Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas from a Nihilist Humanist.

I tend to think of religions across three categories of things they provide: metaphysics, imperative, and community. "Metaphysics" in this context refers to what one believes is true about the world: Does god exist? Is there afterlife? Can we freely make choices in our lives? "Imperative" refers to what one should do about it. Should I help the poor? Should I hate gays? Is my salvation dependent upon my holding a concise set of metaphysical beliefs? "Community" is unique in this context, as it stems from the religion's imperative, i.e., a religion will tend to state that you should gather around those with similar beliefs. However, it seems to be to deserve separate mention in that: (a) For a given individual's decision making process, a selection of a religion most often comes with an existing community, and (b) it is one thing, like the other two, for which an individual will typically need to find a source if choosing to abandon a religion, or religion in general.

When the Dawkinses and Hitchenses of the world begin their arguments to undermine religion, they usually focus on this first category. "There is no evidence" is likely the most oft repeated expression, focusing on matters such as god's existence, earth's age, and natural selection. One problem with this line of argument is that it presumes a logical framework in which a person should not believe any thought for which there is no evidence, as opposed to, say, a framework in which people believe whatever thoughts occur to them until there is evidence to the contrary. This latter logical framework would still force a person to reconsider a belief in a young earth, but something like god's existence might have an easier time surviving. My question, however, is: what should inform our metaphysics, i.e., what should constitute evidence? Though the religious will not use the word "evidence" to describe their reasons for believing in, say, god's existence, the things they treat as evidence, as things that inform their beliefs, may include holy books, divine revelation, or merely the fact that people have believed this for centuries as part of a cultural tradition. It is my suspicion that this latter category may be the most powerful. Nonetheless, when a religious person hears "there is no evidence," in response to a belief of theirs, their response, though they have not the words to describe it, is that "there is evidence, my evidence is that this has been a long standing belief in my culture and my culture has survived." Perhaps there is reason to admit this as evidence, but only weak evidence if that: it is certainly possible that communities of people survive despite their beliefs.

I have let myself cross over into the "imperative" category (though perhaps sticking closely to that which is closely related to metaphysics), and probably did as soon as I used the word "should." I of course do believe these categories to be closely related, as they do tend to come packaged together. In fact, nearly every metaphysical belief includes the imperative that "I should believe this" though many have no imperative beyond that, i.e., belief in a young earth does not necessarily imply that one should love their neighbour. Even still, the possibility exists that metaphysics and imperative may contradict, i.e., "I believe that X is true, but I believe that I SHOULD believe Y, which contradicts X." This situation would be rare in reality, but theoretically possible. Most formal religions discourage or disallow such a contradiction. But, more on this later, as I believe I've taken a slight bit of a theoretical digression.

Those items in the imperative category are those in which outspoken atheists have a tougher time gaining their footing. Those on the religious side of the argument tend to respond with, "Well, your science may be able to tell you that natural selection is real, but surely it's useless when telling me how to live my life!" This is true of the strictly deterministic sciences, but the probabilistic sciences have more to say in this subject matter. For example, consider the following three arguments:

"We should be radically charitable because the bible or god tells us to"
"We should be radically charitable because my culture has believed this, and our culture has survived."
"We should be radically charitable because anthropological studies across cultures have indicated that those cultures that have a strong altruistic imperative fare best in the long run."

The first is command by fiat. The middle is anecdotal regarding a single culture. The last bears closest resemblance to controlled scientific study. Can I say that that is always best? Perhaps not, but I can say that the latter sort of argument will have the greatest truth in the widest array of contexts compared to the others. Now, I do not wish to assert that for all things deterministic science has an answer. Science admittedly can only inform us fully on those subjects which are deterministic, such as physics and chemistry, or those which can be closely related to a deterministic template using probability, such as psychology and sociology. Effectively, science can not tell us what values to adopt, merely what happens when you adopt those values.

In the context of these recent three arguments regarding radical charity, there is the implied value that "humanity's long-term well-being is more important than an individual's short-term well-being." Moreso, there is the implied value that "it is good for humanity to survive," which is not necessarily true, in fact, science and history have taught us a great deal about what happens to the planet when humanity flourishes. If we were to reconcile a value of humanity's good with the value of nature's good, we might be on the losing end of that battle. If justice were an ideal to be valued, humanity may be on the losing end of that reconciliation as well.

There can be no rational way to reconcile values without arbitrarily drawing upon other assumed values. I thus propose two values I retain based on either faith or delusion (on which any system of values must rely):

I value that which is true in the widest context.
I value humanity's survival and happiness in the long-term.

I attempt to justify these values and I cannot without referring back to them. But I do discover that when I reason from these values, taking the widest array of evidence into account, the evidence proposed by my religious life (as it once was) becomes superfluous. Before deeming it superfluous, I had even become quite adept at using what would be considered religiously-admissible-evidence to reconcile religious truth with what I found to be true in a wider context. But even this turned out to be not only superfluous, but near arbitrary -- usually in the form of picking a verse from the bible to trump some other verse from the bible. But even here, my reasoning resorts to the above-stated value of truth in the widest context.

Though I find both of these values necessary for building any working world view in which to move forward with my life, I find that it will occasionally result in the metaphysics/imperative contradiction aforementioned. For example: I recognize the futility of humanity, but I believe that it is in humanity's best interest to ignore it. Thus haphazardly I've brought myself to the final category in religions, the built-in community. I have often thought, even when I've been more inclined to sympathize with religious beliefs, that I'm a stranger in communities of those with a religious background and those without. Perhaps because I distrust a religion's lack of recognition of humanity's futility, and perhaps I'm bored with the general past times of those who internalize that futility. Perhaps then, this is another intrinsic contradiction of this value system: recognition of the value of (a) community, yet forfeiting your participation in it. In any case, this is category that an individual plays the closest role in creating, and thus it is the category through which I have the hardest time reasoning, and about which I have the least answers.

Is there a thesis, then? Not sure. Perhaps "science can offer us not just metaphysics, but an imperative as well," which would be a message for both the religious and non-religious alike. Perhaps "I have alienated myself from my peers," which is probably a message moreso for me.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Cult of GDP

On the Commons:
When the GDP goes up the media cheers. Economists assume that more expenditure means a better life. This does not speak well for the perceptual capacities of that profession.

We spend a great deal of money when we have cancer, or a car wreck, or go through a bitter divorce, or rack up credit card debt. These all make the GDP rise. They mean life is getting better? Sheeesh.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Fiscal Multipliers and Public Transit

  • Every billion dollars spent on public transportation produced 16,419 job-months.
  • Every billion dollars spent on projects funded under highway infrastructure programs produced 8,781 job-months.
Source: Smart Growth America

At least our Transportation Secretary takes Amtrak:
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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Krugman Addresses George

"Well, look. Believe it or not, urban economics models actually do suggest that Georgist taxation would be the right approach at least to finance city growth. But I would just say: I don't think you can raise nearly enough money to run a modern welfare state by taxing land. It's just not a big enough thing."

The context was health care. "We're having enough trouble trying to make sure we repeal the Bush tax cuts," Krugman added, "and trying to shift to a completely different base of taxation is just not going to be on the table."

True, but let's stay in the realm of theory for a minute. Could a land tax pay for a health care system?