Sunday, November 28, 2010

Evolution of mathematical symbols

At first glance (at least for me), mathematics seems to be a purely rationalistic endeavor. One sits and thinks about a problem, and then by the sheer power of the individual mind is able to produce an answer. By nothing more than logical deduction, one is able to prove theorems linking certain basic assumptions to interesting and/or useful conclusions. Unlike most other subjects, mathematics is a quest for abstract principles, without any necessary connection to concrete facts.

Yet doing mathematics requires symbols, which are necessarily concrete in their origin and use. The use of symbols in mathematics arises naturally even at its very beginning: counting. There is nothing more fundamental to mathematics than a collection of symbols representing different quantities. What often goes overlooked by those who don't study mathematics is that embedded in those symbols is a theory of numbers. For instance, many people hardly notice that our counting system is a "base 10" or "decimal" system. The number 10 itself is not so significant. What is significant is that somehow everyone knows that when I put a "1" directly to the left of a "0" I actually mean ten. This principle allows us to express remarkably large numbers with relatively few digits; indeed, the value of a number grows exponentially with the length of the number: 10 is ten times 1, 100 is ten times 10, 1000 is ten times 100, and so on. Thus a deep fundamental principle is embedded into the very symbols we use to count things: that all whole numbers are uniquely expressible as a sum of powers of ten, where the coefficients of each power is something between zero and nine.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The use of the mind in society

Friedrich Hayek is primarily known for his contributions to economics and political philosophy. Yet one of his best contributions to both of these fields is an underlying theory of social learning. As an economist, he was interested in how it is that civilizations make use of information which is distributed among many individual minds (see, for instance, Hayek's essay, "The Use of Knowledge in Society"). As a political philosopher, he was interested in how institutions come to be, and how these institutions benefit individuals and allow society to progress. In both cases, Hayek finds that people engaged in free exchanges with one another unwittingly contribute to a process of social learning of which they themselves are mostly unaware.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reponse to Mike Meredith (and all libertarians out there)

Here is a comment left on my blog by Mike Meredith:
Comment by Jameson Graber on 23 November 2010:
I mostly agree with the views you all are espousing, but I think some commenters here are simplifying the issue far too much. The criticism that the government is “doing things to other people they could never justify if they were in the private sector” is, upon a moment’s reflection, not good enough. The government has the right and even the responsibility to punish offenders of the law, whereas private citizens have no such right. Unless you intend to argue that this is not the way things ought to be (which would be arguing for anarchy) you’d better put forth a more reasonable principle which forbids the government from taking these invasive security measures. The fourth amendment should suffice.

I ran across this post on the Freeman website today and thought a couple of things odd and one humorous. First, how is it that any government has rights? As far as I can tell only people have rights. Second, from whence does government's authority to act derive? I fail to understand why anarchy is implied unless government has power that the people don't. The humor is in supposing that the constitution has force. It hasn't been worth the paper it is written on since the ink dried. Or at least since Marbury vs. Madison in 1803. It has had no force of restraint to speak of on government. And what little it has had diminishes with each passing day.


And here is my response:

Two years of blogging

Today marks the second anniversary of this blog. This post is the 310th post I've written. I suppose that's an average of one post every two or three days, though I certainly haven't been that consistent.

I don't know that blogging actually does the world a great deal of good, but if it's true that ideas matter, and that thinking critically about what you believe and why you believe it is important, then this blog at least does me a great deal of good. It's motivated me to essentially continue my liberal arts education, reading more about topics ranging from theology to economics to the interaction between science and faith. It's helped me to at least start down the path to developing a more coherent philosophy of life, all the while giving credit to that which has most influenced my thinking.

Some small part of me hopes that because this blog is public, it will have some positive influence on people I have never met, yet remain connected to through this vast incomprehensible network known as the World Wide Web. I have occasionally been surprised to find my blog being referenced in a wide variety of places on the Web, but I have never taken seriously the prospect of other people actually listening to me. Yet if there ever comes a time in my life when people really want to know what I think about things, I hope that this practice will have prepared me to give clear, intelligent answers.

So if you've been reading this, let me say thank you, and I hope you've gotten something out of it. I know I have.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hayek Against Rationalism

All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wisest. Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant.
Perhaps the single most attractive part of Hayek's philosophy is, in my view, his epistemology. This is not something that the majority of people are likely to care about. Yet whether most people care about them or not, questions about what we know and how we know it are intensely important to the intellectuals who are often most influential in shaping society. The argument for a free society must have, as part of its foundation, an argument for the right kind of answers to these questions.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Modern Spirituality

see more Failbook
These are the haunting religious questions of our time...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The two party system must go

I am a big believer in ideas. That is to say, I believe the ideas people choose to accept in the present profoundly influence how we live in the future. This is what The Road to Serfdom was all about: it traced the influence of ideas on society in Germany as a warning to Great Britain at a time when things looked quite bleak. The book itself influenced future generations after it was written; Ronald Reagan, for instance, listed Hayek as one of his greatest influences (see the Wikipedia article on Hayek), and this in turn greatly shaped American politics. Ideas have consequences for the future of society, and it follows that if we care about our future, we must be concerned with whether or not good ideas are allowed to flourish in the world we live in.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hayek on Freedom and Democracy

From The Road to Serfdom Chapter Five:
The fashionable concentration on democracy as the main value threatened is not without danger. It is largely responsible for the misleading and unfounded belief that, so long as the ultimate source of power is the will of the majority, the power cannot be arbitrary. The false assurance which many people derive from this belief is an important cause of the general unawareness of the dangers which we face. There is no justification for the belief that, so long as power is conferred by democratic procedure, it cannot be arbitrary; the contrast suggested by this statement is altogether false: it is not the source but the limitation of power which prevents it from being arbitrary. Democratic control may prevent power from becoming arbitrary, but it does not do so by its mere existence. If democracy resolves on a task which necessarily involves the use of power which cannot be guided by fixed rules, it must become arbitrary power.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hayek on hatred of the enemy

