The Silliness of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

William Lane CraigScott Clifton has been having an longtime argument with William Lane Craig over the Kalam cosmological argument. Craig has basically made a whole career out of this argument. And it boggles my mind. Clifton has taken the argument on in great detail. And it shouldn’t come as any surprise that he has totally destroyed Craig’s argument. Of course Craig would never admit this. As much as I admire Craig’s abilities as an apologist, he is a true believer. Nothing can shake his faith and his blinders are so big that he can’t even see straight ahead.

The Kalam cosmological argument is pretty simple. Basically, it is that the universe must have a cause because everything in the universe has a cause. If that seems slippery, it should. Everything in the universe has a cause therefore the container of everything has a cause? That could be true. But it doesn’t follow deductively. Clifton distinguishes this as creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) and ex materia (out of existing material). But it really isn’t necessary to get technical about this stuff. Truthfully, it makes my brain hurt. And it doesn’t matter how carefully Clifton nails down the argument, Craig will never accept it.

Scott CliftonOf course Clifton knows this. He talks about how Craig works back from his conclusions. Craig starts with, “God exists.” And then he ends with any number of “assumptions” — including the idea that everything that starts to exist must have a creator. And this turns Craig into a very silly person, except for those who are as determined to believe Christianity as he is. One time, I saw a debate between Craig and Sam Harris on the question, Is God Good? Harris (who I don’t think that highly of regarding his intellect), totally destroyed Craig. But it didn’t matter, because Craig’s entire argument was, “If God does it, it must be good.” The fact that you could make the same argument for Satan or Hanuman doesn’t apparently bother Craig, because he knows he is the follower of the “right god.”

To me, the counter argument to Kalam is very simple. We humans are parochial. Our experience of the universe is constrained. That’s why relatively theory seems so strange to us. We aren’t in the habit of interacting with objects moving near the speed of light. To give you some idea of this, the New Horizons spacecraft was traveling at 35,000 mph — that’s just 0.005% of the speed of light. But at least that is us being parochial about things inside the universe. It’s a joke to think that our experiences inside the universe would provide us with any kind of intuitions about the way universes are created.

If you read much Christian apologetics, you will see that it is most clearly not an intellectually honest endeavor. But it isn’t even intended to convince nonbelievers. It is meant as a kind of pacifier for believers. It allows them to dismiss cogent arguments against their faith with a facile claim, “We too have intellectual-sounding arguments that prove that we are right.” This is the same thing that is going on in the intelligent design movement. The problem with it is that believers have mistaken it for truth and pushed it out into the wide world where it has been systematically dismantled.

Scott Clifton has done the same thing for Craig’s argument. I admire that. Unfortunately, I don’t have the patience to take clearly incoherent and disingenuous arguments seriously. The Kalam cosmological argument is not serious. On the other hand, it is an example of an issue that I care very much about: modern Christians really aren’t interested in ontology. Their theology is firmly rooted inside the universe. And that throws away the only part of religion that is interesting. Really what Craig is arguing is that the universe is inside some larger universe that he defines as God. And that is question begging. But why should he care as long as other true believers keep paying for his books and speeches so they can feel better about the avalanche of data pushing against their faith?

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Some Economists Don’t Think Try to Do Science

Paul RomerYou can boil my claim about mathiness down to two assertions:

  1. Economist N did X.
  2. X is wrong because it undermines the scientific method.

#1 is a positive assertion, a statement about “what is…” #2 is a normative assertion, a statement about “what ought…” As you would expect from an economist, the normative assertion in #2 is based on what I thought would be a shared premise: that the scientific method is a better way to determine what is true about economic activity than any alternative method, and that knowing what is true is valuable.

In conversations with economists who are sympathetic to the freshwater economists I singled out for criticism in my AEA paper on mathiness, it has become clear that freshwater economists do not share this premise. What I did not anticipate was their assertion that economists do not follow the scientific method, so it is not realistic or relevant to make normative statements of the form “we ought to behave like scientists.”

—Paul Romer
Freshwater Feedback on Mathiness

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Media Dysfunction in the UK — It’s Not Just US!

