Saturday, September 19, 2009

Nessun Dorma, Nessun Dorma...

("No-one sleeps, no-one sleeps...")

Puccini's masterpiece has been ringing in my ears all day. I find myself lying awake now, staring at the ceiling and humming it to myself in the darkness. It is a beautiful piece of music and one that I cannot help but betray a great fondness for. It's only now, however - in the middle of this lonely, sleepless night - that can I finally come to appreciate what the words contained within it actually mean: there is nothing in the world more capable of driving a man to insomnia than the feeling of being in love! I should think it impossible to fall into unconsciousness now, with my passions so violently ignited, my heart so delightfully engorged! I am in love and no biological function, no matter how necessary, can possibly overcome it!

But how did it come to this? My life had finally reached a comfortable plateau: good job, good friends and a string of loose women. I had everything I needed and I was happy for it. Happy? Maybe that word is a little strong. I desired little yet received it duly. I was content.

But then this:


I will be passing through Melbourne for a few days. I want very much to meet with you. Meet me tomorrow under the clock at Flinders St Station at 3. I must see you again!



Seeing the handwriting upon removing the sheet of paper from its envelope should have set off alarm-bells: I never receive hand-written letters. The writing was beautiful too: every loop and dot perfectly executed. She had obviously taken care with this letter.

I don't know what to make of it. "I want very much to meet with you"? That doesn't mean anything. Actually, I should say the exact opposite: it could mean anything at all. Why does she want to see me again after all these years? Does she still love me or is that the way she signs off on all her letters? Is it possible that her love for me could have lasted all this time? Does she want to be with me again? Is there hope for us yet? I read the note over and over again but it yields no clues. It means, at once, both nothing and everything to me. These are most certainly the words of a woman.

E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir.
("And we must, alas, die.")

Ours was a familiar story, doubtless played out countless times throughout the course of human history: she moved away, I stayed here. I didn't try to stop her: it was, afterall, her decision to make. The relationship was certainly passionate while it lasted, but I assumed it could be easily replicated. "We will find someone else", I said. "If you must go then you must go". And that was it. She left and I forgot her quickly.

Forgot her, that is, until now. From the dry ink on the sheet of paper before me, her memory begins to re-emerge from the ethereal fog of my mind. In the loops of her d's I rediscover the smooth contours of her naked shoulder. In her rotund e's I find her soft, round earlobes hidden behind waves of golden hair. Even her t's remind me of the tiny creases that would form by her eyes when she smiled - and oh how we smiled then! How easily those we love make us laugh! How easily we take it all for granted!

I knew, even back then, that she had loved me. I could see it etched in her face when I told her that I wouldn't follow her north. But what could I do? I was happy here. Life up north held nothing for me except for her - and she was replaceable. Every moment we shared was still valuable to me - all the moments of my life are - but that time had passed. We had grown, it was time to move on. Our passions flared brilliantly for the months that we were together, yet it was time for us to break from them: there is nothing here to be mourned! It was over between us and that should have been enough.

But it wasn't. With this letter, everything changes. She loved me and perhaps she still does. I loved her and only now, in the wake of so many other inadequate women, do I realise it. We were perfect for one another and the hand-writing I find on this sheet of paper tells me as much. She loved me and the words in front of me say so. "We can begin again", I accidentally allow myself to think: "It shall be as though nothing has changed".

But I try to exorcise these thoughts from my mind. That was a long time ago and much has changed! We were young then, our emotions too easily forged by the transient experiences we shared. Ours was the passion of misguided youth: how could her love for me have possibly endured for so long? Surely we were, by now, living beyond any hope of of reconciliation?

Guardi le stelle che tremano d'amore e di speranza...
("Watch the stars that tremble with love and with hope...")

On this sleepness night I find myself on my balcony looking up at the night sky. Rigel, that brilliant white point of light sitting atop Orion's powerful body, captures my attention. It twinkles at me through the warm night air, like a distant eye winking right towards my very soul. Many stars, tonight, seem dull and uninteresting. Rigel, however, reaches me as a point of impeccable white light. It seems somehow pure to me.

I dwell upon the distance of that point of light. Four and a half quadrillion miles away there hangs, in the obscurity of the enveloping darkness, a ball of gas that dwarfs our own sun many times over. At its core, millions of nuclear explosions occur every second, fuelling the blinding light and brilliant heat that reach even the distant extent of our own small, insignificant corner of the universe. I imagine a photon - that tiniest of particles - being trapped within Rigel's massive core for millions of years, before finally breaking free from the star's considerable gravitational pull and taking itself on a long journey through the cold, dark expanse of space.

It must pass by hundreds of unremarkable stars during its path through the near endless vacuum that exists between Rigel and my balcony. Even at the speed of 300,000 kilometers a second, the stars pass by slowly. After a journey lasting 750 years, by sheer, unintelligible happenstance, the photon reaches my eye. It - and the other photons that have reached me on the long journey from Rigel - stimulate the cells in my retina and, through a series of impluses passed along an irreducibly complex web of nerves, an image begins to take form in my brain: that of a perfectly white ball of light, shimmering brilliantly in the sky against the endless expanse of a black, empty space that holds, suspended within its unbounded structure, the totality of everything that has ever existed. I understand now why the ancient Greeks thought the heavens to be intrinsically perfect: for this moment, at least, I find that they are.

