Monday, July 20, 2009

Government, behavior control, and personal responsibility

Politics factor into this discussion, but it's not primarily political. Better to call it political philosophy, or even more broadly, philosophy of authority.

I didn't study political philosophy directly, so I hope those who have will forgive a lack of citations and jargon.

Right now I'm listening to a local conservative talk radio show. The host is criticizing Obama for advocating "nanny state" policies that shield people from the negative financial consequences of bad choices, while at the same time preaching "personal responsibility" in his speech to the NAACP.

OK, never mind the silly false dichotomy. Fallacious host is fallacious.

But it got me thinking about some of the differences between the party platforms, their operative presuppositions about the human person and the role of government, and how consistent principles can be seen through apparently divergent policy.

The purpose of government.

If I were asked to describe the purpose of government in as broad terms as possible, I would propose that it's goal is

to provide a stable framework wherein human life can proceed indefinitely, with the minimum authoritarian impositions necessary to secure the most inviolable collective values.

From this description arises what are, I believe, the most fundamental questions that give rise to virtually any overarching political ideology (including anarchism), and within them, to parties.

How flexible should the framework be? How do we balance the criteria for circumscribing "human life" (individualistic vs collectivistic, biologistic fs psychologistic, etc.)? What do we mean by "proceed"? I.e., Should the government be concerned, or not, with progress in one or another spheres, and if so, by what means, and how is it measured? What are the most inviolable collective values (and what role should government have in regards to collective values that are lesser than these)? What sort, and what degree of impositions should government exercise within its material ability to do so?

Theoretically unlimited possibilities.

Whatever the answers to these questions, government cannot escape a basic fact: as the number of people in a community (X) tends towards infinity, the likelihood of (Y) action being taken by at least one person tends towards 100%. A corollary: As time (A) tends towards infinity, the likelihood of (B) occurrence happening at least once tends towards 100% (Can a maths expert put these ideas into correct notation pls?)

In other words, all governments deal with theoretically unlimited possibilities of human behavior and events, not bounded by what we believe is likely, what we believe possible, or even what we can imagine.

Kind of a Hobbesian nightmare. O LOOK A REFERENCE!

Intermediary networks of governance.

And yet between totalitarianism and total theoretical bedlam exist dozens of pre-existing networks. I hesitate to call them "structures" because not all of them are the result of deliberate construction. They all vary in types and degrees of organization, and in their relation to time and culture.

Among those networks present today are, of course, heritage, the family, religion, the market, the workplace, media culture, the public, and even the Internet.

How much faith do you put in them?

I think that, exclusively in regard to this question (there are dozens of other questions) a spectrum arises that partially characterizes the difference between the Democratic and Republican platforms. That spectrum lies in the degree to which one affirms the effectiveness of the intermediary networks to effectively fulfill the goal of government bolded above.

Absolutely Ineffective | Totalitarian <-> Communist <-> Socialist <-> European left <-> Democrat <-> Republican <-> Libertarian <-> Anarchist | Totally Sufficient

Please bear in mind that there is nothing scientific intended in the above spectrum. Some might object to my distinguishing between socialism and the "European left" (which I think most agree is more left than the American left, but which seems to me to be short of full socialism). I don't know enough to say.

The religion component (You knew it was coming).

But the spectrum does have some explanatory value. For example, you can see how Christian Republican Rob can be bff with atheist anarchist Tiervexx in the Laissez-faire thread. Both (correct me if I'm wrong) are heirs to an anti-authoritarian sentiment and a good amount of optimism in man's ability to self-regulate.

It might also serve to explain the ideological component of America's Catholics being largely Democrats (historical component notwithstanding, of course). True, the Vatican is socially conservative, which sadly lent a hateful passion to the nationalists in Spain's civil war and to a large movement of American Catholics to the Republican party after Roe v. Wade.

But Latin Christianity has never viewed human nature with much confidence, and that pessimism extends to intermediary networks--in particular, free market capitalism. Which was a Protestant invention, anyway. Rather, Catholicism tends to view most human institutions, including the market, as good but also incontinent and desperately in need of a colostomy bag.

Government authority is that colostomy bag. It might be full of shit, but damned if it ain't necessary.

