Friday, June 29, 2012

The Parable of the Elder Brother

This parable has been on my mind for the better part of a year now. I noted with amusement Rob Bell's attempt to support his views on heaven and hell from it. Just as I wrote in the book, Rob Bell's attempt is a "vulgar but logical extension" of the common evangelical interpretation of this passage. Jesus, so we have been taught to believe, is a teddy bear. Or rather God is just a big teddy bear, sent Jesus to let us know, and this is the sum total of the Christian story. And so what ought to be read as an anti-Pharisee polemic instead becomes a rapturous celebration of salvation, a passage where all Christians envision themselves running to daddy for a big hug. The entire point of the parable is completely left out of the Sunday school lesson, which normally ends with the prodigal son coming down the road toward the open arms of his father. I have heard entire sermons preached on that scene. Rarely have I heard a sermon on this parable begin with its proper context:

"Now the tax collectors and 'sinners' were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'"

Everything that follows, that is all of Luke 15, is a response to the Pharisees accusing Jesus of breaking bread with sinners. Jesus, wielding a "sharp, double-edged sword" (Rev 1:12-16, 19:11-16, etc.), attacks and destroys an idea, a point of view, a conception of reality standing opposed to Him and His kingdom. It is not a teddy bear story.

As Christians, we know that all have sinned and thus all are sinners. Imagine Jesus in the presence of the Pharisees, knowing this. The idea that one should not eat with sinners becomes the idea that one should not eat with anyone. Jesus knows that those living in repentance of their sins will be declared righteous by faith, and thus not all who have sinned are unrighteous. What galls him is the Pharisee who believes he is righteous but is not, and then blindly rejects whom he thinks are "sinners" but accepts those Jesus knows to be unrepentant and thus unrighteous, while the "sinners" with whom Jesus is eating are declared righteous by their faith.

Make no mistake. Christianity teaches we should throw people out of the church fellowship who are living in sin:

"I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat." (1 Cor 5:9-11)

Paul makes a distinction here between the baldly immoral and those who call themselves a brother and are still immoral. He is referring to the difference between a sinner who is currently living in sin, someone who "calls himself a brother" but, implicitly, is not and a sinner who has repented and is currently living in righteousness and in the body of Christ. The first we should "hand over to Satan" and "not even eat" with them. The second is a brother in Christ with whom we should "not give up meeting." (Heb 10:25) Jesus, of course, knows all this. Thus he does not attack the Pharisees' idea that there are some with whom we should not associate. If Jesus believed we should eat with everyone, since all are sinners, it would have been relatively easy to make that point. But Jesus knows that it is right for Christians not to associate with those who would by their very presence poison the body of Christ, for "a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough." (1 Cor 5:6) The problem with the Pharisees has nothing to do with rejecting some and accepting others. The problem is the standard they are using to determine who is who. The standard cannot be whether someone has sinned or not because all have. The standard is repentance.

Jesus knows he is eating with sinners whenever he eats in the presence of anyone. He is, after all, on earth. But the people whom the Pharisees, sinners themselves, are calling "sinners" are repentant sinners. Thus the people with whom Jesus is associating are in the right, and the Pharisees are in the wrong. If this parable had been part of the Sermon on the Mount, then we might be justified in interpreting it the way we do. But it was given to people who were in the wrong, not those who were in the right, and must be interpreted as a polemic against wrongdoers, not a celebration of those in the right. It is a rebuke and a correction, not a teddy bear story. It emphasizes not the prodigal son, but the elder brother.

The first two parables, of the lost sheep and the lost coin, contain no elder brother figure, which is why Jesus told the third parable. He is clearly searching, and "searching" is the right word, for a story that will more clearly illustrate his point. His point in the first two parables is that those who sin and come to repentance are welcomed and rejoiced over. Again, this is not to buttress the ego of believers but to rebuke the Pharisees for not rejoicing over the lost who are found, as God does. Then with the Parable of the Elder Brother Jesus finishes the attack with a flourish. In this parable we see the same theme, a joyous reunion of the lost with its proper home, but we also see a spectator to that reunion who has objections to it:

"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’" (Luke 15:28-32)

Thus the point of all three parables becomes clear. Jesus is on the one hand rebuking the Pharisees for being party poopers. But it goes much, much deeper than that.

