Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What if the people wake up?

There has been more than one attempt on Youtube to make this speech into a sensation. I like the style of this video:

If this speech doesn't get your blood boiling, you aren't paying attention.

"What if Christianity actually teaches peace?"

It's hard for me to hear those words without realizing my own need for repentance. I'm sorry to say I was once pretty much sold on the neo-con rhetoric. I once voted for Bush. I once thought the war in Iraq was necessary. I once had no idea how much was being spent on the military each year. I once had no idea how many military bases we had around the world. I once had no idea that we paid billions of dollars to train Osama bin Laden and support the Taliban. I once had very little awareness of how many times in the past several decades we have ousted democratically elected leaders around the world and put puppet dictatorships in their place. I once had no idea how easily fear leads people to support evil. I once believed that war could lead to peace. I once believed that good people would do the right thing.

When exactly did I wake up? I don't know the answer to that. Sometimes I feel like I'm still in a fog, like those mornings I wake up and wonder if I'm still dreaming.

I don't know if all of our military interventionism has been based solely on lies. But I'm quite certain that whatever the reasons really are, we're still wrong.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Big government and immigration

So here's the latest from the Republican debates on immigration:

Given that nearly everything Rick Santorum says is absurd, this one really takes the cake. Rick Perry is a "big government moderate" because he opposes building a fence across the Mexican border?


Honestly, how much more "big government" can you possibly get than building a fence across the border between two countries? Maybe the Reaganites owe an apology to all those small government conservatives who were in charge of East Berlin during the 1980's.

You won't catch me supporting Rick Perry very often, but on the immigration issue, at least he, in his own words, "has a heart."

Which is nice and all, but I confess I prefer Ron Paul, who also has a head. Don't build a fence; it's a waste of money, it's an infringement on liberty, and there are much more practical ways of dealing with the immigration issue.

If you look at conservatives like Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, it's not clear to me they have either hearts or brains on this issue. (And I thought Mitt Romney was "liberal.")

Even including Ron Paul, I'm not quite sure any of the Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter) quite represent my views on immigration. (Ron Paul would perhaps be the closest.) I simply don't see why immigration shouldn't be free and open. End the quotas. Stop talking about a fence. Let people come here if they want, but don't subsidize their doing so. Obviously drug cartels are a problem, but that's a problem for law enforcement generally and is not specifically immigration-related.

(And while we're on the subject of drugs, we could probably save a lot of money and lot of lives by just letting them be legalized.)

But no matter what your opinion on immigration is, at least have the common sense to realize that in fact, the "conservative" view on immigration is in fact a big government view. If you favor the government building a fence along the border of Mexico, then you favor bigger government. If you favor a national identification system, then you favor bigger government. If you favor politicians deciding who is allowed to immigrate to this country, then you favor bigger government. If you favor tracking down small businesses to see whether or not they hire illegal immigrants, then you obviously favor bigger government. It's really not that hard.

Anyone who professes to be a "small government" conservative and yet wants more restrictions on immigration, well...hypocrite doesn't even begin to describe such a person.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Free will, dualism, and reductionism

Following up on a post I wrote recently, I thought it would be interesting to think once more about the concept of free will, with respect to the idea of causality. What is the cause of my own behavior? Is it really I who act a certain way, or are all of my actions reducible down to physical causes? Do I have genuine volition, or am I simply a composite of simple particles which combine to produce something complex?

The second question is an attempt to refine the first, which is blatantly naive. This question leaves us with only two options: dualism between body and person, or else hard reductionism, eliminating the notion of "person" altogether. I think both of these options are absurd. The first option forces you to search hopelessly for a way to link the choices of the will with the behaviors of a body, which exist in totally disparate spheres. The second option forces you to eliminate the question, "Who did this?" from your language. Neither of these will do. Indeed, you can't hold people accountable for their decisions unless their decisions genuinely happen in this world; this should be enough to immediately dismiss both dualism and reductionism.

One option is "emergentism." Maybe the laws governing the fundamental particles which constitute a human being can be shown to logically imply certain complex characteristics, including the ability to make decisions. In other words, maybe free will somehow "emerges" from the "bottom up." The implied directionality is too big of an assumption. We can see humans as wholes, or we can start to divide them into parts, or we can aggregate them together. It just depends on the questions we're asking--psychological, biological, or sociological, for example.

