Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Science and Torah: Is a Society of Torah Scientists Possible?

This past Shabbat, I attended a Shabbaton hosted by the Chabad of Pasadena. It featured Dr. Mickael Chekroun, an atmospheric scientist at UCLA. He gave an address titled "From Particle Physics to Serving Hashem." (Why someone who is not a particle physicist would speak about particle physics is a mystery to me.) His main point was that it is possible to be a religious Jew and a scientist as you can count on science eventually catching up to the truths that Torah has already revealed.

Already, such an attitude makes it difficult for someone to be a scientist. Science is a method to be followed, admittedly one with a tenuous relationship to objective facts, and not a set of conclusions. A scientist is not a prophet and can have no inkling of where new evidence will lead. In practice, any evidence produced by someone that fits neatly into their pre-set beliefs must be discounted. It is the equivalent of a tainted crime-scene. (Science does have the advantage over criminal investigations in that it is possible to redo an experiment as opposed to a crime.) As to the question of being a religious scientist, yes it is possible, but also completely irrelevant. An individual scientist can hold Jewish beliefs, but he can also hold flat-earth beliefs without it interfering with his ability to perform productive research. Since science can be reconciled with any belief system that does not point-blank declare the scientific method to be invalid, the fact that it can be reconciled with Judaism says nothing positive about Judaism. The relevant question is whether Judaism can serve as a helpful backdrop to a society of scientists, who not only produce legitimate research but also pass on the scientific method to the next generation.

Can Judaism produce a scientific tradition? It has long been recognized within Orthodox circles that it is quite possible to be a committed Jew without being Orthodox or even in any way observant. The difficulty is getting multiple generations of committed non-observant Jews. So it is only fair to ask the same question regarding Orthodox scientists. Dr. Chekroun might, today, identify with Chabad, but he is not the product of Chabad. (Much like Kylo Ren did not rise out of the Dark Side.) By his own admission, he already was a working scientist when he came to be involved with Chabad. Will his children become Chabad scientists? Rabbi Chaim Hanoka, the head Chabad rabbi in Pasadena, is the son of the scientist Dr. Yaacov Hanoka ztl. Like Dr. Chekroun, Dr. Hanoka was not a product of Chabad, but part of the early generation of college students, who became religious through Chabad. The Hanokas are a respectable Chabad family. That being said, none of Dr. Hanoka's children ever became scientists.

The fact that a person's biological children do not become scientists, in of itself, is not a serious challenge. Personally, I feel little at stake over whether either of my children, Kalman or Mackie, will become practicing historians when they grow up even if I am determined to give them the values of a historian. That being said, this issue of children helps us comprehend the larger issues of society and continuity within science. Contrary to popular perception, science is a social process. Science is not about individuals performing experiments. Science happens when those experiments are repeated by other scientists including the scientist's worst enemies. A scientific community is possible because whatever petty personal rivalries might exist, everyone is committed to the scientific method. As with any community, the sense of shared values allows science to craft a covenantal tradition that binds the dead, the living and those who have not yet earned their Ph.Ds.

Can Lubavitch (or any Haredi movement) produce a self-sustained scientific society? In practice, there are very real difficulties for any product of the Chabad school system to ever become a scientist. As a matter of principle, Chabad is against college. It might be theoretically possible for Chabad to create its own scientific institution to train Lubavitch scientists. Perhaps, something along the lines of the Vatican's astronomy institute. In practice, this is unlikely as the scientific method is not something that you can dabble in. It requires a full commitment, the kind we usually associate with religion. A scientist with anything less is going to fall prey to having some kind of outside agenda. (This might explain why so many scientists are against religion. Science cannot afford to submit itself to any outside authority. This causes religion to be seen as a threat. Furthermore, the fact that science is such an all-encompassing commitment allows it to serve the kinds of emotional functions most people get from religion. Hence, for a scientist, science becomes a logical replacement for religion.)

This commitment that science demands for itself makes it different from other professions. It should surprise no one that, in the New York area, Orthodox Jews are a force to be reckoned with in Law and Medicine. This is unlikely to happen soon with any of the sciences as science is not simply a job that you put in long hours in the hope of being well paid and that demands no larger allegiance. (Note that the practice of medicine is not a science any more than being a mechanic makes you a scientist. In both cases, you are applying a set body of knowledge instead of attempting to acquire new knowledge.)

It is here worth distinguishing between applied science and theoretical science. Historically, the tendency has been for a theoretical science to proceed without any sense of how it might be useful, followed several decades or even centuries later by the applied science. The crucial science is the theoretical one. It is also the part of science that would be the most difficult for the Orthodox world to produce on its own. Unlike Law and Medicine, theoretical science offers little in the way of financial reward. Rather than helping fund those engaged in full-time Torah study, a society of Orthodox theoretical scientists would compete for funds. Even more damaging, such a society would demand that the wider community believes that funding science is equal to funding Torah in the sense that both should be pursued for their own sake.

Does any of this make a difference? The Haredi world can do quite well for itself simply recruiting professional scientists for itself from the secular world. But what would happen, granted that this is an extreme scenario, if the Haredi world ever "won?" Say, maybe just in Israel, if everyone decided to become Haredi and we had to face the Yeshayahu Leibowitz challenge. Now Israeli science is going to be handed over to Haredim and, come the next generation, there will be no more secular kids, who became religious as adults to become scientists. What would happen to Israeli science? Historically, one thinks of the philosophical traditions produced by pagan Hellenists, suddenly in the fourth-century, falling into the hands of Christians and later to Muslims. Now we have no more pagans and we must expect Christians and Muslims to step in and do philosophy. There is some debate on the matter, but overall the fall of paganism was not good for philosophy.

Not that I expect Haredim to ever become close to triumphing, but this issue does indirectly have practical implications. As long as Haredim cannot answer questions like what will happen to science if they took over (or the police and the army for that matter), Haredim will always be a marginal group. Even a large birth-rate will not help them as, in the long run, they will not be able to hold on to their children. Such practical questions, with their implied reliance on secular society, will do far more to destroy people's faith than any science lecture. 

I do not doubt that Haredi communities such as Lubavitch will be able to continue to attract scientists. I am also willing to charitably assume that Haredim are tolerant enough to put up with eccentrics in their midsts with an interest in science. Such behavior can easily be justified by assuming that these exceptional individuals have special souls, which require this particular spiritual diet. That being said, I doubt that the Haredi world will ever be able to produce a scientific society of its own that is not dependent upon the secular society it opposes. Yes, one can be Haredi and a practicing scientist. What the Haredi world will never be able to accept is a self-conscious organized society of people with the values of science and with the determination to pass those values on to their children (biological or otherwise).

Thursday, January 11, 2018

If Taxes are Not Extortion, You Cannot Pay Them

A major foundation of my personal libertarianism is that I see it as a self-evident truth that government is, by definition, an act of violence and even murder. While this does not discredit all government action, it does mean that it is immoral for the government to do anything that I would not personally be willing to kill someone in order to accomplish, a pretty narrow list. It occurred to me that there are some very interesting implications as to the morality of paying taxes if you reject this premise.

I assume all my readers can agree that it would be immoral to sell me a gun knowing that I planned on killing my wife with it. It would not matter if I were otherwise a very decent fellow and used the gun to guard a battered women's shelter. (As it has been demonstrated with the recent revelations of sexual abuse in Hollywood, there is no contradiction between supporting women's rights in general while violating the particular women in your life.) If you were to give me the gun, you would be guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Now imagine that I was connected to the government and threatened you that if you refused to pass guns to mafia hitmen with which they could take out their opponents you would be put in jail. I assume that you would be morally obligated to go to jail rather than participate in a murder.

Now I do not question that the United States government has done a lot of legitimate good around the world. That being said, there have certainly been cases in which the government, particularly the CIA, has literally helped arm gangsters in order to commit murder. This means that, as taxpayers, there can be no illusions; by agreeing to pay taxes, we are literally complicit in murder.

While I believe that it is immoral to pay taxes to the American government in much the same way that one is not allowed to be a gun runner for the mob, I still pay taxes. There is a simple reason for this. I fully believe that there is a gun to my head and that I would be killed for refusing to pay. Keep in mind that I would not be refusing out of venal greed, but because I reject, on principle, the moral authority of the government to do certain things. This is treason and the penalty for treason is death. Furthermore, consider that the people involved in those actions I most object to are likely acting out of idealism. Like the Operator villain, in Serenity, they kill because they believe they are making a better world. If these men are already committing murder to further their aims, surely they would be willing to kill ideological tax evaders bent on stopping their better world from ever happening.

