Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hayek on reason and tradition

Today's quote from F. A. Hayek is from The Fatal Conceit, chapter 1, page 21:
Learning how to behave is more the source than the result of insight, reason, and understanding. Man is not born wise, rational and good, but has to be taught to become so. It is not our intellect that created our morals; rather, human interactions governed by our morals make possible the growth of reason and those capabilities associated with it. Man became intelligent because there was tradition--that which lies between instinct and reason--for him to learn. This tradition, in turn, originated not from a capacity rationally to interpret observed facts but from habits of responding. It told man primarily what he ought or ought not to do under certain conditions rather than what he must expect to happen.
(Note: the emphasis is all Hayek's.)

This view is the result of Hayek's own studies and reflections on history and anthropology, and it provides a foundation for his anti-rationalist epistemology. I find myself lately rather hooked on this principle, as I see that it has far-reaching consequences. In education, for instance, I think we often see two schools of thought: one assumes that children are naturally gifted with the ability to think for themselves, and the other assumes that all knowledge must be handed down in the form of tradition. Hayek's principle is a little more favorable to the latter view, but even this will not suit: it is not merely knowledge which gets passed down through tradition, but a habit of thought enabling the mind to process things in an orderly fashion, for instance by the rules of deductive or inductive reasoning.

In terms of moral philosophy, I think this principle also leads us away from being (too) consequentialist in our reasoning. While it is often the case that our morals can be justified based on the general sort of consequence which we wish to avoid, there is in fact no way we can ever predict all the particular consequences of the various choices we make and the innumerable ways we make them. At bottom, we just have to accept that there are certain things you can't do, because, well, you just can't--even if you have some reason to suspect that it would be better in the long run if you did.

What goes mostly unstated in Hayek's moral philosophy is the underlying humanism implicit in his argument. Our morals have evolved to allow human beings to flourish to the greatest possible extent, given a world with ever-changing and unpredictable circumstances. This, for Hayek, is enough to place the benefit of the doubt on the morals we have inherited from tradition. On the other hand, it also justifies for him a great deal of skepticism about moral knowledge: "reluctant as we may be to accept this, no universally valid system of ethics can ever be known to us." One might call this the Incompleteness Principle of ethics, mirroring the Incompleteness Theorems of mathematical logic.

As a result, it is always possible to correct previous moral assumptions, either by showing some of our morals to be mutually incompatible or by showing empirically that some of our morals tend to do more harm than good. Such corrections can be continued ad infinitum, since no step in the process can ever produce the complete system of ethics we might strive for. What we absolutely cannot do is throw out traditional morality altogether and replace it with a plan by which we seek to deliberately conquer all obstacles to human flourishing. The dream of accomplishing this is exactly what Hayek names the fatal conceit. Not only will it not work, but it will backfire in devastating ways.

Hayek's moral philosophy is the right place to start if you want to understand the principles of a liberal social order of the "Hayekian" tradition, which, he would argue, goes at least back to the Scottish philosophers of the Enlightenment. But I think it's significant that, for a man known mostly for his thoughts on economics and politics, he had pretty brilliant insight into the complex and subtle relationship between reason, instinct, morals, and tradition.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What makes us tell the truth?

Fascinating article over at the WSJ entitled, "Why We Lie." The premise is interesting:
We tend to think that people are either honest or dishonest. In the age of Bernie Madoff and Mark McGwire, James Frey and John Edwards, we like to believe that most people are virtuous, but a few bad apples spoil the bunch. If this were true, society might easily remedy its problems with cheating and dishonesty. Human-resources departments could screen for cheaters when hiring. Dishonest financial advisers or building contractors could be flagged quickly and shunned. Cheaters in sports and other arenas would be easy to spot before they rose to the tops of their professions.

But that is not how dishonesty works. Over the past decade or so, my colleagues and I have taken a close look at why people cheat, using a variety of experiments and looking at a panoply of unique data sets—from insurance claims to employment histories to the treatment records of doctors and dentists. What we have found, in a nutshell: Everybody has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats—just by a little. Except for a few outliers at the top and bottom, the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible; on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. Sadly, it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society. [emphasis added]
The article goes on to talk about studies that may indicate how it is we can curb this subtle yet corrosive force in society. The author uses the example of a study in which a group of UCLA students were asked to complete a mental exercise, essentially consisting of a series of simple calculations, and then report on how well they did (after their papers were shredded). The group was divided into two sets: one set was asked to recall the Ten Commandments before completing the assignment, while the other was asked to recall something rather trivial, like ten books they read in high school. Turns out the second set of students had slightly inflated scores relative to the first. Apparently just recalling certain rules caused people to act more scrupulously. The experiment even worked on self-avowed atheists. In fact, it even worked with the Ten Commandments replaced by the school's honor code.

