Livestreaming “Does God Exist” Debate

Michael Shermer will debate “Does God Exist” with Father Lucas Laborde today at 7 PM PST at the Oregon State University Socratic Club. The debate will livestream at the link below:

Speaker bios:

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. Dr. Shermer received his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University. He has authored many books, including Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design

Fr. Lucas Laborde is the pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Portland. He earned his M.A. in Philosophy at the Universidad del Norte Santo Tomás de Aquino, Argentina, and studied Theology at San Carlos Borromeo Seminary in Rosario, Argentina. Fr. Laborde also spent five years as a Campus Minister at the Oregon State University Newman Center.

Tune in and enjoy. I will be at the debate in person and may even sneak in a question.

God and the Tooth Fairy: Belief Without Evidence


One common atheist argument is that you should disbelieve in God because there is no evidence of God. The argument is commonly made by analogy to other mythical creatures like the tooth fairy or the flying spaghetti monster or a celestial teapot. There’s no evidence of the tooth fairy, but that doesn’t mean that we’re neutral about the existence of tooth fairies. We’re pretty sure, based on the lack of evidence, that they do not actually exist. Here’s Richard Dawkins making this case:

It is often said, mainly by the ‘no-contests’, that although there is no positive evidence for the existence of God, nor is there evidence against his existence. So it is best to keep an open mind and be agnostic. At first sight that seems an unassailable position, at least in the weak sense of Pascal’s wager. But on second thoughts it seems a cop-out, because the same could be said of Father Christmas and tooth fairies. There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can’t prove that there aren’t any, so shouldn’t we be agnostic with respect to fairies?

The problem with this argument is that it seems to contradict basic logic: lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. And yet the intuition seems solid. We don’t merely not believe in the tooth fairy, we actually disbelieve in its existence.

Most people either write off the “lack of evidence isn’t evidence of lack” line as a kind of irrelevant technicality or try to treat disbelief as something other than a form of belief. These approaches are sloppy and incorrect, and they create a warped skepticism in which negative beliefs are given an irrational and unearned privilege over positive beliefs. That’s not real skepticism, it’s just inverse credulity combined with dodgy semantics. It makes a mockery of the proud tradition of philosophical skepticism by creating a mirror image of blind faith. In the old days, the existence of God was accepted without proof. These days, a kind of hostile disbelief in God is accepted without proof instead. Meet the new orthodoxy, same in process and approach as the old orthodoxy.

Luckily, however, there actually is a way to reconcile our intuition that we should be skeptical of the tooth fairy (not merely neutral) with the rules of logic. The term that comes to the rescue is compossibility. This is a term I learned from reading an incredibly great sci-fi book, but the term originates with Leibniz. From Wikipedia:

According to Leibniz a complete individual thing (for example a person) is characterized by all its properties, and these determine its relations with other individuals. The existence of one individual may contradict the existence of another. A possible world is made up of individuals that are compossible — that is, individuals that can exist together.

Let’s take a look at how the concept of compossibility can be used to provide a solid rational backing for the intuition that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist without requiring us to contradict the principle that lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. Except, instead of a tooth fairy, I’m going to go with the proposition that there’s an invisible unicorn in your backyard. Now, should you have:

  1. Belief | You think that there is a unicorn.
  2. Non-Belief | You do not think that there is a unicorn.
  3. Disbelief | You do not think that there is a unicorn and you think that there is not a unicorn.
Note: This image was updated in response to Jeremy's comment. (Comment #5.)
Note: This image was updated in response to Jeremy’s comment. (Comment #5.)

Here’s how compossibility comes to the rescue. A unicorn is basically a horse with a horn on its head. Horses are large mammals. If you had a large mammal in your back yard then, even if we concede it’s invisible, it would still leave hoofprints and unicorn poo behind, and it would probably also be rather noisy. Do you see any hoofprints? Smell unicorn poo? Do you hear a large 4-legged beast walking around and breathing heavily? Nope? Then you don’t just have a lack of evidence. You really do in fact, based on compossibility, have evidence of a lack. These things should be there, and they are not. Therefore, the invisible unicorn is not compossible with the state of your backyard (e.g. free of unicorn poo).

Now, I might tell you that the reason there are no hoofprints and that there is no unicorn poo is that the unicorn is actually not just a horse with a horn on its head. It’s a magical creature that only looks like a horse. In fact, however, it is light as a feather (no hoofprints) and subsists on love (no material food, ergo no unicorn poo). This new definition of an invisible unicorn is more compossible with the state of your backyard (hoofprint and unicorn poo free!), but it’s actually not more believable because now it’s asking you to believe other things that are not compossible with your experience of the world. Where, if invisible unicorns are common, do the dead ones go? Why aren’t people stumbling and falling over invisible unicorn corpses? Or hitting them with their cars? And if they are rare, how do they keep up a viable breeding density? And if they don’t breed, where do they come from? Etc.

