Friday, January 26, 2007

Faith-based mentality: God’s little short circuit?

There’s something very bizarre about the ability of religious faith to stop a person from reasoning at even a simple level. It’s quite an alarming phenomenon, potentially very dangerous to self and others (especially when mixed with politics), but also quite fascinating.

I was recently monkeying around on Richard Dawkins’ website, and saw a discussion on a message board that included some comments from a Christian activist, “Frosty,” who was campaigning for creationism. This activist had counted the generations between Jesus and Adam and determined how long humans have allegedly been on earth. The problem with this procedure, as the activist acknowledged, is that Matthew 1 and Luke 3 give two entirely different genealogies of Jesus. But Frosty had a solution – one lineage is through Joseph and the other is Mary’s lineage. Problem solved.

Bizarre! Never mind that both books explicitly state that the lineages given are for Joseph. Never mind that they don’t even agree whether Joseph’s father was Jacob or Heli (after all, maybe he had two names). What strikes me as strange is that the two lineages are of very different lengths. Between Joseph and David alone they differ by ten generations. If a generation is twenty years on average, this might mean a discrepancy of 200 years. What is it that happens to a person’s brain when religion is involved – why can’t even such simple mathematics and logic suggest themselves? Between David and Joseph the two lineages are almost entirely different, except in the middle, where both agree that Shelaltiel begat Zerubabbel. And even if the Christian misses these problems, why would he suppose it makes any sense at all that the links from David to Shelaltiel would be different for Mary than for Joseph?

My point isn’t that the Bible is full of contradictions; that’s quite well established and incontrovertible. Rather, how is it that so many people who seem to be able to function and reason relatively well in most setting can read things in a religious context and suddenly become incapable of detecting the most obvious contradictions? This is particularly noticeable in religion, but it also appears in politics.

I don’t have any particular answer at the moment, but I note that this sort of phenomenon is impossible in the standard neoclassical economics models of the individual agent. “Rational” agent is defined in a particularly narrow way, to be an agent who has correct models of how the world works, and also is hyper-rational, able to calculate perfectly and see all implications of any starting assumptions and data.

There can’t be any reasonable doubt that this sort of rationality is a purely fictional, and that agents – e.g. real people – have entirely different brains, and consequently choose and act very differently. An interesting question, then, is what the minimum mental requirements are for some economic institution to function, e.g. a free market. Chimps don’t seem to have markets of any note (although bonobos do have simple prostitution). Some humans do. While lack of a market system is usually attributed to problems with formal institutions, what is the role of individual consciousness, if any, in making a market work? No answer here – but standard neoclassical economics is utterly incapable of addressing the question, since the question can’t even arise in a hypothetical world where agents like Frosty are assumed not to exist.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

State of the Union: Bushed

What's new? Nothing from the Bush administration. The State of the Union address was, once again, depressing nonsense: another insistence that private enterprise and free markets, not government, are the road to economic strength, followed by a long list of half-baked proposals for numerous government interventions... another insistence that the federal budget must be balanced (in someone else's Presidency) and entitlements curbed, followed by a list of plans for more government spending ("Affordable Choices" grants, what is this foolishness?)... another denunciation of Al Qaeda and talk of an ideological struggle, followed by a call for more troops to fight someone else's civil war and maybe attack Iran.

My favorite part was Bush's realization, nearly explicit, that his war destabilized Iraq and has raised the possibility that an extremely hostile regime might arise, and that the rest of the Middle East might be drawn into a greater conflict over this. This damned fool has learned, far too late, why his father did not overthrow Saddam Hussein when he had the opportunity.

Creepier was his call for a civilian volunteer corps that will go overseas to support the military with "critical skills." Presumably he doesn't mean anything like the women's auxilliary that accompanies la Legion Etrangere, but then what does he mean? I guess it's just more of the militarization of American society, but what's this about key non-military skills... aren't the Republican cronies at Halliburton and Bechtel up to the job? Is this the cost reduction miracle that will balance the budget?