From The Road to Serfdom, Chapter Ten:
It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative program--on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off--than on any positive task. The contrast between the "we" and the "they," the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action. It is consequently always employed by those who seek, not merely support of a policy, but the unreserved allegiance of huge masses. From their point of view it has the great advantage of leaving them greater freedom of action than almost any positive program.
Makes you think about our own political attitudes, doesn't it? Perhaps I should include the next sentence for impact:
The enemy, whether be internal, like the "Jew" or the "kulak," or external, seems to be an indispensable requisite in the armory of a totalitarian leader.
The road to serfdom is paved with hatred.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hayek on Social Insurance

From The Road to Serfdom, Chapter 9:
Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance--where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks--the case for the state's helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong. There are many points of detail where those wishing to preserve the competitive system and those wishing to supercede it by something different will disagree on the details of such schemes; and it is possible under the name of social insurance to introduce measures which tend to make competition more or less ineffective. But there is no incompatibility in principle between the state's providing greater security in this way and the preservation of individual freedom. To the same category belongs also the increase of security through the state's rendering assistance to the victims of such "acts of God" as earthquakes and floods. Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What she's really thinking

From The Guardian:
What I'm really thinking: The abortion patient

There isn't a choice: I am an unemployed recent graduate barely able to afford the pregnancy test, with a boyfriend on bar wages. But after the scan, I want the nurse to find some unfathomable medical reason why termination isn't an option, so I'd be justified in keeping a child I don't want to lose but can't really provide for.


This is the "right thing to do", as almost everyone has advised. Hopefully soon I can focus on a career and creating the right circumstances eventually to have a child. But the due date for this baby is seared into my mind now. I won't ever be able to forget it.

Yet another example of an honest expression of need. This is why people like Frederica Mathewes-Green write books like Real Choices. This is why, even in the midst of all the intense controversy, people should still care about the abortion issue, ideally in a compassionate way.

One reader points out in the comments:
This is playing right into the hands of the anti-abortion lobby, or the "pro-forced-pregnancy" lobby as I prefer to call them. They put a lot of stock in the "abortion is a terrible tragedy and so traumatic" narrative. For some women it is, for a variety of reasons, and for some it isn't.

What other "choice" is defended so vehemently by downplaying all the pain it causes to those who choose it?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Hayek on self-sacrifice

If I seem to be portraying Hayek's views in moral terms, this is because I want to make the point that the ideals of a free market economy are not simply ideals of efficiency, progress, and prosperity, but also of justice. Without this, there would be no point in defending the free market.

In the fourth chapter of The Road to Serfdom entitled, "The 'Inevitability' of Planning," one of the issues Hayek deals with is the sacrifices that must be made in order to preserve freedom. One of those sacrifices is one which the whole society must make. He willingly admits that sometimes it is possible that market competition can prevent a particular benefit from being afforded to society. He admits "that it is possible that, by compulsory standardization or the prohibition of variety beyond a certain degree, abundance might be increased in some fields more than sufficiently to compensate for the restriction of the choice of the consumer."

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Calvin on Civil Government

At last, a conclusion to Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. It's been ten months in finishing, but it has certainly given me an education in Reformation doctrine from the 16th century. If nothing else, reading this enormous work has forced me to listen to the voice of the past, and it has challenged me to rethink my modern assumptions about the way things are.

Nothing could more perfectly illustrate this point than the last chapter of Calvin's work, "Civil Government." It is, of course, appropriate to be talking about this right after an election. However, what I found as I read this chapter was that every other part of Calvin felt more or less familiar except for this part. Based on this experience, it seems to me that modern Christians have kept alive every controversial theological issue except those related to the social order. For if we stop and ponder for a second, I think we will have to agree that without too much trouble we can find in America today Christians with every possible opinion on predestination or infant baptism, and yet you will be hard pressed to find a single American Christian who does not accept liberal democracy as the best form of government. I have my own suspicions about why this is, but I ought to save that for another time. Let's see what Calvin has to say.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A spirit of partisanship

Well, we've just endured another season of political campaigns and made it out alive. As predicted, the Republicans picked up a lot of seats in Congress, enough seats in the House for a majority, and enough Senate seats to take the majority away from the Democrats, leaving neither party with a majority. Everyone is left wondering what will happen in the next two years. Will Obama be able to get anything done with a Republican Congress? Will the Republicans overturn Obamacare? Oh, the possibilities.

Conventional wisdom seems to be that it would just be so great if both parties could set aside their differences and just work together toward the common good. If only "politics as usual" could take a break so we can deal with the "real" issues.

In my humble opinion, this is completely wrong.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hayek on the need for self-examination

My next little reading project will be to blog through (maybe not so thoroughly as the Institutes) three classic works of F. A. Hayek: The Road to Serfdom, The Constitution of Liberty, and The Fatal Conceit. I've read a bit of Hayek's thought already, mostly through certain essays I was particularly interested in, and I've always found something incredibly attractive about his philosophy. If I could sum it up in one thought, it's that Hayek has a healthy fear of rationalism and presumption. Rationalism, on the one hand, is the desire to only accept those things which you can fully rationally justify to yourself; presumption here refers to the grandiose claim that everything worth accepting can indeed be rationally justified, and thus controlled by enlightened men.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Voting Paradox

Key quote from this video: "While it's entirely rational not to vote...maybe that's not how people decide whether or not to vote."