Four reasons why quoting the Bible rarely settles political disagreements

I spend a fair bit of time hanging out with mild-mannered progressive Christians.  One thing that I like about the members of that group is that they don’t often try to spring Bible quotes on you as a means of settling political disagreements.  The last couple of weeks, though. there has been a tremendous amount of backsliding among progressive Christians in this regard. As a result, I’ve been avoiding social media lately.* So many of my friends have been quoting passages from Leviticus and the Gospel According to Luke as if those passages made it obvious what policies the United States of America and the European Union should adopt towards refugees and migrants from southwest Asia, and have been calling down fire and brimstone on those who are unconvinced, that my news feed on Facebook and my stream on Twitter have started to feel like a tent revival with an especially dyspeptic preaching staff.  Quite a few people whom I know to be committed universalists, believers in a doctrine holding that all souls are destined for salvation, have posted statements that those who do not share their position on this issue will be going to Hell.

There are many hazards to attempts to use the Bible to settle political disagreements.  Some are more obvious than others.  For example:

  1. Not everyone agrees that the Bible is authoritative. This is a sufficiently familiar point that I can hardly imagine it needs elaboration.
  2. Not everyone who does agree that the Bible is authoritative agrees on how it should be interpreted.In connection with border policy, relaxationists like to quote two excerpts from the Gospel of Luke. These excerpts are the parable of the “Good Samaritan,” and the parable of the sheep and the goats.  The Samaritan is good because he shows hospitality to a non-Samaritan, the shepherd chooses those who perform such acts of mercy as welcoming strangers and rejects those who do not.  Advocates of a relaxationist stand on border policy trot these verses out in confidence that they will clobber restrictionists into silence.

    And so they may.  But beware.  One Samaritan is good to the beaten man; three Jews are bad to him.  That story could as easily be called “The Parable of the Bad Jews” as the “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”  And so on with the rest of the Gospel of Luke, including the sheep and the goats.  The consistent, overarching theme of the whole thing is that early first century Jews are hypocrites, unworthy of their divine heritage, and that they will be punished unless they join the movement forming around Jesus.  Progressive Christians reflexively identify themselves and the church as the heirs of this rebuke, and say that the strictures that Jesus lays upon the superficially pious Jews of his day apply to the superficially Christians of our day.  But that is not the only interpretation Luke has received over the centuries.  Plenty of readers, among them people wielding whatever form of sacred or secular authority you may find impressive, have read Luke as a mandate for every form of anti-Jewish activity, up to and including genocidal violence.  If that’s the road you’re bent to follow, nothing in the Bible will stop you traveling down it.

  3. The Bible is a complex book, political disputes are complex situations, and overlaying the one complexity on top of the other leads to more confusion than enlightenment.  It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone really does not accept that a book like the Bible, 36,000 verses in a variety of languages and literary genres, produced by the work of untold numbers of people over more than a dozen centuries, can provide a reader with support for any position that reader would like to see supported. Still, people do seem to lose sight of this.Here’s a tweet that exemplifies the problem:

    To which a smart-aleck might reply that the command to uproot the seed of Amalek is limited neither by the liturgical calendar nor by the passage of centuries, and inquire if that is the model Mr Willis would have us follow.

    If we do want to stick with something specifically called for by the liturgical calendar, in the impeccably progressive Episcopal Church this morning’s Daily Office reading from the Old Testament was from the prophet Joel (chapter 3, verses 1-2 and 9-17.) It includes a call for the Jews of the Diaspora to reverse what Isaiah had seen, to beat ploughshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears, to stand in the valley and do battle for the heritage of Israel.  It concludes with the lines “And Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it.”

    I’d certainly rather we lean towards a relaxationist line than a restrictionist one, and if we have no choice but to cite Bible verses in defense of border policy, I’d always prefer a sanitized view of Luke to a full-throated version of Joel, or Exodus, or Deuteronomy, or Samuel, or Joshua.  But I think a wiser use of the Bible starts with verses 26.4 and 26.5 of the Book of Proverbs:
    26.4. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
    26.5. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

    Do these verses contradict each other?  Obviously they contradict each other; that’s the point.  The Bible is a reliable companion, and can be a wise counselor, if we listen to it in the right mind.  But it doesn’t make our decisions for us.  We’re still responsible for living our lives.  We need our own judgment to tell us whether any particular group of people are fools or not.  Having decided that they are fools, we need our judgment to decide whether, in a given situation, it is more important to keep ourselves distinct from their foolishness or to try to persuade them to leave it behind.  Once we’ve made that decision, the appropriate proverb will tell us the consequence of our decision.  Holding aloof from folly, we must abide it in silence.  Trying to correct folly, we must ourselves become somewhat foolish.

    In regard to border policy, I think the Bible is useful to us only after we have decided whether we, like Moses and Joshua and Samuel and Joel, are members of a community that is called upon to establish itself as a distinct people with a distinct destiny in the divine drama of history, or whether we, like the contemporaries of Jesus as described in Luke, are members of a community that has gone as far in that drama as distinctiveness will take it and so must set our distinctions aside and embrace a new kind of identity.  I tend to lean toward the shedding distinctiveness side, and rarely read the violent passages of scripture without horror and revulsion.  But my progressive friends, in their spasms of self-righteousness, have managed to take their immigration relaxationism so far that I am coming to see value even in the injunctions to smite Amalek.