Here I realize, with a smile and a warm shiver of joy, that the photons that have granted me this epiphany have travelled through space for more than seven centuries before reaching my eyes. In the context of such an incomprehensibly large universe, our separation of 700 miles and 3 years suddenly seems so irrelevent. Anny, were we ever really separated at all?

Dilegua o notte, tramontate o stelle! All'alba vincerò!
("Vanish o night, set o stars! At daybreak, I shall conquer!")

I have made up my mind. Tomorrow, once Rigel has set beyond the distant horizon, I shall meet with Anny and we shall resume where we left off.

There will be issues to resolve after so much time, of course, but they matter little. I was foolish to let her leave me three years ago and I shan't make the same mistake again. I will go to bed and tomorrow my world shall begin anew. Anny and I shall be together once more.

Quando la luce splenderà, il mio bacio scioglierà il silenzio. Che ti fa mia.
("When the light shines, my kiss will dissolve the silence. That makes you mine.")

I sit under the clock, in the heat of the afternoon sun, waiting for her to emerge from the gates behind me. I decide that there is nothing that can be said once she arrives: what, afterall, could be said? "How are you"? "How was your trip"? "I missed you terribly"? No, these are just words. They don't express how I feel about her. When she comes, I will kiss her before she has the chance to speak. That will be words enough.

Before long I see her coming through the turnstiles. She is wearing an immaculate red dress and has left her hair untied. Her skin is pale yet radiant, her eyes wide yet calm. She is an intractable image of beauty and I think here again of Rigel: I have rediscovered the perfect, pure point of light within my universe.

I stand and she sees me.

"Babe, I..."

I don't let her finish. I pull her to me and press my lips to hers: how soft they still are! How passionately they still find my own! And the skin of her arms: could there be anything in the universe quite so smooth or quite so pleasing to the touch? I hold her close to me and feel her heart beating wildly against my chest. For a moment I am sure that the movement of all the bodies in the heavens have stopped: all of existence, the essense of the entire universe, is contained within this passionate embrace.

I step back and look into her her wide, brown eyes. Callisto returns to its inexorable orbit around Jupiter. The spiralled arms of our galaxy resume their majestic revolution around our galaxy's nebulous centre. Rigel, again, begins to career away from our own star at the speed of hundreds of miles per second. And her new fiance grabs me in a headlock from behind and kicks me in the balls. I swear to god, right in the fucking balls. And it hurts. I double over in pain and they leave without saying a word.

I find myself awake all night holding a bag of frozen peas to my groin while waiting for the swelling to go down, staring at the ceiling and humming to myself in the darkness. Nessun Dorma indeed.

Friday, September 18, 2009

On the Fetishising of Food

I'm not proud of it, but on Wednesday I found myself watching free-to-air television in the middle of the afternoon. Those of you with, you know, "lives" may be unfamiliar with the soporific beast that is daytime television, but in my experience there are few phenomena quite so capable of dredging up ruminations on humanity and its myriad of shortcomings as this one. Ready, Steady, Cook, with its glittering array of TV "stars" relaying the best way to cook asparagus with an enthusiasm that asparagus should never inspire in a human being is cause enough for depression, but by the time that the preternaturally cheerful Ian Hewitson appeared on my television screen, enjoining me to appreciate "those oozing juices - ooo lovely!" from whatever dish he happened to be cooking that afternoon, I was ready to ask: "what the fuck is wrong with us?"

It's not just daytime television of course: Masterchef, a show devoted to judging people on the basis of dishes that the audience can neither smell nor taste, became one of the highest rating shows of all time, consigning a generation of men, women and children back into the kitchen to spend hours slaving over stoves under the guise of Epicurean exploration - weren't the conveniences of modern life supposed to have liberated us from this kind of domestic slavery decades ago? Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver - two men who have staked a career in berating people who can't cook properly - also generate high ratings, the former's ratings glory apparently not even hampered by endless reruns or poorly judged swipes at current affairs hosts. Food, apparently, makes for compelling television.

But then there's the flip side: a culture conscious of its status as one of the most obese in the world, where the contents of children's lunchboxes are debated in the halls of parliament and fast food restaurants are referred to with the same scathing condescension previously reserved only for tobacco companies. It is the same culture that's made Magda Szubanski's weight-loss front page news, and made shows like The Biggest Loser - where obese people are humiliated via a process of applied sadism into losing weight - ratings winners. We are obsessed with food, yet we're also feeling guilty about being obsessed with food. Food, once just a necessity of nature, has been transformed into an object fit for fetishising by our zealous cullinary puritanism and the consequent attempts to surpress appetites that are otherwise completely natural: food is the new sex.

Where we once became slim to make us more attractive to the opposite sex, we now become slim out of some deontological deference; the consequence of a culture in which obesity is increasingly seen to be a moral failure. Where once the puritans were writing in to complain about the sexual content on television whenever a nipple should happen to become exposed (which, of course, says far more about the sex-obsessed mind of the puritan than it does about the rest of us) the puritans are now writing in to complain about ads for food during kids programs, or about fast-food companies sponsoring sporting events. Where we once felt pangs of guilt for fantasising about a variety of sexual episodes in quite lurid and unnecessary detail*, we now feel pangs of guilt for fantasising about eating the kinds of foods that don't deliver the essential doses of omega 3 we need to keep our bodies healthy.