To the author, this suggests a convenient and effective way to curb lying in a society. For instance, in one experiment with insurance claims, the signature line, with the words, "I promise that the information I am providing is true," was moved from the bottom of the form to the top. This significantly decreased the values of the claims, suggesting that people were less inclined to cheat when reminded from the beginning that they were under oath.

But aside from methods of manipulation, what insight into the nature of morality might we derive from this? It's interesting to speculate on the role that words play in shaping morality. Statements such as the Ten Commandments or a school honor code do more than merely convey information; they also act as a link between people and some abstract authority watching over them. It's one thing for a person to know that lying is wrong. It is another for that person to hear (or read) that lying is wrong. Even when the words appear on a form, they have an impact on us.

Put in another way, words are more than just a medium through which two parties are able to communicate their own desires, goals, and beliefs. They also seem to have some mysterious power over us to help us conform to a collective wisdom tradition. It is important that the words themselves have power to do this. Otherwise we would have to depend on some other source of authority, presumably not nearly so easily widespread as words. This should give us a clue as to how we ever became capable of functioning in a society which is so widely extended, in terms of both physical space and numbers of people.

All of this suggests that perhaps all societies ought to learn to imitate some version of the words of Moses:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. [Deut. 6:6-9]
It would appear our very survival depends on it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

This is exactly what the church should be doing

A New York Times article tells a story of the Reformed Church of Highland Park, NJ that has been truly doing the work of the gospel:
The Reformed Church in this prosperous suburb has for years packed a lot inside its walls, including addiction counseling, a housing program, dance groups, gatherings for developmentally disabled people, a restaurant, a thrift shop and space to worship for hundreds of people from half a dozen religious congregations.

Now, the church is taking on another role: sanctuary for five Indonesian Christians facing deportation and fearful of religious persecution in their homeland.
Not only does the church have a long history of actively spreading the love of Christ to their community, but now they are standing in opposition to unjust laws and acting as a shield against the state (which is also spreading the love of Christ). And it is working:
“As a matter of policy,” Mr. Feinstein[, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement,] said, the agency “does not conduct enforcement actions at sensitive locations, including places of worship, unless the action involves a national security matter, imminent risk of violence or physical harm, pursuit of a dangerous felon or the imminent destruction of evidence in an ongoing criminal case.”
It gives me hope to know that the church still acts as a safe haven for the oppressed.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Follow-up on Michael Sandel

Trevor Burrus weighs in on Michael Sandel's new book. He revealingly calls his review "The Moral Majority of the New Left." Excerpt:
Rick Santorum and Michael Sandel should go fishing some time. If they put preconceptions aside, they will quickly realize they have a lot in common. They both feel the “national character” is eroding and that “we” need to have a serious conversation about where our culture is going. They can even trade knowing nods over their shared conviction that, while there’s nothing wrong with certain voluntary relationships (same-sex couples and corporations), why do they have to do it in public?
Aside from being provocative, I think the review is helpful in pointing out what I think is the ultimate flaw in these moralizing arguments about markets and/or culture: who is this "we"?
Conservative and communitarian arguments are thus equivalent in form. For both philosophies, “we” are supposed to be engaging in a collective conversation about what values will run “our” lives.
I think most of us are inclined to instinctively respond to this pronoun "we." It is a word which invites people to feel like they are part of something. But once definite propositions are put on the table, so to speak, one immediately realizes how polarizing the debate can be, and how infinite in scope questions of detail can become. We should not treat our bodies as commodities. OK, but what about wearing a t-shirt with a brand on it? We should not pay students to study. OK, but what about taking them out to eat when they get straight A's? We shouldn't make a commodity out of free public theater. OK, but what if we don't really like the public theater that we're being forced to pay for?

Burrus points out that communitarians try to argue that the interconnectedness of all people and all behaviors demands that we be able to make public determinations concerning individual behavior, but actually our interconnectedness implies just the opposite. We are so interconnected that if the community has the right to make determinations on some personal choices, then it's very hard to see what limits there will be. As I just explained above, there are too many details to fight over.

