An Analogy for my Christian and Atheist Friends

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This blog is primarily about my own thoughts on what it means o be reasonable or rational.  In looking at that question it can be asked what is the goal we are rationally pursuing?   My goal is to live rightly.  Others seem to put their concerns on other things as I discussed here.  But for me my goal is to live rightly as best I can.  And by live rightly I mean my goal is to live morally as best I can.  And yes I mean “real” morality not subjective morality or something we just make up.   Do I have other goals?  Yes but the goal of living rightly is the most important one that trumps all other concerns. 

 I would think many people would agree with that goal although not all.  But even if you agree, the question is how do we do that?   Follow the guidance of Mohamed?  of Christ? other religious leaders?  of Sam Harris or Peter Singer?  I have argued that due to the nature of moral truth it is not something we can learn by science.  I think the process is much more of a mixture of instinct, emotion, intuition, and reason/logic.  But reason alone can’t get us there – we need starting premises and we need to weigh different values – logic won’t give those starting premises or weights.    From my own observations and studies of history as well as other fields I think it is silly to think another natural person will give us guidance unless they are getting it from a supernatural source.

But how sure do we need to be there is an actually way to live?  Is there a burden of proof that real morality exists?  Should we or even can we believe things if they do not seem “more probable than not”? etc.  I have written this analogy that I believe can help people understand my view and understand the importance I place in living rightly.        

Imagine you come to realize you are lost in a large desert and you are short on water so your time is limited.  You see a woman and she says you need to go this way follow me.  Now do you believe her?  Maybe you ask “why do you think I should go this way?”  And she doesn’t answer.  Maybe she looks shifty or is even in a prison uniform so you think maybe she is a criminal.  Do you think the direction she is going is “more likely than not” the true way you should go?  Does it matter if you believe her in a technical sense of “it is more likely than not true that she is going in the correct direction”?    I don’t think it matters.  I think the only question is whether it is possible she is better informed than you as to which way to go.  Because you know you have no clue, it is certainly possible she is better informed than you are.  So if she is possibly better informed it seems rational to follow her. 

To the atheists:  Maybe you will say I don’t really “believe” her.  That is maybe you would say “I don’t think she is more likely than not telling the truth because ‘it is just her say so.’”  Or maybe you will say I should “withhold belief.”  And here I think we are to some extent questioning what it means to “believe.”  But I think you would all agree that you would “take what she said as true” with respect to very important actions in your life.  And here one of the most important actions that day will be to walk in a certain direction.  So yes I can agree with your view that maybe you don’t “believe” her but I don’t agree that it is rational to walk in a different direction or just sit there waiting for someone else to come before you die of thirst.   If you will walk with her until something more certain comes along, I agree.  But in the meantime you should follow her. 

To Christians:  You might say Joe you are not a Christian if you do not believe in God.  And by that you may mean I fail to think God’s existence is more likely true than not.  I am not always sure what percentage I put on God’s existence.  When I tried to calculate it I found it was very hard, and my calculations seemed to vary from day to day for little or no reason.  I stopped trying to calculate it a long time ago.  Decades ago? 

But I will say that if I follow the woman I am having “faith” in her in a very important decision.    I think I make very important decisions in my life based on taking Christ as the true guide.    Of course, I admit my faith is not perfect, I have not given everything I own to the poor as Christ said one should.  And I admit my not being perfect may be due to doubts.    But I do pray, I do try to understand and follow scripture I do go to church, I am raising my children in the faith, I try to build love for God and others and I do firmly have faith in Christ more than anything else.   

I trust him more than anyone.   Do I wish I had more evidence?   Yes sometimes I do.  If I told you I never wished I had more evidence who do you think I would be fooling?  But I also admit I am happy to get the Luke 12:47-48 pass for my behavior due to ignorance.  Following Christ is not always easy.  I think I am confident enough in Christ, and I don’t necessarily wish to up the ante. 

Now I talked about belief and I do agree that when I say I “believe” something it tends to mean that I think it is more likely true than not true.    But if we want to understand what Paul or the other scripture writers were getting at when they said “believe” or have “faith” in Jesus I really think they meant something more like what I am doing.  That is they want us to walk the walk.  Jesus himself often talked how our actions matter.   (both our actions in a physical sense but also our actions in forming our conscience.)   I have been and still remain firmly in that stage of trying to follow his guidance.      

I believe plenty of scripture supports my view. I won’t go into all of it but consider Matthew and the sheep and goats.  

Also consider this passage:

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

John 14:12

Now it seems pretty clear from “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing…”   “belief in Jesus” does requires works.   If I were to say “those who believe in Jesus will not do the works he has been doing” it would seem I am pretty clearly contradicting Jesus and teaching the opposite of what he said. 

However, to be fair Jesus does not address whether “belief in him” requires other things – at least not here.  And some might interpret this passage as suggesting Jesus is saying people will do greater miracles.  But I think that is not simply not true to the actual words used.

“Works” is the Greek “erga” which Is translated as works – deeds – actions. 

https://biblehub.com/greek/strongs_2041.htm

John of course used another word “semeion” sign to refer to miracles of Jesus which translates as signs. 

https://www.biblehub.com/greek/se_meia_4592.htm

https://www.biblehub.com/greek/4592.htm

Jesus showed he was from God by both doing good works and performing miracles/signs.  If John thought Jesus was referring to his miracles in this passage he would have used the terms that mean miracles.  He used different words and it is hard to see why – except for biases – we should say he really meant to use this other word.  

Moreover Matthew also makes it clear that Christ is more interested in our doing good and not evil than he is in our performing miracles.

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Mathew 7:15-23

The debate could go on. But if at the end of my life God says Joe even though you tried to live and form your conscience as Christ instructed (again I admit I could do better and I am sure that will be obvious to all at judgment day but I also think it will be obvious I *tried* to follow Christ, I tried to love my neighbor, I tried to live as he wanted, “I ran the race” as Paul said)  but you know the probability you gave of my existing was too often below 50% based on an evaluation of the evidence (or it was below 50% at the instant of your death) so “adios down you go!”   Well then ok.  I really find that scenario pretty absurd.  I think this view only seems to hold so much sway now because of the Catholic Church’s abuses and the Protestant views of “faith alone” and “belief versus works” over-corrected beyond any common sense understanding of scripture.   

Again I don’t say it is impossible that my lack of credence/probability has no effect on my behavior I think it does.   But really I don’t think there is much more I can do about where I put the evidence of God’s existence.  I trust God is fair (if he is not then again what can any of us do?) and if he is fair he will not blame people for things beyond their control.    So some can say I am not a Christian or a Catholic.  But I think there are other more important things I need to do, to align my mind and actions with the way Christ wants other than just try to keep going over arguments about the probability of God’s existence.    

Moreover, I have long ago hit a sort of equilibrium when it comes to those arguments.  Not much has drastically changed in the overall weight of these probabilistic arguments in decades and the slight changes that do happen from reading about them are not always favorable to God’s existence anyway!  Even when I read an argument that is supposed to be in favor of the probability of God I may find it weak or flawed and it may if anything slightly decrease the probability I put on God existing.  I am not saying it should have that effect, but I think it does.  In any case the importance of where we draw the line of probability is grossly overblown.  It is much more important to understand the context of our decision whether to follow Christ and this desert analogy is the best way to express my understanding of the context.   

It is interesting that Catholicism makes it clear that atheism is not always a mortal sin.  And the reason for this is Catholic teaching is that God will treat us fairly and not expect us to do things beyond our ability. 

Notice I am not saying it is ok to believe God does not exist. I am not adopting the view that no supernatural things like God are possible so Jesus was just a wise person.  I think that would be like following the woman even if you knew she was just as lost as you are.  I am saying I am adopting a position that Jesus was divine or at least guided by the divine in a way normal people are not guided.  That is really all I am looking for.  Did he perform every miracle recorded in scripture?  That is not important.  The important question is whether he performed *even one* miracle which would show that he has moral knowledge beyond other natural humans. 

Our situation of how to live rightly is not properly evaluated by believing things that have over a 50% probability of being true.  It is a comparison between options.    In this scenario it is best to go with the guidance that has the best chance of being correct even if that chance is below 50%.

What about comparing different religions that have some evidence of being supernaturally inspired?  It depends on the action and the judgment of the religion as to that action.  But when it is the same moral command by different religions such as giving alms to the poor then the percentages reinforce each other.    But when there is a disagreement I think we need to weigh the evidence as to which moral guidance is actually from God.  And here I think the most direct way to see if something is from God is to compare the evidence of miracles.    

If you are a Christian like me and have some doubts about whether the probability of God existing is over 50% then I would recommend the same thing I do and what I recommend to atheists.  Keep following Christ until a more sure moral guide to how you should live shows up.    And by that I do mean you should consider the chance that Mohammed or Confucius or Sam Harris, or you yourself know better how you should live than Christ.   In making that judgment you should consider how anyone might even be able to reliably understand what we should do in a moral sense and who might possibly be in a better informed position.  My evaluation of these factors has lead me to be a Christian.

A Cottage Industry Science and Christianity

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One of the most interesting things I have found in apologetics is the amount of discussion about science.  I have been a Catholic since my baptism in 1971 and although I have not gone to mass every Sunday I have gone to mass quite often sometimes even when it is not Sunday.  Yet I can not remember a single homily (More or less the Catholic term for Sermon) about Science or how we should understand science.  When I read the Gospel I do not find Jesus talking about science.    Sundays and major feasts cover about 60% of the Gospels.  Considering many events are repeated in the 4 gospels I pretty much have covered Jesus’s teachings several times over in attending mass as well as reading the gospels straight through.  Add that to the amount of time I have read various Gospel passages of interest I think it is fair to say I know the messages of the Gospels fairly well.   And science has nothing to do with it.    

