Monday, January 27, 2014

Did King David understand economics?

I have always found the following Old Testament story rather obscure and confusing
17 And David said longingly, “Oh that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!” 18 Then the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate and took it and brought it to David. But David would not drink it. He poured it out to the Lord 19 and said, “Far be it from me before my God that I should do this. Shall I drink the lifeblood of these men? For at the risk of their lives they brought it.” Therefore he would not drink it. These things did the three mighty men.
1 Chronicles 11

Why didn't David just drink the water? Wasn't it an insult to the valiant men to "waste" it?

My son and I have just started reading The Economics of Honor: Biblical Reflections on Money and Property by Roelf Haan.

I found it quite intriguing that Haan begins his book discussing the above story. He make the point that David truly understood the true cost of the water. He felt he had to show God and those around him that he understood that and challenge their thinking,

From a Biblical perspective, economics should not be based on what is cheapest or most efficient for a individual. It is not all about the "rational" decisions of individual consumers who are maximising their "utility functions". Goods and services need to be "priced" and appreciated according to their true cost and value.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bill Gates on three myths about poverty that affluent Westerners promote

When you are one of the wealthiest couples in the world, what do you put in your annual Christmas letter?

In their annual letter Bill and Melinda Gates rebut three myths that keep people poor:

  1. Poor countries are doomed to stay poor
  2. Foreign aid is a big waste
  3. Saving lives leads to overpopulation
It is worth reading in full. The best line concerns 2.
There is a double standard at work here. I’ve heard people calling on the government to shut down some aid program if one dollar of corruption is found. On the other hand, four of the past seven governors of Illinois have gone to prison for corruption, and to my knowledge no one has demanded that Illinois schools be shut down or its highways closed.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Does the Pope understand economics?

I am not sure this is the most important question.

I have seen some recent criticism of recent pronouncements by the Pope concerning the world economic system. Some claim he does not really understand economics and free markets. I am not sure that is the real issue. Politicians and business leaders would really prefer it if the church confined itself to purely "spiritual matters". The real underlying issue is idolatry, as well captured by this cartoon from The Economist.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The legacy of Ian Barbour

Ian Barbour died this past Christmas Eve. He is arguably the person most responsible for the study and teaching of "science and religion" becoming significant in universities. His 1966 book Issues in Science and Religion laid the groundwork. It gave a comprehensive survey of the major issues and different perspectives on them. Barbour was better equipped to do this because he had both a Ph.D in physics and a B.Div. and then taught both physics and religion subjects at Carleton College, one of the leading 4-year undergraduate colleges in the USA.

Of particular note was Barbour's four-fold typology for relating science and religion:
  • Conflict 
  • Independence
  • Dialogue
  • Integration
Wikipedia mistakenly claims that Barbour "coined the term `critical realism'". The term and the associated philosophical perspective actually arose before Barbour was born! The 1920 book Essays in critical realism: a co-operative study of the theory of knowledge was co-authored by a group of prominent American philosophers. This history is nicely recounted in the wonderful book Barth and Rationality: Critical Realism in Theology by D. Paul La Montagne.

Over the years I have found many who are enamoured by Barbour and his contributions. I am not. He considered that the scientific issues [and particularly evolution] forced one to embrace process theology. It have never been able to understand his arguments. In his book Science and Religion: An Introduction, Alister McGrath gives a helpful summary of Barbour's views [pp. 208-9, first edition]
The key aspect of process theology which Barbour appropriates is the rejection of the classic doctrine of God's omnipotence: God is one agent among many, not the Sovereign Lord of all. ... process affirms "a God of persuasion rather than compulsion .. who influences the world without determining it". Process theology thus locates the origins of suffering and evil within the world to a radical limitation upon the power of God. God has set aside (or simply does not possess) the ability to coerce, really only the ability to persuade. Persuasion is seen as a means of exercising power in such a manner that the rights and freedom of others are respected.... process theology thus calls into question "the traditional expectation of an absolute victory over evil."....... 
Barbour argues that the evolutionary process is influenced by - but not directed by - God. This allows him to deal with the fact that the evolutionary process appears to have been long, complex and wasteful.....
To me this rejection of the sovereignty of God is just plain old heresy.

As McGrath points out Barbour himself acknowledges some inadequacy of process thought, particularly with the way it treats the inanimate world. Barbour claims "A vanishingly small novelty and self-determination in atoms is postulated only for the sake of metaphysical consistency and continuity." To me this just shows the silliness of aspects of process thought. I see no reason, either scientific or theological to entertain the idea that atoms have a "self" or "will".

Friday, January 10, 2014

Biologist and Christian

Tom Ingebritsen was a Biology Professor at Iowa State University when he became a Christian. On the Emerging Scholars blog he has started a nice series of posts about he came to integrate his life as a scientist and a Christian.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

We have become just like our parents!

This is a great line in the movie The Company You Keep. It is a fictional story based on aging student radicals from the 1960s who have been on the run from the FBI for more than thirty years.

It is good entertainment but features some excellent scenes where the former radicals wrestle with what they have become, and how some of them compromised their ideals.

