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Pirate Government Pirates

Econ Talk is my new addiction. Today I listened to Patri's interview on seasteading and I had a thought on the problem of piracy.

One of the obvious difficulties with seasteading that occurs to everyone when they first hear of it is the problem of pirates. Seasteading supporters often respond to these fears by noting that pirates will not have an incentive to attack seasteads because the vessels will provide little booty of value compared to the pirates' normal prey, cargo ships.

But this answer is incomplete. There is one obvious piece of booty of high value on a seastead, namely the seastead itself. What pirate wouldn't kill to have a permanent, mobile, highly-engineered, self-sustaining sea base?

My objection is not unanswerable. I get the impression that most modern pirate operations are small and located in coastal waters, so it isn't hard to avoid or outgun them. Pirates would have to make major changes to their organizational strategy to pursue well-defended seasteads in deep ocean waters. But given the value of a seastead, making the change may just cross the 1:1 benefit/cost ratio threshold.

Keynes vs. Hayek (Music Video)

This video deserves to be posted on every blog:

Written by Russ Roberts, the producer of the excellent and entertaining podcast, Econ Talk

The Libertarian Paradox and Bad Policy

I don't want to live in an area that indiscriminately lets in millions of poor immigrants from the third world. I believe such a place would be unpleasant to live in. At least I want my government to keep out the crazies with bombs.

Libertarian moral philosophy clearly allows me to pursue this goal privately. I am allowed to band together with other people, buy up some land, and prevent immigrants we don't want from moving to our gated community. Furthermore, in some future anarchist seasteading utopia where governments were privately owned and operated, libertarian philosophy allows me to choose to patronize a seastead government that is discriminating in how many and what kinds of immigrants it accepts (I'm moving to the one with Megan Fox). What's more, judging from public opinion polls I believe such discriminating seasteads would be vastly more popular and profitable than open borders seasteads.

But because we do not live in a libertarian world and much of the property in the United States is owned by the government, many libertarians (example) hold that we have no moral choice but to pursue an open borders policy and let in any immigrant who wishes to come.

This is an example of what I am christening the "libertarian paradox". Because of the governing systems currently in place, libertarian moral philosophy compels us to advocate for bad policies that nobody really wants. Because the roads and borders are not private property, it would be immoral for us to use government force to prevent some immigrants from using them to move here.

And then libertarians wonder why their message is so unpopular, all the while they are advocating policies that nobody, not even most libertarians, would voluntarily choose to live under if they had the personal free choice.

I'll give you another example of the L-paradox. A few months ago I read a blog post in support of a policy of mandatory paternity tests at birth. The author, and myself, think this policy would prevent severe injustice and provide incentive for people to act in more moral and honest ways. But then the author, a libertarian, backed off from his advocacy because he felt uncomfortable making any policy mandatory and thereby using government force on anybody.

But if we had a free choice between living in a society with mandatory paternity testing and one without it, both the author and myself would cheerfully choose the first. Again, libertarian moral philosophy compels us to pollute our real, current world with bad policy, saving our good ideas for a future world of private governments.

I'm a structural libertarian. I think we will have a more pleasant, productive, prosperous, and just world if people had substantive individual choice over the political systems in which they live. I believe modern governments are incurably insane, and most policy is too expansive. But I think it perverse that libertarian moral philosophy constrains us to make bad decisions until we achieve libertopia.

Funny story.

Three years ago I started working for an investment bank that raised money for firms that sold CDOs - one of the financial derivatives that caused the grand market shit storm in whose splatter we are still living. As a fledgling young analyst, I experienced a feeling of disquiet because I couldn't understand how CDOs created value. I felt dumb. I was especially embarrassed because I had a degree in Economics and did well in school, so I assumed I should be able to grasp the idea behind financial products at least at a high level. But my doubts were soon drowned out by a torrent of work. I blamed my ignorance on my inexperience and moved on.

After all, "they" wouldn't build a trillion-dollar market based on bullshit, would they?

For those not current on financial jargon, a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) is made by taking a $100 million worth of mortgages, throwing them in a box, and then selling pieces of the box for a total of about $105 million. ~ $1 million gets paid to the investment bank who sells the pieces and the rest of the profit gets kept by the firm who owned the mortgages. Not a bad gig.

