Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Universal Health Care

When I voted for Obama, I really thought he, y'know, really stood for hope and change. One of the changes I looked forward to most was universal health care. Now, no public option, no medicare buy-in. In other words, "That's not change, that's more of the same."

Why is this so difficult? We have free socialized schools, postal service, roads, police, fire departments... What's so different about health care?

We need government provided health care for the same reason we need those other government provided services. They're necessary for the proper functioning of society, and cannot be efficiently dealt with by many different entities.

I don't really care what it costs. If taxes need to be raised to make ends meet, then so be it. Raise taxes. If some rich people can't bear to part from another 1% of their money, screw 'em.

I think my favorite conservative argument against health care is that people should be responsible for themselves. Because, if you work a minimum wage job with no benefits, you deserve to die.

It's time we joined the rest of the first world, and start giving a shit about our citizens.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


So, apparently, some people at Purdue think the school newspaper, the Exponent, is just too damned liberal. So, they have their own paper, the Purdue Review. I happened to see some lying around, so I picked one up for a lark. Here's what was on the cover to give an idea of how "fair and balanced" they are.

Amidst the hilarity is an article about the "FairTax" and how wonderful it is. The idea of the FairTax is that it replaces federal income tax with federal sales tax. Apparently, this will fill the world with sunshine and roses, because sales taxes are perfect and wonderful and income taxes are mean and evil. ... Or something. According to the article, the FairTax will make taxes more simple, more transparent, be economically stimulating, and even be more progressive.

I'll admit that the FairTax as proposed is much simpler than the current tax code. But I see no reason it would stay that way. If it were to be accepted into law, it wouldn't be long before changes were made to it. Things would be added, exemptions would be included, etc. And I would say, rightly so. There's a reason the tax code is so complicated. The world is complicated, and there are a lot of ways that money can be spent, paid and otherwise exchanged. I would hope our tax code would consider those things instead of simply ignoring them.

They don't really justify how the FairTax will be more transparent, besides implying that people know how much they spend better than the size of their paycheck before taxes are taken out. That's true, but the FairTax plan obfuscates how much of what you're paying is going to the government. They deliberately use an inclusive tax system. An exclusive tax system is transparent; when you buy a $1.00 dollar candy bar, you know how much tax there is, because you pay $1.30. But with an inclusive tax system, it's not so obvious. You pay $1.00, but 23 cents go to the government, and the store gets 77.

It'll be economically stimulating, because it will take in the same amount of tax revenue as the current system, but leave citizens with more money left. Yes, you read that right. It will manage this amazing feat by taxing foreign visitors, illegal immigrants and drug lords. Um, yeah. I'm sure those people are spending just that much money.

And this is the best part. A sales tax will be more progressive. Sales taxes are regressive, practically by definition. People with less money have to spend a greater percentage of their money on necessities. There's really no way around that. Now, it does talk about a monthly rebate, that everyone would get money equal to the tax rate times the monthly poverty rate. Which makes it less regressive, sure, but it's still a sales tax, and there's really no way around that. Oh wait, no, "for reasons too technical to explain here, sales taxes are neither progressive nor regressive". Oh, now it all makes sense.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Non-Overlapping Magisteria

When attempting to reconcile religion and science, some people claim that they don't conflict. That's Stephen Jay Gould's idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). The claim is that science is concerned with how the universe works, and religion is concerned with meaning and morals, and that they are completely separate.

I disagree with this. First, why does religion get to decide meaning and morals? That seems to be philosophy to me. Of course, religion can make such judgments, but gods and the supernatural are in no way necessary for it. I'd just call it religious philosophy.

Further, I'd agree that meaning and morals aren't in science's purview. It deals only with objective truths. But, what good is meaning when it's not based on what's true? Meaning that's based on something that's not true is, well, meaningless.

And then there's always the fact that religion rarely refrains from making scientific claims. Whether or not god exists is an objective truth, and something that science should be able to study.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Final Causes in Nature

This is the final paper I wrote for my philosophy class last semester.

According to Empedocles, the universe is at times dominated by Love, and at other times by Strife. During times of Strife, things are spread apart, and the world ends up scattered. But in times of Love, things become attracted to one another, and the world reforms into a sphere. During this time, living things are generated randomly. Limbs and organs will attach and form a whole, creating all forms of living things, including monsters. “Many neckless heads sprang up. Naked arms wandered, devoid of shoulders, and eyes strayed alone, begging for foreheads.” (B 57.1-3) When a living thing happened to be organized in an appropriate and working way, they survived, and reproduced. When a living thing was disfigured and ill-formed, they were not able to survive.

This concept seems oddly prescient, and similar to the modern theory of evolution, which has a preponderance of evidence in its favor. Due to this, one could call this Empedocles' theory of evolution, though this is something of a misnomer, since evolution implies gradual change over time.

