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.