originates. We do so not out of allegiance to a particular political platform or some other interested party but from the belief that we are suffering, both as a culture and as individuals, from a vast and contagious plague of corrupt ideas and short-sighted desires. Indeed, for the sake of our spiritual, emotional, mental and even physical welfare, Salvo promises to follow wherever the facts may lead, even should they end up challenging a few of our most ingrained and trusted beliefs. We ask the same of you.

If anyone thinks that these people will follow facts wherever they lead, then they've just bought a ticket for a ride. A perusal of the contents of the first issue shows that it is an organ for pushing Intelligent Design and other faith based cultural projects of evangelical Christianity. No facts need apply. A perusal of the magazine's editorial advisory board turns up such names as William Dembski, Phillip E. Joshnson, Robert P. George, Frederica Matthews Green and other luminaries of the conservative Christian logosphere. Also of note is Hugh Hewitt, radio talk show host and champion of God-bloggers everywhere.

So why don't these people just state right up front the religious nature of their enterprise? Why not just say "we will be defending Biblical Revelation against secular materialism." Because it is a bait and switch. They want to attract secular young people and religious moderates, not committed Christians. Lure young people in with a pseudo-scientific pose of brave truth-seeking and iconoclastic rebellion from authority, and then start selling them on conspiracy theories and apocalyptic visions of a decaying secular world run by an atheistic scientific "priesthood". It's a very cynical, manipulative ploy. But you must admit that they have learned the ropes of the new media.

A Ghost Story

Having, as a free service of The Daily Duck, already provided shopping tips to make this Halloween memorable, if a bit drafty for some participants, it is time to provide an equally free, completely true, ghost story.

How do I know? I witnessed it myself.

Once upon another life, I lived near Boise, Idaho. In the middle of my second summer there, my next door neighbor invited me to join him and several of his friends on a motorcycle trip east, then north to Missoula, MT, before heading southwest back home.

On the third day we were headed south on Highway 95, past Pollock (for those who want to take advantage of Mapquest's satellite imagery feature to help set the scene).

It was a cloudless day; warm, falling just short of hot: perfect for a ride. The road, winding through a valley alongside a river, was perfectly suited for a motorcycle. Plenty of curves for entertainment, virtually no traffic.

A dark and stormy night this wasn't.

Unfortunately, our mechanized conga line was brought up short by one of the other riders suffering a flat tire. On gathering by the side of road, we discovered some very lopsided contingency planning. Patches galore, but not an air pump to be found.

There are places where humanity is inescapable. Idaho is not one of them. We stood around scratching our helmets for a few minutes. Other than the road and us, there were no signs of humanity, and no corner gas stations for miles in either direction. In mid-ponder, I suddenly recalled seeing, but scarcely noting at the time, a ranch house several miles back.

Not having a whole lot of options, a few minutes later I was wheeling up the gravel driveway, and parked in front of a fair-sized, white clapboard house in the shade of some aspen trees.

Walking up the porch, the initial signs were not promising, and the results did not surprise: my knock produced only silence.

Clomping back down the steps, I noticed some hundred yards distant a much smaller house. It, too, was white, but looking like it might be grateful for another coat of paint.

As I walked up, I could see through the screen door a single overstuffed chair in the center of an otherwise bare wood floored room. No pictures, shelves, or furniture, just a curtainless window on each wall. A man of indeterminate age between 70 and 95, weather beaten, with gray hair heroically, but not quite successfully, fighting off baldness, sat in the overstuffed chair facing me.

As he was staring right at me, but without any sign of surprise, there was no need to knock.

"Hello, sir, how are you?" I asked in the vocal equivalent of a dog showing his belly.

In a voice gravelly with age, but nonetheless strong, he said "Well, I'm just fine. Come in. What brings you this way?"

A couple things occurred to me, as the door swung shut behind me. First, it didn't appear he was overwhelmed with company, and, consequently, it would be unseemly to cut right to the chase. Manners almost always approach the goal elliptically; it simply wouldn't do to directly explain my presence without some conversation along the way.

"I'm with some friends. We are on motorcycles, headed back to Mountain Home from Missoula. I can't get over how beautiful it is around here."

Whereupon followed a decent interval of talk about the weather, and where I was from; how long he had lived here. The niceties. After what seemed like ten minutes, although I really don't know, because there was no way to surreptitiously glance at my watch, I figured it was time to find out if there was a pump to be had.

So, still standing six feet from him, in a single room house, completely empty except for this elderly man, his chair, and me, I said "I'd love to talk some more, but one of my friends got a flat tire a few miles from here, and we all cleverly managed to not have a way to put any air in the tire."

"Would you happen to have a bicycle pump I could borrow for a few minutes?"

Without a word he half turned to his left, reached behind the chair, then turned back towards me.

With a brand new, silver, bike pump in his hand.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Onwarder, Christian Soldiers

Back in May I published a post discussing the battle by radical evangelical Christians and their Congressional supporters to water down the Air Force's then policy for chaplains which forbade the use of sectarian prayers at involuntary or non-sectarian gatherings. This policy was drawn up in reaction to a Congressional investigation of the Air Force Academy into allegations of discriminatory conduct and proselytizing by evangelical staff officers toward non-evangelical and non-Christian cadets.

To update this story, on Sept 30th the Congress removed a provision from the defense appropriations bill that would have allowed military chaplains the freedom to offer these sectarian prayers at such gatherings. This is not likely to be the end of the story on this issue, as it will most likely be re-introduced in the next Congress if Republicans hold onto the House. Congress also nullified the existing policy directives of the Air Force and Navy and asked the services to publish new directives.

On October 16th the Air Force published its new guideline (via Jews on First).

The main whistleblower for the scandal at the Air Force Academy, and the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Air Force over its refusal to stop religious proselytizing by superior officers, is Michael "Mikey" Weinstein, a former Air Force Academy grad and White House legal counsel under Ronald Reagan. It was the discriminatory treatment exerienced by his son, a cadet at the AFA in 2004 when the investigation started, that prompted Weinstein to take legal action to redress this flagrant violation of the constitutional separation of Church and State by membrs of the Air Force.

Weinstein has just published a book this month titled "With God on Our Side: One Man's War Against an Evangelical Coup in America's Military". He has also founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to promote the cause of ensuring that the military is not coopted by sectarian interests, but remains a meritocracy available to Americans of all beliefs.

Knowable? Who knew?

Wikipedia and the Speed of the Internet fortuitously combined with a sudden curiousity about just what the heck those link-looking things in the Blogger User Profiles were good for. [Don't end a sentence with a preposition -- RD. Fine, you figure out how to get rid of it -- HS]

What they do is return a list of blogger profiles having that string in that profile category.

What they are good for is demonstrating how easy the Internet makes it to obtain information that previously would have been almost, if not completely, unobtainable.

For example: I have several books in my user profile. Clicking on a title returns a list of others registered on Blogger listing that same title. Combining a little spreadsheet geekery with a half-hour, here are some statistics for a few representative titles:

Red Sky at Morning

Male: 42%, average age 27.6, percent reporting age, 50%
Female: 58%, 30.0, 40%
Average Age: 30
n = 43

The female percentage is higher than I would expect for a male coming of age story.

Master & Commander

Male: 82%, 29.0, 64%
Female: 18%, 20.2, 67%
Average Age: 29.0
n = 34

The M - F delta is not surprising, but the age delta is.

The Road to Serfdom (even those who have read the book should take a look at the link)

Male: 88%, 29.6, 53%
Female: 12%, 21.0, 20%
Average age: 29
n = 41

Same as for M & C, but the relative youth is surprising.


