Thursday, October 27, 2011

Income Disparity Versus Class Warfare

Yesterday I heard an interview on my local public radio station with congresspeople giving their opinions on the occupy wall street protests. There was one Democratic Congressman who expressed sympathy for the complaints of those involved in the protests and went on to list a few things that he saw as problems which justified the anger of the protesters. Among these so-called problems he quoted a statistic from a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office indicating that in the last thirty years the income level of the top one percent of earners in the U.S, has increased by 275 percent. That's it. The problem I have is that that statistic on its own is not a "problem" or indeed a negative in any way, unless you are engaged in the "class warfare" that has been decried by republicans. The fact that the super-wealthy are doing better  is only a problem if you are opposed to the super-wealthy on principle.
The real problem raised by the statistics revealed in the C.B.O. report isn't that the income of the super wealthy has increased so drastically, it's that the income of the other 99 percent hasn't kept pace with the top one percent. The Congressman should have given the statistics of the relatively minuscule increase in income among the low earning population and claimed the problem was an income disparity in the U.S. that is comparable to countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Ecuador and Cameroon.
The problem is not that the rich are doing so well, the problem is that everyone else is doing so poorly.

Monday, October 17, 2011

String Theory And Dark Matter?

I should start this post by saying I am not an astrophysicist. I have a basic level of understanding compatible with my status as an interested lay person, so I could be talking out of my ass here. But I have been struck many times while studying the principles of string theory or M theory that it could have a built in explanation for the problem of the universe's missing mass or dark matter. The first time this idea came to me was when I noticed a corollary between the ratio of normal matter to dark matter and the ratio of the dimensions that we experience and the theoretical unexperienced dimensions integral to string theory. So I wondered if the missing mass we call dark matter is actually the gravitational signature of matter contained within these dimensions that we do not have experiential access to, but which string theory posits. This idea re-occurred to me today when I was listening to an interview with Brian Greene on Michio Kaku's podcast Exploration from 9/27. In this interview Brian Greene explains that in string theory the only one of the four essential forces which is transmitted through the extra dimensions is gravity.
I don't know, does anyone know if this has been considered or if it is even possible? Anyone have any info along these lines?

Naturalism, Supernaturalism and God

I actually originally wrote the following post as a comment on this post at PZ Myers' blog pharyngula, but I decided to repost it here too:
I think there is one issue relating to the non-destructive elements of religion that is all but ignored by the new atheists, namely the belief in a non-supernatural (read natural) God of the sort espoused by Einstein, Spinoza and many many other scientists, empiricists and science-minded lay people. These believers think that the conception of God adds something to their understanding of the universe, even if, at its core, the concept is mainly metaphorical or poetic. There are several different concepts of God which are perfectly compatible with the naturalistic world view.
It seems to me that the real "enemy" is supernaturalism or even faulty/poorly maintained/poorly constructed belief generating mechanisms. You're not gonna find any non-realists on God or pantheists flying planes into buildings, trying to teach your children fairy tales as science, or insisting on the divine authority of scripture. Yet even Einstein, one of the best minds man has ever produced found his understanding of the universe incomplete without some concept of God.
So long as there are believers in the supernatural the naturalism/supernaturalism debate may take precedence over the debate over whether room should be made within the naturalistic world-view for the explanatory frame-work of a natural conception of God, but this will have to be addressed. And it is my belief that without the need to defend against God's supernatural implications many self-styled atheists may find that the addition of a natural God does add something valuable to their world view, even if that value is mainly in God's symbolism, metaphor or poetry.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Disturbing Implications Of Answered Prayer

Intricately related to the philosophical problems presented by Just World Theory, which I discussed in the previous post, are those involved in belief in answered prayer.
For those who believe in a supernatural, personal God who is able to act in the universe in ways which contravene the laws of nature and who can be petitioned for favors and guidance, the issue of His apparent unwillingness to concede to the majority of prayer requests must be addressed. Many believers in petitionary prayer rationalize this failure by evoking God's mysterious and incomprehensible nature. All prayers are answered, they claim, it's just that sometimes the answer is no.
The problem arises when the random chance outcomes of situations are attributed to God's will or likewise, when God's will is seen as discernible in the petitionary prayers which appear to be granted.
How often do we see celebrities attributing their successes to the will of God, thanking Him for an Oscar or a Super Bowl win? Or in more serious matters, how often do we see the survivors of tragedies attributing their miraculous survival to God or answered prayer? The problem with this kind of thinking is that by claiming divine sanction of your success you are also claiming divine sanction of others' failures. If God really did want your football team to win the Super Bowl, He wanted the other team to lose, and couldn't He have used his omnipotence in a more productive manner than assuring the outcome of a sporting event? If God really was answering the prayers of the single survivor of a plane crash, why did He refuse the prayers of those who perished?
In short, it paints a picture of an extremely arbitrary and ultimately unfair God to claim that He answers prayers sporadically. If He were just and kind and concerned with our well-being, shouldn't He grant all prayers which are asked with good will and a humble heart?
Before we are willing to attribute the odd unexpected beneficial outcome to God's will or answered prayer, we should stop to think what that claim says about negative outcomes as well as about the character of an omnipotent being which would allow them.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Insidious Effects Of Just World Belief