In fact, CDOs weren't always composed of mortgages. You could put other financial assets in the box, too. You could even buy pieces of other CDOs, throw them in a new CDO, and sell the pieces for more money. These are called "CDOs-squared". I-shit-you-not.

By now you might understand why I was puzzled by how this activity constituted a valuable economic enterprise. Theoretically, CDOs created value because owning half of two mortgages is safer than owning 100% of one mortgage. And that's true. If one mortgager defaults, you still have 50% of a mortgage that's sending you monthly payments. But that line of reasoning is a lot more true if you're the kind of person who buys one mortgage than if you're the kind of person that buys 10,000 mortgages. If you have a large budget, then you can already diversify pretty well on your own. CDOs are a convenient source of diversification, but is the convenience enough to justify paying some yahoo middleman a 5% cut?

As it turns out, the answer is "no". Part of that 5% value creation was generated from convenient diversification, but part of it came from the fact that once you throw all the mortgages in the box it's harder to figure out how risky it is to own them. So "value" was created by temporarily hiding the down-side behind a chain of opaque securitizations. This later blew up in our collective faces.

When the economy started to collapse partially from the collective weight of toxic unpriceable CDO slices, I remembered my earlier confusion and laughed. Maybe I wasn't so dumb after all.

Seasteading: the Anti-Wall

Patri provides a solid analogy to illustrate the basic economic mechanisms behind Seasteading on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

How to think like a Conservative

To a conservative, the character of a society is derived from more than the structure that law gives it. If you are going to reduce Conservatism to one simple phrase, one distinguishing thesis, it would be this: culture matters.

Conservatism argues that people with a healthy culture can form a happy society even with a poor structure of laws. It also posits the converse: that people with an unhealthy culture will not thrive even under the best legal structure.

Libertarianism focuses solely on the structure of laws. To the extent that it acknowledges the culture of a society at all, it insists that culture be left to laissez-fare as a matter of morality. Libertarians assume that societies with any arbitrary culture will turn out okay if the incentives of the law are well-designed.

Change. Hope.

Every generation must relearn the lesson: don't trust politicians.

A year later our candidate that valued technology, openness, and government transparency, the darling of Silicon Valley, is up to the same old bullshit.

No Guarantee of a Benevolent World

(My apologies, this post was inspired by another person's blog post, but I can't seem to recall whose)

Imagine a world where there is perfect equivalence between the set of policies that are just and the set of policies that are beneficial. In this world there is never any trade-off between justice and utility. Many libertarians believe in this beautiful equivalence. Furthermore, they believe that libertarianism describes the set of policies that lie at the optimum point for both curves.

But there is an epistemological problem with this belief. However much we desire this equivalence to be true, we can not prove it a priori, because "beneficial" is an empirical quality. This makes the truth of the equivalence contingent on the scrutiny of evidence. And the sad fact is that I observe more evidence against the hypothesis than for it.

For example, I hold Western values towards gender equality and individual autonomy. They seem just and desirable to me. But all the peoples that hold such views are breeding below the population replacement rate, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as "Demographic Winter".

This raises the possibility that free expression of human individuality is an unstable cultural/policy position for society to adopt. It may be that women's ambitions must be constrained to reproduction and family for a society to survive. Otherwise, too few people will voluntarily choose the pain and effort that comes with raising a family over modern pursuits more carefully tuned to stimulating the pleasure centers of our brains.

Rationalists like the folks over at Less Wrong take the beautiful equivalence a step further by adding a third term: truth. The three-way equivalence is "truth = justice = utility". (I must apologize, it has been awhile since I have read their writing, it could be that any views I attribute to them have changed. I remember it as a naively optimistic place.)

But again, there is no a priori reason for this equivalence to hold. No less than Less Wrong's own Robin Hanson tackles the link between truth and utility, when he opines:

Rationality certainly can have instrumental advantages. There are plenty of situations where being more rational helps one achieve a wide range of goals. In those situtations, "winners", i.e., those who better achieve their goals, should tend to be more rational. In such cases, we might even estimate someone's rationality by looking at his or her "residual" belief-mediated success, i.e., after explaining that success via other observable factors.

