Thursday, June 30, 2005

A math problem

The latest number of deaths in the 9/11 attacks I could find is 2992.

The latest number of American deaths in Iraq I could find (military deaths, obviously) is 1744.

It's 834 days today (6/30/2005) since the war in Iraq began (3/19/2003).

At that rate, about 2.1 American soldiers have died (on average) for every day of the war in Iraq. I'll use that 2.1 again.

If we make a back-of-the-envelope assumption that the rate of deaths in Iraq has been constant over the war to today, then on February 17, 2007, the war in Iraq will have killed as many American soldiers as the 9/11 attacks killed civilians.

From President Bush's recent speech, "more than 2,000 members of Iraqi security forces [ed.: I assume this is military and police combined] have given their lives in the line of duty", which is still more than the number of Americans who have died. How many Iraqi civilians have died?

If we believe Donald Rumsfeld, the insurgency will last between 5 and 12 more years.

If the soldiers keep dying at the same rate, 3833 to 9198 more American soldiers will die in Iraq. The numbers for Iraqi civilians and Iraqi security forces I leave as an exercise for the reader.

To appreciate the magnitude of these important numbers, read this analogy.

So here is the cold comfort from President Bush, his message to those of us who worry about these numbers, who lay them at his feet:

I recognize that Americans want our troops to come home as quickly as possible. So do I.

Some contend that we should set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces. Let me explain why that would be a serious mistake.

Setting an artificial timetable would send the wrong message to the Iraqis, who need to know that America will not leave before the job is done.

It would send the wrong signal to our troops, who need to know that we are serious about completing the mission they are risking their lives to achieve.

And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who would know that all they have to do is to wait us out.

We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed and not a day longer.

Saturday, June 18, 2005


Most arguments about anything in philosophy are bunk, because they manage a carefully constructed worldview that is internally consistent, but need bear no relation to anyone else's theory, or to the real world.

I used to wonder why there was an emphasis on real-world examples in my undergraduate philosophy courses. The point was that the professors were dreadfully afraid that they were making it all up. It is easy to live in a fog of abstraction, admire your grand unified theory, and say "God I hope this is true", like a luxury yacht, with a long, sweeping superstructure, fine furnishings, even a minibar... lost at sea. Utilitarianism, metaphysics in general, the philosophy of language all grip reality somewhat tenuously. Aren't these lovely theories? Great ribs welded to a strong, flexible backbone, holding in a beating heart and breathing lungs... no feet and no hands, no eyes and lips, all dressed up and no place to go.

A long time ago I was provoked into an argument about the truth of Christianity and the existence of God. Not provoked by a person, "XYR PDQ, your faith is showing" that kind of thing. But it occurred to me talking to these guys that we were wasting time. We only talked as if we were arguing. In truth, we were spinning out your tapestries of belief independently, and it would have taken us a long time to get to points where we actually clashed. We could criticize each other's work, but only in the unimportant details; if we had to abandon some inconsequential opinion of our worldview, so be it, but nothing was changing.

Religion is like that when it is only believed and not lived. I dislike the word religion because it seems inadequate to my experience; I am more religious than irreligious, but this says so little about my life. I like a distinction between "believed religion" and "lived religion" because it implies that there is or is not a point of contact between what you say and what you do, between appearances and truths, between theories and facts, and finally between abstractions and realities. I recognize stages in my life where I believed religion, then sat on it.

The truth is that facts destroy theories, obliterate them completely. For instance, 9/11 destroyed the theory that the United States was safe from foreign attackers because it is the world's only remaining superpower. What we learned in the invasion of Iraq destroyed the theory that Saddam was bristling with WMDs. Guantanamo Bay prison camp is destroying another theory... And before these facts intervened, it was entirely reasonable to think that these theories would extend, if not in perpetuity, at least for the foreseeable future. Facts "changed everything".

The interesting thing here is that if two theories are in conflict, say like hard determinism and contracausal free will, then there should be some fact in the middle that touches them both. Examining the implications of that fact will destroy one or both theories.

The more facts touch a theory, the more it is verifiable, the more it has to say about the truth. There are exits from the maze. This is true about scientific theories; the more facts they cover, the more righteous they are. Science seems to me to be seeking out the weird facts, the ones that cut through all our old theories, in order to more closely verify and understand the properties of our real weird. Well, religion and philosophy are the same way: the more verifiable, the more potentially trustworthy.

So me and my friends were at a long-standing, collegial impasse, and I started thinking, "What is the Christian fact? What breaks through the contradictory fogs of theories, where will we hit the land?" It was pretty obvious: if Jesus rose from the dead, then Christianity was true; lots of philosophies and atheisms were untrue. And for once, we need not just deny, deny, tug away at each other's inconsequential details. Now we could say something interesting.

We started talking about this. I still have the tapes somewhere, where I explain why it is reasonable to think that Jesus rose from the dead and unreasonable to think otherwise (hint: it's not just that the Bible tells me so). Is this a fact? If so, it is a fact with an uncanny power to cut through the fog and lead us back to dry ground.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Two week vacation

This has been a time of great rest and relaxation for my family. I haven't had any school for the past month, and it has been a great boon for me, for Sarah, and for Alex. I start the computer science crusade in earnest on Monday. Our lives will be squeezed by this time again, and rewarding but challenging. And I will have plenty of time to be on the internet and available.

I know that you are out there, precious reader; for a few more days, enjoy your vacation.