Friday, July 31, 2009

Busing the planet into oblivion

The Jefferson County School District is continuing its efforts to get around the U. S. Supreme Court decision striking down their forced busing plan. And three parents are suing the district to, like, make them do the right thing.

Here's Richard Innes at the Bluegrass Policy Blog:
One of the three parents suing the district was told his child would be forced to travel about 20 miles away to the Shelby Elementary school instead of the local area school.

Now, that is really curious.

According to the “NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND, Adequate Yearly Progress, 2008 School and District Results, August 5, 2008 Release” Shelby Elementary School is in Tier 3 status under No Child Left Behind. That means as of the summer of 2008 this school had failed to make adequate yearly progress for four years in a row.

Quite important to the current discussion, parents of students already in that school had to be offered the right to transfer their students out to better performing schools.

Now, along comes the school district, and without blinking an eye, it requires the five-year old in question – to be bused IN to this school from all the way across town – and the parent can’t say NO!
So now we're force busing kids all the way across town to demonstrably bad schools. This is what social engineering has come to: pursuing Diversity even if it's not good for people.

There may be only one way to stop Jefferson County school officials from their forced busing madness: find some other dogma at least as important as Diversity. And I've got just the thing: What is the carbon footprint from all this busing to bad schools?

Customer service at the new Government Motors

Mary Katherine Ham at the Worldwide Standard:

I wanted a Chevy Camaro.

I'd never really liked American sports cars before. But the 2010 Camaro -- a revival Chevrolet has been talking up since 2006 -- is so much more sleek than your typical muscle car. And since my BMW 330 started showing its age (nine) around the same time that the death of the U.S. auto industry hit the headlines, I thought: Why not do a little something to help?

So, after seeing a newspaper ad promoting Camaros at a local Chevy dealer, I called and left a voicemail saying I was interested in a test drive.

I never heard back...

It doesn't end there. Read the rest here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

First Lesson in How to Become a Human Being: The Best Children's Books of All Time

There is a knock down, drag out debate on the worst children's books ever over at the Guardian, and the author of the post gives the award to Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree and The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg.

My own nomination is The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. There is nothing wrong with the content of this book--and likewise nothing remarkable about it. The problem is with how it is written. I think the problem is that there are some books whose reputation is based, not on the book's quality, but on its place in the history of children's literature. The Five Little Peppers, is, I think, one of these. I tried to read it to my kids once and just had to put it down because you just couldn't read it out loud, the prose was so bad. It is notable only for position as one of the first books written with children in mind. The same is the case with Charles Kingley's Water Babies, and equally atrocious book that is remarkable only for the author's literary pioneering spirit.

But I would like to put the emphasis on the positive here. What are the best children's books? Here's my list of books (in order of reading age) that we have read over and over as a family, and which never get old:
  • Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown. We read this to our children when they were very young before they went to bed. There was something comforting and peaceful about the old woman, and the comb, and the brush, and the bowl full of mush. And what fun we had trying to find the mouse on every page.
  • Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss wrote nonsense, the value of which, I think, is that it turns the world upside down so that you can see the wonder of it anew. This, along with Dr. Seuss's other books (with the possible exception of the Cat in the Hat), create a whole Seussian world which provides a comment on this one. For an excellent explication of the value of nonsense literature, read Chesterton's great essay, "On Nonsense."
  • Are You my Mother?, by P. D. Eastman. I am willing to admit that this one may be the one book on this list without universal appeal, and is possibly meaningful to me because it captured me when I was a child. But when my wife is not feeling as accommodating as she normally is, and a child complains that he is not getting his way, my wife will stand straight up and say, "I am not your mother, I am a snort!" And that seems to work pretty well.
  • Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling captured the mythological spirit in these jataka tales. "How the Elephant Got is Trunk," was a continued delight to our children. These are stories that feed the imagination.
  • Betsy-Tacy, by Maud Hart Lovelace. These stories take the reader back to the life of the kind of small town that used to be common in this country and that, I am afraid is almost extinct. The prose is that magical writing that evokes the poetry of simplicity. Don't miss Betsy's hysterical attempt to make "everything stew."
  • Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (as well as most of the other books in the Little House series). Wilder will go down as one of the great American authors. Mark Van Doren once said that the job of the poet is to name things. In this sense the Little House books are pure poetry. Somehow she manages to bring the seemingly mundane things of daily existence into life.
  • Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White. This book, as well as Trumpet of the Swan (I didn't like Stuart Little as well) are, again, magical books. E. B. White was one of the great prose craftsmen, and these are his best writings.
  • The Moffats, by Eleanor Estes. Don't be fooled by the Newbery Award Estes received for Ginger Pye, which wasn't particularly good. The Newbery Committee did this because it felt guilty for not giving Estes the award for the earlier Moffats books, which include The Middle Moffat, and Rufas M. These books magically transport you back to the life of a quintessential American small town. Oh, and they are illustrated by the inimitable Louis Slobodkin, one of the great children's illustrators.
  • The Jack Tales, by Richard Chase. This and Chase's Grandfather Tales are retellings of the European fairy tales after having been filtered through the mountain imaginations of generations of Appalachian story tellers. The clever Jack defeats all enemies, and does so without breaking a sweat. If you've ever had any contact with mountain politicians, you'll recognize the cleverness that is valued in the mountains.
  • The Good Master, by Kate Seredy. This and The Singing Tree are stories of a family living in the Balkans during World War I. They are magical stories of a patriarch who watches over those--his family and those under his charge--as a war rages around them. There is nothing here of the modern obsession with everyone being equal. The good master is not equal, he's just good, and those around him thrive on his goodness.
  • The Winged Watchman, by Hilda von Stockum. Hilda von Stockum wrote a number of books, including two series, the first, The Mitchells, and the second, the Pegeen books. They are all wonderful. And they take place, as did her life, in three different parts of the world. This takes place in Holland, the Mitchells in Canada, and the Pegeen books in Ireland. von Stockum captures the uniqueness of each place.
  • Penrod, by Booth Tarkington. An Indiana version of Tom Sawyer, and at least as good. Penrod is a boy who is having trouble figuring out the rules of the adult world, and the adults are having trouble figuring out why Penrod can't figure them out. Tarkington, one of the great and under appreciated American writers, penned this rumination on boyhood in the early 20th century, and produced one of the funniest books ever written. Like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, this is a book about a "bad" boy (really, an ignorant boy). And, like all such books, it helps your own "bad" boy at home see himself in the third person. He sees how silly he is by seeing how Tom and Huck and Penrod look to the outside observer.
  • Papa's Wife, by Thyra Ferre Bjorn. Papa's Wife is an thoroughly and explicitly Christian book. It is about a woman who is the maid of a Swedish minister in Lapland, who then moves to the United States, and eventually marries the minister who joins her in the U.S. Their life together with their children is an endearing and wonderful story.
  • Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. If you could drink of the Fountain of Youth, would you? We never think of what it would do to the meaning of life if it didn't have an end. A young girl discovers a fountain in a wood near her house that a group of traveling people have already discovered. She meets them, and the boy, about her age tries to convince her to drink with him so they can be 17 years old together forever. But she refuses. The final scene, when the boy, many years later (and still 17) travel back through town and visits the graveyard, is a devastatingly poignant moment that puts life in perspective in a way few other things do.
  • Ann of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery. I was introduced to these stories through the excellent PBS television retellings. But as good as the television movies were, the books are even better. A young red-headed arrives in a Canadian village to meet her adopted family, an old maid her brother. Despite her precociousness, she quickly endears herself to her stuffy new family. A bit like the also excellent Pollyanna.
  • The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien. What can you say about Tolkien? One of the few authors who is able to create a world that seeming has been there forever. The Lord of the Rings, one of the greatest books ever written is, of course, better. But this book is the introduction to Middle Earth. An old fashioned dragon story that will also serve as a great way to help children understand Beowulf when they read it later in life.
  • The Jungle Books, by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling had a mythic sense that comes out clearly in these books. Those who were introduced to the Jungle Book through the Disney movie will have to simply erase their memory banks and start over. The book is nothing like the movie. They are serious investigations into the meaning of life and the nature of humanity. Kipling's world is a place where "the Law of the Jungle and the sea are your only teachers" (to quote Dylan). Kipling has an Old Testament sense that pervades the books from "The Water Truce" to the "The Elephant Dance." I have a hard time with books in which there are talking animals, but Kipling's is one of the few (along with the excellent The Wind and the Willows) that pull this off by portraying the particular kinds of animals as the kind of people they really would be if they had human characteristics. Baloo is what a bear would be if her were human. And everyone has met the Bandar-Log somewhere on the road of life.
  • The Old Squire's Farm, by C. A. Stephens. An old Maine farmer and his wife lose their three sons in the Civil War, and all the children come to live. These stories, published in the Youth's Companion in the 1800s, are true stories of the author's life growing up with the Old Squire and his wife in 19th century New England. They are among the most moving, funny, interesting, and compelling stories you will ever read. The final story, in which the children, all grown and moved away, come back home to decide who must stay with their now lonely grandparents in their last days will bring tears to your eyes. The sequel, Sailing on the Ice, is equally as good.
  • Men of Iron, by Howard Pyle. Every boy should read this book. It is the coming of age story of a young nobleman whose father has been disgraced and who has been sent to the castle of a man who, unbeknownst to the boy, is a friend of his father's who is watching him become a man. The boy makes his way from a page to a squire to a knight, and does so by rebelling against the fagging system in the House similar to that which later pervaded the British public school system. He eventually avenges his father in a final fight scene that is one of the best action sequences in literature.
When I come to write my book, How to Become a Human Being, I will include a chapter on these books. This is what it's about folks.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A tribute to John Buchan

