Saturday, October 25, 2008

Boondoggle to Mars

Why sending humans to Mars is a bad idea.

In an ironic continuation of its general war on science, the Bush administration proclaimed the goal of sending humans to Mars. A speech, a press release, and then nothing more was heard, doubtless because no one took the president seriously as a second coming of JFK, and also because the novelty of space adventure has, to some degree, worn off. Nothing more was heard, yet NASA has been squirrelling away on the plan anyhow, chopping budgets to real science missions in order to plan human missions to the Moon and Mars.

As a Star Trek fan and generally pro-science person who still draws inspiration from the Apollo Moon landings, I might be expected to support these goals. But the devil is truly in the details. The fact is that going to Mars turns out to be incredibly dangerous to the point of being essentially impossible, and thus also bound to be astronomically expensive even to attempt. And all this is to accomplish goals that we are already meeting via robotic exploration on Mars.

The dangers of sending humans to Mars are legion. First is the distance. The moon takes a few days to get to, but Mars takes over eight months. These are months the crew would have to exist in highly cramped conditions, taking care to not damage their tenuous vessel and losing bone and muscle strength all the time. After the same time coming back, humans would be in pretty rough shape on returning to Earth. The probability of accidents and catastrophe will mount to very high levels. More important is the fuel needed. The truly stupendous Saturn V was needed to loft the moon crafts, and far more will be needed just to get to Mars. Mars has 2.3 times the gravity of the Moon, so far more fuel would be needed both to arrest descent to, and to lift off from Mars. Mars has negligible atmosphere, especially oxygen, so huge amounts of supplies, including oxygen, would need to be brought along as well.

All these issues are probably surmountable. What may not be surmountable are radiation exposure issues. On earth we live in the cocoon of Earth's magnetosphere and under a heavy blanket of atmosphere, both of which protect us from intense cosmic and solar high-energy radiation. The Apollo astronauts, specially scheduled to avoid solar flares, were exposed to doses from 1X to 10X the yearly occupational allowed exposure (0.1 rads) in a matter of days. Extending that to the year plus involved in going to and existing on Mars yields exposures that are not only damaging, but possibly fatal (hundreds of rads). And shielding them with water, lead, or similar materials, is essentially impossible, due to obvious weight constraints.

To back up, one might ask.. what is the point of this exercise anyway? We are already mounting quite successful missions to Mars, thank you very much, with robots that have spent years trolling around the Martian landscape, sampling materials, snapping photos, and doing spectroscopic analysis. After a few more generations of rovers, it will be literally impossible to imagine anything they can't do that humans on the spot could.

Clearly scientific discovery and analysis is not the reason. What is the real reason? It is psychological- the adventure of it, to voyage far and wide, to spread our seed, plant our flag, and embody the archetype of the star-man, heavens-transcending, god-touching hero (e.g. Dave Bowman). The spiritual power of this adventure was greatest the first time at the climax of Apollo 11, and met with diminishing returns since then, petering out even by the end of the Apollo program. Turning back to Mars, a popular science fiction series paints our colonization of Mars in gritty but glowing terms, progressing from Red Mars to Green, and lastly to Blue. Adventure, derring-do, and spirituality were revolutionary reasons to go to the Moon, but less compelling reasons to go to Mars, now that we have seen the beauties and incredible harshness of all the planets, including Mars, up close.

Another reason may be the continuation of NASA's manned flight program. The excitement of space flight has been ebbing for years, coming to a sad end in the virtually pointless International Space Station, which might soon be held hostage by Russia- the only country with the wherewithal to get there. The station has no scientific rationale other than the study of the effects of space on humans- its other rationales of materials science, quirky biology, etc. are clearly not enough to interest any serious companies or academics, and thus the station has always been a solution in search of a question. The NASA manned program appears to spend more time inspiring elementary school students to do science and become astronauts than in actually doing serious or useful science. Recently, it has taken to hosting tourists on the space station. Its missions have become a circus of happy talk and kumbaya in space, at least when shuttles are not blowing up. The manned program is frankly a mess, and its only productive use has been to service the Hubble telescope, which, as another robot in space, has been a scientific as well as cultural gem.

The recent shuttle disasters were both ascribed in large part to a problematic culture at NASA, one which valued cheerleading over science, and public relations over truth. The manned program was always a PR program first and foremost, but has by this point become a inertial bureaucracy in symbiosis with its contractors that feeds on (and feeds) the public's faded romance with space dating from the Apollo program, without having a larger purpose, whether scientific, geostrategic, or even aesthetic.

We already go far beyond Earth by way of robots, which need no air, food, or other life support. And robots are critical to our future here on earth as well. Robotics and virtual reality are the technologies of the future, enabling us to learn, work, and play in remote locations, to telecommute, raise productivity, energy efficiency, and living standards. That is where money should be invested, and how we should be voyaging to phenomenally hazardous locations (or even across town). NASA should embrace this future of robotics and human extension with vigor, and not keep flogging past glories of top-gun derring-do.

