Monday, May 24, 2010

The Health Care Debate and the Prisoner's Dilemma

In game theory, there's a concept called the Prisoner's Dilemma. There are many analogies used to explain the concept, but I think the best example involves the produce market in a rural community. One vendor brings vegetables to barter; another brings fruit. Every week they trade a box of produce, and open it when they get home.

If the fruit vendor gets home to find he's received moldy carrots but had given away his freshest apples, he'll be really ticked. And in that same transaction, the veggie vendor would have received the greatest gain-- he gave away something worthless and got something of value in return. Next week each may have a strategy based on the prior week's results-- the fruit vendor may want to retaliate, while the veggie vendor may realize he cannot go on forever trading the bad vegs because eventually he'll want some good fruit for his family. So as the rounds of trading play on, there may be cycles of "betray" and "cooperate". Even if both players were acting in good faith, there may be cases where accidents of weather and hired hands that prevent one from always bringing good produce to the trade. You may or may not choose to "punish" your best friend and trading partner for a single instance of bad produce.

(Thus, bad offerings to your partner might not always be due to an active choice to defraud-- that, I believe, is the weakness of the original articulation of the Prisoner's Dilemma, which involves the plea bargaining of two thieves in court. When trying to explain PD to a child, I got caught up in questions of, "Shouldn't you always tell the truth?" when talking about the police and courts. In contrast, the fruit/ veggie analogy is free of this ethical conundrum and makes it easier to understand how trading might work.)

The same Prisoner's Dilemma may be applied to the debate over slavery in the 19th century. England eventually took an ethical stance and forbade slavery within Britain and did so decades before America did. But once it had done so, Britain now had a HUGE incentive to get the other Altantic nations to forbid slavery as well. It was now bringing fresh vegetables and didn't want to compete with vendors habitually bringing moldy fruit.

Same goes for the recent health care debate. Whether you've been vilifying the HMO execs or decrying government intrusion, in my view it is clear that the health care companies have been operating under a Prisoner's Dilemma. I believe that the competition between companies has been so stiff that have felt forced to adopt several unkind practices, such as the one involving pre-existing conditions. I can see that one HMO might feel that otherwise, they'd attract a bunch of sick people and provide disincentives for getting coverage to healthy, working, 25-year-olds. They may fear being the only one company that makes it too easy to wait until you're sick until you get coverage. They may fear being the only company bringing the freshest apples to the market, if mold is "in".

Thus, I believe I've seen the health care companies ambivalent towards proposals by liberals that make every player in the market act in a certain way, in removing a certain amount of mold from the fruit. They don't want to take it on the chin by being seen as the nicest company on earth, but are willing to play a nicer game if everyone were forced to. I cannot point to a particular article, but I got this feeling from my reading. Same goes for environmental regulations-- some businesses don't mind a playing field where everyone is required to play nicer. I think liberals need a greater awareness of the economic limitations of HMO's-- sometimes it's not always an active choice to be an arse. And I think when conservatives get alarmed at even these modest proposals to eliminate incentives to be an arse, it just shows they have no compassion.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Neanderthals, Mitochondrial DNA, and the Tower of Babel.

Here's an interesting take on the recent science news that certain races of humans may have some common DNA with Neanderthals.

The organization "Reasons to Believe" has a series of podcasts which attempt to advance an Old Earth Creationist position. That is that God took supernatural action to create over hundreds of millions of years. It holds that Genesis is literal history, if one is careful about the translation of certain words. Anyway, their May 10 Podcast was entitled, "Ancient DNA shows interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neanderthal".

They advanced a fascinating interpretation. We may remember that the biblical story of the Tower of Babel shows humanity as having a single culture, and then being dispersed afterwards by the action of God. In this episode, Hugh Ross offers the idea that the mixing of humans and Neanderthals may have been part of what happened in this story. A fascinating listen!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Is there any way to combine these two videos?


Is there any way to combine these two? The truthfulness of the first is of no doubt. But its message is weakened a bit by its apparent sarcasm to the second. And that it is as much a message to the converted, it seems to say, "The real urgency is in the Great Commission (Matt 28:16:20); don't worry about Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) or being a Goat (Matthew 25:31-46)."

