Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Perspective on Government Debt

I came across this the other day and I thought that it gave an interesting perspective on government debt. One of the problems with a lot of statistics about the debt is that they are never put into perspective. It is common to always talk about the debt in terms of a raw dollar amount. I think that that is wrong, we need to look at it in terms of ability to pay the debt. For example, if I have a credit card debt of $2,000 then that would be very significant for me right now considering I only make ~$20,000 a year. So my debt reflects 10% of my yearly income. If I graduate and get a job paying $100,000 a year then suddenly my $2,000 debt is no longer as significant (now only 2% of my annual income). As a matter of fact I could probably pay it off with a single pay check. So debt has to be considered in terms of ability to pay it off. While this movie may not be perfect I think it does a good job at putting the debt and our ability to pay it off into perspective.

The question here is who is to blame. Some would say it is the Republicans, others the Democrats, or Ronald Regan, or LBJ, or FDR, but I think it was a fundamental change in the way our society functions. I think it has to do with many people living beyond their means, which means there is only one way to solve this problem.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Did We Have Our Amalickiah Moment?

Every once in a while there occurs an important event in history that changes the course of history and determines not only the events that a society will face but also the nature and tone of the public, or societal, discourse. Sometimes these important events, while still influential, do not seem to have such an incredible impact at the time. It is only in retrospect that we can look at the course of history and see the point where a society made a choice and then understand how important that choice was, even though it did not seem that way at the time.

For one society one such event came in the form of a rather contentious vote. In The Book of Mormon there is a story included in the Book of Alma about a man named Amalickiah. At this point in time the people, known as the Nephites, had recently switched their form of government from a monarchy to a democracy (probably not a democracy in our modern sense of the word but the laws and judges were voted on and decided by "the voice of the people"). It was at this time that a political controversy arose among the Nephites regarding how the government would be run. There were a group among the Nephites lead by Amalickiah, who apparently thought that the Church of God had too much influence in society and in the affairs of the government. Specifically they objected to the teachings and the preachings of Helaman, the high priest, and his brethren who were the leaders of the Church. The Book of Mormon is not clear about the nature of the dispute, but it is clear that Amalickiah and his followers felt so strongly about the dispute that they decided that the only way to resolve the issue was to make Amalickiah king.

In chapter 46 the situation is described as follows:
1 And it came to pass that as many as would not hearken to the words of Helaman and his brethren were gathered together against their brethren.
2 And now behold, they were exceedingly wroth, insomuch that they were determined to slay them.
3 Now the leader of those who were wroth against their brethren was a large and a strong man; and his name was Amalickiah.
4 And Amalickiah was desirous to be a king; and those people who were wroth were also desirous that he should be their king; and they were the greater part of them the lower judges of the land, and they were seeking for power.
5 And they had been led by the flatteries of Amalickiah, that if they would support him and establish him to be their king that he would make them rulers over the people.
6 Thus they were led away by Amalickiah to dissensions, notwithstanding the preaching of Helaman and his brethren, yea, notwithstanding their exceedingly great care over the church, for they were high priests over the church.
7 And there were many in the church who believed in the flattering words of Amalickiah, therefore they dissented even from the church; and thus were the affairs of the people of Nephi exceedingly precarious and dangerous.
It was at this time that Moroni, who was the chief captain over the armies of the Nephites, raised the Title of Liberty and gathered the people together who still supported the government. After gathering the supporters of the government together the story records that:
29 And it came to pass that when Amalickiah saw that the people of Moroni were more numerous than the Amalickiahites—and he also saw that his people were doubtful concerning the justice of the cause in which they had undertaken—therefore, fearing that he should not gain the point, he took those of his people who would and departed into the land of Nephi.
Essentially a vote was held to determine whether or not the control of government would pass to Amalickiah, but due to the outcome of the vote it became evident that the majority of the people would not support him. When this happened, rather than accept the will of the people Amalickiah chose to leave the country rather than accept the result. The problem with this was that, as Moroni realized, if Amalickiah left the country and joined forces with their enemies then Amalickiah would eventually return with an army to conquer the land. So to prevent this, Moroni went with an army to stop the people of Amalickiah from leaving. While Moroni was able to prevent the people of Amalickiah from leaving, Amalickiah himself was not caught and managed to escape to the land of the Lamanites.