So why when we talk about reasons to be Christian is there so much discussion of science?  It is like saying “I try to keep in good shape because I think Rembrandt is the best painter.”  It is not that you couldn’t find some way to make a connection, but it would be odd to find discussions about why we should stay fit spending considerable time discussing the merits of The Night Watch. 

Christ focused on what we should do during our lives.  Fields that have little or nothing to do with how we should act during our lives have very little bearing on Christ’s teaching and thus little bearing on Christianity.   Science can help us prolong our lives but it doesn’t address what we should do with the extra time.  Christ focused not on how to prolong our lives but what we should do with whatever time we have. 

So why is it that when I read articles of why people decided not to be Christian “science” comes up so often?  You decided to stop exercising because you no longer like Rembrandts?   I think that is indeed how many church going Christians view these issues.  I think this is at times bewildering to many atheists who believe Christians are irrational for not adopting their views.  But it takes two to tango and there are plenty of Christians that want to dance.   For example I enjoy the podcast “unbelievable” but I do think it has a warped focus on “science” discussions.   

One thing I have found is that people who stopped being Christians hate it when Christians suggest perhaps they never really understood Christianity.  But then what can we do?  Argue that Rembrandt is actually great therefore you should exercise?  Well as it turns out there seems to be a real cottage industry there.  The cottage industry has grown so much, that many times when I visit websites that argue for atheism they seem to *assume* I want to argue about science.   Not only that but when I want to discuss issues about why we should live one way or another they act as though that is beside the point.    I just have to wonder, what Gospel are they getting this from.

Pascal Galileo Cantor Monty Hall Liz Jackson Cosmic Skeptic and the Cast of Seinfeld Walk into a Bar

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I am glad to find a new face in philosophy that likes to discuss Pascal’s wager and epistemology generally.   That she earned a doctorate from Notre Dame also makes me smile.  One of the papers that she published deals with an issue involving infinity and Pascal’s wager.  https://www.academia.edu/16612267/Salvaging_Pascals_Wager

She explains an issue by way of an analogy that is pretty helpful to understand it.  She says consider you are in a game show and if you choose door number 1 you have a 1% chance of getting an infinitely good reward.  If you choose door number 2 you have a 99% chance of getting the exact same infinitely good thing.  It would seem irrational to pick door number 1.  Since decision theory tends to favor the options that give us the highest chance of a good outcome.   

But infinities are crazy things.  And as it turns out the mathematicians can only really say that both options would be infinitely valuable because infinity multiplied by any positive number (even a small fraction) is infinity.   Well ok.  But we really should think about this a bit deeper to at least try to at understand where the mathematicians might be coming from and if this really makes sense.       And by “try to understand” I mean I am making absolutely no promises. 

First decision theory.  It is fairly straight forward.  For any given outcome for an option you multiply the potential gain by the chance of getting that gain for all the outcomes and then add them up.  This gives you the utility value of that option.  So if a ticket has a 30% chance of winning $100 dollars then we say the utility value of the ticket is $30. 

Ok now to infinity and beyond! But first infinity. 

Gregor Cantor has devised some proofs that suggest certain infinities that might seem bigger are the same size but also that some infinities seem to have “more” than others.    

 He had an ingenious proof that the shorter line segment has as many points as a longer line segment and indeed any line.  The trick is to simply bend the smaller line segment into a “c” and then for any sized line position it along the back of the c.  You can draw a line from any imagined point in the middle of the space of the c (which is just the shorter line bent) to the longer line.  That line will cross the “c” in a unique point for every unique point on the longer line. 

See the drawing I scribbled out below:

One of my undergrad philosophy papers actually showed how Galileo did something similar when he explained how a ball rolling down an inclined plane reached every speed of the ball falling straight down.  Anyway the concept is the same as Cantors.  Galileo just took the longer line and tilted it so that you could then draw a perpendicular line from the line showing the height of the ball with the inclined plane.   See the drawing I scribbled out above. 

This can also form various Zeno’s paradoxes.    How could the ball going straight down reach every speed of the ball going down the inclined plane?  If the ball is crossing more points along the longer inclined plane and at every point it is hitting a new speed wouldn’t this mean it must be hitting a more speeds?  And if it is hitting a new speed every increment of time and is rolling for longer wouldn’t it have hit more speeds than the ball that is falling for a shorter time?  Etc.  

The infinite is fun and frustrating at the same time.  I recommend AW Moore’s book “The Infinite” if you want to learn a bit more about how puzzling the infinite can be.   

Cantor also showed all counting numbers seem to be just as numerous as all even counting numbers.  How?  Well you can draw a correspondence to each counting number with an even number. The even number 2 corresponds with 1 and the even number 4 corresponds with 2 the even number 6 corresponds with 3 and on and on.  You can see there will always be even numbers to correspond with each counting number.  The same is true if we take numbers divisible by 100.  100 corresponds with 1 200 corresponds with 2 etc.    So it seems that half (or even one hundredth) of infinity is still infinity of the same amount as all the counting numbers! 

So the line proof shows that you can keep adding line segments which all have an infinite number of points but doing so will not actually increase the number of points. Comparing and drawing a correspondence to each even number with each counting number shows that halving or taking any other fraction of an infinite set of numbers will not actually decrease the infinity either. These concepts explain why multiplying infinity by any positive number does not actually yield a bigger number/infinity (and if the positive number is a fraction it won’t yield a smaller number/infinity). Thus as we see why the utility value of Homer Simpson’s God is no lower than the Christian God even if we admit it is less likely.

Not all infinities are equal though. He argued there are more real numbers than counting numbers. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantor%27s_diagonal_argument

Ok back to Pascal’s wager.  This notion that no matter how small the percentage chance of achieving the infinite is, it still yields infinite rewards seems to help Pascals Wager because it doesn’t matter how low you put the probability of God existing it will still be the winning choice.  But it also hurts because if there is even any chance that Homer Simpson’s God reigns then that small chance would also yield an infinite utility value.   And these utility values seem to be the same as per the above proof.    So if the “Homer Simpson God” that just gets more and more angry every time we go to Christian church because we are doing it wrong, has any positive chance of being the true state of affairs well that small chance multiplied by infinity equals infinity as well.

So even if we think the Homer Simpson God is less probable that doesn’t matter because the utility values end up the same.  Should this convince us that choosing the door that gives a 1 percent chance of eternal reward is just as rational as choosing the door that gives a 99 percent chance of the same reward?  I have a few concerns.  One is just how challenging any discussion of infinities can be for mere mortals.     So how sure are the mathematicians of every step here? I think I understand and agree with them on the math but still.

Studies show we react more to empathic suffering than to joy so I think it is worth asking a question of mathematicians who deal in this area.  If you choose option one you have a 1 percent chance of you and everyone you love suffering for an infinite amount of time but if you choose option 2 you have a 99 percent chance of you and everyone you love getting the same amount of infinite suffering.  How many do you think would really say its fine to flip a coin and choose either option?   

The infinite seems to be playing the same role when it hurts and it helps Pascal.  But I think there is a difference.  If for the sake of argument we assume Homer Simpson’s God is less probable than the Christian God it seems we need to take a few more steps of analysis to say it would be irrational to prefer one option over another.  I think those steps are much more controversial than the steps Pascal takes in saying a shot at infinite value will always exceed a shot a finite value. That is, the reasoning about the infinite that helps pascal seems much less controversial.  

First consider what helps Pascal. Why would we think an shot at infinite gain is always better than a shot at finite gain?  If you are better off suffering for a single day rather than two days and better two days then suffer for three etc. it seems infinite would be worse than any finite amount of time.  I mean on what day would I say ok keep the tooth ache going I am unwilling to pay any price to prevent the pain?  It would seem that we always want suffering to end and so the infinite suffering is worse.  We would all think yes we would prefer our suffering to end rather than continue and thus there is always some cost we would pay to end it for any given day.  Whatever finite cost we would pay to end it could thus be multiplied every day of eternity that we feel the pain and would add up to infinity.  How long are you going to pay for pills that help ease your pain?  As long as the pain lasts.  Therefore if it lasts infinitely long we would pay and infinite amount.  That is the analysis that works *for* Pascal’s argument and that seems to be consistent with everything we know about the world.  That seems the sort of intuition supported by math that I am comfortable betting on.

But the analysis that works against him is this notion that it doesn’t matter which door you would pick between the 1 percent or the 99 percent chance.     I don’t think it is irrational for me to say I think that is really a different case.    I’m not so sure anyone really has enough of a handle on the infinite to tell me that choosing either option or even flipping a coin is just as rational.   But let’s at least try to chart out why that might be.   

In a discussion with Dr. Jackson Cosmic Skeptic says it is like monty hall problem in that math shows our Intuitions are wrong.  

I think the Monty Hall problem can be enlightening here but I think it helps Dr. Jackson’s/Pascal’s case.    

The Monty Hall problem involves a scenario where someone is given 3 options/doors to choose from.  Behind one of the doors is a car and there is a goat behind each of the other 2 doors.  Now you want the car because it is more valuable than the goat.   You get to pick a door and let’s say you pick door number 3.  Now before that door is opened Monty Hall says “look I will open up door number 1” and he does and shows you it has a goat.  Now he asks if you want to change your choice.  You can now choose door number 2 instead of number 3.  Should you?  Yes.  It may seem counter-intuitive but you will have substantially better chances of getting the car if you choose door 2. 

