Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Very Imperfect Storm

I have been holed up at my home where there has been no power since last Tuesday night, and where, for a couple of days, we had no water. Our cell service was also out for a couple of days. At one point, we literally had no contact with the outside world, lacking size "C" batteries to run our radio.

When size C and D batteries, kerosene heaters, and drinkable water become prized commodities, you know you're in trouble. I felt like Winston Smith in 1984 looking for a used razor.

We have found ourselves simply trying to keep the house warm enough so the pipes don't freeze, a process which requires wood for the wood stove insert in our fireplace. You know those romantic images people sometimes have of fathers going out with their sons to cut wood in the forest? Don't believe them! It seems like I have spent every waking hour for the last four days chopping wood and trying to get it dry enough to burn.

I'm ready to do something else now.

Not that there have not been times we will remember: like realizing we could put some ashes from a hot fire in a metal pail, take a deep stove pan and put cooking oil in it, drop it into the bucket, and make popcorn. Or, with some available English muffins, ham lunchmeat, eggs, and a little ingenuity, invent what we have dubbed the "Egg McMartin."

One of the first people I have seen since clearing our road and driveway was my barber, a man who lives on my street, and was therefore also without power. His shop, as I noticed driving by this morning, was open, so I stopped in.

As he was cutting my hair, we got into a discussion about whether homeowner's insurance would cover damaged trees. He said that it was his understanding that "acts of God" were not covered. I said that, that being the case, it would not be good if your insurance company was run by Calvinists, since they believe everything was a direct act of God, and would therefore not have to pay on any claim. I suggested that, from the consumer's standpoint, the best insurance company would be one run by Arminians. He responded by insisting that, actually, it would be better to be insured by an insurance company run by atheists, since they didn't believe in acts of God at all.

The discussion, of course, was singular evidence that there are psychological effects from being isolated for more than a few days. But at least we discovered a useful purpose for Richard Dawkins.

I'm sure there are character lessons in this for us: that, for example, we shouldn't take things like electricity for granted; that we should value the simple things in life; that it is family and friends, not everyday conveniences that are the most important things.

Okay. I've gotten the message. Now can I have my electricity back?

I am now holding forth at the only place in town where I can get an Internet connection: an Arby's about seven miles from our home. At weak moments, I have thought that this must be what the end of the civilization is like. But sitting here I am reminded how silly such a thought is--largely because, whatever the end of civilization must look like, certainly it will not involve free wireless at Arby's.

In any case, I back up and running. Sort of. As I said, I still don't have electricity, but I have discovered a place where I can get online--and get a decent roast beef sandwich.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My TV debate with Speaker Stumbo and Bob Elliston next Monday night

I will appear next Monday night at 8:00 p.m. est on Kentucky Educational Television's "Kentucky Tonight" to debate House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Bob Elliston, head of Turfway Park on the issue of expanded gambling. Tune in.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Stupid academic tricks

Accuracy in Academia's lists the worst academic failures of 2008. My personal favorites:
  • Insisting on academic freedom for professors while their students fail to answer basic historical questions;
  • Denying political biases while using class time to get out the vote for Barack Obama;
  • Annual productions of The Vagina Monologues that claim to elevate women while reducing them to body parts ...
View the rest here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A professor's observations on his postliterate students

What is it with this guy? Does he think, like, schools are supposed to pass on Western culture or something?
Since the mid-1980s, I have taught a standard survey of literature course to undergraduates in California, Michigan, and most recently upstate New York. This course introduces canonical texts, from Homer’s Odyssey to early medieval texts such as Beowulf or the Icelandic sagas, and sometimes later works. Over the years, my experience has chronicled what I believe to be a broad retreat from genuine literacy into a new, orally based “post-literacy” of emotion-drive mentality, egocentrism, “presentism,” and logical obtuseness. This retreat will have serious consequences for our society.

Caroline Kennedy's maid goes on the record

Rosa speaks.

A funny way for Obama to end divisiveness

This what Obama decides to do on the day after the anniversary of Roe v. Wade:
“President Obama signed an executive order today reversing the ban that prohibits funding to international family planning groups that provide abortions . . .”
And what was that he said about ending divisiveness?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A question about the inauguration

If this isn't a Christian nation, then why are presidents (including this one) sworn in using a Bible, rather than, say, the Koran or Bagavad-Gita?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Life on Mars discussion results in discovery of new molecule

I know I've said it ten times before, but it's about to be writ again: the caricature of science that is the search for life on Mars continues unabated. And it's no god-awful small affair either: no one paying attention to the news can escape the reports announcing that life has been found on Mars when it really hasn't--a phenomenon I attribute to scientists with gas, resulting in measurable emissions of nonsense.

Here is my personal favorite headline (HT: Literature): "Nasa reveals life on Mars: Alien bugs are responsible for strong plumes of methane gas detected on Mars, it was claimed tonight," from Britain's The Sun.

First of all, life has not been discovered on Mars. In fact, methane emissions have not been discovered on Mars either (not recently anyway). Now you could mark this down to media sensationalism, and there is certainly something to be said for that thesis. But the fact is that the media sensationalism is being fanned by NASA itself.

And here's how the trick is done. First, you point to a journal article on a discovery that was made, not this year, not last year, not even the year before, but in 2003. So the only thing that's new is the journal article; the discovery is 5 years old. Secondly, you completely obfuscate the distinction between biology and geology.

