December 30, 2008

Salvation Mechanics

Jason recently commented on a conversation Cameron and I had a while back on the gift of salvation.

Salvation Merit

Cameron essentially asked how salvation is not a reward for faith in Christ. I answered that faith does not merit salvation. The debt of sin we owe is a large debt. Only the work of Christ can cancel it. Faith merely accepts the gift which cancels sin. Faith by its own merit can not save us from sin. All we can do is choose to believe in Christ's work. This is a fundamental difference between Christianity and most other religions. Most religions seek to enumerate good works by which we can please God and His favor. In other words, most religions seek salvation through faith in one's own works. Conversely, Christianity teaches that faith in Christ's work is all that is necessary.

Gift of Faith

Jason's remarks focus on a mechanical detail of salvation within the context of the above discussion:

Yahweh changes the heart, mind and soul to accept Him through sanctification which is part of the lifelong process of regeneration. Without His actions, acceptance of the faith is impossible. Is this free will? Yes. Free will has always been limited by Divine Governance. Those who truly wish to find Him in life are conformed to do so by God.

The noetic effects of sin prevent people from seeing the full extent of their depravity. My mind was made to search for God by Him. First election then, sanctification as an overall part of regeneration. I couldn't find him before then, let alone accept him. The elect cannot elect themselves or accept that path by their will alone.

Is faith rewarded? Yes. Sometimes the faithful are in crisis, some faulter and lose hope; others are steadfast in their faith. No human is perfect. All who have any faith, are made to have faith. Faith alone, through Christ alone, grants justification but, this faith must be received first. God gives faith as part of election. Simply put, salvation isn't open for everyone - Jason

As I understand it, the argument Jason is putting forward is simply this:

Faith is:
  1. A gift from God

  2. Necessary to be saved

  3. Is not given to all

My View

I reject the idea that faith is a gift of God prerequisite to salvation. Rather, faith is simply trust in the work of Christ rather than our own merit for acceptance of us into heaven by God. Anyone can choose to believe this.

At issue are four primary principles regarding salvation:

  1. Freewill

  2. Depravity

  3. Election

  4. Scope


I'm not sure exactly what Jason is claiming regarding freewill. If he is claiming that we still have freewill to accept the gifts of salvation/faith, it is unclear why one could freely accept the gift of faith but not freely accept the gift of salvation. Alternatively, the reference to depravity seems to appeal to the Reformed concept that man's depravity prevents him even from accepting God's gift of salvation. As a result, God elected some to be saved, not by choice, but by intervention. This would violate man's freewill. Jason appears to argue that this is fine because God has overruled the will of man in other cases.

A supposed classic example of God causing someone to do something is the Pharaoh of Egypt. However, it is important to note that Pharaoh refused to let them go before God hardened his heart. In other words, God kept Pharaoh in a previously chosen state of mind. This is hardly equivalent to overruling the will of multitudes and forcing them to be saved.


Perhaps the clearest text regarding depravity and salvation is Romans 3:10-11:

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.

Some interpret this passage as meaning that man is so depraved that he can not choose to believe in God. However, that is not what this verse says. It says no man seeks God on his own. As a result, God must make the first step to reach out to man. He does this in many ways. First, He has provided general revelation through creation (Rom. 1:18-20), conscience (Rom. 2:14-15), and the inner light (John 1:9). Furthermore, God Himself came in the person of Christ to reach out to us directly. In his absence, God seeks the unsaved through believers (Matt. 28:19) and the ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-11).

In conclusion, although in our depraved state we will not seek God, God actively seeks and confronts us with the message of salvation.


Another issue raised against a person choosing to accept the gift of salvation is a particular brand of the doctrine of election. This view is derived from references to God choosing, electing, or predestining people to salvation. A good example text is Ephesians 1:3-6:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.

Some interpret passages such as this as meaning the primary cause of an individuals salvation is not the individuals choice to accept the gift of salvation, but that choice is ultimately caused by God's overruling choice to predestine some "according to the good pleasure of His will".

But what is the good pleasure of His will? Why does He choose some and not others? Romans 8:29-30 provides the most complete explanation of this process that I am aware of:

For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.

Of particular importance is the ordering. God's foreknowledge is enumerated to proceed His predestination or election in the causal chain. Therefore, according to something God foreknew about us, He elected us to salvation.

This passage does not enumerate what God foreknew about us that caused Him to choose us, but there is only one criteria that fits. God elects an individual to salvation from before the foundation of the world based on His foreknowledge of that individuals free acceptance of the gift of salvation. The criteria is repeated again and again by Christ and the apostles. Three such examples come from Jesus, John, and Paul:

John 3:36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.

Acts 16:31 And [Paul and Silas] said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved...

Joh 3:15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

Any other criteria would amount to favoritism or random selection. Favoritism would violate God's fairness, for He is not a respecter of persons, as Peter declared in Acts 10:34-35:

Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.

Random selection on the other hand, would destory any sense of responsibility for our final destiny. Men would be saved for no reason and damned for no reason. It would be pointless for God to give man freewill, and then make his ultimate destiny a matter of inexorable fate.


Simply put, salvation isn't open for everyone - Jason

The idea of limited election based on God's choice rather than our's logically implies that salvation is not open for everyone. If God selected some to be saved and others to be damned and those who have not been selected can not be saved in anyway, why would Christ pay for their sins?

Unfortunately, for this view, scripture repeatedly contradicts the idea that God desires to save only a few and as a result offers salvation to only a few. As already noted, Peter observes that God is not a respecter of persons. In 2 Peter 3:9, Peter also declares that God is "not willing that any should perish". Ezekiel declares that God has "no pleasure in the death of the wicked" but desires him to "turn from his way and live". Mostly famously, the Apostle John declares in the John 3:16:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

God loves the world and sent His Son to make salvation available to anyone that believes.

Closing Remarks

In closing, I want to be clear that the issues raised in this article or largely technical doctrines. I believe a proper understanding of them is important to understanding God and His work. However, salvation is not dependent on a proper understanding of these matters and I continue to count those holding the opposing view as brothers. I appreciate Jason's efforts and views and I look forward to continued discussion on this topic and other discussions in the future. :)

December 18, 2008

Privacy Rights and Security

I recently shared The Meaning of Mumbai on FriendFeed sparking a discussion with Cameron concerning various security measures after 9-11. Cameron's initial remarks focused on security and fear extremes (live in a box and do nothing) and slippery slopes. While it is important to be aware of possible dangers, such general extremes do not inherently delegitimize specific, less extreme measures.

However, Cameron's latest response appeals to basic rights:

I don't see how any of that makes it reasonable to get rid of any hope for a fair trial, suspending basic human rights for others just because we think they may be bad, and ignore torturing laws by using loop holes in location. I know most don't mind "I would rather some subset of innocent people to make sure all the bad people are dead," but I guess I don't believe in the good ol' fashioned "Kill them all, and let god sort them out." So, the point I'm trying to make, is that why should you take away other people's right, morally / legally / etc, just because you don't use them / if you were in that position your going to heaven anyways / etc. Why do you get to decide that they don't need that right, or that they don't get a second chance?

This demands a more detailed answer.

In particular, I think the kinds of security measures we've seen post 9-11 raise 4 particular questions:

  1. Privacy

  2. Citizenship

  3. Secrecy

  4. Torture

I plan to blog about each one separately. I don't expect to cover each exhaustively or arrive at any definite conclusion about any of them. My goal is to lay the ground work for a discussion about these issues and more than ever I want to encourage the reader to join this discussion in the comments or on their on blog/notes.

