In the New Testament Jesus tells many stories. For the most part there is no reason to think he is even attempting to give literal historical events. For example, he talks of people getting the same wages even though they start working later than others. He tells the story of a person allowing another to watch his property. He tells a story of someone selling everything for a pearl. He tells a story of a wedding and a prodigal son etc. etc.
If he told those stories today I feel like many people (including Christians) would interrupt and say “wait a second, whose wedding was this? Are you talking about the Jefferson’s wedding because that wasn’t what happened!” Or “wait a second are you talking about John? Yeah sure he did some bad things but he didn’t actually get his father’s inheritance early!” I mean he does not always start his story by making it clear to everyone this is not offering a literal history. (Keep in mind the subtitles are not part of the actual scriptural text) Could the story of the prodigal son be literally and historically true? It seems possible. If we found out it was true in a literal and historical sense what difference would it make? Absolutely nothing. The actual literal history is completely irrelevant to the point of the story.
When we read scripture we do not think God is telling us these stories because God is randomly picking various historical facts that he wants us to memorize. No the stories of the old testament, just like the stories Jesus told, are told because there are meanings that God is trying to convey. Whether the story is historically true or false is often completely irrelevant. Take the “cloud of witnesses” from Hebrews. The author goes through scripture and offers stories that God gave us to understand how he will reward faith. Just like Jesus gives stories that help us understand other aspects of God. Whether the events actually happened or not does not change the point of the stories.
But then does that mean it is always irrelevant if a story is fictional? No. The point of the story helps us know whether it is important that the story is fictional or not. And sometimes in scripture the author is explicit. For example in Luke and John they explicitly offer their intentions. Luke starts out with this:
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
John explains that that purpose of telling us about Jesus Miracles:
“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe b that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
So it would be odd to say John did not intend at least some of his stories of signs to be taken literally. I think there many questions that are addressed in the bible but modern readers tend to read the bible as though it is only addressing one. Here are just a few questions the authors seek to answer:
Is there a God?
Is Jesus a reliable mouthpiece of God?
How should we understand our relationship to God and others?
What does God want us to do?
Modern readers seem hung up on the first question but I think that is very rarely what the author is addressing. John makes it explicit that the second question is something he is addressing. I believe the other gospels and NT scriptures have that intent as well.
I think much of the Old Testament human authors are rarely dealing with questions 1 and 2. They already believe in God so they have moved on from the first question. They do not know much about Jesus yet so it would not be informative to establish he is a reliable source of God’s will. But three and four would be important. But as we have seen from Jesus’s parables it is irrelevant if the stories that convey answers to questions three and four are literally true. So the literal historical truth of the OT stories are in fact largely irrelevant.
But what about the New Testament? Well two seems to be a very important message of the New Testament writers. So how can they establish that Jesus is a reliable source of God’s will? Let’s just think this through for ourselves – without a bible. If I were to say I am a mouthpiece of God, how could I give evidence of that? One obvious way would be to perform a miracle. This would be a sign from God that yes I am not just like every other person but God is singling me out. But, of course, there is nothing miraculous about just making up fictional stories of miraculous events. So the only way to serve that purpose of proving I am singled out by God would be is if I actually performed miracles. That is why the New Testament is understood as intending to tell actual history.
This is not just me cherry picking what I will decide to read literally or what I won’t. I am just applying common sense to the text.
How do we know when an author intends their writing to be taken as literal historical fact? I think the best way to tell is to ask the author. But when we are reading the bible not only can we no longer ask the author – we may not even know who the author was and indeed there may be several. But that doesn’t mean there is not evidence which might strongly suggest what the author intended. We can get an idea based on context.
For example I have suggested that when the author of Genesis speaks of “the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” that is strong evidence that he is not talking about a literal fruits and trees that we might find in our neighborhood.
On the other hand when John says “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe b that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” https://www.biblehub.com/niv/john/20.htm The author is explicitly telling us his purpose of writing about these signs/miracles. That is he wants to tell us of them so that we may believe Jesus is the son of God. Of course, that implies Jesus really did miracles. The author’s ability to make up miracle stories would not be a reason we should believe Jesus is the Son of God. Only Jesus’s actual ability to work miracles would be evidence that he is the Son of God. So that context is strong evidence that the author of John intends at least some of his miracle stories to be taken as literal and historical factual occurrences.
