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Saturday, March 31, 2007

law of the marketplace?

Earlier this week, a person named Anonymous found my post from last month on the minimum wage. Anon raises a few good points, but also includes this breathtakingly inane argument about economics:

To raise the minimum wage is a true "crime against humanity!" It is a lie hatched in that same hell that tries to persuade us that somehow or other, we can ignore the law of the marketplace. As with the law of gravity, we certainly can ignore it. But we can not avoid the consequences of ignoring it.

Anon is simply wrong. Economics is not a science in the sense that physics is. Gravity has existed since virtually the beginning of the universe. When Isaac Newton formulated his law of gravitation, he was describing something that was already there, something that is (quite literally) universal. We cannot escape the effects of gravity, even if we could travel to other planets or other galaxies. By contrast, economic systems are merely human creations. The "law" of supply and demand may be a useful tool to aid producers in pricing their goods and services in a market economy, but it is not truly a law in any sense of the word. Nobody is required to set prices for maximum profit. And outside a market economy, supply and demand may not be relevant.

In a gift economy, for example, generosity is more highly valued than profit margins. Success is defined by what one gives away. The potlatch custom of Pacific Northwest tribes is perhaps the best known historical example, but gift economies still thrive today in many forms.

Computer programmer Richard Stallman argues for a software gift economy:

When your friend says "that's a nice program, could I have a copy?" At that moment, you will have to choose between two evils. One evil is: give your friend a copy and violate the licence of the program. The other evil is: deny your friend a copy and comply with the licence of the program.

Once you are in that situation, you should choose the lesser evil. The lesser evil is to give your friend a copy and violate the licence of the program.

Now, why is that the lesser evil? The reason is that we can assume that your friend has treated you well and has been a good person and deserves your cooperation...

However, to be the lesser evil does not mean it is good. It's never good - not entirely - to make some kind of agreement and then break it. It may be the right thing to do, but it's not entirely good.

Stallman has devoted much of his life to saving computer users from this dilemma. Since 1983 he has created software under a special license that gives users what he calls that four essential freedoms:

  • Freedom to use the program for any purpose
  • Freedom to study the source code for the program
  • Freedom to help their friends and neighbors by sharing copies
  • Freedom to give back to the community by submitting modifications and improvements

Through the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation, Stallman has significantly influenced the development of the software industry. Most of the software that makes the Internet work is available under Stallman's GNU license. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the Internet is the product of a gift economy.

Another gift economy, one that has survived from ancient times and still thrives today, is the church. Members do not go to church to purchase goods and services. Churches rely primarily on voluntary giving to meet their budget requirements. And even though many churches struggle to make ends meet, the success of this organization for 2000 years is a testimony to the fact that market economics does not control our fate.

Which brings me back to anon's comment. Contrary to what anon declares, as a matter of fact we can ignore the "law of the marketplace." A market-based economy is just one of many possible economic systems. If our goal is to eventually funnel all our money into the hands of those who are most eager to obtain it, then a pure market economy is the way to go. If, on the other hand, we value human dignity more than profit margins, we need to look for ways to temper the market's more ruthless effects.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

the god delusion: a source criticism

I've recently finished reading Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, and it has made a skeptic of me. Specifically, I'm skeptical that such a poorly researched, self-contradictory book could really be the product of such a brilliant, rational mind as Richard Dawkins.

In fact, I've detected two separate sources within the text, each with its own distinct purpose and theology. (Or should that be atheology?)

The first source is opposed to what he or she calls the "God Hypothesis." For this reason, I will label this source "H". This hypothesis is stated by H to be:

There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. (p. 31)

The second source is opposed to the very idea of a deity:

I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented. (p. 36)

I will label this source "A" because he or she is opposed to *ALL* gods.

These sources were brought together sometime in the early 21st century by a redactor "R", possibly Dawkins himself, although the existence of "Richard Dawkins" is not universally accepted.

