Thoughts and Opinions

Feeling Blessed on Independence Day

On the fourth day of July, I tend to reflect on how lucky I am.  Having been born in America, I enjoy  prosperity, security and opportunity to a degree that surpasses the vast majority of other people, whether born in past centuries or the present one.  Tears have come to my eyes upon hearing a band play the Star Spangled Banner, or upon reading the words of the Declaration of Independence: that “all men are created equal;” that “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitle all people to “equal station;” that our common Creator has endowed all of us  with certain inalienable rights, which include “the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Feeling much the same way I do, we Americans will celebrate our love for our country today with hot dogs, beers and fireworks, not to mention speeches and tributes paid to the land we’re so blessed to call our own.

This year, as I count my blessings once again, immigration policy is much in the news.  I find myself reflecting on the accident of birth that puts me in this privileged place.

The concept of citizenship began in the ancient world as a set of rights and responsibilities attaching to those born in places like Athens or Rome where democracy was born.  Later, there came a time when a non-citizen could gain the privilege of citizenship by serving in the army.   It has always made sense to me that a person willing to put his or her life on the line for a country should earn the benefits of citizenship in it.  If veterans feel a degree of pride in their country, I get that.  They defended it; they deserve to be proud; it’s easy to agree they deserve to benefit from membership in that society.

But I am not one of them.  As I approached the age of military service in 1970, a new system was instituted in which conscription depended on the accident of one’s birth.  I was lucky again.  My birthday was so far down on the list, I knew right away I’d never be drafted to fight in Viet Nam.  I could have volunteered,  but I chose instead to finish school, get a job, and start a family – reaping the benefits of the prosperity, security and opportunity my country offered me.  It’s easy to thank those who’ve fought for this country; but it’s hard for me to conclude that I, who did not serve,  deserve to be here.  I mean, some of my ancestors fought for this country.  They arguably earned their citizenship.  Did they earn mine, too?  Or was mine simply an accident of my birth, like my lottery number?

We’ve been hearing two types of news stories on immigration policy these days.  From one side, we get Donald Trump meeting with the mother of a youth murdered by an illegal alien; behind her are crowds waving banners, demonstrating  for “zero tolerance,” anxious to build walls on our borders.  Some of us wonder if our President believes that people born in other countries are mostly criminals, anxious to steal our jobs and our welfare money, if not our wallets outright.  From the other side, we get photographs of crying babies separated from their parents; behind them are politicians proclaiming that children belong with their families, and protesters waving banners, pointing fingers at the statue of liberty and wanting to abolish I.C.E.  Some of us wonder if they believe everyone in the world should be eligible for American food stamps, health care, and taxpayer-funded schools.

There aren’t too many issues about which I have no opinion, but I can genuinely say that immigration policy has long been one of them. Frankly, I’ve never thought about it much, until recently.  But seeing the photos of crying babies and grieving moms, I questioned whether I could form an opinion about our immigration policy on the basis of the news our media outlets share.  For me, the answer was a resounding no.  I mean, a lot more Americans get murdered by American citizens than by illegal aliens.  And we separate children from their parents all the time, through mandatory education, custody hearings, foster care, imprisonment of criminals, and (at times) military conscription.  How could I decide my position on our immigration policies based on a barrage of soundbites of crying children and grieving mothers?

After reflection, I decided I was wrong.  Emotional appeals do have a place in the debate.  But surely not the only place.  If I’m going to form an opinion,  I want to have data.  Even to have a civil, intelligent conversation  about immigration, I feel a need for data.  How much immigration do we currently allow?  How much immigration do other countries allow?  How does the rate of immigration to the U.S. compare to U.S. population growth stemming from the accident of birth in this country?  Genuinely lacking any opinion on the immigration debate, I want answers to such questions.  I  value them at least as much as the emotional soundbites the news media showers me with.    But no one in the media, and no one on either side of the debate, seems interested in giving me that sort of information.  So finally, last night, I started to do, for myself, what I think more responsible news media should be helping me with.    I decided to look for a few basic facts.

The first things I Googled on were population density and population growth.  Oddly enough, in both cases, Google took me to information maintained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.  (Hmnnn.  Think about that for a while.  Then check out the CIA’s “World Factbook,” at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2002.html and https://www.indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?v=21000.)  Should a country’s immigration policy have anything to do with population density or current population growth?  I had a gut feeling it might, or I wouldn’t have Googled on population density in the first place.  But if population density is relevant, why?  How ought it affect my thinking? I didn’t know why,  but  my taste for data about populations led me to the CIA.

I haven’t finished my search for data by any means, and I still haven’t taken sides about immigration policy, but here’s what I’ve found so far:

The planet has a land mass of 129,721,455 square kilometers and a population of 7.6 billion people. Global population density is therefore, on average, 58 people per square kilometer.

The United States has a land mass of 9,158,160 square kilometers and a population of 325,700,000 people. U.S. population density is therefore, on average, 33 people per square kilometer.  In other words, America is only a little more than half as densely populated as the world as a whole. “Is this relevant?” I ask myself.

The world’s highest population densities are in countries like mostly urban Singapore, with its tiny land mass and a population density of 8,188 people/sq.km.  The lowest densities are in mostly uninhabited countries like Greenland, which has only .03 people /sq.km.  Does the fact that Greenland is a vast, sparsely populated area mean that Greenland ought to be able to accommodate more future population growth than urban Singapore?

Despite the enormous existing difference between Greenland and Singapore, the population of already-crowded Singapore is growing by 1.82 percent every year – while the population of Greenland is growing by only 0.03% every year.  Hmnnn…   Is it because urban Singapore has greater natural resources and so can support more people?  Is it because more people want to live in Singapore?  Should the answer to either question have a bearing on Singapore’s immigration policies?  Or on ours?  (Come to think of it, should all countries base their immigration policies on the same set of values and goals?)

Obviously, there are differences of climate, topography, and natural resources between all countries. Should such differences be considered in comparing the capacity (or obligations?) of countries to grow their populations? If a country has more natural resources and more habitable land than its neighbors, should it absorb a greater share of the world’s population, or should its current citizens do what they can to keep those resources and that land for themselves?

With such questions in the back of my mind, I decided to do some more comparisons, using the CIA data on population density and annual growth rates for about 235 countries around the world.  (Notably, the CIA data combines net population changes from immigration and emigration with changes from births and deaths, to come up with a single figure for population growth rate.   I’d be interested in breaking the total growth rates into separate components, but haven’t yet found a source for that sort of breakdown.)  In the meantime, with the data already found, I began by comparing the United States to the world as a whole:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth
WORLD

129,721,455

58 1.06
Average country (of 235 total)

552,006

58

1.06

United States

    9,158,960 33

0.81

Does this bare-bones data bear on what U.S. immigration policy ought to be?  Does it suggest additional inquiries that ought to be made?

I then compared the United States to the other major economic powers that comprise the G7.  In descending order of population density, they are:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth
Japan 366,700 334 0.21
United Kingdom 241,930 265 0.52
Germany 349,130 225 0.16
Italy 294,110 206 0.19
France 547,566 104 0.39
United States 9,158,960 33 0.81
Canada 9,093,510 3 0.73

Compared to the other G7 countries, the United States and Canada have by far the lowest population densities; they also have the highest rates of population growth.  What factors contribute to this?  Why is the U.S. growing so much faster than Germany, Italy, and Japan?

I then compared the United States to other countries arguably in the same league as the U.S. in size, modernity, culture or prosperity.  This one, too, is in order of population density:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth
South Korea 96,460 513 0.48
Israel 21,649 399 1.51
India 2,973,190 389 1.17
China 9,388,250 143 0.41
Spain 500,210 96 0.78
Ireland 68,890 71 1.15
United States 9,158,960 33 0.81
Brazil 8,358,140 24 0.73
Sweden 410,340 22 0.81
Argentina 2,736,690 16 0.91
Saudi Arabia 2,149,690 13 1.45
Russia 16,389,950 8 0.08
Australia 7,682,300 3 1.03

Countries like Israel, Ireland, and India are already far more densely populated than the U.S., yet are growing far faster.  Russia is far less densely populated than the U.S., and it is hardly growing at all.  What is driving these differences?

