Thursday, April 30, 2009

Epistemology joke

This is probably an old joke, but it does get to the heart of many kinds of debates in perception and (alleged) knowledge by induction.
An engineer, an experimental physicist, a theoretical physicist, and a philosopher were hiking together through the hills of Scotland. They reached a hilltop. Looking over to the next hilltop, they saw a black sheep.

In delight, the engineer cried, “What do you know? The sheep in Scotland are black!”

“Well, some of the sheep in Scotland are black,” replied the experimental physicist.

The theoretical physicist considered this a minute, then said, “Well, at least one of the sheep in Scotland is black.”

The philosopher thought for a second, then responded, “Well, it’s black on one side, anyway.”
The allusion here is to a well-known 1976 article by Alvin Goldman, which among other things warns against us allowing lucky circumstances into our concept of knowledge. One part of that article is well-summarized in an entry titled "Defeaters in Epistemology" in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Suppose Henry is driving through a Wisconsin town, admiring the scenery. He sees a barn and believes “there’s a barn.” Unbeknownst to Henry, this Wisconsin town is full of papier-mâché barn facsimiles, which look like real barns when viewed from the road. However, the structure Henry happens to look at is a genuine barn. He just happens to glance in the direction where one of the few real barns is located. His belief is true since he’s looking at a genuine barn. He also appears justified in holding this belief. Henry believes what seems to him to be the case. He has no reason to believe that anything is suspicious about his perceptions, much less that he’s in a town mostly populated with fake barns. He also knows that barns are fairly common in this part of the state. Nonetheless, it seems that, however justified Henry may be in holding this belief, he doesn’t know that there is a barn present. He is of course lucky to believe what is true in this circumstance, but it’s precisely this feature of the situation that raises doubt about whether he knows there is a barn before him. Had he looked at any other time, his eyes would have landed on a fake barn and his resultant belief would have been false. Knowledge would seem to require that it not be a matter of epistemic serendipity that one’s belief is true.

Ah, such is the life of philosophy, that even its jokes require analysis. But that's a good thing!



[image] Slow Leadership Website (Accessed 4/30/2009)

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Graph: Living without Healthcare Coverage

I thought this was an interesting graph for two reasons. First, it shows the relatively longer time-frame of this recession over the last two major recessions (shaded areas). Second, it shows both the trend of the uninsured and how that trend is exaggerated by the current economic conditions.


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Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Rich Young Ruler was Right

Rethinking the encounter between Jesus and the rich young ruler

Jesus, a Jewish quasi-rabbi of the first century, spoke against materialism. He often would speak against "the rich," who stored up their possessions where moth and rust could destroy. Being wealthy, therefore, was seen as a bad thing, or if not outright bad, then it was seen as being highly risky for being in a proper relationship to God.

For example, in one story from the Bible,[1] a young man came to Jesus and, after some initial quibbling about who gets the standard of 'good' correctly attributed to whom, the young man attests that he was not a liar, nor defrauder; and, that he was generally a moral person all around. No protests arose from Jesus or others when he said this. But Jesus then tells him take up with him, and to sell off all his belongings, give the proceeds to the poor, and there would, as a consequence, be a heavenly reward. The young guy was wealthy, and therefore saddened, apparently thinking the risk of investment was not worth the odds of payoff. Was he rational to decline Jesus offer? I think so.

There's a couple of items to this story from antiquity which I find worth considering. First, compare this case to a hypothetical one where the rich young guy was found dying of a disease. His doctor tells him a cure is available, but it would cost him his net worth. Would he have sold it all? Well, if he checked it out, saw that it worked on others, and talked with people who had the same problem, got the same advice, and realized the benefit; then, almost certainly he would have--at least If modern indications of bankruptcy as tied to dire medical bills is any indication.[2] So, the young guy would seemingly make the most rational decision on a risk calculation.

