Monday, July 30, 2007

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Civil Servant Civil War in Iraq

Even the humanitarian relief efforts serve an almost tragicomic illustration of the reality of the Iraqi Civil War:

Tragicomic, were it not so horrifically real.

Is It Bishop Berkeley, or Is It...

"Tell me one last thing," said Harry. "Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?"

"Of course it's happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

-- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

(By the way, I read it Monday -- highly recommended.)

Right Wing Blowhard on CSPAN this Weekend

Sunday afternoon and then at midnight. See here for details.

Monday, July 23, 2007

You Only Get What You Give

I'm reading a fascinating book that my wife discovered, Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness. At some point I'll probably review it for so no need for a big to-do right now.

However, in the beginning he discusses why it's very odd that we try to imagine and provide for the desires of these other people, who are often very ungrateful. Those people are our future selves.

This wasn't Gilbert's point, but it reminded me of one of my (countless) deep insights from my grad school years: If you are altruistic then it will redound to your happiness. There is much psychological truth behind the Golden Rule, but it's not (simply) that God will reward you in heaven or that people might reciprocate.

Rather, if you orient yourself to catering to others' needs, then you will do the same for your future self. And hence you will be happier than if you selfishly look out for Numero Uno, and then wonder why you haven't lived up to your potential (and hence are miserable).

Obviously some readers are going to get defensive and think I'm lecturing, so let me admit: I'm not saying I practice what I preach very well. Even so, I think this is part of why morality "works," and why ethical egoism is so misguided.

The principle here is similar to my thoughts on tithing: At first it is absolutely CRAZY to give away 10% of your income to the church every month. You might do it out of duty, but what a pain; that would kill your budget, right?

On the contrary, once my wife and I got serious about it (and she was the driving force I must admit), all of a sudden we had money falling out of our ears. It wasn't that a divine paycheck came from a deceased Aunt Marge, but rather that all of a sudden we understood our finances much better and so had more, even after taking 10% off the top.

Same thing with the Golden Rule. If you are kind, merciful, patient, etc. with other people, then you will be that way with yourself. At first it's counterintuitive--it seems you should spend your efforts on pleasing yourself in order to be happy. But if you develop the discipline to see what other people really need (and that could be a beer or a compliment, OR a lecture or a kick in the pants depending) and to try your best to help them in a loving way, then you will effortlessly apply those skills on yourself.

And one last thing: You can't cheat and say, "Well if you're right, then I as a rational utilitarian [actually you probably are a consequentialist] will adopt altruistic attitudes as a means to an end." That's like saying, "I'm going to convince myself that my car is the coolest car in the world, and then I will be happy."

The Government, Protector of the Environment

I saw a show on BBC before I left the UK last week on "tiger protection" efforts by the Indian government. At one "tiger preserve," state officials were reporting the presence of almost 30 tigers, but when independent researchers checked the park, they found that every single tiger had been poached from the preserve, from under the noses of 300 government employees. Another state-run preserve banned a researcher who questioned their population figures, but the researcher's figures were later proven accurate.

Meanwhile, AM New York reports that the New York City government dumps about 27 billion gallons of raw sewage into New York waterways each year. Fixing the problem would be "too expensive."

Bob to Republicans: Ron in the Primary, Rudy in the General

No, I'm not voting for Giuliani--I don't vote, on principle. (And a Clinton victory might even be better in the long run, since people need to remember that a "liberal" can bomb foreigners too.) But this is unsolicited advice for Limbaugh fans.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Subtleties of Sidewalk Etiquette

Early IT Troubles

First tech support call. (Hat tip to Rodercik Long.)

The Logic of War

Here's a chain of reasoning we see often today:

1) Famous pundit/politician A is against the Iraq War but was/is for intervention in Bosnia/Kosovo/Darfur.
2) This is inconsistent. (Let us grant 2 for argument's sake.)
3) Therefore, the case against the Iraq War is nonsense.

See how 3) follows of necessity from 2)?

What?! You don't? You must be a "Jew hater"!

