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God is Not Dead, He Just Faded Away? February 28, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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I hurry to post this fascinating article from today’s New York Times about faith and non-faith in Scandinavia. Phil Zuckerman has apparently managed to hit the nail on the head, describing a culture that has no need of religion. This article brings up the question, Can there be moral decency without religion? Can there be spiritual comfort without faith? Can there even be a form of religion without the concept of God? Read this article, and I’ll try to find time to expand this post and comment on it later.

A New Cause? February 28, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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Those of us on the left have to be very happy with President Obama’s bold agenda coming out of the gate. See Political Animal for a summary.

The NYT explained that Obama’s proposal is “nothing less than an attempt to end a three-decade era of economic policy dominated by the ideas of Ronald Reagan and his supporters.” The budget is “a bold, even radical departure from recent history,” which would “lay the groundwork for sweeping changes in health care and education,” and “reverse the rapid increase in economic inequality over the last 30 years.”

But there is still lots of room for improvement. If activists want a new cause celebre how about those ICE raids. From Calitics.

Up in Bellingham, Washington, a town just a few miles from the Canadian border, Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted a “raid” on an engine plant, arresting 28 workers. The raid stirred outrage among many progressives who had hoped that the secret police tactics of the Bush-era ICE (and I’m sorry, but that’s really the best way to describe it) would end with the new administration.

These “raids”, several of which have hit California communities, making temporary orphans of children whose parents go to work and are thrown into prison camps with no warning or provision made for care of the children (or in cases in Texas, the children themselves are thrown into the camps), have been a prime target of immigrant rights and human rights groups.

Nihilism in High Places February 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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I argue in my forthcoming book, Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America,  that conservatism is a form of nihilism because it undermines the conditions under which we can discover and act on moral values.

New York Times opinion writer, David Brooks, one of the main apologists for conservatism seems to agree with me.

In commenting on Governor Bobby Jindal’s response to Obama’s quasi-State of the Union Speech on Tuesday, Brooks had this to say:

You know, I think Bobby Jindal is a very promising politician, and I opposed the stimulus package – I thought it was poorly drafted – but to come up at this moment in history with a stale, “government is the problem…we can’t trust the government”…it’s just a disaster for the Republican Party. The country is in a panic, now. They may not like the way the Congress passed the stimulus bill. The idea that government is going to have no role in this…in a moment where only the Federal government is big enough to do stuff…to just ignore all that and say government’s the problem…corruption, earmarks, wasteful spending – it’s just a form of nihilism. It’s just not where the country is, it’s not where the future of the country is. 

Brooks is a bit late with his new-found respect for government. Anti-government animus has been the foundation of Republican ideology at least since Saint Ronnie uttered his “government is the problem, not the solution” nonsense 25 years ago. If people like Brooks had been speaking out rather than cheerleading all this time, we would not be in the mess we are in now.

Jindal in particular has a lot of gall. He is the Governor of a state that has received 130 Billion dollars in Federal Aid since Hurricane Katrina, aid without which New Orleans would now resemble Dhaka. In his rejoinder to Obama, Jindal used the disastrous initial Federal response to Katrina as an example of incompetent government. Bad example. It was Republican incompetence—the product of years of disinvesting in government—that made the Katrina debacle possible.

I would say that Jindal ought to be ashamed; but I don’t think nihilists feel shame do they?

Disaster Capitalism Marches On February 26, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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The current recession is caused by plummeting demand for goods (triggered in part by the credit crisis.) But as we set about trying to boost demand by encouraging consumption, we might give some thought to the consequences.

As Peter Dauvergne argues in his recent book, increasing global consumption patterns are overwhelming any environmental gains we have made through stricter environmental laws or more diligent conservation. Despite a global environmental movement that succeeds in reducing the environmental impact of each thing we produce, we produce more and more stuff (and never decide to produce less). Even the solutions to problems caused by consumer goods often require that  we produce more of something else. (Replacing leaded gasoline with unleaded gasoline did not entail any reduction in the use of gasoline and in fact encouraged the export of leaded gas.)