How do we know this?  Well there are actually 2 ways.  The first is just to test it repeatedly through computer simulation or otherwise. 

The second way is to think it through further.  Consider that instead of three doors there are 1000 doors.  And you pick door number 58.  And then Monty Hall opens all the other doors except the door 58 (the one you originally chose) and door number 678.   Now are you going to change your vote?  Of course.  So we know not to trust our intuitions in the monty hall problem  due to testing and thinking it through more. This way of understanding the Monty Hall problem comes courtesy of Brian Blaise.

But perhaps most importantly I can understand how the testing and the conceptualizing are done to solve the monty hall problem.  If I just took someone’s word for it I might reasonably still have doubts.   

What about my certainty that picking option 1 where I have a 1 percent chance of getting an infinite reward is the same as option 2 where I have a 99 chance of getting the same infinite reward.   First can I conceptualize why my intuition to choose the 99% chance is equal to the 1 percent chance?  Not really.   In fact quite the opposite.    

It seems to me that there is a problem with how the “utility value” is being used here.  I understand that as soon as one person (call him “that guy”) who chooses the one percent option gets the infinite reward that whole column equals the 99% column.  After all even if 99 times that number get the same infinite reward it is just like adding line segments to the number of points on the longer line as compared with the shorter line.  Or it can be seen as taking every 100th number and matching it with the counting numbers.  I’m not disputing the math. 

But there still is this nagging concern about me having a much lower chance of being “that guy” that wins the infinite reward with the 1% chance and evens out the tables.  I don’t think the standard decision analysis deals with this concern to my satisfaction. 

See the thing is when we say the “utility value” of ticket that has a 30% chance of winning $100 is $30 that does not mean everyone gets $30.  On average about 70 people out of 100 will get nothing while the other 30 out of one hundred will get $100.   The same is true for this.  99% of the people will get nothing while one percent will get infinite rewards.  The utility value may end up equaling the other option where 99% get infinite rewards and 1 percent get nothing,  but I still want to be someone that gets the winnings.      

So as I try to conceptualize it I still think it is rational to want the 99% option.  I don’t think I am denying any math in saying so.    And I do think it would be irrational to choose the 1% route.  

I remember reading “the kluge.”  It is a fine book but I took issue with one thing the author said.  He said something like people would be irrational if they didn’t always follow this line of thinking:  If you could buy a lottery ticket for one dollar and that gave you Y% chance to win a lottery you should pay the same amount for a lottery ticket that gives you 1/50 Y%  chance to win 50 times that.  But I am not so sure I agree.  I think I would rationally prefer to pay 1 dollar for a lottery ticket that gave me 50 times the chance to win 1 billion dollars instead of 1 dollar for a ticket that gave me 1/50 the chance to win $50 billion.  I mean even if I could figure out what to do with the first $100 million I am not sure what I would do with the other $900 million for a billion dollar prize.  Let alone the other 49 billion.  How much lobster can I eat?   Now here my issue is that I value the first dollar more than the 1 billionth.  So it is not the same exactly.  But I do think it is similar.  I think utility value is a tool but the results can rationally be used differently by different people. 

Now what about testing this Dr. Jackson theory?  Perhaps we can!  Notice when we test the Monty Hall problem we don’t actually need to deliver goats and cars.  We run a computer simulation and just count how many would get the cars versus goats depending on their choice.  Since we don’t need the actual infinite prize perhaps this is as easy running the simulation.  And guess what we would find?   Those choosing the 99% chance have a much higher chance of winning the infinite reward than those choosing the one percent chance.  And I suspect that is pretty much all there is to it.  The fact that the prize for the population on the whole choosing the 1% option equals the prize on the whole for those choosing the 99% option doesn’t change the fact that only 1% will get the infinite prize in the 1% option and I like the 99% odds more.  

So imagine we are given Jackson’s choice.  And huge numbers of people choose option 2 and are happy with their infinite gift but of course 99% isn’t 100 percent so some don’t get the infinite reward.  But then people start to realize that it seems that more than 1 percent didn’t get the infinite reward!  I think most people would be like huh what do you mean?  Do you mean people chose option one with only the one percent chance?  Or people chose to flip a coin?  I suspect not many people who chose that option would raise their hand and say yep I chose option one. 

On the other hand if somehow I got this wrong and both options are the same somehow.  I have to admit those who chose option one would get infinity plus an envious amount of smugness. 

My own view as of now is that the aspect of infinity that helps Pascal (the notion that we would always pay a finite amount to end suffering or experience joy and that price would be infinite if we are dealing with an infinite suffering or joy) seems consistent with everything I know about the world.  But the view that choosing the 1 percent door or the 99 percent door are the same, seems contrary to what I know. 

This title had some mention of a bar and a cast of characters.  I talked about Galileo Cantor Pascal Monty Hall, Dr. Jackson and Cosmic Skeptic but what about the Seinfeld cast?  Well Ok when I was thinking about this last night I imagined the following scene. 

Monty Hall has this big game where you can win an infinite checking account!   Don’t worry both top republicans and democrats assured him everything would be fine and they could just keep printing the money.  So he decides to make a huge number of roulette wheels with 1000 numbered slots.  And people can choose any number between 1 and 1000.  And you have an option.   Option 1:  If the roulette ball lands on the number you pick you win but if it lands on any other number they lose (99.9% chance of losing) or they can choose option 2: if the roulette wheel lands on the number they pick they lose but if it lands on any other number they win (99.9% chance of winning).    

Everyone can play once and all the wheels are spun in the morning.  That night the bars are packed.  Huge numbers of people are celebrating their winnings!  But of course some people are going to lose so they are hitting the bar too.  But rumors start to spread that considerably more than 1 in one thousand people lost!  Hmm.  So yeah I am bussing tables because even though I picked option 2  (the 99.9% winning chance) I sometimes think I have one thousand times the bad luck of others so for once the roulette wheel landed on my number. 

But then I see George Costanza arguing with Seinfeld and Elaine.  I see Seinfeld looking at a very discouraged George and saying “you did what??” in disbelief.  And Elaine looking amazed at George with her mouth gaping.    Kramer walks in with a big smile and orders a round for the whole bar.  Costanza charges at him and yells “You!! You went with the 99.9% chance didn’t you!! You were the one who convinced me it didn’t matter!”  Kramer is initially taken aback but then says “you didn’t uh I mean didnt uh I mean did you uh…”  and George busts in and says “yes yes I went with option 1!”  The bar room falls silent.  Except George keeps on.  He yells “Some friends you are! you told me it didn’t matter!  *I* tried to say option two was clearly better but *you* guys just kept on saying it didn’t matter didn’t you?  Didn’t you!?”

Seinfeld Elaine and Kramer all look a bit sheepish but then Seinfeld says “yeah but we also said it was CRAZY. How could we know you would actually pick the crazy option?”  George then says “alright so you admit it was your fault!   So just buy me anything I want.”  After a pause “Come on you owe me that and you can certainly afford it.”  Seinfeld says “Well, you know, we signed an agreement not to just give money away since if everyone did that there would be no workers, you know, no one to make the cocktails.  I can’t break the agreement, they might take my infinity check book away.”  Kramer and Elaine seem to agree. 

Meanwhile I see Cosmic Skeptic bartending.  I was giving him a hard time because he chose to flip a coin and the flip landed on option one for him.   But for what he lacks in wisdom he tends to make up for in being quick witted.  So he sees Cantor getting sloshed in the corner with a nearly empty glass.  Of course, Cantor chose option two and won but his troubles aren’t always solved with money.  Cosmic Skeptic asks Cantor if he wants another drink and Cantor says yes.  So CS says “well you were the one who said even numbers are equal to the counting numbers.”  Cantor slurs “well actually I *proved* it.”   CS says “Yeah right, then you wouldn’t mind giving me a tip of ½ of your infinite checking account.   After all the rules say you can’t give the money away but this would be a tip.”  Cantor immediately smiles and agrees saying “sure just don’t tell anyone – you know someone has to make the cocktails.”  And sure enough CS ends up with just as much money as anyone else. 

Two Types of Soft Socialism Explained

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This meme seems to be far too accurate when I see socialism discussed in the media and by politicians.   I hope this blog will give people clarity on what socialism is and how an economy can be “mixed.”  Let’s start with the relevant definitions of socialism from Merriam Webster:

“1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods

2a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property

b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state…”

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/socialism

Politicians talking about socialism today are talking about government control not private communes.  Accordingly I think we can focus in on  :  “governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”   Or 2b “a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.”

Ok so does Norway’s government “own” the means of production and distribution of goods?   The answer is they partly do.   A government can partly “own” production and distribution of goods in at least two important ways:

First, it can entirely own a single sector of the economy such as health care or education or it can completely own businesses within a sector such as the post office in the United States or some public schools. 

Second, it can partially exert ownership rights over certain property that we still considered “owned” by private people.  The second aspect is a bit more complicated and will be addressed a bit more in depth.  

