Towards A Good Samaritan World

Sunday, February 18, 2007

New blog home:

Sunday, February 11, 2007


I read this interesting tidbit about job-hunting the other day:

Bad Rule No. 7: Clean up your online identity

Stop stressing about the stupid stuff you posted when you were drunk (or worse, not drunk). It's out of your control.

Instead, build a more current online identity that will pop up highest when an employer or recruiter does an online background check (which about 70 percent do). One way to get your new identity to the top of the search engines is to use Naymz, a service that helps control what people find out about you online.

Another way to control what people see about you is to blog. A blog can represent you effectively to the online world, and a good blog will show up higher in searches than almost any kind of page that could damage you.

Wow. 70 percent of employers do online background checks? And a blog could actually help you?

That makes me think it might be better to blog under my own name already. Also, I've been a little frustrated with Blogger in a couple of ways. First of all, I've long wanted some way to track the number of visitors to the blog. Second, Blogger doesn't support Trackback.

So I just started a new blog, and I hope my readers (of which I guess I have at least two or three) will follow. The new blog is, or just

Why "The Free Thinker?" If you do a Google search on "freethinker" you'll find lots of atheist and secular humanist sites, some quite fiercely anti-religion. But I think that conventional idea of a freethinker is overdue for retirement. If a freethinker is someone who questions dogma, why should that mean questioning only religious dogmas, and not the dogmas of physicalism, sovereignty, and the various pieties of left-liberalism? Anyway, I'll write more about this at the new blog if I get any visitors. Meanwhile, a few posts are already up.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


My argument about mind-brain supervenience set off a huge discussion in the comments. It's times like this that I feel like I really learn something from blogging.

One thing is that I'm more and more convinced of my original claim, that is, of the necessity of agnosticism about mind-brain supervenience. With all due respect to my interlocutors, they're somewhat at a loss here. Either they re-assert physicalist tenets as dogmas, or they attack straw men while half-conceding the central claim.

But I also realize that my claim and the argument for it are more difficult to understand than I expected. Let me try to deal with some of the sources of confusion.

"Faith," induction, and Hume vs. Popper. A red herring in the discussion has been my occasional references to "faith."

I developed a somewhat idiosyncratic usage of this word in a previous post, "On Faith." Faith as I use the term is, to begin with, a belief-without-proof in the converse of two subversive possible views: skepticism-about-induction and solipsism. Induction skepticism and solipsism are positions that no one believes, but which (I claim) cannot be rationally refuted.

The idea of skepticism about induction comes from Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. As Wikipedia explains:

David Hume framed the problem [of induction]... Among his arguments, Hume asserted there is no logical necessity that the future will resemble the past. Justifying induction on the grounds that it has worked in the past, then, begs the question. It is using inductive reasoning to justify induction, and as such is a circular argument... By Hume's arguments, there also is no strictly logical basis for belief in the Principle of the Uniformity of Nature. Notably, Hume's stated position on the issue was that instead of unproductive radical skepticism about everything, he actually was advocating a practical skepticism based on common sense, where the inevitability of induction is accepted (but not explained). Hume noted that someone who insisted on sound deductive justifications for everything would starve to death, in that they would not, for example, assume that based on previous observations of, e.g., what time of year to plant seeds, or who has bread for sale, even that bread previously nourished them and others, that these inductions would likely continue to hold true...

My argument in favor of "faith" is a response (of sorts) to Hume's critique of induction. We all hold (I argue) a belief-- or "meta-belief"-- that there are patterns in the world. This meta-belief undergirds all induction. It itself cannot be justified, or even clearly stated. (What are "patterns?"). Yet we cannot-- we simply do not have the mental capacity to-- reject it. I use the term "faith" to describe this meta-belief because I see parallels between it and two other beliefs-- the belief that there are other people, and the belief in God-- which seem similarly unprovable and impossible even to state satisfactorily (what is a "person?" what is "God?") yet which are also universal or near-universal. (One can argue about how widespread, or how genuine, atheism is...)

Another response to Hume was offered by Karl Popper, in "The Problem of Induction" (1953). Popper actually denies that we use induction even in practice-- it is, he says, "a kind of optical illusion"-- but rather, we are continually framing hypotheses, each of which leads to predictions, and we accept these hypotheses as "conjectural knowledge" until they are falsified. A point that is given great emphasis is that to be scientific, a hypothesis must be falsifiable. We must know exactly what a counter-example would look like, and be ready to abandon the hypothesis if we see one.

Now, while I think Popper's argument is an admirable contribution, and in particular a useful way to distinguish scientific from un-scientific hypotheses, I don't think, for reasons that go beyond the scope of this post, that Popper quite succeeds in solving Hume's problem. I think that "faith"-- the meta-belief in patterns-- is still necessary. However, my argument for agnosticism about mind-brain supervenience is independent of the issue of "faith." It is Popperian. We do not know what a counter-example to mind-brain supervenience would look like; therefore the hypothesis is un-falsifiable and illegitimate, and we must relinquish knowledge-claims about it.

Let me add, too, that the Humean critique of induction applies only to knowledge that is based on induction, mainly from sensory experience. I do accept subjective experience as a valid-- a "foundational"-- knowledge source, even if our reporting of that experience is, of course, imperfectly reliable.

Meta-induction and the motivation of physicalism. One response of physicalists to this argument is simply a dogmatic assertion of physicalist tenets. An e-mailer wrote: "I'd say that application of an epistemic falsifiability criterion on something like supervenience would not be appropriate. Supervenience is a means of setting the parameters of physicalism without metaphysical ghosts and spookies." Tom asserted that "in order for anything to have a cause and effect relationship it must be of the same system," i.e. the causal closure of the physical.

These are assertions rather than arguments and don't need refuting, but they raise the issue of why people embrace the physicalist dogma in the first place. I think the reason is a mis-application of induction. We have explained so much, the argument goes, within the physicalist parameters of the scientific method. So much that was once mysterious is now explained. Surely the natural sciences will eventually explain everything, conquer all the mysteries, will reduce everything to the building blocks of matter, energy and force!

We can easily see the flaw in this with the help of Karl Popper. What is the falsifiability-criterion of "science can explain everything in physicalist terms?" Suppose there is an unexplained phenomenon. Scientists try to explain it in physicalist terms. If they succeed, great, the physicalist hypothesis is vindicated! But if they fail, the physicalist hypothesis is not falsified or abandoned; scientists will keep looking for another physical explanation. It's "heads I win, tails we flip again." Since under no circumstances would scientists abandon the physicalist hypothesis, the physicalist hypothesis itself is un-falsifiable. It is the methodological assumption of the natural sciences, yet is itself unscientific.

Although it's easy to refute, the physicalist fallacy has deep roots in our culture and is very hard to destroy. Like a weed, you can rip it up again and again, but it keeps popping back up.

Science and intersubjectivity. Another type of response to my argument (particularly by Nato) was to insist that only "entities with testable properties" deserve consideration by science. This type of response actually concedes the central point, agnosticism about mind-brain supervenience. Maybe, it says, there are "tiny angels making the neurons fire," or whatever. But if these non-physical entities don't have testable properties, science has nothing to say about them.

Now, for the phrase, "testable properties," we must substitute "intersubjectively testable properties." My mind, after all, has plenty of properties that are quite evident to me: I enjoy (or suffer from, as the case may be) an endless stream of subjective experience. But this subjective experience is private. I can describe it to others, but often I don't, and even when I try to, the result is very imperfect. When I am confronted with any physicalist account of the operation of the mind which has implications for my subjective experience, I can always tell the scientist, "No, my subjective experience is inconsistent with your theory." But he can't see that for himself. Maybe we are misunderstanding each other, or maybe I am lying. It's not like a chemistry lab, where he can see the litmus paper turn red.

Agnosticism about mind-brain supervenience implies that non-supervenient minds, or non-supervenient aspects of minds, may or may not exist, but we cannot rule them out. The claim that every thought corresponds to some firing neuron might be true, but we can never prove it, nor even frame it as a Popperian-style falsifiable hypothesis and call it "conjectural knowledge." We must abandon it. Nato seems to accept this as an ontological claim, but argues that science can and ought to ignore these entities that are not intersubjectively testable, even if they might exist.

Well, yes. The methodological policy of science is to focus on that which is intersubjectively observable; and as the human condition happens to be such that all intersubjectivity is mediated through the physical world, science focuses on that. But that is a truth about science, not about the world. It doesn't follow that the physical world is all there is, or all that we need to know about.

Minds exist. We know from subjective experience that they exist and something about what they are. Minds matter. We know there is, at the least, some kind of interface between mind and body. The natural sciences can study that interface and teach us some useful things about the mind. Minds may, indeed, be supervenient on the physical world, but we do not know that they are. The supervenience of the mind on the brain is a claim that can be uncritically accepted as dogma, but cannot meet the Popperian standard of falsifiability.

If minds are, or may be, non-supervenient, or partially non-supervenient, on the physical world, they still matter. To simply exclude them, or aspects of them, from consideration on methodological grounds, will not do. The loss of the comforting intersubjectivity that comes from assuming a physicalist ontology is a price we'll have to pay.

