Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Not that it's surprising but today Cuba was re-elected to United Nations Human Rights Commission. We walked out but I suspect we'll be back on short order. I still find it very depressing that most politicians would consider our withdrawal from the U.N. a bad idea. For some resources on the moral bankruptcy of the U.N. see The U.N. is Evil.

Friday, April 25, 2003

Joseph Farah of WorldNetDaily wrote an excellent article called "No to Democracy". It is unfortunately the dominant misconception of the last century (and continuing so far into this one) to equate freedom with democracy and to claim that we are living under a democratic system in the United States. If the Founding Fathers could hear this they would turn around in their graves. Here are some choice excerpts:

Why is it that so many Americans think democracy is the best form of government? Why is it that so many Americans believe we live in a democracy? Why is it that democracy, once regarded as a terrible form of government, is now elevated to the status of an ideal?

It must be the profound failure of the education system and media in America...
...our Constitution and Declaration of Independence and other founding documents never mention the word "democracy"...Democracy means the majority rules. That was never the intent of our founders. They believed in the rule of law, not the rule of men. They understood that because of the fallen state of man, he would inevitably vote himself into slavery and tyranny if provided the tools.

Since I am not a Christian, I wouldn't blame it on the "fallen state of man" (I would blame it on philosophy -- there is no so-called "fallen state of man", only ordinary men, their ideas and choices) but that's pretty much what we've done in numerous ways. Farah concludes:

It wasn't that long ago that most Americans understood these issues. In 1928, for example, the U.S. Army published training Manual 2000-25 for its officers. Here are some two definitions included in it:

"DEMOCRACY: A government of masses. Authority derived through mass meeting or any other kind of "direct" expression. Results in mobocracy. Attitude toward property is communistic – negating property rights. Attitude toward law is that the majority shall regulate, whether it be based upon deliberation or governed by passion, prejudice or impulse, without restraint or regard to consequences. Results in demagoguism, license, agitation, discontent, anarchy."

"REPUBLIC: Authority is derived through the election by the people of public officials best fitted to represent them. Attitude toward property is respect for laws and individual rights, and a sensible economic procedure. Attitude toward law is the administration of justice in accord with fixed principles and established evidence, with a strict regard for consequences. A great number of citizens and extent of territory may be brought within its compass. Avoids the dangerous extreme of either tyranny or mobocracy. Results in statesmanship, liberty, reason, justice, contentment, and progress."

Hear, hear!

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

On the other hand, I find myself in substantial agreement with John Derbyshire's column in the National Review.
On today's Dennis Prager show, Prager read from his weekly column. This week's column makes a very good point about people's talents in art not guaranteeing their having any wisdom in other fields such as politics. Prager wrote: "As a rule, over the last few centuries, artists have been more likely to be morally confused than members of almost any other profession (except academia). " This is certainly quite true, although I can think of a few examples from the field of science that would not imply much wisdom in that profession either, but then Prager did say "except academia." Of course, as usual what I find frustrating, is not Prager's main point, with which I agree but Prager's comment on why this is in fact the case, namely artists secularism. In fact Prager went on to say that he has hardly met any secular people that he concluded possessed wisdom. Apparently by its very nature secularism makes the presence of wisdom highly unlikely. He thought that of course occasionally there were very nice secular people and everybody knows there are many religious "jerks" but wisdom is generally absent among the secular.

First, it is unclear what Prager means by religious "jerks." Does he mean that these people would be wise if it weren't for the fact that they are bad? Why can't I as a secular person say that just as there are religious "jerks," there are secular "jerks" and yet at the same time there are numerous wise people among the secular? There are in fact numerous secular people with a great amount of wisdom. Wisdom is not some special mystic quality that only religious people possess. Two things are necessary for wisdom: Knowledge and thinking. Neither is the exclusive prerogative of either religion or secularism. Once again it is necessary to recall that secularism simply means: "indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). It does not say anything about what in fact one does not reject, is not indifferent to, or does not exclude. Ayn Rand, Sydney Hooke, Karl Marx and Jean Paul Sartre were secular, in fact, they were all atheists. But they didn't have much in common otherwise. Ayn Rand was an Objectivist with all that implies, Sidney Hooke was a Pragmatist, while at the same time being somewhat of a socialist but also an fervent anti-communist, Karl Marx was the father of Marxist Communism, Jean Paul Sartre was an Existentialist and in some moods a Marxist. (By the way, of the four, I would say the first two possessed some wisdom, the last two very little).

