Monthly Archives: January 2014

Is It Moral to Invest in the Stock Market?

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Suppose someone offered you the following proposition: Invest a dollar in the slave trade and you will make a million dollars in a week. Definitely a good monetary investment, but obviously an immoral one. At the other extreme if you could invest a dollar in WeHelpChildren Inc. and get a million dollars returned this is both a good monetary and moral investment.

Now suppose you let a million dollars sit in a credit union (much more moral than in a bank) and the money will stay even with inflation, or you could put the same money in an index fund and make on average 5% or $50,000. The latter is obviously the better financial move but the former could be the more moral move. And that’s because the credit union is a non-profit loaning the money to other members while the stock fund invests in for-profit companies some of whom are no doubt exploiting people, despoiling the environment, etc.

In fact, there is no doubt that someone, somewhere is being exploited by the corporations in which you are invested. On the other hand, some of that corporate investment is probably making the world better. No, I don’t trust GE or Monsanto either, but just because they are motivated by profit doesn’t mean light bulbs or even genetically modified food is bad. No matter what company I invest in, I’m just not clear what they are doing with my money. In other words, it’s unclear whether the investments in a stock portfolio are actually doing good or harm, or at the very least it is exceedingly difficult to find this out.

In the end, since one doesn’t really know what their monies are supporting, it may be foolish to forgo the added monetary gains, unless one knows for sure their investments are doing harm to others. And even if the added monetary gains are supporting an unjust worldwide economic system, one could always give away their gains when they receive them.  Given that the worldwide economy is so complex, I’m not sure we can feel confident no matter which way we proceed. All we can do is research the issue and try to use our monies–essentially our power in a capitalistic system–for the best.

Irrational Protests against Google

The activist group Counterforce had previously slashed Google employee tires and has now engaged in character assassinations and physical harassment of Google employees.

Here is their justification from the Counterforce manifesto:

After previous actions against the Google buses, many critics insisted that the individual Google employees are not to blame. Taking this deeply to heart, we chose to block Anthony Levandowski’s personal commute. We also respectfully disagree with this criticism: We don’t see one action as better than the other. All of Google’s employees should be prevented from getting to work. All surveillance infrastructure should be destroyed. No luxury condos should be built. No one should be displaced…

We will not be held hostage by Google’s threat to release massive amounts of carbon should the bus service be stopped. Our problem is with Google, its pervasive surveillance capabilities utilized by the NSA, the technologies it is developing, and the gentrification its employees are causing in every city they inhabit. But our problem does not stop with Google. All of you other tech companies, all of you other developers and everyone else building the new surveillance state — We’re coming for you next.

This is blatantly absurd. Their problems with Google are: 1)that Google and other tech companies are part of the surveillance apparatus; and 2)Google employees are well-paid. The first argument rests on at least  6 assumptions: 1) surveillance is always or mostly bad; 2) tech companies provide the primary technology for such surveillance; 3) Google is especially culpable when it comes to such surveillance; 4) a band of anarchists can achieve their goal and significantly disrupt surveillance technology; 5) such surveillance will not continue if tech companies can be disrupted;  and 6) the world would be better off without Google and other tech companies and the many technologies they generate.

One of these claims is debatable (1); two are problematic (2&3); two are almost certainly fales (4&5); and one is self-evidently ridiculous unless one is a committed Luddite (6).

Regarding the second argument it is hard to see why the anarchists oppose good paying jobs. Shouldn’t there be more good paying jobs? Does Counterforce understand that Google employees are the very best high-tech workers in the world? That they were the kind of students who studied and mastered advanced mathematics, engineering, and computer science? The ones at the very top of their classes in some of the hardest subjects in the university? They were not handed money like trust fund babies nor did they steal money like Wall Street bankers or TV evangelists. Counterforce should work for better wages for all workers in an economy where most of the money is going unjustly to the very rich, instead of attacking technology workers.

Furthermore, it is not a Google employee’s fault that they are well-paid. They are well-paid because the supply of persons who can reason and program at a world-class level is less than the demand for those workers. But unlike athletes, entertainers, talk show hosts, and hundreds of thousands of person who contribute almost nothing to society (or in some cases do great damages to it like Fox news pundits), high tech researchers enable your internet and phone to work, make progress on self-driving cars, provide the computing power necessary for modern medicine and, in the case of Google, propel anti-aging research. (And this is but a small list of the applications of computer technology.)

