Saturday, November 2, 2013

The bleeding heart's dilemma

In a recent "Intelligence Squared" debate, Bryan Caplan gave his classic argument in defense of the statement, "Let anyone take a job anywhere." You can read his opening statement here. If you know Caplan, you know the moral force his argument has: immigration restrictions are violent means by which people in rich countries prevent people in poor countries from reaching their potential and bettering their own existence. If you believe that all the people of the world have equal moral value, then there simply is no moral defense of this practice.

Where, then, is the conflict, particularly from someone on the left? Someone on the right, after all, can claim unapologetically to be a nationalist, to think that by virtue of where he is born he is indeed entitled to certain priviliges, and perhaps even to think that his culture is inherently superior to and must be protected from others. People on the left would (rightly) think this view is awful. None of these things can justify immigration restrictions for a liberal.

There are two things that I noted in the arguments of the opposition, particularly coming from Kathleen Newland, as well as from the audience's questions. One is a subtle tribalism, which creeps in without ever being named. Whereas some might be openly nationalist, there is a different form of tribalism which protests, "We haven't done enough to take care of our own, how can we possibly take in others?" The underlying assumption is that merely coming to work in the U.S. would be impossible; you must also join our system, depend on our government benefits, receive our public education, and so on.

The second is a not so subtle nationalism. Newland is so frank as to say that part of a government's job is to be biased in favor of its own people. In other words, egalitarianism be damned--nation states are more important than human rights. I could be wrong, but I rather thought Newland was coming from a point of view typical on the left, namely that the role of the state is to embody the will of the people. And therein lies the dilemma--the will of the people is really quite often in conflict with the idea of human equality.

Caplan calls his position basic human decency. I think that's unfair, but only because our instincts are so biased against decency. His "basic human decency" is actually a moral tradition built up over thousands of years of civilization--but that's competing against hundreds of thousands of years of tribal existence, in which loyalty to the tribe was essential for survival. The concept that everyone within the tribe is equal may come naturally to a lot of us, but the concept that all humans are equal is still as radical an idea today as it ever was.

But the left claims to champion this idea. The only problem is that it can't champion the equality of all human beings and the sacredness of nation states at the same time. Either anyone should be allowed to take a job anywhere, or not. Let's just be honest about why the left could not bear to allow this: then they would actually have to see the poor. And it would be the truly poor, not just the statistical bottom 10% in a wealthy, developed nation. It would be the truly poor from all over the world coming into this rich, blessed nation with the hope of making a better a life for themselves. The sight of them all would simply be too unbearable. It is better to force them to suffer at home than to come here and make us feel guilty for not having the resources to take care of them all.

In other words, it's paternalism or bust. The best we can do for the rest of the world is develop those other nation states (whose very existence was in many cases forced by the West) so that they can support the population living there with services which meet Western standards. If those nation states won't listen and won't reform, then shame on them. And too bad for the poor, who continue to toil for $1 a day.

The fact is, Caplan is really asking us to stretch our morals to their limits. The prospect of witnessing a flood of foreigners is instinctively horrifying, not always because of the fear of what is different, but rather because of the sorrow of seeing others who are so much less well off. Do we really want to live in a country with millions and millions of the world's poor, working on wages we find obscenely low, even if it means they have a chance of earning more than they could ever dream in their homeland? It is, after all, our own country.

My contention is that the left ought to give up this "paternalism or bust" attitude. It is far too convenient to insist that others ought to change their government, and then everyone would be fine. The truth is, we have no moral reason to keep people out, only excuses which come from our instincts. If we really believe in human rights, we should also accept the right of people to start from much less than what we have and work their way up--even if that means doing so in our own neighborhood. And that might mean a lot of sad things. It might mean watching people stumble and fall. It might mean watching people live without all thoese benefits we take for granted. It might mean watching people struggle with basic things like language and literacy. And it would all be right there for us to see with our own eyes.

Of course, poverty exists already in the U.S., as it does in all countries. The reaction that the left expressly desires to cultivate against poverty is one of anger and revulsion. We should not tolerate poverty. I find it bizarrely sickening to think that this revulsion at the sight of poverty could be a reason to lock more people in it.

I'm picking on the left wing here because of their tendency to think of themselves as moral guides on this issue. They're for immigration reform, certainly. They believe we should naturalize all the undocumented Americans who have been in the country living as productive members of society for years. They believe they are being sensible in all of that. But they are unwilling to accept the ultimate conclusion of their humanist principles, which is that there is simply no excuse for any restrictions on who can immigrate to the U.S. in the first place.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why does economics need to be a science?

I've seen some commentary going around the blogosphere about this article by economist Raj Chetty, "Yes, Economics is a Science." I believe there is some merit to the question of whether or not (and what ways) economics is a science. But what's more striking to me is why the question continues to create such a stir.

So that's why I ask the question: what is it about being a "science" that makes us argue over it? My conjecture: modern mythology. Or more precisely, modern messianism.

Here is the messianic myth of the modern age. Once upon a time, we were living in darkness, plagued by superstitious beliefs to which we clung due to indoctrination by authorities. Then, around 400 years ago or so, a revolution was stirred, and science came to show us the light and brought us into a new age of progress. Now, if only we embrace science and reject whatever isn't science, we will continue along the path of enlightenment, so that one day we can all live in peace and prosperity.

The roles of good and evil here are played by understanding on the one hand and bias on the other. Anything which is "science" can help us understand, anything which is not can only obscure. That's why the battle over calling economics a science is so perilously important--if it isn't a science, then it is merely a tool to fuel ideological agendas. But a real science could never do such a thing.

If we reject this myth, then the question becomes less perilously important (though still interesting for other philosophical reasons). Science as we know it today has helped bring about many positive changes, but it is not going to bring about the kingdom of enlightenment. It may be worthwhile at some point to give an argument stating all the reasons why I think this, but my main argument goes something like this. Science, as understood today, is supposed to be objective, in the sense of separating the observer from his biases and forcing him to interpret the facts from a fresh point of view. The problem is that you can't build a better society on a model of separation. Things which could be construed as bias are actually some of the most essential attachments which hold civilization together: family, tradition, empathy, duty, and above all love.

An important corollary of rejecting the messianic myth of scientism: society will not heal itself by adopting the right policies at the level of federal government. If society were merely an object of scientific study, then I suppose it could be engineered to perfection. That is not the case.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Immigration restrictions are the modern day slavery

Bryan Caplan has convinced me that supporting open borders--all the way, no restrictions--really is the right thing to do. Also, the fact that he has convinced me proves the point he was making in this post, where he compares the defense of open-borders to abolitionism:
The obvious moral objection is that comparing slavery and immigration restrictions is absurd hyperbole. But it's absurd hyperbole to call this apt comparison "absurd hyperbole." Yes, enslaving a Haitian is plainly worse than forbidding him to accept a job offer anywhere on earth except Haiti. But they're both dire harms. How would you react if the world's laws barred you from every non-Haitian labor market on earth? With weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Paradoxically, you might say, it's precisely Caplan's doctrinaire attitude that gradually made me reconsider the facts and adopt my present position. This corresponds with what he says further down: "Moderates are better at bargaining with people holding preferences fixed. Abolitionists are better at changing preferences." It also helps when the abolitionist is a highly well-informed economist.

I'm not sure why Caplan uses Haiti as his illustrative example every time he talks about the issue, but he really can get the point across. Immigration restrictions constitute one of the gravest injustices of our time, one which reinforces global social hierarchies--the poor remain poor while the rich remain rich--for no good reasons that cannot be addressed in other, more humane ways. This essay has pretty good answers to all the standard objections, particularly the ones which come from the right of the political spectrum.

Common political wisdom would suggest that the left is more naturally receptive to immigration, but I'm not so convinced. My guess is that in the long run, the left will have difficulty with truly open borders, precisely because of the difficulties presented in running a welfare state while letting everyone in (a classical right-wing objection to open immigration, to which the libertarian can reply, "Oh, well!"). And if what Caplan reports about the inverse relationship between diversity and redistribution is true, good old European socialists may be the last to embrace open borders.

As for me, I've come to see this as a plain implication of the existence of universal human rights. It comes down to a really fundamental question about the purpose of democratic governments. I don't believe that we can prohibit the movement of foreigners--of individual human beings who happen not to be born in our country--in the name of democracy, that is in the name of protecting our own interests. Indeed, when a country excludes certain people from immigration, it doesn't protect anyone's property, it only forces people not to exchange, and therefore not to mutually benefit from one another. For each immigrant you deport for trying to work in the U.S., you also deprive an employer of an employee he wanted to hire.

And this is a moral issue. If it were only a matter of economics, I think the empirical evidence might still make me an open borders libertarian, but the issue is far more urgent than that. There are people all around the world who could make a better life for themselves and their families if they had the freedom to move somewhere else. We need to let that happen. The first step is being convinced if the desirability of that goal.