Who is the elder brother? According to the story, the elder brother is a figure who never left the father. But we know, as Jesus did, that everyone has left the Father at some point. All have sinned. Notice what the elder brother says: "All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders." Could such a person really exist, a person who never broke the law and never disobeyed God? Why does Jesus pretend that anyone remotely like the elder brother could even exist in real life? If the elder brother is representative of the Pharisees, then why does Jesus say that "you are always with me" when he knew that they were not? Jesus did so in order to make sure the Pharisees recognized his attack against them, but at the same time to provide them a clear way to repentance by forcing them to recognize their sin. He played to their misconception of themselves and in effect, invited them to become "sinners" so they might join the party. In short, he put a burr under their saddle that was intended to either irritate them or convert them. It was a clever, subversive attack and it was intended to be divisive, pitting his enemies clearly on one side and his sheep clearly on the other.

"Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53)

Jesus makes this point more explicit in another great passage, John 9. Actually, you should probably read John 9-10:21. Jesus has just healed a blind man on the Sabbath, prompting the Pharisees and teachers of the law to proclaim with certainty that he is a sinner and could not be from God. The blind man is incredulous, asking how, if Jesus is not from God, could he heal the blind at all? Jesus reveals himself as God to the blind man, who promptly worships him. Then Jesus said:

“For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?” Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains." (John 9:39-41)

Evangelicals love the part about the blind being able to see, but we tend to ignore that Jesus also claimed to be blinding those who could see. He was literally turning the world upside down, elevating the humble and bringing low the proud. But more than that, he was saying that those who claimed they could see were automatically guilty. Paul echoes this argument in Romans 7:

"What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead."

Jesus is telling the Pharisees that since they claim they know the law, their guilt remains. They would only be sinless if they didn't know the law, as Paul says. But of course their entire claim to fame is that they do know the law, and so their guilt remains, just as all have sinned. It is no wonder the Pharisees were blinded by this. They must have wondered to themselves, "How can we be saved from sin if we are still guilty even after following the law?" In fact Jesus was asked exactly this question more than once. It is the question Jesus came to answer. It is why he came to die, something he predicts in John 10, saying the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

Jesus then goes on in John 10 to explain that his sheep know his voice because they are his sheep. Those who are not his sheep will not recognize his voice. He is clearly telling the Pharisees they are not God's sheep because they do not recognize his voice. He is saying that his real sheep, the ones with faith in God, have recognized him as their shepherd and rejected the Pharisees as "strangers," "thieves and robbers," and a "wolf." Once again this whole "sheep know my voice" passage is often interpreted as a teddy bear story. Aw...we are his sheep and he's our shepherd. How cute. We conveniently leave out the antagonistic parts of the story. Once again, this is a polemic passage against the Pharisees. It is a warning to all those who would dare to take ownership of God's sheep as if they were their own. It is a warning to all those who set themselves up as authorities over the faith. The message is clear: God is the authority, Christ is the Shepherd. And our God is a jealous God.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Today's Obamacare Ruling

Today the Supreme Court ruled that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, was constitutional except for one aspect of the Medicaid expansion. Obviously I have to comment on this since the first post of this blog predicted they would rule it unconstitutional.

First the background:

In 2009 with the country in recession, Obama and the Democrats with their 60 vote supermajority in the Senate and control of the House and the executive branch, passed a massive stimulus bill. Then, claiming it was about the economy, they started trying to pass Obamacare. It ended up taking them months. Republicans were unanimous in opposition, steeled by the rise of the Tea Party. At first the Democrats wanted a public option, or publicly provided healthcare. They couldn't get it past a Republican filibuster in the Senate, so they settled for what they could get and managed, by promising millions of extra dollars of aid to Louisiana and Nebraska to get Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson's votes, the current bill. Both conservative Democrats, Landrieu and Nelson hailed from red states and stood to lose a great deal politically for their vote. They were obviously looking for something they could use to prove to their constituency that the bill was good for them. Both failed miserably, as both the Louisiana Purchase and the Cornhusker Kickback were eliminated from the final version of the bill in a non-voting process called "reconciliation", but I'm getting ahead of myself. Nelson has since announced he will not run for reelection this year, a wise choice since he almost certainly would have lost by double digits despite his good reputation in my home state. I heard stories of Nelson being booed in public restaurants in Omaha. Nelson was a former governor of our state and I still believe he is a good man who got caught up in a moment that was obviously too big for him, much like Chief Justice John Roberts did today. I genuinely feel sorry for him, but he is the reason I will never vote Democrat again. Even conservatives can have their arms twisted by their party apparatus into doing the wrong thing. Landrieu is up for reelection in 2014.