Male: 91%, 33.6, 68%
Female: 9%, 35.5, 50%
Average age: 34
n = 44

No surprises here for a plot and action driven book whose female characters make cardboard cutouts look fully three dimensional in comparison.

The Bridges of Madison County

Male: 26%, 42.6, 90%
Female: 74%, 30.0, 34%
Average age: 32
n = 39

No surprises here for a character driven book whose protagonist evokes tears for actions that would produce rage if the protagonist was male. [Have you read the book? -- RD. Nope -- HS. How do you know? -- RD. Amazon reviews are gospel. -- HS.]

There are DD readers whose numeracy and overall analytical skills would quickly point out many statistical shortcomings. However, rock solid information isn't really the point here, so much as the fact that the internet is so thoroughly suffused with data that previously unobtainable information is frequently to be had virtually for the asking. The real limits are becoming human rather than logistical: the habit of asking previously unanswerable questions is no easier to come by than finding what is hiding in plain sight.

Oh, and there is one other thing. Decades after the second wave of the women's movement, you would expect books to be more gender-neutral.

Well, yes you would, if men and women were, in fact, gender neutral. It is now very easy to investigate the quality of that surmise, in case its glassy eyed nonsense isn't intuitively obvious to even the casual observer.

Does the internet provide a leg up for sense over nonsense?

Round and round and round we go

Australia fury at cleric comments

Australia's most senior Muslim cleric has prompted an uproar by saying that some women are attracting sexual assault by the way they dress.

Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali said women who did not wear a hijab (head dress) were like "uncovered meat".

But he has now apologised for any offence caused by his comments, The Australian newspaper reports.

Leading Muslim women condemned the comments and PM John Howard said the remarks were "appalling".

"The idea that women are to blame for rapes is preposterous," Mr Howard told reporters.

In a statement released on Thursday, Sheikh Hilali said he had been quoting another, unnamed, source and did not mean his words to condone rape.

"I unreservedly apologise to any woman who is offended by my comments. I had only intended to protect women's honour," the statement published in The Australian said.

“Women in our Australian society have the freedom and the right to dress as they choose. Whether a man endorses or not a particular form of dress, any form of harassment of women is unacceptable."

After all, why should it only be the Muslims who get the fun of working themselves up into a good lather?

More signs

When Bird swallows Bird in London Fields
When one Man’s face shieldeth another man’s Eye
When the Elephante to the Lion Yields
Then look Ye to thy Loins, for the Discombobulation is nigh.

Nostradamus, Signs of the Discombobulation 1522

Monday, October 23, 2006

Beaten by the French? Sack ray blur!

As Europe Grays, France has Baby Boom
While falling birthrates threaten to undermine economies and social stability across much of an aging Europe, French fertility rates are increasing. France now has the second-highest fertility rate in Europe -- 1.94 children born per woman, exceeded slightly by Ireland's rate of 1.99 ...

But the propensity of women here to have more babies has little to do with notions of French romance or the population's formerly strong religious ties to the Roman Catholic Church.

France heavily subsidizes children and families from pregnancy to young adulthood with liberal maternity leaves and part-time work laws for women. The government also covers some child-care costs of toddlers up to 3 years old and offers free child-care centers from age 3 to kindergarten, in addition to tax breaks and discounts on transportation, cultural events and shopping.

Meanwhile, in the allegedly fecund USA, the White non-Hispanic lifetime fertility is down to 1.8

BTW, for an interesting, and apparently agenda free, overview of long term global demographic trends, click here.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


Walking into the hotel lobby this morning to take advantage of the complimentary breakfast, I vaguely noted, in the sense that I barely noticed what everyone else would find glaringly obvious, the place was full of people wearing black, and it was deathly quiet.

Later, immersed in the paper, and wrestling with one of those muffins that lies somewhere near the roots of our obesity epidemic, the otherwise funereal stillness was punctated by laughter. More quiet. More laughter. Then a more protracted expanse of quiet, followed by even more laughter.

Which, when the rest of the obvious finally hit home, is what you get when a room full of deaf people are signing jokes. Perhaps even at my expense, intolerantly poking fun the deafness impaired.

Shortly thereafter, one of the men decided to engage me in some conversation. At first I was a bit discomfited, and not only because I had to drag myself away from the paper.

Conversation? With actual strangers? That seems a bit, well, extreme.

Reasonably quickly, though, I gathered he was probably practicing his spoken English, much as an eager foreigner might want to practice his second language skills.

So, and I'm sure this comes as no surprise to anyone, I did what all Americans do: I replied slowly and loudly. Only, since volume would be entirely wasted here, I substituted exaggerated lip movements. I probably looked like one of those carnival gold fish three days after it gets home, and about nine hours before it is floating belly up in the loo.

After answering his opening questions, I gamely held up my end of the conversation, asking "So, what brings you to this neck of the woods?"

"Oh, we are a choir."

Thick as a Brick

As Halloween costumes for women become sexier, is it about freedom or exploitation?

In her thigh-highs and ruby miniskirt, Little Red Riding Hood does not appear to be en route to her grandmother's house. And Goldilocks, in a snug bodice and platform heels, gives the impression she has been sleeping in everyone's bed. There is a witch wearing little more than a Laker Girl uniform, a fairy who appears to shop at Victoria's Secret and a cowgirl with a skirt the size of a tea towel.

Anyone who has watched the evolution of women's Halloween costumes in the last several years will not be surprised that these images -- culled from the Web sites of some of the largest Halloween costume retailers -- are more strip club than storybook. Or that these and other costumes of questionable taste will be barely covering thousands of women who consider them escapist, harmless fun on Halloween.

Cue the tone (and reality) deaf feminist theorist:
[The] abundance of risque costumes that will be shrink-wrapped around legions of women come Oct. 31 prompts a larger question: Why have so many girls grown up to trade in Wonder Woman costumes for little more than Wonderbras?

"Decades after the second wave of the women's movement, you would expect more of a gender-neutral range of costumes," said Adie Nelson, author of "The Pink Dragon Is Female: Halloween Costumes and Gender Markers," an analysis of 469 children's costumes and how they reinforce traditional gender messages that was published in The Psychology of Women Quarterly in 2000.

Of course. Right about the same time we would expect gender neutral aspirations, books, ad infinitum.

In answer to the question posed above, is it about freedom or exploitation?

The answer is yes. More completely, it is about women's freedom to exploit their power over men. Which no amount of pained discussion about "Gender Markers" will ever change.

By the way, as a free service of The Daily Duck, there are only 10 shopping days left until Halloween, and [the] two best-selling women's costumes are a low-cut skin-tight referee uniform and a pinup-girl-inspired prisoner outfit called Jail Bait.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Irony: The tribute Religion pays to Reason

Atheist gifts pontifical school in will
ROME (AP) - An Italian journalist and self-described atheist who died last month has left most of her books and notes to a pontifical university in Rome because of her admiration for Pope Benedict XVI, a school official said Saturday.

Oriana Fallaci had described the pontiff as an ally in her campaign to rally Christians in Europe against what she saw as a Muslim crusade against the West. As she battled breast cancer last year, she had a private audience with Benedict, who was elected only a few months earlier, at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.

In one of her final interviews, Fallaci told The Wall Street Journal: "I am an atheist, and if an atheist and a pope think the same things, there must be something true."


"God is the ultimate truth to which all reason naturally gravitates," the pontiff told an audience of students and faculty.

Religion, however, is not. How do we know?

Because Pope Benedict XVI said so.

Beautiful arrows of the mind

Stephen Barr thinks it is time to take down Richard Dawkin's view of the universe in this commentary on Dawkins in First Things. I'm replicating it here in its entirety because it is fairly short and concise and there are few sentences that don't add to Barr's argument.

