Thursday, 2 July 2015

What's the big deal about legally recognizing marriages?

     My first year moot in Law School was about same sex marriage, which at the time was still not legally recognized throughout Canada, although it now has been for ten years, as it has been in all of the U.S. now for a week or so. So, naturally, it's a topic I've had many years to think about. But long before law school, I'd had reason to contemplate the state's role in marriage, because my wife was not a Canadian citizen when we married, which meant we had to jump through a significant number of hoops to be permitted to live together here. It was that experience (as well as the awareness that even in this relatively enlightened era, "interracial" marriages such as ours do not meet with universal approval) that led me to formulate the theory I'm about to put forward here.

     What is marriage? I'm going to suggest that it's a kinship relation, a pre-legal fact about the sort of relationship that might exist between two people. Put aside for the time being all the moral baggage about living-in-sin if your union is not officially celebrated by an ordained religious authority, and observe simply that in most societies, there's a tendency for adults to pair-bond, to form more-or-less stable monogamous domestic partnerships, often (but not always) associated with raising children. These relationships, whatever you call them, exist independently of any legal recognition, just like any other kinship relation. My son is my son, and no Act of Parliament or judicial fiat brought that fact into existence. It is, as I say, a pre-legal fact.
     Now, unlike most other kinship relations, marriage isn't usually something you're born into. It's something that generally comes into being once one is an adult, and there's often a fair amount of choice involved. Perhaps because of this, we seem to want to have some kind of punctual moment to observe when that relationship is recognized by the community, and so we celebrate weddings. Such things often become ritualized, and humans love any excused for a ceremony and a feast, but while the ceremony might formalize things, the actual underlying relationship of the couple can and usually does exist regardless of any such observances.
     To be sure, the relationship itself is very much the product of the couple's own beliefs and attitudes about it, which means that if the couple believes a formal wedding ceremony is an essential part of becoming married, without which they are not married, then of course they're not married without the ceremony. But it's important to note that it is their belief, and not the ceremony itself, which is crucial; if they believed otherwise, the wedding ceremony would be a mere formality celebrating a relationship which already existed.

     In other words, whether or not a couple is actually married has nothing essential to do with the state or the church, or indeed anyone else. The ultimate authorities on whether I am married or not are me and whoever I purport to be married to; if we both agree the kinship relation exists, then it does. (It's rather like a contract this way, and although many legal traditions actually define marriage as a contract, I personally think that's misleading, for technical reasons I'll not get into here.)
     However, kinship relations, although they are not created by law, very often have important legal consequences. Family members have responsibilities towards one another that are recognized and sometimes enforced by law (although these are often only enforced when a relationship breaks down in some way), and so there is a legitimate state interest in documenting those relationships. Consider birth certificates: you don't need a birth certificate to be born; it's just a really convenient way of establishing the particulars of where and when, because these can be legally important facts, and it may not be convenient to have your mother or her obstetrician swear an affidavit every time you apply for a credit card or driver's license. Similarly, the state can (and ought to) issue marriage certificates to document the particulars of a marriage.
     My point, then, is that the role of the state is marriage is very simple and very limited: to keep a record of whatever kinship relations may exist, for the smoother administration of whatever legal processes might be affected by these relationships. Who should be the next of kin for medical consent? Who should inherit? Who is responsible for children's well-being? How should property be divided if and when a partnership dissolves?
     The reason there's such controversy about same-sex marriage (or as there once was, interracial marriage) is because we seem to think that it's the state or the church that actually marries us, or gives us permission to marry. And while that may be so in a doctrinal sense for some churches, and in a vestigial legal sense for the state (which issues what we still call marriage licenses, after all), it is neither necessary nor a realistic reflection of the relationships themselves, which as I have said exist quite independently, with or without our moral approval.
     And so, given this understanding of the nature of marriage and the state's role in it, I have to confess that my happiness at seeing the U.S. Supreme Court finally come around is tempered by a certain degree of exasperation that this should even have been an issue to begin with. That Canada figured it out only ten years earlier isn't really something that fills me with patriotic pride, either.
     I'm pleased, certainly.  Yet at the same time, I have cultivated an attitude of principled indifference as to whom you might choose to marry; it feels a little bit strange to be celebrating the recognition that something's none of my business.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Point

     My last post, like many others, precipitated a reply from an anonymous reader asserting that all my speculation is pointless without God. In the interests of keeping that conversation from taking over the subject of the original post, I'm going to raise the topic here: what does it even mean to have
"a point", and am I mistaken in thinking there can be one without God?