Come to think of it, that's exactly what happens: the left and right are locked in a never-ending fight over which areas of our lives to invade. Some want to take away our freedom to watch pornography. OK, sounds reasonable, but what else can't we watch? Some want to take away our freedom to smoke marijuana or perhaps tobacco. OK, but what else can't we consume? (Some are already proposing limits on our sugar intake.) Some believe the government should place certain mandates on health insurance purchases. OK, so what else do we have to buy? There are infinitely many details to be worked out, and the fact is, having a "national debate" about these things is impossible. It invariably becomes a polarizing political death match in which people's opinions are constantly being shaped by the two-sided establishment. We come to accept a list of moral imperatives which have no relation to one another and no coherence with any over-arching moral philosophy. This is an inevitable result of a system which seeks to decide all moral questions democratically.

What is the alternative to this endless tug-of-war between competing cultural factions? Instead of pretending that "we" can solve these moral questions collectively, we ought instead embrace a very simple moral concept: leave individuals with the right and responsibility to their own bodies and their own property. Moral questions concerning the proper use of person and property will have to be left up to the individual. It's not as if they have to figure it all out on their own. I promise, people occasionally listen to their parents, their teachers, their pastors, or whoever they might look up to and respect. The constant sense of urgency that there needs to be some "national debate" is honestly a bit mystifying to me sometimes. It seems we are instinctively trapped in a paranoid fear of the collapse of morality and social order. The facts just don't support that paranoia.

If Michael Sandel wants to guide people toward what he thinks is a better moral life, more power to him. I guess in that way he is functioning as a pastor of sorts. But if he wants to talk about politics, I'd like to know where he is going with this.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How Markets Crowd Out Morals

That's the name of the lead essay by Michael Sandel in the latest Boston Review. Excerpt:
This economistic view of virtue fuels the faith in markets and propels their reach into places they don’t belong. But the metaphor is misleading. Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that grow stronger with exercise. One of the defects of a market-driven society is that it lets these virtues languish. To renew our public life we need to exercise them more strenuously.
I agree with Sandel, even I'm not completely sure about all of his applications. For instance, economists are in remarkable agreement, contrary to many people (like Sandel, apparently), that the selling of organs such as kidneys should be allowed. I'm not convinced that the economists are wrong on that particular issue. I am convinced, however, that the utilitarian view, in which the social good is determined by the sum total of individual subjective desires, is wrong. What's downright bizarre to me is the economist's conception of altruism and love as scarce goods.

The more libertarian I get, the more anti-market I become. That's because the market has come to be a "mere mechanism," as Sandel puts it in his criticism of the economist's view. As a mere mechanism, it then becomes a tool for technocrats to place themselves at the helm of society under the presumption that they can steer us toward economic salvation. Money is not the ultimate tool for determining behavior. Banks are not the salvation of the world. You would have thought 2008 had taught us that already.

What makes the market work, in the classical liberal conception to which I subscribe, is the fact that our morals guide us. This is the whole point of Hayek's The Fatal Conceit. If we were guided solely by instinct, we would be stuck in small hunter-gatherer societies with no grounds on which to cooperate with people outside our tribe. If we are guided solely by reason, however, we often presumptuously move to destroy the conventions and institutions which have made us successful as a species. Our morals act as a buffer between instinct and reason, guiding us through complex decisions for which our instincts are either inadequate or misleading, and for which our reason is incapable of finding a satisfactory justification even when we are making the right decision.

The market, in this view, emerged over time as a set of conventions and institutions which tend to enhance the thriving of human beings. But once we assume that the market is a product of our reason and can be given some a priori justification based on a utilitarian conception of ethics, then we tend to treat it as a system through which to organize all of society, thus "crowding out" our morals.

The way forward, in my opinion, is through what I would like to call (somewhat paradoxically) a critical respect for tradition. Our moral traditions, in particular, have made human flourishing possible. Unfortunately, we inherit these moral traditions as one big package, so to speak. When we unpack these traditions, we have to critically assess how they can fit together. Sometimes they can't, and we must abandon certain traditions altogether. Sometimes we will spend our entire lives trying to resolve our morals in ways that can't fit in any logically coherent way, but this doesn't always mean that we must choose one or the other. It is the critical struggle with our moral traditions that produces moral advances. The outright rejection of moral tradition, on the other hand, is pure folly. You can't start from nothing.

For example, there are certainly competing moral traditions which have a say in the question of selling organs as commodities. On the one hand, we have a traditional belief in the sanctity of human life, and sacred things can't simply be bought and sold. To offer up your own kidney to someone who needs it is indeed a noble sacrifice, and everyone should recognize it as such. On the other hand, there is a certain dignity to the reciprocity of a market transaction. One man needs a kidney (much) more than he needs $10,000, another man needs $10,000 more than he needs both kidneys; the trade benefits both parties. It seems to me that making such a transaction legal would not have an utterly corrosive effect on our morals. What if it saved lives? Can we really be so terribly upset by that?