The fact is that space is never going to be a good place for humans. Our fantasies of living on the moon and other planets, let alone colonizing them, are pure fiction. If we are already having problems living within our means on the Earth which is such a rich source of life-giving energy, food, and air, imagine how difficult it would be to live elsewhere with infinitely thinner means.

The Apollo program taught us one thing in the end, which is the Earth is unbelievably precious and life-giving. But it will not be for long if we continue to treat it as a way-station to the stars- as a home to be transcended and left behind rather than one to be nurtured and loved forever.

Union, Si!

A quick link for the Employee Free Choice Act

I do not usually post quick links, but this is irresistible. I got an email from the union SEIU to sign a petition for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), but without much information. So naturally I went to an opposing site (EFCAexposed) to see what they had to say.

The interview they post on their front page is amazing- it plays into every stereotype of plutocracy. A bejoweled, bechinned, and bespoke lobbyist (CEO of the organization, Donald Wilson), seated in a wing-backed leather chair issues a call to arms to the "management community", exuding despair, victimization, and frank fear in face of the onrushing whirlwind that is the Obama presidency and Democratic gains in the Senate.

Crucially, he also lays out the provisions of the EFCA in a very articulate way, such that anyone can judge its merits. And I have to say, he convinced me that its merits are quite positive.

1. Allow unions to represent workers without an election if over 50% of location workers sign a union card.

2. Set a brutally efficient contract negotiation timeline, with 10 days warning, 90 days to negotiate, 30 days for federal mediation, and then off to binding arbitration, though the nature of this arbitration is unclear.

3. Add punitive damages for unfair labor practice penalties, to current compensation penalties.

4. (possible, not in the bill yet) Add prohibitions on strike-breaking.

As the man says, this would shift power from management to unions. But at the same time, the bill introduces new efficiencies in union elections, negotiations, and legal remediation that should also help business in some ways by reducing time and effort spent temporizing, stalling, and generally dicking around with unions, which is destructive to all sides.

After these decades of union decline, and concomitant disempowerment of the working class, it is time to right the ship, and it is clear that this act will be a significant corrective (assuming that arbitration is done impartially). Will increased unionization send more jobs overseas? Yes, but far fewer than it will improve here at home. A future focus on extending union rights in international trade agreements will help level this playing field as well. The overall point remains how best to remediate the imbalance of wealth in the US, which is caused by the natural operations of the free market (and also in part by the class warfare of the last eight plus years, where the wealthy have run Washington towards corruption and inequality). Making the tax code more progressive again, retaining and increasing the "death tax", increasing public stakes in services like health care and education, and helping unions are all effective routes to this end.

(See book on supercapitalism by Robert Reich).

Incidentally, similar arguments also revolve around immigration. The "management community" supports unlimited unskilled immigration, which naturally lowers prices in the unskilled labor market in the US. Employers all the way up the skill ladder are happy to increase their power vs labor by increasing labor supply through immigration, especially of immigrants who can be treated as serfs. Restoring balance in this power struggle involves limiting immigration to sustainable levels, enforcing workplace and wage laws for all US workers, mandating higher minimum wages, and again, encouraging other countries to raise their working standards through our trade deals with them. Oh, and it also means not destroying the rural economy of Mexico by dumping our subsidized corn on them.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Holy gibberish!

A review of "Naturalism" by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro

A theist friend recommended this book as a corrective to my anti-theistic enlightenment philosophy, also termed naturalism. "... this book, in my view, completely exposes and reveals how a materialistic world-view undermines and destroys the very possibility of reason." The book is part of a series called "Interventions", in the sense of classic theistic apologia, intervening to help believers fend off skepticism and doubt. The authors are philosophers and evidently aspiring theologians at small colleges, and the blurbs on the back likewise praise the book with statements like "Anglo-Saxon naturalists are not rationalist but ... are, in fact, the enemies of reason ..." and "Patiently, gently, but in the end decisively, Goetz and Taliaferro demolish the dogmas of naturalism." and "In a day when theologians and Christian leaders feel bullied by scientific naturalism, this book is a must-read."

Very well- this presents a most compelling challenge! The book has only 122 pages in five chapters which introduce naturalism and then attack it in various ways. Their definition of naturalism is perfectly adequate: "... the philosophy that everything that exists is a part of nature and that there is no reality beyond or outside of nature." The authors concentrate on one of its more immediate aspects- the mystery of consciousness, or in theistic terms, the soul. Far from exploring the current scientific status of consciousness, however, they delve right into why it might be reasonable to think we have a soul, where it is, how large it is, how it interacts with our bodies, and similar headscratchers. It is in essence a defense of vitalism a mere century or two after its overthrow. Thus much of the book feels like a time machine, sending the reader back some 400 years to a time when scholastics racked their brains with such questions. Here is a sampling:

"Hence, it does not seem the least bit implausible to say that a soul's thinking, choosing, experiencing pain, etc., are explainable in terms of its having the power to think and choose and exercising them, and its having the capacity to experience pain and its being actualized." (p.69).

