Monday, October 29, 2007

What's so great about Dinesh D'Souza? Part II

I finally finished reading Part III of Dinesh D'Souza's "What's So Great About Christianity?" tonight, and I am definately underwhelmed by the level of argument. D'Souza describes the purpose of this part as (p.83):

examin[ing] the relationship between Christianity and science. Specifically, [D'Souza] will consider whether there is an inherent antagonism between the two; atheist writers often portray an ongoing war between them.
As far as I can tell, D'Souza makes his case in this section in three ways:

  1. In part, D'Souza uses the logical construction known as "proof by tweaking the opponent's nose". This is an argument of the general form "Atheists believe in or admire X, but in reality, we Christians invented X. Ha Ha."

  2. D'Souza also argues against a self-constructed straw man: the atheist who believes that all Christians everywhere are totally irrational nut-balls.

  3. Finally, D'Souza makes the case that the Church hardly persecuted Galileo at all, and such persecutation that the Church engaged in was a slap on the wrist, really, and Galileo totally had it coming anyway.
It's a rather pathetic book that forces its critic to explicitly conceed that, yes, there have been Christians who have held some rational beliefs as well.

In reality, the war between Science and Christianity doesn't comes down to just the fact that Christianity makes certain claims about the physical world that are false that are nonetheless expected to be belived in as true by the good Christian. The war between Science and Christianity really arises from the fact that the Christian belief in an all-powerful God capable of performing miracles undermines the notion of human rationality. Christians are not all totally irrational nut-balls because they just don't take the idea of an all-powerful God seriously.

As an example, consider the following proposition: humans do not breath air. Instead, they breathe a mixture of squid ink and liquified petroleum derivatives. The miraculous intervention of God provides us with the utterly convincing illusion of breathing air and might foil attempts at physically examining the viscuous ink/petroleum mixture (so don't give up trying, even if you fail).

As you can see, there are no laws of nature if God can suspend them anytime He pleases. There can be no science if God can skew the results willy-nilly anytime He wants. Despite his emphasis on the rationality of Christian belief, in Part III, D'Souza is completely oblivious to this point when he admits to believing in miracles (p. 94):
True, Christians believe in miracles, which can be seen as departures from the orderliness of nature. But miracles are notable because they are exceptional. Miracles inspire wonder because they are believed to be the product of a natural order that is, in rare cases, suspended. Medieval Muslim theologian Abu Hamed al-Ghazali claimed that God intervenes in every moment to make the events in the universe happen as they do. There is not question of laws; everything is the product of ceaseless divine intrustion.
So what makes the Christian scientist possible? How does a Christian know that he or she isn't living in one of those rare times of a suspension of the rules? What caused the vast prevalence of science in Christian, Western civilization? It's the conviction that, in order to obtain some generally useful data about the world, one has to assume that God isn't going to be miraculously altering it for a while. The difference between a Christian and al-Ghazali is that the Christian believes that his or her conception of reality is so profoundly important that God wouldn't dare to miraculously mess with it. The Christian scientist who studies, say, fluid mechanics and who believes in miracles basically has to underline his work with the additional proviso "Yes, I believe that God can miraculously part oceans and suspend the flow of rivers despite the established laws of science. My work is made possible by the fact that God basically doesn't give a s**t about water pressure any more."

In short, science is done despite Christian belief, not because of it. The reason why so many Christians were and are science friendly is because they can suspend their Christian beliefs for the sake of making scientific progress. Everyone knows that you just can't take God's all-powerful miraculous ability seriously if you expect to be able to accomplish something useful in your life. This is known as normal, rational behavior.

Finally, as to whether the Church persecuted Galileo or went easy on him, you can judge for yourself what the definition of "persecution" is. Consider what would happen if, say, President Hillary told a prominent conservative author something similar to what the Church told Galileo. Suppose this conservative received a letter from the White House that read "We are very interested in your conservative views. If conservatism turns out to be a correct political philosophy, Democrats everywhere will happily adopt it for themselves. On the other hand, we aren't entirely certain that conservatism is true or not. We have to be absolutely sure the conservatism is correct before we start encouraging people to adopt it. Just to be on the safe side, we think you shouldn't write anything or say anything to promote conservatism for the time being. Oh, by the way, don't say or write anything criticising liberallism or this whole thing could get a lot worse." Would this conservative meekly go along with the letter, or would this conservative claim "persecution" during his or her every waking moment?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

What's so great about Dinesh D'Souza? Part I

I started reading Dinesh D'Souza's recently published book "What's So Great About Christianity?" the other day. So far, I am quite far from being impressed.

