There Is No Why

There are questions religion, and theology in particular can’t answer. At least in my opinion, they can’t answer them. They attempt to answer these questions, and I believe that they fail to. The classic question “why do bad things happen to good people” comes to mind. One could also ask “why do good things happen to bad people.” It seems just as relevant in light of how the world actually works. The ancient Greek thinker Epicurus worded the dilemma of evil this way:

“The gods can either take away evil from the world and will not, or, being willing to do so cannot; or they neither can nor will, or lastly, they are able and willing.

If they have the will to remove evil and cannot, then they are not omnipotent. If they can but will not, then they are not benevolent. If they are neither able nor willing, they are neither omnipotent nor benevolent.

Lastly, if they are both able and willing to annihilate evil, why does it exist?”

Of course, as humans we have to agree that evil is even a real thing. We have to accept that evil exists and is a force in humanity. We have to agree on an acceptable definition of what activity or behavior is evil. Humanity does not have this agreement, different cultures have different values, but most cultures at least have a conception of evil, even if they disagree on the definition. Some extreme religious cultures view blaspheming God as evil and deserving of death, while other cultures (I would argue more civilized ones) would view the killing of a “blasphemer” as evil or immoral. Anyone that accepts the concept of evil and also believes in God is confronted with the Epicurean dilemma, even if they might not directly acknowledge it. In philosophy this is known as The Problem of Evil. Attempts to answer this problem have been made over the many thousands of years, usually by people trying to justify a belief in God.

I believe this happens because as humans we have a strong desire to answer the question “why?” Why is the world this way? Why would God allow this? Why do bad things happen to good people? In a way I am asking why. Why do we need to know why? The stand-up gag about a 3 year old constantly asking his dad why is a classic bit in comedy. I would say our desire to know why is not merely strong, it is pathological. This desire has driven most of Western thought and science. We want to understand our world. Not every philosophy or culture assigns as much importance to the question why, however. Buddhism sees no need to explain the nature of God or the origins of the universe. To know why in these cases is simply misguided desire and a waste of time. In a way Buddhism is disputing the notion that there is always some answer to the question why.

Sometimes, I believe, there is no why. Because we can view cause and effect in nature, allowing us to make scientific discoveries about how things work, we wrongly assume that cause and effect is a principle that applies everywhere. We may learn one day how the universe came into existence, and in a way that answers why, but in a way it does not. If we never make contact with a God or gods, we can still ask, what is the purpose of this universe, why are we here? I doubt there is any answer to this question. There is no why. There is no greater purpose or answer to discover here. We exist, we came into being, and it is up to us to assign our own meaning to this existence. On a personal level, I don’t find any need to have some made up story about God’s plan for the world or the afterlife to find meaning in this world. There is meaning in struggling to survive in this harsh universe, to make our mark that we existed and flourished in spite of the odds.  The very concept of existing and discovering more about our world and the universe is exhilarating to me, and I don’t need any greater meaning or purpose than that.

The Republican Suicide Pact on Immigration

Estimates vary, but there are probably between 18 and 21 million illegal immigrants residing in the United States today. Official estimates say the number is between 11 and 12 million but that estimate is heavily disputed. Very few reasonable political solutions have been offered for fixing this state of affairs. Democrats have proposed legalization of these immigrants, by offering them a legal process whereby they can become tax-paying citizens. Many Republicans, especially on the far right of the party (largely the Tea Party membership) are vehemently opposed to any path to citizenship, and favor instead mass deportation and building a huge border fence across the entire southern border of the United States. This situation has created a major problem for the Republican Party, in terms of demographic appeal, especially for its presidential candidates. The Latino minority voting population in the United States now accounts for 11 percent of all eligible voters.  The Tea Party’s extreme position on immigration, which the Republican party is tied to, is extremely unpopular with the Latino voting bloc. The recent fights over immigration and the rhetoric from the Tea Party has only served to further alienate Latinos from the Republican Party.

The Republican positions on immigration create a very difficult problem for any candidate running for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. In order to win the party’s nomination, candidates must appease the Tea Party wing and appear “tough” on immigration. Namely opposing a path to citizenship for immigrants and speaking in favor of this nebulous idea of “protecting the border” or some such nonsense. Without doing this, a candidate’s chances of winning the Republican primary are slim. The problem for the candidate is when they get to the general election. In order to appeal to the ever more important Latino bloc, a Republican candidate, to have any hope of winning the general election must appeal to some percentage of Latino voters. This means taking a more moderate tack on immigration. This will, of course, open them up to attacks of being a flip-flopper, and may cause many in the Republican base who are extreme on immigration to stay home on election day.

The Republican Party is increasingly viewed as the party of old white people. The recent highly publicized killings of unarmed black men by the police have highlighted just how out of touch most of the Republican Party is with the African-American community. They have succeeded in totally alienating African-Americans from the party by constantly defending egregiously violent cops at all costs, by trying to maintain the racial status quo in this country, and by constantly attacking Obama with criticisms that to many are just thinly veiled racism. Whatever hope they had of gaining votes from this critical voting group is long gone. The Republicans are about to make the same mistake with the Latino community, depending on who wins their nomination. As much as I dislike Jeb Bush, he is one of the few sane voices in the party on immigration. The Republicans, through the sheer force of demographic trends and by their own actions, have ensured that in the future they will be a permanent party minority. If that means fewer wars in the Middle East, and fewer tax breaks for billionaires, then I’m all for it.

Robots and the Basic Income

Robots will replace much of the workforce in the next 20 years. Predictions vary, but as automation technology and software improves, more and more jobs will be replaced by robots. There is a strong business incentive to replace workers, skilled or unskilled, with robots and software. This is because software, or robots, require minimal maintenance, and do not require a salary or benefits of any kind. The potential costs savings to businesses are enormous. It’s important to note that both skilled and unskilled labor will be replaced by robotics and software. Higher skill jobs like attorneys, insurance adjusters, or accountants could easily be replaced, as well as lower skilled jobs like cashiers, drivers, call-center employees or janitorial workers. Most forms of labor outside of creative work or work that requires direct person to person interaction is a candidate for replacement by technology. This process is already well under way, and the replacement and loss of these jobs for the human workforce is probably inevitable.  One consequence of this process is that unemployment on a global scale will probably increase.

While many see the coming increase in automation as inevitable, very few people are offering up any kind of plan for how to address the job loss that will result from this automation. The workers displaced by the advancement of technology will need money to live, and will need alternative ways to earn money. I get the feeling that the super wealthy are not particularly concerned about this problem. Indeed, most of them only seem concerned with increasing their bottom line. A permanent underclass of 30% unemployed, or possibly more, could be formed, and my guess is many of them still wouldn’t care, since they can all afford private security and their own fortresses in an increasingly destabilized society, a society collapsing due to massive unemployment.

This coming situation calls for what is known as a basic income, minimum income, or citizenship dividend for all citizens, rather than means-tested welfare that countries like the United States currently use today.  A set amount of tax free money would be given to each person on a monthly or yearly basis, sort of like a permanent stimulus. Any money earned on top of this by an individual would be taxable. This would give each individual enough money to live on their own, and also allow them the flexibility to pursue alternative means of earning money, be it through creative work, or pursuing an education in a new field, acquiring new job skills online, or any number of other activities. As a starting point, it would encourage most people to want to earn more as a way to improve, build a savings, own a home, buy a car, and take part in the consumer economy. It would allow people at the bottom of the economic totem pole to spend money, and would help drive the economy, especially in the USA, where nearly 75% of the economy is powered by consumer spending.

Naysayers may argue that it would be too expensive, that giving everyone $15,000 or $20,000 a year is fiscally impossible, but that is a lie told by austerity hawks whose primary goal is to further enrich and protect the wealthy elites that run the world system. The fact is, we can easily afford a basic income, especially compared to how much money the Federal Reserve has generated for the banks, or how much was given to Wall Street for the bailout in a single year. The bailout for the banks and the automakers was for hundreds of billions of dollars, and in 2008 and 2009 alone, the Federal Reserve gave $13 trillion dollars to the banks, primarily to Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, and Merrill Lynch.  $13 trillion in two years. Imagine if that money had been put in the hands of regular consumers, education, and national infrastructure. The impact would have been enormous. Instead the money went to the wealthiest people in society, and went to managers and bank executives in the form of bonuses.

 

A basic income could actually result in a net cost savings for the government, because it could replace the complicated welfare and social security system bureaucracy, where everyone simply gets a check or electronic deposit based on carefully monitored economic need. Means-tested welfare as it is administered today keeps people in a poverty trap, because if an individual earns too much money then they lose their government benefit. It encourages people not to work or save money. It requires a massive bureaucracy to make sure everyone follows the government’s ridiculous rules. A basic income simply issued to all people would make all of that unnecessary. Skeptics say it is impossible and violates basic tenets of human nature, that people need an incentive to work. Well, it’s already been tried, and it worked quite well.

