Such was the informal title I had given to the growing list of links on my computer’s calendar, and I thought it was sort of catchy so I used it here.
I recognize this particular Sunday post might sound more aggressive than my usual fare, like I’m now being more a stereotypical American evangelical who wants to ram my worldview down everyone’s throat. All I can say is that I used to be a “devout atheist” (my term at the time), so I don’t think the people I’m about to criticize are stupid. I used to hold views like theirs, in several of the examples. Yet now that I believe in God and am no longer trapped in the materialist mindset, it is amusing and alarming to me how such bright people (including my former self) could have so easily fallen for such fallacies. (And yes, I realize the immediate reply will be, “I know you are but what am I?”)
The point of this post is to go through several examples of the bloggers I frequently read, where they make very simple errors that are glaringly obvious to someone who believes in a God of the popular monotheistic traditions. In most of the examples (not all) even an atheist should be able to spot the error, but the point is that there wouldn’t have even been the slip-up had the person reflected on the nature and existence of God. It was the blogger’s agnosticism (or at least, lack of believing in anything like the Judeo-Christian / Muslim God) that left him vulnerable to the mistake.
Two caveats: (1) If I am wrong in assuming that each of these bloggers doesn’t believe in this type of God, then my apologies. I will correct the post if anyone shows me otherwise. (2) I’m going to move from my weaker examples to the stronger ones, so in the beginning even those of you who agree with me might not think it’s a big deal.
To get the ball rolling we’ll start with Bryan Caplan’s recent post on a former slave who wanted (perhaps apocryphally) back wages from his former master before he’d work for him again. Bryan quoted the former slave saying: “Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.” Then Bryan commented: “Too bad the last sentence turned out to be wrong. Life is not fair.”
Now here, I’m mostly nitpicking. If Bryan had known more about the Bible, he would have understood that this was a Scriptural reference. So this guy is saying to his former master, “You had better repent of your sins before meeting your Maker.”
But the thing is, Bryan’s statement is actually silly, even if we don’t believe in the afterlife. Does Bryan, the tenured college professor, really think he needs to inform a former plantation slave that life isn’t fair? So my point is, whether you believe in the afterlife or not, Bryan’s statement makes little sense. It’s not that Bryan observed that there’s no afterlife, and so now he empirically can conclude, “Too bad, that guy’s hypothesis was falsified.”
My next blogger is Karl Smith, who is the James Joyce of economics blogging. In this post, Karl makes an analogy of the economy as a giant forest, and talks about why we should try to save the trees. He writes:
[W]e shouldn’t sit by while a new virus sweeps through and destroys the trees we love. In perhaps the grandest sense we could say, that yes these trees may die but we don’t worry because eventually they will be replaced by other trees in a never ending circle of life.
This is very true. But, we care for and love these trees — and that matters. On a deepest level it matters because our emotions are the ultimate source of value. At their core the trees are just another set of molecules. They are beautiful because they are beautiful to us.
It’s the part I put in bold that concerns me. This is materialism in all its beauty / ugliness, depending on your value system. First, note that this is a completely arbitrary statement on Karl’s part. Does the Pythagorean Theorem exist? It doesn’t consist of molecules. Indeed, do molecules exist? Physicists will say that they aren’t really “solid” things either; they’re mostly empty space. If you really push it, according to cutting edge theories matter itself becomes more and more like an idea, rather than that “hard stuff” that’s “really” “out there” as opposed to the “not as real” stuff that’s in our minds.
If you want to be really basic about it, the notion of a physical universe is a theory that we use to explain the more fundamental sensory data that we experience. After all, we might all be in The Matrix.
The true irony in Karl’s statement about the trees being “at their core” a bunch of molecules, is that in another post he writes:
On video I have a tendency to smile and laugh a lot. I am also a generally happy-go-lucky type of person. This combined with my sloughing off of long term issues has people often mistake me for a Pollyanna. That is someone who thinks everything will be ok.
Ironically – or not – I believe the exact opposite. Everything will definitely not be ok. I often tell my students: if you ever find yourself worried sick about whether or not things are going to turn work out, don’t worry, things are definitely not going to work. Everything is going to go horribly, horribly badly.
This is the essence of life. We are not forever. Our institutions are not forever.