Jeremy CorbynI’ve been fascinated to watch the campaign for the British Labour Party leadership. It is both cheering and depressing. On the cheering side: politics in the UK are just as screwed up as they are here. On the depressing side: politics in the UK are just as screwed up as they are here. Last Friday, Simon Wren-Lewis wrote, Corbyn’s Popularity and Relativistic Politics. The big thing in this election is that the establishment types think that Labour should pick Liz Kendall. That’s because she’s a neoliberal. The establishment always wants the choice limited to: “privatize everything” and “privatize almost everything.”

The problem is that the actual people in the Labour Party prefer Jeremy Corbyn — an old school leftist. The fact that he is doing well should not come as a surprised. After all, if voters were conservative, they would join the Conservative Party. But what’s fascinating is the advice that if Labour wants to be competitive, it must run screaming to the right. Remember: this is a parliamentary system. Different smaller parties merge to form governing coalitions. So it isn’t necessary to go with the “lesser evil” the way it is in our system. Of course, the Conservative Party now has a single party majority in parliament — one they got despite winning only about a third of the vote. The UK system is far from perfect.

Liz KendallBut it seems clear to me that the Labour Party’s constant movement to the right has not worked out too well for it. That really shouldn’t come as a surprise. What I’ve seen in this country is that as the Democratic Party moves further and further to the right on economic and military issues, it doesn’t actually get any creative for it. People in general still think that the Republicans are better on the budget and “security” than the Democrats — all evidence to the contrary. So are the voters of the UK really going to reward the Labour Party if it becomes Conservative Party Lite? I don’t think so.

The claim is that it is all about competitiveness. Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb recently wrote, Project Fear Versus Corbyn. He pointed out that there had long been this pretense among pundits that the Conservatives weren’t afraid of Corbyn; they were actually afraid of Kendall. It’s ridiculous, but it is the kind of thing that we see here all the time. Somehow the Republicans are never afraid of Democrats who might actually challenge them, but are instead afraid of some milquetoast centrist. Well, now that Corbyn is ahead in the polls, the establishment is freaking out, “Corbyn supporters are either simple-minded, tribal thugs from the paleolithic era, or hysterics who think with their emotions and hormones, or sun-stroked hippies who think of little but rainbows and fluffy wuffy clouds.”

It all reminds me of what Noam Chomsky said in The Common Good:

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

That’s what’s really going on. The establishment exists to limit debate. And there are good aspects to this. I’m certainly glad that we don’t constantly have to relitigate slavery. But the conventional wisdom is so often wrong on more mundane topics, that its very harmful. I can well see people a hundred years from now asking, “The evidence was overwhelming that they lived in an oligarchy where people were trapped at the economic level they were born; why didn’t they see that?” I think we know why: it is very helpful to certain powerful people who control the discussion. Don’t listen to them.

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Republicans Never Believe What They Claim

Republican LiesI just watched the first Republican presidential “forum.” It was incredibly painful because it was just an excuse for all the candidates to come by and spout their talking points. I’m all for a non-combative environment where politicians can talk about their policies. But there was literally none of that. It was all posturing. By far, the most serious person at the “forum” was Rick Santorum. And this kind of thing always makes me think just how far the Republican Party has sunk. But I’m thinking back to the 1950s. Because I’m not at all sure that the Republican Party has gotten worse in my lifetime.

Paul Krugman recently wrote, Cap and Trade and Polarization. In it, he counter the idea that the two parties have been symmetrical in their extremism. And he pointed out that Republicans were originally for ideas like cap and trade and what would eventually become Obamacare. But Jonathan Chait has addressed this regarding Obamacare, The Heritage Uncertainty Principle. That’s the idea that Republicans are only in favor of healthcare reform if the plan is unrealistic. The moment that it becomes possible legislation, it is, “Socialism! Socialism, I tell you!”

But that’s clearly the case with just about everything for the last 50 years. In 1961, Reagan was saying that Medicare would be the end of freedom in America. Today, Medicare is pretty much untouchable. But there is no doubt that if it came up for a vote today, the Republicans would never vote for it. But that’s actually the opposite of the Heritage Uncertainty Principle. In general, what goes on is that Republicans pretend to be for some centrist policy, only to turn against it when it becomes reality. The Heritage proposal came out in 1993. The only reason it came out was to counter the more liberal Clinton healthcare reform. And the only reason the Republicans were for cap and trade was to counter more direct forms for environmental regulation.

