(Abrahamic) Religion explained via Politics

[A fairy tale.]

In the beginning was the contract.

Also known as the covenant, it was a mutual aid agreement between some Egyptians and almighty God. As such, it was a bit lopsided. The Egyptians — now known as Jews — weren’t very good at sticking by their side of it. Fortunately, God didn’t actually need their help. On the other hand, he did preserve them, through thousands of years, but not very comfortably. Constitutionally, therefore, we can identify the Jews as traditional (“small c”) conservatives. Certainly, they believe in contracts and property law, but leavened with repeated reminders that “Your God is a Compassionate God”: if you can’t stick with an agreement with God, then you should keep that in mind enforcing other contracts.

Now, for the following keep in mind that Liberals are attracted by equality and fairness, while Conservatives prefer authority, loyalty and purity. Certainly, for one (demonstrably fallible) people to have a contract with God while others didn’t seem very fair, and undoubtedly, it wasn’t equal. Perhaps it was just an archetype of some general principles, that applied to all, such as:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Transforming God’s contract with a specific group into something that anyone could partake was a very liberal thing to do. However, like many liberal ideas, it proved difficult in practice: building your kingdom on “my kingdom is not of this world” is like building a castle in the clouds.

More galling still to those on the eastern frontier of the Roman empire was the cynical cooptation of Christianity by Constantine and his successors. They had no wish to be Roman, and the behavior of the Romans (Byzantines) seemed rather the antithesis of what Jesus was said to have stood for anyway. But how to distill the essence of this will to purity and self-determination in a transcendental vessel?

Muhammad organized Islam around Neoconservative lines: accepting the universality (we are not Jews), but stressing authority, loyalty and purity, rather than equality and fairness. Islam was by design more practical: let the liberals have their “without love I am nothing but a resounding gong” which they obviously don’t believe in (“they” were Byzantines, remember). The Caliphate was a political entity and Muhammad made laws to organize and perpetuate it as such.


Author’s note:
I do think religions should have some ontological differences. I have always sensed “why” there was a difference between Judaism and Christianity. The abstraction away from the covenant on the one hand, and “the identification of man and God” on the other. But what about Islam? Yes, ok — there was the prophet. But how come? What is new in the new prophesy? This is my first stab at understanding it… (enlightening) comments appreciated!

Proof that God Exists (modulo definition)

Suppose you are a scientist. You aren’t a solipsist, an anti-realist. You believe your senses convey you meaningful messages about the outside world. The outside world exists!

Why do you believe in the outside world?

For one thing, as a practical matter, no one actually believes the outside world doesn’t exist. At least, they don’t if we take disbelieving in the outside world to mean being disposed to act as if the outside world doesn’t exist. It is easy to imagine that such people would starve, or walk in front of busses, or at least be locked in asylums so they didn’t do such things.

As a scientist, however, you have a name, and a representation, for the thing that guarantees that the outside world is meaningful: Natural Law. Natural law guarantees that the your senses’ signals make sense. They are not random noise, or the cunning manipulations of the devil. Indeed, this seems to be a more fundamental definition for what Natural Law is than the common hazy picture of natural laws as constraints, which at its root stems from the religious vision of God imposing law on lawless material. What trait of material, after all, would be left if Natural Law were removed?

To restate this reflection as a definition, Natural Law is the entity that makes true the judgement that sensory perceptions of the outside world can have meaning. I also note in passing that every judgement that isn’t a tautology must have some entity (or entities) that make it true. Otherwise, what would we mean by saying it is not a tautology? I will call Natural Law the guarantor of the meaningfulness of perception. Now let us turn to God.

I define God as the guarantor of the meaningfulness of individual human existence.

God is the entity that makes true the judgement that the existence of individuals — yourself included, is meaningful.

As a practical matter, pretty much everyone believes human action is meaningful. At least, the act as if they believe it. You as a scientist, would you not find it hard to muster all the organized effort to do science if you didn’t believe this? However, as we noted above, since this meaningfulness is not a matter of logic, there must be an entity or entities which make the statement true.