The time is now to seriously consider implementing a basic income, for everyone.

Religious Freedom or Religious Tyranny

Recent events involving how the world’s two most dominant religions, Christianity and Islam, treat gay people have brought the question of religious freedom to the forefront. Christians in the United States have been in the news lately for denying service to gays, most notably some bakeries, a pizza place, and an auto mechanic. In the Muslim world in some places gays are being murdered simply for being gay, such as in Iraq in lands controlled by the terror group ISIS. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the death penalty for homosexuality is sometimes applied, and is an accepted part of the law. In lieu of the death penalty, other harsh punishments can be involved. These intolerant behaviors are usually defended against critics by making claims to the need for religious freedom, the ability to exercise one’s belief, and the requirement that we tolerate religious belief. Ironically, we are asked to tolerate what I view as intolerance. These situations raise a host of questions, which I will try to sum up briefly: Should religious people be free to exercise their beliefs? When does that exercise of religious belief negatively impact others, and how should the law be applied to exercises of those beliefs?   Where do we draw the line?

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Criticizing Religion Is Not Hate Speech or Bigotry

As the new atheist movement has grown on the internet over the last two decades, religious people are increasingly referring to any criticisms of their religions as hate speech or bigotry.  This has created a situation where the religious, especially in the West, have become unwitting allies of the cultural Left, as the religious are making a specific claim to moral relativism to shield themselves from criticism. Any criticism or critique of religion is bigotry because everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs and you must “respect” those beliefs. I submit to you that religion should not be immune from criticism, and that it is extremely harmful when it is. So first let’s look at the definition of the word bigot, according to Merriam-Webster:

a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc. : a bigoted person; especially : a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group)

A key feature of a bigot is someone who strongly dislikes or hates a group that is different from them. Today, people (usually Social Justice Warriors on the internet) are conflating bigotry with any and all criticism of an idea or group of religious people. If we are not allowed to think and speak critically about any and all ideas, then we are truly lost as a society. There are big consequences for this attitude, especially as they relate to the principle of freedom of speech, and how important that is for living in a free society. Furthermore, describing criticism of religion as hate speech implies that this speech should be banned by the law and simply disallowed. This to me seems to be one of the worst consequences of adopting moral relativism and cultural subjectivity as the most important aspects of someone’s worldview, and is extremely harmful to freedom of speech, a founding principle of a free society. The notion that religion or other ideas can’t be criticized is also harmful to society in general.

Protecting unpopular or controversial speech is essential to protecting freedom of speech for everyone. Whether you like someone’s speech or not, as long as that speech does not incite violence or harm to another person, it is allowed. This principle in freedom of speech is essential to a free society. If people cannot speak openly and honestly about what they believe for fear of reprisal, then they are not truly free. The ability to criticize bad ideas and bad governments is essential to maintaining that freedom. The term hate speech itself implies that some speech should be banned, violating the principle of freedom of speech. Unpopular or controversial speech needs to be protected because it is the most likely to be attacked. When someone says something I don’t like, I should not have the ability to take away their freedom or their life for it.

Religions or ideologies that make claims about the supernatural, and then try to apply their beliefs to the law deserve criticism and scrutiny. If religion can’t be criticized it makes it that much easier for them to take control of the cultural narrative and apply their beliefs to the law in spite of dissenting opinions, which have been silenced. Any criticism is shouted down as bigotry or hate speech, and critical thinking goes out the window. I don’t want to live in a world where that is the case. I want to live in a world where there is a marketplace of ideas, with the best ideas rising to the top. If your ideology or religion cannot take criticism, then it doesn’t belong in that marketplace.