R's intent is this:

I suspect -- well, I am sure -- that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don't believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents' religion and wish they could, but just don't realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you. (p. 1)

R's task is extremely difficult: He (or possibly she, if R is not Richard Dawkins) must blend the thoughtful, tolerant, often conciliatory H source with the venomous, factually-challenged A source. R seems to recognize that most of the best material is found in H, but R's sympathies clearly lie with A. In places, as I will show later, R embeds A-like lines into H material.

To see the tension between the two sources, take a look at these two passages from chapter 3. This is in a discussion of religious scientists in history. The first quote is from H:

We have no reason to doubt Michael Faraday's sincerety as a Christian even after the time when he must have known of Darwin's work. He was a member of the Sandemanian sect, which believed (past tense because they are now virtually extinct) in a literal interpretation of the Bible, ritually washed the feet of newly inducted members and drew lots to determine God's will. Faraday became an Elder in 1860, the year after The Origin of the Species was published, and he died a Sandemanian in 1867. (p.98)

Contrast that with A's dismissal of the faith of Gregor Mendel:

Mendel, of course, was a religious man, an Augustinian monk; but that was in the nineteenth century, when becoming a monk was the easiest way for the young Mendel to pursue science. For him, it was the equivalent of a research grant. (p. 99)

This is misleading. Mendel may have come from a poor family that could not afford to send him to University, but like Faraday, Mendel took his faith seriously. He was promoted to Abbot in 1868, only two years after publishing his paper on genetics. As Abbot, he devoted less time to genetic research because his responsibilities to the monastery were a priority for him.

Unfortunately, the A source cannot give people the benefit of the doubt as H can. H, in fact, can even praise scientists who hold onto their faith:

Kenneth Miller of Brown University [is] for my money the most persuasive nemesis of 'intelligent design', not least because he is a devout Christian. I frequently recommend Miller's book, Finding Darwin's God, to religious people who write to me bamboozled by [Michael] Behe. (p. 131)

It's not just scientists who receive approval from H:

Searching for particular examples of irriducible complexity is a fundamentally unscientific way to proceed: a special case of arguing from present ignorance. It appeals to the same faulty logic as 'the God of the Gaps' strategy condemned by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge of understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it. What worries thoughtful theologians such as Bonhoeffer is that gaps shrink as science advances, and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide. (p. 125)

That last phrase, "and nowhere to hide," is R's addition to the text. It doesn't fit with the entire preceding paragraph, and stands as an example of R's attempt to harmonize the vast differences between the two sources.

A, on the other hand, cannot even imagine a "thoughtful theologian":

Similarly, we can all agree that science's entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic, to say the least. But does [Stephen Jay] Gould really want to cede to religion the right to tell us what is good and what is bad? The fact that it has nothing else to human wisdom is no reason to hand religion a free licence to tell us what to do. (p. 57)

R's monumental task of weaving these two very different sources together produces, as I said, mixed results. R again struggles valiantly to reconcile the two sources as they define the nature of God.

A, after rejecting Aquinas's "first cause" proof for existence of God, adds:

Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins and reading innermost thoughts. (p. 77)

H, on the other hand, before discussing the problem of evil, notes:

Goodnes is no part of the definition of the God hypothesis, merely a desirable add-on. (p. 108)

H then expands on the problem of evil. But R, trying to reconcile this with A, interpolates freely. I will first quote the entire passage.

But, for a more sophisticated believer in some kind of supernatural intelligence, it is childishly easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god -- such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament. Or, if you don't like that, invent a separate evil god, call him Satan, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Or -- a more sophisticated solution -- postulate a god with grander things to do than fuss about human distress. Or a god who is not indifferent to suffering but regards it as the price that has to be paid for free will in an orderly, lawful cosmos. Theologians can be found buying into all these rationalizations. (p. 108)

Knowing, though, that H is generally conciliatory toward religion, we can make a good guess at just which parts have been added by R. I will now quote the passage again, putting R's interpolations in {braces}.

