None the Wiser

"Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think." --J.S. Mill

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Thursday, May 08, 2003
Light Blogging, and a Really Funny Letter

Blogging has been light and will be for a couple of days yet. I have several trips to Indianapolis to make, in the course of taking a couple of final exams, completing a paper, and delivering IT catalogues to every square inch of this campus. So, you'll forgive me if I stick to links for the moment. But then the semester will be over, and I'll have some fresh excuse.

Coming soon on NTW: Why "open mindedness," as currently concieved, is a lie propagated by sloppy thinkers looking for an excuse to congratulate themselves for their mental and moral laziness.

Also, the club-wielding Harp Seal with an attitude problem has recieved a letter from his yellow-fanged Harp Seal father, which relates a quotation by the C/O of the 1st Marine Division. I can't vouch for the veractiy of the quote, but I think it's credible:

“When you guys get home and face an antiwar protester, look him in the eyes and shake his hand. Then, wink at his girlfriend, because she knows she’s dating a pussy.”

I think I'm gonna cry, that's so damned funny.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003
Calling Amnesty International...Hello? Um, Hello?

Glenn Reynold links to a positively horrifying story in WaPo (reg required) about a recently released Iraqi prisoner of war--the Iran-Iraq war, that is. He asks why this isn't getting more condemnation from the human rights industry (it's an industry, people, not a movement), and then supplies the only answer that holds water. Check it out.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003
The Great Debate

Dave Sims at Clubbeaux has managed to stir up a real hornets nest with his recent full-frontal assault on atheists (just keep scrolling up, there are lots of posts and comments). He's posted a series of denunciations of atheists, and while I don't agree with some of what he's had to say, I'm a little surprised by the reactions he managed to garner.

I suppose I shouldn't be. Tex at Whackingday seems more disappointed than anything else, implying that he thinks Dave has gone loopy. And SDB seems a tad appalled as well, and has written a short (for Stephen) response. I'm not particularly interested in the argument. I don't think atheists are brainless and rotten to the core, which Dave basically says point-blank (in his defense, though, the half-wit atheists with which he's doing battle are making it hard to judge him too harshly on this score). He has toned down his rhetoric at the urging of a friend, and he is to be commended for having the honesty to admit in what sense he may have crossed the line into ugly invective.

My only gripe is semantic, but where issues concerning God arise, semantics matter a great deal. Stephen DenBeste says that "the category "atheist" is defined by a negative; it means someone who doesn't believe there are any deities. However, it doesn't say what they do believe in, if anything at all." Au contraire.

No, Stephen, in this you are rather badly mistaken, which is a surprise given that you are a self-avowed atheist, and possessed of a particularly meticulous nature. An "atheist" is not someone belonging to a negative category. The word denotes a positive belief that there is no deity, nor any group of them. Atheism is not defined as a lack of belief, as in the case of agnostics. He's right that many atheists may be secular neo-Marxists, but neither implies the other in any way.

The atheist, then, does not say that "I do not believe there is a God." He says, "I believe there is no God," and the difference is quite significant. The first does not abjure the possibility of the divine, though the atheist would be telling the truth if he uttered either statement.

This is important because it means that if one is an atheist, then one has viewed the universe and has a conviction that there certainly is no God, and will offer arguments to disprove the possibility. This conviction is, or can be, as strong as that of the theist. DenBeste says God's existence is impossible to disprove, which means he is not an atheist, but rather an agnostic--which is to say that he does not believe he knows either way whether there is a God, nor does he believe that he can know one way or the other. He then contradicts himself by stating that he believes in mechanistic atheism--which amounts to believing in one thing while allowing for the possibility of something with which that belief is mutually exclusive. Again, this distinction is critical--any kind of atheism makes the factual claim that there is no God--whether it is mechanistic or some other variety.

But then, he also claims that Bertrand Russell was "very wise." I believe that DenBeste, whose site I heartily recommend otherwise, is on firmer ground when talking about engineering or foreign affairs than he is when discussing philosophy. Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, and SDB is just way ahead of the curve, but this issue of positive belief among atheists is a fundamental presupposition of the philosophy of religion. Perhaps he ought to call himself a non-theist. This is an accurate description of his position, if I understand it correctly.