Aristotle objects to Empedocles' theory of evolution, because he claims that if it were true, there would be no final causes in nature. According to Aristotle, there are final causes in nature, therefore Empedocles' theory of evolution cannot be true.

I would say that Aristotle is wrong. Nature does not exhibit final causation. Nature merely seems to exhibit final causation; it cannot actually have final causation, because final causes require intentionality.

First, I will define some terms. The final cause is that for the sake of which something is done. If X is the final cause of Y, then Y is done for the sake of X. This is the same as Aristotle's definition.

An event is spontaneous, if it did not have a final cause. Aristotle gives two more qualifications of spontaneous: That it might have come about for the sake of something, and that it had an external cause.

The first is unnecessary. Anything might have come about for the sake of something. A rock could have fallen into a position to give a person an elevated surface to sit or climb on. A glacier may have gouged lakes into the land to give cities clean water. Because any event can (efficiently) cause other events to occur, any event can be ascribed a hypothetical final cause.

That a spontaneous event have an external cause seems to later be contradicted by Aristotle. He gives an example of a horse that saved itself spontaneously, because it did not leave the barn for the sake of safety. But the horse's leaving did not have an external cause. The horse moved itself. In either case, this particular requirement does not seem to be relevant, so it will be ignored.

Using these definitions, Aristotle's assertion that an event either has a final cause, or it is spontaneous. By the definition of spontaneous, if an event does not have a final cause, it is spontaneous. If an event is not spontaneous, it has a final cause.

However, using this definition of spontaneous, it is not clear just what is spontaneous, and what has a final purpose. Perhaps Empedocles' theory of evolution could generate living things with a final purpose, rather than spontaneously. It is important to determine what constitutes having a final cause, and what doesn't.

I propose that intentionality is required for a final cause. I would say it follows from the language of the definition: If Y is done for the sake of X, then Y is done with the intention that X follow. If X follows Y unintentionally, Y did not happen for the sake of X. I find it hard to see how it could be any other way.

Nature in general does not have intentionality. Natural forces, such as weather and fire, and plants do not have intentionality. Some animals may have a degree of intentionality. Because nature does not have intention, natural occurrences cannot have final causes, except perhaps some particular animal actions.

This concept can seem counter-intuitive. Particularly because nature seems so well-ordered. However, order does not require intention to come about. For example, a crystal forms in well-ordered grids, due to the nature of the material, and chemical laws. The molecules and atoms do not intend to form a crystalline structure. The order does not come from final causes, but from efficient causes.

This is analogous to living things. As Aristotle says, teeth grow in the same order in all humans, incisors and canine at the front, and molars at the back. This is analogous to the way that the crystal forms the same repeating pattern. Again, the teeth do not grow in the same way consistently because of a final cause. It is because of an efficient cause, the biology of humans.

Efficient causes can give the appearance of final cause. If Y is the efficient cause of X, it is easy to conclude that X is the final cause of Y, since it is frequently the case. But it is clearly not always true. For example, in the case of the rain and the corn. The rain falling is the efficient cause of the corn growing, but the corn growing is not the final cause of the rain falling.

Aristotle makes several arguments that nature exhibits final causation. The first is as above, that teeth and other natural occurrences normally come about in a certain way. According to him, this cannot come about due to spontaneity. To back this up, he appeals to common usage and says that heat in the summer, and rain in the winter are not attributed to spontaneity. (198b33-199a8)

I respond to this by saying that there is no reason that an event that happens regularly or normally can't be spontaneous. That property does not follow from the definition, and in fact, I would say that regular spontaneity is actually fairly commonplace. For example, the aforementioned crystal, or corn growing after rain. That heat in the summer and rain in the winter are not commonly referred to as spontaneous only shows that our technical definition does not exactly match the everyday use.

This may warrant attention, and a redefinition of the technical term. I don't think it's a grave concern though, as this definition seems appropriate in circumstances where the common term is used, if not where it is not used. Though, if another definition is chosen, this entire subject deserves to be critically re-evaluated, since I rely heavily on that spontaneity and final causation are mutually exclusive. A new definition may not necessarily have that property.
Another argument is that a builder building a house is analogous to a swallow building a nest. The building of the house has a final cause, for people to live in the house. Similarly, it does appear that the building of the nest has a final cause, for swallows to live in the nest. He extends the analogy to ants building ant-hills and trees growing leaves.

However, Aristotle's own argument can be used against him. In the same way that a builder is analogous to a tree growing leaves, a gardener watering flowers is analogous to rain watering crops. If a gardener watering flowers has a final cause, then rain watering crops also has a final cause. The gardener does have a final cause, therefore the rain has a final cause. But this contradicts Aristotle's conclusion that rain does not have a final cause.

