Friday, March 24, 2017

It's just a little request

Indeed, despite all the alleged stupidities of Christians, Celsus expressed a willingness to tolerate them, if only they would honor the gods and follow the polytheistic customs that everyone else, excepting, of course, Jews, affirmed. By their refusal to do so, Celsus contended, Christians, questioned the validity of the gods upon which the social and political order rested and so were guilty of impiety and, at least impolicitly, of promoting sedition. If masses of people followed the Christians in their madness, Celsus declared, this would provoke the wrath of the gods and the social and political order would fall into anarchy and chaos.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 31–32

<idle musing>
He's not asking for much, is he? Just compromise a little bit and we'll accept you—even though you are a bit strange. But, to compromise on that one point is to destroy the entire foundation of Christianity.
</idle musing>

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A clear and present danger

[W]hatever the particular offences that prompted the actions against various foreign cults in Rome, none of them constituted a threat to the worship of the traditional deities, New cults were typically seen as additions to the cafeteria of deities and religious groups of the Roman world. Not even Jews were such a threat. For, although there were Jewish texts of the time that expressed disdain for the pagan gods, there is no indication that Roman-era Jews actually attempted seriously to persuade the non-Jewish population to abandon their deities. That Jews themselves typically abstained from worshipping the gods was viewed by pagans as an ethnic peculiarity. But early Christianity—because it was programmatically transethnic in its appeal, and more aggressive in attacking what it called “idolatry”—was a new and more serious danger.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 25

<idle musings>
Well, there are no worries that the church will upset the current culture, are there? The church is too busy endorsing the current radical individualism, nationalism, and materialism to be a prophetic witness and represent any danger to the current regime(s). Maybe I should rename this post Not a Clear and Present Danger : (
</idle musing>

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Why Demetrius the silver smith was right (Acts 19)

Those Christians who withdrew from worshipping the gods obviously ceased sacrificing to them and ceased frequenting their temples, and that had economic consequences for various people. In addition to gifts made to the temples, for example, as thanks for a god granting a petition, there were local craftsmen who sold various items to those who frequented the temples, such as miniature images of the gods and ex voto objects, which were items purchased and then given to the temple to express thanks for favors from the gods. Then there also were others who raised and sold sacrificial animals on license from temple authorities, and still others who produced food for these animals. In short, the ancient temples represented a significant sphere of economic activity, and so any denunciation of the gods, any withdrawal from their worship, or even the threat or prospect of this would have been seen as threatening to the many with vested interests in the various components of the operations of temples.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 24

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Economic interests

Furthermore, it is interesting to note Pliny’s claims that there were numerous Christians in Pontus at that point in various towns and villages, and that the growth of Christianity was having a markedly negative effect on the institutions devoted to the traditional deities and the economic activities associated with them. Of course, Pliny may have been exaggerating a bit. But it seems to me quite plausible that the social and economic effects of Christian withdrawal from the worship of the gods, or simply the fear of such effects, may have been at least one cause for the denunciation of Christians to Pliny and likely to other local officials.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, pages 23–24

<idle musing>
Nothing like a hit to the pocketbook to get your attention. . .
</idle musing>

Monday, March 20, 2017

A bit of perspective, please

Pliny clearly thought that being a Christian was in itself sufficient grounds for his punitive actions, even execution, although the obstinacy of some Christians in the face of Pliny’s demands and threats gave him further justification.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 22

<idle musing>
And you thought it was getting harder to be a Christian in the U.S.? Put it in perspective. It's not a death sentence—not even close.
</idle musing>

Friday, March 17, 2017

Unique from the beginning

The term used both by Tacitus and by Seutonius to characterize Christianity, “superstition” (Latin: superstitio), connoted then religious beliefs and rituals they deemed excessive, repellent, or even monstrous. The basic point to underscore here, however, is that both writers refer to Christians and their religion as different, and objectionably so, and not as simply one type of Roman-era religious option among and like others.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 22

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Proto-orthodox and the facts

In the social rough and tumble of religious rivalries of the first two or three centuries, these “proto-orthodox” or “catholic” Christians seem to have won out, and well before Constantine and the subsequent influence of the state in matters of religion. That is, the proto-orthodox or catholic Christians were simply more successful at winning adherents in that earliest period, and their success did not depend then upon state support. We have to recognize that precisely in the crucial first three centuries the Christian tradition did begin to cohere around certain practices and beliefs, and that “proto-orthodox” Christianity emerged as the mainstream version that shaped subsequent Christian tradition.— Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, page 12

<idle musing>
And he comes out of the corner swinging! He's right, of course, but that doesn't stop people from positing Constantine as the "real" founder of Christianity. Never mind the facts, presupposed reconstructions take precedence! Besides, conspiracy theories sell books, and that's what's important, right? Never mind the truth, we want income! And the truth withers and dies—and then people wonder why alternative facts are preferred. Duh! You train people to believe in conspiracies and then expect mere facts to change their minds?

