Wednesday, November 27, 2013

MW in (a small part of) Tacoma

A key excerpt from a relevant article at

A voter initiative to enact a $15 minimum wage for thousands of workers in a Seattle suburb that houses the region's main international airport won a narrow victory on Tuesday that proponents hailed as a signal moment in the nationwide fight for livable wages.

The measure mandates that some 6,300 workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and nearby hotels, car rental agencies and parking lots receive a minimum hourly wage more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Notice that they keep it restricted to the airport, areas nearby, and to services closely connected to the airport.

On one hand, it's gutless (and disingenuous) not to extend the glorious legislation to the entire city.

On the other hand, it's genius, since the demand for airport services is highly inelastic and the demand for airport-related services is somewhat inelastic. Those enterprises are in a relatively good position to absorb the MW "tax" and pass it along to customers. Moreover, the supply of some services-- particularly those with large fixed costs-- is also inelastic, since they cannot get away from the tax easily. (Imagine taxing a casino at a higher level, after they've been built. What are they going to do?)

It will/would be interesting to watch the shifts that will likely occur: 1.) a (probably modest) decline in those services being available in the zone; 2.) relevant smaller businesses moving just outside the MW-tax zone (e.g., rent-a-car companies); 3.) relevant larger-fixed-cost businesses (that cannot move easily and don't shut down) shifting away from lower-end labor (e.g., hotels and parking lots moving toward more automation); 4.) hotels will contract out their cleaning services to companies outside the zone, so that they're not employed by the hotel anymore or subject to the MW-tax; 5.) workers will shifted to part-time and will lose health-insurance or other benefits, as firms seek to keep compensation near market-levels; and so on. Can you think of others?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Do you know the other famous people who died that day?

A shorter version of this appeared in at least one local newspaper; the longer version may come out in the C-J on Sunday and will come out in the Indiana Policy Review's journal next quarter. Enjoy!

November 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of the death of three highly influential people: Aldous Huxley, John F. Kennedy, and C.S. Lewis. Kennedy—in his life and especially in his death—is the most famous of the trio. But all three had an impressive impact during their lives and in the decades since.

All three have ancestral roots in Great Britain: Kennedy was a third-generation Irishmen; Lewis was born in Ireland and lived in England; Huxley was from England. Kennedy was a war hero whose family connections, wealth, and political aspirations led to holding office in the U.S. House, the Senate, and the White House. His assassination at age 46 is considered one of the most memorable moments in 20th century American history. Huxley and Lewis lived into their 60’s, didn’t have memorable deaths, and are not as well known—but have arguably had a bigger influence on the world.

Huxley was an author whose most famous novel, Brave New World, is routinely rated in the Top 100 of all time. Brave New World covers topics from eugenics to a State-enforced class system, from the massive use of prescription drugs to euthanasia. Alongside George Orwell’s dystopian novels, Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell and Huxley have served as prophets of a technological, totalitarian, and bureaucratic society. The thoughts behind these books have influenced generations of readers in a way that is difficult to measure.

Lewis was a Literature professor whose prolific writing ranged from academic to popular. He used a wide variety of genres: children’s literature, science fiction, allegory, poetry, and non-fiction Christian “apologetics”. Recently, his work has been a significant player in pop culture. Max McLean has had a long and successful run with his one-man play version of Screwtape Letters. Some of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia—a seven-book series that combines a children’s story with strong Christian references—has been the subject of high-budget films. (The first was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.) Narnia has been a staple of family reading for decades, selling more than 100 million copies.

Lewis’ books on apologetics are more popular than ever. From the “modern” logical approach of Mere Christianity to the “post-modern” narrative approach of The Great Divorce, Lewis showed remarkable literary range as he tried to make the Christian faith reasonable and compelling—for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Lewis’ emphasis on “mere” Christianity is also important—focusing on the “mere” essentials of the faith, with its resulting pluralism and strong but broadly-defined unity.

The religious views of all three men were also interesting. I became aware of this coincidence of deaths through a neat little book by Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death. Kreeft writes as if recording a discussion between the three as they await Judgment. For Kreeft, Lewis represents biblical Christianity; Kennedy represents “cultural Christianity” or a tepid Deism; and Huxley represents a combination of agnosticism and pantheism.

As for Kennedy, beyond his status as a historical figure and a cultural touchstone, his political impact was also significant. From one angle, we can see echoes of Kennedy in Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Both were effective with television and popular with the general public. And Kennedy’s muscular (if not always effective) anti-communist foreign policy and “supply-side” economics served as pre-cursors to Reagan’s policies.

