25 May 2009

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 8

(Note: This is Part 8 in the series started here.  The previous installment is here. In each post, I comment on one of the fourteen points made by Dennis Prager in his article, “If There Is No God.”)

Dennis Prager’s Point #8:

If there is no God, the human being has no free will. He is a robot, whose every action is dictated by genes and environment. Only if one posits human creation by a Creator that transcends genes and environment who implanted the ability to transcend genes and environment can humans have free will. (Note 1.) 

As is often the case with these items, I object to both the overall thrust of Mr. Prager’s assertion and the particular argument that he makes to support his case.  

The broadest issue here is that the statement is arbitrary and unfounded; there is no more reason to posit a God to explain free will than to explain any other observable entity or quality.  Free will - the ability of a human being to choose his actions - may be more difficult to understand than say, a simple object that one may hold in one’s hand, but it is nonetheless as ostensive and undeniable as any direct perception.  

If free will seems “mysterious,” it is so not because only miracles can it explain it (as if that were an explanation at all), but because we have gaps in our knowledge and an incomplete understanding of human consciousness.  As with all knowledge, the only way to improve our grasp of the operations of consciousness is to apply reason; faith can never yield an iota of knowledge of anything.  In any case, the advance of our understanding of free will is irrelevant to its simple identification, which is the issue at stake here.  No matter what our state of knowledge is or ever will be, the existence of free will is undeniable, for I can perceive it directly in myself (via introspection), and can generalize (via observations of others) to conclude that it is a quality of all humans.  God never enters into it.

Let us now examine the particular argument offered by Mr. Prager, the sentence upon which the logic of his point entirely rests: “Only if one posits human creation by a Creator that transcends genes and environment who implanted the ability to transcend genes and environment can humans have free will.”  

Is this really how creation in general works?  A creator must himself have the characteristic that he “implants” into his creation?  Prager’s proposition, in essense, states this: only a creator with quality x can implant this x into his creations.  

Let’s take this out of the supernatural realm to see if it holds true generally.  If it were so, I could replace “the ability to transcend genes and environment” in Mr. Prager’s sentence with some other quality.  For example: “Only if one posits the creation of a communication device by a creator that can travel at the speed of light, who implanted the ability to travel at the speed of light, can such a device exist.”  Well, I cannot travel anywhere near the speed of light (at least, not in the reference frame of my dear reader), yet the radio circuits that I create do indeed send information that fast.  It is simply not true that I myself must travel at light speed to create a device that can send radio waves.  Similarly, a painter need not possess physical beauty to make a painting that is beautiful; a computer designer does not need to be capable of performing millions of floating-point calculations per second in his head in order to design a computer to do so; an architect need not be extraordinarily tall to create a skyscraper.  Prager’s logic here (insofar as logic can pertain to God) is patently wrong.

Nevertheless, let us momentarily accept Mr. Prager’s premises to examine another aspect of his proposition.  He offered “transcendence” from a merely mechanistic universe as being one of the characteristics of his God, one which is necessarily possessed by God for Him to imbue it to man.(Note 2.)  We could substitute considerably less appealing characteristics without disturbing the validity of Prager’s logic.  For instance, it would be just as valid to say, “Only if one posits human creation by a Creator that is petty, cruel, power-lusting, superstitious, and foolish who implanted the ability to be petty, cruel, power-lusting, superstitious, and foolish can humans display such characteristics.”  I’m not sure Mr. Prager would wish to characterize God as possessing every possible human trait (though there is plenty of support for God’s power-lusting and cruelty in the Old Testament), yet it follows directly from his own formulation.  One might object that it is not fair to substitute free will, which offers only the potential for malevolent choices (cruelty, power-lusting, etc.), with those qualities themselves, but there is nothing in Prager’s logic that supports this restriction.  The objection would simply represent further mental contortions to escape faulty logic.

There is another curious implication from Prager’s point, too, that he probably did not intend.  From a certain perspective, he accidentally implies that except for free willed beings, nothing else would require God to be its creator.  Specifically, his emphasis that free will and human behavior require some sort of divine “transcendence” that is explainable only by introducing a God as a creator suggests that the rest of nature might be explainable in natural terms.  Again, this is not something that Mr. Prager is likely to agree with, for surely he believes that all of nature - inanimate objects and life-forms simpler than humans - were created by God.  If so, though, why introduce some special considerations for beings that possess free will?  Prager could have said simply, “God created humans like He created rocks, only He deemed that humans have free will.  Period.”  Instead, Prager used this “transcendent” quality of man as evidence of a transcendent God, which suggests that without man no such evidence would exist. 

