Sunday, February 2, 2014

Thoughts on God

What makes something real? Does God exist? Does the fact that people believe in God mean that he's real?

Claiming God exerts no influence in the world is an indefensible position, even for those who don't believe such a being exists. Appeals to God have been justification for both altruistic and self-interested behaviors and attitudes. People have done both much good and much evil in God's name (loaded terms, I know). God has been the topic of much philosophical and artistic expression throughout human history and across cultures.

So if in no other way than in our own minds, certainly God exists, and God's influence is felt around the world. I'd like to think a belief in God inspires more altruism than self-interest, more love than hate, more good than bad--but all that would be hard to quantify.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Science and Religion

I'm always a little annoyed whenever people try to pit a religious person against a scientist. For some reason, certain people have concluded the two are mutually exclusive. "How could anyone who believes in God possibly be a good scientist?" vs. "How could anyone who believes science possibly believe in God?"

For me, science and religion are not mutually exclusive. I feel like each seeks to answer different questions of life. Science may be able to provide good answers to the hows and whats of human existence, but it doesn't even attempt to address whether our life has a purpose. Conversely, religion has not historically done a good job answering the hows and whats of existence, but it has a lot more to offer in answering the why-we're-here and who-we-are questions.

From science we gain a reasoned explanation of how the world came to be as well as a good description of what the world around us is like. We learn what to expect when objects interact. We learn what items in nature might benefit us and which to avoid. And we learn about the expanse of the universe and the microscopic nature of elements. All this knowledge is constantly evolving as we increase our capacity to dig deeper and see further into our past. Science also offers us a glimpse of what we might expect in the future if humanity pursues given paths.

In religion we explore the questions of our abstract existence. The fact that we are sentient beings, capable of abstract thought, leaves us asking questions such as, "Why do I exist?" or "Who am I?" Science is incapable of answering these questions in any meaningful way. Science might be able to explain how species have evolved over time and that it makes perfect sense that humans have evolved as a result, but it fails to answer--again, at least in any type of meaningful way--why (the purpose for which) any of this has happened, why the big bang occurred in the first place, or who we are.

To be fair, this discussion is based on the assumption that we do in fact exist for a purpose. It could be argued that each person is free to determine his/her own purpose (and may choose a purpose outside the purview of religious thought). Such reasoning could even explain the existence of religion to begin with: that, as a consequence of our improved cognitive abilities, humans began to grapple with existential questions and thus created religion to help answer them. (Even if this is indeed the case, this is not a reason to abandon religion. Humans also invented science to help answer questions.)

Religion also used to answer a lot of other questions. Wherever science fell short, religion stepped in to provide explanations. As scientific knowledge has developed and improved, religious explanations for seemingly supernatural phenomena have fallen out of style (read: have been debunked). In certain radical circles, however, religion continues to provide the definitive (and demonstrably erroneous) explanation to a host of questions science has much more thoroughly and convincingly answered.

It's hard to imagine, however, that science will ever be able to provide satisfactory answers to the whys and whos. Those aren't questions that lend themselves to the scientific method, and scientific instruments have a hard time measuring them. And so we're left to use our spiritual instruments to work out answers (or we can simply choose not to ask ourselves such existential questions, but I don't foresee this happening anytime soon).

Moreover, I think we do ourselves a disservice as a society when we discount what religion has to offer. To be certain, many horrible acts have been perpetrated in the name of religion. But much good has come of religion also. What strikes me most is religion's ability to motivate people to selfless acts contrary to their self-interest. This flies in the face of what economists would predict. After all, humans are supposed to be selfish, look out for themselves, and always act rationally. (That's what makes the market work!) Religion, however, often promotes acts of selflessness and looking out for others. It appeals to a deeper sense of who we are and has the power to inspire us to transcend our selfish, natural tendencies.

