Smuggling meaning into a Godless universe


mRio / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

This recent blog post by a science writer at NPR insists that “We Don’t Need To Be Created To Be Relevant.” Here is how author Marcelo Gleiser frames relevance:

“For many people, the thought of being the result of mere accident is a nonstarter. They think that to be relevant we must have been created in some fashion. After all, the word accident usually denotes something bad. Chance is a better (but not perfect) word: We are the product of chance.”

Who or what are we supposed to be relevant to? Gleiser simply does not say. What he does do is subsequently expound on the mystery of biological life, reasoning that if intelligence is not necessary for life to dominate the Earth, then we are special.

Along the way, he punches the God of the gaps strawman, characterizing it as “a dangerous way to believe, given that science does advance and gaps do get squeezed away.” Its inclusion strikes me as odd; intelligence is a property of minds, things that science can’t induct into its material account of the world.

Consider the thoughts your mind produces: first-person, unified, subjective experiences which you can identify as being about things. A scientist cannot access these real phenomena directly; only you enjoy the privileged position that allows you to directly know and report what your mind thinks about. Science is principally incapable of describing the content of thoughts. Methaphysics, philosophy, and human language are needed. This is not God of the gaps, but simply what is beyond science’s purview.

Likewise, relevance, if it refers at all to the classical questions of ultimate meaning, value, and purpose, is illicit to science. The fact-value split initiated by eighteenth century thinker David Hume–and continued by the twentieth century developments of verificationism, noncognitive emotivism, and eliminative materialism–establishes that in a closed, material cosmos, there is no real value to anything, not even life itself. There is no “formal relation” between facts as they are, and values pointing to how the facts ought to be. You can’t get an ought from an is. No intrinsic worth, or ultimate significance. The rareness or infinitesimally unlikelihood of intelligent life is a quantitative measure that will not translate to the quality of being special or relevant.

In this world, roses are not red, and the sweetness of a salty summer sea breeze is an illusion of consciousness. Carl Sagan’s beloved pale blue dot holds no worth. Why pretend that it does? Bertrand Russell provides logically consistent advice for us when divinity does not partake in our cosmos: “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

But perhaps, this drab, desolate conception of reality is mistaken. Think about it.

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Responding to Income Inequality

A recent study by Norton and Ariely on wealth inequality in the United States has generated a bit of buzz in the past few weeks.  The media and public response has been predictable: an overblown amen chorus finding our wealth inequality to be a grave problem.  But the real peril flows less from the inequality itself than the implicit and perennially popular redistribution impulse that follows.

The study invites dangerous thinking by asking participants to indulge their Rawlsian side and imagine an equitable income distribution.  They find that even wealthy and Republican respondents conceive of an ideal distribution being much more equal than it is now.  Surely the study is fine empirical work, but what are the normative implications?  What ought we do about it?

Sadly, popular dissatisfaction with wealth inequality is rife for political exploitation, especially given the undying misconception of a fixed economic pie.  On this view, wealth is a pie that can be divided, but cannot grow.  Our economy is a zero-sum game.  If Jack becomes rich, it must have come at the expense of Jill.  Justice then would be to confiscate Jack’s excess slices of pie and give them back to Jill as an entitlement.  This is what President Obama essentially endorsed when he told “Joe the Plumber” that we need to “spread the wealth around.”  The need for activist government has been the mainstay of the Democratic party for decades.  But when politicians are the middle men for our collective wealth, they naturally exploit it for their gain, at the cost of simplicity and consistency.  Vote-getting tools like earmarks and tax exemptions only make our economy more muddled, unpredictable, and subject to political patronage.  This hurts wealthy and poor alike.

The destructive nature of zero-sum and redistributionist thinking is no surprise given they are at odds with classical economics.  Take the foundational idea that voluntary transactions between rational agents generates new wealth.  If this is true, it undermines the narrative that American wealth is an economic injustice built on stolen land, slave labor, and gunboat diplomacy.  It robs the progressive, technocratic welfare state of its raison d’etre.  So can a solution to wealth inequality really be found in classical economics?

David Brooks recently shed some light on the divide between economic libertarians and statists by explaining his own identification with “epistemological modesty.”  He sees the European enlightenment as split between hyper-rationalizing French like Descartes and Rousseau and intellectually modest Scots like Adam Smith and David Hume.  I find this to agree with Thomas Sowell’s concept of the “unconstrained” and “constrained” visions.  On the one hand are those who believe the world is totally knowable and perfectible, and they trust that educated elites will guide us into a technocratic utopia.  On the other, there are those who believe our ability to understand and shape society are limited.  They trust in traditional institutions–church, family, free markets–as generational accumulations of human wisdom.  All things being equal, it would be better to work with what our predecessors have left us than to rebuild our society according to a radical vision.

If we reject the temptation of technocratic utopias, we will find that the traditional institution of the free market provides the best way to distribute goods and services.  Using government or some other centralized agency to circumvent the market will only yield bread lines and corruption.  The Scottish or “constrained” approach not only maximizes societal utility, it is just in limiting economic activity to voluntary transactions.

So if redistributing wealth through legislation is counterproductive and unjust, what can be done to improve the American situation?  Strengthen the free market by shrinking and simplifying government.  More predictable markets that are less subject to political manipulation will make fairer playing fields.  And we can increase social mobility a couple of ways.  One would be to end unions’ status as exclusive cartels of labor.  Consumer and business loans can lower barriers to market entry, but market criteria must rest on the basis of merit rather than need.  Ultimately, hashing these policy particulars is not as useful as promoting the cultural understanding that progress comes less from centralized political pushes than from individual initiative that works within our traditional institutions.

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