Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Pascal's Wager makes the following assumptions:
1) if God exists, He will reward those who believe in Him
2) God's reward is infinite
3) there is nothing to lose in believing in God
4) there is an equal chance of God existing and God not existing
With such assumptions we can derive the following calculus to find the expected value of this wager:
(reward x probability God exists) - (cost x probability God does not exist) = expected value of Pascal's Wager
Let reward be infinite and cost be zero. Even if assumption 4 is not true, the expected value will be infinite as long as the probability of God's existence is not zero. Hence it is rational, from the perspective of decision theory, to believe in God.
I will briefly sum up some noteworthy counter-arguments before offering my own. A common rebuttal criticizes the wager as a false dilemma in that it offers only the following possibilities:
1) a benevolent God exists and rewards according to belief
2) a benevolent God does not exist
This dichotomy precludes the possibilities that God is malevolent, or has an alternative system of reward. But as Pascal structures his analysis from a Christian viewpoint, this argument is moot.
Another criticism is that Pascal neglects to factor in all religions, and any possible religion, into this decision matrix. Since Pascal had obviously discounted the validity of all other religions, this argument does not serve to undermine Pascal's framework.
I seek to find errors in Pascal's Wager within his own established paradigm. After some brief analysis, I formulated the following premises:
1) the cost is not zero
2) the cost is not fixed
3) an infinite expected value automatically invokes the law of diminishing marginal utility
We will examine Premise 1 from a Christian perspective. There are few Christians that would deny the potential drawbacks of a Christian lifestyle. Doctrinal obedience places restrictions on potentially anything from diet to social conduct, depending on one's interpretation of the Bible. Furthermore, belief itself might exact a social cost in the form of religious persecution. While this is no longer as salient as during the founding years of Christianity, it still exists in areas of the Middle East, where conversion to non-Islamic religions provoke violence or even murder.
John Milton explicitly mentions the sacrifices of Christianity in Paradise Lost (I have not read the book. This tidbit of info I owe to Matthew Lu of Free Exchange):
"Of servitude, to serve whom God ordains, / Or Nature; God and Nature bid the same, / When he who rules worthiest, and excels / Them whom he governs. This is servitude."
Belief of God is servitude under God. This is cost.
In addition to the daily costs of Christian belief, we must factor in the opportunity cost: what one may gain if one does not believe in God. The opportunity cost of belief is variable. Since prevalent Christian doctrine makes no demands on the time of conversion, one may become choose belief at any point in one's lifetime to claim salvation.
If one enjoys behavior contrary to Christian doctrine (e.g. sodomy, adultery, and other fun things), then one would delay conversion until the last possible instant so as to minimize the opportunity cost. Therefore, precluding sudden deaths, there is no incentive in Pascal's framework to believe in God until one reaches the deathbed. Following the logic of decision theory, the wager Pascal construed as being supremely imperative essentially begs for procrastination.
Even if we accept both Premises 1 and 2, there is still the unaddressed question of the infinite expected value. No amount of trickery with cost and opportunity cost will produce a tangible effect on something infinite.
We therefore invoke the law of diminishing marginal utility. This law states that quantitative increase in an item of value will eventually reach a point where additional items will yield progressively less value.
Take for example a gift of roses. Although pragmatically wasteful, a bouquet of roses is lovely and symbolically meaningful. Two bouquets might be even better. Three bouquets is pushing it. By the time your romantic interest receives the ten thousandth bouquet of roses, he/she will be sick of them and throwing them away as soon as they are delivered.
We can create a new scenario to fit the form of a wager. Let us suppose you are asked to fund a fledgling company. If the company succeeds, you will earn $1 trillion dollars, and there is a 20% chance of success. However, to get the company started, you must invest your entire life savings of $500,000, which will all be lost if the company fails. If we apply the calculus of decision theory, we will find that the expected value of this wager is $199,999,600,000. That's great--but how many will take this wager? The flaw of using expected value to guide decision making is the assumption that more is always better. Someone who is perfectly satisfied with $500,000 does not need to take a wager that will likely (80% chance) be financially destructive.
