Saturday, December 31, 2011

Maximus the Confessor on pleasure and pain

From Ad Thalassium 61:
When God created human nature, he did not create sensible pleasure and pain along with it; rather, he furnished it with a certain spiritual capacity for pleasure, a pleasure whereby human beings would be able to enjoy God ineffably. But at the instant he was created, the first man, by use of his senses, squandered this spiritual capacity--the natural desire of the mind for God--on sensible things. In this, his very first movement, he activated an unnatural pleasure through the medium of the senses. Being, in his providence, concerned for our salvation, God therefore affixed pain alongside this sensible pleasure as a kind of punitive faculty, whereby the law of death was wisely implanted in our corporeal nature to curb the foolish mind in its desire to incline unnaturally toward sensible things.
(I am here using a translation given by Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken from On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, from the Popular Patristics Series.)

This dualism between desire for God and desire for "unnatural pleasure through the medium of the senses" seems to play a strong role in Christian thought. I hear it in sermons all the time. It always goes something like this: you look for satisfaction in all the things of the world, from money to sex to popularity to comfort and ease, but none of these things will ultimately satisfy; only God will satisfy you.

My complaint against this notion is that it is empirically false. In the first place, I don't see the biblical justification in it. We read in Genesis 2 that God gave us all the plants in the garden to eat. How can one argue that this didn't involve "pleasure through the medium of the senses"? When Eve was tempted to eat of the forbidden tree, she saw that it was "good for food." How could she have seen this unless she knew what "good for food" meant?

I also wonder how Maximus and similar thinkers would deal with the entire book of Ecclesiastes, but I'll let that pass for now.

In the second place, I wonder how Christian thought can possibly maintain this dualism in light of a modern understanding of the mind and its "bottom-up" construction. Rather than a sharp division between rational and sensory functions of the mind, modern science shows rational thought to emerge out of the highly complex "lower functions" of a physical mind. In particular, there is not nearly so heavy a distinction between humans and other animals as classical thought would like to maintain.

Personally, I can't help but see this dualism as a form of nihilism. You can't find your ultimate pleasure in food, sex, comfort, or even friendship--no, ultimate pleasure is found in God, you see. Which makes God sound like nothing. For once you remove everything which gives us a direct experience of pleasure, all that remains is a vacuum.

This was always my critique of Anselm's ontological argument. The greatest possible being might simply be a phantom, a nothing, a vacuum. You continue to think of really good things, and continue to reject them, saying there must be something even greater. Until you have nothing left but the idea of something really really good.

Ironically, Maximus spends much of his time countering Origenism, which imagined that the "fall" involved incorporeal beings rejecting God and thus being condemned to bodily existence. Against this, Maximus insisted that we were, in fact, created with bodies (which is the only possible way you can read Genesis 1 and 2, anyway). I wish he had gone further than this.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Against Libertarianism

Whenever you happen to start finding yourself attracted to a particular philosophy, whether political or otherwise, it is important to attack it with all the intellectual might you can summon. Philosophies are powerful forces. They can shape a society for better or for ill. Just as each of us individually should think before he acts, so also society must have some means of contemplating various paths before it takes one. There is no other way for society to do that other than for individuals within it to do the thinking themselves, and engage in conversation with each other.
In that spirit, let me now enumerate my qualms with the philosophy generally called “libertarianism” in our day. Although the history of both that word at the philosophy with which I am dealing is a bit complicated, I will generally take for granted that anyone reading this is more or less familiar with the kinds of ideas I’m talking about. Libertarians believe in individual rights, including rights to life, liberty, and property. They believe in limited government (or, in the case of anarchocapitalists, no government at all) and they think that the mark of a good society is a minimal use of force and coercion. Libertarians believe in free markets and civil liberties: they don’t believe anyone should interfere with what we buy and sell, where we choose to live, who we choose to associate with, what we choose to say or believe, or how we choose to use our own property.
I find that there is much to appreciate about libertarianism, and politically I more or less identify as a libertarian because there is no broader category that defines my political beliefs. However, progress is never achieved by speaking only in generalities. Here I want to nail down some specific major objections (or at least qualms) I have concerning the ideas that usually fall under the label “libertarian.”
1.      Personal Autonomy
My first objection to libertarianism is philosophical in nature. Libertarians often make two claims about personal autonomy. The first is that people are autonomous, and the second is that they should be left to their autonomy. Let me take each of these claims in order.
The first claim: all people are autonomous individuals. This is plainly false. Indeed, there would be absolutely no reason for a market economy if this were true. There is simply no way the number of human beings currently living could actually live if not for the fact that they cooperate with one another. Libertarians who equate free market economics with the idea that everyone should be left alone to fend for himself are only helping the opposition, since everyone knows we can’t simply fend for ourselves and hope to survive.
No one acts independently of all other people. We all make decisions based on the morals, beliefs, and customs of other people around us. This is most obvious when we think of the obvious fact that we all come into this world as children. We learn the most basic skills which enable us to survive from our parents. Only gradually do we gain a greater degree of independence, and this independence is never absolute. Even the most independent among us will have to base his decisions on the decisions made by others.
This is more than an abstract philosophical point. Have you ever noticed how little libertarians have to say about the lives of children? Can a libertarian who supports the legalization of prostitution make a coherent argument against child prostitution? Why is a 17 year-old off limits when an 18 year-old has the right to do what she wants with her body? It is simply impossible to come up with a coherent position if we imagine that at some point people magically turn into autonomous adults.
Indeed, the idea of absolute personal autonomy is what leads to many of the major pitfalls of liberalism, which libertarians hate so much. If all people are simply autonomous individuals, then the only way to prevent them from destroying each other is through a powerful state. In the real world, liberty works precisely because we are not autonomous individuals. Rather, we rely on a highly complex set of institutions, many of which have no formal existence, and which arise through a process of cultural evolution, rather than human design.
The second claim: all people ought to be left alone to make their own decisions. If absolute personal autonomy does not exist, then insisting that society ought to protect it is nonsensical. If our goal is to defend liberty, then we need a definition of “liberty” which refers to something real. Perhaps in the near future, I will provide such a definition of my own. For now, I think it will do to refer to F. A. Hayek’s definition from The Constitution of Liberty, in which he defines a free society as one in which coercion is minimized. Defining “coercion” is complicated, of course, and I’ll simply ask the reader to read his book for some ideas.
2.      Morality
It is common for libertarians to claim that the government should not legislate morality. This is a piece of rhetoric which is also popular among liberals, and it is so pervasive that most people in our country have a hard time seeing just how silly it is. All law is legislated morality. If a law isn’t about right and wrong, it probably shouldn’t be a law!
The objection typically raised to all sorts of legislation is that we shouldn’t use legislation to impose our “personal morality” on others. For instance, Christians who might oppose homosexual practice should not use the law to forbid it. The principle underlying this claim is that all people should be allowed to make any choice they want about their own lives, so long as it does not hurt anyone. This is a worthy principle—don’t misunderstand me—but it is, indeed, a moral principle.
The question is not whether we are going to legislate morality. The question is, what moral principles should guide our legislation? We certainly cannot legislate all morality, as numerous examples will illustrate. For instance, most of us agree that it is wrong to insult other people and hurt their feelings. But no one would suggest that the government should pass a law banning such insults. Why not? Because most of us also realize that such things can easily be resolved without the use of government force, and it would be wrong to use force wherever it is unnecessary--not to mention the waste of resources involved in using such extraordinary means to solve such a trivial problem.
Libertarians have a long intellectual tradition with some good ideas about which morals should guide legislation. Such principles include equal rights for all individuals and the principle of non-aggression. These principles may be flawed or not, but they are certainly moral principles, and they should be compared to other moral principles, rather than treated as above or outside of morality. Essentially, I am not here criticizing the ideas of libertarians so much as their rhetoric.
3.      Property
I have on occasion heard libertarians complain that Thomas Jefferson should have kept the trio “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as “life, liberty, and property.” This fixation on property rights gives libertarianism a decidedly right-wing feel, at least in present-day America. In many ways I applaud libertarians for their emphasis on personal property, but I think it needs to be grounded in a proper moral framework.
In particular, I don’t think human beings are always entitled to use things in whatever way they desire. This is an especially important point to make in an age when we are most aware of the damage we have done to the earth. If libertarians are silent about environmental concerns, then the movement is either irrelevant or possibly even dangerous. Besides, it is hardly self-evident that human beings are entitled to own pieces of land and do with them what we please.
Ownership is not so much a matter of people have power over things as it is a way of establishing parameters for human cooperation. That is why some form of property rights is inevitable, radical left-wing claims notwithstanding. If we are going to have any interaction with the physical world whatsoever, we are eventually going to be faced with the question of how we share it. A political system with no property rights is implicitly a system of collectivist property rights, which inevitably means a powerful governing authority must take charge of setting guidelines for the use of valuable resources.
Libertarians are right to critique collectivist property rights, because such a system must rely on concentrated power and coercion. However, it is also the case the personal property rights depend on coercion. For instance, if a bank has the right to trade a loan for interest on that loan, then in the future it will have the right to coerce me based on a decision I make now. The question the libertarian should ask himself is whether the current system of property rights actually minimizes coercion. Too often libertarians are fixated on the economic question of efficiency and prosperity and not, ironically enough, on the question of liberty.
I happen to think that banks should be allowed to charge interest (yet certainly not without exception). Nevertheless, we ought to recognize that this rule depends on a common acceptance of property rights which have not always been deemed acceptable in the course of human civilization. There might be good reasons for that. Libertarians should not be mere defenders of the status quo, but should constantly be reassessing how well our current notion of property works in favor of liberty. Perhaps it is worth bringing up old controversies in the hopes of shedding new light on our present situation, especially as protestors call for debt forgiveness and tighter regulations on banks.
This concludes my critique of libertarianism, which is not to say I’ve covered every flaw. In future posts, I’ll try to offer something more constructive by suggesting ways in which libertarians could more clearly define a sound political philosophy. I would like to conclude by affirming that I do think liberty is the most valuable trait of our society, and that we ought to work to defend it. But if we don’t take the time to think about what we mean by this, we’ll find ourselves drifting in a direction none of us wanted.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas meditation

