Human Rights

Many talk of rights without describing them clearly. In this post I will.

  1. try to define the concept of rights clearly and describe what type of thing rights are.
  2. argue that universal human rights imply universal human obligations.
  3. argue that human rights exist independently from rights that are granted by an institution like the state.

Defining Human Rights
Human Rights are rights that a person has in virtue of being human. As such they exist independently from any system of laws enacted by any institution such as a state or government. Some argue that universal human rights do not exist independently of a government. Jeremy Bentham called the idea of human rights, "rhetorical nonsense". Bentham thought that because we do not discover human rights in the same way that people have noses, then there must not be any rights "out there" to be found. While it is true that we do not discover human rights in the same way that we discover that water is H2O, it does not follow that human rights do not exist. 

The existence of human rights depends on a collective recognition or acceptance of their existence. The existence of human rights is an observer-relative fact; not an observer-independent facts. The difference between these two types of facts is that observer-relative facts depend on the beliefs and attitudes of human beings while observer-independent facts exist regardless of what human beings think or believe. 

Let me try to explain the distinction between these two types of facts more clearly. An example of an observer-relative fact is money. When one has a $5 bill, he/she is entitled to buy $5 worth of goods. On a $5 note, we read the words, "This note is legal tender for all debts public and private." If one only believed that observer-independent facts existed, they would naturally want to ask, "How do they know that it is legal tender?...Did they perform some chemical test to see if the $5 bill really was money?" Of course these questions miss the point. We do not discover that a certain piece of paper is money. We declare it to be money. The piece of paper and the ink stains that constitute the $5 bill are NOT sufficient to make it money. We need the actual piece of paper PLUS something else to make it money. That something else is the collective recognition that those pieces of paper count as money. 

Human rights are the same way. When one is a human being, he or she has the right to perform certain actions, but the mere existence of a certain biological organism that we call a human being is not sufficient to ensure that person has rights. You need a certain biological organism (a human being) PLUS collective recognition that they have those rights.

I think that the concept of human rights will be clearer when one understands how institutional facts are created in general. I describe how they are created in more detail in my post about Social Ontology. Here I will summarize some of those ideas:

Summary of Social Ontology
There are at least three things that are needed to create institutional facts. You need status functions, collective recognition, and constitutive rules.

Humans are different from all other forms of animal life because humans can impose functions on objects where the objects cannot perform the function solely in virtue of their physical structure. To continue using the example of money, we can assign the function of money to little green pieces of paper. These pieces of paper have the status of money in virtue of the function that we collectively assign to them. When we create a function by collective recognition of an assigned status, we are creating a "Status Function". Status functions are everywhere. Examples of status functions include money, marriages, touchdowns, sacraments, driver's licenses, presidents, private property, holidays, etc.

Status functions exist as part of a system of "constitutive rules" that are created by language. Constitutive rules create the behavior that they regulate. For example, the rules of chess create the possibility of playing the game of chess. Similarly, status functions are constitutive rules that create observer-relative facts. Constitutive rules of status functions have the logical form "X counts as Y" in context "C". Here are a few examples:

  • A certain area of the field (X) counts as an end zone (Y) in the game of football (C)
  • Such and such a sound wave (X) counts as a sentence (Y) in the english language (C)
  • This piece of paper (X) counts as money (Y) in the United States (C)

The "X counts as Y in context C" formula is not intended to show how people explicitly think about institutional facts. In most cases institutional facts are not explicitly stated. The formula is just a useful way to think about how people are prepared to regard things or treat them as having a certain status.

Status functions are always associated with social power. This power is simply the ability to get people to behave in a certain way. There are positive social powers such as rights, permissions, authorizations, certifications, and entitlements. There are also negative powers such as obligations, duties, and requirements. These powers provide us with reasons for acting that are independent of our inclinations and desires. For example, if I recognize something as your property, then I am obligated not to take it or use it without your permission. Likewise, if I have the status the president of the United States, then I am authorized to command the military.

Status functions are always associated with social powers that lock into human rationality by creating "desire-independent reasons for action". In the game of American football, the end zone creates a conditional power, such that when a player makes it to the end zone with the ball, his team is entitled to 6 points while the opposite team is required to recognize that they have 6 points even though the opposite team would rather not recognize those points.

With this brief foundation in place, I can more precisely describe universal human rights. A universal human right is described by an observer-relative constitutive rule such that:

  • A certain biological organism (X) counts as a human being (Y) in the context of the whole universe (C).
  • The power associated with this constitutive rule is that any organism that satisfies the conditions of the Y term has certain powers (rights and entitlements) such as the right to life or the right to free speech.

Universal Human Rights imply Universal Human Obligations
This framing implies that all universal human rights imply universal human obligations. Rights are always rights against somebody. If I have a right to walk in a park, then everyone else has an obligation not to interfere with that activity. If A has a right against B, then B has an obligation to A. For example, the bill of rights are rights against Congress, they place congress under an obligation not to interfere with the rights articulated in the Bill of Rights such as the right to free speech.

Put more precisely:

  • If a human being (H) has a right to perform action (A), then other people (P) have an obligation (O) not to interfere with (H) performing action (A)

Positive & Negative Rights
Human rights can be categorized into positive and negative rights. The formulation of rights above is an example of a negative right. The type of rights found in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are negative rights. The rights laid out in the founding documents of America impose an obligation on everyone not to interfere with certain human activities such as the establishment or exercise of religion, or free speech, etc. In other words negative rights are rights that people have to be left alone.

Positive rights require more than just non-interference. They require positive action in ensuring that everyone receives those rights. The logical form of a positive right would look something like this:

  • If a human being (H) has a right to (B), then other people (P) have an obligation (O) to ensure that (H) obtains (B)

A formulation of human rights that can apply to both positive and negative rights can go something like this:

  • A Human Being (H) has a human right (R) which generates an obligation (O) for other people (P)

In some situations, the distinction between positive and negative rights is blurred. Nevertheless, I think these concepts can help us to avoid confusion in many cases. For example, if I have the right to life and that right is a negative right, then it is implied that other people are obligated not to harm my life, but it does not imply that people are obligated to provide me with food or expensive healthcare so as to prolong my life as long as possible. Similarly, people in remote parts of the world have a right to life, but since it is a negative right, I have no obligation to provide them with food and healthcare. I think that the right to life can only be properly understood as a negative right in this context. This does not mean that we should not help others, but that it does not make sense to have an enforceable obligation to do so.

Universal Human Rights are Institution-independent
But what happens when other people (P) do not want to fulfill their obligations(O)?  
When other people do not want to fulfill their obligations to other human beings, and those human beings are not in a position to guarantee that their own rights are not infringed, then it becomes necessary for some third party to protect human rights by ensuring that other people fulfill their obligations. That third party could be the government which has the obligation to protect human rights by enacting civil laws that are enforceable because the government can use brute force. Therefore our logical formula that describes human rights can be expanded as follows:

  • A Human Being (H) has a human right (R) which generates an obligation (O) for other people (P) which right creates a different obligation (O2) for a third party (G) to protect (H) and his/her rights.

An application of this formula would be something like this:

  • A human being (Gavin Jensen) has a human right (right to life) which generates and obligation (do not murder Gavin) for other people (everyone in the world) which right creates another obligation (protect Gavin's right to life) for a third party (the United States government) to protect (Gavin Jensen's) right to life.

When the government creates laws, they are obligated to ensure that those laws respect human rights. If human rights are really universal then that means that governments that protect those rights cannot have a system of pure democracy. If they want to protect human rights, then they must enforce certain laws that cannot be changed by popular vote.

For human rights to be universal, they must exist outside of the scope of any government. They do not come from a constitution or any other legal document. Constitutions and laws are attempts to protect pre-existing human rights. The purpose of civil law is to implement human rights. Thomas Paine wrote in The Rights of Man,

"Every civil right has for its foundation some natural right pre-existing in the individual, but to the enjoyment of which his individual power is not in all cases, sufficiently competent. Of this kind are all those which relate to security and protection."

Citizens can sometimes create state recognized rights that do not depend on universal human rights. In these cases the obligations created by those rights should only apply to the citizens of that institution. For instance, if same-sex marriage is not a universal human right and a state wants to grant the right of marriage to same-sex couples, then they can do that but that right would only create an obligation for the citizens of that state. But people outside of that institution would not be obligated to recognize that institution-relative right.

Human rights must be justified 
Even though status functions exist because of collective recognition of those status functions, it does not mean that they are arbitrary. Some claims to human rights are valid if they can be justified, while other claims are invalid when they cannot be justified. In this post, I have not tried to justify any specific human right. I have only tried to outline what human rights are and explain the nature of their existence. Justifying specific human rights is a topic for later posts.

Summary of main points

  1. Human rights exist just as money exists. Both are observer-relative phenomenon meaning that we do not discover human rights (or money) in the same way that we discover that water is made of H2O.
  2. Because human beings have a recognized status function, they have social powers that include rights to perform certain actions.
  3. Analyzing human rights in this way makes it very clear that human rights imply human obligations.
  4. There are two types rights—positive and negative.
  5. Human rights exist independently of laws created within any institution and apply universally.

God, Language, and Reality

In the beginning of the Old Testament, we read "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." It appears in this verse that God caused light to appear through the use of language. How can language cause the world to change? What would reality have to be like for the language to change reality?

Direction of fit
 
To explore these questions, I want to introduce the concept of direction of fit. Direction of fit refers to the relationship between words and reality. In many cases, words can be used to fit the way the world is. These cases have a " word-to-world direction of fit". In other cases, the world changes in order to fit the words that we use. These cases have a "world-to-word direction of fit". These distinctions will be clearer as I describe the possible uses of language.

5 types of speech acts
 
There are 5 and only 5 things that can be done with language. There are assertives, expressives, directives, commissives, and declarations. These uses of language are called speech acts. Assertives state the way the world is and thus have the word-to-world direction of fit. Assertives refer to statements, descriptions, classifications, explanations, and clarifications. Eg: "The earth rotates around the sun". Expressives do not have a direction of fit but they rely on presuppositions that do have a direction of fit. Eg: "Thank you for passing the guacamole" (which presupposes that the hearer did in fact pass the guacamole).

Directives, commissives, and declarations all have a world-to-word direction of fit. Directives change the world by causing the hearer to do something. Directives include orders, commands, requests and refer to pleading, begging, praying, insisting, and suggesting. Eg: "Go to your room." Commissives change the world by committing the speaker to do something. Commissives refer to vows, threats, pledges, guarantees, contracts, promises, covenants, and oaths. Eg: "I promise to uphold the constitution." Declaratives actually have a dual direction of fit. They change the world by representing the world as being so changed. Eg: "This meeting is adjourned," or, "I now pronounce you husband and wife." A declaration can fail if no one recognizes the declaration. For instance, if I declare that a meeting is adjourned, and the meeting just keeps going on because no one recognizes my speech act, then I have failed to change reality. Therefore declarations are dependent on collective recognition if they are to actually change the world. For a more slightly more thorough introduction to speech acts, check out this post.

Let there be light
 
So what type of speech act is the utterance, "Let there be light"? It doesn't have a word-to-world direction of fit so it cannot be an assertive. It does not seem to be expressing an emotion that assumes another fact so it cannot be an expressive. It doesn't commit the speaker to a specific action so it is not a commissive. The only possibilities left are directives and declarations, or it might not be a speech act at all. I will examine each of these remaining possibilities.

Is it a declaration?
 
