30 November 2009

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 13

(Note: This is Part 13 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 #13:


Without God, there are no inalienable human rights. Evolution confers no rights. Molecules confer no rights. Energy has no moral concerns. That is why America's Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed "by our Creator" with certain inalienable rights. Rights depend upon a moral source, a rights giver. [Note 1.]


Here we see the lethality of a morality based in religion. This is why religious conservatives are unable to defend liberty against the “liberals” who are openly driving us headlong into collective slavery and death.


Mr. Prager is correct that rights derive from a moral source; rights are moral principles. (Ayn Rand defined rights with her usual clarity: “A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”[Note 2.]) To place the source of rights outside of nature is to deny that men have natural rights. It is an admission by the religious that they believe individual rights do not exist in the real world; if the source of rights were natural, the religious would not need to reach into the supernatural realm to find it. Thus, in aiming to defend rights against those that deny them, the religious concede all fundamental premises to their enemies.


Contrary to Mr. Prager’s claim, there is no “rights giver,” natural or supernatural. Rights are not gifts bestowed by governments or gods. The very idea of a giver contradicts the inalienable nature of rights; a God that giveth rights may also taketh them away.[Note 3.]


Claims unmoored from reality are free to drift according to any whim. Some religious people assert that God gives us individual rights; others assert that God denies us individual rights. We have Dennis Prager on the one hand and the Taliban on the other. One is clearly civilized and one barbaric, but both parties stand on the same murky ground: faith. This is not to equate the two; Dennis Prager, who claims to stand for rights, happens to be on the correct side of the argument. But to be on the correct side for the wrong reason is at best unreliable, and at worst, weakens the case of those that have gotten it right. For actual defenders of individual rights (like me), the presence of Republicans and religious conservatives who combat the left by championing God-given rights is appalling. The old saying comes to mind: With friends like these, who needs enemies?



The best possible way for me to articulate a defense of individual rights based on the facts of reality is to insert, verbatim, the text of Ayn Rand’s essay, “Man’s Rights,” which is referenced in Note 2. Since the essay is available for free on the internet, I’ll assume anyone interested in such a defense will pause here to read it. Nothing else is needed.


Beyond Ayn Rand’s essay, I can add no content that is not mere repetition (and an impoverished repetition at that). However, since the intent of this series is to provide guideposts for the honest thinker who currently holds religious premises, I’ve added something that may be helpful. Figure 1 shows a sort of map that I constructed, representing a logical hierarchy. This chart is a recreation of my own work that I did years ago for my own satisfaction in validating individual rights.


Here is some background: Humans are capable of creating abstractions from direct observations, and beyond this, may create abstractions from abstractions. Such concept formation can continue to higher and higher levels with no particular limit. But in order to validate these abstractions, one must be able to work - that is to say, think - one’s way back to the bottom of the hierarchy, to fundamental axioms and direct observations. A break in the chain indicates an error; an ungrounded premise indicates an invalid argument (even if the conclusion is incidentally correct).


Without such a path from concepts to a foundation, abstractions are necessarily floating. Even for concepts like liberty, honesty, and justice, for instance, that are of such obvious value that they seem self-evident - indeed, especially for such concepts - it is necessary to be grounded in reality. Ultimately, it is a tragedy that America’s Founders expressly regarded such truths as a man’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of his own happiness to be self-evident. These values are truths, but they are not self-evident. The Founders identified individual rights . . . but left the concept floating.



Figure 1. Logical hierarchy for individual rights.


Figure 1 is not a proof, nor is it a substitute for thinking; each proposition and branch requires careful thought on its own. I purposely retained a pencil-on-paper format to emphasize its informality. Its purpose is to provide a rough guide tracing individual rights from high level abstractions (at the top of the page) to axioms (at the bottom). “The source of man’s rights,” wrote Ayn Rand, “is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A - and Man is Man.” She formulated the unbroken connection between individual rights and metaphysical axioms.