It is, of course, important to try to encourage people to eat properly and lose weight - the health of the nation depends on it. But we have to be careful about swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction, where quite normal appetites for various types of foods become unhealthily surpressed. Just as sexual repression can lead to aberrant expressions of sexuality, is it not possible that gastronomic repression can lead to aberrant patterns of eating? Is that not, in some way, what we're aleady starting to see already within our weight-obsessed culture and its mid-afternoon cullinary porn?


*C'mon, don't play coy with me. We all know what you've been up to.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Steve Fielding: "Blame My Jeans"

From the Age:

STEVE Fielding says a life-long learning difficulty is to blame for his occasional mangling of words, but the Family First senator does not want people feeling sorry for him.


Speaking to The Age, Senator Fielding, 48, said the mistakes were a result of a learning difficulty he’d had most of his life.


The father of three declined to specify what his learning difficulty was, but said he saw similar speech patterns emerging in one of his sons, for whom he had arranged special treatment. Senator Fielding said people with speech difficulties often faced ridicule.

I'm presently reading the Blank Slate by Steven Pinker (a book which makes the case that human mind does not begin as a "blank slate" that is gradually filled up by experience, but rather that many mental proclivities are actually predetermined by genes) so I don't have any difficulty believing that some people may be genetically predisposed to abberant patterns of speech. While medical science apparently has no name for this strange disorder - typified, apparently, by the rather gentle symptoms of sub-par spelling and the occasional malapropism - I think I'm still prepared to take Fielding at his word here: many people are likely just congentially predisposed to better or worse language skills than others. Those predisposed to poor language skills should not - as Fielding rightly points out - be punished or ridiculed for mental traits that they have little to no control over. So far so good then, but how far is Fielding willing to go in his defense of the realities of biological determinism?

We should not waste money "mopping up after drunks", he writes. Alcohol abuse is, afterall, "a cultural problem that needs actions [sic] that would lead to responsible drinking". This despite the multitude of evidence suggesting that alcohol abuse can be tied to a number of genetic (as opposed to cultural) factors. What about the idea of introducing "tougher [criminal] penalties" as a means of "solving our culture of binge drinking [and] alcohol-fuelled street violence"? Again, there is quite ample evidence which suggests significant variation amongst individuals in their capacity for empathy, impulse-control and many other mental traits that are necessary to curb violent instincts and to adhere to socially acceptable forms of conduct, sure signs that even violent crime may be partly determined by genetic factors. And as for homosexuals? Fielding seeks to deny them equal rights purely on the basis of their congenital sexual disposition: hard not to see the hypocracy there.

Now of course I am not suggesting that we shouldn't treat alcoholism or punish violent offenders simply because there may be a genetic basis for such behaviour, but it does suggest to me that we should approach such topics with the same degree of compassion, understanding and realism that Steve Fielding would have us approach his minor learning disability with. Just as we should not leap to prejudiced conclusions about someone who has difficulties with spelling, we should also not leap to prejudiced conlcusions about people who abuse alcohol or commit crimes. When Fielding advocates tougher sentencing for criminals, or depriving gays of equal rights, he is really just making the erroneous assumption that people act the way they do as a consequence of choices that they have freely made. The possibility that there are any circumstances which may exist beyond the control of these individuals which may account for the kind of behaviour he wishes to morally censure just doesn't cross his mind. He lives in a simple, Christian fundamentalist world of good and evil and the godless philosophy of biological determinism is only to be invoked where personally convenient.

But the most frustrating thing is that Fielding's disorder doesn't seem to have brought him the degree of humility in making judgements that it probably should. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong about being unable to spell or pronounce the word "fiscal", but it makes Fielding's vainglorious grandstanding on any number of fiscal issues (particularly the stimulus package) all the more outrageous. A man with a learning disorder should act with the understanding that his comprehension of a given issue may be hampered for reasons completely beyond his control, meaning he should probably think twice before boasting with unchecked certainty that the world's scientists have "yet to prove that man made carbon dioxide emissions are the main driver behind climate change". One can certainly forgive a man the occasional slip of the tongue, but one cannot so easily forgive such a man when he is prone to such displays of hubris and ideological rigidity.

One more year until we get to vote the donut dhimwitt dimwit out.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Question #2: How Did That Something Come Into Being?

In the previous post I mainly addressed the philosophical issues surrounding the existence of the universe, so in this post I'll try to address the question from a more scientific angle. Let's start with what science can tell us about a question that seems, at first, largely ineffable.

With their current mathematical models, cosmologists can confidently trace the evolution of the universe back to within the first fraction of a second of its existence (known as Planck Time - effectively the smallest unit of time over which any meaningful physical event can occur). After this point, they can reliably trace the expansion of the universe over a series of evolutionary stages, beginning with an incomprehensibly hot "plasma" stage, where temperatures were hot enough to prevent even the basic building-blocks of matter from forming and ending with the cool, lumpy universe of stars and planets that we live in today. The big bang can say nothing of what happened prior to the hypothesised "singularity" from which everything came into existence*, but the rest of the predictions made by this model are confirmed by empirical observations such as Cosmic Background Radiation (the afterglow of the big bang), the uniform expansion of the galaxies and Hubble's deep field observations. In other words, regardless of your theological disposition, the big bang theory (or at least something very similar to it) is the only available explanation for the present shape and structure of the universe.

