Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thinking about the belief in God.

Most people I know, in my rather special little community, believe in God - the supernatural variety, "old man in the sky" type god.

People who are otherwise arch-skeptics believe that the scriptures were "revealed" at Sinai in front of millions of witnesses by a supernatural god who expects us to sing his praises every day, at appointed times, and cares what we eat, or what we do between the sheets. Not to mention that since he created us, and knows all things large and small, and moreover knows what will happen in time to come, therefore also knows exactly what we will choose to eat and everything else; suggesting that it is not really our choice - we have been created to make the very choices we do. Yet we are judged by him for doing so? And if he created everything that exists, he also created evil. So how does this square with his being the perfect, "all-good" creator of the universe; implying that evil is either imagined or God is not all-good and/or all-powerful. It all seems very silly.

Of course, these are familiar well-rehearsed arguments for which no answer exists - the problems of free-will and of evil (theodicy). What surprises me is how they are so routinely ignored by so many including our media commentators of varying degrees of intelligence and erudition. An example: Dennis Praeger, arguing with Sam Harris, when challenged to justify his beliefs (in creation and revelation) answers, in effect, that he believes because he sees no viable alternative explanation for the world as we know it (a variant of the argument from order), and that, in any case, religious people are generally more moral than non-believers. I think this may take the record for the number of implicitly false syllogisms, and circular arguments, contained in a short space. Most of this stuff is just noise. But people eat it up.

Sam Harris, for his part, making the atheist's argument, makes some errors as well, that unnecessarily polarize the discussion. While his analysis of, and denunciation of, most of organized religion is compelling (at least to me), he then comes to the alternative - which is some sort of scientifically designed morality and this collapses quickly under its own weight. Let me try and explain.

I am not a philosopher, nor a theologian, but it seems to me that both those arguing for and those arguing against the belief in God make two crucial errors, namely, the pretense of knowledge and the violation of Hume's fork.

On the matter of the pretense of knowledge it seems to me foolish to deny that there are many things in this universe that we do not know, and may never know. With the science we have we can speculate about the beginning of the universe, and come up with a more or less satisfying explanation, but in the end we cannot answer the question "how was matter created?" Similar questions come to mind: "What was there before the Big Bang?" "What was there before time?" Indeed these questions do not even appear self-evidently coherent. Physics becomes metaphysics. Why should it be surprising to find out that we human-beings, even being the marvelous creatures we are, are probably very limited in what we can perceive? After all, we have only five physical senses. How many other dimensions of perception might there be? Likewise we cannot simply rule out what appears to us to be in the realm of the supernatural, or the extra-sensory. In many respects we are bound to respond simply "we do not know." (This is probably the only thing on which Bill Maher and I agree.)

The religious think they provide an answer when they say "God created the universe." A superior, indeed perfect intelligence, created these things beyond our perception and understanding. Well, what does this mean? Why do they think this is an answer? It merely provides a story with no explanation of its own. Who created God? I might as well say "its all magic." What I am actually saying when I say God created the universe is "I don't know how the universe came to be or even what that means." The religious person has no more knowledge than the pretentious scientist.

We should note in passing that belief in creation does not get us to revelation and acceptance of all the commandments allegedly revealed thereby. This requires another giant fantastical leap.

On the matter of the second crucial error, the violation of Hume's fork, David Hume argued, (for me decisively) that there are two unbridgeable realms of human discourse - the moral and the factual - the ethical and the scientific. The latter, the factual-scientific realm, concerns what is. The world is round. My weight has increased in recent years. Spain won the world cup in 2010. These are factual matters about which scientific investigation can be made. To be sure, subjective perception is still required on the way to a consensus - there is no escaping this. But, in the normal meaning of the word, these are matters of objective truth or falsity. They can be verified or (sometimes only) falsified.

The former type of discourse - the moral-ethical - is another matter completely. This concerns what ought to be (as opposed to what is) and, as Hume pithily put it, you cannot get an "ought" from an "is." "Ought" implies personal valuation and this is not a matter of verification. Good and bad, morally speaking, are not matters subject to scientific investigation. They are rather matters of personal valuation, matters of taste or moral belief. This is a type of "knowledge" completely different from factual knowledge.