What is a Right

The concept of a right within this context is that of a moral right. As Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence:

all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In other words, a right is a moral obligation granted by the Creator and existing between any two people by virtue of their humanity. I am inclined to recognize four basic human rights:

  1. Life

  2. Liberty

  3. Property

  4. Legal Equality

Legal equality is not generally included, but equal treatment under the law (all men are created equal) is generally recognized as just and it seems reasonable and simplest to include it in the list.


The concept of rights must be distinguished from legal privilege. Legal privileges may have similar status under the law in certain countries, but unlike rights, they are neither unalienable nor endowed with inherent moral power by the Creator. Privileges are endowed by organizations (such as government) to people. Because they are granted by government, they can just as easily be taken away by government.

As a side note, a necessary consequence of the argument I recently made concerning the lack of moral obligation within the philosophical framework of atheism is that those who reject the existence of a higher power also deny any foundation for a universal moral standard, thereby denying any foundation for inherent human rights. Such philosophical frameworks can support only concepts of utilitarian privilege.


For an appeal to privacy to be relevant to government security measures, it must be a right, as privileges lack moral power and are subject to the whims of government. It seems reasonable to me to derive a limited right to privacy from the rights of liberty and property. By virtue of being free to direct one's life, define personal happiness goals, etc. one seems free to decide not to reveal what they think. Similarly, by virtue of property rights, one is secure in property. One has a right to keep other people off one's land, a right against unreasonable search and seizure, etc.

What isn't so clear is how this extends beyond one's property. For example, consider FBI requests for telephone records. IF privacy rights extend to phone records then one must have an inherent property right over information shared through someone else's property (phone lines, switching stations, etc.) and the record of that call (time, source, destination). Because another's property is in use, and that person has the right to do as they wish with their property, it seems to me that they have the right to offer their property in service to others as they wish. They may elect to promise certain contractual privileges to users of their service, but I don't see any justification for that the idea that when I use someone else's property to communicate, I receive any inherent rights in that property.

November 12, 2008

More on General Revelation

On Blogger, James and I have been discussing the argument I made regarding general revelation and gospel ubiquity. As a result of that discussion, some clarification seems to be necessary:

General Revelation


Paul does not claim that Creation leads cultures to general monotheism. Indeed, Paul describes many as "changing the truth of God into a lie, and [worshipping] and [serving] the creature more than the Creator" [Rom. 1:25]. The claim is not that cultures are driven to monotheism or there exists a significant cultural awareness. Rather, the argument is that the information is available to individuals, but is generally rejected.


Nor is Paul claiming that cultures gravitate towards a Christian ethical understanding. Rather, he is saying that a general sense of morality is given to all men which they and their cultures sometimes follow. For example, when a person or a culture recognizes murder as wrong, they do by nature the things in the Law as a result of conscience. I would expect a study of cultural morals to reveal similarities in some morals to those presented in the Law, just as we have already observed religious similarities across many religions. Paul attributes these similarities to a universal conscience given to all people, providing a general moral understanding and conviction of our own moral imperfections.

Burden of Proof for General Revelation

As a result, your burden of proof is excessive. First, it exaggerates my claims from personal understanding to cultural ideas. Second, our knowledge of ancient and isolated cultures is limited at best. This makes it hard enough to know what they actually believed, let alone, what ideas they may have been aware of, but rejected.

Revelation of Christ

Regarding the propagation of the final principle of salvation I am aware of two views. First, anyone who accepts the 2 principles of general revelation will be sent a human messenger to address that question (perhaps indirectly, by making literature available or directly by word of mouth). Examples include the sending of Philip the Evangelist to the Ethiopian Eunuch [Acts 8] and the sending of Peter to Cornelius [Acts 10]. If this is true, the fact that the gospel was not sent to a Native American in AD 600 is considered proof that no Native American accepted general revelation. This is reasonable and hard to contradict. The second view observes that there is no passage in scripture in which God explicitly states He will not provide special revelation to those unreachable by the common method outlined above. After all, Jesus Himself intervened in the salvation of Paul (Acts 9) and John mentions the inner light given to every person.

Your argument seems to be that it is likely some Native American accepted general revelation and was denied the final principle for spatial reasons. As a result, you conclude that Christianity violates the salvation ubiquity criteria and must be rejected as a valid world view. At best, the existence of this Native American is highly hypothetical and rejects without substantiation the possibility of special revelation for that individual.


All of the above remarks substantiate my claims. Creation and Conscience are available to all men and God is more than capable of providing the specific revelation of Christ to anyone accepting the first two. A detailed study of isolated cultures is unnecessary and would be inconclusive at best given our spotty knowledge of such cultures. Christianity clearly provides mechanisms for meeting the salvation ubiquity principle. That does not make it true, but it does make it a reasonable possibility given our discussion so far. Furthermore, the salvation ubiquity principle provides a clear example of a criteria that can rationally evaluate religions, accepting some and rejecting others, providing hope that the morass of religions is not as un-navigable as Atheist Under Ur Bed suggested in the article I originally responded to or James suggested in his initial comment on my initial post.

November 5, 2008

Old Testament Messiah

James responds to my previous claim in "More On Faith" in "An Atoning Messiah". Both my claims and his responses deal with two specific passages:

Messiah Cut Off - Daniel 9

In Daniel 9, Daniel is given the following prophesy:

Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy. Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times. And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself [Dan. 9:24-26]

James essentially presents two arguments contesting the credibility of the book of Daniel and the interpretation of the passage as referring to the Messiah:

Timing and Authorship

James cites Harper's Bible Commentary in order to question the credibility of Daniel and explain away many of the amazingly detailed and accurate prophecies in this book. By assuming that the book can not be prophetic and that the manner of Antiochus Epiphanes death contradicts the death of the king in Daniel 11, with whom he is associated, Harper's conludes that the book was finalized during Antiochus's life time.

However, Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 24:15, that Antiochus was a type (one who exemplifies or parallelizes the life of another in some way) of the Antichrist. As a result, the passage is about Antiochus and Antichrist and has not been fully fulfilled. The commentaries I consulted presented some reasonable arguments for where the break occurs. Speaking specifically to it would require more study, but the bottom line in relation to our discussion is that there is a reasonable approach to this passage which does not place it in contradiction with history. As such, the late date given by Harper is not the foregone conclusion they have presented, based, primarily, on the assumption that the book is not true in the first place and an easy readiness to accept supposed contradictions.

If we accept dates given in the book of Daniel, it would have been completed in the late 6th century BC, much earlier than the 2nd century BC date given by Harper's.

Messiah or others?

In responding directly to the passage of Daniel I cited, James makes the unsupported claim that the Messiah here is simply "an annointed one" or leader and tries to identify Messiah as two men in this passage, citing the New Oxford Annotated Bible. He then provides a general response that it's all history recorded after the fact and false prophecies based on the alleged contradiction in the manner of Antiochus's death. I discussed this latter claim above.

As for the identification of the "Anointed One" in the passage, a proper understanding of the prophecy seems to make this pretty clear. In the context of the passage, Daniel understood by the reading of the word of God through Jeremiah the prophet, that the Babylonian capitivity of Israel would last 70 years. Daniel prays to God concerning this knowledge and the future of Israel. While he is praying, God sent Gabriel to reveal to him the passage I cited above (and a few other verses). In the original Hebrew, the word "week" in 70 weeks is really the word seven (seventy sevens). Because the context is Daniel's prayer concerning the 70 years of captivity, this is clearly a reference to 490 years.

Gabriel gives the starting point of this 490 year period as the "going forth of the decree to rebuild Jerusalem". This is generally taken to be the decree of Artaxerxes to Nehemiah in Nisan 1, 444 BC. James claims the proper edict is that of Cyrus the Great in 538 BC, but that edict was not to rebuild Jerusalem. Cyrus's proclaimation was to rebuild the temple [Ezra 1:2], whereas the edict of Artexerxes was to rebuild the city [Nehemiah 2:5].