But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)
In the process of maturing in one's thoughts about the Christian faith, it is possible to go back and forth between Christmas and Easter trying to decide which is the most important day for the Church. For a child, of course, Christmas seems to have far more gravity; we get off school for it, and we get a ton of presents. This fact does make one think about the relationship between faith and culture. What would life be like if the year were shifted around, and Easter were the central celebration of the year?

A more mature Christian will say Easter is the most important day for the Church because that was the day Jesus rose from the dead and accomplished our salvation. His death on the cross could not have meant salvation for the human race if not for his resurrection. Christmas doesn't even appear in two out of the four gospels. Easter, however, is the main focus of all the gospels, and indeed the entire New Testament. Without Easter, there is no gospel, hence no Christian faith.

The pendulum can swing back after a bit of contemplation. Without Christmas, the crucifixion couldn't have happened, and the resurrection would be meaningless. More specifically, without the Incarnation, there is no Atonement, because there is no blood. And more than this, Christ taking on human flesh means that human flesh is redeemed and transformed into its former glory. All of the work that Christ has accomplished began on Christmas. You cannot have the end without the beginning.

But there is another reason why I am a big fan of Christmas this year, and that is because Christmas comes really not at the beginning of the story but rather in the middle of it. The New Testament begins with Christmas, but in the larger story of the Bible, Christmas comes rather late in the game. Or in a bigger sense, recognizing that the world has really had billions of years of history, Christmas really comes at such a small, seemingly insignificant moment. When Jesus was first born, it is hard to imagine anyone noticed. Matthew tells us of a few wise men and Luke tells us of some shepherds who saw angels in the sky. Did anyone even believe them? And what difference did it make to them even if they did?

I'm not a very good Christian, in the following sense. During Christmas services, I'm told to think back to the birth of Christ and realize what a great gift has been given to humankind, and then I'm told to think about how this was the beginning of all the Christ accomplished. In other words, I'm told to believe that everything is really finished, that Christ has already done everything for us, and that the appropriate response is to celebrate that with worship and with good deeds. I admit this feels like a strange plan to me. Has it all really been accomplished? Is this really what the world looks like after salvation has already come to earth?

Perhaps it's simply too painful to remember what the world is still like, even after the good news has been preached all over the world. It's painful to remember how fragile life is, the way hurricanes and tsunamis can destroy hundreds and thousands of human lives, the way famine and disease still afflict millions of people daily, the way millions and millions of children go to bed hungry each night, the way corrupt world leaders fail to defend the rights of the most helpless, the way even good people do terrible things to each other, the way even the Church has contributed to the great evil of the world...

There seems to be a certain comfort that comes from hearing that everything has been accomplished already. That means victory is assured, and whatever evil may get in our way, we will ultimately overcome. But sometimes, I admit, this comfort seems rather perverse. The more people talk about what has already been accomplished through Christ, the more it seems to sound like a myth, a fairy tale, a comforting thought to help a man sleep at night. Many times it does feel like such comforts are all we get in this broken world. If we can't successfully lie to ourselves, maybe there simply is no comfort in life and in death.

Mary gets a lot of attention this time of year, even from us Protestants. Songs like "Mary Did You Know?" reflect on the idea that Mary was in the middle of the story, and could not see how it all would end. I guess we are supposed to appreciate the fact that we do see how it ended and how it will end, and we are supposed to wonder what it would have been like for Mary. But I find myself actually understanding Mary right where she is in Luke 2. She treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. She had neither answers nor explanations. She simply pondered what these things could mean.

Most of the time I feel so lost in the middle of a big story that I just can't understand the words "all that Christ accomplished." It's that darn word "accomplished." What about, "is doing" or "has begun"? Maybe I can understand those a little better. And maybe that's why Christmas means so much to me right now. Because in a world that really is so full of darkness, it is the height of conceit to pretend we know where we are going. Those who say they do are deluded. I've seen where it is they're actually going, and it isn't pretty: divisions in the church, hatred toward the outside world, and the neglect and/or destruction of souls who long for real answers to these questions about what's going to happen to this world. If I'm being a bit vague, perhaps my vagueness is a good way to illustrate what the real world is really like.

This Christmas, I am personally recognizing my great lack of ability to actually believe that anything has been accomplished. I'm not saying this isn't a failing on my part. The Church has always insisted that there is a higher reality which we cannot see until our eyes are opened. Perhaps that's what I am missing. In any case, it's something I wrestle with, and it isn't something that beautiful candlelight services can fix.

But while part of it may be a failing, in another sense I am certain that I ought to feel the way I do, because the world really is dark and perplexing. While I may celebrate with my family with all the comforts and conveniences of modern life, I refuse to forget in my heart all of the great mysteries and tragedies of life. How is it that I can be blessed with so much while others suffer with so little? Or on the other hand, how is it that some can find happiness with relatively little, while incredibly wealthy people find only misery? Where is the justice in all of this confusion and conflict? When will there be peace and wholeness?

There is light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of sadness, mercy in the midst of oppression, life in the midst of death. Though millions of children go to sleep hungry, millions more are fed by the generosity of others. Though hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes rage, still millions of people are willing to give their money and in many cases their time and talents toward rebuilding. Though governments oppress their own people, still the voice of reason and justice lives on. Why does it never seem to win? "A sword will pierce your own soul, too"--this, it seems, is the story of all humanity.

This Christmas, I am pondering all these things in my heart. Like Mary, I have no answers or explanations. All I can do is watch. I have seen light in the midst of darkness--but oh, how great is that darkness! Sometimes it seems we are all lost. And that is just when the Christmas story is needed most.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Grace and Freedom

Peter Leithart's blog post today made me think to write some thoughts on a topic Christians rarely seem to sort out. On the one hand, we acknowledge that God is the source of everything we have, and that we can do nothing on our own. Fundamentally, everyone has to acknowledge this, including atheists: everything that we have to work with is in some sense inherited, whether biologically, culturally, or in some more abstract sense (e.g. all of us are composed of matter that came from stars billions of years ago). On the other hand, we work to earn a living in this world, to create things beautiful and/or useful, to discipline ourselves into moral people, to solve some great problem, or just to satisfy our own desires. Can we really claim credit for any of these accomplishments, given that everything we have to start with is a gift? If not, why do we bother?

