Barrel Strength

Over-Proof Opinion, Smoothly Aged Insight

Barrel Strength - Over-Proof Opinion, Smoothly Aged Insight

The Nationalization of the Family

Your meme for today is the phrase Mark Steyn is touting as the catch-all explanation for Western cultural decline: the nationalization of the family.

My problem with Steyn is a complete inability to think of any better explanation when I read him.

The lure of cosmic cultural pessimism is strong, and the 20th and 21st centuries offer much confirmation that Western civilization is in the tank.

But for every Spengler, or David Bentley Hart, life offers rational optimists, like Matt Ridley. And to tell you the truth, I do not know where I sit between these uncomfortable prophets of doom and the dwellers in the sunny uplands of improvement.

The obvious point is that the physical circumstances of life are improving for all, and the cultural milieu in which we live is largely the wasteland of post-Christianity. And some react to the wasteland by going for the black and white certainties of Islam.

Multicultiuralism and anti-whitism have left us defenceless before the Ebola of religions.


An important funding source for neuro-imaging via MRIs will no longer fund studies concerned with showing which parts of the brain light up when certain activities are engaged. The funding source is the James S. McDonnell Foundation.  The reason why it will not longer do so was given thus:

“Proposals proposing to use functional imaging to identify the ‘neural correlates’ of cognitive or behavioral tasks (for example, mapping the parts of the brain that ‘light up’ when different groups of subjects play chess, solve physics problems, or choose apples over oranges) are not funded through this program. In general, JSMF and its expert advisors have taken an unfavorable view of .  .  . functional imaging studies using poorly characterized tasks as proxies for complex behavioral issues involving empathy, moral judgments, or social decision-making.”

The heartland of neuroimaging has decided that areas of the brain lighting up tell us nothing about empathy, judgments, and decision-making. Bravo! Another blow against neurotwaddle.

The most significant critic of neurotwaddle, a man who is himself a physician and an atheist, is Raymond Tallis. Tallis has written several important critiques of materialist reductionism – the “we are nothing but a bunch of neurons” school, in which  Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Crick and their useful idiot Hitchens are to be found.

I found an article of Tallis’ on the same subject in the New Humanist magazine of January 2010. It is worth reading. Tallis finds all talk of neuroimaging techniques identifying “God-spots” in the brain as utter rubbish.

At first sight, it might seem that a humanist atheist like me should welcome the reduction of religious belief to tingles in parts of the brain. It will be evident now why I do not. The idea of God is the greatest, though possibly the most destructive, idea that mankind has ever entertained. The notion that all there is originated from and is controlled by a Maker is a profound and distinctively human response to the amazing fact that the world makes sense. This response is more, not less, extraordinary for the fact that it has no foundation in truth and, indeed, God is a logically impossible object.

How mighty are the works of man and how much more impressive when they are founded on an idea to which nothing corresponds! Cutting this idea down to size, by neurologising and Darwinising it, is to deal not only religion but also humanity a terrible blow. It undermines our uniqueness and denies our ability, shared by no other creature, to distance ourselves from nature. In defending religious belief against neuro-evolutionary reductionism, atheist humanists and theists have a common cause, and in reductive naturalism, a common adversary.

Readers will know I am not an atheist; I find greater truth in belief, and I find works like David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness  Bliss more persuasive than Tallis’ non-materialist humanism. For me, Tallis is on a narrow ledge between materialist reductionsim, which he rightly rejects, and belief in a supernatural ordering Creator, in whom we move and have our being. But that is possibly a matter of taste, and is certainly not a matter for compulsion. His attacks on neurotwaddle are more welcome because he is an atheist.

Here is David Bentley Hart on the issue of reductionism – the school of thought that asserts “we are nothing but _________ neurons, genes, dancing atoms (pick one)”.

 Once more, the physicalist reduction of any phenomenon to purely material forces explains nothing if one cannot then reconstruct the phenomenon from its material basis without invoking any higher causes; but this no computation picture of human thought can ever do. Symbols exist only from above, as it were, in the consciousness looking downward along that path of descent, acting always as a higher cause upon material reality. Looking up from the opposite direction, from below to above, one finds only an intraversible abyss, separating the intentional nullity of matter from the intentional plenitude of mind. It is an absolute error to imagine that the electrical activity in a computer is itself a computation….All computation is ontologically dependent on consciousness.” (p.223)

Ontologically” means “having to do with being itself”, an idea more easily rendered in Greek than English.