But the original question goes a bit deeper than that. We aren't so much interested in what happened after the singularity, but rather what happened before it: in other words, what conditions preceding the big bang allowed the singularity to come into existence in the first place? The simplest and most honest answer to that question is that the cosmologists don't know**, but that's not to say that science doesn't have some very important things to say on the issue.

Firstly, it has to be noted that due to the conflation of time and space in the (empirically proven) theory of General Relativity, time itself did not actually come into existence until the moment of the big bang***. Therefore, to talk of a "time" that existed before the big bang is as meaningless as talking of a "place" that exists south of the south pole: by definition, both are impossible. Now it is true that there are speculative theories concerning the sort of conditions that may have predicated the big-bang singularity (M Theory and the Multiverse Theory most prominently), but at present the only hypothesis concerning the origin of the universe that is supported by available evidence suggests - unequivocally - that time did not exist and could not have existed prior to the big bang, and to talk of what preceded the big bang is therefore meaningless.

But the failure of the question doesn't end there. As with the question in the previous post, this question carries a hidden assumption for which there is simply no evidence: that - in the absense of some external force - "nothingness" is the fixed, default state of nature. While we have to be careful about presuming our universal laws to be "absolute" (such that they must hold "beyond" our universe as well), the findings of quantum physics can only be seen to completely undermine this assumption. As I have already said, "'nothingness' (i.e. a quantum state that is both unchanging and certain) represents an unstable and - above all - impossible state of nature" - i.e. "something" coming into being is inevitable. In posing the question, Williams also seems to presume that a quantum singularity (such as that which gave rise to the universe) cannot emerge ex nihilo without the intercession of some kind of powerful, creative agency, but fails to acknowledge that such particles do manage flash in and out of existence all the time in our universe without any sign of a cosmic creator. In fact, such "fluctuations" are not especially mysterious at all and are actually mandated by the inexorably indeterminate nature of quantum fields.

However, I do not want to give the impression that questions concerning the origin of the universe can be so effortlessly waved away. I have pointed out that particles in a vacuum seem to pop in and out of existence of their own accord, but neglected to mention that these particles are far smaller than the singularity required to account for the present amount of energy contained within our universe. If we were to presume that it is meaningful to talk of a time and place beyond the universe, the properties of which led causally to the creation of our universe, and presume that the laws which operate here are roughly the same as those found in our universe (a presumption made by string theory, but not necessarily by other multiverse theories), then an extremely unlikely (but not impossible) fluctuation of sufficient size within an inflaton field could theoretically generate the energy needed to create our entire universe. As Brian Greene notes:

"[A] tiny nugget, on the order of 10^-26cm across, filled with a uniform inflaton field - and weighing a mere twenty pounds - would, through the ensuing inflationary expansion, acquire enough energy to account for all that we see in the universe today." (Fabric of the Cosmos, p.313).

Now as I said, such a fluctuation is certainly possible (remember, such fluctuations - though almost always on a much smaller scale - are actually necessitated by the laws of quantum physics) but the odds are incomprehensibly small. The energy that the Greene mentions would have to be packed into an area approximately 300 trillion times smaller than and 100 million billion billion times heavier than a helium atom - needless to say, that'd have to be one hell of a fluctuation! In cosmology, answers that rely on an element of exreme luck tend not to last very long. The flatness of the universe, for instance, was once chalked up to luck but we now know that there is a good reason for the shape of the universe, and it has to do with the manner in which the early universe expanded (a topic I may breach in my next post). In any case, while this theory on the origins of the universe may rely on an extremely improbable event and doesn't completely answer the question posed at the top of this post, such theories do - at least - help in reducing the mystery involved, by breaking the problems down into smaller and less insurmountable ones. To again quote Greene:

"By no means does this [theory] answer Leibniz's question of why there is something rather than nothing, since we've yet to explain why there is an inflaton or even the space it occupies. But the something in need of explanation weighs a whole lot less than my dog Rocky, and that's certainly a very different starting point than invisaged in the standard big bang [model]." (Ibid.)

So as you can see, much work remains to be done by the sciences on this issue, but I hope that I've been able to convey the idea that the question as to how the universe came into being is not quite so mysterious or unsolvable as we might be inclined to think at first glance. The human mind is not well equipped to comprehend the deeply counter-intuitive nature of the universe on the smallest levels (i.e. quantum theory) and the largest levels (i.e. the age of the universe) and is therefore naturally drawn to supernatural explanations that invoke beings of far greater complexity and inexplicability than the very things they are invoked to explain in the first place. For that reason, perhaps the best thing we can say in response to this question - as with the one before it - is nobody knows, but that in itself does not make the existence of gods any more likely.


* The big bang is not a theory as to how the universe came into existence, but rather a theory as to the universe evolved: it can no more account for the existence of the initial singularity than evolution can account for the Earth's first self-replicators. Also, the term "big bang" is also something of a misnomer, as it details not the explosion of matter into space (as the name would seem to suggest), but rather the extremely rapid expansion of space-time itself.

** Which is not cause in itself, of course, to invoke a metaphysical explanation to account for the origins of the universe. Gaps in our scientific knowledge cannot automatically be construed as positive evidence for the existence of gods: that is a non-sequitur. If the cosmologists don't know what preceded the singularity, then the theologians certainly don't know. (See also final paragraph.)