Finally, because so much of the current attention is on immigration through Mexico  from Central America,  I decided to compare the U.S. to those countries:

Country Square km of land Population Density/km Annual % Population Growth
El Salvador 20,850 293 0.25
Guatemala 107,160 141 1.75
Costa Rica 51,060 96 1.16
Honduras 111,890 80 1.60
Mexico 1,943,950 63 1.12
Panama 74,340 49 1.27
Nicaragua 120,340 46 0.98
United States 9,158,960 33 0.81
Belize 22,810 15 1.80

With the exception of Belize – which is less than half as densely populated as the U.S., but growing more than twice as fast – all the countries in this table have significantly higher population densities than the U.S., and all but one are growing substantially faster.

There’s a lot more data I’d like to have.  GDP and per capita income comparisons might be relevant. (I have a pretty good idea that the U.S. would be at the top, but how strong a correlation exists between a country’s prosperity and its population growth, more generally?)  I’d also like to break population growth into separate numbers for birth rates, death rates, and immigration.  (Is all that growth in Guatemala coming from babies, or are people immigrating there?)

You may question why I started with population density, and population growth, at all.  Should immigration policy be driven by entirely different considerations?  Maybe so.  But in the mean time, the data I’ve collected has already started influencing my thinking more than media sound bites.  More than 75% of the countries in the world are already more densely populated than the U.S.   Meanwhile, the populations of more than half the countries in the world are currently growing faster than ours.  It doesn’t seem to me we can base immigration restrictions on an argument that we’re overcrowded, or already growing too fast, compared to other countries. Or is there some reason we still could?

Without any data comparison at all, my gut tells me that among the nations of the earth, our climate is among the most habitable, our land among the most fertile, and our economy among the most robust.  In fact, along with the ideals on which our country was founded, those blessings have a lot to do with my tears on the Fourth of July.    I’m therefore ready to ask whether the right immigration policy – whatever it might be – should be judged on what most benefits the people lucky enough to be born in this country, or the policy that we’d counsel other countries to adopt if we made a swap — if they had our land, population  and natural resources, and we had theirs.   Our Declaration of Independence declared that all men share the same inalienable rights.   Is it fair to ask whether we’ve become like passengers on a crowded lifeboat, deciding who most deserves a seat?  Would an argument that immigration policy should be designed to benefit only those already here boil down to anything more than lunch counter’s policy of “First come, first served”?

Since the news media has no desire to give me anything but tears and protest signs, crying children and grieving mothers, I’d be interested in hearing reasoned opinions about stricter or more lenient immigration policy.  But meaning no offense to the individuals in media soundbites, and (I hope) no lack of sympathy for their personal trials, I believe the media has shared enough of the partisans’ appeals to passion and emotion.    I want more data!  And along with it, I want more civil discussion about what the goals of any immigration policy ought to be — ours included.

Meanwhile, I’m still feeling blessed to be able to call myself an  American, still feeling lucky to have been born here.

To all (whether lucky or not) I wish a blessed Fourth of July.

— Joe

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There’s Nothing Like a Really Good Shower

Like many of you, I do some of my best thinking in the shower.  Have you ever wondered why?

Last night, my attention turned to the simplicity around me.  I was standing in a tub, with three walls and a shower curtain bounding my world.  Before me, four items of chrome: the shower head, a control plate, a faucet, and a drain.  At my side, a soap dish, a bar of soap, and a bottle of shampoo.  Once I’d turned the water off, there was nothing more.

When I opened the curtain, there was plenty more to see: a vanity, a mirror, a toilet, a pair of towel racks hung with towels, a bathrobe hanging from a hook on the door.  But as I inventoried this expanded-but-still-small world, I realized there was no end to the counting: three pictures on the walls, light fixtures, a light switch, a door knob, brass hinges, a toilet tissue dispenser, baseboards,  two floor mats, a patterned linoleum floor, and no fewer than twenty-six items on the vanity, from deodorant and toothpaste to a tub of raw African shea butter.  Two of the twenty-six items were ceramic jars, filled with scissors, tweezers, nail clippers, cotton swabs, and  other modern necessities.  Most of the items were labeled, little sheets of paper glued on them, each little sheet bearing product names, ingredients, and warnings in tiny fonts and a wide array of colors.

Early in fifth grade, Paul Czaja had our class use a sheet of paper, telescoped into a tube, to survey our surroundings.  The idea seemed too simple – easy to dismiss because we already “knew” the result.  But actually trying it proved us wrong.  Paul insisted that, one eye shut, we keep the other at one end of the scope for five minutes; he wouldn’t let us stop or look away.  Forced to view our classroom from these new perspectives, we were amazed at how different it became.  Desks, windows, blackboards and classmates disappeared, replaced by a tiny spider web  that trapped an even tinier bug in a corner; the pattern in the grain of a piece of wood; a piece of lint trembling in an unseen movement of air like a piece of desert tumbleweed.

As I toweled dry after my shower, the world of things too small to notice most of the time came into sharper focus.  My attention turned to things I go through life ignoring.  From the confines of my bathroom, I took stock of the unseen.

The room, I supposed, and no doubt my own body, were covered with bacteria.  (I might have found that thought abhorrent once, but today, nourished by probiotics and kombucha tea, I find it comforting.)   In the empty space between me and the mirror, I imagined all the even smaller things I couldn’t see, the atoms of nitrogen and oxygen, the muons and the quarks, the billions of things that swirl around me, unseen, though I breath them in and out, and though they sustain me.

I thought of things in the bedroom and the hall, and the things out in the yard, and things so far away that I couldn’t see them, even in the vast night sky beyond the bathroom’s walls because I don’t have X-ray vision and can’t see things more than a few million miles away.

But it wasn’t a matter of distance, size and walls alone that limited my sight.  I thought of all the colors I’d never be able to see, because the cones in my eyes don’t react to all the wavelengths of light that exist.  And  moving past the limitations of sight, I thought how oblivious I am to odors;  that every one of those ingredient labels lists chemicals and molecules  easily distinguishable by dogs, probably despite their containers, but all those stray molecules float into my nose unnoticed.

I hear but little of what there is to hear.  Some sounds are simply too quiet.  Others are loud enough to make dogs and teenagers come to attention,but too high pitched for my adult ears  to discern.  Others are at frequencies too low. And even dogs and teenagers hear but a tiny fraction of the oscillations that twitter, snap and buzz in the world around us.

Taste?  Surely, the world has more complexity to taste than five types of gustatory cells whose highest achievement lies in their ability – acting as a team –to distinguish  between  sweet, sour,  bitter, salt and savory.

And what about the things we call “forces”?  How often are we conscious of gravity?  If I focus on it, I can imagine that I feel the gravitational pull of the earth, but have I ever felt the pull of the moon?  And have I ever once thought about the gravitational pull of the vanity, the toilet, and the doorknob?  How often do I focus on the domino effect of the electrons hopping and pushing, connecting the light switch to the fixture?  And do I ever think of the magnetic fields surrounding them?  Unless I’m shocked by the sudden release of static electricity, I go through life completely oblivious to its existence .

Perhaps most of all, I’m unconscious of myself – the flow of hormones  that affect my mood; the constant traffic in my nervous system that never reaches my brain, much less my conscious thought; the processes of liver,  kidney and thalamus that keep me going.

In short, the world I experience, through my senses, is but a tiny fraction of the real world in which I live.