My basic point is really that goodness and wisdom are not special to religion at all. Religion is a set of beliefs, customs and instituitions. Over the millenia there have been a wide variety of religions and religious movements some with more wisdom and some with considerably less. It is not so much that the most wise periods were the least religious, but more importantly, the most wise periods were the most rational, whether most people were religious or secular. I believe religion cannot ultimately be as rational as a proper secular philosophy such as Objectivism but unfortunately most secular philosophies ever since Kant have been considerably more irrational than the mainstream religions. It is a common mistake to consider the 20th century as somehow illustrating the hazards of secularism. What it in fact demonstrates are the hazards of irrationalism, an irrationalism that is clearly making its influence felt on both religious and secular people of many varieties.

Prager often accuses people in the secular left of not having any good arguments because they are not exposed to any real criticism of their position. Prager certainly seems to have much experience debating people of the secular left. However, it does seem that he does not have much experience debating people of the secular right and thus he cannot take their views very seriously, much as he accuses that the left cannot take religious views very seriously.
The Stossel special was very good. It featured some of the better known names in what might be called the anti-addiction movement, such as Stanton Peele, Jeffrey Schaler, and Sally Satel. I think the program illustrated quite well that in the end unless we are actually insane, we still retain enough free will to change our condition and to stop self-destructive behavior. It is clear that the various biological phenomena usually associated with additictions such as withdrawal and brain changes are quite real. But this does not change the fact that the fundamental choice remains with the individual.

Monday, April 21, 2003

John Stossel on Addiction

John Stossel's specials on ABC have been a rare treat in the frequently rather dreary world of investigative reporting. Tonight's special on addiction promises to be quite good. From the preview page at ABC:
In Help Me, I Can't Help Myself, ABCNEWS' John Stossel reports on conflicting views about addiction and popular treatments and asks: is addiction a choice? The hour-long special airs MONDAY, APRIL 21, at 8 p.m. on ABC.
Cancer is a disease — you cannot "quit" cancer. Addiction is a choice. It can be difficult to quit, but people choose to do that every day.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

I haven't commented on Dennis Prager's show lately since he hasn't said anything new or particularly offensive to me or at least not anything that's offensive in new ways. It may need reminding that I mostly agree with Prager and it is usually only when he makes what I consider grossly illogical statements that I feel particularly compelled to set him straight. Today's show while discussing the meaning of Passover did include yet another offhand comment on the absurdity of a universe without God but then I have already commented on the flaws with that particular view last week on April 3.

While commenting on Passover Prager made some interesting points, some of which I agree with. Just to review, Passover tells the story of the Israelites exodus from Egypt where they had been slaves. Prager makes the point that in addition to being physically freed Israelites had to free themselves from the ideas of Egypt. Egypt's culture was focused on death as evidenced by the pyramids, which while architecturally impressive structures, were giant tombs, as well as the so-called Egyptian Book of the Dead. Prager argues that on the other hand, the Torah or teaching that God provided the Israelites is focused on life as evidenced by the kosher rules, including prohibition on drinking any blood (hence the large quantities of salt in kosher meats to draw the blood out before eating) and the prohibition of combining milk and meat (supposedly to avoid mixing a symbol of life -- milk -- with a symbol of death -- dead flesh). In addition Jewish priests (which today means descendents of the priests that originally served the Jewish temple) are prohibited from visiting cemeteries. I might also add that it is widely known that Jews cheer drinks with the phrase L'Chaim meaning "To life".