     Let me begin by acknowledging that I've said things like that myself. In particular, I have said that nothing in biology makes any sense without the theory of evolution, and that physics makes no sense without the concept of energy. I stand by those claims, because it really is unfathomably difficult to construct a meaningful, useful understanding of natural phenomena without the cognitive framework these theories offer. Maybe there is a way to do it, but no one seems to have come up with one that offers a smidgeon of a fraction of the predictive and explanatory power. So, I'm not necessarily hostile to the form of the argument: maybe there is a sense in which everything is pointless without a belief in God.
     What, then, can that mean? I will invite Anonymous (and anyone else who cares to comment) to explain this if I get it wrong, but as I understand it, the idea is simply that God is the ultimate source of all meaning and intention, and that to say that something has "a point" just is to say that it serves some purpose God somehow intends, either directly or indirectly. (Anonymous often seems to think that purpose ultimately leads back to a wish for all of us to acknowledge, love and worship God, but that may be getting ahead of ourselves. For now, it's enough to leave God's ultimate purpose unspecified, and just posit that God's will is ultimately the end and beginning of all points.)
     Now, I'm actually quite sympathetic to this as a logical statement. If we accept the premise that God exists as the omnipotent and omniscient creator of the Universe, then it could not be otherwise. The problem, however, is that it's a tautology, and devoid of any meaningful information. Everything that happens happens because such an omnipotent God wills it. Everything. Good and evil, it's all the same, part of God's plan. His Ten Commandments may say "Thou shalt not murder," but every murder happens because He wills it. He may will us to have free will, but he ALSO wills us to use it however we end up using it. He wills us to cooperate, and He wills us to strive against one another.
     This is problematic, because it pretty much pulls the rug out from under attempts to evaluate any moral choices at all. You no longer can tell me that I shouldn't commit this or that act because God says it's wrong, because obviously if I do it that's what God wanted me to do. The best you can hope for is to say that God also commands you to do whatever it is you ultimately end up doing to oppose me. And that is a really, really nasty path: anything goes.

     In contrast, I think that the only morally meaningful stance to take is to acknowledge that responsibility is ours, not God's. Whether God exists or not, it's up to us to decide what we should do, because whatever we ultimately decide, God will ratify it when we attempt it. So the real question is not what God wants of us, but what we want God to want of us. (Kind of like how Her Majesty traditionally gives royal assent to pretty much anything Parliament passes. It's kind of pointless for MPs to debate amongst themselves what law the Queen wants to sign; their job is to decide what to pass.)
     In other words, I believe we have a moral obligation to act as if God does not exist, or at least as if God's wishes are unknowable. The Point, if there is one, is for us to exercise our volition, to engage in our own moral deliberation, and to find whatever Point we can to our existence.
     I do not know if God exists, but at the moment I tend to think He doesn't, and I've been pretty stable in that suspicion for quite some time now. Whether He does or not, though, I do feel that there is some kind of Point. There may not be, but that's not really my concern. I'm wired to feel there is, just as I'm wired to get hungry from time to time, so I live as if eating is a good thing, regardless of whether or not there's anything intrinsically, cosmically Good about eating. If you tell me that without some Platonic ideal of Satiety out there, my hunger means nothing, I will stop chewing just long enough to laugh at you. Similarly, if you tell me my life has no point without God, I refute it thus, by continuing to breathe.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Thoughts on a Violent Death

     Today my city, Edmonton, buries Corporal Daniel Woodall, its first police officer killed in the line of duty in 25 years. There has been an enormous outpouring of support for EPS, and there are blue ribbons tied to every tree and lamppost on many streets. By all accounts (including that of my own son, who knew him from training in the same martial arts school), Corporal Woodall was a kind and gentle person, respectful and respected, and his death can only be seen as an untimely tragedy.
     Yet while I do not in any way wish to diminish the honours paid to the fallen today, I have a question: why does violence occupy so disproportionately large a space in our emotions? Why is it that we attach such significance to a violent death, compared to a death that results from accident or disease?
     Is it because he took a bullet so we don't have to? That's a compelling and poetic way to put it, but probably not completely true; it's not at all clear that the man who shot him would have gone on to shoot civilians if he hadn't been arrested. But perhaps he might have, as he was being arrested on charges relating to extreme stalking and threatening behaviour. In any event, the precise details of the incident aren't really helpful here: the principal claim is that officers put themselves at risk to make us safer, and in principle that I can accept. It is indeed a noble thing to put oneself at risk for the benefit of others.
     But consider this: On April 22, a truck accidentally dumped a load of sand and gravel on a worker at an industrial park, and six days later he died of his injuries, on the very same day another worker was killed when the sewer trench he was excavating collapsed on top of him. They died to keep our highways safe, and for modern sanitation, which has saved countless millions of lives.
     In 2014, there were 25 fatalities in farming accidents in Alberta.  These people died to keep us well-fed.
     In 2013, 1129 people died in the collapse of a Bangladesh garment factory. These people died to keep us inexpensively clothed.
     Again, I really do not mean to diminish Corporal Woodall's sacrifice. What I am trying to make sense of here is why we fail to recognize the sacrifices of these other workers as heroic as well. Their deaths were no less tragic, and for purposes no less noble.