Yet that’s not all.  I haven’t even begun to count the ways my brain deceives me.  In fact, it wouldn’t be doing its job if it didn’t distort reality. The tricks my brain plays on me take the already small portion of reality I’m able to sense, and make it appear to be something other than it is.

My eyes see two different views of the world, but – as if it’s afraid I couldn’t handle multiple points of view – my brain tricks me into thinking I see only one.

When I turned off the shower, my world was completely silent – or so it seemed.  I’d heard the cessation of the water coming down.  It being late at night, there were no voices from downstairs, no television blaring, so my brain told me – convincingly – that the bathroom was silent.  Only when I closed my ear canals by pressing flaps of flesh to cover them did I realize that the hum of ambient background noise was now gone.  That noise had been so normal, so much a part of the ordinary, that my brain had convinced me it wasn’t there.  (My highly evolved brain still wants to know: What’s the use of  listening to background noise?)

Early on, my brain tricked me into thinking that some things are up and others are down, and that up and down are the same everywhere.  (I spent a lot of time as a child worrying about the people in China.)  And it was so intent on perpetuating this deception that when my retinas saw everything in the world “upside down,” my brain flipped the world around to be sure I saw everything “right side up.”

One of the brain’s most convincing tricks is what it does with my sense of touch.  It has convinced me  I’m doomed to a life in touch with the ground;  I’ve often regretted my inability to fly.  But in fact, I’m told, the stuff of which I’m made has never  come in contact with the ground, or with any other stuff at all  – if it had, I’d have exploded long ago.  The sense of touch might better be called the pressure of proximity.  All that time I dreamed of  flying, I was floating all the while!

How about my  sense of who I am?  I wonder if that’s not the biggest trick of all.  When my body changes with every bite of food, every slough of skin, every  breath of air I take, no present cell or atom there on the day I was born, is my very sense of self an illusion, created by my brain “for my own good”?

And so I surveyed the bathroom.  Having first considered  the things too small to notice,  or too quiet, or too far away, or at not the perfect frequency, and having then considered ways my brain tricks me, I next encountered a whole new category of deception.  As my eyes fell on various objects, I noticed something else my brain was doing.  For example: on the toilet tank was a vase full of flowers, but not real ones— pieces of plastic, molded and colored to look like real ones.  Another example: one of the pictures on the wall was of a swan and her cygnets – not a real swan, but a mixture of acrylics applied to a canvas, a two-dimensional image designed to give the illusion of life in a three dimensional pond.  The painting was designed to make me think of something not there, and it did. I didn’t think “acrylics,” I thought “swan.”   And as soon as it had done that, my brain had me thinking of the artist – my wife, Karen – and of her skill with a brush,  and of her sense of color, and of some of the many ways in which she’s blessed me through the years.  And I realized that all these mental associations, these illusions, these memories, form an extremely important part of the reality in which I live, despite the fact that they don’t reside in the  space between me and the mirror (at least not literally).  The flowers in the vase are just molecules of colored plastic, but  my brain gives them a fictional existence – a story of smells and bees and fresh air and blue sky, and all the associations that “flowers” evoke in my brain.  The swan and her cygnets remind me not only of a wife who paints, but of our children, and of times we walked  together, along water banks, watching swans and cygnets swim by. My mind, I realize, is a factory, churning out a never-ending assembly line of associations, all of which are things that “aren’t really there.”

And so, I conclude, I’ve spent a lifetime in a shower of a different sort –bombarded by  atoms, muons, quarks and dark matter, things so small I call them emptiness,  all the while pulling associations, memories, and narratives into my world that aren’t really there.

When I say they aren’t really there, I don’t mean to deny that Karen, and swans, and flowers, are real – but that memory itself is reconstructive.   My memories are hardly exact replicas of things I’ve experienced;  they’re present creations, constructed on the spot in a crude effort to resemble prior experience.  The result is affected by my mood, and by error, and by all sorts of intervening experiences.

And so, I  live in a world that isn’t the real world, but one extremely limited by my meager human  senses; one corrupted by a brain that’s determined to distort things, for my own good; one filled with the products of my own defective memory and my own boundless tendency to imagine things that aren’t there.  Somehow, I’m able to deal with the shower of inputs so created, over-simplified, distorted and augmented as it may be – in fact, I’m pretty well convinced that I can deal with it a lot easier than I could deal with the vast complexity of the “real thing.”

I woke up this morning hoping that I never lose sight of the difference between the two.

— Joe

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The Last Word

With much sadness, I have just now changed this website’s description of one of We May Be Wrong’s founding members – from the present tense, to the past.

In 1960, a 24 year old Dr. Paul Clement Czaja (January 9, 1936 – May 8, 2018) had just earned his Ph.D. in philosophy when he persuaded Nancy Rambush (then headmaster of the Whitby School and founder of the American Montessori Association) to let him teach existential philosophy to children.  She was impressed with his enthusiasm and his willingness to work for practically nothing, but since she thought parents might not understand the importance of teaching philosophy to children, she asked if he wouldn’t mind teaching other things as well.  So Paul “officially” taught creative writing, Latin and various other subjects not often taught to ten year olds.  But philosophy was his first love, and it found its way into everything.

Only fourteen years older than me, Paul was more an older brother than a teacher.  He showed me how to love the world around me; introduced me to the joy of learning everything I could about it.  The way a magnifying glass could make fire; the way Latin could turn language on its head yet still come out as modern English; the thrill of catching butterflies in nets; the way the Greek Alphabet could be painted with Japanese brushes and jet-black ink; the vital inner parts of dissected foetal pigs; the wonders of the Trachtenberg system of mathematical calculation; the wiggling of microscopic paramecia in pond water; the thrill of catching people and their stories with a 35 millimeter still camera, that of making our own stories with  a 16 millimeter movie camera, and then, the even weirder thrill of telling stories with frame-by-frame, stop-motion photography; the writings of Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and James Baldwin; the power of telling stories of our own  with just pen and ink.  We spliced and edited rolls of movie film we’d made and, somehow, we even enjoyed diagramming sentences, rummaging through grammar the way we searched for the Indo-European roots of words. Though I was not yet a teenager, Paul introduced me to Ingmar Bergman movies, to Van Gogh’s Starry Night, to Rodin’s The Thinker, and to Edward Steichen’s photographic exhibition,  The Family of Man.

To say the least, it was not your typical middle-school education.

They say that when a butterfly flaps its wings, it can have profound effects on the other side of the world – a concept I first heard from Paul, I’m sure.  If I hadn’t met him, he wouldn’t have written the recommendation that got me into Phillips Exeter, and I wouldn’t have… well, if a single butterfly flapping its wings can have a profound impact, having Paul as a teacher every day (winter and summer) for four impressionable years was like being borne to Mexico by millions of Monarchs.  We stayed in touch during my later school years, and then persisted in friendship as the difference in our ages seemed to vanish with the passage of time.  And so, I was pleased that he joined We May Be Wrong in 2016 as one of our founding members.

But now, it’s time for a confession.  As we tried to get our new website off the ground, Paul proposed that WMBW publish a poem he had written.  Being a man of great faith, Paul wrote a lot about God – prayers, poems, meditations.  When he proposed that WMBW publish his poem, I disagreed on the ground that I didn’t want the brand new website to come across as “pro” or “anti” anything controversial.  I didn’t want to risk alienating potential followers, be they liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, believers or non-believers, by implying some sort of hidden agenda.  (The ONLY agenda was to be the benefit of listening to others with an open mind.)  Holding the keys to the publishing platform, I declined to publish his poem lest it be misunderstood to evangelize about God, rather than fallibility.  But even then, I told him, once the website has been up for a while, we might be able to publish that sort of thing.

Well, the time has come.  I wish I’d published it before he left the earth he loved for the better one he yearned for.  For Paul,  I can only say a prayer of thanks for all he did for me, and for so many other children, and now, share his wonderful poem.  (It seems only right that he should have the last word.)

