Tuesday, January 25, 2005

It's so big, Mr Treasurer!*

The tax deduction offered for the costs of managing your tax affairs is, of course, one of the most egregious examples of upper-class welfare. The public sector loses two ways: once, by encouraging people to use tax minimisation services, and twice, by paying people who might otherwise be gainfully employed doing something useful to provide these services. For the love of God, Montresor!

So I always do my tax myself. Some years it comes back covered with little notes telling me to tick boxes I forgot to tick, or provide documents I neglected to provide in my lackadaisical way. That's what happened this year, so I fixed it up and sent it back again. Thus my assesment arrived a few days ago, charging me interest of $105 on a tax bill of $778 or thereabouts- presumably charged over the two and a half months since the 31st of October.

I don't mind paying $883, since it is less than the tax bill I usually end up with, but it is a little embarassing having a government that is prepared to charged such Yakuza-like interest rates.

Dante put the usurers in the same circle of Hell as the Sodomites. Any halfway decent 14th century moral theologian could have made a convincing case for letting out the sinners whose sin was victimless, but nobody that I know of ever made any logical argument for freeing the usurers: they just kind of slipped under the radar. I know I would feel much happier living in a country whose leaders made up their budget shortfalls by producing gay porn, instead of engaging in the vile practice of usury. Then there would at least be the chance they might accidentally create something arty with enduring aesthetic value.

(* : The title refers, of course, to the budget surplus...)

Friday, January 21, 2005

On Our Ten Dollar Bill

...is Mary Gilmore, who never started any wars that I know of, though I think she did go off to Paraguay with those utopian colonists for a while. This is the only poem of hers that I can remember - I will not look it up, but just write it down as I remember it, so you can have the fun of correcting me:

I have grown past hate and bitterness
I see the world as one
But though I can no longer hate
My son is still my son

All men at God's round table sit
And all men must be fed
But this loaf, in my hand
This loaf is my son's bread

I thought of this poem immediately when I read Marco's post a while back about how his emotional involvement with deaths of the very old and young is limited to those people he has known personally. Unfortnately, my attempt to expand and clarify this connection collapsed in a tangle of non sequiturs. I may try again later.

Anyway, to continue my penitential theme, here is a link I found to Ambrose Bierce's enchanting short story, Chickamauga. It is only very short. You should read it, if you haven't already.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Poll Results

The vote of Lincoln's cabinet in favour of abandoning Fort Sumter to South Carolina: 5 to 2.

(In penance for thinking uncharitable thoughts about the baby-killing atheists of the Blue States, I am reading a 2400 page history of the U.S. Civil War I found in the library...)

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Abe Quotes

1848: "Any people anywhere being inclined and having the power have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right- a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world."

1861: "No state upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union ... I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the states ... the power confided in me will be used to hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government..."

Monday, January 17, 2005

The War Reconsidered

Okay, we have this Republican U.S. President elected by a minority of the popular vote (39.9%, vs. 47.6% for the Democrats). He is generally considered to be pretty thick. His opponents engage in hyperbole about how he will pander to religious extremists, and go so far as to say they will leave the country if he is elected. He presides over an unprecedented destruction of civil liberties in the U.S. while engaging in a war of dubious legality, primarily to demonstrate that the U.S. is a big tough country that won't be pushed around. This war is cloaked in all kinds of extravagant rhetoric about freedom and wholesome American values, naturally. Millions of people die. And for all that they put him on the five dollar bill...

Sunday, January 16, 2005

One Giant Leap for Mankind

One clause in the grievously under-reported Sudanese peace-treaty stands out. In six years, there will be referendum on whether the South of Sudan remains part of the country or secedes. If this all happens, and they elect not to stay, this will be the first time the artificial borders drawn by the Imperialist powers are changed to reflect the facts on the ground! I am sure it will not be the last, and not before time. Nothing has probably screwed Africa up more than being cut into totally artificial countries, bundling ancient enemies together and dividing ancient cultures among several new nations. Eritrea and East Timor don't count, because they were just reverting to a different set of Imperialist lines on the map. It might not be Sudan first: I suppose it is possible that Puntland and the other fragments of the failed state Somalia might be recognised as independent countries before 2011, or Iraq might be split up, or an internationally-recongised border drawn between Israel and a state of Palestine: but one way or another, it looks like the lines made-up by people with funny mustaches back in the 19th century are finally being shifted to more sensible places...

Does God suck?

I notice that the post-Tsunami argument about God's benevolence continues to drag on in the letters columns of the newspapers- perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the vanishingly small percentage of the population who will have read my post on the subject.

If you balk at subatomic particles that are moral agents, I have thought of an intermediate case. It is unsatisfactory as a general argument, because it does not apply to planet-killing events like giant asteroids and gamma-ray bursts, but will do nicely for common or garden variety natural disasters. Maybe, if our ancestors had made all the optimal moral choices on our way here, we would have handy Web-Slinger-style super senses that would let us know when disasters were coming and let us get out of the way...

(Perhaps the only thing in favour of this bit of special pleading is that it is better than the "God works in mysterious ways" cop-out...)