     I think it comes down to violence. We seem to fear violence much more than we fear other more serious threats.  People buy guns to protect themselves from crime, yet the risk of a home invasion or mugging is considerably less than the risk of accidentally (or intentionally) shooting yourself or a loved one. People choose to drive (and bear the substantially higher risk of a traffic accident) to avoid the perceived danger of terrorist hijackers on commercial airlines.
     Why is this? Why do we see violence as so much more frightening than other dangers? Maybe it's because of the malice involved, that it's someone's deliberate choice to do harm. It's hard not to take that personally, to be offended that the aggressor valued his or her personal interest higher than another human being's life. And when something is purposeful, it feels harder to escape it, somehow; an accident doesn't care if it misses you, and won't keep trying.
     Whatever the reason, our fear gives violence huge and unwarranted power over us. I've written about this before, and don't really want to go over it at great length again here. What I want to do in this post is to encourage some reflection on our emotional response to violence. I am not suggesting that we shouldn't be expressing sympathy and support for EPS -- of course we should! -- but rather that in doing so we should be careful to avoid inadvertently reinforcing the fearful mystique of violence.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

A Preliminary Taxonomy of Chain Letters

Note: This is another of the articles that used to reside on my old web page. I have actually still been working on the concepts in this one, and am in the process of significantly restructuring the higher levels of this taxonomy. In particular, I think there should be two levels added to our traditional Linnean model: World and Medium. Chain letters thus belong to World Terra, Medium Mnemia, Domain Homoites, Kingdom Semantic, Phylum Lingates. But more on that later: this is the original draft, before the explosion of chain letters as image macros on Facebook and elsewhere. Much revision needs to be done, preferably with someone who can correct my amateurish pseudo-Latin/Greek derivations. Also please note that this taxonomy is based entirely on structural similarities, not cladistics. 

Kingdom Mnemia (Memetic organisms)
Phylum Lingates (Transmitted by human speech/language)
Class Graphiformes (Normally found in written form)
Order Alysographia (Chain letters)
Family Pyramides
This family is named for the pyramid scheme structure common to all members of the family. Each specimen in this family will include a list of addresses of its last 4 to 10 hosts, and instructs the current host to alter this list by adding his or her address to this list and removing the oldest address from it. Hosts are also directed to send a small sum of money to each name on the list.
Genus Pyramidia

This is the oldest genus in the family, including the progenitor species of the entire family. Pyramidia simply instruct their hosts to send money to previous hosts, without further adaptations. The most well-known species is P. rhodii.Genus Nominalegus

Known from a single species, N. nominalegus, this genus has evolved an adaptation to circumvent a common resistance in many hosts, the idea that pyramid schemes are illegal. Nominalegus instructs hosts to include a slip of paper with the money they send to previous hosts, one which is to be written "Please add me to your mailing list." This is claimed to be a service in exchange for the money sent, allegedly making the entire transaction legal.

Genus Tetralogia
These are highly complex chain letters, with very elaborate instructions for the host. Like NominalegusTetralogia attempts to circumvent the hostís concerns of illegality by require the host to purchase a "business report" from each of the last few previous hosts, which are in turn to be sold to subsequent hosts. The most common species is T. vulgaris, which has been observed in several subspecies (T. vulgaris ericksoni, T. vulgaris liddelli, etc.) A separate species, T. pentalogus, with five unique reports has been observed but is thought to be extinct.

Family Petitiones

Members of this family are characterized by the additional behaviours induced in the infected host apart from simply replicating them. In general they call for a message to be sent to a fixed address, though some may call for postcards, letters or phone calls.
Genus Petitia
Like Pyramideans, Petitioneansí code is modified with each infected host, albeit in a much simpler fashion. Each host is instructed simply to add his or her name to the list before passing it on. Typically, every 50th host is requested to forward a copy to a particular email address to be compiled. A representative species of this genus is P. talibani.Genus Amphoralogia
Closely related to Petitia, these are the "message in a bottle" chain letters, which instruct the recipient to send a message to a particular address in addition to forwarding the chain letter to numerous subsequent hosts. A. shergoldi is the most well-established species.
subgenus Ostraconus
These are usually maliciously created with the goal of overwhelming the email account of a victim with unexpected responses from infected hosts. O. joescomi is an example.
Family Superstitiones

