capitalism and christianity

148398038029SwansonOsteenopeningGlendaleAZ1_3_14666Barrett Swanson at Dissent:

Though few contemporary Christians would likely admit it, many of the American colonies were built upon the idea of redistribution. Those dour Puritans who first populated the territories of New England were not lured by the promise of windfall profits. Nor had they endured months of seasickness and disease for the chance to start a small business. Instead, they were hopeless utopians, runaway apostates of the established church who yearned to embrace a higher manner of being, one founded upon a system of communitarian ethics. John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sketched the tenets of this new society in a sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity,” which he delivered in 1630 while on board a British ship headed across the Atlantic. A gusty ode to American exceptionalism, the homily christened the new continent “The City Upon a Hill,” a metaphor that Ronald Reagan would make a watchword for Republicans some three-hundred-and-fifty years later. But in Winthrop’s eyes what gave the New World its luster were the egalitarian principles of the Protestant gospel, central among them the commitment to redistributing wealth on the basis of individual need. “We must be willing,” Winthrop said, “to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the sakes of others’ necessities . . . we must bear one another’s burdens.”

It is stupefying to consider how, over the course of four centuries, American Christianity would forsake these humble sentiments for the telegenic hucksterism of preachers like Joel Osteen. This Pentecostal quack with a garish smile doesn’t tout the spiritual benefits of communal interdependence. Nor does he acknowledge the ethical requirements of the Christian social contract. Instead, like so many stewards of the “prosperity gospel,” Osteen thinks individual wealth is a hallmark of Christian virtue and urges his followers to reach inside themselves to unlock their hidden potential.

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orpheus in bulgaria

Orfei1Allegra Hyde at Threepenny Review:

My husband and I have lived in Bulgaria for six months, lived in this country often confused for other places. “You’ll have to brush up on your French,” said a friend before I left the U.S., believing me bound for Algeria. “Enjoy the northern lights,” said another. Bulgaria is one of the forgotten nations once tucked behind the Iron Curtain, its cities now stocked with crumbling Soviet tenements and silent factories and stray dogs too hungry to bark. In the winter, in Haskovo —the city where I teach English to three hundred hardened teenagers—the air thickens to a gray haze as residents burn brush and scraps of trash to heat their homes. The smoke makes me cough, makes my eyes sting, makes my thoughts turn dark.

Today, though, we have left Haskovo. We have left winter as well. The first spring blossoms are starting to show, forsythia yellowing the countryside. As the road to the Devil’s Throat continues its manic winding route through the Rhodopes, we pass the occasional village of squat red-roofed dwellings, laundry lines strung with colorful underwear like prayer flags. Chickens bustle after bugs. Kids kick soccer balls on smears of new grass.

“21 km,” says a sign.

Even in the presence of spring, I feel nervous. I can’t help imagining the ways we might die on this mountain road, squeezed between cliffs and a squalling river. It’s a bad habit of mine: envisioning worst-case scenarios.

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Siddhartha Mukherjee in The New Yorker:

Ct-siddhartha-mukherjee-2-02-jpg-20160602Explanations run shallow and deep. You have a red blister on your finger because you touched a hot iron; you have a red blister on your finger because the burn excited an inflammatory cascade of prostaglandins and cytokines, in a regulated process that we still understand only imperfectly. Knowing why—asking why—is our conduit to every kind of explanation, and explanation, increasingly, is what powers medical advances. Hinton spoke about baseball players and physicists. Diagnosticians, artificial or human, would be the baseball players—proficient but opaque. Medical researchers would be the physicists, as removed from the clinical field as theorists are from the baseball field, but with a desire to know “why.” It’s a convenient division of responsibilities—yet might it represent a loss? “A deep-learning system doesn’t have any explanatory power,” as Hinton put it flatly. A black box cannot investigate cause. Indeed, he said, “the more powerful the deep-learning system becomes, the more opaque it can become. As more features are extracted, the diagnosis becomes increasingly accurate. Why these features were extracted out of millions of other features, however, remains an unanswerable question.” The algorithm can solve a case. It cannot build a case.