A great article in First Things Magazine on the underappreciated John Buchan, most famous for his book The 39 Steps. Buchan is one of the practitioners of what Digby Anderson has called "blood and morality" adventure stories:
The Christian nature of Buchan’s writing is largely expressed through a theological reading of his thrillers, in which the lone hero is placed in a position vis-a-vis the universe akin to that of the Christian existentialist. By contrast, with the cousin-genre of the whodunit, the thriller places its protagonist in radical uncertainty, in which the mystery is not so much what happened as what is happening? The thriller is filled with moments of crisis. The hero must act in order to understand his situation; must make a decision and, by so doing, create authenticity. Where the whodunit is concerned with a community, the thriller is concerned with the individual; a genre of Protestant inclination, and one of Christian existentialism. Buchan is profitably read in the light of Kierkegaard (as is the more theologically troubling Graham Greene).
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A waste of a good athiest

G. K. Chesterton once pointed out that one of the problems with modern materialistic philosophies is that they are not livable. You can profess them, but you can't really live your life as if they are true. And not only can those who believe in materialism not live as if they really believed what they say they believe, they cannot even keep the rest of their thought consisted with their professed materialism.

Francis Beckwith, operating in the Chestertonian spirit, points out one more way in which the scientific rationalists can't keep their thoughts, much less their lives, in line with their philosophy.

He points out that Richard Dawkins, of God Delusion fame, laments that Harvard-trained geologist and paleontologist Kurt Wise chose creationism at the expense of a career in science:
Dawkins harshly criticizes Wise for embracing a religious belief that results in Wise's not treating himself and his talents, intelligence, and abilities in a way appropriate for their full flourishing. That is, given the opportunity to hone and nurture certain gifts—for example, intellectual skill—no one, including Wise, should waste them as a result of accepting a false belief.
But how can an atheist like Dawkins think this?
But Dawkins, in fact, does not actually believe that living beings, including human beings, have intrinsic purposes or are designed so that one may conclude that violating one's proper function amounts to a violation of one's moral duty to oneself. Dawkins has maintained for decades that the natural world only appears to be designed. He writes in The God Delusion: "Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that—an illusion."

But this means that his lament for Wise is misguided, for Dawkins is lamenting what only appears to be Wise's dereliction of his duty to nurture and employ his gifts in ways that result in his happiness and an acquisition of knowledge that contributes to the common good. Yet because there are no designed natures and no intrinsic purposes, and thus no natural duties that we are obligated to obey, the intuitions that inform Dawkins' judgment of Wise are as illusory as the design he explicitly rejects. But that is precisely one of the grounds by which Dawkins suggests that theists are irrational and ought to abandon their belief in God.
How sad to see this from Dawkins. What a waste of a good atheist.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Couple marries after woman finds lost love letter behind her fireplace

Don't you wish there were more of these?

Have our schools abandoned our culture?

The following is the "Letter from the Publisher" in the new issue of the Classical Teacher:

A bad ice storm hit our part of the country last February, and the weight of the ice brought by the storm was so great that many of the branches on the Bradford Pear trees along our driveway were torn off. We had to do some work cutting and stacking them near the road so they could be picked up by the county. My branches were still laying there in the culvert a couple of weeks after the storm when I was leaving my house on my way to church.

As I opened the window to let some of the warm spring air into my car, I looked down and noticed that the branches had blossoms all over them. There they were, welcoming the spring, apparently unaware that they had been severed from the trees.

It was a bittersweet sight: the white and pink blossoms were beautiful, but they would be the last flowers these branches would ever produce, since they had been cut off from the trees that sustained them.

Having been involved in education policy over the years, I still pay a lot of attention to the discussion about how to improve our schools. And one of the things I have noticed is that, amidst all the rhetoric about job skills and computer technology and school choice, very little is said about the chief problem with our education system, which has severed itself from the culture that produced it.

What is the chief problem? It is that schools have taken it upon themselves to change the very purpose of education. Historically, the chief purpose of our schools was to pass on a culture. Our schools are now about other things, like vocational training and political correctness.

But even if these things could be done well, and done in accordance with how we view the world, they still wouldn’t serve to do what schools are chiefly designed to do. Other than the family itself, there is only one institution in society that is uniquely qualified to pass on our civilization, and that is the school.

We are all the children of Western culture—that amalgum of beliefs and affections that informs our thoughts and actions. This body of knowledge and belief, which was the content of classical education, has its roots in Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. It was not always consistent even with itself. Mortimer Adler often referred to it as the “Great Conversation”—a conversation in which the participants didn’t always agree.

But although there are many branches that go off in different directions, they have always been attached to the tree of Western culture. Even though there have always been disagreements about specific answers to questions about God, or human nature, or the natural world, there has always been a consensus about the questions, and how important they were.

It was this set of beliefs and attitudes that has allowed the West to accomplish the great achievements in art, and in literature, and in science. The Cathedral at Chartres, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Mona Lisa, not to mention hospitals, charities, as well as the achievements of science which were fostered by a Christian belief in an orderly universe and the general value we place on human life—all of these things are the peculiar products of the Christian West. They are the blossoms on the various branches of our culture.

But as our schools abandon their original mission, and as they discard the very culture that produced these great things, they place us in danger of losing all that we have accomplished. Without the culture that sustained them, the branches may blossom for one more generation—or maybe two. But that is all.

Classical education has always been the vehicle by which we passed on this culture to the next generation. Bringing it back, as so many schools are now doing, will not only function as a way to prepare children to serve important roles in our world.

It could very well be the way to save it.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

More on the Darwinists' Dilemma

I had asked in an earlier post why, while Darwinists say on the one hand that the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection are impossible because of seemingly uniform experience against them, they turn right around and propound the view that life came from non-life despite the equally uniform experience against it.

The responses were various, ranging from that of Art, who thought it sufficient to wave his hand and dismiss it without giving any reason, to Isaac, who actually attempted an argument against my position. So, while it is difficult to respond to hand waving (other than to wave my own hand back--Hi Art!), let me respond to Isaac's points:

First, he argues that evolution does not necessarily involve the belief in abiogenesis. To that, there are two responses: First, I did not say it did. I used the term 'Darwinism', not 'evolution'. I have explained my use of the term 'Darwinism' a number of times on this blog as referring to the belief that the current state of biological life resulted solely from prior material factors. This is distinct from the mere theory of evolution, which involves only the belief in biological development over time, regardless of how that life came about in the first place. The former involves metaphysical assumptions which its adherents expects everyone else to accept without question, and the latter, it seems to me, does not.

But it is curious to me that the video Isaac linked to, while it claims that abiogenesis is no necessary part of evolution, defends abiogenesis, as if it is. And, of course, it does so by some rather extravagant speculation. And it does make you wonder: if the people who advocate it know the procedure of how life came about from non-life as well as they seem to think they do, then they ought to be able to perform the procedure, which, of course, they can't.

Isaac says there is "very good proof" behind the doctrine of abiogenesis. But there is no "proof": there is only speculation. And just because the speculation is extravagant and even plausible on its face, it doesn't amount "proof"--at least not in any sense of the word 'proof' with which I am familiar. A proponent of parthenogenesis could simply respond that they have proof too: in form of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Undoubtedly this will not satisfy a Darwinist, but point is that the Darwinist will be at pains to explain why his "proof" for abiogenesis is any better that for parthenogenesis.

