A Smoother Pebble


(In order to understand what I'm yammering about: I left a comment on this post, replied to here. This is my rather disconnected reply. Bryan Norwood in bold, my comments in plaintype.)

First, my remarks weren’t so much addressed at the problem of the first cause, just at the idea that the order of the universe necessitates a creator god. I wouldn't say that progress in the physical and natural sciences contradicts the necessity of God, but I would say that science enables us to explain a great deal that, as Norwood notes, we would once have been unable to explain without appealing to God (angels pushing the planets around, Prometheus moulding humans out of clay, etc.).

A tribe of cavemen had no explanation for how the phenomena of the natural world could have arisen short of a creator, but science can explain not only how the world we see works but how it came to be as far back as the beginning of time. Of course, science doesn't explain everything: it leaves untouched questions like the origin of the universe itself or how space, time, indeed anything at all can exist.

'Could the concept of number even exist without some natural order to illustrate it? Can I have the idea of 2 without ever having 2 of something?'

Well yes, practically we do get our preliminary understanding of number through counting as children and our understanding of geometry through our apprehension of space, but maths isn’t just intuitive geometry and arithmetic. For several centuries now maths has gone beyond these to become totally abstract. We can’t intuit non-Euclidean geometries, but they are just as ‘valid’ as the Euclidean geometry that we can intuit. If we can only have the ‘idea’ of 2 because we have seen a pair of things in the past, how can we grasp the idea of a non-Riemannian manifold, a transfinite ordinal or a Hilbert space?

‘Secondly it seems strange to separate nature from mathematics when so much of mathematics finds itself in nature, whether it be architectural proportions or Fibonacci series.’

I wasn’t trying to 'separate' maths from nature; maths exists independently of nature and embeds itself in the universe due to the universe’s orderly nature. To take a basic example, pinecones and sunflowers don’t owe their Fibonacci structure to some divine artist’s signature.

‘It is correct that the free market is uncontrollable by any one individual, but this argument [i.e. that the market, as an example of spontaneous order, suggests that order could have arisen without God] fails as a parallel to a Godless universe. The argument falls prey to two important principles of causality.

First, the market arose as a contingent agent, not as a necessary one. That is to say, the market would not have come about and could not have come about unless the necessary agent, humans, existed. The market was created by organisms with freewill, and although it may have now attained some sort of psuedo-freewill, this is no way proves that an originating cause was not necessary.

Secondly, the market can never have more reality than its cause. It is the effect of humans. The market it is also still a dependent entity. If humans ceased to exist so would the market.Therefore this illustration turns out to support the necessity of a first cause of the universe.’

My comparison was a limited one, just intended to show in a restricted case how order need not be evidence of design. More broadly. I’d draw a distinction between the teleological argument which says ‘the fact that the universe exhibits order implies design, and therefore a creator’ and the argument from first cause - ‘the fact that the universe exists demands a prime cause, i.e. God.’

Full disclosure: I agree with Norwood about the necessity of God, I just don't find the teleological argument persuasive.

Castro Death Watch

For years Augusto Pinochet and Fidel Castro have been waiting to see the other’s coffin lowered into the ground. It now looks as though Pinochet will win the contest. Castro's impending death should be a cause of celebration: the fewer bloodstained dictators there are in the world, the better.

Castro is a tyrant who has murdered thousands. In Cuba there are no elections, no independent political parties, no independent media and no economic freedom. Cubans in Miami are already on the streets celebrating, but they could be in for a disappointment.

Even if Castro dies tomorrow, a free Cuba could still be distant. For instance when Kim Il Sung died in 1994, almost all outsiders thought that the regime would implode, but Kim Jong Il swiftly and seamlessly took power and is still going strong after a decade. Clever and ruthless, Kim had prepared for his father's death and spent years wiping out out all opposition to himself in the party hierarchy. We now have an analogous situation with Castro and his brother Raul. Castro doesn’t want his revolution to die with him and he and Raul have had decades to meticulously plan the succession.

The only scenario I can foresee for a quick transition to democracy is if some other apparatchik makes a try for the top job and launches a coup d’etat which leads to civil war and a U.S. invasion. But if Raul can establish himself, then nothing will have changed. The nightmare in North Korea over the past decade suggests that a doomed regime can hang on for a long time, there is a great deal of ruin in a nation. North Korea and Cuba must collapse eventually, but that might not be until half the population starves to death.

Gandhi in Gaza

In the war between Israel and Hezbollah, I am with Israel. Hezbollah stands for cruelty, atavism, fanaticism and tyranny. Hezbollah is the antithesis of all that is good and true. This is the barbarism that we have been fighting since 2001; Israel stands for civilisation and liberty.

Just think how rare, how fragile, how precious, how hard won is this civilisation that you and I have the luck to live in. Are you envious of lottery winners? You and I have already won a lottery with a much bigger jackpot. The couple of million dollars that separates you and me from a Powerball winner is nothing compared with the gap between us and most of mankind throughout history, even most of mankind today. Israel is one of the tiny number of societies that have climbed out of the primeval darkness and into the light. I’m not talking about mere wealth and the technological sophistication of a society here. Saudi Arabia is barbarous no matter how many satellite dishes and fast-food restaurants it has.

Reasonable people can differ over tactics and strategy, how far the Israelis should go in avoiding civilian casualties, whether their responses are ‘proportionate’ (yawn) or not. But if Hamas and Hezbollah are on one side, all reasonable people must be on the other.

Though I would criticise some Israeli actions, in the face of the Islamists I am pro-Israel by default. I suspect many others are as well. Islamist terrorist groups hurt the Palestinians, pushing many who could perhaps be more sympathetic to their cause to line up behind Israel. If the Palestinians desire peace there is an obvious solution.

Israel occupies Palestine because the Israelis believe their security requires it. The Palestinians have it in their power to end the forced evictions, checkpoints, roadblocks, collateral damage, all the undeniable hardships caused by the occupation. If the Palestinians were really interested in achieving a peaceful two-state solution rather than in destroying Israel, then they should adopt Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘passive resistance’ that he used in the 1930s and 40s against British rule in India.

If the Palestinians renounced terrorism and launched a massive campaign of strikes, civil disobedience, all the stunts that Gandhi pulled, then they could easily get Israel back to the 1967 borders. Instead of young men with suicide belts, AK-47s, Molotov cocktails and stones, people of all ages and both sexes chanting, singing, condemning all violence and not hitting back when arrested or beaten or water-cannoned.

Gandhi’s ‘passive resistance’ will not work against a government that executes dissidents and controls the news, as the opposition is exterminated before anyone knows it even exists. For example, when Gandhi and his followers lay in front of a British train, the train would stop. If the Jews had lain in front of a train driven by the Nazis, the train would have driven over the lot of them, then reversed back over.

Israel already labours beneath the condemnation of the EU, the UN and the chattering classes everywhere, while faced with an enemy as foul and merciless as a viper. If a ‘Palestinian Gandhi’ emerged, the international pressure to negotiate would become irresistible. Few Israelis ever wanted a Greater Israel, and most would embrace any prospect of a genuine peace.

The Palestinians have the luxury of facing a civilised, conscientious enemy, the only kind on whom Gandhi’s techniques can work. I think that the failure of the Palestinians to even try this ‘civil disobedience’ shows the Palestinians will be satisfied only when they have swept the Jews into the sea.