Yet in my own field, oncology, I couldn’t help noticing how often advances were made by skilled practitioners who were also curious and penetrating researchers. Indeed, for the past few decades, ambitious doctors have strived to be at once baseball players and physicists: they’ve tried to use diagnostic acumen to understand the pathophysiology of disease. Why does an asymmetrical border of a skin lesion predict a melanoma? Why do some melanomas regress spontaneously, and why do patches of white skin appear in some of these cases? As it happens, this observation, made by diagnosticians in the clinic, was eventually linked to the creation of some of the most potent immunological medicines used clinically today. (The whitening skin, it turned out, was the result of an immune reaction that was also turning against the melanoma.) The chain of discovery can begin in the clinic. If more and more clinical practice were relegated to increasingly opaque learning machines, if the daily, spontaneous intimacy between implicit and explicit forms of knowledge—knowing how, knowing that, knowing why—began to fade, is it possible that we’d get better at doing what we do but less able to reconceive what we ought to be doing, to think outside the algorithmic black box?

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Remember why we work on cancer

Levi Garraway in Nature:

Comment1aI first realized I'd been bitten by the science bug in the summer of 1987. I was walking home from the laboratory, mulling over an organic chemistry reaction that I had been attempting — and mostly failing — to execute. Suddenly, a notion coalesced in my 19-year-old brain: all human biology and disease must ultimately come down to reactions that either proceed properly or go awry. As I savoured the evening breeze, I knew that I wanted to dedicate my career to understanding these mechanisms and thereby to hasten new treatments. Nearly every scientist remembers moments like these. I am saddened, therefore, by the cynical view that has become increasingly common in both academia and industry: that much biomedical science, even — or perhaps especially — that which appears in 'high-profile' journals, is bogus. I am one of many scientists who have seen their past research subjected to unexpected scrutiny as a result. An attempt to replicate work from my team was among the first described by the Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology, an initiative that independently repeated experiments from high-impact papers. In this case, as an editorial that surveyed the first replications explained, differences between how control cells behaved in the two sets of experiments made comparisons uninformative1. The replicators' carefully conducted experiment showed just how tough it can be to reproduce result.

…We scientists search tenaciously for information about how nature works through reason and experimentation. Who can deny the magnitude of knowledge we have gleaned, its acceleration over time, and its expanding positive impact on society? Of course, some data and models are fragile, and our understanding remains punctuated by false premises. Holding fast to the three Rs ensures that the path — although tortuous and treacherous at times — remains well lit.

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Why Are Zygotes People?

by Paul Bloomfield

ScreenHunter_2649 Mar. 27 11.03The decision guaranteeing abortion rights in the United States, found in Roe v. Wade (1973), was based on a right to privacy, which the court found to be primarily protected by the Fourteenth amendment's "concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action" and the Ninth amendment's "reservation of rights to the people". While it is not discussed at any length, the First amendment is cited in relation to the freedom of speech, most substantially as subsidiary foundation for the right to privacy, established by Stanley v. Georgia (1969). Religion played no role in Roe v. Wade, though it has arguably played a direct role in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). There, the majority's decision plainly states, "The destiny of the woman must be shaped to a large extent on her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society." One might naturally read this as an expression of "religious liberty" and an implication of the non-establishment clause of the first Amendment of the Constitution, stating that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion".

Despite this, "religious liberty" has come to the fore most forcefully in recent years as a contrary banner under which some religiously minded people insist that the First amendment's protection against laws "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion secures the right to refuse various services to homosexuals and to deny homosexual couples the right to marry. The free exercise clause is invoked in the Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014), in a decision finding that corporations need not pay for employees' contraception. It is worth noting that Neil Gorsuch, the current nomination to the Supreme Court, was an author of the appellate decision that was upheld in Burwell. But as important as the "free exercise" clause is, it must be balanced against the "non-establishment" clause, which precedes it in the document as the first clause in the amendment.

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Monday Poem

Okay, poets, we get it: things are like other things
…… —A. R. & M. G.