This question could quickly become abstract theoretical, leading to a discussion about the famous free will problem in philosophy and theology. What we can't miss, however, is that this is an eminently political question. Many of today's biggest controversies are over the question of how a just society should distribute its resources among its members. In typical partisan terms that most people are familiar with, the "conservative" answer is that people should get to keep what they earn. The "liberal" answer is that the conservative answer is inadequate without some adjustments, because you can't deny that all of your success is built on things you didn't earn; so we should make some attempt to redistribute our wealth to make things a little more equitable.

To make my own position plain from the outset, I think both answers are wrong. I don't find them merely incomplete; I actually don't think either of them have any reasonable foundation on which to build a just society. So where to start?

Milton Friedman was not a Christian, nor was he a religious man at all. Yet I once heard him make a remarkably Christian statement. It was while he was addressing a question which someone asked him to the effect of, "Don't you think women deserve to make as much as men?" His response was, "It's not a question of desert. None of us deserve anything. Thank God we don't get what we deserve!"

Life is a gift: that is my starting point. Everything we have is also a gift. Many people will readily acknowledge this when it is pointed out to them. Where, then, do we get the concept of deserving, and why does it feature so prominently in our moral thinking?

In fact, the idea of deserving comes from situations in which there is a clear hierarchy of people, with one person in charge of deciding who gets what. For instance, if you work for a company and have a boss, you expect to get paid what you deserve--not in some ultimate sense but in the sense that there is some reasonable standard by which you can measure a given employee's performance and give out pay accordingly. In somewhat similar fashion, parents often set up a system of rewards and punishments to shape their children's behavior. Thus the idea of deserving mainly serves to form cooperative groups of people by forming clear behavioral expectations.

The reward/punishment system is very intuitive, and for that reason it is hard not to want it extended to the society at large. However, the system depends on having a leader to distribute rewards and punishments. As a consequence, the reward/punishment destroys both freedom and equality, since someone will have to be placed in authority over us (thus making society unequal) and this authority will have to be used to shape our behavior toward some preconceived ideal (thus destroying freedom).

I suppose any system could work if we had Jesus Christ himself in charge of all economic distribution. But as we read in the gospels, Jesus rejected that responsibility.

A just and free society cannot decide the question of economic distribution based on the concept of deserving. Instead, I suggest that society be built on the concept of grace, which is the radical notion that we  do not get anything from merit, but from the freedom of giving. As Jesus says in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?"

For the present I'm going to hedge the question of property rights and how they should be defined. Suffice it to say, without any concept of property (implicit or explicit), members of a society have no way to understand gift. If I cannot own anything, then I cannot give or receive anything. Ownership is not the ultimate value in a society, but it is a necessary feature.

(Note well that I have concentrated on gift and have not even mentioned exchange. Gift is always prior to exchange, since if we had never been given anything (at the very least our own lives) we would have nothing to exchange. About exchange free market economists have many things to say, but perhaps it bears repeating that a free society is based on more than economics!)

Once we accept this principle of grace, there remains a lot of work to be done concerning the nature of property rights and defining the limitations of government. However, my concern is that most people do not seem to accept this principle, because the principle of deserving is so much more intuitive. Surely no one deserves to have "so much money"--a hundred thousand dollars? a million dollars? a billion dollars?--and surely the poor deserve something from those who have more than they need. So might a liberal say. On the other hand, surely people deserve to keep the money they make, and surely lazy people don't deserve anything from those of us who work hard. So might a conservative say. I don't say either one of these things, because I know that none of us--not even the best of us--really deserve anything. I don't say that people shouldn't be praised for their accomplishments; but even this praise is a gift, freely given by those who rightly enjoy seeing good things accomplished in the world.

Yet in spite of our undeserving (or, more properly, in spite of the fact that "deserving" isn't the right category to be applied), we do have an abundance of good things. Should we reject them just because we do not deserve them? On the contrary, the best way to appreciate a good gift is to enjoy it, and to give to others as a response. But when you convince people that everything is a matter of deserving, it is remarkable how stingy they become. Or do you call it generosity when a man gives everything he has at gunpoint? Only a free society can foster true generosity.

On first examination, it looked as if grace and freedom were somehow opposed. It turns out quite the opposite: the one cannot exist without the other.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

So today, like the total nerd that I am, I actually read a couple of the articles which came out in the latest Notices of American Mathematical Society. One article that caught my attention was entitled, "A Perspective on Wigner's 'Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics,'" which refers to a famous essay by Eugene Wigner on the mysterious way in which mathematics actually seems to tell us true things about the physical world. (As opposed to merely the world of abstract ideas. It would be unsurprising of mathematics told us something about that.) In the article, Jason Nicholson appeals to the philosophy of one Robert Pirsig, who wrote what is claimed to be one of the most widely read books of philosophy ever written, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Nicholson seeks to bring Pirsig's "Metaphysics of Quality" into academic discussion, particularly among mathematicians interested in mathematical metaphysics.

Since I have never read Pirsig, let me just give a few excerpts from Nicholson's summary so that you get the main idea:
The Metaphysics of Quality is, in some limited sense, as follows. He had in his first book realized (and made the case) that Quality is an undefinable entity that is the precursor of subjects and objects; everyone knows what it is but no one can define it. He proceeds to understand that subjects and objects are only one dual pair of defined things into which the undefined Quality event gets split as it is “realized”—that is, made real through a necessarily incomplete attempt to define it. ...

In his second book, however, he is led to a different split into what he calls “static” and “dynamic” aspects of reality as the best split possible, the most useful. He actually terms them static quality (or value) and Dynamic Quality, and with them he builds his Metaphysics of Quality, a metaphysical framework that provides a different, and, he demonstrates, better way of understanding the world we live in. Dynamic Quality is the undefined Quality that was described in his first book, but now he introduces static patterns of quality alongside it to reflect the “realization” of that undefined Quality which makes up our world. They act like a ratchet: the Dynamic Quality is the constant stimulus to move to something “better”, to ratchet up, but the static quality is the latch of the ratchet itself, the making tangible of the motion up into something concrete which will prevent falling down into something “worse”. Dynamic Quality is the creative urge, whereas static quality, or patterns of static quality, is what is created in response.

In building his Metaphysics of Quality, Pirsig classifies patterns of static quality into four discrete yet interrelated levels: Inorganic, Biological, Social, and Intellectual. He describes the relationship between these levels as being analogous to the relationship of computer hardware to computer software—the software is run on the hardware, but has nothing, really, to do with it. The program that you run on your computer and write your article with has nothing to do with the computer hardware itself. Furthermore, the content of your article has nothing to do with the program you write it in. In this way the levels of static quality are related to each other: Biological is built on Inorganic, Social is built on Biological, and Intellectual is built on Social, but each level is independent of the other.

Using this idea, Pirsig makes the case that Darwinian evolution is just Dynamic Quality at work by understanding “survival of the fittest” as meaning the movement of static quality (survival) towards Dynamic Quality (fittest). Then the four levels of static quality are levels of evolution.
Nicholson then goes on to apply this metaphysics to the problem of "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics."
The key word in Wigner’s thesis is “unreasonable”; he actually hit on the solution to the problem in the title of his article. Since Dynamic Quality cannot be defined, it is by definition (so to speak) unreasonable. But that is the reason that any explanation of Wigner’s observation requires an expanded metaphysics. In our tacitly assumed subject-object metaphysics, as Pirsig makes clear, anything “unreasonable” is discarded, and so the effectiveness of mathematics in describing the natural world is an insoluble quandary. Once an “unreasonable” entity, Quality is seen as the root or precursor to all subjects and objects, the quandary fades. ...