In college, one of my conservative friends claimed that the purpose of all social concern was to create a Utopia, and Christian truths show us that creating a Utopia is impossible. I replied, "I guess that depends on whether your purpose is to create a Utopia or to keep people alive long enough to hear the gospel." I really don't know where those words came from, because I hadn't ever before put that thought together.

When did the producers of the first video see Christ hungry? In the second video!!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Animatable mesh2 in povray for character animation

I've spent more time working on an animatable mesh in povray. This object here is a single, mesh2 object created in povray. It may look creepy now, but I hope someday to make a character like in the movies. The biggest success seen here is that I was actually able to get the character's head to rotate back and forth. I was fighting the code and didn't realize it was actually working this well until I saw the final video. I still haven't figured out why the back of the head has a flat spot on it-- that's next to fix.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Benthamite Utilitairianism vs. the Active Choice to be an Arse

A while ago, I listened to a podcast of Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do Series, which featured lectures by Michael Sandel about philosophy and ethics. One lecture was about Bentham's Utilitarianism. The lecture implied that there were moral limitations to utilitarianism, that eventually pure, unfettered utilitarianism could lead to justifying outrages that shock the conscience.

Examples were given:
  • The Roman Coliseum
    It was claimed that a utilitarian argument could be made that the pure, ecstatic joy provided to thousands of Roman spectators could outweigh the short-term pain inflicted on a few Christian martyrs.

  • The Pinto gas tank
    In this case, Ford Motor Company made a utilitarian calculation about the cost of replacing a defective gas tank design that was leading to death and injury in rear-end explosions. During a trial, it was revealed that Ford calculated that the $11 repair, multiplied by millions of cars, outweighed the benefit of reducing a few hundred deaths. Sandel in his lecture claimed that a utilitarian argument justified this calculation.

  • The Ticking Time Bomb
    The question was asked in today's situations with terrorism. If you know someone has information about an up-and-coming terrorist plot which could kill hundreds, it was asked, wouldn't it justify a little torture to save those lives?

Given the horrible outcomes of the first two cases, the argument was that moral philosophers have been forced over the centuries to seek limitations and modifications to utilitarianism. I would disagree that unfettered utilitarianism is to blame.

Q: Are the Romans currently tearing apart Christians?
A: No, they ticked off so many of their neighbors that they were eventually overrun by the Gauls.

Q: Is Ford Motor Company doing well financially today?
A: No, the liberal media and trial lawyers tore them apart during those trials leading to great financial loss back then and, as some conservatives have argued, helped usher in a regulatory environment that hurt them.

So, if your calculation were to provide emotional benefits to your Roman citizens, your calculus failed. You forgot the Gauls. If your calculation was to provide financial benefits to Ford shareholders, you failed. You forgot the liberal media. In my estimation, there was an active choice in each of these cases to be a meanie, one which blinded planners to all the likely outcomes.

Now let's consider the case of torture, or those enhanced interrogation that Amnesty International calls torture. First of all, let's assume you actually have a person who has knowledge of ticking time bomb cases. Many critics of torture have argued that the tortured person gives not what you need to know but rather any and everything that he or she thinks will stop the torture. In this example, even over the short term, the utilitarian calculation may be weak.

Over the long term, I would argue that there are additional factors that have to be considered. It has been said that making the torture a policy of the state endangers U.S. soldiers who in the future might ever be captured. And if you ever torture someone who wasn't actually a radical, he or she sure as heck will be by the time you're done.

Certain questions in society may be difficult to answer. They may have a right or wrong-ness fully apart from any utilitarian calculation. I believe that Benthamite Utilitarianism does not in and of itself lead to awful questions, if you consider the "Gauls" in any situation.

Slavery's new apologists

On the internet, a Lutheran pastor that I know was sharing links to this old clip from the TV show, "West Wing." The one where the fictional President tears into a fictional "Dr. Laura" conservative pundit. The President tries to make the argument that if you use the Bible to come to an opinion on the morality of homosexual sexual relations, you must also follow its directives on the Sabbath and slavery. According to the clip, the directives on the Sabbath are for each of us to up and go stone those who work on the Sabbath. It also means that a prosperous man can sell his daughter into slavery whenever he pleases.