The book comes with a certain amount of history. In recent months, a number of big name authors have published books promoting atheism and denigrating Christianity. This has sparked a mini-boom of popular interest in (or, at the very least, popular advertising about) atheism. Not to be outdone by this new atheist offensive towards the mass book-reading audience, a number of Christian authors have published rebuttles and works extolling Christianity and critiquing atheism. "What's So Great About Christianity?" is one of these new pro-Christian publications.

We're not exactly talking philosophy even on the level of the weekend philosopher here on both sides of the argument here, so I don't have high expectations of technical precision. On the other hand, one would hope that our pro-Christian authors would take more than a slapdash approach to answering these new criticisms from the atheists. After reading a couple of chapters in "What's So Great About Christianity?", I haven't seen much evidence of that.

For example, in D'Souza's chapter eight he considers two famous arguments for the existence of God. He summarizes the first, attributed to Aquinas, as follows (pp. 85-86):
Aquinas argues that ever effect requires a cause, and that nothing in the world is the cause of its own existence. Whenever you encounter A, it has to be caused by some other B. But then B has to be accounted for, so let us say it is caused by C. This tracing of causes, Aquinas says, cannot continue indefinately, because if it did, then nothing would have come into existence. Therefore there must be an original cause responsible for the chain of causation in the first place. To this first cause we give the name God.
It's an interesting philosophical argument, provided that we ignore the fact that one of the premises have been explicitly disproved by science. As we know from quantum mechanics, there are events that have no cause; the quantum mechanical two-slit experiment is a classic example. The other example that D'Souza gives in chapter 8 is attributed to Anselm, and D'Souza formulates it as follows (pp. 87):
Anselm defines God as "that than which no greater can be thought." Presumably, this is a reasonable and widely accepted definition. Even an atheist should have no problem with it. We all understand the idea of God to correspond to a supreme being that stretches -- even transcends -- the limits of our imagination. Anselm proceeds to say that as we acknowledge and understand the definition, we must have some idea of God in our mind. He doesn't mean a pictorial representation. He simply means that our minds comprehend as a logical possibility the idea of God as "that than which no greater can be thought."

But if this is true, Anselm says, then God exists. We have proved God's existence. Why? Because if "that than which no greater can be thought" exists in the mind, then it must also exist in reality. The reason is that to exist in reality is, according to Anselm, "greater" than to exist merely in the mind. What is possible and actual is obviously greater than what is merely possible.
Maybe I'm missing out on some subtle point, but to me, this argument seems to rely upon "begging the question" about the existence of God. The problem is that identifying God as the being "than which no greater can be thought" is not a definition but a proposition

Suppose, for example, that God does not exist, but accept that we can think of a God that exists as being greater than such beings that do, in fact, exist. The proposition of the existence of "that than which no greater can be thought" would therefore be false. I don't see any reason why I must accept this proposition as true. Embaressingly for D'Souza, according to wikipedia, Aquinas himself rejected this argument by Anselm.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Is Al Gore an environmental hypocrite?

The short answer is no.

Right wing talk shows and blogs have been making a big deal lately about how big-name environmentalists like Al Gore are hypocrites. The point is that while Al Gore is allowed to fly around the world producing greenhouse gases as part of his quest to educate the public about global warming, the average citizen is expected to conserve resources as much as possible and live a carbon-neutral lifestyle.

This is not hypocrisy. This is the Right misunderstanding the point. The problem with carbon consumption is not the production of greenhouse gases per se; the planet doesn't "die a little a bit more" everytime a bit of carbon dioxide is produced. The problem is the production of greenhouse gases on a mass scale. As long as the priviledge of consuming carbon is restricted to the few -- by making carbon so expensive that only the rich can afford to consume it, say -- then the amount of potential environmental impact is negligible.

So, no, Al Gore is not an environmental hypocrite. He simply believes that a sustainable society will consist of two basic social classes. One social class will be granted extensive carbon-consumption priviledges in exchange for benevolent governance of world civilization. The other social class will consist of the masses: people living lives of stark* utilitarian discipline in order to preserve the environment for generations to come.

* Research suggests that bourgeois social institutions lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A battle tactic of modern political rhetoric: "moving the goalposts"

Modern political rhetoric has a number of tactics that one can employ to confound one's enemies and bolster one's allies. "Moving the goalposts" refers to a rhetoric of subtly altering to one's benefit some key definition used in political debate. This works on the assumption that the mob mentality of a mass audience is in a perpetual state of being "born yesterday", in the sense that nobody of any political influence within that audience can be bothered to keep track of the shifting terms of a debate conducted in a public forum.