Such power as religion wields is important in creating a successful society's social fabric. It's the stuff good people are made of, and it can serve as a foundation for trust. I acknowledge competing arguments, including the Ayn Rands of the world who might argue that even when people act altruistically, they're doing so for selfish reasons. They're hoping to cash in on the social capital they've contributed at a later time when they need a favor from society. But there's also something to be said for crowding-in and crowding-out effects: if you provide an economic incentive for every good deed done, people stop doing good for the sake of doing good. This has the potential to effect all kinds of negative consequences.

I'm perfectly aware I'm not the first person to have these thoughts, or to have wondered what the purpose of my existence is (or even whether my existence has a purpose), or even to have been annoyed by the science vs. religion antagonists. These questions of why and who have faced humanity since we became clever enough to ponder them. Science may continue to offer increasingly detailed and accurate explanations of how and what, but I'm struggling to see it ever answering the why and who.

In my personal experience, the tools of religious exploration and spiritual epistemology have offered meaningful answers to the why and who. And until that's no longer the case, I see nothing to be gained from abandoning religion in favor of a science-only worldview. I'll leave both to science and to religion the questions they answer best and strive for both an empirically and spiritually enlightened existence.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Minimum Wage

A Scandinavian friend recently asked me, following a discussion with some of her Scandinavian friends, “As an American, would you leave the market forces to decide on the level of wages?”

What follows is my reply.

As with so many issues, particularly in economics, there is good reasoning to support both sides of the argument. If everyone earns the same in the end, then there is no incentive to work hard, to strive to achieve one's full potential. So on the one hand, the extreme of completely equal income regardless of effort or contribution could prove disastrous, with an economy that doesn't produce enough GNI to support people's basic needs, and also fails to innovate.

On the other extreme of the issue, where an unchecked market is left to set wages at any level, power quickly becomes concentrated in the hands of a few at the top, who can then collude to keep wages low. This was the case early on in the industrial revolution, and it's the reason labor unions were formed and collective bargaining became an effective tactic for negotiating higher wages.

People may initially be willing to work for incomes that don't provide for a subsistence living, but this is not a tenable scenario over the long term. Eventually, people will band together, and you've set yourself up for political upheaval and/or revolution.

The problem with many conservatives' and libertarians' arguments about labor conditions is that they're advocating for both the removal of minimum wage AND the abolition of organized labor. This is a recipe for disaster.

The problem with many liberals' and socialists’ arguments about labor conditions is that they advocate for wages and benefits that are unrealistic and want to see unions strengthened in industries where unions can actually cause more harm than good.

A couple examples come to mind. For example, the collapse of the auto industry in Detroit might in part be attributed to labor unions' unrealistic demands. Some US auto workers' total compensation packages were significantly higher than the going market would have predicted to work on assembly lines in relatively low-skilled labor because the unions had badgered car manufacturers into paying such high salaries. This was untenable and has been corrected in new hires, but now the wage gap between the newer hires and experienced workers is a problem plaguing the industry.

Another example is teachers' unions in the US, which have lobbied for and succeeded in creating a system where teachers are compensated based on tenure rather than classroom performance. This is hugely problematic, as US schools are falling well behind those of other nations around the world, with no reversing trend in site. We're failing the next generation of youth, and the incentive structure in compensating public school teachers is arguably a major contributing factor. (Another is that teachers at all levels of tenure and skill generally are WAY underpaid given their contribution to society.)

On the other hand, however (and this is certainly the more pressing issue facing society) is the destructive, poisonous nature of inequality in society. In the US, this has reached a fever pitch, with Fortune 500 CEOs making an average 380 times (and in some cases much more) their companies' average workers' salaries. Income inequality is running rampant in the US, with a tax code and political system that both favor and entrench the ultra rich in society. Social mobility (one's ability to achieve the ironically titled "American Dream") is way down in the US, but our perception of one's ability to succeed in climbing the social ladder remains unchanged. We think we're as socially mobile as Scandinavians, we think we should be even more socially mobile than we are, and we're actually much worse off than we could imagine.