These questions are, of course, all a bit absurd. The point is that our human intuition is, generally speaking, pretty good at doing this kind of analysis unconsciously and quickly. You don’t really need to go through all the specific questions. You can just take the basic concept of a unicorn and see that such an animal remaining undetected is highly improbable. So you’ve got a good reason to suspect that if there’s no evidence then it actually is not present. The more the definition gets altered to make the lack of evidence seem credible, the more the definition itself becomes incredible. You start asking where the unicorn poo goes and you end up asking questions about the thermodynamics of a creature that converts love to kinetic energy to move its body.

So our disbelief in things like the tooth fairy doesn’t come from what we don’t know. It comes from what we do know. It comes from everyday knowledge about biology and human nature and physics. Skepticism of things like invisible unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters or celestial teapots is not properly rationalized by knee-jerk preference for disbelief, but by deliberation about compossibility.

So how does this apply to the real argument at hand: the existence of God? I’m not going to try to convince anyone that God is real using compossibility. I’m just going to differentiate between good arguments for the non-existence of God and bad arguments for the non-existence of God. Bad arguments might take the form of, “Well, there’s no evidence so we should disbelieve.” That’s not a logically sound position to take. It’s just prejudice wrapped up in rational terminology. The argument is bad both because it’s a poor argument but also because it just doesn’t lead to any productive thought or discussion. It’s a waste of everybody’s time.

But a very good argument for the non-existence of God is to rely on something like the Problem of Evil. This turns out to be a compossibility argument again: how are (1) an all-powerful God and (2) a benevolent God and (3) the crappy state of affairs here on Earth all compossible? Just like skepticism of the invisible unicorn in your backyard, skepticism of a benevolent and all-powerful God based on the injustice and miserable suffering on Earth is a skepticism with reason behind it. Such skepticism is good both because it’s logically stronger, and also because it can lead to useful discussion.

Difficult Run 2014 Recap and 2015 Preview

988 DR Monthly Stats

Maybe there’s a good reason why people like to be cagey about their blog traffic. Maybe one day I’ll discover it, and then look back with horror at how much info I’ve given away. Maybe. In the meantime, however, I figure it’s just one of those weird cultural quirks, like the way Americans don’t like for people to know how much money they make. Did you know that’s not a universal thing? It’s cultural. In Scandinavian countries, for example, personal income tax information is public and it’s no big deal. I first learned about that when studying the economics of taxation in grad school, but here’s a quick USA Today article from 2008 along the same lines: How much do you make? It’d be no secret in Scandinavia:

Every year, Sweden publishes everyone’s income tax returns. So do Finland and Norway. And nobody really cares.

So consider me just the Scandinavia of blog traffic, I guess. I’ve got no qualms about publishing my WordPress traffic stats. So let’s talk about those stats, briefly, and the plans for Difficult Run in 2015.

We started out really strong in early 2014, but then in May I reduced the posting and promoting I did of Difficult Run. As a result, the growth from early in the year wasn’t sustained. Well, 2015 is the year when we fix that. You can probably see that January 2015 is already one of the biggest months since May 2014, and we’re less than half way through. We’ve had really great content from all the DR Editors and people have responded by reading and commentings. That is the plan for the entire year of 2015: more great content that will make it worth your while to come by our site. Hey, nobody ever said that a good plan had to be complicated, right?

Speaking of great DR Editors, by the way, we brought on board Bryan Maack in November 2014, and he’s already proved to be a great addition to the team. Check out all his posts and view the current roster of DR Editors here.

Last order of business is the 2014 advertising revenue report. That’s something I promised to do in our advertising policy. In the policy I wrote that “DR will publicize the total amount of revenue gained from advertising at the end of every year because transparency is cool.” So here we go. Total ad revenue from 2014? $0.66

Now, on the bright side, I did a minor overhaul of the site already this month and added a bunch of additional Amazon ads. We’ve already pulled in a few dollars since then, which is a definite improvement but still not enough to pay for the hosting of this site. So let me just say that if you’re interested in helping support Difficult Run, please click our Amazon ads now and then and buy something. You don’t have to buy the thing we advertise, you just have to buy anything from the site at all after clicking on one of the Difficult Run links. Like this one. Do that, and Amazon sends me a small percentage of the price of whatever you buy, and I get to use that to offset the costs of hosting this site.