  4. One theme the Bible makes abundantly clear is that God will surprise us.  The Bible time and again tells us explicitly that God will surprise us; it articulates a world-view every portion of which implies that God will surprise us; it tells the stories of hundreds of people, all of whom are at some point God surprises; and readers of the Bible, every time they turn to it with their ears and minds open, will be freshly surprised by its contents.  Sometimes the surprises the Bible tells us to watch for will be pleasant. God will answer prayers, make miracles, and provide evidence that we are right and the other fellow is wrong.  These are very agreeable surprises.  Other times the surprises are extremely disagreeable.  Among the consequences of disagreeable surprises is the realization that all of our beliefs have been ill-founded.  Therefore, citing the Bible in order to justify one’s certitude that one’s beliefs are well-founded is likely to exasperate those daily readers of the Bible who have internalized its injunctions to accept that God alone is wise, that God alone knows in full what God’s plans are for us and for the world, and that God’s ways are not our ways and cannot be searched by our lights.

*WordPress is an unsocial medium, an online hermitage, as witness the fact that it’s almost indecent to blog under your real name here.

I think I’ve figured out the 2016 Republican presidential contest

Yesterday I saw a piece on Politico called “Jeb Bush is 2016’s John Kerry.” Reading that, it struck me why I had thought that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker had a 90% chance of emerging as next year’s Republican nominee for president: I was unconsciously assuming that the 2016 Republican contest would play out along the lines of the 2004 Democratic contest.

In the Politico piece author Bill Scher mentions that former Florida governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush is currently registering 4% support on polls of likely Republican primary voters, then reminds us that in November 2003 then-Massachusetts senator John Forbes “John Forbes” Kerry registered 4% support in polls of likely Democratic primary voters. Since Mr Kerry went on to win his party’s nomination, Mr Scher suggests, Mr Bush might be able to follow his example and become the Republican nominee next year.

I don’t agree with Mr Scher’s analysis. What makes the 2016 Republican contest look so much like the 2004 Democratic one is that the early going is dominated by an unlikely insurgent, former Vermont governor Howard Brush “Doctor” Dean among the Democrats in 2004, loudmouth landlord Donald John “Don John” Trump among the Republicans this year.  In each case, the insurgency is fueled by the disconnect between the party’s elite and its mass supporters over one key issue. In 2004, the vast majority of Democrats were firmly convinced that it had been a mistake for the USA to invade Iraq the year before, while the party’s moneymen were giving their backing to presidential candidates and other politicians who supported the war. Dr Dean rose to the head of the Democratic polls as the only seemingly plausible candidate who was unequivocally opposed to the war. This time around, over 90% of Republicans are firmly convinced that immigration policy should be made more restrictive, while the party’s moneymen are giving their backing to presidential candidates and other politicians who want to make it less restrictive. As the loudest and most extreme restrictionist voice, Mr Trump has driven relaxationists like Mr Bush to the sidelines.

How did John Kerry, who voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and didn’t admit that he’d been wrong to do so until 2006, manage to win the nomination of a party whose voters were almost as solidly against that war in 2004 as Republican voters are today against the relaxationist line on immigration to which candidates like Mr Bush are committed? First, he benefited from good luck, as Dr Dean and then-Missouri Representative Richard “Dick” Gephardt allowed themselves to be drawn into a highly visible and extremely unattractive personal feud in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, an event held in a state where people famously value politeness.  That feud knocked those two men out of contention there, opening the door for Mr Kerry to win a surprise victory in Iowa which led directly to wins in New Hampshire and the other early states, turning him from a no-hoper to a front-runner almost overnight.

Second, the only people who pay much attention to a presidential campaign the year before the voting starts are enthusiasts and professionals. The enthusiasts greatly outnumber the professionals, and are not consistently focused on the ability of a candidate to win a general election. Once the voting starts, a wider variety of people check in to the process, and electability is usually one of their top concerns. Dr Dean did not look like a very good bet to beat George Walker “W” Bush in that year’s general election, and other antiwar candidates, such as then-Ohio Representative Dennis “Look at My Wife!” Kucinich and the Rev’d Mr Alfred “Al” Sharpton seemed likely to pose even less formidable challenges to Mr Bush.  Mr Kerry struck those voters as a likelier winner, and while his support for the Iraq war would prove to be an embarrassment in the general election, his background as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and as a relatively dovish senator reassured Democrats that once in office, he would be eager to end the ongoing wars and reluctant to launch new ones.

Mr Bush may yet benefit from fighting among the top-tier candidates, but the rest of the scenario that put Mr Kerry on the top of the Democratic ticket seems most unlikely to replay itself in his favor. As the brother of George W. Bush, Mr Bush has always faced serious doubts about his electability, making him an unlikely recipient of votes from people looking for a winner.  And as someone who has for decades been outspoken and firm in his support for a relaxationist approach to immigration, he has no credentials at all that would make him acceptable to Republican restrictionists as Mr Kerry’s antiwar past made him acceptable to Democratic doves. In that way, Mr Bush’s 2004 analogue is not the once-and-future peace campaigner Mr Kerry, but then-Connecticut senator Joseph Isadore “Joe” Lieberman, whose near-universal name recognition as the Democrats’ 2000 vice presidential nominee gave him a place at the top of the polls when campaigning started, but whose relentless hawkishness pushed him first to the back of the Democratic pack, and then out of the party altogether.

Other candidates who might be acceptable to the Republican party’s elites, notably former Hewlett-Packard CEO Cara Carleton “Carly” Forina and New Jersey governor Christopher James “Chris” Christie, have been making restrictionist noises of late.  If history repeats itself in the way Mr Scher suggests, it will likely be one of those two, not Mr Bush, who clambers over the wreckage of the Trump insurgency to enter the top tier of candidates.