Luke also tells us about his purpose and so we can gleen his intent to give actual facts from the work itself as well. But of the books of the bible this clear statement of intent seems to be more the exception than the rule. So we are left to rely on less probative evidence.
In my last post I argued that we shouldn’t feel we must know what the author was trying to communicate and there is no reason to presume that the intent was to give literal history. Rauser is sympathetic to non-literalist readings however he has some issues with adopting a non-literalist reading. Here I want to address what I consider what Rauser considers the biggest obstacle to interpreting these old testament passages in other than as literal historical truth. He says:
“A particularly effective way to see the problem brought to life is with the great Hall of Faith chapter of Hebrews 11 which seeks to inspire the contemporary reader with illustrations of devotion from past saints. The story begins with Abel who provided a faithful offering to God (v. 4). The narrative then recounts the faith of a long list of saintly figures including Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Rahab and many, many others. The writer concludes, “These were all commended for their faith” (v. 39). Needless to say, the whole point of the writer to the Hebrews is that these are real people who did real things which are exemplary of faith and thus which provide inspiring guides to the disciple in our own day. Thus, if these stories are really just that, stories, mere historical fiction, then the entire chapter is evacuated of its motivational gravitas.
To illustrate, a baseball coach who wants to inspire his team may pump them up with the great achievements of Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron or Jackie Robinson. But he will not spend any time recounting the achievements of Roy Hobbs because Mr. Hobbs is a fictional character from the film The Natural (and the 1952 novel of the same name). You might invoke Hobbs to illustrate a point, but if you want to inspire an athlete you tell them the story of another real athlete: you don’t tell them a fiction. By the same token, if you want to inspire a real spiritual athlete, you tell them stories of other real spiritual athletes who accomplished great things: you don’t tell them a fiction. Why does the writer of Hebrews refer to the actual collapse of the walls of Jericho (v. 30) and the actual faith of Rahab (v. 31) if not to inspire an equivalent faith response in the reader?”
Rauser, Randal. Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition (pp. 206-207). 2 Cup Press. Kindle Edition.
Ok first I would concede the point that at least to our modern mind telling a story about a real person seems to be more inspirational than telling the story of a fictional person. After all there was a time when it seemed every movie would say something like “based on a true story” and the purpose of that line was to no doubt try to make the movie somehow more compelling. So I am not saying his reason supplies no evidence. But I do want carefully consider each of the claims he makes and how much weight they should carry.
In my law school ethics class, we all had to watch the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. And in particular we focused on the lawyer Atticus Finch and how he dealt with ethical issues as a lawyer. There is no question the purpose was to inspire us to act ethically as future lawyers. I had read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and Atticus Finch played an inspirational role in my desire to be a lawyer. As I was thinking of this example I actually started to wonder if Atticus Finch was a real lawyer or at least based on a real lawyer. But before I looked it up I asked myself if I would be any more or less inspired by him if I found out he was “based on a real person.” And I honestly decided it wouldn’t matter.
I think it is a mistake to underestimate the role fiction plays in motivating and forming who we are. If I set religion aside, I suspect that most of those that inspired me are first and foremost the actual people I have encountered in life, then second stories of fictional people, and then third historical people.
Now fictional heroes become especially important when we consider these are fictional heroes whose stories were chosen by God. Whether Abel actually existed is completely unimportant to the message God is trying to convey in the story of Cain and Able. In Hebrews the author seems not so concerned that the people are becoming atheists. Rather he seems to be addressing a community of religious Jews that would know these stories. They need inspiration to help them through difficult times. They are not looking for proof that God exists. They seem to know God exists and they also seem to assume that God gave them these stories in order to help them understand what he expected from them and how he would respond. That is what was important.
They want to know that God will see them through if they continue to be faithful. Faith is belief and trust in God. They seem to mostly be concerned about the trust part. Whether these characters actually existed is irrelevant. If God tells me I should act like Atticus Finch and I will be rewarded then it doesn’t matter one bit if Atticus Finch was a real person.