Here's part of the NASA press release:
[R]esearch published today in Science Express reveals new hope for the Red Planet. The first definitive detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars indicates that Mars is still alive, in either a biologic or geologic sense, according to a team of NASA and university scientists. [Emphasis added]
Note that Mars is apparently suspended out there in space holding its breath waiting for someone to find life on it. Maybe that explains it's redness. And if NASA has anything to do with it, it will be no sunken dream.

Once you have defined life as either biological and geological, and you have discovered a gas on Mars that can be the effect of either biological or geological causes, you can point to the existence of the gas and, presto, you have discovered life on Mars!

The only thing needed at this point is an "artist's rendering" of the situation--preferably animated so that the thing you haven't really proved looks plausible--and you have everything you need to hoodwink the public. No sensationalism in this cause seems out of bounds.

Look at those scientists go. It's a freaky show, you'll have to admit.

Of course, all this is not only bad science, it's bad logic. Methane--four hydrogen atoms bound to a carbon atom--is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of life. The argument jumps from "If there is life, there must be methane" (a true statement) to "If there is methane, there must be life" (a false statement). Needless to say, the latter does not follow from the former, but in the popular imagination, the leap is made with little difficulty thanks to places like NASA which give it implicit encouragement.

In fact, we may well have discovered a brand new cultural molecule: the NASA molecule, which is four sensationalist atoms bound to a science atom. It hasn't just been discovered, of course, but we could imply that it was and write a journal article about it and make people think it is a big deal, when, in fact, it isn't.

I've said before that there seem to be several things driving this best-selling show, the first being money: NASA needs it, and they get less of when science seems a saddening bore, and more of it when they can excite the taxpayers' curiosity.

Another involves certain scientific theories. Darwinism, for example, according to which life arose by chance, becomes much more plausible in the public imagination if life can be found on other planets. Discovery of extra-terrestrial life doesn't logically imply this conclusion of course, but it psychologically implies it, and that's all we really need.

Is there life on Mars? At this rate, I wonder if we'll ever know.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Life on Mars discovered! ... Maybe

I can't be the only one who feels a little sorry for NASA scientists who seem so desperate to find life in other planets that every time they discover even the most minute piece of evidence of the mere possibility of life, they make it sound as if they have proven something very big, when, in fact, they have not.

Every several years, some group of scientists finds a Martian meteorite, notices certain formations in it, and begins crowing that they might have discovered possible evidence that may indicate that there is the slight chance that there could be life, just maybe, somewhere else but on earth. Only it is stated with a little more confidence than that.

In one recent incident just two or three years ago, the reader was accosted with the typical headline about life being discovered on Mars. Of course, when you read near the end of the story, there was the admission by the scientists conducting the study that went something like, "Of course, it may just be cracks in the mud."

I mentioned this at the time to someone I know very well who has worked very closely with NASA for many years. He laughed, and said, "Oh, its just NASA wanting more money." That could certainly be one motivation. But I think there is really a deep visceral obsession on the part of many scientists who strongly believe there is life on other planets and are simply desperate to prove it.

The public is constantly being told about the dispassionate scientific search for truth, but this smacks of a very passionate fixation on confirming a thesis using evidence which is just as consonant with other theories--such as the opposite one.

So here we go again. Scientists are getting ready to roll out another dog and pony show to claim that they have evidence for their theory, when, in fact, they don't really know anything more than they did before. Look for the key terms--'may', 'might', 'possibly', 'could be', 'suspected', 'we think', 'suspect'.

The irony of it all is that these people sound just like the UFO hounds who consider every strange event as confirming evidence for alien life. In fact, some of the very same people are involved, if a recent Fox News report is to be believed:
It's "the most important discovery of all time," former British civil servant and fervent UFO hunter Nick Pope told the Sun. "We've really only scratched the surface — it's an absolute certainty that there is life out there and we are not alone." [emphasis mine]
Hope springs eternal. Especially in science.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Where Francis Shaeffer goes wrong: Is the belief in natural theology the beginning of the end of Western culture?

Most protestants know very little about St. Thomas Aquinas. But there is one thing they do know (or think they do) about him: Thomas believed that the will was fallen but that the intellect was not: that in the wake of the Fall the will was corrupt, but that the intellect remained perfect. I have heard this over and over again. And when I inquire about where they got this idea, they all tell me the same thing: from Francis Schaeffer, one of the most influential protestant thinkers of the 20th century.

The recent tell-all book by Franky Shaeffer, Francis and Edith Schaeffer's son has recently put Shaeffer back into the limelight again. Shaeffer deserves better from his own offspring. I was myself very influenced by Schaeffer. He had several key insights about modern thinking and culture that, despite the sometimes maddening terminology marking him as an autodidact, I still find helpful.

Shaeffer was not an original thinker, but he managed to repackage the observations of others in a way that appealed to a modern protestant audience that has fundamentally affected the thinking of protestants ever since, mostly for good, and the mischievous effects of his mistaken analysis of Thomas shouldn't detract from the good effects of much else that he wrote.

Of course, before being told where this mistaken notion of Thomas came from, I had already encountered it in the same place myself. I remember reading it in the same place: in Schaeffer's Escape from Reason, one of the three books that lays the foundation of his thinking on Christian apologetics.