So, that’s our 2014 recap and our 2015 preview. I think this is really going to be a good year for DR. I’m excited about all the articles I know are already in the pipeline, and look forward to sharing them with all of you.

[Added After Publication:] Also, if you’d like to see a neat summary of how 2014 went for Difficult Run, WordPress puts out an annual page that I’ve made public. You can view it here.

DR Editors Pick Their Best Reads of 2014

989 DR Editor Fave Books COVER

I thought it would be fun to have the DR Editors pick their best reads from 2014. I’m glad I did! Looking through the lists of books and the reviews was really interesting, and it definitely shows what a diverse set of readers we have here at Difficult Run. Without further ado, here are the lists they sent in the order in which they were received.


Monica emailed me to say “I think I only read 5 or so books in 2014 anyway, and none of them were really remarkable to me. :-/.” Fair enough, and let us all wish Monica better luck in picking books to read in 2015!

Robin Givens

1. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

Mindy Kaling gives a voice to all lady craziness.  If Tina Fey is my best friend because Liz Lemon is my spirit animal, and if Amy Poehler is my best friend because she’s all girl power, then Mindy Kaling is my best friend because she is a girly-girl (not me, but I appreciate), anxious (me), school nerd (me).  This book definitely has a particular audience which is 30-ish females who dare to be non-academic (even if some of them still get straight A’s).  Mindy Kaling is a comedian whose voice carries over entirely to the book, something I haven’t found in other comedian memoirs. Also, can Mindy Kaling PLEASE write a YA vampire romance series?!

I guess I find “Jack and Diane” a little disgusting…I wish there was a song called “Nguyen and Ari,” a little ditty about a hardworking Vietnamese girl who helps her parents with the franchised Holiday Inn they run and does homework in the lobby, and Ari, a hardworking Jewish boy who does volunteer work at his grandmother’s old-age home, and they meet after school at the Princeton Review. They help each other study for the SATs and different AP courses, and then after months of studying, and mountains of flashcards, they kiss chastely upon hearing the news that they both got into their top college choices.”

2. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Ballantine Reader’s Circle) by Fannie Flagg

I love Southern fiction and I love crazy people, and this book is all about crazy Southern people.  This is the kind of quirky Southern fiction that will make you think “I have to stop reading Southern fiction because nothing can ever possibly compare.”  There are deep sadnesses, great triumphs, secret collaborations, hilarious anecdotes, kooky characters, ridiculous names, inspiring loves and most of all loyal friendships. Love.

“By the way, Boots died and Opal says she hopes you’re satisfied.
…Dot Weems…”

3. State of Wonder: A Novel by Patchett, Ann Reprint (2012) Paperback by Ann Patchett

This is a great read for any female in graduate school (but if you’re not in graduate school, it’s still great).  Not only is it a mystery/adventure beach read (with a hint of science fiction), but it really explores the mentor-student relationship in all of its (possible) horror.  The story is a modern, feminine retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  If you hated that book in high school, you will still like this book.  The most interesting things I found with Patchett’s writing are her ability to convey the emotion of a scene through dialogue, and her great use of flashback intertwined with the current moment.   I could not put this book down!!

Walker Wright

1. The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections On the Quest for Faith by Terryl & Fiona Givens

The Givenses’ most recent work is, as Adam Miller put it, “a nearly perfect book.” Many books have been written on the nature of faith and doubt, but none (that I’m aware of) tackle it from a purely Mormon perspective. The LDS faith produces a number of somewhat unique angles and situations for doubt due to its history and theological claims. These include but are not limited to modern prophetic authority and the temptation of hero worship, the Church’s doctrines in relation to other traditions and sources of truth, and the actual role the LDS Church as an organization plays in the world today and in God’s eternal plan. The Givenses provide deep insights, workable paradigms, and new language by which to articulate the messiness of lived religion. In a culture and tradition that paradoxically teaches both progressive learning and religious certainty, this book provides a method of faithful doubting. Questions, as noted recently by President Ucthdorf, led to the Restoration. I hope that this book will begin to erode the cultural stigma toward doubt and help reestablish a culture of consistent seeking.

2. Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact by Neylan McBaine

Neylan McBaine’s book is both important and timely, offering wisdom and insight for both LDS leaders and lay members. Neylan’s ability to carefully navigate the rather heated and sensitive topic of gender roles within the LDS Church is awe-inspiring. She avoids painting women as victims or overusing buzzwords like “patriarchy,” while still pointedly addressing the sexism that is sometimes (often unintentionally) bred in Mormon culture. Her choice of stories—several from non-American settings–paints a more vivid, diverse picture of the LDS Church and the men and women within it. Neylan’s empathic take on both traditional and more critical LDS views is an excellent example of bridge building and readers will likely be influenced to adopt a more charitable approach to those they disagree with. She largely avoids the theological entanglements of gender essentialism and the like, instead relying on business-oriented studies and material to provide a realistic framework in which actual improvements can be made. The end product is inspiring, thoughtful, and often paradigm-shifting. Every LDS member, as well as outsiders looking in, would benefit from reading it.

3. Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy (Paperback) – Common by David E. Bokovoy

This book is one that, surprisingly, both LDS and non-LDS alike can benefit from. The book is written as less of an argument (even if the evidence presented within it could be used to bolster an impressive one), but as an invitation. The first five chapters focus on the Documentary Hypothesis, breaking it down in a highly accessible way. The final five focus specifically on Latter-day Saints and their holy books (i.e. the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, and the Book of Mormon), providing readers with an informative paradigm by which to approach scripture, revelation, and “translation.” A secularist can find value in Bokovoy’s description of the Book of Moses and Book of Abraham as modern pseudepigrapha, while an apologist will find plenty of material for ancient origins. While there is room for debate regarding David’s approach to restoration scriptures (I tend to take an eclectic approach, seeing it as a mix of pseudepigrapha, midrash, targum, history, and iconotropy), that’s the point: to think critically about these texts. Bokovoy does not offer his view as the final word, but as a possible paradigm. And it is a valuable one at that. David and Greg Kofford Books have done Latter-day Saints a great service with this publication. I hope to see its influence in future Sunday School, Institute, and Seminary classes Church wide.

Honorable Mention:

Letters to a Young Mormon by Adam S. Miller

For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope by Joseph M. Spencer

Allen Hansen

1. Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution (Jewish Lives)  by Yehuda Mirsky

I greatly admire the Rav Kook, arguably among the most original and radical religious thinkers of all time, a man who tried to find the spark of holiness in everyone, even in his opponents. Yehuda Mirsky’s new biography traces Kook’s life from his beginnings in the traditional, conservative world of Jewish Eastern Europe to his move to Palestine in 1904 where he attempted to build bridges between that world and the young, free-thinking Zionists.  Then came the horrors of the First World War, which Kook saw in starkly religious terms. The rest of the book is taken up with Kook’s return to Palestine under the British, where he became chief rabbi. Mirsky shows how Kook could be theologically bold and psychologically incisive, yet remained politically naïve. At his best, Rabbi Kook could bridge the traditional and modern worlds in a unique, visionary way, and this biography is an excellent introduction to his pivotal impact on Judaism and the Middle East.

2. I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Bluesby Stephen Calt

Skip James is my favorite bluesman. He was also a pretty appalling individual. What particularly fascinates me is how similar blues culture was to rap culture in many ways. Pimping, getting rich quick, clubbing, and violence, it is all there in the life of Skip James, so he feels surprisingly modern. Stephen Calt was one of the few people whom James considered a friend, and he shared with him many (contradictory) details of his life. Calt traces James’ life from the early 20th century to his rediscovery by white fans in the 1960s. He does so critically, so there is no getting around the fact that despite being gifted, James was also proud, paranoid, and unloving. Calt really has little patience for myth or romanticism. Calt also accepts that not all blues music was good, and shows James’ limitations as a musician. There is also a wealth of historical detail about the south, its dialects, culture and religion. Ultimately, the book is the tragic portrait of an intelligent, undeniably talented man who at the end of his life had nothing to be proud of except performing a song better than Cream’s cover version.

3. Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul (Jewish Encounters) Daniel Gordis

Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, was nothing if not controversial. Begin led the armed insurgency against the British in 1940s Palestine, and was considered by them terrorist No. 1. Begin was publicly denounced by Einstein, and constantly vilified by Ben-Gurion. As prime minister, Begin launched the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor, and initiated the First Lebanese War.  Yet he also signed the peace treaty with Egypt, and he took in Vietnamese refugees when no one else did. Daniel Gordis does a superb job of putting Begin in context, highlighting how Begin’s profound attachment to his Jewish identity shaped his life and political vision. Gordis brings nuances to the moral dilemmas that Begin faced, and it is hard to walk away from this biography without gaining appreciation for Begin as a person. He made tough decisions, but did not throw anyone under the bus if things went wrong. Given his reputation, it is surprising to learn that he attempted to minimize bloodshed, and was determined to avoid a civil war among the various Jewish factions. Despite his unyielding devotion to the Jewish cause, he also believed in a universal humanism. Gordis’ biography makes it hard to accept the common wisdom which holds that religion and nationalism inevitably have a negative impact on politics. The truth is always far messier and complex.