Now, consider his decline of Jesus' offer. One might counter-argue that the young guy secretly knew it was the wrong decision. But that goes against the medical argument above. If it was known that the investment, or risk of investment, was worth the payoff, it's not a wrong decision. It appears that Jesus was asking the young guy to turn his brain off. (Not an unusual tactic for preachers.) But there is another angle here too: one can image the young guy dying after many years, and subsequently going to heaven. God says, "You'd have had a much more impacting life it you'd taken up Jesus' offer. That would have been a pure exercise of freewill, a virtue. Still, you did the rational thing by following the evidence available to you. And that was an exercise of reason, also a virtue. Enter in, then, my good and faithful servant."

Second, it seems a trivially easy argument to make that one should not be caught up in worldly wealth in the first century. There is no upward mobility, only the most rudimentary understanding of commerce and money management, and very unpredictable circumstances for commodity control (weather, war, etc.). It makes no sense to worry about material goods when there is so little chance that one's worry or circumstances could increase the opportunity for such goods. By analogy, it would be like telling a modern North American not to worry about being in a plane crash, but instead to plan one's trip using a plane as is convenient. Well, of course! After all, it would be patently irrational to worry about crash insurance when there's so little chance that one's circumstances would produce such a catastrophe (1 in 25 million). Likewise for a first century Palestinian to worry about materialistic advance, seeing how little chance there is for it.

Third, maybe this is why Jesus thinks it so difficult for a rich person to get into heaven: Unfortunately, the rational evidence indicates that the risk of investment of resources is NOT a rational one given the expected return. Even if it's TRUE that selling all one has to the poor and following a religious life of poverty is best, one cannot make such a decision unless there's some evidence to that effect. What's worse, anyone who is reading this is virtually assured of being counted "rich" by standards of comparison with the rest of the world:
"At the point at which people have their own home, enough food to eat, clothing to wear, running water, a sanitary sewage system, and a television, a computer, and the ability to ride in an airplane, they are in the top 20 percent of the world's inhabitants."[3]
But in a country like mine (United States) there is upward mobility by means of education, wealth management, and stable environments for business enterprise. Also, as an empirical matter, rich people tend to do far better, as do their children. Poorer children live under stress, and this has been shown to affect them and their offspring:
Children with stressed lives, then, find it harder to learn. Put pejoratively, they are stupider. It is not surprising that they do less well at school, end up poor as adults and often visit the same circumstances on their own children. [....] It is now well established that poor adults live stressful lives, and not just for the obvious reason that poverty brings uncertainty about the future. The main reason poor people are stressed is that they are at the bottom of the social heap as well as the financial one. [...It has been ] shown repeatedly that people at the bottom of social hierarchies experience much more stress in their daily lives than those at the top—and suffer the consequences in their health. Even quite young children are socially sensitive beings and aware of such things.[4]
In the end, the young guy was wealthy, and saddened, apparently thinking the risk of investment was not worth the odds of payoff. Not to him, and not to his children, or his children's children. Was he rational to decline Jesus offer? As far as evidence goes, it would seem so.


[image] "Rich Young Ruler" Stained Glass Window in First Reformed United Church of Christ. (Accessed 4/12/2009)

[1] Mark 10:17-31 New Testament

[2] "For the years 2003 and 2004, just over 50 percent of all personal bankruptcies were the result of medical debt by those with health insurance. A significant percentage of those listing medical debt as the reason for their bankruptcy are 65 and older. Other groups disproportionately bankrupted by medical debt include single women raising children on low wages or who have been abandoned by their husbands who refuse to pay child support." From "Bankruptcy and Medical Debt" BCS Alliance (Accessed 4/12/2009) The stats for 2008 were no different, with half of those filing having experience a serious health problem. See "Bankruptcy Statistics 1980-2008" (Accessed 4/12/2009)

[3] J. Matthew Sleeth, Serve God Save the Planet Zondervan 2007. -- A bad book in most respects, with terrible logic, no documentation, and a literalistic appeal to the values of a pre-scientific, pre-techological people as a way of setting the ideals of 21st century global environmental management. See also this graph, which shows a similar distribution of income

[4] "I am just a poor boy though my story's seldom told." The Economist April 2, 2009.


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