And so Catholic social doctrine has the distinctive mark among American religion of favoring some "liberal" economic policy. Pope John Paul II is on record as teaching, in an encyclical no less (the highest level of ecclesiastical document second only to a council declaration), that governments are responsible to secure the medical needs of citizens and refugees where the free market fails to do so.

So what's your point?

I could take this three directions.

  • Discuss the authoritarian elements of contemporary left-wing economics (I am economically left-wing, but I am concerned about authoritarianism).
  • Discuss the means used by government to directly and indirectly influence human behavior, whether it should, and toward what ends.
  • Discuss my own theories about the balance between governance by intermediary networks/spheres vs. sovereign authority.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Writing activity from the past several weeks, Pt 5

I also have a certain Pythagorean mysticism about the fundamental unity and intelligibility of being, and yet I reject the premise of Pythagoras and Descartes that mathematics is a first principle. Consider that Daniel Tammet "sees" numbers as shapes, colors, and movement; I'm persuaded that he and other savants have a privileged access to truth not as numerical but as phenomenological. Logic and math are secondary, they are declensions of what is ultimate.

I am also convinced that, while there is not exactly a way to "de-fine" the marks of truth (which implies that truth is fin-ite), the marks of error are easier to perceive. Systems that are closed and complete, yet which arrogate to explain the whole and lay it completely bare, almost certainly need adjustment if not scrapping. Theories which leave human agency and aspirations frustrated, or which terminate in absurdity, may have value in reminding us of real chaos, but it can only be a penultimate chaos. I have both intellectual and faith reasons for that conviction.

My avatar is something like a "theological seal"; it represents to me something like an archimedean point of reason and faith. Kenosis is the Greek word used in Philippians to describe the Incarnation: he "emptied himself". In this case, it doubles as a condition of truth--that truth must be open to infinity, and completely accessible.

let's just never get into a debate about feminism vs. Christianity.

Oh, I dunno. I don't think it would be as ugly as you think. I have a whole theology (actually borrowed from Hans Urs von Balthasar) of Christ as supra-feminine; if the Son is Logos, the Word, there may be here an identity with Holy Wisdom, spoken of in the feminine, or even the bride of the Song of Solomon. Even so, I know that this theory won't satisfy feminists, who still correctly point to the primacy of the Father, to whom Scripture and tradition refer to in the masculine.

I've read Mary Daily's "The Church and the Second Sex," and I know that any attempt to justify the status quo of the male priesthood will only viewed by some as a smokescreen concealing male will-to-power. But without losing my rabid orthodoxy, I can still say that if the feminine is "second" within a Trinity, that makes her the central sex; the pivot, the linchpin, the axis. IMO, a correct understanding of sex in Christianity does two things: (1) recognizes the inter-sexual dynamic of the Trinity, and (2) relativizes the importance of the clergy in the bigger picture of salvation.

Writing activity from the past several weeks, Pt 4

As a high school teacher I taught world religions. I tried to stress that "there are always similarities and there are always differences." It is naive to suppose that religions hold their deepest truths in common. Two religions might teach the same thing but for vastly different reasons (Christianity and Buddhism have an extremely different take on why worldly attachments can be harmful).

Or they might teach the same doctrine but hold it in vastly different orders of priority relative to each religion's total framework; Hindus and Buddhist both hold something like moksha/nirvana as the ultimate spiritual destination, but Buddhists (afaik) have no analogue to Hinduism's legitimate life alternatives, like kama (sensuality) and artha (wealth and success). Hindus appear to be in no real hurry to escape from samsara.

But it's equally naive to suppose that they are totally irreconcilable. The religions are coextensive. There are real contradictions--I'm sorry, Ann Holmes Redding, either the Qu'ran or Jesus are the inerrant and ultimate revelation of God, not both; and no, that's not just a throwaway detail. To say you accept both is, in a way, saying that you reject the claims of both--claims that are held by more intellectually honest believers of either creed.

But there is a reason for the significant overlap between the distinctive teachings of Jesus and the wisdom of ancient Hindu sutras. Many Hindus believe that Jesus's youth was spent with the gurus in India (like early Christians thought that Plato's monotheism was plagiarized from Moses). More likely, it's the case that truth is a discovery to be encountered by divergent explorers, not an invention that can only spread through imitation by copycats.

