The Slow Hunch: August – October 2015

It’s that time again. And I’ve gone from a 5 month gap in reporting to 2.5 instead. So, that’s progress.

Here’s what you probably missed the last couple months:

  • Materiality, Technology, and Seer Stones – A couple reactions to the photos of Joseph Smith’s seer stones released by the LDS Church framed by the insights of media scholar John Durham Peters.
  • Grace In All Things – A few thoughts on a recent review of philosopher Adam Miller’s book Speculative Grace.
  • Why I Fail To Write – Drawing on an interview with Peters (mentioned above), I look at his research techniques and compare them to mine.
  • “This Stupid, Wonderful, Boring, Amazing Job” – Uses The Office to stress the importance of the mundane.
  • Semiotic Objections to Business – Looks at arguments made by Georgetown professors Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski’s new book regarding modern objections to markets and applies them to business. Also features Ned Beatty’s speech from the Oscar-nominated Network.
  • “Good For That Which Is Good” – Argues that Wharton professor Adam Grant’s research on “givers” in the workplace further supports the notion of an inherently good business.

Enjoy loyal readers (you two are great)!

Unlivable Philosophy

In the course of reading philosophy, I sometimes find myself objecting to philosophical ideas not on the grounds that the ideas are demonstrably false (although they very well may be) but rather that, even if they were true, we simply couldn’t live as if they were true. I have been thinking about this principle, and for a while it has struck me as somewhat ad hoc and itself illogical. Whether or not someone can live a principle is irrelevant to whether or not the principle is actually true. For example, I think Christianity is true, but sooner or later, we reach a point where we simply cannot live exactly as Christ did during his earthly life and commanded us also to live.

I think I finally hit on why this principle would reasonably apply to, say, determinism or radical skepticism and not, for example, religious principles or the categorical imperative. The difference is not only that the principles are, eventually, unlivable but that no one even wants to live them. We praise Jesus’ teachings and the categorical imperative even if we know we can’t follow them completely, but nobody wants to live like rape or murder are the unavoidable consequences of either divine predestination or mechanical interactions. Nobody even wants to try and live their daily life in a radically skeptical way, doubting that any knowledge is attainable. Christians want to be like Christ, and Buddhists want to be like the Buddha, but even Hume doesn’t want to be Hume:

Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? … I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Pretty women and fun games make good diversion

I tie this observation into reason by noting that, if human reason can discover truths that no human can possibly live let alone want to live, reason must be either useless or suspect. Since reason leads us to truths that are antithetical to our continued existence, we must either profess truths that would destroy human existence if lived truly, or we must hide these truths and profess statements that are not true but convenient for continued existence. The former would ensure there are no humans, let alone philosophers, after a few generations, and the latter should be anathema to anyone who considers himself or herself a philosopher.

I by no means present these thoughts as air tight. They came to my mind while driving down the interstate and listening to a CD lecture on ethics. But I think we should walk through why we reject some claims out of hand but not others. Why am I ok, at least upon cursory inspection, with Christian ethics or the categorical imperative, but I instinctively reject determinism and radical skepticism? Is it simple prejudice, or is reason at play? Or both? Are we prejudiced against certain ideas because we subconsciously know the dangers to reason these ideas present?

The Slow Hunch: February – July 2015

Apparently I’m not very good at self-promotion. I said before that I would provide monthly recaps of my personal blog The Slow Hunch, but I’ve failed to do so the last…5 months.

So here I am again to provide all three readers of my blog with a lengthy list of posts you probably missed:

Enjoy.

Warren Buffet: What’s Better Than Raising the Minimum Wage?

892 - Minimum Wage WSJ

If you read Difficult Run with any frequency, you know that we really, really don’t like the minimum wage. There are lots of reasons for this, but one of the biggest is that there’s a better solution to the problem that the minimum wage is supposed to tackle, which is helping the working poor. It’s better because it gets more money into the hands of those who need it without either (1) eradicating low-income jobs (which are better than no jobs) or (2) uselessly funneling extra money into the hands of middle class teenagers working summer jobs (or whatever).