But that really is wild, isn't it? I can look at my body and realize I have many parts. I can acknowledge that I have very little conscious awareness of all that my brain is doing. But in my conscious experience, it is hard to divide myself into parts. If my mind really is the sum of many parts (specifically neurons working together) the whole really cannot talk to the parts, and therefore the whole has a hard time even believing it is divisible. In normal human experience, it is hard to avoid thinking of the self as a single entity. In traditional terms, nothing could be more obvious than that I have a soul.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Muslim libertarians

The Minaret of Freedom Institute is a group of Muslim scholars dedicated to libertarian values, including both civil and economic freedom. As they put it,
The Minaret of Freedom Institute was founded in 1993 with a dual mission for educating both Muslims and non-Muslims. For non-Muslims our mission is:
  1. to counter distortions and misconceptions about Islamic beliefs and practice
  2. to demonstrate the Islamic origins of modern values like the rule of law and sciences like market economics
  3. to advance the status of Muslim peoples maligned by a hostile environment in the West and oppressed by repressive political regimes in the East
(Keep reading on their web site.)

To be honest, I know embarrassingly little about Muslim thought in the modern world, considering how important it is in our time. But since ideas are often processed best through synthesis, it's nice that there are organizations like this, who combine a discussion of Islamic thought with ideas I'm already quite familiar with.

It's amazing what you can discover on Youtube.

A little unnerving

Warning: violent images.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

"Top down" vs "Bottom up"

One repeatedly encounters these two metaphors in discussions of science and faith--or in discussions of economics! Most recently I've encountered the distinction in Polkinghorne's Exploring Reality, where in Chapter 2 he writes,
The 'laws' of physics discovered at low levels of complexity would then simply be 'downward-emergent' approximations to the character of a more subtle and supple causal story in which the whole truly did influence the behaviour of the parts. ... Making us of science's account of future behaviour in this open metaphysical way by no means demands us to abandon the principle of sufficient reason, requiring a full explanation of the origin of what actually occurs. It is simply to conceive that the portfolio of causes that bring about the future is not limited solely to the description offered by a methodologically reductionist physics and framed only in terms of the exchange of energy between constituents. Instead, the concept of causal influence can be broadened at least to include holistic effects of an informational, pattern-forming kind. One might called this top-down form of causality 'active information.'
In my opinion, Polkinghorne gets overly technical in a book apparently designed as an apologetic work for the public. In any case, here's what he's basically saying: reductionist scientists have a solely "bottom-up" approach, whereas Polkinghorne believes that a lot of our discoveries demand a more "top-down" explanation.

Let's think about this dichotomy for a bit. First, I want to stress that it is a metaphor. That is, we are not talking about a literal "top" and "bottom" to the universe. Many times metaphor is simply the only way to talk about abstract concepts like the nature of causality, but nevertheless it is often important to acknowledge the limits of our metaphors, and to be aware of the influence they have on our thinking. In this, I'm not sure the influence of the metaphor on our thinking is entirely good.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Mikayla Mackaness on peace, love, and...

...wait for it...

...Ron Paul, believe it or not.

This is one of a series of endorsements for Ron Paul, all meditating on the concept of peace. All of them are quite beautiful, I might add.

When you hear that Ron Paul's support runs deep, it might be easy to conjure up images of rabid individualists and free market fanatics. But the diversity among Ron Paul supporters as quite astonishing. Most encouraging to me is seeing supporters of peace join his camp.

How about it? Peace, love, and Ron Paul 2012.

The language of money

Money is a social construct. There is no eternal, transcendent principle which makes money valuable.

Language is like that, as well. There is no particular reason why the words you're reading right now should mean what they mean to you, other than the force of tradition. English is the language most of us Americans speak to our children as they grow up. It is the language we learn in schools. It is the language by which we not only communicate, but also think.

Money is a language, as well. The incentive to make money drives our economy, and as it does so it sends signals throughout our whole society, to many people who know nothing about one another and have no understanding of each other's plans. Money is a medium of exchange, and as such it is somewhat arbitrary. We don't have to exchange sheets of paper or coins. We once exchanged gold and silver, but that's certainly not the only form of currency, either (at one time tobacco was a common currency in Virginia).

Money is both arbitrary and necessary, just as the English language is both arbitrary and necessary. It thus provokes two equal but opposite responses. One response is to want to get rid of it entirely, to throw off the shackles of arbitrary institutions and live according to a pattern of behavior which we ourselves determine. The other response is to cling tightly to tradition on the belief that whatever is necessary must be preserved in its present form. Both responses are foolish, as it is easy to see when we compare money and language.

Imagine if we gave a Central Grammar Institution (CGI) the power to regulate all words used in the English language. Maybe at times there would be a shortage of metaphors, so the CGI would stimulate the American culture by printing more poetry. Facebook and Google+ would be highly regulated to insure quality grammar, so that communication wouldn't be wasted. And if you began to use dialect or (gasp) a different language while residing in America, you would be fined. If it was determined that your slang was so heavy that it constituted a dialect, you would be fined.