The Metaphysics of Quality also easily solves another long-standing dilemma among mathematicians regarding the nature of their subject: the “is mathematics invented or discovered?” debate. The solution to this debate is reminiscent of the Metaphysics of Quality’s resolution of the “free will versus determinism” debate referred to above. Mathematics is invented insofar as it is a process of following Dynamic Quality—that is, insofar as it is “free”. It is discovered insofar as it is a process of fleshing out previously unknown consequences within the static patterns of quality that are mathematics as it stands. Most Ph.D. theses and much published mathematics are more of this latter type—original work, that is, new consequences of existing static patterns, but not in the sense of following only Dynamic Quality. In fact, one might say that any new development comes as a mixture of both types of originality; it lies on a continuum between purely static quality at one end and purely Dynamic Quality at the other. The most “creative” and “original” mathematics obviously sits toward the Dynamic Quality end of the spectrum.
As I understand this, it feels like simply an evolved, 20th century version of Platonism, with a dash of eastern religion added for flavor. And I'm entirely comfortable with that. The only thing I want to point out is how easily this Metaphysics of Quality fits into the idea of participation in the divine. Whereas the Platonist might say that concrete assertions in mathematics are reflections or shadows of a higher reality, Nicholson, drawing on Pirsig, is saying that mathematical ideas are "static patterns" emerging in response to Dynamic Quality. And whereas the Platonist might imagine this higher reality as unchanging while changeable things are merely shadows, Pirsig's philosophy flips that around and says that what is more real is changing, so that all of reality is cast in a Darwinian light.

Which leads me to the question: can we really escape the moral question about God's goodness? Whether God is the creator or simply the selector, whether he is the personal God of the Old Testament or the impersonal God of physics, it does seem like the process of discovery is tied up with this grand question: is it all worth it? In other words, if my intelligence is the result of a selection process that ultimately has no moral worth, why not rebel against it? Perhaps the answers we've been getting from science really are wrong on some fundamental level--not wrong in the sense that they have predictive power, but wrong in the sense that the universe is not worthy of our comprehension. Much like a young Christian who suddenly discovers he can't find it in himself to worship a God who banishes people to eternal torment in hell, maybe one day humanity will rebel against the very idea of knowledge, on the grounds that the universe is just too cruel or depressing to be worthy of our careful study.

Theodicy, it seems to me, is not merely a question for theists.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

ReasonTV on civility

In probably their greatest short video ever, ReasonTV captures the absurdity of ahistorical claims about how "uncivil" modern political rhetoric has become. Take a look:

Everyone who gets tired of "negative campaigning" needs to remember how terrible bipartisanship is. Seriously. What do we get when both sides of the aisle work together? Let's see, how about

  • more government spending
  • more military intervention in foreign countries
  • more government intervention in our lives
  • more executive powers granted to the president.
In other words, when Republicans and Democrats work together, there's no limit to how much damage they can do to our freedom.

There is a good explanation for this, I think. The spirit of cooperativeness stems from a spirit of nationalism, a sense of solidarity with one another as "Americans." When we apply this name to ourselves for the sake of political solidarity, it unfortunately means that we begin to embrace American exceptionalism: the idea that we are the chosen people of the world and we can do anything. This may sound radical, but I'm really troubled by nationalism, and sometimes I even question this whole nation-state idea that everyone in the whole world embraces in our day.

All that aside, even if you think that politicians should be nice and civil to each other all the time, maybe it at least puts things into perspective to know that our politicians have always taken jabs at one another. I personally think that spirit of competition between politicians is a good thing. Never trust politicians who like each other. That only makes it easier for them to get away with cheating you.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Empirical religion

A friend of mine alerted me to a new book being released by philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who takes on the ideas of the "new atheists" and offers a new defense of the Christian faith as compatible with modern science. He says he wants to move from being on the "defensive" going on the "offensive," bringing positive arguments for why atheism is wrong and must be rejected.

I don't know very much about Plantinga, and the NYT article doesn't explain very much about his real argument. Nevertheless, the article got me once again thinking about that great question in our time: can a person believe in God and embrace science? It's a loaded question, to be sure, but it's one I am doomed to face for the rest of my life if I am to continue taking both my faith and my profession seriously.

I get very uncomfortable with Christians being either on offense or defense in this game. What most people seem to miss is a point atheists often make but don't consistently bear out in their arguments: none of us really know that much. To say that there are still questions science can't answer doesn't logically necessitate that Christianity has a claim on our lives. If science can't explain everything, it may be equally the case that Christianity can't, either. More importantly, it could very well be true that Christianity (or theism in general) doesn't even explain what it claims it does.

The reason I say all of that is because I think there is too much intellectual conservatism dominating Christian apologetics. Classical arguments for the existence of God are interesting, but there are good reasons why they don't work anymore. I find it hard to take the claim Christians so often make that even if evolution is true, it doesn't change what Christian orthodoxy ought to be. For God's sake, why not? Are there not a million ways in which this could profoundly affect our understanding of who and what we are? Or what about the age of the universe? Or the nature of atoms and subatomic particles? How can we help but think about the implications these have, not only for determining our place in the universe but for understanding our very nature?

Atheists say that the logical consequence of all these discoveries is that it's silly to believe in God, and so their bigger point gets lost because they tie it to a particular conclusion that Christians can't accept. The bigger point is, I think, a good one: it is that orthodoxy cannot simply be a matter of closing your eyes and missing new discoveries. A community genuinely interested in truth will not persecute or cut off those who challenge traditional thinking. It will not constantly be on the defensive against new explanations that refute old ones.

Is this not, in fact, more consistent with the story of Christianity? I am constantly impressed by how often the word see appears in the gospels. "The eye is the lamp of the body," Jesus says. He accuses the Pharisees of being "blind guides of the blind." And this accusation comes after they take offense at his overturning of traditional food laws, to which he replies, "Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" The central story of Mark's gospel is the healing of a blind man, which requires two healings, because the first healing only partially restores the man's sight; this seems to symbolize the disciples only partially "seeing" what Jesus really came to accomplish. In John's gospel, light and darkness are central themes throughout. Jesus is "the light of the world," and "Whoever sees me has seen the Father." And John says that "we have seen his glory."

I could go on and on. The point is that Jesus does not make classical arguments for the existence of God. He instead wants us to see what God is doing: "See, something greater than Solomon is here!" Christianity is not a logical deduction from axiomatic truths about God. It is the direct result of people bearing witness to the world that they saw something new.

If we miss this central characteristic at the heart of the Christian faith, we lose out on the most valuable resource truth-seekers have: the willingness to be surprised, and the courage to break with tradition when the time calls for it. Not that breaking with tradition means turning away from it in resentment. Early Christians could not help but see themselves as the fulfillment of ancient Israelite tradition. In the same way, all new discoveries have the potential to give us a greater understanding of what we had previously believed.

The idea that previously held beliefs still have a place in spite of new discoveries is just tragic to me. Rather, we ought to have our eyes open to ways in which new discoveries can change our vision of who God is. I think the theory of evolution, for instance, really should cause us to rethink and reinterpret the story of creation, particularly the idea of the image of God in human beings. We should not leave this rethinking up to those who have no patience for faith and no desire to build it up. We should be the ones courageous enough to accept that God is not the same as our ancestors believed he was. The story of God and his people is full of surprises.

I am sensitive to the fact that many have taken these ideas and used them to collapse Christianity into a metaphor for the human experience, replacing divine interaction with the created world with human progress. I understand that orthodoxy cannot simply embrace the latest trends in human thinking uncritically. But after a while I lose patience with conservatives, who seem painfully close to what Jesus would call "blind guides of the blind." Do scientists really make discoveries, or not? Is theology so privileged as to be beyond all empirical correction? There would be no such thing as Christianity if that were true!

I am sorry that I am not able in these blog posts to give satisfying answers to the serious problems that Christians face in reconciling faith and modern science. Many people attempt to do this in a way that is trite or illogical, while others claim they are irreconcilable. Neither strikes me as attractive, which is why I will continue to try patiently to think about these things on as deep a level as I can manage. And whatever I think, I'll blog.