In short, Mr. Prager’s assertion pertaining to free will is completely unfounded.  His proposition is demonstrably wrong, collapsing in defeat before any number of simple counterexamples, and it gives rise to some implications that are likely inconsistent with Prager’s own vision of a perfect, omnipotent God.  Man’s free will is directly observable, and is thus undeniable.  Any attempt to validate free will by referring to the realm of God not only is unnecessary, but actually sabotages its defense by implicitly accepting that no natural explanation is possible.  

(Note: The next installment in the series is here.)


1.  Dennis Prager, “If There Is No God,” http://townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2008/08/19/if_there_is_no_god.

2.  I think Prager has used “transcendence” here in a meaningful manner, to distinguish free will from deterministic processes.  Nevertheless, I suspect he may have chosen the word to hint at the more familiar and vague “transcendence” of God from the physical, empirical, non-spiritual, etc., a trait that is no doubt appealing to those who tend to value mystery and poetry above precision.

21 May 2009

WSJ Letter-to-the-Editor

My letter-to-the-editor was published in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal:
In "Capitalism in Crisis" (op-ed, May 7), is Judge Richard Posner's conclusion that capitalism is inherently unstable intended to be ironic? His article accurately enumerates some of the causes of the financial crisis, including the sheer presence of a government-controlled central bank and the Fed's detrimental manipulation of interest rates. To this we could add government meddling in the housing market through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the reduced lending standards imposed by government policies and programs, the government bailouts and safety nets (like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.) that encourage foolish risk-taking, etc. Judge Posner places the blame where it belongs: "not on the bankers . . . but on the government officials." What has any of this to do with capitalism? The evidence points to what should be obvious: It is not free markets that fail, but government-controlled ones.

17 May 2009

The Information Age

In my previous post, my qualified statement that sometimes I love the Internet - and sometimes I don’t - led to the obvious comment from LB: “And why don’t you love the Internet?”  I started to reply in the comments section, but my response got so long, I turned it into another post (this one).

Overall, the Internet is a great thing, of course.  In terms of boosting human productivity it is of immeasurable value, and it is (so far) a vast forum of those hallmarks of liberty: free speech and free commerce.  Just for me personally it has revolutionized the way I do my job (as an electrical engineer), and obviously I would not be publishing this blog post were it not for the Internet.  Understand, too, that my comment was a little bit offhand, and I wouldn’t “wish the Internet away” even if that were possible.

Nevertheless, there are a few things that temper my complete enthusiasm for the medium.

Perhaps my most prominent complaint is that I think the Internet should almost never be used for educational research until maybe college.  (When I say "should not," I naturally do not mean there should be laws or rules against it; I mean that teachers should consider it to be largely detrimental to their students' development.)  The immediacy that made it possible for me to discover the painting Amity in less than four minutes is the very thing that subverts a developing conceptual faculty.  Why?  Because the information on the Internet is largely flat, hierarchically.  

For instance, suppose a typical high-school student today had to do a report on the first scene of Wagner's Ring cycle.  (Forgive the contrived example, which I concocted more or less randomly from a book that happened to be near me.)  The student would probably “Google” the text "first scene of wagner's ring" and out would pop dozens of pre-digested summaries.  Ten minutes later, he would be finished with his report and move on to something else, like playing video games or watching MTV.  