An excellent book I read last year called "The Spirit Level" (kind of a strange title, I know) talks about how income inequality is linked to a host of social ills, everything from incarceration rates to public health issues to trust issues to teenage pregnancy to education problems. I highly recommend the book. The authors conclude that it doesn't matter how inequality exists (whether through institutionalized inequality with a permanent elite rich and a permanent poor or simply as a result of free market forces) and it also doesn't matter how you relieve inequality (whether through redistributive taxes or just a culture that frowns on accepting excessive pay). The main message is inequality is bad and needs to be addressed, for the good of society. Their conclusions are based on the results of some 30+ years of social science research from a variety of disciplines.

Additional research suggests that happiness/wellbeing scores are uncorrelated to increases in income beyond a middle-class to upper middle-class income, pointing instead to all the societal ills associated with increasing inequality. In other words, more money doesn't make you happier. There will always be someone richer than you, you will make new friends who have more money and whose lives and possessions you will always envy, there will always be a nicer car to drive, a nicer vacation to take, a bigger house to buy...but none of it will make you any happier. That's what the research suggests, at least for those who have already hit the middle or upper-middle classes. However, income up to the point of achieving middle or upper-middle class status is correlated with improved wellbeing, suggesting the high incomes of some people, while they provide no wellbeing benefit to those earning them, could provide improved wellbeing to those not achieving the middle or upper-middle class incomes. Interestingly, inequality is associated with decreased wellbeing at all income levels, both rich and poor, although the poor are affected more dramatically. Accepting improving wellbeing as a normative goal, then, suggests we should figure out a way to achieve greater equality. Experience has proven donations to charity are insufficient, thus making the case for redistributive tax schemes or other government "nudges" that encourage a relative leveling of income. The other alternative is broad cultural change away from consumerism and materialism, but such a change would likely be very slow. (And besides - how do you change a culture?)

In a final interesting example, the State of Utah found it was cheaper to provide free housing and a social worker to homeless people than it was to pay to incarcerate and provide healthcare associated with their homelessness. In other words, in some cases, it makes sense just to give the poor benefits because it's cheaper than paying to put them in jail and pay their hospital bills, even if the homeless are unable or unwilling to work.

And so, to summarize and conclude - in light of the overwhelming amount of research condemning inequality, as well as the example of the formation of labor unions as a response to the unregulated, free-market set wages during the industrial revolution, as well as industries where labor unions might actually hurt society, I must advocate for a minimum wage. It should be set high enough to be a living wage (one that provides at least subsistence/paycheck-to-paycheck living), but not so high as to encourage people to stay at that income level. I also think social benefits should be tied to one's efforts to contribute, meaning unemployment benefits should be granted to those actively looking for work. However, as stated above, it might make sense just to take care of the poor, even if they don't want to or aren't mentally or physically able to work.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Making the case for religion

In our increasingly secularized society, science is replacing religion. Economics is replacing religion. Reason, law, it seems everything is a plausible replacement for religion in today's society. Religion is being crowded out of public and private life, replaced with capitalism and the cult of consumerism.

A few thoughts on the changing role of religion in society:
  • Religion used to explain natural phenomena we couldn't explain. Now we have science.
  • Religion used to explain our responsibility to care for others. Now we have the welfare state.
  • Religion used to prescribe the social and governmental structures. In some cases, it still does. But for the West, now we have secularism and the separation of church and state.
  • Religion used to provide the legal code. Now we have the rule of law, and typically, the law is secular.
  • Religion used to provide a culture's guiding principles, morals, and ethics. In some cases, it still does. Today, logic and reason reign, and one's ability to fundraise often determines the fate and reach of one's ideas.
These points are not necessarily negative, they're just observations. I'll leave it to you to attach value judgments.

One difficult intersection is between religion and economics. Christianity teaches we should care for the poor and that the rich will have a hard time making it to heaven. With the selling of indulgences in the Middle Ages, however, money and religion formed a relationship they hadn't previously participated in. The role of money in Christianity was further twisted when the Puritans preached material success was a sign of God's approval. Eventually, the God part was removed altogether, and becoming wealthy was associated simply with the desired state of existence.

The problem is, once we're no longer concerned with pleasing God, our pursuit of wealth is unchecked. We are free to pursue it at all costs.

