Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Submitted without further comment: News Corp sells MySpace for $35M mostly in stock.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

One Last Bit Of Nozick

Last post on Anarchy, etc., I promise. I wanted to close with Nozick's description of Utopia which, for whatever reason, I found strangely moving:

The conclusion to draw is that there will not be one kind of community existing and one kind of life led in utopia. Utopia will consist of utopias, of many different and divergent communities in which people lead different kinds of lives under different institutions. Some kinds of communities will be more attractive to most than others; communities will wax and wane. People will leave some for others or spend their whole lives in one. Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others. (p. 312)

That seems a worthy vision with which it is hard to argue. I wanted to write it down so that, whenever I catch someone saying that libertarians are heartless monsters, I can point to it and ask what, exactly, they find objectionable about that vision.

I Was Going To Write About That God-Awful Karen Zacharias Column

... but Jill beat me to it.

A Conversation With A Christian

I'm a godless heather who lives in Seattle and works with computers, so I rarely come into contact with anyone who's recognizably Christian, much less someone with an evangelical bent. However, I recently took a new job doing software sales and got paired up with a sales guy who is exactly that. So far it's been an interesting experience given that I've never had the opportunity to converse with such a person at length about religious topics. I recently had the chance to chat with him, at length, about Leviticus, free will, and the purpose of ritual; I imagine y'all will probably find the conversation interesting. If I end up having more of the same this may become an occasional series.

The backstory is that we were in Mexico City and I was describing some of the more extreme practices associated with Semana Santa to which I'd been exposed on a previous visit. He's of the opinion that such folks have gotten it totally wrong, that they're missing the point of The Crucifixion. Gotta give him points for that; it's a moderately insightful answer which shows that he's actually thinking about religion instead of reflexively reciting dogma.

Anyhow, his observation gave me the opportunity to talk about fingers and moons; he hadn't ever heard that one before, but thought it was apropos. And that led, in turn, to talking about the Christian Dominionist contingent on Capitol Hill and their unwavering support of Israel1. That's where things got really interesting. Dude knows his Bible backwards and forwards (at least from a rote memorization standpoint... more on that later); whatever church he belongs to they clearly take "Bible study" seriously. He started talking about the Book of Revelations being an allegory about the desired future state of The Church and how it has to be read in conjunction with Daniel and Numbers (I believe those were the books he mentioned).

He wound up that particular portion of the dialogue by saying something to the effect that the single, consistent theme of The Bible is love and salvation. At which point I said "Well, what about Leviticus?", thinking "It's all well and good to say that The Bible preaches a message of love, but you've got this random-ass atavism hanging out that you've got to explain". I'm not sure what kind of reply I expected; as noted above I haven't talked theology with an evangelical before. I did not, however, expect the reply that I got, namely a half-hour exegesis on how Mosaic sacrificial ritual foreshadowed The Crucifixion.

What caught my attention early in that portion of the conversation was his statement that Leviticus (and, by extension, The Bible) has to be understood in historical context. Per my friend Leviticus exists because the Hebrews forgot their religion while enslaved in Egypt. That's certainly not an unreasonable hypothesis; a similar process of forgetting among the conversos/Marranos and their descendants has been well-documented. Except The Bible says that the Yahweh cult was a post-Exodus innovation; whatever religion they had prior to Exodus bore no relation to the practices laid out in the Pentateuch. Consider the following:

And the Lord said to Moses, 'Write down all these instructions, for they represents the terms of my covenant with you and with Israel.' (Exodus 34:27)
That makes it sound like a totally new deal rather than a rehash of some pre-existing covenant, yes? How do you reconcile the above statement with the notion that Leviticus is a reminder of previous practice?