"In response, Sosa might claim that no Cartesian who (for the reasons cited in the previous paragraph) thinks he is a nonspatial entity can reasonably believe that he causally interacts with a certain physical body, without also having a knowledge of a noncausal pairing relation in which he stands to that body and that makes it causally accessible to him. It seems to us, however, that such a claim is not more obvious than the nonobvious claim that a spatial relation is a necessary condition of causal interaction between two entities." (p.64).

"We believe that Sosa's account of causation is largely mistaken. Just as a spatial relation is not the individuating principle of the substantial objects that are its terms, but those objects are intrinsically individuated, so also a spatial relation is not the individuating principle of the relevant causal properties possessed by the terms of the causal relation, but these are individuated intrinsically and possessed essentially by their bearers. Given the causal ontology summarized in the previous section, a causal relation obtains or is primarily a function of the causal power and capacity of the agent and patient objects respectively." (p.59).

As English and as logic, this is utter gibberish. These arguments occupy all of chapter three and good portions of the rest of the book. Their very incoherence is a sure sign of their content- that the authors, and indeed all their predecessors in theology, have no idea how to analyze supernaturalism except through dogma. At least Descartes had the rigor to propose the pineal gland as the locus of mind-brain interaction.

The authors are capable of some lucidity, however, such as in the last chapter, titled "The argument from reason". Here, they articulately set up a straw man- that naturalists do not believe in mental contents. Thus any idea that naturalists might have is self-refuting, because ideas are mental contents! It is hard to express how infantile this argument is. There have been precious few thinkers of any stripe who have rejected mental contents entirely. Even B. F. Skinner, the leader of extreme 1950's behaviorism which discounted mental events for experimental convenience, did not discount them theoretically. And contemporary neuroscience is finally gaining access to exactly the mental contents that have previously been so elusive, via fMRI scanners and the like. These methods continue to plumb the causal relations between our thoughts, which the authors would have us believe have no cause that can be traced in material reality. The point of naturalism with regard to consciousness is, then, not that mental contents do not exist, but that they are identical with physical events that are possible (in principle, and increasingly in practice) to observe from the outside.

This last chapter begins:

"As we explained in the introduction, our ordinary view of ourselves includes the idea that we ultimately explain our undetermined choices in terms of purposes. In other words, according to our ordinary understanding of ourselves, our choices have ultimate and irreducible teleological explanations." (p.117)

This is a fair synopsis of the entire book, primarily concerned as it is with consciousness, and with the naturalistic dismissal of the theory of "soul" as a putative explanation. It is a rich sentence indeed. First, note the word "irreducible", which means not capable of being reduced or analyzed by way of the reductionist program of normal science (as well as being a faint shout-out to the intelligent design movement). Claiming that something is irreducible is like claiming that something (say, evolution) is inexplicable by natural mechanisms. It is merely an argument from ignorance, since once the phenomenon IS explained and reduced by someone not overly impressed with the word "irreducible", then suddenly it is reducible after all. This has happened with chemistry, with the vitalist theory of life, with electricity, with disease, and countless other phenomena including, famously, evolution.

Secondly, note the obeisance to "ordinary understanding", which is often mentioned as the author's touchstone. This is exactly what science and reason labors to improve upon. If we were to take ordinary understanding for our guide to understanding anything, be it the Earth's movement, the sun's power source, or the secret of heredity, we should be in a sorry and benighted state indeed. The exact same is true of the study of consciousness- a problem that all agree is as yet unsolved, but which has important logical bounds as well as an active program of research that will doubtless within the next few decades bear a great deal of fruit (see Buzsaki for the most promising current approach to this question). For instance, the conservation laws of physics, rather painstakingly arrived at by way of theory and decades of observation to the umpteenth decimal place, support what the authors term "causal closure" and rule out interactions between reality and un-reality, which the authors smoothly call "interactions between entities".

Also, the randomness of the quantum world is just as random as the classical randomness of statistical mechanics, likewise ruling out a theistic thumb on the quantum scale, as briefly suggested by the authors. And, of course there is the physical evidence of complete coincidence between minds and brains- the direct effects that strokes, surgery, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and drugs have on both coincidentally. Indeed it is ironic that these authors choose to attack naturalism on this weakest of fronts, where research is rapidly closing in on detailed brain/mind mechanisms. It is a classic "god of the gaps" approach to theism that stands little chance of surviving the decade, let alone the century.