On other particular examples, I mostly agree with Sandel. Should we really give each other cash presents as gifts? That seems crass, and probably for a good reason. We are not being "irrational" by attempting to put a little more thought into gift-giving than just writing a check. On the other hand, it is also quite superficial to search high and low for a "good gift" without ever truly getting to know your relatives. I'm sure Sandel understands that there are many other good reasons to be concerned with the excessive gift-giving every year at Christmas time. We have to weigh our various moral traditions, from the value of gift-giving to the dignity of simple living, from the beauty of grandiose celebrations to the virtue of thrift.

Sandel's major contribution to the discussion is not in the particulars, but rather in the general principle which he states so well: "our capacity for love and benevolence is enlarged with practice." I couldn't agree more. Aside from strange utilitarian assumptions made by economists, the real problem of modern society is the ease with which we are able to think only of ourselves. With as much affluence as we have, it is difficult to find in ourselves the desire and the discipline to make lasting commitments which are not reducible to mere transactions. Yet without such commitments, the human race would never have flourished as it has. Moreover, I'm not sure it's even possible to understand individual happiness as an idea completely independent of committed relationships. Relationships to one another give us identity, which in turn gives us meaning, which in turn gives us happiness, provided those relationships are healthy.

Of course, this makes us ask which commitments are good. Considering this is an article about the corrupting influence of money, I would have to say that governments stand out as particularly poor candidates for our allegiance. Is there any doubt that the coercive power of government is a magnet for political crony capitalists and special interests? Sandel cites an instance in which a small Swiss town was asked to host a nuclear waste site. I, for one, do not yearn for a world in which men's hearts swell with patriotic pride at the thought of storing nuclear waste for the sake of the greater good. In fact, I'm not sure I really sympathize with the Swiss townspeople for being more willing to cooperate under the condition of not receiving compensation. But perhaps the Swiss feel a greater sense of solidarity, given that they live in such a small country which has allowed itself to be relatively isolated from conflict. The United States is not such a country.

In my opinion, the commitments we ought to foster the most are those which we can see and know personally: our families, our friends, our neighbors in our communities, our colleagues, our churches, etc. I am very skeptical of people calling for commitments to large institutions such as our national government, except insofar as it is required to provide a basic social cohesion in which a variety of communities and institutions can flourish. It is pointless to love people in general and no one in particular. I think it is therefore misguided to put the interests of country before the interests of people you actually know. If your nation begins to trample the rights of your community, then loyalty to country is no longer a virtue.

Sandel doesn't really delve into politics per se, but I think he means to go there, and I'd be curious to hear what his political philosophy is. In any case, he has given us some important things to think about, and I look forward to seeing what kind of influence he has on the intellectual community. The economists, in particular, should have some interesting things to say.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Libertarianism and collective destiny

The fundamental dichotomy that reverberates throughout popular political discourse could be summarized no better than by this line from a recent Washington Post article:
Romney is promoting the God of "I": individual accomplishment and personal success. Obama is promoting the God of "we," in which the fates of all are intertwined.
Replace "Obama" more broadly with "the left" and "Romney" with "the right" and you get a pretty typical understanding of American politics. I'll hand it to the author of the article: she has a very balanced approach to this dichotomy and frames it provocatively in the context of Christianity's theological history. The whole thing is worth a read.

But that's not exactly what I'm going to talk about. What I want to talk about, instead, is what eventually one me over to "libertarianism," or perhaps more correctly "classical liberalism," in the first place. The most abiding critique of libertarianism is that the individualism on which it is based is immoral or impractical or both. Clearly we all need each other. The human race cannot survive without cooperation among different members of the species. We all owe our success to others. These observations have both moral and practical implications for our political philosophy such that the radical individualism underlying libertarian philosophy must be false.