Is it only your opinion that it's more likely, or do you have any evidence that supports that? I'm not saying that I don't also have that sense, but I'd like to hear reasoning in favor of, "more likely."

There's substantial overlap in certain teachings of different religions. The question is, can the overlap be interpret as a sign of enduring truth; or is it merely the cross-pollination of ideas?

Some points.

  • Inter-religious consensus on this or that doctrine is not a gaurantee of its truth; just as a popular vote is not a gaurantee of the goodness of the law voted for. Yet in both cases it seems the consensus and the truth are not completely irrelevant to each other. Still we can always point to certain doctrines that are more or less pan-religious and yet offensive to our consciences--like depriving women of dignity.
  • Inter-religious consensus on a morsel of wisdom might, given circumstances, be adequately explained either by independent parallel discovery or by cross-pollination. These two possibilities are also not mutually exclusive, as a culture's "good idea" might be a hybrid of something original and something borrowed.
  • In the case of independent parallel discovery, we have to admit the distinct possibility of mere coincidence, including the coincidence of disparate peoples arriving at the same error independently. Jimmy and Sally, neither one especially good at math, might both guess that 1/0 = 0.
  • In the case of cross-pollination, we also need to admit the distinct possibility that the morsel of wisdom may be really true; and the fact that one people discovered it independently while another discovered it through imitation is, by itself alone, not a dealbreaker for its being true.

In spite of all of this, I think that we are legitimately impressed when two very disparate peoples arrive at the same (or very similar) contingent possibility of development without having communicated with one-another. Take for example Mayan written language and advanced irrigation technology, remarkable for having no apparent roots in proto-Indo-European language or any influence by Eurasian ingenuity. One couldn't be blamed for inferring a certain common human ordering toward these developments, even if not all cultures have always (or yet) developed irrigation systems or written language and seem to get along fine without either.

Corroboration is not a deductive guarantee of objective truth, but it is a powerful inductive intimation of it. Science itself is the ever greater accumulation of corroborations and falsifications. If a certain idea has gained widespread currency, especially if it has done so through spontaneous independent parallel inspiration (some cite the maxim, "Treat others as you would want to be treated") that seems a valid argument that this morsel of wisdom has, as far as we know, universal validity.

But what about cross-pollination? Here we can perhaps more easily imagine scenarios where a bad idea spreads.

I tuckered myself out again. Some questions I want to return to:
-What makes an idea "bad"?
-What is the method of its cross-pollination? (Voluntary or involuntary?)
-If voluntary, what can we legitimately infer from the popularity of an idea?
-Under what circumstances might a popular idea also be a bad one?
-Is the popularity of an idea an argument for its truth, or at least that some part or aspect of it is true?

irrigation developed because of a need, just the way eyes developed because of a need -- not necessarily because of a truth. Evolutionary psychologists would probably say that the most successful religions satisfy basic human needs. As those needs are universal, it isn't too hard to believe that the constructs created to fulfill them would be similar.

The categories of needs and truths are also not mutually exclusive. William James was a fan of the notion that evolutionary psychology itself was a clue--mind you, a clue, not a smoking gun--not only about human beings, and not only about the physical, but the metaphysical and the moral spheres as well.

The evolution of eyes would seem in indicate the presence of that which is seeable, and the advantageous nature of the ability to detect and utilize that data. But the seeable was present before any such organ existed that could detect it. The truth preceded the need.

I believe in evolution and in the principle of natural selection, but I keep an open mind about the possibility that there may be other natural causes linking truths to needs and needs to mutations. I'm not a Lamarckist, and I know that "genes have no windows," i.e., that so far as we know there is no direct correlation between environment and genetic mutation. (Edit: Woo!)

Needs must be satisfied, and they must be satisfied by a something. We will not survive on a diet of air. The moral and the metaphysical are no less important to civilizations. If independent parallel technology development points so a truth about human needs and the means to satisfy them, why should not a a similar principle be one (among many) means of moral and metaphysical investigation?