But note: we humans were designed in many ways not to be rational, because believing the truth often got in the way of achieving goals evolution had for us. So it is important for everyone who intends to seek truth to clearly understand: rationality has costs, not only in time and effort to achieve it, but also in conflicts with other common goals.

Yes, rationality might help you win that game or argument, get promoted, or win her heart. Or more rationality for you might hinder those outcomes. If what you really want is love, respect, beauty, inspiration, meaning, satisfaction, or success, as commonly understood, we just cannot assure you that rationality is your best approach toward those ends. In fact we often know it is not.

The truth may well be messy, ugly, or dispriting; knowing it make you less popular, loved, or successful. These are actually pretty likely outcomes in many identifiable situations. You may think you want to know the truth no matter what, but how sure can you really be of that? Maybe you just like the heroic image of someone who wants the truth no matter what; or maybe you only really want to know the truth if it is the bright shining glory you hope for.

Rationality is also not necessarily beneficial on a group level. For example, I am a good atheist; I believe that religion is false. However, I also believe that religion may benefit individuals and groups that follow it. Any atheist who believes that religion is solely a scourge upon the human race needs to explain its amazing resilience in human history.

Religion might even be the least bad solution to Demographic Winter - American Mormons live lives that are relatively free compared to most of humanity, but their faith and values still drive them to marry and have babies. If this is the case, then it severs the link between rationality and utility at the level of society. The beautiful equivalence is in tatters.

Assuming the beautiful equivalence is false, we still have choices to make. We can make ourselves martyrs to justice, choosing policies that we believe to be right; knowing that societies with fewer scruples will thrive while we whither away. We can choose policies that make an explicit trade-off between utility, truth, and justice. But if the equivalence is broken, then we must choose. We cannot have everything we desire. The universe is not benevolent.

I brought these worries up at Less Wrong, but nobody was willing to debate with me before I had familiarized myself with dozens of Eliezer's old essays. So, I post them here. Have at them.


It is of nights like these that legends are built. Manny Pacquaio was a war god in the ring - inhuman, immortal. His fists were lightning, crossing the chasm to his opponent instantaneously. When the counter-punches came, he was mist.

Thus Manny destroys one of the best boxers in the world with an effortless six minutes of work. Such speed. Such polish. There is not a finer fighter living. My children's children will know his name.

A Cultural Note

While I agreed with many of their positions, in retrospect the anti-Bush movement was poisonous to the level of discourse in this country. At the time, I thought it was healthy for citizens to be vocal and active critics of the powerful. But millions of people, most of them my generational and cultural peers, became accustomed to viewing their political opponents as evil idiots. The battle lines drawn, they are incapable of thinking through a policy issue for themselves, adopting valid ideas from political movements other than their own, or perceiving a debate with a viewpoint uncolored by rank partisanship. Their politics reside at an unfortunate intersection of boring group-think and dangerous, assertive self-righteousness.

Moreover, the fanaticism of the anti-Bush movement fueled the emotional, messianic campaign of Barack Obama, whose Presidency has wiped out any remaining impulse to be critical of power. The smug assuredness professed by young urbanites in the rightness of Barack's policies, no matter how questionable the merit, eerily mirrors the manner of their cultural hero, Jon Stewart. All their critics get from them is a clever, sneering label. Repeat it enough, and the "debate" is won. Repeat it loudest, and receive adulation.

The battle of ideas is never engaged. Why should it be? Their opponents have silly and awful ideas. They know this because they laugh at their opponents and call them names. If they had any ideas worth listening to, then why would they be so widely ridiculed?

On the internet it has become widespread custom, even in places that profess political neutrality, to accept boorish and uncivil behavior towards those who hold incorrect opinions. If you don't believe me, try to say something nice about Mormons or Republicans in a mainstream online community. This author is not responsible for the flamewar that results.

Finally, the attitude has spread into real life. Hoodlums at UNC recently created a disturbance, and even broke a window, to prevent Tom Tancredo from speaking at their university. The irony that students who loudly support diversity and tolerance should act so violently in suppression of "dangerous" ideas is lost in a rush to action. If any in the crowd were to feel the tiniest pang of guilt, perhaps Jon Stewart will crack a joke about Tancredo, and that wonderful tonic of self-righteousness will soothe any doubts and return their minds to a smooth, untroubled state.