So, what is this superior alternative? Let’s ask Warren Buffet and the Wall Street Journal:

I may wish to have all jobs pay at least $15 an hour. But that minimum would almost certainly reduce employment in a major way, crushing many workers possessing only basic skills. Smaller increases, though obviously welcome, will still leave many hardworking Americans mired in poverty.

The better answer is a major and carefully crafted expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which currently goes to millions of low-income workers. Payments to eligible workers diminish as their earnings increase. But there is no disincentive effect: A gain in wages always produces a gain in overall income. The process is simple: You file a tax return, and the government sends you a check.

In essence, the EITC rewards work and provides an incentive for workers to improve their skills. Equally important, it does not distort market forces, thereby maximizing employment.

Given the existence of the EITC, it is inexcusable for anyone who genuinely cares about this issue to keep shouting for an increase in the minimum wage.

In a perfect world if I got to restructure our whole tax / welfare system from scratch I might make other choices than an EITC (like maybe an Universal Base Income), but in the world we live today the EITC is a smart, simple program that is already in place and just needs to be augmented in order to give targeted, sound support to the working power. In this case the smart thing and the right thing are the same: so let’s increase the EITC.

What I Saw of Shiloh: Honoring Memorial Day

Memorial Day originally commemorated the fallen of the American Civil War. While it was later expand to include all of the wars fought by the USA, it is good never to forget its roots. Ambrose Bierce is one of my favorite authors. He combined absolute mastery of the English language with dark, sardonic, and witty insights into human nature. Some of his finest work draws upon his experiences in the Civil War. Bierce fought through most of it, and it would be an understatement to say that the death, horror, courage, stupidity, and uselessness he saw deeply impacted him for the rest of his life. Nothing quite captures the horror of being trapped and isolated like his story, One of the Missing. Read it, and it will send chills down your spine. Even this doesn’t compare to the powerfully understated recollections he wrote of leading men into battle. Take a little time today to read What I Saw of Shiloh, I promise it will deeply move you and lend a little more meaning to this day.

Exploring The Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is probably the most vexing philosophical question for monotheism. It has affected people I know personally all the way up to famous scholars like Bart Ehrman. What are we to do with this problem? Even though the question has been explored endlessly, I want to think about it a little today.

First, according to contemporary philosophers, the logical problem of evil is more or less solved. The logical problem of evil is a subset of the problem of evil that argues that God’s existence is logically incoherent with the existence of evil. And yet many people remain unsatisfied with the logical resolution of this problem. Why?

Some people argue because the evidential problem of evil remains. The evidential problem of evil involves arguing that the existence of evil makes God’s existence unlikely, rather than illogical. That seems like a decent argument to make, and harder to refute decisively, but I don’t think God’s existence simply being made less likely or unlikely would have the same destructive effect on faith that the problem of evil has.

I want to try a different avenue. I think the problem of evil persists because it so deeply offends our moral sense. To explain, I will turn to a different story.

In Greek philosophy, much thought turns over the Homeric gods. The Homeric gods are the gods we traditionally associate with Greece–Zeus, Athena, Ares, Hermes, Apollo, and the like. The Greek philosophers by and large reject the Homeric gods. But why they reject the Homeric gods is illustrative. They don’t reject the Homeric gods on an empirical basis, such as the fact that you can physically walk over to Mount Olympus and check if the gods are actually there. Nor do they reject them on a logical or probabilistic basis. Rather, they reject the Homeric gods on a moral basis. Surely the gods do not act in ways unworthy even of human beings. Xenohpanes, a pre-Socratic philosopher, writes:

Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all those things which in men are a matter for reproach and censure: stealing, adultery, and mutual deception.

Plato expresses similar thoughts:

Plato’s second objection, however, is more fundamental…Homer and the poets teach falsely about the gods and morals. Gods who fight one another, lie and cheat, and who speak and act falsely, are not suitable for the raising and teaching of children.

The Greek philosophers then puzzle out what or who exists if the Homeric gods do not. Some of their thoughts will sound very familiar to modern monotheists (especially Xenophanes’ writings). What I want to note, though, is the direction of their thought. If something about the gods and the world seem contradictory, the Greeks posit the gods (or more generally and non-theistically the moral foundation of the world) must be better than the popular understanding, not non-existent. I think this distinction is very important.