The irony, of course is still that a worldview that proposes to exclude parthenogenesis from the realm of possibility requires a strict belief in abiogenesis, about which there is an equal lack of scientific evidence.

To say that one believes in abiogenesis is a faith statement that is a part of the larger body of Darwinist dogma.

Isaac then asserts that, on the matter of the Resurrection, a "man rising from the dead has the problems of what occurs after death--enzyme breakdown, cell decay due to fermentation and decomposition (anaerobic), etc." I'm not sure that this is something that dead men spend a lot of time pondering. Actually, Isaac's point here completely misses the whole idea of what a miracle claim involves.

A miracle claim is simply immune from these kinds of criticisms--precisely because it is a miracle claim. If someone says, "I believe the normal and otherwise uniform course of nature was interfered with in Instance A," it is hardly a valid response to say, "But Instance A is problematic because it violates the normal and otherwise uniform course of nature," which, for all practical purposes is what Isaac is saying here.

The processes which he mentions as problems for the idea of a resurrection are only problems if the claim is that a resurrection occurred within the normal course of natural processes. But, of course, that is not the claim. The claim is that the normal course of nature was suspended or interfered with. To simply invoke a list of the natural problems such an event would involve doesn't address the claim.

Isaac concludes, saying:
God does not appear to suspend the laws he puts forth if he exists, and we have no reason to believe the contrary. Why then, should we state that it is so?
Well, all I can say is that the religion that formed all of Western civilization has maintained for 2,000 years that that's exactly what he did--and given reasons for it.

's why some of us say that it is so.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Dennett gets it wrong again

I think Nietzsche would make short work of this, from Daniel Dennett, in the Guardian:
I am confident that those who believe in belief are wrong. That is, we no more need to preserve the myth of God in order to preserve a just and stable society than we needed to cling to the Gold Standard to keep our currency sound. It was a useful crutch, but we've outgrown it. Denmark, according to a recent study, is the sanest, healthiest, happiest, most crime-free nation in the world, and by and large the Danes simply ignore the God issue. We should certainly hope that those who believe in belief are wrong, because belief is waning fast, and the props are beginning to buckle.
And why can't we translate that first sentence:
I am confident that those who believe in belief are wrong.
I believe that those who believe in belief are wrong?
That would better capture the internally inconsistent nature of many of the New Atheists' arguments.

Dennett here is articulating the argument (which most of the atheist existentialists, like Nietzsche, have seen through for a long time) that the denial of the existence of God has no implications for one's belief in morality. He argues that because things are not rotten in Denmark, that the values people are practicing there must not be based on the belief in the Christian God.

Well, for one thing, where did the Danish get the values they do practice in the first place? If you are operating in a historical vacuum like Dennett, you don't notice that they came from the Christian culture that informed the history of that country. Furthermore, just because things are fine now, when the Danish are living off of their Christian cultural capital, doesn't mean things won't change when that cultural capital is used up.

To say that because non-Christians practice Christian values means they're not Christian values makes no more sense than saying that Christians practicing non-Christian values (which has also been true quite frequently over history) means that non-Christian values are Christian values.

Once again a New Atheist has shown why practicing philosophy without a license can be dangerous.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Dilemma for Darwinists

The new crop of atheist Darwinists argue that the Resurrection of Christ is impossible because there are so many observations of people dying who, in fact, stay dead. But at the same time, they claim it is possible (indeed, for them, necessary) that life came from non-life despite the equally impressive number of observations of living things generated always and only from other living things.

Despite just as much evidence against one as the other, they accept the latter and reject the former. Why? Because it fits their worldview. But somehow, I suspect, they will continue to claim they are more rational than their religious peers.

Go figure.

Anti-slots group calls Governor's action a "hostile takeover" attempt of the State Senate

For Immediate Release
July 15, 2009

"We thought this was a gubernatorial administration," said Martin Cothran, spokesman for Say No To Casinos. "But it's turning into an episode of the Sopranos." Cothran's remarks came in response to reports that pro-gambling forces had succeeded in taking out a key anti-slots senator. "This is what happens when the gambling industry moves into your state: anti-expanded gambling legislators start disappearing, and the system becomes distorted by money and the political power it brings."

State Sen. Charlie Borders, chairman of the committee that voted down the slots bill in the special session, was appointed to a highly sought after post on the Public Service Commission by the Beshear administration. "This is an attempt at a hostile takeover of the State Senate by gambling interests," said Cothran.

"This was a message job to the rest of the Senate: 'You better change your votes or we're taking you out too, and it won't be nearly as pretty'," said Cothran. "There are only so many jobs the governor can use to lure anti-slots legislators away from the General Assembly. The ones who can't be bought will have to taken out some other way. The horse tracks have already threatened anyone who opposes them by telling them that if they don't change their minds, they'll soon be wearing the political equivalent of cement overshoes."

"Pretty soon, we're going to be seeing people walking the halls of state government wearing trench coats and carrying violin cases."

Cothran said that ever since the State Senate refused the demands of the horse tracks for protection money in the legislative special session, every anti-slots state senator has had a political contract put out on him. "This senator got out of it easy. Politically speaking, he was bought off. Other legislators who stood up to the tracks may not be so lucky, given that the race tracks have made it clear they are going to whack any legislator who voted against them."


Barr vs. Krauss on whether religion and science are compatible

I haven't yet commented on Lawrence Krauss's recent article in the Wall Street Journal in which he tries to make the case that religion and science don't mix. In the mean time, Steven Barr at First Things has done a pretty good job himself. But you won't see it in the Journal. They refused it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The best slots votes money can buy

Those Page One guys. Whaddya gonna do with 'em?

In a post today the state's leading liberal blog comes to the defense of KEEP against charges by yours truly that the horse industry has in been in the business of buying votes with the big money it says it doesn't have, being so poor and all.

In an attempt at an argument against this charge, it lists fifteen legislators who got KEEP money and didn't vote for the slots bill. Well, first of all, two of the legislators it lists as voting against the bill (Mike Harmon, R-Danville and Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville) didn't vote at all, leaving only thirteen.

But does the fact that some legislators didn't vote the way KEEP wanted them to vote but took KEEP money prove that the horse industry wasn't buying votes? Just why does Page One think KEEP was contributing to candidates? Does this group that claims to represent the financially threatened horse industry just give money out of the goodness of its heart?

Oh, and how many are on the list of favorable votes who took KEEP money?

And then there are the putties over in the comments section who accuse The Family Foundation of contributing to political campaigns. Sorry folks, never happened. The Family Foundation has never given single solitary dime to a candidate. If you think so, where's your evidence?

The racing industry paid over $400K to high-priced lobbyists. Wonder how much they spent on candidates.

Tolerance towards people who doubt Darwin: So easy, even an educator can do it

That sound you hear is an uproar over in the primate section of the park. Let's go over and see what all the commotion is about ...

Richard Day, who we identified last week as a retired adult male of the species grapheocrates educativus erectus, has responded to my piece on whether we should consider someone's past disbelief of Darwinism as a potentially disqualifying factor for the position of state schools' chief.

Day, one of the most intelligent and reasonable members of the species ever taken into captivity (more than once we have poked at him with a rhetorical stick, and he has responded amiably and with good humor), expresses his appreciation of my fanciful simian metaphors for his profession, but protests that what I have accomplished in the way of humor, I have more than compensated for in the lack of accuracy of my characterization of the search process for the Kentucky Commissioner of Education.

We have taken a notepad in hand and have transcribed from the various vocal utterings and complicated hand movements some of his main points:

First he takes note of the fact that Cheek has changed his view on the subject of human origins, a point, I might add, that I alluded to near the end of my piece. But then he quotes Cheek in regard to the Dover decision:
I concur [says Cheek] fully with the very well-reasoned and well-articulated opinion of the judge in [Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in [Pennsylvania] that these positions have not led to anything yet that qualifies as science. Deciding precisely what is or is not science is admittedly a bit hard to pin down fully since the demarcation arguments regarding science are still quite robust among professional philosophers of science. The judge found that the [Intelligent Design] views are fundamentally religious (I would also add metaphysical) in nature and do not belong in the science classroom as part of the formal scientific curriculum.
This, says Day, should count as points in his favor. I beg to differ. I fully realize that, among many members of his somewhat effutive species, acknowledgment of the authority of the Dover decision serves as something of a totem. But to call the Dover decision's reasoning on the nature of Intelligent Design and its relation to science "well-reasoned" betrays a lack of understanding either of the decision or of reason itself--or both.

