Tuesday, December 22, 2015

quotes from Kierkegaard (Provocations)

From #3: Longer comments and quotes in a blog post about "good intentions"...

From #4: “The greatest danger to Christianity is, I contend, not heresies, [not] heterodoxies, not atheists, not profane secularism – no, but the kind of orthodoxy which is cordial drivel, mediocrity served up sweet. There is nothing that so insidiously displaces the majestic as cordiality...the very essence of Christianity is utterly opposed to this mediocrity, in which it does not so much die as dwindle away."

I apologize for the many times I have been mediocre in this way.

From #5: "Wanting to hide in the crowd, to be a little fraction of the group instead of being an individual, is the most corrupt of all escapes. Granted, it will make life easier, but it will do so by making it more thoughtless. Yet the question is that of the responsibility of each single individual – that each of us is an authentic, answerable self...We ought, before God, to make up our own minds about our convictions, and then live them out regardless of the others."

Easier, thoughtless and corrupt-- or authentic, under conviction and courageous?

From #8: In John 5:30, Jesus says that, by himself, he can do nothing. He repeats the same for us in John 15:5. Both of these, esp. the former, are surprising, difficult, and thus generally over-looked.

But this is a vital concept within Christian doctrine: dependence on God through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit-filled life, the importance of submission (properly defined), etc. 

Kierkegaard runs with this: "If a capability is actually to be a capability, it must have some kind of opposition. Without opposition, one is either all-powerful or one's capability is something entirely imaginary. In the internal world of spirit, opposition can come only from within. In this way, we struggle with ourselves...is one not able, then, to overcome oneself by oneself? How can I be stronger than myself? When we speak of overcoming oneself by oneself, we really mean something external, so that the struggle is unequal..."

*All* people tend to focus on external opposition. The real/important battle is internal-- and yet, victory only comes by dependence on the external.

Monday, December 14, 2015

"not understanding nothing"

Edward Feser with a terrifically chippy review of a Lawrence Krauss book in First Things...

A critic might reasonably question the arguments for a divine first cause of the cosmos. But to ask “What caused God?” misses the whole reason classical philosophers thought his existence necessary in the first place. So when physicist Lawrence Krauss begins his new book by suggesting that to ask “Who created the creator?” suffices to dispatch traditional philosophical theology, we know it isn’t going to end well...


Krauss simply can’t see the “difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without one.” The difference, as the reader of Aristotle or Aquinas knows, is that the universe changes while the unmoved mover does not, or, as the Neoplatonist can tell you, that the universe is made up of parts while its source is absolutely one; or, as Leibniz could tell you, that the universe is contingent and God absolutely necessary. There is thus a principled reason for regarding God rather than the universe as the terminus of explanation.

One can sensibly argue that the existence of such a God has not been established. (I think it has been, but that’s a topic for another day.) One cannot sensibly dispute that the unchanging, simple, and necessary God of classical theism, if he exists, would differ from our changing, composite, contingent universe in requiring no cause of his own.

Krauss’ aim is to answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” without resorting to God”and also without bothering to study what previous thinkers of genius have said about the matter. Like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Leonard Mlodinow, and Peter Atkins, Krauss evidently thinks that actually knowing something about philosophy and theology is no prerequisite for pontificating on these subjects.
Nor is it merely the traditional theological answer to the question at hand that Krauss does not understand. Krauss doesn’t understand the question itself...

Why are "smart" people so often tempted to do this?

The bulk of the book is devoted to exploring how the energy present in otherwise empty space, together with the laws of physics, might have given rise to the universe as it exists today. This is at first treated as if it were highly relevant to the question of how the universe might have come from nothing”until Krauss acknowledges toward the end of the book that energy, space, and the laws of physics don’t really count as “nothing” after all. Then it is proposed that the laws of physics alone might do the trick”though these too, as he implicitly allows, don’t really count as “nothing” either.

His final proposal is that “there may be no fundamental theory at all” but just layer upon layer of laws of physics, which we can probe until we get bored. But this is no explanation of the universe at all. In particular, it is nowhere close to what Krauss promised his reader”an explanation of how the universe arose from nothing ”since an endless series of “layers” of laws of physics is hardly “nothing.” His book is like a pamphlet titled How to Make a Million Dollars in One Week that turns out to be a counterfeiter’s manual. 