I can agree with Prager on Egypt but I only have limited agreement on Judaism. Egypt, to the best of my knowledge, was indeed a culture devoted to death as shown by the examples that Prager gave. It is also illustrated by the little progress it achieved in 3000 years of history. However, it is much more difficult to make the case that Judaism is the religion of life, especially based on a few rather nonsensical symbolic theological commands. This much can be said in Judaism's favor based on my own knowledge and experience. It is focused on living this life according to the rules God gave because God gave them. However, it cannot be fully considered life oriented because while it does focus on this life, it examines it in light of laws that came from outside life. Fortunately, it does have an effective fail-safe mechanism, a passage in the Bible that is interpreted to mean that since God ordered man to live by the laws, he never intended death (or even injury) to result from them. This is interpreted in such a way that almost no law is to be followed if it results in one's own injury or death. Also, it is quite clear that the more rational Greek philosophy had a substantial influence on Judaism making it more difficult to pursue some of its more absurd notions. Today, both Judaism and Christianity have been substantially tempered by the Enlightenment ideas of the 18th century and it is those ideas of reason and individual rights that are the true culture of life.

Prager's second hour included an interview with an Palestinian Arab intellectual which once again illustrated the fantasy world in which the Arabs live. Interviews such as this one give little hope for the future in the Middle East. Finally, Prager's third hour today discussed the absurdity of the Dutch court giving former Holland prime ministerial candidate Pim Fortuyn's assassin a mere 18 years in prison and once again pointed out that far from Europe being morally superior for having abolished the death penalty, it is American that is morally superior for preserving it and not keeping murderers alive.
If we take former President Clinton's criticism of US foreign policy and consider it advice, it actually sounds pretty good:

...something terrible happened to us on September 11, and that gives us the right to interpret all future events in a way that everyone else in the world must agree with us...And if they don't, they can go straight to hell

Let's hope President Bush is following President Clinton's inadvertent advice.
On Heroes
After the POWs were found over the weekend various people started referring to them as heroes, even though the former POWs insist they are nothing of the sort. It seems there are two major problems with the use of the word hero. First, it is frequently not applied to people deserving the term such as the great industrialists and businessmen, who are usually villified. This point is covered adequately in an op-ed piece by Scott McConnell of the Ayn Rand Institute. Second, and the point that relates to the POWs, is that it is frequently applied to people, who while they may be termed brave and good, simply do not deserve to be put in the same category of people who actually are heroes.

In my opinion the term hero should be limited to exceptional people who, through their own effort either create or preserve a great value. Thus a firefighter who fights fires and preserves peoples' lives and property can be a hero. A soldier who exhibits exceptional bravery under fire and saves his fellow injured soldiers or achieves a difficult military objective is a hero. An inventor who builds a new beneficial machine is a hero. A businessman who builds a business empire that provides goods and services to people where there was nothing before is a hero. However, simply surviving under torturous conditions may be admirable in many ways but it simply does not rise to the level of heroism. In order to be hero one must have acted in some way to be deserving of the term and simply being held in dire circumstances does not qualify. Of course, if we really wish to dilute the term we could say that all soldiers are heroes because compared to us civilians they do exceptional things every day but the problem with such an approach is that we then lose the distinctive positive moral meaning of the term hero and I think that would be shame.

Friday, April 11, 2003

Peikoff's America vs. The Americans
I saved myself a weekday trip to Irvine last night. Thanks to Mark Da Cunha's Capitalism Magazine I was able to watch Leonard Peikoff's Ford Hall Forum talk over the Internet. I have to say that having now actually watched the speech I am much relieved. Based on the summaries I read I thought perhaps I would be embarrassed but Peikoff actually makes a perfectly reasonable argument. I was happy to find out that the part about total war and civilian casualities was a rather small, unemphasized part of his talk, which focused primarily on the deterioration of the American people. Despite some of my misgivings about the kind of war Peikoff would like to wage, Peikoff's criticisms of our self-imposed restrictions do have some justice on their side. I am not as pessimistic as Peikoff but the points he made about the present state of the American people do give one pause and remind us that thanks to 100 years of progressive eduction the people are intellectually nowhere near where they need to be. I do agree with Paul Blair who said that it once again shows how radical Objectivism is. We have our work cut out for us.

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Meanwhile among the Palestinians

This fascinating article from today's Jerusalem Post by KHALED ABU TOAMEH describes the realization of Palestinian Arabs that they have been lied to:

There was shock and disbelief in the West Bank and Gaza Strip Wednesday as Palestinians gathered around TV sets to watch US Marines and Iraqi residents knock down a giant statute of Saddam Hussein in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad.

"I'm stunned and appalled. I can't understand what is happening," said Rustum Abu Ghazalah, a 30-year-old shopkeeper in the center of Ramallah.