Saturday, January 15, 2005

On Metaphors

What is it with, "like a tree that stands by the waterside, we shall not be moved"?
When I think of the waterside, I tend to think of the edge of a river, and when I think of a river, I imagine a thing that periodically rises up to overwhelm the countryside, sweeping away everything along its banks. So the waterside seems like the worst place to be if you don't want to be moved. I guess the song might suppose that humans, rather than nature, are doing the tree-removal, in which case it would make sense to keep the trees near the edge of the water to stabilise the banks. But it does seem to be a rather peculiar and dubiously-applicable metaphor.

Similarly, there is a hymn (which none of you might ever have heard) that says: "Peace is flowing like a river, flowing out for you and me, flowing out into the desert..." Now, having grown up somewhere where there actually were rivers flowing out into a desert, my experience is that they either: (1) Don't flow at all; or, (2) Flow in a seething mass of brown rapids, sweeping away unlucky motor vehicles and the aforementioned waterside trees. Thus, a river flowing out into the desert would seem to be a good metaphor for the pre-peace injustice-->justice transition, with much hanging of collaborators from lampposts and tracer bullets lighting up the sky over the besieged Ministry of Information, but is hardly very appropriate for peace per se...

Thursday, January 13, 2005

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master, that's all."

Can church and state ever really be separate in such a way that one is not the master of the other? Or is it like the 'separate but equal' doctrine of the pre-segregation South? Separate, but one a little more equal than the other?

I don't like the idea of the Church being subordinate to the state (historical examples: Prussia, Russia...). I do like the idea of the state being subordinate to a supranational Church (historical examples: Christendom, the early Caliphate). But, this seems completely impractical and impossible to implement at the current time. So I have conceded that it is better for them to be separate, hoping that the State will not stomp all over the Church too much...

American-style separation of Church and State will work best if the Churches involved do not have any particular ideas about how the State should be run- if they assume that God will look after his own in this world, I guess. American-style separation of Church and State will work poorly if the Churches are opposed to the State, even to the passive degree of forbidding their adherent from participating in the workings of democracy- e.g., in Italy before Mussolini, Catholics were not supposed to vote or work for the government. If a Church has very strong ideas about what the laws of a country should be, it will cop flak for voicing them (e.g., from people like Kerry O'Brien), on the basis that the State is leaving the Church alone, so back off. Yet, voicing those ideas might be absolutely essential to what that Church is.

I am reading a book ("The Judgment of the Nations") which suggests that 'Western Democracy' is an indirect product of Calvinism. You probably know that I don't have much time for Calvinism, but when you think about which countries have been relatively democratic over the last few hundred years, it seems to fit. Here is a big long quote:

"In an age when the Papacy was dependent on the Habsburg monarchies and when Catholics accepted the theories of passive obedience and the divine right of kiongs, the Calvinists asserted the Divine Right of Presbytery and declared that "the Church was the foundation of the world" and that it was the duty of kings to "throw down their crowns before her and lick the dust from off her feet." But these theocratic claims were not hierarchic and impersonal as in the mediaeval Church, they were based on an intense individualism deriving from the certainty of election and the duty of the individual Christian to co-operate in realising the divine purpose against a sinful and hostile world. Thus Calvinism is at once aristocratic and democratic: aristocratic in as much as the "saints" were an elect minority chosen from the mass of fallen humanity and infinitely superior to the children of the world; but democratic in that each was directly responsible to God who is no respecter of persons. Calvinism is, in fact, a democracy of saints, elect of God, but also in a sense self-chosen, since it is the conscience of the individual which is the ultimate witness of his election...the great experiment of the Cromwellian Commonwealth, short-lived though it was, by the momentum of its religius impulse opened the way for a new type of civilisation based on the freedom of the person and of conscience as rights conferred absolutely by God and Nature. The connexion is seen most closely in America where the Congregationalist Calvinism of New England ... leads on directly to the assertion of the Rights of Man in the constitutions of the North American States and to the rise of political democracy."

"An elect minority chosen from the mass of fallen humanity and infinitely superior to the children of the world." Doesn't that sound like Americans to you? :)

Monday, January 10, 2005

What is Belief?

Quoth Jenny: There are exceptions (I believe) to belief being merely a habit. There are areas of study, such as Apologetics, where people have spent much time determining why they believe what they believe. Going back to first principles you might say, determining whether what they believe follows a logical train and whether it can be derailed. Of course, as in mathematics, at some point you have to have a first principle, something assumed to be true - possibly because it cannot be disproved - which must be accepted or assumed, because otherwise there is no possibility of any further thought. The trick is to know on what first principles you base your belief.

I should clarify that I didn't mention why people believe what they believe at all; I was just putting up a definition for what the word 'believe' ought to mean. Because idiomatically, when we believe something, we say 'X is so'; and if we don't really believe it, we say 'I believe X is so!'. I certainly did not intend to imply that there was anything mere about beliefs, just that words without actions can't be considered evidence for a belief...

