Thursday, November 20, 2008

Should we save the Republicans from the religious?

With this somewhat presumptuous title, I am referring to efforts by many Objectivists to influence the internal soul-searching of the Republican party in light of their defeat in the 2008 U.S. elections. Efforts have ranged from Paul Hsieh's op-ed published in the Denver Post, to various letters to the editor. But while these worthwhile efforts serve a purpose beyond the nature of the Republican party, I have been considering whether on the political level, the future will not leave us ultimately with a very different political situation.

I have recently had the pleasure to read C. Bradley Thompson's Antislavery Political Writings, 1833-1860: A Reader in which the activist and political history of the abolitionist movement of the 19th century are recounted. It was fascinating to see how at first, in the early 1830s the abolitionist movement avoided politics altogether, and focused on "moral suasion," via public lectures and publications. In this respect, there is a clear parallel to the spreading of Ayn Rand's ideas throughout the culture. After the first few years of this effort, however, the movement split with some members pursuing political change directly and others continuing to try to influence the culture from the outside. The initial political efforts were by all accounts pathetic, though eventually a completely new party emerged that supported the essence of the abolitionists ideas: The Republican party which went on to win the 1860 elections. What is interesting about this is that when the abolition movement started with the publication of the Liberator in 1831 that party did not exist.

Why should we assume that we can change the Republican party so as to adopt our ideas? From listening to talk radio recently it appears that religious Conservatives have no intention of leaving the party. If anything, it might be claimed that the de-emphasis on religious ideas at the top of the most recent presidential ticket (despite the Palin selection) lead to a decrease in evangelical enthusiasm for McCain and help bring about the Obama victory. Also, while the religious trend in the culture continues it appears highly unlikely that the Republicans will choose to be less sympathetic to the concerns of what appears to be their single largest constituency.

These are depressing times for many reasons. The financial crisis is likely to get worse because a government dominated by Democrats is unlikely to pursue massive cuts in spending, taxes, and regulations so as to free the economy and allow a recovery. Culturally, we are still split between despicable nihilist and potentially dangerous religious elements. From a national security perspective numerous challenges remain. And yet, I would say I am optimistic about the future because it seems we have never had a better chance to successfully expand our influence and thus ultimately to change things for the better.

I am not here arguing for the immediate formation or support of a third party. Clearly, the Libertarian party has never been either right or viable. Nor are there any alternative realistic possibilities presently. However, if, as I expect, we are successful in our efforts and manage to increase our numbers and the numbers of our sympathizers substantially in the next 10 years, then we will face a choice as to the correct political path to take. If at that time the Republicans are still the party where religious Conservatives feel at home then I think we should, perhaps with support from many frustrated Republicans and perhaps even some Democrats form a viable alternative principled, secular pro-Capitalist party. Thus I believe we should let the religious have the Republican party and hopefully, they will ultimately go the way of the Whigs of the 19th century.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Individual Rights and Abortion

The Colorado based Pagosa Daily Post published my letter to the editor today in response to a rebuttal by one Steve Van Horn to Diana Hsieh's op-ed piece defending a woman's right to an abortion. The letter was only slightly edited from the original ("Man" was changed to "human being"). Here it is as the Post published it (go to the letters for 10/29/2008 and scroll down):

Van Horn Opinion Misses the Point
Gideon Reich
Steve Van Horn's rebuttal in the Post to Diana Hsieh's excellent article on abortion shows a complete lack of understanding of the one crucial concept in the abortion debate: Individual Rights. Far from being mythical supernatural endowments implanted at conception, or social conventions subject to popular vote, rights derive from a human being's nature as a rational being. His existence requires the free exercise of his rational faculty to sustain his own life.

A "right," as Ayn Rand pointed out, "is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context." Thus, the freedom of action that ought to be guaranteed to an individual is the freedom to think and act without interference from others in society for the achievement of his goals, as long as he respects the right of others do the same.

The very first requirement for such a freedom to apply is that the "individual" in question actually be a separate individual in a social context — not a mere potential that is part of another actual individual. As Ms. Hsieh has eloquently shown, the unborn fetus, to say nothing of the embryo or zygote, has not met that requirement.

The pregnant woman, on the other hand, clearly has — and has every moral right to act accordingly.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Reisman on the Laissez Faire Slander

Economist George Reisman has penned an excellent essay on the current crisis. It is entitled "The Myth that Laissez Faire is responsible for the Financial Crisis".

Sunday, October 19, 2008

California Voting Guide

I have just filled out and sealed my mail-in ballot. I thought I would share my choices and at least some of my reasons.

People
  • President -- none of the above. I knew from early on that nothing could make me vote for McCain and while I played with the idea of voting from Obama, in the end, he just has so many bad positions that I could not stomach it. For a more intellectual defense of abstention, see Craig Biddle's "McBama vs. America" in the fall 2008 issue of The Objective Standard.
  • Congressional Representative -- none of the above. After John Campbell voted for the bailout twice, I vowed not to support him. But Steve Young is unfortunately too unreasonable a Democrat to support.
  • Various other local judges, representatives, commissioners, etc -- none of the above. Part of the problem here is that I simply know nothing about these people. But I would also argue that I don't quite understand why all these people have to be elected rather than appointed.
Propositions
  1. "High-speed rail bonds", later apparently changed to 1A "Safe, Reliable, High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act" (I'm not kidding!). No. In principle I'm opposed to all bond measures -- the last thing the state needs is to borrow more money. And the last thing that needs to be funded by the government are trains. The state government needs to remove the numerous restrictions in the path of rail, not borrow money and give it to undeserving private interests.
  2. "Standards for confining farm animals" No. It is none of the government's business how farmers treat their farm animals.
  3. "Children's Hospital bond act. Grant Program". No. See 1. And in addition I don't believe that government has any role to play in health care or the funding of hospitals.
  4. "Waiting period and parental notification before termination of minor's pregnancy." No. Though I have to admit I had to think about that one a little bit and my wife finally convinced me that it was too dangerous to a young girl's life to let this pass. See also Adam Reed's recent excellent opinion piece in the Orange County Register.
  5. "Nonviolent drug offense. Sentencing, parole and rehabilitation." No. Though if it wasn't for the rehabilitation bit I might have supported it since it reduces penalties on drug offenders. However, it intends to spend more money on drug rehabilitation programs and I just don't think I should have to spend any of my money on that kind of scum.
  6. "Police and law enforcement funding. Criminal Penalties and laws". Yes. This law increases funding for police at the expense of schools and health care, among other things (so its opponents claim) -- that's a selling point for me. Also, it increases penalties for gang-related crimes and Southern California has been struggling with those quite a bit lately.
  7. "Renewable Energy Generation" No. I want utilities privatized and any regulations against them removed, not new ones added.
  8. "Eliminates right of same-sex couples to marry" No. I sympathize with the freedom of association arguments but two wrongs don't make a right. I have come to the conclusion that gay marriage is a reasonable extension of regular marriage and I agree with the recent Supreme Court decision authorizing such marriages. See also Diana Hsieh's arguments here.
  9. "Criminal justice system, victim's rights. Parole." Yes. This one makes sure you as a victim of a crime are notified of parole hearing and the like for the criminal and given a chance to voice your objections. What could be more reasonable?
  10. "Alternative fuel vehicles and renewable energy." No. See also 7. This one's another bond measure subsidizing "alternative fuel" vehicles. I think not.
  11. "Redistricting" Yes. A seemingly reasonable change of how districts are drawn away from local politicians and in the hands of an independent commission. I'll take a chance on that one.
  12. "Veteran's bond act of 2008" No. Again another bond. "Farm and home aid for California veterans" -- As much as I appreciate veterans, I think their benefits should come from the Federal government and I don't think should get farm and home aid.