Kennedy reduced corporate income tax rates and cut personal income tax rates dramatically across the board. (Kennedy reduced the top tax bracket from 91% to 70%; Reagan then reduced it from 70% to 28%.) As Reagan, Kennedy noted that in the presence of high tax rates, “the soundest way to raise revenue in the long term is to lower rates”.

Likewise, Kennedy’s most famous inaugural address line—“ask not what your country can do for you”—points to fiscal conservatism and relatively small government, at least by today’s standards. Tellingly, in a December 1958 TV interview, Eleanor Roosevelt said that she would do all she could do to prevent a “conservative like Kennedy” from being the party’s nominee. In these arenas, Kennedy’s distance from the bulk of today’s Democratic Party is noteworthy.
But in other ways, Kennedy was a precursor for those who led the charge for larger government and greater Executive Branch power. Using techniques made famous by subsequent presidents, JFK (allegedly) got the IRS and the FBI to target and wiretap groups that were hostile to his administration’s goals. 

In a speech to the National Press Club as he campaigned for President in 1960, Kennedy argued against “a restricted concept of the presidency”. Instead, a president “must be prepared to exercise the fullest powers of his office — all that are specified and some that are not.” Kennedy imagined a president who would “build more schools” (an interesting role for the federal government!), “be the center of moral leadership”, and who “alone…must make the major decisions of our foreign policy”. As such, Kennedy’s vision for a more powerful presidency governing a more expansive government has been prophetic as well.

As we observe November 22nd, we should give consideration to the work of all three men. Kennedy’s short presidency left a mixed legacy and his assassination is still the subject of sensationalism. But the lives of Huxley and Lewis have a more enduring legacy that should receive more careful reflection.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

review of Willard's "Knowing Christ Today"

Knowing Christ Today is another fine book by Dallas Willard. I don't think it's at the level of The Spirit of the Disciplines or The Divine Conspiracy (then again, what is?!), but it's still likely worth your time. (In terms of difficulty, it's similar to the former, but less thick than the latter.) 

Willard focuses on "knowledge" and claims about knowledge. More specifically, he is concerned "with the trivialization of faith apart from knowledge and with the disastrous effect of a repositioning of faith in Jesus Christ, and of life as his students, outside the category of knowledge...Those beliefs are to relegated to the categories of sincere opinion, emotion, blind commitment, or behavior traditional for their social group." (1)

But this is a strange definition for belief-- whether done innocently or for more sinister purposes. "Belief cannot reliably govern life and action except in its proper connection with knowledge and with the truth and evidence [that] knowledge involves." (3) And "a steady life directed, in a communal setting, toward the good and right can be supported only within a framework of basically sound knowledge and understanding. This does not fundamentally change when we come to religion." (7)

Willard notes that belief "has no necessary tie to truth...or evidence...[it] is a matter of tendency to act...involves the will in a way that knowledge does not." (16a) This comports with the economist's discussion of tastes and preferences which underline subjective benefits and costs, which then set up the decision to act on those preferences (or not), depending on incentives. Whether theism, deism, or atheism-- whether buying pizza or working overtime-- actions will be based on beliefs and the constraints one faces.

Beyond "belief", commitment "need not involve belief, much less knowledge...choosing and implementing a course of action." (16b) And then "at an even greater distance from knowledge is profession". (17) The sad result, for many in the Church, of missing this last point? Many "confuse what they need to teach with what one must believe in order to be saved. This leads to their members professing lots of things they neither believe nor are committed to-- indeed, do not even understand." (228)

As for Christianity, Willard notes that "the central teachings of the Christian religion, such as those of the Apostles' Creed, were from the beginning presented and accepted as knowledge...the Biblical tradition as a whole presents itself, rightly or wrongly, as one of knowledge..." (19-20) Moreover, "an act of faith in the biblical tradition is always understood in an environment of knowledge and is inseparable from it." (20) So, too, with any realm where knowledge is available but insufficient for dogmatic inference. The Bible even defines eternal life as knowledge (e.g., see: John 17:3; I Jn 1:1-5, 2:3, 4:7-8,13; Phil 3:10; II Tim 2:12, II Pet 1:2-5, 3:18).

But there has been an evolution over time in beliefs about beliefs and knowledge (23-29), caused by a variety of factors (71-83)-- a change that was embraced or at least condoned by Christians (as they moved toward inner experience, the Social Gospel, or withdrew from society). "These values and principles were relocated, by subtle increments within a long drawn-out process, into the domain of feelings and cultural traditions." (71) 

Alongside the diminution of religious belief and knowledge, we've seen the over-reach of science into realms beyond its own knowledge or even its competence. As an example, Willard quotes Dr. William Provine (5): "There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either." Willard notes that these claims are "simply laughable", not addressed by the scientific literature, and in fact, not within its purview. "Myth-making, as it turns out, is not the sole prerogative of religion. It is also a very active secular and academic pastime...perhaps it is some kind of human necessity." (10)

Worse yet, many of these critics lack the intellectual honesty/integrity to study such things earnestly. In this, they ironically play the part of the dogmatic, blinkered, anti-intellectual, fundamentalist (163-164).[Willard traces this back as far as 1855 (215, FTN 5). Willard also cites Feynman as a notable exception (217).]