The helpful distinction between narrative/story and explanation-- or simply a coherent and consistently-applied definition of explanation-- would keep Krauss out of trouble.
The spate of bad books on philosophy and religion by prominent scientists”Dawkins’ The God Delusion , Hawking and Mlodinow’s The Grand Design , and Atkins’ On Being , among others”is notable not only for the sophomoric philosophical and theological errors they contain but also for their sheer repetitiveness . Krauss’ fallacious account of how something can come from nothing, though presented as a great breakthrough, and praised as such by Dawkins in his afterword, is largely a rehash of ideas already put forward by Hawking, Mlodinow, and some less eminent physics popularizers. Dawkins has been peddling the “Who created the creator?” meme since the eighties.

Critics have exposed their errors and fallacies again and again. Yet these writers keep repeating them anyway, for the most part simply ignoring the critics. What accounts for this? To paraphrase a famous remark of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s, I would suggest that a picture holds these thinkers captive, a picture of the quantitative methods of modern science that have made possible breathtaking predictive and technological successes.

What follows from that success is that the methods in question capture those aspects of reality susceptible of mathematical modeling, prediction, and control. It does not follow that there are no other aspects of reality. 

Again, hubris and basic errors in logic...
But as E. A. Burtt noted over half a century ago in his classic book The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science , the thinker who claims to eschew philosophy in favor of science is constantly tempted “to make a metaphysics out of his method,” trying to define reality as what his preferred techniques can measure rather than letting reality dictate what techniques are appropriate for studying it. He is like the drunk who thinks his car keys must be under the lamppost because that is the only place there is light to look for them”and who refuses to listen to those who have already found them elsewhere.

Without a trace of irony, Krauss approvingly cites physicist Frank Wilczek’s unflattering comparison of string theory to a rigged game of darts: “First, one throws the dart against a blank wall, and then one goes to the wall and draws a bull’s-eye around where the dart landed.” Yet that is exactly Krauss’ procedure. He defines “nothing” and other key concepts precisely so as to guarantee that only the physicist’s methods he is comfortable with can be applied to the question of the universe’s origin”and that only a nontheological answer will be forthcoming.

And then the ironic punchline:

To the centuries-old debate over why any universe exists at all, Krauss’ book contributes”precisely nothing.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

on Mormonism as cult, cult-like or (better), "other"

From the CRJ on Mormonism...

Some take-aways and good, general principles from the article…

Anybody—whatever religion or denomination
can equate Christianity with morality and a works-based salvation; this is not a particularly-Mormon problem.

With anybody—but especially those with potentially different belief systems—be careful with terms and define terms as appropriate.

Survey data indicate that a significant percentage of Mormons hold to conventional views of the key doctrines of the Christian faith—independent of their church’s stated doctrines. So, one should always talk with an individual about his/her faith, rather than jumping to easy inferences about an individual based on their religious group affiliation

If you see (and advertise) your faith as the one true religion with special revelations, you shouldn’t be surprised (and I’m not sure you have room to complain) if/when others describe your group as a cult or cult-like—or your views as heretical. (See also: Church of Christ; Catholicism.)

“Cult” is a loaded and difficult-to-define term, so I’d avoid it. (Interestingly, the author says that Mormon leaders have used the term themselves, so that’s sure asking for some trouble!) In DC: Thoroughly Equipped, we describe them as a “special case”. 

"what went wrong" with the Obama admin-- from someone on the Left

From David Bromwich in Harpers from June...

“…this president deserves a kind of criticism he has seldom received. Yet we are held back by an admonitory intuition. His predecessor was worse, and his successor most likely will also be worse.”
Give Harpers credit. They are relatively real Left-wingers. Not a fan of crony capitalism. Unafraid to bash a “liberal” President. 
The primary impediment to honesty, candor and principle over pragmatism—for partisans in both major political parties? They value power over policy; pragmatism of the lesser of two evils over renouncing evil. 
If you don’t join in the critiques of Bush and Obama, then your interests are too narrow to say much; you’re not paying attention; your standards are too low; or you’re a poser on matters of significant political principle.
On Obama’s penchant for speaking over action-- or his passion for political campaigns over political leadership...
Any summing-up of the Obama presidency is sure to find a major obstacle in the elusiveness of the man. He has spoken more words, perhaps, than any other president; but to an unusual extent, his words and actions float free of each other…He understands [words] as a relevant form of action — almost, at times, a substitute for action…
One of the least controversial things you can say about Barack Obama is that he campaigned better than he has governed...
Winning has always been important to Obama…Alongside this trait, he has exhibited a peculiar avoidance of the business of politics…Of our recent presidents, only Eisenhower revealed a comparable distaste…He intensely dislikes the rituals of keeping company with lesser lawmakers, even in his own party…
Obama had vowed to order the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay as soon as he became president. He did give the order. But as time passed and the prison didn’t close of its own volition, the issue lost a good deal of attraction for him...as recently as March of this year, Obama spoke as if the continued existence of the prison were an accident that bore no relation to his own default…