Ugh! I hope at some point there will be some candidates worth voting for and a lot more good laws to support.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Correspondence with my Congressman

On September 29th after I heard the House had voted against the bailout bill, I sent the following letter to my Congressman John Campbell (California, 48th district) :

Dear Congressman,

I'm writing to say that I was heartened to hear the opposition of the House to the $700 billion dollar bailout plan. I strongly urge you to continue your opposition. Far from being a result of so-called "greedy capitalism," this financial mess resulted from government intervention from the Fed, Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, the Community Reinvestment Act and numerous other regulations that distorted the operation of the free market. To bailout financial companies at tax payers expense would be immoral and impractical. Rather efforts should be made to expose and eliminate the regulations hampering a truly free financial market, including a discussion of a return to a gold standard.

Sincerely yours,

Gideon Reich

That was before I was able to find out whether he voted with the opposition to the bill or in support of it. Later I found out that Campbell had voted in favor of the bill.

On Friday, October 3rd, after the bill passed, Congressman Campbell sent me a detailed letter explaining why he voted for the bailout package. I responded in kind.

First, here's the Congressman's letter:

From: Congressman John Campbell <ca48ima@mail.house.gov>
To: Gideon Reich
Sent: Friday, October 3, 2008 2:54:27 PM
Subject: Reply from Congressman John Campbell


October 3, 2008



Mr. Gideon Reich

[address supressed]

[address supressed]

Dear Mr. Reich:



You are one of many people who called, wrote, or e-mailed my office with questions or opinions about the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. As you probably know, the bill was passed by both houses of Congress, signed by the president, and is now law. The vote in the Senate was 74-25 and included yes votes from a wide range of the political spectrum including both Senators Obama and McCain, both California Senators, and the most conservative member of the Senate, Tom Coburn (R-OK). It then passed the House by a vote of 263-171 which included yes votes from The Speaker, Majority Leader and Minority Leader.



As you may also know, I voted in favor of the bill and was a strong advocate of it. I hope you will take the time to read on so I can explain why I feel so strongly about this legislation.



First of all, if you are personally opposed to the bill it is probably because you are against a $700 billion bail out of Wall Street. You should be against that. I am too. But that media term for the bill is a complete mischaracterization of what the bill does. It will not cost $700 billion and it is not a bail out of anyone. Let me explain:



$700 Billion: This amount will not be spent. It is being invested in hard assets (mortgages secured by homes) which will have an expected cash flow in excess of the purchase price. So the taxpayers should get all their money back that way. But if that doesn't work, taxpayers will also get warrants (stock options) in the companies from which these assets are purchased. So, if those companies recover, taxpayers get part of profits. And if both of those don't get the whole $700 billion back, whoever is president in 5 years is required to submit to Congress a proposal to get any loss back from the companies who sold the government the assets. That's 3 different ways to be sure the taxpayer is made whole and maybe makes a profit. This bill may wind up costing less than one year's worth of earmarks.



Bail Out: The assets will be bought from companies at probably 30%-60% of what they paid just a year or two ago. If I offered to buy your house that you bought 2 years ago for half what you paid for it, would I be bailing you out? I don't think you would look at it that way. These companies will lose lots of money. Fine. They made an investment that went bad and they have to live with it. But they will not be bailed out. Many companies and a number of banks will still fail even with this bill. The purpose of the purchase is to cut out the cancer that is clogging the world's financial arteries so that credit and loans and cash can flow again. No one is being bailed out.



Wall Street: If we do nothing, expect to see many days on the stock market like Monday, September 29th when the stock market suffered its biggest one day point drop ever. That will devastate the retirement plans of millions of everyday people. All forms of credit have already dried up. If they dry up more, companies small and large will not be able to get standard short term loans to buy inventory and make payroll. That means lots of job losses and layoffs. And people with money market funds and bank accounts may not be able to get their money, even with FDIC Insurance because these entities have to sell a loan to get you cash. And no one is buying the loans.



Many different proposals were looked at and discussed. I was actually part of a working group appointed by the Republican Leader to develop an alternative plan, which, in fact, developed several provisions that were included in the final bill. Our goal was to develop a virtually cost-free plan to stabilize the global financial markets and save every American's savings and investments, not a bail out. I believe that the final bill meets these criteria. There is no guarantee that this bill will work. But I have not seen an alternate plan that I thought had a better chance to both work and pass both houses of Congress.



If the bill works, some banks will still fail and some companies will still not make it. But it will be far, far fewer than would have otherwise occurred. Some of you have asked me why a believer in free markets would support this bill. I have done so because I believe this is a solution to preserve free markets, not replace them. In some ways, this bill is more of a free market solution than other actions that have been taken. The government will not take over any companies here. Even the warrants will be non-voting. No one will be compelled to sell the government their assets if they don't want to. Even the "reverse auction" process of establishing pricing for the assets, where sellers submit bids to one buyer rather than the other way around, is a market based pricing method.



No one wanted this bill. No one wished for this crisis to occur. But it is here. This is a worldwide problem and not just an American one. And we had to act. My vote was carefully considered, but made without reservation. I applaud my colleagues, both Republican and Democrat, who joined me in doing so.



I appreciate the great honor you have given me by allowing me to represent you in the United States Congress.



I remain respectfully,



JOHN CAMPBELL

Member of Congress

Here's my response:

Dear Congressman Campbell,

Thank you for your honest and detailed letter of explanation as to your vote for the "Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008." I have read your letter and I regret I cannot accept your explanation. Morally, based on your support for free markets, you should have been opposed to such blatant an interference with their operation. Since you actually believe that "this is a solution to preserve free markets" I have now come to the conclusion that you do not in fact understand how free markets work.

I also cannot accept your claim that "if we do nothing, expect to see many days on the stock market like Monday, September 29th when the stock market suffered its biggest one day point drop ever." There are several things wrong with that. First, it is not clear the market was reacting to the absence of government bill rather than fear of what a bill that will likely eventually pass may contain. Second, it is not the job of representatives to either save retirement plans or ensure the availability of credit. Capitalism includes the possibility of business failures, and people who invest their retirement in markets must accept the risks of such an investment and not pass it on to others. As to credit, I thought that's how we got into this problem in the first place. It is time we abandoned the failed government controlled credit system, also known as the Federal Reserve, and starting working toward a return to a gold standard. I would also add that in general, the availability of credit does not appear to be in any danger at all, as there are a good many banks including such giants as Wells Fargo and BB&T who seem to be doing quite well. I would also further add that perhaps a move toward more savings and less reliance on credit might of benefit to many in this country.

Furthermore one hears little from Republicans about the fundamental causes of this crisis which are NOT the result of the frequently mentioned mythical free markets (which certainly do not exist in banking or the mortgage industry, minor deregulation tweaks notwithstanding) but first and foremost of Fed action, assisted by quasi-governmental Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and encouraged by Carter's and Clinton's Community Reinvestment Act. In addition local conditions, specifically numerous restrictions and regulations, that exist in California particularly exacerbated the situation here such that homes in my area that I might be interested in for my family still cost upwards of $500,000. I do not accept that I need to "invest" a dime, either temporarily or permanently to rescue either the borrowers, lenders, or investors, who respectively, chose to ignore their limited incomes, or not carefully examine that of the borrowers, or not methodically examine the loans that they purchased.

The fact is that you have gone against the principles of the free market. You should have followed the wish of the majority of your constituents, not because they were the majority, but because in this case they happened to be right in their opposition to this terrible bill. I'm afraid your vote here has made it impossible for me to support you in the future. I hope I have made it clear to you why that is the case.

Sincerely yours,

Gideon Reich

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Outrageous!