When there's no longer a moral code based on a higher power or authority, we have to start legislating morality.

Religion is important precisely because it has the power to inspire people to act against what economists would call their own self-interest for the betterment of themselves and society. When people believe they are in the service of a higher power, they're willing to do all kinds of "irrational" things. Historically, this has made for some very serious mistakes, all the way from the crusades to the Spanish Inquisition. However, religion has succeeded in inspiring people to do extraordinary things. Just wander down the main street of any European town, and you'll see some impressive architecture and art dedicated to religious figures.

We need religion precisely because there are no economic incentives to fight climate change. It's going to be hard, it's going to reduce GDP, it's going to change the way people live and work. So who would voluntarily sign up for that, when the status quo is so much easier? What we need is something that can inspire people to make economically irrational decisions, to say "We care about nature enough that we don't want to damage it, even if that means I have to take a pay cut or pay a tax." We need religion because white men in power need to be inspired to relinquish the stranglehold the Western patriarchal system is causing society. We need religion because we need to convince nations' leaders to make decisions that are for the benefit of the whole world, not just their own citizens. Reason, logic - these are of little use when free market economics rules the day.

Religion & Politics - Part 1

A religious leader once told me God was a conservative. I think what he might have meant was that he's a libertarian. From his study of the Scriptures, he concluded the teachings on self-reliance and individual liberty were clear: the government doesn't belong in our lives because we must be free to choose for ourselves and to succeed or fail based on the merits of our own decisions and work ethic. A government's role, therefore, need not extend beyond securing these basic rights for the governed.

In my personal study of Christ's teachings, I have been most struck by his example of blessing the lives of the sick and poor. I am also struck by his reaching out to people of underprivileged classes, as well as by his teachings on economic and social justice. If we're all equal in the eyes of God, how would God have us treat others? The golden rule comes to mind.

So to me, Christ teaches a responsibility to our neighbor. This goes beyond simply succeeding or failing on our own merits. (After all, am I not my neighbor's neighbor?) Moreover, if the government is truly providing an opportunity for us to succeed or fail based on our merits, it needs to provide us the opportunity to do so. What does that mean? Well, it means children are entitled to a fair shot, which includes sufficient education to take that shot, health care, food, and the other necessities of life, whether their parents provide them or not. It means they need an opportunity to actually succeed or fail based on their merits, which implies an equality of opportunity. In other words, it means they need a real equality of opportunity, not just the platitude-version we profess but don't even bother trying to achieve.

At least that's my take. To my Christian friends out there, or to anyone else familiar with Christ's teachings, what do you see as the government's role in society? Is it merely to provide protection and liberty, or does it extend to providing a safety net and true equality of opportunity to all people where we have historically failed to do so voluntarily?

Life and Death

Since humans became capable of abstract thought, we've been grappling with the questions of life, death, and finding some sort of meaning to our existence. We need look no further than the existence of religion for evidence. I've often ponder the fragility of life. A human's sustained living is contingent on many factors. The environment in which we live can be suddenly altered by both individual and collective choices to such an extent as to end human life. We are dependent on food, shelter, and other necessities, without which we couldn't sustain our lives. We are also dependent on the continued stability of our physical environment. All things considered, it's amazing human life has survived as long as it has largely uninhibited.

Despite such tenuous conditions, humans are now routinely passing 80, 90, and sometimes 100 years of age before succumbing to the frailties of mortality. It's a miracle that such longevity is possible given our circumstances. Truly this is a testimony of human resilience. And yet it would take so little to end it all....

Which has always brought me back to my own mortality. I'll try to avoid morbidity, but the fact remains that none of us knows how many years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes or seconds we have to live. We just have to live each moment we have like it could be our last. Could we say that we're ready to die at any time?

Existentially, I've often wondered why life has to come to an end. While I won't claim to have all the answers, I've concluded that, without a terminus, our lives might lack the meaning they have. Or perhaps we'd just assign meaning differently. But if you never had to worry about leaving this existence, you might not value your time much.