I have pointed out elsewhere the fundamental problems with the reasoning in the key portion of the Dover case:
I had pointed out that Judge John Jones affirmed a blatant contradiction in his opinion. He argues that the alleged unsoundness of the argument from irreducible complexity is a blow to Intelligent Design, since it is "central to ID", and then later argues that even if irreducible complexity were true, it wouldn't confirm ID because it isn't central to it, but "merely a test for evolution, not design."
In other words, not only was the decision not "well-reasoned," it was blatantly contradictory. So we rational animals can be forgiven our suspicions when a candidate for the highest education post in the state--and those expressing opinions on him--can't tell the difference between good reasoning and atrocious reasoning.

Now in my original post on this issue I did not say anything about Cheek's own views on the issue of creationism or Intelligent Design themselves. I was more interested in the clamor among those who presume to be publicly vetting him. But I hardly find Day's defense in this regard convincing.

In fact, one wonders what to make of a group of hominids that champions demonstrably contradictory arguments and then accuses those who pointed these contradictions out as irrational.

But maybe my intellectual standards for the educational community are too high. After all, it is a poorly hidden secret that those with the least amount of learning are the ones running our institutions of learning, and many of us who are accustomed to walking erect have to send our kids to schools which are operated by people who, intellectually speaking, are still walking on all fours. This is obviously a generalization, and one that admits of exceptions for those who, like Day, have achieved a higher evolutionary stage.

Cheek at least has one real Ph.D, some would say two, although one is in education, which is arguably just one of the many modern tentacles of what William James once called, "the Ph.D octopus." But let's not mix metaphors here.

Day asks:
Is it possible that Kentucky’s next education commissioner – if he or she maintained creationist views - might promote programs or act in ways that put the state at odds with the Constitution or established court rulings? Would the state end up wasting time and paying more money to ACLU attorneys?
Heaven forfend that we do anything that could possibly cause the ACLU to sue--anything like, say, standing on our principles. I have always wondered about this argument. Should school districts really just roll over and play dead whenever the ACLU threatens a lawsuit? Does that mean that if Christian groups become as successful at extorting money through lawsuits as the ACLU, that schools should then do the opposite? Does might really make right in the education kingdom? Is this all it takes to send a troop of public education bureaucrats scattering into the trees?

In fact, one wonders, if Dover had gone the other way, would the educational establishment now be enthusiastically implementing laws that allowed for the teaching of Intelligent Design on the grounds that courts had declared it constitutional?

I doubt it. I think they would be throwing coconuts down on anyone who would even hazard the suggestion.

I have no problem with Day hunting around and gathering information on the backgrounds of commissioner candidates. It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it--and there's no person with a more prehensile grasp of the issues of Kentucky schools than Day. My problem is with the smelly little orthodoxies (to use a Tom Wolfism) that pervade the public education mentality, such as that anyone with traditional religious views on a subject is potentially unfit for an educational leadership role in our schools.

Day compares Cheek to another commissioner candidate, Michael Sentance, who
once became sufficiently riled up at a youth soccer game that he not only got a yellow card, and a red card, but whatever color he got when he was suspended for the balance of the season. You want dominant male? I give you Michael Sentance.
I don't know about Day, but I kinda' like the spirit this shows. We could do a whole lot worse than a commissioner who would kick butt and take names. I mean, it isn't like we've never seen good coaches who lose their cool in games before. If he had a regular habit of throwing chairs, that's one thing. Or maybe if he was ejected in a game in which he was coaching Kindergarten girls. But getting a red card in a competitive sport? This is unusual? Has Day had kids in competitive middle and high school sports recently?

My chief concern is that Sentance was only red carded once. Day needs to do some more digging. We don't want a milquetoast on our hands.

But then Day notes a difference between Cheek and Sentance:
Sentance immediately acknowledged his mistake, took full responsibility and served his suspension. He followed that up by returning to coaching and behaving himself.
Is this supposed to be analogous to having had what Day admits was a principled objection to the Darwinist theory of human origins? Is this a punishable offense in the Lost World of the educationalists? Does the guy really have to do public penance for it? Is this grounds for declaring someone subhuman?

I'll give this to Day: it is perfectly legitimate for him to criticize a candidate for not coming clean on past indiscretions. My criticism is with the pervasive attitude among his fellow educationytes that considers someone's traditionalist views on human origins as an indiscretion in the first place.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Can the Kentucky Legislature be bought?

Well, when I said at the height of the battle over slots during the legislative session that the slots lobby had sent an army of lobbyists to the Capitol, I thought I was exaggerating. But now it's official: The slots lobby hired twenty lobbyists, and the supposedly impoverished racing industry spent a cool $418K to bankroll them.

Twenty. That's at least a squad, and possibly a platoon. Sheez.

Did this blizzard of cash coming from wealthy tracks and other horse interests get them what they wanted? Well, it bought them the House. But, as David Williams made clear, the Senate was not for sale.

But there I go again, engaging in hyperbole.

Oooh, but wait. What's this? Our governor, who was assisted into office thanks to $1 million from the Bluegrass Freedom Fund, supplied by casino magnate William Yung, is trying to purchase two Kentucky senators with lucrative job offers to get them out of the Senate so he can change the anti-slots composure of the chamber and get his slots bill through.

Welcome to politics casino-style.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Empiricists behaving irrationally: Show me the laws of nature

Gee, these experts on rationality seem to be popping up everywhere. In addition to biologist Jerry Coyne, who can't seem to understand the distinction between metaphysical and methodological naturalism, and physicist Sean Carroll and a few others who can't seem to figure out the difference between science and history, we now have the "Reason Lyceum," which has taken me to task for not knowing the law.

Not the civil law, mind you, but natural law. He notes my quote from Jerry Coyne, in which Coyne asserts that virgin births or resurrections are impossible, and my response, which was that the only way someone could know this is through a priori reason, to which the Reason Lyceum responds:
There is no a priori assumption. The argument by Coyne is completely a posteriori. The argument is based on the scientific observations of similar events. We have never seen a human female produce asexually, nor have we seen someone raise from the dead a whole 3 days postmortem. Additionally, all biological research has shown that these events should be biologically impossible. Therefore, it would be simply silly to assume that it should happen, especially without copious amounts of evidence.
Now for those philosophically uninitiated, a priori (Latin: "from the prior") simply means knowledge obtained independently of experience; whereas a posteriori (Latin: "from the following") means knowledge obtained from from experience.

Why does Coyne (and Lyceros, author of the post at the Reason Lyceum) reject the Virgin Birth? Because he has seen many births and none of them are parthonogenic. Why does he reject the Resurrection? Because he has seen many deaths and none of them have been followed by the person coming back to life. In other words, he bases his view on the impossibility of an event by the fact that he has seen many other events similar to them that have not involved related miraculous events.

I'm trying to think how this kind of reasoning be received at, say, a trial. Say, a murder trial. Say, the O. J. Simpson trial:
Judge: Does the defense have a witness?

Defense: Yes, Your Honor, we have quite a number of them.

Judge: Are these witnesses to the alleged murder the defendant's wife?

Defense: No, Your Honor, they are not.

Judge: Then why are you calling them to the stand?

Defense: Your honor, we are calling them to the stand because they did not see Mr. Simpson commit the murder.

Judge: Were these people at the scene of the alleged crime?

Defense: No, Your Honor, they were not.

Judge: You mean to tell me that the witnesses you are calling to the stand were not at the scene of the crime in which the defendant is alleged to have killed his wife?

Defense: That is correct, Your Honor,

Judge: Counsel, what value could your witnesses possibly have if they were not present when the crime was alleged to have happened.

Defense: Well, you see, Your Honor, the prosecution has called witnesses that saw the crime. But we have witnesses who didn't see the crime, and furthermore, we have many more witnesses who didn't see the crime committed than the prosecution can produce who did see it. You see, these are people who were present in circumstances similar to those which Mr. Simpson and his wife were in when the alleged murder occurred. And they never saw him murder his wife.

Judge: Will counsel approach the bench?
Now Coyne and Lyceros may find this kind of reasoning convincing, but I'm trying to think of any other circumstance in which it would not be laughed out of the room.

"It’s a blow to the belief in the miraculous," says Lyceros, "because it requires a cessation of the natural laws in order to happen." Ah. Natural laws. And what are they? Are they like civil laws? Do they say certain things must happen or cannot happen under certain circumstances? Where are these "laws"? Has Lyceros seen them? Can he quote them verbatim? Are they prescriptive? Are they, like, decrees?