I haven't thought what the next step might be, but I'm sure that will come.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Open Borders

I am so happy this website exists:

From the site's self-description:
This website is dedicated to making the case for open borders. The term “open borders” is used to describe a world where there is a strong presumption in favor of allowing people to migrate and where this presumption can be overridden or curtailed only under exceptional circumstances.
The goal of the website is to make the arguments for open borders, and also to explicitly discuss many arguments against open borders, evaluate their validity, and determine ways to tackle the objections.
Living abroad has made this issue more and more personal to me, but I know my experience overall hasn't been too bad. There are millions of people who are not so fortunate.

We need more people who are actually willing to say, "I support open borders." In the Western world, there are far too many intellectual forces which breed prejudice against free immigration, and they often come from what we think of as opposite sides of the political spectrum. On the one hand, you have nationalism, which comes in many forms. Some argue that the state should be obliged first to the economic well-being of its own citizens, and that any disadvantage caused by immigration should be a concern to the state. Others argue that every nation has the right to preserve a certain culture, language, or intellectual or spiritual tradition, and that free immigration would deny this right. Still others argue that it is simply too impractical to allow a pure "melting pot" experiment, in which people from different cultures all try to get along under on state. I call all of these arguments generally "nationalist," even though they may be more or less so.

On the other hand, you have social democracy, which can indeed get in the way of free immigration. If the state has the responsibility to care for the general well-being of all of its citizens, it is naturally going to be difficult to accept a large mass of new citizens. You end up with the paradoxical and sometimes overwhelming tension of a society so compassionate that it can't accept any more strangers.

I think it would be a great moral victory to see the world embrace open borders. I suspect it will happen (if it ever does) more gradually than other moral victories such as the illegalization of slavery.

Morality needs to take a central role in the debate. I am frankly always pessimistic about the average person's ability to understand the economics involved, and even if the whole world were well-informed on economics, maximizing utility functions is hardly an inspiring argument for changing laws. For some on the left, the case for open borders might come down to a sort of cultural relativism in which there really shouldn't be any national distinctions. I don't find this especially convincing, myself. Rather, I think adopting open borders would be the best expression of the values our Western civilization has cultivated over the ages (in particular our Christian values), and I don't think we should be ashamed to say so. We should welcome the stranger, not because cultural differences don't matter, but precisely because our civilization is capable of welcoming others to adopt our way of life. Of course, to invite the stranger is to invite cultural evolution, but there is no ultimate danger in this if one has enduring beliefs that inspire admiration in all. In particular, there is no reason to be shy about saying that all people long to be free, and we should welcome others to share in the freedom for which our ancestors fought hard.

Again, I'm excited this web site exists. Note that it includes every kind of argument you could possibly want: libertarian, egalitarian, utilitarian, conservative, and so on. We live in exciting times, for anyone aware of the intellectual movements going on.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

First impressions on reading Democracy in America

I've always wanted to read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and now I'm taking advantage of my new-found French speaking ability to read the book in French. I haven't gotten very far, but I already have some pretty striking impressions. Here they are.

  • Despite claims to the contrary, it seems pretty legitimate after all to say America is in some sense a Christian nation. Sure, you can point to the theology of the Founding Fathers and say, "Hey, it's all just deism," but Tocqueville is more concerned with the angloamericans who founded places like New England. You can't look at the early settlements without seeing an explicit reference to Christian beliefs in both their goals and even their laws. If "the founders" are people like Washington and Jefferson, then okay, maybe we're just a deist nation. But if "the founders" are the Anglo-Saxons who first came to America, then we are definitely a Christian nation.
  • Tocqueville's general comments on religion strike me as true today just as they were during the Enlightenment: religion was originally the friend of freedom and equality, then it became an ironic enemy, but in many ways it is still a friend and should be more so. The narrative he tells is something like this: Christian beliefs gave people access to a higher power than political power and a belief in inherent human dignity that transcends culture. This was the first step toward defeating tyranny. The next step is democracy, which Tocqueville seems to be best displayed in America, particularly New England.
  • Freedom is not the ability to whatever you want, but rather the ability to do what is right. Tocqueville thus speaks highly of the strong (and religiously motivated) emphasis on education, which he says fosters freedom in the new republic.
  • Townships are the nexus of democracy. Americans in the eyes of Tocqueville are successful in democracy because they build it from the ground up. In fact, Tocqueville marvels precisely at how active the local government is in the life of the people, in contrast to his own French government.
  • Tocqueville gives one of the best descriptions of the modern libertarian ideal you can find. America is founded on allowing individuals to be sovereign in all things which pertain only to them, and likewise for all levels of the federal structure (towns, cities, states, and finally the federal government). Thus there is as little intervention from the top as possible.
  • At the same time, Tocqueville praises townships for having governments which provide an ever-expanding array of services. It may or may not be difficult to reconcile this with modern libertarianism. (Does the growth of federal government actually get in the way of healthy, active local government?)
  • Equality is practically synonymous with freedom. Tocqueville insists that there is probably no group of people on earth that has ever achieved more equality of circumstances than the Anglo-Americans. Yet he also claims that they would be the last people on earth to claim that equality of wealth is a goal worth pursuing. Equality of results is, for him, an outgrowth of freedom, but it's also more than that. In some sense, it is freedom, by definition. Freedom means that no one has any special authority given from above, which is the same as equality.
  • From the very beginning there was a large difference between the North and the South. A lot of people talk about "America's" guilt in tolerating slavery, but as time goes on we seem to get less and less clear on how striking the regional differences actually were. New England, for example, never had slavery. You have to wonder if we weren't asking for a Civil War just by uniting north and south under one Constitution. (None of this is to say racism didn't exist in the North.)
  • Tocqueville is highly critical of slavery, not just because of its consequences for slaves (which is the obvious criticism), but also because of its consequences for society in general. It creates a society which is less free and less progressive for everyone, not just for the enslaved. I believe he says that it makes the society less industrious, which is almost certainly correct.
Some of these impressions might be off base, who knows. What I'm mostly left with is a desire to see more of the vibrant local civic life that Tocqueville seems to love so well in young America. But how do you pull that off in an increasingly transient and mobile society? How do you unite people together by common values? And is there still room in the modern world for communities formed by common religious beliefs?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

How do we keep our own language?

Recently I listened to a debate (in French) on Réplique, a radio program on FranceCulture hosted by Alain Finkielkraut, on the place of English in the French university. The trend is clear: universities want to teach more classes in English so as to attract more foreign students and professors. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has read or listened to a bit of Finkielkraut, his reaction to this general trend was less than favorable. "La langue, c'est l'âme d'un peuple" (the language is the soul of a people) one might say. If we lose our language, do we not also lose our soul?

As an American, I found the whole debate somewhat embarrassing. It is undeniable that English has become the lingua franca of the modern world, and it is not hard to see this as part of a general trend of American cultural dominance (leaving aside the British colonialism that defined a previous era). So it makes me blush when I hear a French intellectual argue (against Finkielkraut) that in order for France to remain in a prominent position, it must learn to speak two languages fluently: the language of its soul (French) and the language of the world (English).

But before anyone (Americans included) jumps on the USA for imposing its culture and its language on others, it might be wise to think about how Americans also imposed this language on themselves. Cultural traditions, especially languages, have often gone to die in the United States. Most Americans only speak one language, but it is hardly the language of their ancestors. Very few of us have bloodlines which are all English. Our ancestors learned English in order to become part of a new people and construct a new nation state. (In recent years in Europe one often sees the opposite happening: nations splitting apart countries in order to preserve their separate peoples.)

If there really is international desire to become one global community (and at least to some limited extent, there genuinely is) it is only natural that there should be a language uniting us. There is simply nothing more fundamental than language when it comes to human coexistence.

Then again, I understand perfectly well the desire to guard one's own language. There is something beautiful about having a plurality of languages and traditions, to one who is motivated enough to learn or at least observe them. For each people, it is difficult to let go of its soul--that is, the language. So if the desire to adopt a new language simply isn't there, it seems rather arrogant or cruel to insist on it.

Yet there is something naïve about this portrait of culture. Take French as an example. To suggest that the French people ought to guard their language as something which is theirs by the purely organic process of cultural transmission would fly in the face of actual history. No, French people speak French because there is a French government which designates in its Constitution that the official language is French, and which insists that in all the schools in France the classes will be taught in French. There exist even today languages and dialects in France that are slowly dying, simply because there do not exist the same kinds of institutions backing them. And that is not to speak of the French language itself, which is the product of a long series of mutations and transformations of various European tongues. Neither have I mentioned the large amount of immigration into France in recent years, which further problematizes the notion of "French people" and calls into question how much the French language truly unifies the country. So to act as if the French people have a "right" to guard what is "theirs" seems a little strange, in a lot of ways.

But if a nation is to exist, it must have a language, right? Indeed, and so anyone seeking to unite as one nation must be willing to learn its language and its culture. Therein lies the paradox for me: we join together with others in forming a nation, so that the nation can in turn form us. This is either the most beautiful of life's paradoxes, or a very cruel irony.