So at least for 30 years, Republicans have brought up proposals that they had no intention of ever supporting — only as a way of destroying more liberal policies. Obamacare itself is a great conservative victory. That’s not because it is a conservative law. It is fairly liberal. But it is not as liberal as it would have been if there hadn’t been an alternative around. The fact is that our healthcare system could not continue on as it had been. We were going to get something one way or another. And the Republicans managed to stop us from getting a single payer healthcare system.

Scott Lemieux wrote a very interesting article over at The Week, John Roberts Has Been Trying to Gut the Voting Rights Act for Decades. It is about how the Republican Party has had an explicit policy to not counter the Voting Rights Act in the legislature. It’s too politically hot. But at the executive and judicial levels, they have been trying to destroy it. This goes right along with what I’m talking about: the Republicans know that their ideas are toxic.

And the whole thing reminds me of something some blogger said a while back about how exhausting it was to be a Republican, because he always had to pretend to believe something that he really didn’t. This was well on display at the “forum.” We heard lots of stuff about helping the middle class. But the ideas were all the same things that they always want to do. Somehow, we are supposed to believe that they want to cut the taxes of the rich because it will provide good jobs for the rest of society. Or we have to repeal Obamacare so that Americans will have the “choice” to go without insurance.

It’s really pathetic. Republicans always get about half of the votes in any election in this country. But they don’t care a lick about the vast majority of Americans. They lie again and again. And they get caught again and again. But it doesn’t matter. There is no accountability.

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Anniversary Post: Department of Energy — Oops!

Rick PerryOn this day in 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the legislation that created the United States Department of Energy. It’s primary focus is on nuclear power — both for energy and military uses. But it also does a little environmental work. In general, conservatives don’t like it. I think it is as simple as this: as an organization, it is focused on safety. And conservatives like to think of themselves as the romantic heroes of westerns who never have to plan and can figure out a solution at the last minute.

In 2012, Rick Perry was responsible for the best moment of the presidential campaign. He said, “Let me tell you, it’s three agencies that are gone when I get there. Commerce, Education, and the um, what’s the third one there?” After some proctoring from his fellow debaters, he admitted that he couldn’t remember it. Then he said, “Oops!” That was actually pretty charming, if you ask me. But his advisers — who must have been going crazy while watching the debate — explained that the third thing was the Department of Energy.

I suspect that the real reason that Perry couldn’t remember Energy is because he’s not clear on why he wants to get rid of it. People have a vague idea that it is focused on the environment. I’ve even heard people wonder why we need the Department of Energy when we have the EPA. The truth is that Energy is much more a department that conservatives ought to support. It is, after all, the department that monitors all our existing nuclear weapons and makes sure that they are in proper working order. We don’t want to get in World War III with Russia without the Department of Energy doing its job!

What the whole thing shows is that the modern Republican Party is all about rhetoric. They want to get rid of this or that — not because they don’t like what it does, but rather because it sounds good. The Republican Party isn’t just post-policy — it is post governing. And I really fear that sometime soon — perhaps in a year and a half — we will have some idiot in the White House who does things because it makes him look tough. But then, I guess we’ve already been through that — one, twice, three times.

But happy anniversary Department of Energy!

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Morning Music: Viva Las Vegas

Viva Las VegasWhen I was a kid, I didn’t like Disco music. But I didn’t get it. I didn’t realize that it was one of those wonderful art forms where it is just an inside joke that even most of its practitioners didn’t realize it. But really: “Disco Inferno”? That’s high comedy and brilliant music! The Elvis films and the music that went along with them definitely fall into this category. How could they not? They were all produced by sophisticated professionals. They knew that they were doing: pandering. And they had fun doing it.

One of the three films that Elvis starred in in 1964 was, Viva Las Vegas. In it, Elvis plays Lucky Jackson. He’s come to Las Vegas to enter a auto race. But he needs to replace his car’s engine. So he enters a talent show to get the money. And here he is singing the title song by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. (Factoid: both of them died of cancer in 1991.) It’s pretty great. But you may prefer the Dead Kennedys version.