You still reap what you sow. We've been sowing a wind for a long time now and we're starting to reap the whirlwind. Take a look at this about the less than desirable effect of the loss of a Christian influence when it comes to prejudice. Mind you, it's from The Atlantic, not exactly a bastion of pro-Christian thinking!
</idle musing>

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The marketplace and truth

But neutrality, with its deep skepticism, and the marketplace of ideas, with its collective search for truth, make strange bedfellows. What progress toward truth can there be if it is impossible to pronounce on the truth? The [Supreme] Court’s response is to equate survival in the intellectual marketplace with the truth, thereby treating the marketplace of ideas not as a metaphor, but as reality. The value of an idea, like any other commodity, is defined by its performance in the marketplace; that idea which survives the competition is, ipso facto, the truth. Popular acceptance or, as Justice [Oliver Wendell] Holmes states in his Abrams dissent, “the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” becomes the test for truth.

Such a marketplace metaphor definition of truth, however, is not without its difficulties. To begin with, it does not make sense when applied to empirical and scientific knowledge; there are many beliefs, such as astrology, that are scientifically false, yet popular. And when applied to ethics or politics, where the truth that emerges can be identified with the best answer for society at that point in time, the extreme relativism of a marketplace-defined truth is unlikely to be acceptable.—Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration, page 254

<idle musing>
That's the end of this book. Sorry to end it on such a sour note, but that pretty much defines where we are as a society right now. The marketplace is our god. Not just economically, but in our ethics, social policy, and international policy. It's a variation of might makes right. All we've done is substitute economic muscle for the sword. Of course, we use the sword to enforce that economic might.

So much for an ethic based on the Sermon on the Mount. You don't get rich giving to those who ask and not charging interest or asking for it back! At least not economically rich. But there are other forms of riches of which the economically rich know not.
</idle musing>

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The fine print

An Econ [totally rational human being] will read and understand the fine print of a contract before signing it, but Humans usually do not. An unscrupulous firm that designs contracts that customers will routinely sign without reading has considerable legal leeway in hiding important information in plain sight. A pernicious implication of the rational-agent model in its extreme form is that customers are assumed to need no protection beyond ensuring that the relevant information is disclosed. The size of the print and the complexity of the language in the disclosure are not considered relevant—an Econ knows how to deal with small print when it matters. In contrast, the recommendations of [the book] Nudge require firms to offer contracts that are sufficiently simple to be read and understood by Human customers. It is a good sign that some of these recommendations have encountered significant opposition from firms whose profits might suffer if their customers were better informed. A world in which firms compete by offering better products is preferable to one in which the winner is the firm that is best at obfuscation.— Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 413

<idle musing>
That's the final snippet from this book—a very relevant book that you should take the time to read. I was only able to skim off the top in these excerpts. The book itself fills in the details.
</idle musing>

Monday, March 13, 2017

Yet more truths from a bygone era

[John] Milton and [John Stuart] Mill both illustrate the humanist assumption that greater freedom of debate promotes discovery of truth. But the humanist defense of toleration consisted of more than just this assumption. The humanists were unwilling to protect that they knew—or at least believed—was false. Thus they permitted debate on adiaphora [nonessentials], but not on the fundamentals of faith. In addition, the humanists were concerned that discussion take place in a rhetorically appropriate environment. Irrational debates, they maintained, were no more likely to foster truth than censorship. The humanists’ exclusion of “false” beliefs from protection is exemplified by Milton, the oft-presumed herald of contemporary freedom of speech and press, who would have banned Catholicism because it conflicted with “known” truths.—Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration, pages 246–47

<idle musing>
Amazing how knowing the backstory on something changes the light in which you see it, isn't it? If your audience doesn't know the history of an idea, you are free to twist it into whatever form you want. Therefore educating people is scary for those who wish to rework ideas.

Of course, education where people are required to read the sources, as opposed to the interpretation of them by those with an agenda (right or left), is truly scary. The value of a Liberal Arts degree!
</idle musing>

We're seeing it now

In a nation of Econs [people who only are rational], government should keep out of the way, allowing the Econs to act as they choose, so long as they do not harm others. If a motorcycle rider chooses to ride without a helmet, a libertarian will support his right to do so. Citizens know what they are doing, even when they choose not to save for their old age, or when they expose themselves to addictive substances. There is a hard edge to this position: elderly people who did not save enough for retirement get little more sympathy than someone who complains about the bill after consuming a large meal at a restaurant. Much is therefore at stake in the debate between the Chicago school and the behavioral economists, who reject the extreme form of the rational-agent model. Freedom is not a contested value; all the participants in the debate are in favor of it. But life is more complex for behavioral economists than for true believers in human rationality. No behavioral economist favors a state that will force its citizens to eat a balanced diet and to watch only television programs that are good for the soul. For behavioral economists, however, freedom has a cost, which is borne by individuals who make bad choices, and by a society that feels obligated to help them. The decision of whether or not to protect individuals against their mistakes therefore presents a dilemma for behavioral economists. The economists of the Chicago school do not face that problem, because rational agents do not make mistakes. For adherents of this school, freedom is free of charge.— Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 412

<idle musing>
And we're seeing the results of this mindset now. Problem is that it's about as far from the Sermon on the Mount as you can get, to say nothing of the moral code in the Old Testament. It's individualism allowed to run rampant at the cost of society. Nietzsche's superman will win and the rest of us will be toast.

If that's the world you want, you are in serious danger of getting it. Just remember, you might not be the superman you think you are. what then? To whom will you turn?
</idle musing>

Friday, March 10, 2017

Advice from 500 years ago on how to converse

He [Acontius ca. 1520–1566] describes how to conduct a conversation with those in error. His advice to the speaker includes the following: the speakers’ tone and words should be conducive calm debate; speakers must adapt themselves to what the person, time, and place demand; they must begin with their audiences’ presuppositions, not their own; and they should be very careful never to misrepresent their opponents’ position. Common to all these various strategies is the assumption that it is not enough for the speech’s contents to be true. Speakers are also obligated to foster an environment in which their listeners are capable of understanding the truth. This means that speakers should eschew all verbal abuse. They must do so not only for the sake of their interlocutors, but also out of concern for the nonparticipating spectators, who are affected by a speaker’s abusive language. As some onlookers will identify the means of debate with the argument itself, improper means will come to be equated with erroneous doctrine, even if the doctrine itself is true. Hence, some will presume a mean-spirited presentation to be prima facie evidence of error.—Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration, pages 129–30

<idle musing>
Good advice even now, isn't it? If only! Some of this reminds me of Covey's Seven Habits: seek first to understand, then to be understood, specifically. Again, if only!

Perhaps it boils down to a lack of respect for the other person. Perhaps we don't really believe the other person is worth respect, be it because of their social or economic standing, or maybe education level. Whatever the cause, they are still made in the image of God and worthy of respect. Jesus died for them as much as for you. Reread C.S. Lewis's essay "Weight of Glory" for a quick refresher course on what the image of God implies.
</idle musing>

Rational? Not so much

The assumption that agents are rational provides the intellectual foundation for the libertarian approach to public policy: do not interfere with the individual’s right to choose, unless the choices harm others. Libertarian policies are further bolstered by admiration for the efficiency of markets in allocating goods to the people who are willing to pay the most for them. A famous example of the Chicago approach is titled A Theory of Rational Addiction; it explains how a rational agent with a strong preference for intense and immediate gratification may make the rational decision to accept future addiction as a consequence. I once heard Gary Becker, one of the authors of that article, who is also a Nobel laureate of the Chicago school, argue in a lighter vein, but not entirely as a joke, that we should consider the possibility of explaining the so-called obesity epidemic by people’s belief that a cure for diabetes will soon become available. He was making a valuable point: when we observe people acting in ways that seem odd, we should first examine the possibility that they have a good reason to do what they do. Psychological interpretations should only be invoked when the reasons become implausible—which Becker’s explanation of obesity probably is.— Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 411–12

<idle musing>
With all due respect to libertarians, this is why it is a doomed philosophy. People are not rational beings. They are easily manipulated and swayed—as this book makes eminently clear. The wolves will always try to feast on the sheep. Unfortunately, far too often the wolves are the ones in authority. And that is the reason the prophets of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible spoke out against the authorities so strongly.