Applying the law of diminishing marginal utility to Pascal's Wager, we are no longer so awed by the concept of "infinite" reward. Why would one put up with doctrinal restrictions and institutional conformity in search of a possible reward when one is perfectly satisfied with life as it is?
The answer, of course, is the possibility of Hell; but since Pascal did not factor this into his wager, neither will I.
Some might point out that there are pluses to a religious life: community bonding, moral values, etc. Once again, however, these are not part of Pascal's formulation. Unlike many arguments presented against Pascal's Wager, my arguments is based entirely on decision theory within Pascal's framework. This is a logical criticism of Pascal's Wager, not one against Christian or religious belief in general. The wager, as it stands alone, is weak even within the framework Pascal establishes himself.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
In a certain philosophy discussion section I had a couple of weeks ago, we were simulating the Prisoner's Dilemma game, which is basically a puzzle that tests out different theories of cooperation (i.e., going back on pacts, ganging up on others, etc.). My group ended up dead last. Our only consolation? "We never screwed anyone over! We were the only ones that kept our word and our integrity!"
But it was not much consolation, because we were at -23 points by the end of the rounds. If we had been generals commanding armies at war, we would have ended up like Germany at the end of WWI. So much for trying to uphold integrity in this nonsensical world.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Violent bouts of misanthropy sometimes strike me late at night, especially when I'm browsing my Facebook News Feed. I don't even know why I'm "friends" with half of these people.
It's strange how easy it is to dislike people late at night. I sometimes feel a senseless urge to comment on people's walls, letting them know that they're 1) rude, 2) stupid, and 3) just plain ugly. However, my fear of confrontation usually smothers these urges neatly. Instead, I resort to passive resistance: I delete people from my Friends list. For fun.
I'm pretty sure this has to be some type of a psychological disorder.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
We have become realists. We have embraced Hobbes over Locke. We have, during egotistic and hedonistic pursuits, lost sight of what's important. The prince in our hearts is no longer Le Petit Prince, but Il Principe.
It is unfair, of course, for me to speak oh his behalf. But this is the trend I have observed: the loss of innocent love and steadfast belief in goodness.
I'm not sure if this progression is reversible. In fact, I don't think Antoine de Saint-Exupéry thought it possible. What is important, then, is to remember the fox's secret: that "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."
When I asked my 11-year-old pupil, after he had read The Little Prince, if he would ever like to grow up, he answered with an emphatic "no." It is too late for us. But if we can manage to keep the fox's secret close at hand, we can at least salvage what wisdom we had as children.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
I find that some of the most insightful points raised in international dialogue often come from the most marginalized of world leaders. A few years ago, Ahmadinejad skewered the hypocrisy of the United States and her allies, who in their adamant condemnation of nuclear programs seem to forget about the massive stockpiles residing within their borders. (On a related note, former U.S. ambassador John Bolton deemed the nuclear programs of India and Pakistan "legitimate" since the two countries neglected to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Why didn't you think of that, Iran?)
More recently, Moammar Gadhafi of Libya made a scene at the U.N. General Assembly by launching into a vehement anti-Western tirade. One point that was emphasized in the linked article was that Gadhafi protested the nature of the Security Council, on which the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain (the victors of WWII) hold permanent seats and veto power. Indeed, for an institution that draws upon and heavily promotes democratic concepts, the presence of five unelected oligarchs is cause for cynicism. Coincidentally (actually, probably not), Ahmadinejad made the same criticism a while ago on his blog, which I used to frequent until I realized the dude was too lazy to keep a consistent posting schedule (cough, Juan, cough).
To say nothing of the other four countries, this is just one of many examples of exceptionalism and entitlement on the part of the United States. Ever since the end of the Cold War, the leaders of the U.S. have casually ignored any international rules or agreements that do not serve their interests.