A parting shot from Hart:

The mechanical picture of reality, which is the metaphysical frame within which we pursue or conquest of nature, is one that forecloses, arbitrarily and peremptorily , a great number of questions that a rational culture should leave open”.

There are vast questions that should be left open. Raise a ragged cheer for a rational culture!



Why an adult conversation about Islam is nearly impossible

Dear Jonathan Kay,

You wrote that an adult conversation about Islam is nearly impossible. You have my sympathy. You do a good job of trying to allow that conversation in your paper, but the reasons for the difficulty derive from the fact that a full discussion of Islam requires a discussion of what the religion prescribes that its followers should do. In the name of God they are compelled, if they wish to be orthodox, to wage war, enslave, distrust, and display contempt for all beings not Muslims, and express disgust for women. So it is difficult to have an adult conversation when you cannot say what Islamic doctrine is, in current liberal society.

An adult conversation about Islam is difficult because most people are finding a wide gap between what they perceive, and what they are allowed to say.

If I ran around in a black uniform with a Nazi armband shouting abuse at Jews, most observers would conclude there was an obvious link between my anti-Jewishness and my being a Nazi. (We fought and won a world war to say so).

But if I do the same as a Muslim, in the current environment, cursing the Jews and calling for their extermination as my holy duty, many people would feel cowed into not saying there was a link. The recent case of Ben Affleck going postal on television shows the depth and strength of the denial.

The same forces of anti-racism that we have been fostering since WW2 prevent accurate conclusions regarding the relationship of Islam and jihadist violence from being drawn, and if drawn, from being freely discussed.

For a Muslim, jihad is a sacrament. If Muslims behave reasonably and peacefully, as they do (thank God), it is not because they are orthodox but because they have fallen away from orthodoxy. Islam is a direct revelation from God, and it is immutable.  So as the discussion of Islam’s doctrines is shoved underground, the public view of Islam gets darker and darker, while the chattering classes re-assure each other of their baseless confidence that Islam is not what they fear it is, a bananarama totalitarian ideology, whose idea of God is of an immeasurably distant, irrational force, where both theology and science is impossible.

Why impossible, you ask?

Because for there to be theology, God must be rationally knowable in some important senses, and for there to be science, there must be a belief that the universe is a rationally discoverable emanation of God’s laws.

Neither of these conditions is met in Islam.

In Islam the whole universe is sustained instant to instant by God’s will alone. Causal relationships between match and flame need not be looked into, because the match is only the occasion for the flame, not the cause. Looking into the operations of God’s will is haram. I recommend The Closing of the Muslim Mind for further information on the baneful effects of Islam’s greatest philosopher, Al-Ghazali.

The only Nobelist in physics who was Islamic came from a heretical sect, Abdus Salam. who was an Ahmadi, which is officially denounced in Pakistan.

All of these facts are available on reading about the issue. However, few do so, and those who do are silenced by the general prohibition on discussing Islam as if its doctrines were real and intended. Religion has been tamed in the post-Christian west. In Islam, it is everything, and its teachings are horrifying to those who contemplate them, and more so to those who suffer persecution and death because of its adherents.

We are not responsible for Islam’s doctrines. We are, however, responsible for the poor state of thought and speech in the West today. We have only ourselves (or the forces of political Leftism) to blame for this gap between what is being observed, and what can be discussed.

Those tolerant pagans

Few are more bigoted in European circles than the fashionably anti-Christian. How safe! How trendy! Gaia approves!. The Post reports the case of a Canadian Christian being  rudely treated by a group of self-styled Norwegian pagans.  Her internship with Norwegian wilderness outfitters who lead expeditions in the British Columbia.

“The Norse background of most of the guys at the management level means that we are not a Christian organization, and most of us see Christianity as having destroyed our culture, tradition, and way of life,” Amaruk’s hiring manager, Olaf Amundsen, wrote last month to Vancouver-area job applicant Bethany Paquette, the first in a series of bizarre, angry emails sent from company officials in Norway.

According to a complaint she has since filed with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal (BCHRT), Ms. Paquette’s Christian education cost her an “assistant guide internship” position at Amaruk.

