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.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Republicans and businessmen

Here is, finally, a Republican explaining true free market principles (the link is here). I listened to the whole Bloomberg debate from the other night. All of the other Republicans (beside Ron Paul) were touting the virtues of having private sector experience, claiming this makes them better equipped (than Obama) to "manage the economy."

Let's think about that for a moment. Do we need businessmen with their experience "managing" the economy?

No. In the first place, the government is not a business, as Ron Paul expresses quite well. Its purpose is not to maximize profit. Its purpose is to execute impartial justice and protect the American people. It sounds so sensible and even conservative to insist that government ought to act more like a business and balance its budget. But the important thing actually is not balancing its budget, but minimizing coercion.

In the second place, businessmen are likely to be biased toward businesses. "Corporate welfare" is no less part of big government policies than actual welfare. Who wins when the government gives big bailouts? The "little guy"? In the sense that he may not have to change his current employment, maybe...but in terms of justice it is, of course, the rich and powerful who benefit at the expense of the poor when government "manages the economy." And in the long run this management will make us all poorer than we otherwise would have been.

It is a myth that supporters of the free market must be people who appreciate business sense and buy into the attitudes of business culture. It is often quite the opposite. If businessmen are allowed to use political means to pursue their own interests, this is a perversion of justice and not a free market. Political means are coercive. The only legitimate market means for making a profit are non-coercive activities.

That Republicans are generally the party of businessmen makes them less, not more, attractive to a free market libertarian.

What would Jesus do?

Stealing from Failbook.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Florensky on community

From Letter Eleven in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth (scripture references in original):
Equal love for all and each in their unity, concentrated in a single focus of love for several, even for one in his separation from the general unity; disclosure before all, openness with everyone, together with esotericism, the mystery of the few; the greatest democratism together with the strictest aristocratism; "absolutely all are the elect" together with the elect of the elect; "preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15; Cf. Col. 1:23) together with "neither cast ye your pearls before swine" (Matt. 7:6); in brief, agape-philia--such are the antinomic dualities of the Good News. The power of the Gospel is accessible to all, does not need an interpreter. But this power is also thoroughly esoteric; not one word in the Gospel can be understood correctly without the "tradition of the elders," without the interpretation of spiritual guides, successively handing down the meaning of the Gospel from generation to generation. The Book clear as crystal is at the same time the Book with seven seals. All are equal in a Christian community and, at the same time, the whole structure of the community is hierarchical.
"Antinomic dualities" are at the heart of all of Florensky's theology, so it's important constantly to stress where this is coming from. Truth itself is not found apart from love, and love is found in self-denial leading to self-revelation, which is fully reflected in the Triune existence of God and more specifically in the incarnation and cross of Christ. Everything leading to the Truth, then, has an antinomical structure, consisting of two opposites which cannot be reconciled by the rational mind, but in fact reinforce one another to the spiritual mind. That is the starting point.

Here Florensky shows, as he always does, how essential this antinomical structure is to Christian life. Community itself consists thrives on a contradiction between the essential equality of all members and their essential inequality. Choose one or the other, and you'll get it wrong. Only by embracing both aspects of community, and allowing them to reinforce one another, can you fully understand--and, more importantly, experience--community.

Likewise, community has an antinomic structure in that it is both collectivist and individualist. Jesus came to call a people to himself; yet he also had disciples set apart, whom he called friends--one, in particular, called "the disciple whom Jesus loved." Jesus loves all of us, but this phrase refers to only one person in all of human history. The experience of community cannot be merely collective and abstract, but also must be concrete and personal. That is the tension. It cannot be resolved by reason, but only by love. Indeed, love finds genuine expression by embracing this tension.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Milton Friedman on balancing the budget

Milton Friedman, that crazy Tea Party activist (and Nobel Prize winning economist), insisted that balancing the government's budget isn't the real problem. The real fundamental question is, as you can hear at 6:42,
"The real question is, how much are you required to spend, one way or another--directly or indirectly, by taxes, by lending, by inflation--what fraction of your income are you required to devote to have other people spend it, supposedly on your behalf?"
Today it is accepted by virtually everyone that any reasonable person would accept that we need to balance the federal budget by a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases. Of course, that's what normal people must do, so clearly that is what the federal government must do. Thus, to suggest that taxes should not be increased to pay for the federal budget is taken as doctrinaire, the crazed thinking of Tea Party fanatics. Was Milton Friedman, then, simply a fanatic?