If you believe that taxes are not extorted at gunpoint, but are willingly given then you have no such excuse. Either you endorse every action of the government and as not wrongfully murdering anyone or you believe that the government is guilty of murder. If you believe that the government is guilty of murder, why do you pay taxes? Just as none of you would ever willingly buy guns for the mob even if it paid well, you should not feel any need to buy guns for the government. Keep in mind that our government spends far more on the military than on social services. So, when you pay taxes, you are supporting the military industrial complex with some welfare programs thrown in on the side as cover.

This argument is of little use against conservatives, who are likely to take a strong moral stance in favor of the American government. What intrigues me here is the reasoning of liberals, most of whom seem to view the American government even less charitably than I do. At least I acknowledge that radical political Islam is a threat and that it theoretically might be justifiable for the government to take action against it. I am even open to fire-bombing cities. The more you believe that the American government is a blood-soaked racist entity the more you need to feel directly threatened in order to justify paying taxes. From this perspective, it is not just libertarians who need to assume that taxation is theft at gunpoint, but liberals perhaps even more so.     

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Narnia, Game of Thrones, and the Stormlight Chronicles: the Reenchantmant of Fantasy (Part II)

(Part I)

Connected to Game of Thrones' pessimistic anti-heroism is a sense of realism. Beyond a few dragons, there is remarkably little magic. In fact, the series often seems to function more as historical fiction, only being held back by the technicality that the story is not actually taking place within the War of the Roses or the French Wars of Religion but on another planet. Just as the series abandons the physical magic of fantasy in favor of a disenchanted realism, it abandons fantasy's psychology of heroism in favor of a more "realistic" disenchanted anti-heroism.

Brandon Sanderson Stormlight Chronicles has much in common with Game of Thrones. While there is a lot more magic, Sanderson represents a key turn within modern fantasy toward science-fiction. Mid-twentieth century science-fiction, as exemplified by writers such as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke, turned away from black box technology that differed little from magic in favor of engineering stories that placed how a technology might plausibly work at center stage. Similarly, even as Sanderson starts from a different set of natural laws, his characters approach their magic in a scientific spirit. It is useful to think of Stormlight as the kind of science-fiction novel that someone living in a platonist universe might have written. The naturalism in Stormlight goes so far as to include heroes like Jasnah Kholin, who is an atheist, and her uncle Dalinar, who loses his faith in the Almighty as the series goes along. These plot lines are particularly intriguing as Sanderson is a religious Mormon.

The really crucial connection between the two series is this crisis of heroism. In Stormlight, this occurs very literally at the cosmological level with the death of a divine being called Honor. Nine of the ten Harelds refuse to continue to damn themselves to Desolation every few thousand years in a never-ending cycle to save the world from the Voidbringers. In essence, Jesus has refused to get back on the Cross. At a human level, the story focuses on the implications of this death, much in the same way that Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God presaged the start of World War I. In fact, the war between the Alethi and the Parshendi, the central event of the story, is essentially a fantasy world version of World War I. You have the assassination of a royal figure, King Gavilar of Alethkar (an event that is retold in every book from the perspective of a different character). This leads to a war that quickly turns into a stalemate on the Shattered Plains.

The irony of the Alethi light-eyed aristocracy is that they had just enough sense of honor to declare war to avenge the death of their king but not enough to stop the war once it became a stalemate and spare the lives of the common soldiers (particularly the bridge crews, callously sacrificed as cannon fodder). The dark truth is that the light-eyes have the pretense of an honor code without its substance. The pretense, as manifested in the keen attention to ritual, is necessary considering that their lives of privilege could only be justified by laying claim to serving a higher code. Beyond the rare sets of shardplate and shardblades, what protects the light-eyes is that the masses of dark-eyes honestly believe that the light-eyes are honorable and deserve to rule. The moment they stop believing this, you will have a revolution on your hands (which is one of the main subplots of the second book, Words of Radiance). The pretense of honor allowed the light-eyes to declare war to avenge their king while serving their real goal of collecting gemhearts out on the Shattered Plains battlefield and plotting against each other to improve their individual family positions. The real reason why this war is not ending is that the light-eyes want there to be a war as an end in of itself.

Worse than honor just being dead, its very death has allowed it to be corrupted. The light-eyes, in a  sense, have the corpse of honor, its ritual forms. Because of the almost total absence of actual belief, they are able to parade themselves draped in that corpse. (Considering what shardplates and shardblades are eventually revealed to be, this is not exactly a metaphor.) Honor becomes what elevates them above the rest of society. This means that, by definition, everything they do becomes honorable. Furthermore, acts that conventional thinking might consider dishonorable are now not only not dishonorable but the very height of honor. For only a "truly honorable" person could ever do them. In dealing with light-eyed villains like Amaram and Sadeas, much of their charm and effectiveness comes from their ability to be openly cynical about honor and still to be thought of as honorable. As with Ayn Rand villains, their nihilism is not taken seriously. This makes it a surprise when they can commit such cold-blooded actions without any sense of guilt or remorse.   

This crisis of honor is played out from the perspectives of the dark-eyed commoner Kaladin and the light-eyed Dalinar. Kaladin comes into the story as an idealist, who believes in the honor of his light-eyed commander, Amaram. This faith is cruelly shattered when Amaram repays Kaladin's heroic slaying of a shardbearer by taking the spoils for himself and having Kaladin's men executed to leave no witnesses. As for Kaladin, Amaram's "mercifully" has him branded and sold as a slave. This eventually leads Kaladin to serve on Bridge Crew Four.

If Kaladin is disenchantment from the bottom up, Dalinar is disenchantment from the top down. He is part of the aristocracy, the brother of the assassinated king and one of the main Alethi commanders. More than anyone else, he honestly tries to live up to the code of chivalry as taught in the Way of Kings. Because he is a true believer, he is unable initially to see the treachery around him as manifested mainly by his friend, Sadeas. From Sadeas' perspective, betraying Dalinar to his death is the decent thing to do for a friend, who has lost his touch and a truly noble defense of the aristocratic right to feud without the forced unity of a strong king. One of my favorite moments of the entire series comes in book two when a stylized duel is allowed to turn into a trap for Dalinar's son, Adolin. Dalinar is left pleading for mercy and with the realization that none of his fellow light-eyes, including his nephew, King Elhokar, possess anything but the hollow outward trappings of honor.

To deepen the disenchantment, it is not just that Kaladin and Dalinar are good people in a bad world; they themselves are highly flawed individuals. Not only have they made mistakes, their mistakes are of such a nature that there is no coming back from them. Repentance is, by definition, impossible as any attempt to do so demonstrates that one never truly appreciated the gravity of the sin in the first place. Beyond Kaladin's anger at Amaram's betrayal, he is weighed down by the guilt of failing to protect his men. He joined the army because he wished to protect those who could not protect themselves, particularly his drafted younger brother Tien. The reality is that, despite his best intentions, he has only gotten people killed. First, he failed in the particular task of protecting Tien and then he failed even at the symbolic level of protecting the men under his command. The need to redeem himself by fixing the world leads Kaladin to agree to allow Elhokar to be assassinated despite having sworn to protect him. There are good reasons for killing Elhokar and it is not unreasonable to imagine that Alethkar would be a better place if Dalinar took over. There is just that small issue of cold-blooded murder and treachery. 

As for Dalinar, much of the new Oathbringer novel is devoted to revealing that, for most of his life, he was not really any better than Sadeas and Amaram. Dalinar's slaughtering whole towns in "service of the Crown and the Almighty" led to the death of his wife. His subsequent turn to drink to drown his guilt led to his being drunk during the assassination of his brother. In fact, it was Sadeas, who put himself in harm's way trying to protect Gavilar. Dalinar finally managed to strike a magical bargain to escape his guilt that removed all memory of his wife from his mind.

It is Kaladin's and Dalinar's task to save the world by restarting the ancient order of Knights Radiants, who once served the Harelds. In essence, they have to reenchant the world by restoring heroism to it. In this disenchanted world, in which even the heroes are irreparably tainted, reenchantment is achieved by acknowledging both one's sins and inability to atone for them. Next, one tries to do better even while knowing that this may fail. The most important step in a journey is simply the next one. In a story about saving the world, it is amazing to the extent that the major acts of salvation come about by people not trying to save the world but by humbly doing the right thing in front of them.