In this scene one former radical answers "Would you do it again?"

Although the story is fictional the beginning reminds me of the case of Katherine Ann Power. She was on the FBI's Most Wanted List from 1970, but in 1993 turned herself in after living for two decades in Oregon under a different identity. I think I remember that her story featured on the cover of Time magazine. Her therapist convinced Power to give herself up, for the benefit of her own mental health. [As a trivial aside, her therapist is the mother of the notorious Courtney Love, widow of Curt Cobain.]

Friday, January 3, 2014

The best introductory book on Science and Christianity

User's Guide to Science and Belief by Michael Poole

I think this is an excellent book and have used it for several courses I have taught.
It is easy to read and considers some basic and fundamental questions that are often a stumbling block:
the role of language, what is an explanation?, the nature of faith, rationality, and evidence; the Galileo affair, miracles, ...

However, a more powerful recommendation is not mine but several students in these courses who have emphasized to me how helpful it is to them.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

One view of Indian identity

I enjoyed reading Being Indian: Inside the real India by Pavan Varma. I have visited India 5 times for a total period of about 15 weeks within the past 4 years. Given this I found this book fascinating and stimulating.

The reviews on goodreads are helpful, particularly as many appear to have been written by Indians. They seem to largely agree with Varma's portrayal. I found this surprising because a Western reader might consider that Varma was highly critical and negative about Indians. The only criticism of the book seems to be [understandably] that he presents to many generalisations. This is an understandable problem. Given the diversity of India [more than a billion people, more than 20 official languages, several major religions, incredible contrasts of poverty and wealth....] any analysis will struggle with over-simplification and the existence of counter examples.

Here are some of the claims that Varma makes. I am not qualified to say whether they are accurate or not. I merely point out that I think that some represent human nature, but perhaps become more focussed and/or public in India.

Varma claims that contrary to some Western perceptions, Indians are not other-wordly and spiritual. They are materialistic and very concerned with both acquiring wealth and showing others that they have it. This is seen particularly in parents being most concerned with their children pursuing studies that will lead to the most financially lucrative careers. Furthermore, the willingness of Indians to pay large amounts on money for status Western brand names, from Levis to Luis Vutton testifies to this. Varma emphasizes the centrality of prosperity to Hinduism, particularly in the attention that the god Lakshmi receive.

Yet I wonder if this reflects the broader human tendency to want to use religion for ones own personal advantage. Within Christianity [defined as a social phenomenon] one sees this in the prosperity ["health and wealth"] "gospel" whose followers claim the Bible teaches that Christians are meant to be wealthy and the only thing stopping this is their lack of faith. [I personally think this is an abomination, but that is another story....]

Power and status.
"To an Indian the projection of power and the recognition of status are intimately related. When a person's entire worth is dependent on the position he occupies on a hierarchical scale, the assertion of status (and its recognition by others) becomes of crucial importance. .. There can be no ambivalence in these equations. Under the caste system transgression was impermissible. Old rigidities are blurring today, but the preoccupation with the notion of hierarchy very much persists, and in some respects has become even more frenetic..."
In the West, I think one sees somewhat similar traits, particularly in the USA. Status is defined by wealth and by professional or career standing. Some Americans are very keen to let you know where they are in the pecking order and find out where you are.

India has an incredible pedigree. It is the largest democracy in the world. Furthermore, it is the only country that has kept a continuous democracy since the end of colonial rule. One might like to think that this is because Indians have a high commitment to the philosophical ideal of democracy. However, Varma considers that they are more pragmatic and even cynical. Democracy provides a possible means whereby election provides segments of society access to the "spoils" of government [jobs, contracts, perks, bribes, ...].

Moral flexibility. 
Varma claims Indians consider that the end justifies the means.
"Corruption is, of course, not unique to India. What is unique is its acceptance, and the "creative" ways in which it is sustained. Indians do not subscribe to antiseptic definitions of rectitude, as are common in the Scandinavian countries. Their understanding of right and wrong is far more related to efficacy than to absolutist notions of morality An act is right if it relies the desired end; it is wrong if it does not."
I think that in a post-Christian era in the West many people also think and act this way. Until recently they would not state it publicly, but now they do. In Australia one sees this in politicians actually saying that it is o.k. to make false promises in order to get elected.

Only 3 per cent of the workforce is employed in the organised sector [government, registered companies and organisations] of the economy.
90 per cent are self-employed working "on the street".
This is in striking contrast to the West where the vast majority of employees work in the organised sector.
Later I will post how Varma considers this offers great hope for India's economic future.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

What do you expect of a speaker?

This year my dear wife began to do some public speaking.
[Aside: I am very proud of her].
Robin was quite surprised to encounter something that I have become quite used to.
When some people attend an advertised talk they have definite expectations of what the speaker will say. Furthermore, when the speaker does not fulfil their expectations [of content and/or approach] they will not just be disappointed but sometimes complain, either to the speaker or the organisers.

This highlights to me how we have a human tendency to want our current views and beliefs affirmed, rather than being challenged. I think we should go to a talk with an open mind.

What do you think?