The first way is the easy to identify method of mixing socialism.  The government completely owns a particular sector of the economy or even a specific business within a sector.  So they may completely own the health care sector or the education sector.  Or they may own some businesses in these sectors.  For example in the US we have some schools completely owned by the state and some privately owned schools.  We have some VA hospitals and some privately owned hospitals.   We have government run police but also private security options and even private businesses that sell locks, fences and pepper spray in a security industry.   The post office is owned by the United states government but we also have private businesses like Federal Express that also transport packages.    So “soft socialism” can happen when there are some completely government owned businesses or sectors that operate along side private businesses or sectors.    That is the first and more straightforward form of “soft socialism.”

The second form of soft socialism requires us to examine what it means to “own” something.   What it means to “own” something is not as straightforward as it seems.    There are degrees of ownership and ownership is often not absolute.  But again lets start with a standard working definition. Merriam Webster says you own something if you “have power or mastery over” it.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/own#h2

The legal definition is very similar to the Merriam Webster definition.  See for example:

“The complete dominion, title, or proprietary right in a thing or claim.”

And:


“OWNERSHIP the full and complete right of dominion over property.   It has been said that ownership is either so simple as to need no explanation or so elusive as to defy definition. At its most extreme and absolute, it means the power to enjoy and dispose of things absolutely…..”

https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/ownership

Does the government have “power or mastery” over our means of production and distribution of goods?  Now we are starting to see that “ownership” might be a bit fuzzier than we thought.   

But before we get into ownership as it relates to socialism let’s consider basic ownership claims that have no political implications.  Consider my claim that “I own this house.”  Ok normally we say you still “own” the house even if you allow someone to rent it from you.  But clearly you are giving up “power or mastery” over the property when you rent it.  You are giving up some aspects of your ownership in exchange for money.   The notion of having mastery or dominion over the thing is important to ownership.  You are the one who decides what happens to it.   If you own a house, you decide who can go in it.  However, if you rent it then you can no longer decide that and instead the renter can invite who they like.  If you own a car you decide who can go in your car and where the car goes.  But if you rent it then you give up some of those rights of ownership.   But you still retain some rights – specifically the right to eventually sell/alienate the item at the price you would like.    

Control over the terms of alienating/selling the property is important.   In fact, it is so important we still say the renter does not “own” the property even though he or she may be able to control what happens to the property due to a prepaid 100 year lease.   The renter still can’t sell the property.  Control of how the property is sold is so important that we still don’t call the renter who can exclude the “landlord” from setting foot on the property for decades the “owner.”   Even though the law still calls the landlord the owner, I think it is fair to say if you let someone rent your property you are giving up mastery and control of it – that is you are giving up certain characteristics of ownership.    But the ability to choose the terms under which I will completely alienate the property to someone else is retained so the landlord is still considered the “owner” even though I think ownership is really shared in these examples.    

If I have a mortgage on my home that means I gave up some of my right to alienate the property in exchange for getting the loan.  I can’t legally sell the property unless I pay off the loan.  Again the bank gains a share of ownership.     If I own one third of a company (one third of the stock) then I am entitled to one third of the proceeds of the sale of the company. 

Ownership is not complete if I do not control or receive the benefit of sale.  My ownership is shared with someone else.   In a documentary I saw on Cuba they said the people “own” their apartments.  But the catch was they could only sell it to the government.  If you can only sell something to one entity then that greatly diminishes your “dominion”.  The item may become worthless if that entity has no interest in acquiring the property and you have no use for it.   Clearly the Cuban government has a huge amount of mastery over that property.    The person who lives there is much more like a prepaid renter than an owner. 

So we can see owning property can be mixed.  What about ownership of “the means of production and distribution of goods.”   How do we produce goods?  One way is by our labor.   We think we own our labor.  But government often steps in and takes some of that ownership.  Income tax is like a mortgage on our labor.  We can’t sell our labor unless we pay the government a percentage of the sale proceeds.  So income tax an ownership interest the government takes in our labor much like a mortgage is an ownership interest the bank takes our land or a stock holder takes in a company.   The larger the percentage the more ownership and thus the more socialism.  This applies to sales taxes, property taxes (which is similar to us paying rent to the government for the right to use the property) and property you sell at a profit but have to pay income tax on.  So taxes are a direct way the government owns part of your labor and property.  The higher the taxes the more socialist the economy is.   But taxes are not the only way government takes an ownership interest in what we normally call private property.  

What about control over my ability to sell my labor?   Do I control the terms of when and how it will be sold?  Partially.  I might want to work in a field I have little experience in, but would be willing to do that for cheap.  I might be able to find someone who will hire me to do that.  But the government might come in and say “no we have a minimum wage so you are not allowed to sell your labor to that person at that price.”  Thus they are controlling the terms of the sale of my labor.  I read in Germany the government limits the amount of hours you can work. https://knowledge.leglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/LEGlobal-Employment-Law-Overview_Germany_2019-2020.pdf If you want to work more than that you need permission from them to sell more of your labor.  Overtime laws are another example of the government not allowing people to control the sale of their own labor.  As the government takes more and more control over our ability to sell our labor they are taking control/ownership over the production and distribution of goods and services.   

 So  Governments that take more control over the sale of our labor are more socialist.  They take ownership rights of the labor from the individual and give it to the government.  That is moving in a socialist direction. 

So is Norway socialist?  Well not completely but they are likely more socialist than the US.   With a few exceptions Western Europe is more socialist than the US.   Their economies are not as bad as full on socialist countries.  But they are considerably more socialist than the US and, unsurprisingly, their economies are substantially worse than the US economy.   As the data I offered here and here demonstrated. So I agree that Scandinavian and Western European countries are, with some exceptions, in fact more socialist than the USA. My question is why are we only looking at tiny homogenous Norway (or some other tiny Scandinavian country) and not all the other European countries that are also considerably more socialist than the US and whose economies are doing much worse? The US has over three times as many people with Italian ancestry as we do people with Norwegian ancestry. In fact we have three times more people of Italian ancestry than Norway has Norwegians. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_ethnicity_in_the_United_States#Ancestry So it just seems odd indeed to assume socialist policies in the US would work out closer to how they work in Norway rather than in how it is working for Italy or Spain or France or England. Italy would need a 47% boost to their economy to match the US gdp per capita and the UK would need a 35% boost to their economy to match the US gdp per capita. By my rough calculations the average Western European/Scandinavian would need about a 40% boost to their countries economy to equal the USA’s economy. That is a fairly dramatic difference in prosperity.

Just a few points of clarification on what socialism is not. 

  1. Socialism is not the only factor that determines how healthy an economy is.   Other factors are important including resources, education, culture, corruption, crime, legal system that respects property rights etc.    
  2. Socialism and democracy are different concepts.  People can democratically elect a soft socialist or even a hard socialist.  This happened when Salvador Allende was elected in Chile.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvador_Allende So saying someone is a “democratic socialist” doesn’t necessarily mean the socialism they are pushing for is less severe than a vanilla hard socialist.  Democracy is a political system not an economic system.   However “democratic socialist” can be a label that attaches to a political party.  And then it can mean whatever that party decides it means.    Just like a “Republican” or “Democrat” is a label for a party that can mean whatever the party decides it will stand for and this can and does change over time.
  3.  Socialism is not the same as to helping the poor.  Often socialists try to argue that socialism will help the poor.  I think that view is mistaken, but regardless people of all different sorts of economic views can help the poor.  Socialism is certainly not the only way to help the poor and indeed there is nothing in the definition of socialism that suggests the government will help the poor.  A socialist government is still a socialist government whether it helps the poor with the property it takes from citizens or not.

Theism’s Role in the Roots of Political Disagreement

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In the last few blogs I have posted about some economic data that I think is relevant to political discussions in the US. I have also commented on Eric’s blog trying to explain why some Christians may vote republican and why Jesus was not a socialist. We quickly got in the weeds about data and why we think our data is more important and why we think the facts we mention are more important etc. I think all of those arguments are important in political debate. But neither Eric nor I are really trying to run a political blog. I want my blog to be more philosophical with an aim to show why being a theist is more intellectually fulfilling and coherent than being an atheist.

That topic will necessarily cover a wide variety of subtopics from meta-ethics, morality, to free will, to science, history, scripture, and yes politics. I think Eric and I would both agree that certain political views are anti-christian. But my disagreement with him was that we shouldn’t consider people who vote for one party or the other as Christians. Each party has a wide range of policies that they adopt and rarely are you going to find a party that perfectly matches our christian views. To the extent we are going to say political views on certain policies are christian or anti-christian those policies need to be considered individually. That is why I think Christians can be Democrats or Republicans or even Socialists.

The Catholic Church I believe has done a decent job (although far from perfect) of navigating these debates in this way. It has taken specific stances on issues that it believes are anti-christian but by and large has not emphasized certain political parties as being “Christ’s party” or the “anti-christ’s party”. It should be obvious to anyone reading the Gospels that Christ was not a politician and he was not preaching a political agenda. This is a difference between Islam and Christianity.

But part of the debate between theists and atheists is more centered around which view leads to better government. This is a much more philosophical question. So you might ask if Jesus was not a politician why would we say a theistic outlook is could lead to a better government? And the answer is because the theist has a fundamentally different view of what they are and how they get rights than the atheist. And this fundamentally different view has led to various issues over the past couple of centuries.

All laws are intended to promote certain goods. So questions of about whether morals exist, what they are, and how we know them, will be foundational for any government that is enforcing laws. Most of my blog explains why I believe an atheistic worldview completely fails to establish a coherent view of morality. Without real morality debating laws is essentially the same as debating whether red or white wine is preferable (relativism) or whether batman would beat the silver surfer in a fight (factionalism).