Too many of those who have been advocating for justice for GLBT persons, who advocated setting aside the traditional ethical requirements for pastors in churches like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, did so against the bible. They used arguments like my Lutheran pastor above that if you rely on the bible alone, you're going to have to do all kinds of awful things, like let men sell their daughters into slavery. Indeed, upon watching the 2009 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, I ended up with the feeling that the slavery issue were being re-opened. That 21st century Christians now were no longer sure that the bible was against slavery. It was like watching a convention of apologists for slavery from the 1800's.

I'm open to progressive ideas on the rights of gay and lesbian persons, but have to speak up when some advocates nail their platform on the idea that the bible motivates brutality. They may have evidence that some apologists for slavery did use the bible to support their position. But I have yet to find an abolitionist of that age that used 21st century liberal dogma: dissing the authority, historical accuracy, etc., of the scriptures. Those who argued against slavery used the bible, too, and in my opinion, took more passages more literally.

Find me a group that's speaking for gay rights from a biblical perspective, and I'll join them. I cannot join church movements, per se, that state as obvious that the bible makes you a brute.

Here's my latest piece of evidence. I have been reading William Wilberforce's 1807 "Letter on the Abolition of Slavery." Here's the part where he deals with the biblical record on slavery:

"[H]owever, most of all astonishing, that our opponents attempt to vindicate the Slave Trade on grounds of religion also. The only argument which they urge with, the slightest colour of reason is that slavery was allowed under the Jewish dispensation. The Jews were exalted by the express designation of heaven to a state of eminence above the strangers who sojourned among them, and the heathen who dwelt around them, from either of whom, as a mark of their own dominion, God, who has a right to assign to all his creatures their several places in the scale of being, allowed them to take bondmen and bondwomen, treating them, however, with kindness, remembering their own feelings when they were slaves in Egypt, and admitting them to the chief national privileges, to the circumcision, to the passover, and other solemn feasts, and thus instructing them in the true religion. Besides this, the slaves were to be set free at the year of Jubilee, or every fiftieth year, a command which was alone sufficient to prevent their accumulating in any great number.

But they who thus urge on us the Divine toleration of slavery under the Jewish Theocracy, should remember that the Jews themselves were expressly commanded not to retain any of their own nation, any of their brethren in slavery, except as a punishment, or by their own consent; and even these were to be set free on the return of the sabbatical, or the seventh year. Inasmuch therefore, as we are repeatedly and expressly told that Christ. has done away all distinctions of nations, and made all mankind one great family, all our fellow creatures are now our brethren ; and therefore the very principles and spirit of the Jewish law itself would forbid our keeping the Africans, anymore than our own fellow subjects, in a state of slavery. But even supposing, contrary to the fact, that our opponents had succeeded in proving that the Slave Trade was not contrary to the Jewish law, this would only prove that they would be entitled to carry it on if they were Jews, and could, like the Jews, produce satisfactory proof that they were the chosen people of God. But really it would be consuming your time to no purpose, to enter into a formal proof, that fraud, rapine, and cruelty, a contrary to that religion, which commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to do to others as we would have them them do to us. I cannot persuade myself that our opponents are serious in using this argument, and therefore I will proceed no farther with this discussion. Besides, even granting that it were possible for any of them to be seriously convinced that Christianity does not prohibit the Slave Trade, I should still have no great encouragement to proceed, for,—it may be prejudice, but I cannot persuade myself that they are so much under the practical influence of religion, that if we should convince their understandings, we should alter their conduct.
William Wilberforce, A letter on the abolition of the slave trade, 1807

Strong stuff.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Christianity is evil

"When we cast our eyes towards the south-west of Europe, and behold extensive countries, once possessed by the most polished nations, the chosen seats of literature and the liberal arts; and now behold one universal waste of ignorance and barbarism, we have always been accustomed to ascribe the fatal change to the conquest of a band of Mahometan invaders... But with what shame must we acknowledge, that in Africa, Christianity and Mahometanism appear to have mutually interchanged characters-- Smith, the African Company's own agent in 1722, tells us, 'the discerning natives account it their greatest unhappiness that they were ever visited by the Europeans. They say that we Christians introduced the traffic of Slaves, and that 'before our coming they lived in peace.' But, say they, it is observable, that where ever Christianity comes, there come with it a sword, a gun, powder, and ball.'
The same picture may appear to claim still greater attention from the hand of Mr. Parke, whose visit is more recent, and whose knowledge of Africa is more extensive. Speaking of the Foulah nation, who are many of them professed Mahometans, he says, 'religious persecution is not known among them..."