But the truth is, answers can never be satisfying forever. Life is always changing. When things stop changing, that's called death. God is the God of life, and I believe that if we are faithful to him we can never stop embracing the change that is necessary. For that we need our eyes to be open.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How not to solve problems in education

In an article in the Washington Post, Marion Brady argues that our standardized tests are the product of unaccountable institutions that are out of teach with real educational needs. She relates the story of a friend "on the school board of one of the largest school districts in America" who decided to take a tenth grade standardized test himself, to see how he would do. The results were abysmal. In particular, he only managed to get 10% on the math portion (no surprise to me, by the way) and a 60% on the reading portion. The key to Brady's telling of the story is that her friend is actually a perfectly successful individual:
His now-grown kids are well-educated. He has a big house in a good part of town. Paid-for condo in the Caribbean. Influential friends. Lots of frequent flyer miles. Enough time of his own to give serious attention to his school board responsibilities. The margins of his electoral wins and his good relationships with administrators and teachers testify to his openness to dialogue and willingness to listen.
So the claim of the article is not that grown-ups on the school board are stupid, but rather that the tests are too hard, and don't really test anything that students will need to know as adults.

Maybe this is true and maybe it isn't. I'm sure we'll hear some responses back and forth about that claim. But if you dwell on this question, then the real point of the article is easy to overlook. The real point is made when Brady quotes her friend as saying,
“I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”
Individuals who lack perspective and aren't really accountable are exactly the kind of people you get when you put some people in charge of others. If there was ever an argument for a libertarian restructuring of education it's precisely this. It comes down to a simple logical quandary, really: if the only way to hold people accountable is by putting others in charge of them, then who holds the people in charge accountable?

The case for freedom in general, and education in particular, is that people will generally be held accountable by reality. The real world does not have unlimited resources. Possibilities are only endless insofar as the human mind is able to make more creative use of what is available. This means all decisions come with considerable risk: there is no way to be absolutely sure that one particular choice is better than all of the others which could have been made.

This is true of education no less than anything else. The desire to standardize education stems from the desire to shield children from the possibility of being "left behind," but in the process it simply forces all students to bear the consequences of whatever risks the federal government takes in determining education policy. A political process simply cannot determine what is best for everyone, given the unique individual needs of millions of students.

Education is not a magic bullet. We have damaged our society by indulging ourselves in the illusory narrative that all good students who do the right thing will invariably be successful in life. Statistics may show that this is true; but for any one particular individual dealing with the particular circumstances of his own life, statistics mean absolutely nothing.

Society learns more when we allow people to make their own decisions and bear the consequences of those decisions. This often turns out badly for some people who take risks; but to imagine that we have a better alternative than this is nothing short of delusion. The only alternative is to let other people make our decisions for us, and then to bear the consequences of the risks they have taken. The idea that any government bureaucracy or corporation could produce a curriculum appropriate for all students is yet another example of the fatal conceit at work in our political system.

There are ways we could quickly make our educational system more free. School vouchers are a good idea. We could also start abolishing laws in school districts that prevent charter schools from moving in. Repeal No Child Left Behind. There have to be dozens of other actions that could be taken, but all of them are prevented by one special interest group or another. All we can do is watch those groups fight each other for power.

There are many problems in education, and almost all of them are caused by the fact that certain people have too much control over the decisions we make for ourselves and for our children. The way not to solve those problems is to give someone else even more power over the people who now have power over us.

The way to solve these problems is liberty.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Libertarianism and Consumerism

Happy Black Friday, everyone. Today is the day when we celebrated the way in which consumerism saves us from all economic woes.

Or not.

Did you know that FDR once changed the day we celebrated Thanksgiving? Since Abraham Lincoln's declaration in 1863, Thanksgiving had always been celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. So why did FDR change it? You guessed it--to save businesses!
For 75 years after Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November as the day of Thanksgiving. However, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not. In 1939, the last Thursday of November was going to be November 30. Retailers complained to FDR that this only left 24 shopping days to Christmas and begged him to push Thanksgiving just one week earlier. It was determined that most people do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving and retailers hoped that with an extra week of shopping, people would buy more.

So when FDR announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1939, he declared the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, November 23, the second-to-last Thursday of the month.
(Unfortunately, none of FDR's policies ever did quite have the economic impact so many people claim: the Great Depression didn't end until after World War II was over. See also here.)

As a Christian with libertarian leanings, I'm often faced with the question about free markets and consumerism. Is the greatest society we can come up with really one in which people are simply free to pursue their material well-being, without regard for higher values? Obviously not. So why wouldn't I be in favor of a structure of government which keeps the profit motive in check, and which doesn't favor the greedy?

I have spent many words answering these questions in a philosophical way, but one should also notice the historical irony behind these questions. America has never embraced socialism, which according to its strict definition means government-run production. Rather, thanks to the influence of Keynesian economic theory, we have instead embraced corporatism, in which the government takes the role of business partner with the capitalists who produce goods.

Keynesian economics is important here. The vulgar form of this theory (that is, the most common form) is that during an economic recession, the government needs to increase consumption in order to spur producers on to further growth. This consumption-oriented mentality is now pervasive in our culture. The media endlessly parrots the idea that our major economic problem is not enough consumption. Every year reporters constantly fret about how well retailers are doing during the Christmas season. We are made to believe that it is our patriotic duty to spend more and thereby revitalize our economy.

But this idea is no libertarian idea. You will not find it in the writings of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, or Milton Friedman. You will not hear ReasonTV telling you to go out and shop more. Can you imagine Ron Paul saying we need to spend more?

No, the defenders of liberty are always the ones asking just the opposite: we must save so that we can invest; we must invest so that we can grow; only a fool would spend more to buy himself out of debt. (There are exceptions, of course; many worthwhile ventures require a great deal of risk. But it is the general idea that I'm attacking here.) Is there any doubt which philosophical movement is more responsible for the all-pervasive debt we see in our society, both in government and among private citizens? Inflation, easy credit, and increased government spending are all based on the assumption that the short term is everything--and this assumption seems to be the cultural by-product of a philosophy which is skeptical of both freedom and personal responsibility.

Libertarians want all people to free from violence and coercion. We have never promised that we can ever be free from the realities of life. Undoubtedly, people who are free to make their own choices with their excess wealth will often choose to spend it frivolously. This is not an inherently bad thing; would we really want to live in a society in which no one ever used anything without precisely weighing its value? What a dreadfully dull society that would be! But a society which feels compelled to spend beyond its means, which feels it is a God-given right that they should spend excessively year after year, which feels that consumption drives economic growth--that is a society doomed to fall apart.

So while I believe strongly that the government has no right to tell you what to buy or not to buy this holiday season, I am equally convinced that a truly free people would not be so foolish with money as we now see people are. True freedom also means real responsibility, and real responsibility teaches us through the discipline of economic realities. If consumerism was originally the product of economic freedom, its only cure is more freedom--not government sponsored capitalism.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The most important reason to vote for Ron Paul