Gabriel further declares that from the commandment to "Messiah the Prince" shall be 69 "weeks" or 483 years. Adjusting for the Jewish prophetic calendar of 360 days versus our solar calendar of about 365 days places the end of the 483 years on Nisan 10, AD 33, considered to be the day Jesus, the Messiah rode into Jerusalem on a colt. This is much later than the lives of Joshua the high priest and Onias III.[1][2] It also presents an amazingly accurate prophecy, even if we accept the very late date of 2nd century BC, still about 200 years before this event took place.

Jesus, the Suffering Servant

While the term servant is clearly applied to Israel, it is also contrasted with Israel.

In Is. 42:7, the servant is sent to open the eyes of the blind. In verse 19, the Lord is condemning those who worship idols and refers to the servent as blind. Later, in verse 24, Jacob and Israel are identified as being judged for their sins against the Lord. Clearly, the latter servant is in need of the ministry of the first servant.

In the following chapters, God refers to Himself as the Savior of Israel [Is. 43:3] and the redeemer of Israel [Is. 43:14]. In the passage in question, similar language is applied to the servant. He bears our griefs, carries our sorrows [Is. 53:4], wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, chastised for our peace, striped for our healing [Is. 53:5] and so on.

In verse 6, the iniquity of us all (the world) is placed on Him. In verse 8, He is stricken for the transgression of the Lord's people (that is, the Jews). The redemptive nature portrayed for this servant is unmistakeable. It strongly contrasts with the blind and sinful state of the servant Israel, who is in need of God's redemption. In chapter 53, the ultimate redemption for sin for all and for the servant Israel is enumerated at the cost of the suffering of the one servant. This is clearly not Israel. Further, this servant is clearly identified with the redemptive role of God. The profile fits no other than "Messiah who would be cut off, not for Himself" as in Daniel and Jesus Christ, the Word [John 1:1], who suffered for sin.

[1] Josh McDowell. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. 1999. Here's Life Publishers, Inc. pg. 197-201.
[2] Dr. J. Vernon McGee. Thru the Bible Vol. III. 1982. Thomas Nelson Publishers. pg. 586-589.

November 4, 2008

The History and Audience of the Bible

Over at AnAtheist, James has posted a response entitled God: The Great Communicator? to my article More On Faith focusing on critiquing God's decision to use inspired writings to communicate His truth.

Jewish Texts

James is of course correct regarding the division of the Bible, primary source languages, etc. However, he makes several errors in later descriptions.


James claims the Jewish scriptures are written by anonymous authors. While some books may have unclear or anonymous authorship, many of the books in scripture make claims concerning authorship or have traditionally accepted authors. As the primary reason for rejecting those traditions is largely rejection of the truth of the text and not solid archaeological discoveries that contradict said authorship, the credibility of authorship critiques is largely questionable and often hangs on accepting the Word or rejecting it (and as such, is generally a circular argument when applied as an attack on the integrity of the Word). A good example is the argument James cites in the next post which regards the authorship of Daniel. Because the book is prophetic and it is assumed to be true, the author is assumed to be anonymously written after the events rather than by Daniel be for the events, primarily because the idea that God revealed the events to Daniel before they happened is rejected.

Salvation in the Old Testament

While it is true that the Old Testament focuses primarily on Jewish people, it does not teach that salvation was limited to them. Numerous non-Jews are listed as being saved in it. The best examples are probably Job and the Ninevites (to whom God sent the unwilling prophet Jonah). Throughout both testaments, salvation is offered to all.

Eternal Fate Dependency

Both testaments of the Bible are about a lot more than salvation. Salvation itself is a fairly simple proposition: Faith, not in our works, but the works of Jesus or the Messiah, as the basis for escaping the condemnation of sin (hell) and the reward of a heavenly future. A lot of the book is post-salvation details and guidance directed primarily towards believers. Your eternal fate does not depend upon a detailed study of the totality of scripture and the correct understanding of numerous intricate and complex propositions.


Moving on from his background discussion, James proceeds to make 3 distinct arguments:

Transcription Errors

This is a common claim made about the Bible, that it inevitably is inaccurate. Not only would God obviously have an interest in preserving the text, but men dedicated to the preservation of the scripture were placed in charge of maintaining an accurate transmission.

In The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell cites Dr. Gleason Archer as saying:

in this respect [to transmission] the Old Testament differs from all other pre-Christian works of literature of which we have any knowledge...we do not possess so many different manuscript of pagan productions, coming from such widely separated eras, as we do in the case of the Old Testament. But where we do, for example, in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the variations are of a farmore extensive and serious nature. Quite startling differences appear...Whole clauses are inserted or left out, and the sense in corresponding columns of text is in some cases altogether different...[In contrast] even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered [among the Dead Sea scrolls] were a thousadn years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (AD 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The...variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling. They do not affect the message of revelation in the slightest. [1]

McDowell also cites Dr. Robert Wilson:

The proof that the copies of the original documents have been handed down with substantial correctness for more than 2,000 years cannot be denied. That the copies in exstence 2,000 years ago had been in like manner handed down from the originals is not merely possible, rendered probable by the analogies of Babylonian documents now existing of which we have both originals and copies, thousdands of years apart and of scores of papyri which show when compared with our modern editions of the classics that only minor changes of the text have taken place in more than 2,000 years and especially by the scientific and demonstrable accuracy with which the proper spelling of kings and of the numerous foreign terms embedded in the Hebrew text has been transmitted to us. [2]

McDowell includes similar citations regarding the New Testament, such as John Montgomery:

to be skeptical of the resultant test of the New Testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament [3]

and Sir Frederic Kenyon:

besides number, the manuscripts of the New Testament differ from those of the classical authors...In no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest extant manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament. The books of the New Testament were written in the latter part of the first century; the earliest extant manuscripts (trifling scraps excepted) are of the fourth century -- say from 250 to 300 years later. This may sound a considerable interval, but it is nothing to that which parts most of the great classical authors from their earliest manuscripts. We believe that we have in all essentials an accurate text of the seven extant plays of Sophocles; yet the earliest substantial manuscripts upon which it is based was written more than 1400 years after the poets death. [3]

As a result, the claim that the Bible is an old text and therefore comes to us only in a highly distorted form is unsupported by the facts. While there may be some minor changes that scholars discuss, they do not appear to effect the message in any substantial way. If anyone has any specific examples they believe contradict this conclusion, please present them.


James also repeats the lack of ubiquity argument. I addressed this in On the Implications of Consensus and Gospel Ubiquity.

Not all Scripture is Directed to All People

James also refers to a remark a made regarding Jesus's clear intent to obfuscate teaching through parables. The point of this argument was to point out that not all the truth God has given us is directed towards all people. Some of the message clearly is, that being the message of the gospel. Other communications from God clearly were not, such as the parables of Christ.

The foundational premise to arguments regarding the inefficiency of God communicating to us via the Bible is that God intended to write an open letter to all people for the express purpose of making sure everyone in the world had access to this book in its entirety. That is clearly not the case. Based on Jesus's remarks, this is clearly not God's sole purpose in all His communications.

[1] Josh McDowell. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. 1999. Here's Life Publishers, Inc. pg. 70.
[2] Josh McDowell. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. 1999. Here's Life Publishers, Inc. pg. 71.
[3] Josh McDowell. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. 1999. Here's Life Publishers, Inc. pg. 35.

November 3, 2008

Christianity, Historical Records and Occam's Razor

James posted two arguments as comments on More on Faith that deserve a response:

Historical Interpretation

One can list a bunch of written records pre-dating at least most of the Old Testament books, but the real argument is this: written records with similar ideas pre-date the Old Testament, therefore, the OT borrows. Frankly, this is bogus.