The foundational belief that all humans are made in the image of God is the great equalizer and has provided a basis to reject slavery, racism and killing humans deemed undesirable. Rejecting the idea all humans are made in the Image of God removes a massive barrier to these practices. Efforts to create any similarly sized barrier have not yet materialized.

Theism supports the belief that our rights come from God and therefore the state can violate them. Atheists will often argue that rights are a creation of the state. This is a very different view and has had catastrophic consequences throughout history.

I am not saying Atheists can not run a government or have a moral society. But since they reject the notion that we are all made in the image of God that can be a severe foundational problem. We see this foundational crack play out in many different policies from racism, life issues, free speech, animal rights versus human rights, the relationship between the government and the individual, the relationship between church and state, and many more.

I have drafted a few blogs about some of these issues and hope to post about them in the future.

But for now I would recommend a pretty interesting interview that touches on some of these concerns. Ben Shapiro is a Jewish political commentator that worked his political views back to philosophy. (Yes many of the philosophical arguments I make would also support the Jewish theism.) Whereas I think I worked out philosophy to its political implications. So I think we sort of came at it from different directions but ended up meeting on some common philosophical ground. Now my goal is not to say people should adopt Ben Shapiro’s political views. I do think he does a good job representing conservative positions but I also think people should make sure they understand the positions of democrats and socialists.

But rather I recommend this video for the more philosophical aspects of his discussion. This is mostly covered in 20:00 to about 47:20 so if you are not interested in his personal life you may want to skip there.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZETvBSlu1tg&t=3914s

European Soft Socialism Compared to the USA.

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Eric and I have some back and forth on some comparisons between Europe and the US that I think are important for Americans (and Europeans) to understand going into elections.  He has recently published a blog here in this line.

Money can’t buy health or happiness?

Some of the metrics he mentioned have little importance or at least the seem to have little importance for an election.  This blog will address the economic comparisons he raised and my comments in his blog will discuss some of the other issues.

 

I think the economic comparisons are  most salient for the US election.   Europeans (and here I am pretty much just including western Europe and the Scandanavian countries,  As I think the former soviet bloc countries have unique problems that make them less comparable) tend have “more socialism” of the type Democrats in our country are pushing for.  Whether it is really “socialism”, or not, is not something I don’t care to get bogged down on here.  Instead I just want to analyze the actual empirical data on how these systems are working out compared to the US system which – especially after the republican reductions in regulation and taxes – is more capitalist.

 

The first thing to note is that Eric’s numbers are not current.   They are from 2017.  It is important to consider Trump just took office at the beginning of 2017 so his policies (less taxes and regulation) which no doubt moved us away from the European economic models did not have as much of an effect yet.   Therefore the 2019 numbers show I believe more accurately the difference between Europe’s soft socialism and America’s more capitalist economic policies, because they allow republican changes some time to take effect.    Anyone interested in the data can see it here:

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)_per_capita

 

These republican economic policies have moved our purchasing power up considerably relative to Europe since 2017.    So how does the US stack up? We are doing substantially better than about 95% of Europe.  About 5% of Europe is doing slightly better.  In particular four tiny European countries are doing better by objective measures of gdp per capita when considering purchase power.

 

They are Ireland, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Norway.

 

Ireland and Luxembourg are really outliers.

Ireland:  A capitalist would love to say “see look at Ireland doing so well since they have extremely low corporate taxes!”   Ireland’s gdp is caused by the low taxes but it seems it is not really Ireland’s GDP.

“Foreign-owned multinationals continue to contribute significantly to Ireland’s economy, making up 14 of the top 20 Irish firms (by turnover), employing 23% of the private sector labour-force, and paying 80% of corporation tax collected.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_the_Republic_of_Ireland

Foreign companies (most of which are US companies which account for 80% of Irish multinational employment) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_the_Republic_of_Ireland  claim their production/GDP from Ireland – but this appears to just be so they get the lower tax rate.  Since the population of Ireland is so small – only 5 million – the US companies greatly distort this gdp per capita number so it is really hard to know what to make of it.  Ireland does have other marks of a soft socialism such as national health care etc.  But in any case at 5 million Ireland is the size of a smallish US state.

 

Luxembourg: Honestly it is so tiny with 600,000 it is not worth sorting through their gdp.  I mean a few big companies could send such a small population gdp per person through the roof.

 

Switzerland:  The US needs to grow its economy by 10% to hit Swiss numbers.  I am not sure if the Swiss have higher or lower taxes.  They do not have a nationalized health care system and their system seems similar to the current US system.  I would be in favor of taking a look at their Health Care system and seeing if it could work here in the US.  Switzerland has a population of about  8.6 million people.

 

Norway: the US would need to grow our economy by 2% to match Norway.  Norway is has about 5.5 million people.

 

Ok the rest of Europe is doing worse than the US by this objective measure.  But if we take these 4 countries that comes to 20 million people.  The US has 330 million people.   So if we divide the US by 50 states the average state is about 6.6 million per state.  So are these countries average gdp/person higher than the US’s top 2 or 3 states in gdp per person ppp?  I think you can just glance at the numbers and see that won’t be the case.   The top US states are doing quite a bit better than the top Western European countries.

 

 

20 million are doing better than the US but as we will see western/northern Europe is about 424 million people.  So this is less than 5% of Europe.   And that includes Ireland which really has an inflated GDP but ok.    What about the other 95% of Western Europe?   They are doing much worse by objective measures.   How much worse are they doing than the US?   Just looking at the world bank numbers from 2019:

 

Denmark (6 mil), Netherlands (17 mil) and Austria (9 mil) would need to boost their economy about 10% to match the US.

 

Germany (84 mil) Sweden (10 mil) and Belgium (11 mil) would need about a 20% boost to their economies to match the US.

 

Finland (5.5 mil) and France (65 mil) would need a 30% boost in their economies to match the US.

 

The United Kingdom (68 mil) and Malta (.5 mil) would need a 35% boost to their economy to match the US.

 

Italy (60.5 mil) would need about a 47% boost to match the US

 

Spain (47 mil) would need about a 54% boost to match the US.

 

Portugal (10 mil) would need a 79% boost to match the US.

 

Greece (10.5 mil) would need a 108% boost to their economy to match the US.

 

Population numbers are based on this:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_European_countries_by_population

 

So why assume adopting these economic models will result in us matching the top 5%?  Why are we ruling out the possibility these sorts of economic measures won’t lead us to be like Italy, Spain, or the UK which account for over 40% of the population we are considering.  If it turns out the same for us as it did for them, our economy would be looking at over a 40% decline!

 

So to get an idea of how big a drop that is, the biggest drop from the great recession of 2007  -2009 was a total drop of 4.7% of GDP.

https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/great_recession_of_200709#:~:text=Beyond%20its%20duration%2C%20the%20Great,data%20as%20of%20October%202013).

 

Suffice it to say these sorts of declines would be catastrophic for Americans that are used to a much higher level of spending power than Europeans.

Eric says:

“A pattern is emerging

A clear picture is emerging. Poverty is bad for health and happiness, and the global wellbeing would improve if there was greater equality of wealth. Wealthier countries can afford healthcare, education, housing and infrastructure that facilitate a good life.”

 

I agree poverty is bad for health and happiness.  But it is dubious that “equality” of wealth – especially if that were to mean America’s overall wealth dropped to Western European levels – would lead to more health and happiness.  I think it is pretty obvious such a huge shift would be catastrophic.

For example, in the US the top 10% of income earners pay 70% of our taxes.  That is because we have many wealthy people.  It is a huge benefit to the other 90% of us that we only need to cover 30% of the remaining tax burden!

https://www.heritage.org/taxes/commentary/the-new-york-times-wrong-the-rich-pay-more-taxes-you-do#:~:text=The%20most%20recent%20IRS%20data,of%20the%20U.S.%20tax%20code.

Socialists claiming billionaires are immoral is not helpful to anyone.  I remember when the tax cuts – which were essentially a 25% ish reduction in certain corporate taxes  – were passed.  People on the left were complaining how this would save trump 20 million dollars per year.  I don’t think we really know how much it would save Trump since we don’t have his tax returns.  But let’s assume that is true.  That means he was paying 80 million per year in, and is now paying 60 million in every year.  60 million dollars in taxes every year just for having him as a citizen.  Why would anyone complain?  Rather than attacking wealthy I want the US to create as many as possible!

Europeans have a much more regressive taxes than the US because for whatever reason it seems very hard to make allot of money there.

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/02/us-taxes-really-are-unusually-progressive/252917/

 

Productivity per hour:  Eric Says “The table below shows that workers in Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland and Denmark produce the most goods per hour worked, followed by USA, Australia and Germany.”  So America does better than the vast majority of Europe.  If Eric is correct and only Luxembourg Norway Switzerland and Denmark produce more than the US per hour.  That leaves about 95% of Europe producing less per hour.  Why would we think we will be like the top 5% instead of something like the other 95% of Europe?

 

On inequality and poverty.  Eric says the USA has much more poverty.  But again the point of my blog here: https://trueandreasonable.co/2020/07/22/poor-europe/  Was to point out how misleading saying that is.  “Poverty” as Eric defines it is based on the average earning of people in the same country.  So when you say America has more poverty that is just because Americans on average are so much wealthier than Europeans.  If Europe used our average wealth instead of their own much lower average wealth you would see all these countries actually would have much higher percentages of their population in the low income group than the US.  Objectively Europe has much more poverty than the US.   The majority of Spain and Italy – two of the larger countries in the Western Europe would have a majority of people defined as low income by US standards!