Morality and Reason

Not trying to pick on D. Glen Whitman, but in our exchanges below he has made a point that others often do:

And while God has allegedly given us an instruction manual with the moral truths written down, there is more than one such manual, and their contents are often ambiguous and inconsistent. That means that we have no choice but to use reason to try to figure out the best moral rules.

As always, my point here isn't to change minds; obviously that's not going to happen. But I get the sense that there are many atheist readers of this blog who would think Glen hit the nail on the head here, and only moronic Christians could contort their minds and fail to see how crushing this point is.

On the contrary, it's no more crushing to the Bible-thumper than the following analogous argument is to Glen:

Rationalists allegedly tell us that reason can allow us to discover moral truths. Problem is, rationalists don't agree with each other. Even if we narrow the category down to atheist libertarians who love Rothbardian legal theory, they don't all agree on something as important as abortion. This just shows how vague and unhelpful reason alone is, if it isn't supplemented with our intuitive conscience that (I would argue) comes from our divine background. (In contrast, Hayek would say it comes from evolution. But he too would deny that reason alone gives us morality.)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Morality and God

In the debate between Glen and Gene (a few posts below), they are arguing the timeless question of whether belief in God is necessary for morality. Let me first broadcast a portion of my comment:

"...I think that God designed the universe and human beings, and thus He knows what will give us not mere pleasure, but joy. And thus when He warns us (through prophets, but also by giving reason to sociologists, economists, political scientists, and medical doctors who specialize in venereal disease) about the consequences of immorality (or sin, to use a quaint term) He is letting us know that we are going to be unhappy. It's like a parent telling a child not to go near the stovetop...

What if it were the case that people felt unfulfilled because they were separated from their Maker, and that's what caused them to seek out drug use, affairs, bank robberies, etc.? (Granted they might be atheists and not realize the source of their unhappiness.) In what possible sense could you say these people could fully understand morality if they were ignorant of the single most important fact in the universe (the existence of a conscious God)?"

Now as far as the issue at hand: I think it's similar to Hayek's argument in Road to Serfdom. You can't expect to have a political system that respects "democratic" rights if it is socialist. Yes, in theory you could have a bunch of socialists who allow the government-owned printing press to run critical articles and who don't give dissenters crap jobs in Siberia, but in practice that's not going to happen. With each generation, the government will become more and more brutal as the habits and morals that formed under economic freedom die away.

By the same token, it's logically possible to have a society of atheists who are completely moral. But if you take an actual society right now, and stamp out belief in God, with each generation (I claim) it would get less and less moral, by our current definition. Maybe the people in those succeeding generations would consider themselves more civlized than us, but we would do the same when viewing their behavior--even today's atheists.

Norwegian Wood: About Arson?

(The following post is dedicated to John Goes.)

I had always assumed the Beatles' song "Norwegian Wood" was about some PG-13 date that John Lennon had, and that the next morning he got the fireplace going. But try listening to the song (it's freakier if you actually listen to the song, rather than just googling the lyrics) and just entertain the hypothesis that Lennon is a really bitter guy and that the girl ("she once had me") is a tease. It puts the last line in a whole new light.

Morality for Neoplatonists, Part II

In honor of my birthday, Glen Whitman debunks the dependence of morality on the existence of God as follows: "Well, um, I’m an atheist, and I think it’s wrong to kill people and stuff. So there."

Along the same lines, I can show that the fact that people do not float off the earth and into space does not depend on gravity: "Well, um, I don't believe in gravity, and I don't float out into space. So there."

See, philosophy is easy, if you just don't give a crap what sort of argument you use!

The Stupidity of Modern Conservatives, Part II

I recall the trashing I would see Stanley Fish receive in various 'intellectual' conservative outlets. Having read about half of his Milton book, Surprised by Sin, I can testify that the man is a genius and great scholar. That doesn't mean I would agree with everything he's written (this is the first time I've read him at length), but he is certainly not the babbling moron these conservatives would have him. The anti-intellectualism most conservatives display is a good indication that what passes for conservatism these days is really... I'll give you a hint: it starts with an 'f'.