Which brings me to the topic of my friend's views vis-a-vis the truth of The Bible. He doesn't believe that its inerrant nor, thankfully, does he believe that it's an authoritative document to which all of humanity must conform its behavior. He has also said some things which makes it sound like he's iffy on (or, perhaps, indifferent to) its historicity as a whole. He told me that he was conversant with its contents prior to his conversion to Christianity; what pushed him over into conversion was some sort of personal experience of the numinous. His take, as far as I've been able to suss out, is that The Bible is a good story with a positive message of love and hangs together well (provided your apologetics are sufficiently elaborate). That, combined with his own conversion experience, is enough to convince him that Christianity Is True.2

Which brings me to the meat of this story, a fundamental realization I've had as a resulting of talking to him: He's not interested in having a logical, rigorously consistent belief system. For all the emphasis that his church puts on learning The Bible he's still fundamentally feeling (rather than thinking) his way to his truth. For example, I asked him if the Romans/Jews/whomever could have not crucified Jesus. He said it had to happen but that each individual person in that particular drama chose whether or not to go along. To me that's not a satisfactory answer; the fact that God dictated the outcome of the actions of N people is only slightly better, from a free will point of view, than if ey'd dictated each persons' actions individually. I was going to point this out to him, but as I listened to him speak I realized that he simply wouldn't care about that kind of abstract result.

I literally cannot argue with him (most of the time, anyway) because our personal epistemic systems are so far removed from each other. I think that maybe, if I can find Biblically-supported examples where the contradictions are glaring enough, I might be able to gain a toehold. The crucifixion example seemed to give him at least a moment's pause, so something along those lines may yet at least get him to stop and think. If given the chance I'm going to ask him why, if God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, does he behave like a stern-but-loving father? Wouldn't an entity possessing such characteristics be utterly alien to us? I wonder how much my friend knows about Gnosticism...

A larger point here is that, as mentioned above, my friend's faith is largely benign. It may lead him to believe counter-factual things (what are his views on global warming?), but apart from that he's bothering no one. What do you do when you encounter someone who's similarly feeling their way to the truth but is not so benign? Like the Christian Dominionists I mentioned earlier... they write laws and they (literally) can't be reasoned with. It seems to me that if you find yourself arguing directly with someone's theology you've already lost.

A better tactic, which I think cuts through a lot of the bullcrap about "framing", is to think about epistemology directly. Are there a) places where there's enough agreement about basic facts that you can have a productive dialogue or b) means by which the distance between agreed upon facts can be closed? Absent either one of those and you're wasting your time and breath.

1 And really, how often do you get to use the phrase "immanentize the eschaton" in casual conversation?
2 Though he's also made statements to the effect that Mormons and Jehova's Witnesses aren't "really Christian". Knowing his criteria for making this determination would be enlightening.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Does It Count As Voluntary If The Bus Driver Was Drunk?

More on Anarchy, State, And Utopia, this time in regards to discussion of marriage and voluntary exchange. Nozick proposes the following rule for determing whether a person's actions are voluntary:

Whether a person's actions are voluntary depends on what it is that limits his alternatives. If facts of nature do so, the actions are voluntary. (I may voluntarily walk to someplace I would prefer to fly to unaided.) Other people's actions place limits on one's available opportunities. Whether this makes one's resulting action non-voluntary depends upon whether these others had the right to act as they did. (p. 262)

Which seems way, way off to me; either he's decided to offer his own, idiosyncratic definition of "voluntary" or he's just completely missed the boat on this one. It seems to me that the question of whether an act is voluntary (or coerced) turns not on how one arrived at a particular choice but rather on the set of anticipated outcomes the choice might generate.

Nozick illustrates his definition by way of a marriage scenario. Rather than writing out the entire passage, which is somewhat lengthy, I'll direct you to p. 263 in the book and summarize as follows:

  • There are 26 men arranged in descending order of desirability from A to Z.
  • There are 26 women (A' through Z') similarily arranged.
  • A marries A' by mutual consent, leaving B to marry B', C to marry C', and so on.
  • At the end of things Z and Z' are left with the choice to marry (or not). Nozick asserts that this decision is voluntary.

