Origins of Life

Two articles on the origins of life suggest that it is extraterrestrial, and happens in the cold of space.

Fifteen Stone

In a piece on C. S. Lewis, we learn that he once tangled with a very ornery British philosopher named Elizabeth Anscombe. She was a legend in her time -- the older gentleman I dined with a few weeks ago knew her at Oxford, and was still telling stories about her. One of his stories that I happen to remember was of an occasion when they attended church together at the university chapel. As the priest began to speak, she stage-whispered: "Another Pelagian sermon, my dear?"

So anyway, apparently she once took down C. S. Lewis in a debate over naturalism.
The point at issue concerns a famous occasion in 1948 in which Lewis debated, at the Oxford Socratic Club of which he was president, with a young Catholic philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe. In his book Miracles, Lewis had attacked what he called “naturalism”, the thesis that there is nothing that exists that is not part of nature. He maintained that naturalism was self-refuting, since if it was true, any statement of it would be irrational. Predicates such as “true” and “rational” could not be attached to any thought or belief if it was simply the undesigned product of cerebral motions. Anscombe contended that Lewis’s argument involved a confusion between reasons and causes: if a weighing machine that spoke one’s weight said “you weigh fifteen stone”, that statement could well be true, even though produced entirely by mechanical causes.
The summary must not be fair to her argument, because it's not a very good argument as presented. If a weighing machine speaks your weight, the weight it gives may be accurate. It may, in that sense, be true.

But it is not produced 'entirely by mechanical causes.' The machine is able to "speak" this fact only because it had a designer, and the designer had a rational standard. "Stone" sounds like a natural kind, but it is in fact a rational and not a natural measure. It's not that you could pile up fifteen stones -- the sort you find in the world -- and it would be equal in weight to the man on the scale. Rather, the measure is a mathematical object, which is to say that it is a logical and not a natural object.

One could still defend the idea of naturalism if you can show how a capacity for the creation of logical objects arises naturally. Yet even that wouldn't be sufficient: believers above all people should expect reason to be embedded in the structure of the world. Even if the point were better defended than the author here presents, then, it need not be a danger.

The Onion Strikes Again

Headline: "Eminem Terrified As Daughter Begins Dating Man Raised On His Music."

Yeah, I bet. But don't read the rest, which includes descriptions of some of his lyrics. You'll be glad you didn't.

The White City

This article on Tolkien and his companions is especially excellent. It begins with the Somme, and ends with the unity of truth and beauty.
For it was in the trenches that Tolkien realized the significance of faerie and myth. “The war made me poignantly aware of the beauty of the world I remember,” Tolkien said in 1968. “I remember miles and miles of seething, tortured earth, perhaps best described in the chapters about the approaches to Mordor. It was a searing experience.”

For men such as Tolkien, World War I only increased their belief that England must save western civilization.

For Tolkien, remembrance of beauty undid much of the horror and terror of the world.
Read the whole thing. There's a great deal here that is worth your time, and careful thought.

With thanks to Dad29.

Judicial Hubris: Confer

Justice Ginsburg, dissent from the VRA decision:
[T]he Court’s opinion can hardly be described as an exemplar of restrained and moderate decision making... Quite the opposite. Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the VRA.... Congress approached the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA with great care and seriousness. The same cannot be said of the Court’s opinion today... The Court makes no genuine attempt to engage with the massive legislative record that Congress assembled.
Justice Scalia, dissent from the DOMA decision:
We have no power to decide this case. And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation. The Court’s errors on both points spring forth from the same diseased root: an exalted conception of the role of this institution in America. The Court is eager — hungry — to tell everyone its view of the legal question at the heart of this case.... Some will rejoice in today’s decision, and some will despair at it; that is the nature of a controversy that matters so much to so many. But the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better. I dissent.


A joke making the rounds:
Heisenberg and Schrodinger are on a road trip, when a cop pulls them over. The officer walks up and asks if they know how fast they’re going. Heisenberg replies that they do not, but know with high precision where they are. The cop thinks that’s weird, and begins to search the vehicle.

He opens the trunk and asks, “Did you know you’ve got a dead cat in the trunk?”

Schrodinger says, “Well, *now* we do.”"

Against Progress

John Gray writes another assault on a basic idea of our cosmopolitan world, the idea that people are getting better. This is fundamentally wrong, he writes:
[T]he underlying problem with this humanist impulse is that it is based upon an entirely false view of human nature—which, contrary to the humanist insistence that it is malleable, is immutable and impervious to environmental forces. Indeed, it is the only constant in politics and history. Of course, progress in scientific inquiry and in resulting human comfort is a fact of life, worth recognition and applause. But it does not change the nature of man, any more than it changes the nature of dogs or birds. “Technical progress,” writes Gray, again in Straw Dogs, “leaves only one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature. Unfortunately that problem is insoluble.”
I've always argued that a claim of moral progress -- as opposed to scientific progress -- was unlikely to be a true claim. It shouldn't be surprising that we see things that look like moral progress, because civilizations that are more distant in time are like civilizations that are more distant in space: we have less in common with them because we are more widely separated. If you travel away from home, people will share your views less and less the further you go. On your return trip, you'll find people are more and more like the way you think people ought to be, because they're more and more like the people you grew up with who think more or less as you do yourself. As La Rochefoucauld said, "We hardly find any persons of good sense save those who agree with us."