"... we must abolish the Slave Trade before we attempt to diffuse among the Africans the lessons of peace and love; lest we are asked the same well-known question, and receive the same well-known reply, as the Spanish priest from the poor dying Peruvian, when the Spaniards in America were acting on the plan which is here advised of at once ravaging and converting: 'Are there to be any Europeans in the Heaven, where you wish me to secure a place?' Being told 'yes', 'Then it is no place for Peruvians.' "

William Wilberforce,
A letter on the abolition of the slave trade, 1807

This is a work by a great Christian apologist, in a passionate letter of Christian reasons to abolish the slave trade. William Wilberforce wrote it in 1807 to the "Freeholders and other inhabitants of Yorkshire" to urge Britain to outlaw slavery. In it, he basically says that Islam laid waste to the south-west of Europe. But that in Africa, "Christianity and Mahometanism appear to have mutually interchanged characters." One was an undeniable sociological evil in one place and time, and another is an undeniable sociological evil in another. So saith one of the great Christian apologists of Britain.

This is again a reference to Franklin Graham's "Islam is evil" approach to evangelism. One might just as well have equal anecdotal evidence that "Christianity is evil." That's the charge actually made by some atheists, based on equally flimsy logic. In this regard of sloppy attacks, the devout followers of Islam and Christianity might have more in common than opposition. Here's a checklist of questions I ask before blaming any religion, especially my own, for a social ill:
  • The real question is whether the the Koran and/or the Bible required these periods of brutality. Not whether some nut could find a few verses to support the brutality, but whether a comprehensive faithfulness to the whole text as authoritative really motivates one to be a brute.
  • If someone could point to a few verses which appear to give a "green light" to the outrage, is there even a single "red light" verse which says, "STOP!" ? (Like, "Love your enemies"?)
  • How are the Law portions of the text being used? Are the brutes using the "law" portions of the sacred texts only as a list of things that the "elect" get to do to their enemies, or as a demand for all humans to exercise restraint? (i.e., permission to slaughter your/God's enemies vs. a call to exercise restraint in advancing your interests.)
  • Who is advocating the brutality? Were all camps of traditionalists within the sect in favor of the brutality?
  • Were there any "social conscience traditionalists" (like Wilberforce, King, Romero, Bonhoeffer, John Paul II) within the sect in effect "spoiling the party" by complaining about the brutality?
  • Were those who complained about brutality appealing to either the literal demands of the sacred texts or to older authorities in the faith tradition? (This is opposed to attacking the text's authority, complete inspiration, accuracy, humanity, etc.)?
IMO, it is necessary to go through this kind of thought process in order to distinguish between "a jerk who happens to be of Religion X" and "the jerkiness inspired by Religion X."

My point is not that both religions are good, and therefore you ought to feel good about either. You should be a Christian because Jesus died for your sins, and you cannot earn merits with God based on your works. In my last post, I said it was "evil" for any religion to promise such merits. Furthermore, I suspect not only are there contemporary Christians whose religion brings the world "a sword, a gun, powder, and ball," but also there are mild-mannered, faithful Muslims who aren't out to kill us or oppress their women. (Bush, Blair, Colson, and Buckley, Jr., repeatedly insisted so after 9/11, didn't they?) You'll do little to achieve religious conversion of these mild-mannered folk-- or engender their strategic cooperation against the brutes of their own religion-- with the kind of broad brush that Graham paints with. Or by implying they are less faithful than the suicide bombers.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Franklin Graham calls 10% of Islam to repentance

According to a Pew Research study
In all nine predominantly Muslim nations surveyed in 2009 a strong majority say it is equally important to educate girls and boys. This opinion is shared by more than eight-in-ten in Lebanon (96%), Israel (93%), Indonesia (93%), Turkey (89%), Pakistan (87%) and the Palestinian territories (85%).
Now we all know that Muslim countries are known generally to be behind the west in terms of women's rights and education-- the Taliban's abuse of women being an extreme but all-too-real example. But what to the Muslim citizenry wish for? Equality, at least in education according to this poll. It's also not too hard to believe that if these people are residents of Muslims country, they are actual practitioners of Islam, and therefore probably don't see some degree of equal treatment for boys and girls as being incompatible with all flavors of faithful Islam. How do you reach these people for Christ?