You are quite right, the trick is knowing on what first principles to base your beliefs. Peirce goes on to elaborate four ways to figure out what to believe:

(1) Tenacity. Just keep on believing what you are believing, and don't let anybody change your mind.
(2) Authority. Trust what people you trust tell you.
(3) A Priori Argument. Agree that you are going to believe some things, and then believe all the logical implications of those things, like in mathematics or theology.
(4) Experiment. I have a prepared statement around here somewhere... here it is: When you are very young, you make observations of your environment. You manufacture a model of your environment based on these observations, and make predictions of the effect your actions will have on your environment. To the extent that you are capable, you act on your predictions and observe the effects. If they are not what you expected, you modify your model. Once you have made the inference that the large creatures around you are trying to communicate information which accords - as far as you can tell - tolerably well with the model you have already determined, you will increasingly abandon the method you have been employing thus far - known as science - for the method of authority.

Of course, in practice we all use all four of these ways all the time, and are right to do so: we cannot go around continually proving everything we need to develop effective habits by experiment. Did you do that course in third year on the History and Philosophy of Science, Jenny? This is all cribbed from there... :)

As far as specifically religious beliefs go, I would argue that in order to have any connection with reality our religious beliefs should ultimately be based on experiment- that is, on our own experience of God.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Grey Gromboolian Plain

I am beginning to feel as though this is the blogospheric equivalent of one of those lonely foreign legion outposts in the Sahara. I suppose I shall have to make a serious effort to become more interesting. I expect I am being too laid-back and non-confrontational. I wonder if I can declare the separation of Church and State discussion closed? Let's have a quick look through blogland to gauge the Zeitgeist- uh-oh, here's someone who agrees with Marco. Alright then, I concede.

Curses, this being confrontational thing doesn't seem to be working...

Here is a quote for today:

"The finding and fighting of positive evil is the beginning of all fun."

- G. K. Chesterton

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Have to Unplug the Computer to Plug the Light In

But here is a link to my version of Genesis 22.

Pharmacological Minutiae

I shouldn't use so many big words, I know...
I didn't drink any coffee at all for two weeks over Christmas, and since them have been restricting myself to one cup a day. The strange thing is, that one cup of coffee seems to affect me the same way John Travolta's character was affected by the stuff he was taking in Pulp Fiction. After my cup of coffee I drive off to work in a strange state of euphoria. Hmmm, maybe I should have another look at the jar I am taking it from...

Friday, January 07, 2005

Another FAQ

Does the word ‘believe’ have a meaning?

I recommend the definition of belief that appears in the forward to “Essays in the Philosophy of Science by Charles S. Peirce” (viii, Vincent Tomas)

A belief is a habit, i.e., a readiness or disposition to respond in certain kind of ways on certain kinds of occasions.

It follows that a so-called belief that has no practical consequence for the believer’s behaviour can be nothing more than the readiness or disposition to respond “yes” when asked “do you believe in belief X?” I feel that a great quantity of the things that are argued about are of this kind. Their significance to the believer lies in the fact that they have come bundled together with other beliefs that do make a practical difference to the believer’s behaviour, and have been accepted as necessary corollaries on the recommendation of authority.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Metagame Theodicy

At the still point of destruction
At the centre of the fury
All the angels all the devils
All around us can’t you see

There is a very old, very robust argument reconciling the goodness of God with the existence of evil, which states that evil arises from the fact that moral agents have free will, and are free to make a choice to accept or reject what is good.
This was a full and complete argument in the days when everyone believed there were moral agents other than humans that took an active role in the universe. But if you want to make your religion more progressive and up-to-date, and cast the upper half of the hierarchy of created beings in the dustbin, your theodicy immediately runs into problems.

The first one is the ichneumon wasp, laying its eggs in living caterpillars so they hatch into little wasplings and slowly devour the caterpillars bit by bit to make them good and religious, as Mark Twain pointed out. And all those other nasty immoral things in the ‘all things bright and beautiful’created world.

The solution to this problem is easy. Accept evolution, and give all living things some free will. They don’t need a lot, just a tiny bit. Allow ‘bad’ decisions to accumulate over billions of years. The natural world becomes locked-in to a morally sub-optimal state. These bad decisions of our ancestors also lock us in to a morally sub-optimal state, which maps exactly onto ‘original sin’ as understood in the 13th century.

The second one is harder, and was demonstrated forcibly last week. The rules by which the universe works are so damn mean. Frequently, because of the way the universe is put together, a perfectly decent person, city, or (presumably) planet will be destroyed by an ‘Act of God’. Which term is a slap in the face for all those glib theodicists out there.

There is only one solution I can think of to this problem, a solution which is obviously derived from wide reading in the works of Stanislaw Lem. The laws of our universe were not made by God alone, but are a collaborative work between God and created entities. I like to think of a big free-form role-playing game with God as the GM and 10180 free-willed players. The rules that arise in this metagame, and are adhered to of their own free-will by these entities, eventually give rise to emergent phenomena like atoms and stars and us. The created world was not corrupted by a fallen Melkor, but was created flawed to begin with, because it was made by committee. This is deep anthropomorphism, I know, but I am not supposing that these entities have any attributes that we would recognise as human, except for the ability to reject good or embrace it.
This solution has the feature (good in philosophy, bad in science) of being unfalsifiable. At least until leptonic confabulators come along...