Notice the last line of my quote from Rauser where he says “Why does the writer of Hebrews refer to the actual collapse of the walls of Jericho (v. 30) and the actual faith of Rahab (v. 31) if not to inspire an equivalent faith response in the reader?” I have read these passages from Hebrews several times and I never remembered the author talking about the “actual” collapse of the walls of Jericho or the “actual” faith of Rahab. So I reread to see if the passage talks about or otherwise suggests these are actual historical events or if they just repeat the story. In fact the author never says the walls “actually” fell or that there was an “actual” faith of Rahab. The author just repeats the story.
“30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.
31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient”
If I say “Atticus Finch argued in his closing argument that Tom Robbins was innocent because the victim suffered wounds to the right side of her face and he was right handed and also had limited use of his left hand.” I am not saying Atticus Finch actually existed and there was an actual trial of Tom Robbins etc. No I am simply repeating the story. There is nothing in my quoted statement that should make you think I believe I am retelling “actual” historical events. Hebrews is no different.
Now to be fair Rauser gave the “gravitas” explanation for why he thought the author of Hebrews intended these stories to be taken literally. (I addressed that argument above by explaining fictional characters can be motivational) So he may not be thinking that just because the author of Hebrews is retelling the stories that means the author of Hebrews thought they were literal historical fact. But I often see that when some other author of scripture repeats a story from some other part of scripture some people will try to argue that proves the later author thought it was a literal historical event. For example, if Jesus refers to Adam and Eve some people will try to say that proves he thought they were real people. But really Jesus may just be recounting the story from scripture.
When that happens the person arguing for a literal reading is often just projecting his own interpretation on the other scripture writer. The person is assuming the question in dispute. They think we should interpret the story literally so they think anyone retelling the story must be intending to tell it in a literal sense. But that is the question we are trying to answer!
Why do modern readers tend to assume a literal interpretation? At least two reasons lead to this assumption, first the printing press and second, Sola Scriptura. The printing press and later technology allowed us to record and reproduce a huge number of actual historical events. This meant that we can learn a large quantity of actual literal history. This means our heroes can often be real people because we have a huge catalogue of people to draw on for whatever positive trait we want to highlight. I admit in some ways that is preferable to simply fictional heroes. (but it also has drawbacks) It also means that much of what we learn is intended to be taught as literal history. It is far from clear that assumption applied in the ancient past.
Like I said if you want to know the intent the best way is to ask the author. Certainly, whoever first told the story of Adam and Eve knew it was not literal history based on eyewitnesses. It is hard to believe people who heard the story for the first time would have thought it was some sort of historical story based on eyewitness accounts. If someone told you about conversations the very first humans had wouldn’t you wonder how they could know? Again the ancient people may not have understood science but they could look at all the people around them and realize that they were pretty far removed from the very first humans. They weren’t all born yesterday. And like I said of course the original person telling the story of Adam and Eve knew it was not literal facts from eyewitnesses.
The other reason I think modern readers tend to interpret scripture literally is because of Sola Scriptura. A theme of the reformation was the bible was sufficient and we really don’t need anyone to tell us what it means. Well it seems the answer is somewhere in the middle. People can learn a huge amount from reading the bible on their own. But also it turns out there are many different possible interpretations. And that is well evidenced by all the different churches that interpreted scripture so differently than other churches they found they had to break off from the others.
What to do? Well Martin Luther had already decided he would not change his position unless you could convince him based on scripture alone. This statement was so romanticized there was no turning back. So appealing to church fathers or Tradition was out of the question. Unfortunately, the disagreements were from interpretations of scripture itself. So certain rules of interpretation started to come into favor. One of those rules has to do with defaulting to a literal reading – which I believe martin Luther endorsed.
Was this rule based on information we learned about ancient peoples that were writing or telling these stories over a millennium and a half before these rules? I doubt it. I suspect these rules have more to do with us imposing our beliefs and desires on the ancients rather than bending our beliefs and desires to the intentions of the ancient authors of scripture. But despite precious little evidence that this is actually how the ancient authors intended their works to be read this default to literal history has gained popularity. Rauser notes that it is mainly after the reformation that literal readings of some of the old testament passages were used to justify wars. That is not surprising to me.
In future blogs I will address how Rauser deals with these issues as well as some problems with how certain Catholics view these issues.
Randal Rauser wrote a very good book about Old Testament Passages.
I mostly agree with him and I am glad he wrote the book. I do not intend to do a review of the book as much as do a few blogs where I talk about a few places where I diverge from his views. Do not think because I am disagreeing with the book I think it is not worth reading. It covers many important issues.