The oldest group of chain letters, Superstitiones rely on a the power of a bribe or a threat (often both) to induce their hosts to replicate them. Unlike Pyramides, there is no actual mechanism to deliver the threat or reward. The oldest members of the family are those claiming that bad luck will befall those who fail to pass them along.
Genus Fortunas
The oldest known chain letters belong to this genus, and there are many species still circulating today. Essentially they promise the host good luck in exchange for replication, and threaten bad luck if the chain is broken. F. venezueli is probably the most well-known species.Genus Polygrades
These chain letters tend to make specific claims about what will befall the host for a given level of replication. For example, one might claim that failing to forward the message at all will result in certain death, forwarding it to between 1 and 10 recipients will result in a mere maiming, 11-20 forwards will have no effect, 21-30 will bring some good luck, and more than 30 will win the lottery for the forwarder.subfamily Theseidae
The theseids are a very large group characterized by the claim of an embedded "email tracking program" as a mechanism supporting the reward system. (It is quite rare for theseids to rely on threats, although at least one threatening species has been sighted).Genus Pseudopremium
These theseids promise the host a direct reward for replication, which typically will be sent once the total number of hosts reaches a threshold. A typical species is P. disneyi, which offers free trips to Disneyworld for the first 5000 hosts. Similar species include P. milleriP. guinnessiP. nike, P. honda, and many others. Especially noteworthy is P. gatesi and its several subspecies, each distinguished only by a different reward offered.Genus Samaritans
Samaritans differ from Pseudopremiums in that the host does not expect to receive the reward personally. A typical Samaritans will claim that an anonymous benefactor will donate a few cents to some poor childís medical care for every new host. Identified species to date include S. mydek, S. jada, S. cohen, S. relek, S. bruce, S. hendrix, S. martin, S. bucklew, S. beerman, S. flyte, S. lawitts, S. connor, S. hafeez, S. doe and others.
Family Notifera

This very large and diverse family relies on the perceived utility of its content for replication. There are two main subfamilies.
subfamily Transmissus
Hosts are explicitly instructed to forward copies of the message to others. The following are only a small sample of the many genera extant.
Genus Cautionus
Warns the host of some real or imagined danger. C. anaphotus, C. toxotelephonus, and C. achillitomia all warn of various violent gang initiation rituals; C. euchronus and others warn of email viruses, and so forth.Genus Inspirates
These consist of some inspirational message, followed by the instruction to share it with a friend.
subfamily Spontanes
Spontanes are unique in that they do not explicitly instruct the host to replicate them, relying instead on the intrinsic entertainment value of their content to provoke spontaneous replication.
Genus Eythymia
These are jokes and increasingly attachments of amusing images, sounds or other files which are usually forwarded on to new hosts without alteration.Genus Trivialus
Lists of trivia and "fun facts". Like the Urban Legends (class Oriformes, family Politimythos), they depend heavily on the claim that they are true. For example,T. quaylei would probably not be so widespread if it purported to be simply a list of dumb things for a politician to say, rather than a list of things Dan Quayle really did say.Genus Exoreferens
Members of this highly optimized genus usually contains little more than a URL directing the host to an amusing or interesting document. Occasionally a remark such as "Check this out!" is included.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Epistle of Thomas to the Creationists

Note: I've noticed that my old web page has finally been taken down by my old ISP, so I'm going to be reposting some of the stuff I had there. I wrote this thing probably around 20 years ago, and I still stand by most of what I said, with only very minor amendments, most of which I've made in editing this here. In particular, I now might have said a little more directly that I am an atheist, though I still don't consciously consider myself a non-Christian. Reconciling this apparent contradiction is a topic for another day, however.

     In view of the theological perspective of this article, it would be disingenuous for me not to state up front that I do not consciously consider myself a Christian. Over the centuries, that term has been used in so many ways that it has almost been stripped of any particular meaning, and some of the meanings it has acquired I should very much like to distance myself from. On the other hand, I do not consciously consider myself a non-Christian, either. In any case, it is not my intention to discredit or disparage religious faith. Nor do I intend to argue that evolutionists are in any way morally better off than creationists. Rather, I wish to discuss a particular moral failing which is held in abundance by most people (myself included, no doubt) and to which creationists are at a special kind of risk.