I cannot vouch for the complete suitability of this type of map in representing logical structures. It strikes me as reasonable, and it appeals to my own personal organizing habits. (I am a circuit designer and firmware developer, so my professional success requires good hierarchical thinking.) I tried to retain all the major steps in the sequence, though there is always a trade-off between the level of detail and the encapsulation of particulars.[Note 4.] I am fairly certain that if I kept fiddling with the chart, I would find ways to improve it. My purpose is not to create an airtight graphical representation, but to illustrate the basic guideposts for the main point - that individual rights derive from the facts of reality.



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



NOTES


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


2. Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights,” from The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet, Penguin Group, New York, orig. 1964, p.110. This essay, which the Ayn Rand Center makes available for free here, is the most complete and concise articulation of reality-based individual rights I have ever seen.


3. The Founders were precise in their use of the term “inalienable,” meaning that rights could not be taken away, not even by God. They were students of John Locke and advocates of the political theory of natural rights. That being said, the Founders were not moral philosophers; they were political theorists who adopted, by default, the conventional moral theory that was available at the time. (For an excellent treatment of this material, I recommend Craig Biddle’s lecture, “Moral Rights and Metaphysical Law,” which will hopefully be made available soon at the Ayn Rand Bookstore.) The Founders acheivements are nonetheless remarkable. In the context of their time, it is impossible to expect them to completely throw off the vestigial superstitions that had so thoroughly infested moral thinking for centuries. One cannot blame Adams, Jefferson, and Madison for not being Ayn Rand.


4. To pick just one example, I’ll point out the step labeled “Pursuit of values must be chosen by organisms with free will,” which followed from humans having free will. One might object here that just because a person has free will, it does not follow that he must use it. Indeed, as I was constructing the chart, I had penciled in an intermediate step of “Pursuit of values may be chosen,” but it degenerated trivially into the “must be chosen” branch and an “is not chosen” branch that fed back into non-free-willed organisms. This intermediate step might be of interest to an anthropologist or primatologist tracing the development of a species that evolves from non-free-willed to free-willed, but it adds an unnecessary and distracting complication to this study. My purpose is to demonstrate that humans have individual rights, and Homo sapiens has unambiguously evolved to the point in which he must use his mind in order to survive.


Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 12

(Note: This is Part 12 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 #12:


Without God, humanist hubris is almost inevitable. If there is nothing higher than man, no Supreme Being, man becomes the supreme being. [Note 1.]


Of course man is the supreme being!


Man is supreme because among all living things, he has the capacity to think. This faculty does not make him infallible, omniscient, or omnipotent. It does make Homo sapiens superior to all other creatures in the animal kingdom. This is true in both absolute and relative terms: absolute, because our conceptual faculty is an incomparably valuable asset for survival; relative, because I am a human, and thus regard it as improper to subordinate myself to other forms of life (not to mention to transparent superstitions).


By definition, hubris is excessive self-confidence or pride, meaning self-confidence or pride beyond what one may legitimately claim. This idea is consonant with the Greek ideal of moderation (sophrosyne), pride being a virtue flanked by the vices of vanity (excessive pride) on the one side and humility (deficient pride) on the other. For the Greeks, pride was good; but an hubristic hero of Homer who snubbed a god would find himself in hot water - or turbulent water, as the case may be. Though I do not agree with Aristotle’s formulation that holds the middle ground between vices as virtues, there is a sort of common-sense appeal to this arrangement: It is obviously foolish to hold an estimation of oneself higher than what one has earned, just as it is detrimental to underestimate one’s own abilities.


However, this pre-Christian Greek notion is not the one behind Mr. Prager’s statement. The Christian ethics hold humility itself as a virtue. Pride, which to an ancient Greek or an Objectivist would be a just recognition of one’s own achievements, to the Christian is one of the seven deadly sins. It is pride, not hubris, that is the target of Prager point #12.


