Friday, December 30, 2011

Krauthammer's Existential Dilemma, And an Ancient Alternative Hypothesis

Charles Krauthammer ends his 2011 WaPo contribs with a departure from his usual: a meditation on whether humanity is alone in the universe, and what it might mean if we are.

We insist that gentle readers follow the link and read Dr. K's thoughtful article, and we recommend that they do so before reading our remarks further. But we have no way to monitor that, so here goes.

Krauthammer notes that astronomers are busy finding "exoplanets," which has become the aspect of astronomy in which the public seems most interested since manned space flight became mundane after the lunar-landing program. And finding planets around other starts they are, in impressive quantities.

But finding signs of intelligent life in the universe, they aren't, even though that search has been going on longer than the search for exoplanets.

Krauthammer's explanation is the so-called Fermi Paradox, which asks, Why do we seem to be alone? and after calculating some astronomical odds that intelligent life would arise on other spheres, reasoning that there ought to be such intelligent life in such quantities that some signs of its presence would be available to us, then concludes that the problem is with intelligent life itself: that it inevitably destroys itself.

Dr. K's conclusion is to highlight that the oft-benighted endeavor politics is therefore of utmost importance, as it is by politics that humans manage their propensity to destroy one another.

Reading Krauthammer's essay is like reading a classic presentation of the Christian gospel, minus God. It begins with the assumption that intelligence like humans' is quite special. It is driven to the conclusion that intelligence like humans' is quite dangerous. It seeks for a solution to the danger, a way of salvation. But it lacks everything it really needs to explain the origin of the intelligent creatures, the root of the paradox of their self-destructive tendencies, and a solution that gets to the heart of the problem. All that has to come from the outside.

Politics is not as bad an answer as it sounds, really. We Christians who tend to emphasize the limits of political solutions to human problems should also recognize that the gospel we believe transforms all aspects of human life for the one who believes it, including the way that the converted person relates to others and both exercises power and responds to the exercise of power. That means that the gospel transforms the politics of the people who believe it.

For Krauthammer a key unanswerable question is why I, as an individual, should care at all whether my form of intelligent life endures or not. One can answer that the despair of our fragile, temporal existence with the insistence that our rare (but apparently oft-repeated elsewhere) existence as sentient beings needs to be preserved at all costs. That's Krauthammer's implication, and it's thin gruel, to say the least. Certainly for Fermi, whose contribution to the invention of nuclear weapons was so crucial, it seems to have been the only straw to grasp as he saw his own exceptional intelligence as the genesis of our race's self-destruction.

But what if there's more--someone who transcends the universe, who created it, who did so for human habitation (and others? well, it remains an interesting question but is now less important, for now we are certainly not alone), who understands our paradoxical existence and who acted at the greatest personal cost to address it, and so who in all ways demonstrated that he loves us with a measure that surpasses what we observe in any of our fellows?

What if the answer to our paradox is not politics but love, and not love as some kind of cosmic abstraction that can somehow exist apart from a subject and an object, but specifically the love of the triune God, who gives and receives love eternally within the triunity of his being but who decisively chose to create us, to love us unconditionally, and by that love to rescue us by becoming one of us and taking on himself everything that we experience and, by our stubborn, self-destructive rebellion, even deserve?

Sounds more promising than politics alone.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mitt Leads Barack by More Than Margin of Error

Don't measure the curtains for the Lincoln Bedroom yet, but Our Man Mitt is beating BHO in the latest Rasmussen, 45% to 39%.

Given Mitt's steady hand on the tiller so far, we doubt very much that the incumbent will be able to reverse this early trend, though we do expect ups and downs from here.

Yes, Mitt is eerily like Thomas Dewey, so 1948 does come to mind. But Obama is about as far from Harry Truman as one can get.

Meanwhile, Mitt is demonstrating that no one will hold support in the GOP primaries other than Mitt. That includes especially Ron Paul, about whom WSJ's Daniel Henninger says the obvious today (as someone else will tomorrow): that Paul is a kook with no chance of responsible public office (being a Congressman who votes alone is not a responsible position, of course).

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Brooks on Historical Analogies, SWNID on Echo Chambers

David Brooks holds his ground today at the Gray Lady, nicely detailing reasons to insist that our era is like neither the Great Depression nor the Progressive Era, the two historical models used by the Obama White House as metanarratives for their anemic political agenda.

We find Brooks' analysis trenchant. Hence we note it here.