1 - As far back as the writings in question are, the ideas written down were not original, that is, they pre-date the writings.
2 - The Judeo/Christian narrative clearly makes claims of reaching much further back than the writings you cite. Suggesting that these writings disprove that narrative requires that the narrative have been previously rejected in order to accept the idea that these pre-dated records represent an earlier origin of the ideas rather than the actual distortions. This is circular reasoning. If you have other reasons for your initial rejection of the Judeo/Christian narrative, please present them.

Moses and Sargon

As for the story of Moses, that's a historical event, not a philosophical, spiritual, or religious concept. If it is true that Moses's mother borrowed an idea to save Moses from a historical legend, that does not in any way imply that religious tenants were appropriated. Furthermore, while Sargon's suspected life time may predate the life of Moses, the apparent source of the legend that we have is not so old. According to Wikipedia, the source of Sargon's legendary basket ride is a tablet dating to the 7th century [1], which does not predate the events of the Exodus account. If mere historical appropriation occured, it could have occurred in either direction.

Occam's Razor

My understanding of Occam's Razor or the Principle of Parsimony is that it essentially states that "one should posit no more entities than are absolutely necessary". As a result, I've never found it's application as an argument against the existence of a divine being at all compelling. Anyone who accepts the razor as an argument clearly believes God is not necessary. Those who believe He is, include Him.

Natural Laws are adequate for explaining a great deal of the world in which we live, but there is much that such Laws do not seem capable of explaining or giving significant meaning to, such as why there is something rather than nothing and absolute morality.

In other words: application of Occam's Razor requires a reason to believe the denied entity is not necessary. Make that argument instead.

[1] "Sargon of Akkad". Wikipedia.

October 30, 2008

On the Implications of Consensus and Gospel Ubiquity

James has posted several responses to my article More on Faith over at Wordpress. I've broken my response into several parts. The first addresses, Is Your Religion True an older article by James.

General Arguments Against Faith

In "Is Your Religion True" James essentially makes two arguments against belief in God: (1) lack of consensus and (2) lack of ubiquity.

Lack of Consensus

Frankly, this is a poor argument in general.

  1. Especially during an election season, it is clear that people are not always guided purely by reason and in many cases may not even devote sufficient time and consideration to even some of the most important issues to make a well informed decision.

  2. If consensus is so important and inevitable, James should be wondering why only 2.32% of people in the world are atheists instead of why only 33.32% of people are Christians. [1]

That said, James advances two more specific arguments in this vein:

Religious Denominations vs. Scientific Consensus

James argues that major religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam have splinter groups numbering in the hundreds and perhaps thousands whereas the scientific community has relative consensus. This more specific argument is in error because of the reason above, but is flawed in two other ways as well.

First, by focusing on the broad range of disagreements, ranging from major doctrines such as the Trinity to relatively minor disagreements over church government, and ignoring large areas of consensus, such as the existence of God, the existence of good and evil, etc., the argument presents a deeply divisive view of religious people. Conversely, by attempting to focus on the relatively narrow range of natural laws and focusing on large areas of consensus, such as General Relativity and Biological Evolution, and ignoring areas of disagreement ranging from possible unification theories and forces behind evolution (leaps, gradual, divinely directed), the argument presents a highly skewed comparison.

Second, to skew this comparison even more, it divides religious people according the general public, but focuses only on a highly focused group of people when considering views on science. Notice the words used. When speaking about religious people, the claim is that "the world should be moving towards some kind of consensus with regards to the true and proper religion" whereas the relevant people related to scient are "the scientific community".

Attempts to support this comparison by remarking that trained religious leaders share no such consensus are also misleading. Not only is the claimed consensus of scientists exaggerated, but unlike scientists who receive a more unified education, religious leaders are generally trained according to their particular sect.

Divine Persausion

The second argument James attempts to make to support the idea that any true religion would inexorably achieve universal consensus is that God is a much better communicator than we are and essentially should be able to convince us all that He is right. Basically, the claim is that God's problem is a presentation problem, that if He really existed and wanted us to believe, He could perform a sign or present the right reasons for us to believe. However, this assumes that everyone would approach God's presentation rationally and fairly. Not only do people frequently act irrationally, it seems clear that many people do not want to believe everything God might have to say. Acceptance of our own failings, moral pronouncements, thou shalts and shalt nots, the acknowledgement of a higher power who cares what we do, etc. As a result, it is unsurprising that many people disagree on the truth and would continue to do so even if God tried to convince them.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man and Lazarus, a poor beggar outside his door both died. The rich man went to hell and Lazarus went to Paradise. Seeing Lazarus in Paradise with Abraham, the rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus back to bring the truth to his brothers. Abraham gave the following reply:

Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead. - Luk 16:29-31


The second argument James presents is much more powerful. The argument is essentially that if there is a God who is not a respecter of persons and desires to reach out to mankind in general, He would not leave gaps in the availability of the truth. Two prominent examples of religions that readily claim such gaps are Mormonism and Islam, which basically claim that God's original revelations in the Bible were corrupted and that after hundreds of years, He finally decided to set the record straight.

This is a huge problem for these religions because it clearly implies that God simply abandoned the world to spiritual darkness, ignorance, and ultimately judgement for many generations at a time. This argument demonstrates a solid reason to reject any religion that does not at least claim historical ubiquity.

Clearly, James believes this critique extends to Christianity as well. However, it does not for two reasons:

Historical Ubiquity of Special Revelation

James claims that if Christianity is true, it implies that God's message was delivered "at an arbitrary time in human history and at an arbitrary location to a handful of people in just one language". Christianity does not teach that God finally revealed His plan of salvation through Jesus Christ in roughly AD 30. To the contrary, God revealed His plan as soon as it was necessary. That even though we had violated God's righteous standard, separating us from Him, He still loved us. To atone for our sins, Jesus Christ, the divine man, payed the penalty for our sin, allowing us to be reconciled with God for eternity future and that all who looked forward to it were saved, just as we look back and are saved.

Even before pronouncing judgement on Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit, God tells them that a future descendent would defeat the serpent [Gen. 3:15]. It also seems clear that God communicated more than that to them. In Gen. 3:21, we see God making coats of skins for them and in Gen. 4 we see Cain and Abel apparently had at least a basic understanding of the sacrificial system and dealt directly with them. We also see God advising Cain and Cain disregarding God's advice.

By making the first revelation to the parents of the rest of the human race, God not only provided the necessary truth to them, but ensured that at least all mankind had revelation from the beginning of time that could be passed on. This doctrine of ubiquitous revelation over history sets mainstream Christianity apart from some other religions, such as Mormonism and Islam.

Global, Ubiquitous General Revelation

However, as James points out, just having revelation available to some people at all points in time is not enough. It is necessary that some revelation be available to all people at all times. The Bible teaches there are 3 aspects of General Revelation to all men.

First, in Romans 1, Paul declears that the Creation is part of God's general revelation to all men, so that they are without excuse:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: - Rom. 1:18-20

Second, conscience is given to all men, that they may know there is a moral standard and they have fallen short:

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another - Rom 2:14-15

What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one...Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God
- Rom.3:9-10,19-23

Third, the inner light. The exact function of this revelation is not entirely clear, but it is a clear reference to Christ as the light, which would imply a divine ministry to all people:

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. John 1:9

Judging the Ignorant

James anticipates the argument that only those who hear of Christ must accept Him. The rest are judged on relative merit. This is, as he concludes contemptible, for it would transform the good news of the gospel into a message of condemnation for those who hear the gospel and reject it, while giving those who don't hear it a relatively free pass.