There is some good evidence that the processes and states of being that we label as mind, and which appear to be tied to the evolutionary adaptation of our brains, have a natural tendency to produce transcendental experiences that we commonly label as "spiritual" or "religious". These often include a sense of the universal interconnectedness of all things and all life in particular, a sense of some greater enigma which we cannot convincingly describe let alone try to un-puzzle. Often these feelings act in concert with the other natural tendencies of our minds toward pattern-recognition (the ability to see meaning in seemingly random or disparate input), agency attribution (the tendency to see events as the result of the action of a "person" or actor), and obedience to authority. In this way they produce, or lend weight to, a world-view dominated by (a) benevolent God/god(s).
One of the deepest philosophical conundrums that man has faced since he has tried to use the powers of his mind to understand the universe in which he found himself, is the need to reconcile the deeply felt belief in the benevolence of God, with the empirically undeniable proliferation of suffering among sentient beings. How we bring these beliefs into harmony can have dramatic effects on how we see and behave toward the world and its inhabitants.
Just World Belief is the idea (whether conscious or latent) that, despite appearances to the contrary, the universe is actually, ultimately, perfectly just. The belief is formulated in a wide variety of ways. The New Age belief in karma formulates Just World Belief in a straightforward manner by asserting that all negative actions will eventually have proportionately negative consequences on the actor; likewise, all positive actions produce positive rewards. Usually a belief in reincarnation is necessary to harmonize a belief in karma with the overwhelming countervailing evidence; although we see cases of evil men profiting by their evil actions and dying old, fat, happy and unpunished, and cases of the innocent and good living and dying unjustly in agony, it is said they will get their reward or punishment in the next life. The traditional formulation of heaven and hell afterlives follows a similar line of thought but with the proportion of reward and punishment noticeably absent.
An interesting and instructive misfit example is the formulation found in the Hebrew Scriptures of the so-called Old Testament. With no substantive mentions of a coherent afterlife, let alone reincarnation, found in the Jewish Bible, we are left with the continuously arising problem of how to explain the profound injustices experienced in life in light of an all-powerful and all-good God. In response to this problem, the Bible develops and reinforces a robust Just World Belief. Those who please God are rewarded by God, those who displease Him are punished, both in this life. If a person is sick or disabled it is evidence that they have displeased God. Likewise, if a person is wealthy, healthy and successful it is evidence that they have pleased God. God is in charge of all things, He numbers even the hairs on our heads, nothing happens in the universe without His sanction, since God is all good, the world must be just. The result of the uniform application of this kind of Just World Theory is the noticeably harsh character attributed to God in the Old Testament. After all, only a harsh character would enforce such unreasonable punishments for arbitrary infractions while offering equally disproportionate rewards for equally arbitrary pleasing actions. Why was the most pious man in the village struck with agonizing bloody diarrhea death? He must have given the wrong sacrifice, or maybe he was secretly proud-hearted. Why has the town lush and adulterer just inherited a fortune? Maybe he was repentant, or had a humble heart or something. One thing, however, was necessarily true: they both deserved it.
And this gets us to the heart of the insidiousness of Just World Belief. Whether it is explicit or latent, the belief promotes the idea that we need not fight against suffering because it is deserved. In fact helping the suffering may even be controverting God's justice. In the same way, this belief leads to an unhealthy idolization of the worldly successful since their worldly success is seen as just rewards of some elusive God-pleasing characteristic.
We ought to examine our beliefs to see if we are influenced by this bias and, if so, examine the justification for such a belief. With the proliferation of world-views and philosophies which include Just World Belief as an underlying foundation, such as libertarianism and other forms of political conservatism, the New Age visualization techniques around the over-hyped book The Gift, as well as the traditional formulations in the world's great religions, we have reason to stand up for reality based world-views as the necessary bare minimum foundation for the truest formulations of ethics and philosophy