If the speech act, "let there be light" is a declaration, then God is changing the world by representing it as being so changed. However, when human beings make a declaration they can only change social reality. For example, the declaration, "This note is legal tender for all debts public and private" only applies to the status function of money which is a social fact that requires collective recognition. Human beings cannot change the brute facts of reality through declarations alone. For example, we cannot change reality by saying, "I hereby declare that I am a billionaire." Nor can we change reality by declaring something like, "Let there be good weather." No amount of collective recognition is going to change those brute facts because beliefs alone cannot cause anything to happen without physical action. If the utterance "let there be light" is a declaration, then I cannot make sense it for the reasons just stated. It would presuppose a type of metaphysical idealism which I believe is self-contradictory.

Is it a directive?
 
Directives are supposed to change the world by causing the hearer to perform some action. The utterance "Let there be light" could be a command to the light itself or it could be a command to an unspecified hearer who is being commanded to create the light through the use of some sort of light-generating technology. If light could be commanded, then that would imply that light has some sort of conscious awareness such that it could understand the meaning of the words and volitionally respond to the directive. In Helaman 12: 8-22, it seems as though Nephi is suggesting that matter obeys God's word which seems to imply that it is conscious. Orson Pratt is said to have more explicitly supported this hylozoistic view. However, I think there is enough room for interpretation to question this interpretation of the scriptures. If light does not have conscious awareness, then some unspecified hearer such as an angel turned on the light after being commanded by God.

Maybe it isn't a speech act at all
 
The last possibility is that the phrase, "Let there be light" is not a speech act at all but just a soundwave that triggers a preprogrammed event that causes the lights to turn on. For example, when I ask Siri (on my iPhone) to launch an app, I say something like "launch Angry Birds." But the meaning of my words did not cause Siri to open the app. It was merely the soundwave that caused Siri to open the app. Siri could have been programmed to launch the app when it heard the soundwave, "Do NOT launch Angry Birds". Or it could have been programmed to launch the app when it heard the sound wave, "Boom Shakalaka!" Likewise some light generating technology could have been preprogrammed to respond to God's words. It could have been programmed to respond to a particular vibration of his vocal cords, or some bodily movement, or perhaps the technology could have responded to some form of thought detection.

Conclusion
 
In this post, I have not been as interested in what God caused to be with His words. I am more interested in how God uses words to cause things to be. Understanding how words can change reality can give us insights into the metaphysical nature of reality. Using the example of light, God's words could have been a declaration, a directive, or they could have been a soundwave that triggers a non-volitional technology. In my opinion, it doesn't make sense that the words could be a declaration for the reasons stated above. I am also skeptical of the speech-as-a technology-trigger explanation because I am not aware of any example where God's words are used this way. Intuitively, it does not seem Godlike for God's words to not have any meaning in this way. Therefore, I believe that the utterance, "Let there be light" was a directive. Either matter volitionally obeyed God's words or God was commanding another volitional being (or beings) to cause a series of events to take place in order for earth to have light.

---

Scriptures about the power of God's words: Jacob 4:9 Helaman 12:7-21 1 Ne. 17:46

Philosophy, Science, and Scientism

As a kid, I loved learning about science. One of the best learning experiences I ever had was performing science experiments in 7th and 8th grade. One experiment showed that mice that listened to classical music could remember their way through a maze better than mice who listened to rock music. These experiments gave me great excitement and confidence that I had discovered something about the universe that I could prove to others through observation. Because of that experience, I can see why many people have a great optimism about science and what it can do. 

Some people believe that science can solve all problems and answer every question. Some think that science is simply synonymous with truth. At times, I have even been tempted to use the word "science" in this way. The view that science can provide answers to every question is called scientismA weaker form of scientism is the view that science provides a superior method for gaining knowledge about the universe. But scientism is not the same as science. I will try to show why scientism is mistaken by explaining the relationship between science and philosophy.

Science is an honorific term
The label "science" has become more of an honorific term than a label with a premise meaning. Every discipline wants to call itself a science. Because of this, everyone has an incentive to call what they believe "science" in order to give the impression of unquestionable authority.

Science and philosophy address different types of questions
Philosophy and science are similar because they are both universal in subject matter and they are both tools that can be used to gain knowledge and understanding. Philosophy and science are different in the following way: science deals with questions that can be answered in a systematic way, while philosophy generally deals with questions that we do not yet know how to answer in a systematic way. According to the Philosopher John Searle, "When knowledge becomes systematic, and especially when systematic knowledge becomes secure to the point that we are confident that it is knowledge as opposed to mere opinion, we are more inclined to call it "science" and less inclined to call it "philosophy". One of the goals of philosophy is to think rigorously and clearly about questions in a conceptual way so that they can become scientific questions. Within this context one can see why all scientific questions were once philosophical questions. Philosophy provides the necessary conceptual analysis that makes science possible in the first place. The scientific method itself was conceived by philosophers.

This relationship between science and philosophy shows why science is always appears right and philosophy is always appears wrong. "As soon as we think we really know something, we stop calling it philosophy and start calling it science" says Searle. Anthony Gottlieb, the author of The Dream of Reason, has similarly argued that the philosophical methods of thinking are often co-opted by other disciplines creating the illusion that philosophy is never making progress. It is a mistake to think that science is superior to philosophy. The christening of a new scientific discipline is really just the success of philosophical inquiry. The fact that philosophy  deals with questions for which we do not yet have a systemic way of answering also shows why there can be no such thing as an expert philosopher in the same way that there can be an expert on molecular biology. Philosophers will rarely share the luxury that scientists have of general agreement and conformity on a given subject. However, this does mean that anything goes in philosophy. In many ways, the nature of philosophy demands an even greater degrees of clarity, rigor, and precision in thinking about conceptual issues.

Example of philosophy and neuroscience
Recent developments in neuroscience provide a clear example of the picture I am trying to illustrate about the relationship between philosophy and science. Until recently, neuroscientists said that they could not study consciousness, nor could they get funding even if they wanted to. A few decades ago, John Searle asked a famous neurobiologist at UCSF why neuroscientists didn't get to work on consciousness and he said, "Look, in my discipline it's okay to be interested in consciousness, but get tenure first." 

The standard objection from scientists went something like this: "Science is objective, consciousness is subjective, therefore science can never study consciousness." Philosophers working in the field of the philosophy of mind were able to show that the scientists were making a conceptual error. The subjective/objective distinction has two senses. There is an ontological sense and an epistemic sense of each word. Ontology refers to modes of existence while epistemology refers to ways of knowing. When scientists said, "Science is objective" they were referring to the epistemic sense of the word "objective". When they said "consciousness is subjective" they were referring to the ontological sense of the word "subjective". Philosophers were able to convince neuroscientists to study consciousness by showing that there could be an epistemically objective science about an ontologically subjective domain. Now neuroscience has the funding to search for the illusive NCC (neural correlates of consciousness) in large part thanks to philosophers who clarified the conceptual issues.

Despite some apparent progress in neuroscience, the oxford philosopher Peter Hacker and neuroscientist Maxwell Bennett have co-authored the recent book, "The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience" that shows why neuroscientists are still plagued with many serious conceptual errors that are hindering the progress of knowledge and understanding in neuroscience. This could be one explanation for why progress in neuroscience is moving so slowly.

Scientism implies a false conception of philosophy
It is ironic for those who tend toward scientism to be so quick to dismiss philosophy. Stephen Hawking provides a good example of the irony of scientism. In The Grand Design, he wrote, "...philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly in physics. As a result scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge...” This view is frankly absurd once one understands the relationship between philosophy and science. It assumes that science and philosophy are independent of each other and competing to answer the same questions. Not only does Stephen Hawking fail to see the relationship between science and philosophy, he fails to see how often he engages in philosophy when he says things like "philosophy is dead" or when he advocates philosophical approaches to science such as "model-dependent realism". Adherents of scientism just can't resist making the same sorts of philosophical claims that they argue against. 

Conclusion
Philosophy and science form a symbiotic relationship. Both are aimed at knowledge and understanding, but each addresses different types of questions. Science addresses things like "What causes the tides to rise?" Philosophy addresses questions such as "What is the nature of causation?" "Philosophy" is in large part the name for all the questions that we do not know how to answer in the systematic way that is characteristic of science. Although I love science, the questions that interest me most currently cannot be fully addressed by science. These questions include, "What is the nature of the mind?", "Do human beings have free will?", "What is society and what are its functions?", "Where do human rights come from?", and "How can I be a better person?"

Strong scientism is the belief that all questions can be answered by science. Weak scientism is the belief that science is a categorically superior way of knowing. Strong scientism is self-contradictory since it is circular to try to use science to validate science. Weak scientism is mistaken because it assumes a false conception of the relationship between philosophy and science. Science and philosophy answer different types of questions and they are both important. However, without the conceptual analysis of philosophy, science could not be possible. According to Albert Einstein,

So many people today, and even professional scientists, seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is, in my opinion, the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.

 

Sicko and the liberal narrative

220px-Sickoposter
220px-Sickoposter

My wife had an assignment to watch the Michael Moore documentary Sicko for her writing class. I watched it with her so that we could discuss it and generate writing ideas. Sicko's message is simple: The healthcare system in America is bad. The healthcare systems in Canada, England, and Cuba are good. America should be more like them.

As a liberal, Michael Moore looks at the world through the lens of an oppressed vs. oppressor narrative. Outcomes in an economy are the result of someone's insincere intentions. It is because of this narrative that Moore believes that the American Healthcare system is worse than other countries. Moore finds stories and statistics that fit this narrative. I will argue that Moore misinterprets the facts. I think that facts can be interpretted to show (1) that the healthcare system in America is not as bad as Moore claims, (2) that government-run healthcare systems are not as good as Moore claims, and (3) that the negative aspects of the American healthcare system are caused by the well-meaning government policies that Moore recommends.

Stories
 
The first way that Moore's movie tries to make America's healthcare system look bad is by showing personal stories of Americans who had a negative experiences with the healthcare system. These stories were truly touching. I felt bad for the people who had to make difficult choices when it came to paying for healthcare. One couple had to move in with their grown up children. Another 79-year old man had to go back to work to pay for his medications. Anyone could sympathize with these stories. Concerning the content of the stories, there was nothing to disagree with.

Disagreement does arise however when Moore tries to use these stories as evidence of his oppressor vs. oppressed narrative. According to Moore's narrative, the people in these stories are oppressed by health insurance companies and politicians who support free markets. The only way to help these oppressed people is to provide a government-run healthcare system.

In response, oppression usually involves the use of force and coercion. Free markets by definition are free from coercion. For example, businesses cannot force people to buy their services. They can only attract customers by offering some mutually beneficial product or service. I suppose I am extreme, but I believe that government coercion is only justified when to adjudicate contracts. Second, real oppression is often caused by government-run healthcare. Since government-run healthcare systems must ration care, they often deny care to elderly patients or make patients wait. On stort from Canada, Sally Pipes' mother died prematurely because she was denied a colonoscopy for being too old. A 31-year old man in Sault St. Marie, Canada was told he had to wait five years for an appointment to get a physical. In America, young people are oppressed when state laws in New Jersey and Massachusetts price young people out of the market by forcing insurance companies to cover more than young people reasonably need or want. These laws raise prices by forcing insurance companies to treat every customer roughly the same..