I agree that the decision is voluntary, but perhaps for different reasons than Nozick. Let's consider 2 counter examples:

  • Example 1: Suppose that A through Y and A' through Y' all get on a bus to go sightseeing in the Swiss Alps. Unbeknownst to them the driver is roaring drunk and drives the lot of them off a very high cliff, killing everyone aboard. Z/Z' are left to marry or not as they see fit, a decision which would almost certainly be considered "voluntary" according to the common understanding of the word.
  • Example 2: Same scenario as Example 1, but the driver of the bus is stone cold sober. Instead, an avalanche sweeps the bus off the road and over the aforementioned cliff. Z/Z' are faced with exactly the same range of choices as in Example 1, though this time their choices have been limited by a "fact of nature" rather than an illegitmate act (drunk driving).

The above illustrate why I think it's wrong to focus solely on the set of available alternatives when considering whether an act is voluntary or coerced; the anticipated outcomes of the decision are clearly relevant as well. I believe Examples 1 and 2 to be pretty much a slam-dunk; it seems absurd to think that the determination of whether Z/Z' are marrying voluntarily should turn on whether the other 25 couples were killed by an avalanche or a drunken driver. And what happens if Z/Z' don't know the exact cause of death? How can facts which they do not know be at all relevant to the question of whether they are acting of their own volition?

The fundamental flaw with Nozick's definition of voluntary action is that it's a path function; what matters is not the spectrum of possible outcomes, but only how one arrived at the choice. This seems to run counter to the whole concept of volition; choosing is an inherently forward looking process wherein you (as a rational actor) balance the anticipated costs and benefits of each available course of action and select the one which most appeals to you. How you arrive at a particular choice matters only to the extent that it shapes the anticipated outcomes available to you.

Of course, the real question is what constitutes "coercion" under this formulation? Consider Nozick's example of someone who must work at some menial task or face starvation. Does ey choose of eir own free will to take the job? And how does this differ from the situation where someone forces em to work at gunpoint? Those are tough questions for which I don't claim to have anything approaching a complete answer. My gut says that in both situations (starvation and gunpoint) the person so affected is acting with the same amount of volition (which we needn't specify); what differs are the external circumstances driving the person to that choice. So perhaps we should focus on these immediate (rather than historic) extrinsic factors and leave the concept of free will (if such a beast truly even exists) to someone else.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Marketing Fail

I'm telling ya', you subscribe to Reason and all of a sudden the crazies come out of the woodwork. Backwoods Home Magazine somehow thinks that I might be interested in their wares... have they noticed that I rent a house in Seattle? I want to homestead like I want another hole in my head.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Wilt Chamberlain and the Lockean Proviso

As mentioned previously I'm currently working my way (slowly) through Nozick's Anarchy, State, And Utopia. It's definitely interesting, especially the bits he has to say about Rawls, and the fact that he takes great exception to Rawls' social determinism raises my hopes that I'm not a complete idiot.

Anyhow, I noticed an interesting conflict between Nozick's "Wilt Chamberlain" example and some of the things he says later on about the Lockean Proviso. Specifically, he states the following in regards to people giving Mr. Chamberlain money to watch him play basketball:

If D1 was a just distribution, and people voluntarily moved from it to D2, transferring parts of their shares they were given under D1 (what was it for if not to do something with?), isn't D2 also just? If the people were entitled to dispose of the resources to which they were entitled (under D1), didn't this include their being entitled to give it to, or exchange it with, Wilt Chamberlain? (p. 161)

And yet, later on, he has the following to say in relation to trying to corner the market in a particular resource:

But still, we can imagine, at least, that something like this occurs: someone makes simultaneous secret to separate owners of a substance, each of whom sells assuming he can easily purchase more from the other owners; or some natural catastrophe destroys all of the supply of something except that in one person's possession. The total supply could not be permissibly appropriated by one person at the beginning. His later acquisition of it all does not show that the original appropriation violated the proviso (even by a reverse argument similar to the one above that tried to zip back from Z to A). Rather, it is the combination of the original appropriation plus all the later transfers and actions that violates the Lockean proviso. (p. 180)

These situations look nearly identical to me. In the market-cornering example, as in the Chamberlain example, there is an initial distribution D1, which is presumed to be just, which is subsequently transformed into D2 through a series of voluntary exchanges, each of which is just when taken in isolation. How is it, then, that Nozick can claim that the resulting distribution is unjust?