I hardly claim that an entire religion can be patched together with this type of thinking; though such claims are made by "inductive theologians" (like Peter Berger in A Rumor of Angels). I also I sneer at attempts to "combine all religions"; unless the author is honest about the fact that the frankenstein result would not be an orthodox contributor to any one of them.

I only suggest that more than a few wisdoms cross the boundaries of creeds, and that this may speak strongly of potential universal validity.

If all of the teachings of religions, including the really popular ones, are nothing more than culturally relativistic memes that are chance subjects of viral popularization, then the only reason to study them is for ethnographic reasons. Like pinning butterflies to Styrofoam. There's nothing deep about that.

But if the massive upswing of the moral and metaphysical thought of civilizations; the trajectory of wide swaths of critical thought have moved here or there in a direction that was powerful and positive, it seems to me we can scarcely ignore them, and even that those movements deserve a certain respect (if not automatic assent).

I essentially agree with you, or I at least want to... of course, science waters down the miracle of all this and points to such overlaps as simple means to adaptive human behavior, like love, cohesiveness, cooperation... destroying or shunning outsiders...

But how universal are the deepest wisdoms that religion has to offer? How would we know, as human beings? We magnify the importance of things that pertain to us. Even if they are of the utmost importance to us, what do they tell us about the universe? What do they have to do with God? Where are we, in God's grand scheme? Why is there all that alien space beyond us?

Let's not be too daunted by the possibility that Jesus was influenced by Indian mystics. He would be no more of a copycat than the pope or any of us. I suppose, though, that the problem is that Jesus is not "supposed" to be ordinary, because Christianity says he isn't, which gives way to circular reasoning. We just aren't. supposed. to believe that. 'cause it's bad. Even though it wouldn't contradict claims of his divinity, it would be... discouraging for us. So we don't like to consider it, although it may be true. We tend to embrace comforting possibilities as more likely.

Sometimes, I don't like the things I watch myself think and say. I'm going to cut out the devil's advocacy, say my prayers, and go to sleep.

Writing activity from the past several weeks, Pt 3

Post subject: Re: Carrying thought patterns across disciplines

One pattern that has deeply ingrained itself into me, via philosophy, is consciousness of the hierarchic order of being. I have a personal theology integrated with my religious orthodoxy, that it is inequality, not balance, which is prime.

A symbolic illustration would be the nautilus shell versus the Yin-Yang as an all-encompassing microcosm of nature. With all due respect to Taoism, I feel that the nautilus more completely represents how complimentary and quantitative difference and tension create beauty--such as the difference between the accelerating rate of growth combined with a merely constant rate of change, the cause of logarithmic spirals.

It's a pattern that I am more or less convinced is determinative not only for physical phenomena and aesthetics but also for truth in philosophy, politics, and religion. I know that sounds vague and like I haven't really thought this through--and boy does it need better elucidation. But it's the way philosophy fundamentally shaped my perception of everything.


I would imagine this would also apply to social hierarchies? Hierarchies of wisdom? I have to go to work at the moment, but I like this line of thought. I'd like to know where you see certain things and phenomena in such a schematic


Part of my difficulty here is that I'm not really pushing for "hierarchy" necessarily, or most deeply, in the sense of the Catholic clerical hierarchy or the Hindu caste system or the corporate ladder or academic hierarchy--such instruments of governance are as good or evil as their members. I am oddly enthusiastic about social hierarchy, but only when it takes natural analogies of interdependence as a model.

Re: hierarchies of wisdom, I believe truth is hierarchic in terms of depth, scope, urgency, precision, etc; but I also believe that there is a real analogical relationship between higher and lower orders of truth. I am an analogic realist--I believe that true analogies point beyond themselves toward a fundamental intelligibility of being; they are not merely constructs. I also think that analogy is entirely different, deeper than, and prior to both science and deductive logic, whose methods depend on it.

I am a spatial thinker, and whenever I read an opinion, a critique, or an essay, I can almost see its lines of connections with similar ideas on higher or lower orders of truth. Often I need to ask the author questions to avoid misunderstanding. But when I learn a new idea, it's not like one more coin to add to my coin collection; it's more like a fossil that more or less resembles this part of that dinosaur's skeleton; correcting past excesses and adding completeness to an inexhaustible and difficult corpus of knowledge.