Here's Franklin Graham's approach. Franklin Graham is the son of evangelist Billy Graham and the head of Shepherd's purse. He was recently disinvited from a Pentagon Prayer day at the request of some Mulsim advocacy group. Graham has taken heat for comments he has made in reference to Islam. He has called it "evil". Recently, on the April 22 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:
GRAHAM: You know, Gretchen, first of all, I love Muslim people and I want Muslims everywhere to know what I know, that God loves us, that he sent his son Jesus Christ into this world to take our sins and he died for our sins and rose from the grave and that Christ can come into their heart and change them and they can have the hope of eternal life, salvation. I want them to know that they don't have to die in a car bomb don't have to die in some kind of holy war to be accepted by God. But it's through faith in Jesus Christ and Christ alone. But when you look at Islam, I love the people of Islam but the religion, I do not agree with the religion at all. And if you look at what the religion does just to women, women alone, it is just horrid. And so yes, I speak out for women. I speak out for people that live under Islam, that are enslaved by Islam and I want them to know that they can be free, free through faith in Jesus Christ and Christ alone.
[emphasis added in red].
He also said,
"True Islam cannot be practiced in this country," he told CNN's Campbell Brown last December. "You can't beat your wife. You cannot murder your children if you think they've committed adultery or something like that, which they do practice in these other countries."

Okay, so now take those 80% of residents of the Islam world who would like to see their daughters educated. Are they going to view an accurate view of Islam as one where they murder their daughters? How many of them are going to take pause at Franklin's suggestion to accepting Christ instead of doing suicide bombing? Are Islamic people all just strapping on their bomb vests, and need a missionary like Graham to tell them to stop?

I suspect Graham's statements read like nationalistic prejudice, where you tell people to repent of a stereotype of their nationality. I put Graham's "I want them to know that they don't have to die in a car bomb don't have to die in some kind of holy war to be accepted by God" isn't very well received by the vast majority of well-behaved Muslims. I suspect it would be taken as well as saying to Israelis, "You don't have to kill Palestinian babies by bulldozing their houses..." or to Southern men, "You don't have to have sex with those animals..." Or to Italians, "You don't have to become part of a Mafia where you go kill old ladies." There should be pastors bravely making sermons about the very real cases of animal abuse and indiscriminate use of force by security operations. But you don't address people by a large class that doesn't comprise the set of those doing the bad things. To do so is immature, silly, counterproductive to evangelism of real people. I remember Bush, Blair, and Buckley, Jr., all making the case after 9/11 that the terrorists were heretics of Islam.

Franklin's statements are probably however red meat to certain kinds of Christians as far as supporting certain kinds of evangelism. I have also seen a lot of ugly things said by his supporters on the internet.

If you've made it this far, you might have noticed that I haven't yet criticized his idea that "Islam is evil." This is also the statement that the secular press and liberal-protestants within Christianity will take most offense at. And here I will support Reverend Graham. From the context of a Theology of the Cross in Christianity, any good deed that causes you to place an iota of hope for rightness with God is a mortal sin. Indeed, Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation:
  • The works of the righteous would be mortal sins if they would not be feared as mortal sins by the righteous themselves out of pious fear of God.
  • By so much more are the works of man mortal sins when they are done without fear and in unadulterated, evil self-security.
  • To say that works without Christ are dead, but not mortal, appears to constitute a perilous surrender of the fear of God.
  • Indeed, it is very difficult to see how a work can be dead and at the same time not a harmful and mortal sin.
  • Arrogance cannot be avoided or true hope be present unless the judgment of condemnation is feared in every work.

Luther is here saying that good deeds can be mortal sins, if we put our hope in them. This is the sense that Islam is evil in the view of a theology of the cross. That it is a works-based religion where humans must strive to put themselves right with God apart from a righteousness based on Christ. If the confessions of Christianity are true, then telling people they can get right with God apart from Christ is nothing less than evil.

The problem with Franklin Graham's approach is that he's not saying this. Or it's not getting into the papers. Perhaps a theologian of the cross would, too, be dis-invited from the Pentagon.