The run-up to the Iraq war was a good example of this. The Bush administration at the time was unloading data about Saddham Hussein's weapons programs on the public and making a vigorous case for an invasion of Iraq. Operating under the impression, whether rightly or wrongly, that the Bush administration's case for war was strengthing, the Democratic opposition to the war gradually moved the goalposts away from the administrations case. The reason for non-invasion gradually shifted from the future success of the inspections regime to the lack of evidence that Saddham Hussein had been developing nuclear weapons (as opposed to, say, chemical weapons), then to the lack of evidence that Saddham Hussein had test detonated a nuclear weapon, and then to the lack of evidence that Saddham Hussein's future nuclear arsenal was not deterrable by the United States' arsenal.

Here's another nice example referring to the debate over the meaning of the word "Islamofascist". Christopher Hitchens makes a good but imperfect attempt at a definition with:
The most obvious points of comparison [between fascism and Bin Ladinism] would be these: Both movements are based on a cult of murderous violence that exalts death and destruction and despises the life of the mind. ("Death to the intellect! Long live death!" as Gen. Francisco Franco's sidekick Gonzalo Queipo de Llano so pithily phrased it.) Both are hostile to modernity (except when it comes to the pursuit of weapons), and both are bitterly nostalgic for past empires and lost glories. Both are obsessed with real and imagined "humiliations" and thirsty for revenge. Both are chronically infected with the toxin of anti-Jewish paranoia (interestingly, also, with its milder cousin, anti-Freemason paranoia). Both are inclined to leader worship and to the exclusive stress on the power of one great book. Both have a strong commitment to sexual repression—especially to the repression of any sexual "deviance"—and to its counterparts the subordination of the female and contempt for the feminine. Both despise art and literature as symptoms of degeneracy and decadence; both burn books and destroy museums and treasures.
According to Vox Day, this comparison is abysmally stupid. In his opinion, there are no Islamofascists because they do not advocate the political and social program of Benito Mussolini (author's hyperlink and emphasis):
There is virtually NO similarity between the historical Fascist program and the Islamic Jihad. One is nationalistic, the other international in scope. One is utterly indifferent to questions of morality, the other is obsessed with it. One is heavily based on economics and politics, the other is almost entirely concerned with religion.

Read Benito Mussolini's Fascist Manifesto. There is not a SINGLE ONE of the seventeen policies that would apply to radical Islam. Not one! I highly doubt any radical Muslim wants the secular state to seize all the possessions of the Islamic clergy or to grant women's suffrage; radical Islam is closer to the complete opposite of fascism than it is to being a form of it.
Osama Bin Ladin isn't fighting for the universal eight-hour work day? Oops, I guess he's not an Islamofascist after all.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

There is no such thing as too many clowns for Speaker Pelosi's car.

Democratic Representative Pete Stark lost his marbles on nationwide TV while blasting President Bush for his veto of legislation for S-CHIP:
Where are you going to get that money? Are you going to tell us lies like you're telling us today? Is that how you're going to fund the war? You don't have money to fund the war or children. But you're going to spend it to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the president's amusement.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Return of the self-refuting column

Over at, Vox Day wrote:
Despite its flaws, America has been one of the best friends the Jews have ever had. It would not only be a tragedy, it would be a stupid and wasteful one if Americans were provoked into developing the instinctive anti-semitism that currently pervades Europe, the Middle East and so much of the rest of the world.
So, what is the instinctive anti-semitism that currently pervades much of the rest of the world? Earlier in the article, Vox Day wrote:
One hopes that Mr. Forman's co-religionists have the wisdom to ignore his demand for the shunning of Miss Coulter as the Israel lobby's petulant demand for a third Middle East war, this time in explicit defense of Israel rather than U.S. national security, already has the potential to severely divide America's Jews from the rest of the country, Christians and nonChristians [sic] alike.

Can we please just not elect stupid to the next Congress?

It looks like political reality has finally set in with the House Democrats as they back away from their vote condeming the Armenian genocide:
Worried about antagonizing Turkish leaders, House members from both parties have begun to withdraw their support from a resolution supported by the Democratic leadership that would condemn as genocide the mass killings of Armenians nearly a century ago.