I defintely disagree with the aesthetics. Symmetry and balance seem to be the most commonly recognized forms of beauty, across humanity.


Good point. And yet the bilateral symmetry of animals is always partial. A minority of humans are ambidextrous. The brain hemispheres have slightly different functions (not as radical as often supposed, but still). The way hair parts on a person's head usually favors one or the other side. The heart is appropriately asymmetrical.

I wouldn't dare say that these modest, often vital imbalances always and everywhere follow the golden ratio; but more significantly, I am captivated by the way these imbalances create a relationship of mutual interdependence. And moreover, the term "equality" starts to lose its cash value when you're talking about such a relationship. Which side of the heart is more important? Well, the left ventricle is stronger. But who's going to argue that the right atrium is expendable? It seems silly to speak of a competition between heart chambers.

This also gets me into trouble with feminists. I think that the whole concept of being the equals of men is broken on the most fundamental level--not because males are superior, but because it's like demanding that the right atrium be the equal of the left ventricle. When a practice or an idea violates the absolute human worth of women, then I'll get pissed.

Am I right in assuming you believe political and societal stability is only obtainable through imbalance of power?

Yes and no. You're right in that I've come to view the value of "equality" as something of quaint artifice, and you'll rarely hear me use the word in earnest (I'll instead speak of absolute human worth). I believe political and social stability is only obtainable through difference and mutual interdependence, equality be damned. Absolute human worth is prior to this belief, of course (injustice isn't about violating equality or discriminating, but rather violating absolute human worth, which sometimes takes the shape of one of the former). But still, I believe that it's erroneous to aim for equality as a value sui generis.

Does the yin yang symbol illustrate "quantitative difference?"

No, quite the opposite, if I understand correctly; everything I've read has emphasized that Yin Yang is a balance of opposite equals. That's exactly where I differ with it. Natural homeostasis rarely if ever involves an encounter of any two things that can sensibly be described as "equal" in any way. They are both vital, and if you want to play word games you can call them equally vital, but being "vital" is not something that differs in degrees--you either need it, or you don't.

But the philosophy, itself, asking for trouble, socially (er, well, it always has), the same way that eugenics did.

I've exhausted myself. But I'll just say that it's the difference between "Power Over" and "Power With". C.f. Foucalt.

Attached is a graphic I just did. I've been thinking of designing this for a while. It's not perfect (stupid pixels always want to round my divine proportions!) but it's sort of a synthesis.

First, a version that I did not create:


And my version.

Both illustrate nicely the concept of mutual interdependence and a certain "happy subordination" which is not "power over" but "power with".

The reason I would still give preference to my own version is that I am attracted to the symbolism of the open spiral vs. the closed circle. Closed systems (in any sphere of being, including relationships) are subject to the law of entropy. Ideologies are closed systems. Wisdom always points infinitely outward and inward, never exhausting truth, yet still hinting at it.

I also position myself against a merely circular view of time. But it's a little bit of a caricature to state that western religions have a linear view of time; it's more accurate to describe it as a progressive spiral. The snake never swallows its tail.

Writing activity from the past several weeks, Pt 2

Why has the word "organized" become a term of abuse (as in "organized religion") when nature itself is incredibly organized (i.e. organic)?

How, in the face of everything we know about human nature, did individualism and private autonomy become absolute values?

Why do we still celebrate the age of sexual libertinism when we find ourselves less happy, less loved, and more damaged than ever before?

When did a thing's ancient pedigree go from being a sign of abiding truth to a scarlet letter of obsolescence?

Why is the first response to hypocrisy always to spurn the virtue that the hypocrite failed to practice?

Why do people reject faith and obedience in the name of individualism, only to live and speak in lockstep conformity with a zeitgeist which long ago ceased to offer anything new?

Catholics won't be proud of their faith until they're released from the technicolor fantasy that the highest freedom is the consumeristic accumulation of options.

preach it!

"Why has the word "organized" become a term of abuse (as in "organized religion")..."

I think you answered your own question there...