Now imagine a counter-revolutionary movement that wanted to abolish language, because it was "merely a social construct." They would hand out blank tracts (or perhaps sheets of paper covered in modern art). They would have conventions in which no one would speak, but everyone would make whatever kind of noise came to mind (or none at all, if they preferred). Perhaps in America they would simply rebel against English and start speaking other languages, but the purists would object on the grounds that those languages, too, had merely been socially constructed elsewhere, and were also quite arbitrary.

You see the problem. However, it is the former comparison, rather than the latter, that I am more concerned about in the present time. We live in a world dominated by States, in which central banks control the money supply of each country. We do not need a central institution to control our language; why would we need one to control our money? Both are merely social conventions, which can be passed along through natural social forces--through tradition, through free exchange, and even through experimentation.

The irony is that all of this power has coincided with us throwing off the arbitrariness of the gold standard. Unfortunately, rather than creating a political system in which people are free to exchange whatever medium they wish, we have simply cemented the arbitrary power of an institution, the love of which, in the words of Christ, is the root of all evil.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Some links

Today I sent one of my professors a link to a book called The Fall of the Faculty. Here is the description:
Until very recently, American universities were led mainly by their faculties, which viewed intellectual production and pedagogy as the core missions of higher education. Today, as Benjamin Ginsberg warns in this eye-opening, controversial book, "deanlets"--administrators and staffers often without serious academic backgrounds or experience--are setting the educational agenda.

The Fall of the Faculty examines the fallout of rampant administrative blight that now plagues the nation's universities. In the past decade, universities have added layers of administrators and staffers to their payrolls every year even while laying off full-time faculty in increasing numbers--ostensibly because of budget cuts. In a further irony, many of the newly minted--and non-academic--administrators are career managers who downplay the importance of teaching and research, as evidenced by their tireless advocacy for a banal "life skills" curriculum. Consequently, students are denied a more enriching educational experience--one defined by intellectual rigor. Ginsberg also reveals how the legitimate grievances of minority groups and liberal activists, which were traditionally championed by faculty members, have, in the hands of administrators, been reduced to chess pieces in a game of power politics. By embracing initiatives such as affirmative action, the administration gained favor with these groups and legitimized a thinly cloaked gambit to bolster their power over the faculty.

As troubling as this trend has become, there are ways to reverse it. The Fall of the Faculty outlines how we can revamp the system so that real educators can regain their voice in curriculum policy.
I suspect the book may be controversial among university administrators, but not so much among faculty, who will virtually all agree on the diagnosis of today's university system.

In turn, my professor sent me a link to this article from The Economist, entitled, "A sorry story of American trade." Excerpt:
WHEN experts try to ferret out the causes of America’s lost decade, international trade is often cast as the villain. It may in fact be the victim. In the last decade America’s commitment to openness has flagged, and with it, its trade prowess and its appeal as a destination for investment. As international trade and investment have historically been major drivers of productivity, employment, and innovation, this declining engagement with the world may be an important contributor to the malaise that afflicts the economy.
Once again, economic protectionism does the opposite of protect.

Concerning "Axioms and Inferences"

Here's the video I'm referring to:

Axioms and Inferences: A Mathematician Thinks About Faith from The Veritas Forum on Vimeo.

Here are my comments:

On the whole, I'm pretty underwhelmed by John Lennox's argument. Firstly, the vast majority of the argument could be summed up as "anything but atheism," which is hardly an argument for Christianity. I admit that some arguments concerning first principles can be interesting, but when it comes to religion I find them less and less so over time. When your entire argument for Christianity seems to hinge on the meaning of the word "faith" in the English language, there appears to be something missing. True, mathematicians don't primarily deal in empirical matters, but rather in matters of logic. Yet is it too much to ask that a mathematician who identifies as a Christian also be held responsible for the pressing empirical questions on which the whole of Christianity is based?

Second, I find this attack on atheism using "simple logic" very glib, and quite probably uncharitable. Consider the quote from Bertrand Russell near the beginning of the talk: "What science cannot tell us, mankind cannot know." Lennox quickly dismantles this statement by saying, well, this isn't a statement of science, so you cannot know it. Many responses could be given to this refutation, but Lennox passes them over as if basic logic can easily refute atheism.