The ghosts of the French Revolution stir on our continent. Youths on the internet receive a hundred "up-votes" on social news sites for suggesting that bankers should be slain in the streets, a thousand for suggesting the same of Republicans (who, just to be clear, I don't like nearly as much as bankers). When discussing the morality of this, the voice of modesty that suggests that rich people, Republicans and Mormons have done nothing deserving of capital punishment is down-voted into oblivion. The idea that members of unpopular groups ought to have human rights, too, is met with the contention that they have forfeited their rights by behaving in unpopular ways. A finer group of Robespierres have never been seen outside of France.

The older folks have to tell me - was it always this way?

Libertarian Fascism

The Chinese government has blocked its citizens from viewing youtube. This is not the first time China has banned a website for political reasons. Often the ban is a temporary response to politically sensitive content. After a period of time, access to the site is usually restored minus a targeted block of the offending media.

On Hacker News, a commenter writes:

The hard thing to bend my mind around is the fact that many people in China are in favour of Internet censorship. I have witnessed the same thing here in the UAE - even from young Western-educated locals.

I suppose that if you grow up in a society where heavy-handed censorship is widespread in all media and even conversation, you'd accept it as normal and perhaps necessary. Self-censorship is even more effective and omni-present. (...snipped for brevity...)

This comment gives us what we would expect from an average person in our society - implicit disapproval of China's actions and explicit wonder that anyone could approve of them. I respond:

China is less than a lifetime away from its last civil war. I can see how that would make people fearful and cautious.

Allowing populism to run a muck could lead to revolution, especially in a young and poor nation like China. Contrary to the romantic ideal of revolution we have in the West, in practice it is a bloody, miserable, and violent thing.

Call me a fascist, but I can understand the Chinese authorities' attempts to short-circuit anti-government movements. I can also understand popular support for such actions, given that the current Chinese government is more competent than all but a handful on this planet.

Also - I'm just trying to understand and explore their side here. I do enjoy living in a free society where I can support market anarchism and make frequent anti-government comments. I'm just not so much of an idealist to believe that American-style democracy is optimal for all places, times, and situations.

For example, I can understand why the Germans chose to ban Nazi publications in the wake of World War II, free speech be damned.

I grant that I sound like a bad guy. Nobody in this modern-thinking age would ever dare give a nod to censorship. I certainly do not sound like a libertarian.

But I am glad I explored this topic, as it led to some interesting results. Normally I think of libertarians as some of the most vociferous proponents of civil liberties and freedom of information. However, after mulling it over for awhile, I thought of a way that libertarians can support "oppressive" censorship, such as that undertaken by China.

Perhaps I should keep it to myself, like Godel's infamous discovery of a path to dictatorship in the US Constitution which he tried to blurt out at his citizenship hearing. But we are mature people. We can handle a little critical exploration of the philosophy that we hold a common fondness for.

It is good practice to begin our wanderings in uncontroversial territory. Most libertarians approve of newspaper owners or website proprietors censoring what articles are allowed to appear in them. In fact, libertarians would take issue with calling it "censorship", since such content filtering is not conducted by the government, but by the owners of a private means of communication.

This fits with one common conception of libertarianism - libertarianism as "propertarianism". According to this conception, libertarianism maximizes personal freedom within the constraints imposed by property ownership rules, and "freedom" means being free to dispose of your property as you wish as long as you don't violate the rights that other people have in their property.

Along the same lines, libertarians would throw a fit if a municipal government decided that the Democratic and Republican parties were allowed to solicit votes in their city, but banned the Libertarian party from doing so. In the public sphere, libertarians are fierce proponents of fairness, equal rights, and free speech. However, this is not true in the private sphere. They would not lodge an ethical complaint if a privately owned housing development were to exclude the operatives of some political groups but not others. After all, it is the owners' property, and they are allowed to do with it as they wish, even if we don't agree with them. That's what "liberty" means.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Patri Friedman, the world of private governments aboard floating seasteads is rapidly approaching. This is a good time to bring back on stage the evil, oppressive Chinese regime and its campaign of internet censorship.