Statistics
Michael Moore uses several statistics to tell his "America...bad, government-run healthcare...good" narrative. For instance, Moore cites the Census Bureau statistic that 50 million Americans do not have health insurance. I want to address this statistic because I heard Obama repeatedly use this statistic when he was promoting the Obamacare. This statistic comes from the U.S. Census Bureau that reported in 2007 that 45.7 million Americans do not have health insurance.  Who are these uninsured people and why don't they have health insurance?  Do these people fit into Moore's oppressed vs. oppressor narrative?

According to the Harvard economist, Greg Mankiw, this statistic is very misleading:

To start with, the 47 million includes about 10 million residents who are not American citizens. Many are illegal immigrants. Even if we had national health insurance, they would probably not be covered.

The number also fails to take full account of Medicaid, the government’s health program for the poor. For instance, it counts millions of the poor who are eligible for Medicaid but have not yet applied. These individuals, who are healthier, on average, than those who are enrolled, could always apply if they ever needed significant medical care. They are uninsured in name only.

The 47 million also includes many who could buy insurance but haven’t. The Census Bureau reports that 18 million of the uninsured have annual household income of more than $50,000, which puts them in the top half of the income distribution. About a quarter of the uninsured have been offered employer-provided insurance but declined coverage.

Of course, millions of Americans have trouble getting health insurance. But they number far less than 47 million, and they make up only a few percent of the population of 300 million.

Any reform should carefully focus on this group to avoid disrupting the vast majority for whom the system is working. We do not nationalize an industry simply because a small percentage of the work force is unemployed. Similarly, we should be wary of sweeping reforms of our health system if they are motivated by the fact that a small percentage of the population is uninsured.

Another statistic that Michael Moore uses to support his narrative is that America's life expectancy is lower than countries that have government-run healthcare systems. While it appears to be true that Americans have a lower life expectancy than several developed countries, it would be an error to use this statistic as evidence of a poor healthcare system. For example, a country could have the best medical system in the world, but its citizens could have a lower life expectancy because they might make poor health choices, or they might have a high homicide rate, or unusually high automobile accident rates.

If you want to accurately compare the healthcare systems of countries, you can't use homicide rates, and automobile accidents, or even obesity statistics as evidence against the healthcare system. Unfortunately, it turns out that America does have unusually high homicide rates, automobile accident rates, and high obesity. According to ABC news correspondent John Stossel, “our homicide rate is 10 times higher than in the U.K., eight times higher than in France, and five times greater than in Canada.” In the book, The Business of Healthcare, American's live longer than people in every other western country once you factor out people who die from car accidents and homicides. As Harvard economist Greg Mankiw has noted, “Maybe these differences have lessons for traffic laws and gun control, but they teach us nothing about our system of health care.” On his blog Greg Mankiw also suggests, "Given how overweight we Americans are compared with citizens of other countries, it is amazing that we live as long as we do. If we further standardized life expectancy by body-mass index, the U.S. lead in health outcomes would likely grow even larger." Again, the American healthcare system is not as bad as Moore makes it seem in his Documentary.

Conclusion
Moore seems to believe that economic outcomes are caused by some oppressive agent and that government can make things better by stopping oppressive forces within an economy. It is very natural and intuitive to explain various phenomena by appealing to some purposeful activity. Cavemen made the error of believing that some volitional spirit caused the movement of leaves fluttering in the wind. I think that creationists likewise make the mistake of assuming that the biological order that we observe must come from a purposeful being. According to evolutionary psychology, these intuitions may have provided some evolutionary advantage by making organisms more alert when they heard noises in the bushes at night. I believe that the Sicko is in error partly because it depends somewhat on these intuitions.

So what is the right way of interpreting stories and statistics regarding economic issues such as healthcare? Instead of assuming that outcomes in an economy are the result of volitional activity, one could view outcomes as the result of non-volitional market forces. These non-random forces transmit information in the form of prices which provide feedback to businesses and consumers who change their behavior according to changing circumstances. This way of looking at the world is less intuitive and more difficult to understand than the oppressed vs. oppressor narrative. The purpose of this paragraph was not to justify this way of thinking, but simply to provide a contrasting narrative by which to interpret stories and statistics.

Why I believe in God

In this post I want to give reasons for believing in God. This post is prompted by comments from my friend Bennion in a previous post. I will first provide reasons for believing in God that I do not accept. Then I will give some reasons why I do believe in God.

Reasons for believing in God that I do not accept
 
1. I do not believe in God as a matter of some scientific hypothesis. Some atheists ask for evidence for the "God Hypothesis". I don't like that phrase because it implies that the believer is supposed to make some scientific claim about why there is a God. I don't believe that one comes to know God by looking around and finding gaps in our scientific knowledge, and then invoking God as an explanation for those gaps. That is not the right way to think about reasons for believing in God. I think the right way to think about knowing God is to think about how one knows that they love their spouse. I don't have a "Wife Hypothesis" to explain why I experience my wife's existence.

2. I do not believe in intelligent design arguments for the existence of God. Although I believe that there is probably some intelligent influence in the process of evolution, I do not think that influence can be proven scientifically. There are some well thought out philosophical arguments that involve intelligent design, and I do not think they are all as bad as naturalists claim they are. However, I still do not find them convincing enough to count them as evidence for believing in God.

3. I do not believe in any of the traditional theistic philosophical arguments for God. For instance, I do not believe in the ontological argument or any cosmological argument for the existence of God. Concerning these arguments, one famous LDS philosopher, Truman Madsen, once said,

Many of you will encounter, if you haven't, traditional rational arguments for the existence of God. They are all of them afflicted with fallacies. They presuppose in the premises what they claim to demonstrate in the conclusion. And, further, they presuppose in their premises something about the very nature of God.

4. I do not believe that belief without evidence is an appropriate reason for believing in God. Atheists often claim that faith is just belief without evidence, or it is just a way to protect a weak hypothesis. I do not accept these mischaracterizations of faith. Faith is belief with evidence. As Orson Pratt, an early apostle of the LDS church said,

"Faith or belief is the result of evidence presented to the mind. Without evidence, the mind cannot have faith in anything...As evidence precedes faith, the latter should be weak or strong in proportion to the weakness or strength of the evidence … The weakness or strength of faith will, therefore, in all cases, be in proportion to the weakness or strength of the impressions, produced upon the mind by evidence."

Reasons for believing in God that I accept
 
I believe that there are several reasons for believing in God. I could tell many personal stories, but I will just give one story or example per reason.

1. I believe in God because of personal experiences There are several simple experiences that give me reason to believe that there is loving Heavenly Father looking out for me. One time my mother and I were driving home from Lake Tahoe and our van was stuck in the mud. I don't know exactly where we were, but I remember there were a lot of trees around. We were far away from help at a time when people did not have cell phones. We tried for a long time to get out of the mud by driving back and forth. Finally, we prayed for help, tried again, and immediately got out of the mud and travelled home safely.

2. I believe in God based on answers to prayer When I was around 18, I read the book of Mormon and prayed to know if it was true. I had an overwhelming powerful experience that confirmed to me that it was a true. I have had similar experiences, but that time it was particularly powerful and it has stayed with me throughout my life.

3. I believe in God because of revelation.There have been times in my life when I have received powerful insights similar to my experience when I prayed about the book of Mormon. What was unique about these experiences is that I wasn't praying or asking for the insights that I received. Due to the personal nature of some of these experiences (there are at least 2 that I remember clearly), I would rather not share the specific stories that relate to this reason. I will simply convey that I arrived at some conclusions about secular issues through spiritual means. Only after those experiences did I learn of secular evidence for those conclusions.

4. I believe in the testimony of witnesses I believe Joseph Smith's testimony that he did in fact see God and Jesus Christ. In Joseph's own words, 

I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me...I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it."I believe in the testimony of the living apostles and prophets that have a special witness of the living Christ.

5. I believe that the Book of Mormon provides evidence for Joseph Smith's story.The Book of Mormon is an incredible book. It is evidence that anyone can read and examine. It is available for anyone to scrutinize and many have tried. If one is sincere and open to truth, I believe they will be truly moved by its contents. I think that it is impossible that Joseph Smith could have made it all up.

6. Many other reasonsThere are dozens of other reasons for my belief in God including intuition, pragmatic considerations, logical consistency, and other personal experiences.

Concluding remarks
 
In most cases, people cannot choose their convictions. For example, if I offered to give you $1000 if you could believe that you were 20 feet tall, you would not be able to do it. When I examine my beliefs and convictions, I find that I do believe in God. The fact that we do not choose our convictions does not mean we can never change our beliefs over time. Nor does certainty imply incorrigibility. For example, I changed my mind about the theory of evolution after sincerely considering the evidence. I have documented that experience here.

In writing these reasons for believing in God, I know that I am opening myself up to scrutiny. I often consider the possibility that God does not exist and I am open to the possibility that I could be mistaken about my beliefs. Many skeptics will think that many of these arguments are easy targets and perhaps not even worth addressing. Since most of the books I read are written by atheists (that is just the nature of philosophy), I encounter many arguments against my belief in God. I consider those arguments carefully and sincerely. After examining and scrutinizing those arguments, I find intellectually and spiritually satisfying responses and I find that I still believe in a loving, personal Heavenly Father and the truthfulness of His gospel.

I want to end this post by recommending reading the testimony of one of my philosophy professors at BYU. You can find a link to her testimony here.

Theism, Atheism, and Mormonism

Mindy
Mindy

In the 1990s cartoon show Animaniacs, there was a carefree toddler character named Mindy. She would often annoy other characters by repeatedly asking "Why?" until the characters became flustered and gave up trying to answer. She was annoying because she wasn't asking "why?" to gain understanding, but because she enjoyed pushing people's buttons. Unlike Mindy, genuinely curious people ask "why?" to arrive at an explanation. To explain something is to show why certain effects follow from certain causes. If we ask why enough, we will eventually arrive at an explanation that does not have any explanation itself. It seems all explanations bottom out in some cause that itself did not have a cause. Some have referred to this final explanation as the uncaused causer. "Who or what is the uncaused causer?" is the same question as "Where do all explanations end?" Atheism gives one answer, Traditional theism gives another. Mormonism seems to give an answer that is a hybrid of both atheism and traditional theism.

Volitional vs. Non-volitional explanations
There are two ways to answer the question, "Where do explanations end?" Traditional theists such as Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe that all explanations end in a volitional explanation. I am using the word "volition" to refer to that which is caused by some being or agent.

Atheists, on the other hand, believe in a non-volitional explanation. Explanations end in something like the laws of physics, or nature in general, (or even just gravity according to Stephen Hawking). Some atheists say that they simply don't know how to explain existence in general, but still hold that no volitional being could be the uncaused cause of the universe.

For example, if we ask the question "why is the sky blue?". We will come to some explanation that describes the behavior of lightwaves when they interact with particles in the atmosphere. After we come to that explanation we can ask, "Why do lightwaves behave that way?" Describing the laws of quantum electrodynamics might constitute an explanation for that question, but then we could just ask, "why are the laws of quantum electrodynamics like that?" An atheist will answer that nature is just that way and that is where explanations end. A traditional theist would answer that God created the laws that way and that is where explanations end.

Where do explanations end for Mormon theology?
According to Mormon theology, some explanations end in non-volitional causes and some explanations end in volitional causes. How can this be? Mormon theology agrees with both Aristotle and Plato who argued that the world always existed and that God organized the world out of pre-existing unorganized matter. That pre-existing matter was not created out of nothing. It has no cause. It has always existed and therefore has no explanation. On this point, Mormon theology agrees with the belief of most atheists.