Scripture clearly does not teach this position. Jesus is unequivocal on the ways to God:

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. - John 14:6

Clearly, there is only one way. But the gospel is very simple:

(1) - There is a God
(2) - We have all sinned, justice demands punishment
(3) - Someone else must take our punishment, that someone, is Jesus Christ

It seems reasonable that most of that message is available to all through general revelation (Creation -> God, Conscience -> sin & judgement). Most people get the third leg from God's Special Revelation in the Bible, whether directly by reading or indirectly through others. However, as James points out there is a lot of time between the coming of Christ (and before that) during which the Americas in particular seem cut off from that source of revelation.

Fortunately, enough revelation was given to Adam and Eve to save them, enough of that may be passed on in cut off cultures to allow enough truth to be clear to those who seek it. Also, not all general revelation is thoroughly understood, particularly the ministry of Jesus Christ as the inner light to all people. The essential point is that if Christianity is true, God has provided sufficient revelation to any person that has ever lived that they can reject or accept and if they accept God can make sure they receive the truth they need in order to come to the Father through Christ.

[1] CIA World Factbook

October 9, 2008

More on Faith

James posted a comment on my Wordpress blog and Sharon responded on FriendFeeds regarding my recent article "Jesus et. al". My answers to them are below. Because James posted first, I responded to him first and then Sharon:


He claims that my alternative interpretation of similarities in regligion "doesn't accord well with the facts". However, he fails to back this up in any substantive way. Instead, he chooses to attack my conception of God and pontificate on my misunderstandings of Christian and Jewish tradition.

Inefficient communication

It also doesn’t speak well to your conception of God, as a being that uses an inefficient means to pass on and preserve this initial narrative. - James

I'm not sure what he is trying to say here. Is he saying that written communication is inefficient for God a clear communication recording once, but perverted in numerous other traditions is inefficient?

Effectiveness of the Written Word

There are, of course, other methods God could have used to spread His message. He could have pre-programmed us with the knowledge of His message, spoken to each of us from heaven in a booming voice individually, sent angels to tell and reminds us, etc. However, God chose to use (1) direct communication to certain individuals who (2) wrote down that revelation (3) which others can learn from and share. Knowing whether this was the best method would require knowing all of God's goals in such communication. If simply making a set of principles known to all human beings was the goal, the method does seem inefficient compared to other possible methods. However, if God's goals in communicating also including other purposes, such as, challenging us to be a part of the process of communicating truth to others, it would not be so inefficient.

For example, consider Jesus's ministry. He frequently spoke to the people in parables, which purposely obfuscated the message. When the disciples asked Jesus why He taught in parables, He replied that it was given to them to know, but not to others [Matt. 13:11]. Therefore, it is clear that simply having every person understand a set of principles is not God's only goal in giving His word and it is erroneous to claim His method is inefficient on that basis.

Perversions Throughout History

Given that many rejected the truth, it is unsurprising that many deviations and erroneous versions would crop up, especially if we consider the goals of Satan to deceive men into any world view other than God's truth. By distorting or removing essential parts that people don't like, he can ensnare them with half-truths, keeping them from the truth of salvation from sin through Jesus Christ. As an added bonus, he can tell others that there are so many "truths" out there that determining the right one is too difficult, so why bother. That God allows this to occur is similar to His tolerance of evil in the world in order to respect our freewills.

Atoning Messiah

The Old Testament does include passages that suggest the Messiah would atone for sins. I have already mentioned two of them. In Daniel 9:26, speaking specifically of Messiah, Daniel declares that Messiah would be "cut off, but not for himself". In Isaiah 53, the righteous servant is clearly presented as suffering and dying for "the iniquity of us all". Even if one rejects that this is a reference to the Messiah, as modern Judaism does along with it's rejection of Christ, the Old Testament or Jewish scriptures clearly present the idea of one man atoning for the sins of "us all", making such connection much more than "retroactive" interpretations.

Serpent of Genesis

The timing of the revelation of the connection between Satan and the serpent is peripheral to the point I was making. Furthermore, the description of hatred between the "seed of the woman" and the seed of the serpent, with the eventual crushing of the serpents head does not make sense in the context of a normal serpent. It is clear that God is referring to something or someone beyond the serpent.

Corrupted Narrative vs. Pure Invention

Yes. I believe the evidence strongly indicates a divine Creator. As such, it seems more likely that He would try to communicate with us. Given some divine communication, I would not be surprised if many misunderstood/distorted it over time, leading to many world views that shared some similarities, one of which is true and the rest being false by varying degrees.

As for determining the true narrative, I would look for the one that makes the most sense (reason). That is, the one that best explains all of reality as we know it. Obviously, that's a simple answer to a very complex problem. I would be interested in exploring it by degrees if any one else is interested.


The Judaic concept of God being one in essence and person, may be more monotheistic than the concept of a triune Godhead, three persons who are one in essence, but this designation does set Christianity apart from the other mythologies brought up in the original article, which is the point I was trying to make. Despite some similarities, all these views are not the indistinguishable. They all have unique views that set them apart from the others and can be used to differentiate between them and evaluate them for varying levels of veracity.

One over the other

You cannot offer any actual evidence to prefer one mythology of another. - James

I offered one argument which you completely ignored. I argued that a coherent moral system demands consistency, which would seem to favor monotheism over pantheism. Furthermore, most world views make clear claims about reality which can be examined. For example, the Greek gods were believed to live atop Mt. Olympus. This myth is demonstrably false.

Furthermore, it should be noted that we can't ignore or origins or our past. Even if one were incapable of differentiating between the true and the untrue, there is no view which would be true by default, such as the view that the natural world is all that exists.



So it's okay to choose a religious system because we *want* it to be consistent? That seems rather dangerous to me. Shouldn't we be choosing what we have evidence for? - Sharon

I'm not exactly sure what Sharon is contending. It seems to me that something which is internally consistent (that is, does not contradict itself) is much more likely to be true than something which contradicts itself (which, according to the law of non-contradiction, would be, by definition, false). In evaluating a world view, I would look for two major things in general: internal consistency (consistency with itself) and external consistency (consistent with our observations of reality).

I suspect this is the distinction Sharon is making when she appeals to "what we have evidence for". If so, we agree on this point. "42" might be internally consistent, but it really has no connection with the reality we experience, nor does it seem to offer any explanation for how the world works or where it came from.


That said, I do think it is reasonable to draw some conclusions or rule out some alternatives based on the end result. For example, take two views:

1 - A deep space asteroid will come flying through space and destroy the earth a week from now, killing us all.
2 - The world will last for many more years and so will we.

Both views dictate what actions we might take over the next week. One believing the asteroid was going to destroy the earth might conclude that saving money or working towards a better future is pointless. It's certainly possible. It might be true. However, I would argue that if it is true, everything, including truth, is pretty meaningless anyway. Therefore, it would be best to act as if 2 is true, even if the truth of it's claim is impossible to determine. The reason for this is that 2 is the only option that leaves any room for hope of meaning.

If you've ever seen House, a better example of what I'm talking about might be when his team can't determine if the patient has condition A or B, but House says to treat for B because if they have A, the patient is dead no matter what.

Morality is such an issue. Without it, nothing is wrong and nothing is right. Yet, we all have some sense of morality. Some belief in "good" and "fair" as opposed to that which is "wrong" or "evil". Furthermore, we believe that based on this sense, we can expect others not to "wrong" us. We expect that we can say to some one else "you ought not to murder children for fun, it is wrong". Such condemnation demands an absolute, consistent morality, which is inconsistent with world views lacking higher authorities than ourselves (atheism, naturalism, humanism, etc.) or divided/ineffective highest powers (pantheism). This isn't just an observation of desirability, it's an observation of our own innate sense of the world.