But, for a more sophisticated believer in some kind of supernatural intelligence, it is {childishly} easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god {-- such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament}. Or, {if you don't like that, invent} a separate evil god, {call him Satan}, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Or -- a more sophisticated solution -- postulate a god with grander things to do than fuss about human distress. Or a god who is not indifferent to suffering but regards it as the price that has to be paid for free will in an orderly, lawful cosmos. {Theologians can be found buying into all these rationalizations.}

Removing these, we discover H's original text:

But, for a more sophisticated believer in some kind of supernatural intelligence, it is easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god. Or a separate evil god, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Or postulate a god with grander things to do than fuss about human distress. Or a god who is not indifferent to suffering but regards it as the price that has to be paid for free will in an orderly, lawful cosmos.

It's possible, too, that the two sentences, "Simply postulate a nasty god," and "Or postulate a god with grander things to do than fuss about human distress," are both R's interpolations. Certainly the word "postulate" has not appeared in any of the H texts that we've looked at.

Obviously, much study remains to be done in this field of Dawkins source criticism. Maybe I'll apply for a research grant.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

on war and peace in iraq

Last weekend, to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war, peace groups held vigils in many cities throughout the United States. In Kansas City the vigil was cosponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and the KC Iraq Task Force.

There were several gifted speakers, but the one who made the biggest impression on me was Tomas Young, who fought in this war before being paralyzed from the chest down due to injuries sustained in combat. He was rolled onto the stage in his wheelchair and started to speak. After only a few sentences he looked down at what appeared to be notes, then said something that was completely unrelated to what he had been saying. He looked down at the notes again, then looked up and apologized. Because of the side effects of his pain medication, he said, he couldn't continue. He rolled off the stage.

This is what war does to young, idealistic people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause. Before we ask them to make these sacrifices, we'd better be sure the cause is worth the cost. George W. Bush's failure to count the cost has destroyed far more lives than the 9/11 attacks did.

I've been attending peace vigils since before the war began, but at this one there seemed to be a general sense of hopefulness that I haven't perceived in previous years. Perhaps one factor is that I've moved from Wichita to Kansas City, where people seem to be a little more positive about life in general, but the biggest factor has to be the 2006 Congressional elections and the troop withdrawal bill now going through Congress.

Nonetheless, I can't bring myself to feel any more hopeful about the prospects for peace than I did four years ago. In fact, I'm probably less hopeful, for two reasons.

First, I really believed, prior to the war, that something might possibly be done to prevent the invasion. If our leaders -- and other world leaders -- could see the level of opposition, they might be persuaded to change their strategy. The very fact of this war has left me jaded about the prospects of ever turning leaders' opinion through protest.

Second, I don't see a possibility for a successful Iraqi nation. Many factors are contributing to the ongoing difficulties there, and numerous pundits have given a far more thorough analysis than I ever could, but the underlying reality is that the Iraqi people are not prepared to run their own government -- especially while facing insurgents intent on ripping the nation to shreds.

The United States could certainly cut its own losses by withdrawing its troops, just as most of its coalition partners already have. But at what cost to Iraq? Already more than 60,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of this war (and that's the most conservative estimate -- some have suggested that the true number is more than ten times that). If the U.S. were to pull out, do we have any reason to think the insurgents would lay their weapons down? Or would a U.S. withdrawal simply abandon Iraq to chaos?

I don't have any answers, just questions.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

the boat race

Once upon a time an American aerospace company and the Chinese decided to have a competitive boat race on the Detroit River. Both practiced long and hard to reach their peak performance. On the big day they both felt as ready as they could be. The Chinese won by a mile!

Afterwards, the American team became very discouraged by the loss and morale sagged. Corporate management decided that the reason for the crushing defeat had to be found. A Continuous Measurable Improvement Team was set up to investigate the problem and to recommend appropriate corrective action. Their conclusion:

The problem was that the Chinese team had eight people rowing and one person steering, whereas the American team had one person rowing and eight people steering. The corporate steering committee immediately hired a consulting firm to do a study on the management structure. After some time and millions of dollars, the consulting firm concluded that too many people were steering and not enough people rowing.

To prevent losing to the Chinese again next year, the American team's management structure was totally reorganized to four steering managers, three area steering managers, one staff steering manager and a new performance system for the person rowing the boat, to give more incentive to work harder. "We must give him empowerment and enrichment. That ought to do it."