The response to Nick Provenzo's blog post on Sarah Palin and abortion continues and has reached even more outrageous and offensive levels. It is now reported on Nick's blog Rule of Reason that Barbara Simpson, a right wing talk show host, has said the following:
There was a day when someone would take somebody like this Provenzo guy out in an alley and beat him beyond whatever. He deserves it.
As Nick writes, "this is the disgusting nature of the "Pro-Life" movement in action." Clearly this is the logical consequence of talking about "killing" and "murdering babies" when describing abortions. In this respect Nick's response is the proper one, I quote his conclusion below:
And if some moron you whipped up into a frenzy does beat me or does kill me as so many who think like you have wished in this past week, I feel secure in guaranteeing you this: thousands will take my place. You and your ilk cannot win here and you will not; not when right and reason are on the side of the good.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Abortion as a Moral Right

My friend Nick Provenzo has stirred up quite the controversy at his blog The Rule of Reason. Nick has written a perfectly reasonable, thoughtful article about the Palin's decision to give birth to a Down syndrome baby. For that he is now being unjustly insulted on the comments to the blog which number 115 as I'm writing this. Nick points out that:
Given that Palin's decision is being celebrated in some quarters, it is crucial to reaffirm the morality of aborting a fetus diagnosed with Down syndrome (or by extension, any unborn fetus)—a freedom that anti-abortion advocates seek to deny.
I think this is the crucial issue which hinges on the more fundamental right to abortion, a derivative right which is derived from two principles: The woman's right to her own life and therefore her right to control what happens within her own body, and the fact that individual rights belong to separate actual individuals, not embedded potential ones.

Therefore, it is the woman's right to have an abortion as part of the right to her own life -- yes, contrary to what the anti-abortionists would have you believe, abortion is pro-life, pro-the life of the only actual individual involved -- the woman.

With respect to Down syndrome, I also agree with Nick here:
...it is completely legitimate for a woman to look at the circumstances of her life and decide that having a child with Down syndrome (or any child for that matter) is not an obligation that she can accept. After all, the choice to have a child is a profoundly selfish choice; that is, a choice that is an expression of the parent's personal desire to create new life.
This is what the opponents of abortion will never understand since they take the morality of sacrifice as a given and apply it to parenting. In accordance with altruism, devoting your life to a being that will always lead a somewhat stunted existence would be considered highly virtuous. But I think it is profoundly wrong to view parenting as a sacrifice. As Ayn Rand pointed out:
“Sacrifice” is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue. Thus, altruism gauges a man’s virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values (since help to a stranger or an enemy is regarded as more virtuous, less “selfish,” than help to those one loves). The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values, and never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one.
But your children, if you love them, can be your highest values, therefore what you do for them need not be considered a sacrifice but rather an instance of the virtue of integrity, of standing in action by the values you hold dear. It is true that if you love your children you will deal with the inevitable illnesses and the like but why should it be highly moral to give birth to what amounts to a kind of permanently ill child. If one had a choice, and fortunately we still do, one would make the perfectly moral choice and prefer to have a healthy child, at least so far as one knows.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Marriott on McCain

I have just read and have to highly recommend Alexander Marriot's excellent post on John McCain. Marriot's elegant and erudite post goes to the heart of McCain's claim to fame and shows that "the North Vietnamese Got the Last Laugh on McCain" as the posts title indicates. Here's an excerpt to wet your appetite but be sure to read the whole thing:
...I will instead dedicate my analysis to John McCain's heroic battle with his North Vietnamese captors and his ultimate tragic defeat at their hands. Evidence for this defeat (which Senator McCain interprets as his victory) is drawn strictly from his nomination acceptance speech which was full of implicit admissions of the North Vietnamese triumph over Lieutenant Commander John S. McCain.

Register publishes my letter

Yesterday the print edition of the Orange County Register published my letter to the editor in support of Craig Biddle's column from September 10 that McCain, Obama are soul mates. It can be found here (second letter from top):

http://www.ocregister.com/articles/sex-mccain-sept-2152867-government-obama
or
http://tinyurl.com/4n8hyc

It was edited only slightly:

Craig Biddle's op-ed correctly illustrates the essential moral equivalence of the two major candidates for president. Some who might agree with Biddle may think the solution is to vote for a third-party candidate. If so, they missed the point. The point is to create cultural conditions – specifically, greater support for reason, liberty and justice among the public – so that the likes of McCain and Obama would not have a chance of winning a national election: They would both be booed of the stage.

Such an educational (not political) campaign takes time but is worthwhile, and it has been done before, in the 19th-century abolition movement.

Gideon Reich, Aliso Viejo

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

September 11, 2008

Tomorrow it will be seven years since the that murderous day, 9/11/2001. It is a sad statement on the state of the culture that for the most part the misnamed "war on terror" has receded from the headlines. This despite the fact that the perpetrators of that atrocity have not been destroyed, and more importantly the overall enemy, namely totalitarian Islam or Islamism, is still alive and getting stronger. It is even more depressing that even though we're in the middle of a presidential election neither candidate seems to understand these facts.

Our fundamental problem with this conflict lies in the intellectual weakness of the victim (the United States and Western countries in general). It is not that Islamism possesses any strength of arms -- far from it. Rather, the Islamists possess the strength of their convictions that they are right and stand for what is right. The United States for the most part has lacked this and is undermined by altruism emanating from both secular and religious sources. The West has appeased and sanctioned the terror coming from the Islamists by refusing to draw the proper moral and political conclusions about its sources.

If the United States (and the West in general) is to prevail, its intellectuals must first recall what about its ideas and culture is superior to the kind of society that the Islamists are fighting for. The intellectuals must remember that some ideas such as reason, egoism, individualism, capitalism are worth fighting for and furthermore that savage murderers who violently threaten our lives, liberty, and property ought to be met with overwhelming deadly force so that there be no mistake about who was in the right and who was wrong.

Only when a significant number of intellectuals in this country start agreeing with such ideas will there be a chance for a future anniversary for rejoicing in the defeat of the enemy and not another reminder of the self-enforced impotence of this great country.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Announcement from The Undercurrent

For some time now I've read the student publication The Undercurrent online and enjoyed it very much. At the request of the publication's distribution manager Guy Barnett I'm posting the following announcement:

The Undercurrent (TU) is an independent, student-run Objectivist newsletter distributed twice a year to college campuses across America. TU is currently looking for distributors and donors for its fall edition, and will stop taking orders on or about September 22, 2008.
If you would like to distribute, please visit http://the-undercurrent.com/subscribe/ and buy your copies of TU today. If money is an issue, please contact Guy Barnett, our head of distribution, at guy@the-undercurrent.com. There is limited funding from donors for students who want to buy and distribute TU but cannot afford to do so. If you're part of an Objectivist campus club, you may want to see if your college will fund distribution of TU as a club activity.

If you would like to donate, please visit http://the-undercurrent/donate/ and contribute directly using PayPal. If you have any questions about donating, please contact Guy Barnett, our head of distribution, at guy@the-undercurrent.com.

Spreading rational ideas on college campuses is critical to making this world a better place. Your assistance is necessary for the achievement of that goal.

Thank you for your support.

logo-Krisedited.gif

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Reisman on Obamanomics

After an absence of three months, George Reisman returns to blogging with two posts. In the brief, more recent post, he shows that Sarah Palin and Barack Obama have much the same approach when it comes to economics. After illustrating how their equivalent policies are wrong headed, Reisman declares:
Obama and Palin are both obviously ignorant of economics. John McCain, who picked Palin to be his running mate, has admitted his own lack of knowledge of the subject. Knowing little or nothing of the subject himself, he could not be expected to realize that Palin knew nothing of the subject either. An examination of the record of Obama’s running mate, Senator Joseph Biden, would probably turn up a more extensive record of comparable ignorance of economics, given his greater number of years in public life as a leading spokesman for the Democratic Party.
But Reisman's long August 28 post is the more worthwhile one. In it Reisman defends the proposition "Why Everyone Should Be in Favor of Tax Cuts for the “Rich”" on detailed economic grounds, taking for granted that individuals are interested in greater prosperity and economic growth. In addition, it shows the counter productivity of tax cuts without corresponding reductions in government spending as well as the negative long term effects of the Federal Reserve's easy credit policy. Reisman's conclusion is as follows:
Of course, in a further display of their ignorance and blindness, members of the left will undoubtedly characterize the line of argument I’ve presented in this article as the “trickle‑down theory.” There is nothing trickle‑down about it. There is only the fact that capital accumulation and economic progress depend on saving and innovation and that these in turn depend on the freedom to make high profits and accumulate great wealth. The only alternative to improvement for all, through economic progress, achieved in this way, is the futile attempt of some men to gain at the expense of others by means of looting and plundering. This, the loot‑and‑plunder theory, is the alternative advocated by the redistributionist critics of the misnamed trickle‑down theory. The loot‑and‑plunder theory is the theory of Obama, of the Democratic Party, and of much of the Republican Party. It is time to supplant it with the sound economic theory developed by generations of intellectual giants ranging from Smith and Ricardo to Böhm-Bawerk and Mises.