Until fairly recently, I more or less accepted this critique of libertarianism. What changed everything for me was ultimately an essay called, "Individualism: True and False," by none other than F. A. Hayek (it always comes back to Hayek). In it, he gives the following definition of "true" individualism:
What, then, are the essential characteristics of true individualism? The first thing that should be said is that it is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived from this view of society. This fact should by itself be sufficient to refute the silliest of the common misunderstandings: the belief that individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society. If that were true, it would indeed have nothing to contribute to our understanding of society. But its basic contention is quite a different one; it is that there is no other way toward an understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior. This argument is directed primarily against the properly collectivist theories of society which pretend to be able directly to comprehend social wholes like society, etc., as entities sui generis which exist independently of the individuals which compose them. The next step in the individualistic analysis of society, however, is directed against the rationalistic pseudo-individualism which also leads to practical collectivism. It is the contention that, by tracing the combined effects of individual actions, we discover that many of the institutions on which human achievements rest have arisen and are functioning without a designing and directing mind; that, as Adam Ferguson expressed it, "nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action but not the result of human design"; and that the spontaneous collaboration of free men often creates things which are greater than their individual minds can ever fully comprehend. This is the great theme of Josiah Tucker and Adam Smith, of Adam Ferguson and Edmund Burke, the great discovery of classical political economy which has become the basis of our understanding not only of economic life but of most truly social phenomena.
The above quote is dense, but I have decided to post it in its entirety so as not to deprive the reader of Hayek's sophisticated explanation of the core issues. Having said that, I will now try to explain what effect this passage had on me and what I think should be the real selling point of libertarianism.

To ask whether we should focus on the individual or focus on the collective is simply the wrong question. The right question is, what is a good society and how does it work? That's the question to which I believe Hayek and others have given the best answers.

A good society is one in which people cooperate. We can do far more if we specialize into different tasks and share the fruits of our labor than if we each keep to ourselves. We are also far healthier and happier if we have right relationships with one another: friends, families, and so on. In a good society, each individual has a role to play in benefiting every other individual, whether directly or indirectly.

A good society also consists solely of people who do not and cannot have access to the kind of knowledge which would be necessary to delegate to all individuals the tasks, relationships, and roles which individuals ought to play in society. It is not possible to "construct" or "plan" a good society.

Here we have a conundrum: a good society must consist of individuals working together toward the common good, but those individuals can't have any idea what precisely they are working toward.

Classical liberalism succeeds where other political philosophies fail because it (a) sees the conundrum as it is and (b) provides a solution. Which means, yes, classical liberalism is indeed concerned with our collective destiny. You must keep this in mind as you read about individual liberty, private property, constitutional constraints on government, and so on: all of these ideas are meant to provide a framework under which individuals may work together toward the common good without actually having a plan for doing so. I say this merely by way of invitation (not even introduction) to the classical liberal way of thinking; if I were to attempt to provide the complete answer, I would be stuck writing all night.

As I see it, modern American liberalism fails at point (a), since they insist that we can answer questions which are simply unanswerable, while American conservatives usually fail at point (b) by clinging to traditions which don't necessarily address this conundrum effectively.

I agree with conservatives that our moral traditions play a key role in the constitution of a good society. However, I do not agree that these moral traditions are beyond question or revision, and I also do not agree with the proposed application of said moral traditions. There many things which may be immoral to do, and yet it may also be immoral to prevent a person from doing those things.

With liberals I have a tougher time because it is generally quite difficult to get them to understand the knowledge problem. Many of my peers are attracted to liberalism because they are smart and believe that smart people ought to work together toward the common good. In this sense I, too, am a liberal. The difference is that I believe we must work toward the common good beginning with the humble acknowledgement that we don't know precisely what that is, and the broader our impact on the world the less of an idea we will have whether we have done good or bad. In my opinion this difference explains the modern liberal's obsession with statistics: the gap between rich and poor, under-representation from minorities, median incomes in third world countries, average scores on standardized tests--the list goes on and on, because there's always another aggregate quantity to try and fix. If the liberal could only understand how little we really know about where these numbers come from, he might be able to understand why I oppose his policy proposals.

I hope this is a helpful contrast. It certainly helps clarify in my own mind why I believe as I do, and why I believe America needs a different direction politically.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Now I understand Richard Dawkins

Recently I was enjoying this really cool story about how slime mold can be used to construct efficient networks, which used the example of the interstate highway system as a model. If you haven't seen this, check it out:

I read the NY Times op-ed written by Andrew Adamatzky and Andrew Ilachinski, the scientists who pioneered the use of slime mold (Physarum polycephalum) for various sorts of computing tasks. Read this excerpt:
But it’s worth remembering that the highway system was created by mere humans, using only human intelligence. To find out if it’s optimally designed, we need to consult a higher authority. Namely, slime mold.
What follows is a fascinating explanation of how such a bizarre creature can be used to solve complex problems like path optimization. Super-cool, right?