She received a snarky letter back from the head of the outfitting group, who explained that, since they “embraced diversity”, they could not hire someone who had been to Trinity Western University. The rest of the management of the Norwegian outfitters piled on with further emails of derision and contempt.

A lack of irony is a marked feature of bigotry. And the more unconscious the bigotry, the greater the self-righteousness.

The human resources director of the Norwegian firm, Amaruk, sent this beauty:


And an hour later, Ms. Paquette received yet another snide note, this one from Amaruk’s human resources boss. “You are free to your own opinions and to live your life as you see fit, but you have no right to force your opinions onto others and control their innate behaviour,” it read.

Uh, dudes, she merely sent an application for an unpaid position. Who is forcing opinions on others here? The macho fags of Amaruk or the Canadian applicant for an internship?

The Son also Rises

Anyone interested in how society actually operates would benefit from reading Gregory Clark’s The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility.

Clark examined surnames in several different societies and how they have persisted over time in elite occupations. He found that social mobility was real, persistent and slow: much slower than much modern theorizing about it. In short, families count. Coming from a good family is more than half the battle.

And that means that genetics count. Most of the status of your children will be determined by whom you mate with. Practically speaking, produce the kids from the right wife or husband and you can largely forget about sending them to $50,000 a year Manhattan day cares. They are going to succeed with quite ordinary levels of parental investment. No amount of private schooling will turn a dolt into a success, and conversely quite ordinary levels of parental investment (love, education, opportunities) will turn smart kids into successes.

As Clark writes:

By and large, social mobility has characteristics that do not rule out genetics as the dominant connection between generations. Ascribing an important  role to genetics helps to explain one puzzle of social mobility, which is the inability of ruling classes in places like England, Sweden, and the United states to defend themselves forever against downward mobility. If the main determinants of economic and social success are wealth, education and connections, then there is no explanation for the consistent tendency f the rich to regress to society mean even at the slow rates we observe…..

Only of genetics is the main element in determining economic success, if nature trumps nurture, is there a built-in mechanism that explains the observed regression.

The implications of Clark’s findings are contrary to what most believe.

If nature does indeed dominate nurture, this has a number of implications. First, it means that the world is a much fairer place than we intuit. Innate talent, not inherited privilege, is the main source of economic success. Second, it suggests that the large investment made by the upper classes in the care and raising of their children is of no avail in preventing long-run downward mobility….Third, government interventions to increase social mobility are unlikely to have much impact unless they affect the rate of intermarriage between levels of the social hierarchy and between ethnic groups. Fourth, emphasis on racial, ethnic and religious differences allows persistent social stratification through the barriers they create to this intermarriage. In order for a society to increase social mobility over the long run, it must achieve the cultural homogeneity that maximizes intermarriage rates between social groups.

Of course, humans segregate themselves by religions and denominations within religions, and to a lesser degree by social classes, castes, and political tastes. “Not our kind” is the answer to many a proposal of marriage. Perhaps one of the main functions of denominations and religions is to prevent intermarriage. For example, an Anglican can marry a Catholic of the right sort, and a Presbyterian without thinking, but neither a Jehovah’s Witness or a Muslim without conversion being entailed, and conversion to either of the latter religions is to slide down the social scale to the bottom rung.

Which brings me to the end of Clark’s book, concerning his observations of the persistence of elite groups within Islamic societies of members of non-Islamic religions.

Elites and underclasses are formed by the selective affiliation to a religious identity of some upper and lower share of the distribution of abilities within the population. In Islamic societies, the practice of imposing taxes on religious minorities tended to recruit to Islam the lowest economic strata of the conquered societies. Elites and underclasses have maintained themselves over periods as long as 1,300  years because of very high rates of endogamy (marriage within the tribe) which preserves the initial advantages of elites from regression to the mean by preventing intermarriage with less advantaged populations.

Clark’s book is well-written, fact-based, and amusing. For those interested in how society actually works, rather than how it is supposed to work, his discussions of social mobility and the largely vain attempts to  prevent it produce lively interest in the discerning reader, and not a few laughs-out-loud as some important truth clangs like a bell.

Bored with the usual drivel?

Are you bored with ISIS, climate catastrophism, Harper versus his enemies, environmentalists versus Alberta, Obama’s incompetence, decline of the West, Putin’s machinations, Ebola, and the stupidification of everyone? Me too.

