Category Archives: Philosophy

Fifteen things I know about God

I’m not a big fan of people who try to argue you into believing in God. Despite a long history of really tortured attempts at a so-called ontological argument for God, which usually involve some sort of lame circular logic along the lines of “something perfect wouldn’t fail to exist, so God must exist,” logic cannot be used to prove God exists, let alone understand its full nature if it does. Hume’s argued that there’s no such thing as an a priori proof of the existence of anything.

Having said this, logic, restricted to proper domains, can still be used to make conclusions about what God cannot be. And that’s still fun, right? An example: God is not the San Diego Chicken. Proof: the San Diego Chicken was created by Ted Giannoulas, who was created by God. Something cannot create itself, thus God is not the San Diego Chicken. Quod est demonstratum. Along the same lines, here are a few more things I believe one can prove.

God is not:

  1. Angry.
  2. A Yankees fan.
  3. The kind of dude who would “choose” a group of people.
  4. At all disappointed that the Lakers lost.
  5. A man.
  6. A woman.
  7. Alanis Morrisette.
  8. Going to pay a lot for this muffler.
  9. Saying a word.
  10. Spelled with a ‘Z’.
  11. White.
  12. Wearing any pants.
  13. Up.
  14. Responsible for your touchdown.
  15. Particularly concerned with helping you avoid suffering.

Proofs are left as an exercise to the reader. A hint: first prove the lemma that God is not human, proceeding similarly to the proof for the non-divinity of the San Diego Chicken. All else follows fairly trivially from that, except maybe 13, which requires group theory.

Maybe “moral hazard” should be taken more literally

In this whole mortgage mess, the phrase “moral hazard” comes up an awful lot. When capitalism gets out of line, I think it’s always tempting for capitalists to look at incentives, say they reward bad behavior, and then focus thereafter on the incentives as the problem. But aren’t there always incentives for bad behavior? Isn’t that the whole point of cheating; because if it works it pays off?

Another common phrase these days is “incentivization,” an Orwellian neologism that implies the only thing keeping us from turning into complete savages and pillaging our neighbors is that we are otherwised directly compensated for not doing so. It’s a conceit of academic economists, I think, who hate the idea that there are aspects of a good society that can’t be understood with an equation.

The main problem with the mortgage debacle is pretty simple, even if the finances aren’t: some bad people cheated. There are ways to fight that, but not ways to guarantee it never happens. There is no system in the world that will eliminate every reward for bad behavior. The FNM managers probably broke laws and certainly violated their fiduciary responsibility, at the very least, but we’re to believe that the real problem was the moral hazard created by their implicit government backing? Chicken shit. The modern world is rife with moral hazard: we are almost never held accountable for our actions on behalf of others, and most of us work in situations where we are on the hook for very little of what is at stake. What ultimately keeps people from taking all manner of advantage of the myriad safety nets in our world (the GSEs are just an extreme example) is something that is not at all fashionable to discuss: morality. Not the religious pious type, but the social-minded morality that compells one to act honorably even if we haven’t been direcly incentivized to do so by some board of managers. Because cheating really does work out quite well for the individual who does the cheating.

These Wall Street crooks should be detested as pariahs, not seen as the inevitable victims of a poorly designed reward system. This is not to say we need no laws, or that incentives should be ignored, just that they are neccesarily but not at all sufficient conditions to a proper functioning society. Integrity cannot be regulated into people.

Fairness versus justice

For a group that is so focused fairness and justice, Democratic leaders seem to have a really shaky understanding of at least one of them. From watching their tortured machinations in trying to handle the Florida and Michigan primaries, the nation is learning a lot about the way Democratic politicians think, and might help explain what they mean when they speak of “social justice.”

In my book, fairness and justice are distinct. In general, justice is hard to define; Plato wrote a very long book trying to do so. In this context, however, I believe justice simply means keeping your word. Even if it results in unfairness (as all decisions in life ultimately do). When Florida’s democratic leadership foolishly and arrogantly decided to go against their word and move up their primary, it was unfair to their citizens, because it meant–as they should’ve known–the disenfranchisement of their voters. The damage was done then. The just thing to do is keep the rules intact and not seat the delegates. The unfairness of this, and I agree it is, is something the voters of Michigan and Florida should take up with the perpetrators of it. If an organization sets up a rule, and all parties agree to it, you have a contract. A just society honors its contracts, plain and simple. Considerations of fairness may inform which contracts we choose to enter, but not on whether or not we keep to them.

The fact that the Democrats consider keeping promises, following rules and dealing with the consequences of one’s actions completely secondary to weakminded attempts at making everybody feel happy and entitled is very telling of their leadership. It’s also emblematic of the kind of thinking that is often behind their efforts towards social “justice.” To wit, there are a lot of parallels between Democrats’ baby-splitting solution to the Florida and Michegan delegates, and their proposed bailouts of mortgage-holders. Sure, everybody will be happy in the short term, but what kind of precedent does it create? Why follow rules when there are no consequences for them?

Of course, the Republicans may be worse; these days, it seems, they are utterly unjust merely as matter of convenience to themselves. What a great choice we have.

How modern art can be so horrid

Every day I walk by Gehry’s Stata center, which overall I have to admit is one of the more interesting and visually appealing modern buildings. The “centerpiece” of the building, however, is this bit of architectural self-abuse:

Stata Center

The building cost almost half a billion dollars to make, and over 15 million dollars went to the architect, Frank Gehry. It was intended to be a masterpiece on the vanguard of modern architecture, representing MIT’s engineering audacity. Upon its completion the head of MIT’s campus development proudly boasted of the genius of the building, breathlessly noting the way the snorkel of the central section playfully echoes and mocks the radar dish at the top of the neighboring Green building. The head of the computer science department waxed poetic about the way the light interacts with the angles and the “spaces.” This kind of guileless, sychophantic adoration by intellectuals in the academic community is revealing of the culture in which contemporary art manages to flourish despite its near general popular rejection (in NYC, the attendance at the Met is five times that of MOMA). [Update: As pointed out by a commenter, this may be a specious argument to use.] What’s most telling is the self-conscious way the praise must always be justified in (pseudo) intellectual terms, as they try to hitch their ego to the train of the artist.

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