From my point of view, the paradox of language (and culture) can only be beautiful if we refuse to accept the myth of modernity that we construct the world as we choose. There are certain errors committed by progressives and conservatives which are, so to speak, equal and opposite, and which have as their origin the false notion that history is a test of human will. Thus progressives, on the one hand, believe that by leaving old things behind, we can arrive at a new Eden of human flourishing, while conservatives believe that we will accomplish the same thing by instead keeping those things which we are at risk of losing. I believe, on the contrary, that we must accept that most things in history will be lost, whether we wish it or not, and that at the same time most new ideas are bad ideas, which will only be weeded out with the passage of more time and thoughtful criticism. A language neither can nor should be perfectly preserved, and neither can it be invented from scratch (as proved by the dazzling failure of Esperanto to become an international language).

The best we can do politically is, in my estimation, to ensure that people have as much freedom as possible, both to benefit from the culture of their own ancestors and to learn the culture of others'. The United States has, in particular, never had an official language at the level of a constitutional requirement. I have absolutely no sympathy for "English only" movements within the US, which seems to me to run counter to everything that the American experience proves (or may hope to prove) about human beings--that we can, by some miracle, albeit not without pain, unite dozens of cultures in one place and under one system of laws. As for France, I would recommend giving freedom a try, as well. It is not necessary for all students to take classes in English, and the fact that English is fashionable is no reason to push for it in more universities. On the other hand, neither does it make sense to deny a university the right to teach more classes in English (or any other language which might one day be useful internationally).

For God's sake, the French language gave us the phrase "laissez faire." I've never understood why the French themselves are so bad at doing that. But that's a whole other story, I suppose.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Libertarian realism

Libertarians are often accused these days of being utopians. Sure, the free market would work in a perfect world, but in the real world there are predatory businesses and other such monsters crawling under every bed. We need the government to look out for the little guy, or else who knows what will happen to society?

But while libertarians may on occasion speak too highly of the virtues of spontaneous order, I think the reality is that conservatives and liberals buy into a vision of government which is naive in one extreme or another. On the one hand, conservatives talk often as if we get the government we "deserve," as if somehow if we were just more true to our traditional values we would have an ever-thriving society. On the other hand, liberals seem to think we need to "take back" the government, as if we, together, united, can change society for the better.

I think the libertarian critique is the most profoundly realistic vision of government you can have. On the one hand, no, we don't necessarily have the government we deserve (for better or for worse), because we have not nearly as much control over government's formation as our democratic institutions would suggest. On the other hand, there is no way to collectively take charge of government--such massive collective action simply doesn't exist in the real world.

Don't get me wrong. Values matter, and social movements make a difference. They just don't make the difference we expect. Libertarians instinctively believe that government should always be reformed, and we also expect that no matter how much reform takes place it will still never be perfect. The role of the individual in politics is not so much to take responsibility for government as it is to take responsibility for his own beliefs, his own actions, his own civic ties, and his own vote. If the government turns out bigger or worse than it ought to be, it's not the fault of the individual. But it is the fault of the individual if he takes the defeatest attitude of one so victimized by the system that he fails even to better his own situation.

I've been accused of being an idealist before, but I think that's because people underestimate how dangerous the real idealists are. The real idealists are the megalomaniacs in Washington who actually believe they're doing what's best for the country. God save us from the idealists.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Partisanship and authoritarianism

I saw a fascinating and disturbing excerpt today from a new book entitled, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces. Here's a passage that caught my eye:
The political reaction to the Occupy crackdowns was interesting to watch. In the 1990s, it had been the right wing—particularly the far right—that was up in arms over police militarization. Recall the outrage on the right over Waco, Ruby Ridge, and the raid to seize Elián González. The left had largely either remained silent or even defended the government’s tactics in those cases. But the right-wing diatribes against jackbooted thugs and federal storm-troopers all died down once the Clinton administration left office, and they were virtually nonexistent after September 11, 2001. By the time cops started cracking heads at the Occupy protests, some conservatives were downright gleeful. The militarization of federal law enforcement certainly didn’t stop, but the 9/11 attacks and a friendly administration seemed to quell the conservatives’ concerns. So long as law enforcement was targeting hippie protesters, undocumented immigrants, suspected drug offenders, and alleged terrorist sympathizers, they were back to being heroes.
That sounds familiar, actually. As noted at the NYT, a majority of Americans are okay with NSA wiretapping, as long as it's their party in charge:
In 2006, when George W. Bush was president, just 37 percent of Democrats said the N.S.A. surveillance program was acceptable, while 61 percent said it was not. Now those numbers are 64 percent and 34 percent respectively.

Republicans appear to be fair-weather fans as well. In 2006, 75 percent said the program was acceptable, and 23 percent said it was not. Now 52 percent find it acceptable, and 47 percent unacceptable.
Blatant partisanship, it seems, is slowly yielding to more and more authoritarian government in America. When one half of the country refuses to stand up for the rights of the other half--and this is reciprocated--the rule of law slowly erodes.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Learning French

It's now been one year since I moved to France. Which makes one year that I've been speaking (or trying to speak) French in my everyday life.

I started learning the language through Rosetta Stone, which is a great program for beginners of any language. The main advantage of learning a language on the computer is the repetition. Most humans are simply not willing to repeat everything to you a thousand times until you get it. Except, of course, your parents when you were first learning to talk. That's kind of the theory behind the program: you need to learn your new language the way you learned your first one, through repetition and through association. You learn the entire language through immersion--no translation. This happens through a combination of pictures and sounds and text to guide you through. Not only is this time-saving--if you don't need to translate, you don't waste time repeating two words instead of one--but it also helps you to constantly hear the language the way it ought to be pronounced. I hate to make this sound like a commercial, but there really is no better way to start a new language than this program.

On the other hand, it doesn't get you very far. There are five levels in an entire Rosetta Stone language program, and I burned through all five levels in French in three or four months. Granted, I spent a lot of time on it when I first started, but still. Relatively basic phrases were simply not covered--I had honestly never heard the verb "falloir" before arriving in France. But with the ability that I had acquired to speak basic phrases at a reasonable speed, I was on the right track from the moment I stepped off the plane in Paris.

After Rosetta Stone had exhausted itself, I tried some google searches to see what other resources I found. The most impressive one was a web site called "Français Authentique," a site run entirely by one guy who had an ambitious idea. I listened to his introductory podcasts where he explained his philosophy, plus a few more podcasts where he explained some common French expressions. I didn't end up sticking with the program, but I so admired his basic philosophy that I simply adopted it in my own way.

The philosophy: listen.

I remember there were six other elements to the philosophy after that, but this was number one and clearly the most important. I think it's true: listening is by far the most important part of learning a language. Another key point was to listen to only those things which one can understand, at least 90%. That's because listening to anything in a new language is at first very draining. As anyone who has lived abroad learning a new language can tell you, you tend to sleep a lot more when listening to speakers of a foreign language. Just like working out to get in shape, at first it's going to be exhausting. The only way to get better is to keep doing it.

So I listened incessantly to whatever I could find on the Internet (for free, of course). Since getting to work took a significant amount of time (waiting for the train, climbing the enormous staircase at Lozère, walking through the forest) I could always use the time to listen to something rather substantial. Being a told nerd in any language, I gravitated to things which were pretty heady, such as FranceCulture. I figured, while I'm learning to understand the language, I might as well learn some real vocabulary as well as the current intellectual trends in France. It turns out there's another advantage to this approach: more heady, intellectual stuff tends to be spoken a bit more slowly than stuff on TV.

Searching TV shows on the Internet had limited use for me. Some of it is that, sorry to say, there aren't a whole lot of good French series (although I did find one show somewhat amusing) but most of the problem is simply the speed. It gets tiring and boring to repeat the same line over and over until you figure out what it says, and sometimes that doesn't even work (you might have to ask a native speaker, who knows what is said because, well, he just knows). One thing that helped a bit was watching an American series I knew quite well (Scrubs, in my case) in French. That was mostly to help me work on understanding fast speech. In terms of vocabulary, a TV series is pretty limited, especially one that's translated. The sole advantage is that it's entertaining, whether or not you learn very much.

All of that started to work for me, and by about six months into my stay I was speaking French with a bit more confidence. I still got stuck a lot, occasionally having to resort back to English when I knew someone could bail me out with a quick translation. Honestly, I found myself often not talking as much as I used to. I'm not exactly a chatterbox by nature, but there really is something psychologically difficult about feeling the desire to talk restricted by one's confidence in speaking the language. That was a fairly difficult time in my life. Any move is difficult and can sometimes be isolating. To feel isolated by a language is still worse.

Indeed, there's no more fundamental aspect of social life than language. Aided by personal experience, I've reflected on this a lot since moving to France. It is, of course, possible to incorporate a foreigner into one's society using extra-linguistic communication (as when I was first invited to have dinner at the home of a very lovely French family--I didn't get most of what I said, but I happily ate what was set before me!). But it hardly follows that one can actually have a society without language, and to be fully incoporated into that society seems to imply speaking the language of the people. Loneliness was thus very natural for me during my first few months in France. I felt that even with people who could speak English (with varying ability) it would be hard to feel at home in France unless I finally got the hang of speaking French.