Friday, September 05, 2008

New Book by Andrew Bernstein

On his website, Andrew Bernstein has just announced the release date of his new book Objectivism in One Lesson. The book will be available starting September 16, 2008. Dr. Bernstein describes its purpose as follows:

Ayn Rand wrote many non-fiction books and essays, as well, but no comprehensive theoretical presentation of her philosophy. The definitive treatment of her thought is Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR). Dr. Peikoff, Ayn Rand’s leading student and long-time associate, wrote an in-depth work in philosophy that is ideal for advanced students; but it was never intended as an introduction to Objectivism. Consequently, a bridge is needed, an introductory text for the millions of readers who love Ayn Rand’s novels and who want to take the next step in understanding her philosophy that will culminate with their study of OPAR.

Objectivism in One Lesson is that text.

His approach:
...this book seeks to show that Ayn Rand’s philosophy, on every question, topic, and issue, from its commitment to logic to its advocacy of selfishness to its championing of laissez-faire capitalism, to every other, is integrated around one unifying theme: man’s rational mind is his sole means of gaining knowledge, survival, and happiness.
It is good to have a third introduction to the philosophy of Objectivism (the other two are Allan Gotthelf's On Ayn Rand and Craig Biddle's Loving Life). I find that a fresh presentation of the philosophy with original examples provides important reinforcement and clarification of the underlying ideas. If the content is as good as Bernstein's previous book, The Capitalist Manifesto, then it promises to be another excellent resource for beginners and experts alike.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Upcoming Fall 2008 Objective Standard

Craig Biddle, editor of The Objective Standard has just announced the contents of the upcoming fall issue. With articles and reviews by Biddle, Tara Smith, Eric Daniels, and John Lewis, among others, this promises to be a particularly good issue. I also have it on good authority that this issue should be available in many Barnes & Noble bookstores so look for it there.

Two essays from the fall issue are available right now for free. Biddle's own "McBama vs. America" and Alan Germani's "The Mystical Ethics of the New Atheists". I have now read both.

Biddle's essay is a tightly written, clear argument for the basic altruistic equivalence of both major presidential candidates. I tend to think that there's only a slight difference in the emphasis of the altruism between McCain and Obama, namely that McCain wants to sacrifice for greater things (country, other countries, etc.), whereas Obama wants to sacrifice for littler things (the poor, the sick, etc.). Of course, this is really just a matter of emphasis and neither excludes sacrificing for the other's pet cause. Check out the article and Biddle's recommendation about what to do in this election.

Alan Germani presents us with an eloquent critique of the so-called "new atheists". Included in that category are Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. In particular Germani focuses on the fact that while most of these intellectuals support basing their views on facts and reason when it comes to the evaluation of religious factual claims, when it comes to the ethical principles held by religions, these supposed secular thinkers are at a loss to come up with anything more than "intuition" or "consensus," and the result is agreement with what religious authorities say on the matter. His dissection of their attempts is well worth reading.

I can't wait to get the print issue!

9/5/2008 Update: Fixed ungrammatical sentence in fourth paragraph.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

If there is no God (Part IV)

This is the conclusion of my criticisms of Dennis Prager's article on what would happen in the absence of God. In Part I, I criticized Prager's attempts to conclude that morality and meaning would suffer if there were no God. In Part II, I denied that a world without God somehow means that man has no free will. In Part III, I attacked the claim that the absence of God necessarily leads to some kind of cultural deterioration.

What's left? Well, I promised to still deal with Prager's claim that "Without God, humanist hubris is almost inevitable" as well as that "without God there are no inalienable human rights."

Let's start with the issue of rights.

Yes, it is my understanding that the Founding Fathers, when defending individual rights, relied on the Natural Law ideas of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and others. The Natural Law tradition substantially based these ideas on the existence of a God, who created and maintains the natural order and, as the creator of man, endowed him with inalienable rights.

Despite the enormously important and praiseworthy achievement of the Founders in finally explicitly recognizing individual rights as part of a government and its Constitution, there are in fact quite a few problems in with the specific understanding of rights possessed by the Founders, not the least of which would be that basing the idea of rights on the existence of a fantastic being, would, as soon as more intellectuals started realizing the difficulties with the existence of such a being, put the whole Natural Law-based rights case in jeopardy.

But fortunately, and once again, Prager is wrong. The case for man's rights does not depend on the existence of God. Ayn Rand has shown that rights can be defended entirely on the basis of man's nature combined with a certain morality.
The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A—and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man’s rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.
The reason for the confusion in the minds of many Conservatives is again their inability to understand that individual rights are an objective moral principle. Its objectivity implies that it connects aspects both of man's consciousness (his values -- he is worthy of living) as well as of existence (his nature -- man survives by reason). It is not simply that rights are a kind of inherent hidden property of man that we would see if we were the right glasses. Nor do moral principles fall from the sky. They must be discovered, validated and practiced and in this case protected if they are to serve their function which is to further man's life. If men want to live in a society in which their rights are protected, they must recognize each others rights and create and sustain a government that is vigilant about protecting these rights. Frankly, God simply doesn't enter this picture at all.

In fact, the history of the 20th century notwithstanding, it is quite clear that belief in God as such does not lead to rights at all as the history of Europe from the 5th to the 16th century makes clear. God was very much in men's minds during those eleven centuries but individual rights were nowhere to be found. If one cares to study the periods involved, then it's clear that it was increasing emphasis of reason and the efficacy of the individual mind that ultimately lead some Christians to support the concept of individual rights, arguably in contradiction to much of their recent theology.

This is not, of course to deny the horrors of the 20th century, but here again it simply means that belief in God is not the only, nor necessarily the worst of the causes of man's inhumanity to man. But if we hope to do better, we ought to reject both religions and secular ideologies that differ only in the degree and type of mysticism, irrationality, collectivism and altruism. This is because rights depend on rationality, egoism, and individualism, ideas not usually associated with belief in God.

Finally, turning now to the issue of "humanist hubris," Prager writes:
12. Without God, humanist hubris is almost inevitable. If there is nothing higher than man, no Supreme Being, man becomes the supreme being.
I admit I have trouble understanding exactly what Prager is getting at here. Of course, the statement is almost trivially true. Among the religious, man may be highest among the animals but he is the equivalent of a speck of dust compared to the infinite, omnipotent and omniscient God. If such a God does not exist then man becomes the "supreme being."

Again, what does Prager mean here? He is surely aware, since that's one of his claims in the very same essay, that some secular people (certainly not me!) hold that humans and animals are of equal value. So then does Prager contradict his own claim here? On the one hand absence of God leads to humans and animals being of the same value, on the other hand, if there is no God man becomes the supreme being. Well which is it? Or could it be that the absence of God has no specific consequences, that atheism is simply the absence of belief in God and it's one's positive ideas that are the cause of one's values?