The first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, taught that God did not and in fact could not create the universe:

God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning and can have no end. (King Follett Discourse)

According to the LDS scholar Sterling McMurrin who wrote Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion:

“It is a basic article of Mormon theology that God is related to a world environment for the being of which he is not the ultimate ground and by which he therefore is in some sense conditioned. This means that God is a being among beings rather than being as such or the ground of being, and that he is therefore finite rather than absolute.” (Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion)

Orson Pratt who was an early Mormon church leader wrote:

“God [in LDS thought] is described in non-absolutistic terms as a being who is conditioned by and related to the world of which he is a part and which, because it is not ultimately his creation, is not absolutely under his dominion … God’s environment is the physical universe, the minds and selves which exist but are not identified with him, the principles under which reality is structured, and perhaps even the value absolutes which govern the divine will,”

“There are some things that cannot be performed, although we had the power of working great and mighty miracles; indeed, the great God Himself who has power to control the heavens over our heads, and the earth upon which we stand has NOT the power to do that which would be naturally impossible, or in opposition to the great, necessary, and fundamental truths of nature, which are eternally unalterable, and cannot be otherwise than they are,” (JD 3:300).

There are many other quotes that confirm the Mormon belief that these explanations do not end in God, but instead end in the elements and principles of nature. No volitional being did or could have created them.

However, according to most accounts of Mormon theology, volitional beings (spirits or intelligences) also were not created. All volitional beings are coeternal with the elements that have always existed. According to Joseph Smith:

I might with boldness proclaim from the house-tops that God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself. Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it. All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement. (King Follett Discourse)

If volitional beings are also uncreated, then their actions cannot themselves be reduced to non-volitional causes. Volition is simply part of uncreated nature. Therefore, some explanations end in the choices of volitional beings. For example, when we ask why a painting of the sky is blue, it is not satisfactory to appeal to the laws of  quantum electrodynamics. Any explanation for why a painting is blue must account for the intentions of the painter who organized the paints on the canvas. The painting is blue because of the laws of nature AND because of the intentions of the painter. In Mormon theology, the answer to the question "where did matter come from?" ends in a non-volitional explanation. And, the answer to the question "why was matter organized in a certain way" can end in a volitional explanation. Concerning the latter question, God organized the pre-existing matter that we experience on this earth to fulfill His eternal purposes. On this point, Mormon theology sides more with theism than atheism.

Conclusion
Traditional theists believe that all explanations end with a volitional being such as God. Atheists believe that all explanations end in non-volitional causes. Mormon theology is a hybrid belief system that asserts that some explanations end in God and some do not. Because of these beliefs, members of the Mormon church are in a good position to resolve many contentions between atheism and traditional theism.

Stephen Hawking, Gravity, and God

When people claim there is a conflict between science and religion, they are often referring to some alleged conflict between the theory of evolution and a belief in a designer God. Sometimes an argument is put forward that is supposed to show a conflict between the laws of physics and a belief in God. Stephen Hawking puts forth such an argument in his 2010 book The Grand Design. His arguments makes several philosophical mistakes that ought be addressed.

Part 1: Hawking, Gravity, and God
In The Grand Design Stephen Hawking along with his co-author Leonard Mlodinow put forth a controversial candidate for a theory of everything called M-theory. The bulk of the book is spent explaining this theory which is really just a collection of various theories that try to explain the universe. In the book, Hawking and Mlodinow conclude “because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing” (pg 180). Anyone with a little training in philosophy can immediately identify the self-contradictory nature of this claim. If we say that X creates Y, then we are already presupposing the existence of X in order to account for the existence of Y. In the first part of the above quote, Hawkings is presupposing the existence of gravity (X) to explain the existence of the universe (Y). Therefore the universe is not created from nothing, it is created from gravity.

Hawking then piles another contradiction on top of his first. In the second part of the above quote, he asserts that, "the universe can and will create itself from nothing." If we say that X creates X we already pressupose the existence of X in order to account for the existence of X. This also is logically incoherent. If any scientific theory makes such as obvious error, then that theory ought to be revised or abandoned. 

Throughout his book, Hawking suggests that there is no God because the laws of physics explain the existence of the universe. He writes, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” (pg 180). But how then does Hawking explain the existence of his metaphorical "blue touch paper" that set the universe going? How does Hawking explain the existence of gravity in the first place? He doesn't! He simply presupposes that it exists. Hawking does not know how to explain gravity. To him that is simply where explanations come to an end.

Then why is he so confident in suggesting that God does not exist? Perhaps he has this argument in mind:

Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is a God who chose to create the universe that way. It is reasonable to ask who or what created the universe, but if the answer is God, then the question has merely been deflected to that of who created God. (pg 172)

This is the same argument that Richard Dawkins put forward in The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. I offered a rebuttal to that argument in my previous post. Hawking and Dawkins seem to suggest that using God as an explanation for the universe is somehow invalid because it cannot explain the existence of God himself. But if that is true then Hawking's argument is also invalid. One can equally use Hawking's argument against him. Below is Hawking's same quote but I replaced the word God with Gravity:

Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is Gravity which created the universe that way. It is reasonable to ask who or what created the universe, but if the answer is Gravity, then the question has merely been deflected to that of who or what created Gravity.

Believing that all explanations end in gravity is not logically incoherent nor is it intellectually unacceptable. But, believing that all explanations end in God is likewise NOT logically incoherent nor intellectual unacceptable. Certain beliefs about gravity (like the one mentioned above) or certain beliefs about God may be shown to be fallacious, but the general belief that all explanations end somewhere is not. What is intellectually unacceptable is pretending that one's scientific conclusions show that God does not exist.

Part 2: Hawking, Scientists, and Philosophy
 
Hawking's logical errors can be explained by his ignorance of philosophy. In the beginning of The Grand Design Hawking lays out some questions about reality including the question, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Referring to these questions, Hawking writes, “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly in physics. As a result scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” (pg 5)

The irony of this statement is not only that Hawking uses philosophical arguments throughout his whole book, but that the statement "philosophy is dead" is itself a philosophical proposition. Hawking cannot be making a scientific claim here. He is making a metaphysical claim about science. Therefore even when Hawking is trying to dismiss philosophy, he is contradicting himself. I agree with the philosopher Daniel Dennett who said, "There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” (Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea)

Scientists like Dawkins and Hawking hurt scientific progress when they mingle their own philosophical assumptions with science. Their philosophical pronouncements cause confusion because it gives lay people the false impression that they must choose between God or science when the clash really exists between the scientist's philosophical assumptions and God.

 

Rebutting an atheist argument against theism

The purpose of this post is to give a rebuttal to one atheist argument against theism. This argument was suggested by Richard Dawkins in the book The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design and in the book The God Delusion. The argument was also repeated by my friend Bennion in the comments of my previous post. The argument goes something like this: Any attempt to explain the astonishing variety of life by a hypothesis involving design is misguided because any being able to create life would itself have to be just as complex. In other words, one cannot explain life by invoking a designer or creator, because that does not explain the life of the creator. In The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins puts it this way:

Organized complexity is the thing that we are having difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating machine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity…. But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself… To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer.

Bennion echoed a similar point:

If you posit, for example, that life was created by God, that doesn’t solve the problem at all because you haven’t explained how God came to exist, and that problem is far bigger than how life came to exist, because God is so much more complicated than a simple chain of self-replicating chemicals.

I will offer rebuttals for this argument from the perspectives of traditional Christianity and LDS theology (Mormonism).

Point 1
Dawkins' argument makes the mistake of trying to discredit one explanation for a particular manifestation of life by saying that it doesn't give an ultimate explanation of life in general. Alvin Plantinga illustrates this point with the following thought experiment.

Suppose we land on an alien planet orbiting a distant star and discover some machine-like objects that look and work just like a 1941 Allis Chalmers tractor; our leader says “there must be intelligent beings on this planet—look at those tractors.” A sophomore philosophy student on the expedition objects: “Hey, hold on a minute! You have explained nothing at all! Any intelligent life that designed those tractors would have to be at least as complex as they are!” No doubt we’d tell him a little learning is a dangerous thing and advise him to take the next rocket ship home and enroll in another philosophy course or two.

The point is that the leader was not trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity. He was only trying to explain one particular manifestation of it—the tractors. In this context it is perfectly reasonable to explain one manifestation of organized complexity with another. Similarly theists are not trying to give an ultimate explanation for all organized complexity (including God) when they invoke God as an explanation for organized complexity.

Point 2
Well, what about that ultimate explanation? Wouldn't Dawkins' argument apply to a theist's ultimate explanation of God? What is the explanation for God?

There are certain questions that are simply incoherent to ask. For instance the question, "What is the proof for rationality?" This question is incoherent because any argument for rationality must already presupposes rationality. One cannot say that science proves that rationality is valid because science already uses rationality to assimilate evidence and come to conclusions. Also, the question, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" is incoherent because all explanations already presuppose that something exists. All explanations end in existence. There just can't be any explanation for it. It just is.

Similarly, the question "What explains an eternal being?" is an incoherent question. If God exists then there couldn't be any ultimate explanation for God because God is an eternal being. Atheists likewise don't have any explanation for elementary particles or the laws of nature. They must simply take it for granted that all explanations eventually bottom out in brute facts. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics.

Point 3
Dawkins' argument is circular because it assumes what it is trying to prove. Dawkins simply starts with the assumption that nature is the way he thinks it is, then tries to show that nature is the way he thinks it is. He assumes that nature is such that any being that exists would have to be created according to the physical laws as he sees them. Then he uses that assumption to show that any explanation for life cannot invoke God since God would have had to be created according to the physical laws as Dawkins sees them.

Dawkins' argument does not apply to theists because he arbitrarily assumes that God is created. Therefore, theists do not believe in the God that Dawkins is calling into question. His argument does not apply.

Conclusion
In this blog post, I have attempted to rebut one of Dawkins' primary arguments against God. I have argued that it confuses an explanation for a particular manifestation for life with an explanation for an ultimate explanation of all life (including God). I argued that Dawkins' argument is trying to address a question that is not coherent. And I have argued that Dawkins' argument is circular.

Richard Dawkins' laments the fact that roughly 40% of Americans do not believe in evolution. I share this concern since it seems to me that the science behind evolution is quite solid and has been useful making medical advances and understanding the history of our beautiful planet. When I personally study about evolution and the variety of life, I feel a sense of awe at the beauty and wonder of nature. Sometimes, I feel closer to God when I study the theory of evolution. So I am concerned that many American's are missing out on this understanding and experience.

Dawkins is a wonderful biologist. I have read his book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution several times. I own the audiobook and the hardcover. I highly recommend it. Dawkins' descriptions of orchids, bats, moths, and fish are just a delight to read.

While Dawkins is a very good biologist, he is a poor philosopher. Dawkins pretends that his arguments are scientific when they are really philosophical. The subtitle of Dawkins book, The Blind Watchmaker says that the purpose of his book is to show how evolution reveals a universe without design. Dawkins inevitably fails because the theory of evolution has nothing to say about the existence of God or a designer.

I believe that one of the reasons why many people don't believe in evolution is that they are constantly told by the "experts" like Dawkins that evolution shows that God doesn't exist. I think these pronouncements by the atheists like Dawkins are harmful for 3 reasons. (1) They confuse philosophy and science, (2) they cause many well-meaning religious people to close off to scientific claims about evolution, and (3) they cause many well-meaning people to close off to atheists in general—many of whom are quite reasonable and have important things to say. If more theists understood that evolution does not threaten their faith, but can possibly enhance their faith, then more people would embrace the theory of evolution.