Wikipedia image: Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things[Note 2.]



Both subjectivists and religionists might produce innumerable counterexamples that would seem to refute man’s status as a superior being. History is rife with endless bloody wars, barbarity, murder, and rape. Man, they may claim, is the lowest of all creatures, not the highest. He is vain, petty, foolish, and superstitious - a luster of power, a slave to his cravings. The religionist would claim that God is the only redeemer of such a base being; the subjectivist admits of no redemption.


I disagree with both perspectives. To claim that man as a species is supreme does not require that every man be rational and virtuous. It requires only that men be capable of reason and virtue.


What Prager is demonizing as “humanist hubris” is the egoism and self-confidence that drives a man to seek knowledge in the service of his own life. Prager rails against the pride of a man who looks to nature instead of to scripture, who judges right and wrong based on facts instead of commandments, and who deserves to feel good about his own efficacy. It is not quite true that such a man is his own God, as Prager suggests; this would imply a subjective arbitrariness to his judgments. Rather, such a man needs no God: hence the desperation of the religious in the modern world.


A man who thinks for himself is anathema to religious faith, particularly to the monotheistic religions that demand his exclusive faith and obedience. In ancient Greece, man took his first steps as a species undeniably worthy of the adjective supreme. He looked to nature, not heaven, to understand nature; to man, to understand man. He began to classify and systematize. He invented and applied logic. But this was interrupted by the Age of Christianity, and its offshoot, the Age of Islam. The Greek ideal was outdated; a man standing proud and upright like one of the gods he created had to be damned as “hubristic.” In the shadow of Christ, man was puny and ugly, “crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous.”[Note 3.]


This was the age of Mr. Prager’s Christian ideals: a dark age of self-imposed thralldom. For a thousand years, Prager’s hubristic pride was virtually absent from the earth (with the exception, perhaps, of the real hubris of those claiming to know of heaven and the hereafter). It was only when mankind threw off this bondage of his spirit, discovering once again his own efficacy, that he stood upright again. As I wrote of the Enlightenment in an earlier essay:


Individuals discovered that they had the ability to read for themselves not only the Bible, but other things as well. When Luther and Calvin shook the minds of men in order that each may contemplate his own sinfulness, they inadvertently freed those minds for other, more worldly thoughts. This could not be taken back. The Tree of Knowledge had been shaken, and it was apples everywhere; Sir Isaac Newton happened to be watching one of them as it fell, much to the benefit of mankind.[Note 4.]


This is the crux of the matter. According to Dennis Prager, the men who neither bow nor obey, but discover nature for themselves - the independent minds who dare taste apples plucked from the Tree of Knowledge - must be denounced as "hubristic."


Mr. Prager himself noted the remarkable achievements of Michaelangelo in an earlier point. That Michaelangelo (and Galileo, Bach, Newton, Locke, Jefferson, and Rand) existed is a testament that man is the supreme being. And so too are the innumerable lesser figures that produce, acheive, and flourish in relative anonymity, committed to living rationally and happily.



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



NOTES


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


2. Image from Wikipedia entry for “Seven deadly sins,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Deadly_Sins.


3. The Confessions of St. Augustine, Dover Publications, Mineola, NY, 2002, p. 138.


4. Stephen Bourque, “Faith in the West,” Aug 2008.




27 November 2009

Lise de la Salle Plays Prokofiev

The young pianist Lise de la Salle was on a local radio station recently playing music from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. I've always loved the drama of this part: "Montagues and Capulets."

25 November 2009

The “Invention” of the Jewish People?

The New York Times reviewed a book called The Invention of the Jewish People, which has been released for the first time in English after having been a best-seller in Israel. The apparent motivation of the book’s author, Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University, is revealed in this passage of the review:


Professor Sand, a scholar of modern France, not Jewish history, candidly states his aim is to undercut the Jews’ claims to the land of Israel by demonstrating that they do not constitute “a people,” with a shared racial or biological past . . .