Some Palestinians chose to vent their anger on the Arab media, especially al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi and al-Arabiya TV stations, for broadcasting lies about the developments on the battlefield. "For the past three weeks these stations gave us the impression that Iraq had the upper hand in the fighting against the US and British forces," complained Yahya al-Natsheh, the owner of a boutique in al-Bireh, the twin city of Ramallah.

"Where is the liar [Iraqi information minister Mohammed] Sahhaf," he asked rhetorically. "He sounded and looked so confidant when he told us that the Iraqis were slaughtering the crusaders and mercenaries at the gates of Baghdad. Everyone believed that the Iraqis were cleverly luring the Americans and British into Baghdad, which was supposed into a huge graveyard for the crusaders."

Older Palestinians said the events in Iraq are reminiscent of the Six Day War, when Arab radio stations and leaders told their audiences that Israel was on the verge of defeat. They said the TV appearances of the Iraqi information minister, who remained defiant till the last minute, insisting that everything was under control and that the enemy had been defeated.

"Sahhaf reminded me of [Egyptian radio propagandist] Ahmed Said, who during the 1967 war, told us that the Israeli warplanes were falling like flies," said Abed al-Zamel, a 70-year-old retired schoolteacher from Silwad village near Ramallah. "Once again the Arabs have fallen victim to the lies of their leaders and media. We never learn from our mistakes. When the war erupted, I warned my sons not to watch Arab TV stations so they would not be disappointed and depressed when the truth eventually comes out."

This is so pathetic that one is almost tempted to feel sorry for them. But, given that they are in Israel with plenty of access to Western media (perhaps that's part of the problem) they have only themselves to blame. They chose to believe what they wanted to believe rather than the facts.



Oleg Popov/Reuters

Iraqis joyously welcomed marines in eastern Baghdad today as the remnants of Saddam Hussein's rule collapsed.

Headline and pictures from Fox News
and the New York Times.

Monday, April 07, 2003

Meanwhile, in Baghdad

Some pictures are just plain cool. This is one of them.


Taking five in the palace

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Chad Touchett, center, relaxes with comrades from A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, following a search in one of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad palaces on Monday.

Friday, April 04, 2003

Michael Kelly, 1957-2003

From today's Washington Post:

Michael Kelly, 46, the Atlantic Monthly editor-at-large and Washington Post columnist who abandoned the safety of editorial offices to cover the war in Iraq, has been killed in a Humvee accident while traveling with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.

Ever since 9/11 I have regularly read Michael Kelly's columns and I will miss them now. Here's a quote from the column. . . Pacifist Claptrap that I particularly liked, published on September 26, 2001 in the Washington Post:

As President Bush said of nations: A war has been declared; you are either on one side or another. You are either for doing what is necessary to capture or kill those who control and fund and harbor the terrorists, or you are for not doing this. If you are for not doing this, you are for allowing the terrorists to continue their attacks on America. You are saying, in fact: I believe that it is better to allow more Americans -- perhaps a great many more -- to be murdered than to capture or kill the murderers.

That is the pacifists' position, and it is evil.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Design vs. Chance vs. Causality

I think I have two frustrations with Dennis Prager. Both have to do with his religious views. The first is his complete denial of any possibility of a secular right. Prager speaks highly of Conservatives on the right and their Judeo-Christian values. He denounces Liberals and their secular values. He recognizes that there is such a thing as a religious left but he thinks they are either completely misinterpreting their religions or are in some way insincerely religious. A secular right however, of which Objectivism would be the main (in my view the only true) example, simply does not exist for him -- at least he never talks about it. This is evident in Prager's frequent denials of the possibility of a non-religious basis for morality.

The second of my frustrations with Prager came up today during an interview with Larry A. Witham, author of By Design: Science and the Search for God, a book which from the description that amazon quotes from Publisher's Weekly "surveys the ongoing dialogue between scientists and theologians about the relationship between science and religion." Generally, Prager berates people for expecting science to provide anything other than mere descriptions of nature. Science, Prager thinks, cannot provide fundamental explanations, for that we need religion. Prager also argues that religion should not be looked at for detailed natural descriptions. It is a mistake to interpret the sacred texts too literally. Thus, science and religion are like apples and oranges. Science discovers the "how," while religion reveals the "why." The two should not and cannot conflict. Nevertheless, during the interview Prager clearly pressed for the theistic point of view by argueing that any attempt to explain the universe without God is doomed to absurdity because such an attempt would have to conclude that everything we experience is a result of a fundamental randomness or chance. It is this last that I have to challenge.