Did St. Thomas think the intellect was not fallen?
This interpretation of Thomas is not incidental to Schaeffer's analysis of modern thought. In fact, Schaeffer views this presumed failing of Thomas as the origin of the decline of the Christian worldview in the West:
In Aquinas's view the will of man was fallen, but the intellect was not. From this incomplete view of the biblical Fall flowed all subsequent difficulties. (Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason, p. 11)
The chief trouble with this assertion, for which Schaeffer gives no documentation, is that it is completely the opposite of what Thomas actually said. Thomas clearly believed that the Fall applied to the intellect as well as the other powers of the soul:
As a result of original justice, the reason had perfect hold over the lower parts of the soul, while reason itself was perfected by God, and was subject to Him. Now this same original justice was forfeited through the sin of our first parent, as already stated (81, 2); so that all the powers of the soul are left, as it were, destitute of their proper order, whereby they are naturally directed to virtue; which destitution is called a wounding of nature ... [T]hrough sin, the reason is obscured, especially in practical matters, the will hardened to evil, good actions become more difficult and concupiscence more impetuous. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Article 85, Question 3)
And not only did he not think the human intellect was uncorrupted, he clearly attributes its proper function to God:
Hence we must say that for the knowledge of any truth whatsoever man needs Divine help, that the intellect may be moved by God to its act ... We always need God's help for every thought, inasmuch as He moves the understanding to act. (Summa, Article 109, Question 1)
I don't know, but am willing to conjecture that part of the problem with Schaeffer's analysis of St. Thomas stems from the fact that he never actually read him. Schaeffer's comments on his thinking bear all the marks of someone who has picked up his Thomas second hand, and from sources who have themselves misinterpreted him. In any case, his misunderstanding of Thomas's thinking causes Schaeffer to finger him as the fall guy in the decline of Western civilization, and in this he is completely and utterly wrong.

Schaeffer's Misinterpretation of the Nature/Grace Distinction
Schaeffer's analysis of the decline of Western thought begins by asserting that Aquinas makes a distinction between nature and grace. Nature is, roughly, the lower: corporeal things, such as the visible, tangible, bodily world in all its diversity. Grace, on the other hand, is the higher: constituted by the heavenly, the spiritual, the abstract, that which can provide unity to the diversity of nature.

Schaeffer's great contribution to the understanding of the history of ideas was to take these two ideas and present them as what he called the "upper story" (Grace: the realm of universals), and the "lower story" (Nature: the realm of particulars). Schaeffer used this notion to explain in a simple way the modern split between existentialism or postmodern on the one hand (those who occupy the upper story), and materialism on the other (those who have confined themselves to the lower story). The observation was not original to Schaeffer: It had already been articulated by T. S. Eliot (the "dissociation of sensibility") and Alan Tate (the "double retreat from the moral center"). Schaeffer, however, gets the prize for simplifying and popularizing the idea.

There are several problems with this analysis. The first is that nature and grace are, in fact, distinct, and Schaeffer nowhere argues that they are not. In fact, he can't. All we get from his comment is a sort of bad vibe with which it is hard to know exactly what to do with other than conclude that there is something wrong with making this distinction. But there is clearly a distinction--a distinction that Schaeffer seems to misinterpret as a separation. The question is not whether nature and grace are distinct, but in what their relationship consists--and whether Aquinas had a true view of that relationship or a false one.

So far the problem is only a misinterpretation of Aquinas, in which Schaeffer mistakenly believes that he disagrees with him. But Schaeffer takes that perceived disagreement and founds upon it a belief that really does put him at odds with Aquinas--as well as with the whole of historic Christianity. And it is here that Schaeffer goes terribly wrong in his thinking, and propounds and error which increasingly infects much of protestant thinking:
While there were some good results from giving nature a better place it also opened the way for much that was destructive...In one realm man was now independent, autonomous.

This sphere of the autonomous in Aquinas takes on various forms. One result, for example, was the development of natural theology. In this view, natural theology is a theology that could be pursued independently from the Scriptures. Though it was an autonomous study, he hoped for unity and said that there was a correlation between natural theology and the Scriptures. But the important point in what followed was that a really autonomous area was set up.

From the basis of this autonomous principle, philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation. Therefore philosophy began to take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to the Scriptures. (Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason, pp. 11-12)
Here Schaeffer takes his misinterpretation of Aquinas and connects it to a view that Aquinas actually did hold: that there are things we can know about God independently of direct divine revelation. Schaeffer correctly labels it natural theology: the idea that there are truths, some of them even about God himself, that we can learn from God's creation. But whereas Schaeffer starts out by rightly defending a correct idea from a bad one he mistakenly thinks Aquinas holds, now he begins to incorrectly defend a bad idea from a good idea he correctly thinks Aquinas holds.

Shaeffer, Natural Theology, and Presuppositionalism
The relationship between natural and revealed theology is one of the most salient issues concerning faith and reason, and it is ironic that one of the 20th century's most influential protestant thinkers should get it so wrong. Schaeffer's rejection of natural theology (again, he never argues the point, only assumes it) flies in the face of assertions in revealed theology itself. Schaeffer obviously wants to say (although he never comes right out and says it) that natural theology should be rejected. But the Apostle Paul says quite plainly at the beginning of Romans that we can know certain things about God from His creation. There may be somewhere in the corpus of Schaeffer's writing where he takes this into account, but I have yet to come across it.