Good and Evil

The evidence in the world supports more strongly an inconsistent god(s) than a consistent one. (Not that I think it supports evidence for a god at all, but if I had to pick, quarreling gods who constantly overrule themselves would make way more sense.) Sure, it's nice to believe that "God" is always there and on our side, but it's not really consistent with the world we live in. Wars, genocide, suicide, divorce, murder, rape, etc. - Sharon

I disagree. I don't see how the things you list indicate an inconsistent God or set of gods as more likely than a single consistent God. It is clear that any belief in the divine must deal with the problem of evil. Conversely, any belief that the divine does not exist (or is mixed) must deal with the problem of good.

Religious Equality

And this among Christians as frequently as any other religion. - Sharon

What is your basis for this claim of equal evil?

On Desireable Outcomes

We can want there to be a consistent moral understanding based on a monotheistic system all we want. It'd be great. But it's important to recognize that merely wanting something does not usually grant it - Sharon

Agreed. The question is definitely much more difficult and complex than "what do we want". However, that doesn't mean we are doomed to meaningless disappointment and after that oblivion.

October 2, 2008

Jesus et. al

Cameron shared this article on Google Reader and I felt compelled to comment on it.

Philosophical Approaches

The view presented in this article is essentially "higher criticism". The foundation of this view is that religions, including the Bible are a human narrative of evolving ideas about religion. As a result, similarities are considered to be proof of external ideas being appropriated into the doctrines of a specific religion, changing them as people's ideas evolve.

Another way of understanding similarities is that initially, there was one divine narrative which over time was perverted into a multitude of different religions, whose common origin yielded some similar ideas.

1 - The Scapegoat

The author clearly doesn't understand what the Scape Goat is. The scape goat was part of an OT religious ritual performed on the day of atonement involving two goats. A lot was cast on the goats. The one upon whom the lot fell was offered as a sin offering and the other was led out of the camp symbolically carrying the sins of the people [Leviticus 16]. It was not a ritual in which sins were symbolically placed on a goat which was then killed to placate a demon. The purpose, as with the much of the rest of the OT rituals was to picture the future sacrifice of the Messiah for the purpose of atoning for the sins of humanity.

The author attempts to relate this to Greek practices of using human "scapegoats" to appease the gods during times of calamity and Roman legal practices of allowing innocent people to take upon them the penalty of the guilty. Both practices probably postdate the Jewish practice by centuries. Therefore, it can not be said that they influenced the Jewish tradition. Rather, it is more likely that Jewish tradition influenced them. Furthermore, it should not be surprising that Christianity builds on Jewish tradtion. Christianity sees itself as the fullfilment and extension of pre-Christ revelation to the Jews. Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment [Matthew 5:17].

2 - The Essenes

It is also not surprising that a Jewish splinter groupd held views similar to those contained in the Old Testament and shared by the New Testament.

For example:
A - Love thy neighbor: When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He declared:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. [Matthew 22:37-40]

This was not Jesus drawing on relatively recent tradition, but rather citing two passages in the Law as it was given by God through Moses:

And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. [Deuteronomy 6:5]
...thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD. [Leviticus 19:18]

B - Criticism of Conventional Jewish Society

The Jewish religious leaders had fallen into a deeply legalistic system which perverted mans laws over God's laws. As such, criticism was deserved, not simply a tradition borrowed from a relatively contemporary group.

C - Coming of a Messiah

As Christianity looks back to the central figure of Christ, Judaism looks forward to the future coming of the Messiah and has done so from the beginning. Immediately after the fall, God promised to send that a descendent of Eve would defeat the serpant (Satan) [Genesis 3:15]. More recently, Daniel the prophet foretold of a coming Messiah, who would be "cut off, but not for himself" [Daniel 9:25]. Isaiah the prophet foretold a suffering savior, bearing the penalty of the sins of others [Isaiah 53].

3 - Similar figures

Most of the rest of the article is devoted to a listing of figures, mostly mythical whose stories share some similarities with the narrative of Jesus. Many supposedly died and rose again, offered rewards to their followers, etc. Again, this is suggested to be indicative of a lack of divine revelation as merely human ideas evolved and cross-polinated ways of thinking. However, one would expect similar results if God had revealed a coherant narrative which was corrupted over time in various false religions.

4 - Why Jesus?

It seems to me that the most substantive point raised by the author is the question of why Christ and not one of these mythical figures.

First, the author claims that via the criteria of precedence, the Bible must be rejected many times over. However, within the list included in the article, the only tradition that might clearly be said to pre-date Judaism even from a critical perspective is Egyptian mythology.

Second, the primary distinction between Christ and the other mentioned figures is that only Jesus represents a monotheistic divinity. All the rest connected to pantheistic religions, often involving quarreling gods and goddesses. While a lot of discussion could be devoted to each of these separate pantheons, it seems to me that the problem of a consistent moral understanding is a good reason to reject them. As Socrates observed in one of the Platonic dialogues, it is virtually impossible to determine right from wrong in the presence of so many conflicting deities. Without a coherent moral system, good often boils down to picking a god and hoping some other god doesn't destroy you for it.

In closing, the author tries to argue that us relgious folk foolishly ignore the similarities between these figures and try to pretend they are very different. I would suggest that he tries to ignore the differences to take the lazy way out of answering his own question: which one, if any, is true?

January 22, 2008

Free Markets

Cameron recently sent me an article entitled The Free Market Fairy by Joe Gregorio at BitWorking. Gregorio casts the Free Market as a mythical beast summoned by conservatives and classical liberals to solve any problem.

About the only thing that seems reasonable in this article is Gregorio's statement that I, Pencil by Leonard Read is a great introduction to the concepts and power of free markets.

Gregorio goes on in the next paragraph to claim: "the Free Market Fairy was the justification for taking a chainsaw to lending regulations in 2003 which precipitated the housing bubble, subsequent collapse, resultant credit crunch, and impending recession." Unfortunately, the Paul Krugman article he links to, while it mentions a chainsaw wielding event, neither names specific regulations, nor outlines how their elimination precipited the subprime market bomb. What Krugman does reveal that the event took place "on June 3, 2003 — just about the time subprime lending was starting to go wild". In other words, according to Gregorio's own source which he claims demonstrates that deregulation caused the subprime fiasco, Krugman reveals that subprime lending was already out of control. In fact there is reason to believe that some legislation, such as the "Community Reinvestment Act" and a long history of bailouts exacerbated subprime lending by requiring that banks lend to riskier people and providing a sense that if things went really wrong, the banks would be bailed out from their bad investments. Thus, by encouraging bad loans and minimizing the consequences of bad loans, the incentive to give bad loans increased.

As an aside, Krugman berates Greenspan:

"Mr. Greenspan dismissed as a “collectivist” myth the idea that businessmen, left to their own devices, “would attempt to sell unsafe food and drugs, fraudulent securities, and shoddy buildings.” On the contrary, he declared, “it is in the self-interest of every businessman to have a reputation for honest dealings and a quality product.”"

But of course, what Greenspan is saying is true in the long term. Business do sometimes rip-off their customers, which is why buyers need to be alert and not just accept everything businesses tell them. However, if a business routinely deceives its customers into buying bad products, the word will get out and that company will die. Which is precisely why the government should not bail out banks that made bad loans. Bailing out bad businesses only encourages those bad practices and keeps bad businesses alive. In other words, while it is not true that all businesses operating in a free market are angelic, it is true that market forces push them to make make good products and deal honestly with consumers.