Suppose you are the owner/manager of a large, prosperous seastead. One day, you discover a nascent communist conspiracy on your seastead, and its numbers are growing. Its members communicate and recruit by means of an internet forum and a physical newsletter. The conspiracy advocates overthrowing the manager (you), probably killing you in the process, and replacing you with a democracy of the proletariat.

As the CEO of FreeWaters Seastead Community, what do you do? Do you (1)play the good liberal, and resolve to beat your opponents in the "marketplace of ideas"? Or do you (2)ban their website, burn their newspapers, and keel-haul a few of them for good measure? Which option feels more libertarian?

I know which I am leaning towards. It's been centuries since the world has seen a good keel-haul. And before you ask, yes I am available for Seastead CEO positions, if the right amount of money and wenches is offered.

What is striking about this example is that libertarian thought allows option (2) for private seastead owners, but not for China. This is not entirely arbitrary. Presumably seastead residents were made to sign a contract before they moved in, a real-life Social Contract!, that detailed their rights, responsibilities, and how to avoid keel-hauling. Thus, libertarian ethics frees the manager to make the decisions that maximize customer satisfaction and return to shareholders, including the persecution of the occassional communist conspiracy.

However, libertarian ethics are much harsher on the current managers of poor old China. They had the misfortune to inherit a legacy system that installed itself through non-propertarian means. There is no signed contract. Thus, libertarians consider their regime illegitimate, and they are constrained from making decisions that they think are best for their residents, such as shutting down websites of democratic conspiracies seeking to overthrow the government.

The point of this meandering monologue is that we can start with libertarian rules and get governments that do things that most libertarians won't like.This is surprising, but there is a good reason for it.

Libertarianism is a philosophy about means. It describes a set of allowed and prohibited ways of interacting with other people. If you describe yourself as a libertarian, you believe that these means of interaction are wise and just. I tend to agree with that sentiment, so I call myself a libertarian.

Many libertarians treat the term "classical liberal" as a synonym, but that is not true at all. Liberalism is a philosophy about ends. It says that people ought to have the freedom of speech, of the press, and of organization. They ought to have fair trials when accused of a crime, and not be deprived due process before any punishment is meted out.

Modern libertarianism is a muddled mess of an ideology because its adherents don't understand this difference. They assert that libertarianism and classical liberalism are one and the same, that libertarian means necessarily result in classical liberal ends. But that is not true. I just showed one counter-example whereby libertarian means can result in very illiberal ends through the intermediate step of private governments. Like any complex set of rules, there are edge-cases, grey areas, and Godelian loop-holes.

It's okay to hold separate ethical ideas about means and about ends. But sometimes in order to achieve your ends, you will have to violate the means-constraints you have set for yourself. Conversely, following your means-constraints will sometimes lead you to sacrifice your end goals. There is no God that made a just world where good means and good ends always coincide. We live in a messy, evolved place where we must sometimes contradict ourselves and work against ourselves if we strive to be good people.

When private governments arrive, I predict that the people that live under them will be happier and more prosperous. Moreover, I believe the force of competition will make the average person happier and more prosperous even if he chooses to remain under a legacy government. However, I also believe it will slough off people from the libertarian movement. We will have to rethink what ethical constraints people ought to be bound by once private governments have met all of our criteria to get permission to act as they will.

Thought of the day

Since Obama has established the logical proposition that those who take federal money (e.g. CEO grandees of troubled banks) should have government impose salary caps on them, why not do the same for those home-owners that are about to be bailed out?


Deflating Populism

For today's discussion, I offer Exhibit A:

This graph shows a line staying at a low level for most of American history and then suddenly shooting upward. Many people are worried about this line because it measures a quantity that is usually considered to be a Bad Thing: credit market debt as a percentage of GDP.

I offer two hypotheses to explain this graph. The first is a favorite of right-wing populists and libertarians, and was endorsed by Mencius Moldbug (the blog proprietor who was the immediate source of Exhibit A):

Hypothesis 1: Modern American wealth is illusory. It is built on a pyramid of debt and will eventually collapse. Our economic growth is driven by borrowing more and more money. This is not sustainable.

Those familiar with Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan, or other economic populists will immediately recognize hypothesis 1. It has a certain intuitive appeal and fits well within the narrative of modern social decay preferred by the paleocons.