As shocking as it sounds to suggest that a great majority of the population is in error, that is unfortunately the case today (as nearly always). The government is not a for-profit business. It is not a household. It does not increase revenue by working harder or by making a better product. If this were how the government increased revenue, I'd be all in favor of it. But let's be clear, that is not what is meant when people so casually suggest "increasing revenue." What is obviously meant is increasing taxes.

Now as Milton Friedman points out in this video, government deficit is already a tax. That money has to be paid off somehow. Make no mistake, when the government spends money, it is always spending your money. The more money the government spends, the more of your money is being spent. In other words, the more the government spends, the less freedom you have.

Unfortunately, conservatives have tried to make the case that we can balance the budget like reasonable businessmen and yet not increase taxes. The government is not a business, and we don't need businessmen running the government. What we need is a government that protects, rather than degrades, our liberty. This can only be done by reducing the amount of money government forces us to spend. Raising taxes is not a morally neutral way of "increasing revenue." It is an immoral act of force, which can only be justified insofar as it is necessary to defend our country and provide a legal system which upholds individual liberty.

There are other options, of course. It is possible, in theory, that the government could charter legitimate businesses, which must play by all the same rules as other businesses in a state of free market competition. From such firms the government could, in theory, generate revenue for various programs it would like to maintain. That is, of course, never how it works in practice. Businesses with government charters almost always get special privileges. But I wanted to mention this, lest anyone think that I am dogmatically opposed to all means of providing public services through the federal government. No, all I am dogmatically opposed to is coercion, which happens every time the government spends your money without asking your permission.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A less violent society?

Steven Pinker has written a book entitled, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, in which he argues that human civilization has been evolving into a more peaceful one. I heard an interview with Pinker on NPR the other day. I found some of his statistics encouraging, and some of his arguments persuasive, but I'm a bit skeptical of the idea that human nature has actually improved.

Keep in mind that there are two very different questions one could ask. We could ask, on the one hand, whether "human nature" has improved, meaning that humans have become fundamentally more moral and genuinely more interested in the good of other human beings. We could also ask, on the other hand, whether institutions have evolved to constrain certain evil tendencies, thus producing a more benevolent societies. I suspect a positive answer to the latter question is far more likely than for the former.

Even so, even if private violence has decreased over time, this does not mean that violence in general has. I appreciated this review by Tyler Cowen, in which he makes this exact point:
Another hypothesis is to see modern violence as lower, especially in the private sphere, because the state is much more powerful. Could this book have been titled The Nationalization of Violence? But nationalization does not mean that violence goes away, especially at the most macro levels. In a variant on my point above, one way of describing the observed trend is “less frequent violent outbursts, but more deadlier outbursts when they come.” Both greater wealth (weapons are more destructive, and thus used less often, and there is a desire to preserve wealth) and the nationalization of violence point toward that pattern. That would help explain why the two World Wars, Stalin, Chairman Mao, and the Holocaust, all came not so long ago, despite a (supposed) trend toward greater peacefulness. Those are hard data points for Pinker to get around, no matter how he tries.
And here is another very good point:
When doing the statistics, one key issue is how to measure violence. Pinker often favors “per capita” measures, but I am not so sure. I might prefer a weighted average of per capita and “absolute quantity of violence” measures. Killing six million Jews in the Holocaust is not, in my view, “half as violent” if global population is twice as high. Once you toss in the absolute measures with the per capita measures, the long-term trends are not nearly as favorable as Pinker suggests.
To put it cynically, if I kill someone so that I can feed my children, it's murder; if America carpet bombs innocent civilians, it's national defense.

One more thought, which is sadly all too easy to dismiss by a great majority of the mainstream media: If not for the ideological claim advanced in the latter part of the 20th century that unborn children are not human, it would be very easy to demonstrate that violence has greatly increased in our generation. In our country alone, there have been 53,000,000 abortions since 1973. This cannot be counted as part of Pinker's data, because he cannot accept it as violence. But it's hard for me to accept that 53,000,000 bloody corpses are a sign of a more peaceful society.

Still, I think we do a disservice to society by always speaking in dreary terms, as if civilization never makes any moral progress. Slavery was once commonly accepted as a legitimate practice virtually everywhere around the world. Now it is accepted almost nowhere. That's progress.

