Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Prayer of St. Francis

I don't like to use this as a forum to regurgitate the words of others but last night while in meditation the memory of my father's Irish tenor lilting these phrases came flooding back to me. I can't remember exactly how old I was or what we were doing but I know that he would often break into songs like this while he and I were cleaning the barn or completing some other menial task. It speaks to the kind of life my family has lived for generations.

My only hope is to honour the legacy.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

St. Francis of Assisi

Peace - Lauren

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ockham’s Razor

Behind the secrets of nature remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. – Albert Einstein

Ever wonder why physicists who’ve never been able to see an electron and can’t agree on the make-up of subatomic matter can turn around and treat people who believe in “god” as delusional?

I put “god” in quotations and use the lower case g here because I’m not in any way trying to make a case for God in the traditional, Abrahamic context. Anyone who truly knows me knows that I am both an unapologetic Christ Follower and staunchly irreligious. I’m merely trying to point out some odd contradictions that are over looked when taking a scientific world view and yet are the same types of contradictions that are used to make religious people look crazy.

Take for instance subatomic theory. Physicists cannot prove the existence of electrons. No machine has yet been invented that can magnify matter to that level; the best they can do is follow the scientific method of testing their theories in a controlled environment. However; in some cases electrons function very much like particles while in others they function like waves of energy. They cannot be both.

The theories that physicists have postulated for the make-up of matter at a subatomic level have been tested as much as possible at this time but they can be neither proven, nor disproven. At best we are left to continue to theorise and work within the “laws of nature” without really knowing how or why things work the way they do. That’s why I love the quote from Albert Einstein above.

Without comprehensive evidence in any one area we are left with what has become know has Ockham’s Razor. William of Ockham was a 14th century theologian who created the Law of Parsimony, most often expressed in Latin (pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate - plurality should not be posited without necessity) the law basically states that when competing hypotheses are equal in other respects, the hypothesis that introduces the fewest assumptions shall be considered correct. Or as Isaac Newton put it; “we are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.”

It is also interesting to point out as a side note that all three of these great men of science; Einstein, Ockham and Newton where also members of their respective churches (in Einstein’s case make that synagogue), but I digress.

Economists have a created a model for negotiation and forecasting called Game Theory, also known as a Sum Game. In a sum game you chart all of the potential outcomes of an event on a board. On one side you put all of the potential outcomes for one party, both good and bad and on the other side you put corresponding outcome for the other party. If party A achieves outcome X then party B will be affected in manner Y and so on.

The ultimate goal of such an exercise is to figure out what are the best possible outcomes for both parties and how to achieve that goal. This is known as the win-win. The end result is almost never an equal win for both parties however; there is always one party that wins more. The art of negotiation is to know when to accept what you have won and move on, either recognizing that you are negotiating from a position of weakness and cannot demand more or if you could get more to do so would un-necessarily oppress the other party and it is therefore prudent to stop. No one wants to lose so ending a negotiation in a win-lose scenario almost always results in some form of oppression and leads to civil unrest or war. In some instances a situation leads to a stalemate where neither party is willing to accept any of the solutions on the table. This leads to a long period of inaction that is generally only broken when the very act of not acting becomes itself a losing proposition. Stalemates are most commonly seen when unions go on strike until the financial cost to one party outstrips their cash reserves and forces them back to the negotiating table.

So, what does this have to do with “god” and Ockham’s Razor? Stay with me on this, we’ll get there I promise. But first we have to talk about one more thing.

Collective morality has evolved within societies as different cultures have rubbed up against one another and had to learn to live together. We can see throughout history that basic morality, right and wrong, are the same across multiple cultures through thousands of years. But where did all this morality come from?

If we play a sum game with evolving societies and collective morality we can see clearly that morality is a win-win. The sceptic will say “ah ha – if morality is a win-win then that proves there is no need for god, morality “evolved” because it just makes sense – we’ve got you!” But if morality evolved it would have had to have a beginning. Why wouldn’t the stronger party always go for the biggest win they could get? Remember we already established that win-win does not mean equal.

In fact win-win is against human nature. Human nature drives us to gain all we can and suffer the consequences later. Man has had to be taught to see the benefits of win-win and throughout history each generation has had to re-learn that lesson.

So if morality is not human nature and is something that has to be consciously taught to each new generation then it hasn’t really evolved at all. The seed of morality has always been there, innately within our human consciousness and it had to be planted somehow.