Well, later I saw a link someone posted to a blog article written by a conservative Christian entitled, "Who Needs Engineers?" The blog post makes the following complaint against Adamatzky and Ilachinski:
In short they argue that we really did not need all those engineers and planners who gave us the Interstate Highway system because we could have just let some slime do the work instead. I am not kidding, and I hope you will read this story to your children and help them see why the Bible says that those who hate God are fools.
Upon reading that, I realized why people like Richard Dawkins have such a missionary zeal about trying to promote science in the public realm. At some point Christians ought to realize that this kind of anti-scientific statement doesn't just make them look stupid. It's also, dare I say it, sinful. For one thing, it's false. Adamatzky and Ilachinski are clearly not saying that designing interstate highway systems is as simple as watching a slime mold. At the very least, have enough respect to understand what these men are actually saying.

For another thing, think about how hateful this is. "I hope you will read this story to your children and help them see why the Bible says that those who hate God are fools." So two creative, passionate scientists who have given the world a fascinating perspective on an interesting problem are being blasted, not for anything they said against God, but simply for sharing their research. I'm not going to look it up, but for all I know reading their article, these two scientists could be Christians. Whatever the case may be, it is wrong to judge people like that.

What provoked such an insult from this Christian blogger? Apparently, it was the mere mention of "evolution," as in this statement from the Times article: "the slime mold was designed by evolution to solve just one problem: how to build an optimal transport network (for its nutrients)." Thus, if you continue reading the aforementioned blog post, you will read yet another explanation why it is absurd to believe in evolution. I am almost 100% sure that Adamatzky and Ilachinski never even thought about the controversy over evolution when they were writing their op-ed for the NYT. If a single word can provoke such ire, perhaps I shouldn't tell my fellow church-goers that I study evolutionary differential equations.

I see these attacks on science as symptomatic of a couple of serious moral issues in the church, which Christians have yet to deal with. First, let's be clear: anti-intellectualism is a moral problem. Christians need to be reminded that intellectual pedigree does and should demand a certain amount of respect in this world. To treat scientists as if the very foundations of their research can be refuted in a short blog post is not only stupid, it is incredibly disrespectful. This is what I mean by anti-intellectualism.

But by far the more important moral problem in the church is a simple lack of respect for truth. For all this talk about standing firm against the cultural tides of relativism and skepticism and boldly proclaiming the truth, Christians are often profoundly lazy about trying to discover the truth. Thus they refuse to cope with the reality that some things we discover about the world are going to conflict with what the church has traditionally believed. Life is hard that way. Sometimes our beliefs don't withstand rigorous scrutiny. Failing to accept this is both an intellectual problem and a moral one.

There is another thing I find sad about this, and that's the apparent lack of imagination displayed by Christians who refuse to accept that the theory of evolution might really be true. All of their arguments come down to the same thing: I can't imagine how such complex systems came into being without any sort of design involved. Essentially, this is a bias born of conceit. Think about the title of that blog post: "Who Needs Engineers?" We humans seem to be of the biased opinion that any sort of order in the universe comes from the work of human hands, so when we discover that in fact there is a beautiful and complex order in nature, it makes sense that we tend to attribute that order to God the engineer. Not God the artist, not God the gardener, not God the lover of things spontaneous and free. No, it must have been God the designer, because we all know that really cool things can't just come into being on their own.

Yet probably the opposite is true: the more complex a system is, the more essential it is that it be allowed to freely evolve. Our complex economic and political systems came into being through a process of cultural evolution, and not thanks to "social engineers" (notice how many of these same Christians hate socialism--to me this boggles the mind). In the same way, this rich world of complex organisms and ecosystems could not have come about any way other than a process of evolution building spontaneous order.

When we say "designed by evolution," we of course mean "selected," but perhaps in a higher sense there is a sort of design to it all. Evolution is not "random" just because it is free. On the contrary, it has the remarkable tendency to produce improvements in living things, which we never could have produced using our feeble mental capabilities. And this is exactly what Adamatzky and Ilachinski were saying from the beginning: "To find out if it’s optimally designed, we need to consult a higher authority. Namely, slime mold." We have much to thank God for and much to learn from this beautiful world he has given us, but we will never understand it if we insist that God is an engineer.

More importantly, we will never understand it if we demonize those whose life's work it is to bring us creative insight into the wonderful and mysterious world around us. I hope the church can feel some sense of shame about this, before it forces out all of us who take scientific truth seriously.

In related news, the General Assembly of the PCA will soon vote on whether or not to reject all evolutionary views on the origin of man.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Banks are special"

Everyone interested in finance is now talking about the recent announcement by JP Morgan that it somehow managed to lose $2 billion in the past six weeks. In a recent opinion article, Paul Krugman asserts that this is precisely why we need more government regulation:
Just to be clear, businessmen are human — although the lords of finance have a tendency to forget that — and they make money-losing mistakes all the time. That in itself is no reason for the government to get involved. But banks are special, because the risks they take are borne, in large part, by taxpayers and the economy as a whole. And what JPMorgan has just demonstrated is that even supposedly smart bankers must be sharply limited in the kinds of risk they’re allowed to take on. [emphasis added]
So do you now understand? Banks are special.