*** Cosmological conceptions of time are deeply counter-intuitive and there is a strong temptation to reject the idea that there could not have been a "time" before the moment of the big bang. How, afterall, could a timeless particle (i.e. the initial singularity) give rise to a universe that is not itself timeless? The question is mindbending, but don't mistake its mindbending nature for scientific ambiguity: we know that the universe was caused by the temporal expansion of a potentially non-temporal particle and that simply isn't up for debate.

While positing the existence of such an "eternal" particle may sound like a case of metaphysical pleading, keep in mind that such particles are hardly rare. If, as Wittgenstein put it, "we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness" (Tracatus 6.4311) then such eternal particles already exist in the form of photons and other massless particles, which travel through space-time for potentially many billions of years and yet do not age a single second the entire time.

How to Talk to a Climate Change Skeptic

Not that they're likely to listen, but useful nonetheless:

How to Talk to a Climate Change Skeptic

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Question #1: Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

So far as philosophical questions go, surely none are as capable of warping the boundaries of the mind as this one. I've quite literally lost sleep pondering this question over the years and I'm not sure that this lost sleep has brought me any closer to providing a definitive answer. I was planning on leaving this question for later on, hoping that my writing would - with practice - develop the scope and precision necessary to do a question like this justice, but then I figured that such is a day is unlikely to arrive any time soon, so why not just jump right in?

Okay then. Here we go.

First, a word on the nature of the question itself. In a theological debate, any question involving the word "why" has to be treated with a careful dose of skepticism as it can be used to imply the need for a teleological answer where such a need may not actually exist. For the atheist - who necessarily denies teleological agency as a quality of the universe - it's difficult to interpret a statement like "why is there something rather than nothing?" as anything other than an example of begging the question. By forming the question that way, the theist could be seen to be assuming a priori the existence of the very thing (teleological causality) that the debate requires him to prove a posteriori: in other words, the theist is implicitly assuming that there must necessarily be a "why" at all. For that reason, if such a theological question can be rephrased as a "how" question (i.e. "how is it that there something rather than nothing?") it is generally prudent to do so, as it permits the atheist and the theist to debate on something approaching a common epistemological ground.

Having said that, I still think that this question in its current form warrants a response and given that Williams poses a very similar "how" question next-up ("how did that something come into being?") I'll save the scientific issues for the next post, and focus on the philosophy here.

This question, needless to say, is an old one, dating all the way back to Plato and almost certainly much earlier. In the context of Christian theology, the question has been most famously framed by Aquinas (who posited that the chain of causes that is our universe must have been set in motion by some "uncaused cause") and Leibniz (who speaks of a "necessary being bearing the reason for its existence within itself"): both, of course, are here making reference to "God". I'm not going to address these arguments directly*, but I will use them as a means of demonstrating why such intuitions about the nature of existence are misguided and - ultimately - fallacious.

So let's return to the question itself. In asking why there should be "something" rather than "nothing", there is a hidden assumption: that we should expect "nothing" to be the default state of nature. That is, that without some "uncaused cause" or "sufficient reason", "nothing" would necessarily exist and "something" necessarily wouldn't. Beyond the fact that, by definition, nothingness cannot ever be said to "exist", in reality there is nothing to support this assertion, and all the available evidence actually points to the contrary conclusion.

On the quantum scale, particles in a vacuum (i.e. an "empty" part of the universe) flash in and out of existence all the time without any discernable physical cause and these particles themselves can only be said to exist probabilistically rather than as determinate points of "existence". The only absolute "law" operating at this scale is that any existent state (including "nothingness") must be completely and inviolably indeterminate and therefore, over any meaningful period of time, inherently untenable. I'll address this more thoroughly in the next post, but for now I will simply point out that "nothingness" (i.e. a quantum state that is both unchanging and certain) represents an unstable and - above all - impossible state of nature.**

But let us presume, nonetheless, that the existence of "something" must be dependent on the existence of some prior "something": that is to say, let us presume that all existence is inherently contingent. Let us then presume that the chain of contingency must terminate somewhere: that is to say, let us presume that the chain of causality cannot be infinite and there must be an ultimate "cause" to have originated the chain in the first place. Let us then presume - a la Aqunias, Leibniz and any number of theologians - that this ultimate origin could best be described as "God". Are we any closer to answering the original question?

In the first place, by positing the existence of a god (even one for whom existence is a predicate) we are still no closer to answering why there should be "something" (i.e. a god) as opposed to "nothing" (i.e. no god) and the arguments of Aquinas, Leibniz and others surely offer no solution in this regard. If it is permissible to pull a semantic sleight of hand and suggest that "God" must exist as an uncaused cause (Aquinas) by virtue of its very necessity (Liebniz), could we not with similar effortlessness invoke Ockham's Razor and render any such "god" superfluous by suggesting that the universe itself must exist as an uncaused cause by virtue of its very necessity? Is it really more reasonable to terminate the contingent chain of existence at some god, rather than with existence (i.e. the universe: the sum-total of every "something") itself?

