Thursday, January 21, 2010

Health care

Kudos to Mona Charen in this article for a nice turn of phrase: she describes the health care bill as "oozing" its way through Congress. Will Brown's election stop the ooze? And how should Democrats react? If I were a Democrat, I might well be in favour of pushing the bill at all costs. This is based partly on my depressing assessment that major legislation almost never gets repealed, and usually, to the contrary, expand over time. It might mean a beating for the Democrats in November, but it would be a major advance for them in the long run.

Nancy Pelosi ("We will have health care one way or another") seems to be in favour of ramming the bill through, and I can't disagree with her logic. I do disagree, however, with these academics, who somehow conclude that "If there is a lesson in the Massachusetts vote, it is this: pass a bill." I understand what they are saying: a lot of Democrats are upset at the compromises that have been made on the bill, and that may have kept some of them away from voting. And I'm sure they're right that Scott Brown did campaign a lot on other issues. Nevertheless, it is not only implausible, but downright silly, to think that a liberal state like Massachussetts would vote for a Republican if the majority of liberals there wanted a health-care bill. That's not the way people work.

Democrats still control large majorities in both houses, so they have a reasonable chance of getting a bill through. There has been much talk of pushing the vote through before Brown is seated, or using other dubious tactics to ram something through. I am glad to report that Barney Frank -- whom I dispise in many ways -- has come out on the side of honesty, saying, "I feel strongly that the Democratic majority in Congress must respect the process and make no effort to bypass the electoral results."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Republicans in Massachussetts

While Republicans are obviously elated at Scott Brown's victory yesterday, many are already talking about the likelihood that he will lose the next election in 2012. I am a little surprised; I figure that if Brown can win once, he can win again, especially with the advantage of incumbency. Massachussetts has had Republican governors, so a Republican senator does not seem like too much of a stretch.

I once met a Boston-area radio talk show host (I'm sorry that I've forgotten his name). When I heard his profession, I assumed that he was a liberal, but he turned out to be conservative. I prodded him about what sort of audience he had, and he told me that people in Boston were quite conservative on many issues, in spite of being very pro-Democrat. This may seem incredible, but it is fairly well known that blacks, for instance, are conservative on a number of key issues -- abortion, foreign policy, crime -- in spite of voting around 90% for Democrats. I've forgotten what specific issues the talk show host mentioned to me, but I'm sure abortion was one of them. In any case, I think it is at least plausible that there is an undercurrent of conservatism in the state that could keep Brown in office in spite of his being a Republican. I don't deny, of course, that Democrats will put up a stronger candidate next time and run a better campaign, and there is always the possibility of a "macaca" moment that throws calculations off. I expect he will have a tough race, but I think he has a reasonable possibility to get re-elected.

I strongly disagree with Daniel Larison, who says that the election is all about anti-incumbent feeling. For one thing, there was no incumbent in this race. For another thing, I think pure anti-incumbent feeling is very rare; most often, it is "anti-party-in-power" sentiment. Considering the context of the election -- the health-care bill on the verge of passage -- I would be amazed if the voters were not voting in large part on the basis of Brown's promise to be against the bill.

I couldn't help myself from reading the Daily Kos, to see how extreme liberals were reacting to the vote. Activity was way down from the last time I checked (during the past election season, admittedly), and was basically what I expected: the world is ending, the voters were stupid, etc. One person said that it was sad when an election could be decided by not knowing which team a particular athlete was on, referring to Coakley's gaffe about Schilling being a Yankees fan. I have some sympathy for the idea that sports should play no role in elections, but a few thoughts. First, it is always a good idea to know some basic facts about the local sports teams, especially in Massachussetts where the Boston teams have such an avid following. (It would be a different matter in California, which has so many teams.) Second, if Coakley didn't care about Schilling's endorsement of Brown, she should have said so. Once she tried to label him as a Yankee's fan, she had bought into the idea that Schilling mattered, and opened herself up for the mistake. She could just have easily said that the endorsement of sports figures (or actors, singers, and the like) was not important, since they have no special insight into politics.

I also want to give credit to Obama for graciously commending Brown for a well-run campaign, and to Coakley for complimenting him on his election. Although this behaviour is still expected of politicians, it seems to be increasingly rare in the public debate (e.g. Keith Olbermann's insane rant against Brown), and I'm always happy when minimal standards are upheld.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why is there something rather than nothing?

"I'm afraid I'm a practical man,' said the doctor with gruff humour, 'and I don't bother much about religion and philosophy.'
'You'll never be a practical man till you do,' said Father Brown."

This quotation, from G.K. Chesteron, is compelling in his usual irreverent fashion. I find much to agree with in what he says, so I have been inclined to think that there must be some practical value in philosophy. Sometimes, however, I wonder if the chief purpose of philosophy is not simply to keep other people from making false claims on its behalf, in the same way that James Bryce claimed of history that its "chief practical to deliver us from plausible historical analogies." I am speaking in this case of that basic philosophical question, Why is there something rather than nothing?