Schaeffer is, in this sense, the intellectual heir of Cornelius Van Til and others who champion "presuppositionalism"--the idea that Christianity must be defended only by requiring the unbeliever to first abandon his worldview, and never by argumentation that assumes a neutral ground with the unbeliever. In fact, Schaeffer's debt to Van Til has yet, I think, to be fully appreciated. But while you can only sense Schaeffer's complete rejection of natural theology lurking in the background, Van Til comes right out in the open with it:
The point in dispute is not whether there is some knowledge that must be acquired by revelation, but whether there is any knowledge that can be acquired without redemptive revelation. We hold it to be definitely anti-Christian to say that any man can have any true knowledge of anything except through the wisdom of Christ. (Cornelius Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 63)
Now Van Til and his chief disciple Greg Bahnsen get very slippery when you start asking them hard questions about whether they are saying that you can't know anything apart from direct revelation. Sometimes they seem to say that you can and other times they seem to say that you can't. But if you reject natural theology, then what else can you possibly mean? And if that is not what you mean, then how can you reject natural theology?

The disintegration of the modern mind does not stem from a distinction between Nature and Grace, nor are its origins to be found in the belief in natural theology, a belief that antedates Aquinas by a good 1,500 years. Rather it stems from a mistaken view of the relation between nature and grace, and from a corruption of the idea of natural theology--and neither of these things can be laid at the feet of Aquinas. Far from it.

Aquinas's Correct View of the Relation of Faith and Reason
In fact, if there is one person in the history of the Church you could point to as the man who did not have it wrong on the issue of faith and reason, it is Aquinas. It was Sigar of Brabant, a professor at the University of Paris in the mid-13th century, who, working from the ideas about Aristotle propounded by the Arab philosopher Averroes, propounded the doctrine of Double Truth: the idea that an idea could be true scientifically, but false theologically (or vice-versa). This is what Schaeffer seems really to be concerned about, although his unfamiliarity with the relevant history appears to prevent him from saying so.
Sigar of Brabant said this: the church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths; the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. When we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense; but then, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Sigar of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of a battle; and declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utterly disbelieve. (G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, pp. 92-93)
Had Aquinas been complicit in this, Schaeffer would have a case. But, in fact, it was Aquinas who, in 1268, was sent to the University of Paris to correct the problem. His solution is well articulated by Etienne Gilson:
St. Thomas had asked the professors of theology never to prove an article of faith by rational demonstration, for faith is not based on reason, but the word of God, and if you try to prove it, you destroy it. He had likewise asked the professors of philosophy never to prove a philosophical truth by resorting to the words of God, for philosophy is not based on Revelation, but on reason, and if you try to base it on authority, you destroy it. In other words, theology is the science of those things which are received by faith from divine revelation, and philosophy is the knowledge of those things which flow from the principles of natural reason. Since their common source is God, the creator of both reason and revelation, these two sciences are bound ultimately to agree; but if you really want them to agree, you must first be careful not to forget their essential difference. Only distinct things can be united; if you attempt to blend them, you inevitably lose them in what is not union, but confusion. (Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, p. 50) [Emphasis added]
Aquinas was clear on what the difference was between faith, based on direct revelation, and reason, based on natural revelation. He was an example of his own definition of a wise man: "That man is wise who orders things rightly and governs them well." (Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Article 1, Question 1) Unfortunately, there were those who were to follow, who didn't have things so nicely in balance.

St. Thomas's views on faith and reason are not the cause of the decline of Western thought, but the cure. And the solution, far from abandoning Aquinas's beliefs, is to restore them. In fact, it was the abandonment, not the propagation of Aquinas's beliefs on faith and reason that brought about the modern condition that Schaeffer spends so much time lamenting.

This is why I would take my stand with Richard Weaver, the author of Ideas Have Consequences, who traces the decline of the West, not to Aquinas, but to William of Ockham. Aquinas constructed the only truly unified system of Christian philosophy--a system that recognized both revealed and natural revelation as distinct avenues to one truth, while acknowledging the proper limitations of each--and their ultimate source in God. While Aquinas was the author of this system, Ockham was its destroyer. If anyone deserves blame for what ails modern man, it is Ockham.

The Presuppositionalist Failture to Distinguish between Ontology and Epistemology
As Weaver correctly points out, Occam's chief mistake was questioning the reality of transcendental ideas:
...I take the view that the conscious policies of men and government are not mere rationalizations of what has been brought about by unaccountable forces. They are rather deductions from our most basic ideas of human destiny, and they have a great, though not unobstructed, power to determine our course.

For this reason, I turn to William of Occam as the best representative of a change which came over man's conception of reality at this historic juncture. It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to that question is decisive for one's view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism. (Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, p. 3)
But it is hard for people like Schaeffer and Van Til to see the role of Ockham in all this because Ockham's mistake was an ontological, rather than an epistemological one, and the presuppositionalist's philosophical vision has never extended much beyond the epistemological. They can't see the ontological forest for the epistemological trees. The problem is not the epistemological problem of the starting point of our knowledge in the created world, but the ontological problem of a failure to understand what reality is and how it may be approached.

In fact, one of the chief problems with presuppositionalism is precisely this: that it confuses the epistemological and the ontological. The whole problem with the presuppositionalist assertion concerning the apologetic "starting point," which they say, must be the Bible, is a confusion between these two categories. They assume that the ontological starting point is the epistemological point. It is an assumption that they are blind to because they don't even recognize the distinction, which is why it is never argued for in their literature, but simply assumed. Just because something is ontologically prior, it does not follow that it is epistemologically prior: just because a thing is most important, does not mean that it is the first temporal step in one's thought.