Of course, it's important to put these things in their full context. I don't do just any kind of work in France. I'm a researcher, and that means language is a rather awkward issue for me in Europe. You see, English is my native language (although the Brits my disagree). But in academia, English is the lingua franca (ironically enough!) as it is these days in pretty much all commerce. That means all of my work is in English--almost every known academic journal publishes mainly in English. When I go to conferences, English is the language of all presentations. It has already happened to me many times that I am the only native English speaker among a group of mathematicians whose only common language is English.

This is awkward for two reasons. One is that I'm in France trying to learn the language, but the mere fact that I am American can often be an obstacle. Don't get me wrong: the French would rather speak their own language if possible. But the French, like most western Europeans, are instinctually wired to believe that Americans only speak English, and that the presence of an American means something in between a chance to practice English and a burdensome moment where one has to speak English (you know, for my sake). This point is all the more awkward in France, where the French themselves have a complex about foreign languages. Everyone in Europe knows the French don't speak foreign languages well--but at least they're not as bad as the Americans. More on this a little later.

The second reason is, I confess, that it is slightly embrassing to hear my own language butchered. True as it is that hearing English mangled does not require leaving the U.S., I find certain linguistic errors repeated so often by fellow scholars in Europe I start to wonder whether they are now accepted as correct English among non-native speakers. The problem is that I am a mathematician, and it always seemed to me like correct English is a fairly trivial part of my work. Thus I don't feel I have any right to intervene, even when I see or hear rather painful errors. But I digress.

When I arrive in Paris, I expected to find the French very proud of their language and simply unwilling to learn foreign languages. I quickly found this stereotype is not very accurate, although I can speculate about where it comes from. Most French people I've met do not find their own language especially exciting, much to the likely chagrin of French intellectuals, who take great pride in their literature and the spoken word. Indeed, this is a place where you can find a "Festival of the Word" and where many programs on RadioFrance are devoted to language and literature. But there is a difference between having a strong intellectual tradition and having a general populace who appreciates such things. When I've asked French people about their language, I've found that many have never even thought about the sound or structure of their own language.

One time I even heard someone say that she (or he, I don't remember) thought the French accent was ugly, which sounded simply unthinkable to me. The French language always had to me a sort of elegance about it, its sounds very exquisite and difficult to reproduce. On the other hand, it's true that while living in France, one quickly discovers how ugly it can sound (as any language can) in the mouth of someone who wants to sound obnoxious or doesn't care about how he speaks. I still maintain that French is one of the most beautiful languages in the world (rivaled in my opinion by Italian), but I admit that this is more in its idealized rather than its real form.

I haven't had much opportunity to write in French, and I have no idea if I have sufficient command of the language to write an article of any length or substance. But I find that normal conversation is no longer a problem, and though I still frequently ask what certain words or idiomatic expressions mean, these are typically not essential. It feels good to get complimented on my French, but truth be told, I'm just happy to not feel so isolated by my linguistic inability.

I've tried to learn two other languages so far: Spanish and Italian. I used Rosetta Stone for Italian, as well, which is why I knew it was a good program. I remember getting pretty far with it, but the fact that I never lived there made me lose pretty much all of what I had, and as I mentioned above, what you get from Rosetta Stone is hardly sufficient to gain fluency. Spanish, on the other hand, was the language I learned in school for years. Putting together what little I did in elementary school, middle school, and high school, and one semester at the university, I studied Spanish for around seven or eight years total. But none of it stuck, except for a few phrases.

The lesson in all of that is that language requires repetition, consistency, and, most of all, usefulness. This may make certain intellectual types cringe, but I honestly do not feel that anyone should feel he is missing something if he only speaks one language fluently. I speak French because I'm in France. I don't feel the slightest amount of embarrassment at having never been able to speak any other language fluently, because there are plenty of other ways to spend one's intellectual energies than to learn new languages for the fun of it. When it comes to Spanish, I do happen to feel some level of regret just because it is fairly useful, not only abroad but increasingly in the United States. But if you ask me, as a matter of principle, whether it is important to speak a foreign language fluently as a matter of personal well-roundedness, I will simply say flat out, "No."

On the other hand, living in a foreign country can be exciting. Especially when it's France. There is quite a lot of culture to which this language is forever attached, and it's a good feeling to have access to that. I'm not a strong believer in the theory that something is always lost in translation, but it's fairly obvious that being able to comprehend the original versions of great works is advantageous. But the most important thing for me is to be able to communicate effectively with the people around me. I sometimes joke that my initial problem with the French was figuring out what they were saying, but now I have to figure out why they are saying it. And that's the best part of language: once you have the medium of communication, you stop thinking about the medium and go straight to the person at the other end to discover beliefs and values and desires and dreams that you never knew before.

That's not all there is to my story, but I think that's a good summary of this first year of speaking French.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

On being proud to be an American

CNN writes about a Gallup poll asking Americans how proud they are to be American.
According to the poll, 57% of adult Americans are "extremely proud" and 28% are "very proud." In addition, 10% say they are "moderately proud," with 3% saying they are "only a little proud" and a mere 1% saying they are "not at all proud."
I suppose it's a bit like asking people how often they go to church, or if they believe in God. It's a way to track something about the national pulse.

The comparison really isn't far off, if you think about it historically. Peoples and nations have always been tied to their religions, whether they had one or many gods. The Roman Empire sought to unite a whole host of peoples with their many different religions. That was fine, so long as they bowed the emperor; thus God was replaced by Caesar.

We do the same thing today. Every nation is basically a religion, complete with its own mythology. I've become especially aware of this living in Europe, where national identity is a rather touchy issue, and constructing a European identity seems to be happening slowly with lots of bumps in the road. Each country needs a national mythology if they're going to unite the people together. You can't teach American history in American schools unless there's such a thing as the American people. Sure, you can always acknowledge division where it existed, as long as you don't break the basic rhythm of the story: one nation, one people.

America is unique in that we created a nation. Our creation myth is one in which our founding fathers--mere mortals!--are the creators. It's a little bit like Rome. You can worship whatever you want, as long as you're happy with what those guys built.

Still, I'm happy we don't have to bow to anyone. That is a real difference. Americans may have a cult of presidential worship, and we may often be patriotic to a fault, but we know we're not supposed to bow before another human being. I think that's a good thing.

I'm happy to be an American. If I had to answer one of those silly Gallup questions, I would even say I'm "very proud." But I rest very certain that nationalism should be taken with a grain of salt. In particular, we need to recognize that "I am proud to be an American" has many traits in common with a religious refrain: we are taught to repeat it regularly, we feel joy because of it, it instills confidence, it unites us in a common purpose, and so on. And I guess all of that is okay, I'm just not quite ready to sing, "Praise America from whom all blessings flow."

Americans probably need to be reminded more than anyone else that the value of a nation is all relative. Nations continue to come and go, or at the very least evolve. Ours isn't any different. Perhaps what makes American nationalism so strong is that from an occidental perspective, we are perhaps the oldest "modern republic." There's something to be said for that. Then again, maybe the age of the modern republic won't last forever.

I'm thinking very, very long term, of course. Still, in the short run, it would probably help us to act more morally if we toned down some of our national pride. I think in particular about our foreign policy and some of the immigration issues we have, and I think a lot could be fixed by changing our stance toward politics from one of trying to save America (or the world through America) to a simple, humble search for justice. Whether it's our respect for individuals rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" or the belief in "liberté, égalité, fraternité," every nation knows deep down what are the basic principles of justice. Perserving the United States of America at all costs is not one of those fundamental principles common to all humankind.

Happy Independence Day.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

But just what is "truth," anyway?

In my last post, I wrote about how knowledge does not come about but by parents, that is, through an exclusive relationship of trust. But this exclusion doesn't last, and it becomes at some point clear that truth doesn't depend on the will of one or two people. I can verify it directly. I have my own sense of right and wrong, and this sense is worth trusting.

Or is it? The only reason I learn to trust my own senses is because I first trust someone else's. I learn what "blue" and "red" mean because my parents repeat the words and associate them to the colors. At some point I stop relying on them and have faith in myself to be fully aware of the difference. Then if my parents try to play a trick on me, I know better.

Better ... Again, the paradox of language is that I can only assert myself by imitating another. When is it that I become so assured of my own opinion that I am willing to relativize a change in my parents' opinion?

It is entirely possible that I become self-assured far too early. After all, I thought many things as a child which were simply not true. If parents overly affirm their child's ability to reason for himself, he may become overly self-assured and therefore run into trouble. On the other hand, a sufficient amount of affirmation is necessary for the child to be capable of thinking or knowing at all. If a child merely remains attached all of his life to his parents' beliefs and ideas, then he has not truly learned anything. Knowledge is healthy self-confidence matched with healthy self-doubt and reliance on others.