Fire in the Soup: A Creation Story

It happened

when

this earth

had just cooled down

from

being molten magna

to being

simmering

and steaming

rock,

and

when

the vaporous skies

had emptied

eons of towering cumulus

clouds of rain

making oceans

which

were so great

that

the whole sphere

became

much more a watery world,

and

the rocky land

was

but one large

continental island

there

in the middle

of a now

beautiful blue planet.

 

And then

when the heavens

were no longer

veiled

by that thick

envelope

of sulphurous cloud cover,

and

the earth’s atmosphere

became

pure and clear

and

allowed

the stars of the universe

to shine

so brightly

that

the night sky

seemed to be

white

with black peppery dots,

it

happened

that a flame

came streaking

through the sky

down

to earth

sizzling

the warm soup

of the sea

somewhere

changing

and

charging

that chemical mineral ooze

into

the very first

protozoa

that ever was

on this

so singular planet.

 

Later

when that protozoa

eventually became

thinking,

questioning,

wondering

man,

the idea

arose

that perhaps

that life causing

flame

which

once upon a time

sizzled

the oceanic soup

could be

the pure energy

that is

love,

and

if

that were

so,

then

all life

that

ever evolved

from

that first protozoa

would be

somehow

spiritual

and

of the eternal God —

for

philosophers

and

theologians

say

that

God is love.

Such a thought

seems to be

a happy,

hope filled,

heuristic

kind of

thinking.

–Paul Clement Czaja

 

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Love and Long Life

I just got back from a foray into the unfamiliar.  The unfamiliar nearly always gets me thinking (which is why I love it so).  And sometimes, you get another WMBW post as a result.

In this case, the experience wasn’t entirely unfamiliar.  It was my fiftieth high school reunion.  But as familiar as some of the attendees were, I encountered people different than the ones I had known fifty years before. Older, of course.  And wiser, I should hope.

There was a meeting of former classmates, a discussion session, planned as an exchange of ideas.  I was scheduled to speak briefly on the subject of We May Be Wrong.  The moderator who kicked off the session – now a well-known author and psychiatrist – began with the assertion that it is Love – along with the treasured relationships that bind us together on account of Love – that is the single best predictor of having a long life.  In study after study, said the moderator, the correlation between a long life and a life that includes friendships and social relationships with loved ones and friends is strong – stronger, in fact, than with any other predictor.  By returning to campus because of our bonding, we had self-identified as people who, on average, would lead a long life.

I do not doubt such research results.  I instinctively feel that the proposition is true.  It resonates with my WMBW perspective.  I immediately bonded with the speaker, sensing we had much in common.  And as I waited for my turn at the podium, I hoped my message would be well received.  I looked forward, in other words, to increasing the bond between my audience and myself.  I wanted to feel more of that love, even if it didn’t add a few more hours to my life.

But then, the assertion was made that one reason we classmates had so bonded as to travel from across the country, and even from some other countries, to reassemble fifty years later, was that our common enemies had created an especially strong bond among us.  The school’s Dean during our years in school was identified as one of them; when a class member suggested we take time to share stories about the man, there was no shortage of volunteers.  (Needless to say, all the stories were about how inhuman and unfeeling he was, and every one was welcomed with nods, and laughter, and more love.) President Lyndon Johnson was another target, and the Vietnam war: both were identified as things we all opposed, things that brought us together in love and portended well for our future longevity.

The moderator then said we ought to be proud, describing us children of the sixties as the generation that had changed the course of America by championing love, peace, and understanding.

In fact, between 1964 and 1968, I and a few other nerds had been members of the Young Americans for Freedom.  If you’re too young to remember it, the YAF was a student group that supported the war in Vietnam and other conservative political positions.  What’s more, I’d never had a run-in with our dean.  While in school, I had had a problem identifying with all the “bonding love” my classmates felt; during my years there, I’d felt shunned and ridiculed by them on account of my minority beliefs.  The ridicule led me, in those vulnerable years, to withdraw from my politically-charged peers.  To keep my political views to myself.

As I recalled these teenage experiences, I found myself contemplating something that had been said at breakfast that morning by a different attendee.  She had cited recent scientific research to the effect that the electro-chemical activity in the brain that occurs when we are with loved ones, feeling the bonds of strong community, is precisely the same as the activity occurring when we come together and hate (or at least disapprove of) those not within our group.

This, too, struck me as all but self-evident.  After all, why is it that having a common enemy causes us to unite, to feel comfort,  security, and all the ties that bind?

A few minutes later, when I got up to speak about We May Be Wrong, I found that some things hadn’t changed from fifty years earlier.  I still hoped my thoughts would be well received.  I still wanted to feel some of that love.  To belong to the tribe.

The world is a lonely place, from the outside, looking in.

– Joe

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Cretins

In 1595, the early English explorer and colonist, John Davys, wrote in The Worlde’s Hydrographical Discription, Thomas Dawson, London,

“There is no doubt that we of England are this saved people, by the eternal and infallible presence of the Lord predestined to be sent into these Gentiles in the sea, to those Isles and famous Kingdoms, there to preach the peace of the Lord; for are not we only set on Mount Zion to give light to all the rest of the world? *** By whom then shall the truth be preached, but by them unto whom the truth shall be revealed?”

In the 1850’s, the Reverend Augustus Longstreet – president of a leading American University and minister of the Lord – wrote to his son-n-law regarding the unreasonable behavior of his slaves:

“The creatures persistently refuse to live together as man and wife, even after I have mated them with all the wisdom I possess, and built them such desirable homes.”

About the same time, the famous case of the slave, Dred Scot, wound its way up to the Supreme Court of the United States.  On its way, the Supreme Court of the state of Missouri found that one of the key issues before it was whether African slavery really did exist for the benefit of the slaves.

Of course, we’ve come a long way since then.  In 1997, Robert Hendrickson wrote, in The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Checkmark Books :

“cretin.  Our pejorative cretin, for “an idiot,” began as a kindly word.  In the Middle Ages many deformed people with a low mentality lived in the Alpine regions, their condition resulting from a thyroid condition now known as myxedema, which was possibly caused by a deficiency of iodine in their drinking water.  These unfortunates were called Chrétiens, “Christians,” by the Swiss, because the word distinguished human beings like these people from brutes, and they believed these childlike innocents were incapable of actual sin.  But the kindly word went into French as cretin, meaning “idiot,” and retained the same meaning when it passed into English.”

It leaves me wondering: if our best navigators, University presidents, and supreme courts can be such cretins, where does that leave the rest of us?

Honk if you love word origins.

– Joe

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Zooming In

Neil Gaiman tells the story of a Chinese emperor who became obsessed by his desire for the perfect map of the land that he ruled. He had all of China recreated on a little island, in miniature, every real mountain represented by a little molehill, every river represented by a miniature trickle of water.  The island world he created was enormously expensive and time-consuming to maintain, but with all the manpower and wealth of the realm at his disposal, he was somehow able to pull it off.  If the wind or birds damaged some part of the miniature island in the night, he’d have a team of men go out the next morning to repair it.  And if an earthquake or volcano in the real world changed the shape of a mountain or the course of a river, he’d have his repair crew go out the next day and make a corresponding change to his replica.

The emperor was so pleased with his miniature realm that he dreamed of having an even more detailed representation, one which included not only every mountain and river, but every house, every tree, every person, every bird, all in miniature, one one-hundredth of its actual size.

When told of the Emperor’s ambition, his advisor cautioned him about the expense of such a plan.  He even suggested it was impossible.  But not to be deterred, the emperor announced that this was only the beginning – that even as construction was underway on this newer, larger replica, he would be planning his real masterpiece – one in which every house would be represented by a full-sized house, ever tree by a full-sized tree, every man by an identical full-sized man.  There would be the real China, and there would be his perfect, full-sized replica.