He is also conflating atheism with scientism, and this leads me to a third point. I find this "two competing worldviews" narrative rather unhelpful and even deceptive (perhaps unintentionally so). If it is true that atheists don't fully appreciate the diversity within Christian thought, it is still more true that Christians apparently don't have a clue when it comes to the diversity of secular thought. I have grown quite tired of Christians trying to claim that atheism is a "worldview" which, like Christianity, must stand on its own. That is false. It is true that atheists must have some sort of worldview, but among the competing possibilities, we find atheist representatives in all of them. Some atheists are collectivists, and others are individualists; some are modernists, and others are postmodernists; some hold to the myth of progress, others are nihilists; some put their faith in science, others put their faith in power, and others put their faith in personal (even mystical) experience. And I really haven't begun to list all the real alternatives. So the idea that there is an "atheist worldview" is nonsense, as most atheists will be quick to tell you. Christians really should be a little less blind to this. If you're merely trying to refute Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, just say so. Don't bring everyone else into the picture without acknowledging how big and complicated the world is.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Kevin Drum on Rick Perry's "$5000"

I found this amusing. Remember when Rick Perry said he couldn't be bought for $5000? Well, it turns out it was a lot more than that.
But wait! I didn't have the whole story. It turns out it was more like $30,000

And wait again! Over the past five years, it turns out that Merck gave over $350,000 to the Republican Governors Association, a period in which Perry was heavily involved with the group, and the RGA in turn gave $4 million to Rick Perry.

And wait some more! Merck's lobbyist on the vaccine issue was Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff. Toomey recently co-founded a super PAC that plans to raise over $50 million for Perry's campaign.
So we go from $5000 to $30000 to $350000 to... several million. Well, at least he values his efforts.

XKCD on Basic Economics

Making the rational choice model work in real life, one changed mind at a time.

(The link is here.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Life Matters Journal Fall 2011

Via Secular Pro-life, here is a journal dedicated to pro-life issues from a broader perspective. Here's a brief description:
A journal dedicated to open discussion on all topics of human life and dignity, in an environment free of any one particular political or religious flavor.
I found Nicholas Neal's article on a consistent life ethic helpful, especially coming from someone in the university pro-life movement. The success of the pro-life movement on college campuses absolutely depends on its ability to inspire idealism and attract committed activists. These students are less likely to be conservative, at least in temperament, and more likely to reject the status quo on issues like the death penalty and interventionist foreign policy. And I think that point of view is worth considering.

Personally I think Nicholas is spot on. Many pro-lifers will be inclined to disagree, but they might find his argument persuasive. Read it!

There is certainly room for this publication to develop, but this is a great start. I simply don't know of anything else of its kind.

Monday, September 12, 2011

An exercise in futility

Yes, this blog post is an exercise in futility, because I'm going to try to pull together some insightful remarks from the Republican Tea Party debate just aired on CNN.

‎"If you'd suggest I could be bought for $5000, I'm offended." -- Rick Perry
Here the always eloquent governor of Texas was responding to attacks about his executive order to require that girls be vaccinated for cervical cancer. Michele Bachmann accused Perry of ulterior motives, citing contributions from the drug corporation Merck. Perry's response was to compare the $5000 contribution from Merck with the $30 million he has raised as governor. I think the important insight here is that it's very important as a Republican to be able to raise money from multiple corporations, not just one or two. After all, how can we have a democracy if the interests of big corporations aren't represented in government?

"We are a melting pot, not a salad bowl." -- Rick Santorum.
This brilliant metaphor came as Santorum was responding to a question about immigration, and specifically, I believe, about how Republicans could get the Latino vote. For some reason Rick Santorum and most (all?) of the Republicans I saw on the TV tonight believe that building a fence to keep people out of our country is a sign of greater freedom. Here, sadly, Rick Perry was actually the only person who made at least a little sense--well, they didn't ask Ron Paul his opinion.

(For the record, I am much more a fan of open borders than either Mr. Paul or Mr. Perry, to say nothing of any of the other Republicans.)

"I am committed to repealing Obamacare." -- Michele Bachmann
OK, but apparently Ms. Bachmann is not quite as committed to answering questions given to her in a debate. The question she was actually given was how society should handle a difficult hypothetical situation: a young person decides not to get health insurance, suddenly disaster strikes, and he is in desperate need of extensive treatment. What do we as a society do with this? Ron Paul was given this question and answered directly and eloquently: freedom means accepting responsibility for the consequences of your own actions; but on the other hand, freedom also means that many people and organizations, such as churches or other charities, are likely to be generous of their own accord.

When this very challenging question was put to Bachmann, she completely ignored it and started preaching about how dedicated she was to repealing Obamacare. The insight here is the Republicans don't actually have to believe in personal responsibility; they just have to really really hate Barack Obama.