And, it makes me re-think my re-action to Rudy Giuliani's assertion that he had 'never heard' the blowback explanation for 9/11 when Ron Paul brought it up. I now see that, in a sense, he may have been speaking the truth -- he had never heard it in that he had always refused to listen when it was brought up. In that sense, even the next time someone suggests it to him, he will still be able to say, truthfully, 'I've never heard that before'.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Doubting the Germ Theory of Disease

On a recent trip back from my parents' house, our 2-year-old engaged in very risky behavior in the airport and on the plane. He rolled around on the floor at the gate, and he rubbed his pacifier all over the food court table, and then against his bare feet. My wife and I were utterly grossed out.

It has been several days and he shows no signs of illness.

Global Drying

After a dry spell in the UK, I saw an article in a paper saying that British gardeners would have to get used to the new climate they faced, and start planting desert species.

Last month was apparently the wettest June here in recorded history. Those cactii and Joshua trees must be pretty water-logged!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Pining for Terror...

is Rick Santorum. (Hat tip to Jim Henley.)

Not only is it sick to long for such attacks, people such as Santorum have taken a position where whatever happens proves them right: If there are no terror attacks, it shows how successful Bush’s strategy has been. But if there are terror attacks, it shows how much we need Bush’s strategy!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Murphy Op-Ed in Actual Newspaper

I make new inroads of propaganda, now reaching the poor masses without Internet access... (I.e. yes here I've given a link, but this article on student loans is in actual papers in NY.)

Modern Travel

I just arrived in Cardiff. The 3459 miles between New York and London took 6 hours to traverse. The 120 miles between Heathrow and Cardiff took two hours to cross. The mile between where I landed at Heathrow and the bus station? Three hours! (Taxiing, getting a bus to the terminal, getting through immigration, getting luggage, taking the Heathrow Express to another terminal, and walking to the bus station.)

Monday, July 09, 2007

Democracy at Work

Machete sales crash after election.

Sandy Ikeda reports a headline from his hometown paper, The East Valley Tribune: “Governor signs illegal immigration bill”

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Nirvana and Kenosis

In response to the selection of a dialogue I quoted in my last post on Sam Harris' view of Christianity, Taisen called me out for selecting an equally weak passage with respect to Buddhism. I apologize if my introduction to the passage was lacking with better preface and tact, but I still basically endorse the passage as a more grounded ecumenical discussion.

The quoted discussion does not intend to suggest that Buddhism is "impoverished". The rest of the essay tries to reconcile the Eastern view of the world with Christianity, concluding that Nirvana is quite close in many respects to the Christian concept of kenosis. Harris, on the other hand, is on a crusade to reveal the "wickedness" of religion and its supposedly bankrupt orthopraxis. Harris by no means should be considered an authority on Hinduism and Buddhism - to my mind he unknowingly slights them in the process of his crusade. By "more grounded", I intended foremost that orthodoxy informs both the Western and Eastern traditions and that any honest, informed and fair discussion would attempt to find the partial truth in each approach, which involves to some extent a mapping of the merits of one approach to another, wider view. That was the main point.

But as a secondary point, I do happen to more or less endorse the "old-fashioned" understanding of Buddhism here, more or less. There are gnosis-centered Buddhist traditions, moral-centric, and so on. It's very hard to pin down any one Buddhist worldview, so any ecumenical discussion risks being overly broad. Buddhism is a particularly slippery fish.

"I" is a concrete universal. It's repeated in the world and felt as a center of experience. From our perspective on Earth, there many such "I"s. Individually, we seem have identities. Many traditions question the reality of our commonplace conceptions of such an identity, Buddhists and Christians included. If identity is fundamentally an illusion, as Buddhists seem to suggest, it seems unavoidable to hold the view that "one" who holds such an illusion is faced with annihilation upon enlightenment, insofar as that identity is an illusion and the annihilation of the illusion is the goal, or a necessary consequence of enlightenment.