For a plunge into cold water, there are a number of blogs you can read that are far removed from ordinary worldly concerns, and I recommend them.

One which I came upon today is called The View from Hell. You might wish to start with “A Unified Theory of Nerddom”. This is what happens when you are very, very smart, and quite idle.

You can waste time in the neo-reactionary canon. I do not recommend them for their suitability for work or improving your social standing.

Then there is the ferociously Catholic philosopher Edward Feser who is always ready to assert that science and Western thought went wrong by the abandonment of the idea of final causality (goal-directedness) through the influence of Rene Descartes. In this regard David Bentley Hart is in full agreement with Feser: we went off the rails when  a limiting assumption which improved our scientific method (efficient causes only) morphed into a metaphysical assumption about the limitations of what was possibly true.

Here is classic Hart eviscerating an article in the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik:

Which brings me to Adam Gopnik, and specifically his New Yorker article of February 17, “Bigger Than Phil”—the immediate occasion of all the rude remarks that went coursing through my mind and spilling out onto the page overhead. Ostensibly a survey of recently published books on (vaguely speaking) theism and atheism, it is actually an almost perfect distillation of everything most depressingly vapid about the cogitatively indolent secularism of late modern society. This is no particular reflection on Gopnik’s intelligence—he is bright enough, surely—but only on that atmosphere of complacent ignorance that seems to be the native element of so many of today’s cultured unbelievers. The article is intellectually trivial, but perhaps culturally portentous.

And so forth.

I will summon the energy to care about worldly issues shortly. I hope your summer was beautiful.

Distributional Coalitions: Tribes,Classes, Lobby Groups

The intrusion of messy reality into economics generates most of its intellectual issues. The world escapes the simple axioms of market exchanges mediated through freely negotiated prices. An American economist called Mancur Olson wrote “The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation and Social Rigidities” in 1982. It discussed issues not within the scope of either monetarists or Keynsians, namely how economies do not work according to the ideas of either schools.

For Olson, the question to be answered was why some economies were performing better than others after World War 2. Why, for instance, was Britain in such a mess (pre-Thatcher) and Germany and Japan increasing in wealth by leaps and bounds?

Olson observed the behaviour of what he called “distributional coalitions”, which are normally economic associations but which can morph overtime into castes, tribes, or even races. Usually we call them “special interest groups”, and usually we think of them as things like the dairy farmers, or other organized economic groups with formal legal status which seek legal or regulatory privileges (professional associations, banks, etc). Olson pointed out that they are usually small, they exercize disproportionate power, they reduce efficiency in the economy, they slow a society’s adaptation to change, and once successful, are exclusive and seek to limit the diversity of incomes and values of their membership.

His final rule of interest groups was:

9. The accumulation of distributional coalitions increases the complexity of regulation, the role of government, and the complexity of understandings, and changes the direction of social evolution.

Olson pointed out how expensive it is for anyone to discriminate racially (or any other way) as individuals, but by contrast, how rewarding it is to discriminate when it is done collectively. South Africa, in the apartheid days, could engineer much higher standards for whites by keeping blacks out of skilled and semi-skilled work.

Moreover, a racially, linguistically and culturally distinctive group finds it easier to maintain a multi-generational coalition. “The linguistic and cultural similarities will reduce differences in values and facilitate social interaction, and … this reduces conflict and makes it easier to generate social selective pressures.” (p.159)

And here is the kicker: if you can reinforce the “distributional coalition” with inbreeding – marrying within the tribe, the class, the group, the caste – you will make the group work better over time. This is called “endogamy”.

Unfortunately, the promotion of prejudices about race, ethnicity, culture and intergroup differences in lifestyle will also make the coalition work better. The inculcation of these prejudices will increase the probability that the members will follow the rule of endogamy and strengthen selective incentives by interacting socially only with their own group, of their own accord.” (p160)

A good deal of whatever I learned as a kid from the osmosis of attitudes about the other tribe in Quebec, the French Canadians, reflected this truth of behaviour, and they had stronger if not deeper prejudices against us “English” (not a  tribe, really just a foreign bourgeoisie). A distributional coalition can be an ethnic majority as well as an ethnic minority. I am not saying that the prejudices of each tribe were unfounded; I am saying that looking at each group, the English in Quebec, or the French in Quebec, as a distributional coalition, generates some insights. It suggests that wherever you see strong barriers to intermarriage, you might be in the presence of a distributional coalition, as well as that of a tribe, caste, or religion. It also suggests that when barriers to intermarriage are falling, a distributional coalition is fading out.