Atheism and Evolution

I recently wrote about whether or not the theory of evolution was compatible with Christianity. I argued rather briefly that the theory of evolution is compatible with Christianity. In this post I will try to address the question: Could the theory of evolution be incompatible with atheism?

The philosopher Alvin Plantinga has a very interesting response to this question. He does not argue that evolution is incompatible with every form of atheism. But, he does argue that the theory of evolution is incompatible with certain forms of naturalism commonly assumed by many atheists. I am still not sure if I am fully convinced, but It is a very interesting argument and worth examining. Before one can understand this argument they need a few conceptual tools.

Conditional Probability
The first tool is the idea of conditional probability. Conditional probability is the probability of something happening, given something else. For instance, the probability that a person named Brigham is a Mormon given that he lives in Utah is high. On the other hand, the probability that a person named Mohammed is a Mormon given that he lives in Kuwait is low.

Defeaters for belief
The second conceptual tool is the idea of a defeater. A defeater is a reason for not believing something else. So for example, if I see a spider on the wall of my grandma's house, then I will form the belief that there is a spider on the wall. But if my grandma then says that it is just a halloween decoration, then I have a defeater for my belief that there is a spider on the wall.

There can also be defeaters for other defeaters—defeater defeaters. So for example, if I believed that my grandma might be a bit senile and that it is June, then I have a defeater for the belief that the spider is a halloween decoration. This process could continue with defeater defeater defeaters and so forth.

Definition of naturalism
Naturalism is the view that that there is no God, nor is there anything like God. A person can be an atheist without being a full blown naturalist. Naturalism implies materialism. According to a materialistic view of the human mind, both behavior and beliefs are caused by neural firings in the brain. A materialist believes that consciousness is really just the neuronal firings of the brain.

So with these conceptual tools, one can understand Plantinga's argument.

Premise 1
Beliefs are part of our cognitive faculties along with memory, perception, and rationality. Beliefs are true if they correspond to reality. Beliefs are reliable when they are true most of the time. Perhaps we can say that beliefs have to be true at least 3/4ths of the time to be considered reliable. Now we can use the conditional probability tool. What is the probability that our beliefs would be reliable given evolution and naturalism?

The theory of evolution claims that all species descended from a common ancestor through a processes of descent with modification via natural selection. Natural selection is the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring.

According to a naturalistic conception of evolution, the human brain would have evolved to produce certain survival-enhancing behaviors. If evolution and naturalism were true, then it doesn't matter if beliefs are true or false. All that matters is the behavior. If that is true, then the probability that our beliefs are reliable is at best 50/50. Beliefs could be true, they could be false, it really wouldn't matter given naturalism and evolution. Therefore, the probability that our beliefs are reliable given evolution and naturalism is low.

A year before his death, Charles Darwin expressed this same concern. He wrote:

“With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

A rather influential atheist philosopher Patricia Churchland has echoed a similar point:

Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing. The principle chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive…. . Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism’s way of life and enhances the organism’s chances of survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.

In summary, the first premise of Plantinga's argument is that the probability of our beliefs being reliable given evolution and naturalism is low. Plantinga summarizes this premise as such: P(R | N&E) is low where "P()" is probability, "R" is the proposition that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and "N&E" refers naturalism and evolution.

 
The-probability-of-the-reliability-of-our-beliefs
 

Premise 2
If one believes premise 1 and she is a naturalist, then she has a defeater for the belief that her beliefs are reliable. Remember that a defeater is a reason not to believe something. That means that a naturalist who also believes in evolution has a reason for believing that her cognitive faculties are not reliable.

Premise 3
If one has a defeater for the belief that beliefs are reliable, then she also has a defeater for any other belief she thinks she has including naturalism and evolution itself. According to Alvin Plantinga:

If you have a defeater for R, you will also have a defeater for any belief you take to be produced by your cognitive faculties, any belief that is a deliverance of your cognitive faculties. But all of your beliefs, as I’m sure you have discovered, are produced by your cognitive faculties. Therefore you have a defeater for any belief you have.

Premise 4
The proposition that naturalism and evolution are both true is a self-defeating proposition. Why? because it creates its own reason not to believe in naturalism and evolution.

Conclusion
Naturalism and evolution cannot be believed at the same time. In other words, if you believe in evolution, then you cannot rationally accept naturalism and vice versa.

Summary
Plantinga's argument does not try to argue that naturalism is false, nor does it try to argue that evolution is false. It simply shows that one cannot rationally believe the theory of evolution and believe in naturalism at the same time. Alvin Plantinga summarizes his whole argument as follows:

(1) P(R | N&E) is low. (2) Anyone who accepts (believes) N&E and sees that P(R/ N&E) is low has a defeater for R. (3) Anyone who has a defeater for R has a defeater for any other belief she thinks she has, including N&E itself. (4) If one who accepts N&E thereby acquires a defeater for N&E, N&E is self-defeating and can’t rationally be accepted. Conclusion: N&E can’t rationally be accepted.

Making the argument even stronger
Earlier in the post I mentioned the idea of a defeater defeater. Could there ever be an argument that defeats the defeater for the belief that our cognitive faculties are reliable? If we can't believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable given evolution and naturalism, then there could never be any other belief that could act as a defeater defeater. That means that a belief in evolution and naturalism creates an undefeated defeater for the belief that our cognitive faculties are reliable.

Concluding remarks
Some people claim that there is a conflict between science and religion. The alleged conflict between science and religion focuses on a superficial conflict between religion and evolution. In my last post on evolution I argued that there is no serious conflict between evolution and religion (at least regarding Christianity). However, according to Alvin Plantinga there is deep conflict between evolution and naturalism. Since biological evolution is a respectable field of science, the conflict really lies between science and naturalism.

If you find this interesting, I highly recommend the book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalismby Alvin Plantinga.

Thoughts on Les Miserables

Last night I went to see Les Miserables. I really liked it. It was very powerful. I have seen Les Miserables on Broadway in New York and at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. I liked the movie the most. I just wanted to share some thoughts about the film and the themes that stood out to me the most about the story.

Conflicting desires/motives.
Having conflicting desires is part of the human experience. We have all felt the inner struggle of having to choose between difficult options. Our decisions in those moments define who we are. The song "Who Am I?" sung by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) amazingly expresses this aspect of the human experience. Valjean had to choose between being condemned by man (to physical prison) or be damned by God (to a spiritual prison). If he choose to be condemned by man, he would free an innocent person (who was mistakenly thought to be Jean Valjean), but he might in turn condemn all the factory workers who relied on him for work. If he choose to let the innocent man suffer in his place, then he would be damned of God, but he would be free from the condemnation of man's punishment. As he is struggling with this choice, he reminds himself of the promise He made to God that he would serve God. Valjean reminds himself that he is the type of man who must keep his promise. His promise gave him a reason to act that was independent of his immediate desires. It is amazing to me how much Victor Hugo and the writers of the music understand human nature.

Dealing with reality
Les Miserables shows how people deal with reality in different ways. The young Cosette tried to evade the reality of her situation by escaping into her imagination (Castle in the clouds). Because she is so young, I think the audience would encourage her escape into her imagination as a means of dealing with reality. I think that we encourage this imagination about Santa Claus for similar reasons (not to escape reality, but to enhance it). I contrast this with Eponine who knows that Marius doesn't love her (romantically), but she uses her imagination to escape reality by pretending that Marius loves her (On My Own). This contrast raises an interesting question: Why is it ok for children to use their imagination in this way, but not so ok for adults to use their imagination in this way?

Some people deal with reality by descending into the basest of wants and desires. The Thenardiers were corrupt and they tried to corrupt anything else that was pure. This is somewhat humorously and disgustingly depicted in the movie when Monsieur Thenardier takes a Santa Claus—a symbol of peace and purity—from the street and corrupts him by exposing him to iniquity. The Thenardiers are the opposite of Jean Valjean. While Jean Valjean would act based on a desire-independent reasons such as his promise to God, the Thenardiers would only act on desire-dependent reasons. On a side note, I thought that Sasha Baron Cohen (who also played as Borat and Ali G) and Helena Bonham Carter were cast perfectly as the Thenadiers.

Sometimes people feel they can't deal with reality when reality doesn't conform to their strict vision of it. The psychological anguish that Javere experienced when Jean Valjean showed him that his vision of the world was false caused Javere to kill himself. Javere preferred his false vision of the world to the actual world. I have encountered people who share this preference. I once asked a Ron Paul supporter what he would choose if he had to choose between living a world that will always have some government coercion or dying. Without hesitation he replied that he would prefer death.

Anne Hathaway
I was so moved by Anne Hathaway's performance. It was as if every muscles of her face and every breath was choreographed perfectly in the song (Dreamed a Dream). I was just in awe at her pure talent and raw performance. She should win Best Supporting Actress.

Revolutionaries look for injustices
Injustice lights the fire of revolution. Sometimes revolutionaries are waiting for an injustice to happen. The revolutionaries have reasons for asking for trouble. One reason to do this is to cause the authorities to commit an injustice so that they can use that injustice to cause people to stop collectively acknowledging the authority of those in power. The death of an innocent woman in the mob and the death of Gavrosh (the young boy) and Eponine stirred the revolutionaries to keep fighting for their cause.

Emotion
The performance in the movie was very emotional. I am not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. In one sense, I think that good art should not force emotion. It should be an offering to engage with the art. It should allow the freedom to choose our own emotions and empower us to use our emotions to participate with the art. But in another sense I like to feel those emotions and I want to those emotions to be impressed upon me. I seek after those emotion-provoking things for the same reasons that I choose to ride on rollercoasters. Perhaps one reason that I like those emotions to be impressed upon me is because it reflects back on my emotional faculties. Participating in those emotions confirms to ourselves that we are human. It is like we are a thermometer being exposed to extreme ranges of temperature and knowing that we work correctly. So I liked that the movie was emotional but I am also suspicious of whether this is a good thing. Interested to hear other's thoughts on this.

 

Evolution and Christianity

Is Christianity incompatible with the theory of evolution?

Some people claim that the two are incompatible. Richard Dawkins—a prominent atheist—said that he lost his faith in God when he learned the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution is not always defined in precisely the same way and the theory contains several different theses. I will attempt to explain the different theses of evolution, and I will argue that there is no inherent conflict between Christianity and evolution. There are 4 general theses put forward by the theory of evolution. They are:

  1. The ancient earth thesis
  2. The descent with modification thesis
  3. The common ancestor thesis
  4. The theory of natural selection (aka Darwinism)

If any of these theses are incompatible with Christianity then evolution is not compatible with Christianity. Each thesis must be examined separately, but first I have to define what I mean by Christianity.

Christianity can refer to a wide variety of beliefs and organizations such as the Catholic church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Lutheran Church, and the Southern Baptist Convention. Adherents of these organizations share a common belief that there in a God, that Jesus Christ is divine, and that God played some role in our creation. C.S Lewis refers to Mere Christianity which is what all Christian faiths have in common. Mere Christianity could perhaps be thought of asthe intersection of the Christian creeds such as the Nicene Creed, the apostles creed, the Heidelberg Catechism etc.

age-of-the-earth

1. The ancient earth thesis

The first thesis of evolution is that the earth is very, very old. There are several different clocks that scientists can look at to measure the age of the earth. There are various kinds of radioactive decay clocks (such as Potassium argon, Carbon 14, and dozens more), tree ring clocks (which measures widths and thicknesses of tree rings), and molecular clocks (which measure the time when species diverged). When all of these clocks are calibrated to each other, each acts as a stopwatch that measures time from some starting point such as the solidification of molten rock, the death of an animal, the formation of tree rings, or the separation of one species into two. These several clocks provide ample evidence that the age of earth is about 4.6 billion years old. By the mouth of two or more clocks shall the age of the earth be established.