Ah, But Math is Like That Too

When poets are so dissed
by engineers and physicists
they really should consider this:

(4+2) is just like 6
and keeping that in mind
81’s like the square of 9
and in case you think these
are a poet's tricks,
√36 is too like 6
(in this, poetry’s like

In fact, when quantities and things align
like is like an equal sign
and, what’s more,
(4×4) is 16’s metafour

Jim Culleny

Beauty is Not (Entirely) in the Eye of the Beholder

by Dwight Furrow

SunsetIn philosophy the most important development in the last 300 years has been the idea that what can be intelligibly said about reality is constructed out of our subjective responses, suitably constrained by social norms and intersubjective communication. This is the essence of Immanuel Kant's so-called Copernican Revolution in philosophy which converted us from naïve realists who took reality at face value to sophisticated anti-realists constructing reality via the structures of consciousness and language.

Kant's argument is sound but preposterous. One would have thought that reality's stubborn resistance to our ideas and expectations and the fact we are often surprised by this resistance might lead us to take the idea of a real world more seriously. The performative contradiction of claiming all reality is a social construction while traipsing off to the doctor when ill renders truth and knowledge the exclusive purview of scientists who have never shown much inclination toward anti-realism. But once these "naïve" realist thoughts are cast out in favor of Kant's fastidious, critical skepticism, common sense can't find a way back in. And so for 300 years we have been denying what to non-philosophers seems obvious—there is a real world out there with which our senses put us into contact.

In light of this revolution in thought we were, by now, supposed to be basking in the friendly solidarities of intersubjective agreement, a consequence that unfortunately appears to be increasingly remote. This idea that reality is a social construction ebbs and flows outside the philosophy class but in today's "post-truth" society it seems ascendant. Perhaps a new way must be found to anchor truth in something more substantial than contingent, collective agreements.

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Under The Radar, Part 1

by Misha Lepetic

"In economics, the majority is always wrong."
~ JK Galbraith

Diego-Rivera-work-998x698One of the unfortunate gifts of the current, star-crossed administration is that there's something for everyone that will get their knickers in a twist. If immigration or climate change isn't your thing, just wait a few days, and some administration official will come out with a statement that lands somewhere in the space between spectacularly ignorant or merely deeply ill-considered. My latest opportunity to double-take arrived a few days ago, when Secretary of the Treasury (and Goldman Sachs alum) Steven Mnuchin opined that the threat of artificial intelligence to employment is "not even on my radar screen".

To be fair, the clip is brief enough that it is difficult to conclude whether or not Mnuchin knows what he is talking about. Too often when we talk about technology we fixate on one aspect of it, and intend (although not always) that this aspect stands in for the entirety of the technological phenomenon. These days, favored metonymies are ‘AI', along with ‘robots' and ‘algorithms'. Keeping this in mind while listening to the Mnuchin clip, it's unclear what he actually means when referring to AI. Although I suspect he's talking about the holy grail of AI, which is artificial general intelligence, or an AI that is indistinguishable from human intelligence.

If that is the case, then he did a disservice to the question, which was about the impact of AI on employment. Or, if you'll allow me to pluck out the metaphor, the impact of technology on employment, which is much more amorphous. Mnuchin's dodge was to say that, since we won't have human-equivalent AI for the foreseeable future, it's something that's not worth thinking about, at least until it happens. Come to think of it, I've heard this dodge before, mostly from the mouths of climate change skeptics and deniers. In both cases, the purpose is to obfuscate and delay until the truly catastrophic comes to pass, then innocently maintain that "no one could have seen this coming" or some such nonsense.

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by Tamuira Reid

The day Luna went mad her mother thought, finally. The signs had been there, hanging around at the dinner table, in the bathroom where she ironed her hair.

It had waited patiently in the corner of a room, under a chair, in the oven with the bread. Now they wouldn't need to wonder when it would all fall apart because it just had.

The day Luna went mad she was wearing pink lipstick. Her legs were waxed and smoothed down with cocoa butter because she was religious about that kind of thing. Never know who you're gonna see, she'd say, sliding a gold hoop through each ear.

It happened slowly and over a period of time. Shop closed. Her mind just closed-up on her. Went out of business.