There are some of us educators who spend not a little time pointing this out to modern educators who don't get this distinction either, and who, as a result, end up jettisoning traditional methods of reading and math instruction that are based on an understanding of this distinction, in favor of methods that ignore it, and, as a result, fail to properly education children.

What goes for education goes for philosophical theology.

The blindness of many protestants to the ontological problems of thought have resulted in otherwise orthodox thinkers (some of them at the forefront of classical education) who champion modern systems of logic as opposed to the traditional system, as blind to bad metaphysics behind the former, as to the sound metaphysics underlying the latter. In fact, you could argue that the nominalism of Ockham is widespread among modern protestants. It is case of intellectual possession warranting a philosophical exorcism.

All this is to say that the problem at the origin of the decline of the Christian West that Shaeffer spent so much time lamenting is ontological--not, as he thought, epistemological, and its chief antagonist is Ockham, not Aquinas. Indeed, where do we find the best philosophical expression of the Christian West that has fallen on such hard times if not in Aquinas?

It is Shaeffer who is largely responsible for the parody of St. Thomas that passes for his thought. There are obvious protestant objections to St. Thomas, but in making them, they should be made against what Thomas actually thought, not on oversimplications that fail to capture what, in fact, he really thought and said.

Richard John Neuhaus, RIP

Richard John Neuhaus died last week. He was most famous as the editor of First Things Magazine, which dealt with the issue religion in the public square. It was one of the truly vibrant intellectual journals of recent times. The joke has always been that everyone read the magazine from the back, since that's where Neuhaus wrote his own running account the wide range of issues that came under the rubric of the magazine.

We should perhaps remind ourselves of something that many have forgotten: that First Things was the successor to two other publications Neuhaus edited: This World and The Religion & Society Report. This World contained longer scholarly articles on religion and culture, while The Religion & Society Report contained Neuhaus's own shorter observations about religion and culture. This latter was the basis for the "back of the magazine" in First Things. I was a charter subscriber to both, but they were short-lived as a result of a falling out between the more neo-conservative Neuhaus and the more paleo-conservative Rockford Institute, which published the two periodicals. Neuhaus quickly founded First Things, and it became one of the most influential voices in what is left of Christendom.

I never met Neuhaus, but, like many, I felt like I knew him because I knew his thoughts on the same issues that I was thinking about, thoughts that he gave eloquent expression. He was apparently celibate, before and after becoming a Catholic, a choice that allowed him to read voraciously and do the rest of us the very important favor of letting us know what was important in what he encountered there.

Like many, I wonder what now will become of First Things. It is surely a work worth furthering, and yet it was so much the work of Neuhaus himself it is hard to think of it without him. For what it's worth, I hope the attempt isn't made to mimic Neuhaus. Whoever takes it over could easily preserve the first part of the magazine intact, but put their own stamp on the back of the magazine.

For those who never became acquanted with Neuhaus, here is his article from the inaugural edition. It is a sort of declaration for what Neuhaus and his magazine stood for--and what many of his readers, like myself, believe about the relationship between Christianity, culture, and politics.

It is a tribute to Neuhaus's selflessness in the cause of truth that so many eulogies like this one focus on his works, rather than his person: that is the way, I am sure, he would have wanted it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Turfway Park already counting its bailout money

The gambling moguls in northern Kentucky are already counting their part of The Millionaires' Bailout, according to Pat Crowley at the Cincinnati Enquirer. Turfway, a horse track in northern Kentucky is rubbing its hands together on account of Greg Stumbo's HB-158, which would bring mechanized slots to the Kentucky horse tracks.
Turfway Park would build a $150 million free-standing casino if legislation allowing video gambling in Kentucky passes the state General Assembly this year.
Now we're just thinking out loud here, but where do poor, needy gambling moguls, who according to advocates of HB-158, are looking at having to sell their Armani suits and Italian shoes for food getting $150 million?

But at least The Millionaire's Bailout is giving these people some hope. And that's something.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

No one knows how much CATS costs, committee finds

Oh dear. While some of us were thinking that the problem with CATS was that it costs too much, all of a sudden we find out that that's not the problem. The problem is we don't know how much it costs. Turns out that our wonderful education bureaucrats have no idea how much the monstrous state education testing system is setting us back because of poor accounting.

All state auditors could determine is that it costs at least $18.6 million, a higher figure than has been reported before. But there is no way, given the state's poor accounting, to know the total cost of the tests because no figures are available to determine how much local school districts are spending, and amount that is likely to be very high.

"There isn't a mechanism to be able to determine the cost at the local level for the assessment testing," Brian Lykins, director of special audits in the auditor's office, told the Louisville Courier-Journal.

This comes at a bad time for supporters of the tests, since President of the Senate David Willliams has announced that he would like to see the test eliminated.

Stay tuned on this issue...

More global warming news: record low of -49 in Slovenia

And just when they had put their coats in long term storage because of global warming Slovenia experiences a record low temperature of -49 in Slovenia.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bailout for Millionaires on Lexington's Channel 27

My appearance on WKYT's evening news on the Millionaire's Bailout.

New slots bill a "bailout for millionaires"

LEXINGTON--A state anti-casino group announced its plans today to oppose House Bill 158, which would place computerized slot machines at the state's horse tracks. The proposed law, said, Martin Cothran, is both good news and bad news: "The bad news is, if it works, it would give money to wealthy people by taking it from not-so-wealthy people," said Martin Cothran. "The good news is it won't work."