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Live Blogging the Voters First Forum

Republican Debates

Welcome to the first debate for the Republican presidential nomination! It is the “Voters First Forum” put on by the New Hampshire Union Leader and hosted by Jack Heath of WGIR-AM Radio in Manchester, New Hampshire. But it isn’t on the television machine. You will have to go over to C-SPAN to watch it. Luckily, I’ve provided you with this handy link: 2016 Republican Candidates Voters First Forum.

Sadly, Donald Trump will not be taking part. And Mike Huckabee had a prior engagement to drown some kittens. But 14 of the others will be: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, and Scott Walker.

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Jimmy Carter on Citizens United

Jimmy CarterIt violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and US senators and congressmembers. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over… The incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. Somebody’s who’s already in Congress has a lot more to sell to an avid contributor than somebody’s who’s just a challenger.

—Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter: The US Is an “Oligarchy With Unlimited Political Bribery”


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Economic Mobility and the Genetics Myth

Economic MobilityLast week, I published a quote from an academic paper, Poor Little Rich Kids? The Determinants of the Intergenerational Transmission of Wealth. The researchers looked at the economic standing of adopted children and compared it to that of their adopted parents. The reason they did this was to take genetics out of the equation. A normal thing that apologists for economic inequality claim is, “Of course the children of the rich are also rich; they are smarter and harder working…” The fact that this line of reasoning has a very strong connection to racist arguments over the centuries is generally ignored in polite debate. But if that’s the truth — if it is all about genetics — then adopted children of the rich should not end up rich.

What the researchers found was that environmental factors were far greater than any genetic factors. And this was true before looking at inheritance. It’s even more after inheritance. But the factors of wealth — like not growing up in a stressful environment, having enough to eat, getting a good education — have a huge effect on the children. So it isn’t genetics. And we really need to get past this idea. Like I noted before, it is ultimately a racist argument that one could have heard coming from any eugenicist a hundred years ago.

Given this background, an article by Anne Kim at Washington Monthly has a very big punch, The Myth of Mobility. It summarizes a paper by two Stanford researcher, Pablo Mitnik and David Grusky. They looked at the income of parents back in the late 1980s — when the children were in their late teens. Then they compared these data with the income of the children 20 years later. Their conclusion: “children raised in low-income families will probably have very low incomes as adults, while children raised in high-income families can anticipate very high incomes as adults.” Welcome to the American dream!

Of course, many other people who have looked at the data have found the same thing. And it goes along with our intuitions. The people you went to high school with are doing about as well as you are. You probably work with the kind of people you went to school with. If you grew up poor, you probably aren’t working with many people who grew up rich. And vise versa. In fact, the way our society works is so well known that it is surprising that people even study it. I’m glad they do, of course.

But studies won’t matter. Conservatives are dedicated to maintaining the status quo — as though the way things are is the way that God intended them to be. (It isn’t surprising that modern conservatives are overwhelmingly believers in one of the Abrahamic religions.) The idea that the current ordering of society is more or less random would destroy their view of the world. And they aren’t going to give that up without a major fight. But that’s why I think we need to really focus on the genetics issue. Because no level of inequality is bad if it is the case that the winners are simply that much better than the losers. If Mitt Romney really is 400 times as smart and 400 times as hard working as the average person, then maybe he does deserve to make 400 times as much as the rest of us. But we know that isn’t true. And we have actual data to prove it. Conservatives can ignore it, if they wish. But we should be shoving it in their faces at every opportunity.

Update (2 August 2015 3:52 pm)

That’s right: an update that is before the publication date. I’m three days of publishing ahead. But in the meantime, Mark Thoma came out with a blog post that combined the same two articles. So damn him to hell!

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Harder and Harder to Support Israel

Ali Dawabsheh FuneralI’ve never understood the outrage that erupted over Helen Thomas’ comments about Palestine. That’s not exactly surprising, because I’ve never understood a lot of thing that people get outraged about. I think there is a lot of outrage for its own sake: people wanting to feel outraged so they purposefully misinterpret statements. When asked where the Jewish immigrants to the occupied lands should got, she said back to Russia or wherever they had come from. I think most people took this as some kind of reference to World War II or something. But I’m pretty sure she was referring to the Israeli government’s policy to push recent immigrants into these areas.