The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life. Moral progress is far from inevitable, but neither is it futile. It's good to be reminded of both sides; I think Pinker probably dwells on one more than the other. Still, it's probably a good read. Maybe I'll pick it up one of these days.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

ReasonTV on international adoption policy

One of the more interesting pieces I've seen by ReasonTV. It's nice to see libertarians talking about real humanitarian issues, you know?

I think it's really sad that we don't think about these issues more. Our political discourse is so wrapped up in American issues, we rarely ever think about how political ideas affect those less fortunate all over the world. The "international community" is really a euphemism for a bunch of elites with mind-boggling amounts of power over the lives of other people. That kind of power is dangerous, even in the hands of good people. You'll find in this video yet another story of immense harm done in the name of good intentions.

There is also reason to question, to a certain extent, the very intentions driving international policies emanating from the UN. In the middle of the video you'll find some of the interviews critiquing the idea that there's some inherent value in a child growing up in her native culture. Any policies which seek to preserve abstract cultural identities are inherently flawed. People, including children, ought to be viewed as individuals, and we ought to work toward allowing all people the greatest possible opportunity for individual thriving. There are many people who seem to believe there is something morally desirable about preserving culture, but I confess I don't think this belief has any basis whatsoever.

I also think this is a very important issue from a sanctity of life perspective. Everyone who cares about abortion cares (or ought to care) about adoption. If life is sacred, we need some societal mechanisms by which we can care for life, and I think one of those mechanisms should be a voluntary adoption process. The problem is that government doesn't seem to want to solve issues of abuse by simply forcing laws. It seems to want to solve them by just taking over the whole process. That is precisely the way in which, on any given issue, government becomes more of a hindrance than a help. It is tragic that there isn't more widespread belief in the ability of free cooperation to take care of orphans.

Watch the video, tell me what you think.

Incomprehensible concreteness

In the past few years I've been strongly rebelling against the long-standing trend in Western thought toward seeing God as so abstract as to be incomprehensible. Whether it's the classical "three O" definition of God (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent) or Anselm's ontological characterization of God as "the greatest possible being" or Descartes' imagined corollary of his own self-evident existence (okay, technically his thought was self-evident, which then implied his existence), I find most philosophical approaches start with the abstract and work their way "down." (Note how skeptical I am of this metaphor. Who says abstract knowledge is "higher" than concrete details?) And in case I don't seem to talking about things that matter in the real world, just find a random web site for Christian apologetics and look for the basic arguments. If you don't find something like St. Thomas Aquinas's five arguments very quickly, I'd be surprised.

It would be a little strange, and possibly quite offensive, if someone asked me how I knew my father existed. I knew him, and there's no other way to say it than that. I could describe to you many things about him--that he was a pastor, that he obtained four degrees in four different decades, that he was the most passionate and caring person you'd ever met, that he was brilliant and loved to teach, and on and on.... But these are simply things about him, abstracted away from the concrete existence of the man who was my father. Everyone I have ever met since I graduated from high school lacks and will always lack the actual, concrete knowledge of my father, and know words can ever give that to them.

It's a good thing, in some ways, that we have abstract language in order to communicate experiences that we can never actually share. A friend of mine just recently lost her own father. In some ways it was possible to share that pain with her, to grieve with her, and to let her know she wasn't alone. That is the benefit of having language. On the other hand, the limits of language were painfully apparent to both of us as we struggled to make verbal sense of our grief. Ironic, really, how two people can share a related experience and be mutually aware of how impossible it is to actually share it.

The concrete is far more incomprehensible than the abstract. You can know it, but you can never understand it. Love is that way. Beauty is that way. Even truth itself, at its core, is that way.

That's why I kind of resent the idea that I need a five point argument for the existence of God--or any argument, really. You either know him or you don't. And I suspect there's actually no such thing as simply not knowing him. Some people just think they should be able to understand if they really want to know. I can tell you, if that were the case, we would never know love.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Not so magical

Today I went with a friend to see Richard Dawkins speak at our very own University of Virginia. I was thoroughly underwhelmed. Perhaps it would have been better if I had gone into it knowing that it was simply a promotion for his new book, The Magic of Reality, which is essentially a children's atheist bible. Now if I just insert a few words into the title, like so:
Taking the Magic Out of of Reality
well then, yes, I think that about sums up the lecture today.