     Specifically, I refer to the sin variously referred to as pride, hubris, or vanity, and of which idolatry is a special case. Now, the arguments of the creationists against the secular humanists in this regard are well-known. They argue, rightly in many cases, that to deny God is to run the risk of assuming too much moral authority for oneself. Specifically, if there is no God, if the sole arbiter of morally upright conduct is the individual, then what stands between us and complete moral anarchy? To a certain extent, however, the few atheists who are rightly accused of taking this stance are actually closet theists; they are buying into the belief that there is no morality without God. It is almost as if they believe that there once was a God who used to boss us around, but now He's dead so anything goes. I do not believe that serious and thoughtful atheists need come to this conclusion, however. Morality, most broadly conceived, is nothing if not the business of making choices and acting on them, and for that reason is (whether we recognize it or not) of the most profound concern to all of us, regardless of whether or not we believe in God, and the source of that morality need not be metaphysically rooted in theist notions of divinity. A great many ethical theories of great importance have been devised that make no mention of any deity, and there is no shortage of morally conscientious and upright atheists to demonstrate that atheism need not lead to moral disaster. Indeed, history is overflowing with atrocities committed in the name of religion, so it is also clear that a claim to religious faith is in itself no guarantee of righteousness, either.
     Less extreme than the amoral zealotry of the born-again atheist (whose beliefs we need not take too seriously), the secular humanist who believes that morality is ultimately dependent not on God but on humanity can also fall prey to a creeping moral relativism which ends up almost as a denial of any real morality at all. If morality is a product of human invention, what is to stop us from defining our own morality in any way we wish, up to and including ruthless egoism? But if this is a danger, I argue that it is an inherent danger of any human morality whatsoever, and if anything, the advantage of relativism is that it makes starkly clear just who is ultimately answerable for the choices we make: we are.
     Another common criticism of atheism is that by denying God one can lose the sense of humility that finite mortal creatures ought to have, and which is inescapable when one compares oneself to an infinite and supreme being, and thus one becomes guilty of idolatry in placing humans at the pinnacle not just of Creation but of Being. Curiously, this argument seems to contradict another objection, that by denying a divine genesis mankind is cheapened. In fairness, though, they are compatible positions if one takes the view that the big fish in a small pond can still be too proud, and that just being the most advanced naturalistically evolved piece of sludge in a drab godless universe is no cause for rejoicing. While it is true, of course, that many atheists are guilty of either or both of these sins (idolizing and/or devaluing humans), it is also true that neither is an inevitable result of atheism; it is possible to apprehend human consciousness and experience as miraculous and wonderful in itself, while maintaining a greater awe at the magnificence of a spectacular universe which is vast and mysterious beyond any mortal comprehension, without invoking any special concept of God to achieve this perception.

     I need not elaborate on these and other moral dangers of atheism, except to say that while they are real they are in no way inevitable. In any case, my intention here is to point out the somewhat more subtle dangers of pride and idolatry to which theists, and creationists in particular, are especially vulnerable. This is not, of course, to say that persons of such faith are any more inevitably guilty of these sins than anyone else, but rather that there are unique moral hazards against which they are peculiarly obliged to guard. Christianity is, after all, no more a shelter from moral responsibility than is atheism; indeed, Christians must take it upon themselves to be doubly vigilant to avoid doing evil.
     Herein lies the most obvious moral danger of religious faith. In taking themselves to be guided by divinely ordained commandments, theists may be tempted to relax the rigor with which they scrutinize their actions, and are thus capable of the most unspeakable atrocities. That is, secure in the faith that God wills a certain course of action, they may be prepared to disregard any suggestion (even from their own consciences) that this may not in fact be the morally correct thing to do. This is not to say that God may on occasion will us to do immoral things, but rather that we, as fallible humans, may sometimes be misled about exactly what it is that God expects of us. Unfortunately, it is also often a tenet of faith that to question God is itself an immoral act, and so it can become especially difficult to correct a moral error once it has been made on these grounds. This is because the difference between questioning a command of God and questioning one's own understanding of that command is a subtle one, not at all easily recognized, and harder yet when any doubt is seen as weakness of faith and therefore sinful in itself.
     So, on the one hand, we see how a blind acceptance of putatively divine commands can lead one to commit acts of unthinkable evil, for the assurance of divine sanction may even provide the strength of will to suppress one's natural sense of revulsion and horror. There is a more subtle sin of pride, however, which is independent of the moral character of the acts performed. The duty of morality is the duty to make one's own choices and accept responsibility for them, not to pass off that responsibility to another decision maker (real or imagined). Christians, perhaps more than anyone, must not take comfort in the belief that their faith will preserve them from moral duty (and its attendant and inescapable possibilities of failure), but rather are to be confronted with the difficulties of moral responsibility, most difficult of which is trying to figure out what really is the right thing to do.
     Some may say that knowing what to do is a simple matter of reading Scripture, and that finding the strength to carry it out is where we are put to the moral test. I would argue, however, that they have an overly naive view of moral life. Even if we accept that Scripture is the basis of all morality (a highly contentious claim), there is still the extraordinarily difficult matter of interpretation, which ultimately must fall to the individual confronted with moral choice. "Thou shalt not murder," is fairly straightforward, but the same commandment is very often translated as "Thou shalt not kill," which can raise problems even for the strictest vegetarian. And how exactly does "Thou shalt not steal" apply today in a world of software piracy and satellite dishes? Even if there is universal agreement that stealing is wrong (and in general, there is), there remains real confusion as to what really constitutes stealing.
     Further, consider the virtues that we strive to develop through moral exercise, and their dependence upon adversity. Courage, for example, is utterly meaningless without fear. It is the person who knowingly faces danger and acts in spite of fear whose courage we praise; without fear, the same act is indistinguishable from stupidity. Likewise, where is the generosity in a gift that represents no sacrifice on the part of the giver? What is patience to someone who is in no hurry anyway? And why praise the temperance of one who can't abide drink? Similarly, the virtue of moral courage is dependent upon the fear of sin or error for its meaning. It is one thing to act, knowing that one is right, but it is quite another to act with imperfect knowledge, hoping that one does good but recognizing one's fallibility and accepting responsibility for one's action right or wrong. The former is suitable for angels; the latter is the best we mortals can hope for. This is what is meant by acknowledging that we are sinners.
     This is important for two reasons. First, as we have seen throughout history, there are few people more dangerous than the fanatic who is convinced he acts with divine approval. The abdication of moral responsibility is nearly always a recipe for disaster, from the functionaries of Nazi Germany who were "just following orders" to the terrorist zealots who slaughter indiscriminately in the name of a warped sense of righteousness. But regardless of the harm such persons may or may not inflict upon others, the spiritual sin of pride may lie under even the most righteous and benevolent of acts.
This pride is uniquely difficult to identify, for it is well cloaked in the garb of pious humility. What makes it so elusive is that it appears as a faith in God, when in reality it is a misplaced faith in one's own judgement. It may well be that God is just and perfect and incapable of error, but we most certainly are none of these things, and to act with the firm belief that one is in perfect harmony with God's perfectly just wishes is to lose sight of that truth. Indeed, the person who acts in this way is guilty of the greatest pride, for she puts her moral judgement on a level with God's. She claims to know with absolute certainty that which can be known only to God. The faith here, then, is not in God at all, but in the individual's own reliability in knowing God, and if we understand idolatry as the sin of ascribing divine significance to a human artifact, the pride involved is idolatrous when the individual believes her own knowledge to be perfect in this regard.
     In this way, then, creationists are vulnerable to a sort of pride which is every bit as sinful as the pride of the atheist. It is important to stress at this point, however, that this is in no way an argument against being a Christian. Any particular belief one may adopt, Christianity included, carries its own unique variation of this moral trap, for responsibility is something we simply cannot avoid. Once one has eaten from the tree of knowledge, there is no going back; we are stuck with having to face up to these difficult choices. To seek refuge from responsibility in Christianity, or indeed in any other faith, is only to fool oneself and miss the central message. Christianity, like any truly moral lifestyle, is a challenge and not a shelter.