A small price that I have paid for the privilege of writing book reviews for First Things is that I have ended up reading four of Richard Dawkins’ books. That is more than anyone should have to read, for though Dawkins writes extremely well, his repertoire of ideas is quite limited. Indeed, everything that Dawkins has to say about the world, aside from his popular expositions of science, could be explained to an intelligent person in a few minutes; it doesn’t take a whole book, let alone all the books he has written. Having nothing new to say, he has decided to say the old things with increasingly unrestrained boorishness. Surfeited as I am with Dawkins’ highly polished put-downs and elegant sneering at his intellectual foes, I am happy to be able to experience his latest book (The God Delusion) at second hand through the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s incisive review in the New Republic.

Nagel is not impressed by Dawkins’ “attempts at philosophy.” One of Dawkins’ pet arguments against God as an explanation of design in the world is that it leads to an infinite regress: “A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right.” As Nagel points out, this argument would only have force if theists conceived of God as a complicated brain rather than as an incorporeal being.

It is true that we have no experience of minds that are not associated with complicated brains. And from this fact materialists like Dawkins infer that mind is just a feature of matter that emerges when matter is organized in certain complex ways. As Nagel notes, this inference is also encouraged by the great explanatory success of the physical sciences:

This reductionist dream is nourished by the extraordinary success of the physical sciences in our time, not least in their recent application to the understanding of life through molecular biology. It is natural to try to take any successful intellectual method as far as it will go. Yet the impulse to find an explanation of everything in physics has over the last fifty years gotten out of control. The concepts of physical science provide a very special, and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us. It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What remains is the mathematically describable order of things and events in space and time.

Nagel is clearly correct about this. Physics is ultimately about quantities—quantities that are calculated through equations or quantities that are measured with instruments. However, from matter in motion through space and time, and from the equations that describe it, such things as consciousness and sensory experience cannot arise. So, as Nagel says, the project of “physicalist reductionism” is “doomed.”

It may be that minds of the sort we encounter in living organisms arise as a consequence of the activities of complex physical structures. However, that “consequence” cannot be one that is physically explicable, in the sense that it follows logically from the mathematical laws of physics. There must be other kinds of explanations in the world than the kinds theoretical physicists are able to give. As Nagel puts it,

We have more than one form of understanding. Different forms of understanding are needed for different kinds of subject matter. The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal.

Dawkins regards belief in God as a “delusion.” In my judgment, physicalist reductionism such as his is not a delusion but an illusion caused by a trick of perspective. If one’s knowledge of nature remains at the rather superficial level provided by “natural history,” one can easily get the impression that everything is built (or builds itself) from the bottom up; in other words, that the most basic level of reality is the ontologically simplest and most trivial, and that everything emerges somehow out of that. For example, we have learned that swirling clouds of gas and dust gradually formed themselves into galaxies, stars, planetary systems, and other orderly structures. On those planets there was some primordial soup or ooze or slime, the atoms of which combined into larger and larger molecules and finally into self-replicating ones. Simpler organisms evolved into more complex ones, and eventually sensation and thought made their appearance. It may seem that science is telling us that the arrow always goes from lower to higher, from simpler to more sophisticated, from chaos to order, from matter to form, from body to mind—mind only emerging at the very end.

However, the deeper understanding provided by the more fundamental branches of science presents us with a very different picture. That order which appeared to “arise spontaneously” from chaos or slime did no such thing. It arose from profound principles of order that were there from the very beginning. The wonderful structure of the solar system emerged because the dust and gas from which it formed obeyed the deep and beautiful laws discovered by Newton. Those laws in turn flow from the deeper and more beautiful laws of General Relativity discovered by Einstein. The slime from which life arose was made of atoms that had all the structure and intricacy and potentiality that chemists devote their lives to studying. Those laws of chemistry are themselves the consequence of the beautifully elaborate laws of electromagnetism and quantum mechanics, which in their turn come from the even more profound structures studied in “quantum field theory.”

As one moves deeper into nature—to levels about which the natural historian and zoologist can tell us nothing—one encounters not less and less form but increasingly magnificent mathematical structures, structures so profound that even the greatest mathematicians are having difficulty understanding them. This is what Pope Benedict was referring to in his Regensburg lecture when he spoke of “the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, . . . the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature.” It is what the great mathematician Hermann Weyl meant when he said, “[I]n our knowledge of physical nature we have penetrated so far that we can obtain a vision of the flawless harmony which is in conformity with sublime reason.” It is what the great astrophysicist James Jeans meant when he said, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.”

At the foundations of the natural world, we do not find merely slime or dust or some dull insensate stuff. We find ideas of sublime beauty. Dawkins looks at mind and sees atoms in motion. Physicists look at those atoms, and deep below those atoms, and see—or, at least, some of them have seen—the products of “sublime reason,” “a great thought,” a Mind.

In other words, in nature we see a different arrow: It moves from Mind to ideas and forms, and from ideas and forms to matter. In the beginning was the Logos, St. John tells us, and the Logos was God.

This convinces me all the more that religion is an aesthetic critique on existence. Note the words Barr uses to describe the reductionist, bottom up materialist explanation of existence: "rather superficial level provided by 'natural history'", "ontologically simplest and most trivial", " primordial soup or ooze or slime". But when he is describing the nonreductionist, Platonic explanation involving mind, Logos and God, he uses phrases like "profound principles of order", "wonderful structure", "deep and beautiful laws discovered by Newton", "deeper and more beautiful laws of General Relativity discovered by Einstein", "beautifully elaborate laws of electromagnetism and quantum mechanics", "even more profound structures studied in 'quantum field theory'", "magnificent mathematical structures", " flawless harmony which is in conformity with sublime reason".

This poses the question of whether philosophy should be about explaining the universe or painting a pleasing portrait of it. Is philosophy an investigative reporter trying to uncover the truth about exstence or a publicist trying to portray it in the best possible light? These arguments from aesthetics are the most unconvincing to me. Aesthetic judgments are by their very nature subjective, and really tell you little more than what it is that you find beautiful. In what way are Newton's laws of motion or Einstein's theories of Relativity "beautiful"? What is so magnificent about mathematical structures? Only a science geek will find these things beautiful.

Churchmen were offended by Galileo's discoveries of mountains on the Moon, because it upset their aesthetic vision of God, whom they saw as creating celestial spheres of precise geometrical perfection. Ideas of beauty are too idiosyncratic and personal to offer any useful guidance for determining the truth. So why do serious people continue to invoke the "beauty" argument when trying to understand existence?

It is because most people don't want to know the Truth, ie. the universe as it really is. They want to hold a pleasing truth in their mind.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Even the Romulans will have to worry

Just in case the Chinese and Russians were not already sufficiently flummoxed by the task of countering US military superiority, never mind adding to the concern Islamofascists should have that Allah is willing alright, but horribly misguided, there is this:

WASHINGTON - A team of American and British researchers has made a Cloak of Invisibility. Well, OK, it's not perfect. Yet. But it's a start, and it did a pretty good job of hiding a copper cylinder.


If you can hide something from microwaves, you can hide it from radar, a possibility that will fascinate the military.

Cloaking differs from stealth technology, which doesn't make an aircraft invisible but reduces the cross-section available to radar, making it hard to track. Cloaking simply passes the radar or other waves around the object as if it weren't there, like water flowing around a smooth rock in a stream.

But wait, there's more!

The new work points the way for an improved version that could hide people and objects from visible light.

Never mind military applications, obvious uses, such as hiding dirty cars from neighbors and redlight cameras, shows the commercial potential is boundless.