The second hypothesis comes from a very different perspective. To me, merely stating the second hypothesis deflates the appeal of the first:

Hypothesis 2: The timing of the explosive growth of the credit market coincides with exponential growth in commercially available computing power. Technological change drastically reduced frictional transaction costs involved in complex capital transfers, creating a greater number of profitable credit transactions at the margin. The ventures funded by these marginal transactions have generated value over time and increased average human prosperity. A large credit market is a beneficial side-effect of a healthy modern economy.

You may want to call hypothesis 2 the "skeptical", "conservative", or "Panglossian" hypothesis, depending on your point of view.

Myth and Cult: How Atheists Misunderstand Religion

Commentlog was a blog dedicated to preserving and centralizing the most thoughtful comments left on other people's blogs. Sadly, the editor has let his hosting account expire. I say "sadly" because I need a particular post of his for a future piece, and hardly a week goes by that I don't want to recommend it to someone.

I managed to find it through the magic of Google cache. So to save myself trouble, I repost it here in its entirety.

Because the rest of this post is just a verbatim quote, I forgo using any special formatting to delineate it:

"Deep in a comment thread on Unqualified Reservations, Michael S. provides the best apologia of traditional religion that I have ever read. Years ago I stopped believing in the Christian God and left the church. Had there been anyone of Michael's intellectual caliber still left in the Catholic church, perhaps things would have gone differently. Below I have reproduced Michael's key comments from thread, so that others may read them easily:


There are at least two components to any religion, namely myth and cult. Under the heading of myth are comprised all of the just-so stories of ancient or primitive peoples. An example is the Greek myth which explained the daily rising and setting of the sun as the passage of Apollo riding his fiery chariot across the sky.The Greeks became good astronomers and by the classical period had developed better ideas about the nature of the heavenly bodies than that myth implied. Nonetheless, they did not give up the cult of Apollo, which persisted right up until the suppression of paganism. Literal belief in the myth was not necessary to the cult. The myth could be understood as symbolism and poetry.

A case in point of the distinction between myth and cult is seen in the life of Cicero, a hard-headed politician and lawyer whose surviving writings indicate that he was a follower of the New Academy of Carneades, which held that certain knowledge was impossible, and that practical assumptions based on probability were as much as could be achieved. Yet this practical and skeptical man also prized his initiation into the mysteries of Eleusis, which he claimed was the best and most divine gift of Athens to the world. One cannot imagine that Cicero took the myth as literal truth, but he was an enthusiastic participant in the cult.

Because the Abrahamic religions are scriptural, and a substantial number of their believers insist on the literal truth of scripture, it is more difficult to distinguish myth and cult in them than it is in ancient religions. Nonetheless the distinction can still be made.

Consider the example of the prophet Daniel, who, as told in the apocryphal book Bel and the Dragon, acted as a sort of spiritual detective. Scattering ashes on the floor of the temple of Bel, he revealed that the offerings said to be eaten by the idol were actually removed by Bel's fraudulent priests; feeding an unpalatable meal to a 'dragon' worshipped by the Babylonians, he caused it to burst and die. This narrative is the antecedent of Black Sea's scenario in which a primitive's supposition that a little man must be talking inside the transistor radio is refuted by opening it.

When Dawkins and other proselytizing atheists point out the errors, inconsistencies, and crudities of the Bible, they hope to be the doughty Daniels of their own True Faith. But by showing that there is a great deal of myth in scripture, all they are doing is to fault the people of two or three millennia ago for not being aware of current scientific theory and for using the means available to them to describe natural phenomena.

Serious adherents of the cults of Judaism or Christianity are not at all disturbed by this news. They are already aware of it. The theory of evolution, to cite one example, does not per se disturb any Christian who is not a literalist. What disturbs him is the neo-Epicureanism that frequently accompanies it (and for which there is no more empirical basis than there is for the idea of intelligent design).

The ultimate vindication of the truth of Daniel's faith, we may recall, came after his exposure of Bel and the Dragon. It was then that his enemies caused him to be thrown into the lions' den. It is unfortunate that Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. have so far, in their attacks on fundamentalism/salvationism, chosen to face only a few malnourished alley cats. They need to withstand sharper and bigger claws and teeth before their testimony is credible. Although I'm not a Roman Catholic, my suggestion is that they be thrown to the Jesuits.