     There is another way in which I see creationism, or at least literal biblical creationism, as idolatrous. In the sense that all things are created by God, it is entirely true that everything, including human artifacts, has divine significance, but in the case of idolatry a particular object or set of objects becomes uniquely elevated and worshipped disproportionately, with the assumption that the rest of Creation is somehow less directly connected to God than the worshipped idol.
     Now, it is difficult to deny that the Bible, divinely inspired or not, is at least in large part a human artifact. Setting aside for now the question of original authorship, it must at least be acknowledged that modern human beings take responsibility for retranslating, typesetting, printing, binding, reading and interpreting this text. To the extent that various translations have differed significantly (compare the meanings of "Thou shalt not kill," and "Thou shalt not commit murder," for example), we must recognize that the message of scripture bears some human influence.
     One might argue that the Holy Spirit intervenes in order to preserve the integrity of the Word. This, however, is the very essence of idolatry, for it differs little if at all from maintaining that a golden calf made by human hands is somehow imbued with divinity and a suitable object for worship. The printed word is no less a human artifact, and no more holy. Those who claim it is are guilty of Having Other Gods Before [Me], and perhaps of making Graven Images (if words can be pictures). If the translators themselves claim to be divinely guided, they are guilty of the pride I discussed above, as well as Taking the Lord's Name in Vain by claiming to speak for God. (My reading of that commandment is not that the occasional utterance of "God damn it!" is a mortal sin, but rather that claiming to speak in God's name is. The spoken desire that God damn something or someone is no doubt unChristian, but it is scarcely more than a breach of etiquette in comparison to the pretense to divine authority.) The worship of Scripture, for that is what an unquestioning literal faith in the Bible is, is therefore a most impious form of idolatry.
     This is not to deny the spiritual importance of the Bible, but to affirm the spiritual importance of everything else. If God is the author of all Creation (and even if He is not), then there is and must be Truth in all things. Knowing this to be so is almost trivially easy. The challenge for us is to understand that Truth. Significant though scripture may be, the testimony of fossils, sediments, and DNA is no less the Word of God (and no less subject to careful interpretation). It has even been suggested by some creationists that the evidence of the natural world is deliberately misleading in order to test the faith of the believer, a position indistinguishable from calling God a liar. By what right do we take the humanly printed word to tell a truer story than Nature?