Is this thesis of evolution incompatible with Christianity? Since the Christian creeds have nothing to say about the age of the earth, there is no conflict between Christianity as defined and this thesis of the theory of evolution. There are some individual sects within Christianity that teach that the earth was created within the past 10,000 year. They teach this because the book of Genesis says that God created the earth in 6 days. This literal interpretation is unnecessary since other parts of the bible use the word day figuratively. (See Genesis 2:17 and Gen 5:5) Christians don't loose anything essential to their faith by abandoning a fundamentalist belief in a 'young' earth.

descent-with-modification

2. The descent with modification thesis

Parents pass on traits to their children. This process is called heredity. The traits of an organism are expressions of genes. Genes in offspring tend to vary slightly from the genes of the parent. Given enough generations, the descendants of a given species may have very different traits from its ancestors. For example, all dogs from the chihuahua to the great dane are descendants of wolves. We know this through genetic evidence as well as the records of domesticating and breeding dogs. This leads to thesis 3.

common-ancestor

3. The common ancestor thesis

Brothers and sisters look alike. People of the same race have the same skin color. Looking alike and sharing the same skin color are evidence for biological relationships. Similarly, the bone structures of different species provides evidence of relationships between species. This evidence suggests that different species share common ancestors. There is a mountain of evidence that every living thing is descended from a common ancestor. Perhaps the most powerful evidence is genetic evidence. Genetic evidence is accepted as sufficient evidence to decide court cases. It can also be used to show the family relationships between different species. Given the scientific evidence, it is clear that every organism is a cousin to each other. Not only are we cousins with chimpanzees, but we are cousins with dung beetles and turnips. Here is an awesome phylogenic tree of life on earth.

Are theses 2 and 3 incompatible with Christianity? Although Christianity teaches that God created us, there doesn't seem to be anything in the major creeds that suggests how God created us. These two theses of evolution and the belief that God created us can be reconciled by believing that God created us through a process of descent with modification from a common ancestor.

4. The theory of natural selection

The theory of natural selection or “Darwinism” is a theory that tries to demonstrate one way of how descent with modification happens. The theory goes something like this: 

  1. When an organism has offspring, most of the traits of the parent are passed on to the children.
  2. Traits vary within a given population of organisms. Some are tall, short, fast, slow etc.
  3. Some traits give organisms a reproductive advantage over other organisms. E.g. Organisms that can avoid danger better than their peers will likely have more offspring compared to their peers.
  4. Traits that enhance reproductive advantage are passed on to offspring more often than less effective traits.
natural-selection
640px-Finding_nemo_dory_marlin_angler_fish

For example, Angler fish are deep sea fish that have nasty sharp teeth and a glowing lure attached to their head. This glowing lure is the last thing that many fish see before being gobbled up by the Angler fish. In a given population of Angler fish, some will have brighter lures than others which are better at attracting hungry fish. The Angler fish with brighter lures might tend to survive more often than Angler fish with dimmer lures. The Angler fish with brighter lures will be “naturally selected” to pass on their genetic traits to their children causing modification of the species over time. On an interesting side note, if the lure gets too bright, it could possibly attract larger fish that would just eat the whole Angler fish. Natural Selection could work in the other direction to make the lure a bit dimmer until some economic equilibrium is reached between attracting smaller fish and avoiding larger fish.

There are plenty of examples of natural selection. Many examples have even been observed such as Lenski’s experiments with e. coli.

Is theses 4 incompatible with Christianity? Natural selection doesn’t appear to conflict with Christianity either. I think there are several possible explanations that could bring the 2 beliefs into harmony. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. God could have started the process and let natural selection run its course knowing that man would eventually evolve in the image of God.
  2. The whole process started and ended without God’s interference and then God chose an Adam and Eve out of the existing homosapiens and taught them His Gospel—perhaps gave them the ability to understand it as well. 
  3. God could have directly influenced natural selection. If man can effect natural selection intentionally by altering genes or unintentionally by building wind turbines that kill thousands of birds, then surely God could have effected natural selection in many different ways. Current scientific understanding shows that natural selection is the primary means of evolution, but it doesn’t rule it out as the only means.
  4. God could have created Adam and Eve and then Adam and Eve’s children could have mixed with other homosapiens that did evolve from a common ancestor, thus giving us the genetic relationship with other species.

Some of these explanations will be more or less palatable to a Christian based on how literally they tend to translate the Bible. There will certainly be other explanations that are perhaps better or more nuanced; the limits of my own creativity leads me to think that it is something like one of the explanations mentioned above.

 

Conclusion

I used to think that evolution and Christianity were incompatible. I have briefly documented how my own beliefs evolved here. Christians don’t claim to know exactly how God created us and the “how” of creation is not essential to Mere Christianity. Some might object that the definition of Christianity that I have used is too broad. To answer the question I posed at the beginning, the definition needs to be broad in order to avoid the fallacy of concluding that the theory of evolution is incompatible with all of Christianity because it may be incompatible with some individual sects within Christianity.

The superficial contradictition between Christianity and evolution lies not in the theory of evolution itself but in the philosophical baggage that people attach to evolution or the philosophical baggage that some attach to Christianity. Once one discerns between the actual beliefs and the philosophical add-ons, the conflict between Christianity and evolution dissolves.

Mathematics and Reality

There are 2 main views about the relationship between mathematics and reality. One view states that we can know mathematical truths without any prior experience from reality. The other view states that we cannot know mathematical truths unless we have prior experience with reality. I will argue in favor of the second view. Proponents of the first view might advance an argument like this: “What “prior experience” goes into my knowledge that every natural number is the sum of four squares or the knowledge that every natural number can be uniquely factored into primes?”

Here is my response:

Math is ultimately dependent on direct experience with reality because (1) math is dependent on numbers, (2) numbers are concepts, and (3) concepts are ultimately dependent on perceiving reality.

Reality causes our sensations. A perception is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism. We simply perceive too many objects to remember every individual thing. We mitigate this problem through conceptualizing our perceptions. A concept is cognitive unit of meaning—a symbol that refers to objects in reality. Humans can form concepts because we can recognize similarities and differences among objects in reality. We summarize these similarities or differences through a process of abstraction.

Example: Green is a concept. Green does not exist by itself just floating somewhere in reality. There is no “greenness” that one can point to. But we can see a green mango, a green car, and a green turtle. These each have the property green. Green does not exist apart from green objects, but we can abstract the concept of green and talk about the concept of green independently of objects.

Numbers are the same way. There is no number 5 running naked in the wild. We derive the the concept of 5 by observing 5 fingers, or 5 mangos, or 5 turtles. From these experiences we can create the concept of “5 units”. We also observe that 2 units + 3 units = 5 units. Once we understand the number-concepts and how they integrate together, we can reapply mathematical concepts and rules back on the concepts themselves. Through this process we can gain knowledge without having further experiences. As Wittgenstein said, “From the given, I can construct what is not given.”

The “prior experiences” that lead to the knowledge that every natural number is the sum of four squares is not some experience about natural numbers and squares running around in the wild. The prior experiences were the perceptions in one's youth that led to the creation of concepts of numbers. The prior experiences also include hearing your teachers tell you how to integrate these number-concepts correctly.

This process of integrating concepts concepts directly is simply called reason. Reason is the ability to integrate concepts as derived from the senses. Our sensations are sensations about reality. Therefore, claiming that mathematics is an exercise in pure reason already presupposes necessary experience with reality.

Social Ontology

The purpose of this post is to explain the ontology of social facts to create a foundation for future posts. Ontology is a fancy word that refers to the nature of existence. In other words, I want to explain how social facts come into existence. John Searle is perhaps the most influential living philosopher on the subject of social ontology. John Searle's philosophical project is to try to explain how we get meaningful social facts like the existence of money, elections, marriages, touchdowns, cocktail parties etc. Searle frames his work with the following question:

“"How, if at all, can we reconcile a certain conception of the world as described by physics, chemistry, and the other basic sciences with what we know, or think we know, about ourselves as human beings? How is it possible in a universe consisting entirely of physical particles in fields of force that there can be such things as consciousness, intentionality, free will, language, society, ethics, aesthetics, and political obligations? ... This is the single overriding question in contemporary philosophy."

The following provides the conceptual apparatus for answering such a question:

Mind-independent and mind-dependent facts 
The first conceptual tool necessary to solve the puzzle is the distinction between Mind-Independent facts and Mind-Dependent facts. Mind-independent facts are facts that exist even if all human beings suddenly vanished. These facts include the existence of particles and forces, mountains and rivers, space and time. Mind-Dependent facts on the other hand exist only because they are created by the beliefs of conscious beings. If we go, they go. Mind-Dependent facts include such things as money, elections, marriages, touchdowns, cocktail parties, religious sacraments, lawyers, good and evil etc. So we are concerned primarily with this class of fact. In previous posts, I have called these observer-independent/dependent facts. Sometimes I refer to mind-independent facts as Brute Facts.

mind-indpendent-dependent
mind-indpendent-dependent

Collective recognition
Social facts require human cooperation. Mind-Dependent facts are only facts if everyone collectively recognizes and accepts them as facts. For examples, Barack Obama is president of the united states only because he is collectively recognized as being the president. If people stopped recognizing him as such, then he would cease to be president. Collective recognition does not mean that everyone explicitly supports a given fact, but at a minimum they have to implicitly accept it or go along with it.

Assignment of function
All functions are Mind-Dependent. Functions only exist relative from conscious beings who represent objects as having a certain function.

Both human beings and higher animals can impose functions on objects. For example, a rock by itself doesn't have any function, but in the hands of a monkey it can serve the function of a mallet or hammer. Similarly, a screwdriver has no innate function. It only has the function of a screwdriver because humans assign it that function. In both of these cases, the function is matched with some physical property or shape of the object.

Status functions
Humans are unique in that they have the ability to assign functions to objects or people regardless of the physical structure of that object or person. So for example, we can assign the status of money to a piece of paper, or the status of chairman to an individual. Unlike the screwdriver whose function matches its shape, there is really nothing about the piece of paper that makes it money. Likewise, there is nothing intrinsic about Barack Obama that makes him president either. He is president because everyone collectively recognizes his status. The collective assignment of function to objects results in a Status Function. Status functions cannot exist without collective recognition. Status functions are pervasive. We are basically locked into an invisible system of status functions. How do status functions work in the real world anyhow?

Constitutive rules
There are 2 types of rules—regulative rules and constitutive rules. Regulative rules regulate preexisting forms of behavior. For example, the rule to drive on the right side of the road is a regulative rule. On the other hand, constitutive rules don't regulate antecedently existing forms of behavior, they create the very possibility of the behavior that they regulate. Take the example of Chess, the rules of chess create the very possibility for the existence of chess. Without the constitutive rule, there would be no chess moves to regulate at all. Regulative rules regulate activities that could exist independently of rules. But, constitutive rules regulate activities that are dependent on the rules for their existence. Status functions exist only relative to a system of constitutive rules.