Anyway, this lack of conviction is not atheism. And this confusion is what led to one of the initial controversies at Dave's site--whether atheism qualifies as a religion. Some would say that the atheist does not believe, therefore it cannot be so. But this is to misunderstand the metaphysics of atheism. The atheist is not content to simply disbelieve, but rather asserts a postive claim to truth--namely, that there is no God as we understand Him.

Atheists often rely on the problem of evil to make their claim, but this is a weak tack. Typically, the confusion over what atheism really is arises from the fact that most of their intellectual energies are spent countering the positive claims of others--and if I may channel Dave's spirit for a moment here, also because whether they like it or not, atheists tend to suffer from a clearly discernible nihilistic streak that makes forming a positive metaphysics rather a pointless enterprise.

So, when you say, "I am an atheist," you need to think long and hard about what you're saying. Being atheist is not like being non-German or non-American, as Stephen claims, any more than being French means merely that one does not hail from America. The Frenchman hails from somewhere in particular, after all, and the atheist believes something very specific. Specific and in error.

Oh, and one other thing--to call Dave a "bigot" is just ridiculous. Not only that, but it's incongruous with the idea that atheism is not a religion. Dave claims this accusation was made by Bill Whittle, whom I admire, but does not provide a link to precisely where he said it (and I'm too lazy to look). I'm willing to take Dave's word for it.

In any event, DenBeste remarks that "Sims seems to demonstrate bigotry towards atheists." What does bigotry mean anymore, if that is the case? You don't ordinarily think of someone as "bigoted" just because they show bitter contempt for, say, communists or ethical relativists. And if, as Stephen must surely think, atheism is not a religion, then on what grounds does he use such a loaded word to describe Dave?

I think the Harp Seal went a little overboard, but everybody does from time to time, and I can't say I would have been much more constrained in the face of such determined idiocy. Just read the comments, and maybe you'll agree. But watch out, because if you do--you might just be a bigot.

That is all.

UPDATE: DenBeste expands on his earlier comments. I remain unimpressed by his (undeclared) attempt to draw a distinction without a difference between agnosticism and atheism, but he at least gets one thing right: atheism rests on faith, not reason. The determining factor, he seems to say, is Occam's Razor, which doesn't work because atheism isn't the simplest explanation for the existence of the universe, nor does he prove it to be so. He merely says that it is, as though this were obvious. MA is, in his particular case, just a deliberate abdication of any proof at all, which is not the same as employing the Razor.

There is, in any event, no reason to employ the Razor in the first place, since Aristotelian physics is no more accurate than modern cosmology by virtue of its relative simplicity as a model (something he concedes in principle). In essence, he spends a lot of energy following a single line of argument regarding the falsifiability of the "clockmaker model." But he never says why mechanistic atheism ought to command our assent. If he doesn't think it should, then he isn't much of a mechanistic atheist, but rather is someone who thinks it's a plausible view. He could, of course, have taken the exact opposite view and given as much clarity. Do check it out, since it's a thought-provoking post (as are all of STB's), and see if you agree.

What the...?

You may have noticed that much of NTW is now italicized, starting on 5/4. This makes my blog annoying to read, at least moreso than is usual, and for that I'm sorry. It's also tough to tell when I'm excerpting and when I'm not.

So here's a helpful guide for reading NTW until Blogger fixes whatever's wrong:

1) The better written it is, the more likely it is that it's an excerpt.
2) Otherwise, rely upon context.

Thank you for your attention and patience while we sort out this technical difficulty, to which I will attend directly. Oh, and my archives are also disappearing. (Lousy blog...)

Some Mustard Fo' Yo' Ass

Russell at M3 takes a page from The Sage's book, erases it, and writes it the way it ought to be, in this post about Chomsky and postmodernism that comes mere days after a similarly-themed post of my own (see post immediately prior).

It's funky and fresh and I love it. Check it out.

Sunday, May 04, 2003
A Little Bit of Sanity Will Cure What Ails Ya'

I'm always game for a fresh assessment of why Noam Chomsky is a dispicable fraud. Like everything surrounding the man, it has become something of a cottage industry--practically a genre.