In the second place, even if it could be cogently argued that the uncaused cause cannot be "the universe itself" and must, rather, be some "god", is that any reason to infer that this god must possess anything like the attributes assigned to him by modern theology? That a "god" must exist as an uncaused cause - and the foundation of all existence - is not to say that this god must necessarily be rational, or purposeful, or loving, or even - by any meaningful definition of the term - conscious. Such a "god" could just as naturally be mechanical, incapable of purpose, amoral and completely unaware of its own existence: what clause within Aquinas' and Liebniz' reasoning logically precludes such a conclusion***?

You'll note, as this post becomes more and more difficult to follow, that ontological discussions such as this one speed very rapidly towards the point where our imaginations and capacity to express ourselves cogently are strained to breaking point. While this inevitably leads to frustration and the desire to invoke - quite literally - some deus ex machina into existence as a means of alleviating the existential angst that such a line of questioning will inevitably provoke, I would proffer a more honest summation: we just don't know. That is to say, I don't know "why" there is something rather than nothing, the cosmologists don't know "why" there is something rather than nothing and the theologians don't know "why" there is something rather than nothing. This uncertainty, however, is nothing to fear or to run from: I think it's simply one of those beautiful and inescapable realites of human existence.

So, in answer to the original question (I think this is about as equivocal an answer as I'm likely to give to any of these questions), the most generous conclusion is that no-one knows "why" there is something rather than nothing, the least generous conclusion is that one is just begging the question by posing such a question in the first place. I don't think it's an argument that makes the need for gods any more real, but I will agree that it's "fun" (or "complete torture" - the terms are largely interchangable when it comes to philosophy) to think about.


* Immanuel Kant's succinct response to the ontological argument will suffice for now: "Existence is not a predicate."

** One could then, I suppose, modify the ontological argument to say, "why are quantum fields in a constant state of flux rather than fixed unchangingly at zero?" but that still betrays the unfounded assumption that a mandated fixed state represents a far more likely reality than a mandated unfixed state. In any case, as Einstein sardonically noted, a god that finds itself the creator of such a reality could not be the prescient, teleological god of Christianity, as such a god is reduced to "playing dice" where no specific outcome - including the emergence of human beings in need of a saviour - could possibly be planned from the beginning.

*** Paul Davies (in "The Mind of God") argues that such a necessary being must be rational in constitution, but his reasoning for this conclusion was rather opaque and I've got no inclination to retrieve it from my bookshelf and recapitulate his argument here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Debt Fallacy

One fear that seems to be constantly iterated about Obama's stimulus package (or, for that matter, any equivalent package anywhere else in the world) is the fear that running large budget deficits will saddle the nation with levels of debt that will take generations to pay-off. These fears are sensible in their way, but they also fail to appreciate the function of stimulus spending and why deficit spending - under certain conditions - represents a perfectly acceptable economic strategy.

What triggered this post was a piece I just saw on BBC news, which suggested that Obama's stimulus package would cost around $9 trillion, or - as the reporter rather sensationally pointed out - around $30,000 for every man, woman and child in the US. A scary figure, to be sure, and for that reason I can understand the reaction of the man they then interviewed on the street: "What I want to know is where they're getting the money from... well, I mean apart from the taxpayers!". These two factors - the stupefying amount of money involved and the pernicious belief (happily peddled by Republicans) that public spending requires saddling individual tax-payers with commensurate levels of debt - have conspired to create an opposition to stimulus spending based more on a visceral fear of large numbers than on sound economic reasoning.

Let's use an analogy to make the issues a bit easier to grasp. Say the father - in a family of four - decides to take out a loan of $100,000, paying interest at a rate of 5% per annum, to invest in some company. According to the logic of the anti-stimulus fear-mongers, this man has just saddled every man woman and child in his household with $25,000 of debt, effectively appropriating earnings or future earnings from his wife and children ("the taxpayers" and the "future taxpayers") without their permission. This is the picture that the fear-mongers want to paint on a much broader economic scale, but the analogy raises 2 important points:

1) The father isn't taking money from the other members of his family, it's coming from an external bank.


2) The family may now be $100,000 in debt, but it is not $100,000 poorer - note the difference! In fact, at the moment the loan is taken out, the assets ($100,000 cash) equal the liabilities ($100,000 repayments owed), so in undertaking the debt the family is - to begin with, at least - absolutely no worse off financially than it was before undertaking the debt. If the man invests in a company and sees returns on that investment that exceed the interest payments, then in the long-run he will actually profit by going into debt!

Now the analogy isn't perfect (as I'll explain) but it does have some important corollaries for the economy at large:

1) Governments don't fund deficit spending by taking from taxpayers, they fund it by borrowing from banks (both domestic and foreign). Now the distinction between public government and private citizen in a democracy is admittedly somewhat blurred, but not so blurred as to render sensible the arguments raised by the fear-mongers about the government "thieving" from the taxpayers to fund deficit spending.


2) The government is not simply taking out debts and throwing away the money (in which case, every man, woman and child would be out of pocket by $30,000) it's taking the money and investing it in domestic production. If the return on this investment is consistently greater than the interest owed, then the short-term debts may pay for themselves in long-run economic growth. Just as the current generation of Americans can profit from the economic investments made during the New Deal without owing the government a cent, far from being saddled with debt, today's children may actually be in a position to profit tomorrow from the investments that the government makes today.