In chapter 2, Willard goes into "worldview", using Hosea 4:6's reference to an improper worldview built on the shifting and false sands of idolatry (37-45). From there, he describes four elements of a worldview's sense of reality (What is real? What is well-being? Who is a good person? How does one become a good person?; p. 45-50), followed by the answers that Jesus gives to these four elements (50-54). Then, Willard asks the vital 5th question (55ff): "How do we know which answers to these four questions are true?"

From there, Willard makes a case for the existence of God (ch. 4); lays out a case for miracles (ch. 5); describes the Christian sense of "abundant life" and Sanctification (ch. 6); describes the call to Christian pluralism, true tolerance/unity and inclusivity (ch. 7, esp. 181-190); and concludes with a "post-Millennial" Kingdom view with its emphasis on disciple-making based on true knowledge/wisdom (ch. 8).

On miracles, Willard notes that they cannot be ruled in an open system/universe like ours. And he notes the possibility that one law of nature can transcend other laws. Turning to the religious angle, a belief in miracles more likely stems from a belief in a personal God, rather than the passive/apathetic god of deism (126). And he has a very helpful discussion of what would constitute proper interpretation of miracles as evidentiary (128-136), including the Resurrection (133-136, 226). 

I can detail this further if you're interested and don't want to read Willard's book, but one of the punchlines is that a "miracle" would not likely be understood by someone who doesn't want to believe. So, despite the protestations of non-believers who say they would believe if God "showed Himself", it is unlikely to be sufficient since they would probably convince themselves that it had some other cause or never really happened.

Willard also runs with a cool Peter Berger quote (145-146): "...the only Christian resolution of our argument...a confrontation of our perception of society with the figure of Jesus Christ. It is this figure of the crucified one which continues to haunt both the oppressors and the oppressed, casting its shadow over the religious celebrations and at the same time intruding its disturbing light into the corners where one escapes the sacred drums...a demand that transcends both society and religion—the demand to follow this figure of the crucified one. This demand calls us to an exodus, not only out of the Egypt of social mythology but also out of the Zion of religious security...

Willard comments: "The most profound critic of society and the 'masks,' Christian and otherwise, is Jesus himself. In this respect he stands in the line of the sharp-tongued Hebrew prophets and brings it to completion. He then quotes Berger again: “the crucial point of the relationship between Christian faith and the antireligious critique is to be found in a theological proposition....something very different from religion...Religion has many critics, but Jesus very few...In him God breaks through...Christian faith is not religion."

Some other small things: 
1.) Willard makes a nice point about higher ed-- and its purposes in producing, storing, and retailing information and knowledge, if not wisdom (56). 
2.) Willard notes that knowledge comes through three means: authority, thinking, and experience (58), whereas fundamentalists of various stripes seek a narrower range to avoid "messiness" (61). 
3.) Willard provides a useful discussion of the Silver Rule ("do not do to others...") vs. the more powerful Golden Rule (89). 
4.) Willard continues to sing the praises of Frank Laubach-- and this time, recommends his book, Letters by a Modern Mystic.

Friday, November 1, 2013

review of Nagel's Mind and Cosmos

I read Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False alongside deWaal's most recent book. (See: my review of deWaal here. See: Johnson's review of Nagel in Touchstone.)

Both books are well-written by thoughtful atheists; effective at laying out what's known and not known; and take shots at atheists who are silly or overplay their hands. Differences? Nagel is a philosopher focusing on epistemology (the study of knowledge); deWaal is a scientist. Nagel's book is slender but thick, needing to address a skeptical academic audience; deWaal's work is larger but breezier, aiming for a popular audience. And deWaal is much more optimistic about (capital-E) Evolution-- for reasons that Nagel addresses.

More broadly, both books reminded me of the desire of (some) atheists to do more than oppose theism. (See: my time with an impressive local group of atheists.) It's relatively easy to claim what one doesn't believe. It's far tougher to look at what one does believes. It's tougher still, intellectually and emotionally, to analyze what one must implicitly believe-- and whether those beliefs are probable, speculative but reasonable, or more fantastic than the views so confidently rejected. (Another recent book by an atheist philosopher that looks relatively good: Alex Rosenberg's Atheist's Guide to Reality. H/t: CRJ's review in vol. 36, #3.)