But I'll leave all this aside because I'm more interested in a deeper point raised by Prager's claim. I actually agree with Prager that, absent a God, man becomes the supreme being. This is not a problem for me but it seems to be a problem for Prager. Why?

The answer can be seen in the very same essay in Prager's various claims of what happens to men who operate without believing in a God. Apparently, Prager thinks that such men are basically irrational, immoral, uninspired, crude, profane, determined by their genes and environment, and devoid of meaning or purpose. Thus when such beings come to regard themselves as supreme, it would, in Prager's view, be a disaster. Such beings need to know that there's something above them to force them to behave as civilized beings rather than savage beasts.

Men are not born believing in God. Children are not aware of such an idea until it is taught them by their elders. Thus I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Prager regards atheistic individuals as for the most part no better than children (and particularly badly behaved children at that) who need to be taught to obey a higher authority.

Prager has over the years claimed that one of the most important differences between himself and his intellectual opponents is the fact that while he believes that "we are born with tendencies toward both good and evil," they believe that "people are basically good." On the face of it, Prager's attitude seems balanced but on closer examination, and based on the way Prager regards atheistic man described above, it seems far more likely that Prager regards man as basically bad, though he grants that with enough application of faith and force something good may come out.

How to respond? At this point I have to quote Ayn Rand on man:
Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice—and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man—by choice; he has to hold his life as a value—by choice; he has to learn to sustain it—by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues—by choice.
By virtue of his rational faculty, man is the supreme being on earth. But by the fact that the faculty is volitional, i.e., his to control via his choices, he is capable of both great achievement and great destruction. However, it is not his destructive capabilities that distinguish man but his creative abilities because when he is creative he is actualizing and fulfilling his fundamental nature as a rational being, whereas when he is destructive, he merely returns to the level of animals, even if he is capable of more destruction than they are. Thus man at his best is good. Man at his best is worthy of admiration and even of worship. I conclude with another quote from Ayn Rand:
Do not confuse “man worship” with the many attempts, not to emancipate morality from religion and bring it into the realm of reason, but to substitute a secular meaning for the worst, the most profoundly irrational elements of religion. For instance, there are all the variants of modern collectivism (communist, fascist, Nazi, etc.), which preserve the religious-altruist ethics in full and merely substitute “society” for God as the beneficiary of man’s self-immolation....
...
The man-worshipers, in my sense of the term, are those who see man’s highest potential and strive to actualize it. . . . [Man-worshipers are] those dedicated to the exaltation of man’s self-esteem and the sacredness of his happiness on earth.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

If there is no God (Part III)

In this post I thought I would tackle Prager's claims that without God there is a cultural deterioration in terms of art, language, and the equation of the value of animals with people (I'll leave "hubris" for another post). I happen to agree that all these are indeed disturbing aspects in today's world but I would put the blame not on the absence of God but the general irrationality of the culture. Interestingly, Prager argues that it is the absence of belief in God that leads to this irrationality. He writes:
Without God, people in the West often become less, not more, rational. It was largely the secular, not the religious, who believed in the utterly irrational doctrine of Marxism. It was largely the secular, not the religious, who believed that men's and women's natures are basically the same, that perceived differences between the sexes are all socially induced. Religious people in Judeo-Christian countries largely confine their irrational beliefs to religious beliefs (theology), while the secular, without religion to enable the non-rational to express itself, end up applying their irrational beliefs to society, where such irrationalities do immense harm.
There are several problems with Prager's above claims. The first and foremost is that it portrays a deep ignorance of the history of philosophy. All the secular irrational doctrines had their origin in religious and theistic thinkers that severely undermined the efficacy of reason. Philosophers such Rene Descartes (a Catholic) and Immanuel Kant (a Lutheran), among others, did much to undermine reason and the secular thinkers that followed them simply pushed their ideas to their logical conclusion with the ultimate result being the absurdities of 20th century philosophy. The result of the decay of philosophy was a deterioration in all the humanities and arts. As philosophers claimed to have conclusively shown that no absolutes and no standards existed, it is no surprise to see the obvious results on art and language.

But there is no reason to think that secular rational and principled people that speak politely, produce great art, and think clearly about important issues cannot exist. I dare say I know quite a few myself. The culture does not have to continue to be dominated by ugliness, coarseness and irrationality but it seems to me that substituting one kind of irrationality for another is hardly a reasonable solution.

As to the particular irrationality of regarding humans and animals of equal value, I don't think that opinion is limited to secular thinkers. Certain religions of the East also take this view. If one understands that value for human beings depends on holding man's life as the standard and man's happiness as the goal of life, then I think there's really no issue at all. Admittedly this is not self-evident but thanks to Ayn Rand, the means of establishing objective values has been achieved. Animals may have value for man, but they are not of the same value to man as man.

This series concludes with Part IV.

Update 8/24/2008: Added link to Part IV.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

If there is no God (Part II)

Since I'm a little tired tonight, I'll leave most of Prager's remaining points for my next installment, and confine myself to Prager's claim that "if there is no God, the human being has no free will." According to Prager's eighth point:
Only if one posits human creation by a Creator that transcends genes and environment who implanted the ability to transcend genes and environment can humans have free will.
One of the more frustrating aspects of this particular claim is that one seems to find quite a few atheists who would agree with it. It is a depressing fact that determinism appears to be a far too prevalent opinion among many scientifically oriented people. But we cannot go by the popularity or unpopularity of a point of view. Is Prager correct to say that without God there's no free will? No. In fact both Prager and the materialists who deny free will are wrong. The fact of free will is axiomatic and it is not in fact possible to rationally deny it. Those who attempt to deny it are implicitly relying on their ability to choose their own views by their own free choice -- otherwise they would be determined to believe in determinism and would have no choice in the matter. They are saying in effect: I freely choose to believe in the fact that we are all determined -- an obvious contradiction. Thus, contrary to what Prager suggests our genes and environment do not determine our thoughts and actions. Determinism is false, even in a world without God.

Furthermore, notwithstanding much rhetoric to the contrary, an omniscient God, far from supporting the idea that man has free will, substantially undermines it. This follows from the fact that if God exists and knows all, including all future events and choices then those choices cannot really be considered free. Some variants of Christianity go so far as to support the doctrine of predestination which is arguably itself a form of determinism. No, I'm quite sure that free will is in fact much safer without God.

I'll try to address Prager's remaining points in my next post.

Update 8/24/2008: Added link to Part III.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

If there is no God (Part I)

If there's one thing it's hard to resist blogging about, it's Dennis Prager's incessant arguments against atheism. For some reason, I tend to take these essays personally. Perhaps it's because at various points in my life I have struggled with the issue of religion so that I take these arguments very seriously.

Prager's latest effort against secularism is entitled "If there is no God" and he lists 14 separate consequences that he believes follow from atheism. He grants at the outset that "it is not possible to prove (or disprove) God's existence," which fact, as Ari Armstrong quite correctly points out, makes any claim to the existence of God arbitrary and thus worthy of immediate dismissal. In the same post, Ari also adds that "[n]evertheless, because claims about God involve absurd metaphysical presumptions, it is possible to disprove God's existence."

But let's leave all that aside for the moment, Prager is effectively conceding that belief in God is an irrational leap of faith but claims that "what is provable is what happens when people stop believing in God." What, as far as Prager is concerns, happens when people stop believing in God?

Well, I think Prager's points can be divided up as follows. I count four separate items that are really all about the claim that the absence of God makes the theory and practice of morality impossible and thus leads to outright immorality and evil. Three items relate to what Prager peceives as the "lack of objective meaning to life." As far a Prager is concerned this results in life being a "tragic fare" for all of us and the, to Prager apparently disturbing fact, that everyone after death everyone ends up the same way. This is followed by several items that may be termed cultural deterioration, including such things as no inspiring art, an increase in profanity, something Prager calls "humanist hubris", and the fact that humans and animals have equal value. Finally, there are the claims that without God, man is determined, has no rights, and is more prone to irrationality.