In other words, the two main fears about stimulus spending - that the money is coming from the tax-payers and that the levels of debt owed are fixed - are actually untrue. These fears fail to take into account that investments made with these deficits will be generating economic growth (no-one can seriously deny that) that will, over time, be used to pay the debt off. If the revenue generated by these investments exceeds the debt undertaken plus interest (admittedly this is a big "if" and something very hard to accurately measure: how much economic growth can be pinned on the stimulus, how much can be pinned on other factors?) then the deficit pays for itself in the long-run. Unless the stimulus package fails to stimulate any growth at all, then the idea that children are walking around today with a $30,000 debt that they'll have to pay-off when they start earning is just blatantly false.

The other factor that the fear-mongers fail to take into account concern the economic costs of doing nothing (or, at least, doing substantially less). An economic retraction which causes business closure, unemployment and depressed spending and investment will itself cost countless billions in growth forgone, only - in contrast to a debt that can be repaid over time - this is a loss than can never be recouped. Even if we presume that the stimulus package is somewhat unsuccessful, and is unable to generate returns on investment large enough to avoid saddling future generations with debt, it's far too simple to say that these future generations are therefore necessarily worse off. For instance, is it better for these children to mature into an economy that is able to provide opportunities at the cost of public debt, or is it better for them to mature into an economy gutted by a long, deep recession without the burden of public debt? Even in the more pessimistic scenarios, the moral dangers of running large deficits are not quite so clear cut.

Now this is an idealised portrait and I hope I haven't given the impression that it's all quite so easy. It's a complex issue and one that exists far beyond my purview as an economic undergrad. But it is precisely this complexity which requires us to identify the facile nature of anti-stimulus movement for what it is, namely a movement propagated more out of ignorance (largely excusable - as I said, superficially the numbers are scary) and personal ideology (less excusable) than out of concern for the tenets of economic policy.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

God, Actually: The Questions

At the end of a new book entitled "God, Actually: Why God Probably Exists and Why Jesus Was Probably Divine", Sydney lawyer Roy Williams poses the following to the book's readers:

Anyone who wishes to postulate atheism as a serious alternative explanation for the how and the why of Man’s existence faces a formidable challenge. It is just not sufficient for the atheist to declare that ‘we have only the scantiest reasons for thinking that there are [supernatural objects] – and powerful reasons for thinking that there are not’. The opposite may be closer to the truth. The evidence for the existence of something supernatural, i.e. God, is not scant but considerable – I would say imposing. True it is that the evidence is capable of being interpreted in different ways; the atheistic hypothesis is open. But all of the following questions, and others, need credible answers:

Before a list of 36 questions:

• Why is there something rather than nothing?
• How did that something come into being?
• Why are the fundamental physical laws that govern the Universe just right for life?
• How and why did life on Earth begin?
• Does Darwinian evolutionary theory fully explain the organised complexity of life on Earth?
• Why is the incidence of genetic mutation just right to enable the process of Darwinian evolution to work?
• Why are human beings able to decode Nature?
• Why do human beings have a conscience?
• Why are there basic moral laws which all human beings recognise?
• Why can human beings make and respond to music?
• Is faith a mere incidental by-product of Nature?
• Is love a mere incidental by-product of Nature?
• Will science ever be able explain everything?
• Was Jesus of Nazareth merely an invention of human minds?
• If Jesus lived, then who or what was he, if he was not divine?
• How otherwise do you explain the reports of Jesus’s perfect life?
• How otherwise do you explain the reports of Jesus’s miracles?
• How otherwise do you explain the reports of Jesus’s large following among the common people, and the conversion even of some Jews and Romans in positions of authority?
• How otherwise do you explain the reports of Jesus’s arrest, trial and crucifixion?
• How otherwise do you explain the reports of the Resurrection?
• If the Resurrection did not happen, how do you explain the Apostles’ conduct, St Paul’s conversion, and the establishment of the Christian church in the face of overwhelming odds?
• How do you explain the reports of personal religious experiences by many millions of people down the ages?
• How do you account for the nature and incidence of suffering, and its many beneficial by-products?
• How do you account for the phenomenon of grace?
• Why has Man not yet been destroyed by nuclear holocaust?
• Is there really a fundamental dichotomy between Christianity and left-wing politics, or does Christianity reflect some seminal left-wing principles?
• Why is it that Christianity as a whole does not conform to either left-wing or right-wing ideology?
• Is there further evidence of Design in the operation of the democratic system of government?
• How do you account for the fact that atheism is, and always has been, an unpopular minority creed?
• How do you account for the many commonalities between different religions, and in particular the commonalities between Judaism, Islam and Christianity? Is it more likely that all people of faith are completely wrong, or that they are all (to varying degrees) partly right?
• If you now better understand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, would you at least agree that it represents a comprehensive attempt to explain God, and many Earthly phenomena besides?
• Is there an afterlife, or is the rough ‘justice’ meted out by Nature and by Man all that we can ever hope for?
• Is there an afterlife, or does love die with our bodies? Will we never be reunited with our loved ones once we or they die?
• If there is no afterlife, why is Man capable of imagining it?
• If there is no afterlife, why did Jesus say that there was?
• How do you explain the consistency of the visions of the afterlife reported by people down the ages, including people revived after clinical death?

There is little new to be found in any of these questions that hasn't been asked before, but I do believe that they have been asked in good faith and warrant answers in the same spirit in which they were asked. I'm going to try to answer them one by one, not as a riposte to the author (who - like everyone else on this planet - will remain oblivious to this blog's existence) but rather as a means of explaining my world view with reference to questions that are fairly commonly asked about it. And because I'm bored.