To be sure, moral precepts, rules of conduct, etc. can and are influenced by facts, by circumstances. Some rules are judged good or bad in terms of their contribution to some other more ultimate good or bad. But the most ultimate, the most fundamental, values are good or bad in themselves - just because they are. It is a matter of "faith." I cannot prove that torture is bad by any scientific investigation (though I may prove that it is ineffective, which is another matter). I cannot prove that individual freedom is good, that slavery is bad. But I certainly believe they are with every fiber of my being.

Now both Harris and Praeger deny Hume's fork. Praeger believes good and bad are in the same realm as scientifically true and untrue. They are subject to God's rules in the same way that physical laws are. Its simple. If God wants it, it is good. If God does not want it, it is evil and we can investigate this in the scripture. (Problem: as Harris points out; how do you know which scripture is the valid one?).

Harris believes that we can use logic and fact to fashion a superior morality - that we can derive morals from science and logic.

Both are wrong.

The truth is more simple and less polarizing.

One: We don't know many things. We should loudly proclaim this.
How was the world created?
I don't know and nor do you?

Two: We all employ a type of "faith" to decide how to behave.
The religious seem to think that this is more arbitrary than asserting some kind of revelation - that a morality based on a revealed scripture is less subjective than resort to individual conscience.
Newsflash: Conscience is all we have in matters of morality. For some their conscience tells them to obey the revealed word, for others it tells them the revealed word is sometimes contrary to morality. You have to decide what you really believe. And, belief is not a matter of simple choice. Sometimes I wish I could believe in a system of revealed laws proclaimed by an infallible leader and savior. I can pretend that I do, but I cannot simply choose to. You can't believe what you don't believe. And what you do believe about morality, about good and bad, is always a matter of individual "faith."

Americans, being pragmatic, have sometimes unconsciously taken this realization and molded it into organized religion. The rules, rituals, festivals, and aesthetics of received religion have been retained, but their significance has morphed from the literal into the symbolic in the service of community coherence - the practice of compassion, charity, celebration, and comfort. Revelation itself is seen as a symbol for some sort of "inner revelation" - the conscience talking to us.

This approach creates a wide tent. Is it wide enough to accommodate the likes of both Harris and Praeger?

For similar musings see here and here.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

And now the union card.

"I told you so"s are obnoxious. But I can't resist.

Among the posts in this blog's archives are numerous warnings and predictions about just how bad a president candidate Obama would be. I worried about many things, including what has now become Obamacare, Obama financial reform, Obama foreign policy all of which have made Americans poorer and more vulnerable.

I also warned about Obama's agenda to increase the power of labor unions. Mostly this escaped the radar, even of many of his critics, but it is now apparent that this is a major part of his social reform agenda and an incredibly dangerous one.

Obama, as a senator, was an enthusiastic supporter of a bill, still pending, to scrap the secret ballot requirement for union organization - effectively making it easier for union organizers to intimidate workers into agreeing to the formation of a union. His presidency thus far has shown how far he is willing to go to support existing unions and encourage new ones (see here for the latest on this) - most egregiously his support of the powerful teachers unions that are responsible for the high cost and low quality of America's failing public education system. To support their extravagant benefits and yearly wage-increases, the teachers' unions are holding America's children hostage in failing, dangerous schools.

Union support goes hand in hand with the Obama administration's alliance with workers in the public sector at all levels of government. The extent of unionization in the American economy is relatively low, by comparison to other industrialized economies, and many of our unions are in the public sector. We all know that unemployment remains very high at around 10% - 15 million unemployed people, and many more who have given up looking for jobs. What many may not know is that employment in the public sector has gone up and so have wage levels. While the rest of the economy struggles to maintain employment and earnings levels, government workers expand in numbers and receive higher wages. The only way this can happen is by increasing taxes (now or in the future) to pay for them. Increased union formation would add fuel to this destructive process.