The beef I have with Krugman is not that I think businessmen are superior to government; far from it. No, the beef I have is that I believe, as a hopeful believer in the classical liberal tradition, that our ultimate political goal should be to create a society which is less dependent on people with power, not more dependent. Krugman either thinks there is nothing wrong with a system in which we are forced to pay for the mistakes of cocky financiers, or else he simply thinks such a system is inevitable. I refuse to accept either premise.

As libertarians constantly remind us, if big businesses will at some point inevitably screw us all over, then isn't the same true of big government?

How do we liberate ourselves from a power structure which forces the many to pay for the mistakes of a few? It seems to me we need to reexamine the purpose of law. Almost everyone in contemporary political discourse assumes that one of the major purposes of law is to prevent bad things from happening. So confident are we in our ability to control the world around us, using the incredible technological and political tools developed in the modern era, that we feel certain that someone ought to be able to steer this monstrous ship away from those icebergs. (You'd think we'd actually learn something from the Titanic.)

We need a more chastened approach to law. The purpose of the law is to administer justice. This concept is still not lost on most people. We understand that if we have been wronged, the person who has done the wrong ought to compensate us. It is not possible to change a person's motives, but we can punish bad behavior.

Sometimes, however, the question is not so much whether a person has committed any wrong, but rather who should be responsible for what happened. A man who risks his own money in a business venture has not done any wrong to anyone, and probably has good intentions. However, if the venture goes bad, then justice does not provide him any claim on anyone else's money to reimburse him. He may ask others to be merciful, of course. But is stealing from someone else in order to help this man really an act of mercy? That, in effect, is what the government does whenever it bails out failed businesses. And how much more insulting is this practice, since the businessmen being shown "mercy" hardly deserve our pity!

For this reason, the best way to constrain government is to demand from it only justice, not mercy. The purpose of government is not to "steer the boat," as it were. Its sole purpose is to arbitrate between individuals who will sometimes fall into irreconcilable conflict. Its purpose is to decide the boundaries of responsibility so that individuals aren't forced to pay for the consequences of actions to which they had no prior connection, and then to enforce those boundaries. This is clearly not a trivial task, but it is a fundamentally different task than the one demanded by a majority of the American public today. It has nothing to do with control, but only with justice.

Doubtless someone will say that mercy triumphs over justice. A fine Christian sentiment that is, but mercy can only be shown by someone with power. The vision proposed by America's founders is one in which the government is not an institution of power, but of service to the people. God can have mercy on us because he has some rightful claim on us. If we admit that the government can have mercy on us, we give government a place which only properly belongs to God! Nothing belongs to the government other than what we have given it, or what has been taken from us. What an act of mercy for government to steal from the many in order to give to the few!

Like Krugman, I believe that if government is to insure the banks against all possible failures, it ought to demand that these banks act within the bounds of reason, so that they don't harm the public. But the question is whether the government has the authority to insure the banks in this way. The question is whether anyone has the right to claim a position in society that is "too big to fail," or too important not to be supported by the public. Such a position is what used to be called privilege, before the term came to be abused in modern discourse. The American dream, in my view, was to have a society in which the notion of privilege in this sense was all but totally destroyed.

It is not possible to prevent mistakes. It is not possible to prevent evil. Regulations will only slow down the conscientious. Those who have respect for what is right and prudent will either work around such regulations or ignore them. When people speak of the need to "regulate," they have already assumed that there is such a thing as privilege. And that is a tragedy.

Rather than regulations, we simply need law. "A government of laws, and not of men," as Madison said. In the short run, laws do not prevent evil men from doing evil things, but they do give the common man the power to stand up and be compensated for the wrong done to him. One hopes that in the long run, this has the tendency to prevent evil, since at least people will seek to avoid bad consequences. But what is there to prevent a man from doing as he pleases, when he knows that he has a place of privilege in society, and someone will always pick up after his mistakes?