Honourable Mention:

Terror Out of Zion: The Fight for Israeli Independence by J. Bowyer Bell

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris

Bryan Maack

1. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller

I think people are rightfully calling Tim Keller the new C.S. Lewis. The pastor of a New York Presbyterian Church, he writes in a simple and short yet deeply insightful manner. His book clocks in at 250 pages, but they read easily, and every page has value. His book is broken down into two main parts. First, he covers the arguments against Christianity such as there can’t be one true religion, how a good God could allow suffering, and how science has disproved Christianity. Keller then follows up with reasons for believing in Christianity, such as the famous argument from desire, the clues to God in the human mind and the natural world, the meaning of sin, and much more. He uses citations amply, which provide both credibility and additional reading. Overall, a great book which I can’t do justice to in a short review. Go read it yourself!

2. The Shadow of His Wings: The True Story of Fr. Gereon Goldmann, OFM by Gereon Goldmann

Gereon Goldmann recalls his harrowing years up to and during WW2 as a Catholic priest-in-training who was drafted into the SS as a medic before he could finish his theological training. His autobiography paints a picture of one man, trusting in God, trying to stay alive and faithful to his beliefs through the trials of World War 2. The book reads like ‘based on a true story’ and yet *is* a true story. Goldmann defies the SS straight to their face. He meets with Pope Pius XII during the war and become a priest despite lacking years of training. He carries the Eucharist throughout the war, ministering to the fearful and dying, and at one point wades across a river above his head with only the Eucharist above water in his hand, hoping nearby British sentries don’t notice the mysterious Eucharist container moving across the river. He ends up in a French prison camp in the middle of the desert after the war with a bunch of Nazis who refuse to give up, and through faithful dedication overthrows their de facto ownership of the camp despite attempts on his life. Goldmann survives all of these ordeals and ultimately becomes a missionary to Japan! I truly have found few biographies more inspiring than Father Goldmann’s.

3. The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ (A Liguori Classic) by Saint Alphonsus Liguori

Saint Liguori set out in the mid 1700s to write a book for the poor and uneducated of Italy about the love of Jesus Christ. I love this book precisely because it is written for the simple and uneducated. I want to be taught as one would teach a peasant, starting with the simplest concepts, because I have found often that in simplicity there is the genuine love of Christ so often lacking in complex treatises. Saint Liguori pulls liberally from scripture and from other Catholic saints to teach us how much Jesus has done for us, and in return how we can best love Jesus. “For my part, I know of no other perfection than that of loving God with all the heart, because without love all the other virtues are nothing but a pile of stones.”

Nathaniel Givens

I read a lot of books in 2014 (more than 60), so picking just the top three is going to be tricky. Here we go.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

I put off reading The Righteous Mind for a while not because I wasn’t sure if it would be good or not, but because I was sure that it would be good. I was already familiar from interviews, articles, and videos with both Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory and its basic political implications. I thought it was fascinating and compelling theory, and I assumed that this book–like so many popular non-fiction books–would be a couple of hundred pages of fluff around a core idea that could be expressed in 70 pages or less. When I actually read the book, however, I was shocked and surprised to see how wrong I’d been.

There’s a lot more going on in this book than Moral Foundations Theory. There is MFT, of course, but it’s very interesting to see Jonathan Haidt put it in its historical context by writing of his own coming-of-age (as a researcher) narrative. Then, going far beyond MFT, there’s just a lot of really, really excellent discussion of the basics of human nature. There are two core ideas, and both of them are starkly post-post-modern (as N. T. Wright would say). The first critiques the model of human nature that pictures us as more or less rational and more or less monolithic. Instead, Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant (our emotional and psychological behaviors) with a rider perched on top (our rational mind) where the rider has very limited control over the elephant and acts more as a PR firm to justify what the elephant does rather than an expert consultant to guide its behavior. The second critiques the idea of human individualism, pointing out that we are (as Haidt metaphorically puts it) 90% chimp and 10% honeybee. We have a “hive switch” that, when activated by various group religious, cultural, or military behaviors, turns a bunch of individuals into a single, cohesive whole. Taken together, these two ideas constitute one of the most important attacks on the core Enlightenment philosophical tenets that have survived into modernity, although that observation goes beyond what Haidt himself has to say. The book is fascinating, compelling, and deeply relevant to our world today.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This is one of those books that has had a tremendous amount of positive buzz, and I was really happy that it lived up to all the good rumors I’d heard. I classify this as a work of genuinely literary sci-fi, along with books like Never Let Me Go or The Handmaid’s Tale: they come from outside the stable of authors traditionally considered to be genre writers in the sci-fi tradition, but they are books that absolutely couldn’t exist without the concepts and tropes popularized by sci-fi genre writers. They are sort of the best of both worlds: more emphasis on prose and characterization than you sometimes get from books shelved in the sci-fi section, but with that genuine spark of inquisitiveness and analysis that is the hallmark of “the literature of ideas.” In particular, The Road is a literary take on the post-apocalyptic sub-genre that simultaneously uses the apocalypse as a backdrop for an introspective father/son story (sort of a mirror image coming-of-age story, where the boy comes of age almost without the father realizing what is happening) but at the same time treats the backdrop seriously and as more than a mere prop. This is why, I think, it can satisfy both hard core sci-fi fans and also those who have never really gotten into the genre. I will add that I couldn’t fully enjoy the book as I read it through the first time because ever since I’ve had kids of my own I can’t really deal with traumatic things happening to children in fiction, and I wasn’t sure how dark this book was going to get. I won’t give any spoilers other than to say the ending wasn’t what I expected, but it worked fantastically. I want to reread this one again some day.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter

On one level, this is a book-length exposition of McWhorter’s theory of where the English language came from, written for a layperson to understand. But with this book, the journey is at least as valuable as the destination. By the time he got to his big reveal at the end, I had completely forgotten that that was the point of the book. I was simply too fascinated by his explanation of the linguistic history of English, especially as it related to the political and cultural history of Europe. But then when he did pull it all together in the end, I was excited by his theory, too. It gave the book the feel of an exciting techno-mystery where there’s some ancient, unexplained clue that–once it is unraveled–gives us fresh insight into the past. I’m definitely a huge fan of McWhorter, and I have to stress that if you’re not listening to the audiobook versions of his books (which he narrates himself), you’re missing out. With linguistics as with no other subject, there is really no substitute for the spoken word.

Honorable Mention:

Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson

What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick

Mother Night: A Novel by Kurt Vonnegut

Hezbollah, Charlie Hebdo, and Politics


Much is being made of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s indirect condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Perhaps too much. I understand why the statement is considered a big deal. When Muslims are condemned as a group for terrorist attacks, it is good to see prominent Muslim voices condemning violence. It shows that violence is not an integral part of Islam. However, I find Nasrallah’s statement highly problematic. After all, Nasrallah is hardly a moderate himself. Under Nasrallah’s command, Hezbollah has fired rockets at an Israeli hospital, blown up a bus of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, and bombed the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, to name but three examples. The number of fatalities in the Argentinean attack alone far exceeds the body count in the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I’m excluding attacks on military and political targets as it could be argued that these have their own form of legitimacy, but I might as well add another example. Hezbollah for years had targeted Jewish towns and villages with rocket fire. It never distinguished between the military and civilians, and sometimes deliberately targeted civilian areas. Then, in 2006, a rocket fell quite close to my parent’s house. There luckily were no fatalities in our village, but I guess that I do have a personal reason for not taking Nasrallah’s statement at face value. It is not a simple condemnation of religiously motivated violence. I think that the explanation is simple. Nasrallah is a Shiite militant, and al Qaeda are Sunni militants. They are opposed to each other on sectarian grounds, and are also political rivals. While the two groups may have collaborated on occasion, they generally do not peacefully inhabit the same spaces. Hezbollah (and its Iranian backers) have been fighting al Qaeda directly ever since the Syrian civil war, seeing in it an existential threat. Condemning the Charlie Hebdo massacre allows Nasrallah to increase his prestige and moral capital at the expense of al Qaeda’s, his bitter rival. This is not a principled condemnation of terrorism as something opposed to the fundamental principles of Islam. It is little more than political maneuvering. There are so many worthier Muslim voices decrying violence (such as many of the entries on this list) that it is a shame to mention Nasrallah’s alongside them.

Healthy Marriages: Protecting Women and Children From Domestic Violence

W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia has a recent article exploring the connection between family structure and domestic violence. Drawing on new evidence, he writes,

Using data from the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health, which surveyed more than 90,000 parents of children aged 17 and under, Zill reports that domestic violence is much lower in families headed by intact, married parents. The figure below shows differences, by family structure, in the odds that parents reported that their child had ever seen or heard “any parents, guardians, or any other adults in the home slap, hit, kick, punch, or beat each other up,” after adjusting for differences in the sex, age, and race or ethnicity of the child, as well as family income, poverty status, and parent education. So, even after controlling for…pet variables—“education, income and race”—Zill finds that homes headed by never-married, separated, or divorced mothers are about five times more likely to expose children to domestic violence, compared to homes headed by married, biological parents.