This takes the same form as Aristotle's original argument, so if it is valid, this argument is too, and if this argument is invalid, the original argument is invalid. The second argument contradicts what was previously determined, so it cannot be valid. Therefore, the original argument is not valid either.

Aristotle's next argument pertains to mistakes. He claims that if a mistake is made, it is because a purpose was attempted but failed to be achieved. He continues that there are mistakes in nature, such as when an animal is born with birth defects. Therefore, there is a purpose in nature.

Aristotle's does not support his first claim that mistakes imply purpose. But this seems to serve well as a definition. A mistake is when a purpose was attempted, but failed. From this definition, it can be deduced that when a mistake occurs, it had a final cause, and it was in vain.

But determining a purpose based off of a mistake is difficult if not impossible. For example, consider the famous movie, Star Wars. In that movie, Han Solo brags about how fast his ship is and states, “It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.” The parsec is a unit of distance, not time, so Han Solo must have misspoken. But is this a mistake on George Lucas's part? Without knowing any more information than that, it is not possible to determine whether George Lucas mistakenly used the wrong term, or if using the term incorrectly was his intention, perhaps to characterize Han Solo as somewhat uneducated.

In order to determine whether a particular action was a mistake or not, the purpose must be known beforehand. Attempting to go the other way around, by determining purpose from a mistake is dubious at best.

Going back to nature, it is unclear what a mistake is. An animal born with a birth defect does seem at first to be a mistake. Certainly it is unusual and not what typically happens. But that alone is not enough to decide if it is a mistake or not. Consider the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Picasso. Leonardo's and Michelangelo's paintings are very realistic, while Picasso's paintings are not at all. This does not, however mean that Picasso's paintings were mistakes. Also, consider the crystal again. Occasionally, the process that makes the repeated pattern is interrupted, or in some way disrupted. Then, slight irregularities are introduced into the crystal. These irregularities are no more mistakes, than the regular pattern is intentional.

A possible objection that someone could make against the idea that final causation requires intention, that Aristotle did not make, is that machines can be said to have final causes. This is very common. A toaster heats up for the sake of toasting bread. A garage door opener spins its motor for the sake of opening the garage door. These machines do not have intentionality, but they do have final cause.

My response to this is that it is not the intentionality of the machine that goes toward the final cause, but the intentionality of the human that either made the machine or used the machine. In this way, the machine itself does not need intention to have a final cause.In this way, nature could be considered to have a final cause if there is some kind of creator god with intentionality to give it one.

This particular aspect is outside the scope of this paper. Suffice to say, nature, on its own, has no final cause.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Free market socialism

So, here's an idea I've had for a while now. I'm not sure why I've never heard anybody else espouse a similar idea. It's probably unworkable or infeasible for some reason or another, but that doesn't usually stop people from supporting an idea.

The fundamental idea is that the free market is the most efficient way to distribute goods that are scarce and luxuries. But it's not so good at distributing necessities it usually - it's vulnerable to price gouging and leaving people without the bare necessities. Socialism and welfare are good ways to ensure that people have what they need, but can stifle innovation.

So, my idea is a combination of the two. The government provides to all of its citizens the bare necessities of life. Things it already provides, education, police, firefighters, etc. And things it doesn't, like healthcare, simple food and housing and things like that.

Everything else - cars, computers, fancy food and housing, etc. - can be provided in a free market with little regulations, primarily for health and environmental concerns. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Free Market, Rationality and the Prisoner's Dilemma

Something that free market ideologues like to talk about is rational self-interest. It's a simple concept; everyone will be better off if we look after our own best interests. On the face of it, it doesn't look too bad. If I have cows and you have chickens, and I want some chickens and you want some cows, then we can both benefit by working to satisfy our own wants.

Certainly there are cases where this works, but consider a thought experiment: the prisoner's dilemma. The setup goes like this.

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

Here it is in table form. It's written in terms of utility instead of disutility, and the numbers don't exactly match up, but it's only the relations that really matter.
9 / 9
0 / 10
10 / 0
1 / 1

Deciding which action to take using rational self-interest, the answer is to defect. This is because defecting dominates cooperation - no matter what the other prisoner does, you will always be better off (if only slightly) by defecting. If the other prisoner cooperates, you can get 9 utils by cooperating or 10 by defecting, and if the other prisoner defects, you can get 0 utils by cooperating or 1 by defecting.

But this results in a situation that is obviously not optimal. Both prisoners defect, and end up in the worst overall situation. The best outcome would be for both prisoners to cooperate, but they have no incentive to not defect.

This particular situation may seem contrived, but there are plenty of situations in real life that follow the same pattern. Wikipedia gives a lot of examples. This poses a problem to the initial premise that everyone looking after their own best interest will result in the best overall situation.