Some years ago I read a transcript of an interview of the great scientific cosmologist Stephen Hawking. I do not recall who conducted the interview. At its conclusion the interviewer asked Hawking, did he believe that the universe had a creator? Hawking said that he did not. Why? the interviewer asked. Hawking responded, "Because I find it more aesthetic." There spoke both an honest atheist and one with a much better philosophical footing than Dawkins and his ilk.


Black Sea, I did not say that you exemplified the type of proselytizing atheist I meant. I said that you and Aaron Davies illustrated the problem such people face. They think their task is as simple as breaking open the transistor radio to show the Amazon tribesman there is no little man inside. In representing the belief of theists as based in ignorance, and proposing themselves as instructors having the knowledge to remedy that ignorance, they both misrepresent the basis of religious belief and condescend to the believer, while expressing an undue confidence in their own intellectual superiority.

Of course there are simple and unsophisticated believers who are literalists. They understand their religion according to their capacity, and it is unlikely they would understand science any better.
There seems to be no appreciation amongst atheists of the Dawkins type that organized religion has always had to contend with excessivley credulous believers, and in many cases has served to restrain superstition rather than to encourage it. Chesterton is supposed to have observed (though no one seems to be able to find the source) that when men no longer believe in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything.

The wisdom of this observation is seen in the recent popularity of accounts of flying saucers, alien abductions, and similar uncanny experiences. It is evident to anyone who is familiar with their history that people have been seeing strange apparitions since time immemorial. It is also evident that they always see these things in culturally appropriate ways. The pagans of classical antiquity saw the gods, nymphs, satyrs, centaurs, sylphs, and so forth. Christians saw angels, demons, the Blessed Virgin, the saints, etc. Mohammedans saw djinn, efreets, and the other marvels related in the Arabian Nights. People began to see flying saucers and little green men in the late 1940s - after they had been culturally conditioned for several decades by the work of H.G. Wells and the pulps published by Hugo Gernsback. Enthusiasts of the extraterrestrial commonly explain the experiences of past visionaries with angels, demons, etc. as being 'close encounters' with aliens. They would no doubt bristle with indignation if it were suggested to them that the aliens they thought they saw were in fact messengers from God or the Devil, djinn, or the elementals described by the abbé Montfaucon de Villars in his "Comte de Gabalis."

Such credulous folk, who believe in anything, really ought not to be fair game for Dawkins and crew. They will always be among us even if atheism becomes the state religion. Under the former Soviet Union there was a widespread literature devoted to supposed extraterrestrial visitations. Since the press in that country was under the complete control of the state, one can only conclude that the powers-that-were wished to encourage belief in these manifestations, as a means of undermining the Christianity they had failed to supplant amongst ordinary people with the bald and unconvincing narrative of their Marxist atheism.

Let me make my own point of view clear - it is that the only position tenable from a viewpoint of strict empiricism is that the existence or non-existence of God are equally un-disprovable. Pointing to one or another scriptural absurdity iluustrates only that the man who wrote it long ago failed to understand matters properly; pointing out that many people still believe that absurdity, in the face of evidence to the contrary, proves only that there are still many simple and unsophisticated people. On the other hand, all the arguments customarily advanced by religious believers, such as the argument by design, are such as to be convincing only to people who already believe.

Yet all these things being taken into consideration, two points remain. The first is anthropological: there is no society known to history in which there is not some sort of spiritual belief. This coincides with the ancient Christian doctrine that all people are inherently aware of God even if they have not the knowledge of the Gospel. Physical explanations of instinctive spirituality ("the God gene") are not persuasive, because they run afoul of the mind-body problem. One is left with the nagging suspicion that there might be something to the spiritual, though just what is the great question.

