Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ordinances and Ordnungs

The theory of government is that individuals surrender some of their natural rights in order to establish a social order for their mutual welfare and protection of liberty. The purpose of local government is to transmute the will of a community of people, through the political process, into an enforceable legal system for the community. This set of rules I will call the Ordinance.

Amish communities do not form legal systems as we know them with courts, lawyers, and police, but nevertheless they do create their own sets of enforceable rules, which in a given community is called the Ordnung. The Ordnung is similar to the Ordinance in that they are both justified as the community’s rules for membership. They share the purpose of upholding community and public order.

The Ordinance and the Ordnung cover some similar ground. Both impose property and land use restrictions on individuals. The Ordnung tends to impose more restrictions and commonly prohibits members from using grid electricity or owning certain devices like computers or telephones. Some allow ownership of computers and telephones but place restrictions on where they may be located or how they may be used. The Ordinance tends to be more permissive regarding how property is to be used but may still commonly restrict what sort of buildings an individual may create or whether signs are allowed on property, and if so, what size. An important difference with respect to land use restrictions is that the Ordnung applies uniformly for all members, but the Ordinance applies different rules depending on the category a property lot is grouped in and usually provides an application process whereby one may ask permission from the local enforcers to violate an Ordinance provision.

Other areas of particular importance in an Ordnung are regulations of an individual’s personal appearance and interpersonal relationships. For example, the Ordnung includes rules that cover clothing and hair styles as well as prohibit divorce or marriage to an unbaptized individual. Amish are also not allowed to pursue jobs as law enforcers, judges, or politicians. The Ordinance usually has little to enforce in such matters, though land use restrictions commonly prohibit the type of employment that may be pursued on a piece of property.

The Ordnung may impose rules more deeply in the private affairs of an individual, but this results from the spirit from which it originates. Whereas the purpose of the Ordinance is solely for public order, the Ordnung is also designed to guide followers in their Christian life and in particular protect individuals from pride.

Perhaps the most important differences between the Ordnung and the Ordinance is in their scope of application and enforcement. The Ordinance is imposed upon a particular geographic location, and individuals within that area are not provided a choice as to whether they wish to adopt the Ordinance. If one desires a different Ordinance or none at all, then an individual may either attempt to influence others politically to alter that area’s Ordinance, or move to another geographic location that employs a different (though likely similar) Ordinance.  A few mostly uninhabited areas may not impose an Ordinance.

An Ordnung is constrained by geographical concerns but is not applied to everyone within a given area. The Ordnung is not enforced on non-Amish, though it may restrict how church members may interact with the non-Amish. Amish neighbors may belong to difference churches with different Ordnungs. If one desires a different Ordnung or none at all, then an individual may apply social pressure to alter the church’s Ordnung, or join a different church that employs a different (though likely similar) Ordnung, or disassociate from any church.

Non-conformers of both the Ordnung and the Ordinance may face severe consequences. With the Ordnung, a wayward member will have an escalation of social pressure applied as non-cooperation continues. The ultimate consequence of persistent non-cooperation is that church members end all interaction with the individual. However, even in the case of being shunned, an individual may re-enter the community given proper repentance.

Non-conformers of the Ordinance may face social pressure to end non-permitted behavior, but this is not the primary means of enforcement. Rather, economic punishment is employed, usually in the form of a monetary sum demanded for each day the wayward member continues non-permitted behavior. If non-cooperation with the Ordinance is continued, the member may have property seized or be sent to prison.

The Ordnung is adopted in a religious spirit that an individual may lead a better life in community with others and follows rules to uphold that community, but that those rules should only ever apply in the spirit of love and never be applied by force.

The Ordinance is also adopted in a religious spirit that an individual may lead a better life in community with others and follow rules to uphold the community, but that those rules are to be applied in the spirit of authoritative law, where the measure of force to be applied is determined by a political process.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Letter to a Town Lawyer

The little town we moved to has a local newspaper, and recently two letters appears that complained of the town government's enforcement of land use laws against them.  One townsperson wrote a letter in support of the government against these individuals.  I posted the following in response:

Hi Charles,

I disagree with your premise: “That is, whether or not one agrees with the law one is bound by it, no matter who they are or think they are.”

I think we can all think of laws, current or past, that so conflict with our moral sense that we would support those who break them; even in some cases consider them heroes!

I believe one is bound not by the laws of the government but by one’s conscience and the moral law written in one’s heart. Of course there is great personal risk in not following the government’s laws, and as a result we often subject ourselves to it for practical reasons.

Yes, perhaps these statements are a bit grandiose when we are considering the petty zoning ordinances of a small town. I suspect the motivation for the letters had more to do with the manner in which the ordinances were enforced.

I agree that one person’s actions have effects on neighbors, and in community we should seek to resolve disputes caused by those actions. But I stand by my words from an earlier comment: it is in community that we resolve differences through communication and compassion, not through police and lawyers.

The zoning laws are not the will of the people. They are the will of some of the people, who have selected particular means to enforce them that I object to.


Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Voting

I was once an enthusiastic voter.  I thought that I ought to use any tool I could to help promote liberty and that even given the worst view of government as a gang of thieves and warmongers, voting could be seen as a form of defense.  And even if my vote was insignificant, I saw my ballot as a signal to others of support for liberty.

But after a couple of elections, I did not feel so good about casting a ballot (especially after seeing some of the shenanigans of the Libertarian Party in using direct-marketing techniques to "sell" liberty).  In addition, I saw voting as lending moral support to the system.  If I truly believed government to be evil and wanted to withdraw my consent, wouldn't I be a hypocrite to cast a ballot?  In fact, voting might be seen as a way of trying to use force on others.

I don't really see either of these positions as strictly correct now.  I think the importance of voting (or not voting) has been exaggerated by most who debate the question (ironic that I am now spending such a long post on it).  A trouble with voting is that it does not lend itself well to analogy or abstraction.  "Voting is defense" claims a libertarian; "No, voting is aggression" responds an anarchist.  Who is right? 

