All atoms are the same, life is an illusion, and God is real

A commentary from Scientific American argues life does not exist:

“Why is defining life so frustratingly difficult? Why have scientists and philosophers failed for centuries to find a specific physical property or set of properties that clearly separates the living from the inanimate? Because such a property does not exist. Life is a concept that we invented. On the most fundamental level, all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These arrangements fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity, from a single hydrogen atom to something as intricate as a brain. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.”

When I posted this on my Facebook page a few Christian friends objected. I am quite non-religious myself, but I feel there is still a strong philosophical argument that can be made for accepting the paragraph above and maintaining one’s faith in God:

I find this explanation wholly consistent with the existence of God. If both God and people exist he evidently made us out of something. Simply because he chose the same something to make both humans and, say, chairs does not imply there is not a hidden spiritual division between the two groups of atoms. Presumably God did not design a world where faith can only be accessed through a sophisticated understanding of modern science; otherwise He has condemned the unscientific mind without due consideration. Rather, faith in God’s existence should be apparent simply from the beauty of our visible world, the spiritual ties we feel toward one another, and the subtle yet distinct direction from God in our lives (which is especially evident after introduction to the teachings of Jesus Christ). That is, faith must be immune to the vicissitudes of scientific thought. Faith must be flexible enough to accept scientific discoveries in the physical and natural sciences, but rigid enough to maintain value in its own right. Some might say that science is the champion of imagination, but that faith is the ruler of the heart.

A Defense Against Mood Affiliation

Start with the proposition that outrage/support/passion should be proportional to knowledge. In other words, I should not be angry about something I know little about. Proceed through the following questions to assess how angry/supportive you should be (mainly relevant to issues of public policy):

1. Can I answer the next logical question to my statement? For example, if I am passionate that rich people do not pay enough in taxes can I answer the next obvious question, “How much do rich people pay in taxes?”


2. If I answered “yes” to #1 can I extend my knowledge one  step further and answer, “What do poor people pay in taxes? What do people in general pay?”


3. Take another step. Do I know the working definition of key terms? For instance, what does “effective marginal tax rate” mean or “proven oil reserves” or even “income”?


4. …and one more step, “Have I ever in my life read a single academic article/working paper/or think tank report about the issue?


5a. Now take a big leap toward knowledge about the subject more generally. What portion of the issue do I know (divide what I know by what is known)?

5b. Do I know enough to accurately estimate the denominator of 4a? 

If I believe FDR was the greatest American President presumably I should know a significant amount about the other 43 presidents. But knowing the number of US presidents is easy. Figuring how the evidence in support of different views on, say, income inequality or the minimum wage is more difficult. It’s hard for a layperson to even scope the amount of knowledge in existence. 4b is the step many otherwise well-educated people will fail. 


6a. What evidence would need to be presented for me to change my mind?

6b. Does that evidence already exist?

6c. Am I  sure (think again about step 4b)?


7a. Are there smart, knowledgeable people who disagree with me?

7b. What is their argument, how would I respond to it, and how would they respond to my response?


Select an issue at random. I would argue that with probability near 1 it cannot pass through the preceding sieve and remain unscathed even if conducted by an expert in the field. Most issues are extremely complicated. Most intellectuals will argue that “reasonable people can disagree.” Yet many less informed citizens would argue “anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot.” Next time you find yourself wanting to scream that at the top of your lungs try to answer the questions above. Maybe you’ll realize you’re not as sure as you think.


A $22-per-hour Minimum Wage?

Yesterday, during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Elizabeth Warren cited a study that found the minimum wage would be $22 today if it had kept up with productivity. I’m not sure what the implication of this is suppose to be. I see it as a sort of a non-point; since the late 1970’s wages in general have deviated from gains in productivity, a phenomenon that has been much studied in economics. Indeed, if wages had kept up with productivity there would be no need for a $22-per-hour wage floor since businesses would willing pay that wage to employees anyway. However, also note that productivity is not evenly distributed among the workforce. One reason (the only reason?) lower-skilled workers are paid less is precisely because they are less productive.

Maybe I’m confused, but I don’t see the underlying economic purpose to this hearing. Political purpose? Sure. Democrats want to suggest that the minimum wage is way too low, perhaps way to low. But economic purpose? No. I suspect even the most liberal labor economist would predict huge negative distortions to the labor market and a large spike in unemployment of unskilled workers if a $22 wage floor were instituted. As for the political message, I suspect it is something along the lines of:

“The minimum wage should be $22. But the current minimum wage is just one-third (!!) of this natural rate. We all know the Republicans will never allow legislation to pass that restores the minimum wage to this level, and at any rate perhaps such an increase is drastic. But surely we can all agree on the sensible step of raising the minimum wage of hard working Americans by a modest $2 an hour.”