Bearded Godkiller paradigm refuses to shift

From the BBC:

The complete works of one of history's greatest scientists, Charles Darwin, are being published online.

The project run by Cambridge University has digitised some 50,000 pages of text and 40,000 images of original publications - all of it searchable.

Surfers with MP3 players can even access downloadable audio files.

The resource is aimed at serious scholars, but can be used by anyone with an interest in Darwin and his theory on the evolution of life.

"The idea is to make these important works as accessible as possible; some people can only get at Darwin that way," said Dr John van Wyhe, the project's director.

...Bible-bashing bloggers express disappointment, but welcome fresh quote-mining opportunities.

Monday, October 16, 2006

300 * 10^6

Tomorrow some baby, probably in the Southwest US, and with a better than even chance of being Hispanic, will become the United States' 300 millionth living person.

When I was born, 1955, my arrival brought the total to exactly 165 millionish. That's quite the growth curve, although like all wealthy countries, it has become much less positive. That comfort and fecundity are seemingly at odds is a secular phenomena.

Unlike other wealthy countries though, the growth curve is still positive; even excluding immigration it is not negative. Such robust growth is unique among rich countries. As America adds 100m people over the next four decades, Japan and the EU are expected to lose almost 15m.
American women today can expect to have an average of 2.1 children. That is the number needed to keep a population stable, so observers sometimes take it as a given and say that America's population growth is entirely due to immigration. This obscures the point: for every big advanced country besides America and Israel, the alternative to “replacement rate” fertility is a baby bust.

The fertility rate in the EU is 1.47—well below replacement. By 2010, deaths there are expected to start outnumbering births, so from that point immigration will account for more than all its growth. And that average hides countries that have seen an astonishing collapse in the willingness of their citizens to breed. The fertility rate in Italy and Spain is 1.28, which, without immigration, would cause the number of Spaniards and Italians to halve in 42 years.

Which raises the question: What makes the US, in comparison to the rest of West, so fertile?

Religion plays a role ... Americans are more devout than Europeans ... and their faith colours their worldview. Don Iloff, a spokesman for Lakewood Church, agrees. Faith begets hope, he says, and if you have hope for the future, you are more likely to want to bring children into the world.

Fine. But why are all those readers of the Left Behind series having any children at all?

While some are inclined to echo this self congratulation and simplistic demonization, perhaps the answer is a little more involved, and the evidence more persuasive:

[Population experts] at the University of North Carolina cite several other possible factors. Birth rates are lower in more patriarchal rich countries, such as Japan and Italy, than in places where the sexes are more equal, such as America and Scandinavia. Perhaps the knowledge that Dad will help with the housework makes women more willing to have children.

America's wide open spaces also make child-rearing more attractive. Bringing up a large family in a tiny Japanese apartment is a struggle, even if you can fold away your bed during the day. The world's lowest fertility rates are in super-crowded Hong Kong (0.95), Macau (1.02) and Singapore (1.06). In America the average family-home has doubled in size in the past half-century, from 1,000 square feet (93 square metres) in 1950 to 2,100 square feet in 2001.

Those experts might also have added that American's are probably paying a slightly smaller proportion of their after-tax income to buy that larger house, too.

If I were to become HDWIC, I'd keep the tax rates low, the government's intrusion into the economy light, and leave religion alone to take care of itself.

Seems to have worked pretty well so far.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

This Just In

Harry Eagar Ignores God's "Don't make Me come down there!"

4:00 EST (Approx) Magnitude 6.6 earthquake follows flooding rain. Locusts reported to be en route.

Following in the Duck's webprints

Charles Krauthammer's piece in today's Washington Post echoes an idea that I stated in May regarding a posture to take with rogue nuclear states like North Korea.

Terrorism has since grown in popularity, ambition and menace. Its practitioners are in the market for nuclear weapons. North Korea has little else to sell.

Hence Bush's attempt to codify a second form of deterrence: "The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action."

A good first draft, but it could use some Kennedyesque clarity. The phrase "fully accountable" does not exactly instill fear, as it has been used promiscuously by several administrations in warnings to both terrorists and rogue states -- after which we did absolutely nothing. A better formulation would be the following:

Given the fact that there is no other nuclear power so recklessly in violation of its nuclear obligations, it shall be the policy of this nation to regard any detonation of a nuclear explosive on the United States or its allies as an attack by North Korea on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon North Korea.

This is how you keep Kim Jong Il from proliferating. Make him understand that his survival would be hostage to the actions of whatever terrorist group he sold his weapons to. Any terrorist detonation would be assumed to have his address on it. The United States would then return postage. Automaticity of this kind concentrates the mind.

Compare this to my statement from "Son of MAD":
I think that the US should stay engaged with the UN and the IAEA to continue to press non-nuclear states to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But on the side, strictly as a US initiative, we tell nations that will not cooperate the following: non-cooperating states go on the "list". When you are on the "list", all potential nuclear development sites in your country are targeted by US ballistic nuclear missiles. If we do not have good intelligence on where your sites are, we will overcompensate by increasing the number of potential sites we target. These are not tactical nukes, mind you, but strategic.

Now, in the event that the US or any nation that it has diplomatic relations with is hit by a nuclear explosion, and the source of that weapon is not immediately identified, ie. it was a suitcase nuke and not delivered by missile from an identified country, then every nation that is currently on the "list" will be hit with overwhelming nuclear retaliation.

I am thinking of revising the Daily Duck's motto to "If it quacks like the truth, you read it on the daily Duck first."

Friday, October 13, 2006

Win a Few ...

Having recently treated myself to XM radio (just months before changing jobs and going from driving 40 hours/month to 4), I was able to experience first hand Air America's incisive analysis and clear, coherent, exposition of liberal ideas and principles.

Whoever said nature abhors a vacuum has some serious 'splaining to do.

As a consequence of my first hand experience, this comes as precisely no surprise:

Air America Radio Files for Chapter 11
By SETH SUTEL, AP Business Writer

NEW YORK - Air America Radio, the liberal talk and news radio network that features the comedian Al Franken, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, a network official told The Associated Press.

The network had denied rumors just a month ago that it would file for bankruptcy protection. On Friday, Air America spokeswoman Jaime Horn told the AP that the filing became necessary only recently after negotiations with a creditor from the privately held company's early days broke down.


In addition to Franken, the network also features shows from liberal talk show host Randi Rhodes [whose voice has "first wife" stamped all over it - HS] and syndicates shows from Jerry Springer and Portland, Ore.-based talk show host Thom Hartmann.

According to documents filed with U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, Air America owes Franken $360,750 and $9.8 million to RealNetworks Inc. CEO Robert Glaser, who owns 36.7 percent of the company and had previously served as its chairman.


Air America also said Friday it had named Scott Elberg as its new CEO. Elberg, who had worked at WKTU and also was a former general manager of the radio station WLIB in New York, has been with the network since May 2005.

The filing and executive shuffle marked the latest turbulence at the liberal talk radio network, which went on the air two years ago. This April, Danny Goldberg stepped down as CEO and was replaced by an interim chief executive from a management consulting firm.

"Nobody likes filing for bankruptcy," Elberg said in a statement. "However, this move will enable us to concentrate on informing and entertaining our audience during the coming months."

Air America has struggled financially since its inception. Documents filed with the bankruptcy court show that the company lost $9.1 million in 2004, $19.6 million in 2005 and $13.1 million so far in 2006.

I know it is unbecoming to gloat, so I shall simply note that the market has spoken.

And try to keep the laughter down to a roar that won't quite set off car alarms.

... Lose a Few

The relentless pursuit to purge ethnic, particularly Indigeneous American, references from sports team logos has reached a new height of eye-goggling stupidity.