Since Professor Sand’s mission is to discredit Jews’ historical claims to the territory, he is keen to show that their ancestry lines do not lead back to ancient Palestine.[Note 1.]


Without even knowing (never mind evaluating) Professor Sand’s specific claims, which the Times describes as a mixture of “respected scholarship with dubious theories,” I dismiss his theory out of hand because of the blatant irrationality of its thesis. There should be no claims to property because of one’s racial makeup. Any statement of the form, “X deserves (or does not deserve) Y because he is of the race Z,” is explicitly racist and thus, irrational. This goes for people arguing both for and against Jews on these grounds.


My position is, of course, a broad philosophical one, not a narrow legal one. There may well be some technical reasons to argue for this or that racial lineage to satisfy a particular legal condition that enjoys “legitimacy” in the eyes of the United Nations. But satisfying the United Nations is not the same as exercising reason, to say the least; the two categories hardly ever overlap.


The fact is that generations have passed since the British Mandate established a homeland for Jewish people, and in that time, the settlers turned an inhospitable desert into an oasis of prosperity. They managed this extraordinary feat not because they were Jewish, but because they valued life over death, freedom over slavery, reason over mysticism, industrial civilization over nomadic primitivism, the rule of law over savage tradition. While their neighbors clung to a perpetual refugee status, holding victimhood and need as claims to property they did not earn, the settlers of Israel, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, built a relatively free and civilized nation.


Today, Israel and the other Middle Eastern nations provide a vivid example of the role of ideas in history and culture. Despite the presence of some bad ideas in Israel (religious mysticism, communism and other leftist political leanings, a suicidal embrace of multiculturalism) that serve to dilute its moral standing, the essence remains clear. Israel compared to its neighbors is the embodiment of Enlightenment values amid a hostile medieval primitivism, as stark a contrast as that of West Berlin and East Berlin during the Cold War.


The citizens of Israel belong there because they earned it. Anyone who is sincerely interested in solving problems in the Middle East would do well to throw off their racist and religious prejudices and turn to modern civilization: reason, individual rights, and capitalism.



NOTES


1. “Book Calls Jewish People an ‘Invention’,” The New York Times, 23 Nov 2009.


22 November 2009

A Syllogism Regarding Stuffing

Since we are coming upon Thanksgiving, it is incumbent upon us to watch this this excellent video that Lynne pointed out to me this morning. Here, the paragon of culinary science, Alton Brown, proves irrefutably that stuffing is evil.


Actually, the syllogism Brown applies - Satan is Evil. Satan likes Stuffing. Stuffing is Evil - is faulty, but that does not prevent the conclusion from being true!

And lest you be riddled with undeserved guilt, keep in mind that stuffing prepared outside the bird is not evil.



20 November 2009

King Crimson - Elephant Talk

King Crimson is one of my very favorite bands, on a short list with Yes, ELP, and of course, Rush. I played drums when I was a kid, and I was viscerally drawn to the intricate texture and rhythmic complexity of Robert Fripp's imagination. The group evolved dramatically over time, but this tune is from my favorite period: the Fripp-Belew-Levin-Bruford era.

17 November 2009

Just Take the Blue Pill, Lady

The newspaper headlines today declared the new recommendation. A typical woman should start breast cancer screening only at fifty years of age instead of forty. This new guideline, issued by the federal government’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, is ostensibly intended to prevent harm from “overtreatment.”


Not for an instant do I trust this recommendation.


My mistrust has nothing to do with the medical evidence, of which I have no opinion, one way or the other. The guidance might be correct, or it might not be. I have no specialized knowledge in that field, so I cannot judge the matter directly.