Thirdly, a focus on teleological explanations is another theme. The authors posit that our actions are ultimately explicable by our teleological "purposes" which are "undetermined". This is a simple failure to grapple with the details of how minds (or other real processes) work. Ever since Freud (and many more before him) it has been known that we are not the masters of our own house. Our purposes do not spring from nowhere, but have clear antecedents in our instincts, in data arriving from our senses, and in past decisions developed for past problems. Our minds are a roiling, rich bed of causes and effects, some of which are reported into consciousness as thoughts. When making a decision, do we operate in consciousness? No- we sleep on it, or we discuss it with others, or crunch the numbers on paper, or a solution just "pops" into our heads, or any number of other forms of thinking, none of which follow the ordinary intuition of pure purposive consciousness. What cognitive scientists have painstakingly realized is that far from being the locomotive of our cogitation, consciousness is the caboose, as detailed by Daniel Wegner in "The illusion of conscious will". Consciousness is indeed a near-magical phenomenon that creates an apparently seamless video/sensation of our subjective reality, complete with time-adjustments to appear as real-time. But it can easily be demonstrated, by sudden reflex actions, or by detailed analysis of the visual pathway, that thoughts enter consciousness after they have been generated elsewhere in the brain, without exception. That is also the lesson of brain scanning studies, where recently, researchers have been able to predict physical actions of subjects before they themselves were aware of their own decisions.

This fixation on teleology is actually another version of the argument from ignorance. One might just as well say that computers' prodigies of computation are explained by teleological purposes. Suppose a bank is balancing its books at the end of a week, and its computers work overnight to produce the necessary reconciliation and reports. We could say, following these authors, that the computers do their work out of a "purpose" to balance the books. But that would not even be an attempt at explaining how they do so. As with computers, so with brains, and just because the details of the brain's computations are currently not as accessible does not mean that there is no "how" to its operations (or that its purposes arise from magical exterior sources, instead of from its inputs and programs).

The book is not, however, solely a defense of the soul. It also touches on other highlights of theism, such as morals and straight theology, mentioning Richard Dawkins prominently as it goes along. Usually, the arguments arrive at their end by bare assertion, reminiscent of tracts by the Watchtower society:

"Second, what of Russell's claim that it is ridiculous to believe that the well-being or good of human beings could be the purpose for which God creates our world? We find nothing silly in the least about this idea. ... In the Christian Scriptures one finds writers like Saint Paul noting that the entire creation figuratively longs eagerly for the perfect happiness of human beings so that it too will be liberated from its decay and corruption." (p.101)

"Anselm of Canterbury and Ralph Cudworth (to pick two remote and otherwise quite different figures) held that god's cognition of the world and all its aspects did not require bodily organs." (p.112)

How this relates to reason or argument is not clear. But it is interesting to note what the authors make of the problem of morals and evil, which they take to be another Achilles' heel of naturalism.

"These values are surely shared by theists and naturalists, but in broad or strict naturalism it is not clear how one can establish normative values on the basis of processes that are ultimately thoroughly unconscious, nonnormative, and contingent in nature." (p.95)

"After science, we still need help deciding what to value; what is right and wrong, good and evil, how to behave as we cope. The end of life still lies in its meaning, the domain of religion and ethics." (p.92, quote from Rolston)

Why do values need to be normative at all? Theists desire normative values and authoritative meaning. They are uncomfortable with a world where meaning is up for grabs and morals a matter of reason (which is to say, a world where humans are free) (see articles by Jonathan Haidt). Their leaders want to preserve their franchise as authorities over both morals and meaning, as certified by special relations with the divine. But as pointed out by many, including a recent book by Susan Neiman (Moral clarity), it has been hundreds of years since intellectuals took such certification seriously. The history of human morals, both religious and otherwise, follows the same difficult path from the base and primitive to whatever heights of general concern and compassion that we currently espouse. This progress is testimony to human self-knowledge, imagination, and reason, which are the true ingredients of morals as we decide what would make a better world out of the one we have at hand. Religious thinkers and prophets have often advanced this work of imagining a better world, and we should be generous enough to credit their personal inspiration and dedication rather than the unnameable, unknowable, and incomprehensible phantasms whom they claim to front (by way of serious misunderstandings of their own psyches, incidentally).

Lastly, the cosmological argument is trotted out for sake of completeness:

"If naturalism accounts for events within the cosmos but cannot account for the cosmos itself, why not consider a worldview that explains the structure and being of the cosmos itself in a singular teleological reality?" (p.85)

Why not indeed? Because the proper reply to ignorance is knowledge, not fantasy. We deserve explanations that illuminate rather than enshroud in deeper obfuscation. After being led astray by intuition so many times, one would think that humanity has learned to demand higher standards for answers, especially to the "big questions".

For such a short book, "Naturalism" packs a truly awe-inspiring collection of incomprehensible, tortured, and just plain bad arguments. It is testament indeed to the power of naturalism to get such an inchoate response touted as a devastating critique.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Were the dinosaurs "lucky"?

A recent article in Science by Brusatte, Benton, Ruta and Lloyd proposes that dinosaurs may have been "lucky" in gaining dominance over their initial competitors, the crurotarsans, which are currently represented only by crocodilia. The setting is the late Triassic of 228 to 200 million years ago, beginning with the Carnian-Norian boundary and ending with the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction brought on (according to the most common theory) by a massive outpouring of lava during the breakup of Pangaea.