But we also find the comments from Times readers to be, well, depressing. Post after post repeats the hackneyed talking-points of leftist lemmings: the Rs wrecked government, "smaller government" means returning to social anarchy, Reagan did it, Bush did it, it's the 1% . . . all that. Some insist that Brooks is a toady of the right-wing propaganda machine.

Well, that's kinda funny, actually, as Brooks points to issues that aren't exactly being addressed thoughtfully by most Republican pols either. Right now the fight seems to be over who knows what Reagan's ghost would do. Conservatives' historical analogies are also suspect when employed simplistically, without attention to differences as well as similarities in different eras.

But the Times' readers, probably hailed by the paper's salesmen to prospective advertisers as the best educated newspaper readers in the world, can't engage such thoughts. For them, Brooks simply violates self-evident orthodoxies and so must be stupid, evil, credulous or all three.

It's been widely observed that as developed countries become more mobile, people's experiences of social difference become less frequent. Most people these days live, work and play with people of very similar backgrounds, economic conditions and opinions. That leads to the kind of bald ignorance of other points of view that one sees in most comments sections on most opinion pieces in most internet publications these days.

So why do we pick on the Times? Because the Times postures as the elite organ of news and analysis, the newspaper of the moral and intellectual 1%. As if thoughtful conservatives were unicorns.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hitch 3:16

Like his hero, Orwell, Christopher prized bravery above all other qualities--and in particular the bravery required for unflinching honesty. And as was true of the work of Orwell, the former colonial policeman, this devotion paradoxically lent a certain military coloring to Christopher's intellectual, literary, and political pursuits. This most intellectual of men valued intelligence, but valued courage far more--or rather, he believed that true intellect was inseparable from courage.

So writes Atlantic editor Benjamin Schwartz in his obituary for the celebrated essayist Christopher Hitchens.

We want to comment on what Schwartz observes in the quotation above, from the standpoint of Hitchens' celebrated-and-scorned atheism, and his "last word" on the subject of death in Vanity Fair, in which he stood down from much of the bravado about death that he had expressed in word and deed in former days.

We think that this contrast--between holding courage sacred and experiencing mortality as dissolution of oneself--contains the essence Hitchens' inability to find faith. It is this: weakness, not courage, is the basis on which one turns to God.

Hitchens sought, lived and revered courage. In the end he could not escape weakness. No one does.

But to act on weakness, one must abandon courage: "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"

Another Voice Joins SWNID in the Interdisciplinary Wilderness

SWNID famously champions the notion that good education is deliberately interdisciplinary.

And so does everyone else, until the subject of science education comes up. Then suddenly, the conversation takes a dark turn: the science classroom should teach nothing other than science.

Of course, that never happens. It's a means of excluding the larger metaphysical questions about origins, questions leading to discussion of God, from the conversation. So you can't follow the discussion of evolution with any of the three questions that evolution appears incapable of answering: (a) why is there something instead of nothing? (b) why is there life and not just non-life? (c) why are there self-conscious humans capable of pondering such questions?

Enter Ari Eisen of Emory University's Center for Ethics, on CNN's Belief Blog. His gravid voice asks whether there's ever been a significant conversation about science that didn't touch on issues that belong to other areas of inquiry, like ethics and religion. He wonders whether students are less attracted to science as a way of knowing precisely because it's presented as a body of facts independent of significance. He points to data suggesting that students learn science better when they are challenged to see its relationship to other considerations. He notes well that the neglect of larger questions does not make those questions go away in the minds of students and the public--that people persist in their belief that scientific data and religious ideas are somehow compatible.

We are pretty sure that Eisen would be given a very unscientific cold shoulder were he to present his views at any major conference of natural scientists. Too bad for everyone.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The 2012 Election in a Sentence

The polls announce grim news for BHO and Democrats. Significant majorities reject the President's handling of the economy, saying that he doesn't deserve a second term. Included in the latter is one in five self-identified Democrats.

Therefore, listen well to this longish sequence from MSNBC's Morning Joe, ostensibly a daily pep-rally for the left. The mood is somber, not least when GOP solon Peggy Noonan agrees with remarks from her Democrat counter parts that many Democrats have vowed to vote for the Republican, regardless of who the Republican is.

So, the election in a sentence:

Republicans win unless they blow it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Fact Checking SWNIDishly

SWNID is famous, among the dozens who read SWNID, for questioning the accuracy of the now-commonplace assertions that the gap between rich and poor is getting horribly, horribly wide.

SWNID is also famous, among the same dozens, for objecting to the bowdlerization of Jesus as a figure of politics.