Of course, Lyceros knows there is no evidence for a "law" in this sense--the only sense in light of which we can say any event we have not observed is"possible" or "impossible". All we have is the descriptive evidence that things have always happened a certain way. But somehow, Lyceros jumps from the descriptive evidence to a prescriptive law. One wonders how he does this.

Maybe he could enlighten us.

Lyceros has no evidence that there can never be exceptions to these laws--that there can never be a virgin birth or a resurrection--precisely because he was not been there to witness them. The only evidence we have for what the "law" is are numerous events we have observed.

You would think you would not have to say such a thing to someone who claims to be an empiricist. But it's a funny thing. The very people who claim to want to stick to the evidence of their senses posit "laws" they cannot point to. They cannot see or touch them. These are the people who are always accusing religious people of believing in things they can't see, like God.

Lyceros, show us the law. Not the effects of the law. A religious person could show you the effects of his belief too. I mean the real Law of Nature you believe in.

Show it to us. Where is it?

All Lyceros knows--and Coyne and Carroll and Myers and the rest--is that things have repeatedly happened a certain way. Then they invoke the term "law"--a term that has all sorts of prescriptive assocations based on civil laws (which, I hate to tell Lyceros, have authors)--and everyone is supposed to believe through this process of word magic by which all of these descriptive repetitions amount to something prescriptive.

But they can't say how. They have no rational justification for making this leap. It is a glaring example of the hypostacization of language.

Now I happen to believe in the laws of nature. I believe them for the same reason I believe in God: because I have seen the effects of His existence. Now I'm fine with someone telling me that
that is not a sufficient ground for believing in something. But when the same person starts spouting off about the laws of nature, for which the only evidence are its effects, then I start to wonder about his ability to reason properly--the problem, remember, that only religious people are supposed to have.

In fact, this sounds suspiciously like a bad case of "cognitive dissonance." You know, the thing that scientific rationalists are always accusing religious people of when they claim they are religious and believe in science too because they hold two seeming contradictory positions at the same time.

Here we have empiricists who believe in laws of nature that they have no empirical access to. Yup. A bad case, I'd say.

And the cognitive dissonance doesn't end there. Lyceros engages in the same self-refuting rhetoric as Coyne and his ilk. He defends the position that science "suggests the impossibility," and then, only several paragraphs later, denies what he just said.
Science does not ever prove anything ... It doesn’t prove miracles don’t happen, it just says that by all understanding, they don’t.
"All understanding?" What is that supposed to mean? Everyone's understanding? It can't mean that, since most people in this world believe in miracles in some form. So what does it mean? He doesn't say.

But, more importantly, if science "does not ever prove anything," then how can it suggest the "impossibility" (not "unlikelihood," not "improbability," but "impossibility") of miracles?

I'm trying to tell myself that that these are scientific people, and therefore they are more rational than I am. But it's not working.

Friday, July 10, 2009

My Life With the Kentuckians: Is Dennis Cheek fit enough to survive the vetting process for education commissioner?

According to several news sources, Dennis Cheek, one of the candidates for the Kentucky Commissioner of Education, a man who is an experienced science and social studies teacher and school administrator, the director of the Office of High School Reform, Research, and Adult Education in Rhode Island, and who possesses two PhDs, once wrote a paper that questioned the evidence for whether human beings evolved from apes.

The revelation has caused a great deal of chattering among some in the education bureaucracy who wonder why he did not divulge this to the Board of Education, which is looking into his background.

Although the views Cheek expressed concerning human origins are in agreement with those of most people in the state, some of the more exotic and excitable species of Kentuckians are wondering whether he is well-adapted enough for the secularist environment of the state's education bureaucracy.

Richard Day, a dominant male in the education community and the one who dug up the old creationist paper, displayed openly aggressive behavior at his blog "Kentucky School News and Commentary" in response to the revelation about what he considers Cheek's checkered past:
What I can't figure is - why didn't Cheek inoculate himself against the sizable vulnerability represented by creationism? Did he bet it wouldn't be discovered? Did it not come up in Missouri where he was also a finalist for their top post?
Exactly why Day considers someone's past creationist belief a potentially disqualifying factor for a schools chief in a state which not only still has a creationist statute on the books, but is the home of the hugely successful creation museum is not self-evident. But the discovery clearly caused Day to climb the walls of his cage, and will certainly cause others among the professional education community to raise their tales and lower their heads.

Years of continued observation of the professional education community has made it fairly clear that they are not well-suited to understand the beliefs and values of the communities their schools were built to serve. They are known to become visibly anxious and erratic in their behavior whenever issues such as school prayer, the role Christianity has played in our nation's history, or human origins are raised. And the higher you go in their dominance hierarchy, the more unfriendly behavior they seem to display toward the common cultural beliefs of their students and their families.

Day's revelation followed an editorial in the Louisville Courier-Journal, in which a species related to the professional education bureaucrats knows as "journalists" (a cultural subgroup that is now on the endangered species list) questioned Cheek's past involvement in the Templeton Foundation.

It is a measure of the cultural isolation of the editors at the Courier that they would be scratching their heads at anyone's involvement with Templeton, which the paper inexplicably calls "controversial and polarizing." In fact, it is a relatively mainstream organization one of whose purposes is to try to bring together diverse intellectuals of differing viewpoints to discuss the relation of religion and science.

The only people who find Templeton's innocuous objectives controversial are the more exotic subspecies of scientific atheists like Richard Dawkins, P. Z. Myers, and Jerry Coyne, who are known to inhabit a few isolated university biology departments.

That the Courier would consider the views of these outliers as somehow the norm may be due to the Courier's habit of imitating the radical secularism papers like the New York Times have come to exhibit.

Journalist see, journalist do.

But one wonders if the issue should really matter at all. Cheek, who has been involved with public education for many years, now says he has come to believe that humans really did descend from apes.

And after having observed behavior similar to that he is now encountering in Kentucky, it is easy to see why.

"Coyne's Confusion" on Discovery's blog

My piece, "Coyne's Confusion," was cross posted on the Discovery Institute's "Evolution News and Views."

King Corn wants more and wants it now

The Great Corn Conspiracy continues unabated. The Corn Mafia wants an increase in the required ethanol content of gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent. "This is not a surprising request," says Bernard Weinstein, professor of economics at University of North Texas:
considering that the industry’s facilities are 20% idle and that several large ethanol refiners have recently filed for bankruptcy, despite a 45-cent-per-gallon tax credit and a high tariff to limit imports of sugar-based ethanol from Brazil and other countries.
Be concerned America, very concerned.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Your know your town is too big when ...

Okay, your town is officially too big if you have a "tree board."

Not that I am opposed to government fining people for cutting down poor innocent trees, but who is government to be getting down on other people for doing this? Has anyone noticed the worst perpetrators of tree destruction crimes?

How about those government road construction crews who, to the surprise of most people in the general vicinity, show up one day on some scenic Kentucky road and mow down all the vegetation in sight, include what appear to be centuries old trees so they can widen a road that never sees much traffic anyway just because some local politician got government money for so they could pay local workers (most of whom aren't local anyway) exorbitant prevailing wages.

Put me on a "tree board." I'll save some trees alright.

Louisville Forum pulls a "Francene"

Billy the Greek (Billy Reed) recounts the goings on at Tuesday's Louisville Forum, where the pro-slots racing industry was given the floor away from those pesky critics who might have put some hard questions to them. At the Louisville Forum, just like on WHAS's "Francene Show," slots advocates always enjoy the House Edge.

Bob Evans, the racing industry's six-million dollar man (that's his compensation as Churchill Downs' CEO), remarked, “I don’t know why I keep investing in this industry,” Evans then said, “but I can’t seem to help myself.”

It must be hard when your trying to find a home for all that money you get paid from the impoverished racing industry.

Even industry apologist Billy Reed acknowledged the unsung problem with the racing industry: it cares more about money than it does horses:
Evans showed again that he is strictly a numbers-cruncher who has little interest in horses or horsemen, but a lot of interest in making money. The romance, tradition, and inherent drama of the sport elude him – and never mind that those qualities are the very ones that racing needs to do a much better job of selling if it is to develop new fans.
Fans? Who are they? Are thy the people that had to stand in line for up to 90 minutes at Churchill's first night race because there weren't enough concessions help? Those fans?

These are clearly not people who know how to serve customers.