Kaladin comes to accept protecting a flawed king after Elhokar acknowledges his failures as a king and asks Kaladin to teach him to be better. Elhokar's limited repentance with its honesty in looking at both the past and the future allows Kaladin to step back from "heroically" trying to fix the world in one grand gesture to redeem his past failure to fix the world and instead simply do the honorable thing. It should be noted that Elhokar's moment does not mean he transforms himself into either a good king or a good person nor does it mean that things turn out well for him. 

Similarly, Dalinar's "heroic" attempt to live according to the Way of Kings, while well-intentioned, simply continued the light-eyed practice of donning the forms of honor. He is still trying to atone for his sins, which, as this is an impossible task, leads to him simply continuing to run from the past and ignore it. The big change is when he struggles to negotiate a complex series of alliances as the head of the new Knights Radiant. He is burdened by the fact that he has no experience in trying to convince people to cooperate as opposed to using brute force. With time ticking down to an apocalypse, Dalinar begins his redemption by not trying to seize power even as that accusation is used as an excuse by others to not confront the looming threat in front of them. This sets ups the climax when Dalinar attempts to resist possession by the satanic figure Odium. The trap is that Odium can offer Dalinar the one thing he has been seeking all this time, salvation from guilt. If only Dalinar would consent to possession, he would no longer be responsible for his actions. One might even put this into the past and say that Dalinar had always, in some sense, been under the control of some evil force, which is really what was responsible for what he did. Dalinar saves himself precisely by embracing his guilt and asking to remember. Rather than being a hero, he takes responsibility for his own past and allows the heroic image of himself to be destroyed.

It is interesting to contrast Sanderson and Martin in terms of their production. Sanderson's gigantic body of work has essentially been produced over the same time as Martin has given us only Dance of Dragons. A possible reason for why Martin has not been able to finish his series is that a disenchanted world, by its very nature, does not allow for a satisfactory ending. Martin has to choose between not solving anything, which would be true to his world even as it would be narratively unsatisfactory, or solving things (Daenerys and Jon Snow getting together and ruling happily ever after), which would be dishonest and probably unsatisfactory as well. I suspect we are heading to something like Lost in which, at best, we can hope for an ending that is emotionally satisfying in terms of the characters even as the real issues are ignored. As for Sanderson and Stormlight, there is still a long road ahead and I am sure it will happen at some point that he will write himself into a narrative box. That being said, I am confident that he will see this through and much as a saved Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time and brought it to a satisfactory ending, Stormlight will end in a way that justifies having read it from the beginning.   


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Narnia, Game of Thrones, and the Stormlight Chronicles: the Reenchantmant of Fantasy (Part I)

(Happy birthday to Lionel Spiegel.)

I drive my son Kalman to and from pre-school most weekdays. In the car, he usually asks to listen to Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. You can clock an average trip as the amount of time it takes to get from the beginning of the book until Mr. Tumnus confesses that he is in the pay of the White Witch as her kidnapper. Kalman knows that the White Witch is bad because she is the government and she makes it always winter. I guess I can live with him not picking up on the "and never Christmas" part.

Lewis opened with one of the finest dedications ever. Writing to Lucy Barfield, the daughter of fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield, Lewis apologized to the teenage girl that she grew up faster than he could write but he hopes that one day she will be old enough to read fairy tales once again. This a good example of one of the key concepts in Lewis' writing, reenchantment; that one can once again fall in love with the things of childhood that one's more cynical self had abandoned as part of "growing up."

Reenchantment should be understood as a response to Max Weber's notion of disenchantment and Friederich Nietzsche's more poetic "God is dead." Disenchantment is the notion that under modernity our very way of thinking is materialistic and does not allow us to truly operate within a supernaturalist framework. For example, early in the Wardrobe, the other children are simply unable to believe that Lucy has traveled to Narnia; to them, it is simply not possible that she could be anything else but either a liar or insane. They are prejudiced against belief even though logically there is nothing to suggest that portals to other universes do not exist.

It is important to understand that contrary to conventional secularist theories of modernity, Weber was not claiming that modernity had intellectually refuted religion and people, particularly the educated, will no longer believe. On the contrary, such a prospect will cause many people to cling more tightly than ever to the outward forms of religion. Thus, it may even appear that religion is doing better than ever under modernity with more people attending church and insisting on hardline fundamentalist interpretations of the faith. That being said, such religiosity only serves to cover for the fact that religion has been fossilized into something that people practice out of tradition but lacks the ability to truly inspire its adherents. In this sense, disenchantment stands as a far graver threat to religion than simple secularism. If people were convinced by argument to abandon religion then it might be possible to engage in apologetics and win them back. On the other hand, if people stopped believing not because of any argument without even realizing that they no longer believed then it is practically impossible to ever bring them back.

In addition to religious disenchantment, Lewis, in his own personal experience, confronted a more tangible disenchantment, World War I. Lewis was part of a generation of young Englishmen, who listened to their teachers and did the "right and honorable thing;" they marched off to the French trenches to be slaughtered in the mud, sacrificed to pay for the political and military miscalculations of their elders.

World War I was the death of heroism. In an earlier generation, a man could be said to be brave to stand tall in the face of enemy fire and resolutely march forward. One might die in the attempt but one could believe that he was sacrificing himself to spur his comrades on to victory. During World War I, that became suicide. Thus, the very ethos of heroism led men to their deaths in utter futility. It should be emphasized that dying was never the issue. Young men have always been marched off to war by their elders and died in great numbers. What was new here was this sense of futility that robbed one even of the ability to honor the dead for their sacrifice. By contrast, World War II could once again offer a cause to die for even as it brought the new disenchantment of the massive aerial bombardment of urban centers. As with disenchantment with religion, what was at stake was less an intellectual attack on heroism but the inability, at a gut level, to take heroism seriously in the first place. Someone who seems heroic must either be a scoundrel trying to deceive others or a fool to have bought into such nonsense. 

As with fellow veteran J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis' use of fantasy can be seen as an attempt to become reenchanted with heroism. For example, in Narnia, the children are able to abandon the air raids of World War II for a land in which chivalry is still possible. This reenchantment must be understood as something distinct from enchantment. The horrors of the World Wars were real and there can be no going back. That being said, the fantasies of Lewis and Tolkien were attempts to acknowledge the incomprehensible horror of what they experienced yet still allow for heroism. If the blood and the mud were real, the courage shown by the men was equally real.

This project of using fantasy to resurrect heroism must be understood within a larger effort to bring about the reenchantment with religion. Was it not that earlier generation of disenchanted believers with their mixture of Christian ritual now supplemented with a sense of duty to king and country and a confidence in progress all while being hopelessly naive regarding the implications of industrialized warfare that had sent all those young men to die? Perhaps, it was not heroism that was obsolete, but the ideologies of modernity? (See Joseph Loconte's Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War.)

If one could recover heroism, perhaps it could lead back to faith and to a religion that might once again be relevant to a modern world. As Screwtape, the Satan of Lewis' disenchanted world, notes, the very fact that non-believers (much like the teenage Lewis, who was then an atheist) march off to war, to give themselves to a cause larger than themselves places them at risk of becoming open to the "enemy." Part of what is going on here is the ability to believe in things that are beyond the physical senses. Disenchantment works precisely by taking the physical as the gold standard of what is real. Thus, before the debate even begins, the spiritual has already lost to be relegated to being less real. The moment we introduce something that is non-physical yet more real than the world of the senses, the spell of disenchantment is broken and the process of reenchantment can begin. 

Regardless of this wider religious context, a major aspect of Lewis and Tolkien's legacy to fantasy as a genre has been a kind of optimistic faith in heroism in the face of modern cynicism. (In Lord of the Rings, this optimism is only sharpened by the fact that the book is fundamentally a tragedy.) Thus, it could only be expected that if Lewis and Tolkien represented a kind of enchantment with heroic fantasy, it would produce a backlash of disenchanted fantasy. The most important example of this has been George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series. This series is a repeated exercise in both the physical and ideological murder of heroism. Those like Ned Stark and his son Robb, who risk themselves doing the right thing, do not come out ahead. It is not even that they die achieving some noble goal. On the contrary, they come to ignominious ends marked by utter futility. On the other side, you have the anti-heroism of Jaime Lannister. Jaime commits regicide and incest even as the former probably saved lives and he is faithful to his sister as his one true love. To Martin's credit, Jaime fails to be a simple caricature of chivalry. Rather, (much like the more comic Harry Flashman), readers can still love Jaime for his simple honesty in knowing himself to be a scoundrel. In a world without moral absolutes, hypocrisy is the only sin and honesty in one's sinfulness the only virtue.               