One topic is how we might interpret Old Testament passages. I definitely take what he calls the “spiritualized” approach to some of the Old Testament. I believe Origen used the term “spiritualize” to describe his own non- literal reading of scripture and indeed I draw many of the same conclusions Origen did. However, I would simply say I am taking a “non-literalist” approach to many parts of the old testament.
I think saying I “spiritualize” the text suggests that I promote a certain particular interpretation. Sometimes I do, but often I don’t have any interpretation other than to say I would not take that passage literally. If I had to choose how to interpret the Old Testament passage of the Canannites I would choose the method chosen by Origen. (I was not aware he interpreted it the same way I do until I read it in Rauser’s book) But I am not saying I believe it is, more likely than not, the true intent of the author. I just think the probability that Origen’s interpretation is correct is higher than the probability a literalist reading, or other options, are correct/true.
Over all, I am happy to admit I am not sure what message was intended by particular passages of the old testament – including that one. And indeed much of the old testament may not even be true or false. It can be artistic. Is a poem or work of art “true or false”? Scripture may be intended to invoke feelings and mindsets rather than just offer literally true and false facts about the world. How would those feelings and mindsets have played a role for cultures distantly removed from us in time is often just an exercise in wild speculation.
It is for this reason that I do not find fault with the Church for omitting certain parts of the Old Testament from the lectionary. If we don’t know what message the Holy Spirit is trying to convey why would we spend time on that passage as opposed to other passages that are more clear? Christ is our guide and he was repeatedly challenged with this or that particular passage from the old testament. Again and again he reinforced what the fundamental take away of the old testament was.
He did not get into the weeds about what this Hebrew word meant and how we can understand it this or that way. So it is just not concerning to me that I must admit I am not sure what specific message the Holy Spirit was trying to communicate in a particular passage. And often I think we don’t know very much at all about what the Holy Spirit was doing to guide people.
Let’s say you find this song.
Further assume you know nothing about the context of the song, you don’t even know who wrote it let alone what the political issues of the day were let alone what his political or religious views were. You can at least translate the song and when you translate it you can see that some of the lyrics are things like, “We’re moving night and day to go to Meadowlands / We love Meadowlands.” Based on the beat and the lyrics you might think the writer of the song really liked the meadowlands and was happy to move.
In reality, it was written as a protest song in South Africa protesting the forced move many black people had to make from Sophiatown to the Meadowlands. South Africa had censorship of music that went against government policy. So the music was deliberately upbeat to suggest to the government it was in favor of the move. But in fact the upbeat nature just added to the irony and sarcasm that was intended by the author Strike Vilakazi, and his audience that heard it.
Some officials in the South African government took it literally and so they played the song on the radio. Those government employees were living in the context but still misunderstood. The joke was on them and that inside joke shared by a community makes the song inspiring. But how do we know this? We know this because the song was written less than a century ago at time long after the printing press and even video cameras that documented the history and intent of the author. But what if you just found this song without any of that context. What if you didn’t even know who wrote the song, all you could do was translate it? Almost certainly you would get a completely wrong message.
The way this song played a role in South African history is wonderful. I might even call it historical scripture. Is the song “true”? Did people misunderstand the song then, and might they misunderstand the song later if they lack the context? Yes but their ignorance adds to the songs brilliance.
When we read the Old Testament we should not pretend we know all the meanings or purposes the writers had in mind if, in fact, we know precious little. But some people will insist they know God wants them to read it literally as a default. How they know this I have no idea. Instead I think the view of interpreting scripture and other material literally has come about as a consequence of sola scriptura and also the printing press. I will explain that in another blog.
Origen is one of the earliest commentators on Old Testament passages whose works still exist. He was onve of our closest in time sources to understanding what these authors would have intended. He did not interpret them literally. My own approach is I might read a passage where “God says” kill every soldier, and I think ok, but, if this is literal how do we know this is God saying this and what does he look like etc. But ok maybe we can get past that. But then “God says” kill every male even if they are not a combatant. And there I think hmm that seems questionable based on other writings like the fifth commandment not to mention what God said and did when he came to earth as Jesus. But then I read “God says” and kill every woman. At this point I am definitely thinking the author is up to something other than literal history. More likely than not this is not simple recording of literal history. And then “God says” kill every infant! And here I am definitely thinking God is communicating in a non-literal way. Beyond reasonable doubt this is not literal. But then even if you are still not understanding this is not intended as literally what God said the author writes God also said kill every one of the enemies donkeys! Ok at this point unless your name is Dwight Schrute you have to be thinking the author is up to something other than a simple transcript of what God literally said.