Obama’s domestic policy has, for the most part, exhibited a pattern of intimation, postponement, and retreat. The president and his handlers like to call it deliberation. A fairer word would be “dissociation”…
[We should] ask what impression his spoken words have made in his presidency...He employs a correct and literate diction (compared with George W. Bush) and is a polite and careful talker (compared with Bill Clinton), but by the standard of our national politics Obama is uncomfortable and seldom better than competent in the absence of a script...Obama has a fondness for ceremonial occasions where the gracious quip or the ironic aside may be the order of the day, and he is deft at handling them. As for his mastery in delivering a rehearsed speech, the predecessor he most nearly resembles is Ronald Reagan…he admired Reagan for his ability to change the mood of the country…Astonishingly, Obama seems to have believed, on entering the White House, that his power as an interpreter of the American dream was on the order of Reagan’s…
On the excuse-making that Obama was burdened by the Bush legacy…
He came into office under the pressure of the financial collapse and the public disenchantment with the conduct of the Bush–Cheney “war on terror”…[supposedly] an impossible point of departure for our first black president. Might the opposite be true? The possibilities were large because the breakthrough was unheard-of… 
Note: this is similar to Reagan after LBJ, Nixon and Carter! Crisis is the *best* opportunity for great leaders to emerge.
On Obama’s foreign policy and his “team”
The delay in withdrawing from Afghanistan was decisive and fatal, and it is now a certainty that we will have a substantial military presence in that country at the end of Obama’s second term...
Much of the disarray in foreign policy was inevitable once Obama resolved that his would be a “team of rivals”...It was an unorganized team, perhaps not a team at all...[they] met 19 times during his first term, an average of only once every 11 weeks.
The largest issues on which Obama won the Democratic nomination were his opposition to the Iraq war and his stand against warrantless domestic spying…And yet [nobody on his team agreed with him]…Thus, on all the relevant issues, Obama stood alone; or rather, he would have stood alone if his views had remained steady…

…[Like Bush/Cheney] maintain a category of enemy combatants charged with no specific crime…keeping much of the war on terror off the books by employing mercenaries / “contractors”…invoked the state-secrets privilege to undercut legal claims by prisoners…drone killings…

Friday, December 4, 2015

sticker price vs. actual price of college tuition

For a long time, I've noted the difference between sticker price and the actual price paid for college tuition. Prices differ because of financial aid and other forms of "price discrimination" practiced by universities. 

I'm seeing if I can get access to the 2014 NACUBO study, but this link has the 2012 survey results, noting that there is a 45% gap between the sticker price of tuition and actual tuition paid by freshmen.

Of course, it's good to know that, as a parent of college students (to be). But it's certainly important when one is trying to understand what's happening to costs, revenues, and prices at universities.

Two other useful links: a NYT piece and work from a think tank

behavioral economics and retirement planning

Excerpts from a WSJ interview on "behavioral economics" with Richard Thaler (in promoting his recent book in the field, "Misbehaving")-- as applied to the challenges of retirement planning...

Retirement savings is...a prototypical behavioral-economics problem because saving for retirement is cognitively hard (figuring out how much to save) and requires self-control...two of the most important things that are left out of traditional economics.

There are four ingredients to a good defined-contribution plan. The first is automatic enrollment. Second, we need automatic escalation, or “save more tomorrow,” to help employees increase their savings rates over time. Third, we need good default investment vehicles. And, finally, we need to stop encouraging employees to load up on company stock. For employees, if those things are available, take advantage of them. If they are not, you have to invent your own.

We’ve made good progress on the accumulation phase of retirement saving, but the decumulation phase hasn’t received nearly enough attention. This is unfortunate because the spending-down phase is even harder for individuals to solve, especially since so few people elect to annuitize their wealth.

Most economists, including me, agree that longevity insurance would make sense for a lot of people. Buy a policy that starts when you’re 75 or 80. But for reasons that would make an interesting behavioral-economics study, those policies have not gotten much attention from consumers.

the courage of "just say no" vs. the platitudes and cowardice of a yes you can't/won't do

My devotional reading these days is working through this set of excerpts by Soren Kierkegaard. Good stuff! 