So, how do I think the race will go?  The Republican elites who have despaired of Mr Bush are now apparently trying to push Florida senator Marco Antonio “I dreamed there was an Emperor Antony” Rubio forward. If r Rubio manages to open the voting by winning the Iowa caucuses on 1 February, he will likely go into the 9 February New Hampshire primary with the kind of momentum that swept John Kerry to victory in that contest in 2004, and like Mr Kerry will be poised to run the table of major contests, winning the nomination easily.

If Mr Rubio does not win Iowa, the likeliest winner there is Dr Benjamin Solomon “Ben” Carson, whose deep well of support from the Christian right virtually ensures that he can stay in the nomination race as long as he likes, taking 10%, 20%, 30% of the vote in state after state until the last primaries on 28 June.  Dr Carson has no plausible path to the nomination, but his supporters are so devoted and well-organized that no foreseeable event that will force him to drop out of the field.

If neither Mr Rubio nor Dr Carson wins Iowa, then the winner there is likely to have been Texas senator Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz.  Mr Cruz is running a campaign that strikes many observers as the most similar to a winning campaign of any in the field at the moment, he has been concentrating his efforts on Iowa, and his hard-right profile might appeal to Republican caucus-goers.  If Mr Cruz does win Iowa, he will probably go directly to South Carolina for a showdown with Dr Carson.  If Mr Cruz wins both Iowa and South Carolina, he might consolidate the support of the Republican right-wing; if not, he will struggle to stay in the field, no matter how well-balanced the structure of his campaign may be.

New Hampshire’s primary is the least predictable of the early contests.  Seven candidates have a real chance of winning there: Mr Rubio, Mr Christie, Mr Kasich, Ms Fiorina, Mr Trump, Mr Cruz, and Mr Bush.  While New Hampshire is typically leery of hard-right figures such as Mr Cruz, the presence of so many other candidates, coupled with the possibility of a boost from an upset win in Iowa, makes it possible that he might win there with 20% of the vote or so.  And Mr Trump’s strong polling in that state is to be taken relatively seriously, as New Hampshire residents do check into the process a bit earlier than do most Americans.

If Mr Christie, Ohio governor John Richard “Ouch! My Back!” Kasich, Ms Fiorina, or Mr Bush should win the New Hampshire primary, that candidate would become an alternative for Republican elites in case Mr Rubio falters.  It would be very difficult for any of these candidates to follow up such a win, however, since none of then is currently operating an organization in or raising funds from even half the states where the nomination will be decided.  And none of those four can continue without a win in New Hampshire.  But Mr Rubio is in many ways an extraordinarily slight figure; he does not lead the field in national polling, early-state polling, fundraising, cash on hand, organization, endorsements, or any other measurable index of strength.  He is a first-term senator who would be facing an uphill battle for reelection were he trying to become a second term senator; only 15% of Floridian voters say they would like to see him as president.  So he might collapse after a loss in New Hampshire, and one of these four might move into the elite-favorite role.  If that is Mr Christie or Ms Fiorina, that role might culminate in the nomination.  Mr Bush and Mr Kasich, however, are so badly compromised in so many ways that even the united support of the establishment probably could not get them past Mr Cruz or Mr Trump.

If the winner in New Hampshire is Mr Rubio, Mr Trump, or Mr Cruz, those elites will have only Mr Rubio available to them as the sort of candidate who makes them comfortable.  That would suit Mr Rubio’s interests, of course. However, it may also suit Mr Trump or Mr Cruz.  Those men do not want to gain the support of the party’s establishment; they want to revolutionize the party and replace its establishment.  If the GOP’s principal moneymen rally around Mr Rubio after New Hampshire, Mr Trump or Mr Cruz may choose that moment to drive the message home to the party’s restrictionist base that Mr Rubio is as much a relaxationist as Mr Bush.  Drop that hammer, and the Rubio 2016 may seem less like an army to march with and more like a burning building to be trapped in come the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses of 1 March.

So there are a number of ways that the race could play out.  It is quite possible that Mr Rubio will win every major contest.  It is equally possible that after Super Tuesday, Mr Trump and Mr Cruz will be the two candidates fighting it out for the nomination.  The “smart-money” pundits seem to be expecting a Rubio-Cruz showdown; I don’t see a lot of scenarios where those two men are both viable candidates after 1 March, though certainly some of them are possible.  And one of the other four elite-friendly candidates could win New Hampshire, pick up the wreckage of a Rubio collapse, and go on to edge out Mr Cruz or Mr Trump after a hard-fought primary season.

Twilight of the Honkies?

I follow a number of right-leaning websites, largely because I like to get all points of view.  A few days ago, I saw a post on Steve Sailer’s blog about a study by Angus Deaton and Ann Case which indicated that death rates among whites aged 45-54 in the USA jumped significantly in the years 1999-2013, a jump which contrasted with steady declines in mortality among other demographic cohorts in the USA and elsewhere.  Mr Sailer has followed this post up herehere, here and here; the significance he finds in the topic can be found in the titles of his first and fifth posts: “#WhiteLivesDon’tMatter” and “Why Wasn’t the Big 1999-2002 Rise in Death Rate Among 45-54 Year Old Whites Noticed Until 2015?”  Other conservative bloggers have found great significance in the conclusions Professors Deaton and Case have drawn; for example, Rod Dreher sees in these figures signs that life is losing its meaning for poor whites in the USA, while Anatoly Karlin sees an ominous parallel to the decline and fall of the Soviet Union.

Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman points out a problem with the analysis on which Professors Deaton and Case have based their conclusions. In 1999, the median age within the 45-54 years old subgroup of US whites was a lot closer to 45 than to 54, while in 2013 it was much closer to 54.  The Deaton and Case study does not adjust for this difference in age distribution.  Deaton and Case give us this spectacular graph:


Correcting for age distribution alone, Professor Gelman produces this figure:


Which accounts for the entire effect illustrated by the bright red line in the Deaton/ Case paper.

Professor Gelman argues that the Deaton/ Case findings are still newsworthy, if not as sensational as their interpretation would suggest.  Why did mortality among US whites aged 45-54 remain steady in years when virtually every comparable demographic experienced a significant decline in mortality?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I suspect it will turn out to be something pretty obvious. My first thought is base rate.  After all, middle-aged white Americans are, on average, one of the most prosperous large groups on earth, and have been so for a great many years.  That isn’t to deny that pockets of deep poverty like those which so concern Mr Dreher do exist among US whites at the left end of the income distribution curve, but the income level at the middle of the white American bell curve is quite high by global standards and has been for many generations. So, any easy measures that could move the needle up on average life expectancy among a population have probably long since been taken with regard to middle-aged white Americans.

The second thing that comes to my mind is obesity.  Americans in general are pretty fat; this animated gif that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a couple of years ago illustrates just how fat we’ve been getting, and whites are certainly not immune to the problem:

If the median white American gained as much weight as this figure suggests in the years leading up to and beyond 1999, it is a sign of extraordinary advances in medical care that the mortality rate among US whites aged 45-54 did not jump by at least as much as the original Deaton/ Case interpretation indicated.  That other groups actually experienced declines in mortality while undergoing equal or greater increases in obesity would support the base rate explanation to which I referred above, that African Americans and nonwhite US Hispanics, having on average lower incomes than US whites, were also on average later in receiving new forms of medical intervention and other benefits of modernity than were their white compatriots.

Texas Crazy

Contrary to the poster for this 2008 film, none of the witnesses from the 19th century said the Wild Man hurt them

A few days ago, it turned up in the news that in Norway, “Texas” is slang for “crazy.”  According to Anne Ekern, an official of the Norwegian consulate in Houston whom National Public Radio talked with, the use of “Texas” as an expression meaning something wild, exciting, or out of control “goes back to Norwegians watching cowboy movies” and was familiar to her in as a phrase adults used when she was a child in Norway in the 1970’s.

US left-wingers, among them most of the people I see on social media, love this story, and have been gleefully sharing as fact the theory that it stems from the Lone Star State’s often ultra-conservative politics.  I started wondering about this when I noticed that Norwegian friends of mine were mentioning that they’ve only heard “Texas” used to mean crazy in the sense of wild or unpredictable, not mentally unwell.

That, combined with the explanation Ms Ekern offered, reminded me of a memory I had as a child in the 1970s, not in Norway, but in the USA.  My older brother showed up at a family function with a long, unkempt beard.  Our grandmother, who’d last seen him clean-shaved, laughed and said that he looked like the Texas Wild Man.  I’d often heard people of her generation (she was born in 1905) use the phrase “Texas Wild Man” to refer to eccentric people, and I was curious where it came from.  So I asked her.  She said she didn’t know where it came from, but that it was a familiar expression when she was growing up.  The younger adults assured her that it was still in common use, and I told her that I had heard it before.  We all speculated for a few minutes as to what its origin might be.  I don’t remember what our hypotheses were; I’m sure the longtime popularity of cowboy movies must have figured in some of them, as it does in Ms Ekern’s theory about the Norwegian use of “Texas.”

Another kind of Texas Wild Man

However, when I finally got round to googling “Texas Wild Man” yesterday, I found out that cowboy movies had nothing to do with it.  “The Texas Wild Man,” also known as “The Texas Wild Woman” and “The Wild Man of the Navidad,” was a half-human, half-ape creature of whom various people in and around Lavaca County, Texas reported catching glimpses from 1834 until 1851.  A number of anomalous footprints and other bits of evidence lent credence to the testimonies of a large and diverse array of witnesses.  The people held in slavery in that area called the creature whom they saw by moonlight “The Thing That Comes.”  In the 1830s not many people were in a position to know what or who might be living in the wilds of southeast Texas; the mystery of the half-man, half-ape “Thing That Comes” made its way around the world, keeping the phrase “Texas Wild Man” alive in US slang well into the 1970s, and perhaps keeping an echo of it ringing even in Norway.

On 21 February 1986, a column appeared in the Victoria, Texas Advocate (also available here) putting forward an explanation as to what exactly was behind the sightings of the Wild Man of the Navidad.  Columnist Henry Wolff, Jr read an article from the Texas Historical Quarterly of October 1900.  In that article, Mr Wolff found the recollections of “Mrs Dilue Harris, who was the wife of Ira S. Harris, an early Colorado County sheriff.”  Mrs Harris explained that the Wild Man was one of a group of Africans held in slavery on a plantation near the town of Columbus, a plantation belonging to a man named Ben Fort Smith.  The Wild Man had escaped from Smith’s plantation, fled to the Navidad river, and remained at liberty for quite some time.  Mrs Harris, relying on her memory to recount events of more than half a century before, apparently said that the Wild Man was captured in 1846; however, Mr Wolff cites a scholar named Brownson Malsch who found a newspaper article published on 7 August 1851 reporting that the Wild Man had been captured a few days before, that on 1 August he had been sold back into slavery at an auction where a man named Payton Bickford paid $207 for him, and that within hours of that sale the Wild Man had escaped from Payton Bickford and was now in jail along with three other men.  Evidently the Wild Man’s name was revealed in this article to be Jimbo.