After getting 60 votes in the Senate to override a filibuster, the Democrats thought they had it made. For those of you unfamiliar with how Congress works, there are two houses: the House and the Senate. Both houses had now passed two different versions of Obamacare. In order for the bill to become law, a committee has to meet to hash out the differences and get the same bill passed in both houses. Normally each house passes a different bill and then the final version is a compromise between the two houses. Of course, this compromise bill must also be passed by both houses. The first vote is usually just the opening statement of a longer argument. Not this time. 

Fueled by the Tea Party angst over the stimulus and Obamacare, in no less than the original home of the Boston Tea Party, the state of Massachusetts, Scott Brown, a Republican in a deep blue state, won the special election for the Senate seat vacated by the death of longtime Senator and socialized medicine advocate Ted Kennedy. Brown was famous for criss-crossing the state alone in his personal pick-up truck during the campaign. His opponent was famous for campaigning for "Kennedy's seat" claiming a win was needed to honor his memory. Brown simply replied, "That seat belongs to the people of Massachusetts." Brown won, and now the Democrats had only 59 votes in the Senate. They could no longer run roughshod over Republican opposition and were stuck right in the middle of negotiating a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the bill. Since Republicans in the Senate were united against Obamacare and would filibuster any attempt to push through another version of the bill, the Democrats had to strong-arm the House into accepting the Senate version of the bill which was never intended to be final. Just to clarify, the strong-arming was required because Democrats in the House wanted a more socialist bill then the Senate version. All of these so-called "negotiations" were completely within the Democratic Party. No Republicans were invited and no Republicans were interested. Due to the strong leadership and exceptional argumentation provided by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who argued that "we have to pass the bill so you can find out what's in it," they barely succeeded with a vote of 219-212, despite Democrats having around an 80 vote advantage in the House. One wonders if Pelosi's argument didn't ring true with many of the House members whilst staring at the 2700 page monstrosity being sold to them, four orders of magnitude larger than the Constitution itself. 

Now they had a bill which could be sent to the President to sign, but unfortunately it was a bill which was never intended to be the final version, and they were stuck with it. So they decided to use a tactic called "reconciliation" to modify the bill without a vote to, in effect, make it presentable, like a make-up job two minutes before airtime. During this process, both the Louisiana Purchase and the Cornhusker Kickback were removed due to popular outcry, also removing the main reasons the Senate bill got 60 votes in the first place. I remember when Republicans merely threatened to do something similar during the Bush years. The media nicknamed it "the nuclear option" and began a full-fledged crusade against it. Republicans backed down. When Democrats actually do it, without even so much as a threat, suddenly it's called "reconciliation." But conservatives are used to media bias, so this passed relatively unnoticed. The modified but still raw and unfinished bill was signed into law by President Obama on March 23rd, 2010. In November of that year, once again fueled by Tea Party opposition primarily to Obamacare, Republicans won a landslide victory in both the House and Senate, gaining 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate, giving us our current Congress. Since its inception until this day, Obamacare has been so unpopular the law never would have garnered even a majority of the voting public. 

Now the resistance began in earnest. Twenty-six state governments and the National Federation of Independent Businesses signed on to a lawsuit against it, with a twenty-seventh state, Virginia, filing one on its own. Twelve lawsuits were filed by forty-three Catholic institutions, including Notre Dame University, just a few months ago after it became clear that the Obama administration intended to use the law to force Catholic institutions to provide healthcare coverage for contraception and even abortion in violation of their religious liberty. Innumerable other lawsuits are in the works, and Obamacare will not even be fully implemented until 2014, when even more lawsuits will come into play as certain legalities don't allow suits to be brought until some consequences of the law are actually felt. The ruling issued today was over the first lawsuit. 

The ruling today is surprising not only because it upheld an unconstitutional law, but also for the reason it was upheld and who voted in favor of it. Those who follow the Supreme Court know that in recent years it has been divided evenly between four constructivist justices, Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts, and four, shall we say, "living document" justices, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, with Justice Anthony Kennedy usually providing the swing vote. Kennedy has recently voted with the constructivists more often than not, a position which chooses to validate and uphold the original meaning of the Constitution. Most expected the decision to be 5-4 with Kennedy being the deciding vote. Oral arguments before the Court did not go well for the government, and many conservatives believed at least the individual mandate would be held unconstitutional. Kennedy did vote against the law, but Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the liberals to uphold it. The decision was 5-4 in favor. 