All that would be left to do would be to figure out where to put it…

***

Imagine yourself standing in the middle of a railroad bed, looking down the tracks, seeing the two rails converge in the distance, becoming one.  You know the rails are parallel, you know they never meet, yet your eyes see them converge.  In other words, your eyes refuse to see what you know is real.

If you’re curious why it is that your mind refuses to see what’s real in this case, try to imagine what it would be like if this weren’t so.  Try to imagine having an improved set of eyes, so sharp they could see that the rails never converge.  In fact, imagine having eyes so sharp that just as you’re now able to see every piece of gravel in the five foot span between the rails at your feet, you could also see the individual pieces of gravel between the rails five hundred miles away, just as sharply as those beneath your feet.  In fact, imagine being able to see all the pieces of gravel, and all the ants crawling across them, in your entire field of vision, at a distance of five hundred miles away.  Or ten thousand miles away.  What would it be like to see such an image?

***

How good are you at estimating angles?  As I look down those railroad tracks, the two rails appear straight.  Seeing them converge, I sense that a very acute angle forms – in my brain, at least, if not in reality.  The angle I’m imagining isn’t 90 degrees, or 45 degrees; nor is it 30, or even 20.  I suppose that angle to be about a single degree. But is it really?  Why do I estimate that angle as a single degree?  Why not two degrees, or a half a degree?  Can I even tell the difference between a single degree, and a half of a degree, the way I can tell the difference between a 90 and a 45?  Remember, one angle is twice as large as the other.  I can easily see the difference between a man six feet tall and one who’s half his size, so why not the difference between a single degree and a half a degree?  What if our eyes – or perhaps I should be asking about our brains – were so sharp as to be able to see the difference between an angle of .59 degrees and one of .61 degrees with the same ease and confidence we can distinguish between two men standing next to each other, one who’s five foot nine and the other six foot one?

***

Yesterday, I was preparing digital scans of my grandfather’s Christmas cards for printing in the form of a book.  His Christmas cards are hand drawn cartoons, caricatures of famous personalities of his day.  Each is clearly recognizable, from Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler to Mae West and Mickey Mouse.  Some of the images were scanned at 300 pixels per inch, some at 600 etc.  Reflecting on pixel counts and resolutions so that my printed book would not appear blurry, I was testing the limits of my ability to distinguish different resolutions.   Of course, one neat thing about a computer is how it lets us zoom in.  As long as I zoomed in close enough, I could see huge differences between two versions of the same picture.  Every pixel was a distinct color, every image (of precisely the same part of the caricature) a very different pattern of colors  – indeed, a very different image.  Up close, the two scans of the cartoon of Mae West’s left eye looked nothing alike – but from that close up, I really had no idea what I was looking at – it could have been Mae West’s left eye, or Adolf Hitler’s rear end, for all I knew.  In any case, I knew, from my close-up examination, how very different the two scanned images of Mae West actually were.  Yet, only when I was far enough away was I able to identify either image as being a caricature of Mae West, rather than of Hitler, and at about that distance, the two images of Mae West looked (to my eye) exactly the same.

***

How long is the coastline of Ireland?

If I took a yardstick and walked the perimeter, I could lay my yardstick end to end the whole way around, count the number of lengths, and conclude that the coastline of Ireland was a certain number of feet long.  But if I used a twelve inch ruler instead, following the ins and outs of the jagged coast a little more precisely, the result would be a larger number of feet than if I had used the yardstick, because the yardstick was assuming straightness every time I laid it down, when it in fact the coastline is never perfectly straight.  My twelve inch ruler could more  closely follow the actual irregularity of the coastline, and the result I obtained would be a longer coastline.  Then, if I measured again, using a ruler that was only a centimeter long, I’d get a longer length still.  By the time my ruler was small enough to follow the curves within every molecule, or to measure the curvature around every nucleus of every atom, I’m pretty sure I’d have to conclude that the coastline of Ireland is infinitely long – putting it on a par, say, with the coastline of Asia.

***

How many rods and cones would my eyes have to contain, for me to be able to distinguish every ant and piece of gravel in every railroad bed, wheatfield and mountainside within my field of vision, at a distance of five hundred miles away?  How much larger would my brain have to be, to make sense of such a high-resolution image?  I suspect it wouldn’t fit inside my skull.

***

Why did we, so recently, believe that an atom was indivisible? Why did it take us so long to identify protons, neutrons, and electrons as the really smallest things?  What did it take us until 2012 to decide that that, too, was wrong, that not only were there quarks and leptons, that the smallest thing was the Higgs boson?  And not until 2014 that particles existed even smaller than that?

***

Given how long it took us to realize that our solar system was just one of billions in our galaxy, and how much longer to realize that our galaxy was just one of billions of galaxies, why are we now so confident of our scientists’ estimates of the size of the Universe – especially when told that the “dark matter” and “dark energy” they say accounts for most of it are just names given to variables necessary to make their equations come out right?  That, apart from their usefulness in making these equations come out right, the scientists have never seen this stuff and have no idea what it is?  Is it really so hard for us to say, “We simply have no idea”?

***

A human baby can distinguish between the faces of hundreds, even thousands, of human faces.  But to a human baby, all chimpanzees look alike. And to most of us Westerners, all Asians look alike.  Why do babies treat Asians and Chimpanzees like the rails of railroad tracks, converging them into “identical” images even when we know they are different?  Did our brains  evolve not to maximize perception and understanding, but to make them most efficient?  In other words, are we designed to have limited perception for good, sound reasons, reasons that are important to our very survival?

***

Why do we think, and talk, and act, as if our brains are capable of comprehending reality, in all its vast complexity?  Is it more efficient to feed and maintain fewer rods and cones, than it would take for us to feed and maintain enough of them to see the difference between quarks and Higgs bosons, or the individual pieces of gravel between the railroad tracks on all the planets of  Andromeda?

***

Mirror, mirror, on the wall: tell me, can I really achieve, within my brain, a true comprehension of the Universe? Or am I just like the Emperor of China?

– Joe

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Have an Argument Today…

Ever try to change someone else’s mind?

Consider the option of having an argument with them.  Arguments can be very convincing.  In fact,  in scientific study after scientific study, it’s been demonstrated that in 99.7% of all arguments, each participant has convinced himself that he’s right.

– Joe

////////////

………

 

🙂   🙂   🙂

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The Militia

I promise, this will be as short as a snub-nosed revolver — maybe even shorter.

The Second Amendment reads, “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

Now, I’ve never cared much about gun rights or gun control, one way or the other. I’ve never owned a gun (unless the B.B. gun I bought to scare rabbits out of the vegetable garden counts).  While I have no problem with my friends who hunt larger game, I cried the last time I shot a rabbit myself.  (He was just a little bunny, and I shot him in the eye by mistake, and he…  Well, you get the picture.)  So my support for  gun rights has had nothing to do with deer hunting season, or even of defending my home against a burglar.  Rather, I’m a constitutional geek, a strict constructionist, and I’m intent on honoring the wisdom of the founding fathers.  And back when I was studying constitutional law, I thought a lot about the importance of militias.  Ever since, my support for the Second Amendment has always been based on the idea that having a militia is pretty doggone important to protect us (the people) against a standing army controlled by a tyrannical government.

I was surprised recently to hear a liberal friend of mine agree.  With our current President obviously in mind, she opined that having a militia is a very important safeguard against tyrannical government.  (You never know.  Maybe, if my belief in the importance of the militia catches on, the Trump presidency will convince more liberals  that having an effective milita is important .)

Anyway, in District of Columbia vs. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court held (5-4) that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms regardless of the individual’s connection to any organized militia.  Ouch.  That decision was a blow to my strict constructionist roots, since the Court acknowledged that the ability to field a militia was a major part of the purpose of the Second Amendment.  As a strict constructionist, that, for me, is what the Amendment has always been about.