Mr Wolff quotes a source telling us that when Jimbo was sent back to Payton Bickford after this escape, Bickford “turned him into the cornfield to fatten previous to closing his contract with Barnum for the sale of Jimbo.”  That Bickford was in negotiations with P. T. Barnum, already a world-famous impresario in 1851, for custody of Jimbo shows just how much publicity the Texas Wild Man must have attracted.  Something must have convinced Barnum that Jimbo would not bring him a triumph to match those he had enjoyed exhibiting various disabled and enslaved people as freaks, however, as Payton Bickford ultimately sold Jimbo, not as a public attraction, but as a field hand.  A Victoria County planter named Zebriam Lewis paid Bickford for Jimbo, and Jimbo was still in service to Lewis when slavery was abolished in 1865.  In 1865, Jimbo left the Lewis ranch for another ranch, belonging to someone called Carlos, and there he stayed until he died in 1884.  Mr Wolff quotes someone who knew Jimbo as saying “He was perfectly harmless, and never learned to speak English, talking in broken Spanish which could hardly be understood.”

So, the man who put the crazy in Texas, at least in “Texas” as a slang term, may not have been a far-right politician, but an African who refused to be enslaved.  Der ist helt Texas, indeed!

“Woman” vs “Female”

Here’s something I saw on twitter this morning:

That prompted a question from me:

I suspect that “Woman Trouble” (meaning, difficulties someone is having with a female romantic partner) and “Female Trouble” (meaning, ailments for which one might seek aid from a gynecologist) are both fairly problematic phrases, and I never use either.  In fact, I can’t think of anyone I know who uses them, except ironically and in the company of people who get the joke.  (And I know some people whose speech habits are pretty thoroughly untouched by feminism.)  That one has “woman” and the other has “female” doesn’t seem to matter much.

Anyway, poster Kait the Great then put up this clarification, perhaps not in response to me specifically:

Though I do still wonder about my original question.  Phrases like “Female Trouble” vs “Woman Trouble,” whatever else may be wrong with them, don’t suggest that “woman” and “female” are interchangeable.  If the problem with, say, “woman driver” as opposed to “female driver” comes from such a suggestion, then that might explain why “Female Trouble” and “Woman Trouble” are equally awkward.

Halloween logic

Saul and the Witch of Endor, by Washington Allston

A few days ago, Rod Dreher posted some thoughts about séances, mediums, and the like.  This prompted me to arrange some thoughts about the topic as a formal argument.

  1. Either disembodied spirits operate in the world, or they do not.
  2. If they do not, we ought not to do business with mediums, as they would not be able to deliver the service which they advertise.
    1. Moreover, any good we might incidentally receive in the course of our dealings with mediums would be, on the one hand, offset by the harm we would be doing by supporting a fraudulent business, and, on the other hand, would likely be available in other forms, offered by trustworthy psychotherapists or other honest dealers.
  3. If disembodied spirits do operate in the world, either they have intentions concerning our well-being, or they do not.
  4. If they do not have intentions concerning our well-being, we ought not to do business with mediums, as they would in such a case have no messages to convey to us.
  5. If they do have intentions concerning our well-being, either those intentions are all alike, or they are not all alike.
  6. If they are all alike, either all of them are friendly, or all of them are hostile.
  7. If all the intentions disembodied spirits have concerning our well-being are friendly, the degree of suffering and injustice humans endure in the world suffices to prove that those spirits are of little consequence in the world.
  8. If all the intentions disembodied spirits have concerning our well-being are hostile, the degree of prosperity and good feeling humans enjoy in the world suffices to prove that those spirits are of little consequence in the world.
  9. If disembodied spirits are of little consequence in the world, we ought not to do business with mediums, as the information they offer is of insufficient practical value to justify the investment, not only of money, but of intellectual attention and emotional energy, which they demand.
  10. If disembodied spirits exist, have intentions concerning our well-being, and are of great consequence in the world, points 7 and 8 above show that some of them must be friendly towards us, while others are hostile.
  11. There is not now and likely will never be an empirical test to determine whether a particular disembodied spirit is friendly or hostile in its intentions concerning our well-being.
  12. Either there are mediums who can facilitate communication between us and disembodied spirits, or there are not.
  13. If there are not, then we ought not to do business with mediums, for the same reasons explained under point 2 above.
  14. If there are, then we ought not to do business with mediums, as we would have no empirical test to determine whether the spirit communicating with us through the medium was a friendly spirit providing information that would lead us to good, or a hostile spirit providing information that would lead to our destruction.
    1. Even if a friendly spirit did provide us with information that would benefit us, the success of that act of communication would likely bring us back to the medium for further consultations.  Since there is no test to distinguish friendly spirits from hostile ones, each further consultation would represent another opportunity for a hostile spirit to approach us.
  15. Therefore, we ought not under any circumstances do business with mediums.

I rather wonder what the relationship is between a logical construction like this and the sorts of games fortune-tellers play.  Games such as the Tarot, the I Ching, the Ouija board, etc.