Even more surprising is the reasoning behind Roberts' vote. Obviously something spectacular would have to happen for a Justice to vote for a law he almost certainly disagrees with. The first argument for Obamacare's constitutionality and the one most favored by liberals was based on the Commerce Clause. The government, according to the Constitution, has the power to regulate interstate commerce. This clause has long been abused by progressives. Perhaps the most egregious example is Wickard v. Filburn, the 1942 case which ruled a private farmer could not grow wheat for his own private consumption if the government chose to restrict him. In other words no commerce whatsoever was taking place, much less interstate, yet this poor farmer could still be regulated under the Commerce Clause because by growing his own wheat he took himself out of the wheat market, affecting interstate wheat prices. Apparently even subsistence farming can be regulated by the government according to this bastardized interpretation of the Commerce Clause. And remember this was in an age where the government had on occasion ordered farmers to deliberately destroy their own crops and paid them not to grow crops in the first place in an attempt to engineer food prices, leading directly to food shortages and bread lines. No wonder today's progressives thought the Commerce Clause was their strongest argument for Obamacare. The progressives of yesteryear had literally used it to force the American people to starve. But Roberts categorically rejected this argument. 

The argument he accepted was that the individual mandate was not in fact a mandate at all. Despite numerous citations in the dissenting opinion proving it was intended as a penalty for breaking the law, including an unequivocal insistence on that point by President Obama himself, Roberts ruled that the mandate was not really a legal requirement but that the penalty for breaking it was actually just a tax, falling under Congress' power to tax. In fact, the Supreme Court had earlier ruled the individual mandate was not a tax because if it was according to the Anti-Injunction Act they could not have decided the case over the individual mandate until someone had actually paid it, which no one will until 2014. Unbelievable! The Democrats had long insisted the law was not a tax for obvious political reasons and the Supreme Court had previously ruled it was not a tax in order to hear the case now, yet all of a sudden the individual mandate is ruled constitutional because it is a tax!

I would like to believe that we will reach no lower Orwellian depths, but if we accept this ridiculousness what won't we accept? There is really no explanation for Roberts' decision other than that offered by Charles Krauthammer. Conservative jurisprudence is against judicial activism, meaning conservative justices do not believe the Supreme Court should make law, which of course I agree. Roberts, apparently, believed he had a duty to make sure the Supreme Court was not where the issue was decided. With this I do not agree. The job of the Supreme Court is to interpret the law without any reference to political concerns. If this was Roberts' motivation, then he clearly had a political concern, and in fact did the opposite of whatever principles he thought he was following. 

Well Mr. Roberts, sir, the people have already spoken loud and clear. If you thought you were appeasing them you were greatly mistaken. The legislative process was abused in passing the law in the first place, and even then it only passed by the skin of its teeth. Obamacare was opposed in Massachussetts, the very state where then governor and now Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had signed into law something very similar. They elected Scott Brown with the express purpose of stopping Obamacare. It passed anyway on the strength of provisions used to secure votes that were taken out of the final version without a vote. It has been opposed by a majority of the American people ever since its inception, and its only getting worse. After your ruling today and after inexplicably running against something he was for as governor of Massachussetts, Romney raised $3.2 million in less than one day. His campaign has suddenly transformed from being about the economy to being about repealing Obamacare. Do you hear that? This law is so odious that people care about getting rid of it more than the worst economic problems this country has faced since the Great Depression, another gift from progressives. The least you could have done was rule according to your principles without reference to any political concerns. Votes can change. Supreme Court precedents cannot. You, sir, have damaged what you sought to repair and uphold by issuing a precedent which will now be cited by every last progressive attempting to abuse, distort and destroy principled and majority opposition to his political initiatives. I hope you're happy. The people are not.

Now that's whack.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Politics of Batman: Chaos Part Deux

The previous post on the new Batman movies started with an idea about chaos from chemistry: entropy. This post is partly inspired by an idea of chaos from mathematics: chaos theory. I first heard of chaos theory from the writings of William Dembski, an intelligent design proponent who briefly mentioned it as an interest of his in the 80s. He was initially impressed with it, but said it failed to live up to its lofty expectations of being the next big thing. It has some applications, but by and large it failed to materialize as a genuine scientific revolution. Chaos theory has made it into pop culture sporadically, particularly in the form of "fractals" and "fractal geometry" which have the advantage of having cool visual representations. I must tread carefully here because I am a biochemist by training, not a mathematician, and I do not have any sort of professional understanding of chaos theory, but my only purpose is to illustrate the idea and immediately use it as an analogy for progressive politics. If I am wrong in some details about chaos theory, it won't affect the point of this post.