So here’s my question: to the extent that anyone, left or right, thinks militias are important to protect us from the possibility of a tyrannical government in Washington, what impact has two hundred years of military spending had on the issue?

I mean, back in the 1780’s when the founding fathers were cooking all this stuff up, the average homeowner owned a musket and a fishing knife – essentially the same weapons used by General Washington’s federal army.  True, Washington’s army also had a few small cannon here and there, but clearly, if the federal army had fallen under the spell of a hated tyrant, a crowd of angry citizens, armed with muskets and fishing knives, could have taken on that army.  And they would have stood a pretty decent chance of preserving their rights.  For me, the Second Amendment is all about achieving that same ability today.

But today, our standing federal army has more than rifles and fishing knives.  Now, it has not only automatic weapons, but tanks, aircraft carriers, stealth bombers, ICBM’s and of course nuclear bombs.  So the current debate about gun control has me thinking again about what it will take to have an effective militia.  (Always a dangerous undertaking, especially now that I’ve grown tired of being wrong all the time.) It occurs to me that what’s important, from a constitutional perspective, hasn’t changed since the 1780’s.  I mean, it doesn’t matter whether we have advanced weapons or old-fashioned ones, as long as the people themselves have firepower roughly similar to that of the standing army.  To achieve that, it seems to me, one option would be to give school crossing guards RPG’s.  Every qualified Neighborhood Watch Association could be assigned a tank.  Local yacht clubs could share entitlement to battleships or aircraft carriers, and local flying clubs could be equipped with fully armed B-52’s.  Of course, they’d all be well trained.  I should think that would give the people a fighting chance against a tyrannical government.

You may think I’m kidding, but seriously, I think I may finally be right about something.  Having an effective militia is important, and to have one, we the people need to have as much firepower as the Pentagon.  So: either we can equip our selves like the Pentagon does, OR, we could get the Feds to limit their own armaments to what homeowners are allowed to have.  Maybe everybody could be limited to a handgun — teachers, students, homeowners, and the Joint Chiefs themselves — handguns,   flintlocks, fishing knives, whatever — as long as  the standing army is no better equipped than the average homeowner.  To have an effective Second Amendment, the standing army could be required to get rid of all those M1 Abrams  tanks, guided missiles, and other unfair advantages that would put down a popular insurrection in the bat of an eye.  From a constitutional perspective, I’m convinced that rough parity is all that’s essential.

So. Am I the only one left who champions the Second Amendment on the basis of the need for an effective militia?  I mean, I know there are some who claim to , but those I’ve met also support a stronger federal military.  Given that such a huge imbalance between the parties already exists, I don’t see how such people can really claim to support the Second Amendment and an increase in federal military spending at the same time — not if having an effective militia is really important to them.

Anyway, thinking about this effective militia idea, and pondering the fact that it’s really about keeping  parity between the citizens and their army, I started to wonder how much money could be saved if we restored parity with everyone having smaller weapons, rather than bigger ones.  I mean, it would probably be expensive if I had to have my own launch pad in the attic; and an Abrams tank would probably do serious damage to my front yard.  So I was pleased to discover that the always sensible Swiss may have the answer.  They’ve come up with a real handgun that’s only two inches long.

They’re available for only a little over $6,000 each — far less than the cost of an M1 Abrams, for example — and if we made sure that everybody had one, the demand would probably drive the price down to the truly affordable.  See http://www.zdnet.com/article/worlds-smallest-gun-is-highly-concealable-triggers-fears/

Seriously, I’m still not sure where I stand on gun control and the right to bear arms, but as a strict constructionist, I think I’ve finally found a principled basis for addressing the issue.  We clearly need to choose between one of the solutions I’ve mentioned if weapons parity and an effective militia are to be maintained.  Otherwise, I’m thinking that having an effective militia is a battle we’ve already lost, and we’re soon to be chum for the tyrants.

Thoughts?  Help from any quarter would be appreciated.

— Joe

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Hatred

I just watched a TED talk I liked.  The speaker (Sally Kohn) was articulate and funny; her message about hatred powerful.    Fearing that a synopsis of her talk would detract from the way she conveys her point, I’ll  simply share the link to her talk, with my strong recommendation.

https://www.ted.com/talks/sally_kohn_what_we_can_do_about_the_culture_of_hate?rss

But I do have one  disagreement with her.  At one point,  she refers to  “study after study after study that says, no, we are neither designed nor destined as human beings to hate, but rather taught to hate by the world around us…”

I’m not so sure.  Last year I saw a science show on TV that presented a series of studies of very young children; its disturbing suggestion was that we are born to hate.  Can anyone enlighten me about these studies, suggesting (one way or the other) whether hatred is learned, or innate?  A product purely of culture, or of biological evolution?

It has always seemed to me that while some of hate is surely learned, a predisposition toward it may be innate. But what would a predisposition toward hate look like?

Sally cites the early 20th century researcher Gordon Allport as saying that Hatred occupies a continuum, that things like genocide are at one end and “things like believing that your in-group is inherently superior to some out-group” lie at the other.  That much makes sense to me.  In fact, the very idea of a “hate continuum” with feelings of superiority lying at one end is why I think the answer to the innateness question may be important.

Whenever I hear it said that a positive self-image is important to mental health, I think of Garrison Keillor’s joke that in Lake Wobegon, everyone is above average.   I suspect the great majority of us think we’re at least slightly above average.  And don’t  psychologists say that that’s good?  Don’t we justify keeping our positive self-images by the corollary view that people who “suffer from a negative self-image” are likely unhealthy?  Don’t we think it would be beneficial  if everyone thought of himself or herself as above average?  Wouldn’t that mean an end, for example, to teen suicide?

But even if I’m far below average, there are at least some people in the world who are not as good (or as smart, or as fit, or as valuable) as me.  No?   And if I think my liberalism is superior to your conservatism, or the other way around,  you must lack some quality or insight I possess, no?  Does “feeling good about myself” require that, in some way, I feel superior to others?

Maybe not.  Maybe my positive self image need not depend on comparing myself to others – maybe I can see value in myself – have a positive self-image – without thinking of myself as superior to anyone else at all.  But the only way I can discern to do that is to see equal value in everyone.  And if we’re talking about wisdom or intelligence or validity of things in which we believe, that means that  my own power of discernment is no better than than the next guy’s; that everything I believe in has value, but everyone else’s beliefs have equal value.  And I see great debate about whether that’s desirable. Does it require me to abandon all my convictions?  To forego all my beliefs?  What does it even mean to say that my belief in God has no more value than your belief in atheism, or vice versa?  Can I really believe in anything, if I think an opposing belief is just as “good”? I think most of us say no.  I think that, for most of us, feeling good about ourselves and our beliefs is only possible through at least implicit comparison to others, a comparison in which we feel that our beliefs are at least slightly superior to somebody else’s.

Even if it’s both possible and desirable, it strikes me as very, very hard to have a positive self image without feeling such superiority.  I mean, can I really have a positive self-image if I think I’m doomed to be the very worst person on earth, in every respect?  It certainly seems likely that, for many, most or all people in the world, positive self-image depends on feeling superior to at least some others, in at least some respects.  I’d venture the guess that a tendency toward positive self-image (in comparison to others) has evolved in our species because of its evolutionary health benefits.  In any case, I suspect there’s a strong correlation between adults who feel their beliefs are superior and adults who feel disdain for the beliefs (or intellects) of others, and a strong correlation between those who feel disdain for the beliefs and intellects of others and those who hate them.  At the very least, positive self-image and a feeling of superiority seem at least early stepping stones in the direction of Hatred.

However, my suspicion that the seeds of Hatred  are themselves innate doesn’t depend entirely on positive self-image and feelings of superiority.  The science show I watched last year dealt not with self-image, but with group identification and preference: the idea that we ‘re willing to assist and protect those others who are most like ourselves, while we seek the opposite (competition, aggression, violence) directed at those who are unlike ourselves.