Gregorio then goes on to say that the free market has been claimed as a solution to 4 problems: healthcare, education, global warming, and the free market. Because healthcare is the only situtation Gregorio even attempts to comment on at greater depth, I'll discuss it later. As for the other 3:

Free Market for Education

I see no reason why the free market is not an appropriate solution to education problems. As even Gregorio admits, the forces of a free market maximize cost effectiveness, that is quality per dollar. Part of the problem with the current system it has only limited incentives to be cost effective and provide quality. Because public schools are so much cheaper than private schools and almost everyone has to pay for them anyway (via taxes), they will always have a majority of our children. As such, public schools are not very accountable for their quality, as most parents are unwilling or can't afford to spend hundreds or thousands of extra dollars just to find higher quality. A free market education system would provide a more even playing field for all schools and allow parents to vote with their dollars much more effectively. Furthermore, if one wishes to add some government guarantee that all children get an education, subsidy vouchers can easily be introduced to the system.

Free Market for Global Warming

Although global warming is a bogus problem, as I have argued in previous articles ([1] [2] [3] [4]), it is interesting to note that later in his article, Gregorio extolls the free market as a worthy toll in the governments toolbox that works well in conjunction with some regulations. As far as I am aware, all supposed "solutions" to global warming that appeal to the free market are of this mold. For example, the Kyoto Protocol and John McCains "carbon credit" systems are essentially the establishment of an artificial, government made, carbon emissions market where a limited right to pollute can be bought and sold. A more libertarian solution also requires government regulation to work in tandem with a market system. This other solution recognizes that pollution is the off-loading of pollutants into a carrier (stream or atmosphere) which then carries the pollution into or through property owned by other citizens, who then have a right to sue for compensation, thus attaching a real cost to such dumping, providing incentives to minimize it. However, neither is seen as simply solved without government by some mystical free market force.

Free Market for Slavery?

Here, Gregorio claims that Ron Paul suggested that Free Markets would have fixed slavery. As evidence that Paul made such a suggestions, Gregorio links to this article. This claim is not found in the article. What the article explains Ron Paul as claiming is that the solution to slavery would have been "simply shell out some cash, buy the slaves, and set them free." It isn't even clear from the article if Ron Paul was suggesting this as a government funded solution or a private funded solution.

In other words, this is a horrible example because almost no (or maybe even none at all) actually make this claim. Even arguing that Ron Paul claims free markets can solve slavery seems to be a bit of a stretch.

A Magic Fairy

Gregorio continues, arguing that free markets are magical because they fit the 3 hallmarks of magical devices. I'm pretty sure this criteria for a magic device is either obscure or entirely made up by Gregorio, as I have never heard of it before, he provides no citation, and a Google search comes up with his article first and then a bunch of irrelevant links.

Outside Physics

Gregorio tries to argue that the free market opporates outside of phsyics and is therefore magical. It seems to me that this is rather absurd because a free market is not physical phenomenon. Free Market theory is essentially the study of social interactions involving transfers of ownership and production of value.

Outside Science

What Gregorio really means here is that he believes free markets have repeatedly failed. However, this is not as clear as Gregorio would like to think. Even in the US, while most of our commodities are traded more freely than in most other nations, nearly all our markets are regulated to some extent. Therefore, the classic attempt by many modern liberals and socialists to observe that "market x in the US isn't doing so hot" ergo "free markets don't work" doesn't follow for 2 reasons. First, markets have boom/bust cycles. Second, most markets in the world aren't really free.

Additionally, Gregorio probably picked one of the least free markets in the US as an example: health care. Almost everyone agrees that market forces have been vastly distorted both by a disconnect between consumers and cost, and massive government regulation. Anyone ever heard of the FDA? Medicare? Medicaid? SCHIP?


Gregorio attempts to finish his proof that a free market as understood by many is a magical device by arguing that it is often believed to be morally right. This really is a bunch of nonsense. People described various policies and social systems as good and bad from all different kinds of political viewpoints every day. People do this because they see an idea as making the world better or worse and assign a value of good or bad accordingly. Gregorio's rhetoric simple tries to cast this in legitimate activity in a negative light for a subsection of people.

Stop the Magic

Of course, as Gregorio claims, the Free Market is an amoral force. However, two aspects of free market are things we would generally consider to be good. First, the prerequisite for a free market is that people are free to exchange their property as they wish. Second, the forces of a free market encourage better growth than any other economic system by maximizing the freedom to act as one wishes and the freedom to collect benefits for work that others value.

Gregorio than compares free markets as amoral forces to physical forces, such as gravity. I don't know about you, but I like gravity. I think I might even describe it as "a good force", because I like not flying or floating off into space. Oops, I guess I believe in the "magic" of gravity. :o

The Tool User

Here Gregorio argues that a free market is a government tool and that the government can and should add regulations to free markets to instill morality into them. Of course, he ignores such important questions as, whose morality we should instill in markets, and that the more a market is regulated, the less free it is.

Another thing Gregorio seems to assume is that the government is the moral and forming expression of a culture, and therefore if it is moral to say, care for sick people, that the government must do it. This is another key disagreement between conservatives and modern liberals. Modern liberals, who really are generally socialists, tend to believe that the government makes a society and that what a society should do should be done by government. Conservatives believe that government is an institution of society that provides a distinct set of services (essentially, the protection of individuals right from violations by other citizens (internal violations) and other nations (external violations)). Society to a conservative is a larger and much looser group of people living freely together, organizing for common causes, etc.

January 15, 2008

The Looming Tower

I recently finished reading The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. It is an excellent history of al Qaeda, focusing on the events leading up to 9/11. It also includes a parallel discussion of the FBI, CIA, and NSA investigation of al Qaeda before 9/11.

In particular, I found 4 things Wright reveals about al Qaeda particularly interesting. First, the book begins not with bin Laden, but with an Islamic author, Qtub, who became an ideological leader of Egyptian Islamists who wanted to reclaim and purify their country for their brand of Islam. Second, the Afghan war with the Soviets attracted both bin Laden and the Egyptian Islamists to fight a more global war to protect what they viewed as Islamic territory. Third, it was bin Laden's vision of an extra-national militia which could be easily mobilized to defend Islam globally that would later morph into al Qaeda, a loose coalition of terror groups and cells with the primary goal of expanding Islam globally against the encroaching West, of which the US was seen as the leader. Finally, I was intrigued to learn of repeated offers of help to al Qaeda by Iraq, which saw a common cause against the West.

The history of FBI, CIA, and NSA monitoring of al Qaeda was also interesting. Particularly, their lack of cooperation because of the "Wall" and different information priorities. For example, Wright explains that the CIA was often reticent to share intel with the FBI because the CIA views secrets as currency, whereas widely known info is relatively useless, and the FBI's purpose is primarily to prosecute criminals based on info, which makes it public.

In closing, I highly recommend this book for those who want to know more about al Qaeda and why they seek to destroy us.

January 12, 2008

Response to Senator Schumer's Radio Address

I try to listen to the President's and the Democrat's weekly radio address and I was particularly disappointed with Senator Schumer's address this week. In the address, he describes the currentstate of the economy "the worst shape...since the days immediately following 9/11". He also repeats much of the tired, middle class rhetoric coming from people such as Obama, Edwards, and Huckabee.

He warns of a recession and labels Bush's policies "Do-nothing". In particular, he is concerned about 4 things:

1 - "From 2000 to 2006, most Americans saw their real income actually go down."

I don't know what he bases this on, but I suspect this is in large part caused by the recession in the early part of those years. The picture he seems to be trying to paint, one of continually increasing hardship for the middle class, isn't necessarily supported by such a statistic.

2 - "The average tax relief for a millionaire under this Administration is 100 times larger than the elief for a typical middle class household."