Chaos theory is the idea of mathematical models that are unpredictable because of high sensitivity to little details, such as a minor change in initial position.  From the outside, chaotic systems look completely out of control, but in reality are completely deterministic. Once you can build an accurate model you can get the right outcomes and predict its behavior to a certain degree. Weather is a good example of a chaotic system. Current weather models allow us to predict the weather about a week in advance. The reason we cannot predict much farther into the future is the chaotic nature of weather systems. Part of this is probably a deficiency in our computer models of weather. Another part, even more important and a problem which is unlikely to be solved, is our lack of complete knowledge about initial conditions. We can't know the position and, just as important, the velocity of every last gas molecule in the entire atmosphere of the earth. We can't know every last characteristic of those molecules at a single instant in time. In fact, according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle it may be impossible even in principle to know all the details of initial condition in any system. But we can model systems, even chaotic systems, to a certain degree using complicated sets of mathematical rules and algorithms. There is a reason chaos theory did not develop until the 70s and 80s. Understanding and modeling chaotic systems requires computers powerful enough to handle them. They can sometimes be modeled very accurately with computers. The question is: Which systems can we model and how accurately can we model them? The key variant regarding the current topic, progressive politics, is can we model human behavior?

Let's assume for a minute that both these problems with predicting the behavior of chaotic systems could be solved. Let's say that we could know all the initial conditions of 6-7 billion human brains, not to mention the weather and all sorts of other chaotic systems which influence the economies of the world. Let's say we did have a completely accurate computer model of human behavior, able to model all economic behavior since the beginning of the human race until now. Could we then use this information about initial condition and this model to predict human behavior into the future without limit, or even with a limit?

No, because human beings have free will. But as I have pointed out not only on this blog but also in my book, progressives don't believe humans have free will. Now of course many of them may say they do, but the political tradition of progressivism is based on the understanding that human beings are essentially machines that can be programmed to do whatever one wants. The economy is one big, very complex math problem, in other words a chaotic system, that can be solved. For a conservative, the economy is the sum of everyone's free choices and cannot be "solved" or programmed to do what anyone wants. This is one of the biggest differences between real progressives and real conservatives. Now just like progressives, many conservatives may say they don't believe in free will, but practically speaking conservatism is based on the idea that humans are free and attempting to deny them this freedom, politically or economically, is folly. It should not be attempted not only for moral reasons but also because it could not possibly ever succeed. Freedom is part of the unalienable rights of Man, given him by God Himself, and can never be undone.

Assuming conservatives are correct, which I do, what would this world of freedom look like to the progressive who doesn't believe in freedom? It would look very much like a chaotic system. Remember chaotic systems are not free or random; they are deterministic. They look very complex and chaotic, but at bottom they are deterministic. A conservative looks at the economy and sees free wills making free choices according to their various interests, or not, and there is nothing illegitimate about any of it. A progressive looks at the economy and sees a chaotic system which, with enough knowledge, can be manipulated to produce any desired outcome.

A conservative such as myself can therefore formulate a general prediction about what will happen when a progressive leaves the ivory tower or whatever cocoon he has managed to put between himself and reality and collides with the real world. The progressive will believe that he has finally solved the chaotic system and will ask for the world's permission to implement this solution. If he receives this permission, he will form THE PLAN and if things go very well he will implement it. Inevitably, THE PLAN will fail not just because it's terrible but because nobody can predict or control all relevant variables, and thus no "plan" no matter how good could ever really work right. Now the progressive has a problem. Why did THE PLAN fail? There are really only two answers: either the progressive will realize he has made a major mistake in his world view and becomes a conservative, or he believes that THE PLAN was faulty in the particulars, not doomed from the start. In the latter case he goes back to the drawing board to make a new plan, and the cycle repeats.

And on and on we go. Each failure constitutes only evidence of progress through the elimination of ever more esoteric errors in management. Ever onward and upward! Failure is not evidence of any sort of fundamental misunderstanding of reality and human nature, and all those retrograde conservatives who claim that it is are not just wrong. They are morally corrupt for opposing economic justice simply because a few economists didn't carry a "2" or something. Just give it time, progressives say, and we'll figure it out, just as a chaotic system can be figured out by switching around a few formulas and changing some initial conditions slightly. Thus we can save the planet by forcing car companies to make cars that get a certain gas mileage. Thus we can reduce our energy requirements by forcing people to buy certain kinds of light-bulbs. Thus the mayor of New York City believes he can reduce obesity by restricting the sale of large soft drinks. According to progressives, there is no problem that cannot be solved by making more rules because society is just one big equation that needs constant tweaking. And who gets to do the tweaking? Who gets to screw around with all our lives? Politicians. No wonder politicians love progressivism. It provides them with a justification for unlimited power.