It might also be the reason Jesus didn't get along so well with the authorities, either. When was the last time a person in authority took the Sermon on the Mount as their modus operandi? Right.
</idle musing

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Erasmus vs. Luther on free will

[Erasmus, answering Luther on free will] If everything is the result of necessity, Erasmus asks, “what could be more useless than to publish this paradox to the world?” If God rewards and punishes us for actions beyond our control, for which He alone is responsible, the “what a window to impiety would the public avowal of such an opinion open to countless mortals!” People would not better their conduct, arguing instead that they were not responsible for their wrongdoings. They would stop loving a God who moves them to evil, only to punish them later. Most people, only too willing to sin, would use Luther’s views to justify their own evil inclinations.—Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration, page 69

Mountain? Molehill? Which?

Any aspect of life to which attention is directed will loom large in a global evaluation. This is the essence of the focusing illusion, which can be described in a single sentence
Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it— Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 402

<idle musing>
Which is why we tend to make mountains out of mole hills. Why we obsess of things that are not important. Why we need to take a step back and take the time to get a little perspective on things. But we rarely do...
</idle musing>

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

March, the windy month

Yesterday afternoon, the waves were crashing over the breakwater in breathtaking beauty. Wind speed? Only about 40 MPH with gusts up to 65 MPH!

Today is calmer; windspeed? About 18 MPH with gusts to 56 MPH : )

Who's the heretic?

[H]eresy manifests itself in the iniquitous deeds of those leaders of the Church who, while preaching the philosophy of Christ, teach nothing by their example but avarice, eagerness for pleasures, passion for war—all things “which are an abomination to Holy Scripture and are rejected even by the philosophers of paganism.” We must especially beware, Erasmus writes, of those wicked churchmen who “hide human lusts under the authority of God’s law and under the appearance of piety.”—Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration, page 67

<idle musing>
OK, where do we even begin on this one? I'm afraid that a very large number of well-known christian leaders would fall under Erasmus's charge of heresy! He has the audacity to require leaders to actually live a Christ-like life! Why, that's ridiculous, right? Right? (Be sure to shred your Bible before you agree...)
</idle musing>

Real value

Beyond the satiation level of income [his 2011 research showed that to be $75,000], you can buy more pleasurable experiences, but you will lose some of your ability to enjoy the less expensive ones.— Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 397

<idle musing>
And the less expensive ones are the ones that usually matter more. What kind of value can you put on watching a sunset (or sunrise) over the lake? It's free, yet I'll wager that if you are busy climbing the corporate ladder, you rarely see one. Jesus was right in the Sermon on the Mount—Solomon's clothing is nothing next to the clothing of nature.
</idle musing>

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Heresy? What is it, really?

For Erasmus, however, heresy requires more than fundamental doctrinal error. He defines heresy as not simply error, “but the obstinate malice which for the sake of any advantage is disturbing the tranquility of the Church by perverted doctrine.” Thus besides (1) the perversion of doctrine, heresy presupposes (2) persistence in error, (3) the search for personal advantage, (4) the presence of “malice,” that is, the intention to do evil (as opposed to the lesser sin of stultitia, foolishness), and, finally, (5) disturbance of the Church’s tranquility. Erasmus deems only persons guilty of all five sins full-fledged heretics.—Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration, page 66

<idle musing>
We throw the word around far to easily, don't we? I guess that's easier than taking the time to actually examine what the other side might be saying. Sad isn't it?
</idle musing>

False hope

Many unfortunate human situations unfold in the top right cell. This is where people who face very bad options take desperate gambles, accepting a high probability of making things worse in exchange for a small hope of avoiding a large loss. Risk taking of this kind often turns manageable failures into disasters. The thought of accepting the large sure loss is too painful, and the hope of complete relief too enticing, to make the sensible decision that it is time to cut one’s losses. This is where businesses that are losing ground to a superior technology waste their remaining assets in futile attempts to catch up. Because defeat is so difficult to accept, the losing side in wars often fights long past the point at which the victory of the other side is certain, and only a matter of time.— Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 318–19