Ultimately Amalickiah managed to make himself king of the Lamanites and returned to wage war on the Nephites and attempted to conquer them. But due to the leadership of Moroni and others and the help of God the Nephites were able to defeat the Lamanites lead by Amalickiah, and after Amalickiah died, by his brother Ammoron. This war, the Amalickiah-Ammoron war, was the most destructive and devastating that the Nephites had ever experienced up to that point in their history, but the course of history for the Nephites would have been radically different if Amalickiah had managed to become king in the first place. At that point in Nephite history the people were still getting used to the idea of democracy and were still working out the issues.

The critical question involved with the Amalickiah issue was whether or not the democracy would survive and whether or not the people would preserve their liberty. On the one hand if the people had chosen to elect Amalickiah as their king then that would have ultimately lead to a loss of liberty and a destruction of their freedom of worship and security. On the other hand, by rejecting Amalickiah they did not manage to prevent a terrible war but they did set a precedent that allowed them to preserve their freedom and their government for many years. Even though afterwards others attempted to become king, they were never successful and liberty and freedom were preserved allowing the people of God to be free to worship.

Thus the Amalickiah moment, as it may be called, was a critical juncture in the history of that society. At the time it may have seemed critical, but for other reasons, but in retrospect it can be seen that it was a critical test for their democracy and their freedom. And this realization makes me wonder, have we had similar Amalickiah moments in our history?

Two years ago one of the most contentious votes in recent US history came when the state of California voted on Proposition 8. While there was no direct threat to the government at the time (i.e. no one was advocating to abolish our democracy and establish a king) there were involved with the Prop. 8 issue the same things that were involved with the Amalickiah issue. While there was a specific question being voted on, the larger issue involved was the nature and role of religious ideals in our public discourse. In both cases the issue at stake was whether or not religious opinions and ideals could be used as the basis of government policy. The question was whether or not people would be free to chose and express their religious convictions. In short, the question was whether or not the people would retain their liberty.

But in 2008 the vote was held in California (and Arizona and Florida) and it came out in favor of the family and religious convictions. The question now is how will those who were defeated by the vote react? In the case of Amalickiah, he "saw that his people were doubtful concerning the justice of the cause in which they had undertaken—therefore, fearing that he should not gain the point, he took those of his people who would and departed". Now I doubt that same-sex marriage advocates will be leaving the country in droves, but I would not doubt that they will still respond in like manner and try to force the issue through some other way. The problem is we have had our Amalickiah moment and the "voice of the people" has spoken. If they do support freedom and democracy (and fairness and equality) as they claim then they will have a hard time "gaining the point" and some of their supporters may become "doubtful concerning the justice of the cause".

The thing to note here is that Prop. 8 did not settle the issue but, like the Amalickiah moment, it created a precedent that allowed liberty and religious freedom to be preserved. There were two outcomes, on the one hand it would have lead to an eroding of personal liberty and freedom, while on the other, even though it did not immediately fix the problem, it did allow the people to retain their liberty to continue living in their free society.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Platonic vs. Aristotelian World Views

[Editorial Note: This is also posted on my other blog The Eternal Universe.][Editorial Note: Sorry I did not post this sooner, but I have been busy and I have also been thinking about this for a few weeks. But several people have asked what I meant by Platonic and Aristotelian world views. This is an attempt at an explanation.]

Previously I posted on the "conflict" between science and religion. A critical distinction that I made in that post was the difference between the Platonic and Aristotelian world views. At the time I did not offer an in depth explanation of what constituted a Platonic or Aristotelian world view partly because they are rather difficult (i.e. would take several books) to explain. But not to leave those who are interested with absolutely no explanation I will attempt to give a brief explanation of the fundamentals of both. [Editorial Note: When I am giving an explanation I will often include another word in parentheses after a word which has a technical philosophical definition. The word in parentheses is a more colloquial (common) word used in the same context. Both words are interchangeable but I felt that more than one word was needed to get an idea across while still using the "correct" philosophical language (words). If you find it annoying, sorry. I can't think of a better way of doing it.]