Luna sang to the plants as she watered them. Would be normal except she thought she heard them sing back. Her mother turned up the radio and hung wet nylons from the fire escape.

It's hard to talk about it, when it's your daughter.

The emptiness in her eyes scared her mother. The empty blackness of her eyes. They held nothing but crazy and she knew that. And somewhere deep inside, her daughter knew what was happening too but she couldn't stop it.

The police said they had found her in the fetal position, on a sidewalk in Times Square. She was licking her arms like a cat. Her clothes sat next to her in a pile, perfectly folded. She wanted to go home if that was okay.

Sit. Eat.

My hair.

Your hair is perfect. Sit.

Her mother sat her down at the table and did what she did best. Fed her. A hot plate of arroz con pollo, a Malta, tostones with the heat still rising off them.

Something is happening to me, she said and stared out the window. A plastic bag floated by, white and ripped on one side.


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Relativity and relativism: stitching a world together

by Daniel Ranard

Stitching a treeIn the twentieth century, two important ideas arose with a nominal similarity: Einstein's theory of relativity on the one hand, and the idea of cultural or moral relativism on the other. It's probably fruitless to draw parallels between concepts that arose at distant ends of the intellectual spectrum—the hard sciences versus the humanistic disciplines—but sometimes you can't help yourself: "relativity" is right there in the name. In 1905, Einstein declared that certain facts about space and time are only true relative to a particular person or reference frame. In subsequent decades, philosophical "relativists" argued that questions of what is moral, what is true, or even what exists can only be answered relative to individuals or groups. Of course, Einstein's theory proved to be right, while the philosophical strand of relativism has evolved into a variety of contentious ideas.

First I will focus on Einstein's relativity, before touching on relativism in philosophy. To me, the story begins with two opposing accounts of what physics is. According to one account, physics provides an objective description of the world itself, like an encyclopedia entry on "The Universe." The encyclopedia tells you what stuff the world is made of and how that stuff behaves. This approach might be called the realist approach: physics presents objective facts about the real world.

Others prefer an "operationalist" account that focuses on the individual. By this account, physics is simply a collection of rules telling the individual what to expect in various circumstances. It's like a personal guidebook for experience: it predicts what you will observe when you follow various experimental procedures, like following a recipe in a laboratory. Unlike the realist's encyclopedia entry, the operationalist's guidebook does not attempt to describe the real world objectively. Instead, it prescribes how your experience should lead you to predict future experiences, using your own observations. Operationalists avoid referring to fundamental aspects of nature, like mass or length. To the operationalist, the length of an object is not some fundamental property – it's just a number you observe when you measure the object with a ruler, and any notion of length must be accompanied by well-specified procedure for how to measure it.

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Deep Disagreements and Argumentative Optimism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

ContemptWe all have had moments when we feel that those with whom we disagree not only reject the point we are focused on at the moment, but also reject our values, general beliefs, modes of reasoning, and even our hopes. In such circumstances, productive critical conversation seems impossible. For the most part, in order to be successful, argument must proceed against the background of common ground. Interlocutors must agree on some basic facts about the world, or they must share some source of reasons to with they can appeal, or they must value roughly the same sort of outcome. And so, if two parties disagree about who finished runners-up to Leister City in their historic BPL win last year, they may agree to consult the league website, and that will resolve the issue. Or if two travelers disagree about which route home is better, one may say, "Yes, your way is shorter, but it runs though the traffic bottleneck at the mall, and that adds at least ten minutes to the journey." And that may resolve the dispute, depending perhaps on whether time is what matters most.

But some disagreements invoke deeper disputes, disputes about what sources are authoritative, what counts as evidence, and what matters. Such disputes quickly become argumentatively strange. And so if someone does not recognize the authority of the soccer league's website about last year's standings, it is unclear how a dispute over last year's runners-up to Leister City could be resolved. What might one say to a disputant of this kind? Does he trust news sites, television reporting, or Wikipedia entries concerning the BPL? Does he regard the news sites and the league website as reliable sources of information concerning this year's standings or when the games are played? What if our interlocutor in the route-home case doesn't see why the quickest route is preferable to the shortest? Maybe our traveling companion regards our hurry-scurry as a part of a larger social problem, or maybe wants to enjoy the Zen of a traffic jam. Sometimes a disagreement about one thing lies at the tip of a very large iceberg of composed of many other, deeper, disagreements.