The analogy I like best for voting is that of a suggestion box for slaves (hat tip to Free Talk Live).  In this view, a vote for someone like Ron Paul is like stuffing "please stop beating us" in the box.  A vote for most politicians is like stuffing "please beat Jim less and Bob a little more".

I won't fault anyone for hoping a vote will reduce government evil.  Who knows, maybe if enough people suggest it, the slave-masters will stop beating us so much.

I also won't fault anyone for seeing the suggestion box as below the dignity of a free man and refuse to participate in it.  Maybe just asserting our freedom will be the best long-term remedy for reducing the slave-masters.

I tend toward non-voting.  I’ve felt it to be a bit demeaning, and I’d rather not get caught up in rooting for politicians.  Still, I leave myself open to voting if inspired by a particular campaign that I think is of some value in supporting.

I am not inspired often. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Moving to the (A Little Bit More) Free State

There are still all of the regular institutions of American state government: prisons, schools (or do I repeat myself?), law enforcers, and bureaucracies.  But the people pay a little less in taxes than other states, and they put "Live Free Or Die" on the license plates.

We've moved from a condo in Massachusetts to a log home in a small "border town" in the state chosen by the Free State Project as the destination for liberty-minded folks. I wish I could list a multitude of freedoms I can now enjoy as opposed to one of the least free states, but New Hampshire still has a way to go.

In Massachusetts, we lived in a homeschool-friendly area with no evaluation requirements.  Now we'll be threatened with child-neglect or some other nonsense if we don't let a stranger into our home to ensure our children conform closely enough to whatever the government folks think a rightful education is.

The Massachusetts government heavily taxes alcohol, but it remains one of the premier markets for whisky.  I love the variety of liquor stores and how you might find an out-of-the-way shop on Cape Cod with one last dusty, old bottle of Ardbeg Uigeadail on the shelves.  In New Hampshire, the government operates all liquor stores, which are unpleasant warehouses, all with the same selection and prices.  Even with the reputation of low prices, I'll still do most of my shopping in Massachusetts, where I can find much more and usually at a lower price for premium drinks.

But this move was not just about going somewhere freer now.  It was largely about community; living in a rural area where we can embrace the culture, and living in a place where there actually are a significant number of folks who get freedom (even if we are all still on the fringes).  It was about living where we can afford a few acres of land and have access to woods and natural beauty.  But mostly it was just about choosing the best place we could be a family.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Political Prisoner on the Constitution

Kevin Innes is a political prisoner who is sitting in a cage over his support of the Liberty Dollar.  The Liberty Dollar was a silver barter system architected by Bernard von NotHaus, who was also arrested.  Kevin is apparently considered a flight risk because he is not a U.S. citizen and has been in jail for over a year, awaiting trial.

The Liberty Dollar was an attempt to have a viable metal-backed currency in parallel with Federal Reserve Notes.  It was a completely peaceful endeavor that I supported as well.  However, the government does not appreciate competition and raided their warehouse and headquarters.  I think the raid event could be considered a good candidate for the "we are now living in a police state" watershed moment.  

Kevin heroically remains in good spirit, and if you'd like to learn more about his story and write to him, go to Mail-to-Jail.

Here is an article he recently wrote:

The Constitution
Eleven score and fourteen years ago the delegates to the Second Continental Congress, at great risk to themselves and all that they had worked for, signed the Declaration of Independence. They could no longer endure the relentless pursuit of absolute tyranny that their central government was striving to attain over them. Their heroic decision unified their efforts and galvanized the sentiments of the people and lead to the formation of the best contract in history between a people and their government: The Constitution of the United States of America.
It had become necessary for them to exert their God-given right to abolish a form of government that had dared to threaten the very reasons for human existence, which includes the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness; rights which are incapable of being surrendered. It was time to establish a new government based on those principles, and limited its powers in such a way, that they though would most likely ensure their future safety and happiness. What is the state of the nation and the adherence to the Constitution two hundred and thirty-four years later?
Among those who understand the Constitution, alarm bells have been going off because in recent years there has been a dramatic acceleration in the shift if power into the hands of the federal government and especially in the executive branch. In this same period there has been a dramatic decrease in the teaching of the Constitution in the education system.
But even among those who are less familiar with the Constitution, and its fundamental principle of defining and limiting the power of the federal government, are questioning the wisdom of the gargantuan federal debt and its self-justifying method of growth. Despite burgeoning government, there has been a lack of a corresponding improvement in the standard of living and as a conducive environment to pursue happiness. They wonder: who has been benefitting from bigger and more powerful government?
Before politicians and bureaucrats take action on any issue, it is important to first determine: a) whether that level of government has the specific power to decide in such matters; b) who will benefit and who will be adversely affected in the short and long term; c) what will be the trade-offs in terms of costs and loss of freedoms; d) who will pay for it.
As these point are discussed one should never lose sight of the fact that politicians fight very hard to get elected and then, typically, try to stay in office for as long as possible. To do this they try to make their campaign promises bigger and more convincing than their competitors. Fulfilling these promises in order to get re-elected invariably increases the size, power and cost of government. But beware: the hand that gives is always above the hand that receives. The question is, who is giving and who is receiving?
When it comes to getting an accurate picture of the economy there is much to be cautious about because of the sleight-of-hand employed in the presentation and analysis of statistics for unemployment, inflation rate, consumer price index and gross domestic product, to name a few areas. The fact is, the true measure of the vitality of the nation is the degree to which the minimum standard of the people has improved, and not in the increase in the number of millionaires and billionaires.
The current reality is that the wealthiest one percent of the population receives twenty-three percent of the national income. In recent years manufacturing and customer service and other jobs have been lost to other countries - 2.3 million jobs have been lost to China alone. Most State governments are in severe financial difficulty, as are many of their cities and counties. Millions of people are out of work, bankrupt, homeless or about to lose their home. How many of the 7.5 million people in the jail and prison systems are being punished for reasons related to poverty? Is this the price the people have to pay when government panders to large corporate and banking interests and enthusiastically jumps to help them at every opportunity? Should these companies be protected from their mistakes when they have been extremely lucrative for many years, often with the help of government protectionist policies, for write-offs, etc.? Should the American public foot the bill when a business's lust for wealth has goaded them to risky practices that then back-fire on them?
Imagine how the entire country could improve if the resources being thrown down the drain for waging death and destruction in two major wars could instead be diverted to peaceful programs at home. Most jobs are generated by small and medium sized businesses. there are now billions of dollars being squandered on short-sighted and "what-can-I-promise-you-to-stay-in-office" solutions. The entire country will make a dramatic and positive shift once a critical mass of concerned people participate in active democracy and make sure that the bulk of our resources are allocated to long-term, harmonious development initiatives that raise education levels, are job-rich, improves national self-sufficiency and are environmentally holistic.
Today, would the framers of the Constitution, who risked their lives to create this great nation, say that we needed a new slate of leaders in office who will be less influenced by the power elite and their money? Would they be aghast at how the Constitution has been so perverted by a lust for power that government leaders would have the audacity to permit anything except silver and gold be the legal tender for all debts public and private? That people would be harassed and even jailed for using a uniquely designed silver and gold barter currency, not as legal tender but on a voluntary basis, would be beyond their worst nightmare. If those great men were with us today would they shake their heads and fists in disgust and yell that a major overhaul is long overdue?
The Constitution laid the foundation for the UNited States of America that came to be revered as a paragon or Liberty the world over. That distinction is being sorely questioned today. A return to the Constitution's core principles and government's contract with the people will foster the pride, the integrity, and the boundless vitality of a nation that will thrive because it will be in harmony with itself.
The solution to the great crisis at hand will not be found with the same consciousness that has created the problem. Now is the time for more conscious and visionary men and women to boldly step forward and work together to save their country. With courageous hearts burning with desire for an era of Peace, Prosperity and Liberty for all, victory is assured.