On a basic level a Platonic world view carries with it a fundamental distrust of the material (observable) world. An Aristotelian world view fundamentally assumes that all knowledge comes from the observable world (universe). Note that these ideas are not opposite nor are they even mutually exclusive. But they are two approaches to the same thing, how we know and interact with the world.

In my previous post I implied that the Platonic world view was the root of many problems, and while it is, I should qualify that with an explanation. If not considered rightly a Platonic world view can lead to many philosophical (intellectual) problems. By way of explanation I will use a simple analogy, specifically tailored to my assumed audience, those who read this blog. This analogy will not work for everyone.

When we are first learning physics the standard approach is to learn physics with a heavy emphasis on the algebra involved. This means that the equations are given to us in a standard form, from which we work problems and (hopefully) come to an understanding of the physical principles involved. When we have passed this step and we have achieved a certain level of understanding, generally one then returns to the basic physical principles, and relearns them but now with an emphasis on deriving the equations and solving more complex problems using calculus instead of algebra. This allows us to solve problems and answer questions that were impossible before. Problems such as including wind resistance in projectile motion problems. The underlying physical principles have not changed, just our approach to the problem.

This different approach fundamentally assumes that the world is not as "simple" and "easy" to deal with as is usually presented in introductory physics classes (i.e. the world is not made up of spherical cows). While things may be more difficult, and require more training and experience, the outcome allows more understanding and insight.

For all simple cases there is no difference between an algebra based approached to physics and a calculus based approach. As a matter of fact if we tried to solve every basic physics problem by first writing down the Lagrangian for the system and then finding the equations of motion we would never have time to finish solving all of the simplest problems. So in some cases it may even be advantageous to use an algebra based approach than to use a calculus based approach. But if we do this we must realize that we are using a simplification and to not get bogged down in the potential shortcomings of the purely algebra based approach.

Now relating this back to the Platonic and Aristotelian world views, the Platonic approach recognizes that the world is very messy and is not "ideal", meaning that it cannot easily be reduced down to simple, easily solvable problems. There is no problem with this, as this is also the view taken by an Aristotelian world view. But the problem arises when someone who holds to a Platonic world view begins to think that the universe is actually made up of spherical cows (i.e. atoms are "hard" and perfectly spherical, all things can be considered to be point particles, forces behave exactly like 1/r^2 laws etc.). So the problem is not that spherical cows (simplifications) are used to solve (comprehend) problems (reality) but when we begin to actually think that the universe is made up of spherical cows (ideal, according to our understanding) we run in to intellectual (philosophical) problems (mistakes).

You may be thinking, "What in the world is he talking about? How does this relate to anything important? And does this have any bearing on how the world, and our society works?" Well to answer those questions let me give a few examples.

First, recently there was a post on this blog that included this comic:

Without knowing it (or maybe he did) by posting this comic Joe was showcasing the Platonic world view (and one of the problems with it). Essentially the XKCD comic expresses the idea that the further away from reality we move, the more "ideal" or "pure" we are getting. Implicit in this argument is the assumption that in order to understand the world we must move away from all the "messy" stuff and move in the the realm of pure thought. Only then can we begin to understand anything. It is interesting to note that in seven short comments attached to that post the Platonic world view was debated, debunked and rejected in favor of the Aristotelian world view (and Clark Goble even managed to include both Heidegger's and Wittgenstein's arguments against the Platonic nature of language, impressive. And Bill, John Locke and John Stuart Mill would be proud, though many philosophers would try to lynch you for it).

So other than comics where does any of this show up? Again I need to emphasise that the basis for the Platonic world view is a fundamental distrust of reality (observation, sensations). This fundamental distrust of reality leads to all kinds of weird wacky things, like this gem that my wife came across one day. On a basic level the Platonic (or Platonic like) world view leads people to assume that in order to learn anything "real" or of value, they must disassociate themselves with reality (the physical world). This was the motivation behind the drive to use "experimental drugs", such as LSD, in order to experience things that could not be "experienced" in the physical world (this was explained to me by a philosophy student who "had friends that did drugs").

