Tuesday, 30 November 2010

On the Incoherence of Blaming God (h/t Anselm)

Last weekend a Buffalo Bill called out God when he muffed an easy catch.  I was amused by this twist on the typical, "thank God for the victory".  This is "God has let me down".  But it did lead me to consider attempts to blame God and/or question God's wisdom and, along the lines of the old ontological argument for God's existence, I came to the conclusion that such attempts are incoherent.  Here's why: blaming God or contemplating doing so is to consider the possibility that God has acted incorrectly, i.e., is imperfect and is responsible for some imperfection, Imp1.  In modal terms, it's to consider a world, Wi, in which Imp1 has occurred and in which God is responsible for Imp1.  But God is, by definition,  perfect and so incapable of acting imperfectly, i.e., there is no world in which God has acted imperfectly.  So, either Wi doesn't exist or the agent responsible for Imp1 in Wi is some agent other than God.  Any attempts to blame God must fail as there can be no world Wi in which God is responsible for an imperfection. 

Of course, we're inclined here to respond, "but of course we can consider the possibility of blaming God, just as we can consider the possibility of blaming any moral agent".  What this response overlooks is that God is unlike other moral agents insofar as perfection is part of the very essence of God, i.e., God is perfect not just as a contingency, because God has failed to make any mistakes, but because being perfect is a property that God has by definition of 'God'.  This is not an argument that blaming God is a moral or theological failing, but it's a conceptual or semantic error insofar as it requires assuming that A could do X when the very definition of A entails that X is impossible.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Matthew 23:24

I'm not a fan of the new TSA policies regarding body scans.   I remember when people used to joke about the possibility of TSA eventually just having everyone fly naked but recent events reveal how difficult it can be to parody the DHS or TSA.  So, I'm pleased to see that there  is a line that the the populace is willing to draw when it comes to exchanging freedom for security, but I have two thoughts.

First, this whole thing would actually be rather easy to fix. The answer is image distortion and the fix has been proposed  (and, oddly, rejected) already.  Why not just fix it?  Secondly, where were these proponents of liberty and fighters for human dignity when people were being humiliated at Abu Ghraib, when prisoners were being waterboarded, in response to warrantless wiretapping, when it came time to respond to indefinite detention,  when execution (w/o trial) orders for US citizens  (not to mention foreigners) were being written? Maybe it reflects America's puritan roots or something but why do body scanning images and pat downs around one's privates trigger a populist uprising when people have been largely silent in the face of far more significant assaults on dignity and freedom?  I suppose it's not that surprising that people really only care about their own liberty and dignity, not the general principles, but here's hoping we retain some of the indignation and refusal to take it any more when it's someone else's freedom at stake and when they stand to lose even more than an economy class ticket to Omaha.

ETA: In retrospect, I think that this post probably goes too far in trivializing the extent to which the TSA may be violating civil rights.  I think the potential for abuse here is fairly significant, that significant abuses may have occurred and the fact that this kind of privacy violation may become so incredibly common place is very worrisome.This video  helped to convince me that TSA violations are *not* simply at one relatively innocuous end of: a spectrum of civil rights violation.  Rather, that this kind of thing can happen to such a person in such a circumstance but may instead serve to devalue privacy at a fundamental level: http://is.gd/hT2xo

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Bush on free market ideology

Bush's recent memoirs contain more discussion of his decision to intervene dramatically in the markets in the face of the economic crisis facing the nation in 2008.   Bush comments: "It flew against all my instincts. But it was necessary to pull the country out of the panic. I decided that the only way to preserve the free market in the long run was to intervene in the short run."  He also says, "The lesson there is that I had to set aside an ideology."  It strikes me that Bush is playing a little fast and loose with his ideology here, wanting to recognize that he'd done the right thing without acknowledging that insofar as it was the right thing it refutes the ideology.  He doesn't get to just set aside his ideology and pick it up again, untarnished, when the dust has settled. 

Sometimes people set aside principle or ideology or fundamental beliefs because there's a competing interest at stake.  I might believe it's wrong to eat meat but set aside that principle when I'm visiting someone's home or when I'm starving, but in those cases, I'm setting aside the principle in favor of a competing interest, e.g., being respectful of my hosts or believing that my life trumps the life of a chicken.  However, something very different is going on in Bush's case.  

The ideology that free market proponents embrace involves a claim that markets work best when the government leaves them alone; that is the beauty of the invisible hand doctrine.  But if Bush is recognizing that the market system would have failed profoundly without intervention, that seems not so much a momentary abandoning of a principle for the sake of some other pragmatic consideration, it's a recognition that the ideology itself is just simply incorrect.  In fact, economies don't work best when government leaves them alone, sometimes they'll fail spectacularly when you leave them alone.  So, again, I think Bush and other people who will simultaneously advocate for free market ideology and TARP-style interventions owe us a clearer account of the economic ideology they embrace.  They've acknowledged , I'd contend, that free market principles are wrong.  This isn't a "setting aside", it's the recognition of a profound and fundamental flaw.  In the face of such evidence, it's incoherent to simply pick up the ideology and resume.  

This is more like a football coach claiming that the West Coast offense is the very best offense but abandoning that offense whenever playing a team with a good defense or whenever falling behind by two or more TDs, claiming, "I had to stop playing that offense or we'd get too far behind and it's hard to use the West Coast offense when you're far behind.  You see, the only way to save the West Coast offense was to not use the West Coast offense."  That would be an incoherent claim as would be carrying on with the pro-West Coast offense ideology.  A more coherent observation would be "The West Coast offense is very effective for some situations and in others it isn't -- here are places and times in which it's imprudent to rely on it."

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Bush and Torture

Apparently GWB's memoirs include an acknowledgement that he okayed torture and attempts to justify it by claiming that it saves lives, British lives in particular.  It also appears that the British are taking some exception to that claim.  Setting aside the intriguing question of whether he's acknowledging war crimes, this points to something that's always bothered me about the torture debate, i.e., the fact that so much of it seems to hinge on the question of whether or not it's effective.  Imagine someone proposing, oh, i don't know, something crazy like having poor people eat their children and trying to demonstrate that that would bring down poverty rates and/or dependence on government welfare programs.  Surely, we'd reject the argument as absurd, not because we're skeptical about whether or not it would actually bring down poverty rates or welfare dependence, but because the proposed solution is an affront to human decency and a violation of fundamental human rights.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

No Voting = No Right to Complain ???

At election time I often hear people assert, "If you don't vote, you don't have any right to complain".  I find this a bit bizarre.  Suppose someone were having a dinner party and before the dinner party they sent around an email saying, "Please indicate whether you'd prefer spaghetti or lasagna".  Further suppose that it really mattered nothing to me, or that I forgot to respond or that the email went to my junk folder or whatever.  Now if I then arrived at the dinner party and got a plate of spaghetti that was disgusting and inedible, surely my failure to have voiced a preference of lasagna over spaghetti doesn't compel me to simply eat the disgusting plate of food while those who had actually stated a preference would be in a position from which to legitimately object .  That argument would make no sense to me.  Similarly, the "no vote, no complain" argument, that just seems utterly arbitrary to me.