In short the jealousy of Counterforce is misplaced. Unable to find the Koch brothers, wall street bankers, or the hidden capitalist robber barons who are raping the economy, they instead attack knowledge workers in frustration. I understand their frustration at our grossly unjust economy, but they attack precisely the workers of companies whose technologies may one day free us from laborious toil. The fact is that our world would not function without technology nor could most of the world’s population be fed without it.

Counterforce’s Luddite manifesto is eerily reminiscent of the Unabomber’s. He too uselessly and immorally attacked, and in some cases killed and maimed, high-tech workers and researchers. Let’s hope Counterforce doesn’t go down a similar path.

Disclaimer – I do not work for Google or any high-tech company. However, I did teach computer science students years ago at the University of Texas at Austin.

Overworked

Recently a couple of persons close to me, a man and a woman, confided how overworked and stressed they are. Both are full-time employees with six-figure jobs, highly educated and intelligent, with excellent family support, and loving children and spouses. How lucky they are compared to most of us. If anyone should be able to cope, they should.

I have no doubt this reflects a society gone mad. It reflects the lack of a social safety net in modern America, the transfer of wealth from working people—even six figure income people—to corporations and shareholders, a materialistic society obsessed with GDP, the residue of the Protestant work ethic, the devaluing of time spent doing anything but producing, the greed of many of the super-rich, and who knows what else. But when the most talented persons in society are not flourishing, something is wrong with society. (And how to even imagine the stress of parents working at minimum wage jobs—essentially indentured servitude.)

The basic solution has to do with a new social and economic system. It is simply indecent that the 85 richest people control as much wealth as the poorest half of the world, more than 3,500,000,000 people! Imagine if aliens landed on the planet and observed this level of inequality. What would they conclude except that they have discovered one of the most unjust social and economic systems in the universe?

But how do we change the world? Unfortunately, I don’t know, and I fear we must wait for human consciousness to expand beyond the bounds of conventional thought for this to occur. This has happened to a certain degree in some parts of the world. Scandinavia and much of Western Europe have much stronger social safety nets and more laid back lifestyles than say the USA. No doubt there are Caribbean or Greek Isles that are more laid back, perhaps some communes too. Nevertheless changing the economic system of the world in a single lifetime is a tall order.

The other thing we can do is try to change ourselves. Meditation, exercise, adequate sleep, and a good diet may provide some help. But in the end, these are just coping mechanisms designed to deal with an out-of-control society. I simply don’t know the answer except to say that one should try, if economically feasible, to change their environment either by moving to another society or changing their lifestyle within the country in which they live.

However, as I write this a feeling of impotence overwhelms. With workers working longer hours for less pay and the wealth of society redistributed to the very wealthy, solutions are hard to find. Much suffering will continue, it is ubiquitous, and humanity hasn’t even begun to live until it creates a better world.

The pain of all this is overwhelming. To cope we must remember there are mountains and oceans to look at, love to be given and received and, hopefully, some inner peace to be found. Someday humans will grow up and realize that toys and trinkets and big houses and cars pale in comparison to the wealth of health and inner peace. In the meantime, we should do all we can to find the real wealth of human life.

With my most fervent wishes for my reader’s future health and happiness, I remain, as ever, a devoted blogger.

Music About the Passage of Time

SCIENCE, PHILOSOPHY, AND TIME

There’s hardly a more perplexing topic than time. I had a graduate seminar called “Concepts of Time” almost 30 years ago where I did learn, among other things, the difference between the A and B series  and other technical issues in the philosophy of time. Yet I still have no idea what time is or whether time is even real. (A view shared by a few physicists.)  St. Augustine famously said: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” Later, in Chapter XII of his Confessions, he responded to the question “What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?” with the answer, “He was preparing hell … for those who pry into mysteries.” He apparently meant this facetiously. To make matters worse modern physics uses mathematical models to combine space and time into a single continuum called spacetime.

But I’m less concerned with these abstract questions, and lack the training necessary to say something intelligent about them anyway. Instead I’m struck by the phenomenology of the consciousness of time’s passing, a fancy philosophical way of talking about the conscious experience of the movement of time, and also the experience of aging in general. Consider how some popular music, for example, has captured the passage of time. 

CONTEMPORARY MUSIC AND TIME

The American singer-songwriter Five for Fighting (Vladimir John Ondrasik III) captures this by focusing on different periods in our lives and our experiences of them in his song “100 years.” Here the focus is on the fleetingness of time:

The American singer-songwriter Anna Nalick wrote these lines about our inability to transcend, stop, or rewind the flow of time in her song “Breathe (2 AM).”