There are other implications to this but to sum up it, is enough to say that even though the Platonic and Aristotelian approaches to the world both consider the physical world to be "messy" at first, the Platonic approach feels that the "messiness" prevents the discovery of the world and thus in the ideal case we must remove the influences of all the "messy" stuff from reality, including our senses and anything that has to do with our "physical" bodies. The Aristotelian approach recognizes that the world is difficult, and while simplifications (math, equations, words, language) can be used to make it easier, the simplifications are just that, a simplification and not an ideal. Thus a Platonic approach demands that new knowledge comes from the ideal world (Plato's world of Forms), while on the other hand the Aristotelian approach assumes that knowledge comes from observation (sensation) of the physical world, and is verified again by observation. All knowledge according to the Platonic approach, by definition, is not verifiable in the Aristotelian sense, but is entirely determined by whether or not one can "think correctly" about it.

So how does this relate to the original motivation for this post involving the "conflict" between science and religion? On a fundamental level science takes an Aristotelian approach to how we learn and find out things about the universe. It asks, "What do we observe and how can we explain what we observe?" While science (and physics in particular) takes an Aristotelian approach, it is not exclusive. We still see a substantial amount of Platonic thought in science, but it is not as common as it is in other fields of research (Math is one that is substantially Platonic).

Perhaps the most prominent place Platonic thought shows up is in religion. I should emphasize that there is nothing about religion that demands Platonic thought, but at times it does seem rather conducive to Platonic thought as it mostly deals with things that are not (obviously) related to the five senses (I put the "obviously" in there because I disagree with that assertion). But if we are working under a Platonic world view then it makes sense that if one considers the mental or the abstract (the Platonic Forms) to be the most pure and perfect then that is where one would consider their God to be. This leads to the argument that God does not partake of the physical world and does not have any part in it other than being the unmoved mover (important note, there is an important distinction here between having an unmoved mover, as was Aristotle's concept, and thinking of God as the unmoved mover). In the end religion (and other "intellectual" fields, such as philosophy and math) became dominated by Platonic thought, while Aristotelian thought dominated science. Again this was not an exclusive domination (nor even correct) but that is the way it stands today in our society.

This causes problems when the question is asked, "Can you prove that God exists?" A Platonist would respond with a philosophical argument for the existence of God, an Aristotelian would respond with a demonstration of the existence of God. In the first case scientists (who are largely Aristotelian in their approach to knowledge) would reject the arguments as invalid because in order to "prove" anything according to science it must be demonstrated (mathematical proof does not count, it has to be demonstrated by experiment, see string theory). Thus the requirements for "proof" are fundamentally different for the Platonic approach and the Aristotelian approach, and because 80-90% of religion takes a Platonic approach, the tendency of scientists is to reject religion as invalid. Unfortunately this rejection first assumes that religion is fundamentally Platonic, and that any approach to it must first be Platonic (including a "scientific" approach).

This difficulty goes away if an Aristotelian approach is taken with respect to both science and religion. In other words it must be assumed that the same modes of knowing can be used for both, which depending on your views of religion (or science, or both) may be an issue. But if the same method is used for both then all apparent difficulties go away (interesting note: it works both ways, if a Platonic approach is taken in both cases then there is no conflict, but as long as a different approach is taken for either science or religion then there will be a conflict).

So now after this long explanation I will return to what I started out by saying:

On a basic level a Platonic world view carries with it a fundamental distrust of the material (observable) world. An Aristotelian world view fundamentally assumes that all knowledge comes from the observable world (universe). Note that these ideas are not opposite nor are they even mutually exclusive. But they are two approaches to the same thing, how we know and interact with the world.

The problem comes when we take the Platonic distrust of the material world to the point that we think that the material world inhibits our understanding. This is in opposition to the Aristotelian view, which is that even though the observable world may be difficult to understand it is the basis of our knowledge and our understanding and we cannot reject it as the fundamental source of knowledge.