I believe that the problem here is that Nozick pays scant attention to the emergent properties of systems. He certainly acknowledges that such creatures exist; the violation of the Lockean Proviso in the market-cornering example is a clear example of such a thing. Similarly, his discussion of threshold conditions earlier in the book makes it clear that there are some behaviors which are tolerable in individual instances but unacceptable once they become prevalent.

If we restate the short-form principle of transfer (p. 160) to explicitly take into account the Lockean Proviso we arrive at something like the following:

From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen, provided that the aggregate of these choices does not violate the Lockean Proviso.

Nozick seems to think that this is a non-issue, stating that "the free operation of a market system will not actually run afoul of the Lockean proviso" (p. 182). Apart from this being an unsupported assertion it seems to me that it leaves the door open for clever counterarguments to the Wilt Chamberlain scenario above.

Firstly, the Lockean Proviso ("enough and as good left in common for others") turns explicitly on the definitions of "enough", "as good", and "left in common". I suspect that Nozick could debate Rawls and Sen on the meaning of "enough" and "as good" until the cows come home and not reach a mutually-agreeable conclusion. Moreover, its not entirely clear what the phrase "left in common" means in contemporary society: I might be able to appropriate enough through my own labor if I lived in the wilds of Montana, but there's nothing left to appropriate in downtown Los Angeles. Does this imply that I have to move to Montana or, instead, does it imply that the distribution of goods in downtown Los Angeles violate the Lockean Proviso?

A suitably motivated individual might construct a counterargument based solely on this ambiguity, but there's another issue as well: the Lockean Proviso is axiomatic and, thus, arbitrary. If Nozick is going to attach an arbitrary condition (in this case the Lockean Proviso) to the principle of transfer must he not also grant that courtesy to others? I'm unwilling to assert that there aren't other, plausible limiting conditions which might be attached to the principle of transfer which would invalidate the transfer of money to Wilt Chamberlain.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Hey, Amanda, Look...

I'm tired of people saying that there aren't any genuine libertarians out there. Look, for the love of god and all that's holy, Reason just put out an entire special issue dedicated to prison reform. Hardly typical fare for golf-pants wearing, Pearl Jam listening, Republican weenies. What the hell do they (and I, for that matter) have to do to get you to acknowledge that there are people who consistently support civil liberties across the board?

See also my general desden for Rand Paul's recent statements.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Rand Paul Double-Take

Someone help me out here. How does a guy who says

We don't want our records to be sifted through by a government without judicial review... They don't want to vote on this because they know the American people agree with us.

then go on to say

I'm not for profiling people on the color of their skin, or on their religion, but I would take into account where they've been traveling and perhaps, you might have to indirectly take into account whether or not they've been going to radical political speeches by religious leaders. It wouldn't be that they are Islamic. But if someone is attending speeches from someone who is promoting the violent overthrow of our government, that's really an offense that we should be going after — they should be deported or put in prison.

Not only does that not seem like a coherent stance to take from a theoretical standpoint, but it doesn't seem like good politics either. The people to whom Rand Paul is pandering in the second quote must surely also disagree with his position vis-a-vis the Patriot Act.

You gotta wonder what's actually driving Sen. Paul; sometimes he takes libertarian positions and sometimes he doesn't, but its not all all clear what motivates him to go one way or the other. Even the hypothesis that he's racist, which seems to get trotted out from time to time, doesn't have much explanatory power in this instance. He's against the Patriot Act even though it certainly inconveniences non-Caucasians more than it does Caucasians while, at the same time, suggesting measures that would entangle all those sovereign citizen/militia types. Honestly, the best answer at this point is that he's just not thinking about things very hard.

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