Last week I was flying out to San Diego, and I sat next to a Navy officer who had served in Afghanistan. He struck up a conversation with me during the flight, and at some point we came around to the wars in the Middle East. I asked him, "Is it worth it for us to be in Afghanistan?" His answer, sadly, did not surprise me. It went something like this:
Honestly, there are probably more terrorists on American soil right now than there are in the countries where we're "fighting terrorism."
This would not be the first soldier I have heard question U.S. foreign policy.
Ever since I was old enough to be aware of politics, we have been sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. Have we achieved our objectives? What objectives? Are we the nation destined to build democracy around the world? And must we sacrifice a continual supply of troops in order to do it? Consider this video (you'll see it above on my blog) outlining some of our history with the Middle East, particularly with Iran. Ever since we began playing political chess with the Soviet Union some 60 years ago, we have invested ourselves in a never-ending cycle of violence from which even now we have no respite. Did not the Soviet Union collapse? Does not empire always tend to crumble? Why are we still fighting? Why did we ever choose to fight? Christianity has shaped a great part of our tradition in America. Yet while the Church has been mobilized by political elites to argue about things like prayer in schools, gay marriage, and abortion, She has been strangely silent on matters of foreign policy. Have we any right to complain that Christianity has been pushed out of the public sphere, when on the issue on which our religion is most clear, we have been most silent? There is no Christian justification, nor has there ever been, for military occupation during times of peace. There is no Christian justification, nor has there ever been, for unprovoked war against other nations. Have we become the empire seeking to bring order through conquest? Have we no king but Caesar? The conservative elite have determined that the only "realistic" thing to do, for the sake of our national security, is to continue fighting. The most basic Christian tenet that human beings were made for peace with one another has been swallowed up by nationalist pride, and words have been twisted so that aggression becomes "defense." Our bloody history is mostly unknown or ignored by the public. All of this would be at least somewhat tolerable (though only to a cynic) if it at least made some rational utilitarian sense. But alas, the truth is, our wars are fought on the same faulty economic grounds upon which our unsustainable welfare state is built. Destruction is not gain. War does not create prosperity. War is always sacrifice, and any society called to fight must be given rigorous justification for such a horrible sacrifice. To put it another way, as Ron Paul did in one of the debates, "It's trillions of dollars...!" Trillions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dead bodies, more hatred, more anger, more resentment. This is not only immoral, it is impractical. Our foreign policy is every bit as unsustainable as our misguided health care policies. The only difference is that the latter at least have some moral justification, at least if you believe supporting human life is better than killing it! This is the fundamental reason why we ought to elect Ron Paul. Very few other issue matters nearly so much, and on no other issue does the President of the United States have so much direct influence. He is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. There is no more important question that you can ask a presidential candidate than how he thinks we ought to conduct our foreign policy, and on this matter there is no one who can even approach a moral platform than Ron Paul. See this video outlining a policy of friendship and free trade. I did not come to this position easily. Like many people, I was initially swayed by whatever options seemed available at the time I first began to form political opinions. There seemed to me to be the idealist left versus the realist right, and for a time I chose to be a "realist." But I have struggled to make sense of our foreign policy in light of Christian principles, in light of the inherent dignity of human life and the value of liberty, and even in light of sound economic sense, and I simply cannot find anywhere in my body or soul even an ounce of remaining support for the current U.S. foreign policy of global interventionism. Barack Obama, once thought to be the hope for a peaceful American regime, has only furthered many of the same policies implemented by George W. Bush, and this has only deepened my disillusionment. We have become a nation which feeds on destruction, and unless we change our course, this will be our undoing. In this time of economic uncertainty, it is natural that the average voter would be consumed by economic concerns. Tragically, our wars only hurt our long-term economic progress (as if we could ever justify killing even if it did secure our prosperity!) but you will hear almost the opposite in the media. I could cite famous economic thinkers from Adam Smith to Frederic Bastiat to Milton Friedman to justify my position, but I would rather simply appeal to common sense: destruction is not prosperity, death is not prosperity, war is not prosperity. Prosperity can only come through peace; let us therefore pursue peace. For God's sake, and for the sake of everything that is sacred--life, liberty, peace--we need to stop America's destructive foreign policy while we can. Only if our nation has enough moral courage can we ever hope to enjoy the fruits of peace. We owe it to our troops. We owe it to our world. We even owe it to ourselves, and to future generations of Americans to come.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bastiat on What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen

It is the title of this essay that made F. A. Hayek praise Bastiat's "genius" in making sound economic ideas public. It has been a good read so far. I highly recommend Bastiat to anyone interested in the major political issues of our time, for two reasons. One, he wrote quite a while ago--over a century and a half--and yet the same fallacies he found himself trying to refute are alive and well today. Two, Bastiat is much easier to read than, say, F. A. Hayek or Adam Smith.

The main point of Bastiat's essay is this:
There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

Yet this difference is tremendous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.
Fundamentally, according to Bastiat, although these are my words, good economics is a matter of having the right moral outlook. Often proponents of free markets are accused of one of two things. First, we are sometimes accused of not caring at all about the moral constitution of a society. This is utterly false, and in fact all of the classical arguments in favor of free markets are based on a firm commitment to justice. Indeed, it is really those who oppose free markets who also oppose the kind of logic which justice truly demands, for they insist that the ends can justify the means, that the short run must sometimes take precedence over the long run, and that only visible results are of any consequence.

Second, we are sometimes accused of caring only about the long run and never about "what happens in the meantime." Thus it is thought that we wouldn't care if thousands of people suffered in utter poverty for several years, so long as in the long run we reached the most desirable result. But this complaint is made without taking into account both what is seen and what is not seen. Our desire may be to give everyone enough to live on and not be in poverty; but even though we see the good effects of our well-intentioned programs, we may fail to see all the long term damage we are doing.
For instance, passages like the following express beautifully the fundamental error in "public works" programs (emphasis added):
Let us get to the bottom of things. Money creates an illusion for us. To ask for cooperation, in the form of money, from all the citizens in a common enterprise is, in reality, to ask of them actual physical cooperation, for each one of them procures for himself by his labor the amount he is taxed. Now, if we were to gather together all the citizens and exact their services from them in order to have a piece of work performed that is useful to all, this would be understandable; their recompense would consist in the results of the work itself. But if, after being brought together, they were forced to build roads on which no one would travel, or palaces that no one would live in, all under the pretext of providing work for them, it would seem absurd, and they would certainly be justified in objecting: We will have none of that kind of work. We would rather work for ourselves.
Note that Bastiat does not exclude the possibility that a community might actually agree to work together on something. He simply excludes the idea of taxes paying for public works. Why? Because it is all too easy to take money from people without acknowledging that what you are actually taking from them is their labor--that is, in a sense, their very lives.

It must always be remembered that the free market system is not a zero sum game. If you and I exchange something, that means I must have wanted what you had more than what I had, and you must have wanted what I had more than what you had. Otherwise, one of us is a fool. Thus an exchange means a net positive for both of us. So it is with all voluntary exchanges. That is not to say one never regrets certain purchases or ventures; I do not suggest that life can ever be without risks. But on the whole, it is possible for you to gain, while simultaneously everyone else gains from you as well.

However, it must be equally remembered that forced cooperation is a zero sum game, or perhaps even negative. If the government takes money from me and gives it to someone else, nothing has been gained or lost; the same money is there that was there before. Perhaps it will be used by the other person in a wiser way than I would have. How the government could ever know this, I cannot say. More likely it would turn out just the opposite; people who get something for free tend to be more irresponsible with it. Therefore, rather than an exchange which results in a net positive, government redistribution--whether in the form of handouts or programs or all sorts of other expenditures--results in a wash, a zero, or perhaps even less than a zero. For every dollar the government spends, what remains unseen is what else that dollar might have been spent on by the person from whom the government stole.

Anyway, read the whole essay. It's quite good. Here's an excerpt that might be pertinent for today's discussions about military spending:
A nation is in the same case as a man. When a man wishes to give himself a satisfaction, he has to see whether it is worth what it costs. For a nation, security is the greatest of blessings. If, to acquire it, a hundred thousand men must be mobilized, and a hundred million francs spent, I have nothing to say. It is an enjoyment bought at the price of a sacrifice. Let there be no misunderstanding, then, about the point I wish to make in what I have to say on this subject. A legislator proposes to discharge a hundred thousand men, which will relieve the taxpayers of a hundred million francs in taxes. Suppose we confine ourselves to replying to him: "These one hundred thousand men and these one hundred million francs are indispensable to our national security. It is a sacrifice; but without this sacrifice France would be torn by internal factions or invaded from without." I have no objection here to this argument, which may be true or false as the case may be, but which theoretically does not constitute any economic heresy. The heresy begins when the sacrifice itself is represented as an advantage, because it brings profit to someone.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Personhood still has a long way to go

Mississippi voters rejected Amendment 26 yesterday. The language of the amendment was this:
Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Mississippi: SECTION 1. Article III of the constitution of the state of Mississippi is hereby amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION TO READ: Section 33. Person defined. As used in this Article III of the state constitution, "The term 'person' or 'persons' shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof." This initiative shall not require any additional revenue for implementation.
It would be interesting to read some in-depth analysis about yesterday's outcome, but I'm honestly not surprised. At a gut level, I just don't think people are willing to reject the status quo. I know it's easy to just explain that people are worried about all the exceptions--birth control, rape, etc.--but I think the issue is more fundamental than that. Even for conservative Christians with traditional values, abortion is not just something weird that those "other" people do. It's something everyone does, and if it's really as bad as pro-lifers say it is (does it really kill a person?) then that's quite an indictment of our entire society. I'm surprised, therefore, that it even got 40% of Mississippi's vote. That means there are a lot of truly pro-life people down there. But let's not kid ourselves into thinking that the pro-life movement will achieve victory through a triumph of traditional values. The pro-life movement is, and always has been, a radical movement.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Jesus and the 1%

From the Gospel according to Luke:

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
"Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
"Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. ...
"But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
"Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
"Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. ...
"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." (6:21-28)


"Which one of you, having a hundred hseep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (15:4-7)


"There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

Those who heard it said, "Then who can be saved?" He replied, "What is impossible for mortals is possible for God." (18:22-27)


A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

In my opinion it is wise to let Jesus' words speak more than our own, but perhaps I should comment on what I see in these passages. Two observations. First, it is a fact that Jesus said that wealthy people are in real spiritual danger. Christians of a conservative persuasion should not be blithe about this. Note that Jesus doesn't proclaim the salvation has come to Zacchaeus on account of his personal statement of faith, but rather on account of his promised generosity to the poor and repentance from fraud. Greed might be normal, but that doesn't mean we are justified in growing callous towards it. Economic success has a very real dark side.