Why? Because, remember, our objection was originally moral in nature. If our objection is moral, and our conclusion then is that the supernatural does not exist, we face the much bigger problem of accounting for the origin of the moral sense that invalidated the supernatural in the first place.

Here’s where my story ties back to the problem of evil. I believe that the problem of evil persists because it fundamentally offends our moral sense. But if the origin of the problem of evil is our moral sense, we make a deadly error in rejecting the supernatural and embracing naturalism as the solution. C.S. Lewis explains this idea in full in Mere Christianity:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?  A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.

Naturally I’m biased as a Christian, but I find this resolution fitting. The answer to our problems are implicit in the very objections we raise.

Remembering a Forgotten Woman

There have been calls to replace Andrew Jackson’s portrait on the twenty dollar bill with that of a woman. It is a good idea, and Women On 20s recently announced their four finalists. Worthy, if predictable, choices. I know that you can’t choose everyone, but I have to wonder why a certain candidate never got as far as the primary round. It raises an important question. Why does a prominent female activist who believed in equality, crusaded against social evils oppressing women, and inspired people the world over not even make it to the final fifteen? As you have probably guessed from the picture, I have Carry A. Nation of saloon-smashing fame in mind. Nation was a strong, independent, and unconventional woman who tirelessly fought for equality. She was not afraid to oppose social and systemic evil. Born poor, Nation became an entrepreneur, a journalist, an educator, and a performer, possibly one of the most famous women of her day. Her example inspired women in other countries such as France. She suffered ridicule, humiliation, physical assaults, and escaped several attempts on her life. She seems to be exactly the kind of woman who should be celebrated as a quintessentially American hero, yet she is marginalized by men and women across the American political spectrum. Why? As her recent biographer explains,

Nowadays, however, no one wants to claim Carry Nation. Although she fought for women’s rights, feminists dismiss her because she was intensely religious and lambasted liquor. A puritanical killjoy, they say. One would think that the religious right would like her precisely for this reason, but they disparage her as a stereotypical domineering woman because she marched into the male sphere (with an axe!) and deserted her husband. Even the organization that helped to launch Nation’s career—the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)—no longer claims her as their own (if they ever did).

Carry Nation is not polarizing, she is inconvenient. No one really knows what to do with her because she does not comfortably fit current political agendas, so she is written off as a loon. Twenty dollar bills or not, if you care about women’s history, reintroducing the marginalized like Carry Nation into the narrative is change you can make happen now.

Understanding the Cosmological Argument

I try to avoid Difficult Run posts that essentially regurgitate someone else’s blog post, but Edward Feser’s So you think you understand the cosmological argument? constitutes the best post I have read on both the cosmological argument itself and the general state of philosophy in the modern Western world. I’ll highlight my favorite parts (it’s decently long for a blog post) and comment.

1. The argument does NOT rest on the premise that “Everything has a cause.”

Lots of people – probably most people who have an opinion on the matter – think that the cosmological argument goes like this: Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists.  They then have no trouble at all poking holes in it.  If everything has a cause, then what caused God?  Why assume in the first place that everything has to have a cause?  Why assume the cause is God?  Etc.

Here’s the funny thing, though.  People who attack this argument never tell you where they got it from.  They never quote anyone defending it.  There’s a reason for that.  The reason is that none of the best-known proponents of the cosmological argument in the history of philosophy and theology ever gave this stupid argument.  Not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne.  And not anyone else either, as far as I know.  (Your Pastor Bob doesn’t count.  I mean no one among prominent philosophers.)  And yet it is constantly presented, not only by popular writers but even by some professional philosophers, as if it were “the” “basic” version of the cosmological argument, and as if every other version were essentially just a variation on it.

What defenders of the cosmological argument do say is that what comes into existence has a cause, or that what is contingent has a cause.  These claims are as different from “Everything has a cause” as “Whatever has color is extended” is different from “Everything is extended.”  Defenders of the cosmological argument also providearguments for these claims about causation.  You may disagree with the claims – though if you think they are falsified by modern physics, you are sorely mistaken – but you cannot justly accuse the defender of the cosmological argument either of saying something manifestly silly or of contradicting himself when he goes on to say that God is uncaused.