Today's blurb was about the temptation of emphasizing "good intentions" and lacking the courage to "just say no".

SK's comments spring from the parable in Mt 21:28-31 which compares one son who promises to do something and doesn't-- with another son who says no but ends up doing it. (Of course, there are many acceptable special-case reasons/exceptions for why a commitment might not be fulfilled. And there are many bothersome reasons why one might say no but still do something-- e.g., out of an over-riding sense of inappropriate guilt. But this is a parable, not a dissertation!)

Nuggets from the excerpt... 

The parable is "meant to show us the danger of saying 'Yes' in too great a hurry, even if it is well meant...the yes-brother was not a deceiver when he said 'Yes,' [but he] became a deceiver when he failed to keep his promise...It is easy to think that by making a promise you have at least done part of what you promised to do, as if the promise itself were something of value. Not at all! In fact, when you do not do what you promise, it is a long way back to the truth."

This reminds me of Lewis on getting married falsely when one does not strongly intend to hold to the commitment. Why is better to pile sin upon sin? Here, if you're not going to follow through, the no is actually far better than the yes. 

Beware! The “Yes” of promise keeping is sleep-inducing. An honest “No” possesses much more promise. It can stimulate; repentance may not be far away...A “no” does not hide anything, but a yes can very easily become a deception, a self-deception...

My favorite part of this. The yeses are so easy; saying no almost always requires courage. For that reason alone, the no has under-estimated value. 

The good intention, the “Yes,” taken in vain, the unfulfilled promise leaves a residue of despair, of dejection.

This has many personal and public policy applications. First, at a personal level, if I fail to follow through on a commitment, I create damage in that moment. But I also reduce my character and undermine perceptions of my character. Beyond that, I do damage to the institution of promises and commitments. Along the same lines, divorce is both a sin on the part of at least one party-- and it does sinful damage to the institution of marriage. 

In terms of public policy, one routinely sees the triumph of self-satisfied but damaging "good intentions" from advocates of government activism-- e.g., on the Left, with health care, gun control, welfare policies, "climate change", etc.; and on the Right, with foreign policy, immigration, and a handful of social policies. But the failures leave "a residue of despair"-- at least for the objective outsider. 

Finally, this warning: "As an alcoholic constantly requires stronger and stronger drink, so the one who has fallen under the spell of good intentions and smooth-sounding declaration constantly requires more and more good intentions. And so he keeps himself from seeing that he is walking backwards."

For those who are dominated by ideology, the "residues of despair" are downplayed or ignored if at all possible. The Good-Intenders still sleep well at night, imagining that next time will be better or if only this hadn't happened or if... As such, they're in danger of reaching a point of no or unlikely return-- unable to even imagine that one can drift into this sort of error. From there, how can one recover from the ensuing blindness? 

SK warns us to be really careful of our yes's and no's-- personally and by extension, in terms of public policy. Take heed, lest you fall. 

GOP primary prediction...

More and more, I'm liking my prediction of a Cruz-Rubio battle with a continuing Carson fade and Trump out of the race by Super Tuesday (or even Iowa). There's still room for Christie too (to move to the upper tier but not to win), but I'd say the odds are relatively long on that. (Paul is my favorite among those in this motley crew, but his odds have always been and continue to be far longer.) 

Carson continues to struggle from his lack of political chops-- which for better/worse will continue to dampen enthusiasm over his candidacy. In a similar manner, Trump will fade (although more slowly) or implode (if he ever crosses a threshold for what's perceived as crazy). In his case, I think he'll pull a good business move and sell relatively high-- not wanting to risk the high probability that he'll continue to fade and end up selling low. (He'll say that he's accomplished what the GOP race needed and/or he'll hold out the opportunity of an independent run later "if needed".) 

Of course, I should close by noting that it's been far more fun and interesting to see the irony of far-greater diversity in the GOP race-- vs. the dominance of sexism and corporatism over socialism and anti-war on the Democratic side. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

on striving for a "more confident pluralism"

A nice essay by John Inazu in The Hedgehod Review, including a wonderful story about Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt...

In no particular order, barriers to a "more confident pluralism" (from all sorts of people on the Right and on the Left):
-defensiveness and fear
-ignorance and insularity
-self-righteousness and intolerance
-lack of genuine/deep relationships in general and empathy in particular
-a general fondness for using the coercive powers of govt against others