Monday, March 06, 2017

Orthopraxy and Erasmus

For Erasmus, the philosophy of Christ is found “not in ceremonies alone and syllogistic propositions but in the heart itself and in the whole life.” “In this kind of philosophy,” he writes, “life means more than debate, … transformation is a more important matter than intellectual comprehension.” Although Erasmus never compromises on doctrinal essentials, he consistently laments doctrine’s overshadowing of Christian morality: “You will not be damned if you do not know whether the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son has a single or a double principle, but you will not escape perdition unless you see to it in the mean time that you have the fruits of the Spirit, which are charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, forbearance, gentleness, faith, moderation, self-control, and chastity.” Much of Erasmus’s criticism of the scholastics drives from their preference for theological dexterity over piety. More important than scholastics subtleties, Erasmus argues, is a “pure and simple life.”—Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration, page 52–53

Semper reformandum? Not so much

Animals, including people, fight harder to prevent losses than to achieve gains. In the world of territorial animals, this principle explains the success of defenders. A biologist observed that “when a territory holder is challenged by a rival, the owner almost always wins the contest—usually within a matter of seconds.” In human affairs, the same simple rule explains much of what happens when institutions attempt to reform themselves, in “reorganizations” and “restructuring” of companies, and in efforts to rationalize a bureaucracy, simplify the tax code, or reduce medical costs. As initially conceived, plans for reform almost always produce many winners and some losers while achieving an overall improvement. If the affected parties have any political influence, however, potential losers will be more active and determines than potential winners; the outcome will be biased in their favor and inevitably more expensive and less effective than initially planned. Reforms commonly include grandfather clauses that protect current stakeholders—for example, when the existing workforce is reduced by attrition rather than by dismissals, or when cuts in salaries and benefits apply only to future workers. Loss aversion is a powerful conservative force that favors minimal changes from the status quo in the lives of both institutions and individuals.— Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 305

Friday, March 03, 2017

Violence and Erasmus

Yet if speech is linked to godliness, why do so many churchmen advocate the use of force, its opposite, to bring men to God? Erasmus acknowledges the contradiction inherent in the use of violence to achieve religious ends. Christ, Erasmus states, never resorted to violence: “Christ, as he preached to all, coaxed no one to himself with flatteries or human promises, nor did he compel anyone with force, although he was omnipotent.” (Ausgewählte Werke, 254, lines 7–9).—Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration, page 48

Beware!

Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We also tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters optimistic overconfidence. In terms of its consequences for decisions, the optimistic bias may well be the most significant of the cognitive biases. Because optimistic bias can be both a blessing and a risk, you should be both happy and wary if you are temperamentally optimistic.— Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 255

Thursday, March 02, 2017

The role of emotion

Cicero writes that “every one must acknowledge that of all the resources of an orator far the greatest is his ability to inflame the minds of his hearers and to turn them in whatever direction the case demands. If the orator lacks that ability, he lacks the one thing most essential.” (Brutus 80.279). Cicero even advises the orator to prefer emotion to reason. Thus, the hearer should be “so affected as to be swayed by something resembling a mental impulse or emotion, rather than by judgment or deliberation. For men decide far more problems by hate, or love, or fear, or illusion, or some other inward emotion than by reality.” (De oratore 2.42.178).—Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration, pages 20–21

<idle musing>
Unfortunately, we're seeing the truth of this today. . .from both Right and Left. Rational discussion of the type this book discusses seems to have become either rare or unheard of. That saddens me.
</idle musing>

The best laid plans...

When forecasting the outcomes of risky projects, executives too easily fall victim to the planning fallacy. In its grip, they make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weighting of gains, losses, and probabilities. They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. They spin scenarios of success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations. As a result, they pursue initiatives that are unlikely to come in on budget or on time or to deliver the expected returns—or even to be completed.— Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 252

<idle musing>
Been there, done that. Many times : (
</idle musing>

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

A bit of historical perspective and definition

Under a regime of tolerations dissenters depend on the approval of, or at least the voluntary inaction of, superior authority. By contrast, liberty is not granted by, but held independently of any granting agency. The humanists did not call for religious liberty, the very concept of which first appeared at the end of the seventeenth century.—Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration, page 7

But of course I'm right!

Professional controversies bring out the worst in academics. Scientific journals occasionally publish exchanges, often beginning with someone’s critique of another’s research, followed by a reply and a rejoinder. I have always thought that these exchanges are a waste of time. Especially when the original critique is sharply worded, the reply and the rejoinder are often exercises in what I have called sarcasm for beginners and advanced sarcasm. The replies rarely concede anything to a biting critique, and it is almost unheard of for a rejoinder to admit that the original critique was misguided or erroneous in any way.— Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 234

<idle musing>
Indeed! I've read far too many of them. . .
</idle musing>