Dawkins opened his talk by apologizing that he might sound patronizing, since the book was originally aimed at children of age 12, but he hoped that the book would be valuable to people of all ages. Whenever you hear that expression, "Fun for all ages," don't believe it--the grown-ups will be bored to tears, I assure you. From his high-school level exposition of evolutionary biology to his stumbling explanation of how a prism really splits white light into colors (he wasn't quite successful today with his I-Pad apps), Dawkins was always somewhere in between putting me to sleep and offending me. Does one have to be an atheist to understand rainbows? It's amazing to me how he can consistently disparage any and all religious beliefs as antiquated myths and simultaneously reference scientists like Newton and Copernicus as intellectual giants, without ever dealing with the simple fact that such men had faith.

But that isn't the thing that really bugged me about this talk. Dawkins apparently had some desire to display genuine reverence for truth and to show just how beautiful the natural world really is. How, then, did he come up so short? This I can only explain by pointing out the tension between the desire to find beauty in the universe and the belief that only skepticism is an acceptable lens through which to view it. The word awe simply never came up. Speaking for myself, I heard not a trace of passion in his voice as Dawkins explain that our planet is but a tiny speck of dust compared to our sun, which is itself insignificant compared with the galaxy which enfolds it, which is itself but one out of hundreds of billions in the universe. If you can speak of such things without trembling, you simply have no sense of place in the universe.

The last chapter of Dawkins' book, on miracles, really says everything about the kind of philosophy into which he would like to indoctrinate young minds. He believes in strict rationalism, an approach to learning which refuses to accept anything which has not first been proved. It might be worth pointing out that the proposition that we ought to be rationalists cannot be proved, except by appealing to assumptions which themselves have not been proved. But aside from being logically self-defeating, this philosophy is not as consistent as it would appear with the reality of scientific progress. Were we to throw out the notion of trust entirely, we could not build on the work of others to form a scientific consensus. Trust in some sort of community is a necessary part of all intellectual development, including scientific. Dawkins knows this. That is why he works hard to build community among those who are like-minded. It just doesn't seem to occur to him that this desire for community might have implications for the philosophy he espouses.

This is not going to be a "refute atheism" post. I realize there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of all religions, and I encourage a healthy amount of skepticism in everyone. All I would warn against is making skepticism into an end in itself, and putting one's faith solely in mankind's ability to explain and control reality. Such faith tends to cannibalize itself; it destroys the very magic it once so longed to find.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ron Paul flip-flops!

I found it! There is one issue on which Ron Paul has actually changed his mind: the death penalty. Check it out:

I would have to say I agree with him...

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Legislating morality

What should be the government's role in legislating morality?

The claim you sometimes hear on the left is that the government should not legislate morality at all. This is complete disingenuous. All law is legislated morality. Laws aren't simply recommendations; they come backed with a threat of coercion. If the government is going to threaten to coerce me if I don't follow a particular law, they had better have a good moral argument why I should obey the law. Otherwise, they are no more than brute tyrants. In fact, the left wants to legislate morality all the time and it is completely irrational that they would call it anything else. From income redistribution to food regulations to funding social welfare programs, the left has in mind a moral vision for our country which is has every right to defend in a free society. Only don't pretend no morals are being enforced.

The right, on the other hand, will often strongly endorse the belief that all law is legislated morality. The enthusiasm is a little too strong, however, and very often the right has a very uncritical view of the relationship between morals and laws. For instance, many conservatives will go so far as to propose a constitutional amendment "to protect the institution of marriage." Yet no Republican has seriously proposed a federal ban on divorce. "Traditional values" don't seem to have a clear definition, and the phrase is mostly tossed around in order to rally support for the latest trend in conservative activism.

Libertarians, commonly speaking, tend to favor the left's position that the government ought not to legislate morality. Arguably they are more consistent in this, since they oppose government intervention in both personal and economic spheres of life. Yet unless you are actually an anarchist (in which case none of this applies to you) then you must concede that the government's role is in fact to enforce laws which protect freedom. Thus the argument I made against the left still applies: laws must really be enforced morals, or else they are nothing but tyrannical decrees.

Hopefully each of these caricatures can help warn us against pitfalls in our reasoning about these issues. The fact that we really don't think very clearly about this question shows up in political debates all the time. Very rarely to people have sound principles in mind when they decide that something ought to be law. They implicitly base their arguments on personal experience, without recognizing the unavoidable fact that our personal experience captures an exceedingly minuscule portion of reality.