The crurotarsans went mostly extinct at the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, while many dinosaur groups did not, setting the stage for their diversification and dominance in the "the age of dinosaurs"- the Jurassic. The question is- what caused this differential survival? Were the dinosaurs continuously competing with and defeating the crurotarsans during the late Triassic, or did they just catch a lucky break during the boundary period?

The authors compile morphological series for lineages in each group during the late-Triassic interval, graphing out how they diversified and changed with time. Their conclusion is that "There is no clear evidence for differences in overall evolutionary rates between dinosaurs and crurotarsans during the Triassic as a whole." So, they propose that whatever the ecological competition between late crurotarsans and early dinosaurs, each held its own until the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, favoring the "lucky break" characterization. Indeed, the crurotarsans were more diverse and generally more abundant during this period, so they were not only holding their own, but thriving.

This closely resembles the debate about the later rise of mammals- were the dinosaurs losing diversity well before the end of the Jurassic, or were they fine right up until the asteroid impact at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary? Here increased sampling and better statistics have been important, demonstrating that what had previously been thought of as a gradual decline of dinosaurs going into the boundary might better be thought of as a statistical error attributable to having a continuous set of data truncated at zero at one boundary, which can show up in some trend averaging statistics as a downward curve into that boundary.

Be that as it may, the concept of a "lucky break" in evolution is problematic. I'm no expert, being more of a molecular biologist. But having battled and despaired through Steve Gould's magnum opus, I have some interest in how the language of the field works.

Firstly, luck can be a moral concept. Luck is something we didn't merit or work for- something that falls into our lap, good fortune. Bad luck is likewise something we did not deserve, meaning that we took reasonable foresight and lived a blameless existence, and still the storm destroyed our house. Luck comments on how our moral qualities of foresight and adherence to social norms stack up against eventual results, all of which has nothing to do with evolution. By this meaning, luck signifies some extra quality of deservedness by which success or failure are judged. Did the Dodo bird get its just deserts by being so trusting of humans, or was its demise simply bad luck? From an evolutionary perspective, success or failure are not judged by any other criterion- they are neither undeserved nor deserved, but occur as a matter of fact, not value.

Luck could be defined more objectively as beating the odds. If you win the lottery, you are lucky by definition. But that depends on knowing the odds, which is exactly what we do not know about the evolutionary crises of the past. It is inconceivable that the differential survival of dinosaurs versus crurotarsans was due entirely to random chance- where a comet hit, or who fell into a volcanic rift. There must have been relatively long-term climate conditions at play, such as extended extreme temperatures or years without sunlight, which caused the die-off. These are conditions that do not kill randomly, but kill those without the necessary traits (preadaptations) to weather extremely harsh conditions, (thermoregulation, hibernation, etc.). Just because we are ignorant of either the conditions or the adaptations at work does not justify using the term "luck".

The one thing we can say is that the dinosaurs had nothing to do with the occurrence of whatever caused the end-Triassic environmental crisis, and could thus be termed "lucky" in benefiting from this rare event. But the same can really be said of any condition that separates the fit from the unfit- some are lucky to have the traits they need to survive, and others are unlucky to not have them. It is all equally luck in this case, irrespective of how dramatic the events look to us in retrospect.

Switching to a better terminology, one might ask whether natural selection is more relevant to slow episodes of change where one group of organisms gradually encroach on ecological niches occupied by others, rather than to sudden events that indiscriminately cut down many groups, from which few survive. In a word, no. The latter may seem more fortuitous than the former, and would not even involve morphological change, but both are just as much episodes of selection- equally products of variation plus differential survival. No adaptation is aforethought, so whether a differentiating trait is one of tiny scope that allows one more acre to be colonized in a forest, or is a capacity (perhaps like endothermy) that allows survival past a catastrophic epoch, each trait is a product of the past and its survival or loss into the future is best termed "natural selection". It would be anthropomorphization to cheer on one group or another, or to project onto them values like luck, determination, destiny, etc. Only if we knew that trait differences played no role at all in that differential survival would "luck" be operative in a bare statistical sense, and this is unlikely in the extreme.

Surely, evolutionists who are paleontologists are more comfortable with long series of small changes that add up to a recognizable morphological progression- a narrative, if you will, of evolution in action combining presumed cause with observed effect. If local seeds get tougher, and the beaks of birds get bigger, we might say one caused the other, by way of variation and natural selection. Is survival through a catastrophe by virtue of preexisting adaptations any different? Not really, except that our view of it is quite different. The marker is not morphological change through time, but the absence of competing species- differential survival in the starkest possible terms, though usually with little clue as to why that survival occurred.

So the real question this paper gets us only slightly closer to is: what happened to the crurotarsans? If they were abundant right up to the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, then this mass extinction made all the difference. Calling this difference in extinction fates "luck" neither fairly describes the general theory involved, nor tells us what the difference was ... what actually happened. It is a rhetorical marker for ignorance and really should not have been the primary hook for media coverage.