In contrast, my student (if I had any students) would be forbidden to use the Internet.  Thus, he would have to look up Wagner in an encyclopedia, where he would discover that the Ring is actually a four-opera behemoth, the first of which is called Das Rheingold.  He would then have to jot this information down, go to the library, find the section on the arts and music, and find a volume on operas.  In this book, the student would have to peruse the table of contents to see how the volume is arranged; he would see that there is a section on Wagner, a sub-section on Der Ring Des Nibelungen (which he would, in an exclamatory “aha!” moment, deduce must be the full name of the Ring), and a sub-sub-section on Das Rheingold.  This would lead him to flip to page 490, where he could read about the opening scene and decide what was relevant for his report.  Obviously, the latter experience would be incalculably richer for the student than the former.  He would make far more connections, would perhaps be drawn by curiosity to explore more paths along the way, and above all, would see how his narrow topic fits into the larger picture.  In short, he would have accumulated knowledge systematically and hierarchically

But there’s more.  Add to this the weight of a book that is held in one’s hand; the indescribably solid scent of age and wisdom that wafts toward one’s nostrils from an old hardcover that is cracked open; the gentle woosh and pop as one’s caressing finger slides along each sheet to reveal the next page; and the delicious exhaustion of emerging from a sustained mental effort, having been immersed without interruption in a magnificent volume that for all its wonder will not give of itself passively, but will open itself to - and bear fruit within - only an active mind.  Contrast this with Internet “research”: the contextless information that is plucked from a vast cauldron of disconnected facts by a search engine, and handed to a student with almost no effort on his part, seems a poor substitute for education indeed.

Another problem I have with the Internet - well, it’s more a product of the Information Age than of the Internet per se - is the plummeting quality of discourse, particularly in email correspondence.  The ease and convenience of writing a note today seems to be in inverse proportion to the need to punctuate, capitalize and spell correctly, or use proper grammar.  

This, incidentally, is not some sort of snotty, elitist position on my part.  (I was once accused of “insensitivity to the disadvantaged” when I complained about grammatical errors.)  Some of the worst culprits are the high-level managers that I’ve worked with.  I am convinced that it is not a matter of intelligence, but of laziness.  I can understand mistakes; try as I might to avoid them, I occasionally make spelling or grammatical errors myself.  But the deliberate, fashionable carelessness of perpetually “texting” teenagers and the Blackberry jet set is alarming to me.  I fear for the preservation of the English language.

Finally, no why-I-don’t-love-the-Internet list would be complete without mentioning the viruses, spyware, adware, etc. that can become a supreme nuisance.  A few weeks ago, my computer at work was assailed by a virus despite my having up-to-date anti-virus software.  It’s hard to stomach such pointless malice.

Now, I want it to be understood that these items do not discourage me from using the Internet or marveling at the technology; it simply makes me wary.  I recognize that my position is a little bit ridiculous - like disliking automobiles because there exist car thieves.  My reservations about the Internet are really only a specific case of a more general principle: to rigorously bear in mind the context of a tool, and to continuously remind oneself of the benefits and perils.  Really, this all comes down to the old maxim that my father impressed upon me in his workshop when I was a child: respect a tool, and use it only for the purpose for which it was intended.  The table saw that saves me physical labor can cut my hand off.  The spell-checker that automatically corrects errors in my paper can deteriorate my ability to spell words myself.  None of the disadvantages that I have listed are necessary aspects of the Internet and all (except maybe the malicious viruses) are in the complete control of the users.

16 May 2009


Sometimes I love the Internet.(Note 1.)  

The Bas Bleu Booksellers catalog arrived in the mail last week, as it does from time to time, and I happened to glance at the cover, which displayed a colorful patchwork of book covers.  My eye was drawn to the top right corner, where a stunning painting adorned the cover of a paperback novel.  I set off on a mission: I had to find that painting and the artist.

I could just barely make out that the novel was Mariana, by Monica Dickens.  A quick Internet search revealed that the publisher was Persephone Classics, and by applying a few more judicious terms in a search engine, I found a blog that discussed works of art on book covers, among which were some of the Persephone Classics.  It turns out that the image on the Dickens paperback was indeed a significant painting called Amity; the artist was Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, whom I had never heard of.

So, about three and a half minutes after being struck by a tiny image on a book catalog, I had found not only the full reproduction of the original painting, but a biography of the artist and a collection of all of his known works.  That’s pretty amazing, when you think about it.  There was a day, not so very long ago, in which this “mission” to find the artist would have taken a lot more effort.

Image from the National Gallery of Canada

Anyway, if you like this sort of thing, I recommend checking out Bernard Fleetwood-Walker’s paintings and drawings.  Because it contains everything, the collection is not uniformly brilliant, but many of his works appeal strongly to my sense of aesthetics. 