(I should clarify that I haven't read any of the book beyond what the author has posted on his website, I'm simply using the questions - which author posted on the Dawkins forum with little more context than I've given here - as a vehicle to promulgate my own rather sexy ideologies.)

No Hope: Have the Morons Won?

With the increasing likelihood of the 'Public Option' being dropped from Obama's health care legislation, one cannot help but stand back and wonder what it is about the American political system that causes it to stand alone amongst western nations in rejecting government funded healthcare. A debate centered on preserving the health of the American people should not invite this degree of acrimony.

In principle, at least, there are legitimate objections to government-funded health care. Will government funding, for instance, increase the cost of health-care across the board? The experience of other western nations probably tells us no, but there is some economic basis for such claims*. Perhaps the US government simply cannot afford to fund health-care: perhaps attempts to do so would simply strain the budget deficit to breaking point, either wounding the entire economy to everyone's detriment or draining much needed funds from other important federal programs. Again, not an unrealistic concern, but I should sincerely hope that no-one proferring this argument was ever a supporter of the $3 trillion Iraq war, enough money to have funded Obama's initial UHC proposals for up to 60 years**.

As I said, though I may disagree with such reasoning, these arguments are at least intellectually tenable. When changes are proposed to the health-care system, I should expect nothing less in a functioning democracy than to see such issues raised as a matter of political process. However, these are also the kind of arguments that are not being raised within the context of the current debate. The debate long ago descended into a kind of hysteria - capably inflamed by the Republican Party - which has long since precluded the possibility of any sensible argumentation at all. The people most vitriolically opposing health-care reform in the US are also the people turning up town-hall meetings*** with assault rifles and posters comparing Obama to Hitler, which obviously presents an obstacle to those of us trying to discern any deeper intellectual thread linking their ramblings together into anything even vaguely resembling a sensible argument.

So far as I can tell, the principle objection seems to be "socialism". That term, you'll note, is not qualified in any way, but to these people it doesn't need to be: the word "socialism", really, marks both the beginning and end of their argument. We can't have UHC because that's socialism and socialism is bad. Bad? Bad as in worse than letting millions of uninsured Americans suffer in agony for want of the price of a doctor's consultation? Perhaps I'm giving them too much credit by even posing this question. For the woman who opposes health-care reform because she doesn't want the US "to become Russia" or the woman waving the placard emblazoned with the words "I AM NOT YOUR ATM!" (I like to imagine that this sign is directed at an impoverished child trying to scrape together the funds to get his brain tumour looked at) the capacity for such moral nuance, or to consider and compare such contrasting views in the first place, is either absent or otherwise completely surpressed. Obama = Socialism = Bad: any other considerations are mere clutter.

The question then remains, what to do with such people? Obama's plan to send congressmen to town-halls across the country to engage directly with their electorate was a noble one, but one too noble, as it turns out, for the crass, adversarial nature of US political debate. Really, that's the problem: there is no way to engage with people who really believe that Obama wants to euthanise old people and introduce forced abortion; people who long ago surrendered any concern for "logic" or "facts" in favour of admission to the long-existing "Cult of the Offended", a cult whose sole purpose is to relexively - and loudly - react to any perceived Democratic encroachment on any number of given conservative values with a vocal, unified and often violent response. The best analogy is dogs in a kennel: turn on a light, and they'll all start yapping in unison. That's the popular conservative movement in the US in a nut-shell.

If that's right, then trying to engage with these people by appealing to reason or to their better instincts is entirely futile. Nor should we presume that we should tip-toe quietly around instituting progressive legislation for fear of - as one of these town hall protestors put it - "waking a sleeping beast". Put simply, no matter what legislation is put before these people - and in whatever a manner it is put before them - the misdirected outrage will be there just same. As the slacktivist puts it:

These people are offended and outraged and so politicians and journalists respond by trying not to further offend or enrage them. As though that were possible. Indignation is their raison d'etre. They will take offense whether or not it is given. There is no point trying not to offend them. There is no point in trying not to make them angry.

An appropriate response isn't to be more offended or more offensive, but it should involve going on the offense. The IndigNationalists are behaving shamefully and it is appropriate and necessary to point that out to them. It's our duty to point that out to them.

The appropriate and necessary phrase when confronted by members of the IndigNation -- by the birthers, the deathers, the baggers, the immigrant-blamers and homophobes and cryptoracists and misogynists -- is simply to tell them the primary thing they need to hear: "You ought to be ashamed of yourself."

Precisely. Perhaps there will be some day when America can have a sensible, adult conversation about health-care reform, but so long as the Cult of the Offended exists and is given an undue degree of legitimacy by a media and a political system that is terrified of offending them further, that day is still a long way off.


*Although what the proponents of this argument will probably fail to mention is that the costs are due to rise, to put it in simple terms, because more people will be seeking access to health-care from the same number of doctors. In other words, the only reason that a laissez-faire health-care system can - in theory - keep prices low, is by ensuring that a given percentage of the population is actually denied access to any form of health-care.

**Given the Obama campaign's cost estimate of $50 billion per year.

***This was probably Obama's first mistake: presuming that there was any way of reaching out to, or finding common ground with, people that have literally been demented by misplaced fear.