Despite many environmental victories in the U.S., global corporations respond by transferring the risk to countries less able to put up much resistance

As a result, more and more ecosystems are in crisis, and rising populations just makes the whole problem inexorable.

Only binding international agreements and international regulations that force corporations to fully capture the real costs of consumption, along with more responsible consumption decisions on the part of individuals, will change this equation.

Obama’s recent policy proposals on regulating greenhouse gases are welcome but only a first step.

Small bore, centrist policies will not solve the problem when disaster capitalism is on the march.

More on Bipartisanship February 22, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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I  recently argued that if bipartisanship means centrism—positioning oneself in the center between competing, more extreme ideas—then bipartisanship has little value, aside from its practical value in getting legislation passed. Positioning oneself between two bad ideas or between one bad idea and one good idea will not lead to a better idea.

But I think proponents of bipartisanship are making a different sort of claim. Some appeals to bipartisanship seem to assume that partisans represent political positions that are excessively self interested, and that political negotiations should be about getting participants to see past their self-interest. On this view, partisans are focused on gaining power, mobilizing support, and are often willing to use deception and other modes of persuasion that prevent disinterested discussion. Bipartisanship, by contrast, allegedly aspires to impartiality and the common good.

But the fact that an idea falls outside the range of centrist political positions has nothing to do with whether its proponents are excessively power-hungry or self-interested. Partisans of course do seek political power, but if one is a partisan because one thinks her ideas better serve the common good than those of her opponents, then there is nothing wrong with focusing on attaining power or mobilizing. Centrists want to achieve power as well and for the very same reasons—they think their ideas are better than their opponents. Why is an idea that is in the middle of the political spectrum more disinterested than one that is outside the conventional wisdom?

Of course one might argue that a political position in the center of the political spectrum will have more adherents (if we think of the center as a mean or a median). Thus, a centrist policy might serve the interests of more people. But this doesn’t make the policy disinterested—it just serves the self-interest of the majority. Furthermore, this could not be a defense of bipartisanship, but a defense of majority rule. The party with the majority gets to set policy regardless of the opposition if it has the votes.

In order to make sense of appeals to bipartisanship, I think we have to define it as an appeal to shared values. A bipartisan policy is one that is based on values that one shares with political opponents, despite disagreements over implementation or emphasis. And such an approach to politics has value because, when policies are based on widely shared values, they can be implemented successfully since motives are in alignment, there are incentives to over-look differences, and more people are willing to buy-in to the policy. This is, arguably, what Obama is trying to achieve with his open attempts to reach across the aisle.

One way of conceptualizing current political realities is that as Americans we have common values and shared goals but disagree on which policies would accomplish them. But I’m not sure this is the right way to understand current political realities. It may be that with regard to the role of government, the relative importance of public vs. private goods, and who deserves a given distribution of resources, liberals share nothing with conservatives. It seems that conservatives would rather have no education than government-supported education, and no prosperity if it means management of the economy by government. Modern conservatism is not just skeptical of excessive government power. It seeks to end effective government if their recent opposition to the stimulus package is an indicator of their philosophy. The infamous quote by Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform–”I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”—has become mainstream Republican doctrine.

With an opposition like this bipartisanship has no point—any attempt to reach across the aisle will be a compromise of vision, a sell-out, and another step in America’s decline.

Who’s the “Girlie Man” Now? February 19, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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The on-going debacle in Sacramento over the state budget lurched to a temporary cease-fire this morning. A simpering, quaking Republican from Santa Maria, fearing retaliation from the meanies in his party for putting the interests of his state first, was thrown a life-raft. He was promised a proposition on the ballot in 2010 that would mandate open primary elections. This would allegedly enable people who are not certifiably insane to vote for more-moderate Republicans.

There are so many angles to this story that I don’t quite know where to begin. The budget proposal as it stands is a miserable document full of give-aways to business and budget cuts that will cripple education, public health, and public transportation. In order to get this turkey passed, the state had to endure furloughs of state workers, and was threatened with insolvency and massive layoffs. All of this to please a few extremist Republicans who are ideologically opposed to taxes.