Almost a dozen lawmakers had shifted against the measure over the last 24 hours, accelerating a sudden exodus that has cast deep doubt over the measure’s prospects. Some representatives made clear that they were heeding warnings from the White House, which has called the measure dangerously provocative, and from the Turkish government, which has said House passage would prompt Turkey to reconsider its ties to the United States, including logistical support for the Iraq war.
Not surprisingly, this issue fits the recurring pattern of the Pelosi Speakership:
  • Step 1: Propose a seemingly common-sense measure X that should win the support of a majority of Congress.
  • Step 2: Demonize Republicans as spawn of Satan for daring to crawl into the light of day to oppose measure X.
  • Step 3: Realize that the measure X is, in fact, mind-numbingly stupid, and that anyone who supports measure X would have to be a total idiot.
  • Step 4: Allow Republicans, who were right all along about the merits of measure X, to pass not-X.
I know I'm a conservative blogger, and thus must pounce on the slightest sign of liberal weakness. This time, in all honesty, if the Democrats out there want to dump Pelosi from the House Leadership, I'll be supporting them on it.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Will Al Gore run for president in 2008?

There has been much speculation that that the momentum of winning the 2007 Nobel peace prize will push Gore into the 2008 presidential race. I believe that this would be highly unlikely. Think about it for a second. Al Gore has just won the world's most prestigous prize in commemoration of his benevolent governance of human civilization. Why would the "Goracle" abandon his influence over the global order in order to limit himself to being a mere president?

Is Hillary winning the nomination inevitable?

Michelle Obama, demonstrating that she would make a better choice for the nomination than Hillary Clinton, argues against inevitablility:
“Nothing is inevitable,” said Michelle Obama, vowing that her husband was a “uniter” who could beat Clinton to the party nomination, in a Sunday Times article.

Asked if she thought Clinton was a polarizing figure, she replied: “That is definitely one of the challenges she faces. You can see it in the surveys.”
Hillary Clinton's biggest advantage in the presidential race -- utter ruthlessness -- is also her biggest disadvantage. To a certain extent, the entire question is a reflection of the Clinton's propaganda machine: admitting that Hillary Clinton is not the inevitable winner means admitting that Hillary Clinton is not perfect, which means admitting that Republicans might have offered a valid criticism of her character at some point. Can't have that happening!

The other reason for the aura of inevitability comes from the Howard Dean catastrophe of 2004. If you remember, Dean had ridden a wave of popular acclaim in support of his bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. The Dean campaign seemed to have real grassroots fervor: college students across the nation were experiencing religious epiphanies before volunteering for the Dean campaign. At my university at the time, the Dean supporters were so heavily propagandized that one of them accused gays and lesbians of "intolerance" for not allowing the Dean campaign to be discussed at a weekly GLBT meeting.

Then as fast as you can say "Iowa", the Dean campaign imploded. One conspiracy theory that formed in explanation was that the entire Democratic nominating process was all an elaborate crowd-pleasing charade. The Democratic leadership simply waited for the right moment (to preserve "plausible deniability") and then "pulled the trigger" on the Dean campaign. The nagging suspicion is that something similar might be the reason for the present success of the Obama campaign.

This theory also suggests a reason for why so many states have been jockeying for the earliest nominating primary date. If the field of candidates for the 2008 nomination is going to get decimated down to one in the first week of the primary season, there isn't any point for a state to not have one of the first primaries.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Are video games art?

Film critic Robert Ebert has the opinion that video games are not art. Writer and video game designer Clive Barker disagrees. Ebert has a summary of the debate and a detailed response to Barker's comments here. The key exhange is this one (Ebert's choice of fonts in all cases; hyperlinks removed):
Barker: "I think that Roger Ebert's problem is that he thinks you can't have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written 'Romeo and Juliet' as a game because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn't taken the damn poison. If only he'd have gotten there quicker."

Ebert: He is right again about me. I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist. Would "Romeo and Juliet" have been better with a different ending? Rewritten versions of the play were actually produced with happy endings. "King Lear" was also subjected to rewrites; it's such a downer. At this point, taste comes into play. Which version of "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare's or Barker's, is superior, deeper, more moving, more "artistic"?
Believe it or not, I find myself agreeing with Ebert this time.

The key observation to make is that interactivity in entertainment certainly predates the computer age. I think we can presume that the world has had no shortage of Lego pyramids or paint-by-numbers Mona Lisas, but despite decades of labor expended, none of them has moved into the higher echelons of works of art. One real difference between Michelangelo's David and, say, a plastic version requiring the assembly of puzzle pieces is that the original statue is a product of both technical greatness and greatness of conception. For a single man to apprehend a work of art on a gigantic scale to be enacted in a fabulously expensive and risky medium is greatness of conception. Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", a real play expected to be performed before a real audience, is more of an artistic risk than "Romeo and Juliet: The RPG for your PC".