My wife, a W&M alum, received this letter several days ago:

Dear Fellow Members of the William & Mary Community:

I write concerning the National Collegiate Athletic Association's dispute with the College over our nickname and logo.

During the past several months, the NCAA has reviewed William & Mary's athletic insignia [scroll halfway down, but be sure no women, children, or horses are around] to determine whether they constitute a violation of Association standards. On the more important front, the Committee concluded that the College's use of the term "Tribe" reflects our community's sense of shared commitment and common purpose. Accordingly, it will remain our nickname. The presence of two feathers on the logo, though, was ruled potentially "hostile and abusive." We appealed that determination. The decision was sustained and has become final. We must now decide whether to institute legal action against the NCAA or begin the process of altering our logo.

William and Mary's response starts out bravely:

I am compelled to say, at the outset, how powerfully ironic it is for the College of William & Mary to face sanction for athletic transgression at the hands of the NCAA. The Association has applied its mascot standards in ways so patently inconsistent and arbitrary as to demean [by which he must mean heaping stupidity upon idiocy] the entire undertaking. Beyond this, William & Mary is widely acknowledged to be a principal exemplar of the NCAA's purported, if unrealized, ideals.

[Insert laudatory W&M athletic program academic statistics here] Meanwhile, across the country, in the face of massive academic underperformance, embarrassing misbehaviors on and off the field, and grotesque commercialization of intercollegiate athletics, the NCAA has proven hapless, or worse. It is galling that a university with such a consistent and compelling record of doing things the right way is threatened with punishment by an organization whose house, simply put, is not in order.

Then, just as I was expecting to read of a stirring call to donations, the W&M president suddenly goes gallic:

Still, in consultation with our Board of Visitors, I have determined that I am unwilling to sue the NCAA to further press our claims. There are three reasons for my decision. I'll explain them in order.

First, failing to adhere to the NCAA logo ruling would raise the substantial possibility that William & Mary athletes would be foreclosed from competing at the level their attainments and preparations merit.


Second, given the well-known challenges that this and other universities face -- in assuring access to world-class education, in supporting the research and teaching efforts of our faculties, and in financing and constructing twenty-first-century laboratories and facilities -- I am loath to divert further energies and resources to an expensive and perhaps multi-faceted lawsuit over an athletic logo.


Third, the College of William & Mary is one of the most remarkable universities in the world. It was a national treasure even before there was a nation to treasure it. I am unwilling to allow it to become the symbol and lodestar for a prolonged struggle over Native American imagery that will likely be miscast and misunderstood -- to the detriment of the institution.

Far be it from W&M to uphold that great American symbol and tradition: prominently displaying the single-digit salute to those who richly deserve it.

I know this decision will disappoint some among us. I am confident, however, that it is the correct course for the College. We are required to hold fast to our values whether the NCAA does so or not.

Except where holding fast to those values might be inconvenient.

In the weeks ahead, we will begin an inclusive process to consider options for an altered university logo. I invite you to participate. And I am immensely grateful for your efforts and energies on behalf of the College.

No doubt the inclusive process will exclude those two feathers from which we must forever avert our gaze.

Go Tribe. Hark upon the gale.

Unless the gale becomes, you know, stormy and wavy and inconvienient and stuff. Then by all means trim sales, turn tail, and run.


Gene R. Nichol
College of William & Mary

In almost all cases, sports team logos seek to earn by association some aspect -- typicall bravery, speed, or strength -- of the icon they display [The Mighty Ducks being the sole, glaring, perplexing, exception. No insult implied to our proprietor, so far as he knows.]. So except for the odd icon that serves more as caricature and may well deserve to be struck or altered, most sports icons are tributes to admirable qualities.

What, even with your eyes scrunched up real good, is hostile and abusive about a couple of feathers?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Nipping theocrats in the bud

We're told by our religious conservative friends that all this talk of "theocracy, theocracy, theocracy!" is nothing more than leftist, secularist hysteria, and that conservative Christians have no agenda to impose their religious beliefs on others through the political process. I largely agree that there is more sound than substance in much of the alarmism, and that the accusation of theocracy is really there to mask opposition to policy issues which, while they may be motivated by religious ideals on the part of conservatives, are not in and of themselves religious policies.

However, just because many people are crying wolf doesn't mean that there aren't wolf pups hiding in the underbrush. This looks like a good example of something that religious freedom advocates (which should translate to "all Americans") should not dismiss as hysteria. The Texas Republican party is making a candidate for a judicial seat's alleged atheism an issue in the campaign:
Religion has entered the political fray in a race for an appellate court bench in east Texas.

The Austin-based Republican Party of Texas played the religion card in a Sept. 21 online newsletter. As alleged in the newsletter, Texarkana solo E. Ben Franks, Democratic nominee for a seat on the 6th Court of Appeals, "is reported to be a professed atheist" and apparently believes the Bible is a "collection of myths.'"

But Franks says he has never professed to be an atheist and is not a member of any atheist organization. Franks says no one with the Republican Party ever asked him whether he professes to be an atheist. However, he says he's not surprised by the allegation.

"I'm not surprised at anything anybody says in politics anymore," Franks says.

Anthony Champagne, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, says he has watched judicial races in Texas and other parts of the country for 25 years and has never before seen a judicial candidate accused of being an atheist.

"I've never seen the religious issue pushed that hard," Champagne says.

Champagne says the last time that religion was raised in a significant political race in Texas was the 1960 presidential election, in which the fact that then-Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy was a Catholic became an issue.

"It was a very detrimental issue against Kennedy until he spoke in Houston to the Baptist ministry," Champagne says.

In his address to Southern Baptist leaders, Kennedy spoke out against religious intolerance and told the audience, "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish," The New York Times reported on Sept. 13, 1960.

The Republican Party notes in its recent newsletter that Article 16, §1(a) of the Texas Constitution prescribes the oath of office for all elected or appointed officials. The officeholder swears to faithfully execute the duties of the office and, to the best of his or her ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this state "so help me God."

"I can take the oath," Franks says.

However, the state Republican Party questions whether Franks will uphold the law, stating in the newsletter: "Should Franks be elected in November, one would have to conclude that he will hold true to his out of touch 'atheist' belief system and ignore the laws and Constitution of Texas."

What part of "no religious test" do these people not understand? It is the Republican Party of Texas that is incapable of upholding the laws and the Constitution, namely of the United States.

The thing about theocracy prevention is that you can never sound the "all clear" message.

If the Republicans do end up losing one or both houses of Congress this fall, one good result might be that some of these Constitutionally-ignorant Republican party Neanderthals get the message that "its the religious freedom, stupid!"

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Da Vinci Dilemma

Pope Benedict XVI's recent, notorious, speech at the University of Regensburg managed to achieve a range of outcomes. Some obvious, trivial even, others more difficult.

First the obvious: causing Islamist reaction so over the top as to make parody impossible. Dynamiting fish in a barrel is a Herculean task in comparison.

Of the more difficult tasks, he confronts head-on the amalgam of faith and reason, which, in turn, provides the springboard for asserting that even mere materialists have a stake in faith, and a reason to choose.

For much, if not all, that follows, I am indebted to Mr. Lee Harris's Socrates or Muhammed: Joseph Ratzinger on the destiny of reason.

Ordinarily, I would refer directly to the source document, for fear of unwittingly integrating a reviewer's biases or mistakes with the author's intent. In this case, though, I chose otherwise for two reasons. First, the real fear that my take on the Pope's literary stylings would require a great deal of time to introduce no end of my own mistakes. Second, and more important, Mr. Harris's article appears the model of learned, unbiased, and balanced explanation.

