Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Case for Purpose

Over at Greta Christinas blog I have gotten into a discussion with her about theism/atheism. She has written many articles at AlterNet and other places about her encounters with christians and her strong atheist views. I like her writing and feel she has something important to say. Her main "gripe" if you will (which is shared by many of the more prominent atheists) is that religion and religious believers hold their arguments to a completely different standard than they hold atheists arguments. They also act like atheists have no right to argue them or anyone else out of their positions. Well this idea is prevalent among theists, especially evangelical christians, and frankly it is absurd. They would take no other topic and declare it off limits for rational debate but their faith is not to be "offended". First off there is a difference between a person becoming offended by a comment and someone making an offensive comment. Too many evangelicals wear their outrage on their sleeves. They act as if every question about religion is a personal affront. Well honestly that is part of their tactical agenda, declare something too offensive to discuss in public and voila all atheists are just trying to offend people by putting up billboards or teaching their children evolutionary biology. So I really share her frustration with the way the public in this country treats subjects that can and should debated. Especially one like religion and some of its more tenuous claims which have the potential to change the way certain people are treated in this supposedly democratic country.

Anyway over at her site I got into a discussion with her regarding the idea that there may be hints of evidence that our universe has a purpose. Not to point to a particular god that "inspired" a particular text thousands of years ago but some sort of greater force that when we subjugate to it we can actually improve our existence and reach a higher realm of understanding, peace and happiness. I've been inspired by much of Robert Wrights writing. He is a big question guy like I am
(I generally tire quickly of small talk and want to find out deeper stuff about someone fairly soon) and he's a tireless researcher. You may read his books and disagree with some of his conclusions but you cant say he didn't do his homework. Further, you better be able to explain the evidence he uncovers or your claim that he's wrong doesn't hold any water.

Here is my response to her when she tells me to bring it on after I commented that I think there IS at least faint evidence of purpose in our universe.

It seems from studies of evolutionary theory that beyond individual selection pressures there are also group selection pressures. These emerge from the same biologic source (DNA) but do manifest themselves in different manners. Individual selection would best be characterized as zero sum in most cases. Group selection is more non-zero sum, we can all benefit or at least we can all not suffer a loss by working together. It is here that morality emerges it seems. Morality is completely contingent upon "others" being around. It seems that within our DNA there is a "predisposition" to carry out moral actions, group selection constraints if you will. So it looks like DNA as a natural replicator was under some sort of "pressure" to create an array of organisms, which in turn were under some sort of pressure to procreate and multiply, which in turn allows the moral behavior to emerge.

Again I dont believe there was a conscious choice by some omnipotent mind to "make" DNA this way, just that our cosmic environment is tuned so that first DNA emerges, then variety of life, then sentient beings who live in groups, then selection pressures within the groups to behave in ways which maximize the groups chance of survival not just the individuals. If this is true, why is the groups chance of survival an emergent property? Are we becoming all small parts of a larger organism which we will "discover" later? No answers there but certainly legitimate questions.

The discovery in physics that all we are is an existence in a very small corner of reality (4 of maybe 11 dimensions) lends some support to a small part of a greater organism idea. MY next question is, can we extrapolate at all from current conditions and possibly see what might emerge at the next level of understanding. Is the "greater organism" a greater good? Is it something we will find pleasing? Again if you look at what strategies seem to be programmed into our DNA I think we can be hopeful. Its a matter of trusting that the mechanism we've discovered, DNA replicating and producing larger and larger organisms (not individual size per se but collective size), will continue in its present manner. Small changes over billions of iterations make huge changes but each iteration results from a cooperative process.
DNA it self had to be created in much the same process at the molecular level. Each strand of DNA
is composed of thousands of genes which must sit in the correct spot and only pass their information at a very specific time. It too is a "cooperative" process at the smallest level. Cooperation seems to get 'it" done. Understanding that there are "others" whose needs supercede yours at the present time seems to be selected for. Taken to its logical conclusion with universal milieu-- DNA--individual organisms--multiple organisms-- groups of organisms-- groups of groups all operating under "pressure" to cooperate an subjugate individual needs at times, what in the end will/should this mega organism be subjugated to?

Why is cooperation seemingly selected for at so many levels of the universe? What factors at every level seem to influence the greater likelihood of cooperation? In humans certain emotions and mindsets are more conducive to cooperation? Do these appear as more prevalent within a population? I think they do.

These are more questions but I do think that there is a faint hint of something we are "subjugated" to and the best way, it seems, to achieve that is to forget self (a very buddhist notion), sacrifice your individual needs (a very christian notion) and look at our existence as a "spiritual" journey we are going on together( a new age church notion)

Part of the reason i started my blog was so that I would have a place where I could keep my ideas and possibly one day put them into book form. I dont know why anyone would want to read it really but I promise it would be more accurate than Sarah Palins book. Actually I think that is a great reason to like Sarah Palins book (not that I have or ever will read it) because her book sets a standard for what can be accepted as "Non Bullshit". If you ever want to publish something and the publisher says your manuscript is bullshit you can immediately argue that Sarah Palins book has more documented bullshit than any book ever written (except mabe the book titled " On Bullshit" by Harry Frankfurt.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My Very First Blog Post

This is so exciting! All these months of reading other peoples blogs and now its time for me to put up. What to say? There really are lots of things rattling around in this 50 yr old brain. I'm not an expert on anything worth blogging about (talking about the virtues of general versus regional anesthesia in a patient with ischemic cardiomyopathy doesnt make for much discussion in the blogosphere) but I'm interested in and have done quite a bit of reading about economics, theology, cosmology and randomness in the last two years. So, where shall I go with my first entry into the ether (an appropriate word choice for an anesthetist).

The thing that has been occupying most of my mental energy lately is MMT, Modern Monetary Theory also known as Chartalism. Far be it for me to act as the BCS of MMT economists, ranking the proponents of the theory on the basis of say, "How well they take down the Chicago school arguments" or maybe " The ease with which they take mundane subjects like trade deficits and make them understandable" but four names (well 3 names and an alias) have shown up time and time again when exploring this school of thought. Billy Mitchell , Warren Mosler , L Randall Wray and Winterspeak . Now I am not an economist nor did I ever take an economics course but my training in medicine did teach me to analyze and problem solve. I can look at two arguments and, given some standards for evaluation, decide which is a better argument. I am far from alone in this ability. I imagine most anyone who scored over 1000 on their SAT has the tools to do this but most of us dont think about economics as something which is amenable to that type of analysis. Regarding economics, most of us get all our info from TV talking heads and when the consensus is saying "Government deficits are bad' or "hyperinflation is a real danger around the corner, remember Weimar Germany" we really don't think to evaluate the veracity of those claims.

Now I wasn't looking to question those claims. There wasn't a voice in my head going "Ya know that just doesnt sound quite right to me" but I was following various econ blogs daily just to try to get a handle on this crisis. I did have a sense that this current crisis might be the most important event of my lifetime and I was a sponge for anything regarding it. Interfluidity is one of my regular stopping spots. Steve Randy Waldmann is a great writer and has such an interesting take on things I was really attracted to his site. He doesnt post daily so you find yourself looking forward to what he has to say.( As an aside, treasury officials invited some econ bloggers to Washington a week or so ago and Mr Waldmann was one of them so I think they read him too!) One of his posts linked me to Winterspeak and I read something that just blew me away;

The Federal Government does not need taxes in order to spend. At the Federal level, because the Fed is a currency issuer, the sole purpose of taxes is to extinguish money, reduce aggregate supply, and therefore limit inflation to a tolerable level.

What? We dont use taxes for spending? How can that be? Is this really true? Were we not behind on taxes for the entire Bush presidency? This idea was profoundly new to me. We had run deficits most of my life and I really thought they were deficits. That we owed something to someone else. That was the paradigm I was operating from. A zero sum, if you take from here you are depriving there, kind of model. Well as I soon found out......not true!! Whats even worse is that lots of people know this. Lots of people who talk about our national budget dont tell us that the deficit isnt a deficit at all! It is categorically NOT something we owe to anyone.
The deficit is simply an accounting operation that says how many credits (in our case in the US, dollars) the government has given to us. It says nothing about how they are distributed mind you, just how many are out there.

So MMT says; "deficits aren't bad, they just are". Now this started to have a ring of truth because I knew that all my life we had run deficits. If they really were bad how could we run them for all this time? In all fairness, MMT would more accurately say that deficits account for the current level of new financial credits in the private sector. That is a neutral statement but that does not mean that we can always let that deficit rise. It does have consequences. However it must be recognized that at times of low utilization of resources (like potential workers or factories at low capacity) a rising deficit will work towards increasing utilization of those idle resources. Certainly there are times when we need to lower the financial credits in the private sector to stave off inflation.......this is known as taxation. Now the circle was being completed for me.

Well that addressed the deficit talk for me but what about that hyperinflation? Is that a worry?
I was less convinced that we should be fretting about that after realizing all the misinformation about the deficit. I've found that people who screw up one concept badly are prone to screw up another related concept equally badly. Weimar Germany was certainly a terrible time to be a German citizen and all the talk regarding that era focused on the fact that they "kept trying to print their way out of trouble". Well I now knew there had to be more than that. Billy Mitchell gives a very thorough and concise analysis of the troubles facing Weimar Germany and modern day Zimbabwe in his article Zimbabwe for Hyperventilators 101 . After reading this I must say that the chances of any developed nation becoming a Weimar Germany today would take monumental errors on the parts of many people, not just the guys running the "money printers". I know I'll sleep better now.

Finding out about MMT has been like a new toy. I really think the principles of it should be and easily could be taught to 7th graders. Its important for us to understand the nature of our monetary system so we dont get scared by people with either an agenda or just too much ignorance for everyone elses own good (when your ignorance is only negatively affecting you thats acceptable, but dont infect my house with your ignorance). Take the time to learn this powerful paradigm. Thats what it is, its a new, complete way of viewing how our monetary system operates. We are still partially stuck in a gold standard paradigm and we are not in a gold standard world. Get with the program guys!

Well thats all for now.

Peath out brotha