The summation of Buddhist praxis as "imitating the Void" is over-simplistic perhaps. Buddhist praxis is variegated, as with Christian praxis; but with Christian orthopraxis there is a more or less explicit end - Everlasting life in the Body of Christ. Christian perfection is focused on this world and eternity at once. Hell is the necessary corollary to this. The Christian focus is on morality and the Sacred Heart as the path along which gnosis is gained. Buddhism, on the other hand, seems primarily focused on gnosis and an "escape" from samsara by sheer lack-of-will. Or sheer Will, which may be the same thing?? If nirvana is a void of Individual identity, from the view of that identity Buddhist praxis is void of all meaning unless nirvana is "filled" with the pure will of a Divine Being, perhaps called the Absolute. As long as Buddhism is "impersonal" with respect to the whole of the world, it seems felt as a void. The God that can be spoken is not the eternal God.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

T-Shirt Slogans

Seen in Brooklyn:

"Watch Out! I Had a Big Bowl of Bitchy for Breakfast."
Nice to hear you acknowledge your personality defects.

"Hot Stuff."
Sister, either you don't need the t-shirt to point it out, or it ain't true.

Who's That Man?

No cheating!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Stupidity of Modern Conservatism

This post over at the Lew Rockwell blog reminded me of the stupidity of modern conservatives. Time after time, modern conservatives have fought some "progressive" programme only to embrace it as their own a generation later. You now here conservatives talking as if human society would be impossible without the police, apparently unaware that professional police forces are a nineteenth century invention. The war on drugs, a stupid, costly, and civil rights crushing adventure that has made the drug problem far worse than when it was begun, is another progressive programme that conservatives now think we couldn't live without. I actually saw one conservative writing that opium "legalization" in the 19th-century was the first time drugs had ever been legal anywhere, apparently not realizing that they had almost always been legal almost everywhere. Public education is yet one more example.

Is there any programme that conservatives think is so stupid and awful that forcing them to live with it for a few years won't lead them to love it?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


Again over at Henley's place, there is an interesting discussion of "Left-Libertarianism."

One poster argued: "From where I sit, and awful lot of libertarianism seems like an apologia for power, and a lot of the anti-government sentiment aligns all too well with the anti-democratic strain in conservatism."

I responded:
It is true that too many so-called libertarians try to justify, say, the power of multi-national corporations. But left-libertarians recognize that much of that power is tied into State power. Large corporations typically lobby for increased regulation of their industry, because the more red tape there is, the bigger their advantage over their small competitors. (A big company can much more easily afford full-time compliance staff.) They capture the bulk of export subsidies, get local governments to give them tax breaks and sieze the next site for their business through eminent domain. The elite rotate between government posts, lobbying firms, and corporate boards.

To a left-libertarian, the typical "progressive" solution to this problem is non-sensical: put even more power in the hands of the institution where power is already most concentrated! We suspect that however genuine the motives of "progressive" social reformers are, the increased concentration of power they propose will largely work to the benefit of the already powerful. We are true radicals in that we recommend going to the root of the problem, urging the rejection of all social relationships based on coercion. We do not suggest that will "fix everything" or bring about utopia, because we believe nothing can. But we do suggest it will result in a marginally better world.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

I've Got a Hit!

I work up this morning with a surefire Hollywood seller: Flashdances with Wolves. Think about it: Flashdance, big hit. Dances with Wolves, big hit. Combine 'em, mega-big hit!

I'm off to Tinsletown to pitch it.

Guilt the Socialists

I met three socialists selling "radical" literature in front of Starbucks, proselytizing to passersby. I didn't intend to get in a conversation with them, but I was perusing their books on a stand and before I knew it I was being interrogated by them about what I think is wrong with the world. It really cuts to the heart of the matter when you ask them what they have done for the exploited recently. The answer is almost always nothing. If you walk the walk, challenge them to act on their beliefs and dare to create the society they want from the bottom up, rather than futilely lobby for dictatorial top-down solutions. Federalism and local, concrete charity/mutualist-centered are their best chance to effectively change society in fundamental ways. They seemed to take this sourly, but it's good medicine. They can either be hypocrites and profit (socially or otherwise) from their ideological street fairs or get their hands dirty, maybe make a more efficient factory or create mutual insurance societies. There's not much they can usually say about walking the walk.

Not that socialists are that serious in and of themselves - churches and women's clubs tend to do much more and with more coherent, family-centered values; but socialists are in an important sense the base of modern leftist movement in their radical vision for society and especially in their vivid perception of certain very real problems. I suggest that the goal might be a sort of Paul/Kucinich sort of ticket. Socialist federalism. Or that's what we tell the leftists on the brochure anyway.