The constitutive rules of status functions have the structure "X counts as Y in context C". For example, this piece of paper(X) counts as $1(Y) in the United States(context C). Barack Obama(X) counts as the president(Y) of the United States(C). Such and such a move(X) counts as a legal knight move(Y) in the game of chess(C). The fascinating feature of this structure is that it can iterate upward indefinitely where the "Y" term from a lower level can constitute an "X" term at a higher level. For example:

Such and such a noise(X1) counts as a sentence(Y1) in English. Such and such an english sentence(Y1=X2) can count as making a promise(Y2) Uttering such and such a promise(Y2=X3) counts as undertaking a marriage contract(Y3).

This iterative feature can be illustrated with the lowest level at the bottom as such:

iteration
iteration

Summary so far
 
So far I have explained that social facts are collectively recognized status functions. These status functions are created by the constitutive rule "X counts as Y in context C". This rule can iteratate upward indefinitely. Another feature of status functions is that they almost never exist alone. They always exist as part of a much larger systems of constitutive rules. Status functions ultimately bottom out in brute facts that are Mind-Independent. For example, is assigned to some physical brute fact such as a piece of gold, or a piece of paper or a magnetic trace on a computer disc.

Exceptions
There are some exceptions to the constitutive rule "X counts as Y". Sometimes we can just create a "Y". One example is the corporation. To create a corporation we just say we are creating a corporation. There is no brute fact "X" that is the corporation. It isn't the building of the business or the businessmen. This ingenious social fact allows people to make money while being protected from losses.

The role of language
Language is essential to the existence of status functions. You can imagine a tribe that a had language but didn't have money, or private property, or governments, but you can't imagine having money and governments without language.

Language is a system of constitutive rules and is necessary for the creation of status functions. As I wrote in a previous post, there are 5 and only 5 things you can do with language. Here, I just want to talk about one of the things one can do with language called "Declarations". Declarations are speech acts that change reality by representing reality as being so changed. A rough test to see if something is a declaration is if you can add the word “hereby” in front of it as in “I hereby declare war.” Examples of declarations include “this meeting is adjourned”, “I now pronounce you husband and wife” and,”This note is legal tender for all debts public and private”. Status functions are language-dependent. Social facts exist because we use language to declare that they exist.

Status functions have power!
Status functions are the glue that hold society together because they have power. According to John Searle:

Without exception, the status functions carry what I call “deontic powers.” That is, they carry rights, duties, obligations, requirements, permissions, authorizations, entitlements, and so on. I introduce the expression “deontic powers” to cover all of these, both the positive deontic powers (e.g., when I have a right) and the negative deontic powers (e.g., when I have an obligation),

The status function of money entitles me to buy goods. The status function of President of the United States authorizes the president to give certain orders. The president is also put under an obligation to uphold the constitution. Some deontic powers are conditional. For instance, in some states a voter can vote for a political candidate only upon the condition that the voter is registered for the party of that candidate.

Desire-independent reasons for action
Status functions can lock into human rationality by providing desire-independent reasons to acting in a certain way. These reasons are created by the deontic powers of status functions. For example, the president has reasons for upholding the constitution regardless of whether he wants to or not because he has the status function of being the president. Employees have an obligation to come into work even when he/she doesn't feel like it. The status function of husband provides the man reasons to act differently than his initial inclinations—to be faithful, and to protect his family and so forth.

Summary
To summarize, the ontology of social facts come from the collective recognition of status functions which are created through constitutive rules. These constitutive rules usually have the logical form "X counts as Y in context C" and are created by speech acts called "Declarations". Since I have learned about status functions, reading the news has been fascinating because I can see the world in terms of status functions. In future posts I plan to apply this way of analyzing social ontology to the subjects of human rights and religious institutions.

Politics and Predictions

A few thoughts about prediction and politics.

Prediction markets
 
As some of my friends know, I expected Obama to win. I follow prediction markets like intrade.com. It is like a stock market where you can bet on the likelihood of future events. Here is a video that explains how it works. Longbets.org is similar site for long-term predictions. For the past several months, the predictions markets predicted that Obama would win. I think that prediction markets work for 2 main reasons: (1) they aggregate collective beliefs, and (2) when people have money on the line, they give more thought to their choices.

Predictions for the next 4 years
 
Individuals are terrible at prediction in general. However, according to the psychologist Philip Tetlock, some people are better at prediction than others. According to Tetlock, there are 2 types of people—hedgehogs and foxes. Roughly speaking, hedgehogs know one big thing; foxes know many things. Tetlock's fascinating studies show that foxes tend to be more accurate forecasters than hedgehogs.

Because of my eclectic interests (design, economics, philosophy, finance, science, religion) I think I have more of a fox approach to life. Here are few of my own testable predictions for the next four years. 

  • Employment numbers will improve by 2016. Today unemployment is 7.9 percent. I think it will be closer to 6 percent by 2016. This will happen in spite of the policies of the current administration. (.7)
  • The united states will lose economic freedom as measured by economic freedom indexes that measure such indicators as the rule of law, limited government, regulatory efficiency, and open markets. In 2008 both the Index of Economic Freedom and the Economic Freedom of the World Annual Report ranked America 5th and 10th respectively among all nations. In 2012, America was ranked 10th and 18th respectively.  I predict that we will be at least 2 rankings lower according to both indexes. (.9)
  • Both democrat and republican presidential candidates will shift to the left and favor more left-leaning policies than the average presidential candidate since WW2. (.75)
  • No 3rd party candidate will have enough followers to get elected in 2016. (1.0)
  • Health care costs will be higher in 2016 than today mostly because of Obamacare. (.9)
  • There will be at least one terrorist attack from Islamic fundamentalists on American soil in the next 4 years. (.6)
  • Obama will replace at least one more supreme court justice by 2016 (.9) Two more justices (.65) 
  • Price Inflation as measured by the CPI will be 10% higher in 2016 than it is today. ( I think we will have slower inflation in the first 2 years than in the second 2 years) (.75)

I have assigned probabilities as indicated in orange. 0 means that I am totally confident that the prediction will never happen. 1.0 means that I am 100% confident that it will definitely happen. I include these to "calibrate" my predictions according to Tetlock's methods of prediction tracking.

What are your predictions in the next 4 years? Write them in the comments below and let's see which predictions turn out to be correct in 2016.

Human Rights Part 1

This is part one in a series of posts on human rights. The concept of human rights touches everyone even though it is sometimes an ambiguous concept that is poorly justified. Since it is so foundational, we should really examine it closely. The following are some common beliefs about human rights.

Belief 1—Human rights come from God or nature
 
Some believe that rights do not come from law, but they are God-given or come from nature. Because they are not given by any man they cannot be taken away. This is the meaning behind the phrase unalienable rights.

Belief 2—Human rights don't actually exist.
Some argue that human rights don't actually exist. Jeremy Bentham who founded utilitarianism and influenced John Stuart Mill held this view. He said,

Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense—nonsense upon stilts. But this rhetorical nonsense ends in the old strain of mischievous nonsense: for immediately a list of these pretended natural rights is given, and those are so expressed as to present to view legal rights. And of these rights, whatever they are, there is not, it seems, any one of which any government can, upon any occasion whatever, abrogate the smallest particle.

Belief 3—Human rights come from social contracts and law.
 
The social contract argument says that rights come a social contract that citizens make with their governments. Citizens consent—either implicitly or explicitly to surrender some of their freedoms in exchange for a protection of other rights.

In the upcoming posts, I will write about my own beliefs about rights and how they are, or perhaps are not, justified.

Politics and the Limitations of Reality

The purpose of this post is to explain how political goals are limited by reality. Reality Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined. When we talk of reality, we are talking of a real world that exists independently of anyone's thoughts and experiences. We call certain propositions "facts" if they corresponds to reality.

Categorizing Reality Although there is only one reality, there are broadly speaking 2 ways to categorize reality. The first category relates to facts that are observer-independent such as the existence of particles, forces, mountains, and galaxies. I will refer to these phenomenon as Brute Facts. Brute facts exist regardless of what anyone thinks or believes. The second category is often more interesting and more complex. It relates to facts that are observer-dependent such as the existence of money, marriages, elections, and cocktail parties. I will refer to these facts as institutional facts. Institutional facts only exist insofar as they are represented as existing by human beings. (I briefly began to explain how institutional facts are created here). The fact that Barack Obama is president of the United States is an objective fact even though there is nothing intrinsic about Obama that makes it the case that he is president. Obama is simply president because everyone believes that he is the president. If someone were to say that Obama was not the president, he/she would simply be mistaken. The following chart visualizes various types of brute facts and institutional facts.

The Limitations of Reality Political goals are limited by reality. For instance, one cannot create something out of nothing. One must work with the materials available. If Howard Roark plans to build a skyscraper, he is limited by the brute facts of reality. He must understand the structural limitations of load-bearing beams, the effects of temperature on the contraction and expansion of the building, and various geological limitations, etc. Understanding how Roark is limited by institutional facts is a bit more complicated. He limited by whether he can find investors, he is limited by environmental laws, by zoning restrictions, by various city ordinances and other building codes, by the aesthetic tastes of the investors and by others in the immediate community. For example, the city of Charleston, South Carolina has extremely strict building codes that are meant to preserve the historical appearance of the city. Howard Roark could not build a skyscraper in Charleston, not because of any brute fact of reality, but because he is limited by what is institutionally "given". How do the limitations of reality apply to political goals?

Politics Politics, roughly defined, is the art of running government and state affairs. Politics deals with decisions made within a social context. When one desires to achieve a political goal such improving education, or increasing prosperity and human well-being, they essentially desire to change reality. This does not mean that they are trying to change the brute facts such as the existence of forces and particles. It means that they are trying to change social reality—or in other words the observer-dependent aspects of reality. The chances of success in achieving a political goal are increased when reality—both physical (observer-independent) and social (observer-dependent)—are understood.

Political goals are limited by brute facts It is a brute fact of reality that some social goals are impossible. The most basic brute limitations are resources and time. For example, a social goal to give everyone everything they want is impossible because resources are limited. This is called scarcity. Another basic brute fact is the limitation of time. Time is not free. The value of time is whatever alternative opportunities must be foregone in order to use it for a particular purpose. Spending 3 hours watching television costs the couch potato 3 hours that he could have worked and earned money. This is called opportunity cost. Everything has a resource cost and a time cost. Those 2 costs combined equals the total cost of every human activity.

Another vitally important brute fact to understand is human nature. The existence of consciousness itself is a brute fact and conscious beings have a "brute" nature. Human nature is a product of biological evolution. As such human beings are born with innate tendencies. We tend to be mostly self-interested but we can sometimes be cooperative as well. We have strong responses to honor and shame. Men and women vary in their respective natures. Men are more aggressive and women are more nurturing and social. We have free will to choose, but we do not have the power to choose the consequences of our actions. All of these aspects of human nature are observer-independent.

Political goals are limited by institutional facts Institutional facts are dependent on human agreement for their existence. They also ultimately rest upon or bottom out in the brute facts. For example, the institutional fact of money exists only because everyone agrees that it exists, but the status of money is always assigned to some physical brute fact such as a piece of gold, or a piece of paper or a magnetic trace on a computer disc. Once we have institutional facts we can examine how they limit political goals.  Since they are dependent on human agreement and recognition for their existence, political goals are limited by whether or not people agree to recognize a given institutional fact. if you are trying to change social reality and you do not have enough people in agreement, you will fail in your political goals. Institutional facts are like habits. The older the institutional fact, the more difficult it is to change it.

Brute facts about political institutional facts It so happens that there are brute facts about social reality. Institutional facts exist because people agree that they exist. But there are observer-independent results and consequence that do not arise from forces and particles or anything like that, but they arise from human transactions alone. Recessions fit this description.