More sabre-rattling at Iran, more promises of money for poor Africans, more yakking about how decent and honest America is, more empty claptrap. The address was quite empty, especially in the context that the Democrats are unlikely to pay any attention to any of this. Domestic legislation will come from the Democrats. Bush's foreign policy and military policy will (I hope) be constrained by them. I would love to see some gridlock, but on domestic issues, Bush is unlikely to offer any principled opposition, since he has no particular principles, and is likely to sign whatever nonsense they present him.

As for the Democrats' response..."Are the benefits of our growing economy fairly shared?" followed by an attack on those who earn more than average and some lies about American jobs being exported and the like, nonsense about how wonderful the minimum wage is, and promises to do more to "fix" the distribution of "the benefits." Jabbering about "robber barons" who "rake in "too much of the national wealth," with apparently no recognition that "the national wealth" is actually created by individuals, who own what they create.

The grumping about Bush's horribly mismanaged war was right on target, but is, in the end, pointless. The Democrats have no idea what to do with a lost war either, and in the end will be satisfied with carping while Bush presides over the debacle.

So in sum: from Bush, nothing other than a muddled and spiritless endorsement of the status quo. From the Democrats, dumping Iraq in the President's lap and threats of income redistribution, and likely some big government programs to do this. Bleccchh. I vote for gridlock!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Dinesh D’Souza’s Unholy Alliance

Happy New Year.

From time to time I read the weekly newsmagazine "The World," one of the more articulate and thoughtful publications from the Christian right. The 13 January 2007 issue includes a short piece by Dinesh D’Souza and a discussion between him and World editor Marvin Olasky.

D’Souza asks why it is that so many Muslims seem to hate the West. What is it… democracy? Free speech? Limited government? No, he concludes – it’s homosexuality, pornography, women wearing revealing clothing, drugs, wild music – it’s individualism and hedonism, it’s the alleged decadence of our culture. And – to D’Souza – this hate is completely understandable, and conservative Christians should share it too. Hence D’Souza proposes a natural alliance between conservative Christians and what he calls traditional Muslims (as opposed to radical ones like Bin Laden). The target of this new alliance: "the enemy at home" (the title of his new book), i.e. advocates of secularism, liberalism, individualism, and reason.

In the discussion, D’Souza argues that in order to form this alliance, Christians and Muslims must each give in a bit to each other – in particular, both groups must freely permit conversions between Christianity and Islam. He apparently thinks this is a small price to pay for the greater goal of fighting the real enemy.

In the discussion between D’Souza and Olasky, Olasky doubts that Muslims could accept anything like this. D’Souza responds by arguing that historically, Muslims did not systematically kill or oppress Christians and Jews – only pagans and similar non-believers in Jehovah. Olasky will have none of it, and gives counterexamples – but the whole gist of the discussion is what is fascinating and disgusting. Neither man seems to find anything particularly objectionable about using force to systematically kill or oppress non-believers. The entire premise of D’Souza’s argument is that the state should be used to force Judeo-Christo-Islamic "morality" on the rest of us, the "enemy."

Great. Is the Bible true? Which religion, if any, is right? It would be nice to be able to sit down, think seriously about these issues, and decide as best we can using logic and evidence, without also having to worry that if we come up with answers that the imams and preachers don’t like, they’ll kill us. I suppose D’Souza would deny he’s in favor of killing non-believers, but he’s already ID’d us as the enemy. The deluded followers of con men such as Ted Haggard and Pat Roberston might not always be able understand why this enemy shouldn’t be killed (Lev. 20:27, Lev. 24:16).

D’Souza is quite right, I think, in believing that political Christianity and political Islam ought to be natural allies. Both deny reason, both substitute an arbitrary moral code for the respect for individual rights, and both call for the use of force against non-believers. I think they’ll not ally themselves, because of their knee-jerk intolerance for alternative viewpoints. Regardless, these religious doctrines must be defeated, intellectually and in public opinion, because D’Souza is also right that they are incompatible with individual liberty.

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