"Boo...!" -- A handful of Republicans, in response to Ron Paul's explanation that U.S. foreign policy has created an atmosphere of resentment in the Middle East.
This, of course, was the only time anyone in the audience booed a Republican candidate. Somehow, Republicans get away with repeating the same old propaganda--they hate us for our freedom, blah blah blah. Only one Republican, Ron Paul, has the courage to apply the Golden Rule to foreign policy. He alone asks the question, "How would we like it if...?" You fill in the blank: how would you like it if China built military bases on our soil? if Iraq set up dictators in our country that supported their interests? if Afghanistan bombed our cities?

It's worth reminding people that the majority of campaign contributions from U.S. soldiers have gone to Ron Paul. What gives these hawkish Republicans the right to claim that they support the troops? I would like to see us support the troops by bringing them home alive.

All in all, the debate was pretty much the show I expected. Herman Cain said some cute things, Jon Huntsman said some reasonable things that no one will remember, Mitt Romney tried desperately to compete with Rick Perry, and nobody cares about Newt Gingrich. Also, Ron Paul didn't get the question about the Fed, which of course all of his fans noticed.

I'd say tonight's winner was Wolf Blitzer, who managed to keep it together amid a swarm of Tea Party conservatives.

OK, no more politics for me. Shut it down.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Knowledge and Power

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:25)

On a day like today, who can help but think of the horrible things done in the name of religious zeal?

Such thoughts cause us to start drawing lines between the forces of good and the forces of evil. For some, it is between secularism and religion. For others, it is between the West and the Islamic world. I would like to believe that most of us refuse to buy into such divisions. The terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center ten years ago were evil people doing evil things. But evil unfortunately cuts across all lines. In order to fight it, you must look at yourself as well as your enemies.

Part of the great challenge of our time is to determine what we mean by truth. It might seem strange that such an abstract epistemological question could have anything to do with war and peace. Yet it is precisely when people compete for power that we need to call upon truth--whatever that may be--to know how to take a stand.

This is the central question for religious people today. What do we mean by claiming that our beliefs are true? What are we willing to do for those beliefs?

Are we willing to die for them?

Are we willing to kill for them?

The question is not for religious people only (or do we need to recount the horrible atrocities done in the name of secular ideologies?) for it is a basic human question. It is not simply a question of whether we're going to be nice to other people or not. To think that "decent people" can't do horrible things is exceedingly naive. If we are unclear on questions of principle, we are susceptible to the same horrible evil impulses that drive planes into buildings.

The basic choice all humans have to make is whether knowledge is a matter of control, or whether it is a matter of humility. That is the starting point for everything else.

One may desire knowledge because he thinks that having knowledge can make the world right. Understanding means knowing how things work, and knowing how things work means you can steer them in the right direction. Knowledge is power, and power can be used for good or for evil. Our enemies want to use knowledge for evil, but we wish it for good. This is the inevitable dualism arising from the notion that truth is power.

On the other hand, one may instead desire knowledge for love's sake, with the profound awareness that deeper knowledge is cause for deeper humility. The more we know, the more we realize how little we know. Understanding may help us solve certain problems, but it won't help us "change the world," at least not in the way we expect. Knowledge is not power, but some people might use knowledge to gain power--and this might be disastrous, no matter who it is seeking power.

The Christian seeks to make all of his conscious decisions based on deeply held convictions derived from faith. These convictions are not a private affair only, but they must influence the Christian's public life, as well. His beliefs must therefore be on display, and he can and should share them with others. Does it not follow, then, that a Christian should ultimately be a zealot, seeking to shape the whole world according to the principles which he believes are given by God himself?

Not at all, for his principles do not fall into the first category, but rather the second category of knowledge. Christian beliefs are not ultimately proved by their ability to give us control over the world. Quite the opposite, really: they tell us that with greater knowledge comes greater humility. As offensive as it may be to modern man, Christianity insists that true knowledge must be humbly accepted as a gift, rather than proved by our reason.

It is for this very reason that Christians ought not to have anything to do with "world-changing." We are not called to sacrifice the world, but rather ourselves (Rom. 12:1). Our beliefs can and do provide a very powerful critique of the modern world, but we must never mistake this for a mandate to rebuild the world according to our principles. The Tower of Babel, after all, was meant to reach heaven.

No wonder modern man is repulsed by religion! He has no other conception of knowledge than that which is synonymous with control. If man is to be controlled, he would at least like to have proof that the principles controlling him have withstood the test of rationality. If it is control we desire, then the only hope for civilization is the scientific method (although even that will fail us, since the desire itself is vain). Nothing could be more heinous than faith posing as a substitute, insisting on some unquestionable authority to guide human affairs.