W. Kevin Innes
Lenoir, N.C.
July 4, 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Trouble with Rights, and Tolstoy's Solution

I used to think in terms of rights and justice. For a libertarian, this means trying to express laws to answer the central question: when is the use of force against others justified? While anyone can debate this question, most libertarians seek to resolve it through application of property rights. That is, you are always justified in using your own property as you wish, so long as you do not aggress upon the equal rights of others to enjoy their property. Moreover, if someone infringes upon your property rights, an initiation of force has occurred and you are justified in defending your property. The libertarian view is that rights determine what actions are justified, and as Rothbard might have said, all rights are property rights.

If only it could be left at that. Now not only do we need to determine where all of those imaginary property lines exist, but also when one person’s actions “cross the line” onto someone else’s lot. There may be entire web forums filled with nothing beyond debates over these questions. What may one do on public property like roads and greens? What constitutes unjustified pollution? Is intellectual property real property? Does a mother have full rights over an unborn fetus?

The real trouble comes when we realize that no two individuals will draw the exact same lines. The universe is not so neatly divided into separate, independent objects, and the result is that even libertarians scarcely agree with each other over where all the lines should be. This would be fine, except that libertarians also advocate the right of property defense; if one person aggresses against another by crossing a property line, the victim is justified in using force to defend the property. (How much force? Again, another line to draw.) Furthermore, the victim’s neighbor would also be justified in coming to the defense of the victim.

The potential here is that every libertarian’s philosophy is in violent conflict with every other libertarian’s. As long as you believe that strict property rights exist and that those rights are defendable with force, then you can justify some government apparatus that performs that enforcement. The most obvious example is with respect to abortion, where different libertarians may make different judgments regarding whether it is justified as a mother’s property right to her own body, or unjustified murder of a person. Those who take the latter position would also hold that a neighbor (or “just” government) may properly restrain the mother from committing such murder. Those taking the former would subsequently advocate that a neighbor (or their idea of a “just” government) could properly defend the mother from those seeking to aggress against her rights. The theoretical outcome is an escalation of force on both sides, and the question is not settled by persuasion but over who can physically subdue the other.

Is there an alternative to this potential conflict? There is, and it was pointed out to me in Leo Tolstoy’s work The Kingdom of God is Within You. I remember reading this passage on page 37 and realizing the error in trying to find the correct laws that may be justifiably enforced.

Meanwhile one would have thought it was necessary to point out at least some kind of solution of the following question, since it is at the root of almost everything that interests us.

The question amounts to this: In what way are we to decide men's disputes, when some men consider evil what others consider good, and vice versa?  And to reply that that is evil which I think evil, in spite of the fact that my opponent thinks it good, is not a solution of the difficulty.  There can only be two solutions: either to find a real unquestionable criterion of what is evil or not to resist evil by force.

The first course has been tried ever since the beginning of historical times, and, as we all know, it has not hitherto led to any successful results.

The second solution - not forcibly to resist what we consider evil until we have found a universal criterion - that is the solution given by Christ.

Tolstoy here speaks to the root question of when force may be justified.  Instead of drawing lines to separate good and evil actions, or justified and unjustified force, he rejects those lines altogether.

Some pro-life libertarians actually take a sort of Tolstoyan position with respect to abortion.  That is, they believe it is wrong but understand that others disagree and as a result do not advocate government force to outlaw abortion.  Why not extend such a position to all issues?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Making Mix and Container Gardening

I used the recipe for planting mix from Square-Foot Gardening, which calls for one part vermiculite (sort of like crushed mica), one part compost, and one part peat moss.

The vermiculite was a challenge to find, but after an online search I found a gardening center a few towns over that carries it.  Compost was also surprisingly difficult to find, especially since one should use compost from various sources.  I found one type at the center from which I bought the vermiculite.  Then I went to Wal-Mart, and the 16-year-old kid I asked at their garden center didn't know what compost was.  I found another variety at Lowe's.  I laid a table cloth down and mixed it all together, with the whole family getting into the action:

I made just enough mix for the six self-watering containers I constructed.  I was impressed with how my seedlings had done, growing inside with just sparse sunlight in a window sill.  My only disappointment was the lettuce, which seemed to shoot up quickly but then fall over and die.  The tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants did well inside though.  For protection of the garden, I used the baby play yard gate we no longer use:

The picture above was taken the weekend of May 7th when I planted the garden.  I thought I was safe with the weather since it was a week after the average last frost, and we were enjoying seventy degree days.  However, the next week we were hit with some nights getting down into the thirties.  I moved the garden inside the shed two of the nights (not a fun task), but I think the third night frost-bit the plants.  Since then, most leaves have turned yellow and fallen off, though a few of the plants seem to be doing okay.  I may need to buy plants from the store to replace the failing ones.

Another concern is that there is not much sun for these plants, so I am unsure that I will get good results even if I plant new freshly store-bought ones.  I will try anyway.  I figured this year would be mostly for learning anyway.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Who Do the Police Protect?

From the local police blotter, modified to protect the innocent:

An area man was arrested Sunday at 6:53 p.m. on Main Street, police said.

John T. Doe, 25, had a warrant charging him with failing to appear for jury duty, police said.

Make no mistake: the primary mission of the government's law enforcers is to protect the government.  When they are not busy posing as 13-year-old girls to seduce stupid men, they fill out at least a third of the blotter with arrests of people who do not possess proper paperwork, or practice the wrong profession, or grow the wrong plant. 

But we need them to protect us from the bad guys, right?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Countering Kant's Categorical Imperative

The categorical imperative is Kant's central contribution to moral philosophy.  It is not really useful in itself for guiding one's moral action but acts as a sort of test for a given ethic:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.

It would seem then that we might proceed to list a number of proposed moral rules, think really hard about whether each adheres to this meta-rule, and then write the ones that do in our Book of Moral Laws.

The famous counter-example to Kant's imperative is lying to a murderer (after Kant proclaimed that "never lie" fits the criteria for being a universally valid law).  If you want the example to seem even more egregious, use a Nazi.  For example, Anne Frank is hiding in your attic, a Nazi enters your house and asks you "Is Anne Frank hiding in your house?"  Kant maintains that it would still be wrong to lie; just about everyone else thinks it would be okay.

Why does this counter-example work?  I think there are two reasons.  First, there is the trouble with abstracting the situation to a neat ethical quandary.  Much of philosophy has been haunted by the idea that reality can be expressed in true or false propositions, but such abstraction must fall short.  Words and propositions are tools for vaguely referring to actual experience, not the other way around.  As such, it might be as true (or false) to claim that the decision is whether or not to lie as opposed to helping a murderer or even whether to utter the words "not here".  Or if we persist in claiming the correct abstraction is whether to lie, what exactly constitutes a lie? 

But even if we "play along" that we can meaningfully reduce any scenario to a particular true or false ethical proposition, the counter-example still defeats Kant.  The reason relies on intuition: it just seems offensive to say that telling a lie would not be worth preventing a murder (or kidnapping).  In fact, the counter-example follows a formula that can be used to defeat any specific ethic.  Here is all you have to do: think of a situation where a small transgression is required to prevent a larger one.  Such hypotheticals can get to be pretty silly, but if you are imaginative enough you might come up with a realistic one.  You can get a lot of mileage out of the "man about to open fire on a crowd of people" scenario.  Invent some smaller bad thing you must do to stop him, like:
  • push an old woman to the ground
  • steal a make-shift weapon from someone
  • destroy property
  • kill a single innocent by-stander (?)
The last point is to show that there is a hazy line somewhere between what you think would be okay or not okay to do to prevent a catastrophe.  You could argue forever about where this line is.  But then you'd be missing the point, which is that there are no absolute lines.  Any ethic you produce, no matter how refined, can be defeated by inventing yet another scenario that would require breaking it in order to prevent a yet larger catastrophe.

A different approach is warranted for ethics.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Best Analogy For Your Relationship with God

Analogies are powerful mental tools to understand the world and have a strong influence on our thoughts and beliefs.  We should be careful to understand that an analogy is necessarily limited and cannot provide a complete understanding, but at the same time they are unavoidable for approaching otherwise mysterious topics such as our relationship with God.

A common analogy for God's relationship with us throughout the parables of Jesus is that of a father to child.  For example, see the well-known parable of the prodigal son.  Other common analogies include God as master or as property-owner.

An unfortunate effect of the father and master analogies is that they suggest a view of God as a powerful patriarch figure.  Why did Jesus choose these analogies instead of using a mother analogy?  Perhaps Jesus did and these were not recorded in the Bible, or perhaps he thought such analogies would be rejected by his audience.

As science and philosophy have advanced, so too have our range of experience and ideas.  Religion also ought to advance as we understand more about the world and can use this understanding to inform our views of God and our place in the world.  In particular, new theories and ideas can provide the means for better analogies with respect to God.

One such analogy was provided by biology over the past several centuries and gives what I believe is a far superior analogy than any available in the time of Jesus.  This is the body-cell analogy, where the relationship of God to each of us is said to be like the relationship between each of us and our bodily cells.  In other words, we are all like cells in the body of God.

A cell lives within a body but responds to its environment as an individual, giving the appearance of some degree of creativity and self-determination.  I would suggest that this is not just appearance but actual creativity and that the cell has some aspect of mentality.  Furthermore, the many cells in your body combine to exert the central influence on your own experience, and you in turn influence the experience of the cells.  This mind-body relationship is one-to-many and is one of intimacy (often mistaken as identity).  Charles Hartshorne remarks, "What is pain, some of us wonder, if not our participation in cellular damage or discomfort?" (Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, p. 55)

The body-cell analogy suggests a relationship of mutual influence with God.  Hartshorne describes it further: "God's cosmic body is a society of individuals, not a single individual.  The world as an integrated individual is not a 'world' as this term is normally and properly used, but 'God'.  God, the World Soul, is the individual integrity of 'the world', which otherwise is just the myriad creatures.  As each of us is the super-cellular individual of the cellular society called a human body, so God is the super-creaturely individual of the inclusive creaturely society.  Simply outside of this super-society and super-individual, there is nothing."

I believe the largest shortcoming of this analogy is that it does not emphasize the degree to which God may experience what we as individuals experience.  That is, you cannot isolate individual cells in you body but rather experience the cumulative effects of many cells.  However, I do like the analogy in that it points us in the direction of viewing God as a sympathetic participant in our lives, one who experiences what we experience; suffers what we suffer.  In addition, we each influence God in a meaningful (though almost trivial) way through our feelings and actions, and in some way we each receive influence from God. 