Olson was suggesting that racial and other forms of discrimination can work as the enforcers of the privileges of a “distributional coalition”, but note that, in his view, he makes no assertion that we have some innate drive to discriminate  – an issue on which he is silent. He says that maintaining  in-group marriage (maintaining racial, tribal or religious boundaries) will strengthen the distributional coalition over time, indeed, it is the only way to maintain it over long periods of time.

In conclusion, Olson’s views balance the problems caused by instability against the problem s caused by distributional coalitions.

On the whole, stable countries are more prosperous than unstable ones and this is no surprise. But, other things being equal, the most rapid growth will occur in societies that have lately experienced upheaval but are expected nonetheless to be stable for the foreseeable future.

In short, they have had a chance to purge themselves of distributional coalitions.






Like trying to lift the gross national product with a set of tongs

News that the billion-dollar European effort to model the brain in a super-computer is on the verge of collapse comes as no surprize.

It will not fail because, as some neuroscientists claim, it is too narrowly conceived. You have more chance of getting a rocket into outer space by throwing rocks off the back of it. At least that method is consistent with Newtonian physics.

It will fail because consciousness is not neural activity. A hundred thousand neuroscientists claiming otherwise will not make it so. A neural network that “learns” how to count or how to remember will not have awareness.

Awareness is not generated out of material arrangements of matter. It may be received and housed by arrangements of matter we call brains and neurons, but neural activity per se  is not conscious and is not awareness.

I call it a category error, like trying to lift the gross national product with a set of tongs. Cannot in principle be done.

This view strongly contradicts Dawkins, Dennett, Sam Harris, John Searle and other professed atheists. It agrees with the views expressed by David Bentley Hart. To my mind, the atheists of that school cannot even explain awareness, let alone God. Yet I take comfort in a book written by a former practising neurological researcher and physician,  Raymond Tallis: “Aping Mankind”. I do so because Tallis expresses the same view as Hart, that consciousness is some other kind of stuff/energy/thing and it is not material – not the product of matter and its motions. So what? We all know this is plain mysticism, right?  Is Tallis not just another theist? Not so. Tallis is a convinced atheist, a member of Britain’s Humanist Association.

He calls “neuromania” and “darwinitis”, the besetting mental obsessions of our day, and he lays an axe to their foundations. His book has left even some of my unconscious assumptions gutted and hanging from branches.

Tallis’ website is here:

I shall read more of him, and suggest you give him a try too.

Anthony Pagden on the Enlightenment

I read Anthony Pagden’s book, “The Enlightenment, and why it still matters”. While finding nothing substantial with which to disagree, I found myself wondering what he was going on about.

The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters by Anthony Pagden

Thanks to a review by Edward Feser, who takes sharper issue with Pagden than I was able, I am now able to say what was the matter with Pagden’s book.

For Pagden shows, albeit inadvertently, how little the rhetoric of Enlightenment owed—and owes today—to intellectual substance, and how much to attitude, posturing, and sheer bluff. The Enlightenment matters insofar it is perceived to matter. To a very great extent, what was true in it wasn’t new and what was new wasn’t true.

If you dislike Feser’s attitude that nothing true has been written since Thomas Aquinas, a more modern criticism of Pagden’s book can be found in Stuart Kelly’s review in the Guardian from July of last year.

The upshot is that while Pagden provides a survey of the thought of the 18th century, which is a recommendation in itself, he does not tie it all together in a way that critics from left or right are pleased with. For my part, I made my way through it dutifully, but cannot pretend to have enjoyed it for insight, controversy, or a refreshing attitude:  like eating a plate of well-cooked broccoli, it was nutritious but unappetizing.


This is the lecture given by Bruce Greyson to a group of Buddhist monks in Daramsala, India. He says everything that needs saying about the failure of the materialist idea of the mind: that the mind and the brain are identical, and that consciousness is produced by the brain. The evidence presented in this lecture is purely scientific.