I say these things not because I have any answer to why evil people fly planes into buildings. I say these things because in the future we may find that our own flawed principles have wrecked the world as we now know it, despite our best intentions. I have heard vague rumblings of Christians everywhere trying to determine how best to transform the culture. There is no question that our beliefs offer a thorough diagnosis of the modern world. What, then, is the cure?

Whatever may be the cure, we will not find it, and may rather create something horribly opposed to it, if we start with the wrong understanding of truth. The fundamental truth of Christianity is that God died for us, and this is not what we wanted him to do for us. I fear we would have preferred that he "changed the world."

God, forgive our ignorance.

Friday, September 9, 2011

I don't believe ontology exists

Just an honest, gut reaction here. After a discussion group today about science and faith, I think my head will explode if I hear one more mention of ontology. We're reading through John Polkinghorne's Exploring Reality (the title really narrows down the discussion, don't you think?) and of course the first chapter had to do with this study of the "nature of being." Look, it may be interesting to distinguish between questions like, "Does God exist?" on the one hand, and "Do subatomic particles exist?" on the other. But folks, let's just agree that the difficulty in making such distinctions does not lie in the word "exist." I don't think anyone was ever convinced that something existed because he experienced a conversion of ontological principles. I have to fault the Christians, not the atheists, for bringing it up. I believe the word "ontology" was actually an ancient incantation spoken by a philosopher in ancient times as an attempt to frighten and confuse his opponents. My theory is that it never worked, but they kept doing it all the same until it finally became legitimized as a real (but how will I ever know it's "real"?????) subject of philosophical inquiry. Moral of the story: avoid talking about ontology at all costs.

Speaking of banning words, however, beware lest you fall off the other side of the horse. For all the atheists' reliance on rationality, some of them occasionally say some amazingly silly things. Heard today:
"I don't think the word ought has any meaning, and it should be eliminated from our language."
Do you need to read that again? Maybe this time I'll put some emphasis where it needs to be:
"I don't think the word ought has any meaning, and it should be eliminated from our language."
If he's allowed to say that, then I'm allowed to say, "Ontology doesn't exist."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Mathematics through the Eyes of Faith: a review

James Bradley and Russell Howell have put together this exploration of the relationship between mathematics and Christian faith. The book is intended primarily for students, and could even be used as curriculum supplement for a Christian educational setting. Each chapter is completed with exercises for the student, some of which are legitimate mathematical exercises that would engage even quite advanced undergraduate mathematics students. Even without the exercises, it is a good read for anyone who wants an introduction to the philosophy of mathematics from a Christian perspective.

The main questions addressed in this book are philosophical in nature; concepts from mathematics are used primarily as instruments to stimulate thinking about the "big questions." Chapters 1 and 2 give an introduction to these big questions and an historical background in order to set the stage for the next eight chapters, which are entitled, Infinity, Dimension, Chance, Proof and Truth, Beauty, Effectiveness, Epistemology, and Ontology, respectively. These titles all allude to the "big questions" introduced in Chapter 1. The final chapter is "An Apology" for mathematics, encouraging students who might take an interest to pursue mathematics as part of a greater search for truth, and as a particular way of serving God in the world.

The authors have given a very balanced and sophisticated treatment of each of the subjects they have introduced. They have refrained from picking a side on any issue for which there appears to be room for more than one consistently Christian view (which is virtually every issue). Consider, for instance, the issue of "Chance" in the universe. It is common for believers to contrast chance with God's sovereignty; however, this can hardly be the whole story, for reasons both scientific and theological. Howell and Bradley have laid out in Chapter 5 a case for theistic determinism and a case for theistic nondeterminism. At the heart of the debate is the notion of ontological uncertainty, the state of being actually governed by chance, so that no additional knowledge could possibly remove uncertainty. Theists naturally divide on this issue as much as non-theists do; the determinist may argue that God's sovereignty and omniscience excludes ontological uncertainty, whereas the nondeterminist may argue that God has created this universe with a freedom of its own.

Perhaps that is the great puzzle of this book: is there any particular way of seeing mathematics "through the eyes of faith"? It is not so much in the answers as in the questions that Howell and Bradley demonstrate the relationship between mathematics and faith. There is no one Christian position on the ontology of numbers, or on the nature of proof; rather, there are distinctively Christian questions that we may ask. For instance, if mathematical certainty implies genuine, sure knowledge about reality, does that mean we can "know the mind of God" through mathematics? Or is mathematics merely a creaturely activity, which, just like all human thought, is in an important way eternally distinct from God's thought?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hayek on scientism

From "The Pretense of Knowledge," Nobel Prize lecture given in 1974 (emphasis added):