At this point, I have to admit to not being sure where I stand on Israel. I greatly admire Max Blumenthal, but I also think he’s a tad naive to think that just because Jews are doing so well in America that there is no need for Israel as a Jewish state. I have no problem at all believing that in ten or twenty years the conservative Christians could turn against American Jews. It could become as uncomfortable a place for Jews as it is for Muslims. So I think that I am still broadly supportive of Zionism.

But I don’t see why Zionism has to involve the oppression of Palestine. What’s more: this isn’t a fair fight. Israel has almost all of the power. So the fact that there hasn’t been a two state solution is because of one thing and one thing only: Israel doesn’t want it. But of course, it keeps a pretense up about it. And here in the United States, it is accepted. The same apologetics for racism here is applied to it there: if only the Palestinians were twice as good, then there would be a deal.

I read a heartbreaking story over the weekend, Ali Dawabsheh Was Killed Too Soon. It’s about an act of terrorism committed by Israeli settlers in the West Bank. They set fire to a Palestinian home, resulting in the death of Ali Dawabsheh, an 18-month old boy. Now, of course, everyone is outraged. And obviously, this does not speak to the way that “Jews are” any more than rocket attacks out of Palestine speaks to the way that “Palestinians are.” Just the same, it isn’t getting much coverage in the United States. We have narratives here! Palestinians are terrorists, not Israelis! And Israel is an Ally™. So that’s that.

Over at Vox, Max Fisher wrote, The Murder of Ali Dawabsheh Is a Direct and Predictable Consequence of Israel’s Occupation. He pointed out in his article, it doesn’t much matter that that Israeli government has condemned this attack without reservation. Its policies make this kind of thing inevitable, “Israel’s occupation of the West Bank empowers and abets settler extremists, who have been increasingly violent for years.” To put it bluntly, Israel hates such acts, but not enough to halt its expansion project into the West Bank.

The more I learn about the situation in Palestine, the worse it gets. Yes, the terrorists firing missiles into Israel are horrible. But they are also largely impotent. And the Israeli government is anything but. And so much that it does is designed to make the situation worse. Eventually, I can see myself getting to the point where I say, “Yes, the global Jewish community needs its own place where it can be safe; but just look at what they’ve done with it; it just isn’t worth it.” And I think younger people — like Max Blumenthal — are already there. If I were running Israel, I’d be really worried about that.

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Morning Music: Do the Clam

A Fuller Life - Dolores FullerI promised silly Elvis this week, and I doubt I will be able to top “Do the Clam” from Girl Happy. The song was written by the songwriting team Sid Wayne and Ben Weisman along with Dolores Fuller. You may know her, because I’ve written about her, Why Sarah Jessica Parker is a Bitch. Fuller was Ed Wood’s girlfriend and collaborator in the early days of his career.

Fuller wrote a number of songs for Elvis, starting in 1961 with “Rock-A-Hula Baby” off Blue Hawaii. She wrote for a number of other people, including Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee.

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Anniversary Post: Harvard–Yale Regatta

Harvard–Yale RegattaOn this day in 1852, the first Harvard–Yale Regatta took place. I know: who cares?! I certainly don’t, except for one thing: it was the first intercollegiate sporting event in American history. And I think that’s bad. I know that part of the idea behind sports was to make colleges less insular. The idea isn’t bad: colleges getting together to do things. But the least of the problems at colleges is that people at Harvard don’t interact enough with people at Yale.

The problem is that sports became too big a deal. In fact, for the most part, college athletics now makes students more constrained. But even if the Harvard-Yale Regatta did bring students together, it would just create a different kind of elitism. You may have read about Ted Cruz, “As a law student at Harvard, he refused to study with anyone who hadn’t been an undergrad at Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.”

When I was college age, I was extremely naive. I thought that all that really mattered was that you were bright and hardworking. That really isn’t the way the world works. But I doubt that I would recommend that a young person go to Harvard or Yale. They really are filled with the worst people on the planet. They’re committing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But that’s true of the University of Pennsylvania too.

Happy anniversary American intercollegiate sports. Even truly horrible things deserve to be remembered.

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