Once, when I was in a logic class in college, the professor said something he usually had occasion to say at least once a week, “A valid argument is one where, if you accept that the premises are true, you must accept that the conclusion is also true.”  What made this occasion different was what he said next: “You may wonder where that ‘must’ comes from.  Who says you ‘must’ accept the conclusion of a valid argument if its premises are true? That would appear to be an ethical statement.  In that sense logic is a subfield of ethics.”  This remark was particularly striking coming as it did from a professor who taught only logic, metaphysics, and the philosophy of mathematics.  He never taught ethics or anything too obviously derivative of ethics.  But it did seem unavoidable to him that logic was ultimately rooted in the moral sense.

A culture might regard a particular divination game as a holy act of obligation.  It is certainly the case that many groups of people defined by religion look on each others’ practices as so much traffic with the spiritual forces of darkness.  Perhaps the rules of logic according to which I constructed the argument above would seem to some or other religious group to be as peculiar and as unwholesome as the rules of a séance would appear to me.

David Morgan-Mar’s “Planet of Hats”

I like the original Star Trek and I like web comics, so it should be no surprise that I like David Morgan-Mar’s “Planet of Hats,” a web comic that recapitulates the original series at the rate of one episode every Wednesday afternoon.

He’s into the third and final season of the show now, and I think he’s a bit unfair to those late episodes.  For example, the one up now is “Plato’s Stepchildren.”  Mr Morgan-Mar draws that one with wax crayons, creating the most childish image possible, and explains in the notes that when he watched the episode in preparation for the strip its childishness was the aspect of it he most wanted to bring out.

I agree there is a lot of childishness in that one, but I think it’s intentional.  The story is that a group of people who devoted themselves to the study of Plato’s works and the re-creation of the material appearance of fourth-century BCE Athens have acquired the power of telekinesis.  Plato’s works are addressed to adults, the re-creation of past times is an extremely challenging project, and if we try to imagine the social system that might develop among beings who had the power of telekinesis we might be surprised at all the ways in which the need to pick things up and move them from one place to another shapes our interactions with one another.

So, when we first hear that premise, we might imagine a story in which highly intellectual people develop unfamiliar powers, try to use Plato’s philosophy to learn how to build a society that will channel those powers in constructive ways, and through those attempts learn a variety of unexpected truths, some of them showing that Plato gave the wrong answers to his questions, some of them showing that there were important questions Plato never thought to ask, and some of them showing that there were questions Plato didn’t have to ask, because everyone in his society, unlike anyone in the world of the story, already knew the answers.

That isn’t the story that the makers of Star Trek chose to tell, however.  In the episode, the Platonians developed their telekinetic powers, along with virtual immortality, thousands of years before the Enterprise came to their planet.  Whatever the difficulties of adjustment may have been in those days, they have left no trace for us to see.  All that is visible to us is the end result of centuries of boredom and decadence, a population that has long since exhausted its creativity and spirit of inquiry and uses its powers to derive easy sadistic pleasures.  Of course their behavior is crude and childish; of course our heroes, subjected to their great powers until the end of the episode, are helpless to respond to the Platonians in any but childish ways.  The contrast between the Platonians’ elegant setting and lofty intellectualism on the one hand, and their dismally crude behavior on the other, is precisely the point of the episode.

Several other episodes of Star Trek develop the theme of beings with great powers who have lost interest in any but sadistic pleasures, and so force our heroes to engage in some crude form of physical violence.  One of these is “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” which Mr Morgan-Mar describes as “like someone took all the other episodes of Star Trek, dumped them in a blender, and hit ‘high’ for 30 seconds.”  A species consisting of three creatures have evolved into nothing but brains collects beings from various parts of the galaxy and pits them against each other in fights to the death.  In an episode Mr Morgan-Mar has not yet got round to summarizing, “The Empath,” creatures with giant heads have tortured two scientists to death and proceed to torture Kirk, Spock, and McCoy nearly to death; at the end the creatures claim that they did not do this for pleasure, but as a test to see if a woman whom they were holding prisoner in the same dungeon would volunteer to undergo torture in order to save others.  Our heroes apparently accept this explanation, but what sticks with us is the fact that hyper-intellectual, super-powered creatures resort to torture as their primary means of gathering information.

I think that this theme is the result of the frustration that writers and producers of Star Trek felt with television as a medium.  Knowing all the great high-minded ways in which television could be used to educate and challenge viewers, they were confronted by the fact that the most popular programs were often the least ambitious intellectually and artistically, that a canned laugh-track or a bare-knuckle brawl would beat a probing drama or an incisive documentary in the ratings every time.  That same frustration comes out in the episodes in which the Enterprise crew, representatives of the high ambitions of the series’ creators, find themselves at the mercy of children, episodes like “Charlie X,” “Miri,” “The Squire of Gothos,” and “And the Children Shall Lead.”  The fact that the first three of those come from early in the first season suggests that the creators of the show initially felt pressure from the studio to direct the show to a preteen audience, pressure which they resented.  Certainly that kind of resentment is at work in the other great masterpiece of 1960s American science-fiction television, The Twilight Zone, most obviously in the episode “It’s a Good Life,” in which a child with telekinetic powers turns a small rural town into an extreme nightmare.  I suppose the makers of a science fiction show on TV, in an era when science was thought of primarily as kids’ stuff, would live in fear that children would change the channel and end their careers.

A logical God?

Probably the least popular of all the familiar arguments that are from time to time offered to prove the existence of God is the Ontological Proof.  Here is a one-paragraph synopsis of Saint Anselm’s version of the Ontological Proof, taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The first, and best-known, ontological argument was proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th. century C.E. In his Proslogion, St. Anselm claims to derive the existence of God from the concept of a being than which no greater can be conceived. St. Anselm reasoned that, if such a being fails to exist, then a greater being—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists—can be conceived. But this would be absurd: nothing can be greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. So a being than which no greater can be conceived—i.e., God—exists.