Indeed, in a relatively short time, we and all the things that matter deeply to us will be annihilated. They will not exist at all and they will never come back. Not at least as we would think of such. There will be no faint hint of them in the background of the universe or spirit occupying another plane.
All things we care about are at their heart information – particular arrangements of the building blocks of reality – and entropy eats information. Everything we care about will be gone.
Yikes! Talk about a blogger needing God! Karl, please entertain the idea that there reputedly was a man who said many things that you would agree are very wise and good, and that this same man reputedly said paradise awaits us if we don’t reject it.
Beyond the tremendous burden of walking around with that worldview, Karl’s statements are (again) arbitrary and unscientific. He says these things won’t be in a “spirit occupying another plane,” but modern science doesn’t tell us that. And to tell people that “in a relatively short period of time” entropy will engulf everything we care about is pretty close to demonstrably false. I mean, relative to what?! Karl is saying humanity will necessarily be extinguished, when every possible reference point is also extinguished. Short of eternity, what could be longer than the maximum age allowed by the laws of physics?
Of course, the other problem is that Karl is here betraying the materialism from his other post. Information is itself not a physical thing. For humans to perceive it with their sense organs, it must be instantiated somehow, I grant you. But the information itself is more than the physical components that represent it. (Read Gene Callahan’s great post on these themes.)
Now we’re moving on to a really fun one. In this post, Scott Sumner was criticizing the Rothbardian view of the Great Depression. Sumner was arguing that the Fed couldn’t possibly have caused an inflationary boom in the 1920s. In the comments I asked him to clarify one of his arguments that amazed me, and he said:
I’ve shown there was no inflation as the term was defined at the time. I’ve shown that there was no alternative non-inflationary policy as understood by policymakers at the time, including those in the 1920s who claimed the Fed was too inflationary. It makes no sense to argue things were inflationary because M2 went up, if M2 didn’t exist. There are no policy implications. M2 was an idea invented much later.
One doesn’t have to be a Christian to see the non sequitur. As I wrote here, “I wonder how Sumner explains the massive deaths during the bubonic plague? Did doctors even know what bacteria were back then?”
I am naive. I expected Scott to say something like, “Wow, I don’t know how that one slipped through my keyboard. Sorry guys, that was silly. But I still don’t think the Fed created a ‘bubble’ in the stock market, the way the Austrians claim.” Yet to my knowledge, Scott offered no such retraction. I don’t have the links, but Scott’s views on the nature of reality are downright freaky. I am not putting words in his mouth, he has said (paraphrasing) that phenomena exist when the top experts in that field agree that such existence would prove useful. If you agree with me that this type of view is freaky, I note that–whatever else you want to say about monotheism in the popular traditions–it blows up that sort of view really quick.
And last we come to a very religious atheist, Steve Landsburg. In a passage about Godel’s work that truly fills me with brotherly love, Steve writes:
The code is cleverly constructed so that there’s a statement in pure arithmetic (say, for illustration, that it’s the statement “every even number is the sum of two primes”) that corresponds to the English sentence “The statement that every even number is the sum of two primes cannot be proven.” These statements are either both false, in which case it’s possible to prove a false statement, which we believe (and hope to God!) is not the case — or they’re both true, in which case we’ve found a true statement in pure arithmetic that can’t be proven.
You’re right, Steve: I don’t think arithmetic contains an internal contradiction. Before, when I was an atheist, I had no real basis for believing that, except for the same reason I didn’t believe in aliens. And yet, you and I both really, utterly, deeply believe that mathematics is elegant, gorgeous, and free from contradiction. If it’s just a handy dandy tool that makes us more likely to pass on our genes, then that is one huge coincidence. (Why should the conditions of our world be such, that having brains capable of perceiving flawless mathematics gives us a reproductive edge? We don’t have perfect vision or speed or digestion or anything else. Why is math so elegant?)
On the other hand, if the entire universe was created by an omniscient and rational Being, who also loved us and created us in His own image, then the existence of mathematics makes sense. I grant you, I can’t explain where the Being came from or His properties, but given my metaphysical view, the existence of consistent arithmetic pops out nicely. For the secular humanist, mathematics itself remains a puzzle to be explained.