Let's return at long last to our epic tale of the Batman and the Joker. The Joker's goal, by his own admission, is to "show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are." He is "an agent of Chaos." Now I'm not identifying The Joker with conservatives when he kills people indiscriminately and robs banks. But I do identify with him here. Conservatives are often put in the unenviable position of speaking the Truth that nobody wants to hear: THE PLAN didn't work. To much of the world, especially progressives, we are the bad guys who cannot be reasoned with. Of course we cannot be reasoned with by those who won't accept reality! To engage in rational discourse with someone you must first accept common principles. Progressives and conservatives are arguing over precisely those things which depend upon our differing principles. Conservatives accept reality as a premise and progressives accept utopia as a premise. Conservatives accept human free will and progressives don't. The progressives who remain progressives despite the continued failure of THE PLAN insist that what we need is a new plan. Conservatives insist that the best course of action is to do away with THE PLAN altogether and give individuals the power to solve their own problems as they come up. Unfortunately there is nothing for it but to solve our dispute with political force. And even if conservatives lose, we will never stop pointing out the inevitable failure of THE PLAN, and thus we will be an increasing irritation to those who believe in it, a burr under their saddle, a bad guy to be dismissed and fought against not because he is wrong (because we demonstrably aren't), but because he is EVIL. He is EVIL because he keeps challenging our deeply held beliefs and if we could just get rid of him the world, meaning the mental fantasy progressives use as a substitute for reality, would be a better place. I have no doubt this is true. Undoubtedly the progressive fantasy world would be a better place without conservatives bringing the real, objective world into it. I personally am not afraid to be called evil by a gaggle of geese putting all their hope and trust in the collective execution of some demagogic savior's "plan". So bring it on! Here is a photograph I took of myself just this morning. Let out your two minutes of hate. Good! I can feel your anger. Emotion is a great way to drown out reality.

Now that's whack. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

I gotta get me one of these.

My life would be complete knowing that I pissed off all the right people.

Review of "The Language of God" by Francis Collins

For some reason I'm having a lot of trouble writing the last two posts in the Batman series, and I was looking over some stuff I've written previously and came across a review of The Language of God I wrote nearly three years ago. Enjoy.

Francis Collins is a great scientist and a compassionate human being.  His scientific work was and is motivated primarily by a desire to help people with genetic diseases, which is admirable.  Would that all scientists be motivated by such charitable feeling.  The introduction to his book shows him at the end of the Human Genome Project explaining that he is in fact a Christian and does not feel that his faith is in conflict with science.  He criticizes Stephen Jay Gould’s view that science and faith are “non-overlapping magisteria” as unsatisfying for a cohesive worldview.  His purpose for writing the book is to show that there is “still the possibility of a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews”.  “Science’s domain,” he writes, “is to explore nature.  God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science.”  So, “the mind must find a way to embrace both realms.”  

Collins begins his book by tracing his journey to Christianity.  C.S. Lewis figures prominently in this discussion which is quite understandable since Lewis, like Collins, was an atheist for much of his young adult life and converted to Christianity at the age of thirty.  Collins goes over several of Lewis’ apologetics, such as miracles, the Moral Law, and “the universal longing for God”.  At the end of chapter two Collins states, “There is at least one singular, exceedingly improbable, and profound event in history that scientists of nearly all disciplines agree is not understood and will never be understood, and for which the laws of nature fall completely short of providing an explanation.  Would that be a miracle?  Read on.”