Second, Jesus did not come to start a crusade against the wealthy, nor did he give in to popular prejudice against tax collectors. Popular dislike of the wealthy is nothing new. Those who are not seen as paying their fair share to society are always treated as outsiders. But just as Jesus welcomes the prostitutes, he also welcomes the tax collectors. Christians on the left are unjustified in viewing the world in terms of class warfare. "Love your enemies," Jesus said. In fact, the ones who actually get accused in the gospels of loving money are the scribes and Pharisees, who make a show of how much they give charitably.

No matter who you are or what side you think you're on, Jesus has something challenging to say to you. It's just always a struggle to get ourselves to realize this.

Origen on creationism

Okay, so Origen didn't actually write about creationism. But he did write some things that might be relevant, such as the following passage from The Philocalia (emphasis added):
Anyway, will any man of sense suppose that there was a first day, and a second, and a third, evening and morning, without sun and moon and stars? and the first, as it were, even without a heaven? And who is so silly as to imagine that God, like a husbandman, planted a garden in Eden eastward, and put in it a tree of life, which could be seen and felt, so that whoever tasted of the fruit with his bodily teeth received the gift of life, and further that any one as he masticated the fruit of this tree partook of good and evil? And if God is also said to walk in the garden in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under the tree, I do not suppose that any one will doubt that these passages by means of seeming history, though the incidents never occurred, figuratively reveal certain mysteries. Moreover, Cain's coming out from the presence of God, if we give heed, is a distinct inducement to inquire what is meant by "the presence of God," and by a man's "coming out from" it. Why say more? They who are not quite blind can collect countless similar instances of things recorded as actual occurrences, though not literally true.
Note: this was written approximately 18 centuries ago by a Christian theologian. Doesn't that make it seem a little silly that we still have arguments about creationism?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Why You Are Not Your Brain

Great Scientific American article summarizing the contribution of George Lakoff to linguistic theory and the philosophy of mind. Most of what it says I've blogged about before while reading through Philosophy in the Flesh, so I won't repeat it here. But note the way the article ends (emphasis added):
What exactly will this paradigm look like? It’s unclear. But I was excited to hear from Lakoff that he is trying to “bring together neuroscience with the neural theory of language and thought,” through a new brain language and thought center at Berkeley. Hopefully his work there, along with the work of young professors like Davis, will allow us to understand the brain as part of a much greater dynamic system that isn’t confined to our cortices.
What modern science is teaching us is that the quest to understand our own minds has been unduly limited in scope. We can only understand our minds by understanding our evolution more broadly.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The forward-thinking pro-life movement

The Weekly Standard has published an article whose message bears repeating.
That the pro-life movement is bigger is a given. It’s also younger, increasingly entrepreneurial, more strategic in its thinking, better organized, tougher in dealing with allies and enemies alike, almost wildly ambitious, and more relentless than ever.

All that is dwarfed by an even bigger change. Pro-lifers have captured the high moral ground, chiefly thanks to advances in the quality of sonograms. Once fuzzy, sonograms now provide a high-resolution picture of the unborn child in the womb. Fetuses have become babies.
This passage is particularly encouraging:
Three pro-life trends have spiked in 2011. The first is the rise in opposition to abortion among young people. The under-30 cohort was the most pro-choice in the 1970s, second most in the 1980s and 1990s. Now they’re “markedly less pro-choice” than any other age group, scholars Clyde Wilcox and Patrick Carr have written. “Clearly, something is distinctive about the abortion attitudes of the Millennial Generation of Americans.”

Indeed there is. Millennials haven’t grown more religious, politically conservative, or queasy about gay rights. Nor do they go out of their way to vote for pro-life candidates. But they tend to see abortion as a human rights violation. Thus their resistance to abortion is gradually increasing.

You can see a manifestation of this generational shift at the March on Washington each January 22, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling. For years, the marchers were geezers, initially Catholics, then aging Protestants too. In the past few years, the march has been dominated by teenagers and people in their 20s, often carrying infants.
Having attended the March for Life four times myself, I can personally corroborate this evidence of increased support among young people.

What's unavoidable about the pro-life movement is that it commands such a stronger sense of commitment than other "social issues" movements in the U.S. Oh, sure, gay marriage...whatever. Prayer in schools...*yawn.* If the abortion issue were simply a matter of having a particular religious or social point of view, it could not possibly command such dedication--and diversity--as we in fact see.

That's because abortion is a fundamentally unique issue. It is the slavery issue of our time, not because the moral contours are the same, but because it is that enormous elephant in the room. Being pro-life means you actually understand that the United States allows around 3,500 deaths every day at the hands of licensed medical doctors. This is not the kind of issue that makes you upset because of some vague dissatisfaction with the moral character of people around you. This is the kind of issue that makes you say in your heart, Oh my God, people are dying!

I'm glad that pro-lifers have found ways to energize young people in support of this extremely important cause. I would like to see the pro-life movement become more than a single-minded mission, however. Ending Roe v. Wade is not enough. In fact, it isn't even enough to end abortion. The goal is to institutionalize a respect for life. We need to be talking about our societal attitude toward violence in general, particularly nationalized violence in the name of "national security."

I'm optimistic about the future of the movement, and I would like to tip my hat to some of the groups, left unmentioned in the Weekly Standard, which I believe have made a positive difference. SecularProLife is now getting some attention among pro-life news sources. Feminists for Life has long been making a profound difference on college campuses. I Am Whole Life is a movement to make the pro-life movement more expansive and comprehensive. And I just have to throw in Libertarians for Life, who have provided some of the most rigorous (secular) philosophical and moral arguments against abortion I have ever seen.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Who sold you all these blank books?

Occasionally, XKCD transcends the comic medium and offers some genuine social critique.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The mathematics of causality

The other day some of my fellow grad students got an e-mail forwarded from our professor. The e-mail was from a student in electrical engineering who wanted help with a system of nonlinear differential equations. In particular, the student wanted "the solution." Keep in mind that most differential equations don't work that way. When you take a class in differential equations, you always start with those basic examples that you can solve explicitly. Once you get out into the "real world," you quickly realize how futile it is to dream of finding an exact, closed-form solution. Our professor had to respond to this student by explaining something about the general theory of differential equations, to which the student replied with apparent dissatisfaction. She was only interested in "the answer." Of course, our professor is not planning on wasting any more time with this e-mail.

The incident highlights an important fact: very few people actually understand what I do. (Most days I don't even understand what I do, which is why we call it "research.") To me this is rather unfortunate, because I actually think what I do has a tremendous philosophical contribution to make to the sciences. Too often the contribution of mathematics is seen in purely utilitarian terms: we can model a "real-world" process in mathematical terms, thereby understanding it in rigorous quantitative terms. I think there's a lot more to it than that.