The next year the Chinese won by two miles.

Another meeting was called. This time the American team's managers decided to include the person rowing the boat in the area steering management committee. This was a sure way of finding a winning combination. They listened patiently to what the rower had to say, making comments at crucial points and helping him to come to a workable conclusion. So they set out again, only this time the rower was included not only as a rower but also as a part of the steering team.

The next year the Chinese won by three miles.

Humiliated, the American corporation laid off the rower for poor performance, sold all of the paddles, uniforms, life jackets as well as the new equipment, halted development of a new canoe and distributed the money saved as bonuses to the senior executives.


Thursday, March 08, 2007


Persecution can take many forms.

In Zimbabwe, hundreds of thousands have lost their homes or livelihoods as a result of Operation Murambatsvina.

In China and elsewhere, children and adults are forced to work in hazardous conditions for miniscule wages in sweatshops.

In the Sudan, Janjaweed militias roam the Darfur countryside looking for refugees to murder.

In many countries, critics of the government just disappear.

And in the United States of America, retail clerks sometimes say "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

It's common in some circles to claim that the U.S. is a difficult place for Christians. Such a thought would be laughable but for the reality that persecution is a fact of life in many places in this world. To suggest that most American Christians face anything remotely resembling persecution is to show disdain for millions of people who are suffering at the hands of ruthless, brutal, oppressive governments around the world.

I may have more to say about this later.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

the lost tomb of jesus

It's become an annual tradition: As Easter approaches, it is almost inevitable that someone will bring forth a claim that will overturn everything we think we know about Jesus and the early Christians.

This year's claim comes from James Cameron, producer of the Titanic move, and Simcha Jacobovici, director of The Exodus Decoded. They have teamed up to create the documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which will air Sunday night on the Discovery Channel. Just in case anyone has not heard about it, the film alleges that a tomb discovered in Jerusalem in 1980, containing coffins with the names "Mary" and "Jesus son of Joseph," among others, is the final resting place of Jesus of Nazareth. Already, I've read about a thousand blogs commenting on the film. (I read way too many blogs.)

What can I possibly add? Nonetheless, I feel compelled to comment.

It seems to me that, of all the claims made by the filmmakers, two stand out: The statistical evidence, and the DNA evidence.

Some bloggers' response to these two claims has been visceral, something like: "You can prove anything with statistics. These are all common names. And whose DNA are they comparing it to? This whole thing is a hoax, and James Cameron is a boogerhead." This type of knee-jerk response really does not refute the claims, and if anything, only serves to give free publicity to the film.

A more healthy, skeptical approach begins by trying to understand exactly what is being claimed. On closer inspection, the actual claims do not appear to be so impressive.

Statistician Andrey Feuerverger has given a probability of more than 99% that this is the tomb of the Jesus of the New Testament. Specifically, he says the odds are 600 to one. How did he get this number?

First, Feuerverger took the estimated frequency of each of the names Jesus, Joseph, Mary, Jose, and Mariamne in ancient Jerusalem, based on surviving historical sources. Then he multiplied the percentages together to see how likely it was to find this exact combination together in a tomb. It turns out that, even though each of the names are common, finding all of them together is not very likely. Only one in 2.4 million tombs would be expected to have all five of these names together. Next, Feuerverger divided the total by four, to account for possible unintentional biases in the sources that historians have used to determine name frequencies. This gives a more conservative estimate of one in 600,000.

Next, if I'm reading it right, this number is divided by the total estimated number of tombs in first century Jerusalem, about 1000. The final result is 1 in 600, that is, if there were 600 parallel worlds with the same overall name frequencies but different actual combinations, we should expect only one world to produce more than one family with this same combination of names.

Thus, in 599 out of 600 parallel worlds, if we find a tomb where these names match the members of a known historical family, it must be the same family.

Based on my knowledge of statistics (and I'm not an expert but I do have some understanding) I'd have to say that Feuerverger's analysis is sound -- as sound as the data.