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

A New Democratic Government

     Well, the unthinkable has happened, and my home province of Alberta has actually elected a majority NDP government. I'm really not sure what to think just yet; it's still kind of a shock. For all my talk about engaging in the democratic process, I hadn't realized just how much I had internalized the despair and resignation to the (apparent) inevitability of Progressive Conservative majorities forever and ever. I know that in the big picture this is not quite as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the end of Apartheid, but it hits me almost as powerfully, because I live here.
     Our governing party for the last 44 years has not really been progressive or conservative for most of that time. When they came into power under Peter Lougheed (whose son I attended grade school with), they were very progressive in the way they went about conserving our abundant petroleum resources. They established the Heritage Trust Fund, in which to invest the money from oil and gas royalties, in preparation for when the oil ran out. (They replaced the Social Credit party, whose dynasty lasted a mere 36 years.) But over time, they became more and more dominated by business (primarily oil) interests, and they came to take their power for granted.
     By the time I was in high school (and that was thirty years ago!), they were well enough entrenched that a classmate of mine, after hearing from the candidates at a first-time-voters' forum, remarked to me: "Well, I thought the NDP candidate made a lot of sense, but my family always votes Conservative, so..."
     Twenty years later, and another election, I answered my door to the PC candidate for my riding, one of the very few that was at that time held by a Liberal MLA ("Member of Legislative Assembly", the provincial equivalent of a federal Member of Parliament). I mentioned to this candidate my dissatisfaction with the way her party was running things, and she argued that was because Edmonton was underrepresented in caucus. That is, since we had elected non-PC candidates, the government wouldn't listen to us. Consider the logic of that for a moment: If I don't like the way the PCs are running my province, I should vote for them. What, then, should I do if I did like the way they were running things?

     So perhaps you can understand why I had this deeply internalized sense of despair. I talk a lot here about the importance of democratic engagement and getting out there and voting even if you don't really believe your vote will make a difference. I suppose that came from my years of voting without making a difference.

     Now, one of the things that helped keep the PCs in power so long was our ridiculously crude first-past-the-post electoral system, which gives the seat to the candidate who gets the most votes. That doesn't sound like a bad idea by itself, because obviously, you wouldn't want to give it to the candidate who got the fewest votes, and if there are only two parties or candidates, then "the most votes" usually is equivalent to a majority. But in Alberta (as in most places with parliamentary systems) there have usually been more than two candidates on the ballot. Here, we have had the Alberta PCs, the Alberta Liberals, and the New Democratic Party as the three major parties for many years ("major" being a bit generous, given how few seats the Liberals and NDP usually held), joined occasionally by the Greens, making for three parties on the leftish side, against a more or less united PC on the rightish side. What this meant was that the PC could win the seat with 30% of the popular vote, if the other three parties got 23% each, even though 70% of the electorate voted against the PC candidate.
     In recent years, a new party to the right of the PCs appeared, the Wildrose Alliance, so the right's vote was split somewhat. However, in the last election that the PCs won, this actually worked to their advantage, because many centrists were so horrified at the prospect of a Wildrose government that they held their noses and voted PC. And to complicate matters further, another new party, the Alberta Party, has joined the fray, so that the left-of-PC vote was now divided four ways. It was only because Rachel Notley's NDP manage to capture enough momentum to consolidate the anti-PC resentment this time around that we managed to finally oust the PC government. In so doing, we elected an NDP majority, which irrationally scares the hell out of some people who think of the NDP as a bunch of dirty commies.

     So now, at last, we have PC supporters finally complaining about the terrible injustice of the first-past-the-post that allowed the NDP to take a majority of the seats with less than a full majority of the votes. Part of me is sorely tempted to laugh and point and gloat. But the more rational part rings alarm bells at that part of me, because if I, who am not at all a committed pro-NDP partisan, can so easily be tempted to revel in an inherently distorting electoral system, what does that mean for those who ran and were elected as NDP candidates?
     I do not doubt the good faith and idealism of the members of the new NDP government, most of whom have never held elected office before, and I'm delighted to see a change here, particularly one that moves in a direction I've thought we needed to move for a long time. But power is so very seductive, and it has so many sneaky little ways to corrupt even (especially) the most idealistic. I'm not even especially worried about the personal greed and entitlement that did in the last government; that will take some time to take root. I'm more worried about the Very Important Policies that we have so urgently wanted to implement for so many years. As urgently needed as they are, it'd be so very easy to say that electoral form can wait until these more pressing issues are addressed.

     It's always like that, though.  It's never in the interest of the incumbent party to reform the rules that favored them in the last election. There's always something more important, or at least, something easily framed as being more important, because so often there are more immediately urgent matters. But that's exactly why electoral reform needs to be the first priority of the incoming government. Other matters may be more immediately urgent, but if you don't fix the voting system now, you probably won't do it later. And eventually, in time, as the excuses pile up and your fresh new democratic legislature grows into an entitled dynasty complacent in its claim to power for power's sake (as did the PCs and the Socreds before them), it will be impossible to even contemplate changing it.