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Making Self-Watering Containers

A Google search turned up these instructions on how to convert plastic storage bins into self-watering containers.  With ten or so bins stacked in the basement, I gave it a try.  For one self-watering container, you start off with two bins:

You need the bottom of one bin to overturn and place in the other bin.  Trace the bin at the same height as a small basket.  I used a hack saw to cut off the bottom of my first container, but it was difficult to complete the cut, keep it straight, and the cut produced a bunch of fine blue plastic dust to clean up.  For the rest of the bins, I did all of my cutting with tin snips.

The rest of the first bin can be thrown away once the bottom is cut off.  Now flip that bottom piece and cut a hole in the middle for the basket and drill lots of other drainage holes.  In the corner, a larger hole for a tube.  The idea is that the planting mix will be placed on top of this piece, and underneath will be a reservoir of water.  The planting mix in the basket will act as a wick for the water to keep the rest of the mix properly hydrated.

The bottom piece fits fairly nicely in the other bin, though my bins were angled so that it could not be pushed to the very bottom.  A drainage hole is cut in the side of the bin (and through the inner bottom piece).  Lastly, the top piece is cut to divide two halves, and a tube is cut and inserted.

I was hoping to get two square feet of area on the top (to be as pure as possible with Square Foot Gardening), but each "square" is closer to 13 by 10 inches.  Next up will be making the planting mix.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Who Killed Phoebe Prince?

A couple of days ago I became aware of the tragic case of Phoebe Prince, an Irish immigrant who was a freshman in South Hadley, MA. She committed suicide after being relentlessly bullied.
One knee-jerk public response is to bully the bulliers, as various spurious charges are being filed against nine students involved in the bullying. Politicians, smelling blood, are speechifying and passing laws saying not to bully. Theatre.
People are also angry at the school administration and teachers for not stepping in, even though it was open knowledge that Phoebe was being harassed.

Everyone at that school must bear some responsibility for Phoebe's death. How many students participated in the harassment in order to gain social status with their peers? How many watched in silence, for fear of becoming the next victim? How many teachers looked the other way, not wanting to get involved? Many of these individuals will be wrestling with their consciences for a long time.

But the responsibility for Phoebe's death goes well beyond the particular individuals involved at South Hadley High School. While it may be rare for such harassment to drive one to commit suicide, bullying and harassment in government schools is commonplace.

This is what I fear that few people understand, that it was not just those particular bullies and onlookers who drove Phoebe Prince to an early death; it was the backward socialization scheme of government schools. Those looking for a root cause ought to look there.

One irony for parents of home-schoolers is that the primary question raised about the desirability of home-schooling is the "socialization". As if natural socialization is for a child to interact only with other children of the exact same age, and then grouping thirty of these children together for one adult supervisor. As if natural socialization is a highly regimented, command and control environment where children cannot use a restroom without an authority's permission, and yet that authority figure is often absent or ineffective.

South Hadley High School is not unique. Turning over a few teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats will solve nothing. The root problem is the system where the center of a child's existence lay not with the family or larger community but with the social pressure of other children. Here, a child learns warped priorities and pecking order survival techniques. This environment will always produce the Mean Girls and other social elements that made Phoebe's life unbearable. All of us who contribute to and create that environment killed Phoebe Prince.

Parents, it is within our power to pull support from the toxic government school environment. It does not require politicking or letter-writing, or any other mass campaign. It requires only direct action: pull your kids out of the government school system now!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Urban-style Composting

We don't have a yard so much as a dirt patch, and even that we technically share with two other families.  So I was fairly skeptical when my wife suggested we start composting.  I assumed you needed a decent sized area in the corner of a yard to set up some wire to contain grass trimmings and manure, but it looks like you can actually make do with a plastic storage container.

The procedure is simple: just drill holes every 1-2 inches on all sides of the container.  Add stuff.  Shake every day or two.  Here's the container after I just finished it and dumped our first organic kitchen waste into it:

Here is a long list of things that can be composted.  I figured that fruits and vegetables, and even tea and coffee grounds, could go in, but I was surprised to see items like napkins, dryer lint, and various human trimmings on the list.  "Honey, what are you doing throwing away perfectly good toenail clippings?"

The container goes outside our front door on the concrete slab, after throwing in some leaves:

It looks like one is supposed to keep a 50/50 mix of wet, kitchen scrap material and dry, outdoors material.  Now, I am neglecting to chop everything up, so I don't expect the compost to form very quickly.  For this planting season, I am planning to buy a few bags of compost.  This composting container is more of an experiment for future feasibility, and if it goes well it should supply me with the compost I need next year.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Planting Seeds on the First Day of Spring

This year I am trying out container gardening.  The method I am planning to use will be based primarily on Square Foot Gardening, which I learned about from a book I received for a birthday present (thanks!).  In my area, the average last frost date looks like April 30 or so, and to be conservative I am planning for May 7 as my planting date.  There is plenty to do before then though: plan the schedule, start growing seeds inside, buy materials, and construct the self-watering containers.

I'll be trying to grow tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and lettuce.  I began the seeds yesterday for the eggplants, peppers, and lettuce, and next week will be the tomatoes.  Here is a picture of the "indoor greenhouse" I am using to start the seeds (these are peat saucers that you just add water and seeds to):

I am a bit skeptical that this little greenhouse will actually work and am prepared to have to buy seedlings come May.  But it is worth a try, as is this entire project.  I have never grown anything before, but I think gardening will become an important skill to have in the coming years.  At the very least this will be a learning experience, and I'll continue posting my progress here.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Reducibility and Emergence (False Intuitions of Science V)

In part 1 of this series of posts, I outlined a few intuitions that are often assumed as part of the scientific mind-set. In part 2, part 3, and part 4, I discussed the first three intuitions. In this post, I will discuss the final intuition:

* Physics serves as the ultimate science that all phenomena (including consciousness) can ultimately be explained in terms of and that all other sciences are reducible to

In previous posts, I discussed how physical models make abstractions of the world and in particular discard the subjective nature of actual entities. As a result, non-scientific inquiry into the world may be valuable, and claims that science can produce a complete description of the world are grossly overstated.