So what is this truth thing, anyway? How do I judge a statement true or false?

Words are there to help us know something. In English there is only one word where the Latin languages have two. What I mean here by know is connaître. If facts about something are relevant, it is only because I have already imagined the something in my mind's eye. I know it, I can name it. The world around me consists of all such things, not merely concrete, touchable, seeable things, but anything that I can know through some combination of mental, physical, and spiritual interaction.

Words do not merely assign labels to things we know, but also helps us know them. I call my beloved by her name. It is not for mere ability to identify or locate my beloved that I use her name; it is also because her name draws me closer to her--physically, mentally, and spiritually. And if physically I cannot be near something, I can always use the name to remind myself of it, so that even if my memory of its physical qualities is lacking, I still have access to it. Thus even if the thing is abstract and has no physical properties, I still have access to it via language.

But words are so arbitrary. I have already mentioned how English has but one word where others have two. Is our world populated by different things, depending on our language? No, but the level and manner of access may be different.

What is truth, anyway? It's really mostly that stubborn refusal to give up on a world we all share. Anyone can interpret that world as she wishes, but she cannot claim it as her own. Other people and things inhabit that world, whether she is aware of them or not. This is why her claims are either true or false, or have some degree of truth or falseness: she is not in charge of her own world.

But if truth is nothing but a stubborn refusal, is it justified? In other words, is truth true? How can we ever begin to answer such a question?

Monday, July 1, 2013

First principles

Descartes, working in solitude, could doubt all he wanted. Yet no one ever starts with doubt, because no one ever starts alone.

A child's first words are not his own. He imitates what he can. The act of speaking is a matter of desire and trust, that is, a desire to be like those whom I trust. If I cannot imitate others, I cannot express myself. That is the paradox.

But not just any others. For the child who is just learning to speak, mother and father are everything. The word for mother is their word for mother, and the word for father their word for father. This trust--this unique, exclusive, trust--exists before there are any words. The meaning of those words relies on that trust.

I wonder when it was that I first heard the word true. Most words a child learns are things you can point to, then things you can describe using words that name things you can point to. Can you point to truth? In the same way you can point to different colors, I suppose you can point to truth. Just as each object has a color, so each statement has a measure of truth or falsehood. So each of us most likely learns what truth means by example.

Whose example?

One's parents are not the only ones who explain what words mean. Trust is everything at that beginning phase, but that trust does not remain exclusive for so long. In my own experience, I seem to remember quickly sensing that truth was far beyond the control of just my parents, my teachers, or anyone else standing in authority over me. (I've heard this is consistent with my "INTJ" type on the Myers-Briggs.) But where on earth would that idea come from? The only way I ever knew the meaning of truth was by hearing others judge whether or not statements were true or false. I suppose it was natural that I would desire to imitate them in doing so. Thus the criteria I used must have been the same as theirs. If we can all agree what the word "blue" means by looking at the sky, surely we can also agree what truth is.

I've asked a lot of questions since then about what truth is. For a good time, I occasionally argue with someone who holds that absurd opinion that all truth is relative. Just as colors depend on culture and personal perspective--a culture that lives in areas where it snows all the time might have several words for "white," for example--so does truth. Or say they tell me. Perhaps we should all learn as many different languages as possible, just to prove that the relativists have no point here. Of course range of expression depends highly on culture and experience, but that doesn't mean truth itself is culturally dependent. On what culture (or personal perspective?), I wonder, does the statement that "all truth is relative" depend?

But I will concede that any capacity to know the truth is dependent on others. That is why philosophy done from an armchair only gets so far. It certainly shouldn't pretend to get all the way back to first principles. Whether we wish it or not, we are all stuck in the middle of the story.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Historical and Theological Adam

Peter Leithart's argument on historical Adam confuses me. On the one hand, he subscribes to Pope John Paul II's distinction between "historical" and "theological" humanity. In order to understand Christian ethics, it is necessary to go back to the beginning:
Historical humanity is the humanity enslaved by sin, turned here and there by mixed motives, the humanity of domination and control, of objectification and shame. But the Bible begins with an account of a different form of human life, which John Paul labels the “theological,” according to which humanity is made in the image of God to be God’s covenant partner.

...And this theological form of humanity is still normative. Christians can’t stop at the boundary. We can’t concede that there is only “historical man” in all his evil and shame and abuse. We can’t really understand the career of historical man, John Paul says, without knowing that it is a deviation from the original state of man.
On the other hand, having accepted this distinction between "historical" and "theological," Leithart goes on to assert that,
Unfortunately, Evangelicals appear eager to replicate the liberal error. Today, many, perhaps most, Evangelicals still believe that Adam was an actual man, but there is a growing body of opinion asserting the contrary.
What does "actual" mean in this context? Does it mean ... historical?

Leithart gives theological arguments which suggest that if we give up on the historical reality of the creation of Adam, we will lose our theological and ethical foundation. This is problematic because it simply forbids us from asking any questions about the material reality of Adam. If we buy his argument, we accept the existence of Adam as recounted in the Bible because of the theological implications that come with it. Forget whether or not archaeology, biology, geology, or physics might have anything to say about the possible physical existence of such a human being, or the age of the earth, etc.

While I have never much appreciated the notion that theology and science are wholly separated spheres, the other extreme seems equally problematic. N. T. Wright's description of biblical cosmology has always stuck with me: it's the intersection of two worlds. Just as in C. S. Lewis's Narnia series there are two distinct worlds which intersect, so heaven and earth in the Bible appear to have such a relationship.

So what of historical Adam? Is it necessary that we accept this belief on theological grounds? Would it not be more appropriate to accept the existence of theological Adam?

The common objection from evangelical circles is that this is really a way to say Adam never existed in any real way. My response: this is a limited view of "real." If heaven is real, indeed if God is real, but is not perceptible by the methods of historical humanity--that is to say by the sciences and reason--I don't see why the same can't be true of Adam.

It's difficult to capture the distinction, here, but I'll try to do so with the Resurrection, the fundamental turning point for Christian theology. Christians historically believe that the Resurrection really happened--that is, Jesus physically, literally, really rose from the dead. But what we don't believe is that there is any scientific explanation for this. How could there be? Science insists on explaining things in terms of things we can control or observe repeatedly. We can't repeat the Resurrection. If it happened, it happened once and for all, and we hope it will happen to the rest of us some day. What can we say about it, then? Is there an explanation of the Resurrection? The most we can say is that the power to raise the dead came from heaven. This is inaccessible to us, but we believe it is there, and we believe we will have access to it again one day.

So with Adam, what analogy can one draw? Adam is inaccessible to the sciences. We can't see him with archaeology, we can't verify the historical records and find he is there. But we believe he was there, in the sense that we believe humanity was in a real sense created in the image of God. We don't have access to this. We believe that one day we will, but for now, all we have is the historical tools of historical humanity, which don't have access to theological Adam.

I am not suggesting the Bible is describing another world which has no relation to ours. But then I am suggesting that the Bible is not describing solely our world. If there really are two world which intersect (and sometimes collide?) then it should not be surprising of sometimes the Bible describes things which are simply inaccessible to any rational tools we have.

Whatever the appropriate response may be, I've found conservative evangelicals consistently failing in addressing this issue, because they always give me theological reasons to believe something historical, rather than theological reasons to believe something theological (or historical reasons to believe something historical). As someone who believes both science and theology are very important, I believe the distinction is worth making and then exploring.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Things that make libertarians sound like jerks

Last week I saw a photo with more profound political commentary (one of that endless supply you see on facebook) that went like this:
1,000 dollar monthly Social Security check for Grandma is bankrupting America.

Yet a billionaire not paying taxes is making America prosperous.

Up is Down in America!
Check and mate. At least as far as our instincts are concerned. Clearly the big greedy corporations are controlling everything, and this is evidence that we are the victims of a cruel right-wing ideology of laissez-faire economics.

There are many points where I can agree with my left-wing friends, including when it comes to corporate greed. No one can be naïve about the lengths to which powerful people will go to maintain their power, or wealthy people to maintain their status. Equally important is the realization that people are not perfect, and left to their own devices they often do pretty terrible things to themselves and others. And I also very much agree with the assertion that a society is only just insofar as it is capable of protecting the weak and vulnerable, and helping as much as possible those who are less fortunate.

It is thus with a deep sigh in my chest that I must point out something critically important about billionaires versus Grandma. Yes, it might make me sound like a jerk, because our instincts are not naturally wired this way, but here is a simple fact: billionaires not paying taxes really do help make us prosperous.

Now, before you jump too far ahead of me, please note that I am not saying billionaires have no duty to pay taxes. The duty to pay taxes comes from the cost of certain necessary public services.

However, a sound understanding of our economic system should leave you with no other conclusion than this: on the whole, every dollar of profit made by a business is, in fact, a sign of added prosperity to the society. (Note: the qualification "on the whole" will be very important later.)