1.  And sometimes I don’t.  But that’s another story.

2.  Image from the National Gallery of Canada, http://www.gallery.ca/1930/themes.htm.

02 May 2009

A Teardrop in the Sea

A contributor to the Harry Binswanger List recently pointed out an excellent video that makes quite vivid how paltry is the $100 million budget cut that Barack Obama challenged his cabinet to make over the next few months.

One hundred millions dollars is 36,000 times smaller than the president’s $3.6 trillion budget.  That’s 0.0028 percent - twenty eight parts per million.  Or for you electrical engineers out there, that’s about -45.6 dB, well below the noise floor for practical considerations.[Note 1.]

A couple of weeks ago, Gus Van Horn made a good comparison.  Referring to this $100 million cut, he wrote:

This is like lighting a cigar with a $100 dollar bill, and then bragging about picking up the nice, shiny penny he just spotted on the sidewalk.

Or, more precisely, when one recalls the nature of government as an agent of physical force, it's like Obama walked up to you, took a $100 bill at gunpoint, used it to light his cigar, and then promised you the nice, shiny penny he just picked up -- after it fell, unbeknownst to you, from a hole in your pocket.  You would find this not only unjust, but insulting to your intelligence, would you not?[Note 2.] 

Perhaps Mr. Obama is hoping that Americans suffer from the same sort of innumeracy that he demonstrated when he was on the campaign trail.  “In case you missed it,” said the future president at that time, introducing his mourning with a folksy sarcasm that he probably came to regret later, “this week, there was a tragedy in Kansas.  Ten thousand people died - an entire town destroyed.”[Note 3, emphasis mine.]  Actually, twelve people died in that town, which was tragedy enough for them and is a shocking death toll for a natural disaster in America.  Ten thousand people dying from a tornado in Kansas would have been a cataclysm for the ages.

I’m not criticizing the president for misspeaking.  He was undoubtedly tired, and it must be difficult for him to not get carried away with the sound of his own voice when he is constantly faced with hordes of enthusiastic faces listening to him with unconditional admiration.  Gaffes happen.  My point is that Mr. Obama apparently has no “feel” for numbers whatsoever.  

This gaffe is not merely a matter of misremembering a fact.  If “ten thousand people died” can roll off his tongue as easily as “ten people died” - if he can confuse the death toll of say, a small airplane crash with that of the entire Vietnam War -  then he probably suffers from the same sort of numerical overload when he is considering dollars instead of human lives.  Furthermore, Mr. Obama can hope - with a good deal of justification, I suppose - that the average American will simply hear “$100 million” as a very big number without really grasping its relationship to the trillions of dollars in his budget.  A million, a billion, a trillion - they are all just very big numbers.  

I think it is quite possible that the president does not himself fathom the magnitude of the trillions he is toying with.  This, along with the fact that the money with which he plays and fiddles is not his own, may account for his apparent confidence as he proceeds with an almost childishly reckless plan that he has labeled “An Era of Responsibility.”

image from Hasbro

White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel tried to dismiss the $100 million budget-busting challenge as a symbolic gesture.  I would happily accept virtually any amount as a symbol of fiscal discipline if the president were really committed to cutting government spending.  However, the notion is laughable.  There is not an iota of reason to associate Barack Obama with cutting the size of an already bloated and intrusive government.  The $100-billion gesture symbolizes either the ineptitude of the administration or its utter contempt and disrespect for the American people.

Or both.


1.  I express the ratio of dollar amounts in units of dB with tongue firmly in cheek.  A decibel (dB) is defined as ten times the base-ten logarithm of a power ratio.  So, since “money is power,” as the saying goes, I should be justified in using decibels for money ratios!  Joking aside, though, the result of -45.6 dB emphasizes how ludicrously small is the amount of Mr. Obama’s proposed cut.

2.  Gus Van Horn, “Too Late, Mr. President,” http://gusvanhorn.blogspot.com/2009/04/too-late-mr-president.html.

3.  “Obama’s Bushisms,” News Wire, http://www.capmag.com/news.asp?ID=1763.

4.  Image of Monopoly $100 bill from Hasbro, Inc., http://www.hasbro.com/games/kid-games/monopoly/default.cfm?page=StrategyGuide/gametools.