A number of objections spring to mind. Why just one entity? Couldn’t God and Natural Law be identical? Doesn’t this definition abuse the term “God”?

Addressing these questions in reverse order, it seems to me that most people who do believe in God (or Gods) would be happy to affirm that He/She/It/They do (does) in fact guarantee the meaning of individual human existence. They would mostly ascribe additional attributes to God, the aggregate of which, ascribed by different believers, might well be mutually contradictory. However, that doesn’t mean that this argument isn’t relevant to their beliefs: if God is a figment of their imagination, then what attributes pertain or are essential is also a subjective matter. However, if God is a real entity, then clearly it is possible to be mistaken about an attribute while still having in mind the same entity.

As a scientist, you might be tempted to identify God and Natural Law. I would say that, without further argument, we can’t rule out the possibility that Natural Law could be an aspect of the same entity, I don’t see how Natural Law as described by the scientific method, could guarantee the meaningfulness of individual existence. That is because the scientific method discovers principles that are necessarily general, as experiments to uncover them have to be repeatable. How could they guarantee the meaningfulness of individuals?

As a practical matter, we also don’t believe that Natural Law guarantees the meaningfulness of individual existence the same way that it guarantees the meaningfulness of the external world. For instance, no one would accept as valid a murderer’s defense that they weren’t responsible for the crime — it was the laws of physics that did it. The meaningfulness of human existence clearly involves purposeful action, for which in turn individuals are responsible. In attempting to describe an individual, Natural Law can at most describe something like an equivalence relation on a phase space, whose occurrence may roughly correspond to (the space-time extension of) an individual. Are we prepared to hold such a timeless, abstract entity responsible for anything?

Could Natural Law be an aspect of the same entity that guarantees the meaningfulness of human existence? Why do I speak of “an entity” — perhaps it is many different entities? Perhaps it’s ourselves, or our society? Interesting questions! But to answer them, you have to engage in theology. You have already admitted the existence of God (or Gods).

 

 

Putin’s Purpose

Putin’s purpose is to destroy Europe.

Not the place, the cities or the people. The institutions. The Idea of Europe. Putin is seen as an opportunist, a cynic. But he is a true believer. He believes in the order of the 19th century, which itself had its face to the middle ages. He believes in the voice of the blood. He believes that people and nations are healthy when organized in hierarchies under strong rulers.

He believes that supranational institutions, laws based on abstractions and not the imperatives of concrete societies, are hypocritical abominations.

The west views Putin’s moves against the Ukraine as a way of distracting Russians from economic issues. One commentator on my earlier post told me his policies would come to the same bad end as the soviet invasion of Afghanistan (so it would be foolish to do anything). But his purpose was not one of distraction so much as one of definition: defining what Russia was, what it stood for, and what it stood against. His purpose was to pour acid on the rivets that hold the suspension bridge of Europe aloft.

Some see him as dangerous, but ultimately doomed. He is a tactician, but a sentimentalist, soft in the head. They smile at the drop in oil price, and see hopeful signs that Russians are getting fed up. They council humoring within bounds. They council “realism” that “Russia will never put up with a westernized Ukraine”.

Perhaps. But I fear that his motive is not just sentiment, but principle; that he will not stop until Hobbes and not Locke is ascendant in Europe. I fear that when enough Russians start listening to the voice of the blood, they will rather acquiesce to spilling blood than make common cause with any who would take to the streets for economic reasons. I don’t see how Russians will find a way beyond Putin without a true cataclysm (or his early demise). And Putin will keep on working until he can treat with the nations of Europe individually. If he can deal with Germany, rather than Europe, he will find light at the end of the economic tunnel.

I also fear he is winning. What matter if Ukrainians hate him? They at least will not put their trust in Europe. In Poland also, the nationalists are ascendant. They also hate Putin, but so much for the German-Polish rapprochement. Their victory is his. In many other places, nationalist sentiment is bubbling up.

European leaders must articulate a vision of Europe that Europeans identify with. It must go beyond economic security. Europe must stand for principles that its citizens are prepared to defend, to feel dishonored if they are violated. And then it must defend them.