I believe that the primary reason all criticism is attacked in this way is because religion can’t take criticism, it is designed to be accepted uncritically by the populace and believed in with a strong emotional fervor. Attacking any criticism as bigotry or hate speech shuts down the criticism, deflects it, and short circuits critical thinking in the minds of many listeners. People who are taught that all beliefs are equal and that you must respect all beliefs are prevented from thinking critically about ideas. Beliefs don’t deserve respect or special treatment, they deserve analysis. Criticism of an idea or belief is not bigotry. It doesn’t necessarily imply hatred or dislike of a person, it simply means that I don’t agree with your idea and here’s why. I choose not to believe it because of the following reasons. That’s not bigotry, that’s not hate speech, that’s common sense. The bottom line is, if your beliefs can’t stand up to scrutiny and can’t handle criticism without shouting the critics down, or worse even resorting to violent retaliation, then your beliefs probably don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

User Interface Design is Underrated (Why Windows 8 Sucks)

Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 8, was such a failure and so widely hated that the man in charge of its development was fired within a month of the software’s release. Criticisms of the operating system are many, but the main failure of Windows 8 is that it ruined the User Interface Design that people had come to expect from the Windows product line. For one thing, the software tried to force mouse and keyboard users on desktops and laptops into using a touch screen interface meant for tablets. It also eliminated the Start menu and replaced the famous Windows Start Menu icon with a button that essentially does nothing except bring up the tablet interface. Instead of being able to access your installed applications or browse your computer’s files, you got shunted to a tablet menu that is difficult to interact with. Another extremely annoying feature of Windows 8 was the fact that the user had to make 4 or more button clicks just to shut down or restart their machine. Getting rid of the Start Menu meant they had to introduce a new way to shut down via the mouse, and that involved bringing up the tablet interface window, clicking on Settings, and then clicking on Shut Down and confirming with an additional click. The result of these decisions is that pretty much everyone who needs a new computer to do work or play games hates Windows 8.

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Internet Service: United States vs South Korea

In a report published by technology company Akamai, South Korea ranked 1st in the world for average download speed, clocking in at 25.3 MBPS (megabits per second). The United States, by comparison, ranked 11th, with an average speed of 11.5 MBPS. South Korea’s speed is more than twice as fast. To make matters worse, compared to the average cost for an internet connection in South Korea, internet service is much more expensive in the United States. This report by the Open Technology Institute, released in 2014, gives an extremely detailed analysis of internet speed and price in various major cities around the world. For the sake of comparison, Seoul, the capital of South Korea, averages about 300 MBPS download speeds for a price of around $50 per month. The United States, for the same price, offers an average speed between 25 and 45 MBPS.  Only the cities with Google Fiber, as well as Chattanooga, Tennessee (which has its own innovative municipal fiber network) bring this average up with extremely competitive prices for gigabit internet, the fastest service available to the consumer in the United States. The rest of the country lags so far behind in terms of price per speed that it drags down the averages by several orders of magnitude.

Why are we so far behind? The monopolies that control almost all internet service in the United States are primarily responsible for this sad state of affairs. They don’t compete with each other. While they don’t directly co-ordinate with each other in setting prices, they have little, or in some cases, no competition, and they don’t need to compete on price as a result.  They know what the other monopolies charge so they all offer poor service for a high price, in the same range so they don’t undercut each other. Between Time Warner, Comcast and AT&T, American consumers are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Why is any of this important? Does it really matter if the United States isn’t number 1 in internet speed and price? I say that it absolutely matters. We aren’t even in the top 10 in speed. Poor, overpriced internet has serious consequences. It limits economic opportunity for people that can’t afford internet access. It stifles innovation by putting technical limitations on what people are able to do with their connection. The difference between a 25 MBPS connection and a 1000 MBPS connection (gigabit) is like the difference between a children’s tricycle and a Ferrari.

The internet service situation in the United States raises billions of dollars per year for the same 3 mega corporations who spend millions of dollars a year lobbying politicians to continue to protect these failed, terrible policies that created this situation with the monopolies. The United States, the birthplace of HP, Intel, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and many more hugely influential tech companies, should be the de facto leader in internet speed and price. We should be head and shoulders above the rest of the world, but we aren’t. If we are going to remain competitive in a global marketplace, this has to change, and quickly.

The Internet vs Religion

My own personal journey away from religion was fueled by my connection to the internet from a young age. I was raised in a very religious, Christian based family and church. In high school I went to religious schools. In high school I also attended a Christian “worldview” seminar two summers in a row in Colorado, at a place called Summit Ministries, in Manitou Springs. The purpose of Summit was to provide Christians about to enter into the college world the tools they would need to defend their religion against the naysayers, to equip them to fight and win the “culture war.” After my trip to Summit, I was filled with religious zeal, and figured since  I was on the internet all the time, even back in the late 90s, that I should carry the message of Christ to the non-believers I encountered on the internet.

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