The next chapter is called “The Origins of the Universe”, and Collins posits God as the originator of the universe.  Why?  Because, says Collins, science cannot explain it.  “The Big Bang,” he says,  “cries out for a divine explanation...I cannot see how nature could have created itself.  Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.”  After this he begins a scientific argument called the “anthropic principle” or “fine-tuning”.  To put it simply, there are fifteen physical constants which natural law does not predict and simply are what they are.  Scientists theorize that if any one of them had been a fraction different, life would not be possible.  Collins writes, “The chance that all of these constants would take the values necessary to result in a stable universe capable of sustaining complex life forms is almost infinitesimal.  And yet those are exactly the parameters that we observe.  In sum, our universe is wildly improbable.”  Collins then says there are three options for explaining this.  One is that there is an infinite number of universes so the probability of at least one attaining the right physical constants approaches unity.  Collins believes this explanation “strains credulity” and violates Occam’s Razor.  The second is just to say we have been exceedingly lucky, and Collins rejects this explanation “on the basis of probability”.  The third is that it “is not an accident, but reflects the action of the one who created the universe in the first place.”  If one already believes in a God who is the first cause of the universe, then why not posit God as the cause of the fine-tuning of the universe?  Collins readily admits that whichever option you choose, each has theological implications.  He chooses to accept that the very same God who created the universe also is responsible for the fine-tuning of the universe.  Despite it’s theological implications, this is a scientific argument utilizing God as the cause of certain natural, observable and measurable phenomena.  Collins says that “one must leave the door open to the possibility that future investigation” will reveal laws that explain the values of one or more of these constants, but “such a revelation is not currently on the horizon” and “the Anthropic Principle certainly provides an interesting argument in favor of a Creator.”  

Here we need to stop a moment and examine Collins’ design argument.  Collins seems to argue for design on the basis of improbability.  However, that is a faulty argument and his real argument includes another element that he may not have recognized.  He is correct that all fifteen constants being the particular value that they are is highly improbable.  However, what is the probability of a different set of values?  In fact, it’s exactly the same.  Every possible set of values for these constants have the exact same probability, and each one is very, very low.  Yet a design inference is triggered by the arrangement we have in our universe.  Why?  This highly improbable arrangement happens to conform to an independent pattern.  Namely, the values that allow for life.  The marriage of conformity to an independent pattern and a very low probability indicates design to Collins.  In intelligent design theory, this idea is called “specified complexity” and has been formulated mathematically by William Dembski.  “Specification” refers to conformity to a pattern, and “complexity” refers to the pattern’s improbability.  Collins here is making a design inference exactly how an intelligent design theorist would make it.  So is Collins an intelligent design theorist?  Read on.  

Chapter four covers the origin of life.  He starts his treatment by going over William Paley’s famous watchmaker design argument, concluding that it is an argument from analogy and that it “cannot be the whole story”.  He goes on to examine origin of life theories, briefly mentioning the famous Urey-Miller experiment, but concludes that “at the present time we simply do not know” how life originated.  He believes it “utterly improbable” that DNA and RNA “just happened”.  “Some theists,” he says, “have identified the appearance of RNA and DNA as a possible opportunity for divine creative action.”  “This could be an appealing hypothesis,” he says.  “But that is true today, and it may not be true tomorrow.”  Certainly, but Collins said this about the Anthropic Principle as well.  He acknowledged that one day science may find out why those constants are determined rather than arbitrary, but that did not stop him from using the Anthropic Principle as an argument for design.  All of the sudden, Collins gets cold feet.  In the one case, he argues for design based on improbability and the fact that science cannot explain the phenomenon.  According to Collins, the origin of life is also improbable, and science also cannot explain it.  So why design in one case and not in the other?  Collins provides no answer, and the reader can only wonder why he has made a different judgment based on the same evidence.  

Collins then briefly covers a litany of subjects such as the fossil record, DNA and the genetic code, scientific evidence for evolution, historical resistance to heliocentrism in the church, interpretations of the Genesis creation account, atheism and agnosticism, and many stories from personal experience.  He then turns to creationism, intelligent design and his own view, theistic evolution.  Creationism is swept away as simply wrong, equivalent to holding that “two plus two is really not equal to four”.  Collins claims that if creationism was true “it would lead to a complete and irreversible collapse of the sciences of physics, chemistry, cosmology, geology and biology.”  Later in the book, Collins admonishes “extremists on both sides, sounding alarms that predict imminent ruin unless the other side is vanquished.”  He would do well to follow his own advice.  

Collins starts his treatment of intelligent design by claiming for it three propositions which no intelligent design theorist would actually hold without further qualification, essentially putting words in other people’s mouths and arguing against a straw man.  Collins claims that intelligent design fails to qualify as a scientific theory because it makes no predictions, showing a profound misunderstanding both of philosophy of science and intelligent design.  Collins then claims that Michael Behe’s concept of irreducible complexity has been refuted by Ken Miller, a man whose arguments intelligent design theorists have answered and refuted time and time again.  In an intellectual debate one does not fire a single shot and then retreat from the battle to declare victory.  Collins makes the false claim that intelligent design is necessarily an interventionist theory of God continually stepping into nature and changing things.  He again claims, falsely, that intelligent design depends on irreducibly complexity.  His treatment of intelligent design is also notable in what it leaves out:  specified complexity.  That’s too bad, since Collins could find ample justification for his own argument for design in this idea.  Apparently Collins has already decided that intelligent design is faulty and has either not made the effort to find common ground or has simply ignored the biggest thrust of the intelligent design argument because he would have to agree with it on this point.  Collins predicts that intelligent design will fail, but gladly history is not required to conform to his dire predictions.  In short, Collins’ critique of intelligent design cannot be taken seriously by anyone of that mind, and if his intention is to convince those who know something about it, he has failed.  Likely his real intention is to divert uninformed believers from seriously considering this position and point them towards his own.  