This brings us back to my friend William of Ockham. Sceptics will say that morality evolved naturally as man learned to live together but can never give a satisfactory answer as to how the seed got planted. I say the simplest explanation is the truest – that morality was planted in the brain of man by design.

Who or what that designer is and how you respond is a discussion for another time. All I ask is that you keep an open mind just like the great religious scientists of our past did.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How To Get Rich (or at least not go broke)

O God, I beg two favors from you;
let me have them before I die.
First, help me never to tell a lie.
Second, give me neither poverty nor riches!
Give me just enough to satisfy my needs.
For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?”
And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name. Proverbs 30:7-9

Hettie Ruth Wallace was born in 1916 and raised in the town of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. Maple Creek is a “one grain-elevator town” on the Canadian prairie almost exactly half way between Calgary and Regina. Then, as now, the main industry was agriculture.

Although not a licensed doctor, Hettie’s father had a smattering of medical education and in addition to his homestead on the edge of town he acted as somewhat of a local healer. In the winter of 1931-32, at the height of the depression, Maple Creek fell under the grips of a major flu epidemic. The nearly destitute “Doc” Wallace worked around the clock as one by one his neighbours fell ill and died. By mid-winter his own wife would be among the dead and devastated by the loss and exhausted from the constant demands of a sick population Wallace himself would fall ill and die before Easter, 1932.

A few weeks later, as spring was returning to the prairie sixteen year old Hettie boarded a train east to live with her cousins in Toronto. During the five day journey, surrounded by the desperate and destitute forced “ride the rails” in an effort to find work Hettie made a vow, NEVER to be a burden to anyone.

She got a job and started to pay her own way right from the start. Every week, after the groceries were purchased and rent paid every penny left over was put away. She married Fred Britton, a tool and die maker from the smoke stack community of Oshawa, Ontario in 1938 and continued to squirrel away money, even just one or two dollars at a time, for the next 70 years. She raised two daughters, was blessed with seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Other than a mortgage that was guaranteed by Fred’s WWII veteran’s pension, they never carried any debt.

Hettie and Fred were a perfect embodiment of the Protestant work ethic. Work hard, spend less than you make, and do if for a really long time and you will amass a fortune that is the envy of most of the world. The generation that defeated Hitler taught us these things and ushered in the longest and largest economic expansion in history. For two decades from 1953 to 1973 the western economy grew an average of 5% percent per year, with the average household income more than doubling in that time period. But as this generation started to retire and live off their hard earned savings something changed.

As Daniel Bell put it 1976, “The Protestant ethic was undermined not by modernism but by capitalism itself. The greatest single engine in the destruction of the Protestant ethic was the invention of the instalment plan, or instant credit.” (The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism).

Somewhere around the middle of this expansion corporations realized that people were sitting on a lot of money and in order for the expansion to continue they had to start spending it. One of the most effective ways to get people to spend money is to convince them that they have even more – the solution was credit. Buy now, pay later. Why? Because you deserve it and you’re going to make the money eventually anyway.

Thirty years after Bell made that observation the result, according to a recent issue of Maclean’s Magazine, is that the average Canadian home is now carrying unsecured debt equivalent to 140% of their annual income. Put another way, if you make $80,000 per year, you owe $112,000 on credit cards. The average rate of interest on unsecured debt is 16% with minimum payments roughly the equivalent of amortizing the principle over 5 years. That means if you stop using your cards today and paid only the minimum balance it would take a grand total of 386 months (just over 32 years) to completely eliminate your debt. Most people would likely accelerate their payments as things got easier but if we all decided to do this the economy would grind to a halt, throwing millions out of work and exacerbating the problem beyond imagination.

Having hitched our wagon to the train of easy credit can we ever go back? I don’t have the answer to that but what I do know is that we can’t continue down this path. If we all just asked a few questions before we made a purchase it could make all the difference in the world.

“Will I still be paying for this after I’m finished using it?”
“Will it become obsolete before I’m finished paying for it?”
“Will I end up owing more than I make?”

If the answer to any of these questions is yes – you can’t afford it and if you still want to purchase the item you better save up your money first.

So here is my modest pledge; In the spirit of Hettie and Fred Britton I promise to stop spending more than I make and hope you will to....

Hettie Ruth Britton (nee. Wallace) died in early September 2008 at the age of 92 – completely free of debt. Fred Britton, 94 years young, continues to live a productive and financially secure life 29 years after retirement, just blocks from the home he shared with Hettie for over 60 years.

Happy Valentine’s Day Grandpa! - thanks for the legacy.