I don't know how to successfully reform the power structure we have mistakenly built in this great civilization of ours. All I know is what kind of direction we ought to move in. It seems to me that so-called "liberals" like Krugman have abandoned the classical liberal vision of a world without privilege. My only guess is that they have all but abandoned thinking about the long run in favor of using their technocratic abilities to help as many people as they can in the short run. We shall see what is the fruit of their bias.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Correcting assumptions about religion and science

From the Browser, which is always a great source for reading up on the latest in modern thought, I found an article called "Christianity and the rise of western science" by Peter Harrison. Excerpt:
In spite of this widespread view on the historical relations between science and religion, historians of science have long known that religious factors played a significantly positive role in the emergence and persistence of modern science in the West. Not only were many of the key figures in the rise of science individuals with sincere religious commitments, but the new approaches to nature that they pioneered were underpinned in various ways by religious assumptions.

Could modern science have arisen outside the theological matrix of Western Christendom? It is difficult to say. What can be said for certain is that it did arise in that environment, and that theological ideas underpinned some of its central assumptions. Those who argue for the incompatibility of science and religion will draw little comfort from history.

Those who have magnified more recent controversies about the relations of science and religion, and who have projected them back into historical time, simply perpetuate a historical myth. The myth of a perennial conflict between science and religion is one to which no historian of science would subscribe.
This part was really on the money:
What historical record also suggests is that insofar as modern science posits natural laws and presupposes the constancy of nature, it invokes an implicit theology. Most important of all, perhaps, religious considerations provided vital sanctions for the pursuit of scientific knowledge and, arguably, it is these that account for the positive attitudes to science which have led to the high status of science in the modern West.
And this part actually surprised me a bit:
The adoption of more literal approaches to the interpretation of the bible, usually assumed to have been an impediment to science, also had an important, in indirect, role in these deveolopments, promoting a non-symbolic and utilitarian understanding of the natural world which was conducive to the scientific approach.
The whole thing is a good read. Very little of it was stuff I didn't already know, but I realize that sometimes it's not so much how new your ideas are, it's how often they get repeated. One could take the article as a healthy antidote to misleading "New Atheist" rhetoric. On the other hand, you could also take it as an exhortation to Christians in the west to earn once more the healthy relationship with science that we once had.

Folks on all sides need to remember that religion is extremely diverse, and as a result it's hard to pin down ideas and label them correctly. Christian ideas played a role in bringing about the rise of modern science, but not all Christian ideas played the same role. All I would ask of atheists is that they admit that science comes with a certain theology--not necessarily a Christian or otherwise traditional theology, but a theology nonetheless. Likewise, I would ask Christians not to label something as outside the realm of Christian thought simply because it doesn't align with their own traditional beliefs.

What the article addresses most thoroughly is the Christian conception of nature and the relation between that conception and western science. Where I think it gets interesting is in more recent years, when, starting with Darwinian biology and continuing on with psychology and neuroscience, science begins to penetrate into questions about ourselves. No longer is science about this vast sphere of reality known as nature, with human beings attempting to be objective observers. Now human beings are studying themselves, trying to determine where we came from and by what laws we behave.

Small wonder that this creates such a great deal of tension with religion. Christianity, like many religions, is largely a story about who we are and where we came from. As modern science begins to challenge that story, it creates conflict where there was none before. It's one thing to say that time started with the big bang; that doesn't necessarily change the story about ourselves. It's quite another to say human beings have a common ancestor with other species of living things. That definitely changes the story.

Then again, it's all in how you tell it, isn't it? The Genesis account has human beings made both in the image of God and from the dust of the earth. One suggests great power and dignity, the other suggests fragility and corruptibility. Does the story modern science tells really change so much?

I don't know the answer to that, I'm just offering some space for better theological discussion. At the very least, we all need to realize that at the heart of everything we do is some sort of theology, good or bad. The false assumption that we can get by without thinking theologically at all is helped along by these great historical myths about the inherent conflict between science and religion. We'd be much better off having real theological discussions, instead of arguments in which we either assume our theology is basically correct or else pretend we don't need any.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Life of Julia

In case you're not up on your politics, here is the link to Obama's new gimmick:
And I quote:
"Take a look at how President Obama's policies help one woman over her lifetime--and how Mitt Romney would change her story."
This truly blows my mind. Is this what Americans really want? Is voting really an act of choosing which manager would be better suited to make our personal lives better, from cradle to grave? There is nothing "progressive" about this. Inculcating Americans with the idea that we can't live without the all-powerful government is not "liberal." Liberalism is supposed to be about freedom. It's supposed to be about limiting arbitrary power and unleashing the potential of the individual. What would be "progressive" is if we could truly imagine a world in which we didn't have to bring all our gifts before the altar of the state in order to make life better for ourselves and one another.

What happened to liberalism, that it now boasts of such wretched ideas? Is Barack Obama the people's monarch? Is that what we do when we vote? Are we electing our king?

Fortunately, there is at least one good response out there: