April 19, 2017

1. Darwin Was A Slacker

The science magazine Nautilus calls itself “a different kind of science magazine.... Each issue combines the sciences, culture and philosophy into a single story.” Nautilus recently published an article called “Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too.” The article’s subtitle is, “Many famous scientists have something in common — they didn’t work long hours.”

Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking.

The English novelist Anthony Trollope is known for his precise schedule and his limited writing hours:

At 5 o’clock in the morning, a servant arrived with coffee. He first read over the previous day’s work, then at 5:30 set his watch on his desk and started writing. [Trollope] wrote 1,000 words an hour, an average of 40 finished pages a week, until it was time to leave for his day job at the post office at 8 o’clock. Working this way, he published 47 novels before his death in 1882 at the age of 67, though he gave little indication that he regarded this as remarkable, perhaps because his mother, who started writing in her 50s to support her family, published more than 100 books. He wrote, “All those I think who have lived as literary men — working daily as literary laborers — will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.”

If Trollope had written for nine hours a day instead of three, would he have produced three times as much? The Nautilus article says that rest is valuable. The author of the article, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, has written a book called Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. So perhaps Trollope was as productive in three hours as he would have been in nine hours. Perhaps he was more productive in three hours, perhaps he would have “burned out” working nine hours a day.

I find this viewpoint congenial because I myself work 2-4 hours in the early morning. The Nautilus article justifies my indolence, and says that I’m in illustrious company. My schedule isn’t as precise as Trollope’s (I don’t need to be at the Post Office at 8), but I probably spend about the same number of hours writing as Trollope did. Perhaps one reason I developed this schedule is that I listen to the teachings of Zen, which says that stress is unhealthy for your body and your mind. You can enjoy life, appreciate life, only if you have a calm mind. You can be effective only if you have a calm mind.

The Nautilus article discusses work hours per day. In my book of aphorisms, I discussed work hours per lifetime: “A genius who dies young usually works with great intensity, anticipating that death is near. Genius anticipates how much time it has to do its work, and paces itself accordingly.” Perhaps Trollope would have worked more hours per day if he were destined to die at age 25, as Keats did.

2. The Mesmerist

John Elliotson was an English doctor in the mid-1800s. He was known for his interest in “alternative medicine” — mesmerism, phrenology, acupuncture, etc. He’s the subject of a recent book, The Mesmerist: The Society Doctor Who Held Victorian London Spellbound, by Wendy Moore.

Elliotson was friends with literary men like Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, and Dickens. After watching one of Elliotson’s demonstrations, Dickens said, “I am a believer [and] I became so against all my preconceived opinions.” Elliotson was fiercely attacked by the medical establishment, stripped of his positions, and died penniless. (I discussed mesmerism in an earlier issue.)

In 1846, at the height of the furor over mesmerism, Elliotson delivered the Harveian Oration to the Royal College of Physicians of London. In his oration, Elliotson pointed out that

William Harvey, the man whom the Oration was honoring, had been forced to fight against the entrenched conservatism of the medical profession and its initial incredulity and resistance to his discoveries.

3. The Existence of God

A reader of this e-zine might say to me, “You argue that people who believe in God, people who believe in traditional monotheism, make no effort to prove the existence of God. But you yourself make no effort to prove that God doesn’t exist. Instead of challenging others to prove God’s existence, why don’t you try to prove God’s non-existence?”

I think earlier philosophers, like Nietzsche, have developed enough arguments for God’s non-existence; I don’t think today’s philosophers should focus on developing more such arguments. Furthermore, I think the burden of proof is on those who believe in a WorldCreating SuperBeing. And lastly, I think the best argument against God’s existence is a plausible picture of the universe that doesn’t make use of the God hypothesis.

If we can paint a plausible picture of the universe without God, then there’s no reason to bring in the wild hypothesis of a WorldCreating SuperBeing. This wild hypothesis was created thousands of years ago by people who had a very rudimentary understanding of science and psychology, people who couldn’t paint a plausible picture of the universe without the hypothesis of God. Now that we can paint such a picture, there’s no reason to bring in a SuperBeing.

The only reason to believe nowadays is that we’ve believed for thousands of years, so belief has become embedded in our culture, our morality, etc. We’re afraid of the consequences of unbelief; we’re afraid that unbelief would impoverish our culture, and deprive us of moral restraints. We shrink from the task of building a new religion on a solid foundation, a foundation consistent with contemporary knowledge.

4. Banfield on Welfare

I came across an essay on welfare by my former professor Ed Banfield.1 Welfare is the sort of subject that Banfield dealt with; he dealt with practical questions, especially those concerning American cities. The essay is so politically-incorrect, so contrary to liberal-academic orthodoxy, that it takes one’s breath away. The essay was published in 1969, in a journal called The Public Interest.

Here’s a passage from the essay:

The system [that is, the welfare system] enables a great many people who should work to escape work. I am not referring to mothers with dependent children — in my opinion most of them ought not to work. I am referring to the men who should be supporting those women and children but who are not because welfare relieves them of the necessity. There must be hundreds of thousands of these men. Some probably work about as much as they would if their families did not receive welfare; the difference is that they spend their earnings on themselves alone. (I conjecture that a considerable part of this spending is for illicit goods and services and therefore constitutes an inducement to others to engage in criminal activities.)