 

It is important to understand how those “poverty” numbers are really moving the goal posts.  American’s are so much wealthier than Europeans that what many Europeans consider middle class would count as low income in the US.     I really think Eric and others presenting these statistics should explain that instead of just saying “It turns out that western European countries have very low levels of poverty. USA, South Korea and Israel have the highest rates of poverty in the OECD but have less poverty than 80% of countries globally. (OECD, Wikipedia).”   I don’t think eric is being intentionally misleading but that statement is very misleading.   Compared to the US Europe has *much* larger percentage of their population living in poverty.

 

As to the inequality between people in the US being a problem in itself, the evidence is against it.  Stephen Pinker analyzes the data in depth but he gives this example to help people initially understand why complaining of inequality as opposed to focusing on objective measures is misguided:

 

“The starting point for understanding inequality in the context of human progress is to recognize that income inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being. It is not like health, prosperity, knowledge, safety, peace, and the other areas of progress I examine in these chapters. The reason is captured in an old joke from the Soviet Union. Igor and Boris are dirt-poor peasants, barely scratching enough crops from their small plots of land to feed their families. The only difference between them is that Boris owns a scrawny goat. One day a fairy appears to Igor and grants him a wish. Igor says, “I wish that Boris’s goat should die.””

 

https://bigthink.com/big-think-books/steven-pinker-enlightenment-now-inequality-happiness

 

Arguing the US should adopt the Western European economic model is thinking just like Igor.

 

 

Why Poor Europe?

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So in the comments to my last blog I had some outstanding questions that hit on the topics I really hoped to discuss.  So rather than commenting only in the comment section I thought I would give my take on them in a separate blog.

Eric was the person who asked the questions and he has an outstanding blog himself that you can see here.

https://www.is-there-a-god.info/blog/

 

We are both Christians but I think we have some different economic and political views.   But let’s get to the comments and questions.  For clarity I will put his comments in green and my views in blue.

Hi Joe, this is a very interesting post. I am intrigued why you posted this information. I am also interested that you have based your comments on wealth, not on any other measure of wellbeing – which I find curious because a christian surely knows that there are things more important than wealth.

Yes I absolutely agree with you.  Certainly, I do not want people to think that wealth is what is most important to me and I would strenuously disagree with anyone saying that would be a Christian outlook.  The reason I focused on wealth is because the policies I was mostly taking aim at were economic policies – such as minimum wage, socializing sectors of the economy, adding government regulation to what businesses can do etc.  I do agree these policies can have impacts outside of the direct economic policy but those arguments tend to become more speculative. 

 

In other words saying

  • These countries have these economic policies and here is the empirical data on how their economy is doing.

seems more closely connected then saying

  • These countries have these economic policies and here is there overall happiness measurements.  

That is why I focused on the economic impact. 

 

The reason I made the post is because I often see comparisons with tiny Scandinavian countries in discussion about the United States and what our economic policies should be.   And the responses and arguments seem to revolve around whether these tiny countries are “socialist” or not.  My view is they are more down the road of socialism than we are but drawing hard and fast rules on what is socialism is not all that fruitful.  

 

The bigger problem with the comparison is that it is cherry picking in the extreme.  That is the majority of  countries in Western Europe that have economic policies that are much closer to socialism than the USA and on the whole they are overwhelmingly doing much worse than the USA.   So I am suggesting that instead of just looking at the extremes maybe we should look at an overall picture.

 

So I am not saying lets focus on Greece or Norway but lets consider all the western European countries including Italy and Spain and France and the UK.    I also would agree that Eastern European countries have some unique problems trying to get over the socialist disasters that they had to live through.  So I am fine with not including former soviet bloc countries.   I am fine with including or excluding Germany.   

 

If you only take the top tiny countries then the better comparison would be to compare them with the top US states.  And you will find that the top US states outperform them economically – with the exception of Luxembourg which is so small it is more like a town in the US rather than a whole state.         

 

So there is another way of looking at these things. I have looked at some other factors globally, especially for the USA, Scandinavia and western Europe, and Australia (where I live).

Wealth inequality – measured in various ways as the gap or ratio between the rich and the poor. USA has more unequal wealth distribution than most European countries and certainly worse than Scandinavia and Australia.

Yes but as the Pew research shows that is because the US has many more prosperous people than those countries.     They are more equal because they have fewer objectively prosperous people not because they have fewer lower income people.  Objectively Western Europe has a much higher percentage of lower income people its just that they have so few objectively prosperous people they are more equal with each other. 

To the extent we want to equalize we would want to make the poor more prosperous not the reverse.  Do you agree?

 

GDP per person – highest in Europe and some tax havens, then USA (12th) and Australia (14th).

 

Highest in Europe?  If by that you mean there are a few tiny countries in Europe that have higher gdp per capita than the whole US averaged out then yes.   But if you mean Western Europe as a whole then you are very mistaken.     https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal)_per_capita

 

For 2019 the US is pegged to be a bit over 65k in gdp per capita.  65,281 by the world bank and 65,111 by IMF estimates.   According to the IMF the only European countries above the US in GDP per capita are Ireland Norway Switzerland and Luxembourg.  That is not even close to all of western Europe. 

 

Just working off World bank numbers, Denmark would need to boost its economy by about 10% to match the US.   Netherlands, Sweden, Austria and Finland would have to boost their economy by about 20% to match the US.   Germany and Belgium would need a 30% boost to match the US.  The Uk would need to boost their economy slightly over 50% to match the US.   France would need to boost its economy by over 60% to match the US.  Italy, Spain and Malta would need to boost their economy by about 100% to match the US.  Portuagal would need to boost their economy by 180% to match the US.  Greece would need to boost their economy by 225%.  I haven’t seen anyone take the populations of western Europe into account here but given Switzerland has a population of about 9 million, Ireland and Norway both have populations of about 5 million and Luxembourg has a population of about 620,000 it should be obvious that European economic policy is on the whole performing dramatically worse than US policy.

 

And it appears Ireland’s performance may be because they tend to go against the socialist model and had unusually low corporate taxes.  https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/060316/why-ireland-sometimes-referred-tax-haven.asp.  This has lead to certain US companies especially tech companies where it is hard to pin down where they are actually making money can claiming their income was generated there.  So apple claims they made so much income in Ireland due to Irelands very favorable tax rate.  This boosts the heck out of Irelands GDP.    Irelands GDP per capita is boosted mainly due to US companies.   Luxembourg is also considered a tax shelter for companies. 

 

But on the whole the point is only a tiny number of tiny countries are doing better than the average state.  Our best states our better and the average country in western Europe is considerably behind the US economically.      

 

Now it is worth noting that in earlier years the US was doing worse.  The main economic changes in recent years have been away from socialism and the European model.  They involved tax cuts and less government regulation under republicans.   In other words moving away from the European economic models was followed by a huge boost to our economy.    

 

Happiness – highest in Europe and South America, whereas USA is among the lowest. The Nordic countries are consistently in the top ten and often the top 3.

Wellbeing (measures health and happiness) – USA 35th out of 169 countries, with European countries and Japan at the top.

 

Ok so obviously these studies are much more controversial on their own.  Moreover, even if we accept them, it is getting harder to pin this on economic policy as opposed to overall cultural issues that are not so clearly related to minimum wage. 

 

For example Nordic countries are small and homogenous.  The fact that they are small means that people might feel they have some control in the way they are governed.  In the US you saw people yelling at the sky when Trump was elected.  We certainly have a feeling that we have no control over the federal government.  I never even saw Washington DC until I was in my 40s.   My vote and voice is watered down much more than a Norwegian citizens.   

 

We also have a much more diverse citizenry.   So it is not the case that we will all tend to agree on how we should be governed.  All of this I suspect leads to less happiness.  So is there an answer?

Yes.  The answer is sticking to what we call federalism.  Federalism means less power to the federal government and more power to the states, local government, and individuals.  The U.S. federal government was intended to have very limited powers and most decisions were supposed to be made by states and more local governments.  But the trend is to always look to the federal government for answers.  Police departments are hired and fired at a city level – and to a smaller degree the state level.  But somehow people are yelling at police in a completely different state (let alone city) for the actions of a single cop in a different city in a distant state.  And our federal government is now going to try to make the rules for the whole country.  I don’t think any American really feels they have any control over what will happen regardless of party affiliation.   That is just an example, the loss of local control is happening throughout the spectrum of issues in the United States. 

 

Even with respect to these economic policies that seem to be clearly failing Europe, I do not mind if a city or a state wants to implement a higher minimum wage as some have done.  Or if Massachusetts wants a government run medical system they can have at it.    If there are barriers to them doing that I am ok with changing it so they can.   My main problem is that the Federal government wants to force it all over.  My view is if local governments want minimum wage that is fine let’s see how it works for them, rather than destroying the whole countries economy.     

 

 

 

Life expectancy and healthy life expectancy – highest include Scandinavia, Canada, Japan and Australia. USA is in the second of 4 categories.

Yes we eat lots of food that is really bad for us.  But I am not sure socialist economic policies are the answer. 

Everyone in the US has access to medical care.  Sometimes the media will try to equate having health insurance with access to medical care.  But those are different.   The state will provide free health insurance for those who are deemed to poor to afford it.  For those can afford insurance, but choose not to buy it – say a 25 year old who is in fine health and never feels the need to see the doctor whether they are insured or not – can go to a clinic as needed and pay for the service.  If it is an emergency he can not be turned away even if he can’t pay.  My area and the vast majority of areas in the US have free clinics for people who can’t afford care.