It seems to me that a better way to go about it is not to use rational self-interest, but rather rational pan-interest. Instead of comparing different actions by how the results affect you, compare them by how the results affect everyone together.

Of course, in the real world, this solution has problems: how do you know what's best for everyone else, how do you avoid getting deceived or tricked, etc. But I think ordinary rational self-interest has most of the same problems, in real life.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Atheism and Agnosticism

I consider myself to be both an atheist and an agnostic. Most people would consider that to be a contradiction - that atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive. They're going by definitions that are something like "Atheism is being sure there is no god" and "Agnosticism is not knowing whether or not there is a god." I don't like those definitions. I don't think they're useful, for two main reasons.

  1. From a practical standpoint, they're the same. Neither the atheist nor the agnostic pray or go to church, or do anything religious like that. In terms of how they live their lives, there's no significant difference between the two. But internal belief can be just as important as external behavior, which leads to point 2.
  2. It excludes a middle ground. Under this scheme, it seems there are two options of non-belief. Atheists think there is absolutely no possibility that god exists, and agnostics think it's fifty-fifty between there being a god, and there not being a god. Some people are somewhat more inclusive and consider any uncertainty to be agnosticism, so if you think there's a 10% chance of god existing, or a 1% chance, or a 0.0000001% chance, you're an agnostic. But then, virtually no one is actually an atheist, and it's a pointless distinction.
So, here are the definitions I prefer. Atheism is not believing in god, not necessarily being sure he doesn't exist, just probably. Agnosticism is believing that it is not possible to know for sure either way. Atheism is about ontology - what exists. Agnosticism is about epistemology - what we can know.

My reason for being an atheist is simple: I don't see any evidence for god, and the logical default is to conclude non-existence, unless there's reason not to.

My reason for being an agnostic is somewhat more complicated. First off, I'm talking about gods that are supposed to be omnipotent. Most everyone will agree that an omnipotent god can't be disproven. It's possible that he could just be hiding. Using his unlimited power to evade any attempt at detection. I also contend that it is impossible to prove that god does exist. Suppose god did reveal himself, and to prove it, switched the positions of Earth and Jupiter, but preventing any adverse effects on the Earth. Astronomers could verify that in fact the Earth and Jupiter had been switched. But this could merely be the work of some super-powerful alien. Not enough to prove god's omnipotence. So, god moves the whole solar system to another place in the galaxy, an even more powerful feat. But that again doesn't prove that he's all-powerful. So, he moves the galaxy, or a hundred galaxies or a billion galaxies. No matter how powerful a miracle was performed, there is always another one just a little bit more so. Now, all this would of course prove that there is some super-powerful entity, who from our perspective, is effectively omnipotent, but there's no way to show actual omnipotence, and if it's not omnipotent, it's not god.

Friday, October 23, 2009

On Liberals and Conservatives

Have you ever heard of TED? There are lots of cool, thought-provoking talks. To the point, this (follow the link for a transcript).

Jonathan Haidt talks about the different foundations of liberal and conservative morals. Everyone's morality is based on five different foundations: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Liberals mainly consider harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, but not the other three. Conservatives consider all five approximately equally.

He didn't say exactly how he determined these things, so maybe the studies involved were biased or something, and this is actually inaccurate. But in my experience, this seems mostly accurate. I know I care far more about the liberal foundations than the conservative foundations. Most of the people I know too. And when it comes to actual political policies, it seems that way too. Liberals support gay marriage for equality. Conservatives oppose it for authority.

But Haidt continues that building and maintaining social order requires all five foundations. The first time I listened to the speech, I didn't believe him. But as I've thought about it more, I've come to think that maybe he's right. Or at least, not totally wrong. I still disagree with purity/sanctity, I don't see the point of it. But in-group/loyalty and authority/respect, while they might not be strictly necessary, they are definitely helpful. In particular, the authority bit.

Consider a country with a strong, powerful leader, compared to one with a weak, impotent leader. The former country will be able to do things, and get things done. The latter country won't. Large groups of people need to be organized in order to acheive anything, and people just aren't good at self-organizing. A strong authority and group loyalty help them do that.

Then the question is which authority. Not all authority is good. Stalin was a strong authority and maintained a social order, but his authority isn't exactly desirable. So, you can't just point to authority to determine morality. But neither can you simply switch your desired authority at a whim, since that's the same as having no authority at all.

It's a tricky thing. You can't question all authority, nor can you question none. Like all things in life, it's a balance thing. Question authority when it is necessary, and respect it when it is necessary.

Monday, October 19, 2009


I've decided to start a blog. Why? Why not? This blog will be about anything that happens to catch my fancy. Philosophy, computers, books, linguistics, politics. Whatever.

A little about myself: I'm an existentialist, atheist, socialist, twenty year old male. I'm currently a senior studying Physics and Computer Science at Purdue University.

The blog is named after Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.