But what has stood out from the beginning, in this mess, is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s utter powerlessness. Time after time, over the past few months, budget deals were negotiated only to be scuttled by members of his own party who could not be persuaded that collapsing state finances require new sources of revenue.

 Keep in mind that this is someone who came to power in a recall election in which he not only pretended to be some sort of action hero who could magically solve California’s budget problems by kicking some butt in Sacramento, but pranced around the stage calling Democrats “girlie men”.

But when Republicans held California hostage for months, our “action hero” governator was on the sidelines shaking his pom poms and doing splits, utterly unable to persuade them that the sky is blue.

Who’s the “girlie man” now?

Who Cares About Bipartisanship? February 15, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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In the debate over the stimulus package passed recently by Congress, Obama pursued a bipartisan strategy for generating support. He had dinner with right-wing pundits, worked with Republican House members to pre-emptively include conservative-pleasing tax cuts in the bill, reached out to John McCain for his help in solving our problems, spent more time with Republicans than Democrats in crafting the bill, and supported compromises that weakened the bill when it reached the Senate. In return for reaching across the aisle he got nothin’. Zero votes in the house, 3 votes in the Senate, and lots of bad press for his failure to convince Republicans on this desperately needed boost to the economy that is supported by many conservative economists. Of course, in the end, Obama got exactly what he wanted-a stimulus package roughly the size that he asked for in the beginning. But even his administration is admitting that the zeal for bipartisan support caused them to lose control of the debate.

The interesting philosophical issue to emerge from the debate over the stimulus package is the nature and value of bipartisanship. It is taken as an article of faith by many in the media and the public that bi-partisanship is a good thing. A plurality of voters are now Independents suggesting that allegiance to a party is undesirable. And it seems to be a favorite fantasy of the “Broderites” in the media (after David Broder the long-time political columnist and shill for bi-partisanship) that if we could only be bipartisan enough we could arrive at a universally-acceptable solutions to problems. And in one sense of course it is necessary. In a two party system you sometimes have to compromise to get any legislation passed. But why praise it so highly and make a fetish of it if it is something that politicians have to reluctantly do anyway?

What exactly is being promoted when people praise bipartisanship and does it have more than pragmatic value?

 One version of bipartisanship is centrism–the assumption that moderate ideas are always best and being in the center of competing ideas is somehow inherently good. Many people claim that if you are pissing off both sides then you must be doing something right.

But moderation may not be appropriate in an extreme situation that calls for drastic action, a situation we find ourselves in now. Extreme ideas by their very nature violate conventions and habits. But when you have a deep problem, those conventions and habits ought not have some sort of inherent authority, if they are in part responsible for the problem in the first place. And why think that moderate ideas have a better chance of being true than extreme ideas?

Furthermore, if the centrist thinks the extreme ideas are bad ideas, positioning oneself in the center and taking a little bit from one and a little bit from the other is unlikely to produce a better idea. More importantly, if the opposing ideas are in logical conflict only one can be true. Taking a true idea and leavening it with a false idea does not somehow improve the true idea. It just produces incoherence.

The negotiations over the economic stimulus showed the problems with centrism. The Republicans had nothing but more tax cuts and antipathy toward government on their agenda, which have already failed and are generally acknowledged to be ineffective. When one side is crazy, trying to position yourself in the center will not improve a policy. It will likely weaken it to the point where it becomes ineffective.

Of course, taking two incompatible ideas and finding a third way is the essence of creativity. But there is no reason to think this third alternative is a matter of watering down the extremes or sticking with conventions. It is usually a point that lies outside the continuum that links the extremes.

Happily, there are other forms of bipartisanship which I will discuss in subsequent posts since this is already too long.

Happy Birthday to Unselfish Abe! February 12, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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There is another important 200th birthday today which should not go unnoticed by us, so Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln! And all my former “Intro to Philosophy: Values” students, please remember the story of President Lincoln and the Pigs, The Moral of the Story Chapter 4: While Lincoln himself thought that saving the drowning pigs was a selfish deed (because otherwise he wouldn’t have had any peace of mind all day), which would make him a psychological egoist, we can show that in this case he was mistaken: A truly selfish person wouldn’t have cared about any drowning pigs. So not only was Abe honest, he was also a decent human being who was capable of being moved by the plight of others, including nonhuman animals.