Friday, November 17, 2017

War Criminals, Lone Wolves, and Terrorists: Definitions and Implications

With the recent rash of shootings has come a renewed debate over the distinction between a terrorist and a lone wolf. (Clearly, both whites and non-whites can be terrorists.) With Islamic terrorism and the Israeli-Arab conflict always in the news, there is the debate as to what is terrorism and what is a war crime. These issues tend to bog down into polemics so there is a benefit to offering specific definitions for the sake of clarity. Imagine three criminals standing before you, an SS officer, an angry white man and a member of ISIS. All three of them have murdered a classroom full of children so there is no doubt that they are all very bad people, who deserve punishment. The question becomes how they may be treated. The SS officer and the white man, as a war criminal and a lone wolf, have rights while the ISIS terrorist does not.

The SS officer is in uniform and a member of the German armed forces. As such, though he is a war criminal, he is protected by the social contract your country has with Germany. We must accept that he has rights and cannot simply be tortured to death. There is a benefit to declaring him a war criminal in that the German government, by putting him in uniform, has placed its entire leadership and population as guarantors of his good conduct. Ultimately, they are the ones truly responsible for his conduct; the fact that he is the immediate cause of the crime is incidental. Think of the uniform as a loan contract in much the same way as a paper currency that can be called in. The government can disavow the soldier; at which point the uniform becomes null and void. This would render our war criminal an out of uniform combatant and thus a spy/saboteur. As such he has no rights and can be tortured or killed at will without trial. Alternatively, his government can choose to acknowledge the soldier, but this would force them to make some kind of restitution to the satisfaction of the victim's government (or social contract insurance agency). Failure to do so would allow the government to take to seek satisfaction in blood. This would allow for the bombardment of German civilian populations and, afterward, the execution of German political leaders.

The lone wolf shooter is not protected by any uniform but, even though he is a criminal, he is still a citizen with rights. His crime does not imply a larger rejection of the social contract so the social contract continues to protect him. As such, he must be given a trial. To be clear, what makes him a lone wolf and not a terrorist is the fact that he lacks any larger material and ideological support structure. This, admittedly, can make it difficult to tell the difference between a lone wolf and a terrorist. It is quite possible that the entire distinction may rest on the discovery of a pamphlet in the person's possession or a history of visiting a terrorist website.

This brings us to the terrorist. The most important thing about a terrorist is that he is an out of uniform combatant just like a spy/saboteur. This means that not only is it permissible to not grant him any rights, it may be necessary. Consider that the distinction between soldiers and civilians is crucial to the maintenance of civilized order even and especially in a time of war. This distinction requires that soldiers be easily identifiable with uniforms. Unless the penalties for violating that distinction are severe no country would ever bother to hold them.

Not only is the terrorist, by definition, guilty of endangering civilization by undermining the social contract, the so-called human rights activist who attempts to grant the terrorist rights is also guilty as he has rendered the line between soldier and civilian meaningless. Thus, we must recognize an antinomian "true" human rights, which involves torturing the terrorist. The very act of torturing the terrorist, regardless of the information he might provide, is protecting civilians from harm. The belief in the principle that terrorists do not have rights is precisely what is giving civilians rights. The person who objects to this is himself the real violator of human rights and it is as if he personally tortured innocent people. (To be clear, what is necessary is the belief in the moral rightness of torturing terrorists, which likely requires the occasional literal fulfillment. This acceptance allows for demonstrations of mercy in individual cases. Just because the Law is righteous does not mean it is always right to fulfill the Law.)

As you recall, the distinction between a terrorist and a lone wolf killer is the existence of a material and ideological support system. What differentiates the terrorist from a war criminal is that the terrorist's support structure is not one with which we have any kind of implied social contract relationship. We need to respect the rights of the war criminal in order to demonstrate that we were true to the social contract and justify placing his country's leadership and people outside of it. By contrast, we never had any kind of social contract with the terrorist organization. Furthermore, terrorist organizations, while they may possess a leadership and funders, lack a clearly identified civilian population to pay the price for their crimes. For example, while it was morally permissible to bomb German cities for Nazi war crimes, bombing Afghani cities in retaliation for Al-Qaeda terrorist crimes would have been far more problematic. Since there are no civilians to pay for terrorist crimes, we are justified in pursuing the leadership in a more aggressive fashion. Since terrorist leaders may prove more elusive than war criminal political leaders, this leaves the captured terrorist to pay the full weight of the crime. This is despite the fact that ultimately his role was only incidental as compared to the terrorist leaders who planned the action and provided the physical and ideological support to make it possible.

A large part of the debate over who counts as a terrorist revolves around the implied assumption of a support structure. For example, if you already accept the existence of an entity called "radical Islam" or that Islam is an inherently violent religion than you will be inclined to see any violent Muslim as a terrorist. On the other hand, if you believe that complaints about Islamic extremism are simply cover for "Islamophobia" than you will dismiss any charge of terrorism. Similarly, in regards to white supremacists, if you believe that there really is something racist underlying white American culture than you are going to be more likely to see someone like Dylann Roof, who massacred a black church bible study group in Charleston, as a terrorist instead of simply as a misguided and disturbed young man.

Keep in mind that the distinction between lone wolf and terrorist lies completely within the realm of intention; was the crime committed as part of a larger conspiracy by a non-social contract organization to pursue their political goals. It is not just the individual terrorist that we need to make assumptions about but a wider network of people to the point of even calling them a group. Therefore, as none of us can read minds, we can never prove whether someone is one or the other; it is simply a judgment call. This has become even more so in recent years as the line between the terrorist support structure and its perpetrators have become more tenuous. For example, the 9/11 hijackers received direct material support from Al-Qaeda so it is very difficult to pretend that they were just some guys who decided on their own to crash planes into buildings. Contrast this with ISIS terrorists where ISIS merely has to operate a website and angry Muslims draw inspiration to engage in ramming and knifing attacks. It is hard to say that someone who happens to read an ISIS website before committing murder is an ISIS terrorist.

The consequences of who gets the terrorist label are literally a matter of life and death and demand caution. If Islamic terrorism exists. than someone operating a pro-ISIS website calling for jihad is a terrorist and can be shot on sight without the benefit of a trial. (As per the Julius Streicher principle, such speech is not really speech but a conspiracy to commit murder.) If we are wrong, then we have a martyr for free-speech on our hand. Before you give the go-ahead to killing radical Islamic bloggers consider that by the same logic we should probably recognize that white supremacists exist as a movement and not just disturbed individuals, then the government should have responded to the Charleston shooting by going door to door and executing white supremacist bloggers and radio show hosts, particularly those that directly influenced Roof.

While we can never prove anything in any particular case, we can demand intellectual consistency. If you are quick to condemn Islamic terrorism, but bend over backward to deny that there can be white supremacist terrorists there is a problem. Similarly, if you refrain from using the terrorist label unless they are white men, you are not being honest.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Sunshine: A Miami Boys Choir Vampire Musical (Part III)

(Part II)

The vampires attack Uman on Rosh Hashanah knowing that they would find many Jews with a demonstrated predilection for the dark side of idolatry and antinomianism. Rebbe Frost quickly converts the class to vampire Judaism. The only survivor is Chananya Yom Tov Lipa Katznellenbogenstein. (I know that he is a Shmuel Kunda creation, but bear with me.) Because of the events of the Magic Yarmulka, Chananya has become an excellent punchball player and a committed rationalist. He no longer believes in magic (yarmulka or otherwise) and strives to improve himself by working hard enough to match his God-given intelligence. He had refused to go on the class trip to Uman, saving his soul twice over. 

Chananya is left in a deep spiritual crisis. How could it be that his rebbe and the entire class would so easily abandon halakhic Judaism? Does not the existence of vampires prove that magic exists and refute science? Chananya decides to follow in the rationalist footsteps of the spy Caleb, who resisted the call of the antinomian spies by visiting the Cave of Machpelah to pray. He refuses to go to Rachel's Tomb because he found the Abie Rotenberg song to be idolatrous. God forbid that a monotheist Jew like Chananya would even think of praying to the patriarchs. On the contrary, Chananya only wishes to better contemplate their pious example so that his faith in reason (and the source of all reason) can be rectified.