We are responsible for a mass extinction right now. Will our successors 200 million years in the future call the animals that are now being extinguished "unlucky"? Perhaps.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Vive l'Empereur!

In praise of the Napoleon 101 podcast

I have enjoyed a wonderful podcast called Napoleon 101, covering the career of Napoleon and hosted by sidekick Cameron Reilly and historian J. David Markham. Who knew that Napoleon was such an interesting and passionate character? I didn't, and my ignorance is either a testament to the inadequacy of the public education system here in the US, to the residual anglophone hatred of Napoleon, or simply to the inability of any general history education crammed into the mere twelve years of normal schooling to do justice to the richness of human history. At well over 50 hours of desultory narrative and opinion, this series requires some fortitude to get through, and indeed I am not through it quite yet.

The series offers numerous quotes of Napoleon's writings and pronouncements which are alone worth the price of admission (which is nothing, incidentally). He was one of the most articulate, eloquent, and to-the-point writers in history, putting him in league with other generals such as Ceasar and Grant. These vignettes of his thought illustrate powerfully why he was such a commanding character that finally the sixth coalition of European powers declared war on Napoleon Bonaparte alone, not on France.

Was he a monster? The podcast presenters are hopelessly pro-Napoleon and stoutly maintain "no". Apparently there was no question that he had to launch a coup, no question that he had to crown himself emperor, no question that he had to divorce Josephine to engender an heir, no question that he had to invade Russia, and no question that his return from Elba was a positive development (though it appears to have robbed the world of his autobiographical memoirs (!)). I exaggerate slightly, but they do cheer for Napoleon at all junctures. This certainly lends the podcast its propulsive, positive energy. But I think it is somewhat overdone, in an attempt to counter the anglophone propaganda that is still a strong narrative of the Napoleonic era. It also leads the presenters to devote large swaths of time to Napoleon's family affairs, loves, and mistresses.

Primarily, there is the general question of why there were so many wars, culminating in the debacular Russian campaign (if I may coin a word) and its sequels. This river of blood really requires an explanation. The presenters pursue the idea that the royalist powers, and the British in particular, were principally at fault, irrationally opposed to Napoleon's France on both ideological grounds (trying to preserve the aristocratic system, not to mention combat godless atheism) and on strategic grounds (trying to contain the strongest actor on the continent). The French revolution was a new Cromwellianism, crazy in its excesses and striking fear into the heart of any monarch, indeed into conservatives of any stripe, including Dickens and Burke. Those who sat on uneasy thrones wanted to stamp out the contagion of liberalism in its French crib, and pursued wars against the revolution from its birth. But then Napoleon created the military colossus that defeated all comers, and additionally crowned himself emperor. This might have quieted the waters if the monarchists of Europe had taken him seriously. Of course they didn't, and the assumption of nobility by such an upstart made their hatred even more vitriolic.

But did Napoleon need to start an empire and put all the conquered nations into the yoke of his "continental system" in response to Britain's blockade? I don't think so. The lowest point of the series is the host's defense of Napoleon's invasion of Russia, as a natural consequence of Tzar Alexander's disobedience in the matter of the continental system. This putatively forced Napoleon to chasten Russia with an invasion, whose consequence was supposed to be a renewed friendship between the two monarchs. I have to say that this is faintly analogous to defending Hitler's moves before World War II as a search for peace. Hitler certainly didn't want war- he only wanted the fruits of intimidation. War was, then, brought by those who tired of this "system" of demands. I agree with the hosts that the successive coalitions were reactionary and irrational in their own way, but Napoleon's eagerness to meet them offensively marks him as an inflammatory element on the European landscape. Time and again, he turned to pre-emptive war and lost the moral high ground, defeating the royalists on their own territory, subsuming them into punitive "alliances", putting his relatives on various thrones, and never stabilizing the European system in a politically sustainable way.

These policies, epitomized by his assumption of nobility, show the hubris that eventually brought him down. He was not content to govern France and betrayed the entire point of the French Revolution, which was a yearning for liberal ideas and against imperial oppression. Indeed in a telling quote Napoleon said: "I will not play the role of Monck, nor will I let anyone else play it. Nor will I be a second Washington." George Monck was the British politician and general who reconciled the post-Cromwellian political system and restored Charles II. So there you have it in a nutshell. Napoleon, who was progressive in many important ways, instituting modern civil codes, governing efficiently, and reconciling the Catholic church back into French society after the convulsions of the revolution, was unwilling to play an ultimately constructive and progressive role in governance. When cornered in the (last) hundred days of his rule, he allowed a liberal constitution to be written and instituted, showing his recognition all along of what the right path should have been. But he played for power and glory, not for the peaceful, just, well-regulated, and prosperous nationalism represented by both Monck (a royalist) and Washington (a liberal anti-royalist).