But you can’t jump the track, we’re like cars on a cable,
And life’s like an hourglass, glued to the table
No one can find the rewind button now …

And the song “Sunrise, Sunset,” from the classic play “Fiddler on the Roof, ” beautifully captures time’s passing. Here we have parents reflecting on how fast their children have grown and, at the same time, how fast they must have aged too. Here the attitude toward the passage of time is at once wistful and melancholy

No doubt there are countless other songs that explore similar themes, but this sampling suggests there is something universal about this experience of time’s passage that evokes strong emotions. It is no wonder that religions have tapped into this by marking life’s salient moments like birth, marriage, and death.

Arguing with Theists

Received this interesting email from one of my best students in response to Jerry Coyne’s article: “The ‘Best Arguments for God’s Existence Are Actually Terrible.”

Thanks for the rad article. The idea of god not existing is cohesive and succinct, whereas an existing god means different things to different people … To argue against these gods is exhausting. To many, god is ineffable and it doesn’t matter that it’s existence is unable to be falsified. It is THAT important to them; they’re ensconced in their belief. I’ll engage believers if they are looking for (an intellectual) fight, but it is draining. And as far as reading more theology and “good” arguments for the existence of god, well, I don’t have any more time to entertain that mess. God knows I’ve spent enough time on that in catholic school. What do you think?” DG

I must be cautious commenting on a topic over which millions of words have been spilled. But I have taught philosophy of religion multiple times, and like about 85% of professional philosophers I am not a theist.

I agree with DG that non-belief is easy to specify while belief is open to multiple interpretations. Non-belief is understandable.  We understand what it is like NOT to believe in Apollo, Zeus, Thor, Yahweh, Allah, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, assuming we agree on an orthodox definition of those terms. And that’s one reason why there aren’t 40,000 kinds of atheists but there are 40,000 different kinds of Christianity.

And DG is right. It is exhausting to argue against  theistic beliefs because they are amorphous and changing. For example, if a god is defined as creator and science provides a better explanation of creation supported by lots of evidence, then their idea may change to god as designer. If science provides a better explanation of design, then the notion of god may change to god as “fine tuner.” If the idea of a multiverse renders the idea of fine tuner irrelevant—because there are an infinite number of universes and the one in which we exist then appears fine tuned—then no doubt their belief in gods will evolve yet again.

This evolution is also played out in the social struggle over teaching evolution in America. (Virtually the only first world country where this is an issue.) First there was creationism, and after that was struck down by the courts it evolved into “creation science.” When this oxymoron was struck down by the courts, “intelligent design” appeared. Now that teaching ID in science classes has been struck down by American courts (because it’s not science), I won’t be surprised to see the argument morph to “fine tuning.” And when that gets struck down the creationist argument might evolve into, “grounder of being.”

Refuting these amorphous ideas is exhausting. But, as Antony Flew taught me long ago in “Theology and Falsification, if a belief is not in principle falsifiable, it’s essentially empty.
Now Basil Mitchell replied that belief in a god is not an assertion about the world, but an attitude of a partisan who trusts that “the stranger is on our side.” Of course it is not possible to falsify such an attitude and some may adopt it. It’s like adopting an attitude of optimism even though the situation may not call for it. And if one wants and needs to have such an attitude, then you probably aren’t going to convince that person to do otherwise.

So save your life’s energy for other battles. Neither another’s beliefs nor attitudes are open to much change. If someone believes an angel actually led Joseph Smith to uncover some gold plates, or that when eating bread and drinking wine they are actually eating the body and blood of a 2000 year old dead man, then they probably aren’t going to be open to reasoning. Life is just too short to explain to them why such beliefs are self-evidently delusional. Similarly with attitudes. It may be silly to be an optimist in a certain situation, but your aren’t likely to change another’s attitudes so you might as well save your breath. 

On the other hand,if someone believes with Tillich that a god grounds being, or in some other esoteric theology, then it is hard to show them their beliefs are silly because it’s hard to know what their beliefs mean. Their claims are cryptic. So again you must decide whether you want to spend your life in the byzantine labyrinth of theology or in the light of reason and science. I prefer the latter.

So if you are really interested in truth, as opposed to believing what’s comforting or adopting whatever attitude strikes your fancy, then it’s probably best to avoid the entire labyrinth. Theologians play their own game, with their own cryptic language, but I prefer to let them play alone. I generally avoid arguing with obscurantists—life is too short.