It is therefore to Chananya's great surprise that he meets the patriarch Jacob, who had been living his undead existence in the cave for more than three-thousand years. Chananya expresses his ambiguous feelings in joining Team Jacob with "I Want to Know."

I want to know if I should care

I want to know if there is cause to fear 

Chananya wants to know if there is any point in continuing to struggle against vampire antinomianism. He also wants to know if he should be afraid that a vampire like Jacob might bite him. 

I've searched for days

And thought for nights

Chananya has searched for spiritual daylight to help bolster his intellectual rejection of vampire antinomianism that he has thought through.

Could my whole life been a meaningless plot

Could it be true, I am only half a man

Using post-modern meta-narrative, Chananya questions whether this whole musical is ridiculous and whether he is simply a screeching Jewish kid.

Then I met him, he brought me the signs

How blind I have been not to see the light
Show me the way, the only way
I've waited long for this day

Chananya met Jacob, who offers to instruct him in the Guide for the Perplexed and its esoteric vampire fighting secrets. (As a patriarch, Jacob has the chronological defying power of knowing literally all of Torah.) Chananya laments that he was never taught actual rationalist monotheist Judaism in yeshiva. He begs Jacob to instruct him in this one true religious way that allows for so many different ways.

And now I now that I should care

And now I now that there is cause to fear
But I would like to know what can I do

Now Chananya knows that there is objective truth known to reason that he should care about. He also knows that there really is a God worth fearing. This leaves Chananya, though, with a dilemma. What can he do against the vampires? He does not know the location of their secret headquarters nor does he know how to defeat such powerful enemies. 

The first problem is solved when Chananya realizes that it is pashut p'shat in Dracula that the town of Klausenberg, a city with a strong historic Jewish presence, is close to Castle Dracula. This must be the place where antinomian Jews and vampires first made their unholy alliance to take over the world. Though Chananya is eager to slay his rebbe and all his former classmates, Jacob cautions him to take heart as to the true way to defeat vampires. Together they sing "Sunshine." The song mixes their two distinct pains of loneliness, Chananya's recent and raw loss of his rebbe and classmates with Jacob's long-enduring agony of thousands of years of being a vegetarian vampire cut off from both the Jewish community and philosopher's heaven.   

Though the world's astray

And has slowly lost its way
With the goal of virtue fading

The world has been led to follow vampirism, abandoning any sense of Aristotelian virtue ethics, with its sense of objective good and bad action, in favor of brute power.

There's a steady light

That has kept away the night
With the brightness it's creating

Can we bring the world it's only sunshine

Only Torah yields the hope for mankind
Let the beauty of our song
Find the good in everyone
Through the darkness shines our faith in our times

At a practical level, it is only the rationalism of the Mishnah Torah that can defeat the vampires.  Being a Maimonidean frees you of superstition and allows you to recognize that there is nothing supernatural about vampires. They are nothing but a virus that can be eradicated. Even at night, they can be defeated with UV lights. The supposed superhuman strength of vampires is no match for a philosopher on the Maimonidean diet. At a spiritual level, Maimonideanism is a necessary antidote to vampirism. As long as people think of religion in terms of power and becoming immortal, they will inevitably be seduced by the allure of vampires and their offer of power and immortality.

Though we number just a few

We radiate the truth
Through the darkness shines our faith for all time

Maimonideans have always been a very small minority even within the Jewish community. It is really hard for them to even put a minyan together. But the moral power of their positions is so great that it radiates outward keeping idolatry in check. Even pagan Jews have to pretend to believe in God. 

Chananya journeys to Klausenberg and enters the secret underground vampire crypt. He quickly finds himself surrounded by Rebbe Frost and his former classmates. Rebbe Frost mocks philosophy as the destroyer of faith and asks Chananya what he believes in now his position is so clearly hopeless. Chananya confounds the vampires with the Averroesistic hymn, "B'siyata D'shmaya." These lyrics appear to endorse superstition while really being an ode to science.  

Have you ever felt there is nowhere to turn

Things seem feel confused 
No one's concerned
The times we live in are o so dark

The faith alights a spark
There is a vision, eases pain
Hope arises again, hope arises again

Everyone feels confused on occasion by the mysteries of the universe. A philosophical diety seems to lack the personal touch of mysticism with its idols and antinomianism. One might even turn to the darkness of vampires at a time like this when they appear to dominate. Faith in reason is a spark that protects you from the pain of a vampire bite. The philosopher with his hope that his consciousness will become part of the eternal mind will arise even after death, unlike the vampire who will not arise once properly staked but will turn to dust. 

B'siyata D'shmaya, whatever I do 

When I need him to help me, he always comes through
Never will I feel alone
Without him who can stand on their own

The Truths of physics, as embodied by the movements of the heavens, will never let a rationalist down. Chananya, even by himself, is never truly alone and has no need for the vampires' achdus hivemind. 

Prayer after prayer, tear after tear

Begging for help, for heaven to hear
When Hashem at his side
Every door is open wide
Our only hope is to look to the sky
Where he waits for our cries

What else produces tears like praying over some especially dense philosophical prose? One needs to open one's mind to hear the rational music of the heavens. When you place yourself on the side of universal, you can understand anything. There is no hope in looking to mysticism for understanding, but only in looking at the manifest laws of the universe seen in the heavens, which wait for us to cry out eureka.     

What follows is the bloodiest, most elaborate and coolest fight scene in the history of Jewish musicals. 

Next, comes a punchball duel with Simcha Stark, which explains why it was only rational for Chananya to want sunglasses in an underground crypt. Rebbe Frost is shocked that the best boy in the park could lose at punchball. He pretends to do teshuva, singing the song from the Marvelous Middos Machine. Chananya responds that he always thought Abie Rotenberg was an idolater and performs the quadruple Death by Bais Din combo needed to kill senior vampires. 

The musical ends with "Kumt Shoin." These are the last lines of the Mishnah Torah, indicating the importance of Maimonides. They also are a rejection of the kind of apocalyptic political messianism that can only lead to antinomianism and ultimately vampirism. The rabbis as opposed to the "true tzadikim," never desired the Messiah to take over the world and rule over the gentiles. On the contrary, they honestly wished to be left alone to study God's Torah.   

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Utilitarian Logic of Killing Ben Shapiro

In response to Ben Shapiro's coming visit to the University of Utah, Ian Decker defends, in a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune, the attempt to shut Shapiro down. According to Decker:

Utah is already a state with a homelessness and suicide crisis amongst LGBTQ youth. Ben Shapiro has openly called transgender people mentally ill. He portrays the gay rights movement as a conspiracy to “root out god-based institutions.” He has recently defended conversion therapy, which is nothing short of abuse.

I assume Decker's argument is that if Shapiro is allowed to speak, such right-wing beliefs will become further normalized and LGBTQ youth homelessness and suicide rates in Utah will get even worse than their current state. Otherwise, it makes no sense to even bring up the challenges to LGBTQ youth. In fact, Decker makes a point in arguing that Shapiro's visit will have material consequences. 

I am perfectly willing to accept Decker's assumptions. I lose nothing with taking down Shapiro. What interests me is Decker's logic. He has a plausible utilitarian argument that, in order to save the lives of LGBTQ youth, it is morally justifiable to interfere with the ability of University of Utah conservatives to exercise their free speech and of Shapiro to earn his livelihood traveling to college campuses to say inflammatory things. Note that Decker willingly abandons the moral high-ground of simply defending his right to publically denounce Shapiro while not physically interfering with Shapiro's ability to speak. Decker states that his purpose is "shutting down Ben Shapiro." 

If we seriously accept Decker utilitarian argument about sacrificing free speech to save lives, why stop at just shutting down Shapiro tomorrow; why not seek a more permanent solution? I know the synagogue where Shapiro prays. It would not be difficult, during the coming Jewish holidays, to walk up to him and shoot him at point-blank range. It should be noted that the empirical fact that it is childishly easy for any relevant human political actor to kill any other human is one of the foundations of any meaningful political science (try making sense of Hobbes without this assumption). Decker's politics requires this assumption more than most as he needs to postulate that Shapiro can bring about the deaths of LGBTQ youths without even ever approaching them with a gun. 