 

 

 

Gun deaths – USA is second to Brazil in absolute numbers and in top 20% per capita. USA is highest of all for gun suicides, lower for homicides.

Yes we have quite a bit of crime in the US.  Not just “gun deaths.”  Why are you including suicides?   Increasing the minimum wage will if anything lead to more unemployed people and more crime.  Or at least it is far from clear the increasing minimum wage or having other socialist policies will reduce that crime.  The most socialist governments run our large cities and they have the most crime.    

 

In the US we believe people have a right to defend themselves.  And that is part of our bill of rights, in particular the second amendment.  Europe seems fine with making its citizens completely at the mercy of government.  That is part of the reason why Europe had to be bailed out from their horrible governments in the last century.  The first thing authoritarians do is disarm the citizens.   Hopefully, the US will never do that.    

 

Suicide – USA is in top 20% as is Sweden. Australia and other Scandinavian countries are in 20-40%.

I’m not sure what the percentages mean.  But to bring this to economic policy, being unemployed is a considerable risk factor for suicide.   The US with its recent capitalist changes had reduced unemployment to record lows.  It is unclear how reverting to the more European model and higher unemployment will help.      

Quality of life – several indices have been used, based on factors like health & health care, wellbeing, education, human rights, etc. USA is not in the top 10, and just about all the countries in the top 10 are western European, including all the 4 Scandinavian. Australia and Canada are also there.

 

Again I would want to see the studies.  Certainly if the studies are valuing socialist ideals that Europe Australia and Canada tends to promote then Europe will unsurprisingly do quite well.  And also if you are going to look at tiny countries it might be best to compare them to states rather than the US as a whole.   But some of these studies are interesting.  Some are better than others.    

 

So those statistics present another way to look at things. I think most people praise Scandinavia and western Europe not because they are sheerly wealthy, but because their wellbeing is high, people are happier, there is less inequality, they have good healthcare, and feel safer. It is not that different here in Australia.

 

I certainly agree with much of that.   I am not that familiar with Australia’s economic model or governance. 

If Europe is indeed on the whole better despite being objectively so much poorer, that is interesting.  But I think when we look at economic policy the closest links to their efficacy will be on economic results.   

If we want to look at overall “happiness” that might have more to do with culture.  The US is the country that takes in more immigrants from more various countries/cultures than any other.  

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_to_the_United_States#:~:text=In%20absolute%20numbers%2C%20the%20United,14.4%25%20of%20the%20U.S.%20population.

 So it is in many ways unique.  Comparing it with a country of 5 million people who all have about an identical cultural background is unlikely to be helpful.  The comparisons should at the very least include all of Western Europe – even though the US is more diverse than even Western Europe and certainly as a country more diverse than any of those countries individually. 

Having done the research, I intend to post about it on my own blog, where I’ll give all the references, if you are interested.

 

I’m very interested.   And I look forward to it.  I hope you do not cherry pick Europe’s best and ignore the European countries at the lower end of the scales you decide to use. But in any case I appreciate your comments and and questions as I think the discussion we are having is much more productive than arguing whether Sweden really is capitalist or socialist. 

Poor Europe

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I love many things about Europe.  But as an American one thing I do not envy is their economy.  Europeans are economically worse off than Americans.  It is not that they are all hugely worse off.  But many are, and on the whole they are clearly worse off.  So why are so many Americans trying to say we should do what Europe does? (Bigger government imposing on free markets e.g., health care, higher minimum wage etc)   I think it is due to ignorance.

Of course, there are many things that can effect wealth.   And in any region some areas will do better than others.  So often times we hear we should be like “Scandinavian countries.”  But the policies such as universal health care and higher minimum wage are in several other European countries as well.  We don’t really hear about those countries.  Why? They are not doing as well and so considering them definitely hurts the case for bigger government.   But I think it is foolish to only focus in on a tiny country and not consider a wide range of countries that have policies similar to what is being proposed in America.

The USA is huge compared to any individual western European country.  Sweden has a population of 10 million.  This means Sweden is about the same size as New Jersey with 9 million.     Finland Norway and Denmark are each about 5 million.  So they are about the same size as Maryland which has about 6 million people.       New Jersey and Maryland are doing much better than any European country.  So if you want to compare top performers with top performers the US is wealthier.  But let’s look more broadly.

America is much more diverse than Western Europe as a whole so let’s not assume that all 330 million Americans will get the same results as 5 million Norwegians.  Let’s look at a larger selection of Western European countries and the US on average has more spending power pretty much all of them.

Some argue that the US has more money, but Europe has a larger “middle class.”  And that is where it gets interesting.  You see the “middle class” may be defined as someone who makes between 2/3s and 2x the average income of that country.  That is “middle class” is defined relative to the wealth of that country.  It is not defined objectively.   So a country that is considerably poorer than the US in every objective way may have a larger “middle class.”  Their “middle class” may average less spending power than the average person considered “poor” in America.   That doesn’t sound good to me.

 

This Pew research is quite interesting:

https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/06/05/through-an-american-lens-western-europes-middle-classes-appear-smaller/

 

What it shows is that if we define the middle class as 2/3 of average income to 2xs average income 59% of the US population is “middle class” and 26% is lower income and 15% upper income.  Europeans have bigger relative middle classes but that is mainly because the average European makes much less.

 

When we actually define middle class in an objective sense we see Europe is objectively less wealthy.   In this research Pew calculates middle class off the median disposable income of Americans.   Because people in Denmark and Finland make on average less we see a very different class picture when we look at spending power objectively.  So if we define middle class in absolute/objective terms based on what the average Americans’ spending power is, we see just how much economically better off Americans are.

 

Instead of an 80% middle class in Denmark it drops to 70% and their “lower income” goes from 14% to 28%.  Their upper income goes from 7% to 3%.    So what we see is that if measured objectively, Denmark has 2% more lower income people than the USA and 12% fewer high income people than the US.    So by USA spending power measures (or any objective measure) they have more poor and less wealthy than we do.  So the increase in middle class is not because fewer are poor, a larger percentage of people are objectively poor in Denmark as compared to the USA.  We are so much wealthier than Denmark our upper income group more than makes up the 10% difference in middle class they gain.   In other words going with Denmark would mean more lower income and less higher income people.

 

Finland is even worse.  When we use spending power Americans are used to, as the mean their lower income rises to 33% versus our 26%.   Their upper income is again at 3% versus our 15%.  So their bigger middle class 65% versus 59% is more than entirely due to a lack of the wealthy people we have in the US.

 

But let us consider the UK.  Fully 40% of the UK’s population would be considered “lower income” based on the American economic standard of living.  They would have only 55% middle class compared to our 59%.  They would have only 5% upper income compared to our 15%.  Objectively the UK is doing much worse than the USA.

 

Spain and Italy gets even worse.   The majority of their populations would be considered “lower income” by US economic standards at 53% each.  Only 45% and 44% would be middle class versus our 59% and only only 2% would be upper income versus our 15%.  In other words switching economies with any of these countries would be clearly worse but in many cases it would be catastrophic.  On average it would be a disaster.

So why would we want model our economy off of theirs?  It is insane.

Now I realize this is based on 2010 data.  And I would be interested in a more recent analysis.    But if you look at the per capita gdp since 2010 you see that the European union has basically stayed about 35k whereas the US went from about 50 in 2010  to about 65 in 2019.

https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?locations=EU-US-CN

Now gdp per capita is not identical with he spending power calculations used by Pew, but it would be surprising if the numbers are now worse for the US as compared to Europe.

Viable Scenarios and Rationality

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A common view is that we are rational when we weigh the evidence for and against any belief we hold, and if the weight of the evidence says it is more likely than not true we can/should continue to believe it.   If not, then we shouldn’t continue to believe it.   Another approach is to say we should “apportion our beliefs to the evidence.”   These approaches are different from each other, but as far as they go they seem ok and I am not trying to parse them out here.  Instead I want to suggest there is more to having rational beliefs than simply following either of those approaches.

Consider the various Cartesian skeptical scenarios.  These scenarios force us to ask how we know anything about the external world. ( BTW throughout this  blog I am using “know” as imprecise short hand for “reasonably  believe.”  I think “knowing” something does require more certainty that what we “reasonably  believe”  but my sentences are awkward enough so I am sticking with the term “know”)     We might be dreaming.  Some god or evil genius may be manipulating a brain in a vat somewhere causing us to have these experiences etc.  If that was the case it would seem there is still something (a thinking thing) having an experience and so in some sense “I” (this thinking thing) would still exist,  but nothing external to my mind would need to exist as I perceive it.  This is where we get the famous “I think therefore I am.”

Perhaps the easiest way to start getting the idea of these scenarios is the dreaming argument.  Everything I know about the external world is due to my experiences.   However, since I have had dreams where the experiences were such that I couldn’t tell I was dreaming it seems at least possible that I could be dreaming now.   Do I have “evidence” I am not in a very detailed dream?   We can’t step outside of our experience to see what is causing our experiences, so no I do not.  Yet I believe I am not in a detailed dream.  So that would seem to violate the notion that rationality involves “apportioning belief to the evidence.”