Is the author making an inside joke about certain hard line priests/rabbis/political leaders of his time? Would certain rabbis misunderstand the intent that more sensible Jews/Rabbis understood as happened with the song meadowlands? I am not necessarily saying that. I am saying we don’t know. And I am certainly saying that I think that is much more probable than the intent was that he literally believed God thought we should take vengeance on the farm animals of our enemies. I also believe that inside jokes against arrogant powerful leaders is likely one of the oldest forms of entertainment and expressions of solidarity for oppressed people. If it was intended as a jab at certain overzealous preachers of the day I can see why it was handed down as a classic.
My own view – if I had to choose one – is that the author was using symbolism where the canannites represented sin. My view is similar to Origen’s view. But even that I do not think is more likely than not true. I just think that is more probable than a sarcastic interpretation. Both of those interpretations are not combined to be over 50% in my mind. But either the sarcastic or symbolic interpretations seems much more likely than a literalist interpretation. The biggest part of this pie graph is – we really can’t say what to make of this passage.
I often hear/read that authors of this literature lived in a time where science was non-existent and therefore ignorance was everywhere. We hear that most people could not read and write and therefore they must have been very stupid. I have read many times claims that people in ancient times thought things like thunder was made by Thor banging his hammer. And they thought the world was on the back of a tortoise etc. And I wonder how do these people know what the ancient authors thought? Today we tend to read this literally and so we project our views on the author. But how do we know they interpreted these stories literally? And if I am able I will ask the person making the claim how he knows that. Rauser offers some decent reasons in support of a literalist interpretation, (which I will address in another blog) but for the most part there is no response other then they repeat what is said and assume it is to be taken literally.
But If some myth author suggested that the earth rested on the back of a tortoise and some person asked the author “what does that toroise stand on?” or “well how does the tortoise get enough water to drink” I think the author of these myths would not praise this person hung up on literalism for their insight, but rather shake their head and possibly consider them someone that is difficult to communicate ideas to. I don’t think the ancients writing myths and stories that were handed down for centuries in any culture were just dumb people. In particular I certainly do not think that of the ancient Jews that wrote the stories that were considered scripture for their culture were dumb.
People often assume they are smarter than others. They especially think other people distant in time, culture or space lack their understanding. I really think we apply this prejudice to ancients, in ways that are not unlike what the South African apartheid government did to black people. The joke was on the government leaders. The culture that revered the books of the Old Testament was not a culture of idiots. But I think there is a certain prejudicial arrogance that allows some modern people to think their literature really was just crude ignorance in word form.
The bible has 73 books. We should not claim we know what every passage means. It is ok to say we don’t know what that particular passage means. Just because all scripture is good for instruction 2 Timothy 3:16 that does not mean every passage is good for every person at every time in history. It may very well be that parts of the bible were revered for reasons that are lost. Denying this possibility is not going to help anyone gain understanding.
It is for this reason that I would push back on Randall Rauser’s view that we shouldn’t “omit” certain Old Testament passages. I think there are Old Testament passages that we do not really understand well at all. I think they are properly left out of church lectionaries and Sunday school. Why read scripture when we don’t know what to make of it? Especially when there is so much scripture that we can understand and provides wonderful instruction in how to live in the modern world?
But people might say well how could God let this happen? Why wouldn’t God make sure people always understood what the author was communicating? And I would respond, why should he? God reveals himself differently to people at different times. Why would we assume we need exactly the same messages people of a different time and place needed?
And anyway the answer is that in reality the meaning of written words in our world/reality does often get lost. The written words may stay but the full meanings are often lost not just in scripture but other writings as well. So what would we expect God to do to help us not be lead astray? Well Scripture tells us 1) he wrote his law on our hearts as a guide. 2) He created a Church, and 3) if you are Christian you also believe God came down from heaven and told us the important takeaways from the old testament. I don’t think it is reasonable to ignore God’s commentary on the Old Testament just because you decided literal readings should be the default. Start with God’s commentary on the Old Testament. If someone’s literal interpretations puts them at loggerheads with the author’s interpretation of his own work we can acknowledge the literal interpretation is wrong. We should do the same with scripture.