The most publicized of these are the Ottawa and Kyoto Treaties. The U.S. refused to ratify the former, which would prohibit the production, stockpiling, and use of anti-personnel landmines, because it undermined what military leaders saw as a core component of peacekeeping in Korea. America also snubbed he Kyoto Treaty, despite its overwhelming support by similarly industrialized nations, because it was seen as an economic detriment.
Even an unequivocal reprimand from the U.N. cannot deter the U.S. from pursuing its goals. During the invasion of Iraq, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has an awesome name, described the war as "illegal" as per the U.N. Charter. Over the course of the conflict, the U.S. blatantly wiped its big, imperialistic ass all over the Geneva Conventions through the use of extraordinary renditions.
In addition, the U.S. could easily be indicted for war crimes for its indiscriminate bombings runs that have inflicted collateral damage on hapless villages all over the Middle East. Then again, a subpoena from the International Court of Justice would mean little to the U.S., whose team of hardliner diplomats and lawyers have deftly avoided legal repercussions for decades.
For an organization intended to eradicate warfare, the U.N. has been little more than a mouthpiece and puppet for America's many and sometimes belligerent whims. When the U.S. needs to rally support for its policies, it uses its significant clout with the U.N. to gather coalitions; when the U.N. shows up with a demand or a treaty, the U.S. can often be found with its back turned, whistling nonchalantly in the corner with a finger in each ear.
That the U.N. was meant to foster multilateralism is nothing but a myth. As long as the United States is the organization's predominant financier and military backbone of its peacekeeping branch, the American agenda will always be at the forefront of international priorities.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
So this is something I complain about constantly. People insist that democracy is great and that the United States is a beacon of democratic hope. However, a little known fact is that these people are complete idiots.
Our nation was founded on checks and balances. One of these checks concerns the realization that people are assholes. This thought is actually furthered by a second realization that people are also idiots. So with these two facts given, what system of government works best? The Founders figured a mix between a monarchy, oligarchy and polity would function best. Polity being a system governed by the people (democracy as we understand it today). Ironically, democracy referred to the corrupt form of polity in the Classical sense, when the people abused their power to oppress minorities.
The monarchy would be the executive headed by the president, the oligarchy by the Supreme Court, and the polity by the House of Representatives. The Senate is sort of a mix of oligarchy and polity in my opinion because it is local and closer to the people but the senate was originally appointed by the locally elected leaders, one step away from a direct election.
Probably the most democratic part of the constitution is the House of Representatives. The House is elected directly by the members of their districts. Furthermore, it gives more power to the states with greater population, thus making power proportional to population and not completely equal between all the states as the Senate functions.
The Founders were to a great extent, elitist lawyers who didn't want stupid assholes voting to elect other stupid assholes who would attempt to satisfy a very dumb populous who wants things that would surely doom the nation. For example, I am not a fan of Andrew Jackson as president. Sure, he was super badass and killed for fun, but he did not know shit about being president. Although I agree with laissez-faire economics (hands-off capitalism), a centralized bank was necessary for the survival of the American economy in the global environment. Yet he stuck to principles instead of using reason to determine what was best for the nation. Only after he defeated the Second National bank, causing the panic of 1837, did everyone realize that having like 80 economic systems in the same country with no centralization was a bad call. Also, Andrew Jackson expanded suffrage to the "common man" which allowed for uneducated, poor people to vote, as long as they were white. (He made it so the states did not require land-ownership to vote... it sounds a lot nicer that way, I guess).
So am I an elitist bastard for thinking that I do not want homeless people voting? Am I elitist for wanting to make sure that people are literate and are slightly competent before giving them the power to vote for the legislators and laws that compose our government? Am I a selfish arrogant asshole for wanting to vote for what actually WILL benefit the citizens of America instead of letting the poorer middle America vote for the Republicans who will take advantage of them economically in exchange for continuing to oppress gays and stop abortion, which they probably won't even do? Technically, yes.