It's easy to see where the video game falls short of being art then. Explicitly elevating interactivity to the center of the mass gaming experience makes greatness of conception hardly greater than the conceptions of the "average man" (or, if you prefer, the "average teen") of the gameplaying public. Of course, Ebert hits this point himself when he wrote (hyperlinks removed):
I treasure escapism in the movies. I tirelessly quote Pauline Kael: The movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have no reason to go. I admired "Spiderman II," "Superman," and many of the "Star Wars," Indiana Jones, James Bond and Harry Potter films. The idea, I think, is to value what is good at whatever level you find it. "Spiderman II" is one of the great comic superhero movies but it is not great art.

Al Gore wins the Nobel Peace Prize. News at 11.

I know that, as a conservative, liberals everywhere are expecting me to go crazy about this. To be perfectly honest, it's not that big of a deal for me. A prominent American liberal winning the Nobel Peace Prize is like me winning a free small french fries at McDonalds. In either case, it's somewhat less than necessary for the world to stop in order for people to disembark.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I think I can safely throw "The Conservative Soul" into the dumpster now.

After years of beating his readership over the head with the evils of "Christianism", Andrew Sullivan has finally started warming up to the "Big Oil" hypothesis for the Iraq War. He quotes from Jim Holt, who wrote in the "London Review of Books" that:
Iraq has 115 billion barrels of known oil reserves. That is more than five times the total in the United States. And, because of its long isolation, it is the least explored of the world’s oil-rich nations. A mere two thousand wells have been drilled across the entire country; in Texas alone there are a million. It has been estimated, by the Council on Foreign Relations, that Iraq may have a further 220 billion barrels of undiscovered oil; another study puts the figure at 300 billion. If these estimates are anywhere close to the mark, US forces are now sitting on one quarter of the world’s oil resources. The value of Iraqi oil, largely light crude with low production costs, would be of the order of $30 trillion at today’s prices. For purposes of comparison, the projected total cost of the US invasion/occupation is around $1 trillion.
So "Christianists" weren't the real bad guys after all! The "Christianists", the Neocons, the Israel lobby (or whoever) were just as bought-off or deluded as everyone else: they engaged in the same old Big Government power capitalism that the United States has been engaged in since the days of John Adams and thought that they wouldn't be left holding the bag when the fiasco occured.

To cover his rear end on this massive blunder, Sullivan's article has a humerous point at the end:
Was this a plot from the beginning? I doubt it. But it is an obvious game-plan now.
He thinks that Big Oil executives -- i.e. the people who spend millions of dollars a year solely on keeping track of where the world's oil is and exactly how much it is worth -- just woke up yesterday morning and realized that they had a 3000% profit on a $1 trillion government investment in Iraq! What a lucky coincidence!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The new stupid party

Last week's conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party: don't question our patriotism!

This week's conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party: Rush Limbaugh is a draft dodger!

How did we end up with a Democratic party run by a bunch of clowns?

Do you remember last year when the Republican-controlled Congress wanted to pass the Flag Desecration Amendment? At the time, Democrats argued that Congress had too many important tasks ahead of it to waste time debating this amendment. Now it's a year later and the Democrat-controlled Congress has spent two weeks debating whether Right-wing talk show hosts are bigger bozos then Left-wing political pressure groups.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Yet Another Democratic Party Scam

It just drives me nuts that the Democratic Congress can't seem to debate a single proposal without making some kind of scam or joke out of it. The big Democratic uproar about Rush Limbaugh is the biggest case in point recently, but the latest tax-hike proposal from Congressman Jack Murtha is just as ridiculous:
Arguing it is unfair to continue to pass the cost of the war in Iraq to future generations, three senior House Democrats Tuesday offered a longshot plan to raise taxes to pay for the $150 billion bill for the war in 2008.

At the same time, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee announced they would delay action on the White House's war request for next year, saying he refuses "to continue the status quo."

The tax plan, unveiled by Reps. David Obey, D-Wis., John Murtha, D-Pa., and Jim McGovern, D-Mass., would require low- and middle-income taxpayers to add 2 percent to their tax bill. Wealthier people would add a 12 to 15 percent surcharge, Obey said.

Sponsors of the tax plan appeared more interested in making a point — getting people to focus on the cost of the war — than offering it as a serious proposal.
Top Democrats immediately shot down the idea, and it came under scathing assault from Republicans for linking funding for U.S. troops overseas with tax increases.
Why would anyone in their right mind agree to a lower-class tax hike to fund the war proposed by the same legislators who want to defund the war? This is such an obvious bait-and-switch that even "top Democrats" won't touch it with a 10-ft pole.