Banfield says, “The welfare system offers an incentive to wholesale lying and cheating.” Furthermore, the poor are inclined to lie and cheat:

Statistically speaking the poor are much more likely than the nonpoor to have what has been called a preconventional morality — one that says in effect that any action is “right” that serves your purpose and that you can get away with, and, second, the poor have little or nothing to lose if they are caught violating the law.

Banfield’s essay is politically-incorrect not only in its content, but also in its tone. For example, when Banfield is looking for the cause of a particular phenomenon, he says, “There is, of course, no reason to exclude the possibility of double causation, as in the case of a man who is simultaneously shot and stabbed.” Scholarly essays don’t usually contain such bloody analogies.

But despite Banfield’s politically-incorrect arguments and tone, his work wasn’t as controversial as one might suppose. For one thing, the forces of political correctness weren’t as powerful, as violent, as they are today. For another thing, it’s clear that Banfield is earnestly searching for truth, not just throwing raw meat to rabid partisans. Banfield looks at both sides of the issue, and it’s clear that he wants to help the poor to the extent that’s feasible. The reader of Banfield’s essay feels that Banfield has a contrarian edge, but also a good heart.

I once asked Banfield, “Why did you stop writing about urban issues?” He said it wasn’t worth it. Why stir up controversy? Why fight for ideas that weren’t going to be implemented anyway? So his writings did arouse some controversy and some protest, though not as much as one might suppose.

Certain basic ideas recur in Banfield’s writings. For example, he believed that some people could sacrifice present pleasure for future benefit, while others lived only for the present.2 I think he got this idea from Adam Smith — more specifically, from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. In his welfare essay, Banfield argues that welfare, by providing for a person’s future, encourages him to live for the present:

The number who will choose not to work is likely to be vastly greater in the next generation than in this one, for it must be remembered that new tastes and habits will over the long run be formed in response to the incentives and opportunities that the new situation provides. The more ample and dependable the provision that society makes for the individual’s future, the more encouragement it gives him to live only for the present.

Another one of Banfield’s basic ideas was that programs to help the poor were often motivated by guilt rather than generosity. He argues that high benefit levels could “swamp the system,” and therefore, “benefit levels ought not to be allowed to rise as high as generosity, or guilt, might prompt.”3

Though Banfield’s essay is practical, it sometimes raises philosophical issues. Banfield points out that, for most people, leisure is a difficult problem:

People who have learned the uses of leisure [are] few, even among the rich.... For most people, especially those who live in the present, work is the only available relief from boredom and the only source of discipline.

Banfield argues that government should promote the common good, the good of the whole society, not the good of a segment of society:

The government should use its power to take from some and give to others, not for the sake of the others, but only for that of the whole society. Except as there is good reason to believe that the whole society is somewhat improved by subsidizing farmers or homeowners or whomever, they should not be subsidized.

Banfield mentions the famous Moynihan Report of 1965, a report that discussed the breakdown of the African-American family. Banfield writes thus:

The Moynihan Report of a few years ago theorized that male Negro unemployment caused the breakup of the Negro family and that this in turn caused dependency rates [that is, welfare rates] to soar. I suggest that this theory would work better in reverse: it is high AFDC rates [that is, welfare rates] that are causing the breakup of the poor — and hence the Negro — family.4

Banfield continues thus:

The AFDC program [that is, welfare] offers low-income parents strong financial incentives to separate. The family may be able to get on welfare only if the father leaves or pretends to leave.... Usually, federal money is available only to fatherless families. [The system] removes any material incentive for a pregnant girl to marry the man who made her so.

Banfield’s argument leads to a rather grim conclusion:

I conclude that no welfare system can be satisfactory. A system that provides a high level of support for all who are by some reasonable definition poor will ipso facto offer powerful incentives that will induce a great many people to become (or pretend to become ) poor in order to qualify for benefits and will in the process give rise to intolerable side effects of the kinds that I have mentioned. On the other hand, a system that does not offer incentives powerful enough to produce these effects will ipso facto not provide generously, or even adequately, for the poor. There is no way out of this bind. One must make a choice among evils.

In 1997, the federal welfare program known as AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) was replaced by TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). According to Wikipedia, “Between 1996 and 2000, the number of welfare recipients plunged by 6.5 million, or 53% nationally.” Between 1996 and 2010, the number of people receiving welfare payments fell from about 12 million to 4 million. But welfare certainly hasn’t disappeared; the federal government currently spends some $18 billion per year on TANF.

© L. James Hammond 2017
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1. The essay was mentioned in the Weekly Standard’s Prufrock column, which is written by Micah Mattix. back
2. Was Banfield unaware of the Zen teaching that people should focus on the present? back
3. I mentioned both of these basic ideas in my earlier remarks on Banfield. back
4. I had the impression that Moynihan had said that welfare contributed to family breakdown, but apparently Moynihan didn’t say this, Banfield said this. Banfield’s summary of Moynihan’s position is consistent with Wikipedia’s remarks on Moynihan; Wikipedia says, “Moynihan argued that without access to jobs and the means to contribute meaningful support to a family, black men would become systematically alienated from their roles as husbands and fathers, which would cause rates of divorce, child abandonment and out-of-wedlock births to skyrocket in the black community.” back