Friday, October 28, 2011

My cousin a featured artist on Transpositions

Check it out.
"Transpositions is a collaborative effort of students associated with the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St Andrews, voted runner-up as Best Newcomer Blog in the Christian New Media Awards 2010."
Also, check out Jonathan's web site.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dostoyevsky on personal sacrifice

I found this passage from The Brothers Karamazov particularly relevant to my life right now. In it, the narrator discusses Alyosha's decision to join a monastery (emphasis added):
He entered upon this path only because, at that time, it alone struck his imagination and presented itself to him as offering an ideal means of escape for his soul from darkness to light. Add to that that he was to some extent a youth of our last epoch--that is, honest in nature, desiring the truth, seeking for it and believing in it, and seeking to serve it at once with all the strength of his soul, seeking for immediate action, and ready to sacrifice everything, life itself, for it. Though these young men unhappily fail to understand that the sacrifice of life is, in many cases, the easiest of all sacrifices, and that to sacrifice, for instance, five or six years of their seething youth to hard and tedious study, if only to multiply tenfold their powers of serving the truth and the cause they have set before them as their goal--such a sacrifice is utterly beyond the strength of many of them. The path Alyosha chose was a path going in the opposite direction, but he chose it with the same thirst for swift achievement. As soon as he reflected seriously he was convinced of the existence of God and immortality, and at once he instinctively said to himself: "I want to live for immortality, and I will accept no compromise." In the same way, if he had decided that God and immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and a socialist.
There are many times in the middle of that long process of giving yourself to study or training when you wonder if it's worth it. Shouldn't I be doing something that makes a difference? Shouldn't I be stopping injustice right now? Do I really have the luxury to spend this time considering what's true and false, right and wrong, rather than simply acting on my beliefs?

Speaking from personal experience, I think all of us who are in the middle of something like graduate work tend to have those moments, at least from time to time, of feeling tired, worthless, and even embarrassed. Why exactly did I choose to do this rather than pursue something more lucrative with my abilities? Or better, why didn't I start some project that directly addresses poverty and injustice? As a Christian, it's easy to start thinking, am I really honoring God? Shouldn't I be spreading the good news, or something?

Such thoughts surely have a ring of truth, but it's comforting to hear this wise narrator offer the counterargument, that in fact these questions are largely motivated by selfish instincts. Not that this justifies my graduate studies, or whatever. It just reminds me of my natural limitations, that even my good desires--for truth and goodness and justice--can be misleading. I think that's why freedom is so important for Christians. It turns out the most righteous of us can actually be the most wrong, even when they appear to be the most right.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bastiat on democracy

Frederic Bastiat makes fun of the contradiction between the socialists' view of voting rights and their view of individual liberties:
When it is time to vote, apparently the voter is not to be asked for any guarantee of his wisdom. His will and capacity to choose wisely are taken for granted. Can the people be mistaken? Are we not living in an age of enlightenment? What! are the people always to be kept on leashes? Have they not won their rights by great effort and sacrifice? Have they not given ample proof of their intelligence and wisdom? Are they not adults? Are they not capable of judging for themselves? Do they not know what is best for themselves? Is there a class or a man who would be so bold as to set himself above the people, and judge and act for them? No, no, the people are and should be free. They desire to manage their own affairs, and they should do so. But when the legislator is finally elected--ah! then indeed does the tone of his speech undergo a radical change. The people are returned to passiveness, inertness, and unconsciousness; the legislator enters into omnipotence. Now it is for him to initiate, to direct, to propel, and to organize. Mankind has only to submit; the hour of despotism has struck. We now observe this fatal idea: The people who, during the election, where so wise, so moral, and so perfect, now have no tendencies whatever; or if they have any, they are tendencies that lead downward into degradation.
And I can't resist reproducing this passage:
The claims of these organizers of humanity raise another question which I have often asked them and which, so far as I know, they have never answered: If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind? The organizers maintain that society, when left undirected, rushes headlong to its inevitable destruction because the instincts of the people are so perverse. The legislators claim to stop this suicidal course and to give it a saner direction. Apparently, then, the legislators and the organizers have received from Heaven an intelligence and virtue that place them beyond and above mankind; if so, let them show their titles to this superiority.
I daresay this essay is still one of the best defenses of a free society in existence. Bastiat shows us how a true egalitarian is also a libertarian.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Frederic Bastiat on socialist anthropology

Here is an absolute must read: Frederic Bastiat's tract entitled, "The Law." Frederic Bastiat was a French economist who lived in the first half of the nineteenth century, who was bold enough to challenge the followers of the great Rousseau ("who consider themselves far advanced, but whom I consider twenty centuries behind the times," writes Bastiat). He challenged the fundamental assumptions of socialism, and wrote an essay repudiating all forms of government intervention, including "protective tariffs, subsidies, guaranteed profits, guaranteed jobs, relief and welfare schemes, public education, progressive taxation, free credit, and public works," all of which he says "are always based on legal plunder, organized injustice." According to Bastiat, the main purpose of the Law was to banish all plunder from a society, which he defined as that "fatal desire" in mankind "to live and prosper at the expense of others." Instead, he points out, the Law ends up being used for the opposite purpose: either that the few should profit at the expense of the many, or that they many should profit at the expense of the few; or that everyone should profit at the expense of everyone else.

At the heart of his argument is a fundamental objection to the intellectual assumptions of his day concerning the nature of human beings. Consider, first of all, this critique:
"Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

"We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. [Ironic from today's perspective, isn't it?] We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain."
This confusion between state and society is connected to a view of the human being as "inert," so the the relationship between the intellectual and society is like that "between a potter and clay":
"Present-day writers--especially those of the socialist school of thought--base their various theories upon one common hypothesis: They divide mankind into two parts. People in general--with the exception of the writer himself--from the first group. The writer, all alone, forms the second and most important group. Surely this is the weirdest and most conceited notion that ever entered a human brain!

"In fact, these writers on public affairs begin by supposing that people have within themselves no means of discernment; no motivation to action. The writers assume that people are inert matter, passive particles, motionless atoms, at best a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being shaped--by the will and hand of another person--into an infinite variety of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected."
Bastiat's view was quite different. In his view, human productivity and cooperation were tendencies given to us through Providence, and were not the product of the state. Order was achieved through spontaneous forces, which no government had the power to create or control.

This essay by Bastiat seems as timely as ever. I do not think the intellectual climate in the West has ever moved toward full acceptance of the idea that society and the state are fundamentally distinct categories. Our political discourse is dominated by the assumption that government "manages" society, and it is taken for granted that we must compete with one another for representation in government if we want our slice of the pie. I challenge everyone to rethink these assumptions, and stop pretending that our modern problems are so very different from the problems faced in centuries past!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Between private and political

What is the role of an individual in a liberal social order? The philosophy of modern liberalism has in some sense tried to make this a nonsensical question by insisting that roles always come from human authority, and therefore the individual has no role, other than what he chooses for himself. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it in "Preaching as Though We Had Enemies,"
"the project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they have no story."
It is essentially in response to Hauerwas' essay, along with another powerful piece by David Hart entitled "Christ and Nothing," that I want to give some reflections on the individual's role in a liberal society. Both Hauerwas and Hart have given devastating critiques of liberalism. My goal, in a word, is to revive liberalism from a Christian point of view.

The essential point of liberalism is to oppose all arbitrary power. This point can only be made coherently if one can somehow account for a transcendent moral order in which human beings do not by their own reason determine what is right and wrong. It was with this in mind that James Madison aimed to construct "a government of laws and not of men." Thus the central aim of liberalism rests on a profoundly Christian belief that the ultimate Judge of the universe "shows no partiality."

Did the project of modern liberalism live up to this belief? Hart and Hauerwas point out the many ways in which it didn't, but I want to complain that they don't give it enough credit. The triumph of the individual will over and against all hierarchy may come with significant problems, but you can't tell me there's no value in the unleashing of private enterprise, the increase in widespread education, the tremendous increase in living standards, and the gradual overthrow of horrifying institutions such as slavery accomplished due to the Enlightenment. Although the "atomistic" individualism which gave this era its driving force has had evil consequences for us, I would suggest that it comes from the fact that this kind of freedom is still so new, relatively speaking. There is still no nation on earth which has actually matured as a free society. It seems to me at least somewhat forgivable if people overindulge in the first fruits of a newly won freedom.