Now we will use one column to do both.

In what may be the most important opinion column of the year, Cato Institute's Alan Reynolds lays out the problems in citing individual income levels from federal tax returns as a means of tracking the prosperity of the 1% against the penury of the 99%. Specifically, Reynolds notes how changes in tax rates and tax law have over a generation removed the incentives that the rich have to shelter their incomes--via corporations and tax-favored investments--from federal taxation. Hence, what was once corporate income is now personal income, what was once sheltered in tax-free bonds is now is dividend-earning stocks, and so forth.

In other words, all those scary graphs about how much the rich have now versus then have mostly to do with the way the rich report their incomes. When rates are high, they shelter them. When rates are low, they unshelter them. When incomes are unsheltered, they seem to go up. "Seem" is rather important in this matter.

Why should you or we care about this, inasmuch as you and we don't have the kind of income that would ever be sheltered? Well, when the rich shelter their incomes, the shelters tend to be favored for tax purposes but not in and of themselves beneficial for economic purposes. That is, the tax accountants decide where to put the money to avoid taxes rather than the venture capitalists deciding where to put the money to make a lot more money. When more money is made, value has been added to the economy, making most people more prosperous in the long run.

So high tax rates may seem to rob from the rich and give to the poor, but they really just make the rich hide their money where it won't do anyone much good.

Now to Jesus. The estimable Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, former prez of Chi Theo and now a fellow of the hard-left Center for American Progress, insists that Jesus Was an Occupier. Why? Because he raided the abusive temple and declared them robbers. And because from her seminary teachers she learned other interpretations of Jesus' parables that involve commerce, like the Parable of the Talents cited by some right-winger to say that Jesus is for the free market.

Honestly, people, do we still have to do this nonsense? "A plague on both your houses."

Dr. Thistlewaite, could you please acknowledge that Jesus' "robbers" statement is an obvious quotation of Jeremiah 7:11, that the word translated "robbers" means "rebels," that the combination of word and quotation shows that Jesus' indictment is about rejecting Israel's God, not about money as such (though abuse of money is always a consequence of rejecting Israel's God), that he goes on to elaborate in the Parable of the Tenants, which also has commerce in it but isn't at all about commerce, and that if Jesus was speaking about socialism versus capitalism here there or anywhere, he spoke with singular obscurity on the matter? Sheesh.

Theological conservatives, whether conservative or liberal politically, will you please stop abusing the Bible to prover your point about politics in the present? When you do, it only encourages the liberals to abuse the Bible too, something they're happy to do since they don't think much of it to begin with.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Still No to Gingrich

It's down to two: Mitt and Newt. Were there ever two candidates with worse first names?

Since Mitt is a flip-flopper with a "Christian" religious heritage that is neither Protestant, Catholic, nor Orthodox (a polite way to say either Mormon, Christian Science or Jehovah's Witness, and in some cases Seventh-Day Adventist), most Republicans are looking for an alternative.

As the little car full of clowns empties itself in the center ring of the GOP circus, Newt is one of the few besides Romney who doesn't look clownish right now, at least, not in the ways that Romney looks clownish. So he's ahead in polls, and he'll add to his lead when Herman Cain bows out of the campaign to resume his full-time womanizing. Newt is about to go from red hot to white hot.

But the people who know Newt best loath him most.

So writes WaPo's Jonathan Bernstein, who insists that veterans of the Washington scene see Gingrich as fundamentally unsuited for an executive role. He may be smart, but he's utterly undisciplined. If there were ever a description that seemed to encompass all the available information about anyone, that's the prize-taker.

We'll therefore take flip-floppy Mitt, sacred garments and all (an irrelevancy to SWNID as far as politics is concerned), confident that his big-government, smart-solution conservatism is short of the dour fiscal sanity that we really need but is miles better than what we'll get from Obama or any emergency Dem substitute (i.e. Hillary). Mitt at least knows how to put together an organization and run things with a steady hand.

For those who say that the opinion of Washington insiders should be rejected precisely because those guys ran the car into the ditch in the first place, we say get real. Character matters, or at least it does until your candidate has a character deficit, in which case you condemn the people who indict your candidate's character.

Learn the lesson of recent history: our current system for selecting candidates, i.e. a four-year election cycle with endless fundraising and primaries and caucuses, may be flawed. But it does provide a proxy for the presidency: can this person organize a campaign and stay steady under pressure? If Newt is what his closest professional associates say he is, then we'll know soon enough that we need to hold our noses and vote for the chameleon.