It is tempting at this point to make a comparison to the present political moment, where we find another martial candidate for power in the US. John McCain comes from the military, cherishes the military, is temperamentally extremely combative (indeed a loose cannon, one might conclude from his recent campaign antics), and puts the military foremost in his policy and budgeting priorities (cf the first debate). He even proposed this summer to use a domestic "surge" to combat urban crime. One gets the sense that here again is a hammer who sees every problem as a nail- who sees putting the military first as equivalent to putting "country first".

Returning to Napoleon, the presenters are particularly sympathetic to Napoleon's predicament after his return from Elba (called the hundred days), where they take Napoleon at his word that he wanted nothing more than to rule France in peace and repair the damage he had wrought. In truly surreal fashion, they suggest that he could have been convinced to retire to a remote castle and let his wife rule as regent for their son. Should the Allies have trusted him? I doubt it, and they certainly did not. It is indeed probable that Napoleon wanted peace at that moment, in order to repair affairs and consolidate his refreshed rule (he was only 46 years old, after all). But his nature was martial and extremely controlling, and eventually the temptation to re-assert French dominance would have been irresistible. Beethoven had it right, in my humble estimation, both to admire Napoleon at first, and then later to revile him.

Anyhow, despite the criticism above, I doff my cap to Cameron Reilly and J. David Markham for their labor of love in producing a riveting podcast that shows the potential of the medium and serves the memory of the Napoleon Bonaparte.

On gay marriage

Or, I write an email to conservative talk radio, and they base a show on it.

A funny thing happened the other day- I found myself quoted without attribution on a radio talk show. In an effort to hear from the other side of the cultural divide, I had stumbled upon a radio show sponsored by the Lutheran synod of Missouri. The show, called Issues, etc. has intellectual pretensions, but is so conservative (featuring ads by arch-creationist Ken Ham) that the synod itself tried to shut it down recently, only to be fended off by a howling storm of protest from you-know-who ... the rabid right.

The story starts when I heard a segment against gay marriage (Sept 19). This was full of the usual tortured and mean arguments. For instance, gays have exactly the same rights that everyone else has- they can marry someone of the opposite sex! (You can almost hear a drum roll and a big "tee-hee"). However irritating, I let it go as red meat for the right wing. Then on Sept 24, they had a segment about family values, which included the observation that one of the general rationales for families is to serve as mini-mutual aid societies, thus taking the burden of caring for people off the government's hands ("a little community of the family", as Dr. Morse put it). In communist utopias, (such as Israeli Kibbutzim), everyone eats at communal tables, and children are raised in communal nurseries, putting most or even all societal burdens on the state rather than on the family. This is not how we do it, of course, yet the more atomized our society becomes, the more the state has to pick up the slack. Morse cited the high costs of family fragmentation in the US and urged everyone to do more to encourage family formation and maintenance.

Very well! This presents an obvious opportunity for comment. If society would benefit from more and stronger families (as I think most of us agree), why not encourage more families ... by allowing, even encouraging, gay marriage? I wrote them an email:

Hi, Issues, etc-

I was impressed by your economics segment with Jennifer Roback Morse. She is much better as an economic adviser than as a moralist. She was eloquent in support of families, in their economic role as institutions of mutual caring, lest we be government wards or worse as atomic units of humanity. Thus I found it curious that only a few shows back you were so adamant about prohibiting gay marriage. One would think that from moral as well as practical and economic perspectives, having more families would be better than having fewer, and granting gay citizens full rights to form families would be highly beneficial, for them and for society at large. Indeed, creating a normalized expectation of marriage for gay people would be beneficial in reducing disease rates and other problems of extreme gay culture along with all the other benefits above.

Am I getting something wrong here? They would not have children anyhow, so whether they do not have children in second class partnerships or in full marriages is not the issue, as it likewise is not for straight couples. This show helped fill in the intellectual blank from the previous gay marriage show, demonstrating that having children is far from the only relevant facet of marriage, and helping to clarify why it would be positive for us all to promote rather than demote gay marriage.

What I think you were getting at in your previous gay marriage show was that normalizing gay people (characterized as the "other" in this case) violates your sense of social purity and sanctity, and could cause gayness to spread in future generations. You probably are are aware, however, that people do not become gay by choice, but rather are made that way, by god or otherwise, so these fears are misplaced.

Sincerely yours- Burk Braun

They sent a brief reply, pointing me to a couple of anti-gay marriage propaganda sites, and I thought little more about it.

But what do you know- I listened to subsequent segment (Oct. 1- Is gay marriage pro-family?), again with Dr. Morse, where they quoted from my email almost verbatim. I certainly respect their willingness to broach my question and present this interesting case on the air. But Dr. Morse's answer was amazing in its hyperbolic rhetoric and incoherence, even desperation. Here are some quotes:

"... the issue is whether the legal definition of marriage should change from being a child-centered institution that is based on the differences of the genders ..."

What happened to the "little community" definition? What happened to childless couples of all sorts? This is the most tired tactic of the right- to hide behind a fanciful "child-based" definition of marriage like it was a hostage in a bank robbery drama.