The second point is aesthetic. Arguably, the highest achievements of the human species have been motivated by that instinctive spirituality just mentioned. The great cathedrals, the precious heritage of religious art and music, are not only monuments to religious belief, but more persuasive testimonies to and arguments for faith than the disputations of theology. Have you ever read the story of the conversion of St. Vladimir, the founder of the Russian Orthodox Church? He was, as the account goes, a pagan prince of the line of Rurik; and an enthusiastic pagan, having built several temples. Yet he was not quite satisfied with his religion, and agreed to hear deputations of Muslims, Jews, and Christians each deliver their respective sales pitches. The presentations of the first two were rather arid, but the Christians (who had come from Byzantium) put on by far the best show, high mass with all the smells and bells, rich vestments, singing, the whole nine yards. Vladimir was convinced - any religion that was so beautiful had to be the right one (it also didn't hurt that it had the least restrictive dietary rules, and no ban on booze). Accordingly, Russia became Christian, and Vladimir a saint - all on the basis of his aesthetic judgment.

I suppose these anthropological and aesthetic reasons explain why many people remain culturally Christian despite an abundance of doubts and discontents. They aren't willing to dismiss the spiritual out of hand; they see more benefit than detriment accruing to society from religion in spite of their doubts (as did Jefferson and Franklin); and they find Christianity aesthetically appealing (as did St. Vladimir). They are therefore unwilling to discard it in favor of the barren and austere horizon offered by the crusading atheism of a Dawkins. For my part, I'll wait to see whether Dawkinsianity produces anything equivalent to Chartres, Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Requiem, the Pietà or the Sistine ceiling. When it does we may re-evaluate it to see if it offers anything worthwhile.


Mr. Davies, I suspect that Ayn Rand's 'proof' of the non-existence of God is a mirror-image of the mediæval scholastic proofs of the existence of God; both are persuasive only to people who already believe. Also, is the omniscient, omnipotent Abrahamic God really "modern"? Deists like Lord Herbert of Cherbury were beginning to move away from that concept nearly four centuries ago. Newton and Locke followed in his footsteps. Washington, an outwardly observant Anglican but also a Freemason, always couched his utterances with regard to deity in terms more reminiscent of Masonic ritual than of the Anglican service. Yet such deists were not atheists of the Dawkinsian stripe. They believed the universe had its Great Architect and that his handiwork was made manifest in the order and symmetry of nature. They further believed that Christianity brought great benefits to society, and tried in some cases to 'reform' it in ways that eliminated those parts they considered superstitious and backward. Examples of these efforts are the Jefferson Bible and the Franklin/Dashwood Prayer Book. Are these not more 'modern' strains of belief than the caricature presented by Rand?

And has not Randism been almost from the start yet another illustration of the Chestertonian axiom? Maybe it is not quite as outlandish as flying saucers but it is assuredly a cult of the type that substitutes itself for more conventional religion. Ayn Rand herself was almost the model of the autocratic prophet, excommunicating from the fellowship of the faithful any who dared (however meekly) to question her pronouncements. In this respect she belongs amongst the ranks of such charlatans as Freud, Jung, Crowley, or Hubbard.

As for Randy's observation about what it means to be an atheist, I suspect it means different things to each atheist in the same way that being a Jew or a Christian means differing things to each Jew or each Christian. We can only evaluate the belief of such people based on their own testimony. But what we must note is that many of these disputants come in an odd way to resemble all they deplore about their adversaries. We need only contemplate the example of Christopher Hitchens, who is every bit as obnoxious in his own way as Pat Robertson is, or the late Jerry Falwell was, in theirs respectively. The fervency of the undoubting atheist is no less troubling than the fervency of the undoubting Christian, Muslim, etc.; both have been, and still are, rationales for the most appalling cruelties."

Obama as Kitsch

I'm horribly late, but this is the best piece I've seen on the mass psychology of the Obamanon - Obama as egalitarian kitsch. The author first quotes Milan Kundera:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
--Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

And he uses that as a springboard to explain Obama's power:

What makes kitsch bad art, its unearned catharsis, makes it the most effective demagogy. It requires nothing of us other than acquiescence to the sentiment. Because kitsch is the willed absence of doubt, it acts as a neatly closed emotional system, impervious to skepticism and hostile to introspection--herein lies its political genius. Through propaganda, kitsch arouses revolutionary ardor and imposes totalitarian control. Kitsch fires up the rabble and cows the mass.

I don't know much about the author, but he was granted more eloquence at birth than a dozen average writers combined.