Recessions are a social phenomenon and they would not exist unless people existed. But recessions do not exist simply because people believe that they exist. They are separate from things like marriages and money which only exist because they are represented as existing. If no one believed it was a recession, it would still be a recession. Whereas in the case of the existence of presidents and cocktail parties, if no one ever believed that they existed, they would never exist. The existence of recessions are brute facts that are discovered even though they are consequences of institutional facts such as buying and selling goods and services. Business cycles are brute limitations on political goals. We cannot create a good economy just by believing and agreeing to have a good economy. We have to recognize that there are some consequences that are independent of anyone's beliefs and intentions that occur because of human transactions.

Inflation is also a brute fact about social reality. The book The Ascent of Money by financial economist Niall Ferguson describes the inflation of 16th century Spain. "They dug up so much silver [in the new world]...that the metal itself dramatically declined in value—that is to say, in its purchasing power with respect to other goods." This inflation was not intended,  but it led to Spain's economic and imperial decline.

Summary I have tried to broadly describe the concepts of reality as it applies to a specific type of institutional change—namely political change. There are 2 categories of reality—brute facts and institutional facts. Political goals are best achieved when one understands and accepts the limitations of reality.

Is it rational to vote for third-party candidates?

The purpose of this post is to answer the question: "Is it rational to vote for third party candidates?" Let me first define the words I am using. By "rational" I simply mean choosing the wisely among alternatives. A rational person weighs the various options (calculates ratios) and chooses the option the he/she thinks will do the most good. A rational person aligns their actions with their goals. By "third-party candidate" I am simply referring to a candidate that is not one of the major two parties in the United States—namely Democrat and Republican.

I want to go through a series of thought experiments to try to answer the question of this post.

Scenario 1
 
Let's say that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are the only 2 candidates on the ballot. Let's say that between the two candidates, a Romney presidency is 100% aligned with my goals and an Obama presidency is 0% aligned with my goals. (Saying that Romney is 100% aligned with my goals is the same thing as saying that I agree with everything that he says.) In this scenario, it is rational to vote for Romney.

 rational-choice-is-romney

rational-choice-is-romney

Scenario 2
Now let's say that Romney is 1% aligned with my goals and Obama is 2% aligned. Since Obama is more aligned with my goals, it would now be rational to vote for Obama.

 rational-choice-is-obama

rational-choice-is-obama

Scenario 3
 
Now let's add a third-party candidate. The candidates are Romney, Obama, and Jesus (insert perfect candidate of your choice here). Let's say Jesus is 100% aligned with my goals, Romney-50, Obama 49. Let's also stipulate that they all have an equal chance of winning. In this case it is rational to vote for Jesus.

 rational-choice-is-jesus

rational-choice-is-jesus

Scenario 4
 
Now lets take the same example—Jesus-100, Romney-50, Obama-49. But Jesus happens to have no reasonable chance of winning an election. But, Romney and Obama have fairly equal chances of winning. What is the rational thing to do? As I defined in the beginning "rational" means choosing the best option among alternatives. Because Jesus has no chance of winning, I believe that it is rational to vote for Romney over Jesus. Why? Because although Jesus would do the most good, the good that Jesus would do if he were elected doesn't matter. It is simply not part of reality. A vote for Romney in this case would do more good in the world than a vote for Jesus.

 rational-choice-is-romney-2

rational-choice-is-romney-2

Conclusion If scenario 3 was representative of the situations that we find ourselves in, then it would be rational to vote for a third party candidate. However, in my lifetime there has never been a third party candidate that has had a chance of winning. Every election that I can remember resembles scenario 4 and there is no evidence that we will depart from scenario 4 anytime soon. Therefore, under normal circumstance, I believe it is irrational to vote for third-party candidates, because that decision will not be aligned with the goals of the voter. Voting for the most electable candidate that you agree with is the best way to influence politics in a direction that you one think is best.

ANTICIPATING OBJECTIONS

The "Vote on Principle" Objection
 
Some object by saying that one should vote "on principle" or similarly people should vote "their conscience". I am not really sure what this means, but I think it means that everyone should vote for the person with whom they agree the most whether or not they have a chance for winning. If we apply this principle consistently, then it means that since everyone agrees with themselves the most, they should write in their own names and vote for themselves. This is absurd so perhaps the "vote on principle" advocates mean something like vote for whoever you agree with the most that is a running candidate. But this approach assumes that one can do more good if they vote for someone that is a running candidate even if they agree with that candidate less than they agree with themselves. If that really is the assumption, then it only seems logical to apply it more broadly as I have to vote for someone that will do more good by being elected.

In my opinion, I am voting on principle. The principle I am using is rationality. I want to do the most good among the alternatives available. My conscience leads me to try to do the most good possible.

The "Lesser of 2 Evils" Objection
Some object that I am just settling for the "lesser evil". I might agree with this argument if we were voting between Hitler and Pol Pot, but I don't think that picture matches reality. I think that framing the issue this way is categorical. Anyone judging the candidates to be evil presumes the omniscience of God. The decision making process is not categorical, but incremental—meaning that there are costs and benefits that need to be examined and weighed for each candidate. In other words, the choice between candidates is a choice between 'more good or less good' given the trade-offs inherent in the voting process. In other words, it is pointless to argue what should happen in a perfect world. Instead, we should focus on what can be done in the world that we find ourselves in. If we compare our current situation with the perfect world, then everything will seem evil to us. To get a clear picture, we must compare where we are now, with where we have been.

The "Send a message" objection
 
Some say that you should vote for the candidate you agree with most to send a message. I admit that in some rare circumstances this may be a rational strategy. For instance, let's say that there are only 2 candidates, Romney and Obama. I agree more with Romney, but he has no chance of winning. In that case I would still vote for Romney because sending a message is the best I can do in that situation.

 rational-to-send-a-message

rational-to-send-a-message

But most of the time when people say they are sending a message, I think they are really just treating elections as an occasion to vent their emotions, rather than as a process to pick someone into whose hands to place the fate of the nation.

The "They are all the same anyway" objection
 
Some claim that the major party candidates are all the same and therefore they should vote for some third-party. This claim strikes me as very ignorant. Anyone who is aware of the voting patterns between Democrats and Republicans know that they very rarely vote similarly on any piece of legislation. Perhaps more important, the president has the power to select supreme court justices that can serve for several decades. With very few exceptions, the type of judge that a democrat will select is much different than the type of judge that a republican will select. Saying that one does not like either candidate is not equivalent to saying that they are all the same. We must do our homework and select which electable candidate will do the most good.

The "people will wake up" objection
Some argue that we should let the worst candidate win so that "people will wake up". The problem with this argument is that people don't "wake up". The worst candidate ends up electing judges that sit on the bench for decades that make matters even worse over the long run.

Financial Independence

Working allows us to leave our parents and live on our own. It allows us to be independent. I will call this the first independence. If we work hard and invest our savings we can accomplish independence from having to work. This is the second independence. It is often called financial independence. The graph below shows a standard time frame for when we are dependent on parents, independent through work, and independent from work.

 path-to-financial-independence

path-to-financial-independence

Financial independence is a worthy goal. If we don't have to work, we can devote our time to developing ourselves and contributing to society. Benjamin Franklin lived to age 84. All of Benjamin Franklin's major achievements were made after he reached financial independence (FI). He reached FI when he was in his early 40s. His path to financial independence looked something like this:

 path-to-financial-independence-franklin

path-to-financial-independence-franklin

If you want FI by age 50, you first need a plan that will get you there by 70. It is more difficult to achieve FI at younger ages. Therefore, a retire-at-70 plan must precede a retire-at-50 plan. Increase your chances of an early FI by thinking about these things now and studying people who have achieved early FI.

Savings and lifestyle

The purpose of this post is to show how to maintain one's lifestyle after he/she stops working. Observe the chart below (Source here). It shows the advantage of continuing education past high school. It also shows that in the course of a lifetime one’s salary will tend to rise until about 40, it will rise a bit slower from 40 to 50, then it will plateau and slowly decline.

 20120910-Income-by-education

20120910-Income-by-education

For illustration purposes, here is simplified version of the above graph:

 20120910-income-by-education-abstracted

20120910-income-by-education-abstracted

Income tends to rise when young people get more experience, education, and skills. Income tends to decline as work skills become obsolete, and as people work less and/or leave the workforce to retire. Many people have negative savings when they are young. That means that they spend more than they earn by taking advantage of school loans. If they had average annual earning and they spent everything they earned on lifestyle and paying back student loans, their lifestyle would look something like this:

 20120910-income-and-lifestyle

20120910-income-and-lifestyle

They would borrow when they were young and pay off the loan when they are older. If they spent the rest of their income on lifestyle, then they would be in big trouble when they approach retirement years. They would be forced to decrease their lifestyle and possibly become dependent on others as there annual earnings decreased. To avoid this, they would have to save, by consuming less than they earn as shown in the graph below. For simplicity, let's assume that they didn't have to take out any school loans.

 20120910-lifestyle-below-income

20120910-lifestyle-below-income

If people saved as they earned more, they would be able to maintain their lifestyle by living off of their savings. How would savings carry them through retirement? By investing. The graph below shows how this could hypothetically happen:

 20120910-income-lifestyle-and-investement

20120910-income-lifestyle-and-investement

If one saved and put their money into investments, he/she could create an income from their investments that would replace their annual earned income that they had to work for. The only way to maintain independence and increase one's lifestyle over time is to consume less than you earn and put your savings into an investment that will grow and provide income without having to work.

Prioritizing Savings

Do you prioritize savings? If you are a millionaire, there is a good chance that you do. According to the author of the book The Millionaire Next Door, people who become millionaires tend to live well below there means by spending only 80% of their income. The other 20% is saved and invested. Many people want to save and intuitively know that they should save more. They might even plan to put whatever is left over at the end of the month into savings. Their monthly flow of money looks something like this:

 present-oriented-flow-of-money

present-oriented-flow-of-money

I call this the present-oriented flow of money. This plan rarely works because there usually isn't anything left over to save. The reality often turns out to be more like this:

 Actual-present-oriented-flow-of-money

Actual-present-oriented-flow-of-money

The wealthy mentioned above "pay themselves first". Before they pay the grocer, or the bank, or the department store, they pay themselves a set percentage of their income. There flow of money looks like this:

 future-oriented-flow-of-money

future-oriented-flow-of-money

Religious people are taught to add one more bucket to their flow of money. That bucket is charity. L. Tom Perry, said:

After paying your tithing of 10 percent to the Lord, you pay yourself a predetermined amount directly into savings. That leaves you a balance of your income to budget for taxes, food, clothing, shelter, transportation, etc. It is amazing to me that so many people work all of their lives for the grocer, the landlord, the power company, the automobile salesman, and the bank and yet think so little of their own efforts that they pay themselves nothing.

 A religious future-oriented flow of money looks like this:

 religious-future-oriented-flow-of-money

religious-future-oriented-flow-of-money

There are religious and secular reasons to give to charity. A study done by the economist Arthur Brooks found that after accounting for variables, those who give to charity tend to make more money as a result of their giving. In other words, if you take two people that have the same religion, income, career, and education and track them over time, the one that gives to charity actually makes about $14,000 more on average than the non-giver. I will write more about charity in the future.

In conclusion, it is more difficult to save when expenses take priority over financial goals. Saving only seems to work if you get into the habit of paying yourself before your other expenses. So follow the example of the wealthy and start saving today.