The counterargument ‘so what caused God?’ is probably the single most common and the single most silly answer to the cosmological argument. And yet it’s so prominent that just a few months ago I heard Michael Shermer use it as a rebuttal in a debate at Oregon State University on the existence of God. I like to joke that asking ‘so what caused God?’ is equivalent to saying ‘I was asleep while my opponent gave the premises of the cosmological argument.’ Edward Feser goes on:

What [the cosmological argument] seeks to show is that if there is to be an ultimate explanation of things, then there must be a cause of everything else which not only happens to exist, but which could not even in principle have failed to exist.  And that is why it is said to be uncaused – not because it is an arbitrary exception to a general rule, not because it merely happens to be uncaused, but rather because it is not the sort of thing that can even in principle be said to have had a cause, precisely because it could not even in principle have failed to exist in the first place.  And the argument doesn’t merely assume or stipulate that the first cause is like this; on the contrary, the whole point of the argument is to try to show that there must be something like this.

The above, to me, has always been the power of the cosmological argument. The argument is not one of probability or likelihood. Rather, the cosmological argument posits an uncaused cause that must exist, and that no other possibility is logically coherent with existence. Onward and forward…
3. “Why assume that the universe had a beginning?” is not a serious objection to the argument.

The reason this is not a serious objection is that no version of the cosmological argument assumes this at all.  Of course, the kalām cosmological argument does claim that the universe had a beginning, but it doesn’t merely assume it.  Rather, the whole point of that version of the cosmological argument is to establish through detailed argument that the universe must have had a beginning.  You can try to rebut those arguments, but to pretend that one can dismiss the argument merely by raising the possibility of an infinite series of universes (say) is to miss the whole point.

The main reason this is a bad objection, though, is that most versions of the cosmological argument do not even claim that the universe had a beginning.  Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic, and Leibnizian cosmological arguments are all concerned to show that there must be an uncaused cause even if the universe has always existed.  Of course, Aquinas did believe that the world had a beginning, but (as all Aquinas scholars know) that is not a claim that plays any role in his versions of the cosmological argument.  When he argues there that there must be a First Cause, he doesn’t mean “first” in the order of events extending backwards into the past.  What he means is that there must be a most fundamental cause of things which keeps them in existence at every moment, whether or not the series of moments extends backwards into the past without a beginning.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t even know the above. I thought the universe having a beginning played an important role in the cosmological argument. Turns out, the universe need not have a beginning for the most important forms of the cosmological argument to be just fine.

Later on Feser switches gears to challenging materialism in general. I appreciate the critiques down there as well, but they’re too long to re-quote here. I’d summarize them as the following:

1) Non-religious people are just as potentially motivated by desire for religion not to be true as religious people are motivated by desire for religion to be true. You’d think this point is obvious, since we’re all human beings with preconceptions and biases, but on a regular basis religious philosophers are suspected of bias while the same standard somehow doesn’t apply to non-religious philosophers.

2) Metaphysical naturalism cannot be taken for granted as the ‘correct’ or ‘neutral’ view of reality, yet many philosophers do so, particularly philosophers who do not specialize in the philosophy of religion.

3) Science in no way proves metaphysical naturalism or disproves supernaturalism. Rather, the very common starting assumption of metaphysical naturalism causes people to circle science back around as ‘proof’ of metaphysical naturalism. I’ve also written on this topic before.

So there you have it. If you have time, give the full post a read.

Bourgeois Terrorism

The late scholar John Bowyer Bell described terrorists as “real gunmen in imaginary gardens.” By emphasizing the ideological world-view of terrorists- their perceived reality– Bell was going against popular wisdom. It is easy to form the impression that terrorists are driven to desperate measures by harsh, hopeless economic realities. In other words, an environment of poverty and no jobs leaves angry young men with no choice but to lash out violently against the government. This is more or less what Malcolm X meant by a “sociological explosion.”

Is terrorism, though, really about poverty and jobs? A new piece by Peter Bergen argues that it is not. If anything, terrorism is largely a middle-class phenomenon. A terrorist is likelier to be an educated professional such as a surgeon, engineer, or computer programmer than an unemployed laborer. Some, like Osama Bin Laden, are fabulously wealthy. “These are not the dispossessed. They are the empowered.”