Even believers tend to react to the Ontological Proof with distaste and irritation.  So it was rather interesting when, in 2013, German logicians Christoph Benzmüller and Bruno Woltzenlogel Paleo proved that Kurt Gödel’s demonstration that the basic axioms of Logic K, a form of modal logic developed by Saul Kripke (the “K” in “Logic K” stands for “Kripke,”) imply that the Ontological Proof is sound.

Logic K is not the only possible system of logic, so this implication does not by itself prove that God exists.  What makes Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo’s work so interesting is that Logic K is an extremely simple system, especially as compared with a system like arithmetic, which as Gödel himself showed is infinitely complex in its basic axioms.  The reasoning we use in practical life adds manifold layers of complexity to propositional frameworks such as those of formal logic or mathematics.  If something as specific as monotheism can come springing out of something as spare as the basic axioms of Logic K, then the idea that any form of rigorous intellectual activity can be neutral regarding the kinds of questions monotheism is supposed to answer becomes tenuous.

That is not to say that our cultural formation precedes our intellectual activity, and so that all of our systematic reasoning is infused with the particular circumstances of the society in which we were raised, often in ways of which we are unaware.  It would no doubt be true to say this; however, it is a statement that rests on the findings of the social sciences, expressed in language that has grown up in the development of those sciences.  And the social sciences themselves derive their authority from their status as products of rigorous intellectual activity.  If all such activity is already implicated in theology, then an attempt to confine the implications of Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo’s work to areas already explored by the social sciences is an attempt to minimize the scope of the problem.

A God who holds the world record for eating the most skateboards is greater than a God who does not hold that record

xkcd 1505

Nor is it even to say that as we develop a system of reasoning we are condemned to stack the deck, consciously or unconsciously, in favor of our own religious commitments.  Aristotle grew up in a society in which monotheism was an alien phenomenon which, on those rare occasions when it would be mentioned, was regarded with undisguised contempt. Yet, as such Muslim and Christian commentators on Aristotle as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Thomas Aquinas showed many centuries ago, Aristotle’s logic works best when it is applied to a monotheistic universe.  Aristotle himself would no doubt have regarded this as a reductio ad absurdum of his work, and would have gone back to the drawing board to produce a new system of logic, one that fit with what he regarded as the real world of multiple gods and other beings whom it was obligatory to worship.  Perhaps he would have succeeded in creating such a system; he was Aristotle, after all, and was as well equipped as anyone has ever been to accomplish such a thing.  But as it happens, he never had occasion to try, and for two thousand years Aristotle’s logic was the prevailing system in the world from India to Ireland.

When Aristotle’s system of logic was in favor, the work of men like Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Thomas Aquinas gave compelling grounds for accepting monotheism.  That Aristotle, as a polytheist from a resolutely polytheistic culture, could not be accused of stacking the deck to produce a system that supported monotheism, certainly added to the force of these grounds.  Nowadays, Aristotle’s logic is obsolete, and so one could hardly expect logicians to become monotheists simply because the Medieval Scholastics found in it support for monotheism.

Still, that it is monotheism that jumps out, not only from a logical system constructed by a rabbi’s son like Saul Kripke on the basis of a metaphysics constructed by vaguely Christian thinker like Leibniz, but also from a system constructed by the thoroughly pagan Aristotle, does make it difficult to claim that the relationship between monotheism and systematic reasoning is entirely an illusion resulting from indoctrination in monotheism.  It is likely that the idea of a single deity who is the supreme creator, ruler, and judge of the world is a sort of default position built into the whole project of codifying the rules of logic.

Just as it does not follow from the fact that Logic K rests on axioms which, taken together, imply the existence of God, that God in fact exists, so it would not follow from God’s status as a default hypothesis of formal logic that God in fact exists.  Like all other human activities, formal logic is a byproduct of any number of particular and contingent circumstances, starting with the biological adaptations that enabled our ancestors to survive, continuing through the particularities of our cultural backgrounds, and continuing through the countless vicissitudes that make it possible to distinguish the life of one individual from that of another.  It may well be that formal logic, mathematics, and the sciences, pursuits in which only a small minority of the people in the world today and only a minuscule percentage of all the people who have ever lived take an interest, will ultimately prove to be trivial matters sharply limited in their ability to cast light on the weightiest matters.  Perhaps the sorts of things most people find more interesting and which a majority has always found to be more interesting will prove to be more powerful aids to understanding, or perhaps systematized reasoning in the forms we now know will ultimately turn out to be relatively trivial preparations for some new form of understanding that awaits us in the future.  Perhaps neither of those things will happen, but we will simply come to accept a tendency to monotheism as a not-very-interesting shortcoming inherent in projects to codify the rules of correct reasoning.

Of course, monotheism is also a minority pursuit in the overall picture of humanity.  At no point in the history of the world has a majority of the human race been monotheistic in its views.  Today Christians, Muslims, Jews, and members of other monotheistic groups are probably more numerous than ever before, yet they still comprise well under half the world’s people.  What is more, monotheism seems to have been invented only once, in Babylon during the Captivity, while polytheism, animism, ancestor-worship, and other religious orientations all likely arose independently in many times and places.  In that context, monotheism looks like a freak occurrence.