I was first introduced to this question by one of my college professors, Dante Germino. He said that some philosopher had posited two fundamental questions: why is there something rather than nothing?, and why are things the way they are and not some other way? I thought the second question was superfluous, since, if you could explain why there was something, you would know why it was the way it was.

I've forgotten who the philosopher was supposed to be. I thought it was some ancient Greek, but I see now that Martin Heidegger is famous for saying that the first question -- why is there something -- is the fundamental question of philosophy. I haven't seen any reference to the second question, so I'm not quite sure it was he to whom Germino was referring, but it seems a good bet.

I have always liked this question, partly as an endless source of pondering, and partly because it provides some basis for religion, or at least the limitations of science; because I am convinced that science will never be able to provide an answer. It brings our minds to the limitations of reason, because we cannot conceive of something without a cause, and yet, despite the paradox, something does indeed exist. It may have an explainable cause, but its cause must have a cause, and so forth in an infinite regression. St. Thomas Aquinas used this as one of his arguments for the existence of God: there must be an uncaused cause. In his "States and Empires of the Moon," Cyrano de Bergerac mocked this proof as akin to saving oneself from the rain by jumping into the river: how does positing an uncaused cause get us out of the difficulty at all? We're resolving a logical paradox by resorting to a deus-ex-machina, something that literally is outside of logic. We can't logically understand what an uncaused cause would be any more than we can resolve the issue within our logical framework. I suspect that Aquinas was more sophisticated on this issue than Cyrano gives him credit for; Aquinas probably realized that the need for an uncaused cause doesn't tell us anything about God himself, but rather points to the need for an explanation outside of human reason. I like to think of it as Soren Kierkegaard's paradox, "the thought that thought itself cannot think." He doesn't attach the paradox to any particular idea, but I think this is as good a candidate as any. Trying to conceive of the beginning of the universe is an exercise in the limitations of reason.

The Big Bang is, of course, no answer to this paradox. The Big Bang explains how matter was compressed down to a singularity and then exploded suddenly, setting off the processes which led to the formation of the universe. It does not answer the question, "why is there something rather than nothing?" I had an unpleasant shock from an explanation which seemed to circumvent this limitation, from a very smart friend whom I met in my first year of college. He explained how particles and anti-particles routinely come into existence and then annihilate each other almost instantaneously. Sometimes, however, they don't come back together, and there exists a tiny bit of matter (and its opposite) that didn't exist before. Given enough time, matter might accumulate in such quantities to create a whole universe, such as the one we live in.

I was very depressed about this at first, for it seemed to bring existence itself into the realm of science. Eventually, however, I realized the that it did no such thing. The scientific explanation may tell us how matter forms, but it can't tell us why it forms. Why should there be such things as matter and anti-matter in the first place? And why should they come into being in matched pairs? The existence of scientific laws that govern the universe needs explaining as much as matter and space.

I see now that some people are trying to finesse the problem of "why is there something rather than nothing" by asking, "why not?" This seems clever at first; why should we "privilege" non-existence as a more natural state than existence? Isn't it just as likely that existence is natural, and nothingness is what needs explaining? Personally, I still can't make this logical leap; I am trapped by the idea that nothingness naturally precedes existence (perhaps because it is correct). If we are wandering in the desert wilderness and come upon a house, and I ask, "I wonder why that house is there?", no one would be convinced by the answer, "Why not?" It is evidently the existence of the house that needs explaining, not its non-existence in every other part of the desert. Now, I realize that a house is not the same as matter in general, and that, while a house must evidently have to be constructed, it is not immediately obvious that matter has to be made. Still, I can't help seeing the circumstances as parallel.

But let's ignore that for a moment, and let's agree with the sceptics that existence is as natural as non-existence. The sceptics' argument is still very weak, because they are ignoring the other fundamental question: why are things the way they are, and not some other way? If you're going to say that being is as natural as, or even more natural than, nothingness, you also have to explain why things exist in one form and not in an infinite variety of other forms. And this is going to be difficult. When dealing with being and nothingness, it is possible to make a case that neither should be privileged over the other, but it certainly is difficult to make a convincing case why things should exist in one particular configuration over all other possible configurations.

One could make the case, as I believe some have done, that we exist in only one of an infinite number of parallel universes; therefore, there is no reason to think that our universe even is privileged, just that it happens to be the one that we are in. But this, I think, requires even greater credulity, and it has nothing whatever to do with science. It might be right, but we can't hope to test it; we can only take it on faith as seeming more likely that other explanations. I think most people, however, will find the idea of infinite universes to be rather less likely than alternate explanations.

Scientists have even tried to claim that there is no beginning to time; that there is no point at which things began, because time folds in on itself. I don't pretend to understand this idea (which I read in Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time"), but I do know that it is no more an answer to the uncaused cause than any other explanation. For, why should there even be such a thing as time? Science can push this matter very far, but I don't see how it can ever answer it.