Here I must remind the reader that I'm not arguing as a representive atheist, not if that means that I'm somehow an average of all atheist ideologies. I can only argue for what I regard as true which is Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand (though of course I am merely presenting my understanding of the ideas -- any errors are my own). Objectivism is of course atheist, but that is a consequence of its regard for reason, not a primary. Prager is also not a general theist, whatever that would mean. In fact Prager, specifies what kind of God he is referring too:
The God of Israel, the God of America's founders, "the Holy God who is made holy by justice" (Isaiah), the God of the Ten Commandments, the God who demands love of neighbor, the God who endows all human beings with certain inalienable rights, the God who is cited on the Liberty Bell because he is the author of liberty.
Unfortunately I dare say that is not nearly as clear as the philosophy of Objectivism. However, since Prager is an advocate of what he terms Judeo-Christian values, I assume by the references that he means the God of Judaism and Christianity.

Let's start with the obvious ones first -- the claims about atheism and morality. Prager makes the following four claims:
  1. Without God..there are only subjective opinions that we then label "good" and "evil."
  2. Secular philosophy provides no real guidance for an ethical life.
  3. Atheism leads to unwillingness to confront evil
  4. Atheistic regimes commit more atrocities than religious regimes

The fourth claim really needs to be dismissed out of hand. It is simply improper to make an argument based on a relatively lesser number atrocities. To the extent that we disapprove of such things, I think we can all agree to condemn regimes that engage in such acts, whether on a large or small scale. It is simply no use to a victim of the Inquisition that he is a member of a much smaller group of victims than the communists put in the Gulag or the Nazis in the concentration camps.

That leaves the first three claims. Prager clarifies that

...unless there is a moral authority that transcends humans from which emanates an objective right and wrong, "right" and "wrong" no more objectively exist than do "beautiful" and "ugly."

In Prager's argument objectivity in morality comes from "a moral authority that transcends humans." Let's ignore the inherent weaknesses in using an "authority" as a claim to objectivity. Prager clearly conflates what Ayn Rand called "intrinsicism" with objectivity. He regards any view emanating from a human being, no matter what it's based on, as "subjective."

But this is mistaken (to put it charitably) -- man can regard his views as objective if he follows an objective method in reaching his conclusions, a method that relies on facts and reason. Objectivity is not a feature inherent in reality. While the phrase "objective reality" can be used, it is primarily with regard to man's knowledge and ideas to which the idea of objectivity applies. Prager might agree that scientific knowledge and ideas can be objective but he claims that values cannot be. But this is also false: Ayn Rand has shown that values follow the same pattern as other knowledge and that it is possible to arrive at objective values by the application of reason to the facts of man's nature.

Values are that which we pursue or aim to keep. Living things other than human beings automatically pursue those values that are beneficial to their lives, within the limits possible to them. Since a human being, like all living things, is confronted with the alternative of life or death, if he wants to live, he must follow the principles of self-preservation by choice. These principles are the objective requirements of man's life and thus constitute the objective values and virtues that man should follow. There is, of course, much more to it than that, and whole books have been written on the subject. These books also address in some detail what Prager perceives as the missing guidance for ethical behavior. Objectivism agrees with Prager that human beings need guidance and it endeavors to provide it in the form of values such as reason, purpose and self-esteem, as well as virtues, such as rationality, independence, integrity, productiveness, honesty, justice, and pride, as well as a major vice -- the initiation of physical force. If these values were pursued and virtues practiced consistently by leaders of the Western world, I'm quite certain that evil would be confronted. In fact, I would think evil would not get nearly as far as it has.

Next, let's tackle the issue of meaning. This is actually a very fascinating and challenging topic that others have written some important things about. Prager claims that without God our "existence has no more intrinsic purpose or meaning than that of a pebble equally randomly produced." Here I may surprise some and agree completely. It's true: Without God there is no intrinsic purpose or meaning. An intrinsic purpose or meaning would be one intrinsic to the very nature of reality as specified by reality's purported creator and entirely independent of any human values. For religious people, this meaning is very important, very dear to their hearts. And in Judaism and Christianity specifically, the meaning revolves around the overall plan that God has for man and the world he lives in, as well as the existence of an afterlife.

Be that as it may, I cannot help feeling unmoved as my happiness in life does not depend on any such meaning. For me and many others like me, the meaning I receive from my most important values such as work and loved ones is sufficient. I have other broader goals as well, such as helping to spread my values to the wider culture. So frankly, my overall answer to Prager's claim is that my life has meaning and value to me and that is sufficient. I refuse to indulge in fantasies to compensate for any perceived inadequacies in my life. If I am unhappy about some aspect I aim to change it and thus add actual value and meaning to my existence.

Prager regards life without God as "a tragic fare," in which "we live, we suffer, we die." Leaving aside the specific formulation for the moment, why does this constitute a problem to someone who does not wish for the impossible? "Tragic" is an evaluative term. But as far as Objectivism is concerned, in this context, it is a stolen concept ("using a concept while denying the validity of its genetic roots"). To evaluate requires that one first accept the standard of value: Man's life. It is improper to apply moral terms to basic facts of existence, including man's existence. It is a fundamental fact of living entities, including man, that they live and eventually die. It is not to be evaluated, it is the basis of all evaluation. The fact of man's limited lifespan leads to the need for moral principles. If human beings could live forever, no particular mode of living and thus no ethics or morality would be required.

Prager is also, of course, wrong to summarize human life as "we live, we suffer, we die". He deliberately left out the possibility of human happiness. There is certainly no necessity of suffering as such and modern medical technology has certainly reduced the amount of suffering that man does experience during his life time. More importantly, life has the potential to be a source of great happiness and flourishing, if one's sets rational goals and achieves them. Reality is not inherently set against man. If man accepts the absolutism of reality and follows the principles of morality he can, barring accidents, achieve his values in this world and many have done so. This is what Ayn Rand called the Benevolent Universe Premise.

I don't know that there's much point in addressing Prager's apparent concern about the similar fate of nuns and mass murderer's after death. Why this should concern a rational person is really beyond me. After death only the living remain. It is the responsibility of the living to remember and judge the dead appropriately and justly.

I will continue with Prager's remaining claims in the next part.

Update 8/24/2008: Added link to Part II.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Four Essays on Objective Morality

Thanks to Roderick Fitts, guest blogger at Noodlefood, for bringing the availability of the January 2008 issue of the Social Philosophy and Policy journal to my attention. That particular issue focused on the subject of "Objectivism, Subjectivism, and Relativism in Ethics" and featured numerous esssays of which I have read four that interested me.

Tara Smith's The Importance of the Subject in Objective Value: Distinguishing Objective from Intrinsic Value is a thorough review of the crucial distinction that Ayn Rand makes between the her concept of objectivity, which argues for a relational view of concepts, including moral concepts, and what she calls "intrinsicism," which is in fact what many people assume objectivity to consist of, but is in fact a failed attempt to divorce the subject from the object which ultimately and inevitably collapses into subjectivism.

Darryl F. Wright's Evaluative Concepts and Objective Values: Rand on Moral Objectivity attacks a related aspect of the same question. He discusses in some detail the underlying Objectivist epistemology and defends it from some critics. He then proceeds to show that what exactly moral objectivity involves, including its link to the goal of self-preservation.

Tibor R. Machan's Why Moral Judgements can be Objective attempts demonstrate the Ayn Rand approach succeeds in providing an objective morality, or as he puts it "there seems to be nothing amiss in the Randian idea of objectivity in ethics." While the overall thrust of this essay is reasonable, and it is clear that Machan is sympathetic to Objectivism, I couldn't help noticing an unfortunate lack of commitment to the very ideas that Machan presents. For example, he concludes that
...it is most likely true that objectivity is possible in ethics, provided that knowledge is conceived in an essentially non-Platonist, non-idealist fashion and provided that “objective” is not taken to mean that moral values are intrinsic.
It seems to me that Machan concedes too much to rather unworthy critics with the above statement.