So it was with girlish glee that I discovered this delightful morsel of anti-Chomsky invective at The New Criterion by Kieth Windschuttle. It just warms the coddles of my lump of

It's always interesting to note that Chomsky keeps his tone and his syntax hysterical yet uncomplicated, respectively, since this is the only way to capture and hold the attention of the ADD-stricken Rage Against the Machine enthusiasts who form the most fanatical core of his readership. One of the marks of a real peddler of mental snake oil is that their target audience is poorly educated--or better yet, half-educated--and socially malformed. His devotees almost invariably appeal to his status (which is itself decoupled from any reasonable measure of his contribution to human knowledge) in an attempt to defend the obvious bad faith in which he makes his case. This in turn is evidence, in my view, of their ripeness for manipulation by a silver-tongued rabble-rouser (particularly one whose ideology is as hazy and contradictory as Chomsky's).

We would do well when considering Chomsky's appeal to remember that he is not a political scientist, or an historian, or even a philosopher, but a linguist. One of the key planks in Chomskyan language theory is that words have both a deep- and surface-structure set of meanings, which is a true enough observation on its face. It is endlessly fascinating to watch him so expertly deploy that relatively pedestrian insight in the defense of his own lunatic ravings.

Put more simply, he is a grand master of the semantic dodge, and his words are carefully crafted so as to remain just obscure enough to be defensible in a pinch--even if only to the most credulous observer. Also notable is his tendency to couch the thrust of his sentences in secondary declarations or clauses, thus allowing him to start in one direction and veer off course and end in a completely different place. One example, also quoted by Windshchuttle (but for a different purpose than mine), will do. Read the following:

The terrorist attacks were major atrocities. In scale they may not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton’s bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and killing unknown numbers of people.

This is from his laughably kooky pamphlet 9-11. His point seems at first blush to be to acknowledge the unforgivable nature of the horror perpetrated on 9-11, and the first sentence lures the reader in this direction. "See, I really DO care!"

But as we progress into the second sentence, the first clause mitigates his condemnation by pointing out that worse atrocities have occurred before--a true enough statement on its own--and then the second clause presents America's cruise missle strike against a Sudanese drug factory as a comparable, indeed a worse atrocity. Now, as Windschuttle ably demonstrates, this is an absurd, even an obscene, comparison.

My point, though, is that Chomsky has simply pulled a bait-and-switch in which the only relevance 9-11 has to anything in his essay is as an illustration of the absolute horror that is the United States. It serves only as a rhetorical springboard for his larger purpose, which is to highlight an even exaggerate America's crimes. But the college kid with the drug-addled brain can greedily, if unconciously, absorb both messages: Chomsky isn't anti-American, he condemned the attacks as atrocities after all; and America is worse than al-Queda ever could be. Of course, who knew it was so simple, maaaaannn?

Windschuttle does a better job whaling on the left's favorite verbal sleight-of-hand artist, so go enjoy it for yourself.

A Trusteeship for Palestine?

Foreign Affairs magazine is carrying a piece by Martin Indyk, which describes a tantalizing solution to the Gordian knot in the occupied territories. It amounts to the aboltion of the PA, which would be replaced by a third-party tursteeship that would administer the territories, while facilitating direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

It's a bold, interesting idea, and all the more impressive because it ponders a very pro-active solution that is "outside the box" of the traditional American approach, namely, direct negotiation between the Israelis and some quasi-governmental body like the PA (which by now has been shown to be nothing but a Palestinian front organization for extremists, an Arab Sinn Fein).

I think it won't work, nor will it be taken up any time soon, but some of my readers might disagree, so I'll link to it. I think it's probably the best attempt I've seen to come up with a realistic blueprint in quite a while. My biggest criticism is that it relies on some rather pollyannish assumptions about the impartiality of the U.N., a rabidly anti-Israel institution through and through (the Jewish state is the only country in the U.N. that is barred from serving on the Security Council, it has never served on the UNHRC, there are several U.N. committees devoted exclusively to attacking Israel, and it has passed more resolutions comdemning Israel than it has every Arab despotism combined.)

He also remarks that Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are truly committed to peace on the West Bank, and one can argue that point, but I think it's a lot more complicated than that. No one wants peace in the West Bank more than the Israelis, and no one has lost so much for that cause, but a lasting peace, that is peace for its own sake, is very different from peace as a means only to some other end. The Israelis want the former; Egypt and co., the latter.

It's a long article, though, and there's a lot to digest that is novel and worthwhile, in spite of the occasional bout of equivalence, so go give it a whirl.