I find that this statement runs counter to our instincts, and it is therefore not very widely accepted even though it is the fundamental principle on which our economic system runs. Most people are willing to say that, sure, if you make a lot of money, you must have worked very hard and therefore deserve quite a lot of it. Good for you is a common way to summarize this feeling. After all, we like personal achievement and appreciate an individual's right to benefit from his own work. What isn't at all clear is how this actually helps the rest of us.

By this reasoning, we arrive at the conclusion that there are limits on how much profit a company (or individual) should make. There is only so much that one person can really deserve. Here is where our instincts go totally off track. Because we so firmly believe that the amount of money one makes should be attached to the effort he puts in or merit he possesses, we react with disgust at the idea of one man making in one minute as another man makes in a whole year. Surely no man is that much better than another.

Very few people indeed are so bold in their egoism as to defend such an economic system on the basis of moral merit. What is unfortunately so poorly understood is that individual merit is not the justification for the economic system that brings some people such astounding profits. No, the real justification is--and here I reiterate--that every dollar of additional profit, no matter how great the profits already are, means more prosperity in the society as a whole--not just for him who gained that profit.

Why is this so? There is no point in trying to search for an original explanation, because the right explanation is very simple and by now very old. It is a simple logical deduction from the definition of profit. Profit is nothing other than the price at which something is sold minus the cost to produce it. If the profit is anything greater than zero, this necessarily means the product was more valuable than the cost--the cost being everything that went into producing it. If the product is more valuable than its cost, this necessarily means society is better off for that product existing rather than not existing. QED

The real question is why we have so much trouble accepting the argument. Perhaps the reason we have trouble is that it seems highly impersonal. Can a number with a dollar sign next to it really tell us that society has benefited? Given the number of things we buy for which we later have no use, or the number of times we actually regret having bought something, it is easy to be skeptical of the idea that profit always means a benefit to society.

Here's where that qualification becomes important: "on the whole" means that profit is never a perfect indicator of benefit added. But I submit that there is no perfect indicator of benefit added. Most of our measurements are very imprecise. Money--that horrible, impersonal device for measuring value--has at least the benefit that we are always critical of it. When you realize later that a purchase wasn't very smart, you are careful not to make a similarly bad purchase again, because it's painfully obvious that you only have so much money.

The market will never give us a perfect representation of value, but it is extremely adaptive, correcting its own failures more quickly than any other system comparably large. Contrast this, say, with our system of government, which continues to fail in the same way no matter how much people complain about the same problems over and over.

Thus, the truth is, billionaires, whether or not they pay taxes, do on the whole add value to society so long as they keep producing things people are willing to buy. Paying taxes is something completely independent of this market process. You don't benefit the United States primarily by earning a lot of money and then paying part of it to the government. That idea is simply economic nonsense from beginning to end. The primary way in which you benefit the society around you is by producing things we need or want. And the only way to know what people need and want, in a world so immensely complex and interconnected as ours, is to follow the prices. It may seem impersonal, but I defy anyone to try bartering one on one with 300 million other Americans, much less seven billion people around the world.

Helping Grandma seems much more personal, and therefore we like to think about helping Grandma and not about billionaires making money. The irony is, helping Grandma in this case really is every bit as impersonal as big corporations that make money. If you think that paying a check to the government means you've helped Grandma, I defy you to verify whether that's true. It is truly astounding to me that people are so spiteful of corporations that produce things which they themselves buy, only to be so blindly trusting of politicians who say that their money is really going to help their neighbor.

So now that you're convinced that I am a mean libertarian who has no heart, I want to encourage you by saying that yes; I do think the state has an important role to play in helping Grandma; no, I don't think billionaires should evade taxes; and no, like I said already, I don't think money can measure the value of everything. There are really many things on which I can wholeheartedly agree with progressives, including many of the excesses of modern banking, monstrous corporations, and the catastrophy that awaits our environment if we do nothing to curb pollution. But one thing always comes back to give me a headache when I talk with people on the left, and that is this unrelenting, gut-level suspicion of a very fundamental economic fact: profit is good.

I want to close on a personal note. I, myself, have very little desire for money, and I really have very little ambition for business. As I write this little blog post, I realize that my own instincts run very much counter to the conclusions I've reached about our economic system. Thus, I hope that those who share many of my ideals about a great many political issues will realize that it is not a set of different values that separates us, but only a matter of interpreting the facts. I think those of us with an interest in political questions have an obligation to think both morally and logically about the economic system, because it will not do to simply follow our gut-level feelings. If those who pride themselves on their ability to think rigorously on political questions cannot bring themselves to understand the fundamental importance of profit in a complex economy, the only direction I see left is for society to hand over more and more power to the state. And that can only end in disaster, as it already has in the past.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Another crisis for scientific objectivity?

The Heritage Foundation's recent report that immigration reform could cost the U.S. trillions of dollars resulted in a scandal for one Jason Richwine, who was forced to resign his position at the foundation due to the ensuing furor over the discovery of his 2009 dissertation. In his own words:
So what is actually in the dissertation? The dissertation shows that recent immigrants score lower than U.S.-born whites on many different types of IQ tests. Using statistical analysis, it suggests that the test-score differential is due primarily to a real cognitive gap rather than to culture or language bias. It analyzes how this cognitive gap could affect socioeconomic assimilation, and it concludes by exploring how IQ selection might be incorporated, as one factor among many, into immigration policy.
Naturally, the word "racist" has been thrown around in response to this discovery, and the word "racist" tends to immediately discredit the views of one to whom it is applied with sufficient vigor. Richwine would therefore have you believe that this is a big cultural mistake. In particular, it portends a disastrous future in which scientific facts are ignored due to political correctness:
The furor will soon pass. Mercifully, the media are starting to forget about me. But a certain amount of long-term damage to political discourse has been done. Every researcher who writes on public policy over the next few years will have a fresh and vivid memory of how easy it is to get in trouble with the media’s thought police, and how easy it is to become an instant pariah. Researchers will feel even more compelled to suppress unpopular evidence and arguments that should be part of an open discussion. This is certainly not the way science should be conducted, and it’s not the way our politics should be either.
This raises once again the troubling question of whether "objectivity" in science is illusory, or whether it's all just competing agendas. Consider this response:
Now, I don't think the subject or conclusion of Mr Richwine's dissertation is out of the bounds of reasonable discourse. Yet I think a suspicion of racism is perfectly reasonable. Grad students can choose from an infinite array of subjects. Why choose this one? Who are especially keen to discover a rational basis for public policy that discriminates along racial lines? Racists, of course. Anyone who chooses this subject, and comes down on the side vindicating racist assumptions, volunteers to bring suspicion upon himself, to expose his work to an extraordinary level of scrutiny.
This almost seems as troubling as Richwine makes it out to be. Are we to shy away from controversial subjects because of the potential to offend?

(There is a part of that response, however, that makes me extraordinarily less sympathetic to Richwine, for a very, shall we say, "objective" reason. To wit:
Were Mr Richwine's dissertation a model of scientific rigour, he might easily enough survive this scrutiny. However, according to Daniel Drezner, a political scientist at Tufts, it's not exemplary work:
I've perused parts of Richwine's dissertation, and ... well ... hoo boy. Key terms are poorly defined, auxiliary assumptions abound, and the literature I'm familiar with that is cited as authoritative is, well, not good. It's therefore unsurprising that, until last week, Richwine's dissertation disappeared into the ether the moment after it was approved. According to Google Scholar, no one cited it in the four years since it appeared. Furthermore, Richwine apparently didn't convert any part of it into any kind of refereed or non-refereed publication.
No citations in four years? No published work resulting from it? It's frankly probably not worth defending.)

Controversies like these give us cause to reflect on what we mean, or might mean, or might hope to mean, by objective reason. Whatever objectivity is, I am sure it is not a state of being completely free of value judgments. If that were the case, there could be no such thing as objective value judgments. Indeed, consider the very concept of "IQ" at issue here. Presumably, IQ is the measure of some kind of value, namely the effectiveness of some cognitive functions. There's no way to abstract that out of the realm of values into the realm of "pure facts," as if intelligence could be measured the way one measures the length of a table.

My favorite response to this has been from none other than the Cato Institute, which could in many cases be expected to take the Heritage Foundation's side. In this case the, author Brink Lindsey shows "why Richwine’s position is intellectually as well as morally unsound." Consider this point about the link between IQ and value judgments:
Comparisons of IQ scores across ethnic groups, cultures, countries, or time periods founder on this basic problem: The cognitive skills that IQ tests assess are not used or valued to the same extent in all times and places. Indeed, the widespread usefulness of these skills is emphatically not the norm in human history. After all, IQ tests put great stress on reading ability and vocabulary, yet writing was invented only about 6,000 years ago – rather late in the day given that anatomically modern humans have been around for over 100,000 years. And as recently as two hundred years ago, only about 15 percent of people could read or write at all.
It is possible to quantify many things once you have developed categories as well as systems for measuring them. The fact that relationships between quantities (that is, mathematics) is a completely objective science, not requiring that any feelings be hurt, can easily be used as cover for things that are genuinely immoral.