Finally, I thought that Douglas B. Rasmussen's The Importance of Metaphysical Realism For Ethical Knowledge was probably the most interesting essay I read. Rasmussen discusses the views of philopher Hilary Putnam in some detail. Putnam claims that moral objectivity is possible despite denying any underlying metaphysical reality in way similar to Kant. Rasmussen carefully lays out Putnam's sometimes varying positions on the matter and shows conclusively that Putnam's attempt to present an objective morality without an objective reality fails. What was most fascinating about this particular essay is that the political implications of Putnam's views are also discussed. Thus the essay serves as a good illustration of the power of basic philosophy, including metaphysics and epistemology, to influence both ethical and political ideas.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Objective Standard Summer 2008 Issue

This past Friday I received the Summer 2008 issue of The Objective Standard (TOS) in the mail. I finished it last night. All right, actually I had started reading it some time earlier online, since approximately Mid-June a little after Craig Biddle, the editor and publisher, announced the forthcoming issue. At that time I read Property Rights and the Crisis of the Electric Grid by Raymond C. Niles. The excellent article describes the origin of the electric utility companies and why the regulations that currently pervade the industry, far from being some kind of natural necessity, were in fact an unfortunately by-product of early attempts to by-pass more local regulations.

Generally I try to wait for the print issue before reading too many articles but I couldn't quite resist glancing at the new book review section. First I read John Lewis's review of Sun-tzu: Art of War. Dr. Lewis regards Sun-tzu as a rational observer of the art of warfare, concerned with enabling generals to understand the facts and act accordingly. It is interesting to me to what extent rationality is present in Chinese thought. Clearly the Chinese must have had some rational ideas in their culture, otherwise they would never have achieved as much as they did during some of their historical periods. And yet, unlike the Muslims, they did not have any contact with the Greeks. I am curious as to what the Chinese equivalents of Aristotle might have been and what their limitations were.

Having read the first review, I couldn't resist reading the other two, starting John P. McCaskey's review of Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society, by Laura J. Snyder, a fascinating account of the intellectual conflict between John Stuart Mill and lesser known William Whewell on the nature of scientific induction and the implications for ethics. According to McCaskey, Snyder's book does an excellent job of putting to rest the notion that Mill "was a champion of commonsense realism, inductive science, or individual liberty." Then I proceeded to Larry Salzman's review of The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law, by Steven M. Teles. Teles's book is a history of how Conservatives have managed to penetrate the legal profession and institutions after being mostly absent between the 1930s to 1970s. This has had some limited beneficial effects -- after all, free market ideas are a lot more acceptable now than they were between 1930 and 1970. Still, as others have pointed out, since the defense of free markets is not conducted on moral grounds, it seems that the beneficial effect is temporary. Furthermore, the Salzman points out that Teles admittedly did not cover the rise of the Christian-Conservatives along with the economic conservatives, as a result "the darker side of the conservative legal movement gets an unfortunate and undeserved pass."

Finally, when I got the physical issue, I read the remaining two articles Alex Epstein's excellent essay laying to rest of the myths about Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company, and David Harriman's fascinating and enlightening account of the developments that lead to the Proof of the Atomic Theory. Both are highly recommended and ought be read by anyone interested in the history of business and science respectively.

It is difficult to express how much it means to have a subscription to such an excellent Objectivist journal. And now, according to the editor, the journal should be available at your local bookstores -- so what are you waiting for? Go out and get it.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Islamist Entanglement: Conclusion

Scott Powell presented his tenth and last lecture in the Islamic Entanglement series (you can still enroll in individual lectures or the whole course -- check it out) last Wednesday. The lecture summarized the previous ten and in light of what was presented suggested what we can expect for the future. Not entirely surprisingly, Scott does not view the future with much optimism. Not much can be expected in the way of improvement from the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and the rest. To varying degrees these countries will either remain Islamist or becomes more so. The kind of actions necessary by the United States to convince the locals that real change is required, namely a truly convincing military victory, are very unlikely to happen in the near future.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Scott for presenting these excellent lectures. I very much appreciate Scott's unique methodology. Rather than simply overwhelming one with events and personalities that one cannot absorb (as many a modern history book tends to do), his unique methodology focuses in on the essentials while not overlooking the necessary details, thus presenting the material in a highly retainable form. I highly recommend his approach to teaching history.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Islamist Entanglement and Israel

Scott Powell's most recent Islamist Entanglement lecture, his ninth, focused on Israel. I have to admit that as far as the historical details Scott mentioned I didn't expect to be particularly surprised and I wasn't. This is no fault of Scott's but simply due to the fact that I happened to have a reasonably good knowledge of Israeli history, particularly early Zionist history before the founding of the state. I was, for example, already aware of the mixed role that Britain played in this history, first promising everyone everything, and second, and necessarily, reneging on the promises, particularly with regard to Jewish immigration to Palestine before and during World War II. Nevertheless, even I benefitted from this lecture since it now puts the Arab-Israeli conflict in the its proper context, namely, the several century old Islamist Entanglement of the West with the Islamic Middle East. As Scott points out at the beginning of the lecture, once one understands the full context and thus the basic reason for the conflict, the absurdity of the constant attempts at an isolated resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict via land-for-peace schemes becomes quite evident. With the next lecture, the tenth, Scott will conclude the Islamist Entanglement series and, I expect, tie everything together.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Update on what I'm reading... (part 2)

I have started reading four new books.

How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now by James L. Kugel

No, I've not become religious again (God forbid!). But regardless of any religious sentiment I might have, I have for some time had a strong curiousity to establish in my mind exactly how I should regard all the various biblical stories that I learned as a child. Of course, I have long since stopped believing in miracles but if one thinks about it for a moment, there's a lot more to it than that. Are the non-miraculous events described true? Did the people exist? Many such questions come to mind. I was interested to know what the answers of modern biblical scholars were to such questions. Fortunately, Kugel's book is an excellent source in this regard, covering both the ancient and modern understanding of the Scripture. For example, Kugel names the four assumptions of the "ancient interpreters" (these are the original Rabbinic and Christian interpreters of the Bible from about the 3rd Century BCE and on, that the followers of Judaism and Christianity follow to this day.
  1. The Bible is a fundamentally cryptic text filled with hidden meanings.
  2. The Bible is book of timeless lessons to be applied to any age.
  3. The Bible contains no contradictions of mistakes. In order to resolve any seeming contradictions see point 1.
  4. The Bible is a divinely given text.
(see pages 14-16 of Kugel's book for the four assumptions)
On the other hand modern scholars essentially follow Baruch Spinoza's recommendations for how to study the Scriptures. Spinoza emphasizes that Scripture is to be understood by Scripture alone, that to understand Scripture we must understand the peculiarities of its own language, that it means what it says even when it disagrees with our own conceptions. In addition Spinoza started focusing on how the books were put together and the process of their transmission, and openly admitted that it contains contradictions. I'm now on page 376 and very much enjoying it.