Putting aside the predictable reactions of Islamists, whose volatility exceeds, and whose self awareness does not, that of a pint jar of nitro glycerin in a hot August day, Pope Benedict's stated intent was to urge those relying upon reason to self-critically examine their own beliefs; clearly his expectation is that such an examination would not yield the naively anticipated answers.

The spirit that animates Benedict's address is not the spirit of Pius IX; it is the spirit of Socrates. Benedict is inviting all of us to ask ourselves, Do we really know what we are talking about when we talk about faith, reason, God, and community?

The Pope urging "... a return to Socratic doubt and self-critique?" As Monty Python would probably have noted: Now for Something Completely Different.

But why should Pope Benedict XVI feel the need at this moment in history to emphasize and highlight the role that Greek philosophical inquiry played in "the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe"? Christian Europe, after all, was a fusion of diverse elements: the Hebrew tradition, the experience of the early Christian community, the Roman genius for law, order, and hierarchy, the Germanic barbarians' love of freedom, among many others.

This description of Europe's sources, though, leaves out several factors of at least equal importance to those listed.

The breakdown of Roman law and order left just as great a mark as its existence. The result, a host of competing mini-states, the exact opposite of a monolith like China, forced Christianity to become what should be a near impossibility: a Baroque/Monarchic-Meritocratic belief system(1). Had the Roman empire broken into a small number of unitary states with the power of imposing widespread orthodoxy within their borders, the outcome would have been far, far, different.

Probably of equal importance is the English Channel: sufficient impediment to ensure England's independence, yet narrow enough to allow easy commerce. English balance of power politics from the 1500s on have been as instrumental as anything else in the formation of Europe, hence Western Civilization, yet it scarcely ever merits mention in the self laudatory citations of Christian apologists.

Be that as it may, Pope Benedict's acknowledgment of Greek philosophy's influence, the "inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history" is striking in its conclusions. Whether that amalgam is Divinely inspired or merely fortuitous, Lee Harris is on solid ground when he states "[i]t is a legacy that we in the West are all duty-bound to keep alive--yet it is a legacy that is under attack, both from those who do not share it, namely Islam, and from those who are its beneficiaries and do not understand it, namely, Western intellectuals."

It is here where Pope Benedict seems to go slightly astray:

Ratzinger, it must be stressed, has no trouble with the truths revealed by modern science. He welcomes them. He has no argument with Darwin or Einstein or Heisenberg. What disturbs him is the assumption that scientific reason is the only form of reason, and that whatever is not scientifically provable lies outside the universe of reason. According to Ratzinger, the results of this "modern self-limitation of reason" are twofold. First, "the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology, and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity." Second, "by its very nature [the scientific] method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question."

As an aside, I think it would do everyone a great deal of good to no longer use "science" and "reason" as if they are interchangeable terms. Science is impossible in the absence of reason, but using the term confuses what reason, and by contrast, faith do(2).

Like color, the balance between Reason and Faith is not binary, but rather occupies a spectrum. Where the truth values of mutually exclusive statements are completely discernible, one is dealing in pure Reason; where they are impossible to distinguish, one is dealing in pure Faith. If for no other reason than the inscrutability of the future, most of us, most of the time, deal in the broad middle ground comprised of various proportions of both Faith and Reason.

It also seems Pope Benedict has failed to note that one way of proving the existence of something is to assume that thing does not exist, then force a contradiction. Reason does not exclude the question of God, in the sense of asserting God does not exist, but rather proceeds as if God has no hand in the material world. To make such an unnecessary assumption would stop Reason dead in its tracks.

Unnecessary? If God does have a discernible hand in the material world so that we may discern between mutually exclusive statements about God's Hand, then the contradiction is forced, just as is the case in a similar approach to mathematical proofs. So, contrary to Pope Benedict's assertion, Reason cannot disprove the existence of God, but it can (though it hasn't yet) prove God's existence.

In any event, as a materialist, I am aware of all the difficulties Reason presents for the faithful, yet manage to avoid laying awake nights worrying about it.

Pope Benedict, however, thinks I should lose some sleep:

Modern reason argues that questions of ethics, of religion, and of God are outside its compass. Because there is no scientific method by which such questions can be answered, modern reason cannot concern itself with them, nor should it try to. From the point of view of modern reason, all religious faiths are equally irrational, all systems of ethics equally unverifiable, all concepts of God equally beyond rational criticism. But if this is the case, then what can modern reason say when it is confronted by a God who commands that his followers should use violence and even the threat of death in order to convert unbelievers?

If modern reason cannot concern itself with the question of God, then it cannot argue that a God who commands jihad is better or worse than a God who commands us not to use violence to impose our religious views on others. To the modern atheist, both Gods are equally figments of the imagination, in which case it would be ludicrous to discuss their relative merits. The proponent of modern reason, therefore, could not possibly think of participating in a dialogue on whether Christianity or Islam is the more reasonable religion, since, for him, the very notion of a "reasonable religion" is a contradiction in terms.

He is half right, in the sense that, for an atheist, deciding among competing Gods is a fool's errand.

However, within the space of a few words, he poses a false dichotomy, and makes a serious category error.

True, for atheists to discuss the relative merits between competing Gods is a contradiction in terms; but just as true, putting proponents of various religions in a room to discuss the merits of their competing Gods is a recipe for endless cacophony. One conversation would never start, the other would never get anywhere.

Surprisingly, he fails to make the distinction between debating God and religion. No matter what one might think of the existence, or preferences, of God, even the most adamant materialist must acknowledge that religions exist, that they are different, and those differences have material consequences which are certainly within the realm of discussion. This mistake is understandable, though, as many proponents of reason fall into this same pit of their own making: regardless of one's opinion of its objective truth, religious belief is part and parcel of human existence, and can no more be wished away than can gravity.

Here is where Pope Benedict throws, unintentionally or otherwise, gasoline onto the fire:

by calling his educated listeners' attention to a "dialogue--carried on--perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara--by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both." In particular, Ratzinger focuses on a passage in the dialogue where the emperor "addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness" on the "central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: 'Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'

And where, by the way, the Mr. Harris becomes singularly disingenuous:

Ratzinger's daring use of this provocative quotation was not designed to inflame Muslims. He was using the emperor's question in order to offer a profound challenge to modern reason from within. Can modern reason really stand on the sidelines of a clash between a religion that commands jihad and a religion that forbids violent conversion?

The question answers itself just as surely as Muslims will thereby promptly demonstrate that Islam is nearly beyond parody. The Q'uran and Haddith are both repositories of violent universalist intent eclipsing even Mein Kampf; we do ourselves no favors by failing to note that comparison.

Mr. Harris points out that reason's solution is to leave problems of ethics and religion to individuals, for "[a]ll such choices, from the perspective of modern reason, are equally leaps of faith, or simply matters of taste; hence all are equally irrational." In Pope Benedict's words:

[Reason asserts that questions of ethics and religion] have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science," . . . and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.

Here Pope Benedict assails Reason as it is applied, particularly in Europe. It is a source of continuing mystery why so many non-believers so completely fail to comprehend that applications of belief have material consequences which are amenable to critical analysis, no matter how "irrational" the core belief may be(3). The basis for ethical decisions may be beyond Reason, but the results most assuredly are not. As a materialist, it is not particularly pleasant to have it demonstrated so forcefully that so many fellow-thinkers are nothing more than heedless quislings.