In conclusion, I am an elitist bastard.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Enjoy (which you won't unless you're a huge nerd, in which case I love you).
Oil and Foreign Policy
Among Earth’s natural resources, not one has caused as much contention and strife in the 20th and 21st century as oil. Petroleum—reverently referred to as “black gold”—is the fuel of the industrialized world. As such, it is often at the center of international economic, diplomatic, and military firestorms. Oil’s importance cannot be denied—but to what extent does it influence the actions of the United States government? Specifically, how does American reliance on petroleum imports affect U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East? As this paper will demonstrate, oil’s significance as a natural resource and as a trading commodity places it at the forefront of the U.S. agenda in the Middle East.
The United States government was always careful to ensure steady supplies of oil. Ever since the early 1920s, the American government had placed the acquisition of petroleum from foreign nations as a priority in foreign policy. The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 established the “principle of reciprocity,” whereby foreign-owned corporations seeking to exploit domestic oil and minerals must provide equal benefits to American companies. Royal Dutch Shell, a prominent international corporation that exported petroleum from its vast colonial holdings, soon came into the fold as a partner of the United States (“Multinational Oil Corporations and U.S. Foreign Policy”).
Following in the footsteps of the great colonial powers at the time, such as Britain and the Netherlands, the U.S. began taking a more aggressive and interventionist route to establish petroleum holdings in the Middle East. Where Britain had exclusive rights to oil in Kuwait and Bahrein, the U.S. found its oil cow in Iraq, which was encouraged to have an “open door” policy that reduced restrictions on foreign development. Spearheaded by American oil industries, U.S. petroleum interests quickly spread to the nearby kingdom of Saudi Arabia, resulting in the creation of the oil company later known as Aramco (“Multinational Oil Corporations and U.S. Foreign Policy”).
The first example of America’s willingness to bend the rules when it came to protecting oil occurred during WWII. American oil industrialists in Saudi Arabia, afraid that the British would outbid them for Saudi oil, took advantage of oil shortage fears and convinced the Roosevelt administration to provide funds to Saudi Arabia under the Lend-Lease Act. This was in direct violation to the Act, which authorized funding only to “democratic allies,” and marked a paradigm shift in government perception of international corporations. At the insistence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who viewed overseas oil companies such as Aramco as vital to national security, President Roosevelt approved the creation of the Petroleum Reserves Corporation. The PRC’s first move was to establish government ownership of Aramco, an ambitious and unprecedented action. After its bid to buy out Aramco failed during negotiations, the PRC proposed the construction of a pipeline in the Persian Gulf, which was shelved after vehement opposition from the oil industry (“Multinational Oil Corporations and U.S. Foreign Policy”). The PRC’s failure to bring the oil industry under government control was a victory for the free market, but would lead to future troubles in the international hunt for oil.
After the war, an era of prosperity resulted in America’s transition into a consumer-driven economy. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Americans began indulging in the form of capitalism as we know it today—a market dominated by consumer goods, often luxuries, and that demanded a continuous influx of raw material and supplies from overseas (Sabin 157). As expected, one of these resources was oil. Backed by high demands back home, Western oil companies based overseas were booming. Left to their own devices by lasses-faire, petroleum importers were gaining inordinate power and influence in the oil-rich lands of the Middle East. British Petroleum, a remnant of the might of the former British Empire, maintained an iron grip in the Iranian oil market. Dissatisfied by their unfair cut of the oil revenue, Iranians pushed for greater shares of the profit and were met with minor successes. However, when Dr. Muhammed Mossadeq, then Chairman of the Oil Commission of the Iranian Parliament, demanded even more control over Iranian oil, he was snubbed by the British government. In March of 1951, a Mossadeq-led parliament voted for the nationalization of Iranian oil industry, and the British were removed from the deal altogether.