"This bill is an economic bailout for millionaires," said Cothran. "But even so, with the gambling industry hit hard by the economic downturn, there is no way it can raise the amount of money its supporters claim it will--either for millionaires or state government."

Cothran, the new spokesman for Say No Casinos, said his group will highlight several things about the bill:

  • That it is a bailout for millionaires because it uses a form of gambling that attracts low-end gamblers and provides subsidies for high-end horse farmers
  • That it can't produce the revenue it promises because of a down economy that has affected the gambling industry worse than many other industries
  • This it is a retreat from the promise by gambling proponents to "Let the people decide," since, unlike previous attempts to expand gambling, it will only be voted on by lawmakers
The bill sponsor has said the money is to be used in part to bail out the horse industry. "Basically this would result in a transfer of wealth from those in lower income brackets to those in higher income brackets. We certainly support the horse industry, but we're having trouble figuring out why people who drop millions of dollars at horse auctions without batting an eyelash need a bailout."

The gambling industry itself has fallen on hard times and that many casinos are even having to fold. "The gambling industry has been hit harder than most businesses. To say that gambling is somehow going to yield up hundreds of millions of dollars in this economy is just not realistic."

Cothran added that many Kentuckians will be disappointed when they realize that all of the talk during last year's campaign for casinos about "letting the people decide" on the measure was for naught. "With the Millionaire's Bailout, the people will be taking a back seat to the high priced lobbyists."


Jake realizes his mistake--several months too late, and after we told him so

At the risk of provoking Jake to another threat a tergo, I notice he responded to Jefferson Poole who blogged my recent post about my repeated, but unheeded, advice to Jake about how not to read a leadership race, which Jake got completely wrong, claiming that Jody Richards easily had the votes to beat Greg Stumbo, when, in fact (and as I said) Stumbo had the votes to beat Richards.

Jake responds:
Oooh, yeah, politicking for a favored candidate means I’m the devil and should be run out of town.
Uh, no. Politicking for your favorite candidate has nothing to do with it. I believe getting the facts right was the issue.
Furthering anything related to hatemonger Martin Cothran puts Jefferson Poole in the same boat. Nice. May be prudent for a few homophobes to bother checking with me to see who lied to me and others about who they were supporting.
So Jake thinks the problem is that people lied to him. Excuse me, but isn't that EXACTLY WHAT I TOLD HIM AT THE TIME? Sure 'nuff. Not only did we check with you Jake, we told you exactly what the game was. Maybe you should listen to us "homophobes" every now and then. Might keep you out of trouble next time.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Alaska experiencing cold spell

Uh oh.  This just in from the Klondike:
Extreme temperatures ... call for extreme measures
in a [Alaskan] statewide cold snap so frigid that temperatures have grounded
planes, disabled cars, frozen water pipes and even canceled several
championship cross country ski races.

..."I've never seen it this cold for this long," [Ted Johnson] said. "I remember it 70 below one time, but not for a week and a half."

Alaskans are accustomed to subzero temperatures but the prolonged
conditions have folks wondering what's going on with winter less than a
month old.
Yeah, yeah, I know: this is just one instance among many.  Yes.  And so are all those little reports we're constantly hearing about how hot it is somewhere.  But somehow, what with all that grant money now out there driving the debate in one direction, we're doubtful that even if this turns out to be a very cold winter it is going to make any difference among the global warming alarmists.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

David Williams takes on CATS

I still haven't seen it yet, but on KET's "Kentucky Tonight," State Senate President David Williams apparently called for dumping CATS and changing math education. Williams voted for the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA), so he can't exactly be labeled a fire-breathing anti-KERAite. Good credentials for the person who takes on some of the excesses that still plague Kentucky schools as a result of what many of us at the time labeled a boondoggle.

KERA simply never has been able to live up to the hype which has always surrounded it. Has there been progress in Kentucky schools? Here and there. But, as Larry Forgy pointed out at the time (and he was one of the plaintiffs in the case that prompted the State Supreme Court's Rose decision), there were a lot of good things already afoot before KERA turned the state's schools upside down.

The question is whether Kentucky schools would have been better off without KERA. We'll never know the answer for sure, but it wouldn't be a hard case to make that the entire generation of children who were robbed of a decent education in basic skills by the now somewhat etiolated nongraded primary program were ill-served.

And then there was the preposterous attempt to teach math using "math essays," thanks to "math portfolios" in which students were not even allowed to write numerals, but were to spell out each number. And the ludicrous attempt to teach writing by preventing teachers from telling kids how to correct their mistakes, thanks to the writing portfolios. We could go on.

The chief role of CATS has been to hide from ourselves the consequences of this interminable educational silliness.

Williams faces an uphill fight since there are still people who have a political stake in propping up KERA. But surely there will come a time when the Fathers of the Kentucky Education Reform Act have died out, and more level-headed generation takes its place.

May that time come soon.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Letting experience teach Jake a lesson on how not to analyze a leadership race

Jake over at Page One Kentucky is saying mean things about me again--nay, even obscene things. But I will refrain from such indiscretions. I will simply offer a few observations about some things Jake said this past year. How about this one:
"Greg Stumbo is in for a rude awakening if he thinks he has enough votes to oust Jody Richards as Speaker of the House." --Jake, Page One, August 25, 2008
I pointed out to Jake at the time that Stumbo was going to beat Jody because Jody didn't know how to count votes. Jake didn't take the advice too well, lapsing, as he did today, into course vulgarities. But what do we hear people saying now? That Jody didn't know how to count votes. Jody even admits it now. How do I know this? Because it is on Jake's blog! Oh, the irony.