Since it would be nigh on impossible to improve upon, or argue, Mr. Harris's exposition of Pope Benedict's message, I won't even try:

Modern reason, to be sure, cannot prove scientifically that a community of reasonable men is ethically superior to a community governed by violent men. But a critique of modern reason from within must recognize that a community of reasonable men is a necessary precondition of the very existence of modern reason. He who wills to preserve and maintain the achievements of modern reason must also will to live in a community made up of reasonable men who abstain from the use of violence to enforce their own values and ideas. Such a community is the a priori ethical foundation of modern reason. Thus, modern reason, despite its claim that it can give no scientific advice about ethics and religion, must recognize that its own existence and survival demand both an ethical postulate and a religious postulate. The ethical postulate is: Do whatever is possible to create a community of reasonable men who abstain from violence, and who prefer to use reason. The religious postulate is: If you are given a choice between religions, always prefer the religion that is most conducive to creating a community of reasonable men, even if you don't believe in it yourself.

Chicken, Egg? Egg, Chicken?

Pope Benedict then goes on to address the chicken and egg problem: how is it a community of reasonable men emerged without there being a community of reasonable men?

To collapse several paragraphs, Pope Benedict's preferred answer is:

modern scientific reason was the product of European cultures of reason, but these rare cultures of reason were themselves the outcome of a well-nigh miraculous convergence of traditions to which Ratzinger has called our attention as constituting the foundation of Europe: the world-historical encounter between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry, "with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage." Thus, for Herder, modern scientific and critical reason, if it looks scientifically and critically at itself, will be forced to recognize that it could never have come into existence had it not been for the "providential," or perhaps merely serendipitous, convergence of these three great traditions. Modern reason is a cultural phenomenon like any other: It did not drop down one fine day out of the clouds. It involved no special creation. Rather, it evolved uniquely out of the fusion of cultural traditions known as Christendom.

As I noted above, this conclusion, while not entirely wrong, is too self congratulatory. What's more, it ignores a great deal of history. More accurately, the complete absence of central authority following the collapse of the Roman Empire in Europe created a competitive environment within which Reason provided a decided advantage. The credit Christianity may claim is that it is not as wholly antagonistic to Reason as other religions.

But whether one credits Christianity for Reason, or merely views Christianity as being an insufficient impediment, any reasonable reading of history must conclude that under the aegis of any other religion, Reason would have been retarded at best, or stillborn at worst.

Wherever one places the balance point, though, one must note

... that Socrates' mission was to challenge and critique the myths of the Greek gods that prevailed in his day. These gods were imagined as behaving not only capriciously, but often wickedly and brutally. The famous line from King Lear sums up this view: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods--they kill us for their sport." But, asked Socrates, were such gods worthy of being worshiped by reasonable men, or by free men? True, we may feel abject terror before them; but should we have reverence for them simply because they have the power to injure us? In The Euthyphro, Socrates quotes a Greek poet, Stasinus, who, speaking of Zeus, says "where fear is, there also is reverence," but only to disagree with the poet's concept of God. "It does not seem to me true that where fear is, there also is reverence; for many who fear diseases and poverty and other such things seem to me to fear, but not to reverence at all these things which they fear." For Socrates, it was obvious that good was not whatever God capriciously chose to do; the good was what God was compelled by his very nature to do.

In this regard, Judeo-Christianity is markedly different from Islam, and, indeed, just about any other religion one might care to mention. God, in this conception, is by definition, not omnipotent: God is self-limited.

This is where Emperor Manual II Paleologus's debate is pivotal:

How can a god who commands conversion by the sword be the same god as the emperor's god--a god who wished to gain converts only through the use of words and reason? If Allah is happy to accept converts who are trembling in fear for their lives, with a sword hovering over their necks, then he may well be a god worth fearing, but not a god worth revering. He may represent an imaginary construction of god suitable to slaves, but he will not be an image of god worthy of being worshiped by a Socrates--or by any reasonable man.

Or, one might add, by any reasonable Muslim.

Here is where the Da Vinci dilemma rears its ugly head.

Religious criticism of The Da Vinci Code was self defeating where it wasn't tepid. Arguments of questionable provenance, historical inaccuracy and dodgy scholarship rebounds just as forcefully on conventional belief as it impacts Mr. Brown's book.

In other words, Christians are in no position to criticize Islam, for any faith based critique wounds the critic just as much as the criticized. There simply is no Faith based argument against a Faith based argument. The tie breaker is Reason, and is posed by this question: which consequences do you prefer, those attending Christianity, or those attending Islam?

The only effective repudiation of Islam's universalist notion of submission is through Reason, and it is precisely here where the prime beneficiaries of Reason have been wholly inadequate to the task: the are incapable of employing, and very likely understanding, that which they profess.

Christianity needs Reason; Reason needs Christianity.

That Pope Benedict XVI understands this, and so few materialists do, is a testimony to his intellect, and a sorry reflection upon theirs.


(1) Belief systems may be characterized by the number and complexity of their entering arguments (Spartan, Baroque), and the manner in which they support their conclusions (Monarchic, that is, argument from authority; Meritocratic). In theory, four combinations are possible; but as a practical matter, all but Spartan/Meritocratic and Baroque/Monarchic are unstable over time. Well, almost all. Christianity seems to have managed the trick of being both Monarchic and Meritocratic; see, for example, interest on loans.

(2) All conscious thoughts are, in essence, statements, the construct of which are independent of the thought's basis; consequently, both Reason and Faith are attributes which apply in various proportions to all such statements.

(3) Perhaps the mystery is not such an enigma. As Larry Arnhart continually demonstrates, thoroughly applying Reason inexorably leads to conclusions scarcely distinguishable from modern Christianity. I suspect reaction formation is what is really at work here.

Friday, October 06, 2006

While you were reading Mark Foley's IM's

Two very distrurbing stories broke in the last few weeks with shockingly little coverage by any of the major news outlets. Fist is the news that the government of Pakistan has signed a peace treaty with the Taliban dominated tribal militias controlling the region of Waziristan. A Google search on Waziristan turned up very few news articles, and none by a major western news organization in the first four pages of results. Notably most of the commentary on the accord were from blogs. This article by Dawn, an English language Pakistani newspaper, gives the most complete account that I have been able to find:

Waziristan accord signed

By Pazir Gul

MIRAMSHAH, Sept 5: Militants in the restive North Waziristan tribal region on Tuesday signed a peace agreement, pledging to halt cross-border movement and stop attacks on government installations and security forces.

“There shall be no cross-border movement for militant activity in neighbouring Afghanistan,” read a clause of the three-page agreement signed by seven militants on behalf of the Taliban shura (advisory council).

On its part, the government pledged not to undertake any ground or air operation against the militants and resolve the issue through local customs and traditions.

Political Agent of North Waziristan Dr Fakhr-i-Alam signed the agreement on behalf of the government. Maj-Gen Azhar Ali Shah oversaw the signing and later embraced the militants.

The peace deal brokered by a grand tribal jirga will come into force with the relocation of the army from the checkpoints in the region. Tribal Khasadar force and Levy will take over the checkposts.

Sources said that army had almost vacated all the checkpoints in the tribal region and moved to camps and Touchi Scout Fort in Miramshah.

The ceremony held in the football ground of the Government Degree College was witnessed by about 500 elders, parliamentarians and officials.

The agreement contains 16 clauses and four sub-clauses.

Militant commanders Maulana Gul Behadur and Maulvi Sadiq Noor did not attend the ceremony and their representatives signed the document on their behalf.

Maulvi Nek Zaman MNA read out the agreement after which the militants and military officials hugged each other and exchanged greetings. The venue was heavily guarded by armed Taliban and journalists were not allowed to shoot or film the event.

The agreement envisages that the foreigners living in North Waziristan will have to leave Pakistan but those who cannot leave will be allowed to live peacefully, respecting the law of the land and the agreement.