“My God, my family, and my country.”   The familiar formula implies a great deal, I think, about the subject of identity, as does the advice we give to our children: “Don’t ever talk to strangers.”  Why do we alumni all root for the home team?  Why would most of us save our spouse and children from an inferno first, before saving strangers, if we save the strangers at all?  Why do we lock our doors at night to protect those we know, while excluding those we don’t?  Why do we pledge allegiance to our respective flags?

(That last one’s easy, of course, if we believe that we Americans pledge allegiance to our flag because our country is the greatest on earth.  Perhaps I should really be asking why all the other people in the world – who far out number us –pledge their allegiance to their flags, when they live in inferior countries?  Are they uninformed?  Too stupid to recognize our superiority? Aware of our superiority, but unwilling to admit it, because of selfishness, dishonesty, or even evil design?  In which case, can Hatred be far behind? )

Why do we form Neighborhood Watch groups, erect walls on our borders, finance armies for self-defense, and erect tariffs to trade?   Is it not because we prefer the familiar, and because that preference is in our self-interest?  And isn’t self-interest as true of groups as of individuals?  In evolution,  groups do well who look out for each other – who favor those most like themselves – while treating dissimilar “others” with suspicion and distrust.  (We know that those like us aren’t dangerous, hostile predators, but fear that unknown strangers might be.)   In contemplating first contact with aliens from other worlds, some of us favor holding out olive branches, others making some sort of first-strike, but disagree as we might on how to first greet them,  we all tend to think in terms of a common goal: to preserve humanity.  We therefore focus on the need for global unity in facing the alien challenge.  But what is it that causes us to favor “humanity” over alien beings, when we know absolutely nothing about those alien beings?  Isn’t it because we know absolutely nothing about them?  Isn’t it because, innate within us is a bias in favor of  those who are most like ourselves?

Consider the following continuum, as it progresses from the unfamiliar to the familiar:

(1) We spend millions to combat and eradicate bacteria, giving Nobel prizes to those most successful in the effort;

(2) We spend some (but less) to eradicate mosquitoes, which we swat unthinkingly;

(3) On the contrary, we feel bad if we run over an armadillo on the road, but what the heck, such accidents are unavoidable;

(4) We try not to think much about slaughtering millions of cows, but we do it on purpose, because we have to eat;

(5) most of us abhor the idea of ever eating a monkey; and

(6) we condemn human cannibalism, abhorring murder so much we imprison murders, even if we oppose the death penalty because human life is sacred.

I think that assigning things to their place on such a continuum based on how much they seem similar or dissimilar to ourselves reflects our innate, natural preference for those most like ourselves.  Yet the tendency to feel safety in, and preference for, those who are most like ourselves, is precisely what leads to racism, no?

So, is this preference natural and good?  Or is it something to resist?  Should we be proud of our tendency to fight for our God, our country, our state, our species, our family, our planet –  and to disdain our enemies – or should we be suspicious of that tendency, aware that they largely result from the accidents of birth?  And does our tendency to root for the home team – not to mention our loyalty to political ideals –  exist only because we’re able to see the good in the familiar, while understandably blind to the good in the unfamiliar?

We don’t see what roosters see in hens.  We’re blind to what bulls see in cows.   But just like we can’t feel the love one three-headed Martian feels for another, I submit we won’t be able to  appreciate the goodness that aliens will be striving to preserve when they descend upon us,  maws open, preparing to treat us the way we treat swine.  I want to know WHY we are all in agreement on the importance of preserving our species, even if it means the poor aliens go hungry.   And I doubt its as simple as loyalty to good old mother earth, as I suspect we’d probably be happy to negotiate a peace with the invaders by offering them, say, all the world’s polar bears and squirrels, provided they’ll agree to leave humans alone.  This preference for humanity would prevail in that moment, I believe, never mind the national and regional warring between earthlings that had preceded it.  And it would seem strong enough to survive even if the alien species were acknowledged to be technologically “superior” to us.  But in that case, would our efforts rest on a reasoned belief that, at least morally, if not technologically, we are superior to such alien species?  Or would the instinctive feeling of moral superiority be only a disguise in which the instinct for self-preservation and consequent preference for things most like ourselves had clothed itself?

I don’t claim to have the answers.  Whether we deserve to defeat alien invaders, whether we ought to value human beings more than chickens or mosquitoes, whether we ought to fight for our flag, these are not the issue here.  My point is that I take our allegiance to things most like us to be innate, whether it’s good or (in the case of racism) abhorrent.  I think the preference is a natural, inborn one, a part of who we are, whether we like to admit it or not –and that it’s a tendency terribly hard to get rid of, as our struggle with racism shows.

For the type of reasons Sally suggests, I believe that understanding our feelings of superiority and our preference for the things most like ourselves is the key to overcoming Hatred.  But if we think of Hatred as merely cultural, as merely something we’ve “learned” from society, I fear that, as individuals, we may be tempted to think we’ve already rid ourselves of it, or that we no longer need to be alert to its presence deep in our hearts.  If we see it only as something others do – if we fail to see at least the seeds of it, innate in ourselves, ready to manifest itself in our own actions– we may be the Hateful ourselves.

– Joe

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What If?

Sometimes, “What if” questions lead to breakthroughs in the way we think and live.  What if we could make our own fire?  What if the sun doesn’t really circle the earth?  What if “up” and “down” aren’t really up and down?  What if I’m wrong?

Most of the time, the “what if” questions don’t lead to earth-shattering breakthroughs about the real world.  Most of the time, they posit something that’s impossible, or just doesn’t make sense.  When we ask, “What if the South had won the civil war?” we’re not suggesting that the South did win, just hoping to learn something by contemplating what the world might be like, if it had. I believe there can be value in asking such questions.

So when I ask, these days, what if I’m wrong, I’m not thinking of a mere philosophical acknowledgement that I’m  likely wrong about something .  Rather, I like to ask, what if I’m wrong about something really important?  It’s easy to acknowledge I might be wrong about the best restaurant in town, or the culpability of O.J. Simpson.  No,  I’m thinking on the scale of what if “up” isn’t up, and “down” isn’t down?  And today, I’m wondering, “What if I’m wrong about Jesus?”

I imagine I’ve just alienated lots of people: most obviously, those Christian faithful for whom belief in Jesus is the most important belief in the world, but maybe also those atheists, Jews, Muslims and others who might take offense at the suggestion that belief in Jesus has ever been important to them.  In fact, for non-believers,  if I’m suggesting they might be wrong, I’ve just alienated them by revealing myself  as a closet Christian proselytizer who’s just disclosed a very annoying agenda – right?.

Indeed, therein lies the reason for my question.  What if we’re all wrong about Jesus? Not just those who believe in him, but also those who don’t?  Anyone  whose feathers may be ruffled by the suggestion that belief in him, one way or the other, may not be important after all?

At the mere asking of such a question, a lot of us brace ourselves for the sort of debate we’ve grown used  to – a debate we may have grown tired of  – a debate between those who believe in Jesus and those who don’t.  Jesus himself is said to have predicted  that brother would deliver brother to death, and be hated, on account of him.  (Matt.  10:21-22.)   I’ve always thought it ironic that a figure so identified with principles of loving – not just one’s neighbors  but one’s enemies – would end up at the center of debates, wars, and genocides fought in (or against) his name.  Yet, from the Crusades  to jihads, from the Salem witch trials to modern clashes over sexual identity,  this advocate for love has been at the center of controversy and hate.  Probably because I was raised in the midst of argument between Roman Catholics (my father’s side) and fundamentalist Presbyterians (my mother’s side), I lean toward agnosticism, not only with respect to religion, but politics, psychology, and physics as well.   Agnosticism, after all, is a part of what led me to We May Be Wrong.

But having been raised as a Christian, I have a special interest in the irony of the animosities surrounding Jesus and his followers.  And so I ask, “What if we’re all wrong about Jesus?”