To my liberal readers, let me pose the following challenges. Is there a morally principled argument (as opposed to the practicalities of political reality) that allows you to shut Shapiro down (as opposed to just denouncing him) that cannot equally be used to justify murdering him. Keep in mind that Decker takes it as a given that Shapiro's actions do cost lives. Imagine, God forbid, that some leftist accepted my line of thinking and actually did gun down Shapiro. You are on the jury and the defense pursues an unorthodox defense. Unable to challenge the fact that the defendant killed Shapiro, they convincingly demonstrate that, since the murder, LGBTQ youth suicides have gone down. Thus, the defendant has actually saved lives through his actions. Would you be willing to vote for an acquittal?   

One recalls the Talmudic doctrine of the rodef that it can be permissible to kill someone in order to save the life of a third party. This doctrine was infamously weaponized by Yigal Amir to justify assassinating Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. With Rabin as well, the utilitarian argument was quite powerful. His policies got Israelis killed and there is nothing absurd about the idea that killing Rabin saved lives. We may be horrified by this thinking, but that does nothing to challenge the soundness of its logic. 

If you are not terrified as to the implications of arming conservatives with the rodef argument, consider what it would mean for conservatives to wake up with concrete evidence that they can be murdered in cold blood and liberal jurors will let the killer walk. That being said, such practical considerations do not count as principles. Why should Shapiro not assume that if Decker and those trying to shut him down ever took power that he would find himself on a train heading to a gas chamber? I mean, clearly LGBTQ youth lives matter.     


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

An Apology for Adelai: Why Malcolm Reynolds Should Have Stolen the Medicine

(Recently, I have been taking part in an online discussion group devoted to Firefly and Libertarianism, which served to inspire this piece.)

Part of the charm of Firefly for Libertarians is its rather nuanced take on the Alliance government. As the central villain of the series, it would have been easy for Joss Whedon to have turned the Alliance into something sinister akin to the Empire of Star Wars. Yet, throughout the series, we are never really given a reason to question the fact that the Alliance is competent and, in general, improves the lives of its citizens. Yes, they kidnap children and operate on them. Yes, they employ secretive and spooky agents. That being said, it is only with the discovery of Miranda at the end of the Serenity movie that we are given an example where it can be said that the Alliance messed up. Everything else is easy to defend on utilitarian grounds that the galaxy is left a better place. And even Miranda is hardly something to delegitimize the Alliance (even as it does convert the Operative). Sure the Alliance exposed people to chemicals that turned them into the zombie space barbarian Reavers. But they meant well and is this really worse than all the times the United States has armed different groups with unexpected consequences. The fact that the Alliance is a pretty good government, forces Malcolm Reynolds and his friends to fall back on principles to defend their refusal to bow to the Alliance. Having no empirical grounds for claiming that they have a plan for a better galaxy (or any plan at all), all they can demand is their right to go their own way regardless of the consequences.

One of the chief examples on the show where the Alliance comes across in a positive light is the "Train Job" episode. Here, Mal is hired by the brutal crime boss Adelai Niska to steal a crate of goods from an Alliance train. When it turns out that the crate contains needed medicine for the local townspeople of Paradiso, Mal returns the goods, giving up a valuable payday and making himself a dangerous enemy. In keeping with the theme of valuing libertarian principles over pragmatic utilitarianism, I wish to offer a defense of Niska stealing the medicine and an argument as to why Mal should not have given it back.

I assume most viewers support Mal's decision to take the job in the first place when the crate was simply some unnamed goods (perhaps the newest iPhone to be sold to the town's wealthy). As an enemy of the Alliance and a soldier in a war against them, Mal has no social contract with the Alliance that would prohibit him from robbing them. It is irrelevant that the Alliance won the war and now possesses a very real monopoly on violence throughout known space. On the contrary, the Alliance's possession of such power simply demonstrates that they are the aggressors and not Mal. Mal is justified in stealing from the Alliance despite the fact that, from a galactic utilitarian view, Mal's theft is harmful. He is not producing any goods. Once he has finished with his theft, the galactic economy will be left with the same goods minus the cost of the crew of Serenity's time and effort along with the damage done to the train and injuries to soldiers.

If you are willing to support Mal when we assumed it was just luxury goods for the rich being stolen, you should logically be willing to follow this position when it is a little less favorable to Mal. What if the crate contained aid for the poor people not immediately threatened with death? Here we have the literary example of Ragnar Danneskjold, the anti-Robin Hood privateer of Atlas Shrugged. Ragnar makes a point of only attacking government aid ships. His reasoning is that the goods have been stolen from hard working capitalists and are being used to prop up socialist regimes that will further oppress people. By robbing aid ships he is helping to bring down socialism and repay capitalists like Hank Rearden what the government stole from him in taxes. The fact that there are people who need these goods far more than Rearden does is irrelevant to Rand's philosophy.

The Alliance has stolen the goods from hard working productive individuals like Niska. We can assume that Niska is productive as people clearly want to do business with him so badly that they are willing to step outside the law and become criminals to do so. (See Defending the Undefendable by Walter Block.) We can assume that an intelligent man like Niska manages to avoid paying taxes to the Alliance. That being said, Niska indirectly pays a hefty price for being on the wrong side of Alliance law in that he is left without a suitable court to settle business disagreements. This leaves him with no choice but brutally torture people to death whenever they fail him.

In general, it is irrational to kill people as it is economically inefficient. Standard economics and Occam's Razor force us to assume that Niska is rational and is only killing people because the Alliance makes him do it and not because he is a psychopath. Even if Niska was a psychopath, his actions would still be the Alliance's fault as they made otherwise legitimate businesses illegal, creating a market that psychopaths could easily take over and become rich and powerful instead of falling to the power of the free market, which punishes people for irrational behavior far more effectively than government ever would. It should be noted that, at the end of the episode, Mal knocks one of Niska's henchmen into a spaceship engine while the later is tied up and defenseless. If you are willing to accept such cold-blooded murder as necessary under the circumstances then you should, at least hypothetically, be willing to accept that Niska needs to kill people sometimes simply to make a point and maintain his reputation.

While the residents of the town could use the aid, they never had a right to it. I assume we can accept that it would be immoral for them to turn to piracy to get their needs even if they were stealing from people who could easily spare the goods. Furthermore, it would be justifiable to respond to such piracy with deadly force. Therefore it is immoral for the town to have the Alliance use legal theft to supply the aid. There is a larger issue at stake here in that giving aid is a major propaganda boost, making the case that the Alliance really is making the galaxy a better place. This would be the same problem as accepting a donation from the Mafia no matter how noble the cause.

Now we come to the really tricky matter where, in fact, Mal is not stealing luxuries from rich or even needed aid for the poor but medical supplies, without which people are going to die. Keep in mind that we have already surrendered any claim to utility and are solely concerned with the principle of liberty. Now we should consider why Niska might have wanted to steal the medicine in the first place and what he might want to do with it. The most logical thing would be to immediately sell the medicine back to the town at an exorbitant price. Presumably, the Alliance would have to step in and come up with the money. In this case, we would be back to the first scenario where it would be no different than if the crate had been full of money. One can go so far as to argue that even if Niska was not planning on doing this, Mal would be justified in assuming that was his intention and wash his hands of the affair. 

It is possible that Niska is planning on selling the medicine to other miners who need it to live. If this were the case then Mal would be justified as the lives of Niska's people are not less valuable than that of the Alliance's. On the contrary, Niska's people have clearly committed less aggression.

What if Niska was planning on simply using the medicine to make a face cream for a celebrity or simply destroy it out of spite? Valuing silly luxuries for celebrities over medicine for poor people is something that society does every day when people throw money away on movie tickets instead of giving to charity. (Clearly, the world of Firefly still has movie theaters as Shepherd Book reserves a special place in Hell for people who talk in them.) In this case, Niska can hardly be blamed for following the same logic to its extreme conclusion. Destroying the medicine could also be seen as a worthwhile deed as it would humiliate the Alliance and demonstrate that they are not as all-powerful as most people think. This would help undermine the Alliance, which might not actually improve anyone's existence but would still be consistent with advancing liberty.

It should be understood that my entire argument rests on the assumption that it was ok for Mal to steal from the Alliance in the first place even if it was just luxury goods for the rich. This would require us to reject the Alliance's moral authority as well as any claims to utilitarian benefit. Once we start down this path than very quickly we find ourselves with a license to let people die from lack of medicine.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Homo Deus and Ontological Naturalism

A fundamental concept in understanding the relationship between religion and science is the distinction between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism. Methodological naturalism means that one operates as if there is no supernatural. Ontological naturalism is the actual belief that there really is nothing outside of nature. Methodological rationalist fields such as science and history must operate according to methodological naturalism for the simple reason that beings like God, while they may exist, cannot be analyzed using such methods. Now it is important to realize that this is not atheism or some kind of trick to smuggle in atheism. On the contrary, methodological naturalism stands as a major stumbling block to atheism as it requires us to acknowledge that science is totally inadequate for directly telling us if there is a God or not.