     Please, then, Ms. Notley: make fixing our electoral system your absolute first priority. Get rid of first-past-the-post. Personally, I'd favour a single transferrable vote, but there are other viable solutions out there. Put our best and brightest to work on the problem. Consult (and listen to) a variety of experts. But fix it. Make every Albertan's vote count.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

On Anti-Discrimination Laws

     I want to talk about why I am in favour of anti-discrimination laws (some of them, anyway), and how they can be justified given my position that the sole purpose of law should be to make us more free. But first, I'm going to do so by revisiting speed limits, which I've written about before.

     On the face of it, a speed limit is an imposition on individual freedom that does not seem to directly protect a greater freedom. True, high speeds might impose a serious liberty-threatening risk on others, but we have tort law for resolving personal wrongs and mandatory vehicle insurance to protect the right of those harmed to compensation. (Not an ideal solution, but a solution that can be refined and improved.) But ignoring for the sake of principle the case of accidents, how does my safely driving at 200 km/h on a public street infringe upon anyone else’s rights, or diminish their freedom?
     Well, it doesn't, at least not directly. As I argued before, people driving at excessive speeds use more than their fair share of the road, forcing everyone else to wait longer for a safe opportunity to merge into traffic, make a left turn or otherwise use the road to get where they want to be. But being forced to wait doesn't exactly violate any individual right. You have to wait for a break in traffic anyway, and it's not as if you have a right to have that break miraculously appear when you want it. 
     No, it's not about you. It's about all of us. Everyone using the road imposes some delays on everyone else, but people who violate traffic rules such as speed limits tend to impose disproportionate delays; for every minute they save themselves, they easily cost the rest of us collectively several minutes or even hours. Hours spent waiting in traffic are hours of constrained liberty, so imposing speed limits is defensible as a liberty-maximizing measure.

     Notice that in most places, there is no minimum speed limit. There may occasionally be people who feel like driving slow, but there is nothing inherently to be gained by doing so; you do not save time by going significantly slower than traffic. So while there's an intrinsic incentive to speeding (I can save myself a few minutes), people pay a natural price in time for going slow. Fines for speeding are meant to counteract the incentive to speed with a (hopefully greater) disincentive.

     So let's consider discrimination. On the face of it, an employer or merchant who discriminates is making a foolish and self-destructive choice, forgoing an otherwise qualified candidate or customer for an arbitrary and irrelevant reason. It's sort of like someone deliberately choosing to drive very slowly; yes, it imposes inconvenience on others, but there's not a lot we can do about people who willingly impose disadvantages on themselves.
     Of course, there’s much more to it than that. If discrimination were just a matter of people making foolish and arbitrary distinctions that go against their own interests, we'd dismiss it without much thought. If you walked into my shop and I refused to do business with you and asked you to leave because my invisible friend is allergic to your shampoo, I'd lose business and you'd go somewhere else, shaking your head at poor silly delusional me. My loss of business would be incentive enough that we wouldn't need to worry about making rules against such silliness.

     But the sort of real-world discrimination that we try to pass laws against is different, because left unchecked it can turn into an actual incentive. If I post a sign outside my shop, boasting of my ethnically clean premises, I might actually gain a market advantage if ethnic bigots represent a market segment with any buying power. Worse, even if actual bigots don't make up an appreciable portion of the market, the perception that they do can become self-reinforcing. Even if I'm not a bigot, I might feel obliged to cater to the bigots whose business I might lose if I don't.
     Consider, for example, the controversy we had in this city a few years ago when a new anti-smoking ordinance was being proposed for all workplaces. Bar owners, almost unanimously protested loudly that they would lose business if their customers couldn't smoke. Whether this was true or not, it was an almost universally held belief, so much so that smokers expected to be able to smoke in any bar they went into, and bar owners were loath to turn them away. Meanwhile, nonsmokers generally were resigned to the fact that if they went to a bar, they'd have to put up with smoke.
     There's an inherent selection bias here. People who wanted to light up a cigarette just would, and people who did not want to didn't light up, but since they were accustomed to other people doing so, they wouldn't say anything. Bar owners rarely heard from potential customers who objected to the smoke enough to stayed away. So there was a powerful perceived incentive to allow smoking, whether or not it was actually in the bar owners' economic interests.

     These perceptions take on a life of their own, and can become very hard to displace. It may even be that nobody at all actually agrees with them, but everybody goes along with them because they believe everyone else agrees with them. It's unfortunate that the Invisible Hand of the market is so poor at weeding out these things, but that's actually to be expected; when clever entrepreneurs find a common misperception to exploit, you can be sure they'll invest heavily in promoting and maintaining that misperception for as long as they can milk it. 

     Will the Invisible Hand persuade the Indiana state legislature to repeal its new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or at least amend the worst bits? It might. I hope so. If it does, then that might actually be some evidence that we're outgrowing the need for antidiscrimination laws. But the fact that they passed it in the first place leads me to suspect we still need them.