The reason I do not trust the recommendation is that it comes from the federal government. No specialized knowledge is required to observe that Congress and the Obama administration are taking over the American health care industry, one piece at a time. It is currently dismantling what remained of private medical insurance, and in doing so, will essentially control the purse strings of what is already a heavily regulated medical industry. With the fathomless complexity typical of a mammoth bureaucracy (particular one that wishes to conceal the nature of its intentions), the federal government will in the end fix the prices that doctors, hospitals, and drug companies may charge for products and services, and will control the distribution of those medical services.


History and logic indicate that such freedom-suffocating activities have a one hundred per cent chance of driving American medical care into the ground, and the Obama administration seems to be at least dimly aware that it must anticipate some drastic cost cutting. After all, one cannot stride so confidently and blindly in the dark like Barack Obama has without bumping one’s shins into reality from time to time. We have already seen Mr. Obama qua medical dictator blithely prescribing the blue pill instead of the red pill.[Note 1.] It is not hard to imagine this Chicago political boss “persuading” his government panel to significantly reduce the recommended number of mammograms required by American women; all the panel had to do was change one little number. The next step will be to use this recommendation to set the maximum number of mammograms that will be paid for by Obama’s national health insurance plan, which in turn will make it impossible or illegal for an ordinary woman to get a yearly mammogram. Such services, considered basic in relatively free countries, will thus become luxuries in America, available only to those who have an “in” with a politician or to those wealthy enough to travel to another country for the service.


It has always amazed me how much trust the general public puts in government recommendations of this sort. The group in this case, the United States Preventive Services Task Force, is characterized as an “independent panel of experts in prevention and private care appointed by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.”[Note 2.] But what exactly is this group independent of? The implication is that they are independent of individuals and corporations that have a vested interest in the guidelines. However, what the panel is entirely dependent upon for its existence is the federal government, an institution that has absolutely no incentive to meet consumer demands. The panel is independent of responsibility and accountability.


This naive trust in government is equalled only by the distrust in private individuals and corporations. Considering the incalculable life-advancing benefits that freedom has made possible, I would find the suspicion of unfettered men and the general anti-corporate sentiment of the public to be completely incomprehensible but for one fact: Americans obviously spend far more time watching movies and television than they spend studying history and economics. In a free market, the very existence of a business requires it to exert every effort to please its customers. Companies cannot, with impunity, make promises or recommendations that are not consonant with reality.[Note 3.]


If Americans want to stop the hemorrhaging of liberty in this country, we will do well to stop demonizing the businessmen who treat us like customers and start questioning the motives of the politicians who treat us like serfs.



NOTES


1. In an ABC News interview with Dr. Timothy Johnson, Mr. Obama said, “What I've proposed is that we have a panel of medical experts that are making determinations about what protocols are appropriate for what diseases. There's going to be some disagreement, but if there's broad agreement that, in this situation the blue pill works better than the red pill, and it turns out the blue pills are half as expensive as the red pill, then we want to make sure that doctors and patients have that information available to them.”


The sheer dishonesty of this short passage is manifest. Obviously, if an individual deems a particular pill to be both better and cheaper than an alternative, he does not need the government to jam it down his throat. Mr. Obama’s obvious intention is to soften resistance to the prospect of government panels making these decisions.


2. “Panel Urges Mammograms at 50, Not 40,” The New York Times, 16 Nov 2009.


3. Of course, when companies in a mixed economy like our own mingle or collude with the government, the free market is surrendered, along with its prosperity and justice.


UPDATE

I fixed a minor typographical error: The phrase "number of mammograms" was supposed to be "recommended number of mammograms."


13 November 2009

Gounod - Sanctus from Saint Cecilia Mass

I recently did something I have never done before or ever expected to do: I joined a Christmas choral group. I am completely over my head - I can read music and sort of carry a tune but I don't know how to sing and have never done so outside of my home or my car. But life is short, so why not try it? Besides, Lynne is in the group too (and is also over her head!), so it's fun to sing with her.

Among the songs we are singing is the Sanctus from Charles Gounod's Saint Cecilia Mass. On YouTube, I found this stunning rendition with tenor Michael Fabiano.