Oh really? I'm guessing this is because the poor Senator doesn't understand math and the difference between a typical middle class household income and a millionaire income. Take for example, someone, A, who makes $100,000 a year (quite a bit more than most middle class families) at a 30% tax rate. That person would pay about $30,000 in taxes a year, and a 1% tax break would constitute $1000 in relief. Consider another person, B, who makes about $10 million a year. At $10 million a year (100 times A's income) at the same tax rate, B pays $3 million dollars (100 times A's taxes) and the SAME tax break for B would save him $100,000 a year (again 100 times A's income).

The point is, the reason the millionaire receives more relief from tax cuts is because he pays more, not because Bush likes him more. I am repeatedly annoyed that people in charge of running this country either don't understand these simple facts, or hope we are so stupid we won't see through the rhetoric.

3 - "The price of college tuition, health care and energy...have skyrocketed."


As a current college student, tuition and tuition increases are certainly a concern, but they are not over-burdening and it seems to be fairly easy to get bank loans to cover expenses if one needs to and it shouldn't be too hard to pay off after graduating, as long as one lives frugally, didn't stay in school absurdly long, and actually got a degree that is worth something (unlike an English degree, which I hear is generally good for a job under $30k). Speaking of such degree's, it seems to me that part of the cause of high tuition costs is probably high demanded driven primarily by artificially low prices (via government aid) and the conventional wisdom that a college degree is necessary to get a good job without much emphasis on the kind of degree. This leads to more people going to college (free money increases demand) and a lack of focus on degrees that are valuable in the work force (because they are "hard").

Health Care

As for health care, I agree that this is a problem. However, I think most people are ignoring two primary factors effecting the quality and cost of health care.

First, insurance, especially insurance paid for by a third-party such as an employer or government, hides the real cost of using health care from consumers. Consumers therefore feel that it is cheaper than it is, because they don't foot the bill, and decreased prices, perceived or real, increase demand, driving prices up for access to medical resources (which I understand is not a booming business in terms of growth and expansion). In other words, the lack of cost transparency leads not just more consumers to demand health care, but for individual consumers to demand more of it, which they may not really need. Because the health care industry is not growing parallel to the increase in demand, cost increases as health care becomes a more relatively scarce resource.

Second, particularly regarding pharmaceudicals, it is my understanding that the US is one of the few countries that respects drug patents. Most other countries, such as Canada with their famously cheap medicine, achieve this cheapness either via price controls or lack of patent protection, which allows a company to pay $0 on R&D to develop a drug, meaning it only has to make back the cost of production rather than the additional cost of years of R&D and additional costs of FDA approval. One might think that lives and health are worth saving at such an expense to pharmaceudicals, but if all countries did this, the investment required to find cures would become unprofitable, causing relative stagnation is pharmaceudical research. We could achieve much lower costs for a health care status quo, but health care progress would become absurdly unprofitable and therefore under-funded.

Increased nationalization of health care would solve neither of these problems. On the contrary, it would only serve to exacerbate them.


Increased energy costs are also a real problem with a more complex cause. Although much of the rising energy costs are probably due in part to increasing demand in developing countries, the control of large oil supplies by socialist (for example, Hugo Chavez) and unstable countries have also worked to cut off oil supplies. However, it is important to note that Congress, in which Schumer, and other government bodies in the US have repeatedly blocked development of our own oil reserves (ANWAR, Gulf rigs, new refineries), which could simultaneously decrease our dependence on foreign oil and increase the availability of oil in the US. What is generally being done by Congress is funding research on numerous "Green" technologies for alternative energy sources which are more expensive than oil. Additionally, at least one of these more expensive fuels (ethanol) is often required as an additive to gasoline in the name of making it more environmentally friendly, also increasing the cost. Therefore, Congress and policies Schumer probably supports have been contributors to the cost of energy in this country.

One thing a lot of people don't know is that we already have a new energy source with almost zero emmissions that could simultaneously replace most of the dirty coal and gas power plants that form the majority of our power infrastructure and dramatically reduce car emissions. This energy source is nuclear power. Unfortuantely, a lot of fear mongering and misinformation has turned many Americans against this source of energy, but rather than trying to overcome that problem, as France apparently has, the US has taken it pretty much off the table. The advocation of nuclear power by most of the Republican candidates in the New Hampshire debates was probably the high point of debate for me and I hope they continue to do so.

4 - Housing crisis

One thing Schumer forgets to mention is that part of the cause of the housing bubble and subsequent fallout was caused by the government encouraging banks to give out loans to risky people and people failure to prepare for what most people said was coming. Bailing out banks and people who took loans they couldn't afford will only reinforce the message of irresponsibility in planning for the future. Furthermore, it will hurt those who DID plan ahead and set aside money to invest in property during the perceived market downturn. Doing nothing IS the right thing to do in this case, but I seem to recollect from past weekly radio addresses that President Bush actually is planning to do something about this. What Schumer is probably complaining about here is that Bush isn't doing enough to bail people out.

Schumer's solution

The only real solution Schumer presents is increased government spending, apparently on anything:

"prominent economists believe that the best way to jumpstart is not only with tax cuts, but with stimulus spending. The President seems to focus only on tax cuts, which are important, but we need spending as well, whether it be for short-term items such as extending unemployment insurance or longer-term investments such as in clean energy and infrastructure." - Schumer

But we should not let these economists (probably Keynesian economists, who have been deluded into thinking that the government can and should flatten the market boom/bust cycle) fool us. All government funds come from one of two places, taxes (from the people) or borrowing. The thing Schumer either doesn't realize or hopes we don't realize is that private citizens and organizations can spend based on thses sources just as well as the government. Particularly in terms of the funds raised by taxation, that is money people would probably prefer to have spent themselves anyway.

Consider the economy as a set of industries. For each industry, profit (the result of spending public or private funds on that industries output [products]) signals that industry to grow (the profits are largely investing in increasing the industry to meet increased demand, increasing profit). Losses, signal an industry to shrink because it's output is higher than societies demand. Next, consider a person (A) who makes $100,000 a year. Instead of conventionally thinking about this $100,000 as what we generally consider it to be, a resource which A can use to buy things for himself, think it as 100,000 votes for product production. When A buys say, a new computer, he spends $1000 to buy himself a new computer. But he also signals 1000 votes worth of demand for the computer. The computer industry (0) receives these votes their goods, reacting to this signal that their product is in demand, expands. A continues the year like this, expending his money (votes), on other industries (0-100) according to the things he wants to consume. Other industries do not receive any funding from A and sadly decrease their output proportionally. As a model citizen, he also pays $30,000 in taxes, as he did the year before when he was helping us see through Schumer's faulty logic on tax relief. This $30,000 in taxes represents a 30% decrease in A's votes which represet his control over the economy. It also represents an increase of 30,000 votes in the governments control of the industry.

This illustration clarifies that government is not a magic entity and the fact that money controls the economy. When the government takes our money, it doesn't magically become more valuable or powerful than when we had it. All that happens is that our influence in the economy is decreased and the influence of governments (that is, beaurocrats and government officials, such as Senator Schumer) increases.

It is also important to note that saving money does not mean that it sits around and does nothing. Unless one's method of saving is hiding legal tender in the basement, saving is investing, in banks, businesses, bonds, etc. That money is then spent by someone else.

Therefore, A's $100,000 will be invested in the economy at some point during the year, and government intervention does not change this. All government intervention can do is change where that money is invested.

Notice also that Schumer juxtaposes tax cuts and government spending as two promoters of economic growth. The truth is that spending promotes economic growth in an industrial region. The difference between tax cuts and stimulus spending is who spends the money, us, or them. It is also important to note that economic growth is also dependent on industries producing what people really want. It seems to me that the best way to signal to the economy to produce according to the people's demands is to allow them the maximum control over their own money as possible.