Now, for me, the proposition that we may be wrong has never meant to suggest we’re wrong about everything, or even totally wrong about any one thing.  I simply start with the acknowledgement that I’m almost certainly wrong about something, and  from there, I move on to the belief that I really have no way of knowing, for sure, which subject(s) are the ones I’m wrong about.  I may be right about a lot of things;  I just wish I could identify what those things were, so that I could jettison all the others.   So I‘m not asking anybody to question all their beliefs about Jesus, or to contemplate the possibility that all of them might be wrong.  Today, however, I do have a particular one in mind.

I think the concept of “belief in Jesus” is unique in the modern world, or very nearly so.  Our language itself suggests as much.  If we say we have “faith” in our generals, we likely mean only that we trust them, that we feel secure under their leadership.  But if we say we have faith in Jesus – or even more so, that we “believe in” him – we usually mean a good bit more than that.

I don’t say, “I believe in dogs,” or “I believe in pepperoni pizzas.”    I might say I believe that such things exist, but not that I believe in them.  If I say I believe in Santa Claus, or in the Easter Bunny, I’m saying I believe that such creatures are physically real, not just figments of fairy tale. When I say “I believe in ‘X’” it’s  usually an abbreviated way of stating a belief in the truth of some specific proposition about ‘X.’   If I say, “I believe in love,” or “I believe in democracy,” it’s the equivalent of saying I believe in the truth of the proposition that love (or democracy) is a good thing.  But if I say, “I believe in Jesus,” I’m not generally understood to be saying that I trust his teaching  or that I believe in the truth of the proposition that he was a good man; I’m understood to be asserting belief in the truth of a very unique proposition about him, and no one else who’s ever lived.  A belief, in fact, that has no parallel in truth propositions about anything else in my vocabulary.

Yet, when it comes to belief in Jesus, discussion often stops right there, at the “I believe” stage.  As soon as we hear “I believe – ”  or “I don’t believe –” it’s as if the “sides” are drawn without ever getting to what it is that one does, or doesn’t, believe about him.  For some reason, Jesus has become a virtual poster child for polarization.  “You’re either with us or against us” often seems the attitude on both sides.

Now, my parents were from different religious backgrounds, and for that reason they disagreed about religion a lot:  Transubstantiation.  Limbo.  The assumption.   The veneration of Mary.  The priesthood.  The authority of the Pope.   The sacraments.  How to pray.  How the world was created.  The list goes on.  Personally, I came to believe their disagreements were symptomatic of the pitfalls inevitably encountered when we start trying to define metaphysical things with words that draw their meaning from the physical.  (Words draw their meaning from their use as applied to shared experiences; when we use them to describe things we claim to be unique, I lose confidence in them.) But while my parents disagreed about many aspects of their Christian beliefs, they were typical of most Christians in one respect:  when they said, “I believe in Jesus,” they were agreeing that Jesus was God.

Now,  I’ve never thought I had a very good idea of what it would be like to be a theoretical physicist, or the President of the United States, much less God.  Whatever it means to be God, if such a person or things exists at all, seems too much to comprehend.    I won’t delve into the nuances of whether my parents meant that Jesus was really God, or just the son of God, or a part of the three persons in one God, or any of the other verbal formulations that had church leaders arguing from the get go.   Years of effort to understand such nuances have only further convinced me that it’s like arguing over the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin.  I, for one, don’t really understand what it means to be God – in whole, or even in part.

And for me, at least, the logic is one of mathematical equality: if I can’t say exactly that “God is X,” then I don’t see how I can say that “X is God.”  And if I can’t understand what it means to say that “X is God,” then I don’t follow how important it could be to believe that Jesus was, or is, or wasn’t, or isn’t.  How can it be important to believe in the truth of any proposition I cannot understand?

For my mother and father, the most important thing I could ever do was to profess my belief that Jesus was God, or the son of God, or (fill in whatever qualifiers you deem relevant.).  Throughout their lives,  I held my ground, refusing to profess a belief in the truth (or falsity) of a proposition I didn’t understand.  This  frustrated the $#@!  out of them.  For my parents, “belief in Jesus” did not mean a belief that he existed, or that he was good, or that he performed miracles, or that he proclaimed the importance of love, or that his advice on human behavior was incredibly wise.  “Belief in Jesus” meant belief that, in some sense or another, he was God.  And – crucially – this belief in the divinity of Jesus made all the difference to them.  Whether I was, or wasn’t, a “Christian” depended on that one thing, not to mention whether I’d spend eternity in heaven or hell on its account

I could believe in dogs, or Santa Claus,  if I thought they existed.  I could believe in the American flag if I thought it represented a good country with good ideals.  I could believe in Donald Trump if I thought he was a good president.  But I couldn’t believe in Jesus – not really – unless I believed that he was, in some way, God.

This core requirement for what it means to be a Christian in our world has permeated the thinking of Christians and non-Christians alike since Paul began writing epistles.  The “divinity proposition” that has attached itself to Jesus – the principle for which martyrs have died, for which wars have been fought, for which heretics have been burned – seems to have caused a divide between believers and non-believers that, from where I sit, has no parallel in human history.  And the gospels report that Jesus himself predicted it!

So I ask, “What if we’re all wrong about Jesus?”  in this respect.

Now, some of you may think I’m asking whether we’ve been wrong, all this time, to suppose that Jesus was divine.  Others may think I’m asking whether we’ve been wrong to suppose that he wasn’t.  The traditional concept that belief in Jesus’s divinity (or not) is the be-all and end-all of what it means to be a Christian has shaped our understanding.   If you’re a Christian, it determines whether you’re among the “saved;”  if you’re not a Christian, it determines  whether you’re a self-righteous, deluded dreamer, not to mention potentially dangerous because of the strength of your unreasonable convictions.

But what if, properly recorded, preserved, translated, and interpreted, Jesus neither claimed to be divine, nor denied it?  And even more: What if he disapproved of such theological inquiries, seeing them as the downfall of the Pharisees?  What if, when asked by his disciples what he would have them do, his answer was not that they should believe him to be divine come hell or high water, or that their eternal salvation would depend on their belief in any such theological proposition, but, simply, that they should do as he did?  That they should care for the sick, and love their neighbors as much as they loved themselves?

What if, on this single aspect of understanding  –that belief in the divinity proposition is the sine qua non of Christianity –  we’ve all been wrong, all along?  What would the world be like if the central element of Christianity had not turned out to be belief in the divinity of Jesus, but in living the sort of life he’s said to have lived?  What if Jesus were celebrated for teaching, essentially,  “Look, folks, I don’t understand why you’re so obsessed with this question of divinity and divine origins.  Haven’t you better things to do, and to talk about, than whether, in one sense or another, I am God?  Stop doing that, please!  Leave it for the Pharisees!”

If that concept had been at the center of Christianity for the past two thousand years,  what would it mean, today, to “be a Christian”?   If Christians had been taught not to concern themselves with whether Jesus was God, would that mean that all the “rooms of my father’s house” would be empty, beccause no one had “believed”?

I’m not saying it’s true, or false, I’m just wondering, what the ramifications would be, for the past two thousand years, if the divinity proposition had never been considered important, and that “Christianity” had been a movement centered on “love thy enemy” and “judge not lest ye be judged” and “care for one another.”

What would have happened to the pagan persecutions of the martyrs?  The history of schisms in Christian churches?  The Church’s persecution of heretics? The Christian endorsement of the African slave trade? Conflicts between Christians and Jews, Muslims and atheists?  The household (and the world)  in which I grew up?

I can hear the condemnation.  To posit a Jesus who disapproved of contemplating his divinity – who counselled against the very thought of such an exercise as non-productive, pointless , Pharisaical, and bound to result in division and strife  – would be to rip out the core of Christianity itself.

But what if we’re wrong about that?

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