Outraged by its ousting, British Petroleum led a boycott of the newly formed National Iranian Oil Company. With the backing of the British court, BP asserted that any purchase of formerly BP-owned oil constitutes as theft. Robbed of their most profitable export, Iran sank into a period of economic chaos. Turned away by the Western Hemisphere, the Iranian government saw the rise to prominence of the Iranian Communist Party, or Tudeh, which sought to broker a deal with the Soviet Union.
The resulting American intervention had tremendous repercussions for decades to come. Taking advantage of the American Cold War-mentality, the British convinced the Truman administration to oust Prime Minister Mossadeq. Subsequently, the CIA carried Operation Ajax, which resulted in a coup d’état that gave power to pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The reinstated Shah quickly signed an agreement giving developmental rights and revenue to BP and other Western oil companies (“History of Iran: A short account of the 1953 Coup”). Despite his pro-Western sentiments, the Shah was brutally authoritarian, and his reign was characterized by corruption and political repression. In 1979, the Shah was overthrown, and a theocratic republic was instated in place of the monarchy. Shortly after the revolution, disgruntled Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy and captured 52 American diplomats. Even though the hostages were later released, the crisis, coupled with Iranian distrust of the U.S., destroyed American-Iranian diplomatic relationships (“Iran hostage crisis”).
To understand the American government’s attitude toward oil-related issues in the Middle East, one must consider the economic impacts an oil shortage would have on the United States. Besides a minor oil scare in WWII, the American public’s first experience with an oil crisis was in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War. Upset that the U.S. was aiding Israel, Arab oil-exporting nations formed the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), which consisted of the Arab members of the similar organization OPEC. Using oil as a political and economic weapon, the OAPEC launched an embargo against all nations giving assistance to Israel. This embargo came at a tough time for the U.S., which was already suffering from inflation and one of the worst stock market crashes in its history (Woodard). After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, oil prices jumped even further. Not only did oil costs hit unemployed Americans hard, the image of long lines caused by gas rationing was also embedded into the American consciousness as one of destitution and despair.
The economic woes of the ‘70s were cause for public discontent, which translated into Election Day troubles for the incumbent party. Among other issues, failures to successfully address the recessions led both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter to lose their second presidential bid. The oil crises on the ‘70s brought the issue of America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil into light for the first time, and since then, politicians have been careful to prevent similar incidents from reoccurring. The stepping up of U.S. participation in Middle Eastern politics can thus be attributed to the oil paranoia. In his State of the Union Address on January 1980, President Jimmy Carter denounced the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. One of his main concerns was Afghanistan’s rich oil supply and strategic position, the conquest of which would “[pose] a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil” (Carter). To prevent Afghanistan from falling into Soviet hands, the CIA was given authority to covertly aid the mujahideen insurgents in their fight against the communists. Most of the aid came in the form of money and weapons, which contributed to the eventual Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Oil ignited another conflict in the Middle East in 1990. In the aftermath of the ‘70s oil crisis, non-OPEC nations had overcompensated for the previous shortage by producing surplus petroleum. The temporary glut in the international oil market led to a significant price drop. While the surplus came as a blessing to oil-consuming nations like the United States, oil exporters suffered from loss of revenue throughout the ‘80s. Iraq, which had just waged a costly eight-year war with Iran, blamed neighboring Kuwait for contributing to the surplus. Accusing Kuwait of “stealing” Iraqi oil as its casus belli, Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of the smaller nation in August, 1990.
When the United States entered the fray, its chief concern, along with Kuwaiti liberation, was to protect nearby Saudi oil fields. Saddam had long been threatening Saudi Arabia with belligerent rhetoric, and would be able to consolidate 40 percent of the world’s oil reserves by conquering it (“U.S. Interests in the Gulf War”). In response, the U.S. launched Operation Desert Storm, one of the most efficient military campaigns in U.S. history, and managed to completely rout Saddam’s forces within seven months. The Gulf War also established oil-rich Kuwait as an U.S. ally.