Darwin and/or the Quest for Meaning February 12, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
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Philosophers like to point out that the Western intellectual world has had its rug pulled out from under it three times (so far): First, with the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, next with Darwin’s theory of evolution, and lastly with Freud’s theory of the unconscious, each time causing thinkers to think again, to make a complete break with the assumptions of the past. The ongoing celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species makes it very clear that what for some is a paradigm shift that was firmly and convincingly established a long time ago is for others at best an irritant, at worst a challenge to the very meaning of their lives. In other words, the rug is still being pulled, and we are reacting—some by rejoicing, some by adjusting, and others by pulling at the other end, with all their might.

                Of course it really isn’t the introduction of the Theory of Evolution that we are celebrating this year, because theories of evolution were already being formulated in the scientific community while Darwin was maturing as a scholar, but it is his principle of evolution, the concept of natural selection, that created the paradigm shift. And this principle or theory has, according to the scientific community, shown itself to be a better explanation of biological diversity than any other theory so far, because it can be clearly demonstrated, in the fossil record as well as in rapidly changing species such as insects—and now with DNA research. Furthermore, it passes the falsifiability test. So what is it that still causes such a fuss? Why are people still kicking and growling?

Whenever Darwin comes up in my philosophy classes, I experience the same phenomenon: a clash of world views, perhaps more excruciating than at any other time and any other discussion of philosophical topics, perhaps with the exception of the abortion debate. We can have heated discussions about free will vs. determinism, or whether there are any merits to psychological egoism, or the positive rights of socialism vs. the negative rights of libertarianism, but nothing brings out the sharp wit, frustration and even rage among my students as a good ol’ debate of evolution vs. creationism. According to polls from Gallup and the Pew Research center, more than 40 percent of Americans believe human beings are not the result of evolution, but have always had the form we have today. Most of my students are aware of the teachings of Creationism and its anti-evolution stance, but interestingly, even students who do not consider themselves fundamentalists or creationists seem reluctant to embrace Darwin—as though they have been warned that in doing to, they will lose their souls. And this appears to be at the core of this reluctance: The assumption that an accept of Darwin’s theories will send you down the greased slope of non-belief toward absurdity and loss of meaning—the assumption that if Darwin is right, then there is no god, and if there is no god, there is no meaning, and we have no souls, and there will not be an afterlife. In other words, to embrace Darwin is to embrace nihilistic secularism.

But isn’t this a slippery slope fallacy? Or even a false dilemma? Like many others, my students are grasping for a middle way, a way to accept science (the realm of facts) and keep God (the realm of faith). This in itself shouldn’t have to be such a challenge, since many scientists have not had any problems doing their work in the secular realm, and having their religious faith as a personal commitment, separate from their professional identity. For what it’s worth: the Vatican has come to the rescue, declaring that Darwin’s theory is correct, but that Christianity is compatible with the theory of evolution, so you can adopt a world view of evolution without thereby losing your faith. The Church of England has gone in the same direction. And creative minds have suggested ways of interpreting Genesis so that the 6 days of creation can be read as a poetic expression for the 4 billion years of Earth-time (out of the 5 billion years of existence in our solar system) needed to bring about the species as we know them today. (And, by the way, evolution has not stopped, according to biologists: Humans are evolving more rapidly now than ever before, because there are so many of us.)