What I mainly wanted to bring out by the topical illustration is that certainly in my field, but I believe also generally in the sciences of man, what looks superficially like the most scientific procedure is often the most unscientific, and, beyond this, that in these fields there are definite limits to what we can expect science to achieve. This means that to entrust to science - or to deliberate control according to scientific principles - more than scientific method can achieve may have deplorable effects. The progress of the natural sciences in modern times has of course so much exceeded all expectations that any suggestion that there may be some limits to it is bound to arouse suspicion. Especially all those will resist such an insight who have hoped that our increasing power of prediction and control, generally regarded as the characteristic result of scientific advance, applied to the processes of society, would soon enable us to mould society entirely to our liking. It is indeed true that, in contrast to the exhilaration which the discoveries of the physical sciences tend to produce, the insights which we gain from the study of society more often have a dampening effect on our aspirations; and it is perhaps not surprising that the more impetuous younger members of our profession are not always prepared to accept this. Yet the confidence in the unlimited power of science is only too often based on a false belief that the scientific method consists in the application of a ready-made technique, or in imitating the form rather than the substance of scientific procedure, as if one needed only to follow some cooking recipes to solve all social problems. It sometimes almost seems as if the techniques of science were more easily learnt than the thinking that shows us what the problems are and how to approach them.

What do you think of this commercial?

The link is here.

Pro: If Republicans watch it, at least they will be less favorable toward Rick Perry.

Con: If they're less favorable toward Rick Perry, they'll probably just vote for Mitt Romney.

Pro: It can't hurt Ron Paul to associate with Ronald Reagan during the Republican primary.

Con: It's a bit disingenuous of Ron Paul to act like the "true Republican." What does he have to say about Reagan's foreign policy?

Meh. Politics.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Mathematical style

This semester I have the privilege/responsibility of teaching a class whose students, all very intelligent and highly motivated, are trying to get a jump start on higher level mathematics. The course is advertised as Multivariable Calculus "honors" course. I hesitate to even call it a course in multivariable calculus, as we won't cover any of that material until the second half of the course. The first half of the course will be laying a very theoretical groundwork for what students in other classes are already learning. Our class will have the advantage of seeing these concepts the "right" way--understanding the derivative in terms of linear functions, understanding functions in a rigorous way, and understanding vectors and vector spaces abstractly.

This week I am focusing on function theory and set theory. That means proofs--and lots of them. One of my students in office hours was complaining as much. (My office hours, by the way, had to be held in the common room in the math building, because apparently my office must now be under construction until an unspecified time. There was no notice of this occurrence before it started, and those of us who occupy said office still have no idea when it will end. Also, today I went in my office to see if it was finished, and I noticed that someone had messed with my Rubick's cube! All of the stickers had been taken off! Who messed with my stuff, anyway? But I digress...)

So, proofs... Yes, entering the world of mathematical rigor is not easy for most students. I have to be honest, it was pretty easy for me when I first started seeing proofs in college. Part of that was that I had a proof-based course in high school through the EPGY. Another part of it is that I've always been a naturally skeptical person, and very particular about the meaning of statements. For instance, once in fourth grade I actually battled my entire class, including my teacher, over the statement, "A square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not a square." Obviously, the correct statement would be, "Not all rectangles are squares," but the subtlety was lost on my peers, and, yes, even my teacher, as far as I can tell to this day.

Proof writing is a beautiful and delicate art. The truly great mathematical writers are the ones who get beyond just the brute calculations and really explain what's going on. Often people ask me how one actually does research in mathematics. The answer is the same as in any other field; you come up with a new idea and you present it. This is done on a scale from acceptable to great. Acceptable mathematics presents true statements and sufficient details to prove those statements. Great mathematics presents not only true statements, but powerful ones; and it doesn't just prove the results, it also expounds the key ideas that make the results true. In other words, great mathematics is great writing, just as in any other field.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Twitter: Faster Than Earthquakes

Via failbook:

What a world we live in.

The Tea Party prosperity gospel

Here's how I see recent political events. The "Tea Party" Republicans, reinforced by the media support of Fox News, are kind of like "health-and-wealth" prosperity gospel Christians, who proclaim that if you just have enough faith, God will reward you with material well-being. You can hear it in the Republican debates when candidates confidently proclaim that they can "create" more jobs by keeping taxes low and reducing spending. One would think that this gospel would fall apart if economic growth stagnated under austerity measures; but as with the actual prosperity gospel, this message is backed by a religious fervor that doesn't die easily. That's why conservative politicians are being encouraged to "stand their ground" and not compromise on spending cuts and tax breaks. (Of course, cutting any part of the half trillion dollars per year we spend on foreign wars is out of the question.)