Anyway, now I'm just waxing philosophical.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Hollywood-blockbuster machine

Admittedly, the label of #WorstMovieEver is probably an excessive description of the recently released film, the Avengers. In fairness to the new flick, it should be noted that my concerns noted below might more accurately be directed at the Hollywood-blockbuster machine more than at any one film in particular.

However, that admission does not exonerate this film of its grievances. Here are a few of the things I found troubling:

1. The roles of women in the film. In a list of the film's 11 stars, there's only one woman, and she isn't even a real super hero. As a society, are we comfortable admitting that for every 10 important men, there's one important woman?

Moreover, what role does she play? She's eye-candy for the film's predominantly male viewership. I'm not sure I heard a single word of dialogue between two female characters in this film. The female characters' importance is only evident in their interactions/relationships with male characters, who are in every case in this film their superiors. 

While I'm grateful this film spared us the proverbial cheesy romance between the one female lead and any/all of the film's many male protagonists, and while I acknowledge some strides made in casting women in prominent positions in society ("Pepper" (Gwyneth Paltrow) heads Stark's empire, the woman XO on the flying super-carrier), Hollywood has a long way to go before it treats men's and women's roles fairly. 

2. The lack of minorities. Outside "Nick Fury" (Samuel L. Jackson), the 11-person leading cast contains no minorities. And while I'm glad to see him portrayed as the team's leader, a single minority star in a cast of 11 is not representative of American demographics, and particularly not of the demographics of the city where it takes place. (According to some rankings, New York City is the most-diverse city on Earth.) This cast only further promulgates a society of predominantly white, predominantly male role models and leaders.

While I realize this film is an adaptation of a series of comics from a bygone era where white male supremacy and chauvinism were the norm, given the artistic license already taken in the screenplay, what would it have hurt to re-imagine some of the characters as minorities?

3. The "us-vs.-them" rhetoric and shameless pro-America propaganda. Hollywood has this funny way of serially portraying the fate of the world as resting completely in the hands of a few benevolent Americans. Are we really so egocentric as to believe America alone is capable of saving the world from impending doom, or that it would be wise for us to attempt such a task without the cooperation and participation of the remaining 95.7% of the world’s population? Moreover, where are the mediation and negotiation? Is armed conflict the only means of problem resolution?

When the Avengers discover that Nick Fury is planning to harness the power of the Tesseract to create new weapons for the American arsenal, they’re incensed. This is particularly troubling for Stark/Ironman, given his mission of disarmament. Fury argues, however, that greater weapons are needed, just to be prepared in the case of foreign/alien invasion.

This arms-race foreign policy is something we’ve seen before. Did we learn nothing from the Cold War or post-WWI Germany about the perils of weapons proliferation? Moreover, Joseph F. Smith taught:

“One thing is certain, the doctrine of peace by armed force, held to so long and tenaciously by czars, kings, and emperors, is a failure, and should without question forever be abandoned. It has been wrong from the beginning. That we get what we prepare for is literally true in this case. For years it has been held that peace comes only by preparation for war; the present conflict [World War I] should prove that peace comes only by preparing for peace” (The Improvement Era, Vol. 17, p. 1074, 1914).

The message is clear: if we want peace, we have to prepare for it and live like we want it. Arming ourselves to the teeth is a backwards approach to the issue and will only require more complicated disarmament negotiations in the end.

(Coincidentally, these historical observations and prophetic counsel on weapons proliferation and making preparations for war also form a compelling argument against gun ownership and the current interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, but that discussion is for another post.)

And I suppose it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that Thor serendipitously landed somewhere in the United States  (1.9% of Earth’s surface area) instead of the 98.1% chance he’d land anywhere else. (Superman, I suppose, had the same luck?)

Disappointingly, this film's record-shattering box-office debut only confirms that as a society, Americans (and ostensibly, humans everywhere) not only accept these Hollywood-bestowed values as our culture, we’re willing to subsidize an industry that will continue to perpetuate all this egocentric backward American propaganda thinking. For as liberal as many actors and filmmakers are, the Hollywood-propaganda machine continues to do what it always has done best: give the people what they want.