Thursday, February 24, 2011

Pareto on Jesus

There is a certain odd distribution that recurs in economics known as Pareto's Law.  It was first discovered by its namesake Vilfredo Pareto in an investigation into the distribution of land ownership on the Italian peninsula in the early 20th century.  As it turned out, only 20 percent of Italians owned about 80 percent of the land, the other 80 percent of the population owning only 20 percent.  Pareto thought this to be a rather skewed ratio, but inquiry into the matter revealed that this same approximate ratio prevailed in many different countries. 

In fact, later investigators found the ratio turning up in all sorts of places.  Generally speaking, in almost all societies of any economic structure whatever, 20 percent of the population will be found to own 80 percent of the wealth, with the other 80 percent owning only 20 percent.  And, surprisingly, when the ratio is found to be skewed, it tends to favor the minority rather than the majority.  Various equalitarian schemes seem to have little influence on the apparently ironclad '80-20' rule, except to increase or decrease the overall quantity of wealth.

Another interesting quirk of the 'law' is that it has a sort of fractal, repeating quality to it.  Looking within the 20 percenters, there will often be about 20 percent of the 20 percent (4 percent) that owns about 80 percent of 80 percent (64 percent) of the wealth.  Thus 80-20 repeated gives 4-64, 1-51 and so on. 

The rule has found some application, if you can call it that, in business management circles.  For any given project, 20 percent of one's effort will usually get one 80 percent of the way towards his goal, with the final 20 percent gobbling up the remain 80 percent of his time and effort.  20 percent of one's customers will generate 80 percent of profits, and some other 20 percent will be responsible for 80 percent of the headaches, and so on.  One tactic to try to make the best of this phenomenon is to throw the division of labor at it.  For example, one might assign the 20 percent of tasks that cause him 80 percent of his trouble to somebody else who might be better at them.  Or makes less money, at least.  Anyway, I doubt that it works all that well.  I think this is one of those laws that can maybe be shifted around but doesn't go away easily.

I bring all this up (as usual) to talk about something completely different.  This is one of those ideas that, once you've heard about it, you start seeing it everywhere.  And it recently leapt out at me in a fairly unusual guise -- one of those (in)famous science-religion internet debates.

Murphy on God

Bob Murphy incited a commenting frenzy at Free Advice some days ago by opining that patterns in the physical properties and constants of the universe suggested (at least to him) strong evidence of a Creator.  Being of the scientific persuasion myself, this is an argument I have encountered from my 'scientist friends' on many occasions.  Yes, we do all hang out together.  I am not partial to this particular argument, first of all because it doesn't much appeal to my sense of the 'necessary and sufficient' of deity, and secondly, because I find that I cannot defend it myself to my own satisfaction and never have I seen it defended in a way that I felt was outstandingly persuasuive by others.  But maybe that just stems from my own disinterest.  Note that I'm not knocking the thing, only expressing my own take on it.  If it works for others, by all means run with it.  Faith is a funny thing that way.

On the other hand, I used to get quite excited by this type of science vs. religion debate, especially when it came to the topic of evolution, in which I once had something of a passing interest.  It was one debate in which I had a fair stake in both sides.  But to be honest, some time ago I began to find these debates tedious, and of late, absolutely repulsive.  I have gone from a keen instigator to avoiding engagement in these things like the plague.  I actually cringed when I caught the gist of the post, and continued on with it only because, well, it was Bob Murphy's blog. 

Reading the comments, I encountered similar arguments to those I'd seen for years, almost all of which I'd long since either 'discounted' or 'gotten past.'  On both sides.  But more on that later. 

Somewhere in the middle of it, though, it occurred to me what was creating the phenomenon of boredom with me -- Pareto's Law.  Suddenly, it became fascinating again.

Pareto's Law of Knowledge

If Pareto's Law holds across so many human activities, it would stand to reason that it applied at least loosely to the possession of knowledge.  It seems to me that this would be the case, as knowledge and expertise tend to pile up on individuals who specialize in a given field.  Perhaps 80 percent may have heard of a process or an idea, while 20 percent might know a bit about it, 4 could actually do it if asked, 1 percent are quite good, and a fraction of a percent truly gifted masters.  Or something like that, with a geometric decrease at each level of mastery. Simple inspection would seem to bear this out, if in a very loose and qualitative sense.

One of the great things about the internet is that it allows 20 percenters (and 4 and 1 percenters!) to find one another and share ideas.  This, it seems to me, is 80 percent of the purpose behind blogs (don't ask me what the other 20 percent is.)  The fact is, people just don't like talking to others who have vastly different levels of expertise on a subject.  People who are crazy about, say, Austrian economic theory or organic chemistry, have a hard time finding an interesting conversation partner in a normal randomly selected group of people, and those who aren't crazy about either of these obscure topics usually aren't keen on talking to someone who is.  But at Murphy's blog (and Eternity Road and other such sites) extremely high level discussions can take place on a number of subjects on a regular basis.  They attract plenty of well-informed participants.

I'll be generous with myself and call myself a 4 percenter on the usual subject of Murphy's blog -- Austrian economics, and economics in general).  Many denizens of that site are easily fractional percenters, but of course they're doing it for a living while I'm only a hobbyist.  I find myself struggling to keep up.  But it's fun for an Austrian econ geek/hanger on anyway.

Enter random religious argument.  Suddenly, the whole pitch of the thing changes.  People who were only two moments ago operating at a fantastically high level on a relatively obscure and esoteric subject (that I can barely follow) are now making arguments that are...well...fairly run of the mill in my experience, and are unable to really effectively answer arguments that couldn't come near to touching the former level of discourse.  Now the site, at least it looks to me, is operationally at at least a 20 percent site, maybe edging towards 4 percent.  Which isn't a knock against anybody's intelligence or anything.  Obviously, they've proven their mettle by talking way over my head on a subject I consider myself to have some expertise in.  Clearly, the site has moved from a subject on which many of the commenters were highly, highly trained and specialized to one for which they were somewhat less experienced or maybe only had a passing interest.  Clearly this is a case of Pareto's law in action. 

On the other hand, I have seen 'the answers' (or, at least, 'other answers,' the quality of which the reader may judge later) to many of these questions, and I wouldn't be nearly so generous with myself on this subject as with the other.  I'm almost certainly not a 4 percenter here, and probably not even a 20 percenter.  But the point is, I know where to look to find material on the subject, and even as little as I've perused, I've seen enough to know that answering most these arguments in a pretty much watertight fashion isn't really very hard, and doesn't even approach the difficulty of, say, a simple explication of business cycle theory. 

So why don't more people know these 'answers?'  I have my opinion, and I think it's an interesting topic, but before I go further, maybe it would be useful to take a look at some of the arguments – and their 'answers.'

The Legitimacy of the Bible

One of the favorite arguments against Christianity goes something along the lines of "OK.  Supposing I did believe there was a god or gods, what makes Christianity any more believable than any of the next one-hundred religions?  Why should I believe the Bible instead of the Koran?"  I will stick with just the Koran, which will illustrate the point admirably well for the remainder of the argument, I think. 

The fact is, by what are actually appropriate measures in settling such an argument, the Bible beats the Koran hands down.  It's not even a contest.  If the two were on trial to determine what 'really happened' concerning the circumstances surrounding the life of Jesus, for example, the Koran would be laughed out of court.  The Gospels were written by a number of separate, eyewitness authors who gave similar accounts of what happened.  The Bible is not one 'book,' but a compilation of accounts coming from many different sources.  As such, it looks as one would expect it to look.  It contains little discrepancies here and there, all sorts of weird information that a normal person would write about what he saw, like embarrassing details of conversations and actions that made people look stupid (sorry fundies, but the Bible ain't perfect – which is one of the more persuasive reasons to believe it!).

By contrast the Koran was written by a single man who lived centuries after many of the events he claims to chronicle.  As far as the events of the life of Jesus are concerned, he saw absolutely none of it himself, and he contradicts people who were actually there, alive and wide awake when it happened.  As if that weren't enough, the events and characters are highly idealized...a lot like a work of fiction.  Incidentally, this was a big reason many of the rival 'gospels' circulating at the time got the boot when the Bible was originally compiled by the Council of Nicea, before Mohamed was even born.  They looked like they might have been produced by wanabes and fakers who were itching for recognition, and the members opted to knowingly exclude what might be correct information for the sake of keeping out as much false information as possible.

That's just the way history really happens.  It's full of fakers and con men who want a piece of the limelight that must be rooted out if one is to get to the bottom of things, just like today.  The important point – the point that's actually more important than answering the question -- is this:  by asking what would make one book more 'believable' than the other, one immediately hits on the kernel of the issue -- what types of evidence are acceptable as evidence.  Unfortunately, modern generations have abandoned their trust in the traditional forms of 'evidence' -- eyewitness testimony, records, corroborating evidence like one might find in a court of law.  Evidence that is even today frequently used to put people to death in a court of law is considered worthless on this topic.  So fakers and con-men find the doors wide open.  That is what happens when one narrows his available tools.  It's like trying to maintain a car exclusively with a pair of tweezers and a sledgehammer.  The thing tends to run down.

The argument is intrinsically emotional in its appeal, believe it or not, because it hinges on the implied issue of what one may 'trust.'  Unfortunately, the only approach anybody trusts anymore seems to be 'science,' even though there is no rational or objective reason to trust the methods of science any more than the historical methods, as both have produced at least equal numbers of fantastic insights and blunders throughout history. But science, as it is generally understood and practiced, can have little to say on the subject.  So naturally, by implicitly excluding all evidence that would actually have some bearing on the subject, a perfectly exploitable confusion is manufactured out of thin air.

This attitude is also a result, I think, of an element of condescension towards anything 'unmodern.'  Many people simply don't trust the basic intelligence and competence of ancient people to report events accurately.  Whether these doubters would themselves be competent enough to, say, construct the pyramids of Egypt or the Colosseum or Pantheon, does not seem to occur to them.  I suppose that if the trend holds, in a generation or two people will begin questioning whether Americans really landed on the moon or whether it was all an elaborate hoax.  Oh wait...

There are many legitimate religious controversies.  This isn't one of them.  It really isn't even remotely a contest.  The Bible is one of the most historically corroborated pieces of ancient literature in existence.  Note that I do not particularly use this argument to knock other religions which depend heavily on less corroborated revelation literature, notably Islam and Mormonism.  It doesn't 'disprove' these religions.  But their practitioners do carry a particular burden of faith that simply isn't there for the Christian, or at least shouldn't be.  There is more than ample reason to choose to believe the Bible's testimony in the face of conflicting accounts on the grounds of internal consistency, its genuine appearance, the care taken in its compilation, and fidelity to the historical facts of the matter, but arguments like this one are rarely ever presented.

The 'Paganism is Stupid, So Christianity is Also Stupid' Argument

This is a variation of the previous argument, but the real objection is different and I think it deserves special attention for a special reason.  The argument goes something like "How is believing in the Christian God all that different from worshiping Zeus?  You don't believe in Zeus do you?  If it is silly to worship Zeus, how is it any less silly to worship the Christian God?  See, as an atheist I'm just like you.  I just believe in one less god."

Almost inevitably the Christian takes the tack of trying to distinguish the Christian God from the pagan god and explain how much more reasonable the former is than the latter.  This approach, of course, usually falls flat on its face because it fails to address the real point -- incredulity towards the existence of any such being at all, and a sort of accusation of hypocrisy aimed at the Christian for believing in one fanciful being while ridiculing another.  The Christian does not want to associate with something he considers silly, but he can't really grapple well with why he should accept the existence of his own God but not others from a purely logical, hypothetical standpoint.  That, obviously, has been the entire calculation of the atheist's argument.  Either the Christian must 1) explain the difference in a convincing manner (a difficult or impossible proposition), 2) accept that his own God is as silly as Zeus, or 3) disavow his own God along with Zeus.

Now, there are legitimate differences between the Christian conception of God and the typical pagan variety, but to take that approach is clearly a case of begging the question – why it is reasonable to believe in any god at all.  Unless one happens to have an argument light-years better than any I've ever heard, it would indicate to me that the antagonist actually has a valid point.  If one really believes the pagan god is silly and ridiculous, and he can't really articulate why his own God is not merely a far more reasonable spirit, but a far more reasonable spirit to believe in, as a Christian he may have a problem.

If this is one's predicament, it might be prudent to do some serious theological inquiry, because it shows a real weakness of faith if one can't address such a straightforward question.  In my opinion, naturally.  I sure don't have an answer to that particular question.  But that wouldn't be my approach, because I think the antagonist has a point.  My approach is to question the premises of the argument, the tacit acceptance of which is the real source of the argument's power.  Without that, the argument falls flat.

Namely -- what is so silly about paganism?  Or are these belief systems actually more reasonable and respectable than most modern Western Christians and practically everybody else are giving them credit for?

A belief in the possible existence of great spirits, of spiritual power governing elements of nature, and a feeling of reverence and awe towards such a being is  The arguer would like his use of the name Zeus to conjure a ludicrous image of a muscular bearded guy in a loincloth riding a cloud and tossing thunderbolts.  But that picture is probably as far from your own image of God as it is from the pagans who believed in him.

To this day, probably the majority of the human population is practicing paganism in one form or another.  Hindu is a pagan religion, and as far as I can tell most Chinese are effectively pagan, even if that probably isn't what they would call themselves.  Paganism is a sort of natural human religion.  It is the outward manifestation of a very natural and healthy reverence for the order and wonder of the universe.   To me, it is not far removed from Bob's original assertion that patterns and coincidences found in nature are evidence of a Creator.  The Zeus mocker wants to elicit visions of a primitive ancient culture of homosexual animal-sacrificing kiddie-touchers, but the truth is those ancient pagans were sophisticated, intelligent people with an extensive record of great achievement.  The best of their literature rivals anything produced by any society of all time, even today, and much of it is now freely available for anybody with an internet connection to read.  Of course, most people don't.  The Zeus mocker does not want you to think about the real pagans past and present who do not deserve that kind of characterization.

A somewhat more convincing slander-by-association would be to remark on some of more savage aspects of historical paganism, like human and animal sacrifice and other such rituals.  But let's face it -- that isn't really the intended barb of the argument, and besides, 80 percent (Pareto's Law) of people wouldn't even know to bring it up because they don't know about it in the first place.  Once again, a dismissive attitude towards the past has produced ignorance of it.  One can be pretty certain never to encounter this argument.  But supposing one did want to address it, it would likely do to simply point out that we live in a very different world than the one they inhabited.  On the whole, the modern critic judges paganism -- especially the ancient sort -- too harshly, in my opinion, as he is doing it against a modern backdrop.  The modern world has been 'reformed' by the introduction of many ideas that simply weren't available at that time.  Unfortunately, it will be difficult to get most people to accept this argument, as they are too unfamiliar with real history to appreciate it.

But in any event, this is not a matter of 'silliness.'  If one has waded out into this territory, he is actually having a serious discussion of paganism itself and not the theoretical prospect of believing in non-corporeal, power-wielding beings.

C.S. Lewis is something of a modern Christian hero, and anyone who has read much of his writings would know how sympathetic he was towards the other religions, but most especially paganism.  If more people read books like Till We Have Faces, they would know that Lewis had a pagan streak running through him a mile wide.  He and his writing are steeped in pagan ideas, even if that wasn't the religion he professed.  If he was so impressed with those stories and ideas, and far from weakening or threatening his own belief, actually found strength for his own faith in them, I would think that those who admired him would at least not shun or trivialize them.  You don't have to worship multiple gods to believe in a rich spiritual world, and to respect and appreciate others who also do.