Moreover, my rejection of the dreaming argument seems to violate a notion of parsimony.   Every time I have the experience of oncoming headlights traveling opposite my direction on a highway, not only do I have that experience, but I also believe there are physical people with minds and lives of their own in those vehicles. And not only that I think those people will pass headlights and behind those headlights will be real people with real lives and concerns etc.

We do not think there actually are physical things (that may have their own minds) that correspond to the imagery we experience when we dream.  We just think there is the experience of seeing people in our dreams, but those people don’t really exist with minds of their own.   It is possible there are material things existing somewhere that somehow correspond to the dream experiences we have, but our experience does not require that these material things actually exist.   It seems absurd to think any material things exist somewhere corresponding with our experiences – at least when we are talking about “dream experiences.”

But when we talk about experiences we have when we believe we are awake, we somehow think the opposite.   Belief in all those extra material things and minds suddenly seems justified – even though we know from dreams – we could be having the experience without the extra material things or minds existing.

My point is not to try to convince people we should believe we are in a dream or other skeptical scenario – I generally don’t try to convince people of things I do not believe myself.   But rather I want to point out that it is not the “evidence” that is apportioning our beliefs here.  The various skeptical scenarios take up a very small percentage of real estate in my mind.  Most of my beliefs are formed around the notion that I am a real person moving around with other real people with minds of their own.   I do this even though I have no evidence against one of the skeptical scenarios being true.     So in doing that I am certainly not “apportioning my belief to the evidence.”   So if it is rational to believe I am not in a skeptical scenario then there must be more to rationality than “apportioning  belief to the evidence.”

I think there is at least one other reason we do not orient our  beliefs towards a  Cartesian Skeptical scenario.  That is because it is hard or impossible to know what we should do in such a scenario.  The converse is also true.  If we did know exactly what we should do if we were in one of these Skeptical scenarios then it would be a much more rational to orient our beliefs to account for this scenario.  It would be a possibility we could better account for because we would have an understanding of how we should deal with it.   Thus whether we could have some idea what we should do in a scenario is important to whether we should consider it a viable scenario.   But without any understanding of how we should deal with or act in such a scenario, that scenario seems a dead end.   It is only rational to orient our beliefs to viable scenarios not dead end scenarios.

Now let’s get back to reality as we believe it exists.  We see things and believe many of them exist in a material form independent of our experience of them.   But does having this “materiality” actually answer how we should deal with this scenario?   Some would say it does, but I don’t think knowing about how things are tells us how they should be.  So I think just adding materiality to the scenario accomplishes very little if anything.

But regardless of where you stand on that question, you still may agree with me that the viability of a scenario does depend on whether we have any hope of knowing what to do if we are in that scenario.   If we don’t know what scenario we are in then, any scenarios where we would have no clue how to act anyway should be discarded from consideration in orienting our beliefs/actions.   This is because by definition whatever beliefs or actions we orient to would not  be  better or worse than any other in those scenarios.  So a rational person focuses on the possible scenarios where we could know what to do and form their beliefs based on the possibility of those scenarios being true.   Those are the “live options” or what I call the “viable scenarios”.

But do we have to “really” know what to do or can we make up what to do?  That is, do we have to be a “moral realist” or can we be an anti-realist and just admit we are making things up  based on our experiences.    It seems to me that if we can just make up morality through a form of constructivism it wouldn’t matter that we are in a real world as opposed to a skeptical world.   It would seem we could just as easily make up morality if we are dreaming or a brain in a vat.  It is also at least possible that there is real morality even though we are a brain in a vat.  And it is also possible our beliefs and intended actions are morally relevant.  But the important point is that if the real world we think we live in does not offer anything better than a form of anti-realist morality, then it is no more “viable” than a Cartesian skeptical scenario.

It seems to me a “viable scenario” requires that 1) moral realism is true and 2) we have a way to know what morality requires.  That is we have a way to know how we should act and what we should believe.      A scenario where we can’t possibly know what to do in it, is not a viable scenario.  Whether viability is an on off switch, or more of a sliding scale may not be all that clear.  But let’s just say any scenario where 1 and 2 are not met is not a very “lively” scenario.  They would share the same trait that makes the Cartesian doubt scenarios non-viable.

Now consider the possibility that naturalism is true.  We can look at the possibility that naturalism is true without any preconditions and we might say the probability is X.  But then let’s consider the probability that naturalism is true if we are in a scenario where moral realism is true.  Some, myself included, would say that if they knew Moral realism was true then they would think the probability naturalism goes down.  So on moral realism the probability of naturalism becomes X minus Y.    Others might not agree.    But one thing I am fairly certain of, is that if the scenario we are in, includes 1(moral realism is true) and 2 (we have a reliable way to know what morality requires) then the probability of naturalism being true is very low indeed.

The logic of the arguments made by Sharon Street, Mark Linville and Richard Joyce demonstrate this.   They persuasively argue that if naturalism and evolution is true, even if moral realism is also true, we have no way to reliably know what morality requires.  Street and Joyce believe in naturalism so they reject the idea we can reliably know what moral realism requires even if it is true.   Linnville, and I, think that in light of this sort of argument we should reject naturalism.

For the reasons I stated above I think rejection of naturalism is the more rational option.  That is because holding on to naturalism leads to believing in a non-viable scenario, and rational people orient their beliefs around viable scenarios, naturalism should  be rejected.    If naturalism is a scenario where the probability of 1 and 2 is extremely low, then naturalism implies a scenario that shares the same trait that makes the Cartesian skeptical scenarios non-viable.

Of course, people can dispute whether 1 and 2 are necessary for a viable scenario.  They can also disagree whether 1 and 2 make the probability of naturalism low and vice versa.  But I think this is the best way to understand the structure of my moral argument for God.

We Can’t Control Ourselves but We can Control Others?

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Do we have free will?  I don’t have anything more to offer as far as evidence.  But I do think it is clear that morality and our justice system is a complete flop if we don’t have free will.   Most proponents of determinism agree that, if they are correct, we are not morally responsible/culpable for our actions.  But they still might believe there is a right and wrong way to act.    So, they don’t completely abandon hope of morality or a rational justice system.

 

In my opinion determinism allows only a crippled view of morality.  It doesn’t matter what direction morality points us we are on a train going wherever we are going and we can’t get off anyway.  Our hope for a rational justice system would also seem to rely on dumb luck.    How might our meta-ethical views concerning determinism impact our criminal justice system?

 

Traditionally criminal laws were grounded on four different notions, vengeance, retribution, deterrence and/or rehabilitation.   Retribution has replaced vengeance, although sometimes people fail to draw a distinction between the two.   I am not aware of anyone who believes in hard determinism but still maintains we should keep retribution as a grounds for our criminal justice system.  Retribution is the most important aspect of our criminal justice system but that will be the topic of another post.  Here, let’s consider the claim that even if determinism is true we can still pass laws for deterrence or rehabilitation purposes.

 

For example, Sam Harris says if you are a determinist like him:   “We could forget about retribution and concentrate entirely on mitigating harm. (And if punishing people proved important for either deterrence or rehabilitation, we could make prison as unpleasant as required.)”

https://samharris.org/life-without-free-will/

 

He like many determinists agree retribution is out.  But he claims we can still hope to achieve two other goals of our criminal justice system – rehabilitation and deterrence.   Deterrence is the idea that we can prevent people from committing crimes if they think undesirable things will happen to them as a result of those crimes.  So we can pass laws with punishments that are unpleasant and thus we make it less likely people will commit crimes.    Rehabilitation, at base, is the notion we can do things to criminals such that they will act in a way we want in the future.

 

So, if we accept determinism and still think deterence and rehabilitation are viable, we find ourselves saying we have no influence or control over our own behavior, but we do have influence and control over other people’s behavior.  Traditional wisdom suggests the opposite.  Common sense suggests we have more influence over our own actions than we do over other’s actions.  Is it possible that we can have no influence over our own actions, yet we are still be able to influence other people’s actions?  No, not in any meaningful sense.

 

I think this is an example of people not fully appreciating the far reaching implications of their position.  If determinism is true then even saying “we could make prison as unpleasant as required” plays on an ambiguity and is not actually accurate.  The ambiguity is in the term “could.”  “Could” can mean: we have the option.  Or “could” might mean: it is possible.

In Harris’s usage he seems to suggest “we have the option to make prison as unpleasant as required.”  But of course, on determinism we have no options.  We must do what we are going to do, and can’t do otherwise.  So that meaning of the word “could” leads to a contradiction in his beliefs.

 

If he means just that “it is possible that we would make prison as unpleasant as required….”  Then we might ask so what?    It may be possible, but we have no influence over our actions so we have no way to make that possibility a reality.

 

Our very sense of self is obliterated by determinism.   We are like ping pong balls in a lottery machine.  Yes we “could” bounce into other balls causing them to jostle and become a winning number.  In the sense of “could” that “it is possible” that happens.  But, of course, those ping pong balls have no control over themselves so it is not an option they have.

 

It makes no sense to take the perspective of the ping pong ball.   If we throw out free will then we throw out our whole notion of self.   It is no longer even sensible or meaningful to think in terms of what we “can” or “could” do.   We are just parts of a system that must act however we are going to act.

 

For those who are interested in the free will debates I highly recommend this set of lectures:

https://www.audible.com/pd/Great-Philosophical-Debates-Free-Will-and-Determinism-Audiobook/B00DGDBO2Q?qid=1580847985&sr=1-1&pf_rd_p=e81b7c27-6880-467a-b5a7-13cef5d729fe&pf_rd_r=FNSXY98EKBP6E5CPEM6G&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_1