Collins is a theistic evolutionist.  He claims that theistic evolution is “the dominant position of serious biologists who are also believers”, a dubious claim, but has had trouble convincing Christian laymen.  He opines that the real reason the public has not taken the position seriously is that it promotes harmony instead of discord, does not have a snazzy name and the average layman is “not quite sure what a theist is”.  How insulting.  He then goes from insulting to humorous, though he appears to miss the humor.  Collins muses about what to call “theistic evolution” so as to increase its marketing appeal with the public, whines that all the good names are already taken and settles quickly on the name “BioLogos”.  Collins is so committed to this emperor with new clothes that three years after the book was written, he founded the BioLogos organization to promote this view to the public.  At the end of this section and even in other places in the book, Collins makes impassioned appeals for everyone to just stop fighting about it and agree with him.  If Collins is the best BioLogos can offer, it’s not likely his marketing project will succeed where decades of scientists have not.  

Why haven’t they succeeded?  What about the title of Collins’ book, “The Language of God”?  Does Collins actually believe that God had anything to do with creating DNA?  The answer is obviously no.  It does not take a scientific understanding to realize that the title and supposed thesis of the entire book is simply disingenuous.  Perhaps Collins should consider that Christians do not enjoy being misled.  Collins believes that God’s divine hand is evident in only three things:  Human souls, emotions and the Moral Law within the soul, the creation of the universe, and the determination of the fifteen physical constants of the Anthropic Principle.  Collins timidly backs away from saying that God created life, yet claims that God is the author of evolution.  Does Collins have a theory that the fifteen physical constants God created lead inevitably to life and evolution towards intelligent beings?  Emphatically no.  In fact he insists the process is random, at least from our point of view, and this appearance is a cosmic deception.  He writes:

“If God is outside of nature, then He is outside of space and time.  In that context, God could in the moment of creation also know every detail of the future.  That could include the formation of the stars, planets, galaxies, all of the chemistry, physics, geology, and biology that led to the formation of life on earth, and the evolution of humans, right to the moment of your reading this book-and beyond.   Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process.”  

How does Collins justify this claim?  After all, God created this “tyranny of linear time”.  Did he do so to deceive us?  Collins believes so, without saying as much.  His reasoning is childish, confusing the two different concepts of knowledge and causality.  Very few Christians, with the exception of extreme open theists, would deny that God knows the future.  That God is outside of space and time is certainly a reasonable explanation for this knowledge.  But what of causality?  Knowing is not the same as causing.  Certainly, if the process is random then God knew the result, but at what point could it be said that he “chose” this result?  At what point could it be said that he directed it?  Collins will allow no opportunity for this, though he puts a brave rhetorical face on it.   If Collins really believes that God is “completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species”, then why doesn’t he allow the possibility that one day science will discover why this is inevitable?  The reason he doesn't is he knows that approach has been tried and has failed miserably.  Dean Kenyon proposed just such a theory in a book called “Biochemical Predestination”, which became an important textbook on the subject.  Later, Kenyon repudiated his own theory and became an intelligent design theorist, and the theory of abiogenesis is in exactly the state of disarray that Collins says it is.  Collins explicitly disbelieves the multiverse theory, which would create enough universes that one would inevitably give rise to life.  Collins cannot believe that this highly improbable occurrence was just random.  The only option left for Collins is that God did it, so Collins believes that.  Yet standard evolutionary theory as well as origin of life approaches maintain that this process is defined by randomness.  Collins, amazingly, believes this too.  Evolution, in Collins’ mind, is random to us and not random to God, and he allows no possibility of us eventually understanding that the randomness is actually an illusion created by a lack of knowledge.  Johannes Kepler said, “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God and which He has revealed to us in the language of mathematics.”  Collins effectively denies this is possible, and expects the rest of the world to stop looking for God’s hand in nature.  For Collins, the language of God is not.  Thankfully, the rest of the world isn’t listening.