Monday, January 10, 2005

The Devil is a Carl Sagan economist

Babble on.

I'd be lying to you if I said I always understand Curt's philosophical posts at North Western Winds. Of course, I'd be lying to you if I said I always care to. Someone (Socrates, apparently) said "the unexamined life is not worth living." Heh. He probably never had a contest - interrupted only by fits of giggling - with his four-year old to see who could blow the most bubbles with a straw in a glass of milk. Sometimes "the unexamined life" is damned good.

But Curt has posted an interesting snippet from C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters that makes me want to do a bit of examining. Specifically, it unintentionally poses the question of whether The Devil is behind most modern economic theory.

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on a recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specifically, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses.

Sounds an awful lot like the myth of scarcity to me. Encouraging the idea that we all have to claw at each other in constant struggle over the few scraps of land, or iron, or market share, or whatever, is a hellish proposal, if ever there was one.

In Unlimited Wealth, amidst a whole pot-pourri of other assertions whose merits I won't get into here, Paul Pilzer makes the astute point that cornering the market is only a viable strategy if it's possible to corner a market. For example, those who look to dominate the world's oil supply forget that the market is actually for energy, not oil. The minute human ingenuity discovers another way to power our lives, the importance of oil is diminished; given the discoveries of the past hundred years, and the accelerating pace of innovation, who would bet against our ability to find another way?

In this context, scarcity is simply a lack of imagination. We fight with each other like seagulls over half an anchovy washed up on the beach, because we lack the imagination to dive beneath the waves and catch the delicacies swimming a few feet beneath.

Of course, some people see The Devil a little differently. In a speech given recently by Michael Crichton (nod to Tim Blair), The Devil's influence on science is explored.

I expected science to be, in Carl Sagan's memorable phrase, "a candle in a demon haunted world." And here, I am not so pleased with the impact of science. Rather than serving as a cleansing force, science has in some instances been seduced by the more ancient lures of politics and publicity. Some of the demons that haunt our world in recent years are invented by scientists. The world has not benefited from permitting these demons to escape free.

If you read the rest of Crichton's speech - and I certainly encourage you to do just that, because it's excellent - you'll see I've taken this passage wildly out of context. He really wasn't saying science is the problem, but rather that scientists who don't follow science may well be; scientists who play on the fears of the population at large to feed their own desire for influence or to prop up their own prejudices.

Personally, I think they're both right, and more. The Devil can be seen in economics, in science, in politics, and in the whole rest of our lives. The common thread is fear. Inasmuch as scarcity and lazy or misleading science encourage us to live our short, frantic lives in fear, they are made tools of evil. I'm not the first person to say that, and it's not particularly deep, but I think we need to be reminded of it from time to time.

I'm not a religious man, partly because I've always found organized religion falls back on fear all too quickly to motivate good behaviour. Fire and brimstone, the wrath of God, and bad little boys go to hell - not my idea of spiritual inspiration. But I do believe in God.

Some people think God is love. They certainly have a case, depending on how you define love. From The Screwtape Letters again:

Now the Enemy's philosophy is nothing more or less than one continued attempt to evade this very obvious truth. He aims at contradiction. Things are to be many, yet also one. The good of one self is to be the good of another. This impossibility he calls love, and this same monotonous panacea can be detected under all He does and even all He is - or claims to be.

Maybe when I'm finally in God's embrace, I'll agree with that perspective. Right now, as a mortal human being, my point of view is somewhat different.

I tend to think God can be most closely equated to hope. Hope is the opposite of fear. Hope inspires us. Hope draws us in the right direction emotionally and spiritually.

We don't know what tomorrow will bring. In a world full of bad things and bad people, each of us must find something, some piece of philosophical flotsam to cling to in order to get through the next day. For some, it's love; for others, it's faith; for me, it's hope.

So I won't enjoin you to love everybody. Smack an economist for me. Kick your nearest scare-mongering pseudo-scientist if the urge overwhelms you. But I will encourage you to hope every day for a better one to come, and work to make your hopes reality. In other words, screw the inspiration of The Screwtape Letters.

Babble off.


At 7:19 p.m., Blogger Curt said...

Nice post Damian. I selected that particular passage from Screwtape because it hit on so many of themes I seem to come back to again and again at NWW. The economic angle is certainly one I am aware of, even if the current Trinity debate was in the forefront of my motivation yesterday.

In my debates with more libertarian bloggers I like to use their knowledge of free market strengths as well as the fallacies of scarity and try to draw a parallel to the social realm. ie. There's no shortage of good, kind things that we can do for our families or even just people that we meet.

Don't hoard your talents, in other words. Don't hold back.

I will also try to be less inscrutable... hmmm...

At 8:39 p.m., Blogger Gordon Pasha said...

... scientists who play on the fears of the population at large to feed their own desire for influence or to prop up their own prejudices. ...

Amen, Oh Brother, Amen.

As a scientist, Amen.

At 10:32 a.m., Blogger Rebecca said...

Good post, Damian! I don't always understand Curt's philosphical posts either... it's so hard being married to someone so inscrutable! I just keep bringing home chocolate once in awhile and that seems to make it all work. Thankfully, I am a fan of CS Lewis, so when he writes about him I have a snippet of a clue.

At 10:49 a.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Curt, you just keep being you. The blogosphere needs people like you to engage in some of the deeper stuff, because folks like me generally don't.

For heaven's sake, don't change a whit for a shallow buffoon like me!

At 10:54 p.m., Blogger Curt said...

I've done a follow up post at NWW. Here's the link:


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