But wait a minute. Jose? Mariamne? Who are they? What do they have to do with Jesus?

One coffin contains the Hebrew name Yose, which can be translated as Jose or Joses. In Mark 6:3, Jesus is said to have a brother named Joses. One coffin has the Greek name Mariamenou|Mara. Archaeologist Amos Kloner, who excavated the tomb, says this should be read as "Mariamene also called Mara." The name Mariamene, which other scholars have rendered Mariamne, is a variant of Miriam.

We know of no member of Jesus' family named Miriam. Mark 6:3 indicates that he had sisters, but their names are not given. The makers of The Lost Tomb of Jesus have speculated that this Mariamne is none other than Mary Magdalene.

This is where the DNA evidence comes into play. The filmmakers were able to get debris from the "Jesus son of Joseph" coffin and the "Mariamenou|Mara" coffin, and have it tested for mitochondrial DNA. The bodies have long since decomposed, although a few bone fragments remain. Many bones were found on the floor. Nevertheless, the samples of DNA indicate that the individuals from these two coffins are not related by blood. According to the filmmakers, the most plausible explanation for this is that they were married.

Now it's time to inject a healthy dose of skepticism into the discussion.

Here is a complete list of coffins found in the tomb, and the inscriptions (if any) found on each, as catalogued by Amos Kloner. Of the inscriptions, the first is in Greek and the rest are in Hebrew. In parentheses is the English equivalent.

1. Mariamenou|Mara (Mariamne [also called] Mara)
2. Yehuda bar Yeshua (Judas son of Jesus)
3. Matya (Matthew)
4. Yeshua bar Yehoseph (Jesus son of Joseph)
5. Yose (Jose)
6. Marya (Mary)
7-10. (no inscriptions)

Of the six coffins with names, four are male names. If Mariamne is not related by blood, she could be the wife of any of the four. As far as we know, the probability should be equal for each. Or she could have been married to a man buried in one of the four tombs without inscriptions. We don't really know whose wife she is.

I've also seen the suggestion that Mariamne and Mara were two people, perhaps a mother and daughter buried in the same coffin. If so, which was the mother and which was the daughter?

There are just too many possibilities that cannot be excluded. The suggestion that Yeshua and Mariamne were married simply would not stand up to statistical scrutiny.

And speaking of statistical scrutiny, let's take another look at Feuerverger's numbers. Let's suppose for a moment that Mariamne is simply another name for Mary (Magdalene). If so, the 600 to 1 ratio is off. Mary, according to the Lost Tomb website's data, is about 40 times more common than Mariamne. That reduces the odds to 15 to 1.

Or does it?

Let's suppose for a moment that Jesus really was married to a woman named Mary. If the woman in the tomb is named Mariamne -- a similar, but different name -- what are the odds that it truly is the same person? Is it possible that Mary Magdalene was also known as Mariamne (also called Mara)?

In the Greek text of the gospels, she is almost always referred to as Maria, but in a couple places (Matthew 28:1, John 20:18) she is called Mariam. Is that close enough to make the association with Mariamne Mara?

And what is a man named Matthew doing in Jesus' family tomb? No Matthew is listed among Jesus' brothers in the gospels -- only James, Joses, Judas, and Simon (Mark 6:3). So where are James, Judas, and Simon?

And what about this Judas son of Jesus? If the Jesus of the gospels had had a son, wouldn't someone have mentioned it? Wouldn't the boy have been automatically accepted as a leader of the early church, just as James was?

And really, if Jesus had a son, what are the odds that he would name him Judas?

Looking at all the evidence, there are some remarkable coincidences between the family of Jesus and the tomb that is the subject of this documentary, but the cumulative weight of the differences is too great to ignore. The exact combination of names may be rare -- as any exact combination would be -- but given that many of the names don't even match, there is little reason to imagine that the two are the same family.

Update 3/4/07: Dr. Feuerverger's website has a text document that discusses the assumptions that went into the calculation. He acknowledges that several of the assumptions are contentious. Also, Scientific American has an online article discussing the statistics.

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