Of course then we should see things that look like progress as we move from a civilization of a thousand years' distance to one of five hundred years', then two hundred years', then fifty, then ten, and then to our neighbors of last week and this afternoon. Why, those people nearer to us in time are much more like us than our more distant ancestors! They must be better people, because they agree with us.

A clear example of this problem was on display yesterday afternoon on Erick Erickson's radio program, which I was listening to while on the road. He made a claim of exactly this type about the Voting Rights Act: he made an analogy to braces for your teeth, which you need until you get them straight. We needed the VRA in 1965 because we were -- I believe I have the quote right -- "a morally corrupt people." Now that we're all straightened out, we get rid of the braces and make do with more gentle remedies to keep us on the straight and narrow.

That is of course complete nonsense. The people of 1965 weren't morally corrupt compared to us, neither the white people nor the black people of that era. They were more likely to get and stay married. They were more likely to attend church. They were far more likely to keep their families together and fulfill their duties as parents. They dressed better than we do, on average. They had more robust standards of politeness and courtesy and manners. They had no tolerance for pornography in public life.

We disagree with them about race policy -- indeed, many of us disagree with them about the existence of race as a real category. They disagreed with us and with each other vehemently, but look at what they accomplished in their disagreement. We have the world we are pleased to think of as morally superior to theirs precisely because of what they did, not because of what we did. For or against the VRA, no matter to what lengths they went to support or oppose it, they held together a civilization that wrote and enforced a hard law against itself.

It's preposterous to say that we are better than them.

Are we worse? Well, we are different. We're worse in all the ways described above, if indeed it is worse to fail to attend church, or to break up marriages, or to pursue self-interest instead of duty to family. We're worse if it's worse to dress worse, or to be rude in public over trivial matters.

I'd like to believe there is a final standard that could measure progress, but it can't be any human standard. We lack the perspective, and we are too given to self-flattery. If there is an objective standard it must be divine, as Socrates held against Protagoras, and as Aquinas held against us all. By that standard, though, we are an objectively worse people than our ancestors, and getting worse yet all the time.

If you reject that, then there is no reason to believe that we are better or worse at all. Difference is all there is.

Ich bin ein RPI

Not the literal kind, which is a "Registered Provisional Immigrant" as defined under the new comprehensive but incomprehensible Senate proposal to combine open borders with a welfare state.  Nevertheless, I'm one of the new army of workers who can be hired without subjecting my employer to the choice of either providing me with expensive health care coverage or paying a hefty Obamacare fine.  That's because I adopt the quaint old technique of using my own wages to pay for my own health care.  Starting soon, unless the House blows this thing up, many workers formerly known as illegal immigrants will join me in this enviable state and discover its competitive advantage.  Maybe we'll see people renounce their citizenship and come back over the border.

Ted Cruz tried to address this quirk yesterday, but found the subject too hot for inclusion in the floor debate.  From his website:
Nobody in this body wants to see African-American unemployment go up.  Nobody wants to see Hispanic unemployment go up, youth unemployment go up, union household unemployment go up, legal immigrant unemployment go up.  Yet every one of those will happen if this Gang of Eight bill passes without fixing this problem.  If that happens, all 100 members of the U.S. Senate will be accountable to our constituents for explaining why we voted to put a federal penalty on hiring U.S. citizens and hiring legal immigrants.
It's only fair, I guess. They need the jobs more than we do.  Besides, this isn't the first legislative initiative that's been eagerly adopted despite it's inarguable tendency to drive up unemployment.  If more people are thrown out of work, we can buy their votes all the more readily with unemployment benefits.

Way to go!

Chinese postal workers think fast and break the fall of a toddler from an upstairs window.

A blow against prejudice

The Supreme Court rules 5-4 (Roberts, C.J., joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito):
The Fifteenth Amendment is not designed to punish for the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future.  To serve that purpose, Congress—if it is to divide the States—must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions.
The Court struck down the Voting Rights Act's singling out of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, in addition to a few counties and municipalities in other states, as political units so likely to engage in ruses to prevent blacks from voting that they cannot be permitted to alter even the most trivial aspects of their voting procedures without pre-clearance from the federal Justice Department. This marks an end to pre-empt redistricting proposals and voter i.d. laws in the states the powers-that-be love to hate, though it still will be possible to sue to change procedures after the fact if the procedures can be demonstrated to violate the Voting Rights Act, according to standards that apply equally to all states.

The Court did not directly strike down the "pre-clearance" section (Section 5) but the section that sets out the formula for maintaining the permanent list of enemy states (Section 4).  The Government admitted that the formula was reverse-engineered; it identified the miscreants and then dreamed up a formula that would snag them.  The Court felt that any attempt to identify evil states should be based on current information, not 50-year-old grudges.  Whether or not the Justice Department has noticed, voter registration and voting patterns have reached something very close to parity in the states previously identified as hopelessly racist.

Maybe the Justice Department will have time now to consider the prevalent of racism in other contexts.  Not to mention important issues of transgender discrimination.  Is there room to hope they'll address the abuse of bureaucratic discretion to target the politically unsound?  As long as we're worrying about equal protection under the laws and all that.
Police State, part whatever number I'm up to now:

Radley Balko has an interesting observation on Police culture:

"What Cop T-shirts Tell Us About Police Culture"

When I was a child, you'd never have seen stuff like this.