It is not surprising that some people would react against this by advocating a more scientific approach. The Keynesian economists come along with a way we can steer our way out of this economic meltdown, equipped with mathematical formulas and everything. They insist we have to "do something" in order to get out of this mess. Free markets left on their own will always result in this kind of disaster. Faith is worthless. We have to take control ourselves. More spending. More deficit. More incentives. We can't wait for private investment to start up again. After all, in the long run, we're all dead.

In such circumstances the honest advocates of free market institutions must come across as austere old clerics who insist that nothing good comes without suffering. The true defense of free trade has unfortunately very little to do with its short term success; there is absolutely no reason to believe that a free market must cause growth whenever we want it to. There is, on the other hand, enormous evidence from a broad historical perspective that the institutions vital to a free market cause, in the long run, the greatest prosperity. If we live only for the short run, we are bound to turn either to blind faith or to scientific rationalism: our short term fears can only be alleviated, it seems, either by the prosperity gospel or by atheism. (I am being metaphorical here, of course; but I sometimes wonder how much this has to do with actual theology.)

The only way to convince the public that we must not succumb to our short term fears is by demonstrating that the costs of alleviating our short term pain is just too high. An alcoholic may beg you for more liquor to alleviate his hangover, yet even though he is truly in pain, you will not give it to him. You know the booze will ultimately kill him.

If we're going to get out of this stagnation, we're going to have to feel some pain. There is no way government can decrease spending without causing a temporary contraction. Our markets and financial institutions have simply been depending for too long on government backing for cutting loose to have zero effect. We have to be willing to accept these temporary negative effects in favor of long term gains. We cannot live only for the short term.

One final remark. There is no reason why the poor should have to suffer most during this crisis. If we really want the rich to pay their fair share, maybe we should start by liquidating their failed assets (e.g. General Motors) and giving some of that money to the poor. This, after all, would increase consumption, and isn't that what Keynesians want, anyway?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Human capitalism

Interesting interview with Nobel Prize winner Edumund Phelps over at Thought Economics concerning where capitalism is headed in the future. A lot of Phelps's statements echo Tyler Cowen on the Great Stagnation. What I really appreciate about the ideas expressed in this interview is an interest in the fundamentals of economics as a study of human beings, rather than a study of abstract structures.

So why has productivity slowed down? I think there has been an underlying decline in the rate of innovation in the economy. There's not as much tinkering... not as much dreaming... not as much conceiving new-ways to do things... If we go a level below this and look at the cause of that, we see that a huge amount of short-termism which has crept into the system [emphasis added]. CEOs routinely devote their lives to hitting the next quarterly earnings targets... and that doesn't leave very much time for thinking about the medium term future.

America is a country that has subsidies for almost everything.... education, farming... and hidden subsidies for manufacturing and exporting... you name it! There is very little subsidy, however, for work - and almost no subsidy for innovation. There is a tax-credit and some tax-deductibility for research and development expenditures, but research and development expenditures are confined to a small number of industries- and that's not a huge amount of money. We have to make it easier for a young entrepreneur to start a company... to start his innovative project. We have to make it easier for an established company to start a new innovative project.

Modern capitalism ought not to be viewed as merely a system for producing. [...] More generally, though, western society went from a life in which ordinary people were not much involved in the economy, to one where people were engaged in conceiving new ideas, experimenting, tinkering, exploring new possibilities, experiencing the 'new' - this was an intellectual revolution. I like to amuse myself by pointing out that the arts changed alongside. Music became completely different two or three times after 1815- the visual arts such as painting followed the same trend. Modern capitalism offered a new way of life, not just a higher standard of living.

After the interview, Vikas Shah adds his own thoughts on the matter:
As society progressed through industrialisation- it was unsurprising and (largely) appropriate that our thinking became reductivist, we made machines- and those machines, in turn, made us... The world has, though, evolved and modern civilisation- in its highly globalised form, is as much a knowledge economy as a mechanical one.


We have had mechanical-capitalism. Now it's time for human-capitalism.
I think that's exactly right, and I think it points to a huge problem in society's perception of capitalism. The link between the market and materialism is almost rock solid in most people's minds. But the true proponents of capitalism (if we must call it that--it really is an ugly word) have argued that the economy is not about things so much as ideas, and I would hasten to add that ideas should not be reduced down to calculations. Capitalism needs a makeover. Maybe we can start with the name (I certainly wouldn't be the first to suggest this). More substantially, from the bits and pieces I've been reading, I think we need to talk about a serious overhaul of our financial system. Wealth does not equal money. Something is wrong with a society that is convinced otherwise.