Wilcox also notes that marriage may actually be a causal factor in this stabilizing, low-conflict environment. Linking to numerous sources, Wilcox finds that “men tend to settle down after they marry, to be more attentive to the expectations of friends and kin, to be more faithful, and to be more committed to their partners—factors that minimize the risk of violence.”

He concludes that this is yet “more evidence that violence against women (not to mention their intimates and children) is markedly rarer in families headed by married parents regardless of how well-off or well- educated mom is…[W]hat should be clear to analysts willing to follow the data wherever it leads is this: a healthy marriage seems to matter more than money when it comes to minimizing the scourge of domestic violence in American families.”

Some Articles about the Coming Demographic Winter

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A friend gave some very high praise to The History of Fertility Transitions and the New Memeplex, and so it has been sitting amongst my Chrome browser tabs for a month or more. Last week, I read it, and it really is a very important, big-picture article. The basic idea is that memes compete via cultural transmission in much the same way that genes compete via biological transmission. Historically, memes have been transmitted primarily through intergenerational transfer, which has given a strong advantage to cultures with high fertility. If you have more kids, and if the main way to pass on memes is to kids, than successful cultures are those that have lots of kids.

The advent of the printing press and other technological advancements turbocharged an alternative method of meme reproduction however: cultural diffusion. Now memes didn’t have to depend on having lots of children to carry them on. They could also be transmitted laterally in books. This resulted in a break between biological and cultural evolution, and it allowed cultures with low fertility to compete successfully by “infecting” other cultures with the meme for lower fertility.

Accordingly, there was a massive cultural transition that started in the 18th century with the American and French Revolutions and has since engulfed the entire world: all countries and regions in the world either already practice controlled fertility or are transitioning from uncontrolled / natural fertility to controlled fertility. At an individual level, this makes sense because it allows families to invest more resources per child, especially in education. And education is the key to maintaining and increasing social status. So the first consequence is a drastic reduction in the fertility rate. In many developed nations, the fertility rate is already far below replacement. The second consequence is that the eugenic effects of natural fertility (in which couples with high intelligence and self-control have more children) have been replaced by dysgenic effects (in which couples with high intelligence and self-control have fewer children.) As the article puts it:

The benefits of the new pattern are increased material wealth per person, a reduction in disease, starvation, and genocide, and upward social mobility. The main drawback is the onset of a dysgenic phase that may end civilization as we know it.

The article is most impressive for the exhaustive, meticulously researched evidence that the transition has, in fact, occurred. It doesn’t do as good a job at talking about the consequences of this transition, however. The dysgenic effect is not the only problem, and may not even be the most acute one. I happen to have recently watched a YouTube documentary about the demographic winter being created by declining fertility rates. It’s a demographic winter because, as fertility rates fall rapidly, the average age of a population rises dramatically. You still have all the old folks (from prior decades when fertility was higher), but there are far fewer children to replace them. As a result, children become relatively scarce.

This isn’t just sad. It’s very, very dangerous. Some of the most obvious problems have to do with entitlements for the elderly. When you have a huge population of old, retired folks and a much, much smaller population of active workers, this is bad. It gets much worse when you factor in immigration, since the racial characteristics of the two groups may be significantly different as well. In the United States, for example, you’ll have a lot of young Hispanics paying taxes to support retired whites. You’ll get a similar problem in Europe, with African and Middle Eastern immigrants taking the place of Hispanics.

Another point made by the documentary, and a plausible one, is that the economy tracks population with about a 48-year lag. The idea is that what really determines the stock market and overall economic performance is consumption, and people hit their peak consumption at about age 48. So when you have a very large cohort hit age 48, you get an economic boom. If the successive generations are much smaller, you will get economic contractions.

This might seem counterintutive. Aren’t more people a drain on resources? No, not necessarily. As this fascinating Wall Street Journal article outlines:

An odd thing about people, compared with other animals, is that the more of us there are, the more we thrive. World population has doubled in my lifetime, but the world’s income has octupled. The richest places on Earth are among the most densely populated.

Economic growth depends on the creative energy that comes from lots of people trading ideas in densely populated clusters. If population density declines, so too will economic and scientific progress.

Of course, the biggest argument in favor of limited population is environmental. Don’t more people take up more resources? But there’s a major problem with this criticism as well, which is that the unit of interest is not really individuals but rather households. In other words, if you have a situation where you’ve got 10,000 households and each has 4 people (for a total population of 40,000) and another situation where you’ve got 20,000 household and each has 2 people (for a total population of 40,000), then it’s pretty obvious that the population with more households is going to use up a lot more resources. Of course there is still a maximum aggregate population that the Earth can sustain, but the point is that the resource savings from low fertility are going to be much, much less than you  might initially think.