But again, Pareto's Law kicks in.  Most people have heard of Lewis, but only some fraction will go so far as watch the Chronicles of Narnia movies (80-20).  Maybe 20 percent of these will bother to read a few of his better known books, like the Narnia stories, Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters (80-20).  A scant few will go so far as to read him in any depth (80-20).  But if they did, they could hardly escape the conclusion that Lewis did not find his dabbling in paganism to be incompatible with his Christianity, but quite the opposite.  They might find him a little less 'tame' than they had expected.  I suspect some might even question whether he and they had even been practicing the same religion.  I did.

But maybe that is still just too weird and uncool for some to consider.  After all, it's not like one's tormenter is going to be understanding of the choice to defend silly Zeus worshippers or the possibility that their gods might actually exist in some form.  Maybe it's too much of a trial to endure the ridicule.  Perhaps it is preferable to be eaten by lions.

One more goofy argument, then I'm moving on.

The 'Why Doesn't God Just Explain Himself Clearly To Us' Argument

This isn't really an argument.  It is more like an invitation for the Christian opponent to go off on a speculative theological tangent so that the atheist can catch him in a slip up or otherwise waste his time by diverting him from productive arguments.  Most can't resist, and some can come up with some really great stuff, but again, it's mostly speculative, which means, unprovable.  Tactically, it's a pretty good approach on the part of the non-believer, but it doesn't usually lead to anything worth spending words on as far as this essay is concerned.

The actual interesting point is that the question is asked at all, and that is what I'd rather talk about.

The reason it is interesting is because its legitimacy as a question, in my opinion, is underpinned by so many flatly silly notions that completely misunderstand the learning process, the nature of the universe, and human beings in general.  This means that it is not a legitimate question at all, and I suppose the most appropriate response would be to simply laugh at it.  Yet in most cases neither side of the debate seems to recognize this fact, mostly because they share the same erroneous notions.

First of all, why is it supposed that if God really did such a thing, a person's head wouldn't melt into goo one-millionth of the way through His explanation?  I once took a semester course in quantum mechanics, and I think it did that to parts of my brain.  Is it not just a tad arrogant to think that any one human mind could understand all of anything, let alone a subject that difficult?

But more importantly, and what should be completely obvious, is that almost all of the most important things in life are flatly impossible to learn by way of 'a clear explanation.'  Discipline, respect, character, to make no mention of relatively simple things like how to drive a car or tie one's shoes.  That is just a part of being human – we are not super-rational robots.  Imagine a real, live, and otherwise serious person thinking he could learn how to love others by way of a clear enough explanation!  The asking of the question is to reduce human faith the approximate intellectual equivalent of long division.

The whole proposition would be simply hilarious if it weren't so frightening what it suggests is floating around in the modern man's head.  The modern world apparently has it that learning and character development is a purely pedantic train-of-reasoning exercise, and nothing more!

The fact is that many other avenues are available, necessary, and quite often far superior even where the 'clear explanation approach' is practicable for the development of the human mind and character, depending on the subject and the person in question.  Previous generations knew this.  In particular, they used stories and myths, art, music and other avenues to express and immerse themselves in things that didn't always lend themselves well to absorption by rational explication.  But modern approaches of 'education' have robbed these experiences of their effect in the same way that having to explain a joke robs it of its humor.

I accidentally discovered this for myself not too long ago when I somehow fell into a fiction habit after too many years of schooling.  It has been very rewarding.  But this and other avenues for developing one's mind and character is lost on most people these days, and that is a shame.  Books have been ruined for them.  The result is that learning has become a dry, textbookish affair, and the rich stories and myths and experiential approaches which heavily contributed to the competencies of previous generations are almost completely neglected in this one.  And it shows.  People can't think anymore.  Or rather, perhaps, that's about all they can do, and poorly. 

The model of man as some super-rational, programmable robot, with learning a matter of simple information download is absurd.


Next, I plan on going into a general diagnosis of the  broader problem (which is probably already obvious to most people), and as much of a 'solution' as I can think of, but, with my apologies this post has gotten quite too long and I'm going to have to finish it off some other time...

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