I have been following Randal Rauser’s Blog lately. I enjoy reading his comments and watching his interviews and other youtube content. I like his approach to apologetics and these topics generally. He also has written quite a few books. His most recent book is “Jesus Loves Canaanites.” It addresses the issue of difficult readings in scripture and in particular the Old Testament. He has been on a few youtube channels where he supposedly discusses the book but I tend to doubt those discussing it with him have read the book. So I figured I would at least read the book and offer some thoughts on what I consider the substantive stances he takes. As I started reading it, I realized that he addresses several interesting topics that I have been meaning to write about anyway so I am going to break up this review into a few blogs.
His overall thesis in the book is that we can use our moral sense to interpret scripture. It is not a one way street. It is not the case that we are solely to inform our moral sense by what we read in scripture but it is also ok to use our moral sense to inform what scripture means/says. This is itself an interesting topic but on the whole I agree with him. I would likely formulate the argument a bit differently and I may discuss that in a different blog.
I want to address some of the general epistemic arguments and claims that he makes. These concern the various cartesian arguments that can lead us to be skeptical of the external world. I have talked about these arguments here. But in short one argument is: how do we know we are not dreaming? After all we have had dreams where we seem to have experiences that seem very real. And anything we believe is real about the external world could merely be part of a dream. We don’t believe there is a real material world that corresponds with our “dream world” so why think there is one with our experience now? Berkeley is a philosopher that famously maintained there is no external world just our experiences. Rauser offers an argument by analogy against this view. This is what he says:
“Thus far, I’ve argued that you cannot refute the skepticism of the external world proposed by Berkeley and others like him simply by appealing to your direct experience of sense perceiving the world. But here’s the really critical question: does it follow from this that you are obliged to give up your belief that you are directly sense perceiving the external world? No, in fact, that does not follow at all. The fact that you cannot refute Berkeley does not mean that you have to agree with him. Nor does it mean that you suddenly need to become agnostic about the whole question. You can still retain your convictions in the external world even if you cannot show Berkeley to be wrong.
How so? Consider an analogy from yet another type of belief: memory. Let’s say you remember very clearly that you were at home alone all day yesterday working in your garden. So you are completely shocked when the police storm into your house and arrest you for a murder carried out at that exact same time. Later, when the detective is interrogating you, he outlines a motive for you to commit the crime, a motive which you cannot easily refute. In addition, you are dismayed to learn that two witnesses have identified you as the murderer and their confident testimony appears to be backed up by some surveillance footage which shows a car like yours arriving at the scene of the crime. Based upon that weight of evidence, the detective may be justified in believing that you are guilty of murder. However, it does not follow that you are obliged to believe that you are guilty. Nor would it require you to become agnostic as to your potential guilt. The motive, testimony, and surveillance footage notwithstanding, you could go right on trusting your very clear memory that you were, in fact, home working in your garden the whole time.
The contrast between you and the detective parallels the contrast between the world-realist who believes there is a world external to our mind that we perceive and the idealist or skeptic who rejects that claim. The skeptic may be persuaded by the evidence that there is no external world just like the detective is persuaded by the evidence of your guilt. But just as you have a private memory that grounds and thereby justifies your belief in your innocence so a person may have personal sense perceptual experiences every waking moment that ground and thereby justify their belief in an external world. Even if you cannot refute the detective, you are still justified in maintaining your belief in your innocence. And even if you cannot refute the idealist or skeptic, you are still justified in maintaining your belief in the external world. Thus, you would be perfectly within your rights to respond like this: “Look, I don’t know how to refute Berkeley’s ‘idealism’ or other skeptical scenarios. I concede that it is possible that I am wrong and that I really am asleep or in a matrix. Or maybe I’m a brain in a vat. But why should I be moved by the mere possibility that one of those scenarios could be true? What I do know is that my experiences seem overwhelmingly to be of a world external to my mind. And the power, the weight, the ineluctable gravitas of that experience, an experience that is clearly part of general common sense shared by most people, all that vastly outweighs the strength of your piddling skeptical claims that I am really just experiencing sensory ‘ideas’ in my head.”