Both parties (army and militants) will return each other’s weapons, vehicles and communication tools seized during various operations.

It said that tribal elders, Mujahideen and Utmanzai tribe would ensure that no-one attacked law-enforcement personnel and state property.

“There will be no target killing and no parallel administration in the agency. The writ of the state will prevail in the area”, the agreement said.

It said that militants would not enter the settled districts adjacent to the agency.

The agreement said that the government would release prisoners held in military action and would not arrest them again.

Tribesmen’s ‘incentives’ would be restored, it said and bound the administration to resolve disputes in accordance with the local customs and traditions.

It said the government would pay compensation for the loss of life and property of innocent tribesmen during the recent operation. There will be no ban on display of arms. However, tribesmen will not carry heavy weapons.

A 10-member committee — comprising elders, members of political administration and Ulema — has been formed to monitor progress on the agreement and to ensure its implementation.

Governor Ali Mohammad Aurakzai has welcomed the peace agreement as ‘unprecedented in tribal history’ and credited the inter-tribal jirga with amicably resolving a complicated issue within a few weeks.

A spokesman of the militants said that the jirga had assured them that the government would pay them Rs10 million if it failed to hand over the weapons and vehicles it had seized during various military operations.

Abdullah Farhad, in a call from an undisclosed location, said that there were no foreign militants in the region and if there were any, the government should have provided evidence of their presence.

This essentially means that the Taliban have managed to set up a new state within a state, which can not bode well for our efforts to combat Al-Quaeda. What we are seeing here, and in Somalia are the rise of terrorist parasite states. This can not be seen as anything other than a concession of defeat by the Musharraf government. The deafening silence coming from the news media as well as the Bush administration is nothing short of bewildering and disturbing. If you're keeping score at home, this is a touchdown for the bad guys.

The second story to not gain wide coverage was the killing of a provision of the Port Security Act, passed by Congress on Saturday, that would have placed hiring restrictions on dock workers convicted of serious crimes. John Fund of the Wall Street Journal broke the story on Monday:
Congress is patting itself on the back for passing the Port Security Act last Saturday. But the day before, a House-Senate conference committee stripped out a provision that would have barred serious felons from working in sensitive dock security jobs. Port security isn't just about checking the contents of cargo containers, it also means checking the background of the 400,000 workers on our docks.

U.S. harbors are filled with workers convicted of serious crimes. Just last year the Justice Department filed a RICO suit charging that the 65,000-member East Coast-based International Longshoremen's Association is a "vehicle for organized crime."

But the House-Senate conference drastically watered down a Senate-passed requirement that aligned the standards for hiring dock workers with those used at airports and nuclear plants. The statute still bans workers who have been convicted of treason, espionage and terror-related offenses--a mere handful at most. But a seven-year time-out period on hiring those who've committed crimes such as murder, bribery, identity fraud and the illegal use of firearms was dropped in the dead of night at the behest of unions fearful that too many of their members could lose their jobs.

"The security stakes are too high to trust serious felons who could be manipulated or bribed by people trying to smuggle a nuclear device or chemical weapon into our ports," says Sen. Jim DeMint, sponsor of the dropped provision. Security analysts echo his fears. They say terrorists working with truck drivers could plant a bomb aboard a cruise ship or pack a 40-foot cargo container with explosives. Stephen Flynn, a former U.S. Customs official now with the Council on Foreign Relations, told ABC News that "if a bomb went off in a seaport, we would likely see a closing of the seaports, bringing the global trade system to a halt and potentially putting our economy into recession."

Officials at several ports echo these concerns. "There is a gaping hole in port security," Byron Miller of the Charleston, S.C., port, the nation's sixth largest, told me. "Right now, by law we cannot do background checks on 8,000 people who work at this port." He noted that a state bill to provide for background checks was killed last year after unions applied a full-court press against it.

The problem is massive. The Department of Homeland Security recently investigated the ports of New York and New Jersey and found that of 9,000 truckers checked, nearly half had criminal records. They included murderers, drug dealers, arsonists and members of the deadly MS-13 gang. It concluded that these security gaps represent "vulnerabilities that could be capitalized by terrorist organizations." A dock worker who has been convicted of smuggling drugs is a potential danger. "Instead of bringing in 50 kilograms of heroin, what would stop them from bringing in five kilograms of plutonium?" asks Joseph King, a former Customs Service agent who now teaches criminal justice at New York University
That such a political deal is possible can be seen by the clout of the unions who were able to gut the felon ban in the House-Senate conference committee. Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, assured colleagues he would fight for the ban in conference but in reality fought to have it weakened. His staff even called Port of Charleston officials and told them their port would be shut down if the DeMint amendment became law. Mr. Miller can't confirm the call was made, but other port officials remember it. Mr. Inouye's office declined to respond to my questions about his role other than to send me an e-mail claiming the senator "supported the [DeMint] provision."

Other legislators were also involved in smothering the DeMint provision. The staffs of three members of Congress told me that Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, a close friend of Mr. Inouye, also fought the measure, although his staff declined to publicly discuss the senator's position on the bill. New York's Rep. Peter King, the pro-union Republican who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, told the House that the list of proposed criminal offenses "includes vague and overly broad crimes" and supported the move "to narrow and limit the list." Mississippi's Rep. Bennie Thompson, the ranking Democrat on Homeland Security, told colleagues that "we should not play judge and jury" and opposed even the final statutory ban on felons convicted of treason and terror-related crimes. Steve Stallone, the communications director for the West Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union, told the Daily Labor Report that barring felons from jobs at secure dock facilities would be "double jeopardy" and could push them back into crime to make a living.

As to why the media is talking about Mark Foley and not these two stories is a question that must boggle the mind of any serious observer of the world. Lenin once observed that capitalists would sell the rope by which they would be hanged. You have to believe that this includes politicians as well. I propose a corollary to Lenin's maxim, for newsmen: a newsman will miss the story of his own hanging because he was too busy investigating whether the rope was manufactured by sweatshop labor.

OK, that isn't so hot. Can anyone write a better corollary?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

More disasters of secular modern rationalism

From The (London) Times:

Children never had it so good
By Rosemary Bennett
The new generation of 'super parents' is providing the best possible start in life

The Seventies were an idyllic time for family life, just one long round of happy family dinners, family walks and fun family games, while today’s children are a generation of latchkey kids growing up emotionally deprived and dysfunctional, right? Er . . . wrong, actually.

Far from being self-serving workaholics with no time for their children, modern parents spend four times as much time with them as the mothers and fathers of 30 years ago.

The have become a generation of super-parents who devote almost all their time away from work to their offspring, according to research. Typically parents today spend 99 minutes a day with children under 16, compared with just 25 minutes in 1975.

The research, by the Future Foundation think-tank, gives an upbeat assessment of modern childhood, with children’s views being taken into account in the household and parents aspiring to do a better job than their parents did.

As a result, children enjoy more “quality time” with their parents, who organise and take part in their sporting, cultural and social activities.

It contrasts with the bleak picture painted by other recent reports that have declared a “crisis in childhood” thanks to a “love deficit” between parents and children.

Last month the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said that he believed a generation of “infant adults” was growing up violent and dysfunctional because they were deprived of a caring childhood.

The Changing Face of Childhood, which combines survey evidence with sociological research, agrees that children enjoy far less independence than they did 30 years ago, as a result of anxious parents ferrying their children to school and after school activities. The average age at which children are allowed outside the home by themselves has gone up from seven to eight years old during the period, it found. But that is made up for by the “quality time” that children now enjoy with their parents.

Although the experience of childhood 30 years ago is often romanticised, the reality was different....

Come on everybody...Can I get a 'Hell'? Can I get a 'Handcart'?