Of course these creative efforts seem like a colossal waste of good mental energy to those who have no problem accepting natural selection as a solid fact-based theory with room to grow, and who are at peace with either having or not having a religion.  But we all do what we must in order to maintain our grip on reality as well as our sanity. Thomas Aquinas made a valiant effort to make the biological theories of Aristotle fit into the teachings of Genesis. For a philosopher, this kind of valiant (even when misdirected) effort has two focal points: One is the relationship of the theory to available evidence—the kind of evidence we built our sciences on, the very same kind of evidence we rely on in our everyday world of mechanics and weather forecasts. In other words, can we blend fundamentally different ideas into a consistent world view, without losing sight of scientific evidence? But we shouldn’t forget the other focal point: The quest for meaning. Although that side of life tends to be neglected in our modern society, or relegated to religious groups, it is in all likelihood a genuine need residing in most of us, a need for direction and purpose—for our story to make sense. For some, it is enough that our story involves the love of family and friends, or meaningful work, or even fame and fortune, but the notion that “there must be something more to life” is alive and well, and life without such a direction seems impoverished. And if the only institution stepping up to the plate with an offer of meaning and purpose is a religious institution, then perhaps it becomes less astonishing that 40 or more percept of Americans are reluctant to believe in human evolution. But beware of other institutions rising to meet that need: This is what happened in the 1920’s Italy with Mussolini, and in the 1930’s with the Nazi movement. And some of us would say that Communism has also been very skillful at presenting itself as a secular substitute for/version of faith. And, in fact, a variety of social and political fads seem to be responses to this need for a greater vision and purpose of life. So my question to you is, if you belong to the large group of people who have a positive view of the sciences, and you don’t consider yourself particularly religious, but find yourself still searching for a personal answer to the riddle of life, where do you see this answer coming from? Can you find it in science? In philosophy? Politics? Art? Family life? Sports? Computer games? Is there an answer? And if not, do we have to invent one, or stop looking?

So: Happy Birthday, Darwin. The rug has been pulled out, and we’re standing on an interesting bare floor. It may be a little colder without the rug, but if we dance, we can keep warm…and bare floors are better for dancing, anyway.

An Epistemological Crisis February 10, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Why is there so much financial instability given the fact that it is in everyone’s interest to have stability. Are we just irrational and unable to ascertain or act on our interests. Is it greed, excessive risk taking, or the inevitable result of tumultuous competition getting rid of the less efficient? All of these explanations play a role. But the more fundamental problem is epistemological.

 

Buying stocks is like professional gambling—the people who are good at it are good at assessing risk. But precise risk assessment is always impossible. We cannot carve up the future in manageable bits and assign probabilities to them. The world often changes in ways we did not anticipate and sheer complexity overwhelms any attempt to discover useable regularities. The investment instruments devised by investment banks to securitize mortgage and consumer loans were so complex that no one understood their true value and the great unraveling was far more precipitous than anyone predicted.

 

When risk assessments collapse and we are confronted with uncertainty we tend to rely on habits or do what has worked in the past. So in the run up to our current crisis we believed platitudes like the stock market always trends upward in the long run or housing prices will never fall. These were propositions for which there was some evidence. But this reliance on habit and convention is a fatal error when the unexpected happens—what has worked in the past is ill equipped to respond to novelty.

 

What we needed in our recent past, especially from business and government, was skepticism, more distrust in our ability to calculate the future, which would have encouraged more saving, more scrutiny, more caution, less leverage. It was not exactly irrational to believe in our ability to assess risk. It wasn’t a matter of assessing evidence well. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know. You can’t really have evidence for the unexpected. (See Taleb on this point) Instead we needed epistemological virtue—a recognition of the limits of knowledge, reticence about believing in our powers of prediction. Especially because much of the uncertainty was of our own making

 

Much of the blame for our lack of epistemological virtue should be placed at the feet of modern economics. The dominant, free-market equilibrium model assumes that prices (including the price of risk) always find an equilibrium and that markets are fully efficient when there are no externalities. And we are encouraged to think that our mathematical wizards can describe this equilibrium regardless of the complexities of the situation and capture all externalities in the price. Mathematicians designed most of the securities that caused such a problem in the credit markets; and decisions to buy and sell stock, made by large institutional investors, are generated by complex mathematical models with little human intervention.

 

This fascination with mathematical models assumes that behind the imperfections of the messy world we live in there is a world of perfection with formulaic harmonies that can be known with the certainty. And through our efforts we can aspire to this ideal. But there is no such world.

 

Platonism still lives in the cubicles of Wall Street offices. And we cannot defend ourselves from black swans and white ravens until we are rid of Platonism.