It is that very freakishness that makes the recurrence of monotheism at the roots of logical systems a matter of interest.  If something so particular can keep cropping up wherever people make their most intense attempts to be general, what oddities might come out of the far more complicated sets of axioms that underlie applied reasoning?  In the light of what Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo have shown about Logic K, we could hardly be surprised if hidden somewhere in the axioms of trigonometry were a recipe for kosher chicken soup, or for that matter if a description of the Loch Ness Monster were encoded somewhere in Newton’s Laws of Motion.

Scott Walker withdraws from the 2016 presidential race. I withdraw my estimate that Scott Walker has a 90% chance of being the Republican nominee in the 2016 presidential race

No idea which of those other clowns will make it, though.  John Kasich waited a year too long to start campaigning, Marco Rubio has too many skeletons in his closet, Jeb Bush doesn’t even have his own mother’s sincere endorsement, and none of the others is at appealing to the GOP donor class.  Maybe Messr.s Kasich, Rubio, and Bush will all stay in the race long enough to divide the mainstream Republican vote and allow one of the protest candidates to squeak in as the nominee.  Probably not- probably Bush will be the next to go, and Kasich won’t catch on beyond the scale of John McCain’s 2000 campaign, and Rubio’s closet door will stay tightly enough closed that his skeletons won’t prevent him facing off against Hillary Clinton.  But still, it is a remarkably volatile situation.

Why are some shy people interested in politics?

Dude stole my game

As a child, I was both unusually shy and unusually interested in politics.  As early as the age of eight, I was reading up on campaigns and legislation.

I think that what appealed to me about politics was the same thing that made me so shy.  In politics, I saw people interacting according to rules that were explained in words and charts.  Those explanations represented a promise that political activity would eventually be comprehensible.  I could start by learning the rules, and work out from there in my efforts to figure out what was going on among the people involved.  Moreover, the adults I knew best, when the topic of politics came up, would speculate and try to puzzle out what was really going on among political figures.  Meanwhile, in the actual social life around me, I saw people interacting in ways that I found utterly mystifying.  In something like ordinary small talk, I couldn’t find any set of rules that I could start by learning, and it seemed that not only all of the adults in my life, but even all the other children knew exactly what was going on and couldn’t understand why I was confused.

As I grew up, I did find rules I could understand and follow in my interactions with others, and by the time I was college age I was about average in my number of friends and level of comfort in social situations.  As that developed, my interest in politics tapered off.  So one evening when I was in college, my phone rang and it was my brother asking me what a particular presidential candidate had just said in a televised debate.  Remembering me as I’d been several years before, he was surprised to find that I wasn’t watching the debate, and amazed that I had to get off the phone because I was going out on a date.

I’m still interested in politics, as readers of this blog will have noticed.  I do find it difficult to resist a political discussion when I’m among friends, and even more difficult to avoid mentally dwelling on political topics when I feel isolated from friends.  But I’m a married man whose wife is only mildly interested in politics as such, and we have a fairly active social life.  For my wife, politics is interesting mostly when it relates to feeding the hungry and stopping war.  She is a Quaker by conviction, and her religion puts those issues at the center of public life.  For many of our friends, politics is interesting as a way of building a feeling of team spirit.  They enjoy getting together with others who all root for the same political party, much as they enjoy rooting for the same sporting franchises. I recognize the importance of the issues and am not immune to the appeal of team spirit, but my background as a one-time obsessive who found in politics an intelligibility that eluded him in everyday social interaction inclines me to value process, impartiality, and fair play to an extent that is alien to most of my acquaintances.  I think that it is important that there should be people who have that inclination, and so I think that people with such a background, depressing as it undoubtedly is in some ways, have a contribution to make to the political life of the community.

It is probably best that we make our contribution in roles outside elected office, however.  I can think of a number of strong introverts who have attained high political office, and they haven’t generally turned out too well.  People who knew Richard Nixon all remarked on his intense shyness; it was by dint of great intelligence and self-discipline that Nixon was able to rise to the US presidency.  When that self-discipline broke down, though, Nixon plunged into a whirlwind of anger and self-pity that expressed itself in bizarre behavior, most obviously in regard to the Watergate matter.   Barack Obama seems to be just as deeply introverted as was Richard Nixon, though more self-disciplined- certainly Mr O has never allowed himself a public display like Nixon’s infamous 1962 “last press conference”:

I’m no fan of Mr O, any more than I am of Nixon or any other US president since Warren G. Harding.  While it is possible that Richard Nixon and Barack Obama may, as shy children, have been drawn to politics for the same reasons that I was drawn to it, their time as active participants in politics at the highest levels kept that experience from settling into a concern for process, impartiality, and fair play, and indeed the two of them stand at the opposite extreme from me in regard to those values.  So the role that people like me ought to play is not one in which they are directly involved in competition for office or particularly influential as individuals, but in which we are a subset of the population whose goodwill policymakers would like to have.  That’s where blogs each of which attracts about a hundred readers a day come in.  A site like this one is of infinitesimal significance by itself, but considering that a couple of hundred thousand of us maintain similar blogs, we as a group occasionally sway enough opinions that policymakers are wise include us as one factor in their decision-making processes.

There are other ways in which introverts can have an influence on the political process, of course.  Rich introverts can give money, introverts with special expertise can become staff aides, introverts with the time to devote to it can volunteer for campaigns and make themselves indispensable to parties and candidates, etc.  But all of these forms of involvement tend to engage the competitive drives, and can very quickly undermine the very qualities that give our contribution its value.  So something like blogging is essential for the shy citizen to do all s/he can to promote the common good.


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