Randomness, chance, accident: These are not concepts relating to inherent properties of objects. Rather, they are descriptions of a relation of one or more entities' actions with respect to some purpose. If the entities act without relation to any known purpose they are presumed to be random. Thus for example, genetic mutations in evolution are termed random. Why? Because such mutations happen regardless of the purposes or goals of the organism involved. There are in fact perfectly good biochemical and physical reasons and causes for these mutations but these causes are entirely independent of the survival goals of the organism involved. In other words the mutations happen for a reason but the reason is not related to the organism's needs. The mutations do not happen in order to help the organism (or hurt it for that matter). They are purposeless. Thus they are termed chance, accidental or random mutations but they are not inherently random -- they happened because of definite physical causes relating to the specific molecules involved. They are not causeless. And here lies the crux of the matter. The choice in looking at the universe is not merely purpose/design vs. randomness. Randomness as an inherent property does not and cannot exist. The alternative to purpose vs randomness are the laws of identity and causality. Identity is the law which describes the fact that everything in the universe has a nature, it is something and not something else. Causality then takes the fact of identity and applies it to action. Causality is the law of cause and effect, the fact that things act the way they act because of the kinds of things that they are.

If one is not already a theist, the application of the term "random" to the whole universe is really quite mysterious. With respect to who's purposes is the universe's operation supposed to be random? The universe just is, it does not and cannot have any purposes. And since the universe is all that there is there could not be anything outside of it with respect to which it could have purposes. Only conscious organisms within the universe have purposes and it is only with respect to their purposes that entities can be described as acting randomly (i.e., apart from their purposes) or deliberately (i.e., determined by their purposes). (More broadly, this point can be expanded to all living things, as all living things are goal directed, having been genetically programmed to be so). The evaluation of the whole universe as random or chance is improper and relies on a prior assumption that God exists and the universe somehow exists independently of God's purpose.

Finally let me counter the point made by Prager during the show that he cannot understand how all sorts of things make sense in the universe without God. You cannot have infinite regress. The facts are that the universe exists, human beings exists and human beings are able to make choices and think conceptually. The reason for the existence of great works of art and other human achievements are obviously human choices, thinking and action. The credit goes to the creators and discoverers of these things not to God. As to the natural laws -- here the explanation ultimately has to be that's the way things necessarily are. Religious people gain nothing by saying in effect: A self-sufficient universe is not enough, I need a self-sufficient God. To that the obvious retort is: And why did God create the world in the way he did? Well the fundamental answer given by religious people of all times is that God's purposes are ultimately unknowable. Since there is absolutely no evidence for God, and in fact to the extent that God is defined at all the concept is self-contradictory, I will remain loyal to the reality that I see everyday and accept no supernatural fairy tales.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

On a lighter note
This little item from the Jerusalem Post caught my eye. The article informatively entitled First-ever religious channel kicks off this weekend mentions efforts to provide television programming for the Jewish Orthodox community in Israel. Here are some samples of what they can expect to see:

A soap opera tracking the rivalries, ambitions, and secrets of a Tel Aviv hassidic court...

The Modest and the Charming, a chat show presented by eight religious women dealing with women's issues, male-female relations, Jewish and social affairs and The Wandering Jew, a travel show revisiting the various places where Jewish communities have thrived, hosted by religious actor Jackie Levi.

Beit Midrash Techelet will also air, mixing Kabbala and mysticism with psychology, self knowledge and science.

Of course, what really caught my eye was the following paradoxical statement:

He also said that efforts will be made to reach out to the haredi community in a way that will not require them to "buy a whole cow for a cup of milk," explaining that since many haredi families don't own televisions, Techelet might reach them through the sale of videotapes.

It was not made clear in the article what people who don't own televisions are supposed to do with videotapes. :-)

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Dennis Prager announced today that he will not run for US Senate.