"How, in the face of everything we know about human nature, did individualism and private autonomy become absolute values?"... Read More

Ummm, so, what is wrong with individualism? I don't see how that's a bad thing, for your argument or mine. And PRIVATE AUTONOMY? Free will is pretty much a human right, last time I checked - oh, wait you're arguing for religion. That's why those values are bad. Of course. How could I be so silly? (And free will has always been present in human nature, ya know.)

"Why do we still celebrate the age of sexual libertinism when we find ourselves less happy, less loved, and more damaged than ever before?"

I may not be a happy person, but I know for certain that sexual libertinism is not the cause of my unhappiness. If it were not for that, there would be even MORE sexism in the world than there already is, and I would be

(cont. from above)
...even less happy.

“When did a thing's ancient pedigree go from being a sign of abiding truth to a scarlet letter of obsolescence?”

An ancient “pedigree” is not proof of something’s legitimacy or worth. Unless, of course, you think that noble and royal titles mean that those people are better than the rest of us, simply because they have “pedigrees.”

“Why do people reject faith and obedience in the name of individualism, only to live and speak in lockstep conformity with a zeitgeist which long ago ceased to offer anything new?

Conformity is one thing. Obediance is COMPLETELY different. Conforming is something almost no one can avoid, because almost no one is original in what they do, say, etc. But conformity is not obediance. Obediance is following without question. One can conform and question, because one CHOOSES to conform.

Re: individualism - has a lot to do with geography/technology. Historically, the more isolated/mutually dependent a society is, the less individualist. The more mobile and global, the more individualist. (Sweeping generalizations, but still.) You're going to take on globalization? Technology? Wouldn't you rather - I don't know - sleep in?

Writing activity from the past several weeks, Pt 1

Recently, the gay marriage poll has been making the rounds, and the results are unsurprising. Rather than vote, I posted a status that said, "THE INTERNET IS LIBERAL!" I might as well have posted, "PUPPIES ARE CUTE" or "MICHAEL JACKSON IS WEIRD [Postscript, this was written before his death. Rest in peace, Michael.]." My point was that polling the general Facebook populace is an exercise in restating the obvious.

My sister, who I love, wrote, "What's up with your fascination with this topic (the gay marriage thing). Given that it doesn't impact you or (presumably) anyone you know and love personally, I don't see any reason for you to be feeling ALL CAPS - level emotion here."

The spirit of my all-caps post was a little subtle. It's hard to communicate certain sentiments over the Web. Certainly it begged for misinterpretation. Yet at the same time, my sis is correct: I am fascinated with the gay marriage issue... sort of. More accurately, I am fascinated with the wider issue of modern sexual libertinism and the collapse of an intelligent and persuasive response to it, of which the "gay marriage" issue is just a subset.

As a social conservative (a standpoint informed by, but ultimately independent of, my Catholic faith), I critique the exaggerated privatization and individualization of questions of sexual behavior brought upon by a zeitgeist completely beholden to the teachings of mid-20th century figures like Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Hugh Hefner, and others. Overall, I fear that modern western society has grossly underestimated the universal importance and impact of sex (and its natural correlates).

I am skeptical that a society that puts on giant blinders to the basics of the birds and the bees (in favor of a utilitarian and commoditized model of sexual pleasure) can operate for long without severe collective, and thus individual consequences. And I do not predict that those consequences will happen in some undetermined future--I observe that they have already happened; the bottom has fallen out; and we celebrate it even though as a society we are less happy, less healthy, less loved, and more alone than ever before.

Even though I do not consider my position to be irrational or not well-founded in verifiable evidence, I face incredible obstacles to my own credibility--from my allies as much as my opponents. My position will always be caricatured as a blind, sentimental 1950s romanticism; or as Biblical fundamentalism; or (as in the case of the gay marriage issue) simple hateful prejudice. And I receive no help from the fact that no small number of my allies are blind romantics, fundamentalists, and prejudiced people.

I stand by my convictions about morality and about public policy (which, believe or not, are distinct in my mind), not in the name of "tradition" or "God's law", but in the name of the public good; and because my reasons do not easily express themselves in sound bytes and catchy slogans, I see little hope that my views will obtain in the wider society. Short of a miracle. Fortunately, I believe in miracles.