Sam Harris' a priori Mysticism

Sam Harris writes in The End of Faith on the poverty of Western orthopraxy:

"In fact, the spiritual differences between the East and the West are every bit as shocking as the material differences between the North and the South."...
..."Mysticism , to be viable, requires explicit instructions, which need suffer no more ambiguity or artifice in their exposition that we find in a manual for operating a lawn mower. Some traditions realized this millennia ago. Others did not."

So prayer, confession, attending Mass, almsgiving, fasting, chastity, and so on are not explicit instructions? Harris ends his book concluding that
"[m]ysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time.
The Christian may rephrase: "The Christian has recognized something about the nature and history of the world prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The Christian has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The Logical mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is theology), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is the contemplation of prayer). Physicalist atheism is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of Good, simple Truth for all Time."

There are certainly differences between Eastern and Western traditions, but Harris' generalized argument against extraordinary historical claims as scientific claims is weak and arbitrary in the context of his discussion, since he admits the reality of mystic revelation and "sacred dimensions", but only insofar as it confirms his a priori embrace of Physicalism. A more grounded discussion of the differences and similarities of Eastern and Western traditions is possible:

Both the Christian mystic and the Zen Master begin with selflessness, and at this initial phase their tasks are the same. The Buddhist must let go of the ego at his center as a preparation for annihilation; the Christian must let go of his "geocentric" world in favor of a heliocentric view in which his "self" is received entirely from the Central Son. This emptying has for its purpose a filling up with love, which is attained by accepting and passing on forgiveness. Thus it is oriented, not towards an inner purity for its own sake, but to a relationship of love towards one's fellows and towards God. God's word is not understood solely as something "inner", but is communicated through history and through the world around us. The purification is never an end in itself, but a means for ordering the whole person, of eliminating any resistance to his openness towards God.

In both Buddhism and Christianity, the emptying imitates the Absolute. For the Buddhist, it is an imitation of the Void. For the Christian it is the image of the original Kenosis which is God himself. The Father's generation of the Son is an eternal act of self-surrender in which all that the Father is is handed over to the Son. Moreover, the Father must not be thought to exist before the self-surrender; he is the self-surrender that holds nothing back. The Son answers with a Eucharist as selfless as the Father's self-surrender and the Holy Spirit proceeds as their subsistent "we". "As the essence of love, he maintains the infinite difference between them, seals it and, since he is the one Spirit of them both, bridges it." But this kenosis which is God must not be understood as self-annihilation.

We must remember this; the Father, in uttering and surrendering himself without reserve, does not lose himself. He does not extinguish himself by self-giving, just as he does not keep back anything of himself either. For, in his self-surrender, he is the whole divine essence. Here we see both God's infinite power and his powerlessness; he cannot be God in any other way but in the Godhead itself.

Here we see a bridging of the gap between emptiness and fullness, between the One and the Many. God fills (or rather, fulfills) the divine nature in emptying himself. In begetting the Son, he let's the other "be". The divine unity is not threatened, because he has surrendered all he is, without remainder. We no longer need fret about the opposition between the One and the Many; God in himself is both one and many. He is as many as three, but he is many more, for the Son continues this kenosis by emptying himself of divinity to take the form of a slave. In these divine "emptyings" we find the ontological ground of our own kenosis; we imitate the divine action, however crudely, in emptying ourselves of our ego-centeredness, but this emptying allows us to be filled with divinity.

All this is possible because God is Love, but not an abstract love, but love which has an object, a beloved. It would be more accurate to say "God is a lover", first of God, and then of his creatures, creatures who are themselves created in love. Love this moves beyond the abstract of "compassion" to affirm the other. There is no longer need for annihilation, for love can let the other be, without itself being threatened. Thus real beings with a separate existence, with a separate "I" are possible. Of course, this "I", though separate, is not self-subsistent; it can only find its real identity in God, but not in such a way that annihilates that identity, but in a way that affirms it.

Zeno for the computer age

If you wish to better understand Zeno's worry about the continuum, you could do worse than to consider loops in software. Case 1: You...