Even within the sciences, the scientific mind-set produces the intuition that everything ought to be reducible to physics. The higher sciences are therefore thought to be necessary only to abstract away the complexity that smaller-scale analysis would require. Each science builds upon the science studying the next smaller scope, so for example, (very loosely) psychology reduces to biology, which reduces to chemistry, which reduces to physics. Thus, the logical conclusion is that one's experience and behavior can ultimately be reduced to the configuration of atoms in one's body.

With the intuition of reducibility, all properties of complex or large-scale systems are thought to emerge from the physical properties of their components (and ultimately to the physical properties of their smallest components). The most egregious application of this intuition is with respect to human consciousness. The central problem in need of explanation is the hard problem of consciousness, which I would put thusly: how can subjective experience emerge from non-experiencing physical components?

It was just this problem that led me to reject my previously held intuitions of science. Most significantly, I read Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained and found it woefully inadequate. Ultimately, my answer to the question of how subjective experience arises from non-experiencing components was "it cannot". This is actually a similar conclusion to Dennett's, but whereas he discards the idea that we actually possess subjective experience (qualia), I rejected the idea that we are comprised of purely physical, non-experiencing components. In turn, I formed a crude panpsychist world-view and ultimately found refuge in the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.

I suspect Dennett's view of rejecting subjective experience is a minority one, but nevertheless most modern scientists and philosophers rely upon hand-waving emergence to explain consciousness: "we don't know how consciousness emerges from the brain, but somehow it does!" They provide other examples of emergence, such as a crystal from its molecules. But this appeal to physical emergence is ultimately inappropriate, as David Ray Griffin explains in The World-Knot (p. 64):

"The alleged emergence of subjectivity out of pure objectivity has been said to be analogous to examples of emergence that are different in kind. All of the unproblematic forms of emergence refer to externalistic features, features of things as perceived from without, features of objects for subjects. But the alleged emergence of experience is not simply one more example of such emergence. It involves instead the alleged emergence of an 'inside' from things that have only outsides. It does not involve the emergence of one more objective property for subjectivity to view, but the alleged emergence of subjectivity itself."

Another area where reduction and emergence are often misapplied is with respect to evolutionary biology "explaining" human psychology. For example, morality is explained by showing how it must be beneficial for the survival of the species. In fact, the existence of anything might be explained in terms of how it must be beneficial for the survival of its species. But even if benefit to the species is a requirement for a type of behavior or property to propagate, it does not explain how existence of that behavior or property is possible to begin with!

In both examples discussed above, there is some validity in correlating a type of phenomenon with its components or in terms of a lower science. Of course there is some relationship between one's subjective experience and the state of one's body (and particularly the brain). Of course the logic of natural selection plays a part in explaining how humans are the way we are. But extending these correlations and relationships to be a complete explanation of those phenomena would be not only a logical fallacy but, more significantly, a category mistake.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Communism Fails in Theory Too

I occasionally see the phrase "communism works in theory too" or some variant.  It is usually used to express skepticism about an idea without actually giving a reason for that skepticism. 

The phrase always bothers me a little bit because communism doesn't just fail in practice but also in theory.  And I am not even talking about theory of "man's nature" where communism supposedly works if men are perfect but fails because we somehow fall short of its ideal.

Communism fails, even in theory, because it centralizes control over resources.  In reality, information is subjective, time-sensitive, and distributed among everyone.  Only a system that allows individuals to act on the basis of the information they possess can succeed, both morally and economically.  Communism denies that ability for the individual to act and places the burden on a centralized authority.

This failure of communism is especially relevant with respect to money.  The pricing structure in a free-market economy emerges from the actions of all individuals who participate in the economy.  This structure is the primary information used by individuals to guide how they allocate scarce resources.  In "pure" communism, there is no money and therefore no means for the central authority to meaningfully determine how to allocate scarce resources. 

Even "on paper", communism can only result in mass destruction, starvation, and authoritarianism.  

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Laws as Habits (False Intuitions of Science IV)

In part 1 of this series of posts, I outlined a few intuitions that are often assumed as part of the scientific mind-set. In part 2 and part 3, I discussed the first two intuitions. In this post, I will discuss the third intuition:

* Universal laws (the discovery of which is the task of science) dictate the behavior of all things

This may be the most widely held intuition of the four I presented and is not even unique to what I have been calling the scientific mind-set. The idea of universal laws that dictate the behavior of all things is common to many people. After all, if you throw a ball in the air, it must come down, right? The law of gravity seems both inevitable and inescapable.

I am not going to argue that if you try long enough, you can throw a ball into space. Rather, I am going to challenge the interpretation of laws as prescriptive, top-down impositions that result in a deterministic world.

The main problem with positing universal, non-violable laws is to explain their origin. A few centuries ago, such laws were thought to originate from supernatural decree, i.e. an omnipotent God. Laws may have even been seen as proof of God's existence and control of the universe! Of course, science does not have much use for a puppet master who is unseen and undetectable, and in the past few centuries the concept of laws as divinely prescribed has largely been discarded. But what has been left in its place? We have been left with God's laws without a God; laws that determine the behavior of all things but are of inexplicable origin.

The question of the nature of laws can be resolved once we realize that the origin of a law is no more than the behavior of actual entities. Laws emerge from behaviors of entities acting within the world, and as such they are better understood as habits. A habit implies that there is choice involved, and as a result this leap in understanding results in a whole-sale rejection of determinism. Rather, freedom is seen as an essential ingredient in all occasions and in all entities.

Now, we must not overstate the case for freedom, as the case of gravity ultimately shows. The creative, self-determining aspect of an entity is but one ingredient, as the choices of all other actual entities impose upon one's being as well. In some cases, the self-determining aspect might dominate, and in other cases the impositions of others dominate.