In fact, on August 27, in response to my constructive critique of his analysis, Jake responded:
Yo, Marty Cothran: No, Greg Stumbo doesn’t have the votes he needs. I’ve polled nearly every legislator in Kentucky. --Jake, Page One, August 27, 2008
He said he could "prove it"--that Jody had the votes, that is. To this I patiently responded, in a post called "How not to count votes," as follows:
He is still apparently under the impression that he's a better vote counter than Stumbo because he has gone around asking reps where they are on it and they're telling him they're not committed.

Well, let's just say the first thing a lobbyist learns (and I've been one for 17 years) is that you can't trust what a legislator tells you. You can't lie to them, but they can and will lie to you with impunity. Some day we'll give Jake a primer on how such things work. But for now, we're just going to let experience teach him a little lesson.
But Jake found some sand in which to bury his somewhat confused head: "Greg has at best 16 votes and he has openly admitted in the press that he knows he does not have the votes to win. So let’s deal with those facts, sweet cheeks..."

Ahem. We will ignore that last indiscreet reference and the ones that followed in his post and point out that the experience has happened. Jake got it ... how can we say this in a measured way? ... completely and utterly wrong.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look at a situation in which Jody Richards, who tells everyone else what they want to hear--and what he wants to believe, says he has a certain level of support, and in which Greg Stumbo, whose political abilities are beyond compare, say he has the same level of support and conclude that you should place your money on the latter. If Jody had 10, he'd say he had 20. If he had 20, he'd say he had 30. When Stumbo says he's got thirty, he's got thirty.

There's also the matter of how the two men operate. No one is scared of Jody. Everyone is scared of Stumbo. Lying to Jody and telling him you support him--and then not voting for him--costs you very little. Doing the same to Stumbo will result in a new office assignment--the broom closet down the hall--and banishment to the Plumbing Affairs Committee, the committee to which, after Stumbo is ensconced in his new position, all of the legislation you sponsor will be assigned. As one lobbyist put it, "Who would you rather not lie to?"

Now I'd probably better make it clear (again) that I was not supporting Stumbo in the race (nor was I supporting Jody)--a point which Jake seemed not to understand a month or two back. In fact, here I am, spokesman for Say No Casino, directly confronting the new Speaker on what could turn out to be the major issue of the 2009 session.

No, I was simply trying to administer a dose of reality to Page One, which bills itself as "an informed savvy take on Kentucky politics." But you would have thought I had suggested castor oil.

I'm now thinking maybe I should have.

New York Times buries the hatchet with Kentucky lawmaker

When New York Times reporter Ian Urbina came to Kentucky to do a story on State Rep. Tom Riner, the lawmaker responsible for the requirement that the state's Homeland Security office acknowledge that our ultimate safety is in God, he had in mind the standard story about the relationship between church and state.

Then he met Riner.

A baptist minister who looks at his inner city Louisville district as his ministry, Urbina walked in the doors of Riner's church--essentially the run-down house next door to his--and was introduced to the homeless men who that Riner has taken in. Some of them sleep in the basement. The quiet and unprepossessing Riner has picked them up off the street and taken them in.

Although there are vestiges of his original intent in Urbina's story--oversimplified remarks about the separation between church and state and State Rep. Kathy Stein's hard-edged criticism of Riner's legislative activity, Urbina clearly was affected by what he saw.

Take away the first paragraph, which doesn't really fit the rest of the article--and the cheeky final comment, and you have what amounts to a tribute.

Funny how that works.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Are sea ice levels making a comeback?

A key component of the case for global warming has been the allegedly dwindling volume of sea ice. But according to the University of Illinois's Arctic Climate Research Center, sea ice levels are now equal to those of 29 years ago, making a dramatic rebound over the last three months.

Whether this is part of a trend appears to be uncertain, but it does seem to fly in face of more hysterical claims that the polar ice cap would melt entirely.

Wonder if we'll see the mainstream media pick this up and run with it like they did with stories about those poor polar bears seen swimming out at sea unable, so the reports went, to find any ice.

Oh, and don't expect to see this is Al Gore's next movie.

Home schooling is becoming more commonplace

According to USA Today, the percentage of children being home schooled is rising.  What does it say about out public schools that people are so dissatisfied with what they are offering that parents are willing to basically take on the full time job of doing it themselves.

HT: Ignatius Insight

Greg Stumbo wins KY Speaker's race

Jake, are you there?

Obama is a smoker. Is this a good sign?

"I just learned that Obama is a smoker. Maybe this fellow is not as bad as I thought." --Clyde Wilson

Monday, January 05, 2009

Some great short stories

Joe Carter at the Confabulum has put together a short list of great short stories. He's got some good ones on there, but there are a few glaring omissions as well as some that I wouldn't expect anyone to think of, but that belong on any longer list of great short stories:

"The Whirligig of Life," O. Henry. How can one produce any list of short stories without the master of the genre?

"Pray Without Ceasing," Wendell Berry. Berry is still ignored on most short story lists; that won't last long. And, by the way, he has been churning out short stories over the last year or so, some of which have been published in various magazines and journals, all of which are now being collected for a new book.