Is there such a thing as an immoral idea? I think so. Indeed, that's really the whole point of morals. If we had no guide for ideas, we would in turn have no guide for actions.

So when people react to studies like Richwine's, are they reacting on a moral rather than on a scientific level? Yes, but the two can't really be all that separated. It is wholly appropriate for scientists to be kept in check by outside observers who understand the value content of their studies.

There are, of course, scientific truths that make us uncomfortable. There are facts we don't like facing. On a moral level, we should be willing to have our assumptions challenged. But it isn't so obvious how far we should let someone go with this. When is it appropriate to stop a scientist in his tracks and say, "Shut up you racist"?

I guess I'll just finish on a question, because I'm really not all that close to finding a satisfying answer. I will say that there are two possible answers that I find deeply unsatisfying. One is to say that every scientific inquiry is acceptable, that studies like Richwine's dissertation should be an acceptable part of the public discourse alongside everything else, and that we should always be forced to turn off our moral compasses so that we can listen to academics spit out statistics. The other is that we should choose not to study "dangerous" subjects which might or might not lead us into exactly Richwine's situation.

And a third possibility is also unsatisfying: that it doesn't matter what researchers say, because, after all, politics is a matter of the people's will, and we can decide whatever we wish regardless of the facts. That also seems a rather foolhardy notion.

If you ask me, our moral framework needs to be sufficiently robust that it can enter into the same arena as "objective science." We can't simply suspend all value judgments, and expect others to do the same, while seeking to abstract "purely factual information" from the world of research. But in what sense our moral framework should be "sufficiently robust," I'm not exactly sure.

These are things to keep pondering. In the meantime, I'm pretty sure IQ tests should not be part of American immigration policy.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Unchecked capitalism

I miss this blog. It really makes me sad how little I've written here lately.

Because most of the people I talk to about politics seem to come from a left-leaning perspective, I tend to think a lot about the morality of markets. On the other hand, I can always count on the Catholic Church to keep things interesting by showing a firm, classical opposition to free markets such as that enunciated recently by Pope Francis. Thus I'm reminded that attacks on market liberalism come from both modern, progressive perspectives as well as classical, conservative ones.

As a side note, the one breath of fresh air I get when talking politics while living in France is that the word "liberalism" hasn't changed meanings as it has in America. Thus, while American "liberals" are actually the left, in France "libéralisme" is more associated with the right, at least with regards to the economy. It makes discussions much more clear, since the word is associated with its content, rather than with a political movement.

One thing that's striking about how both the modern left and classical conservatives respond to markets is how amazingly similar it sounds in terms of ideas. That is, you would expect that these two very different ideological groups would have two very differential ideological reasons for critiquing markets. What I hear is impressively similar: markets turn our attention toward the idols of money and greed, and they create a society that abandons the poor and the ideal of greater equality.

But on a good day, both the left and the Catholic Church might even be drawn to admit no other institution than those of property rights and free trade has done a better job in the history of civilization of raising people out of poverty, creating the innovative solutions that lead to better health and higher living standards. Where did it all go wrong?

One of the things I noticed in the article on Pope Francis was this little phrase:
Unchecked capitalism had created “a new, invisible, and at times virtual, tyranny”, said the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.
No, I'm not talking about the thing the Pope actually said. I'm talking about the phrase there at the beginning of the sentence. "Unchecked capitalism." There it is.

For all the historic connection of capitalism with "laissez faire" and the idea of individuals gone wild doing whatever they want with their own money, the truth is that in principle the market is a very restrictive system. It's really in our nature to do almost the opposite of what the market demands: to demand or forcibly take what we feel we deserve, to respect property rights only when it seems good for the rest of us.

What doesn't get said enough in these discussions is that the modern lords of finance have not driven us all to ruin simply by acting on their own behalf. No, they are publicly designated to act on everyone's behalf. Private individuals who gamble their own money and lose are not bailed out. But bankers who gamble everyone's money are bailed out, because it turns out everyone is depending on them.

A system should not be called a "free" market because we see people acting in a free and unrestrained way. This is simply a mistake in terminology. A truly free market is one in which we are all equally restrained by the same rules. Only within the restraints of mutual respect for property rights can we then be allowed to act freely.

The symptoms that Pope Francis points to are real signs that our culture does have a real problem, and the problem is largely that something has been left unchecked. Properly speaking, however, it isn't capitalism that has been left unchecked. It's a few croneys who vie for the backing of society. Wealth is not inherently bad. Getting or securing your wealth by forcing others to support you is bad.

In short, we need to go after the bankers.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

From this side of the ocean - gay marriage

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) started hearing arguments on gay marriage. From my scan of the news I take it the two laws in question are the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California's Proposition 8 banning gay marriage.

The French also can't seem to avoid this issue, with protests organized against a new law proposed by le Parti Socialiste (PS) which would make gay marriage into a legal contract. It's interesting to compare the nature of the debate on the two sides of the ocean. The first thing that strikes me is how clear the opposition's main argument is in France: changing marriage would change the legal recognition of parents. Having two fathers or two mothers is obviously not biologically possible, and can only be done through adoption. The core argument against gay marriage, then, is that this kind of family unit is not what children need. This is then drenched in nuance until it no longer seems to mean anything (that is, of course gay couples can still adopt, they just shouldn't be really considered parents, hence they shouldn't marry).

In America, the argument doesn't seem to be so clear as this. Mostly it seems to focus on the fact that marriage has for a really long time been between a man and a woman, and often God is invoked in favor of this tradition. This makes for an even weaker argument against gay marriage.

On the other hand, the argument for gay marriage isn't especially strong, either. Words like "equality" are thrown around a lot, with a lot of people saying things like "no-brainer" with regards to the application of the concept of equal rights to gay marriage. But one has the impression, on both sides of the ocean, that we're not exactly sure why marriage even exists in the first place. It's not just homosexuals who can be parents. Single women can also be parents. And if that's so, what was all that about family units? And since in neither culture is divorce so much a legal or moral problem as a financial one, one has the feeling that creating gay marriage is simply another arbitrary extension of a now rather arbitrary institution, an exercise in our right to democratically create definitions out of thin air.

What exactly do I think about all this? As the French say, je m'en fous. 

I suppose I would come out more resolutely pro gay marriage if I thought the fundamental issue here was homophobia, but I actually don't. I think the fundamental problem is much more strictly political than that.

In France the problem is even more abundantly clear to me than in the US. The state has pretty much absolute control over the institution of marriage: you're not actually married in a church but in a courthouse, at least in the eyes of the state. So everything related to the cultural definition of marriage must pass through the arbitration of the state. In the US the issue is different in structure, but not in substance. As long as we accept that democracy is a way to universalize cultural standards and absolutize the relative, not only will we lose the meaning of words like marriage, but more importantly words like liberty and, yes, equality.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Literal creation?

A blog post by Peter Leithart got me thinking once more about creationism. Responding to a book entitled Darwin's Pious Idea, Leithart asks why some things can be taken literally while others can't:
"What makes the notion of “creation by speech” an un-literal interpretation and the notion of creation “in six days” literal? How does Cunningham know which is which? Perhaps evolutionary biology decides for him. Again, we have to guess, because he doesn’t say."
It's a funny question, because I honestly never thought "creation by speech" was literal. When God spoke the universe into being, did it make a sound? Clearly there's something more to speech than the literal action of speaking. What does "literal" mean, anyway?

To me Leithart's worry is a little strange, and indicative of a sort of interpretive panic on the part of evangelicals. Always the same question arises: if we can't take the creation story literally, then how can we take any historical account from the Bible, in particular the Resurrection, literally?

If I recall Luther's famous quote correctly, he insisted on both "Scripture and plain reason." I think plain reason tells us that when God spoke the universe into existence, it didn't literally make a sound. Before anything existed, there was no sound. Plain reason also tells us that plants can't live without the sun. And yet, plants come into being a day before the sun. Plain reason, finally, tells us that the narrator of Genesis does not intend the audience to think he was an eye witness to the event, nor that he personally knows any eye witnesses. The gospels, by contrast, read somewhat differently.

And modern scientific reasoning, while not so plain, really has reached a rather strong consensus on the age of the earth. I confess that it bugs me when Christians bring up "Darwinism" when the discussion seems to be about much more than Darwin. There's no point in discussing the evolution of life if you haven't come to grips with what modern geology and physics have told us about the age of the earth. It's clearly not "Darwinism" versus creationism. It's a much broader skepticism of modern science, based solely on the stubborn insistence that we read the Bible "literally."

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A new challenge to materialism?