Looking ahead, I think the best case scenario is that we manage to survive the coming demographic contraction without some kind of horrific World War III followed by Mad Max scenario. But, ultimately, the aggregate fertility rate really needs to remain at replacement rate levels. Otherwise, we’re looking at the possibility of species suicide. Frankly, however, I would prefer that we see the return of positive population growth in the future coupled with some serious attempts at extra-planetary colonization. It is the nature of life to grow. I don’t believe stagnation is a long-run solution.

Is There Really a Wedge Between Production and Wages?

The above chart has been a talking point for the past couple years. Economic theory posits that an increase in capital per worker leads to increase output per worker which leads to increased income per worker. However, there has been a supposed wedge between productivity and worker compensation since the 1970s. Yet the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship argues otherwise. He lists 6 keys to properly analyzing production and wages:

  1. Look at hourly pay, not annual household or family income.
  2. Look at hourly compensation, not hourly wages.
  3. Look at the mean, not the median.
  4. Compare the pay and productivity of the same group of workers.
  5. Use the same price adjustment for productivity and for compensation.
  6. Exclude forms of income that obscure the fundamental question of whether workers receive higher pay when they produce more value.

Number four is especially important:

[The chart above] compares the compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers in the private sector to productivity in the overall economy. The twenty percent of the workforce that falls outside “production and nonsupervisory workers” are excluded from the compensation trend—a group that includes supervisors, who are higher-paid than non-supervisors. Meanwhile, the productivity trend includes them. If productivity has increased primarily among supervisory workers, then we wouldn’t expect compensation among other workers to track productivity growth.

In number six, he states, “Technically, if one is interested in whether workers are being fairly compensated, it probably makes the most sense to compare the growth of compensation to the growth of compensation plus profits. More broadly, one might be interested in whether compensation is growing in line with the income going to owners of capital generally (including those who receive rent or interest).”

He produces a new chart that looks at “hourly compensation and compare[s] it to “net” productivity (excluding depreciation and also proprietors’ income). Both apply to the “nonfarm business sector,” which excludes the parts of GDP produced from the farm, government, non-profit, and housing sectors, thereby avoiding the issues of homeowners renting to themselves and of indirect taxes (along with other measurement issues in the government sector).” Furthermore, it “use[s] the same price adjustment for both compensation and productivity.” Finally, it excludes proprietors’ income (income from one’s business), “as it is not at all clear how to allocate that category into income from labor and income from capital”:

Winship clarifies that ““labor” includes extremely well-paid executives as well as minimum-wage workers, so the fact that labor’s piece of the pie hasn’t shrunk does not mean that inequality between workers hasn’t grown. But it does complicate unified theories of rising inequality.”

Ahmed and Charlie

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Over at Times and Seasons, Walter van Beek has an article in which he shares one of the most popular reactions to the murder of 12 at the headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo: We are all Charlie. He’s getting some pushback in the comments. I’m torn. On the one hand, I agree very strongly with the commenters who are pushing back. Charlie Hebdo was, by my standards, a vile and disgusting publication. I do not wish to identify myself with it. And yet I wish very  much to identify myself with the principle of free speech, and also express some solidarity with those who are reeling in the wake of this traumatic event. Is there a way to do both?

Mormons have our own perspective on this, especially given the overwhelming popularity of The Book of Mormon musical. It’s long been fair game in the United States and elsewhere to make comments about Mormons that one would never make about most other religious groups. We don’t generally enjoy these kinds of attacks, but we don’t protest them either. We tend to just make the most of it and get on with our lives. As a Mormon, I support the right of  Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone to publicly deride and mock my faith. But it doesn’t mean I have to identify myself with them.

Well, it turns out that there is an alternative to the “We are Charlie” sentiment. And it is “We are Ahmed.”

Two of those killed, 42-year-old Ahmed Merabet and 49-year-old Franck Brinsolaro, were police officers…Merabet was himself Muslim.

Merabet, then, died at the hands of one of his own — albeit its fanatical and dangerous minority. It is especially and darkly ironic given that the gunmen allegedly shouted, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.” The name “Ahmed” shares linguistic roots with “Muhammad,” and the prophet was sometimes referred to as Ahmed.

He gave his life to protect Charlie Hebdo’s right to ridicule his religion.

Ahmed’s example shows it is possible to bypass identification with vulgar and demeaning expressions of free speech and still give utmost dedication to the principle itself. I don’t have to like what everyone does with their free speech to be passionately dedicated to the ideal of free speech itself. There is a way to eschew vitriol and still defend the principle of those who chose to spew it. Ahmed showed us that example, and so I can say “We are Ahmed” with far less reservation than I could say “We are Charlie.”