You might be tempted to ask, "What's wrong with union's? Don't they help workers?" There is a robust mythology surrounding the union mystique - folklore, nostalgia, loyalty and so on. But the sad truth is that unions are an economic curse. They are, in effect, legal labor monopolies that force the employers in an industry to deal only with the union - to employ only union members - and thereby to protect union members from competition for jobs. Unions are able to benefit their members by raising their wages and reducing the number of workers employed. They increase the cost of the payroll, reduce profits and investment in the industry, raise product prices and reduce wages elsewhere. Union members gain at the expense of non-union workers, and the rest of society.

This kind of monopoly power in the hands of any corporation would be greeted with righteous condemnation, but, somehow, in the hands of unions it is often regarded as justified. One explanation is that unions support workers who are relatively powerless compared to corporations. This assertion betrays a lack of understanding of how markets and competition work to protect all parties. But, even taken on its face, if this were ever relevant in the past, it is not relevant now. Current unions do not, for the most part, contain "powerless" blue-collar workers. Instead they are made up of professionals - articulate, educated, affluent - like teachers, pilots, health-care workers, skilled craftsmen, civil servants and so on. And the businesses that suffer (directly and indirectly) most from their successes are not the large powerful corporations, but rather the small businesses that are the economic backbone of the American economy, the engines of thrift and innovation.

Union power subverts creative economic activity. It is predicated on special protections from competition and it results in a stultifying and often violent bureaucracy. Historically it has been responsible for the crippling of whole economies, in Britain, in Israel and in many European countries. Add this to the list of horrors that this administration has unleashed upon us. How long will this nightmare endure?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

July fourth and the danger within.

This July Fourth I rededicate myself to the idea and the cause of Freedom.

The Founding Father's were not paragons of virtue, they were fallible human beings. But they were remarkable human beings, to a man (and the odd woman, like Abigail Adams), the likes of which we are not likely to see among the ranks of politicians ever again. They knew exactly what they were doing and they even anticipated the greatness to which it might lead and the obstacles along the way. They faced grave risks to their persons should they fail and uncertain rewards should they succeed. They believed in what they were doing and that is why they did it.

Their actions and their achievements are all the more remarkable considering that they were breaking new ground at every turn. The United States of America is the longest surviving republic in history. The ideas upon which it was founded, though widely circulating at the time, were revolutionary. The idea that individuals could and should be masters of themselves, and their property, and beholden to none save those to whom they voluntary chose to be, was explosively subversive to the prevailing political order everywhere. The truths they articulated were by no means "self-evident" to the monarchs of Europe, or to dynastic rulers and dictators anywhere. That they seem self-evident to us, indeed, that we so dangerously take them for granted, is in no small measure due to that Revolutionary generation and its achievements.

Yet, as we often hear, and as Thomas Jefferson said, "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance" and we have not been vigilant enough. I think that Jefferson (and his compatriots) understood clearly that the threat to liberty, to individual freedom, comes not so much from external dangers as great at they may be, and, indeed are today. Rather, the real and essential danger comes from inside our own society. The challenge we face is the inculcation anew in each generation of the importance of individual liberty and private property and of the need to safeguard these principles from corruption. Societies based on some form of representative democracy are always in grave danger of gradually imploding as interest groups and coalitions seek to use the political system to cannibalize the fruits of the remarkable value creation that individual freedom brings with it. And the only real safeguard against this is a set of constitutionalized principles beyond the reach of political process.

Only if we succeed in preserving individual liberty through vigorous dedicated efforts will we be able to counter those more obvious threats to freedom that come from those who violently denounce us and our values and vow to destroy us by any means no matter how vile. America is strong because it is free, it is not free because it is strong. Freedom leads to material and spiritual riches that provide the wherewithal for a principled defense. We need to be ready to defend freedom at home as well as abroad.
America has succeeded remarkably well in this, all things considered, resisting implosion in spite of grave challenges, so far. Once again we find ourselves, our core principles, facing a formidable challenge in the form of an overreaching government. Can we, will we, pull back and go some ways to reverse the damage. I know we can and I believe we will.

Happy Holiday, Yours in Freedom.