This is not mere theist apologetics. There is often incredible value to analytical statements that are not actually true but help us understand a field. A great example of this is the Smithian Man (Homo Economicus). Contrary to stock criticisms of economics, no economist, not even Adam Smith, actually believes that there are such super-rational and all knowing humans such as Smithian Men. That being said, imagining that such a being exists and asking how he might respond to particular situations has proven to be a productive starting point for economics.

To be clear, science may play an indirect role in promoting atheism. A universe in which the methodological naturalism of science did not offer adequate explanations for observable phenomenon (imagine if there really was something in biology that was irreducibly complex) would have a lot more theists. By contrast, if methodological naturalism really allowed us to understand everything about nature, leaving no more questions, then atheists would have good ground to argue that methodological naturalism offers powerful reasons for taking the philosophical position of ontological naturalism. God would then follow fairies as a being that we have no reason to hypothesize about and come to ignore.

Keep this in mind and you can dismiss most polemics from either the theist or atheist sides as nonsense. This brings me to Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. In most respects, this is an insightful book if it were not marred by the author's willingness to engage in crude atheist polemics that casually jump between methodological and ontological naturalism.

According to Harari, evolution refutes the existence of the soul. Evolution is a gradual step-by-step process while the soul, for some reason, must be indivisible.

Unfortunately, the theory of evolution rejects the ideas that my true self is some indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal essence. ... Elephants and cells have evolved gradually, as a result of new combinations and splits. Something that cannot be divided or changed cannot have come into existence through natural selection.

... the theory of evolution cannot accept the idea of souls, at least if by 'soul' we mean something indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal. Such an entity cannot possibly result from a step-by-step evolution. natural selection could produce a human eye, because the eye has parts. But the soul has no parts. If the Sapiens soul evolved step by step from the Erectus soul, what exactly were these steps? Is there some part of the soul that is more developed in Sapiens than in Erectus? But the soul has no parts.

You might argue that human souls did not evolve, but appeared one bright day in the fullness of their glory. But when exactly was that bright day? ... biology cannot explain the birth of a baby possessing an eternal soul from parents who did not have even a shred of a soul. (pg. 104-06.)

It should be noted that if we are to take Harari seriously, we should reject the foundation of classical liberalism that individuals exist. We all might just be soulless byproducts of evolution but I would hope our collections of DNA and cells can count as distinct persons with rights. It is certainly not the place of science to say otherwise. As for the soul, any person of faith, who is already comfortable with the notion of evolution should also be open to the idea that souls might exist on some kind of continuum between animals and the divine. Alternatively, why not imagine that some kind of Adam with a soul arose at some point in history born to philosophical zombie parents. Like most religious people, I treat the soul as a black box and do not have strong opinions one way or another about its precise nature (beyond rejecting on monotheist grounds the notion that the soul can, in any way, be a part of God). The idea that science should have some kind of opinion on the matter strikes me as a bad joke on par with creation science.

The bad theology and even worse science continue with Harari attempting to prove that God does not disapprove of homosexuality. Following Sam Harris, Harari wants to turn statements of ethics or religion into factual claims, which science can then weigh-in upon. We are offered the example of the Donation of Constantine, which was used to make the religious claim that the Church was the sovereign authority over Western Europe. In the fifteenth-century, Lorenzo Valla, using historical scholarship and linguistic analysis, demonstrated that this document was a medieval forgery. So, according to Harari, Valla used science to refute a religious claim. Of course, neither history nor linguistics are sciences and their claims are far more tentative. Even if one accepts, as I do, that the Donation was a forgery. This is a relatively minor blow against a belief system that was likely based upon the normative position that the Church should have sovereign power. So some anonymous scribe had Constantine say words that are spiritual facts that he clearly believed in. Why should this affect anyone's simple faith in the Church's supremacy?

Harari applies this same logic to homosexuality. The ethical position that humans should obey God hides the "factual" claim that, 3,000 years ago, God wrote a book denouncing homosexuality, leading to the practical guideline that humans should not practice homosexuality. Harari then brings out the "science" of Bible criticism to demonstrate that this opposition to homosexuality is the product of priests and rabbis rather than the almighty. Harari ends with the retort that: "If Ugandan politicians think that the power that created the cosmos, the galaxies and the black holes becomes terribly upset whenever two Homo sapiens males have a bit of fun together, then science can help disabuse them of this rather bizarre notion." (pg. 196.)

Textual criticism is not a science and any conclusions it comes to are going to be highly tentative (like any study of ancient history). Science and textual criticism can tell us nothing about the mind of God whether, assuming he was inclined to write a book, he might write the book at once while making it look like it was assembled over a period of time. Alternatively, divine providence might have manifested itself through a historical process of bringing together and redacting different documents. Taking this logic a step further, the history of religion itself might plausibly be a divine revelation allowing man to evolve into something more godly. Whether such spiritually enlightened beings will allow gay marriage or hunt gays for sport is something beyond the boundaries of science.

The problem of how a creator God can actually care about human beings at all let alone their ritual practices (whether gay sex or pig eating) has haunted monotheism from the beginning. Much like the problem of evil, science has been able to add little to what was already a serious problem. Keep in mind that, contrary to the Whig nonsense about there being a Copernican revolution to teach man that he was not the center of the universe, pre-modern Judeo-Christian Islamic theology already taught that man was not that important in the scheme of things. If several thousand years of theology has not made religious fundamentalists, whether in Uganda or in the Bible Belt, cautious about drawing straight lines between God's will and public policy, they are unlikely to listen to scientists.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Mises Institute as a Religion: A Heretical Libertarian's Response

Recently, there has been some controversy over an essay by Jeff Deist of the Mises Institute over his use of the term "blood and soil." This term has Nazi associations though I do not think anyone is actually accusing the Mises Institute of being a Nazi or otherwise white supremacist organization. I would even be open to a charitable reading of Deist as describing the reality on the ground of people being concerned with blood and soil if it were not for the fact that Deist is an exercise in totally uncharitable readings of other libertarians. What is certainly a real issue, particularly in this age of Trump, is a willingness of even elements within the libertarian movement to tolerate bigotry. This is the inheritance of a mistaken Rothbardian strategy that imagines that white men angry over desegregation and immigration are going to, somehow, turn into friends of the free market and of liberty.

I would like to call attention to another issue in the essay. At the very beginning of the piece, Deist states:  

Thanks to the great thinkers who came before us, and still among us, we don’t have to do the hard work — which is good news, because not many of us are smart enough to come up with new theory! We can all very happily serve as second-hand dealers in ideas.

This is followed by an attack on libertarians for falling in the "modernity trap" and imagining that technology might render government obsolete. To my mind, this sounds as if the Mises Institue is now treating the works of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard as religious holy texts, "capital T truths" that must be submitted to without question. 

The essential features of a canonized religious text are that one cannot disagree with it and it must be viewed as essential to being part of the group. This serves to draw a line to establish who is a true believer in the group. For example, I consider Jesus to be a great Jewish teacher. What makes me not a Christian is that, despite my high opinion of Jesus, he does not play an essential role in my relationship with God. This renders the entire New Testament to be of historical and spiritual interest but ultimately of marginal value. One can be a good Jew and certainly a good monotheist without ever reading it. In a sense, I am worse than a heretic. It is not as if I actively reject Christianity as much as I am indifferent to it. Raised as a Jew, I never developed any emotional attachment to Christian ritual nor did I ever develop a deep seated psychological fear of burning in Hell for all eternity for rejecting it. (Haredi Hell, on the other hand, does keep me up at night.) 

As with Christianity, I would argue that Chabad, at this point, should be viewed as a separate religion from Judaism. Chabad views its texts, such as Tanya and the sichas of the late rebbe, not just as one legitimate interpretation of Judaism among many but as the True Judaism. Without the teachings of Chabad chasidus, one cannot be a truly "complete" Jew. 