As always, I'm not denying the existence and power of evolutionary mechanisms. Instead, I question whether (capital-E) Evolution CAN provide a comprehensive explanation for the development of life as we see it (the possibility seems fantastic to me)-- and noting that it certainly doesn't do anything close to that at present. Nagel focuses on these questions-- noting but then putting aside the huge but unanswered questions of ultimate existence and the origins of life.

Nagel is certainly not religious at all (in the traditional sense of the term)-- and he takes great pains to make this clear, repeating it often (e.g., see: p. 7, 12, 22, 26, 91, 95). He also admits that this is purely subjective for him. For example, he says "I am talking about something much deeper-- namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God...I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."

Why is this important? It increases his credibility with other (religious) skeptics and (capital-E Evolution) supporters. "My skepticism is not based on religious belief, or on a belief in any definite alternative." (7) There is, seemingly, no ulterior motive for him-- either way.

Nagel notes that the preeminent focus on the biological questions of Evolution has been reductionistic. This approach has borne much fruit, but is necessarily limited. It is both more comfortable for scientists-- and more easily prone to (seemingly) reasonable extrapolation. But the flip sides of this reductionism are ignoring important factors that have been reduced from one's model; imagining that reductionism is the only possibility; and ignoring what Nagel appropriately and ironically labels a "Darwinism of the gaps" (127).

The physical/biological/material questions are difficult enough-- and a nearly-infinite number of huge gaps remain (in terms of providing an explanation). Nagel acknowledges this and is hopeful that these gaps will continue to close, but is quite unconvinced that this will or can happen. Beyond this, Nagel focuses on what he sees as insurmountable barriers to determining-- or whether we could possibly determine-- an explanation for the supposed evolution of consciousness, cognition/reason and objective (vs. subjective) reality, and values. 

His argument on values is fascinating (105, 111, 116) but beyond the scope of a short review. On reason and reality, Nagel notes that "the ability of creatures like us to arrive at such truth, or even to think about it, requires explanation...The problem has two aspects. The first concerns the likelihood that the process of natural selection should have generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances...The second problem is the difficulty of understanding naturalistically the faculty of reason that is the essence of these activities." (73-74) He continues by describing these problems at length (78-86), before concluding that one can assume that reason emerged as a "fluke", ex nihilo (88). Of course, this would not be an explanation, but the sort of (cosmic) hand-waving usually criticized by dogmatic atheists. Throughout, Nagel is careful to note that an explanation requires attention to both the contemporary and the historical. And in a word, he says "good luck with that".

But at least for now, Nagel does "not find theism any more credible than materialism as a comprehensive world view. My interest is in the territory between them." (22) For Nagel, that reduces to non-theistic and largely undefined "natural teleology"-- the idea that there must be "something" beyond the purely material, but without any commitment to theism per se.

Nagel points to one intriguing inference: that an embrace of non-reductionism-- if true-- is not only helpful but required if we are to pursue truth in Science (69). Along these lines, he does not find ID compelling, but is thankful for the space it has created on these questions (12). (He does not explain his take on ID-- nor would one expect that in this book. One hopes his views are not based on the all-too-common ignorance of what ID is/does.)

Nagel's concluding paragraph is useful as a summary and quite provocative: "It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations and not merely beyond our grasp in humanity’s present stage of intellectual development. In this process, the ability to generate and reject false hypotheses plays an essential role. I have argued patiently against the prevailing form of naturalism, a reductive materialism that purports to capture life and mind through its Neo-Darwinian extension. But...I find this view antecedently unbelievable--a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense. The empirical evidence can be interpreted to accommodate different comprehensive theories, but in this case the cost in conceptual and probabilistic contortions is prohibitive. I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two — though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid. The human will to believe is inexhaustible."

For those who subscribe to Touchstone, David Bentley Hart provides a similar treatment of these questions/problems in the second half of a recent "Back Page" essay (November 2013). [For some reason, it is not available on-line, but the issue can be ordered at] On subjectivity, Hart gets off a great line, noting that it "poses philosophical difficulties that even the tireless and tortuous bluster of a Daniel Dennett cannot entirely obscure. From there, he also ranges through abstract concepts, reason, consciousness, intentionality, "and so on". He concludes: "Not that there is room here to argue these points. Nonetheless, there are very good reasons why the most consistent materialist philosophers of mind-- when, that is, they are not attempting to get around these difficulties with non-solutions like 'epiphenomenalism' or incoherent fantasy solutions like 'panpsychism'-- have no choice in the end but to deny that such things...exist at all."

If you want to read someone who has the "room" to argue these points, pick up a copy of Nagel's book. If you don't want to slog through it, please know that philosophers have something to offer in this debate-- at the least, humility and perspective about what is known and what can be known.