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Islamic Foreshadowing of Evolution

I will summarise the key elements of the modern science of evolution, and the reasons why the evidence in its favour is generally regarded among scientists as conclusive, before turning to my main theme, which is the extent to which Muslim scholars anticipated key aspects of the modern theory.

Paul Braterman at Muslim Heritage:

ScreenHunter_2648 Mar. 27 09.57We know what comes next, and they don’t. Bear that in mind whenever you see scholars commenting on the significance, in the context of today’s science, of thinkers who died centuries ago. To do them justice, we need to see the world through their eyes, not ours. But we too are people of our own time, and if we are looking for the origins of the concepts that concern us today, we would do well to start off by clarifying those concepts.

And so, in this article, I will summarise the key elements of the modern science of evolution, and the reasons why the evidence in its favour is generally regarded among scientists as conclusive, before turning to my main theme, which is the extent to which Muslim scholars anticipated key aspects of the modern theory. But remember that the aim is to understand their thinking in the context of their own time, rather than in the light of later knowledge.

I conclude that they made important contributions, and that one scholar (al Jahiz) even made the crucial step of realising that one species can evolve into another, and that what are now distinct species share a common ancestor. However, this is still a long way from recognising that such change is universal, or that even highly dissimilar species share a common ancestor, or that these facts are significant.

More here.

Sexual selection, in humans and in lizards

Ambika Kamath writes:

ScreenHunter_2647 Mar. 27 09.50Over the last few months, there’s been a slow-boiling battle underway between Holly Dunsworth and Jerry Coyne about the evolution of sexual dimorphism in humans, surrounding the question of why male and female humans, on average, differ in size. The battlefield ranged from blogposts to twitter to magazine articles. In a nutshell, Coyne argued that “sexual dimorphism for body size (difference between men and women) in humans is most likely explained by sexual selection” because “males compete for females, and greater size and strength give males an advantage.” His whole argument was motivated by this notion that certain Leftists ignore facts about the biology of sex differences because of their ideological fears, and are therefore being unscientific.

Dunsworth’s response to Coyne’s position was that “it’s not that Jerry Coyne’s facts aren’t necessarily facts, or whatever. It’s that this point of view is too simple and is obviously biased toward some stories, ignoring others. And this particular one he shares…has been the same old story for a long long time.” Dunsworth went on to propose, seemingly off the cuff, alternative hypotheses for sexual dimorphism in body size in humans that were focussed not on men but on women, as examples of the kind of hypothesis that is relatively rarely considered or tested in this field.

Though on the surface this battle may seem to be about specific biological facts (Coyne certainly tries to win by treating it that way), in reality this disagreement is, as Dunsworth argues, about the process by which hypotheses are tested and about how knowledge comes into existence. About which hypotheses are considered for testing in the first place.

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Long-Sought Research Deregulation Is Upon Us

Richard A. Shweder and Richard E. Nisbett in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

ScreenHunter_2646 Mar. 27 09.42It has been a 40-year labor: Regulatory systems are not easy to undo. Nevertheless, in January the federal government opened the door for universities to deregulate vast portions of research in the social sciences, law, and the humanities. This long-sought and welcome reform of the regulations requiring administrative oversight of federally funded human-subject research on college campuses limits the scope of institutional review board, or IRB, management by exempting low-risk research with human subjects from the board’s review.

The new regulations state: "We acknowledge that guidance may be useful for interpreting some of the terms in this exemption, and that some cases will be debatable. However, we also believe that a substantial number of research activities will plainly fit this exemption, and should be allowed to proceed without IRB review."

The exempted research activities include surveys, interviews, and other forms of free communication between researchers and human adults, aptitude testing, the observation and recording of verbal and nonverbal behavior in schools and public places (for example, courtrooms), benign behavioral interventions (including ordinary psychology experiments), secondary-data analysis, and other low-risk projects and research procedures.

More here.