To be clear, as a traditionally observant Maimonidean Jew, I do not completely reject the notion of religious texts. It is important to draw lines and establish signaling devices to decide who is in and who is out. I am not a fundamentalist and my relationship to my God and my holy books is one more of arguing than submission. That being said, just as Christians are right to reject me as a Christian for my indifference to the New Testament, I am justified in rejecting, as a theological Jew (distinct from a biological/halakhic Jew), any person who is indifferent to the Talmud and the Bible. (Like Chabad, Karaite Judaism should be seen as a related but still distinct religion from Judaism.)      

One of the problems with canonized texts and authors, in the most fanatical sense, is that, because they cannot be argued with, one can never develop a mature relationship with them and never learn from them. For example, I can learn from Plato and Aristotle because I have never been tempted to treat them as articles of faith. There has never been any need to reinterpret them to suit my ideological preferences as I have always felt willing to say that I believed that they were wrong. Ironically, this has made it possible, over time, for me to become convinced of their wisdom. I admit that, in recent years, I have gained much respect for Aristotelian virtue ethics for its ability to deal with real human beings instead of theoretical abstractions.   

Like the Gospels, Deist offers us "good news." The truths of liberty have been revealed to us. Our job is now simply to spread these truths through the entire world. This is a simple task because there is now no need to argue with anyone. The Truth of Mises and Rothbard is so obvious that only the satanically perverse would ever question it. Hence, like a good Calvinist missionary, the purpose of spreading the libertarian gospel is not to actually argue with anyone and refute their beliefs but to demonstrate that opponents actively hate the truth and were never worth arguing with from the beginning.   

From the perspective of the Mises Institute, is it possible to be a good libertarian without an understanding of Mises? Speaking for myself, I came to libertarianism largely through the questioning of my own Republican orthodoxies. Hence, I was a libertarian before I read much of libertarian thought. It was because I was a libertarian that I discovered Milton Friedman's Free to Choose as a better articulation of what I was already trying to say and then later I became aware that there was something called Austrian economics. I confess that I only read Atlas Shrugged after several years of being a libertarian. I think that this was a healthy path to liberty, one that preserved my intellectual honesty from factional politics. I do not claim to be any expert on libertarianism; I am a mere student of liberty, humbly trying to put things together for myself. 

With the Mises Institute, particularly someone like Tom Woods, I can never escape having a clearer sense of how right they believe they are than what they are right about. It is like they have received a revelation that seems to boil down to them having received a revelation, its content being secondary to the fact that it is a revelation and they are right. Thus, revelation becomes, not a book to be read, but a heavy object to beat people over the head with and claim moral supremacy over.         

Mises was never Euclid, let alone Jesus. I have a hard time believing that anyone could read through a thousand pages of Human Action, understand it, and, in good faith, claim to agree with all of it. Furthermore, even Mises himself, if he were alive today, would, despite his genius, face a challenge in how to apply his own work. How much more so with us little minds. We who cannot comprehend every word of this brilliant mind and who might even find ourselves disagreeing with him and, thus, have no recourse but to cobble together our own understandings of liberty. Not only that but we must then face the very hard task of applying our theories of liberty to a rapidly changing world. Let us face it, our arguments could be logically unassailable and people will still ignore us if we cannot show, in concrete terms, how liberty will make their lives better. 

I support a big tent libertarianism. If you are acting in good faith to decrease the power of government and increase the autonomy of individuals over their own bodies then welcome to the club. As for the details, welcome to the debate, the most fun part of being a libertarian. If you wish to be an effective participant in this debate, I can suggest a reading list of material to get you up to speed. That being said, we are not a religion with sacred texts that you must accept. On the contrary, we invite you to create your own path to liberty. 


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Camp Chimerical Anti-Christianity: Facing the Consequences

A few years ago, for the fast day of Tisha B'Av, I wrote a hard-hitting post, raising some uncomfortable questions about the Jewish community. As that is one of my personal favorites, I decided to follow it up for this Tisha B'Av. My purpose is not to attack anyone and, for that reason, I have avoided names. I hope that my ambiguous feelings about my camping experience rather than hatred should be clear. As is often the case with me, I am more interested in asking questions that I find myself struggling with than in offering solutions.    

When I attended Haredi summer camps, I once played a villainous Spanish Inquisitor in a play. While waving a torch, I gave a speech about Judas Iscariot as the model traitorous Jew, which included a joke reference to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as well. I remember watching another play in which a priest murders the prince, who started asking difficult theological questions regarding Judaism, in order to set the Jews up for a blood libel. Both performances can be seen as anti-Christian. The difference between them is that while I expressed a "rational" opposition to Christianity, the other person made a chimerical assertion. Spanish inquisitors are historical facts. The figure of Judas did play an important role in medieval Christian anti-Jewish rhetoric. Even Christians would agree with me on this. By contrast, there is no evidence of Christian priests murdering Christian children in order to frame Jews just as there is no evidence of Jews murdering Christians for their blood. Christians can hope to negotiate with someone possessing a legitimate negative impression of historical Christians. Such a person can be convinced that modern day Christians are different and not a threat. A person with a chimerical opposition to Christianity will never be convinced that Christians are not a threat even by the evidence of his own eyes as he already believes things about them that he never had any evidence to begin with. Such a person will inevitably sink into the black hole of conspiracy theories to the point where the lack of evidence for his beliefs will simply prove to him that there is a vast cover-up.

In regards to this story of a priest murdering a Christian to cover up the fact that Christianity is false, I am reminded of Israel Yuval's argument that Christians came to believe in the blood libel because they saw Jews kill their own children during the Crusades. If Jews would kill their own children so that they do not fall into the hands of Christians, might Jewish mothers poison their children's kugel if they thought they were attracted to Christianity? If Jews hated Christianity this much, surely Jews would gladly murder Christian children. Thus, Christians have no choice but to kill Jews in self-defense. Similarly, it would be reasonable for impressionable Jewish children in the audience, like myself, to conclude that if priests would kill Christian children to stop them from converting to Judaism, they would gladly kill Jewish children. The logical conclusion from this would be that, if we ever found ourselves in a position of power, we should kill Christians.

Let me be clear, this play about a murderous priest was in no way exceptional in how Christianity was portrayed at this Haredi camp. One of my favorite rebbes used to tell stories with his stock villain, "Father Shmutz" (dirt). When priests were not trying to start blood libels, they kidnapped Jewish children and held them in secret monasteries to try to convert them. In case you were wondering if this was just a matter of some overzealous teachers, the head-counselor of this camp used to have a radio show, "Children's Stories of Inspiration." In addition to blatantly idolatrous stories that endorsed human sacrifices to angels and a Satan capable of acting independently of God, one of his stories involved a Father Francois murdering a Christian child in order to start a blood libel. His plan was thwarted when he was forced to take hold of the hand of the dead victim, who then refused to let go.

Installing the campers with a visceral hatred of Christianity as a religion and a fear of Christians as people were part of a conscious top-down effort. I doubt the camp administration wanted us to actually go out and harm any Christians. That being said, their jobs depended on demonstrating to parents that their children were being protected from outside "negative" influences. In an exercise of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, the fact that these administrators were, ever so slightly, putting every Jew on the planet in danger clearly took a back seat.

What are the consequences of this kind of education? When the Passion movie came out, I told my father that I could not call it anti-Semitic for the simple reason that its portrayal of Jews was not worse than the portrayal of Christians that I was regularly fed in camp. My father, the assistant-head counselor of that camp, agreed with me. On a more serious note, consider the role played by Islamist schools in installing a pathological hatred of Jews, directly leading to Jews dying in terrorist attacks.


It is clear to me that not considering the children in this video and certainly their teachers as legitimate military targets (the kids are even in uniform and practicing military maneuvers) will lead to dead Jews. The problem is that any non-Jew can respond that Jews also indoctrinate their kids to hate and I have simply too much personal experience to point-blank deny that fact. So the administrators of my camp have real Jewish blood on their hands. Their actions have made it harder to form the necessary alliances needed to fight Islamic terrorism and save Jewish lives.

Now it needs to be said, that the people I am talking about are warm wonderful people that I gained much from. These are not anyone's stereotypes of hate mongers. I loved camp and many of my fondest memories come from there.  Coincidently, the staff member who played the murderous priest later became my tenth grade English teacher at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and taught me Julius Caesar (he was even good at his job). At the time, I did not see myself as being indoctrinated to hate and I still have my doubts as to calling this hate. Everything was framed in such a positive and loving way, which may have made it all the more insidious. There was much good to my camp; that being said, beyond the fun times and spiritual growth lay a dark side that needs to be faced.