Otherwise, as Quine was wont to opine: no entity without identity. Whatever happens to Putin, Europe will in the end be what Putin regards it to be: a mere aggregate, an island of sand, struggling on downstream, soon to be swept away by the river of history.

 

Anschluss and Crimea

Professor Ferguson has written an article in the FT on the parallels between the events in the Ukraine and those leading to the first world war.

It seems to me that the parallels between Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland and  “Anschluss” are even more pertinent: Russia is a nation that is still sore from losing the cold war, with compatriots on the other side of the border. Its ruthless leader has understood them as a pretext to pick fights, and they give the powers that are have sworn not to countenance the changing of European borders by force the pretext to look away.

Chamberlain called Hitler’s invasion: “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.” It sounds very familiar — it could have been Merkel herself speaking. Both leaders actually knew a good bit more, but felt it better to coddle their constituents than alarm them.

Putin may or may not be an evil genius like Hitler, but he is certainly without scruple, and willing to take great risks, at the cost of other people’s lives. This was made clear from the start of his rule by his campaign against the Chechens.

The author advises us not to talk shrilly, so that Putin has room to back down. Perhaps, indeed, we shouldn’t say anything too clearly — especially we shouldn’t say we won’t do anything. Our leaders should repeat the mantra “Europe’s borders will never again be changed by force”. Let Putin guess what it means — we can both figure it out later.

But in the meantime perhaps we should advance 100,000 NATO troops into Poland, perhaps we should put the sixth fleet in the Black Sea, and let the Bundeswehr have a NATO exercise in Turkey. We could say, perhaps, that it is all routine, just like his moves are routine.

Whatever the actions, we must talk to Putin in a language he understands. He should remember his weakness (and that we know it) before he bluffs his way into power, or at least into calamity. “Don’t bluster from the sidelines and paint yourself into a corner” would be a long-winded way to paraphrase the first half of a famous phrase of advice from an American president just before the era about which professor Ferguson writes. We have completely forgotten the second part, about the big stick.

Because if Putin invades the eastern Ukraine, as increasingly seems likely, that won’t be the end of that. Eventually we will have to move to confront Putin — the logic of his actions is clear. Perhaps the best strategy will again be containment, but a small bag — cinched tight before the people of the Ukraine are trampled on any more — is better than a big one.

Indeed, there is a deeper danger. I wonder if Merkel doesn’t know it. If institutions fail in Europe, they fail everywhere. Once the peoples of Europe see that the international order is a farce, the strong and the bold, once again, will try to make their own rules, and they will write them in blood.

Apropos software patents

Apropos: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/01/business/supreme-court-seems-wary-of-a-software-patent-case.html

There are two ways software can be novel: it can be a new way to do something, whose embodiment is a software program, and it can be a new way to get a computer to do something (which itself isn’t necessarily novel).

In the first case, the computer might be a practical necessity, but the process must be novel even if it were performed by an army of accountants. In the second, the process could be mundane, but involved elements which no expert before knew (or could easily have known if they set their mind to it). In the latter case, the process itself is not properly patented, but the elements that make it novel.

Thoughts on “Value” of Inflation and Unemployment

Inflation is like overeating, whereas unemployment is like starvation. Obviously, the latter is worse. The best circumstance is that you have plenty of money, but put it to good use — eat well and exercise.

Unfortunately for the Fed, it controls the amount of money, but not the amount of exercise, which depends on how well trained the workforce is, what the incentives are to work, the state of the infrastructure, the state of the global economy (is there anyone to play with, or do I have to work out on my own?).

The focus on inflation is a symptom of the public’s lack of trust in government, and ultimately, their lack of trust in themselves.

Injustice can have a long shelf life

Just read David Cohen’s interesting article on the frozen status quo in the middle east. In Crete and the Cyclades, 5000 years ago, there is evidence that, at least among the elite, men and woman enjoyed many of the same privileges.

However equal or not this society was, the status of women certainly declined under of the Mycenaeans… and it never recovered until, partially at least, in certain parts of the world in the last century.

An unjust status quo can certainly last a long time.