In the regime of macroscopic objects, the laws of classical physics seem to determine the positions of everything. The paradigmatic laws of classical physics include Newton's laws of motion and his law of gravitation. These laws treat the world as comprised of solid, massive bodies that endure through time. If taken as a complete description of the world, they imply a mechanistic world of determinism (if not for the intervention of a supernatural deity).

But modern physics has revealed that the solid, enduring object is but an abstraction of what is a sea of energetic, smaller entities. The rock is composed of molecules and mostly empty space! Furthermore, there is no dominant molecule, and the rock as a result represents an aggregate society with the effects of the molecules averaged out. This averaging out of many entities is the reason for the seeming determinacy of classical physics. These laws result when the individual is overwhelmed by the effects of many others in the environment, where no individual within the many stands out.

In the regime of the super-small, on the other hand, the self-determining aspect of individual entities emerges. This is expressed in the inherent randomness of the wave function of quantum physics. The historical struggle to interpret this randomness has been a result of applying the same mistaken notions in large-scale objects to those of small-scale objects. That is, electrons and other entities are viewed as vacuous objects with properties, the positions of which ought to be determined by laws governed from without. This interpretation would demand a sort of determinism even with quantum entities, which act according to some randomness that just happens to (inexplicably) be present. An alternative interpretation is to understand the quantum-scale entity as a "throb of experience", with each entity exercising partial self-determination over its behavior.

When we recognize that laws emerge from the behaviors of acting entities rather than being imposed (somehow) from beyond, we can understand that there is no true randomness. Whether the individual in question is an electron or a person, "indeterminacy" in behavior is only inexplicable from without; from the point of view of the acting individual, any behavior is the result of a process of subjective experience and action. We observe patterns in how similar entities act and formulate them as laws. When an individual remains dominant in the applicability of the law, there will be a component of randomness in the law. As the individual recedes into a multitude of entities, an averaging effect occurs and the law appears deterministic.  But even in this case, it is not a "law" that determines one's behavior but the cumulative imposition of many other actual actual entities.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Red Lights, White Lights

Red lights ahead, white lights behind.
Moving forward, stop now.
Still red lights ahead, white lights behind.
Red light becomes white light, white light becomes red.
Lights disappear,
but now new ones appear.
Still always red lights ahead, white lights behind.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Science and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness (False Intuitions of Science III)

In part 1 of this series of posts, I outlined a few intuitions that are often assumed as part of the scientific mind-set. In part 2, I discussed the first intuition that science provides the only valuable explanations of the natural world. In this post, I will discuss the second intuition:

* The history of scientific theories is to march incrementally toward a complete and truthful account of the universe

As with the first intuition I discussed, this second intuition is based on a truth that is extended well beyond its proper scope. In the first intuition, the core truth was that the domain of science is the entire natural world, and the fallacious extension was that it therefore provides the only valuable accounts of the natural world. In the case of the second intuition, the core truth is that science advances over time. However, the fallacious extension is that one day it will necessarily provide a complete account of the universe.

The scientific method can never provide a complete account for the universe because it necessarily restricts itself to externalist categories of explanation. This point was introduced in part 2 but is vital to this series of posts and warrants more discussion. In particular, it bears repeating that if there is more to existence than external relationships, then scientific models must necessarily fall short of providing a complete account. However, many science-minded people do in fact take this position that physical models describe the ultimate, complete reality (or that these models incrementally approach that ideal as science advances). Alfred North Whitehead gave a name to this fallacy of thinking: the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. This fallacy is committed whenever one mistakes an abstraction for the concrete reality. Given this potential fallacy, it is important to think about what physical models abstract away from reality if we are to understand their proper scope.

The most important abstraction that physical models make is to ignore subjective experience. Rather, matter is seen as a vacuous "stuff" that persists through time and devoid of experience. This abstraction is necessary because in relying upon observation and measurement, the scientific method must objectify its data. However, we know this abstraction must not be the whole story from our own existence; we each possess experience and an inner world. We know we are each subjects for ourselves and cannot be completely objectified (even if some make self-refuting claims to the contrary). It is true that we cannot know anyone's experience but our own, but unless we turn to solipsism, this does not mean we ought to deny experience other than our own. David Ray Griffin says: "We know ourselves from within, hence as having duration, and other things from without, hence as devoid of duration. To translate this epistemic duality into an ontological dualism between two different kinds of actualities - those that are always subjects and those that are always objects - is to commit a category mistake." (The World-Knot p. 161) In addition, we must somehow make subjective experience part of the universe beyond humans if we are to fully naturalize it (and avoid supernaturalism).

Given that subjective experience is outside of the scope of science, scientific theories must ignore "half of the evidence" and as a result will never be able to provide a complete account of the universe. At best, scientific models will over time approach a perfect externalist model, with all of the shortcomings which that implies. This is particularly important in considering what sort of questions are appropriate for science to satisfactorily resolve. For example, when presented with the "mystery" of experience or consciousness, a science-minded person can do not much more than take on faith that "some day" science will be able to explain its existence. Given an understanding of the limits of science though, we would understand that this is not an appropriate question for science at all but is better suited for philosophy.

As discussed above, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness provides science with the illusion of more explanatory power than it actually possesses. In addition, it can lead to outright confusion as to the nature of reality. That is, if we are to believe that physical theories approach a complete and truthful account of the universe, what are we to make of the reality of the mathematical forms they describe? Are there "actually" lines of force permeating the world? How is the wave function of quantum theory real? Is action at a distance possible, or are there "really" virtual exchange particles that facilitate forces and wave propagation?

The march of scientific progress is undeniable, and the phenomena that have been revealed and studied must be accounted for in our views of the world. In this respect, scientific theories play a major role. However, we must also understand the limits of science and place those theories in their proper scope. Failure to do so results in the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, where we mistake those theories as providing the ultimate account of the universe. Such a mistake produces not only an inadequate philosophy of the universe but also produces confusion in relating the particulars of those theories to reality.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Beyond Scientific Inquiry (False Intuitions of Science II)

In part 1 of this series of posts, I outlined a few intuitions that are often assumed as part of the scientific mind-set. In this post, I will discuss the first intuition:

* As its domain is all observable phenomena, science provides the only valuable explanations of the natural world, and any non-scientific pursuit must be grounded on non-observability and supernaturalism.