Not only that, but Reed has a theory as to why the industry seems creatively stagnant:
For as long as I can remember, racing leaders have called for more co-operation and new leadership. But the industry keeps re-cycling the same old leaders who stand for the same old self-interest groups. Real leaders such as John Gaines, William T. Young, and Albert Clay have not been adequately replaced.
Is this why the industry has done such a ridiculously poor job at marketing itself? Or is it just because tracks like Churchill Downs are caring less about horses now that they have income coming in from slot operations in other states? This is an industry where the state's premier horse track, Churchill Downs, just discovered night racing. How many years ago was it that football and baseball began playing at night?

Maybe if they weren't so preoccupied with their mechanized gambling operations in other states, they would have thought of this sooner.

The horse industry has made a deal with the Devil in buying into the idea that slots are their salvation.

Reed, of course, buys into the slots strategy. He finds it convincing to argue that it's good public policy to enrich already wealthy race track owners by luring money from low-end gamblers who play slots.

Talkin' 'bout P. Z. Myers' generation

At his blog Pharyngula, P. Z. Myers worries that Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, will taint the office with "embarrassingly insane nonsense," by which he means to refer to Collins' Christianity, which he calls an "antique and ineffective superstition."

Apparently, Myers would rather the office be occupied by someone who shares his more up-to-date, mid-19th century materialism.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Contra delicia: Should we eat our pets?

The farmboys over at Front Porch Republic have an excellent post today in which, in response to the question, "Should we eat our pets," they respond: "There shouldn't be any such thing as pets." Pets, they argue, are a symptom of our industrial age decadence.

Oh, and check out the Wendell Berry quote: it's stunning.

The author, Caleb Stegall, points out the etymology of the English word 'pet'. What he didn't take note of is that the Latin word for 'pet' is 'delicium', the root of the English word 'delicious.'

I'm sorry, but that just can't be an accident.

Richard Brookhiser on William F. Buckley

An interesting review of Richard Brookhiser's new book on William F. Buckley. It's hard to go wrong with a book about a great writer (in this case a journalist) by another great writer (also a journalist).

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Cothran's Fork: Why there can be no scientific objection to religious miracles

In yesterday's post on Jerry Coyne and the New Atheist argument that science and religion are incompatible, I pointed out that there can only be two objections to religious miracle claims: either a philosophical objection or a historical objection, and given this, that there can be no scientific objection to the miraculous. I made the argument in response to the claim of some scientists that we know, based on our scientific knowledge, that miracles can't happen.

My argument is based on taking the scientists who make this claim about miracles (Jerry Coyne, Sean Carroll, etc.) at their word. They say that science only involves methodological naturalism. This just means that scientists assume for the purpose of their scientific studies that no miracle will happen that might interfere with their observations in the laboratory or in the field--or in their offices where they perform their mathematical calculations. This is in contrast to metaphysical naturalism, which is a philosophical doctrine that declares, by philosophical fiat, that miracles can't happen.

If the only naturalism inherent in science is methodological, then science, by definition, can have nothing to say about historical miracle claims. That doesn't mean a scientist cannot have an objection to miracles, only that, if he does, his objection to them is as a philosopher or as a historian, and his arguments must observe the principles and procedures of those disciplines.

I am officially dubbing this argument "Cothran's Fork," in honor of its author (me). It goes thusly:
If the scientific arguments against miracle claims are based on a priori considerations, they are therefore philosophical, and not scientific arguments; and if the arguments against miracle claims are based on a posteriori evidential considerations, then they are historical, and therefore, again, not scientific arguments.

The arguments against miracle claims are either a priori or a posteriori.

Therefore miracle claims are either philosophical or historical, but not scientific.
"Cothran's Fork" is similar in structure and operation to "Hume's Fork" with the additional advantage that, unlike Hume's Fork, Cothran's Fork is not self-defeating.

Now this should be no problem if the scientists who have claimed that science is only methodologically naturalist really mean it--and understand its implications. But scientists like Jerry Coyne and Sean Carroll will assert in one moment that science is methodologically naturalist and then, in the very next, drop the assumption and make arguments that rely on the very opposite belief.

You can offer a lot of arguments as to why science should be considered methodologically, but not metaphysically naturalist--because it studies nature itself and therefore has nothing to say about what may be beyond nature (but powerful enough to interfere with it); that science uses methods that cannot be extrapolated to philosophical issues such as whether the laws of nature are inviolable, etc.--but the fact is that this is not the issue in dispute. For many of the new scientific critics of religion, the fact that science is methodologically, but not metaphysically naturalist is a given. The problem is that immediately after stating the limitation on their discipline, they argue as if the limitation did not exist.

When Carroll, for example, discusses the miraculous, he first goes to great lengths to assure his readers that he is methodologically naturalist:

Science and religion are not compatible. But, before explaining what that means, we should first say what it doesn’t mean.

It doesn’t mean, first, that there is any necessary or logical or a priori incompatibility between science and religion. We shouldn’t declare them to be incompatible purely on the basis of what they are, which some people are tempted to do.
So far, so good. Then he takes not of the various miraculous events claimed by various religions, and tries to convince his readers (who apparently, like himself, don't get out much) that people do, in fact, believe these things:
...[I]t makes sense to look at the actual practices and beliefs of people who define themselves as religious. And when we do, we find religion making all sorts of claims about the natural world, including those mentioned above — Jesus died and was resurrected, etc. Seriously, there are billions of people who actually believe things like this; I’m not making it up.
We'll take your word for it, Doc.

But just several paragraphs later, Carroll, who has just professed methodological naturalism, turn off that part of his brain and turns on the metaphysically naturalist lobe and argues just the opposite:
Religions have always made claims about the natural world, from how it was created to the importance of supernatural interventions in it. And these claims are often very important to the religions who make them ... But the progress of science over the last few centuries has increasingly shown these claims to be straightforwardly incorrect. We know more about the natural world now than we did two millennia ago, and we know enough to say that people don’t come back from the dead. [Emphasis added]
Seriously, there are thousands of scientific materialists who actually believe things like this; I’m not making it up. Such assertions have attracted the approving nod of the equally reckless Coyne, who praises them as "on the money."

What scientific progress has been made over the last few centuries that has shown these claims to be incorrect? Did people believe, before the onset of the 17th century, that nature did not display regular behavior? If so, then why were people amazed and attracted by miracle claims? Those who claimed miracles not only assumed a belief in the regularity of nature, they banked on it (for good and ill).

You would think scientists with Coyne and Carroll's stature would understand the nature of the scientific reasoning itself, which involves induction, the strength of which is always probable rather than certain. It relies on a set of limited observations of a set of phenomena on the basis of which an extrapolation is made about the rest of the phenomena. But because it cannot observe all the phenomena, its conclusion must always be tenuous.

Of course, this description of the logical strength of scientific reasoning is not explicitly contested by scientists. If you catch them in their Dr. Jeckyl phase (in which the methodological lobe is operative), they will nod their heads vigorously to this description of their discipline and say things like "Absolutely," and "Amen." But once Mr. Hyde takes over (in which the metaphysical lobe becomes dominant), they will act as if they had never heard it before, and spout a river of assertions that completely ignore the limitations they had just assented to in their other persona.

How, precisely, do we "know enough to say that people don’t come back from the dead"? The only way we could know this is to completely jettison our cautionary understanding of induction and act as if we had had direct observation of every death and its aftermath that has ever been experience in the world. The Christian claim that Jesus was resurrected is false if it can be shown that every person who has died has, in fact, stayed dead, including Jesus. But the claim that every person who has died has, in fact, stayed dead is itself rendered false if Jesus rose from the dead.

How do we determine which tack to take? Certainly not by science, which suffers under the disadvantageous fact that there were no scientists there to say one way or another. The only way anyone can make any claim about the Resurrection is to assume, philosophically, that it didn't happen, or to look at the historical evidence for the claim and make a judgment yeah or nay. But the reader of the rhetoric of scientific rationalists like Coyne and Carroll will notice that they never offer any philosophical or historical arguments for their assertions. They simply invoke the word "science" in the hope that their readers, now mesmerized by scientific words, will immediately abandon all rational thought and give their passive assent.

Seriously, hundreds of people fall for things like this; I’m not making it up.

Monday, July 06, 2009

"Perks of the Signature Industry" in today's Herald-Leader

My op-ed "The Perks of the Signature Industry" ran in today's Lexington Herald-Leader.

Coyne's Confusion: How a prominent scientific atheist can't agree with himself about metaphysical naturalism

Advocates of Intelligent Design and others who practice skepticism toward the pomposities of much of modern Darwinism can be forgiven a little amusement when they see their detractors engaged in an internal squabble that highlights the philosophical absurdities of the scientistic rationalism that pervades much of modern Darwinism.

Ever since the publication of Jerry Coyne's New Republic article, "Seeing and Believing," the Darwinists have been engaged in a three-way tug of war over the issue of "accommodationism." The gnawing and snarling has pitted three camps against each other in a contest over the right way to wage the PR war against the Intelligent Design movement for the hearts and minds of the scientifically naive.

The Three Non-Amigos
There are, first, those who, scornful of any public dissembling, declare outright their unapologetic commitment to metaphysical naturalism. Generally speaking, these are the New Atheists, whose online champion for several years has been P. Z. Myers, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota who is perhaps most famous for his public desecration of the Eucharistic Host, a one-time publicity stunt that only temporarily overshadowed his more regular and customary nastiness toward those who consider his narrow scientific reductionism ... well, narrow. Coyne, a University of Chicago scientist, has recently joined Myers at the head of the pack.

On one hand this group has called on scientific organizations like the NCSE to take a neutral position in regard to whether Darwinism is reconcilable. On the other hand, they favor a wider war on religion as the only ultimately victorious Darwinist strategy. These are the crazy uncles of the movement--those who the mainstream Darwinists would rather not let the neighbors see.

Second, there are those who adhere to metaphysical naturalism, but think it's bad for their public image, not to mention for their courtroom strategy, which has been premised on the assumption that Darwinism is only methodologically, but not philosophically naturalist. These are the more presentable people who set up shop at the National Center for Science Education, and who have enjoyed much of the media spotlight in the debate over Intelligent Design. Their message to the New Atheists has been, generally speaking, to keep their yaps shut so the public will not become alarmed over the atheism that lies behind much of Darwinist belief. They prefer singing the soft song of accommodation to the herd in order that there not be a full-scale stampede toward creationism.

And finally there are the theistic evolutionists, whose concern is to maintain the intellectual plausibility of their position, which is of course threatened if their views on the subject were to house two irreconcilable positions: that of an active theism and that of a metaphysical naturalism that can permit, at most, only a rudimentary, emasculated Deism. That is why many members of this group, such as Ken Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, tend to downplay the basic miracles of Christianity--the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth--that are at the heart of the issue between theists and the New Atheists, rather than offering any kind of intellectual defense of them. In once sense, they might be considered the accommodationists of the theistic movement.

Tied up in the debate is not only the public relations strategy of the anti-ID movement, but the questions of where methodological naturalism ends and metaphysical naturalism begins; whether science can claim exclusive right to being rational; whether scientific method is the only avenue to truth; and ultimately whether science and religion are intellectually reconcilable at all.

Coyne's Confusion over Metaphysical Naturalism
The issue of methodological naturalism and its role in science has pervaded the whole discussion, and one of the charges made against Jerry Coyne is that he is confused about the distinction. One person making this charge is journalist Chris Mooney. Coyne's defenders (including himself and Jason Rosenhouse) have responded to Mooney's charge by pointing to statements Coyne has made in which he explicitly states the distinction. But if you say that someone contradicts himself--which Coyne clearly does on this issue--it is hardly an adequate defense to simply repeat one side of the contradiction.

In his original article in the New Republic, Coyne indeed articulates the principle of methodological naturalism:
Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature.
Fear not, he seems to imply, the naturalism you see is only a procedural rule for working scientists in the lab or out in the field. Not to worry. But then, responding to Ken Miller, who doesn't accept a literal creation account, but does accept the central miracles on which Christianity is based, Coyne goes on to say:
Why reject the story of creation and Noah's Ark because we know that animals evolved, but nevertheless accept the reality of the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, which are equally at odds with science? After all, biological research suggests the impossibility of human females reproducing asexually, or of anyone reawakening three days after death.
If there is no a priori naturalistic assumption in science, then how can these events be "at odds with science"? He goes on:
It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.
In other words, he suggests, science is not inherently materialistic, and yet only materialists are true scientists--and this from a person who criticizes religious people for being irrational.

Natural Law and the Miraculous
The Christian claim is that Christ miraculously brought Himself back from the dead, and that He was born without a human father. These claims are miracle claims. A miracle is, by definition, a violation of the normal course of nature. In other words, a belief in a miracle not only does not imply that there is no normal natural behavior, it clearly involves the belief that there is: otherwise, there would be nothing amazing about a miracle. For someone to say "I believe the normal course of natural events was suspended on these occasions" does not imply that they don't believe in the normal course of natural events; in fact, it implies--very explicitly--exactly the opposite.

So if those who believe in miracles already believe in the normal course of natural events, then why does Coyne consider it a blow to the belief in the miraculous to point to the normal course of natural events? If believers in miraculous events believe in the normal workings of nature, what exactly is it that makes them unscientific thinkers? Obviously Coyne does not think that a theistic scientist cannot competently perform an experiment in the laboratory or identify a new species of plant or work an equation properly just because he thinks that a man who claimed to be God was born of a virgin and rose from the dead over 2000 years ago.

So what's his problem?

His problem is that, despite protestations that he believes science does not necessarily involve an a priori materialistic commitment, he really thinks it does, and clearly says so--in the same article in which he says he doesn't. And in fact much of what he says about his rejection of miracles makes no sense without taking into account his metaphysical naturalism.

This penchant for saying one thing and then arguing as if you believed the exact opposite is a penchant that is characteristic of New Atheist scientists. Sean Carroll, physicist at the California Institute of Technology, who comes to Coyne's defense, joins in the spirit of Coyne's confusion:
Science never proves anything. Science doesn’t prove that spacetime is curved, or that species evolved according to natural selection, or that the observable universe is billions of years old. That’s simply not how science works.
This statement comes just after he remarks:
The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions ... Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.
Science never proves anything, says Carroll, except it proves that miracles don't happen. The only place I can think of that this kind of reasoning makes sense is at New Atheist gatherings and on the pages of Alice in Wonderland.

Lurking behind the comments of Coyne's and his allies is the idea of inviolable natural law. As Carroll seems to admit (before he takes it back), we cannot prove that the laws of nature always apply, for the simple reason that we haven't been there to observe the laws at every instant of their application. We employ inductive reasoning, and conclude, based on an infinitesimally small sampling of events that have ever happened in the world, that things seem to follow certain patterns.

But if someone produces evidence of an irregularity, it is no argument against it to say that nature is uniformly regular, since nature is uniformly regular only if there are no irregularities. If there are, then the claim that it is uniformly regular is shot to pieces.

Can Science Say Anything about the Christian Miracles?
Coyne claims that science is set up to handle such possibilities (which he doesn't really admit as possibilities):
Despite [Stephen Jay] Gould's claims to the contrary, supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science. All scientists can think of certain observations that would convince them of the existence of God or supernatural forces ... if a nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus appeared to the residents of New York City, as he supposedly did to the evangelist Oral Roberts in Oklahoma, and this apparition were convincingly documented, most scientists would fall on their knees with hosannas.

To which the only acceptable response is, "Yeah. Right." Coyne and his fellow scientists may claim that they would only believe a miracle if they saw it with their own eyes, and that's fine. For my part, I'll only believe they would believe a miracle if they saw it with their own eyes if I saw it with my own eyes.

Of course it's hard to conceive of how Coyne can adjudicate historical miracle claims which, practically speaking, are the only kind of miracle claims there ever really are. It certainly doesn't cover Christianity's miracle claims. And so, ironically, Coyne's position in opposition to miracles commits the cardinal scientific sin: it is unfalsifiable.

When someone in history claims to have witnessed an exception to the law, particularly one performed by someone who was purported to have previously performed a number of them in public; and which was witnessed by hundreds of people; and which was supported by myriad documentary evidence--and when even the contemporary detractors, of whom there were many, never even appeared to contest it; one wonders then what "science" can profitably say about it.

Scientists, qua scientists, can't say anything about whether these events were exceptions to natural laws precisely because they weren't there to observe them. One could say that makes them "unfalsifiable" and therefore "unscientific," to which the answer is, "So what?" The only person to whom such a statement would any force anyway was someone who thought that science was the only methodology that yielded truth. But, with the apparent exception of a few scientists cloistered in their academic departments, no one really believes that anyway.

And since when did anyone consider history "scientific" in the normal sense? Historical events are unrepeatable, they can't be studied in a laboratory, and they can't be quantified. The rules of historical research bear little resemblance to what is done in biology or chemistry or physics. Coyne can't say history is "scientific" in his sense any more than he say religion is scientific.

There are only two things anyone can say about any miracle. The first is that it can't happen, and the second is that it didn't happen--and neither one of these is a scientific statement. The first is a philosophical statement, and the second is a historical statement. The first statement is a statement of metaphysical naturalism, which Coyne himself says (right before he unsays it) is not inherent in science itself. It is a philosophical assumption masquerading as science. The second is a statement if historical skepticism. Coyne can only be saying one or the other, and in fact does both, but without offering any philosophical or historical argument for his conclusions (the only two things he can legitimately do). He instead does the one thing he has no justification for doing: he waves his hand and declares them unscientific.

The question of the miraculous is a philosophical and historical question. It is not a scientific question.

The scientific manner of dealing with miracles is really quite impressive as a rhetorical phenomenon: it gets the scientific rationalist out of having to do any intellectual heavy lifting. It involves making metaphysical and historical assertions without actually making any metaphysical or historical arguments. G. K. Chesterton spotted the method behind it a hundred years ago:
The philosophical case against miracles is somewhat easily dealt with. There is no philosophical case against miracles. There are such things as the laws of Nature rationally speaking. What everybody knows is this only. That there is repetition in nature.

... The historic case against miracles is also rather simple. It consists of calling miracles impossible, then saying that no one but a fool believes impossibilities: then declaring that there is no wise evidence on behalf of the miraculous. The whole trick is done by means of leaning alternately on the philosophical and historical objection. If we say miracles are theoretically possible, they say, "Yes, but there is no evidence for them." When we take all the records of the human race and say, "Here is your evidence," they say, "But these people were superstitious, they believed in impossible things."
In other words, when you show that it did happen, you are told that it doesn't matter, because it can't happen; and when you show that it can happen you are told that it doesn't matter, because it didn't happen.

Remember that the next time you are told how rational modern scientists are.

Friday, July 03, 2009

John Forgy sleeps with the fishes

Well, if you thought the strong arm tactics used by the horse tracks during the special session last month to try to get their bill through the House were questionable, you ought to get a load of their newest techniques to intimidate those who refused to vote for the legislation which would have allowed the tracks to operate slot machines while getting about a 50 percent cut.

John Forgy, nephew of State Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R-Lexington), was fired on Wednesday by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission because of his aunt's vote in committee against the slots bill, which would have paid the tracks protection money. Oh, and it didn't help that his father, Larry Forgy, has been an ardent opponent of expanded gambling in the state.

But things could have been worse. He could have woken up to find a horse's head under his sheets. Let's face it, the tracks have a few to spare.

No one got a good look at the plates as the car sped away, but word on the street is that the contract on Forgy was issued by Governor's office after he was threatened because of his inauspicious family connections.

Francene, are you there? Francene?

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Grammar Guy assists you in using proper Twitter terminology

Dear Grammar Guy:

If the platform by which we communicate to the world is called "Twitter," then why do we call any discrete instance of it a "tweet"? Shouldn't we call it (or perhaps one who engages in it) a "twit"?

--Terminologically Confused

Dear Terminologically Confused,

You have a great point. Of course, the term 'twit' and the term 'tweet' have two entirely different conno...

[Sorry, your 140 character limit has been exceeded. Sorry for the inconvenience--The Twitter Team]

How are we supposed to read the Bible?

Well, we have knock down, drag out discussion on Biblical interpretation going on in the comments section of a previous post. So, while we're on the topic, maybe the chief combatants, Lee and Thomas, could address something that I have been chewing on for a year or two, which is encapsulated by some things Wendell Berry said in his essay "The Burden of the Gospels." It is well within the parameters of the discussion on the other post, and might help to focus things a bit.

Here's the section that interests me:
I need to say also that, as a reader, I am first of all a literalist, as I think every reader should be. This does not mean that I don’t appreciate Jesus’ occasional irony or sarcasm ("They have their reward"), or that I am against interpretation, or that I don’t believe in "higher levels of meaning." It certainly does not mean that I think every word of the Bible is equally true, or that literalist is a synonym for fundamentalist. I mean simply that I expect any writing to make literal sense before making sense of any other kind. Interpretation should not contradict or otherwise violate the literal meaning. To read the Gospels as a literalist is, to me, the way to take them as seriously as possible.

But to take the Gospels seriously, to assume that they say what they mean and mean what they say, is the beginning of troubles. Those would-be literalists who yet argue that the Bible is unerring and unquestionable have not dealt with its contradictions, which of course it does contain, and the Gospels are not exempt. Some of Jesus’ instructions are burdensome not because they involve contradiction, but merely because they are so demanding.

The proposition that love, forgiveness and peaceableness are the only neighborly relationships that are acceptable to God is difficult for us weak and violent humans, but it is plain enough for any literalist. We must either accept it as an absolute or absolutely reject it. The same for the proposition that we are not permitted to choose our neighbors ahead of time or to limit neighborhood, as is plain from the parable of the Samaritan. The same for the requirement that we must be perfect, like God, which seems as outrageous as the Buddhist vow to "save all sentient beings," and perhaps is meant to measure and instruct us in the same way. It is, to say the least, unambiguous.

But what, for example, are we to make of Luke 14:26: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own also, he cannot be my disciple." This contradicts not only the fifth commandment but Jesus’ own instruction to "Love thy neighbor as thyself." It contradicts his obedience to his mother at the marriage in Cana of Galilee. It contradicts the concern he shows for the relatives of his friends and followers. But the word in the King James Version is "hate." If you go to the New English Bible or the New Revised Standard Version, looking for relief, the word still is "hate." This clearly is the sort of thing that leads to "biblical exegesis."

>My own temptation is to become a literary critic, wag my head learnedly and say, "Well, this obviously is a bit of hyperbole -- the sort of exaggeration a teacher would use to shock his students awake." Maybe so, but it is not obviously so, and it comes perilously close to "He didn’t really mean it" -- always a risky assumption when reading, and especially dangerous when reading the Gospels. Another possibility, and I think a better one, is to accept our failure to understand, not as a misstatement or a textual flaw or as a problem to be solved, but as a question to live with and a burden to be borne.
It is from his book, The Way of Ignorance, but you can read the entire essay here.

Is Ellis Park really closing? The Ron Geary Shuffle

We are now taking bets that Ellis Park, which, along with the rest of the racing industry, tried to shake down the legislature for a bailout through the slots at tracks legislation during the special session that just ended last week, will not close this year. The odds of staying open could increase as we read more stories like this one:

Ellis Park owner Ron Geary left open the possibility Wednesday that the western Kentucky track could remain open for racing in 2010, although he called it a "longshot."

Ummhmm. First it was that the track was definitely closing if we didn't vote for slots, and now it's a "longshot." Watch Geary slowly creep from "longshot" to "maybe" to "let me consult my horoscope" to "probably will" to actually filing the application for horse racing dates in 2010. I say 2-to-1 he does it. And after all those threats he made to the General Assembly last week that he was definitely shutting down. Mmmm mmm. An industry lobbyist told me that on September 7th, they were closing their doors.

Going into 2010 having not seen what we were told would undoubtedly happen if slots didn't pass isn't going to look real good for the slots lobby.

Geary is also claiming he has lost money:

Under the current framework relying on pari-mutuel betting, Geary said he has lost money every year since buying Ellis from Churchill Downs Inc. in 2006. He lost $2.7 million in 2007 but said he doesn't want disclose other financial specifics.

Lost money in 2007? How did that happen when concession sales were up 26 percent, wagering was up 5 percent, and total revenue for the track was up 14 percent in 2007 according to the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority's 2006/2007 Biennial Report? (see p. 88) When revenues increase at that rate, that usually means the company makes more money, not less--unless something else is wrong.

Doesn't want to "disclose other financial specifics"? I wonder why. The next time the tracks come begging to the legislature, they should be required to open their books so we can see how the tracks manage to increase their revenues and pay the executives exorbitant compensation and somehow come out poor and in need of a bailout.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The nation's poor are too fat. You gotta love America

Several years ago, I created quite a stir by arguing, in a debate in front of the Louisville Forum, that the chief health problem among the poor is not hunger, but obesity. The public health authorities (to use a technical term) flipped out. They couldn't deny my data, which I had derived exclusively from federal government sources, but they had all kinds of excuses about how what I said was misleading.

And this from people who are claiming there is a "hunger" problem in America.

Now comes more evidence that poverty in American is characterized chiefly by eating too much. The report, from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, has Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina as the five states with the highest rates of obesity. It does not make any claims about the relation between poverty and obesity, but what do you want to bet that if you took the mean income and compared it to the level of obesity, you would have a strong correlation?