If the empowered are the ones resorting to terrorism, it is hard to argue that it is due to economic oppression. These, after all, are people with degrees that epitomize western ideals of applied science and progress, not some sort of unwashed masses. Basically, creating jobs and business opportunities is important, but unlikely to stop radicalized programmers from becoming terrorists. Effectively responding to terrorism requires responding to terrorist ideologies with perceived grievances, and there is no getting round that.

Bergen’s piece draws from top-notch studies providing interesting information on the socioeconomic backgrounds of terrorists, so check it out.

The Sign of Prometheus

Thomas Merton has remained one of my favorite spiritual writers for some time now. I often contemplate one passage in particular from his writings:

The West has lived for thousands of years under the sign of the Titan, Prometheus, the fire stealer, the man of power who defies heaven in order to get what he himself desires. The West has lived under the sign of will, the love of power, action, and domination. Hence, Western Christianity has often been associated with a spiritual will-to-power and an instinct for organization and authority. This has taken good forms, in devotion to works of education, healing the sick, building schools, order and organization in religion itself. But even the good side of activism has tended toward an overemphasis on will, on action, on conquest, on “getting things done” and this in turn has resulted in a sort of religious restlessness, pragmatism, and the worship of visible results.

There is another essential aspect of Christianity: the interior, the silent, the contemplative, in which hidden wisdom is more important than practical organizational science, and in which love replaces the will to get visible results. The New Man must not be a one-sided and aggressive activist: he must also have depth, he must be able to be silent, to listen to the secret voice of the Spirit. He must renounce his own will to dominate and let the Spirit act secretly in and through him…

I have seen this attitude both within myself and within Western Christianity in general. We are the do-something Christians, the sons and daughters of Protestant work ethic (even when we’re Catholic!). And like Merton says, this attitude has its positives. We are called to live out our faith in works of mercy and education.

Yet more and more I have come to appreciate that all the work in the world is fruitless and possibly dangerous without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, without interior direction from prayer and contemplation. Without this guidance, we can go out and do one thousand things, and for all we know, all one thousand of those things are misguided, unhelpful, or just wrong. I think this is especially true in our everyday actions, where we’re running on auto-pilot or caught off guard. In those moments when we’re not actively thinking, whatever resides in our innermost being will come out, and if our innermost being is not attuned to Christ, something less-than-helpful is probably going to come out. And whereas people without any particular belief are only responsible for themselves, we affect how people view the entire body of Christ. The stakes have been raised. Our need for direction is dire.

Prayer and contemplation also do more than preventing missteps. We can focus in on the parts of our lives that really matter, that bring us closer to Christ, and discard what does not matter. We can lay ourselves bare to the will of Christ in ways that we cannot do in passing daily thought. Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. Truly, only from love of Christ can all good things come. We cannot earn it. We cannot win it. We cannot buy it.

How indeed those persons delude themselves who locate holiness anywhere but in loving God. Some see perfection in austerities, others in almsgiving, others in prayer, others in frequenting the sacraments. 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. – Saint Frances de Sales

The action attitude also bleeds into other aspects of Christian life. For example, how often have we felt, even though we know better, that praying isn’t ‘doing something.’  I know I’ve had this thought before. As a Christian, this has got to be the silliest thing I can think if I know anything about the Gospels or the Bible in general, and yet I still sometimes have to walk myself through the simple logic of prayer. If God exists, and if God is a personal God who listens to prayers and answers them, then prayer is doing something. I recall the words of the Centurion in Luke 7:

Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The centurion says “I am a man set under authority.” In other words, I know how these things work. I will that something be done, and it is done. You, Lord, have ultimate power and authority. If you will it to be so, shall it not be so? So prayer goes. We need but ask and trust that the Lord will see it done, although not always in ways and times that we expect.

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
    a light for my path.

So let us turn at all times and listen to what the Lord is saying. We live in a busy world, busy with works, busy with responsibilities, busy with the thoughts of the day. Let’s step back for a moment. What do I want done, and what does the Lord want done. I abdicate my will. Let thy will be done this day.