10 November 2009

Massacre at Fort Hood

I like the “Today’s Headlines” email feature that the New York Times provides free for the asking. The daily post starts with links to three top stories and a quotation of the day, this last of which is generally intended to pique interest in one of the headline stories.


So, I find it interesting that on a day when more and more alarming details emerge about the connections between the Fort Hood murderer, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, and virulently anti-American Muslims, the daily quote that the New York Times chose to present was this:

“Whether it’s self-medicating, anger or violence, these are the consequences of war, and you have to think about all the people affected by soldiers coming home, the parents, spouses, children, brothers, sisters, aunts and cousins.” - Cynthia Thomas, an Army wife who runs a private assistance center for soldiers in Killeen, Tex., called Under the Hood Caf√©.[Note 1.]


Are we supposed to infer that this is the source of last week’s massacre at Fort Hood?


Obviously, there are very real troubles related to suicide and violence among returning soldiers, who have undergone stresses unimaginable to those of us who have not seen combat. These are serious problems that deserve attention, and it is perfectly appropriate for a newspaper to run an article on the topic. But the presence of this quote on this day, along with the accompanying story, “At Fort Hood, Some Violence Is Too Familiar,” leaves little doubt that the Times is pressing hard to scatter some chaff, the purpose being to direct attention away from Hasan’s Muslim connection and to make this atrocity seem like just one more in a series of violent acts by American soldiers.


Is Nadal Malik Hasan really the typical troubled soldier with post-traumatic stress, as the Times would have us believe? Maj. Hasan had not returned from combat; he had never been deployed. He was himself a psychiatrist. While his fellow American soldiers were fighting in the field, Hasan was busy surfing radical Islamist web sites urging Muslims to kill U.S. Troops; he had been in occasional contact (“10 to 20 times”) with an Islamist spiritual leader in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who had previously been the imam of Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center, the Virginia mosque attended by Hasan. (Awlaki, who knew three of the September 11 hijackers, had “drawn the interest of law-enforcement officials in several terrorism investigations since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.”[Note 2.])


Hasan did not quietly and desperately commit suicide as tragically ten American soldiers have done this year alone at Fort Hood. He did not kill his wife and then turn the gun on himself, as happened in one awful incident at Fort Hood last year. He did not kill a fellow member of his division in a moment of violence at a party, as did a soldier last July.


No, Maj. Hasan systematically shot forty-three of his fellow American soldiers, killing thirteen of them while shouting “Allahu Akbar!”


Because there is no indication that Maj. Hasan was part of a conspiracy - and perhaps also out of obedience to political correctness - the incident is not being classified as a terrorist attack. But his actions, with their apparent jihadist motive, the plodding pre-meditation, and the sheer casualties of his final fury, have much more in common with say, the attack on the USS Cole than with the violence of a distraught soldier. In fact, if one looks clearly at the matter, Maj. Nadal Malik Hasan acted much less like a soldier (no matter how troubled) of the United States Army than as an enemy of the United States.


If the New York Times had wanted to capture the essence of the Fort Hood massacre, they would have done better to select for the daily quote the words of the imam that Hasan had contacted. Anwar al-Awlaki wrote on his web site, following the incident, that Hasan was a “hero”:


“He is a man of conscience who could not bear living a contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people . . . The only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the U.S. Army is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal.” - Anwar al-Awlaki.[Note 3.]


NOTES


1. From the “Today’s Headlines” email distribution, The New York Times, 10 Nov 2009.


2. “Hasan, Radical Cleric Had Contact,” The Wall Street Journal, 10 Nov 2009.


3. “U.S. Knew of Suspect’s Tie to Radical Cleric,” The New York Times, 9 Nov 2009.


09 November 2009

The Fall of the Berlin Wall - Twenty Years Later

To commemorate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 Nov 1989, here is an interview with Yaron Brook and Onkar Ghate.