Two reviews of a new book by Thomas Nagel, entitled Mind and Cosmos, caused me to revisit one of the fundamental questions about the philosophy of science: can everything be "reduced" to matter? Though I haven't read the book myself, I take it the reason Nagel's book is so provocative is that he is both an atheist and a skeptic of the standard materialist worldview that makes atheism most plausible. Arguing for teleology in a world without God seems to be reaching for the impossible, which is why one critic says Nagel is "Awaiting a New Darwin" to fill in the gaps. This critic concludes, in what I find to be a rather even-handed statement:
"The question, then, is not whether teleology is formally compatible with the practice of science. The question is whether the practice of science leads to taking teleology seriously. Nagel may find this question unfair. He is, he says, engaging in a “philosophical task,” not the “internal pursuit of science.” But it seems clear that he is doing more than this. He’s emphasizing purported “empirical reasons” for finding neo-Darwinism “almost certainly false” and he’s suggesting the existence of new scientific laws. These represent moves, however halting, into science proper. But science, finally, isn’t about defining the space of all formally possible explanations of nature. It’s about inference to the most likely hypothesis. And on these grounds there’s simply no comparison between neo-Darwinism (for which there is overwhelming evidence) and natural teleology (for which there is none). While one might complain that it’s unfair to stack up the empirical successes of neo-Darwinism with those of a new theory, this, again, gets the history wrong. Teleology is the traditional view; neo-Darwinism is the new kid on the block."
Alvin Plantinga, not surprisingly, is in favor of the teleology proposed by Nagel but is waiting on Nagel to convert to theism:
"Nagel’s rejection of theism does not seem to be fundamentally philosophical. My guess is this antipathy to theism is rather widely shared. Theism severely limits human autonomy. According to theism, we human beings are also at best very junior partners in the world of mind. ... This discomfort with theism is to some extent understandable, even to a theist. Still, if Nagel followed his own methodological prescriptions and requirements for sound philosophy, if he followed his own arguments wherever they lead, if he ignored his emotional antipathy to belief in God, then (or so I think) he would wind up a theist. But wherever he winds up, he has already performed an important service with his withering critical examination of some of the most common and oppressive dogmas of our age."
I find both critics make good points, but both also make the same predictable move of getting down to what it's really all about, which amazingly enough is a restatement of one popular dogma or another. In the first case we get a restatement of modern scientific orthodoxy: science proceeds by testing hypotheses empirically, ruling out those that don't work, and accepting those that continue to be verified by experiments. In the second place we get a call to conversion: if we're looking for something to make sense out of this universe, we ought to find it in God.

Why are we at such an impasse when it comes to questions of reductionism, materialism, and teleology? One side goes on about "what science can do," while the other side insists there's more than just science. I suspect Nagel has found the place where it all converges into a tangled mess: the mind. It is here, more than anywhere else, where modern scientific materialism will inevitably clash with other worldviews.

Modern science seems to owe much of its existence to a philosophy move toward mind/matter dualism. Cartesian dualism is more than just a metaphysical statement about the mind and the body; it's a methodological decision, placing a priori questions in a different realm than empirical ones. Such a move allows empiricists to proceed with an unquestioning confidence in their enterprise. We know, a priori, that the world behaves according to logical rules. All that remains for us to conquer the world is to perform enough experiments until we discover all its secrets.

This story plays out pretty well until this relentless application of the scientific method starts to tear down the source of its boldness: the mind. If the mind is itself mere matter, subject to the same rules as anything else, and in particular the rules of evolution by natural selection, then no longer does the scientific method possess an eternal mandate from the realm of a priori truths. The method itself is an experiment, one in which we have confidence because it just seems to work (for now). But now we are trapped in a vicious circle (this is the famous problem of induction).

I understand the need to face this problem, and I find it intolerable the way some try to shrug it off for merely the sake of keeping science free from metaphysical questions. Indeed, the very notion that science (or what we now call "science" in the modern age) can be separated from any other discipline is in some ways a throwback to the worldview which most scientists now reject. Empirical questions are only independent from other questions if there really are two (or more) separate spheres of existence--for instance, mind and matter.

What I don't understand is teleology. The idea of "intrinsic bias" seems to already be present in the very notion of physical laws. In physics we posit many "intrisic biases," such as the tendency of particles in a closed system to settle in low entropy states, for matter to follow the influence of gravitational and electromagnetic fields, etc.

When we start talking about more complex things like the evolution of living organisms, it seems to me there is a double temptation. On the one hand, we marvel at the complexity and precision which present themselves in even the most basic organisms, and we are tempted to say it can't be the product of "merely random" changes, thereby rejecting Darwinian biology. On the other hand, we are tempted to interpret Darwinian biology as saying the array of organisms we see now is completely arbitrary. I would say this latter interpretation is highly misleading. The organisms which now exist have one extremely important feature in common: they survived the process of natural selection. It would not be entirely unfair to say that nature is "biased" toward producing, in certain environments, the kinds of creatures we do in fact see.

Naturally, I look at these issues from my own perspective, which is shaped by my study of dynamical systems from a mathematical point of view. From a mathematical perspective, the essence of a well-behaved dynamical system is that it tends toward some sort of "nice" behavior in the long run, even though it is governed not by a guiding hand but by a law which is applied mindlessly at each instant in time. Calculations demonstrate the intrinsic relationship between this law mindlessly applied on the long run behavior which is bound to result. On the one hand, this cannot be called "teleology." On the other hand, it cannot be called "chance." Indeed, it is a form of determinism unaided by any sort of mind.

On the other hand, how can we be so convinced that the universe evolves according to such laws? Without the guidance of a priori and immutable truths, why put our faith in the use of scientific laws to explain the world?

The reason theism seems an unattractive option to so many modern intellectuals is that they believe they understand it. By the same token, the reason so many theists make it so unattractive is that they, too, believe they understand it. There seems to be some sort of paralysis of the human mind, such that whenever theologians say something to show God higher, we interpret it as placing man lower. For instance, Plantinga says, "According to theism, we human beings are also at best very junior partners in the world of mind." I find my natural response is, wrongly, to assume this means that the amazing achievements and liberty of the human mind are not so grand after all, because we are really all little ants in God's ant farm. What a grotesque image, I say, as I search for philosophical reasons to reject it. I am not the sort who would find comfort in being an ant in an ant farm, as safe as that would be.

When I come to my senses, I realize theism should not be interpreted this way. God, I say, is not an explanation of anything. Explanations allow us to understand and manipulate the world. Belief in God does precisely the opposite: it affirms the unknowable and uncontrollable.

As such, I confess I don't find theism much help in explaining why the universe obeys certain laws, or whether or not Darwinism is true. It seems to me that teleology, in the sense of studying God's purposes for the world, cannot so much be a matter of study as a matter of patience. We honestly have no idea--certainly not a priori--where we are headed, but I am convinced we are headed somewhere.

Suppose that, unlike Descartes sitting in an armchair pondering a priori truths, we are more like children eating what is presented to us by a nurturing mother. At first we have absolutely no proof that such food is good for us, or that it is even edible. We merely have an instinct to eat, and we have no one else to trust. The proof comes later, when we are all grown up precisely because we trusted in something to begin with. Later we may find there are better things to eat by comparing to what we have already eaten.

As far as I can see, this is the true story of scientific discovery. We start with many things taken for granted. There is no way to even begin an inquiry into anything of scientific importance without being fed by someone else more experienced and learned. Once we are all grown up, we become more and more free and independent, capable of adding to the wealth of human knowledge by using what is known to face the unknown.

And it seems this is the story of all knowledge and even of living things. It is the story of evolution. I see very well why natural selection can seem like a cruel process with no discernible purpose. On the other hand, it is very much the story of growth, the story of inheritance being passed down and tested while new possibilities emerge from these trials. My intuition says that many of these philosophical arguments may just come down to how we interpret this story.

In this story there is no division between empirical and metaphysical. Mind is itself an inheritance, not an a priori metaphysical postulate. Perhaps there is something, higher and more wonderful and mysterious than mind, which permeates the universe, but I am rather sure we do not have that. What we do have is the opportunity to understand as much as we can, knowing there is never an end to what we can know.

The reason we accept materialism as a framework for modern science seems to be that it is a simple idea with far-reaching explanatory power. By assuming all things can be broken down into small, physical pieces with observably properties, we have been able to revolutionize the world. I think one can be forgiven if he sounds a bit overly excited about this. It truly is astounding how much has been accomplished by modern science. Modern science is itself the product of evolution, having been "selected" because of its unprecedented ability to yield new discoveries. If in the future we see changes emerge, so much the better. But in any case, I see the "reduction" to matter as a way to transmit a body of scientific knowledge in an effective way. It is the function of materialism as a philosophical inheritance that interests me, more than its final intrinsic truth.

All of this debate over materialism is part of that process of evolution, and I suppose the strongest challenges will survive. There probably will always be weaknesses in the materialist account of things, but I believe it futile to search for a replacement in immutable, a priori truths. (Ironically, it was perhaps just these immutable truths that gave us materialism in the first place, with all of its simplicity and orderliness.) All we can do is search for what is on the boundary of our current knowledge, and hope for growth.