This is where it gets interesting. The possibility of non-supervenient minds become a gateway to a richer ontology, because it is a license to take our mental experience more seriously. Platonism, with its Ideas of which the things we see in the world are only shadows, flickers to life as a renewed possibility...

I wonder how much I would make if I applied for this job. I'm qualified... Hmm. The downside of the land of opportunity: so many roads not taken.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


In Public View, Saudis Counter Iran in Region:

With the prospect of three civil wars looming over the Middle East — and Iran poised to gain from them all — Saudi Arabia has abandoned its behind-the-scenes checkbook diplomacy and taken on a central, aggressive role in reshaping the region’s conflicts.

On Tuesday, the kingdom is playing host in Mecca to the leaders of Hamas and Fatah, the two feuding Palestinian factions, in what both sides say could lead to a national unity government and reduced bloodshed. Last fall, senior Saudi officials met secretly with Israeli leaders about how to establish a Palestinian state.

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has also increased its public involvement in Iraq and its support of the Sunni-led government in Lebanon. The process is shaping up as a counteroffensive to efforts by Iran to establish itself as the regional superpower, according to diplomats, analysts and officials here and throughout the region. Some even say that the recent Saudi commitment to temper the price of oil is aimed at undermining Iran’s economy, although officials here deny that.

“We realized that we have to wake up,” said a high-ranking Saudi diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “Someone rang the bell, ‘Be careful, something is moving.’ ”

Previously, we were providing the stability in the Middle East that the Saudis need, so they felt free to let their own clerics and populace breathe poison against the West while making nice to us in public. Now that stability is slipping away, they've turned around and started to take the lead on the stability front. Meanwhile, we've done them the favor of getting al-Qaeda bogged down in a dirty intra-Islamic civil war. With the jihadist threat against the Kingdom largely taken out of commission, the Saudis have more room to maneuver.

How long will it take the conventional wisdom to catch up all the way in which the Iraq War was geostrategically smart?

Monday, February 05, 2007


McCain Blasts Iraq Resolution (Newsday).

Meanwhile, Iraqis are blaming the US for not getting the surge started fast enough:

A growing number of Iraqis are saying that the United States is to blame for creating conditions that led to the worst single suicide bombing in the war, which devastated a Shiite market in Baghdad on Saturday. They argued that the Americans had been slow in completing the vaunted new American security plan, making Shiite neighborhoods much more vulnerable to such horrific attacks.

A funeral was held in Najaf on Sunday for some of the victims. Many Shiites believe the Mahdi Army should be allowed to protect them.

The critics said the new plan, which the Americans have started to execute, had emasculated the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia that is considered responsible for many attacks on Sunnis, but that many Shiites say had been the only effective deterrent against sectarian reprisal attacks in Baghdadfs Shiite neighborhoods. Even some Iraqi supporters of the plan, like Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister who is a Kurd, said delays in carrying it out had caused great disappointment.

In advance of the plan, which would flood Baghdad with thousands of new American and Iraqi troops, many Mahdi Army checkpoints were dismantled and its leaders were either in hiding or under arrest, which was one of the plan’s intended goals to reduce sectarian fighting. But with no immediate influx of new security forces to fill the void, Shiites say, Sunni militants and other anti-Shiite forces have been emboldened to plot the type of attack that obliterated the bustling Sadriya market on Saturday, killing at least 135 people and wounding more than 300 from a suicide driverfs truck bomb.

“A long time has passed since the plan was announced,” Basim Shareef, a Shiite member of Parliament, said Sunday. “But so far security has only deteriorated.”

American officials have said the new plan will take time, but new concerns emerged Sunday about the readiness of Iraqi military units that are supposed to work with the roughly 17,000 additional American soldiers who will be stationed in Baghdad under the plan, which President Bush announced last month.

It would be one thing to force a troop withdrawal by denying funding for the troops, as John Edwards is advocating. That would show courage, it would be defensible as policy since it would have a policy effect. A symbolic resolution, whose only practical effect can be to lower our morale and encourage butchers like those who struck the Sadriya market, just to pander to anti-war voters, is a disgrace.


In response to an extended discussion on philosophy of mind in the comments a previous post...

Commenter froclown presents a good analogy for the physicalist view of the relationship between the mind and the brain: the brain is like a DVD, whose contents (e.g. Darth Vader) cannot be readily discerned from its physical form, but which nonetheless is ontologically reducible to its micro-physical properties. Similarly, the mass of grey cells doesn't look like it contains the thoughts we experience in our minds, but they are there nonetheless. In the technical language of philosophy, this view can be described as mind-brain supervenience, meaning that the mind, with its thoughts etc., is supervenient on the brain, i.e., all the mind's properties are mapped in the brain, and if any two brains have identical micro-physical properties, the contents/experiences of the corresponding minds (or, the "first-person perspective" on the contents of the brain) are also identical.

I cannot disprove mind-brain supervenience, but I can prove that it can never proven.

Or perhaps it is better to say that it can never be put to a Popperian test. For simply showing that mind-brain supervenience can't be proven is too easy. As Karl Popper has argued, in the strictest sense even the theory of gravity can't be proven. We can drop as many objects as we like, and observe that they accelerate downwards at 9.8 m/s2, but that will never prove that all objects obey the law of gravity. Similarly, no matter how many thoughts we successfully mapped onto firing neurons, this would never prove that all thoughts could be mapped onto firing neurons.

But at least in the case of gravity we can achieve "conjectural knowledge," in the sense that we can run a huge number of experience and clearly observe the results, and say with confidence that the theory of gravity is consistent with a huge body of experimental evidence and has never been falsified. (Maglev trains, feathers, and airships, and the modifications of the theory they necessitate, are of course a detour, which I won't go into.)

What would be a corresponding test of mind-brain supervenience? Suppose we develop a highly sophisticated brain-scanning device which allows us to make an extremely sophisticated three-dimensional model of the brain in our computers, and track all the activitiy in it. We then ask hundreds of subjects to think and describe their thoughts.

"I'm thinking about an ice cream cone," says the subject. "Now I'm thinking about a snake..." Our research assistants label the two-second sequences of brain activity "ice cream" and "snakes." We then compare these with hundreds of other brain-scans labeled "ice cream" and "snakes."

Very likely, we'll find some similarities between the "ice cream" brain scans. Perhaps the experience of thinking about ice cream will turn out to be similar to the experience of eating ice cream. Or perhaps for some subjects thinking about ice cream is similar to thinking about cake, while for others, it's similar to thinking about guilt and the need to go on a diet. But there will no doubt be a lot of errors, where the "ice cream" brain-activity sequence bears no resemblance to the other "ice cream" sequences.

It's the subjects, think the researchers. They're not reporting their thoughts accurately enough. Maybe a few were lying, because they didn't want to admit what they were really thinking about. And probably some of them said they were thinking about ice cream, when their thoughts had already moved on to something else. Well, can you blame them? After all, it's very hard to describe your own thoughts in real-time. And there are some thoughts you'd prefer to keep private. Talking also interferes with thought-processes, so that thought-processes that you are trying to describe in real-time will inevitably be different from normal thought-processes.

At the end of the day, researchers could never achieve the type of asymptotic "conjectural" knowledge that we can achieve in the case of the theory of gravity, because their only source of evidence on the subjective experience of thought is subjects' own reports, and these are very imperfectly reliable. Scanning brains to understand thought no doubt yields some real insights, but it not only can never "prove" that all thought is reducible to a micro-physical basis by accounting for all thought in micro-physical terms; it can never even make steady and generalized progress towards providing a comprehensive, physicalist picture of the operations of the mind.

Of course, we could easily provide a comprehensive, physicalist picture of the operations of a DVD.

It is the duty of any philosopher who is committed to the quest for truth to be agnostic about mind-brain supervenience. We cannot achieve any knowledge on the question of whether or not the subjective experience of the mind is comprehensively mapped onto the micro-physical properties of the brain, as the movie is mapped onto the DVD. Any knowledge-claims made here are arbitrary dogmatic pronouncements.

But 20th-century philosophy of mind has, by and large, failed in its duty to be agnostic here, and as a result, it is barren and has contributed nothing to civilization. As any belief survey will show, ordinary people prefer even the crudest forms of traditional or pseudo-traditional religion to anything that modern philosophy of mind has to offer. It was not always thus: at many periods in history, philosophy has had a broad and deep popular influence. It became useless in the 20th century because it sacrificed its raison d'etre, the quest for truth, to the physicalist dogma. Today the institutional apparatus of philosophy of mind is dominated by physicalist apparatchiks, and non-physicalists are deterred from entering the field. Hopefully, the stranglehold of physicalism will be broken, and philosophy will revive.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


Francis Fukuyama is right that Americans are unduly pessimistic. But he underestimates bin Laden:

[T]here is good reason to think that we have consistently overestimated threats to stability since 9/11 and that it is our reaction to this overestimation that has created special dangers. At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, there were probably no more than a few dozen people in the world with the motivation and potential means to cause catastrophic harm to the United States. Once our mighty national security apparatus was turned to focus on this problem, the likelihood of a successful attack dropped dramatically.

Only a few dozen? Millions of people in the Muslim world regarded us (then as now) as the enemy. Bin Laden and the 19 hijackers showed the world that you can "cause catastrophic harm to the United States" with something as simple as box-cutters. Only a few dozen people had box-cutters?

Yes, we have a powerful military, but that's the whole point of terrorism: it's asymmetrical warfare. After 9/11, the men were dead, the myth lived. And bin Laden was, for Muslim radical youths from Pakistan to Palestine, a heroic symbol of defiance to the nefarious superpower of the West-- and of the corrupt and tyrannical rulers of the Muslim world itself. Bin Laden could have been a Che Guevara, a revolutionary hero-symbol, admired both in the Third World and the West.

It was when the Iraqi people welcomed Americans as liberators (yes, they did, we all saw it with our own eyes, and all the media sneers in the world can't change that fact) that bin Laden's mystique was shattered. Two elections and millions of defiant purple fingers showed the world that Iraqis-- who alone were in a position to express their real desires-- wanted, not the caliphate, but democracy. Al-Qaeda's reliance on asymmetrical warfare, waged on Iraqi soil, meant murdering thousands of innocent Muslims and forfeiting all hope of uniting the Muslim world behind their banners.

Yes, Americans' pessimism today is mistaken. But it's not despite Iraq, as Fukuyama would have us believe; rather, because of it. The surgery has been painful, but now the cancer is removed.

UPDATE: Fareed Zakaria makes a similar point, only better:

Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, both Sunnis, created Al Qaeda to be a Pan-Islamic organization, uniting all Muslims as it battled the West, Israel and Western-allied regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Neither Zawahiri nor bin Laden was animated by hatred of Shiites. In its original fatwas and other statements, Al Qaeda makes no mention of them, condemning only the "Crusaders" and "Jews." [...]

The trouble for Al Qaeda is that as a practical matter, loathing Shiites works in only a few places: principally Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and some parts of the gulf. Most of the rest of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims are turned off by attacks on their co-religionists.

So, an organization that had hoped to rally the entire Muslim world to jihad against the West has been dragged instead into a dirty internal war within Islam. Bin Laden began his struggle hoping to topple the Saudi regime. He is now aligned with the Saudi monarchy as it organizes against Shiite domination. This necessarily limits Al Qaeda's broader appeal and complicates its basic anti-Western strategy.

Via Brothers Judd.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

David Warren of the Ottawa Citizen is a bracing columnist. An excerpt from Tribalism & Us:

Here is the paradox: that we cannot afford to abandon Iraq, for the very reason that things are so bad there. Were the Americans and allies to step out now, it would certainly become the staging area for both Shia and Sunni violence on a larger scale -- directed not only inward against each other, but outward across the Middle East, and given the huge Muslim diaspora now spread through Europe and North America, beyond.

Bear in mind, further, that Islamist terrorism against the West, feeds not only on Western weakness of will, but on this Muslim internecine strife. The most practical argument of the Islamists, to all their co-religionists, being: "We could unify ourselves if we all agreed to attack the West. We might even be able to destroy the West, because it has no idea how to defend itself."

It follows from this that a secret hope, not quite expressed in print (though sometimes expressed in the blogosphere), is vain. This is the hope that if Muslim fanatics are left to get on with killing each other, they will leave us alone. Like so many glib ideas, it sounds so plausible, but is the exact opposite of the truth.

An argument to back this claim up follows, but I don't quite understand it. However, I think Warren is partly right. That we have stirred up a Sunni-Shia split within the Muslim world could be to our advantage geostrategically. But it serves our interests best-- and is preferable for humanitarian reasons, too, of course-- that it be a cold war rather than a hot war. It's a good thing that Saudi Arabia (the great conservative money-power of the Sunni bloc) is hosting talks between Hamas and Abbas with a view (maybe) to Israel-Palestine peace, and trying to topple Ahmadinejad through an oil price war (which also gets up cheap gas at the pumps). But bloody sectarian warfare will leave behind a minefield of angry passions which can feed into future radicalism and terrorism.

The justification for the surge is that it might be able to stop the killing.

UPDATE: Fred Kaplan, long-time victim of Bush Derangement Syndrome, writes:

[I]n the unlikely event that the Bush administration succeeds in splitting the region along this sectarian divide, it will only harden tensions, inflame passions, and, by the way, do nothing to solve our immediate problems in Iraq.

This is why the Saudis and the Iranians are exploring common interests and seeking to mediate agreements—because the Americans, who used to do this sort of thing, have abdicated the role.

Wow, that's dumb. The Americans used to play the role of mediating agreements... with Iran?

Friday, February 02, 2007


The world has fewer officially atheist states now than it did twenty years ago, when the Soviet Union and the communist powers of the Warsaw Pact were still in business. One of those still standing is China. But religion is getting stronger there at the grassroots level, and it is also gaining more acceptance from the regime. The Economist reports:

The revival of the Black Dragon Temple's fortunes is part of a resurgence of religious or quasi-religious activity across China that—notwithstanding occasional crackdowns—is transforming the social and political landscape of many parts of the countryside. Religion is also attracting many people in the cities, where the party's atheist ideology has traditionally held stronger sway.

The resurgence encompasses ancient folk religions and ancestor worship, along with the organised religions of Buddhism, Taoism, Islam (among ethnic minorities) and, most strikingly, given its foreign origins and relatively short history in China, Christianity. In the face of this onslaught, the party is beginning to rethink its approach to religion. It now acknowledges that it may even have its uses...

Officially, the party regards folk religion as superstition, the public practice of which is illegal. But in many rural areas officials now bend the rules. In Yulin prefecture, with 3.4m people, there are 106 officially registered places of worship and many more that are not officially sanctioned...

Evidence of China's religious revival can be seen throughout the countryside in the form of lavish new temples, halls for ancestor worship, churches and mosques (except in the far western province of Xinjiang, where the government worries that Islam is intertwined with ethnic separatism and keeps tighter rein). Officially there are more than 100m religious believers in China (see table), or about 10% of the population. But experts say the real number is very much higher.

Christianity in particular is flourishing:

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who visited China in October, wrote afterwards in the Times that there was now a sense in China that civil society needed religion, with its motivated volunteers. During his trip he remarked on an “astonishing and quite unpredictable explosion” in Christian numbers in China in recent years.

If the growth of Christianity in China continues at the rates it has recently sustained, within our lifetimes China will be a predominantly Christian nation. A likely scenario? Perhaps not; but definitely possible.

In that case, would the American evangelicals-- who are already in a sense second-class citizens here, forced to pay, as it were, the jizya to an elite that teaches their own children in a fashion contrary to their faith-- begin to feel divided loyalties? It is incongruous that the world's most populous and dynamic (predominantly) Christian country is also the world's richest, when Jesus said that "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven." In a newly converted China, American Christians could see much to admire.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A brave commenter, "froclown," challenges me on physicalism and the brain:

If the information in your inner world is so private and unavailable to the public, not to mention as you say it's fundamentally non-physical, then how come it is possible to physically connect electrodes into your brain, and by use of a complex decoding program performed by a physical computer, the images in your mind's eye can be broadcast on a physical computer monitor for all to see?

How come NASA has had success with a program to decode and transmit spoken words from the brain of individual who have only thought the worlds, not yet spoken them?

And other such direct brain-computer interfaces. We know computers are physical, if the brain is not, then how can the two grok via a purely physical interface?

OK, first, the brain is physical; it's the mind which is non-physical, or rather, not reducible to the physical. What I am denying is not that the mind has any physical aspect, but the supervenience of the mind on the brain.

To understand this, it's critical to take note of the human tendency to use the physical world as an aid to our own thoughts. If we're calculating a difficult sum, we might use a piece of scratch-paper as an aid. People sometimes talk to themselves out loud when they're excited about something or are grappling with a vexing question. (I do, anyway. It's said to be a sign of insanity, but that's just the voice of envy from people who don't have anything interesting to talk to themselves about.) People keep diaries, sometimes to remember the past, sometimes just to record the way they feel and straighten out their own thoughts.

It's not surprising, therefore, that the mind often jots down its thoughts in the neurons of the brain, where they can sometimes be observed by NASA, or wired into a computer interface. That you can learn something about my thoughts by putting electronic sensors is parallel to you being able to learn something about my thoughts by reading my diary. In either case, my mind is using the physical world as an aid to its own thinking, and creating thought-traces which allow my thoughts to be partially observed by outsiders.

It does not follow that every thought is mapped onto the physical world, or that there is anything in the physical world correpsonding to all the aspects of the mind, or that my subjective experiences are not fundamentally private (even if some imperfect communication between minds, intentional or unintentional, occurs).

A great post on evolution at Brothers Judd: THEY WOULDN'T EVEN HAVE 13% WITHOUT THE COERCION THE MONOPOLY PROVIDES. Brothers Judd often takes potshots at evolution, but this post is more substantive. They quote an article "Why Do We Evoke Darwin?" from a magazine called The Scientist: Magazine of the Life Sciences:

Darwin's theory of evolution offers a sweeping explanation of the history of life, from the earliest microscopic organisms billions of years ago to all the plants and animals around us today. Much of the evidence that might have established the theory on an unshakable empirical foundation, however, remains lost in the distant past. For instance, Darwin hoped we would discover transitional precursors to the animal forms that appear abruptly in the Cambrian strata. Since then we have found many ancient fossils – even exquisitely preserved soft-bodied creatures – but none are credible ancestors to the Cambrian animals.

Despite this and other difficulties, the modern form of Darwin's theory has been raised to its present high status because it's said to be the cornerstone of modern experimental biology. But is that correct? "While the great majority of biologists would probably agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky's dictum that 'nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,' most can conduct their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas," A.S. Wilkins, editor of the journal BioEssays, wrote in 2000.[1] "Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one."

I would tend to agree. Certainly, my own research with antibiotics during World War II received no guidance from insights provided by Darwinian evolution. Nor did Alexander Fleming's discovery of bacterial inhibition by penicillin. I recently asked more than 70 eminent researchers if they would have done their work differently if they had thought Darwin's theory was wrong. The responses were all the same: No.

I also examined the outstanding biodiscoveries of the past century: the discovery of the double helix; the characterization of the ribosome; the mapping of genomes; research on medications and drug reactions; improvements in food production and sanitation; the development of new surgeries; and others. I even queried biologists working in areas where one would expect the Darwinian paradigm to have most benefited research, such as the emergence of resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. Here, as elsewhere, I found that Darwin's theory had provided no discernible guidance, but was brought in, after the breakthroughs, as an interesting narrative gloss.

In the peer-reviewed literature, the word "evolution" often occurs as a sort of coda to academic papers in experimental biology. Is the term integral or superfluous to the substance of these papers? To find out, I substituted for "evolution" some other word – "Buddhism," "Aztec cosmology," or even "creationism." I found that the substitution never touched the paper's core. This did not surprise me. From my conversations with leading researchers it had became clear that modern experimental biology gains its strength from the availability of new instruments and methodologies, not from an immersion in historical biology.

The genuine scientific contribution of Darwinian thinking can be separated from Darwinist ideology/creation-mythology by substituting the "Darwinian theory of evolution" with a "Darwinian theory of imperfect ecosystemic homeostasis."

Homeostasis is a property of living organisms, namely that the atoms of which they are physically comprised at any given time cycle in and out of them, yet the form of the organism maintains a high degree of continuity. As organisms exhibit homeostasis with respect to the atoms that comprise them, so ecosystems exhibit homeostasis with respect to the organisms that comprise them: trees, birds, insects, mammals are born, grow, and die, but the forest remains. This may be called ecosystemic homeostasis.

The Darwinian theory sheds light, both on (a) why the forest is able to maintain homeostasis, and (b) why the homeostasis is imperfect, i.e., the forest will not stay exactly the same forever (even putting to one side exogenous climatic or geological changes). The forest maintains homeostasis because organisms are adapted to their environments and achieve a sort of equilibrium; but it can change over time because the Mendelian genetics that underlies the forms of organisms, combined with natural selection and (very rarely) advantageous mutations, can enable organisms to upgrade, or to find new niches, creating ripple effects throughout the ecosystem. Experimental evidence that this kind of evolution can occur is not really needed; once the truths of Mendelian genetics (plus the possibility of mutation) are established, logic alone is enough to show that evolution is at least a possibility, though perhaps a vanishingly rare one. We don't know, based on logic alone, whether it has played a significant role in natural history or not. Perhaps fossil evidence suggests that it has played at least some role. (I'm not a paleontologist.)

That's as far as science, properly understood, can go. The unwarranted and superfluous further claim that this is how all life originated is our civilization's reigning creation-myth but is not science. We don't know how all life was created, and we probably never will. The evidence is just too scanty.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Nato writes in a comment thread:

In Obama I see a man who seems to leave his attempts to balance between epistemic humility and the need for action out in the open. That is to say, his subtlety does not appear to just be an attempt to remain a cipher until it's clear which way the political winds blow.

Perhaps I am projecting here, but I will say that onto no other recent candidates was I able to project such positive interpretations as these. (my italics)

Ya think? From Obama's book, via Brothers Judd:

"I am new enough on the national political scene," [Obama] writes in the book's prologue, "to serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views."

But Americans will figure out that they're just projecting before they put this suave neophyte into the White House.


From Iraqi blogger Hammorabi:

Through out the history we read about revolutions at their induction, climax and decline. Almost all of these revolutions are based on mounting pressure by tyranny or a party in power. At the end a new state formed making certain correction yet not suitable for every one.

The revolution of Imam Hussein is the only one which will never end and will remain active and vivid at its climax against all tyrants and oppressors. Imam Hussein is a symbol for freedom and dignity not for one nation or religion or school but for all mankind at any time.

Imam Hussein is the son of the daughter of Prophet Mohammad (peace be up on them) and the son of Imam Ali (PBUH). More than 1400 years ago he refused to give allegiance to the tyrant of the time Yazid Bin Moawiyah who inherited power from his father by a decree before his death in Damascus. Yazid was dissipated, perverted, cruel tyrant. Right after proclamation of power he sent militant messengers to Madena and asked the most important peoples and chiefs of tribes to acknowledge his leadership as the Caliph or be killed. Almost all of them accepted but Imam Hussein. Some of them tried to convince Imam Hussein to do the same. Imam Hussein refused and he felt that giving such an allegiance from a person like his-good-self will be a very big mistake as it may pave a way for similar and even worse things in future. One has to know that Imam Hussein was the only son of a daughter of a Prophet on the face of the earth at the time...

They forced Imam Hussein to pull towards Kerbala about 60 KM south west of Kuffa. They prevented him and his children from water. They requested that he will submit his will completely to OBZ. Imam Hussein refused and asked them to leave him and his family to go somewhere else but they insisted not to leave him. On the day of 10th of Moharam there was an uneven battle between Imam Hussein and his few followers and Yazid's army which was ten of thousands. Imam Hussein and his followers were all killed and their tents burnt in the most horrific way especially for his children and women who were then taken as prisoners. Along the way towards Damascus the wicked army raised the heads of Imam Hussein, his sons, his brother, and his followers in front of the caravan of children and women. Along that way the children and women were therefore forced to see the heads of their beloved ones through out the way...

Imam Hussein blood will stay recording victory over all tyrants in the history of mankind. It is a revolution that will never end.

If there is anything one may learn from Imam Hussein, is his resolution and determination about the principles, dignity, and freedom from becoming handicapped by inferior limitations. It is the victory of the oppressed over the oppressors and the blood against the swords.

Imam Hussein will stay the candle or the light that shows the right way against going astray when darkness deeply-set.

Peace be up on you Imam Hussein and all those who killed with you on the 10th day of Moharam. May Allah included us with you on the Day of Judgment and be our intercessor at that day by Allah's will.

Resembles the Christian story a bit, no? Though with some important differences: (a) Imam Hussein is not an incarnation of God, (b) no body of teachings associated with Imam Hussein is not mentioned here (but there might be some that I haven't heard of), (c) there is no resurrection... and actually, I'm a bit puzzled as to what is meant by "the victory of the oppressed over the oppressors" in this case. The anti-tyrant rhetoric is impressive, though.

The Christian religion provides a good basis for a democratic society because of its emphasis on equality and its skepticism about coercion ("turn the other cheek"). The Hindu religion provides a good basis for a democratic society because of its ethos of nonviolence and tolerance. The Shia religion may be a good basis for democracy because of its animus against tyrants. If so, Shia democracies may have their own peculiar dynamics, just as India's democracy has distinct differences from that of America and other Christian countries, reflect the different religious-ethical foundations of their society.

Whether Judaism and secularism provide strong bases for democracy is less clear, because Israel and western Europe inherited their democracies from the Christian West: the Jews because they lived in the Christian West before founding Israel, the Europeans because they were the Christian West at the time that they democratized, and then lost their faith. (Of course many Israelis were Middle Eastern Jews before they went to Israel, but the European Jews were sufficient in number to determine the political character of the society.)

Monday, January 29, 2007

Ralph Peters on the complexities of handling the Sunni-Shia divide:

And now, in the worst American tradition, we're in danger of grabbing at short-term gains at an exorbitant strategic price: Defaulting to our old habit of backing hard-line regimes, we've dropped all pressure on the Saudis and Egyptians to reform their political systems.

Want to recruit more terrorists for another 9/11? Give Sunni Arab regimes a renewed blank check to shut down all opposition.

True, Shia terrorists have attacked us in the Middle East. But the Sunni terrorists attack us globally - and on our own soil. Shia extremists think regionally, while Sunni fanatics have universal ambitions.

Yes, Iran is the immediate strategic problem - but it's a far more complex matter than the kiss-the-Saudis'-sandals crowd accepts. A violent rogue with a nuclear-weapons program, Iran backs terrorists in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Yet Iran also happens to be America's natural ally in the region.

We're in a race against time. The Iranian people have tried religious rule - now they're sick and tired of it. They want to move on. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's allies lost the last round of elections and the mullahs are getting nervous about his excesses. Iranians want change, but don't know how to get it - and we can't impose it.

Could the Khomeinist regime fall before apocalyptic ayatollahs get the bomb? There's no more pressing strategic question.

If we find it necessary to attack Iran's nuclear program, it's going to be a long and messy process. A thorough effort would kill a lot of Iranians - alienating even the most liberal-minded members of a highly nationalistic population.

Stopping the bad Iranians would cost us the good Iranians. There's no good solution.

The tragedy here is that Iran is farther along in its political development than our Arab "friends." The states to which we're inclined to turn may still have Sunni versions of the Khomeini revolution ahead of them.

Fundamentalist, anti-American regimes could hatch in exactly the baskets where we're tempted to park our strategic eggs.

The idea of avoiding being on good terms with Saudi Arabia in order not to make anti-Saudi radicals hate us strikes me as a dubious one. But we should talk to Teheran, or at least be ready to do so immediately when Ahmadinejad falls-- or if we can find some way to talk around him. Jim Webb was right about one thing, at least.


A Guardian writer is worried about "power vacuum" in the US:

And there, from afar, is the unique problem with an American presidential election race that has, for all practical purposes, started already. Many times past, you juggle the possibilities and see at least one firm peg to hang a few calculations on. After Clinton, Gore; after Reagan, daddy Bush; after Carter, Mondale. There was always a favoured succession somewhere. But this time, on either side, there is not only no evident succession, but also no continuing consensus of conviction. All contestants welcome, and the theme that happens to hit a chord can produce an American idol. The power of the party machines is feebler than ever, because they have no favourite candidate. The direction the country must take, once a heartily despised president departs, is unsettled going on totally uncharted.

It's a vacuum to register with unease. Maybe Britain, in its more fevered moments, is desperate for Blair to go, for Brown to come, for leadership to define and renew and exert itself. The supposed problems of drift are vividly sketched in ubiquitous print. But here's the great power, where most things begin, with two vacant, swilling years to go - and nobody has a blind idea what comes next.

This seems wrong. The Republican front-runner is John McCain; the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Jim Webb and Barack Obama are too inexperienced and have a lot of vulnerabilities. John Edwards will probably turn out to be just another lawyer joke. Meanwhile, on the right, Giuliani won't be able to get past his stances on social issues, and no one else is heavyweight enough to close the lead with McCain. Of course there's some suspense, and that's what makes politics fun. But it will probably be McCain vs. Hillary in 2008.

Also, the "heartily despised" is gratuitous. Yes, Bush's job approval is in the low-30s, but one can disagree with a president while despising him-- or, for that matter, agree with him and despise him. People approved of Clinton as a politician while despising his personal ethics. And Kerry got a lot of supporter from people who despised him-- see

Sunday, January 28, 2007


The commend thread inspired more thoughts about epistemology...

Tradition. If one takes the foundationalist view of epistemology-- that certain truths are "foundational," i.e. known a priori or directly from experience, while other true beliefs are discovered by deduction or induction from the foundational ones-- knowledge becomes possible in principle, but in practice the justification-chains from our everyday beliefs back to foundational beliefs are not feasible for an individual to perform. In real life, knowledge is a social phenomenon: we rely on a myriad of sources-- books, newspapers, other people's reports-- in order to form our belief-systems, without undertaking, or being capable of undertaking, a thorough, independent evaluation of the trustworthiness of these sources: implicitly, half-consciously. Self-conscious rationalism, along the lines of Descartes' "doubting everything," adopts a more individualistic epistemology: it insists that we cannot simply believe what we're told, we must test it, confirm or disconfirm it, for ourselves. But this epistemic individualism can only be adopted selectively, because our minds/lifetimes are radically inadequate to the task of proving/justifying even the belief-system that is minimal for sanity. Also, the greatest genius would not be capable of recognizing and culling all the beliefs that he had inherited or absorbed uncritically from others. Every rationalist will display many beliefs that are obvious local/contemporary prejudices from the point of view of those who come after, and no doubt also-- if only they could observe his work-- those who came before. This is not to do say that rationalists have not done us much good; they did so because tradition could react to and/or absorb them, like the grain of sand in an oyster creating a pearl. The rationalist style of exposition of a subject from first principles is an admirable exercise that often enhances knowledge, and even the rationalist ethos has its place; but it should never be applied without a certain irony.

Another reason to respect tradition has to do with the human life-cycle. The perspective of the young is inherently biased, as they know only the early phases of a human life; the perspective of the old a bit better, but they too are biased, since inasmuch as the interests of their young selves went against the interests of their older selves, they are biased in favor of the latter. Moreover, there is in youth a sense of wonder which is a true wisdom, which the old maintain with difficulty. Ideas about how a human life ought to be lived are best dealt with in a forum that includes representatives of the several stages of the life-cycle, and that is what tradition is: it is a conversation among the generations, honed in the course of centuries.

Finally, a respect for a tradition reflects an awareness that for most people, the ratio of the unsaid to the said is a hundred to one; any old tradition probably has more and richer justifications than are likely to be articulated at any given time. If a tradition seems odd or inconvenient, it may indeed be obsolete, or have been a bad idea from the beginning, but it is generally wiser to adhere to the tradition for some time and look for unrecognized reasons behind it, rather than abandoning it immediately.

Revelation. Why would God reveal His word to man directly, rather than letting man figure out the truth for himself? If he does, how would He do it exactly? And why doesn't He do it more often?

I won't try to give a complete answer to those questions, but I think the discussion of "explanation" with respect to physical/scientific and mental/non-scientific observation/knowledge leads into the question of revelation. Basically, revelation is needed because while we can establish agreement through evidence and argument as far as the "public" issues of the natural sciences extend, but when it comes to that which we experience "privately," i.e. in the mind, proof through evidence and argument is hostage to different subjects' willingness and capacity to accept portrayals or characterizations of their private experience, and to the somewhat feeble and unreliable power of words to convey inner experience through empathy and metaphor. The mental life matters more; indeed the physical world in a sense matters not at all, and it is permitted to us to regard it as merely the parchment for us to write our stories on; but about the mental life it is much harder to advance our knowledge. We might simply never figure out enough on our own. A quarrel among natural scientists can be resolved by a clear demonstration of fact, but when the theme pertains to the experiences of the human mind or soul, there is no way to resolve the quarrel, and we will stray down false paths; our work is in vain.

How can revelation help? If we cannot unravel the truth on our own, perhaps we can still recognize it when we hear it. Or, if we cannot recognize it fully, we can hear enough of it to be fascinated, to be invited deeper into contemplation upon it. Our comprehension of a revealed truth can only be limited, but here we can help one another, provided that many individuals' limited comprehension of it persuades them to accept it as the truth. In that case, the believers can assist one another and deepen one another's understanding. And precisely because the truth is entire and perfect this does not lead to a syncretistic muddle like ancient paganism, but instead, to the Church.

So what is this truth, entire and perfect? Not the Bible. The Bible is historically contingent: it is a collection of writings, on holy themes and much of it written by holy people. The authors of it had free will and could have chosen not to write, or to write something different, and other holy writers could have written things that would have been included: if that had occurred, we would have a different Bible but the same Church. The message, the truth entire and perfect, is the Good News, the Gospel.

By this conception, revelation inspires belief because a believer recognizes the truth of revelation, which thenceforth is confirmed by his faculties: it does not imply that the believer should override his faculties in order to be in agreement with the Bible. On the contrary, to do so is to commit the sin of dishonesty, and also to impair one's capacity to understand-- to really read-- the Bible, and the traditions of the Christian faith.

The epistemologies of tradition and revelation are conceptually quite separate, but a certain kind of individualistic rationalism is the enemy of both. The sociality of knowledge, the need for tradition, may be deduced from a commonsense recognition of human cognitive limitations; the revelation of the Gospel cannot. The mental habits of one who has learned to accept tradition-- deference even if only provisional, a willingness to wait for insight about opaque passages rather than rejecting them, an assumption that the texts and rituals have hidden meanings and justifications, a persistence in searching for these-- will equip a person to approach revelation with an appropriate attitude.

But to accept the claims of revelation requires a certain boldness that is at odds with the epistemology of tradition. In this respect, perhaps, the Christian has more in common with the rationalist than with the traditionalist. Or is it that European rationalism's impetuosity, assurance, and optimism-- in contrast to the tentative twilight philosophies of Greco-Roman antiquity-- is an emulation, an echo, of Christianity?

Friday, January 26, 2007


Another dismissive, contemptuous review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. (Hat tip: Brothers Judd.)

Until recently, western atheism had waited patiently, believing that belief in God would simply die out. But now, a whiff of panic is evident. Far from dying out, belief in God has rebounded, and seems set to exercise still greater influence in both the public and private spheres. The God Delusion expresses this deep anxiety, partly reflecting an intense distaste for religion. Yet there is something deeper here, often overlooked in the heat of debate. The anxiety is that the coherence of atheism itself is at stake. Might the unexpected resurgence of religion persuade many that atheism itself is fatally flawed as a worldview?

That's what Dawkins is worried about. The shrill, aggressive rhetoric of his God Delusion masks a deep insecurity about the public credibility of atheism. The God Delusion seems more designed to reassure atheists whose faith is faltering than to engage fairly or rigorously with religious believers, and others seeking for truth. (Might this be because the writer is himself an atheist whose faith is faltering?) Religious believers will be dismayed by its ritual stereotyping of religion, and will find its manifest lack of fairness a significant disincentive to take its arguments and concerns seriously. Seekers after truth who would not consider themselves religious may also find themselves shocked by Dawkins' aggressive rhetoric, his substitution of personal creedal statements for objective engagement with evidence, his hectoring and bullying tone towards "dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads," and his utter determination to find nothing but fault with religion of any kind...

Space is limited, so let's look his two core arguments -- that religion can be explained away on scientific grounds, and that religion leads to violence. Dawkins dogmatically insists that religious belief is "blind trust," which refuses to take due account of evidence, or subject itself to examination. So why do people believe in God, when there is no God to believe in? For Dawkins, religion is simply the accidental and unnecessary outcome of biological or psychological processes. His arguments for this bold assertion are actually quite weak, and rest on an astonishingly superficial engagement with scientific studies.

For example, consider this important argument in The God Delusion. Since belief in God is utterly irrational (one of Dawkins' core beliefs, by the way), there has to be some biological or psychological way of explaining why so many people -- in fact, by far the greater part of the world's population -- fall victim to such a delusion. One of the explanations that Dawkins offers is that believing in God is like being infected with a contagious virus, which spreads throughout entire populations. Yet the analogy -- belief in God is like a virus -- seems to then assume ontological substance. Belief in God is a virus of the mind. Yet biological viruses are not merely hypothesized; they can be identified, observed, and their structure and mode of operation determined. Yet this hypothetical "virus of the mind" is an essentially polemical construction, devised to discredit ideas that Dawkins does not like.

So are all ideas viruses of the mind? Dawkins draws an absolute distinction between rational, scientific and evidence-based ideas, and spurious, irrational notions -- such as religious beliefs. The latter, not the former, count as mental viruses. But who decides what is "rational" and "scientific"? Dawkins does not see this as a problem, believing that he can easily categorize such ideas, separating the sheep from the goats.

Except it all turns out to be horribly complicated, losing the simplicity and elegance that marks a great idea. For instance, every worldview -- religious or secular -- ends up falling into the category of "belief systems," precisely because it cannot be proved. That is simply the nature of worldviews, and everyone knows it. It prevents nobody from holding a worldview in the first place, and doing so with complete intellectual integrity in the second. In the end, Dawkins' idea simply implodes, falling victim to his own subjective judgement of what is rational and true. It's not an idea that is taken seriously within the scientific community, and can safely be disregarded.

The flaw in atheism-- or, more specifically, physicalist reductionism-- is that it consists at its heart of a groundless ontological claim: that nothing exists but "force and matter," matter and energy, stuff intelligible by physics. God, souls, ideas, thoughts, are all either denied or asserted to be reducible to a physicalist basis. This ontological claim is not usually justified, and how could it be? It is awfully hard to prove a negative, to prove the non-existence of something.

The best reason that can be offered is Ockham's razor, but there are two problems with this. First, Ockham's razor isn't very strong, it's just a sort of rule of thumb. Just because Mr. Plum, with the wrench, in the drawing room, is the simplest explanation of Mr. Boddy's murder doesn't necessarily mean that's what actually happened. Second, in order for the simplest explanation to be preferred to more complex ones, it has to be an explanation. But nothing like a complete physical-reductionist explanation of our world and experiences has been offered. That is, rather, promised as something that science will eventually achieve.

At this point, it's clear that the physical-reductionists are nothing but "faith-heads."

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Mickey Kaus argues that "comprehensive immigration reform" and the Iraq War are both "bold, decisive disasters":

Bold, Decisive Disasters: The conventional view of Tuesday's State of the Union speech is this: Bush's invasion of Iraq has turned nightmarish. He got beat in the midterms. He's reacted by changing his approach on the domestic front--reaching across the aisle to make bipartisan, centrist compromises on domestic issues like "comprehensive immigration reform."

But it seems to me the invasion of Iraq and "comprehensive immigration reform" actually have more in common than you might think. Far from being a sensible centrist departure from the sort of grandiose, wishful, rigid thinking that led Bush into Iraq, "comprehensive immigration reform" is of a piece with that thinking. And it's likely to lead to a similar outcome.

I'm in the opposite position from Mickey: I support both immigration reform and the Iraq War. But I also see resemblances between the two: in particular, both are simultaneously (a) ways to deal with intractable problems, and (b) are half-conscious assaults on the idea of "sovereignty" that is the fundamental organizing principle of, and the chief source of injustice in, our world.

Here are ten similarities:

1. They're both ideas Bush had when he came into office...

2. They both have an idealistic basis. Bush was sympathetic to the way Middle East democrats had been frustrated by "realist" foreign policies, and he's clearly sympathetic to the problems of poor immigrants who come to the U.S. to work and feed their families only to be forced to live "in the shadows."

This is key. Critics of the Iraq War don't always acknowledge the "idealistic basis" of the Iraq War; a lot of criticism is of the "blood for oil"/conspiracy-theorist kind. Few critics of the war get as far as "The Iraq War had an idealistic basis, but..."

3. They both seek, in one swoop, to achieve a grand solution to a persistent, difficult problem. No "smallball"! The Iraq Project would begin the transformation of the Middle East, an area that had frustrated president after president. "Comprehensive" immigration reform would, as the name suggests, resolve in one bold bill the centuries-old immigration issue--including a) devising a way to keep out illegal workers while b) providing business with legal immigrant workers, plus c) deciding what to do with illegals who are already here. It would, as Bush said Tuesday, be "conclusive."

Maybe. To my mind, the Iraq War and immigration reform "get the ball rolling" on their respective causes, causes which, if the follow their logical course, will transform the world we live in.

4. In both cases, they envision a complicated, triple-bank shot chain of events happening just as Bush wishes it to happen. Iraqis were going to be grateful to their American liberators, come together in peace and give us a stable "ally in the war on terror." Hispanics, in the happy Rovian scenario behind Bush's immigration plan, would be grateful to Republicans for bringing them out of the shadows, etc., ensuring a large and growing GOP Latino vote for decades to come.

Whether the "visionary" objectives of Iraq/immigration reform are either necessary or sufficient for adopting them is not clear. A "shoot high, settle for less" approach may be at work.

5. Both have an obvious weak spot, depending crucially on pulling off a very difficult administrative feat.

Yes, and neither will work out according to plan. Both involve a revolutionary move against an indefensible status quo: after that, things will spin out of control, that's a given.

6. In both cases, the solution has failed before. We had failed to "stand up" a democracy in Vietnam. We failed to establish a stable, trans-factional governing structures in Lebanon and Somalia. Similarly, the grand, bipartisan Simpson-Mazzoli immigration reform of 1986 had promised, and failed, to establish an effective immigration enforcement mechanism.

But was the Simpson-Mazzoli reform really a failure? Kaus himself quotes Bill Kristol's cogent rebuttal:

7. Both were promoted by Bill Kristol!

8. In both cases, some Bush plan enthusiasts may not really mind a chaotic end result... Similarly, Kristol has said he isn't really bothered that the enforcement parts of the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli law failed:

I'm not cavalier about illegal immigrants. ...[snip]... What damage have they done that's so great in 20 years? The anti-immigration forces said 20 years ago, there was an amnesty, which there sort of was, the Simpson- Mazzoli bill, which was pushed by the anti-immigration people, that Ronald Reagan signed. What's happened that's so terrible in the last 20 years? Is the crime rate up in the United States in the last 20 years? Is unemployment up in the United States in the last 20 years?...

Exactly. And of course there are remittances to Mexico, and improvements in the living standards of the immigrants themselves. Kaus goes on:

9. In both cases, less grand--and less risky--alternatives are available. Bush could have kept "Saddam" boxed up while he planned regime change through other means, built alliances and pursued the more manageable war in Afghanistan.

I doubt it. Of course, Saddam was more "in a box" already than we knew, or could have known, at that time. But the sanctions were unraveling, and dead Iraqi children because of the sanction were already a cause celebre for bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and a particularly dangerous one, since they were one of a number of areas where al-Qaeda was on the same page as conscientious Westerners.

Similarly, Bush could put "enforcement" mechanisms in place, and make sure they work, before he potentially stimulates a huge new wave of illegal immigrants by rewarding those illegals who already made it across the border.

And thus reinforce the injustice that those born within the borders of the United States have far better opportunities in this world than those born outside it.

10. In both cases the consequences of losing Bush's big bet are severe.

Severe for whom? The consequences of the status quo-- Saddam in power; our current immigration system-- were/are severe for its victims. More fundamentally, the status quo in each case puts us in the wrong. It was morally unacceptable to be punishing Iraqi children for Saddam's vile thwarted ambitions. It is morally unacceptable today that we are applying massive coercion to preserve the privileges of the American-born while denying freedom of migration to the foreign-born.

The equivalent disaster scenario in immigration would go something like this: "Comprehensive" reform passes. The "earned legalization" provisions work as planned--millions of previously undocumented workers become legal Americans. But the untested "enforcement" provisions (point #5) prove no more effective than they've been in the past--or else they are crippled by ACLU-style lawsuits and lobbying (as in the past). Legal guest workers enter the country to work, but so do millions of new illegal workers, drawn by the prospect that they too, may some day be considered too numerous to deport and therefore candidates for the next amnesty. Hey, "stuff happens!" The current 12 million illegal immigrants become legal--and soon we have another 12 million illegals. Or 20 million.

That's exactly what I'm hoping for. It would be interesting to know whether this is what Bush is hoping for, as well, or whether he really thinks "enforcement" will work. As I wrote in "A Right to Migrate":

The question, then, is whether illegal immigrants and their sympathizers have the courage and conviction to organize civil disobedience until they force lasting change... I, for one, hope they do. And I hope they bring about a world in which the right to migrate is accepted as an essential pillar of freedom.

As a result, wages for unskilled, low-income legal American and immigrant workers are depressed. Visible contrasts of wealth and poverty reach near-Latin American proportions in parts of Los Angeles.

Bring it on. After all, the "contrasts of wealth and poverty" are already there; borders are a blindfold, preventing us from seeing how the foreign-born are condemned to live. Open borders would render them visible but would not create them; on the contrary, they are by far the most effective means of reducing them, both through the natural processes of the free market, and by sharpening the pangs of conscience felt by the wealth off and fueling private charity.

And the majority of these illegal (and legal) immigrants, like the majority in many parts of the country, are from one nation: Mexico. America for the first time has a potential Quebec problem,** in which a neighboring country has a continuing claim on the loyalties of millions of residents and citizens.

This is paranoid. Mexicans come here because they want to benefit from the superior economy and governance of the United States. If they wanted to live in Mexico, they'd stay in Mexico. But of course, if we're worried about this, there's an easy solution: let in more non-Mexican immigrants.

In one sense, this second grand Bush plan failure wouldn't be nearly as disastrous as the first--tens of thousands of people wouldn't die.

Poverty kills more people than the Iraq War. Open borders would create huge opportunities for people to better their lives, leading to better health, lower infant mortality and malnutrition, longer life expectancies. Immigration restrictions kill.

In another sense, it would be worse. We can retreat from Iraq. We won't be able to retreat from the failure of immigration reform--no "surge" will save us--because it will change who "we" are.

Who we are is rooted in what we do. As long as we protect the privileged lives of the American-born through immigration restrictions, there is a fundamental cowardice at the soul of the American nation; we are spoiled aristocrats, telling the rest of the world, "Let them eat cake." We walk blindfolded, we cut ourselves off from our fellow men, we "retreat into our money and our vast carelessness," as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. And we are tainted by the unjust coercion that is exercised in our name. For this reason, many in this world justly despise us.

The Iraq War was, or at any rate may be, the beginning of the end of our Pontius Pilate foreign policy, in which we washed our hands of the injustice and atrocities which we had the power to stop, trying to deny any responsibility. Immigration reform points the way towards the end of the border policy by which we walk on the other side of the road and pretend not to see the suffering, the downtrodden. These two Bush policies point us... towards a Good Samaritan world.

(I've finally shed a bit of light on the cryptic title of this blog!)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


My latest article at Tech Central Station:

Last night, President Bush's State of the Union address and Senator James Webb's Democratic response provided a useful juxtaposition of views. Among other things, it showed how the parties' positions on poverty have changed.

To wit, President Bush's proposals tend to target various aspects of what might be called absolute poverty. By contrast, Sen. Webb is interested in relative poverty.

Themes from President Bush's speech that relate to poverty include:

Health care. President Bush's discussion of health care was the wonkiest part of the speech, but his proposals are an effort to expand the net of health insurance to cover some of the 45 million people without health insurance, while encouraging cost savings. His first proposal was a change in the tax code, providing tax breaks to those with health insurance, thus making it more affordable and increasing the incentive to acquire it. Second, he proposed federal aid to "states that make basic private health insurance available to all their citizens," such as Massachusetts. If health insurance becomes more widespread, the poor, who are more likely to lack insurance, will benefit disproportionally.

Immigration. One demographic in America with especially high poverty incidence is illegal immigrants. Their lack of legal status puts them in fear of capture and deportation, and makes it harder for them to switch jobs. Last night, Bush called once again for "resolv[ing] the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country... [through] comprehensive immigration reform."

An immigration reform bill along the lines of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act passed by the Senate (but not the House) last May would be of immediate benefit to millions of the poorest people in America. The temporary worker program that President Bush proposed would benefit the US economy, but would also directly benefit those, probably from poor countries, who would get to come to America under the program, boosting their incomes and broadening their horizons. As a poverty alleviation policy, a temporary worker program is especially meritorious.

AIDS. In 2004, I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks in one of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. I was immediately struck by the tremendous number of children there. It seemed that the median age was about 15. Why? Part of the explanation is that 25% of the population had AIDS, and life expectancy had dropped to 40 or less. The pandemic left hundreds of thousands of orphans in its wake. In schools, upwards of 100 children would crowd into some classrooms, because the teachers were dying. Coffins became a major item in school districts' budgets. Along the roads, with alarming frequency, were the advertisements of coffin makers.

Thanks to anti-retroviral drugs, AIDS no longer has to be a death sentence. In rich countries, people like Andrew Sullivan can have AIDS and still lead highly successful careers and carry on fulfilling personal lives. But only a tiny proportion of AIDS victims in sub-Saharan Africa have access to these drugs. Bush has already tripled aid spending to fight the AIDS pandemic, to $15 billion, and last night he asked Congress to continue funding these efforts.

Malaria. Economist Jeffrey Sachs has argued, based on transnational research on the statistical determinants of economic development, that "the economic burden of malaria" is one of the major reasons that sub-Saharan Africa is the poorest region of the world. Because they are so poor, sub-Saharan Africans are not a lucrative prospective market, so profit-oriented pharmaceutical companies prefer to research drugs for the ailments of rich-world clients, even if these ailments have a far smaller human toll. President Bush called on Congress "to provide $1.2 billion over five years so we can combat malaria in 15 African countries."

I would argue that the Iraq War is at least as important as the other initiatives in the long-run fight against world poverty. If we see development as freedom, then people living in totalitarian prison-states are ipso facto among the world's poorest people, destitute of "substantive freedoms" even if they have some material comforts. Anyway, oppressive, corrupt, kleptocratic, unaccountable, and dictatorial states are a major hindrance to development even in the narrowly economic sense. The overthrow of one tyrant is a valuable precedent, because now no dictator can take his impunity for granted, and the ignominious downfall and death of Saddam Hussein stands as a warning to other rulers to serve their people rather than repress them.

If the Iraq War is the stick of encouraging better governance, the Millennium Challenge Account is the carrot. This new foreign aid program provides large tranches of money to selected countries. But in order to apply, countries have to achieve demonstrable progress in "ruling justly," "investing in people," and economic freedom.

President Bush has proposed an array of policies that confront different aspects of real deprivation as experienced by the poor here and abroad: bad education, lack of legal status and fear of deportation, lack of health care and disease. Of course, also critical to poverty alleviation is the ongoing success of the US economy, which, as the president mentioned, has created 7.2 million jobs since the beginning of the current expansion. Jobs are both the best way out of poverty and, as presidential aspirant John Edwards has said , a source of "dignity and self-respect." By calling for a balanced budget in five years, without raising taxes, President Bush made a bid to preserve a business climate in which prosperity will continue.

While the president is interested in dealing with specific aspects of poverty and deprivation, he is not interested in the position of poor people relative to others. Senator Webb is. "When I graduated from college," remarks Senator Webb, "the average corporate CEO made 20 times what the average worker did; today, it¹s nearly 400 times." Or again, "Wages and salaries for our workers are at all-time lows as a percentage of national wealth." In each case, the statistic he cites is a ratio: the average worker's wages compared to those of the CEO; wages and salaries compared to national wealth. That the average worker is much wealthier in absolute terms than he was thirty years ago does not seem to interest Webb much: what matters is that his relative wealth has decreased.

There is probably, in fact, a link between those soaring CEO paychecks that Webb is so indignant about and the rising living standards of the average worker. In a survey of executive pay offered last week in The Economist, Edward Carr reports that "executives have enjoyed an astonishing pay bonanza," and "explains why most of them deserve it." The rise in executive pay, reports Carr, probably reflects an improvement of corporate governance: the accountability of executives to corporate boards improved, and CEOs' positions became more precarious, which helped to make maximizing shareholder value paramount in corporate strategy. Then executive pay was bid up by the market for managerial talent. Better management led to productivity growth, and to job creation and higher pay for workers. So it matters whether you care about your wealth in absolute terms or relative terms. If you're interested in absolute wealth and poverty, recent trends are good. If you're interested in relative wealth and poverty, recent trends are bad.

The irony is that Sen. Webb calls for "measure[ing] the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base. Not with the numbers that come out of Wall Street, but with the living conditions that exist on Main Street." Quite right. But President Bush said not a word about Wall Street. He is interested in job creation, health care, and foreign aid. It is Sen. Webb who thinks the state of the nation depends on how the elite are faring.

Corresponding to the emphasis on absolute poverty and relative poverty are feelings of altruism and envy, respectively.

President Bush seeks to inspire altruism by encouraging Americans to compare themselves with those who have less:

"American foreign policy is more than a matter of war and diplomacy. Our work in the world is also based on a timeless truth: To whom much is given, much is required. We hear the call to take on the challenges of hunger and poverty and disease."

Sen. Webb, by contrast, encourages Americans to compare themselves to those who have more, and feel envy. Although Sen. Webb borrows John Edwards' "two nations" theme ("it's almost like we were living in two different countries"), unlike Edwards, Webb makes no mention of helping the poor. Sen. Webb's message is that "the middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table."

Whereas President Bush supports policies that would help the poor abroad, especially his call for "expanded trade and debt relief that are the best hope for lifting lives and eliminating poverty," Sen. Webb hints at policies that would harm them. When he complains about jobs going overseas, he is complaining about the very process that is now giving tens of millions of people a chance to lift themselves out of poverty. (James Webb also attacked illegal immigrants in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.)

None of this is to say whether it's a good thing that President Bush cares so much about the poor. Some of his ideas are good, others may not work out so well. Laurie Garrett, in the most recent Foreign Affairs, reports on the serous problems facing the donors' drive to promote global health. President Bush's willingness to spend taxpayer money on the poor (and not-so-poor) is one of the things about him that makes a lot of conservatives uneasy.

The point is, rather, that this is a good time to notice how the parties' ideologies have evolved, and in one respect have leap-frogged one another. Democrats are no longer the ones who care about the poor. President Bush is.

George Bush wants us to be fed, clothed, healthy, educated, employed, and free. James Webb wants us to keep up with the Joneses.

Monday, January 22, 2007


Imagine you've just given a year and a half of your life to serving your country in Iraq and come home to find that your pregnant wife and your toddler daughter have been forced to leave the United States, and now the government won't let them back in.

You sit at home waiting, but no one can give you answers when or if they will be allowed to return. You wait five months, long enough for your baby to be born in a foreign country. But still, no one can give you answers.

That is what Aaron Thorsted of Salt Lake City, Utah, goes through every day. His story aired on KSL-TV there this week.

Why is the government preventing Johana Thorsted and the couple's children from returning to the United States? Is she on some terror watch list? Does she have ties to radical organizations? Has she committed some heinous act that makes her a danger to our country?

No. Like thousands of others who have grown up here and know no other life but ours, Johana's parents forced her to come to the United States from Guatemala illegally when she was a child. Aaron Thorsted knew her status when he asked her to marry him. He told KSL that Johana worried that he would reject her when he found out.

But love doesn't require a “green card,” and so Aaron promised her they would fix her problem. When Aaron was sent to Iraq, however, the process slowed, since immigration officials are wary of Americans who want to sponsor spouses who aren't actually living under the same roof.

Johana returned to Guatemala in what should have been the final step in adjusting her status. The couple expected she would have approval by the time Aaron came home from his tour in Iraq. But they are still waiting. And in December, their second child was born. This complicates matters because the child is not automatically an American citizen and now, too, must get permission to come to the United States.

Our immigration restrictions are a national disgrace. Vivan los coyotes!

Friday, January 19, 2007


Writes historian John Judis:

What exactly are we doing in the Horn of Africa, where we have encouraged the Christian government of Ethiopia to invade Somalia and replace its Islamic government? As far as I can tell, we have violated international law, committed war crimes, helped Al Qaeda recruit new members, and involved ourselves in a guerrilla war that could last decades. It's Iraq writ small. And it can't be blamed on Donald Rumsfeld.

There's an old principle of international law, going back to the seventeenth century, against one nation violating the sovereignty of another. It was often breached, but, after two world wars, it was enshrined in the United Nations charter. We criticized the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and justified the first Gulf war on these grounds. The purpose of this principle has been to prevent wars that could arise if more powerful countries simply took it into their hands to dominate smaller, less powerful ones.

Sovereignty, like slavery, is a concept/institution founded on a morally nihilistic rejection of human dignity that treats people as means rather than ends. Of course, some sovereign states treat their subjects well, just as some masters treated their slaves well. It is sometimes appropriate to let bad institutions stand and rely on good individuals and communities to mitigate them. But not always, and not as a permanent principle.

There is no merit in protecting weaker countries against stronger countries; there is merit in protecting weaker people against stronger people, and against strong states. This is the direction in which international law must move.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


From Iraqi blogger Hammorabi:

Tuesday the 16th January 2007 was another bloody day in Iraq. This time the bloodshed was of female students in Almostansiriyah University in Baghdad. The terrorists used the same barbaric strategy by using several and different types of blasts in the same time.

More than 200 students have been killed and wounded after a suicidal attack and two car bombs. Most of the students were females in the University main entrance and some were waiting in the bus stop to go home. In addition to this ongoing attacks unrelenting in Baghdad and other cities that claimed hundreds of lives.

On the other hand the number of the US soldiers killed in Iraq reached above 3000 this week.

The new US policy in Iraq will fail if it ignores that the security issue in Iraq needs strong Iraqi army and police with better equipments. Increasing few thousands of the US soldiers in Iraq will not solve the most complicated matter.

On the other hand any US conflict with Iran will complicate the problem in the Middle East to an extent that the first one may regret it will be the USA. If the USA attacked Iran the latter may transfer the war inside Iraq against the US troops and will attack the US war ships in the Gulf. Hormoz Strait will close and oil will not go from there. Attacks may extend to include the US bases in Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. The outcome will be devastating to the region and certainly to the USA which may pull its troops after Iran declares victory and became the only superpower of the region.

Any one who did a mistake should bear its own consequences. In 1980s Iraq was an equal force to Iran. Once the 8 year war finished in 1988 the USA implemented with its allies a policy after Kuwait war to destroy Iraq during the 12 years sanction. Iran was progressing while Iraq was regressing rapidly. It was much better at that time after the liberation of Kuwait to topple Saddam regime and preserve the Iraqi force while advancing the peace process in the Middle East. However the US took the advice of the Saudis to leave Saddam over a destroyed country and even destroy it more by sanctions and it was wrong. Indeed the Iraqis will never forget the years of sanctions which killed more than one million children while kept Saddam prosperous. The worst time in Iraq was not the second Gulf war but the time during the sanction and Saddam in power. Now the USA is paying for its mistake of not toppling Saddam at that easer time. Iran is going to be the superpower of the region with nuclear arms whether the US accepted this or not. However it is better to accept this sooner rather than latter and better without massive bloodshed and sever[e] damages.

We think that all of what is going on now and the attacks of the 11 September 2001 in NY could not have been happened if the war in Kuwait was avoided or at least if Saddam was toppled after that war and of no doubts that was much easier and better than the present situation. The mistake was that GWB the senior accepted the advice of the Saudis who themselves fed the ideology and strategy of September the 11th attacks and much more and seems to be more to come and may be so soon.

I don't agree with everything in Hammorabi's analysis, but his points about GWB Senior's mistake get to the heart of the matter. When I first learned about the effects of the sanctions on Iraq, in college, it made me sick and ashamed of my country. When the statue fell on April 9, 2003, my patriotism was restored. For me, the Iraq War had nothing to do with national security or 9/11. It was a penitential act.

(I wrote a previous post with this title.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Barak Obama, now Democratic candidate for president, has no executive experience and only two years of experience in national politics. George W. Bush would have benefited from having more experience before becoming president. He'd been governor of Texas for six years. And that was peacetime. But peacetime or wartime, Obama is just too inexperienced to belong in the White House.

But a bigger problem is that all Obama's utterances seem to be meaningless pabulum. For example:

“Our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common-sense way,” Mr. Obama said, speaking in a video address sent to his supporters. “Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can’t tackle the big problems that demand solutions.”

Blah blah blah. Give me substance. Bitter, partisan Democrats, gummed up by the money and influence of the AARP, blocked Bush's attempt to tackle a big problem, Social Security, that demands a solution. Is that what you're talking about, Obama?

Actually, Social Security aside, I'll be contrarian here and say that Obama is actually wrong. In the last few years, Congress has passed the No Child Left Behind Act, big tax cuts, and the Medicare prescription drug plan, while implementing regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are fair achievements.

But the real problem is that Obama's statements are designed to play well in the press, and to play well to different audiences. They're fortune-cookie statements, that make everyone's brain say "Yeah" because they sound good and are too vague to have any real meaning with which to provoke disagreement. It's a nifty trick, but voters would be very foolish to put a guy into the White House for it.

But wasn't Bill Clinton a smooth-talker too? Yes, but he was also a smooth operator, based on a lot of executive experience and a healthy dose of sleaze, that's what made him successful, and anyway, he was only successful in domestic policy; in foreign policy, the late 1990s were mostly a time of drift, and of course they led up to 9/11. Obama lacks the executive experience and (as far as I know) the sleaze; and this is not a time when we can afford to let foreign policy slide.

That said, I'll give my last dime to Obama's campaign if the Republicans nominate Tom Tancredo.