"The Sire de Malatroit's Door," Robert Louis Stevenson. One of the few writers who could write a story about two strangers who fall in love over a two hour period and make it totally believable.

"Brothers are the Same," Beryl Markham. The author of the West With the Night also wrote several short stories which live up to the standard set by the book. This one is a masterpiece.

"Blackberry Winter," Robert Penn Warren. A haunting story by a great southern writer about the onset of the modern world.

"The Illiterate Spider," Billy C. Clark. The almost forgotten Kentucky author of The Song of the River was told when he went to the University of Kentucky (the only person in his town who ever went to college) by then department chair Guerney Norman (a great writer in his own right) that he was the best natural born story teller he had ever seen. Norman was right.

"The Bet," by Anton Chekhov. Another master of the genre.

"The Children's Story," by James Clavell. You'll never see this one anthologized because it was printed as a book--and made to appear like a children's book. The form in which is presented is essential to the presentation. It takes place over 23 minutes and shows how brainwashing can be accomplished subtlely and insidiously.

"The Lightening Rod Man," Herman Melville. A haunting evocative story.

"The Doomdorf Mystery," by Melville Davisson Post. Another masterpiece by a forgotten author.

"Barn Burning," William Faulkner. Faulkner. 'Nuff said.

And what about Washington Irving, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and Poe? These would have to be on any complete list. The short story doesn't get enough attention these days. Let's hope that changes.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Is the denial of Intelligent Design unscientific?

There are certain issues that seem to attract more readers than others on this blog. And looking at the posts from the past year, it is clear that the issue of Intelligent Design is one of them. Every time I post on this issue, hits to this blog go up. Now of course that isn't a sufficient reason to post about something. It may be the case that writing posts about Britney Spears might drive up traffic. But it just so happens that I am not interested in Britney Spears, whereas I am interested in the issue of Intelligent Design.

So why not start the year off with a bang?

I know the Darwinists get aggravated whenever I bring it up, but the question of the status of Intelligent Design as a scientific theory still fascinates me--largely because the whole question of where science ends and other disciplines such as philosophy begin is something I find fascinating.

Despite constant claims to the contrary by those who seem to like to shoot from the hip on what in the philosophy of science is called the "demarcation" question, I have professed repeatedly that I don't know whether Intelligent Design qualifies as science strictly speaking or not. But to further the discussion (or should we say "resume hostilities), I'll ask a question that came to mind the other day.

This has been said before in different ways, but, put very simply, if you say that the assertion that the universe as a whole or any particular part of it are intelligently designed is by necessity a non-scientific assertion, then have you not also committed yourself to saying that the opposite assertion--that the world or the things in it are not intelligently designed--is equally non-scientific?

If so, then what are the ramifications for Darwinism, since Darwinism necessarily involves the denial of the assertion of Intelligent Design?

In other words, if the question of whether the world is intelligently designed is a non-scientific question, then isn't any answer to the question--affirmative or negative--equally non-scientific? To put it another way, isn't a negative answer to a non-scientific question just as non-scientific as an affirmative answer to it? And if so, then what does that say, not only about the anti-Intelligent Design proclamations of some in the scientific community, but about the scientific status of Darwinism insofar as it is a denial of the Intelligent Design assertion?

What I mean by 'Darwinism'

As a prelude to some more posts on the issue of Intelligent Design, I thought I might address a question that has come up on this blog several times, which I have answered in bits and pieces, but never, I think, directly. It is the question of why I use the term 'Darwinism' rather than using the term many Darwinists prefer that I use: 'evolution.'

I use the term 'Darwinism' simply because it is more accurate. By Darwinism I mean the belief, not simply that the complex organic world as we know it evolved from simpler life forms (the definition of 'evolution'), but that that process can sufficiently be explained by completely natural processes--the two reigning explanations, as I understand it, being natural selection and modern genetic theory.

Darwinists themselves seem to use this term when they think the rest of us aren't looking, but they don't seem to want the term to be used publicly because it has acquired a somewhat pejorative sense. To that, all I can say is that that's not my problem.

The distinction is important because there are some of us who don't have any particular problem with evolution, but have their doubts about Darwinism.

Friday, January 02, 2009

What happens to those UAW dues that your tax money is now helping to subsidize

Michelle Malkin on the UAW's profligate ways:
Nero fiddled while Rome burned. The UAW golfed. While carmakers soak up $17 billion in taxpayer bailout funds and demand more for their ailing industry, United Auto Workers bosses have wasted tens of millions of their workers' dues on gold-plated resorts and rotten investments. The labor organization's money-losing golf compound is just the tip of the iceberg.
Read more here.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Economic Common Sense

You couldn't articulate economic common sense any more simply than this:
Governments cannot create but merely redirect. When the government spends, the money has to come from somewhere. If the government doesn't have a surplus, then it must come from taxes. If taxes don't go up, then it must come from increased borrowing. If lenders won't lend, then it must come from the printing press, which is where all these bailouts are headed. But each additional dollar printed diminishes the value of those already in circulation. Something cannot be effortlessly created from nothing.

Similarly, any jobs or other economic activity created by public-sector expansion merely comes at the expense of jobs lost in the private sector. And if the government chooses to save inefficient jobs in select private industries, more efficient jobs will be lost in others. As more factors of production come under government control, the more inefficient our entire economy becomes. Inefficiency lowers productivity, stifles competitiveness and lowers living standards.
Hat tip to Carpe Diem