Rauser, Randal. Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition (pp. 63-64). 2 Cup Press. Kindle Edition.
First a few things we agree on. I agree you can be justified in maintaining your belief even though you can’t convince others. I also happen to think you are not justified in changing your belief even if you convince everyone of something you know is not true. That is not to say other people’s views should never have any influence on my own beliefs but I certainly agree there are times where we should not care what others, who are less informed about the situation think.
However, I do not think his analogy works. In the murder case you have actual evidence that the detective does not have. You have compelling subjective evidence that you did not commit the crime. Subjective versus objective evidence can be loosely defined this way: “Subjective evidence” is evidence that others cannot examine. Rauser refers to this evidence as a “private memory.” Of course you do not need to keep the memory “private” in the sense of keeping the memory secret. You can explicitly shout out what you remember from the rooftops. But the actual experience of having the memory can not be shared. It can only be conveyed by statements and hearing or reading the statements is not the same as actually having the memory of the experience. “Objective evidence,” on the other hand, is evidence that others can examine.
“Subjective evidence” often gets a bad rap. I was discussing something with John Loftus and he said we should only consider objective evidence. I think that is really bad advice (and I suspect Rauser would as well) but I think there is enough confusion on the issue that it is worth talking through a bit.
In cases where we directly and personally witness an event we have subjective evidence of what occurred. Our experience of what we witnessed can not be directly shared. Of course we can write it down and then that written report is objective evidence that others can examine for themselves. But our creating that writing describing what we saw (that is the creation of objective evidence) should not immediately increase the strength of our own belief. That would be silly.
Historians often deal with objective evidence. But the objective evidence they use is often derived from subjective experiences. We certainly hope they are derived from people actually seeing or hearing things with their own senses. “Pre-historic” is usually defined as the time before a culture had surviving written records. Most of the objective evidence that historians are using are writings. The writings are objective because anyone can examine them. They are not solely in the mind of the historian. Many of the ancient copies of scripture that we have also counts as objective evidence.
Rausers situation is one where the subjective evidence – your memory of what you did that day – is much stronger than any sort of objective evidence the detective can bring whether it is video of a car that looks like yours or witness affidavits putting you at the scene etc. Here is another example of the power of subjective evidence.
A lawyer is defending Don who is accused of murdering Victor. One problem for the state is they never found Victor’s body. In closing the defense lawyer goes through various pieces of evidence that he thinks show his client is innocent and he also says “I know Don did not murder Victor and you will soon know it as well.” He then dramatically points to the doors of the court room and says “that is because any second Victor is going to walk right through those doors!”
He sees everyone in the Jury turning to look at the doors. He figures clearly they must have doubts since they looked at the doors. But they quickly come back with a guilty verdict! He asks a Juror “how could you have found him guilty I saw you and the rest of the Jury look at the doors so you must have had doubts!” The Juror says “yes I looked and it seemed everyone in the courtroom looked at the doors. But I happened to look at your client, Don, and he didn’t turn around to look at the doors.”
In this case the defendant knew Victor was not going to walk through those doors based on his subjective experience of killing him and disposing of the body. It doesn’t matter if his lawyer had video that seemed to show Victor was alive after the alleged murder or other objective evidence such as recorded statements or testimony that anyone could hear. And of course the Jurors knew that Don the defendant had access to the most powerful evidence anyone could have on this question – knowledge of his own subjective experience regarding what he did on the day in question. Since Don had access to that subjective evidence the smart juror was most interested in the probability Don would put on Victor walking through those doors.
So in these cases the defendant has subjective evidence that others don’t. However, in the skeptical arguments there is no reason to think the evidence is any different for Berkeley or Rauser or anyone else. There is no evidence that would show we are not dreaming (or a brain in a vat etc.) that I posses and others don’t. Indeed it is very difficult to even imagine what such evidence could be.
Rauser goes on to seemingly embrace a sort of intuitionism. Intuitionism roughly posits that something seeming so to us is itself evidence. I have mixed views on this. He is in good company with philosophers including not only GE Moore but also Michael Huemer and Russ Schaefer-Landau. However here is a well written and short article by Richard Joyce that I think presents some of the shortcomings of the view.
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.
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.
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!’”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.”
“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…..”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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!
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.
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.””