When analyzing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, it is not too difficult to discern one of the most importance motives. Since petroleum became a daily necessity, the United States has built its foreign policy around the interests of the oil industry, and has taken steps to secure oil supplies with its significant diplomatic and military clout. The ongoing “War on Terror” and its subsequent occupation, planned and executed by the Bush administration, were accused by many of being a cover for oil acquisition, and have raised many questions about the sincerity of foreign involvement. Whether the U.S. was justified in its intervention of foreign affairs would be left up to history; as of now, all facts point to oil as a principal driving force behind American operations to bring “democracy” to the Middle East. As long as there is oil in the Persian and Arabian sands, the U.S. will remain an imposing presence in one of the most hostile and unpredictable regions in the world.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
However, this "open-mindedness" has many unsavory qualities and unpleasant outcomes (aside from the ones I literally just described).
I am overly aware of the consequences of my actions. For example, every time I part with Yu-Hsuan, I stop to consider that that exact fleeting moment may be the very last chance I will ever have to make out with him.
Another unfortunate consequence is re-evaluating every philosophical concept and game theory when making any decision of reasonable significance. How enlightened does my self-interest have to be to allow me being completely selfish to help others? Is it better to voice my dissenting opinion, when it will make others feel stupid or to allow them to be stupid while enjoying the potentially hilarious consequences?
I have been contemplating a short-cut to this long decision-making process. Please read the following flowchart:
Do you care about the person with the conflicting opinion?
No- Fuck it.
Yes- Fetal position and feigned apathy
Seems to be working so far...
Monday, September 7, 2009
My name is Benjamin Yu-Hsuan Lin. The “Yu-Hsuan Lin” part came from my family. The “Benjamin” part was an attempt to anglicize my identity to conform to Western standards, and because my other choice “Benedict” was shot down by virtually everyone I know. In the hood, though, all the ghetto ladies know me as “Sweet Thang.”
I support cost-effective fiscal policies and take a libertarian stance toward most social issues. I make poor decisions if I think they will make a good story. I am an equal opportunity employer and accept all major credit cards. I have extraordinary respect for people who say clever things, or are attractive, intelligent males between the ages of 15 and 55. I respect Juan so much, like, you don’t even know.
I envision this blog as a dumping site for all the unproductive thoughts that I have. My interests are philosophy, theology, international politics, law, and vulgar humor, so that’s mostly what you will be seeing here. On occasion, I might post something insightful so I can print it out to impress recruiters, admission officers, and girlfriend’s mother.
I am currently a first-year at Dartmouth College, but for the purpose of bolstering my ethos during Internet debating, I am also sometimes an adjunct professor at Oxford University.
That’s it for now. Be my friend.
This blog is inspired by Scott Adams and really formed for my own benefit of staying up to date on current issues while reflecting on my day-to-day life. Hopefully, I will also inadvertently entertain or educate people who are unaware of how to properly use the internet and, through an unfortunate mishap, end up at this blog.
I will probably discuss philosophy, politics, human stupidity (which for me is redundant with politics and philosophy), and whatever I deem interesting. Also updating will be my friend, Yu-Hsuan Lin. I expect him to write his own little introductory post and for it to be far more entertaining than mine.
Despite the fact that I am often considerably uninteresting I will now share a bit about myself. I am currently a freshman at Ohlone College and will be attending UC Berkeley starting in January. I have curly hair, an attractive girlfriend who attends San Diego State and I am notoriously good-looking. I am often terribly insensitive and many might consider my comments to come off as misogynistic or racist- but I consider those people to be prudes. I believe that for the sake of humor, just about anything is acceptable so long as it is clever and not just shock humor.
Question: Why did Princess Diana cross the road?
Answer: Because she forgot to wear her seatbelt.
The latter not being funny at all displays that jokes are not jokes if they are one-word racial slurs. Although good jokes can also contain one-or-more-word racial slurs. Foshizzle.