"... I so far have not seen much movement by the gay community to say, you know, gosh- premarital sex is a bad thing, and I just can not wait till we have gay marriage so we can get married and we can tell everybody to be chaste until they get married."

This was a reply to my point about the benefits of building a societal expectation of marriage for homosexuals. One might ask how is it possible to be against premarital sex if for you, marriage is still illegal? And anyhow, why is it that not supporting Dr. Morse's far-right agenda of chastity-only makes marriage a bad thing for you? Perhaps unwed pregnant teenagers should be prevented from marrying, because of their obvious disdain for the institution!

"... to say that children are not an important part of marriage at all, as some of them do, as some of them want to say, there is no question then that dethrones children from the pride of place that they have in the marriage institution."

Ah, yes- note the grandiloquent "dethrones"! Are children necessary to marriage? Quite simply, no. This is, once again, simply grasping for straws, though using rather purple prose. We all like and appreciate children, and have been children at one time or another. That still does not make children essential to marriage (... though the converse is true- marriage is indeed good for children).

"... when a child is attached to a same-sex couple, they have to have first been detached from at least one of their other parents."

Oh, dear- here we get to the climax of the segment, the baby-snatching argument! Apparently, all children are currently being raised by 2.0 parents, who should be on their guard against gay couples prying open the windows and trying the doors in order to snatch their babies! What of all the Birthright centers that are trying to place out those abstinence-only oops-babies for adoption? What of all those single parents who are working their fingers off raising "detached" children? Obviously, if Dr. Morse would allow reality to intrude for a moment, relatively few gay couples are interested in raising children, and for those who are interested, there are many children in need of homes - children who will be taken care of far better by a married same-sex couple than, for instance, by a state foster institution. Can homosexual people have their own children, either via friends, or sperm banks and the like? Yes, they can and do right now, and here again, it is in every one's interest to have these children, rare as they are, raised in a marriage, not outside one.


In fairness, there is one argument that gay marriage opponents make that has some interest, which is the slippery slope argument (also made by Justice Scalia some time ago). If gay marriage now, why not polygamy, or marriage to pets, tomorrow? One can answer these with the same kind of fairness and utility arguments that argue for gay marriage above. As far as marrying pets, this hardly qualifies as a mutual aid society- it is utterly one-sided, and the relationship is in no way enhanced by giving it the status of marriage, especially in the legal terms of inheritance, medical rights, and tax status. Indeed, a New Yorker story recently illustrated the substantial problems of allowing pets to inherit money, as per the Leona Helmsley estate. Pets may be worthy of humane treatment, but they are not legal persons and do not constitute partners in any legal sense, whether for marriage or other contracts. Whether corporations are legal persons, and thus merit marriage rights, is a question for another day!

The polygamy issue is more intriguing, since it may well be an entirely voluntary arrangement among consenting adults. And it may even be socially beneficial when there is a shortage of available men. Muhammad encountered this situation after his various battles killed off many of the local men, so he stepped up to the plate to take in several women as wives, at a time when being a single woman was practically unheard of. Of course consummating one of his marriages with a girl of nine might detract from this altruistic narrative, but nevertheless, there is a point to the practice. Even today, the black community suffers from a very high incarceration rate of men and thus a shortage of eligible marriage partners. Would it make sense in the black community to allow polygamy, at least on a temporary basis, perhaps as an enticement for men to be responsible breadwinners? Hmmm.

Outside such extraordinary cases, there is the basic problem of the marriage market. In most societies, if men agree to have no more than one wife, then all have a chance at marriage and the (presumed) happinesses attendant thereunto. In fundamentalist Mormon communities, adolescent boys are actively and brutally exiled to the outside because there are not enough girls to go around- the old goats get first pick. In contemporary Islamic societies that allow polygamy, such as Saudi Arabia, much of the social discontent and extremism is attributable to hopelessness, not from the abstractions of modernism or the siren song of fundamentalist theology, but due to a deranged marriage market that drives men to despair and even to obligatory homosexuality.

Then there is the feminist argument. Is brainwashing and degradation of women a necessary component of polygamy? Would any sane woman participate in such a system? One hears many stories of women who were in polygamous households, said at the time that everything was peachy and wonderful, only to fall out at some later point and say that the polygamist life is inherently sexist and hopelessly riven with rivalry among the females. I have no personal knowledge of this, but it seems that polygamy only happens in male-dominated societies, where males dominate not only women but also other men in ways that are inherently incompatible with a fair and enlightened organization of society. Even in gender-unbalanced societies, is it not better to ameliorate the position of single women than to force or entice them into the fraught position of a second or third wife?

So, while it is dangerous to impute motives and impaired agency to people we don't know, in normal conditions there are plenty of reasons to favor the one-to-one system of marriage, and to enforce it to the exclusion of other systems so that on the whole, everyone can find their best chance of happiness in someone else's arms.