100 Billion Suns by Rudolf Kippenhahn

I have recently decided that my knowledge of astronomy and cosmology is completely inadequate. I used to know a lot more particularly around grade school time. However, since then I have not kept up with the latest developments in the field and I find may of the popular mentions more confusing than helpful. My initial investigations on the web led to talk.origins Evidence for the Big Bang essay, a fairly detailed review of the meaning of and arguments for the Big Bang theory. That's where I came across a recommendation for Kippenhahn's German language book Kosmologie für die Westentasche (trans. Cosmology for the Vest Pocket) by the same author but it was difficult to find, and I happen to come across the above English language book in a used bookstore. I'm around the first two chapters. It seems a little technical for a book aimed at laymen but I like it like that. I'm also reading the following:

Principles of Physical Cosmology by P. J. E. Peebles

As I mentioned, I'm interested in Cosmology. I was particularly interested in understanding if popular pronouncements about the Big Bang theory are a correct identification of the underlying science. For example, here's one from a recent editorial by Dinesh D'Souza (hat-tip Noodlefood):
Modern science has discovered that the universe, far from existing eternally, had a beginning. Not only matter but space and time itself came into existence around 15 billion years ago in the fiery burst that scientists term the Big Bang. The laws of physics themselves originated at that point, and those laws were inoperative “before” the founding moment.
So what do actual scientist say when describing what "science has discovered" about the universe? Here Peebles book, a textbook for advance undergraduate and graduate students, seems particularly helpful as already in chapter 1 he clearly contradicts D'Souza's claim and clarifies the limits of the science involved. After dicussing the "main elements of the standard world picture" he comments on page 6:
The familiar name for this picture, the "big bang" cosmological model, is unfortunate because it suggests we are identifying an event that triggered the expansion of the universe, and it may also suggest that the event was an explosion localized in space. Both are wrong. The universe we observe is inferred to be close to homogenous, with no evidence for a preferred center that might have been the site of an explosion. The standard cosmological picture deals with the universe as it is now and as we can trace its evolution back in time through an interlocking network of observation and theory...If it is found that still earlier epochs left evidence that can be analysed and used to test our ideas, then that may be incorporated in the standard model or some extension of it. If there were an instant, at a "big bang," when our universe started expanding, it is not in the cosmology as now accepted, because no one has thought of a way to adduce physical evidence that such an event really happened.
Parenthetically I'll add that some scientists are now actively trying to see if they can find evidence before the "big bang".
Unfortunately, too many people, both laymen and scientists, seem to talk and write as if science has now proven philosophy wrong and the Bible's account of creation has been confirmed. From what I've been reading, a closer examination of the science shows that the issue of the eternity of the universe remains a philosophical issue. Science can only trace back the evolution of the universe to a certain point in time -- it cannot establish that that point represents a "beginning" or a "creation event". I hope to read more in this book and gain a clearer understanding of the theories involved (particularly General Relativity).

(רבקה שרגר -- הבריחה אל החיים)Escape to Life by Rivka Shrager

This is the true story of a little girl who escapes the Nazis during World War II. My dad gave me this book as she happened to be born and lived in the same little Polish village that my dad had been born in and had lived during those terrible times. The author is that same little girl who by now is a grandmother. So far she has recounted the happy times before the war had started.

Update

Anybody who has checked this blog lately has noticed two things. First, that there have been few posts lately, and second, that the look has changed. I'm not sure if I will be able to increase the frequency of my posts. Lately, other activities have taken priority over blog posts. At this point I hope to keep it going at least at the present rate. In addition, I have changed the look of the blog again. I was not entirely satisfied with the layout before and have been trying to find a more pleasing look. I may still tweak it a little but I think it now satisfies my aesthetic needs. Anyway, on to the real posts.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Update on what I'm reading... (part 1)

I last wrote about what I was reading in March of this year. Here's an update of how my reading is going presently. First a review of the books I mentioned in my last post.

Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics by George Reisman. I'm now over 550 pages into it and still enjoying it although at moment it is not exactly my highest priority.

The History of the Middle Ages by Victor Duruy. I don't think I have read it since I mentioned it last. At this point it has effectively dropped from my list.

Essays on Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead by Robert Mayhew (Ed.). Finished all I will read in this volume. Very enjoyable in many respects. As I mentioned Dr. Ghate's essay was the stand-out for me.

Standrechtlich Gekreuzigt, by Weddig Fricke. I have recently finished this excellent book. Fricke covers what scholars have managed to establish as far as the truth about Jesus, his background and his time is concerned. His focus is on disproving the ancient accusation that the Jews killed Christ. After first showing that there really is very little that can be trusted in the Gospels, he succeeds admirably in showing that Jesus was executed by the Romans and any responsibility for his death lies with Pontius Pilate, not with the Jews.

Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
by Ayn Rand. Finished -- much more timely and relevant than one might imagine.

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff. Our study group is now completed chapter three which deals with concepts. It has been a pleasure to really "chew" the material thoroughly. I'm very much looking forward to covering the rest of the book.

A Couple of Entertaining Puzzle Games

Hat-tip Luboš Motl:
  1. Smartkit I/O Game
    -- No Instructions. You have to figure out what the goal is and how to reach it. Took me about half an hour.
  2. Chinese IQ River Test Comments and Instructions by Luboš Motl:
  3. The Japanese employers use this test to hire employees in the IT sector. You should get all the people to the other side of the river. Either learn Chinese (in which the game above is written) or click the blue disk for the game to start. Clicking a person moves him or her to or from the boat. Right-click the Flash and choose "rewind" to start from the scratch.

    Rules:
    • The boat only operates with 1 or 2 people aboard; press a stick with the red button(s) to move
    • The mother, the father, or cop are needed for the boat to move
    • The prisoner kills any member of the family if the cop is not there as well
    • The mother kills a son if the father is not around
    • The father kills a daughter if the mother is not around

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Saudi Arabia: The Arrogant Kingdom

Unlike some of the other countries that Scott Powell has lectured on in his Islamist Entanglement series, Saudi Arabia was never occupied by Western Powers. While it did face threats from the Ottoman empire, the West was content to let the Saudis rule in Arabia, as long as access to oil was provided. The Saudis had their own agenda. Born of an alliance between Wahabi Islamist elements and the leaders of the Saudi tribe based in the center of the Arabian peninsula (an area referred to as Nejd), the Saudis managed, after two unsuccessful attempts, to establish control over the remaining parts of the country. This success was subsequently guaranteed when, following the discovery of oil in Dhamman in 1938, then American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with the Saudi King Ibn Saud in 1945 and guaranteed the Kingdom's security. The effective result here was a kind of feudal arrangement between the United States and the Saudis, where the Saudis were supposed to play the role of feudal vassal to the US overlords. However, a problem here is that a few years years later the United States supported the creation of the State of Israel and recognized it upon its declaration of independence. As effective vassals one would expect the Saudis to join the US in supporting Israel. However, as Arabs and Muslims unwilling to accept a non-Arab, non-Muslim entity in the region, this was not possible to them. Inevitably this lead the Saudis to oppose the US whenever it supported Israel. and eventually in 1973 the Saudis joined the OPEC oil embargo after the US supplied Israel with the military means to defeat the Arab armies of Egypt and Syria during the Yom Kippur war.

Only two lectures remain in the Islamist Entanglement Series: One about Israel and one putting everything together entitled "The Middle East: Its Past and Its Prospects". It's still not too late to catch up!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Iraq: In Search of Unity

I finally got a chance to listen to Scott Powell's latest Islamist Entanglement lecture which focused on Iraq. The key to understanding Iraq seems to be that for most of history there was no such thing. Unlike Egypt or Iran, Iraq does not have a unifying history, race, or even religion. For much of its recent history the area now occupied by the state of Iraq was made up of three separate provinces within the Ottoman Empire. No modern Iraqis identify with the ancient empires that used to occupy parts of what used to be called Mesopotamia. The Iraqi population is made up of Arabs in the center and south of Iraq and Kurds in the north. Like Iran, the Shiites represent a majority of the Iraqi population; however, unlike Iran there is substantial minority of Sunnis. Thus, the only basis for the existence of an Iraqi political entity are the imperial machinations of the Western powers after World War I, in particular Great Britain. For a while, Iraqis were able to unite somewhat around enmity toward the West. However, after independence, such unity was only possible to be maintained with the brute force of dictatorships. The Iraqi history and background does not lead to optimism with respect to the present attempt to create a united, democratic Iraq by the United States, particularly after the departure of US troops.