First and foremost, this intuition contains a subtle fallacy, which is the idea that science must be the exclusive method for understanding its domain. That is, even though science may rightfully claim the entire universe as its domain of study, it does not necessarily preclude other methods of inquiry or understanding. The idea that science excludes other methods of inquiry would only be correct if science is assumed to provide a complete account of its domain. If that were true, then other methods of inquiry would in fact either be superfluous (or reducible to science) or else be based on the dubious non-natural world. It suffices to prove the intuition false by showing that science does not in fact provide a complete account of its domain and that other approaches can shed understanding on the parts that science does not.

The wikipedia article for scientific method explains: "To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses." As a result, the scientific method can only produce explanations in term of externalist categories. That is, the process of observation and measurement must abstract its subject's existence to that part which effects physical causation on other entities. As a result, if entities do possess an "inner world", then science cannot in fact provide a complete account of its domain. In The World-Knot p.54, David Ray Griffin explains, "If the world contains experiences, points of view, beings that it is like something to be -- and we know that it does -- then every purely externalist description will necessarily leave something out."

One could argue furthermore that the realm of pure abstract reasoning is also beyond the domain of science as defined above. Although the number "2" ingresses upon the world and our experiences in various ways, never do we encounter the pure number in any observable manner. Its existence is purely conceptual; its ontology and status for knowledge a purely philosophical question.

One discipline that combines both of the above areas of non-science (first, concerned with subjective experience and secondly, based in non-empirical reasoning) is the Austrian tradition of economics. This tradition does not "observe" humans acting and model it with equations but rather uses self-evident axioms and verbal logic to deduce what must necessarily be true as humans act. According to this tradition, an economic law like that which says additional units of a good contribute decreasing marginal utility is neither empirically derived nor subject to falsification through experiments. As such, the Austrian tradition is better considered a philosophical discipline than a scientific one, and yet many (including myself) believe it accounts for a better and more truthful understanding of human action than its more scientific rival schools of thought.

Perhaps some would object to the characterization of mathematics and philosophy as non-science. Perhaps they prefer a less rigid definition of science that includes any approach that uses reason. For example, such people might define economic science as any study of economic phenomena and include the Austrian tradition under this umbrella. But then this recasting of what science really is would make any knowledge scientific knowledge. This is a devious form of the No True Scotsman fallacy, where when presented with a counter-example of a claim, one shifts the definition to include the counter-example. Besides, if one is to take all branches of philosophy as actually imparting scientific knowledge, what would one make of theology?

And that question takes us to the real crux of the matter, which has heretofore been avoided. This is that the intuition that science provides the only valuable accounts of the world is not really directed against philosophical disciplines but rather against religious ones. It is argued that rather than being based upon observation and reason, religion is based upon fantasy and faith, largely the product of wishful thinking. Religious explanations are therefore to be always avoided and perhaps even ridiculed.

While I agree that much religious belief may be based in wishful thinking and not have much basis in actual experience, I would also point out that this "scientific" belief is not based on reason but rather fearful thinking. Exponents of the anti-religious worldview view science as a sort of safe-haven of thinking and fear any other way of thinking. According to this line of thought, once you leave science, you leave the reservation. Once you seek such an explanation, you might as well join the Scientologists or some other cult. The irony of such dogmatic thinking is always lost on those who promote it.
In fact, the domain of religion is largely what has been abstracted out of the world by science; the inner life. The questions it seeks to answer have to do with subjective existence, purpose, and decision-making. Religion seeks to account for the meaning of man in the universe in a way that is to guide one's actions.* What is the meaning and purpose of my life? How I ought I to live? How ought I act towards others?

Furthermore, these religious questions are faced by everyone. Everyone acts, so everyone must decide for what they act and how they will act. And just like philosophy, one can consciously develop and explicate religious principles, or one can let them grow organically.

* According to this view, there may be much overlap between religion and philosophy, especially as many great philosophers have developed a conception of God and the moral life of man. However, religion tends to explain not only the nature of man's purposive role in the universe but provide practice for seeking greater understanding and the true inner life.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The False Intuitions of Science

A purely pragmatic view of science is that it is not concerned with whether it imparts understanding of the universe but instead is entirely concerned with delivering models that may be used to predict the results of experiments. In fact, if we limit science exclusively to the formulation of models, it can convey no meaningful explanation of observed phenomena. The reason is that the answer to "why" something exists the way it does is immediately circular because models are constructed empirically. That is, if Newton saw an apple fall from the tree and jotted down a description of what he saw, it doesn't very well help to say the apple falls "because" the model predicts it. The model is just a correlation with no explanatory power in itself.

Now, no practicing scientist or student actually takes the above view of science, even if it is a safe fall-back position to give when asked to provide a philosophical interpretation of a theory (most notably, quantum theory). We must believe that theories impart some real insight or knowledge into the nature of the universe.

We need philosophy to move from theory to understanding, or alternatively one might posit that a theory is part model and part philosophy. The trouble is that we rarely consciously develop or explicate this philosophical component. The philosophy instead grows organically as we "do science" and develop intuitions based on how we practice and study, and in my experience this led to several intuitions about the world that were assumed but never fully analyzed. While not every student will develop the exact same set of intuitions, my interactions with scientifically-minded people and reading of various literature leads me to believe that the modern scientific mindset is largely defined by these intuitions:

* As its domain is all observable phenomena, science provides the only valuable explanations of the natural world, and any non-scientific pursuit must be grounded on non-observability and supernaturalism
* The history of scientific theories is to march incrementally toward a complete and truthful account of the universe
* Universal laws (the discovery of which is the task of science) dictate the behavior of all things
* Physics serves as the ultimate science that all phenomena (including consciousness) can ultimately be explained in terms of and that all other sciences are reducible to

These intuitions correspond to a mechanistic view of the universe; one composed of stuff blindly bouncing about according to fixed rules.

In future posts I will explain why each of these intuitions is wrong.

UPDATE: I've linked the bullet points above to their respective posts.